You might say our present dire condition is just the consequence of human nature, about which not much can be done. To this I say yes, but it’s due to the worst of human nature, not the best of human nature, and that implies there is something we can change: we can shift the values by which we live.
Values are often spoken of as though we have consciously and rationally chosen them, but I think our values are acquired from those around us when we are young, though they may change as we grow up. So changing our values has to do with growing up.
From this perspective there are two changes we can make that would seem to be most pertinent: we can learn to resist irrational fears and we can outgrow infantile desires. It seems to me that irrational fears, or irrational exaggerations of real fears, are the main things that drive us to harm each other. If we can resist letting our own lives be driven by irrational fear, then we would be less vulnerable to those among us who fan and exploit fear. On the other hand our infantile wanting, it seems to me, is one of the main drives behind the harm we inflict on the Earth, our life support system. We are manipulated to buy stuff so we’ll feel safe and loved. If we can outgrow our own infantile responses, we might then also be able to rein in those who provoke our infantile responses for their own profits.
Both of these shifts involve emotional maturity. Our emotional maturity has a great deal of influence over the values we live by. How well we are able to manage our fears determines whether we are suspicious of and feel threatened by people who are different from us, or whether we are interested in them and tolerant of their different ways. How well we manage our infantile desires determines whether we try to satisfy our pining for love by buying things, or whether we focus instead on developing fulfilling relationships.
Continuing our emotional maturing is challenging, but it is a continuation of the maturing we all do as children and adolescents. I know it is possible to continue to grow as an adult, because I’ve experienced such growth myself, and I recognise others who are emotionally, and spiritually, further along than I seem to be. The first step in adult growth is to wake from the trance of our everyday world and realise our lives could be different. It can help the process if we recognise that others live differently. For example, Americans are more wasteful than Australians and they have greater extremes of poverty. On the other hand Europeans are generally less wasteful and have lesser extremes of poverty. Many Australians are already waking from the trance: about a quarter of working Australians have downshifted, meaning they have voluntarily taken a reduction in income so as to improve their quality of life1.
That last statement is a telling one, because it goes against the dominant organising principle of our society. Notice that I was careful to use the phrase quality of life, rather than standard of living, or even happiness, which is ill-defined and elusive. Most of us recognise that life swings between striving and accomplishment, and that a worthy goal is not so much happiness as fulfillment, through our accomplishments and our contributions. The way to greater quality of life is not necessarily through having more money, and it may be the reverse. Our obsession with material possessions is measurably degrading our quality of life, and it is certainly threatening our children’s future.
I don’t think an increase in our maturity will create a Utopia where everyone is nice forevermore, but I do think we can shift our society more towards the positive side of human nature. This would best be brought about by working simultaneously on conscious personal growth and on the redesign of our economic system so it will promote cooperation as well as competition. Each change would then reinforce the other, enhancing the prospect of success. The result would be a reduction in the grief we cause each other, not the elimination of grief.
A level tension is an essential part of a vigorous and productive life. I expect a level of disagreement and quarreling to remain. A well-designed system would be robust under the influence of our quirks and imperfections, rather than spiralling into spasms of destruction. Daniel Quinn argues that traditional societies are robust in this sense, otherwise they would not have survived and we would not be here2.
1 Hamilton, C. and E. Mail, Downshifting in Australia: a sea-change in the pursuit of happiness. Discussion Paper 50, 2003, Australia Institute: Canberra. www.tai.org.au.
2 Quinn, D., My Ishmael. 1997: Bantam.