In a recent article in The Guardian (“Why is life on Earth still taking second place to fossil fuel companies?”, August 19, 2021), columnist George Monbiot presents a compelling and chilling reminder of a major human weakness: we often do things that are not in our best interests, and conversely, we often do not do things that are demonstrably good and proper in terms of sustaining the well-being of ourselves and our planet. In spite of the obvious mutuality of all life processes, we humans have a longstanding proclivity for ignoring this fact and adopting self-interest as the principal motivator of our actions, both individually and collectively.
We don’t have to look far for examples of how exclusionary self-interest exerts itself in both our personal lives and throughout history. Today, as Monbiot points out, the climate crisis is a tragic, global manifestation of the debilitating aftermath of disregarding our natural interdependence. He writes: “almost everyone is now at least vaguely aware that we face the greatest catastrophe our species has ever confronted. Yet scarcely anyone alters their behavior in response.”
We are often reminded by scientists and a host of concerned social commentators that our excessive use of fossil fuels is a root cause of the current planetary crisis. This excess is in large measure the result of a widespread, willful pursuit of self-indulgent lifestyles, often culminating in ostentatious displays of individualistic achievement (such as increasingly expensive houses, cars, holidays, personal luxury items, etc.). And remarkably, this pursuit is generally socially sanctioned, to the point of considering it a kind of basic human right.
There are many reasons (psychological, sociological, political, and religious) why so many of us cling to a prioritization of individual rights, rather than recognize the mutuality of life and its inherent responsibilities. But common to all of the reasons, I believe, is a pseudo-philosophical disposition that tends to see and understand everything primarily in terms of the materiality (or physicality) of life. This disposition is, of course, a necessary aspect of knowing about our world in a scientific way, but as a foundation for knowing about ourselves and our world in a complete, holistic way, it falls far short.
The world we observe physically at any given moment is part of a reality that extends far beyond what we can perceive. Yes, the things we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell have objective qualities, but they are not limited by them. Everything that exists—all plants and animals, mountains, rivers, oceans, human beings, microscopic particles and macroscopic phenomena—participate in a world of seemingly infinite potential, and in the light of this unfolding infinity, how can we claim that what we call physical or material is the basis of anything, let alone everything? What is the origin of our intuitive and imaginative skills, and the amazing inventiveness we witness throughout nature, if not a creative power that exists before any physical manifestation of it? Surely, a worldview based solely on what we can observe provides only a partial, depiction of reality. To open ourselves to the infinite reality within which we live, we need a worldview that is sensitive to our place in the wholeness of life.
Monbiot draws attention to the present-day lack of a comprehensive, realistic worldview when he expresses little or no hope that current world governments will do enough to address our current global crisis effectively. He writes: “No government, even the most progressive, is yet prepared to contemplate the transformation we need: a global programme that places the survival of humanity and the rest of life on Earth above all other issues. We need not just new policy, but a new ethics.” By emphasizing the importance of following “a new ethics” that will give rise to new policies, Monbiot draws attention to the fact that, as persons living in an interdependent world, we respond ethically to any situation when what we do flows from acknowledging our natural interdependence.
Ethics is a term that brings together ideas, feelings, and actions that reflect our basic morality, our core beliefs and values pertaining to what is right and good. It is, therefore, a term that reflects our “being,” our way of expressing who we are as persons. And given the interdependent nature of our world, who we are (as both individuals and societies) is best understood in terms of mutuality, not in terms of pursuing exclusively individualistic agendas.
At the beginning of his article, Monbiot boldly claims that “the human tragedy is that there is no connection between what we know and what we do.” I suggest that our current tragedy can be more accurately described as the result of a broken connection between what we know and what we do. This brokenness is brought about by a misguided worldview based on a limited, material-biased understanding of ourselves and our world, and supported by a misuse of our technological prowess. When we make our scientific and technological skills the driving force of our activities on this planet, we are misusing them in the sense that we are asking them to provide a complete picture of ourselves and our world when this is something they cannot and were not meant to do.
Science and technology are expressions of human consciousness, but so are imagination and intuitive insight. Unfortunately, in our modern age we have focused on developing our scientific and technological skills to the point that we virtually idolize them because of what they can give us in terms of material benefits and comforts. But this excessive focus is rebounding on us with tragic consequences. One recent scholar describes this catastrophic rebound in terms of our becoming the tool of our tools (see Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, 1992). Surely, science and technology function as they are meant to when they act in partnership with all aspects of human nature. This implies sustaining a viable connection with our capacity for ethical thinking and acting, which, of course, includes a capacity for building and sustaining empathic relationships with everyone and everything around us.
The current planetary crisis presents us with a need that could not be more significant or urgent: a need to be fully aware of the damage we are doing to ourselves and our planet by ignoring the fundamental interdependence of our world—damage that may already be irreversible in some respects. We need to recognize that the current prevailing worldview (which ignores our interdependence) has turned many of us into dangerous exploiters of life on our planet. Moreover, we need to embrace the reality that our lives as humans are inseparably intertwined with all other living beings, which includes everything that exists, organic, inorganic, large, small, visible, or invisible. And when enough of us accept the mutual responsibility implicit in our interdependence, the social structures we sustain will follow suit with policies and actions that are genuinely life-enhancing (rather than life-debilitating, as many are at present). But as many social commentators like George Monbiot are telling us, time is running short.
This is how a human being can change:
There’s a worm addicted to eating
Suddenly, he wakes up,
call it grace, whatever, something
wakes him, and he’s no longer
He’s the entire vineyard,
and the orchard too,
the fruit, the trunks,
a growing wisdom and joy
that doesn’t need
Translation: Coleman Barks, from The Illuminated Rumi,
Broadway Books, New York, 1997, p. 25.
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