Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
As revealed by innumerable, scrupulously researched reports on the climate and biodiversity the consequences for the biosphere and humanity as a result of us living the way we do are dire. This is that people everywhere are likely to experience an increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather conditions in the coming years as well as live impoverished lives due to the steady collapse of the Earth’s life support systems. Perhaps the reason we pay little heed to the science of impending ecological disaster is that we have internalized the myth that a super hero, heroine, good fairy, athletic figure on a white horse, a bugle-led cavalry or a divine being will save us. We absorbed these stories during our childhood and if we are parents or grandparents probably tell or told them to our young offspring or gave them the story books.
In one sense we know that these stories, whether told, read or seen on film, are the product of the imagination. Yet, and it may be primeval, most people appear to believe them, not so much the details but the embedded message that somehow, we will be saved. We are inclined to deduce this on the basis that our culture has long taught that humankind is an exceptional species. The religious texts of the Abrahamic religions, which most of us are familiar with, are absolutely clear that we are the chosen species and will be saved. In effect this means most people consider our species to be so exceptional that we are, like the mythical gods, endowed with immortality.
One of the most commonly believed saviour stories is the one the UK Prime Minister Liz Truss never ceased telling the electorate with the conviction of an evangelist, which is that economic growth is the formula to economic salvation. Like a magic wand it would save the country’s public services, provide a living income for all of its citizens and enable them to live long productive lives in a world that has a stable moderate climate and thriving wildlife. Fanciful as this is she was elected by her political party to be their leader and thus the prime minster. Although Liz Truss held the post for the shortest period in British history the problem is that almost all governments believe the story about economic growth, including the whole of the EU. Not only this, the fable of continual economic growth is so widely believed it is rarely questioned by the public media as was evident when Liz Truss was campaigning to be elected leader of her party and during her time as prime minister.
The fact that there cannot be infinite growth in a finite world is something governments, corporation executives, the financial institutions and voters must know in the same way they known that two plus two equals four. So why the cognitive dissonance? In part it is because, as the political history of Northern Ireland shows, fables play a more determining role in our lives than facts. Another reason is the tendency to accept things as we find them.
All of us were born into a political, economic and cultural world we did not create and in the same way we assimilated language, norms of behaviour, tastes and preferences, acquired an accent, we internalized one of the most destructive stories of all, that of unlimited material consumption in a materially limited world. In the same way most people don’t question the ideas that form the scaffolding of our cultural world such as belief in God, that humans have eternal life, are self-determining and are entitled to holiday overseas once a year, most don’t question the plausibility of the foundation story of our global economic system or its ethics.
Aside from the power of fable and the tendency not to question the nature of the society we grew up in, a third reason for the widespread belief in economic growth, in spite of its absurdity and the dire ecological, climatic and human consequences, such as the present famine in the Horn of Africa, is that we, and in particular those who have immense political and economic power, simply don’t care. It is a case of out-of-sight out-of-mind. Although this attitude has survival benefits such as reducing stress, in our intensely interconnected world in which the fate of others, human and nonhuman, affects us all, it is fatal. As the poet John Donne (1572-1631) wrote: “No man is an island, Entire of itself.” Our interconnectedness is why the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP27, is meeting in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt this November and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, COP15, is meeting in Montreal in December. It is why Putin’s war in Ukraine has caused a spike in inflation and hunger around the world and why the outcome of the presidential election in Brazil affects us all vis-a-vis the fate of the Amazon rainforest.
Our lives are entwined with each other and the biosphere. What we need are not stories of economic salvation through, to quote Liz Truss, “growth, growth and growth” but stories that tell of our interdependencies and the consequences of not respecting them. This means stories which, when they have seeped into our subconscious, trigger a red alert when influential and powerful people present economic fables as fact.