While Alexander Pope once called us human beings, “the glory, jest and riddle of the world,” we need now to add another epithet: We are the cancer of this planet.
Because of the rapid proliferation of our numbers (now over seven billion) and because of our ravenous appetites for unrenewable resources and our predations upon other now dwindling species, the Earth, if it has a sane mind of its own, might well be thinking how to rid itself of us, a once-promising but now monstrous experiment gone tragically awry.
Were we now to see clearly and penitently our sins against Gaia, how would we best reform our behaviors to live within the parameters of sustainability on a flourishing planet? What must we stop doing, what must we begin doing, and what principles and motives should govern our behaviors?
Most obviously, we must first learn to live much more lightly and ecologically. We must develop and live by a morality of simplicity instead of extravagance, cultivating the virtue of doing well with less. Whereas the premise of our present economy is to acquire more, more and more, we have to change our hearts and minds about that. The slogan “Less is more” is a paradox we must master—to “live simply so that others can simply live,” as another little-heeded saying urges.
Avaricious materialism as a primary value must give way to a spiritual perspective that subordinates self-centered acquisition and self-aggrandizement to an ethic of sharing Earth’s resources equitably and generously, honoring need above greed, cooperation over competition. “The survival of the fittest” was not Darwin’s last word about evolution, and in later, wiser years, he came to honor the principle of cooperation above that of competition as the principle that governs a thriving ecology.
The master predator species on Earth must soon transform itself into the protector and preserver of Earth’s marvelous and sacred ecology. Who are we to ruin the only living planet we know of in the cosmos?
What higher purpose could a human being have than to contribute to the thriving of life on Earth?
One current name for such an enterprise is “the creation of a global wisdom culture,” a notion that summons all human beings to become “cultural creatives,” persons devoted to developing life-ways that respect and protect the flourishing of Earth’s biosphere and that promote the advancement of human values and practices so as to evolve ourselves intentionally beyond conditioned inclinations to harm and dominate others.
Rather, we must learn to respect others and revere all human beings’ potential to grow wiser: more knowledgeable, discerning, value-driven, capable and effectual.
To do so should be the highest aim of education, higher education most especially.