Dr. Josef Vavrousek †
Society for Sustainable Living
The development of our civilisation in the last centuries is characterised by a number of fundamental and steadily increasing contradictions. It has brought some positive trends, for instance a rapid growth of knowledge in the fields of technology and science, which has increased substantially the amount of information we have about the world around us, and resulted in an elevation of the material standard of living in Europe, North America and several other regions. Moreover, the same trend has produced significant improvements in health care and limited the impact of many epidemic diseases, thus decreasing mortality and increasing life expectancy in most parts of the world. Quite recently, global political development has also developed rather favourably, local wars and disaster notwithstanding; it seems beyond reasonable doubt that democratic political systems and the ideals of human rights and freedoms are asserting themselves in an increasing number of countries.
However, the negative features of this development and their dangerous consequences should also be considered. The high and steadily growing consumption of material goods in countries of the “North” as well as in parts of the “South” is perhaps the most serious of these consequences, being connected as it is with rapid depletion of resources and the production of enormous amounts of waste; 20% of the population thus consume about 80% of the raw materials and energy. Most of the population of the “South” (as well as parts of the “North”) live in poverty; more than 780 million of the 5.5 billion inhabitants of the planet live under conditions in which not even their basic needs are guaranteed. Each minute, some 28 people die of hunger. It is not surprising that in their struggle for survival these suffering populations destroy their natural environment. At the same time, the expansion of Euro-American culture damages and even destroys national or regional cultures, thus causing an irreversible loss in the cultural diversity of the human race, which reduces its ability to react efficiently to changing circumstances and results in a growing vulnerability of our global civilisation. All aforementioned processes contribute to the rapid deterioration of nature and of the human environment on global, regional and local scales. Air pollution leads to acid rain, ozone-layer depletion and changes of climate. Forests lose their vitality and trees are cut down; soils are desertified due to erosion, growing salinity, decreasing water content and humus loss. Humans have a negative and irreversible impact on natural resources, the genetic pool and the Earth’s life-supporting systems.
What should be considered particularly dangerous is the unprecedented scale of the cited negative changes and the speed with which they are occurring. This is closely connected with the technological capacity to transform nature and with the “globalisation” of our civilisation, with Earth as the “global village”, which results from the growing dissemination of information, as well as from the increasing speed of transportation. Among the key factors is also the exponential growth of the Earth’s population; the fact that it doubles every 40 years should be a warning in itself. Such a development is all the more hazardous because it is regionally unbalanced; the poorest countries display the highest birth rates, which tends to aggravate the problem.
For the first time in history the whole human race, along with innumerable other species, is endangered. This is an unprecedented situation, because, until now, the decline or even the disappearance of a civilisation only concerned just a certain region, as in the case of the ancient cultures of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
We are near a cross-roads – if we have not already passed it – where a re- evaluation of the whole prior development is critically needed. In the long-term perspective, this development appears unsustainable. It could lead to the escalation of social tensions in the world, the consequence of which is growing violence, and to the destruction of the global environment, which is vital for man and other species. Any delay of action could trigger uncontrollable processes. The attempts of some countries or regions to isolate and protect themselves by introducing “electronic curtains”, and thus to preserve their prosperity, are not only immoral but also short-sighted, and can not but fail miserably. The awareness of fundamental, though very diverse, changes is gradually increasing in all parts of the world, however different the factors motivating it may be. The key conclusion of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, June 1992 was the Strategy of Sustainable Development as a basic blueprint for the future orientation of mankind.
Sustainable development – or perhaps, more precisely, a sustainable way of life – is concerned with the search for harmony between man and nature, human society and its environment, in order to achieve humane ideals and respect for life and nature. It is a way of life which searches for a balance between the rights and freedoms of every individual and his responsibility towards other people and nature as a whole, including the responsibility towards future generations. We should accept the principle that the freedom of every individual is limited by the same freedom of the other, but also by the principle of avoiding damage to the natural environment.
If we want to find sustainable ways of living, we should analyse recent unsustainable trends, which are characterised by quantitative growth connected to a number of profound discrepancies. We should attempt to elaborate ideas which are compatible with visions of a sustainable way of living and which could help to bring these visions to life; at the same time, we should avoid activities which create or increase the huge problems of mankind. Our analysis should include the identification of all important factors negatively or positively influencing the current development as well as the active support of positive trends, especially in areas in which they have been lacking.
There is, in my opinion, a common denominator which enables us to understand all human behaviour. By this I mean the set of general criteria used by people in the processes of evaluation and decision making. These criteria represent human values, which reflect an individual or collective view of the meaning of life. To some extent they are probably determined by biological (i.e., mainly genetic) influences; mainly, however, they correspond to the value systems of specific cultures. If this hypothesis is correct, an analysis of the development of human values in different parts of the world during the last decades and centuries could help us to find the roots of the recent moral crisis as well as to rediscover human values compatible with sustainable ways of living.
In searching for human values suitable for sustainable living, we should start from an analysis of those values which currently dominate our Euro-American, Northern-Western civilisation. Not only because it is the only way to change our behaviour and thus solve the problems of our own region, but also because we have to take into account that it is our civilisation which exerts the most profound influence on the planet as a whole. Having discovered the unsustainable character of many global trends, we also have to admit the crucial role of the Euro-American value systems in this unfavourable development. By starting at home we could help all humankind.
The value system of our Euro-American civilisation changes with time and is relatively non-homogenous, with regional differences in values typical for specific social groups as well as for “really existing capitalism” and the former “really existing socialism”, as opposed to their theoretical models. Nonetheless, I believe that it is possible to distinguish, in our civilisation, some general value orientations which are responsible for the appearance and growth of all the cited social, economic, environmental and political problems of our times. At the same time, however, we could rediscover many values in the tradition of our Euro-American thought compatible with the ideals of sustainable living, and hence develop and enforce them.
The following brief survey is a working hypothesis which tries to describe the dominant values of our civilisation which contribute to the existence of unsustainable trends, along with alternative value orientations, which could lead us towards a sustainable course. Some of the latter have been emerging, especially in recent years. I am fully aware that my survey is a very simplified description of an immensely complicated subject; nevertheless, I believe it could contribute to a better understanding of our situation and initiate further discussion of the topic.
The Relationship between Humans and Nature
Reality: Predatory, exploitative relationship with nature; the natural environment is treated as an unlimited resource of raw materials and a passive “playground” for human activities of all kinds. Many of these activities do not respect the natural limits of the carrying capacity of the territory in question or of the planet as a whole. The current attitude is followed by a steadily growing dependency on non-renewable natural resources, accompanied by a rapidly increasing production of waste, which is often very hazardous.
Alternative: Awareness of our interdependence with nature, of being part of the natural environment; respect for all forms of life and for nature as a whole; use of the territory in question within limits of its natural carrying capacity; orientation towards renewable natural resources; minimisation of the production of waste and its efficient recycling.
Relationships Between the Individual and Society
Reality: One-sided emphasis on individualism and competitiveness, typical of “really existing capitalism”, is based on the assumption that the egotistic behaviour of every individual and their competition with others are “automatically” beneficial not only to themselves but also to the welfare of the whole society, as described by Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market. While this approach has certainly facilitated the explosive economic growth of Western Europe and North America, it has also resulted in the decline of personal responsibility for matters which concern the whole community, and in the weakening of interpersonal relationships.
One-sided emphasis on collectivism, typical of “really existing socialism” and other authoritarian systems, is based on the assumption that all interests of the individual are theoretically subordinated to the (alleged) interests of the community. Ironically, in reality all powers are usually concentrated in the hands of a small decision-making group, or even in those of a single person who represents the ruling party and is not subject to any control. At the same time the absolute majority of citizens have no real chance to participate actively in public life and are denied many human rights and freedoms. This leads to a significant loss of self-confidence and to a decline in responsibility for the development of one’s society and environment, resulting in a general feeling of “collective irresponsibility” and apathy of the powerless, and in the conviction of some independent-minded people that the whole system should be radically, changed if the general decline of the society and destruction of the environment is to be stopped. Fortunately, in the recent period of transition (1989-1992) the second approach prevailed in all European “socialist” countries.
Alternative: Striking a balance between the individual and the collective entity, which should be represented not only by their family, community, nation, state or culture, but also by humankind as such. In order to achieve such a balance, every single individual must gain sufficient self-confidence, which is based on free decision making and on recognising the interdependence of all people. Emphasis should be placed on love, solidarity and altruism, as driving forces of human behaviour; competition should be supplemented with co-operation in the name of common human values and goals.
The Purpose of Historic Development and the Notion of Success
Reality: An obsession with the idea of quantitative growth, which is one of the key factors accelerating the cited destructive processes. This obsession is based on the widespread and firm conviction that simple growth of selected criteria (GNP, personal income etc.) is a valid measure of success, health and even happiness. In “socialist” countries this idea was actually decreed by the state plan, which had the power of law. The same notion, however, is no less dominant in countries with a market economy, where the stagnation of the GNP amounts to a national catastrophe. In a world with limited resources such an orientation appears very unpromising in the long-term view. Moreover, in rich societies growth as an end in itself is entirely unjustified. It should be obvious that no growth can continue for an unlimited period of time.
Alternative: Emphasis on qualitative development of human society, oriented above all towards the improvement of the quality of life and relations between human beings on all levels, as well as towards the development of science and culture, of spiritual and intellectual life, and of the full use of our capacities. After all, human creativity is perhaps the only natural resource which appears to be almost unlimited. It remains beyond doubt, however, that the basic material needs of all human beings have to be met in order for such a shift in orientation to be possible.
The Meaning and Purpose of Our Own Lives
Reality: Hedonism and the consumer life-style, whereby the main purpose of life is seen in achieving greater degrees of comfort (often paid for by increased stress levels) and of satisfaction of so-called material needs, which usually have no natural limits. The whole mechanism of market economy, with the significant aid of aggressive advertising based on efficient brain-washing techniques, is focused on the creation and stimulation of novel “needs”, while in reality all basic needs of most people living in Western democracies have been satisfied a long time ago. People whose basic needs have not been met, so far, do not count in this scheme, anyway, because they can not afford to buy the ever more sophisticated and expensive products. The amount of money and quantity of consumption are widely recognised as universal measures of success.
Alternative: Emphasis on quality of life, deliberate modesty and renunciation of superfluous things. It should be noted that these values, precisely, were originally at the heart of our Judeo-Christian civilisation. Love, solidarity, altruism and an emphasis on spiritual and intellectual growth are again crucial; the return to these values is a prerequisite for achieving a sustainable way of living.
Freedom and Responsibility
Reality: One-sided emphasis on human rights and freedoms, erosion of personal responsibility and lack of intergenerational equity. The emphasis placed on human rights and support of civil liberties, which dates back to the period of Enlightenment, has played an extremely important role in the development of European and American democracies. Unfortunately, it was not accompanied by a corresponding sense of responsibility for public affairs of the community. In “really existing socialism” not only freedoms and liberties but also the responsibility for one’s own life was dangerously limited. In the practice of “really existing capitalism” the concept of personal freedom is often reduced to the freedom to earn money and consume material goods.
Alternative: Striking a balance between human rights and freedoms on the one hand and responsibilities on the other with respect to other human beings and to nature; further development of both rights and responsibilities.
Reality: “Pride of reason”, the over-estimation of the scale, depth, reliability and complexity of our knowledge and experience; one-sided reliance on intellect and rational “Cartesian” thought; lack of ability to foresee and shape future development. An excessively optimistic evaluation of our knowledge was typical for the centralist command systems of former “socialist” states, but it is also widespread in Western societies.
Alternative: Adopting precautionary principles. Excluding all activities with possible negative impacts which can not be judged with sufficient reliability when all time horizons are taken into account. Rational thought should be supplemented by intuition, science and art reconciled; research and education deserve to be strongly supported.
Reality: Weakening of the instinct of self-preservation, growing feeling of alienation, lack of feedback enabling the correction of wrong or counterproductive behaviour. In fact, human beings often deliberately behave in ways which destroy the environment and endanger their own lives or the lives of their relatives: they smoke, destroy forests and soils, pollute rivers and oceans as well as the atmosphere, and maintain a hazardous approach towards mineral resources.
Alternative: Awareness of the negative impacts of human activities, recognition of the interrelationship between events in space and time, re- establishment of a healthy instinct for survival of the individual and their closest kin as well as of the whole human race. Once again, systematic education and informing of populations appear to be preconditions for such a development.
Reality: Preference for short-term goals over long-term and permanent ones, following the maxim, carpe diem (seize the day). Life at the expense of future generations, excessive exploitation of natural resources, as though they only belonged to the current generation, mountains of waste to be inherited by our children.
Alternative: Awareness of the long-term goals and consequences of human activities, based on the principle of necessary precaution, and on the development of knowledge and responsibility for future generations.
Other Opinions and Different Cultures
Reality: Limited respect for other opinions, widespread intolerance of many types including ideological, religious and racial, whose resulting conflicts are often “solved” by force and violence. Different cultures often suffer from gross undervaluing or else they are ignored. This attitude is based on the unjustified assumption that our Euro-American civilisation is superior to all others, which often results in aggressive behaviour towards these different cultures, manifested either by military means, or by economic and cultural elements.
Alternative: Mutual tolerance. Empathy for other people, nations and cultures, as well as their values and goals. Efforts to integrate the experience, knowledge and wisdom belonging to different cultural traditions. Political as well as economic security and other global mechanisms enabling co-operation and mutual enrichment of different peoples, states and cultures, while preserving their unique and autonomous character.
Reality: Resignation regarding participation in decision making processes. This is especially true in situations of “really existing socialism”, but also, to some extent, in Western democracies, where participation is often reduced to voting once every four years; thoughtless acceptance of foreign patterns, monopolisation of political and economic power by a small number of people, and infantilisation of the society and its decreased capacity to influence its own development.
Alternative: Development of a participatory democracy through support for the creative activities of all citizens: decentralisation of power with effective mechanisms of feedback and co-ordination, prevention of abuse of political, economic and other powers. All people should be able to participate directly in decision-making processes concerning the future value and orientation of their society, even if they do not have enough information or expertise to solve specific problems.
This brief analysis is merely a working hypothesis which requires careful evaluation and further elaboration. It suggests, nonetheless, that some of the values on which our current Euro-American culture is based represent a blind alley. At the same time, however, other human values are being proposed which could be compatible with sustainable ways of life. These values are neither new nor artificially constructed; and almost all of them have a long tradition, stemming from the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian foundations of European culture. We should rediscover them, and elaborate or modify them. As a result of the unprecedented increase of humankind’s ability to harm nature, as well as itself, we need to expand and develop our knowledge so we may apply it towards this rediscovery and modification.
These values will have a real influence only if people place them high on their scales of individual values; they can be incorporated into the legislative, institutional and economic fabric of human society only when they are widely recognised and shared by a large part of the population. It cannot be assumed that these “sustainable” values can be adopted from one day to another, through some big leap forward. However, we can expect gradual, step-by-step changes, in the order of different human values, such as changes of their relative importance in processes of evaluation and decision making, accompanied by corrective feedback measures. We should do everything possible to support these trends. Delaying the necessary changes in value orientation is extremely hazardous; therefore, the inertia of recent trends is working against a sustainable future. It is a race with time.
We have to return to the basic question of life’s meaning and purpose, and search for answers appropriate to a dangerous and rapidly changing situation. There are probably only two basic alternatives for future development. In the first case, the existing unfavourable and unsustainable trends will continue, which could lead, with a high degree of probability, to chaos and to a series of catastrophes of various kinds. There is a very real danger that the period of environmental destruction and decay of social structures could be very long; the well-being and, in a worst-case scenario, even the survival of mankind, as a whole, would be threatened.
The second alternative is a systematic and quick evolution oriented towards the solution of existing problems and the prevention of new ones. Co-operation in taking care of our global environment could perhaps form the foundations of such an alternative. Existing political, economic, national, religious and other differences and conflicts in the world, give us little chance to achieve such co- operation on any other ground.
I am convinced that searching for values which could lead us to a humane society and to a renewed harmony between humanity and nature, as well as the promotion of such values, represent a common task of spiritual people, and those who believe in the human race and its ability to distinguish between good and evil.