Sustainability’s Source in Human Nature

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According to noted biologist and long-time primatologist Robert Sapolsky, the past two decades have seen a complete revolution in our understanding of human nature. This view is supported by the pioneering work of Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal. Yes, I said “human” nature, not just the nature of other primates. What we have learned is still sinking in, and we know that new knowledge can take decades to be integrated into our highly educated circles, let alone popular human culture.

Through studying other primates we have learned that they are not nearly as different from us as we had believed. Human societies are actually not so different from the societies of our primate cousins. Non-human primates have been shown to transmit large amounts of information and culture to their children and future generations, and to have that culture perpetuated and sometimes spread to other communities. Non-human primates are aware that other individuals in their group have their own distinct needs and identities.

Non-human primates have empathy and the potential for great kindness. They are capable of incredible visual-spatial memory, complex negotiations, and the performance of intricate tasks, including the acquisition and teaching of sign language. And non-human primates are also capable of enormous viciousness and even orchestrated warfare. As we have looked into the eyes of our primate cousins, we have seen ourselves.

This realization holds a powerful lesson for sustainability. It also raises the uncomfortable notion that much of the content of our human intellectual (civilized) world is window-dressing for our primate drives and needs. To be sure, we use more abstract concepts and images, and our communications, technologies, and social structures are far more complex, but the actual content of our relationships may be far more similar to the content observed in the relationships of apes than we have been able to admit to ourselves.

Indeed, most of what we call our modern lives (e.g., career, social status, and self-identity) may be based upon what we see in other primates—securing access to food and shelter, sex, and social ranking, including alliances and rivalries. Our complex, concept-saturated world of abstractions may have the same foundation as most other species, rather than any unique dimension of humanness or human genius. When we view our species in the light of our troubling inability to redirect our voracious appetites for consuming planetary resources, we may not see ourselves as so much more “intelligent” than our primate cousins.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs acknowledges the importance of basic needs such as food, shelter, water, and mating, but may have grossly exaggerated the importance of “self-actualization.” In our obsession with individual freedom, especially in the United States, we may have disabled the sense of social responsibility and group membership that is so prominent in other primates. Of course, there are differences among human cultures around the world, and different cultures seem to reach different balances between individual rights and responsibility.

By the 1950s, the human race was experimenting with the systematic application of rational thought to all aspects of our society and our world. Even among the founders of Cybernetics and Systems Thinking, we find social scientists like Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. Their contribution was often to insist that all systems thinking include an awareness of our observer bias. More recently, Frans de Waal has referred to a cultural bias that presupposes that humans are the pinnacle of evolution, coining the term anthropomorphophobia. We are literally afraid of our similarities to other species. It is as if recognizing empathy in chimpanzees would take away some of our human “specialness.”

Culturally, we have ensconced our uniqueness and superiority into our environmental world view. We have only recently begun to understand that humans have the capability of causing grievous harm to our planetary ecosystems. Even when that damage was manifesting, we were so caught up in a distorted systems thinking that we were unaware, and seemingly invested in ignoring, the unfolding catastrophe of global climate disruption.

What does this new self-awareness 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 as a species are not terribly unique. This knowledge may help us to see that the natural world holds humans as PART of the web of life, rather than its pinnacle.

Second, humans do not appear to be as altruistic or democratic as we’d like to think. Some of our compassion, like that of other species, probably stems from the “mutual aid” instinct that appears to be embedded in all evolutionarily successful species. When we look with open minds at the caring and tenderness in the relationships of other primates, we cans see fewer differences between us.

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 often 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 seem to crave simplicity, this may represent a change of pace, a respite from our “work hard; play hard” lives. When we are rested, we appear to be drawn to complexity in all imaginable forms. We create vastly complex social structures, economic systems, technology, ideology, and religion that keep us entertained and occupied. However, our frenzy 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. This bias of ours—our inability to be patient while unintended consequences, when magnified to a global scale, are studied and evaluated—helps explain both our tremendous productivity and our danger.

Population and resource pressures have resulted in increased exploitation of precious resources and cheap labor. At the same time, literacy and education have facilitated cultures increasingly adept at incentivizing more and more complexity and distraction. The human urge to reproduce has declined in educated cultures, as have male sperm counts. Is heterosexuality less compelling a lifestyle in an endangered world? Depression and alienation have manifested in huge proportions in the developed world, as we increasingly experience life as a species that has lost its way.

Sustainability, at some point, requires observing reality in a clearheaded, unbiased manner. Instead, we seem to be constantly inventing new realities and mobilizing exciting “solutions” (such as “Green Business”) that stimulate our imaginations and cultivate aspirations and fantasies of fame, power, and wealth. In fact, there are ecological limits to our expansionism and to our predilections for complexity and consuming resources. With global climate warming and disruptions and the increasing domestication of humans in cities and corporations, we seem to have made a societal wrong turn. While these trends have a long history, we seem to have sped up the discounting and devaluation of our nature as humans. Instead of working within our nature, we distracted ourselves with implanted cultural assumptions of human perfectibility, if not divinity.

Excessive complexity has fueled addictions, including over-production and over-consumption of consumer goods. We have tinkered with our environment and our food supplies in ways that cause illness and obesity and imperil our future. Our blind spots are cultivated and reinforced by magical beliefs in the invisible hand of “free markets” that protect our long-term sustainability at every phase of technological advancement. Some of us believe that a supreme being will intervene to prevent our irrational societal actions from bringing us harm. With these cultural myths firmly rooted in the ideology of our economic and political systems, we have long been prone to self-destructive collective behavior. However, they have increasingly become cemented into our culture by powerful social forces acting out of their distinctly un-enlightened self-interests.

I must pause to ask whether our increasing global obsession with economic and business efficiency over the past forty years has been our undoing. We have been experiencing a consistent, ideological rejection of the basic sciences, the social sciences, the literature and creative arts that encourage our contemplative and altruistic nature. Instead, we have pursued a course that engages and inspires the competitive, organizationally complex, and greedy side of our nature. Our “developed” lives have become more and more technologically driven, sedentary, and self-absorbed, while we exercise compulsively, consume all manner of stuff, and take anti-depressants in order to feel human.

Of course, there are simple things that we can all do to address many of these challenges. The good news is that we have everything we need to live more compassionate and meaningful lives. Much of it is hidden in plain sight. The challenge is to bring these qualities back into our culture. People in the United States, in particular, need to continue reaching out to other, less damaged human cultures in order to revitalize our own. Cultural shifts and changes require “in vivo” infusions of passion and knowing more than “in vitro” intellectualism.

So now it is time to return from our abstracted, synthetic human “reality” to our living ecosystems here on this wonderful planet. It is time to embrace our primate nature and joyously develop cultures that support and sustain us rather than over-stimulate and over-stress us. We humans, especially in the United States, have abducted ourselves from our natural world. Stuck in the self-made exceptionalist prison of a dysfunctional culture, we have become a self-incarcerated nation on a journey to oblivion. It is time to return to earth, to ground ourselves in the amply complex reality and nature of this planet. We must do this before it is too late.

  • Earon Davis

    Born in Chicago, Earon Davis, J.D., M.P.H., is a transdisciplinary teacher and writer studying human nature and society, cognitive dissonance, stress, diversity, human resilience, and global wisdom traditions.

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