• Lewis Whitehouse

Going back to our roots: the cultural shift we need for a better society(?)

If I asked you to think of a prehistoric hunter gatherer, what would you imagine? It is likely you may think of ‘man the hunter’, an intelligent but uncivilised ape, ruled by animalistic impulses and prone to regular outbursts of violence and savagery. This popular view of human nature is one of selfishness and greed, of natural tendencies that must be kept in check in order for society to function [1].

This view is even reflected in an assumption of neoclassical economics, which drives our government’s policies and influences our societal goals. According to this assumption, individuals are ‘utility maximisers’, i.e they are selfish, and exclusively act for their own gain. This assumption, clearly rooted in Darwinism, brings with it the implication that, because we are all self-interested, we must be compelled to compete with one another. It is this that supposedly drives the endless consumption-production engine, and represents a natural tendency of the evolved human psyche. However, this assumption has been readily debunked by the empirical evidence [14], and some even suggest that the use of this narrative of “survival of the fittest” and “progress” as a theory of social evolution was originally meant to justify European genocide and colonialism in the 1800s [19]. This leads to the implication that the economic theory that drives our societal goals and production habits is partly based on a misinformed view of human nature. But what is our true nature?

Based on archaeological evidence from early forager societies, Riane Eisler, a world-renowned cultural historian, systems scientist, and author, rejects this popular conception of human nature. She argues that the original form of human social organisation is one that favours ‘partnership’ values such as gender equality, prosociality, and peaceful interaction [2]. There is evidence of neolithic societies that flourished approximately 8,000 years ago that were distinctive in their lack of male dominance, a clear absence of signs of war such as fortifications and the glorification of warriors in their art, and a deep ecological consciousness [3]. These are civilisations in which men and women were equal, the life-giving power of women was revered, and nature was fully respected [16]. It is only at a later point in our history when ‘dominator’ values became prevalent in early civilisation, such as male-dominance, hierarchies, and social violence [3].

This leads to an important question:

What would a cultural shift towards partnership-oriented values look like, and how might it be encouraged?

This shift has already begun. In the last few decades, rankings of race and gender have been challenged. Institutionalised violence, another hallmark of a typical dominator society, has also been rejected, which is expressed in the growing revulsion towards war, domestic abuse, and rape [3]. It is also evidenced in the recent global sustainability movement. However, given that humanity has transgressed three of the seven planetary boundaries critical for the survival of the global ecosystem, this has clearly not gone far enough [15].

One hopeful solution to this problem is the ecovillage movement, of which the Findhorn community in Scotland is a stellar example. Findhorn Ecovillage was founded in 1962 by Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy McClean, who envisioned a new way of living, one that was decoupled from the endless, consumption-driven economic growth that is destroying our planet’s ecosystems [4]. By performing practices such as group meditation, co-housing schemes and a myriad of recycling and energy-saving initiatives, the Findhorn community promotes their core values of love, inner reflection and co-creation [5].

Image credit: © Gemma Grace ('The Barrel Cluster')

The success of ecovillages such as Findhorn is clear. Findhorn consists of 125 buildings built to strict ecological guidelines, with passive solar features and 2.5 times the legally required insulation. The community also boasts four wind turbines, making Findhorn a net exporter of electricity [6,7]. A report estimated that Findhorn’s ecological footprint is almost half that of the UK national average [8]. In addition, a systematic review of studies concluded that these intentional communities do, in general, have a lower environmental impact, highlighting the importance of physical design, strong social capital, and shared principles and goals [9]. There have been no studies on the well-being of Findhorn community members, but a study of a group of ecovillages concluded that their residents were able to obtain a higher quality of life while using less resources [11].

But what is behind their success? One factor may be that ecovillages exhibit common features that approximate tribal social interactions [12]. These features, which include shared work, inclusive decision making, conflict resolution, a limited hierarchy, strong community values, and environmental activism all align with the partnership values mentioned earlier, but are currently absent in most urban cities today [13]. This suggests that finding a way to promote partnership ideals in wider society, perhaps by using ecovillages as models of sustainable development and well-being, could be fruitful in achieving a happier, healthier, and ecologically responsible society [11].

There are still many challenges to consider, however. One of the biggest problems is scalability. How do we apply the features of ecovillages to a larger town? A city? A whole country? Grass-roots initiatives often struggle to grow beyond the small niche they started from, and clearly, the ecovillage lifestyle is not for everyone. The qualitative nature of ecovillages may also provide a barrier for support from policy makers, as it is difficult to quantify the amount of emissions an initiative has saved, or any projected emissions reductions [17]. All of these problems, and more, would have to be addressed before more people can benefit from the success of ecovillages and other grassroots initiatives.

Social innovations such as ecovillages are pioneered by groups of voluntary citizens collaborating to produce creative solutions for climate change [17]. Therefore, policies that aid in the strengthening of processes that engage multiple stakeholders, such as members of the community, may help to produce more sustainable development [18]. It is common for governments to have strategies for how to innovate in business and technology, so perhaps a similar strategy for social innovation may also prove beneficial [17]. In addition, there are many other promising policies not related to ecovillages that reflect partnership values which could also help this transition. This includes introducing new indicators for policy-makers such as well-being [19, 20] and sustainable development indicators [21, 22], along with emancipatory policies such as universal basic income [23]. However, these suggestions are vague at best, and much more research is needed to be done in this area in order for more specific policies to be proposed.

We are the beneficiaries of an evolution-driven inheritance favoring cooperation, peace, and nature. The insurgence of dominator ideals is a much more recent development in human history, which may well have led us to the technologically advanced stage we are at today, but a shift towards partnership ideals is necessary to combat the socio-ecological issues we now face. Grass roots, community-led social innovation such as the ecovillage movement provide hopeful examples for this cultural shift, and provide important opportunities to learn how to implement more of these values into wider society. But, there are still many challenges ahead.

Much like an engineer might take inspiration from nature to create innovative solutions for real-world problems, we have the opportunity to take inspiration from our original, evolved way of life and weave it into our modern societal structure in order to have richer, more purposeful, and more sustainable lives.

Lewis Whitehouse is a student in the Ecological Economics MSc program at the University of Leeds with an interest in both sustainability and writing.


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[10] Walter-Ginzburg, A., Blumstein, T., and Guralnik, J.M. (1986), ‘Life expectancy of kibbutz members.’, Int. J. Aging Hum. Dev. 23, 195–205

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[14] Daly, H.E, Farely, J. (2011), Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, Island Press

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[16] Eisler, R. (1988), The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, Harper One

[17] Middlemiss, L., Bergman, N., Markusson, N., Connor, P., Ricci, Miriam (2010), ‘Bottom-up, social innovation for addressing climate change’, Sussex, pp. 25-26 [Online] Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Noam_Bergman/publication/228784768_Bottom-up_social_innovation_for_addressing_climate_change/links/02e7e53a6fd553c253000000.pdf

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[19] The Treasury (2018), ‘Living Standards Framework: Introducing the Dashboard’, [Online] Available from: https://www.treasury.govt.nz/publications/tp/living-standards-framework-introducing-dashboard-html

[20] The Treasury (2019), ‘Budget Policy Statement 2019’, [Online] Available from: https://www.treasury.govt.nz/publications/budget-policy-statement/budget-policy-statement-2019-html

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[22] Office for National Statistics (2020), ‘UK Natural Capital: Interim review and revised 2020 roadmap’ [Online] Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/methodologies/uknaturalcapitalinterimreviewandrevised2020roadmap

[23] Lawhon, M., McCreary, T. (2020), ‘Beyond Jobs vs Environment: On the Potential of Universal Basic Income to Reconfigure Environmental Politics’, Antipode Vol. 52, Issue 2, pp. 452-474 [Online] Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/anti.12604