To sustain progress on a finite planet that is increasingly under human sway, but also full of surprises, what is needed is a strong dose ofanthropophilia. I propose this word as shorthand for a rigorous and dispassionate kind of self regard, even self appreciation, to be employed when individuals or communities face consequential decisions attended by substantial uncertainty and polarizing disagreement.
The term is an intentional echo of Ed Wilson's valuable effort to nurturebiophilia, the part of humanness that values and cares for the facets of the non-human world we call nature. What's been missing too long is an effort to fully consider, even embrace, the human role within nature and — perhaps more important still — to consider our own inner nature, as well.
Historically, many efforts to propel a durable human approach to advancement were shaped around two organizing ideas: "woe is me" and "shame on us," with a good dose of "shame on you" thrown in.
Woe is paralytic, while blame is both divisive and often misses the real target. (Who's the bad guy, BP or those of us who drive and heat with oil?)
Discourse framed around those concepts too often produces policy debates that someone once described to me, in the context of climate, as "blah, blah, blah bang." The same phenomenon can as easily be seen in the unheeded warnings leading to the most recent financial implosion and the attack on the World Trade Center.
More fully considering our nature — both the "divine and felonious" sides, as Bill Bryson has summed us up — could help identify certain kinds of challenges that we know we'll tend to get wrong.
The simple act of recognizing such tendencies could help refine how choices are made — at least giving slightly better odds of getting things a little less wrong the next time. At the personal level, I know when I cruise into the kitchen tonight I'll tend to prefer to reach for a cookie instead of an apple. By pre-considering that trait, I might have a slightly better chance of avoiding a couple of hundred unnecessary calories.
Here are a few instances where this concept is relevant on larger scales.
There's a persistent human pattern of not taking broad lessons from localized disasters. When China's Sichuan province was rocked by a severe earthquake, tens of thousands of students (and their teachers) died in collapsed schools. Yet the American state of Oregon, where more than a thousand schools are already known to be similarly vulnerable when the great Cascadia fault off the Northwest Coast next heaves, still lags terribly in speeding investments in retrofitting.
Sociologists understand with quite a bit of empirical backing why this disconnect exists even though the example was horrifying and the risk in Oregon is about as clear as any scientific assessment can be. But does that knowledge of human biases toward the "near and now" get taken seriously in the realms where policies are shaped and the money to carry them out is authorized? Rarely, it seems.
Social scientists also know, with decent rigor, that the fight over human-driven global warming — both over the science and policy choices — is largely cultural. As in many other disputes (consider health care) the battle is between two quite fundamental subsets of human communities — communitarians (aka, liberals) and individualists (aka, libertarians). In such situations, a compelling body of research has emerged showing how information is fairly meaningless. Each group selects information to reinforce a position and there are scant instances where information ends up shifting a position.
That's why no one should expect the next review of climate science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to suddenly create a harmonious path forward.
The more such realities are recognized, the more likely it is that innovative approaches to negotiation can build from the middle, instead of arguing endlessly from the edge. The same body of research on climate attitudes, for example, shows far less disagreement on the need for advancing the world's limited menu of affordable energy choices.
Murray Gell-Mann has spoken often of the need, when faced with multi-dimensional problems, to take a "crude look at the whole" — a process he has even given an acronym, CLAW. It's imperative, where possible, for that look to include an honest analysis of the species doing the looking, as well.
There will never be a way to invent a replacement for, say, the United Nations or the House of Representatives. But there is a ripe opportunity to try new approaches to constructive discourse and problem solving, with the first step being an acceptance of our humanness, for better and worse.