Man is the Measure of All Things

05/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I learned something about how we see ourselves from a close psychologist friend. We were discussing relationships and I was told that people can only have relationships with other people, which startled me because I thought I had relationships with my pet dog Fritz, the tree in my front yard and the countless other species we share the planet with. It's actually a pretty contemporary idea to think we only have relationships with other Homosapiens. After all, founder of the Franciscan Order Saint Francis of Assisi gave his most famous sermon to a flock of birds. And many indigenous American cultures recognized brother bear and the spirits in living things. But as the ancient Greek Sophist Protagoras so clearly stated, "man is the measure of all things." More than 2000 years later, existential relativist Luigi Pirandello restated it as: "It is so if you think so," which essentially says humans create reality in their heads.

This truth was turbo-charged when we mastered our Neanderthal predecessor's invention of language. Once we started talking with each other, we began creating ever more complex - and shared - world views. It is the social animal's shared discourse that becomes our individual reality. The discourse can change over time; an Earth-centric solar system can give way to a heliocentric system, but we humans are always creating the story and convincing each other it is true. Our world is self-referential, always referring back to our shared story - even when we are refuting it. The information revolution has exponentially multiplied the self-referential power of shared language. Politicians and spin doctors recognize that the Internet is a cyberspace echo chamber where something that is repeated enough can become the "truth." A Colbertian Truthiness-net.

So why has a sustainability blogger digressed into a postmodern homily? It is fundamental to our sustainability challenge. As my psychologist friend says, we only have relationships with each other (actually our text messaging software), and thus only a tenuous connection to the larger environment. Ask kids where peas come from and you'll likely hear "cans" or "the refrigerator" before you hear "a plant." This reality means most of the technological innovations emerging from our conversations are designed to obviate the need for some natural ecological service, like water purification or nutrient cycling, and insulate us from the messiness of the biosphere. It leads to flamboyant extremes like Dubai's giant indoor ski resort smack dab in the middle of the sweltering Arabian Desert. Albert Einstein famously observed that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." When our self-referential group think says that "a winter wonderland in the middle of the desert cooled through the massive use of fossil fuels" is a good idea, you don't have to be Einstein to see the sustainability challenge.

The thinking that we can only have relationships with each other is part of the problem. We do have very close relationships with the natural world; it's just they are usually obscured by our shared discourse and the technologies - like indoor ski resorts - that the discourse produces. To be blunt, we need to learn to listen to nature again. If you didn't listen closely to the environment in the days of our hunter and gather ancestors you starved to death. While the consequences are not quite so immediate, it's still true today. Many of our present day problems exist because we convince each other that things like synthetic chemicals are commercial miracles before we understand the impacts on our health and ecosystems. We may have avoided mercury poison, DDT, Lindane, PFOS and other banned chemicals if we asked scientists to have a conversation about it with natural systems prior to dumping them into the environment.

Now this doesn't mean you have to get all mystical about it. You don't even have to talk to your houseplants, although MythBusters says it helps. But you should get out of the house, especially if you're a scientist. British scientist James Lovelock highlighted the pitfalls of shared mental model building when took the climate science community to task in 2007 for spending too much time building and arguing about computer model representations of the climate system and too little time looking at the real climate itself. Doing so showed that the models were consistently underestimating important variables like sea level rise, temperature changes and Arctic sea ice melt. The bottom line: we could get a lot further with our sustainability challenges if we all started paying just a bit more attention to the natural world outside our heads.