By Peter Bergel
“Where there is no vision, the people perish” says the King James Bible in Proverbs 29:18. Certainly the people are in danger of perishing today. If not from wars and nuclear weapons, then from global warming. If not from that, then from a series of other threats. Could vision be what rescues us?
Admitting That We Are Out of Control
The Tao Te Ching says, “Clearing your vision, you become clear.” This advice does not refer to eyesight. It refers to the kind of vision that tells us what our life’s purpose ought to be and where we ought to be heading. Some people use the phrase “moral compass.” When we lose sight of what is really important and worthwhile in life, we are apt to go astray – eventually far enough astray to perish as a result.
Likewise, when a society loses track of where it wants to go, danger is at hand.
Our society has chosen to measure success in terms of material wealth, yet most of its religions warn against this course – and for good reason. Wealth is notorious among the wise for not being a reliable path to happiness. Enough wealth for comfort and basic security may contribute to happiness, but after that, wealth seems to bring more worries than happiness. Worse, wealth creates divisions between those who have it and those who do not, leading to destruction of community. Worse yet, the pursuit of wealth tends to blind its pursuers to the damage they do to our life support systems as they place profit at the top of their moral pyramid. As Paul Hawken says in his book Blessed Unrest, “Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.” Attempts to maximize wealth, pleasure, security or power — rather than to optimize them – lead to addictions, which are, by definition, compulsive and out of control.
Hope in the Heart of Chaos
The most destructive form of wealth pursuit is that which is done in the corporate framework. At one time corporations were chartered by states and closely regulated. The corporate structure afforded their directors some financial protection, but the price for that protection was giving up some of the freedom that non-protected businesses enjoyed. It was a fair exchange and the system worked. Now corporations are legally considered “persons,” though they have no conscience and do not die – two key characteristics of real persons – and they have slipped their regulatory leashes.
The poster child for a corporation run amok is Walmart, the world’s largest corporation, which has been roundly criticized for running its competitors out of business by engaging in predatory practices, especially with regard to its suppliers and its labor force. But even Walmart appears to be waking up to its own contribution to global unsustainability. It has vowed to triple the efficiency of its truck fleet – the largest in the world, has committed to convert its operations to 100% renewable energy, and is going toward a zero-waste system. To demonstrate its sincerity in these pursuits, it has enlisted the help of dozens of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
If a giant like Walmart can change course in response to a sustainable vision, why should it not be possible for us to transform other unsustainable systems in our society? Hawken says, “If we squander all our attention on what is wrong, we will miss the prize. In the chaos engulfing the world a hopeful future resides because the past is disintegrating before us.”
What Should Our Vision Look Like?
What we need is vision. We need to cast off the shackles of “the way we’ve always done it,” and loss of hope, and begin to imagine the world we really want to transform to. That word “transform” is key. Let us not think so much of “getting rid” of this or that. Instead, let’s adopt the paradigm that life itself places before us: don’t waste anything. Whatever is here should not be torn down. It must be utilized in new and sustainable ways to create what we really want. We will know what we really want if we allow ourselves to envision it.
I will suggest, following Hawken, some things I believe we can agree on:
1. The golden rule is a good guide for how to treat one another: do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Even better, might be the “platinum rule”: do unto others as they’d have you do unto them.
2. All life is sacred. This does not mean that nothing will die or that nothing can ever be killed. It means that life deserves the utmost respect, care and reverence. If it must be taken, the gift must be repaid to life itself. Life can not be ripped off.
3. Compassion and love of others are at the heart of all religions and are worthy guideposts in our search for right livelihood.
Again following Hawken, here are 3 rules to guide our visioning:
1. The “cradle to cradle” concept calls for transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design so as to create systems that are not just efficient but essentially waste free.
2. A corollary is the concept that waste equals food – every form of waste must be seen as the “food” for another system. This is how nature works. There is no “away” where we can throw that which we don’t know what to do with.
3. As Buckminster Fuller pointed out, we must live within our ongoing solar income. Plundering the energy savings of the planet has turned out badly and is clearly unsustainable.
Let’s play our game of life not as a finite game that can be won or lost, a paradigm that is at the root of the world’s woes today, but as an infinite game where the object is to keep playing. Φ