We can’t save the world

How is the way we see nature shaping the future?

If we care about the direction humanity is heading and the effect this is having on the rest of life, we need to appreciate an uncomfortable perspective. The truth is, we can’t save the world.

This is probably a bitter pill to swallow for many environmentalists, social justice devotees and any Silicon-valley messiahs out there who have grown up being bombarded with the twin messages that the world is going to hell in a handcart and that we are supremely powerful as individuals to ‘take action!’.

Counterintuitive though it may sound, however, this realisation can help us unravel the knot we’re tying ourselves in, where technological progress, modern lifestyles and insular ways of thinking are evolving together to entrench our belief that humans are separate from ‘Nature’. As we distance ourselves from the rest of the living world and replace it with an artificial order of things, we are reinforcing our conviction nature is replaceable. Meanwhile, we’re increasingly removed from our present experiences, obsessing over the future in a maelstrom of worries, desires and digital distractions, so the ecological erasure goes unnoticed.

Enough with the doom already, you might be thinking. Can’t we accept the fact that things are pretty good right now? Actually, to be frank, they’re significantly better than they have ever been in human history. No other era has seen so many people live so well: diseases are being vanquished, painful toil is being relieved by technology, and the freedom to choose from a myriad of possible lifestyles has never been greater. We can take some comfort in the knowledge that the collective genius of 7 billion people free to work and innovate in the global economy is going to overcome whatever damage we are inflicting on the world. If we can advance from building the first cars to sending a car past Mars in little more than one century (not to mention from the invention of photography, to printing selfies on cappuccinos in two), what limits are there to what we can achieve?

But wait a minute, comes the reasonable reply, there is plenty to be pessimistic about too. If our economic system has carried us to this advanced state of civilisation, based on the equal value of each human life, how is it that 42 people can own the same wealth as 3.7 billion others?¹ If scientific progress has given us god-like powers to understand and create life, why are species becoming extinct at between 100 and 10,000 times the natural rate?² And most perplexingly of all, if modern society really is so good, why is there evidence that development since the 1950s has not made rich populations any happier?³

There are many possible explanations to these questions, but a useful one to keep in mind takes just one word: paradox. It’s a word that rarely comes up in conversation, but would sit well in a slogan for society today. A paradox is a situation or statement that seems impossible or is difficult to understand because it contains two opposite facts or characteristics. Such as an all-powerful, all-loving God allows evil to exist, or chocolate is bad for you. Everywhere we look, from our personal relationships to our political parties, we begin to find them.

This essay is an invitation to pay attention to paradox. Doing so makes us better at finding balance, and finding balance is what’s needed to live well, both as individuals and together. The rallying cries to save the world from the threats of environmental crises are flawed because they’ve been perpetuating the imbalances they seek to overcome: pitting humans against nature and the future against the present. Urgent campaigns to save a species or avert climate change are valiant and valuable, but without a broader and deeper sense of our situation they fail to alter the course of change.

To ignore the warnings that we are disintegrating the planet is, well, ignorant. But to stomp and shout for fear of a self-inflicted apocalypse may also be missing the most realistic and arguably most troubling outcome for humanity in the coming decades: one where we keep calm and carry on, achieve sustainable agriculture, master renewable energy, connect the Internet of Everything, but forget who we were and erase most other living things in the process.

Separating nature

A comment I heard on the radio last year still rings in my ears. Rather than a newsreader reporting on North Korean nukes or a scientist warning about the latest strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it came from somebody unexpected: a pupil from one of the best schools in the United Kingdom talking on the radio in a debate about developing the countryside:

“I think humans are dominant over nature and I think it should continue that way. I don’t think there should be any areas that are exempt from that… I can understand I am part of an ecosystem, and I utilise as a human parts of the environment, but I don’t think that people’s value of nature should equate to a law or regulations that stop me developing.”

It could be dismissed as intentional exaggeration, but it seemed spoken with conviction. It gives an insight into a particular way of seeing the world, one with a long history and whose opponents even inadvertently sustain. It is the objectification of nature as the world out there and separate from us: whether it is the economists’ stockpile of resources to be extracted, or the environmentalists’ ecosystem to be preserved and saved, ‘nature’ is a quantifiable thing to be calculated and controlled by humans.

Fifty years ago, a moment that is widely regarded as the birth of modern environmentalism may well have strengthened this attitude, undermining the goal of many who it inspired to act. The Earthrise photograph, taken by astronaut Bill Anders on the Apollo 8 mission in 1968 captures the view when humans physically saw the whole planet for the first time. By a cruel irony, the iconic view of the Earth in space reproduced everywhere from protest signs to pencil cases, hasn’t only become boring in our image-saturated age, it has reduced the whole world to another object we can look at from a distance. The whole world in our hands, what shall we do with it?

This sense of the planet at our disposal is a fundamentally different stance to numerous ancient beliefs of being intrinsically connected to all other life. From the Sápara people in Ecuador or the Kogi in Columbia, to many First Nations or Aboriginal Australian peoples, indigenous cultures often share a sense of being deeply entangled with the rest of life, rather than walking around on top of it. Andean mountain communities live by a concept of ayni, or reciprocity where everything is mutually connected. Buddhism is founded on ideas of interdependence of all life. The philosophy of ahimsa central to many Indian religions and most devoutly practiced by Jainism teaches reverence for life in all forms.

There’s no neat division between industrial and pre-industrial societies or their beliefs. The reality is a spectrum of worldviews, attitudes overlapping and diverging in different ways, but the usual temptation of black-and-white thinking is to simplify a pattern into two poles. Conventional debating spots a contradiction, takes a side in the argument and fights it out.

So, let the battle commence! Is the schoolgirl right?

Yes! Humans have evolved to be dominant over nature, separate from the world and masters of all we survey. Build on the countryside, and make it a nuclear power plant to charge our self-driving cars while we’re at it.

No! Humans are a drop in the ocean of nature, drifting in its tides through cosmic time. Ideas of human superiority are merely a passing delusion in a few billion brains and we should go back to nature to rediscover who we really are.

But we don’t have to pick a side in this false dichotomy. The urge to do so stems from our modern tendency to objectify the truth: to figure out reality in the one concrete, absolute form we assume it takes. Doing so misses what Ian McGilchrist calls the betweenness of human experience in the world.⁴ Our brains are not empty vessels for objective reality to arrive at through our senses, nor are they so clouded by subjective bias that we can never know what’s true. The truth of our relationship to the rest of nature is that it depends: on our perspective on nature.

There is not one world that clever scientists in dazzling laboratories are gradually revealing while pre-industrial societies play catch up. There is one world that both scientists and shamans and everybody in between are interpreting from one moment to the next. Cultures, the collective networks of these interpretations, flow over time as interaction with and manipulation of nature changes our perceptions. Through behaviours from personal rituals to community traditions, to — recently for the first time ever — global industry, we transform our habitats to reinforce our evolving beliefs. Our minds coevolve with the world we inhabit, so as we alter the world we live in, we inevitably remould our minds.

What does this mean for the moment we live in? That the biggest, fastest upheavals to the daily experience of the majority of humans that we are living in the midst of are going to have a greater impact on collective awareness of nature than any amount of shouting ‘save the world’. That earnest essays about being interconnected will make little sense to anyone who hasn’t felt their self-consciousness melt away in the face of an awesome natural landscape. That as we convince ourselves we are separate from nature, we make it so.

Imagining the future

Our choices about how we live aren’t only based on how we see the world in the present, but also how we imagine it will be. Our ability to imagine the future has been one of the defining features of our success as a species. Based on our past experiences and knowledge, we create ideas of what we might do, what might happen to us, and how the world might be. This is woven throughout all aspects of human culture and seems to have been a crucial ingredient of our ability to flourish and expand across the globe, overcoming obstacles to survival, predicting each others feelings and uniting around shared goals.

As evidence has mounted of the ecological damage industrialisation is wreaking on other life, and of the destabilising implications of climate change⁵, the collective imagination of millions of concerned citizens has gone into overdrive. A shared delusion creeps in here, complicating the flurry of good intentions. Both those who think they are resisting the imperial march of the capitalist system towards impending disaster, and those who think they are building the businesses that deliver people the good life, fall for the same mistake: that the future is a place where we will end up.

The false promise of the future is that we will plateau in some kind of perfect heaven, when of course it is eternally just out of reach. For economics and our happiness, this realisation means that consumerism cannot satisfy us. For the ‘save the world’ brigade, it should serve as a reminder that the world will never stop changing: you cannot choose any fixed state of nature to save, let alone go back to any fictional, static paradise.

The false warning of the future is that we will collapse into catastrophe where everything becomes hopeless and the world as we know it is lost, but of course, we will always adapt. ‘Save the world before it’s too late’ makes no sense because it will never be too late. The ‘point of no return’ doesn’t exist, apart from now, and now, and now. It’s not that we will wake up in fifty or a hundred years and suddenly everyone will be united in despair that the rhinos and rainforests have gone: we will have forgotten how it ever felt to live alongside them.

A story my grandfather told me a few years ago comes to mind. Sitting in the passenger seat in front of me as we drove through Oxfordshire he recalled how, when driving down country roads at night as a child, moths appeared out of the gloom like a blanket of dusty snowflakes, so many of them you would need to turn on the windscreen wipers of the car. Perhaps adding some poetic exaggeration to his early years, I thought, until I recently stumbled across a newspaper article describing ‘the windscreen phenomenon’ that is widely recognised by entomologists. It’s far from only my grandfather who has noticed a change, and it’s not just England: a recent study showed that the abundance of flying insects has plunged by three-quarters in 27 years across 63 nature reserves in Germany⁶, triggering momentary headlines of ‘ecological Armageddon’.

But focussing on predictions of crises neglects the fact that the future is not a fixed time. We imagine a deadline approaching as the bad news keeps rolling in — another coral bleached, another ice shelf collapsed, another rhino poached — and if not outright denial, we experience fear, anger and an urgency to act that can blinker us from the full reality of the present. Too much urgency makes us mindless. Calls for change don’t just go unheeded, they make others angry and resentful which delays progress even further. Think of it as an ‘urgency trap’; efforts to avoid catastrophe quickly can end up making matters worse.

Does this mean that we should sit back, relax and do nothing, because the problems are overblown, the apocalypse will never come? No, it should remind us that the future is a place where we will end up, but we will also never get there. That when we come into conflicts with others about our ideal future, it’s because there’s something we’re not fully understanding about the present. And that the processes of the present matter most of all, because the future is always imaginary until it’s here.

Experience in the present

Of the many declared defining features of the age we live in, the changing experience of wild nature gets surprisingly little attention. It’s not as easy to pinpoint as the things that can be visualised: the dying species you can still see in the zoo, or the latest smartphone in your child’s hand. It’s a change over many generations that’s too slow for humans to easily recognise and it’s invisible: a void in our daily lives. But what seems slow to individuals is still a split second in the life of a species. In a blink of evolutionary time we’ve shifted from outdoor lives as nomadic hunter-gatherers to lives spent largely indoors, staring at manmade objects.

For 95% of human history in the Pleistocene, Homo sapiens’ lives as hunter-gatherers were governed by natural ecosystems we were embedded within. The first cities, founded in Mesopotamia after the agricultural Revolution, around 7500 BCE began the sweep of urbanisation that accelerated most dramatically in the Twentieth Century. Since 2007, for the first time ever, over half the global population has been living in cities. And now, children in the UK spend an average of a quarter of an hour a day playing in a natural setting, versus about half their waking lives in front of a screen: 7.5 hours a day, an increase of 40% in a decade⁷.

Connections have been made to the proliferation of psychological problems in economically developed countries and ideas of ‘nature-deficit disorder’. This is a clunky categorisation of a more far-reaching and profound shift in human experience brought about by our alienation from wild landscapes and other living things. When our innate drive to seek connections with other forms of life, what E. O. Wilson calls our biophilia, has its natural mirror taken away, something in our experience is left unsatisfied. Lisa Krall suggests that our ancient genome made us most comfortable and healthy when we were embedded in a non-human world, that after millennia of evolution, our comparatively short modern history has made us a ‘species out of context’⁸.

To figure out the direction we’re heading, it’s useful to remind ourselves of this longer sweep of human history, but what Krall’s phase misses is our ability to adapt ourselves to changing contexts. We are an evolving species within the complex adaptive system of the biosphere, but unlike any other in that our technologies are freeing us from reliance on nature outside our control for our physical and emotional wellbeing. What makes us unique is the speed with which we have changed our own environment and the adaptability of our culture and technology — rather than blind genetic evolution — to survive the changes. History shows us that if parts of our biology are not well-suited to the new context we are rapidly building, we have an incredible adaptive capacity to respond.

Where the collective inertia of traditional power holders — governments and Twentieth Century industries — is too slow to wake up to the destruction of the non-human world, technological development will pounce on the opportunity. In his book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari describes a Twenty-First Century path for humanity where we redesign our bodies and brains in pursuit of happiness and immortality, using newfound powers from bioscience, nanotech and big-data. Consider the context of these transformations is a dismantling of the foundations of our intuitive biophilia: a growing majority of human lives spent mainly indoors, in cities, deprived of interaction with wildlife, convinced of the dominance of humans over separate nature. Our impatient economic growth impulse will not wait for UN panels, alarmed academics and vegan yogis to figure out how to rebalance our lifestyles and bring nature back. Hungry tech companies will feed on the vulnerabilities of the human spirit, left restless and confused in an unfamiliar scaffolding of concrete and pixels.

Understanding ever more about the brain, we can substitute the living world it evolved within for mechanical systems of stimulation and reward. These can be deployed more quickly than rewilding the habitats we’ve degraded. They can be more easily predicted and of course monetised too. Feeling down? There’s a pill for that. Feeling lonely? There’s an app for that. Feeling like your life doesn’t have any meaning? Then you clearly haven’t tried iWonder, the next generation virtual reality platform where you can choose to do anything from conquer worlds to set up a smallholding. ‘Live Your Dreams’ as the posters say. An hour before bed each day should do the trick.

If the brain is a machine, the biosphere an algorithm, then nothing is sacred. Once we quantify the rules that they’re built from, all parts can be replaced. The debating schoolgirl who understood ‘I am part of an ecosystem, and I utilise as a human parts of the environment’ was only echoing the common perspective regurgitated everywhere from newsrooms to classrooms that emphasises function and utility. The insects pollinate the flowers, the Amazon makes the oxygen, the ice caps help regulate the temperature. This take means we fear a collapse of the whole Earth system — the world ‘out there’ — triggered by a problem with the parts, so we figure out how we can fix the parts. Provided we can keep our food supply secure with robotic bees⁹, who really cares if my grandad doesn’t see splattered moths any more?

Millions of innovations and replacements will gradually transform the whole of life as we experience it, in just the same way they did during the agricultural and the industrial revolutions. The difference this time is they will effect far more people far more quickly. The bigger risk than a collapse of civilisation seems to be a techno-sanitised monoculture where the diversity of other life forms, and the diversity of experience that has made us what we are, are slowly but surely consumed by the infectious logic of mechanical growth. An expanding artificial order of things risks disintegrating what makes us human along with the rest of the living world.


This is a fairly gloomy vision of where society might be headed in the near-future if our most influential decision-makers, politicians and entrepreneurs today continue to be driven by a one-sided view of nature. The challenge for people seeking to avert environmental catastrophe is not to overthrow that view of nature, because it’s half true. Nature is a quantifiable thing that can be calculated and managed by humans, when seen that way.

The challenge is to protect space for the other half of the truth. Nature is a boundless process, an unquantifiable experience with value that can’t be put into words and numbers.

How we renew that takes imagination and creativity. No amount of explaining, instructing or preaching gets to the heart of it. It is not a static truth that can be extracted from an ancient culture or delivered by an enlightened writer. Nor is it a catchphrase to explode in a media frenzy or a memo to translate into the language of the boardroom. It’s an understanding that ebbs and flows with experience, an awareness that we continually reweave with our surroundings.

Millions of committed citizens are already working in different ways to sustain the inherent wonder of nature. To strengthen those efforts means reaching beyond the green movements to the three most important groups, in ways that enrich their experience and encourage them to do the same for others.

It means helping the most powerful leaders in the world today, from Beijing to Silicon valley, and universities to multinational banks, to sense what’s at stake. For the people most alienated from wildlife living in megacities, it means transforming workplaces and public spaces to take them forward to nature. And lastly for ourselves, it means recognising what we love and attending to it. We mustn’t surrender our common sense to the patterns of logic that pervade our economic and education systems, sacrificing what we feel is good for what we’re told is the only option. The aspects of life that so often give it lustre — the potential for what emerges from the unknown, unpredictable, organic world — depend on it.

The risk of destroying non-human life is greater than ever before, not only because our capacity to cause damage has never reached this scale, but because our capacity to distract ourselves from the consequences of our actions — to numb the pain of the loss — has never been greater. But nor has our ability to learn from cultures all over the world, or unite around the things we love. The fact that so many big challenges today exist in paradox requires us to zoom out, accept tension, and sustain attention. Progress is a process and the meaning is in the making. Just as knowing none of us lives forever doesn’t mean we should give up now, nor should the realisation we can’t save the world. What matters is how we try.

References:

  1. www.credit-suisse.com/corporate/en/research/research-institute/global-wealth-report.html
  2. Pimm et al. (1995) ‘The Future of Biodiversity’. Science. 269 (5222): 347–350. Bibcode:1995Sci…269..347P.; De Vos et al. (2014) ‘Estimating the normal background rate of species extinction’. Conservation Biology. 29 (2): 452–462. doi:10.1111/cobi.12380
  3. Layard, Richard (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. Penguin.
  4. McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and His Emissary. Yale University Press.
  5. www.stockholmresilience.org/research/research-news/2015-01-15-planetary-boundaries---an-update.html
  6. Hallmann et al. (2017) ‘More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas’ PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185809doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0185809
  7. Sigman, A. (2007) ‘Visual voodoo: the biological impact of watching television’. Biologist 54 (I) 12–17; BMRB International (British Market Research Bureaux). (2004) ‘Increasing Screen Time is Leading to Inactivity of 11–15s’. Youth TGI Study.
  8. www.soundcloud.com/upstreampodcast/lisi-krall
  9. www.newscientist.com/article/2120832-robotic-bee-could-help-pollinate-crops-as-real-bees-decline/

Public domain images from SpaceX, NASA/Bill Anders and Vladimir Kudinov. Other images by Ross Harrison (CC BY-NC 4.0).