Bandy X. Lee M.D., M.Div.

Psychiatry in Society

Saving Ourselves from the Dangerous Inept

We need to take back control for the future of the human habitat.

Posted Dec 19, 2018

While the U.S. presidency has put the world on edge about international peace and our own nation’s drive toward possible war with North Korea and then Iran, an even greater emergency has emerged: our contribution to climate change.  Just as we learn more about the changes that are taking place, new ones appear.

Consider the “Siberian” temperatures in the Northeast over Thanksgiving, the result of frigidly cold atmospheres now regularly escaping the North Pole. Meanwhile, the Pole itself surged above freezing in the dead of last winter, and we brace for more unwelcome news, as we have had with each passing year. Even the worst predictions did not prepare us for the surprises. Many people still do not understand that we are on a path that, unless changed dramatically, will lead to the destruction of our planet as a viable place to live on. While a nuclear holocaust could wipe us out in an instant, we might just escape it; our annihilation through environmental degradation would be slower, but after a certain point inescapable.

For those alive today, reality is “the here and now.” But we must also look into the future, for our own survival. Because of our small scope of awareness, everything before us seems about the same as it was yesterday. But it is not. Based on statistics from the U.S. government and the United Nations, there are 232,000 more people on our planet today than yesterday that we don't notice, 68,000 more acres of arable land seriously degraded or abandoned to agriculture, and 35,000 more acres of forest obliterated. Desertification has claimed over 2.5 square miles more of land in China, and water tables around the world have dropped.

According to the Global Footprint Network, humans have lived on Earth sustainably until sometime in the 1970s. Since then, we have increasingly exceeded its ability to sustain us, engaging in a destruction of our habitat that is tantamount to collective suicidal behavior.

The statistics alone should alarm us: The Global Footprint Network estimates that merely to maintain the status quo, which includes a huge number of hungry people living in terrible misery, it would take 1.7 planets like ours to renewably produce all the resources humanity currently consumes and to absorb its carbon dioxide emissions. Should everyone live like Americans, we would require the resources of almost 5.1 planets to maintain sustainability. Since we are relentlessly heading in that direction, the outcome is almost merely a matter of time: the extinction of humankind.

Few of us think of the future beyond the next few years. Blind to where we are headed, governments and businesses keep calling for ever more economic growth. We cling to an economic system designed to work where population growth and access to resources are unlimited. Unless we mess up, humans should be here for millennia to come. Considering current trends, a larger human population will have to contend with a dryer, hotter, and more polluted planet with rising sea levels. Not only are we destroying earth’s life support system, which, unless stopped, will make it difficult, if not impossible for all of us and many other species to exist. How humans will deal with one another as it becomes more difficult to live in a world with fewer resources and massive migrations is clear: It is a recipe for mass violence.

Our way of thinking is ill-suited for the world we now live in, where future generations depend on what we do today. Our government deliberately changed the release schedule of its mandated Fourth National Climate Assessment to bury it on a Thanksgiving Day weekend. This came not long after United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said, “If we do not change course by 2020, we risk … runaway climate change with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us,” calling it an “existential crossroad” (Guterres, 2018).

There is still an opportunity for our government to do something—before it is too late. Scholars might form national and international groups that would develop recommendations and give them to willing political leaders. Expert analysts might evaluate their suitability for understanding how our planet works and the needs of a wide range of people, not just special interest groups. Mental health professionals might witness the larger patterns of destructive behavior, including the collective suicidal behavior that the damage of our habitat represents and call for a correction of course.  However, the people should demand this, for as David Hume noted in his First Principles of Government, the power is on the side of the people.

It is important for the people to know if an elected leader, by virtue of the power of the office that he holds, is potentially a danger to all. When mental health professionals suggest that a president poses unique risks to the extinction of our species, it may sound hyperbolic. But when we examine the facts of our situation, it's clear that someone who believes that global warming is a “hoax” at this critical moment can put everyone's survival at risk just as much as if he launched the technological power to destroy the world.

Co-authored with Peter Seidel, M.S.

Peter Seidel, M.S., is an architect-urban planner turned author who has written Invisible Walls: Why We Ignore the Damage We Inflict on the Planet and Ourselves, Global Survival: The Challenge and its Implications for Thinking and Acting, and 2045: A Story of our Future.

References

Guterres, A. (2018). “World’s Fate is in Our Hands.” New York, NY: United Nations.