(written for the World-Ethics Congress, Kühlungborn-Germany, november 2000)

When we observe the myths of indigenous tribal people, it makes no sense to consider them primitive or even ridiculous in the light of modern cosmology, what really matters is what kind of behavior, what ethics they give those people.

Seen from this perspective, most of those worldviews put negative feedback into the system. Humans see themselves as part of a bigger entity; they look at Creation with reverence and accept limits in their dealings with it. This leads to homoeostatic, that is, self-regulated, sustainable situations. For thousands of years the Indians lived in the Amazon Rainforest without destroying it. We need not mention here what we "civilized people" have already done and still pretend to do to it.

Our modern civilization, Global Industrialism, especially in its present degenerative outgrowth, Consumer Society, which has achieved what Christianity, Islam and Communism have not, that is, to dominate the whole of the Planet, does the opposite, it puts positive feedback into the system. We look at all of Creation as if it were a free storehouse where we can help ourselves without limit, even for the most absurd of whims of ours. We accept no limits. But positive feedback leads to behavior, such as that of the snowball, which, if not stopped in time, degenerates into a devastating avalanche. Even on paper we cannot follow an exponential curve indefinitely. This civilization, therefore, cannot be sustainable.

Science gives us a fantastic worldview, but our economic thinking doesn’t take it into account. Economists develop their doctrines on an abstract level, practically disconnected from Nature. Since we consider ourselves the lords of Creation, as the only species that has rights, that thinking is based on absurd, scientifically meaningless postulates. We may call it a religion. It is a fundamentalist, a messianic religion. From Christianity it inherited its drive to convert. We are the owners of the truth. Our holy obligation is to preach it to all the others. So, we divide Mankind into two groups: the developed and – we’d better not say underdeveloped, that would be offensive – developing countries. After all, they are all waiting to become developed as fast as possible. This faith has a force of conviction the like of which never existed in the past. It isn’t presented to us as a faith but as plain commonsense.

The most basic dogma of this religion is that technology is the key to salvation. It will never be enough, it will never be ready, it must become ever more powerful, ever more embracing. Science, the clean dialogue with the Universe, should not waste too much time with reverend contemplation of the Great Mystery, it should have only one purpose, to provide us with ever more efficient technology. Most people cannot even distinguish anymore between science and technology. The technocratic establishment has long since given up that distinction. Edison still called himself an inventor, today he would be called scientist.

The most important commandment, accepted by practically all governments, of no matter what ideology, is the necessity of continuous economic growth. An economy can only be healthy if it grows and growth must be exponential, growth upon growth. It follows as self-evident that the highest order of priorities for governments, is to promote growth with all possible means. Damage that has already happened as a consequence of past growth can only be corrected with the means we get from still more growth. We are expected to believe that we can prevent disaster by giving the snowball more snow and more slope...

But how is this growth measured? By what is called the Gross National Product. And what does GNP measure in a national economy? It adds up all money flows in the economy, regardless of the direction of those flows.

When a businessman prepares the balance sheet for his enterprise, he adds up all the income and deducts all the expenses and depreciates his equipment. He sees progress only when something is left at the bottom of the line. But, if the owner of the bar made the kind of calculation for his business that governments do for the country, if he calculated his GNP, he would add up the purchasing cost for the barrel of beer, "x", with the amount, "2x", from his turnover, plus all the other incomes, from meals, drinks, etc., plus his expenses, rent, electricity, waiters, etc., and would not include depreciation for his equipment. He would have a beautiful figure, but he might as well buy his beer at twice the price he sells it. He would be broke before he knew. So, plane-crashes, earthquakes, floods and all big and small catastrophes, to the extent that they contribute to the flow of money, fatten the GNP, the worse the catastrophe the better. It sure is astonishing to see how governments use this kind of measuring stick to compare progress between countries. This kind of comparison can only interest bankers who profit from money flow in all directions.

Since this kind of calculation knows no costs, we do not notice how, as a nation, we are getting poorer. In Brazil we are demolishing whole mountains to extract ore, flooding thousands of square kilometers of pristine rain forest with dams to make electricity for aluminum mills, we are making charcoal for steel mills by razing hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of cerrado (savannah) forest. The Brazilian GNP sees only the foreign exchange we get from the export of aluminum, pig iron and steel. But where do we account for the big hole in the mountain, where the ore is gone, the vanished forests, the genocide of the Indian, the uprooting of the caboclo, social costs of the slums in the sprawling suburbs of the mega-cities? Am I richer when I take money from my bank account and waste it? Did I produce money? Does it make sense to say that we produce petroleum?

Isn’t it time we force our governments to give us, for the nation, the type o balance that they require from every business for tax purposes? Everybody could then judge how well or how badly our public wealth is administered.

Also, the GNP sees only what can be measured in Dollars, Marks, Pounds, more recently Euros, etc. But where does it account for the most important aspects of human life and the preservation of Creation? Let’s see a concrete example: When I think of my long since deceased mother, of what she did for us children, what she gave us in terms of feeling of belonging, of joy of life, of meaning. She was also a great gardener, she taught me to look intensively at Nature. When she dug with her hands into the black soil in the vegetable garden and showed me soil life and how to grow vegetables, she gave me something few little boys ever get. I would be a totally different person without her. My mother, though, never got a penny for all that work. So, she contributed not a penny to GNP… Now, had that been in the sixties, not the thirties – as far as I know this kind o stupid calculation was not common then – had she neglected us children, left us in a nursery, had she had a well paid job with a company such as Monsanto, making napalm for burning children alive in Vietnam, she would have made a significant contribution to GNP. What kind of perverse economic thinking is that?

Since the collapse of the repressive regimes in the east another dogma has become enshrined: the forces of the free market will solve all our problems. Therefore we need bigger and more enveloping markets – globalization. It is true that the forces of the market can find a balance between opposing interests. Value is always subjective. A clump of gold may be worth a lot in the jewelry shop, but if I find myself thirsting in the desert, I might give it away for a cup of water. But if the market is to find socially and ecologically acceptable balances, then all participants must be present and it must not be manipulated. But this is almost never the case in our existing markets. We only have to look at the agrarian market in the European Community and the way it is deliberately destroying traditional peasantry.

Let’s make a thought experiment: A very precious historical object, a Chinese vase a thousand years old, is offered at an auction. In the audience there are several experts who know quite well how rare it is. But the guy who offers it is a thief. He wants to get rid of it fast and leave. If the experts know, they will buy it at a ridiculously low price. Now, isn’t that the situation with the resources of the Third World…?

And then the market sees only money. The poor devil who dies at night on the street in Calcutta and whose corpse is taken away by the garbage truck in the morning, with his total fortune consisting of a dirty loincloth and ragged turban, has enormous necessities but he has no demand, the market is blind for him, he has no money. So the rich, for feeding their chickens or pigs, can buy away from under his nose the last grain of corn.

The way it is organized today, the market makes the poor poorer and the rich richer. Small wonder, the rich countries are insisting on imposing Globalization on the poor.

But the market is blinder still for future generations; actually it is blind even for today’s children and youths. If future generations had a say in today‘s markets, how much of what we do would be forbidden? The farther they are in the future, the more so.

Where I live, in southern Brazil, our big copper mine – four thousand jobs – was recently closed. The ore had been exhausted. We are still squandering copper, though. Electricians and plumbers throw away beautiful tips of pipe and cable with the argument that it doesn’t pay to keep them for the scrap dealer, he pays too little. After all, we can import new copper. In fact, our copper was gone so soon because most of it went for export. The great and unique Araucaria Forest in the South was also sacrificed for export. Governments don’t seem to know considerations of caring for the needs of our descendants.

Worse than not seeing the needs of future generations, is that economists do not care for the needs of Creation. If we destroy Creation, there won’t be any future generations. Biologists, naturalists and NGOs are the ones who worry; economists see only necessary growth or impediment to growth. Environmentalist, surviving indigenous people only hamper progress. When whole mangrove forests are obliterated to make place for shrimp ponds, where the shrimp are fed small fry from the already over-fished seas, this kind of enterprise may even be subsidized. After all, it brings foreign exchange. In my home state, with government subsidies, we completely annihilated the Subtropical Rainforest of the Uruguay basin for soybean plantations, for export to the European Common Market to help produce milk and butter surpluses.

How can it be that we modern humans, who consider ourselves the only rational species, have such an absurd collective behavior? An important entomologist, whose name I cannot remember, once said, that we humans are the exact opposite of social insects. When we observe the individual ant, bee, wasp or termite, they may look very stupid, but collectively the colony always behaves in such a way as to secure survival. We humans have enough wise people among us, but collectively…

It is our mythology. It does not embrace the grandiose panorama modern science has given us. We haven’t freed ourselves yet from the anthropocentric worldview we inherited from our remote Judeo-Christian past – Genesis. Even when we do not believe in a creator of the Universe and in life after death, collectively our actions are anthropocentric, often ethnocentric, as in the case of Hitler, or in the case of war, when it seems all right to commit mass murder. But then, in the Old Testament it was the norm, the old man with the white beard even ordered it and often did it preventively for his chosen people. Also, Paradise was there for us only, it had no justification for itself.

Now, in Consumer Society, our ethics is becoming narrower still. A child that grows up in front of the TV can only develop an egocentric ethics. The media that today shape most of our culture preach hedonistic-orgiastic behavior. We now find ourselves in a situation resembling what Aldous Huxley foresaw in his "Brave New World". Power is not exerted through increasing repression as in Orwel’s "1984", but with disinformation, by making people gullible. How else could it be that the automobile industry is still offering extreme ultra-fast sports cars and a German minister for transportation wants to abolish speed limits on the expressways and says he will only give up if traffic accidents increase twenty percent.

We need a new, actually a very old ethics, a holistic, all embracing ethics. But this presupposes a cultural revolution. This cannot be ordered or legislated, so, it will probably not happen in time. Serious crisis are inevitable. We may have luck and, instead of one big catastrophe, get many small collapses. That would give us time to adapt, to rethink, to somewhat mitigate the inevitable calamities that are in store for our children..

Those of us who see what is happening have the sacred obligation to act and to contribute to public awareness. We know where conformism can lead.

Concerning technical fixes, such as pollution control, nature preservation, recycling, much is already being done. This is important, but it is not enough, often it even contributes to fixing the wrong paths. We must question the basic postulates of our economic thinking. By now it should really be possible to have the absurdity of the GNP as a measure for progress being discussed in parliaments, also the lunacy of never ending growth.

We also need in depth discussion on the relation science and technology. If we accept the proposition that science has nothing to do with values and that science and technology are practically synonyms, then we cannot complain when certain technologies that are imposed on us with the argument that they are morally neutral, serve to consolidate techno-bureaucratic-legal infrastructures of power – new contingencies from which there is no escape.

But science is not value-free; it is a value in itself. It is true that, when observing individual phenomena, we have to do it from a neutral stance, but the basic attitude of science is the moral decision for absolute honesty and humility in our dialogue with the Great Mystery. Per definition, there is no deceit, no fraud in science. To the extent that researchers cheat, falsify data; they are simply not being scientific.

Technology, on the other hand, must abide totally with the laws of Nature when developing its specific techniques, or the Boeing 747 wouldn’t fly, but when it comes to the objectives pursued, it is full of guile and hoax. Or, what are planned obsolescence, one-way containers, misleading packaging, one-use objects, mega-technological centralism, patenting of living beings and a lot more? Technology is always politic, it is there to satisfy somebody’s will, the desires of the inventor, his boss, his company, party, church, club or government, etc. It is good or bad, depending on circumstance. If the aim were to satisfy true human needs only, in the simplest, cheapest, socially and environmentally most compatible way, we wouldn’t have the orgies of publicity flooding our everyday lives. Our marvelous communication technologies could be concentrating on true cultural enhancement.

Personally and philosophically, I like to define science as – the humble contemplation of the divine beauty of the Universe.

True ethics, the most profound spirituality, is to feel one with the unique, mysterious, process that distinguishes our living planet, Gaia, from all the others in our solar system, all dead; it is to feel responsible and to shun no sacrifice for the preservation and continuing unfolding of the Great Symphony of Organic Evolution that put us here, together with millions of other species.

José A.Lutzenberger
Rincão Gaia
October 2000.

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