The theme of “guilt” came up frequently in the discussions from both Week 2 and Week 3 - guilt for poverty, guilt for ecological destruction, etc. How do we deal with that guilt? I offer no easy answers - only my own conditional ones. But perhaps this can help you find your own answers.
Part of a participant’s response from Week 3:
Last week we talked about how we can end up taking more than we give in our relationship with the developing world, and I think this ecological discussion is a clear example of that. It would take 3.6 earths to sustain my lifestyle, and I am one of the strictest people I know when it comes to living responsibly. I know a large portion of those 3.6 earths comes simply from living and paying taxes in the United States. Obviously that doesn’t make it ok, but how can I confront that fact in my daily life? Protest more? Move out of the U.S.? One of my goals in life is ‘Live simply so that others may simply live.’ How can I realize that goal in my life? Is it even possible?
As far as your question, it’s something we all struggle with, and I have no great insight. You’re very right that there are individual limits to what someone can do (aside from literally moving “off the grid” and into a jungle).
This realization can send you spiraling into a guilt trip of epic proportions. But is such a guilt trip productive? I try to encourage people to channel this guilt into constructive anger at a social, economic, and cultural system of beliefs and practices that both constrains our alternatives and encourages less sustainable and equitable choices. This outward focus is, in my view, far more productive than internalizing guilt. We have to work to change this system, rather than beating ourselves up for being born into it.
How do we do that? That’s perhaps the crux of your question. We’ll dig into this more as we go on in the course - but of course there are many options. In my own life, I think about building real sustainable alternatives for our modern life as an engineer, protesting when an extra body is needed, engaging in a constant dialogue with friends and family, and joining organizations that educate and mobilize others for change in solidarity with people around the world. I’ve started to compile some of these organizations on our CDF website, and this list is by no means complete.
But I would not move out of the U.S. Here I have a unique ability to both understand this culture and work to change it from within - and that’s a very special opportunity.
What do you all think?
Further reading: Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Appiah is a quick read and digestible philiosophy. In it, Appiah offers some similar advice, though I don’t always agree with his points.
From one of the participants’ responses from week 3:
It is true that growth has defined human history on the planet, that the beginning of agriculture thousands of years ago marked a period of proliferation, abundance, even surplus (of goods as well as people). Only recently, within the past several hundred years, have the edges of a seemingly infinite tendency towards growth been perceived; subtle signals have accumulated to become portentous auguries, and enough humans have sensed the malignant disequilibrium which ails the Pachamama so that that the dwindling few who don’t are in a stubborn state of denial.
I thought this was worth discussing and sharing a bit given our topics for Week 3 and Week 4. This is a nice connection between the idea that economic growth on a finite planet is limited, and that there are alternatives (like Ancient Futures' depiction of Ladakh shows us).
In this participant’s excerpt, it’s assumed that growth has defined human history on the planet, and that its effects have only been perceived in the last few centuries. This is not quite the whole truth…
It’s not that we have only recently begun to perceive the negative ecological (and arguably social) effects of economic growth; the nature of economic growth itself has changed. It has become exponential. Exponential functions, you might recall from calculus, describe something accelerating. Our global economy, you might thus imagine, is like a car in which the driver has floored the accelerator instead of being happy going along at the speed limit. The speed will keep on rising, but at some point the engine will max out, and (quite literally) overheat - like our planet is today.
Exponential growth (a la the impossible hamster, or the doubling paper exercise we did in class) is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating only to the industrial revolution (see the charts). The industrial revolution allowed the rate of consumption of natural resources to be radically increased beyond renewable limits.
Knowing the relatively recent history of exponential growth makes the idea (proposed by Herman Daly and most ecologists and the field of ecological economics itself) of a shift to a steady state (slow or no growth) economy seem much less shocking. We can take the technology and “advances” we think are genuine from this stage of human history and move them forward in new ways. We needn’t and couldn’t somehow relive the past.
Our period of exponential economic growth is a blip (a crucially important one, but a blip no less) in human history - and so changing it does not seem so radical after all, does it?