It goes without saying that humans are good at causing problems. Climate change, overfishing and widespread environmental contamination from chemical toxicants are all creations of our own making. But are we destined to create such problems? Many people believe so, and argue that our capacity for self-interest, avarice and ecological shortsightedness make us inherently unsustainable as a species. Not only is this way of thinking built on long-disproven myths about human nature and human origins, it also constrains how we think about solutions and alienates us from the rest of the natural world. We need to abandon this belief and not allow ourselves to be defined only by our most recent history. The truth of the matter is that we belong here, and belonging is a much more powerful narrative for sustainability than isolation.
In western society, most people’s understanding of human nature can be traced back to the writings of a handful of social philosophers: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Adams and Adam Smith, to name the core few. Collectively, their respective works create a picture of humanity that is driven by extreme self-interest and in which life before the advent of government was nasty, brutish and short. This picture of humanity is now widely accepted and invoked; former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan famously opined, for example, that corruption, embezzlement and fraud are all symptoms of human nature, and that the best we can do is try to keep these to a minimum.