READ BY CHAPTER
Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution
6. Our Mindset
We have met the enemy,
and he is us.
The root of our predicament lies in our own minds.
Together, our myths, paradigms, and mental habits make up our mindset or worldview, a mental edifice that exists at both the individual and collective levels and functions as a link between them. Our mindset feeds back complexly with the entirety of the physical human world, shaping (and being shaped by) our systems of transportation, economy, food, education, community, entertainment, and warfare.
Our mindset tends to bias our assessment of our predicament, leading us to underestimate its depth and urgency. In addition to limiting our perception of the present, it limits our capacity to imagine possible futures. An effective response to our predicament must begin with our mindset. While it is not easy to perceive and change one’s mindset, it is possible, with dedicated practice.
The myth of progress
When I was a kid in elementary school, I spent hours playing Star Trek. My best friend pretended to be Kirk, and I pretended to be Spock (and my sister’s cat was a respected admiral, a “Catenesian”). For hours at a time, we zoomed around the galaxy at warp factor nine, exploring exotic planets inhabited by Romulans, green alien women, and other dangerous things. Our amazing 23rd-century technology saved us every time. We were playing the myth of progress.
A myth (Greek mythos, story or word) is a primal story that a society uses to understand its origin and relationship to the rest of the world. Our experience of myth is transparent: we aren’t typically aware of its influence in daily life, although that influence is profound. Myths help us make sense of the confusing world into which we’re born, and a challenge to them creates existential anxiety. We hold myths to be unquestionable and self-evident, and if they do happen to be challenged, we react defensively and emotionally. Societies or groups can have difficulty accommodating ideas that challenge their key myths.1
Myths can also make it more difficult to see alternatives to the way things are. As the French literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote, “Myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal.”2 We tend to believe that the way things are is how they must be. This is of course false—things could always be different—but such belief is a tremendously strong force, and of critical relevance to our predicament. Donella Meadows, lead author of Limits to Growth, wrote:
The shared idea in the minds of society, the great unstated assumptions—unstated because unnecessary to state; everyone knows them—constitute that society’s deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. There is a difference between nouns and verbs. People who are paid less are worth less. Growth is good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes. Evolution stopped with the emergence of Homo sapiens. One can “own” land. Those are just a few of the paradigmatic assumptions of our culture, all of which utterly dumbfound people of other cultures.3
Myths are just as prevalent in modern industrial society as in so- called primitive societies. Indeed, the myth of progress informs us4 that our industrial society is special precisely because we’ve finally transcended such primitive thought systems as myth and superstition.
But the myth of progress—a deep, subconscious belief that we’re more advanced than past peoples, and that in the future we’re certain to be even more advanced—has, ironically, become our most important modern superstition. Of course, this myth sounds thoroughly modern to our ears. For example, we might believe that They (the supernatural entity invoked by the incantation, “They will think of something”) will solve global warming with artificial photosynthesis, or solar panels, or thorium reactors. Whether or not this ends up being the case, our certainty that They will do this strikes me as superstitious, a kind of magical thinking or blind faith.
Indeed, progress has become a civil religion—a non-theistic belief system that provides the psychological benefits of religion, in this case by making technology sacred. We speak of technology saving us, and we have blind faith that it will. Some of us imagine a merging of man and machine in the not-so-distant future, in which we’ll live forever and fly without limits through the galaxy; some, that our salvation lies in leaving a dead Earth to colonize other planets. Is this a technological conceptualization of heaven? There’s a striking similarity between the iconic image of a fiery rocket rising into the heavens and the ascension of Christ.5
We find the assumption of perpetual social, economic, and technological progress reassuring, a sign that we’re on track as a species, that our contributions at work mean something. Either consciously or unconsciously, we extrapolate this progress to a future techno-utopia, allowing us to view today’s problems as temporary and justifying our too-often unsatisfying roles in society. Experts who make the case for perpetual progress tend to be popular, because their message resonates with our comforting myth. Of course, there’s no guarantee of perpetual progress. In the cycling of civilizations, there have been dark ages in the past. Who can say there won’t be dark ages in the future?
Over the last few hundred years in particular, though, technol- ogy has indeed progressed steadily. We’ve divided knowledge into focused disciplines, the singular domains of specialists. No one can begin to understand how it all works, and we don’t need to. After all, when my son Zane pricked his foot on a rose as a toddler and developed a life-threatening infection, I didn’t need to know how antibiotics work; I just needed to know that they work. Ironically, this state of affairs means that we tend to view the techno- logical specialists—scientists, doctors, digital gurus—through the lens of our superstition. Those experts are our shamans, in white lab coats.
And when actual science and the myth of progress collide, the myth wins. When an offering of science aligns with the myth— when science feels like progress—our culture celebrates it.6 But when an offering of science conflicts with the myth, our culture is likely to reject it.
Take global warming, which implies that our technological and economic growth are damaging the biosphere. In this case, science is telling us that technological and economic growth, far from lighting the way for future generations, is actually destroying their prospects. That somehow, fundamentally, human progress is threatening the totality of life on this planet. This message is, of course, deeply anti-progress; which helps to explain why something as scientifically clear as global warming7 can become politicized and challenged, especially by non-scientists.
Technology’s proper place
The word technology comes from two Greek words and means “the systematic treatment of arts and crafts.” Technology can be defined as the development and use of techniques and tools by an animal, with an intention to facilitate the relationship between the animal and matter (the animal’s environment). Technology can be used to procure food, security, and comfort. It can be used to make music or to record and remember information.
Many human technological innovations have been, and will continue to be, incredibly useful. I’d even go so far as to suggest that human survival depends on technology, and has done so since the advent of our species. Through the many twists and turns of evolution, our species ended up not with fur and powerful claws, but with community and technology. This has been a remarkably successful strategy—at least until now.
Today, however, the scale of human technology has clearly be- gun to influence the physics of the Earth system. The hundreds of millions of internal combustion engines running at this very moment are smothering the biosphere in their exhaust gases. In this sense, we need less technology, not more.
Furthermore, we can be selective in the technologies we choose to invite into our world. Much technology is worth keeping, but perhaps not all. We especially fetishize technologies that are talismanic of the myth of progress: for example, 3D printers, the Internet of Things, social media, virtual reality. Do these technologies truly make us happier? What about self-driving cars and voice assistants? Is this the world we really want to live in, or are there perhaps more interesting and kinder dimensions to explore? I’m not necessarily saying no to these technologies, only that we might want to question them more.
We also need to realize that our survival depends not just on technology, but on community as well. And many of the technol- ogies of petroculture replace or displace direct human interaction, strengthening the illusion that we are separate from each other, the illusion that it’s possible for anything to exist separately from everything else.
The myth of separation
A formative moment for me as a teenager growing up in suburban Chicago occurred while I was out walking one night. No one else was outside. Occasionally a car would swoosh by. From every house came the eerie blue synchronous flickering of television.
Something important was lacking, although at the time I wouldn’t have been able to articulate what it was. Suburban alienation un- consciously permeated my teenage years.
We construct lives for ourselves that maximize our separation: houses with fences in suburbs; cars; office cubicles; neighbors who don’t know one another’s names. The money system isolates us from each other. People disappear into television and video games for hours at a time. The American Dream itself can be viewed as the quest for perfecting this separation: once we make our millions, says the Dream, we can live at the top of our skyscraper and fly everywhere in our private jet.
All of these stories emerge from a second fundamental myth of industrial society: that each of us is a separate being in competition with everyone else. This zero-sum mindset colors our interactions with each other, with nature, and even with ourselves. It leads to anxiety, loneliness, and divorce. It leads to placing profit and convenience above all other values. It leads to fear, hatred, and violence.
Of course, at the superficial level, we seem to be separate from everything else. But upon closer examination, this apparent separation dissolves. The deeper reality is that we are connected by society, by our relationships, by the food we eat, by the air we breathe, and by the biosphere that we share—in myriad irrefutable, physical, bodily ways.
Groups of humans with a common identity—whether tribes, political parties, nations, races, or religions—tend to feel separated and afraid of other groups. We humans use mechanisms such as language, clothes, stories, and beliefs to identify individuals in our group and to set ourselves apart from others. Our need to belong to a group is so strong that we tend to take on all the beliefs of our group. Open-minded, fact-based thinking shuts down.
We use stereotypes to make those in other groups seem less than human. If our group has more power, we strip the others of rights, access to resources, and privilege. We encode their lesser status within our legal system, which lowers the threshold for violence against them, and institutionalizes the violence.
We humans create narratives in which people we see as unlike us are evil, so that if we can eradicate them, we’ll have eradicated evil. And so the myth of separation has the power to allow us to carry out atrocities; we may even think we’re doing good. This is how easy it is to lose our way when we’re afraid. The myth of separation distorts community into tribalism.
These tribal narratives have caused murder and suffering throughout history, and still do. Both nationalism and religion can readily create the mindset for war, when acts of violence can come to seem virtuous to their perpetrators. When the mind is closed, true kindness and compassion are impossible.
While I prefer a diversity of cultures, languages, and ways of life on this planet, I’m also dismayed by humanity’s continuing inability to coexist peacefully. We are difficult animals; we walk around with these ridiculous, fearful egos that react and escalate conflict. This happens all the time, both in daily life and on the world stage. I’m certain we could do better, if we made a choice to do better.
Conquest of nature
Within industrial society, we have a tendency to view nature as something to be conquered. We fear that if we fail to conquer nature, it will kill us; we dream that if we succeed, we can make vast fortunes. The mentality of conquest has helped us make great advances in medicine. But as a paradigm, it may no longer be humanity’s best bet for good health. For example, health experts warn that we’ve entered “the end of antibiotics” as multi-resistant bacteria out-innovate us.8 Resistant fungal infections are also on the rise due to wide- spread use of antifungals in agriculture.9 This is also the case in agriculture. Over the course of the 20th century, industrial agriculture increased yields tremendously. But now we know that totalitarian agriculture obliterates complex eco- systems, creating damage that ripples through the biosphere. Now we know that industrial livestock production creates the potential for zoonotic pandemics. The totalitarian agricultural mindset may not be in our best interest, after all.
We approach these confrontations with nature much as we approach warfare, by bringing in more firepower. But ultimately, we’re at war with ourselves. Instead of fruitlessly trying to conquer nature, we could be dancing with the biosphere.
Human exceptionalism and nonhuman intelligence
There are likely upward of a trillion distinct species on Earth.10 Each species arises, thrives for some time in its ecological context, and eventually passes away. While here, each species exhibits its own unique intelligence for survival.
Among this multitude of species, only one is foolish enough to do damage, on a global scale, to the biosphere that gives it life. What’s more, this species knows it’s doing this damage, and is therefore choosing to do it; and this species, strangely, thinks of itself as by far the most intelligent species on the planet, and uses this as a moral excuse to treat other species brutally. This bizarre species, of course, is homo sapiens, “wise man.”
Not every human culture has believed that humans are exceptional among species; many indigenous people did not, and do not, share this belief. For example, aboriginal people in Australia believe that nonhuman animals and plants were once people, an expression of oneness between beings.11 I believe that the modern human exceptionalism central to the industrial mindset is a driver of our current ecosocial predicament.
An appropriate response includes a paradigm shift toward recognizing that humans don’t have a monopoly on intelligence, and that our inability to recognize and respect nonhuman intelligence is self-limiting. Perhaps our technology has outpaced our wisdom. Perhaps we need gorillas, whose intelligence is so similar to ours, who care for their infants and children just as we do, who we find so easy to identify with—to help us remember respect for the peculiar intelligence of every species. Bees have their own kind of intelligence; so do bacteria in the soil.
The biosphere has a wisdom of its own. The Earth knows the way.
Habits of our lizard brains
In addition to myths, several built-in tendencies of our brain also make it more difficult to see reality as it is. Mitigating global warming is a wicked problem, in part because global warming seems almost perfectly designed to defeat the human brain.
Our brains naturally respond strongly to dangerous situations, like a growling dog or the rent deadline, that are right in front of us. We respond less strongly to future or distant dangers, because we don’t feel them as threats. We react to the visceral, adrenal sensation of immediate fear more than to intellectual understanding of danger. This discounting of the future explains why we tend to procrastinate: the future feels safely far away, and we don’t understand how one moment flows into the next and the future suddenly becomes the present. Then, right before the deadline, we ask ourselves, “where did all the time go?”
Global warming lacks immediacy for most people. Even be- coming well-informed doesn’t necessarily produce immediacy. For example, I know several astrophysicists who are well-informed about global warming, and who also have large climate footprints due to their frequent flying. When I independently asked three of them how they rectify this apparent contradiction, I was surprised when they all gave me the same reply, nearly word-for-word: “I just don’t think about it.”
Interestingly, there’s a striking difference in the social dynamics of fossil fuel use and water use in Southern California. Wasting water isn’t socially acceptable. During a drought, people get very angry about it. On the other hand, burning fossil fuels is not only socially acceptable, it’s socially rewarded. Frequent fliers post trip photos on Facebook, enjoy career advantages, and are seen as successful. This difference might be partly because water is more immediate than global warming.
We have a natural tendency to look for evidence that supports our beliefs and to ignore evidence that contradicts those beliefs. This is known as confirmation bias, and it helps our brains make sense of an enormous volume and complexity of information. Once we’ve developed our worldview, confirmation bias informs what we choose to believe or disbelieve. If we have a worldview in which global warming doesn’t make sense, confirmation bias leads us to prefer evidence that supports the hypothesis that global warming doesn’t exist or isn’t a problem. In this way, without realizing it, we manage our worldview.
When I talk to people who deny global warming, I usually get a sense that they need to believe that the planet isn’t warming. Perhaps global warming challenges their worldview at a religious level, or a mythic level: humanity’s purpose is to conquer nature in the name of progress. Perhaps denial allows them to avoid feel- ing guilty about their lifestyle. Or perhaps they simply find global warming so frightening that they have a psychological need to deny it. In any case, their reasons run deeper than intellect.
Our brains tend to err on the side of being overly optimistic.12 This is especially true when we’re considering something with low immediacy, or that we view as uncertain. Optimism bias implies that global warming is worse than the average person thinks.
Conformity and normalization
The seminal Asch conformity experiments in psychology demon-strated how individual beliefs and actions depend on a majority group.13 In the classic experiment, eight college students were shown a drawing of a line segment, and asked which of three other line segments (labeled 1, 2, and 3) was the same length. The three candidate segments were of different lengths, with one very obvious match. The students took turns giving their answers. Seven students were actors, but the eighth student didn’t know this; the actors colluded with the psychologist to give the same wrong answer. The eighth student—the actual subject—was then asked to choose. Seventy-five percent of subjects were swayed to the actors’ wrong answer at least some of the time, while only 25% of subjects were never swayed.14 If one of the seven colluding students acted as a “true partner” and gave the correct answer, the subject was more likely to do so as well.
When I learned of this experiment, I remembered how, in 2006 when I first woke up to the truth of global warming, I felt afraid to speak out. At the time, I heard almost no one else speaking out, but I saw everyone else living their lives as if nothing was wrong. I saw no one attempting to use less fossil fuel, so neither did I. What a tremendous force for conformity! I also wasted several years searching for a “true partner” before eventually realizing that I had to do what I could on my own. (I now have many “true partners.”)
Although we may know that it’s happening, global warming isn’t yet terribly immediate for many of us. Meanwhile, everyone around us continues burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow, including most of the biggest climate activists—even more normalization. The brute fact of the normalcy of fossil fuels is constantly in our faces. So at some deeper level, we think everything must be OK, despite our intellectual understanding to the contrary. And then the myth of progress offers a convenient psychological bridge, a means to resolve this psychological conflict, in the form of “They’ll think of something.” The result is no action: we tend to go along with the fossil-fuel-burning crowd.
It’s difficult to think of burning fossil fuels as harmful or wrong when everyone around us burns with abandon, every day. It’s difficult to even imagine living in some other way. Perhaps this explains the stunning failure of our leading global warming activists to “walk the talk.” Perhaps this is a major reason why global warming poses such an unprecedented challenge: our lives in industrial society are so entwined with fossil fuel that it’s difficult even to envision what a new mode of living would look like, let alone to live it.
Of course, we lived without fossil fuel a mere two centuries ago, but the myth of progress blinds us to this truth.
This is why it’s critical we begin saying that burning fossil fuels is causing real harm and needs to stop. It’s even more important to begin living this message. Through non-conforming behavior, we cause others to question the prevailing perception of what’s normal. In the language of the Asch experiments, we become true partners, those who speak the truth and make it easier for others to do so as well.
Taking the biosphere for granted
What causes some people to want to “drill, baby, drill”? Desire for profit, certainly. But perhaps not all of these people, maybe not a single one of them, would actually trade the biosphere for ten trillion dollars. For of course, without a biosphere, in the cold vacuum of space, even our trillionaire would die within a few seconds.
At some level, these people realize they need the biosphere. But at the same time, they’re taking it for granted. The inestimable value of a breath of air goes unnoticed. To my mind, this inconsistency reveals a clear need to rethink the entire concept of wealth (and, conversely, of poverty). To live in a healthy biosphere is absolutely a kind of wealth—perhaps the most real kind of wealth there is, from an astrophysical perspective.
I see Earth’s biosphere as a fragile and miraculous entity. It’s amazing to me that such a thing came to be: this extraordinarily rich but razor-thin layer of interdependent life surrounding a rock floating in the cold vastness of space. How strange! There’s no guarantee that Earth’s biosphere will remain so richly supportive of human life. The Earth system answers only to the laws of physics, not to the needs of humans.
Plain old ignorance
Few people have a clear sense of the relative ecological costs of their actions. Many are the avid environmentalists who shop at the farmers’ market with cloth bags and make many other small biospheric changes, while still flying tens of thousands of miles per year. Perhaps they simply don’t know the enormous impact of their flights (we’ll quantify this and other impacts in Chapter 9). This knowledge is a key lever for gradually changing oneself.
Wanting and ego
One Saturday morning, Sharon and I were meditating while the boys were watching The Empire Strikes Back in another room. Apparently Darth Vader had just cut off Luke’s hand, because we heard Vader say, “Join me, and together, we can rule the Galaxy as father and son!” Out loud, I said, “Why would anyone want to rule the Galaxy?” We both laughed. This particular desire seems so random, so bizarre. Why would anyone dream of “ruling the Galaxy?” I honestly wouldn’t want to. It sounds like a hassle.
Perhaps longing to “rule” arises from the never-ending cycle of craving and aversion, one of the deepest habits of our lizard brain. People want pleasant things, and they want to avoid unpleasant situations.15 When we get something we want, we realize that we still aren’t happy. So we want more, and feel that then we’ll be happy. And of course, when we don’t get something we want, we feel miserable. We also want others to have an image of us as perfect and powerful. We suppose (incorrectly) that if we ruled the Galaxy, our every craving would be satisfied. It’s difficult to see how a deep habit of wanting traps us in misery—unless we take a careful look within.
Our industrial capitalist culture has elevated wanting into an end in itself, the purest of virtues. It’s what propels every Disney hero and heroine to live happily ever after. And what is the American Dream if not an attempt to put material desire on a pedestal? We have been led to believe that our desire is what makes us human, and that we can have whatever we wish upon a star.
I believe that our kindness is what makes us human, and that our wanting is a huge barrier to kindness. When we give up wanting, we don’t become rudderless and unmotivated. Far from it: we become motivated to help others.
Wanting distracts us and agitates us, keeps us out of the present moment, and prevents us from seeing the miracles all around. When we stop wanting, things we took for granted become miracles. Every child is a miracle. So is every animal, every tree, every flower. Every fruit is a miracle, woven from sunlight and earth. That we can eat the fruit and be nourished is a miracle. Sitting in the warm sun on a cool morning is a miracle. So is every breath.
Life isn’t drudgery, and neither is it a quest for some grand, mystical, once-in-a-lifetime, transformative miracle. Life is a constant stream of everyday miracles. When we stop wanting, we are happy.
The Great Turning: From wanters to miracle-seers
do in the meantime?
So, what new story can replace the myths of progress and separation and the primacy of selfish wanting? How can we go to that story? How long will it take for humanity to get there? And what can we do in the meantime?
The new story will be helping each other wake up, and being happy right here, right now. In this new story, in-
stead of chasing progress and growth, we seek to go more deeply into helping one another, living according to our principles, coming out of our prisons of desire, and becoming truly happy.
How can we go to that story?
It’s possible to come out of wanting, but it’s not easy. In Chapter 11, I describe a simple meditation practice for developing awareness of and gradually coming out of the habit of wanting. There are other practices in this book which can support this journey, such as opting out of the consumer econ-omy, but meditation is the most direct path I know. Meditation has allowed me to begin to see how my own wanting works.
How long will it take us to get there?
I don’t know. I see people around me waking up and helping others to wake up, but it’s a long and gradual process; and I see many others who aren’t taking even the first step. I have faith that beings living on this planet will get there eventually, but I don’t know if it will take 50 years, 50,000 years, or 50,000,000 years.
What can we do in the meantime?
Responding to this question is the task of the second part of this book. The short answer is that we can move ourselves along the path. After all, what else can we do? My own experience informs me that as we change ourselves for the better, we become more able to change the world for the better—at least our corner of the world. But the main reason to begin walking is that this path is a richly satisfying one, and well worth walking on for this reason alone. Perhaps you’re already experiencing this.
We humans are capable of coming out of our wanting. We are capable of putting others before self, and we can learn how to do this all of the time, not just some of the time. This might be the most important change in our minds that needs to happen. It’s the way to come out of the nightmare of fear and violence that we have called history. And while the new story I describe is certainly not a quick fix, it’s possible. It’s not mystical or abstract. It’s not something that just sounds good. It’s practical and doable.
This is very clear to me. I hope this book will help you see this, too.
- The theory of evolution, which challenged the Christian creation myth, provides an example of this.
- Roland Barthes. Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers. Hill and Wang, 1972, pp. 142–143.
- Meadows. “Places to Intervene in a system.”
- By “we” I mean those of us operating through the myth of progress. This seems to include the vast majority of people in industrial society, cutting across economic and racial strata.
- For this image, I thank John Michael Greer, whose eye-opening blog post “Which Way to Heaven?” was an influence for this chapter: John Michael Greer. “Which Way to Heaven?” The Archdruid Report, September 25, 2013. [online]. thearchdruidreport.blogspot.ca/2013/09 /which-way-to-heaven.html.
- Such is the case with exoplanetary astronomy. There are no exoplanet deniers; or if there are, they stay pretty quiet.
- As we saw in Chapter 3, although the estimated quantities have uncertainties (and always will), and although there are still many details to pursue, the basic existence of a human-caused global radiative energy imbalance is as clear as anything in science can be.
- Speaking on Frontline, Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, Associate Director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said: “For a long time, there have been newspaper stories and covers of magazines that talked about ‘The end of antibiotics, question mark?’ Well, now I would say you can change the title to ‘The end of antibiotics, period.’ We’re here. We’re in the post-antibiotic era.” Sarah Childress. “Dr. Arjun Srini- vasan: We’ve Reached ‘The End of Antibiotics, Period.’” Frontline, October 22, 2013. [online]. pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/dr-arjun -srinivasan-weve-reached-the-end-of-antibiotics-period/.
- See Robin McKie. “Millions at risk as deadly fungal infections acquire drug resistance.” Guardian, August 27, 2016. [online]. theguardian.com/society/2016/aug/27/millions-at-risk-as-deadly-fungal -infections-acquire-drug-resistance.
- Kenneth J. Loceya and Jay T. Lennona. “Scaling laws predict global microbial diversity.” Publications of the National Academy of Sciences 113(21) (2016). [online]. doi:10.1073/pnas.1521291113.
- Aboriginal Culture. “Religion and Ceremony.” [online]. aboriginalculture.com.au/religion.shtml.
- Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013.
- Solomon E. Asch. “Opinions and social pressure.” Scientific American 193(5) (1955). [online]. scientificamerican.com/article/opinions-and -social-pressure/.
- Overall, subjects conformed and gave the wrong answer a shocking 37% of the time.
- See Chapter 11 for discussion of how this habit operates at the level of physical sensation.