Saturday, December 08, 2007

Sex is what makes the World go on, but also what can degrade our environment

I have come to the conclusion that all humans suffer from a profound inner conflict. If we genuinely want to make a break from the status quo, I feel that we need to take a fresh look at ourselves.

A helpful first step would be to stop pretending that we are objective and rational decision makers, and to face up to the fact that we are riddled with emotions and conflicts of interest, which make it hard for us to share wealth, status and power.

Although we have acquired an impressive, even dazzling, array of knowledge and cultures, it is our evolutionary past which has determined the senses we possess, the structure of our bodies, the hard-wiring of our brains and the ways in which we instinctively interact with each other and the world around us.

In addition, we are sexually reproducing creatures that must compete to attract a mate if we are ever to produce offspring; as well as social and hierarchical animals.

This means that we enjoy living in relatively small, stable family and social groups and instinctively rank everyone in our social group according to a combination of their beauty, intellect, physique, wealth, health and power.

To a considerable extent, how well we score in these criteria determines our social status, and thus how well we compete for sexual partners.

A positive side-effect of all this sexual competition is that it has encouraged us to strive for success and status in many different fields of human endeavour; from politics, business and science to art, music and medicine.

In early human societies, people were able to compete in non-lethal ways, by collecting beautiful objects such as feathers, unusual pebbles or animal skins.

A person who had the most spare time, strength or skill would, on average, be the one who collected the best status symbols, and thus impressed the potential sexual partners around them the most.

Without access to fossil fuels, it was hard to cheat, and these status symbols could generally be treated as reliable indicators of an individual's relative merits.

Now that we have succeeded in harnessing the world's fossil fuel reserves, our brains' fixation on visible status symbols has become something of a hindrance and much less reliable as a means of discriminating between potential mates.

In addition, modern technologies have given us a far greater capacity to alter and to degrade our environment.

Unnatural selection

In my view, climate change is an unintended side-effect of many of the ways in which we show off, such as driving over-sized cars, owning holiday homes and buying the latest electronic gadgets.

But where does our obsession with showing off come from?

In the animal kingdom, the massive size and impressive quality of a peacock's tail is used to signal to females the size of handicap that a male can endure while also meeting his basic needs. This is known as the handicap principle.

In humans, the tendency to show off how much we can afford to waste has resulted in gamblers risking the loss of a million dollars on the turn of the card, kings building palaces with hundreds of rooms, and rappers covering themselves in gold and silver as part of "bling" culture.

In a world of "bling", the last thing a car is used for is getting from A to B; it is a symbol of wealth, power and status, and a tool for enhancing a person's sex life.

If we cannot naturally restrain the ways in which we attempt to show off, because we want to attract the opposite sex, we need to take this into account and to develop fair and robust ways of making up for our own natural limitations and of taking carbon emissions out of the ways we compete with each other.

We are not going to stop being competitive as a species, but this does not mean we cannot foster co-operation and organise our social, economic and political activities in ways that allow us to align short-term competitive advantage with long-term sustainability.

Although big-picture targets are always going to be useful, I also feel that we should create some smaller, more tangible first steps for action. These could help us to feel secure about our social status, foster a sense of achievement and encourage changes in everyday activities.

For example, with energy-efficient light bulbs, I have found that once the logic of banning incandescent light bulbs was accepted it rapidly gained wider support, and allowed more ambitious solutions to become feasible.

As a social animal, we care what other people think about us, but don't like to admit weakness or to move first.

Where the temptation to go for short-term advantage is too great, we need to create robust ways of detecting, reporting and policing selfishness.

All of this means that in many respects, the human being is the weakest link in our decision-making process. The money and technologies are there if we want to make a difference.

It would only cost $10bn (£5bn) a year to provide 1.1 billion people with clean drinking water, yet we currently spend $38bn (£19bn) on pet food and $1,200bn (£600bn) on the world's military.

What we have so far lacked is the determination to act with purpose and passion.

I therefore hope we can rise above our usual excuses, and decide to give the world a helping hand in the same way that we committed ourselves to reaching for the Moon.

Matt Prescott
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