What Climate Change Tells Us about Being Human
Freud once said that the two great blows to humanity’s self-image were Copernicus’ insight that the Earth orbits the sun, which displaced us from the center of the universe, and Darwin’s recognition that we are animals created by evolution. If these two discoveries undermined our collective sense of superiority, their significance pales in comparison to the traumatic shock of climate change. Climate change reveals once and for all that humanity has no special dispensation to transcend its material conditions. And unlike Copernican cosmology or Darwinian evolution, the climate crisis is not only a difficult idea that our collective psyche must absorb, but also a hard limit, a wake-up call, a threat to our very life on this planet. Unlike previous blows to our collective ego, the climate crisis kills us.
The climate crisis requires us to rethink our ideas about what it means to be human. Even post-Darwin Western culture assumes that humanity has the unique capacity to control nature. Yet with some contradiction people also argue that “human nature” leads us inexorably to cause climate change. Both these ideas can’t be true at once, and indeed they are not. They are instead ideological fictions, received stories that people experience collectively as truths. They serve to make the world as it is seem normal. But in so doing they prevent us from fully accepting the implications of climate change and from understanding how we can act differently, rebuilding the world in order to save some of it for our children.
If the premodern West cast European men as the masters of nature, dominating putatively lowlier creatures by virtue of their uniquely transcendent intellect, the technical revolution of the industrial and postindustrial eras seems only to confirm this view. We grow abundant food. We perform complex and delicate surgeries with hyperdexterous robots. Our tiny handheld computers enable us to interact instantly with people on the other side of the planet or access nearly the full archive of the world’s information. We fly like gods across oceans and even ascend toward the stars, landing on the moon and sending home images of Pluto. We have even cheated death, extending average global lifespan by decades. Looking back on what human beings have achieved, you can easily imagine a future of ever more prosperity and freedom.
Climate change exposes this imagined future to be a profound illusion. It shows that in geological time and space, we have not transcended our materiality at all. We are fully embedded in and intertwined with Earth’s planetary systems as a species. And that we have the power to change the composition of the climate system doesn’t mean that we have some special dispensation to make and remake worlds. The oxygen that enabled Earth to bear life was first excreted as waste by bacteria. Nothing could be more lowly than that. We are doing what bacteria do, heating the climate system with our waste, while also driving mass extinction by destroying local biospheres and filling the liquid parts of our planet with plastics. And now this desecration turns back on us, threatening our own existence. No longer under our foot, nature has encompassed us all along.
As a species intertwined with and radically dependent on our planetary system, do we also, then, have a fixed nature as, say, snakes or trees do? After all, species don’t usually change their behavior and remain the same species. A snake or a tree living thousands of years ago acted like a snake or a tree living today (indeed, some trees have simply been alive for thousands of years straight). But a human being alive in, for instance, ancient Egypt, did not think or act like a 21st-century Egyptian does, even though 3,000 years is, for evolutionary purposes, essentially now. Our ideas change. Our behavior changes. The way we organize ourselves through politics changes. Who is understood as human changes. Our lives and our societies are not fixed but evolving. The great paradox of human nature is precisely that it does not have a fixed nature.
As the historian Yuval Harari has argued in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, humanity is characterized above all by its capacity to create ideological stories, collective fictions that we believe as truth, and through these stories enable vast numbers of strangers to organize, distribute expertise, and cooperate—and then change our fictions and their cooperative systems in a blink of a geological eye.
These transformations of our ideological fictions are cultural, but they have profound effects on our material lives, even on how we experience our bodies. What seems more “instinctual,” more connected to “human nature” than sexuality? Yet even this quality is subject to our collective storytelling. In early modern Europe, for example, men were thought to desire sex less than women did, because men, it was believed, were more “rational” and less influenced by their physical humors. Women, by contrast, were imagined to be less reasonable and thus more erotically inclined.
Fast forward 150 years, and for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, if less so today, women were assumed to be “frigid” and resistant to orgasm, while men were seen as naturally lusty. Ideological fictions like these have deeply subjective, even biological, effects, yet they are merely stories invested with belief (and, admittedly, backed up with violence), justifying the way that power is distributed. In this case, the sexual quality held to be most admirable was attributed to men. These qualities, these subjective experiences, appear to express human nature. But they don’t. And that’s no less true for the story that says human beings will always chose to use oil and gas no matter what the consequences.
That fiction justifies the fossil fuel economy by making our current system seem inevitable. But our system feels inevitable precisely because our collective fictions produce it as such. And although we cannot just revise our collective stories individually even the smallest resistance to our fossil fuel system belies the ideology that it is human nature to cede one’s survival to the selfishness of the powerful. Even as a species we do not wear a universal hair shirt of guilt. There is a real distinction between the people who caused the crisis and those entangled by it, even as all of us are connected by degrees of complicity.
That is why climate change requires us to keep two perspectives in mind at once: we must feel and accept the essential limits of the planetary system on which we entirely depend, and we must embrace our capacity to remake our collective fictions and thereby redistribute social and political power. In that double consciousness we may find an idea of humanity that will save us.