Our current Western cultural values are intrinsically individualistic to the detriment of our communities. Instead of being collaborative, we are competitive; instead of being empathic, we are sociopathic; instead of being altruistic, we are ego-driven. The concept of Social Darwinism is a fallacy – the drive for survival of our genes does not necessitate a dog-eat-dog society but, instead, one of collaboration and cooperation. Society as it is at present is headed for collapse instead of following the pathway that has thus far allowed us to evolve.
In short, the social system itself is considered the root cause of our pathological culture, with human behaviour and its resulting effects – corruption, pollution, wars, waste, exploitation, and, hence, distortion of values and psychology – seen as symptoms stemming from this fundamental root source.
Our values in modern western society are clearly skewed. We view success as having more, hoarding more, showing off, decorating our meaningless empty lives with pettiness. We have allowed our egos to be defined by materialism and competition, not integrity and compassion. The dominant culture is pathological. We need a new paradigm, a new culture, a new zeitgeist.
We’re in trouble
As we know we’re not doing that great a job of sustaining our planet – in an extremely short space of time – during a period known as modern “civilization” – we’ve managed to pollute our air, water systems and soil; we’ve managed to increase global temperatures by releasing massive amounts of previously sequestered CO2; cut down most of our forests; and rendered enough species extinct to qualify for a 6th phase of mass-extinction.
Welcome to the “anthropocene” era – the era in which humans are the driving force behind changes in our planetary systems. We’ve sought dominion over that which is not rightfully ours, and we have not been good stewards.
We are raping and pillaging our planet. Fracking, drilling, mining, logging, damming, dumping, looting, pillaging, plundering, consuming, burning, toxifying, dredging – hurtling toward extinction as though it were our aim and we are right on target.
We’re hurting our brothers and sisters all around the world. Invading, stealing, bombing, usurping, enslaving, impoverishing, trafficking, blood diamonds, child soldiers, boom and bust, inflation and depression, creating new weapons, new diseases, new medicines that make us sicker, machines that steal our jobs, laws that rob the poor, trickle down, fantasy – we are on the top deck of the Titanic and the ship is going down.
We’re hurting ourselves. Misinforming, de-educating, dumbing down, fattening up, addicting, abusing, harassing, discriminating, dividing stratifying, incarcerating, kids on Ritalin, parents on Prozac, keeping up with the Jones’s, grannies in “homes” – is this the best we can do?
We’ve created a civilization hellbent destroying itself – and taking everything else down with it. The Earth does not get to opt out.
We have created a culture of violence – addicted and abusive. We need to change the default.
The system of reinforcement
Modern psychological and sociological study has found that human actions are susceptible to environmental influence. What is rewarded by the culture tends to be perpetuated. For example, it is commonly considered a “moral” issue when a corporation engages in deliberate pollution to save money. Many complain that the corporation’s people must be “corrupt” if they allow for such a thing. The flaw, however, is in the assumption. If we exist in a system that allows us to “save money” and hence be more “economically efficient” by being exploitative, abusive or indifferent, why should we not expect it to occur, especially in a system based on competition where advantage is always sought? It is thus that we manage to live in a system which, on the one hand, condemns a certain action as “immoral”, yet on the other hand rewards it as though it were a virtue.
In other words, “corruption” is being reinforced. Therefore the solution is not more “laws” to try and stop this behavior. The solution is to create a social system that does not reinforce or reward such behavior at all. Laws are mere “patches” that work against the internal logic of the system as it stands.
Social norms and values
The social norm of consumerism, which values “consuming” over “doing”, “being”, or “producing”, dominates society. This dominance is problematic for several reasons: (1) consumerism requires that people forever consume more, which is not possible on a finite planet; (2) happiness derived from consumption is transitory; no matter how much individuals consume, they never achieve fulfilment; and (3) consumerism creates and reinforces systemic inequalities. The challenge for a sustainable system is to create a new social norm in which the vast majority of people routinely choose enough instead of more. The shift towards a “mass behaviour of enoughness” will require the rapid diffusion of new values through the multiple networks that make up society. The promotion of the benefits of non-materialistic lifestyles, and creation of the infrastructure to allow new forms of corporate and civic entities to emerge, requires that resistance from large corporations and the state be somehow overcome.
There is an implied acceptance across most of society that the self-seeking, individualistic values that form the backdrop to consumerism are reasonable and necessary. This acceptance needs to be reversed. Ordinary people can set a positive example by living values that reject consumerism. Motivation is also key to achieving behavioural change. Consumerism only appeals to some of the core human motivations (i.e. hedonism, status, and achievement). Love, connectedness, friendship, spirituality, and creativity are also powerful sources of motivation, and it is crucial to tap into these.
Having come to see ourselves as consumers our society has become extremely wasteful and demanding. Our desire to consume more, despite the fact that such consumption does not hold the key to lasting happiness, leads us to waste more and more of our valuable resources, even time that could be better spent nurturing relationships and the human potential is, instead, wasted on striving for the financial resources required to consume more stuff, and on then consuming it.
We are manifest as demanding, a product of a McDonaldized society, reluctant to expend effort to create positive change, familiar only with ordering and purchasing, unsatisfied with quick fixes but knowing no different. Instead of doing something ourselves we pay for others to do it, instead of learning skills we consume services, instead of participating in activity we watch from the sidelines, impatient and dissatisfied if a lower-than-expected outcome is delivered. We are a society that demands a social revolution to be bestowed from the top-down rather than taking the responsibility to participate in being the change we wish to see. This is not a culture that will manifest the change it wishes to see.
Disproportionate rates of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness reflect the inherent inequalities that are built into a system based on violent acquisition of scarce resources. In order to understand how best to address the failings of our current paradigm it is necessary to examine the model and its alternatives. Neo-classical economics is speculation, adherence to faulty narratives and erroneous premises, and although based on falsifiable hypotheses is treated as almost religious-like dogma by its adherents in the face of the overwhelming evidence stacked against precious beliefs. Growth economics – the current economic zeitgeist, is the inherently flawed concept of an ever-growing monetary economy in which we attempt to continue to produce and consume at ever-increasing rates while neglecting the all-too apparent fact that the carrying capacity of our landbase cannot be exceeded by either population growth or consumption of resources without disaster. It is precisely this delusion of infinite growth that we need to move away from.
We have a system that is based on growth and consumption, waste and destruction, debt and depletion. We do not have a system rooted in ethics – in environmental ethics, socioeconomic ethics, in ethical governance, and interpersonal ethics. We are waiting for our system to be fixed, but often forgetting that a major factor in the repair is within us all.
Environmental ethics requires that we sustain the earth as it sustains us and all life along with us. It requires that we do not take, but view exchange in terms of a symbiotic giving and receiving, with a recognition that we cannot expect to receive without nurturing that which gives. We seem to be forgetting the system of reciprocity, and our poor ethics in this regard are already manifest in devastating outcomes that have far-reaching implications for the future and effects that our planetary co-habitants cannot opt out of, despite having never been considered.
Socioeconomic ethics assumes equity of access to the resources necessary for survival. In our competition-driven system we have forgotten how to collaborate to ensure equal access and opportunity for all, striving only to become top-dog, surviving off the sweat of those less fortunate. To expect peace in a world lacking such ethics is to assume a lack of consciousness on the part of the disadvantaged. This would be a gross error in judgment.
Ethics is largely missing from our governance. We take short cuts, only allowing participation in decision-making from those in positions of economic power, neglecting the needs of the majority. This oversight regarding the need for equality in order for justice to apply is precisely the cause of our need for laws that protect the wealthy from the so-called crimes of the deprived, thus further perpetuating their exclusion.
Even our interpersonal ethics are suffering. Although we demand high ethical standards of our political leaders and corporate bodies we often fail to demand the same of ourselves. In a society in which such hypocrisy is the norm progress is unlikely.
To build a system rooted in ethics would be to build a system that is truly sustainable – one in which we do not outstrip the carrying capacity of our landbase, where we can ensure equality and justice, and where peace and cooperation are norms.
The global system is not ‘out there’ in the ether. It exists only in human minds. We are the system. While clearly we did not design and build it, we are responsible for its continued existence into the future. It will persist as long as we do not change our minds, so long as we continue silently to give it our consent, remain acquiescent and conforming. It is our implicit consent that allows the system to persist.
None of us can discount the need to understand human behavior and what causes us to act in the way we do. When faced with scarcity and artificial barriers to survival one is forced to compete, and our current sociopathic society based on social Darwinism is a reflection of this. If we are to facilitate a world in which collaboration leads to the development of our humanity and the sustainability of that which sustains us then we will need to face the responsibility for our own actions and behavior, and face the ever-encroaching fact that our current zeitgeist is unsustainable. A non-monetary resource-based economy is one in which the likelihood of equality, peace and sustainability is far higher, and so, in turn, is our survival as a species.