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An unexamined paradigm
that we must change

If we are to survive we must cooperate, conserve and act out of altruism

By Carole Reed

July 19, 2021

Recently our environmental group entered a competition, Demain, le Quebec, sponsored by the David Suzuki Foundation. Environmental groups across the province were asked to submit accounts of their activities to qualify for one of three cash prizes. We applied with the idea of raising our local profile, and we were thrilled to be selected as one of the finalists.

However, as we learned more about how the competition was to be run, we felt increasingly uncomfortable. We were instructed to flood social media with daily posts about our organization and our environmental work to solicit votes. Environmental groups competed against each other in a popularity contest to win a little cash to defray some of their out-of-pocket operating costs.

I was disappointed by the way the David Suzuki competition was run until I realized that the fault lay not so much on the part of the organizers as with an unexamined paradigm. And I realized that if we are to survive as a species, we must change that paradigm.

I was disappointed by the way the David Suzuki competition was run until I realized that the fault lay not so much on the part of the organizers as with an unexamined paradigm.

The three great fallacies that we have inherited from the industrial revolution are that competition is the key to success, possessions are the key to happiness, and self-interest is the key to love. But real success is our survival as a species. If we are to survive, we must cooperate, not compete, conserve, not consume, and act out of altruism, not self-interest. We must protect each other and everything that shares our planet with us.

We need to cooperate rather than compete

While competition may engender financial and social success, cooperation is the key to our survival. All species, from mammals to the lowliest microbes, cooperate to survive. Mitochondria, ancient bacteria that thrive in the oxygen-free environment of our cells, produce fuel for our bodies. Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with trees. They rely on trees for photosynthesis and, in return, link all trees through a complex network that nourishes trees, protects them from disease and allows them to communicate with each other.

‘While competition may engender financial and social success, cooperation is the key to our survival. All species, from mammals to the lowliest microbes, cooperate to survive.’

For the sake of our survival, we must recognize that our own lives are also a web of mutual dependencies. We must find common ground. Generations must resolve their differences. Language barriers must be worked around. We must stop looking at each other through the filters of culture, race and gender and see each other as partners. We face extinction, and we can only prevent it if we work together to protect our environment in its totality.

We need to conserve and create rather than consume

Look around your home. How many of your possessions have memories attached? How many are treasures passed down through your family, gifts that remind you of the givers, old familiar objects that you have used for many years, household items and décor that you or your loved ones have created? And how many were bought with the idea that they would have to be replaced within a few years?

‘We buy products from industries that design goods to fall apart and then lobby to prevent us from repairing broken items. We are turning our precious natural resources into garbage.’

In the past, women willed their dresses to their children and servants. Now we fill landfills with last year’s fashions. Consider the waste, from harvesting through manufacture and shipping, of clothing that was once made to last a hundred years. We have come to believe that most of our possessions have a shelf life. We buy products from industries that design goods to fall apart and then lobby to prevent us from repairing broken items. We are turning our precious natural resources into garbage.

We need to act out of altruism, not self-interest

Are the rights of the individual more important than the protection of society? Does turning a profit give businesses the right to exploit labourers? Does the discomfort of a mask give an individual the right to expose others to a deadly virus? Clearly, the key to our survival is not self-interest. It is altruism.

‘Mutualism is the key to survival in the natural world. But we have made pests, weeds and microbes our enemies. In our attempt to control inconvenient life forms, we have become anti-life.’

Self-interest extends to our family and friends with the corollary that the rest can be exploited, neglected and destroyed. People, pets, wildlife, insects, weeds and microbes are sacrificed to support our convenience, our prejudices and our mercantile culture. Our ancestors used baking soda and vinegar to clean their homes; we choose products for their anti-bacterial benefits. Gardeners used to cultivate their soil to protect their plants from disease and insect infestation.

Now we poison the soil with herbicides and pesticides. Insects pollinate our gardens. Weeds feed insects, have healing properties, and can be delicious additions to salads and stews. Bacteria digest our food and fuel our bodies. Fungi are the bloodstream of the forest. Why are we poisoning our planet to get rid of organisms that are critical to maintaining life?

Mutualism is the key to survival in the natural world. But we have made pests, weeds and microbes our enemies. In our attempt to control inconvenient life forms, we have become anti-life.

Demain, le Quebec

Unfortunately, while trying to promote environmental groups in Quebec, the David Suzuki competition also promoted those human traits leading us down the road to extinction: competitiveness, acquisition and self-interest. We have all been so conditioned to believe that competition leads to success and that success is measured by popularity and money that we cannot break free of this paradigm. We cannot blame the Suzuki contest organizers for doing what we all do, in one way or another, based upon the unconscious assumptions that control our behaviour.

We are acting out of an unexamined paradigm. And we must change that paradigm.

Feature image: Caleb Oquendo – Pexels

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Carole Reed - WestmountMag.caCarole Reed spent her childhood in Pointe Claire climbing trees, playing in the woods, and biking through farmland. She became an environmentalist in 1972 after reading Silent Spring. Now retired from teaching, she is devoting the rest of her life to saving the planet for her great granddaughter.



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  1. Georges Dupras

    Well thought-out and well written.

    There is a fine line between conditioning and education and that line is blurred daily. Environmentalism may be frightening but it shouldn’t be. It isn’t a question of saving the world, or throwing all our hard fought gains out the window. It’s a question of changing ourselves, of coming to terms with who we are, rather than what we are, It is in understanding that the individual can make a difference by making just one significant change in their lifestyles. It is in recognizing that, over the years, our political reality has pivoted and we now work for the government, and the corporate interests that keep it in power, rather than the government for the people. It’s time for a serious re-think of our priorities.


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