An Apocalypse that no one will even notice
As we experience the days of COVID-19 and lockdown, a very interesting new term has emerged in our language: the “New Normal”. It is what everyone is looking for: businesses, individuals, politicians. We are all longing for a sense of normality, a sense of stability and routine, away from insecurity and uncertainty. We are actually looking for the time when we can all close our eyes again, and go on autopilot.
Yet it takes a conscious step back to realise that there is something terribly wrong with the term New Normal. It doesn’t make sense. In fact, it is an oxymoron. How can something “new” be “normal”? Just like this novel virus, our situation is completely new. We are facing a new reality, one that may as well have a short expiration date itself, before it becomes superceded by another reality, and then another one. Which of these realities is the “normal” one? Normality and stability are fantasies, they are just wishful thoughts and figments of our imagination. In reality, nothing ever stays the same. But we seem to be really good at convincing ourselves that it does.
As a biologist, I’m intrigued by how different organisms and biological systems manage to “regulate their reality” through complex chemical and physical pathways that have taken millions of years to evolve. These pathways are so perfect and ingenious, that they have largely become part of our autonomous, automatic functions, much like a thermostat sensor knows when to turn the heat on and off. These mechanisms take place while we work, eat, sleep, without us even noticing them.
Our rate and depth of breathing for example automatically adjusts to the air temperature and concentration of oxygen, without us even noticing. In both physical and psychological terms, we haven’t “sensed” or experienced any change in termperature or oxygen concentration. But our vital life support systems have, and by adjusting our breathing rate they are giving us the false perception that we have maintained our previous position, when in fact everything around us has changed.
Fish in the ocean are able to excrete salt from their body, and maintain a low-salt concentration internally, which is essential to their survival. Plants and animals shut down their reproductive systems when they are low in energy, while everything else continues as normal. Thermophilic bacteria living in hot springs in Yellowstone National Park have developed an entire complement of heat-resistant biochemical pathways comprised of uniquely adapted enzymes and heat-stress proteins. To them this harsh, inhospitable environment of 70C feels like what room temperature feels to us. The bacteria have become so accustomed to the almost boiling water, that they are thriving in it.
All of these powerful processes can be summarised broadly under the word “homeostasis”, which in Greek literally means what it does: maintain the same position, find a balance, as if nothing has changed.
Regulating our reality, “fooling ourselves”, is therefore an essential part of our biology. It is part of our survival. And homeostasis becomes a very dangerous concept when transfered to the way that our brain works. Because it means that we are not always able to sense when the water is getting saltier, when the air is getting thinner, or when the heat is rising. And we are similarly unable to distinguish fake from real news, or wake up to climate scientists who have been raising the alarm about climate change for almost 6 decades now. Another term for this “mental homeostasis” is denial, resistance to the truth, especially when we are presented with new evidence which suggests that our world may not be what we thought it was. Our mental homestasis kicks in and is able to magically turn lies into truths and truths into lies, therefore enabling our society and our economy, our so-called civilisation, to “keep calm and carry on”, to justify the path of self-destruction that it has chosen.
When it comes to adapting to climate change and humanity’s current predicament, this regulation of our reality is even more efficient than in the biological world. It is perpetrated by the media, by reassuring and narcissistic politicians, by those who want to maintain the status quo. It is maintained by the Business As Usual mentality, by the thinking that if we all just pretend climate change is not happening, it will never happen. If we all just go to our CO2-emitting jobs in our CO2-emitting cars, eating our rainforest-fed beef burgers on our lunch breaks, then our criminal behaviour becomes normal. If everyone is having children, then the criminality of bringing a child into a condemned world disappears. This is what happens when homeostasis, or denial, is combined with herd behaviour.
Our society does this so ingeniously that we cannot even register this as denial. Those that do, are not simply seen as experiencing a different reality: they are seen as delusional alarmists and doomists, and are isolated by the socioeconomic system as “enemies” and threats to the system’s existence. Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion was once accused on the program Hard Talk of being “too negative” and scaring people about climate change and ecological destruction, when he could in theory be making a much bigger impact through positivity and giving people hope. His answer was disarming: “if you are the doctor and you need to tell your patient they are dying of cancer, you have the responsibility to tell them the truth”.
Being part of this system is the equivalent of sitting in a train carriage as the train begins to leave the station. Looking out the window, all you see is another train which, by sheer coincidence, is moving at exactly the same speed as our train. Though we may feel some acceleration as we experience the pressure of horizontal inertia in our seat, our eyes, which are fixated on the train next door, are actually telling us that we are not moving, that we have not moved at all.
It takes incredible courage, the type of courage that Greta Thunberg had, to say to the whole world: “you are all crazy, I’m the one who’s sane, sitting here alone on the steps of parliament with a handwritten sign”
Climate Change is unfortunately perceived by our brain as a slight bump in the road, as opposed to a dead end followed by a cliff. Even as signs of the approaching cliff become more pronounced, our brain quickly adapts and finds a new balance, a “New Normal”, as well as a new world. A world where we have accepted that there will be no arctic ice. Where we have accepted that much of the Earth around the equatorial regions will be too hot to inhabit. That starvation, disease and wars over resources will become permanent fixtures, and that the 6th mass extinction will only leave a few species behind. If we want to accept all this, we need to be honest with ourselves and be prepared to also accept that our own extinction is also part of this new world.
to be continued…(or not)