What to do when problems become too large for the mind to grasp


Denial becomes us. And when it comes to facing our biggest problems—like climate change—deniers crawl out of the woodwork like red ants. Their role is simple: attack the messengers, like those bad, bad climate scientists.

Following the news only makes it worse. The news is a giant dirt-ball of bad. Kids getting shot by police. Terrorist bombings in Afghanistan. Refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. Fukushima still leaking radiation and contaminating the entire Pacific. The Antarctic ice sheet cracking and melting. Sea level rise threatening our coasts. Wildlife extinction rates soaring to levels not seen in 65 million years. Income gaps widening with a handful of people owning as much wealth as half the world’s population. Governments cutting back on regulations, and unsafe buildings catching fire—burning residents alive.

It’s all too much, so most of us do what we do. We go to work, focus on our jobs, go shopping, plan our vacations. Look after our families—and forget the rest. When the big problems come up in conversation we play the blame game. Blame the whites. Or the blacks. Or the corporations. Or men. Or women. Or natives. Or the rich. Or the immigrants. Or the politicians. Or the Koch brothers. Or ‘the system’. Or, hell, even sunspots. There’s plenty of blame to go around. But it rarely includes us—because we know what’s going on. The problem is other people. Everyone but us. Because we’re good. We’re only taking our fair share. And besides, we’re Canadians. We’re a good, solid, peace-loving bunch.

Blame makes it easy to deny our own role in contributing to and sustaining the big problem. But let’s get real. Most of us didn’t create these big problems. We merely inherited them and we inhabit them. And when you live inside something it’s pretty hard to see that something from the outside, let alone find a solution to it. Take shopping for a car, for example. We all want something nice. Something with power windows. Air conditioning. A sunroof. A backup camera and a nice computerized dashboard command centre. Lots of airbags to keep us save. Don’t forget a powerful engine—that also delivers good fuel economy. A leather interior might be nice, too.

We all want what our neighbours have, only a little bit nicer. If they have granite  kitchen countertops, maybe we’ll get marble. So on top of denial and blame we get to conveniently escape into mindless, though presumably pleasant, consuming.

If you’re in business, this isn’t such a bad thing. Your goal, after all, is to sell as much good, expensive shit to people as you can, whether it’s beer or bikinis or bicycles. So you can have enough money to buy shit for yourself, like a house just a little bigger than your neighbours’, where you can throw nice backyard barbecue parties for them.

Or maybe you’re on the tech side, pioneering new science. There’s a lot of good work and money in that too. You can get into med-tech or computer tech, or virtual game tech, or storage battery tech, or communications tech, all feeding into a great, hungry, worldwide market.

All of these circular processes are actually the problem. Human activity has become a global super-organism. And the organism is continually reshaping and reforming. In the business world it’s M&A—mergers and acquisitions—the kind of process that transformed thousands of small media outlets in the US into five huge media mega-conglomerates. The process that built the Irving empire in New Brunswick and Maine. Or the Walmart economy that leached tens of thousands of small family businesses dry.

During the second world war Bertrand Russell, the great 20th century philosopher, wrote about the people’s rush to war. He was “amazed” by the pleasure people found in the excitement of war, and “only an infinitesimal minority seemed to mind.”

Today, only an infinitesimal minority are motivated enough to shift our collective sociocidal, ecocidal behaviour. The dirt-ball of global problems is just too big. But there is something we can do.

We can slow down and even stop. We can work less. We can demand more pay for less work. We can slow down our consumption. We can share things, our land, our cars, our time. We can live more compact lifestyles. We can abandon our First World paradigm of privilege, consumption and competition, and begin to level our vertical, wealth-controls-all, pyramid. 

And here’s how we begin: one mind at a time.

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