Acedia underlies global warming

It's all too much.
It’s all too much.

Have you ever asked yourself how we have ended up with the problems of global warming? Or what stops us from solving these issues? We have avoided resolution of the issues for more than 50 year now. The superficial issue of global warming is technological, but what keeps us stuck is emotional?

First of all, the issues are incredibly complex; they overwhelm our political, economic and ethical systems (see Reason In A Dark Time: Why The Struggle Against Climate Change Failed — And What It Means To Our Future) — witness the repeated failures or only limited success of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change COP meetings, most recently in Paris, December 2015 — a non-binding agreement to limit global warming to 2°C, hopefully to 1.5°C. Scientific American in April 2016 indicated “The average global temperature change for the first three months of 2016 was 1.48°C” — and that does not include normal overshoot as the system stabilizes (see here for excellent visual representations of how all this has occurred since 1880).

But it’s only 1.5 degrees — so what. Well, look around at the superstorms and the changing weather patterns. They are only the beginning of potential “natural” disasters, at a temperature increase of less than 1.5 degrees. The earth is a very finely balanced ecosystem, with many feedback mechanisms to ensure stability, and we are exceeding the limits of these systems. It is likely that, by 2°C, we will have irreversible changes, including loss of at least 33% of all species on the planet (not yet us, though). By 3°, we could well be into run-away feedback loops that are not reversible, with almost certain loss of civilization for thousands of years, and perhaps our extinction.

But why? I know the issues are complex, and the propensity of modern life is to leave it to the experts. But why have we gotten to this dilemma in the first place? And why are we so passive about global warming? The scientific community is in agreement (at least 97% consensus), but the political morass wages on. Given all this, why do we not stand up and demand change? We actually do, in small ways: witness the Occupy movement, Avaaz, the many activists, but there is not the overwhelming process that we really need. Nor do the many small ways seem to be coming together in coordinated fashion.

So for the next few postings, I am going to be exploring what I believe is blocking us. Essentially I will propose that various features of acedia have been a major part of the problem.

It is possible that in the next few postings I will seem to be critical of almost every human being (including myself) in Western civilization. That is not my intention, but I do want to identify processes that affect almost everyone. Perhaps what I am identifying could be called “the elephants in the room that nobody talks about.” If you feel criticized, please understand that I have the deepest compassion for the struggles of living in the modern era.

The vast majority of people I know are good people — they do many good actions, but they are simply overwhelmed with too much stuff: too much information, too many demands, et cetera. In my book Acedia, I referred to a TED talk on apathy, and also suggested that the numerous subtle difficulties of modern life have become a form of trauma, constantly wearing us down. And in all this, to pay attention to the demands of global warming has just become another demand, especially when confused by the dis-information regarding climate change.

I believe that these people get on with their lives hoping that somehow the “experts” will eventually fix the problem, but I remain doubtful. Over time, I have moved to the stance advocated by The Climate Mobilization as noted in my previous post: the personal costs will be high, but the risks are simply too great.

I suggest there are three mechanisms at play:

  • collective behaviour of groups: in order to act (and overcome fear of criticism), human beings need to exceed a certain threshold of anxiety
  • acedia: a human characteristic is the risk of laziness, fearfulness, and/or self-righteousness as a way to avoid painful experience
  • evil: a more important human characteristic is that which deliberately sabotages movement towards health

In some fashion, acedia is part of all three. I will be commenting on each of these in the next few posts.

Coming next: The threshold of overcoming anxiety

Jamieson, D. (2014). Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed — and What It Means for Our Future. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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