Citizen Action Monitor

Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 13/13: We must create a new global cultural narrative

No 30, Posted by fw, June 23, 2010

In Pt 12, Rees cited evidence to show no positive continuing relationship between rising incomes and health indicators such as felt happiness, personal wellbeing, longevity, and infant mortality. Not only are we not benefitting from economic growth, he argued, we’re destroying the biological basis of life in the bargain. Why do we so-called intelligent beings do this to ourselves?

In this, the final part in this series, Rees cites US historian Barbara Tuchman’s disparaging viewpoint: “Logic and reason are not the primary determinants of human affairs.” We are, he reminds us, victims of our biological and cultural inheritance. Unless we create a new cultural narrative, we will be dragged down with all those who put their own selfish interests ahead of those who strive to serve the collective interest of mankind. The transcribed excerpts that follow are from Part 8 of the You Tube video, which you can watch by going to the end of this post, or by viewing it on You Tube here: UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 8.

Logic and reason are not the primary determinants of human affairs.‘ Historian Barbara Tuchman

“In this kind of context [where we seem incapable of acting intelligently], what I’m talking about has been scientifically necessary but is politically unfeasible. Can you imagine being elected on a platform of reducing the economy by 80%? It’s not going to happen. It’s not politically feasible. But what’s politically feasible – you know, carbon sequestration, carbon trading and all of that stuff – has no effect whatsoever on the reality in which we’re operating. It’s scientifically irrelevant.”

“If you have a chance read Tuchman’s March of Folly. Barbara Tuchman’s a Pulitzer Prize winning US historian. Her March of Folly is a book about exactly what we’re talking about. The historical evidence that, through history, governments operate against the interests of their constituents.

Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to . . . reason? Why does intelligent mental process so often seem not to function?

Wooden-headedness . . . plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions [i.e., ideology] while ignoring any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.’

“Again, evidence that this is not news. Gustave Le Bon wrote about it in the late 19th century in his famous book on The Crowd, a study of the popular mind. He’s talking about you folks, by the way. You know we’re all seduced by the lifestyles to which we have been programmed to accept. Right?

The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduces them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master, whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.‘ (Gustave le Bon, 1896)

“Max Planck, almost a hundred years later, made a very similar statement and it has to do with human neurology:

. . . a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’ “(Max Planck, 1949)

The nature of denial

“In the last couple of decades neuroscientists and cognitive scientists have begun to discover the mechanism by which this is possible. It turns out that in the course of the development of the individual, young people growing up in a particular family situation, church situation, cultural situation, political ideology – you know, if your families have always been liberals or whatever – you keep hearing the same kind of stuff repeated over and over and over again. You go to the same kinds of meetings and so on and so forth and the point is that as the brain is developing, the repetition of pattern creates the synaptic circuitry that comes into play whenever you think about those kinds of issues again.”

“Well, our brains develop automatic circuitry as we grow. The point is once you’ve got your ideology, once you’ve got your ideas, the foundational premises upon which you’re going to act out your life, you can change them but it’s difficult. Once they’re in place, people seek out compatible experiences and:

. . . when faced with information that does not agree with their [preformed] internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information’ “ (Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change by Bruce Wexler, 2006)

This is the nature of denial. How many of you think of yourselves as interested in environmental and global political issues? How many of you are captains of industry? I’m just proving my point. You are predisposed to having your views reinforced. So you come to meetings like this. We seek out those experiences that reinforce what we want to hear and we deny, discredit and generally reject contrary information.

“You see why we’re so messed up as a species? Because the people who believe in A, B, and C will believe in A, B, and C until they die. And those of us in the minority who believe in X, Y, and Z aren’t getting anywhere. And that’s a big problem.”

Our privilege and challenge: to create consciously a new cultural narrative

“We have an unprecedented opportunity. Since we are mythic creatures the opportunity that we have is to rewrite our cultural narrative in a way that takes us toward survival. We have to override the maladaptive tendencies. We have to move away from selfishness, competition and the kinds of behaviours that are dooming us to the kind of competitive struggle to the last man, so to speak, on the planet. And to create a new cultural mythology that emphasizes our common interests, community values and our shared interest in retaining the only planetary home that we have.”

Historically it paid off to exploit your short-term selfish interests. Today, for the first time in the history of our species, we have reached the point where my selfish interests are identical to our collective interests. I cannot be sustainable on my own. No country can be sustainable on its own. If the rest of the world carries on down the current pathway they will take us down with it.”

“Instead of my being able to act out my own personal selfish fantasy, I’ve got to begin to identify my interests with your interests. Together we can pull this off, if we convince enough people that it is in their selfish interests to serve the collective interest. It’s the only way that we’re going to make any real difference on this planet.”

Our privilege and challenge: to create consciously a new cultural narrative. It would be a tragic irony if, in the Twenty-first Century, this most technologically sophisticated of human societies succumbs to the unconscious urgings of fatally self-interested primitive tribalism.”

For sustainability, we must create a new global cultural narrative (and system of governance?) that shifts the values of society from competitive individualism, greed, and narrow self interest, toward community, cooperation, and our collective interest in repairing the earth for survival.”

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 series

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