The right brain and sustainability

A cursory glance at a picture of a brain from above shows that the neo-cortex is divided. These two hemispheres are not symmetrical in form or in function. Whilst debate continues about the function of each hemisphere, there is no doubt that they are different.

The divided brain

The psychologist Ian McGilchrist describes the difference between the ‘mindsets’ of the two hemispheres as being based on two different ways of perceiving the world. Whilst both the left and the right hemispheres are concerned with survival they do it from two quite different perspectives. These two modes of perception are necessary because all animals are prey at exactly the same time as being predators (or at least food-getters). Animals need two different but concurrent forms of attention.

The left hemisphere is the predator-getter in us. It tends to have a very focussed attention on particular extrinsic goals. It is like a concentrated spot light pointing at a specific goal. Animals’ most primal goals are water, food and procreation but in humans this left-hemisphere perception has developed a focus on a wider range of extrinsic goals which you could call the ’small picture’.

The other side of the dichotomy is that all organisms are the prey for some other organism and our right brain is the preyed-upon animal in us. Consequently, the right brain has a different sort of attention which is more unfocused and open. It is like a diffuse floodlight. You could say it is more concerned with the ‘big picture’.


In his book “The Master and his Emissary” McGilchrist provides compelling evidence that the world has become more ‘left-hemisphere’ dominated. According to McGilchrist the left hemisphere considers nature as a resource to be exploited. The raison d’être of the left hemisphere is to grasp and manipulate. It doesn’t look at or understand the big picture because that is not its function. Its function is to manipulate well. 

Ironically, a left hemisphere focus causes people to think they are acting rationally towards setting goals for increased life satisfaction but are then disappointed when those goals are not achieved. The problem here is that life satisfaction is a by-product and can’t be pursued directly as the left is want to do.

Problems occur when people become too focused on manipulating things, they get stuck in a mindset that the world is a mechanism and they even see people as machines too. This way of thinking, which has escalated since the Age of Enlightenment, is extremely damaging because it doesn’t consider wider consequences, it is too focused on its goal.

Rene Descartes was an early enlightenment thinker and his science was based on his understanding that animals and humans are completely mechanistic automata, as he explains:

“I should like you to consider that these functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels.”

Descartes, Treatise on Man, p.108

The mechanistic view of nature has filtered into every aspect of society including education, health, government and social services. The mechanistic world view is that everything can be machinated and that problems can be fixed with the same type of machination that caused them.

Manipulation, in the broadest sense, is not a bad thing per se, indeed it is one of humanity’s greatest competencies. However, manipulation can become Machiavellian. This is a personality trait where manipulation, especially of other people but also tipping into exploitation of resources, is a psychological compulsion for power. 

Also, according to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere has a tendency to think it knows everything, and because of this it gets fixed into what it knows and doesn’t want to grow. This is very much the arrogant survive-at-any-cost (or fixed) mindset that leads to continual wealth accumulation and economic growth.

The right brain and sustainability

In former times, nature, and the objects in it, were considered to have souls and they were treated with dignity and respect. A woodsman would perform propitiatory rights when felling a tree. Hunters showed respect to the animals they hunted, same for the farmer when sewing seeds. Many traditional cultures, Aotearoa Māori and Native American for example, believed nature to be their kin.

From the enlightenment onwards, people in western cultures have generally stopped seeing themselves as kin of nature. Instead we see ourselves as having power over it, we have become the master of nature. Nature has become a resource for people to exploit. As we have seen, the left-hemisphere attitude is that things like land, soil, waterways, forests, animals, and even other people, are soulless resources and tools to be manipulated for human ends. 

However, land is not essentially a resource or a tool for human needs. Land is a home for bacteria, fungi, plants, worms, insects, and many other organisms. All of these organisms coexist in a self-regulating web of relationships, energy flows and feedback loops. We don’t live in a mechanistic universe but an organic one which we must understand, respect and cooperate with. 

It is interesting to know that the source of the word resource is the old French word ‘resourdre’ which in turn was from the Latin word resurgō meaning ‘to rise again’ or ‘spring up anew’. So the original meaning of the word resource was something renewable, sustainable and inherently ‘alive’.

So, nature is not a machine, it is an organic process that is alive, changing, interconnected and whole. Wholes are perceived as patterns of relationships in an ordered, i.e. self-regulating, system. You can’t manipulate a ‘part’ without affecting the whole system, because the parts are never discrete. Reality is a dynamic process and to manipulate any part of it is to change the process.

So, where the left hemisphere sees discrete parts, the right hemisphere sees connected, organic wholes.

As Fritjof Capra wrote in The Systems View of Life:

Instead of being a machine, nature at large turns out to be more like human nature – unpredictable, sensitive to the surrounding world, and influenced by small fluctuations.

A left-hemisphere emphasis has led nature to be systematically picked apart and used up. It is our natural right hemisphere ability to perceive wholes and to think about the universe in terms of systems within systems that must illuminate the path to sustainable production and consumption.