An evolutionary/anthropological approach to the root causes of the "Sustainability Problem"
by Roger Hicks (www.spaceship-earth.org)
Revised version: 11 Feb 07
When tackling big problems, we are often encouraged to "think outside the box", but when someone actually does so as I have and comes up with insights and ideas that don't fit nicely into any of the existing boxes, they tend to be ignored or ridiculed.
This tendency to ignore, ridicule, or otherwise resist ideas that would challenge or undermine the status quo is not surprising in view of what is known about human cognition, the fact that we don't experience reality itself, but an interpretation of it, produced by our brains, which it adapts to be more-or-less consistent with the view we already have of the world, and is thereby very strongly influenced by past and present interpretations of experiences, as well as by our dependencies and vested interests.
The view we have of the existing socio-economic order is no exception, and because from birth we are all totally immersed in, familiar with and dependent on it, and because of the anxiety it would cause if we did, our brains, which evolved in, and to cope with, totally different circumstances, actively prevents us from recognizing its inherent non-sustainability. This accounts for our collective blindness to the perilous impact our economy and way of life are having on our finite and vulnerable planet, and the threat they pose, if not immediately to ourselves, certainly to our children and grandchildren.
Global warming is just one major consequence of an underlying "Sustainability Problem" that we should have faced up to 30 years ago, when publications such as "The Limits to Growth" by Meadows et. al. first drew broad public attention to the fact that an ever increasing population of technologically empowered, but essentially insatiable human beings (still dominated by their animal nature and behaviour), is placing an unsustainable drain and strain on Earth's finite resources and carrying capacity. Instead, because of the enormous implications for our economy and way of life, and all the vested interests in continuing with "business (and pleasure) as usual", we went (allowed ourselves to be led) into collective denial. Which, essentially, is where we still are - virtually everyone, although some more than others - but now struggling both to and not to face up to the situation as the effects of our increasing impact on the planet become ever more apparent and threatening.
At the moment, despite all the talk about the environment, sustainability and saving the planet, we have yet to face up to the sheer scale and magnitude of the Problem. The threat it poses is terrifying, which only adds to our reluctance to face up to it; but continuing to bury our heads in the sand will not make it go away. On the contrary, like an approaching tsunami, it will engulf and destroy us if we refuse to recognise the threat. Only by facing up to it can we avoid - or at least, reduce the impact of - the approaching catastrophe, by creating sustainable economies and ways of life (for 7-9 billion! people) in our own (humane) way.
If WE fail to do so, a ruthless Mother Nature will do it for us. The climate change we are witnessing is her just "warming up" for the job. If it entails reducing human numbers by 100's or even 1000's of millions, that is what she will do. She is not squeamish. The poor will suffer first, of course, as always, but for once we really are ALL in the same boat, Spaceship Earth, rich and poor alike.
We urgently need to face up to the ROOT CAUSE of the "Sustainability Problem", which lies in our animal nature. Unsurprisingly, in view of what Charles Darwin is supposed to have taught us about human origins, it is in our animal nature and behaviour that the existing socio-economic order (our economy and way of life) is rooted, and which free-market capitalism developed, naturally enough, both to serve and exploit.
Human emotions and behaviour evolved over millions of years to serve the individual and their family group in the struggle for survival and advantage in the "natural environment" (which included other, rival, groups of humans). With the advent of civilisation, for the individual, this Darwinian (blind, dumb-animal) struggle transferred to an artificial, "socio-economic environment", where - greatly facilitated by the development of free-market capitalism - it continues as the driving force of most human (particularly economic) activity. Only now it is driving us towards disaster, because, as things are, we cannot help but give priority to economics (the household of man in the artificial, "socio-economic environment"), rather than to ecology (the household of our planet in the natural environment), despite it being obvious (were we not blinded by familiarity and dependency) that human survival urgently demands the opposite.
From birth, we are ALL totally immersed in, familiar with and dependent on the existing socio-economic order, making it virtually impossible - not least, because of the anxiety it would cause - for us to recognise its INHERENT non-sustainability.
Man is not a fallen angel, but an animal; not just a "prime ape" (if you will excuse the pun, and the one that follows) but Earth's Greatest Ape, who greatly and dangerously overestimates his powers of understanding and reason; like a child, and misled by his scientific name - Homo sapiens, indeed! The failure to recognise the extent of our own blindness and irrationality (except in others, of course) is the biggest underlying threat to human survival (and, incidentally, the principal reason for my opposition to the large-scale use of nuclear energy).
The truth - which far from fitting into any boxes, threatens to rupture or sweep many of them away (thus, the massive resistance to facing up to it) - is that our growth-dependent economy and the grossly materialistic way of life it engenders are both rooted in our primitive, animal nature and, as a consequence, are fundamentally unsustainable.
Mine is an anthropological approach to the "Sustainability Problem". It is an approach which needs to be applied to ALL the social sciences: history, politics, sociology, economics, etc. The reason it is not is that social scientists too, like everyone else, are blinded by their own total dependency on the existing socio-economic order and environment, and on the niches they occupy within it..
In view of everyone's absolute dependency on, and vested interests in, the status quo, implementing the radical changes necessary for Sustainability would be quite impossible, with everyone naturally inclined to preserve their own niche and advantages (social status, source of income etc.) in the existing socio-economic environment. This is why there has been so much talk and argument about global warming, but so little action; and the action which has or is intended be to taken barely scratches the surface, without going anywhere near solving the Problem.
The solution is not to try changing the existing order, but to create an Alternative, within, but distinct from and increasingly independent of it, which, as it grows, we can transfer our activities, dependencies and vested interests to - each of us, when we are ready and at our own pace, bit by bit, and without coercion, which would be counterproductive, evoking strong (if not violent) resistance from our animal nature, in defence of its interests in the existing socio-economic order.
By we I mean those of us who have come out of denial (to some extent at least) and recognized what is at stake, for our children and coming generations. Surely, there can be no greater motivation than that. The way forward is for us to use the Internet to self-organize into groups, and groups of groups ("nonymous religious societies", which I will explain in due course), which will further self-organize and interact, gradually replacing the existing socio-political order (initially, some politicians are not going to like it, but hopefully most can be won over). There will be as many "nonymous religious societies" as are needed to cater for everyone. If you cannot find one you like, you can get together with like-minded individuals and found your own. Genuine, grass-roots democracy will come into its own, with people free to pursue their own enlightened (as opposed to dumb-animal) self-interest. And what greater self-interest can there be than saving the planet for our children and future generations?
We have allowed ourselves to be deceived and dominated for far too long by our own animal nature and a socio-economic order that is rooted in and dependent on it (expending much of our brain power in rationalizing and justifying it). We have to create an alternative socio-economic order, rooted in our more enlightened human nature. Otherwise we will perish.
If this all sounds rather idealistic it is because at the moment that is what it is: just an idea for preserving the planet for our children and future generations. Although the rudimentary beginnings of such an Alternative are already in existence (organic farming, fair trade, recycling, renewable resources, cooperative rather than exploitative and competitive economics, etc.), they lack a coherent theoretical and moral framework that would provide a clear and distinct alternative to the existing socio-economic order. This is what urgently needs to be developed and put into practice, grass-roots democratically, with experience feeding back into theory and further development.
Diversity is what gives the natural world beauty and stability. For the past 400 years or so, ever increasing globalization, and the absolute priority given (by our animal nature) to economics and MONEY (the most versatile form of POWER), have been reducing diversity in all its forms, biological and human (not least, in the name of multi-culturalism). We need to give priority, not to economics, but to Sustainability, and to retaining and cultivating human, social, economic and biological diversity.
I know how tempting it must be to dismiss me and my ideas to the lunatic fringe, but please don't; at least, not until you have given them serious, unhurried consideration. You've nothing to lose, but possibly a whole world to gain.