What do we want to make sustainable?
I thought this a really good question, as I begin to read a book titled “Unlearn, Rewild” by Miles Olson. My husband and I talked about this in the car yesterday. He likened “sustainability” to green washing, a concept in the environmentally friendly industries for pretenders . . .
Olson is concerned about “domestication” and what that means. He says “…one of the most important parts of being domesticated is forgetting your wild nature, or having those memories erased of who you are and what you need at the most primal level”. He goes on to say “Domestication is the root of the giant chasm between humans and the non-human world, it is the engine that propels us towards killing the planet. Yet, somehow, it has completely snuck under the radar of the ongoing discussion on ‘going green’, probably because it is a much more ancient and deeply rooted problem than burning fossil fuels. It makes the solution much more complex.”
He says “I don’t want to argue too much right here over whether it is possible for this culture to become sustainable. I think it is more important that we consider if it is even desirable!” He says “There is a sickness at the heart of this culture, something very powerful and destructive that we need to see. ‘Sustainability’ is not primary, it might even be a destructive goal. That wild aliveness flourish is what matters.”
The only war that matters
is the war against wildness.
All other wars are subsumed by it.
~ Miles Olson, “Unlearn, Rewild”
Very interesting question, and some very interesting answers thus far.
The I Am documentary Mike referred to asks some interesting questions:
“What is Human kind’s basic nature?”
My response, which is similar, yet different, to that of the documentary, is that we seem to be general purpose problem solvers, with inbuilt systems to encourage cooperation and punish cheating, and also inbuilt systems to optimise our own best interests.
How we develop, the habits we foster, the ways of thought we adopt, depend very much on the assumptions and incentives that underly our culture.
It seems to me that the greatest danger resides in the hidden assumptions underneath our dominant cultural paradigms.
Our dominant paradigms are about command and control, and delivery of abundance to a privileged few.
We are now technically capable of delivering abundance to all, yet we retain systems (at both individual and societal levels) developed in times when that was not so, and we really did have to deal effectively with the allocation of scarce resources.
It seems that we have taken a very simplistic view of evolution (one that focuses on competition and ignores the role of cooperation), and have mixed it with the valuation mechanism of markets, and made the assumption that this can deliver a somehow optimal outcome.
Sorry, but it cannot.
Markets deal effectively with scarcity, but cannot deal sensibly with abundance.
We need another model (fortunately we have it, in the organisational structure of the human brain – particularly our neocortex).
Markets devalue abundance, and value scarcity.
Market valuation incentivises highly asymmetric distribution, where a few enjoy bounty and the many endure scarcity.
Competition is certainly a force for innovation and change, and the biological reality is that all higher life forms are characterised by increasing levels of cooperative activity. At the simplest level it is true to say that it is stabilised cooperation that characterises all higher life forms, and competition that characterises lower life forms.
The I Am documentary goes on to asks “Is the essential nature of humans to cooperate or to dominate?”.
“Is our nature to have kings or democracy?”
And it seems clear to me, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the answer to that question is very clearly – “It depends on context”.
Humans are the most general purpose behavioural entities yet to evolve on this planet. We can potentially adopt any behavioural strategy. Our neocortexes are extremely “plastic”, they can change; and respond appropriately to context.
We can change what we see as “appropriate”.
We are not permanently fixed with the contexts that our cultures provide as defaults.
Evolution has primed us to act cooperatively within our social groups, to punish cheats, and to defend our selves and our groups from threats.
How we respond in any situation depends on what sort of context we recognise in that situation.
Are we cooperating with our “in group”, or are we defending against a “threat”?
If we are at peace, then we are naturally democratic – even more than that, we sustain consensus politics.
If we are under threat, then we choose or tolerate a leader that can respond rapidly in situations that require urgent action.
The documentary goes on to make a lot of claims that are only weakly substantiated, or are just plain false, which to my understanding undermines the essential part of the message – which is that we are all primed to cooperate, in appropriate contexts.
The key then, is to generate contexts that the vast majority of people can recognise as appropriate for the expression of cooperative behaviour.
Thus, to my mind, the question of “what is it that we want to be sustainable?”, resolves to:
The ability of individual human minds to recognise and to create contexts in which cooperative behaviour is expressed and which contexts include a recognition of the value of diversity, both of life forms in general, and in the forms of human existence, human understanding and awareness, and human expression of the possibilities inherent in life (and to show a strong positive bias to modes of being that allow for diversity – ie strongly limit and discourage destructive modes of being).
It is this ability, present in every one of us, that is to be cherished, developed and sustained.