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Wisdom: Re-Tuning for a Sustainable Future

Mankind achieved civilization by developing and learning to follow rules that often forbade to do what his instincts demanded…Man is not born wise, rational and good, but has to be taught to become so. Man became intelligent because there was tradition (habits) between instinct and reason…

Friedrich Hayek The Fatal Conceit, 1988

Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials.

Robert Kennedy Speech, University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

 

Below is a slightly adapted excerpt from The Well-Tuned Brain: Neuroscience and the Life Well Lived by Peter C. Whybrow, MD.

 

It is abundantly clear that humanity must shift its modern view of progress and relationship with nature if we are to have any hope of living sustainably on this planet. But in completing the jigsaw essential to reimagining progress, and regaining balance within the natural ecology, it is necessary to understand the roles that biological and cultural evolution play. In our social evolution as a species, biology and culture run on parallel tracks, but they do so at different speeds. Thus biology, quickly and disruptively, can be outpaced by cultural change. As I have detailed in The Well-Tuned Brain, a significant number of the challenges that we face in the developed world are rooted in this mismatch.

To better grasp how this puzzle comes together, I take you back to a primary source of knowledge about evolution. In the Pacific Ocean, straddling the Equator approximately 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador is found the Galápagos archipelago. This remote collection of volcanic islands, as Charles Darwin described them when he traveled there, is “a little world within itself.” Today they remain so, thanks to the vigilance of the Ecuadorian government and the Galápagos Conservancy. Located at the confluence of three ocean currents, and with the volcanic and seismic activity that formed the islands 8-10 million years ago still ongoing, the Galápagos is the ecosystem — unique in its vegetation and wildlife — that emboldened Darwin in his conception of the principles of evolution.

View from Bartolomé Island, Gálapagos. Image courtesy of Sheila Say/Shutterstock.com.
View from Bartolomé Island, Gálapagos. Image courtesy of Sheila Say/Shutterstock.com.Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.

Hence, in the summer of 2013, I was pleased to help organize a special meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society (MPS), Evolution, the Human Sciences and Liberty, which was convened on the island of San Cristóbal, at the Galápagos campus of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Our topic was in keeping with Friedrich Hayek’s founding vision of an association broadly invested in the natural sciences—one that would advance “the principles and practice of a free society.”

The most easterly island in the archipelago, San Cristóbal, is where Darwin’s ship, the HMS Beagle, first made landfall on September 17th, 1835. Indeed, just a short walk from the University study center, to commemorate the spot where Darwin stepped ashore, there is an unflattering statue of the man. A mile or so to the south now exists Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the administrative center of the Galápagos and a thriving town of over 6000 people, but otherwise one’s first impressions are remarkably similar to those Darwin recorded in his diary.

The rocky shoreline of the island is black volcanic lava, twisted and buckled. Scarlet, scurrying, crabs visibly mottle its surface, in contrast to the black marine iguana—“imps of darkness,” was Darwin's description—that lurk among the rock crevices. Today there is no litter of giant tortoise shells, as Darwin had observed. The surviving descendents of these ponderous creatures—once preyed upon by visiting whalers as a ready source of meat and terrapin soup—are now a tourist attraction, living protected lives. Sea lions, however, remain ubiquitous and when resting from fishing are usually found sunning themselves on public benches along the promenade.

The Beagle’s epic voyage was well into its 4th year when Darwin reached the Galápagos. The idea that common principles underlie nature’s order was already forming in his mind, and the 5 weeks of land expeditions, specimen collection and sailing among the 19 islands, only strengthened these thoughts. Darwin found the natural history of the archipelago to be “eminently curious,” with subtly different flora and fauna inhabiting the individual islands. Created by volcanic plumes thrusting up from the earth’s core, and with the major formations approximately 30 to 60 miles apart, it was unlikely that the existing land mass had ever been united above the ocean. The flightless cormorant; the iguana; the blue-footed booby; the hawks; the giant tortoises—Darwin’s fascination grew as each new encounter revealed to him “that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by different sets of beings.” Almost against his will, Darwin wondered whether he was witnessing accommodations by living creatures to a varied environment. These were disturbing thoughts, calling into question the stability of individual species, which in Darwin’s time were considered immutable categories, with each unique plant and animal being the product of divine creation.

To complicate things further, there were the Galápagos finches. As Darwin confessed in his Journal and Remarks of the Beagle’s journey—published in 1839, after his return to England—at first he had overlooked the significance of a “most singular group of finches, related to each other in the structure of their beaks, short tails, form of body and plumage.” I find such oversight easily understood. Despite their fame in scientific circles, Darwin’s finches are unassuming birds. The small hostelry where I was staying overlooked the harbor. With a fresh breeze off the ocean, and the weather being what it is on the Equator, there is little need for window glass, so each morning the finches were in eager attendance at my breakfast table. Just as Darwin described them, the birds have a short tail, scruffy black plumage, and are about the size of an English sparrow. The variations in beak size and shape are readily apparent. So, too, regardless of beak size, is their preference for scrambled eggs.

"Darwin's Finches", John Gould.
"Darwin's Finches", John Gould.

Upon Darwin’s return to England, with careful study of the finch specimens at the Zoological Society of London, 13 distinct Galápagos species were identified. Evolved from a common ancestor, probably a ground-dwelling seedeater of South American origin, over millennia the survivors of this generic stock had adapted to fit the varying and differing habitats of the individual islands. “One might really fancy,” wrote Darwin perceptively, “that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species has been taken and modified for different ends.”

In all birds the beak is a vital life–supporting tool. Pecking away at scrambled eggs, of course, is easy. But for seed eating birds, small variations in beak formation and strength can make a big difference, especially during times of drought. With some kernels harder to crack than others, it is the deeper and stronger beaks that then provide advantage. The principles of such adaptation have been validated by the research of the British evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant, both professors at Princeton University, who have spent decades in the Galápagos. The Grants have demonstrated that, indeed, changing climatic conditions do dramatically alter the nature and quantity of the finches’ food supply. Under changing circumstances, variations in beak structure of individual birds then determine survival through natural selection, confirming the fundamental principles of evolution that Darwin set forth in The Origin of Species. Published in 1859, this groundbreaking work was to change the course of human thought.

* * *

Biological evolution, in its essence, is a gradual process of variation, selection, and replication whereby living things, in the service of survival, find adaptive fit with changing environmental circumstances. Friedrich Hayek, in his book The Fatal Conceit; The Errors of Socialism, professed his great admiration for Charles Darwin, “as the first who succeeded in elaborating a consistent theory of evolution in any field.” Hayek was quick to add, however, that the dynamics of Darwin’s understanding had deep roots in earlier socio-cultural writings, including those of Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith. Indeed, by 1838, within 2 years of the Beagle’s return to England, and when a comprehensive theory of evolution was beginning to occupy him, it is clear from his notebooks that Darwin had read Smith’s Essays on Philosophical Subjects and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

In their ideas Smith and Darwin, and Hayek too, are much in accord. The common conceptual thread binding together an understanding of the social order and evolutionary biology is that complex social and biological systems, interacting freely with their circumstances, inherently organize, adapt, and find balance. As John Kay, the British economist, described it, reflecting upon the MPS Galápagos meeting in The Financial Times, evolution is a generic process through which “designs of extraordinary complexity and efficiency can be achieved without the aid of a designer.”

Hayek described such spontaneous, self-organizing, and self-correcting designs as systems of extended order. In the biological world, environmental circumstances naturally select from a range of physical attributes and behaviors to foster the optimum fit for survival of the living organism. Similarly, in the social arena, including market systems, adaptive strategies emerge from the behavior of many individuals selecting options that best fit individual opportunity and their collective needs. In each instance, it is through the dynamic dance of variation and selection—without the aid of an omnipotent designer—that systems of extended order emerge and evolve. There are also differences, however, between the biological world and human society in the dynamics of how these systems organize and are perpetuated, two of which are particularly important as we strive to regain our place in the natural order.

First is the divergent time course of adaptation, as I noted in opening this essay. In simple terms, in the biological evolution of any organism, including us, it is spontaneous mutation that drives genetic variation and environmental fit. Thus, when it comes to human biology, we can no more determine the course of our evolution than can the Galápagos finch, or any other living creature. Human biology, given the length of time between individual generations, evolves slowly.

On the other hand, social and technological advances evolve at a comparatively rapid pace. Each generation transmits valuable knowledge and behavior to the next, powerfully shaping cultural inheritance. Since the Enlightenment and the harnessing of fossil fuels, in particular, our socio-cultural evolution has run ahead of biological adaptation.

Evolution. ©Dan Piraro.
Evolution. ©Dan Piraro.

The second important difference, as Hayek recognized, is that while a free society is dynamic and open in function, it is not freely self-organizing. Beyond kinship and familiar neighbors, Hayek asserted, what holds societies together as they grow in size and scale is not just self-interest and attachment, but also the cultural rules and rituals that we learn from each other, and which are passed down over generations. In Hayek’s words, sitting between instinct and reason, it is “tradition”—what, in The Well-Tuned Brain, I have described as intuitive habit—that holds the social order together. In cultural evolution, aware of it or not, the habits we acquire play a role in cultural design. But, as we shall find, traditions are at times rigid, confining our ability to adapt appropriately in times of need.

* * *

It is through habit that the brain is tuned to prevailing circumstances. Or, more precisely, I should say it is in acquiring habit that the brain tunes itself. This pre-conscious tuning, you may recall, is in the service of reflexive efficiency and essential to daily living. But, beyond the mundane, depending upon the resilience of the tuning achieved, habits may be a blessing or a curse. Without deliberate and reflective self-appraisal, it is frequently difficult to know the difference between those habits that are adaptive and those that are impediments. This is because tradition and habit intuitively bind us to past experience, making behavioral change difficult.

As animals, our evolved biological propensities reinforce these circumstances. Evolution has no plan; rather the process is one that selects the best available fit from strategies that have worked in the past. This can be particularly maladaptive when, for example, the evolving cultural narrative reinforces our innate, instinctual, proclivity to seize upon short-term opportunity, regardless of the longer-term consequences. The result—as is evident in the affluent society—is a Faustian alliance that in the myopic pursuit of reward can kindle epidemics of obesity, financial excess, and the denial of future challenges.

Today, one of the habits disruptive to a healthy and sustainable cultural narrative is how we conflate measures of economic growth with the idea of progress and social wellbeing. That has not always been so. Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as the act of journeying and moving forward, or advancement to a better state, “progress” has been the animating idea of Western civilization since the Enlightenment. The concepts of liberty, tolerance, equality of opportunity, and social order emerged then as expressed human aims, and it was accepted that society’s common purpose was to realize these goals. Each technical advance, each gain in knowledge, each improved utility, would bring us closer to perfection and to happiness; progress was dependent upon freedom and the human will. This powerful lodestar is now waning. Increasingly, the word progress is framed in economic terms and is becoming synonymous with increased production of goods and services.

Within this construct the objective measure of progress is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which seeks to quantify the growth of a nation’s annual domestic economy. That well-being will improve with money available to secure the necessities of life makes sense, of course, and studies from across the world suggest that as income rises to the equivalent of approximately $10,000 per year that is exactly what happens. Beyond that yardstick the picture is mixed. Hence, in 2013, the GDP of the United States was $15.800 trillion, yielding a per capita GDP of $53,143. More than 70 percent of the total expenditures, $11.501 trillion, were accounted as personal consumption. Nonetheless, despite this growth in income and expenditure, indices of subjective well-being, such as personal happiness, have been stable in the US since the mid 1960s when the average American’s income was approximately one third of that achieved in 2013.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

In America shopping is a tradition. Objective evidence that money does not buy happiness has little effect on shopping behavior. Consumer spending has driven US economic growth for decades, climbing to 75 percent of GDP in 2007, just before the global financial crash. Furthermore, as the subsequent recession tightened its grip and credit was squeezed, a growing social inequality was revealed. American society was splitting into the haves, and the have-nots. This was no news. For a decade a majority of the American citizens surveyed had been telling the pollsters from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal that the nation was “on the wrong track.” The main result of this protestation was hardening of political ideology. "What happened to our country’s stride and spirit," asked the New York Times journalist, Frank Bruni, in the spring of 2014. Although the US, at that time, remained the world's wealthiest nation, as measured by the GDP, two thirds of Americans already believed that China was the world’s leading economic power. Also becoming evident, as I have documented in earlier chapters, was the bad news that in Europe social mobility was increasing, while the performance of the American school system lagged behind that of many other rich countries. Washington, for its part, amidst partisan bickering, was encouraging a return to home-based manufacturing and greater consumer confidence. The Tea Party was in its ascendance. Nostalgia was in the air.

I caricature the situation to illustrate my point. The GDP’s faithful indexing of the goods and services produced no longer serves to reflect the growing discomfort of many middle class American families, nor can it document the future challenges we face. GDP accounting makes no distinction between the quantity and quality of growth as is evident, for example, in the escalating level of US healthcare spending compared to other rich countries, despite the poor outcomes achieved in many illnesses. Nor are environmental factors and issues of sustainability and waste considered: when a farmer preserves seed from which to grow next year’s crop, it does not register; a living forest contributes to GDP growth only when the trees in it are logged; the value of fisheries is measured in the tons of fish caught, as if their supply was infinite. Similar questions pertain to water and soil conservation, together with the extraction of the earth’s raw materials, and the list goes on.

The accounting of GDP has become dissociated from the social currency and natural resources that will be necessary to sustain us in the future. The United States is in the grip of a tradition driven mythology, one where it is assumed that the future is best defined by the past, with economic growth remaining the fundamental strategy, and GDP our measure of success. Within an evolutionary framework, our circumstances are best described as a decline in adaptive fit—a growing mismatch between what we do and the sustainable well-being of ourselves and the planet. And yet our behavior does not change.

* * *

So is this a moral issue? I think not, at least not at its foundation. Rather, it is a problem that grows from human’s rigidity of habit—another mismatch between biology in its broader context and the speed of our cultural advances. From the behavioral perspective, given our intelligence, it is a failure of rational accommodation to changing circumstances. Hayek was correct in identifying tradition as the guardian of culture, but equally tradition can impede the dynamic evolution of cultural adjustment.

In the developed world, as measured by product, for over 200 years we have been adapting triumphantly to what once appeared to be an infinite supply of natural resources and easily accessible energy. Having discovered this treasure trove—this unusual niche of environmental opportunity—ingenuity and hard work have led to phenomenal growth in human societies, and to our numbers on this planet. It is this experience that frames our cultural habit, and it is the framework to which the developing countries aspire.

Assuming leadership of the Industrial Revolution from Great Britain in the late 19th century, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population the United States now consumes approximately 25 percent of the world’s resources. Indirectly the nation’s major investments in infrastructure, in technology, in economic growth, and in living standards are each tied, in one way or another, to consumption of fossil fuels. Diligence and cultural tradition have reinforced opportunity to reward the US with extraordinary material wealth. With brains long tuned to abundance, we Americans are inclined to deny the future and its forebodings. In our cleverness and flourishing, we have transformed the planet’s ecosystem by ignoring it. This is the dark side to our success. But as the global economy has grown and the world’s population has exploded, it is a reality that can no longer be ignored. We are hoist by our own petard. In alliance with the brain’s instinctual reward systems, intuitive habit now holds reason hostage.

It was Darwin’s dynamic theory of natural selection, and his brilliance as a thinker, which first gave weight to the idea that new organisms could appear and old ones disappear, with different creatures populating the earth at different times. It has been estimated that there have been five mass extinctions over the past 500 million years caused by extremes of climate change. Increasing evidence suggests that we may now be entering the sixth, aided by our own ingenuity and cavalier dominance.

Source: World Wildlife Fund. Image courtesy of Post Carbon Institute.
Source: World Wildlife Fund. Image courtesy of Post Carbon Institute.

In this Age of Man we are again losing species at a rapid rate. Without course correction and a change in our behavior, Homo sapiens may soon be facing the same fate. If we continue to pursue maximization of material growth as a global economic strategy, with little regard for human well-being and the health of our planet, then potentially we are flirting with our own extinction. We are building our own doomsday machine, one that is slower in its impact than acute nuclear disaster, but one of similar epic proportions over the long-term. The coming crisis—given our growing knowledge—presents a moral issue only if we choose to ignore it.

* * *

As Ogden Nash, the American humorist and poet, prophetically observed before his death in 1971, "progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long." I find myself imagining the fate of the urban finches that shared my breakfast table during my visit to the Galápagos, should they be faced once more with seed foraging, after decades of feeding on scrambled eggs. Deprived of their ease, the adaptive re-tuning of their behavior to the realities of the natural world would be no simple task.

Nor will it be a simple task for us, but fortunately we are not finches. As individuals we have the knowledge to imagine an adaptive strategy beyond exponential growth. But do we have the collective will to change our habits? Do we have the determination to re-tune the way we think? If the idea of human progress is to be made rational and sustainable, the complex interaction between our instinctual drives and our cultural choices must be tempered and brought into balance. To achieve success this will be necessary for each of us. In resonance with my metaphor of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, our efforts at cultural standardization—as in tuning the today’s family piano to equal temperament—will only get us so far. Tuning our habits to accept the uniformity of consumerism squeezes out flexibility and ingenuity. Bach’s “customized” approach, as in tuning his clavier, is what we need.

Human beings are so good at simply copying the behaviors of others that, when the drumbeat is demand driven and attention-grabbing, we stop thinking for ourselves and forget the future: in the consumer society we become imprinted on immediate reward. Such ingrained habits—embedded in our culture, politics, and business practices—are dangerously soporific when it comes to changing anything. The social engineering of 1950s communism, which so pre-occupied Hayek, or the oligarchies of crony capitalism that are prevalent today, do not work. The order they create is brittle, and snaps under duress. That social balance can be achieved through top-down intervention is a “fatal conceit,” to borrow Hayek’s phrase. Nor will that balance be fostered by excessive social standardization and legal oversight, as Phillip K. Howard, the American lawyer and social critic, has argued in his book The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government.

No, rather it is the creativity of resilient, knowledgeable, and innovative individuals working together that we need. It is through self-awareness—the wisdom acquired over a lifetime of self-tuning—that we will progressively take ownership of our behavior. To shape a sustainable future we must each challenge the pre-conscious, personal narrative of habit. Through this conscious process, harnessing the extraordinary powers of human reason—of perception, analysis, imagination and choice—the dynamics of biology, ecology and cultural change can be thoughtfully aligned and brought into closer harmony. Insights from neuroscience and evolutionary theory will help us navigate the social transformation. We also need to take on the responsibility for rational problem solving and active participation in crafting and strengthening the social institutions that enhance education, independent choice, the development of character, and social fellowship. In reality, the future we create will be determined by the individual choices we make. We must again, consciously, respect and embrace our place in the natural world.

* * *

The good news is that we do not start from scratch when it comes to seeking the change that we need. Throughout the United States and across the world there are many individuals who are thinking and working “outside the box” of consumerism. I have had the privilege of profiling a tiny sample of such individuals in the pages of The Well-Tuned Brain. A stirring of public sentiment for change is apparent and widespread. Social inequality is of growing concern in America and Britain, and on the political agenda. Since the recession that began in 2008, many Americans have become savers again, in part by necessity. In what may be just a Panglossian moment, the addictive appetite for material goods appears to be waning, especially in young people. Similarly, as weather patterns become extreme, and the unusual becomes the routine, the idea that global warming may have human consequences has begun its move to center stage. Things are changing, but slowly.

Industry, again by necessity, has begun to pay attention. Businesses, especially those with global reach, are awakening to the threat of resource limitation, climate change, and extreme weather events to their profits and their traditional practices. As one example, the global giant Coca-Cola, was chastened in 2004 by the loss of its license to operate India’s largest bottling plant in Plachimada, Kerala, where the company was drawing nearly 1 million litres of water each day from underground aquifers, and destroying the local agricultural economy in the process. Similarly Nike, the manufacturer of athletic shoes, with 700 factories in 49 countries, many in Asia, has felt the impact of extreme weather. In Thailand, in 2008, floods shut down four factories, and sporadic drought threatens the company’s supply of cotton.

Responding to these economic concerns and to spreading anxiety, in 2014 the challenges of a changing environment featured prominently on the agenda of The World Economic Forum—the pantheon of the world’s business and political leaders—that is held each winter in Davos, Switzerland. That year no fewer than 35 sessions were devoted to climate change, green investment, and to the potential for a sustainable, “circular” economy. The latter, a concept first proposed in the 1970s by the Swiss architect, Walter Stahel, is seen as a substitute for the existing linear industrial model of progressive, resource-depleting growth. Pertinent to my discussion here is that the model of “circularity” takes inspiration from the regenerative dynamics of biological systems.

Essentially, it is argued, the industrial economy favored today, harvests raw materials—both those grown through photosynthesis and those from the earth’s natural resources—to manufacture a product, which is then discarded as waste at the end of its useful life. A circular economy, on the other hand is designed to be regenerative from the beginning: food stuffs and other organic products return to the soil; source materials from the earth’s supply, including petroleum derivatives such as plastics, are cycled for remanufacture. Durable goods are designed for disassembly such that they may be upgraded at minimal cost. Everybody wins—the consumer, the manufacturer, and the planet.

Dame Ellen MacArthur—the British yachtswoman, who in 2005 at the age of 28 was knighted after achieving what was then the fastest single-handed circumnavigation of the globe—brought the circular economy to popular attention in 2010, when she founded a charity explicitly for the purpose. MacArthur proved to be an articulate spokeswoman and the program rapidly garnered wide interest, with significant international companies—including McKinsey, Philips, Cisco, Kingfisher, and Renault, among others—providing partnership and financial support.

Dame Ellen MacArthur. Image courtesy of Ilkley Gazette.
Dame Ellen MacArthur. Image courtesy of Ilkley Gazette.

For MacArthur, primed by her professional experience in yacht racing, the conservation and reuse of resources through commitment to a circular economy makes both environmental and business sense. "When you set off around the world, you take with you everything that you need for your survival” MacArthur explained in a 2014 interview. “For 3 1/2 months you are on a boat with everything that you have… only so much food, only so much diesel. As you watch those resources go down, you realize just what “finite” means, because in the Southern Ocean you’re 2500 miles away from the nearest town. I realized that our global economy is no different. It's powered on resources that are ultimately finite.”

* * *

There is something poetic about a charismatic and accomplished woman, one who understands and knows the seas, championing the call for an ecologically sensitive economy. Staring at the Pacific Ocean roiling against the rugged volcanic shore—as I did sitting on Darwin’s beach one afternoon during my Galápagos visit—it is difficult to imagine that a presence so vast and powerful could be vulnerable. But, sadly, it is so. The oceans cover approximately 70 percent of the earth’s surface, and yet through our exploitation and inattention they have become dangerously degraded. The story offers a cautionary tale, but one not without hope that sustainable practices can be achieved.

Coastal pollution from industrial agriculture, warming temperatures, acidification and the destruction of habitat; each of these has taken its toll on marine life. But most destructive of the ocean’s finite resources has been their depletion by industrialized fishing. We have allowed our myopic propensity for short-term reward to cripple many fishing grounds. Britain’s Dogger Bank fishery, once a fine source of herring, collapsed in the 1960s, and the Newfoundland cod fishing grounds followed in the 1990s. Overall it is estimated that the global fishing catch rose from 35 million tons a year in 1950, to 150 million tons in 2009—well above what the oceans can sustain. Some of the most preferred commercial fish—cod, tuna, haddock, and flounder—are so depleted that they face extinction by 2050. The French-born Marine biologist Daniel Pauly, a professor of Zoology who runs the “Sea Around Us Project” at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, estimates that the biomass of big fish in the sea has decreased by more than 95 percent over the past century. We are heading rapidly towards the creation of marine deserts.

In efforts to manage this looming, man-made, disaster of ecosystem decline the development of marine reserves has been popular with government authorities. One such reserve was first established in the Galápagos islands in 1974, and extended to protect a radius of 40 nautical miles around the archipelago in 1998. As in all coastal regions, but it is particularly evident in the Galápagos, the marine ecology and that of the landmass are intertwined. Many birds, including the unique flightless cormorant, are entirely dependent on the sea for their food supply. And so, too, do the local human fishers depend on the marine reserve for their economic livelihood, in supplying fish to the island population and to those visiting the Galápagos National Park. Thus wisdom is called for in balancing these human needs, while at the same time sustaining the entire ecosystem of the archipelago. Zoning is essential to constrain human activity, but it must also be sensitive to changing environmental circumstance and the varying profitability of the fisheries.

Evidence from a variety of studies across the world emphasizes that an understanding of human behavior is essential in managing marine resources, or any other ecological system. As contrived carve-outs of the natural world these are complex, dynamic systems that will find their own extended order if protected from predatory practices. But they also represent an economy that is a vital source of human sustenance. Around the world approximately 1 billion people depend on the ocean for their nutrition and livelihood. As a microcosm of the larger challenge such systems therefore offer valuable insights into how sustainability can be achieved.

One thing that clearly does not work in shaping human behavior is to appeal to moral virtue without regard to self-interest. Reason, as David Hume understood, is the slave of the passions. This edict holds true in fishing. In changing behavior incentive-based systems are essential. Hence in commercial fisheries, just declaring a region to be a marine preserve and imposing catch limits usually backfires. Such regulation increases short-term, myopic behavior, leading to competitive large-scale “race to fish” practices where less valuable species are dumped from the reported catch. The trick is to turn personal short-term interest into a genuine sense of shared, long-term responsibility.

A proven way of achieving this shift is providing fishermen with individual fishing rights to a specific territory that are long-term and secure. Such strategies work especially well if those involved are bound together in a collective enterprise of mutual advantage. Then, as the vitality of the ecosystem’s extended order returns through greater knowledge, good husbandry, and fair practice, the catch improves in quality and everyone wins, including the fish and other marine life. What I am describing is a fisherman’s version of Mischel’s famous marshmallow test, which I discuss in more detail in The Well-Tuned Brain. As it is in childhood, so it is in fishing: delayed gratification pays off.

Indeed, using such a paradigm in her research, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist with the Wiatt Institute, in Washington, DC, who has a passionate interest in the sustainable use of ocean resources, has explored the role of behavior and social factors in shaping conservation success. In a clever study, originally conceived for her PhD thesis at San Diego’s Scripps Institution in Oceanography, Johnson studied the time preferences and resource management approaches of 350 fishermen and scuba divers in Curaçao and Bonaire, of the Netherlands Antilles, in the Caribbean. In a design similar to that used by Mischel, Johnson offered the study participants $50 at a future date, or a smaller amount immediately, and logged their preferences. The cut-off that emerged as an acceptable immediate reward was around $35: below that number—which was about the cost of a case of the most popular local beer at the time—most individuals were prepared to wait for the larger sum.

Commercial fisherman. Image courtesy of photomatz/Shutterstock.com.
Commercial fisherman. Image courtesy of photomatz/Shutterstock.com. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.

But the details are interesting. Not surprisingly, being hard up financially played a major role in the decision-making. That was particularly true for the local fisherman who frequently had families to support: the scuba divers, often young people from Holland, tended to be wealthier. This difference also played out in the attitude of the two groups toward conservation: the fisher’s income depended on taking fish out of the ocean, while the scuba divers—dependent on the tourist trade for their living—benefitted from keeping fish in their habitat. The implications of Johnson’s studies are clear: if sustainable fishing practices are the goal then behavioral preferences and the socio-economic issues that shape those preferences must be taken into consideration. Behavior matters.

If sustainable, ecosystem practices are to succeed, the importance of understanding human behavior must be placed front and center. Without systems of balanced incentive, individuals acting in their own interest will deplete any common resource, to the detriment of the greater good. The American ecologist, Garrett Hardin, famously described this dilemma in his 1968 paper published in Science Magazine, and provocatively titled, The Tragedy of the Commons. Professor Hardin, being an expert on population growth, expressed a certain Malthusian misanthropy in his writings. But he was also a systems thinker, and a great believer in the destructive consequences of selfishness—including death and starvation as the feedback mechanism through which the extended order would eventually return to equilibrium. Ideally, some less drastic method of self-correction is to be fostered.

The political economist, Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009, and who studied common resource management across the world—from lobster fisheries in Maine to irrigation systems in Nepal—felt more sanguine about human nature. In her research Ostrom found that local communities with investment in the long-term viability of a resource frequently developed successful and sophisticated systems of governance. The critical factors are the size of the community involved and the relationships among the principle players invested in the shared resource. And yes, of course, we are back to Adam Smith: small communities, with the interlocking interests of the participating members, do find their own extended order.

Hayek was right. The understanding that promotes social order and human progress is widely distributed among us: it is a function of the personal relationships we build and cannot be duplicated by top-down planning. But, as Ostrom’s studies demonstrate, such relationships are weakened and tend to be replaced by self-interest as communities grow in size and drift toward anonymity. Our challenge today, in the shadow of extraordinary material achievement, is to reverse that process of social erosion. I share Ostrom’s sanguinity: I’m optimistic that collectively we can acquire the wisdom to sustain a vibrant and balanced society. As I have outlined in the pages of The Well-Tuned Brain, the challenge is one of assuming personal responsibility for the health of our families, our schools, our communities, and for the ecology that feeds us. In our educational practice, in the workplace, and around the table, it is through the rewards of mutual attachment that collective change becomes possible. Throughout the adventure that is human history, cooperation has repeatedly proven to be more interesting and more profitable than unbridled self-interest. I believe that cultural sentiment, deep down, has not changed.

* * *

As I write this, spring has come to England after a long cold winter. The daffodils know that, the geese on the lake know it too, and in our bodies so do we. It is part of the seasonal cycle of being. Each living creature is embedded in the natural world; human beings do not stand independent of it. Each of us, as a self, is a pattern of interaction: take away the interaction and you take away the person. This is the ecological vision. Ecology is a word that in Greek means household. And as in the case of a household it is not the disagreements and the competition among the members of the family that determine its health but their compassion and collaboration. The ecology of the family is a multitude of sympathetic, synergistic, and symbiotic interactions. Personal freedom and individual responsibility are forged, honed, and expressed within this ecology.

Our science, in its inquiry, first takes this ecology of nature and reduces it to a series of elements. The human mind, in awe at the complexity of it all, finds it easier to think that way—in a linear fashion. We have made great progress, with this method, in understanding the pieces of the jigsaw and in moving forward with our social enterprise. And there is more to learn. It is exciting and seductive to believe that, in teasing biology apart, we may find a path and an efficiency that will serve our immediate and greater purpose.

But if we are serious in understanding our future on this planet, then science, broadly defined, must also be committed to integration—to understanding and respecting the complexity of the ecological paradigm. How, we must ask, with our newfound knowledge, can we better imagine ourselves in the natural order of things? How may we better assume the responsibilities that will secure for future generations a sustainable human experience? How may we better tune the human brain for the complexities and challenges ahead? Seated now at the keyboard, in this Age of Man, how may the musician find greater harmony? It’s a metaphor, of course. But it was through metaphor that we first sought to understand our world.

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