Learning about Sustainability and Happiness from the Animals

We think we are morally superior to the animals because we have choices regarding good and evil, and animals don’t. The Egyptians and Romans had choices also. But those empires are long gone, while, except for habitat destruction, the elephants and tigers continue living as successfully as they did before ancient Egypt and Rome even existed. As the sustainability of our way of life becomes increasingly uncertain, we might ask: Why do human choices result in so much chaos and habitat destruction, while the choices animals make result in ways of life that are amazingly ordered and sustainable?

We like to think that our way of life will somehow prevail—all this development and accumulated knowledge can’t possibly amount to nothing! But, in view of growing environmental and other concerns, including the failures of past civilizations, we know all is not well. Some look to Jesus for salvation, others secularism, and many see science and technology as our savior. Why do we look to beliefs and ideas for salvation, and the animals don’t? There are a number of reasons, but the point of the question is: They have no need for beliefs. By being true to themselves—to what nature made them—animals are their own saviors. 

Despite our enormous accumulation of knowledge, humans have failed to recognize something fundamental: The brain’s ultimate objective is to realize a sustainable way of life. Otherwise, said brain would not exist.

Evolution is generally seen as applying to a species’ physical nature. It is becoming increasingly recognized, however, that evolution applies equally to a species’ emotional nature. Which emotions survive? The ones that inspire the behavior required for a sustainable way of life. Since all beings require nourishment, the emotion of hunger is universal. Regarding relationships, however, emotions vary. For instance, the members of a social species are emotionally inspired to find happiness by bonding in extended families, while the members of a pair bonding species are happy only when pair bonded.

But that still doesn’t explain why human choices result in unsustainable ways of life. It has to do with our objectives. The subconscious mind continually evaluates each situation in which it finds itself, and emotes a feeling that inspires the behavior required for sustainability. By the requirements for its very existence, the brain functions as though it is subconsciously aware that its ultimate objective is sustainability.

But no brain is consciously aware of that objective. The subconscious mind reveals to the conscious mind what it knows through feelings, like when it is aware that the body needs nourishment it emotes the feeling of hunger. An animal’s objective is not based on high-minded ideals, beliefs, or goals. It is instead limited to whatever is required to satisfy its strongest feeling. When hunger dominates, an animal’s objective is to find food. When loneliness rules, its tries to find others to be with. When it feels the need to store supplies for the coming season, it stores them. And when an animal’s territory is being infringed upon, its objective is to deal with the threat. Since each of those feelings have been selected, over evolutionary time, by the survival of the emotionally fittest, an animal’s choices always result, to the best of its brain’s ability, in a sustainable way of life.

The objectives of modern humans, however, are based on our need to comply with social and material contracts, such as marriage and the ownership of property. In fact, moral and ethical behavior is defined by that compliance. These contracts were created in the belief that life’s objective is to control the future to good, or God ordained, ends. Unlike the animals, we can choose to deny how we really feel in order to be good, or moral. Indeed, as subjects of the institutions that authorize our social and material contracts, our respectability, civil rights, and even our personal survival often requires that we lie about how we really feel. But every time we ignore an innately based feeling in order to be moral, not only are we unhappy as a result of being forced to deny who we are by instinct, we are making a choice that results in an unsustainable way of life.

So, the issue isn’t just sustainability, but also happiness. Humans are members of a social species, not a pair bonding one. Evidence for this is: Human pair bonds are established, defined, and imposed by the social contract of marriage, not by instincts, as are natural pair bonds. Being social bonders by nature, to manage a sustainable way of life requires that we socially bond—that is, function as members of extended families bonded by mutually experienced emotional and material needs. We humans can hardly be true to ourselves when having to either deny an extramarital romance, or continue living with an emotionally estranged spouse. We do these things, not to be happy, but to be moral by complying with the dictates of a social contract.

Should our species recover a sustainable way of life as the result of its members again socially bonding, sustainability will not be the objective. The driving force will be our desire to be happy, instead of good, god-like, or moral, in our relationships with those around us.

Happiness, not distant goals or ethical behavior, is the measure of how well we are taking care of our real needs, the real needs of those around us, and the real needs of the environment that sustains us. Happiness and sustainability are exorbitantly linked, not by choice or free will, but by the very forces of Nature that created us. 

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