Imagine you’re trapped in a runaway car hurtling towards a cliff edge you can’t see but know is coming. Death threatens and your brain will instantly go into survival mode. Most likely you’ll try any way possible to stop the car or escape it or steer it away from the direction of the cliff.
You don’t need to be at the cliff-edge to “feel” the threat. Knowing – in your mind, not because your eyes see – that soon you’ll be at the edge is enough motivation.
Let’s take this a step one removed. You’re in the same car, hurtling towards a cliff edge you can’t see. This time you know it is coming but also that it’ll take the car an hour to reach it. It’s a threat to your life same as the first example and you’ll want to stop the car or escape it or steer it away. But the threat is an hour in the future so the urgency your brain will “feel” is less.
Objectively speaking, it shouldn’t be less. The cliff edge is death whether it’s in a minute or an hour. There’s no certainty you’ll be able to steer or stop the car, or exit it at speed. Logically speaking, your brain should “feel” the strongest possible motivation, so you act with urgency to not die. The cliff an hour away or the cliff a minute away, who knows but you might need every second to figure a way to escape.
In reality, it becomes necessary to use intelligent foresight on top of “feeling” the survival instinct, to focus your brain as intensely as possible on not dying, when the fatal point of no return is out of sight, out of the moment. The further away the point of no return, the more intelligent foresight is required; or else urgency goes down and eventually doesn’t “feel” like a threat of death at all.
I’ve been thinking recently about the almost universal failure of people – adults in particular, you and me included – to take possible breakdown of the environment seriously. This usually means climate change but also includes future pandemics, natural distasters, meteor strikes, and so on.
By seriously I mean important enough to “feel” urgency about the need for change. This is urgency that leads to in-person protest, to volunteering to help, to giving money to frontline organisations meeting the threat, or – most simply and pertinently – voting in elections with that need to change (e.g. making the future Earth habitable) as defining criteria for choosing who’s given power on our behalf.
If climate breakdown risks destroying the planet in 100 years, wouldn’t the only urgency choice be the candidate promising to tackle this threat, as priority? Logic says yes but reality proves no. If the climate breakdown threat was a year away, the “green” candidate would win by a landslide. 100 years away, the “green” candidate is marginal. Most of us don’t “feel” the urgency. The cliff-edge is out of sight, out of moment.
Let’s step back a moment. Bear with me while I think aloud.
We live in a vastly complex cross-pollinated economic system of entrenched power pushing the consumer capitalist model as the primary engine of progress. Money motivates and self-interest rules, whatever the long-term fallout. When it comes to the “green” message, consumer capitalism gets presented as the main obstacle to popular take-up of measures to tackle climate change. But is it?
What if the persistence of our species’s relentless drive to exploit resources persists by inertia alone?
Could the lack of engagement with climate change (or any long term foresight) be a manifestation of the same head-in-the-sand psychology we humans use throughout our lives, for self preservation, to deny airtime to tangible future reality – an inevitable cause-and-effect – beyond our capacity to reconcile let alone solve?
What if that denial is a symptom of deep-rooted denial of the intractable, universal terminal illness we’ve all inherited from birth?
The terminal illness is simple human mortality, of course. Symptoms may differ, but from childhood we’re trained in a comprehensive habit of necessary reality denial. The reality of ephemeral lifespan. We are all going to die and everything our brains hold dear will also expire. It’s a common feature of early life angst — remember that first realisation you were going to die? Children worry their heads about the brief allocation of years on this Earth but by adolescence the subject has been buried; unconsciously habituated simply not to think about it. Adults begin to see signs of aging wear and tear so the head-in-the-sand needs to become second nature. Unfortunately this habit extends to the dysfunctional, covering everything far future.
We sometimes rage against the organic machine but it’d be to futile to spend one’s life in foresight. We choose instead to cling to the moment, flying in the face of what we know: we’re dying and sooner or later, we know how the life story ends. Planning for it not ending in extinction would be pointless.
I’ll follow that line of thinking.
We – as in our identity, our sense of individuated ego – are the sparkling froth on the evolved neurological substrate of complex multicellular eukaryote carriers for homo sapiens genes. Natural selection has worked out a solution to the long game for getting those genes from generation to generation. We’ve yet to achieve the same for ourselves.
For a myriad reasons, starting millions of years ago in the fire-shadow of primate confusion, human intelligence has had to invent a pocket reality for itself, to ringfence against fear of the unknown. There are dark facts of existence to which we have no defence but since gene-survival requires each individual to ensure its day to day continuity, natural selection has made a fait accompli of this necessary pocket reality.
To protect genetic survival from what we know to be our ultimate fate – without breaking the truth-falsehood binary – our brains need a system that makes the far future matter less than the near future, regardless of scale. That’s the purpose of the pocket reality. It habituates a protective relativism in how we think, day to day, by inverting both the objective order, and the absolute weight, of time. In short, tomorrow’s minutes get to matter more than next century’s decades.
While this may be sensible for carrying a human through adulthood, doing their duty to the organism and best serving the conveyance of the genes across generations, it also creates a completely disassociated set of priorities to individual and therefore all human existence. Mortality is a bitter pill to swallow and the denial has a raft of significant side-effects.
The denial of future, as it plays out in a diminishing significance as one gets further forward in time, takes the sting out of any visceral feeling for tracts of unknowable consequences. No detail, scant interest. The pocket reality of inverted time warps thinking at all levels, on the one hand insisting on the importance of free will and on the other training a natural recoiling from challenging the construct by – for instance – knowing the detail of your own future. It’s a house of cards held together by key points of cognitive dissonance well camouflaged so day to day experience doesn’t throw up moments of contradiction.
And there are simple real-world consequences of this pocket reality denial of future, denial of mortality, not least in our behavior towards climate breakdown. For example: recycling is boring, climate change isn’t a scientist’s emergency (i.e. merely intellectual, not visceral, not really real), disruption to one’s day matters more than possible disintegration of one’s children’s safety, etc.
Campaigns trying to hammer home environmental have responded to the reality denial in various ways.
The environmentalist movement has targeted the young as particularly susceptible to the message and though this is mistakenly believed to be effective because the young are simply more likely to feel they’ve a stake in the future, in truth it’s because the young haven’t the same level of disconnection. The carapace shielding the pocket reality has yet to solidify so the right truths can penetrate, receive proper consideration and influence young people into action.
Unfortunately the young are just one of the many demographics at play in our pluralist society and the young can only go so far without support from a majority of adults. This support is absent, for reasons already stated, though publicly the explanations will be a familiar range of practicalities of everyday adult life, climate change denial, repeating talking points about different priorities, etc. These explanations don’t bear scrutiny and often leave commited environmentalists baffled by what seem like topsy-turvy thinking.
How can an adult say they have no time for climate breakdown because they have to work their job to provide for their children, when the destruction of humanity’s life support system ultimately risks the lives of those same children; and all their progeny?
Appeals get made to strong source of emotion that survive into the pocket reality of the average adult, like “think of the children” to play on the parental instinct and “billions will die” to try to amplify the adult’s atrophied imagination about the planet’s future. The working theory is to get these tropes through the denial, into the thinking space of the adult, in the hope it’ll spur them to get active.
But the extent of the pocket reality is quite separate to the trained denial and sadly, these tropes and the urgency of the call to action are butting up against powerful, insistent, persistent psychological forces that seldom give way to a moment’s appeal, even if it is based on truth and predicts an effect one’s logic understands may well become personally relevant. Time is too twisted in the denial-reality for the inertia of the everyday to be affected by occasional appeals; however true.
A word on corporate capitalism, profit and personal fulfilment.
Profit is agnostic to anything and everything not either helping or hindering profit. It goes further. Many work jobs servicing the hydra of consumerism and many of those jobs are directly part of the climate breakdown cause and effect. This may seem like hypocrisy, if the individual believes in climate change yet works a job that contributes to it, but in fact, it’s simply another denial – a pocket reality inside the larger pocket reality – separating by an inversion of scale and distance that allows work to stay at work.
It’s not a big stretch to build a second double life in a mindset already comfortable with the time inversion denial of terminal aging. The second inversion of scale and distance is straightforward and practiced by most of us unconsciously. If a cause and effect are close in distance and human in scale, it may resonate as a responsibility, a real event in the individual’s pocket reality. Emotions will flow.
But if the cause and effect are far apart in distance or the scale is so vast or so diffuse it has no simple corollary in everyday experience, the inversion plays out to separate the individual from the effect. In this way it’s possible to work for a multinational oil company and feel no guilt over violence done to the planet thousands of miles away.
Professional working lives are structured by profit-honing corporate market forces to create a selection process testing for the completeness of the scale and distance inversion reality. Power to direct parts of the consumer capital hydra is slowly entrusted to those with the most reliable separation. As the amount of power grows, the system tests the individual for consistency in both pocket realities so those at the top – the most powerful – are typically also the most absolute, least affected by human and future consequences (unless it is profitable).
Sidebar. Sociopaths as particularly well represented in this dynamic, characterized by their pocket reality separating scale and distance having consumed the mortality denial entirely. The sociopath brain has disconnected the emotional responses to time, scale and distance altogether.
Speaking of sociopaths, there’s a lot of public bewilderment at the popular success of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. This must be either feigned or else surprisingly naive. They’re repeatedly derided as being the “least suitable choice” for government by the people for the people, followed by a list of their sociopath crimes against society, but this is irrelevant. These public figures don’t have to play games by your rules. Both would be poor choices for benign social democracy government but that’s not the criteria for judging frontline government positions in the United States or the UK.
Entrenched power is the engine of governance and it is organized around the pursuit of profit, with a sideline in perpetuation of itself so long as there’s minimal risk to social (and business) cohesion. This defines the standards Trump and Johnson are judging themselves by and, while it remains the executive paradigm, are the only metrics at play when the vested interests assess the performance of their public faces. It shouldn’t take a genius to see why actors like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are ideal persona when it comes to representing and managing profit continuity on behalf of the dominant big capital profiteers.
To conclude: while there’s no doubt mileage in organizing attacks on the most polluting, most accessible tendrils of the consumer capitalist hydra, this won’t make significant progress. It isn’t going to engage or mobilize the masses.
Future climate breakdown runs contrary to the conditioned, constructed reality to which most of us are deeply committed. This unspoken shared reality begins with a denial of death — typically starting in childhood — and matures during early adulthood into a denial of time. Time is inverted, made local, to artificially recast it in service the needs of the average individual in society. In a comfortable capitalist paradigm this means dutiful day to day stability.
The psychology of the constructed reality applies doubly for individuals with jobs in the professional socioeconomic structure. Career progression comes to those best able to keep up concentric pocket realities: job on the one hand, home on the other, self interest in one reality, company interest in another. Layer on reality layer keeps the individual far from the coalface of active protest. No time is left spare to get busy tackling the far future predictions of climate scientists and the billions who’ll be affected are too impersonal. The future is somebody else’s problem.
Children don’t have these practices as well trained as adults but the motivation is common to all; and transcends the state of the planet, i.e. the facts of climate breakdown can’t address the root cause of the popular disinterest in environmental action.
We can and many will, work tirelessly to push back against the rapacious forces of blind profit-driven consumer capitalism. There will be overstated successes and a long list of hopeful protestors calling for change, with particular emphasis on the youth. The emphasis over time serves only to emphasize the ineffectual nature of atomized protest. But it’s for the good and won’t hurt and keeps the message out there, simmering.
Until this fundamentally outdated, inhuman genes-first paradigm is broken, however, any change to society’s priorities will be a marginal, intellectual protest for the privileged and an indulgence (within limits) for the young.
Until the pocket reality denial of time, scale and distance is exposed as a dead-end denial of lifespan and human limitation, protest in society will stay what it has been: a minority hobby, for those lucky enough to have the leisure time to devote to the most important cause on Earth.