The Suicidal Human Race

I used to think I understood at least some aspects of human behavior. In college, I learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and that made a lot of sense; as I aged (and boy, have I aged!), I came to understand the complexities created by our individual, still poorly-understood combinations of nature and nurture.

But reactions to the combination of a global pandemic and the existential threat of climate change have left me gobsmacked. What explains the evident preference of so many people for obviously suicidal behaviors? How do people manage to construct a “reality” contrary to science and logic, let alone personal safety?

The politicization of responses to Covid has been widely described, although that phenomenon is still not well explained. Denial of the severity of the threat, fear of lifesaving vaccines and ingestion of dangerous “cures” (for a disease that doesn’t exist??) are largely  Republican behaviors–and suicidal at both the individual and group levels. Research confirms that rural folks and members of the GOP are dying in far greater numbers than Democrats and city dwellers.

Equally suicidal is the maddening, continuing, blithe refusal to address climate change seriously, despite years of warnings. Denying the threat, and/or continuing to postpone any serious effort to combat it, should no longer be possible–at least, by sane humans–because the effects of a warming planet are already manifesting. And yet, headlines like this one from the Guardian, remind us that governments–ours and others around the globe–continue to prefer the bottom line of fossil fuel companies over the ability of the only planet we currently inhabit to sustain human life and civilization.

The fossil fuel industry benefits from subsidies of $11m every minute, according to analysis by the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF found the production and burning of coal, oil and gas was subsidised by $5.9tn in 2020, with not a single country pricing all its fuels sufficiently to reflect their full supply and environmental costs. Experts said the subsidies were “adding fuel to the fire” of the climate crisis, at a time when rapid reductions in carbon emissions were urgently needed.

If fossil fuel prices reflected their true cost, the IMF calculates we would cut global CO2 emissions by over a third.

The G20 agreed in 2009 to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies and in 2016, the G7 set a deadline of 2025, but little progress has been made. In July, a report showed that the G20 countries had subsidised fossil fuels by trillions of dollars since 2015, the year the Paris climate deal was reached.

There’s a fair amount of data available on individual suicides: my very superficial research suggests that people who try to kill themselves may suffer from depression, substance abuse or other mental disorders. (More understandably, suicides are more prevalent in people who suffer from chronic pain.) None of these reasons–with the possible exception of mental disorder–explains either the rejection of science and logic leading to refusal to be vaccinated, or the social phenomenon of lawmakers preferring the bottom line of fossil fuel companies to the survival of civilization as we know it.

I’m at a loss.


  1. For much of the population one’s self identity takes precedence over truth and reality. If you see yourself, as Mike Pence does, you hold fast to the idea that what you believe is what you are. And you categorize others this same way. The weaker your character, the stronger your hold onto religious, political and social beliefs, and those beliefs motivate your actions including self-preservation. Think the anti-vaccine crowd.
    Also a part of this mindset is the desire turned need of “belonging”. Once one see their self as a part of the “group” it takes an epiphany to pry them loose.
    People learn to dismiss critical thinking at an early age by accepting group think, popularity, and approval. It helps to mold their self image thus sealing their fate, for better or for worse.

  2. UCLA Professor Jared Diamond wrote books about ancient societal collapse, then turned to warning about unwise destructive actions present societies are taking.

    Maybe too few humans are ever aware or influential enough to divert a society from its terminal path.

  3. Lawmakers continue to subsidize the fossil fuel industries because of the campaign contributions. It is that simple. None of them will live long enough to suffer the worst consequences of global warming, so they can withdraw into their homes in the village called Potemkin, where they live, and not worry about what their grandchildren will be subjected to. “It’s all in the Benjamins, baby.”

  4. I was in Portugal last week. They have some of the highest electrical prices in Europe, but they were proud that they were on the way to being 70 to 80 percent all green renewable power.

    When I posted on Facebook about gas prices being the equivalent of $7 a gallon and how much fossil fuels are subsidized in US, the only comment I got was that would kill the US economy and that half of the price was for taxes. I replied that not taxing sufficiently to cover it’s true cost was a subsidy. I loved the smooth roads and well maintained bridges and the fact that there was abundant transit options so I did not even need a car.

    The Portuguese have figured out that vaccines work with an 85% vaccination rate. They all wear masks indoors. They are fighting hard to combat climate change. Not everyone in the world is suicidal or crazy.

  5. We are speechless when we hear from intelligent, educated people who are anti-vaxers. What about people who work under horrible conditions yet consider unions to be evil? Or those who think that tax-supported universal health care is evil? We never see news of Canadians dying in the streets due to their “evil” health care system. We subsidize the oil industry by trillions, yet deny pre-K to children. Sometimes I just wonder if we humans are worth saving. It makes me sad. I try to stay optimistic thinking of the youth who will soon be the next on power. I hope it’s not too late.

  6. Saturday night I stayed in Spartanburg ( western) PA at an airbnb. It was an upstairs loft of a chiropractors office on the Main Street. No cell phone connection, no land land, packed one dining only restaurant in town, no masks, Multiple signs F*** Biden; Old order Amish clip clopping down the street.. And the odd but familiar faux church chimes ringing out “ The old rugged cross” gospel hymn. Although I was at least 30 miles from a freeway I could hear the buzz of machinery all night.. I know there is lots of fracking about .. I had driven all day from the Hudson Valley NY, the town of Hudson in rural Columbia county. Completely different experience My son lives there like many other west coast or Brooklyn transplants.. “they” are identified as ‘adventurers” by the townies and not a threat..

  7. Great post, Joanne!

    What do you value as a person – the I? This is the individual ego we create from birth.

    What do we value as a society – the collective we? How do we measure progress and our decision-making to support us?

    Our leaders say we support freedom of expression and condemn other countries who don’t, but internationally, we rank 45th. Therefore, aren’t doing what we say we value. So, what are we doing to correct it?

    In the USA, we ignore the international ratings and claim we’re the best, most open society, except that social media, particularly Facebook, is the source of misinformation. If we regulate Facebook, our ranking will improve drastically.

    Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

    We actually have scientific methods for critical thinking. Supposedly, they are used at our knowledge centers or universities. A professor at MIT conducted a study of the media to ascertain why it wasn’t producing the results our Founder’s established hundreds of years ago and why we suffer from a low international ranking. The conclusion they reached is our media is propaganda and laid out the 5 levels of propaganda that overlays the media model to ensure it produces propaganda.

    All the top leaders/owners/oligarchs ignored it. It was done in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s.

    Despite the study and the results, which the fossil fuel industry also did on their own industry in the 70s and 80s, was largely ignored.

    Sheila loves to address critical thinking like most of us do, but why do our industries, government, and media, the components of the collective WE, refuse to accept the outcomes of the studies using scientific methods?

    Why do we choose to live in a world of delusion versus reality?

  8. Todd @ 9:00 am, “Why do we choose to live in a world of delusion versus reality?”

    Some prefer to live in the Norman Rockwell, Disney World or bible fantasy. Everything will be OK, just ignore the facts. The for Profit Cable News Network are ludicrous. Hours and hours of cable time dedicated to hunting a “person of interest” in a Florida swamp.

    No mention of the Pandora Papers which concerns the means and methods the 1% and corporations use to evade taxation.

    A Gallup survey released on Sept. 29 confirmed the KFF findings. As of mid-September, 75% of adult Americans have been vaccinated, including 73% of non-Hispanic white adults and 78% of non-whites. Along party lines, however, the breakdown was 92% of Democrats, 68% of Independents, and 56% of Republicans.

    There is no reason to believe that these gaps in vaccination rates will disappear anytime soon. According to Gallup, 40% of Republicans “don’t plan” to get vaccinated, versus 26% of Independents and just 3% of Democrats. In response to a more sharply worded KFF question, 23% of Republicans report that they will “definitely not” get vaccinated, compared to 11% of Independents and just 4% of Democrats.

    These national divergences are reflected at the state and county level as well, per
    data from Johns Hopkins University. Of the 21 states with vaccination rates above the national average, Joe Biden carried 20 last November. Of the 29 states below the national average, Donald Trump carried 24.

    I must say there is no surprise that the New Trump GOP continues to resist the Covid-19 vaccine.

  9. A quote from Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312 comes to mind: “…late capitalism writhed in its internal decision concerning whether to change its rules or destroy Earth’s biosphere. Many argued for the destruction of the biosphere, as being the lesser of two evils.”

  10. Warren,

    It won’t take until 2312 before capitalism or mankind will finally destroy itself. At the current and continuous rate of internal strife among nations, I give us until about 2175 before somebody presses the thermonuclear button. That will bring the inevitable conclusion to most life on Earth. The environment won’t be fit for anything but cockroaches and some really hearty algae by then anyway.

    One of my professors once posited that the rampant rates of wildlife extinction were part of a biological norm with humans being the most destructive biological force so far. For humans to ultimately call up the power of the universe would actually serve as a reset button for life on Earth… life without humans. It might take 100 million years for the toxicity humans created to dissipate or be chemically neutralized for any other sort of “intelligent” life to appear. It might even take another billion years of evolution for the next suite of life forms to appear.

    My vision says that that new life form will NOT invent economics, slavery, money, greed or other behaviors that the previous “intelligent” life form used, abused and honored to create its own extinction… and the extinction of so many other bits of life.

    Hell, we’re still “celebrating” Christopher Columbus today. You know, the guy who brought disease, slavery and sugar cane to the new world. What a guy! Perhaps he was a harbinger of what we are enduring today in this decaying nation and society.

    I’m glad I’m old.

  11. It seems that $5.9 trillion leaves fossil fuel companies just enough to buy every politician in the world.

  12. Freud spoke of thanatos vs eros, the forces of death vs life that live within us. I often believe that denial is a servant of thanatos. People who deny the reality of global warming and anti-vaxxers are servants of thanatos. Some would rather die than face the facts. Some would rather die than see the moral arc of the universe move forward. Authoritarian governments, dictators are subjects of thanatos. And, as we all know, members of the GOP trend towards an unquestioning belief in authoritarian leaders that support outdated mores and governmental policies.

    I am of the belief that many of our brothers and sisters who live on islands and 3rd world countries will die due to global warming. The global oligarchy will do little to nothing to save them. As a result millions of people of color will lose their lives due to the systemic racism of global economics. We already see this occurring with the inequities of vaccine distribution.

    The human race is facing a major transition as has happened before. i.e. the destruction of the Roman Empire, the industrial age. This time it is a major transition in the sources of energy, the growing realization that anytime we damage ecosystems we damage ourselves because we live in an interdependent network.

    It saddens me so much that there is so little reverence for life in so many places now and that the oligarchy has become a servant of thanatos. Even so, I will continue to try and be a good steward of Mother Earth with the resources that I have. What will each of us choose, life or death?

  13. When I was in school and learned about the Age of Enlightenment I thought, how did people think before then and why didn’t they see what they were missing? Now we are living pre-enlightenment again and I have the same questions. Enlightenment is all around us and many people can’t see it.

  14. Perhaps we would live in a different world if we hadn’t organized our society around inherent greed, aka capitalism, perhaps substituting our will to live for our will to possess, failing which, losers could consider suicide a viable option. Such a hypothesis does not explain why Republicans outnumber Democrats in the suicide race since both live in Adam Smith’s concoction, but it may lend credence to the idea that Republicans (who are largely white and rural) see themselves as losers to hordes of urban minorities, women and “libs,” and are reacting by politicizing issues that favor their Norman Rockwell existences to fit their carveouts of American exceptionalism, a fiction that never existed.

    Thus virtually every bone of contention, from abortion access through inoculation, bones which could otherwise yield to kitchen table and intelligent Faucian solutions rather than through Trumpian simplicity, are used by losers to justify political mistreatment of their fellow citizens via racism, voting rights, tattered social safety nets, misogyny etc., some of whom apparently prefer suicide to following the constitutional standards of Baker v. Carr.

    What to do? What we are doing, i. e., more Locke and less Smith.

  15. We should examine why people seem to have lost their critical thinking faculties. Who gains from the dumbing don of our society? Once that is understood maybe something can be done about it.

  16. It’s a cult — a very large one but so it was/is with Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Kim Jong-Un.
    We (the US) are not immune to this phenomenon. Read more about it here.
    So far, we are lucky that Trump doesn’t have the support of upper echelon military leaders or we would be under his rule now. Steve Bannon says he has 20, 000 fired up forces ready to fight. If that’s true, God help us.

  17. There is a symbiosis in nature on this planet that has evolved over billions of years. Bees pollinate, birds and centipedes control insect populations, and so on. As it turns out, part of that natural development has resulted in the evolution of parasites. Some symbiotically support their hosts and others are destructive. It has become quite clear that the human race is a parasite programmed to destroy its host. There are some who belive that we will just jump to the next host, as such parasites do so that the species thrives as it kills it’s hosts, one after another. In our case, we would make that jump on a space ship, then to repeat the process on another planet. I guess none of us will be around to find out if that is true.

  18. Steve,

    Life began on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago as single-celled organisms. It took almost 3 billion of those years for multi-cellular organisms to emerge from the sea. Symbiosis is even more recent than that. Geologically speaking, complex life on Earth is merely a wink in time, and human existence is only the first twitch of that eyelid. And look how quickly we’ve brought the concept of life on Earth to the brink of destruction. THAT is quite an accomplishment, don’t you think?

  19. The earth lay in utter ruin, Armageddon having finally occurred. All life had died, except down in a very deep crack in the middle of the desert. In the crack, two amoebas were still alive. One amoeba looked at the other amoeba and said, “Next time, no brains.”

  20. In the past people who could not determine what reality was or perceive approaching threats died earlier and had less reproductive success than the more perceptive. This led to an increase in the species cognitive abilities. Now days the less perceptive live and breed. We may be seeing the effects of this in our political discourse. I base this on personal observation and not rigorous testing of the hypothesis.

  21. The answer to your question is religious education, Sheila.
    The sequence is this: teach kids to believe on faith without evidence, so they won’t upset your personal social applecart. Then reap the benefits, if any.
    I, too, am glad I’m old. After eighty years of life, all of them without faith, all of them on evidence, I surmise that the War will reduce the population by two-thirds, mostly the poor. Read “On the Beach. It’s still accurate, but suicide is painless.

  22. Starting with what we know about human (and primate) choice, when we have to decide between short-term gain and delayed gratification, we seem to factor a discount into the delay. The longer the delay, the steeper the discount. Climate “disaster” is “far” off in the future (early effects are here).

    We also know that short-term choices involve activity in pleasure centers of the brain, while delayed gratification involves activity in the so called “executive” areas of the brain, i.e. what we think of as rational, considered thought.

    Now we add in the true meaning of global warming – ideas that are too beyond our experience. Miami under water, continual summer heat waves, strange precipitation patterns – what does it all mean? Can we imagine it and not think it is a Hollywood movie?

    And we really hate to think about death and/or disability. We know the flu. We know colds. None of that, in our experience, is that bad — unless we lose someone close to us, not just know someone, but truly feel grief at the loss.

    Swirl it together and season with algorithmically enhanced disinformation.

    So, enjoying your old social life and using fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow? or being extra careful and thinking about the effects of your every action on the environment?

    And we wonder why people behave in such a crazy manner.

    I knew being a neuroscientist would come in handy some day, although this isn’t my sub-specialty.

  23. It has become apparent over the years that the term “sanity” is something that cannot be responsibly applied to the masses of humans on this planet. We are still largely a self destructive species, with a small percentage of people who have begun to wake up. All this does not bode well for our survival. History repeats itself….

Comments are closed.