Your sense of separateness is an existential risk

Your sense of separateness is an existential risk Our future will be grim if we do not face reality. Image source: cottonbro from Pexels.

One of my greatest concerns about modern society is that we view everything as separate. We see ourselves as divided not just by our individuality, but also by groupings such as politics, race, religion, sexuality, occupation, wealth, nationality, and geography.

We also regard ourselves as separate from nature. Modern society tells us that we are superior to, and detached from, the natural world. As a result, many believe we can continue to destroy ecosystems at an ever-accelerating pace and somehow everything will be OK. But of course, it won't.

This sense of separateness is a dangerous illusion. Whether we accept it or not, the reality is that we are inextricably connected to each other and the natural world. This is especially true when it comes to threats like global heating, pandemics, pollution, ecosystem collapse, water scarcity, and soil degradation, which are potentially catastrophic for humanity and nature. 

Not only does this illusion facilitate the denial of these dangers, it also prevents us from acknowledging that we share common threats and therefore compelling reasons to work together. An understanding of our connectedness could unite us. However, society's growing fragmentation and resulting tribalism creates fears and bigotries which can be exploited by the powerful, especially politicians, to divide and manipulate us. 

If we instead viewed ourselves as part of the natural world, perhaps we would recognise that our destruction of nature is threatening our own survival. By almost any measure, we are rapidly annihilating the natural systems that sustain all life on Earth. But despite the ongoing chorus of warnings from experts, many political and business leaders are stubbornly clinging to the status quo, or adopting greenwashing as their "solution". 

Thankfully, there are also growing numbers of business people and politicians who acknowledge the threats and genuinely want to find solutions. However, they are still in the minority and face numerous obstacles, many of them systemic. At the end of the day, what matters is outcomes, and most of the indicators for the problems mentioned above are trending in the wrong direction. We urgently need to do something about that.

Business leaders sometimes neglect to sufficiently consider environmental or social impacts because their focus is mostly on short-term financial goals. When questioned, many say that environmental and social protections are the responsibility of government. But the "Catch 22" is that big business is spending billions of dollars lobbying governments to allow them to put financial ambitions ahead of environmental and social concerns. For example, the forestry lobby has persuaded the EU to obtain most of its "renewable" energy from burning trees. The EU also plans to label some gas power plants as "green investments". Burning things for energy might be profitable and convenient, but it is not appropriate if we are serious about limiting heating to 1.5-2.0C. 

Adding insult to injury, corporations and billionaires have successfully lobbied to reduce or avoid taxes in many jurisdictions which strengthens their ability to continue influencing politicians with vast sums of money and diminishes potential funding for social and environmental programs.

Hopefully, it is clear why this symbiotic relationship between "The 1%" and politicians is troublesome. But perhaps you're wondering what business strategy and political lobbying has to do with "an illusion of separateness"? Well, by typically focusing on short-term financial gains, business executives have separated themselves from responsibility for the long-term consequences of their actions. Furthermore, by spending billions lobbying governments, they are causing politicians to focus on the needs of big business instead of their electorates, thereby driving a wedge between politicians and the people they are supposed to be serving.

It is worth noting that like the rest of us, politicians typically see themselves as separate from nature. So when big business says it wants to clear fell virgin forests, or open a massive mine, and local communities say they want the resulting jobs, it is tempting to always say "yes" regardless of how catastrophic the consequences are for nature. 

Statistic: Total lobbying spending in the United States from 1998 to 2020 (in billion U.S. dollars) | Statista

In 2020, the total lobbying spending in the United States alone amounted to $3.49 billion. Source: Statista.

These days many (probably most) politicians believe their success is linked to satisfying the ambitions of their political donors. Furthermore, experience has shown that if marketed effectively, voters will often support those goals. For example, to avoid taking meaningful climate action, they came up with the idea of "Net Zero by 2050" which sounds great until you realise that today's commitments cannot possibly achieve this goal and it relies on ultra-large scale carbon capture systems that do not currently exist and which might never exist. In other words, it is an utterly inadequate strategy designed to kick the can down the road.

In contrast, when it came to COVID-19, many politicians moved with remarkable speed. However, it was often very parochial and hopelessly inefficient. Every country and even some local governments took their own approach, often strongly influenced by political considerations. Bizarrely, mitigation efforts in some countries are now being hampered by people whose sense of separateness is so strong that they stubbornly refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated because these precautions are allegedly "an infringement on their civil liberties".

Another disturbing manifestation of tribalism is the way that wealthy countries and pharmaceutical companies have conspired to ensure that the majority of COVID-19 vaccine stocks will be made available only to rich countries. How much needless suffering will result from this? Why are we not helping low-income countries to create or improve their own vaccine production capacity?

Governments around the world are now busy spending trillions of dollars on stimulus to recover from the economic disruption caused by the pandemic. This money could have been spent creating a green and fair economy. But last year, only $368 billion of a $14.6 trillion budget for Covid-19 recovery across the world's largest 50 countries was spent on green recovery initiatives. There are many reasons why this has happened, but I believe the primary one is that most politicians care more about their corporate donors than they do about regular people or the environment. They also feel little or no obligation towards the future generations who will pay the greatest price for their inaction. But of course, the latter can't vote or make massive donations to political campaigns, so they typically aren't a factor in political decisions.

Politicians and business leaders aren't the only ones reluctant to take action. Many of us look at our urban environments which are completely detached from nature and assess that everything seems normal, so we do not feel any imminent threat. Meanwhile, others insist that the warnings are "fake news" from a "deep state conspiracy" to "take away our liberties". 

But the reality is that unless we make radical changes, the oceans will continue rising; large swathes of land will become too hot for humans to live; pollution will grow worse; farmlands will become infertile; glacier-fed rivers will dry up; potable water will be scarce; wild fish stocks will be decimated; many of the world's key ecosystems will collapse; and people will be displaced by the millions. This is the disastrous future that our current trajectory will create if we don't take urgent and effective action.

So what's the solution to this pandemic of narcissism, parochialism, and denial? How can we get our leaders and communities to acknowledge that if we strive to regenerate nature and society, we will have better outcomes for everyone? Personally, I think it largely depends on creating a sense of connectedness, mutual obligation, communication, and collaboration. 

Firstly, we must acknowledge that we are all living on the same pale blue dot and that the natural systems which sustain us must be nurtured, not abused.

Secondly, we need to stop caring only about our own "tribes". Instead, we must commit to the betterment of humanity and nature everywhere on this planet, our home.

Thirdly, we must pressure governments to stop accepting bribes (let's call them what they really are) from corporations and billionaires, and restructure financial and regulatory systems to reward pro-social and pro-environment behaviour and prevent unsustainable practices.

Finally, we must apply systems thinking to solve these interconnected problems. To achieve that, we must venture outside our "silos" to explore the full spectrum of issues and available options, then work collaboratively with professionals and experts from a broad range of backgrounds to find the best solutions. Now is not the time to hoard information, or say you're "too busy" to help others. We must work together for the common good.

Towards this end, I have created GreenExective.com, an online community for professionals and experts who are striving to build a green and fair economy. If you haven't already done so, I urge you to JOIN right now and actively participate. Spending just a few minutes each month (obviously more is better) posting or answering questions would make an important difference because if enough people participate, we can start to break down some of those illusions of separateness, share the latest green knowledge with anyone who needs it regardless of their "tribe", and thereby assist our members in steering us towards a better future. 


Adam Thyer is the Founder of GreenExecutive. He is not a scientist and does not claim to be an expert on sustainability. This post is simply an expression of his personal opinions as well as information he found when researching these topics. 


Any opinions or views expressed in this blog post are those of the individual author, unless explicitly stated to be those of GreenExecutive.

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