Image of the Earth burning

John Vaillant’s shocking description of the recent fires in California, hotter than anything seen before, melting everything in urban landscapes, should wake us up to the future awaiting us all if we carry on with our destructive lifestyles.

Now, the latest Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demands ‘urgent and unprecedented changes’ by 2030, only 12 years away.

But if these changes are to happen, they will have to be made by international government co-operation on an unprecedented level.

They won’t be made by housekeepers turning down the heating or drivers leaving the car at home a bit more often.

They won’t be made as long as Trump and Putin conspire against each other to control Syria.

They won’t be made as long as democratically elected governments refuse to do anything that would make them unpopular.

Here in Britain, most of our newspapers are owned by billionaires encouraging readers to believe that it’s all a hoax. Until a couple of months ago when Rupert Read refused a BBC debate with a climate change denier, the BBC’s policy was to ‘balance’ believers with deniers.

Meanwhile television news programmes alternate a snippet about climate change with a snippet about Brexit or some celebrity gossip. This leaves the impression that all the items are on a par, ‘infotainment’ for anyone who may be interested.

Thus the public are left without any sense of its importance. Naturally, nobody wants to make big sacrifices for something which is presented as no more important than a footballer’s divorce and may not happen anyway.

So how can we respond appropriately? If our grandchildren are to live in a healthy world, and have grandchildren of their own, what kinds of changes are both necessary and possible?

We need to abandon our hubris

This post is limited to our hubris. A dictionary definition describes hubris as ‘excessive pride or arrogance’.

Environmental hubris, according to its historians, began in Europe about 400 years ago. Affluent intellectuals, in an unequal society, looked down on the poor living conditions of less fortunate people and blamed ‘nature’ for being mean.

The beneficiaries of inequality and exploitation often do this, but their new idea was to create technologies to improve on nature. They would give us a better, artificial environment.

So arose the cult of technology. Technology was going to alter the environment to make everybody better off. New technologies became the objective of human effort.

This cult is now fundamental to society throughout the ‘developed’ world. Indeed, the very idea of a ‘developed’ society has come to mean a society with new technologies. We look down on ‘undeveloped’ countries and think of them as ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’.

So the more we artificialise our lifestyles the prouder we are. It’s what we mean by ‘progress’.

Of course, if we hadn’t spent 400 years on this cult of technology we would still have produced some new technologies. We would not be living today exactly the way our ancestors did 400 years ago. But the cult, the determination to artificialise our lives, has done a lot more than this.

Overall, it doesn’t suit us anyway. The human species has spent millions of years evolving. It’s a slow process because our bodies and minds need to adapt to our environment, and our environment is adapting too. When we make big changes to it, we should expect our bodies to take a lot longer than 400 years to adapt.

Retaining the hubris

As long as we retain the hubris, we’ll refuse to change direction. It would seem like ‘going backwards’. However many disasters our artificialising causes, we automatically assume that solutions will be found by technology.

So we refuse to acknowledge the harm our artificialising does. We approve of investing in cancer research, but we carry on pumping carcinogens into the air. We make provision for gluten-free diets, but we do nothing to stop bakeries pumping extra gluten into bread.

In ways like these we refuse to question the onward march of human control over the environment. When faced with the illnesses it causes, we treat them as individual problems.

Abandoning the hubris

We don’t need to abandon all our technologies. Every species of plant and animal adapts its environment in some way or other, and humans are bound to do so too. We can make minor, and gradual, adaptations. More than that leads to disaster.

As things are, we’ll need a lot of technological expertise to put right the damage we’ve done.

What we need to abandon is the hubris, the cult of technology. We won’t rescue our planet for future generations by imagining that technology will produce cleaner aeroplanes and industrial effluents. We have to abandon that hubris.

We need to abandon our pride in being superior to ‘undeveloped’ or ‘backward’ societies.

We need to abandon our arrogance in imagining that we can create an artificial environment better than what nature provided.

We need to live closer to the way our bodies and minds have been designed to live.

I think this will be easier for those who believe a divine intelligence gives us what we need; but it also makes sense for anyone who accepts the evolutionary story of our species.


Whether we do reverse direction in time, I don’t pretend to know. What I am claiming here is that, if we are to stand a chance of success, one essential ingredient is to recognise that our hubris has been a mistake.

If we are to save the planet for future generations, we’ll need to redirect our technology. We’ll need to learn again to live gently upon the earth.