The complicated behavior patterns of inter-personal relationships and the human propensity to ignore the most blatant warnings make for an interesting challenge in an age requiring resilient adaptation. Richard Jamieson argues it is high time we all grew up and had an adult relationship with the earth. To see the his argument presented at TedX Table Mountain follow this link
In 2004 Al Gore presented his slideshow on global climate change to an audience in New York (he estimated he had presented it 1000 times between 2000 and 2004). In the audience was a filmmaker who was so inspired by his presentation that she approached him to turn it into a documentary. That documentary, entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ premiered in 2006 and went on to win an Oscar for best documentary film later that year. Very soon he had an audience of millions all hearing the same message and being urged to take personal responsibility and (amongst other things) "recycle", "speak up in your community", "try to buy a hybrid vehicle" and "encourage everyone you know to watch this movie."
Six years later the world is a radically different place. Ordinary people have taken matters into their own hands – demand for petrol-run vehicles has collapsed, whilst demand for hybrid vehicles and bicycles has gone through the roof. Retailers have been forced to rethink the way that they distribute and package their goods, as people refuse to buy food and other items wrapped in excessive amounts of plastic, and electricity consumption has fallen dramatically as people find alternative, renewable ways of heating their homes and cooking their food.
Except that it hasn’t. The change in people’s behavior has been dramatically underwhelming, given the scale of the climate change challenge.
Consider these statistics from the World Resources Institute:
“The average person living in the United States uses 300 shopping bags worth of raw materials every week - weighing as much as a large luxury car. We would need the resources of three planets for everyone on Earth to live as people in the United States do.”
The question is why this underwhelming response of the world’s population to the climate change challenge?
For an answer to that question, we need to look more closely at our relationships – with ourselves, with other people and our relationship with the natural environment.
AH Almaas, writer and spiritual teacher, had some quite radical things to say about our relationships with our own needs and our relationships with other people. Fundamentally, he thought that most people, although they successfully adopted the habits that marked them out as adults in the world, were in fact still acting more like children in a nursery. What he was referring to was the tendency of most adults to still expect their needs to be taken care of by others, the way that their parents used to take care of them when they were young. His diagnosis is that almost all of the frustration that we suffer in our lives is as a result of expecting this care, but not receiving it from others.
So, although in some aspects of our lives we successfully make the transition to protecting ourselves and providing for ourselves, we don’t do it in all respects. And what’s more, we continue to want to blame some ‘other’ when things don’t go our way. This becomes most apparent in the most intimate relationships and partnerships between people.
You only have to look at most love songs and romantic stories to see the theme repeated over and over again of the arrival of a perfect partner that will meet all of our emotional needs. “You complete me”, as Tom Cruise’s character says in the movie Jerry Maguire.
Almaas thinks that this ‘completion’ is an impossible dream. As long as we keep reaching for that dream, we remain children. The work that we need to do to become adult is facing up to the reality that we can’t get emotional completion from another being, and that there isn’t someone out there who will always be there to pick up the pieces if we let them all fall.
His version of an adult outlook on the world is to be brutally realistic about what presents itself in the world and about one’s own power to bring about change in the world – knowledge that we can gain through our own senses, our thoughts and feelings.
Eric Berne, a psychiatrist in the fifties, reached a similar conclusion, which he encapsulated in a best-selling book called “Transactional Analsysis”. He analysed interactions between people and identified three ego states that we act from whenever we interact from others. These three states are the parent, the adult and the child. So, whenever there is interaction between people you can find them acting in one of the three states.
Berne went on to write another best-selling book called “Games that People Play”. In this book he talks about games because he identified a range of games that we play, linked to what ego state we are in. So, for example, if someone that I’m talking to is doing so from their ‘parent’ state, I will often react from my child state. You might have experienced this if you run into an old teacher. You may find yourself acting twelve again, acting deferential or rebellious, and he or she might act in the same authoritative manner as they did when you were at school.
Similarly, if you meet someone who seems to have come up against a problem that is overwhelming them, and they’re behaving like a twelve year old, that will often trigger the parent in you – stepping into the role of taking care of that person, or taking control of the situation.
The area where Berne agrees with Almaas is that he believes we need to strive to spend most of our time acting from an adult state, and engaging in adult-adult interactions with others. And again, his definition of an adult-adult relationship is one where both parties are engaging on the basis of thoughts and feelings from the present moment, rather than on the residue of their childhood fears, or some version of the ‘rules’ that their parents imposed on them when they were young.
So then, what does all of this tell us about our relationship with nature? Interestingly, the term ‘relationship with nature’, probably conjures up for most people an image of walking on table mountain, communing with an unspoilt patch of our natural environment, enjoying the beauty of the space and the calm that comes from spending time there.
However, in a far more concrete sense our relationship with the planet really plays out on the forecourts and in the convenience stores of petrol stations across the country. It’s here that we see a fascinating confluence of all the things we get from the planet – oil that comes from underground forms the basis of the petrol that goes into our cars, food from commercial farming conglomerates sits heavily packaged in plastic (oil again), refrigerated using electricity generated using mainly coal, and we can even buy our own prepaid electricity at the checkout point.
If we look at that relationship – at the way that we rely on the earth to endlessly provide us with what we need, it has the same kind of parent child dynamic that Berne identified, and the same kind of childish dynamic that Almaas referred to. We’ve had the climate change facts and fears presented to us, An Inconvenient Truth did a very good job of that, and yet we don’t change our behaviour . Not because we don’t understand the facts or don’t believe the facts, but because we’re still in a relationship with the earth that has this parent child nature. We’re just not at an adult enough stage in that relationship to actually consider what the limits are to the resources are of what the other party has to offer.
By contrast, an adult-adult relationship with the earth would be one in which we were far more cognisant of the impact of our relationship on the other party, taking into account the evidence before us. As a result we would take responsibility for the impact of our actions.
Recognising this juvenile attitude of most consumers has major implications for the way that sustainability advocates craft their messages aimed at bringing about behaviour change. Until people make the switch from child to adult in their relationship with the earth, there’s very little chance that messages that are rational and that present all of the facts and the arguments will have any impact.
It’s like trying to argue rationally with a seven year old about whether they can have another piece of chocolate cake.
Until we learn to manage our internal resources sustainably, there is very little chance that we will manage our external resources sustainably.
To see the TedX talk on this topic visit www.richardjamieson.co.za
and take your relationship with the planet to the next level.