I've been reading materials on subsistence food systems, sustainability, environmental problems, and "human nature" well, for a while now but also several as of late. A speech Bill Rees gave at the Ecological Society of America meeting this summer, along with one of his articles and numerous comments by pretty much every ecologist ever (with the exception of certain Marxist ecologists of my acquaintance and likely a couple others) speak of the problems of human nature in achieving sustainability. Humans have an inherent tendency to expand; humans are inherently selfish; etc. etc. Rees, who has a PhD in population ecology, claims in one of his articles that ecologists are reluctant to treat humans as ecological beings and to deal with their population ecology scientifically--and concludes that our "nature" is to expand.
I think this is problematic in a bunch of ways, but there is one that I'm going to address right now that makes reference to a couple of the others. [? -- ed.] Having talked to Prof. Rees in person, he says that we might (he's not very optimistic) be able to head off absolute disaster by constraining human nature through culture; his example was the rituals and efforts towards monogamy overruling our non-monogamous nature. This is a weird mental exercise to engage in, because it puts human culture in the position of being "unnatural." That is, if our nature is to do one thing (expand/consume more, have random hookups) and our culture constrains it, then you're defining our culture out of our nature. This is some extreme mental yoga if you are, as Rees claims to be doing, treating humans scientifically because nothing about humans can be unnatural in a materialist sense: everything that exists is natural, and more to the point, culture, being derived from our biology, must also be natural and hence "part of our nature." Now, intuitively what he says makes sense because the dichotomy between nature and culture, impulse and impulse control, id and superego, nature and nurture go deep, deep, deep into our culture (however natural or unnatural it is). But I would say this dichotomy is not only unscientific but unhelpful twice over: it obscures the nature of the relationship between our "nature" and our "culture", AND I find it extremely unhelpful rhetorically.
Having wandered around for awhile without getting to the point, I'll skip discussing why obscuring the nature of the relationship (or rather, obscuring the fact that culture and biological impulse go hand in hand, and are not clearly distinct; at the very most, they are like water and cold in the analogy of snow: you need both to create snow, and you can't assign priority to one or the other, snow only makes sense in terms of their interaction) is bad science in my opinion, and move on why the splitting of the two is bad strategy in my opinion.
Given that Rees, and many others, thinks it is at least possible for humans to learn/think/choose our way out of this, a key part of doing this is mustering the social movement, structures, and education to support it. Clearly, people of the "humans are naturally unsustainable" camp don't think it will happen "by itself", ex nihilo. If you think the solution is "culture" or some other self-maintained restraint, then seemingly people have to believe that humans are at least capable of said restraint. That is, if restraint is cultural it seems necessary that people think it possible in order for it to be possible. (I'm sure one could argue this is not strictly logically necessary, but I'm not going to.) Certainly it seems to undermine your effort if you convince people that they CAN'T control themselves to be sustainable. Yet this is exactly what the rhetoric of "humans naturally expand/consume" does. People who don't believe self-control is possible certainly seem unlikely to exercise it. People also (understandably) don't usually view saying that human nature is unsustainable to mean that humans can learn to be sustainable; nature is viewed as immutable, insurmountable. To then claim that we can control ourselves through culture plays into a societal narrative that tends deeply towards vulgar biological determinism, i.e. that if something is part of our "nature" we can't control it. So it seems both unwise and unscientific for Rees and others to say our nature is one thing but we can (theoretically) get beyond it through culture* because in our deterministic narrative, we tend to view such attempts to get beyond nature as noble yet doomed (cf. monogamy).
If cultural change can lead us to sustainability and such a cultural change is possible according to the laws of reality, such a cultural change is as "natural" as expansion. Expansion may be easier, or more likely, or our inertial course, or whatever, but if we can stop doing it, then the ability to stop doing it must also be natural, no?
If you think we can control ourselves and successfully achieve sustainability (at least, before the worst of the worst disasters happen) then it behooves you to promote this idea. If culture is the vehicle, surely a culture that believes its objective is possible will be more likely to embrace & achieve said objective. If you're not of the camp that believes it is physically impossible, it makes little sense to contribute to that point of view because you can only fulfill your own prophecy.
This isn't as deep as it seemed to be in my own head, but nonetheless, it seems not to be grasped by people like Rees. It makes one think he doesn't believe his own statements of the possibility, because if you believe in it, why constantly discourage people from thinking it may be? It would be like Civil Rights leaders showing up at rallies 40 years ago and saying "there's really no way we can ever achieve our objectives. Now--let's go do this thing!" You don't have to say it's easy--that's hardly what, say, MLK did--but nor did he say "I may not get there with you, but it doesn't matter, because you won't get there anyhow." I study what I do -- successful or partly successful examples of sustainably providing human rights -- because my analysis is that hearing about and learning and believing in positive examples is more important to a productive solution than talking about their improbability. Talking about the challenges has its place. Scaring people may have its place. But if your very success depends on your belief in its possibility (more so than usual--you know, when it literally depends on it), pessimism seems almost like a selfish indulgence.
*If you aren't materialist about it, that is, believe in the soul or spirit, or some other higher being or place beyond nature, you could be consistent in an argument that our non-material being/spirit/consciousness/soul must get beyond our nature to save ourselves. But outside of this viewpoint, it doesn't make sense, because our nature is all of us that exists; if we can do it, it too is part of our nature and therefore the characterization of our nature as expansionist but controllable is at the very least, imprecise language. Understandable and sensical in a certain context, where one might mean "basic drive" rather than "immutable trait", but certainly imprecise.
Julie Washington on Dialects and Literacy
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