We know we are destroying the world that shelters us. We know we are creating a climate hell that our descendants will live with for thousands of years. We know we are using up the planet’s resources at an exponential and unsustainable rate. We know we will soon begin running out of the basic necessities on which our lives depend: breathable air, edible food, clean water, arable land. We have known all this for over 50 years. We also know the likely consequences of continuing along this path: unspeakable suffering for billions of people, possibly extinction of the species.
Yet, we keep going.
We talk a lot. We pay armies of scientists to tell us how bad it is (source). We make pledges and commitments. But despite all the talk, despite everything we have learned, we continue to let CO2 emissions rise, we continue to watch global temperatures rise, and we continue to witness the devastating effects of our inaction: super storms, massive floods, unending droughts, rising seas, wet-bulb temperatures, and humanitarian crises around the world. Yet our leaders remain oddly complacent and passive: delaying, diverting, dissembling.
Why can’t we stop killing ourselves and our planet? What kind of irrational, insane creatures are we, to stare in the face of our own mortality and then just look away?
This, I believe, is the question of our time. It is the question we must answer if we want to survive as a sustainable species on this planet. It is the question we have done everything in our power to avoid for half a century. It is a causal question: Why do we act in this irrational, self-destructive way?
When we look for causes, we tend to focus on proximate causes. If something is not happening, we ask “why not”? We look for obstacles standing directly in the way of progress. For example, I have focused in previous writings on the loathsome American Republican Party. I have likened them to a pile of rubbish blocking the only exit from a burning house. Others have found root causes in capitalism, inequality, or rising authoritarianism. But…