David Attenborough’s latest documentary ‘A Life On Our Planet’ presents probably the most broad-sweeping, validated, and accessible account of our environment’s rapid destruction to date. It raises a lot of very important, very relevant questions, and given that climate change takes center stage in determining our way of life in the coming decades, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to consider the issue a little deeper.
But I am not an environmental activist or an ecologist; I have no intention of further saturating the amount of discussion as to the imminent destruction of our environment and biodiversity. Instead, to avoid boring or deterring any readers with the standard rhetoric of “we’re all doomed” and “we must act now”, I’d prefer to focus on the personal, rational, political…philosophical (of course) underpinnings of the issue. For it is, at its very heart, a question of philosophy: it is the way in which we have chosen to apply our minds – as individuals or as societies – that has brought our environment to the brink, and it is only by learning what it means to apply them sustainably, that we can have any hope of ‘stepping back’ from this cliff.
Fundamentally however, and in line with Attenborough’s statement below, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to make the case that Wisdom is Infectious.
(~7 Minute Read)
“…however grave our mistakes, nature will overcome them… the living world will endure; we humans, cannot presume the same. We’ve come this far, because we are the smartest creatures that have ever lived. But to continue, we require more than intelligence– we require wisdom.“– Sir David Attenborough, ‘A Life On Our Planet’
Attenborough recalls the moment he watched, live on television, the Apollo 8 mission’s shot looking down on the Earth. He explains how this single moment changed the way the entire population viewed the world, and the appreciation of its fragility that it awoke in them. This is the very same notion of perspective I referred to in my last post— that a simple idea, in this case the connection of feelings and thoughts to an image on a screen, can completely shift the landscape of our values and compel us into new ways of life. This is an experience so basic to all of us, that discussing it may seem simplistic, but the danger lies in precisely that oversight. Our perspective – our values – can be shifted for better or worse at even the slightest trigger, and more often than not we have no awareness that this process is taking place.
This mechanism for change (in values, and hence action) is being continually harnessed by the societies we have built, and the social structures within them, throughout your waking days; I’m even doing it right now, trying to grapple your attention for my own ends. What we are confronted with, the world that we are exposed to, determines what we seek to do and hence how we spend our valuable energy– our money, our attention, our time. On the flipside however, is one powerful fact: we are, for the most part, capable of deciding what we expose ourselves to; which is to say, we do have some control, some choice, and hence some responsibility, for our values.
This is important in light of climate change and the topic of our future for two reasons: first, we must acknowledge our responsibility over our own values if we hope to make change faster than the natural flow of ideas; and second, that because we are so susceptible to the ideas we are exposed to, it is clear evidence that our own values and behavior are themselves infectious to others– i.e. that when you take responsibility for your own values, you do so for everyone you’re exposed to as well.
It never ceases to amaze me just how few of the world’s population seem to be aware of either fact. That instead of trying to be conscious of what they expose themselves to, they simply allow their thoughts and feelings to fall wherever they’re led. We all do this to varying degrees, it is only human and we cannot hope to control every minor influence– it is necessary that we are swayed by our experiences and by unknowns, this is part of the beautiful mystery of life. Yet there is a clear distinction between actively accepting the responsibility to be vigilant over our values, and neglecting it. We all have a choice: to do our best to moderate and tend to our values, to learn what is manipulating them and to do our best to govern this process, or to let ourselves be led by ‘higher powers’ – be it government, God, social pressures, the media… If we do the latter, the change we want or need will only ever happen too late.
“There are many differences between humans and the rest of the species on earth, but one that has been expressed is that we alone are able to imagine the future.”– Sir David Attenborough, ‘A Life On Our Planet’
Imagining the future, being able to see beyond the current issues, is our unique gift. It is why we have been able to evolve so fast, as we have been able to take an imaginary step-back on our situation, and adjust our actions according to possibilities instead of only immediate stimuli. Yet nowadays, so much of that complex thought is being done for us that we are neglecting to realise the power and importance of taking responsibility for it ourselves– for acknowledging the importance of Wisdom, and for taking responsibility for how much it spreads.
It is one thing to acknowledge your control over your own values, to see that wisdom is a skill that you can learn– but another altogether to be motivated to pursue it boldly, in the knowledge that your actions will affect others. We live in an age where idealism is very much not in-fashion; scientific pragmatism is taking center-stage (coherently or otherwise), and typically anyone who attempts to propose ideas grounded purely in self-conviction will be judged as naive. Wisdom is a cute ideal, but it ‘does not make money’, ‘does not put food on the table’, ‘does not cure cancer’…
It always tickles me to think that, for thousands of years, royalty and politicians across the globe and throughout history, actively sought the counsel of the wise, be it advisors to kings, zen masters to emperors, Merlin to Arthur– and yet now, our governments and rulers listen predominantly to economists. But I’m not going to give you a pep-talk and tell you why you should be wise, or that you should be idealistic, because that would be being idealistic.
Living within your means, being grateful and not greedy, cultivating a sustainable existence… all of this is ‘common sense’ and things that we can clearly learn, should we choose. What is not obvious is that actively pursuing and enacting this ‘common sense’, listening to what your gut is telling you is ‘right’, does actually have a tangible impact upon your world, by forcing others to be confronted with such actions and values.
It is well-established psychology that regular exposure to ideas makes them more acceptable. The conventional example is that of advertising or political campaigns: the more you are exposed to a brand-name or a politician, the more acceptable you find them and the more viable their agenda may seem. Or take flat-earth theorists as a more extreme example: it was never an important or relevant idea 50 years ago, yet because an increasing number of individuals allowed themselves to accept whatever belief they liked the most, it has spread like COVID-19. A few may have adopted the stance at first, no doubt in a personal act of rebellion against the harsh realities of the scientific world-view, but their negligence in taking responsibility for the implications of their beliefs, twinned with others’ lack of responsibility for allowing their own values to be shifted, will have laid the foundations for what is fundamentally ludicrous becoming an internationally recognized idea. Moreover, that because it has hit the news so much, it actually (almost) seems like a possible alternative to the currently accepted model.
We are taught consistently nowadays that idealism is counter-productive, and encouraged (likely because it’s contrary to political/economical needs) that small actions do not make worthwhile change. In contrast with 92 year-old David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg epitomises idealism: she is easily dismissed by big-wigs as being a child with little understanding of global economic/political issues. And yet, even with less than a quarter of Attenborough’s years, she has helped force the world to acknowledge the very same message.
With all this in mind, my point is simple: that the more others are confronted with people taking responsibility for their values and their minds (‘being wise’), the more likely they are to do the same. When twinned with wisdom, idealism is not naive, but instead essential for allowing positive change to take root before it’s too late.