Ants, angels and armor: further conversations on human nature

December 17, 2011

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

“The big system can be pretty overwhelming. We know that we can’t beat them by competing with them. What we can do is build small systems where we live and work that serve our needs as we define us and not as they‘re defined for us. The big boys in their shining armor are up there on castle walls hurling their thunderbolts. We’re the ants patiently carrying sand a grain at a time from under the castle wall. We work from the bottom up. The knights up there don’t see the ants and don’t know what we’re doing. They’ll figure it out only when the wall begins to fall. It takes time and quiet persistence. Always remember this: They fight with money and we resist with time, and they’re going to run out of money before we run out of time”
Utah Phillips


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Graphic Source

Six Walton family members on the Forbes 400 had a net worth equal to the bottom 30 percent of all Americans. Source

After I posted “Sustaining Our Better Angels,” Bill Rees and I got into an email conversation, drawing into the dialogue, other wonderful thinkers, including Rex Weyler, co-founder of Greenpeace International, who decided to pull from this conversation and write an article for the Watershed Sentinel.

I would like to make a few brief comments before you read this article.

The first is what I believe are the dangers of discussing a human’s “animal nature” that require “supra-instinctual survival strategies” to overcome. My question is: Who is capable of “supra-instinctual survival strategies”? Our leaders? A few elites who can overcome their ‘baser’ instincts and see beyond their immediate needs? To quote my early post: “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.”


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It is a common strategy to dilute blame. This strategy says “We are all to blame, not just the rich and powerful.” This is horse manure. As Utah Phillips has said:

The Earth is not dying – it is being killed. And the people who are killing it have names and addresses.”

We don’t need new institutions, trans-national powers, or powerful elites- hundreds of people making decisions for the rest of us. We don’t need to step out of our “animal nature” or be washed of the original sin of our biopsychological heritage.

Our “better angels” are not above us. They are within us, ready to be called forth.

This article is excerpted from: Watershed Sentinel 25 November-December 2011 Environmental News from British Columbia and the World


In 2010, UBC professor and “Ecological Footprint” originator, Dr. William Rees, wrote “The Human Nature of Unsustainability” for the Post Carbon Reader, explaining evolutionary/genetic reasons that our “reasonably intelligent species” appears unable to recognize its ecological crisis or respond accordingly. Rees explains that most species share two traits that aid survival but risk overconsumption of resources:

  1. To expand to occupy all accessible habitats, and
  2. To use all available resources.

Humans are what biologists call “K-strategists.” The “K” stands for a habitat’s carrying capacity, which large mammals tend to fill, resulting in evolutionary pressure to gratify individual desires for food, sex, etc. These tendencies – to expand, consume, and satisfy short-term desires – have survival value until the species overshoots its habitat capacity. Thereafter, without a predator or other force to check growth, such species can obliterate a habitat as reindeer did on St. Matthews Island and as humans are doing on Earth as a whole.

“Certain behavioural adaptations helped our distant ancestors survive,” writes Rees, “but those same (now ingrained) behaviours today … have become maladaptive.”

Better Angels

Fair enough, thought clinical psychologist Dr. Kathy McMahon, but what about our “better angels?” Do we not, “have within us, the very innate altruistic qualities needed to work our way back to that simpler, communally-focused way of life …that will bring us back to our senses? It is happening already.”

McMahon, who posts stories of environmental trauma on her website, knows full well, “We’re bombarded with alarming headlines on a daily basis. How do we find the sane space between Doom and Denial?

In a response, McMahon asks,

Does our understanding of the economic and socio-political dominance of ‘Homo Economicus’ inform all we need to know about human nature to motivate behaviour change?” She writes, “We must pause again to ask ourselves: ‘Which humans are we talking about?’ We may need to look outside The First World for insights and broader understandings.

This post led to an enlivened email dialogue between Rees and McMahon, a model discussion that our world needs, between two engaged thinkers. Here are some excerpts:


Rees: Kathy, thanks for your detailed and sensitive dissection …Humanity is a conflicted species … [torn] between what reason and moral judgment say we should do, and … what pure emotion and baser instincts command us to do. In “What’s Blocking Sustainability,” I suggest a way out, not far removed from your own analysis:

We have reached a crucial juncture in human evolutionary history … genes and ideology that urge ‘every man for himself!’ might well mean destruction for all. Long term selective advantage may well have shifted to genes and memes that reinforce cooperative behaviour. Emotions such as compassion, empathy, love and altruism are key components of the human behavioral repertoire. The central question is whether we can muster the… political will … [to] reinforce these natural ‘other regarding’ feelings.

To reduce the human eco-footprint, the emphasis in free-market capitalist societies on individualism, greed, and accumulation must be replaced by a renewed sense of community, cooperative relationships, generosity, and a sense of sufficiency.… We must self-consciously create the cultural framing required for the brighter colours to shine.

McMahon: Bill, thank you. We aren’t far off in spirit. I was most disturbed by no mention of corporate advertisers when you discuss the power of memes to shape thought. I substituted the word “corporation” in your article for “human” and I found the result a running, raging polemic. Here’s a sample:

Given the availability of cheap energy, regulatory relaxation, technological innovation and social manipulation, corporations became a dominant force in the human endeavor worldwide…. The size and scale of corporate growth and influence is unprecedented…. The expansionist myth is a central tenet of corporations.

The violent mindset … impacts the collective community consciousness in areas of creativity, ruthlessness, economic prosperity, inner peace, outer peace, power struggles, greed, envy, materialism and narcissism. This violent meme has so dominated discourse in the USA, that our unconscious assumptions about what is “human nature” are debased.

We have another equally powerful and “evolutionarily based” nature: altruism.

Rees: The corporate sector …spends billions of dollars to create advertising ‘memes’ that play to peoples unconscious fears, desires and insecurities… turning people into consuming cogs in the capitalist machine. In other writings, I have condemned the role of corporate advertising:

“Consumption … has become the meaning of life … the criterion of existence, the mystery before which one bows (Ellul 1975) … the consumer society was actually a deliberate social construct … a multi-billion dollar advertising industry is still dedicated to making people unhappy with whatever they have … Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life …” (From “Toward Sustainability with Justice” in Colin Soskolne’s Sustaining Life on Earth).

The same general pattern applies to the … anti-science narrative sweeping the US and elsewhere today. We have entered a “new age of unreason.” Powerful corporations and individuals (e.g., the Koch family) fund think-tanks designed specifically to mis-inform the public … [A] perverted individualism abhors laws and regulations, diminishes community and generally undermines … the public good.

In “What’s Blocking Sustainability,” I mention that repeated exposure to ideological assertions “actually help[s] to imprint the individual’s synaptic circuitry in neural images of those experiences … People tend to seek out experiences that reinforce their pre-set neural circuitry and to select information from their environment that matches these structures.”Conversely, “when faced with information that does not agree with their internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information,” (Wexler 2006, p. 180).

This is why it is so difficult to induce social change. The neoconservative right-wing has so skillfully exploited this dimension of human biology, that vast numbers of Americans and Canadians are persuaded to vote against their own interests. The entire manipulation is oriented toward protecting the interests of the owners of capital, the corporate sector and their acolytes.

There is no hope for change if we mis-define the problem and fail to understand the deep bio-psychological roots of cultural inertia. By contrast, the opposition are doing everything imaginable to entrench that inertia. If enough people come to understand… that they are being manipulated, there may be a groundswell of resistance before it is too late to turn things around.

McMahon: You’re correct that 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. Unipolar depressive disorders are the leading causes of disability worldwide. Is this a normal human state?

The solutions are local, not global… communities deteriorate in predictable ways, but they can also be healed systematically. “Comfort,” “belonging” and “protection” are features that all humans crave, and therefore there is no need for “supra-instinctual survival strategies.” We live in an insane culture.

Rather than marginalize the cries for reform, we need to normalize the pain. Protest and concern are healthy reactions to loss and grief … We should study those who aren’t suffering these symptoms. Those who can’t or don’t feel the loss or who don’t know why they are drinking and drugging themselves, that is the true tragedy.”


The key difference between Dr. Rees and I remains the emphasis we place on our better angels. Evil exists. However, I don’t see greed, selfishness or aggression as any more dominant than altruistic instincts. Phrases such as ‘supra-instinctual survival strategies‘ make me nervous because they suggest an elitist top-down approach to the dilemmas of depleting energy reserves, degraded environment conditions and economic hard times. Personally, I remain deeply suspicious of solutions that require thunderbolts from on high. And, you’ll see a lot of proposals out there that argue that centralized solutions are our only hope, suggesting we turn over the control to those who know better. The danger we face is not our nature, but the ease of which we see only the “knights” and miss the “ants.” The ‘shiny armor’ is the media, which shapes the discourse. The ants are all around us now, seemingly insignificant, camping out in parks, singing a new Handel hymnal about corporate greed, and paying off the K-mart holiday lay-a-way bills of complete strangers all across the USA.

I’d rather cast my lot with the ants.

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Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television. 

Tags: Activism, Building Community, Consumption & Demand, Culture & Behavior, Media & Communications, Politics