As the largest human civilization in the history of the planet burns its way into a new year, like passengers on a ship in the middle of the ocean torching the vessel’s hull planks to power the hot tub, many are asking the same question: Am I pregnant? But those who aren’t one of the […]
I’m obviously not keeping up. Fortuitously, son slipped me the ‘climate’ issue of The Economist from September 2019, which features these ‘climate stripes’. (Our children are of course there to educate us!)
Each stripe in the featured image represents the global temperature averaged over a year, from 1850 to 2018. You can see that the stripes “turn from mainly blue to mainly red in more recent years, illustrating the rise in average temperatures”.
As well as being informative, this presentation is aesthetically pleasing. What a wonderful way of communicating the reality of global temperature change. It was created by scientist: Ed Hawkins of Reading University, using data from Berkeley Earth, NOAA, UK Met Office, MeteoSwiss, DWD. The stripes have been widely used worldwide for some time, see the story.
Many people feel anxious about the prospect of their death. Indeed, some philosophers have argued that death anxiety is universal and that this anxiety bounds and organises human existence. But do we also suffer from birth anxiety? Perhaps. After all, we are all beings that are born as well as beings that die.
Whereas philosophers have said a lot about our anxiety about death, they have said little about birth anxiety. This is part-and-parcel of the broader neglect of birth in the Western philosophical tradition. The guiding thought has been that ‘all men are mortal’ (‘men’ in the sense of ‘human beings’) rather than ‘all human beings are mortal and natal’.
Once we bear in mind that we are natal as well as mortal, we see some ways in which being born can also occasion anxiety. As the bioethicist David Albert Jones writes in TheSoul of the Embryo (2004):
We might be telling someone of a memory or event and then realise that, at that time, the person in front of us did not even exist! Someone who is real and significant in our lives, who is the centre of his or her own story … once did not exist. If we seriously consider the existence and the beginning of any one particular human being … we realise that it is something strange and profound. Many philosophers have recognised that the existence of the world is something mysterious … However, if we truly grasp the existence of any one person we see that this too is mysterious …
The same goes for each individual’s own existence. I began to exist at a certain point in time, and there is something mysterious about this. I haven’t always been there; for aeons, events in the world unfolded without me. But the transition from nonexistence to existence seems so absolute that it is hard to comprehend how I can have passed across it.
To compound the mystery further, there was no single crossing point. In reality, we don’t begin in the sudden, dramatic way announced by Ruby Lennox, the narrator and protagonist of Kate Atkinson’s novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995): ‘I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.’ Rather, I came into existence gradually. When first conceived, I was a single cell (a zygote). Then I developed a formed body and began to have a rudimentary level of experience during gestation. And once out of my mother’s womb, I became involved in culture and relationships with others, and acquired a structured personality and history. Yet the zygote that I began as was still me, even though it had none of this.
This might seem to suggest that being born is mysterious rather than anxiety-inducing. But it is disconcerting that my particular existence defies comprehension in respect of its beginnings, and that the Universe contains many people each of whose beginning is likewise mysterious. When we confront these disconcerting realities, we can feel uneasy and uncomfortable. Our everyday, familiar world is exposed as having respects in which it goes beyond our understanding. We cannot feel so straightforwardly at home in the world. This is a sort of anxiety. Another factor in our difficulties making sense of our own origins is our inability to remember being born. This is part of our more general inability to remember our infancy – a phenomenon that Sigmund Freud in 1905 called ‘infantile amnesia’. Essentially, this amnesia is caused by the fact that our systems for forming and laying down memories change during childhood. This process of change is largely complete by ages six to eight. Whereas our early forms of memory are tacit, practical and emotional, the forms of memory we have acquired by age eight are explicit, linguistic and narratival. This change makes the earlier memories unavailable to us, and some of them are even destroyed.
At the same time, the period of infancy is formative for us. This is when many fundamental features of our personalities take shape, under the influence of the particular individuals and circumstances we encounter then and of our relationships with our first caregivers. We form habits, patterns of action and reaction, that will remain with us throughout our lives. Every time I feel scared of a dog approaching me, I exhibit an emotional response I first formed in childhood. As I walk along with a particular gait and style of movement, I re-enact habits I established in childhood.
But since infancy and childhood are formative for us, and yet we can explicitly remember little about them, we are left in the dark about fundamental features of our own personalities. Why do we fall in and out of love with the people we do? Why does a certain song move me to tears and leave you cold? Infantile amnesia means that the rationale for much of our emotional lives lies out of our reach.
To be born, and therefore to begin life as an infant and child, is to be destined to forget much of one’s early life, even while it still lives on within one. It is to be limited in how far one can understand oneself and the wellsprings of motivation from which one acts and reacts. This aspect of being born, as well as the mystery of our own beginnings, can arouse anxiety. For, when we pay attention to infantile amnesia, we can feel uneasy and uncomfortable realising that we will never be able to make full sense of ourselves or of our own motivations and impulses. We are bound in important ways to remain strangers to ourselves.
Yet there might still seem to be a basic reason why we cannot feel anxious to have been born as we feel anxious about death. My birth is in the past, whereas my death is in the future. One might intuitively think that we can feel anxious only about future possibilities.
Then again, at times people do feel anxious about the past. Sometimes they feel social anxiety remembering having said or done the wrong thing in a past social situation. And post-traumatic stress disorder is anxiety about traumatic events suffered in the past. Indeed, the psychoanalytic theorist Otto Rank, author of The Trauma of Birth (1924), believed that we all experience birth anxiety understood as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (although he didn’t use the phrase): anxiety prompted by memories of the trauma of leaving the mother’s womb.
But taking it that we can feel anxious about past events, the forms of birth anxiety discussed in this piece are not about my birth as a specific past event. Rather, they are anxieties about ongoing features of my existence that it has insofar as I was born – for instance, anxiety about how I am bound to be strange to myself by virtue of having been born. Here, these forms of birth anxiety are not so different from death anxiety after all, because death anxiety is likewise about my ongoing condition as a mortal being – I am always vulnerable to death, which can always intervene to leave my projects interrupted and unfinished. Similarly, in birth anxiety it is my whole condition as a natal being about which I am anxious.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
It’s almost the end of 2019, and I am wrapping up my blog for the year with a few thoughts; some joyous, some sombre.
The joy is that, for some, Christmas is upon is, as is the New Year. It is a time for family, and to enjoy a brief respite from the labours of the world. As has been earned, and as we should.
But for me this year is also set against a sombre darkness. When I look around at what is happening globally; at the ugly end-game of greed and entitlement into which the neo-liberal revolution of the 1980s has fallen; at the way certain social media platforms amplify polemic and reduce reason to asserted slogans – a litmus test, perhaps, for human nature; and when I look at the way national sentiments around the globe are becoming polarised for deeper-running socio-economic reasons, I have to wonder…
Water is crystalline, water is energy, it is memory, it is life, the single most important ingredient to the potion of life. (Informed Water Bottle)
Not far from my home is the Pumphouse County Natural Area a 128-acre natural area that includes a spring-fed wetland, and forms the headwaters of Oak Creek, a major tributary of the Verde River, one of the desert’s last free-flowing rivers. It attracts a wide variety of wildlife, including elk, fox, deer, waterfowl, wading birds, migratory birds, wintering bald eagles, elk, garter snakes, songbirds, and small mammals.
The Wind River (pictured above) is located in a canyon that has been around for millions of years. The river is protected, but now faces degradation because there are pollutants that flow into creeks above Boysen Reservoir, which discharge into the Wind River, the local EPA is looking into resolutions to return this magnificent river…
It’s too bad meat is so tasty, driving so convenient and airline travel so desirable. Because those all create large amounts of greenhouse gases and worsen the climate crisis. We know it, and some of us feel guilty getting on a plane, hopping in the car or eating burgers. But how are we to cut back when we’re not sure what level of a high-emission behaviour is sustainable – and when everyone else is doing it?
Some environmental activists and leaders suggest we should practise moderation, take the bus, eat veggie burgers. But voluntary measures just can’t deliver when the problem is this big and time is so short. That’s why it may be time for mandatory cutbacks on the kinds of consumption that threaten all of us.
It may be time for rationing.
Rationing sounds awful
I know, I know, it sounds awful – even shocking given our expectations. Rationing is for populations at war. But given the terrible consequences of climate change, we are in a war to save ourselves.
“The climate crisis is our third world war,” writes Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. “It needs a bold response.”
According to writer and activist Bill McKibben, “it’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. And we are losing.”
The dramatic Green New Deal proposed by some Americans calls for a wartime-like retooling of our economies and our lives. We need to immediately put the brakes on consumption, with everyone sharing the burden. This is not to lay the climate crisis or its entire solution at the feet of you and me or absolve governments of action. But every person needs to play a role.
Rationing isn’t actually all that radical or unusual. Consumer and social goods are limited and need to be deliberately allocated, ecologist Stan Cox says in Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing. During summer water shortages, we’re told to hold off on dousing the flowers every day. Before heading into backcountry areas, you’ll probably need a recreation permit that limits the number of visitors to sensitive places. To fish, you need a licence setting a quota on how many you can catch. Health-care professionals decide which patients get which treatments and how quickly – especially if there are wait times for surgery or a shortage of drugs – even in emergency-room triage, which sorts patients by severity. It’s more obvious for cars and clothes: Human wants are greater than the goods available.
For allocating stuff, our usual mechanism is price: If you want something and can afford it, generally, you can have it. But that’s no way to reduce activities that generate emissions. Even though sin taxes on meat or carbon taxes on gas may lower some emissions, they don’t restrain wealthy people who like to fly and eat steak and barely notice the expense. So higher prices don’t achieve the limitations we need on greenhouse gases. They’re also inequitable and unfair.
‘Fair Shares for All’
Fairness is what rationing is all about. That’s why so many citizens approved of it during the Second World War. Polls in Canada in 1945 showed that more than 90 per cent of adults felt that rationing had done a good or fair job during the conflict in distributing food equitably, Ian Mosby writes in his 2014 book, Food Will Win the War. Even in Britain, where wartime rationing was more extensive, opinion polls showed that most citizens agreed with government policies aiming to ensure “Fair Shares for All.”
At the start, people weren’t crazy about the limitations, but they soon perceived that the system guaranteed everyone (even low-income citizens who had been undernourished) adequate supplies of eggs, sugar, butter, meat and sweets, as well as clothing and fuel. Rationing becomes appealing when consumers come to see the positives as well. The glass may be half-empty but it’s also half-full.
Wartime food programs have intrigued me for a decade.
I’d been writing about how we can eat more sustainably by lowering our meat and dairy intake. Then, my husband and I were in London and discovered the Imperial War Museum and its exhibit The Ministry of Food. There we learned of Britain’s food-system overhaul in the 1930s and forties to keep its citizens fed through chaotic times. Because war can wreck normal infrastructures, including those for food production and distribution, the British government assessed the country’s food network, refocused agriculture toward domestic needs and set clear objectives for every citizen to grow locally, minimize food waste and abide by the ration so everyone would have enough.
If you’re thinking that slice of history isn’t relevant because people don’t want government to be involved in food, it’s too late. Elected officials and their administrations already oversee agriculture, food safety, dietary guidelines and more. Besides, we in Canada want the government to act in key sectors such as transportation, education and health.
Given that food is even more essential than those, because we need to eat to survive, and given that climate change is threatening global food production, we need public leadership. We need visionaries with the foresight of British wartime leader Winston Churchill to inform and inspire us and require that we act.
Demand management has been on the table
Intervening in the market to dampen consumer demand and emissions has been proposed before. In B.C. and elsewhere, we have carbon taxes on fossil fuels. Internationally, some jurisdictions have imposed taxes on meat.
As for more ambitious programs, in 2006 British Environment Minister David Miliband recommended widespread rationing to limit personal carbon emissions. Officials explored the possibility but felt citizens would never agree to it. Here and there leaders have considered personal carbon allowances, tradeable energy quotas and carbon entitlements. In the early 2000s, British activists formed Carbon Rationing Action Groups, which helped individuals lower their footprints but were hard to administer without legal frameworks. The ideas were ahead of their time.
Now, however, there’s awareness and a hunger for action. A recent Canadian poll shows that three-quarters of respondents are “worried” about climate change and 42 per cent believe it is now “an emergency.” That research from Abacus Data was commissioned by policy analyst Seth Klein for his forthcoming book on mobilizing Canada for the climate crisis. In the United States, polls say it’s a top issue and that citizens want the government to act. In Britain more than a decade ago, commentator George Monbiot called for personal carbon rationing. More recently, Guardian writer Sonia Sodha confessed that she talks a good environmental game but burns a lot of fossil fuels. She suggests legal limits be implemented on her and the rest of us. We’re not bad people, she says. Just human.
How would rationing work?
There are numerous possible models. Carbon could be a kind of currency that we spend (along with regular money) when purchasing high-emission goods or services. Each of us could receive an allocation of carbon points to spend in a month or year. These could be stored on a smart bank card. When paying for gasoline or airline tickets or certain foods (or, more broadly, energy use), the card would electronically deduct money plus appropriate numbers of carbon points. If we used our entire allocation, we might be able to purchase more – there are pros and cons to tradeability – from individuals who don’t need them, rewarding them financially for their low-carbon lives. Prices of goods such as meat would not necessarily rise. Rather, everyone would only be allowed to purchase certain amounts.
Would rationing be complicated to design and implement? Sure, but it’s doable. Problems would include accommodating variations either regional (more meat up north) or personal (people who need to drive for work). But these should be solvable in today’s data world. Already government payments – say, for employment insurance – are calculated differently based on factors such as where you live and local employment levels. Allowing for complexity doesn’t require an army of people with pencils and calculators, but rather good data sets and effective software programs.
Would there be abuses and a black market? Yes, because humans will always be crafty. But Britain demonstrated in wartime that if fair-share systems are transparent and perceived as equitable, abuses and black-market activity can be minimized.
It’s a hard sell
I realize this is a tough sell. Rationing sounds scary (maybe right-wing, maybe left-wing, but probably bad) and out of line with the freedoms we’ve come to expect. In our consumer culture, as Mr. Cox tells it, suggesting rationing is like shouting an obscenity in church. Besides, scarcities aren’t always visible. For meat, there’s no actual shortage of chicken, pork or beef – just scarcities of the land, fresh water and greenhouse gas capacity needed to sustainably produce them.
Nor would this be easy. Rationing would change our lives and involve a word I’ve been trying to avoid: sacrifice. But what are we to do? Science shows we have barely 10 years to avoid disaster, suggesting we shouldn’t count entirely on technological innovation or self-moderation. Meanwhile, we’re all in a lifeboat with just enough space for each of us. Should we really be complaining about not getting first-class seats if doing so would bump others? That’s what we’re doing when we consume too much of the stuff that fuels climate change.
It wouldn’t work without political will. Environmental scholar Maurie Cohen analyzed wartime rationing and concluded it might be effective today if consumers were given specific objectives; if legislation was flexible to allow for surprises and change; and if political leaders were genuinely committed.
I’m not alone in my uncertainty about eating animal-source foods and getting on planes. I’d like to know how much driving and home energy use are justified. Based on science, a rationing system would remove the guesswork in addressing the climate emergency. It would also assure us that if we’re going to cut back on vacations, others will, too.
There would be psychological benefits as well. Knowing we are living within planetary boundaries would bring hope to those who are frightened or depressed, boosting societal morale. Morale was a justifiable concern in wartime, especially in Britain, which needed everyone to optimistically support the quest for victory. Today, our countries need policies and practices that inspire confidence in humanity’s prospects. Programs such as rationing could fairly share emission-intensive goods, give people meaningful ways to contribute and help maintain our commitment to a livable future.
The average human releases around 5 tonnes of CO2 per year. Is it different in each country? Yes, even just between two people. Developing countries like Pakistan and the Philippines have around 1 tonne per person each. Compared with developed nations that have higher national averages like the US (16.5 tonnes) and South Korea (11.5 tonnes). It’s about where we are, who we are, and what we do.
By considering our daily decisions within our reach. Climate change issues won’t be solved effectively by your eating, buying or driving habits alone. Or even by a country alone. It needs a system-wide changes.
As the IPCC report says, “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” “Everyone is going to have to be involved,” says Debra Robert, co-chair of the IPCC.
Before we go to the “what to do’s” we should know first the “why we do’s”.
As the twenty-first century approaches its third decade I am deeply worried about the nature of how social media is served to us. It didn’t really exist twenty years ago when everybody was worried about the ‘millennium bug’ destroying everything.
Today it’s engaged by a really significant chunk of every human alive on the planet, but the services are dominated by faceless monoliths that don’t engage with their customers (yes, I’m talking about YOU, Facebook, and is your name really the oxymoron it appears to be?).
That’s the thing. Social media is a great way to connect with people globally, but the service frameworks around which it’s offered are those of amoral corporates who have monetised the system to their own benefit. And that is quite without considering the way that their ‘algorithms’ work – mathematical tools designed to take the place of human judgement. These don’t just create ‘validation…