Forbidden fruits; the more we demand, the less we get.
by Gordon Albright
From the dawn of the human race, our greatest challenge has been to keep our higher intelligence from doing us more harm than good. Our growing cleverness opened up all kinds of tempting new opportunities. Unfortunately, most of them turned out to be “forbidden fruits,” which seemed wonderful at first, but ended up costing us far more than they were worth. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, when we tried to make our lives easier and better, we usually brought disaster on ourselves.
Modern science, technology and industry have made the problem far worse. Our reckless pursuit of Forbidden Knowledge and Forbidden Power, that go beyond what we can have without harming our future, now threatens the very survival of the human race. For the first time in human history we are not only destroying the capacity of the land to support us, but also the capacity of the oceans. We are causing more and worse natural disasters all the time, such as climate change. We have ravaged our natural life-support system for a brief surge of false prosperity, to the point where even fresh water and food are starting to run low. Excessive demands that were once driven by arrogance are now driven even more by desperation.
At first it may be hard to accept that things are exactly the opposite of what we thought, that all our struggle and sacrifice to make our future better have only made it worse. But until we accept our human and natural limitations, and learn to live within them, we will keep on destroying ourselves. If we don’t do this of our own free will, the natural world will force us to do it at far greater cost, and it may be more than we can pay. When we try to make our lives far better than they can be, we make them far worse than they ought to be.
Giving up all the things that we can only have at the expense of our future, especially when we’ve become addicted to them, may seem like resigning ourselves to lives of misery, darkness and despair. But in fact, giving up everything that costs us more than it’s worth is the only way to free ourselves from misery, darkness and despair, make rapid progress, make science, technology and industry serve us instead of destroying us, and build lasting well-being. As Lao Tsu has said,
“The bright path seems dim;
Going forward seems like retreat;
The easy way seems hard…”
—Tao Te Ching 41
Our greatest need is not for material wealth and power, but for security and stability. These can never be achieved by bludgeoning each other and the natural world into submission, but only by building strong, mutually supportive partnerships among ourselves and with the natural community of life. This is the only way we can ever gain the secure, stable material support that is essential to our survival and prosperity. Instead of trying to master the material world we must learn to master ourselves, to achieve the spiritual wealth of needing as little as possible, and the spiritual power of having as much as possible to give. Then we will no longer destroy everything that sustains us by demanding too much from it, and giving too little in return.
The Five Laws of Survival (Watershed Sentinel, September-October 2007) are a necessary and sufficient set of conditions for human survival on Earth. They define our natural limits, and how to live within them. They are the guidelines for building a new, healthy, flourishing human society on the ashes of our old, sick, dying civilization. They will give us genuine, lasting progress, instead of a brief spurt of false prosperity that ends up destroying us.
5 Laws of Survival
1. We cannot live at the expense of our future.
2. We must care for everything that our future depends on ahead of ourselves, and even sacrifice ourselves if necessary.
3. One for all and all for one.
4. All the material products we consume must be completely recycled as fast as we consume them.
5. When we use our material power for the greatest immediate gain, it destroys us.
To keep on working and sacrificing for our present self-destructive civilization and our current way of life (which is really a way of death) will destroy us. We can only save ourselves by facing reality, and living as it requires. For the sake of ourselves, our children, everything that sustains us and our future, we must learn to live within the limits of our safe, lasting means of support. This is what we must fight and work for, with everything we have in us.
We’re perfectly capable of doing what we have to do, once we realize what it is. Our greatest responsibility, to ourselves and to everyone else, is to establish a lasting base of support that gives the entire human race all the real necessities of life. This will make most people better off materially than they are now, and we’ll all have everything we really need. The overall quality of life will be far better for everyone. We’ll have far greater stability and security, our families and communities will be far stronger, we’ll be far better off emotionally and spiritually, and our lives will be far richer and happier. We’ll finally be at peace with ourselves, each other, and the natural world.
It’s not about saving the planet, it’s about saving ourselves. We’re at the crossroads of our existence. Our greatest enemies used to be our arrogance and our manic optimism, which made us think we could easily overcome any disaster our recklessness and destructiveness might cause. But now our greatest enemies have become our cynicism and pessimism, that make us think we’re doomed no matter what we do. If we give up on ourselves and on each other, and put immediate concerns ahead of our lasting well-being, then short-sighted cleverness will win out over far-sighted wisdom, and we’ll sacrifice our future for our present until we destroy ourselves.
But if we all do the best we can to put our lasting well-being first, limit our immediate demands to what we really need, and give as much as possible in return, then far-sighted wisdom will triumph over short-sighted cleverness, and we’ll have the greatest Renaissance the human race has ever seen.
Best of all, if we do survive this critical test, it will finally teach us how to live without destroying our future. Then we’ll keep on making genuine progress for as long as the Earth lasts, if not longer.
Gordon Albright is a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at York University.