Climate Change and the Triune Response

By Kari McGregor


My partner told me the other day that he’s getting worried. He is starting to think we might not make it. I welcomed him to my world.

You see, most people aren’t really worried about our planetary predicament – the converging crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, peak oil, peak phosphorous, and many other issues. Most people don’t seem hugely concerned about our future. If you ask them many say that yes, they are concerned – and they can reel off a bunch of facts that illustrate their cause for concern. But their actions belie us. We are responding to the climate emergency – the flagship cause of the environment movement – like we respond to a neighbour’s burglar alarm: just hoping it will die down so we can get back to our TV shows and not have to shift our bum off the couch. It’s someone else’s problem and It’ll get taken care of. Anyway, it can’t be a real emergency if no one’s already taking care of it. If this is our response to what has been referred to as “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, then I shudder to think how we will respond to issues as far under the radar as mass die-offs of phytoplankton, the little-known source of 50% of our oxygen.

I went through three phases in my awareness of our planetary predicament. I don’t know if there’s a fourth, or a fifth, but I have been through three. It’s like opening up a set of Russian dolls; each one might be the last one, but then you open it up and descend another layer. I call it the Triune Response, after the Triune (three-in-one) model of brain evolution that categorizes the human brain into three stages of development – first the reptilian complex, second the limbic system, and third the neocortex. The four levels of experience can conceptualized as mental, emotional, physical and spiritual fit these correspondingly.

The Neocortex Response   

The neocortex is the outer layer of the brain, the most recent layer to develop. It is the site of our logical reasoning capabilities, language, abstraction, planning and perception. This is the mental level of experience, the head-space of our mind’s labyrinth.

It should come as no surprise that the first response to knowledge of our planetary predicament comes from the neocortex. We read about two degrees of warming by century’s end in the papers, we bitch about carbon taxes over coffees, we struggle to comprehend the magnitude of unburnable carbon, what 350ppm means, and whether our superannuation funds are gambling on stranded assets. We are playing the cognitive game, first encountering news of our predicament in abstract form. We process this abstract news via language, and weigh up its relevance to us in terms of what our leadership is planning policy-wise. We tend not to pursue this information, but it comes to us mainly in terms of government policy debate over pseudo-solutions such as carbon markets, and seems far away from our immediate realities.

This is how I first processed the news of climate change. As a kid I grew up with the concept of Global Warming – that was what it was called back in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s when I was at school. It was the summer of 1992, when I was on the cusp of entering high school, that things really started to ramp up. The first Earth Summit was due to be held in Rio, and that was all I remember hearing about that summer. I resolved to become a Planeteer, like on Captain Planet, and learned all that I could about our predicament so that one day I could join the fight. I sort of expected my role to be a suited office-based one, but that was not how it turned out. I began humbly with a poster run at school and in my neighbourhood, imploring people to care for the Earth because she’s our only one.

Then everything seemed to go quiet for a while, and Global Warming had been reincarnated as Climate Change by the time I reached my 20’s. It had slipped from the forefront of my mind to the murky depths, and I found myself needing to re-learn how the greenhouse effect worked, not something I was keen to admit to my better-educated peers. It’s not that I had abandoned activism, but that I had turned my attention to human rights and animal welfare advocacy, not yet understanding that the bottom line that is the environment needs to be my picket line.

As long as we were talking numbers and models, parts per million and feedback loops, tree rings and ice cores, I remained in the neocortical zone, absorbing information and learning how to discuss the issue in great depth. I did not, however, feel a connection with the issue; I was in the head-space only. I did not feel afraid, nor even terribly concerned. The world seemed to go on turning just fine, and disaster didn’t appear around every corner. I was complacent. I noted the seasons were different, and attributed it, as everyone did, to climate change, but did not really feel concerned, just somewhat annoyed, as though I thought we would get back to the way things used to be and was getting tired waiting. It was the summer of 1990 that we stopped having summers in the UK. For a while at least. And winters were no longer snowy. Just rainy and slushy. And then the extremes kicked in about a decade later. We started getting heatwaves that killed people, and knee-deep snows, and floods that started to seriously affect food security. I later came to realize that these extremes are the new normal. And that we are unprepared for this normal. Cognitively I understood that this could be really bad, but the alarm had not yet pierced through the noise of everyday existence on the hamster wheel.

The Limbic Response

The limbic system is an interconnected system of structures in the brain that are responsible for memory, motivation and emotion. This is where that whiz of emotions is concocted in an alchemical brew of complex stilumus-response impulses. If the neocortex is the head-space of the mind’s labyrinth, then the emotional level of the limbic system is the heart-space, where passions are born.

About six or so years ago I started to really connect with the idea that it was really going to affect us. I had come to understand that climate change was going to displace a lot of people, and that there is no current legal structure for dealing with the issue of hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of climate refugees. A friend of mine has been finishing a PhD on precisely this topic for some years now. I wish he’d hurry up and get it over with, and then go on a speaking tour or something, or write a book or make a movie. Just something to get the issue out of the academic ivory tower and bring it into public discourse.

When my limbic response kicked in I started to feel profoundly sad for all the destruction we have done and the victims whose innocence is inversely proportional to their responsibility. I felt for the people who I know will suffer greatly from what is to come. But I still thought of it all in abstract terms, as something that is happening to others, the world’s disadvantaged, those who are unable, in most cases, to represent their own voices politically. I cried for the world’s victims just as I had cried before for the world’s starving millions, child soldiers forced to kill loved ones, and factory-farmed animals born into abject hell.

I came to understand that our impact on climate came from more than just the emissions from our car exhausts and industrial production. I came to understand that deforestation due to industrial development and agriculture was removing desperately needed carbon sinks, advancing the threat of climate change. I came to understand that my vegetarian diet was not preventing the animal agriculture-fuelled carbon and methane emissions, and decided to go vegan. I can’t say that that has had much overall impact, but I will accept a lite-green pat on the back for reducing my personal carbon footprint. And I hate flying – I am a serious white-knuckle plane passenger – so I started to use the lite-green excuse that taking a flight would double my personal emissions rate, and that I was unwilling to compromise my integrity.

I felt quite impotent in the face of it all. But I also felt passionate and indignant. I decided I had to get involved in the climate movement, and invested a lot of energy in touting the pseudo-saviour of Big Green Tech. I was determined that people should know that we could address the crisis that was forming for the future, and that renewable energy technology was up to the job. I also quietly hoped that more people would wake up to the reality that we cannot keep having our steak and eating it; our biosphere simply cannot handle the impact of a future 9 billion humans whose beef-eating habits would require a doubling in current food production capacity, and an explosion in agricultural emissions.

The Reptilian Response

The reptilian complex is the part of the brain that is responsible for our instinctual behaviours. It is the realm of survival-oriented instinctive reflex, home to the physiological response mechanisms. This physical and visceral realm of the mind’s labyrinth represents the physical space

This is where I’m at now: the reptilian response. Three years ago, not long after I had returned to Australia in order to pursue a more activist-oriented seachange after spending a couple of years living in Thailand, I reached a turning point. Granted, my turning point was something that many folks barely register, but it was a turning point for me nonetheless: I read that phytoplankton, the source of 50% of the planet’s oxygen, and a major carbon sink, had diminished to around 40% of what was present in the 1950’s – and that this was due to ocean acidification as a result of increased carbon emissions. I understood that to mean a whole heap more carbon would be emitted into the atmosphere rather than locked up in sinks, and that we’d have a heck of a lot less oxygen to breathe. I figured phytoplankton are not the cute mascot-type of organism that you can get people enthusiastic about trying to save. I wondered what a world without phytoplankton would be like. It couldn’t possibly support human life, I concluded, and that felt surreal. And then I learned that a two degree temperature increase in average global temperature is now not something that can be avoided, and that we are likely on course for four. I started to feel scared; this is an unbeaten track we’re tramping and there are no experienced guides.

I came to understand that our efforts at pushing for policy and technology related pseudo-solutions were having no more impact than our personal consumer choices were. I came to understand that food security and access to clean, safe water would become compromised. The Wet Tropics of Far North Queensland will become like the Pilbara – a contrast like no other. Harvests will fail in many global regions. People will go hungry. Many will die. Many will fight for survival and war will ensue. I came to understand that it was not just poor brown people living in third-world dives who would suffer – and felt the immense shame and guilt that comes from starting to care more only at this point. I came to fear for the future wellbeing of my family in the UK, now regularly suffering flooding whose impact on food security drives up prices in a way that few interpret as the red flag that it is.

I came to understand that no cavalry is coming. That no policy initiatives are being enacted – or even tabled for discussion – that could lead to a world-wide response to our predicament. That we will not experience the rapture of a miracle in the form of Big Green Tech – we simply do not have the resources, and will have to face a future of energy insecurity, or continue trashing the climate until we run out of fossil fuels to burn. Or at least until it becomes financially unviable to extract them. We’re pretty much there now. We’re scraping the barrel with tar sands and shale gas, even risking deep-sea landslides and consequent tsunamis for methane hydrates, and we are not getting bang for our buck. It seems likely that we will stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere not at the point of rational scientific concern – for we are way past that – but at the point of reduced profitability for the industry. The intersection point of peak fossil fuel resources and the breaching of the safe climate boundary has been passed. We may already be into the downward spiral from which our civilization will not emerge.

Understandably when I really internalized all of this I felt a tad panicky. Adrenaline kicked in and I felt mobilized to action. My fight-flight-or-freeze response had booted. There is nowhere to run, so fight I must. Many, however, seem to have opted for a less evolutionarily sound response: freeze. Many are startled deer in headlights, aware that there is a serious problem, but frozen in the moment, in suspended animation of business as usual while tossing themselves over the cliff-edge in the manner of mythical lemmings.

I was annoyed when I read Bill McKibben’s Terrifying New Math, and wanted to ask him why he thought talking more numbers would get through to people now when it hadn’t before. Sticking new numbers on the crisis hardly seems to make a compelling case for action with people who already understand cognitively that there is a problem but who are yet to feel any emotional engagement or impulse to act. We surely can’t keep pumping out abstract sets of numbers every couple of years if what we mean for people to understand is that we will have to relocate whole towns and regions, we will not have enough food, and that many more keystone species will become extinct, knocking out chunks of the food chain, making it fragile and possibly unable to support organisms at higher trophic levels, such as humans. I grew impatient with the endless reams of repetitive news that never escalated the alarm to the level at which I could hear it.

I became a bit self-conscious, aware that I might appear to be a hysterical maniac if I told others what I was feeling. I was miffed that my rational response would be interpreted as extreme paranoia by many, so I didn’t talk about it much. But I gradually found more and more people who seemed to feel what I felt, many of whom had moved past the panic of the reptilian response to its natural successor: streamlined action.

So of course I was pleased when my partner confessed that he was finally feeling scared too. That it had finally hit him that we’re in the kind of trouble that will require the kind of collective global effort never before attempted in the history of our species, and that we are not gearing up for it. It had hit him that all we have is our own minds and bodies, and we’d better put them to good use in preparing for what is to come.

Powering Down

My response now is an uncomfortable existential contemplation interspersed with a scattered array of direct actions and pointed prose. I do not have all the answers, but I am asking a lot of questions – practical questions, ones that cannot be answered from the theoretical realm of the ivory towers and the political realm that dominates our media. I have identified root causes of our climate crisis, and come to understand that business as usual cannot go on, economic growth must cease, and our consumption must become more modest. We are going to need to want less now if we are to hand anything on to future generations. The conditions responsible for our climate crisis cannot be tackled only from the supply end of the chain; demand must also cease.

So I have decided to power down my life. I have decided to get at least myself off the treadmill of contributing to the industrial growth that is causing widespread destruction we might not survive for the sake of luxuries we can – and indeed must – learn to live without. I know it sounds scary to some, or at least unpalatable, but I don’t feel daunted or put off by the prospect of learning to live with less and not having to work so much.

My partner and I are downshifters, unusual in our age group because we have not already “made our money”, we have not retired to a nice patch of land with capacity for self-sufficient food production, we aren’t even on the “property ladder”, and we have barely any savings.          We are neither equipped nor inclined to run away to a bunker in the hills. But we decided we cannot contribute to the downward spiral anymore, and instead have opted for a modest life. To be honest, I like living in a small rented unit in a close-knit community, barely needing to drive anywhere (we are planning to gradually ditch the car over the next year), cleared of all debt, and structuring my days according to a work schedule that suits me. I work for myself, and only as much as I need to, to keep ticking over. I like having time for important people in my life, and for taking part in meaningful action, and I am beginning to feel less guilty about my premature escape from the rat-race. I am happy with my choice not to have children and adopt a cat instead (ok, it’s not the same). Not that I think having kids is bad; the continuation of humankind requires progeny. Just not so many that we humans and our domesticated animals make up over 90% of all terrestrial animal biomass. Which we do at present.

Many of my friends and former colleagues tell me they wish they could do what I’m doing. I just wonder why they don’t simply get stuck in. I understand that it’s easier said than done if you’ve already got the mortgage, the kids and the white picket fence – all on the credit card. I don’t have any moralizing to do. I just offer the pragmatic suggestion that we can all downshift in some way. We can all at least extract our support from fossil fuel investments by switching our bank accounts and superannuation funds to cleaner, greener alternatives. Even the most lascivious meat-lovers among us can surely handle meatless Mondays. One does not need to be as minimalist or as frugal as I am by default to prioritize unhooking oneself from the debt-cycle and enable the conditions for lightening our workloads and increasing our quality time with family and friends. And it only takes a few rehearsals of “can I borrow a cup of sugar please” before we feel ok about connecting with our neighbours and meeting many of our needs through community connections rather than commerce. Living more slowly and deliberately brings its own rewards of mental clarity and creative energy for action.

I know that what I’m taking here – and encouraging – are just baby-steps. But I also know that if we don’t take those, the task ahead seems too daunting. However are we going to learn to run if we do not first take on the challenges of toddling? There are bigger and bolder actions to come once we are confident and empowered – we will need to adapt to changing conditions, building resilience in the face of what will come, and we will need to support one another in doing so. Perhaps I am yet to experience a fourth brain response; I wonder if others have entered that realm of the mind. Perhaps the fourth will be a spiritual-social response from the medial prefrontal cortex – the protrusion that gives us humans our big foreheads – the region responsible for learning and creativity, the very essence of humanity. I have no idea what that response will be like, but I am looking forward to not being scared anymore.

I have sometimes wished I could put the genie back in the bottle and go back to my pre-scared days, maybe even my pre-sadness days. But I can’t. Forward is the only direction left, and right now I’m mobilized by a primal instinct for survival; I’ve drawn my line in the sand and staked my picket. I’m removing my consent for our climate crisis, and powering down.

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