Sustainability's Source in Human Nature

Sustainability's Source in Human Nature

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    • #5973

      My essay on human nature and sustainability appears in Minding Nature, September 2013.  Please let me know if there is a more appropriate way to generate, and participate in, discussions here.  I have not participated much in the past couple of years.

    • #5975
      Ronnie Hawkins

      I agree with much of what you say in your essay on human nature and sustainability, Earon (if I may). Thanks to Goodall, de Waal, and others we have learned a great deal about what we share with the other members of the Great Ape clade, and that much of it is positive indeed, a capacity for empathy and a tendency toward reconciliation, cooperation, and “community concern.” We can also see how the strong inclination to “defend” our groupings has much in common with the chimpanzee trait of lethal raiding, and that some males of our own species can be found engaging in all the different kinds of “demonic” behavior as those of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. If we would get over our anthropomorphophobia enough to recognize the primate tendencies within ourselves and work with them instead of trying to deny them, perhaps we could make some progress toward learning how to live sustainably
      What we so proudly think of as making us “uniquely” human is also at fault for our current predicament, however: our ability to think abstractly and to “reify” certain collectively shared abstractions to the point that we act like they are more real, and have a stronger moral hold on us, than the actual planetary reality that is studied by science. What we think of as economics, for instance, is riddled with such abstractions, most of them highly contingent and arbitrary, yet because “most people” seem to take them for granted, our societies continue blindly following their dictates. As one example of the difference between actual reality and “economic” reality–a crucial difference of ontology–consider what is produced when green plants carry out photosynthesis, on a global level what is referred to as NPP, and what is “produced” when some human primate multiplies two numbers together, the “principal” and the rate of “compound interest.” It’s not even a difference between apples and oranges–it’s more like the difference between apples and ideas! And the thing is, once we grasp this difference, we will realize that we can change our ideas–whereas we can’t change the fundamental ways the Earth System works, we have to fit our ways of living within them.
      So, as I see it, the socially constructed system of contemporary global economics is fair game for extensive revision, in order to preserve the functional integrity of the biosphere, which it is currently “ordering” us to destabilize; our primate nature is at fault in maintaining it only to the extent that we have a strong tendency to conform to what the rest of the group is doing and to obey those who rank above us in power hierarchies, but I believe these tendencies can be shifted into more intelligent ways of doing things once we wake up to what’s really going on. “Money,” for example, is only a symbol we primates have invented, supposedly to improve our lives, and if the way we are using it no longer does so we can reinvent it, or even dispense with it altogether. Our great ape relatives do perfectly fine without it, or did until we started wiping out their habitat and exterminating them as “bushmeat”–and for what? For money, for mere tokens in our own little human-primate game.
      The other biggie, as far as a reified concept that is now causing great destruction on the planet, is the nation-state. While human communities have grown and coalesced into larger and larger groupings with their own cultural identities, our primate tendencies toward group-identification and group-“defense” have made the nation-state seem to be an entity that must be preserved at all costs–even an empire that must “grow” at all costs–but contemporary science teaches us that we humans are members of a single species, and that we cannot continue forever escalating our intergroup warfare. The amount of fossil fuel burned and the amount of the Earth’s precious resources wasted in this useless strife–all for the glorification of the (mostly) male-male coalitions at the tops of all the heaps of our various subgroupings–is unsustainable in itself, even if we fail to blow ourselves up, which becomes increasingly likely as we build increasingly fearsome weapons systems. We need to get over this raw primate stuff, and quickly.
      The third big problem that confronts us, of course, is our continuing human population growth. Unlike the other two, it is a problem of ontological actuality; we can wake up and “change our minds” about social constructions like the economy and the nation-state, but we can’t just “unthink” several more billion people once they’re here. Our “success” in attaining such great numbers arises out of a combination of our ability to think abstractly, learning how to prevent infant mortality, inventing ways of feeding more and more of us, and so on, together with our animal “will to live” that spurs every species forward. However, our “unique” capacity to reason ought to let us understand that the planet is finite and that, as you say, we are PART of the web of life, entirely dependent upon its functional integrity for our own existence, and that that integrity demands a full complement of the other species with which we co-evolved and which we are pushing right out of existence as our own numbers grow.
      If sustainability is our goal, I think these three problem areas–economics, the militaristic nation-state, and continuing population growth–should be the targets of our focused attention. We can make substantial changes in all of these areas. But first we have to get a grip on how our primate biology and our processes of social construction come together to create the problems that we see today.

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