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Regaining Compassion for Humanity and Nature by L. Charles Birch

Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith. Published originally by New South Wales University Press, New South Wales University press, 1993. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 5: Human Response to Change

To constitute a socially significant change, the new must be not only adopted by a sufficient number of the members of a social population to give it currency but so integrated into the social system that it will endure.
La Piere (1965, p. 66)

On 23 May 1946 Albert Einstein sent a telegram to President Roosevelt on behalf of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, saying in reference to nuclear explosions, ‘The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe’. Everything had changed because of our ability to destroy the world by pressing a few buttons. Science and technology had harnessed the power of the atom to destroy, on a global scale, as was never possible before. Einstein’s implication was that humanity was quite unprepared to cope with this new power. The only possibility of a viable world in the future was if people changed in response to the new power at their disposal.

A most dramatic change of heart did, in fact, come from a most unexpected quarter, with a delay of some four decades after Einstein’s telegram. It didn’t come from the president of the United States, but from the president of the then Soviet Union, Mickhail Gorbachev. He reversed the policy of the Soviet Union and took immediate steps to reduce the mass of nuclear weapons both in his country and in the US.

This change in policy was not, of course, simply a change in heart of one man. Much had been going on at a grassroots level that was indicating to the world the nature of a global nuclear war. Up until the early 1980s the international community of statesmen, diplomats and military analysts had tended to regard the prospect of a nuclear war as a problem only for the adversaries in possession of the weapons. Endless negotiations aimed at the reduction of nuclear explosives had been viewed as the responsibility of those few nations in actual confrontation.

Then everything changed. Computer models being investigated both in the US and in the Soviet Union were demonstrating that a nuclear war involving the exchange of a small fraction of the total American and Russian bombs could change the climate of the entire Northern Hemisphere, shifting it abruptly from its present seasonal state to a long, sunless, frozen night. Nor would the Southern Hemisphere escape profound climatic changes. Subsequent studies by a group of twenty biologists, headed by Paul Ehrlich, showed that the predictions meant nothing less than the extinction of much of the Earth’s biosphere. Taken together, these two discoveries changed everything in the world about the prospect of thermonuclear war. It is a new world, demanding a new kind of diplomacy and a new logic.

Up to then the risks of a thermonuclear war had been conventionally calculated by the number of human beings who would be dead on either side at the end of the battle. The terms acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ signified so many millions of human casualties on which cool judgments could be made about the need for new and more weapons. But now something else was predicted to happen as well. The organized ecological systems of the Earth would have been dealt a mortal or near mortal blow, perhaps putting the Earth’s future toward a state comparable to what was here a billion years ago. Here was a global dilemma involving all humanity.

For the first time satellite communications were used to bring together a group of scientists in Moscow and a group in Washington for an extensive exchange of scientific information in what became known as ‘the Moscow link’. The principal secretary of the USSR Academy of Sciences expressed the view that scientists on both sides of the Atlantic had reached a consensus and were unified in their view that nuclear war would spell disaster for the world. This television program was widely seen throughout the world.

There is little doubt now of the huge impact of these deliberations on politicians, scientists and the general public. It stands as a star example of how new information about our world can become widely appreciated across the world. The story, which is only briefly told here, is fully documented by Ehrlich and Sagan (1984) in The Cold and the Dark and more recently by Sagan and Turco (1991).

This particular response to change is unfortunately not typical. Ornstein and Ehrlich have written a book which aims to tell us that the human mind is largely failing to comprehend the world we live in and that we need a new mind for the new world (Ornstein & Ehrlich 1989).

The Mismatch Between our Minds and the World

Ornstein and Ehrlich (1989) argue that the human mind has evolved through countless ages to cope with sudden and dramatic changes that threaten survival such, for example, as the threat of a predator, fire or flood. We are genetically programmed to deal with these emergencies. That was about all we had until perhaps a million years ago. Cultural evolution then outpaced genetic evolution of humans. That simply means that information learned from experience was passed on to subsequent generations through teaching and learning. This was a much more rapid way of adaptation to a changing environment. The difference between humans who lived in caves and us is primarily cultural, not genetical. Science and its transformation of the world is an outstanding example of cultural evolution.

However, Ornstein and Ehrlich argue that even our capacity for cultural evolution has not matched the changing circumstances of our life on earth. We have learned to react to sudden and dramatic changes such as the highjacking of aircraft or drunken drivers on the road. But we have not learned to respond to slow changes with long-term effects such as the population explosion, the increasing extinction of species and the deterioration of the environment. These are far more critical to the human future.

What can we do about this dilemma? There must be more public awareness, public debate and decisions to take action as a society. Ehrlich and Ornstein see this as involving a much more conscious cultural evolution of the mind and a rethinking of education. There are those who pessimistically say, ‘You can’t change human nature’. Yet we do change human nature daily in our schools and over time in societies. We need now to consciously manage that change, It can be done and it is being done. Here are some examples:

• Social scientists in the 1960s believed it would take decades of consistent government pressure to persuade Americans to change their reproductive habits and have small families. The habit of having as many children as one could afford was considered a fundamental part of human nature. Yet the shift to small families took about three years in the early 1970s. This was due in no small measure to the way in which the campaign for ‘zero population growth’ spread across the nation.

• Until the United Nations’ first major conference on the global environment in 1972 in Stockholm, few national governments had departments of environment. Now most of them do, with a few notable exceptions such as Japan.

• Many countries are recognizing the seriousness of the population problem and some have had success in deliberately curbing population growth, notably the richer countries of South-East Asia and also China.

• More people are becoming sympathetic to the other organisms that also inhabit the Earth. They are trying to save endangered species and protect domestic and laboratory animals from abuse.

• Millions of people realize that nuclear weapons threaten everyone together with the biosphere and are trying to find ways of eliminating them.

• Winds of change have blown through all countries of Eastern Europe in a way not dreamed of less than a decade ago.

• Some ecologists believe that we cannot convert to an ecologically sustainable society with a new economics quickly enough to prevent ecological collapse. Yet our economy was transformed to a wartime basis in a matter of a year or so at the beginning of the Second World War and changed back to a peacetime basis in a similar period at the end of that war. What we need is a change of heart such that ecological issues have for us ‘the moral equivalent of war’.

Human beings changed from cave people, to Neolithic people, to Agricultural people to Industrial people. If we can increase global consciousness and people become sufficiently motivated, we could change to a postmodern people with an ecologically sustainable society. It is to promote such a consciousness and to induce such a motivation that some of us write books.

The Johari Window

The response people make to change is varied and the nature of that variation can be understood with the help of a model. Figure 5.1 is a modification of the so-called Johari window described by Luft (1984). The vertical axis of the diagram represents different degrees of awareness of benefit brought by a particular change. This ranges on a scale from 0 to 10. The horizontal axis of the diagram represents different degrees of awareness of detrimental aspects of the change. Again the scale goes from 0 to 10. The detrimental aspects may have to do with the costs, losses and fears of change. Any point within the diagram represents some combination of the two elements of awareness and so represents the reaction of a particular person to a particular change. Here are five typical responses within the total field with the names given them by Wasdell (1986).

Blissful ignorance (1.1). There is virtually no awareness of either the good or the bad aspects of the change. It is an attitude of apathy.

Idealized endorsement (1.9). This position at the left-hand top of the diagram represents maximal awareness of the benefits of change with no objections at all. It is a utopian attitude.

Unrelieved opposition (9.1). This position at the right-hand corner of the diagram represents change as perceived to be completely bad. Change represents a serious threat. This person is all for maintaining the status quo. It is an attitude of bias that can become fanatical.

Conflicted ambivalence (5.5). There is some awareness of the advantages of change but this is balanced by an equal and opposite awareness of the disadvantages. It is a position of ambivalence and indecision.

Realistic integration (9.9). This position at the top right-hand corner of the diagram represents a high awareness of the advantages of change together with a high awareness of the disadvantages. There is commitment to accept change, despite an awareness of many disadvantages, and to work realistically for change in an ambiguous world. The reformer hopes that society will move from positions around 1.1 to those around 9.9.

For the most part, the ideas that people hold as valid reflect the activities they accept as normal, rather than the other way around. A movement for change reverses this order. Those who join the movement are encouraged by the new idea to act in new ways.

The future is helped only by people in the second and the last categories above. Those in the other groups are part of the problem and not part of the answer. The utopians have their hearts in the right place but they have their problems because they are unrealistic. They can easily be put off by finding the world is not such a dream world after all. However, once started on that road they might hopefully make their pilgrimage toward realism more readily than the others and accept that we do not live in a garden of Eden after all. They may make the pilgrimage from the garden of blissful contentment to one that is full of weeds and entanglements. Even so, they may come to realize at position 9.1 the lot of a realist and press on in hope.

Possibly no other social ethicist was as committed to realism as Reinhold Niebuhr. He was a prophet of change. Nevertheless he strongly believed

. . .that no matter how wide the perspectives which the human mind may reach, how broad the loyalties which the human imagination may conceive, how universal the community which human statecraft may organize or how pure the aspirations of the saintliest idealist may be, there is no level of human moral or social achievement in which there is not some corruption of inordinate self-love. (Niebuhr 1944, p. 17).

For Niebuhr, every civilization and culture, every empire and nation, has destructive elements in its period of creativity, and even creative elements in its period of decline. One of Niebuhr’s most quoted statements is: ‘Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary (p. xiii). Niebuhr saw democracy as steering a road between the Scylla of anarchy and the Charybdis of tyranny. He countered the naivete of activist utopian liberals, who regarded humanity as good by nature, awaiting perfection through social reform and education. He saw in the real world the search for moral righteousness as filled with ambiguity. The choices are not between pure virtue and absolute vice, but between differing combinations of vice and virtue. His approach became known as Christian realism.

Can Jack Get Out of his Box?

This is the title of a lecture I heard Theodore Roszak (1971) give on the counter-cultural image of the future. He made three propositions. Jack is in the box. Jack does not know he is in the box. Jack must get out of the box. The box imprisons Jack within a view that depends almost exclusively on the perception of the eye and the ear and upon things that can be spoken. Roszak was calling for a change in consciousness not dissimilar to the change to a new consciousness proposed in this book. It is a major change that requires Jack to get out of his box. In the context of this book it is a change from the dominant modern worldview to a postmodern worldview to use the terminology of my earlier book, On Purpose (Birch 1990).

The modern worldview is derived from the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The postmodern worldview is more concerned with the subjective, feelings, values, consciousness and internal relations. It is an organic or holistic view contrasted with a mechanical or substance view of things. To embrace it involves a paradigm (paradeigma pattern) shift in thinking and in behavior.

The box that Jack is imprisoned in is the modern worldview. He was put into it early in his schooling and in further education at college or university, with the result that all else has nothing to do with the real world or at best is of marginal value. The beginning of wisdom is the awareness that what Jack knows in his box is not the world, but only a small box within the world, a very small box indeed.

Roszak ended his lecture with a prediction of what was going to happen to some Jacks in the box. It was something like this. This is Jack speaking and going through some stages of development. What do you mean, I am in the box? So what? I like the box. The box is the best place to be. God only knows what is outside of this box. Good old box. True, it is somewhat stuffy and cramped in this box but that makes me feel responsible.

It is good to be miserable, it brings out the best in us. Besides, the box does not have to be that uncomfortable. I can put in some air-conditioning and wall-to-wall carpeting. And listen, I have got some swell new stereophonic sound equipment. I could turn this box into a real pleasure palace. If I don’t get out of this box soon I am going to go crazy. I am crazy. Everybody in the box is crazy. Crazy is normal. No I cannot help it. I’ve got to get out of this box maybe just for weekends. There are people living outside the box. And they seem happy. But I don’t really know what happy means anymore. Maybe if I left the box just for a while I could see what it is like outside.

And finally, what a tiny little box right there in the middle of the universe. People used to live in that box, they say. But that’s very hard to believe. Jack made his choice.


Human beings can change, though their response to change varies greatly from one person to another. On a grand scale societies have responded to change in major ways. A recent example is the changed attitude to nuclear war as compared with attitudes less than a decade ago. Changes of this sort require a deliberate reorientation in consciousness at the grassroots level.

We are genetically programmed to deal with immediate emergencies and not long-term threats. To cope with the latter involves a cultural change. Our capacity for such cultural change has not matched the changing circumstances on Earth today. Yet there is hope as we contemplate examples of major cultural changes that have taken place in our own time.

The individual person may respond to change in one of five ways: blissful ignorance, idealized endorsement, unrelieved opposition, conflicting ambivalence or realistic integration of the advantages and disadvantages of change. The future is helped by people in the second and the last categories. But it is possible for people who find themselves in one of the other negative categories to jump out of their confinement to take a more hopeful and creative attitude.

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