Invisible Walls

Why We Ignore the Damage We Inflict on the Planet and Ourselves

Prometheus Books, 1998, hardcover, 334 pages

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Today we are faced with an unprecedented number of serious problems, some of which threaten the very future of our species. We know what many of these problems are, and we know what to do about them, but too often our responses are far from adequate. We continue to investigate problems and search for solutions, but never seem to deal with the root causes of our failure to take adequate action. While we still have time, we must shine the beacon of intelligence and foresight into this huge and incredible blind spot. Invisible Walls goes beyond attempts at pat answers to explore the complex convergence of political, economic, social, and psychological factors that can bring these problems to ligh. If we are to take responsible action and save the earth and ourselves, we must look at how we evolved as a species, our concepts of the world and how we fit into it, the beliefs we hold, the social structures we create, and the ethical views that divide us from each other and the natural world.

What Others Say

“Many (books) cross my desk, but rarely are they invested with the insight of Invisible Walls. Peter Seidel has not only diagnosed the intrinsic challenge facing humanity, but he has prescribed a remedy.”

Lester Brown, President, Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization

“This book … is remarkable…. It is amazing how, as a non specialist, he manages to master details of social psychology or public policy that are involved in the questions he poses. … [Invisible Walls] might well lead to the turnaround in public awareness and attitudes that are needed to lead mankind to its survival in the coming century.”

John H. Herz, author; Prof. Emeritus, Grad. School, CCNY;

“Wonderful book! I sat right down and read it. Seidel is to be congratulated for doing some important thinking.”

Richard D. Lamm, Prof., University of Denver; former governor of Colorado

“A huge achievement. … Peter Seidel has located himself among first rate thinkers, worldwide, and used their ideas well. … Provocative and well researched. …[Invisible Walls] describes the limits of our brains, our conventional ways of thinking and our institutions, none of which are equipped to deal with the world they have created. It proposes creative thoughtful solutions.”

David F. Ricks, author, Prof. Emeritus, University of Cincinnati

“This is a wonderful book … that should be read by all the makers, planners and politicians … to turn them into what they actually should be: the positive elite which the world so urgently needs. … I believe that Peter Seidel’s book will be an important contribution to the mastering of the human problems of the near future.”

Rudolph A. Treumann, author, Max Plank Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics,

“Invisible Walls is that unique book that not only gives us a meaningful overview of where we are, but also shows why we are not going where we should be going. And it makes practical suggestions as to how we could be going to where we really should be, in our joint interest.”

Ervin Laszlo, author, Fellow, World Academy of Arts & Science, Club of Budapest

“The human brain today deals very imperfectly with the complex world it has inherited. The brain has built-in bias, blindnesses, deep delusions that may have made life simpler for early Homo sapiens, but present formidable obstacles to us, whose task is not to adapt to a deteriorating ecology, but to turn that ecology around. Peter Seidel to my knowledge is the first to recognize this dilemma, and he makes his case with admirable verve and clarity.”

Jeremy Campbell, author; former Washington correspondent, London Evening Standard

“The concept of Invisible Walls is a powerful one … I recommend this book.”

Elise Boulding, author, Prof. Emeritus, Dartmouth College

“Invisible Walls is a must read. … This well-written book is filled with fascinating facts and ideas that make it hard to put down.”

Donald Mann, President, Negative Population Growth



God’s Apprentice: The Source of the Problem


The World as We Perceive It

The Limitations of Our Brain

Those Ever?Compelling Primary Drives


The Psychology of Society

Overload and Other Dilemmas


Ethics, Values, and Goals


Leadership and Followership

The Workings of Government

Organized Violence

Business and Its Sidekick


What to Do?

14 – Governments Must Help

15 – Making It Happen



From the Introduction to Invisible Walls

On October 7, 1988, Ahmaogak, an Eskimo hunter searching for bowhead whales off the north coast of Alaska, discovered three California grey whales desperately gasping for air through a rapidly closing hole in the arctic ice. They faced certain death. This was not unusual, as every year a large number of California grey whales die during their migration to Baja California. But events took an unusual turn in 1988.
When Ahmaogak returned to his base at Barrow, he reported the incident to friends in the local Wildlife Management office. This started a series of events which rapidly snowballed into what has been called “Operation Breakout.”

Between the eighth and twenty-eighth of October, the United States, the Soviet Union, two corporations, Greenpeace, two brothers-in-law from Minnesota, and 150 journalists (including 26 television networks from four continents), spent $5,795,000 to free the whales and to cover the story. Every day more than a billion people watched as two traditionally hostile nations joined together in an attempt to save the lives of the whales. During fifteen days of the presidential campaign that coincided with this event, the networks even cut into campaign coverage, devoting nearly ten percent of their time to the whale story.

While this was happening, in that same three-week pe­riod, almost unnoticed, the world population increased by nearly five million; a half million children died as a result of malnu­trition; 1.5 billion tons of our planet’s topsoil were washed or blown away, 2,300 square miles of tropical rain forest were destroyed; and sixty billion dollars was spent for military purposes around the world. This was not the only irony. Public interest in the welfare of the whales was intense, but short lived. It lasted for just three weeks and involved only three whales, one of which died during the rescue. During an average three-week period in 1987, 200 whales were commercially slaughtered with little public outcry. And even in 1988 while an international moratorium was in effect, Norway, Iceland, and for “scientific purposes,” Japan, continued hunting whales. After Operation Breakout was over, the USSR, one of the heroes of the event, continued on as the world’s largest hunter of grey whales.

We seem to lack the ability to separate things of minor im­portance from the truly essential. Unlike successful plant and ani­mal species, and our own until recent times, we now seem to be unable or unwilling to act in our own self-interest. This dilemma has not escaped comment.

“We know precisely and scientifically what the effects of pollution, waste of natural resources, the population explosion, the armaments race, etc., are going to be. We are told every day by countless critics citing irrefutable arguments. But neither national leaders nor society seem to be able to do anything about it.”

—biologist Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, 1968 “We know all the things that are wrong, we know all the dangers. We have no difficulty in seeing them and describing them. We seem to have great difficulty acting upon our intuition to save ourselves, to act in a way that, in retrospect, will be seen to have been evolutionarily sound.“

—Nobel Laureate Jonas Salk, 1983 “I think when people look back at our time, they will be amazed at one thing more than any other. It is this—that we do know more about ourselves than people did in the past, but that very little of this knowledge has been put into effect.”

—novelist Doris Lessing, 1987 “Our technological society displays at the same time breathtaking intelligence and abysmal lack of wisdom. That we can produce Trident submarines indicates how functionally bright we are; that we do produce them indicates how substantively stupid we are.”

—F. E. Turner, Abandon Influence Our ignoring of the damage we inflict on our planet, and our failure to learn from it, goes back at least as far as recorded history does. Poor farming practices stripped land of its productive topsoil and seriously damaged food production in such places as ancient Greece, North Africa, China, and pre-Columbian Central America, and such practices ruined irrigation systems in Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley. Today, not having learned from these lessons, we are still using farming methods that are destroying topsoil even more rapidly.

In 1896 Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, and in 1899 American geologist T. C. Chamberlain, unbeknownst to each other, suggested that the burning of fossil fuels might increase global temperatures by increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In 1957, a study conducted by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography Research in California indicated that roughly half of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere stayed there. Humanity, the study noted, was “engaged in a great geophysical experiment.” In 1965 a White House report to President Johnson devoted 23 of its 291 pages to this topic. It warned that by the year 2000 atmospheric carbon dioxide “may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate, and will almost certainly cause significant changes in temperature and other properties of the stratosphere.” We have not yet taken these warnings seriously.

Rachel Carson was ridiculed and threatened when in 1962 she warned that pesticides were endangering wildlife. It took many tragic experiences before actions were taken to diminish such damage. We have also responded poorly to early warnings about uncontrolled population growth, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the dangers of nuclear power plants, rapidly declining fish catches, the deteriorating education of young people, and the destruction by air and water pollution of the historic structures in Egypt, Greece, and Europe.

This list could fill a book. Unfortunately, when problems are still ideas and theories to us—things we cannot hear, see, or feel—we tend to ignore them.

Our Disappointing Behavior

Today’s problems are so serious and so encompassing that Nature can neither correct nor safely accommodate them. That leaves it up to us. But as experience demonstrates, we cannot rely on ourselves to do it either. We do not know what the world we are so rapidly changing will be like in the future. We have no plans for where we are taking it. Viewing the difficulties that we face, a rational, responsible, intelligent society would take meaningful action. We do not.

In 1957 I read a book by the geochemist Harrison Brown entitled The Challenge of Man’s Future. Brown described a number of serious threats to our civilization that were simply being ignored. They included: the consequences of unrestrained population growth; eventual limits to world food production; the rapid depletion of nonrenewable energy reserves and critical mineral resources; and the consequences of nullifying the forces of natural biological selection. Brown concluded by describing the inevitable decline in the quality of life on a highly populated planet depleted of natural resources, and depicting the limitations this would place on individual freedom.

Many people must have read the book because its original printing in 1954 was followed by a number of reprints. The well-documented facts it presented should have aroused the public and spurred government action. This did not happen. It was as if the book had never been written.

We have all heard complaints about “those welfare recipients who spend their money as soon as they get it,” leaving the future to take care of itself. This is exactly how we treat our planet and ignore our own children’s future. Are we better than the welfare recipients we criticize—especially when the consequences of our own neglect are far graver? Brown’s book upset me, but I too did nothing—at that time. It did however leave me in an awkward situation.

Several years after I had studied architecture with Mies van der Rohe, who could be considered the father of the “glass box,” I went to work for a large Chicago architectural firm that was becoming famous for designing glass clad office buildings across our nation. There I worked on energy and resource wasteful buildings that were helping to bring about the very problems Harrison Brown had described. While I was studying with Mies at Illinois Institute of Technology, I also studied city planning with Ludwig Hilberseimer, whom Mies had brought with him from the Bauhaus in Germany. Hilberseimer’s main concern was to maximize urban living conditions while consuming a minimum amount of land, resources, and energy. This impressed me.

What I had learned from Brown kept bothering me. In time, I connected the concerns he aroused in me with what I learned from Hilberseimer. There was something I could and must do.

As a member of a profession that designs the environment in which most of us live—the same environment that is largely responsible for the extravagance and waste that threatens our future—I knew that I had a responsibility.

Wherever practical, I must further land and energy conservation in building and community designs. This was not possible where I was working nor would it be in other architectural offices. The most crucial task architects face is keeping busy by keeping commissions flowing into their offices. Very few of them are in a position to meaningfully influence important decisions affecting our planet.

I believed that thoughtfully conceived model communities and buildings could provide good examples for people to follow. If such models demonstrated that we could live better on less land with a lower consumption of natural resources—which would be easy to demonstrate—society might take notice and change. I was naive.

The years that followed were filled by my pursuing this interest. They included: teaching, being employed as planner for an environmentally sound, racially integrat­ed new town; buying the land for and planning an experimental eco-community; consulting to a government agency with regard to new pedestrian-oriented communities; and constructing two small energy and space conserving condominiums in high density urban areas. All of the planning projects were stopped for various reasons. The condominiums were built and featured in local newspapers and national magazines. Little interest was shown, however in their energy or space conserving features.

About this time, as memories of the Arab oil boycott faded, public concern and government support for energy conservation evaporated. I noticed that other people and organizations with similar goals to mine were also having little effect on the public or the government—even though the popular press had been giving some coverage to environmental problems since 1969.

By now I had become aware that public insensitivity to warnings of environmental devastation did not begin with its failure to heed Harrison Brown. In 1948 ecologist Fairfield Osborn in his popular book, Our Plundered Planet, warned, “… that if we continue to disregard nature and its principles the days of our civilization are numbered.” He described the problems of overcrowding, soil depletion and forest destruction. In that same year ornithologist William Voght’s book Road to Survival appeared, which described similar problems. Writer and editor Clifton Fadiman noted, “Road to Survival should–and I think it will—arouse all Americans to a consciousness of how we are ruining the very soil beneath our feet and thereby committing suicide, not too slowly either. Let us hope it will energize a rescue squad, 140,000,000 strong.” Despite Road to Survival being a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, Fadiman’s hope turned out to be wishful thinking.

Presenting evidence and developing techniques is futile if they are not used. Discovering more things that threaten us, learning more about them, and devising more remedies to avoid them will do us little good if we do not put those remedies into effect. It became clear that our failure to react to planet-imperiling circumstances does not lie in our not knowing what is wrong or not knowing what to do about it, but rather in our failure to take this knowledge seriously enough to act on it. Why not, when the stakes are so high? What is it that keeps us from behaving rationally and responsibly?

What We Must Do.

If we are to move beyond our current impasse and hope to ensure a reasonable future for humanity, we must find out why we do not effectively deal with these threats. We need to gain a better understanding of this failure and then do something about it. While we need to learn more about physical problems and their solutions as well, it is essential that we recognize that the major obstacles to real progress here lie deep within each one of us and in the society we are part of. In these pages, I will present a collection of thoughts leading to the idea that there are real barriers between ourselves and responsible, sensible action. As you will discover in the chapters that follow, these barriers appear in five areas: 1. In ourselves, the product of human evolutionary devel­opment; 2. in our concepts of reality and of our place in it; 3. in our be­liefs; 4. in the makeup of our social structures including governments and other organizations; and 5. In ethi­cal systems that do not foster harmony between people nor between people and nature.