Facing Down Conflict: Humanity's Quest For A Future Beyond The Climate Crisis

Nick Breeze


One doesn’t have to be an ardent news follower to notice the increasing sense of disquiet around the world in a range of countries from Turkey, Brazil, Israel, India, again in Egypt and student protests erupting in Chile, or the thousands braving “torrents of typhoon rains” in Hong Kong to protest Beijing-backed leadership. The trend is your friend until it ends, as they say in the City. The trouble is, the trend may not be close to ending but rather be seen as the portentous renderings of a world becoming more stressed for a number of reasons.

Hong Kong protest
Hong Kong Protest, 2013

Goldman Sachs estimates that over the past decade 500 million people from Brazil, Russia, India and China have entered the middle-class category bracket based on income levels. They predict that a further 800 million will be added to that over the next decade. A link between emerging economies entering the middle-class, the empowerment attained by the use of social media and greater demand for social freedoms is strongly suggested. If this is the case then we can certainly expect a growing disquiet in the unfolding future, as old ideologies are challenged by an increasingly secular youth with the speed and flexibility of social media to outpace and outwit state influenced, or over-conservative media outlets.

Add to this the accelerating changes in our planetary climate system putting the squeeze on agriculture, water supplies, and threatening vulnerable towns and cities. The potential for conflict is a growing spectre.

Despite holding the concepts of "strategy" or "planning" with a great deal of reverence, we seem to be incapable of developing them, even when we sense danger is on the way. A good example was the inability of the allies to to accept that Hitler would become aggressive, despite watching him arm the country to the hilt. Another example is the irrational optimism that people felt in the run up to the credit crunch in 2008. We all knew that debt was bad. Our grandparents always told us that. Many experts pointed out the risks, but hubris entered the fray and no sooner had the British Chancellor (& future Prime Minister), Gordon Brown, announced an end to “boom and bust”, we all went bust!

Gordon Brown: "No more boom and bust!"

So here we are again. I can turn on any one of my internet connected devices and view daily generated satellite images of the rapid collapse of the Arctic sea ice. I can watch the intensifying droughts engulfing the Western states of the US, I can watch the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet turn to slush in a matter of days, with accelerated carving of gigantic icebergs that increase sea-levels. We watch open mouthed in despair as towns and cities in Northern Europe, Indonesia, Central America, North America, Canada, Australia, UK and so on and so forth, are deluged or battered by fierce storms that were previously unseen in living memory, at least, that was before the recent one that was meant to be “once in a lifetime”.


Dresden Floods Summer 2013 (From Guardian UK article)

Despite all this destruction, upheaval and threat to our civilisation, we do nothing. Instead we wait patiently for our turn to play dice in the climate casino.

Given the serious threat posed by climate disruption, the impacts of which will have an enormous impact on ours and our children’s lives, and is widely accepted by 98% climate scientists, we would do well to have a plan. Of course, up until now, no two leaders seem to be able to agree on anything credible that embraces the science and takes real preventative action. Even President Obama in his groundbreaking climate address last week may have difficulty getting through his proposals that many describe as “a good start”. i find myself asking: why is this?

The Biologist, Naturalist, Theorist, Author and Harvard Professor, Edward O. Wilson, presented his theory in a piece titled ‘Is Humanity Suicidal’ that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1993. Here he identified some uncomfortable truths about humanity, some of which I have reproduced below for this article:

Darwin’s Dice May Have Rolled Badly for Earth:


Humanity is a carnivorous primate species.


Humanity has hereditary traits that enhance our destructive impact on our environment.


Humanity is tribal, aggressively territorial, demanding space beyond minimal requirements, and driven by selfish sexual drives.

The Selfish Human


Humanity is genetically programmed to be adverse to cooperation, especially beyond the family and tribal levels.


To win the evolutionary battle, those who thought first about themselves, second about their families, third about their village, and a distant fourth about the world survived the most.

Humanity is an Environmental Abnormality

  • Intelligence in the wrong species can produce a fatal combination for the species and the biosphere.
  • Intelligence in the wrong species can extinguish itself.

To our modern, contemporary (and in my case, Western) sensibility’s, these observations might appear a little harsh and even primitive, yet they do resonate with the global inability of our species to accept the world as a complete and integrated system. Operating from the egocentric self, we fit the description of, “tribal, aggressively territorial” quite nicely, especially in a modern, urban, fortified dwelling, as in which I sit here in London. The intrinsic nature of tribalism means that there will always be “us” and “them”, “winners” and “losers” and the need to assert ourselves over those outside our accepted borders in order to secure our tribal sense of safety. We are, of course, right to do so. Our enemies beyond the border are just like us: tribal, aggressive, intelligent, fearful and destructive.

As Wilson makes the point in saying “intelligence in the wrong species can extinguish itself”, so we are showing ourselves to be worthy of this assertion. The climate crisis is the reality of this dilemma.

However, in the next couple of points I can’t help but spot a ray of hope:

The Juggernaut Theory of Human Nature

Any intelligent species will eventually develop a sense of global responsibility.

But a genetically selfish and energy inefficient (e.g., carnivorous) species may not change quickly enough.

The Window of Opportunity

  • There is a window of opportunity for any species to become globally responsible.
  • This time period is based on how destructive the species is to the environment.
  • A destructive species will have a short window.  A less destructive species will have more time.

There is no doubt regarding the level of destructiveness that we are inflicting on other species and on the biosphere. We can see our tribal nature at work in the growing tensions over land that has fossil fuels or other resources that benefit one corporation, nation or particular segment of society. The global commons has been commoditised for profit and yet the profits run counter to our collective longevity. Our very own tribal nature that has enabled us to attain so much, is to be the agent of our own undoing.

But still the ray of hope hangs in the air.

In the growing swathe of public protests that are taking place, it is often the authorities who take arms first. In Turkey and Brazil, protests only got out of control when people reacted to the disproportionate force used by the authorities. It was the tipping point when the driver for expanded peaceful protest shifted from the original cause to the issue of abuse of authority itself. This has been best illustrated in the beautiful photographs taken in Taksim Square of everyday people reading classic works of literature, as the instrument of protest itself. It is an intellectual triumph over the tribal warcry of the authorities.


The Taksim Square Book Club (Photos by George Henton for Al Jazeera)

The idea that we can transgress our natural urges of tribalistic behaviour may hold the key to our own survival on this planet. For this to occur the paradigm shift must take place within the majority of our species and especially those that assume positions of power and leadership. The journey has already begun. We can see that in our acceptance of a “world wide web” for absorbing knowledge, the willingness of investors to put money into “global” markets, our willingness to buy goods from far flung countries. Whatever the reason, the global context has infiltrated our psyche. We now need to put it to work in the shortest time possible, to go that final step and achieve our ideals of peace, acceptance and respect for all living things.

In a conversation between myself, my colleague Bru Pearce and David Wasdell of the Apollo-Gaia Project, I learned the best analogy I can think of for this transition. Wasdell supposed that humanity is the offspring of Mother Earth, and as all offspring do, has suckled on the Mother’s breast to enable ourselves to grow. However, there comes a point when the child must learn to fend for itself and stop drawing on the finite strengths of the mother (this is called "growing up"!). The child must grow to stand up and become self-sufficient, with the preparedness to give back in respect and kindness that which it received in its inception. Failure to do so will not only extinguish the mother but will cut short the prospect of life in the offspring.


At a recent dinner organised by some friends, I was talking to the person next to me about climate issues. They appeared to be very interested, and indicated they were quite knowledgeable. What struck me was that this person repeated three times that the science on climate change was “too confusing”. In reply I repeated three times that: “It is not confusing. 97% of 2000 climate scientists agree that we are heating the planet from burning fossil fuels.” After the third repetition, I received a glum stare and we started talking about the mainstream media (MSM) representation of climate change. I said I thought the MSM was complicit in unbalanced reporting and this person disagreed. My reason for saying this (although not very well expressed at the time) is that when the scientific consensus says that manmade global heating is occurring, why do broadcasters feel obliged to include a skeptic, or worse, a “denier” in the discussion, whose job it is to make the discussion confusing by casting doubt where it doesn’t exist. A very good example of this was the “Climategate” email scandal where non-truths were projected into the public domain with a purposeful objective to smear the integrity of climate scientists. The lasting effect is to damage the audiences ability to comprehend the seriousness of the truth and delay action to tackle it.

This brings me back to my dinner situation. At this point the person next to me revealed that they were in fact the Marketing Communications Manager at a major British fossil fuel company. To say I was surprised was an understatement, however, I was also pleased to have the opportunity to talk to someone who worked in such a position considering my own interests in the environment. Sadly, things didn’t go so well.

My next question was: “What are your views on drilling in the Arctic?” to which I got the reply, “We have specialists who look into things like that!”. I responded by saying,

“One doesn’t have to be a specialist to have a view. I’m asking you as an individual, not as a company.” After a long pause, the person looked over at two other people talking about something else and willfully became animated in their conversation. To say I was insulted was an understatement. The conversation had been very relaxed despite not seeing eye to eye on the content. That is often the best value conversations we can have. I felt so livid that, had I been closer to home (as opposed to 50 miles away), I would have grabbed a taxi and left.

After about ten minutes the person turned back to me and stated very clearly that when it comes to the media “content is king!”. I stated my own view that content must have integrity. The reply to this was “That’s bullshit, content is king!” Agreeing to disagree, I then pointed out that my former question had not been answered and that I had been quite upset that it had been so rudely ignored. The reply, “I know you were.”

At this point, the person to my right interjected by saying to me, “...you’re very passionate about the environment, aren't you?” It was fair and true assertion to which I responded, “Yes, I have taken the time to meet many scientists and try to understand the facts about what is happening in the climate. On days like today when I spend time with your children [referencing both people, as had been the case], it does make me stop and think.” At this point the person I had been conversing with for a while erupted saying, “You are not bringing my children into this. I’m not sitting here any longer.” He then relocated to the other end of the table, swapping seats with someone else. And that was that. I was quite stunned as what I recounted was my own response to how I feel about environmental issues. What’s more, there was something in the manner of the departure that seemed very forced, like an act, as if in order to reinforce a position of difference. It was certainly sad to see the opportunity for meaningful discourse squandered in preference for a seat in the bunker of denial. There was no more discourse except, when leaving, I apologised for any offence I might have caused, as that was certainly not the intention.

The reason for ending this article with this anecdote is that a balanced conversation never took place. There were no views expressed by the person I spoke to, except those that were housed within the context of company policy. The reference to “confusing” science by someone in an industry that has an interest in “confusing the science”, is in itself a tribal act with the purpose of obfuscating the critical issues in the mind of the listener. This is what needs to change. It is the old “we win, you lose” paradigm that we must evolve into a vision for the future. Only by replacing human conflict with clear inclusive thinking, combined with a “duty of care” to each other and every other organism within the biosphere will we achieve a stable foundation for the future. It is the evolution of the human capacity to recognise and respond to risk, and by renewing our relationship with natural world with whom we coexist, that will ultimately enable humanity to keep passing intelligent genes across generations in order to reveal the true potential of intelligent life.

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