As a sustainability philosopher and social engineer, I spend much of my time contemplating the root of our unsustainable culture and civilisation. I believe that war, ecocide, and extreme inequality all result from the felt experience of separation from the Universe and everything else in it. Whether or not you have felt this experience of separation depends on your answer to the question, “Who are you?” Are you a separate individual in a Universe which is separate from you as well? Or are you the sum total of all of your experiences and relationships to the Universe, making the Universe an inseparable part of who you are?
If you feel separate from a purposeless, objective, and deterministic Universe, then you are likely to experience life from a perspective of fear. You probably believe that nothing else in the Universe cares whether you exist or not and it is up to you alone to ensure your own survival. Everything else in the Universe is also doing their best to ensure their own survival and what results is a world where survival belongs to the fittest. This is the default worldview of modern society that is reinforced by our government, culture, media, school, medicine, sports, religion, and every other major institution of our time.
Stemming from this fear and the belief in a separate self is the desire to protect ourselves by controlling the external, perceived-to-be-hostile world, which is a perfectly logical and rational belief given the ideology of separation.
When we feel separate from the world, we try to compensate for our lost sense of belonging by owning it. The more of it we own, the more of it we bring under our control, and the more secure we feel.
We are addicted to control
We control and dominate our fellow animals – our brothers and sisters – mostly to meet human desires. We destroy our forests – the lungs of our planet – to make room for our controlled animals to graze. We attempt to control human behavior through a system of laws backed by punishment, even prohibiting under threat of imprisonment what people can put inside their own bodies. It is hoped that by controlling human genes, we will finally have the tools to eradicate disease, to engineer pest and drought resistant monocultures, and possibly even to design the physical and emotional features of your future children. Would you like a child with brown or blue eyes? All of these attempts to control the world we call “progress.” Left unsaid is the subject of this particular progress which is our quest to control the Universe.
Individually, we also desire to control our immediate surroundings and circumstances to extent possible. We want to control how other people perceive us. We want to control our children’s behavior. We want to control our homes and the activities that take place there so we make “house rules” that others must follow. We have a desire to control our appearance to look a certain way. On both the personal and collective levels, control is the tool of the separate self to shape the world in a way that will be perceived to be safer and more secure.
This desire for control isn’t really what we seek. Let me prove it to you. Let’s imagine for a moment that you had perfect control over every facet of your life. Every person you encounter acts in the way you want and expect them to. Every experience you have perfectly meets your expectations. The ice cream parlor is never out of your favorite flavor. You always get a good seat at the movie theatre. Everyone treats you with dignity and respect. Every business idea you have works and runs smoothly without a hitch. Through this perfect control over your life, you are able to remove all conflict and will finally experience the peace that will come from a life fully under control. And on a collective level, due to our perfect understanding of the objective universe, we will finally have the ability to predict and control every atom in the Universe, leading to a utopian world where humans would rise to the level of God and finally be able to realize heaven in this realm.
Control creates boredom
Except for one uncomfortable feeling – complete and utter boredom. Imagine if you could control not only the circumstances of every experience you encounter but how you would feel during every moment of it. Every reaction you received was exactly how you anticipated it. Everyone behaved according to your expectation. Surprise and mystery will effectively be abolished. Never again would you be able to feel a sense of gratitude for it takes a lot of hard work and individual fortitude to maintain this perfect control. Never again would you have an experience that wasn’t premeditated and carefully planned to ensure that nothing could go wrong. It wouldn’t take long living a life fully under control for something inside of us to become dissatisfied with the experience of being all-knowing.
Part of the problem with the world we’ve created is that we don’t even want to arrive where our progress is taking us. The unfortunate but practical fact for control-seekers is that the attempts to control both others and ourselves actually lead to a kind of slavery, only in this version we become both the slave and the slave master at the same time. Whether the rules we create are directed at ourselves or at others, the experience we feel is one of limitation, and a natural desire to rebel emerges within us. Deep inside, we don’t really want to know how it all plays out.
Our insatiable appetite for control is the action that is causing the major sustainability crises of our time. We are attempting to control nature, both external and internal, to satiate our fear that comes from feeling separate from the Universe, and through these attempts at control, we are increasingly limiting the freedom of the world, whether it is the right of the forest to exist in a particular place or it is the freedom of people to roam about their planetary home. The problem is that these actions are actually rational from the perspective of the separate self.
The myth of separation is killing our planet
So what are we to do? Hopefully, we recognize the futility of trying to control the world (and ourselves) and we begin to address the underlying fear. We may see that this fear is grounded in an illusion of separation reinforced by our cultural stories. But underneath this fiction is the truth of our connection to everything. Mother Earth provides abundant air for all to breathe, water for all to drink, food for all to eat, and does so freely from love.
Then we might ask ourselves, “what is the opposite of control?” When we do, we will find that the answer is trust, trust in the Universe to provide abundance to share and trust in ourselves to be able to feel and express our authentic emotions in any situation. It is true that we may not know how both we and the external world will respond. But when we get in touch with our true, authentic self behind our fear, we may discover that by trusting in the outcome of any situation instead of trying to control it, we are actually able to find the peace, acceptance, and feeling of connection to all aspects of life we longed for all along.