Lesley Riddoch: All for one and one for all

The petition to Iain Duncan Smith is an example of the 'collective self' working for the good of others. Picture: Getty
The petition to Iain Duncan Smith is an example of the 'collective self' working for the good of others. Picture: Getty
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Though humans are motivated by self-interest, they also recognise what’s good for the group, writes Lesley Riddoch

A petition with half a million names will be handed to Iain Duncan Smith today, urging him to live on £53 per week. The “put up or shut up” call to the bedroom tax architect is controversial. Some say it plays the man, not the ball, and is pointless since IDS is clearly no more for turning than the Tory heroine from whose era his welfare “reform” appears to have been drawn.

People don’t change, the naysayers argue. And we have larger fish to fry because the climate clearly does. Icy winds and sub-zero temperatures have swept over fiery Highland moors. It’s been the coldest, driest March on record, newly born lambs are dying and spring has visibly halted in every nipped bud.

There are only two reassuring aspects to the Arctic snap. It finally looks set to end and it seems to have confounded theories of global warming. We should not be so easily reassured. Double digit temperatures may be back this week but climate change has not abated. Far from it.

Many scientists predicted that once polar ice sheets started to melt, wind patterns would change, displacing Arctic air southwards. Now that appears to be happening. A month earlier than usual there are large cracks in Arctic winter ice – these could signal the near disappearance of summer ice and more dramatic weather extremes.

The culprit is a stubborn, stationary mass of warm air over Greenland which has repelled incoming weather systems and redirected air currents like a rock in a stream, blasting northern latitudes with Arctic air.

Why is it happening? The Met Office says: “There are many factors that could be contributing to the persistence of the ‘blocked’ weather, such as El Nino/La Nina, Arctic sea ice melt, solar UV output, the North Atlantic Oscillation, and others. These don’t work in isolation, but all combine to influence climate.” In short – who knows?

It feels as if nothing can be done to alter human behaviour or climate change. Brazil, Russia, India and China economies are growing rapidly and climate change-creating processes in farming, energy, transport and manufacturing expanding exponentially.

As these developing nations acquire “First World” spending power and habits, argument about whether humans have changed the climate will become academic. We clearly are now. As the wheels come off our old lives with a flat-lining economy, it’s hard to believe change is possible.

But perhaps it’s the way government, campaigners and scientists have addressed the public that’s been wrong, not self-centred humanity. That was the surprising view from a batch of scientists at an Edinburgh Science Festival event organised by Eco-Congregation Scotland last week.

Professor Steve Reicher of St Andrews University (an expert on group behaviour) observed science has mistakenly suggested people are rational actors and utility-maximisers – even though our actions disprove that daily. In fact, he contends, humans are creatures of faith even when not overtly religious. And whilst we are motivated by “self-interest,” we are capable of viewing the “self” as more than an individual one motivated by material goods with high monetary value – the current “short termist” model.

The “collective self” is a more generous, inclusive and far sighted entity – demonstrated by generosity to children, parents and strangers in need. Reicher has studied the Mela in India where despite chaos and insanitary conditions, the mental and physical health of pilgrims improves measurably as a result of the solidarity and sense of purpose all around. This is the collective self in action.

Faith – or a strong sense of purpose – helps individuals prioritise the interests of the “higher” collective self. Might this be a route map for change? According to Michael Northcott, professor of ethics at Edinburgh University, the “collective self” kicks in at times of stress. Citing the inaccurate Titanic depiction of “every man for himself” at the moment of crisis, he observed that throughout history, the strong often help the weak allowing the weak to survive. People in chaotic situations are very often calm, organised and “selfless”.

So what stops us acting in this “larger way” all of the time? According to Morag Watson of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, it is being treated like consumers. Research shows people become more passive when fed small mountains of information as if they were mere shopping agents. Only citizens feel they have enough “skin in the game” to apply the pressure needed to achieve societal change.

Prof Northcott observed that, ironically, scientists have spent 500 years challenging superstition, witchcraft and the suggestion that “evil” humans can change the weather, health or soil fertility. Human “grandiosity” may also have devised the story of Noah and the flood as a result of collective memories of chaotic weather events 15,000 years ago when land bridges with mainland Europe were flooded and people believed they must be to blame.

Science has told humans for centuries they can’t affect the weather. No wonder there is resistance to the “new” notion that we can. Once the idea “man ruled the world” was fanciful. Now it isn’t. Humans are the dominant biological influence on the planet but we haven’t developed the awareness or the values to cope with our enormous impact.

Indeed, Nobel prize winning atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, has argued human impact on the earth’s atmosphere is now so significant it constitutes a new geological age he calls the “anthropocene”.

There’s another factor encouraging passivity – the power of big multinationals. A growth of the “collective self” will not curb the excesses of what Prof Northcott calls “vampiric” corporations. Only national governments can act to block or challenge them. Yet that won’t happen without citizen pressure. The role of pesticides in decimating bee numbers is an apparently trivial but potentially devastating case in point.

Science suggests development of the “collective self” is humanity’s best hope. But instead most politicians appeal to narrow self-interest with individuating and passivity-promoting consumer messages. To achieve the health benefits of solidarity, we in civic society must begin the heavy lifting ourselves.

Today the IDS petition gives one man the chance to make an unlikely gesture. More importantly, though, it demonstrates the collective self in action. So did the weekend Panelbase survey that found Scots believe creating a fairer society is more important than whether they personally will be slightly richer or poorer. Where there’s civic life, there’s hope.