Ants, Angels and Armor: Further Conversations on Human Nature

“The big system can be pretty overwhelming. We know that we can’t beat them by competing with them. What we can do is build small systems where we live and work that serve our needs as we define us and not as they‘re defined for us. The big boys in their shining armor are up there on castle walls hurling their thunderbolts. We’re the ants patiently carrying sand a grain at a time from under the castle wall. We work from the bottom up. The knights up there don’t see the ants and don’t know what we’re doing. They’ll figure it out only when the wall begins to fall. It takes time and quiet persistence. Always remember this: They fight with money and we resist with time, and they’re going to run out of money before we run out of time”
― Utah Phillips


Graphic Source

Six Walton family members on the Forbes 400 had a net worth equal to the bottom 30 percent of all Americans.  Source

After I posted “Sustaining Our Better Angels,” Bill Rees and I got into an email conversation, drawing into the dialogue, other wonderful thinkers, including Rex Weyler, co-founder of Greenpeace International, who decided to pull from this conversation and write an article for the Watershed Sentinel.

I would like to make a few brief comments before you read this article.

The first is what I believe are the dangers of discussing a human’s “animal nature” that require “supra-instinctual survival strategies” to overcome.  My question is:  Who is capable of “supra-instinctual survival strategies”?  Our leaders?  A few elites who can overcome their ‘baser’ instincts and see beyond their immediate needs? To quote my early post: “As people living in the wealthiest of nations, we may have, as Dr. Rees suggests, sunk to our lowest selves, become lost and destructive, plundering the planet while drowning in our sea of “stuff.” But this is simply a perverse and pervasive cultural meme promulgated by a powerful and influential oligarchy.”


It is a common strategy to dilute blame.  This strategy says “We are all to blame, not just the rich and powerful.”  This is horse manure.  As Utah Phillips has said:

 “The Earth is not dying – it is being killed. And the people who are killing it have names and addresses.”

We don’t need new institutions, trans-national powers, or powerful elites- hundreds of people making decisions for the rest of us.  We don’t need to step out of our “animal nature” or be washed of the original sin of our biopsychological heritage.

Our “better angels” are not above us.  They are within us, ready to be called forth.

From:  Watershed Sentinel 25  November-December 2011 Environmental News from British Columbia and the World 


In 2010, UBC professor and “Ecological Footprint” originator, Dr. William Rees, wrote “The Human Nature of Unsustainability”  for the Post Carbon Reader, explaining evolutionary/genetic reasons that our “reasonably intelligent species” appears unable to recognize its ecological crisis or respond accordingly. Rees explains that most species share two traits that aid survival but risk overconsumption of resources:

  1. To expand to occupy all accessible habitats, and
  2. To use all available resources.

Humans are what biologists call “K-strategists.” The “K” stands for a habitat’s carrying capacity, which large mammals tend to fill, resulting in evolutionary pressure to gratify individual desires for food, sex, etc. These tendencies – to expand, consume, and satisfy short-term desires – have survival value until the species overshoots its habitat capacity. Thereafter, without a predator or other force to check growth, such species can obliterate a habitat as reindeer did on St. Matthews Island and as humans are doing on Earth as a whole.

“Certain behavioural adaptations helped our distant ancestors survive,” writes Rees, “but those same (now ingrained) behaviours today … have become maladaptive.”

Better Angels

Fair enough, thought clinical psychologist Dr. Kathy McMahon, but what about our “better angels?” Do we not, “have within us, the very innate altruistic qualities needed to work our way back to that simpler, communally-focused way of life …that will bring us back to our senses? It is happening already.”

McMahon, who posts stories of environmental trauma on her website, knows full well, “We’re bombarded with alarming headlines on a daily basis. How do we find the sane space between Doom and Denial?

In a response, McMahon asks,

Does our understanding of the economic and socio-political dominance of ‘Homo Economicus’ inform all we need to know about human nature to motivate behaviour change?” She writes, “We must pause again to ask ourselves: ‘Which humans are we talking about?’ We may need to look outside The First World for insights and broader understandings.

This post led to an enlivened email dialogue between Rees and McMahon, a model discussion that our world needs, between two engaged thinkers. Here are some excerpts:


Rees: Kathy, thanks for your detailed and sensitive dissection …Humanity is a conflicted species … [torn] between what reason and moral judgment say we should do, and … what pure emotion and baser instincts command us to do. In “What’s Blocking Sustainability,” I suggest a way out, not far removed from your own analysis:

 We have reached a crucial juncture in human evolutionary history … genes and ideology that urge ‘every man for himself!’ might well mean destruction for all. Long term selective advantage may well have shifted to genes and memes that reinforce cooperative behaviour. Emotions such as compassion, empathy, love and altruism are key components of the human behavioral repertoire. The central question is whether we can muster the… political will … [to] reinforce these natural ‘other regarding’ feelings.

To reduce the human eco-footprint, the emphasis in free-market capitalist societies on individualism, greed, and accumulation must be replaced by a renewed sense of community, cooperative relationships, generosity, and a sense of sufficiency.… We must self-consciously create the cultural framing required for the brighter colours to shine.

McMahon: Bill, thank you. We aren’t far off in spirit. I was most disturbed by no mention of corporate advertisers when you discuss the power of memes to shape thought.  I substituted the word “corporation” in your article for “human” and I found the result a running, raging polemic. Here’s a sample:

Given the availability of cheap energy, regulatory relaxation, technological innovation and social manipulation, corporations became a dominant force in the human endeavor worldwide…. The size and scale of corporate growth and influence is unprecedented…. The expansionist myth is a central tenet of corporations.

The violent mindset … impacts the collective community consciousness in areas of creativity, ruthlessness, economic prosperity, inner peace, outer peace, power struggles, greed, envy, materialism and narcissism.  This violent meme has so dominated discourse in the USA, that our unconscious assumptions about what is “human nature” are debased.

We have another equally powerful and “evolutionarily based” nature: altruism.

Rees: The corporate sector …spends billions of dollars to create advertising ‘memes’ that play to peoples unconscious fears, desires and insecurities… turning people into consuming cogs in the capitalist machine. In other writings, I have condemned the role of corporate advertising:

“Consumption … has become the meaning of life … the criterion of existence, the mystery before which one bows (Ellul 1975) … the consumer society was actually a deliberate social construct … a multi-billion dollar advertising industry is still dedicated  to making people unhappy with whatever they have … Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life …” (From “Toward Sustainability with Justice” in Colin Soskolne’s Sustaining Life on Earth).

The same general pattern applies to the … anti-science narrative sweeping the US and elsewhere today. We have entered a “new age of unreason.” Powerful corporations and individuals (e.g., the Koch family) fund think-tanks designed specifically to mis-inform the public … [A] perverted individualism abhors laws and regulations, diminishes community and generally undermines … the public good.

In “What’s Blocking Sustainability,” I mention that repeated exposure to ideological assertions “actually help[s] to imprint the individual’s synaptic circuitry in neural images of those experiences … People tend to seek out experiences that reinforce their pre-set neural circuitry and to select information from their environment that matches these structures.”Conversely, “when faced with information that does not agree with their internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information,” (Wexler 2006, p. 180).

This is why it is so difficult to induce social change. The neoconservative right-wing has so skillfully exploited this dimension of human biology, that vast numbers of Americans and Canadians are persuaded to vote against their own interests. The entire manipulation is oriented toward protecting the interests of the owners of capital, the corporate sector and their acolytes.

There is no hope for change if we mis-define the problem and fail to understand the deep bio-psychological roots of cultural inertia. By contrast, the opposition are doing everything imaginable to entrench that inertia. If enough people come to understand… that they are being manipulated, there may be a groundswell of resistance before it is too late to turn things around.

McMahon: You’re correct that the values of Homo Economicus are deadly to the planet. But it is dangerous to confuse the dysfunction of humans impacted by global free market capitalism, with the norms of human psychology. Unipolar depressive disorders are the leading causes of disability worldwide. Is this a normal human state?

The solutions are local, not global… communities deteriorate in predictable ways, but they can also be healed systematically. “Comfort,” “belonging” and “protection” are features that all humans crave, and therefore there is no need for “supra-instinctual survival strategies.” We live in an insane culture.

Rather than marginalize the cries for reform, we need to normalize the pain. Protest and concern are healthy reactions to loss and grief … We should study those who aren’t suffering these symptoms. Those who can’t or don’t feel the loss or who don’t know why they are drinking and drugging themselves, that is the true tragedy.”


The key difference between Dr. Rees and I remains the emphasis we place on our better angels.  Evil exists.  However, I don’t see greed, selfishness or aggression as any more dominant than altruistic instincts.  Phrases such as ‘supra-instinctual survival strategies‘ make me nervous because they suggest an elitist top-down approach to the dilemmas of depleting energy reserves, degraded environment conditions and economic hard times.  Personally, I remain deeply suspicious of solutions that require thunderbolts from on high.   And, you’ll see a lot of proposals out there that argue that centralized solutions are our only hope, suggesting we turn over the control to those who know better. The danger we face is not our nature, but the ease of which we see only the “knights” and miss the “ants.”  The ‘shiny armor’ is the media, which shapes the discourse.  The ants are all around us now, seemingly insignificant, camping out in parks, singing a new Handel hymnal about corporate greed, and paying off the K-mart holiday lay-a-way bills of complete strangers all across the USA.

I’d rather cast my lot with the ants.


About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.


  1. I’ve always been struck by the difference in personality and social organization between our two closest species, the Chimpanzee and the Bonobo. If ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, perhaps there is a bifurcation in human neurogenesis which explains why some people just don’t get it?

  2. Nice choice of topic, however I’d disagree 100% as to the analysis offered here. In my experience, it isn’t that people “just don’t get it.” It’s rather that they do. . .

    Here’s as much simpler and more immediately effective explanation.

  3. I’d say Fear, Greed and Laziness are the culprits. Fear foremost, because most people are super afraid of differences. They are afraid of being questioned by their peers for taking a different stand that might reek of tree-hugging sentiment. They are afraid of having a counter-opinion. They are afraid of being ridiculed and laughed at. They are basically afraid of everything.
    I like that concept of the preset neural circuitry pattern. That’s basically FEAR wrapped up in toilet paper. A thin veneer of poop clothes over difficulty with something foreign to their experience. Hence, saturating yourself in your preset tribe’s egotistical excrement.
    Then comes the greed. Because your preset conditioning included being a glut till you puke, exercising your jaw is the only aerobics you know how to do and constantly running up your debit card for every emotional stress-or that came along; in the absence of consciousness why would you NOT want something that has been so satisfying your whole life? Nothing bad every came of it before! Why should you have to give it up now? And what would you do in is place?
    On the bit of Laziness, again assuming the non-self-analytifcal position, there was nothing done in regard to the programming of say physiological development. Forget about muscle memory. The only bodily memory of any significance was sitting in the dough boy chair and manning the remote.
    It all makes sense. Doesn’t matter how you explain it or what you call it. The main thing is that nobody wants to change. Way too hard to change habits or familial patterns. Way too scary to do it in the midst of peers who would harass you about it. Wouldn’t recognize greed if it slapped you in the face. And that chair was called lazy boy for a reason.

  4. The greatest challenge is to look at humananity’s dark side and take your fair share of tittle to it.
    Our species is not so much cleanly divided into people who “get it” and people who don’t, as much as it comforts us to think so.
    We all have a common bio-psychological inheritance. Awareness of our communal instincts is a constant option. So is ignoring them in favor of selfish pursuits. We all are capable of thinking in Us vs.Them binary systems, as well as in more altruistic and communal modes.
    At the end of the day we are not obliged to build on our better angels, and Gaia is probably indifferent to our choice. It is important, as the Peak Shrink reminds us, to remember that we also have an
    altruistic genetic endowment, that we in the peak oil community sometimes tend to marginalize.

  5. I don’t agree, “It is a common strategy to dilute blame. This strategy says “We are all to blame, not just the rich and powerful.” This is horse manure.”

    there are maybe 2 or 3 billion not directly to blame. If you are in the system, using the system, on the internet, driving, going to the grocery store then Just say I.

    I am polluting our ground water by using the natural gas from fracking. I am creating havoc in the oceans by spilling life-killing oil. I am also plasticizing the oceans. I am also limiting or eliminating species after species in the ocean, on the land, in the air. I am putting my medicines into the rivers and the water supply. I am greedily creating food sources that only I control. I am removing the topsoil. I am gouging huge holes in the earth. I am burning coal and creating nuclear waste for thousands of years to come for my flat screen television, my computer and my DVD player. I am putting mercury and acids into the air, water and life. I am melting the ice caps and the glaciers. I am heating the planet to drive my snowmobile, my wave runner, and my four-wheeler and to drive to any damn place I want. I am using many people to cater to my many whims.

    I saw the DVD “What a Way to Go” yesterday. It was very well done in listing the freight train laden with our woes coming straight at us. The many speakers continually said, “we are doing this” and “we are doing that”. They must have been talking about me. Because I am aware of these things and more and I keep doing it.

  6. Jeez, Mr. Weber, how do you find the time to do all that and write a blog too?

  7. To be more serious, apportioning personal blame like this is self-flagellation. I do not own a snowmobile, flat screen TV, wave runner (whatever that is) or a four wheeler. Does that make me slightly less blameworthy than you by your standards?
    And as an aside…. Do you as a sustainability blogger actually own this stuff… or are you using the regal “we” when you claim ownership for these toys?
    The fact is, Mr Weber, that you had no hand in the
    design, construction, or promulgation of our global industrial regime. And the “blame” the Peak Shrink was discussing was the bio- psychological heritage of homo sapiens that so many otherwise progressive thinkers choose to see as utterly devoid of virtue.
    She was not discussing anything resembling your conflicted feelings about dubious recreational pursuits vis- a- vis loftier notions of a sustainable lifestyle.
    Yes, we are all economically embeded in a global system that is killing the planet, and yes, we all have a more than negligible locus of control around the choices we make. If our human experiment has a future, however, it will not be on our knees whipping ourselves with mea culpas.

  8. The intractable problem of humanities predicament (in my view) is understanding and agreeing about our true human condition. Are we simply bundles of selfish genes (Dawkins), elaborate circuits of neuro-chemistry (Ramachandran), fallen God-like creations, the results of another kind of extra-terrestrial experiment, a blend of the above, or something else?

    In reading this blog and the many thoughtful comments appended – I can’t escape the words of Isaiah when confronted by the presence of Yahweh the God of Abraham. All he could say was “Woe unto me for I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips”.

    The point is – we must all take our share of blame for perpetuating the status quo.

  9. Your self-flagellation is yours. Mine approach is ownership and responsibility. Not being blind to my part in the whole.

    This quote is what I was commenting on and I still don’t agree, “It is a common strategy to dilute blame. This strategy says “We are all to blame, not just the rich and powerful.” This is horse manure.”

    My catalog involvement was on the many possibilities that promote both fossil fuel use and environmental degradation. I assume unless you are a hill rice farmer in Laos, that some of this applies to you.

    I don’t have the toys. I do have a rototiller, tractor, lots of shovels and hoes, a 40 acre piece of property that my partner and I are working into an orchard/truck garden to be used not only for ourselves but as trade or sale products. We have converted a building that was built 60 years ago.

    At nearly 69, an eight year survivor of lung cancer, I have fenced our orchard using using almost all handtools, have built a root cellar that should last decades, and more. We are building the soil for the future.

    Not sure who you think is on their knees whipping themselves with mea culpas. The two flagellation allusions are curious. I find your attack, also curious.

  10. John, if your point was only to say that, as PaulM put it, “we must all take our share of blame for perpetuating the status quo, then we are obviously in agreement. I feel, however, that we are at a critical inflection point as a species. The ” just say I ” approach crosses the line from speaking about what you are doing personally ( which I feel is extremely helpful to the human community at this point ) into a thinly veiled rhetorical bitch slap of the “other” humans ( which I feel is not).
    And, again, I’d like to go back to your original point. the Peak Shrink was not talking about blame in the sense that you described it. She was describing a line of discourse, almost a sort of species-specific self loathing that strictly defines mankind as primarily intrinsically debased, and instinctually destructive. If “we just say I” to this notion without developing the bio-psychological tendencies of altruism and communal feeling…..we are in real trouble.

    Instead we seem to condemn ourselves with faint praise by ascribing these capacities to our relatively new fore-brain, denying the fact that they are, along with our less adaptive qualities, as much a deep part of our human nature. That is what I meant by self flagellation.

    I demonstrated my own maladaptive behavior by being sarcastic and flippant with you.
    In doing so it is obvious that I offended you, and the wonderful work you are doing on both the perma-culture and lung cancer education front. I apologize…… deserved better.

  11. We are good.
    We humans are trapped in our own “lifeness”. All life expands to use the energy available both individually and procreatively. If we would only drive 30 mph, we could have enough energy to transition to a lesser population and a more workable living situation. This altruism won’t happen globally. Altruism/cooperation are almost always defined by who belongs. Only the few “saints” walk a more inclusive path.
    I would like to share a few pieces from my blog that speaks to this issue, that I have considered for over 40 years.

    1. from:

    As an expression of life, as a representative animal and as ourselves, we are exactly how we would end up. We are not dysfunctional, as some would have it. We did not take a wrong turn in the past, ten thousand years ago at the agricultural revolution. We are not a cancer on the earth and we are not disconnected from our environment.

    There are several natural factors that have aimed us at this particular moment in human history, where population pushes against resource availability, where as a social animal we stand against each other, where we are immersed in an environment of our own creative making and where our brilliance threatens us.

    2. Found in my essay-
    Easy and cheap

    “There is within every human the perpetual pull of opposites. Fear taunts courage; willpower struggles with appetite; order with disorder. Caution tugs at curiosity as impulse teases aversion. For all the stimulation of the new, there remains the powerful comfort and security of the known. We are, like Dr. Dolittle’s famous Pushme-Pullyou, conflicted creatures. Individuality is defined by these differences, by where the balance is struck.

    But one impulse in particular seems to have weak competition or none at all. The appeal of ease, or the less-taxing option, is unquestioned. Only the obstinate, the perverse, the eccentric, or the mad, the conventional wisdom toes, intentionally choose the more difficult over the easier method of reaching a goal. The hatchet or the ax over the chain saw? “I like the feel of the ax in my hand, the resistance, the thud of impact. I like to feel I am linked to what I am doing. I like the quiet in the forest, the smell of rosin, even the living shudder of the tree as the x bites, “ says the old woodsman. The logger smiles, pulls the starter on his chain saw, and has seven trees down in the time the woodsman spends on one. And the logger’s boss brings in the feller-buncher, the giant machine that graspes each tree in a steel embrace, then cuts it and stacks it with its downed companions as if it were kindling; and logger smiles no more as the new machine does the work of seven chain-saw-bearing men and he finds himself reading want ads. Seldom, however, is the original impulse to make things easier questioned.

    The religious have always known that ease is a dangerous road to travel. One reason for caution is that it’s sometimes hard to tell who the real beneficiary is. Or whether something is really as easy as it first seems. Or whether ease costs more than it appears to. Or whether something is being lost in the transition that hasn’t been mentioned, or foreseen, or accounted for. Machines, in the time of Carlyle, Dickens, and Ruskin, were making production easier. The matter of “at what cost” had just begun to be considered, and then only by a very few.

    Close on the heels of ease is cheap, and the combination, especially in goods, is virtually irresistible. Low cost and convenience: the machine made it possible.
    Pg. 79-80 Fox, Nicols. 2002. Against the Machine. Island Press. London.

    3. Here I explore the possibility and the reality of saving energy and altruism.

    Have a great holiday season and new year. Email me directly if you wish.

  12. Thanks John, for a lively exchange of ideas.

    On a different note, as someone who quit smoking 26 years ago ( on my 12th attempt), I wanted to comment on your efforts to educate young people about lung cancer. Whatever “thanks” you have accrued along the way in the course of this effort are woefully inadequate.

    I wish you and your family a great holiday season as well.

  13. I don’t think only the power elite and the professional class is responsible for the extreme power disparity and exploitation of capitalism. I do believe we all share responsibility. Society is a common construction that we all share in. Everyone who refuses to speak up, everyone who refuses to build alternatives, everyone who refuses to take a stance against capitalism is responsible for capitalism.

  14. What a load of Marxist horsecrap.

    There is no 99%.

    There is about 5% at the very top who own maybe 80% of the world’s wealth. They got that way through a combination of ruthless success, stock options, and hiding their wealth. The fact is, due to ruthless taxation, their only option is to do so. There is very little the government can do to them. So any envy on your part is completely pointless.
    Another 20% is upper class. They own their own business, and have their own land. They also employ people. Again, there is no point in being envious
    Another 50% of the population is the middle class. The right hates the middle class because they are successful enough to be a threat. The left hates the middle class because they want everyone to be “equal.” But the latter is not what you think it is. See below.
    This leaves the last 25%. The poor. The poor struggle their whole lives to make ends meet, but are also tax exempt to a large extent. The left wants everyone to be “equal”. What they actually mean, though, is that everyone but the leaders (i.e. 99%) should be in this 25%. How do they propose this? By raising taxes on the “rich” actually meaning the only people affected by taxes, the middle class and the lower middle.
    The rich will never be affected no matter how you tax them, because they make money every second. The poor will never be able to pay. Naturally, the only people left for taxing is the middle.

    Life is unfair. But trying to make things “fair” will only result in certain lucky thieves winding up like Al Gore, while the rest of us depend on food stamps.

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