Citizen Action Monitor

Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 6/13: Yes, humanity is inherently unsustainable

No 23, Posted by fw, June 14, 2010

Pt 5 of my Bill Rees’ blog series examined the mental tension and related inner conflict associated with our “three brains, all operating at the same time.” In this post, Pt 6, Professor Rees answers the question he posed in the title of his address: Is humanity inherently unsustainable? The following selected transcribed excerpts are drawn from Part 4 of the You Tube video, which you can watch below at the end of this post, or on You Tube at UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 4.

Definition: The term ‘meme’ is introduced in this post. A meme is a unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.

“We’ve made ourselves maladaptive,” says Rees

Maladaptive man

“I’m arguing . . . that unsustainability, the state that we now find ourselves, is an inevitable emergent property of the interaction of the human species with nature. Because the way we think in terms of the beliefs, values, and assumptions under which we operate, particularly in our economies, are so far removed from the way in which natural systems function. There is no way that you can compatibly integrate the two. If you have two systems that are so fundamentally different in their structure and operation and try to merge them together unsustainability is an inevitable emergent property.”

“I’m going to argue that both genes, that is to say our natural genetic behaviour, as well as our cultural belief set is involved in this. And I’m going to further argue the behavioural drivers in this, the innate qualities, were once adaptive. They stood us well 50,000 years ago when the environment was relatively constant. But when we’re in a situation of rapid environmental change, they’re no longer adaptive. So we have literally made ourselves maladaptive to the very ecological or environmental conditions that we ourselves have created. [The cruel irony is] behavioural dispositions that were once adaptive have become maladaptive but are nonetheless being reinforced by the prevailing cultural norms.”

Natural selection will remove us


“Here’s the kicker, and we have plenty of evidence in our history. What happens if a genetic mutation is maladaptive to the environment in which the organism carrying that mutation finds itself? Well, it’s wiped out. If you have a maladaptation you will not survive. If you think in a maladaptive way, if your memetic constructs, if your cultural paradigms, if your worldview, if your ideology is inappropriate to the circumstances in which you are expressing that ideology, you will be selected out. Just as bad genes are removed by natural selection, so can bad memes, memetic constructs, be removed by natural selection. And that’s the basis for arguing that whole societies have failed, have collapsed historically, because they refused to change their beliefs, values, and assumptions in the face of contrary knowledge.

“Now where did we start this? We are seeing knowledge from many, many disciplines piling up to show that we’re on a wrong tack. And yet we do not respond because we stick rigidly to a particular set of beliefs, values and assumptions about the economy, about growth, about a whole variety of things that are completely at odds with the nature of the reality within which we find ourselves embedded. We’re no different from previous cultures that have gone down as a result of that dilemma.

March 7, 2011 UPDATE: I have recently discovered that a full transcript and mp3 audio recording of Rees’ lecture is available on The Radio Ecoshock ShowClick here to access these free downloads.


End of Part 6

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This entry was posted on June 14, 2010 by in evidence based counterpower, sustainability and tagged , , , , .
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