I wouldn’t mention the folly of putting growth and efficiency before values if I didn’t have an alternative, which is to put values first—that is, to create a strategy based on values and honestly verifying results, then use efficiency when it helps. I verify results to avoid stepping on the gas, thinking it’s the brake, wanting congratulations.
Amsterdam’s citizens organizing based on their values over those promoting razing its downtown for highways is one example. Abolitionists valuing human rights over the profits and growth of slavery is another. Farmers returning from industrial practices that resulted from the Green Revolution to regenerative is another. In each case, living by deeper values led to higher quality of life for everyone, except possibly a few plantation owners owning the largest number of slaves and the heads of some industrial agriculture firms.
Looking back, I see avoiding packaged food and flying as other examples. When I implemented them, I didn’t anticipate how much changing my behavior would reveal what values I had left behind. I found polluting and depleting less wasn’t adopting new values but restoring lost ones.
What values has our polluting, depleting culture lost? Brace yourself. First I’ll qualify that many individuals and organizations still live by the following values and our culture still follows them outside the environment. But regarding how we treat each other when mediated by the environment, mainstream American culture has abandoned Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You (the Golden Rule), Leave It Better Than You Found It (stewardship), and Live and Let Live (common decency). Not just America. Most of the world has abandoned them too.
These values have been bedrock values for most cultures that have endured, not collapsed. They aren’t magical. They likely collapsed on small scales in their pasts and created cultural guardrails in the forms of sayings and practices like “leave some for nature” instead of “growth means jobs and prosperity.” Living sustainably is easy in a sustainable culture.
Instead, today, if we want coffee and it’s only available in disposable cups, well, most Americans decide the world has to deal with the pollution and depletion. If an American wants to become a parent, well, the world just has to deal with years of disposable diapers and extracting more resources from them. Most of the world behaves the same.
You may respond, “But I can’t do anything about those things.” It’s hard not to feel defensive, helpless, hopeless, or despair, but how you feel doesn’t change that our culture has abandoned the Golden Rule, stewardship, and common decency. Your feeling helpless reinforces the point.
We have replaced those values with capitulation, abdication, and resignation.
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