Bear with me; I’ve got a few technical points to make and I’m going to try to do so without being too pedantic. Recently there’s a lot of doomsday talk in the media; the environment and the economy especially seem to be deteriorating, at an increasingly rapid rate. There are many reasons offered for these two great concerns: the Occupy movement blames systemic income inequality, and David Suzuki blames environmental degradation on lackadaisical regulation by governments and large, insufficiently regulated corporations. What’s interesting is how closely tied these two Great Problems facing our world actually are. And the source of these has little to do with us as individuals and much more to do with what we call nature.
We tend to believe that human beings are distinct and removed from nature. Yet if by Nature we mean the natural world, there is nothing that is in fact not nature, because everything around us arose from some natural source or other, whether we are talking about species or condominiums. Even the oxygen we breathe had its synthesis in long-dead stars. Any delineation between us and Nature is simply the result of hundreds of years of Renaissance and colonial thought, heavily influenced by the Christian church, which saw nature as embodying humanity’s dark impulses.
But aside from how we choose to view nature, a good model for understanding ourselves and our place in the natural world is ecology. Both rigorous and elegant, ecology attempts to describe the complex relationships between life forms and all the myriad aspects of the environment that they experience. When viewed through this lens, much of the world’s troubles start making sense.
There are a few core principles of ecology worth looking at. The first is ecological exclusion, in which no two organisms can occupy the exact same niche, niche meaning all the aspects of the environment that the organism interacts with in some fashion. What this means is that if species A needs exactly the same things as species B, the two organisms with compete with each other, and the “superior” species will outcompete the other and eventually force it into extinction. So for any two species you care to observe, there has to be something different about their needs for both to share the same habitat.
Another principle involves the grow of species in the absence of controlling factors (i.e. predation, lack of food, breeding habitat). When not controlled, population numbers will climb at an exponential rate (x2) until it reaches the carrying capacity of the environment, after which there will be a precipitous falloff due to all resources being consumed or disease infecting the population, or both.
In a healthy ecological system, factors such as predation tends to keep population below the maximum carrying capacity provided by the physical environment. Dramatic exceptions occur when species are introduced in areas where they have no natural predators, and their numbers explode. Think cane toads in Australia.
As human beings have no natural predators other than themselves, their numbers have historically been limited by the carrying capacity of the land, war and disease. Advancements in technology have greatly increased carrying capacity and decreased the impact of disease, and so numbers have exploded according to well-known ecological principles.
What we call habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity is simply the principle of ecological exclusion operating. Part of human habitat need is for fallow soil, so we compete with amphibians such as frogs for fertile lowlands. We drain the swamp and wipe out the frogs. A lot of arguments can be made about waste and whether or not the swamp needs to be drained (the human notion of choice), but you cannot get past the principle that humans can adapt to any environment and so we will necessarily compete with other life forms in that environment. And the greater our numbers the more we will exclude other species as we compete for the resources that they too need to survive.
Given that the factors limiting our population have been greatly thwarted, ecological principles suggest that we will compete with other organisms for resources and force them into extinction. This principle has been shown in many population studies involving many other species, and we can see it happening as a result of human activities all over the world. We cannot avoid it because we are part of this global ecological system.
Some will say that such biodeterministic arguments don’t take into account our ability to choose, that we have agency and can decide our fate. The problem with this viewpoint it assumes that human beings have rational minds with instinctive tendencies, rather than the reverse.
There are many examples of our inability to regulate ourselves according to rational needs. The explosion of obesity across the world is an example of our inability to overcome a natural tendency to overconsume and regulate ourselves rationally. Having evolved in a world with a scarcity of natural resources, it makes sense that when we have access to essentially unlimited calories we would not be able to restrict ourselves – we are fighting our natures.
I think that innate need is also part of the consumerist impulse. To crave and desire is part of being human, and is the impulse that keeps us striving, moving, and exploring. If as a species we were easily satiated, we would still be living in the trees. This impulse keeps us acquiring, and explains the little thrill we feel whenever we purchase something: it’s like bringing home a boar to feed the family.
This impulse knows no natural bounds. Given a surfeit of resources, we have seen how many other species will overconsume and degrade their environment until their numbers are checked by some natural process. The explosion of the mountain pine beetle’s population in BC and Alberta, with the resultant loss of millions of hectares of forest, is an example of this phenomenon.
Only human beings know to preserve something for the next day or the next generation, and that idea flies straight in the face of millions of years of evolved instinct to live now, consume now, because there may be nothing tomorrow. The problem of course is that human consumption is more than just overgrazing or species exclusion; the instinct has been hijacked by commerce, and consumerism’s long reach is enormously and disproportionately destructive.
These kinds of ideas have been around for a long time and I’ve not seen a good refutation of them. There has been much theorising about the absolute carrying capacity of the planet, but these tend to ignore the consumerist/consumption impulse that degrades so much for so little return. The carrying capacity of a planet filled with agrarian peasants is very different from one filled with North American consumers, and we’ve probably all seen the estimates that suggest it would take a number of planet’s worth of resources to have everyone live like Western consumers.
If we accept the notion that it is a deeply ingrained human instinct to hoard and accumulate, the idea that we can use our individual will power to limit our environmental impact is hopelessly doomed. We simply have too many examples where human beings cannot easily control themselves, especially over the long term.
So what is to be done?
I’m not suggesting for a moment that we throw in the towel and all go out and buy a Hummer. Whether we want to admit it or not, those ecological laws apply to us as much as they apply to lemmings, and the predicted results will be the same. But simply applying a moral argument will not redeem the species; something else is required.
It is my belief that only spiritual evolution will allow us to overcome these innate tendencies. Moral and rational arguments evoke the power of will for change, while spiritual practice allows us to transcend both will and our natural impulses.
To be very clear I’m not speaking of a religious proscription; since time immemorial we have witnessed the failure of religious edicts to prevent human beings from acting according to their basic drives. But true spiritual practice strives not to control or prescribe, but to acknowledge and let go, ultimately achieving a transcendence over the limiting aspects of being human.
People often have an idea of Buddhism as a kind of mysticism and a complex religion, and indeed it is; there are a variety of schools and practices all over the world. But from what I’ve learned, most of these are cultures overlaid atop a non-religious essential practice. When you strip away the religion (culture) at it’s essence Buddhism is a practice that teaches us how not to be ruled by our evolved reptilian brain. It does not use morals or threats of punishment and reward; it simply trains us to no longer be driven by instinctive impulse. The locus of motivation shifts from the archaic brain, that simple yet powerful engine that we share with all vertebrates, to the sublime neocortex, which is ours alone.
The transcendent human being no longer is controlled by his desire to consume and horde, but is free to live an abundant life regardless of how simple it might be. When we turn off the driving pressure of instinct, peace takes it’s place, and one’s footprint becomes soft indeed. One does not have to prescribe to a strongly ascetic tradition or practice to overcome excessive consumption; simply recognising our impulses, where they come from and where they lead us, will probably suffice.
Some would say that such a path is invalid because it’s ultimately a selfish one, and why should you be at peace in a suffering world? But the actual survival of our species is at stake, and the more of us who adopt an inward journey the better it is for those around us, and for the very planet itself.
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