We are an intelligent species, who appreciate beauty, create marvels, care for one another and for entities as different as frogs and ferntrees, elephants and eucalypts, mountains and minarets.
We have produced a Chopin, a Mozart, a Beethoven... a long list of musical geniuses, and millions whose emotions are stirred by their music. Painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, and even the needlework of unknown peasant women attest to the nobleness of the human spirit.
People have made amazing sacrifices for the sake of their loved ones, or for a principle. Certainly, some seem to be unredeemably evil, and most of us have evil within us, but also there is generosity, love and creativity in the billions of people inhabiting the Earth.
And yet, as a species, we are destroyers. Why?
My reading, reflection and a thousand debates have suggested three reasons.
1. In the cultures now dominating the Earth, all of us are players in our local Monopoly games. Only magnitude of consequences distinguishes the great and powerful from the rest of us. Life on this planet is not threatened by the acts of evil people, them, but because each person makes a myriad daily decisions that add to a mighty avalanche of destruction. The problem is us. The powerful have reached their position not because they are evil, but because luck and skill have made them better at the game that we all play. If one of them quits the game, hundreds will fill the breach.
Nor is the game precisely for money, any more than Monopoly is. In the dominant cultures, the meaning of life is defined not only in terms of wealth, but also as the level of status, power, and fame a person has achieved. Ask: "What do you do?" The answer may be "I'm an engineer," "I was an executive, but got retrenched," "I'm only a housewife." You don't get "I go bushwalking whenever I can," "I sew when housework leaves time," or even "I do a lot of volunteer work now that I'm unemployed."
The Presidents and Chairmen, Millionaires and Megastars are those who have achieved the dreams others envy. They have arrived, and yet must still maintain meaning within their lives. Prue Acton built up a business worth millions, then retired. She was far-seeing enough to change her game, becoming an artist, but a more typical human response is to continue along the same path. If a million dollars was an achievement, how about a billion? Money then merely becomes something to strive for, because those who have suffered success have no meaning without striving for something.
Life is a road, not a destination. We are at a crossroad, but the great and powerful are unlikely to choose the path of survival. For if they do, they risk being great and powerful no more, but 'has-beens', relegated to obscurity.
2. We are blinded to the consequences of our actions by the processes of adaptation. This is what allows life to function in wildly varying circumstances, and influences perception, thought, even memory. 3. There is a positive force that distorts our thinking.
At its simplest, adaptation is a physiological response: changes in muscular tension within ear or eye, or pigment changes in the retina.
It also affects judgment. Make up a set of boxes of identical appearance but varying weights. A 1 Kg (2 lb) box will have its weight overestimated, if it is lifted after a series of 100 to 200 g weights; underestimated after 2 to 5 Kg weights. The same is true of judgments in every other sense-modality.
This holds even for memories. I'm a child, terrified on top of a ladder. As an adult, at work, I happily eat my lunch sitting on the edge of a partly built roof. Experiences with heights have taken the terror out of them. Then one day I accidentally fall from that roof. I become tense and afraid in high places. The cure? A graduated series of safe experiences with heights, until the fear disappears.
Humans can adapt to almost anything: heavenly bliss, constant terror, any climate on earth, being either the victim or perpetrator of cruelty, the finest cuisine and the greatest adventure. The battle that terrifies a rookie leaves the veteran calm. Viktor Frankl could carry on his life's work, a prisoner in a concentration camp.
Joy is when life is better than usual, though it might be another's hell. Unhappiness is when things are worse than the current norm, although far better than others could hope for.
Like an animal, an infant lives in the forever-present. When she is miserable, life has always been terrible, and always will be, an unending, terrifying vista of woe. When she is happy, everything has always been wonderful, and happiness is a sea of joy. As adults, intellectually we are far beyond this, with an appreciation of past and future, change and progression. However, our automatic reactions to our surroundings are still that of the baby, of the animal. Change is perceived, judged, remembered in comparison to the norm of the moment.
I'd moved interstate years ago, and now return to the scenes of my childhood. How it has changed! A freeway has replaced an entire community. Where is the garbage dump that was my source of treasure? A large shopping center occupies the space of the drive-in theater, and the park with its stately trees is now a jumble of American-style fast food outlets, office buildings, shops disguised as warehouses. But when I talk to the locals, it's "Nice to see you! Nothing much has changed here." Oh, they will have noted every individual change, welcomed some, been distressed by others, but in time each has sunk into the normal. Incremental change feels like no change at all. This is how aging affects us too.
Of course, we are not the prisoners of adaptation. We do perceive change. However, we see it as either linear or discontinuous. In fact, however, change is often exponential. In 1972, I made a series of predictions. I was substantially correct in content, but wildly optimistic in terms of time. The changes in environmental degradation, health, and social disintegration I expected in my grandchildren's time are already history. The same is true of everyone who has tried to predict the future: rate of change is always underestimated.
Even our ways of expressing change deify the linear. Divorces in Australia increased by 2.9% from 1994 to 1995, but by 5.4% from 1995 to 1996. The rate is itself increasing, for the disintegration of society is one of the spiraling exponentials: a child brought up in a broken family has a poorer chance of learning the skills of social intercourse. As in the computer world, so it is with statistics. Any statistic is obsolete by the time it is published.
How does this relate to the problem facing humanity? Now, at the turn of the Century, at the end of the Millennium, we live in a drastically different world than 100 years ago, 50 years ago, even 10 years ago, and the rate of change is ever accelerating. And yet, at any one moment, we see ourselves as living a more-or-less steady-state existence. Oh, people do see change, as if it was sudden jumps, relating to some discrete experience: a treasured old building demolished, a fishing fleet going bankrupt, 10,000 bank tellers losing their jobs. But, on the whole, those not personally affected go on with their lives as if the particular change was an isolated event.
We can be comfortable in the midst of self-destruction, because we adapt so well.
Some people may work in the tobacco industry, yet refrain from smoking on health grounds. If so, they are evil. However, the overwhelming majority of them are ordinary, decent people who earn a living by supplying something others want. They can believe this, despite the evidence of research. Industry apologists are sincere, for if they accepted the evidence, they would have to see themselves as drug pushers.
People imbued with the noble motivations of patriotism can make nuclear bombs or biological weapons, destroy churches in acts of terrorism, lie, steal and blackmail.
All of us are subject to the process that allows them to live with themselves. It has been well understood since the work of Festinger and his colleagues, 40 years ago. They called it cognitive dissonance.
It is intolerable if the basic, underlying assumptions of life are disconfirmed in some way by reality. Joe sees himself as a good man, yet he's hit his wife, something he disapproves of in others. He can live with it by thinking: 'I'm not a violent man, but she shouldn't nag me.' Bill wouldn't dream of stealing, but can say: 'I'll take cash. They use the tax for bloody politicians' perks!' A uranium miner once said to me: 'If I didn't do this job, someone else would.' The examples are endless. Once alerted to the process, any person can think up dozens from personal experience.
So, the Pope can feel holy while inciting Catholics to continue overpopulating the earth. The people of India and Pakistan can cheer in the streets in response to nuclear weapons tests. The Iraquis can stockpile dreadful biological weapons that have the potential of backfiring, and destroying all life in Iraq. The Japanese can continue to exterminate whales, 'for scientific purposes only'. George Soros can see himself as a benefactor, by donating half his spoils to 'good causes', although that money was gained through wrecking the economies of entire countries. And on the local scale, each of us can engage in a myriad acts known to contribute to intractable problems. 'I need this job, and owe it to my employer to work the long hours required (although my children are strangers to me, my marriage is in trouble, and my health is suffering).' 'One more fag won't kill me.' 'It's not really theft.'
Even now, in the information age, some people may act in ignorance of the inevitable consequences of certain of their actions. They wreck their own life support systems unknowingly, unthinkingly, like the ancestors of the Maori did when they happily exterminated the moa.
At the turn of the Millennium, in the over-developed countries, we live in an educated society. It is far more common for people to have the information, but to distort their perception of it through cognitive dissonance. 'There is none so blind as those who will not see.'
3. There is a positive force that distorts our thinking.