Wordsworth Saw It Coming |

3 min read
Dex Planet / Pexels

Source: Dex Planet / Pexels

The other night, I was watching a news program on TV when an ad came on. I switched the channel to a baseball game; an ad was on.

I switched to a football game; an ad was on. Then I switched to another news program, and, yes, an ad was on.

At that moment, the first lines of a William Wordsworth poem popped into my head:

The world is too much with us late and soon; Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours.

And, amid ads for dog food, a psoriasis cure, trucks, and beer, I realized what was too much with us. The global economic system is based on getting and spending—and on more and more of both. Not only do getting and spending make us lay waste our powers but, as we now finally know, they are destroying the environment.

The World Is Too Much with Us was published in 1807. What would Wordsworth think if he could see us now?

“Little we see in nature that is ours,” Wordsworth says. Getting and spending separates us from nature, and this separation, even at the level of separation 200 years ago, diminishes our powers. But what are the powers we are laying waste to?

From an evolutionary perspective, our powers are the abilities and inclinations that made us human over hundreds of thousands of years of living in foraging bands: the abilities and inclinations to cooperate, share, and reciprocate to make decisions collectively. These abilities and inclinations emerged with emotions that regulated social behavior and kept the band functioning effectively: envy, guilt, righteous anger, and gratitude.

If these are our powers, why have we been wasting them all these years, weakening ourselves? The genes of the primates that preceded our hunter-gatherer ancestors likely remained in those ancestors. Those are genes that foster dominance hierarchies and push people to acquire power.

Their effects were muted in foraging societies with no dominant hierarchies, no reason to get stuff, and nothing to spend on. But getting and spending took off spectacularly with civilization, which gave those old primate genes a red-carpet reentry into human communities. They are still with us today, promoting getting and spending, dominance and hierarchy—and still laying waste our evolution-given superpowers.

And what is the nature we have become separated from? The nature we need to reconnect with is our own.

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