This is part four of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here.
How can we develop such communal restraints on a global scale?
In the long run, such restraints may well become law. But it is not likely something that will be imposed on us from above any time soon, since there seems to be very little political will to introduce restraints that break with the status quo. As the politicians would argue, it makes no sense to try and introduce laws that the majority of their constituency doesn’t appear to want. You can’t make legislation without popular support (well, and expect to be re-elected, anyway).
But as Aldo Leopold said, only the most naïve student of history actually believes that Moses wrote the Ten Commandments. What he did was to summarise an already existing ethic. Such an ethic of sustainability is already forming. It is a new set of social norms and practices for sustainable living that we are developing as we become more aware of how our way of living is affecting the planet.
It is an ethic we are developing by choosing restraints to limit the choices we can make, freeing us, in turn, to focus on the things that we cannot do without. But the challenge is, as I’ve described above, that we are choosing these restraints individually, which weakens our resolve. We need to find new ways of articulating our choice of such restraints that makes our resolve stronger. And which makes them easier to commit to.
I am an atheist. But I agree with Alain De Botton who argues that religions have important things to teach the secular world. Religious rules and vows may seem are well-respected means of communal restraint. Even though they may seem medieval and antiquated toady, most of them made good sense at their time of origin. As an anthropologist friend of mine explained, the dietary and clothing restrictions of Islam is actually very sensible practical advice for living in the desert (with the technology available in the 7th century), And so, it is quite similar to the recommendations we get from the Department of Health.
Similarly, the ban of usury once found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam was originally instituted to prevent exploitation of the poor through debt peonage, which was rampant at the time (this was back when slavery was a part of everyday life). Indeed, the anthropologist David Graeber has argued that the religious restraints of Christianity were vital in changing perceptions of slavery, leading to its eventual abolition.
Now, I’m definitely not advocating starting a new religion. But I do think that we can benefit by adopting some of the same practices used by religions in order to develop and strengthen a new ethic of sustainability based on communal restraint. In fact, I think that some of these practices will make it easier to make the choices we know we need make. As the rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Humankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.
We already have plenty of information. Plenty of facts about soil degradation, peak oil and carbon emissions. But we cannot use these facts to scare people towards sustainability. That will only lead to them to refuse acknowledging the need for restraint even more. Instead, we need to develop an ethic of appreciation.
Some of the most beautiful and intensely poetic religious rituals and ceremonies revolve around appreciation: Wedding ceremonies, naming ceremonies, funerals are all about appreciating love and life. That is why they move us so.
But there are also beautiful celebrations of the seasons, the Earth and the passage of time. Like the Jewish harvest holiday of Shavuot, or the Japanese festival of Tsukimi where people stand together in the autumn night, celebrating the harvest moon, reflecting on the passage of time and the frailty of life whilst drinking tea and eating rice cakes.
We often underestimate the profound love that is at the core of all religions. It is a deep, honest and humble appreciation of the world and the forces that have created it. And from that springs a deep gratitude and a great sense of moral obligation. An obligation to nurture and cherish that world.
It is through such love that we become willing to choose restraint.