Monday, January 14, 2008

Hope for an Environmentally Sustainable Future

Hope for an Environmentally Sustainable Future

By Earon S. Davis, J.D., M.P.H., L.C.M.T.

[Delivered at the World Future Society annual meeting in Minneapolis, July 30, 2007]

Everyone is talking about the weather, but it may be time to look more closely into why we are doing little more than complaining - particularly about pending disasters related to global climate change. We have been talking about paradigm shifts and systems thinking, but global crises are increasing each year. Is it politics? Is it economics? Is it religion? I believe that the problem rests largely with our own human culture, especially in America. Moving into a rational environmental paradigm will require a new awareness, a new story, of human nature, itself.

Systems thinking is a powerful tool for transformative thinking, but in the case of global environmental issues, it must also include as part of the "system" the collective human behaviors that have placed our global ecosystems in jeopardy. We can study global climate issues forever, but if we do not factor in the strange, dysfunctional behavior of the human primate species on this planet, we are not likely to develop effective solutions. We need to understand the sources of the obvious human resistance towards protecting our planet.

Humans are a species of primates. We are the dominant species on this planet, perhaps, but we are definitely part of the problem, along with the cows we breed, the poisons we spread, the fuels we feverishly burn and the frenetic pace of our caffeine fueled culture. We calculate the contribution of other species of animals and plants and other natural systems to global warming, but we seem to ignore the fact that we are a species of primates. Does this matter? Yes.

To date, most of our systems thinking about global warming places human beings outside of the natural systems we are looking at. This error inadvertently diverts our attention from the mess that we humans are making. Instead, we focus on measurements of chemical and temperature indicators of our pending disasters. In the meantime, our culture encourages us to behave as if the Earth is all about humans, so we sit on the sidelines and act as some sort of grand analyst or engineer, as a god-like creature charged with running this planet.

If we are aware and afraid, we seem to be paralyzed by that fear rather than motivated by it. There is an archetype or belief system at work, here, rather than science. It is likely an artifact of Cartesian thinking, holding that the world is a complex machine and it is man's mission to understand and control it. But it may be getting in the way of efforts to change human behavior to reduce the risks of catastrophic global climate deterioration.

What if humans are seen as just another species rather than being the center of creation? What if we are seen as more "primate" than "divine?" What if the world is not all about humans, but the task of humans, like all other species, is to find ways to get along with the natural order of things in order to survive and prosper in the long term?

Native peoples around the world have long commented on how the white/european people were crazed and out of touch with reality of the natural world around us. Over time, we have learned that there is much truth in that observation, but we have continued to use and abuse our planet with little regard for the consequences to future generations.

If humans were created by god to have dominion over the world, then the whole world is about the human race, or perhaps the humans who go to a certain type of church. If, instead, humans evolved from other species of primates, then we are simply another species, unique as we are, trying to adapt and survive. Thus, we would always temper our activities with a desire to avoid upsetting the delicate ecological balances around us so that we didn't inadvertently destroy our local, regional or global habitats.

But, here's the kicker. We are not just any old species of animals. Of all things, we are primates! We monkey around with everything and are always getting carried away with things. With all of our incredible intelligence, we spend much of our time watching tv, fantasizing about sex, surfing the internet, playing games, or working at "jobs" to earn money. Is this the divine species put here to keep the Earth in balance? Hardly.

As long as we see ourselves as divine beings of light, we will act as if the planet is here to serve us. In that case, our human nature will generally have us dazzled by short term gain and paying little attention to long term problems we may be creating, whether that is environmental degradation, global warming, rising sea levels or war. However, if we see ourselves as a species of primates, we may be better able to perceive our massive shortcomings as stewards of the Earth.

That awareness provides the key to synthesizing systemic checks and balances on our primate decision making. Does our concept of basic human "freedom" mean we are guaranteed the right to destroy human lives and cultures to have a cool view of the ocean - or interesting packaging for a new product - or food products that have a longer shelf-life - or a new telephone technology that is exciting and fun - or cosmetic surgery that makes us feel sexy? Do we have the right to play with matches at a petrol dump? Do we have the right to produce marginally useful products, with scarce resources, which contribute to global warming, disposal and remediation costs that are born by people who do not buy or produce those products - and by future generations who have had no say in that decision?

Right now, America is enticing the rest of the world along the irresponsible path to global environmental crises. At this time, it seems like we are "king of the hill," but the hill is built of ego, greed and selfishness rather than anything of enduring value. As long as we see ourselves as divine creations, perhaps we are entitled to all that the world can offer, thinking that god and/or science will somehow save us from our own excesses. But if, as almost everyone knows deep down, we are primates who evolved from other species of primates, then we become accountable for our excesses.

It is more fun to see ourselves as divine beings, and religious fundamentalists and "new agers" may want everyone to believe that we are. But, if we are simply a very clever species of primates, there will be a different day of reckoning. On that day, we will be faced by disasters of war, famine and economic collapse resulting in authoritarian governments - all precipitated by our own greed and arrogance, rather than any particular judgments about our religious beliefs. In that case, we'd better get going with the unpopular and difficult task of building a sustainable culture so that our scientific knowledge falls into a context of hope, action and competence, rather than guilt, shame and hand-wringing. If we won't do this for ourselves, let's do it for our grandchildren.

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