Why aren’t people changing their self-destructive ways, in order to save the planet? Jed Diamond has a surprising theory.
On weekends I often watch BookTV and learn about the latest non-fiction books of interest. This morning I watched Alan Weisman discuss his latest book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? In his bestselling book The World Without Us, published in 2007, Weisman considered how the Earth could heal and how nature would reclaim the human habitat if relieved of humanity’s constant pressures for “more, bigger, and better.” Behind that groundbreaking thought experiment was his hope that we would be inspired to find a way to add humans back to this vision of a restored, healthy planet-only in harmony, not in combat between humans and nature.
But in the last seven years, we don’t seem to have heeded Weisman’s call for change or the warnings of climate scientists and others who have been telling us we’re making our planet unlivable for human habitat. We know from basic biology and ecology that all populations must live within the limits of their environment and all environments are limited by the resources available. We know that populations that continue to grow and grow end up crashing.
This is the danger that Weisman and others have been warning us about. The basic information is simple:
- There are about 7 billion people alive today.
- The United Nations estimates that by the end of the century we could number as many as 15.8 billion.
- Biologists have calculated that an ideal population where all would have enough to eat without ruining the support system of the planet is 1.5 billion.
There seems to be an assumption that if we could just give people the facts, we would wake up and make the changes that are needed to get back in balance with nature. It is crystal clear to many that we are on a path of destruction. We appear to be acting like lemmings and marching off the cliff to our destruction (although lemmings, like most animals, are much smarter than that and don’t choose mass suicide. That story seems to be part of our human fantasy, not the story of real life lemmings).
So why do we continue to act in self-destructive ways in spite of what we know?
We’re Not Stupid, We’re Depressed
For more than 40 years, I’ve been helping people heal. I went to medical school to be a doctor, dropped out and got a degree in social work then a PhD in International Health. Along the way I’ve had to deal with my own depression and bipolar disorder. Over the years I’ve seen many thousands of clients who continue to act in self-destructive ways. They eat too much. They drink too much. They work too much. They ignore their health. They lose faith in themselves. They lose faith in the world. They think of suicide.
I’ve found that few of them are stupid, but many of them are depressed. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) depression is on the rise world-wide. Here are the facts:
- Globally, more than 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression.
- Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.
- At its worst, depression can lead to suicide.
- There are effective treatments for depression.
In the New York Times review of Weisman’s book Countdown we can recognize the world-wide feelings of hopeless and depression that underlie our present crisis. Nathaniel Rich begins his review by asking a provocative question. If we wanted to bring about the extinction of the human race as quickly as possible, how might we proceed? In other words he’s asking, “if we wanted to commit suicide, how would we act?” He answers as follows:
“We could begin by destroying the planet’s atmosphere, making it incapable of supporting human life. We could invent bombs capable of obliterating the entire planet, and place them in the hands of those desperate enough to detonate them. We could bioengineer our main food sources — rice, wheat and corn — in such a way that a single disease could bring about catastrophic famine. But the most effective measure, counterintuitive as it may be, would be to increase our numbers. Population is what economists call a multiplier. The more people, the greater the likelihood of ecological collapse, nuclear war, plague.”
We don’t need more facts about over-population, global warming, or economic collapse. What we need is an acknowledgment of our collective depression, our feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and a willingness to heal ourselves, heal our relationship with others (particularly our “enemies”), and heal our relationship with the Earth.
It’s good to remember that depression is highly treatable, once we recognize we’re depressed.
Image of flat-earth: Wikipedia