Sustaining our better angels
William E. Rees, FRSC is a man worthy of respect. He put forth the notion of an “Ecological Footprint” in 1992. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a small dinner party when I spoke in Vancouver last year as part of my lecture tour. I read his latest piece: The Human Nature of Unsustainability, posted on Energy Bulletin with keen interest.
In this article, Rees discusses how the scientific community has gone on record to tell us we are killing the planet. He presents us with a dilemma: If we know that what we are doing is bad for us, why do we keep doing it? His emphasis in this article is to look at human nature, itself, to find an essential part of the answer.
According to Dr. Rees, humans are “K-strategists:”
“K” stands for the long-term carrying capacity of an ecosystem; K-strategists are species that tend to have relatively stable populations approaching that carrying capacity…Their individual survival and overall evolutionary success depend on competitive superiority at high population densities when resources are scarce.
He points out the powerful impact that our collectively shared beliefs have on economic growth:
The entire world today is in the thrall of a particularly powerful “meme complex” whose effect is to reinforce humanity’s K-selected expansionist tendencies….This growth-oriented mythic construct has shaped the lives of more people than any other cultural narrative in all of history.
As an influential memetic construct, the growth imperative is actually just two generations old. Only in the 1950s did economic growth emerge from nowhere to become the “supreme overriding objective of policy” in many countries around the world.
In this discourse, the damage done to the planet by “Homo Economicus,” becomes a description of Homo Sapiens as a collective whole, and we humans are allegedly, a competitive, destructive bunch:
…we habituate to any level of consumption (once a given level is attained, satisfaction diminishes) so the tendency to accumulate ratchets up. This is particularly so if we perceive that another social group—or country—is “getting ahead” faster than we are.
In making his argument, Rees moves from genetics to evolutionary biology, neurobiology and cultural memes seamlessly, linking concepts of emotionality, competitiveness, irrationality and human selfishness as defining human traits we need to overcome.
From a systems perspective, we might say that our current “unsustainability” is a product of the natural system…
There are certain behavioral adaptations that helped our distant ancestors survive—and thus those predilections were passed on to us. But those same (now ingrained) behaviors today are decidedly not helpful in solving our sustainability crisis—they have become maladaptive.
According to Rees: We…cannot assume that global society will necessarily deal rationally with the data documenting accelerating global ecological change,” and, he reminds us, as we are all too familiar: “passion will trump reason in shaping one’s responses to emotionally charged or life-threatening encounters.” Quoting neurobiologist Antonio Damasio, he argues that to survive as a species, we need to rise above our innate proclivities and employ:
…supra-instinctual survival strategies that have developed in society, are transmitted by culture, and require for their application consciousness, reasoned deliberation and willpower.
While he’s careful to add that “[T]his perspective is not rooted in genetic determinism;” and doesn’t deny that “other factors contribute to humanity’s sustainability dilemma,” he nonetheless argues that “unless we factor in the bioevolutionary contribution, our understanding of the modern human predicament will remain unintelligibly incomplete and any “solutions” hopelessly ineffective.”
Humans like to think that we have arrived at the free-will end of this spectrum, but much of modern cognitive science suggests that this is largely illusion. Psychologist Robert Povine argues from the available evidence that the starting assumption in behavioral psychology should be “that consciousness doesn’t play a role in human behaviour. This is the conservative position that makes the fewest assumptions.”
…To reestablish cognitive consonance between ingrained perceptions and new environmental realities requires that affected parties engage in the willful restructuring of their belief systems and associated neural pathways. These efforts require conscious effort and will not always be successful: “There are indeed potions in our own bodies and brains capable of forcing on us behaviours that we may or may not be able to suppress by strong resolution.” Even when people accept that such a change in their beliefs and their thinking is necessary, the process can be lengthy, difficult, and unpredictable.
International Global Solution?
He ends the piece on quite a different note, arguing that while “[m]odern society has been paralyzed by cognitive dissonance, collective denial, and political inertia in dealing with the sustainability conundrum” his hope is that with “international agreement on the nature of the problem, a global solution is at least theoretically possible.” His dreams are for a global centralized solution where by the force of “unprecedented political will,” and “creative engagement of modern communication technologies” the entire “world community” will develop a “commitment to a collective solution.” The exclamation point at the end of this sentence implies that he, himself, sees little hope of that happening. Yet, according to Rees, ”[t]hese are the minimal cultural tools needed to socially reengineer ourselves, and to educate the next generation from scratch, in a whole new sociocultural paradigm for survival. (emphasis added)
Will the Real Human Please Stand Up?
I suggest, however, that we must pause again to ask ourselves: “Which humans are we talking about?”
For Rees, “Homo Economicus,” so involved as he is in world domination, is Homo Sapien. The hegemony of global capitalism is subsumed into “the expanding human enterprise itself.” But does our understanding of the economic and sociopolitical dominance of “Homo Economicus,” inform all we need to know about human nature to motivate behavior change?
Consciousness Doesn’t Count?
In this argument, Rees puts front and center a quite powerful meme in its own right. The implication is that cognitive psychology is itself a “hard science” able to say anything as concretely as the absurd post-modern notion that human “consciousness doesn’t play a role in human behaviour.”
As a clinical psychologist who maintains an interest in social, cognitive and evolutionary psychology, I’ve become increasingly hesitant to agree that rescuing the future survival of a livable planet rests so soundly on acknowledging the limits of free will. While I often get a kick out of the inventive conclusions my colleagues reach, based on the severely limited social science research they conduct, my amusement ends when these same conclusions are used to generalize these findings to all of humanity.
We Are the World, We are THE Humans…
As Steven J. Heine. Professor of Psychology, University of British Columbia points out, the field of psychology itself is a very narrow, ethnocentric place:
…both the people conducting the research and the people who are the targets of the research largely come from a select few cultural backgrounds. Here are some indicators of the narrowness of the field: A review of international scientific productivity found that American-based psychologists accounted for 70% of the citations in psychology, a proportion higher than any of the other sciences reviewed (and approximately twice the proportion of chemistry). The next biggest contributing nations are all English-speaking ones: the UK, Canada, and Australia, respectively.
Likewise, my colleagues, Joe Henrich, Ara Norenzayan, and I, have calculated that a randomly selected American college student is more than 4000 times more likely to end up as a participant in a psychology study than is a randomly selected person living outside of the West. These nonrepresentative samples wouldn’t be such a problem if people everywhere thought in the same ways, but the available evidence shows that in many key ways they do not.
Unlike chemistry, where the object of study is independent of the researcher’s political or cultural perspective, psychologists study people. They often get the inspiration for their ideas by their own introspections and by observing those around them. A narrow range of perspectives isn’t a problem if one hopes to explain just those people who share those perspectives. But often psychologists purport to be studying human nature, and when the field only attracts those with a limited range of political and cultural perspectives, they may produce an incomplete and misleading caricature of that nature. (emphasis added)
If we, then, recognize this cultural bias, what is the meme that goes along with First World culture?
Pragmatic Altruism vs. Violent Mindset
As Stuart Twemlow, M.D. points out, we in the US are exposed to an”endless deluge of unmitigated violence, in the media, on the Internet, and in print, which subtly and gradually helps to shape a defensive “violent mindset” that reflects in the way we treat each other.” In this violent mindset, people attempt to “spend much time trying to win at any cost” and “gauge personal success by economic and material gain.” Despite the overwhelming evidence of the harmful and shaping effects of exposure to violence and its cancerous effects on communities, a “debate” about the impact of violence on the psyche continues. Dr. Twemlow compares the “debate” about these facts as similar to the lengthy antique “debate” about cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
The violent mindset vs. what he calls the “pragmatic altruistic” mindset impacts the collective community consciousness in areas of creativity, thought patterns, ruthlessness, economic prosperity, inner peace, outer peace, power struggles, greed, envy, contempt, materialism and narcissism. This violent meme has so totally dominated the discourse in the USA, that inevitably, our habits and unconscious assumptions about what is “human nature” are debased. Our children are taught through the media that “winning isn’t everything, its the only thing.”
For more than 30 million years, as Twemlow points out, we have another equally powerful and “evolutionarily based” nature: altruism. The notion of “pragmatic altruism” is ridiculed as soft-headed and idealistic, and hardly a shaping factor of human evolution. It therefore seldom considered as a viable pathway to resolve the problems we face.
Monkeys and apes engage in reconciliation and forgiveness. And even our complete understanding of “dominance” as one that benefits reproduction among the great apes has to be questioned when females apes sneak away with less dominant males. Alpha male apes are often under greater physical and psychological stress, and have much higher levels of glucocorticoid stress hormones in their blood, which can result in impaired immune systems. Dominance has its costs.
This powerful meme too often misreads the “selfish gene” as the “selfish human.” As I have argued elsewhere, “[t]here is a political danger in who takes control of the narrative.” Herbert Spenser altered Darwin’s biological theories to fit his own philosophical economic notions in 1864. It turns out that this narrative of a nasty, competitive selfish world, is only based on partial recollections of the data, and not only doesn’t it tell the whole story, it presents a political (power) explanation for oppression using biology as a justification: “Nature is selfish so I can be selfish.” It is a narrative of genetic classism. It is also a narrative of domination and imperialism.
In emphasizing, as he does in this article, the competitive, destructive, self-focused and unconscious, irrational elements of an elite group of wealthy humans, Rees not only duplicates this same error, but leaves the reader feeling hopeless as to any clear pathway out of this horror.
Hardly idealistic ramblings of social scientist dreamers, Twemlow, Sacco and their colleagues point to concrete ways to alter this dreary outlook on the future. The solutions are local, not global. According to these researchers, communities deteriorate in predictable ways, but they can also be healed systematically when the will to do so is present. “Comfort,” “belonging” and “protection” are features that all humans crave, and therefore there is no need for “supra-instinctual survival strategies.”
The values of Homo Economicus are deadly to the planet. But it is dangerous to confuse the dysfunction of humans impacted by global free market capitalism, with the norms of human psychology or psycho-evolutionary biology. Unipolar depressive disorders is the leading causes of disability worldwide. Is this a normal human state?
Are Fragmented Communities Killing the Planet?
As Bruce Alexander, Ph.D. points out, we live in a civilization that has become psychologically fragmented. Free market capitalism, now the dominant ideological economic system, has systematically displaced people, fragmenting Third World attachment to the land, a sense of:
“..identity that comes from secure families, stable communities, and a predictable future; we lack the sense of meaning that comes from shared values and religious beliefs; and we lack the confidence that comes from being part of a nation, a civilization, or an economic system that warrants our deep respect. More and more people are finding that addiction and other destructive lifestyles the most effective ways they can find to fill the social void and control the anxiety. Addictions, whether they center a person’s life on drugs or anything else provide some kind of a substitute for real identity, meaning, and confidence. Having found a substitute for what they lack in their inner core, people cling to it for all they are worth – addictively.” link
Among these addictions are compulsive shopping and other forms of consumption. When basic human needs for belonging are met, attachment happens not only between people, but to the land they live on, as well.
As Chief Seattle wrote of the invaders:
“Your dead forget you and the country of their birth as soon as they go beyond the grave and walk among the stars. They are quickly forgotten and they never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth. It is their mother. They always remember and love her rivers, her great mountains, her valleys. They long for the living, who are lonely too and who long for the dead. And their spirits often return to visit and console us.”
Similar ecoes are expressed in Scottish singer/songwriter Dougie MacLean’s 1988 lyrics in Solid Ground:
It’s the Land. It is our wisdom
It’s the Land. It shines us through
It’s the Land. It feeds our children
It’s the Land. You cannot own the Land. The Land owns you.
Alexander points out that the highlands of Northwestern Scotland provide an Anglo example of the dislocating effects of free markets on traditional society.
Until the second half of the 18th century, highlands society was little touched by free markets. The local economy was a network of traditional obligations among people living in stable families and occupying well-defined social strata…. Although highland society suffered from famine in poor years, it offered psychosocial integration to even the very poorest, and emigration was uncommon. After the last major armed uprising against British rule was defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the British government began the systematic destruction of highland society. The traditional bearing of arms was prohibited, as was traditional dress, including plaid, tartan, and kilt.
Group identity is maintained through “threads” of shared traditions and cultural characteristics of dress, celebrations, and customs. Quoting songwriter Neil Young, I call this phenomenon becoming a “patch of ground people.”
Drs. Twemlow and Frank Sacco use of “pragmatic altruism” and “community stabilization systems” is transformative in a relatively brief period of time. In a few years, a violent and degraded school in Jamaica, where truancy exceeded 70% and knife fights and rape were commonplace, became a peaceful place where former schoolyard bullies assumed a “non-bullying role, and even became “community helpers.” Montego Bay’s police force, once considered “animals” by the citizenry, were increasingly regarded as benevolent helpers and keepers of the peace. These sorts of cultural shifts do not require neurological reprogramming, but instead, a consistent message of common purpose, community spirit, and what they call “mentalizing.”
With stunning examples of social change in dire communities drenched in violence, and with very little outside monetary input, these people embraced and held onto their best selves.
We have a long history of attachment to each other, even in the “Me! Me!” USA, as I’ve outlined here. This “hidden history of cooperatives and communialism,” is outlined in a riveting book by John Curl called “For All the People.” But this long history didn’t simply disappear:
It was deliberately written out of history books, and now a powerful meme seeks to write it out of our conception of human “nature.”
While Dr. Rees maintains that the “influential memetic construct” of pursing unrestrained economic growth as a matter of policy emerged in the 1950s “from nowhere,” I would argue that “nowhere” has never been a reliable source of ideas.**
As Alexander wrote:
“England successfully dominated the 19th century world, and English free market economics, with its intrinsic destruction of traditional culture, spread across the map of western Europe…Because free market society now dominates the world, the destruction of traditional culture has become ubiquitous. In an ultimate irony, tens of thousands of Latin American peasants, some of whom grew coca on their tiny farms, are currently being dislocated in the interest of preventing addiction through the War on Drugs.”
His point is that this very dislocation causes the very “addiction” the War on Drugs aims to eliminate.
The Better Angels of Human Nature
As Abraham Lincoln said in his first Inaugural Address, “the mystic cords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better Angels of our nature.”
We have no choice but to deal with these troubling times with either our best, or our worse selves. I find it disturbing when brilliant thinkers suggest that our only hope lies with a dramatic change of heart among global elites who have, at this point, consistently demonstrated no interest in curbing their own rapacious appetites. They have consistently used their influence in the media, government and the funding of social science research to not only shape the nature of the discourse, but to shape our collective values.
Our hope doesn’t lie with our leaders, Dr. Rees, or in looking to a few elites who can provide the needed “supra-instinctual survival strategies.” As people living in the wealthiest of nations, we may have, as Dr. Rees suggests, sunk to our lowest selves, become lost and destructive, plundering the planet while drowning in our sea of “stuff.” But this is simply a perverse and pervasive cultural meme promulgated by a powerful and influential oligarchy.
It is now time for careful thinkers to propose an alternative view of what it means to be fully human. We may need to look outside The First World for new insights and broader understandings.
What we need are constant reminders in every media, school, and community throughout the world of another way of being. Bullying and the acceptance of violence as a “natural human state” cannot be tolerated. We have within us, the very innate altruistic qualities needed to work our way back to that simpler, communally-focused way of life– the 75% reduction that Dr. Rees said was possible–that will bring us back to our senses. It is happening already.
Locally. Methodically. Little by little. Step-by-step.
*Amy White’s artwork can be found at http://www.alandamy.com/Amy/artwork.htm#PhotoMontage
**Richard Heinberg has done an excellent job of charting the pathways of growth in his book: The End of Growth
Help build resilience. DONATE NOW