Hubris, ecological crisis and psychological threat

In this blog I discuss conceptualisations of the human relationship with nature in the west in the context of environmental crisis. An extended version will form part of the literature review chapter in my PhD thesis.

Core beliefs of the ‘technoscience’ paradigm
The development of modern science and technology in the west has been discussed in various ways, aspects of which are explored below.

Marx in the early 1840s saw capitalism and science as expressions of human alienation from nature. A good society, in his view, was one where the alienation between humans and between humans and nature would be overcome and oneness with nature would be realised. But by the late 1840s Marx shifted his position and now understood human freedom and self-determination as a struggle against the limits imposed by nature, where by applying science and technology to harness the forces of nature to human purposes, social wealth could be vastly increased (Benton & Craib 2001).

This then is the project of modernity, and at its core are anthropocentric beliefs that humans are separate from nature, that humans have primacy over and are superior to nature, and that humans are morally entitled to exploit nature for their own ends.

Yet nature has limits – the biosphere’s capacity to generate new resources and absorb waste at a fast enough pace to meet the increasing demands humans are placing upon it is being severely tested (Rockström et al 2009). Attachment to beliefs of no limits, superiority and entitlement has led to overexploitation of natural resources and an overwhelming of biosphere cycles resulting in the current global ecological crisis of biodiversity loss, habitat degradation and climate change with huge implications for human health and quality of life and for social justice.

Superiority and entitlement are dimensions of narcissism that apply to societies and organisations as much as to individuals. With the rise of consumer culture, narcissism has become more prevalent (Lasch 1979; Kanner & Gomes 1995), and is viewed by some as a major barrier to resolving environmental problems (Frantz et al 2005).

This set of beliefs and attitudes of human separation, superiority and entitlement characterises the dominant social paradigm (Crossman 2011; Plumwood 2002) and it is built into the very foundations of modern western political and economic systems. The model of industrial economic growth is predicated on the notion of a world without limits.

“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist” (attributed to Kenneth Boulding 1973)

These beliefs, it has been argued, are addictive: Ronald Wright (2006) says, “material progress creates problems that are – or seen to be – soluble only by further progress”. So we attempt to technofix our way out of ecological problems. But the idea that that technology can solve the problem it created in an earlier version of itself is, Wright maintains, an ‘ideological pathology’. And as Giles Fraser, former canon of St Pauls said in relation to ecosystem services valuation as a sustainability solution: “the problem with capitalism is not that we don’t have enough of it” .

David Noble explains the western development of technoscience as a project with religious roots that seeks to restore humanity to original perfection – it is a project about transcendence. We are so obsessed with technology, he maintains, because it promises transcendence from mortality. This fear of death, of the void, of losing one’s self into nothingness is a particular human vulnerability in our culture. I explored it further in this blog on digital innovation and will write more about technology addiction and obsession with regard to cognitive functioning (especially attention) soon.

Moral order
The human-nature dualism inherent in the technoscience paradigm is not just a dichotomous pairing but “an intense, established and developed cultural expression of hierarchical relationship, constructing central cultural concepts and identities so as to make equality and mutuality literally unthinkable” (Plumwood 1993 p47).

Exploiting nature is understood as a moral right, for nature is below humans in the moral order. It is there for our benefit and we are entitled to use it. In this way, nature becomes instrumentalised as a mere means to human ends (Plumwood 1993).

Feminist readings reveal how the scientific revolution sanctioned the exploitation not just of nature but also women (Merchant 1983; Plumwood 1993). The female is below the male in the moral order hierarchy, associated with nature rather than with culture.

Plumwood (1993) identifies the characteristics of dualism as:

  • Radical exclusion and hyperseparation

This involves magnifying and maximising the quantity and importance of differences, and eliminating, denying, minimising or treating as inessential the shared qualities

  • Distancing and backgrounding

Treating nature as background to civilised human life, taken nature for granted, denying its reality, making nature inessential and denying the importance of its contribution.

  • Opposition between orders

The division is treated as natural, inherent to the nature of things, and hence not open to change

  • Instrumentalism and objectification

Nature is objectified without ends of its own. Humans are the only proper objects of moral consideration, with ‘the rest’ defined as past of the sphere of expediency. Means and ends are separated into a dualism of their own, avoiding threatening ambiguities or confusions about what belongs where, or finding oneself on the wrong side of the boundary: the used instead of the user

  • Homogenisation and stereotyping

Disregarding or denial of diversity. The term ‘nature’ itself is a collective noun that hides the differences between species, habitats and processes (Stibbe)

Closely related to the human-nature dualism is that of a mind-body split that separates rational mind from physical body and emotion – the ‘nature’ part of a person. Typically traced back to Descartes, this way of thinking still persists today in the form of rational choice economic theory that posits that humans will act rationally to serve their own self-interest. It infuses social policy that assumes behaviour change can be instigated by presenting people with facts. This has been the dominant approach with regard to climate change, and the weakness of the theory is evident in the distinct lack of behaviour change, despite compelling evidence of the need for urgent and large-scale action.

Hubris and scientific arrogance
Belief that human ingenuity is the ultimate resource and that environmental and resource problems can easily be dealt with via technoscience (Simon 1981) is central to the technoscience discourse, as we have seen.

Gregory Bateson says:
“In the period of the Industrial Revolution, perhaps the most important disaster was the enormous increase of scientific arrogance. We had discovered how to make trains and other machines. We knew how to put one box on top of the other to get that apple, and Occidental man saw himself as an autocrat with complete power over a universe which was made of physics and chemistry. And the biological phenomena were in the end to be controlled like processes in a test tube. Evolution was the history of how organisms learned more tricks for controlling the environment; and man had better tricks than any other creature. But that arrogant scientific philosophy is now obsolete, and in its place there is the discovery that man is only a part of larger systems and that the part can never control the whole.” (1987 p443)

The belief that humans can control nature and solve resource problems through technoscience is not just hubris: it is dangerous (Plumwood 2002; Illich 2009; Bateson 1987). It has led to ecological crisis through overexploitation of natural resources and overwhelming of biosphere cycles.

In a talk at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2009, Martin Gladwell explained how ‘society rewards overconfidence’, that it is seduced by it. A conference aimed at senior business leaders last year ‘The Intoxication of Power: Leadership and Hubris’ by the Society for Organisational Learning (Sol) UK examined the impact on leadership of hubris, defined as the distortions of thinking and changes in personality associated with the exercise of power. According to Sol-UK, hubris is “becoming a key research topic amongst neuroscientists, psychiatrists and medical professionals”. The University of Westminster and the Daedalus Trust are holding a research cafe on ‘Leadership, Democracy and Hubris” on 4 March 2014, which I will be attending.


The illusion of control and overconfidence
Albert Bandura’s theoretical perspective of self-efficacy stipulates that people strive to control events that affect their lives, and that this need permeates everything that individuals do. Self-efficacy is a motivating force: as ‘belief that one can produce desired effects provides incentives to act’. The theory also says that uncertainty in important matters is unsettling.

For if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare themselves for battle? (1Corinthians 14, verse 8)

Psychological studies show that people may develop more effective decisions if they have ‘illusions of control’ as it leads to more proactive and self-fulfilling behaviour (Hogarth & Makridakis 1981). However,  research into forecasting and planning reveals that the need for feeling in control also leads to tendencies to see patterns where none exist. The availability of additional information increases confidence in judgement but it does not necessarily increase predictive accuracy. As more information becomes available it is increasingly easier to ‘prove’ what one wishes. The value of information is paradoxically often overestimated by unaided intuition, with the result that the search for additional information brings no more than false psychological comfort (Hogarth & Makridakis 1981).

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so (Mark Twain)

Shattering myths
Hamilton (2013) argues that with climate change, the perception of nature as a mere backdrop for human life is now untenable, and that beliefs about separation that can no longer be sustained, due to the now substantial scientific evidence of human impact on the biosphere. Climate change heralds then a shattering of the hubristic myth of human control and dominance over nature and the myth of a world without limits that humans can create through technoscience innovation. The evidence of human lack of ability to control larger systems of which we are just a part is glaring, and yet many manage to ignore it: Al Gore’s ‘inconvenient truth’.

This is because as some argue, the collapse of a myth that has been dominant in society for centuries is a profoundly disturbing phenomenon. Also psychologically disturbing is the enormity of the ecological challenge facing humanity; it is unprecedented in scale. Hoggett (2013) asks, “How can we think in a realistic way about something whose implications are unthinkable?”

“The distinguishing feature of management is not control but the courage to carry on creatively despite not knowing and not being in control, with all the anxiety that brings.” (Streatfield 2001)

The shattering of these myths poses huge psychological threat to our existence, to the integrity of our identity, and to our self-esteem. Psychological threat is stressful; the tendency is to attempt to alleviate stress and associated feelings of anxiety or angst through defence mechanisms and coping strategies, which in terms of ecological impact may be adaptive or maladaptive. Indeed, how one deals with psychological threat has been identified as a major factor influencing ecological behaviour (Crompton & Kasser 2009; Hamilton & Kasser 2009).

The psychology of climate change has received more attention in recent years from academia and policy makers. There is growing recognition that there is insufficient understanding of why individuals may hold certain pro-environmental concerns, attitudes, values and identities and yet, despite these motivations, fail to enact them as pro-environmental behaviour consistently and across all contexts of their lives. This question is becoming ever more urgent as the ecological crisis worsens, with devastating impacts for humans and other living beings already being felt.

My PhD research explores these themes in relation to individuals enacting their pro-environmental concerns, attitudes, values and identities in a business context.

I’ll write about alternative and more ecologically harmonious paradigms to technoscience soon.

[And I will try to sort the references in the near future..]

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2 Responses to Hubris, ecological crisis and psychological threat

  1. Nice post. BTW a colleague and I have been publishing on business and climate change (with a focus on individuals in corporations – narrative identity, emotionologies, justification and compromise). You can access a lot of this on my blog:

    Specifically, there’s a piece coming out in Environmental Politics which gels with some of the themes above:

    Anyway look forward to following your research.


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