This week is feeling like a turning point for me in terms how to respond, personally, to the world ecological crisis. Many people have noted that existing forms of activism and policy remedies are seeming incremental and insufficient, and that it would be easy to despair. As I mentioned on social media recently, I think that a core problem is that the different types of people who need to interact to solve the problem simply don’t live in the same world, in the psychological sense. Take, for example, a utility company CEO who makes $15 million a year, along with the directors who think that’s not excessive, and who tie a million or two of that comp to some environmental metric in a way that’s pretty much guaranteed to pay out. These people do not live in the same world as most of us, who have to worry about where we get our health insurance (if we live in the US) and how to pay our bills. I keep on believing that people are generally not evil, and if we had the time and space to sit down and really fully talk things through, we would come to better compromises than we do now; but most of my friends on the left think I’m wrong, and the other side is ill-intentioned. I don’t know.
But I recently saw the amazing film which is featured at the top of this post. In it, indigenous people try patiently to explain to their Western “little brothers” how their actions are creating ecological destruction. They are right, in very specific ways, but what kills me watching it is that the West, at this point, knows that already. And the people who could, acting together, make a difference either don’t care or if they do, are overwhelmed with their own worries, like how to keep or get their jobs. That’s what industrial capitalism has brought us to, after less than three hundred years. Everyone is too scared about their short-term safety to do what is needed for the long-term safety of all. So if we keep going this way, the world is going to either be entirely destroyed in a climate “runaway” effect, or become increasingly uninhabitable and indeed, lethal, for large percentages of humanity, while the fortunate few maybe survive in some kind of comfort. That is, if they are able to hold on to what I (in common with many spiritual traditions) believe is the illusion of their separateness from the larger, suffering (or extinguished) group.
So I wonder if instead of Westerners solely trying to protect and help the threatened indigenous people, we could also ask them for advice about how to solve the divisions among us that prevent our collective action for the common good. One idea that occurs to me is that they may have realized long ago, as we do now, that information asymmetry can create the conditions for exploitation; I suspect they have developed relationship networks and communicative practices to ensure that important information is broadly shared. I imagine there are also aspects of indigenous child-rearing that help prevent the kind of excessively competitive mindset that makes a billionaire feel poor compared to someone higher on the list at Forbes. There may be any number of ways that the philosophy and values of these cultures could be adapted to help our own, and I would love to find a way to help this exploration happen. Because our inability to work together effectively, when as a society we have all the tools and knowledge and technology and wealth we need, is I think the key problem of our times.
For now, I recommend this film to everyone.