and its importance for sustainability

Towards a
Philosophy of


Millions of years of evolution moulded human behaviour to serve the survival and advantage of individuals and their family groups (clans) in the natural environment (which included other, rival, groups of humans). There has been little or no time for it to adapt to the much larger social units of civilisation, which only developed in the last few thousand years, effectively replacing the natural environment with an artificial socio-economic environment. This was a unique and profound development, the consequences of which, because we are totally immersed in, familiar with and dependent on them, we fail to recognise (see Uncommon sense vs the insanities of normality).

The most general and important consequence is that we naturally and automatically give priority to the economy (the household of man and part of the socio-economic environment) over ecology (the household of our planet, which constitutes the natural environment), when it should be obvious (were we not blinded by our familiarity with and dependency on the status quo) that for medium and long-term human survival it has to be the other way around.

Unsurprisingly, in view of what Charles Darwin taught us about human origins, the entire socio-economic order (national and global) is deeply rooted in our animal nature, which free-market capitalism has developed and been honed to take advantage of. This is why it seems to work so well, especially, of course, for those in position of privilege, wealth, power and authority, but also, because of the vast amounts of wealth created from the plundering of our planet, for millions of others besides, all of whom have a very strong, but short-sighted, self-interest in maintaining the status quo.

This self-interest is short-sighted (certainly if that of our children and grandchildren is included with our own), because the socio-economic environment, with which we are almost totally preoccupied and dependent upon, is itself dependent on the natural environment, which, despite all our declared concern for it, we remain, for the reason given above, woefully negligent of.

Analogous with the natural environment, where over long periods of time organisms occupy, defend and develop their niches, thereby creating new niches for other organisms, the socio-economic environment has expanded in modern times at an exponential rate, creating an ever greater variety of niches (jobs and sources of income; some socially valuable, others to a greater or lesser extent parasitic) for ever more people.  In the natural environment a web of interdependencies and regulatory feed-back and recycling mechanisms give particular biotopes stability and longevity, making the biosphere as a whole eminently sustainable. In the artificial, socio-economic environment a web of interdependences between niches and ecotopes (industries) has also developed, but without the regulatory feed-back and recycling mechanisms necessary for sustainability. On the contrary, the economy (which constitutes to a large extent the socio-economic environment) is growing unsustainably, parts of it having become analogous to cancerous growth in an organism (e.g. the automobile and aviation industries, the continued growth of which cannot possibly be sustained on our finite and vulnerable planet).

At the moment we are still in a state of collective denial about the inherent non-sustainability of the socio-economic order in which we live (our growth-dependent economy and the grossly materialistic way of life it engenders), because each of us is more concerned with our own particular niche - understandably, because we depend on it.

However, if we carry on as we are, a ruthless mother nature (who is already "warming up" for the job), will take matters into her own hands.

We are facing the biggest challenge in human history. For the sake of our children and coming generations, we have to face up to it.


No amount of environmental debate, legislation or technology will enable us to achieve sustainability (and avoid catastrophe) until we face up to the fact that our society and economy are deeply rooted in and still dominated by our animal nature. 

Ultimately modern man, just like ancient man and every animal on the planet, is absolutely dependent on the natural environment for his survival, but we have become alienated from this vital fact of life, preoccupied instead with the struggle for survival and advantage within the artificial socio-economic environment, on which we appear to depend most.

Most of what is vital for human survival is done nowadays not for its own sake, but for money within the socio-economic environment, along with countless more-or-less non-essential tasks, from which it is rarely (often cannot be) distinguished. Farmers, for example, produce food primarily, not to feed themselves (directly) or others, but to earn money. And despite food production being absolutely essential to human survival, in the context of the socio-economic environment it is given no more importance (in fact, often less importance) than producing cars, for example, which far from being essential for human survival, are now (because of their numbers and impact on the environment) a threat.

In a million different ways, we act as though, and even believe that the economy (the household of man) is more important than ecology (the household of nature; both words being derived from the Greek word for household). It is argued that because it costs money to protect and restore the environment, the economy (which provides the money) is the more important, but such argumentation is flawed, because it overlooks the fact that all human activity can only take place within the natural environment and is subject to its limitations; it has resulted in a grave misunderstanding of reality and in the inversion of priorities vital to long-term (and even medium-term) human survival. It persists because it is an integral part of conventional economic philosophy and practice and cannot be addressed without us questioning many of the values, attitudes, aspirations and short-sighted self-interests on which our growth-dependent economy and familiar (grossly materialistic) way of life are based.

Despite us all having an enlightened and vital self-interest in a sustainable socio-economic order, in reality we are primarily concerned with maintaining or improving our own position within the existing, non-sustainable socio-economic order. This is what millions of years of evolution have programmed us to do (having transferred its focus from the natural environment) and which our free-market economy is adapted to and dependent upon.

Socialism was a largely, though not completely vain attempt by man's more enlightened (but not enlightened enough) human nature to create a more just and humane society. It was repeatedly hijacked by his "more animal than human " nature, thus creating a situation even worse than before (e.g. the capitalist West was a more progressive, just and humane place than so-called socialist or communist countries).

The idea behind our social, free-market economy is that everybody pursues their own self-interest and in so doing benefits society as a whole, with the state providing and enforcing the legal framework, while creaming off a greater or lesser proportion of the created wealth in order to finance essential infrastructure, defence and other services (e.g. the welfare state), which cannot be left to market forces. If our planet had much larger reserves of natural resources and a far greater carrying capacity, or alternatively, a much smaller human population, this model of society might work tolerably well for a good bit longer. As it is, it is sustainable only for a relatively short period of time - which is rapidly running out.

The principle of everyone being free to pursue their own self-interests, provided they don't hurt anyone else, is a sound one. The only problem is that we view our self-interests largely through the eyes of our primitive, "more animal than human " nature. We assume this to be the natural thing to do, which in a (negative) way, of course, it is.

If we are just animals there is no hope for us, we will continue plundering and spoiling our planet in pursuit of power, social status and material wealth until it kills us. If, on the other hand, we are more than animals - as I believe, potentially at least, we are - we must view our self-interests though the eyes of our more enlightened, human nature.

If we don't want our children and future generations to curse us, we have to recognise where their and our enlightened self-interests lie: not in the continued pursuit of material wealth and power - which stem from our animal nature - but in the creation of a sustainable economy and far less materialistic lifestyles, based on our more "enlightened " human nature.

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An appreciation of how the "socio-economic environment " has replaced the natural environment as the focus of behavioural programming castes a revealing light on many aspects of social and economic life. It shows, for example, how misconceived (though well intended) the welfare state is, many people naturally seeing it as just another aspect of the socio-economic environment to be exploited for what they can get out of it, just as those higher up the socio-economic ladder have always exploited the advantages available to them (unearned income, inherited wealth, personal connections, celebrity, clever accountants, tax havens, private education and health care, etc, etc).

We are all engaged in and dependent on the socio-economic environment. Politicians and economists, relatively safe and well-off in their own particular niches, and appealing to our animal nature, encourage us to seek or create new, (more) profitable niches for ourselves, showering those who succeed with praise and admiration. Virtually the sole measure of success, of course, is pecuniary, because money (i.e. the power, social status, etc that go with it) appeals directly to our animal nature.

Money misuse (as opposed to its sensible and responsible use) is, and always has been, an integral part of our socio-economic order, effectively making it into an addictive drug which we are hooked on and cannot get enough of. It has been wreaking increasing havoc with our spiritual, physical and social health, and because it is now impacting the health of our finite and vulnerable planet - unless we get off it (learn to use it sensibly and responsibly) - will soon kill us.

Just as in the natural world, organisms evolve to exploit all available niches, creating  new niches in the process, by analogy, so too in our artificial socio-economic environment, people do the same, occupying all available niches and creating new ones in the process. Some niches are declared illegal and those who exploit them called criminals. In recent times there has been a wild proliferation of such niches, many of which can be grouped together into whole new "ecotopes " (corresponding to biotopes in the natural environment, and more normally referred to as industries). The media, the scientific community and academia are particularly important examples, each of which, of course, can be further broken down into "sub-ecotopes" (film, TV, newspapers etc, in the case of the media). 

Those who occupy and depend on each of the myriad of niches will, instinctively, defend and justify its existence, insisting that they are doing an important, if not essential job. That may be the case, or it may not. The essential point is that to them (and their dependents) the most important thing is retaining their niche in the socio-economic environment - at least, until they can exchange it for a better one. Some niches are useful if not vital to human existance, while others are more-or-less parasitic, some doing little or no, others doing great harm. Many ecotopes (industries) can be both wholesome and harmful: some automobiles and aircraft are extremely useful, of course, and mankind would be worse off without them, but now far too many are being produced, flying in the face of sustainability and posing a threat to human survival.

The tobacco industry (ecotope), on the other hand, is entirely harmful. Society would be far better off without it. But for those who have their niches there, it is vital - more important than the millions of lives that are lost every year world-wide through smoking-related diseases.

The same applies to all industries (ecotopes), although few are as indisputably harmful as the tobacco industry. It is instructive - and very alarming - to consider how long it took (and is still taking) for social and political sanity to overcome the tobacco industry's resistance to curbing the appalling harm it does.

Less obviously at the moment, but ultimately far more harmful than the tobacco industry, are those industries placing an increasingly unsustainable drain and strain on Earth's limited natural resources and finite carrying capacity: the oil, automobile and air travel industries in particular. Many million of jobs and thousands of fortunes depend on them, as does the way of life of 1 - 2 billion people, not to mention the aspirations of another 4 - 6 billion people!

What about the social status of those whose economic niche (in the tobacco industry, for example) is doing indisputable harm to people and society? Kenneth Clarke is a Member of Parliament, which I thought was a full-time job, but apparently not, since he is also a well-paid, non-executive director at Britain's largest tobacco company; yet he is highly respected, to the extent of being a prospective leader, of the Conservative Party.  So apparently it has little or no effect on respectability or social status at all. Any niche, it seems, that has not been declared illegal, is considered respectable and valued in proportion to the amount of money it makes for the person occupying it, the actual good or harm it does to society being virtually irrelevant. 

The above illustrates the extent to which our "more animal than human " nature is focused on the struggle for survival and advantage in the socio-economic environment,  to the exclusion of virtually all other considerations. We indulge our more human (cultural, spiritual, artistic) aspirations, while turning a blind eye to the utterly unsustainable economic activity that supports them. Thus my proposal to rename ourselves Homo stupidus economicus, until we have earned and deserve the name Homo sapiens. It would serve as a reminder of how blind and stupid we are. It took me a very long time to comprehend and is one of the major obstacles to understanding the situation and just how serious it is. It is a very frightening aspect of reality to wake up to. It is much more comfortable to believe that those in power and authority know what they are doing, even if it isn't necessarily 100 percent in one's own interests.


Work in progress