The Climate Emergency is finally getting the attention it deserves. Even as I write, I can hear the huge protest outside my window as of hundreds of students and school children campaign their hearts out, trying to make a difference. I’m delighted and relieved that so much is finally happening. But I also feel a cold certainty that protest alone won’t save us. The human race is faced with a network of tightly-linked problems more complex than anything we’ve previously known. And that network is already getting in the way of our best attempts to repair the damage our species has caused.
If you don’t believe me, ask yourself this: how is it that in the face of such obvious and escalating danger, that resistance to the climate reality is more vehement than ever? Why are we still faced with farmers setting fire to the Amazon, oil companies looking to drill the Arctic, and flat-out denials of scientifically-established facts from leaders of the world’s most powerful nations? As the facts get clearer, it seems our collective behavior just gets worse.
It’s easy to point the finger at corporate greed as the cause of this, but how does that greed actually work? It’s increasingly clear that in the world we’re making, there’ll be nowhere for tycoons to spend their money and nothing for them to spend it on. Furthermore, how are these tycoons securing the votes of populations guaranteed to die like flies if the status quo is maintained?
I’d propose that we need a deeper explanation of what’s going on. Only when we understand the bigger picture will we be able to take our determination to affect change and direct in a way that erodes the barricades of misinformation rising before us. In this article, I aim to give you my best sense of how we can achieve that, channeling everything I’ve learned in research on both complex systems and human behavior, from across half a dozen academic disciplines, and incorporating ten years of sustained investigation.
My journey to understanding this problem had an unusual start. It began with a quiet conversation with a science fiction writer near the end of his life. As a boy, I’d been enchanted by the work of author Jack Vance but never expected to meet him. Then, quite by surprise, while I was living in Berkeley about a decade ago, I got the chance to spend some precious evenings with him at his home in Oakland. It was one of those rare chances we get to meet our heroes.
By the time I met Jack, he was in his nineties, blind, and only partially mobile. Nevertheless he was still sharp as a tack, witty, and a capable jazz musician. Because of his physical limitations, he’d spent a significant amount of his later years listening to talk radio, most notably: Rush Limbaugh. By the time I found myself talking with him about climate change, his opinions had skewed hard to the right. When I suggested to him that climate change was real, he challenged me.
“Have you looked at the data yourself?” he asked. “Or are you just repeating something others have told you?”
Of course, I hadn’t done the research and admitted as much.
“Then how do you really know?” he said.
Meeting Jack was so important to me that I couldn’t help but take his words to heart. So I started studying. It helped I had a science background myself and that my wife was doing a postdoc at UC Berkeley, granting me access to scientists from a broad spread of disciplines. From where I stood, I had both the training and the opportunity to examine the data and talk to experts on everything from climate science to social psychology.
What I quickly concluded was that our situation actually had relatively little to do with rising temperatures. Don’t get me wrong, the climate crisis is absolutely real, but there’s plenty more going on. We’re facing staggering levels of biodiversity loss, with about half of the species in the world that were around in 1970 now irretrievably lost. This makes the current rate of extinction around a hundred times faster than the process that killed off the dinosaurs.
The garbage patch in the North Pacific is now about twice the size of Texas and microplastics have made their way into every step of the food chain, disturbing food-webs everywhere. At the same time, through our use of fertilizers, we’ve declared war on pollinators, causing a mass die-off of bees and other insects. That same die-off is now cascading through our ecosystems, wiping out the birds and amphibians who rely on those insects. Inevitably, the rest of those ecosystems will follow suit, eventually reaching the plants and fungi we need to survive. At the same time we’re facing unprecedented levels of deforestation and environmental destruction.
The upshot of this is that it’s not so much that things are getting hot, it’s that we’re completely off the map from how our planet has historically functioned. Quibbling over hockey-stick graphs or solar cycles is almost comically irrelevant. You could take the warming out of the picture entirely and we’d still be headed towards the biggest social meltdown in the history of the human race. We’re on about a thirty year fuse to societal collapse whether you factor in the temperature or studiously pretend it’s not changing.
In order to understand how to fix such a mess of existential threats, it’s first important to notice what they all have in common from a sociological perspective. They’re all what you might call global downsizers. These problems are already directly impacting the ease with which our species can extract wealth from its environment. It’s getting harder and therefore more expensive to catch fish, grow crops, raise animals, beat diseases, or handle weather.
Because these forces restrict our growth, it means technology can no longer keep up with the ever-increasing demand for freedom and opportunity. The net result is a growing sense that the walls are closing in. It’s a kind of global cabin fever. And that changes how people think.
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman points out that people perceive losses very differently from how they see gains. Let’s say I present you with a choice: you can either have a hundred dollars or we can toss a coin. If the coin comes up heads, you get two hundred dollars. If it comes up tails, you get nothing. Most people presented with this scenario settle for the hundred dollars.
Now let’s turn the situation around. I take out a gun and tell you that I’m taking a hundred dollars. Or we can flip a coin. If it comes up heads, I take two hundred. If it comes up tails, you walk away with your wallet intact. Under these conditions, people will usually flip the coin, despite the fact that mathematically speaking, these two situations are exactly the same.
In other words, when situations feel like losses, people start to gamble. And as I outlined in my article on cheap rhetoric, this is just as true in politics as it is in economic games. So as the global cabin fever worsens, the political stakes go up. The more that people feel like they’re losing, the more risks they’ll take to hold on to what they feel they deserve. The most obvious manifestation of this is what you might call panic nationalism, the weirdly internationally coordinated jingoism seen everywhere from the USA to Turkey to Brazil. But there are plenty of other examples. For instance: large-scale population movements, the rise of risky financial instruments like Bitcoin, and ratcheting intergroup tensions in areas like Kashmir.
Unfortunately, these same cabin fever behaviors have the direct effect of accelerating the problems that cause them. Panic nationalism drives resource extraction, as we’ve seen from Putin, Trump, and Bolsonaro. Escape-route economics drive energy demands. By at least one measure, the energy used to mine Bitcoin globally now exceeds that used by Switzerland. And of course, intergroup tension inevitably results in environmental damage.
So yes, greedy corporations play a significant role, and yes the climate matters, but unless we fix these problems together, the global panic feedback will just keep accelerating. This is why ideas like the much-trumpeted Green New Deal make so much sense. Because unless you fix the opportunity problem, you don’t fix the climate.
However, I suspect that endeavors like the Green New Deal are just the start. We’ll need far more. People coordinate most effectively when two things are true: there’s opportunity for personal gain and others are taking similar action. What this means is that to save the world, we can’t focus exclusively on the global threat and taking steps to avert it. That’s likely to only exacerbate the panic and the attendant bad behavior. Instead, we need to set our sights on what comes afterwards.
We need to build a concrete picture of what people gain by saving the world, crazy though that may sound. The picture has to be better than what people imagine they already have. It has to smell like hope. And then we have to broadcast that vision as hard as we can.
Ideally, that vision should be full of opportunities for personal profit. While I find that concept upsetting at some level, and believe that the drive for profit is what created this mess in the first place, human psychology won’t change before we need to act. In my opinion, figuring out what that vision is and speaking to the opportunities it represents needs to be the next objective of the climate movement.
I’m not sure yet what dream will resonate most with people whose choices need to change. That’s something I’m still researching. But as a life-long science fiction enthusiast, and a firm believer in the power of science to do good, I know what I’m hoping for. For me, learning how our world actually works opens the door to us having more than one. Why settle for a safe home for for seven billion human beings when we could figure out how to build safe homes for trillions? I don’t want to just see a handful of precious cultures; I want there to be more than we can count. I want a solar system full of raucous, wonderful human voices shouting their indomitable courage into the endless night. And I believe the journey to that place starts right here, right now.