We Must Tinker Intelligently and Compassionately

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(OPINION) I’ve been tracking environmental issues for more than six decades. Centuries before I was born, Thomas Malthus warned that human exponential growth would impact resources. Some heeded his warning. Many economists disregarded it. Technological optimists pushed back, emphasizing instead “human creativity expressed through markets.”

Markets. Adam Smith’s invisible hand, “unseen forces” moving free-market economies, has elevated health, welfare and lifestyles of unguessed billions, although often on the backs of other, oppressed billions. Examples abound beyond the slavery in our new nation, “conceived in liberty.” Each July 4 we celebrate that conception, crafted by landed White male slaveholders.

When I was young, “billionaire” was rarely heard. Today Forbes’ list of the “richest people in the world” contains only the top 500 billionaires. The richest controls $250 billion. Other billions — human billions — in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, including impoverished pockets of America, have little or no access to clean water, basic health care and even, for many, food. The invisible hand has swept them from our consciousness. We don’t care, or even know.

How can I stop or minimize the invisible hand?

If we know, we shrug: “Yes, but what can I do?” It’s a valid question. Some reading this are themselves marginalized. Those of us higher on the socioeconomic ladder can pay more attention. We can try to help in ways small and larger.

We look beyond our social circles into other neighborhoods. We recognize Earth as a single country, all humanity our fellow citizens. Humankind now experiences unprecedented changes in what once was stable: our climate. International headlines this past month have broadcast variations of “the hottest days on Earth.”

This is not unexpected. Thirty-five years ago the collaborative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change formed to coordinate climate research among 195 member governments. During its early years, I was unaware of the IPCC. In 2014, after 11 years in China, I began trying to understand and share this growing threat to humankind.

The invisible hand flouts warnings

A 1970 New York Times article explains the “Friedman Doctrine: The social responsibility of Business is to increase its profits.” At its essence, “a company has no social responsibility to the public or society; its only responsibility is to its shareholders.”

The invisible hand operates unencumbered. Earth warms, fueled by greed. The hand ignores environmental and human costs. Earth is not a shareholder.

In 1856, Eunice Foote was the first to report the warming effect of carbon. Big Oil caught up in 1977, when Exxon researchers “warned company executives that carbon dioxide was increasing in the atmosphere and that the burning of fossil fuels was to blame.” Exxon’s bottom line burgeons unabated, rewarding shareholders. But the hand’s invisibility cloak may be shredding. Emperor Oil has no clothes.

Capitalism produced unprecedented wealth and well-being for much of the developed world, via social and governmental infrastructures, at little cost to those benefiting most. Well-paid industry lobbyists hobnob with influencers to attain legislative and regulatory advantages, often at the expense of ordinary citizens. Capitalism has power for good, evil and much in between.

For half a century the pesticide industry assaulted truth and the person who reported it. In 2012, New Scientist reported, “The 50-year-old campaign against Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring still distorts environmental debates.” Similar stories are easily found about tobacco, pharmaceutical and other industries.

Limits of moderation

In the 19th century, Baha’u’llah warned against transgressing “the limits of moderation:”

“The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men. … If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation. Meditate on this, O people, and be not of them that wander distraught in the wilderness of error. The day is approaching when its flame will devour the cities, when the Tongue of Grandeur will proclaim: ‘The Kingdom is God’s, the Almighty, the All-Praised!’”

‘None of us is as smart as all of us’

In 1854, Chief Seattle foresaw a dire future for his people under the White man’s treaty: “the end of living and the beginning of survival.” Is this what humanity faces? Can we counter forces destroying the earth that sustains us?

Perhaps we need a global treaty mandating cooperation among disparate interests. None of us is as smart as all of us, yet our collective insights and expertise can generate environmentally friendly solutions.

We can draw on the better angels of our nature to redirect the invisible hand. We can include all real costs: human, social, environmental and much more. We can elevate discourse, consult about how the invisible hand might support a society just and equitable for its global shareholders: all humankind.

It’s not too late to follow conservationist Aldo Leopold’s advice: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” We must tinker intelligently and compassionately.





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