I’ve given a lot of thought to the problem of making human culture on planet Earth sustainable. This word “sustainable” is more than just an environmentalist buzzword. It encapsulates an essential truth about the very survival of the human race and most other plant and animal species living on Earth. That essential truth is this: ‘sustainable’ means (among other things) having a future that is worth living. Talking about sustainability is talking about having a future that is worth living.
For anyone who wants to do more than just live in the moment and have the best time that they can day by day, for anyone who wants to think about their children, about their retirement, about their lifestyle, about having a positive impact, conversations about sustainability are unavoidable. There really aren’t too many topics of conversation that are more important than conversations about sustainability. And yet, I do not find people discussing this topic much in my day to day interactions with them. All of this said, then, and if you agree that conversations about sustainability are essential for having a future that is worth living, I shall offer a reflection on what our future here on Earth must begin to look like, in very short order, if we are to have such a future, and on a couple of the political implications of my view.
Human beings are unquestionably one of the most intelligent species of life on this planet. It is this intelligence, residing to varying degrees in each human individual, and bolstered by the culture that they have acquired, that has allowed the human race to entirely dominate most ecological systems on Earth. There was a time in our recent past when this intelligent domination of the Earth by human culture seemed to some like our “manifest destiny” or like a harvesting of fruits according to some Divine plan. Though there were glimmers of recognition that humans were having some negative effects on the planet prior to the 20th Century, it was only after the 1950s that a serious environmental movement began to emerge that was calling for a radical reevaluation of the effects of human culture on Earth.
It is important to recognize that human success in dominating Earth deceptively masks some important facts. Our intelligence and culture has emerged rapidly and dramatically on a very short time scale. Moreover, though this intelligence and culture are relatively new phenomena, the emotional life that drives them has ancient roots. This newly emerging encyclopedic cyberspace reality has been driven into being (think on-line combat games, for example, or gun access) by some very primitive drives. Survival throughout the past history of life on Earth has been governed by the process of natural selection that Charles Darwin and others elaborated Mid 19th Century, sometimes characterized as “survival of the fittest.” Indeed, it is most probably our culture-based, yet emotion fired intelligence that has given us the advantage in the survival wars on planet Earth.
However, an assumed backdrop to the operation of natural selection is the relative stability of Earth’s environment. In eras where that stability failed due to massive volcanic activity, colisions of Earth and large asteroids, and variations of solar light due to various reasons, life has frequently gone through periods of widespread extinction. We are now at the point where natural selection is operating at the expense of the stability of Earth’s environment. It is my contention that unless the operation of another principle intervenes, the fuel for the operation of natural selection, life itself, will undergo a massive contraction, as it has in past epochs.
We know that the quality of life on Earth is diminishing rapidly due to human intervention. Oceans, poisoned by plastic and over-fished, are rising and inundating coastlines. Fueled by excessive greenhouse gas emissions, Earth is heating up, bringing drought, uninhabitable regions, and massive hurricanes. Economic disparity, the result of a natural human acquisitiveness on an overcrowded planet, is bringing widespread poverty due to the failure to share resources. Powered by “developed” nations deeply in the grips of mass-consumerism for profit, land is being depleted, rivers polluted by large scale agriculture. Crowded out, species of life are disappearing at an unprecidented rate. The signs couldn’t be clearer.
I mentioned earlier the possibility of a new, superseding principle that might stave off or largely eliminate this massive destruction that results from the unbridled operation of natural selection. I will now elaborate more on that theme. All sentient life is connected to the other life in its particular ecosystem. But like the legendary fish in water being blind to the substance which sustains it, until recently, humans have been largely unaware of the biosphere in which they move and live and breath as an entity unto itself. Even if fish were to somehow become aware of the poluted ocean in which they swim, they would lack the understanding and compassion to cleanse it. Apparently, it is we, human beings, who are the only planetary species who have the potential both to understand that our Island Earth is dying and to care enough to attempt to save Its life.
I think most of us haven’t yet understood that for life on Earth as we know it to survive more than a few more decades, we need to make a switch in our consciousness. Most of the actions that most of us take every day are in the end designed primarily for our own survival and the few others we call friends and family. After that, most of us work geographically outward, fighting for our neighborhood, our city, our state, and our nation. What most of us don’t yet see and understand is that it is this very provincialism implicit in the survival of the fittest metaphor that now needs to be superceded by an awareness that continuing to operate competitively is the very destructive force that is destroying our world, and working backwards, destroying our nations, our states, our cities, our neighborhoods, and our families. We need desperately to understand and live the principle that we are all in this together.
I am not naive about what a monumental challenge such a shift in perception, understanding and action we are discussing here. It is in fact a switch from “let the best man win” to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Or at least some approximation of that, given that we are finite and limited beings. It is, in fact, an even greater challenge than the one that the world faced when in the late 1930s, fueled by the hate-mongering idealism of Adolph Hitler, Germany, Italy, and Japan launched a campaign to remake the world in an Aryan image. In that situation, political leaders across the world saw the immediate threat to their leadership that this posed, and both intranational and international cooperation emerged to ultimately defeat Naziism, albeit at great personal and national expense. Today the threat is even more severe, because it is due to the implicit Naziism that resides in each of us. Harsh as that may sound, most of us try to eliminate the other from our environments. We are not a naturally inclusive species. Inclusiveness is an acquired disposition.
On one point, though, I am fairly clear. Significant progress in saving the planet from another mass extinction depends on leadership from the greatest among us: our political, spiritual, sports and entertainment leaders must come together on this issue. I am also clear that ultimately this leadership will either come in time to save us, or it won’t. In either case, I will be dead before the really tough stuff goes down. Unfortunately for them, our children and our grandchildren will not escape our wanton abuse of power. No one can possibly cover all the relevant points here, but I do want to make a couple of final political points.
My first point: hoping for growth to solve our problems is our biggest enemy. Our two major political parties are not helping us here. The Republicans want unbridled growth and the Democrats want bridled growth. Neither solution is tenable any more. What our political leaders need to be promising us is not growth, but sustainability. My critique of the mainstream Democratic party is that they think they can bridle the beast of competitive marketing for the profit of the wealthy few. They cannot. It is not until we see that it is the beast itself—the beast of dreaming of wild wealth, the beast of accepting legions of poverty and unemployment for the sake of the profit margin, the beast of heartlessly consuming precious resources, all in service of the success of whatever company decides to throw its competitive hat into the ring—it is that beast itself that is now destroying the planet. We must kill it. We must stab the heart of the non-sharing, self-interested beast that lives within us with the silver knife of compassion.
The other two political parties that are recognized as engaged in the 2016 political debate in the USA are the Libertarian Party, fronted by Gary Johnson, and the Green Party, fronted by Jill Stein. I think the main obsession of the Libertarian Party is freedom from government interference, so I don’t see them as having the kind of global and ecological awareness that will be of any help in supporting coming to a solution of the problem we are dealing with: the snuffing out of life on Earth in the present Century. My take on the Green Party is complex. While I do not think that Jill Stein is the new Moses (or the new Christopher Hitchings, for that matter) who will lead us out of the barren environmental wilderness we are entering, I do think we would do well to compare the party platforms of both the Democratic Party and the Green Party, because I think a fusion of these two general political persuasions is what we now need. Had Bernie Sanders been running on the Green ticket, while that would have been disasterous as far as his political potential, I think I would have been supporting him over Hillary Clinton. As it is, we can, and I do, deeply thank Bernie for moving the debate to the left.
I especially am appreciative of the Ten Key Values (2016) of the Green Party. The headings are worth listing, but we all need to read the detail (except their Social Justice section needs to be strengthened):
- Grassroots Democracy
- Social Justice and Equal Opportunity
- Ecological Wisdom
- Community Based Economics
- Feminism and Gender Equity
- Respect for Diversity
- Personal and Global Responsibility
- Future Focus and Sustainability
On the other hand, a detailed look at the party platform of the Democratic Party will reveal a much more nuanced recognition of the political realities that any candidate for president of the USA must face. And to be fair, these are approaches and programs that have a much better chance of being established in some degree in the “business as usual” two-party structure of politics in this country. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that Bernie Sanders had quite an influence on what went into the Democratic party platform. Part of political wisdom is realizing that plaforms are political documents that soon get lost in the shuffle of political bargaining.
What we really need is a leader or leaders that combine the reality-based awareness of the Democratic Party platform with the clear vision of what we need long-term as expressed in the Green Party platform. Moreover, as citizens we must continually hold our leaders’ feet to the vision of the burning, consuming fire of immanent environmental degradation. I applaud the committed Green and Democratic party voices for speaking out loud and clear, and since a) I am committed to democracy and b) we need everyone’s voice, I also applaud the Republican and Libertarian voices for keeping their awareness present in ours. It is together that we can and must move forward, hopefully in love for planet and person.