Humankind is fit only to be exterminated – that might sometimes seem like the only answer to our ever-growing population, environmental degradation and the human threat to biodiversity. But if you accept it’s impossible to reconcile this with any meaningful morality, we need a new approach to how we conduct ourselves.
We have come to think of the shop workers and farmers before we think of the animal and plant produce they supply us with. We think of the house rather than the plants and animals sacrificed to produce it. This wouldn’t matter if we lived in balance, consuming no faster than the Earth can replenish itself. But life expectancy in most countries keeps rising and we compete for ever scarcer resources, feeding a consumer culture that does little to improve happiness, and much to harm. The illusion is that this consumer life is desirable – and the Paris climate talks did nothing to challenge this.
Only since the 20th century has prosperity been measured in the economic model of “growth”. This has led us to develop indefensible models of production and consumption such as built-in obsolescence. The recent fashion for false minimalism, in which consumers favour “experiences over things” should not distract us from the resource-greedy lifestyles that these affectations illustrate. The “must-see” destinations on bucket lists leave a heavy ecological footprint.
We discuss sustainability against a background noise of conflicting consumer values from entities with extraordinary material resources and powers of seduction. The word “enough” is anathema to these businesses. Yet it is at the heart of both Aristotle’s virtue ethics and Buddhist philosophy; and Christianity, Judaism and Islam all warn against the dangers of excess.
Gratitude through sacrifice
So what is to be done? Turning our backs on industrialised society in an obsessive drive to make the world “green” again is probably not the answer, but we do need to find a way to sustain the dignity and quality of human lives without the catastrophic impact we are currently having on the planet.
One way forward is to rediscover the value of sacrifice. Sacrifice has become associated with going without, with giving things up, along the lines of Lent and Ramadan. It seems like a form of piety, with the noxious whiff of martyrdom.
But sacrifice comes from the idea of making something sacred by offering it to the deity, acknowledging the source of everything beyond ourselves. It does not matter whether the deity is real or imagined. What matters is gratitude – a psychologically healthy acknowledgement that we do not live by our own means, but in relationship with a vast network, the source and origin of which are profoundly mysterious.
In Hindu tradition, for example, sacrifice (“puja”) is seen as the ritual celebration of gratitude for abundance. In the temples of Hindu India, offerings are made by anyone and everyone, from each according to their ability, and distributed (as “prasad”) to each according to their need. Nobody need go hungry.
The value of getting rid of things we do not need is also recognised in the Hindu conception of a guru as a teacher of truth. This is different from the Western concept of teaching, which is too often characterised by adding knowledge and skills to the learner. The guru’s teaching consists of removing illusions and ignorance, leaving only what is real, true and beautiful. Compare this to the process of cutting rough diamonds into sparkling jewels – it can only be done with a thorough knowledge and appreciation of the material.
We need to develop a better understanding of a good life, well lived. Satisfaction and contentment are linked closely to the idea of having enough – “satis” is Latin for “enough”, for instance.
The disruptive force of the internet offers a useful means of reconceptualising how we see wealth. The internet has meant that much of what we have traditionally paid for is available for free – often illegally, of course. But in sharing information we lose nothing, and stand to gain a great deal. Misgivings about “who got rich off the internet” are misplaced. Anyone with access to it is rich.
What we need is another great leap forward, abandoning the economics of scarcity and the fear of losing out – and move into a renewed relationship of gratitude and appreciation with the world. We have nothing to lose but excess. This Christmas holiday period is an excellent opportunity to reflect on how we should live in 2016 and beyond.