Does Carbon + Humans x (Progress)10 = Suicide Narcissus?


by Jeff Tangel

(A version of this article was previously published on the author’s website The Tecumseh Project.)

There’s been a raft of news stories and reports about climate change lately, re-sounding alarms once silenced. Maybe the emerging cacophony will be enough to get us to cut carbon emissions and begin building rafts that will float us over the onrushing wave of consequences we’ve so long denied. I’m not optimistic.

My best argument for anthropogenic climate change has always been a simple observation: in what amounts to a geologic eye-blink in time, humans have reshuffled the nature-deck by transferring billions of tons of carbon from beneath the earth’s surface to the rest of the ecosphere. I would explain to naysayers that this switch-about is tantamount to tearing the carpet off your floor and putting it on the ceiling and claiming the room is no different—even that it looks great.  Or worse: that it’s supposed to be that way. Try making that work on popular remodeling show “Love It or List It.” Well, this usually gets people to think, but I’m unaware that such a cogent analogy has created any new climate activists.

It may be a problem of epistemology, compounded by a particular notion of progress, both held so dear by most of us in the so-called developed world. That is, our most fundamental understanding of the world revolves almost solely around ourselves, with that self-absorption informing all our actions. Thus, whatever we humans do well is generally considered a good—and in the main what we do is aim at “progress” through wealth creation and consumption. Even though most of that wealth goes to the very few, nearly all of us believe the progress paradigm is natural; for the most part we can’t imagine anything else. And Nature itself is little more than a resource for accumulating wealth, or providing a temporary recuperative respite from the exhausting pursuit of that progress.   Such myopic hubris is fraught with problems, as any parent of a teenager can tell you.

The story of Narcissus is an apt description of our collective behavior.[i] If this has put you off, please hold your fire. I don’t think most of us want to behave this way, and would behave quite differently if we could. Narcissism is a pejorative term because it violates our values.

I’ve recently re-read the Seattle Times article, Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn (Sep. 11, 2013) [ii], an investigation of the increasing acidification of the ocean (spoiler alert: it’s worse than we think). The article highlights the work of two scientists at James Cook University in Australia who conducted an experiment with those cute little clown fish you may have seen (darting here and there, in and out of reef flora) on any number of aquatic nature shows.  They’re naturally shy little critters, inclined to hide from predators, and this helps keep them alive.

In order to examine the effects of a more carbonized ocean, the researchers increased the amount of carbon in a tank and watched for any change in these darling little creatures’ behavior.  And boy did they find a big one.  These normally reclusive cuties became disoriented, and swam about insouciantly, right at predators. It’s as if they had smoked a joint in a foxhole and wandered onto a battlefield waving cheerfully, “Dude, what’s up?” (True story, from my neighbor, Vietnam, ca 1969:  stoned while on guard duty in a perimeter foxhole, and struck by the beauty of reconnaissance flares, he stood up to get a better look and got shot in the buttocks—Purple Heart and home).

So I thought: Might we all be in a tank with excess carbon—stoned as it were, on CO2?  We have been breathing the odorless and colorless gas for some time now—increasingly so, exponentially so, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. How could we know?  As the saying goes, you can’t ask a fish about water. Maybe carbon anesthetizes us—or maybe it anesthetizes us and makes us want more carbon.  One way to look at “progress” is that ever since the Industrial Revolution we can’t seem to get enough of the stuff—we need and want more and more.  That’s what economic growth is. Hmmm . . . if we are marching headlong to a precipice, then maybe it’s because this carbon has gone to our heads.  It’s a positive feedback loop, just like the melting polar ice caps and thawing tundra!  Our consumption relies on carbon, either directly, or imbedded in products that we buy constantly and dispose of, constantly, to buy some more.  In a way we’re carbon junkies. And more: perhaps our progress paradigm is not a reasoned path with innate merit, but instead a form of disabling intoxication. Maybe we’re addicted to admiring ourselves in the mirror because we have become cognitively impaired.

In the same way we can’t ask a fish about water, we can’t ask Narcissus about his brother, sister, the fish in the pond, the birds in the trees and so on.  We certainly can’t ask him what’s on the other side of the pond—or about tomorrow.  He’s stoned, and not just a little.  (Like, totally, man.)  He’s glued to the program and takes no notice.  He’ll do the hokey-pokey and the chicken-dance all around the foxhole if need be, just as long as he can keep watching himself, the star of the show. Pass the Doritos. [iii]

A cursory review of the science suggests an interesting hypothesis. CO2 acidifies the blood, just like the oceans, a condition called acidosis, which is a poisoning marked by rapid breathing, cardiac arrhythmia and impaired consciousness or confusion, all of which sound to me like an agitated state of inebriation.   At high levels CO2 is an asphyxiant, ultimately leading to shock, which is the body shutting itself down. And interestingly, this is a life-threatening problem because there is a positive feedback mechanism. When shock sets in it increases in severity—towards death—unless treated. [iv]

Holy tomatoes.  Doesn’t everyone feel like their heart is racing a bit, our breathing more rapid as we try to make our way nowadays?  Life has become so complicated. This is progress? And aren’t most of us in a mild state of shock, a bit dizzy, unable to come to grips with war, poverty, inequality, joblessness, ecological demise, and any number of other stressors that we come in contact with everyday?

Are we so carbon poisoned, figuratively and perhaps literally, that we can’t see what we’re doing?  Are we now in a stew-pot of our own making such that we can’t reason, feel, or respond sensibly, and so swim like anesthetized clown fish towards our own demise? [v] Could this be why the issues of climate change and ecological collapse can’t gain any real traction? Are we so drunk on carbon that we will follow this notion of progress anywhere—especially if it feeds the obsessions of the wealthy and leaves us all heart racing and anxious?

Recent research by Paul Piff and others at UC Berkeley[vi] concluded that the wealthy are generally more narcissistic than people of lesser means. So maybe they are just more susceptible to the effects of carbon—that is, more inclined towards addiction—than normal people. Aren’t we all emulating them to some degree, though? And aren’t there other, better progress paradigms? Most of us, and Nature, surely deserve something better. Why don’t we talk about that?

In the meantime, maybe, we should get scientists on the neuro-carbon-case, toute de suite.  Most of us don’t want to be like Narcissus and these positive feedback loops are a wicked problem.  Carbon—the exhaust from progress and wealth creation—may be the wind beneath our Icarus wings.

[i] The term “Suicide Narcissus” (in the title) comes from an art show at The Renaissance Society, Hyde Park Chicago held in 2013.

[ii] Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn: <> (Well worth reading.)

[iii] (I’m really being unfair to marijuana smokers here—some of whom are my friends—and for the record, they stay away from most chemistry projects by Frito Lay, et al.  And they don’t watch much TV.  Their herb-use often enables a certain perspicacity not frequently found in common culture.  And, well, that’s the point, man.  So here I offer a second hypothesis: add to the litany of medical marijuana uses that it may well be an antidote to CO2).

[iv] See: National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of NIH <> and
Medline Plus, Nat Library of Medicine, NIH. <>

[v] Thanks Bill Jordan for “anesthetized clownfish,” very funny…

[vi] See:!press/c1n0f for links to writings. And this PBS Newshour segment: (9 min.)

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