The failure to achieve sustainability may be in our genes
Clearly a majority of individuals are presently willing to place the environment and themselves at risk in order to avoid having to change their behavior. Thus, the notion that humans change their behavior, even in the face of conflicting evidence confirming the need for change, is vacuous.
The failure is not the public, but rather the false belief that self-interest is subordinate to cooperation. In fact, the evidence in all species excluding social insects such as ants, bees and wasps is that individuals only cooperate when there is a personal benefit in doing so. Self-sacrifice is the exception, not the rule. The neurobiological driver modulates the decision-making through perception of risk and benefits.
Human nature must be taken into account if we mean to design efficient institutions (of all sorts) to help influence global citizens in both developing and developed nations. Childhood and adult education are presently designed to produce more efficient destructive consumers than to instill a holistic and moral sense of a person’s place in the grand ecosystem.
If we expect to make significant and measurable progress in humanity’s war against climate change and excessive human environmental exploitation, we will need to begin by (1) facing our personal as well as institutional forms of denial, and (2) approaching the treatment of human unsustainability on all levels (i.e., personal, social-cultural, political, recreational, spiritual, etc.) using more complex and comprehensive systems models of human activity.
Irrational behavior of the sort that creates our long-term unsustainability is likely only to be addressed in one of two ways. Either we finally discover the most efficacious way of seizing “conscious control of our destiny,” or we simply allow nature to take its course by collapsing the infrastructure that supports human economic activity.
There is no evidence in the last 40–50 years that any substantive impact has happened to avert or mitigate long-term climate change: population growth, overconsumption and pollution are all still on the rise despite a half century of attention, interest, policymaking and research on environmental degradation and conservation behavior.
While there is little question that the limits of Earth’s carrying capacity have been exceeded, few are willing to take the next logical step and examine the root cause: human overconsumption.
Even if we fully and immediately implement all the renewable energy technologies available, we can only expect to postpone global collapse by perhaps 30–40 years. Educating the global citizen about what drives their cognitive and emotional behavior and how to truly engage free will to “seize conscious control of our collective destiny” is where all forms of education will have to turn to in the future.
A successful approach to an environmentally sustainable lifestyle is one where the actor is recognized to be inherently anthropocentric, but acts in a “nonindividualistic” fashion: respecting that human nature exists, and then behaving with more than just our self-interest in mind. In this way of thinking, human ecocentricity in fact ultimately works to support self-interest because of our common future. One could extend that argument and say it is therefore a moral one as well.
In terms of ultimate causes of excessive human activity and their impact on the global ecosystem, fault ultimately lies with the cumulative effects of individuals’ values, attitudes, consumer choices and actions. These in turn are merely a product of two general factors. The first is the complex of psychological processes underlying an individual’s instinct to survive and the cultural mechanisms those instincts manifest secondarily, for example, media and advertising, capitalism, government, religion, law and social justice, etc., in support of their shared primal survival instinct.
Most of the answers and solutions to apparent human unsustainability are conveniently addressed by (1) avoiding discussion of the biopsychosocial root causes in favor of effects such as climate change, desertification, deforestation, habitat and biodiversity loss, social phenomena such as capitalism, etc., and (2) resorting to engineered and economic quick fixes that always conveniently return short-term benefits to a select few through the capitalist means of production.
The conclusion many of us have arrived at, not through speculation and conjecture, but a painstaking deconstruction of human motivations toward overconsumption, is that the human species may indeed be “unsustainable by nature.” The time for pulling out all the stops in order to survive has long since passed.
Today, what is needed is precisely the opposite of what benefited our species long before stone tools were fashionable. Today, self-restraint and moderation, appreciation for the importance of scale, cooperation and degrowth are what humans need most to preserve the habitability of the planet.
While there are many interesting proposals about how societies might reshape their ecological footprints, virtually no attention is paid to end-users, the individual citizens and their families. Implicitly, this assumption presupposes (1) that people blindly agree to and follow the edicts, policies or statutes established by their community or lawmakers and others in positions of authority, and (2) that individual biologically driven motives to feed one’s personal wants and desires simply disappear.
Although large institutions ranging from commercial enterprises, the military complex, governments, public and private education, and religions are certainly major culprits of excess and typically fuel overconsumption, it is most important to remember that all of these act in the service of a single causal agent, the individual consumer. Most consumer decisions are ultimately made by individuals, not corporations or governments.
The final decision ultimately rests with 7.4 billion individuals: it is the individual who survives or dies.
Therefore, logic dictates that our concern should focus on the mechanisms by which policy and institutional reforms will impact individual consumers rather than the specific details of the policies or the institutional dynamics themselves.
Calling for the elimination of what made our species uniquely successful (our anthropocentric nature) is simply indefensible. Owing to the unique design of our triune brain, humans have no choice but to take an anthropocentric view of life as well as their relationship to the non-human environment.
This is not to say that a particular person is incapable of conceiving and possibly even behaving in a purely ecocentric fashion. The working logic of immutable human anthropocentrism is that we are no more able to neutralize its effects than dogs are able to control their dog-centrism, cats their cat-centrism and ants their ant-centrism. That biological centricity surrounding an organism’s ecological niche is what facilitates and virtually guarantees the successful propagation of any species.
There is no argument that humans, like other organisms, have the capacity to deliberately change their behavior when they see that their actions are somehow detrimental to themselves, others or their immediate environment. This is normally accompanied by a value-based cost determination of possible outcomes. Costly outcomes are to be avoided, but this rule applies only to the degree that any individual or group has the capacity to appreciate who incurs those costs. Not surprisingly, few people intentionally place a loaded weapon to their temple and pull the trigger because the personal consequence is likely death. In contrast, an individual racing the engine of a diesel-burning truck spewing black smoke has little appreciation or respect for others who must breath the polluted air left in the truck’s wake. This rule applies to individuals and institutions.
Anthropocentrism is at the core of our human nature. Like all behaviors it exists along a continuum [weak to strong] wherein a person might vary over a lifetime.
The pressing question in our shared future is how we inculcate 7.4 billion global citizens with the weak anthropocentric mindset before humanity lays waste to what remains of the planets’ limited resources.
Perhaps one of the most pressing empirical questions today is how to move all individuals toward a collectivist mindset that might encourage cooperation and self-sacrifice. The problem is even more contentious, again, because of biology. The increasing global popularity with extreme fundamentalist sociopolitical views, for example, the Tea Party movement in the United States or the British National Party in the UK, is entirely predictable on the basis of biology alone. As critical natural and economic resources (ranging from energy to jobs or living space) shrink, individuals will first act irrationally to defend any perceived threats. This may include closing territorial borders and investing in defense rather than taking the rational approach to study root causes and then working cooperatively across borders with other stakeholders to solve the core drivers of social inequality that motivates people to emigrate.