A few years back I had an experience that hammered home the notion of the normalcy bias. I worked for a healthcare service in Southern California which assisted home bound patients and their families. That summer the hills and scrub brush ignited into one of the West’s most ferocious wild fires. As it devoured the countryside my colleagues and I hurried to warn all of them who were in harms way and advise them to evacuate. We told them to listen to the firefighters as they knew best. One family I called were unconvinced. They said that others in the neighborhood weren’t leaving so why should they?
A few hours later we made another frantic call to that same family to urge them to leave. They said they could see flames coming up the hillside behind their house and the black smoke was thick and almost unbearable. But they were still unconvinced of the urgency since the electricity was still on and they could watch the news on television which did not warn them of any immediate threat. Eventually they did leave at the behest of determined firefighters. They were spared, their house was not. I have thought about them a lot over these past few years when thinking about the unfolding events in our world today. There is a segment of the population who appear to go too far in preparing for disaster; and in doing so they forfeit appreciating life here and now. But have we, as a society, normalized our dire predicament and the looming ecological catastrophe so much that we have paralyzed ourselves in a collective trance?
The human brain is a remarkable organ, but it is far less unique than our egos would like to admit. Like practically every other species we share this terrestrial orb with, we possess an evolutionary defense mechanism which protects us from overwhelming stress. The normalcy bias has been analyzed by many clinicians and scientists for years. It is that strange ability of an organism to deny impending danger, standing almost paralyzed in a hypnotic stupor in its face. This is most likely where the expression “deer in headlights” comes from. And it may be accurate to surmise that, similarly, the human species has its gaze fixed ahead into the blinding beams of a racing truck.
We have never been here before. This sentence sums up practically everything we are seeing unfold before us when it comes to carbon emissions, polar and glacial ice melt, erratic temperature fluctuations, ocean warming and acidity and species extinction. It is a new and terrifying landscape of the unknown. But despite all of this, industrial civilization appears to be accelerating toward the abyss rather than slowing down. Indeed, our leaders have reinforced this trance of normalization by numbing our senses with mindless entertainment and advertisements. How easy they distract us from our own existential crisis with new, plastic bobbles or gadgets and salacious celebrity gossip. How easy they play our emotions with political spectacle, nationalistic nonsense and manufactured outrage.
But they are not as intelligent as all this may imply; they have simply mastered the art of illusion. They are clever magicians in a rather cruel and, ultimately, fatal performance. Thanks to capitalistic authoritarianism they own the media which has become an effective mouthpiece and stage. They also own the institutions which are, in theory, designed to protect civilization and the common good. But cupidity, avarice and power are their only interests. They can see the fire climbing the hillside and they can certainly smell the smoke; but they know they are powerless to stop it so, instead, they do what they do best. They divert attention and create dazzling spectacle. They manufacture crises which they can, at least in pretense, handle effectively while they downplay actual threats. All this while they accumulate enormous material wealth as if to protect them from the angry hordes ascending their piles of gold with blazing torches. But are they, alone, to blame for where we are at now?
To be sure, civilization began before any of us where born; and within it lay the seeds of planetary destruction yet unborn. And industrialization sealed this covenant. The institutions our forbears built codified and ritualized our artificial separation from the natural world. They created elaborate myths to justify raping and slaying it, and profiting from the crime. But though we cannot ignore the sins of our ancestors, we are the ones to blame for continuing the illusion and the pillage and even expanding upon it. Consider this definition of civilization from Wikipedia:
“A civilization… is any complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment by a cultural elite. Civilizations are intimately associated with and often further defined by other socio-politico-economic characteristics, including centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labor, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon farming as an agricultural practice, and expansionism.
Historically, a civilization was a so-called “advanced” culture in contrast to more supposedly primitive cultures. In this broad sense, a civilization contrasts with non-centralized tribal societies, including the cultures of nomadic pastoralists or hunter-gatherers. As an uncountable noun, civilization also refers to the process of a society developing into a centralized, urbanized, stratified structure.
Civilizations are organized in densely populated settlements divided into hierarchical social classes with a ruling elite and subordinate urban and rural populations, which engage in intensive agriculture, mining, small-scale manufacture and trade. Civilization concentrates power, extending human control over the rest of nature, including over other human beings.”
With few exceptions, we haven’t yet shattered the illusion of this separation from or dominance of the natural world, and groped our way out of the cave and into the light. We have not yet realized, as the above definition demonstrates, that it is we who are fully dependent upon the benevolence of nature, and not the opposite. But nature is uninterested in our timetable. She looks indifferently at our bridges and buildings, or our money and digitalized memory, as she does our arrogance, folly and foibles. And our ignorance, willful or not, of the consequences of all of this will not delay her fury. Is all this to say that nothing good has come of industrial civilization? No, but it has most certainly proven to be both the poison and the cure for all that afflicts human existence. It developed within an unnatural framework that purported to control the uncontrollable. And this paradigm has driven countless species to their end, with our own being on a very short list.
Like the family resistant to fleeing their imperiled home, we are resistant to fleeing the trappings of industrial civilization. Scientists, like the firefighters, have been warning us all about what looms ahead. And we have largely dismissed them, preferring instead to hold fast to the fleeting comfort of an illusion. I say all of this knowing full well that I am in the same place as many reading this. I have enjoyed the luxury afforded to me through a system of madness and disconnect. But now the ancient blood of fossils on which all of this is built is beginning to wane and become ever harder to come by. We could say this is a good thing, but that would be less than honest. The damage is done and the dominoes have begun to fall. Nuclear armed nation states are sparring, crowds are lining up for water and rice, and birds, fish, frogs and animals are beginning to die out en masse. We in the privileged West have not yet seen what most in the world are witnessing, but to think we are insulated simply because we possess more money is the height of farce and absurdity. We are all in the same house, and the fire is getting closer by the day.
No one wants to be the alarmist chicken who believed the sky was falling when struck on the head by a falling acorn in the children’s tale “Henny Penny.” But the signs of a looming catastrophe are far more plentiful than one acorn. The fires will come. The waters will rise. The storm clouds will gather. And we are running out of places to escape to. In the years ahead we will be faced with the greatest challenges our species has ever known. Many will be clambering to higher ground away from the rising seas, others will be chasing after water in drought stricken lands. The best response to all of this is to face the storms together, fearful, trembling, yet in the embrace of each other and our shared humanity, especially for the weakest among us. But it is hard to imagine what will become of us after the final warning has been issued, and so many remain unconvinced that there is even a fire to begin with.
Kenn Orphan 2016