Overcoming Self-Destruction with a New Human Story
by Tim Hicks
We appear to be at a momentous point in our human story, the culmination of all our activities as a species to date, an ironic chapter in which those characteristics that have made us so successful — our inquisitiveness, creativity, and inventiveness — threaten our survival.
It seems that unless we change our behaviors very soon, climate change will radically alter the conditions for all life on the planet.
Climate change is a threshold event that calls into question much of what we are and what we do as a species. In this sense, climate change is a maturation point in human history, in concert with several trends in humanity’s social evolution that include the movement toward human rights and civil liberties, gender equality, and non-violent conflict resolution, but also the concurrent evolution of weapons development that has produced the thermonuclear bomb.
Both climate change and the nuclear bomb confront us with the question of power and how we will manage our human capacities that have evolved over the millennia, from our beginnings in the caves to our current ability to alter and destroy the web of life on the planet. Both raise the question of whether we will learn to be responsible in our relationships with each other and with our environment. Human rights and civil liberties, gender equality, and nonviolent conflict resolution also have to do with responsibility in relationship. There are story lines here that seem part of the same narrative.
Our species has not been here long and, even more to the point, the trend lines of technological development and population growth that are now pushing us up against global carrying capacity limits have only so very (very!) recently become steep.
We know that our perception of time is a shifting affair. Moments can seem long or short, depending on what’s happening during them, and seasons spacious or fleeting, depending on our age.
So, how long have we been here altering the climate of the planet and threatening to disrupt it so completely that conditions for life will alter in ways that we may not be able to imagine or survive? Let’s consider 10,000 years — the common and rough measure of when we began to develop agriculture, settle into communities, and begin the enterprise of building civilization, for all its good and ills.
Ask most people, geologists and astrophysicists aside, whether they think 10,000 years is a long time and they will quickly answer, “Yes, of course.” Ten thousand years seem to stretch deep into the past.
But consider that 10,000 years is only 100 of your lifetimes if you were to live to be 100 years old. Since the beginning of agriculture and the development of settlement living, we’ve only had 100 lifetimes to learn what we’ve needed to learn about living here with each other and with our environment, our planet.
Understanding time in this way does not absolve us of the responsibility to learn now, but it may put our circumstances in a new light, relieving us of self-critical and misleading perspectives that ignore how young a species we are.
Imagine a clan of humans sitting around a fire 14,000 years ago (only 140 of your lifetimes), warming themselves against the darkness of a starry night. Wood they have gathered to burn, as had had some unknown number of generations before them, and its transformation produces precious light and heat that makes their lives easier, more comfortable, and more secure. And from their fire, as a byproduct of the transformation of the carbon-rich matter, emissions rise into the atmosphere, among them CO2 and soot.
Now imagine one of those humans poking at the quiet ashes in the morning to stir the coals and expose them to the oxygen-rich air and the tinder readied to rebuild the fire. He or she notices a pan of hardness beneath the ashes. And by some process of thought and deduction, over time and with repetition, the understanding grows that the particular type of earth so notable for its consistency that allows it to hold a shape, when subjected to fire, becomes hardened and more useful.
From marveling to mastering, the early pottery industry grows. We make and fire clay vessels so useful to contain, and preserve, and transport. We learn to make kilns to make the firing more efficient and effective, we learn to glaze, and we decorate. And from those masterful kilns, emissions are released, with consequences unintended and apparently inconsequential.
Fast forward over the course of 140 lifetimes to our present-day coal-fired power plants. Is it not fair to say that they differ from the early pottery kilns only in degree, not in kind? Both consume carbon-rich matter to produce useable heat against the cold and the dark, releasing byproduct emissions that change the chemical composition of the atmosphere. There is a direct link between our use of wood to fire our early pottery industry and our use of stored hydrocarbons to fire our current technologies.
Anthropogenic climate change did not begin with the industrial revolution. It began with our first use of fire. It is only that atmospheric and climate system limits hadn’t yet been reached earlier in the story. We have reached those limits, unforeseen and unexpected, only so very recently. The behavioral patterns that have led us to those limits have existed from our beginnings.
Our behavior over the past 200 years hasn’t been an aberration but has been consistent with our survival strategies from the beginning. There is a notable connection between anthropogenic climate change and our inventiveness and our creativity. Though it is certainly time to recognize our impact on the planet and change our ways, and quickly, our intent has not been malicious; there has been some innocence in our activities. Recognizing this might prompt the addition of some compassion to our self-analysis.
We tend to appreciate, value, even romanticize, and certainly accept our early pottery technologies, but, in the face of the climate disaster, we condemn our current thermodynamic industries. Perhaps recognizing them for what they are will help us with our self-image, as we put them behind us and move on to sustainable energy-access technologies. This can only be healthy for us and for our children.
It is deeply disturbing to witness what we have done and are doing to the planet. Species extinction, destruction of habitat, loss of glaciers, acidification of the oceans, and the possibility of vicious cycles leading to entire system collapse … all as a result of our behavior. What are we to make of ourselves? What do these circumstances say about us as a species? How shall we explain ourselves to ourselves?
One story has been that humanity is a cancer, a part of the planetary life organism run amuck, over-populating, rapaciously consuming resources, destroying adjacent species, no longer in harmony with, and threatening the equilibrium of, the Earth as a whole. The conclusion of this story is that it were better that humanity disappear, and the sooner the better, so that the rest of life can return to a sustainable balance.
Another of the stories told is that humanity is an addict, addicted to power and to consumption, always wanting more, never satisfied. This story is well told in Chellis Glendinning’s “My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization,” though without much compassion for the addict, as I recall. Chellis was angry, and understandably so.
Another story was expressed by a friend of mine when I mentioned, in the fall of 2007, the then soon-to-be-released book by Hubert Reeves titled “Terricide.” (I haven’t read his book. From the promotional blurb: “One of the world’s greatest astrophysicists, Hubert Reeves has turned his attention to the state of planet Earth. The facts and figures he has studied lead him to believe that the human race is on the brink of making the world uninhabitable.”) Her response was, “I can’t believe the world we face. It is mass human suicide. That’s what terracide really is.”
These stories are understandable responses to what we witness. But are they the right metaphors? Do they accurately explain who we are, what we’ve been doing, and why we’ve been doing it? Are they helpful stories for our children?
It matters what story we tell. Self-hate is not a helpful or therapeutic starting point. Compassion, coupled with honesty, helps us take responsibility and will likely lead to a better outcome.
So the components of another story might be: 1) “We” not “they;” 2) We’ve had a lot to learn in a short time; 3) We are learning and struggling to take responsibility; and 4) We can make the change.
Better to be an optimist and wrong than a pessimist and right.
Tim Hicks is Director of the Master’s Degree Program in Conflict and Dispute Resolution at University of Oregon, Eugene. This article was distributed by PeaceVoice.