We need to be better people
By Pete Field
Would you torture your own children? Would you destroy their future? Would you sell out your family and friends for cash? If you could, would you wipe out the world?We love those films where the forces of good destroy the evil psychopath’s plan for world domination. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different: we are not as good as we think we are.
The human dilemma faces us at every turn: shall I do what I want now, or be good, wait and have my reward later? In the case of climate change the reward means a planet we can survive on in the future, a sustainable society, one our children and their children can enjoy living on. If we are to forego something to achieve this goal we want to be sure the game is worth the candle. We want to know that our action will be worth it. This requires belief, a lot of belief in the quality of the information we are using to help us make decisions. Hence the vast spending by oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil to convince the public that climate science was flawed.
Now that people have finally accepted climate science the oil companies are touting the need to keep using oil alongside renewables, with natural gas as a ‘bridging fuel’ and coal as a solid backup. Of course we need to stop carbon emissions and the best way to do this is to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Oil majors cannot bear the pain of giving up huge profits nor do they want to lose the investments they have already made so it’s business as usual for most of them, even though they know that these actions will destroy human civilisation by making the planet into an uninhabitable eco-disaster.
How interesting: shareholders and company executives are prepared to doom the world and all who live on it, including themselves and all their friends and relatives, for a few more years of easy profits. Should we call this addiction? Intelligent, well-educated people are quite prepared to devote their lives to accomplishing the destruction of the only life-supporting planet in the known universe, and to trash the human achievements of millennia while utterly destroying the natural world. If they leave their cash to their kids what will those kids spend it on? A bunker with ten thousand tins of baked beans in it?
There will be no joy in the post-apocalyptic world of heavy-duty climate change. It will be hot, but not happy.
There will be no joy in the post-apocalyptic world of heavy-duty climate change. It will be hot, but not happy. Birds will not sing. Trees and plants will not grow. It will be a scorched desert in some places. In others rainfall will be unremitting, floods will wash the land away. Hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes will be common. There won’t be anything nice to spend your money on because when society is on its knees the cocktails, the lovely meals, the beautiful views, the goods and services will simply not be available. Only a person with no imagination and no conscience could think that world destruction is a worthwhile result of doing their job.
Even for those of us who dither between endless small choices: eat meat or give it up; cycle or drive, car or train, fly on holiday or not, daily life is like the marshmallow experiment: you have to decide either to have what you want now or wait for a deferred reward. In fact, it is worse because instead of waiting two minutes and getting a second marshmallow that you can then eat with the first one you saved, in real life you dither endlessly wondering if the politicians, writers and snake-oil salesmen are right about these thousands of choices and their eco-fitness. And where’s the reward? So what do you do? You become a skilled equivocator. You learn bad faith. And you just get the dribs and drabs of fun that come your way. Nothing fancy either way. You settle for a compromise.
I will appear to be good and claim to myself that I am good, but I will not pay too much attention to what is going on. I will not get involved. If I see too much and I know too much I will have to take risks or change. The Good Samaritan was an independently wealthy businessman with time to spare, we tell ourselves. He was not a zero-hours data-entry clerk who would get docked a morning’s pay for being five minutes late and lose his job for missing an hour. Someone else can sort that out, if it really needs it.
criminals, who are the most selfish and violent of us, manage modern day slavery.
So where do we end up? Let’s look at something most of us do – work. Work is an expression of our value system and criminals, who are the most selfish and violent of us, manage modern day slavery. Just slightly inside the UK law is the zero-hours contract, and what a brilliant wheeze it is! I am the employer. I guarantee you the worker nothing but the vague suggestion of work at some point, but if you put a foot wrong I will sack you. Leaving aside the question of whether you can actually be sacked from a job which offers you virtually nothing and is merely a legalized form of slavery, we have to ask how Parliament, the religions, the Trade Unions and all the other people who say they care appear to have had precisely NO effect on the existence of this evil and insulting method of exploiting people. We look the other way. We cannot be bothered. And we are the ‘first world’. The wealthy part. The part where laws are supposed to work. The part with human rights.
they will sacrifice the future of the entire planet for a few more years with their snouts in the trough
Like the Exxon-Mobil people who predicted climate change and then set out to destroy public belief in science with US presidential backing we are slaves in the service of money. Self-serving comfort is our main aim so we will not rock the boat. And we all know you can rock the boat of the poor but if you rock the boats of the rich you will be quickly pushed overboard and knocked on the head with a boathook. Who will tell the ‘wealth-creators’ not to exploit the poor? Not me, boss!
To create a sustainable planet is going to be hard for us because our modus operandi is to take what we can and never mind what happens after that. We push the costs out onto somebody else in order to increase our own profits. Companies routinely pollute the earth, air and water and exploit the people in and around them. As private citizens we also throw out our plastics, our exhaust fumes, our rubbish and emissions. We all externalize the costs to make a bigger profit for ourselves. Large scale or small scale: we are all playing the same game. The oil companies are big players: they will sacrifice the future of the entire planet for a few more years with their snouts in the trough. Employers routinely pay as little as possible and demand as much work as they can possibly squeeze out of the worker. Many deals are legal only because law and government work alongside big money to allow injustice to occur. As private citizens we try to shit on the neighbour’s doorstep, rather than our own. But shit we do!
We are crackheads: our own pleasure now this minute is far more important than our own welfare and survival in the future
The level of egalitarianism, financial justice, in our society correlates well with our ability to understand complex ideas and prepare for an ecologically sound future. In the UK, the most unequal country in Europe, public awareness is low, the country looks inward, self-obsessed and xenophobic, unable to learn easily from the outside world. The government routinely lies to and cheats the people, believing that propaganda can replace intelligent, properly funded, well-organised action. Corruption is rife. Interestingly, the search for profit from green energy has led to determined action by business while the government lags behind, ill-informed and surprised. Prime Minister Boris Johnson famously said that wind power couldn’t take the skin off a rice pudding: like many ignorant right-wing people he thought that burning fossil fuels gave a stronger class of energy than green power.
And who knows that hydrogen gives you twice the bang for your buck of any oil-based fuel? Boris has since done a U-turn on wind power, though everyone is waiting to see if legal and financial support materialize. This is a typical twenty-first century mess: when we need massive, well-informed and determined government action to change the game and hurry in the clean fuels we need, what do we get instead? Fudging; delays; misappropriation of funds. The UK government is encouraging HS2, the notoriously divisive and expensive high-speed rail project to get people from London to Birmingham slightly faster. Do we need this? No, we need zero-emission fuel-cell hydrogen trains with low fares (of free) to get people out of their cars. We need H2 vehicle charging points across the country, electric charging, cheap or free clean, regular bus services.
We need H2 vehicle charging points across the country, electric charging, cheap or free clean, regular bus services.
If you were the government and somebody told you that your road expansion scheme is more expensive than giving the entire population free travel on public transport, you might consider free transport as a possible solution to help fight the climate crisis, right? Not if you were in the pockets of the roadbuilding and car lobbyists! Solving the climate crisis does not count compared to satisfying rich people who will fund your political party. How will your party get on when the climate wipes out the world economy? The politicians simply do not believe the scientists. They cannot grasp the reality. The money is real. The other stuff is just data.
And the Covid pandemic? We need a test and trace system for Covid. Other countries have done it, but do we look at them? No, we are oblivious to their success. Instead the government shoehorns the test and trace into the private enterprise system, doling out millions with no tendering to dubious businesses run by their friends, regardless of whether they can produce or not. The pandemic drags on, strangling the economy. No price is too high for people wedded to neoliberal ideology. The British right will happily give up most of the country’s economic activity to keep its botched Covid plan – or indeed give up British trade with Europe over the sticking point of ‘the regulations’. Ministers refuse to guarantee current standards in law: there can only be one reason. The plan to lower them in order to make deals with people who have lower standards! Read the Americans and the Chinese. The aim is to keep the vote. Whose vote? The vote of people as stupid as they are. We will saw the legs off our economy to fit it on the Procrustean bed of far-right ideology. Does the government care for the voter? Not really because soon they plan to make a state where the voter is irrelevant.
The plan to lower them in order to make deals with people who have lower standards! Read the Americans and the Chinese
The Dunning-Kruger effect explains a lot about all of us: people perform poorly in areas where they lack knowledge and experience and then, because they lack knowledge they can’t see their own mistakes. Are we in Britain people who ‘won’t be told what to do’ or just people incapable of understanding that international trade is based on mutually agreed standards? In any case, for ‘freedom’ no sacrifice is too great, so long as someone else is making it. For the super-rich who run the UK the risks are small, and if the UK becomes unpleasant they merely have to take a private jet to their second homes because they all have golden visas to the countries they might one day need to call home. It is the poor who are stuck with the results and have to feel the pain. Just like climate change.
This is our problem with the future: we are blinkered. We cannot imagine the disaster which is already at our door. We are unable to see the successes of other nations, other companies, other people and learn from them. We doggedly stick to what we know. We believe in money. We stick to familiar ways. We cannot see outside our culture, whether it be our national culture or our personal culture. We stick to driving to work, though we should maybe move nearer to work instead, or work at home or go by bike or train. We fly to the sun on holiday. We even take eco-holidays in Costa Rica that involve jetting across half the world. Politicians cheerfully order massive coalmining programmes (India and Australia); chop down the Amazon (Brazil), deny climate change (USA) – and somehow people still vote for these mad characters.
UK becomes unpleasant they merely have to take a private jet to their second homes because they all have golden visas to the countries they might one day need to call home
We all know the cartoon of the man sawing away a branch – the branch he is sitting on. We think it is funny. How can anyone be so stupid? But we are all just like that, sawing away as fast as we can. Our children will suffer. Do we care? Obviously not, because if we did we would take wholehearted action to save their future. Doesn’t that put us in the same boat as the oil executives who will sacrifice the world? We will sacrifice our children’s world and pretend to ourselves that there was nothing we could do about it. Experts at self-deception, masters of scores of different types of mental bias, rather than change a few comfortable habits which are probably not even good for us we cheerfully commit our very own children to the torture of life in an increasingly desperate and dying world. As nature is falling to pieces around us right now how can we think that our children will be safe and happy thirty years on? Simple: don’t think about it! We are crackheads: our own pleasure now this minute is far more important than our own welfare and survival in the future. We pretend to love our children, but despite our protestations we love our comforts more. The seeds of destruction are sown, deep in the fertile soil of our own character.
we cheerfully commit our very own children to the torture of life in an increasingly desperate and dying world
What do we do instead of action? We fudge it. Ignorance and injustice go hand in hand and social problems quickly follow. We tolerate appalling levels of injustice all around us. It’s nobody’s business really! We vote for governments which create inequality. Inequality creates poverty and injustice. We look away. Why are we so keen to vote for rich people who despise us? If you are rich in the UK and you want to avoid the heavy new taxes that the European Union is about to impose on you, have no fear! Get some tame demagogues and the frothing right-wing press to teach the masses that it’s all the fault of Johnny foreigner. Kick him out and beat him up. Let’s not take rules from Europe: we will make our own! Several years of pandemonium later the job is done. Rich people’s money is safe. Britain is severed from the EU so now it can finally go ahead and build the Tory New Jerusalem, making its own rules in a race to the bottom in which no standard is left unlowered, no barrel unscraped. With the freedom to act unconstrained by Europe or by shame the government and its buddies then go on to break the rules (see if anyone cares – can they do anything about it – no!) and then to also break the law. We will be free to be governed by a band of incompetent fools who acknowledge no law but their own power. Brilliant! The rich are happy and the rest are miserable. Any solution to the impending climate crisis out of all this? Engineers are working on it, no thanks to the government.
We will be free to be governed by a band of incompetent fools who acknowledge no law but their own power. Brilliant!
Does it matter, this inequality, this climate emergency? Right now maybe not, if you are comfortably off and Covid has not yet destroyed your family, your job or your business. But in the long run our heedless attitude, our wilful ignorance and our lack of solidarity with both people and nature is slowly bringing the scissors of Fate closer to the threads of our lives. Nature is on its knees. Climate change is nothing more than a big black box experiment: put these chemical, physical and biological inputs in at one end and you will get those inevitable outputs out at the other! The laws of chemistry, physics and biology guarantee that if you put a fair bit of shit in one end and let it brew for a while you will in due course get a cataclysmic shitstorm at the other. The universe is paying us back in our own coin. It is a judgement. Not the whimsical judgement of the old boy up top who will go easy on you if you build a cathedral: this is the real thing: the actions of the human race throughout its whole existence are being weighed in the scales of the universe, the laws of nature are merely responding to what we put in. Our greatest art is self-deception, but this time there is nowhere to run and nobody but ourselves, the rich industrial world, to blame. What could we do to mitigate this now? Maybe I can hope the doomsayers are wrong. Maybe scientists will put an umbrella is space? Maybe not! How about these concrete actions, just for a start. You will hate them.
nature is slowly bringing the scissors of Fate closer to the threads of our lives. Nature is on its knees.
What can you actually do to help save the planet?
Don’t have children or if you can’t help it, not more than one. Dump the car and don’t buy another. Oil companies will change their tunes when they lose their market. Get an electric or a fuel cell car. Half of all car journeys are under to miles so what about walking? Bicycle, bus and train can cover the rest. Stop flying. Insulate and triple glaze your home. When clean heating or cooling tech arrives, try to get hold of it or demand we get the government to install it across the nation. Have holidays near your house. Wear natural fibres. Eat locally produced food and grow your own. Stop eating processed food and junk. Pack in the meat. Turn down the heating and wear more clothes in the house. Stop using so much electricity and so many appliances. Stop buying useless rubbish that falls to bits. Have three or four sets of clothes like our ancestors did. Avoid fashion. Keep the same phone for years or dump it. Come to that, try living like we did in the nineteen-fifties, but without the coal and the prejudice!
Need I go on? And of course try to constantly remind the elected leaders that their job is not actually to help rich people make more money at the cost of everyone else’s welfare and survival. Take direct action to stop projects which threaten our future. Even if we get unlimited clean energy our divisive and aggressive consumerism is still unsustainable.
Smart people are making smart appliances, but nobody really knows whether the world can handle the demands our intense and fast-growing over-consumption places upon it. Climate change will hit the world’s poorest – the ones who did least to create it – first. And as their lands become less habitable they will want to go where things are still OK. Africa will go north. Will we welcome them as brothers and sisters and apologise for ruining their already wretched lives? Of course not: we will view them as alien invaders and machine gun them by the dozen as they drown in the freezing waters off our European coasts. The final injustice of the colonizing power is to wipe out the very climate that has hitherto sustained us all, in the belief that we alone are immune and we are going to get away with it.
As fires blaze through Australia and the USA even a few on the lunatic right are beginning to wonder if the climate change thing might not be more than just a left-wing conspiracy theory. Having said that, the people who believe in Q-Anon are not well placed to have opinions on, well, anything. Quite possibly, the human race, the one that named itself sapiens, is just too utterly dim to survive. We will be the only species in the history of the planet to kill itself and most of the others through sheer stupidity alone. Our violent and greedy abuse of our fellow lifeforms has now back come to haunt us all.
people who believe in Q-Anon are not well placed to have opinions on, well, anything.
There is no-one so arrogant as the truly stupid fellow. Isn’t it that the Dunning-Kruger effect? “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” as Darwin said. We overestimate our own capabilities and fail to understand what expertise is. We can’t see what we don’t know or understand so we denigrate and undervalue it. We did not understand nature or our place in it. Last time we cared about nature and feared it is when we were pagans. Equally under-informed but going in a better direction and with a much smaller population! The smaller the human population, the more margin for error. A huge, technologized, high-consumption and interconnected population is like an overloaded boat: it doesn’t take much to tip it over.
We have failed to love each other. Our history is merely a record of wars, oppression, slavery and genocides.
We have failed to love each other. Our history is merely a record of wars, oppression, slavery and genocides. We failed to love the planet. We failed to appreciate the life-saving virtues of egalitarianism, we failed to heed the message of art and nature and learn to appreciate beauty all around us. Instead we made art a part of the capitalist system and threw nature into a skip. We have failed in so many ways and yet we know we are capable of more than corruption and failure. We need to understand the heart of wisdom. Collecting data is no use unless we can create knowledge. Knowledge is no use until we have discernment to know how to apply it. Applying it is impossible until we have the personal qualities and cooperative abilities required to make things actually work.
we made art a part of the capitalist system and threw nature into a skip
To survive we need to change. We need to be better people. Kinder, more loving, more deeply appreciative of nature and each other. We need to be frugal yet generous, gentle yet firm and committed. We have to stop bullshitting, especially to ourselves. We have to look reality in the eye. We need only one great ideal: to save ourselves as part of the web of natural life. There are no safe bunkers, long term, only delayed death in a harsher more difficult world. So we can start now. Bring down the temperature: buy less and do less but make it good quality. Eat only healthy unprocessed food. Don’t buy junk products. How come the Austrian government can legislate to remove ecologically damaging products from the shops? Because they want to. Anything that cannot be recycled or re-used or is not energy-efficient must be banned. If you all demand something then eventually your government will give in and do it.
And eat less. We eat too much then we throw food away. Nearly all of us are overweight and suffering from the diseases of affluence. Avoid rubbish food and drink. Most of what is in the supermarket is unhealthy crap. Make McDonald’s go out of business. It should never have existed. And now we know more about the effects of business on nature we can see where change is needed. Allowing our filthy economy to proceed in its present form will accelerate climate change, which is the equivalent of taking your grandchildren, tying them to a rock and waiting for the tide to come up and drown them.
build flatpack democracy, bottom up
Status should not depend on financial wealth or possessions. We should accord status to those who do good and help us out of the mess. Start by sacking the government and the local council. Refuse to listen to demagogues who stoke fear and hate, but leave you with nothing. Instead build flatpack democracy, bottom up, people you trust. Insist upon social justice and a more egalitarian society. And stop listening to the snake-oil salesmen. Nobody’s going to pop down and save you. Maybe greater awareness, compassion and sensitivity might help, but you will have to stop reading those rubbish newspapers and get off your backside. That way we will build the power, the solidarity and the mindset we need to survive, with nature, into the next century and, maybe, beyond. The way we live now is not sustainable, but a better future is possible if we are better people.
‘Can I be bothered?’ That is the question.
Pete Field graduated from Oxford University with a passion for all things French. He began his peripatetic life working as the assistant to a lumberjack in the Pyrenees. He is a translator a teacher and an artist. He has lived and worked in Italy, Germany, Spain, France, The UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The author doesn’t live in Sussex