Nature vs. Nurture on the Ecological Battlefield

I’m in the process of rethinking my position on the genetic underpinnings of human consumption, competition and reproduction.  For the last year or so I’ve been of the opinion (informed by the writings of Jay Hanson and Reg Morrison) that humanity’s genetic inheritance was the primary driver of growth, as manifested in these three aspects of human behaviour.

Recently I’ve been softening my position as a result of being reminded of the existence of potlatch and gift economies, and the widespread evidence of altruism around the world.  The existence of altruism-based social institutions has made me realize that more is going on in our civilization than just the bald influence of genetics on behaviour.

It now appears to me that the feedback between our biological predispositions and our institutions is a critical determinant of human societies.  In societies where institutions support the altruistic (oxytocin-driven?) aspects of our biological makeup we find gift economies.  In societies where institutions support the competitive (dopamine-driven?) side of our nature, barter or market economies are the rule.  In turn, the support of those aspects of our nature receives causes us to strengthen the supporting institutions.

One of the interesting comments in the Wikipedia article on gift economies is this: “Marshall Sahlins writes that
Stone Age gift economies were, by their nature as gift economies, economies of abundance, not scarcity, despite their typical status of objective poverty.”  The implication is that our modern market economy, with all its institutions promoting the ethics of growth, competition and zero-sum, is a response to perceived scarcity even in the face of objective abundance.  If that is true, then a couple of implications spring to mind.

The first is that as we move into a time of actual scarcity, the social grip of our current economic religion will be strengthened rather than relaxed. Events will “prove” to our power-holders that their perceptions and responses are correct, even axiomatic.  That conviction will translate into ever more corporate support for the educating institutions - including schools, think-tanks and  media - that promote this worldview.  We are likely to see a rapid devolution into authoritarian and repressive regimes that can legitimately be characterized as fascist in the original sense of the term as used by Mussolini – the control of the state by corporations. These corporations and their support systems will fight to the death to preserve the status quo.

The second implication is that the only real hope humanity has of shaking off the shackles that bind our nature to our institutions is if the institutions themselves disappear.  Fortunately for the ecosphere, since they are all predicated on the existence of the growth economy, anything that brings about a disruption of that economy will disrupt their structure at the same time.  If, as I expect, the convergence of peak oil, climate change and ecological collapse results in a permanent reversal of global economic growth, such disruptions will be inevitable.

This, then, is the tarnished silver lining inside the dark cloud of economic collapse and human die-off.  We can only regain our balance with nature if global consumption is reduced.  Having fewer people would accomplish that, and die-off would guarantee it.  We can only hope to establish a truly sustainable civilization on the far side of the bottleneck if the values emblematic of gift economies can find room to flourish. 

The collapse of the present market and growth economy would provide the needed social room.  This collapse is virtually guaranteed in the face of the permanent economic reversals brought on by increasing resource scarcity and declining net energy.

If we can embed the required values (though Gaia's antibodies) and preserve enough knowledge through the coming involuntary interregnum, humanity will have a chance.

Paul Chefurka
August, 2007

© Copyright 2007, Paul Chefurka

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