Gradually it’s dawned on me: We humans are creatures of the mind. We perceive the world according to our core, often unacknowledged, assumptions. They determine, literally, what we can see and what we cannot. Nothing so wrong with that, perhaps—except that, in this crucial do-or-die moment, we’re stuck with a mental map that is life-destroying.
And the premise of this map is lack—not enough of anything, from energy to food to parking spots; not enough goods and not enough goodness. In such a world, we come to believe, it’s compete or die. The popular British writer Philip Pullman says, “we evolved to suit a way of life which is acquisitive, territorial, and combative” and that “we have to overcome millions of years of evolution” to make the changes we need to avoid global catastrophe.
If I believed that, I’d feel utterly hopeless. How can we align with the needs of the natural world if we first have to change basic human nature?
Fortunately, we don’t have to. A new way of seeing that is opening up to us can form a more life-serving mental map. I call it “eco-mind”—looking at the world through the lens of ecology. This worldview recognizes that we, no less than any other organism, live in relation to everything else. As the visionary German physicist
puts it, “There are no parts, only participants.”
As part of this shift, breakthroughs in a range of disciplines are confirming what we already know about ourselves, if we stop and think about it: That humans are complex creatures and what we do—from raising children to caring for elders to sharing with our neighbors—exhibits at least as much natural tendency to cooperate as to compete.
The view that our species is basically brutal defies the evidence: “There is a very tiny handful of incidences of conflict and possible warfare before 10,000 years ago,” says archaeologist Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago, “and those are very much the exception.” Our species has a vastly longer experience evolving in close-knit communities, knowing our lives depended on one another. The result is at least six inherent traits we can foster, once we learn to navigate the world with the map of eco-mind.