Life and Death

The remarkable decline in violence between humans suggests that we could also restrain our violence against the planet.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 16th December 2015

This is humanity’s great paradox. We are the only animal capable of sustained empathy and altruism towards unrelated beings. And we are the only animal that murders so many of its own kind, and lays waste to the planet it inhabits.

While our violence towards each other has diminished with astonishing speed, as Steven Pinker documents, our violence towards the living planet appears to be intensifying. The megafauna that once dominated most parts of the world is now confined to small and shrinking pockets, from which it is disappearing at great speed. At the current rate of poaching, rhinos and elephants could vanish from almost every corner of Africa by the time a child born today leaves school. Lions once lived almost everywhere: across Europe, Asia, the Americas and throughout Africa. In the 1940s there were some 450,000 remaining in Africa. Now there are 20,000, and the population is forecast to halve in 20 years.

In just one fire season, much of the Indonesian rainforest has been fragmented and incinerated. The marine ecosystem is collapsing in front of our eyes, foodwebs unravelled by overfishing and pollution. Soil, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Association, is being lost so fast that the world has, on average, just another 60 years of crop production. The climatic space in which human civilisation flourished is slamming shut.

Could it be that the two trends are related? Might the remarkable decline in the violence human beings inflict on each other have been obtained by violating the living world? Have we, by seizing and liquidating natural wealth, bought ourselves a temporary respite from resource conflict?

There is a more optimistic way of understanding the human paradox. With the possible exception of the naked mole rat, which is a eusocial mammal (it has a family structure similar to that of bees and ants), no vertebrate species is as sociable as we are. Mole rats subordinate their individual interests only to those with whom they share genetic material. But we are capable of subordinating ours even to those of total strangers: sending money to charities, taking in refugees, volunteering as human shields.

We use our social tendencies to normalise such remarkable behaviour. But the same ability to unite, to put ourselves in second place, can also be used to normalise our darkest tendencies: greed, violence, destruction, subordination to the demands of psychopaths. Most people align themselves with the status quo, whether it be democracy, monarchy, Stalinism, Nazism, care for the living planet or a carnival of ruin.

In other words, the problem is not that we are inherently inclined towards destruction, waste and killing, any more than we are inherently inclined towards angelic feats of kindness and love. Our social brain is capable of normalising either tendency. It is not human nature we need to change, but the norms and institutions that play upon it. In other words, the task is not, as some imagine, impossible, but merely difficult.

Through the transformations Pinker documents, we appear to have undergone what the novelist Michel Houellebecq calls a metaphysical mutation in our relations with each other: the precipitous decline in violence that has occurred, against all predictions, in less than a century. Now we have to do the same for our relationship with the living world.

Yes, there’s a long way to go. We seem to be better at persuading ourselves that we have changed than at changing. Last week’s climate agreement in Paris was widely greeted as a breakthrough. It is nothing of the kind. Shorn of targets, timetables and binding instruments, it is a highly effective programme for salving the collective conscience of the delegates, and little more.

As the website explains, even if every pledge nations brought to the talks were honoured (and already governments like the UK’s are breaking theirs), by 2030 the world will be producing more greenhouse gases than it does today. At that point we will have 14 years to reduce global emissions to zero, to stand a fair chance of preventing more than two degrees of global warming. If the Paris agreement’s “aspirational” aim of no more than 1.5 degrees is to be achieved, other estimates suggest, carbon emissions must fall off a cliff soon after 2020. The festival of self-satisfaction with which the talks ended was a Mission Accomplished moment, a grave case of premature congratulation.

Such failures reflect a general conviction that more effective action is impossible. It’s too difficult, too expensive to prevent the slow collapse of the biosphere; easier just to live with it – or die with it. But while the global support for renewable energy – $121bn a year – is widely decried as an outrageous drain upon the public purse, the $452bn with which the G20 nations support fossil fuels is, apparently, eminently affordable. It’s out of the question to keep fossil fuels in the ground, but not, according to some commentators, to move cities in response to climate change or, as one columnist infamously proposed, to allow the tropics to be reduced to “wastelands with few folk living in them”.

The toxic stream of disinformation about climate change pumped out by companies like Exxon mingles with a deep current of anti-intellectualism. But it is not our destiny to be swept away by this nonsense, any more than it is our destiny to resist it. This is a choice we take both alone and together. We have a remarkable capacity to make and to unmake social norms, as the great rejection of violence since the second world war attests.

There are plenty of examples, among both indigenous people and industrial economies, of collective agreements not to maximise the exploitation of resources. Such restraint is as much of a human tendency as greed and profligacy. If we can stop killing each other so rapidly, we can just as easily and just as quickly stop killing the other beings that inhabit our planet. Human peace and prosperity do not depend on ecological violence. Indeed, it could be argued that they depend on its cessation.