During the vortex of climate debate around Glasgow’s COP26, I was struck by a depressing consensus reached by some of the UK’s most prominent environmentalists: humans are innately destructive and psychologically inept when it comes to tackling the climate emergency.
In his keynote address to world leaders, Sir David Attenborough solemnly asked, “Is the smartest species doomed by that all too human characteristic of failing to see the bigger picture in pursuit of short-term goals?”. His hope lay, not with our capacity to live within planetary boundaries, but with the combination of our “smartness” and the ever-increasing immediacy of climate change impacts jolting us into action.
And shortly before the start of COP26, environmental campaigner George Monbiot painted an even grimmer picture of our special deficiencies:
“There is a myth about human beings that withstands all evidence. It’s that we always put our survival first. This is true of other species. When confronted by an impending threat, such as winter, they invest great resources into avoiding or withstanding it: migrating or hibernating, for example. Humans are a different matter.
When faced with an impending or chronic threat, such as climate or ecological breakdown, we seem to go out of our way to compromise our survival. We convince ourselves that it’s not so serious, or even that it isn’t happening. We double down on destruction, swapping our ordinary cars for SUVs, jetting to Oblivia on a long-haul flight, burning it all up in a final frenzy.”
For anthropologists, whose field of study is the diversity of human societies on the planet, sweeping statements about what humans are or are not leave us feeling queasy. That’s not to say that generalisations can’t be made, just that when making them we must consider “humanity” in its fullest sense. And when we use this principle to scrutinise the claims made by our esteemed green campaigners, they simply don’t hold up. Missing from their conceptions of “the human” is a huge chunk of humanity – the 2.5 billion people of Indigenous and local origin – recognised by the United Nations-Indigenous Peoples and Intergovernmental Panel on the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) for their harmonious connections to land and the natural world.
Occupying nearly every ecosystem on the planet in ecologically sustainable ways, Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) provide us with a model of humanity that is neither destructive nor short-termist. Using mainly communal modes of organisation, IPLCs manage 50% of the global landmass. Indigenous peoples alone, a population of approximately 370 million, manage about 38 million km2 of land covering savannas, forests, tropical forests, shrublands and rangelands1.
So, what’s going on? Why have these intelligent and well-meaning environmentalists latched on to an unnecessarily partial and bleak view of human nature?
Before getting into this, let’s decode their statements. When Attenborough laments humans’ overriding pursuit of short-term goals, he’s referring to the malign social influence of the profit motive found in industrialised capitalist economies. And when Monbiot bemoans humans’ penchant for SUVs and long-haul flights, he’s describing the status-signalling behavioural consequences of hyper-consumerist culture from the same societies. The effect of both declarations is the shrinking of the category of “human” from people of every society to those belonging only to the industrialised world.
These assertions are consistent with the broader homogenising and ethnocentric tendencies of Western thought, most evident, perhaps, in the sciences. An obvious example is the popularisation of the term ‘the Anthropocene’ for our current geological epoch, which erases human diversity and reinforces the erroneous notion that humanity-as-a-whole is responsible for the planetary-scale climatic disruption we’re witnessing.
With respect to narratives of human nature, psychological science has casually erased IPLCs from the “human”. Recognised as the “WEIRD” problem2, psychological knowledge is dominated by studies involving a very specific kind of human: the university student in rich industrialised nations. In what can only be described as a form of colonisation of the mind3, generalised claims about “humans” are unashamedly made by Western psychologists from this exceptionally limited population sample.
Inevitably, these fallacious generalisations seep into Western environmental discourse. In his influential book “Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change”, environmentalist George Marshall consulted eminent psychologists on the question of why “we” don’t seem to care about the climate crisis. Their conclusion was that human brains are riddled with biases that prevent meaningful collective climate action. Evolution, he’s told, failed to furnish us with instincts to respond to such an abstract and distant threat4.
As soon as you properly expand the “human” category, the absurdity of the notion that our brains are wired to ignore climate change becomes apparent. For many decades now, the full diversity of Indigenous peoples of the planet have been the most vocal and vociferous campaigners against global environmental destruction and climate change5. Their lifeways, and those of their ancestors, unambiguously demonstrate a human capacity to live rich lives with care and respect for the world’s biodiversity. And these ways of being long pre-date the appearance of so-called civilisation and are, therefore, far more representative of our evolutionary past than industrialised society.
There’s no doubt that the environmental discourse arising from colonial conceptions of humanity has been harmful. Not only does it unfairly tar the hundreds of millions of humans living sustainable lives beyond industrialised civilisation with our ecocidal brush, often with devastating consequences for their livelihoods6, but it also gives us an overly pessimistic view of human nature, one that obscures the important truth that humans have lived harmoniously with nature for thousands of generations, and that within us all is the potential to do so again. Without this understanding, we’re stuck with the false belief that we’re fighting innate tendencies, and gloomy narratives, like those at the top of this article, will inevitably prevail.
My message to Sir David and George is this: ditch the despair and use your platforms to amplify the inspirational model of humanity provided to us by IPLCs. Fight against the political, social and economic forces in industrialised societies that move us away from their example, things like private ownership, individualism, alienation from nature and food, inequality, and greed. Fight for the promotion of their cultural values and ways of being in our society such as the importance of sacred land, gender egalitarianism, communal living, decolonisation, ecological relationality, other-than-human agency and indigenous knowledge systems. Most importantly, fight for the recognition, demarcation, protection, and expansion of their territories. Wherever there is indigenous-led conservation, we find thriving ecosystems.
Yes, us “moderns” are acculturated into a sociopathic and destructive socioeconomic system which generates all manner of environmentally dysfunctional behaviour. But we must never lose sight of the fact that these harmful actions are not a consequence of our humanity but of the theft of its full expression, as represented by our Indigenous brothers and sisters and their radical embeddedness in the web of life. In the words of Casey Camp Horinek, environmental ambassador of the Ponca Nation and land defender: “We are not defending nature – we are nature defending itself!”.
What might Sir David have said to world leaders had he heeded this advice? Perhaps something along these lines: “Modern civilisation has erased our indigeneity – that part of our humanity that binds us to land, to our relationships with non-human lifeforms and to natural processes. But we are lucky. There are still millions of indigenous peoples on the planet whose wisdom and knowledge holds the key to restoring this lost part of us. Bring them to the negotiating table and listen to what they have to say. They are the solution to this crisis.”
Also posted on the UCL Centre for the Anthropology Of Sustainability (CAOS) blog
- Sangha, K. K. (2020). Global Importance of Indigenous and Local Communities’ Managed Lands: Building a Case for Stewardship Schemes. Sustainability, 12(19), 7839.
- Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466(7302), 29-29. WEIRD stands for “Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich & Democratic”.
- In recent years, Indigenous psychologists have begun to shine a light on the colonial nature of Western psychology. This article by Indigenous psychologist Darcia Narveaz explains how fundamentally different indigenous psychology is compared to psychology’s standard model https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/moral-landscapes/202107/colonial-psychology-the-psychology-we-all-recognize
- The similarity of Attenborough’s view of human nature to that espoused in this book is worth noting. An important Indigenous critique of colonial psychology is that it is culture blind. This culture blindness is particularly evident here. The psychologists offering their opinions about “human” brains being wired to ignore climate change completely ignore the effect of the culture in which these behaviours arise – industrialised capitalist societies.
- There are many examples. One of the most well known is the case of the Kogi who, in 1990, abandoned 5 centuries of relative isolation to make a plea to the modern world to stop destroying the planet. The full documentary can be found here. It’s also worth mentioning the academic effort pushing forward IPLC cosmovisions under the banner of the “Pluriverse”. Arturo Escobar’s book, “Pluriversal Politics” is a great introduction to this idea.
- The erroneous idea that humans can’t be trusted to care for nature has created an “anti-people” mindset in conservation that seeks to exclude Indigenous and local populations from designated conservation zones. Not only does this approach dramatically worsen the lives of Indigenous and local peoples, who are excluded from their traditional hunting territories, but it fails in its stated conservation goals. See here and here