“To be, or not to be: that is the question.”
“Psychopaths are capable of taking the perspective of somebody else, but only to take better advantage of you. They’re able to play the empathy game, but without the feelings involved. It’s like an empty shell. The core of empathy — being in tune with the feelings of somebody else — seems to be completely lacking. They are like aliens among us.”
–Frans de Waal
The Believing Brain
The human brain often functions as a “believing organ.” Our beliefs develop for many different subjective and psychological reasons, and according to various contexts (family, relationships, culture, media, advertising). There is evidence that many beliefs are largely subconscious in nature. That does not stop us inventing conscious explanations for them. We rationalize, defend and fight for our beliefs — often as if our identity depended upon it. And often it does.
If some new reality challenges our mental map, our understanding of it will usually be limited by our old beliefs. Evidently human ideologies provided some evolutionary advantage in the past. But the enormous evolutionary crisis we are now facing requires rapid creative adaptation to unprecedented realities. The believing organ is being challenged as never before.
Democracy or Corporatocracy?
At the outset of the 21st century, the dominant institution is not government but business corporations, which have learned how to manipulate the democratic process. These legal entities have an insatiable appetite for profit and work to undermine any limitations on their power to pursue it. A prime example was the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to permit unlimited corporate cash donations to political campaigns. Big Carbon companies responded to this new legalization of corruption by financing lavish advertising to capture a majority in the House of Representatives. Defying the unprecedented frequency of extreme weather events occurring worldwide — including a record 12 events imposing aggregate damages of $52 billion on the U.S. itself — their “representatives” blocked any attempts to address the climate crisis. They attacked environmental regulations across the board and cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (which they also threatened to abolish). They organized witch-hunts of eminent climate scientists, reminiscent of the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s.
With this act of political “shock and awe,” Big Carbon forced its agenda down the throat of the world’s most powerful country. Although climate science shows clearly that extracting and burning the remaining fossil fuels will make global warming irreversible within a decade, such corporations are still determined to direct all political discourse and decisions to bolster their own record profits. How can they get away with making our world un-liveable? Because the top 200 oil, coal and gas companies have a combined value of $7.4 trillion, based on proven fossil fuel reserves that “the market” expects to burn.
Many people say they cannot understand how the corporate executives concerned can ignore the ecological tragedy that is unfolding for their own children and grandchildren. They are sacrificing the future of the biosphere for short-term profit. “Are they inhuman?” we ask. Like de Waal’s psychopaths, they seem to lack the core of empathy that 99 percent of us take for granted. This suggests an obvious question: Does lack of empathy make it easier to climb to the top of the corporate ladder?
Zero Empathy, Institutionalized
Over a decade ago, the psychiatrist Robert Hare evaluated corporate behaviour toward society and the world by applying standard diagnostic criteria to the business practices of these so-called “legal persons.” The diagnosis that fitted best was antisocial personality disorder — in other words, psychopathy. This finding came a few years after evolutionary biologist Edward Wilson wrote an insightful essay on the global ecological crisis, titled “Is Humanity Suicidal?”
Research by Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues has more recently identified the circuit in our brain that generates spontaneous empathy for others’ feelings. Unsurprisingly, it is underactive in individuals who commit acts of cruelty. Unfeeling cruelty toward others has traditionally been called “evil.” Now we have a precise neurogenetic definition: “zero-empathy” is the root of all evil.
As the power of corporate institutions has increased, so has that of its ideology — economic theory, which continues to exalt the beneficial nature of “the free market.” Market forces must be allowed to wreak unregulated “creative destruction” on ecosystems, cultures, democracy and globalized society alike. Empathy erosion toward future human generations has become an acceptable norm. Today carbon emissions are permitted to increase at reckless rates by governments in thrall to a failed energy paradigm and its catastrophic infrastructure. An upsurge in extreme weather events is now treated as the “new normal,” while the mainstream media — themselves powerful corporations — ignore the fact that such disasters have been repeatedly predicted by climate science.
Wilson asked whether our species has a suicidal tendency. The jury is still out on that question. History does clearly show, however, that war, genocide and other man-made disasters can be orchestrated by zero-empathy individuals in positions of power. How much more so, then, by zero-empathy institutions seeking “full-spectrum dominance”?
Breakout From the Matrix
Film and television are technologies that have the potential to be genuine art forms. Today, however, they are predominantly used by media corporations to create and maintain a simulated reality: the matrix of consumer capitalism. The ideology perpetuated by this all-pervasive matrix insists that happiness exists in direct proportion to consumption, “because you’re worth it.” Saturation advertising, which exploits the latest research into psychological manipulation, alternates with selective news, soap operas, thrillers, game shows, so-called reality shows and other disempowering trance-inductions.
The medium is also the message: virtual reality is the new norm. As we disconnect from the immediate biological world of interpersonal relationships and interdependent species, we adapt to an artificial one, where climate breakdown disappears when we don’t believe in it.
“Frozen Planet” is an excellent seven-part BBC television series wherein Sir David Attenborough celebrates the extraordinary ecology and wildlife of Earth’s polar regions. British viewers saw all seven episodes, the last addressing the momentous effects of climate change on the Arctic and Antarctic. Thirty worldwide TV networks purchased this series. A third of them (including Discovery Channel in the U.S.) elected to do without the “optional extra” of the final episode. In the real world, the Arctic sea ice continues its precipitous decline. While the climate models of global warming that predicted this have been ignored by governments, a comprehensive collapse has happened faster than any model could predict.
In the real world we do not get to avoid the final episode. It’s time to break out of our unsustainable zero-empathy matrix. To be or not to be is now the pressing spiritual question before us — as individuals, as citizens, as a civilization and as a species.
John Stanley & David Loy are part of the Ecobuddhism project