Institutional And Cultural Inertia
By John Scales Avery
04 January, 2015
Today we are faced with multiple interrelated crises, for example the threat of catastrophic climate change or equally catastrophic thermonuclear war, and the threat of widespread famine. These threats to human existence and to the biosphere demand a prompt and rational response; but because because of institutional and cultural inertia, we are failing to take the steps that are necessary to avoid disaster.
Our collective failure to respond adequately to the current crisis is very largely due to institutional inertia. For example, international relations are still based based on the concept of absolutely sovereign nation states, even though this concept has become a dangerous anachronism in an era of instantaneous global communication and economic interdependence. Within nations, systems of law and education change very slowly, although present dangers demand rapid revolutions in outlook and lifestyle. Our financial system is deeply embedded and resistant to change. Our entire industrial infrastructure is based on fossil fuels; but if the future is to be saved, the use of fossil fuels must stop.
The failure of the recent COP20 climate conference in Lima to produce a strong final document can be attributed to the fact that the nations attending the conference felt themselves to be in competition with each other, when in fact they ought to have cooperated in response to a common danger. The heavy hand of the fossil fuel industry also made itself felt at the conference.
Until the development of coal-driven steam engines in the 19th century humans lived more or less in harmony with their environment. Then, fossil fuels, representing many millions of years of stored sunlight, were extracted and burned in two centuries, driving a frenzy of growth of population and industry that has lasted until the present. But today, the party is over. Coal, oil and gas are nearly exhausted, and what remains of them must be left in the ground to avoid existential threats to humans and the biosphere. Big coal and oil corporations base the value of their stocks on ownership of the remaining resources that are still in the ground, and they can be counted on to use every trick, fair or unfair, turn those resources into money.
In general corporations represent a strong force resisting change. By law, the directors of corporations are obliged to put the profits of stockholders above every other consideration. No room whatever is left for an ecological or social conscience. Increasingly, corporations have taken control of our mass media and our political system. They intervene in such a way as to make themselves richer, and thus to increase their control of the system.
Polite conversation and cultural inertia
Each day, the conventions of polite conversation contribute to our sense that everything is as it always was. Politeness requires that we do not talk about issues that might be contrary to another person's beliefs. Thus polite conversation is dominated by trivia, entertainment, sports, the weather, gossip, food, and so on, Worries about the the distant future , the danger of nuclear war, the danger of uncontrollable climate change, or the danger of widespread famine seldom appear in conversations at the dinner table, over coffee or at the pub. In conversations between polite people, the situation is exactly the same as in the mass media. We obtain the false impression that all is well with the world. But in fact, all is not well. We have to act promptly and adequately to save the future.
Shooting Santa Claus
No one wants to shoot Santa Claus. That goes without saying! Who would want to harm that jolly old man, with his reindeer and sleigh, and his workshop at the North Pole? Who would want to prevent him from bringing happiness to everyone? Who would want to stop him from making the children's eyes light up like stars? Surely no one!
But the sad truth today is that we have to get rid of Santa somehow, before he kills us, and before he kills most of the plants and animals with which we share our world. Perhaps shooting is too harsh. Perhaps we should just forget Santa and all that he stands for, with his red suit, invented by the advertising department of Coca Cola..
This is what Santa stands for: The customer is always right. Your wish is our command. You have a right to whatever you desire. If you feel like taking a vacation on the other side of the world, don't hesitate, just do it. If you feel like buying a SUV, just do it. Self-fulfillment is your birthright. Spending makes the economy grow, and growth is good. Isn't that right?
But sadly that isn't right. We have to face the fact that endless economic growth on a finite planet is a logical impossibility, and that we have reached or passed the the sustainable limits to growth.
In today's world, we are pressing against the absolute limits of the earth's carrying capacity, and further growth carries with it the danger of future collapse. In the long run, neither the growth of industry not that of population is sustainable; and we have now reached or exceeded the sustainable limits.
The size of the human economy is, of course, the product of two factors: the total number of humans, and the consumption per capita. Let us first consider the problem of reducing the per-capita consumption in the industrialized countries. The whole structure of western society seems designed to push its citizens in the opposite direction, towards ever-increasing levels of consumption. The mass media hold before us continually the ideal of a personal utopia, filled with material goods.
Every young man in a modern industrial society feels that he is a failure unless he fights his way to the “top”; and in recent years, women too have been drawn into the competition. Of course, not everyone can reach the top; there would not be room for everyone; but society urges us all to try, and we feel a sense of failure if we do not reach the goal. Thus, modern life has become a competition of all against all for power and possessions.
When possessions are used for the purpose of social competition, demand has no natural upper limit; it is then limited only by the size of the human ego, which, as we know, is boundless. This would be all to the good if unlimited industrial growth were desirable; but today, when further industrial growth implies future collapse, western society urgently needs to find new values to replace our worship of power, our restless chase after excitement, and our admiration of excessive consumption.
If you turn on your television set, the vast majority of the programs that you will be offered give no hint at all of the true state of the world or of the dangers which we will face in the future. Part of the reason for this willful blindness is that no one wants to damage consumer confidence. No one wants to bring on a recession. No one wants to shoot Santa Claus.
But sooner or later a severe recession will come, despite our unwillingness to recognize this fact. Perhaps we should prepare for it by reordering the world's economy and infrastructure to achieve long-term sustainability, i.e. steady-state economics, population stabilization, and renewable energy.
All known human societies have religions; and this is true not only of societies that exist today, but also of all past societies of which we have any record. Therefore it seems reasonable to suppose that the tendency to be religious is an intrinsic part of human nature. It seems to be coded into our genes. If evolutionary forces have produced the human tendency to be religious, then it must have some survival value. My own belief is that religion helps us because it is a mechanism for the preservation and transmission of human cultures.
All living organisms on earth hand on information from one generation to the next in the form of messages coded into their DNA and RNA. Humans are unique in having also evolved extremely efficient non-genetic methods for transmitting information from one generation to the next through our highly developed languages.
Cultural evolution is responsible for the success of our species. We dominate the earth because of cultural evolution. Thus, if religion is a mechanism for the preservation and transmission of particular cultures, it must have conferred a great advantage to those societies that possessed religion, and a tendency to be religious would have been favored by the Darwinian forces of natural selection, and this perhaps explains why it is now a universal part of human nature.
Throughout history, until recent times, the conservative role of religions in transmitting and preserving our cultural heritage has been a great advantage. However, the dangers that we are experiencing today demand quick changes in our patterns of thought and in our lifestyles; and here the conservatism of religion may be a disadvantage. For example, at a time when the exploding global population contributes to the severity of most of the dangers that we face, religious opposition to birth control has become inappropriate.
Furthermore, human history is drenched with blood from wars have been fought in the name of religion. We can think, for example, of the Crusades, or the Islamic conquests in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, or the wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe, or the brutal treatment of the indigenous populations of Africa, and the Americas in the name of religion. The list by no means stops there. This is because religion is so closely associated with ethnicity and nationalism.
The religious leaders of today have the opportunity to contribute importantly to the solution of the problem of war. They have the opportunity to powerfully support the concept of universal human brotherhood, to build bridges between religious groups by making intermarriage across ethnic boundaries easier, and to soften the distinctions between communities. If they fail to do this, they will have failed humankind in a time of crisis.
Although religion may be a part of the problems that we face today, it can potentially be part of the solution. Because of the all-destroying modern weapons developed through the misuse of science, we urgently need religious ethics, i.e. the traditional wisdom of humankind. Not only do the fundamental ethical principles of the world's great religions agree with each others, but they also do not conflict in any way with science. If practiced, these principles would make war impossible, thus eliminating one of the greatest dangers that we face today, the cause of much of the suffering that humans experience.
The central ethical principles of Christianity can be found in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In the Sermon on the Mount, we are told that we must not only love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves; we must also love and forgive our enemies. This seemingly impractical advice is in fact of great practicality, since escalatory cycles of revenge and counter-revenge can only be ended by unilateral acts of kindness. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we are told that our neighbor, whom we must love, is not necessarily a member of our own ethnic group. Our neighbor may live on the other side of the world and belong to an entirely different race or culture; but he or she still deserves our love and care.
Contrast this with the idea of “massive retaliation” which is part of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence! In nuclear retaliation, the victims would include people of every kind: women, men, old people, and infants, completely irrespective to any degree of guilt that they might have. As the result of such an attack, many millions of people in neutral countries would also die. This type of killing has to be classified as genocide.
When a suspected criminal is tried for a wrongdoing, great efforts are made to clarify the question of guilt or innocence. Punishment only follows if guilt can be established beyond any reasonable doubt. Punishment only follows if guilt can be established beyond ant reasonable doubt. Contrast this with the totally indiscriminate mass slaughter that results from a nuclear attack!
Thus both the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, and the very existence of nuclear weapons, are completely contrary to the central ethical principles of Christianity; and not only to the principles of Christianity, but to those of every other major religion.
It is an interesting fact that the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, appears in various forms in all of the world's major religions. The Wikipedia article gives a fascinating list of the forms in which the rule appears in many cultures and religions.
The Buddhist concept of karma has great value in human relations. The word “karma” means simply “action”. In Buddhism, one believes that actions will return to the actor. Good actions will be returned, and bad actions will also be returned. This is obviously true in social relationships. If we behave with kindness to our neighbors, they will return our kindness. Conversely, a harmful act may lead to vicious circles of revenge and counter-revenge. These vicious circles can only be broken by returning good for evil. However, the concept of karma has a broader and more abstract validity, beyond the direct returns of actions to the actor:
When we perform a good action, we increase the total amount of good karma in the world. If all people similarly behave well, the world as a whole will become more pleasant and more safe. Human nature seems to have a built-in recognition of this fact, and we are rewarded by inner happiness when we perform good and kind actions. In his wonderful book, “Ancient Wisdom, Modern World”, the Dalai Lama says that good actions lead to happiness and bad actions to unhappiness, even if our neighbors do not return these actions. Inner peace, he tells us, can only be achieved through good actions.
In Buddhist philosophy, the concept of karma, action and reaction, also extends to our relationship with nature. Both Hindu and Buddhist traditions emphasize the unity of all life on earth. Most Hindus regard killing an animal as a sin, and many try to avoid accidentally stepping on insects as they walk. The Hindu and Buddhist picture of the relatedness of all life on earth has been confirmed by modern biological science. We now know that all living organisms have the same fundamental biochemistry, and we know that our own genomes are more similar to than different from the genomes of our close relations in the animal world.
The peoples of the industrialized nations urgently need to acquire a non-anthropocentric element in their ethics, similar to the reverence for all life found in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, as well as in the teachings od St. Francis of Assisi and Albert Schweitzer. We need to value other species for their own sakes, and not because we expect to use them for our own economic goals. (The simple life-style that we associate with St. Francis can also teach us much. St. Francis and St. Claire and many others who have followed in their footsteps lived lives of voluntary poverty and service, close to the ideals of Jesus himself, who said “Lay not up treasures on earth...”.)
Today a few societies follow a way of life similar to that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Anthropologists are able to obtain a vivid picture of the past by studying these societies. Usually the religious ethics of the hunter-gatherers emphasize the importance of harmony with nature. As the expansion of industry threatens to produce an ecological mega-catastrophe, we can learn much from societies that live in balance with the natural world.
We can see from this discussion that religious conservatism cuts both ways. In some respects, it damages our response to the current crisis, for example when it supports war or opposes birth control. On the other hand, the ethical principles of the world's great religions can help to save us.
Our responsibility to future generations and to the biosphere
All of the technology needed for the replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy is already in place. Although renewable sources currently supply only 19 percent of the world's energy requirements, they are growing rapidly. For example, wind energy is growing at the rate of 30 percent per year. Because of the remarkable properties of exponential growth, this will mean that wind will soon become a major supplier of the world's energy requirements, despite bitter opposition from the fossil fuel industry.
Both wind and solar energy have can now compete economically with fossil fuels, and this situation will become even more pronounced if more countries put a tax on carbon emissions, as Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom and Ireland already have done.
Much research and thought have also been devoted to the concept of a steady-state economy. The only thing that is lacking is political will. It is up to the people of the world to make their collective will felt.
History has given to our generation an enormous responsibility towards future generations. We must achieve a new kind of economy, a steady-state economy. We must stabilize global population. We must replace fossil fuels by renewable energy. We must abolish nuclear weapons. We must end the institution of war. We must reclaim democracy in countries where it has been lost. We must replace nationalism by a just system of international law. We must prevent degradation of the earth's environment. We must act with dedication and fearlessness to save the future of the earth for human civilization and for the plants and animals with which we share the gift of life.
John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at email@example.com
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