[Lightly edited from 2009 blog]
What are the most critical issues we face today, in a global sense? There exist threats which, unless we resolve them, could render all our other problems moot. Let’s take on these critical issues first.
What are these absolutely vital issues, then? They have to be global and critical everywhere on Earth, not just in certain countries. Once we zoom out to such a level and get honest about threats, our list comes to two concerns, both of which threaten human – and in fact all – life everywhere. These two gargantuan liabilities are ecological destruction, a somewhat foreseeable apocalypse, and nuclear weapons, a wild card that could instantly end any conversation out of the blue. Both of these mega-issues are caused by certain human cultures and can thankfully be solved by these same people (This includes you and I). We need to (re)solve our two huge errors, to put these twin Frankensteins to rest forever.
Some people may object that more existentially imperative than these tangible, down-to-earth problems is the visceral need for enlightenment or at least salvation. This falls into another realm, of religion/spirituality, and can be debated almost forever by adherents of different mental schools, such as materialists and believers. But whatever the conclusion, we still live in the real world and should ensure as best we can that human and other life on this blue-green marble will continue as long as possible. This demands real action, not religious efforts to bring our soul to a perfect place (for example). The world calls.
Implicit in this undertaking is an ethic that finds value in life itself, human or otherwise. Global ecological integrity matters very much, and harm to it is immoral. This is the paradigm that underlies the call for responsible human action in the world. There is more of inherent value than just us (though a narrowly self-interested outlook can be very fruitful in this undertaking – more on that in a forthcoming entry, The Human Survival Project). All the critters and ecosystems and organisms of the world deserve to be allowed to pursue life under normal circumstances; it is right to protect this and wrong to undermine it.
A question that motivates many people of disparate tastes is this: ‘How do I do the most good possible?’ The answer I give is to work in whatever way you can to solve these two critical problems, the ecological and the nuclear. Keep other ventures as side undertakings. I came to see this in 2007 while doing international development work in Sierra Leone. It struck me that ensuring human and other life is the imperative, more so than development of the Global South or health care initiatives for the poor or political reform or anything else. To use an example, imagine a coastal fishing village in Bangladesh that becomes a poster child of NGO success: microcredit loans have increased income and empowered people, fishermen have new motorboats and nets, there is a new school with girls’ enrollment way up, and a clinic has finally been built in the village. But, because much of our limited do-good resources were going into projects like the above, few people were ensuring sustainability on a global scale, global warming melted the polar ice caps and sea level rose, and the whole village was swallowed by the ocean, not only eliminating all of those good things done there but drastically lowering the quality of life of the now-environmental refugee villagers. Henry David Thoreau summarizes it wonderfully when he says (Walden, p. 57), “For every thousand men hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.” First things first, everything else second.
The goal is a world of thriving life, ours included. There are many routes toward this, but, as they say, ‘Keep your eyes on the prize.’