An Ethical Child

Reddy_Kilowatt_with_wall_outlet_pose - CopyNowadays man finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child.”

                        Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga

The amplification of our lives by technology grants us a power we can no longer afford to use.”

                           George Monbiot, Feral

It was a shiny, four-wheel drive, crew cab pickup and I expected to see the passenger step out to unlock the gate to let them out. Instead, it veered off the trail down a short, steep slope, smashed through a couple of bushes, then wheeled up the steeper slope beyond the gate tearing up the turf and breaking the trail sign.

I was too far away to get a good look at the license, but called the park rangers to report the incident. It wasn’t a maintenance crew as I had assumed when I first saw the truck, but just a couple of yahoos too lazy to walk the three mile trail. I viewed the ruts, torn up vegetation and broken sign and pondered how stupidly and selfishly some people behave.

While hiking along one of the trails far away from easy access, I once found a graffito (one graffiti) spray-painted on a rock. It was crudely done and not profane, but completely out of place, and in this setting, somehow disturbing. The international orange paint added no beauty or meaning to the scene and required more effort to create than the incidental littering I usually encounter walking these trails. Ancient man left drawings of their lives on cave walls, and prehistoric Indians told stories in pictographs on cliffs. This person just blatantly and pointlessly defaced something naturally, inherently beautiful.

We’ve seen lately how inhuman human nature can be. The idea of going out into natural areas to tear things up for some fleeting thrill is hard for me to comprehend. I suppose it takes a degree of narcissism and a sense of entitlement to justify.

Both the high-powered pickup and the can of spray paint represent a technological advantage that we humans have gained over nature. We have struggled to control nature to improve our species’ chances of survival and to enhance the quality of our lives. We have often done so heedlessly, and created greater threats to ourselves than we tried to prevent.

Certainly, our lack of understanding and caution has led to a multitude of unintended consequences from our actions. But we have also brazenly charged ahead knowing we will cause damage and destruction in pursuit of some “greater” goal or more profitable, short-term gain. When our earth’s resources were large compared to our needs, the impacts of our negligence were not (usually) disastrous. Today and in the future, the sheer mass of humanity exerts an enormous impact on our natural and human systems. If we’re going to survive, we need to be better in the future than we are today at managing ourselves.

Natural systems have been studied and managed for centuries. On our good days, we have tried to optimize our use of resources; but our bad days have given way to a desire to maximize our use of resources with little or no regard for their finite nature or the system-wide impacts we cause. As the old saying (almost) goes, “we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.” However, we get closer and closer to that bridge every day, and our torches are getting more sophisticated and destructive.

I believe we need to shift our thinking from what we can use to what we need. What is it that we are trying to accomplish with our actions, and why can’t we think through how to do that? The obvious, quick and dirty solution is usually not the best one, so maybe we can try to discern what outcome we seek.

For example, I remember campaigns by the electric company in my home town to promote the use of electricity with the cartoon character Reddy Kilowatt. Part of the campaign touted the security provided by outside lighting. The more lights, the more security (and the more electricity purchased.) Obviously we’re now focusing on conserving electricity, but we still equate more street lighting with more security. However, we’re learning that all those lights at night disrupt all kinds of natural systems, and can even be bad for humans. Too much light at night disrupts bird migration, and animal and human sleep cycles. Night lighting impacts insect behavior and the movements of animals that feed on insects, such as bats. The ‘Dark Skies’ activists are trying to restore our ability to see the night sky and allow us to embrace the depth and scale of the solar system. Biology, science, human health and spirituality all come together to make a compelling case for reducing night lighting to only that needed.

Maybe we need to rethink what we’re trying to accomplish and see if there is a better way to do it.

Businesses should focus on the services their products provide, in lieu of the products themselves,”

Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams, Nature’s Fortune

We can apply that goal-oriented logic to all kinds of decision making, from choosing a new car to mining coal. What service is it that we need? Transportation? Power? We can be frank about our desires (a new car makes us look cool), but we need to weigh the impacts of those options. Say we believe we need to reduce human impacts on climate change. We can look at how we ‘reduce’ fossil fuel power usage by using electric cars. But electric cars run largely on coal-produced electricity. A less impactive solution might be to use an alternative that doesn’t rely on coal-produced electricity. Maybe we should ask what alternative power generating options we have and pick the least impactful of those. Or better yet and in addition, simply reduce our need for power.

We can construct a similar decision-making structure for our use of tobacco. It seems that there is pretty universal agreement that tobacco use is unhealthy. Government subsidies are decreasing, and many businesses and local governments exert a great amount of effort to eliminate the use of tobacco to reduce the impacts and costs to human health. Tobacco farmlands are notoriously stripped of nutrients and require large amounts of fertilizers, so they represent environmental impacts, as well.

Currently, we accomplish two goals with tobacco: first, it satisfies a comfort and addiction to its users, and second, it provides a profit to farmers, manufacturers and others in the supply chain. It should be relatively straightforward to evaluate the tobacco industry and determine if other options provide similar benefits with less impact. The issue is not the use of cigarettes, but the services they provide. Are there alternatives to satisfying the cravings of nicotine addiction? Are there other, better ways the tobacco industry could be profitable? We can contrast the positive and negative impacts of the alternatives and determine if what we are doing now is the best way to satisfy those goals.

Options exist, and are widely discussed, for most of the services and products we use. An adult approach would consider the alternatives, weigh the short and long term impacts, and choose the most efficient alternative (greatest benefit/lowest impact).

But it seems we aren’t really adults, yet. We’re still children focusing on the near-term reward. If that’s true, maybe we need to take some of those dangerous toys away, so we don’t hurt ourselves, and others.

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