Copyright 2006 AXIS Performance Advisors
Is it possible that humans are on the cusp of evolving into something new? We know from Charles Darwin and the scientists who followed him that environmental pressures can precipitate an evolutionary shift. Right now, we have a dozy of an environmental pressure: climate change. We can’t wait for generations and generations of natural selection to take their course. If we are to thrive, we must evolve culturally. This article presents evidence that we may be in the midst of that shift, from Homo sapiens to Homo sustainabilitous.
Is there any evidence to indicate that human culture is evolving? Within the last 50 years, within my lifetime, Western culture has undergone a number of shifts that could help us on our journey.
The picture of earth from space. Many people point to this moment in time as causing a major shift in human thinking. There were no borders. All our countries were bathed in the same ethereal blue haze. The Earth looked so fragile suspended against the unrelenting black void of space. And the colors of life on Earth were in stark contrast to our neighboring moon and planets. It made us all look at our unique home in awe.
The environmental movement. The message of Silent Spring was that what we do to Nature we do to ourselves. This message has been repeated in many different ways with many different environmental issues. Manifest Destiny, the idea of Man’s dominion over Nature, has paled. Many people now feel passionate about protecting the environment, whether it’s a particular species like whales or an ecosystem like rainforest.
Humans as animals. We used to think that humans were completely separate from animals. We were the only ones with language, art, thoughts, intentions, or emotions. But then Washoe, the chimp, learned sign language and we discovered bowerbirds decorated their homes with colorful and carefully arranged baubles. We watched Koko, the gorilla, mourn for her deceased pet kitten. Genetics has shown that we not only have much in common with a chimpanzee but also quite a bit with an apple. Cells are cells, after all. It was humbling to discover that we are not so special. We can now better empathize with the other species we are affecting.
Recognition of First Peoples. There is a greater appreciation for indigenous peoples. No longer are they viewed as a lesser species. In Australia, for example, the Europeans have reached out to the Aboriginals, the same people they tried to convert to White ways, to learn how to protect the land. The First People’s connection to and reverence for the Earth will be important values to recover.
Appreciation of diversity. In the United States, the civil rights movement elevated people of all races and colors. There is recognition that everyone should enjoy basic human rights, that we are all the same species, that there are no lesser humans.
The rise of women. The women’s movement did not just give half the population similar rights with men. It gave us access to a different way of problem solving. A number of researchers have shown that women tend to approach ethical dilemmas differently. In the Kohlberg test, people are faced with this hypothetical situation: A man’s wife is dying but he is too poor to buy the medicine that could cure her. Should he steal it? Men or boys typically see this as a matter of principle and justice. Life is more important than a petty crime. It will hurt the pharmacist much less than the impacts on his wife if he doesn’t. Of course, the man should steal the medicine.
Women and girls, on the other hand, want to understand the context more. Does the woman want to die? How would stealing the medicine affect everyone? What would happen if the woman got sick again while her husband was in jail? Women tend not to accept the duality of the situation, seeing more options. Both of the options presented are unacceptable so how could the situation be resolved such that the woman doesn’t die and the man doesn’t steal? Could he borrow the money or negotiate with the pharmacist?
Ironically, the girls in the original test scored poorly because they did not see it as a black-and-white issue, but other researchers have used these results to reveal not only the gender bias in the test but also the differences in women’s decision making. This is just the type of systems-thinking we need in our complex world. Right now, women are rising into power: Angela Merkel just became Chancellor of Germany; Wangari Muta Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for, among other things, her tree-planting program in Kenya. It’s not that we should supplant patriarchy with matriarchy. But finally we can have more balance in our decision-making.
Dethroning of large institutions. Centuries ago, churches were the most powerful institutions. Then governments. Then big business. But in the last several decades, each of these institutions have acted in ways that earned disrespect of the people: the sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, Nixon’s impeachment, Enron. Our earlier reverence for large institutions was just another form of patriarchy, leaving it up to someone wiser or more powerful to make important decisions. But these various scandals make it clear that if we want change, it’s up to us to act. We can’t count on institutions to lead us to a better place.
The ‘new science’. Physicists have over the last 50 years discovered that the universe is not what it seems. Matter seems to be made of practically nothing. What matters are relationships. The universe is much more interconnected than we thought. Observation appears to change the result of an experiment. There is order in chaos. Just as Galileo’s insights changed history, these new revelations will also change ours in unforeseeable ways. They help us appreciate the whole system instead of dissecting things into their individual parts.
Mind-body connection. For so long, there was Eastern thought and Western thought. Eastern healing practices focused on humans as beings: yoga, meditation, and chakras. Western practices focused on humans as things: surgery, pills, and exercises. Finally, the two are melding. It’s becoming more common for surgeons to provide positive affirmations before and during surgery. Interest in alternative medicine as a complement to Western medicine is rising. Meditation is becoming a more common practice. It is through practices like these that we learn that contentment is always available to us in our mind-body, not in the mall. This may help us become a less materialistic society.
Downshifting. A growing number of workaholics are trading in their 80-hour a week jobs for positions with less pay so they can spend more time with family and friends. More people are questioning the effectiveness of long hours. Americans and Japanese, the most workaholic nations, are reminding themselves that the economy is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Downshifting makes it more likely that people will build a sense of community in their neighborhood.
Reurbanization. A century ago, cities were largely dirty, noisy, unpleasant places, creating the impetus for suburban sprawl. However, urban areas are becoming revitalized, attracting the young ‘creative class’ as well as Baby Boomers who don’t want to mow the lawn anymore. With peaking oil supplies, population growth and climate change, we need to have more people want to live in vibrant, well-designed cities.
Granted, there are also many counter-currents. We still have Columbine-like incidents in our schools and Meth use on the streets. Blackberries and cell phones have enabled the work-addicted to never be far from the office. Suburban sprawl is still happening in poorly managed communities. But might these just be more proof of the need for humans to evolve?
So if in the past 50 years we have experienced a change in thinking, a different shared mental model, does this necessarily mean we can actually change our culture and behaviors? The evidence suggests that we can.
Tobacco. Smoking used to be a right, and it was cool. Both my parents smoked and they would demand that to do so was their right. Many of us sat in the so-called no-smoking section of airplanes gagging on fumes. But in just about 20 years, this has all changed. Sure, there are still kids who light up, thinking it makes them look more mature. But the default in the United States, which is now spilling into Europe and much of the rest of the world, is that smoking is not acceptable in public spaces. The rights of non-smokers now take precedence.
Drunk driving. Driving drunk used to be acceptable. On special occasions such as New Years Eve, it was considered inevitable. We would laugh about how someone got home. But thanks to the Mothers Against Drunk Drivers campaign, this is now not acceptable behavior.
Ozone hole and acid rain. When faced with clear and compelling global environmental problems, we have been able to take coordinated action. In short order, the world took action and the problems are now diminishing.
Action on climate change has been slowed by a disinformation campaign, scientific uncertainty, the complexity of the issue, and the media’s preference for point-counterpoint coverage. But now, suddenly, just in the last year it seems, the magnitude of climate change has gotten major media attention. National Geographic, Time, and one of the major TV stations have, among others, featured this issue. Katrina was the United State’s wake up call. And now it’s even becoming cool. On the cover of the May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Robert F. Kennedy and Al Gore call for “A New American Revolution.” Amidst all the cleavage-shot ads, the bulk of the magazine is devoted to explaining the recent scientific research on climate change and provides numerous examples of people leading the effort to reverse climate change, some household names like Bette Midler, and others that are probably not, like Reverend Richard Cizik.
So, are we ready to evolve? We are probably the first species ever to ask this question, understand many of the forces affecting us, and have the opportunity to evolve intentionally. Homo sustainabilitous will acknowledge the limits of Nature, see him/herself as part of Nature. This species will have a much more highly evolved ability to do systems thinking, paired with a shared morality to act for the greater good. This new and improved human will not push for monocultures of societies, recognizing that diversity is Nature’s insurance policy. Hopefully, Homo sustainabilitous will have a more fulfilling life, less harried, with perhaps less stuff but more time to spend with family and participate in the community.
As the Vanity Fair article explains in their call to action,
“This crisis is bringing us an opportunity to experience what few generations in history ever have the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence; the opportunity to rise.
When we do rise, it will fill our spirits and bind us together. Those who are now suffocating in cynicism and despair will be able to breathe freely. Those who are now suffering from a loss of meaning in their lives will find hope.
When we rise, we will experience an epiphany as we discover that this crisis is not really about politics at all. It is a moral and spiritual challenge.
What is at stake is the survival of our civilization and the habitability of the Earth. Or as one eminent scientist put it, the pending question is whether an opposable thumb and neocortex are a viable combination on this planet.”