In a comment to an earlier post, I linked to an essay that I believe provides some good counsel for our times. The abstract of that essay follows:
An Abstract of "A General Statement of Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons"
Although "The Tragedy of the Commons" is widely acclaimed, activists in environmental causes as well as professionals in ethics continue to act as if the essay had never been written. They ignore the central thesis that traditional, a priori thinking in ethics is mistaken and must be discarded. Hence the need remains to give the tragedy of the commons a more general statement--one which can convince a wide public of the correctness of its method and principles. In essence Hardin's essay is a thought experiment. Its purpose is not to make a historical statement but rather to demonstrate that tragic consequences can follow from practicing mistaken moral theories. Then it proposes a system-sensitive ethics that can prevent tragedy. The general statement of the tragedy of the commons demonstrates that an a priori ethics constructed on human-centered, moral principles and a definition of equal justice cannot prevent and indeed always supports growth in population and consumption. Such growth, though not inevitable, is a constant threat. If continual growth should ever occur, it eventually causes the breakdown of the ecosystems which support civilization. Henceforth, any viable ethics must satisfy these related requirements:
(1) An acceptable system of ethics is contingent on its ability to preserve the ecosystems which sustain it.
(2) Biological necessity has a veto over the behavior which any set of moral beliefs can allow or require.
(3) Biological success is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for any acceptable ethical theory. In summary, no ethics can be grounded in biological impossibility; no ethics can be incoherent in that it requires ethical behavior that ends all further ethical behavior. Clearly any ethics which tries to do so is mistaken; it is wrong.
February 26, 1997
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611
Intuitively, many people know this to be true. Most have not thought about how to live their lives under this new system of ethics. Over the years, I have given it a great deal of thought and the result is the "club" that has been described at this blog.
Young people in particular have a strong incentive to see society move towards this new system. The old one screws them big time. The following excerpt from Beyond Growth is relevant:
In standard economics ["mainstream" economics that does not acknowledge the Second Law of Thermodynamics] the balancing of future against present costs and benefits is done by discounting. A time discount rate is a numerical way of expressing the value judgment that beyond a certain point the future is not worth anything to presently living people. The higher the discount rate, the sooner that point is reached. The value of the future to future people does not count in the standard approach. [p.36]
This is in some ways related to the immorality of usury that I have discussed in earlier posts. Although I think that most people will find it difficult to move away from the current, materialistic paradigm, interestingly enough, unmanageable levels of debt may force people to another paradigm -- one in which there is not any monetary income for the creditors to come after. Although debt is an individual responsibility, it is also a societal problem. Debt is embedded in almost all costs of goods and services.
It is possible to see ones life neither as self-made nor as the product of human society alone but as a gift of the total evolutionary process. If I view myself primarily in this way, then it is appropriate for my response to be one of gratitude. The fitting ethical action then is service of that to which I find myself so comprehensively indebted. To serve the evolutionary process can be understood to mean furthering its inclusive work. One would then strive in general to contribute to the progress or growth of life in all its diversity of forms, beginning with human life but by no means limiting oneself to it. [From an essay titled Ecology, Ethics, and Theology by John Cobb, Included in Toward A Steady-State Economy]
There are so many reasons to live differently. Over the past few days I have come to realize that what I am proposing is a liberal arts club -- something that we can get involved with at an early age and have throughout our lives. Most people never get a liberal arts education and most of those that do inevitably enter the world of materialism.
I'll end with one excerpt from A General Statement of the Tragedy of the Commons:
In fact some people, who reason correctly, reason from different premises. They may choose to live simply so as to meet the needs of life with the least effort and with the least damaging impact on the environment. For such persons, simplicity and frugality can afford a better life because they allow more opportunity for leisure, for cultural and social activity, and for intellectual development.