Once there is widespread recognition that the cognitive and social behavior of groups and individuals serve as the primary factor in larger phenomena such as climate change and environmental sustainability, only then can there be breakthroughs in rolling back the detrimental effects of human actions and thought on the environment. Many thinkers consider climate change and environmental sustainability to be the most important issue of the 21st century. Not only is this issue pertinent to the continuation of human life on earth, but the issue of environmental sustainability takes precedence also because the environment is the most important factor in individual and collective success in all aspects of life, according to the historian Jared Diamond. Why Silicon Valley is located in California where there is an illustrious climate and environment rather than a tundra speaks volumes as to the importance of environment in human success.
Climate change consists of a very simple formula. The issue surrounding climate change is that the emission of carbon as well as “greenhouse gases” that pollute the environment are trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere, thereby making the earth warmer after every successive year, which in turn will make the world inhabitable over time. Thus, what contributes to climate change and the degradation of the environment is nothing other than the excesses of human behavior and cognition. Very little is needed to survive, as demonstrated by Henry David Thoreau’s model of living in “Walden Pond.” However, today’s profit-driven model of living is adversely affecting the climate and in turn is damaging the environment that is fundamental in sustaining life for our generation as well as future generations.
As the former Harvard medical professor William Haseltine has argued, behavior affects health outcomes for humans. But cognitive behavior also has an impact on the environment. Haseltine added that science does not have “magic tricks” that would alter health outcomes. Instead, human behavior is the primary driver of public health outcomes, which in turn impact climate change and environmental sustainability. Even with the current coronavirus pandemic, the main solution at hand is proactive action and behavior to prevent the spread of infection.
After assessing the five major sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology) the distillation of these sciences is a range of threats to human existence such as war, mental illness, climate change, epidemics, inequality, and extinction from extraterrestrial threats such as meteors and asteroids. One can argue that the avoidance of all these threats rests upon basic human behavior and cognition. The philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of this scientific conclusion is a Hegelian idealism stemming from the Platonic tradition which suggests that the human mind shapes reality. According to Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in a rather famous book titled “Why Nations Fail,” political crises stemming from basic human corruption trigger consequential downturns in the fate of entire nations and societies. In some cases, militaries intervene to thwart civilian corruption. But once corruption takes root, the writing is on the wall and it takes immense effort to reverse the effects of human corruption.
Ultimately, the impact of corrupt human behavior and thinking on climate change and the environment is real and serious. There is no denying that climate change and environmental degradation are real phenomena. Recently, Morocco had to hold a “National Day of Prayer” in hopes that prayer would render much needed rainfall after a severe shortfall. Yemen is expected to run out of fresh water in approximately twenty years. Unless the Middle East and the Gulf Region reverses its pattern of war and creates an atmosphere of cooperation, the outcome will be dire not only for the Yemeni people, but for many others in the broader Middle East.
Despite its stature, one country that has perpetuated the slide into global climate change and environmental degradation, unfortunately, is the United States. For one, America’s addiction to Afghan and Middle Eastern wars, Afghan opium, and Persian Gulf Oil sets a bad example for developing countries who are also contributing to climate change and environmental degradation. America’s refusal to sign on to what is known as the “Kyoto Protocol” in the early 21st century as well as Donald Trump’s recent termination of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement that bound major polluters like China to treaties that obliged climate-friendly behavior has increased the risks of a major existential threat such as climate change.
With social unrest domestically as well as the rise of China, the United States has adopted more of a militant posture towards not only foreigners, but also its own people. And despite the fact that major legislative acts regarding climate change and environmental sustainability were adopted by Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush in the 20th century, today’s Republicans are callously denying the reality of climate change as well as other epidemics such as mental health.
Denial of real threats to human existence on the part of Republicans, quite frankly, is nothing but an injustice towards humanity that needs to be corrected. The political goal, after all, is justice, according to Aristotle. Furthermore, racism and the systemic roots of inequality can only be addressed if for one there is a certain degree of reparations given to the black community in order to uplift this group of disadvantaged people who were put in unfortunate circumstances through no fault of their own. While everyone can find ample food, clothing, and shelter, the only way through which standards of living can improve for all people is if the government increases the accessibility of education and health care for all people.
In a wealthy society like the United States, no one can justify anything short of universal education and health care. As Pope Francis once said, if no one single person can be held directly accountable for the chaos and instability in the world, then it means everyone is to be held accountable. Hegel claimed that it is an honor to be a member of the state. But if the state does not address the grievances of its subjects, then the state loses all credibility and legitimacy.
As Edmund Burke suggested, our notions of God are initially based on fear and terror. But through education and a shift in our way of thinking, our notions of God evolve into ones that are aesthetic in nature and are based on ideas such as beauty and complexity. Once our notions of God evolve, our priorities in life also change and evolve. One fundamental difference between Burke and Kant was that the former equated aesthetics with “the good life,” whereas the latter equated aesthetics with doing the right thing. Ultimately, doing the right thing enables a good life, for it is the environment and human health that determines a good life, and in turn the environment and human health are shaped by human behavior and thinking.
The demand for change usually comes from the bottom-up, but the decisions that need to be made in order to render change are top-down in nature. Unfortunately, the elites are the ones perpetuating the status quo that has led to the deterioration of the environment. In a book titled “Meritocracy Trap,” Daniel Markovitz demonstrates that the concentration of know-how, wealth, and access to lucrative jobs and higher education in the hands of the elite has in turn prompted the elite to create barriers towards accessing these privileges. In a way, the contempt that the elite have for regular people shows that inequality and instability in society is through deliberate design.
Nevertheless, there is a silver lining to every situation, even in the recent coronavirus pandemic. Before the pandemic, profits held precedence over quality of life. Now, there is more of a shift towards quality of life and away from the desire for egregious profits, which in turn hurts the elite who depend on egregious profits in order to sustain their elite status. It is important to mention that the most lucrative businesses in the world are drugs, weapons, and oil, all of which are conducted at the expense of regular people. Management and protection of this wealth is derived from elite schools such as Harvard, Yale, and other “Ivy League” universities, and the government, military, and police in turn are wielded by owners and managers of the wealth derived from drugs, oil, and weapons, as demonstrated by the previous Republican administrations in power. The job of the media is simply to hide this reality from the American public and international observers.
When status quo powers violate the rule of defensive war, justify “collateral damage” in war, use disproportionate force and in an offensive manner, and lose credibility and legitimacy when the powers that be no longer serve ordinary people but instead choose to serve a corrupt moneyed elite, it becomes incumbent upon anyone with a conscience to take a stand against the status quo. Because of the status quo, there are now eight major threats to human existence, as listed by Jared Diamond:
- Nuclear Weapons
- Climate Change
- Resource Depletion
- Inequality in living standards
- Religious extremism/Nationalism
- Infectious diseases
- Asteroid collision
- Mass biological extinction
One can also add drug and human trafficking as well as cyber-security, given that everything, including war, has taken on a cyber nature.
To combat these threats, the key is to tie environmental sustainability with human health through mitigating the importance of profits in society through a sustained effort at educating the public, especially in democratic societies. Basically, the only way for life to persist on earth in the coming generations is to prioritize environmental and human health over profits.
It is worth noting that most carbon and greenhouse gas emissions in addition to pollution come from the developing world and China. The western world has historically assumed leadership over the issue of climate change and environmental sustainability, but as of late western leadership has been failing, especially since Donald Trump took office. Social scientists have suggested instituting monetary penalties or caps on emissions and pollution in order to sustain the environment, but “green” economic transformations, legislation, and international treaties needed to impose such limitations on emissions and pollution have largely been obstructed by Republicans in the last couple of decades.
Population growth since the “Industrial Revolution” in Britain and Europe has also been a major bane on the climate and the environment for the last couple of centuries. With all these factors taken into consideration, the question is: how do you sustain the global economy while at the same time preserve the integrity of the environment as well as human health? Ultimately, the issue is one based on the economic concept of “tradeoffs.” Either sacrifice profits for the well-being of the environment and all humans, or vice versa. However, human economic logic based on a supposed “rational actor model” differs from a logic based on existentialist and phenomenological thinking. As Jean Khalfa writes, the breakdown of mental health in recent times can be attributed to the difference between human and divine logic:
“The role of madness is to indicate a discrepancy between what men are and what they pretend to be, a great theme in humanist writing, for example Montaigne, Rabelais or Erasmus. Wise is the man who can see that there is a madness in all claims by reason to have found an absolute truth. From a Christian point of view, human reason is madness compared to the reason of God, but divine reason appears as madness to human reason.”
In the end, in order to assess existential threats to ourselves and our planet that stem from a political or scientific nature, one must assess the roots of political or scientific phenomena, namely, private human behavior. Without taking into account how an individual or a group acts or thinks in the most basic sense, we will miss the simple root causes of seemingly complex political and scientific phenomena. By missing the most basic point of political and scientific issues, we are rendering ourselves helpless in the face of the major threats looming over human life as well as the life of our planet. As “stewards” of our planet, our behavior and way of thinking must suit the role which has been bestowed upon us by the author of existence.