Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part Five
CLICK HERE to go to Part Four
Erasing the debt. Our relationship to the earth has been one of taking and not of giving. We—all of humanity—have accrued a huge debt. We have not made a sincere, planet-wide effort to begin making payments to repay the loan. The big question that will get in our way is this: Who’s going to start? Which person? Which neighborhood? Which city? Which state? Which country?
This is not an idle question; it’s a central one. Just witness the difficulty we are having with climate change related to global warming. The collective efforts to reign in human production of greenhouse gases (so-called atmospheric carbon and carbon equivalents) continue to stall. The talks are marked by in-fighting and failure to come to consensus.
What most people fail to recognize is that global warming is just one of several “overshoot problems” looming on, or just over the horizon. If we’re having this much trouble with the global warming problem—for which replacement technologies already exist—then how are we going to deal with other pollution excesses and resource shortages, not to mention destabilization of the greater biosphere beyond the pale of human concern?
The new human nature. My answer is a shift in values. Change ourselves. If we can flip our taking behavior over to giving behavior, then the question of “Who will start?” may evaporate.
For many, this new direction may be an almost insurmountable challenge. In the book of Genesis, God instructs Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, and to take dominion over the earth. In some religious traditions, these statements are regarded as God’s first commandments to humanity. I view these statements as somewhat more than mere commandments. They are concise, brilliant expressions of human nature.
Looking at the broad scope of human history, is it not obvious that our natural inclinations have lead us down the path of “mastery over the earth”? Our successes in this regard are a logical outgrowth of our basic nature. Or is it? What is missing from this description of human nature?
What if we were to recognize that human mastery of the earth—the cause, one might say, of our unquestioned taking from the earth—is only one half of our nature. In that case, it might not seem quite so impossible to change our nature.
Changing our nature might appear to be a process of forcefully suppressing our “base desires”. That is an unpalatable notion. But the problem can be turned around. Perhaps there are parts of our nature that are already being suppressed, making it seem as though we are nothing more than taking creatures.
I maintain that fully human beings are more than taking creatures. Animals are taking creatures. They respond to motivational forces and show no capability to restrain those motivations. Only human beings can consciously exercise restraint. It’s true that many times we don’t want to do that—unless we are provided with a compelling reason. Nonetheless, it is a capacity we have that is unique in the kingdom of living beings.
What else can fully human beings do? We can think about and judge our own actions. We can look back upon something we have done and conclude that that action is not desirable or socially acceptable. Again, we often do not wish to do this because of emotional barriers such as shame or guilt making us want to hide our actions from others or ourselves. But if we have sufficient reason, we can override these barriers.
I have given just two ways that mark fully human beings as more than taking creatures: self-restraint and integrity. Furthermore, if we consciously take ownership of these traits (and other fully human traits), it will become easier to reign in the part of us that exists only to take. Our full human nature can “naturally” lead us away from fruitful multiplication and dominion over the earth. Our full human nature can lead us to own that part of our humanity that is rooted in integrity and responsibility for our actions.
And so, I have a proposal to begin our reprogramming of ourselves into giving beings. This is coming in the next section of this essay.
Another Path to Self-Worth: Nobility. I have argued so far that our economic system has embedded within most of us a “deep value” that guides many of our choices. This value is reciprocity, which can be understood as the drive to engage in fair exchanges. We are so well conditioned in this way of thinking that many of us determine our sense of self-esteem or self-worth based on how effective we are at conducting fair exchanges. For most adults this occurs firstly through the activity of earning a living.
To illustrate this I will ask you to imagine a person that has developed a severe illness that will require an extended period of recuperation. Consequently, the person will have to stop working. If the person is fortunate, he or she may have some kind of worker’s compensation that keeps some income flowing into the bank account. Nevertheless, this person feels uncomfortable about not working and impatiently waits for the doctor to release him or her to return to work. Have you ever met a person like this? Maybe it was even yourself.
When people are denied the opportunity to work they often feel inadequate and may even sink into a state of depression. I would suggest that this makes perfect sense if generating income for the purpose of engaging in reciprocal exchanges (buying stuff) is the primary means that people have been taught for arriving at a sense of self-worth. Consequently, people will become highly invested in maintaining a system where self-worth is organized around reciprocity, or fair exchanges.
However, this is a distorted picture of human psychology, as well as of the entire system governing the well-being of the world.
Martin Seligman, who wrote a book entitled Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment talks about a fellow psychologist who built a career on a phrase he learned from his mother when he was a boy. If the mother found her son moping around, she would say, “If you’re in a bad mood, go find somebody to help.” This idea brilliantly reminds us that self-worth is not only about exchanges.
Yet our economic system seems to have forgotten this. It is no wonder, then, that the field of economics has lead us down a path toward ever-increasing imbalance. It is no wonder that citizens of developed countries, and the United States in particular, are having trouble reclaiming a sense of self-worth.
Summary of Part Five. In our relationship to the earth, it is time to start repaying the debt. Who will take the lead? Suppressing our desire to take might appear to be an insurmountable challenge. Maybe the answer is to un-suppress other aspects of our nature. The fully human being is endowed with capabilities such as self-restraint and judgment of actions as good or bad. There may be other suppressed capabilities of the fully human being. Expanding these capabilities will help temper our taking nature. Additionally, our economic system is tied in with the methods we use to achieve a sense of self-worth. If self-worth is primarily achieved through earning an income and buying goods and services, then this, too, will impair our ability modify our taking nature.
CLICK HERE to go to Part Six.