How I Would Have Answered

By Troy Headrick

Earlier this month, I posted a “question of the day” in which I asked readers to reflect upon the biggest challenge facing humanity.  I got an overwhelming number of responses and am still in the process of responding to all those who left comments.

In thinking about how I might answer such a query, I was torn between two possible responses:  the paucity of critical thinking skills among those who inhabit the planet and climate change and its threat to human life and the things we hold dear.

I’ve written a lot about critical thinking and its importance on this blog, so today, I’d like to share a few thoughts about climate change, especially why I think, from a psychological point of view, it’s going to be hard to get most humans to see climate change as the existential problem it is and to buy into any sort of meaningful solution.

An examination of how my life has changed and what’s taken place in my own family can be instructive in understanding why most people find it hard to see climate change as an issue that needs addressing. 

When I was a child, I lived with grandparents who felt a very tangible connection to the natural world because they were ranchers.  Plus, a large number of my uncles and aunts similarly made their living either by raising and selling animals or raising and selling crops.  These family members lived in rural settings and were attuned to the cycles and rhythms of nature.  When there were droughts, my family members looked at the skies and worried.  When it rained too much, they looked at the skies and shook their heads in consternation and disbelief.  They spent hours per day outside and felt no sort of disconnect with the natural world.

My grandparents are dead now as are several of my farmer and rancher aunts and uncles.  I, like my many cousins, live in large cities and have become very urbanized.  I count myself lucky because I grew up very much connected with nature even if I have become relatively estranged from it in recent decades.

Urbanization is not confined to me and my family members.  In fact, Hannah Ritchie and Max Rosen, in “Urbanization,” published on the website, point out that people are rapidly becoming more urbanized and that “urban settings are a relatively new phenomenon human history.  This transition [away from rural settings and agricultural lifestyles] has transformed the way we live, work, travel, and build networks

I’d go a step further and say that urbanization is changing the way we think, including the way we think about our relationship with the natural world.

As we move away from our agricultural past, we lose the understanding and visceral connection to nature.  A growing number of people in all parts of the world now see a duality:  There is the human world and the natural world.  To my grandparents and to all those who “lived off the land,” no such duality existed.  Human beings and their activities and dreams took place within nature.  Changes in the natural world, therefore, had, in their view, a profound impact on human life.  Thus, they paid attention to climate changes and weather patterns and such because their lives and livelihoods depended on it.

As we have become more divorced from nature and as traditional farming and ranching has become more and more a thing of the past, we find ourselves more willing to exploit or ignore nature because we no longer feel a deep connection to it.  We trash our world (pun intended) because we think we somehow live apart from nature rather than a part of it.  We are killing ourselves because we are killing the planet, but far too many of us don’t realize how suicidal our actions are.    

Until more of us can find a way to get beyond of the duality I spoke of, I see little chance that we can do anything other than abuse nature and thus destroy ourselves.

Thanks for reading.   

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

37 thoughts on “How I Would Have Answered

    1. Good question. I do know that humans are losing the knowledge needed to do the sort of farming and ranching that I knew growing up. Those who still do this work now do it on an industrial scale. I have spent recent decades living in some of the largest cities in the world and met many people who don’t even know where food comes from. They know the supermarket very well, but would struggle to spend a day doing the sort of hard physical work i did growing up. And, as people leave the countryside and move into cities in large numbers, their incomes tend to grow which turns them into super-consumers. They have disposable income which they spend on buying plastic crap. This destroys the planet too. So. nature is losing its caretakers and more and more folks are buying more and more stuff. That’s a double whammy.

  1. Dependency drives the decisions and actions of humans. We cannot see beyond our noses and that’s a curse in itself. I think your point on critical thinking skills applies here as well. Boxed thinking has led many of us to believe that the bigger problems have nothing to do with us. We can continue to live our contained lives and let others handle this environmental nonsense. Why? Because we’re so consumed with sorting out our own fickle nonsense. Nature will have to wait its turn. (At the end of the line)

    1. You’ve made a number of tremendous points here. In the “my question of the day” piece I allude to in my blog, a number of readers pointed out that too many wait for others (authorities and such) to fix things but that we have to start taking individual responsibility for solving our own problems. I would certainly agree with that, but the problem, as I pointed out in my piece, is that too many don’t see themselves a part of the natural world. I would argue that most people are feel more attachment to their mobile phones than they do to the natural world around them. Sad but true. Thanks very much.

  2. Indigenous cultures had this wisdom long before westerners did. The biggest threat to humanity is capitalism and patriarchy because the two go hand in hand in creating this disaster that we live in. There is no balance. That is absolutely clear.

    1. Yes, of course. And if you ask the Inuits in Alaska and Northern Canada about all this, they’ll tell you how real and how threatening all this is. Those who live in nature and with it understand things that others don’t, but that’s because they see it with their own eyes and feel it with all their senses. I’ve met many city folk who live in very urbanized settings who know nothing of animals or planets or the sky or the earth. For them, those things are external. They are “out there.” They know everything about cars and technology and production but don’t see the skies being filled with poisons. We become the way we live and the things we know. Thanks so much for the comment.

  3. Coincidentally this concept of urbanisation was something I’d been set on writing about today because of how many times it pops up in what I read. There seem to be a number of things in this world that have been affected by modernisation in general and knowing it might help to resolve a number of even fundamental obstacles that we see in front of us.

    1. Cities are good places to make money and find restaurants and such. But they are places where production and consumption take us a way from those things to keep us physically, emotionally, and psychologicall healthy. Thanks for the comment.

  4. I love the photo choice!

    Hard to argue with either of your perspectives. Half of my family is Japanese… half of those anchored in farm land in the north, and half likewise from farm and ranch lands in the south. In the sense of that urban/rural divide, the Japanese countryside has been largely abandoned for the greater opportunity of ultra-crowded but ultra-efficient urban environments. And yet, the Japanese are also acutely aware of the essential value of that farmland, as famine has been a fundamental driver of much Japanese history. It’s a culture that well understands the inherent compromises in maintaining near half the population of the US in a largely uninhabitable space the size of California.

    Earth is a limited resource. Wishful thinking aside, we’ve already committed ourselves to technological extensions to what it can provide if by nothing more than sheer population. So the duality is baked in to our survival as much as what we hold dear. Cities, fertilizer, sanitation, medicine… they are by default the only way forward. It’s only the starving man, and the man who’s never known starvation, that care not at all about tomorrow.

    1. As we lose touch with our shared agricultural past, I worry that we’ll become increasingly divorced from nature. And because we no longer see ourselves as “animals,” as part and parcel of the world of nature, we find it easier and easier to ignore or downplay the harm we’re doing. I think the average person feels a greater connection to his or her mobile phone than to the natural world. Unless we relearn that the fate of human life is inextricably connected to the fate of the nature, I fear for the well-being of the planet. Your experience in Japanese is common the world over. People leave the countryside and flock to the big cities. In the US, the only people who can afford to farm are those that do it on an industrial scale. We feel connected to our technology but not to the sky and the earth and the water. Thanks for sharing your story and for leaving such an interesting comment.

    1. All this seems obvious to me. What explains the fact that too many humans are willing to trash the very place that sustains human life? Thanks for the comment.

      1. What if it has something to do with space? We don’t to make our own place dirty so the only other option is to trash nature, somewhere only a few people live in…

        Or is it probably because they consider nature as a hindrance for growth and development, with how urbanized we are? Or probably because a concept of how nature heals itself, we think the resources are infinite…

      2. You raise some excellent points here. Several years ago, I happened to live in Cairo, Egypt, for a considerable period of time. Because they pay almost no attention to keeping the air clean, the sky is brown and the air is very polluted. They may think that nature is “out there,” but every time they inhale, nature literally enters them. There is no way to separate our sphere from the sphere of nature. There are not two spheres, in fact. There is only one. We all drink. We all breath. We all eat. Everything that we take inside of us has come from the earth. If it is dirty, then we dirty ourselves. I do think humans think nature is to be exploited or turned into money. If we continue to see nature this way, we are all certain to eventually go bankrupt. Again, thanks so much for bringing up such great points.

  5. There was a philosopher (can’t remember who) who once said, “if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” I’m inclined to agree. Both those things, at least, give you everything you need. Despite living in a densely populated city, I walk around our local park everyday. Few things clear my head as well. I would be devastated if it turned into another construction site. Great post Troy. I believe tackling climate change will be our children’s biggest challenge.

    1. Like you, I have maintained connections with green places even while living in cities as crowded and as populated as Cairo, Egypt. But we are conscious of this connection. Think about the untold number of people who bumble though life and never give a second thought to the natural world or to the fact that the health of the sky and land and water is inextricably connected to the health of all of us. I love your “garden and library” comment. Food for the body and the mind and the spirit. What else is needed? Thanks so much for your very interesting and insightful comment.

  6. Thank you for this excellent post.

    I am 75 and although born in London grew up in what was then ‘The Garden of England’ Kent….now a commuter belt. My family also had a home and farmed in Bedfordshire….in a totally rural community.

    My family on both sides had an enormous respect for the land and natural world. To drop a piece of litter was considered beyond terrible and having had that instilled in me, to this day when I see litter my heart sinks.

    As a painter I fully understand how all of life is interconnected…something that has been brought home during the pandemic – an understanding that none of us is an island!

    Until we really understand what being interconnected means and live accordingly….we are doomed.


  7. Well said said. I grew up with my grandma and we farmed all the time. I wasn’t a big fan of it as I didn’t see the benefits UNTIL I moved to the city. Goes to say, you do t know what you have till it’s gone. Thank you for this. Cheers

    1. Many people look down on those who farm. The farmers feed all of us! They deserve our utmost respect. Thanks for commenting and sharing your story.

  8. Thought-provoking, thank you. I agree, being more aware of nature would improve understanding of the issues surrounding climate change. I also think that teaching critical thinking skills (starting from a young age) would be key here, as it would enable people to more effectively consider all the evidence around climate change, including assessing its validity and reliability.

    1. I have been a teacher of critical thinking for many years at universities and colleges located in the US, Poland, the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt. Do you have a similar background? I ask because you speak with such conviction about the importance of education (and about the importance of a certain kind of education). Thanks.

      1. Hi Troy. I don’t really have a similar background, although I worked in a UK university as a Disability Adviser for 15 years. The importance of critical thinking became clear to me when as a mature student, I studied an undergraduate science degree. Critical analysis was highlighted as a key skill. I undertook a systematic review for my postgraduate degree dissertation, which required in-depth analyses. I believe what I learnt about critical thinking was one of the most valuable skills I learnt at university. But, I think we shouldn’t need to wait until university to learn these skills. I think we should begin actively developing them when we start school. Thanks for your interest.

  9. Have we lost the fundamental principles of life and existence? The most critical components to exist for humans on Earth is oxygen (air), water and plants/trees for the process of absorbing the CO2 and producing oxygen. Now, we are eroding the rainforests, polluting the air with chemicals and filling the seas with man made plastics. Attacking ourselves from all directions. I’m not casting any aspersions on the youth of today who will be affected by the results most, but when an Instagram post is getting more attention than a lesson in a classroom, it is a very sad day indeed

    1. Yep. You’ve said it all in your comment. We are indeed “attacking ourselves from all directions.” We are suicidal and too damn stupid to see what’s happening. Thanks, man, for the words of wisdom.

      1. Thank you for your stimulating, thought provoking article. My thought is what a wonderful world it would be without hatred with its seed of anger, lust and pride as driving forces in our lives.

  10. Keep up the constructive ‘overthinking’, Troy, which I hardly find pointless, especially in regards to our spaceship Earth being left so vulnerable.

    It must be convenient for our planet’s biggest polluters to have such a large portion of society too tired and worried about feeding, housing and guarding their families against COVID-19 while on a substandard income to criticize it for the global environmental damage it causes, particularly when not immediately observable. (‘Who needs ‘carbon sinks’ when, as the subconscious general mentality allow, Earth’s atmosphere and water systems can be used for our carbon dumps!’)

    How do we correct a collective addiction to shopping when we’ve yet to correct a collective addiction to disposability, to conveniently throwing non-biodegradables down a dark chute like we’re safely dispensing it into a black-hole singularity to be crushed into nothing? And so much of it is from gratuitous purposes, e.g. plastic from individually wrapped toilet paper rolls. (Why, so the consumer can enjoy opening each roll for its after-dinner freshness?)

    In the 2019 federal budget, for example, Canada’s supposedly environmentally conscious Liberal government gave the fossil fuel sector 12-fold the subsidization they allocated towards renewable energy innovation. (This was on top of agreeing to triple the diluted bitumen pipeline-flow westward through B.C., which means increasing the oil freighter traffic seven-fold through pristine whale-bearing waters.) In fact, our federal government, which always is run by either the (neo)Liberal or Conservative Party, does this same kind of bad-cause subsidization every budget year, more or less. Mass addiction to fossil-fuel-powered single occupant vehicles surely helps keep the average addict’s mouth shut about the planet’s greatest and still very profitable polluter, lest they feel like and/or be publicly deemed hypocrites.

    There has been discouragingly insufficient political courage and motivation to properly physically address the cause-and-effect of manmade global warming. ‘Liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ (etcetera) are overly preoccupied with boisterously blasting each other for their politics and beliefs thus diverting attention away from the greatest polluters’ moral and ethical corruption, where it should and needs to be sharply focused.

    Nonetheless, there’s still some hope due to environmentally conscious and active young people who are reaching voting age. Plus, the dinosaur electorate who have been voting into high office consecutive mass-pollution promoting or complicit/complacent governments for decades are gradually dying off thus making way for far more environment conscious voters.

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