Guest Column with Helen Camakaris

September 13 / 119

Helen Camakaris is currently working in an honorary position in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
Helen Camakaris is currently working in an honorary position in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Sustainability and Human Nature

We have reached a fork in the road. One path bears the signpost Wealth and Immediate Gratification. Its foundations rest upon self-interest, short-term decision-making and instinct. Its final destination is Dystopia. The second path requires rational thinking, creativity, courage and altruism; its destination is a Sustainable Future.

The reason we so often choose the wrong path is simple but counter-intuitive. We are advanced products of an evolutionary process. Evolution has no way of foreseeing the future, and always lags behind current reality - it simply rewards those who leave the most descendants, whether by improved survival or increased reproduction.

Most of our evolution occurred in the distant past when we were hunters and gatherers: our evolving brain built on the brain of our forebears, retaining social and instinctive behaviors. Intelligence took competition for survival and finding the best mate to a new level, increasing the pursuit of status and providing the ingenuity that resulted in our civilisation 12,000 years ago. Even more recently we learned how to exploit fossil fuels, and invented the concept of credit, with the result that we now use more resources each year than can be regenerated, and face the threat of climate change.

I still believe intelligence can trump instinctive behaviour, but only by finding strategies that capitalise upon our strengths and constrain our shortcomings.

First, let’s consider the democratic political system. Current adversarial systems and short election cycles are not suited to dealing with long-term problems that threaten self-interest. But what if a leader committed to consensus-style government? Multi-party committees or think tanks informed by experts (in this instance climate scientists, economists, sociologists and psychologists), could help circumvent parochial attitudes, and foster rational decision-making for the long-term future. Such a system would also give a voice to those who support minority parties, and would ease transition between consecutive governments.

Where Government policy to promote long-term sustainability conflicts with immediate self-interest, the use of incentives and disincentives can guide behaviour while still providing choice, addressing our desire for fairness. The Carbon Tax encouraged behavioural change, but was coupled with compensation, making the personal cost minimal. A similar strategy could be used to gradually introduce ‘cradle-to-grave’ pricing of goods and services, perhaps starting with embedded carbon cost. Imported goods including foodstuffs would become more expensive, local products would become competitive, and carbon emissions would fall. Government could also address conspicuous consumption by offering reduced working hours as an alternative to increased wages, and through regulation of advertising and control of credit.

Governments must promote improved education in biology, psychology, sustainability and critical thinking to create the enlightened voters, journalists and government ministers of tomorrow. Universities would be central to this endeavour by producing well-informed teachers and leaders, and by training academics in community outreach. Universities are also uniquely placed to promote interdisciplinary research, which leads to strategies for social engagement on climate change, improved political models, and an economic system that provides equity and happiness, without rampant growth.

This University already plays a significant role through Institutes like the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, which promotes public engagement and supports interdisciplinary research. Governments and universities must work together to capitalise upon our intellectual capital and create a secure future.

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