A Journal of Sustainable Human Development
Vol. 7, No. 3, March 2011|
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor
Homo Economicus, Homo Ecologicus
Project Manager, Canadian Coast Guard
and Department of Fisheries and Oceans
Published in the Approaching the Limits Web Site,
8 December 2008
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
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.|
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
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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