Today’s blog is part 2 of a review by Morgan Phillips of Rutger Bregman’s Humankind – a Hopeful History.  Part 1 was published a couple of days ago.

At Global Action Plan, in partnership with Reboot the Future, we have been convening a group of education practitioners to respond to a question that we feel is now key to the future development of environmental and social justice campaigns in the 21st Century — what does environmental education look like when we apply what we know about values? We could rephrase this to ask what it look like when we apply what we know about human nature? But it is not far off being same question.

I’ve offered more detailed thoughts elsewhere on this, but in essence, what we are exploring is what truly motivates pro environmental and pro social behaviours, what doesn’t; and, most importantly, what makes commitment to the cause stick long-term?

A new paper by Ute B. Theirmann and William R. Sheate (2020) from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London provides an excellent framework for exploring these questions.  Theirmann and Sheate unpick traditional / conventional approaches to motivating pro environmental behaviours. They link these approaches to the same misunderstandings about human nature that Bregman highlights.  Prevailing approaches in environmental education, campaigning and policy-making are limited in their impact precisely because they are based on a limited appreciation of what motivates pro environmental behaviour.  The approaches we see are based on a belief that extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, motivations are the most powerful drivers of our thoughts and behaviours. This assumption is grounded in that deeper assumption that humans, deep down, are inherently self-interested. This is why we see so many ‘carrot and stick’ campaigns that appeal either to our desire for rewards or our fear of punishment. These are premised on the idea that there is a reliable pathway from appeals to self-interest to pro environmental behaviour.

It is not that that carrots and sticks have no effect, they often do; but they have a limited effect in terms of scale and longevity. This approach is problematic in another way too. It works by activating our self-interest values, it therefore reinforces them — it nurtures our selfishness and our competitiveness. When these values are strenghthened (like muscles) they weaken their opposites. Values like altruism, cooperation and care for others are crowded out. And, as Thiermann and Sheate point out, it is these latter bigger-than-self values that have been proven to underpin deeper and longer lasting changes in behaviour at both individual and collective levels.

Appeals to self-interest to motivate pro environmental behaviour are a classic example of taking a short cut to achieve a specific short term goal. It creates a quick-win, but can be counterproductive longer term.  Theirmann and Sheate point to a second and often overlooked pathway to pro environmental behaviour change. It is slowly gaining attention and traction in environmental and social justice circles. Bregman’s book will bolster those who subscribe to it. The empirical evidence that this second pathway has a longer and more powerful effect is growing. It correlates with what Bregman is saying about the true nature of human nature — that most of us are, deep down, decent; we are altruistic, cooperative, friendly, compassionate and kind.

Theirmann and Sheate identify ‘a new class of environmental interventions’ based on this second path. These approaches emphasise nature connectedness, appeals to our compassionate values and draw on our longing for meaning and purpose in life. It might take longer for the results of these approaches to start showing, but when they do they are significant and long-lasting.

You can find examples of this approach in the work of Lifeworlds LearningTYFPeople UnitedPIRCAmazing People SchoolsPSHE AssociationNew Citizenship Project; we are threading it through all our work at Global Action Plan and it is emerging in the work of many more environmental organisations. It is a paradigm shift in how we think about and do environmental education.  As Bregman observes, human history isn’t the story of ‘survival of the fittest’, it is the story of ‘survival of the friendliest’ — we are hardwired to cooperate, care and help. Example after example in Humankind highlight how readily and freely we sacrifice something of ourselves, occasionally everything, to help and care for others.

Yes, the doctors, nurses, surgeons, carers, cleaners, paramedics, teachers, drivers and others on the ‘frontline’ of the Coronavirus pandemic are being brave; but they are also being human — they help, we all help, that’s what we do, we can’t help it, we’re only human. Our capacity to empathise, be compassionate and to care is what makes us so lovable. It is why only the friendliest survive — narcissism, self-obsession and greed aren’t attractive qualities.  If there is a veneer, it is this: an economy that only works if there is a constant telling and re-telling of a false story about human nature. This story, which we hear over and over, activates and reinforces our self-interest values. It leaves us fearing others and plodding along on a never ending hedonic treadmill. In this state, we find ourselves in thrall to protective strongmen leaders and consumer brands that promise us that happiness is just one click away.

But this — consumerism — is built on sand; it is fragile. Since being forced to stay home, many of us have found it easy to let go of. We’ve not missed the way it preys on our insecurities to tempt us to ‘spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like’; our wellbeing has not been diminished by our inability to shop for luxury status symbols, we’ve found wellbeing elsewhere — in nature, in peacefulness, in comradeship, in volunteering, in giving, in fresh air and in love. The consumerism economy is missing us, but are we missing it?  What might just breakthrough is a compassionate society. It is possible, especially if enough of us, at the same time, come to accept that most people — and I mean most people (including ourselves) — are caring, cooperative and decent. Compassion and cooperation is what lies just beneath the veneer, we’ve been given a glimpse of it as the pandemic has played out.

For clues as to what it looks like long term, read Bregman’s passages on the success of various forms of participatory budgeting that are in motion around the world, watch Carne Ross’ brilliant film ‘Accidental Anarchist’ and look up utterly inspiring Make Rojava Green Again movement.  Bregman’s book is exciting not just because of its optimistic message, it is exciting because it is mainstream. He is in high demand across the public speaking and podcast circuit; he is being featured in broadsheet newspapers — and not just the left leaning ones. This is important because it will help tackle a fundamental problem highlighted brilliantly in Perceptions Matters a landmark piece of research by the Common Cause Foundation.  Common Cause identified a troubling anomaly in the way we think about each other. In surveys with representative samples of the British public, they showed how while a high percentage (74%) of respondents value things like kindness, cooperation, helpfulness, true friendship and compassion; a slightly higher percentage (77%) perceive other people to value the opposites — things like status, material wealth, image, power and hedonism. They call this the Values-Perception gap. At GAP we are currently conducting research to see how prevalent this perception gap is in children and young people.

To close this gap, we need a significant swell of people to gain more faith in their fellow citizens; ideally all at the same time. In short, we need them to reach the same conclusion Rutger Bregman has, that ‘people, deep down, are decent.’ We also need them to think and talk about themselves like this.  How many times have you heard people explain away their own altruistic behaviours as having selfish roots? For example, explaining that they are volunteering on a project because it will look good on their CV. Or that they get a ‘warm glow’ from donating to charity. It’s not that these things aren’t true, but they often aren’t the primary motivators of the altruism (as Theirmann and Sheate explain).  We say such things both to ourselves and each other, because we don’t want to be perceived as ‘unnatural’ human beings — i.e. not the selfish people we tell ourselves we are. We don’t want to be accused of virtue signalling, or being woke, or a hypocrite who is only doing a selfless act for selfish reasons.

When altruism is explained away like this, it reinforces the idea that humans are inherently selfish and that to help others — just because you want to — is somehow weak, or naïve, or self-indulgent. That is off putting for the would-be environmentalist, nobody likes to be the odd one out, the one who is teased for being compassionate and kind in a world of competition and hedonism.  The determined ones among us persist with their altruism all the same. They are unafraid of standing out and strong enough to take the teasing and abuse. But others shy away, not wanting to risk the terrors of being ostracised by the group. I’ve found myself shying away more times than I would like to admit — but I’m changing as my faith in others grows and, more importantly, as their acceptance of my diet, travel plans, voting preferences and consumer choices are understood as the altruistic acts they primarily are. My confidence grows further when I realise I am increasingly not alone in making these choices.

Bregman’s book shows through several examples that if you create an environment that breeds competition, envy and individualism, humans will behave accordingly (we’re not all saints and we have strong aversions to being the odd one out), but if you create conditions that nurture cooperation, creativity, compassion and kindness, those are the things that will flourish; our true human nature will blossom, with positive results.  The potential applications are many, they are grounded in telling the true story of human nature and telling it relentlessly. As I read Humankind, I noted down several life stories that would make great films and books. So, be inspired by Bregman’s visits to Buurtzorg, the Agora school and Halden prison; and the stories he tells about the real Lord of the Flies and the estranged twins who reunited to help Nelson Mandela win his first General Election. Be inspired and then re-design your own approaches to environmentalism and social justice.

We must not fear human nature, we must embrace it, we succeeded as a species because our default setting is cooperation; we need to give our compassionate sides the chance to fully flourish again. If we do that, instead of persisting with our tired appeals to self-interest, we might yet find a path through the challenges that climate and ecological breakdown will throw at us.  We are going to need to help each other, the good news is that that is exactly what is in our nature.



Humankind — a Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman is published by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Reviewer: Dr. Morgan Phillips — Co-Director, The Glacier Trust and Project Design Specialist (Education), Global Action Plan. / @MorganHPhillips

As ever in NAEE blogs, these ideas and comments are those of the author and not of the Association.  We always encourage debate around the topics raised.