I had an interesting conversation today heading into the beauty of the Eastern Wairarapa on the road to Castlepoint and Riversdale. The question was put, why do you even care about the future? The planet will be fine. People are naturally selfish and self-serving, so humanity will go extinct because that is our mortal failing – we’ll mine and destroy the very functions upon which we depend. We’ve done it in the past in smaller settings than the globe, so why should now be any different.
I said I didn’t believe in any inevitable destinies, and I certainly wasn’t going to just let it happen. We are moral agents – we can act morally – and humanity now and into the future is as much a moral patient as the planet itself.
And I don’t accept that humanity is “naturally selfish and self-serving.” I’ve seen many examples of the very opposite. Many of us try to live that opposite. Selfishness is a cultural construct, no more inevitable than physically punishing children – admittedly reinforced by the last 40 years of a set of pernicious and evil ideas called Neoliberalism, and supported by those very worst of scum who manifest as power-hungry mega-corporates. But the people are ultimately in charge, with – if we choose – the power to resist them, and to control them, or even eradicate them. Behave, or be gone.
There are other social constructs. The most “heritable traits” are politics and religion. We follow our family and the communities to which we belong. We are not objectively ‘rational’ the way neoliberals proclaim. We can only be subjectively ‘rational’ within a social construct of what we think is right and wrong. Our family and community make that lens through which we see the world, and those cultural mores are very powerful.
If you witness compassion, caring and shared giving, then you will tend to emulate. If you are shown that the earth is something from which you are inseparable and on which you depend, that will colour your judgments and actions. If you are taught reverence for something bigger than yourself as a virtue, you will tend not to act with the hubris of a despot. If you are raised with love and self-esteem, you will tend not to feel the need to continually justify yourself by personal aggrandisement and putting yourself above others, or others down.
If you are taught to love the creation of music and art, people and the land and sea over money, then you will lend to preserve those things you love. Even if you are raised without nurture, you can witness it around you and replicate it because of what you know in your heart.
Even Adam Smith understood this. Ethics are important. We need enlightened and moral people, and we have to constrain the power of the least enlightened. It is not perfect. There will always be those whose soul journey leads them to harm others. Society has to temper those excesses.
But the conversation did make me realise that we have a number of jobs to do.
One is to toss out pernicious views of the world that reduce people and the planet to quantified resources. That can never be the major basis of policy making in our future. It bears no relationship to how our planetary and community home functions, and so can never dominate the ‘management’ of that home (Eco-nomics) because it will destroy those functions it cannot see. Culture is far more important. Ethics. The qualitative capacities that keep a people and a place thriving – not measured dollars in a model.
The second is to fundamentally reform our political and commercial systems to put back on the leash the growing corporate and political power that will – if left to itself – destroy us all. Like the Absolute Monarchs of old, the cult of entitlement, any hint of superiority, and disassociation with people and place, can no longer be tolerated. Commerce as a practice will either live within the boundaries of a resilient future society and place, or can have no place. We did it to those monarchs who thought they were above society, and we can do it to these anti-social and future eating behemoths.
And the third is to practice the ways of living and being that can create an enlightened culture that is the opposite of narrow, short-sighted and selfish. That culture has its exemplars in indigenous thinking around the world.
I had to write this not just because of a conversation in a car, but because late at night, I experienced this – Patti Smith singing Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall as part of Dylan’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It makes you remember that there is real hurt out there, that it is getting worse, that a precipice is approaching, and – unless we change to check bad ideas, the power of despots, and embrace sharing and compassion as the virtues we know they are – a hard rain *will* fall.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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