We Are Only Human

SUBHEAD: How the heck did it come to this?

By Paul Chefurka on 31 March 2009 in Approaching the Limits to Growth
Image above: Early human family dealing with immediate needs. From http://www.babble.com/CS/blogs/strollerderby/archive/tags/primatology/default.aspx

I assess human actions, inaction and decisions through a lens formed by three core aspects of biologically evolved human psychology:

1. Humanity suffers from a pervasive sense of separation: self/other, us/them, body/mind, matter/spirit, humans/resources. This issue is very well addressed in Charles Eisenstein’s online book The Ascent of Humanity. I have concluded that this sense of separation is the inescapable Faustian price we have paid for the self-awareness granted by our neocortex.

2. Our brains evolved to favour immediate threats over distant ones. Immediate, visible threats merit a strong, emotional response; distant, abstract threats are ignored. This hyperbolic discount function is a good survival strategy out on the African veldt, but less so in the modern industrial world with its abstract and unseen threats -- our cleverness has far outrun our inbuilt caution.

3. Humans are not rational creatures, we are rationalizing creatures. We have a tendency to make most of our decisions at an unconscious level and dress them up with socially acceptable rationalizations only post–facto, after they emerge into our awareness fully-formed.
As far as I can tell, these are universal human traits that spring directly from the physical structure of the brain.

When I combine those three characteristics, I see a rather cautionary picture:
We appear to be creatures that will treat the entire world as a resource base for human use. We will ignore the consequences of the resulting actions until we are directly and personally affected, and we will accomplish this by reframing our decisions and actions as being manifestly reasonable. Even worse, we will resist mightily any attempt to shift our beliefs through the application of reason or the presentation of facts.
In short, we are a sentient species that is peculiarly unsuited to dealing with the results of its hypertrophied cleverness and is unable to respond preemptively to looming disaster.
These are general traits that we all seem to share to a greater or lesser extent. Some of us are particularly fortunate to have escaped the constraints of our discount function. Only a few of us are aware of our sense of separation, and even fewer work to overcome it. Almost none of us escape the effects of our rationalizing thought patterns.
As a result, the box we now find ourselves in, whether it’s the box of population, pollution, climate change, ecological degradation, resource depletion or hierarchic instability appears in large measure to have been biologically inevitable.

This is why I have concluded that it’s largely a waste of energy to try and stop the onrushing trains, to avoid or reverse the consequences of our behaviour. Given the existence of our steep discount function, the mere fact that the threats are now widely recognized means that the trains are essentially on top of us.
Of course it’s not in human nature to sit idly by in the face of a threat. The future is rather unpredictable, and anything we can do to mitigate the effects of the damage we’ve caused is useful. However, I see quite a bit of evidence that points 1 and 3 are still widely in play, even among the ranks of the environmentally and ecologically aware.
One of the things I try to do when I come up with an absolutely great idea is to ask myself, “Is it really a great idea? Why do I think so? What am I getting out of this idea (like status, vindication, self-esteem, pride, etc.) that might be colouring my perception of it? Are there other ways of looking at the question?”
I think it would help if people were more self-critical about the ideas they propose, but given the argument I’ve already made, I have only limited hope for that.

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