Crisis-Afflicted Humanity is like an Alzheimer’s Patient Lost in the Forest

Engraving of the eighth print of A Rake’s Progress, by William Hogarth

A couple of very useful quotes are attributed to Einstein. The first is his definition of madness as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The second is his observation about the impossibility of solving problems using the thinking that created them. If we combine the two, we can see that human society demonstrates an underlying madness in perpetually trying to solve problems using the thinking that created them—this apparently being one of the primary ways in which we collectively do the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Explanations for this madness vary, though it would appear that a world built on an outward colonisation of the Global South for the benefit of the North has also required an internal counterpart, such that, as Tyler Durden pointed out in Fight Club, ‘the things you own, end up owning you’ (cf. Fugazi’s Merchandise: ‘You are not what you own’).

The colonisation of subjectivity implied by this observation suggests something of the collective psychosis wrought by our collective disconnect from history, such that we keep trying to solve problems using the thinking that created them while expecting different results—all the more so if historical amnesia can be considered a back door into what Jung called the collective unconscious. Judging by its fruits, this collective psychosis would seem to represent fertile soil for mass ideological brainwashing and obsessive-compulsive consumerism rooted in addiction to money and emotional dependence on authority and the approval of others.

Trapped in the midst of this collective psychosis rooted in a collective disconnect from history, mass ideological brainwashing (apparently at the hands of neoliberal corporate supremacism), and a proclivity for throwing an endless torrent of consumer durables into the bottomless pit of our alienation, then, humanity appears collectively like an Alzheimer’s patient wandering around lost in the forest. If it is highly undesirable to have Alzheimer’s and to suffer the loss of personal identity attending the loss of the memories that formed it, then it is only more undesirable to be in that state and wandering around lost in the forest. It is not only undesirable; it is dangerous; to torture the metaphor a little further, we are not only exposed to the elements, but we are deprived of the faculties to be able to help ourselves also—just as, collectively speaking, we are simultaneously exposed to serious danger while being deprived of the necessary tools to effectively negate the threat in the case of the climate crisis.

To get around the dilemma raised by Einstein’s prescient observations then, and find our way out of the forest, we need to firstly to recognise that the insanity that got us into the mind-bendingly colossal fix of global warming isn’t going to get us out of it. We must also therefore recognise the paramount importance of acknowledging the root cause of the thinking involved—not only then, in light of all the comments above, of the climate crisis, but of the dynamics that have rendered us powerless to deal with it. If the root of global warming can be defined as the mentality that the world is an infinite resource and an infinite garbage dump, and if this mentality can be traced to the era of colonialism from the sixteenth century onwards, from whence the modern world was wrought, then the root of the mentality that the world is an infinite resource and infinite garbage dump would appear to be the predatory colonial gaze that views workers, women, the peoples of the Global South, the flora and fauna—and ultimately, of course, the planet itself—as objects whose only value consists of their exploitability for profit. The forgetting of this fact, which has been true for the last 500 years, can be considered primary example of the inward colonisation of subjectivity by ideologically-driven amnesia.

Another long-forgotten fact is the way this predatory colonial gaze was expressed in a blame-shifting logic that, in setting European civilisation above ‘nature’ conceived of as ‘wild,’ ‘savage,’ ‘chaotic’ and in need of taming, was used to rationalise the innumerable crimes against humanity committed in the process of colonisation—from continent-wide land theft and genocide to slavery, mass exploitation and destruction of people, plants, animals and the land itself. Despite having been forgotten by a colonised humanity wandering around infantilised and oblivious inside the cocoon of its own collective psychosis, this process, ongoing since the sixteenth century, reaches a climax in the current period with the Holocene mass extinction, which to the extent that the colonised imagination is even aware of it at all, appears just as something that dropped out of the sky. A curious feature the blame-shifting as a general principle that drives this ideologically-induced forgetting is the reversal of cause and effect—the inability to adequately and effectively interpret cause and effect also a characteristic feature of the desperate futility associated with trying to fix the madness that wrought the climate crisis by treating it with the madness that wrought the climate crisis.

In the historical context of colonialism, this madness takes the form of all that derives from the predatory gaze driving private accumulation in terms of the colonisation of human subjectivity, not least in terms of the poisonous effect of addiction to (and lust over) money and the power associated with great fortunes. The fact that this madness is normalised within the framework of a collective psychosis does not make it one bit less insane; mental illness is to the delusions of individuals, after all, what normality is to the delusions of groups. In the current context, this means trying to fix the terminal crisis of human civilisation created by the institutions that frame the world we live in with the institutions that frame the world we live in. In reality, however, treating madness with madness just produces greater madness, and trying to fix the terminal crisis of human civilisation created by the institutions that frame the world we live in with the institutions that frame the world we live in further entrenches the exploitative social relations that cook the world in reducing it to an infinite resource and infinite garbage dump.

If this follows, then in trying to recover enough of our wits as Alzheimer’s sufferers to find our way out of the proverbial forest, we can recognise failures of cause and effect in acknowledging the limitations of attaching a green label to the madness that wrought the climate crisis—which also means acknowledging the limitations of attaching a green label to the institutions wrought by and in that madness, and that frame the doomed world in which we live. Environmental sustainability is a fine ideal and a crucial one if humanity is to survive the century; at the same time, and if history is anything to go by, there is no reason to imagine that fine ideals translate into fine means; every major persecution and historical example of institutional criminality and terror throughout history, from the European Witch Hunts, the Great Terror and the Red Terror to the Red Scares and the Terror Scare (‘War on Terror’) has been perpetrated in the name of some great ideal—be it God, the nation, the democratic revolution, the communist revolution, the open society or the global rule of law.

Recovering our collective memory reveals to us then that the loftiest ideals are useless in the face of the corrupting effects of power; it reveals to us that throughout history the greatest crimes have been committed in the name of the loftiest ideals available at the time. If a policy or strategy is not of necessity good because it has ‘for environmental sustainability’ tacked onto it; the use of PR spin to ‘greenwash’ business as usual practises to encourage perceptions that they are somehow environmentally friendly should be evidence enough of this fact. But the fact that business-as-usual practises can be greenwashed by tacking on ‘now with new and improved environmental sustainability’ should alert us to the greenwashing of politics-as-usual also—all the more so if we recall Einstein’s observation regarding the impossibility of solving problems using the thinking that created them.

‘If the end is not contained within the means,’ wrote Walter Benjamin, ‘then the end becomes unattainable.’ Benjamin made this observation in light of the fact that means, not ideals real or professed, determine outcomes. Means determine outcomes for two reasons: because actions speak louder than words, and because, as Lord Acton noted in his history of the French Revolution, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The reversal of cause and effect in the colonial-driven madness that produced the conditions and social relations that underpin the climate crisis is reflected in the impossibility of treating climate change as a ‘problem’ that can be ‘fixed’ by politics-as-usual with ‘new and improved environmental sustainability’ tacked on. This approach reflects a basic confusion of causality that treats the climate crisis as the problem and politics-as-usual minus ‘environmental sustainability’ as the symptom. In reality climate crisis is the symptom and the root problem that needs addressing are the social relations that gave rise to the climate crisis in the first place. As a fact, this has always been true; as a world of Alzheimer’s sufferers wandering around in the forest of historical amnesia, we have only forgotten.

Ben Debney is a writer and lecturer living in Melbourne, Australia.

3 May 2019


Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).