The facts are so obvious, the evidence so extensive and the scale and impacts so visceral. There is clearly much more to our failure to engage meaningfully with ecological crises than just information and common sense. Otherwise, it would be easy.
Increasingly think tanks, academics, agencies and government advisors point to a baffling complexity of social and cultural factors to explain our inaction. They propose lots of clever ways of engaging with it through levers, drivers and mechanisms, with nudges, incentives, shared values and behaviour scales. They describe sectors and in-groups, out-groups and thematics, codes and characteristics. But is it really that complicated?
At one level of analysis, I think it is. Our inaction has evolved through threads that run back thousands of years, entwined with so many events, stories, people and probabilities that there is no chance of ever tracing a pattern - well, not one that is useful for creating future change.
The fact of analysis itself may even be counter-productive. The deeper we get the more nonsensical things are. Like looking into the night sky with a telescope - the more powerful the telescope, the more we should be able to see - but the more we discover that we can’t see.
Understanding social and cultural patterns might be more about stepping back and seeing what feels right, relevant and revelatory in the massive picture of our present-day context. This is to examine what Nora Bateson describes as the “warm data”. Rather than trying to studiously analyse patterns rationally, reductively and logically, or with any pretence of unearthing a grand theory, instead, we synthesise from a place of perspective, engaging our feelings, senses, intuition and imagination. Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Ursa Major, Pleiades. When we put down the telescope the constellations appear.
When I examine the warm data through a psychological lens, I see a startling pattern. The clue is that the situation we are in has a spell-bound quality to it, like a vivid dream, or perhaps more accurately for many people, a recurring nightmare. These types of states are often binary, we are in them one moment and then suddenly we “wake up”. Perhaps this is why many of us trying to create and support social change often frustratingly ask, ”why don’t people wake up?”
But wake from what? Our lives feel real enough, the consequences of not paying the bills, going to work or caring for our children are all real enough. But perhaps even these genuine realities live inside some other collective state that is not real at all.
There’s a very interesting concept in psychology called folie a deux. It describes a scenario where someone who shares their immediate environment with someone else who is psychotic, starts to share the delusions of their cohabitant. The process of entering the psychotic’s delusions is complicated and unclear: a slow burn of gas-lighting, insecurity, a lack of scrutiny, isolation, and a creeping impotence of critical thinking. Then finally the delusion is shared and behaviours adapt to a new world, which feels absolutely real but that isn’t real at all.
This principle can be applied at scale, to a whole society. Throughout millennia, myths emerge that test well against narrow geographical and cultural boundaries, within a limited timeframe. The Myth of Progress, Survival of the Fittest, the Free Hand of market economics, the Principle of Comparative Advantage, the concept of Individualism, Homo Economicus, Game Theory, the Selfish Gene, the exceptionalist morality of Limited Liability corporations, and the Great Chain of Being. These are just a very few examples of what Alfred North Whitehead called, “fallacies of misplaced concreteness”1 - things we unquestioningly accept as solid and true, but which have no actual basis in our present reality. These ideas emerge first in a microcosm - a single lecture, book, academic paper or pamphlet - and then evolve to eventually become institutionalised and interpreted into law and policy. Sometimes it takes 500 years, but now of course, social media makes this cultural assimilation exponential, accelerating them through amoral algorithms to the point where it can topple governments, destroy lives or mainstream a ridiculous conspiracy theory across an entire planet. All in the time it takes to type a hashtag. Then these ideas ossify and interweave to form hidden cultural architecture and unconscious social contracts. Right or wrong, fact or fake.
But every example of those culturally accepted ideas given above has been proven false or, at the very least, useless. Sometimes, even the person who originated the idea concludes that it is wrong within their lifetime. Stephen Dawkins and John Nash, for example.
David Brower, who founded Friends of the Earth in 1969, once famously asked a TV panel of acclaimed academics which scientific concept that they currently held as absolute truth did they think would still be upheld as true in 50 years. None of them could honestly name any.
But these truths are old and they run deep, so deep in fact that we forget they even exist. But still, they impact our perception and behaviour in fundamental and profound ways. In the case of the fallacies of our industrial growth culture, they are leading us, along with many other species, directly to our untimely demise. Within the cultural paradigm that dominates the planet, we have entered the delusions of mass, shared psychosis. We are in a folie des milliards. A madness of billions, where the vast majority of those who live within our industrial growth culture show signs and symptoms of profoundly delusional behaviour. We cannot live without clean air and water, without nutritious food, pollination and a homeostatic climate. Everyone knows this. And yet we persist in living to a set of “truths” that are rapidly undermining these existential essentials, unable, it seems, to see them at all - let alone challenge and change them.
The remedy for folie a deux is stunningly simple. Remove the psychotic from the relationship and their associate’s delusions abruptly end. I wonder what the collective, cultural equivalent would be.
Perhaps time alone in a wild place, free from the societal delusions in which we spend our daily lives. Away from high technology, mass media, advertising and the numerous insipid cultural interactions that penetrate so many of the small exchanges and unregistered moments of our everyday. Perhaps more time dwelling far beyond - or even before, or underneath - our shared craziness could help some of us reveal the nonsensical absolutes of our culture. Just long enough to expose the naked emperor and call for a collective response. After all, as Robert Greenway commented in his research on the impacts of wilderness experiences, “our [industrial growth] culture is only four days deep”2. Perhaps there is hope in cultural ecotherapy.
1 Whitehead, A. N. (1925). Science and the Modern World. Free Press (Simon & Schuster). p52.
2 Greenway, R. (1995). The wilderness Effect. In Roszak, et al (Eds.) Ecopsychology: restoring the earth, healing the mind. Sierra Club Books. p129.
Photo: Herbert Spencer - who deliberately misquoted Charles Darwin by creating the term "survival of the fittest" to give a biological justification for extreme poverty in Victorian England.