“An ethic, ecologically, is a limit on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is the differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of one thing.” — Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
“Local communities will be coming back, like it or not, and it will be greatly to our advantage if we learn the elements that make them good places in which to live, places that reconcile human freedom and responsibility in harmony with the environment.” — David Ehrenfeld, Becoming Good Ancestors
SUMMARY: As we struggle to fashion a livable future from the crumbling disaster of industrial civilization, we will need a general guide — and specifically, perhaps, a guiding document. This is my attempt at fashioning such a document from the accumulated wisdom of our great teachers. I invite (implore!) others to improve on my efforts. I feel this might actually turn into something that helps — something lasting and important. Heck, it’s worth a try.
Several times a year, I get a ‘fresh batch’ of kids in my high-school chemistry classroom. Most of them come from an upper-middle class background and are thoroughly indoctrinated into the basic tenets of industrial civilization — material growth, technological progress, nature as merely a source of raw materials, novelty as virtue, etc. And in addition to imparting the general chemistry curriculum, I feel it is my obligation to both (1) tell them the hard truths about our civilization and its future prospects, and (2) outline a philosophy and practical steps that may improve our chances for a livable future.
But both of these “extra” tasks are not without their challenges.
The problem with telling them the ugly truth about our civilization is that I feel like I’m breaking their poor little hearts. They’re so excited about the business-as-usual life supposedly awaiting them after high school, and here I come saying that future’s just not gonna exist. How do you tell a kid that just about everything they believe about the future is wrong? How do you tell them that we have all been thinking and acting very wrongly for a very long time now? Egregiously wrong. Unconscionably wrong. Heartbreakingly wrong. Suicidally wrong. As such, I’m neither surprised nor upset when most of them don’t get it. It’s too much of a jump for them. But invariably a couple of kids do get it, and I feel better for trying.
And then there’s the herculean task of outlining The Way Forward for these kids. I present them with sound practical options that can be undertaken at both the individual and community scales (e.g., food, water, manufacturing, transportation, energy, etc.) But since they were really not even aware we had any major structural problems with our civilization in the first place, my suggestions for dealing with our predicaments just sound outright bizarre to most of them. Gardening? Voluntary simplicity? Learn to make things? Build local community? Learn the local birds and trees? Huh?! Again, a few get it, but most just politely tune me out. So it goes.
But my difficulties in getting through to the kids got me thinking: What the heck will become of these kids and the 300 million other industrial US consumers when they’re suddenly thrust into lives of extreme austerity? Well, they’re gonna be confused. And they’re gonna be mad. And before they all settle down into accepting the new reality, they’re likely gonna make a heck of a bloody mess. But is there a way to try to head-off some of this approaching trouble? Is there something we can do now to maybe make the coming transition a little less traumatic?
And even beyond that — how can we avoid replaying the same mistakes (albeit on a more local scale) once the dust of collapse settles and we try to fashion our new lives from the rubble of the old? How will our shattered communities remember what destroyed them? How will we ever discern the correct path(s) forward from the myriad of possible paths if we have no guidance from the past?
The answer to all these questions, I think, lies partly in the large body of literature and accumulated wisdom produced over the past century or so from our great teachers. Much brilliant thought has already been applied to the questions of, “What should we do and how should we behave?” The sad fact that we have largely ignored this advice does not make it any less valuable. And we will soon need this wisdom in the worst way.
A partial list of these great modern teachers includes the following: Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, E.F. Schumacher, Wes Jackson, David Ehrenfeld, David Orr, Vandana Shiva, Martin Luther King, Gene Logsdon, Derrick Jensen, Jane Goodall, Noam Chomsky, David Holmgren, Herman Daly, Barry Lopez, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Edward Abbey, George Orwell, Rachel Carson, Gandhi, etc. And their teachings, of course, represent the accumulated wisdom of all humanity. (Note: The paucity of women in this incomplete list merely reflects my ignorance, for which I apologize.)
But while their invaluable teachings already exist on bookshelves and in the minds of a small fraction of enlightened individuals and communities, how do we ever keep them alive through the troubled times ahead? How do we get these teachings to the 99.9% of the US population who will soon desperately need them — people who have never read the teachings, have never even heard anything about them, and will not likely stop at the local library as they dodge bread riots in the streets and increasingly struggle to feed their families?
Well that’s a tough one, for sure. I propose here that perhaps we need a succinct guiding document that summarizes the key ideas of these great thinkers. We need a document that can be read, interpreted, and discussed by that 99.9% of the US population — a document that outlines this accumulated wisdom in an accessible manner. We need a guide and teaching tool that can serve us in self-defense against all the seductive darkness and destructive forces that are gathering on the horizon and will surely dog us well into the future.
And to my knowledge, such a succinct document does not exist.
But we can make one. And I’ll present my effort in a moment.
But before I offer my humble contribution to this endeavor, I need to add a few caveats: (1) the following are not MY ideas — they are the ideas of my teachers and their teachers, and (2) the document, as I present it here, is almost certainly flawed by incompleteness and lack of clarity. Please consider it a rough draft.
And as such, I invite — no, implore! — others to improve on this preliminary effort. It’s my hope that this might actually turn into something more than just an intellectual exercise. Maybe it’ll be something that can really help — something lasting and important. Heck, it’s worth a try.
We just need to craft it skillfully, disseminate it widely, and teach it with sensitivity, enthusiasm, and good humor.
And then we need to get down to work. With a smile, of course.
So here it is:
THE LAND AND COMMUNITY ETHIC: Maximizing the health of human and biotic communities is the highest earthly goal of humanity. Thus, a thing is right when it tends to increase or preserve the health of both human and biotic communities. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. (Note: Phrasing adapted from Leopold)
I. HEALTH. Health of human and biotic communities is paramount. Community health can be defined, after Leopold, as the “integrity, stability, and beauty” of these biotic and human communities. Alternately, we can say a biotic or human community is in good health when it maximizes as many as possible of the following four factors: (1) richness and diversity of the parts and interactions between them, (2) strength and longevity of these parts and interactions under normally-variable circumstances, (3) resiliency of these parts and interactions to rare but profound disturbances, (4) a functioning mechanism to remove and reform parts or interactions that become faulty or destructive over time.
II. JUSTICE. No human community should increase its health at the expense of another existing or future biotic or human community. This is, of course, partly a rephrasing of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have done to you”; or “If something’s right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me.” However, the justice here is also extended to the non-human realm – plants, animals, soil, etc. And it also extends to future generations, human and otherwise — i.e. the ‘seventh generation’ justice espoused by native North American civilizations. For ultimately, without justice, there is no peace. And without peace, there is no health.
III. NATURE AS STANDARD. Healthy biotic communities are the best models for patterning healthy local human communities and the work done therein. We must, as Wes Jackson says, consult the wisdom of the place. We must become students of our local natural surroundings as deeply as possible. We must learn and internalize the ecology of our places. And then we must let our work mirror that ecological knowledge.
IV. SCALE. Small is beautiful. As E.F. Schumacher teaches, health of human and biotic communities can be maintained most effectively by limiting the scale of human endeavors to an appropriate smallness. Appropriate scale may vary from place to place and situation to situation, but we must always strive for the small.
V. LIMITS. Material growth beyond some limiting point inevitably becomes destructive. We live in a finite material world — limited in both the ‘source’ and ‘sink’ respects. Thus, we must acknowledge that any human economy is a limited subset of nature’s material and energetic economy. And this is true at all scales, ranging from local to global. We must strive towards, as Herman Daly describes, ‘steady-state’ local economies, where the use and stewardship of renewable resources has replaced suicidal dependence on depleting non-renewables. Achieving this goal involves carefully identifying, adhering to, and even celebrating the strict material and energetic limits faced by each human community in their respective place.
VI. IGNORANCE. Humans are unavoidably ignorant. We cannot know everything, and we must stop behaving as if we do. The arrogant denial of our ignorance — the ‘arrogance of humanism’ discussed by David Ehrenfeld — is perhaps the root cause of civilization’s sins. We do not now, nor will we ever, have all the information we need to understand and control the world. And given our great powers to change the Earth, we must behave humbly and cautiously in all our actions. Mistakes are inevitable, so we must be careful. Slow down; there is no hurry.
VII. TECHNOLOGY. Human technology is neither inherently good nor bad; it can either enhance or destroy the health of human and biotic communities. All human technologies, new and existing, must constantly be evaluated and re-evaluated in terms of their impact on community health. Destructive technologies must be appropriately limited or discarded.
VIII. MORALITY. As humans are capable of both good and bad, we must continually nurture the good in us and guard against the bad. There are well-established thought and behavioral patterns that tend towards the ‘good’ — i.e. patterns that tend to increase the health of both human communities and human-associated biotic communities. These patterns are recorded in the traditional moral codes of the world’s religions and are expounded by our moral philosophers (e.g., Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Wendell Berry). They include morals like charity, forgiveness, fairness, kindness, empathy, trust, generosity, dependability, workmanship, etc. These morals must be vigilantly, but forgivingly, attended to and nurtured at all times.
IX. TRADITION. Community traditions provide crucial historical perspective to the chaotic present, and thus must be looked after and respected. The cult of novelty is as seductive as it is destructive; we must not be fooled into unthinkingly equating ‘new’ with ‘good’. We must not thoughtlessly and wastefully discard the functional gifts of our ancestors, so long as these gifts serve to increase or maintain community health. We must treasure these traditions and their hard-won, accumulated wisdom. Traditions help us remember who we are.
X. PRACTICAL DESIGN PRINCIPLES. Humans need practical guidance in maintaining the health of human and biotic communities through their day to day work. The twelve design principles of Permaculture (see David Holmgren) can help to serve as this practical guidance. Their wisdom encompasses all the ideas discussed above. We would do well to study them, internalize them, and constantly apply them to our work. They are the bridge between the minds and the hands of an enlightened people.