Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books, via Kevin Kelly:
||There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world. Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists–most of whom are not scientists–holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.
Kevin, continues, riffing off other Freeman insights from the same piece:
||But while progress runs on exponential curves, our individual lives proceed in a linear fashion. We live day by day by day. While we might think time flies as we age, it really trickles out steadily. Today will always be more valuable than some day in the future, in large part because we have no guarantee we’ll get that extra day. Ditto for civilizations. In linear time, the future is a loss. But because human minds and societies can improve things over time, and compound that improvement in virtuous circles, the future in this dimension is a gain. Therefore long-term thinking entails the confluence of the linear and the exponential. The linear march of our time intersects the cascading rise and fall of numerous self-amplifying exponential forces. Generations, too, proceed in a linear sequence. They advance steadily one after another while pushed by the compounding cycles of exponential change.
||Balancing that point where the linear crosses the exponential is what long-term thinking should be about.
His bottom line:
||A timeline of where we expect these cost/benefit/risk-thresholds to fall in each sector of our civilization, or a field map of places we can see where our linear lives cross exponential change — either would be very handy to have
After reading this, I wonder whether caring and generosity come into play here. Becuase those are not reckoned with the logic of exchange and transaction employed by most economic arguments. What we do for love tends not to involve exchange. The purest forms of love are what we do without expectation or desire for payback. This is the kind of love we give our spouses, our children, our good friends. As St. Paul said (and says again and again at countless weddings), love does not “seek its own interests”. It does not boast. It is “patient and kind”.
There is a morality to exhange, to cost/benefit/risk-threshold economics. This is the morality of accounting, by which we repay debts and owe favors. It is the morality of fairness, of rules in sports and business contract. It is the morality of Lady Justice, holding her scales.
But the morality of accounting is different than the morality of love, which is found most abundantly in relationship. Wise teachers, religious and otherwise, have been inveighing for the duration on behalf of a larger kind of love, in which we give to strangers, or even enemies, what we give to those we know and care about. It is embodied in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, in the atheist Kurt Vonegut‘s “You’ve got to be kind!” — and, most appropriately to the topic a hand, Hafez’ famous passage:
||Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth “you owe me”.
Look what happens with a Love like that!
— It lights the whole Sky.
Urgings to extend selfless love to the world — to extend one’s relationship beyond the scope of the familiar and the desired — have fallen on deaf ears for the whole of human existence.
Though not entirely, or we wouldn’t have religion. It’s there in the “compassion and mercy” of karuna, the “universal love” of Mohism, the “giving without expecting to take” (via Rabbi Dressler) of Judaism. And, as Freeman points out, in environmentalism.
Is selfless love by definition religious? That might be one reason Freeman assigns environmentalism to the “high moral ground”.
Either way, we need it. The environment itself provides a long and endless record of vast changes and stunning catastrophes. Twenty thousand years ago, the northern ice cap sat like a large white hat on the Earth. Snow dumped on its middle pressed its bulk edgeward, like dough spreading under a roller. The ice picked up and crushed mountains, scraping the shattered remains across landscapes, carving grooves and lakes and fjords. At its edges were dumped the rocks and soil that today bear the names Long Island, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. The hills of Boston and the islands in its bay are mostly drumlins left by the glacier. Likewise all the inland ponds began as melted landlocked icebergs.
The Great Lakes are puddles left by the same ice cap, revealed as that cap shrank, between 14,000 and 9,000 years ago. The cap is still shrinking, revealing more of Canada every year. While what’s left of it may be melting faster than expected, we’re dealing with a trend that’s been going on for longer than humans have been walking on the Americas, which began in what is essentially the geologic present.
Human despoilation of the planet is a catastrophe that happens to coincide with the end of an ice age. Regardless of what or whom we blame, Antactica will continue to shrink, Greenland will continue to melt, and the seas will continue to rise. Compared to what’s coming, Katrina was just a hint.
As the police chief said to the captain in Jaws, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”.