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Ethics for a Small Planet

Ethics for a Small Planet

In his small book, Ethics for a Finite World, Herschel Elliot makes the case for radical changes in the way we look at our needs of sustenance, shelter and procreation as they relate to a moral or ethical stance. He clearly is not a *globalist* in the sense of envisioning a global *nation* wherein we are all under a single government, one that cares equally for all races and religions. In fact he believes that firm borders are important segregating mechanisms for protecting one nation against the encroachments of needy peoples of another nation. He does not believe in an idealism that accepts the dictum of universal equality of all people, rejecting the words of Jefferson that all men are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights. He does not believe that the very aged and ill person is deserving of the same [free] medical care as the young and healthy person. He believes that our ethics must be based on the reality of finite earth resources and the responsibility to maintain a stasis of balance between consumption and production of food and energy. His book is a tantalizing essay on what our moral or ethical attitudes should be, if we are truly caring of the planet and the health of the human race.

Upon reading his book, one cannot but be forced to think what their own beliefs and feelings are regarding what our ethics should be. Elliot, a retired professor or philosophy and vegetarian, lives in a remote farmhouse in Vermont with no utility service and. water from a spring. He seems to be a modern Thoreau. Most of his readers will be like me, living in a community, with utilities, running water, electricity, cars and plenty of fast food and meat. He sees the world through his particular idealism and we will see it through ours. Who is right? No one is right there is no such thing as *right* in this area. What there is is human activity and the many and varied foibles of our decisions, loves and hates, fears, affections and obsessions. There is no Mosaic slate that hands us our ethical formulae we collectively create it as we move along, day to day, lifetime to lifetime. Nor can we compose one that is right for us all forever. Elliot is right to be deeply concerned about how we are raping the planet of its bounty and aiming us toward a potential slow demise of our species and there are many among us who may heed this warming and try, in our small ways, to deal with it. The scientific community certainly needs no convincing, but while the scientific and technological folks may do a great deal in the way of providing progress in those fields, including that of heath care and medicine, they are not, nor have they ever been in control of our morals or ethical beliefs. When Rutherford and Bohr informed us about they atom and Einstein informed us about the potential of energy in small amounts of matter, few of them ceased talking, thinking and working when it became clear that massive harm could be done using such concepts. Science and technology are both morally neutral they go where inventive and exploitive minds take them, and devil take the unintended consequences that may obtain.

Elliot believes that not only should we all denounce meat as a source of food, for the very good reason that grains that go into feeding meat producing animals can be more efficiently and effectively used as a direct human food source, he also believes that population control is an imperative. The planet has only so much in the way of earth-bound resources; a planet of twenty billion humans probably cannot support that many. Something has to give. And I agree with him on this point and the one about eating meat. [We may like it but we certainly do not need it.]

However, I do not agree that our ethics or morals can be arranged by fiat or theories of consumption, production, meat eating, number of children born to each family or health care based on statistics, etc.. Human ethical and moral systems come about much like blue eyes or prehensile thumbs. They also come about through feedback with our scientific and technological creations; who can doubt that our movies, our cars, our cell phones, our televisions, our computers influence the way we look at and think about our lives, and yet none of those systems or inventions had any design intention of changing our outlooks and beliefs. .

Life is far too contingently arrived at to assign any particular event, invention, theory or religious belief the responsibility of creating where we are at any moment in history, or why we are where we are. I believe this is especially true of sociological theories that purport to set things straight with relatively simple formulae. The reason is this: humans and humanity are far more complicated than such theories can adequately address. Humanity is like a piece of improvised music, moving along from note to note with nary a consciously planned next note, but with a passion for making whatever notes may arise.


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