In the investment world, they say talk is cheap but money is dear. So, what people are doing with their money, how they are spending it, and where they are investing it tells you everything you need to know about what’s really going on, who they really are, and what they really believe. The difficulty, of course, is that you can’t rely on the accuracy, logic, or factualness of what people believe, either.
Lots of things people believe are based on wishful thinking, fantasy, and even total nonsense (e.g., Tulip Mania, the world is flat, and Mars is worth trying to live on) and completely divorced from reality: thus, the propensity of economies to go through sudden boom and bust cycles triggered by tipping points that the vast majority of participants never see coming.
So, who and what should we believe about the environmental problems we hear about? And how should that inform our priorities?
Objective reality vs fictional reality
In a presentation titled, “Yuval Noah Harari's Warning About AI,” historian Yuval Noah Harari contends that we, as human beings, are unique in that we live in two simultaneous realities, one that is “objective” reality (it’s snowing outside, I’m cold, I’m hungry, etc.) and another which he calls “fictional reality” that is a creation of our minds.
He argues that all other animals and lifeforms live only in “objective reality” (what is or is not in the real world, right now), whereas human beings also live in our minds, in our imagination, and in our beliefs – what he calls
“…a second layer of fictional reality. A reality made of fictional entities, like nations, like gods, like money, and corporations.”
And because of this,
“We are the only animal that can cooperate on a massive scale and conjure up concepts and ideas that exist solely in our minds, in our imagination.”
He argues that this uniquely human, “creative” process is the reason for mankind’s achievements in scientific, medical, economic, and social endeavors. It is our ability to imagine and believe in the same concepts and ideas at the same time, or as he puts it, the “same fiction,” and work together to bring them into being that has allowed us to do everything from building the pyramids to space travel.
There seems to be no end to our capacity to create, invent, and imagine things that make our immediate personal lives more comfortable, easier, and, for some of us, much more profitable. But, Harari also contends that because of this ability to dream and create a fictional reality, “the most powerful forces in the world today are no longer based on objective reality” but on the wants and needs and omnipotence of our fictional entities—in his words, “nations, gods, money, and corporations,”--and now, also technologies, and therein lies the danger.
In his case, Harari is concerned about the negative consequences of artificial intelligence. But in principle, his thesis applies to our human condition, in general.
The great paradox, however, is that although this human ability to imagine a so-called fictional reality has enabled us to conceptualize and discover modern medical, scientific, and technological marvels, it has also given us the ability to hold beliefs that provide escape from reality’s harsh truths.
For example, the belief in an afterlife has been with our species for more than 350,000 years (based on evidence of hominids burying their dead along with personal items) despite any evidence of its veracity. Yet, it’s a very comforting thought in the here and now and, ironically, has no doubt enabled human beings to take enormous risks to achieve their goals, over the millennia.
All this considered, perhaps, nothing may be more fraught with risk than our beliefs about science and the condition of our planet: things that operate on very long timelines, which obscures their immediate cost/benefit and ultimate impacts on our well-being.
This begs the question…
In all his conjuring, Harari fails to ask a critical question about these “fictional realities” that impact our physical, emotional, psychological, and socioeconomic existence, which is, why some theories, ideas, and creations endure while others fail over time. In other words, which are true and which are a mirage?
Ironically, the answer has always been whether or not those theories, ideas, concepts, and creations were based in objective reality, in the first place, rather than being just another passing mania or failed attempt to assume that the world would conform to our personal beliefs. And the hardest thing about determining which is which is that sometimes bad ideas remain very popular for a long, long time, doing enormous damage in the process. Or, as an old Wall Street adage goes, “The market can stay “wrong” (in your opinion) longer than you can stay solvent.”
We seem to be living in a time when that phrase is metaphorically apt.
There is no shortage of examples of this kind of “fictional” destruction based on misguided ideologies run amuck. But, perhaps, the most pressing of these is the current disconnect between our shared global survival challenges and the business-as-usual trajectory of our present personal, corporate, and government priorities. As we struggle for vainglorious attention and fight for every inch of the turf and resources we feel we’re entitled to, all of which fit the narrative of our current, fashionable, “fictional realities,” a whole lot is going on in the world that our “special ability,” as Harari describes it, allows us to deny and block out.
At the moment, it appears many have chosen to double down on selfishness, greed, hyper-competitiveness, territorial instincts, anti-other rhetoric, contests for dominance, and all the rest of our zero-sum, fear-driven beliefs despite ample historical evidence that those approaches don’t end well.
No one wants to be right about this
In a recent article in the Guardian, titled, “No one wants to be right about this,” scientists were asked how they felt about the dramatic increases in severe weather-related events around the world: flooding, wildfires, droughts, etc. Their sentiments ranged from “deep sadness” to being “stunned by the ferocity” of the impacts of climate change. As noted by Lesley Hughes, board member of the Climate Change Authority and an emeritus professor at Macquarie University,
“I don’t know how many more warnings the world needs. It’s as if the human race has received a terminal medical diagnosis and knows there is a cure, but has consciously decided not to save itself.”
A lot of people still think human-caused climate change is a hoax or being exaggerated. (I know, I get hate mail.) But even if you’re one of those, what if I told you that even our hyper-focus on climate change being the environmental challenge of our time is yet another fiction we’re stuck on that is allowing us to ignore the bigger picture?
The truth is, we’d be lucky if global climate change was the only thing we had to worry about.
Consider this: Mankind has done more damage to the planet’s ecosystems (negative impacts on our air, water, wildlife, oceans, forests, food web, etc.) in the past 75 years (since the late 1940s)—in less time than the average life expectancy of a person living in the U.S.--than mankind did in the prior 3+ million years of the existence of our homo genus species.
In 2019, I posted an article titled, “Party on to the Apocalypse.” Since then, every single dramatic, negative trend of global degradation, all the charts and facts shown about habitat loss, massive species extinction, desertification, river and aquifer depletion, greenhouse gas emissions, ocean warming and acidification, coastal dead zone expansion, collapsing fisheries, coral reef deaths, toxic chemicals pollution, air pollution, waste production, loss of rain forests, soils degradation, and much, much more has continued to get worse.
That is also astonishing.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that this is being caused by what we do, how we live, what we discard, the byproducts of our lifestyles and our bigger-than-all-of-us socioeconomic construct from which none of us can really escape, despite our good intentions, rich or poor, but particularly the world's poor. Yet, it's in our nature to procreate, to create, to grow, to expand our reach, to strive for more, focused on the here and how, while our escapist fantasies and denial increase in parallel with the unsustainability of our expanding impacts; a strange, reciprocal, psychological balancing act at work. And for the general public, environmental impacts still remain a “someday” issue to deal with.
The Marin Post gets complaints for posting scientific findings and facts about all of this; admonishing us that it’s too much “bad news” and not uplifting.
But isn’t that the point?
If facts and data are sugar-coated to have Hollywood endings, if “hopeful” outcomes are constantly promised to diffuse our fears (and to avoid losing advertising revenues), and if we’re constantly being soothed by fantasies about human ingenuity saving the day, doesn’t that just enable more denial and negative outcomes?
How will anything but the truth have any chance of changing anything?
A cautionary tale
After the end of the Moai carving era (the big head statues), the remote Pacific island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) was a treeless world, denuded by over-population and environmental degradation. In this era, old gods were replaced by new gods, one which was the deity Make-Make, who was the chief god figure of what was known as the Birdman Cult.
The Cult’s annual ritual included a fierce and dangerous competition to collect the first sooty tern egg of the season from the islet of Motu Nui, a swim back to Rapa Nui, and a climb up the steep and jagged sea cliff of Rano Kau to the clifftop village. The winning strongman would lead the people for the next year.
The sooty tern, worshipped by the people of Rapa Nui, was a long-winged flyer capable of covering vast distances across the entire Pacific Ocean. Competitors in the annual rituals believed that if their faith was strong enough and their heart was true, they’d someday be empowered with the gift of flight to take them away to paradise.
Will human nature ever change?
Bob Silvestri is a Marin County resident, the Editor of the Marin Post, and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded by individuals and nonprofit donors. Please consider DONATING TO THE MARIN POST AND CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of all California residents.