Dr Trevor Hancock of the University of Victoria proposes that, rather than bouncing back from COVID-19 we should bounce forward. What he means is that bouncing back would mean returning the practices that have got us into the global problems we now face such as climate change, environmental degradation and severe social inequities. Dr. Hancock would rather see us move forward in ways that will allow us to address our global issues successfully.

This raises two related questions:

  1. Why have we made such a mess of things?
  2. How can we proceed in a more encouraging direction?

The answer to the first question, the question concerning why we have created these problems in the first place comes down, I believe, to human nature. I realize that this may seem to be a fatalistic position. If it is human nature to act in ways that create such enormous global issues it would appear we are doomed to continue on a path of global destruction. But all is not lost as I will try to show in what follows.

When I speak of human nature I refer, in part, to our fundamental biological and psychological needs. Together these needs constitute a uniquely human version of the drive to survive that all living organisms must have. I bring these needs up here because, as I will attempt to show, it has been our attempts to meet them that have resulted in our current predicament. Granted, we have no choice but to meet these needs but, as I will explain, how we attempt to meet them makes all the difference.

Over the years psychologists have identified various fundamental needs that humans must meet in order to survive. For the purposes of this article I will use seven needs which I believe are generally acceptable as representative of needs shared by all human beings.

  1. Physiological Needs
  2. Safety Needs
  3. Security Needs
  4. Membership Needs
  5. Agency Needs
  6. Meaning Meeds
  7. Purpose Needs

Our survival needs are experienced as fundamental urges that motivate human behaviour, either directly or indirectly. To a significant extent, we do what we do because of them. As I stated earlier, it is in attempting to meet our needs that we have wound up creating the global problems we now face. But all the blame does not fall on our evolved survival needs. There is another aspect of human nature that comes into play. 

In his book “The Patterning Instinct”, Jeremy Lent presents a historical analysis of the ways in which the multi-various cultures of the world have always had a model of their relationship to nature. He claims that these worldviews have had significant impacts on the ways in which different cultures have sought to meet their needs. In this way, their worldviews shaped their cultures and the worlds in which they lived (economies, social structures, religion, etc.). I believe he is right and I believe this is still the case. Our behaviours are largely shaped by our beliefs about the relationship we are in with nature. How we see this relationship determines our values. Our values determine our behaviours. Our behaviours shape the world in which we live. 

The critical point here is that, while our survival needs are to a large extent non-negotiable, our worldview is not carved in stone. As Lent has identified in The Patterning Instinct there are many worldviews on offer. If this is so the problem becomes how to chose one that will enable us deal with our global issues. Fortunately, I don’t think we have to sort through every possible candidate. I have come to believe that all worldviews fall into one of two categories. The central feature of any worldview is the relationship between the individual and the rest of the world and there are only two of these kinds of relationships.  

One relationship sees the individual as independent from and existing separately from everything else. In this view some dependence on others and things is acknowledged but is thought to be minimal. Because this mindset believes that individuals must constantly take care of themselves and look out for their own interests there is an underlying sense of an ongoing vulnerability to the many things that might go wrong. I call this the Cynical Mindset. This perspective gives rise to values that reflect the perceived vulnerability of individuals who subscribe to it.  

Need Cynical Value
Physiological Access to Physical Requirements – food, water, air, warmth
Safety Protective Boundaries and Boarders
Security Resource accumulation (avoidance of scarcity) (wealth/greed)
Membership Tribal Membership – strength in numbers (them vs us)
Agency (Power to Act) Control – status
Meaning Personal Meaning – relative to self concerns
Purpose Personal Success – relative to others

Table 1 – Values of the Cynical Mindset

We learn to value conditions that we believe help us in meeting our needs. Values inspire behaviours that are seen to align with them. It is my contention that actions inspired by the values of The Cynical Mindset, as shown in Table 1, have resulted in our current global situation. The prevailing mindset in our world today is the Cynical Mindset and its consequences have been dire. 

Why is this mindset so widespread? It may be that The Cynical Mindset is the default mindset for human beings but there is evidence that mindsets have cultural origins (in a kind of chicken-or-egg process). Regardless of its roots the Cynical Mindset is now deeply and pervasively embedded in our assumptions about the place of human beings in the world.

Thankfully, there is another way of looking at things. This mindset emerges out of seeing ourselves in as existing in an interdependent relationship with the rest of existence. This is not a new idea by any means. This perspective is in agreement with the ecological view of reality, the current scientific paradigm, indigenous peoples’ teachings, and the foundations of some eastern spiritual traditions.

Because I believe this worldview to be in alignment with the nature of reality I am hopeful that it offers a way of looking at things that has the capacity to guide our choices in the direction of a more sustainable and compassionate future. For this reason I call it The Hopeful Mindset. The values that accrue from this mindset are quite different from those of The Cynical Mindset.

Need Hopeful Values
Basic Physiological Needs (food, water, warmth) Vitality
Safety Need Resiliency
Security Need Sustainability (pursuit of balance)
Membership Need Inclusive Connection/Compassion
Agency (Capacity to Act) Need Personal Responsibility/Creativity/Skills
Meaning Need Humility (interdependent selves)
Purpose Need Personal Contribution (knowledge and capabilities)

Table 2 – Values of the Hopeful Mindset

Since these values reflect the interdependent nature of reality it seems to me that actions inspired by them have the potential to create sustainable and humane results moving forward.

Going forward, we have a choice between two paths: 

“Our expression of morality is, to a very large extent, a function of our identity. If you see yourself as an isolated individual, your values will accordingly lead you to the pursuit of your own happiness at the expense of others. If you identify with your community, your values will emphasize the welfare of the group. When you recognize yourself as part of nature, you will automatically feel drawn to nurture and protect the natural world.”  Jeremy Lent

Following the path of The Cynical Mindset is what got us into our current dilemma. Choosing this path going forward from the coronavirus pandemic would be an attempt to bounce back to the way things were before the virus forced us to pause and reflect. On the other hand, if we are to “bounce forward” I maintain that we should to take the path of The Hopeful Mindset in pursuit of a more sustainable and compassionate world.

Make no mistake, given that The Cynical Mindset has pervaded western cultures for centuries and that it is now the most prevalent mindset across the globe, a widespread adoption of The Hopeful Mindset’s values is not guaranteed. However, there are encouraging signs that such a shift in perspective is already going on and has been for some time. Beginning with the environmental movement in the early 60s, and expanding ever since, efforts have been made to implement initiatives that reflect the values of the interdependent mindset. Even more encouraging are the compassionate responses emerging during this pandemic. People are showing unusual levels of empathy and support for one another. The values of the interdependent mindset are coming to the fore in creative and unexpected ways.

What is needed now is support of the movements already underway and for new initiatives to add their efforts to the momentum that is now building. I believe that with commitment and increasing participation and a respect for our interdependent existence we have a chance at interacting with the world and each other in ways that can create a world worth living in; for us and for our fellow inhabitants of the planet. It is possible, should enough of us take the appropriate path, that COVID-19 is sounding a death knell for the illusion of terrible separation (cast by the independent mindset) that has gripped our hearts and minds for too long. If this is so, there is a great opportunity for us each to participate in a worldwide awakening from that obsolete nightmare. If we are to “bounce forward” now is the time. Together we can do this.