We Need Their Voices Today! (0)
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 12 Jun 2017
This is a collection of biographical sketches showing people whose wise voices from the past can help to guide us today. All of the women and men, brief glimpses of whose lives and ideas are portrayed here, gave a high place to compassion. None of them was a slave to greed. We need their voices today!
[Note from TMS editor: It will be posted one biographical sketch per week]
Compassion and Greed: Two sides of human nature
Humans are capable of great compassion and unselfishness. Mothers and fathers make many sacrifices for the sake of their families. Kind teachers help us through childhood, and show us the right path. Doctors and nurses devote themselves to the welfare of their patients. Sadly there is another, side to human nature, a darker side. Human history is stained with the blood of wars and genocides. Today, this dark, aggressive side of human nature threatens to plunge our civilization into an all-destroying thermonuclear war.
Humans often exhibit kindness to those who are closest to themselves, to their families and friends, to their own social group or nation. By contrast, the terrible aggression seen in wars and genocides is directed towards outsiders. Human nature seems to exhibit what might be called “tribalism”: altruism towards one’s own group; aggression towards outsiders. Today this tendency towards tribalism threatens both human civilization and the biosphere.
Greed, in particular the greed of corporations and billionaire oligarchs, is driving human civilization and the biosphere towards disaster. The greed of giant fossil fuel corporations is driving us towards a tipping point after which human efforts to control climate change will be futile because feedback loops will have taken over. The greed of the military industrial complex is driving us towards a Third World War that might develop into a catastrophic thermonuclear war. The greed of our financial institutions is also driving us towards economic collapse, as we see in the case of Greece.
Until the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, human society maintained a more or less sustainable relationship with nature. However, with the beginning of the industrial era, traditional ways of life, containing elements of both social and environmental ethics, were replaced by the money-centered, growth-oriented life of today, from which these vital elements are missing.
According to the followers of Adam Smith (1723-1790), self-interest (even greed) is a sufficient guide to human economic actions. The passage of time has shown that Smith was right in many respects. The free market, which he advocated, has turned out to be the optimum prescription for economic growth. However, history has also shown that there is something horribly wrong or incomplete about the idea that self-interest alone, uninfluenced by ethical and ecological considerations, and totally free from governmental intervention, can be the main motivating force of a happy and just society. There has also proved to be something terribly wrong with the concept of unlimited economic growth.
The Industrial Revolution marked the start of massive human use of fossil fuels. The stored energy from several hundred million years of plant growth began to be used at roughly a million times the rate at which it had been formed. The effect on human society was like that of a narcotic. There was a euphoric (and totally unsustainable) surge of growth of both population and industrial production. Meanwhile, the carbon released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels began to duplicate the conditions which led to the 5 geologically-observed mass extinctions, during each of which more than half of all living species disappeared forever.
The Stern Report Discussion Paper of 2006 stated that “Melting of permafrost in the Arctic could lead to the release of huge quantities of methane. Dieback of the Amazon forest could mean that the region starts to emit rather than to absorb greenhouse gases. These feedbacks could lead to warming that is at least twice as fast as current high-emission projections, leading to temperatures higher than seen in the last 50 million years.”
The greed of giant fossil fuel corporations has recently led them to conduct large-scale advertising campaigns to convince the public that anthropogenic climate change is not real. These corporations own vast oil, coal and gas reserves that must be kept in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming. It does not seem to bother the fossil fuel giants that if the earth is made uninhabitable, future generations of both humans and animals will perish.
When the United Nations was established in 1945, the purpose of the organization was to abolish the institution of war. This goal was built into many of the articles of the UN Charter. Accordingly, throughout the world, many War Departments were renamed and became Departments of Defense. But the very name is a lie. In an age of nuclear threats and counter-threats, populations are by no means protected. Ordinary citizens are just hostages in a game for power and money. It is all about greed.
Why is war continually threatened? Why is Russia threatened? Why is war with Iran threatened? Why fan the flames of conflict with China? Is it to protect civilians? Absolutely not! In a thermonuclear war, hundreds of millions of civilians would die horribly everywhere in the world, also in neutral countries. What is really being protected are the profits of arms manufacturers. As long as there are tensions; as long as there is a threat of war, military budgets are safe; and the profits of arms makers are safe. The people in several democracies, for example the United States, do not rule at the moment. Greed rules.
Greed and lack of ethics are built into the structure of corporations. By law, the Chief Executive Officer of a corporation must be entirely motivated by the collective greed of the stockholders. He must maximize profits. Nothing must count except the bottom line. If the CEO abandons this singleminded chase after corporate profits for ethical reasons, or for the sake of humanity or the biosphere or the future, he (or she) must, by law, be fired and replaced.
Occasionally, for the sake of their public image, corporations seem to do something for other motives than their own bottom line, but it is usually window dressing. For example, Shell claims to be supporting research on renewable energy. Perhaps there is indeed a small renewable energy laboratory somewhere in that vast corporation; but the real interest of the organization is somewhere else. Shell is sending equipment on a large scale to drill for more and more environment-destroying oil in the Arctic.
What does Christianity say about greed? Wikipedia states that “The seven deadly sins, also known as capital vices or cardinal sins, is a classification of vices (part of Christian ethics) that has been used since early Christian times to educate and instruct Christians concerning fallen humanity’s tendency to sin. In the currently recognized version, the sins are usually given as wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Each is a form of Idolatry-of-Self wherein the subjective reigns over the objective.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things”.
In the New Testament, we can find many passages condemning greed, for example: “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (Timothy 6:10) “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.” (Mathew 6:19).
In his encyclical Laudato Si’, and on his recent visit to South America, Pope Francis has spoken strongly against economic activity that lacks both social and environmental ethics.
Much depends on whether we are able to break the power that corporations and extremely rich oligarchs now hold over our governments and our mass media. Pope Francis has shown by example what a world leader of courage and honesty can do. Most of us are not in such a position, but each person can do his or her best to restore democracy where it has been lost to corporate money and greed. If the mass media have sold themselves to the highest bidder, we can make our own media. If most politicians are corrupt, we can make our own political movements. As Shelley said, “We are many, they are few”.
1 Saint Francis of Assisi
2 William Blake
3 Thomas Paine
4 Thomas Jefferson
5 Mary Wollstonecraft
6 William Godwin
7 The Marquis de Condorcet
8 Thomas Robert Malthus
9 Percy Bysshe Shelley
10 Robert Owen
11 John Stuart Mill
12 Henry David Thoreau
13 Count Leo Tolstoy
14 Mahatma Gandhi
15 Martin Luther King
16 Wilfred Owen
17 Albert Einstein
18 Edna St. Vincent Millay
19 Bertha von Suttner
20 George Orwell
21 Helen Keller
22 We need their voices, and yours!
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and 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 books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf).
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Jun 2017.
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