my wife and I decided to have children our first instinct was to try and have
one child and see where things went after that. Fortunately for us our first
child was healthy, so we decided to have one more – and only one more,
regardless of anything that happened afterwards. By only having two children we
are, in effect, contributing to the reduction in global population, because the
“Replacement Fertility” in our part of the world is around 2.1 children per
We could have decided to have just one child or none at all and, based on the
previous chapter, you would think that would be the natural choice for a
committed environmentalist; but I am also a human being, with human instincts.
a human means I am, like all organisms, susceptible to the demands of my DNA. It
also means that I have conscious awareness of the need to survive – for
humans, and probably few other life forms, biological urges are not the be-all
and end-all. If an organism has the mental capacity to understand that it needs
to survive and reproduce, then it may also have the mental capacity to make its
own choices. Humans can choose whether to reproduce and, in extremis, whether to
live or die. They can also choose a lot more besides.
are probably reading this thinking that I have just stated the obvious and, in
fact, you could choose to stop reading this altogether and go and watch some
police chases on TV. This book, or police chases: hardly a life or death
decision really, although I would stress that invoking your right to choose and
closing this book for good could deprive you of a good read, and maybe even a
life-changing experience. The point is, you have that choice, and it is a
conscious one. Even if that choice is not yours – for instance, someone
walking up to you and taking the book away – someone, somewhere along the line
made a conscious decision.
conflict between choice and necessity rarely comes up in our lives now. True
necessity, which invokes survival instincts, is usually encapsulated in a series
of conscious decisions about when to eat, what to drink, where to live, which
job to take and even whether to have children or not. In the latter case, such
choice is not particularly modern; there are references to the use of
contraception and abortion from as far back as 1500 BCE[ii];
but who is to say that such practices are not far older? It seems clear that the
division between choice and necessity can be found wherever survival is at
issue; so, where infant mortality is high, and life expectancy low,
contraception is not particularly relevant, and where the only means of earning
a living is to work down a mine or on a farm, then career choices go out of the
window. On a personal level, I have chosen to become a vegetarian for a number
of reasons – the desire not to kill animals and the understanding that such a
diet is more environmentally sound among them – but if I was a nomadic Inuit
or a Kalahari Bushman, then dietary choice would only be possible if there was a
surplus of the necessary nutrients to keep me alive. If I had to eat meat to
survive then my vegetarianism would take second place to my hunger.
ability to choose, and the choices that we subsequently make are expressions of
the way in which our minds are constructed. Each experience we have, each
emotion that triggers a response within us, each time our senses are awakened,
has an effect on our future decisions. The stimulation of our physical and
mental being reinforces connections between different areas of our brain; a
flavour which evokes a vivid childhood memory, or a sound which takes us to
another place or another time, are examples we can all relate to. Some
connections in our brain, though, are only made obvious when we have to make use
of our instincts.
instinct is any thought or action operating at a level “below” our conscious
awareness. This is sometimes referred to as gut feeling or gut reaction; the
inference being that what has occurred has bypassed our conscious mind. But
instincts are not reflexes (actions which operate without the direct involvement
of our brain) they are the result of something far more cerebral. When I hear a
person making a racist comment, my instinct is one of distaste; I do not make a
conscious decision to feel like that, it happens before I have a chance to think
about it. Of course, I have to process the comment in some way to decide whether
the words spoken amount to something I could call “racist”, but the instant
that this becomes clear, the instinctive gut feeling of distaste occurs.
here is an interesting irony. The most widely known modern proponent of
instinctive behaviour, Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the book “Blink”, is
shown on the inside front cover of that book. I had enthusiastically read and
enjoyed The Tipping Point (more of this later), which did not have an author
photograph in the paperback version; but, almost certainly because I am a white
male brought up in a culture of predominantly white male dominance, was later
surprised to see that the author was of mixed race. Rather like the double-take
story of the surgeon – assumed by most readers to be male – who will not
operate on her daughter, our cultural influences define how we react:
what decisions we make in the face of information. I find racism disgusting, but
my cultural filters still made the author of The Tipping Point white by default.
fact, it is almost impossible to entirely ignore your cultural filters. A
groundbreaking television advertisement for The Guardian newspaper that ran a
few years ago showed this very clearly[iii].
The UK has a rich history of recreational violence: the sort that used to take
place on the beaches of Margate, Brighton and Southend-on-Sea between various
groups of people in the summer sun. In the 1970s the “tribes” most commonly
involved were the various groups of skinheads, who would fight tooth and nail,
before retreating to the local pubs for a celebratory drink. The skinhead was,
and still is, a symbol of white supremacy in many parts of the world; and also
of many other types of behaviour often associated with the fringes of society.
The Guardian advertisement showed a heavily built skinhead racing towards a man
in a pork-pie hat and suit, from various angles. The thought in my mind, and
those of most people who saw the film, was that the man in the suit was about to
be attacked. The crunch came in the last ten seconds, which showed the scene
from an entirely different angle: the skinhead was, in fact, saving the other
man from being crushed by a falling pallet of bricks. Cultural history has a
huge part to play in defining the way we think.
extent to which our decisions – conscious or instinctive – are coloured by
our experiences is a key to understanding whether, and to what extent, people
are likely to be influenced by news and other information about environmental
damage. A study carried out at the University of Oulu, Finland[iv]
found that when looking at the way in which information is perceived across
different cultures, a huge range of factors had to be taken into consideration,
including: the “nature” of a person and their beliefs; a person’s
relationship with the external environment; the way in which that person
communicates; and whether a person identifies with the past, present or future,
and to what extent. The study found that technology only went part of the way to
bridging cultural gaps – far more important in overcoming cultural differences
was simply the ability to understand those differences. In short, in order to
influence, you first have to get inside people’s minds.
people understand what is going on in their own minds is another matter.
century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz believed – possibly in a moment of
weakness – that our minds are controlled by independent beings known as
Homunculi, which literally means “little men”. Such images crop up
throughout history, usually in a light-hearted manner, but few people would
admit to having such serious beliefs now. However, ask someone to explain who
they are – what are they in themselves - and they would probably
struggle to give you a convincing answer.
spent a long time reading philosophy books: from Plato to Mill, from Machiavelli
to Kant, and finally to a philosopher that few people have heard of – Derek
Parfit. Halfway through Parfit’s “Reasons and Persons” I stopped. I had
reams of notes. Here is a sample of my thoughts:
suppose that when we sleep, our memories (for which read the specific states of
all the neurons in our brains) are transferred to another person. Our brain –
that which we inhabited prior to sleep – is destroyed. Do we wake up in the
brain / body of the other person?
for a start, in order to transfer these memories to another person, we have to
fundamentally change the state of many, if not all, neurons in that person's
brain. This will effectively, on most views, destroy the continuity of that
person. But do they become us?
first glance the answer would seem to be yes, our mental state has been
transferred, so we are bound to wake up in the other brain / body.
what happens if our original brain is not destroyed – would there be two of
us? And if so, could we be simultaneously aware of waking up in both of these
not the kind of thing to give you a good night’s sleep, if I’m being honest,
and that’s one reason why I gave up reading philosophy. My studies allowed me
to make a conclusion about what we are, in ourselves – at least to my own
satisfaction: “We are the result of the interaction of our accumulated
memories with the awareness and control of our physical being and its
surroundings.” This is obviously a gross oversimplification, but it gets round
the idea of having little men cropping up in my brain pulling levers and pushing
buttons; after all, who is controlling the homunculi?
other reason I gave up philosophy was that I realised it was fruitless
discussing the metaphysical nature of things when all around me a physical
battle for the future of the planet was going on. I wasn’t going to cut carbon
emissions by contemplating the inside of my head. One thing was clear already,
though: just by applying a little bit more self awareness then some of the
things that we hold so dear show themselves up to be completely absurd!
Importance Of Being Happy
seems that beyond the desire to live and (in most cases) reproduce, we desire
one other thing that sometimes outweighs even the instructions of our DNA –
happiness. At a physical level, happiness comes from our senses being stimulated
in just the right way, whether by touch, smell, sight, sound or taste; to give
us the feelings that we associate with “being happy”. We can also “think
ourselves happy” in various ways – such as recalling happy times, ridding
ourselves of worrying thoughts and so on – which are the enduring results of
previous pleasant sensory activity.
is no accident that we remember the things that make us physically happy; our
memories are vital for ensuring we avoid “bad” things and seek out
“good” things. The roots of this are almost certainly evolutionary. Sex (and
thus DNA replication) would not happen as often if we did not enjoy it; we would
not know which foods were safe to eat if we did not receive positive smell and
taste stimulation from them; children would be less likely to remain in the safe
care of their parents if they did not feel happy with them. John Rawls, the
American philosopher spoke of happiness being a combination of “carrying
through a rational plan and being confident that it will succeed.”[v]
This is an almost perfect analogue for survival. Given this definition,
happiness must be a good thing.
McMahon, author of “Happiness: A History” said, in a recent speech: “No
matter how hard we try to fix its meaning, the word and concept will always come
to us…as the ultimate human end, the final place of rest, the solution and
salvation to human dissatisfaction, the answer to the riddle of the
Not surprising then, that so many aspects of humanity revolve around the need to
attain happiness, and that so many activities, regardless of their outcome –
short or long term, small or large scale, constructive or destructive – offer
the great prize of “happiness”.
Therapy is essentially shopping to make you feel better. Elated, in fact, if the
looks on the faces of those being sold goods on almost every television and
press advertisement are anything to go by. Have you ever seen an unhappy look on
the face of a purchaser in an advertisement?
therapy n. the practice
of shopping in order to make oneself feel more cheerful.[vii]
for each Google search query:
therapy” = 1,250,000 results
therapy” + “happy” = 334,000 results
therapy” + “bargains” = 160,000 results
therapy” + “low prices” = 30,500 results
therapy” + “addiction” = 43,700 results
is an awful lot of symbolism in the above results. First, the heavy appearance
of the phrase “retail therapy” in the first place, and its inclusion in
almost every major dictionary, implies the acceptance of shopping as something
that makes people feel happy. The association of the phrase with “happy” is
not surprising – this is part of the common use of the phrase – but the
association with “bargains” and “low prices” is more significant. About
fifteen percent of all uses of the phrase “retail therapy” come with the
word “bargains”: the phrase itself is being used to sell products.
of this is likely to be startling to anyone who has spent time under the
influence of advertising, be it through the mass media or at the point of sale.
We are hardly going to buy something that is not absolutely essential to us
without having a positive feeling about it. I remember being glued to the
television during the times I was allowed to watch it as a boy in the 1970s, and
now carry with me jingles and catch phrases that associated happiness with
goods: “The sunshine taste of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes”, “Have a cracking
Christmas at Woolworths”, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it
now realise, though, that the simple message of happiness put across from the
earliest days of television advertising is not enough to tempt shoppers to use
their particular outlet or product in the face of increasing competition, so
must be licking their lips as the rebranding of shopping as a core leisure
activity takes hold. I found the following itinerary advertised on an American
self-drive tour website[ix]:
- BANFF/LAKE LOUISE - JASPER - EDMONTON
1-2. Experience Calgary.
3-4. Travel to Banff and Lake Louise area and enjoy the delights of the
spectacular scenery that abound.
5-6. Continue North and visit the Athabasca Glacier, Maligne Lake and Jasper
National Park area.
7-8. Travel East to Edmonton for some last minute shopping at the West Edmonton
Mall (arguably the largest shopping Mall in North America) before flying home.
7 and 8, which have shopping as the main activity, contrast sharply with the
previous days of exploring spectacular scenery and regions of geographic
interest. You would be hard pushed indeed to find any tourist location that does
not boast some form of shop in any part of the Western world, and increasingly
countries like Thailand and India are using retail as a magnet to attract
tourists in addition to, and sometimes instead of, culture and heritage. A 1999
of New South Wales, Australia, visitors found that shopping was by far the most
popular pastime for international visitors, with 82 percent of all respondents
stating this as a preference. The next most popular response was “Go to the
beach” at 60 percent. The Visit Britain web site offers shopping as main
headings for its itineraries, attractions and events sections. Leisure
activities are those that people choose to carry out for the purposes of
enjoyment. Shopping has become a key part of that enjoyment. My own trip (by
train and bus) to North Wales in the summer of 2007 brought this strikingly
home. The railway platform, which famously bears the name of the longest place
name in Europe, was empty; the new shopping mall and car park next to the
railway station was packed with tourists buying souvenirs.
forms of happiness are more subtle, but no less intrinsic to our lives.
early 2007, I wrote an article called “Did You Have A Good Life”[xi],
contrasting a rich, successful man called Alan with a poor, seemingly
unsuccessful man called James. Alan ‘speaks’ of his material success:
yourself down; it’s a nice sofa, isn’t it? Cream leather, with invisible
stitching, and mahogany inlays. I would have had walnut, but it doesn’t match
the wall unit, but the leather matches the car interior very well; I upgraded to
the new Range Rover Sport 3 months ago, after I heard about the latest tumour.
We thought, ‘What the hell? The life insurance will cover that, and the
Lexus.’ I don’t want Jean going without; she’s used to this way of life,
and I’m not going to deny her that after I’m gone.”
had a really good life, when you think about it. Look around – have you seen a
better parquet than the one in the sitting room? And when I look out of the
window, I know that most of that is mine. It’s a great feeling. No, I’ve got
no regrets – life’s for living, isn’t it?”
thinks he is happy. He really thinks that a good life is something that can be
bought with hard cash. James, on the other hand, feels his life has been a
hello. Sorry, I didn’t see you there. Sorry about the mess, I’ve been trying
to keep the place tidy, but haven’t got the energy lately. If you’re going
past Oxfam this afternoon could you pop in and see if they need any help?
That’s really kind; I hate to let them down. Do you want a tea? There are some
bags in the jar by the kettle; mind the boxes, I’ve asked Julie to pack up
some of my old clothes for the recycling – I don’t think I’ll be needing
them any more.”
airport are trying to get planning permission to extend the runway, and they
want to move a bit of the cemetery. Progress, I suppose, but they want to move
Linda’s plot, and I can’t stand the thought of that. Why can’t they just
leave things alone? I mustn’t complain too much, but sometimes life feels so
unfair – some people have it so much better.”
men are dying. Whose life would you rather have had? Often when I write I leave
hidden meanings for people to find for themselves, but this seems like a good
time to reveal one of those meanings. James’ dialogue includes a couple of
sentences that I like to think say more about happiness than anything else I
had our honeymoon at the seaside, at the same hotel we stayed at for years after
– it wasn’t too posh, but we liked it. We loved getting the train; didn’t
seem any point driving as we’d only be stuck in a traffic jam.”
doesn’t think he has had a good life, but within these two sentences is a joy
that is entirely missing from Alan’s words. Alan’s apparent happiness rests
on the acquisition of material wealth, the appreciation of this wealth by people
within his social circle and, no doubt, the jealousy of those who had not
achieved the levels of consumption that Alan has attained. His happiness
ultimately comes at the expense of other people and the natural environment from
which the resources that fuelled his consumption were taken. Alan’s happiness
is purely selfish – yet it seems that is what most people within Industrial
Civilization are striving for.
tempting to think that our natural state of mind, and being, is selfishness; we
are hard-wired for survival, and an element of selfishness must be in us all.
Survival, though, is not what I mean by selfishness. For humans to survive there
will inevitably be some knock-on effect within another part of the food /
ecological web that we occupy, but that doesn’t have to be at the expense of
another human. It is perfectly possible for one human to survive without causing
another human to die, even if it seems that some politicians’ careers depend
on being in denial over that position. In fact, in a sustainable world our
survival need not be at the expense of any part of the global ecosystem; at
least not so the affected part cannot adjust to take account of our activities.
For instance, the use of wood from a Canadian spruce forest is perfectly all
right, so long as its removal does not cause a net loss of the natural
biodiversity within that habitat.
selfishness happens when the veneer between survival and excess is breached. My
use of the odd tree from a Canadian spruce forest may be sustainable on its own,
but the use of that forest by 7 billion other people is not going to leave very
much forest at all. In a way, then, my use of just one tree in a forest is
selfish behaviour, because I cannot assume to have sole use of that resource
amongst humans, or any other organism that depends on that forest for its own
survival. As we saw in Chapter Eight, humans are currently behaving in a selfish
manner – the biosphere simply cannot support our current net activities as a
species – but that does not mean that we are individually selfish. An
interested observer would probably, if viewing humans as a single entity from
afar, tar us all with the same brush: “Selfish humans! Do they really want to
destroy their planet?”
the 1950s, the explorer Laurens van der Post experienced something that sheds
light on the difference between the absolute selfishness of taking more from the
Earth than you give back, and the Western view of selfishness, which seems to
value “civility” higher than anything else. Following a game hunt in South
Africa, for which a number of San Bushmen had been paid to assist the white
hunters, one of the party noticed that the San did not thank them for their
gifts, thinking it rude. Thom Hartmann takes up the story:
of van der Post’s assistants, a hunter who’d never encountered Bushmen
before, commented that they seemed ungrateful and uncaring. Ben, one of the
other men in the group who understood Bushman culture, responded that to give
another human food and water is only good manners and is routine behavior among
the Bushmen. If the white men had been starving on a long trek and the Bushmen
had found them, they would immediately share their food and water, even if it
endangered their own survival. And they wouldn’t expect thanks in response.[xii]
is only when you get up close do you realise that selfishness is not some
innate, unlearned human behaviour: it is actually something almost totally alien
to pre-industrial humanity.
respect that Native Americans give to their food resources is widely documented.
Professor Erna Guntha, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, wrote
extensively about the First Salmon Ceremony, which was (and is) performed by
many tribes along the north Pacific coast of North America to celebrate the
return of the spawning salmon to their ancient runs. She writes: “None of the
tribes who catch the salmon practice agriculture, but depend largely on fish. In
most streams [the] spring salmon run comes in prodigious numbers, and is awaited
with great eagerness. It presents an occasion for expressing the attitude of
veneration which is held throughout the area toward the salmon.”[xiii]
This veneration for the salmon is a reflection of the tribes’ need to ensure
they return year after year; the ceremony may not have an effect on the salmon
numbers, but if nothing else it reinforces in the celebrants’ minds the need
for salmon runs to be looked after in perpetuity. When the explorers Lewis and
Clark came across the salmon runs in 1803 millions of wild salmon thrived in the
clean, open runs, despite around 10,000 years of continued use[xiv]
by at least 1.8 million tribespeople[xv].
Selfishness, when it came to salmon, would have been catastrophic for the Native
As it was, by 1872, following four decades of European disease and relentless
slaughter, the Native American population
had been reduced to less than 240,000[xvii].
appears that such unselfish, sustainable behaviour, when it comes to the use of
natural resources, is typical, and no doubt essential, for the few remaining
hunter-gatherer tribes around the world. Marshall Sahlins studied this behaviour
for many years in Africa and Australia. Although hunter-gatherer activity
requires a large area of uncultivated land through which the tribe can move in
their quest for food, they still consume less energy per person per year than
any other group of human beings[xviii].
It is not just food that is used sparingly, though. Because personal belongings
are a burden, they simply do not manufacture nor acquire anything that is not
essential to the hunter-gatherer way of life. Rodney Frey, Professor of American
Studies at the University of Idaho, made a comparison of the energy requirements
of different societies[xx].
His results are startling, to say the least:
society: the equivalent of 5,000 kilocalories are needed daily per
capita (2,000 kilocalories food energy and 3,000 kcal firewood energy).
society (domesticated plants harvested by hand from gardens): the equivalent
of 12,000 kilocalories are required (4,000 kilocalories food, 4,000 kcal
firewood and 4,000 kcal domesticated animals).
society: the equivalent of 26,000 kilocalories are needed daily
(7,000 kilocalories food, 6,000 kcal firewood, 12,000 kcal domesticated animal
and 1,000 kcal coal).
society: the equivalent of 77,000 kilocalories are required per
capita per day (24,000 kilocalories food, 7,000 kcal firewood, 32,000 kcal
domesticated animals, and 14,000 kcal coal).
society: the equivalent of from 230,000 to 273,000 kilocalories are
needed per individual each day (91,000 kilocalories food, 10,000 kcal firewood,
33,000 kcal domesticated animals, 63,000 kcal coal and 33,000 kcal electricity).[xxi]
becomes clear, the more that you look at our way of life in the distant past
(and those of some people who still manage to eke out a subsistence living from
their disappearing natural habitats) that selfishness helps no one, not even the
protagonist, when it comes to survival.
not only is selfish behaviour ecologically unsustainable, it is also logically
unsustainable. The term Prisoners’ Dilemma is used to describe a situation
where two people have the choice whether to behave selfishly or not. Nigel
Warburton describes it like this: “Imagine that you and your partner in crime
have been caught, but not red-handed; you are being interrogated in separate
cells. You don’t know what your partner has or hasn’t owned up to. The
situation is this: if neither of you confesses, then both of you go free. At
first thought this seems the best course of action. However, the catch is that
if you remain silent and your partner confesses and thereby incriminates you, he
will be rewarded for his collaboration and set free.”[xxii]
[i] R. Engelman and E. Leahy, “How Many Children Does It Take to Replace Their Parents? Variation in Replacement Fertility as an Indicator of Child Survival and Gender Status”, http://paa2006.princeton.edu/download.aspx?submissionId=60125 (accessed 15 October, 2007). It’s 2.07 in the UK, but a great deal higher in most other countries.
[ii] M. Potts and M. Campbell, “History Of Contraception”, Gynaecology and Obstetrics (6), 2002.
[iv] Mirja Iivonen, Diane H. Sonnenwald, Maria Parma and Evelyn Poole-Kober , “Analyzing and Understanding Cultural Differences: Experiences from Education in Library and Information Studies”, 1998, http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla64/077-155e.htm (accessed 24 October, 2007)
[v] J. Rawls, “A Theory Of Justice”, Oxford University Press, 1999.
[vi] “New Directions in the Study of Happiness: United States and International Perspectives”, 2006 (http://www.nd.edu/~adutt/activities/documents/McMahonNotreDameTalk.pdf)
[vii] “Concise Oxford English Dictionary”, OUP, 2004.
[x] Tourism New South Wales, “National Visitor Survey and International Visitor Survey
research findings”, http://corporate.tourism.nsw.gov.au/Sites/SiteID6/objLib13/4_nature_tourism_research_findings.pdf (accessed 22 October 2007)
[xii] Thom Hartmann, “The Lessons Ancient People Have For Us”, http://www.thomhartmann.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=203&Itemid=80 (accessed 28 February, 2008)
[xiii] Erna Gunther, “A Further Analysis Of The First Salmon Ceremony”, University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, 1928.
[xv] Douglas H. Ubelaker, “North American Indian population size, A.D. 1500 to 1985”, Amer. J. Physical Anthropology (77), 1988.
[xvi] Many of the salmon runs are now dead – industrial humans have taken it upon themselves to dam the rivers for electricity generation.
[xvii] Native American Documents Project, “Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary for the Year 1872” from http://www.csusm.edu/nadp/r872001d.htm (accessed 11 December, 2007)
[xix] American Indian and Native American are used interchangeably throughout the literature. I prefer the term “Native American” simply because it implies prior habitation of the North American continent.
[xx] Rodney Frey, “Original Affluent Society”, http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~rfrey/220original.html (accessed 1 November, 2007)
[xxi] The increasing figures for food reflect the way that food is grown, transported and processed. The figures for domesticated animals reflect this in terms of the way their feed is produced, as well as the amount of animal products we consume.
[xxii] Nigel Warburton, “Philosophy: The Classics. 2nd Edition”, Routledge, 2001.
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