We are rapidly moving toward creation of a global wasteland. Whether or not the conditions we have created are already irreversible is open to question. We have heard much of late about the idea of sustainability.
If we mean to maintain sustainability at our present level of affluence and physical comfort, then we must be certain that we do not add to the burden of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or cause further concentrations of toxins in the oceans, or greater increases in parts per million of pesticides in living organisms. To the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainable development meant that the needs of the present generation must be met without compromising the needs of future generations. It suggested that the limitations involved are set by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects caused by human technology and social organization, and stated that “the very survival of the planet” hinged on our ability to do this.
We are unfortunately very experienced at making superficial “cosmetic” changes and exaggerating their significance. However it seems dubious that the engineers of the spectacularly unsustainable society we have created have the capability of creating a sustainable one. Old habits die hard, and leopards rarely change their spots. But that shouldn’t be surprising. We are so well adjusted to the creed of superabundance that it seems positive heresy to even entertain the idea of relative frugality.
It could be argued that a near revolution would be necessary to produce the formidable changes that we really have to make. We have been quite successful at evading the thought that we have to behave more responsibly toward the earth and if we continue to delude ourselves, things will be dismally grim. So, revolution it must be; but the kind of revolution needed is something we have never tackled before – a revolution of character.
Historians Will and Ariel Durant observed that violent revolutions, the kind with which we are most familiar, do less to redistribute wealth than to destroy it. They also noted that eventually a new minority with the same instincts as the old group of predators will rise to the forefront and monopolize wealth. As they wrote, “The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.”
If we believe that a major change of thought and attitude is a small price to pay for the continued existence of our species, then we need to develop goals and purposes that transcend the present acquisitiveness and ambition which now motivate society. What is more, this new form of thought has to penetrate all levels of society, including that level currently controlling the media which so easily influences our values. According to philosopher Lewis Mumford, “The wars of our time have only brought out a destructiveness and a denial of life that were latent in this society; they were in a sense the negative alternatives to a general renewal that no ruling class was self-denying enough to sanction.”
As the Rienows suggest in their book Moment in the Sun, the only thing that can bring us into equilibrium with our environment and prolong the life of our species, is the “acceptance of a totally new code of values.”
Locked into the view that “progress” is measurable, our central focus of profit and material gain has left behind matters of humanity and ethics. We have come to look upon the magnificent and vital earth as a mere storehouse of resources which exist for the sole purpose of gratifying human whims, whether meaningful or meaningless. Mark Twain was probably right when he quipped: “Man is the only animal that blushes or needs to!”
If our culture is to turn successfully towards a sustainable lifestyle, it will only do so because of a revitalization of long-suppressed metaphysical ideas. People will have to recognize that there is a crisis, ponder its meaning, and arrive at the conclusion that the problems manifested are those of our own creation, problems which result from a grossly exaggerated conviction regarding the extent to which we can manipulate nature. We must begin to recognize the sanctity of all life. To attain sustainability we must rethink our aims, aspirations, and actions, and develop values that lie within the bounds of a healthy dynamic environment.
So it is indeed a form of revolution in character that we need. We have focused for too long on the difference between ourselves and other living things while ignoring the similarities. We feel we must rule the cosmos and use it as our warehouse before we have even learned to dispose of our own wastes, to bring peace to our planet, or to govern ourselves. Only when we become individually complete and responsible can we expect responsible government and accountable industry.