Human Nature, Environment, the Commons, and the Future

Blame it on human nature. That’s what we tend to do. Exploitation of the weak by the strong? Must be the greed inherent in human nature. Oppression of women by men? Must be the dominant aggression inherent in male nature. But these explanations are more accurately described as justifications. Excuses.

Why? Because the reality of human nature is much too complex to be leveraged as an explanatory mechanism. Instead, human nature should be seen as a sort of “soft wiring” that indicates, but does not entirely delimit, the possible behaviors and attitudes available to humans, as individuals or as societies. The reason why this alternative idea—of humans as multifaceted and NOT subject purely to the whims of biology constrained by evolutionary imperatives—is so important should be obvious: those who seek social, political, ecological changes to the current world situation need a faith in the malleability of human behavior to have a justification for seeking those changes.

In a static, limited concept of biological evolution one finds a static, limited concept of human nature. In the context of these assumptions (that evolution is driven purely by individual organism-based competition; that essential human nature stems from that evolution), capitalism becomes a logical outcome of “every man for himself” Darwinism. Social Darwinism never died, and it lives on in the “selfish gene”s application to the ethos of modern-day capitalism. “Greed is good”, “Job creators”, “growing the economy”, “encouraging industry competition” and other such truisms are all logical outcomes of these assumptions about how the world works.

A foundational assumption regarding our relationship to the environment is the story of the “Tragedy of the Commons”. So common is this idea that we don’t even think of it as debatable, though its progenitor (Garret Hardin, writing in the 1960s) has been called out many times in the scientific community for the evidence-less nature of his original essay on the subject, and for the “scientific” cover his paper has given to privatization, neoliberalism, and Northern hand-wringing for the problems we’ve caused in the global South. The premise of the ToC is that, each person managing what Hardin erroneously calls a “commons” (really, he’s referring to “open access” resource situations)—say, a grazing land that anyone can put their cattle on—will maximize their own benefit from that resource even if, in the process of using it and without intention to screw anyone over, the resource becomes overused or ruined because everyone acts similarly.

It’s not hard to see our current socio-natural systems in late capitalism as victims of this tragedy writ large. But what Hardin and his acolytes have failed to see is how this tragedy isn’t the inevitable outcome of some underlying human nature or physical survival imperative that foregrounds selfish behavior, but is rather the occasional product of very specific social traditions, developed habits, moral understandings, and accepted narratives, as well as levels of ecological awareness among communities, and the ecological imperatives they live within, driven by economic structures of production. All of these factors are contingent and malleable.

Grazing land in much of the world which is or was managed as a true commons has been grazed for hundreds if not thousands of years, in the absence of a profit motive, and with the very real presence of traditional social relationships dictating proper and improper use of the land and proper relationships amongst people who rely on that land. “True” commons are managed with a complex combination of self interest, other-concern, social awareness, and social sanction for violation of trust and solidarity. It’s not such that commons management is or was ever easy or problem-free. No one can unquestionably argue that we once lived in Utopian communities where all needs were met and people spent all day having sex and eating (though that might’ve been true; read the book Sex at Dawn for a taste of that idea), but it is certainly probable that conditions for resource use that weren’t inherently over-extractive and anti-sustainable have existed many times throughout human history, and could occur again if we were to be conscious and thoughtful about our human nature (including its foibles), non-human nature’s nature (its complexity, vulnerability, and resilience), and ways to well intersect the two.

Finally, what does the environment have to do with you? Well, beyond the obvious (we are part of the environment and we need aspects of it to function more or less “well” in order for our physical bodies to survive), the environment defines us as much as we define it. Our human nature wasn’t just forged previously in the crucible of our interactions and transactions with non-human nature; it is forged ongoingly by the same. And where, really, is the line between human and non-human? The author Alva Noë has written convincingly about the dubious proposition that our mind is held or located within the brain. His argument is too complex to delve into here, but imagining that he’s right in positing that our minds are more so a process constructed by the interactions among the brain, the body, and the environment than a computing function interpreting a world that is “out there” while our minds are “in here”, this leaves us in a better position to understand the ecological and social crises we face.

These crises have coevolved; human social systems and the non-human environmental systems they rely on are interpenetrating. The crises we experience currently can be seen as reflections of the intersections we enact and the value systems that define and create stories around those intersections. If we wish to transition to another form of intersection—to an interpenetration that works—we need to start by reframing the story of our own capacities, of our own nature.

“Everything gardens” goes a saying in Permaculture. We humans have been “gardening” for a long time, preceding even the ascendence of agriculture 10,000 years ago as a way of securing sustenance. Hunting and gathering tribes (our main social form for at least 200,000 years) did more than hunt and gather; some mixed broken pottery with charcoal into “Terra Preta” soil that stabilized nutrients in washed-out tropical soils; some selected certain tree species to create edible landscapes at the regional level; some replanted smaller, underdeveloped bulbs while harvesting wild Brodeia roots, increasing the bulbs’ population size; some used fire to change species composition, soil fertility, and habitat types.

At the same time as these interventions, humans were being affected by the contingent circumstances of global climate, of predatory animals, of disease incidence and bacterial evolution. Microbes gardened us while we gardened the first domesticated lettuce. We will continue to experience this mutual use/mutual dependence no matter how technological or developmentalist we become. We only need to embrace and cultivate these dependencies into functional histories of balanced interaction and meaningful co-evolution that serves a thoughtful long-term goal.

It’s true that in our more recent years, humans have done a smash up job of destroying and disturbing vital earth systems. But nature is resilient, and unpredictable. We do not know the exact result of our interventions, of our habits, of the stories we’ve been telling and sowing. The only thing more unpredictable than nature is us, the human element of nature. What will we do? What will we think? How will our thoughts and our actions intersect with the other constitutive pieces of our brain/body/environment/mind? How will the environment garden our behaviors? How will learning and coevolution occur? How will healing happen? And crucially, what is our thoughtful long-term goal?

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