Passion, wit and platitudes

Wednesday, August 7, 1991

By Phil Shannon

New World New Mind: Changing The Way We Think To Save Our Future
By Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich
Paladin Grafton Books/Collins. 302 pp. $15.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

When humanity was a young and hairy species just learning to walk without using its knuckles, life was very much a case of the quick or the dead. Survival for our hominid ancestors, according to Ornstein and Ehrlich, depended on quick reactions to immediate environmental stimuli such as fierce animals. Biological evolution had equipped the human species with a brain that, by necessity, was attuned to the short-term.

By 1991, however, cultural evolution (the invention of agriculture, tools, language and motorised golf buggies) has made much of our "old mind" superfluous as long-term threats to our survival have replaced many of the short-term ones — "no branch cracks, no hulking form looms at the cave door" any more. Yet humanity, argue Ornstein and Ehrlich, can't (or won't) take the appropriate long-term view; we don't see "the connections between our future well-being and gradual changes in the physical and sociopolitical environments".

We don't, for example, comprehend the true enormity of such critical cultural changes as human population growth and environmental damage. We can't see or smell the CO2 streaming from car exhausts. We don't see that one more petrol purchase contributes to the burning in US cars alone in one year of "more petroleum than the Alaskan oil field accumulated in 100,000 years" or that the encroachment of agriculture and urbanisation means that "more species are exterminated in tropical forests annually than speciation could replace in a million years".

Part of the reason the "old mind" fails to register these events is that "the slide downhill is slow and undergoes temporary reversals". A new recycling technique or oil field or highway abates the concern, but the "growth-manic economic system" soon overtakes the gains.

There are times, too, when certain members of our species — "industry and government" — deliberately get in the way of "new mindedness". The famous Los Angeles smog is not "an act of God, temperature inversions and Santa Ana winds" but is the result of "decisions by automobile moguls and short-sighted politicians" and their calculated destruction of public transport to provide a car-craven culture and dependent local auto market.

Another view classified by Ornstein and Ehrlich as "old mind" is that "Earth doesn't have a population problem, rather it has a problem of the distribution of wealth". "Actually it has both", they say on a topic too frequently seen from ideologically ossified and doctrinaire views.

In the eyes of Ornstein and Ehrlich, our politicians are a pathetic bunch whose cognitive capacity wouldn't shame your average Ramapithecus from the Miocene period. The typical politician minimises problems and avoids taking action. In an economy driven by short-term profit, their old minds "do not believe one should pay an economic cost today just to lessen the chance of a total collapse of the world's economy tomorrow".

There are many examples of this fine acerbic style of Ehrlich's, buttressed by Ornstein's work on perception and consciousness (familiar to all who've done Psych I). By the end of the book, however, when it comes to the question of what is to be done about it all, these science-powered flights of polemic and passion are wobbling in on a wing and a prayer.

Ornstein and Ehrlich share the age-old dream of the middle-class liberal for society to be painlessly transformed by the osmosis-like spread of good ideas which neuter the destructive and avaricious appetites of the capitalist beast.

For example, they argue for education reform where children will be "treated like adults and encouraged to think for themselves, find answers and re-examine beliefs and values". My experience as a teacher, however, revealed that, in capitalism, education is all about instilling obedience to authority and preparing kids for a lifetime of subservience and boredom at work. To really change education, the sociopolitical nature of society has to be revolutionised root and branch. There are no painless shortcuts for achieving this.

Ornstein and Ehrlich's other strategy for re-educating capitalism is to "gradually persuade the leaders of society to move in the right direction". An analogy involving the reform of Bengal tigers' dietary habits suggests itself, but until the majority of ordinary people become the "people who have leverage in our society", liberals (including those with a radical transformative vision like Ornstein and Ehrlich) will probably continue to opt for strategies for change that don't upset class power.

Nevertheless, Ornstein and Ehrlich do much quite well in their book, which is worth the few recession dollars.

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