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The metacrisis and our cognitive dissonance

We live in a strange world and we are inventing new words to describe it.  I am drawn to the concept of the #Metacrisis that has been explored by some economists, technologists, and philosophers, including Jonathan Rowson, co-founder and director of Perspective and the substack blog “Joyous Struggle”. He defines it beautifully:

“the historically specific threat to truth, beauty and goodness caused by our persistent misunderstanding, misvaluing and misappropriation of reality.”

It is the crisis that underlies all the other social, ecological, economic, and existential crises we face. It refers to our inability to make sense of what is happening. It is your daily experience, your disbelief at how crazy everything is getting. It is the crisis that you can see and also feel. The metacrisis is in the way the world makes sense but also in not knowing how to narrate yourself in the context of a planet threatened by ourselves. 

We live in permanent cognitive dissonance. Misfortunes are ever closer. Hurricane-force winds knocked down a century-old tree in Madrid killing a 23-year-old girl when it fell. Such things don’t happen in my town. Just a few weeks ago we had the rainiest day on record and this summer we broke heat records every week.

In the meantime everyone dutifully plays their role, lives a “normal” life, earns a living, and carries on with their routines. But it is impossible not to notice. As Tim Leberecht tells us in a recent post “the whole world and its ills are present every time we glance at our phones.”

On our mobile feed that we compulsively check, we learn that everything is collapsing and that the commitments that could save us are systematically unfulfilled. Yet we live as if we can go on with this same life forever. We are unable to perceive and understand the different crises and act accordingly.

Then there is technology. Instead of making our lives easier, it creates even more anxiety. In a mad race to who knows where tech companies are competing to grab the last giant pie: the generative AI. No matter who goes down. Consuming more water and energy than entire countries. A technology that is advancing much faster than our capacity to assimilate it. Adela Cortina says that it is inhuman to see how millions of citizens who die daily of hunger or are riddled with bombs are neglected while millions are invested in creating a posthumanity of intelligent machines.

Why does this “persistent misunderstanding, misvaluing, and misappropriation of reality” threaten our highest values?

Paolo Giordano says in his novel “Tasmania” the reason is that we care more about our personal catastrophes than planetary ones and that environmentalism is full of good intentions but bores us to death. But perhaps it is more honest to acknowledge that we cannot bear the truth: that a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions is already baking in the atmosphere. 

“We all secretly see that the world is going to end but no one wants to say it out loud because then it would really end, and we would have to take responsibility for killing it, or at least for not saving it. Instead, we nod to our ghosts and move on,” says Andrew Boyd in his book “I want a better catastrophe: navigating the climate crisis with grief, hope and gallows humour.” “We slip into a strange double life, caught between a sense of impending apocalypse and a fear of acknowledging it,” says Joanna Macy.

We sense doom but only vaguely. We prefer to think that what is happening is implausible. Deep down we all wish we were denialists. And yet climate scientists and activists have found ways to live with that truth. Dr Guy McPherson, a well-known doomer or catastrophist, says something beautiful:

“If we are the last of our species, let’s act like the best. There is no better time than now to show the best of ourselves.”

It is a challenge to keep our humanity intact whatever comes next. The example of hatred and revenge we are currently contemplating does not help, but we all understand what he means. Rebecca Solnit in “Hope in the Dark” reminds us of what we are made of and how the natural impulse in the face of misfortune is mutual aid and solidarity.

As if the truth were a cut-out, we isolate what we learn to fit it into the most hopeful storyline in the puzzle we can live with. 

How can we break out of this loop of cognitive dissonance?

If there is one thing all experts agree on, it is that we need to be heartbroken. “There has to be a space where we can cry,” says Naomi Klein, “and then we can change.”

This is the spirit of The Climate Ribbon art project which asks:

“What do you truly love and hope will never disappear because of climate chaos?”

It asks you to take a moment to reflect on this question and hold the question in your heart. Once your answer is born, write it on a ribbon and hang it where all the others are (a tree, for example). 

Find a ribbon with a message that touches you and tie it to your wrist. It can be from a friend or a stranger. Your mission from now on will be to protect what that other person loves the most.

A beautiful project of intimate solidarity to replicate everywhere. Everyone has something to lose and when we bring it all together in one place the scale of catastrophe – but also of humanity – is overwhelming. Solidarity is a form of tenderness.

How do they tell us what is happening?

Abstract statistics are emphasised instead of what people can see and feel. Too much information and too much crisis cause people to freeze, give up, or withdraw into themselves. Nobody wakes up saying “Hmm, what a great day to decarbonise!” We need to humanise the discourse, what happens to people, and how it affects them, and tell the stories that touch our hearts. 

However, the stories emphasise all the bad. Andrew Boyd, with a lot of black humour, talks about these four: 

  1. Humanity is a virus. “To some, it may even seem democratic in a “Kill us all. Let Gaia sort it out” but given who is most likely to get hurt first, we are basically saying “Kill them all. Let racism, inequality, and brutal market logic sort it out”. Scary.
  2. We are addicted to oil. “And as such to get our fix we will do anything, lie, steal, and if necessary, kill. Can we try to cut off the toxic supply (“keep it in the ground!”) so that our society self-harms less even though the clinic remains so woefully low on methadone (wind and solar)?”
  3. We are on a train and heading towards a cliff. We are going at full speed and we pass the 1.5º station. We don’t know how to stop, or even derail.
  4. Our economy is at war with many forms of life on the planet, including human life. Some envision a Marshall Plan for the earth. Other people imagine a Mad-Max-style societal collapse, in a total war of all against all. Others a war of us against them, in which “they” are the climate refugees and we might as well become a Fortress America or Fortress Europe.

But fortunately, there are also more positive alternatives to collapse in the collective imagination that Futerra brilliantly develops:

The Youth Mutiny of Fridays for Future, led by young activist Greta Thunberg protesting against the lack of forceful action in the climate fight.

The Technological Saviour, a techno-bro climate saviour. This story can generate complacency and divert attention and money away from other solutions, justify dangerous geoengineering projects, or waste millions on carbon capture plants that are not known to work. Everyone likes a quick, shiny, jargon-filled solution. But the climate needs something more.

The Global Awakening: In this story, people discard the over-consumption and exploitation of climate-destroying capitalism, founding new lifestyles based on regenerative values and an orientation to the common good. The downsizing of the economy (degrowth), the struggle against neo-colonialism, and the growing interest in indigenous worldviews all contribute to this story.

At a time when, whatever happens, we need to cultivate the best version of ourselves, it is imperative to change the script and tone of our climate narratives. Futerra gives us the keys. From fear and terror to hope. From anger and rage to purpose. From pain to wonder. From confusion to confidence. From guilt to pride. From apathy to motivation. From frustration to clarity. From defiance to desire. From hostility to belonging. From boredom to enthusiasm. From distrust to openness. From exhaustion to energy. From logic to magic. In short, it is about allowing the richness of our complex emotional landscape to emerge and shape stories that inspire all of us without exception.

Stories have the superpower to turn the climate crisis into something personal, local, relatable, and solvable. Something you want to be part of because it leads to a scenario worth fighting for.

And also continue to collect those hopeful messages from people we admire and that gives us the fuel to keep going. As Joanna Macy says:

“We may be closer to an outbreak of sanity than we think”.