States and technology have failed to stop the destruction of the natural world, but a deceptively simple rethinking of our habits could turn the tide.
BOGOTÁ — From Hurricane Ian to Pakistan's catastrophic floods, we have new reminders all the time that the risk of irreparably changing living conditions on the planet is real — and more alarming in scope than we had envisaged.
Yet the solutions so far have been ineffective because it is living beings, not things, which are destroying the world.
We could blame methane from cows, or plastic or the carbon dioxide of fossil fuels, but the culprits are our diets, our use of plastic or our high-tech traveling. Industry may be responsible, but we individuals are the ones who sustain it.
As one philosopher said, your virtues will prove your undoing. Our hygiene has improved and we control life's risks with medicines, which have allowed our growth as a species. Soon we shall reach the 10 billion population mark. That means billions of people eating meat, using plastic and wanting personal or family vehicles.
We want "light, more light," as the poet Goethe said on his deathbed. And that has a cost.
Less is more
Our desire to keep moving would be healthy if we walked. But we have managed incredibly to move further and faster without even moving, thanks to cars, trains and planes. Tourism takes us around the world, though we barely learn anything about places. We keep taking pictures, most of which, strangely enough, are plainly similar.
Everything is needlessly wrapped in plastic. It is ugly and will choke the world. Plastic has gone from prodigious invention to becoming a horseman of the apocalypse.
The real revolution we need is one of habits. This won't be done by states and parties, but by individuals. It is the right thing to do now, or we'll be forced to do it later. If we dislike capitalism, let us consume less. If we think consumption and trade are among civilization's great achievements, let us trade in useful and beautiful things then, not trash. Let us consume products with usefulness and dignity, not harmful, absurd things.
If we dislike capitalism, let us consume less.
If we worry about climate change, let us walk more, simplify our lives and honor the bicycle. It is a magnificent invention that does not replace but magnifies physical effort, allowing us to advance, breathe and be strong and free.
If we hate health care's transformation into an industry, we must believe in the health given us by clean air and clear water, healthy food, hygiene, exercise and friendship with nature, affection, sexuality, conversation, the arts and interacting with beauty.
The struggle between the city and countryside must end. The city must be reconciled with nature, and physical exercise with pleasure, politics with ethics, thought with imagination, and memory with hope. So saving the world is no state of social policy. It isn't a job for the civil servants and experts but for people and communities. Indeed our real savior may be culture, though even that, ominously, has become lethal.
Relief goods are being distributed among people affected by the floods in Quetta, Pakistan
Life as an art, not a job
Our culture today includes our diet, our plastic and our weapons. They are the fruits of our ingenuity, science and industry. But culture must spark a necessary struggle between indolence and hard work, greed and moderation, and austerity and ostentation.
We have absurdly called "civilization" our alienation from nature, our haste, our emissions and lethal residues, and the cacophony and solitude of cities. It is time we redefined civilization. It must come to include the natural quality, the quiet, a sense of community, simple living and a quest for beauty and balance. It is time we thought of life as an art, not a job.
We must safeguard the gratuitous, arbitrary and essential.
I have come to think that the only enduring art is art that is necessary. It must come from a profound need in a person or community to fix their memory, establish balance and convey beauty and its inebriation of the senses. There is a vast and dismal conspiracy today against those hidden sources of artistic creation, our emotions and traditional rituals.
Songs now come out of commercial studios, marketing departments invent fashion, stories must submit to the tyranny of ratings. The message is, art that sells more is better: it is whatever the customers loved! The art market is a forbidding minefield for any artist because the cheapest of deities — the god of sales — has taken over the world.
So to save it, we must safeguard the gratuitous, arbitrary and essential. How can we measure our wealth, the writer G.K. Chesterton wondered, when everything in life is a gift? Life and its accoutrements — the air, light, color, love and friendship, our bodies — are a gift. None of it has a barcode. Every day we could live a little miracle of rebelliousness and freedom.
We must only do the things we want to: meet with the friends we cherish, create without a thought for perfection and pray in the awesome company of the myriad little gods that are the universe.
The easy way to save the world is to choose a simple and essential life, and not live as the powers dictate. Remember, no state or bureaucracy will come to the rescue of a world that is killing itself.