Selfishness, selflessness, and the environment

A human world founded on collaborative selfishness may find it hard to save the world from environmental distress.  To achieve that, we may need a general revival of individual selflessness.  Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

Selfishness is very natural to our biological selves.  We are organic systems interested in our own continuity, descended from a long line of organisms who lived long enough to reproduce.  Although this is not the whole story (we can be naturally selfless, too), it is worth acknowledging.

As babies, we grab on to sources of survival – our carers, our food.  We display upset when these things are taken away from us.  As adults, also, we witness friends and peers who still display these habits.  They get upset when things are taken away from them, and go quiet again when sources of survival and contentment are returned to them.  We may even be perceptive enough to spot the same ancient selfishness in ourselves.


Some people have even developed selfishness into an art form, celebrating the bringing of resources to self, family and peers.  For example, elements of right wing politics encourage us to identify a home family, group or nation, and support it vehemently, to the detriment of alien families, groups or nations.

The problem with unadulterated selfishness, it that it is a very inefficient way to socialise and cooperate.  Have you ever seen two people at each other’s throats in a relationship?  If they are parents, they stop having time for their children, because they are so busy attacking each other, and defending themselves against each other.

Think of behaviour as ripples moving outwards from a central point.  If the ripples are interrupted close to the source, they cannot be as effective away from the source.  If individuals argue, then families fall into chaos.  If families argue, then nations fall into chaos.  If nations argue, then the world falls into chaos.


Even selfish cultures, sooner or later, discover the value, in behavioural and organisational terms, of selflessness.  Nation states come to idolise their armed forces as selfless heroes.  Medals are awarded to individuals on the basis of actions ‘without a thought for their own safety’.

The process here is that, in a joint quest to thrive, groups develop organisations to defend them.  Necessarily, those organisation need a prevailing ethic of ‘putting others first’ – albeit that those others are firmly located within the home nation.  Hence the focus of an army on ‘serving the nation’, regardless of the cost to the individual self.


The mechanism is one of expanded selfishness, using well-judged pockets of selfless ethics to keep individuals in check.  A major example in most societies is the law, which professes a strong ethic of universal fairness.  This professedly selfless intermediary acts as an expanding agent, so that a society can extend the boundaries of protection from the individual to the nation.

Individuals accept the deal, firstly because they are protected from other people’s selfishness, and secondly because the law punishes them if they do not accept the deal.  Comfort and fear are strong motivators in maintaining law and order.

As legal systems expand to international ones, power boundaries extend outwards, from individual to family, from family to clan, from clan to nation, from nation to alliance, and from alliance to globe.


Once the boundaries of legal power reach global proportions, however, something interesting happens.  Because the world is shaped like a sphere, there is no ‘outside’ the boundary, except off-planet.  If this universalising of law ever happens, then human selfishness will have used a notionally selfless intermediary (the law) to expand its protection of individuals to the whole planet.  In terms of the in-group, the only protection offered is ‘against each other’, because there is no longer any human out-group.


There is one threat that the elimination of inter-group conflict by law will not get rid of: the environmental threat.  The reason the expansion of legal boundaries is accepted, is because cooperation buys clear short-term gains for all concerned in the form of peace.  This does not apply to environmental restrictions, because environmental laws bring short-term losses to many.  In particular, economic prosperity would have to be sacrificed.

Psychologically, this is an unacceptable deal for selfish humans.  Even if world law is achieved, it seems that world law will find it hard to sell short term suffering in the name of long-term environmental survival.


Fortunately, there is another way.  Instead of seeing global peace as a coalescing of selfish humans, we can seek resolution by other thought processes.

If we, as individuals, take responsibility for eliminating our own selfishness, then it becomes much easier to collaborate in the interests of the whole biosphere.  If each of us is not afraid of short-term loss, then as a whole we will find it much easier to collaborate in lowering our environmental footprint, and mitigating the damage we cause.  In the long run, this helps both humans and their environment.

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Humans have a large dose of biological selfishness.  The expansion of co-operation has led to larger and larger alliances, founded on quasi-selfless legal collaboration.  This collaboration has worked because individuals can see the short-term benefits of clubbing together – it brings peace and comfort, and reduces fear.

However, from the selfish standpoint of most humans, there is no corresponding short-term benefit for individuals in collaborating legally to preserve our environment.  If so, humanity may be destined to continue damaging itself, and its environment.

To make it easier to save the environment, it will be helpful to educate humans to lose their individual selfishness, so that they can accept the short-term losses that will have to come in order to save the environment in the longer term.


Although the loss of individual selfishness is a great goal, it would cause temporary problems in old-style global collaboration, which is really ‘expanded selfishness’.  If previous global collaboration has been accepted by means of an appeal to individuals’ sense of comfort and desire to reduce fear… what happens if individuals cease to need comfort, and cease to feel fearful?

Transition to an environmentally friendly human race may involve a rocky time for old-style, quasi-colonial expansionism.  New, selfless attitudes are not really attracted to old-style traditional contracts, based on defending ‘people like us’.  We may need newer global organisations, supported by emotional and selflessness education, to reach any worthwhile long-term environmental goals.