Ecological Economics

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What I think most remarkable about the substance of the article cited in the OP:
Starting from those common premises reasonable, informed persons recommend distinctly different sets of personal and public policy responses. Said another way, no one viewpoint, perspective or ideology has any special claim on the line of thinking referenced in the OP. Thinking about our “tribal” nature and planning long term does somewhat limits the range of choices but it still leaves us with a wide field of options.

For instance. I frequently think about the consequences of global warming policy responses 100 to 200 years in the future. Which is why I’m critical of the statements made by many so-called eco-Buddhists.

I think this makes sense and I celebrate the many options we find in the field of sustainable development.

There is nothing wrong with looking at sustainable development from a wide range of perspectives. Its not always a case of either/or and more about applying solutions on many different levels. As long as it’s all heading in the same direction.

Different policy responses can be tried to see which are the most effective. At the end of the day it’s a matter of finding out what works and what kind of works and, what doesn’t.

All of us are entitled to have our views when it comes to sustainability. Let the contest of ideas run its course. That’s how it works in liberal democracies!

Unfortunately, I think Lisi Krall is in denial, because despite having learned a lot about human nature, she doesn’t want to accept what she has learned, and cannot escape from the romantic conception of human history that is such a commonplace of contemporary western environmental thought. By the “romantic conception of human history”, I mean the tendency to imagine that the pre-agricultural past was a world of noble savages living in harmony with nature, without much hierarchy or oppression, and to imagine that the nastiest aspects of human life are mostly the result of some kind of mistaken social “fall.”

Let’s take a detour into what the Buddha thought about human life and nature, and the human past and future. We can compare his ideas with this quote from Krall:

I think our crisis is not a problem of human nature in the way that that you alluded to in that people often talk about how we’re inherently greedy, exploitative kinds of beings. And that this is the problem. I don’t think that’s true. I think the more serious problem is that we engaged a kind of social evolution, that started with agriculture, that put us on a path of expansion and interconnectedness and ultimately, in humans, hierarchy, and all that kind of stuff. That is a really difficult path to disengage now.

Now I think it is clear that the Buddha thought greed, hatred and confusion were endemic to human life - not something that had emerged as a result of an unfortunate historical development. He didn’t think these human weaknesses were so endemic that there was absolutely no possibility of individual escape from them. But that escape, he thought, involves a long and arduous process of gradual detachment from the fetters that bind us to the worldly realm of existence. According to standard doctrine, that process apparently takes many, many, many lifetimes, and the people who make quick progress into arahantship only do so because they have spent untold lifetimes improving themselves by cultivating generosity, non-acquisition and relinquishment.

The Buddha nowhere indicates that he thought human beings had fallen from some kind of golden age to their present miserable condition. The cycle of suffering is without discernible beginning. And it is “natural”: We suffer because we grasp and attach; we grasp and attach because we experience pleasurable and painful feelings; we experience pleasurable and painful feelings when our sensory organs and mind organ come in contact with various forms. This isn’t some process that only began with the birth of agriculture, nor with any other event in human history.

The only way to achieve liberation from this misery is through seclusion from it. As a first step, we need physical seclusion and moral discipline, to remove worldly temptations from our sight and to train ourselves to resist them when they are present. We then need deepening mental seclusion and detachment, to sever, band by band, the fetters that tie us to the worldly realm. Figuratively, this means retreating into a place where Mara can’t see us or find us.

As far as I am aware, the Buddha never envisioned a utopia or “enlightened society” in which the greed, hatred and delusion endemic to human society have been eradicated. He did seem to accept, though, that some ways of social living were more wholesome than others. He did seem to think there is wisdom in the “forest life” - and reserved some particular opprobrium for the dusty and grasping life of agricultural, household society, a life based the pursuit of prosperous states of being in the samsaric realm, and on the sacrifices which were thought to preserve the forces that maintained that realm.

On the other hand, his preference for the forest is limited and realistic. There is not much of a suggestion that the yakkhas who live in the forest, for example, are more enlightened. They seem to be mean and mischievous, throw rocks at monks, cast malevolent spells, ask people terrifying riddles and split their heads into pieces if they don’t answer correctly, etc. And there are other kinds of frightening and frequently malevolent beings out there, including territorial spirits and animals that bite, eat or otherwise kill people, as well as a general absence of protection from broiling sun, chilling rain and sickness and disease.

Now back to what to do with our modern world, a world in which we have much more highly developed historical sciences, and now do discern some asymmetric, non-cyclical patterns in human history, from which we try to identify certain changes as all-things-considered improvements. We can recognize that hunter gatherer societies were also filled with violence and hierarchy - as well as crushing, daily fear of the elements, wild animals, competing bands of humans, hunger and insecurity. Some also practiced or feared cannibalism. These humans eventually created more fixed settlements and agricultural societies, with bounded territories and an internal political order, and an increasing reliance on technology, to escape from a few of those terrors. But they created new problems - such as the need to protect territory and regiment their work. And the proliferation of human beings, a highly technological species, is putting a great deal of strain on the bounded, finite planet these very humans live on, and which is responsible for sustaining the settled forms of life they have carved out.

There is no going backward from this. There is not going to be a global decentralization of human society back into some noble savage society, with everyone living in peaceful and non-grasping harmony with nature. There is not going to be a radical decentralization of human life, since the centralization and organization of human life under human politics extending across wider and wider territories is a natural invention of those very human beings, a way of solving their previous problems and escaping from the terrors of more primitive ways of life. So any such decentralizing regression is bound to be temporary - it would only last as long as it takes the ambitious to consolidate political power, re-mobilize technology and arms, and build centralized states again. Any viable and durable change in the way humans live, and in the impact they have on the biosphere, is going to require better organization, government, coordination and regulation - not less of it.

An extract from your Dr. Krall quote:

‘Hobbes’ and ‘Rousseau’ had a prolonged and famous debate on this topic.

Rousseau invented the term the ‘noble savage’ (the idealized ‘human’ before the corrupting influence of civilization). Hobbes focused on the savagery of nature: “nature is red in tooth and claw.”

Hobbes argued that human beings can be ‘civilised’ but they need to be governed to contain their animalistic tendencies. In other words, human beings are ‘naturally’ violent, greedy and, selfish creatures.

From the views of Rousseau and Hobbes we could derive/develop notions about so-called ‘human nature’.

If the discussion had developed in that direction in the ‘recorded interview’ we may have got a clearer picture of ‘Krall’s’ views about human nature. I doubt that she would have an idealized view of the ‘noble savage’ but I can see how a stereotypical response of that nature would be attributed to her.

Its the kind of vacuous stereotype that is often applied to ecological-thinkers i.e they all believe in some kind of ‘utopian-eden’ (before the fall). A time long ago when people lived in harmony with nature.

There is a difference between respect for aboriginal peoples’ and their ecological insight and ‘idealising’ ancient ways of life.

‘Ecological’ economics is not about a yearning for a return to a lost paradise.

It is one of many contemporary attempts to increase our respect and care for the ecological systems we depend on for our survival - here and now.

We need to rethink our relationship with the ‘more than human’ world. This is not an atavistic impulse it’s an urgent need - a vital necessity.

“I think the more serious problem is that we engaged a kind of social evolution, …” - Lisi Krall

I don’t understand how a theory about ultra-social behaviour and its consequences could be construed as nostalgia for a eco-happyland that never existed.

Human-nature isn’t a notion that’s found in the EBT’s. There is no fixed nature or essence of any kind attributed to human beings or anything else in the Buddha’s teachings.

The Mahayana developed ideas about Buddha-nature at a later period but this concept can be used metaphorically or ideologically.

We are a mixed-bag of possibilities and potentials. The Buddha taught that we are heirs to our kamma and we can wake-up - free ourselves from ignorance.

There is nothing fixed about our nature and there is nothing inevitable with regard to our future ‘becomings’ - individually or collectively.

Therefore, your picture of a recurrent and ‘inevitable’ outcome in our collective behaviour is a pessimistic fantasy.

We are capable of learning from our mistakes, if this was not the case awakening would be impossible.

The following teachings are Buddhism 101:

‘Acknowledge, forgive, learn.’

‘Recognition, no blame, change.’

They are relevent with regard to our individual practice and our shared life ‘together’.

“Those who have no expectations are never dissappointed and are ‘often’ pleasantly surprised.” - Ajahn Brahm

An openness to surprise - novelty - is a prerequisite for waking up. We can understand this as a consequence of practice - a lot of it.

The dreary and spiritless predicament - theory without practice - can be remedied through ‘applied’ Dhamma inquiry.

In the interview nobody suggested we will require worse organisation, no governmental input, less coordination and regulation to achieve viable human change.

You invented the issue and then argued against it. How is this possible?

In the interview, she frequently speaks admiringly of the pre-agricultural life of human beings, and deplores the “ultrasocial” form of life that followed it with the invention of agriculture.

The belief in human nature is not the same as a belief in essentialism. For example, being ten-fingered is a human trait. It is not as though human beings can be born with any arbitrary number of fingers, and the fact that most of us have ten is just some sort of bizarre coincidence. But nevertheless, being ten-fingered is not an essential human trait, since some humans are not born with ten-fingers.

The genetic coding of our cells, including the original fertilized eggs from which each of us developed, place important constraints on the kinds of biological and psychological traits and capacities adult humans are capable of possessing. All the interesting debates in contemporary science of human beings are about the nature and extent of those constraints, not whether they exist.

The ‘preagricultural’ (PA) life of human beings was not one that created a state of profound ecological disruption.

In other words, it was sustainable for obvious reasons. That is a simple statement of fact!

To point out this rather obvious fact and contrast it with what is taking place today - profound ecological disruption - is not difficult to understand.

This does not mean that life was not challenging and difficult in the PA period.

Therefore, it is possible to point out the merits of sustainable living in the PA world - what we know about it - without idealising the way people lived.

Pointing out the lack of severe ecological disruption created by PA humans is not to say - or suggest - we should all revert to that way of being in the world.

I am not saying that atavism does not exist. I am pointing out that we can understand the ecological impact - the ecological footprint - of PA humans without idealising them or thinking it preferable and appropriate to live that way.

Therefore, your premise that there is a necessary connection between admiring the low ecological impact of PA humans and a belief that modern humans should revert to living like them is bizarre. At no point, was anything of the sort said in the interview by the interviewer or ‘Lisi Krall’.

This proposition was your invention! Then, you set about refuting your own interpolated idea. How is this possible?

We can learn valuable lessons from the way PA humans lived without saying we should revert to living that way.

There are recognisable biological and psychological traits and characteristics that are species specific.

Human beings have a range of identifiable traits and characteristics.

This makes it possible for most of us to recognise the difference between koala-bears and humans.

Contemporary science does not refer to any of these human species-specific traits and characteristics as ‘human nature’. Neither does it refer to the totality of these species-specific traits and characteristics as ‘human nature’.

Similarly, there is no scientific reference to or, definition of koala-nature.

Why is this the case? Answer: human-nature and koala-nature are not scientific concepts. They are philosophical inventions!

Some people do believe ‘human nature’ is an essential something-or-other that defines what it is to be ‘human’. They say: violent and selfish behaviour is ‘unavoidable’ among human beings because it is in their essential ‘nature’ to be greedy, selfish and violent.

This essentialist view of ‘human nature’ - that human beings are unavoidably greedy, violent/hateful and, "selfish’ (ignoring the needs of sentient beings) - contradicts the Buddha’s teachings. When we are ‘selfish’ we also harm ourselves. It impedes the flow of universal loving kindness and generosity.

The Buddha taught that ‘greed, violence and, self-centred ignorance’ are avoidable. He also taught that we can be completely freed from the 3-roots. They are not intrinsic aspects of our nature. They are adventitious and lead to suffering and we need to uproot them for our own benefit and for the benefit of others.

I have met more than a few people who believe that it is ‘human nature’ that (inevitably) gives rise to the greed, violence and, selfishness of human beings. They believe: its ‘our’ essential nature to be this way - we inherited it from our non-human ancestors - we have animalistic-tendencies and there’s nothing we can do about it.

This ‘belief’ about human-nature can be (and is) used to rationalise and excuse violent and destructive behaviour - individually and collectively. It is given concrete expression through political thought and action - as well - to varying degrees.

Many people believe in the appropriateness of an economic struggle for existence ‘survival of the fittest’ (Social Darwinism). A politically sanctioned form of ritualised greed and selfishness where the ‘winners are grinners’ and all the others are ‘hard losers’. The losers need to grin and bare-it as its just ‘nature’ at work.

Species compete for survival in order to survive and thrive and unbridled-capitalism mirrors ‘evolution by natural selection’.

The use and abuse of natural resources can also be justified in a similar way. The strong prevail over the weak!

Human beings are perceived - by some - as the alpa-species in the natural world. We are members of an apex-species and ‘must’ behave that way or, suffer the consequences.

We have been equipped by ‘nature’ to exploit every opportunity that presents itself in pursuit of our self-centred interests. Everything in the world is free-game and our job is to exploit and control everything - as best we can. This is referred to as: ‘anthropocentrism’ in contrast to ‘ecocentrism’.

In ecocentrism we are just one species among many who exist within a delicately balanced network of interdependent relationships that requires care-ful attention - kindfulness.

An ecocentric orientation to life and living involves conscious efforts to change our destructive developmental trajectory. In order to preserve and conserve that which has escaped the mindless and care-less destruction.

As Buddhists, we try to live in a way that leaves a light ecological-footprint. If we love the living Earth we need to preserve and protect our life-support systems - the ecosphere - for those born and, to be born.

The way out of the environmental crisis we face includes a shift in consciousness - from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism. When there is a conscious-shift towards ecocentrism sustainable change is facilitated. This is the ‘actual’ interface between the individual and sustainable ways of being in the world.

What ‘Lisi Krall’ is pointing to is a form of social-change that emerged after the development of agriculture - ultra-social behaviour.

Ultra-social behaviour makes it difficult to disengage from our dysfunctional ‘ways’ of being in the world even when we see what we are doing to the Planet - and why.

Decentralised forms of organisation and governance can help in addressing this problem.* This does not mean we need to live like ancient hunter-gatherers.

We can see how the current environmental crisis is related to a destructive and self-centred mind-set (ideology).This selfish and destructive ideology is also sanctioned in major religions - to one degree or another - by divine-decree or through ‘passive acceptance’.

Buddhism is construed by ‘some’ as passively indifferent to many - if not all - social and environmental issues. They say: the Buddha encouraged human beings to focus on their individual salvation and forget about so-called ‘worldly’ concerns. I believe this is an ignorant and distorted reading of the Buddha’s teachings - as a whole.

‘Worldliness’ has nothing to do with loving concern and ‘care’ for all sentient beings. It has nothing to do with intentions and ‘actions’ that are undertaken for the welfare of others - in every shape and form. We don’t demonstrate an ‘unworldly’ attitude and disposition through indifference to the legitimate needs of others.

When we look deeply into the Dhamma - in theory and practice - we see a clear and sustainable way forward. As Buddhists, we cherish all sentient beings - including ourselves - through providing appropriate care and attention.


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This is not true. For example, the biologist Edward O. Wilson writes this:

“And so it has ever been. Confusion has always abounded. For example, as late as the 1970’s the orientation of the social scientists was primarily toward the humanities. The prevailing view was that human behavior is primarily or even entirely cultural, not biological in origin. There exists, the extremists among them claimed, no such thing as instinct and human nature. By the end of the 20th century, the orientation flipped toward biology. Today it is widely believed that human behavior has a strong genetic component. Instinct and human nature are real, although how deep and forceful remains under discussion.”

The Meaning of Human Existence, pp. 136-7

and …

“What we call human nature is the whole of our emotions and preparedness in learning over which those emotions preside. Some writers have tried to deconstruct human nature into nonexistence. But it is real, tangible, and a process that exists in the structures of the brain. Decades of research have discovered that human nature is not the genes that prescribe the emotions and learning preparedness. It is not the cultural universals, which are the ultimate product. Human nature is the ensemble of hereditary regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.”

The Meaning of Human Existence, p. 143

For an informed and nuanced view on the interaction between biology and culture in determining human behavior, see Robert Sapolsky’s recent book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

Where are the scientific findings that demonstrate that:

What are the ‘hereditary regularities’ being referred to? What is the ‘actual’ relationship between these regularities and the cultural-evolutes? What is the scientific definition of ‘cultural evolution’? Has cultural evolution been demonstrated or proven scientifically?

Where is the scientific research that demonstrates the existence of cultural evolution? Is this a reference to history?

Are more recent cultural practices more evolved than mediaeval forms of culture? Are European forms of culture more evolved than Asian forms of culture?

The quote above - the learned opinion - sounds like a conjecture that posits a relationship between one set of variables that may have been scientifically defined and, cultural thingamajigs?

There was a reference to ‘cultural universals’. Have cultural-universals evolved through time? What are the earlier evolved forms of these ‘universals’? Did they find them in the fossil record? Exactly what is it that is evolving ‘culturally’ through time - are innovations and evolution the same thing?

It’s a definition, I take it.

You said contemporary science does not refer to human traits as “human nature”. I pointed you toward two very prominent scientists who do. Take it up with them if you want to bang your head against a wall.

I have heard of the discovery of genes that are implicated in the expression of specific biological and psychological traits and characteristics. For example, things like eye colour and personality traits.

This did not seem to be the kind of finding that was claimed in the science-related material you posted.

The extracts you cited referred to biological and cultural evolution. I assume the biological evolution has something to do with genes?

There was reference to inherited regularities. Inherited regularities are driving something referred to as cultural evolution.

When different cultures interact with each-other practices that are found in one may appear in others. Hybridised cultural forms and norms arise as a consequence.

Is cultural cross-fertilisation an evolutionary or devolutionary process or, neither? We can see how the interaction between different cultures facilitates change.

Cultural change also happens ‘internally’. This change can happen quickly or slowly and some cultures seem to be frozen in time.

Cultures can change for many and varied reasons. Adaption to changing environments and circumstances is probably one of them.

Human development through the life span may be another - depending on the culture. The generation-gap can create an opportunity for cultural transformation to arise.

The spread of Buddhism in new places and contexts over time is an example of cultural innovation. The adoption of behavioral forms and norms that were previously absent in the host culture.

In Cross-Cultural Psychology they talk about ‘etics and emics’.

I am glad if you feel this research established in your mind the existence of something-or-other that is referred to as human-nature.

Interesting as this scientific redefinition of human nature may be - to some - it is not directly related to the use of the term that was pointed out by Dr. Krall.

I suspect we both understand that the science related material you cited did not offer a definition of human-nature that remotely resembled what Dr. Krall was referring to.

The point of my response to your initial comment was that you had something to say that was not actually said in the interview i.e. we all need to live like preagricultural or prehistoric humans in order to solve the developmental issues we now face.

There is nothing atavistic about ecological economics or Dr. Krall’s theory of ultra-social behaviour and its consequences.

You interpolated an idea/idea’s that did not exist in the audio recording or transcript and then got busy refuting what you had introduced.

I apologize if there is something difficult to understand in what I am trying to say here - is this the case?

I’m not going to go around in your usual circles of disconnected thoughts with you. You made a statement which I refuted. I’m done with this topic.

The statement (comment) you refuted - about human nature - was completely unrelated to the fact that you invented an issue that had nothing to do with ‘ultra-social behaviour and its consequences’. Which was the topic discussed in the OP - the link.

I tried to steer the conversation back to the original point I tried to make clear to you. A point you refused to acknowledge. You interpolated a view that did not exist in the interview and then argued with yourself about it.

The disconnected thought was the introduction - by you - of a so-called scientific definition of human nature.

The definition of ‘human nature’ (HN) provided in the quote (below) is not referring to species-specific ‘traits and capacities adult humans are capable of possessing’. Nor does it refer to the totality of all the traits and capacities that adult humans are capable of possessing.

Therefore, what is untrue about the following statement?

The so-called scientific definition of HN (above) and, the following ‘quote’ you reacted to are, not contradictory - just different. You seem to have read something again that wasn’t actually stated or, implied?

This is unbelievable. Are you really denying, as you seemed to before, there is such a thing as human nature? Do you have any substantive point to make here?