As a species, we’re pretty lost. That’s not to say we’ve ever found our way before. I think we have been trying (though lately not so much) for a very, very long time, and we keep finding ourselves wanting.
I think it might not be that we don’t know which way to go. I think we do. I think we have known it for thousands of years. The Stoics, the Buddhists, the Epicureans and myriad other schools of philosophy seem to understand there’s a gap between what we want and what we need to do that’s good for us. I don’t know if they are right, but they seem close to it, to me.
So I think we know where we ought to be going. It’s just that we get so so distracted, and we keep forgetting. And as far as species-maturity goes, we’re still kind of children. I don’t think we have yet, as a species, evolved to see past our wants and our desires and our avoidance of pain. So we seek the things that make us happy-for-now, even as doing so lays waste to the future.
I think this is also true now – our wasteful use of resources for trinkets and trivialities tells us as much. But there’s more. Whereas in the past, we might be able to attribute much short-term stupid behavior to ignorance in the sense that they may not have known that what they were doing would eventually kill us, now we no longer have that luxury, especially in developed nations where people have easy access to information. I understand that there are underprivileged in developed nations too, but have enough buzz and people will know. And our climate crisis has been buzzing for a good two decades now, at least.
What we’re seeing right now is worse than plain old ignorance. It’s a deliberate turning away from, because many don’t want to see. They don’t want to know. They want to continue pretending things are going to be okay, that everything will be fine. (I sound like I’m singing the lyrics to a teeny bopper song and you know, it does feel like that sometimes – the angst, the denial, the flippant devil-may-care attitude.) They want to continue in the belief that their children will to have a bright future even though, if we look at what unexpected changes in the local climates have done to multitudes of peoples around the world, that future is beginning to look rather bleak.
There’s nothing much we can do with people who refuse to see or to hear. Nothing will change their minds, so high is their resistance and so thick are their walls they’ve built for their silos. Perhaps someone close suffering from the effects from climate change would help but I think it’s going to be difficult for most to really get it until the SHTF.
Part of it is pure laziness, not just of the mind, but also the body. Why waste energy when you can save it for later? Why walk a little more to put the trash in the right recycling components when you can dump it into the nearest bin, whatever the bin says? Why dump it in a bin when you can dump it wherever? Oh and for that matter, why bother actually recycling all the waste when it means extra man-hours that I have to pay my employees? If my country didn’t have anti-littering laws meant to deter would-be litterbugs with either a fine or public shaming, I’m quite sure the streets will be less clean than they are now. And even now, it’s not that clean. When people have not internalised value systems, the reduction of the threat of consequences will probably result in them flouting the law.
And it’s not just laziness. It’s discipline and temperance and control. Why not have that extra snack that’s all wrapped in plastic when you’re not hungry anyway but just want to munch on something? Why not eat plate after plate of sashimi even while overfishing is obviously already a thing? Why not buy those new clothes that are going to be worn maybe four times before someone recognises them and you have to throw them out? Why not get all those stuff that’s nice and honestly completely useless apart for that temporary spike you get in your feels?
I understand these impulses. I get it. I too am guilty of not doing everything humanly possible for the good of the environment. But, I swear, each time, I’m thinking real hard about my decisions. Aristotle, I think, talked about hexis. Loosely translated, it became habit. Essentially, and in a nutshell, he is not talking about habit in the sense of an automated response to things. He’s saying that we have to be deliberate about our choices each time so much so that the deliberation comes naturally – if I do this, what will happen? What are the consequences? Is it moral/ ethical? Is my action the right thing to do? I’m trying, and I don’t always succeed. I hope more people will just try anyway.
And it’s not even about climate change. Even if the climate weren’t getting worse, this wanton wastage is still a wrong way to live precisely because it is wasteful. We’re using up more than we give back. It’s wasteful because these are not things we need. They are things we want. Killing off so many lives or causing so much suffering just to have things we want doesn’t seem like something an ethical being would do. (I would like to believe we are beings capable of considering ethics, and that since we can choose, I think we ought to choose an ethical cause of action because we are in this together.) The things we buy are also things we’ve convinced ourselves we need to fill some emptiness within, I suppose. Ever read Fight Club? The things you own end up owning you? Or these are things we want simply because we can have them. Why should we lead a disciplined life when others are free to do whatever they want? Because, I think, we can only control our own thoughts and actions. And by our thoughts and actions, we ought to do what’s right. And perhaps especially in the case of the decimation of the very resources we need to survive, what’s right is not being wasteful. We don’t need a lot of things to be happy, or to lead a meaningful life. We don’t need things. All of them are distractions. Nice distractions, but still distractions.
I’m typing this probably because of the recent spate of bad news. 415 ppm of CO2, 29C at the edge of the arctic circle, locking in our 2-3C temperature rise already, conflicts in loads of places because of climatic changes, humans causing the mass extinction of about 1 million species – everything is just piling on and they have been for some time. I’m not angry. There’s no point. If I’m angry, I’m not doing anything worthwhile. Even if I did something when angry, it’ll be an unthinking action. That’ll be stupid. I need to move it into thought and considered action because those are the only things I can control – thoughts and actions that can begin to help. Being angry does nothing. Doing something does something.