The World Will End in Apathy & Entitlement (Or, Our Killer is Narcissism)

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 us, after all. What’s happening out there—climate change, global warming, and so on—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. Our true killers, I contend, are apathy and entitlement. (Or alternatively, it could be said that our killer is narcissism, as narcissism a trait highly associated with both apathy and entitlement.) 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…

First, 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 all that 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 and engagement 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. The modern world has left us with more stress and fewer hours in the day to manage it.

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. And it’s not limited to the West. As a species, we tend to believe that we are entitled to nature and the world 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 abundantly obvious; we might consider slavery and war as particularly horrific outcomes within an exclusively human context. Yet all human-caused environmental degradation—and climate disruption itself—can be readily tied to our unmitigated sense of entitlement.

But what is the source of such delusions of grandeur? It’s not as if we were handed a deed to the Earth; 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 the gods. Has such human entitlement—all the grandiosity and self-glorification—simply been programmed into our collective psyche? Or, alternatively, is it a delusion produced by our evolutionary drive to acquire more agency in the world, and to control our environment? It is a much antiquated idea, of course, that the Earth and its nonhuman inhabitants “belong” to us; and yet this idea persists in some form, to some degree, everywhere, as does the notion that we might be, in any given instance, “deserving” of anything? Why do we believe we deserve things, or that we have a “right” to anything at all?

I recently read an article discussing rising concerns over the recommended elimination of factory farming. It seems that in response to proposed methods to reduce carbon emissions, some Americans fear that they’re going to lose their beef—that eating hamburgers in the future may not be possible. I suppose clarifying that no one has actually proposed banning beef or hamburgers is a good 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 has suggested that beef would be outright eliminated.

But here’s the real problem: Even if it were determined that “real” beef hamburgers had to be forfeit in order to slow global warming, maybe it’s time to grow up and realize that long-term sustainability might require some sacrifice. Why do people feel so entitled that they believe they should be able to eat whatever they want? And, more importantly, why do people feel entitled to do what they want regardless of the consequences for others? (And how does such a belief persist in adulthood when we consider the values we attempt 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 bounds. The effects of our behaviour are ignored, and even when we do get a hint, we engage in denial. Why? For one, we believe we’re also entitled to our own perspectives and opinions, an arrogant yet infectious attitude that has allowed us to ignore countless consequences of our actions. Our apathy and entitlement make us feel invincible to the world, and largely resistant to considerations of effects and outcomes. 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 truth is, some serious sacrifices are needed in order to respond appropriately to ongoing climate disruption (in addition to many of the 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 has to be resolved, too, if long-term sustainability really is 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 difficult questions, about who we are and where we find ourselves in this world. What do YOU feel entitled to? What do you really care about? And, most pressingly, what are you willing to sacrifice?

What is it going to take to make this work?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *