When what were regarded in a more primitive age as negative attributes are magically re-formed so they shine as virtues, it is easy to persuade ourselves that these represent human nature. It gives us permission, as it were, to be intemperate, self-indulgent and greedy. The morality of economic growth and expansion has invaded the psyche, the inner sites where people struggle with how to be a good person; and now reigns as the ultimate revelation of what it means to be human.
The success of industrial society depends on this grim account of “reality”. “You can’t change human nature” is the first article in the credo of capitalism; a mildly sorrowful recognition that human beings are “essentially” selfish, irremediably “fallen” in fact: and this exhibits continuity in what might, at first sight, seem a radical break with Christian teaching.
If the first article of capitalism has been the unalterability of human nature, its second has been a relentless remaking, domination and plunder of the rest of the natural world. Nature itself has been infinitely pliable, to be used and shaped to any purpose “humanity” proposes. Whole continents have been subjugated, forests felled, watercourses diverted, the earth gutted, seas fished to extinction; only human nature, remains triumphant, invincible.
The weight of the dazzling iconography of production and consumption, together with these vices-become-virtues leaves no room for other, eclipsed visions of the better world that this one might have been, but can no longer be, since these have been colonised by one of the many possible versions of prosperity or well-being. If the western view of the world has prevailed over all others, this is not so much a sign of its providential truth as of its physical power.
If this story of human purposes contains some truth, that truth conceals an even greater falsehood. It is undeniable that human beings have always longed for more, have yearned for possessions that will serve as a bulwark against existential desolation, as an illusion against eternity – the tombs of history are strewn with precious objects to accompany the deceased even into the afterlife. But, no one has ever before seriously believed that bliss is to be attained in this brief life, even those who have professed total faith in the pursuit of happiness.
Religion has always taught the necessity for restraint, limits and the impossibility of transcendence in this world. The ideology of limitless growth turns this on its head: it injects an otherworldly cosmology into an ostensibly secular context. Instead of promising happiness in the hereafter, it offers a happy eternity in the here-and-now. These doctrines are far more impossible of fulfilment than the dogmas of any religious faith; for while it cannot be proved that there is no afterlife, it is obvious that perpetual happiness in a life limited by insecurity, pain and loss is a vain endeavour. This is why much of the resistance to capitalist ideology comes from the religious; since priests, imams and intermediaries with the other world are well aware that it is their territory that is being trampled.
The conviction that the natural world is ours for the taking, but that human nature remains closed to change, has led directly to multiple global crises – climate change, growing inequality, and, less noted, but perhaps even more significant, a pervasive, doomed and morbid desire for the unattainable. It has now been recognised that disturbance of the biosphere, an addiction to progress, the accumulated effects of human action, have led directly to global warming; but there has been – understandably – far greater reluctance to recognise the role of an unalterable human nature in the achievement of this melancholy state.
This equation cannot be selectively modified, since it is, in its way, a holistic view of the world. Any resolution of the threats posed by globalisation requires a reversal of the ideology: the very opposite is needed of the cynical, taken-for-granted fatalism about the nature of humanity, for this has led to immobilism and sense of powerlessness in engaging effectively with the present crisis.
The most urgent work is to address this fiction of human nature, which is viewed as the only fixed point in the constant churning of feverish change and growth. Human nature is not as it has been painted by the self-justifying prophets of economic ideology. It is one thing to compel people to behave in a particular way and then to approve the outcome of such conduct as in accord with human nature. If there is no public space for other attributes of humanity, this bleak view will inevitably crowd out our capacity for generosity, selflessness, sacrifice and kindness. We know these things exist: only they are barred, proscribed guests from the sombre economic banquet, except for the crumbs of philanthropy of leftovers. Ruthless, self-centred, individualistic – if these characteristics are rewarded, who will not cultivate them, leaving human virtues to be practised furtively, in the secrecy of a private life where they have been incarcerated as spoilers of the economic game?
“We must change nature, but we can’t change human nature” has been the cry of the most serious conservationists of all, those who would conserve intact the dominant unjust paradigm. Even for the modest aim of 10:10 to work effectively in Britain, other human possibilities will have to be aroused from the common grave of unsettling ideas; among them, a reawakening of the resourcefulness, creativity and flexibility of people, which alone can mitigate our baleful effects upon the planet.
Perhaps there are, for the rich, other ways of being prosperous, and for the poor, other pathways out of poverty than those we know. But they remain blocked by the immoveable conviction that the disciplines of the market economy – that alliance of destructiveness of nature and the inviolability of our human nature – are still the only route to the realisation of our deepest dreams and avoidance of our worst nightmares.
It has now been generally acknowledged that the plunder of nature must cease; but without confronting the source of those predations, our chances of survival are becoming smaller by the day. Some radical questions arise, not the least of which is why it has become so difficult to distinguish between the nature of industrialism and the industrialising of our own nature?