Faith in Humanity
Human nature is ours to decide
“If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for what we really are.” — Jean-Luc Picard
We live in a time of crippling awareness. Though our ecological footprint is increasing, our knowledge of the damage we’re causing has far outpaced it. Every American alive has been exposed to some form of media that is discussing, showing, “debunking,” or investigating the ravages of pollution, climate change, industrial agriculture, mining, and so on.
That awareness, however, does little to help decrease the damage we’re causing as individuals.
Most Americans are a $500 emergency away from bankruptcy, making risky or expensive lifestyle changes unrealistic. Houses are concentrated in suburbs far from workplaces and without even the option of public transit. Millions of us live without easy access to grocery stores, and even those who do have extremely limited financial or practical ability to choose locally produced food & products over their ecologically devastating counterparts.
It’s difficult to turn on the lights in America without drawing dirty coal power, difficult to transit to work without emitting carbon, and difficult to exist without access to computers, smart phones, and other self-obseletizing technology with an incredible ecological cost.
In other words, we are aware that our consumption is destroying the earth, but unable to escape it. Only radical collective action could possibly stop the ongoing ecocide, and such action is so demonized and erased as to be unimaginable to the average American.
It is no surprise, then, that many Americans believe “human nature” to be short-sighted, greedy, and most of all, irredeemable.
In the absence of the ability to survive without harming the world and each other, and with a blindness to the possibility of collective change, what conclusion can we reach other than that humanity is inherently evil? After all, how could a species with a selfless, kind nature do so much damage?
In the end, it is that very fatalism, that hatred of humanity, that protects the capitalist machine from destruction.
Between 1958 and 1962, a scientist by the name of John Calhoun created and studied various “rat societies” in his lab. Some rats were given ample space; others were overcrowded. Some rats enjoyed plentiful food; others scratched by. Some rats enjoyed complex recreation; others had only bare walls.
Unsurprisingly, the rats fared very differently. Those in the “rat utopias,” with plentiful food, entertainment, and space, lived longer, fought less, and generally, flourished. Those in the rat slums resorted to cannibalism, filicide, and infanticide. They lived brutal, short lives, and fought the whole way through.
If an alien scientist, one who lacked knowledge of rats, their ecosystems, or their lifestyles were to observe Calhoun’s rodents and create a theory of rat nature, their conclusion would vary wildly based on which rats they observed. The rats born in utopia would appear lively, gentle, and active creatures. They would seem to be stronger, larger, and healthier by nature.
But if this alien only studied the rats in the slums, they might seem to be an altogether different species. These rats are not only violent, antisocial, and vicious, but even physically smaller, sicklier, and scarred from years of violence. Our hypothetical alien may even conclude that such a species was doomed to extinction — after all, how can a species which consumes its own children ever flourish? Why would it deserve to?
In the early 20th century, American anarchist, feminist, and writer Emma Goldman wrote:
Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?
Not unlike Calhoun’s rats, Goldman imagined humanity as a creature defined as much by circumstance as by nature. To her, capitalism, and the state which enforced it, caged us all. No sociologist, no matter how scientific or insightful, could study such our population and reach a reasonable conclusion about the nature of humanity.
If one did, they would look upon the millions of women in the 1900s, denied the right to vote and forced into free domestic labor, and conclude that women are servile, unintelligent, and domestic by nature. They would see nonwhite peoples, denied high paying jobs, educations, and wealth, and conclude that they were impoverished by nature, and beyond helping.
Of course, this sociologist, unlike our alien from before, is not hypothetical. Sociologists of this era did study early capitalist societies and did assert all manner of sexist, racist, and otherwise bigoted things as the immutable nature of each group.
Cesare Lombroso, a sociologist working in the 19th century attempted to identify a “criminal type” of person by studying the bodies of prisoners and generalizing from there. Noting the ethnicities, scars, poverty, and illness of his test subjects, Lombroso concluded that there was simply a kind of human whose very nature predisposed them to crime. Khalil Mummahed’s book The Condemnation of Blackness describes how that theory was applied to, and eventually disproven by, African Americans, whose history of oppression in the United States has always been justified by wild claims about their “nature.”
But such pseudo-science could not last forever. Thanks in part to the work of Frances Kellor (a woman who had no doubt been told women were not naturally inclined to be educated), the science corrected course. Her work showed that environmental factors, many of which filtered down through generations of enslavement, poverty, and racism, could explain the differences between the caged and the free far better than their race, gender, or genes ever could.
Put more simply: no person can be defined by their behavior in captivity. No animal can be defined by how it acts in a cage.
If you were born in the United States, odds are that everyone you know has only ever lived under capitalism. Most everyone you watch on TV has only ever lived under capitalism. Your neighbors, friends, families, coworkers, bosses, and customers have, more likely than not, only ever lived under capitalism. Yet vanishingly few of the humans to have ever existed have lived under capitalism. Other systems have existed and other systems are possible.
If I were to make a guess at one human nature, it would begin with our capacity to create complex societies where none had existed. It would feature the ancient remains of disabled people who had been cared for for years or decades despite their inability to hunt. It would focus on the dozens of experiments at democracy, hundreds of unique social structures, and thousands of innovations which we have produced. It would conclude with the millions and billions of people who, despite living in a machine which incentivizes callousness and individualism, choose every day to help one another survive.
And yet, here we stand in capitalism’s fourth century, apparently convinced that this economic structure, one that has existed for a fraction of a fraction of human history, is a product of human nature. Here we are convinced that we caged animals really are humanity’s inherent form. That there can be no after capitalism. That history has ended.
But why do we believe this?
Although those in power certainly have a great deal to gain from a population which literally can’t imagine a different world, I am not convinced that is enough to explain why so many regular, working people have bought the lie that their suffering is natural, inevitable, and eternal.
Instead, I would suggest that many people buy into the idea that humanity is evil, and capitalism is natural, because it frees us of the responsibility to fight for change.
If you believe capitalism, and all the cruelty, ecological devastation, and waste it begets are inevitable, why try to fight for a better world? If we really are doomed as a species, all of us as individuals are let off the hook. Nothing we do matters. We were all born to hurt each-other, the planet, and ultimately, to die.
But if capitalism isn’t inevitable, if there are ways we can exist in harmony with each other and the planet, then each of us is suddenly burdened with extraordinary responsibility. If a better world is possible, we are not only responsible for creating that world — we are guilty of all the suffering we fail to prevent.
As much as I understand why people want to believe that we are doomed, and as much as I sympathize with the desire to free yourself of revolutionary burden, it is critically important that we refuse to do so. Our friends, families, grandparents, and grandchildren must exist in the world we are constantly re-creating. Their lives will begin, end, flourish, or fail depending on the choices we make today.
I have faith in humanity. Faith that we as a species are as capable of utopia as we are deserving of it. Faith that we can overcome our systems, our overlords, and ourselves to force a new world into being. It will not come without sacrifice but it will come.
I hope you’ll be beside me when it does.