For Earth scientists and environmental activists, the urgent need for a dramatic shift in humanity’s relationship with the world seems painfully obvious, yet we find ourselves pushing against obsolete systems of economics and development and against a relentless commitment to a destructive path. When the wise path appears so obvious to us, why do human social systems continue to make foolish decisions?

I believe that “intelligence” arises from natural process, inherent in life itself, in all species of life and manifested in myriad forms throughout the biosphere. Intelligence appears as the quality of organisms to interface successfully, and durably, with the world in all its complexity. 

'Brain' coral, Ashmore Reef, Australia. 01/08/1999 © Greenpeace / Roger Grace'Brain' coral, Ashmore Reef, Australia

We sense that humans have evolved a particularly dynamic intelligence; a capacity for reading the patterns of nature, for reasoning, logic, crafting tools, learning from the past and planning for the future. Learning to make fire, over hundreds of thousands of years, may have helped advance early human cognition beyond that of our other primate relatives and the complexity of large social systems may have accelerated these cognitive powers.  

Given this extraordinary intelligence that evolved with humans, we may expect that our societies could achieve ecological wisdom, understand the limits of our habitats and adjust society to avoid ecological disaster. Most successful species — algae in a pond, predators in a watershed — will overshoot habitat capacity and then collapse back into balance. We witness this in classic predator-prey relationships. Humanity faces this gnawing question: can we recognise our dilemma and avoid large-scale collapse? Will we be able to use our intelligence wisely or will we use our intelligence foolishly, for fashioning exotic entertainment, amassing wealth and power, or for short-term pleasures and frivolous gratifications?

The Conflicted Species

Terms such as “intelligence” and “wisdom” are difficult to define. We witness simple people who manifest extreme wisdom and we witness highly educated people who exhibit astounding foolishness. What are the relationships among intelligence, education, goodness and wisdom? Why do humans act individually and collectively in ways that appear foolish and self-destructive?

The early Saxon, Norse, English root for the word wisdom — 'wis' or 'wistuom' — originates from the idea of “law, judgement, or judicial precedent.” However, we all know of laws, judgments and precedents that, in retrospect, were not at all wise and often outright foolish. 

The Spanish word for wisdom, 'sabiduría', comes from the verbs 'saber' (to know or taste) and 'durar' (to last), so we get the idea of durable knowledge, an experience of the world that stands the test of time. This Spanish word appears more useful; a durable wisdom is the wisdom we are looking for. Education alone isn’t enough.

Canadian ecologist William Rees, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, who formulated “ecological footprint” analysis, is drafting a chapter for the forthcoming “Community Resilience Reader,” from the Post Carbon Institute. In the draft, “The Struggle Within”, on the failure of high intelligence, Rees points out that Homo sapiens are “an inherently conflicted species”. Although we are able to apply our intelligence in reasonable ways to solve complex problems, we also exhibit tendencies, especially under stress, to “act out of rage, jealousy, fear or other powerful emotions in ways that are utterly untainted by reason”. 

Humans might exhibit sociopathic tendencies, lie, cheat or commit petty crimes under stress, to defend or feed themselves or their family. However, we also witness people lying, cheating and committing crimes simply to enrich themselves, gain power or even to flaunt power. 

Sperm whales off the coast of Sri Lanka. 18/04/2013  © Paul Hilton / GreenpeaceSperm whales off the coast of Sri Lanka

We are conflicted, Rees explains, because “the human brain evolved in stages with each new neural component becoming integrated with pre-existing structures”. We share the advanced cerebral cortex — the seat of reason, language and creativity — with other mammals (cetaceans possess the largest cerebral cortices on Earth). However, in evolutionary terms, this impressive cortex is a recent addition to the more primal brain: The limbic system, governing emotions and relationships, and the ancient reptilian brain stem that governs autonomic functions such as breathing and survival instincts such as aggression or deceit to gain some advantage. 

In 1990, in The Triune Brain, Paul D. Maclean explains that the three distinct brain components function as an integrated whole, resulting in actual decisions and behaviour that arise from a mix of logic, emotions and primal instincts. “This can be a problem,” Rees points out. “Some people seem to be rational … others, exposed to the same ‘inputs’, abandon all reason to fear, anger, sorrow, etc., as suits the occasion.  … Most people think they are acting reasonably even on occasions when others view them as ill-tempered wing-nuts.”

Rees references the work of Tony W. Buchanan on the Retrieval of Emotional Memories, which shows that “long-term memories are influenced by the emotion experienced during learning as well as by the emotion experienced during memory retrieval.” This means that even when we intend to be reasonable, our thoughts, words and actions remain influenced by emotional memories, from deep within our subconscious, that may appear as foolishness to others. 

When we face a problem, and calculate a response, our thoughts are influenced by signals from the amygdala and hippocampus in the limbic system, the seat of fear and emotional memory. Blood may rush into our head and our hands may shake in the ancient “fight or flight” response.  Our thoughts and actions can also be influenced by ancient programmed responses in the reptilian brain, which is reliable in keeping us alive but tends to be rigid and compulsive. Furthermore, these primal regions of the brain gain influence when we experience stress. 

Therefore, a person who denies that global warming is real, or who believes that human society can continue to grow and exploit Earth’s bounty without limits, may simply be responding to the stress from fear about the future. We witness this in much of the wishful thinking in modern society, including the popular grasping at false solutions. The mind of the deluded citizen may be trying to calm itself down by imagining that everything is okay. 

Meta-learning for survival 

Rees points out that these ancient responses exist for good reason, even if they are not always appropriate. “In the long-term evolutionary scheme of things … selection pressures may have limited the circumstances in which logic and reason prevail over seemingly ‘primitive’ but more tried and true impulses. That said, behaviours that worked well for the individual at earlier stages in human evolution … may be fatal to the common good today.”

The global ecological crisis remains a collective challenge that requires genuine collective solutions and may render personal survival instincts obsolete in certain cases. We witness in the world today how nationalism, racism, old hatreds and private egos sabotage necessary international cooperation based on the most obvious and critical evidence.

“Political discourse today is tainted by misinformation, magical thinking and appeals to the basest of human instincts,” laments Rees. “We seem to be entering a 21st century ‘endarkenment.’ … H. sapiens’ reasoning powers are not yet sufficiently sophisticated or masterful to be trusted with control over humanity’s collective destiny… denial, resistance to change, rage against ‘the other’ and like motivations have become downright maladaptive in a period of climate uncertainty, incipient resource scarcity and increasing geopolitical tension.”

Under stress, well-educated people, institutions and nations often resort to fear, old political dogma and magical thinking in response to crisis. Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” to be the 2016 word of the year, describing a climate in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” 

Genuine wisdom, on the other hand, seems related to not only functioning well in the world but to also helping others function well or helping the larger system function well. Genuine wisdom, durable wisdom, appears linked to common decency. Smart people, who can describe some aspect of the world accurately, are not necessarily “wise”, but people (or other creatures) who function well in the world and who help other parts of the system function well, appear wise.  There is no wisdom where there is no goodness. Or, as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “I wish that I were better and smarter. And these both are one and the same.” 

Ecologists, disappointed at the pace of ecological change, may benefit by accepting that genuine, large scale cultural change takes a long time and involves cultural re-learning. Activists will gain strength by stepping back from the routine cultural discourse and learning more about their own emotional responses and others’ emotional responses, a sort of meta-learning about deeper truths. This is why storytelling is so important in cultural transformation. Wise storytelling reaches people at a deeper emotional level than reciting facts and figures. We must continually seek this deeper, more durable wisdom. 



Post Carbon Institute: Books and Reports. (Look for the upcoming book “Community Resilience Reader”).

How fire-making contributed to human cognition: Fire Then & Now Deep Green blog.

William Rees: Bio at Post Carbon Institute.

Paul D. Maclean on The Triune Brain.

Tony W. Buchanan on the Retrieval of Emotional Memories