Written by: Deepak Chopra, MD
Although almost everyone fears the effects of climate change and deplores the inaction of governments around the world, neither attitude gets us any closer to solving the problem. Many pin their hopes on a breakthrough in technology that could somehow clean the atmosphere of greenhouse gases, while others resign themselves–and the world–to accepting global warming as a fait accompli that we must adjust to. In the first post of this series it was proposed that humanity has reached a turning point. Not just climate change but several other global problems (for example, AIDS, pandemics, overpopulation, a lack of clean drinking water) will be unsolvable unless our evolution as a species changes course.
For centuries human evolution has primarily depended on how we use our minds. Natural selection, random genetic mutations, and raw competition for food and mating privileges, which form the foundation of Darwinian evolution, either don’t apply to us anymore or have been drastically minimized, pushed to the fringes while mental evolution occupies center stage.
The mental activities that have dominated recorded history are mixed, some being evolutionary and others self-destructive. These effects pull against one another, making the picture more confusing. Aggression, competition, and war are closely related in the psyche, and who can say that the benefits of one isn’t tied to the defects of the others? The competitive spirit that drives computer technology also drives arms production. War is annihilating in its destructiveness, but generations of males in particular have felt that the experience of battle was essential to true masculinity. Compassion looks like a completely positive trait, yet it can make you vulnerable to physical attack, as the Christian martyrs were to Roman persecution.
Even supposedly value-neutral activities like pure science aren’t really so pure when somewhere down the line a bit of pure research gets applied to make chemical and biological weapons. The most benign applications, like the development of antibiotics, can have devastating effects as resistant strains of bacteria become more lethal every day. If you reduce this complicated picture to the most basic physiological principle, wanting more pleasure and less pain, the things that bring us pleasure turn out to cause pain somehow or other. The fact is that even global warming, about which we feel guilty, can be traced to the normal desire to enjoy the good life, complete with cars, electricity, factories, power plants, and other necessities that turn out to have destructive consequences for the planet.
We are at a turning point, then, because allowing human nature to run its course, bringing the bitter with the sweet, peace with war, pleasure with pain, and so on, no longer works. Its evolutionary value has diminished to the point that the nasty byproducts of human nature, like war, unregulated greed, rampant consumerism, and toxic nationalism, can no longer be tolerated. We are reaping the results of ill-considered choices, excusing our lack of action for various reasons that never held water in the first place. Allowing nation states to go to war was unacceptable even before World War I led to a century of catastrophic civilian deaths, and the reason world War I didn’t turn into “the war to end all wars” is that human beings failed to look at themselves and take evolution into their own hands.
When the problem is mental, the solution is also mental. In our consciousness lies the solution to every intractable problem. Survival of the wisest, a phrase popularized by Jonas Salk, represents the biggest evolutionary step in human history that entirely depends upon self-awareness. To date we’ve focused on looking outward in various ways, from conquering Nature to conquering the country next door, and the activity of looking inward was relegated to a minor place occupied by a motley crew of sages, saints, artists, psychologists, and visionaries.
Now the motley crew occupies the high ground. Every day brings evidence that our greatest need as a species is self-awareness. The person who cannot control his anger can turn into a lone wolf performing an act of terror. A president too eager for revenge can throw a nation into an ill-considered foreign war. A power company avid for profits can stubbornly block laws to limit carbon emissions. Human nature feels individual, but the survival of the wisest has to be collective, a kind of global awakening that begins with the individual but gets accepted as a social aspiration.
This is a very general template, leading to a wide array of projects and action steps, like the following:
- Communities choosing to adopt energy plans that don’t depend on fossil fuels.
- Corporate activists pressuring their boards to go green.
- Pushing pension funds to withdraw support for anti-ecological activity.
- Citizen groups forming around goals that are evolutionary, from micro-investments in the developing world to providing sources of clean water.
- Active political organizing to elect pro-environmental officials.
None of these activities are original ideas, and some have yet to coalesce into real power bases. But the whole point isn’t to keep looking outward for action plans but to look inward and develop self-awareness. If enough people begin to do this, the right and necessary solutions will begin to emerge on their own. This is the step that is most evolutionary and yet the hardest to believe in. Exchanging brute force, political pressure, corporate ambitions, and technology for inner values represents a huge step. But survival of the wisest is the only way forward. We’ve exhausted all the outer strategies while ignoring the real problem, our own unexamined consciousness. The Greek maxim that the unexamined life isn’t worth living has been ignored on a mass scale. Now it’s become a matter of surviving or not.