Are Humans Too Selfish to Live Sustainably?

We asked an expert how to embrace a way of life that would presumably save the planet. Step one, "forget about freedom".
June 20, 2017, 2:47am

In a time when Pacific Islands are disappearing into the ocean and the Sahara desert is swallowing towns whole, embracing sustainable living could be our only chance for survival.

The lure of joining a commune and overcoming material desires may seem like the only way the planet will endure but Quentin Atkinson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, says pulling it off successfully has its own challenges. It turns out convenience is king, and these movements historically peter out after several years of hard graft and lack of governance structure. Living sustainably requires a commitment to an alternative lifestyle, sacrificing individualism and personal ambition, which for many it turns out is too high a price to pay for the sake of sustainable living. Despite this knowledge, the movement towards more communal living is gaining steam in recent years. We asked Atkinson how exactly these communities work, and if he thinks we're all just too selfish to survive.

VICE: Hi Quentin. New Zealand has a long history of communes and sustainable communities. Why do you think that is?
Quentin Atkinson: Well I guess we've always been kind of on the edge of the world, so we've attracted, since the beginning of European settlement, people who wanted to get away from it all. So I think that's part of it—the appeal.

What does it take for sustainable communities to work effectively?
Systems of collective decision making, effective systems of sanctioning those who make the rules, that kind of thing. That sounds kind of mundane when you're trying to live this somewhat idyllic existence, but that kind of stuff really matters. And that was actually one of the reasons that not many from the hippy era survived, because there was this idea of freedom. There was a kind of resistance to any structured governance in a lot of these hippy groups that were around in the 60s and 70s. And although the ideology was nice, a lot of them just fell apart because you need some sort of structure in the group to make it work.


They need to solve the governance and coordination problem, and one way to do that is to have a very charismatic leader. The problem with that is that you're at the whims of their wishes. Where that leader goes, sometimes the group goes. So yes that's one way to last for a while, but the most enduring groups are those that aren't based around just one charismatic leader. They have institutions and systems in place that manage the group.

Our generation is taught to be really ambitious. Could our ambition and a sustainable lifestyle work together?
You're giving up something to go to that lifestyle, but the reason it attracts people is because they see the groundlessness in ambition and striving and the big world out there. It needn't necessarily be associated with giving up your goals, but maybe it is associated with rethinking what it is you're trying to achieve. Like it's not about how much you earn or getting the next promotion, it's about waking up in the morning to a beautiful landscape, or people you like.

Are people willing to give up the way they live now to live sustainably?
Right now we're careening in the opposite direction of more sustainable living. But yeah it's totally possible to turn the ship around. It's just a pretty big ship and we need to work at it for a while to turn it around.

What about financially? Is sustainability more achievable for people who can afford it?
Money tends to give you freedom to do things, so you can probably buy your sustainability if you're wealthy in a way that you can't if you're poor. But in general, spending money tends to involve using resources, so those who are living on a lower income are probably living more sustainably. It's just that those on a higher income have the power to turn around and buy a massive piece of land on the South Island and live off the grid, or buy all the organic, local foods that are more expensive. There's definitely an element to it that requires money, but in general lower incomes mean less resources, which is more sustainable.

What are the major psychological barriers to living sustainably?
One answer is that it's a bias towards getting things here and now rather than waiting, and a bias towards you yourself want rather than what the group wants. And I guess an inability to see and perceive things over a long time scale. But I don't see those as barriers so much as as just features of the way we think and we can overcome those things.

Would you say we're too selfish then?
That's what people say, that we're too selfish and present focused but I don't actually believe that. That's just kind of the excuse that people give. We're not too selfish or present-focused to think long term about things or the greater good.

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