A Manifesto for Personal Action

by Dr Bob Rich, continued

What must change?

    Clearly, people's attitudes and thoughts need to change, not merely our actions. When only actions change, they are subverted by the dominant culture, yielding bizarre results, like the Australian Labor Party's pathetic 'three uranium mines' policy, or a paper recycling facility for Melbourne and Sydney, in Albury-Wodonga. (Post World War II, Europe was thickly scattered with small paper-recycling businesses. It is an ideal decentralised, labour-intensive industry. Yet now, 'efficient' means 'big', and Sydney was deemed too small to feed a single factory. So, recycling contractors are buried in paper the factory cannot take. Huge loads are transported long distances at great environmental cost.)
    I am not arrogant enough to claim to have THE answers, but reading, thought and discussion since 1972 have led me to a plausible position. Surprisingly, I have found only three seriously pathogenic attitudes:

1. The Pursuit of Happiness. Most people's life purpose is to seek happiness. Gilbert Ryle  has demonstrated that words like 'happiness' are misleading. They seem to refer to 'something', but in fact are adverbs rather than nouns. I enjoy reading a book. I'm doing one thing, reading, not two, reading and enjoying. Rather, the activity of reading has pleasant effects on me. Ryle's main example is 'Unpunctuality is reprehensible.' It means that I dislike people to be late, not that there is an entity or process 'unpunctuality'.
    A recent magazine article titled A Simple Truth About Happiness grabs the eye because it speaks to everyone's preoccupation. It makes the same point: happiness is something to work at, by living in a certain way, not by directly seeking it. The advice is: avoid comparisons, accept the limitations of reality, find the good in what you have.
    Viktor Frankl's advice is: seek meaning and purpose, and you will be happy.

2. Happiness is bought. The advertising industry lives on fostering this illusion. Every product, every service, is presented as necessary for happiness, and people have bought the lie. 'If only I had a new car...', 'When we go on holiday...' 'If I could just win enough through gambling...'
    It is economically necessary that people should keep yearning, that they never become more than transiently satisfied. If my old car works well enough, and if I'm unmotivated by status and fashion to exchange it, then I won't buy a new one. So, consumer society is built on unhappiness. Through planned obsolescence, deliberately shoddy design, fashion, identification with media heroes, false linking with sex, people must be made to be unhappy with what they have, or they'll stop buying. Then they won't be motivated to take part in the desperate scramble for money that keeps the treadmill wheels spinning ever faster, grinding up the future.
    One tragedy is that consumer attitudes have generalised to personal relationships. Others have become tools in the chase after happiness, to be acquired with great joy, found wanting, then traded in. For all too many people, the concepts of compromise, tolerance, growing together have been replaced by comparisons with idealised images of True Love.

3.The emphasis on ego. We act as if Donne's 'No man is an island' were false. Genetically, we are identical to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They lived in groups of 10 to 30, with widespread links to many others, ensuring genetic diversity. As animals, we are territorial and competitive, but also, necessarily, cooperative. Among hunter-gatherers, the individual survives only through belonging to the group, and must subsume self to affiliation. Our reversal of this is a cultural, learned stance, one which causes untold harm.
    The proper balance between self and society is:

WHO doesn't matter.
How well
-- that's another matter.

    Competition for excellence in the service of the group is the rightful role of ego.
All the great religions teach this. The world would be transformed if enough people gained their personal satisfaction from achievement in service, not achievement in acquisition. Jesus, Buddha, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela are better role models than Stalin, Bill Gates, Aristotle Onassis, Elle, Sinatra.

Who can teach us?


1.   Sustainable cultures Throughout the existence of humankind, there have been sustainable cultures that stayed in dynamic balance with their environment over many generations. Their existence proves that another path is possible. A few still remain: Australian Aboriginal cultures, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, an isolated group in the Philippines. However, contact with aggressive, expansionary cultures has inevitably either destroyed or transformed most such people.
    Expansionary and sustainable cultures are so different that a person from one finds it hard to imagine how a person from the other feels. We have an expansionary culture, where a person's well-defined ego is independent of the group, and personal identity, power, and the desire for wealth are considered basic needs. Nature is dominated and exploited by such cultures, and conflict is inevitable. Laws need to be enforced because of the constant clash of selves.
    A sustainable culture is utterly different. A person has identity only as a member of a group. Isolation from the group can kill. (There is a high risk of death among jailed Australian Aboriginals, although many are urban people.) In a sustainable culture, possessions do not indicate success, because success as compared to others is unimportant. They are appreciated only in terms of their function or beauty, and are readily shared. Even modern, city-dwelling Aboriginals share their possessions with their family, often a large group.
    Several sustainable cultures have no chiefs or underlings. People may be admired for their abilities, and may have specialist roles for which they are well suited. This gains respect and acknowledgment, status but not power. Elders are respected for their wisdom, but need to gain consensus to achieve action. Society's rules are not seen as laws imposed by people, but as 'laws of nature': unavoidable, fixed, divinely controlled. The only need for external discipline is for children until they are trained.
    Tim Flannery argues that the 'future eating' now destroying our global life support system evolved in Australiasia, then conquered humanity's homeland in Eurasia-Africa. There, prey and competitor alike had co-evolved with humans, in a millennial arms race that prevented any one species from gaining overwhelming superiority. Even Java has yielded hominid remains. New Guinea and Australia evolved without humans, until perhaps 60,000 years ago. Animals and plants had no defenses from the invaders, who therefore developed a new culture, the frontier mentality: Migrate, devastate, breed beyond the carrying capacity of the land, then move on. This lifestyle has swept the world, being particularly successful in Europe during the end of the last Ice Age, when people followed the most successfully invasive plants and animals north. Flannery aptly calls the ecology of Europe a 'weed ecology'. Not surprisingly, this led to a 'weed culture' that has now infested the globe.
    However, in Australia, conditions have pushed cultural evolution towards cooperation, copying an ecosystem that evolved to survive soils poor in nutrients, and the recurring climatic disasters of the 'El Nino Effect'. It is time for us to learn from native Australians again. By cooperating, by limiting their population, by caretaking nature rather than abusing it, they survived in a difficult land for 60,000 years. The wisdom of their cultures may help us to survive beyond a few decades.

2.  Buddhism also has much to offer. Here are a few Buddhist gems:
*     Contentment is through ceasing to want, not through satisfying desires.
*     The golden middle: too much is as bad as too little.
*     Suffering is a learning experience; we live to learn something in each cycle.
*     Strive to do no harm.
*     Small steps go far.


    Perhaps it's an example of cognitive dissonance, but I remain an optimist. I believe that humanity has some chance of seeing the end of the third millennium, if only enough of us change our beliefs, and therefore our actions, and lead sustainable lives. Exponentials have the most surprising way of suddenly taking off, and the exponential towards sanity might just do that.
    Living a sustainable life has an unexpected side-effect:  it feels good . Striving for the survival of humanity and its wonderful life support system is a more satisfying game than seeking power and wealth. So, even if we fail, if in fact we have already killed Mother Earth and ourselves with Her, the effort is worthwhile.
    So, join me! Like those ancient Italian peasants who walked away from the corrupt Church, walk away from the corrupt Economy. The New Age is now. It is up to you to create it for yourself.


You may look at another, shorter essay.


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