Environmental problems can trigger an existential crisis in individuals both because of the scope of the problems and the scope of the duty this realization imparts on us. There are a lot of environmental problems from pollution to mass extinctions to sea level rise and so on. When people learn about the scope of the problems, they realize there is an enormous amount of critical work to do, if we have any hope of surviving as a species. It’s too big; it’s scary. It forces people to confront two things. On the one hand, they may die as a result of the crisis. On the other hand, we may literally go extinct because of the crisis.
This realization demands that people ask themselves what they can do to resolve these existential threats. In many cases, the answer is that there is no answer, it’s already too late. At this point, we will have to choose which possible problems to solve while watching helplessly as the impossible disasters play out. This too is too much, it’s too big. It’s terrifying. It causes people to withdraw, to become averse to the problems altogether. “Yuck I don’t want to think about that.” People deny and hide from these kinds of threats rather than confronting them.
Lastly, the duty which is conveyed is so far beyond the scope of what a person could accomplish, that it demands a radical and fundamental reordering not just of human life, but of all the ideas we have about our culture and identity as individuals. This too is just too big for people to confront. Instead, they withdraw and avert their attention and continue playing the nihilistic role of the capitalist dominator who cares only about their own future accomplishments and not their role in the broader unsustainable system.
Building off of my previous answer, Michael Nelson argues that we need to shift the aversion from the problems to the cause of the problems. Instead of people withdrawing and averting from nascent knowledge of the existential threat of the ongoing environmental collapse, they should avert and withdraw from the culture of consumption and domination which is causing the ongoing environmental collapse.
This “great yuck” — as he puts it — is a disgust with the culture that is destroying any potential future of life on earth. He goes on to argue that we will then need a “great no” or a widespread commitment to change the culture and norms which are literally exterminating all future generations of life on earth. Then we need a “great yes” about defining a better way of life which is not just sustainable but regenerative in order to repair the pervasive damage that has been done to the biosphere.
World scientists issued a warning in November 1992. The warning came because a consensus developed among thousands of leading scientists worldwide that many of humanity’s contemporary social and industrial trends were not just unsustainable but potentially unsurvivable. The scientists went public because they thought that informing a broad population about the severity of the problems and the extent of the threat would spur action to resolve the crisis.
The scientists warned that the resources of the earth and the broader universe are limited and must be carefully understood and managed in order to preserve their continued existence and that of humanity. They argued that this process of understanding and managing the earth must be based on science and facts, rather than ideology and economics.
The earth’s biosphere is an enormously complex system which defies modelling and understanding. There are countless unpredictable interactions between many complex subsystems. Often times it can be difficult or impossible to anticipate or predict the impact of changes here to outcomes elsewhere, and vice versa. This fact, combined with centuries of observations about well-understood problems makes it very challenging to have comprehensive conversation and understanding of the problems we face or the best way to address them. This is a big part of why so many people “yuck” at the problems rather than – more justly according to Nelson – at the causes of those problems.
The economic, political, and sociocultural forces at play which produce the externalities we see causing the ongoing environmental collapse are incredibly powerful, distributed, and difficult to challenge directly. Sociocultural change is a slow and difficult process. In the words of Max Plank, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” We haven’t even started informing the new generations about these issues in any kind of comprehensive way. It seems unlikely that information alone is enough to convince people to find the much needed “great yuck” and take action to change the fundamental cultural institutions which are actively exterminating all life on earth. It seems unlikely that social change will come in time to avert total disaster.
Luckily there is also a small but growing political movement towards taking accountability for the existential threat of the ongoing environmental collapse. New President of The European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has called a green new deal one of her “top priorities.” Likewise, many politicians and surrogates in America have been floating various versions of this idea for a long time in order to create the beginnings of broad support for taking meaningful action on these threats. Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has also spoken publicly about his top priority being addressing the threat of climate change with trillions of dollars a year in spending to combat these problems.
Perhaps most excitingly, on the economic front, there is a major shift happening in actuarial science. There is a new perspective in long-term investment from sovereign wealth funds, venture capital firms, private equity, pension funds, and other sources. These funders acknowledge the long-term perspective that the extinction of humanity and collapse of the biosphere are serious threats which should be hedged against. There is a new financial science emerging called ESG or Environmental Sustainability and Governance. The argument of ESG is that if there are two otherwise similar firms with different levels of environmental sustainability and sustainable governance, the more sustainable firm will outperform in the long-term. This has led to enormous shifts in investment away from fossil fuels and into renewables. It has also led businesses seeking investment to plan in the long-term and acknowledge the serious threat of climate change and the collapse of the biosphere.
Though I work in the sociocultural realm, I am personally most hopeful about the potential efficacy of the macroeconomic shifts surrounding ESG and actuarial perspectives on climate change and environmental problems. Whether or not we survive as a species is what’s on the line, and whether we take the rest of the biosphere with us on the path to accomplishing our own destruction. Like the curriculum of this class, I do not expect us to solve all the problems, but because of the systems and movements I have outlined here, I have a cautious optimism that some manner of future may still exist for humanity.