Friday, September 25, 2009

Do Ideologies Make Sustainability Impossible?

I wanted to share some thoughts about why we humans need to let go of our ideologies and theologies in order to live sustainably on this planet. I don't mean that we should ban political parties and religions, but that we should have cultural norms that teach the need for people to avoid getting stuck in extreme thought loops that lead to obsession, and even paranoia, with narrow concepts that distract us from our most important challenges as a species.

For example, there are many news stories, pundits and celebrities that attract our attention. However, while we can believe what we want, we don't need to re-enact a given story or historical account over and over and over so much that we lose perspective in our real lives. We don't need to stalk celebrities. We don't need to inflict our religious or political dogmas upon other people. Even if we see it to be "common sense" or "absolutely obvious," there is more than one acceptable way to think.

In times when different people and groups were relatively isolated from each other and were not in constant contact, there was less harm in engaging in rants and obsessional thinking. Yet, as humans, we rely upon our cultures and social relationships to contain our collective understanding of our relationship to each other and to the world around us. As one country or culture comes into contact with another, there is a clash of cultures and attempts to accommodate or synthesize cultural adjustments to allow mutual peace and productivity. Where cultures get stuck in rigid thinking patterns, conflicts become more inevitable and more severe.

As our world has shrunk and the contact points between very different cultures have become seemingly infinite, there need to evolve new patterns and rules so that everyone has opportunity to participate peacefully and no one group demands the power to control what everyone else thinks. Today, our cultures are hamstrung, rather than being liberated or empowered, by layers and layers of cultural ideologies and expectations that were created hundreds or thousands of years ago to reflect very different circumstances that are no longer present today. In that tribal past, tolerance was not expected and occasional violence and wars were.

Because global cooperation is now required for our very survival, a new global culture must form that respects diverse local cultures rather than barely tolerating them. Taking a systems approach, rather than continuing in our post-colonialist approaches to less technologically advanced countries and cultures, we see that our quest for common ground is obscured by theological and ideological concepts and cultures. Beneath these things that separate human groups and pit us against each other, there is a common ground, indeed.

We are all primates, human animals with physical, cultural and emotional needs in common. By returning to these basics, we empower negotiations and cooperation instead of bullying and brinksmanship. By getting stuck in ideological and theological concepts that were meant to explain and comfort, rather than radicalize and destroy our sense of boundaries and cooperation, we undermine our very survival. Little is more irrational and self-destructive than war and hatred, but these have been a regular feature of human existence for thousands of years.

"Divine Primates," as a concept, as a book project and as an educational tool, is a look at the human animal. We humans are found throughout the planet, in groupings that have distinct histories and cultures. Let's look at what we all have in common, not just with other humans, but even with many other species with whom we share this complex, inter-related set of ecosystems we call "earth." It is fear and envy that cause us to forget our human compassion and lose all sense of proportion in relating to other groups, nations, religions and cultures. With immense ecological and geopolitical crises threatening to erupt into war, famine and ecological collapse, we must eventually get back to basics and learn to live peacefully with others and yet defend ourselves when that is not an option.

To the extent that ideologies and theologies tend to spread like thought viruses and infect human populations, we need to lessen their impact and inoculate young people with knowledge of their dangers. Infected individuals lose their sense of proportion and easily become rigid, paranoid and radicalized, replacing their rational values with obsession and a need to control other people. Convinced that the end of the world is approaching unless competing ideas are obliterated, humans have repeatedly brought immense tragedy upon themselves for no real reason - other than our primate nature.

The rage of paranoid minds, manipulated by greedy, power-hungry sociopaths and fools, is a powerful destructive tool in primate cultures. Yet, we human primates also have the power to step back and look at situations from a distance, with a larger perspective. Where obsession would otherwise govern, causing escalating cycles of mistrust, hatred and violence, we have the power to insert wisdom. Currently, our culture has become almost devoid of meaning as we obsess about power, posessions and prestige. It is not coincidental that there is a rise in anti-intellectualism and fundamentalism, which threaten to cause increased conflict and contention. Will enough people choose the path of reflection and wisdom, or will our chattering monkey minds demand revenge and purification? What do you think?