CHAPTER VII

 

HUMAN VALUES AND

SUSTAINABLE WAYS OF LIVING

 

JOSEF VAVROUSEK

 

 

The development of human society in the last several hundred years has been characterized by a number of basic and still deepening contradictions. It has brought also such positive trends as the rapid growth of technical and scientific knowledge, which has increased substantially the amount of information about our world and led to a higher standard of living in most European, North American and some other regions. It has brought improvements in healthcare, limited the impact of infectious diseases and therefore lowered the death rate in most of the world. An increasing number of countries assert democratic political systems and the ideals of human rights and freedoms.

We must, however, also consider the negative features of this development, which have dangerous consequences. The high, and still growing consumption by the "northern" and some "southern" countries is among the most important of them, connected with a rapid deterioration of natural resources and the production of enormous amounts of waste. 20 percent of the population now consumes about 80 percent of raw material and energy resources. The population of most of the "southern" (and some "northern") countries lives in poverty. More than 780 million from the total of 5.5 billion world inhabitants under the poverty level — each minute 28 people die from hunger and people attempting desperately to survive destroy the surrounding nature. Expansive development of the Euro-American culture is leading to the weakening or even destroying of national or regional cultures, which means irreparable loss of the cultural diversity of human kind and the restriction of its ability to react efficiently to new circumstances, leading thereby to a growing fragility of human society.

All these processes contribute to the rapid deterioration of nature and the human environment on global, regional and local scales. Air pollution leads to acid rain, ozone layer depletion and climate change. Forests lose their vitality, trees are cut down, soil is desertified due to erosion, growing salinity, the lowering of the water table, and humans lose. Humans have irreversible negative impact on natural resources, the genetic pool and Earth’s life-support systems.

What is particularly dangerous is the unprecedented scale of these negative changes and the speed with which they occur. This is closely connected with the technical ability to change nature and with the "globalization" of human civilization (Earth as a "global village") which is the consequence of the speed of information dissemination. One of the reasons is also the exponential population growth; the fact, that it doubles once in 40 years is a warning in itself. The danger of such a development is even more threatening because it is regionally unbalanced — the birthrate being greater in the poorest countries deepens the above problems.

For the first time in history the whole human society, together with a countless number of other organisms, is endangered. This is an unprecedented situation; till now a decline or even disappearance of a civilization concerned only a separate region such as the ancient cultures which lived between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

We near the crossroad — if we have not already passed it — when a reevaluation of the whole past development is critically needed. In the long term perspective it is obviously unsustainable, and could lead to the escalation of the social tensions in the world, the consequence being growing violence and destruction of the global environment vital for man and other organisms. Any delay could trigger uncontrollable processes. Potential attempts of some countries or regions to isolate and protect themselves by new electronic "curtains" and thus preserve their prosperity is not only unmoral, but also short-sighted and condemned to failure. The key conclusion of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, June 1992) therefore was the Strategy of Sustainable Development, as a blueprint for the future orientation of mankind.

Sustainable development — or perhaps more precisely a sustainable way of life — is concerned with the search for harmony between man and nature, society and its environment, so that we should achieve the ideals of humanism and respect for life and nature, as much as possible and in all time horizons. It is a way of life which searches for balance between the rights and freedoms of every individual and his or her responsibility towards other people and nature as a whole, including responsibility towards future generations. We should accept the principle that the freedom of every individual is limited not only by the freedom of the other, but also by the principle of avoiding deterioration of nature.

To find sustainable ways of living we should analyze recent unsustainable trends, which consist in quantitative growth connected with a number of deep discrepancies. We should attempt to build on ideas that are compatible with visions of a sustainable way of living. That must begin the working-out of this vision and support its realization, while at the same time avoiding activities that raise or deepen the huge problems of humankind. Part of such an analysis should be the identification of all important factors which negatively influence current development, which support the positive factors and supplement them in areas where they are weak.

A common feature in understanding people’s behaviour is the general criteria used by them in the evaluation and decision making processes. These criteria are human values which express individual or collective perceptions of life. Probably they are partly stipulated biologically (most importantly genetically), and partly have their roots in specific human cultures. If this hypothesis is correct, then an analysis of the development of human values in different parts of the world during the last decades and centuries could help us to find the roots of the recent ethical crisis as well as the human values compatible with sustainable ways of living.

In search of human values suitable for sustainable living we should begin by analyzing the values which are dominant in Euro-American (or North-West) civilization. This is not only because it is the only way to change our behaviors and thus solve the problems of our region, but also because this civilization affects very substantially the whole planet. Conversely, if it is possible to discover the unsustainable character of many global trends, we must admit the crucial role of the Euro-American value system in this frustrated development. By starting at home it is possible to help all humankinds.

The value system of Euro-American civilization develops in time and is relatively non-homogenous, with regional differences and varieties of values typical of specific social groups, for" real capitalism" as well as for former "real socialism". But even though we can identify in our civilization general value orientations which have directly initiated all the social, economic, environmental and political problems of our times, at the same time we could discover in the roots of Euro-American civilization values compatible with ideals of sustainable living and renew, develop and reenforce them.

The following brief survey is a working hypothesis, which tries to describe the most important values of Euro-American civilization which could contribute to unsustainable trends (value A), along with alternative value orientations (value B) which could lead us along sustainable course. Some of these have been emerging especially during recent years. A simplified description of an immensely complicated subject may contribute some orientation in this situation and lead to further discussions.

 

RELATION OF HUMANS TO NATURE

 

A. Reality: Predatory, exploitive relation to nature, which is considered as a bottomless resource of raw materials and a passive "playground" for human activities, disrespectful of the natural limits of the environment; expanding exploitation of non-renewable natural resources and emission of very dangerous wastes.

B. Alternative: Awareness of the relation to nature, respect of life in all its forms and of nature as a whole, use of the landscape within the limits of its carrying capacity, orientation toward renewable natural resources, minimization of wastes and their recycling.

 

RELATION OF INDIVIDUALS TO SOCIETY

 

A. Reality: Two extreme approaches

 

a) one-sided emphasis on individualism and competitiveness (typical for "real capitalism") based on the assumption that the egoistic behaviour of any individual and competition with all others are "automatically" mostly beneficial not only to him, but also to the welfare of society as a whole (A. Smith’s "invisible hand"). This approach has, on the one hand, enabled the explosive economic growth of Western Europe and North American, but, on the other hand, has led to the decline of personal responsibility for common matters and release from bonds to other people.

 

b) one-sided emphasis on collectivism (typical of former "real socialism"), where all interests of any individual theoretically should be subordinated to collective interests. In reality all powers had been concentrated in the hands of a small group of people or even a single person, who represented the communist party, without any control. At the same time the immense majority of the people had no real right to participate actively in public affairs and lost many other human rights and freedoms. This led to a huge loss of self-confidence and of any feeling of shared responsibility for the development of the society and its environment. The results were, on the one hand, a common state of "collective irresponsibility" that led to the apathy of the powerless and, on the other hand, the conviction of some independent people that the whole system should be radically changed if the decomposition of the society and destruction of nature were to be stopped. Fortunately, in 1989 in all European "socialist" countries the alternative approach prevailed.

 

 

B. Alternative: Balanced emphasis on the individual and the collective, which should be not only our family, community, nation, state and culture, but also humankind as a whole. Self-confidence of every individual, based on free decision-making, connected with the recognition of the interdependence of every person with all others. Emphasis on love, solidarity and altruism as driving forces of human behaviors, supplementing competition with cooperation in the name of common human values and goals.

 

RELATION TO TIME AND THE SENSE OF HISTORY

 

A. Reality: Fascination and obsession by the idea of quantitative growth; one of the "engines" accelerating the process in society is the common conviction that it is the growth of selected criteria (e.g. the GDB on the national level or the incomes or earnings on the personal level) that are the measures of success, of healthy development, and even of happiness. In a world of limited resources, such an orientation lacks foresight and in rich societies it is even useless, for no growth can continue for an unlimited period of time: sooner or later it will reach its objective frontiers

 

B. Alternative: Emphasis on the qualitative development of human society, oriented first of all on improvement of the quality of life and human relations, development of the sciences, culture, spiritual and intellectual life and the cultivation and use of the people’s abilities, because human creativity is perhaps the only unlimited natural source. A prerequisite of this orientation is the fulfillment of basic human material needs.

 

RELATION TO THE SENSE OF ONE’S OWN LIFE

 

A. Reality: Hedonistic orientation and consumer style life, where the main sense of life is seen in achieving ever higher comfort (which is often accompanied by growing stress) and higher satisfaction of material needs (which usually have no natural limits). The whole mechanism of market economy with the help of aggressive advertising based on brainwashing practices is focused on the creation and stimulation of ever new material needs in a situation in which all the basic needs of almost all people living in the Western democracies have long been satisfied. The amount of money and the level of luxury consumption have become universal measures of success.

 

B. Alternative: Emphasis on the quality of life, deliberate modesty and renunciation, self-denial of superficial things. These values were found in the cradle of the Judeo-Christian civilization, together with love, solidarity and altruism; a return to them is extremely important for sustainable living.

 

RELATION TO FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY

 

A. Reality: A one-sided emphasis on human rights and freedoms, erosion of personal co-responsibilities and lack of inter-generational awareness. Underlining human rights and support of human freedom in the period of the Enlightenment was an extremely important for the development of European and American democracies, especially in sharp contrast with the previous serfdom of medieval times; but it was not accompanied by a corresponding sense of responsibility for common public affairs, and in "real socialism" not even by responsibility for our own lives. In the praxis of "real capitalism" personal freedom often is reduced to the freedom to consume material goods.

 

B. Alternative: Establishing symmetry between human rights and freedoms, on the one hand, and human responsibilities on the other, with respect for other human beings, nature and the development of both.

 

RELATION TO ONE’S KNOWLEDGE

 

A. Reality: "Pride of reason" though an overestimation of the scale, depth, reliability and complexity of our knowledge and experiences; one-sided reliance on intellect, rationality and simple causal thinking, lack of ability to foresee and shape future development. Extreme overvaluation of our knowledge was typical of the centralized command economy of former "socialist" states, but we can see it also in Western societies.

 

B. Alternative: Adopt a precautionary principle, exclude all activities whose possible negative impacts could not be judged with sufficient reliability in all time horizons, supplement rational thinking by intuition, relate the sciences and the arts, intensive support of scientific research development and education.

 

RELATION TO ONE’S OWN LIFE

 

A. Reality: Weakening of the human instinct of self-preservation, alienation with regard to one’s own life, lack of feedback. One often deliberately behaves in a way which destroys the environment and endangers his life or the lives of his relatives; smoking, destruction of forests, and spoiling rivers.

 

B. Awareness of the negative impact of human activities, evolution of mutual links of events in space and time; a precondition is the systematic education and information of the broadest possible groups, and the improvement of institutional feedbacks.

 

RELATION TO FUTURE GENERATIONS

 

A. Reality: Preference for the short-term goals over long-term permanent ones following the principle: "carpe diem"; life at the expense of future generations due to overexploitation of natural resources and the spread of wastes.

 

B. Alternative: Awareness of the long-term goals and consequences of human activities, based on the precautionary principle and the development of knowledge, responsibility for future generation.

 

RELATION TO OTHER OPINIONS AND

OTHER CIVILIZATIONS

 

A. Reality: Low respect for the other opinions: ideological, religious, racial and other; intolerance: solving conflicts by force and violence. Often also sharp underestimation or even ignoring of human civilizations and culture, based on the unjustified assumption that Euro-American civilization is superior to all others; sometimes also aggressive behaviour against the other civilizations, by military means in recent history, and by economic and cultural instruments now.

 

B. Alternative: Mutual tolerance, empathy for the situation of the other peoples, cultures or civilizations and their values and goals; efforts to use the experience, knowledge and wisdom of other cultures. Political and economic security and other global mechanisms enabling the cooperation and mutual enrichment of different people, states and civilizations, preserving their uniqueness and autonomy.

 

10. RELATION TO COMMON AFFAIRS

 

A. Reality: Resignation on common decision-making, passivity, brainless acceptation of foreign patterns, monopolization of political and economic powers in the hands of a small number of people, leading to an infantilization of human solidarity and to a decrease in ability to govern future development.

 

B. Alternative: Develop participative democracy, supporting creative activities of all citizens, decentralization of powers with effective coordination and feedback mechanisms preventing the abuse of political, economic or other powers. Direct participation by all people in decision making processes concerning the future value orientation of society, even if they have not enough information and knowledge to solve specific professional problems.

 

The above brief analysis is a working hypothesis which needs to be carefully revised and amended. But it suggests, that some of the value orientations on which recent Euro-American culture (values A) is based are a blind alley. At the same time it proposes human values (values B) which could be compatible with sustainable ways of life. These are not "new", artificial constructs; almost all have their roots in the Graeco-Roman, Judeo-Christian foundations of European culture. We should "rediscover" them and supplement or modify them where necessary due to the unprecedented increase of humankind’s ability to destroy nature as well as itself, or where it is possible because of the development and deepening of human knowledge.

Type B values could have real influence only when people place them rather high in their hierarchies of values. These values would have to be incorporated into legislative, institutional and economic arrangements of human society as the shared values of an important part of their citizens. It is not possible to assume that the "sustainable value" (type B) could be adopted from one day to the next by some "great leap forward" or that the values of type A will simply disappear or be abandoned. We can foresee the consequent, step-by-step changes of the order of different human values or shifts of their relative weights in the assessment and we decision-making processes of people, accompanied by feed-back, corrective measures, and one should do everything to support these trends. Because any delays of the necessary changes of value orientation are very dangerous, the inertia of the recent trends is working against a sustainable future. It is a race against time.

We have to return to the basic question of the sense of life and search for answers appropriate to a dangerous and rapidly changing situation. Probably there are only two basic alternatives of future development. The first one is a continuation of the existing unsatisfactory and unsustainable trends; this would lead, with a high degree of probability, to chaos and a series of catastrophes of different kinds. There is a real threat that the period of environmental deterioration and of the decay of social structures could be very extensive and in extreme cases could lead to a degradation of humankind.

The second alternative is a systematic and quick evolution oriented towards the solution of existing problems and the prevention of some new ones. Care for our common environment perhaps could form the foundation of such an alternative. The existence of substantial political, economic, national, religious and other contradictions in the world do not allow too many changes.

Searching for and enforcing values which could lead us towards humanism and harmonious relations between man and nature is a common ideal for religious people, as well as people believing in humankind and its ability to distinguish between good and evil.