Milky Way

A Culture of Willful Ignorance

June 2014

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Looking out into the world today, I often feel alienated by what I see:

More than 50 years ago now, Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, warning of the dangers of pesticides (primarily DDT) poisoning our environment. Today, far more virulent pesticides (neonicotinoids – proclaimed by some to be the new DDT) are being approved by the EPA, killing bees and farm workers, and routinely finding their way into our food supply.

Nearly 70 years ago now, Little Boy – the first nuclear bomb – was dropped on Hiroshima, killing over 100,000 people and shocking the world with the horror of our human capacity to kill. Today, the US continues to maintain close to 5,000 nuclear warheads, while at least 10 other states either have or are believed to have these weapons of mass destruction.

70-75 years ago, the world experienced the horrific genocide of the Holocaust – in which the Nazis killed 11 million people (Jews and others). Today, ongoing genocides raging in Burma (Myanmar), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Syria have killed or severely disrupted the lives of nearly twice that many people.

These are just three examples of what I call our “collective willful ignorance.” We humans are clever at finding ways to rationalize our actions, and then choosing to do what we know in our hearts is wrong anyway. Meanwhile, this mentality – which pervades nearly every aspect of our lives – begs the question:

What, if anything, are we learning from our history and our collective experiences on this planet?

As far as I can tell, the answer is “not much.” In fact, within my lifetime, the situation on many fronts important to our collective wellbeing – environmental policy, social justice, human rights, the proliferation of dangerous technologies, etc. – appears to have gotten worse. This bothers me.

As a child of the 60s, a trained psychotherapist and for those of you astrologers in the crowd, a triple Sagittarius, I have surrendered my optimism slowly. All my life, I have wanted to believe in the possibility of positive evolutionary change. Indeed, I have been privileged to witness it occasionally in my clients, students, and friends. But observing the world around me, I fail to see it.

I cringe when my New Age buddies croon about the next quantum shift. I am horrified when I witness the ignorance of young people who don’t know history, and who don’t care to know. I wonder what drug I’ve taken when I occasionally catch glimpses of television in motel rooms on the road, and take note of what gets discussed and how, and what never gets mentioned.

Have I just become an aging curmudgeon? Or am I witnessing human civilization sink into the sort of numb denial of reality that generally accompanies powerlessness and despair and/or precedes collapse?

I’m told that some people – the 1%, no doubt – are doing just fine, thank you very much, and see nothing wrong with a life without limits. Do these people think that their grandchildren will enjoy a similar privilege? I don’t know.

What does seem plausible is that those who are partying like it’s 1999 are doing so because it is. Actually, in retrospect, 1999 seems like a peak year of the good old days. 2099 may not be so party-like. Despite the willful ignorance of climate change deniers who confuse scientific probability with belief, credible scientists around the world predict that if we do nothing – and it appears we are doing very little – the consequences of our inaction will be severe and astronomically expensive, monetarily and otherwise.

Despite the potentially devastating impact of climate change – looming most imminently as accelerating loss of biodiversity, severe food and water shortages, and more extreme catastrophic weather events (storms, flooding, wildfires, etc.) – the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2014 calls climate change just the second biggest threat we face in the immediate future.

First on their list is the increasing disparity between rich and poor, which could lead to fiscal crises in a number of key economies, followed by cascading effects around the world. Structurally high unemployment, especially among young people, is also a problem – potentially leading to high levels of social unrest, crime, drug abuse and terrorism, increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks, increasingly bloody revolutions and increasingly severe government crackdowns. This is already starting to happen – as is evident in places like Syria.

The good news, I suppose, is that those of us – I hope I’m not the only one – who despair about the fate of our world can be glad we live in the early 21st century, rather than the early 22nd.

If you have read this far, you may feel relieved to know that my purpose here is not to flaunt the bad news with cynical smugness. I’ve never felt that to be productive, and in fact, have lost a few friends over their insistence on it.

Instead, I’d like to step back a bit and look at the shocking state of affairs in our world today from a more philosophical and psychological perspective – one that that I think cuts to the chase of what we can do about it, or at the very least, how we as individuals can more deeply align ourselves with whatever hope remains for a more benign and sustainable future.

This, after all, is the focus of our work at Yggdrasil – where we harbor no pretense about changing the world, but do want to create a place where those with the energy, imagination, and humble audacity to think they can, are supported, encouraged and empowered to live that hope into the world.

The next post in this series is Generation Lost.

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