Back in the late 1970’s and 80’s it was often claimed by anthropologists, psychologists, economists, environmental biologists and philosophers that human beings are basically (perhaps genetically) predisposed toward brute selfishness rather than cooperation and concern for others. Even when we cooperate with others, they argued, we do it for selfish reasons. Ethical and political arguments drawn from Ayn Rand’s essay “The Virtue of Selfishness”, and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins book, ‘The Selfish Gene’ flourished during a time when neoliberal capitalist regimes from Ronald Reagan, to Margaret Thatcher to Brian Mulroney dominated the political landscape.
There is, of course, nothing new here—selfishness as a virtue has a long history. In Plato’s Republic, the character Glaucon (actually Plato’s older brother) relates to Socrates that we do the right thing not because we honour the law, but for the sake of ourselves—because we don’t want to get caught and punished! If we were invisible, he argued, we would likely act in a completely selfish way, with no concern for others. Thomas Hobbes Leviathan presumed that civilized polities begin when competitive, warring human beings give over their power to kill others to an absolute sovereign, based solely on selfish motives. Adam Smith argued that only the invisible hand of the market could redirect intrinsic human selfishness towards the common good.
There is, of course, prima facie evidence suggesting that many human beings are indeed selfish, caring only for themselves and willing to use and abuse others in their efforts to maximize their pleasure, happiness or wealth. However, there is also mounting historical, environmental, sociological and anthropological evidence that we would simply not have survived as a species if we were fundamentally selfish beings. This research has begun to paint a picture of human beings as fundamentally cooperative and caring. However, do we really need to definitively answer the question about whether we are fundamentally greedy and self-serving or fundamentally cooperative and caring towards others, in order to go forward? No, I don’t think so.
It seems to me that we humans can ‘select out’ (to use the evolutionary phrase) greed genes, memes, and practices by changing the way we think and act towards others, and indeed toward our physical environment. In other words, we are not enslaved by our genetic predispositions, whatever they may be. We are, instead thinking beings, capable of choosing otherwise.
If Marx was right that our economic system, in some measure, determines our social relations—i.e. politics, law, relations of power, practices, institutions—and if it is also the case that any given system of economics is neither necessary nor inevitable, then it is clear that we can opt for an economics that is radically different from the present neoliberal extractivist, capitalist system we now live under. For Marx this would only be possible through raising class consciousness in working people, followed by a proletarian revolution.
I have my doubts about whether we are going to change the present economic system through violent revolution. What we can do, however, and what many are already doing, is to tell a different kind of civilizational story. Typically, we have understood civilization to be associated with human inventions like writing, keeping records, creating legal codes, or in more modern times with the rise of technology, bureaucracy and mass industrialization. But the modern ‘civilized’ world has also been closely associated with colonialism, imperialism, expropriation and unbridled capitalism based on greed—realities that testify more to the barbarity rather than the civility of modern capitalism.
Instead of civilization as 'subjugation' we could begin to think and act our way towards a different civilizational story for our present time of environmental crisis. A story that elaborates how we are fundamentally connected to and dependent upon others, as well as to the health of the biosphere that sustains us; it would be a story that understands civilizing not through extraction, appropriation and colonization, but through recognition of the dignity of persons, of animal rights and the rights of Mother Earth.
This new civilizational story would draw upon indigenous ways of knowing and being. It would raise individual and world awareness about climate change, build environmental and labour solidarity, and expand the reach of social justice. It would be constructed around the reality of a finite planet over against the persistent myth that we can develop, extract and expand infinitely. It would elaborate how the present system of neoliberal capitalism actually endorses and rewards selfishness, environmental destruction and civilization-ending climate warming.
A new civilizational story based on eco-economics is indeed possible—an economics not founded on profit, endless consumption and privatization of public spaces and resources, but on sustainability; on de-growth through downscaling resource and energy demands; on commons-based initiatives of public spaces; on resilience and decarbonization. This kind of eco-economics would not orient consumption around private ownership and profit, but around public goods and the earth’s actual carrying capacity. It would be based on environmental reality and sustainability, not on the capitalist myth of an invisible, pseudo-benevolent hand operating behind the backs of citizens. So, how can we bring this about?
At the level of individual action, we would bring this new civilizational story to life by living in more sustainable ways—by asking ourselves what we really need in order to live a good life, rather than simply defining ourselves through what we own and consume.
At the level of community action, we would enact it by joining local and global communities involved in environmentally sustainable practices—from co-op farms, to green energy and resilience initiatives to repurposing rather than throwing away raw materials. These inspirational groups and practices are everywhere to be found. They are filled with dedicated hard-working individuals who have discovered ‘who they are’ through their relation to the earth and to others.
At the level of political action, it would mean writing letters to political representatives, going to City Hall and fighting for sustainable, and environmentally sound civic programs and practices; it would mean forcing politicians to do the right thing through mass protest and civil disobedience; it would mean delaying and finally stopping extractive industries from any further destruction; it would mean supporting local civic and environmental groups who are oriented by care and love for the beauty and singularity of this earth.
All of the above ideas and actions are not only possible, they are already underway. Aside from showing us that greed is not necessary or inevitable, what they gradually reveal to us is that it is long past the time when we must, piece by piece, deconstruct the present barbaric capitalist extractivist economic story, and tell a better one—a civilizational story that testifies to the human capacity for care, cooperation and environmental sustainability, while sustaining the conviction that a different world is, indeed, possible.