I’m ahead, I’m a man
I’m the first mammal to wear pants, yeah
I’m at peace with my lust
I can kill ’cause in God I trust, yeah
It’s evolution, baby
I’m at piece, I’m the man
Buying stocks on the day of the crash
On the loose, I’m a truck
All the rolling hills, I’ll flatten ’em out, yeah
It’s herd behavior, uh huh
It’s evolution, baby
Pearl Jam, Do the Evolution
I spend a lot of time – whether y’all realize it or not – talking about Saving the World. Let’s face it. Things are not going so well right now. Of course I am not the first, nor will I be the last. Plans and Ideas are a dime a dozen. Utopian Ideals have been presented and argued for centuries, science fiction stories designed to warn us of the horrible doom we face if we do not make positive changes have been written since the early 20th Century. This is not a new meme, not a new issue, and so far, no one has come up with anything that has been effectively implemented and shown a significant positive step forward.
John Michael Greer wrote an interesting article about this very topic, although from a different angle. He points out that the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which has pervaded Western Civilization ever since, is partially to blame for this preponderance of unsuccessful ideas:
…Since Voltaire’s time, the idea that building a better social mousetrap will cause the world to beat a path to one’s door has pervaded our civilization.
The irony, of course, is that neither in Voltaire’s time nor in ours has social change actually happened that way. The triumph of the Enlightenment itself did not happen because the social ideas circulated by its proponents were that much better than those of their rivals; it happened because the core mythic narrative of the Enlightenment proved to be more emotionally powerful than its rivals. That narrative, of course, is the myth of progress, the core element of the worldview that has made, and now threatens to destroy, the modern world.
This Myth of Progress, the idea that we are better off today than we were yesterday; that evolution itself is a progressive process; that we humans can overcome any adversity we face simply by doing more; has created an social environment wherein there is really only ever one possible solution to every problem. Technology. Rationalism. Science. In other words, progress itself.
…You speak a lot about saving the world but from my perspective you seem to be focused on saving humans.
You mention that eating animals is fine as long as it benefits humans and the only virtue that trees seem to possess is their ability to clean up after humans. I could mention more but I guess you get the picture.
Why is it that we need a humancentric position to ‘save the world’ and what virtue is it that humans possess that make us worthy of saving that other living (and possibly non living) things don’t? Why are ‘they’ only valuable in relation to humans?
Simon is, in many ways, exactly right. I do focus on saving humans. But not because humans are uniquely worthy of saving. Quite the contrary. It is entirely possible, in my mind, that humans are unsaveable. That we will find ourselves following the trajectory of the dodo bird, and there will not be a damn thing we can do to stop it. If that is the case, nothing I say will ever matter.
But what does it mean, really, to save the world? Paraphrased from Dan Quinn (I appear to have lost my copy of Beyond Civilization, else I would quote directly), we do not need to save the planet itself. This piece of rock will continue until the sun burns out. We do not need to save life because how ever much we may damage the biosphere of planet Earth, we cannot destroy life itself. We will be gone long before that happens. (Animals sitting at the top of the food chain are far more fragile than those at lower trophic levels.) So, when we talk about saving the world, the only thing we can be talking about is saving the world as a human habitat.
So then, the question becomes, what do we need to do to save the world as a human habitat. For those fully vested in the Myth of Progress, we don;t need to do anything. All we need to do is keep progressing and everything else will take care of itself. It’s been a long road, but I feel that I, myself, have fully dispensed with that particular mythology. But I also recognize that mythology is extremely powerful. Confronting it head on is rarely useful. So what to do?
For me, being who I am, my first step was to understand our (shared) Story. On one side, how do we believe we got to where we are today. What things do we believe and why. Of those things, which are true, which may be true, which are patently false (yet we believe them anyway). On the other side, if we step outside of our own mythology, what truths do we find? What does science tell us, what does my own intuition add to that scientific framework? And what other possibilities exist once we dispense with the myths?
Along the way, I have vested myself heavily into systems thinking: in my own mind, the point of intersection between science and intuition. I have looked to Anthropology for a greater understanding of human kind. I have delved deeply into Evolutionary Theory, Memetics, Cross Cultural Studies and Psychology. As all of the pieces began to fall into place in my head (and into their systemic relationships), I tried to explain these systems to anyone that would listen. Turned out, almost no one would. Why? Because the mythology was too strong.
None of this changes the fact that the world is in a bad place and change is desperately needed if humans – and frankly, large chunks of the rest of the community of life, or at least those species living on the same scale as humans – are to survive. We are potentially driving up to 200 species a day into extinction. If we don’t find a way to live on this planet sustainably, we will take a whole lot of planet Earth’s diversity with us before we go.
So what to do?
Humans (and many other species) have the ability to exhibit altruism. Most of the Utopian Ideals that have come along depend upon this altruism. Or, conversely, like the Enlightenment, they depend upon Rational Self Interest. Yet, the Western World, embroiled in the ideals of the Enlightenment, shows a distinct lack of improvement on the basis of Rational Self Interest while altruism is present but still less than enough to really make a difference. The Tragedy of the Commons and The Prisoner’s Dilemma combined, effectively explain why this is the case. So the next question, in my mind, has to be “What tools do we have available to move beyond the Tragedy of the Commons and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.” The most important tool I have found, so far, is Dunbar’s Number and the Monkeysphere.
So, at this point, I feel like I have found a way that humans can live (and have lived for millions of years) that does not suffer the foibles of our modern civilized world. Great! So now all I have to do is explain, rationally, concisely, impassionedly, how it all works, right? Nope. Again: rational argument is not terribly effective against mythology. The only ones who would listen at all were those that already had thrown away some portion of our shared mythos.
So I have chosen to take a multi-pronged approach to these issues. First, I recognize that those individuals that are effectively driven by altruism do not need me to inspire them. Not emotionally. Give them the information they need to understand our plight and they will act of their own volition.
Second, our mythology allows some large minority of our population to act on the basis of Rational Self Interest. For those, I point out the importance of the Community of Life, of diversity, of Rainforests and wolves and lady bugs. These other species, as integral parts of a healthy biosphere, in turn allow us to be integral parts of a healthy biosphere – and without them, we will die.
And third – and most importantly – I try to explore the possibilities of embracing a new story. Not by challenging our current mythos directly, but by invoking primal desires, needs, hopes and fears and then offering an answer to ‘how do we get that.’ Community. Belonging. Lifelong Security. Health. Well Being. Fun. These are things that everyone wants far more than they want a new TV. Whether they realize it or not. If I can provide a glimpse of the possibility that these things are available to us, if only each one of us chooses one of these myriad possible lifepaths, lifestyles and stories, then we might just have a chance of seeing what lies Beyond Civilization.
(Originally Posted March 9, 2007)