The debate around the factors determining human reaction and the complexity of our personality has raged for centuries. Running away from a charging lion – most people wouldn’t think twice about what to do. Most definitely nature, no need for nurture there. But how about deciding where to put that cross when faced with a ballot paper?
The acres of media post-election comment and analysis about the American Presidential Election and the UK European Referendum placed voters into categories – the blue collar, working people were supposedly key to Trump’s victory and Britain’s ‘Leave’ result, whilst college-educated, white collar workers backed Hilary and supported the ‘Remain’ camp. The voting choices of the groups were described in terms of people’s backgrounds, income levels, and personal situation. Obviously nurture, then. Or is it that simple?
In a recent article in the New Scientst https://www.newscientist.com/article/2112732-my-biology-made-me-do-it-why-some-voters-may-embrace-the-right/?utm_source=NSNS,
John Hibbing explored the question of genetic influence on political choice. The psychology of ideology is a growing area of research amongst neuroscientists following brain scan studies linking differing political attitudes with different parts of the brain and patterns of mental activity.
The first hints of genetic influences on political choice came from a study, carried out by John Hibbing himself, of the political choices of twins. The identical twins in the studies were far more likely to have the same political preferences than fraternal twins. Further studies done by Hibbing with neuroscientist Reed Montague of University College London and Virginia Tech in the US investigated if this similarity was biologically or culturally influenced. The results revealed that participants with socially conservative beliefs were more likely to show greater fear and disgust responses to socially unpleasant images such as potential food contaminates, physically threatening situations and people being sick. They found that they could extrapolate instinctive responses of fear and disgust to political beliefs.
Using a scanner to study American politics, Darren Schreiber found the amygdala, the part of our brain which assesses the world around us, was more active in republicans whereas the insular, which concentrates on a person’s internal state and how they’re feeling, was more active in Democrats. Schreiber’s theory is that genetical make-up accounts for 40-60% of our political choice with the rest being shaped by the individual and/or the environment around them.
So what about the two shock elections of last year – Brexit and Trump? Could genes have had any influence on the results? And what lessons are there for environmentalists to learn? I’ll offer my thoughts in the next article.
Article in 'Good on Paper', July 2017, Stroud's monthly arts and literature magazine
“You don’t steer the Tardis” explains Doctor Who to Bill, his new travelling companion, in a recent episode of the TV series that imagines infinite possibilities. “You negotiate with her. The point between where you want to go and where you need to be – that’s where she takes you.” The Doctor battles with past, present and future. Arguably society’s job, too, yet do current environmental issues show the need for re-thinking where we want to go? Cue the Seed Festival: Hawkwood College’s bi-annual event where today’s leading green negotiators and the public come together to envision new ways of doing things, of how to stop steering and let the Earth, our own Tardis, take us to where we need to be. Minus the alien invasions, thankfully.
Between Friday 7th and Sunday 9th July, a programme of stimulating talks, poetry, music, dance, film screenings, workshops plus some simple, honest fun will sow the seeds of big ideas, and paint a picture of new realities where everyone wins out – both planet and people.
Hawkwood College and Stroud are the perfect places for such an event believes Polly Higgins, Stroud-based eco-campaigner and lawyer. She’s one of the leading green thinkers in an impressive line-up including Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, Sir Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project, Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA, Jon David, head of Rathbone Investments and member of Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment, and Kit Beasley, Head of Finance at Triodos Bank. “Stroud is the home of many eco-pioneers and plenty of big-thinking. There’s a strong community here with a commitment to altruism which helps us move forward. Plus, it’s such a creative place for the arts, poetry, music and similar at a level which is magnificent. All this added together leads to a far more expansive view of the world with an enhanced ability to think outside of the box.”
After 25 years in London, Polly wanted to move to somewhere beautiful and green. Past visits to Stroud-dwelling friends had revealed these qualities in abundance, and the Famers’ Market clinched it. “I wanted to live in a place where people care about how they look after the land and where I could buy biodynamic and organic food. I love it here, it’s a patch of paradise and I wouldn’t dream of going back to pollution-filled London.” Stroud is also a central point for travelling to Europe and beyond where she spends much of her time advising Governments on the criminal law of ecocide.
A barrister by profession, Polly spent many years representing big, transnational companies. This close relationship gave her a view into their mind-set that considered causing wider harm to the environment acceptable as long as a profit was made. She saw the gap in existing law, the absence of checks and balances against serious, significant harm that’s causing unfettered destruction to wider ecosystems. “The current environmental protection is very limited and is based in civil law which essentially gives priority to private interest, commerce and ownership of land.” explains Polly. “So, for example, if a business has a permit to go onto land and then causes wider ecological damage, this isn’t illegal. If a company does breach civil law, communities can only sue through civil courts which is costly and takes a long time. Companies can afford legal representation and can still continue with business as usual. Criminal law, however, is about justice and a new criminal law to protect the Earth will safeguard the communities suffering from the effects of the ecosystem damage.”
Polly has created a legal definition of ecocide which will form the basis of an amendment to international criminal law. Ecological ecocide is caused by corporate activity such as fracking, deforestation and mining. This in turn exacerbates climate ecocide as a result of excessive greenhouse gases released by the dangerous industrial activity. Instability in the atmosphere results, leading to catastrophic climate events. Criminal law is speedy, effective and courts have far greater powers to stop the damaging activity. Its real power is in being pre-emptive and preventative through making boards of directors decide whether or not to carry out damaging activities.
The target is adoption of ecocide by the international criminal court where it will create a level playing field of responsibility for all companies globally and lead to resilient economies. This is not an anti-corporate message, nor will society revert to some medieval way of functioning, but it’ll lead to the adoption of known, non-harmful practices to protect communities. A criminal court thereby has the power and becomes the forum for determining whether a company’s activities were harmful and, if they are, the directors are held personally responsible for ensuring non-damaging operations prevail. The result is accountability at the top of the corporate hierarchy.
It is now well recognised that it’s a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ for the introduction of this new criminal law amendment and Polly is currently advising a number of Governments, mainly those adversely affected by climate change and industrial activities, about the fast-track routes to its adoption. Putting the case for ecocide law takes Polly to audiences around the world, so she is delighted to be doing a local gig. “Hawkwood College was one of the first places to ask me to talk about this law to protect the Earth so it has a special place in my heart. It’s such an ideal place for the Seed Festival as it has strong community links - I get my vegetables from the community-supported agriculture scheme based there - and it’s constantly challenging the status quo by providing a platform for conversations about how we create a better world. Such conversations are the seeds for the future, meaning those at the festival – speakers, film-makers, musicians and artists - are the leading innovative change-makers. It’ll be exciting to be part of that.”
Polly is also a published author, visit her website at pollyhiggins.com where you can purchase her published works which include I Dare You To Be Great, Eradicating Ecocide and Earth Is Our Business. She will be appearing at the Seed Festival on Sunday 9th July at 1pm, see seedfestival.co.uk for the full programme.
Caroline Aistrop has worked for nearly 30 years in the environment sector including time at the BBC’s Natural History Unit. She now helps green companies and organisations to harness the power of their stories…greensparkmarketing.co.uk