The annual Christmas urban melee for presents is over. Waistlines, expanded to bursting point are now forced into post-indulgence exercise programmes. New presents lie discarded and recycling bins are fit to burst with wrapping paper and packaging. Religious leaders typically bemoan the hijacking of the traditional message of Christmas by commerce in a festival of consumption, but recently I’ve had cause to challenge my thinking. In his book, Sapiens: A Brief Introduction to Mankind, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that we are now nearest to world peace thanks to the mutual cooperation necessary to satisfy our urge to purchase. Could it be that the this mutually-shared religion of consumption has probably done more for world peace than any of the more formally recognised religions.
Challenging your own viewpoint from time to time is really important. Its very easy to get set in your ways or indeed jump upon the most current wave of thinking without asking yourself what evidence you have for your belief.
I find myself, like many others, outraged by the destruction our developed and developing nations’ lifestyles are wrecking on habitats and species. There is good evidence that our capitalist-consumer lifestyles are the main driver of the sixth great extinction of earth’s biodiversity, the so-called Anthropecene Defaunation. Humans haven’t suddenly become environment wreckers through consumption though; we were ever thus. The anthropologist Jared Diamond here states that it is “clear that the first arrival of humans at any oceanic island with no previous human inhabitants has always precipitated a mass extinction in the island biota”. The problem now is a question of scale In 12,000 BCE the human population numbered between 5-10 million. Global population is now over 7 billion and is predicted to hit 11billion by the end of the century.
I thoroughly recommend Sapiens to anyone with an interest in why we are who we are today and what we are becoming- in Harari’s view not Homo sapiens for much longer if biotechnology advances continue on the current pace. There are some thought-provoking ideas in this book about the evolution of thinking (cooking food allowed the development of bigger brains); about storytelling (myths and stories are essential for allowing larger communities and trusting others who you don’t have a direct relationship or face to face contact with); and about happiness (why in broad biological terms a C15th peasant is no less happy than a C21st banker- the chemical response to stimulus that makes us happy is the same, even if the things that make us happy have changed).
Some of the most enlightening and challenging chapters for me were about the development of our modern society and in particular the concept of money and credit and how the development of these pillars of the modern world underpin the scientific revolution and the discovery of new worlds.
Harari’s theory on consumerism is that the relative peace of the modern world is due in large part to shared goals around commerce. We have all come to share, whether we like it or not, the Capitalist-Consumer ‘religious’ outlook and because of this our fellow human being is worth more to us alive than dead- its a nonzero-sumgame; the ability to cooperate brings both parties more gain than a win-lose landscape of conflict. The ideas are also explored by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and in this TED talk .
One might argue, as George Monbiot does in his recent book Feral (an excerpt from it here) that the collapse of human society into conflict in the past provided biodiversity gains. But recent studies in Africa have shown that conflict poses a serious threat to the environment (Shambaugh et al 2001 The Trampled Grass_ Mitigating the impacts of Conflict on the Environment).
But this attempts to take humanity out of the equation within ecosystems, and I’m not an advocate of this. We have ourselves evolved with every other species on this planet to the place we find ourselves in today. Our consumptive behaviour which is defaunating the globe is no less ‘unnatural’ than the impacts of any other ecosystem engineer. As resources for our own survival are threatened it will necessitate a behaviour change or we risk our own extinction, as Jared Diamond has shown in his book Collapse. What is different is the insight we have into this process; one hopes, perhaps in vain, that our species might have gained enough insight into our role in structuring the global environment that we have the will to step back from the brink before self-preservation forces us to.
Without the intervention of technology to open up new horizons or exploitation (other worlds/worlds within worlds), resources expire and violent competition begins again. The Guardian Newspaper reported that US director of national intelligence warned in 2012 that overuse of water is a source of conflict that could potentially compromise US national security.
The evolution of the behaviour of our species needs to find another story that binds us together in mutual cooperation without exploiting our environment to destruction . There is an argument that mutual cooperation between people and our societies is essential to provide the framework necessary for a more sustainable future. And a globalised world is a perfect tool for rapid dissemination of big ideas.
Undoubtedly the biggest shift needed is a change in consciousness that sees our own survival as part of and not separate from the well-being of other species. While we have moved over the course of our existence from protectors of the family and the clan we need to extend our circle of concern past the barrier of species to find mutually cooperative links with other organisms and ecosystems.