Illusions and Climate Change

A baby perceives the world as an extension of itself. If it needs, it expresses that need in the rawest fashion – it cries. It does so instinctively with the expectation that its needs will be taken care of by the parent. As the baby grows, however, there are times when it cries and the parent does not turn up; or fails to understand what the baby wants, or is having a bad day and handles the baby in a rougher fashion than expected. Through these experiences the baby begins to learn that the world is not an extension of its self, but is separate to it, and at times does not have its best interests at heart. Our ego boundary is formed in this way. As life progresses and the child’s social interactions increase, this message is reinforced. In school there are more than enough people who are happy to laugh at, pick on or bully the child. We learn that the world is a more hostile place than we expected or hoped for.

Through these experiences we learn that we have to take responsibility for our own lives in order to make our way in the world and survive. This is a painful realization because it means we have to work, rather than sit back and be taken care of. There is a part of us, perhaps that original instinctual package connected with our helpless state as a baby, that continues to hope that we will be taken care of, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We hold on to this hope with great tenacity. The experience of falling in love is a moment when the ego boundary collapses and we feel euphoria because of the belief that finally we have found the one who will love us and cherish us and for whom we are special. We cling to this and at times fail to see the flaws in the other’s character. Perhaps this is nature’s way (our instincts) of fooling us long enough to procreate before we discover what a terrible mistake we have made.

Our difficulty dealing with change is connected to this same reluctance to let go of the hope that we will be taken care of. We can see this on both sides of the climate change and sustainable economy debate.

On the 28th of March, in the online Reader Supported News service, an article appeared warning that the world is close to reaching the tipping point that will make it irreversibly hotter. According to the article, scientific estimates differ, but the world’s temperature looks set to rise by six degrees Celsius by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are allowed to rise uncontrollably. Will Steffen, executive director of the Australian National University’s climate change institute, speaking at a conference in London, said, “This is the critical decade. If we don’t get the curves turned around this decade we will cross those lines. We are on the cusp of some big changes. We can cap temperature rise at two degrees, or cross the threshold beyond which the system shifts to a much hotter state.”

The ice sheets that act as huge refrigerators that slow down the warming of the planet have probably already reached the tipping point. The West Antarctic ice sheet has shrunk over the last decade and the Greenland ice sheet has lost around 200 cubic km a year since the 1990s. Most climate estimates agree the Amazon rainforest will get drier as the planet warms. Mass tree deaths caused by drought have raised fears it is on the verge of ta tipping point, when it will stop absorbing emissions and add to them instead.

Increased CO2 in the atmosphere has also turned oceans more acidic as they absorb it. In the past 200 years ocean acidification has happened at a speed not seen for around 60 million years, said Carol Turley at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. This threatens coral reef development and could lead to the extinction of some species within decades, as well as to an increase in the number of predators.

There are concerns too as to how the tipping point will affect the Siberian permafrost, which stores frozen carbon in the soil away from the atmosphere.

Yet despite these warnings and predictions that have been with us for some time now, the world has not acted to curb this trend in any significant way. Climate change deniers are rife. Opposition to pro-environment changes or policies, like the carbon tax here in Australia, persist with all the fanaticism of radical fundamentalism.

Why? I would suggest that behind this too is that instinctual holding on to the illusory hope that we will be taken care of. We want to believe that the world is not as dangerous a place as the warnings of Climate Change claim it to be. We want to believe that we won’t have to make changes to our reliance of fossil fuels in favour of developing greater reliance on renewable energy resources because that implies the pain of taking responsibility for our future, like taking responsibility for ourselves as adolescents and letting go of the hope that we will continue to be taken care of by our parents. We hold on to the idea that the free market economy, if only allowed to function free of restraints and subsidies and protections for local industries, is the fairest system possible and would lead to a cross the globe rise in the standard of living. We hold on to our faith in this rather than accept the reality that governments around the world are not going to abandon their people to this economic theory, because the reality is that they will not be re-elected if their people begin to feel the economic consequences on local industries and wages. We hold on to the ideological belief that the global economy can be sustained in exponential growth, despite the global financial crisis. In short, we are reluctant to let go of the dream that the ‘system’ will continue to take care of us, will comfort us with profits, and we will never have to grow up and take responsibility for the global reality that is confronting us.

In the same way, those who protest against the current situation, warning of man-made global warming, expend enormous amounts of energy trying to halt the slide towards climate change – trying to get governments to change policies and prevent us reaching the tipping point, or creating a world economy built on true sustainability (where people restrict themselves to living a lifestyle that is fairer towards the environment and the world’s have-nots). They hold on to the hope that those is authority will notice that they are not acting like good and responsible parents and will change and finally take care of the needs of the environment and the poor as we want them to. It is the hope that we can convince our parents that it really is their responsibility to take care of us so we don’t have to work to take care of ourselves.

Deep down in all of us is that childlike longing that we will be finally taken care of. That we will be comforted and protected and feel safe and nurtured. Perhaps we would be better served by recognizing that humanity is not going to change. We are not going to be taken care of. The tipping point will be reached and future generations will pay the consequences. Perhaps we need to channel our energies into planning what to do about living in a world that will be much harsher to us than the present – a world that does not have our best interests at heart.

More than likely, however, given this instinctual attachment to the illusion of being taken care of dies a very hard death in us, we will probably go on hoping for the best as we slide inexorably into that future.

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About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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