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Climate Change and International Relations: Cognitive Dissonance of Nations

Action against climate change on a global scale may end up calling into question the sovereignty of states. Will this lead to a new Dark Age?

Greta Thunberg (Illustration by Antonella Martino)

The informant talks about last month’s environmental issues in the Amazon forest, about the political reactions of world leaders and about the epochal turn that looms over us.

Bolivians call it the Mama Pacha. The earth is our home. 

says Albeiro Suarez, a former FARC guerrilla fighter, the Marxist-inspired armed group that has opposed the Colombian government for many years in a BBC report.

When I was a guerrilla fighter, the jungle gave us food and protection. Today it is still important, because it keeps producing what is fundamental for life, water and oxygen. 

Albeiro Suarez, former FARC fighter, interviewed by the BBC.

Albeiro’s and other ex-combatants’ job is to ensure that wild and abusive deforestation won’t destroy a vital resource for Colombia and for the whole world.

Unless you have lived in a forest all your life, or if you simply have watched Narcos on Netflix, you have probably heard of FARC and you know it’s a Marxist-inspired guerrilla organization operating in Colombia. 

Being Marxists and guerrillas, the US has, unsurprisingly, branded it a terrorist organization and has opposed it all the way from its inception until recent times, when a peace agreement was signed between the FARC itself and the Colombian government.    

If my calculations are correct, US State Department analysts must be scratching their heads wondering how to support FARC and their actions to protect the Amazon forest, in the light of the new unfortunate direction that the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has taken recently: allow speculators in his country to burn and wipe out what, almost unanimously, experts consider the lung of the world.

In this case, those State Department  experts would have a dilemma to solve: how can we support an entity that, as of today, is still referred to as a terrorist organization by the US Congress?

Everything considered, this might be a minor problem in a world where real problems manifest themselves as serious, huge and very pressing.

Populist clowns at work

As we all know, in recent years various populist leaders have risen to power around the world by exploiting the combined effect of social media and cognitive biases. If their decisions could once be portrayed as entertainment for all inhabitants of the new globalized circus, it is now clear that we can no longer afford to look at things that way. The decisions of those histrionic characters closely affect us. 

A collapsing economy is certainly a serious price to pay for countries to the various Farages, Trumps, Johnsons, Le Pens, Salvinis and so on, yet Bolsonaro has succeeded in further raising the stakes.

Burning the Amazon trees means producing more smoke and weakening the only mechanism that gives us all oxygen and protects us from greenhouse gases. And no, closing the borders won’t help much. Nations are intersubjective superstructures that play a key role for human relations, but air, water and carbon dioxide do not care about their borders. This is how nature operates. The problem of “borderless pollution” is very immediate and very real.

What to do?

I’ll bet you that someone in US government agencies is asking themselves very serious questions about how to deal with this situation. And I’ll also bet that among the answers they are coming up with they are considering military action in foreign countries. After all, the US has always declared that they reserve the right to defend US interests anywhere in the world. Apply that “doctrine” to the defense of global interest? Piece of cake.

Yet there’s one not so small issue: waging war against a foreign country is not an operation that even Americans can take lightly. If, on the one hand, no option is discarded, on the other, the questions that would arise are significant. The borders between states are no laughing matter.

Cognitive dissonance of nations

The expression “cognitive dissonance” might not be new to you. It’s a concept that comes from  psychology. In short, we all always strive for the mental balance that the coherence of our “narratives” provides. Without coherence we feel uneasy. To counter this, we automatically set our narrative machinery in motion, adjusting old stories or inventing new ones, until we find a configuration that makes us happy again. 

One classic example is “The Fox and the Grapes“, the famous fable by Aesop. The fox is unable to reach the grapes and, instead of abandoning himself to the depressing thought of surrender, he concludes that the grapes were still sour and therefore he wasn’t giving up much, really. Cognitive dissonance is hereby resolved.

Classics aside, many examples come to mind: a thief who thinks “this money is more useful to me than to that old witch”, or a populist politician who peddles BS on TV or in an Instagram post (“it’s the only way to get the votes of those half-wits”), or, again, “honest” citizens who see nothing wrong in hacking their way out of paying for cable TV (“They make more than enough money with commercials anyway”).

Cognitive dissonance does not apply to individuals alone, though. It also applies to nations when economic or epoch-defining upheavals undermine the narratives on which a country has built its identity. 

A recent example that comes to mind is American birthright citizenship, or the automatic granting of citizenship to those who are born in the “land of the free”. It’s a beautiful principle with great symbolic value, yet very expensive to sustain in a continent where “the poor half” is pushing from the South to become part of the richer half: a pregnant woman can be a powerful means to anchor oneself to American soil if she manages to “deliver the parcel” in one of the fifty states.

US President Donald Trump has promised to remove birthright citizenship.

What to do, then? Stay true to American (expensive) national ideals or do something about it? It’s a good example of “cognitive dissonance of a nation”. Trump being Trump, the POTUS does not seem to want to beat around the bush (no pun intended) and promises straight-up removal of the constitutional right. This is how he rolls . His sense of measure is not what he’s known for.

The mother of all dissonances

If things go the way they seem. we are moving towards a world where the stakes in a conflict among nations are not a few tens of thousands more Mexicans in the USA, nor is it access to energy sources (i.e. last century’s leitmotiv); the stakes are the survival of humanity, including Americans, of course.

A nation’s inviolable sovereignty is such a deep-rooted idea that questioning it is borderline inconceivable. And yet we would be naive in assuming that an intersubjective reality (i.e., a reality that’s only as strong as the number of people who choose to recognize it) can be a bulwark against the profound changes in international relations as human extinction looms as a concrete possibility.

The president of Brazil, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, claimed, in front of the United Nations assembly, that the Amazon belongs to Brazil (source: UN YouTube channel).

In fact, even Bolsonaro seems naive to me. As he spoke in front of the UN assembly only two weeks ago, he insisted that the Amazon rainforest is exclusive Brazilian property, and not a world heritage

I think Bolsonaro is being foolish here.  A man with that level of responsibility who still has not understood the ways of the world? Hard to believe.

If all the nations of the world, including the greatest military might of all times, convinced themselves that the actions of the Brazilian government were causing an ecological catastrophe, those stories about what is world heritage and what is not would hardly safeguard Bolsonaro.

I have no fresh statistics readily available, but opposing the US has never boded well for the political health of foreign leaders. And often not even for their health in general.

The illusion of unlimited prosperity and progress

The period of prosperity and progress enjoyed by Western countries (and by most countries as a matter of fact) from WWII until today could deceive us. Unconsciously we might be led to assume that progress and prosperity are meant to continue indefinitely.

A rational assessment of the current situation indicates that this is not the case. We have had many striking examples of how exogenous forces, exploiting social and cognitive bias, can throw the collective awareness of entire nations into disarray by derailing the democratic process.

But that is not all. 

The inadequacy of last century’s ideologies in handling the problems of the new century is overt. The reference here is not only to Fascism and Communism, but also to the liberal ideology based on free-trade, free circulation of people, human rights and work ethic. Artificial Intelligence will soon wipe out hundreds of millions of jobs and, with them, the narratives that give meaning to the lives of just as many human beings regardless of so many beautiful words on the merits of entrepreneurship spoken over the centuries .

But, still, that’s not all. 

As if all this was not alarming enough in itself, we are realizing today that the progress of the last seventy years has not been free of charge; rather we have withdrawn from the ATM of our planet’s natural resources. Getting the money out of the ATM was easy, but the bank account from which the card draws funds is ours.

With the look of a teenage daughter confronting her alcoholic parent on her face, a Swedish girl shows us that the bank statement is in the deep red and holds us accountable for squandering all the money.

Greta Thunberg, young Swedish activist and a symbol of the fight against climate change (source: Wikipedia).

As much as we can try to dance around it, it’s hard to deny that the problem is our model of capitalist growth, the one that assumes that unlimited economic expansion is possible and can accommodate everyone’s entrepreneurial ambitions.

Could it be that such unlimited growth has its theoretical upper limit in our planet’s physical resources? This is a key question. 

First off, a couple of points need to be made clear.

When we once talked about our planet’s resources, we were traditionally referring to oil, gas and coal. Soon we might be talking about water, farmland and breathable air instead.

Secondly, in scientific jargon, the theoretical limit is not what might be overcome in practical applications. Quite the opposite. It’s what nobody could ever achieve because scientific theory demonstrates that they would stop earlier (and, in practice, much earlier).

Indeed, the planet’s resources are scarce. If people across the globe began to eat the amount of steaks that, proportionately, Americans chow down every year, cows’ farts would cause an unsustainable increase in greenhouse gases and water consumption would sky- rocket.

And what about recommendations on fish consumption per capita ? US government agencies recommend at least 100 grams a week, but if all of humanity were to follow that advice, all the fish in the sea wouldn’t suffice

What would be left of woods and forests if everyone had the means to buy furniture from Ikea or anyone else?

Let’s assume that these hard limits exist and they represent the insurmountable wall of how far we can go in exploiting natural resources. Furthermore, let’s borrow, from Italian Futurism, the image of a racing car launched at full throttle to represent the unstoppable human progress towards an exciting future.

Ivanhoe Gambini, Speed, 1930

Now let’s picture that car hurtling at breakneck speed towards the massive wall.

Saving our skin will imply jamming on the brakes, while also pulling the handbrake for good measure: a very expensive and painful operation that won’t even guarantee the result: the car might roll over, or worse still, hit the wall because it’s too late. And if, by sheer luck, we escape that fate, the passengers will be stuck there, in a broken-down car, looking at each other with a big question mark printed on their faces and no idea of what their next move will be.

The risk of a new Dark Age

What would crashing against the wall imply in practice? The planet’s air becomes unbreathable, or we run out of drinking water. That would be our wall. Yet those are not the only worst case scenarios.  Military escalation leading to a full-out war among superpowers might be just as bad. Let’s not forget that nuclear holocaust is a threat to the survival of humankind that has never been removed.

Some of the scenarios are not as catastrophic, though, under the following (possibly strong) assumptions: 

  • that it’s not too late to stop global warming, 
  • that governments can agree to reduce consumption of all kinds, act in concert, trust one another, and be true to their word, 
  • that people (billions of individuals!) are somehow persuaded to back down from a lifestyle that they have come to love and that, in practice, will be hard to renounce.

If we put it this way, this is the obvious choice. Let’s pick this one and cross our fingers that it’s not too late. And that’s a smart call, but let’s stop a moment to picture the implications. It might be a lot less pleasant than we think.

For Westerners, not using coal, gas and oil anymore will mean giving up our Western lifestyle, starting with our spacious homes, warm during winter and cool during the summer. Annual vacations in exotic places will become a memory of the past for virtually everyone, and, in fact, it might be the end of civil aviation as we know it. Even those who consider themselves affluent will need to reconsider public transport, two words that rhyme with poverty for many Americans at the moment. And what about those juicy steaks? Once a month if we are lucky.

Convincing people that the new course of happy degrowth is the best of all possible worlds might only be achievable with a combination of a digital Big Brother spying on us along with the massive use of some sort of state-run Cambridge Analytica: Mass propaganda machines (capable of delivering messages targeted to each of us thanks to Machine Learning/AI) will constantly compel us to stick to virtuous conduct, without space for populism and anti-ecological rebellions.

As far as developing countries go, managing the problem could have brutal implications: controlling that people do not pollute and do not flee the territories to which they are assigned could mean threatening offenders with instant execution, only to follow up on the threat a few seconds later in case of non-compliance. Since people aren’t likely to shoot and kill other human beings so easily (not to mention susceptibility to bribery), the task could be delegated to AI-driven drones. We know very well that AI is not encumbered by moral scruples — unless we train it that way, that is.

In short, our beautiful liberal ideals that we take for granted (and the laws and constitutions that support them) seriously risk being sacrificed on the altar of the very survival of our species.

In this apocalyptic scenario that has all the appearances of a new Dark Age, managing our remembering self that gives our life meaning (as I discussed in a previous article) could be, all things considered, a minor problem. We will solve it with drugs, video games and mobile phones that distract the masses and keep them busy. 

After all, if we think about it, we’ve already been down that road for a few years now.


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