Don’t let partial views of human nature obscure our innate capacity to address the environmental crisis

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.

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