Towards a
Philosophy of


Our society, growth-dependent economy and grossly materialistic lifestyles are based to a large extent on values, attitudes and aspirations deeply rooted in man’s “more animal than human ” nature, which are causing us quite literally to plunder our planet. In view of what Darwin is supposed to have taught us about human origins, this is hardly surprising, but (like Christian fundamentalists) we are not facing up to it.

Like many other people, I was introduced to the concept of sustainability and to the need for constraints to human activity on a planet with limited resources and a finite carrying capacity in the early 1970’s, particularly through publications such as The Club of Rome's “The Limits to Growth”. Tragically, instead of facing up to the difficult truths it contained, and under massive pressure from short-sighted interests (individual, political, social, economic), we went into collective denial. It took a long time for me to understand what was happening: surely, those in power and authority could not be so blind or stupid? Eventually I came to realise that almost everyone is blind to the “Insanities of Normality ”, especially where our vested interests (which we ALL have) are at stake.

Man’s social behaviour evolved over millions of years to serve the survival and advantage of individuals and family groups in the natural environment ; there has been no time for it to adapt to the much larger social units of human civilisations, which only arose in the past few thousand years. Besides which, the natural environment has effectively been replaced by an artificial "socio-economic environment ", where, still driven by our primitive programming, we continue the struggle for survival and advantage. In the modern world this largely boils down to making money in the local, national or global economies, which explains why, at terrible peril to ourselves (certainly to our children and coming generations), we persist in giving the economy (the household of man) priority over ecology (the household of our planet).

Our capitalist, free-market economy has developed and been honed to exploit our primitive, animal nature (our animal fears, greed, competitiveness, our interest in sex, in free or cheap lunches, in power, social status etc.) - naturally enough, which is why in many respects it seems to work so well. Unfortunately, apart from being inherently unjust and inhumane, it is also fundamentally unsustainable.

“Sustainability” is now a major political issue and many organisations are dedicated to it, but few realise (or have the courage to say) just how dire our situation aboard Spaceship Earth really is, how radical the changes must be, or that it also requires radical changes to many of our values, attitudes and (material) aspirations, some of which we are very attached, even addicted, to.

We expend a great deal of intellectual skill and energy distracting and keeping ourselves in a state of denial, while rationalising our irrational and irresponsible behaviour (some have made a profession of it, finding or making for themselves, and then defending with animal ferocity, a lucrative niche in the socio-economic environment).

What started out on a small, harmless scale, has developed exponentially over the past century or so and can now only be described as the plundering of our planet. Having grown up with it, it seems quite normal, which is why we fail to recognise it for the madness and monstrous crime that it has now become; a crime against our own children and future generations; a crime in which we are all participating, and on which we all depend: oil and gas - two familiar examples of the booty - are the life blood of our economy.

Because of the vast differences in scale, what took just seconds to become apparent when Apollo 13's life-support systems were damaged on its way to the Moon in 1970, is taking years aboard Spaceship Earth. For those with eyes to see, the signs are clear enough, but most do not want to see. Instead we are behaving as some people do when confronted with the symptoms of a life-threatening disease: either by denying them completely or by playing down their significance - which is what our politicians are doing: the Kyoto protocol, while being a step in the right direction, barely scratches the surface of the problem. Although, any politician who did recognise the magnitude and urgency of the Problem and said so publicly, would be branded a crank (like me) and declared unelectable.

The analogy of the sick patient can be taken further: If we face up to the true significance of the symptoms and the seriousness of our situation, we still have time to take the radical measures necessary to avert disaster, i.e. the patient can still be cured. At the moment, however, he is still in denial.

Why are we so blind to (or in denial of) our perilous situation?

A. We were born into and have grown up in a society and an economy that we cannot help but experience as being normal, and it is natural - and not unreasonable - for us to consider what is normal also to be okay (“normal ” can mean either). Originally, the words "morals" and "ethics" simply meant traditional or customary, i.e. "normal" forms of behaviour. This makes the "insanities of normality ", such as the plundering of our planet, very difficult, if not impossible, to recognise for the madness they actually are.
B.  We are all dependent on society and the economy more-or-less as they are. Any radical changes might threaten our livelihoods or our positions in the socio-economic hierarchy. Thus, we are fearful of change, at least in so far as it effects ourselves, seeing the need for it far more readily in others.
C.   We each see our own impact on the planet (for better or worse) as just a proverbial drop in the ocean. Which is true enough; but the drops add up, and with more than 6 billion of us contributing, eventually they will fill the ocean, i.e. exhaust Earth's natural resources and exceed its carrying capacity (e.g. it's not my car or yours that's the problem, but the 500 million or so others! And even that huge number is set to multiply several times over in the coming decades as people in other parts of the world strive towards the same level of motorisation currently "enjoyed" by North America and Western Europe).
D. We are the planet's "Greatest Ape ". Which is a pun, of course, meant to raise a smile, but like many a word spoken in jest, it contains more than just a grain of truth. What Charles Darwin taught us about human origins is fully accepted in the conveniently compartmentalised science of biology, but the implications for human history, modern society, economics, etc. we are not facing up to: the fact that they are all deeply rooted in our primitive, animal nature, which is incapable of understanding or adapting to the need for limits, so vital for achieving sustainability on our finite and vulnerable planet.


We call ourselves Homo sapiens, when Homo stupidus  or Homo (whatever the Latin word is for 'blind') would be a more appropriate name. The  name that I would choose is the Latin for "Ape aspiring towards humanity", thus suggesting the need for us to replace our present socio-economic order (based on our more animal than human nature) with one based on our more "enlightened ", human nature.

Once faced up to, our problem aboard Spaceship Earth and its solution are very simple to understand. It is recognising and facing up to it that is the main difficulty.

THE PROBLEM is that our planet has limited resources and a finite carrying capacity, while the demands placed on it by our growth-dependent economy and the grossly materialistic lifestyles it engenders are insatiable. It is as simple as that.

THE SOLUTION - in principle at least - is just as simple: Earth's six (soon 7 - 9) billion inhabitants must learn to live within (well within!) the limits set by its carrying capacity, which means replacing the non-sustainable economy and lifestyles (based on our "more animal than human " nature) we have at the moment with ones that are sustainable (based on our more enlightened, far less materialistic, human nature).

The solution, needless to say, will amount to the greatest revolution in human history - one that first has to occur inside our heads and hearts, however, before it can be put into practice. At first it is a scary proposition - strongly inclining us to keep our heads in the sand - but it is essential for our children and coming generations that we face up to the challenge. Doing so will frustrate some of our materialistic (more animal than human) aspirations, but will reward us many times over, transforming and enriching our socially and spiritually impoverished lives, as well as earning for us the love and appreciation, rather than the curses, of our children and coming generations.

Some people argue that we have plenty of time to make the transition to sustainability and can leave most of it to coming generations. They are mistaken. Others think it is already too late to achieve sustainability before Earth's carrying capacity is reached. They may be right; but the more progress we make towards sustainability before things start to break down, the less devastating the consequences and the better our (or our children's) chances of survival and recovery will be.

One possible solution would be for a ruling elite to impose the necessary restrictions on the rest of the population, while continuing to enjoy its own extravagant life styles. However, I do not think that is an option that need (or should) be taken seriously. What I envisage is a democratic solution, one in which we all share responsibility for achieving sustainability and accept a necessary limit to the number of "straws" each of us can fairly place on the camel's back.

Despite an increased awareness of the need for sustainability, our politicians foolishly assure us that we can have our cake and eat it, i.e. that we can have sustainability and seek to satisfy the ever increasing material demands and aspirations of Earth's 6-10 billion inhabitants. This is an expression of the madness referred to above.

Individual motorisation and unlimited air travel are two of the most important examples of non-sustainable developments. It should be obvious that global car ownership and air travel cannot reach current North American or Western European levels without depleting Earth's natural resources and catastrophically disrupting its climate and life-supporting ecosystems.

All political attempts to steer society in the direction of sustainability have, up until now, been hopelessly inadequate, because they do not recognise or face up to the root cause of the problem: a socio-economic order deeply rooted in man's primitive, "more animal than human " nature.

The only way forward is for those of us who have come out of denial and realise what is at stake (and thus have the necessary motivation) to initiate the creation of an alternative, sustainable socio-economic order, based on our more enlightened, human nature.

We do not have to start completely from scratch. Over the past 30 years or so a growing awareness of the importance of sustainability has occurred in many people's minds, preparing us for the impending revolution. The imperfect beginnings already exist in the form of things like organic farming, recycling, renewable energy, moral investment funds, fair trade, work cooperatives, the open-source community, etc. In some ways - but far from all - Prince Charles seems to be on the right path. It will be interesting to see if he is prepared to reduce the number of straws that he currently places on the camel's back to a fair and proportionate number.