Saturday, June 19, 2010

Can Lifestyles that are Unsustainable be Moral?

Given all the talk lately about the Gulf oil spill, drilling policy, and energy use in general, my new post on Life as a Human seems timely. Here is an excerpt to get you all started:

I look around at my own life. It’s fairly minimalistic as far as lives here in the U.S. go. No TV, no car, few appliances, some home-grown food, mostly organic purchased food, mostly used clothing, lots of recycling and giving to others the things I don’t use.

And yet, I’m still light years ahead in negative environmental impact compared to most of the rest of the individuals in the world. Is even my lifestyle unsustainable? I’d argue, to some degree, yes. And in doing so, I’m not interested in creating a wild guilt complex in myself, or within anyone else reading this.

We have to go deeper than simply talking about what we use or don’t use, or how much money we are going to invest in green jobs and new technologies. In my opinion, it’s really time to question the morality of our economic systems as a whole because they have gone global, for better or worse.

What do you think about this? How do you feel your practice informs how you move through the material world?


Buddhist_philosopher said...

Great questions, Nathan. 'Unsustainable' to me brings up 'destructive' and 'harmful' as synonyms when it comes to lifestyle. So in that sense the obvious answer is 'no'.

I'm also part of the problem though. Like you, pretty minimalistic by American standards, but also amazingly wealthy and wasteful on broader standards.

My practice pushes me to evaluate each purchase more deeply and often to simply forego buying things I 'want' but certainly don't need. But I do see the need to go beyond this; the question is how? Great moral thinkers like John Rawls and Peter Singer agree that a roughly socialistic-capitalist democracy is the most moral form of government and I agree. That said, we don't need a revolution against the system per se but rather a revolution against the portions within it that threaten to destroy it.

Petteri Sulonen said...

The answer is "no," obviously, since an unsustainable lifestyle does real and immediate harm to lots of beings all over the place in space and time, human, plant, and animal.

I think a more interesting question, though, is "Is setting up an ideal of a moral life and then attempting to live it upāya?"

My hunch is "not necessarily." There's a big, big risk of sliding into repression on the one hand and sanctimony on the other.

I have seen this happen with many people, online and off, and it always bubbles up somewhere else in highly unpleasant ways, for the individual in question, and for others; usually as covert-aggressive and judgmental behavior, and often, later on, as some kind of crisis with shrapnel flying all over the place.

I think it has to go the other way around—a gradual internal transformation first, which then naturally leads to transformation of behavior. Or, as somebody or other put it, "If you want to be an asshole, be an asshole. Then explore how that made you feel, and perhaps next time you don't want to be an asshole after all."

Baldovino Matsumoto said...

I was pondering an answer but... I essentially agree with Buddhist philosopher.

Peace. (bow)

Algernon said...

It's a good post, Nathan. (I went over and read the whole piece.) You are broaching a taboo here, that is, a critique of the capitalist order itself. In the United States, this is still forbidden stuff in our mainstream media and political discourse.

Algernon said...

Oh, but I didn't answer your question.

My practice prompts me to ask questions, and to do so without fear, yet also without hatred or blaming. This is part of moving practice from the personal to the social, to serve whatever patch of the universe is in front of me.

Mumon said...

Life is unsustainable.

The question is how to minimize how much screw it up for other beings.

A more interesting question to me is: suppose, considering the unsustainability of life in general, that we are able to reverse the effects of aging, and do it cost-effectively on a mass scale. (Any systems engineering research who's speaking to genetic engineers realizes that it might be possible to do this.)

Is that moral?

At what point do we have a responsibility to die for all beings?

Nathan said...

Lots of great comments and new questions.


I think it's true that there is a danger in sliding into trouble when looking at these big picture kind of issues.

I do think, though, that any "internal" shifts must be accompanied by "external" shifts in action. In some ways, this should just occur - we really need not have to force ourselves to do things differently because something has changed and we just act differently.

However, I do think there also has to be some conscious effort to act differently in the world - at least at points where how we view the world and how we act are stuck on the different pages.

B.P. - I'm not sure what direction is best when it comes to "the system" we've created. Many days, I feel like it has to collapse on itself, so we can build up something new. Other days, I think there are new structures being developed and the shifts are already occurring. And some days, I have no idea what's going on.


"You are broaching a taboo here, that is, a critique of the capitalist order itself. In the United States, this is still forbidden stuff in our mainstream media and political discourse." Yeah, I think it's essential that more of us reflect on the big structures and how they impact everything. It's not sexy, juicy, nor entertainment based, though, which is why mainstream media rather follow Tony Hayward around and report on his every move.


"Life is unsustainable." Yep. Good point.

I, personally, don't feel compelled to extend my life into hundreds of years.

Makes me wonder how much collective energy behind green movements is tied into desires to personally live longer. People say they are doing it all for the planet, but maybe we need to examine how much of it ends up being for "one's self or immediate family and friends).

Petteri Sulonen said...

@Nathan—I agree, there definitely has to be some conscious effort to change your actions. However, I think it's vitally important to examine your motivations for making that effort. If you're doing it out of a sincere internal conviction that it's *right* to do so, for yourself and for others, then it's very likely not going to screw you up, and it also has a very high likelihood of sticking. However, if you're doing it, say, to salve your conscience or to feel better about yourself, it probably won't work out. That's what I meant by saying that the internal transformation has to come first.

Put more simply, it's the distinction between "I make these choices because they're the right choices to make," and "everybody ought to make these choices because they're the right choices to make."

Nathan said...

Yes, definitely. Thanks for adding this to your previous comments.