There’s an episode of the 1970s comedy, Fawlty Towers, in which German visitors come to stay in the hotel. Basil Fawlty goes to great lengths to avoid any references to World War 2 (it was then barely 30 years after the end of the war).
Pandemonium ensues after he receives a blow to the head, and the concussed and now entirely uninhibited Fawlty goose-steps around the hotel in imitation of Der Fuhrer, to the consternation of his guests. So much for his plans that, at all costs, we “don’t mention the war”.
We are equipped with an amazing array of mechanisms with which we cope with the world around us. Take the example of people who live in a narrow valley downriver from a high dam. When pollsters ask these people how concerned they are about the risk of the dam bursting, as you might expect, those living furthest from the dam are least concerned. The closer you get to the dam, so the level of anxiety increases.
Then something amazing happens. When people living right under the dam and who can see it every day are asked the question, their reported level of anxiety is practically zero! They quite literally don’t give a dam. The reason is denial. That’s how our minds are designed to protect us from going insane in the face of constant anxiety. We just switch off.
As an individual, switching off may be good for you, especially if it prevents you from cracking up. But when entire societies – or human civilisation itself – is in collective denial and the anxieties it chooses to ignore are real and growing by the day, then you have a problem.
“Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold onto, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change”, says Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond. “Societies and individuals that succeed may be those that have the courage to take those difficult decisions, and have the luck to win their gambles” .
Diamond’s book. ‘Collapse – how societies choose to fail or survive‘ is probably the best contemporary handbook on the difficult choices that now urgently confront us. Diamond sets out examples from history of societies who have adapted to change and survived, and contrasts those whose values, politics or religious belief systems ultimately doomed them to failure and, the ‘E’ word, extinction.
The fate of the population of Easter Island has been closely studied by anthropologists as an example of a civilisation that in the short term was highly successful but in the longer run doomed them to almost total collapse.
“Global warming and many other human-driven changes to the environment are raising concerns about the future of Earth’s environment and its ability to provide the services required to maintain viable human civilisations”, according to Nobel laureate Paul J. Crutzen.
“The consequences of this unintended experiment of humankind on its own life support system are hotly debated, but worst-case scenarios paint a gloomy picture for the future of contemporary societies”.
Extinction is already a fact of life – and death – for tens of thousands of species. Right now, around 150 species are disappearing forever – every day. That’s around 1,000 times higher than the level that could be explained as occurring naturally.
“It seems so obvious now but I was surprised to find out that humans are facing an extinction crisis along with all other life; that we are not excluded from catastrophic events; that, in fact, we are the most vulnerable even though we have technology. We learned that the Earth is going to be fine. It’s us, human beings, that are in trouble”.
That was the verdict of Leila Conners Petersen, one of the makers of the film The 11th Hour. Yet it is almost impossible to mention the E word in conversation, and the media, especially here in Ireland, seem numbed and unaware.
Vincent Browne, David McWilliams, Kevin Myers and their fellow members of Ireland’s commentariat continue to obsess over the minutae of public affairs and economics as though all was, with a nudge here and an elbow there, well with the world.
Quite how such well read, and otherwise well informed people can have failed to register the defining issue of this and all future generations is baffling. Perhaps they too live directly under the dam? I can offer no other explanation for the collective thought and leadership failure on the part of the Irish media.
Britain isn’t much better, but at least the Independent, Guardian and even The Times regularly devote their entire front pages to climate and related ecological issues. The IPCC report late last year got blanket coverage in keeping with its apocalyptic message. But here? Just a slight ruffling of the surface for a few days, some worthy editorials about what we ‘must do’ – then it’s back to Business As Usual.
RTE’s radio and television panel discussions are chock full of economists, lawyers, trade unionists and journalists, all chipping in their sectional angle and all offering views that, had they been broadcast in 1998 or even 1988 would be fundamentally the same. And yet, nothing is the same. Nor will it ever be.
Don’t take anyone’s word for it: look at what the real experts are saying: Dr James Hansen. Dr Paul Crutzen, Dr Stephen Schneider, Prof Wolfgang Lucht, Dr Tim Flannery, Dr Stephen Hawking, David Attenborough, Prof JR McNeill, Clive Ponting, Jared Diamond, Rajendra Pachauri… the list goes on and on, and is studded with Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners; in other words, the world’s scientific and research elite.
If we won’t listen to them, who will we listen to? Would we rather bet our lives, our safety and our children’s future on the reassurances of the oil and coal industry lobbyists and the smooth talking economists who evangelise growth and globalisation at all costs?
In the end, perhaps it’s all down the E word. Are we able to truly accept that we, just like countless thousands of other species, face the prospect of actually going extinct – and act accordingly?
The ruling elite on Easter Island thought they knew better, as they cleared the island of the last of its forest cover to facilitate the construction of ever more elaborate monuments for their own edification and to honour their gods.
Of course these days we’re much smarter and more sophisticated, and today’s economic, political, media and religious elites and so much less venial and foolish…
Want to bet your life on it?