The two faces of (un)sustainability

The climate crisis doesn’t exist. Even if temperatures rise up to 4 degrees, life on this planet will still flourish. Though with less humans flourishing. The climate crisis is a human crisis. It’s a result of what has changed the planet in ways nothing ever has before: the human mind.

In contrast to my dog’s mind, the human mind lets us understand that our life is finite. It also lets us understand that life in itself doesn’t have meaning, despite the meaning we give it. Smart as we are, we therefore invented stories. Like religion and myth. They relieve us of this double-whopper pain that finiteness and meaninglessness bring along. The stories tell us that our _true_ self is immortal. They tell us that we are part of a greater whole that endures our small (in)significant life. Often, these stories are contradictory. And often, they are based on mere beliefs which makes our need to defend them strong. Conflicts result.

The dominating story humanity currently hangs on to goes like this: Technological progress lets us grow infinitely and each one of us can benefit from this growth. Unfortunately, infinite growth is tied to finite resources. Yet, this is the story that has given our lives meaning and helped us to make sense of the world. It unites us in one goal: strive for more and better. But as material growth hits a ceiling, so does our idea of giving this approach meaning. For many of us this story ceases to make sense. The idea of progress itself is starting to crumble. The meaninglessness of our actions contributing to the story reveals itself. Not only that the story doesn’t make us as happy as we hoped it would, it also destroys the planet. The climate crisis then shows us that we actually have a crisis in drawing meaning from the world as it is. The rise in depression and loneliness might be one indicator for this crisis.

Our response to the meaning crisis

Our response to the meaning crisis is the search for meaning elsewhere. Often, this leads us to a romanticised past and magical thinking. In the past, everything was beautiful and perfect and we lived in harmony with the more than human world. Peace, happiness, harmony. “Früher war alles besser”, as my imaginary grandpa used to say. “Everything was better in the past”. Whereas some want to regress to a pre-modern mode of living, it seems many more attempt to regress to pre-modern times of thinking, when gods and spirits were the way to go. New Age is the age to be. Instead of scientific reasoning and logic, they revive magical thinking*. Instead of god, they have the universe in which are all one. Although the common scientific approach — as we understand and use it thus far — is insufficient to understand the world, magical thinking is not helping either. There are some things we don’t know and probably never can. Leaving us with nothing and thus contributing to our inability to make sense of what’s going on. Whereas magical thinking tries to prove something that likely (most likely / maybe / probably / might / who knows if) does not exists, we do the exact opposite with the problems arising form growth and progress**. We try to un-see something that likely (very likely / for sure / clearly / obviously / everyone knows) DOES exist: the climate crisis.

Our response to the climate crisis

Our response to the climate crisis is to take the whole thing and to divide it in small, technocratic pieces. This way, we can ignore the root cause and deal with something that seems manageable, controllable, known. But the climate crisis is multi-dimensional: the atmosphere, the biosphere and the microsphere all suffer at the same time. They are entangled and enforce each other. It’s very likely that all three have to be addressed at the same time to improve. Mechanical solutions that address only part of the problem might lead to even further problems. This has been seen again and agin, it’s what makes a complex system complex. We have no control of the side effects and often no idea about the tale risks.

By focusing on partial endeavours, we can hold on to our meaning making: technology will fix it. We don’t have to question our way of living and being. We hold on to the illusion that we don’t need to change, pretending that infinite growth is no problem, that we don’t need a new meaning, because we can always have new technology. Some belief this. Many don’t. It’s dawning on us that it is an illusion. But by holding on to the idea pf progress, we also pretend that there is no need to question our way of being and thinking. That the root cause is merely physical and not meta-physical. That the meta-physical doesn’t need revision.

A response to the human crisis

When we recognise that the climate crisis is actually a human crisis, we can systematically search for possibilities of meaning and sense making. Many of us do this already on an individual level. But it is not an individual endeavour. It is a human endeavour that should be guided and be central to political and public discourse. A first step to do this is to acknowledge and to become aware that there actually is a meaning crisis. To acknowledge that the physical is intertwined with the meta-physical. That our actions are guided by the stories that we belief. It’s where the physical meets the meta-physical. Where the psychological meets the practical. Where the individual meets the collective. It’s a possibility for humanity to stir us in a new direction.

More practically, this means that we face reality as it is — climate change and all — and find useful ways to respond to it. Some might say that this is what we are doing already. But it’s not. The political and psychological effort we take to NOT act accordingly is huge. We are busy talking, theorising, making plans about how to respond to the climate crisis. Instead of actually doing something, we waste our time and energy on outdated ideas. (1) The Age of Enlightenment has offered us mechanical solutions. Yet, despite ideas of green growth, we have not been able to prove yet, that more and forward can be achieved without an increase in resources. (2) Before Enlightenment — to speak simplistically — we had god. Yet, despite having beliefs, god hasn’t shown her face to us.

Both responses are based on old ways of thinking. It is likely that we can find meaning in this world unrelated to materiality or magical thinking. But to get there, we have to first stop pretending that the current course makes sense. What the new story will be, no one can know.

*This does not mean that spiritual phenomena don’t exist. Or that a greater power doesn’t exist. Fact is: we don’t know. Or at least I don’t.

**Progress can be understood in many ways. For example progress in ways of teaching. The way I use progress here, I refer to the common conception of progress tied to technological progress and it’s economic benefits.