An Ethics for the New Millennium: The Just Measure and Essential Caring
For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for the global system,
now arrogantly victorious but fatally ill. We have reached the end of one kind of world. The humanity that survives will have a new ethics.
Once a tree has fulfilled its intrinsic potential, it is said to have reached its peak. It then dies and falls. When people have consumed their personal stock of energy, they too grow old and die. Some ten billion years from now, when the sun has exhausted its store of hydrogen and then of helium, it will die as a bright star to slowly become a white spot, and finally a black hole. Long before it dies, it will have taken the whole solar system and our planet Earth along with it. The entire universe and each of its beings, especially its organic beings, are subject to the law of entropy. Their vital force is limited. One day they will disappear.
Does not the same thing happen to social systems? Might it not be that our form of coexistence has exhausted its potential and is on the way to dissolution? There is no doubt that it is undergoing a profound crisis. Is this a structural crisis that, once overcome, will usher in a new era of prosperity? Or is it a structural crisis that is awaiting the final outcome like a terminal patient in an intensive care ward?
I assume the hypothesis that we are in the midst of a terminal structural crisis. It is structural because it affects all entities, like a bacterium that takes over the whole organism and produces septicemia and then death. It is terminal because it reflects the exhaustion of a paradigm, in other words, of the energies, dreams and strategies capable of balancing the system’s own contradictions. It is nearing death. Does this also mean the end of the world? Yes and no. Yes, because it means the end of this kind of world. No, because the world will go on. This end will provide the opportunity for a new world to emerge: a new model of civilization, capable of imbuing people with a new sense of life and creating new prospects of hope for peoples and humanity as a whole.
This double perspective of life and death is contained in the word crisis in its original Sanskrit sense. Crisis comes from kir or kri, which means to clean and purify. Out of that comes the word crucible, related to purifying, cleansing, purging, refining, revealing and clarifying gold and other metals. All purification processes imply death and rebirth: the death of worthless baggage, add-ons, contingent things; the rebirth of the nucleus, the essence, what is necessary. What passes through the crucible of the crisis survives and has the potential, the vitality to found a new future. It is this catharsis that we are living through today.
Two mortal crisesOur current system of coexistence has produced two crises—the social and the ecological—that the system cannot resolve with its intrinsic resources.
The social crisis opposes rich and poor as never before in human history. The productive process, using automation technologies, can produce goods and services quickly and plentifully, but only a small elite in certain countries or social classes within dependent, poor countries appropriate those goods and services. This incommensurable injustice deepens the gulf between the haves and have-nots.
We run the real risk of a bifurcation of humanity. Some will be able to take advantage of the advances of biotechnology and live to 120-130 years, surrounded by all manner of goods. Meanwhile, the vast majority will be condemned to suffer from want of all kinds and to die as they have always died, before their time.
This is serious not so much because of the perverse chasm between these two groups, but rather because of the lack of a humanitarian sensibility. The sense of solidarity and shared responsibility for our neighbors is very hard to find. The system tends by its very nature to privilege the individual, and imposes a system of private appropriation of the goods produced by everyone’s work. This logic inevitably creates inequalities: accumulation on one side and poverty on the other.
We have now gone from dependency to exclusion. The dependent are expendable, condemned to being treated as economic and social nothings. How long will they accept the death sentence that hangs over them? Confrontations between North and South and between those within the governing system and those outside cannot be ruled out, with violence and devastation like never before seen in human history.
The second crisis is ecological. The system consumes and plunders. It encourages the maximum consumption of all natural and cultural goods, and subjects the limited resources of nature and culture to systematic depredation. The ultimate effect is to degrade the quality of life for human beings and all other beings in the community of living things.
A whole machine has been set up that poisons, destroys and kills the air, land and water, living organisms, ecosystems and the planet Earth itself. How much violence is already being done to the earth’s dynamic, balanced system? What is the limit of its sustainability that, once broken, will have fatal consequences for the biosphere? In addition to being homicidal and ethnocidal, human beings have become ecocidal and biocidal. The current system is like a wolf, whose intrinsic nature is to devour sheep. There is no point begging for mercy or filing its teeth. Its voraciousness is intrinsic and nothing will hold it back. Such is the current system of coexistence, implanted over the past five centuries on all of humanity and now integrated around the world. It lacks the internal values that would allow it to change course, or even to limit its undesired iniquitous effects.
We are heading toward an abyssIn the coming years, these two crises will increase to the point that they put the global system in check. We’re going to see the worst. The situation now is like that of a plane on the runway: once it passes a critical point, it’s too late to brake, but it will not take off, and will crash against the rocks at the end of the runway. But we’re still smiling, trusting our young science on this long runway of history, oblivious to the fact that just up ahead lies the end of the line or the abyss.
The signs are clear. We heard the bell toll. It tolls for the global system that is now so arrogantly victorious and, at the same time, is alienated by the gravity of the fatal illness already afflicting it that will lead to its death. Either of its two crises is potentially fatal. There is a substantial probability that the global economic financial system on which today’s societies are based will break down. It will happen in time, and when it comes, it will already be too late. Then we will see the imbalance between productive capital, which now amounts to nearly $35 trillion, and speculative capital, somewhere between $80 and $100 trillion, no one knows for sure. Speculative capital is nothing but paper, pure sham. In a major crisis, it will vanish like a bubble in thin air. And it will take millions of people along with it, people who will die like flies, for no just reason, while others take refuge in protected oases where they will envy those who died before them.
The purifying crisis might also be ecological. It is neither impossible nor improbable that some important link in the Earth’s systemic balance will rupture, such as the mechanism that regulates climates, seasons or drinking water. We could be afflicted by a terrifying contamination of radioactive waste, or an irremediable drop in human fertility—as is already happening in Central Europe—or the emergence of some killer bacterium that wipes out millions and millions of living beings, including human beings. Any of these events could put a halt to the great adventure of the species Homo Sapiens (and Demens) if not totally, at least for the vast majority. The fall of some leveling meteorite, like the one that destroyed a large part of the biosphere and all the dinosaurs some 67 million years ago, is not at all avoidable; it has happened many times in our planet’s history. The technical capacity to detect the proximity of a destructive meteorite is still rudimentary.
Ashamed of ourselvesConclusion: desolation due to tribulation? Once again, yes and no. Yes, because globalization, especially in its economic, competitive and non-cooperative form, which shows that all things are independent, also reveals the system’s inability to resolve humanity’s collective problems and prevent the imminent cataclysm. And no, because should this cataclysm occur, it will also create room for a new recomposition of the Earth and what will have survived of its tribes. A new kind of civilization will emerge, more benevolent towards life, more integrating of differences, more spiritual and more ecological.
In any case, we are stepping into the new millennium ashamed of ourselves, of our will to subject, attack and destroy those who are different, as has been proven in so many wars like those of Iraq and Kosovo. We are ashamed of the way we treat our children, millions of whom toil in slave labor. We are ashamed of the way we treat our elderly, abandoned to interminable queues in the hospitals or the social security pension windows. And we are ashamed of the way we systematically attack the life of the planet and the planet itself, as if it were not our only common home. We find ourselves at a dangerous crossroads, a purifying Good Friday. But this will not be the end of the world. It will only be the end of the world as we know it, which has exhausted its regenerating capacity and lost all reproductive energy. Another will follow. What will it be like? What can grow on the ruins? The most beautiful lilies grow in the most fetid swamps. The lushest trees grow on the ruins of ancient Mayan cities. Something along these lines will happen with the emerging civilization.
We return to our common homeWe are heading towards a world society, the first of a united humanity. We are all coming from a long exile, isolated in regional cultures and the limits of nation-states. We are gradually returning to our common home, Earth, and discovering ourselves as the human family. But this phenomenon, described by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as the emergence of the nous-sphere—a single head and single heart, united in diversity—has not yet entered into the collective consciousness.
To reach this state we need to go beyond the current civilizing paradigm, which atomizes, divides and counterposes, and enter into the new horizon of quantum physics, the new biology, cosmology, ecology. We need to move into the Earth sciences, which relate, include and reconcile everything with everything else. This consciousness will only become hegemonic once the old system and the institutions that sustain it are dismantled. Then, for the first time, we can begin to manage our planet collectively and administrate the demands of its people socially.
The League of Nations was created after World War I, in our first attempt to think collectively about the political problems facing humanity. It failed. World War II gave rise to the United Nations. It is still with us, but is tottering, unable to deal with the challenges for which it was created. I am convinced that after the great cathartic voyage to come, what will surely emerge will be a linking of peoples and civilizations rather than governments. The World Republic will inaugurate a caring for the Earth, and with its sons and daughters will administrate the limited resources to meet the basic needs of all those living today and those who will come after us.
We will discover spiritualityThe suffering caused by the fall of the old world system will convince everyone that a new global pact cannot be built if it is founded on human beings alone. The Earth, the ecosystems and all beings will have to enter into a socio-cosmic pact for survival and coexistence based on solidarity. Such a pact will not be based on the culture of a single, purely rational and material paradigm. The rainbow, the sign of the cosmic alliance that God established among all living things after the devastation of the flood, will serve as a common reference and inspiration. Diversities will coexist and converge in the search for the common good of all, and this will lead us to a new sensibility, whose roots are found in the logic of the heart and each one’s caring for every other.
This sensibility will give rise to a deep spirituality. Human beings will discover the spiritual as an objective dimension of the cosmos and of each human being, like the interior dimension and history inherent in each being, like the consciousness of feeling part of a larger whole and perceiving the secret thread that links everything, forming an incommensurable, dynamic, diverse and convergent unity. This living, irradiant guiding thread will be understood to be God, revealed in our heart as the enthusiasm to live, to struggle, to create and to shape life and nature purposefully in wisdom, love and beauty.
Ethics of the just measureThis view founds a new ethics built on two fundamental values, without which neither life nor our beautiful blue-and-white planet can survive: the just measure and essential caring.
The just measure guaranteed that the cosmos and life got as far as this day and us. Cultures survive to the extent that they are guided by this golden norm; in abandoning it, they fall apart and die. Our culture today is absolutely without measure in all areas. This is what is leading to its upcoming dissolution.
What is the just measure? It is the balance between more and less. It is the relative optimum. It is the wisdom of making do with limited natural and cultural resources so that they can last as long as possible or regenerate and reproduce themselves. The self-sustainability of each being or ecosystem depends on the just measure. It is what staves off the inexorable law of entropy, the unstoppable wearing out of all things. Without the just measure, everything runs out sooner and dies sooner. With the just measure, everything lasts and lives longer.
The first paragraph of the world Constitution will begin by solemnly proclaiming the sacred principle of the just measure. Did not the Greeks do the same with their principle of méden ágan or the Romans with their ne quid nimis (nothing in excess), or the Chinese with their wwu-wei and ying-yang (perfect harmony)?
Without just measure, the planet’s limited resources will not suffice for all humans and nature’s other living beings. The watchword will not be do not consume, but rather consume responsibly, with a sense of sharing, with solidarity. It will not be hide the violence or dark side of human beings, but rather show this in its just measure, in a constructive way, show the pathological as pathological so it can be balanced and cured by the healthy.
Without the just measure, the planet will be unable to withstand consumerism. Without the just measure, the Earth’s people will not coexist in peace or convergence or diversity. Without the just measure, the creative synthesis between the symbolic and the diabolic present in human history and in the heart of each individual will not be found. Without the just measure, we will not find the balance between our flight to the heights toward the divine Father-Mother and our immersion below in the social construction of our daily bread. Only by uniting "Our Father" with "our daily bread" can we say a true amen.
The ethics of essential caringThe second founding ethical value for a common future for the Earth and humanity is essential caring. To care means to weave a loving relationship with reality and with each being in creation. To invest this sensibility with heart, affection and subjectivity. Things are more than something we can use; they are values we can appreciate, symbols we can decipher. To care means to implicate oneself with people and things, give them attention, put ourselves beside them, feel them within our hearts, enter into communion with them, value them and understand them for what they are within. We love all that we care about, and take care of what we love. By linking our affections with people and things, we become concerned about them and feel responsible for them.
The ancients were good at teaching something that was reiterated by one of the leading modern philosophers, Martin Heidegger: the essence of humanity lies in caring, or concern. If human beings do not show concern from birth to death, they will become destructured, weaken and die. More than thinking, loving and breeding, human beings must know how to care for, a prerequisite of all these other expressions. Caring founds the minimum ethos of humanity. It is the appropriate ethical attitude towards nature and our common abode, Earth. It will save love, life, social coexistence and the Earth. The new millennium will only be ushered in after the triumph of the ethics of essential caring.
Social and ecological pacts that will establish firm foundations for the new emerging world society will be built around the values of the just measure and essential caring. This new society is now undergoing the pain of childbirth, struggling to be born in all corners of the world. A little more, just a little more and it will be born full of life and hope. Like the poet Camoens, we can say: After the tempestuous storm/ the dark night and the hissing wind/ the morning brings calm clarity/ hope of a port and salvation.