Monday, January 25, 2010

Sustainability's New Underpinnings

According to noted primatologist Robert Sapolsky, supported by the pioneering work of Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal, the past two decades have seen a complete revolution in our understanding of human nature. Yes, I said "human nature," not just apes, baboons and chimpanzees. What we have learned is still sinking in, and we know that new knowledge can take generations to become integrated into human cultures.

To put it briefly, by studying other primates we have learned that humans are not nearly as unique as we had believed. Non-human primates have been shown to transmit culture to their children and future generations, and to have that culture perpetuated and possibly expand to other tribes. Non-human primates are aware that other individuals in their tribe have their own thought processes and identities. Non-human primates have empathy and the potential for great kindness. Non-human primates are capable of incredible visual-spatial memory, complex negotiations, and the performance of intricate tasks, even the acquisition of sign language. And, we have learned that non-human primates are capable of enormous viciousness and even orchestrated warfare. As we have looked into the eyes of our primate cousins, we have seen ourselves.

The most powerful lesson in these similarities between humans and apes is that much of our human intellectual world is window-dressing for our primate drives and needs. Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs may acknowledge the importance of basic needs such as food, shelter and water, and mating, but may have grossly exaggerated the importance of "self-actualization." Indeed, most of what we call our career, social status and self-identity may be more based upon the social orders and rivalries we see in other primates than in any unique dimension of human-ness. To be sure, there are orders of magnitude greater complexity in our communications, technologies and social structures, but not any major differences in kind.

What does this teach us about sustainability? What could our "ape-ness" possibly show that we didn't already know? First, our current understanding of non-human primates shows us that humans are a species are not terribly unique. Second, non-human primates show us that we are not nearly as altruistic and democratic as we like to think. Individual gain and power are always present in human motivation regardless of the spirituality and altruism we want others to see in our actions. We still want to be seen as dominant over others and as attractive to the gender we are attracted to. We still will do almost anything to be accepted by our peers. We still crave a family and/or tribe and will do anything to help it survive and prosper.

Motivation to live sustainably is there, in our primate genes. The problem is that without understanding our primate nature, we have created cultures and expectations that undermine our sustainability while seeming to support it. While humans crave simplicity, we also are drawn to complexity in all imaginable forms. We create vast complexities in social structure, technology, ideology and religion that keep us entertained and occupied - but can easily lead us to extremes, competition and conflict. It is in our nature to monkey with everything at our disposal. In the process, we invent and create. Our egos convince us that we know everything we need to know, so we are constantly reinventing ourselves and our realities, barely aware of the constant human-created gauntlet of unintended consequences we face in our individual and collective lives.

Sustainability, at some point, requires observing reality rather than constantly inventing new realities and mobilizing exciting solutions stimulating our imaginations and our fantasies of fame, power and wealth. At some point, there are ecological limits to our growth and to our predilections for complexity and consuming stuff. With global climate change and the increasing domestication of humans in cities and corporate workplaces, we long ago passed the thresh hold of non-sustainability. Overpopulation has resulted in increased exploitation of precious resources and cheap labor at the same time that literacy and education have created cultures ever more adept at creating more and more complexity and distraction. Human urge to have children has declined in educated cultures, and depression has manifested in huge proportions.

Overcomplexity has propelled addictions, including over-consumption of consumer goods. We have tinkered with our environment and our foods in ways that cause illness and obesity. Our lives become more and more technologically driven and sedentary, while we exercise compulsively in order to feel human. Of course, there are simple things that we can all do to reverse many of these threats. The good news is that we have everything we need to live more fulfilled and stimulating lives. And it is time to return to our living ecosystems here on this wonderful planet. It is time to recognize our primate nature and work on developing cultures that support and sustain us rather than overstimulating and overstressing us.

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Ernie said...

Reading this sent me to my bookshelf for my copy of Paul Shepard's TRACES OF AN OMNIVORE which contains, in part, his thoughts on our Pleistocene origins. Shepard provides, for me, a reminder that although we live in a "modern" world, we still have the brain of our Pleistocene ancestors.

Earon S. Davis, JD, MPH, LCMT said...

Sorry for the delayed acknowledgement, Ernie. I've also been seeing a lot on evolutionary psychology that confirms our genetic qualifications as hunter-gatherers and completely explains how the obesity epidemic is because of largely unrestricted access to the fat, salt and sugar we crave - and which were very scarce until recently. We were not genetically designed to say "no" to these substances, especially when so artfully created and marketed.