Human judges can show mercy. But against the laws of nature, there is no appeal.Arthur C Clark
Is our species on course to commit suicide by planet?
Suicide by cop
You don’t have actually to kill yourself to commit suicide. It is possible to commit suicide through taking conscious, knowing and wilful behaviour likely to provoke a reaction that will lead to your death.
This is recognised in law as “Suicide by Cop”; where armed police capable of and trained in the use of deadly force, are deliberately provoked into using that force by the actions of an individual or individuals.
It is a conscious act of self-destruction, conducted using an understanding of relevant cause and effect relationships.
Suicide by planet
Self-preservation, nature’s first great law, all the creatures, except man, doth awe.Andrew Marvell
In planetary terms, it is not such a huge stretch of credulity to see the parallels between the trajectory of human behaviour, impacts at a global level and the act of suicide by cop. This could be termed “suicide by planet”.
Suicide by planet constitutes the continuation of behaviour likely to lead to death due to wilful ignorance of planetary-scale cause and effect. It may not be the conscious intent of individual people. Indeed, it may be the exact opposite of what most of us intend for our lives.
However, it is a path we are heading down if we continue with global business-as-usual. Our scientific understanding of global cause and effect relationships (as framed by the laws of thermodynamics), the state of the planet and the impacts of how we consume combine to indicate a clear direction of travel.
Such a depressing outcome was not the deliberate plan of the countless economists, investors and policy makers and businesses of the ages. Indeed, many of them were genuinely committed to the advancement of human wealth and (varyingly) the public and private good.
However, when the implications of a course of action are evident but ignored then the only rational judgement that can be made on that behaviour is that it is wilfully suicidal.
Does capitalism’s headlong hurtle towards large though ultimately unbending environmental limits represent an unprecedented attempt at suicide by planet? Is it a collective, subconscious aching for oblivion, for the quiet that there will be once we have gone?
It’s just a thought…..
Of course, this might be an overly negative view of our current situation. It is possible that what we are really talking about is not the suicide of our species but the suicide of our current ways of life….
But to be frank, if we weren’t dead-set upon the suicide of our civilisation then you might think we would design, value and do things differently, wouldn’t you?
Dr Bob Rich
I agree 100%. For many years now, one of my cliches has been: There are only two kinds of people on this planet: greenies and suicides.
Currently, an election is imminent in Australia, where I live. Believe it or not, a group of suicides have formed a “Climate Sceptics Party!”
Thanks for the message. The labels you mentioned certainly are powerful….
In writing the piece I wrestled with assuming levels of concrete consciousness and intent – and it would be unfair to say that those of us who live unsustainable lives are all aware of the net mass effect of our behaviour upon the planet’s systems.
However there are definitely sets of people who fall into much more problematic groupings. In a previous blog piece ( https://www.terrafiniti.com/blog/a-sustainable-future-and-the-status-quo-bias/ ) I categorised these as follows:
“the forces of reaction – those who believe that environmentalists are wrong, are wrongheaded, or who have wilfully or naively misinterpreted data; and forces of protectionism – those who may privately agree that environmentalists have a point but are having far too good a time to want to change”.
Are these the wilful suicides?
I think that it is just a question of timing. When people are concretely sure that something will have a bad consequence they are more likely to take action, and we will surely get to a time when just about everyone will be sure about our planetary damage. I drink beer even though I know that it is widely known that it is not good for health. I have cut down but not stopped. However, if a doctors tells me I am definitely going to die soon I will feel compelled to act decisively. I wonder what the tipping point will be.
Thank you very much for your input. To an extent I agree. The piece is intended to play a small role in reaching that tipping point by re-contextualising the situation in an unpalatable way so we might see it for what it “really” is.
Nevertheless, just like many smokers know the risks but play the odds; massively discounting future value (quality of future life) in preference to pleasure now, likewise many will wish to do the same on issues of sustainability.
Indeed, given that the impacts of environmental and social challenges are likely to be uneven and varied might not many people reckon on carrying on – playing the odds? The danger is that these people might also in the position to influence or maintain the status quo for the good of the few rather than the good of the many.
Clare @ EcoFriendlyLink.com (@EcoExpert1)
I enjoyed your article and it certainly provided food for thought.
If I were to look at Earth from an outside perspective (i.e. knowing nothing of the human race), I would indeed think we were all committing suicide by planet. That is, without doubt, our path.
With a little knowledge of the human race, however, we can see other causes (though with the same effect).
A large majority of people are (a) apathetic – it’s too much hassle to change in order to live more sustainably, (b) they feel they’ve got bigger things to worry about, and (c) don’t believe that their individual actions will make a significant difference (a convenient excuse to continue with (a)).
Then there are businesses, whose leaders are under continual pressure from shareholders to increase profits. Exxon-Mobil (the most profitable company in the world I believe) shows that big profits come from suicide by planet. Their shareholders are happy, and so is everyone with a retirement fund or 401(k) or whatever long-term investment. The workers, who make up the bulk of businesses, are just ‘ordinary people’ with bills to pay, happy to have a job and get their paycheck. Lack of a job / money is a far bigger threat than vague sometime-in-the-future social and environmental challenges. Discounting future value as you say above, is a trademark of our species at this time.
And then we have the politicians who, heaven help us, influence decisions on energy, sustainability and more. At the higher levels, their primary focus is the continuation of power, and that short-term, narrow focus can never be good for the well-being of the planet.
Of course we should design, value and do things differently!
The fact that we’re not, says a great deal about the human race.
Perhaps we are wilfully aiming for suicide by planet, but I suspect we’ll get to that same end by a combination of apathy and short-term gratification / discounting future value – two aspects of our lives which our brains seems to be hard-wired to do, unless we make an effort to change.
Sadly, very few people re-train their brains.
Thanks again for a most interesting article and comments!
Thank you very much for your kind and thoughtful comments.
As noted above, assuming levels of concrete consciousness and intent is problematic and can over generalise. However, the piece is trying to present (as you say) a dispassionate outsider’s perspective. That outsider may judge that wilfully self-destructive behaviour in a context where the implications of that behaviour are freely and publically available is suicidal….
I also agree that, given the way that current economic and market models are constructed, it is entirely unsurprising that shareholders and businesses would prioritise behaviours with manifest short term benefits. Indeed, the same can equally be said for the rest of us. Sustainability currently requires us to act in conflict with our short term interests because of our long term interests.
In the light of this I seek to keep the depressing or condemnatory pieces pretty occasional, I think Thomas Hobbes 7th Law put it best:
“…look not at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow.”
I have also sought to write extensively about how the dominant mechanisms of our world today might be re-engineered to produce innately sustainable outcomes – such as our idea for an IPO for the Earth or our Manifesto for Rejuvenative Technology, or our overarching Towards 9 Billion vision.
Should we be able to effect such “hacking” of the system then perhaps rather than sustainability requiring us to swim against the tide we will instead be swept to a sustainable future!
We really appreciate your thoughts and any further input you might have.