THE BLOG
12/31/2014 09:58 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

After Lima's Climate Talks, a Path Back to Sanity?

Last weekend in Lima, Peru, delegates from nearly 200 countries struggled through the night over a draft UN agreement that will lay the groundwork for a new Climate Change treaty in Paris by the end of 2015. The result -- hailed as a breakthrough by policymakers -- won't commit nations to enough greenhouse reductions to prevent a more than 2 degrees Celsius rise in global temperature. This is the threshold beyond which melting polar ice and other factors will likely lead to irreversible and catastrophic climate change.

That same week, a dip in oil prices caused the Dow to drop 300 points in a day, filling newspapers with speculation about what this might mean for the global economy. The disconnect was clear: what was happening in Lima and what was happening with the Dow seem to exist on two different planets. Oil still rules. We have not yet begun to shift our thinking as if climate change will take place in the real world.

Given that 22 years ago, climate change was high on the agenda at the Rio Earth Summit, and 18 years ago the Kyoto Treaty was signed, why are we still increasing our greenhouse gases every year? The technology for clean, green energy exists today. So why is China still building coal power plants? Why is the U.S. still dickering over the Keystone Pipeline, which, if built, will bring the world's most carbon-polluting oil (from Canada's Alberta Tar Sands) to a global market?

We must be insane. And there must be more to it than that. To help get some perspective -- and perhaps to help us find our bearings, I interviewed senior lecturer of Psychology from Leeds Beckett University, Steven Taylor, who is the author of Back to Sanity:

Question: In Back to Sanity you see humans as collectively suffering from a condition you call humania. What is humania?

Taylor: Humania is basic psychological disorder which most human beings suffer from. It's the source of our dysfunctional behaviour, both as individuals and as a species. It's normal for human beings to be slightly insane -- but because the madness is so intrinsic to us, we're not aware of it. I sometimes refer to it as "ego-madness" too, since the disorder is the result of the malfunctioning and the mal-development of the ego.

Humania means that the normal state of our minds is one of discord. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that "Life is suffering," and this suffering begins in our minds. This inner suffering -- or psychological discord, as I refer to it -- is so normal to us that we don't realize it's there, like a background noise that you're so used to you don't hear anymore. But it has massive consequences. It means that we have to keep our attention focused outside ourselves, and fill our lives with constant activity and distraction, like addicts who need a constant supply of a drug. It makes it impossible for us to find contentment. It causes discord in our relationships. It impels us to search for well-being and fulfillment outside ourselves, in wealth, success and power.

Question: How would you relate the condition of humania to our sense of global environmental crisis?

Taylor: There is a strong connection. It's partly related to what I call our "over-developed sense of ego," or intensified sense of individuality. This creates a sense of separateness, which means that we don't feel connected to the "web of creation," the network of life on Earth. Our separateness makes us feel entitled to dominate the rest of nature, which is why we feel entitled to own land and natural resources. This is one of the traits that indigenous peoples found most difficult to understand about Europeans. Ownership implies a position of superiority and dominance. Since we know that we are conscious and alive ourselves, and perceive natural phenomena as not being alive and conscious, we feel that we're superior to nature, as a master is to a slave, and so feel entitled to dominate it.

The second way in which the environmental crisis is related to humania is through our "de-sacralised" vision of nature, our inability to sense the "being-ness" of natural phenomena. As children, we perceive the world around us with intense and vivid perception, and the natural world does appear alive to us, but as adults, our vision of the world becomes desensitized and automatic. We switch off to the vivid is-ness which we experience as children. The phenomenal world becomes a shadowy, one-dimensional place. In Australian Aboriginal terminology, we lose the ability to "enter the dreaming" of natural things. And again, this encourages us to treat natural phenomena as objects. It means that we don't have any qualms about abusing and exploiting the natural world, tearing up its surface in search of resources and polluting it with our waste.

Question: Do all humans suffer from this condition? If not, what can we learn from those who don't?

Taylor: No, not all - although now it's probably the majority. I think many of the world's indigenous peoples didn't (or don't) suffer from the condition. Many indigenous peoples didn't perceive themselves as personal, self-sufficient egos in the sense that we do. Their sense of identity included their community and their land, which is part of the reason they felt such a strong attachment to it. In other words, they don't seem to suffer from ego-separation in the same way we do, and so don't feel the same impulse to dominate and exploit nature. They also seem to be able sense the sacredness and is-ness of the natural world in a very direct way. (I've just read a book of Indian American speeches called Touch the Earth which illustrates this very clearly.) Many indigenous peoples believed that the Europeans' lust for possessions was a kind of madness. They were shocked by the Europeans' lack of connection to -- and lack of reverence for -- nature.

We can learn a massive amount from the way these peoples respected nature, and attempted to live in harmony with the earth. They knew that people like us, who feel that they are entitled to dominate nature, and to plunder its resources for their own use, would inevitably mistreat and over-exploit the natural world. They had a sense of humility in their interactions with nature, and a strong sense of responsibility.

Question: In Back to Sanity, individualism leads people to a kind of separation from the planet and from other peoples. In the climate negotiations, the Chinese, Indians, and many other nations with non-individualistic world views seem to be fighting for their own singular issues just as much as Western nations. How do you make sense of this?

Taylor: India and China have strong spiritual traditions (e.g. Vedanta, Yoga and Taoism) but these traditions are only tiny cultural streams. In the main aim, their cultural ethos is almost as materialistic as European cultures, with a similar egocentricity. There's also the issue of when there may be a strong sense of collectivism within a particular culture, but on the group level there is a strong egoism -- in other words, the individual's ego is subsumed into the group, and the group becomes the expression of their own individual egotistical drives. On a group level that manifests itself as nationalism and expansionism -- a promotion of the interests of your group as the expense of others.

Question: From your point of view, what's the way forward for humanity?

Taylor: There needs to be a major psychological shift - which I think is happening already, although maybe not rapidly enough. I think that collectively we are beginning to transcend the separateness of the ego, and developing an increased connectedness -- with each other as human beings, with other species and with nature. In that sense, I think we're coming full circle. We also need to transcend the kind of automatic perception which switches our attention off to the is-ness of the world, which makes us mis-perceive the world as an inanimate place. We need to develop a new sense of the sacredness of the natural world. And on a conceptual level, we need to develop an extended sense of identity, which goes beyond ethnicity and religion, which transcends all group identity, so that we only identify ourselves as members of the human race, or as part of the network of life on earth. Again, I think that is happening already -- but too slowly.

Question: In the immediate future -- 2015 -- what do you think people can do to influence their leaders and negotiators to move beyond their humania on road to a Climate agreement in Paris that has a realistic chance of averting catastrophe?

Taylor: We need to let our leaders and the mass media know that we're not as stupid as they assume, that we're more than just consumers of material goods. We need to let them know that the future of the human race -- and the earth itself -- is at stake. They should realise that they have responsibilities which go way beyond satisfying their own electorate, their own party or their own desires for power. And at the same time, we have a responsibility too -- not only through action and protest, but through inner transformation. We're part of the collective consciousness of our species, and we have the power to change that collective consciousness, through our own personal development.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity and The Fall . www.stevenmtaylor.com
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