Archive for December, 2017

You may be as surprised as I was to learn that there is a connection between the damaging social inequality characteristic of most western societies and people’s concern for nature. Nature is losing out in those societies where the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is widening (as it is in most first-world and some developing countries). Why this is so is still being investigated but research already indicates that personal and social values are involved.

Driven by an obsession with production and consumption, western societies have embraced values that are both socially divisive and environmentally prejudicial. These values are the antithesis of those that underpinned the survival of our species through thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years. These “primal” or “natural” values are those that safeguarded group cohesion and the equitable sharing of food and other essential resources. The successful hunter–gather societies were (and indeed still are) egalitarian rather than hierarchical. Most modern societies comprise hierarchically ordered groups – a few, small and powerful “have” groups at the top of the pile, more, larger and powerless “have-not” groups at the bottom, with other groups of varying affluence and power strung out between.

According to the proponents of “social dominance theory”, the affluent and powerful groups in society seek to preserve their status by manoeuvring politically and otherwise to defend and even increase their affluence and power. Other groups in society are seen as “inferior” and less worthy of the “good life”. We are seeing the consequences of this mind-set and its underlying values in the flowering of far right politics, the rampant distrust of political and corporate power brokers and the growing acceptance of bigotry, racism and discrimination.

When members of a society embrace the social dominance mind-set, concern for others and compassion are casualties.  Hunter-gatherer societies go out of their way to prevent this happening. The Ju/’hoansi (pronounced Dju-kwa-si) people of the Kalahari Desert, for example, are “fiercely egalitarian and uncompromisingly committed to sharing. They regard selfishness with hostility and are strongly opposed to self-promotion and arrogance. As life in Ju/’hoansi communities is very public, the close and constant scrutiny for violation of these values is both possible and effective. The communities also employ elaborate practices to keep egos in check. These practices include downplaying the value of a hunter’s kill, making self-effacing comments, using put-downs and giving back-handed compliments. They have no formal leadership institutions. Men and women enjoy equal decision-making powers, children play largely non-competitive games in mixed age groups, and the elderly, while treated with great affection, are not afforded any special privileges.

All of this discourages the accumulation of wealth and influence, and the over-exploitation of the environment. Unsurprisingly, traditional Ju/’hoansi communities are generally carefree, harmonious and co-operative and have a low incidence of depression, anxiety, hostility and aggression. It should also come as no surprise that the Ju/’hoansi are part of one of most stable, enduring, successful and sustainable societies that has ever existed. Genomic and archaeological evidence indicates that they have been around for at least 150,000 years, having navigated the climatic and other crises that decimated many other human populations.

As well as living compassionately and sustainably with one another, the Ju/’hoansi are masters of living compassionately and sustainably with nature. Their desert habitat in southern Africa is one of the few regions on earth where multiple species of megafauna have survived the coming of humans. The Ju/’hoansi still make use of over 150 plant species and are able to track and trap virtually any animal they choose to. Despite their extraordinary skills, they have only ever worked to meet their immediate needs (typically for about 15 hours per week), have not stored surpluses, and have never harvested more than they could eat in the short term. The Ju/’hoansi clearly do not comply with the assumption of modern economic theory that people always have wants beyond their means (the so-called “problem of scarcity”); the Ju/’hoansi have few wants and ample means to meet them. This has prompted anthropologists to dub them, “the original affluent society”. But theirs is “affluence without abundance”.

Even though Ju/’hoansi society could never be considered a blueprint for our own, we would be stupid not to draw lessons from their way of life and particularly their egalitarianism. While egalitarianism and self-interest can co-exist, the empathic, and indeed compassionate, concern for others is a strong driver of egalitarianism. To value egalitarianism, therefore, is to value empathy and compassion.

In the social dominance mindset, compassion struggles to have a significant influence. As a consequence a concern for others and altruistic behaviour are likely to be muted. And the consequences may not stop there. German researchers recently reported studies showing not only that compassion marches hand in hand with a concern for nature but also that the relationship is causal – increase compassion and nature also benefits.

These findings may help to explain the connection I referred to at the beginning of this post –  between social inequality and a diminished concern for nature.

The strongest evidence we have of this connection comes from a survey of 4500 participants from 25 countries. The survey measured social dominance mindset with a questionnaire that requires respondents to declare the strength of their agreement or disagreement with a series of statements such as, “An ideal society requires some groups to be on top and others to be at the bottom”, and “Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups”. The resulting score indicates the respondent’s “social dominance orientation” or SDO (Follow this link to discover your SDO).Participants in the survey were also asked about their environmental “intentions”, whether, for example, they would sign a petition in support of environmental protection, or try to reduce their carbon footprint by cycling or walking instead of driving.

The survey found a clear association between SDO and environmental intentions – a high SDO made a person less likely to take pro-environment actions. In other words, people who hold altruistic values (or are strong on compassion) and who want to achieve equality in society tend to be more concerned about the environment. Although this is a descriptive finding, the scale of the study from which it comes makes it quite robust.

Perhaps working to make a society more egalitarian could be a way of strengthening its member’s connection to nature as well as their commitment to environmental protection. An idea worth thinking about, I believe.


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