WE CANNOT SERVE TWO MASTERS:  BOTH CONTINUAL ECONOMIC GROWTH AND SOCIAL-ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY

by
Chris Maser

It is impossible to simultaneously serve both the current materialistic paradigm of continual economic growth and the biophysical paradigm of social-environmental sustainability, although most of people in Western industrialized countries seem to try. The challenge with trying to serve two masters is: (1) obedience to one is disobedience to the other or (2) partial obedience to both is partial disobedience to both. In either case, the person attempting to serve two masters is psychologically divided.

In the first case, this psychological split places a person in the untenable position of following the rationalization of their intellect while denying will of their heart, which is analogous to doggedly following a path they know intuitively is, for them, the wrong one. In the second case, a person stands at the fork in a road and tries to take both right-hand and left-hand forks simultaneously, which is a physical-psychological impossibility.

I was taught the lesson of "two masters" many years ago, while working in the Western Desert of Egypt, but I did not at the time fully understand it. Like most spiritual lessons, wherein circumstance and intuitive impulse meld into insight, the act I committed and the thought it inspired remained with me throughout the decades until, at long last, the meaning became clear enough that I was able through understanding to consciously apply it to my own life.

One day, as the sun reached it zenith and the rising desert heat made the horizon appear to dance, I poured a little water from my canteen into a dry cistern well dug centuries earlier by the Romans in the time of unfolding biblical history. As I watched the water sink into the sand, I realized that a well can only be filled from beneath by a rising water table—never by artificial means from the top. What I did not understand at the time was that spiritual fulfillment could come only from within, just as a well can be filled only from the bottom up.

As I observe Western industrialized society today, especially American society, I see people who are spiritually bankrupt and thus uncritically availing themselves of every conceivable material comfort in order to feel fulfilled. But materialism, while deemed good for our consumer-driven economy, is no substitute for spiritual fulfillment. Turning to materialism as a substitute for spirituality is like trying to fill the dry Roman well in Egypt from the top-a totally futile effort because whatever water one might pour into such a well would immediately and forever sink into the desert sand.

Here it is necessary to point out that people who serve materialism as their master are destroying the world since economic globalization is the mother and father of materialism in that it focuses only on the competition for money, which it derived from the conversion potential of Nature's wealth into economic products at the expense of the biophysical processes that produce and maintain Nature's wealth in the first place.

The current obstacles to social-environmental sustainability are, nevertheless, perceptual, not technological. They lie in the dominant values of our society—particularly the dominant corporate values that form the current philosophical underpinnings of our economic system. The contemporary underpinning of our economic system is that everyone perpetually needs more of everything, including technology.

The danger in this attitude is not our technological failures, but rather our technological successes. This simply means that the more technology rules our lives, the more we depend on technology; the more we humanize that technology, the more we become psychological robots of an economy based on the market-driven demand for products; the greater is the danger of forgetting who we are as people. I say this because demand born of necessity is real, whereas that born of want, most often disguised as "need," is carefully and lavishly fed by advertising.

With respect to human economies, Amory Lovins, Director of the Rocky Mountain Institute and author, contends that such economies are "supposed to serve human ends—not the other way around. We forget at our peril that markets make a good servant, a bad master, and a worse religion."

I am not, with the above discussion, judging anyone as "right" or "wrong;" I am simply pointing out what I believe to be a biophysical truth after more that thirty years of studying the issue in various countries and ecosystem in different parts of the world. To illustrate my point, consider Buddha's parable:

Once there was a wealthy but foolish man. When he saw the beautiful three-storied house of another man, he envied it and made up his mind to have one built just like it, thinking he was himself just as wealthy. He called a carpenter and ordered him to build it. The carpenter consented and immediately began to construct the foundation, the first story, the second story, and then the third story. The wealthy man noticed this with irritation and said: "I don't want a foundation or a first story or a second story; I just want the beautiful third story. Build it quickly."

A foolish man always thinks only of the results, and is impatient without the effort that is necessary to get good results. No good can be attained without proper effort, just as there can be no third story without the foundation and the first and the second stories.

In terms of Nature's wealth, products (the third story) cannot be forthcoming without Nature's biophysical processes (the foundation), patience with Nature's timetable (the first story), and understanding the consequences of impatience with Nature's timetable (the second story).

This said, it must be understood that every human endeavor (such as converting Nature's wealth into economic products) can be attained only by way of the effort and discipline necessary to achieve the desired result. It must also be understood, however, that Nature has designed everything with an order that must be respected. Again, Buddha provided a lesson over 2000 years ago:

At one time the tail and the head of a snake quarreled as to which should be the front. The tail said to the head:  "You are always taking the lead; it is not fair, you ought to let me lead sometimes." The head answered: "It is the law of our nature that I should be the head; I can not change places with you."

But the quarrel went on and one day the tail fastened itself to a tree and thus prevented the head from proceeding. When the head became tired with the struggle the tail had its own way, with the result that the snake fell into a pit of fire and perished.

In the world of nature there always exists an appropriate order and everything has its own function. If this order is disturbed, the functioning is interrupted, and the whole order will go to ruin.

Natural processes are a product of the compositional, structural, and functional diversity that operate within Nature's ordered design. Nature's order is seldom understood, however, because Western industrialized humanity tends to focus on the product (third story) rather than the processes (foundation) that are critical to maintaining Nature's biophysical wealth, of which the products are only a result.

In attempting to "manage" (read "control") a system, the focus has been on the wrong end, whether the system is a forest, a grassland, an ocean, or our society. "Management," after all, is only a metaphor to justify a willful impact on a system. The concept of management allows us to focus on the potential of converting Nature's wealth into economic products, rather than focusing on the biophysical processes that maintain Nature's wealth through time. In forestry, for example, the focus has been only on converting trees into lumber and paper; in range management, only on fattening livestock for slaughter; and in commercial fisheries, only on maximizing the catch of the biggest fish. In none of these cases has the focus been on the maintaining the biophysical sustainability of the respective ecosystem for all generations.

The relevance of focus can be explained by the following analogy. If you walk to the door of your living room and stop to survey the room, you see everything in focus and in relationship (Nature's biophysical system). But if you now walk to the coffee table, pick up the newspaper, and begin to read the headlines (the product), your narrowed focus causes everything else to effectively disappear from view—to become out of focus, not only the objects in the room but also the cloud that produced the rain that wetted the soil that grew the trees that were converted into the paper you are now holding, and the soybeans that were converted into the ink for the headlines you are now reading.

This narrowness of focus is the "lesson in a box"—a box of cake mix, that is. A critical biophysical lesson lies inherent in making a cake from "scratch." Knowing what ingredients go into a cake, what they do, and why they are important, allows us to understand why the cake comes out of the oven as it does.

But today few people know how to make a cake from scratch. Instead, they buy a box of cake mix and erroneously think that they have purchased a cake. They have actually bought a box of some of the ingredients for a cake, but they do not know what those ingredients are, where they came from, their proportions or quality, who or what put them into the box, and whether everything is as it should be inside of the box. All of that is taken on faith.

If you buy a box of cake mix and put the contents into a bowl, do you have an instant cake? No. What's in the bowl is a dry, powdery mixture of some of the ingredients for a cake.

If you read the instructions on the box, you will find that you must add additional ingredients and stir. Now do you have a cake in the bowl? Again, the answer is:  "No." You have the batter, which consists of all the ingredients. Well, if you have all of the ingredients, why don't you have a cake?

If you return to the instructions, you will learn that you must preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and then insert the batter, which you have been instructed to transfer to a cake pan, and bake forty minutes.

When the forty minutes have passed, you open the oven, take out the pan, and there's the cake. What happened in the oven that didn't happen in the bowl? First, not all the necessary ingredients were in the box; you had to add some. Even then, something was missing. The heat of the oven caused the chemical interactions to take place among the ingredients, which in turn produced the cake. The heat was the catalyst that drove the chemical processes that created the form and function of the cake. So, what's the point?

The point? You can understand a product, including what happens when an ingredient is omitted, only when you start from scratch, because only then can you see all the ingredients and their interrelationships before and after the chemical interactions occur. A cactus, a grass, a shrub, and a tree are much the same as a cake. Each is but the physical manifestation of the chemical interactions among, in this case, such things as a seed, soil, water, air, sunlight, climate, and time.

Hence, the "lesson in a box" teaches that focusing solely on products—most of which are superfluous to a quality life, while ignoring, or even disdaining, the biophysical processes that produced Nature's wealth in the first place—is increasingly impoverishing every succeeding generation. What people who have chosen materialism as master have lost sight of is the fact that Nature's wealth is the birthright of every generation and every living creature—not just that of the materialist.

Commensurate with materialism as master is the notion that security lies firmly embedded in quantity because an insecure person can never have enough of anything to feel truly in control of circumstance. Seeking security in the perpetual acquisition of material possessions, be it money or the things money can buy, keeps one constantly searching for the unattainable because neither is a substitute for "security," which comes from within or not at all. American author Helen Keller (born deaf and blind) understood well the lack of material security:  "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in Nature. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

The futility of trying to quell the gnawing, spiritual emptiness with a plethora of material possessions has become clear to me as I observe the vast number of people in the United States who are in debt because they have chosen credit cards, like the golden calf of the Bible, to replaced spirituality. This is not to say that a spiritual life is devoid of material objects, but it does mean that material possessions are carefully and thoughtfully selected. The discernment and forethought with which material necessities are chosen can enfold them within the realm of the sacred, something materialism cannot do, despite the fact that the person engaged in a materialistic lifestyle belongs to—and even attends—a recognized religious order

Those who choose the spiritual path recognize it as journey, a process of growth toward self-mastery, the reward of which is peace and contentment. The spiritual path is based on a view of all life—all of Nature—as sacred and all generations as equal. One therefore walks as gently and unobtrusively upon the land as possible so that no lasting footprint overshadows the land's productive capacity to fulfill the life necessities of those as yet unborn. A traveler on the spiritual path is thus inwardly compelled to seek quality and sufficiency in material things instead of quantity and excess, because the traveler understands that quality is lasting, which makes quantity undesirable not only because of its clutter but also because its built-in obsolescence steals unnecessarily from all future generations.

Because no one can simultaneously serve two masters, we must choose one—either continual growth or social-environmental sustainability. If, therefore, we are sincerely committed to social-environmental sustainability we must re-envision our economic model in a way that curbs the notion of continual growth as the measure of economic health. We must, instead, focus our attention maintaining the biophysical health of the systems that support us as a society in the present for the present generations and those of the future, which means that ecosystem health must become the measure of economic health.

I say this because both "ecology" (which represents Nature) and "economy" (which represents humanity) have the same Greek root oikos, a house. Ecology is the knowledge or understanding of the house. Economy is the management of the house. And it's the same house—a house we humans have divided at our peril. At issue here is whether the environment is part of the economy or the economy is part of the environment. In truth, they form an inseparable whole, which we can choose to recognize, accept, and reunite as our unconditional gift to all generations—or continue to destroy for the impoverishment of all generations. It is, after all, only a choice!


©chris maser 2006. All rights reserved.

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