The condition of our planet is as dramatic as its heralds around the world – from student Greta Thunberg to the UN Secretary General Guterrez – claim it is. The facts, collected through the careful and methodologically rigorous science are clear. The roots of this critical condition are to be found in the ways in which we, humans, have organized our economy, particularly in the last century. Our socio-economic system is severely disrupting the physiological processes that sustain life on this the planet. In light of the evidence that scientists have collected over the past decades, we ought to question not only our socio-economic system but also the habits and values that underpin it. We need to question how we do things, how we produce, how we eat and travel. Now is THE moment for humanity to finally ask some deep, self-critical questions.
To do that, let’s imagine the following situation. You are told by your doctor that, in order to survive, it is necessary to cut on sugar and salt, to move at least an hour per day, to breath clean air and to eat fresh food. Certainly, you’d at least try to follow your doctor’s advice. Perhaps, you’d end up being more healthy and happy than ever before. You’d change your life because your doctor made you realize that it is necessary, necessary in order to live and be well.
Now, imagine that the diagnosis does not just concern an individual person, but an entire planet. Imagine it involves a huge number of people, and it covers all aspects of what these people consider their ‘ordinary lives’. In response to this planetary diagnosis, people react differently. As it stands, many still claim that the doctor is wrong, as well as the doctor who gave the second opinion, and the one who gave the third opinion. They claim that the diagnosis is overdramatized. Others, instead, accept the diagnosis but find that it’s the responsibility of the doctors to find a new cure. It is not up to the patients to fix their problems, but instead the role of some mysterious geniuses in the labs to invent a quick medicine. Yet others claim (and they do have a point), that the capacity to confront this diagnosis, and to change one’s lifestyle in response, is a luxury that only few can afford.
Yet, there are also others. People who believe their doctors, feel responsible to tackle the problem, and can afford to question themselves and their lifestyles. Those are the people who actually want to act, the potential actors. Many of us are. Yet, in my conversations with colleagues, friends, and passers-by, I’ve realized that many of us feel powerless in front of the following realization: We, humanity, are destroying everything: we are destroying the plants, animals and natural environments that give this planet its special charm. We are destroying our own life-support systems. Every day. And it seems currently the dynamic is unstoppable. The realization is: We are fucked!
So how to deal with this realization? In my experience, there is a range of possible responses:
You can take full responsibility and ownership of the problem. You can think that the cause of this disaster is you. This is a reaction of individualism, which is often triggered in situations of existential threat. Once you do so, you try to engage in a full individual transformation, justified by the idea that ‘if all would do like you, the world would be better’. You become a full-blown minimalist, sell your house (if you have one), leave your job (if you have one), take your children and animals (if you have some) and open an organic farm somewhere in the countryside (if you can buy it), stop using plastic (if you can), sell the car (if you don’t have to commute) and of course buy recycled clothes of organic cotton (if you can afford them). Perhaps you become self-sufficient, grow your own crops, dress with self-made clothes, and live a parsimonious life (if you have time). Perhaps you do this in a community, where everybody is vegan and does meditation. Many have done this already, and it is not as utopian as it may sound. You can also set up a commune that ‘shows’ to the world that another life – another future – is possible. Utopia here and now. In so doing, you concentrate on your own resources and strategies. You do so based on the presumption that others are ready to be inspired by you and can follow your example. What you need to follow this path is egocentrism and individualism, which sometimes go too far.
There is yet a more simple and easy-to-use version of response number one. You can argue that it’s not necessary to approach the problem of climate and ecological breakdown through a complete lifestyle makeover. Instead, you might say, we need a sort of mid-way, which everyone can follow. You might argue that the aggregation of small single individuals’ actions – if taken by a large amount of individuals – can in the end solve the problem. We all could simply ‘shrink’ our own ecological footprints, and in so doing we would reach a sustainable level. The advantage of this attitude is that it gives an easy relief from the burden of responsibility. Moreover, it gives you the ‘freedom’ to actually choose what to cut and what to keep. You can decide to travel less by plane so to keep eating meat. Or, you can decide to become vegan, reduce plastic waste, buy recycled or second hand products, but still have a transnational flight every now and then. Or, you can choose to engage in a feel good charitable activity, such as volunteering at the food bank or a cat shelter. Petitions or donations have the same effect. You feel good in donating your excess clothing to the poor, or in taking a trip to a vegan farm and help growing crops. The options to ‘do good’ are infinite and this is the trick. Individually selected good-doings provide limitless opportunity to find redemption – at least temporarily – from the moral and emotional burden of planetary breakdown. The recycled clothing today, the meat tomorrow, the donation the day after…
Of course you can also choose the path of denial. Denial does not necessarily mean denying the reality of climate and ecological breakdown, but it can also mean denying the reality of eco-breakdown to creep into your everyday life. Humans are extremely resilient creatures after all. Their resilience in part derives from their mental capacity to compartmentalize, distort and re-interpret material facts. This escapism can take on many forms. You can ignore, demonize, minimize, revision, reinterpret or discredit the facts as either imprecise (and therefore illegitimate) or incorrect (and therefore useless). Or you can just focus on something else, such as your job, or your art, or the renovation of your house, or the planning of your wedding – all of which, in some ways, are vital. The advantage of the denial approach is that, by doing it, you can happily continue doing what you want to do, what you like to do, or what your boss asks you to do. You keep on bringing ‘full performance’ in our daily life and thus avoid destabilizing the fabulous stability that you’ve built throughout your whole life and career. Yet, this decision will come at some cost. Negating requires energy because escapism requires a distraction. You will always need to create your distractions and this will become exhausting once the reality you are trying to negate becomes clearer and clearer.
The downsides of these responses
You may already have realized that running is not an option. Running away rarely solves a problem that is collective and all-encompassing. After all, our planet is not just one thing among others. It is every-thing. Moreover, surrendering to the denial strategy will not hold for long if you really care about somebody else than yourself. You may end up sitting in a psychotherapist’s room talking about the cognitive dissonance that you have been experiencing.
Equally, you may have realized that shrinking your individual footprint is, after all, not so easy and effective as it sounds. We’re all part of a broader social system that demands certain actions from us, such as flying for work or for a friend’s wedding, or having to package a present, et cetera. Changing your lifestyle may have given you a temporary release valve (‘I’m doing something’). Yet, you will also have noticed with amplified sensitivity how people around you are not doing the same. Many maintain their usual lifestyles: Wrapping their groceries in tons of plastic, flooding the ‘burger bars’ that open at every corner of the city, flying around the globe for fun and adventure. To overcome the deeper feeling of being alone and marginal in the endeavour of saving the planet, you might end up building an identity upon your uniqueness. I am the only vegan at this dinner! Are you still using plastic bags? I’m not! Eventually, you might get disappointed to see that many people around you are in fact discrediting what you believe is the right thing to do. Or that they just don’t care.
Recognize your limits and collectivize
Once you realize that you cannot deny in the long term and that you cannot shrink your footprint enough to make a change – that is if others don’t join in and the system doesn’t align – there is only one alternative left: You can collectivize the problem ownership and make your frustration the source for a truly political and collective action. This means to move beyond the pleasures and burdens of egocentrism and recognize that you alone cannot do much to save the planet. Instead, you can become part of a collective. A collective that could, if properly organized and big enough, bring about the change of socio-economic system we so desperately need.
To recognize your own limits in saving the planet means to embrace the understanding that only collectively we can transform the damaging economic and social institutions that we have built throughout history. It means to reclaim the task of active citizenship and engage in an endeavor to change the conditions that have led us – individuals within a society – to destroy the environment in the first place. This means to feel part of a multitude and formulating ambitious demands for everybody, ready to legitimize the changes that will ensue from those demands. To recognize your limits will not disempower you. It will instead allow you to become aware that responsibilities are shared and that they are not always shared equally. It will ignite the ability to become inclusive in your choice, allowing others to join your demands, recognizing also their own individual limits. To be collective is the source of solidarity. It is through collective action that we recognize the fact that we need fair and just processes of transitioning towards a truly sustainable society. It is through collective action that we become attentive of the needs of those who can neither deny climate and ecological breakdown, because they already have to deal with its effects in their everyday lives, nor afford to engage in low-footprint lifestyles, simply because they don’t have the time or money to do so.
How do we start then? Spread the word, share the facts, share your experience in dealing with these facts. Talk about it, discuss and argue. Don’t be afraid to confront others who disagree. And then, join those peaceful social movements that are trying to hold accountable our governments and make them take more rapid, effective and convincing actions to save the planet we live on and by. And of course, never stop trying to adapt your lifestyle as much as you can and as much as you can afford!