Correcting Our Planetary-Scale Human Dysfunction – A MAHB Dialogue with Jennifer Jacquet, Author, Is Shame Necessary?

Geoffrey Holland | December 14, 2023 | Leave a Comment

“We’re more connected today than ever before, through our commercial markets, politics, international agreements, and our communications technologies. All of that comes with both benefits and costs”. – Jennifer Jacquet

Geoff Holland – Can you describe the cultural forces behind that dysfunction that currently defines the human relationship with the natural world?

Jennifer Jacquet – A lot has been said about late-stage capitalism and its role in the Anthropocene and the destruction of nature. I view my work as very much a continuation of that. I am very interested in the role of large, transnational, publicly traded corporations, especially extractive industries, but not exclusively, and their impact on the environment. So, it’s easy to see this corporate machinery with its monolithic pursuit of profit at the expense of all else, is part of the problem. It’s not everything, but it’s where I focus a lot of my efforts.

GH – You have extensively researched the role shame has played in shaping human culture. Can you discuss how shame has been used to marginalize the role of women in society?

JJ – What I am most interested in is how shame can be leveraged against institutions. You can see this more recently in the way shame has been leveraged against Hollywood for its failure to allow women to direct movies. Only a small fraction of Hollywood films have been directed by women. Shame has changed that conversation and helped to change the culture of Hollywood by giving women more opportunities. That’s what interests me. It’s the way that shame can be used by the marginalized or weak or less powerful members of society against the stronger actors. Of course, we know that shame is also used all the time to reinforce the status quo. Shame has been deployed across the board to keep women subservient to men. I am most interested in how shame can be leveraged to achieve gender equality.

GH – How are hierarchy and male dominance reflected in how humans relate to nature and other life forms?

JJ – Going back to your first question, I see capitalism and the commodification of nature as having exerted a great amount of dominance over human culture. Even absent toxic masculinity, trophy hunting, sport fishing, or any of those obvious sorts of tropes, it seems to me that the commodification of nature has led to its mass exploitation. With so much human demand on our planet’s limited resources, we have to form a new relationship with nature that is not purely instrumental. We have to start relating to nature, trees, animals, wild animals, and domestic animals as more than just products for sale. These systems of industrial agriculture, industrial fishing, and industrial deforestation result in mass exploitation and the commodification of nature. We have to fundamentally change our relationship with our political system and entirely profit-driven economic system so we can recognize our dependence on nature. Whether we can do that seems to me a very open question.

GH – Is there a role for shame in reshaping human life so that all humans have the same human rights and responsibilities?

JJ – That’s a softball, as they say. The great thing about shame is that it is always there to help instill any new norm. Shame as a tool is value-neutral. How it is deployed is an important question to ask and what it’s used for. In the ideal world, where we have this new relationship with nature, shame would very much be a big part of the conversation, a big part of the shift of our human values, what is acceptable and what is not. We’re already seeing that in so many ways, especially around climate change. Shame is one of the major tools used to implement the Paris Climate Agreement. It is used to bring countries in line to put their Nationally Determined Contributions on the table. Shame has been the threat of what countries can expect if they don’t live up to their promises and the ambition that they claim they have. Shame is calibrated to normal behavior. Politically, in the Paris Agreement, for instance, we have a system that uses shame as leverage to encourage better behavior among countries over a problem that should concern us all.

GH – In your most recent book, The Playbook, you describe how big business manipulates public understanding by denying science and employing lies and misinformation to maintain their hegemony and profitability. Can you summarize the dark truth behind the manipulation?

JJ – The denial of scientific knowledge makes good business sense because the scientific truth can threaten a business’s bottom line. Knowledge that galvanizes the public or policymakers to enact regulations can cause a company to lose money. So, denial of scientific knowledge has become, I argue, just a normal part of business operations. That’s the sad reality. In The Playbook, my ego – a corporate consultant – reveals the business case for scientific denial. Some of these tactics undermine democracy. We as citizens should be very worried about this, but from a business perspective, denial and misdirection just make a lot of sense. This is not some dark, shadowy art; it’s out in the light of day, particularly if you think about it from the corporate perspective, which is what my book tries to expose.

GH – Billions are being spent by elite interests to deceive and diminish the public’s understanding of the massive human exploitation of our Earth’s resources and natural systems. Are we already too far down the road to ruin?

JJ – ‘The road to ruin’ is the wrong metaphor. It’s often used when we talk about where we are. But we are not ‘saved’ or ‘ruined’. We are trying to move the needle on many of these issues. Incrementally or radically. Therefore, we can constantly ask about how much worse off we’re going to be if we fail to act in our own interests. So, we’re never too far down the road. It’s never too late to correct course. This isn’t a nuclear holocaust that we’re talking about. Now, something like that could also happen. We could have some kind of acute event that none of us predicted. But what we are caught up in now is a kind of chronic health condition. So, the answer for me at least, is it’s never too late. At the same time, we should be addressing our global-scale threats like climate change now. We are running out of time to avoid the worst consequences of our overreach.

GH – All of humanity is linked together as never before by the internet and social media, allowing us to share the same messaging cross-culturally. Does that give you hope for a better future, and what are the risks that go with that kind of cross-cultural connectivity?

JJ – Yeah, digital communication these days mirrors the globalization of economic markets. We’re more connected today than ever before through our commercial markets, politics, international agreements, and communications technologies. All of that comes with both benefits and costs. From a perspective of shame or honor, it has created the largest global stage in history, where you can have the greatest number of eyeballs watching you and giving you positive or negative feedback. That’s an intimidating prospect. We should proceed with caution. It also provides promise that we might be able to come to some very worthy shared ground or understanding. It could get to the heart of human values globally. It’s also a threat because of things like disinformation and AI. In many cases, these digital technologies, which are very much pay-to-play, are not democratized. It’s privately held companies that decide what the public sees and what is produced for broadcast. The intent is to shape public perception. Very, very powerful companies can deploy this technology to sway public opinion or deny the truth. It’s really an intimidating time, and given who owns the digital space, I’m skeptical that all of this new interconnectedness is positive, unfortunately.

GH – What is the best way to forge the kind of global common commitment needed to blunt the dysfunctional cultural momentum currently at play?

JJ – What is the best way? I am very much intrigued by that question. I strongly believe in engaging people as citizens rather than as consumers. We all should be thinking like global citizens, reflecting deeply on our relationship with nature and with one another. I don’t, for instance, believe that one treaty or government or one idea will save us. I do believe in our human potential to wildly transform our global consciousness. What gives me hope is the idea that equal rights are for all humans. That is just an incredibly good idea. I’m also encouraged by some of the life-affirming shifts that we’ve had with the natural world. One example is the International Whaling Commission’s decision to, instead of a moratorium on whaling – we’re talking about an organization that was set up to be pro-whaling – elect, after 40 years, to become anti-whaling. The public groundswell of support for whales that has contributed to the change in global consciousness on this question gives me a lot of hope. It reflects the promise of what’s possible for remaking our human relationship with nature. The real question we must address now is how much time we have to make things right. We need to massively accelerate the pace of cultural change to avoid the worst ecological consequences.

GH – The recognized Australian science author Julian Cribb has identified ten existential threats to the future of life on Earth. In response, the Council for the Human Future is encouraging people everywhere to sign an Earth System Treaty that offers a legally binding response to each of the ten threats. How does an Earth System Treaty allow people around the world to stand together and demand the public policy needed to assure the future of life on Earth? 

JJ–The Earth System Treaty gives a map to help move us off the road to ruin. Consensus is certainly building as to what the problems are, and the ways to address them will require enormous amounts of creativity and ingenuity.

GH – The evidence suggests that humanity is already amid a global-scale cultural transcendence never seen before in history. Assuming we can get our collective act together, what could our future and the future of all life on Earth look like?

JJ – Building off of the half-Earth idea, it would be wonderful to see half the planet protected. In that half, there will still be plenty of opportunities for humans to interact with the natural world, which is certainly to our benefit. But part of the protected areas should also be left entirely alone for non-humans – meaning no tourism, no science, no entry.

Jennifer Jacquet is Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science at the University of Miami. She is also affiliated faculty at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. She is the author of The Playbook (2023) and Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool (2015).

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