Solving the Human Predicament

Addy, Gerald | February 3, 2015 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

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Fixed human behaviour tendencies have blocked action toward a sustainable future.  Despite over 50 years of effort by scientists and environmentalists, the future of the human endeavour can no longer be taken for granted.  This is due primarily to our nature.  We have failed to realize our own behaviour patterns are the root cause of our predicament and have mistakenly believed that mountains of evidence would make the difference.  For decades scientists have produced evidence describing the serious environmental threats we face.  Their work has failed to ignite a significant public response because our message has not been delivered in a manner that addresses the drivers of human behaviour.   We now understand humans are confronted with subconscious  behaviour tendencies that served us well at an earlier period, but still remain in our incomplete evolutionary development.  At our present stage of intellectual development, lingering malignant social constructs, especially capitalism and economic growth, impede our ability to move forward on environmental issues.

Humans have the most highly developed brain of all living species.  The cognitive part of the brain is responsible for our remarkable progress in technology and science.  By contrast, when human relationships induce conflict or stress, the limbic and reptilian parts of the brain dominate, overriding rational cognitive thought processes.  The innate survival instincts so essential in the past still tend to overwhelm our unique reasoning capacity.  Emotional factors such as fear and anger hamper rational thinking.  We overestimate the human intellectual capacity when the cognitive process is undermined by our regression to subconscious influences.

Human behaviour is strongly influenced by well-established norms.  Ideas extending beyond broadly accepted patterns are frequently rejected because they do not conform to preconceived beliefs that, once established, are extremely difficult to dislodge.  Once locked in place, they are obstacles to change.  A striking example of this aspect of human behaviour is the never-ending debate on gun control in the United States.  Any time the topic on the availability of guns occurs, the National Rifle Association (NRA) vehemently rejects any type of constraint on gun ownership, claiming “the right to bear arms” as an unalienable right that cannot be taken away.  The right to bear arms became part of the United States constitution in 1791 and remains there to this day despite the evolution from muskets to AK-47s and despite abundant evidence that gun ownership fails to enhance security and creates an added public hazard.

Human behaviour contains a strong element of competitiveness, a natural occurrence in past times when survival was a daily struggle.  Humans operated in a context where obtaining food and shelter were the key factors of living.  Hardships bred a short-term view of life with little regard for the future.  In today’s society the same characteristics can be seen in our seemingly insatiable consumption of resources and in our tendency to discount the future.  These predispositions are displayed by our destructive treatment of the natural world, all in the name of unsustainable economic growth.  We are caught in the trap of immediate self-gratification at the expense of our own life-support system.

The unique reasoning ability of humans has brought many benefits, but has also provided us with a problem with which we must cope.  We are equipped with certain abstract knowledge unlikely to be possessed by most other animal species.  Humans have a sense of self-awareness and are aware of their own mortality.  We are constantly reminded by daily events around us that we are not immutable.  By necessity, we have learned to deal with this knowledge by creating a number of defensive structures.  We have subconsciously learned to deny reality.  The denial may take the form of refuting or ignoring painful information that helps us avoid facing the issue.  Denial often employs rationalization as an escape mechanism by finding reasons to discredit the information.  Humans are capable of denial most frequently when the issue in question has a controversial aspect, but also occurs even when the information is widely accepted.  The melting of the Arctic sea ice is a powerful example.  It is recognized there is an urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Despite this, oil companies and some governments are actively laying claim to areas believed to contain oil or gas reserves.  The risk of potential global warming disaster is denied.  Greed and vested interests prevail.

If we expect to move forward on environmental issues we will need to frame our message in a way that reaches the real drivers of human behaviour and removes the obstacles blocking change.  Predicting disaster is not a driver because creating fear produces denial and paralysis.  Providing more scientific evidence is helpful, but is not a driver because it has been tested for decades and found to be ineffective.  At present a plan does not exist, but we now have an understanding of the elements influencing human behaviour that could be utilized in developing a blueprint for action.  These elements would focus on the many positive attributes of human nature such as our proven ability to co-operate, our innate desire to protect our children, and our empathy for other creatures that share the earth with us.  We have the intellectual capacity to create a plan using these and other human qualities.  It is our moral responsibility to do so.  The question is: “Are we brave enough to do it?”


Gerald Addy is a retired elementary school principal from North Vancouver with thirty-six years of service in education and currently serves as one of the directors of the Qualicum Institute.


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  • I’m intrigued that no-one in this discussion, (nor ever, across the whole MAHB site according to my search), has mentioned the ‘p’ word. Maybe this is because, if you are raised within a patriarchal system, (as I’d suggest most of us have been) patriarchy is invisible to you, in the same way that male privilege can be invisible to men, and white privilege can be invisible to white people.

    Before anyone here thinks I’m having an unfair go at men, (I’m one myself) let me assure you it’s not men in general who are at fault, it’s mainly what are called ‘men behaving badly’, where badly means having a damaging effect on people and planet in the areas of social, economic and environmental sustainability. Let me also add that patriarchy has no gender; while it arose from the rules of men, it is now an overarching set of systems in which many women willingly participate as well. Such systems can reward women well – if they are prepared to play the game – which explains why some women leaders appear more ruthless than their male counterparts; they had to adopt that style to get noticed and be accepted.

    Gerald rightly says above, ‘Fixed human behaviour tendencies have blocked action toward a sustainable future’. However, the most obstructionist of these tendencies don’t reflect some ‘fixed’ genetic or universal core of humanity; they stem from a specific, archaic worldview and primitive level of consciousness; an aberrant, unbalanced way of functioning that is now totally at odds with our current reality. Good news is, as it’s not genetic, it’s not beyond our control to do something about it.

    If you dig and think deeply enough, you can’t help but conclude that the root cause of global problems is a range of toxic beliefs and behaviours associated with the patriarchal systems that underpin the world’s dominant economies, business entities, governments, societies, cultures and religions. If you’d ever wondered if there was some common link between the slaughtering of indigenous people so miners could access their land … systemic sexual abuse within religious institutions … and the GFC notion of ‘too big too fail’, you will find that common link embedded within the ideals of patriarchy, which has – and this is the worst bit – progressively become institutionalised, and now globalised, to the point where no single person or entity controls it.

    The failure to adequately address global problems reflects, within many men in positions of immense power, the patriarchal suppression of nurturing human values such as empathy, humility and collaboration, coupled with the cultivation of beliefs and behaviours around competition, adversarial thinking, domination, entitlement, greed, command and control, divide and conquer, and win-at-all-costs. The suppression of the nurturing values also reinforces an anthropocentric – and within that, a male-centric – ‘operating system’ across humankind. Although these ‘men behaving badly’ may be genuinely smart and sophisticated in lots of ways, when it comes to a mental framework suited to continued human existence, they are running on Windows Vista without the good bits. And as we are seeing, it’s terribly dangerous when combined with a lizard brain and advanced technology that can exponentially amplify the resulting dysfunctionality.

    Interestingly, Carol Gilligan’s research demonstrated that, when confronted with a moral dilemma, men generally operate out of an ethic of justice, whereas women tend to operate out of an ethic of care. This means men will often sacrifice a relationship in order to comply with the rules, while women are more likely to bend the rules to preserve the relationship. As a way to run a planet, the ethic of justice favoured by men really falls down when what is legal differs markedly from what is moral or ethical. That’s when we have a situation that is on a collision course with the needs of both humanity and planet. In its most extreme form, the psychologically immature patriarchal mind sees itself as superior to, and dominant over all else, and therefore entitled to take whatever it wants. We desperately need an ethic of care, one that views sustainability as a continuum from cellular to planetary.

    Solving aspects of major problems without trying to loosen the grip of patriarchy is like upgrading your prison cell – you’re a bit more comfortable, but you’re still trapped and controlled by others. Ignoring the root cause of a problem means it will manifest itself in the same or a different way in the future. You can give cleaner water or better shoes to slaves, generation after generation, but they are still slaves. If you don’t tackle their slavery, what have you actually achieved?

    Across all of humanity, the most widespread and discriminatory manifestation of patriarchy is the suppression and exploitation of women and girls. Because of this suppression, I believe Earth’s greatest source of renewable energy is the untapped potential of a billion mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers. If humanity is able to turn this spaceship around, it will have more to do with a feminine ethic of care emanating from countless women, than it will from the mediaeval bleating about “the right to bear arms”.

    This has lead me to conclude that a critical pre-requisite for reducing the damaging aspects of patriarchy on both people and planet is to strengthen the support of women who are currently disengaged from the efforts to improve the state of our world. Which is why my wife and are establishing the entity, ‘Wise Women Will Save the World’. Engaging disengaged women is central to our purpose, because, apart from any other form of activism, we need to catalyse a simultaneous, worldwide, granular approach to eroding patriarchy at every level, and it would be really handy if all the men and women who are not on the ‘behaving badly’ team, were prepared to play their part.

    May I conclude by urging you to do one thing in the next day or so – raise the topic of patriarchy during a conversation with people, and see where it leads. It’s a conversation our planet needs us to have.

    • John Weyland

      i like your analysis Graeme yet your answer is incomplete

      science does not do well-being, and we can add all institutions to that.
      our culture is “authoritarian-punitive” and damages nearly all people.
      it’s invisible as it is pervasive, normal and natural.
      how do we loosen the grip of culture?
      of course, by “nurturing human values such as empathy, humility and collaboration”.
      we can’t expect the ruling class to change but i think we can persuade ordinary people to want a better life and help them get it.
      the change of the normal will work its way up the hierarchy.

      so, i advocate “Engaging disengaged” people

  • John Weyland

    common man has been abused and traumatized for millennia. they do not have the energy or the skills to work together.
    the article on heroism and altruism, new scientist 24/1/2015, suggests that training people to help each other will make them stronger, more confident, and capable of change.

  • Barry Boulton

    Gerald Addy does an excellent job in identifying the essential problem – behavior patterns still rooted in past daily survival issues, instinctive impulses that are no longer germane to contemporary problems. We could encapsulate so much of what he explains by saying that in essence humans are “belief machines”; that is, almost every moment of our lives is conditioned and often determined by beliefs that we are unwilling (and perhaps emotionally unable) to examine objectively. Mr. Addy describes examples very elegantly.

    However, I think that the ultimate question is not “Are we brave enough to do it?” although that will ultimately be critical. No, the question confronting us right now is “how do we make people aware that to be fully human is to question all of our beliefs?”. Very clearly they (whoever “they” happens to be but, for example, climate deniers) are not interested in unilaterally questioning their beliefs; consequently we (whoever the enlightened “we” may be) must understand their beliefs and make our messages relevant in ways that force them to think and re-think. For instance, I find that Philippino Catholics (I’m married to a very religious Philippina although I’m atheist myself) tend to not believe evolution per se, but when confronted with the reality that human violence is primarily tribal behavior, group versus group (which I view as evolutionary adaptation for species survival), they understand that and realize how it compromises their core beliefs.
    This goes back to Gerald Addy’s point that “….our message has not been delivered in a manner that addresses the driver of human behavior”. Thus it may be that the consequences of climate change has to be configured as a threat to their (climate deniers) core beliefs, not to humanity or other species.

  • Dac Crossley

    Yes, exactly. I write fiction these days, and research sent me back to the Old Testament and the book of Genesis. It contains some of our oldest known literature. And it seems clear to me — human nature hasn’t changed a damn bit in the past five thousand years. We’ve just made better tools.

  • charlesjustice

    Good summary of the problem Gerald. I think the way forward is to increase our theoretical and practical knowledge of the commons. We can see the dysfunctionality of letting the market take over too many kinds of human activity. We need to strengthen the commons in order to replace that dysfunction. Canadian Economist Elinor Ostrom won a nobel prize in Economics for her work on the commons. She wrote “Governing The Commons” which looks at examples from all over the world as to how people managed resources and land in common. We also need a better understanding of collective intentionality and agreement because that gets at the heart of what makes us human. American Philosopher John Searle has written some good books on the subject: “The Construction of Social Reality” and “Making the Social World” . According to Searle, social reality is caused by collective agreements. In Searle’s view collective agreement does not imply a “collective mind”. We follow rules because we recognize them and we expect others to as well. It is my intention to discuss these ideas at length in my blog: earthjustice.blogspot.ca .

  • Joe Carson

    At this point, our collective existence is extensively mediated by institutions of a variety of kinds, all of which tend to be hijacked to the self-interest of their leaders, making them less trustworthy as stewards of common good.
    But to take on institutions, one must be prepared to pay a high price and few are willing to sacrifice for the common good absent some transcedant rationale, which science tends to discount.