Most of us would agree that we are “the creature that reasons.” That’s one of the ways we distinguish our species from the other animals. An added corollary to that description which most of us would like to believe is that “we are the creature that knows right from wrong.” Taking the long view of human history might cause a rational person a bit of unease in defending either one of these human traits. Are we indeed rational animals with a conscience?
- Everyone knew that it was wrong to throw the Christians to the lions in the Roman Coliseum.
- Everyone knew that it was wrong to execute the witches in Salem.
- Everyone knew it was wrong to forcibly enslave Africans.
- Everyone knew it was wrong to steal the land of Native American indigenous peoples.
- Everyone knew it was wrong to incinerate European Jews.
- Everyone knew it was wrong to shoot unarmed American black teenagers.
- Everyone knew it was wrong to provide the citizens of Flint Michigan with poisonous water.
- Everyone knew it was wrong to burn fossil fuels and to make our planet uninhabitable.
Everyone knows that the above statements are true but are incompatible with the tenet that we are the creature that reasons and incompatible with our being the animal that inherently knows what moral behavior is. What do we do with these contradictions? The following story is a concrete example of how we are simultaneously the creature that reasons acting irrationally and the naturally compassionate human being that has perpetrated intentional and egregious acts of cruelty throughout our history.
For example, when did we first have credible evidence that our planet would eventually become uninhabitable without a “rational” change in our collective behavior? Jule Charney, the father of modern meteorology, met with fellow scientists starting on July 23, 1979 in Woods Hole on Cape Cod. The report that was produced by this meeting would come to be regarded within the highest levels of the federal government, the scientific community and even within the oil and gas industry to have the authority of settled fact. “It was the summation of all the predictions that had come before, and it would withstand the scrutiny of the decades that followed it. Charney’s group had considered everything known about ocean, sun, sea, air and fossil fuels and had distilled it to a single number: three.” (1) The last time the planet was three degrees warmer beech trees grew in Antarctica, the seas were 80 feet higher and horses galloped across the Canadian coast of the Arctic Ocean.
In Paradigm B (see Current Events #2 and #8) American politicians are expressing their false-self identities which overpowers the false-self identities of the scientists. The insights and compassion of the True self are nowhere to be seen. “When it comes to our own nation, which has failed to make any binding commitments whatsoever, the dominant narrative for the last quarter century has concerned the efforts of the fossil-fuel industries to suppress science, confuse public knowledge and bribe politicians.” (1)
Why the irrational behavior in the human community? Are the people of the Global Village choosing to be manipulated by false-self driven demagogues? Is there really a difference between an unconscious population in a democracy and the “mobs” of voters in phony elections in an autocracy?
“Our popular understanding of a ‘mob’ is more than a century old, tracing back to an 1895 book called ‘The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,’ by the French polymath Gustave Le Bon. Just as critics of ‘Twitter mobs’ worry about people’s behavior when they move from real life to the internet, Le Bon was skeptical about the shift from an agrarian society to city living. The urban crowd, he wrote, is marked by ‘impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason’ and ‘the exaggeration of the sentiments.’ A man on his own ‘may be a cultivated individual,’ but ‘in a crowd, he is a barbarian.’ Over the next several decades, Le Bon’s work attracted many influential fans: Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler spied in it a kind of cheat sheet for fascism, while Freud opined that once in a group, a person ‘is led almost exclusively by the unconscious.’” (2)
We can’t make rational decisions when we are a frightened “mob” acting unconsciously. Nor can we expect reasonable and compassionate decisions when our identity is one which believes the pursuit of material plenty, ephemeral pleasures and delusional power will support our survival.
Another common behavior of our false-self identity is the refusal to admit what is happening and that is sadly evident when we look at how long we have known about the dangers of global warming. “Everybody knew. In 1958, on prime-time television, ‘The Bell Science Hour’—one of the most popular educational film series in American history—aired ‘The Unchained Goddess,’ a film about meteorological wonders, produced by Frank Capra, a dozen years removed from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ warning that ‘man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate’ through the release of carbon dioxide. ‘A few degrees’ rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps,’ says the film’s kindly host, the bespectacled Dr. Research. ‘An inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi Valley. Tourists in glass-bottomed boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water.’ Capra’s film was shown in science classes for decades.” (1)
Insight # 44: “ It make no sense to talk about life or the evolution of consciousness unless one is talking about planetary dynamics and the unfolding of the entire story of our Earth.” (3)
- Rich, Nathaniel. “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change. A Tragedy in Two Acts.” the New York Times Magazine, August 5, 2018, pages 20, 64, 66.
- Hess, Amanda. “Mass Destruction.” The New York Times Magazine, August 12, 2018, page 10.
- Thompson, William Irwin. Coming Into Being. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996, page 168.