In the last few days I have started reading a book which I have a feeling may go some way towards explaining why human beings have, as a race, been so slow to grasp the nettle when it comes to climate change and other ecological issues. I admit that I am somewhat late to the party as Iain McGilchrist first published The Master and His Emissary in 2009.
I am only a few pages in and there are obviously dangers in reacting to a book when you have several hundred pages of it still to read. However, I have been so struck by his Iain McGilchrist’s initial explanations of the differing ways of “thinking” of the two hemispheres of the brain that I am overcoming any temerity I have and posting this. What has hit me straight between the eyes is that various aspects of our inability or unwillingness to face the issue of a climate or ecological emergency can be linked with what McGilchrist presents as a particular way of thinking. His major claim is that we are experiencing within Western society the type of thinking associated with the left-hemisphere dominating our society and its structures.
McGilchrist comes at this initially from the point of view of setting out how a bird might benefit from both these ways of relating to the world (animals have brains which are also set up differently in their two sides). He explains that a bird’s need to find appropriate seeds or other small pieces of food to eat (or catch prey) means that the bird needs to be able to focus in great detail on something. At the same time, other aspects of the bird’s life mean that being able to have an awareness of something broader is also vital e.g. in being part of a flock with other birds or sensing any predators or locations of potential prey. There are thus these two types of awareness.
My sense is that many aspects of a particular type of focused thinking have led or contributed to problems in our relationship with the natural world because of an imbalance in our approach. The following are some examples:
- A need to dominate the natural world (sometimes but not exclusively associated with the exploitation of its resources)
- A desire to solve problems but only to see the consequences of a solution within a narrow context
- A lack of a need to question how well human systems serve either the majority of human beings or plants and animals with whom we share our planet
- A short-term focus rather than looking at either the longer-term or a broader picture
McGilchrist’s suggestion is that we imperil ourselves through this habit we have acquired as a race. I have not yet come across any references he makes to climate change or anything in the ecological field, but to me this link comes across loud and clear. As well as being for reasons like the ones I have just outlined it is also because this may be the greatest and most pressing example of the risks we run by not examining our overall approach.