Seeing this bumper sticker on my way home one evening, I chuckled aloud. “Wait,” I thought, “that’s what I’m trying to figure out.” It sure seems like the question we’d all want to answer.
After all, our earth is now warmer than it’s been in 650,000 years, and MIT scientists tell us that our planet’s future heating will likely be twice as severe as estimated less than a decade ago.
So, in this century, higher water temperatures and melting ice caps could raise the sea level by nearly three feet. That’s enough to flood many of the world’s great coastal cities and to inundate much of Bangladesh. A rise of six feet is possible—maybe even more.
But “warming” doesn’t really capture what’s happening. Our climate is becoming more chaotic. Think Los Angeles hitting a record 113 degrees in the fall of 2010, then a few months later Oklahoma’s wind chills sinking to 31 degrees below. Or monsoon rains swelling the Indus River in 2010 to forty times its normal volume, flooding one-fifth of Pakistan’s land and displacing millions. Or Australia in 2006 suffering its worst drought in 1,000 years, only to face flooding over an area the size of Texas just four years later.
Making climate more chaotic, each year, from Africa to Latin America, burning and logging destroy forests that cover an area the size of Greece – with climate-disrupting emissions greater than those from all transportation. Partly as a result, we already may, or soon will, have wiped out enough species that the planet would need 10 million years to re-establish the extent of today’s diversity.
Yet, worldwide we keep on releasing more, not less, climate-disrupting carbon, with coal—by far the worst offender—growing much faster than other fossil fuels.
At the same time, we’re still reeling from a global financial crisis and soaring food prices that have pushed the total victims of hunger higher than ever in history, now nearly one billion, and with food prices hitting new highs in 2011, hunger is sure to rise again.8 Even in 2009, Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation in London, worrying about his country’s dependence on imports, warned that “we could literally be nine meals from anarchy and we are still in denial.”
And here in the US, all the above can feel more daunting when the share of us who say we “worry” about climate change has dropped in recent years, now to about half, and we seem too bitterly divided as a culture to act.
Are you scared? I know I am.
But I realize that’s not the real question. The real question is whether we each can move ahead creatively with our fear because we believe that, in this pivotal moment, we have it in us to make a planetwide turn toward life.
I believe we do.
But don’t get me wrong—I am not an optimist. I am a staunch, hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool possibilist. I believe it is possible that we can turn today’s breakdown into a planetary breakthrough—on one condition: We can do it if we can break free of a set of dominant but misleading ideas that are taking us down.
Yes. The poetic observation often attributed to French writer Anaïs Nin that “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” is precisely what scientists now confirm experimentally: For human beings there is no unfiltered reality. We are creatures of the mind who interpret experience through a largely unconscious mental map made up of the big ideas orienting our lives. Philosopher Erich Fromm called it our “frame of orientation,” through which we see what we expect to see. So, while we often hear that “seeing is believing,” actually believing is seeing.
Revealing this deeply human trait is a silly but telling experiment in which psychologists instruct subjects to count basketball passes by players wearing white. In the middle of the game, a person in a gorilla costume appears and pounds her chest directly in the subjects’ line of vision; yet, a good half of them don’t register this unexpected antic at all. They’re focused on counting basketball passes!
This trait—seeing only what we expect to see—even shapes how we perceive our own nature and our place in the universe and, therefore, what we imagine to be possible. I first grasped the huge import of this trait when, as a college senior, I was assigned Thomas Kuhn’s classic
work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, Kuhn shows how difficult it is for humans to shed a reigning
mental map. Even bright people clung to an earth-as-the-center-of-the-universe worldview for 150 years after Copernicus showed us that, no, the earth is not at the center, we revolve around the sun.
Once we see through a certain lens, it’s hard to perceive things differently, be they the most mundane matters or the most momentous. Yet, the hard fact of human existence is that if our mental frame is flawed, we’ll fail no matter how hard and sincerely we struggle.
The central problem this book addresses is that, sadly, much of humanity today is stuck in precisely this “hard fact”—trapped in a mental map that defeats us because it is mal-aligned both with human nature and with the wider laws of nature. So, the question is, Can we remake our mental map? And do it much faster than those early astronomers?
Can we remake our mental map?
Excerpted with permission from EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want, by Frances Moore Lappe (Nation Books, 2011).