Values for the Future

CURRENT AFFAIRS, 30 Apr 2012

John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indespensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
(Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862)

“There is enough for every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.”
(Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948)

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. 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.

The values which we need, both to protect nature from civilization and to protect civilization from itself, are perhaps not new. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that we need to rediscover ethical values which were once a part of human culture, but which were lost in the process of industrialization, when technology allowed us to break traditional environmental constraints.

Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, living in close contact with nature, and respecting the laws and limitations of nature. There are many hunter-gatherer societies existing today, from whose values and outlook we could learn much. Similarly, we could learn from stable traditional agricultural societies which have reached equilibrium with their environment. In such societies one can usually find, expressed as a strong ethical principle, the rule that the land must not be degraded, but must be left fertile for the use of future generations.

It would be wise for the industrialized countries to learn from the values of the older, traditional cultures, but what usually happens is the reverse: The unsustainable, power-worshiping, consumption-oriented values of western society are so strongly propagandized by television, films and advertising that they sweep aside the wisdom of older societies. Today, the whole world seems to be adopting values, fashions, and standards of behavior presented by the mass media of western society. This is unfortunate, since besides showing us unsustainable levels of affluence and economic waste, the western mass media depict values and behavior patterns that are hardly worthy of imitation. Let us hope that in the future, industrial society will put aside its arrogance, and  listen to the quiet voice of wisdom from societies that are in closer contact with nature.

What about the problem of population stabilization? Again it is a question of values.  It is now recognized that one of the most important ways to slow the global population explosion is to give women better education and equal rights. This is not only desirable for increased human happiness, and for the sake of the uniquely life-oriented point of view that women can give us, but in addition, improved education and status for women have shown themselves to be closely connected with lowered birth rates.

Sir Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University has pointed out that the changes needed to break the cycle of overpopulation and poverty are all desirable in themselves. Besides education and higher status for women, they include state-provided social security for old people, provision of water supplies near to dwellings, provision of health services to all, abolition of child labor, and general development.

In the world of the future, a future of changed values, women will take their places beside men in positions of responsibility; children will be educated rather than exploited; non-material human qualities, such as kindness, politeness, knowledge and musical and artistic ability will be valued more highly; and people will derive a larger part of their pleasure from conversation and from the appreciation of unspoiled nature. These are the values that we need for the future – a future that belongs not only to ourselves, but to our children and grandchildren.

Suggestions for further reading

  1. P. Dasgupta, “Population, Resources and Poverty”, Ambio 21, 95-101, (1992).
  2. L.R. Brown, “Who will feed China?”, W.W. Norton, New York, (1995).
  3. Luther Standing Bear, “Land of the Spotted Eagle”, Houghton Mifflin, (1933)
  4. M.K. Gandhi, “My Experiment With Truth”, Dover, (1983).

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John Scales Avery, Ph.D. is Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is “Crisis 21: Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century.”

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Apr 2012.

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