Historians have noted that one of the greatest threats to the survival of societies is not adversity but cynicism, the pervasively negative attitude that defeats the possibility of finding solutions to recognized challenges. Cynicism undermines the viability of societies by summarily discrediting personal initiative, communal effort, adaptive innovation, technological ingenuity and collective wisdom.
Cynicism seems to be the temper of our times. We know what our challenges are and, in most cases, we know how to move toward solutions. But we are in danger of adopting a dismissive indifference, a perverse reluctance and a defeatist resignation that fails to address these challenges with adequate resolution and vigour. When the challenges invite us to be brave and assertive – “Fortune knows we scorn her most when most she offers blows,” Shakespeare advised – our heroism is crippled by cynicism. If we don’t believe that we are capable of surmounting our difficulties then we commit ourselves to be victims of our own failings.
This failure is illustrated wonderfully in a recent Scott Adams Dilbert cartoon (Globe & Mail, Mar. 29/11). Aside from the inclination of Dilbert to be somewhat cynical anyway, this one is particularly so. Dogbert in the cartoon is typing at a computer. “I’m writing fake press releases for imaginary new green energy technologies,” he says to Dilbert. “Scientists say that by 2040 you will be able to power your entire home with the breeze from your refrigerator door.” So Dilbert asks Dogbert, “Now how will I know which green breakthroughs are real?” And Dogbert replies, “Seriously? You think there are real ones?”
Such cynicism is insidiously destructive because it fails to see hope and, therefore, fails to see options and solutions. Many of the changes we need are not technologically onerous; they can be made by simple administrative means. Reducing the intense impact of industrial ocean fishing by international agreements would save bluefin tuna from imminent extinction and end the population collapse of other large fish species. Enforcing no-whaling protocols would spare endangered cetaceans from crisis conditions. Designating Marine Protected Areas and limiting catch sizes would ensure perpetual fish stocks in fishing areas.
The terrestrial equivalent of MPAs are parks. Beyond providing environmental protection and ecological security, they stabilize climate, counteract species extinction, educate people, generate employment, and are a source of local, provincial and national pride – surveys show that Canadians identify themselves more strongly with national parks than with hockey.
The growing anxiety about food production can even be addressed by low-tech means. A UN report on Agro-Ecology and the Right to Food (March 2011) found that developing countries could produce 80 to100 percent more food by practicing ecological rather than industrial agriculture. An organic system of careful planting would reduce the debilitating costs of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, make soils more drought resistant, buttress food self-sufficiency and also store vast amounts of carbon. In The Climate Challenge, Guy Dauncey argues that if 1.5 billion hectares of the world’s agricultural land were farmed organically, soils would sequester enough carbon dioxide to reduce atmospheric CO2 by an astounding 11 percent.
Conserving energy is the cheapest way to energy sufficiency. If we can accept this fact and be aware of the energy consumption of our appliances, gadgets, homes, vehicles and travel habits, then we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ocean acidification, harmful pollutants and the cost to ourselves, our society and our environment. If we take the cynical position that our individual actions are unimportant, that it’s too late to stop the slide into environmental Armageddon or that ecological problems do not exist, then inaction ensures that the possible becomes the inevitable.
Even without the revolutionary technological innovations that will hopefully solve all our energy needs and save us from the fossil fuel conundrum, we can control greenhouse gas emissions by carbon taxes that can then be directed to research and projects to reduce the effects we don’t want. A price on carbon can have the multiple benefits of providing a cost incentive to reduce emissions, of inducing a price structure that will encourage innovation while providing funds that can be directed to carbon reducing projects. Ironically, because the business community hates uncertainty and anticipates the inevitability of some form of carbon tax to control greenhouse gas emissions, it actually wants them sooner rather than later.
Consumers guide the marketplace and voters elect governments. In modern, industrial, democratic societies, people get what they deserve. A cynical public with cynical views abdicates the right to determine the products it can buy, the safety it expects and the destiny it imagines. Cynicism thwarts collective involvement and action. It disempowers the individual and transfers authority and control to those who function in self-interest. It invites victimization and exploitation, the very processes that create cynicism. Individually and collectively we make the world we want, a task that can be as easy as making thoughtful choices.
So many of our environmental problems can be addressed by simple changes in attitude. Recent sociological studies have indicated a worrisome rise during the last two decades in the use of “I”, “me” and “mine” instead of “us”, “we” and “they”. This unhealthy trend can be counteracted by thinking in terms of our human community and the environment that sustains it. On a planet where everything is connected to everything else, obsessive self-interest is ultimately unfulfilling and self-defeating. Indeed, if being cynical about everything means that not even cynicism can be trusted, then we can all find better options.