Book Recommendation

… by John W. Head (posted 26 Feb 2021)

Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)

Joseph Henrich has given us in this book a bracing account – unsettling, no doubt, for many of his readers – of the profound bias woven into today’s international relations. Granted, Henrich does not focus much on international relations per se, except in his closing chapter (the final section, for instance, is headed “Globalization and Its Discontents”). Still, what he explores and exposes throws doubt onto all efforts to address global problems through global institutions.

What does this mean from the perspective of the Global RESTORATION Project? Central to the GRP is the proposition or assumption that legal and institutional reforms should be made at the global level and at the “bioregional” level – specifically, placing authority over ecological matters at the level of biomes, and getting “nation-states” out of the business of environmental protection (which they have all largely botched). Doing so (we assert) can help bring a gradual restoration of the natural processes and relationship that make ours a living planet. But if the GRP’s proposals reflect only Western influences, how can they work in the long run?

To explain the book itself: Henrich’s references to WEIRD people reflects an acronym he devises … Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic. Western dominance over the world for the past several centuries derives (Henrich explains) from psychological peculiarities emerging from specific historical realities – especially the rise of Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity. An emphasis on the individual rather than the tribe, analytical thinking instead of holistic thinking, guilt over shame, and the desire for control – all these are WEIRD, according to Henrich.

I recommend the book in part for its exhaustive (but not exhausting) explanation of these points; it artfully blends history, psychology, and sociology. I recommend it specifically in the context of the Global RESTORATION Project, though, for what the book warns us, at least implicitly, about any attempts at transformational change in how our species interacts with the natural world. Any efforts to improve that interaction, at least in the ways that the GRP urges, necessarily involves self-control. Indeed, the legal and institutional reforms being proposed and discussed in the GRP community would help assure species-level self-control (by humans, that is) much like a trustee exercises self-control in handling property for the beneficiary of a trust. Whether humans are capable of exercising such self-control as a species – and, if so, how to build the legal and institutional structures to do so – remains open to question, and Henrich’s book expands the scope of this question.