Off With Her Head!
Why We Can’t Talk About Climate Change
In “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans”, Plutarch chronicles the battle of Triganocerta between the forces of the Roman Republic — led by Lucullus — and the army of the Kingdom of Armenia led by King Tigranes the Great.
As Lucullus’ forces advanced across the Tigris towards Armenia, Plutarch reported:
“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming, was so far from pleasing Tigranes, that he had his head cut off for his pains, and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”
In the ongoing mud-slinging contest around climate change, many heads are falling.
“Why can’t we talk about climate change?”
Mary Thompson’s question weighed on my mind as I crossed a crystal landscape painted by a heavy snowstorm the night before, then frosted by early morning icy gusts. Every bare branch in the forest was garlanded with sparkling ice, and the snow crunching under my boots glinted like sifted flour of a full moon.
Why can’t we?
Mary is not only a dear friend, but a wild, wise woman, a modern-day Shaman and renowned author of the essential book ‘Reclaiming the Wild Soul’. More than the jargon contained in all the reports from the International Council of Science, to me — through her vivid landscape poetics — Mary does more to mend the umbilical cord that once tethered us to the Earth, and to evoke a visceral shudder when witnessing the consequences of our species’ rapacity and indifference born from our estrangement from the Wild.
In her short, moving piece, Mary recounts a recent hike:
“Another couple passes me, thighs like pistons. They’ve already climbed and descended two other valleys and are freely sweating. “It’s too warm for this time of year,” the woman tells me. I agree, and then hear their story: they live in Santa Rosa and only just escaped last October’s devastating fires. Heat and drought are not words they welcome; they have already been scorched. I say, “I’m afraid this is the new normal, the climate is changing.” The man looks away from me, quickly changing the subject. It’s clear that he doesn’t want to hear what I am about to say…”
I’ll tell you why I think he much rather cut off your head, Mary, than hear what you have to say (My emphasis on his gender is pertinent to the first part of my answer).
The reasons, I believe, are threefold: A twisted story, our neurobiology, and our addictions.
A Twisted Story
Myths are the dreams of cultures. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves — our cultural DNA.
Here’s a sampling of the Western World’s stories of the ‘Great Mother’:
In the Olympian creation myth, Uranus (Father Sky) came every night to mate with GAIA (Mother Earth), but he hated the children she bore him. Uranus imprisoned Gaia’s children deep within Earth, causing pain to Gaia. She shaped a great flint-bladed sickle and asked her sons to castrate Uranus. Cronus, the youngest and most ambitious of her sons, ambushed his father and castrated him, casting the severed testicles into the sea.
In Greek mythology, DEMETER is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, who presided over the fertility of the earth. Demeter’s virgin Persephone was abducted to the underworld by Hades. Demeter searched for her ceaselessly, and, preoccupied with her loss and her grief, the seasons halted; living things ceased their growth, then began to die.
In the religion of ancient Babylon, TIAMAT is a primordial goddess of the sea. She is the symbol of the chaos of primordial creation. In fierce protection of her progeny, she rebelled against her husband. Her rebellion brought down the wrath of all the gods, and Marduk was chosen to defeat her in battle as she was perceived as the demon of chaos. This archetypal masculine hero rent her in two during the power struggle. He turned Tiamat’s severed body into earth and sky, took over rulership of earth, and recreated humanity ruled by an all-male divine council.
GAIA, DEMETER & TIAMAT are all archetypes of the Great Mother: elemental creator and destroyer — the Womb and Tomb of life. She is the vernal spring and the harvest, as well as the blasted landscape, ravaged by drought, fire, or flood. In myths she is often destroyed, as humanity fears her all-encompassing power, her desire to never relinquish her children and to keep them infantile forever. The ambivalent mother archetype is projected in infancy onto the actual mother, who is both loving and protective, and at the same time, all-powerful
My mother loved to bake. As a young boy, in Shop Class, I made her a wooden kitchen palette, painted it fire-engine red, and lovingly gave it to her on Mother’s Day. My brothers never forgave me. It became her chosen instrument of flagellation — always at the ready — landing on our tender hides with loud smacks until it finally cracked. No one messed with my mother.
Men fear the irrational, the capricious, the chaotic, and distrust intuition — all those mysterious forces that constellate their unconscious.
For psychologist Carl Jung, the transition from unconscious life to conscious life in the development of humanity and the individual is mirrored in the separation of the child from the mother: “The first creative act of liberation [of the unconscious] is matricide” (Jung, ‘Collected Works’ 1954c, p.96).
Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Genesis 1:28
In ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’, author Barry Spector says that our world has been conditioned by 5,000 years of andocracy: a social system ruled by men, in which the stories are primarily of male heroes who create the world by killing Mother-Serpents.
These old, twisted, or lopsided narratives, were given greater authority by the Scientific Revolution’s conception that matter (from the Latin mater: mother) is lifeless.
When men agreed that the world was dead, the world itself became ‘Other’ — Barry Spector
“Progress typically runs from simple, dark, slow, primitive, and natural, to complex, light, speed, rational, and enlightened; in other words, from feminine to masculine. Our notions of masculinity are tied up with the myth of progress and the imperative to transcend nature.” (Spector)
That’s the reason, Mary, we don’t want to hear what you have to say.
You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place. — Jonathan Swift.
Counter-arguments produce anxiety, because we perceive them as attacks upon our blind faith in progress. If one grows from wet/dark/feminine to dry/light/masculine, appeals to sustainability become entwined with threats to masculinity. (Spector)
If you would have asked the man, instead, about our species’ current-day plans for terraforming Mars and establishing the first human colony in outer space, he would have been all ears, cheerfully riveted.
Having befouled our Mother’s kitchen, left the stove burners on for days, and shattered her crockery, we wish to flee from our recklessness and her growing wrath. The scale of our destructiveness is so grand, we feel there is nothing we can do, so we pine for another chance, somewhere out there.
“History is replete with examples of social organizations, whether a business or a nation, that failed to perceive the realities of a changing environment and didn’t adapt in time to prevent calamity. Hubris and a self-reinforced dynamic of mass delusion characterize the waning phases of these once powerful groups. In hindsight we ask, “What were they thinking?” (Bradford, Jason. ‘The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion’).
Think back to the Great Smog of London of 1952, the Deep-Water Horizon Oil Spill, and The Bhopal Disaster. Now think ahead to June 4, 2018: Day Zero for Cape Town, South Africa — the day when fresh water taps are expected to run dry.
What are we thinking? Or better said: How are we thinking?
Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of the threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought. Emotions motivate and guide us.
When we succeed or fail at a task, or are praised or scorned for a particular behavior, emotional reactions are our rewards (feels good) or punishments (feels bad) and become the guideposts for our future thoughts and actions. They become our “mental models,” setting what is important in life and largely defining who we think we are. When mental models are tied to rewards, we fear and rebel against their disruption. Because it receives and processes sensory input faster, our emotional mind can censor from conscious awareness information that may interfere with the task required to make the goal. (Bradford)
You, Mary, are disrupting and threatening our cherished, “feel-good” notion of progress.
It also appears that humans are inveterate optimists. We like to see our glasses half full, our clouds silver-lined.
Using and MRI scanner, Tali Sharot, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London, and neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, recorded brain activity in volunteers as they imagined specific events that might occur to them in the future. Some of the events they asked them to imagine were desirable (a great date or winning a large sum of money), and some were undesirable (losing a wallet, ending a romantic relationship). The volunteers reported that their images of sought-after events were richer and more vivid than those of unwanted events.
A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. We hugely underestimate our chances of getting divorced, losing our job or being diagnosed with cancer. We expect our children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision ourselves achieving more than our peers; and overestimate our likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more).
To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. But, while mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. (Sharot)
Ajit Varki, a biologist at UC San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism.
You are raining on our parade, Mary, so off with your head!
“The whole American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions.” — Erica Jong
And addiction, is the habitual avoidance of reality.
From where I now sit, at sunset, cross-legged on a hardened snow berm by the river’s bend, the reality of global warming seems dubious. It is 30 degrees out here. Ice falls are stuck fast to the rock wall, and ice floes rigidly to each other blocking the river’s flow at various points. Much like our opinions, to which we desperately cling, impeding rational, civil discourse.
“We must shift America from a needs, to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” — Paul Mazur, leading Wall Street banker. 1929
To consider the alternative reality, according to the prevailing — “full steam ahead” — narrative of those championing the status quo, would mean that we would have to give up our desires, our comforts and conveniences, to scale back our consumption; to radically change our way of life. And we don’t want to do that, Mary, and that’s why we won’t talk about climate change.
We much rather be flattered and comforted, like King Tigranes the Great.
So, off with your head!