We have been promised that through a combination of enlightened commercial policies and advances in science and technology we will eventually usher in a wonderful future. But in fact, we are causing immense ruin to the world around us. This disconnect persists, as noted previously, because while politics, economics and technology have an important place in our lives, they are only valuable and effective when they are ruled by men and women of conscience. When conscience succumbs to meaninglessness, as we all too often witness, values are cheapened and short-sighted, and they are re-concocted anew each day by fashion, whim, and demands for entertainment and comfort. Politics, economics and technology then become the rulers, and we become their slaves. The only way these things can be a positive force for good is if we become conscious, responsible, honest and loving, use our intelligence, and refuse to ignore harsh realities.
Since the time of the first European explorers, there has been a basic and “disturbing commitment,” in the words of Thomas Berry, “to conquer this continent and reduce it to human use.” This “exaltation of the human” coupled with the “subjugation of the natural” has been so excessive, Berry notes, that we are today forced to look for a fresh understanding of “how the human community and the living forms of Earth might now become a life-giving presence to each other,” rather than perpetuating the unconscious, life-destroying, violent competition between humanity and the world, that is grounded in the misguided and maladaptive ‘onlooker’ viewpoint of 19th-century science and the hollow presumption that accumulating wealth takes precedence over all other human obligations and aspirations.
This ought to be a goal of education, but our educational system, from pre-school to the university, has routinely been collusive with the goals of exploitation. Only in the fields of art, music, literature, and occasionally in philosophy and some of the biological sciences, has the world outside our petty human cravings been given respect and attention, and these are precisely the fields that are considered ‘soft’, nonessential, and expendable in today’s education marketplace.
The great achievements of the European settlers in the Americas – establishing a place where freedom could flourish, where people could worship or not worship as they please, where all individuals (not just the rich or “high born”) would have rights and opportunities, where governance would be determined by the governed and not merely imposed on the governed – have been flawed from the start by the dual corruptions of murdering indigenous people and plundering the land. The great achievements of science, technology, and economic insight that have helped bring about much relief from poverty, hunger, and sickness, have been accompanied by the thoughtless devastation of that very environment that is necessary for the perpetuation and prospering of life. Most of those who helped bring about our current world saw only the bright side of their achievements, uninterested in their ethical failures, unconcerned with the consequences of their political and commercial obsessions that have caused so much damage to this planet – which has routinely been treated as an “it” that exists only to slavishly serve us. “We behave in the family of Nature,” noted A. R. Orage nearly a century ago, “like self-indulgent children whose only object is to enjoy ourselves. If you will only ponder seriously for half an hour on the way we exploit natural resources, land, forests, and animals, for the gratification of abnormal desires, you cannot help but be appalled.”
We all have learned the lesson, even when we forget to follow it, that other people are not in existence merely for us to use them. But we are still quite some distance from grasping the parallel truth that other living things, and the Earth itself, are also not in existence merely so that we can use them. It will take a great deal of emotional and intellectual maturity to realize this, we will have to get passed what a friend of mine once called “our exquisitely stupid cleverness.” But it is time to grow up.