How Our Cultural Beliefs Affect the Way We Treat the Earth

Lanie Johnson, M.A. and Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

March 25, 2007(rev. 10/3/11)

Our cultural values, customs and beliefs affect the way we treat the Earth, and they have led to the twin crises of Peak Oil and Climate Change

                                                          1.  The Man Who Hated Bees

                                                                     by Lanie Johnson

         Ten years ago Ken and I left New York City in a truck camper and headed out West. We‘d intended to take about a year to look over a few towns and decide in which one we wanted to settle.

Seven years later we were still wandering in that truck camper. We had many adventures before we came to Sandpoint, some of them even good. But our most important adventure was our change of perspective.

We were able to see our culture with fresh eyes because for the first time, we were living outside it, wandering over the landscape but not being part of it.

For example, I remember the day we met the man who hated bees.

It was an early spring day, and we decided to ride our bikes in a marvelous park, along the Platt River right in the middle of the Denver.  There they had planted what seemed like millions of colorful wild flowers.

It was heavenly, and as we rode along we fell in with another biker. He told us that he was a retired engineer, living in the Denver suburbs and that he often rode his bike through that park.

Now, we were passing through the fields of magnificent and variously colored wild flowers that gently waved in the breeze.

But without warning, that man’s demeanor suddenly changed. He waved his arms around desperately as he rode.  “Those damn bees! Those damn bees,” he shouted. “They might sting me!”

As we passed out of range of the bees, he calmed down somewhat, but still agitated, he turned toward us and said angrily, “It’s those damn flowers! They’re attracting the bees. I wish they would cut them all down. That would get rid of the bees!”

b. How Our Culture Treats Others

The memory of that man still haunts me.  He had seemed like such a nice person, and probably was, under other circumstances.  Still, I’m grateful to the man who hated bees because I learned a lot about our culture from his behavior.

Never mind the question of whether or not bees and wild flowers are useful to us; that’s not the point. Do they have a right to be here on their own? Many people seem to believe that only man has a right to be here  – because he is special and clearly superior to everyone and everything else. If something is in your way – if it merely inconveniences you, get rid of it. Move it, destroy it, annihilate it if you see fit. From self-centered beliefs like these has come enormous environmental destruction.

Ken and I have read extensively about the lives of Hunter-Gatherers, both contemporary and ancient. I could not imagine a Hunter-Gatherer demanding that we annihilate all the wild flowers so that he could be bee-free.

We have come to another conclusion, too: attitudes like those of the man who hated bees are not necessarily due to inherent human nature. We believe that they come right out of our culture. And, that is what I want to address next.

2. Cultural Beliefs

a. Power, Role, & Invisibility

Culture can be extremely powerful in forming our ideas about how to live in this world. Every culture instills deep-seated beliefs that act as beacons, showing people the way they should organize their lives.

A society that has beliefs that do not work for them because they do not conform to the way the world really works, is in deep trouble.

Most of the time we are not even consciously aware that we have such beliefs. There is an old saying that if you want to know the nature of water, do not ask a fish.  Our culture is all around us, but because we are immersed in it, we do not feel or sense it. “Mother Culture is always whispering in your ear.” (Daniel Quinn, in Ishmael)

b. How Beliefs Arise

How do cultural beliefs arise?  They usually come out of the lifestyles of people.  Let’s look at a few examples:

Hunter-Gatherers place a great deal of importance on the natural cycles of Nature that they see all around them, as well as of their own bodies. They undoubtedly came to these ideas from their keen observation of the monthly waxing and waning of the moon, from the seasonal cycles, and from women’s menstrual cycles.


[ Image – Venus of Laussels ]

These HG beliefs go back a long way. The Venus of Laussels is a 22 – 30,000 year old image of a woman sculpted on a rock ledge in Western France. Her sexual features are exaggerated. Her left hand is on her belly.  Is she pregnant?  Perhaps. In her right hand she holds what appears to be a Bison’s horn, but which may also represent the moon in its fourth quarter.  It has fourteen parallel lines incised on it.  Fourteen is of course the midpoint of both the menstrual cycle and the monthly lunar cycle. So, we suspect that even back then Hunter-Gatherer cultures were thinking and organizing their lives in terms of these cycles.

Our own linear culture and its thirst for progress is very different from the ancient H-G traditions which are cyclical – reflecting and celebrating the cycles of Nature.

Ojibway Story

There is a story attributed to the Ojibway Indians of the Great Lakes region.  A young son of the tribe has the responsibility of hunting for game to keep his aged and weak parents alive.  One particularly severe winter, he has trouble finding sufficient game and becomes quite desperate.

One snowy morning, a handsome young chief walks into the young brave’s hunting camp, and challenges him to a wrestling match, promising a special reward if the boy wins.

The boy does win, and the chief instructs him to cut off his head, bury it, and periodically water it.  The boy does so reluctantly, and the next spring, a corn plant grows from that very spot.  The boy is overjoyed.  From now on, he will plant corn and will be able to feed his parents.

This story illustrates how that Indian tribe dealt mythically with their transition from a Hunter Gatherer society to an agricultural

Nature/Nurture Controversy

Let’s consider how we can distinguish between Inherent and Cultural Behavior.  Ken and I used to discuss the more destructive aspects of human behavior with some friends in the field of psychology. One, a psychotherapist, would simply shrug and say, “well, that’s just human nature.” We’d argue instead that it was our culture, “whispering in our ears.” Two other friends, a Developmental Psychologist and an Experimental Psychologist, both had the opposite view: they insisted that human beings are a “tabula rasa” – or a blank slate upon which culture writes behavioral instructions. Here was the old ‘Nature/Nurture controversy’ in living color.

A classical way of distinguishing environmental from inherited factors in human traits is to study these traits in identical twins, who have been reared apart.  Because their biology is the same, any differences can be attributed to their environments. These types of study have consistently shown that behavioral traits in humans are only 60-65% inherited.  This is not surprising.  We have long known that learning plays a large part in our development.

Well, why should all this matter to us?  It matters, because if a behavior is considered “just human nature,” that is, if it is inherent, then there is nothing we can do to change it.  However, if the behavior is produced by a combination of biology and cultural belief, it can be changed.

Recently, Psychologists set up a study in which participants played a game during which they could from time to time decide to be either competitive or cooperative with each other.  The brain activity of the players was monitored with an MRI.  The pleasure centers of their brains consistently lit up whenever they chose to cooperate, but not when they chose to compete.  Is it possible then that mankind is hard-wired to derive pleasure from cooperation?

Then, what are the consequences of our having created a society that emphasizes competition instead?   Just look at the front page of your daily newspaper or listen to the eleven O’clock news. This is something for all of us to think about.

 How Circumstances Changed the Lives of the Kalahari Bushmen

        I have a sad tale to tell.  Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, an Anthropologist, lived with some South African Bushmen in the Kalahari desert for several years and wrote a book about her adventures, called “The Harmless People. ”  In it, she describes their idyllic lives as Hunter-Gatherers in a physically challenging environment.


(Image child offering grub) Here’s a photo of Thomas, being offered a special treat by a Bushman child. Can anyone tell what it is?


She got to know and like them on an individual basis. But, I must warn you that if you read the last chapter, it will break your hearts.

Ten years later she revisited them. White South African farmers had penetrated into the Kalahari in their perpetual search for more land, and had taken over and fenced off the few water holes that the Bushmen had depended on for their very existence.  This forced the Bushmen to come in from the desert and become virtual serfs to the farmers.  The social fabric of these sweet, gentle people had been almost totally destroyed.  People whom Thomas had known previously had now become wracked with alcoholism, drugs, wife beating, and all the rest of the antisocial behaviors that plague our own society.

Does Our Culture Have Myths?

Does our contemporary, world-wide culture have unexamined beliefs?  Jared Diamond has written a terrific book, entitled ‘Collapse.’ In it,  he examines several civilizations around the world to see which have vanished and which have endured. He concludes that the answer lies in the ways in which each civilization has reacted to environmental challenges.

For example, Diamond tells of the Europeans who settled in Greenland around 1000 A.D. Greenland‘s rivers and surrounding ocean teemed with seals and fish, and the Inuit who lived there were experts at hunting and fishing.

However, the European Greenlanders, when faced with a change to a much colder climate during the Little Ice Age (1300 – 1800 AD) refused to learn how to fish and hunt for seals from their Inuit neighbors, whom they called “Skraelings” Translation – “dirty pagan wretches.”

Instead, the Europeans persisted in continuing to farm and raise cattle despite Greenland’s poor soil and short growing season, and most of them eventually starved to death.

The settlers were in the grips of a cultural belief that we call “there is only one right way, and it is ours.”

(Enter Culture Fairy.  He is a hairy guy, dressed in a tutu & he talks like Gus, the truck driver)

C.F.  “Hey, watcha gettin so upset about?  Nothins wrong with da Woild.  I’ve come to tell ya dat everythings gonna be O.K.”

LJ – “Who are you?  Are you one of those ridiculous fairies?  Look, I resent your breaking in on us like this. We reserved this room for a discussion of the serious situation that mankind faces from the decline in cheap energy and …

C.F.  – “Dat’s exactly what I mean.  Now, don’t getcha knickers all in a twist Girly, will ya!  I’m da Culture Fairy, see.  Ya know, dis is da best of all possible woilds, and we’re gonna come out fine.  Ya know why?  Because da woild was made for Man. Humans are da pinnacle of evolution, see?

LJ  “No, I do not see!  We are using up the finite resources of the Earth, killing off other life forms, and eventually we are going to cause our own extinction if we continue to believe nonsense like that”!

C.F. – “Hey, no problema.  Don’t ya know us humans are exempt from da rules a Nature? We can do stuff that would get any other creature in deep doo doo.  And besides, everybody knows da resources of da Universe are inexhaustible, and if we use up this planet, hey, we can go to Mars.

L.J.  “Now, that is a great idea.   I hear there’s a rocket leaving for Mars shortly.  Why don’t you take it, and establish a colony there?

C.F.  Hey, not a bad idea!  After all, Man was born to rule da Universe, wasn’t he? And in order to do it , he’s gotta conquer Nature, right?   So, Mars, here I come! (he dashes out the door)

The Importance of Cultures’ Alignment with the Earth

As I see it, the main problem is that our culture is not in accord with the way the World is organized.  In fact, it has put us on a collision course with these principles.

If instead, we were to become more grounded in the Earth (if you will excuse the pun), we would gain a deeper understanding of the laws of nature, and the fact that Mankind is not exempt from them.

How Do Myths Come About?

A recent poll showed that 60% of Americans believe that the Sun rotates around the Earth. If you asked these same people whether the Earth is flat or spherical, what do you suppose they would say?  Would they tell you that if you were to drive to New Jersey, you would fall off the end of the Earth?  I don’t think so.

However, if people believe that the World was made for man, and he was made to rule it, then it follows that we are the most important thing in the Universe.  It is possible then that so many Americans believe that the Sun rotates around the Earth because they believe mythologically that we are the center of the Universe and therefore the Earth is also at the center.

Looking at it this way, it seems clear to me that this human-centered view comes right out of the deepest beliefs of our culture.  Regarding another belief, my psychotherapist friend told me some time ago that all humans are competitive, and that is just human nature.

Well, try explaining this idea of competition to a South African Bushman or a Congolese Pygmy.  One of my favorite stories is of some Australian Aborigines who were being taught the rudiments of soccer by European missionaries.  After each side had scored a goal, they all walked off the field together, thinking they had achieved the object of the game.

We’ve just looked at some different cultural beliefs-Now, let’s look at an example of how cultural beliefs can be changed. 

                                              Can We Consciously Change our Beliefs?


Some scholars believe that a society cannot consciously change its beliefs – that such beliefs come out of some sort of collective unconscious interacting with millions of bits of information and experiences.

If I believed this, I would not be addressing you right now.  How else do you explain how a hitherto obscure southern black preacher, named Martin Luther King, Jr., changed the face of America back in the 1960s?

Now, instead of extreme racial inequality, we face the end of cheap oil and a changing climate. Both situations have come about because we have extracted and used so much oil However, the end of oil offers a ray of hope. If we can learn to limit CO2 emissions, as well as limit ourselves, that is. How? We think we can do so by not only changing our lifestyle but changing its underlying beliefs as well – such as the cornucopia of endless natural resources and the human right to do whatever we please with the Earth.

Well, so how do we go about changing the beliefs of our culture?

We do not have all the answers but, here’s one thought. We don’t have to throw out our birth religions in order to change our cultural beliefs.

The most holy day of the Jewish calendar is the Day of Atonement.  It is called Yom Kippur.  On that day, you are supposed to fast and to think about the offenses you have committed against others and their offenses against you.  You try to forgive them, and also yourself for your own failures.  Every year, for most of my adult life, I, Ken, would mark that day by fasting and sitting in a Synagogue all day long, chanting prayers in a language with which I was barely acquainted.  Most of the time, quite frankly, I was not spiritually uplifted. I was bored to death.

One Yum Kippur, I could not stand the thought of another dreary day like that, and instead went kayaking all by myself in a lovely little stream.

That turned out to be one of the most unforgettable days of my life.  As I floated down the stream, gazing at the ripples and waves, with the breeze in my face and the sun shining out of a clear blue sky, I never felt more spiritual and in tune with the Universe.

Ever since then, I have gone off by myself on that special day, to fast, and to be alone with my thoughts in some beautiful and sacred natural spot.

One December, Ken and I celebrated the Solstice with some friends.  Two of them, Phil and Sandy Deutchman, suggested that we celebrate it in different way this time, the way Sandy’s Finnish ancestors did over 10,000 years ago. In Finland, people still make candle lanterns of ice to provide light and hope for the return of light in the Spring. During this season, an ancient pagan tradition has it that a goat (the “Joulupukki”) comes out of the woods and gives people presents – if they’ve been good, that is. If they’ve been bad, he gives them a butt!


• ice candles

• here are Sandy with a flashlight (the Sun) and physicist Phil – dressed as the Joulupukki – with an orange (the Earth) showing the modern Astronomy behind the ancient Solstice celebration.


Other people around the little town in which we live, Sandpoint, Idaho, have adopted various Native American practices, the purpose of which is to re-connect people to the Earth.

Tim Corcoran and Jeannine Tidwell, founders of the Twin Eagles Wilderness School in Sandpoint, have studied with native teachers across the country, including elders from the Lakota tribe. Their school is a center for learning nature awareness and wilderness skills, in order to reconnect children with the Earth. They have also started a local Lakota Inipi, or sweat lodge group.

Randy Russell, who has Choctaw heritage, and is an adopted Lakota, has started a monthly Waneeshpa, or Gathering of Elders.  Randy runs the Soul Lore program, designed to bring back ritual, rights of passage, and other paths to true adulthood for young people.

 Mother Culture Meets Mother Nature

by Lanie Johnson(Rev 3/1/07, 3/6/07

MC         My son, the Culture Fairy had it completely right and you are a lot of hysterics, carrying on with a lot of pointless worry about the world coming to an end.  And, what’s more, you’re wallowing in guilt about the silly idea that humans are responsible for what you think a mess.

LJ         Who are you? I’ve never seen you around Sandpoint.

MC         I don’t ordinarily identify myself with a name, but rather by my wonderful contributions to the world. Some choose to call me “Mother Culture.” I am in charge of designing human society, and if I do say so myself, I have done a splendid job of it.

LJ         I’ve never heard of you. Is there anyone here who can answer her objections?

MN         I can.

LJ         And who are you?

MN         I am Mother Nature. I’m sure you’ve heard of me. I am painfully familiar with Mother Culture’s ideas. Her objections basically target me and my laws.

MC         Of course I object to you. And for many 1000’s of years I have been teaching humans to overcome you. They have learned well, if I do say so myself. Little by little they have come to understand that they are exempt from your annoying and inconvenient laws, and that there is no limit to what they can achieve.

MN         Really? How interesting! You call it progress, but at what price?  Your cleverness has caused a lot of damage to the Earth, and Mankind needs the Earth in order to live. Why don’t you teach them instead to use their cleverness to save the Earth?   They’ve used up most of the Earth’s oil and now the climate is changing –

MC   Now, there you go again, exaggerating a little change in temperature.  My goodness, the culture that brought you leaf blowers, SUVs, and YouTube will easily be able to conquer the Universe and make it ours!

MN  The Universe is a mystery to be celebrated, not solved.  Humans lived in harmony with the Universe for hundreds of thousands of years, and they can learn to do so again, and have more time to experience life.

MC  Ugh!  If they just enjoy life and let everything go, they will never make any progress.  The Culture that brought you Chicken McNuggets, Botox, and American Idol will really get them somewhere even more wonderful.

MN  Well, the way I see it, they are already somewhere.  They are here.  They are surrounded by life in all its many forms.  You could teach them that all other beings are their brothers and sisters, who are to be respected and treasured instead of exploited in your never-ending search for more stuff.

MC  Lower forms of life are not my relatives!  The world was made for Man, and no other life forms have any rights.  It’s pointless to talk to you, Mother Nature.  You are hopelessly old-fashioned.

MN  The Earth is dying, Mother Culture, and I will not let that happen to it.

MC  You couldn’t be more wrong.  Mother Culture will fool you yet.

MN  In that case, I have only one more thing to say to you.

MC  And what is that?

MN  Its not nice to fool Mother Nature (Thunder & exit)



                                    10. Finale (de Nile) and Bows