Are We Mature Enough to Deal with Climate Change?

Glenn McLaren

The world is getting hotter, as the scientists predicted. Not a week seems to go by without some new temperature record being set or some new sign emerging that the climate and other natural systems are changing more rapidly than they should be. The strong correlation between our excessive burning of fossil fuels and global warming is becoming a more compelling argument every day. Despite this, however, arguments over anthropogenic climate change and what to do about it continue with seemingly little progress being made in some countries.

The current national governments in the USA and Australia, for example, are making the case for increasing fossil fuel consumption and creating and developing new sources. They are at the same time actively obstructing action to address climate change. They are doing this on several fronts; the science is un-proven, it is not politically expedient, any action will retard economic growth and the latest, lack of base-load power will compromise energy security.

I argue, however, that the argument is not primarily about science, politics, the economy or energy security, but whether we are mature enough to deal with it. This is a deep philosophical argument, thousands of years old, over what we understand to be the best trajectory of development for human beings.

One side of the argument sees our best trajectory to be transcendence of nature. This has long been a position of several religious traditions but is now also represented by the secular philosophy of transhumanism. The other sees our best trajectory to be an eventual re-connection with nature. This is also a position held by some religious traditions and is also represented by several secular, holistic philosophies. Which side prevails in this age old debate will largely determine our future.

The fact that we have an anthropogenic warming problem at all indicates that it is the transhumanist position which is currently prevailing and has been for some time. In its current manifestation, this position represents the dream of what philosopher Isiah Berlin called negative freedom; freedom from all constraints as opposed to positive freedom, or freedom to, which recognizes constraints as the condition for freedom.

Transhumanism is generally regarded as a fringe philosophy promoted by extremists such as Max More and Ray Kurzweil.  They predict and welcome a future technological singularity in which our machines will become self-conscious and in doing so, exceed our own intelligence. This will necessitate us fusing with our machines in order to survive, becoming omnipotent, immortal cyborgs in the process (if the machines let us).

It is this “wet dream” which inspired the controversial novel, The Transhumanist Wager, written by self-declared transhumanist, Zoltan Istvan. In this story, the protagonist, transhumanist philosopher, Jethro Knights, goes about creating his own omnipotence at the expense of anyone who chooses to obstruct him. The novel has been described as a modern version of Atlas Shrugged, the infamous novel written by the philosopher of selfishness, Ayn Rand.

For Jethro Knights, the height of human development is total self-interest and the ability to use any means which will ensure one’s own autonomy and immortality. Any concern for others, including other species and future generations, is considered irrational. Knights, a scientific materialist and crude utilitarian sees nature, purely as a resource to be utilized to provide for his needs. In this, he and transhumanism in general, continues the destructive utilitarian tradition of 16th Century philosopher, Francis Bacon.

To regard transhumanists as a lunatic fringe would be a serious mistake. Thinkers such as Katherine Hayles, Philip Mirowski and Australian philosopher, Arran Gare, reveal transhumanism to be the dominant philosophy of our time with links to computer science, scientific management, neo-liberalism, supply-side economics and anti-democratic corporatocracies. It is transhumanist philosophy which is driving the human quest for omnipotence, through for example, the generation of high energy demanding abstract electronic virtual worlds created at the expense of natural systems, such as climate systems.

The problem with transhumanism’s ideal development goal, however, is that it is a form of retarded development. It aspires to the ego-centric cognitive level of a three or four year old child and remains there (what psychologists term the pre-operational stage). Rather than a new utopia, it is creating an all too familiar dystopia run by self-centered and self-deluded brats. This has been revealed by a long history of developmental psychology examining stages of moral and consciousness development.

Perhaps the best synopsis and synthesis of this history is provided by the enigmatic philosopher and psychologist, Ken Wilber. He links the perennial philosophies associated with the axial period to the more modern theories of those such as Kohlberg, Loevinger, Maslow, Piaget, Gilligan and Habermas, as well as modern neuroscience. What emerges is a convergent story of what constitutes a good human development process. This is one which involves the integration and transcendence of ego-centrism and the continual de-centering of the self. It involves an expansion of consciousness over time to include larger wholes, from understanding your immediate primary relationships to understanding yourself as one with the universe.

A key component of this story is our relationship with technologies, particularly information technologies. At an early age human beings enter the semiotic realm of information technologies augmenting our abilities to think abstractly and synchronically. This is a condition for the development of our self-consciousness, but one which also has an alienating effect separating us from our worlds and each other. Much of our lives are then spent trying to understand this alienation and the nature of our relationships with everything.

In the holistic process tradition I represent, which has similarities to Buddhist views such as Wilber’s, maturity comes through the ability to re-connect. It is the ability to create a coherent narrative out of the fragments of a life and create a sense of wholeness. It is coming to understand that the feelings of separateness we suffer are abstract and that we always were, and are, connected with everything and everyone. One does not transcend nature; one transcends the abstractions which alienate us from it.

Human-generated climate change, therefore, is not the product of super beings but of under-developed ones, also known as transhumanists. The obstructions to effectively dealing with it are being produced by ego-centric three-year-olds living small and fragmented lives and throwing tantrums whenever adults try to impose constraints on their bad behavior. As I said, it is the dream of negative freedom; freedom from constraints such as responsibility for anything other than yourself. But as some of our more mature philosophers have understood as well as any responsible parent, there can be no freedom without suitable constraints, such as a narrow global temperature range suitable for life.

Humanity, therefore, has a choice: do we end our lives as we live them, alienated and dissatisfied, using the resentment this creates to destroy all life in our self-interest, or, do we seek to re-connect to feel at home in our world and universe? Those few mature people left in our society have come to understand their co-dependent nature and the natural limits to human progress. They have learned that what gives life meaning does not generate much greenhouse gas. Our experiment with giving power to children is failing. In order to avoid the worst of climate change, we must put our trust again in the wisdom that only comes with maturity and re-connection.

Featured image by Karlostachys – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0