Opinions of Peter Belmont
Speaking Truth to Power

Old Habits and Bad Habits Are Killing Us

by Peter A. Belmont / 2019-01-26
© 2019 Peter Belmont


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Humankind has grown up over a very long period and developed many habits during that long period which—today—are killing us. How—or whether—we are going to break these habits is quite a puzzle.

Reductive and Holistic Thinking

In many cases, unhealthy habits seem to be the result of overly narrowly focused thinking—which I call “reductive” thinking. By contrast, some of the most liberating thinking has come from people who look broadly at the whole earth, the whole human population, the entirety of things, a manner of thinking which I call “holistic”.

Maybe another way to make the distinction is between people who think only of what they themselves value (the reductive thinker has reduced things to “I care only about me, me, me”) and people who value the wholeness of things (the holistic person says, “I care about all of us, about all things”). But sometimes it may merely be a matter of focus. Think of two people halfway up the World Trade Center on 9/11 when the airplane struck and soon the building was in flames. The holistic person hears the radio report and says, “I am in trouble because the whole building is in trouble.” The reductive person says, “My floor is not aflame, why should I worry?”

I will have much more to say about these ideas below.

Where Did Our Habits Come From?

Many habits are of a biological—or at least of a very ancient—nature. Our reproductive habits and sexual proclivities are not, generally, the result of careful and reflective thought about the good of mankind (or of the earth) but are almost “hardwired”. We might say that those habits are millions of years in the making. When we hear that the human population is expected to exceed 9.8 billion by 2050, we almost never hear that humankind is expected to put on the brakes or even to get worried by all this. There may be starvation, true, but never, never a policy against over-population.

Many people believe that education and other forms of emancipation and empowerment of girls and women together with widespread availability of birth-control methods would bring population growth under control, but there are few signs that the “powers that be” favor these ideas.

Here, as elsewhere, the problem may lie with the seemingly immutable habits (often called “conservative” or “greedy”) of the “powers that be” rather than on immutable habits of people more generally.

Similarly tribalism and concomitant habits of racial, religious, sexual, national origin, and other forms of discrimination, prejudice, fear, and hatred are probably based on hard-wired biological systems—we are certainly hard-wired to notice differences whether or not we are hard-wired to react to perceived differences with prejudice, discrimination, fear, or hatred. And if some people—such as many Americans—have learned to overcome prejudice and tendencies to discriminate against “the others”, it cannot be ignored how easily the “white nationalism” in America and similar “nationalist” political groupings have arisen recently around the world.

The habit of forming mobs and the destructive behavior of mobs is well-known and must be counted a long-standing human habit. I see it as a special group multiplier of discrimination et al. Although a single person might not wish to lynch an “other”, in a mob he or she may well become a cheerleader of lynchers if not an active lyncher. The mob erases inhibitions against doing evil. Look at the Trump voters. The mob phenomenon is a kind of habit upon which the demagogue depends.

Some human habits may be of more recent origin. Many habits—such as habits of refusal to eat pork, of unwillingness to permit abortion, of performing of male and female circumcision, of hatred of homosexual acts or of homosexual persons are said to spring from relatively recent religious texts or traditions and may be only 4,000 or 10,000 years old—if that! But these habits are very hard for many people to break and are, in any case, taught and reinforced by educational, religious, and other social systems.

I suppose there are psychological similarities between mobs, social groups, and tribes. They all teach and reinforce habits.

Another set of habits are probably quite ancient but have only recent harmful effects. Consider the habit of carelessly throwing away trash. When this habit was developed, it probably amounted to throwing away banana skins in a jungle and was probably not harmful at all, but carelessly throwing plastics into the ocean—its quite recent and very analogous act—is very harmful. But the habit is in a way the same.

Consider the habit of burning combustibles to generate heat or mechanical energy. Even a few hundred years ago, people were so thinly scattered over the surface of the earth that there were enough renewable and natural combustibles—trees especially—to use for fuel so that—at that time—mankind could without giving it a second thought burn wood without harm to humankind or to earth. About 1800 the industrial revolution began and a large part of that revolution was the business of mining coal and oil to use as fuels. This, together with the discovery of public health, sewerage, and effective medicine, allowed a huge surge in human population (see population growth figure). We began and ever after continued to burn coal and oil (and, later, natural gas) just as confidently—confident of “no harm to humankind or to earth”—as we had earlier been confident when burning wood. The habit was the same. The behavior was analogous. But the behavior had changed from harmless to harmful. A matter of scale in a way. A matter of paying attention to the whole (holistic thinking) rather than of minding one’s own business (reductive thinking).

And today we live with in the apparent death-struggle between our habits of combustible energy use and the on-rushing tragedies of global warming and climate change (GWCC).

Here, as with the overpopulation problem, there is some indication that the habits preventing dealing sensibly with GWCC are not so much those of ordinary people as they are those of the “powers that be”.

And speaking iof the “powers that be” . . . Another of our fairly recent and profoundly damaging habits is the habit of delivering political control into the hands of a very, very few leaders of very, very large corporate enterprises. And another profoundly damaging habit is our habit of allowing corporations—whose behaviors may be as earth-shaking as the behavior of small nations—to answer only to the desires of their shareholders, or more often of their managers, and not to society more generally.

Holistic and Reductive Thinking

Here I may speculate that every human has, concurrently, in some sort of balance, different from one person to another two conflicting habits, a habit of looking at things in the large (holistic), and a habit of looking at things close up or in the small (reductive).

Our “powers that be” tend to be almost entirely reductive in their thinking—seeing their decision-space as limited to single things like “getting re-elected” (for politicians) and “making a profit” (for leaders of corporations). And these two reductive habits have so far guaranteed that in effect we are led (in the USA anyway) by people who by fixed and nearly immutable habits of mind cannot and will not allow themselves to understand GWCC or to come to grips with what it will take to free the earth of the scourge of GWCC.

Similarly, various religions—based on “ethics” or “rules” formed, or single sentences written, thousands of years ago when humankind lived lightly upon the earth—have decided to fight against birth control and abortion as if these things were absolute evils, despite the onrushing catastrophe of vast world overpopulation. One might say that holding to these religious ideas in the face of their evident consequences so single-mindedly is another example of “reductive” thinking—looking at the world through the narrow lens of an ancient religious teaching or text rather than through the liberating lens of taking an overall view of mankind’s situation on earth, today, and thinking about that totality.

Remember when people thought the world was flat? Are religious ideas formed thousands of years ago by people who lived in vastly different circumstances than we experience today really more trustworthy? Why? Multiply and fill the world? How full is full? Can we stop now?

Habits of Lying and Truth-Telling

Very young children sometimes tell lies because they regard language as a tool for achieving their own immediate goals and have not been taught yet what lying is, or that lying is “bad”. And of course, from their own viewpoint , a lie that gets them what they want is only good (“Mommy, I fell down and hurt myself --can I have a cookie?”).

Most people grow out of the habit of lying, but lately (2016 et seq.) America has seen an awful lot of lying by politicians, pundits, writers and other movers-and-shakers in the political system. Have all these political folks become, morally speaking, 3-year olds again? I guess they have, and aren’t 3-year olds cute? Isn’t Trump a real cutie? Don’t you just want to bounce him on your knee especially when—as many times daily—he lies?

And if these people have so easily fallen into habits of lying, it is no surprise that they expect everybody else to be lying, and so no surprise that they deny the consistent message of the world’s scientific community on GWCC by saying that (or course!) the scientists are all liars.

I think that we will soon (in the USA) need to find a way to severely punish (or to ignore) people who lie. If we don’t, we will be afloat in a sea of meaninglessness where no statement can be believed. Maybe that is where we are today.

Bad habit, I’d say. Makes rational decision making quite difficult.

But there I go again with that holistic thinking. Whoever wanted rational decision making anyway? Interferes with you getting what you want, doesn’t it?


Cheers and good luck everybody.


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