Choices and an Uncertain Future

Earth has reached a fork in the path to the future. Down one path is a tragic wasteland. The climate has become hotter than today; floods and droughts are more frequent and more violent. Massive amounts of soil have washed into the sea. Most forests are gone. A large fraction of Earth's species are extinct, and the remaining ones are being lost rapidly. Oil and natural gas are gone.

Nine-tenths of the human population lives in hopeless poverty. Education and health services are gone. Economic, environmental, and moral decay spread uncontrollably. Ever wider areas cease to have any semblance of social order. Ethnic and religious rivalries fuel hatred, corruption, atrocities, and warfare. Many more children die in infancy from childhood diseases and malnutrition. AIDS, tuberculosis, and hunger kill adults so fast the bodies cannot be dealt with. Hope lies only in migration to other less crowded, less ecologically disrupted countries.

One-tenth of the human population ignores what is happening to the nine-tenths. The one-tenth attempts to maintain a rich, consumptive, industrialized economy by using military forces to obtain foreign resources (especially coal and uranium), to slow the migration of refugees, to slow drug trafficking and to counter terrorist attacks. [55]

A few individuals scattered around the world live in great opulence, supported by a vastly increased dependence of the industrialized populations on crack cocaine and other drugs.


The rising hills, the slopes,

of statistics

lie before us.

The steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down.

In the next century

or the one beyond that,

they say,

are valley, pastures,

we can meet there in peace

if we make it.

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

stay together

learn the flowers

go light

Gary Snyder

Turtle Island

Copyright © 1974 by Gary Snyder. Reprinted by permission of New Direction Publishing Corp.

Down the other path is a very different Earth. A just, sustainable development for the whole Earth has become the principal goal of every nation and people. The peoples are united in planet-wide efforts to understand Earth and its peoples and to envision what Earth and its peoples can become. Protection of Earth has become a top priority for every person. Human ignorance, poverty, and bigotry are recognized everywhere as primary threats to national security and the future of Earth. Living conditions on the whole planet are comparable with the average level that existed in Europe in 1990. [56]

None of us wants to go down the path to the tragic wasteland. We all want a very different kind of future for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. How can we avoid the tragic wasteland and reach a just, sustainable future? What follows is a sampling of suggestions from several sources: [57]

While North and South are both integral parts of a single planet, their situations are so different that it has frequently been difficult for them to work constructively together. Nonetheless, there are several actions that must be undertaken cooperatively by the North and South. Together North and South must:

· the pursuit in both the North and South of an unsustainable development model that ignored the fact that the human economy is embedded in a finite biosphere;

· a sometimes desperate need of Northern banks to lend to the South;

· excessive and preemptive use by the North of global source and sink resources needed by the South;

· flawed governmental policies in the South promoting (a) mislocated, inefficient industries; (b) misallocation of capital, including government expenditures; (c) support of the interests of affluent urban elites, the large (and often corrupt) governmental bureaucracy, and the military at the expense of peasant agriculture;

· the failure of the South to establish policies that consistently make family limitation advantageous to couples and make safe and affordable contraceptives readily available; · abuse of military, political, and economic power by the North to obtain access to Southern resources at unreasonably low prices; and

· continuation in the South of social systems that doom three-fourths of the population, especially women and low social classes, to an unproductive and stagnating existence.

Some essential actions can only be taken by the North and some only be done by the South.

The North should:

The South should:

· make formal education (primary and secondary) compulsory -- especially for girls -- and effectively enforce attendance;

· outlaw child labor even within family-owned businesses;

· place on parents the major financial responsibility for raising their own children, including education and health care;

· give women access to income-earning opportunities in the labor market, including jobs not easily compatible with childbearing and childrearing;

· maintain and strengthen family planning programs, giving attention to ensuring that contraceptives are safe, effective, affordable;

· provide effective legal guarantees of property rights and legal enforcement of private contracts; and

· develop private and public insurance and pension programs that are reliable and attractive, thus offering an alternative to children as a source of old age security;

How much time do we have to do these things? There is no precise answer to this question. It is like we are walking down a slippery path that is becoming steeper and more slippery with every step. Steps we have already taken have produced needless suffering, hatred, and irreparable ecological damage, but if we turn now we can avoid much further suffering and damage. If we keep on our present course much longer, there will come a time when we will inevitably slip and slide uncontrollably into global disaster.

The awful truth remains that a large part of humanity will suffer no matter what is done.

E. O. Wilson "Is Humanity Suicidal?"

The New York Times Magazine. 30 May 1993.

p. 24.

The signs are all around us. Every year of delay in stabilizing population growth adds 90 million children to the human population, most of whom are not receiving adequate nutrition, education, and health care. Every year we delay developing the post-petroleum energy economy we burn 20 billion barrels of our declining petroleum resource and increase the risk of planet-wide disruptions of commercial energy supplies. Every year we delay protecting the habitat of endangered species leads to another 30,000 extinctions. Every year of delay in developing alternative technologies for increasing agricultural yields places the food supply of our children and grandchildren in further jeopardy. Every year we delay in stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions commits the world to more global warming and a greater rise in the sea level.

Before me, beauty. Behind me, beauty. Below me, beauty. Above me, beauty. Around me, beauty. May I speak beauty. May I walk in beauty always. Beauty I am. All is restored to beauty. All is restored to beauty.

All is restored to beauty.

All is restored to beauty.


All of us have had the experience of stopping. When walking, we can stop in seconds, in a step or two at most. Many of us have ridden a bicycle, and we know that it takes a bit longer to stop a bicycle. Many of us, too, have driven an automobile, and the delay between applying the brakes and coming to a stop has led to many collisions and injuries. Fewer of us have ever tried to stop a small truck loaded with a ton of cargo, or a large truck loaded with several tons. Very few of us here ever tried to stop a 100-car train fully loaded with coal or iron ore. Almost none of us has tried to stop a fully loaded supertanker, which has so much momentum that 10 miles are required to stop. But even the momentum of a supertanker is trivial compared to the momentum inherent in the current unsustainable growth in human numbers and human consumption, and we humans have never even tested the brakes on these huge, complex global systems. Even now, the momentum of these systems will carry them to much destruction and tragedy. If we humans are to stop short of an enormously destructive collision with reality, we must act very soon. We do not have decades or generations to spare. If we take the "braking" actions described above within the next five to ten years, the land we need to meet human needs (see Figure 21) would probably approach but not exceed the land available, and a sustainable future for Earth would be possible.

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The Real Problem

The actions described on the preceding pages are daunting. They require extraordinary engineering and management skills and extraordinary creativity and inventiveness. Demanding as the economic, engineering, and management tasks are, there is yet a still more difficult matter: the many barriers to the necessary political action. [58]

  1. There are areas of uncertainty about the nature of the ecological crisis we face, and some people seize upon these uncertainties as excuses for inaction. Most well informed physical and social scientists today agree that we face an ecological crisis without any precedent in historical times. Those who, for the purpose of maintaining balance in debate, take the contrary view that there is significant uncertainty about whether it is real are hurting our ability to respond.

  2. There is an instinctive unwillingness to believe that something so far outside the bounds of historical experience can, in fact, be occurring. The trends presented in this report, for example, have not been absorbed and owned by many people, and as a result, they assume the trends can't be real.

  3. There is a human tendency, encouraged by some faith traditions, toward exceptionalism, which holds that humankind is so intelligent and so spirited that, as a species, we are not bound by ecological laws as other species are. Exceptionalists in several faith traditions believe that no matter how serious the problem, the ingenuity and sheer will of the human species -- combined with divine dispensation -- will produce a solution.

  4. There is an assumption made by many that it will be easier and more sensible to adapt to whatever change occurs than it will be to prevent the crisis. Unfortunately, changes of the magnitude and complexity that seems likely can come so swiftly that adaptation is essentially impossible. The collapse of the Soviet Union is just one small reminder of how seemingly large, stable systems can change very quickly.

  5. There is the lack of widespread awareness among the peoples of the world about the nature of the global problematique. Many spiritual leaders, many political leaders, and much of the general public are unaware of what is happening and how serious it is.

  6. There is also the knowledge among those few who do know what is happening and how severe it is that the solutions are harder than anything we humans have done before. A redirection of much of our science and technology would be required. Our economies would have to be largely redesigned. Why try, especially when it may all come to naught anyway?

In addition to these six barriers to action, there is a seventh of overriding importance: Our shared moral basis for a sustained, cooperative effort -- our development model -- has failed. We are now a people -- a species -- without a vision. This is our real problem.

Our current development model begins with the assumption that all that is -- Earth, the solar system, all stars, and beyond -- was created for us, the human species. The nonhuman part of Earth, "nature," is specifically for use of the human species in any way humans see fit. Nature is a "resource" for all human use.

Nature, however, is dangerous. In our relationship to nature, we humans are vulnerable to death and disease and must work for food and shelter. This vulnerability in which we live in nature is termed the "human condition."

Most humans have long resented their condition vis-a-vis nature. Plato began a conceptual separation of human and the non-human. But it was the millennial vision of John of Patmos and its secular interpretation in the industrial West generally and especially in the United States that stirred in humans the thought of something better.

In his Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible, John of Patmos foresaw (see chapters 20 and 21) a period of a thousand years during which Christians, through their faith, will rise above the human condition, immune to the dangers of nature. In his words:

" . . . and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore . . . ." [59]

Gradually, the millennial dream began to be seen not as a spiritual state, but as a physical condition to be achieved by human control over nature. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) accelerated this shift in thinking by arguing that the human species not only could gain control over nature but should make doing so the primary goal of the human species. The Western concept of "development" is essentially a secularized version of the millennial dream: a rising above the human condition not through spiritual development, but through ruthless control and manipulation of nature.[60]

The principal instrument through which humans seek development and progress is the institution called the nation-state. Groups of humans have marked off areas of Earth as their own "nation," and each nation has declared itself "sovereign," i.e., an independent entity subject to no other power on Earth. [61] Through their respective nations, groups of humans attempt to rise above the human condition through "development." Development means using capital equipment, technological knowledge of nature, and non-human energy sources to replace human labor in providing human food and shelter. It also means destroying species that compete with humans for food-producing habitat or that pose a threat to human life and safety. And finally, it means achieving security against other groups of humans -- other nations

- through violence or the threat of violence.

Nations developed a variety of subsidiary institutions, the most important being corporations, the military, and schools. Elaborate rules (laws) govern the behavior of individuals and institutions within nations.

Corporations proved to be particularly important to nations as a means of accumulating capital. Corporations are "fictitious persons," institutions able to do virtually anything a person can do -- own property, enter into contracts, hire and fire employees, and even reproduce -- and motivated through fiduciary responsibility to maximize return on stockholders' investments. Unlike real persons, corporations have no biological need for clean air, safe water, non-toxic food, and other environmental conditions, and the liability of stockholders for damages and injuries caused by the corporation is limited. Corporations have proven to be effective accumulators of capital, and many now are larger economically than small nation-states. As they have grown in economic power, corporations have become increasingly difficult for nation-states to control or regulate.

Most major faith traditions have generally accepted the legitimacy of the reigning development model -- the whole collection of assumptions, theories, and institutions described above. Those few faith traditions that have not accepted the legitimacy of the reigning development model have been unable to make a thorough and effective criticism.

Nonetheless, the reigning development model has failed. It is being rejected now both by humans and by Earth.

As far as humans are concerned, the legitimacy of the reigning development model rested primarily on the assumption that the model was inherently equitable and replicable among nations. Disparities in the human conditions found in different nations were assumed not to be a result of an inequity inherent in the development model or the resulting system of nation-states and corporations, but in the lack of intelligence and tenacity among those humans living in the "poorer" parts of the world. It was not unjust that some nations have large pieces of the global economic pie, because if the people of other nations were simply diligent, they could make their piece of the pie as large as they like. The total pie could be arbitrarily large.

This foundation of legitimacy has crumbled to dust. For the people of the South to live as the people in the North now live would require an increase by a factor of five to ten in the total economic activity on the planet. [62] Few who have reflected on the matter feel that the source and sink resources of the planet could sustain such a large increase in the total economic activity. So, the reigning model fails because it is neither equitable nor replicable[63] for all nations. [64]

The model fails from the human perspective for another reason: it has left half of the human population -- the female half -- outside of progress. The reigning model embraces and perpetuates all of the "patriarchal" institutions: the nation-state, the modern corporation, and the ecclesiastical hierarchies of several faith traditions. Under these institutions, invented by and still governed by men, most women in the world are born into cradle-to-grave oppression, discrimination, and poverty with no possibility of escape. All across a planet controlled by patriarchal institutions, girls are fed less, pulled out of school earlier, forced into hard labor sooner, and given less care than boys, as has been demonstrated by study after study. [65] There is no legitimacy to a development model that perpetuates institutions oppressing half of humanity.

Finally, Earth itself rejects the model. The non-human part of Earth is not for humans to "own," use, and abuse any way they please. Nation-states are not independent entities subject to no other power on Earth. The human economy is only a part of a much larger, but still finite, global biosphere, and the human economy cannot flourish if the biosphere does not flourish. The human destiny and the destiny of Earth are inseparably linked. Any development theory that begins with a different premise is fundamentally flawed.

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The Task Ahead

The first principle of the new model must be that humans and Earth be in a mutually enhancing relationship. Without this principle as a starting point, no model of development, no vision of progress is sustainable.

The task ahead is to rethink our model of development, our vision of what we and Earth can become, and our concept of progress.

This is a large task, as has been explained well by Father Thomas Berry:

This task concerns every member of the human community, no matter what the occupation, continent, ethnic group, or age. It is a task from which no one is absolved and with which no one is ultimately more concerned than anyone else. Here we meet as absolute equals to face our ultimate tasks as human beings within the life systems of the planet Earth. We have before us the question not simply of physical survival, but of survival in a human mode of being, survival and development into intelligent, affectionate, imaginative persons thoroughly enjoying the universe about us . . . . It is a question . . . of a concern that reaches out to all the living and nonliving beings of the earth and in some manner out to the distant stars in the heavens. [66]

The task ahead is to reexamine, reconsider, and reformulate every human institution to ensure that it fosters and supports our first principle: a mutually enhancing relationship between the human species and Earth as an unavoidable necessity for mutually enhancing relationships among humans. The institutions in question include international organizations, nation-states, domestic and multinational corporations, the family, and the faith traditions.

The nation-state system of international organization began in 1648. It was the time of collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and the signing of the Peace of Westphalia. At that time, the concept of sovereignty made sense, but then the global issues of "development," nuclear war, and climate change were not yet in anyone's mind. [67]

The original international organization was the League of Nations, created by nation-states after World War I. It was to have prevented further world wars. After World War II, the League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations system of international organizations, again to prevent world war.

With the end of the world Cold War, the U.N. system needs to be completely reexamined in terms of the needs of the 21st century. A principal need of the 21st century will be a global institution speaking to nations about the need for a mutually enhancing relationship between the human species (and its various national groupings) and Earth. The U.N., as it currently functions, is not well-suited to this task, [68] and Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is encouraging some major institutional reforms by 1995, the 50th anniversary of the U.N.

The premise of "sovereignty" underlying modern nation-states is false. Nations are not independent entities subject to no other power on Earth. They are all interdependent and very much subject to the health and welfare of the entire ecosystem of Earth, of which they are but a modest part. The imaginary lines around nations, the "borders," generally have no relationship to the boundaries of watersheds, airsheds, and other natural systems and complicate the development of mutually enhancing Earth-human relationships. The rules (laws) nations establish to govern human and institutional behavior within their borders are generally based on the assumption that the non-human part of Earth is simply a "resource" of no value until "used" by humans.

Nation-states must change radically. Nations now do absolutely appalling things to their own people, to other nations, and to Earth. Within a few decades, the fallacious notion of sovereignty must disappear and be replaced with an understanding that "nations" (or whatever name we give to the institutions that replace nation-states) are all intimately interconnected with each other and with Earth. Laws that implicitly assume the nonhuman part of Earth to be merely a "resource" must all be replaced. Gross National Product, the reigning measure of development of a nation, must be replaced with indicators that measure the sustainability of the human-Earth relationship within the nation's boundaries.

Relationships between nations will require major revision. Trade, migration, and the use of global-commons sources and sinks must all be reconsidered from the standpoint of the equity of patterns of interaction, sustainability, and replicability and of an overall mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.

The assumed right of nations to wage war requires total reconsideration. Wars, especially with modern nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, do not promote a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship, and the intellectual talent, money, and physical resources are urgently needed for other purposes. Since peoples will probably always kill as a last resort to protect themselves and their children, it may not be possible to eliminate war entirely. However, there must be more attention to ways of resolving inter-nation, ethnic, religious, and sectional disputes short of war.

Alternatives to war are beginning to be discussed internationally. "Preventive diplomacy" and "new dispute resolution techniques" have been proposed by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher to keep conflicts from spreading. Some diplomats are beginning to suggest that the international community may have the right to intervene in a country simply because that country is mistreating its minority groups. Another possibility is an international tribunal to hear the claims of aggrieved minorities in countries, a responsibility beyond that of the International Court of Justice, which is limited to adjudicating claims between countries. Others are openly suggesting that states incapable of governing themselves be taken over by force and placed under U.N. Trusteeship, thus making the United Nations a new colonial power. [69]

But perhaps we need a level of globally accepted means of international challenge that stops short of war. The quintessential image of people willing to die, but not kill, for their country is Mahatma Ghandi's men marching peacefully on the British Dharsana Salt Works in May 1930 where rank after rank after rank were brutally clubbed down by four hundred Surat policemen under the command of British officers. [70] The concept of nonviolent, citizen-based defense has been seriously proposed by Professor Gene Sharp of the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, and by Mexico's Sr. Caridad Inda. Together with others they have founded the Association for Transarmament Studies [now the Civilian-Based Defense Association] and published a how-to-do-it book on citizen-based defense. [71]

Multinational corporations have become global institutions, in some cases largely beyond the political control of nation-states. Although corporations are chartered by and theoretically under the control of nation-states, they could become much more powerful in the future, perhaps eventually replacing nation-states as the principal institutional form of global organization. Although some corporate leaders are showing an awareness of the need for corporations -- as well as human beings -- to be in a mutually enhancing relationship with Earth, [72] the fiduciary responsibilities of corporate leaders to their stockholders limit the actions they can take. In theory, control of a corporation rests largely with the political entity that grants the corporation its charter or approves its articles of incorporation. This authority has shifted over the years from the nation-state to provinces, and there is much competition among chartering political entities to attract corporations (and the tax base and jobs they create) by readily granting corporate charters and imposing few restraints on what corporations can do.

In the United States, at least one organization (Charter, Ink.)(sic) is attempting to increase citizen control of corporations by asking chartering governments to strengthen the laws governing corporations and by initiating campaigns and legal proceedings to take back the charters of particularly offensive corporations. [73] To be effective, however, such efforts must be made on a global basis. The laws defining fictitious corporate persons need to be strengthened in a coordinated way throughout the world. Soon, within a decade or two at most, corporations throughout the world must be in a mutually enhancing relationship with Earth. Such a relationship is essential for the future of business because, ultimately, ecological destruction is bad even for business.

The family is the primary school for teaching values. It is in the family that we must learn the mutually enhancing Earth-human relationships that are necessary for mutually enhancing relationships among humans. It is in the family that our children learn from the example of their parents (and sometimes the parents from the children) the difference between needs and wants and the meaning of enough. It is also from the example of their parents that our children learn how men and women are to relate, how to be masculine or feminine, and how large a family is appropriate and desirable. And it is here that our children are guided into a faith tradition and taught either to hate, disparage, and shun or to love, appreciate, and accept those who are different in faith, culture, and race.

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