While climbing an observation tower leading towards the canopy of a Brazilian rainforest, Christoph (of Hotspot Tours) asked for an update to my Rebound Romantic philosophy published years ago in Infinite Nature. Here is the jeito-inspired update.
I begin at the beginning. I believe evolution, ecology, and astrophysics are the originators and organizers of life. More recently, humans have gotten seriously involved in these endeavors; hence the dawn of the Antropocene. I also believe Moral Truth is constructed and learned. No absolute moral truths exist, whether bestowed by nature or by a supernatural. Truth must be negotiated and then experienced. Negotiation leads to shared agreement. Experience leads to learning: we learn by doing because we don’t know what we want until we have it. A foundation is required upon which these negotiations begin. We have to start from somewhere. I start with three assumptions: I am tolerant of humans search for dignity; I have profound appreciation of our ecological interdependencies; I am humble in the face of complexity.
Tolerance for the pursuit of dignity requires I respect the meanings and goals others set for themselves as being as legitimate as the meanings and goals I set for myself. Gandhi, King, and Jesus offer parables and philosophies based on a similar premise. Many world religions have a do-onto-other principle. So, I feel in good company making this assumption. My appreciation for ecological interdependencies is less widely shared. It requires accepting that humans are plain members and citizens of the biotic community. We must conserve rather than dominate. Perhaps we should act as a first among equals, or perhaps even take a leadership role—the extent to which humanity take on a leadership role in the biotic community requires continued negotiation as we realize and learn our increasing role increasing the biota at the emergence of the Anthropocene. Leopold’s ethics and honesty are more relevant than ever. We are embedded in the biota, and that interdependent community provides moral and material harvests to its members. These interdependencies create moral and practical obligations and responsibilities. Our heavy reliance on fellow citizens of the biota suggest we should carry heavy responsibilities, and shame.
We also must be humble. Individuals and institutions are weak. Our capacity for restraint is limited and waxes then wanes with increasing affluence. Prudence is not easy. It requires work and sacrifice and tolerance. But it allows us to build roads and infrastructure, to get educated, to invest in research and social services we might need in the future, to regulate safe food and risky financial investments, to act responsibly towards challenges of biodiversity collapse and climate chaos, and to care not just about ourselves but for our legacy. The decisions required of us today—the challenges before us—are hugely complex with many unknowns and unknowables. Their solutions requires a community response, a tolerance for uncertainty, a willingness to trust others to do the right thing…the capacity to act with humility, care and prudence. Affluence builds these capacities, allowing us to delay gratification, look forward, and build institutions. Without affluence we can only live in moment, surviving day to day. One of the most damaging consequences of too much affluence is that it enables individualistic, consumption-driven, consumer-oriented lifestyles and consequently hollows out the willingness and capacity to deal with complex tasks. As we approach 2050, societies around the world are gaining affluence and losing prudence.
Our primary challenge, complicated by our arrogance and affluence, is to negotiate, celebrate, and practice dignity and citizenship. Creating and maintaining sustainable behavior will remain a constant battle, perhaps a new cultural understanding is not possible without revolution. Maybe the best we can hope for is that prudence will result from good leadership AND a meaningful story to inspire sacrifice and give direction. Leadership needs a new story.
Finally, we must be pragmatic. Revolution is difficult and dangerous: reform is within reach but requires compromising or postponing ideals. Until a radical third way emerges, a pragmatic, reformist path of sustainable development into the future requires we reform rather than revolutionize economic and nature narratives and practices. Several tactics are emerging, but they require hard choices:
- Sustainable consumption and production: Harness and steer towards sustainability challenges the most competent management capacity in the world—business.
- Ecosystem Services: Sacrifice content for function. Mange places for the ecological functions they provide rather than the species and pictures they support. Nature-loving, content-oriented ENGOs must reorient to collaborate, bridge, partner with business and governments to price, manage, and account for ecosystem services that support urban communities and corporate profits.
- Urbanize: Promote growth of smart, sustainable urban areas that entice people to live, work, learn and play. The battle for the future will be won are lost with the infrastructure of urban development.
- Nature Preserves: Battle to save hunks of nature and biodiversity. Romantics will win important battles here, but the war will be won or lost with management of ecosystem services and with urban development using business capacity and motive.
- The landscape created by following this pragmatic, reformist development trajectory will consist of a vast humanized middle intensively managed to provide resources and ecosystem services dotted by small but separate areas for people and nature.
Where do I want to live in the future? A future conducive to human dignity, with respect for biodiversity, and with meaningful opportunities for my babies to negotiate with your babies about the future they want.