A Manifesto for Averting Global Collapse

Reviewed in this essay: Humanity on a Tightrope by Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010.

For many, humanity’s position on Earth appears to be growing more precarious by the day. The threat of global pandemics and nuclear war hangs over our heads; the population odometer continues to rise; the forward agents of expansion pilfer more acreage from the great oxygenating forests; while new quixotic quests to find evermore polluting resources are underway to feed the western-inspired consumption habits of upstart economies like India and China. The negative impact of all of this on our air, water and food, and the resultant climate disruption, is making our existence on the planet increasingly untenable.

In Humanity on a Tightrope, psychologist Robert Ornstein and biologist Paul Ehrlich join forces again in a last ditch effort to explain why the human race has reached this perilous precipice, and how we might – with unprecedented effort – sidestep the nasty fate they say is now barreling towards us.

Humans, Ornstein and Ehrlich say, suffer from an “empathy shortfall”. Because human empathy evolved in small, tightly knit groups, we are hard-wired to empathize only with those who are closest to us. As such we continue to view the world in counter-productive “us-and-them” terms. Like many evolved traits crucial to our survival in the past, this ability has now become a liability in a globalized world where there has never been more “them” out there.

Beyond the variety of conflicts this old mental software engenders, it also affects how we go about our daily lives: we often do things with little care of how it will impact others outside our most immediate in-groups. Ornstein and Erhlich say that if there is any hope for survival we need to widen our reach of empathy, and expand our notions of family, so that they include the entire human species. For this to happen, they say, we need to attain a new level of awareness that allows us to actually see humanity as if it were one big family.

“The need to expand our connections and cooperation with strangers is essential right now.  All of us, citizens of every nation, are now in the same family, are now in the same boat, walking the same tightrope, like it or not,” the authors say. “Why don’t more people realize that if we don’t pay increasing attention to our most inclusive family, the human family, the denouement for all will likely be horrific?”

A book of this kind couldn’t come from two more seasoned observers of the human condition. Both are pioneers in their respective fields. Ornstein, an expert on consciousness and the mind, is known for his landmark research on the hemispherical specialization of the brain. Ehrlich, a Stanford University professor and biologist, was the first to propose that overpopulation was an environmental hazard in his landmark 1968 work, The Population Bomb.

Humanity on a Tightrope, the duo’s second work, is a direct offshoot of their first collaboration entitled New World New Mind. The latter, written in the late 1980s when AIDS, the “greenhouse effect”, and “nuclear winter” had all become household terms, put forward an idea that is likely more relevant than ever: that the human mental system is failing to comprehend the dizzyingly complex world of its own creation.

Their argument is that we’ve created a “new world” of slow-moving incremental threats, which don’t properly register in our brains. Because we humans evolved to perceive and survive against immediate dangers (from spear-wielding adversaries, to leopards, to flash floods and volcanic eruptions), we block out everything else that doesn’t threaten us in the now. Because of this we are not sufficiently driven to take immediate action against things like snail-paced climate change or the gradual poisoning of our air, water and food. To make matters worse, we don’t have time to biologically evolve the mental adaptations needed to register these creeping dangers before they destroy us.

The only way out, they say, is to take our evolution into our own hands by willfully overriding these old defaults of the mind. We must in effect create a “new mind”, by bypassing our snail-paced, long-form biological evolution in favour of faster evolutionary gains within our culture. It’s a process, which they’ve termed conscious evolution.

Humanity on a Tightrope advocates the same collective effort to refine our awareness. The authors tell us that we must realize – as soon as possible – that narrow notions of family and empathy have allowed us to organize genocides and disregard the vital life-support systems of the planet. Ornstein and Ehrlich say that unless we can quickly learn to consider the effects of our actions on others, we are in very big trouble. To bring about these changes will be no easy task:

Now we’ve entered a new, uncontained, and bloodless “battle” for creativity and compassion, where the very viability of global civilization is at stake. And the battle isn’t against an invasion of resource hungry aliens from an extraterrestrial empire, which science fiction writers have often posited as a cause that would unite humanity. That’s too bad, because human beings tend to stick together in the face of a common enemy… Rather, the “common foe” is the actions of that weirdly cooperatively breeding small-group animal that has gained dominance over everything but its own behavior. The situation is summed up in a famous phrase from the noted intellectual Pogo on a 1970 Earth Day poster: ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’.

This message may not go over well with readers allergic to doomsayers or dark prognostications. But the news isn’t all bad, say Ornstein and Ehrlich. For one, history tells us that our notions of family are malleable. Societies and cultures in other times and places often had wider notions of kinship. This means that our own ideas of what constitutes “family” can, in fact, be altered.  Secondly, while to radically alter our consciousness goes against the grain of our current mental programming, we’d actually be moving with the tide of human history by trying to widen our notions of family. It’s something that’s already begun to happen – and from long ago.

The unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in antiquity, the amalgamation of the ancient Greek city states into the Delian League, and the joining together of the 19th century fiefdoms of Italy and Germany are a few examples from the past. More recently, our ability to empathize with outsiders is evidenced in the world’s response to the catastrophic floods in Pakistan, the earthquake in Haiti, and in the growing realization that unjustifiable acts of “terror” have their roots in societies that don’t adequately provide for the needs of its citizens. Even psychologist Steven Pinker’s most recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that humankind is less violent now than it has ever been in the past, seems to imply that empathy is indeed expanding.

But the reality, Ornstein and Ehrlich say, is that this decreasing tendency to think in “us-and-them” terms remains too slow and haphazard a process to save us. The pace of technological and environmental change is just too great. “We are degrading our life-support-systems much more rapidly than we are spreading our horizons of concern,” they say. “We are in a race with ourselves and we are losing.”

Like all manifestos, Humanity on a Tightrope ends with a call to action, “a plan for social survival”, that involves inculcating new values into society to help push humanity towards conscious evolution: from media and public awareness campaigns, to efforts to reboot our ailing education systems, to ideas to make more widely available knowledge about human nature.

What we find in Humanity on a Tightrope is a courageous, succinct and tightly crafted blueprint for our survival that doesn’t mince words or pull punches. If the book’s tone is at times brusque or foreboding, it is because the situation we’ve created for ourselves is surreptitiously dire and requires a firm calling out. To many, there can be no doubt that a fundamental shift in the way we organize ourselves and act as race is now required if the current trends towards degradation and destruction are not to reach greater frequencies that will result in our extinction.

Ornstein and Ehrlich’s appeal to humanity to widen its scope of empathy and thus occupy a new state of awareness is more than just sensible advice – it is now a necessity. Cultivating a bigger picture view of life and the world around us that takes into account more than just ourselves, and the narrow interests we serve, must be our goal if we’re to create cooperation among nations on the most critical, and often intractable, issues.

But above and beyond these commendable and profoundly practical suggestions, the authors are pushing for something fundamentally deeper. For Ornstein and Ehrlich, evolved empathy means more than just looking out for the wellbeing of strangers. It is also an ability to understand other people’s emotions and their rationale for acting, even if their actions are wrong or insupportable. In advocating empathy expansion, the authors are asking us to become more neutral, less emotional, and less enslaved by our conditioned responses. They’d like us to engage in a process of internal refinement for its own sake. Sharpen your minds, the authors say, to a point of acute subtlety where you not only see the grays – but also the grays within the grays. The book is therefore also a call to heighten our perceptions to meet an evolutionary imperative that includes, but goes beyond, preserving life on earth.

In order to foster the kind of empathy towards strangers that we might feel for a performer walking a tightrope, we have no choice but to embrace this path. To the extent that a sufficient window of time remains, and enough of us act, we may yet save ourselves – and in the process move humanity beyond its troubled state of adolescence.


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