Collapse or no collapse: we need to respect to survive

Lucy McAndrew

Respect for ourselves, for others and for nature is fundamental to survival because it is what gives us a sense of our place in the world and, when we lose that, we float free of the very network of relationships that sustains us.

Aretha Franklin famously sang about it, and the concept has been widely discussed in arenas as diverse as politics and psychotherapy, but what does respect really mean in the 21st century? I believe that in this time of increasing volatility and uncertainty, it has new resonance and a deeper meaning: that we can acknowledge and consider the needs of others, without losing sight of our own. In short, as I explain below, it means choosing to take responsibility for our actions and for their consequences, wherever and by whomever they are felt. And if we are to have a stable future, it means doing this now, irrespective of whether or not we are poised for collapse.

As a sceptic I find it particularly hard to read all the predictions of imminent global financial [1] and, possibly, ecological [2] collapse without wanting to question the grounds on which they’re made. After all, if one cliché could be used to sum up our experience to date, it’s that “the future is hard to predict”[3].

But rather than predicting what we might do if the world we know dissolves, I want to explore what we might do regardless of what the future holds. What might the key be to a transition to a better place — personally, socially, politically, ecologically and economically? I believe that the key is respect. Respect is fundamental to survival because it gives us a sense of our place in the world, and when we lose that, we float free of the very network of relationships that sustain us. And since we are not islands, as John Donne so memorably reminded us, free-floating doesn’t work for us: we die. Only by respecting what we are and taking responsibility for how we interact with one another and the world can we hope to manage a collapse or gradual subsidence of society, or even a stable transition to a civilised future.

There is no doubt that today we exist in an uncomfortably and unnecessarily parasitic relationship with one another and, critically, with the natural world. Buying cheap electronic goods at the price of someone else’s childhood is possible only because the children in question live elsewhere, out of sight. Faced with the horror of their daily reality, few of us could stomach the end product, just as few who watched Fast Food Nation [4] found eating McDonald’s thereafter anything other than a queasy experience.

This lack of focused reflection on the basic laws of cause and effect allows us to tolerate the intolerable. It’s like any other behaviour that is damaging to the self. Because we cannot see what is happening to our insides when we eat junk food, binge drink, smoke or snort drugs, we are able to put the impact to one side. And in doing so, we can choose not to reflect on the abusive relationship we’ve created with ourselves; to do so would demand that we take much more responsibility.

So, even though we have the capacity to reflect, we’re able to compartmentalise our thinking because often there’s no immediately visible effect that we have to face as a result of our behaviour. This compartmentalisation means, however, that we can wilfully ignore exploitation and abuse.

What has brought us to this state? I believe that it is our extravagance, which, when combined with willful ignorance, frequently overrides the one ability that, more than any other, has ensured our survival as a species: our ability to think.

This ability to think, including our ability to imagine, analyse and digest, is a highly sophisticated and versatile tool. To maximise this versatility, we need to change the way(s) we think to become more flexible in our responses and gear our skills more towards enhancing our survival than to parasitism or exploitation.

We are capable of broadening our understanding of our place and our responsibilities — we have to if we are to survive — providing we feel positive about the potential impact of any action we take [5]. This demands that we become extravagant in a new way — in our thinking. Integrated thinking that takes into account all systems, animate and inanimate, is essential because it embraces and accommodates the whole complex web of interests in the world.

Some people claim, however, that exploitation is fundamental to the nature of life [6]. I would counter that the ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ view is outmoded as a way of seeing relationships in the biotic community [7]. Frank Ryan’s book Virolution makes clear that even humans and viruses can interact to the benefit of both, albeit in an aggressive symbiosis. And I believe that it is symbiosis, not parasitism, that will enable our species to ride out the consequences of our past and present detrimental acts. In fact, it is far more ‘natural’ for us to be conscious of our attachment to, and responsibilities towards, the world than it is for than it is for us ravenously to consume to the point of fracture and explosion.

More than anything else, it is our ability to empathise, to imagine ourselves in someone else’s position, which has enhanced our survivability as a species. [8] This ability probably evolved from having to spend so long looking after dependent young. We then extended it and found that it worked in groups. We now know that it works in whole nations and even internationally. It works to our benefit. And we must now use it in our approach to nature as a whole.

But could a shift of mindset actually mitigate some of the worst potential effects of our present blindness? I believe strongly that it could. Our relationship with nature to date has been one of attempted domination and control over what has often threatened to annihilate us: “we shall overcome”. We have attempted to submerge the natural beneath a layer of urban dust, to subjugate the “beast” to meet our needs (and wants). The world’s current difficulties — ecological, social and economic — show us that this relationship is no longer useful. Nature, and society at large, is in dire need of our capacity to think critically and to solve problems. And without a crucial shift from this old attitude of ‘we will overcome’ to one of ‘we have to take responsibility’, we face the horror of fragmentation which, when it comes to problem-solving, will leave us high and dry.

To bring about a change of attitude from willful ignorance of exploitation to one of respectful and responsible engagement requires huge courage. Violent panic can come from the fear induced by having to take control of something we haven’t taken control of before. And if fear is allowed to overrun the required transition to a more stable world, we are likely to see scenes of extreme aggression. So we need courage to overcome the fear.

If we survive such conflict, what remains of us? The risk is that the aftermath of this kind of madness and aggression can bring with it a broken mind, one that seeks further avoidance or dies. If we are, as many in this book argue, poised for collapse, or even if what we are witnessing in the world is a slow disintegration, we must understand that our current direction, with our wilful refusal to see what we are doing, can only end in internal disintegrity. Disintegration is not conducive to people pulling together to imagine and create a better relationship, to repairing the damage, to reconstructing society with positive aims in mind. It’s possible that disintegration will create a spiral of destructive behaviours for humans which could repeat itself until either the species wipes itself out, or we learn to open our eyes [9]. This is anti-evolution, and it’s not a direction we can afford to take.

The alternative is that we remain calm. We examine ourselves in the context of what we know: that we are evolved living systems, along with every other organism and biotic system on the planet. And we fit in to that system not at the top, but as one piece in the puzzle.

For respect to mean anything, there must be a rationale on which we can base our attitude. Traditionally, this has involved reference to an external power: we respect our fellows, for example, because they, too, are made in the image of God. I want to suggest that there is a far simpler, more rational argument on which we can base our attitude of respect.

At the heart of this argument is the idea that all evolved living systems have something fundamental in common: certain goals and conditions that can be termed their ‘good’, which they pursue, sometimes consciously, more often inherently. This is what inherent worth is: a ‘good’ pursued. In many cases, the conditions for a life in pursuit of that good are simple: unpolluted water and air, space and a source of energy.

By why respect a ‘good’, especially if it is in conflict with my own? The answer is based on our inherent ability to recognise this qualitative aspect of life, this ‘good.’ The American author and psychiatrist Mark Goulston has argued, convincingly, that humans are physiologically hard-wired to empathise with other human beings, once we see what their experience is. And precisely because we can empathise — because we think, see, understand this common ground — means we have an obligation to acknowledge it. That we are thinking entities, to use Descartes’ phrase [10], thus puts us in a unique position in relation to any knowledge we have: we have the capacity to act on that information consciously, with deliberation. In other words, we understand that we have a choice about any action we take. And that the process of making that choice begins with the idea that, knowing what we do, we owe it to the world to respect it and to respect the systems and people within it. We cannot recognise something and then ignore it. Integrating our knowledge and our actions becomes imperative. We have to act on what we know.

Some would argue that this is not viable. For a start, it’s too time-consuming to consider each individual organism when making a decision about what to do. But this is fear talking — fear, perhaps, of being overwhelmed. We cannot avoid our impact on the world; we have to take responsibility for it, to respond collectively and individually to what we are doing. Respect requires that we think about it, not ignore it or see it as someone else’s problem. Cutting off knowledge is, then, wilful self- and species-destruction.

Very simply, respect, coming from a latinate root, “to look back at,” implies the sweeping of one’s mental eye over something. Respect means we have to look back at what we are and at what we have done, and identify what has worked and what has failed. This doesn’t require profound intellectual talent. It requires only a little thought. And because thinking is what humans do, it is perfectly natural to reflect in this way.

Respect is not neutral. It is, in fact, many things at once: an evaluation and a recognition of the worth of something; an acknowledgment of less-than-perfect knowledge, and a willingness to learn more; self-recognition and acknowledgment, but without prioritisation of the self; realisation of the needs of others, but without prioritising those over the needs of the self; and, finally, and most importantly, because most often neglected, it is an awareness of the needs of the natural community of living organisms, from complex to simple, on the basis that the good of life in them is owed acknowledgment by the good of life in us [11].

And first in line for such acknowledgment is nature itself, which is now at our mercy. We need to respond responsibly, respectfully, if our control of our situation is not to continue to come at the expense of so much of the rest of the living world. This realisation is also an awareness of payback time: our existence as creatures of culture and technology has been at the price of reduced value overall [12]. We owe a debt of restitution to the rest of the living world. But even if we didn’t, we cannot afford to continue to cost this much, for our own sakes, though this is a weaker argument for changing our attitude [13].

Say, however, that we are now facing a situation of hardship, a situation where our ability to maintain an attitude of respect is challenged by, for instance, a failure to meet basic needs like food, and a lack of infrastructure, jobs, money or security. How, under these circumstances, might an attitude of respect prove beneficial?

It is empirically evident that respectful engagement during crises is more effective as a strategy for enabling a successful distribution of goods to survivors, than fear- or profit-driven engagement, providing (and this is important) that the dice are not weighted in favour of profit-driven engagement benefitting more participants, or benefitting them to a degree that outweighs respectful engagement [14]. All other things being equal, respectful engagement allows people to distribute goods equitably, to maintain the natural environment to the common good, to create or maintain a sense of control amongst those involved and to develop resistance to aggressive exploitation by outsiders.

In contrast, engagement that relies on imposition of rules, or on fragmentation, results in lowered immune responses to disease, fragmentation within groups in response to community requirements (less help given to rape victims, for instance), ‘learned helplessness’ and less self-reliance in the context of basic survival responses (less initiative in terms of crop growing or developing community-building projects) and less interest in the environment, resulting in fewer attempts to protect or preserve the ecology or habitats in which human populations subsist.

And so, where are we now? Our current position in Ireland is complex. On the one hand, our debt far outstrips our assets, which has knock-on effects in terms of social and personal respect (drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and depression, marital breakdown and community fragmentation associated with job loss). On the other hand, the ‘learned helplessness’ associated with an overly controlling, institutionally and politically powerful religious community (one that perpretrated sexual, psychological and physical abuse), and the added problems associated with poverty and deprivation, have to a large degree been tackled.

Even traditionally marginalised groups (asylum seekers, travellers) have been more or less accommodated. Unfortunately, the possibility of economic and environmental crisis also threatens the stability of this new-found tolerance. Unfortunately, too, while an overt attempt to address treatment of land and biota has been made through EU-funded programmes (the designation of areas as Special Areas of Conservation, for instance) the covert understanding has remained that, if and when necessary, human interests will always trump those of the natural world. But fragmented thinking like this will not enable us to deal with the problems we face now, or those we might or are likely to face in the future. As I explained above, now is the time for truly integrated thinking, extravagant thinking, which accommodates the whole complex web of interests.

‘You can’t eat the scenery’, one local politician once lectured me. And it’s true: considering all interests is time-consuming. In a collapse situation, it is hard to imagine individuals or even communities thinking beyond their own immediate needs. Yet humans have reacted throughout history to emergencies in a variety of ways, and every time, it is the reactions that involve more forethought, and take a broader view of the situation, which most benefit the individuals involved.

There are many examples in human history that support the contention that living with respect for one’s surroundings, however extreme the conditions, is a survival asset. From the Himalayas to Nazi Germany, from the Andes plane crash described in Alive to the stories of children surviving in refugee camps, living with respect for where one is, who one is with, and what one is, is the most profoundly life-protecting principle one can learn [15].

Respectful engagement thus protects us in times of crisis, but, more importantly, I would argue that it also enhances our chances of survival even when we’re not in crisis. Whether in the personal or the political sphere, the ecological or the economic, relationships can be shattered by disparagement, distrust and fear.

An example of what happens when respect disappears is found in Colin Turnbull’s book The Mountain People [16], in which he reflects (albeit controversially) on the experience of the Ik tribe after their lands were drastically reduced when the government decided to section off part of their former ranging ground as a national park. The result, tragically but inevitably, was that the Ik suffered dreadful privation as a result of this reduction in space. They starved. According to Turnbull, so complete was the fragmentation caused by the move, that individuals displayed no empathy towards one another. Turnbull presented evidence that respect had disappeared entirely by the time he wrote of his own attempts to intervene, and highlighted the derision with which such attempts were met.

Can you learn to respect? There is strong evidence to suggest that, yes, people can. First, they can be taught the rationale behind respect — who to respect, and why — and then they can practice it between one another and the world. It is a cumulative effect; the more people who do it, the more authority it has. This is obviously useful during emergencies. However, even if no emergency occurs, developing such an attitude towards not only other people but also towards the rest of the living world is something worth pursuing for its own sake.

If nothing changed about how our society operated, but we centred ourselves on the notion of respect, we would no longer be able to justify buying cheap clothing from factories that employ children in India, or plastic games made by a labour force of indentured slaves in China. We would fundamentally change our relationship with other countries, our trade agreements, our toleration for war or forced migration. This would not necessarily weaken our economic position. In fact, if we acted strongly on this, the likelihood is that our international reputation would benefit.

If we took seriously the notion of respect for nature, even if nothing else altered, we would put aside land specifically for other creatures’ use, ensure there were migration routes between fields and consider the impact of water use not just on human communities but on all the organisms, fish to foul, bacteria to blue-green algae, for whom water is a ‘good’. We could even consider ‘reparation’ for the abuse of ecosystems and species in the past. Rather than decreasing our yield, however, this alteration in land use could actually increase the output, since a more balanced agriculture will rely on advanced technologies, or none. The exploitative and abusive tools we’ve used will be obsolete.

This would, obviously, dramatically alter our society, even if the economy limped on. It would, of course, dramatically alter the economy too. Would it make us weaker, or more vulnerable to aggressive moves by other societies that did not centre on respect? No. Balancing interests does not mean subsuming our own interests for the interests of others, so self-defence (personal as well as military) would be encouraged, but in balance with other interests rather than to their exclusion. If communities strengthened, our resilience to aggression would increase, not decrease. If our economy operated differently from those of our neighbours, this would not necessarily put us at a disadvantage but might even increase our ability to trade successfully. Respect tends to breed respect.

Now, what of the crash? If the current prevailing attitude which fails to centre on respect does not change and economic and then social breakdown ensues, we face an exponential increase in violence, fear, suspicion, the closing of borders, panic, mental-health problems and environmental degradation [17]. If the predominant attitude is one of fear or contempt, there will be huge obstacles to overcome. And if we pay only lip service to the idea of respect and how it might be disseminated, there will be little incentive to believe in ‘good’ as common ground. Bringing respect to the fore will require extraordinary extravagance of thought, which will, in turn, require bravery and courage.

Better for all, then, to envisage a scenario where respect has taken hold as the prevailing point of view. If we begin to centre our attitudes and actions on respect, then we will be able to focus on what we can do together, for the common good. In such a scenario, what benefits us individually can be balanced with what benefits the wider community and the non-human environment. And while it is hard to imagine a human society that is in perfect harmony with its landscape, it is still possible to imagine a society that has such harmony as an underlying goal, in recognition of the fact that drawing ourselves into a respectful relationship with our environment — people, biota, place — is to our benefit. Such a strategy allows us to survive, even thrive, in better balance than the strategy we have pushed ourselves towards to date: short-term thrill at long-term cost.

The state of the world is potentially perilous but predicting an apocalypse is risky. We could be wrong. However, one thing is certain: we exist in an unsustainable relationship with nature, with one another and, to a large degree, with ourselves. We can argue that this is a time to retreat, or we can do what we do best: increase our sense of responsibility, intervene, act, care. Exploitation will exhaust us and the planet. We need something more regenerative if we are to develop resilience. Respect provides that regeneration. All it takes is the effort to look back.


  1. M. Chossudovsky and A. G. Marshall, The Global Economic Crisis: The Great Depression of the Twenty-First Century, Global Research Press, CA, 2010
  2. J. M. Hollander, The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty Not Affluence is the World’s Number One Enemy, University of California Press, 2003
  3. S. Pilorz, a NASA physicist and personal friend who was involved in cosmological programmes, reflecting on his experience at the cosmological level.
  4. Fast Food Nation, Eric Linklater, Director, 2005
  5. Self-respect and a sense of control are integral to one another. Without a sense of being able to influence the situation, self-respect in regard to that situation is absent. C. Peterson, S. Maier, M. Seligman, Learned Helplessness: a theory for the age of personal control, Oxford University Press, 1995.
  6. Exploitation is fundamental to the nature of life: this notion comes to us from Darwin and even before, when the understanding of natural selection as the process by which evolution occurred was seen as one purely of competition. In the years since the theory of evolution first became widely known, the mechanisms of evolution have been studied in more depth and it has become increasingly evident that competition for survival is only one element of energy output. Strategies to allow cooperation or, at the very least, some balance between species survival, have become evident as a far more successful and predominant mode of evolution. See Margulis. L, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution, Basic Books, 1998.
  7. F. Ryan, Virolution, Harper Collins, 2009.
  8. R. Joyce, The Evolution of Morality, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2007.
  9. The notion that we repeat destructive patterns of behaviours even though they have brought us no benefits is written about extensively, but one interesting take has been S. Sutherland in Irrationality (Constable & Co., 1992), where he talks of the tendency to ignore or contort evidence and to become entrenched in a position, regardless of what happens next. As a psychologist, he recommends that we practice open-mindedness (tolerance) and acting with kindness towards one another as the only viable antidote to the irrational tendencies that are particularly prevalent in emergencies.
  10. R. Descartes in Meditations 6 proposed ‘res cogitans’, the thinking thing, as a means of our conceiving of our mental processes. While he was undoubtedly mistaken to think of the world as dualistically divided into mind and body, his ideas have been enormously influential in how we see ourselves and our relationship with the world.
  11. For a full discussion of respect for Nature, and in particular, for the idea of ‘good’ as a basis on which to found inherent worth, P. Taylor’s book, Respect for Nature: a theory of environmental ethics, Princeton University Press, 1986, is essential reading.
  12. R. Elliot, Faking Nature: the ethics of environmental restoration, Routledge, 1997, discusses our impact in detail.
  13. Instrumental value is contrasted with inherent value: the former is value only for something else; the latter is the perception of value in something which exists because that thing exists. A hamburger has instrumental value to me if I only need to eat to live. A place has inherent value if it is perceived as worthwhile regardless of what good it can do anyone else.
  14. The Great Famine in Ireland resulted in land-grabbing by some individuals at the cost of their weaker neighbours. Undoubtedly, the fragmentation of the community and the imposition of rules by external forces whose policies were felt to have caused the famine in the first place allowed people to justify illegitimate behaviour in their own lives.
  15. P. Paul Reid, Alive, the story of the Andes survivors, Lippincott, 1974.
  16. C. Turnbull, The Mountain People, Touchstone, 1987
  17. H. Rolston, ‘Why Study Environmental Ethics?’ in Environmental Ethics: the big questions, ed. D. R. Keller, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Featured image: Children’s hands. Author: Eastop. Source: