In Howard Zinn’s masterpiece A People’s History of the United States, he describes the reaction of Columbus and his brigade of Spanish invaders when they encounter the First People of the Americas. Zinn writes:
The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone…”(Zinn, 1999, p. 3).
Columbus was not alone in his surprise at the beneficence of the native peoples of the Americas. Countless
European explorers encountered the same generous nature in the indigenous inhabitants throughout the New World. In the Turks and Caicos Islands, the late National Historian, Bertie Sadler, observed that the Lucayan people, who once inhabited those islands, were so generous in their bearing that women also gave freely of sexual favors. In fact, the most promiscuous Lucayan women were accorded the highest status in society and were universally admired (Sadler, 1986).
In the same year as the founding of the United States, 1776, a Scottish economist, Adam Smith, published his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. While Smith’s monolithic book is a veritable encyclopedia of economic philosophy, Western economists seized upon a single thread of Smith’s thought to serve as the foundation of their economic theory, the idea that individuals acting out of self-interest and without the restraint of regulation, will miraculously serve the common good, as if guided by an “invisible hand.”
Similarly, in 1968, Garret Hardin, a biology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, penned an article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” that was to become the topic of myriad analyses regarding resource management. Strangely, the article in its entirety was a commentary promoting human population control, but as with Smith’s work above, the primary argument was largely ignored in favor of a tangential sentiment in the piece. In the article, Hardin declares that privatization of public resources or “commons” is the most effective means of sustainably managing a resource. Hardin argues that free access to a commons will result in environmental degradation, as each person will act according to their own self-interest to the detriment of the common good. For example, a shepherd grazing his livestock on common pasture will be inclined to add more animals even if the addition of more animals degrades the pasture, since the loss of the carrying capacity of the pasture is borne by all, while the profits of additional animals accrue to the individual (Hardin, 1968).
Smith and Hardin are not exceptions in Western Culture, they are products of it, and their ideas were formed within the framework of indoctrination of Western thought that most citizens of the globalized Earth now take for granted as “human nature.” Whether one is speaking of economic theory or environmental management, all of Western ideologies are based on an accepted premise that humans, when left to their own devices, will act out of self-interest; consequently, Western cultural prescriptions are all based on the idea that people will necessarily be guided by selfishness.
The myth of Western culture becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As each malleable youth is reared on the idea that his fellow beings are ruthless and self-interested and that one must compete in a hostile world for scarce resources, he becomes selfish out of a resultant cultural fear, guided by the interests of self-preservation. In the selfish world that results, every man and woman for his or herself scrambles to accumulate every last shred of resource wealth available. Humans fill warehouses with meaningless consumer goods and render vibrant ecosystems into numbers on balance sheets, irrational and utterly destructive acts, ironically deemed “productive” and “successful.” As we live within the artificial confines of these Western ideals, the reality of the natural world, within which we actually do exist, is hobbled to the brink of collapse.
In an address to John Smith of Virginia attributed to Powhatan, the venerable brave states, “Why will you take by force what you may have quietly by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war” (Zinn, 1999, p. 13)? Powhatan, his kin and their culture of generosity and love have long since been extinguished from the planet, and the Western war of selfishness continues to rage against what remains of Earth. Selfishness defines Western culture but it does not define human nature. It is an aberration that needs to be rooted out and condemned wherever it rears its ugly head. The selfish need not inherit the Earth.
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