A problem which I have not really covered in this column, but which is sort of like the metaphorical elephant in the room of modern terrestrial society, is that of climate change. I must admit that for a long time I had difficulty connecting climate change up with the principal topic of this column which is the effects of modern technology on living environments and the effects of those transformed living environments on human behavior. But lately I have begun to see how strongly these two problem areas are related. In previous articles, I have discussed how many people who live overly frictionless lives try to find ways of creating intensely abrasive friction in order to pull themselves out of the numbness they experience as a result of this excessive frictionlessness. Among these ways are actions leading to physical self-harm and even suicide.
Nowadays we see how harmful the way we have developed our modern technological society has been to our living environment. And we are at the threshold of paying the price with the growth of extreme weather events that are so destructive to natural landscapes, physical property, and human lives. Yet with so much evidence coming in from scientists all over the globe, why is it that human beings are so slow, almost reluctant to take the appropriate steps to stop or at least significantly slow down the progression towards this destruction.
Some people will say that fighting climate change will significantly harm the world’s economies, that we need fracking and rapacious mineral extraction and despoiling of forests and manufacturing plastic products and high energy consumption among other economic phenomena in order to maintain our comfortable standard of life and maintain the jobs that many workers need in order to participate in this comfortable technology-based standard of life. For me, this is basically a rationalization. There is no reason why workers can’t transfer from the extraction of oil and coal and natural gas and from working in nuclear power plants to so-called clean energy: solar, wind, and biomass. To some extent this transition is occurring now, but it is not occurring fast enough. And there is no reason that forests in the Amazon have to be razed to convert land that was not meant to be cattle ranches or soybean farms into these inappropriate uses. Similar despoliation is occurring in Indonesian rainforest, only there the land gets converted to palm oil production. And one must not forget that the wood itself from all the beautiful tropical forests is itself a major economic commodity.
But there are ecologically sound ways of exploiting the resources of the Amazon without destroying them. For instance, harvesting the forest plants from the Amazon, plants that, in many cases have marvelous medicinal properties. And, of course, there are many edible plants in the Amazon, many fruits and vegetables. So the Amazon doesn’t have to be destroyed to provide enormous benefits. But the present president of Brazil is supporting the economic rampage that is occurring in his country, just as the president of the U.S. is supporting the economic rampage that is occurring to some of our wilderness areas.
So what is going on here? Is it simply the desire to reap economic benefits that is leading so many people all over the world to destroy the nature that sustains us? The Amazon, for instance, is a crucial producer of oxygen for the planet.
I would suggest that the ground reason for this destruction is the need to pull out of the numbness that is created by our frictionless vacuumized living environment. Destroying our natural living environment is another way of committing self-harm. It is like cutting our wrists or overdosing on recreational drugs. It is like committing suicide. In order to fight the living death of numbness, one has a big bang short period of feeling alive in the process of killing oneself. Because, if we continue to destroy nature the way we are doing now, we will create a climate with so many extreme climate events that it will become very difficult for humans and other life forms to survive. The pleasurable kicks of unbounded economic exploitation of our natural environment will be followed by the unavoidable pain of extreme climactic instability. Some of these events, like the recent Australian fires, are already happening.
In previous articles, I have discussed this phenomenon of an existential situation of a living death in modern times leading to an urge to carry out an abrasive explosive destructive action to jolt a person out of his numbness. For instance, sometimes a person pulls out of his numbness not so much by directly harming himself, but rather by directly harming others. All what I have called in the past the crimes of numbness, and, in particular, the senseless random massacres of innocent people. In the case of these massacres, the abrasive pain is not felt directly by the perpetrator, unlike all the different cases of self-harm. But it certainly is felt indirectly. In truth, in the case of harm carried out on natural environments, everyone is directly affected in the long run: the perpetrator, the people around him, the animals around him, the vegetation around him and ultimately the planet earth as a whole. In the long run, to the extent that all the acts of destruction against nature lead cumulatively to the destruction of the planet earth as a tolerable living environment, we can say that these acts have the most serious long-term consequences for human beings. I say long-term, because, unlike self-harm, suicides, homicides and massacres, the negative effects to the health and lives of human beings are not usually apparent with any one given act of destruction against nature.
Nevertheless, it is our growing feelings of numbness, as a result of our lives becoming overly frictionless from all the modern technology in our lives, that are a major cause of the three increasingly random modern forms of destruction perpetrated by humans: self-harm, harm to others and harm to nature. And the only way we can prevent these different forms of harm from destroying us is by getting in touch with the nature in us again. Instead of using more and more devices to make our lives more and more frictionless, we should move away from mediated experience, which makes us increasingly numb, and develop the ability to absorb the stimulation again of directly engaging the world with primary experience. We must develop our capacity again to absorb organic stimulation as the mammals that we are, and, in particular, to tolerate the organic friction - the difficulties, the resistance, the stumbles – that have been a part of every traditional life narrative. This is distinct from the abrasive friction of technological tension-pockets and our recreational kicks which are sensory distortion, forms of stimulation that humans are not built to absorb very well.
I know all this sounds very nebulous, very abstract, but the changes we need to make in ourselves are very subtle. And yet only after we make these changes can we truly get back into a meaningful human narrative: making, receiving and preserving organic imprints, living vibrant lives, and preparing for death with surrogate immortalities. Only after making these important changes can we develop the capacity to absorb and appreciate more traditional natural living environments which will make us want to more effectively preserve and cultivate them. Which will pull us out of our numbness and diminish our predisposition towards destructive actions directed against ourselves, others and nature. And, in particular, maybe we will be able to save our planet from the worst effects of climate change, and maybe we humans, as well as the animals and vegetation, will be able to survive.
© 2020 Laurence Mesirow