Rising sea levels, ocean acidification, deforestation, ecological collapse—should our time on Earth end early, these are just a few of the ways in which catastrophe will unfold, given current trends. But these things are not our real killers…
From a psychological perspective, it would be wise to consider the human qualities underlying the environmental changes that now threaten our existence. These problems do not originate outside of us, after all. What’s happening out there—climate change, global warming, etc.—is the result of factors originating within. These are problems of human behaviour on a mass scale. They are the result of complex interactions among numerous social and psychological traits, from denial and greed to a lack of intellectual humility.
But there are two traits that have the potential to bring it all down, if we don’t change our ways soon. I propose that any thorough examination of human nature is likely to reveal that our real killers are apathy and entitlement. (Or alternatively, it could be said that our real killer is narcissism, as this trait is associated with both.) The role of these traits in our collective decline is painfully obvious, once you break it down. And as a species, we are long overdue for a little self-examination.
There is evidence that empathy has been on the decline for decades. Indeed, we are becoming more apathetic. We care less, not only about those around us, but about the world itself, and that includes other living things that exist in that world. This all makes a great deal of sense within the context of rising materialism, entitlement, and narcissism—a clear shift towards greater superficiality. The consequences of apathy are far-reaching, from a lack of engagement in democracy to the passive enabling of corporate greed and further exploitation of the natural world. At a time when people need to care more than ever—when many scientists suggest that it is time to panic (see this article)—many are turning their backs.
But why are we caring less? On one hand, it could be the result of our ongoing disconnect from nature. As we retreat further into our devices and online worlds, we continue to remove ourselves from what is real. Though we have been fed the illusion of an expanded reality, our perspective has narrowed in many ways. Interaction with people and places is far more superficial, with responses often reduced to likes and emojis. We never need to think for too long, or spend too much time, on any one thing. We don’t need to care deeply, or speak meaningfully, or imagine ourselves in anyone else’s shoes. We rarely need to stop, or pay attention, or look at anything for too long, especially ourselves. And on the other hand, we don’t have the time. At least we certainly seem not to.
As our narcissism appears to be on the rise, so too does our entitlement (see Twenge, 2006, 2013). Western culture as a whole is an entitled culture, fueled by the desire to own more and the belief in our right to “own” anything in the first place. In fact, it’s not limited to the West—as a species, we all tend to believe that we are entitled to nature itself; to use and consume its resources, to own it as “property,” and to manipulate it in such a way that best suits our needs. The damage caused by human entitlement is glaringly obvious; we might consider slavery and war as particularly horrific outcomes within a human context. Yet all human-caused environmental degradation—and climate disruption itself—can be easily and readily tied to our sense of entitlement.
But where do these delusions of grandeur come from? It’s not as if we were handed a deed to the earth itself. We were born neither owners nor stewards (though we presume to identify as such). Perhaps these entitlements were bestowed upon us by religion, couched in the assumption that the world was gifted to us by a god. Has such human glorification been programmed into our collective psyche over time? Or alternatively, is it a delusion produced by our evolutionary drive to gain agency, and to conquer and control our physical environment? It is an obviously antiquated idea that the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants “belong” to us; and yet this idea persists everywhere, if only subconsciously. As does the general notion that we might be, in any given instance, “deserving” of anything. Why do people believe they “deserve” things? Why do we believe we have a “right” to anything? (Though a society might afford certain rights to its citizens, rights are not innately determined. They are not given to us by nature, or biology, and so they are not “natural.”)
I recently came across an article discussing rising concerns over the recommended elimination of factory farming. It seems that in response to proposed methods to reduce carbon emissions in the future, some Americans fear that they’re going to lose their beef—that they won’t be able to eat hamburgers in the future. I suppose clarifying that no one has actually proposed getting rid of beef or hamburgers is an important place to start. The suggestion has simply been made that factory farming should be reduced given its deleterious effects on the environment and its significant contribution to greenhouse gases. This could of course reduce the availability of beef, requiring people to eat a little less meat than usual (as grass-fed cows require more space for grazing), but no one is saying that beef should or would be outright eliminated. Such a leap is not even logical at this point in time.
But here’s my real problem: Even if it were determined that hamburgers had to go in order to slow global warming, maybe it’s time to grow up and realize that long-term sustainability may require a few sacrifices. Why do people feel so entitled that they believe they should be able to eat whatever they want? And more generally (and importantly), why do people feel entitled to do what they want regardless of the consequences? (And how does this belief persist in adulthood when we consider the values we try to instill in our children?)
We take an entitled approach to many of the current issues facing our species, but none is more problematic than human-driven climate change. It is caused by our entitlement in the first place. Yes, this is a case of entitlement interacting with entitlement to make matters considerably worse.
And it’s all exacerbated further by our apathy. We believe we can have whatever we want, when we want it, AND we don’t care.
We especially do not care about things we cannot see or understand easily, making consequences of little concern when they happen elsewhere, or to someone else (or to another species). Apathy facilitates a reckless entitlement that knows few boundaries. The effects of our behaviour are ignored, and when we do finally get a hint, we engage in denial. Why? For starters, we believe we’re also entitled to our opinions, an arrogant yet infectious attitude which has enabled us to conveniently ignore numerous outcomes of our actions. Our apathy and entitlement make us feel invincible to the world, and largely resistant to considerations of consequences. They also allow us to ignore science and facts.
But they—apathy and entitlement—are going to kill us in the end, if we don’t get them under control.
I’d like to think we’ll grow up soon, but the fact is, some serious sacrifices are needed in order to respond appropriately to ongoing climate disruption (in addition to other challenges we face). Some collective self-awareness is needed if we ever expect to turn the tide, because after all, this is a problem that originates within. And that’s where it must be resolved, if long-term sustainability is really our goal.
So, let’s engage in the introspection that’s needed (and long overdue), no matter how difficult. Let’s start challenging ourselves to take the time, and to face the tough questions, about who we are and our place in this world. What do YOU feel entitled to, and why? What do you really care about? Most importantly, what are you willing to sacrifice?
And what is it going to take to make this work?