Chapter 9

Who Are We?


When 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 couple[i]. 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.

Being 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.

You 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.

The 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.


Not Just Physical

Our 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.

An 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.

Now 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Whether people understand what is going on in their own minds is another matter.

The 17th 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.

I 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:

Let's 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?

Well, 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?

At 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.

But 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 people. 

It’s 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?

The 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!


The Importance Of Being Happy

It 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.

It 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.

Darrin 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 existence.”[vi] 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”.

*   *   *

Retail 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?

retail therapy  n. the practice of shopping in order to make oneself feel more cheerful.[vii]

Results[viii] for each Google search query:

“retail therapy” = 1,250,000 results

“retail therapy” + “happy” = 334,000 results

“retail therapy” + “bargains” = 160,000 results

“retail therapy” + “low prices” = 30,500 results

“retail therapy” + “addiction” = 43,700 results

There 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.

None 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 company”.

Businesses 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]:


Day 1-2. Experience Calgary.

Day 3-4. Travel to Banff and Lake Louise area and enjoy the delights of the spectacular scenery that abound.

Day 5-6. Continue North and visit the Athabasca Glacier, Maligne Lake and Jasper National Park area.

Day 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.

Days 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 survey[x] 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.

Some forms of happiness are more subtle, but no less intrinsic to our lives.

*   *   *

In 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:

“Sit 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.”

“I’ve 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?”

Alan 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 failure:

“Oh, 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.”

“The 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.”

Both 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 have written:

“We 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.”

James 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.


Selfish Beings?

It’s 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.

True 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?”

In 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:

One 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]

It 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.

The 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 Americans[xvi]. 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].

It 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 Indian[xix] 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:

Hunter-gatherer society: the equivalent of 5,000 kilocalories are needed daily per capita (2,000 kilocalories food energy and 3,000 kcal firewood energy).

Horticultural 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).

Agricultural 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).

Industrial 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).

Technological 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]

It 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.

But 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]

Confessing and then turning “Queen’s Evidence”, thus giving your partner a hefty time in jail, is selfish behaviour which seems to be beneficial for you. However, if your partner also turns Queen’s Evidence, you will both receive time in jail. It may be that later on evidence will appear to incriminate either of you without a confession being required – and the act of committing a crime may be selfish in itself – but acting selfishly in order to gain a pardon is not actually in your own best interest. Putting this in an environmental context; you may think it perfectly acceptable to help yourself to another fish from the river, so that the angler on the other bank has to work harder for tomorrow’s dinner, but suppose the angler on the other bank has the same idea? A river may be able to support the voracious appetites of two, ten or a hundred anglers for a short while, but eventually an over fished river becomes an empty river; and an empty river can feed no one at all.

[Continue to Chapter 10]


[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”, (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.

[iii] Advert for The Guardian, “The Whole Picture”. This can be viewed at (accessed 28 February, 2008)

[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, (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 (

[vii] “Concise Oxford English Dictionary”, OUP, 2004.

[viii] Searches carried out on, 22 October, 2007.

[ix] Ranch Rider, “Self Drive Tours”, (accessed 22 October, 2007)

[x] Tourism New South Wales, “National Visitor Survey and International Visitor Survey

research findings”, (accessed 22 October 2007)

[xi] Keith Farnish, “Did You Have A Good Life?”, (accessed 28 October, 2007)

[xii] Thom Hartmann, “The Lessons Ancient People Have For Us”, (accessed 28 February, 2008)

[xiii] Erna Gunther, “A Further Analysis Of The First Salmon Ceremony”, University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, 1928.

[xiv] Save Our Wild Salmon, “Lewis and Clark”, (accessed 1 November, 2007)

[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 (accessed 11 December, 2007)

[xviii] Marshall Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society” from (accessed 1 November 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”, (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.


A Matter Of Scale by Keith Farnish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License.


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