Waiting for the Mushroom Cloud
As an activist doing outreach with the Zeitgeist Movement, I often come across those individuals who believe that the human race is simply incorrigible. The message gets communicated in such responses as, “I’m just waiting for the mushroom cloud,” or “All humans are psychotic,” or “Humans are a virus that needs to be eradicated.” These are actual statements that have been told to me, as if they are the cold hard truth that I must come 'round to submitting to.
I could speculate endlessly about why people come to these conclusions, but that’s not my purpose here. Rather, I want to look deeper into this sense of resignation. It’s easy to write people off, saying that they are delusional, unaware or silly. But that is an approach employed by those who don’t have the energy to investigate further. If there’s one central idea I took away from the book, Immunity to Change, it is that “bad habits” continue because they serve some underlying need. An example from the book is that CEOs (the researchers worked with large companies needing to develop their organizational leadership) explicitly state their need to delegate more often, but do not do so because having their hands in all projects makes them feel indispensible to the company’s operations. The underlying need is to feel important and assured that their contribution matters. The recurring problem is that they cannot effectively balance their duties and priorities to maximize their contribution to the organization.
So, what is this need that is being met by the mushroom cloud guy? Does he really feel better “knowing” that the end of humanity is nigh, especially with such a horrific vision of how that end will come about? Does the girl’s assertion that all humans are psychotic relieve any sense of fear or paranoia? People who act in their daily lives as though these situations are real generally exhibit symptoms of anxiety and schizophrenia. My guess is that these beliefs only surface when confronted with the difficult challenge of how to fix the world, which seems inescapably tethered to misery. The problems are vast and broad. They seem to crouch unexpectedly in every corner of the world, and certainly in every place where humans find themselves. Because of the universality of misfortune, the only answer to “how to fix this mess” is, of course, that it cannot be fixed. Humans are wretched evil creatures who can only be saved by a dose of atomic energy, or perhaps a magical beast that hands out miracles and benevolence as happily and frequently as a rich man pays his taxes.
What are the benefits of this kind of thinking? The impulse to reach a conclusion quickly is sort of like Energy Star for the brain. As I mentioned earlier, it’s easy for me to brush off doomsayers by labelling them “silly” or “crazy.” That’s my inner cognitive couch potato talking. To sum up all of humanity as “psychotic” or “suffering from sin” is a nearly effortless way to resolve the discomfort caused by witnessing persistent misery. The problem is essentially solved by saying “it can’t be solved.” I remember coming across math problems in grade school to which I screamed out red-faced, “It’s impossible—-stupid book!” “Those dumb authors don’t know nothing!” I would vent. (I still have moments like these, but I’m too embarrassed to give examples.)
That reaction gives us a break from the perplexing challenge of how to solve our self-generated problems. And that break gives us time to do more important things like taking a shower, going shopping, and eating. It’s so nice when society is set up to function in a way that we don’t have to think about it! (Yes, this is a snub to those who can’t bear the idea of economic planning because they think it is a trap of totalitarianism.) It’s ironic how our unwillingness to consider these deeper problems actually makes life more challenging, which requires more energy, than if we had systems set up to function efficiently and sanely.
Besides the benefits of cognitive recess, the other reinforcing aspect of this dead-end thinking (literally, dead-end) is that taking on any responsibility is unnecessary. Since nothing can be done to correct the problem, then no effort is required to implement the needed changes. The non-solution basically begs you to “sit this one out” and that definitely appeals to the outer couch potato. However, there’s always that nagging feeling that you should do something, no matter how much you try to convince yourself that any effort is a waste of time. It may also be that this defeatist attitude stems from an internalized sense of inadequacy, but let's leave that for another discussion.
None of us knows what will happen to humanity, on earth or anywhere else. It is arrogant to assume otherwise. Because that’s the case, we can’t “sit this one out;” we are already part of life. Our actions affect the flow of society, whether we intend to or not. By not putting effort to the problems, we allow them to perpetuate and multiply. So, “doing nothing” is not possible. Doing nothing really just means doing what the status quo demands; it means conforming. It means subjugating oneself to a dreaded idea of “respectability.” Doing nothing is an illusion. Even if you kill yourself, that is still “doing something,” with effects that may last generations. The question isn’t to do or not to do. It is, “what needs to be done?” To start, we can notice the problems around us and be compelled to act compassionately. Nature endows us with the hardware-—mirror neurons—-to do this, so the beginning of change is to stop the mind from resting on the simple-minded sofa. If we can create our own catastrophes, we can figure out how not to create them. We may have to try completely novel solutions, but with the best of human wisdom, we can likely get to “better.” What we do know is that “doing nothing” just means we won’t get to "better." And most likely, we’ll just get to “worse.”