In a word: consumerism. This dominant socioeconomic and cultural system encourages us to define our success, our very happiness, through how much we consume, how much we travel, how rich our diet, how big our house, how fancy our car, and on and on. On a finite planet (particularly with a population of 6.7 billion humans), this system is an impossibility, though one that is hard to resist. Yet deep down, many now grasp that the consumer system is fatally flawed, making people fat and sick, shortening lives, increasing stress and social isolation, and wreaking havoc on the global and local environments.
What we need is a new socioeconomic/cultural system, namely an ecological-ethical-social-entrepreneurial system, where people work decent hours, for decent pay, in jobs that are designed to do good, not exploit people or the planet (like most jobs do today). You can see what this could look like by clicking here. But how do we get there? To start with, we will need an ethical code that can serve as an “OS” or operating system that can guide this cultural reboot.
At the heart of this ethical code will be a new understanding of our relationship with the Earth. Right now, most of us treat the Earth like a reservoir of resources, there for us to tap in building our homes, cars, cities, and civilization. But we must recognize that the Earth is a complex living system that we are a small part of and completely dependent on. If we’re not careful we will shift this system dramatically—quite possibly to a new “set point” that is unfriendly to millions of species, including our own.
In shorter form, we must get people to understand that the Earth is a fragile living system, and that we’re dependent on it for our ability to survive and thrive.
The next step is making it clear that it is our responsibility—not to mention in our self-interest—to heal this system (as we have destabilized it significantly) before it shifts to a new set point. How do we do this? Essentially, we need to demonstrate that we can live our lives in ways that are restorative not destructive, and moreover, that this can provide a more ethical and more meaningful way to orient our lives than the consumer dream. Every action becomes an opportunity to heal the Earth, from our work and political activity, to our diet and consumption choices, to our reproductive choices, and even how we celebrate life rituals. I suggest that 10 ecological ethical principles can guide the many facets of our lives.
We must choose a livelihood that neither exploits people—in any of their many roles: worker, consumer, community member—nor the Earth, and ideally, a livelihood that actively heals the Earth and nurtures human society.
Active Political Engagement
We should be fully engaged citizens, advocating for changes in the political systems over which we have influence, so that exploitation of the Earth and those without power will cease and so that fair and sustainable political systems will take root.
Life of Service
We are all part of a greater system, and the whole will only be healthy if its constituent parts are. Thus we should help those who are in need, especially in ways that provide a useful understanding of the world and our role in it—namely that we are dependent on and part of the Earth, and that only through sustaining this beautiful, fragile system will we lead meaningful and good lives.
We must eat a healthy diet of the right amount of calories, of foods that are produced fairly and do not cause systematic suffering to ourselves, to others, to farmed animals or other living creatures, or to the Earth itself.
We must consume consciously and with restraint, in ways that nurture the Earth. When this is not possible and we truly cannot go without consuming a harmful product, we must choose to consume goods and services that hurt the Earth and humanity as little as possible.
A Family for All Families
Until the human population returns to a number that the Earth can healthily maintain, all couples should moderate their reproductive fruitfulness. For those wanting larger families, they should consider adopting as many children as they have the longing and means to raise. All families should focus on teaching their children to tread as lightly on the Earth as possible.
Renewing Life Rituals
Life-affirming rituals should be celebrated in ways that do not cause significant harm to the Earth or to people—and when possible, should actively serve as a restorative ecological and social force.
To succeed we must educate others and encourage them to adopt this way of being in the world. As membership grows, outreach efforts should be established around the world, whether through social enterprises, meeting houses, social service providers, sustainable residential communities, or other means. These efforts will help keep members engaged and energized, facilitate their efforts to do good works, and teach others to live by this philosophy.
Prepare for a Changing World
Because of the rapid decline of the ecological systems on which human society depends, the probability is high that serious political and economic disruptions will occur.We should prepare for this contingency, especially by cultivating one or more basic skills, such as food production, construction and repair, basic medicine, basic sanitation, and so on.Having these skills and teaching them to others will be vital in maintaining and rebuilding human civilization in the event that a major economic or ecological collapse occurs.
A satisfying life comes not through affluence, but through leading a meaningful life, being healthy, being economically secure, and sharing one’s life with a supportive community. Far from helping in the pursuit of these goods, the consumer culture often hinders their attainment as well as leading to the exploitation of both the Earth and its people. Letting go of the consumer value system and shifting our focus to these more essential elements of human life will improve our own wellbeing, as well as that of the broader society and the Earth itself.
First printed in World Watch Magazine, Sep/Oct 2008 issue.