Big Issues Regarding Race And Culture In Fashion Industry Are We Equipped for the Challenges of the 21st Century?

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Are We Equipped for the Challenges of the 21st Century?

In their book New World New Mind, Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich make a strong case that when we moved out of the trees and into the savanna, we competed with animals that had already evolved to survive on earth. As a result, we had to evolve quickly to adapt to our new environment. Being able to feel the dramatic and immediate (a movement in a bush, a carnivore taking special interest in us, etc.) would have been more than an advantage, it would have been necessary for survival.

Ornstein and Ehrlich argue that this evolutionary preference continues to this day. We notice the immediate and the dramatic, and this preference is fed by the tabloid media. The news shows us the immediate and dramatic, and that’s because it gets ratings, and it gets ratings because the immediate and dramatic is popular.

The authors argue that this preference is not a useful preference in our modern environment. Few people today are in danger of losing their lives as a result of an unexpected attack by another animal. As a result, the ability to notice the dramatic and immediate is more of a handicap when it comes to the problems facing humanity.

E.g:

The growth of the human population

The effect of this on the environment

Water and food security

Resource depletion and pollution

Nuclear proliferation

These problems are more of the slow and insidious kind than the immediate and dramatic. Our understanding of these issues is more intellectual than experiential. We cannot experience the growth of the human population in any real terms in a lifetime, the degradation of the environment is not instantaneous, the water and food security is not dramatic until it is extreme.

Ornstein and Ehrlich focus on two psychological preferences to make their case. These are:

• Prefers to notice the immediate and dramatic

• Primacy and timeliness (pay attention to the first and the last and forget the middle)

Fortunately, this is not the whole story

Critics could argue that by focusing on two preferences, Ornstein and Ehrlich do not discuss our full human perceptual capacity.

Noticing the immediate and the dramatic could loosely be equated with the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) preferences of noticing the sensual and emotional. Although there are people in the world who prefer to notice the sensory and emotional (And we are very lucky to have them, as many of them are nurses or work in industries that help people in immediate need), we also have a large population of people who prefer to notice the intuitive and logical.

Looking at the poverty statistics creates a different reaction to looking at an individual’s struggle with poverty. When we read that there are 1 billion people living in poverty and that 29,000 children die of poverty a day, it is easy to distance ourselves from the problem because the numbers create a distance between us and the problem. When you see a mother in tears holding her malnourished, sick and dying baby, you have to be sociopathic not to notice. Mother Theresa is credited (possibly incorrectly) as saying “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

So this means that we have the capacity to notice both the immediate/dramatic and the global and logical. As a result, we have many people working hard to solve the very problems that Ornstein and Ehrlich discuss.

Not everyone is sucked in by the tabloid

The news shows us the immediate and dramatic, and that’s because it gets ratings, and it gets ratings because the immediate and dramatic is popular. But that doesn’t mean everyone is sucked in by the tabloid. And not everyone has a preference for focusing on the immediate and dramatic. I think there would be some very hardworking people in the UN, not-for-profits, NGOs, communities and grassroots organizations who might take offense to Ornstein and Ehrlich’s position.

There are many people working very hard to make the world a better place, and perhaps Ornstein and Ehrlich ironically suffer from what they suggest is our biggest problem. The work done by a large army of NFPs, NGOs, volunteers etc. may not be immediate or dramatic and as a result it seems (and I only read the first few chapters) their efforts have been missed by the authors.

Underestimating the environment

Another issue that would be easy to argue with the authors is that we are not only genetic, we are also influenced by the environment. Once again I would suggest that the changes in our behavior to match the environment are slow and undramatic and therefore have been overlooked or underestimated by the authors.

If we traveled back to ancient Greece, the most honored members of society were its fighting men, and it was considered a disgrace for a fighting man to be seen in the market or even to know how to count. Travel forward to the modern United States, and the most honored men are its entrepreneurs. It would be considered a disgrace for these men not to know how to count or how the market works. Fortunately, Jeffrey Skilling, Bernard Ebbers and Bernie Madoff didn’t try the ‘Yes, but if we were in Greece…’ defense.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of books that show that we can actually change our behavior as the environment demands. These include:

In sociology:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

Nudge by Thaler & Sunstein

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath

Spiral Dynamics by Beck and Cowan

In economics:

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner

In history:

The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer Dixon

A Brief History of Progress by Ronald Wright

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

An assumption about evolution

Ornstein and Ehrlich write that “Our human mental system is incapable of understanding the modern world. So events will, in our view, continue to be out of control until people realize how selectively the environment impresses the human mind and how our understanding is determined by the biological and cultural history of humanity.”

While this may be correct, there is an assumption in this premise that control of the environment is preferable or even possible. This could be argued for.

We could also argue that it has never been our ability to foresee the future, and yet we have already made phenomenal progress and improvements. I also understand that this is the ‘so far so good’ argument and perhaps with our technology, research, study, knowledge, etc we are better equipped to do this now than we ever have been in the past.

Alarmist

Paul Ehrlich also wrote The Population Bomb, a modern Thomas Robert Malthus essay on the principle of population. Both argue that we will eventually lose the battle to feed, clothe, house and occupy the growing population. Among other things, critics attack his alarmist tone. The alarmist tone might have more to do with the fact that Ehrlich was one of the first people to popularize science through the media. In the 1960s, television brought issues like population into people’s living rooms.

That said… I get a little angry when I read quips like: “Cities lead to epidemics of overcrowding and to large-scale warfare. Public health measures lead to further increases in population and then by allowing people to live longer, to an increase in cancer and heart disease. Cities also lead to universities and uncovering the many secrets of the universe. And uncovering the secrets of the universe leads to Hiroshima and Chernobyl.”

Are the authors seriously suggesting that we exterminate 9/10 of the population and the remaining few revert to being cavemen? When I read sentences like that, I can understand why Paul Ehrlich is such a controversial figure. A zealot is both a question’s best friend and worst enemy.

Examples of clear calm thinking

In response to Ornstein and Ehrlich’s arguments, we could cite examples of when humanity has solved complex problems with clear, calm thinking. E.g:

• We’ve sent people to space and the moon… and brought them back.

• We have developed immunization and have greatly reduced deaths due to diseases like plague, measles, polio etc.

• We have avoided nuclear war on countless occasions. For example: the Cuban crises and perhaps many other times that we will never hear about because of the clear and calm thinking of good people.

We continue to be able to create a surplus of food (Unfortunately much of it is wasted in the first world while people in the third world starve. Also the good work of NFPs and NGOs like the food bank.

Finally

I agree that as humans and our civilizations have evolved, the decision to act or not to act has had consequences for an increasing number of people. In the Rift Valley of Africa between 1 and 2 million years ago, decisions would affect a family or tribe. At the beginning of the Common Era, such a decision would have ramifications for up to a million people (the mean population of the city of Rome at its peak), while today a decision to act or not to act on certain issues can threaten everyone civilizations, the actual existence of humans and perhaps even the existence of life on the planet.

I also agree that developing our mindset is our ticket to a better world.

Where I disagree with Ornstein and Ehrlich is that they have been very selective with the human abilities they have chosen to make their case focused on just two psychological preferences and seemingly ignore the ones we have that help. I will also point to all the work that is currently taking place and the good people who are already doing work and have done work that has helped.

I would suggest that the authors would do well to balance their approach if they wish to broaden their appeal.

And I also applaud them for contributing to the discussion in a far more useful way than talking about “Brittany’s Shock Baby Bump Rehab Horror Love Triangle.”

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