Thursday, June 12, 2008

Moving Beyond Our Consumerist Culture

Sure, we would all like to solve our sustainability problems and live in a world of peace and prosperity. But how do we figure out how to get there? We need to change our culture to emphasize our values for compassion and patience, for long-term benefits over immediate gratification. Can we think beyond our consumerist culture? Beyond the chatter of social and peer pressure? Beyond the needs and expectations of our families and children? Beyond our "needs" for comfort items and status symbols? Beyond our status as people highly privileged to live in the wealthy US? Beyond our need to see ourselves as intelligent and competent? Possibly, but I doubt that we will solve our looming problems by thinking in the same short-term, judgmental, greedy, selfish ways that created our crises in the first place. Are there new ways of thinking?

Warning: this essay will challenge your sense that someone is in control of the human race. Please stop reading if you can not cope with the concept that the human species is brilliant, but entirely clueless about how to live peacefully or sustainably on this planet. Watch a scary movie or go shopping if you need to distract yourself from this reality. . . . . Okay, they're gone now. The adults can talk.

Divine Primates: Hope for Our Stressed-Out Species is a controversial look at who's minding the store - who is guiding and protecting the human species. Many of us would like to think that God is looking out for us. Others believe that our governments are taking care of things, or perhaps the super-rich are managing the human race through some kind of conspiracy or kabal or secret society or trilateral commission. Indeed, even such paranoid fantasies can be immensely reassuring to us, far preferable to the realization that we are a planet full of wonderfully creative, curious primates who have little notion of what we are doing.

And yet, the human species is immensely intelligent, talented, diverse and hopeful. We've just never really cooperated on a global level. We have not yet figured out how to eliminate the ancient patterns of fundamentalism and ideology that divide humans and threaten peace and sustainability in the process. We have principles and rules, like Earth Charter, and the United Nations, but we do not yet trust them. Some religions still oppose population control, stuck in ancient realities that called for expanding our populations to better compete with other religions. Our political and economic ideologies fuel nationalist and consumerist frenzies and resource consumption that threaten our environment with devastation, deforestation, wars, extinctions and famine.

We can do better. We must do better. But we need to step outside of the strange, dysfunctional cultures that have evolved over the centuries to serve short-term theocratic, corporate and political interests and desires. What may have worked in an age of smoke signals and provincialism will not work in an age of globalization, cell phones and the Internet. We need to better understand the nature of human beings and redirect our energies from engaging consumerism and status over to better engaging in humanitarian and long-term efforts to serve and protect humanity and the rest of our natural systems on this planet. In this process, we will evolve further from fundamentalist, exclusive religions over to more open and diverse spiritualities through which all people, including atheists, can find acceptance and community.

A new humanity is evolving. The common goal is partnership and cooperation. This will lead to solutions that allow for equity and sustainability - not just maintaining highly wasteful standards of living for the most wealthy. We will find ways to lead good and free lives. Life is not about "stuff" but about working together towards a sustainable future.

Our Sustainability Problem

I have been working on the sustainability issue for many years and I believe that fundamental changes in the way we see human nature may actually enable us to grasp our predicament regarding sustainability. The concept I use is "Divine Primates." I focus on how our human nature has been manipulated by our cultures, politicians, religions and economic interests so that we crave consumer goods and are judgmental, greedy and self-centered despite the spiritual and common sense values that should lead us towards better caring for our fellow beings and our planet.

I present this idea in more detail in my future book, and its website - Traditional cultures have used the images of primates to portray human nature's peculiar curiosity and quirky risk-taking. Today, there is a vast body of scientific literature demonstrating how many of the human traits are shared with other primates and other species. If we can begin to see ourselves as primates, perhaps we can bring a good-natured understanding of our role on this planet. We should not monkey around with our environment. We are prone to getting carried away with pointless, self-destructive "needs" and habits.

This is not a new idea, of course. But I do believe that misconceptions about human nature and perfectability are at the core of our irresponsible environmental attitudes and behavior. If we can see ourselves, and our nature, as less god-like and more ape-like we may be better able to keep a sense of humor and not expect ourselves to come up with infinite technological miracles to sustain our unsustainable lifestyles. If we're "just primates" perhaps we can allow our egos to focus more on enjoying our communities and other intangibles and less on hoarding and consuming material goods.

If you believe that we could work together in some way, I'd be happy to hear from you. It is my hope that a concept like "Divine Primates" could help our cultures to understand the impertinence and foolishness of human cultures who behave more like the Chinese "monkey king" or our "curious george" than like the rational beings we falsely believe we are. The human race is wonderful and amazing, but we need to grow up. While disasters will eventually force us to act, I am most concerned that not taking charge of the problems before disasters hit will result in wars, famine and the encouragement of totalitarian states. We need to grow up more quickly.