The world as we know it is vanishing. Species are dying and the climate is in crisis. Right now, the pre-historic Australian forests are on fire and hundreds of millions of animals, desperately trying to escape the flames, have been burning to death. The organic planet is heading for widespread destruction and also the future of humanity is under jeopardy. Still, many continue their daily lives as if nothing is happening. It seems as if reason has evaporated with the rising temperatures.
The discussion over the climate crisis tends to focus on politics and economics as if these were fields separate from the human mind. And yes: they have an enormous impact on how we live on this finite planet. They often direct our worldviews, lifestyles and daily decisions. But their current formulations, such as right-wing politics and free-market capitalism, originate from the darkest and most primitive corners of humanity – greed, egoism and search for power. Because of this, we cannot solve the climate crisis without exploring humanity and eradicating those aspects of ourselves, which only feed destruction. Many individuals care deeply and do their best. But why do so many look the other way?
Three groups on the edge of reason
One group of people evade information of what is happening and keep yelling at the world that climate science is wrong and everything is perfectly normal. In a state of dumbfounding ideological fervor, they insist that climate scientists across the globe have no idea, what they are talking about, and that Youtube videos with their bizarrely paranoid and illogical conspiracy theories are a far more reliable source of knowledge.
The failure to accept the reality, manifested by these two groups, is typical to human psychology. It has been explained with terms such as “willful ignorance”, “cognitive bias” or “cognitive dissonance”.
Another group of people accept the information on climate change but seek to forget it as they head to the supermarket with their kids, dreaming of buying that new car or vacations into the other part of the globe. When faced with climate science, extinction of multitudes of species and news of the looming catastrophe, they are acutely worried, but forget quickly so as to carry on living as usual. They remain the silent, passive majority, which failed to respond when there still was time.
The failure to face facts, manifested by these two groups, is typical to human psychology. It has been explained with terms such as “willful ignorance”, “cognitive bias” or “cognitive dissonance”. Whatever the terminology, in a state of such info-failure people run away from reason and knowledge; they become creatures whose heads are buried deep into the buckets of their own denial. The motivations of this free-falling escapism are understandable. The desire to have faith in a blossoming future, the need to believe that all will be well, can push us into refuting the severe realities of the present moment. We all do this to a certain extent; we are all cognitively biased and dissonant in many aspects of our lives. Yet, there are moments in this precarious human existence, when such failures of reason need to be cleared, and the climate crisis stands as the primary example. We all need to face the truths that the planet and its species are screaming at us in desperation.
The third group have the information and knowledge, but they hope to hide it from others. They ruthlessly take advantage of the crisis in order to serve their own political and economic interests. They orchestrate hugely successful PR-campaigns so as to polish the reputation of fossil fuels and various industries. Without mistake, they keep convincing the more gullible parts of the population that the climate crisis is nothing but a green conspiracy, “a climate cult”, that media coverage of species extinction and anthropogenic global warming is “fake news”, and that science cannot be trusted. Indeed, they place themselves as an authority over science, gleefully as in a grotesque parody declaring that they know better than all the scientists of this dying world. This group of people have manipulated relatively large segments of society into forsaking reason, science and knowledge. For them, it is the final act in the grand play of egoism, the last chance to gather as much wealth, political power and admiration of others into the arms of their grinning disregard and superciliousness.
A particularly poignant example comes from those leaders of the fossil fuel industries, who already in the 1980s funded climate science and, upon hearing the gloomy predictions, decided to actively hide knowledge, mock science, and lobby for oil and coal evermore visibly – just to add more zeroes into their bank accounts.
Many politicians and business leaders sit firmly in this group. They are not so senseless as not to know, what is happening. Instead, they are so ruthless as to exploit that knowledge and the widespread destruction of the natural environment and other animals to their own gain. A particularly poignant example comes from those leaders of the fossil fuel industries, who already in the 1980s funded climate science and, upon hearing the gloomy predictions, decided to actively hide knowledge, mock science, and lobby for oil and coal evermore visibly – just to add more zeroes into their bank accounts.
They are in charge of this ship, and they are navigating it straight toward a hell on earth.
This group is the lowest manifestation of humanity. It, too, can be characterized with various psychological terms, ranging from “narcissism” and “psychopathy” to “Machiavellian personality”. Regardless of the choice of term, these individuals are characterized by the inability to note inherent value outside of themselves, inability for genuine empathy and guilt, exceptional talent to manipulate others, a strong will for power, and a deeply self-centered worldview. Studies suggest that there are relatively many who come with such traits, and that they can be found often in the highest offices of politics and enterprise. They are aching to be admired, to have power, to get as much personal enjoyment and financial benefit as possible. They simply do not give a flying f-word about what happens to nature, other animals or even future generations of humans (their grandchildren) – at the centre stage of their existence is “Me”. They are in charge of this ship, and they are navigating it straight toward a hell on earth.
Those, who do not want to know or remember the facts of the current crisis, lack courage to face realities and the responsibility to alter their actions and lifestyles. Those, who take advantage of the ignorance and amnesia of others, lack moral fiber – the capacity to be “human” in the best sense of the word.
The Culture of Narcissism
David Brooks writes in his book The Road to Character (2015) that Western mentality has shifted radically in the past century. He offers a poignant example. The national US radio broadcast celebrating the end of WWII highlighted the meaning of humility. Although US had just won the war, the radio show reminded the nation of how the victory was a collaborative effort and how also winners need to remain humble. Still in the 1940s, bragging and shouting about one’s own excellence to the rest of the world was considered vulgar – virtuousness was, at least in this respect, still honoured. Today, even unadulterated boasting has become the norm. Brooks notes how victorious athletes run around the arena bragging about their achievements. It’s hard not to think of the biggest American boaster of all, Donald Trump, who has made self-aggrandizement into a carnival, and who keeps telling the rest of the globe how intelligent, great, rich, and successful he is (“I am the best!”).
One’s own, big self has been put under the limelight, and other things and beings have ceased to matter.
Grandiosity has replaced humility and vulgarity has become a point of braze – the order of things has tilted up-side-down, poles have shifted and made many too dizzy to remember, what is “good”. Indeed, Brooks suggests that narcissism is evermore prevalent. Sighting various statistics, he argues that narcissist traits have sky-rocketed in US. An increasing number of young folks want to be famous, get easy money, and have power, whilst many struggle with empathy and morality, even deeming the latter to be without meaning. “Me” and related words are those most commonly used, whilst words referring to virtues such as humility have become largely absent.
For Brooks, this is all part of the cult of “Big Me”, which focuses all attention on the self. “You are special”, “You should be accepted just as you are”, “Follow your inner voice”, “You are the best”, “You can achieve anything”, are among the slogans, which popular culture and self-help –literature have pushed into collective psyches so deeply that many have begun to demand that the world notice their extraordinary uniqueness. Humility, sacrifice, solidarity and duties have been swiped away from the scene, and even re-brandished as signs of “weakness”. One’s own, big self has been put under the limelight, and other things and beings have ceased to matter. At its best, morality has become synonymous with following positive feelings, whatever they may be – “If something feels good, it must be morally right”, argue egoistic minds. Everything that is uncomfortable or demanding is shoved into a box and sunk deep into the dying ocean.
Precisely this narcissistic culture has filled many of the highest seats of governments and industries with nothing less than self-serving megalomaniacs ready to manipulate the easily duped into believing that the climate crisis is not real. Individuals, who have absorbed the cult of Big Me readily accept and even admire the narcissistic traits of their leaders – they may even place their votes based on who dares to brag the most whilst ditching morality. They will consider shameless self-promotion as a desired attribute – after all, they take part in such promotion in their own lives. Those struggling with lack of power and identity-related insecurities may wish to identify with someone who dares to be ruthlessly self-serving, with the paradoxical hope that by being puppets of the egoistic leader, a drop of his glory will fall onto them. Egoism and boorish avoidance of responsibility have become points of glorification. When Trump opens his mouth full of lies, people buy MAGA-hats and turn their backs toward nature and other species with apparent disregard to the fact that narcissistic politics will also in the end ruin their own lives and those of their children.
Never trust a narcissist – particularly if you have the whole world to lose.
The logic is simple: if we become accustomed to value egoistic traits, we will also embrace them in those who hold most power. What we in so doing fail to remember is that egoistic traits are bound to lead to nothing but misery and annihilation. Never trust a narcissist – particularly if you have the whole world to lose.
Mark Lilla makes similar claims in his book The Once and Future Liberal (2018). Like Brooks, Lilla suggests that we are living in an era of narcissism. People are eager to advocate for themselves or their own identity-group, whilst the rest of the world is ignored. Lilla posits that social media has a large role to play in this growing ethos of self-emphasis. It pushes us to search for evermore likes to our heavily filtered self-image, whilst “the common good” – whether this be the whole of humanity or the planet – is lost in the cacophony of egoistic power-fights. Increasingly many want to be big individuals, who succeed in life, get more than they need on their plates, are noted and liked, and whose will is followed without counter-arguments. They yell for their rights without paying heed to their own duties. The worst of them search for the type of economic and political power that will dig an ever deeper grave for the environment, other animals and humanity.
Lilla argues that such big egos no longer recognise the relevance of fellow-feeling, duty and solidarity. Those, who search for followers for themselves, their political party or their business interests are not interested in what they can do for others. They live in a one-directed reality: the world is their playground, and they own nothing to that world. Lilla speaks of the “Facebook identity model”, which many have internalized into their minds, and which prioritises the attention we get to a heavily doctored presentation of ourselves. The individual, whose mind Facebook has molded, is obsessed with themselves in the virtual world, and oblivious of the external, material reality, and this is leading to unforeseen levels of egoism and radical individualism.
No wonder, if the planet is dying. The narcissistic culture fosters individuals, who are focused on their manufactured self-image, not reality. They see, what they want to see, and yearn for evermore advantage to themselves. For them, the rest of nature and nonhuman animals are nothing but resources, who exist for the sole purpose of feeding and pleasing humans. Duties toward others species, and the notion of fellow-feeling and solidarity with other animals, the desire to secure a common good for all on this shared planet, have become distant to many. Humans risk becoming imprisoned into their own “selves”, whilst the natural world with its astounding plethora of species, animal sounds, forests, mountains and oceans is replaced by the smartphone screen and compulsively produced virtual content. Such self-imprisoned beings will likely fail to fully understand, why the death of species, animals and natural surroundings is our biggest moral crime – all that death may even seem unreal, irrelevant.
When a narcissistic individual looks at images of Australia and its animals on fire, he may quickly become bored and keep on scrolling for more entertaining content. If someone reminds him that the planet is in a state of SOS and that he needs take responsibility and action NOW, he may loudly complain that he should not be “guilt-tripped”, and grow his carbon footprint evermore enormous.
The Myth of Inner Goodness
Brooks locates the belief in the inner, essential goodness of all human beings as one origin of the narcissistic culture. According to the myth of inner goodness, we all have a beautiful core, which just has to be found – and the method of finding it is endless self-appreciation. If you just believe in your own brilliance, everything is possible, and if things go awry, it is the fault of the external world. Yet, such belief in our inner goodness is false. We have no core, no deep, unchanging essence – it is all fiction. We are nothing but the sum of our choices and motivations. If you act selfishly and greedily, you are selfish and greedy. Here references to the goodness of your hidden inner layers are to no avail, for they do not exist. You are what you do.
Wholesale faith in human goodness is even an antithesis to morality, for it takes for granted something, which in reality requires constant, life-long practice.
Belief in the natural goodness of human beings is perhaps our greatest failing. It makes realistic self-knowledge and understanding of humanity impossible, whereby dark and violent deeds are hidden under endless understanding, anthropocentric hyperbole over human excellence, and excessive confidence in human virtue. Belief in such natural goodness is an inevitable antithesis to the will to change for the better: why challenge yourself and others, why try to become a better person, if you are already essentially good? Wholesale faith in human goodness is even an antithesis to morality, for it takes for granted something, which in reality requires constant, life-long practice. We are not born good or evil, but as creatures, who must actively choose which way they want to grow.
Humans have made an enormous amount of exceedingly bad choices and destroyed far too many animals and far too much nature. Particularly the affluent folks have been irrational, selfish, hellish cock-ups all too frequently. They (we) equal these choices, and if they (we) want to change, these actions need to be placed in the spotlight. It is time to face up to the mistakes humanity has made and do something about them – it is time to change, alter course drastically. And for us to become motivated to cultivate ourselves and our species, and to become wiser, more empathetic, rational, humble, gentle creatures, myths of inner, natural goodness need to be trashed.
This means that also overt understanding needs to stop. We need not keep searching for the good in the trumps of this world, so as to keep on forgiving their heinous actions. We should not remain quiet in the face of egoists hungry for power and wealth, let alone admire their repugnancy. Too much understanding and forgiveness allows destruction to spread. Instead, the moral failures of the narcissist era need to be exposed and condemned loudly, because – as things stand – the worst of humanity is winning and our species is regressing. Cultivating Homo sapiens to become more moral necessitates that we openly speak of the moral failures humanity is capable of and eradicate for good those traits and leaders, who are setting the world on flames.
A Question of Character
Brooks suggests that modern, Western humans have forgotten about the meaning of character. The same argument was put forward in the 1980s by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who in his seminal work After Virtue described the manner in which modernity has overlooked the most important lesson taught by Greek philosophers: that we must refine ourselves to become more moral, build our moral fiber. Nobody is born ready-made, and instead a good human life requires cultivation of character, the learning of virtue. We must practice our reason, honesty, wisdom, compassion, resilience, courage, sense of justice – we must construct a moral backbone.
What do you do, when everything falls apart? Do you stand up straight or do you quit? Do you face realities or do you hide from them? Do you seek to better yourself or will you digress deeper into selfishness? Will you take responsibility or give up?
The modern, Western human being is often like a spoilt child, who ruins what surrounds him, swallows dying species into his gaping greed, bleeds animals into misery and nonexistence, and tears apart mountains in order to find minerals for the smartphones he takes selfies with. Morality is boring for such a child. Individuals used to the hectic virtual realities of social media will struggle to sit still in silence long enough to remember, why morality is needed in the first place. They want admiration and entertainment, not responsibility. The possibility of growing a moral backbone has been pushed outside the ever narrowing scope of attention. No wonder that the modern individual is thereby often unwilling to take responsibility for his actions toward the rest of nature and animals, and instead carries on with his mindless greed even when all around him is collapsing.
Homo sapiens may be at the brink of its final test, which will show whether we are capable of being good toward the planet and our trillions of fellow-creatures.
Brooks argues that times of crises test and manifest our character. What do you do, when everything falls apart? Do you stand up straight or do you quit? Do you face realities or do you hide from them? Do you seek to better yourself or will you digress deeper into selfishness? Will you take responsibility or give up? According to Brooks, crises ultimately test how well we can fight against the shadowy vices of humanity, such as greed, power and self-centredness. Can we silence The Big Me and its constant noise, and finally live in wisdom? Character does not come by itself. It is a process of growth that begins, when during a time of crisis, we look at ourselves, learn from mistakes and make better choices.
The climate crisis is a test of human character. Can humans face also the most anxious of facts, look at themselves in the mirror realistically, learn and change for the better, take responsibility, carry the consequences of their own mistakes, and help the world and its beings? Homo sapiens may be at the brink of its final test, which will show whether we are capable of finally being good toward the planet and our trillions of fellow-creatures.
Cultivating character leads to a loving, rational, honest and balanced existence, which does not give in to destructive yearnings and base egoistic impulses, faces facts even when doing so is uncomfortable, and tries to help and support the surrounding world with its forests, swamps, deserts, mountains and multitudes of flora and fauna. Cultivating character is moral strength and forms the most beautiful potential of our species.
Selfish desires for evermore personal pleasures, power and wealth – desires that have led to the environmental crisis and lifestyles that squash tens of billions of animals each year – are our greatest failure. It’s time to quiet the Big Me and its gaping mouth of narcissism, which is ready to eat the whole planet. It’s time to resign from moral weakness and grow into the moral adulthood of our species, now.
Brooks, David. The Road to Character. Random House, 2015.
Jonason, Peter K, and Laura Krause. “The Emotional Deficits Associated with the Dark Triad Traits: Cognitive Empathy, Affective Empathy, and Alexithymia.” Personality and Individual Differences 55, no. 5 (2013): 532–37.
Lilla, Mark. The Once and Future Liberal. HarperCollins, 2017.
MacIntyre, Alisdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Indianapolis: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
About the author: Elisa Aaltola is a philosopher who specialises in animal philosophy and moral psychology. She is senior Researcher in Philosophy, University of Turku, Finland. Her most recent book is Varieties of Empathy: Moral Psychology and Animal Ethics(Rowman & Littlefield Int. 2018).