The Answer Is: The Human Condition
(This article first appeared at sustainablebrands.com on 17 Oct. 2013)
“We need to do something about the environmental damage in our heads.”
(Time, 24 May 1993).
June 7th was World Environment Day. This year’s theme was Think.Eat.Save, designed to raise awareness about the impact of food waste and food loss to reduce your overall ‘foodprint.’ As stated on the United Nations Environmental Program website: ‘Every year 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted. This is equivalent to the same amount produced in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, 1 in every 7 people in the world go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die daily from hunger.’
Statistics like these are chilling. A quick web search reveals many more horrible facts and alarming statistics about the quickening pace of environmental devastation. Of course there are many noble efforts being made to save our world and the blogosphere and news sites are rife with opinions and resources on how to deal with these overwhelming forces and ongoing human suffering. We are each urged to ‘do our bit’ with mantras such as ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ and ‘Think.Eat.Save,’ designed to motivate us to incorporate some form of environmental do-gooding into our daily lives.
The approach of ‘If we each do this one little thing every day it will make a huge difference’ is our solution for dealing with these enormous problems. And why not? Constant urging to recycle, eat less or eat wiser, consider the environment when shopping, chose alternative modes of transport, etc all point to this solution of collective involvement, which on the face of it makes perfect sense and is completely logical. If everyone just does their little bit in their own lives then collectively significant change can be achieved. If each person in the world makes a daily, conscientious effort to heal the environment then the world’s environmental problems will be solved. We just need everyone to cooperate, right?
This process, while being logical and popular in theory, has one large and very obvious challenge—how do you get everyone to cooperate? Or more specifically—why doesn’t everyone cooperate? Why do we need the motivation of a day specifically allocated to the environment? If we know that through environmental destruction we are slowly choking ourselves to extinction then why don’t more people naturally take action? Why do we keep destroying the planet’s natural resources when we are simply edging closer to our own demise? Why are we so ambivalent about environmental destruction? What’s underlying this madness that characterises our behaviour?
The answer is the human condition. Australian biologist and author Jeremy Griffith has been writing about the human condition for some forty years and asserts that if our species is to stem the momentum of environmental destruction that threatens to outrun us and overcome the torture of the natural world that is occurring on a horrific scale, then it becomes an absolutely critical necessity to gain an understanding of what’s happening inside our heads, our collective human psychosis—and Griffith’s synopsis does just that.
The human condition is a phrase that until recently was hardly discussed—such is our subterranean fear of it—but nowadays it seems to have become a fashionable phrase to bandy about as if we are all completely secure and self-assured about our predicament. However, Griffith goes to great pains to explain that descriptions like ‘the human condition encompasses the unique features of being human’ (Wikipedia) miss the point entirely. Griffith maintains that the human condition refers to ‘our species’ deeply psychologically troubled’ state and that the vast majority of discussion about the human condition is merely ‘psychosis-avoiding, trivialising, dishonest account[s]’ of this single biggest problem facing humanity.
This makes Griffith’s explanation wholly original in its content, remarkable in its logic and confronting in its nature: ‘…the environment is promoted everywhere as the great ‘Save the World’ issue.’ But the truth is, the so-called ‘Green Movement’ has only been focusing on the symptoms. To fix all the runaway problems we are surrounded by–in fact, to stop the destruction of our world and the disintegration of society that is happening everywhere we look–we have to fix the cause of the problems, which is us humans. We are the problem–our out-of-control egocentric, selfish, competitive and aggressive behaviour’ (Freedom: Expanded Book 2, Section 1:6).
In his seminal work, Freedom: Expanded, Griffith describes that the human condition began some two million years ago when our recently emerging, nerve-based, conscious self (or intellect) clashed with our already established, gene-based, instinctive self. This relatively sudden arrival of consciousness and the power of free will brought inevitable experiments in self-management that were often not aligned to our long-established instinctive orientations. Put simply, consciousness and the associated experiments to self-manage with this new insight attracted enormous criticism from our instincts and so began the clash leading to a deep sense of guilt and resulting insecurity that we have carried with us ever since about our meaning and worth in the world.
In order to refute this implied criticism from within us that we were bad, we became angry, egocentric and alienated. Griffith explains: ‘We became angry towards the criticism. In every way we could we tried to demonstrate our self-worth, to prove that we were good and not bad. And we tried to block out the criticism. We became angry, egocentric and alienated or, in a word, upset.’ At the most holistic level, Griffith explains that it was the enormous responsibility that humans have had as the only species on the planet with a fully conscious mind and having to search for knowledge of our fundamental goodness that has taken an enormous but necessary toll on our psychological state: ‘[Our] uncooperative, divisive aggression and [our] selfish, egocentric efforts to prove [our] worth and [our] need to deny and evade criticism became an unavoidable part of [our] personality. Such was [our] predicament, and such has been the human condition…’ (Freedom: Expanded Book 1, Part 3:2).
This two-million-year psychological struggle explains the source of our deep anger, abuse, injustice, ambivalence, etc towards each other and our indifference towards the environment. If we were unable to properly love (understand) ourselves we had no chance of being able to love one another or the world around us.
So the answer to ‘why doesn’t everyone cooperate?’ is that everyone is completely and totally selfishly preoccupied with their own insecurity and proving their worth. In our angry, egocentric and alienated state, the environment runs a paltry second place to the mental preoccupation that currently exists in almost every living person. Hence the reason why this explanation of the human condition is so important—this explanation frees all individuals and humanity collectively from their psychological preoccupations. It unlocks the potential for the world to cooperate and for selflessness to replace selfishness. And not just from an environmental standpoint but also from the perspective of all of the world’s problems, of which we humans are the source. We are the problem but we’re also the solution. That is why this explanation of the human condition is so significant.
Having a biological, rational explanation of our fundamental worth as humans allows us to be completely free of the preoccupation with having to prove it; free to be able to cooperate and begin the much-needed rehabilitation of ourselves and the natural world.