Do you want to survive?

My husband asked me today: ‘Do you want to survive?’ No, it’s not what you’re thinking. I haven’t been diagnosed with something terminal. Unless your view of the Sixth Mass Extinction is that it is terminal for us all. It was a blunt question to which the answer should bluntly be ‘yes of course’. But what would survival be like in a habitat that is unsurvivable for many? Would it be possible to survive without succumbing to aggression, or being traumatised by the aggression of others? Despite all those fears, I still have to say ‘yes I want to survive’ and I hope we all feel the same too. The more of us that want to survive (along with other species) the more that we will come up with multiple solutions and lobby as hard and fast as we can. But we have to know that our survival is at stake.

As David Roberts says : “The most extreme climate ‘alarmists’ in US politics are not nearly alarmed enough.”

We have a world map on our kitchen wall (all home schooling families have kitchens decorated with Guardian wallcharts and timelines). Our British Isles are at the centrefold and we read all other countries in relation to it. And we forget to look much at the poles because they’re squished and chopped off. There are two little floating circles to show the shape of the poles but their scale is shrunk in relation to inhabited lands. Most of us don’t know the extent of the Arctic and Antarctic cover up. Winter ice covers 10.4% of the Earth’s surface. We don’t think about the space between our countries, the vast expanses of ocean and ice that help to energise and stabilise life in its great interconnected system. The only connecting lines we tend to draw in our minds are routes we might travel on planes, boats or trains.

For 20 years or so we’ve had dispatches, always cautious and dispassionate, from scientists in the Arctic noting worrying changes that showed a rapidly warming climate. At first these dispatches were only being heard by science journalists and climate campaigners. In recent years you could find much more data online if you were interested. These days, if you listen hard and often, you may even hear about the Arctic scientists on the radio or TV. You may not hear their voices though, so you won’t detect their fear. Their dispassionate mask is cracking, if you do get to speak to one, because the record of ice loss this summer has been unpredicted in its scale and pace.

You may not be hearing their findings being remarked upon by anyone other than the specialist science journalists. (Actually in the case of the BBC, it’s only being reported by one science journalist, Roger Harrabin. If you’ve heard of him it might be because James Delingpole and the Daily Mail like to hound him for not being climate-sceptical enough.) You won’t have been hearing any current affairs broadcaster or politician remark on the impact of the Arctic ice melt, or make a connection from it to any other story, such as spreading unrest across the Middle East or the US presidential elections.

What will it take for us to start shifting on this? When will we start demanding en masse the urgent global action that is needed for us to survive? This is the reason I’m interested to uncover how we learn as a society. I want to believe that we learn in anticipation and imagination of our habitat changing, but I fear that we may only learn enough when our habitat changes so drastically that those who are in power and wealth actually and viscerally begin to feel threatened and hungry. I might be reassured if I start to see upward numbers of those with power and wealth speaking out that they can imagine this threat to our habitat and that they fear deeply for their children’s future, that they recognise their comparative agency to do something about it. I’m listening out. 

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7 responses to “Do you want to survive?

  1. Hi Bridget, thanks for another thought-provoking question. The reason I have not engaged you more actively on this topic is because I believe that history tells us that any species, even apparently sentient ones like ours, lacks the capacity to self-organize to counter a perceived long-term threat at the expense of short-term utility.

    In the huge collaborative effort it would take to amend the course of hundreds of years of industrialisation, the ratio of risk to reward is set in favour of not changing our behaviour. Put simply, I gain more by focusing on my immediate comfort and security and those of my family than I do by sacrificing them in the name of countering a longer-term risk on behalf of society as a whole – and I actually think that it clouds the issue to suggest that the degree of indifference is a factor of socio-economic status. People are just as likely to live in denial below the poverty line as above it.

    It’s a classic game theory problem – offer someone a choice between walking away with £20 today, or a 50% share of £50 next week, and 9 times out of 10, they’ll take the £20. As a species we’re not wired for collectivised responsibility. If we were, I would suggest that we have had sufficient knowledge of our impact on the world around us for us to have self-organized decades if not centuries ago.

    You could argue that the whole post-industrial history of globalisation, capitalism and the disequilibrium between cost, price and value are simply the outcomes of the triumph of our competitive and short-term instinct over our instincts for altruism and social responsibility.

    As the threat becomes more acute, I imagine that we will apply our ingenuity and creativity more proactively to finding solutions to specific problems such as food supply, transport, health, energy or overpopulation, but I doubt that we will voluntarily change the underlying behaviours which give rise to the problem in the first place. People are people, and people are selfish (to stretch a point, biologically, genetically and pathologically).

    I would dearly love to be wrong here, but I think your tipping point is a mass-extinction event, after which patterns of life will have been compelled to change. I would be really surprised if we could take the kind of pre-emptive, empathetic action which the situation demands.

    • Thanks for this Nick. I have often wondered why lots of people who like to engage with me on some topics don’t engage with me on these bigger ones. I mainly blog so I can provoke comments and learn from them. It’s all massively difficult and I think you’re brave and honest to admit that you feel you gain more by focusing on immediate security and comfort. It may be that I’m a hypocrite in talking about climate action while spending most of my time on ensuring that my family can do more than just eat. It’s quite unusual for me to be positioned as more optimistic than others, and I feel they misinterpret me, as I’m quite idealistic really. You clearly see that. I believe that imagining a better future and ideal behaviour helps us move towards it. I have to stick to that at least, because it’s my way of feeling a certain sense of comfort in dark times.
      By the way, I don’t mean to say that only the wealthy are indifferent – I mean that they are powerful. Politicians believe what they do about fossil fuels and climate because of the lobbying of the rich. The rich can invest in new solutions.

    • Question…we know it…we have the info…so the govts must equally have it…they also have children…SO WHY DON’T THEY GIVE A FUCK? What do they think they know that we don’t?

      • Hi Rob, thanks for this. Again, I think we’re looking at a human attitude to perceived risks and rewards. The reward of re-election is tangible, immediate and personal. The risk of anthropogenic climate change is intangible, long-term and global.

        Anyone who is successful in politics, whether they admit it or not, has spent much of their adult life in a state of fear – anxiously protecting their short-term position and deploying whatever policy or rhetoric is most likely to preserve their influence.

        Part of this process means choosing to promote policies for which there is a tangible outcome, because tangible outcomes make people more successful in elections.

        Sorting out the tangle of policy and economic issues around climate change is a battle without a political upside. Since modern economies depend on industry (again, preserving short-term utility), and since it is highly unlikely that large-scale societies will self-organize around collective solutions, you would have to pursue a policy line that brought you into direct conflict with the short-term self-interest of the electorate.

        Blaming politicians for pursuing their own self-interest is like blaming rocks for being heavy. The real calamity, in my view at least, is that we, the electorate, have chosen to surrender what limited influence we each had either by choosing not to vote, or consistently voting for short-term agendas that can make us happy within single electoral cycles.

        We have allowed policy to become a form of public entertainment, and we can’t therefore blame the politicians for giving us what our voting patterns suggest we want.

  2. I agree with your points about the depletion of politics. I’m still thinking about the earlier point about altruism (‘people are selfish’). In the meantime, here’s something to read. Extract “So we are told that destroying our only home is curled around our DNA or the tragedy of our big brains or the fault of our opposable thumbs. Don’t believe it. None of this is inevitable. Your DNA builds a soft, social, bipedal mammal that needs a home like every other animal. If we have an instinct, it’s too protect our young, not to destroy their future.” http://www.vtcommons.org/blog/spark-flare-wildfire-lierre-keith-vermont-independence

  3. Hi Bridget, thanks for the link. I will go and digest!

    I guess one of my concerns is that the nature of human interaction is too complex for simple propositions like ‘altruism and social responsibility = good, selfishness = bad’. I have always believed, for example, that altruism is inherently selfish, and that this isn’t a bad thing.

    If I do a Good Thing, it is partly for the goodness of the act and partly because I want to be perceived as a person who does Good Things. Just because there is a reward mechanism which speaks to my selfishness doesn’t prevent the outcome of the act from being good. The selfishness of the Selfish Gene isn’t inherently a bad thing – it has, I would suggest, inspired some of mankind’s greatest acts – but it does tend to emphasise localised, immediate impact over long-term equilibrium.

    I suspect that part of this issue is a question of scale – and I think you can also extrapolate this to the level of genetic competition – I can care for the people I can see, I can care for my family, I can care for my immediate social network.

    It becomes much harder to care for people with whom I share no social, personal or genetic connection – and this issue of degrees of separation works both geographicaly and over time. I think society has become too big for the normal mechanics of intepersonal responsibility and selfish altruism to operate effectively and the strategies for genuinely reversing or ameliorating the disequilibrium of the climate are too long-term – they require me to limit the utility of my family today in the name of future generations who I will never meet.

    I am a great believer in the principle that ‘because I am a man, and associated with mankind, each person’s death diminishes me’, but in the calculus of selfishness, I think that my personal utility and the welfare of my family might well compel me not to participate in the large-scale collective action needed to address the threat of climate change.

    So I would entirely agree with the person you quote to the extent that our ‘genetic instinct’ promotes the protection of our young, but I am not sure that it extends to limiting the welfare of our young to protect the future young of other tribes 8,000 miles away.

    This is why I suggested that we are incapable of self-directed change to address this issue in my original reply – the nature of the problem is such that I don’t think people will change their values or behaviours until it becomes personal, and of course by the time it becomes personal, it will be too late. I hesitate to say this, but I strongly suspect that people who are able to see the impending calamity are doomed, like Cassandra, to being right but not heard – I suspect that people would rather die at the party than stop the party to avoid their collective fate.

  4. Hi Bridget, thanks for the link. I will go and digest!

    I guess one of my concerns is that the nature of human interaction is too complex for simple propositions like ‘altruism and social responsibility = good, selfishness = bad’. I have always believed, for example, that altruism is inherently selfish, and that this isn’t a bad thing.

    If I do a Good Thing, it is partly for the goodness of the act and partly because I want to be perceived as a person who does Good Things. Just because there is a reward mechanism which speaks to my selfishness doesn’t prevent the outcome of the act from being good. The selfishness of the Selfish Gene isn’t inherently a bad thing – it has, I would suggest, inspired some of mankind’s greatest acts – but it does tend to emphasise localised, immediate impact over long-term equilibrium.

    I suspect that part of this issue is a question of scale – and I think you can also extrapolate this to the level of genetic competition – I can care for the people I can see, I can care for my family, I can care for my immediate social network.

    It becomes much harder to care for people with whom I share no social, personal or genetic connection – and this issue of degrees of separation works both geographicaly and over time. I think society has become too big for the normal mechanics of intepersonal responsibility and selfish altruism to operate effectively and the strategies for genuinely reversing or ameliorating the disequilibrium of the climate are too long-term – they require me to limit the utility of my family today in the name of future generations who I will never meet.

    I am a great believer in the principle that ‘because I am a man, and associated with mankind, each person’s death diminishes me’, but in the calculus of selfishness, I think that my personal utility and the welfare of my family might well compel me not to participate in the large-scale collective action needed to address the threat of climate change.

    So I would entirely agree with the person you quote to the extent that our ‘genetic instinct’ promotes the protection of our young, but I am not sure that it extends to limiting the welfare of our young to protect the future young of other tribes 8,000 miles away.

    This is why I suggested that we are incapable of self-directed change to address this issue in my original reply – the nature of the problem is such that I don’t think people will change their values or behaviours until it becomes personal, and of course by the time it becomes personal, it will be too late. I hesitate to say this, but I strongly suspect that people who are able to see the impending calamity are doomed, like Cassandra, to being right but not heard – people would rather die at the party than stop the party to avoid their collective fate

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