We do not have souls. Furthermore, neuroscientists and philosophers are concluding that our notions of self and consciousness are very much exaggerated, and often illusory. The death of of the soul does not mean unending darkness, and the deconstruction of the self does not mean “nihilism”. Rather, we are human animals, an aspect of our animate planet, and there is a terrific beauty to this. Alan Watts is one of the wittier writers to have explained this:
Civilized humans are alarmingly ignorant of the fact that they are continuous with their natural surroundings. It is as necessary to have air, water, plants, insects, birds, fish, and mammals as it is to have brains, lungs, and stomachs. The former are our external organs in the same way that the latter are our internal organs…the sun, the earth, and the forests are just as much features of your own body as your brain. Erosion of the soil is as much a personal disease as leprosy…
That we do not feel this to be obvious is the result of centuries of habituation to the idea that oneself is only the envelope of skin and its contents, the inside but not the outside. The extreme folly of this notion becomes clear as soon as you try to imagine an inside with no outside, or an outside with not inside.
This cognitive dissonance – the isolation of the self from the environment – is at the core of today’s politics. Even environmental politics can be self obsessed, with its emphasis on humanity saving nature. Climate change, biodiversity loss and other catastrophic changes are the direct result of human behaviour. This does not however, make pollution unnatural, as James Lovelock explains:
A visitor viewing the Earth from outer space and discovering aerosol-propellant gases in our atmosphere, would have no doubt whatever that our planet bore life, and probably intelligence of a kind as well. In our persistent self-imposed alienation from nature, we tend to think that our industrial products are not ‘natural’. In fact, they are just as natural as all the other chemicals of the Earth, for they have been made by us who are surely living creatures.
That pollution is natural, should by no means read as a call for inaction. Appreciating that we are not doing things to nature, does not mean we are not doing things. The logical conclusion is this: we are not polluting the environment, we are pollution.
Today’s political conversation does not acknowledge human pollution. Generally speaking, politics is played between a left (more state, society focused) and a right (less state, individual focused).
Markets are fundamental, but they have proved themselves time and time again to be indifferent to public goods. Unregulated, they create extinctions, changes to the climate, food insecurity and gigantic sprawling cities (as seen in the USA). Unregulated, markets will sell us whatever we want, regardless of whether it is good for our addictive nature and environment.
The state on the other hand, is no viable alternative to the market. The environmental record of the USSR and the People’s Republic of China show how central planning has shown itself time and time again to cause environmental and human devastation.
Fetishizing the market or fetishizing the state is unhelpful and dangerous. The solutions are somewhere between left and right, and involve a combination of market and state, private property and commons, regulation and deregulation, taxes and enforced quotas, radical urban planning, policies on population, conservation, moving away from fossil fuels, and a number of adjustments to diets and agricultural practices.
We need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, and stop fishing parts of the ocean.
Despite its merits, I am not arguing here for such middle-ground compromise politics. Whether it is the individual or society, the market or the state, liberty, equality, or a blend of any of the above – the conversation routinely ignores the underlying problem of human pollution.
The right might fetishize the market and the left might fetishize the state, but all politics fetishizes the human.
The fetishizing of the human is perhaps best illustrated by the issue of overpopulation. With relatively recent developments in agriculture, industry, bacteriological medicine and the exploitation of oil, our numbers have exploded. Between 1800 and the 1920s, the human population doubled from around 1 billion to 2 billion. Fifty years later we had doubled again to 4 billion, and very soon there will be 8 billion of us.
We are told that by 2100 the number of humans will probably level out at around 10 billion. This “probably” is informed by the theory that because parents will be wealthier and able to provide for their old age, they will stop seeing their children as investment goods, and start seeing them as consumer goods. For those sceptical of such theorising, the United Nations high estimate is that there will be approximately 16 billion people by the end of the century.
Unless we overhaul our lifestyles, this population growth will be accompanied by increased soil degradation, water contamination, livestock, emissions and deforestation. Infinite population growth is obviously perilous, and catastrophic reductions in human numbers will inevitably occur, predominantly in the poorest countries.
(Update 24/03/2016: “While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth.” For balance on the population argument see George Monbiot’s The Population Myth and Dr David Satterthwaite’s The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change.)
Overpopulation is polluting our environments, but is not the only issue. The human species has plenty of unhealthy habits. Appetites for meat and cow milk are ballooning, while bad farming has been singled out as one of the greatest threats to the biosphere. Contempt for shared transport and nuclear energy is prevalent. Meanwhile, global energy use is expected to double in the next 35 years. If the majority of fossil fuel reserves are not left in the ground, we will heat our planet to even more dangerous levels than we are already set to.
All predictions point towards a diminished, fragile biosphere, with a crowded, hungry human population besieged by rising sea levels and other climactic cataclysms.
It seems obvious that the only feasible way to mitigate against the catastrophic effects of our behaviour, is to curtail our catastrophic behaviour. In other words, we are behaving badly because we are free to do so.
“A curtailment of freedom, surely that would be tyranny?” Such is the counterargument, articulated by the likes of Micah White. In a 2010 article for The Guardian, White rightly criticised the Luddite philosophy of Pentti Linkola, a Finnish fisherman who calls for a genocidal green government to tirelessly control (and presumably execute) its citizens.
Linkola’s ecofascism is a joke and a fantasy, but no more than White’s revolutionary alternative whereby humanity is “liberated” from the compulsion to consume:
Only by silencing the consumerist forces will both climate catastrophe and ecological tyranny be averted. Yes, western consumption will be substantially reduced. But it will be done voluntarily and joyously.
Anyone outside of the middle-class-soy-frapuccino-rainforest-alliance-fairt-rade-vegan-coop-latte bubble can read the naivety in this. Consumption is not happening to “the people”. To believe in “consumerist forces” is to be lured into that familiar utopia and its daydream remedy. This is not to dismiss Micah White’s radical politics – the criminalisation of advertising and the revocation of corporate power. Indeed, these sound like sensible restrictions on our freedoms.
Across the political spectrum there is an unblinking faith in rampant human freedom. We have the right to eat as much as we want, regardless of the consequences. On our behalf, our industries have the right to extract and exploit almost anywhere, while we have the right to burn as much energy as our bank balances allow. We have the right to waste and recycle to our heart’s content, alongside the freedom to sell, sustain, and promote hazardous levels of consumption. We solemnly defend the freedom for minority groups to stigmatize and harass people over family planning, often putting religious rights before women’s rights.
We need to stop talking about progress and growth, and start talking about rationing our devastating freedoms. There is no reason why this conversation should be undemocratic. Reigning in our rights it not fascism, and does not need a revolution to happen. The market has never been unregulated (weapons, pornography, ivory, hard drugs, hate speech and hallucinogens for example) and societies have rationed before.
Freedoms are ideal, but freedoms will be redundant if they are left unbridled. The more we chase the “American” dream of a house, a car, and a fridge full of meat for the family, the more and more our world will resemble that of Mad Max.
James Lovelock, the heretical scientist of our time, recently had this to say of today’s politics:
At the moment, we are just waiting as we were in the 30s, when everyone know war was coming but no one knew what to do about it. The moment the war started, we knew the prospect was pretty awful, but there was a wonderful sense of purpose. There were no consumer goods, and food was strictly rationed. We never considered that time hopeless. When climate changes gets bad, then there will be excitement, and that’s the payoff. As Crispin Tickell said, what we need is leadership – and disaster.
We will have disaster, but will we have leadership? Our politics needs humility, not more growth and self-obsession. If it means developing towards hyper-consumerism and unsustainable food and energy systems, sustainable development is a glaring oxymoron. Perhaps Lovelock is right, and what we instead need is a sustainable retreat.