While sitting in my environmental science class today and watching my professor get near-hysterical in his assertions that climate change is a hoax and the mass media lies and the newspapers lie about temperatures hitting record highs and climate change scientists lie and their studies are lies and they’re all bought and paid for (perhaps by a foreign bogeyman intent on crippling our industrial sector and national borders by forcing well-meaning politicians to divert vast funds from the defense budget to the meddling and ineffective processes of industrial regulation [to which I may only remark LOL]), I had the following thought: How is it possible to deny something whose existence is apparent and observable all around? How can you shut your eyes so firmly and thrust your fingers so far into your ears as to drown out the reality of a situation simply because you don’t like the conclusion?
What forces lead us to deceive ourselves? Chief among tbem, it seems, is our defiant denial of our own limitations. Man, despite his insistence to the contrary, is not a rational beast. While he may possess and display elements of wisdom and acumen and rationality at times, he frequently reacts to stimuli in diametric opposition to the expected logical and appropriate response. He is hasty, easily-swayed, emotional, biased. In a word, he is imperfect. If we simply push on the right emotional buttons, play the right advertising jingles, whisper the right words, and flash the right symbols in the right order, Man can be easily convinced to act against his own best interests. Worse still, even when confronted with the fact that he has been manipulated and taken for a fool, he may still turn away in arrogance, a slave to his own suppositions, false convictions, and refusal to believe in his own fallibility. It is this belief in our own superiority that is hazardous not only to ourselves, but to our neighboring humans, animals, plants, and indeed the very earth on which we depend for our survival.
What then blinds us to the reality of our existence as limited beings? How is it that the New Atheists can clamor that we are nothing but meaningless clusters of nerve endings and hormones and muscles and tissues, while justifying their view that we (or rather, they and those of their ilk who align themselves politically and intellectually with them) are the just and rightful inheritors of this earthly kingdom? Here we could perhaps blame the implicit rhetoric of modernity and the pseudo-religion Science. We have been conditioned to believe that the scientific, technological, and industrial discoveries and innovations we benefit from today are evidence not merely of advancements in the understanding of the empirical realm, but fundamental and permanent refinements in human intellect and morality.
Is it not true that we see as primitive and backwards those poor, dark, sweaty, flea-bitten people crouching on dirt floors and scraping a living from the land? Do we not see them as perhaps “less human” or even “less than human”? Do we not fret to free them from their chains and educate them and bring them into the light that is running water and indoor plumbing and consumer goods? The question that never seems to arise is how we came to believe that the presence of luxury and comfort is indicative of a “more advanced” society. A scarier thought, when the whirring and whizzing and flashing of technological progress are stripped away, in what ways is Western society actually more advanced?* Certainly, we are advanced in our consumption of resources and fuel, the copious amounts of waste we produce, the exorbitant amounts of food waste we produce per year, the pollution our average household emits, etc. etc.
But is it true that, by virtue of the fact that we are now able to control the ambient temperature in our homes with the turn of a dial and soar in the skies and travel miles in moments and manipulate activity at a cellular level and predict storms before they happen and construct lofty towers and because we have traveled to the Moon and back, we have somehow transcended our lowly mortal origins and become lofty gods? Have our technological progresses, impressive as they may be, somehow fundamentally altered our nature? Looking at modern man, do we not find that all of us [yours Wuggliest included] are still for the most part petulant, fussy, fickle, unreasonable, greedy, short-sighted, and conniving? Do we not get tired or cranky or miserable or angry or jealous anymore? And at the end of our short, brilliant lives, don’t we all die and rot in the dirt?
Knowing all this, how then can we presume that the current understanding and ordering of the world (which itself is not an immortal and absolute ideal but a product of our physical, historical, and intellectual environment) is superior, not only to the understanding of our current contemporaries (i.e. everyone else living today), but to the understanding of all men and women that ever lived? Is this anything but simple hubris?
What I don’t understand is how we continue to forge ahead with this reckless abandon, assured of the correctness of our actions, our inner workings unexamined, our eyes fixed only on the soaring profits, stomping out of bounds, crushing countries and human lives under our thumb, consuming rivers and land and trees like locusts, racing each day closer toward the apocalypse. I wonder if I will be alive to see the sun rise from the West, shivering and wet and frightened from the lightning and the sound of the sky being torn apart, clinging to the trunk of a tree and wishing I had sent some good ahead for myself.
*As an aside: As far as those classical indicators of well-being–Contentment, social connection, family bonds, close friends, health, feelings of industry and productivity–where do we young folk stand? Do we have secure, strong attachments to other human beings or do we shuffle silent and alone with downcast eyes from car to parking lot to work and back to our empty apartments every evening? Do we feel our days are spent engaged in productive enterprise or are we mentally drained and hunched from long hours spent stooped over a glowing screen appearing busy with the niggling fear that our waking hours are largely wasted? Do we have high hopes for starting a family or are we increasingly disenchanted and disheartened not only with ourselves but with our narcissistic, maladjusted, commitment-phobic peers? Do we have decent financial prospects or have we found the market for even entry-level jobs bloated with a glut of college degrees and the threat of replacement by a machine ever-looming on the horizon? Will we ever be able to settle down, or will globalizing market forces drive the cost of labor further and further down until we are all at last migrant workers? Do our heaps of material belongings successfully mask our unease about the emptiness of our lives? Do we feel compelled to drink and take drugs and binge on entertainment to numb ourselves and escape the stresses of daily existence? Do we suffer astronomical rates of mental illness heretofore unknown in the general population? When you reflect, do we not rush through life more as sheep than man, bleating blindly and chasing the latest fashion or food or music concert in hopes that this one here this very one will finally offer absolution and ultimate satisfaction we have been searching for our entire lives?