Thousands of years ago we evolved the emotions which drive us to do the things that we do. In fact, the mechanism for each of these emotions is coded into our DNA. If an individual did not receive genes which drove them to seek security, meaning, acceptance, friendship, competence, status and so on, they were far more likely to die at an early age. This is why we experience powerfully motivating feelings such as friendship, loneliness, anxiety, pride, humiliation, boredom and self-esteem.
In the distant past — within tribal culture — each individual had specialist roles with which they contributed to the group. Some individuals would be hunter/gatherers, others would maintain fire, make clothes, look-after children or in some way protect the group from danger. Each person’s tasks were necessarily performed in tried-and-tested, conventional ways. If an individual were to breach convention by doing things differently, they put themselves — and others — at risk of death. Making a spear in a different way was life-threatening, as was making clothes differently, living in a different place or eating different food.
This is why — perhaps during Palaeolithic times — we evolved a powerful aversion to new ideas; this aversion kept us alive. Now in the 21st century, we continue to carry ancient genes which make us experience strong feelings of anxiety when we breach convention or are faced with a new or unfamiliar concept. This phenomenon is called cultural inertia. Every time a new idea emerges — even if it is entirely pragmatic and rational — we find it difficult to accept. Examples include; smoking is bad for us; let’s treat men and women with equal levels of respect; our planet is facing a climate-change crisis; hitting children is not acceptable.
Fifty years ago I realised that human lifestyles on Earth are unsustainable. I also found that trying to discuss this idea with other people was usually impossible. I began to study the environment, joined the Ecology Party and continued to develop Green core-values and ethics. However attempts to discuss these views with others were often received with derision, bewilderment or even contempt. I was upset by the outrage expressed by Labour Party supporters because my Green Party campaigning helped to split the vote.
The thing is, all this is nobody’s fault; it’s just that we all carry ancient genes that make us deeply resistant to new ideas however rational they may be.
In 1978, M Scott Peck published his famous book ‘The Road Less Travelled’. It contains many useful ideas with regard to emotional health and wellbeing and the title is a metaphor for one of these.
Scott Peck explains that throughout our lives we necessarily make many choices. If on these occasions we choose the easy options we deny ourselves opportunities to learn or develop in emotional ways. If, on the other hand, we face up to the challenges of choosing more difficult options we provide ourselves with opportunities for growth. As we make decisions about our lifestyle, relationships, education, travel, politics and many other things, we will invariably be drawn towards comfortable options; however, if we face-up to more challenging choices — feel the pain and do it anyway — we will learn, develop strength of character, feel less anxious and become happier as well as more emotionally robust.
But Green politics is radical; the green UK that I envisage is profoundly different to the current one! We can all develop our knowledge and understanding as well as our emotional health and wellbeing by taking the road less travelled, however we also need to recognise the understandable anxieties of those who do not.