Considering your costume for this year’s Halloween party? We have a suggestion!
This June, the prestigious journal, Nature, published an article by several scientists expressing concern that we have tipped the planet’s biosphere past a point of equilibrium. Positive feedback loops (explained simply and brilliantly in Leo Murray’s little animated short) are driving climate change faster than scientists anticipated. For the first time, scientists involved in this field are daring to step out from behind their mask of technical reserve and sound an alarm. We should listen.
What are the most scary monsters in the closet this year? Ever have a math nightmare? One of those where no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get the numbers to add up on the test and the clock was ticking? Bill McKibben describes how humanity as a whole is having that dream. We keep adding more numbers together and trying to get them to add up to less. Check out the math yourself (not for the faint of heart) at Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. For those of you who relish an encounter with a few numbers, and want to participate in making things better, help “do the math“.
So, if the math is so clear, how did we get here? Turns out humans are not very good about anticipating the future very well. Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, describes how our somatic self thinks. It thinks in terms of right now. (Hungry? There’s that piece of chocolate cake in the back of the fridge…)
And it’s reasonable that our physical self thinks this way. After all, we’re mortal. Given a choice of receiving $50 today, and $60 a year from now, most of us will take the cash and run. It turns out that our brains are able to run one program at a time (to borrow my detested computer metaphor). Our thoughts are literally instantiated in the neurons in our brains. Which means that when we’re out on the town on Saturday with the girls (or boys, as the case may be), our nervous system is running those patterns – and we fall in with that crowd. That is, we do what we need to belong to that group without a second thought. Come Sunday morning, another pattern might be running (along with a hangover) as we join others in spiritual practice, or meet with family for a family dinner.
Same brain, two different neural patterns running. We can’t do two at the same time with only one brain and body (at least not with any kind of comfort. Psychologists call that state “cognitive dissonance” which is as unpleasant as it sounds.) Given our tendency to think of “what makes me happy now”, and be occupied with the thoughts-feelings-emotions of whatever pattern is running in the moment, it’s amazing humans are able to do as much planning and accomplish as much as we do. Also given our relatively simple cognitive operations, our “gut” response sometimes is smarter than our cognitive one at responding to the complexity of modern life. It’s that gut sense that constellations allow us to tap into, creating a bridge between our felt sense of reality and what our mind is able to absorb.
Systemic thinking is what is needed for us to pull the skeletons out of our mental closets, and take off the bewitching mask that covers the fact that we, collectively, must make some changes if our kind is to continue to thrive on this planet. But, as we’ve seen with the examples above, systemic thinking doesn’t come easily to us.
This is true for the executives of big oil and energy conglomerates. As Bill McKibben points out, the value of those companies, and the shares that executives hold, depends on the number of gigatons of carbon that company can release into the atmosphere. Carbon that we urgently need to figure out ways to keep in the ground to reduce the climate changes that burning fossil fuels releases. But that would, of course, make those shares of Big Oil worth less (ignoring the fact that those “shares” actually don’t belong to them). Oil executives are just like the rest of us. Like being out on the town on Saturday night, it’s possible for them to keep promoting the burning of fossil fuels, without necessarily being occupied by the “doing the math” state in the morning.
The “treat” is that collectively we are able to grasp essential patterns that are happening in our worlds (and in our brains), and to act together to change the course of climate change. As our teacher, Americo Yabar, used to say, “Ahora o nunca!” It’s now or never.
So, if you want to go to that party as something really scary this year, dress as the head of a big oil company, bring a blind-fold, and a squirt gun loaded with oil. If you want to go as something inspiring, “do the math” and let us know what kind of costume you come up with.