Those who think about the future have different views of the world we should strive to inhabit. Many who have benefited from material progress want much more of it. Those who have gained little materially hope for at least some of it. It seems unfair for rich nations to seek to deny people living in abject poverty a better material life so as to protect the environment, which the insatiable demands of the wealthy for products has so badly damaged. But if the developed world can mend its ways, the technology it creates could be used in poorer countries to help avoid the mistakes that advanced industrial society has made.
In nature lies astonishing beauty that, in the busy lives required to accumulate material wealth, can easily go unvalued. Humankind can be kinder to the natural world and would reap the benefits. We are of nature; our capacity to modify and destroy nature on a large scale dates back only a few thousand years in an evolution that has been underway for eons.
A new movement is required, a movement that aspires for a beautiful world. Comprising people around the planet with a common set of ideals, the Movement for a Beautiful World would achieve its aims through example and advocacy, not through physical force or coercion. If there is nothing so powerful as a good idea, there is nothing so compelling as a beautiful idea. Others who see the way members of the Movement for a Beautiful World live their lives and the joy they gain from their harmony with the natural world will have good reason to follow their lead. Those who seek to satisfy their yearnings with more fried chicken, hamburgers, French fries, Coca Cola, luxury cars and lavish lifestyles may take no positive interest in the movement, but haranguing them would make no difference.
What would this Movement for a Beautiful World look like? It would be shaped by four ideals: harmony with the natural world; tolerance; compassion; and curiosity.
HARMONY WITH NATURE
All around us is a wonderful natural world. Birds converse with each other. Animals make sounds beyond our audible range and speak in languages we generally take no interest in understanding. Flowers flaunt their glorious colours, smells and shapes in a display for the insects they hope to attract as carriers of their pollen for the great endeavour of propagation. As this grand cacophony and brilliant display bursts around us, it invites us to join in, birds responding to our whistles and tweets, animals to our calls and embraces, plants and flowers to our tending and nurturing.
If we hear and accept nature’s invitation, we will feel joy and find fulfilment, engendering a richer sense of sharing with the natural world and with each other. Conversations will turn from conflicts in work places and frustrations about inadequate incomes to the latest liaisons with the natural world.
Often it is wrongly asserted that human occupation will destroy the natural world. Planet Earth has survived catastrophic ice ages and volcanic eruptions. Species have been destroyed, sea levels have risen and fallen many metres, deserts have replaced vegetation and rainforests have grown in place of arid lands, but still the earth makes its way through the galaxy along the same trajectory. Humankind – not the planet – will be the victim of its own hostility towards nature as settlements are displaced and the lands they once occupied are retaken by nature. Steel will rust, concrete skyscrapers will crumble and fall, highways will be up broken up by the unyielding intrusion of weeds and vines. As human settlements move to more inhabitable regions, species will be made extinct – an obnoxious imposition on nature – but the natural world will survive while humankind as we know it will not.
“There can be no peace until you lizard worshippers renounce your beliefs and accept our duck god as the one true god.” Although this is a parody, similar demands of myriad religions have been the source of persecutions, conflicts and wars through the ages. By one count, humankind worships more than 3,000 deities. These deities cannot all be the one true god. Indeed, none of them is, since each is a human construction. Religions have been used as a subterfuge for military invasions, Crusaders attacking Muslims in their homelands, Catholic Spaniards slaughtering Incas and Aztecs in the name of Jesus, Muslims attacking Christians as testimony to Allah’s greatness. Buddhists have been exceptionally tolerant of others’ beliefs: a model, perhaps, for those who believe in an afterlife but also in refraining from imposing their beliefs upon others. A good life lived in harmony with nature, of kindness and charity towards others, has its rewards on earth and would not be penalised in any heavenly afterlife that might exist and which might be worth entering.
In a Beautiful World, we would feel empathy towards those who have suffered or fallen on hard times and refrain from making judgements about their worth to society. It is not for us to judge but to offer comfort and support. At the heart of compassion towards others is ensuring all children, regardless of their circumstances, are given equal opportunity through a high-quality education.
Throughout the course of civilisation, societies have developed class systems, those at the top ruling over the lower classes. Democratisation, often achieved through revolution, helped weaken the class structures but did not remove them. Classless societies do not exist. In practice, communism created a new elite, while Western democracies involve systems of preferment in which wealth begets wealth, where welfare dependency is intergenerational and in which distinctions are routinely made between lifters and leaners. Exceptions of young people who break out of the intergenerational cycle of welfare dependency are used in an effort to prove a rule that anyone can do so, and to brand those who do not as having chosen to remain a drag on society.
Education is the key that unlocks two doors: one to greater prosperity and the other to a fairer society. But attitudes towards education among families who have been dependent on welfare payments for generations are commonly negative, those values being instilled in children from a young age, along with low self-esteem arising from being told by parents and peers that they are unintelligent. Improving attitudes towards and access to quality education for the underprivileged is an enormous task – far too big for an indifferent elite. The elite ask who will do the ironing, the gardening, the house cleaning, who will fix the leaking roof, if not people on low wages who are good with their hands but not very bright.
All the objective evidence points to no systematic difference in intelligence among infants of different family backgrounds, yet the children of the rich typically outperform disadvantaged children at school. Programs tailored to the circumstances of individual schools in disadvantaged communities and to the specific needs of individual students, while expensive, have been proven effective. The dedication of funding and the training of specialist teachers to improve the educational performance of disadvantaged children are essential to a compassionate society.
A qualitative change in education, towards a system that equips children with work skills but also educates them on how to live a good life with the values of harmony, tolerance, compassion and curiosity, would greatly contribute to progress towards a beautiful world.
Our understanding of the world and its place in the universe, though far from complete, is the product of curious minds. Galileo used his telescope to validate the view of Copernicus that the earth revolved around the sun. For this, the Catholic Church placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life. History is replete with cases of ridicule and punishment of scientific inquisitiveness that challenges existing precepts.
Curiosity should be encouraged not punished. Of great danger to human progress is the scientific consensus whereby a proposition has not been proven but a sufficiently large number of scientists subscribe to it such that those who do not are ostracised. Within a scientific consensus, most effort is devoted to the further accumulation of supporting data, possibly leading to minor modifications of the hypothesis, and very little to questioning its essential validity.
Yet proof of a scientific proposition is not necessary to justify action to deal with it. Proof of the harmful effects on health of tobacco smoking was a long time coming, but that did not invalidate anti-smoking campaigns implemented before the final verdict was in. Similarly, proof of the adverse effects of human-induced climate change is not absolute, but a policy of inaction until such proof is available runs the risk of great damage and human dislocation.
Scepticism is fundamental to scientific endeavour. Sceptics should not be ostracised for having a different view. Rather, their propositions should be subjected to rigorous analysis, as should the propositions of any scientific consensus.
IN THE YEAR 2050
Imagine we are living in the year 2050. By then, technologies that at present are in the theoretical or experimental stages will have been adopted. Rather than trying to foresee those as-yet-undiscovered technologies, the Movement for a Beautiful World would support a set of aims consistent with its ideals. Some proposed aims are set out below.
All energy supplies would be renewable, fossil fuels having been phased out, perhaps with the exception of aircraft.
Private vehicles would be electric, the electricity being generated from renewable sources. Mass transit systems such as high-speed rail would be powered by renewable energy.
The invention of plastics has provided humankind with great utility. But it has also led to a massive pollution problem on land and in the oceans. When scientists discovered that various substances were depleting the ozone layer above Antarctica, the global community came together and, within a remarkably short period of time, agreed to the Montreal Protocol to phase out the use of ozone-depleting substances. The hole on the ozone layer is now recovering, with suggestions it will return to 1980 levels some time between 2050 and 2070.
Why can’t we do the same with selected plastics? An international agreement could be negotiated to require that plastics used in packaging be biodegradable within, say, 10 years. Scientists would develop such plastics to conform to the new international regulations.
All animals should be respected and treated ethically.
Cultured meat, or in vitro meat, grown from animal cells, could potentially replace living animals as meat sources, avoiding the ethical problems associated with the slaughter of animals for human consumption. It could also enormously reduce the amount of agricultural land needed to support the raising of domesticated animals and the growing of plant food for them, enabling much of that land to be returned to nature.
Places of Worship
In most suburbs, towns and cities in Western countries, church buildings occupy the prime locations. The same is true of other religions in other countries. At these places of worship, many believers pray that their god will look after the poor and the poor in spirit. A better alternative might be to cut out the middleman and use the church buildings to assist the poor directly by taking out most of the pews and offering classes to improve physical and emotional wellbeing. This is already happening to an extent, with the establishment of drug rehabilitation centres and, in the case of local Buddhist temples, offering refuges for the poor.
These are some views and values. They are grounded in philosophy, not ideology. They are neither Left nor Right. Other views and extensions of thinking about the Movement for a Beautiful World are most welcome.
Craig Emerson is the first guest author on Five to Twelve. You can follow Craig on Twitter @DrCraigEmerson and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/drcraigemerson.
Photographs and captions by Thomas Emerson.
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