This is the draft of a talk I gave last week to the Ethical Society of Austin. I’ll clean it up a bit (and document a few ad lib improvements) soon. I’d appreciate your feedback.
I’m going to talk about how we relate to the bounty of the earth. I’ll start with a reading, one which may or may not be true (I’ve run into people who are adamant in each direction), and which resonates in some ways with the question I want to raise. It’s from John Graves’ excellent book, Goodbye to a River.
JOHN GRAVES ON CHARLIE GOODNIGHT AND THE COMANCHE
“A tale exists. I heard it once about Charlie Goodnight and once about another of the old ones who stayed alive long enough to get rich, and it may or may not be true about either of them. … he lived on what was called the Quitaque Ranch… Once, a scraggly band of reservation Comanche, long since whipped and contained, rode gaunt ponies all the way out there from Oklahoma to see him.
No buffalo had run the plains for decades; it was their disappearance, as much as smallpox and syphilis and … soldiers that had finally chopped apart the People’s way of life. Jealously, Mr. Charlie had built up and kept a little herd of them.
He knew one or two of the older Indians; he had fought with them and ;ater had gone to see them and remenisce with them in Oklahoma. They asked him for a buffalo bull.
He said: “hell no.”
They said: “They used to be ours.”
He said: “They used to be anybody’s that could kill one. These are mine. They wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for me. You go to hell.”
“Please, Buenas Noches,” maybe one of them said. Maybe not. The people seldom begged.
He said no again and stomped in the house and stayed there for a couple of days while they camped patiently in his yard and on his porch, curious cowhands gathering to watch them. In the end he made a great deal of angry noise and gave them the bull they wanted, maybe deriving a sour satisfaction from thinking about the trouble they’d have getting it back to Oklahoma.
They didn’t want to take it back to Oklahoma. They ran it before them and killed it with arrows and lances in the old way, the way of their arrogant centuries. They sat on their horses and looked down at it for a while, sadly and in silence, and then left it there dead and rode away…
I start with this story, which is true in a way even if it a myth, for a couple of reasons.
For one thing a good talk by a Texan, I figure, should begin with a tall tale of the wild and wooly west if it can manage it, and so far this is my favorite tale of all I’ve heard. I missed the patriotism colloquy last week so let this be my nod to my new homeland. “My Texas, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.” As the old saying goes. Then again, someone replied that “My country, right or wrong is like saying, my mother, drunk or sober.”
That being as it may, I am not here to talk about whether Charlie Goodnight was in the right or in the wrong. It’s the Comanche that interest me here.
The Comanches lived for centuries in the relationship between man, horse and buffalo. It’s interesting to note that they never were a purely indigenous culture: the centrality of the horse to their endeavors means they could not have predated the arrival of Europeans. Still, they carved out a vast and forbidding empire for themselves, and as anyone with roots in Texas surely knows, guarded it successfully and fiercely, if not exactly well, for hundreds of years.
It appears to me that the story captures a fundamental issue about our relationship to the world around us. To whom does a thing belong? To whom does a fruit, a tree, an animal, a pond, a prairie, an ocean, belong? It matters, you see.
The way John Graves told the tale, this did come up in the conversation, with Goodnight pointing out that the old scheme was labor-driven (“whoever can kill one”) and the new one capital-driven (“these are mine, they wouldn’t even be alive without me”). And, in the story, the Comanche have to make a huge adjustment in how they see the world.
I suppose it’s strange to think about Comanche ethics, though they must have had some beliefs about how the world provided for them. The point is that those beliefs were subject to an abrupt and severe change.
Sometimes the world doesn’t live up to what we believe about the world. These are the times when beliefs change. I think we have been in such times all my life. I don’t know that any of us were brought up in Ethical Culture, so presumably most of you have had some sort of similar experiences. Most people, though, haven’t had such challenges, or haven’t faced up to them. But the world is going to change soon, evne more than it has.
In the past, we have had to challenge our beliefs about race, gender, sexuality, and these are surely serious matters. All these are about our direct relationship to each other. Suddenly we are faced with a new sort of ethical dilemma, which involves our relationship to the world, or perhaps to each other as mediated by the world.
I have never really understood the Christian trinity, but the Hindu trinity is easy for me to understand. Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. Of these aspects of the universe, Vishnu is the one associated with its maintenance; Brahma with its origins and Shiva with its destiny. Maintenance of the universe is viewed by the Hindu as one of the three great facets of godhood. In the Christian and Jewish traditions, a comparable idea has been called Providence.
The world is, on the whole, remarkably kind and tolerant to our like, to the extent that there will soon enough be about 10 billion of us. We live longer lives than our ancestors, and many of us in comfort and plenty. Many of us have riches that would be unavailable to the great monarchs of the past: Queen Elizabeth I had to commission Shakespeare’s company to come down from Stratford for special performances of their current play. I can invoke better performances of Shakespeare in my living room so easily that I am likely to fall asleep before the end. I can interrupt the entire play for a restroom break or a telephone call. Queen Elizabeth didn’t even have a telephone! I can get private performances of the world’s great music at a whim. I can get strawberries and peaches every day of the year. I can compose my talk to you on a computer grander than any that existed in the world on the day I entered college, and I can fetch quotations using it for the talk from anywhere in the world.
What is it about the world that provides this bounty? The traditional religious answer attributes it to divine intervention, Providence, the daily intervention of the divine to prevent the world from stopping. Not only is reality the creation of God in this view, but it’s a contraption that needs working. If God’s attention were to stray for an instant, we used to believe, everything would suddenly end. We weren’t sure that God demanded our gratitude for this feat, but you can understand that people didn’t hesitate to go out of their way to give thanks at every opportunity, lest God tire of the game.
Still, the world, whether created or managed by God or not, somehow does provide for us, and to some extent this is mysterious. Physicists point out that the physics of the universe changed only in the slightest degree would not support life. Planets would not form, or water would not stay wet, or DNA would not twist, or the stars would collapse back into a great fireball before our ancestors learned to walk on land. Perhaps this luck alone needs a name.
The modern view of Providence has its roots in the same enlightenment that formed the humanist movement. It is nearly universally held, among atheists, agnostics, humanists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and even fundamentalist Christians. Something so universal must be a great thing, you would think. Unfortunately I believe and I will argue that in addition to being almost universal it is also spectacularly wrong.
Well, OK, that’s pretty arrogant. Let me soften it a bit. The modern view of Providence is rapidly becoming outdated.
The modern view is that wealth is the consequence of hard work. Yes, some people give luck or grace a little credit, but basically, the idea is that the harder we work, the more we will have. More to the point, we believe that we should have as much wealth as we are willing to work for.
If everyone on earth had an equal share of the earth, how much would we have? It turns out that we get 15 acres of acean and 6 of dry land, of which 4 or 5 are pretty much wasteland. You are living on a two acre ranch, whether you know it or not, and so is everybody else. Now, I don’t mean to say that everybody automatically should get the same share of everything. But the fact remains that the average share is what the average person lives on. If a rich person lives on twice that, then only half of us can be rich, and the rest are left living on nothing at all. And as it happens, estimates are that the American lifestyle demands about triple the total available land; that each of us pretty much extracts all the production of about eighteen acres of our available six.
Each of us has something like 5000 gallons of gasoline left. Maybe 10,000. For ourselves and all our descendants. As an American you are likely to end up with a larger share, but every gallon you end up using is a gallon somebody else will not use.
This zero sum game is effectively new. The exponential growth of our impact has just recently approached the limits of available resources. Suddenly the growth that we have advocated has reached a point where it certainly cannot continue unaltered. Yet, our politicians still talk of growth and our voters still demand it. A recession, urgently needed if the world is ever to become more fairly divided, is avoided with the utmost urgency. Growth is considered an imperative.
Our growth ethic was built in a vast, infinite world and its consequences are playing out in a crowded and shrinking world. Something is going to change, but what? Let me make this clear. I am not begging for a change. I am begging for a sound and humane change, but change itself is unavoidable. That which is unsustainable will eventually end. That is what unsustainable means. There are reasons to suspect that the time is upon us.
Let’s consider how Providence was viewed through the ages. If we look at what changed in the past we may get some insight as to what we can consider changing in the future.
Now I’m going to take an entirely Eurocentric view here, despite referring to the Hindu pantheon on occasion. Basically I am sharing an interesting book I just read, and sharing how it sheds light on the question of how people viewd the way the world provided for them. The book, from the 1970s by an Oxford Don, Arnold Pacey, is called “The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology”. This is a history of the last thousand years of technological development in Europe, pretty much from a standing start, with a focus on the ideology as well as the inventions of the people doing the inventing, people we would nowadays call engineers. Pacey stresses that much of the work of technical progress had little to do with personal profit, despite our modern understanding of why people do things. I propose to compress an impressive and wide ranging history into a few minutes of sweeping generalizations. I might leave something out, maybe even something important. My review will suffer to some extent from the fact that I have a slightly idfferent topic, though a closely related one.
The story I am going to tell has some familiar characters in it. Galileo and Newton play a role. But it’s not the usual science versus religion story: Kepler and Copernicus don’t matter; Darwin and Einstein are nowhere tt be seen. The usual scinece vs religion story is about how science challenged the idea of God the Creator, or of what the Hindus call Brahma. This story will be about technologists vs religion, the people whom today we call engineers, and how they challenged the idea of God the Provider, what the Hindus call Vishnu.
(Interestingly, the Christian version of Shiva the destroyer remains extremely popular.)
AD MAJOREM GLORIAM DEI
The story begins in about the year 1100, in northern France and southern England, where the first burst of postclassical technical creativity in Europe occurred.
It’s fair to say that medieval times had shrunk back from the early Greco-Roman civilization. So while their feudal philosophy must have been very different from the various views of the many small primitive tribes that the world has supported, it’s inevitable that they must have viewed Providence as something external to human action. God or the Gods provide, we merely scratch in the dirt to retain such bounty as the heavens in their wisdom allow us.
It was into such a world that the Cistercian monks arrived to invent architecture.The underlying ideology was Catholic: the glorification of God. This was at about the time of the maximum advance of the Islamic Moors into Spain. Consequently, European Christian civilization came into contact with the knowledge that the Arabs had salvaged from the Romans and Greeks, or had managed to extract from the far east.
A certain revival of technology was underway. Waterpowered mills, canals to support them, and elaborate buildings to house them formed a first burst of what we call technology into Christian lands. Remarkably, the Christians took to this revival like ducks to water, in many cases relatively rapidly surpassing the state of technology in other lands. The early European engineers were unconflicted in their enthusiasm for these innovations, as they were inevitably cloistered monks.
The Cistercian order played a particularly large role in these advances. Followers of St. Bernard, they considered work as part of their spiritual practice. The order encouraged their finest monks to travel great distances and confer with one another. Learning and experimentation were thereby encouraged. The travel circuit among the Cistercian monasteries formed a sort of prototypical internet, a sudden increase in human skill and capacity. One specialty was water works. They diverted river water through their monastery, and used it for a variety of purposes, sacred and profane. A water clock, sort of a wet hourglass, was one crucial piece of hydraulic equipment. Their greatest achievement was the development of Gothic architecture, i.e., the great cathedrals of France and England. The technology required for the remarkable and awe inspiring spaces that they created was far from trivial. Indeed, some attempted cathedrals collapsed during construction. I imagine there were some who lost their lives. All of it, however, was in pursuit of the glorification of God.
At the scale of our discussion, there was more or less steady progress, mostly within the monastic tradition, in developing various mechanical contrivances to further the aims of the order and the glorification of the almighty. Commercial uses of technology emerged, with spinning silk an early leader, and improvements in weaving also following along. Also the mechanics of sailing ships became quite elaborated.
The association between God and the sky, though, had some unexpected consequences. There was a long tradition that had moved from Greece to the Arab lands of building machines, called astrolabes, that could reresent the motions of the planets (including the sun and the moon in the old view) against the background of the fixed stars. Of course the motions of the sun and moon had practical implications. This tradition moved into Europe in the 14th century. Someone came up with a spring-loaded mechanism that released its wound-up energy in a constant way, and the astrolabe would put the planets through their paces without human intervention. These devices were great extravagances for royal palaces, not everyday items.
Of course someone quickly noticed that with the right gearing mechansim, the part of this model that showed the motion of the sun could serve as a mechanical clock. At the time there was little interest in clocks. Only the priests needed to know the time of day with precision. Most people could get close enough by watching the sun, though this wasn’t perfectly satsifactory in the cloudy climates of northern Europe. The first clocks were more in the nature of geek toys than useful instruments: at first the water clocks must have been more accurate.
THE CLOCKWORK UNIVERSE
And eventually (here I am skipping a great deal, of course) the clock became a metaphor for the whole world, the whole universe. Consider that one could have great admiration for the designer of the clock while realizing that he or she need not be on the scene to ensure its continued operation. Could the universe be analogous to clockwork? Here is where Galileo and Newton, with their efforts to mathematize the world came in. Like the clockmakers, their idea was not in itself intended as a challenge to the clerical orders, but on the contrary an elucidation and admiration of the creator’s handiwork. They didn’t think of themselves a reducing the universe to mathematics, but rather as exalting it, revealing its underlying unity and harmony and glory.
Galileo in particular, following in the great artisan traditions, made experiment a part of the investigation of the natural order, and mathematics a key to its outcome. Galileo’s contmporary, the archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Francis Bacon, was struck by the limitless possibilities of the human intellect once we had uncovered the secrets of nature. He surely wasn’t thinking of this work as in some way anathema to Christianity. Nevertheless, once the laws of the universe began to be revealed in mathematical terms, the room for divine intervention became rather smaller.
Before too long it was discovered that the mathematical principles describing nature could be applied to engineering problems. Arguably the first modern engineer was a gentleman named Mariotte. His case was a civil engineering problem in determining the lightest and least expensive pipes that could safely carry water to the palace at Versailles. IN another unprecedented burst of ambition, one William Petty who was charged with a complete survey of Ireland, so that a so-called fair distribution of the vanquished Irish lands might be endeavored to pay the debts of the English government. Twenty counties were surveyed in total by a thousand men in fifteen months. The level of logistic organization involved had no precedent.
The approach that made such feats possible was contemporaneously called the method of detail, or later, reductionism. A problem is reduced to its constituent parts and their interrelationships are examined hierarhcically.
“This mechanical philosophyis sometimes described as a disenchanted view of nature, because it left no room for any mystical appreciation of natural phenomena, and it outlawed astrology and magic. But it would also be appropriate to call it a disconnected world view, in which the links between the different parts of entities were often ignored or broken, and in which subjects were habitually studied in isolation form their broader context.” Consequently, the mystery of the human spirit becomes a subject not so much taboo as irrelevant, not suited for conversation among busy professionals, self-indulgent. The clockwork view was not so much complete as it was self-sufficient. The inconvenient ghost in the machine made all the judgements but rarely spared a thought for itself!
Providence, the sustainer, Vishnu, is altogether gone in this view. While the view leaves some room for Brahma, the creator, eventually that idea was called into question as well. By the time of Napoleon, the great French mathematician Pierre Laplace promoted an explanation about the formation of the solar system in which no God or Gods played any part. When questioned by the emperor on this, Laplace had the temerity to reply “I have no need for that hypothesis”.
THE INVISIBLE HAND
At about this time, the steam engines that had always been curiosities were scaled up to perform real work. In order for this to happen, massive amounts of fuel were needed, and the fuel at hand, in England, was coal. Coal was found in hillsides, in increasingly deep holes, and working in those deep holes required an ability to pump water out. So the first significant non-animal pwered engine was designed to make it possible to dig out the coal which would make the engine work!
This was a crucial step in the emergence of industrial civilization, the application of fossil energy on a large scale. It was also the first step in our downfall, as it began the large scale usage of resources that are depleted by their use, unlike stones or metals which remail in roughly comparable form and are in vast supply. Also it was somewhat emblematic of our eventual frenzy of feeding coal to the machine to pump the water out of the coal well so we could get more coal to feed the machine… the bizarre circular nature of our modern desperate striving for gainful employ is well represented by the first economically important self-powered machine.
At this point, in the view of many educated people, the combination of the success of human clockwork, and the successful explanation of nature with clocklike principles left a windup universe in which the idea of Providence was cast off altogether. In practice, what was provided was provided by man and man alone, digging in the dirt, literally and figuratively. To be sure, many people still held to the old religions, but one has the idea that they were beginning their long decline in most of the advanced countries, a decline that has only recently been reversed in this country for some reason, but that’s another subject entirely. It was socially acceptable to believe in a distant, standoffish creator who had not intervened in human affairs for many centuries, and privately many informed people already saw this as a fairy tale. However, an alternate human-centered theory was not to emerge until toward the end of the eighteenth century.
By then, the Industrial Revolution was beginning in England. Entrepreneurs discovered that a judicious application of coal and cotton and use of the latest industrial technology could create a worldwide market for clothing that could generate enormous wealth. Many stories, of course, are told about the disruption in the lives of the rural poor that resulted, and the decline in their standard of living, but the owners of the mills saw it otherwise. They saw themselves as civilizing the peasantry. Many of them weremembers or sympathizers of an upstart protestant sect, the Unitarians, a nonconformist creed which felt that man’s impulses, enluightened by reason, would tend to work for good, and that teh mind of God was more clearly seen in his creations than in the scriptures.
A theorist came out of their ranks who provided the theory that to this day replaces our idea of Providence, Adam Smith. His ideas, expounded in several books, are easy to summarize, and I’m sure you’re all aware of them. A man’s economic behavior is chiefly determined by self interest. It is futile to deplore the predominance o fsuch selfishness. Such behavior often has a constructive consequence. While benevolence may be the greatest virtue, slef-interest could lead to virtues such as thrift, hard work, and discretion. Everyone free to pursue their own interests, would lead to a better ordered society than any benevolent monarch could ever provide. This is the invisible hand of the marketplace, and it should be as unfettered as possible. This philosophy was called “lineralism”, though today in America it is more associated with people calling themselves “conservative”.
While Smith himself had little interest in tehcnical progress, it was burgeoning around him, and its chief beneficiaries tended to be among his acolytes. They seized upon his theories at every turn to give intellectual and moral cover for their most excessive schemes. In particular, English Unitarians at the turn of the nineteenth century were outspoken advocates against labor laws, including laws against child labor!
THE GROWTH IMPERATIVE
Which leads us more or less directly to the present day. While rationalist religions may be in decline, Smith’s capitalism remains in full flower. There is no denying that in the intervening two centuries it has been a spectacular success. We can all think of numerous illustrations; last Monday at this time I was in Montreal, and by midnight I was in Austin. Year by year and decade by decade, the economic world grows exponentially.
What has changed is that, where it used to be a consequence of laissez faire, the growth itself is now the explicit policy of almost every government, left or right,atheist or fundamentalist, on earth today. Every member of every party supports growth, perhaps blaming the opposition when it fails. And we have as a consequence built a society that works well only in the presence of growth, and risks sudden destabilization when growth fails. We don’t have much to draw upon. So everyone sees that growth years are better than recession years, and votes accordingly.
This amounts to steering the ship of state into a massive typhoon, because growth is never permanent.
THE GREAT CORRECTION
In nature, exponential growth is never sustained forever. A child who does not grow is considered unhealthy, but an adult who does grow is also considered unhealthy. The goal of growth is to reach a robust, sustainable adulthood, not to grow to monstrous scale.
Economists see no constraints to growth in their equations, but that is because their equations were developed at a time when the limits to growth were far away.
It would be silly to deny that it has worked, but it can’t work forever.
We in the west have been presenting ourselves as an example to the world. Our burgeoning success advertises the power of our methods to the rest of the world, and our movies and television evangelize its comforts. And therein, of course, lies the worst of the problem. As we see for the first time in the mdoern era a large country making the transition to what we like ot call “developed” status, we suddenly find the rest of the world facing shortages of food and fuel. Why food? It’s not climate change. Last year’s cereal production set an all time record. Why are the prices of cheap grains exploding? It is because the Chinese can afford meat now, and the poor people of Haiti are suddnly in competition with China’s cows for the cheap grain. Perhaps mroe land can be brought into production for a little while, but China is only 10% middle class yet, which amounts to a lot of people (half of America) but leaves over a billion still looking for that steak dinner. Can China really catch up? And India? And everybody else? No, not if everyone expects to eat a lot of meat, drive cars a lot, and water their lawns. It just doesn’t work. It’s not clear the world can support the Americans (and Canadians and Australians) it already has. Nine billion more will simply not work. Yet America still plans for exponential growth, hoping to account eventually for two Americas itself!
It’s amazing to me that these problems are tied directly to the intellectual legacy of the protestant reformation, the enlightenment, and the emergence of secular humanism. You could argue that it is so humanist as to go too far. Or perhaps we have taken humanism too literally, with the result that our world is utterly inumane? If we have a hundred times the wealth of a century ago (and by most measures we do), why can’t we work 40 hours every hundred weeks instead of 40 hours a week?
What makes us so frantic in the pursuit of something we choose to call wealth? Is it really wealth? Or is it illth? And what is all that stuff piling up in the sudden prolkiferation of storage lockers all over hell’s half acre?
Our comforts and our triumphs are real, but it doesn’t take a lot of arithmetic to understand that in some way they have to change. I don’t think it’s necessary to abandon capitalism, but it may be necessary to stop watering our lawns. We may still travel, but it might be by bicycle or rickshaw in town, and by train over longer distances. We can still have enormous unheard of wealth in other ways: the arts, the internet, the ability to meet people of different backgrounds and exchange ideas, and so on. The changes do not have to be horrible. But they do have to happen. Not everyone can drive around like an American; there isn’t the wealth to do that.
Let me tie it back to providence, then. Much of our success is indeed provide by human work, but it is human work presuming that we have a viable planet. If our activities make the planet less viable, then no amount of invidiual work will make us collectively better off, quite the contrary.
Nature provides us air and water and land. No amount of hard work will create more air, more water, more land. Nature also provides us with coal and oil and natural gas. No amount of work will create more of these, but work can and does deplete them. To some extent this is also true of soil and of well water. Some of our bounty comes from nature, and there is a limited quantity to go around. Some comes from nature, and t=is not only limited but depleted. The more we work, the harder we strive to compete to use these up, the sooner they will be gone.
Has that time come upon us more suddenly than we expected? If the great correction has begun, it came sooner than I expected.
So, if western rationalist philosophy got us into this situation, can it get us out again? Let’s remember the quandary of the Comanche. The whole world is shifing under us; it may be within the scope of a generation that everything we have come to rely upon is suddenly falsified by the failure of our key assumptions.
If we take the reductionist view, no. We have to see the forest and not just the trees.
In the end, reason itself tells us nothing unless reason is informed by values. We got into this situation by abandoning superstitious values and adopting values that celebrate human dignity and success. The way out is notby abandoning reason but by augmenting our values. Now that birds and trees and fish are suddenly rare, we must put vrey great stock in their survival, far more than we did in the past. Now that the atmosphere and oceans are themselves vulnerable, we must take their sustainability into account of ourselves. Like it or not, we are either Vishnu or Shiva now.