To those who cannot live with the status quo

To those who cannot live with the status quo McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 20, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 15
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 32: 1999-2000 > April 20, 2000 > To those who cannot live with the status quo

To those who cannot live with status quo

I write to chart a new direction for the human future, and the future of the rest of life with which we share this planet. To do this I propose a new global ethic. This new direction requires bringing philosophical order to the conceptually incoherent relations between and among nations. This, in turn, requires a rethinking and regrounding of the institutions of markets, government, and civil society. And this cannot be done without establishing a firm foundation on which to rest advancing the human estate and protecting and reconstructing the commonwealth of life: the biosphere of which we are a citizen.

The actions of national governments, markets, the institutions of civil society, and individual persons should be open to scrutiny. That is, they should be transparent to examination and subject to sanctions for violating international norms designed to protect, enhance and restore human rights; and to protect, enhance and restore the commonwealth of life. I will argue in favor of what I call a fiduciary or trustee perspective: that public policy and private conduct alike be framed within a set of duties to care for each other and the rest of the biosphere in perpetuity.

My motivations are largely practical. As I write, there is vast, unnecessary human suffering in our world and needless waste of ecological and other natural resources. The killing rampage that has characterized the twentieth century continues in widespread wars with escalating civilian casualties and tens of millions of refugees. The number of persons who are malnourished, who live in regions with severe air pollution, who lack safe drinking water, inexpensive vaccinations, and reliable birth control is in the hundreds of millions. The human population grows by hundreds of millions per decade. Nuclear, biological, and conventional weapons proliferate, while control over existing stockpiles declines in the former Soviet Bloc. The loss of biodiversity accelerates. Huge amounts of topsoil are eroded. Streams and estuaries are clogged, degrading, even eradicating, once abundant life. World fisheries decline, even collapse. Coral reefs are dying. Carbon-dioxide emissions soar, further destabilizing world climate. Deforestation is widespread. Prime farmland is paved. Vast fires rage seasonally in many of the world's tropical forests. Polar ecosystems are fragmenting.

These are certain signs of policy failure and moral bewilderment. The first step is to see how we have led ourselves astray. As Barbara Tuchman has so aptly noted: "We live in an age of collapsing assumptions." We have falsely assumed that: the human well-being can be measured by economic growth; that humans enjoy a unique moral place in the universe; we can safely predict the consequences of our actions; that nation states are morally privileged; that markets and democracy are mutually reinforcing institutions; and that the world is largely unperturbed and unperturbable by human actions. We have thus three challenges ahead of us. First, to come up with an adequate account of our minimal obligations to each other, and to the rest of the natural order. Second, to redefine and reshape the institutions of economics, government, and civil society to reflect these obligations. Third, and last, to reconceptualize and redirect the relations between nations so as to foster these institutions and discharge these obligations.

To do this we must: (1) Provide an account of human welfare. (2) Respond to the human propensity to violence. (3) Have an account of the duties of citizens and local, national, and global institutions. (4) Respect non-human organisms and ecological systems. (5) Accommodate complex adaptive systems: systems that have multiple feedback loops not reducible to their parts. (6) Reflect the fact that the nation state itself is in a period of rapid transformation, accompanied by significant decline in its traditional powers. (7) Address the fact that neither markets nor democracy are self-maintaining institutions, but that each requires constant discipline and nourishment. (8) Explicitly admit that human beings significantly affect global geophysical systems.

Getting from where we are to transparent sovereignty in the commonwealth of life will be a long road. We seek to overturn and/or redirect powerful interests. Hence, setting our foot along that road will take courage. We must not be content with marginal adjustments. We must hold ourselves and our institutions to unfamiliar, but not unknown, fiduciary standards. Time is of the essence. We must move with all deliberate speed. I seek not so much to convince those who do not weep at the tragedies we have brought upon ourselves and the rest of life with whom we share this planet. Rather my goal is to make manifest to those who are saddened that there is an alternative way of thinking about the future. There are those who can live with the status quo, and those who cannot. This book is written for those who cannot.

Introduction to Ethics, Economics and International Relations: Transparent Sovereignty in the Commonwealth of Life, (Edinburgh Studies in World Ethics, 2000).

Director, McGill School of Environment

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