Archive for March, 2010

Here’s a poignant, interesting and funny post created by one of our dear friends, Nils 🙂

Nils is a Belgian environmental engineer, a philosopher at heart with a general curiosity for life’s particularities, a fondness for contemplating and hugging trees, whilst still taking an active part in changing the world around him.
Take the time to read it and share your thoughts with us 😉


The idea was to write an opinion on sustainability and human behaviour. Much is ado about sustainability, global warming, corporate responsibility and respect for our surroundings. Humanity blames itself for their behaviour in the past, but seems unable to make the necessary changes. As an industrial engineer specialised in environmentology, I am forced to think about the future of our planet and reasonable economic, ecologic and social solutions. My field of interest is much wider than this, though. My nature is to philosophise and absorb information from all kind of scientific fields. As I started writing this opinion piece, I found that I was writing a lot more than intended. Nonetheless, brief notes would not address a complex matter as the one handled here. I realise that reading a long text is not really attractive, so I suggest you drink a cup of fair-trade coffee and nibble on some organic cookies as you go through this heap of text.

The text starts with some guru-like mumble-jumble about trees and how great they are. It seemed suitable for this blog, and it will link me to some other floaty guru stuff at the end. The text continues with an explanation on Easter Island and the link to current society. I continue with a talk about the impending doom of global warming before going to the real stuff: a view on human behaviour. The text ends with placing my theory into the context of sustainability and behavioural change. Ready? Here we go.

Trees are chill

I love people who plant trees.  Trees contribute to a greener living space. Even though we are fond of our modern lifestyle and comfy streets, we seem to appreciate green areas. They bring us peace. People living in a green environment are generally happier and have less stress. Trees, like other plants filter air, water and soil pollution (although they do accumulate the nasty filtered stuff in themselves) and transform carbon dioxide to oxygen. The only harm I see in trees is when their roots destroy the asphalt of the roads. This happens of course only when the planning authority has the common sense of a carrot and thus does not consider the required distances or specific rooting strategies of trees (some root deep, while others root wide).

Therefore, I sometimes hug trees. I do. They call me a hippie, a tree hugger, a wild dreamer, an idealist, a retard. And maybe I am. Who hugs trees anyway? They are full of nasty bugs. But that does not change the general mentality behind it: the overall respect and understanding for life.

Easter Island and consumption

In courses on sustainability, the example of Easter Island is often used.

Easter Island was discovered by a Dutch admiral in 1722. He found a primitive, cannibalistic society. Clearly savages, so the Dutch decided to go to war with them. You should only fight significantly weaker opponents, of course, much like squishing ants with a tractor. Only some hundred inhabitants remained around 1870. Oddly though, 600 large and heavy statues were discovered as an early work of that civilisation, indicating a former wealthy and advanced society. Because no working animals were present, the statues, weighing over 80 tons, must have been transported by rolling trees. However, barely any trees were present on the Island when it was discovered. It is now common belief that an ancient civilisation arrived around 1200 A.D., finding few other resources but trees. The trees were cut to support the society to build huts, make canoes, feed fire, process tools, and drag around the statues. After cutting most of the trees, the civilisation started to suffer under degradation of the environment, and therefore declined. Several statues were not even finished.

What were the consequences of cutting trees? The lack of trees caused erosion of fertile soil, and no more canoes (fishing, food) or houses (shelter) could be built. The inhabitants could think of leaving the island to another place with more big fat trees, but they could not, because they were unable to make canoes. As a consequence, they started eating each other. I should add though, that new evidence suggests that the society was actually destroyed mostly by Western diseases and slavery. This, however, makes no difference in the rationale.

So here we are. Humanity. Nearly seven billion individuals living on a small ball drifting in a vast space. Even as modern and rational beings, we consume resources faster than they regenerate, driving us to a similar situation as Easter Island. Just like those Polynesians, we cannot escape from our ‘island’. There are no readily habitable planets in the reachable regions of space. And even if there were, a shortage of resources may not allow us to build a space ship. Can we change this behaviour, or are we doomed to greatly extinct ourselves? Read on and sweat.

Global warming and human extinction

I dare to take the word ‘extinction’ in my mouth after attending a presentation by Serge de Gheldere, ‘climate ambassador of Al Gore’. Even though his ‘title’ is kind of awkward, his message was clear: According to predictions of the IPCC, if global warming continues like it does now, by 2050 over 90% of human population will have died. I believe, however, that this number is to be taken with some grains of salt. The IPCC has commercial interests and so did he: he runs a company selling CO2-neutral solutions. His speech was one-sided and did not take into account that the proposed CO2-solutions moved the problem to other environmental areas. Panic is a bad advisor, but nonetheless we should think about this warning.

Considering the whole hype on global warming I must mention two things. Firstly, it is not sure that global warming is entirely caused by humans or greenhouse gases. An alternative theory, the ‘Cloud Theory’ states that global warming is caused by a reaction between cloud cover and cosmic radiation. For more information, visit http://www.thecloudmystery.com/ or watch the documentary online at

Secondly, scientists expect that an ice age might mitigate the effects of global warming. Check out http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/05/090504-sun-global-cooling.html . This information does not fit into the campaign of fear of the IPCC, so it is presented as controversial. Even so, this information should not be used as an excuse to our behaviour. We are running out of natural resources and a change is urgent.

Human behaviour explained by basic instincts

In leisure time, I regularly read articles and works on behavioural sciences and research. I am not a social scientist, however, and if you are a better informed reader, who feels that I am talking gibberish, feel free to let me know and update me. While complex and ambiguous, my conclusions lead to the following reasoning.

Humans are animals, and though developed and refined, our behaviour can be explained by basic principles out of the animal world. Animals have three main instincts, which I will briefly describe together with human peculiarities.

Survival of the self

Animals want to survive and show a big will to do so. In essence, every animal, and thus every human, is egoistic and selfish. Altruism, at first glance opposed to egoism, is thought to be an effect of the survival instinct. This is because cooperation increases chances of survival and social acceptance. Egoism is often seen as a bad thing. I do not agree with that vision, because it is behaviour and consequences that should be judged, not a primal instinct.


The instinct to reproduce, males shagging as much females as possible and females shagging supposedly ideal caring men, is a very interesting phenomenon (forgive me this oversimplification). It is thought to lead to all kinds of behaviour, such as the showing-off wealth, competition, creativity and humour, as we are driven to distinguish ourselves from others. The reproduction instinct goes further than the basic survival needs. As soon as the survival needs are fulfilled (food, shelter, sleep, safety), the instinct to reproduce adds additional layers of needs by means of competition and personality (social contacts, self-realisation). On a side note, some studies supported this idea by observing a general decrease of creativity and realisations of individuals having children, while creativity peeks during puberty. This is interesting, but not necessarily evidence of the hypothesis. Still, the reproduction instinct is often seen as the reason for aforementioned human characteristics. Competition, on the other hand, is a consequence of the reproduction as well as the survival instinct.

Survival of species

This instinct is secondary, as it is implied by the first two instincts. Even so, it is a driving force in nature’s evolution. Some consequences of this instinct, namely taking care of your own ‘community’, are addressed further in the text.

The scientific vision above may clash with personal views of people who do not see our sophisticated behaviour based on animal psychology. Therefore, I must add two things. Firstly, human individuals have a tendency to place their group (race, study, subculture, soccer club…) above other groups, ironically as a consequence of instincts. Secondly, science does not make ethical judgements, it consider facts only. Animals are not evil, and if supposedly ‘good’ aspects as altruism and creativity are linked to animal instincts, this does not make them bad (or good). Science does not aim to provide a ‘warm’ feeling of self-righteousness.

How our instincts lead to laziness

The theory above leads me to the following idea. Let us take an animal which behaviour is known to us, such as a cat. Most of their life, cats simply eat and sleep. Sometimes they play. Cats are lazy. I wish I had a life like that, though. If we look at other animals, we see that all animals are lazy in some way. They all strive to conserve energy, because this ensures survival. That’s why they lay in the sun for example, to consume less energy while heating their body. And that is why we, as animals, eat lot of sugar and fat. Even though it is bad for us, it provides us energy, and we get fat because our bodies try to conserve excess energy. Also, animals are generally short-sighted, because survival is a matter of every day. Animals gather as much resources as possible to ensure survival. You could argue that some animals hamster food, like squirrels stock acorns. While this is true, before stocking, that squirrel will gather as much acorns as quickly as possible anyway. Humans too, prefer short-term advantages over long-term advantages, even if it means harm on long-term. Look at smoking, for example, where the health disadvantages are ignored in favour of short-term pleasure. This is because survival, for a simple animal, implies making short-term decisions.

The human world is much more complex, but this does not seem the change our basic behaviour. We make short-term decisions because they make us feel good or comfortable. Managers take short-term decisions out of a survival standpoint because shareholders want short-term profit. Governments take rapidly implemented decisions because people want quick results, and this ensures survival of the function of policy makers. The same mechanisms seem to apply everywhere in one way or another. Concluding, animals and humans strive to have as much comfort as possible as soon as possible.

We may also observe that humans (and animals) are more inclined to take decisions that benefit individuals close to us (tribe, pack, herd…) than decisions that benefit others. This tendency is linked to our survival instinct too, because we want our community to survive. We know rationally which decisions are good on long-term and/or for everyone, but we are not emotionally and intuitively inclined to make them. To a rational mind, animal and human behaviour seems lazy, childish and stupid.

Resources and survival

Before I go further on stupidity and laziness I should make another human-animal comparison. We need to reflect on a basic theory of ecosystem dynamics. It is often illustrated by the observations of the population dynamics of snowshoe hares and foxes. I will do the same.

Consider a population of rabbits and foxes. Rabbits breed quickly, as a natural mechanism to ensure the survival of the species while there is the risk of being eaten. And indeed, foxes eat rabbits. Assume that the rabbit population rises. Foxes will have a lot of rabbits to eat. Hence, their population will increase as well. The more the population of foxes increases, the more rabbits will be eaten. At a certain point, the rabbit population will not be able to keep up with this trend and start to decline. The foxes will keep eating, however, until the point that it becomes harder to find rabbits. Because of this food shortage, the fox population will decline as well. Consequentially, rabbits will then have more chance of survival and their numbers will start to rise. Back from the beginning, the cycle starts again. This is a continuous process where the rabbit population goes up and down. The fox population follows the same curve but will be delayed a little in comparison with the rabbit population.

Now consider humans. We consume a lot of resources, and use more and more resources as our population increase, striving for quick comfort and thus survival. Humans, as foxes, follow this survival instinct. A fox will try to eat as much as possible to ensure its survival. Even if a fox had the intelligence to understand population dynamics, arguably it would not change its consuming behaviour. A rabbit that is not eaten by one fox will be eaten by another fox anyway, so the fox would reason. After all, the fox lives in a competitive world where it must survive. You can see the analogy with human behaviour. Like a predator-prey relationship, we consume out of natural ways of being. There is one difference, however: even though resources regenerate, this may sometimes take a very long time. For some resources (take oil for example), regeneration rate (fossilisation) can be so low that those resources can be considered as finite. As a consequence, the resources will steeply decline. Following population dynamics, what will the human population do? Right: steeply decline as well. The matter is more complex, and a fox could consider consuming other food resources, just like the human race will find solutions. But you get the idea, and we should be weary.

Human change and interpretation

The short-sighted and selfish behaviour of man is more and more criticised.

We see it as stupid because it is irrational, which is a typical judgement out of a dual and deterministic vision. People feel that the ‘superior’ rational mind, not ‘inferior’ animal emotions or instincts, should rule over mind and body. Out of a dualistic standpoint, this is a fight, a struggle between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Unfortunately, the fight cannot be won because our mind does not work that way. Even though most people are aware of their behaviour and the behaviour of others, we hardly see any change. The deterministic and dual way of thinking, as described before, is typical for human brains. In Western society, even religion is deterministic and dual, defining a God that implies good and bad. This way of thinking simplifies the world and should thus increase control, and is dominant especially in Western societies. The view that the rational mind should overcome our emotions and instinct to live in sustainable ways is erroneous. Because in that reasoning one tries to fight his nature, which is what lead us to the problem in the first place: trying to rule over nature instead of living with it. It is trying to win over something that has reasons to exist. Now how can we live in harmony with ourselves and with our surroundings, without this fight?

The way of change

Religion arguably influences ethics. We know that some old cultures could live in harmony with nature because their beliefs made them to. Their system of rules and laws implied a harmonious behaviour to be socially accepted. We find something similar in philosophies as Taoism and Buddhism, where determinism is abandoned in favour of a holistic understanding.

Placing this in the context of sustainability and human behaviour and instincts, some conclusions can be drawn. There are two ways to change human behaviour, which should preferably be brought together. The first one has to do with ethics, the other with a wider worldview.

Firstly, if we want humanity to live in harmony with nature and its resources, our way of life has to agree with our basic instincts. As stated before, living sustainable has to be a social rule. In order to be socially accepted (survival), one needs to live in the socially implied sustainable ways. Religion can help, but is not necessary.

Religion or philosophy should however be of help in a second way making us living sustainable. It is when, like in Eastern philosophy, the intuitive mind is used to acquire a holistic worldview. In a holistic worldview, the connections between all that exists are intuitively, and thus emotionally, understood. This makes the rational and emotional horizon of time and space wider. This means the bonds with all that exists are stronger. Everything will come ‘closer’, making us care for that ‘everything’ more. In this way, consequences of behaviour are felt immediately, like it would be short-term or short-distance. Because of this, and because of the underlying emotional views, this way is also in line with instincts of survival of the group (we care for what is close).

In either way, one will find it naturally to live harmoniously, and have joy and understanding in it. It will not be a fight against his nature anymore. In this materialistic world with a lot of distractions, it is required to stand still and notice what we have, and be grateful for that.

Back to reality

Needless to say, a turnover in social ethics or worldview is difficult to achieve. For now, most humans are more or less stuck in a materialistic, competitive and deterministic world, which mixed with animal behaviour leads to an environmental disaster. However, the changes I described here are not impossible, as similar ways of living existed in the past and still exist now, though rather rare. The only question that remains is: how fast can we change? Evolution, either social or physical, is always a slow process. Is it fast enough to prevent a disaster such as the one at Easter Island? Or is change too slow, and will that disaster be the trigger for other ways? Time will tell.

I will do my part.

How about you?

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