Frants Attorp: Dangerous illusions lead humanity toward its demise

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      The mind works in strange yet predictable ways. A few weeks ago, I was walking home during a wind storm when I heard a tremendous crash directly behind me. I whirled around and saw that a large snag had fallen across the road just feet from where I was standing. Had I been a few seconds slower, I would have been killed on the spot.

      The first thought that came to mind, aside from “Hurray, I’m alive,” was that someone must be watching over me. As I started to analyze the situation, however, I recalled that two girls, aged five and eight, were killed several years ago by a falling tree in one of Canada’s national parks. Why did those young children perish while I suffered not a scratch?

      The philosophical implications of such incidents did not go unnoticed by great existentialist thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who were not afraid to stare unflinchingly into the dark abyss of the human condition. Sartre maintained that “man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.”

      Sartre’s atheistic philosophy confronts death and man’s aloneness without offering any hope of divine intervention or an afterlife. He was not afraid to move out of the comfort zone, and that is probably why he came under attack by the clergy. In response, Sartre argued that existentialism is not a philosophy of pessimism and despair, but rather one of optimism born of positive action.

      Today, more than ever, we need—if not Sartre’s atheism—at least his courage, intellectual rigour, and his focus on personal responsibility. Just months ago, the World Wildlife Fund released a report stating that the world has lost 52 percent of its vertebrate species in the past 40 years. This was followed by yet another report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that all hell is about to break loose unless humans find a way to reduce greenhouse gases.

      The two reports have gone relatively unnoticed by media outlets. There has been extended coverage of the sexual proclivities of a well-known radio host, but nary a whisper about the precipitous decline of the living planet and the dire consequences for human civilization. What does this say about modern society and our prospects for the future?

      Much of the underlying apathy stems from illusions that are rooted in fear—fear of dying, fear of abandonment, and worst of all, fear of personal extinction. There are also illusions that arise from a disconnection with the natural world and an ignorance of science, and illusions that are the result of egocentrism, or the idea that humans enjoy special status in the grand scheme of things.

      Regardless of their origin, romantic illusions play a significant role in the decline of world ecosystems. They produce a fog of inertia, and impede the full realization that this Earth—which may well be unique in the universe—is our past, our present, and our future. Here are a few popular fantasies:

      • There can be unlimited growth on a finite planet.
      • Food comes from the grocery store.
      • Technology will save us.
      • Humans are not really animals.
      • Humans are special and do not share the same destiny as other living things.
      • There is an omnipotent and compassionate deity who takes an interest in human affairs.

      Like an open flame that attracts the moth, illusions draw us ever nearer to our demise. They are deceptive and extremely dangerous because they give us a false sense of security; they lull us into a state of complacency where we don’t have to care or worry, where personal action is not required, and where everything always turns out alright in the end. The big question is whether we will recognize the tricks played by our minds, and awaken from our slumber in time to deal with the enormous challenges that lie before us. The responsibility is all ours, or as they say at my alma mater, “tuum est”.

      Frants Attorp is a Salt Spring Island writer who has an affinity for scientific pantheism.




      Jan 5, 2015 at 5:17pm

      "the idea that humans enjoy special status in the grand scheme of things."


      "no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth."

      Conflict. Even in a purely scientific way, you can get away with saying that no other animal has the capacity to engage in the project Sarte says is ours, not so fully as we can. You can draw analogies with primates, but they break down when you try to analyze things that enable our society to function, like jaywalking bylaws and speed limits.

      We are special; unlike those other creatures that, essentially, run in an automatic, non self-modifying fashion, we, even if automatic, enjoy a nature that is self-modifying.

      "a Salt Spring Island writer who has an affinity for scientific pantheism."

      I'm sure you have a great place from which to contemplate these ideas. Everyone can't have that. Should we fix the population at whatever can be supported by the Saltspring Island style of development, or is even Saltspring overdeveloped now? How do we accomplish that? And for whom? I agree with Suzuki---Canada is full, if not overpopulated. How do we sell that as policy without being called racists by all of the special interest groups that benefit from the growth of the population?

      Also, you ignore monetary policy---it is monetary policy that has led to the need for continual growth. Google John Turmel, he has all of the math online. Our financial system is like a casino: the house always wins, and someone always loses to pay for the house. A few winners are created to keep people playing, but even that is on the downswing, as inequality increases.

      As for your slagging the idea of a compassionate deity, when people believed, perhaps simplemindedly in such things, we had a "dark age" during which the cities of Europe might have been filthy, but the air was rather clean. It is the rise of industrialist, atheist socialism that fucked the world over, not people praying to God. We've done that since before industrial societies even existed.

      Martin Heidegger said only a God can save us now, and all we can do is prepare for His (or her?) coming. If that means nothing can save us now, because Gods do not exist, what is the point in being all angsty about things as you are? Why not just party on?

      Shon Togan

      Jan 6, 2015 at 2:36am

      I once had to travel through O'Hare and ended up with a nice man in a uniform staring, and then prodding away at my dark abyss. I remember giggling, followed by intense waves of pleasure, so I can't relate to this crybabys complaints in the least.

      Frants Attorp

      Jan 6, 2015 at 9:59am

      I think you may have misinterpreted my statement regarding humans' lack of special status. There is no doubt that humans have skills and thinking abilities that are far more advanced than those of other creatures on the planet. However, that does not mean that our destiny is any different than that of a gnat, for example, nor that we can break nature's laws and expect to get away with it. Just as nature culls a herd of wild sheep that has overgrazed its territory, she will wipe out humans who degrade their environment. In that respect our fate is no different. Failure to understand and respect the laws of nature will have a predictable outcome.


      Jan 6, 2015 at 11:36am

      It is intersting to note that most, if not all, people who subscribe to a belief in a deity would admit that within the belief system of their religion exists guidelines or commands to be wise stewards of the earth, our natural home.

      It is a shame that not many actually follow such guidelines. It is a shame that a small percentage of the world's population, the rich and powerful, pursue, with little exception, the drug of money and things. Another group of less politically powerful people vote with their wallets, so to speak, and buy as much stuff from an industrial and economic system that is, ultimately, unsustainable and an unfair apportioner of the world's riches. Yet another much larger group hopes one day to be able to buy up all they can to, in their minds, make their lives easier and more convenient. Their right, I admit, but following a poor model does nobaby any good.

      Ultimately, nature, either a random happening or a coherent design by God - it matters not - will strike a balance and humans will pay a price. What is shocking is that there is such little resolve among humans to step back and consider the long term viability of this earth, the home of humans and gnats alike.

      Concerned? I am. Grow your food close to home, walk or ride your bike as much as you can instead of driving a car, buy less stuff that you really do not need, write your leaders with compelling thoughts, and tell two friends to do likewise.

      Simple? Yes, but it's a start.


      Kim Collins

      Jan 6, 2015 at 4:53pm

      Some great thoughts and insights in your piece, Frants. Thanks for posting it. I think about these "illusions" frequently and wonder how we can address them. Some of them are so core to our identities that it's considered impolite to even bring them up. I've encountered this response from some green-minded friends who seem to hold the blind beliefs that technology will save us and that growth must be infinite.

      I also appreciate that there's currently some civil discussion in the comments section instead of the name-calling and personal attacks that so often show up following articles about our collective predicament.

      I wanted to add to Ian's list of suggestions because while they're very good, they're also incomplete. Turning this ship around (or at least making sure it does run full steam into an iceberg) is going to take much more than personal lifestyle changes. We have to understand and act on the fundamental systemic barrier to action on global climate and sustainability issues. As Gwynne Dyer explained in this paper a few weeks ago...

      "It’s quite simple. The developed countries are rich because they started burning fossil fuels between 100 and 200 years ago and industrialized early. The developing countries only started burning fossil fuels in a big way 30 or 40 years ago, and are still climbing out of poverty. So 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin in the atmosphere were put there by the rich countries.

      The rich countries caused this climate crisis; the developing countries only inherited it. So the responsibility for dealing with it—and paying for it—rests mostly with those who caused it.

      Until public opinion in the developed world understands that this deal is fair, no government in the rich world will dare to sign up for it. It would be political suicide. And until that deal is signed, no major developing country will agree to cap its emissions.

      In the developing world, everybody who counts politically understands the history of greenhouse gas emissions very well. One does sometimes wonder if the rich world’s apparent ignorance of this history is a little bit self-serving."


      Frants Attorp

      Jan 6, 2015 at 5:53pm

      Thanks for your comments, Kim. I agree that changes in personal lifestyles are important, but not be enough to address the current environmental crisis. Something more has to happen. In Canada, a great step forward would be to get rid of the FPTP electoral system. That would certainly reshape the political landscape and open the door to more dialogue about the issues that matter the most. I think it is tragic that the really important dialogue is not taking place except in fringe publications such as this. (The MSM showed absolutely no interest in publishing my article.) Can significant change still happen within the current political structure? I'm starting to have my doubts. Perhaps it's time for people in the know to get together and develop a strategy. I have some hope for the Leadnow organization. They seem to have a well thought out plan for the upcoming federal election--one that includes lots of volunteers going door to door in swing ridings. One can only hope. Aside from that, maybe we should all be working on a crazy video such as Gangnam Style which now has several billion hits on youtube. It's a very strange world we live in. LOL!

      @Kim Collins

      Jan 6, 2015 at 6:11pm

      "So the responsibility for dealing with it—and paying for it—rests mostly with those who caused it."

      That's not a natural or scientific thesis; that is basically a religious thesis. If you want to assign incorporeal things like "obligation" or "responsibility" to people, that is religion, whether you call it that or not.

      It is entirely tenable to hold that the solution is for western nations, with relatively small populations, to remain industrialized and for these western nations to violently militate against the industrialization of other places. That would likely be far more natural than any sort of system of "responsibility." I am sure chimps would not be so stupid as to accept that they need to reduce their resource consumption for the sake of unrelated chimps.

      Being scientific/nature-minded is fine, but you are not going to get any high-minded ethics or 'thick' reality of social obligation out of it. What is the science experiment that proves the existence of responsibility, except possibly inbetween our ears?

      @Kim Collins

      Jan 6, 2015 at 6:11pm

      So you have not done away with the "benevolent deity". You simply think of yourself as the "benevolent deity" that will fix the right obligations onto others.