Taking a balanced perspective in an opinionated world

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A friend of mine recently said to me that ‘if you can’t see both sides of an argument, then you shouldn’t be arguing.’

 

It continues to amaze me when I see people announce a strongly-held one-sided view on some topic, whether it be religion, consumerism, politics or whatever else. These issues are divisive and controversial essentially because each side of the argument has strengths to it.

 

And yet attention is rarely given to those who sit on the fence. We like to listen to those who make a lot of noise and take a strong stance on one side – people like Richard Dawkins. I believe we perceive these people as intelligent, charismatic, strong characters. They’ve thought about a subject in depth and come to a firm conclusion. But were there not another valid side to the argument, the argument would not exist. All they’ve done by taking a strong stance on one side is to show that they are either a) lacking in empathy by being unable to understand another person’s perspective or b) too stubborn to acknowledge that they just might not be 100% right.

 

I believe we should pay more attention to those who can see and argue both sides. And often they will come to a conclusion that leans more on one side, but the crucial thing is that they have a balanced perspective. To me, these are the people who have genuinely thought about it in depth and are interested in the truth of the debate, rather than simply personal recognition.

 

This subject arose at the recent Anti-Hero launch at the RSA. They drew attention to the dominant model of leadership which rewards, amongst other things, those who take a firm and clear stance on subjects. They then pointed out that the nature of many complex problems is that they do have conflicting, strongly-held viewpoints and we need leaders who can understand both sides well enough in order to make the decision that benefits most.

 

Next time someone sits on a fence about an issue, don’t assume that it’s because they are weak or indecisive. Perhaps it is precisely because they have that rare ability to hold and balance two counter-argument simultaneously and see the bigger picture. I long held the belief that as we grow older and wiser, we will have much firmer opinions about the world. What I’m finding instead, is that as I increasingly see how complex and contrasting the world is, often it seems narrow or short-sighted to sit firmly and stubbornly on one side of argument.

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The Unpredictability of Creativity

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The other day I was having a conversation in the pub with a friend about how unpredictable our bursts of creativity are. The following morning, appropriately, I woke up with this blog in my head and for reasons I can’t understand, this one too. Normally hangovers (2 and a half pints – that’s embarrassing) and lack of sleep conspire to prevent a single original thought entering my head, so why I woke up in a creative frame of mind is beyond me. It only goes to reaffirm the conversation my friend and I were having; creativity is a funny old thing.

 

How do we access our creativity? It’s a very pertinent question, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s very popular talk on TED goes to show that it’s one many of us are interested in. In her talk she reveals that on some days she sits down at her computer and that spark simply isn’t there – and this is from a bestselling author. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times with some of my more creative friends; some days it’s there, some days it’s not, and it’s hard to nail down why that is.

 

My take is that the triggers are deeply varied and complex, and I’m not so sure that a creative frame of mind is something that can just be switched on. Not to mention, each brain is different, and what works for one person may stifle creativity in another. What we can do is try to create the conditions that are conducive to creativity, that improve the likelihood of finding ourselves in a creative frame of mind. Although as I’ve said, these will vary from person to person. A few things that I find helpful are:

 

#1 Taking a mental break from whatever the creative activity is. I find that creativity comes more easily when my mind isn’t on the task and I’m not trying to force it. Somewhere in my unconscious ideas have been churning away, and I just need to give them the space to do so.

 

#2 Talking to people about the creativity activity. Interaction challenges and develops my ideas as I’m exposed to new ones. Sounds obvious, but sometimes we think people won’t be able to grasp our idea and so we stay quiet about it.

 

#3 Getting peace and quiet. There’s an unbelievable amount of noise in modern society, and so much information to be distracted by, which then occupies the mind. I know many writers who will shut themselves away somewhere isolated when they need to write, although this does make #2 difficult!

 

#4 Listening to music. This is a big one for me, but film and books can also inspire me. I recall reading not so long ago a neuroscience article about a study showing that music is good for creativity because of the areas of the brain it triggers activity in. There’s a good justification for playing music in the office!

 

#5 Mood. Confidence plays a big role in my creativity, so I need to be in quite a positive frame of mind. I know for some this is different – creativity is linked to any strong emotional state, positive or negative.

 

#6 Going for a walk! I’m not sure whether it’s the fresh air or the mild exercise, but after a walk I always come back refreshed with new ideas and focus.

 

What works for other people?

Why equality is fundamental to a sustainable future

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If we want to live sustainably within the limits of our planet, we must address global inequality in standard of living. Relieving poverty is not just a good outlet for guilty westerners who want to do something that makes them feel good, but a necessity if we want to preserve a sustainable future for ourselves.

One of the main stumbling blocks in the current global discussions around any international actions on sustainability is that it is not at all a level playing field. The unsuccessful Copenhagen conference is testament to this, as unlike in the past it was the developing countries – namely China and India – who were the most resistant.

The western lifestyle is absurdly unsustainable. The demand we place on the planet for fish, meat, fuel, electricity is extreme and proportionately far higher than the majority of the people on the planet. Likewise, the impact we have through our carbon footprint, and the poisonous effect of the excessive waste we generate is also grossly disproportionate. As quoted from the article I am going to reference in this blog, Americans ‘…make up 5 percent of the global population, but use 20 percent of the world’s energy…eat 15 percent of the world’s meat… produce 40 percent of the world’s garbage.’

That sounds quite concerning to me.

This infographic brings home just how concerning it is. Costa Rica don’t put much demand on the planet right? Well, we’d need 1.4 planets to sustain the world’s population if everyone lived like Costa Ricans. If everyone lived like the French, we’d need 2.5 planets to sustain it (probably more if we’re taking in to consideration snails or frog legs). If we all lived like they do in the US? 4.1 planets. And that is at current rates. There are two further complications:

1) The population of the planet is increasing

2) The standard of life and demand on the planet is increasing across the globe

People across the world look at pictures of the USA on their TV screens, in the newspapers, on their computers and they aspire to that. For those of us privileged enough to live in the west, who the hell are we to tell them they can’t? What gives us the right to tell China to cut their excessive carbon emissions, when their per capita environmental impact/demand is far lower than that of us in the west. Who are we to tell them they can’t continue to increase their quality of life when 70% of its people live on less than $5 per day? I didn’t see many four-bed detached houses when I was in Southeast Asia, but I did see a lot of tin shacks that people called home.

Us humanfolk measure our state of wellbeing on relative, and not absolute terms. We look at those who seem better off and aspire to that. Most of the world is looking at the west and feeling as though they want that standard of living. As long as this is the case, those of us in the west will get almost nowhere in telling the rest of the world they need to reduce their environmental demand/impact. It’s hypocritical. It is us who need to radically alter the way we live if we’re interested in preserving a sustainable future.

Problem is, even if we manage across the world to make the enormous shift to a way of life that is clean, renewable and that places a demand that is within the planet’s limits, developing countries will not be satisfied knowing that their quality of life and per capita demand is far lower than those of us in the rich west. They will never accept that. Nor can we reasonably expect them to.

This asks some deeply painful questions. Are we committed enough to the future to be willing to reduce our material standard of living? To be willing to share more equally with the developing world that makes up the majority of the world’s population? Is this in human nature to do? I have my doubts.

Two types of confidence

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Here’s why the ego is weak and vulnerable; it depends upon external stimuli to boost it. It goes up and down according to the feedback it gets from the outside world. Thus, when our confidence is tied to the ego, our confidence too depends on the outside world. Our self-esteem is entirely dependent on how people behave towards us. It goes up when we are paid a compliment. Goes down when we hear someone talk ill of us. It is fragile and fickle. It can balloon up, but just easily burst and leave a person in tatters. Think about it, it means that our opinion of ourselves is inexorably tied to the opinion others hold of us. Other people can build us up, or tear us down.

 

I believe there’s another type of confidence. It’s a type I’ve seen in Buddhist monks, such as Thich Nhat Hanh. Sometimes I see it in prominent leaders, who are so self-assured, and yet seem so humble with it. This type of confidence is not dependent on our external world, but on our internal world. It’s a confidence that can only come from self-awareness and self-understanding. From self-acceptance. It is not so easily influenced by others in our external world. I’m sure these people still have ego (I believe it to be a fundamental part of evolutionary human nature), but they do not rely on it for their self-worth. How liberating…to not fear how others judge us. To try to be the best we can be individually, not the best that others think we can be.

 

As such, this confidence grows from deepening our acknowledgement of ourselves. Of accepting and embracing our weaknesses, just as we like to embrace our strengths. It grows as we grow in to ourselves, and try to be the best version of ourselves. When at peace with ourselves, we are not concerned with whether a person ‘likes’ us or not. In fact, some will dislike us for it simply because they envy that way of being. More likely, people will be drawn to it though. For all our differences, I believe at some level we are all looking for that sense of self-acceptance and inner contentment.

 

The ego can provide quick bursts of confidence that feel great. This inner type of confidence takes time, work and a lot of patience. But unlike that of the ego, it is real confidence. It stays with us and enables us to flourish.

Growth: a uniquely human pursuit?

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I was reflecting this morning on the ‘growth-collapse’ paradigm of human behaviour I wrote about recently. It’s hard to understand why we have developed such a transfixion on the concept of endless growth, when history (and present circumstances) suggest that it doesn’t serve us so well.

 

It seems somewhat maladaptive that by and large we are unable to within our environmental limits. Past civilizations (with a few notable exceptions) expand until they go beyond their limits, and consequently collapse. A much more adaptive response would surely be to live in equilibrium with the environment.

 

This is what has me fascinated with some of the indigenous peoples around the globe. Take the Australian aboriginals, for whom the land and environment is not something to be consumed and exhausted, but rather a gift to be thankful for. They view themselves as custodians and protectors of their environment, rather than consumers of it. Whether it is due to genes or other factors, they have developed a certain equilibrium with their surrounds that has allowed them to survive for 60,000 years whilst countless great civilizations around the world have risen and fallen. For me, this makes them a wiser and more emotionally evolved culture than the modern industrialized culture. But cultures like that of the Aboriginals are the exception, rather than the rule. Some island cultures (like Tikopia and Tonga) have come close to a clash with environmental limitations, and responded by implementing measures of population control and more sustainable agricultural techniques that have enabled them to live in equilibrium with their environment. Imagine, instead of dedicating excess resources towards growth, those resources could instead be diverted towards prosperity and wellbeing.

 

Whether this constant drive for growth is a uniquely human trait is uncertain. It is possible that other species would grow and grow if they were not subject to normal population limiting factors such as predators and disease. In fact, there are examples in which this has happened. When European settlers moved to Australia, they introduced a number of foreign species to make the environment more familiar. This proved an incredibly naïve and devastating error of judgement.

 

Australia’s ecosystem is quite unlike many of the others in the world (it has a startlingly high percentage of species unique to the continent – link http://www.dfat.gov.au/facts/flora_and_fauna.html) and is delicately balanced. When European rabbits were introduced to the country it was a disaster. They had no natural predators in Australia, and were not controlled by natural disease. And after all, rabbits do mate like…

 

Rabbit population growth boomed uncontrollably and aspects of the environment were damaged beyond repair. I recall from reading Bryson’s book Down Under, that much of the delicate inland vegetation was lost forever to the hungry stomachs of unstoppable rabbits. It was only human intervention through scientifically designed diseases that brought the population back under some sort of control.

 

Perhaps it is simply that this drive for species growth is inherent within all species, but it is the mastery humans have developed over their environment and other species that has enabled them to overcome population limiting factors. Our science and technology means that we are not under threat from predators, and we have been able to eradicate an extraordinary number of lethal diseases.

 

There’s also the point that our brains have evolved to be hardwired to tackling immediate, short-term problems that we are faced with. We are not so tuned in to complex, longer-term challenges. I’d suggest that the challenges presented by growth, unsustainable living and bumping in to limitations build up over time and until we reach tipping points, they fall in to the category of long-term challenges. Past societies only have typically only responded when lack of sustainability becomes an immediate problem (usually food shortages). So in a sense, our mastery of the environment means that we now bump in to problems that we haven’t evolved to know how to tackle – the limitations of our environment.

 

Only, this would be the first time we bump in to global limitations, rather than local limitations like past civilizations have done. What the consequences of this would be, we really have no idea. This is a unique period in human history.

 

The challenges may seem scary, but it’s a very exciting time to be around.

Denial of limits: A fatal human flaw?

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This current sustainability issues that we are faced with will be a fascinating turning point for mankind. It has the potential to markedly change human behavior.

 

Our current unsustainable trajectory is not a consequence of specific environmental factors, but rather a consequence of human behaviour. All throughout history, human civilizations have collapsed due to being incapable of living in harmony with their environment – they extend themselves too far. They have consumed and consumed, until they find themselves living beyond their limits and the result is collapse (for those interested take a look at Jared Diamond’s TED talk. I’ve also just started his book, which is fantastic). However, I will be writing soon about my understanding that if collapse happened today it will be significantly different to any other example in history.

 

For whatever reason, unlike the majority of species on our planet, we are unable to form a sustainable relationship with our environment and surrounds. We grow rapidly and thus consume more rapidly. Perhaps it is our mastery of the environment (tools like medicine and technology) that enables us to escape some of the population limiting factors that other species are subject to such as disease and predators.

 

You have to wonder what this means for us in the long-term. In time, will we learn how to live within our means, or will we continue to repeat our growth-collapse paradigm? And that’s why I am so curious to see how this situation pans out. There are a few scenarios I can see in this context.

 

Scenario One: We radically change our consumptive habits and lifestyles such that we can live sustainably and within the limits of our planet (perhaps learning from certain indigenous peoples who have managed this). A transition is made (not without considerable bumps along the way) and we move away from the nature of past human societies that have caused their own downfall. Basically, we learn.

 

Scenario Two: We fail to address the environmental, economic and energy challenges we currently face and experience a collapse like past human civilizations have (albeit far more dramatic and global). The suffering and loss that follow drills home the lesson that living beyond our limits is unsustainable, as it always has been, and we adjust our behaviour accordingly. Prosperity, rather than growth, becomes the goal.

 

Scenario Three: As above, but as we learn how to utilize our (now rather more limited) resources again and there is growth, we again wind up living beyond our means. The lesson is lost and human behaviour does not change as we continue to be insatiable consumers.

 

If one were to take a Darwinian view of this, then perhaps those humans who have evolved to live within the limits of the planet will be the ones that survive and flourish. I am interested in some of the indigenous peoples (such as the Australian aboriginals) who have survived for many millennia, and for whom living in equilibrium with their environment is a fundamental part of their culture. By comparison, modern civilization fuelled by science and technology is only a few hundred years old. Is the inclination towards the growth-collapse paradigm one that makes us fundamentally flawed as a species? An obsession with growth will always cause problems in a finite world (unless you’re an economist).

 

However this all plays out, there’s no doubt that we are living through a fascinating period in human history. Our TV culture makes it easy to miss, but dig a little deeper and you realize that we are living through the greatest financial crisis (in scale) in human history, are approaching the limits of nonrenewable energy sources that we have relied on for so long. These are challenges that we have no experience of, which may sound scary, but we do all have the opportunity to shape how our future plays out – it’s just a matter of whether we choose to take that opportunity.

 

Can we reverse the habit of a lifetime (of our species) and learn to live in equilibrium with our environment? I can’t wait to see how it all plays out…