Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 7, No. 3, March 2011
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor
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Homo Economicus, Homo Ecologicus

Paul Chefurka
Project Manager, Canadian Coast Guard
and Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Published in the Approaching the Limits Web Site, 8 December 2008

EDITOR'S NOTE: The reader is invited to consider this article in conjunction with the editorial in Page 1 of this issue. This article elaborates on the vexing difficulties that homo economicus must overcome to become homo ecologicus. But an "evolutionary scale" mutation is not required. It is a matter of homo sapiens outgrowing the homo economicus mindset to embrace an ecologically wiser mindset.

greenhomoecologicus From various altercations I've had on the Internet I've come to the realization that people who "speak" ecology and people who "speak" economics are operating in orthogonal (i.e. mutually perpendicular) frameworks. As a result, each side's position appears religious to the other. I've often been accused of operating from a "faith-based" perspective, but from the ecological side of the fence I see their position as being at least as faith-based as they see mine. (OK, OK, their position is much more religious than mine, but I'm going for politeness points here.)

The difference between the two positions has little to do with classical intelligence. Nobody with a normal-range intelligence is cognitively incapable of understanding ecological issues. It's more a matter that people have an internal narrative that they use to describe and give meaning to the world they live in. People have a neuro-psychological need to believe their perceptions are correct, so they reflexively discount, discard or block out any evidence that contradicts their narrative.

Shifting that narrative requires a psychological quantum leap that usually comes in a flash of insight. The person’s intelligence remains unchanged in the process of course, but the way they understand the world can change dramatically in moments. It’s not a case of there being a “secret knowledge” that is only available to an elite. It’s that our internal narratives are reinforced from within (by our own brain development and psychology) and without (by the stories our culture tells us) to such an extent that radical shifts in narrative are rare.

The jump from an economic to an ecological consciousness (from "homo economicus" to "homo ecologicus") can be triggered by new information that is so dramatic that it breaks through our psychological protective mechanisms. However, the two modes of perception are so different in the way they analyze the world that a heavy investment in one point of view can preclude the possibility of change even in the face of physical evidence.

Since the ecological perspective is so recent, the world at large still reinforces only the well-entrenched economic world-view. We all have close at hand an endlessly varied, socially reinforced series of convenient post-hoc justifications for the economically-framed decisions rendered by our unconscious minds. This makes the transition to the ecological paradigm very difficult -- the shift requires a person to assimilate new information, process old information in a new and radically different way, and do it all in the face of constant negative reinforcement from the media (including people on the Internet), educational systems, political power structures and even the legal system.

I'll never forget the day about four years ago when I suddenly understood the implications of Peak Oil. I felt like I'd taken the red pill and abruptly awoke in a completely new and unsuspected reality. From that point on almost all the information I uncovered about the state of the natural world, the way we humans live in it and the reasons we behave as we do painted the outlines of a system that was very near the breaking point. As time went on, I came to understand that we were not just near the breaking point, we were already at it.

The truth of my new perception proved impossible to communicate to those who had not undergone a similar epiphany -- while for those who had, no explanation was necessary. To those who didn't get it, I was speaking pure defeatism. For those who did, it was simple realism. Those who get it understand that to respond to a great crisis you need to understand it fully in order not to waste time pursuing avenues that are unworkable or counterproductive. Those who don't get it look on any such critique as obstructionism that doesn't recognize the boundless inventiveness of the human mind. Those who don't get it think every problem has a solution. Those who do get it understand that we are not facing a problem, but rather a predicament, with the obvious distinction that while problems have solutions, predicaments may not. Those who get it tend to think in terms of adaptations or mitigations, rather than solutions.

People who make this jump move their worldview into a frame of reference that is largely incomprehensible to those still working from the old story. As a result their new perceptions tend to be derided as “faith-based” because the inner logic of the new frame is not derivable from the old.

About the author: Paul Chefurka is a Computer Scientist with a lifelong interest in environmental issues. He has spent over twenty years working in Research and Development in the Ottawa telecommunications industry, and is currently Project Manager at Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. His personal web site, Approaching the Limits provides open access to his writings and is a valuable resource for study and reflection on many dimensions of the impending ecological crisis.

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