In 2011, Steven Pinker borrowed the closing line “better angels of our natures” from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address to set the stage for a book arguing that humanity has become more peaceful, law abiding and less murderous through time. Pinker's compelling argument goes that some combination of governance, law, education, globalization and trade have allowed four better angels (empathy, self-control, a moral sense, and reason) of our natures to increasingly dominate five inner demons (practical violence, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology) resulting in decreasing human violence across millennial time scales.
Let me try an analogy in those angels for how, when, where and why societies work well, and when they break down into argumentative stalemates. Today’s counterproductive angel of human nature is our need for team identification. Apparently, our angels love team colors, jerseys and the spectacle of sport as much as the rest of us.
Sure; humans evolved in small groups and well-being within our tribes relied heavily on sticking together as a team. This may help explain the seemingly inexplicable propensity for young men, in particular, to voluntarily put their very lives on the line for the well-being of the larger tribe (the nation) without a fair assessment of the very high personal risks involved (i.e., patritoism).
Tribal loyalty is great. However, don’t we consistently take this too far? Our brains seem to desperately want to understand a social problem by classifying people into teams, boiling multi-faceted, complex problems down into black and white. I recently took Utah State Rep. Mike Noel to task for his impassioned characterization of forest management and why public agencies are to blame for a wildfire that nearly burned down the tax base of his county. In this video he casts people into two teams: those that want to manage fuels through timber production (i.e., good) and bunny lovers who want to risk catastrophic wildfire by letting everything go (i.e., bad). This is the obviously and worn out caricature pitting two sides of a much more complex debate about forest management. Working in this field I find it difficult to name anyone who fits the mold of either characterization at the ends of these spectra. Most people who are familiar with forest management see fire in western forests as a very challenging and difficult resource management problem vexing resource managers. We know there is a fuels problem that has replaced the problems that logging caused in earlier decades. There appears little economic potential to solve the problem by increased logging activity because for logging to be minimally profitable, you have to include highly valuable timber in highly productive and readily accessible locations, and there are both ecological (e.g., riparian zone protection), and sociological (protecting viewscapes of valuable property), and environmental (conserving habitat) reasons why that is not a popular option.
Mike Noel, in his simplified dichotomization of the problem, seemed to forget that the high end properties of his cherished tax base that almost burned exactly fit the profile of people who belong to environmental groups that have opposed what was wanton and sometimes irresponsible logging practices in the west. He forgot that the public agencies managed forests not by their choice, but responded to broad scale calls to bring forest management into line with stakeholder values and that these values included protecting viewsheds from logging. He forgot that the collapse of the logging industry on public lands has been, in no small part, the consequence of resource economics where timber prices do not support the cost of timber harvest in low value salvage cuts. He prefers to clearly define the issue based on two teams: us and them.
So, not to point fingers, let me just say that environmentalists and scientists are equally to blame on this. Both groups gather into teams and point fingers at who they view to be on the ‘other’ team: corporate interests, greedy and selfish landowners, the scientifically uninformed public.
Do humans irrationally need to boil things down like this? Are we incapable of viewing problems as complex issues based on a continuous distribution of differential weight on a suite of common shared values? Were we to consider this particular problem, forest management to maximize benefit and minimize risk, we would have to acknowledge both the costs and benefits of logging to Rep. Noel’s constituents. Logging provides jobs and economic benefit, but so does recreation. Recreation dominates many local economies and studies have shown recreation to contribute more to local economies than industrial logging. Logging reduces environmental risk by reducing fuels on the landscape, but logging also increases other sorts of environmental risks through erosion, habitat degradation,
The idea of the environment as a comple problem of shared values brings to mind the rise in cooperative board games that came into popularity a decade or so ago. All the players were to band together in a cooperative game to solve a complex problem. When I heard of this approach to games, I groaned. Still, I have only ever played one of these games that I actually enjoyed (but I don't play board games much). People seem to prefer to gather up as teams, or work as individuals, to compete against one another for victory. The problem is that doing so with real life challenges significantly slows progress.
Nothing can stall forward movement in policy than opposing teams. Just look at Congress? When did we put team colors and uniforms on politics? When did we start calling them “red” and “blue” states? This seems like a really unhelpful idea.
The annoying angels of tribal clans must be really big sports fans. Of course this may be deduced since watching sports one observes that athletes appear to be under the strong impression that there are angels cheering for their team.
Let’s get back to the point, and it is simple. For those of us working for a goal of environmental protection and conservation of resources: Take off your green jersey and leave it in the checkroom outside when engaging in finding solutions to complex environmental problems. We know that human productivity competes with a healthy environment. This is a trade-off. This does not, however, have to mean that people need to divide up into economic growth vs environmental protection teams and fight for victory. That is a losing strategy for both sides. We know that there are often strategic choices for efficiency that can foster achieving most of the economic gains we seek while protection most of our environmental values. Yes, it is one of those unpalatable cooperative games. The challenge can be simply stated: how do we balance our shared goals of productive lives within a healthy environment when different people place different levels of value protecting nature, and see different attributes of nature as important to protect? While people may fail to win this cooperative game, we can at least try to succeed in playing it as a cooperative game and not an adversarial one. Nothing helps quell one's partisan feelings for 'my team' than going and sitting amongst fans for the other team and enjoying the game. We begin by recognizing the utility of understanding our apparent need for teams as annoying angels of human nature and trying to minimize the impact they play on our negotiations. We know we will never get entirely rid of them. Go Red Sox!
Next time. Counterproductive angels of our natures. Part 2. The down side of our rugged independence
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