Trace of Josef Vavroušek in the Czech Republic

Trace of Josef Vavroušek in the Czech Republic

Speech delivered at the joint meeting of the Ethical Working Group and the Commission on Environmental Law during the IUCN General Assembly – the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Buenos Aires on 20 January 1994.

Finding human values compatible with a sustainable way of life

Josef Vavroušek       

The development of human society in recent centuries has been characterized by a number of fundamental and ever-increasing contradictions. Above all, it has brought a tumultuous development of science, technology and education that has enabled not only the explosive, unprecedented growth in the volume of knowledge about the world we live in, but also a substantial increase in the standard of living of most of the population in Europe, North America and many other areas. Health care has also significantly improved for a large proportion of the world’s population and infectious diseases have been reduced, mortality rate has dramatically decreased. In an increasing number of countries, democratic political systems and ideals of human rights and freedoms are being promoted.

However, we may not disregard undesired, unwanted and, in consequence, dangerous features of this development. These include the high and ever-growing material consumption of the countries of the “North” - and of the narrow stratum of the rich in the countries of the “South” - coupled with the rapid absorption of natural resources and the production of huge amounts of waste. Twenty percent of the world’s population thus consumes about eighty percent of the resources of raw material and energy. Most population of the countries in the “South” (and part of the population in the “North”) live in poverty, more than 780 million of the world’s 5.5 billion inhabitants even live below absolute poverty line. The gap between the rich and the poor is thus increasing, and both extremes contribute to the destruction of the environment - the rich by disproportionately high consumption and corresponding waste emissions of all kinds, poor people by devastating their surroundings in an effort to save their lives. The expansive development of European-American culture leads to a weakening or even extinction of a number of national or regional cultures and thus not only to the incalculable loss of humanity’s cultural wealth, but also to its ability to respond effectively to a decline in the changes in the situation and thus to increased vulnerability of human society.

All of the stated processes lead to a rapidly continuing destruction of nature and man’s environment on a global, regional and local scale. Air pollution in particular results in acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change. Non-renewable natural resources increasingly and virtually irreversibly disappear, forests are destroyed and their vitality is being reduced. Soil desertifies due to erosion, salinisation, drying and decrease in humus content. Man also constantly – and irreversibly – reduces the genetic richness of living organisms through his acts. This also adversely affects the basic processes that maintain conditions for life on Earth. Many of these problems also directly or indirectly affect the Czech Republic.

Above all, the unprecedented extent of these undesirable changes and the speed with which such changes occur are dangerous. This is closely related to the rapid expansion of people’s technical ability to change nature, to the “globalization” of human civilization (the Earth as a “global village”), which is a direct result of the previously unimaginable speed of information dissemination, passenger and freight transport and the growing intensity of economic and political ties in world. For the first time in history, human civilization as a whole is at risk, along with countless other organisms. This situation is unprecedented: until now, the disappearance of a certain civilization has only concerned a particular region so far - for example, the area between the Euphrates and Tigris, but today it can impact the entire planet. The rapid growth of global problems is also due to the exponential growth in the number of people inhabiting our planet. The fact that the world population doubles every 40 years is already a warning in itself. However, the danger of such a development is multiplied by the fact that it is regionally a very unequal development: the population is growing fastest in the poorest countries, which intensifies all the problems outlined. Any delay in their solution can lead to unfettered explosions of violence - the situation in the former Yugoslavia is a sad memento. The possible effort of individual regions to isolate themselves from the outside world by building different - this time electronic curtains and to preserve prosperity, ignoring whatever happens “outside” in other parts of the world, is not only immoral, but also shortsighted and doomed to severe failure.

We are therefore approaching a crossroads - if we have not already missed it - when it is necessary to thoroughly reassess the entire development of the human community so far that seems to be unsustainable in the long term, as it leads to escalated social tensions in the world. They may result in a huge wave of violence, and to the destruction of environment on a planetary scale, with devastating consequences not only for humans but also for other living organisms. Awareness of the necessity of fundamental - albeit undoubtedly very differentiated - changes gradually spreads in all parts of the world although the immediate motives are very diverse. Therefore, the key outcome of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, June 1992) was the adoption of a strategy of sustainable development as a fundamental direction for further human development.

Sustainable development - or perhaps more precisely, the way of life - focuses on finding harmony between man and nature, between society and its environment, so that we move as close as possible to the ideals of humanism and respect for life and nature in all their forms, at different time horizons. It is a way of life that seeks a balance between the freedoms and rights of every individual and his responsibility towards other people and nature as a whole, including responsibility to future generations. We should accept the principle that the freedom of each individual ends not only where the freedom of another one begins, but also where the destruction of nature occurs. Let us live so that when satisfying our needs we do not limit the rights of those who come after.

If we want to achieve a sustainable way of life, we must analyze the current unsustainable development, which has the character of quantitative growth accompanied by a number of deep contradictions. We should try to build on everything that is compatible with the vision of a sustainable way of life, which can develop this vision and support efforts to realize it. At the same time, we should seek to avoid activities that lead to the emergence of difficult problems humanity is facing. Therefore, such efforts should include identifying the factors that have negatively and positively influenced development so far, as well as supporting positive factors and complementing them wherever there are “blank spots.”

In my opinion, the general criteria or norms that people use when assessing the situation and making decisions form the “common denominator;” they help understand people’s acts. These norms are human values, expressing an individual or collective understanding of the meaning of life, conditioned partly biologically (especially genetically), partly culturally. If this hypothesis is correct, analyzing the evolution of human values in different parts of the world over the past decades and centuries can both reveal the ethical roots of today’s global and regional problems typical of unsustainable growth so far, and formulate human values compatible with a sustainable way of life, i.e. those that can stimulate, enforce and develop such a way of life.

When seeking the values for a sustainable life, we should primarily focus on ourselves, on the values dominating in European-American (or, if you want in the “Northwest”) civilization we are a part of. Not only because we can change our own behavior only this way and thus solve the problems of our region, but also because it is this civilization that decisively affects what is happening in the world today. Thus, if we refer to the unsustainability of existing global development trends, we must at the same time acknowledge the vast contribution of the European-American value systems to this unsatisfactory development. If we start with ourselves, we can help all humankind.

The system of norms of European-American civilization changes over time and is relatively inhomogeneous with great regional differences as well as differences in the values shared by different social groups. Nevertheless, I suppose that it is possible to recognize in our culture certain frameworks, occurring especially in this century, whose direct implication is the emergence and deepening of the outlined social, economic and environmental problems. At the same time, however, we can find a number of human values in the tradition of European thought that are, or at least could be, compatible with the idea of a sustainable way of life. The point is to review the value systems of “real capitalism” as well as of “real socialism.”

The following brief analysis is a working hypothesis that attempts to address the most significant values of European civilization related to unsustainable trends of development (A values) while at the same time identifying alternative value attitudes (B values); some of them are already being pursued, especially in recent decades. This is certainly a strong schematization of this extremely intricate issue, but I believe that the hypothesis outlined may be an impulse for further considerations.

The basis of the analysis is the dominating relationship of European-American civilization towards key aspects of human life.

1. The relationship of man to nature

A. Reality: Predatory relationship to nature, which is primarily regarded as a bottomless source of raw materials and a passive “playground” where any human activity takes place without respecting the limits of the natural carrying capacity of the area, accompanied by an increasing focus on non-renewable resources of raw materials, including waste emissions to environment.

B. Alternative: Awareness of belonging to nature, respect for life in all its forms and nature as a whole, use of land within its natural carrying capacity, predominant focus on renewable natural resources, minimization of generation of waste and a corresponding recycling.

2. Relationship of human beings to society

A. Reality: Extreme approaches:

a)  One-sided emphasis on individualism and competition (typical of “real capitalism”) based on the assumption that the egoistic behavior of an individual and his rivalry with others is “automatically” beneficial not only for him personally but also for society as a whole (“the invisible hand” of A. Smith). This attitude, on the one hand, has allowed the explosive development of the economies of Western Europe and North America, but on the other hand has led to a decline in the sense of responsibility for public affairs and to a loosening of relations with other people.

b)  One-sided emphasis on collectivism (typical of “real socialism”), in which the interests of individual members of society should be subordinated to the interests of the whole. In practice, however, an uncontrollable concentration of power was vested in the hands of a small group of people or even an individual. At the same time, the vast majority of citizens were deprived of both their right to participate in decision-making on public affairs and a number of other human rights and freedoms. This brought a sharp decline in self-confidence of a great many citizens and a loss of shared responsibility for the development of society and its environment. This either led to a general state of “collective irresponsibility” resulting in apathy of helplessness, or, on the contrary, to a belief that the whole system must be fundamentally changed in order to prevent the disintegration of society and the destruction of nature. Fortunately, in 1989, the latter of these attitudes was pursued in all European “socialist” countries.

B. Alternative: Balanced emphasis on the individual and a collective body, which involves not only family, community, own nation or state, but also humanity as a whole. The self-esteem of each individual based on the real possibility of free decision-making, coupled with the sense of belonging of each human being to the human community, with a sense of love for people, solidarity and altruism. Complementing the competitiveness with cooperation to achieve common values and goals.

3. Relationship to the flow of time and the meaning of history

A. Reality: Obsession with the idea of quantitative growth, based on the belief that the growth of economic and physical quantities characterizing the increase in production and/or consumption is a benchmark for progress, success or happiness. In the countries of “real socialism,” this idea used to be even anchored in a state plan that had a character of law. However, the same idea is also being promoted in the countries with a market economy where stagnation or decline in GNP growth is considered a national catastrophe. Growth orientation in a world with limited resources is totally unpromising and, moreover, an end in itself in the countries with a high standard of living. No growth based on the rising consumption of material possessions can continue for unlimited length of time, as sooner or later it will encounter fundamental constraints due to real possibilities.

B. Alternative: Emphasis on the qualitative development of human society, focusing primarily on improving the quality of life and human relations, development of science, culture, spiritual and intellectual life, development and better use of people’s capacities based on the belief that human creativity is the only virtually unlimited source; however, the prerequisite is to satisfy at least the basic material needs of all the inhabitants of this planet.

4.  Relationship to the meaning of one’s life

A. Reality: Hedonistic orientation and consumerism way of life, where the main purpose of life is seen in the pursuit of increasingly greater comfort (often at the cost of stress) and satisfying the unlimited material needs of people that in general have no natural limits. In the situation where all the “basic” needs of people in Western democracies have long been satisfied, the whole mechanism of the market economy focuses on the creation and stimulation of ever-new needs, along with aggressive advertising successively using brainwashing methods. The amount of money and the amount of luxury consumption have become a widely accepted universal measure of human success.

B. Alternative: Emphasis on quality of life, conscious modesty and renunciation of unnecessary things. It is these very values that stood at the cradle of the Jewish and Christian civilizations and the return to them is essential to getting closer to the ideal of a sustainable way of life. Here, too, altruism, solidarity and a focus on the spiritual and intellectual development of man are part of a truly good-quality life.

5. Relationship to freedom and responsibility

A. Reality: One-sided emphasis on human rights and freedoms, erosion of awareness of co-responsibility for the course of actions. Emphasizing the value of human rights and freedoms of the Enlightenment thinkers was of utmost importance for the development of European (and American) democracy, especially in contrast to the previous serfdom status of the majority of the population. However, it was not accompanied by adequate awareness of responsibility for public affairs, and in “real socialism” neither by responsibility for one’s own life. Moreover, the freedom of the individual is often reduced in the practice of “real capitalism” to the freedom to make money and to consume material goods (Elia Kazan).

B. Alternative: Development of human rights and freedoms while respecting the symmetries with responsibility that is associated with them, both in relation to other human beings and in relation to nature.

6. Relationship to the level of our knowledge

A. Reality: “The Pride of Reason” resting in one-sided emphasis on rationality and simple causal thinking, and in overestimating the extent, depth and reliability of people’s knowledge and their ability to anticipate and mitigate future developments. The immeasurable overestimation of these abilities formed the basis of an economic system based on central planning; however, it does not evade the countries with a market economy, either as it is often associated there with belief in the omnipotence of computers.

B. Alternative: Being careful in all interventions in nature and society, avoiding activities the consequences of which we cannot satisfactorily anticipate, complementing rational thinking with intuition and emotion, bringing the scientific and artistic views of the world closer together, intense emphasis on developing further cognition of particulars and especially the relationships between them and raising the level of education for as many people as possible.

7. Relationship to one’s own life

A. Reality: The alienation of man from his own life, the weakening of the instinct of self-preservation and the feedbacks that allow for revising incorrect and unsuccessful acts. Man has consciously and for a long time carried out activities that he knows lead to the destruction of the environment and thus to endangerment of his own life and the lives of his loved ones. He smokes and abuses alcohol and drugs despite being fully aware of their harmfulness to his own health, destroys forests and soil, releases toxic waste into the environment and takes risks with mineral resources.

B. Alternative: Restoring the man’s instinct of self-preservation based on a systematic reflection of the negative consequences of human activity for one’s own health and the environment. The prerequisite is not only the development of knowledge, but particularly also the upbringing and education and strengthening of information and institutional corrective feedbacks.

8. Relationship to future generations

A. Reality: Preferring short-term interests over the long-term and lasting ones, based on the “carpe diem” (seize the day) principle, life at the expense of future generations as a result of over-exploitation of non-renewable resources, destruction or inadequate care for renewable resources. Dangerous (and often irreversible) interventions in nature. Market mechanisms alone cannot work with longer time horizons, just as centrally managed economies can’t (all five-year plans collapsed in the first two years).

B. Alternative: Respecting the long-term consequences of human activities by developing knowledge and awareness of responsibility towards future generations; purposeful market regulation within the framework of legal norms drawing on permanent ideals and long-term concepts arising from the systematic co-participation of all citizens concerned

9. Relationship to different views and other civilizations

A. Reality: Intolerance to the opinions of others, ideological, religious, racial or other intolerance and attempts to solve problems by force that was shown not only in both World Wars, but in the era of “real socialism” also in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and at some places in a subsequent transformation phase (former Yugoslavia) as well. Often, the reality of European-American culture also involves underestimating or ignoring other civilizations based on an unjustified feeling of superiority and aggressive behavior towards these civilizations, a military one in the past and economic and cultural nowadays. This leads to the evolutionarily and ethically undesirable dominance of the European-American way of life in a number of areas belonging to other cultural circles and to the blurring of differences between different civilizations. Mankind thus loses cultural diversity, which is not only its priceless heritage, but also a prerequisite for its ability to adapt to unforeseen changes in the conditions. Moreover, the legitimate unwillingness of members of some civilizations - such as the Islamic one - to give in to the pressure of our culture can be a source of serious tensions in the world in the near future.

B. Alternative: Mutual tolerance, an effort to empathize with the situation of the citizens from other countries, solving problems through negotiations, better knowledge and understanding of other civilizations and attempts to learn from their culture and experience. Political, economic and other global mechanisms enabling coexistence and mutual enrichment of different civilizations and cultures, while maintaining and promoting the development of their identity and diversity.

10. Relationship to the things in common

A. Reality: Resigning on joint decision-making on common issues and passivity, especially in the former “real socialism” countries, but partly also in Western democracies, reducing the share of a large number of people in a decision-making process to a simple casting of a ballot into the ballot box every four years, infantilizing a society that is in the hands of a small number of people due to the monopolization of political and economic power. Thus, the ability of human society to manage its further development is generally diminishing - both at the level of individual countries and on a global scale, which contrasts sharply with its rapidly increasing devastating potential.

B. Alternative: Developing participatory democracy combining the strengths of representative democracy with self-government so that every citizen has a real chance to participate in the decisions about common things, development of civil, open society with developed mechanisms preventing abuses of political and economic power. Given the increasing complexity of relationships in modern society, the vast majority of people cannot directly participate in solving specific economic, technical or other professional problems simply because they lack the necessary knowledge and experience. However, all citizens have the right to co-decide on the values and general objectives of society, which are reflected in the criteria used to assess the situation and to choose the optimal alternative to the solution, in each and every individual case. The application of this principle implies the creation of effective institutional and economic mechanisms at the level of individual countries as well as at a global community level.

This working hypothesis, which however needs to be thoroughly examined, is an abstraction, a generalization of the important values-related attitudes of the European-American civilization, which in recent centuries have led to both rapid cultural and economic development, but also to the emergence of severe problems (A values). At the same time, it builds on the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian roots of our civilization that could lead us on the path towards the ideal of a sustainable way of life (B values). The future seems to be largely dependent on how high we place type B values on the ranking of our individual and group value systems, and to what extent we suppress type A values. It is a race against time.

We must always go back to the fundamental question of the meaning of life and look for answers adequate enough to face a dangerous and, moreover, rapidly changing situation. Only two basic alternatives for future development are likely to be considered. The first one is the continuation of the current undesirable trends that would most likely entail chaos and a series of disasters of various kinds. There is a real danger that the period of destruction of the environment and the breakdown of social structures and rules of relations between people could last a long time and in extreme cases it could lead to the decimation or even extinction of humanity. The second alternative is to make as fast as possible a well thought-out evolution that would focus on factual solutions to the existing problems and prevention of newly arising problems. The basis for such an alternative might be the shared care for the environment on our planet; the existing fundamental political, economic, national and religious contradictions in the world do not provide us with many other chances.

I am convinced that finding and promoting the values that would bring us to humanism and the harmony in the relations between man and nature is the common destiny of both people who are religiously believers and those who believe in man and in his ability to differentiate between the good and evil. We should support what unites us, not what makes our opinions differ.

Note: An abbreviated working draft of this article was published in Czech in a weekly Literární noviny no. 49, 1993.