If we see the human condition as an evolutionary outgrowth of three qualities, then natural selection within a group favoured one of these qualities: selfish individualism. “But natural selection between groups favoured two empathic traits — cooperation and altruism — that serve the ‘human spirit’ and our remarkable social cohesion.”
by John Stanley & David Loy
I would be absolutely astounded if population growth, industrialisation and all the stuff we are pumping into the atmosphere hadn’t changed the climatic balance. Of course it has. There is no valid argument for denial.
— David Attenborough
The basic matter is not one of economics. It is a matter of morality — a matter of intergenerational justice. The blame, if we fail to stand up and demand a change of course, will fall on us, the current generation of adults. Our parents honestly did not know that their actions could harm future generations. We, the current generation, can only pretend that we did not know.
— James Hansen
Since Palaeolithic times at least, indigenous human cultures have maintained rituals that express a sacred relationship to the living world. Why did these spiritual-ecological instincts have survival value for our ancestors? Biologist David Suzuki has pointed out that humans are fundamentally spiritual animals who need to know that we emerge from nature and return to it when we die.
Our affinity with nature is apparent in the fascination and delight of children with plants, animals and the natural world — an appreciation not limited to young people of course. The powerful links between a mature love of nature, the capacity for spiritual transcendence, and our moral sense have an emotional resonance that can leave us lost for words. Today, however, those links are threatened in an unprecedented way.
Climate changes everything
In 2012 the world crossed an ominous threshold. A reading of 400 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide was recorded by monitoring stations across the Arctic. That is at least 50ppm higher than the maximum concentration during the last 12,000 years, a limit that allowed us to develop agriculture and civilization. We have already begun to experience a significantly more chaotic climate that reflects this altered composition of our atmosphere.
Extreme heat, dustbowl drought, stunted crops and massive wildfires have reduced a third of the continental United States to an official disaster zone. Like Russia in 2010, the U.S in 2012 is losing a large proportion of major food crops to climate change.
The eminent agronomist Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute expects the shortfall in the U.S. corn and soybean harvest to be about 96m tonnes. At home, increased costs for animal feed mean higher prices for milk, meat, and processed foods based on corn and soy. Price rises on the international grain market will have a major negative impact on poor countries in Africa and South America, where many people spend most of their personal income on food.
The fossil fuel industry, in collusion with the corporate media, has presided over a propaganda triumph that is devastating agriculture on a global scale. Agriculture has been described as “the quintessential human activity,” so a central truth of climate change is now evident for all to see. Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu, among others, have pointed out that poor people in the Third World have been suffering these effects for years, and called for Climate Justice. But the climate wrecking-ball will not be confined to the Third World. The composition of Earth’s atmosphere is a universal influence for rich and poor countries alike. What a stable climate gives, global warming takes away: first agriculture, then civilization.
Extreme weather pattern damage to American agriculture this year may amount to a $50 billion “economic event.” Although that scale of loss is getting the belated attention of large corporate interests in food production, insurance, and beyond, it should command everybody’s attention now. But as our most prescient climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen, points out above, the basic challenge is much more than economic. Rather, it is the most consequential moral issue before us as a civilization.
Our children are our future
A natural conviction held by every previous generation is that our children are our future. How can our globalized society sleepwalk into such an unprecedented betrayal of intergenerational justice? A paper published this year in the premier science journal Nature by 22 international experts compares our current human impact on the planet with global events eons ago that caused mass extinctions and permanently altered the biosphere. We are “forcing another such transition, with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience”.
We need to ask ourselves: in whose interest are we sacrificing that ancient contract with the future of our species? Why can’t we wake up, find the courage to face the facts, and throw off the dominion of the fossil fuel complex? That kind of authentic challenge would re-invigorate the human spirit, rather than depleting it through a collective trance of consumerism and denial induced by the “mainstream” media.
Morality and ethics are our survival factors
As the evolutionary biologist Edward Wilson shows in his magisterial new book The Social Conquest of Earth, human nature has three major traits, resulting from our evolutionary heritage. This triad defines the character of our species — what we could also call “the human condition.” Natural selection within a group favoured selfish individualism. But natural selection between groups favoured two empathic traits —cooperation and altruism —that serve the “human spirit” and our remarkable social cohesion.
Within the individual and society, struggles between selfish individualism and collaboration or altruism are inevitable. The daily “news” chosen for our consumption is a repetitive story of corruption, theft, violence, warfare — and the latest environmental “accident.” These dispiriting pathologies of hyper-individualism run riot in a landscape of broken cooperation. The philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris believes “the issue of human cooperation seems almost the only one worth thinking about.” Ethics and morality, he states, are interchangeable names for deliberately thinking about it.
Yet humans are the most social of animals. Our altruistic instinct is so strong that it has created large, highly valued niches for its expression, such as medicine, education, and other helping professions. Altruistic activity is one of the most potent factors that can strengthen a person’s immune system and boost longevity by a third or more. No wonder we honor self-sacrifice for the group with the most solemn of ceremonies. Altruism and cooperation are two key survival factors for our species.
The human right to a safe climate
Climate chaos represents an enormous threat to a host of human rights: the right to food, to water and sanitation, to social and economic development. U.N. rapporteur Olivier de Schutter suggests that human rights courts should treat climate change as an immediate threat to our basic rights. They should impose a duty to cooperate on the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, insisting governments end their corrupt relationship with fossil fuel corporations and build a post-carbon society now. Because climate changes everything, the global emergency requires that a new article be added to the Declaration, specifying the human right to a safe climate. Let us see who would oppose or seek to undermine it.
Dismantling the zero-empathy trap
The dominant institution of our age is the global business corporation. When well-documented examples of corporate behavior were examined by psychiatrist Robert Hare, they corresponded to traits of psychopathy — in humans, a genetically-based condition involving zero-empathy. Individual psychopaths feel no spontaneous empathy, but know how to feign it in order to manipulate others for their own benefit. Their conduct is typically relentless, Machiavellian and “without conscience” — the title of Hare’s classic book on the subject.
The fate of coming generations depends on recovering our power to choose a human future. Of course, not all corporations act as if they were psychopaths. Yet the record shows that some leading fossil fuel companies possess a lethal combination of wealth, power to corrupt, and destructive intent. They have spent huge sums of money to undermine climate science, control major political institutions, and install “the best government money can buy.” Their dominance has become our ticket to runaway global warming, collapse and mass extinction.
The alternative, as Thom Hartmann points out, is to rewrite or revoke the corporate charters of delinquent companies. But where can we find the truth and courage to dismantle this systemic zero-empathy trap? Our evolutionary biology has equipped us with special resources for survival: altruism, cooperation, love of nature and moral being. They are defining elements of the human spirit. Our species will not survive unless we bring them to bear now on the climate crisis.
This article was first published on Huffington Post, August 2012.