The same way we draw faulty connections between happiness and its supposed sources, we also misunderstand the way that we, our happiness, and the world are bound up. We tend to shift between extremes, pronouncing total independence – we are inventive, there’s no limit to economic growth! – and professing total subordination – I can’t help it, it’s in my genes!
Fact is, we are being simple-minded. We seek happiness – and because it’s difficult, we chase money. We seek to have strong countries, happy citizens – and because we don’t quite know how to do it, we use GDP as the one and only guideline. We see recent trends, and we suggest that the future will be the same, only more so.
We need to see both the trees, and the forest, and learn when the one or the other (or something else) is the best perspective. And usually, it is the network that counts, the connections – and the action.
We are nature, for example. We may claim that we are independent of it, but we are. It’s not just earthquakes and other natural disasters that, even in this time when humanity is shaping processes of the entire Earth system, remind us of that.
Our bodies are nature, the influence that even simple things like sunshine and clouds, humidity and temperature have, still exists. Hell, a large percentage of your own bodyweight isn’t really you, it’s microbes on the skin, in the intestines. We ourselves are entire ecosystems, and when something goes wrong, we feel it, too.
We are cultural beings, too, of course. Even in prehistoric times, people didn’t usually live by themselves, but interacted with others. And not only in war, but also by trade.
The extremes of global trade we see right now may only be possible with oil being abundant and cheap, but “globalization” in trade and movement of people began right around the Renaissance, when people were in general poor, economies not very developed – but profitable and inventive enough to have some traders and dukes invest in grand constructions and the fine arts. Even small indigenous groups just barely scraping by find their ways of having some fun in life.
Limits to resources, limits to how much we can change ecosystems until they shift to a worse state, are not usually a problem. And constantly. Civilizations have always run up against them, and either changed or collapsed.
At present, we are seeing that a world of 9 billion people on one planet Earth is going to run up against limits again, not only locally but even globally – but what is still more important than these limits themselves is how we react to their existence.
Do we continue to deny them, fail to even want to understand them, or do we seek to work with them?
What does it matter to you?
Of course it will matter when the shit hits the fan, but what does it matter now? The usual refrain of environmentalists is that it must matter to you because you are, at least infinitesimally, responsible.
There’s a better take: it matters because how we want to be, what we need to be happy, and whether we are indeed human beings and not just assholes – and I think we are the former, in all our oddity, especially when there is work to be done – is shown in the way we respond to these limits.
Life on Earth is like flying, it was said before. If you want to fly, you have to understand and obey the laws of aerodynamics. There’s a big problem because the laws of physics are pretty clear-cut. If you believe you can fly just so , you can try it, and the feedback will be immediate: you’ll fall on your nose (or go splat).
Civilizations may have encountered ecological constraints before, but when an ecosystem is brought to the point of collapse is much less clear (until the breakdown hits you squarely in the jaw).
The comparison has another side to it, though: As long as you find ways to creatively deal with the requirements of flight, you can find various solutions to the problem. The same laws of aerodynamics are at work, but there are hang-gliders and Jumbo jets, F-14s and Fokkers – and, for that matter, butterflies and bumblebees, sparrows and storks.
Just looking at the range of environments in which human societies have been able to exist, and even to flourish, we see the same process at work. There are limits, which at some point really become restraints, at others are only influences on culture that make some things easier to do than others.
We are “locked in” to certain technologies, to the infrastructure previous generations has built up, just as we have to deal with the way we are, as both biological beings and cultural creatures. But we can also create things ourselves.
We live in different environments, and in different cultures, and to some extent want different things from our lives. We also can’t really know the future, and therefore need a diversity of approaches even from an ecological/evolutionary point of view.
Thus, whether what we create are personal lifestyles which are of less impact and greater, deeper, happiness, or entirely new ways of doing things bringing the virtual economy of services and location-independence in alignment with the simple fact that we are and must be location-dependent, or new technologies and normal ways of doing things – and thus, new ways of doing business, creating value … they will be created by people who try out things, because there’s good work to do, and a life to live.
For those who want to be entrepreneurial about it, design their own fitting lifestyles, there has to be an understanding and acknowledgment of the ways we are connected with immediate environments and global affairs. Some will be motivated only in doing better for themselves (too many of those are around in “lifestyle design” that is just egoistic), but hopefully get willing to accept the challenge to work towards becoming better, not just richer; some will want to influence others, but hopefully not forget that they have to really start with themselves.
Understanding what matters more, and what less, is going to help. We shouldn’t get so caught up in quarreling over that which matters most – even while we aim to learn what’s the best point to “hack” lifestyles – that we forget to just try out what is best for us, as individuals, and for the communities that matter to us, human and not, local and afar.
We needn’t worry about changing everybody – and mustn’t end up not doing too much ourselves. When there are examples to follow, and even more so when the normal way of life is changed, both culturally and/or technologically, to ways which fit better with who we are as human beings, and how we can work towards human flourishing in a world that remains fascinating, diverse, and functioning as a home for us, it won’t matter if others want to “save the planet” or not. It might not even matter if you want to, as long as you work towards a life that is not just happy for you alone, and for a little while.