Among other sources of the good and bad news that permeates the internet and other media these days, I follow a couple of ambitious news groups: The Great Transition Network (GTN) and the Sustainable Consumption world (SCORAI). Both are worthy sources of some very clear thinking about what will be needed to secure a just and sustainable future. But both (and virtually all others seeking an effective path forward), I believe, are missing an essential prerequisite: a shift in human self-consciousness.
Put into other words, until human beings begin to think of themselves as caring creatures (Homo curitans), rather than adopt the current dominant view as selfish, needy, violent actors (Homo economicus), no policies for change, even radical approaches, are likely to stick, much less find enough acceptance to approach some sort of tipping point. There is nothing in our Linnaean species name (Home sapiens) that would point to either of these as defining characteristics. That name is related to the relatively massive brain that humans possess, when compared to our body mass.
The Latin root of the word, sapiens, is wise, which might have come from observations of the creative, adaptive abilities of early humans. If Linnaeus were alive today, he might have made a different choice, closer to our apparent path toward destroying our habitat, perhaps something like Homo perniciosus. None of the several nicknames are directly related to sapiens; they are all invented by someone, based on observations of behaviors. They are not part of the human destiny or nature, like the phenotype that reflects the genetic make-up (genotype) of any individual. All humans do have certain characteristics, but we are not all selfish, violent, wise, caring, or any other similar quality.
Some cultures at certain periods of historical time may have reflected any one or more of such traits as most obvious or dominant. To the extent that these behavioral traits were voiced by authority figures as singular and real, they would have become reified and considered to be part of the nature of human beings. In the words of the philosopher, John Searle, these observations would be transformed into institutional facts, indistinguishable in use from what he calls, brute facts, e. g., objects fall downwards when released, or water has the property of wetness. The utterance of authorities, like Adam Smith or René Descartes, became real in the sense that their particular meanings diffuse into the culture and into everyday speech and thought. Eventually these meanings become taken-for-granted, just like gravity.
They become properties of the image that humans develop when reflecting on themselves, that is, become conscious of themselves or are self-conscious. Societal institutions of all sorts and scales are based on them. Capitalism and the design of markets are built on a Smithian model of the self-interesting, insatiably needy human. Political rhetoric today often refers to the inherently violent nature of humans and the need to bring it under control. As long as social actions stem from these beliefs, no alternate sets of policies or institutions is likely to persist.
The dialectic process that reinforces beliefs as they are being enacted in institutional structure has made the idea of Homo economicus almost inviolate, a brute fact, whereas it is an institutional fact, subject to being superseded by new authorities and the subsequent acceptance of cultural actors. Such authorities–I will mention a few–have spoken out in the past, but have not prevailed. I believe that the time has come to very carefully take another look for a couple of reasons.
Modern societies that carry the Hobbsian, Smithian belief about what humans are in their cultural DNA, are failing to achieve their goals and are harming the Earth in the process. Recent findings about the way the brain works have pointed to reasons why these present beliefs have retained their dominance and also to ways to recover the more primal caring attitudes and self-consciousness.
The eminent psychotherapist, Erich Fromm, made a strong argument for an existential mode of being over the selfish mode of having in his book, To Have or to Be. When his work is paired with the phenomenological philosopher, Martin Heidegger, his dichotomy can be translated into “to have or to care.” Heidegger and other existential scholars believed that care is the fundamental human quality, the one that makes our species unique.
Their work has become further grounded by the recent work of the British psychotherapist and philosopher, Iain McGilchrist who argues that the brain has a dichotomous nature created by its divided structure. The right hemisphere is the source of caring, arising from a close coupling of the actor to the immediate external world. The right-brain is the source of empathetic action and an understanding of what is going on with others in the field of view of the actor.
The left acts very differently, largely on the basis of abstractions that have been created by taking past experiences out of their immediate worldly context. It re-presents a diminished, lifeless world and prods the actor to control or manipulate it. McGilchrist argues that the social and environmental ills of the present are the result of an imbalance between the two hemispheres, with the left having enslaved the right. In place of right-brain-oriented cultures of relationships and caring, the left brain’s dominance has led to our technocratic, scientistic, abstract, objectified modern life. Francis Bacon’s prescient words from the early 17th Century are tacit in seeking reasons for climate change and other serious environmental threats.
The mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s course, they have the power to conquer her and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.
Another indication of the dichotomy of the brain’s worlds and the impact of the mastery of the left can be found in the communicative action model of the German social theorist, Jurgen Habermas. His theory lines up closely with the divided brain model. He offers a dichotomous scheme of action–strategic or instrumental actions (left-brain) vs. communicative actions “oriented to reach understanding”–placing manipulative acts in opposition to caring or empathetic ones, respectively. The latter do not require any form of coercion or reward to be enacted, as does the other type. He sees communicative acts as an ideal form of rationality, answering those critical of modernity and its embedded power structures (left-brain).
I could add much more to this brief discussion arguing that, over their history, humans have have only two basic, ontological views of themselves, depending on which hemisphere was in charge. It seems likely that early versions of Homo sapiens, prior to the explosion of conceptual language during the Greek period, would have seen the world and themselves largely through the right-brain. The extreme degree of sociability on our species seems to bear this out.
The upshot of all this is that real change cannot happen until the current modernist self-consciousness is replaced by one that shows us to be caring, rather than needy, focused on relationships instead of possessions and control. If the left brain remains the master, human actions will stymie any attempts to solve our pressing problems by more applications of technology and technocratic “solutions” to our pressing problems. In the words of the management guru, Russ Ackoff, we will only “resolve” our problems temporarily, but not “dissolve” them permanently.