Editor’s note: This is the second of an eight-part series about the climate and biodiversity crises. John Keeble is a former Guardian and London Evening News journalist. He is part of Cuenca’s thriving hiking, cycling and writing communities. You can download free his latest novel, Beyond Extinction, via www.johnkeeble.net. To read part one of the series, click here.
By John Keeble
Assuming you are not one of those who deny evolution, here is something to chew on. Evolution is part of everyday reality – and it may hold a dark secret that could end human life on Earth.
Forget any idea that evolution is simple, like Darwin’s finches developing different beak shapes to maximise local food opportunities.
It is far more complicated. Any evolution of the body exists in a stew of mental and environmental changes too. And this is where the very real risk may be lurking as the mind might be saying one thing and the body another.
Our minds know we have to join together and hit the panic button on the climate and biodiversity crises – and our bodies demand we take care of ourselves first.
We might not like to admit it, but our animal selves retain elements from our primate forebears. Genetically speaking, we are only 1.2 per cent different from chimpanzees.
True, we walk upright and, like near-gods, we are able to build our world with tools (technology) and organisation (power and wealth systems), even to the extent of redesigning ourselves by manipulating human genes.
At the same time, our minds construct their own realities, the non-physical interpretations and constructs that make sense of the real world where discarded fishing gear kills marine life. We make up origin myths, gods and demons, laws and arts, right and wrong, morality, religions, economics, politics, sciences and so on endlessly.
In the past 200 years, reality – our social and cultural constructs interpreting the physical world – has changed rapidly and the change is still accelerating with social media in the driving seat. Our bodies, too, have been evolving to survive new challenges and threats.
However, there seems little everyday evidence that the basic four Fs of evolutionary biology – fighting, fleeing, feeding and fornicating – have changed. These primitive sex and survival drives seems to be intact and thriving with wars, migrations, growing consumption, and growing populations.
This dark crack between the body’s basic drives and the mind’s good intentions could explain why sincere and thoughtful people profess concern about the climate and biodiversity crises but do not change their lives to planet-friendly alternatives.
There are many other explanations for this fundamental dislocation between what we know we should do and what we do.
Washington Post columnist Jamil Zaki locates the problem in empathy: we cannot feel empathy for distant sufferers, he writes, and that includes future generations.
Dr Walter Panko, a retired psychologist and educator living in Cuenca sees the cause as a kind of behavioural inertia: the individual needs social acceptance by acting like everyone else, and habitual behaviour masks new ideas.
He also makes the point that, as we sleepwalk toward disaster, most people feel that their actions as individuals are insignificant, thus it is not important for them to change their behaviour.
Professor Kelly Fielding, a behavioural psychologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, told the BBC recently: “We think we make our own decisions but the truth is we look to others for guidance about how we should behave.”
At the moment, she added, we are not getting enough clues from our families and friends or from governments and businesses. With more clues, we would care more.
Others might say: “Why shouldn’t I have what I want? Someone else will get it anyway.”
Conditioning – following the family and cultural norms – and constant temptations dangled by grotesque profit-seekers, like meat and plastics producers, can be huge factors.
The late Stephen Hawking said when predicting the end of the human world: “I fear evolution has inbuilt greed and aggression to the human genome.”
Whatever theory we choose, the stark fact remains: we threaten the future by saying one thing and doing another.
That’s all a bit airy-fairy, isn’t it? Let’s make it more everyday practical.
You are a good person. You believe in fairness and equality. You recycle whenever possible. You give to good causes. You love your grandchildren and say you want only the best for them and all future generations. You have read the reports that meat production is one of the most damaging activities on the planet, and that plastic is one of the worst forms of pollution.
My question: What are you willing to do? Will you follow your higher values and stop eating meat and using plastics or carry on as now even though you know your actions are robbing future generations?
The answer is clear. Just look on your plate and in your shopping trolley. Then you will rationalise. “Yes, but my meat supplier is ecologically enlightened … I always recycle my plastics… what can any individual do anyway?”
Your mind knows the crises need solving but your body – the basic drives – tells you to carry on consuming.
Your conditioning, too, is immensely powerful. You grew up in a family that lived by the beliefs and attitudes of its time and place. Now, to you, that is your normal reality. It is tough to change, especially when you cannot see any evidence of crisis in your own neighbourhood.
Your actions will not condemn or save the planet. But the point is that, as unique as we like to think of ourselves, human genes worldwide include the same basic drives.
That’s more than seven billion people, including you, obeying the same individual survival and reproduction drives like a swarm of locusts on a crop field… they are eating the future while their minds focus on the minutiae of their everyday lives.
How do you feel about that? How do you feel about your own lifestyle and the crises facing everyone alive now and future generations?