• Michael Burnett

Waking from the modern dream: eco-consciousness and the machinery of social alienation

Have you ever woken up from a dream and found yourself alone?

If you're climate-aware, you'll probably sympathise with the red fish.

I have. For me, it started when I was nineteen, shortly after borrowing Theodore Roszak’s The Voice of the Earth from a University acquaintance. I’d done a little of my own research into global warming, habitat loss and various other aspects of our currently unfolding climate crisis whilst still at school, so it wasn’t all new to me. But until that point, I had not considered the issue holistically; that is to say, I had not fully understood the complex webs of cause and effect that link our modern lifestyles with these issues, as well as the complex webs of cause and effect that link the various aspects of the climate crisis together. When I studied systems theory years later, I learned how even a small collection of simple actions can produce complex (and usually unanticipated) outcomes when repeated over time. I learned, too, of ‘tipping points’: thresholds buried within complex systems that, when reached, produce sudden, massive, and usually irreversible effects. Tipping points can be bad – climate change increasing the likelihood of forest fires, which in turn create more climate change; or they can be good – when a certain level of public awareness of the climate crisis is reached, people start to rebel against the system that caused it. Understanding this, I fully woke up to the sheer scale of the challenge ahead, as well as to the possibility that we might actually come out of the other side of it. It was a bittersweet revelation.

It was, as I have said, like waking from a dream, and finding myself alone. In my case, that awakening took years. It is my belief that the slowness of this process is made it possible to avoid major psychological breakdown, although I am certainly no stranger to sadness, grief, anxiety and despair. I have simply built these emotions into my way of being, and of perceiving the world. I am basically O.K. But it goes further than this.

For me – and I suspect, for many others, too – one of the tragic elements of being fully awake to the scale of the crisis we are facing is a sense of the sheer triviality of many of the things that ‘ordinary people’ consider to be important. Now, I’m not a naturally gregarious person; I enjoy solitude and can withstand a considerable amount of isolation before I start to feel lonely. This helps. However, I do enjoy a good conversation and, like everyone else, prefer to speak to others about the things I consider to be important, rather than those subjects that I consider to be either trivial or distasteful. To be stuck in the middle of a conversation where the subject matter is either uninteresting or distasteful to you, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is a pretty alienating experience.

And herein lies the problem. Picture this:

You’ve met up with a group of friends you haven’t seen in a year. Within that year, you’ve spent your free time lobbying your local council to encourage them to declare a climate emergency; you’ve attended a handful of climate protests, and have made huge changes in your own life to lower your carbon footprint. You’re thinking about the climate crisis every day. You can’t help but see the harm of modern life in everything, from plastic waste, to congested streets, to the fruit and vegetables miraculously available all year round at the supermarket. Your Twitter feed is full up with a hundred stories of climate devastation, unfolding across the planet. You’ve changed a great deal in the past year, but it seems your friends have not.

The conversation veers between new cars and driving tests, aeroplane trips to exotic destinations and unnecessary purchases as your friends tuck into their factory farmed chicken or beef, enjoying their meals in a state of apparent obliviousness to the effects of their choices. You have nothing to say. It’s difficult enough to stay silent but you know that your input will not be welcomed. The conversation finally moves to something you know about – pensions. Taking a risk, you mention that you’ve opted out of your pension arrangement as it’s unclear whether humanity will still be around in forty years’ time, let alone pension funds. You hope that your friends will be either ironically amused or genuinely interested, well aware that they already consider you to be something of an oddball.

You’re greeted with frosty silence until someone changes the subject. You get the message.

For the rest of the evening, you capitulate – you talk about the things that they want to talk about, taking the full share of emotional labour until you finally go home mentally exhausted, and in a deep state of melancholy. You consider cutting them off entirely; you wonder whether they would even care if you did.

I suspect that some variation on the above example is playing out in the lives of thousands, possibly even tens of thousands, of newly-awakened climate activists across the UK. It might be friends, it might be family or co-workers, but the effect is the same. Having woken from the dream, you can no longer take part in it in a way that feels truthful, that feels genuine and satisfying. You’ve woken from the dream they’re in and found yourself alone.

So, what do you do now?

Let me first point out that I consider this to be a symptom of a highly transient state in our society, and that this problem will eventually solve itself over time – we have only just passed the tipping point in climate awareness amongst the general population. In systems theory, tipping points often induce what are known as ‘positive feedbacks’. That is, the new state that a post-tipping-point system finds itself in tends towards secondary processes that exaggerate those initial conditions as time goes on: the critical mass of climate-aware people, currently a small minority, will eventually find themselves in the majority. Systems theory shows us that this is practically inevitable.

But if you’re desperately lonely; if you’re in psychological crisis, it’s likely you won’t see the above as any comfort. If you’re suffering then you won’t want to, perhaps even can’t, wait for the problem to resolve itself through large-scale system change. You need a solution and you need it now.

But there is good news. If the problem can be described using systems theory, so then can the solution.

Picture, if you will, a population of 1,000 people, some of whom are climate-aware and the rest of whom are not. Let’s say, in an early state, there are only two climate-aware people. If every person has an average of ten connections with others, these climate-aware people are more likely to be strangers than friends. Let’s increase that number to ten; to twenty; to fifty. In each iteration, the likelihood that each climate-aware individual knows another like-minded person increases. The tipping point is reached when there are enough individuals in the system that knowing another like-minded person becomes more likely than not. I believe that, in real life, we have reached this point. From this point onwards, the tendency for an ever-greater number of connections between like-minded people is what produces sweeping system-wide changes.

Nevertheless, in every system there is a strong element of randomness, due to the inherently unpredictable nature of life. For this reason, where critical mass has only recently been attained, there will almost certainly be great variation in the number of like-minded connections amongst climate-aware individuals. Some will have a huge number of connections; other will languish on the fringes.

In real life terms, such individuals are at risk of the kind of malaise that might afflict those first two climate-aware people: the subjective perception of being completely alone, in a sea of people who are not like-minded. So, in system terms, how do these outliers connect with the mass of like-minded individuals who are already connected? The solution, once you see it, is of course very, very simple. All that an outlier individual has to do is connect with at least one like-minded person. That’s it: just one. One connection is all you need, in order to gain access to the entire interconnected web of like-minded individuals, and that blanket of isolation just melts away.

If I make it sound easy, forgive me. It isn’t. Remember that kid at school with no friends? Yep – there was always one. What a difference it would have made if that kid had had just one friend. You see, when you have fifty friends, it really isn’t too hard to get to fifty-one. But when you have no friends, it’s difficult, well-nigh impossible, even, to make one. Isolated individuals need help to make that one precious connection from which all others will follow.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that problem, but I suspect that the main barrier – possibly the only barrier – is finding them. Such outliers tend to hang about on the fringes, utterly voiceless, and desperate for a way in (remember that kid at school?). Could you imagine what might have happened if a popular kid – or anyone, really – had taken a genuine interest in that kid? I imagine that what would come next would have been transformative.

For the sake of our movement, we need to find these lonely figures – because surely, they exist in their thousands – and we must welcome them into the club.

If you’re a well-connected individual within the climate movement, take note. I suggest to you that your most important task is to find these people and bring them into the fold. If we can do this, the victory of the climate movement is assured.


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