on humanism and environmental crisis

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Niche crisis, Part 2, ” Materialists and Idealists”

 

Part 2

Materialists and Idealists

 

In the first part of this essay, I made some bold hypotheses and ended up with outrageous promises.

I will repeat then: The niche crisis is in itself not a problem, it is just an inevitable result. Therefore to handle it we have to find the cause. I think that the cause, broadly speaking, is the domination of things of our civilization. (The pollution-related to cars, trucks, and roads is not the problem, it’s the result, the problem is that we LOVE to drive, LOVE the power and feeling related to moving a big machine fast. The problem is not outside the culture but inside the culture) It started, I think, and I will talk about it later, from peculiar language development and now it is literally killing us. We can correct this, but in order to do that we need to start with the conversation, maybe even create a new language, a new set of metaphors and mythology. This is part 2. 

Part 3 will start the conversation about the promises of the new beautiful world.

I thought that this domination of things had to do with the eternal distinction between materialists and idealists. 

I checked a few philosophy texts, some psychology sources, and of course: Google. It all left me befuddled. Nothing fitted the bill. 

  1. The philosophy was as always useless; neither early materialists like Democritus and Thales, or late like Marx and Engels were really materialistic, nor idealists like Berkeley or Hegel had anything to do with the niche. The primordial sin of our civilization must be somewhere else. 
  2. If it was a sin, maybe the religions would do the trick? Oh, I don’t mean the trick they do with humanity for the last 50 000 years. I mean the elusive distinction of believers vs nonbelievers – often understood as idealists vs materialists. But, no, all of them, fundamentalists, mystics, atheists, humanists, all of them want to be good and all are greedy and all want their kids to be successful.
  3. Big psychology- Myer-Briggs tests and others- and folk psychology tell me: materialists are bad (that’s for sure) and unhappy.

-they give babies coca-cola instead of milk.

-they murder to steal money or a nice jacket or even sneakers.

-their science is wrong: Newtonian, solid brick and mortar, not relativity and “observer’s Universe”.

– they are responsible for technology, corporations, gadgets, and consumerism.

-among the believers, the materialists are the worst: young Earth, literal interpretation of scriptures,  seeing beliefs as real and factual, sacred rights, holy wars, and xenophobia.

So, idealists must be good: they live frugally, don’t eat meat, like theater and poetry, hiking, nature, meditation, praying, and dancing.

 

Mahatma Gandhi, Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, Oprah and Albert Schweizer, etc, etc. We need to be like them, but we can’t.  Why? All of these famous idealists were driven, obsessed by humongous overwhelming ideas, usually not very happy, crazy overachievers, rather miserable “I will show them” people. 

We are all good normal people and we cannot be like them, well, do we actually want our children to be like them?

The research shows that typical materialists and famous rich materialists were not so happy and if they were happy it was the idealist part of them which did it.  Like philanthropy of Rockefeller and Gates. And making material achievements a priority in life actually make self-expression and good relationships more difficult. It looks that it is not switching from materialist to idealist that is necessary- it would be impossible anyway.

So, we want our children (and ourselves) to be happy first. Then we have to find a way to be happy without hurting the planet.

These distinctions require thinking. Thinking and discussions and role-modeling. What is necessary and doable is noticing how indoctrinated we are by generations of automatic concepts of success, the meaning of life, and happiness. Things: a well-paying job, a good house, a fast car, and a pretty woman. It is a very one-sided picture of the American Dream, which is actually a dream of most of the people in the world.

If we explain to people that this dream is untenable, that the planet can not support it, that we have to give it up, to sacrifice our dream for the planet, and for others …. We’ll go nowhere. Tell the leaders, CEOs, generals, and clergy to relinquish the power to save the planet… we’ll go nowhere. Tell economist that capitalism needs to pivot and production of things and energy has to shrink and …we’ll go nowhere. 

What can we do? Dealing with things is so easy, the numbers are on their side.

Dealing with ideas, relationships, Unknown, feelings, even art, and literature – all require and benefit from critical thinking, shifting dimensions, using imagination ( some people talk about transformational education). Dealing with things do not… Things are: cheaper or more expensive, hotter or cooler, slower or faster – so easy to deal with, so inviting for the categories, divisions and … ownership. And it is literally how the hell broke loose.

And how did we get like that?  The evolution of the nervous systems and ethology will help here. Animals are not materialists, their brains are full of behaviors ( in the notebook of the observer, like Jane Goodall watching her chimpanzees), for them (say, chimpanzees) they are the experiences. The trick is to avoid bad experiences like pain, hunger, or fear and maximize good experiences- satiation, control, safety even belonging. Not much different than early humans. Hominids, also hunter-gatherers, lived in more or less egalitarian societies, where the leader, usually male, possessed very little, except for mates. 

     In our search for the origins of this worldview dysfunction or of materialism, I’d like to point to the two moments that were pivotal.  50 to 10 thousand years ago communication became a language. Animals and hominid’s “language” followed their world of experiences. It described behaviors (experiences), even sometimes complex ones like bees dance, crows teaching their children about bad people and butterflies astral navigation, but they were still behaviors. And then, at the toddler stage of our civilization, something happened to humans. And to humans only: see the interesting hypothesis of Dr.Hrdy (among others). I said “toddler” because, as a pediatrician, I observed the same magic hundreds and hundreds of times in the office and you might have seen it in your home. A 15-month-old human infant is a pretty complex being. She can talk a little, but she understands a lot, she knows her surroundings, she even mastered the skill called “object permanence”. She knows pretty much how the world around works, what is anger and fear and sadness, hunger, and the bliss of cuddling with mom. But, your dog or even a crow in your yard can do all of these. And then, out of blue, your child will point to the pineapple on the table: “What’s that, Daddy?”

And an abyss opened, a huge difference between humanity and all known sentient and artificial beings. Only humans can ask for the name of an object not related to any function or behavior.

 

    What was first, naming objects or materialistic society? I don’t know, but what is important is that it happened recently, so materialism is not in our genes ( neither are things, really, and their objectivity is perfectly questionable!) 

It is also possible that the” invention of things “ timing is not mere coincidence. Because it is the time ( 50 to 20 000 years ago, when we almost got extinct- about 10 thousand people left, or less!) when our egalitarian society could have changed. Maybe it was the pressure of a shrinking niche related to climate change, after the Toba volcano eruption and ice age. We behaved (we actually were) like cornered animals, we tried to survive against each other. With the rule of violence, fear, and anxiety our worldviews changed. We tried to get happy with things, so we learned to get high on power, violence, and control.  Interestingly, more or less at the same time we developed societies with haves and have nots, (Mesopotamia, Egypt, China), and having was better, and the things to have to be on the top were, well, things.

Our primordial “personality” stays dormant, waiting to be awakened… We need another renaissance chapter in our civilization. With our technology and advances in knowledge of the human mind, we can make a better renaissance than the original Italian One. A mixture of materialism, idealism, humanism, and all that is needed to take care of this planet. We can do it, but it will take the new conversation on being authentic, working on one’s personal unique worldview and on creating unique, personal mythology. James P. Carse in the “The religious case against belief” argues for this conversation, for questioning. It is what the real religious people (read: happy, authentic, mature) do – question belief, use the paradigm and language of their religion just for one, but all-important purpose – to question the world, to embrace the Mystery. To find the meaning, the worldview, the happiness. Well, not to find, to journey on finding it.

It is going to be a renaissance – the rebirth of the type of mind which made us human. We have it inside: the excitement and awe of the Unknown, the curiosity, joy, and imagination. Loving, playing, arguing, making fun and derision, showing others, and ourselves’ foolishness.  We’ll thrive on experiences instead of gadgets- we’ll treat them as assets, cherish them, and make them richer and richer as our complexity and intelligence grow.

This optimistic story does not need to be true. It would be reassuring and promising.  And I am asking for so little. Just start talking, open your mind, and imagine. Well, we are not completely off the hook- this new plan includes role-modeling, right? Somebody has to change first or at least start changing.  This conversation, this work will lead to a new curriculum, more on that unknown black hole in Part 3.

Niche crisis II

The initial version published in December 2019, this is a new, expanded form.

 

 

Niche crisis or environmental crisis.

 Part 1. The Hypothesis and the chance.

I am convinced that the niche crisis is caused by a particular cognitive development at the dawn of our civilization. This early achievement turned out now to be our biggest problem. 

“Niche crisis“ is an unusual term so let me explain.

When we look at our world we see our environment. This term for me contains some cloaked feeling of entitlement, may even sound congratulatory. It doesn’t have a biology or cosmology sense. To me, it answers the question your good friend may ask over the beer: “how is life?” You tell him about our environment- not ideal, but our- loud music, stupid people, polluted air, etc, etc, And you wouldn’t answer: “Well, I am just becoming extinct”. 

If we want to talk about the crisis the ecologists would use the term “ecological niche” or simply “niche”. When we look at any species from outside the system, as an observer, that species has its niche – the resources, climate, food, other members of the species, predators, anything that influences its evolutionary fitness. Niche is species-specific- it describes the dynamic situation – niche’s strength- that any given species exists in at any given point in time. Not habitat, not ecology, not environment. It is why I prefer the term “niche crisis”. We will really need this “observer view” as we go along. Homo sapiens is the last surviving of six other hominids. The one that almost went extinct several times, the last only about 50 000 years ago ( if you forget the brink of the nuclear war in 1962). 

When the ship is sinking and there is water coming in we send a crew to pump the water out. The more the water is pouring in, the more bailing is needed, right? Obviously, no. We need to find the hole in the hull, repair it and it is how we save the ship and ourselves.

I believe that the ship is sinking and we are busy at the pumps.

 

And our niche, which pretty well fits geographically Planet Earth, is getting weaker again. Even if population growth is slowing down- “only” 9 billion by 2050, the number of people pulled out of poverty/subsistence life into the “consumer’s circle” is growing rapidly and I hope will continue to grow. So, the resources like clean air, diverse forests, clean water, good soil, fish, and plankton-rich oceans are dwindling, especially for these new, vulnerable consumers. And the just feeling of injustice and social conflicts fostered by our wonderful internet (people call it , I guess as a joke, – “global brain”) gets worse.

The ship is sinking, for sure, even if some of my gloomy images might be controversial, but not all of them, for goodness sake. And please don’t tell me “there is always a crisis” or about the Chinese-like “great wheel of history” or “nothing new under the sun” – or as Trump reacted to coronavirus: “ it’s nothing, just a virus, can’t see it”. I see millions and millions of good, smart, young people, who are “at the pumps”. Recycling, electric cars, solar panels, not eating meat, planting trees, all these are heartwarming.

     Let’s keep bailing, as a compromise, to feel good and keep the troop’s morale high, but we have to find and repair the hole. Find the cause of the crisis while trying to slow down the disastrous results

           Every species survives by expanding its niche. More food sources, more diverse habitats that the organisms can adapt to means more sex and more babies. The survival of the fittest works on the individual organisms’ and it’s family’s level, but only the sum of these changes determines the strength of the species’ niche. 

The ecological niche is all about the flow of energy which ultimately comes from the Sun. The stronger the niche the more energy the species absorbs and utilizes. The complexity increases creating stronger bodies, brains, and stronger social life. You noticed very “broad strokes”, I’m not explaining those mechanisms, just sketching them, but the only difference when we talk about the human’s niche is that the complexity is called the culture or civilization and the animal’s urge to survive and to mate is called the pursuit of happiness.

 

      And this is our ticket. We have to strengthen our niche otherwise we’ll become extinct. Our ticket is our culture- we are conscious, thinking, observing our own demise. 

So, what is this cognitive achievement turned out to be a problem? It happened gradually between 100,000 to 10,000 years ago. The primitive communication grew into language. The description of behaviors became the description of reality, including the distinct material world. I will discuss this evolutionary process in detail in part 2. The new reality opened the world of things, of technology. The worldviews and the meaning of life changed. Now we have more shopping malls, more hotels, more toys and gadget factories, more airports and bombers. The image is of emotional regression – a bully sucking his thumb. To understand the situation we need to keep shifting the dimensions: from society to personal and back. We need to see that our civilization is the sum of millions of lives, their successes and failures, their loves and hatreds. We keep trying to be satisfied or happy or just less anxious (whatever is the thing we want!) by consuming the planet’s dwindling resources. Imagine that within the next ten years flying electric taxis will become very popular. In the language of cultural evolution, this means complexity and ability to adapt.

Until recently, such an invention would increase the strength of the human’s niche. Not anymore: more passengers, airports, parkings, services, businesses, more technology, more rat race, violence, and poverty. We have to pivot and we can do it. The thing we get from technology, call it happiness, call it power or security we have to learn to get from sustainable experiences. We can learn and teach it to our children- this is a matter of a new curriculum and of a new generation.

How can we do it? 

In the book “About time” Adam Frank describes how the evolution of humanity’s relation to time changed the world. This sense of time changed slowly over millennia. We learned and followed how time-related technology changed people’s minds and people’s minds created technology. It is how this civilization works: we see progress outside,- the same “progress” sits inside everyone’s brain, what each person knows, different depending on education, experience, and interests- and this builds the third, elusive“progress” that exists as a conversation (Werner Erhard’s jargon),  as Carl Jung’s our “collective unconscious” or simply as “culture”. This third “progress” is the one that creates our language, metaphors, and our mythology. 

Now we can, paradoxically, use technology against the technology abusing the Planet. With the new global conversation, we can change the language and mythology almost on the dime.

People’s lives will improve. The improvement will involve more and more people but the resources will be spared. The economies will shrink materially, but the access and the use of carbon-neutral experiences will expand exponentially. This is the only way, otherwise, the suffering of millions will ensue. In my work on the worldviews, I see the human potential. I read these personal worldviews, work with them and I am amazed: everybody writes about peace, meaningful relationships, and love of nature and beauty. We have to follow our idealistic worldviews. We want this, we just need to be taught how to get it. What for Teilhard de Chardin was a nebulous Omega Point (literally pie in the sky) for us might be a desperate survival maneuver.

 

There will be two complementary essays – the sequels to this one. 

Part 2: Materialists and idealists. I will attempt to find them, find them now, and find them in the past. I have already hinted at the origins of materialism- will talk more about that. Where did they come from and where did they go?

Part 3: I will look into the future, into a new curriculum to build a new society. This utopia is unlike well-known, worn and failed utopias of the past- one of spiritual and moral perfection. We will teach our children,( and grass-root movement sprouts already everywhere,) to be happy without abusing the planet. Their lives, in contrast to the prediction for the year 2050, will be more exciting and rich than ours. They will have more than we have, but no more gadgets or power. They will have more love and friendship. More creativity, fun, discovery, and beauty.

 They will be idealists.

Open letter to all humanists.

This is an open letter to all humanists and this is a great majority of all humans. Most of them do not realize that they are humanists. I want to bring this fact to the open : the King is Naked! The term and the meaning of humanism has been hijacked. Most of us are rational, educated and concerned with human problems( including personal, family and tribe problems). But many of us are still working on the childhood fears of the unknown. We think that if we stick to material, scientific or scriptural, “factual” Universe – we will be safe and if we manage to suppress and deny the unknown- we would win.

It is why in my town of Chattanooga, Tennessee,  a group of 20 or 30 ex-baptists or ex-catholics (like me) huddle every month for the Humanist Assembly meeting. It is how we try to handle the fear of the unknown. Next door in hundreds of churches, few synagogues and mosques hundreds of thousands faithfuls respond to this group by desperate or happy clinging to the religious way to handle the unknown.

The more we resist, the more they persist. But we are the species created by evolution! Like in every species, handling unknown is an essential part of survival. Every stupid animal knows it. Cavemen knew it, medieval men knew it-see all these cathedrals- the renaissance men knew it- read Shakespeare!  The imagination, the art, the poetry and the divine- they are all part of the unknown and of the beautiful and awesome human nature, human myth. Also the competition, arrogance, naivety and cruelty – you pick, literally.

The origin of species was described 250 years ago, but it is not in our bones yet, not in our deep, deep worldview.

Get it! Celebrate the unity of man, his creativity and achievements. Not a second too early. Stop fighting! Instead, try to understand and work together on our fears, on the fears of each of us. The ship is sinking (remember The Tempest?), we are the last hominids remaining. Our ancestors survived  several threats of extinction and almost extinction. The scientism like religions make us tiny, helpless, divided and..wrong. The evolutionary thinking shows clearly how over millions of years we created and named all we can see. We can, this time not by luck, but by reason, duck, sneak out and survive again.

Humanists of the world unite!

 

 

 

Niche crisis

Niche crisis (this essay has new, expanded version as Niche crisis II)

 

This species is on the brink of extinction. Each species survival relays on the quality of its niche. The resilience of the species depends on ability to adapt to environmental changes. The organisms, members of a species, use energy to build size of the niche , diversity and complexity. 

 Human’s niche is shrinking , diversity is dwindling and the complexity is built to drive these processes  instead of protecting niche and diversity. Quality of life is rapidly decreasing: people are frightened, worried, angry, impoverished physically, emotionally and intellectually.

  This happened before to many other species and they were extinct, including all six species of earlier humans.

  But only our species can observe this happening. 

Can we use this unique fact to  reverse the trend?

 

I will never know, my children might, my grandchildren will know for sure.

 

To survive we need stop fighting- we need to conquer out tribalism, nationalism and religious divides.

 

To survive we need recognise our unity as a species, as a group of fellow travellers on the same leaking boat, develop friendships, admiration to each other and learn how to cooperate.

 

To survive we have to quit being materialistic, learn ourselves   and teach our children from the crib to cherish and be happy with experiences not with things, 

 

To survive we need to shrink our world population and our economies, develop new education system with emphasis on humanities, art, music , theater and philosophy.