Monbiot and how humans still don’t know who we are

George Monbiot, the acclaimed British writer, recently wrote a review of the book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change in which he points out the many disturbing social, political, and economic trends that seem to be making us less able to deal with climate change than more so. But there is a way out, he says: “Over the past few years, there has been a convergence of findings in different sciences: psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Research in all these fields points to the same conclusion: that human beings are, in the words of an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, “spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals”. This refers to our astonishing degree of altruism. We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies.”

Now George Monbiot is a good, trying kind of person, very urbane and a fine writer, but it amazes me how he (and we in general) constantly have to pat ourselves on the back about how amazing we are. We have being doing this obsessively since the Renaissance. Can we not give it a rest already? Are are so insecure that we constantly have to pump ourselves up?

I don’t know what kind of experiments led to these findings of our extreme specialness but I can just about guarantee that they were all designed with human capacities in mind. We don’t know enough about the emotional life of other animals to begin to measure their altruism. In my experience most cows are kinder to each other than most humans. But we can barely see them as emotional beings. And this is a problem, because if we can only see ourselves we can’t see the inherent value of non-human beings.

Monbiot goes on to talk about how the way out of our downward spiral is to rebuild community and connection, and I am not arguing with that at all. Rebuilding local communities and social connections among humans is critical, but in order for it to really work we need to see beyond the purely human realm into the life of the places where we live, and all of the non-human lives that are an inherent and necessary part of those places.

One Reply to “Monbiot and how humans still don’t know who we are”

  1. Michelle,
    In some ways our situation is being made even worse because humans are also losing the ability to even see other humans.
    Think of how much technology has changed our culture just within the last five to ten years. People spend an increasingly larger amount of time on social media, removed from direct human contact. Its becoming clear that people feel more and more alienated and alone than ever. Here is a link to a wonderful video called Look Up:

    Technological change is rapidly taking humanity in directions few of us understand or control. A few “prophets” are sounding the alarm such as Franklin Foer in his new book “World without Mind.
    “Silicon Valley, he argues, may say it wants to improve the world. But its true endgame is the advancement of an ideological agenda.‎ And it’s a terrifying one. By introducing addictive new features, the book says, these companies have made us hopelessly dependent. Once hooked, consumers are robbed of choice, milked for profit, deprived of privacy and made the subjects of stealth social engineering experiments.”

    I admit it worries me to think what will happen as the technology of robotics and self learning machines develops into something approaching artificial life. Computer scientists want to believe that some altruistic human programmer will have control, preventing artificial intelligent machines from harming humanity. But who decides what is good for or bad for humanity? What happens when control is used to manipulate people towards someone’s selfish goals?

    I really doubt that humans will ever be able to control the outcome of new technology, altruistic or otherwise. Look at the last US presidential election when hackers and bots that apparently working for Putin used social media to create fake news about Hillary Clinton perhaps causing her to lost the election. Did Putin have some larger agenda other than embarrassing Hilary? Did he think Trump could win and that Russia would be in a better position under a Trump Presidency? If that was his intent it’s hard to say whether or not it’s been successful.

    I believe the real truth of our current situation with respect to information technology is simple. The more humans turn over our thinking and decision making to computer programs the less skilled we are at critically evaluating information and making decisions, which is after all what it means to be intelligent.

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