“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” René Girard
René Girard was a Frenchman who was a professor of literature and history in the United States, and he discovered mimetic desire in the late 50s. Mimetic desire is the force that derivates and mediates my desires. Others create this force. It surrounds me and is more extensive than I can fully understand. I’m part of an ecology of desire.
Ecology of Desire
In his book Wanting, Luke Burgis describes humans as “model addicts.” We can’t stop mimicking other people’s desires. Our identity and choices have been shaped by the ecology of desire that we happened to be part of. Burgis states that
“according to meme theory, the spread of memes through imitation leads to the development and sustainability of culture. According to Girard’s mimetic theory, culture is formed primarily through the imitation of desires, not things. And desires are not discrete, static, and fixed; they are open-ended, dynamic, and volatile.”
I would argue that the current ecology of desire is characterized by technological progress, scalability, and autonomy. Or, in other words: better, more, and me. Even if we try to escape these desires, which many of us consciously do, according to Girard, “the effort to leave the beaten paths forces everyone into the same ditch.”
Creating alternative desires
This doesn’t mean that we can’t transform dominant desires. As Burgis puts it, being anti-mimetic is having the ability and the freedom to counteract destructive forces of desire. We, therefore, need people and places that have models of desire outside the systems they are in. I like what the neuroscientist Gerald Hüther says about the ability to act outside the system.
According to Hüther, our dignity allows us to withstand mimetic desire. If we are aware of our dignity, we can’t be tempted. At the same time, he says, when we hurt the dignity of another human or non-human, we, at the same time, hurt our dignity. He says that our unsustainable, harmful practices are caused by and only possible through a lack of dignity. Dignity then protects us from blindly following mimetic desires and, at the same time, from causing harm to others.
I never came across the role of dignity in my research on transformations towards sustainability. And now I am wondering, what role does dignity play in the transition to the Ecocene, and how might it be cultivated?
If you have an insight or something to share about the connection of dignity and sustainability, I would love to know.