Here's your agenda. We'll help.
1. Set your sights on a safe and just space for humanity
2. Say your prayers every morning
3. Watch Kate Raworth's Talk
4. Read John Cobb's Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet
5. Help us bring about Ecological Civilizations
Kate Raworth offers a vision for the journey ahead. She works for Oxfam International. "Oxfam is an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in more than 90 countries, as part of a global movement for change, to build a future free from the injustice of poverty. We work directly with communities and we seek to influence the powerful to ensure that poor people can improve their lives and livelihoods and have a say in decisions that affect them....more. " Click here to download Kate Raworth's entire paper on a safe and just place for humanity. And click here to learn about the work that Oxfam International does around the world.
Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
1. Reality is composed of interrelated events.
The modern world settled on a view of nature modeled on a clock. The great medieval clocks not only gave the time but also, some of them, on the hour, provided a show composed of moving figures that appeared lifelike. This suggested that living things could ultimately be explained along with inanimate objects as complex mechanisms. The task of science was to discover this mechanism. The whole world consists, in this vision, of objects in motion. Science based on this model learned a great deal about the world, a very great deal.
The main point that gave it pause was that we humans, including the scientists themselves, did not fit readily into the world of objects operating according to mechanical laws. The founder of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, was clear that human thinking was something very different from this world of objects. Alongside matter, he posited mind as a fundamentally different kind of entity. By limiting mind to human beings, he left the rest of the world to mechanistic science.
For practical purposes most moderns are dualists. When scientists experiment, make new discoveries, and formulate new principles, they do not really suppose that they are in fact doing so as part of the mechanical world that they study. But to consider themselves radically different from the rest of the world, including their own bodies created theoretical problems that deeply troubled subsequent philosophers.
The success of mechanistic science led to enormous confidence on the part of many that it could encompass even human experience in its domain. Evolutionary theory showed that human beings developed by gradual stages out of pre-human beings that were much like the other animals. This made it difficult to continue to affirm a radical difference between the human mind and everything else. The currently dominant version of modern thought theoretically affirms that all reality can be explained mechanistically.
Mechanistic thought is generally atomistic. The atoms are understood to be tiny bits of matter that cannot be analyzed into smaller bits. These atoms are thought to move and to cluster together, and all the complex entities studied by science are thought to be explained by these clusterings and movements. In such a world, qualities and values, feelings and beliefs, hopes and purposes play no causal or explanatory role. They are, at most, epiphenomenal. That is, they occur, but only as adjuncts to what is truly real.
In addition to the problem of fitting actual human experience into this world of objects in motion, this worldview experienced another shock. It turned out that what had been called atoms were not atomic. That is, they could be broken up into smaller entities. These subatomic entities did not behave in ways that science understood little lumps of matter should behave. Nor were they as independent of one another as little lumps of matter should be. They even seemed to relate to each other when spatially separated in ways that were generally forbidden by the principles of mechanistic science. The general response of science has been to retain its basic understanding and regard these problems, like those with human experience, as anomalies that will eventually be explained.
However, another response is possible. When evolutionary theory showed that human experience and thought are part of the natural world, some thinkers declared that nature is richer and more complex than the dominant model allowed. If human beings have feelings and hopes and purposes, then it seems likely (1) that their animal ancestors also had something of this sort and (2) that other animals today also share them. Perhaps to be part of nature does not mean to be only an object for human experience. Nature seems to possess experiential characteristics in itself. Quite remarkably and surprisingly, what scientists have found about the subatomic world fits better with a nature that has experiential characteristics than with a purely material one.
Perhaps science as we know it is forced to ignore this feature of nature. But if so, it should be very clear that much of what is most important about the world it studies is excluded from its grasp. Scientists should be careful not to treat their findings as exhaustive of the natural world. Alternately, perhaps science might free itself from subservience to the model derived from medieval clocks. Perhaps a different model would be able to include all the data.
Those who follow Whitehead adopt the latter alternative. To begin with, he proposes that we shift away from supposing that reality consists most fundamentally of things that endure through long periods of time. This is the idea of material substances. We actually have no idea what these can be, and philosophers have pointed out that they are posited as a convenience but with no actual evidence. Another approach is to imagine that the world is made up of events. There are great big events like wars or elections. These can be analyzed into many, many smaller events, ultimately into moments of animal experience, on the one side, and quantum events, on the other. These are examples of the indivisible events out of which the big ones are composed.
A moment of human experience is an event, and it is this event that we are in best position to analyze. Of course, it has many features that we would assume are absent in subatomic events, such as abstract thought and consciousness. But Whitehead discerns other features that may be shared with all events. It comes into being as the synthesis of elements of preceding events. It becomes a contributor to the events that lie beyond it. It participates in the act of its own becoming, so that if we explain why the event happens just as it does, the event must be included as one of its own causes.
This means the event is a subject in its own becoming as well as an object for future events. It is a subject both in that it is acted on and in that it acts both in its own becoming and in future events. As a subject, it has subjective characteristics. Whitehead proposes that it is primarily appetitive and emotional. It aims to achieve an emotional state that is satisfying. Whereas in the mechanistic worldview each entity is external to every other entity, Whitehead’s events are largely characterized as including features of past entities, and each event participates in constituting future events. Internal relations are primary.
Whitehead does not question that there is a distinction between the physical and the mental. But he holds that there are no events that are purely physical and none that are purely mental. Every event is in part physical. This means that it inherits much from its past. Every event is in part mental. This means that it includes possibilities among which it chooses.
For many of us who have studied both the dominant conceptuality underlying most modern science and Whitehead’s philosophy, it becomes impossible to doubt that Whitehead’s thought is more inclusive of the evidence. It has been adopted by a scattering of scientists in various fields. But most scientists want to pursue their research in the patterns to which they have been socialized. As long as they can develop new data in the established ways, they have no interest in considering a different approach. Our argument is that continuing in the present pattern underlies the many practices and policies that are leading toward a disaster of unimaginable proportions. There is very good reason for considering an alternative.
2. There are gradations of intrinsic value.
When we ask about how valuable something is, we often mean how useful or beneficial it is to human beings. This is an important question. Economists believe that they can provide the answer by the price that people pay for it in the market. They recognize, of course, that although we pay nothing for the air that we breathe, this is more important to us than the diamonds whose price is very high. To deal with this they have introduced more complex theories that take account of relative scarcity. But however we decide the value, we are talking about “instrumental” value, that is, how much something is worth to us.
But assigning instrumental value to something is meaningful only if that for which it is a value has another kind of value. If it improves the quality of a human life, adding enjoyment, for example, we take this as worthwhile in itself. Human enjoyment is not valued primarily in terms of how it contributes to something beyond itself. It is valuable in and of itself. It has “intrinsic” value. Of course, a person’s enjoyment may also have instrumental value. It may contribute to that of another.
Almost by definition value is what we aim to increase. In the extreme instance, one may seek the increase only of the immediately becoming experience. In creatures like us, however, where there is a high degree of continuity from one experience to the next, there is concern for the intrinsic quality of the experience of succeeding events as well. Among many animals there is concern for infants and perhaps for other members of a group. Among human beings the breadth of concern for the increase of intrinsic value can be almost unlimited.
Enjoyment is a subjective state. A scientist may discover physical correlates of this state and indeed claim that subjective feelings are the byproduct of physical occurrences. But simply as physical occurrences, they have no intrinsic value. The idea of intrinsic value is bound up with the subjective world to which the dominant scientific worldview allows no real role in what happens. And where there is no intrinsic value, there is no instrumental value either. In principle, when one fully adopts the scientific worldview, one arrangement of physical objects is not better or worse than any other. Practically speaking, most scientists are dualists on this point. While for scientific purposes they may dismiss values altogether, for personal life, they care about their own comfort and about the wellbeing of others as well.
Whitehead’s thought contrasts dramatically with this value-free universe. For Whitehead every event is a subject as it happens, and every mode of subjective being has value in and for itself. Every event has, one might say is, an intrinsic value. Of course, this intrinsic value also has instrumental value for future occasions.
Indian thought has been most attentive to the intrinsic value of things other than human beings. The line of proper concern is usually drawn at the limits of sentience or the limits of life. The Jains go the furthest in seeking not to destroy creatures with intrinsic value. In the West, Schweitzer is famous for this teaching of reverence for all life. There is a sharp contrast between the common Western indifference to the destruction of living things other than human beings and having concern for every living thing.
Whitehead does not limit intrinsic value to living things. However, human actions have relatively little effect on the well-being of subatomic events. For practical purposes, drawing the line of concern at sentience of life makes sense. Whitehead is much closer to the Indians and Schweitzer than to Descartes and his Western followers. But he does not draw definite boundaries anywhere.
Whitehead taught that all “life is robbery.” That is, life depends on breaking down what is eaten. Some intrinsic value is destroyed in the process. Of course, less intrinsic value is destroyed if we humans avoid red meat, or all meat, or also all fish, or all seafood. We can rob more or less, but we will still “rob,” unless we simply allow ourselves to die instead, as some Jain saints have done.
Whitehead’s conclusion is not that we should draw the line of our robbery at any particular place but rather that “the robber requires justification.” Presumably, the destruction of some entities that have intrinsic value is justified by the contribution of that destruction to the well being of others. The assumption is that although every event has some intrinsic value, some have more than others. Indeed, the variation can be quite extreme. It is easy to justify killing ticks for the sake of a dog’s well being and bacteria for the sake of human well being. Few have any problem with killing vegetables for human consumption. All of this depends on the idea that there is a “gradation” of intrinsic values and that human beings are in position to make reasonable judgments of this sort.
There is a danger that the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental value lead to a depreciation of the latter. This would be very unfortunate. It is often the case that creatures that are low on the scale of intrinsic value are far more important to an ecosystem than those creatures that are individually of greatest intrinsic value. For example, plankton are far more important to the oceans than whales. Obviously we would sacrifice a considerable amount of plankton to save a whale. But if we had to choose comprehensively between the whales and the plankton, we would have to sacrifice the whales. This decision is easy because the whales could not, in any case, survive the end of the plankton, but I hope the point is clear.
Of course, many decisions are very difficult. What animals under what circumstances is it moral to kill for food? How far should we go to protect animal habitat from expanding agriculture? What experiments are justified on what animals in order to protect human beings from possibly harmful drugs? When should exotic species be destroyed to protect an indigenous ecosystem?
The last question points clearly to a critical question that is not highlighted simply by talk of intrinsic value. Ecological systems have intrinsic value only in and through the individual inhabitants that make them up, but these inhabitants are benefited chiefly be preserving the integrity of the system. In some cases human interference can take a region that supports very little life and turn it into one that supports a great deal. But this may destroy a rare ecosystem and add one that is similar to many others. What is the value of diversity of ecosystems? How much sacrifice should be required of human beings to safeguard a rare species of beetles?
3. God aims at maximizing value.
The questions go on and on. Whiteheadians do not have ready-made answers. Our contribution is to insist that these issues be discussed and to offer some clarifications about the relevant considerations. For us, the intrinsic value of an event, such as a momentary human experience is increased by the diversity of what it synthesizes. This gives added justification for the preservation of rare species. But it is hard to imagine that humans will ever be greatly benefited by learning of thousands of obscure species of insects or bacteria. We do not think, however, that our modest capacity to appreciate diversity limits its value.
We follow Whitehead in the view that in addition to the contribution of such diversity to us (and the often cited possibility of medical benefits, etc.), there is a deep and justified intuition that the immeasurable diversity of living things has value in itself or, better, for the whole. This intuition is fully justified only if the whole has, or is, its own unifying experience. Whitehead proposes that it is. We who follow Whitehead believe that to simplify the biosphere is to impoverish God. This does not make the preservation of diversity into an absolute requirement. We may cause God more suffering by denying economic opportunities to the poor than by surrendering to their use land that is needed for the survival of some unknown species of beetle. The point is only that decisions should not be made without considering many types of contribution to the value of the whole. Ultimately it is the value of and for the whole that we should strive to realize.
We believe that the universe is ordered to the increase of inclusive value. That means that such increase is the aim of God. God realizes this aim by divine immanence in every creaturely event. This immanence gives to every creature the aim to realize such value as is possible at the time and place. I noted above that this aim may be very narrowly focused on the event itself or may have a far more expansive horizon of concern. In Whitehead’s view, the breadth of concern is the measure of morality.
In the modern vision, purpose plays no role in what happens. In Whitehead’s view, purpose is fundamental to the coming into being of each event. In a world composed of bits of matter in motions that conform to universal laws, it is easy to see that there is no place for purpose. In a world composed of events that develop as synthesizers of elements of the past, the purpose to realize what value is possible at that time and place is fundamental. If God is allowed any role in the modern vision it is as creator of matter and lawgiver. For Whiteheadians every event derives its aim to become from the cosmic, universal aim at value. The universe thus participates in God and God participates in the universe.
God may have primordially decided on the most general features that promote the realization of value. This belief fits with what is miscalled the “anthropic” principle. For Whitehead we do not require millions of universes in order to explain why this one has that improbable set of constants that render it suited for life. The aim at value at the base of all reality suffices as explanation.
It may be worth noting that the affirmation of teleology in Whitehead is not a renewal of the teleology against which modern science reacted so strongly. For a Whiteheadian, modern science rightly rejected the use of final causes in medieval science and in the explanation of evolution in more recent times. We do not propose a recursion to those forms of teleology. But the allergy to teleology has led to absurdities of a different sort.
For example, modern neo-Darwinian evolutionists suppose that to be scientific they must deny that animal purposes play any role in evolution. The evidence indicates that animals adapt to changing environmental situations and that their new methods of finding food or defending themselves have an effect on which genetic changes turn out to have a positive effect. This almost certain fact is completely omitted from standard explanations of evolutionary change. It would open the door to a role for purpose, and many biologists suppose that purpose must be excluded at all costs, even the cost of rejecting the evidence.
This kind of mechanistic dogmatism is no better than the medieval science it supplants. Without a deep will to live, and to live well, and even to live better there would be no evolution. But the suspicion of the atheistic scientists is well-founded. If animal purpose plays a role in evolution, then subjective aspects of reality are, after all, important factors in explaining what actually happens in the world. And these factors, especially purposive ones, cannot be explained mechanistically. The door is opened to a role for God. And Whiteheadians have taken that step. The universe, or nature, or the Tao, or the Great Spirit, or the Creator, or, in Whitehead’s terminology and mine, “God,” is the source of the aim to live, to live well, and to live better that pervades the living world. This is the expression in the biosphere of the still more general aim at the realization of some value, which is the aim to be that pervades the whole of reality.
God’s aim in all things is the realization of value for the sake of the creatures and as a contribution to the divine life. That is the Whiteheadian vision. It conflicts with nothing that we know scientifically and offers a simpler explanation of the information science provides. It opens us to recognize facts that contemporary science conceals or obscures. It grounds intuitions that can often be detected among atheists as well as believers. It has no tendency to distract attention from what happens in this world, instead accentuating its importance. It deeply encourages ecological thinking. It grounds an urgently needed ethics, and it supports the finest form of religious spirit.
4. Humans are uniquely valuable and uniquely responsible.
I hope that what has been said above makes clear that for a follower of Whitehead there is no question but that human beings are a part of the natural world intimately interconnected with other creatures. Against the view that only human beings have intrinsic value I have followed Whitehead in affirming that all events have intrinsic value. Human beings are not the measure of all things. Our arrogance is enormous, and its consequences appalling.
But having said that, Whiteheadians do not follow those who assert that human beings are simply one species among others with no special claim to value or importance. We are, of course, one species among others. But there are important respects in which our species has differentiated itself from all the other species individually, and also from all of them collectively. Our claims to uniqueness, indeed, a quite special uniqueness, are justified.
Human beings are unique in our capacity to care for others – other humans, other species – and for the whole of which we are a part. To the best of our knowledge, while other living beings are loved by God, they cannot love God in the consciousness way that we can do so. And while they have remarkable capacities in their own right, we have powers and capacities that can be used in God’s service for the increase of value in the whole. But we are also unique in our capacity to ignore and deny God’s call and, instead of responding to it, use our capacities for far more limited purposes, purposes whose fulfillment works against the aims of God.
We believe that there is more value realized in human experience than in that of any other creature on this planet. Much as we have learned to admire the qualities of dolphins and whales, we know that much of what is most valuable in our experience is based on complexities of language that they almost certainly lack. This in no way means that we should be indifferent to their fate. But it does mean that our primary concern for our own is not simply a matter of arbitrary anthropocentrism or “speciesism.” We have some relatively objective understanding of what makes for greater intrinsic value, and we are justified in judging that our species has unique capacities for its realization. We should seek to preserve all species for their own sake and for God’s. But for God’s sake as well as our own, we should give the highest priority to preserving our own. We do not need to apologize for affirming our own unique importance in the scheme of things.
This importance, however, is not only the unique potential for realizing value. It is also the unique responsibility we bear for destroying so much of the world we entered when our species evolved into existence. We are not the only species to have damaged the environment, but we have done so on a scale that is vastly larger than any other. Also we have consciously and systematically ignored information that was available to us. When other species acted destructively, there was no moral culpability. With us there is. We have collectively committed against the biosphere and against God a crime of incomparable magnitude. We are still engaged in doing so. This separates us drastically from all other species.
When we encounter another destructive species, for example, a germ that kills people, we can often contain its destructiveness and even wipe out the species. But when we humans act far more destructively, there is no other species that can contain our evil. Only we can do so. Our refusal even seriously to consider such containment continues unabated. We who actualize the greatest value in our individual experience are also the one immediate threat to the survival of the biosphere including ourselves.
Given this situation, it is not wise to call on human beings to reduce our pretensions and to take our place simply as one species among others in the interconnected whole. The damage we have done to the world is too serious for the world to heal itself. It is too late for that. We will do better to call on ourselves, not to abandon the extraordinary powers we have so misused, but to repent. To repent is to turn in a different direction and begin to use our powers for the sake of the whole biosphere of which we are an extraordinary part.
Where we human beings have not interfered, life has flourished and value has increased, but there is little left of “nature” in that sense. We are that part of nature that has upset the balances nature apart from us had achieved. We have blocked nature’s own evolutionary advance, substituting new species of our own creation. Instead of using our powers to work with God in the co-creation of values, we have taken the bit in our teeth and replaced God’s sustainable creation with our own unsustainable one. But we have also learned much about nature’s ways, and we coulduse our great gifts to work with God for the salvation of the world.
The emphasis on human responsibility for the near-mortal injury we have collectively inflicted on the Earth can itself be harmful. Collectively we human beings are guilty of terrible evil. But if that realization results chiefly in intense individual feelings of guilt and remorse, the result is the reduction, not the increase, of value. The need is for collective repentance, that is, changing direction. This will not occur without recognition of objective guilt and some feelings of remorse, but these are not to be cultivated. There is a danger that a highly sensitive individual may accentuate remorse in order to feel virtuous. One supposes that if one is sufficiently remorseful, this compensates in some way for the evil in which one has participated. It does not. Guilt feelings and remorse are a healthy response to the recognition of participation in collective guilt if they support repentance – not otherwise.
However, too much individual remorse about what humanity has done to its world is not the major problem today. The dominant worldview instead encourages individualism. Each individual is taught to feel responsibility only for acts he or she has performed. Further, if those acts are in accordance with what that person has been told to consider right, even if their consequences are extremely destructive, the individual is considered innocent. The blame falls elsewhere. The idea of participating in corporate responsibility does not fit into this dominant worldview.
Whiteheadians see things differently. One is not an individual apart from a community. What one is in every moment is a synthesis of past events. As just that synthesis, partly determined in the very process of its own becoming, one transcends the world out of which one comes. But one is still for the most part constituted by that world. And that world is highly structured. We are constituted primarily by our individual past and by the others who are closest to us. This past comes to us already self-interpreted. This interpretation largely determines our self-understanding.
For example, I understand myself as a Whiteheadian. This became possible to me through participation in a community of Whiteheadians at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. If I had gone elsewhere to study, it is unlikely that this self-identification would have occurred or, if it had, would have played the intensive role it has in fact played in my self-understanding.
This does not mean that my own decisions played no role. Quite the contrary. But the role they played was to confirm my identification with a particular community and then to participate in shaping and expanding that community. I take pride in what that community has done. This contributes to my self-understanding. But if pride in that community enhances my self-esteem, then recognition of its mistakes and limitations must also be a part of my self-understanding. This is true even if I have not actively participated in those mistakes or caused those limitations. For good and for bad I participate in a corporate reality with both its achievements and its failures.
I am an American. In this case, I was born into a community. It gave me certain status in the world, certain privileges. I took pride in my nation as I learned about it at home and in school. This added to my self-esteem. It would have been impossible for me to abstract my “self” from my American identity. Even if, in later life, I had renounced my citizenship, I would have remained an American who had renounced his citizenship. If I take pride in the accomplishments of my nation, I cannot separate myself from participation in its crimes, even if I have not myself supported them. To recognize my participation need not make me feel personally guilty. But if I fail to work for collective repentance, I do have some personal responsibility that I do not have when I fail to work for the repentance of another nation.
In short, for Whiteheadians, our individual identity is inseparable from our corporate identity. Perhaps the strongest form of that corporate identity is as human beings. If humanity as a whole has engaged in horrific evil, then as a human being who has always taken advantage of that status and justified many actions by it, I share in responsibility. In fact I continue to participate quite directly in the destructive activity of humanity. It might be difficult to survive without doing so. Indeed, the consequences of extracting myself might be worse than those of limited participation. There is no personal sin involved, if, in the ideal case, I do the best that is possible for me under the circumstances. But all the more, I share in responsibility to change the circumstances that force me into destructive action. Personal innocence is not the primary goal.
5. Education is for wisdom
The modern worldview has shaped education and transmits itself through the education it has shaped. Because that worldview is misleading and has let modern society astray, contemporary forms of education do more harm than good. That does not mean that they do no good. They do a great deal of good. But overall they contribute much more to human destruction of the Earth’s capacity to support life, and thus to human self-destruction, than to saving us from this fate.
The problem is not with the earliest years of education. In kindergarten, teachers focus on the children and their healthy development. But all too rapidly attention is redirected toward subject matter and skills needed to support and advance the economy. Given the ordering of society to the economy, and the nature of the economy to which it is ordered, there is no question but that fitting into the economy is essential for the well being of workers. And in these circumstances it seems rational to prepare children for this. The problem is that this kind of education only prepares children for participation in an economy that is necessarily coming to an end, an end that will bring with it enormous suffering. Those equipped only to fit into a destructive economy will cling to that economy as long as possible, however apparent its destructiveness becomes.
Higher education is much more problematic. The norm for this level of education has come to be the research university. It is understood that successful research isolates some one range of data and develops methods to study in that field. The result is called an academic “discipline.” The ideal is to organize all knowledge into disciplines each of which adds to the information available to human beings. To accomplish this, the disciplines must be value-free. One topic is as appropriate for research as any other.
To some extent research will reflect personal interests of researchers. However, as the low hanging fruit is picked, research tends to become more expensive. As a result, most of it is governed by the availability of funding. Since money is available chiefly for medical, corporate, and military purposes, most research is in these fields. Since the research university is value-free, evaluating research projects in terms of who is benefited and how is not its business.
The vast majority of research is strictly determined by the current status of thought in the discipline in which it occurs. Established methods are employed. What cannot be studied by these methods does not concern the researcher. In most disciplines there are debates about methods and theories, and this assures researchers of the intellectual substance of their work. But there is little study of the history of the discipline and little reflection about the basic assumptions in the context of which the debates take place.
The research university has vastly increased the amount of information that is available to humanity. But it has given little or no guidance as to how this information should be used. It offers little or no criticism of the assumptions of the modern world that have led to the extreme overshoot that now dooms it to collapse. It engages in little or no research about the changes in society and the economy needed to attain sustainability.
If we ask where in the university one can gain help in understanding what is going on in the world today, the answer is everywhere. But of course the information gathered in many independent lines of research has no coherence and provides little guidance. In any case the university does not judge that saving civilization from collapse is any more important than solving some problem for the military. That global warming is speeding up is an interesting fact, but it is no more important than information about football scores. Another interesting fact is that more people are interested in the latter than the former.
There are some professors who ignore disciplinary boundaries and think coherently about the global crisis, but they are not rewarded by the university for doing so. A recent book by Stanley Fish, a highly acclaimed writer on higher education, supports the value free research of the university over against concern for solving global problems. The title is “Save the World on Your Own Time.” (Oxford University Press, 2008) Concern for the world does not fit the modern university model.
The research university is typically composed of departments for numerous academic disciplines supplemented by professional schools. Whereas in the earlier years of education, pupils are prepared for the workforce, the university prepares people not only to be researchers and professors but also to be managers in the world of business, doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, and so forth. In each case specialized work in some disciplines provides important information, but the practical concern of the profession affects the professional school as it does not affect the disciplines.
The University of Phoenix has pioneered a new kind of higher education that bypasses the academic disciplines. It offers training for skilled jobs. It introduces information gained from research only as that is directly related to the work for which one is training. There is, clearly, a large market for this kind of education. Universities whose only value is to be value free are likely to respond more and more to this market.
In contrast to all of this, the Whiteheadian vision calls for an education oriented to wisdom. Of course, every society needs to prepare its youth to participate in the society including its economy. And of course, we need institutions where research can be conducted on many fronts and some members of the next generation can learn to do this research well. But we also need, with truly desperate urgency, institutions that seek wisdom and encourage youth to learn how to gain it.
The quest for wisdom is continuous with the concern for personal development in the early years. At least for Whiteheadians, wisdom is an important characteristic of the mature person. In past centuries higher education was more directed to personal development including wisdom. The liberal arts were thought to be beneficial in these respects. Even today there are liberal arts colleges that encourage a kind of thinking that does not fit into the academic disciplines. Sadly, they have difficulty finding teachers who have not been socialized into disciplinary research as the ideal.
A Whiteheadian will struggle to maintain a serious role for the liberal arts in higher education. Nevertheless, a return to classical understanding of the special role of the liberal arts will not fulfill the calling of higher education today. The liberal arts were developed at a time when there was no apparent threat to the biosphere on a global basis. They are anthropocentric, whereas we live in a time when the integration of human life and the rest of nature is of primary importance. They tend to encourage individualism, albeit one that accepts social responsibility. They tend to be elitist, separating those who have leisure and want to make good use of leisure from the ordinary people who only want to be entertained.
Wisdom is expressed in the judgment of importance. The refusal of the research university to make judgments of this kind is an abnegation of responsibility for the fate of the Earth. A Whiteheadian judges that not only should the university make judgments as an institution, but it should also shape its curriculum as directed by critical reflection about what is important. Further, encouraging students to participate in this critical reflection and to relate it to their own decisions about research projects and careers should shape the life of the university as a whole.
This in no way means the abandonment of special foci. The world needs physicists and engineers, teachers of children and economists. But physicists and engineers should decide on their research and projects out of concern for the flourishing of the biosphere with particular attention to the human species. Teachers of children will need to reflect about how to introduce them to the realities of their time without overburdening them with anxieties before they are ready to cope with them. Economists should stop tinkering with their ideas about how to make the economy grow and ask what kind of an economy the world can afford and how to move quickly in that direction. In every field, basic assumptions should be constantly articulated and reconsidered.
I have discussed what it would mean to make wisdom the most fundamental goal of education only at the level of higher education. But this form of higher education should not be an abrupt break with earlier education. Reflection about the condition of the biosphere and the prospect for humanity in this context is important for younger adolescents as well. They, too, are capable of a measure of wisdom, if society encourages them in that direction.
6. The economy should be directed to the flourishing of the biosphere.
The most important revolution in history is the industrial one. Prior to it, there had been many important changes in the way of life of masses of people, but the capacity of people to produce goods and services in an agricultural economy had not varied greatly over time. In almost all societies the masses of people lived on the land at a subsistence level, while a few gained wealth by siphoning off what was more than needed for the subsistence of the farmers. This surplus supported life in towns and even cities, where a middle class of artisans, merchants, and professionals developed alongside an urban proletariat. A few lived in great luxury. In general, the limited availability of food for the poor played a primary role in preventing rapid population increase.
What was discovered in the eighteenth century was that the same number of workers could produce a great deal more. The early focus was on the production of clothing and furniture and household goods and tools and machines. It turned out that by organizing workers in assembly lines and supporting them with energy from coal, production per hour of work could be vastly increased. There could be abundance of goods that had formerly been scarce and their price could be greatly reduced. What had formerly been luxuries for the rich could now be made available to the masses.
From the beginning there was a price to pay. The satisfaction artisans felt in their work was denied to assembly-line workers. Factories brought with them pollution of a type not previously known. The aim at profit for the investors in a factory led to exploitation of labor that was in some ways more vicious than the exploitation of peasants in the countryside. Industrial cities were typically filled with slums. Unemployment became a problem rarely experienced in agricultural societies. The landed nobility saw that its power was passing into the hands of industrial capitalists. Noblesse oblige gave way to a single-minded quest for profit. Not everyone was pleased by the changes effected by industrialization, but there was little prospect of turning back the clock.
Over time the industrial model was applied more and more widely. Eventually agriculture was also industrialized, and features of the industrial method were applied to merchandizing as well. Increasing productivity, defined as production per hour of labor became the norm everywhere.
The industrial economy required larger markets. There were economies of scale; so that one huge factory could often under price several smaller ones. But to sell its product it needed more customers. This affected international relations as industrial powers sought markets all over the world.
Factories often needed natural resources not plentiful locally. Hence nations whose policies were driven by economic concerns were also interested in securing supplies of such resources. There was another great advance of empire building. There was also a drive, especially after World War II to make of the whole globe a single market, so that goods could be produced wherever conditions were most favorable and sold wherever they were in demand.
Modern economic theory beginning with Adam Smith grew up alongside industrialization. The economists explained the benefits of industrialization and sided with industrialists against those who wanted to curtail their freedom. They saw not only factory production but the whole of the economy as ideally geared to “growth” measured by total production of goods and services per capita. They were strong advocates of the move toward a global market.
Mainstream economists have based their study and theories on industrial society. Today the financial sector has come to dominate the productive one. It clearly dominates government as well. Its control of the money supply is a major source of its power. Economists have far less understanding of this phenomenon than of the industrial economy it supersedes. Markets controlled by banks are not free.
We might expect that economic theorists would be concerned with the ability of the environment to supply all the raw materials needed for a growing industry. However, they have largely dismissed this problem. They note that as a particular resource becomes scarce its price rises. This leads users to be more frugal and efficient with this resource and also to seek more plentiful, and therefore less expensive, substitutes. Such scarcity also leads inventors to find new ways of meeting the need that do not require the scarce item. Economists assure us that economic signals lead to developments that by-pass the problem of scarcity. They do not view resource scarcity as placing any limit on growth. Although there has been less discussion of pollution until very recently, economists try to subsume this under the same type of response. Those few who argue against unlimited growth of the human economy are viewed as outsiders to the community.
The idea of “overshoot and collapse” comes from zoology and, as explained above, has no role in mainstream economic thinking. Today, the acute problem of global warming calls for the application of this concept to human affairs. But thus far it has been excluded from economic theory. Economists remain cheer leaders for economic growth everywhere and under almost any circumstances. They have been deeply misled by the modern worldview in its most harmful form.
Fortunately, largely outside of academic departments and of the economics guild, others are developing an ecological economics that emphasizes the issue of scale. They note that the human economy is a subset of the natural economy and must remain a limited portion. As long as the natural economy is limited, the human economy must also be limited. Herman Daly has long been the leader in this development.
Ecological economists redefine the goal of the economy. One important contribution to this task is the book, “The Economics of Happiness” by Mark Anielski. (New Society Publishers, 2007) We have found that the growth so prized by economists does not, in any regular way, make for the happiness of real people. To pursue growth when it does not contribute to the well being of people is quite mistaken. The task of economists is to find the ways of organizing the economy that contribute most to human well-being. The Kingdom of Bhutan now measures its wellbeing in terms of Gross National Happiness.
A major shift that helps redefine the goal of economics is that from the individualism that underlies all mainstream economic theory to an appreciation for community. We now know that, beyond a very limited level, personal happiness is more a function of human relations than of the quantity of goods and services consumed. Unfortunately, modern thought has led economists astray. They have ignored human relations other than those of contract and exchange. Often the way of benefiting people is to improve the quality of the communities in which they live, but the application of modern economic thought has systematically destroyed communities.
Focusing on community does not mean rejecting economic growth. Many communities are improved by increasing the supply of fresh water, food, improved shelter, education, and medical care. However, forcing people to leave their communities in order to find employment rarely adds to human well being.
Even “economics for happiness” does not go far enough in our time. As Anielski and the rulers of Bhutan fully understand, human happiness cannot be separated from the flourishing of the whole ecosystem. We need an economic theory directed to the regeneration of the global biosphere.
The move toward an ecological economy will require breaking the control of financial institutions over both industry and government. The key to this is recovering for community, at whatever level, the control over the money supply. Nationalizing the “Federal” Reserve system would transform the situation for the United States. State banks, like that in North Dakota, would greatly improve the financial condition of states. Money creation is possible at still smaller levels.
The present global economy is collapsing. Rather than trying to stave off this collapse, we can use the occasion to build local economies that serve their communities well. This will be a profound reversal of long-term trends. It may include state and municipal banks and local currencies that free the community from subservience to the international banks. Local economies can encourage frugality and sustainability instead of growth. They need not look to growth to solve the problems of the poor. Instead, the local community will accept responsibility for providing work for all who want it and for meeting the essential needs also of those who cannot work. We may exchange the “high” standard of living measured by the surfeit of goods for a secure place in a healthy human community in a healthy ecological context.
7. Agriculture should regenerate the soil.
Apart from human experience the normal situation is one in which the seasonal cycles gradually build up the soil. It becomes more fertile and thereby accelerates its own growth. When human beings lived by hunting and gathering, this increase of soil continued. The change came with the rise of agricultural societies. These found that they could produce a great deal more of the desired plant nearby if they cultivated the soil and planted only that one crop in a particular plot. Farming developed in many contexts and many styles. Some were far more sustainable than others, but all reversed the trend from building up topsoil to using it up, however slowly.
Some ancient civilizations ended when the land they farmed, for one reason or another, lost its capacity to support them. This should have been a warning to others of the applicability to agriculture of the “overshoot and collapse” model. But in general new lands were found to cultivate, and some of the old ones seemed to be inexhaustibly rich. In any case there seemed to be no alternative. Agriculture had produced the food that allowed population to grow. To sustain that population, the damaging cultivation of crops must continue. If that meant moving people to new land, so be it. As long as the global population was small in relation to the amount of cultivable land, the problem seemed minor.
For thousands of years the basic agricultural situation did not greatly change. But in the nineteenth, and especially the twentieth, centuries industrial methods were applied to agriculture. Family farms gave way to agribusiness. Agricultural science studied the chemical needs of plants and the ways that weeds and noxious insects could be killed. Fertilizers and poisons came into more extensive use. The condition of the soil became less important, since the needed nutrients could be supplied artificially. Monocultures became more extensive.
Genetic changes of plants were designed to adapt them to the new chemical regime. The wide variety of species of wheat or corn was replaced by the one species able to deal with these chemicals. Huge machines replaced both human and animal labor. Large areas of the countryside were depopulated.
The main gain from all of this was “productivity” as measured by produce divided by hours of human labor. Economic theorists celebrated this gain as releasing farm-workers to do other jobs. Ecologists fretted that soils were losing their natural fertility and eroding more rapidly, while agriculture was becoming more dependent on irrigation and petroleum products. They also worried about the loss of genetic diversity and about the effects of artificial varieties on natural ones, on the environment in general, and on the health of those who consumed them.
From a Whiteheadian perspective, ecologists are right to worry. Farming has kept the human involvement with nature very intimate for thousands of years. Despite human manipulation, agriculture was primarily a process of working with nature. The application to agriculture of modern economic theories developed in relation to industry makes the whole process highly precarious. It also makes it dependent on resources that are becoming scarcer and scarcer: fresh water and oil.
The risk is illustrated in the case of Cuba. In proper modern fashion, Cuba as a protégé of the Soviet Union was assigned a specialized task: produce sugar for the Soviet Union and its satellites. In exchange it would be provided with its other needs, including oil and food. Vast areas of Cuban agricultural lands were given over to industrial production of sugar.
Then came the American blockade. Cuba could not export its sugar and could not import oil and food. The adjustment was difficult. However, there was no massive hunger. The peasants who still had their holdings were able quickly to shift from oil-dependent production of sugar to organic production of food. Fortunately, research and experiments with organic farming were already far advanced, and when the need arose, the peasants learned quickly.
It is noteworthy, however, that the industrialized sugar producers were not helpful in the transition. Those farms were organized for sugar production. Their equipment was for that purpose, and the workers knew nothing about other crops or other forms of farming. In any case there were too few of them to engage in traditional farming. Fortunately for Cuba, peasant farming had not yet been wiped out by the industrial form.
As Whiteheadians look to the future, we see what is needed as evolving from traditional family and peasant farming, hoping to recover the land now used for agribusiness in a more traditional way. We certainly affirm the organic form of production to which the Cubans were forced by the lack of oil. But we recognize that even organic farming is exploitative of the soil, and as the soil diminishes, the future looks dim. The task is to stop the exploitation and find ways to follow the natural processes that build soil instead.
There have been many positive developments alongside the negative ones involved in agribusiness. No-till agriculture shows that the plowing that exposes the land to the wind can be avoided. Certain combinations of plants can greatly decrease the loss to insects. Irrigation can be accomplished with much less water by systems that use it only where directly needed.
We who are rich have become accustomed to having almost any food at any time of year. This is a luxury afforded to us by the global economy. As we prepare for its collapse, we will think of eating locally-grown food instead. That will reduce variety, but it can also have advantages. Fresh food organically grown has its own excellence.
A movement in this direction is already well advanced. There are thousands of farmers markets all over the country, encouraging this change in eating habits as well as the farmers who are growing the food. There is also a widespread movement of urban agriculture. It may be most fully developed in Detroit where there are many vacant lots and houses and many people unemployed. In the residential area of Los Angeles County in which I live there are efforts to make unused land available to unemployed Immigrants from Mexico who know how to use it. Thus far these movements of local food production are marginal to the food industry as a whole. But their growth will make a great difference with respect to who and how many can survive the collapse of the global system.
Where land is limited and the need for food is great, extremely intensive food production will be needed. Examples of this already exist. A family of six in Pasadena feeds itself on food from its own quarter-acre lot. It also sells some specialty items to nearby restaurants to earn cash.
Another development may be even more important in the long run. Although intensive labor methods can do much to end the erosion of the soil, we can also learn quite new methods of farming. Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has noted that the vast American prairie developed its rich topsoil during millennia in which it was covered by a polyculture of perennials. When European farmers came, they replaced this with a monoculture of annuals. The loss of soil began.
We have generally assumed that the grains that are so essential to our food supply must necessarily be annuals. Jackson notes that there are perennial forms of corn and wheat, but that their yield is far less than that of the annuals we have cultivated. However, he does not believe that perennials are inherently less productive of the seeds that humanity needs. He has set out on a fifty year experiment in developing highly productive perennial grains, and he has made great progress. This is the kind of research to which our universities should be devoted instead of the study of how to make tomatoes that are better able to withstand shipment over long distances.
Another change in eating habits will enable more people to survive the collapse. Most of us are addicted to eating meat. We eat far more than most people through human history. And we eat far more than we need for health or is even healthy for us. In many instances ten times as many calories of grain are fed to the animals than are present in the flesh that we eat. Dramatic reduction of meat eating will enable more grains to be available for more people.
When we approach the question of meat-eating with this question alone in mind, the goal will be to end the eating of grain-fed animals, but not complete vegetarianism. There is land that is suited to pasture but not to farming, and producing meat may be its best and most sustainable use. Also, the most fully integrated use of a small farm often includes animals. They can eat what would otherwise be wasted and produce natural fertilizer for use on plants. The consumption of surplus animals is an efficient contribution to our food supply.
A Whiteheadian vision leads many, however, to become vegetarian on other grounds. The animals we kill have their own intrinsic value. Killing them may not be as destructive of value as killing other human beings, but it is the same kind of evil. Such killing, a Whiteheadian may well believe, should be reduced as much as possible. Avoidance of eating meat can be our contribution.
There is yet another Whiteheadian argument. From the Whiteheadian perspective inflicting suffering is inherently evil. Whatever may be theoretically possible, the reality is that today much, probably most, of the meat that is served to us has been raised in ways that are cruel to the animals. Their suffering is often life-long rather than only a matter of the moment of death. Our consumption of meat supports an industry that is brutally indifferent to animal suffering.
8. Comfortable habitat should make minimal demands for resources.
In the days of cheap land, cheap transportation, and cheap utilities we built millions of large, poorly-insulated homes on large lots in suburbia. We used a lot of lumber in home constructing, sacrificing our forests in the process. Our individualism led to nuclear families replacing extended ones and to separating ourselves even from our neighbors. We typically found our communities with like-minded people elsewhere than in our neighborhoods. Our homes were for ourselves and our children, and we expected others to respect our privacy as we respected theirs.
We are now entering a world in which land will be needed to produce food locally, and transportation and utilities will be expensive. We will need to increase tree cover rather than further decimate our forests. How will we make the transition?
Obviously, much of our task will be improving what we have. We can greatly reduce our use of utilities by insulation. We can generate some of our own energy with solar panels. We can also work to develop cooperative relations with neighbors to save on the number of separate car trips that are needed and perhaps buy some kinds of equipment for the neighborhood. And we can use some of our land to produce food.
This is important and for some time it may be the best contribution we can make to staving off collapse. However, in this section I want to focus on the kind of construction that should, over time, replace what we now have. Fortunately, there has already been a lot of experimentation with buildings that provide comfortable habitat without requiring the further decimation of forests or extensive use of utilities for heating or cooling.
One example is called superadobe. Traditional adobe was far less demanding on the environment than the kinds of homes we moderns have been building. But it required lumber, and had other limitations. Asuperadobe building derives more than 90 percent of the building material from the land on which it is built. It uses no lumber. Thus its construction depends only a little on transportation and not at all on increasingly distant forests. Like adobe in general, its thick walls provide excellent insulation. It is built to last. Obviously it has little vulnerability to fire. It uses small steel rods to secure its walls in case of earthquakes. It is the sort of building that can now be constructed as a transition to a very different future.
Replacing contemporary suburban buildings with ones like this will be an excellent move, but it solves only part of the problem of habitat. The inhabitants will still be distant from most places of employment and from many of the services they need. We can hope that bicycles can connect them to some of these, but the need for transportation remains.
Paolo Soleri has been considering this problem for a long time. He has envisioned a profoundly different city from those we have been building. Its construction would require far more resources than the super-adobe building, but it would put an end to most of the current needs for transportation. He calls the cities he proposes “architectural ecologies” or “arcologies.”
He sees the arcologies as the natural development out of what is already happening in the downtown areas of some cities. One may today be in a hotel from which by foot, escalator, and elevator, without crossing any street, one can visit department stores, restaurants, professional offices, commercial establishments, and theaters. Sometimes even an indoor park is included. One can imagine enlarging this complex to include a school and a hospital. One can imagine that in addition to a hotel, or partly in its place, there would be apartments for permanent occupancy.
This is possible in a small area, of course, because of the height of the buildings. A single building of eighty stories covering ten acres will have as much usable space as one story buildings covering eight hundred acres. Indeed it will have a great deal more, because it will use for indoor purposes all the space devoted to streets, sidewalks, parking lots, and filling stations as well as the space between and around buildings. It could contain all the facilities an urban family needs for the greater part of their lives. Within this building there would be no need for motor transportation, indeed, no possibility for it. Everything would be accessible by foot, or, for those who need help, by wheelchair or other equipment.
For some people, this may sound nightmarish. They imagine it as claustrophobic. But it need not be so. Living quarters might all be on the outside walls so that people would have views of what is without. Furthermore, rather than imagining such a building as surrounded by city streets and other buildings, let us imagine it as standing alone with only the great outdoors outside it. From anywhere in the building a short walk could take one outside for gardening or outdoor recreation of many kinds. In other words, one would have far better access to rural areas than do the great majority of city dwellers today. If one just had to drive a car, one would be available for rent. There would also be public transportation to other cities.
Soleri has proposed that an arcology be built on the top of a hill with greenhouses covering the slopes below. Air entering the greenhouses would be heated as it passes through them and would provide energy for heating and other uses in the arcology. Industry would be located in the basement levels with surplus heat used for the rest of the building. The arcology itself would be well insulated and built to take maximum advantage of sun and shade according to the season. Direct and indirect solar energy would supply all the needs of the arcology.
Once built, therefore, an arcology would have no need for fossil fuel. Everyone in the arcology would have access to everything in it without motor transportation. The problem, in comparison with the superadobe house, would be construction. This would be less costly in money and materials than building a city in the present form, but it would still require a wealthy society and elaborate transportation system. Arcologies would have to be built soon, while resources for such things still exist. They could then survive the collapse of the global economy far better than other cities.
9. Most manufacturing should be local.
It is fairly obvious that when humanity finally decides to end its suicidal burning of fossil fuels, producing goods in one place and shipping them around the world will end. This is one part of the collapse of the current civilization that is readily predictable. Of course, one possibility is that our addiction to fossil energy will persist so strongly that we will turn to fracking and to the tar sands of Camada to keep the global civilization going at whatever cost to human life and the biosphere. If so, we will probably destroy the capacity of the planet to support any human life at all. If we turn to nuclear energy on an ever larger scale, the threat to survival will change its nature but not be removed. This paper is presupposing that the human race will stop short of suicide.
If we do, the question of how we can live in a sustainable way confronts us. Which of the good things we now receive from our global civilization will we be able to continue to enjoy. We have considered thus far only food and shelter. But there is a vast world of manufactured products that we would like to retain. Can we do so?
The answer is that no one knows just what will be possible. We can say, however, that a shift from manufacturing for global distribution to more local production is a given. The ideal would be a rather gradual transition. As transportation becomes more expensive, heavy and bulky items will be increasingly produced nearer their destination. If common sense leads to greater restrictions on burning fossil fuels, this tendency will be accelerated and even smaller and lighter goods will be produced more locally. A transition of this type would be far less disruptive of our lives and societies than was the globalization of production that has caused so many of our problems. It will, of course, be part of the localization of the economy discussed earlier.
However, transportation of goods is not the only problem. Industrial production has been based on fossil fuels. A great deal of thought is now directed to other sources of energy. The most promising are wind and direct solar forms. Small scale local production can be based on wind and solar energy far better than the huge centralized productive facilities now dominating the scene.
The most difficult problem is that many of the natural resources needed for manufacturing are not locally available in most places. To whatever extent their shipment is ended, the goods made from them cannot be produced. This will call for a great deal of ingenuity. As long as this is available, many needs can be met with locally available materials.
Consider, for example, clothing. Cotton and wool are major raw materials for much of this. But there are many parts of the world where neither is available. Fortunately, we have long since learned that clothing can be made from fibers of many sorts. Stores would not carry the vast variety of clothing we now take for granted. But the real need for clothing could be met almost everywhere in the world.
One obvious problem with local production is that it is impractical for many of the things we take for granted. The automobile is an example. A city, even of a million people, could hardly produce automobiles efficiently, if its market was limited to that city. Certainly the city could not support several competing companies.
The ideal response is that cities should be so constructed as to make automobiles unnecessary, and we may indeed hope that they will move in this direction. We can imagine that private cars can be eliminated without disaster, difficult as that will be. But public transportation requires vehicles the local production of which in many places would be even more impractical. It is difficult to imagine a painless transition in transportation from the collapsing global society to a sustainable local one.
Two directions of change in regard to urban transportation may take place. One is the abandonment of public transportation as well as private cars. This would force city dwellers to organize life in relatively self-sufficient neighborhoods within which bicycles would be the major means of transportation. The other is for megacities to develop the capacity to produce what they need for public transportation. Powering this system of transportation, as well as the factories that manufacture the vehicles, without fossil fuels is a separate problem.
Another broad change can be imagined and encouraged. We have become accustomed to cheap mass produced goods. Most of us Americans have far more goods than we need. Our problem is to store them or clear out our closets to make room for new ones. This flood of goods replaced a situation in which most of the things people really needed were produced by hand. Today handiwork is more of a hobby than a primary occupation, but a shift back in this direction would be a welcome one. If handiwork were prized and its products could be profitably sold, unemployment would cease to be a major problem. We would use fewer resources and own fewer goods, but what we would have would bring us greater satisfaction and its production would be a creative rather than a routine act.
Finally, we may hope that the vast world of electronic communication can survive the collapse of the global economy. In the new order, the travel we have so enjoyed would become a rare luxury. But this would not need to disconnect us with the rest of the world. We could be citizens of the world in touch electronically with likeminded people elsewhere. When successful adaptations to the new global situation are developed in one place they can quickly be shared with people around the world quickly. People in obscure villages could listen to the lectures of the world’s most advanced thinkers. The best knowledge in medicine could be made universally accessible. We need not consider localization of production the enemy of wide horizons of thought and action.
10. Every community should be a part of a community of communities.
The collapse of the global economy and all the institutions connected with it will force people to make do with local resources. If they approach this task with the same mindset that has created the unsustainable global economy and the overshoot of the earth’s resources, the future for humanity is very bleak indeed. This paper is written to encourage an alternative. Humanity will have the opportunity to construct local communities.
A community is not automatically generated by people living in close proximity. Most suburban neighborhoods today are not communities. A community gives identity to its inhabitants. That is, I identify myself as a “Pilgrim” because my participation in the life of my retirement institution, Pilgrim Place, is part of who I now am. It is a community in which I participate. Pilgrim Place is a community because participation in it means sharing in concern for the well being of other Pilgrims and taking some responsibility for the whole. We work all year to raise money for those whose funds are exhausted. We are committed to preventing anyone from having to leave because of financial problems.
When nation states arose, they intended to be communities. Their citizens identified themselves in large part by their nationality. They expected the nation as a whole to take some responsibility for the welfare of all its citizens and were willing to make some contribution to enabling the nation to do so.
The organization of Europe in terms of nation states was part of the rise of modernity. It weakened local communities and communities based on religious identity for the sake of strengthening the national community. Nevertheless, much of the economy remained local, and local community remained strong. The industrial revolution greatly weakened local economies and increased mobility within the nation. Local communities lost much of their importance and often ceased to function as communities. This whole process was strengthened by the individualism that was encouraged by Enlightenment thinking.
This individualism has now been turned against the national community as well. The economic elite no longer identify themselves particularly as American. If they belong to any community, it is a transnational one of wealth and power.
It is no longer self-evident to many Americans that they should be prepared to contribute to meeting the needs of all Americans. That idea, rooted in the very meaning of community, is dismissed as “socialist” by an increasing, and increasingly influential, segment of the population. They believe the national government should give them freedom and support their interests. It should protect them from interference by other people. But it should not expect any contribution from them for other purposes.
The now developing global crisis can lead to fresh reflection that will make people aware of the importance of community. If it does so, this will express itself most clearly at the local level. Confronted by acute shared problems, we may hope that people will agree that they need to work together for their solution and to build a new life. The preceding sections have sketched, in the most hopeful way, what will be possible.
The major problem with communities is that they are in danger of defining themselves over against other communities. Individuals who identify themselves strongly with one community may perceive others as actual or potential threats. The we/they understanding of the world easily arises, with “they” understood negatively. A world composed of local communities all of which face scarcities of important types is threatened by conflict that can easily become violent. That sort of world is unsustainable.
Hence the goal must be not only to have strong, healthy local communities, but to have also communities of communities. We can see something like this in the world of sports. Consider the high school teams of small towns. The citizens of those towns feel a strong sense of identification with their teams and root for them vociferously. But the teams that compose a particular league also gain some of their identity from their participation in that league and want it to be strong and healthy. Also when wider concerns are in view, those who root for their teams show their concern for the other towns that support the other teams. The rivalry among the teams is contained in a context of sportsmanship, and the teams learn the importance of respecting their rivals.
Healthy local communities will have as part of their basic self-understanding a respect and appreciation for other communities and their citizens. If one community suffers a natural disaster, its neighbors will come to its aid. It is healthy to have competition and rivalry, but this is not healthy unless it is contained within a wider context of respect and cooperation.
Local communities will have their relatively self-sufficient economies, but there will be economic issues that require cooperation with their neighbors. Those that only compete will not survive, and they will destroy others along with themselves. Healthy communities will participate in communities of communities. Although each will have considerable autonomy, any effort to be completely independent will misfire. Communities of communities will also need the authority to make decisions. And the same is true of communities of communities of communities. Even in a world in which the focus is on the local, there will be need for some governance at the global level as well.
A political structure of this sort will be sustainable only if we overcome individualistic ways of thinking. In the modern world this individualism has expressed itself not only in the erosion of community at the local and national levels but in the idea that at one level or another there must be “sovereignty.” That need springs from “substance” thinking. Process thinking is community thinking. Individuals become healthy persons only in community with others. The people are not sovereign, and neither is the community. The community shapes the people and gives them freedom. The people shape the community and give it a measure of authority. Local communities are not sovereign. They can be healthy and strong only through their relation with other communities in a community of communities. That inclusive community is not sovereign. It exists to serve the communities that make it up, but these communities need for it to have its own measure of authority over them.
Substance thinking leads to the idea that if one institution increases in power, other institutions must lose power. Process thinking argues instead that no one can have any significant power except through cooperation. Increasing the power of the agencies of cooperation increases the power of those who cooperate through them. The most important form of power is that which empowers others. A world in which that is deeply understood can be a sustainable world.