Swines, saints and sustainability

By Tibor Hartel

In the previous post Joern Fischer highlighted an important issue, namely: ‘…a more common acknowledgement that being human can be more than just meeting one’s needs for food, shelter and a mate. Given our capacity for reflection and conscious action, is it reasonable to assume the only way we will be able to solve conservation problems is to appeal to our basic instincts?

In the line of this, below I highlight two ‘contrasting’ views about human nature from two psychologists: Sigmund Freud and Viktor Frankl. Both of them experienced human nature in really harsh circumstances which characterized Austria and Europe in the first-middle part of the 20 century. However, they reach sharply contrasting conclusions about the human nature in extreme social and economic conditions.

Freud viewed our nature as animalic, instinctual and deterministic. Instinctual demands need to be satisfied, other way it will results in various types of psychological illnesses. For example, culture can strongly influence the degree of satisfaction of the sexual instincts. This may result in a kind of culturally induced ‘sexual frustration gap’. Bigger this gap is, more neurotic we should be and bigger is our desire to close this gap. Meeting with such a person, therefore, may be a volunteer adventure with unknown outcomes….:) Viktor Frankl called funnily these purely instinct driven people ‘swine’.

Contrary, Frankl emphasized the non-deterministic and hopeful aspects of our nature. According to him we are able for self transcendence. We are able to transcend the instinct driven aggressive tendencies in the most impossible and worse situations. We can find a meaning of life and this can fill us with power and optimism; and this can make a huge difference in the worse and most impossible situations (whether it is about concentration camps or diseases). If we loose the meaning of life we can find ourselves in an ‘existential vacuum’ with potentially bad consequences. To contrast with the ‘swine’ (see above), Frankl call these people ‘saints’. In his essays he mention many ‘saints’ who dedicated their entire life to help and save other people often forgetting about themselves and their sexual and other animalic instincts. We are more than animals – because our ability to self transcendence.

Assuming that there is some reality in those presented above, and we are indeed a mixture of ‘swine’ and ‘saint’, what kind of consequences could this have e.g. for sustainable development?

We know that animal populations fluctuate. They do this largely because they deplete their resources resulting in a drop in population size. Animals are ‘set’ to use resources in an unsustainable way – basically. Luckily (i) ecological systems can regenerate depleted resources (and populations can recover) and (ii) a ‘typical’ animal is not able ‘to make tools to make tools’, because if they would, then possibly the ecosystems would not be able to constrain their population growth.

It seems that to solve sustainability problems of our planet we should behave in a different way than the animals. There were and are many good initiatives e.g. to halt biodiversity loss, decrease pollution but nearly all of them failed, basically. And the planet becomes more boring, and worse place for living. Is this because of the animal is still governing our decisions regarding the fundamental aspects of our life?

How much the modern science (e.g. biological, social, psychological, ecological and the various ‘interdisciplinary’ sciences such is sustainability science) appeal to our ‘swine’ or ‘saint’ nature? Randomly searching for papers in these domains I feel that most of these sciences ‘demonstrate’ seductively and systematically, how animalic we can – and potentially should? – be. Animals of which only meaning of life should be to have stomachs filled, instincts satisfied and who are more and more convinced than the ‘infinite’ (beauty, power, life and growth) can be achieved. Everything else is considered ‘irrational’, of secondary or minor importance, even dangerous and should be forgotten.

To come back to the initial phrase: can human be more than just meeting ones need for food shelter and a mate? I think yes, they can.

Perhaps all this is nonsense? If you think so, you are invited to comment (no matter if it will be in a swine or saint way or something in-between:)).


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