Friday, July 1, 2011

Leading twenty-first century lives with Stone Age minds

When it comes down to living, we live because of what is around us, and we are less influenced by what is far away. The water that I drink needs to be here for me to drink it, and although the water in the Aral Sea was probably once here, it is not here now, and therefore, in some sense, I am unaffected by it.

It is likely that most of us think that our immediacy is most important to us - spatially, temporally, and emotionally. We generally care more about where we live than where we don't live, now as opposed to the future, and those closest to us, our friends and family, than those we've never met. Just a few hundred years ago, the bounds of our influence were defined by our immediacy. If we couldn't interact with people that lived thousands of miles away, or even just a hundred miles away, there was likely no way to influence those lives.

But today, the extent of our influence is the entire world. We have this influence, whether we like it or not. This influence has led to many great things (say maybe the spread of various rights for humans), but many destructive things, things that we have trouble even wrapping our minds around (like global poverty, like climate change). Unfortunately, our ethics and behaviour, which have caused the massive problems that face us, are wholly inadequate when dealing with these problems. We still end up focused on our immediacy; we still don't sympathise with people in the Maldives, whose home will be under sea in just a few years.

It is likely that over the past few hundred years of industrialisation and globalisation, our brains haven't changed much - evolutionarily, a few hundred or a few thousand years is nothing. While we have new knowledge about the world, while we have built planes and trains and automobiles and buildings and bridges, our ability to really and truly conceptualise the problems that face us and do anything about them rarely takes us further than our immediacy. And so, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, we lead twenty-first century lives with Stone Age minds. 

This means that what we need to do is limit our influence on those (people, trees, fish) we aren't able to sympathise with by expanding our ethical framework to encompass everything in this world. What this likely results in for our lives is an intense localisation - of space, of time, of emotion. We need to bring back the bounds of our influence (influence that results in ecological degradation) close to home, so that we see it and feel it, here and now. And that'll really make us think about and do something about our influence.


  1. "Just a few hundred years ago, the bounds of our influence were defined by our immediacy."

    Not true--long distance trade has existed for longer than that; e.g.

    "evolutionarily, a few hundred or a few thousand years is nothing"

    Not necessarily. A lot of change change can happen in a few generations:

    And of course our thinking isn't determined by our genetics. Humans have changed both physically and mentally over the centuries, for a variety of reasons.

  2. I should have been clearer with your first point. When I say "influence," I mean the ability to *significantly* alter physical landscapes because of what we want from elsewhere. There is a difference between trading a robes of silk and a few camels, versus transporting millions of gallons of oil by pipe, or coal by train, or water through irrigation.

    With the second point, well, evidence suggests that the human brain has been shrinking for the past several thousand years (, but that really isn't my point. My point is about what we are affected by, and what most are truly affected by is what is around us - smog, healthy children, and rapid transit - not what is far away - a country being drowned, or humans rights violations in China, or even in inner city USA. If we were *truly* affected by these far away things, I believe many of the choices we make in our immediacy would be tempered or changed.