Stepping Back from the Brink

George Monbiot, acclaimed Guardian columnist and environmental thought leader, wrote this piece today about The Patterning Instinct. I’m republishing it here verbatim.

An astonishing new field of enquiry explores the deep changes that could avert a planetary disaster

By George Monbiot, published on, 31st January 2018


We know where we’re going. For many years, scientists have warned that we are crashing through the Earth’s ecological limits. We know we are in the midst of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. Yet we seem constitutionally incapable of acting on this knowledge.

The United States has elected a man who promised to unleash a gigantic ecological tantrum, and has, unfortunately, delivered. The UK government has produced 150 pages of greenwash it calls the 25 Year Environment Plan: the same gutless twaddle governments have been publishing for the past 25 years. As always, it was described in some quarters as “a good start”. No policy, anywhere, is commensurate with the scale of the challenge we face.

So what stops us from responding? For years, I’ve suspected that the cause runs even deeper than the power of big business and the official obsession with economic growth, potent as these forces are. Now, thanks to the most profound and far-reaching book I have ever read, I feel I’m beginning to understand what it might be.

Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct was published a few months ago, but it has taken me this long to process, as almost every page caused me to rethink what I held to be true. Bringing together cultural history with neuroscience, Lent develops a new discipline he calls cognitive history.

From infancy, our minds are shaped by the culture we grow into, which lays trails we learn to follow, like paths through a field of tall grass. Helping us to construct these patterns of meaning are powerful root metaphors embedded in our language. Without our conscious knowledge, they guide the choices we make.

Lent argues that the peculiar character of Western religious and scientific thought, that has come to dominate the rest of the world, has pushed both human civilisation and the rest of the living world to the brink of collapse. But he also shows how, through comprehending its metaphors and patterns, we can step off our path and develop new trails through the field of grass, leading us away from the precipice at its edge.

There are many points at which we could begin, but perhaps a crucial one is to understand the influence of Plato’s thought on early Christian theology. He proposed an ideal world perceived by the soul, existing in a separate sphere from the material world experienced by the body. To arrive at pure knowledge, which exists above the material world, the soul must be detached from the body’s senses and desires. He helped to establish a deep frame in Western cognition, associating the capacity for abstract thought with the soul, the soul with truth, and truth with immortality.

Some early Christian thinkers, in particular Augustine, took these metaphors further, until not only the human body but the entire natural world came to be seen as anathema, distracting and corrupting the soul. We should hate our life in this world, to secure life in the next.

Christianity, in turn, exerted a powerful influence over modern scientific cognition. Far from breaking with previous patterns of thought, Rene Descartes’s famous belief that he consisted of “a substance whose whole essence or nature is to think and whose being requires no place and depends on no material thing” was an extension of Platonic and Christian cosmologies, with a crucial difference: he substituted mind for soul.

If our identity is established only in the mind, then, as the Christians insisted, our body and the rest of nature, being incapable of reason, has no intrinsic value. Descartes was explicit about this: he insisted that there is no difference “between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.” The mind or soul was sacred, while the natural world possessed neither innate worth nor meaning. It existed to be remorselessly dissected and exploited.

This worldview underpinned the scientific revolution, which brought us the astonishing marvels and benefits that have transformed our lives. But it also embedded in our minds some catastrophic root metaphors, that help to explain our current relationship to the living world. Among them are the notions of human detachment from nature, our dominion over nature, nature as a machine and, more recently, the mind as software and the body as hardware.

These root metaphors continue to inform public discourse. Richard Dawkins, for example, has argued that “a bat is a machine, whose internal electronics are so wired up that its wing muscles cause it to home in on insects”. If a machine with the complexity, self-organisation and self-perpetuation of a bat has been developed, Professor Dawkins should tell us where to find it.

In a world that is supposed to lack inherent value, but in which many of us have lost our belief in either the immortal soul or the sanctity of pure reason, we face a void of meaning. We seek to fill it with a frenzy of consumerism. To change our behaviour, Lent contends, we need to change our root metaphors.

This doesn’t mean we should abandon science: far from it. The study of complex systems reveals nature as a series of self-organised, self-regenerating systems whose components are connected to each other in ways that were, until recently, scarcely imaginable. It shows that, as the great conservationist John Muir proposed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Far from standing aside from nature or being able to dominate it, we are embedded in it, intimately connected to processes we can never fully control. It allows us, potentially, to see the universe itself as a web of meaning: a powerful new root metaphor that could, perhaps, change the way we live.

There is plenty of work to do, to translate these insights into a practical politics. But it seems to me that Lent has explained why, despite our knowledge and even our intentions, we continue to follow our path to the precipice. To solve a problem, we need first to understand it: this is what “a good start” looks like. We cannot change the destination until we change the path.


4 thoughts on “Stepping Back from the Brink

  1. That is quite an endorsement, Jeremy! Bravo!


    Peter G. Joseph, M.D. Citizens’ Climate Lobby,  Marin County group leader San Anselmo, CA 415 990-9369 @pjmd , Facebook My video of the NYC People’s Climate March, 2014 Co-Author, The Little Engine That Could: Carbon Fee and Dividend, winning proposals in the 2014 , 2015 and 2017 MIT Climate CoLab contests for a U.S. Carbon Price.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Actually it seems our human cognitive abilities were actually evolved to be able to conceptualize the complex interactions that operate within nature. We evolved as a keystone species, first in the predator role, but at some point, within the last hundred thousand years at least, those who became our ancestors began to do more and more ecological engineering.

    Recently a paper was published, entitled “Ecological consequences of human niche construction: Examining long-term anthropogenic shaping of global species distributions”, by Nicole L. Boivin, Melinda A. Zeder, Dorian Q. Fuller (傅稻镰), Alison Crowther, Greger Larson, Jon M. Erlandson, Tim Denham, and Michael D. Petraglia. In their abstract, they write:

    “…The exhibition of increasingly intensive and complex niche construction behaviors through time is a key feature of human evolution, culminating in the advanced capacity for ecosystem engineering exhibited by Homo sapiens. A crucial outcome of such behaviors has been the dramatic reshaping of the global bio- sphere, a transformation whose early origins are increasingly apparent from cumulative archaeological and paleoecological datasets. Such data suggest that, by the Late Pleistocene, humans had begun to engage in activities that have led to alterations in the distributions of a vast array of species across most, if not all, taxonomic groups. Changes to biodiversity have included extinctions, extirpations, and shifts in species composition, diversity, and community structure…”

    The authors of this study recognized “ecological engineering” especially use of fire, as a factor in the human niche construction that modified the biosphere. After this promising start, however, they focus much of their attention on a review of data on “destruction of forests” and extinction of mega-fauna as anatomically modern hunter-gatherers spread around the world, and then on even more negative ecological effects that were triggered after plant and animal domestication began.

    Many researchers, even when using “niche construction” models, still persist in interpreting human impacts on ecosystems as detrimental to their diversity and stability. We humans arrived in many environments, such as Australia and the Americas, as an invasive species. Examples abound in wildlife biology of the damage an invasive species can do to native ecosystems. Not just multicellular species either, invasive microbes can cause havoc as well. So the review of “extinctions, extirpations, and shifts in species composition, diversity, and community structure…” was certainly justified.

    However, the prevailing idea that human beings always bring disaster to “pristine” ecosystems, is absurd. It arises out of the false dichotomizing that sets Culture and Nature apart, as if human economies somehow exist outside of the planetary environment inhabited by all other species.

    Look at how conveniently it lets industrial (and even older empires) off the hook: if it is accepted as “scientific fact” that humans always destroy natural environments and kill off wildlife; if it is just “human nature” to be “a rapacious primate” there is no point in listening to tree-huggers and wailing defenders of whales and spotted owls, is there? These environmental activists are not the winners in the long sweep of human evolution: the winners are the realistic folks in hardhats, who care about jobs, and development, and getting on with profit-making industries, and who plan the colonization of Mars.

    Hah, I think this is a dangerous conceit.

    Yes, we humans are responsible for some bad outcomes within ecosystems (species extinctions), but this is not due to something written in our genes. Our ecological niche, for good or ill, is not determined by our biology, it is not constructed out of evoked behavior, like beaver dam building instinct evoked by the sound of running water. It is constructed out of culturally transmitted incentives. Ours is a niche within a niche, our ecology evolved to be “naturally” cultural. Why would Pleistocene hunter-gatherers have adopted practices that caused “the dramatic reshaping of the global bio-sphere” in ways that actually extinguished prey species and harmed species diversity? Surely this would have been a short-lived mal-adaptive strategy? After all, why would the evolving human creature, unlike all other organisms, develop a nonviable ecological niche? Every other keystone species and ecosystem engineering species creates positive trophic flows; many other creatures gain, after all, by evolving their specialized behavioral and dietary niches, even if they are not playing key roles. Why should humans be any different? Is this the human “niche”: To be a “plague” species?

    The short answer to that is clear: no. If anything, the human way was the opposite: which is why hunting and gathering is a long-lived and highly successful adaptive strategy, and why even the inception of plant and animal domestication did not stray far from these fundamentals. Not so different from other animals, then, only we have proven more vulnerable – if response time to negative trophic flows is hampered. Let me explain: we are evolved to be conscious of longer and more complex causal event sequences – meaning that we did it – at one remove: we did it via cultural, rather than purely biological responses. So, no, is that it is not “in our genes” – or in our nature – to inevitably be destructive of ecosystems. If indeed, we see “patterns”, and if we do it “instinctively” we do it because we are creatures adapted to a collective cognitive niche.

    We cannot, of course, know the precise antiquity of the deliberate use of fire to set back ecological succession, the strategic management of prey species, the careful use of “distance hunting” technologies employing compound tools like bows and arrows, of use of poisons, of innovations like snares and nets, and of the replanting of roots and wild plant seeds, that I observed among the Kalahari Kua during my fieldwork.

    However, the frequency of such practices among foragers worldwide suggests considerable antiquity: at least a hundred thousand years. These behaviours signify a subtle alteration in the way these people conceptualized ecosystems. They saw themselves as care-takers: and clearly “took care” of their food sources in ways that paid off in better long-term survival during leaner years.

    The occasional use of fire to attract game or clear camping sites of ticks was probably much older, and the shift from unconscious dribbling of seeds by gathering women probably long predated the deliberate replanting of desired wild species. So too, did many hunting practices. However, tinkering with a plan to more effectively stalk an antelope, or to drive a herd into an ambush – or over a cliff – is taken to a whole new level in the late Paleolithic.

    And then there was the prolonged period of stable climate in the Holocene. Economies diversified as sedentary populations outgrew local ecosystems. Intensified management of favoured plants and animals led directly to their “domestication”. With economic and technological changes to cope with even higher local population densities, some communities slipping into negative trophic flows. They compensated by developing strategies of predatory expansion that co-opted the productive ecology of their tribal neighbours. States developed as the organization of both war and transportation of food and other resources to maintain cities became a major operation of economic activity on a par with actual food production.

    After over 3000 years of this combination of ingenuity, system-justifying rationalizations, glorious symphonies, great works of literacy, and a lot of gratuitous nonsense about divine plans, negative trophic flows are now all but global. Accelerating species extinctions, unsustainable rates of soil erosion, falling water tables are not even the worst of it: the planetary thermometer has been tampered with.

    We have a choice: we can take note of the negative effects and long-term implications of our present economy, and do what humans always do best: a) tinker with our technologies to make them less destructive, b) develop ways of working around negative consequences with intensified management, or c) we can ignore all the danger signals and stick with potentially ruinous practices until our ecosystem – and possibly much life on the planet (including our own species) collapses catastrophically.


  3. There is a phrase which is a good “new” metaphor, to shift the paradigm, and for a good start: We do not live on the planet to exploit or conquer it, we ARE the the planet!


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