This is the sixth in a series of essays on a system of ecological ethics for living sustainably. This, and the previous and remaining essays, describe the 10 Living Earth Ethical Principles in detail. For references and additional discussion, visit www.livingearthethics.org.
Life of Service. We are all part of a greater system, and the whole will only be healthy if its constituent parts are. Thus we should help those who are in need, especially in ways that provide a useful understanding of the world and our role in it--namely that we are dependent on and part of the Earth, and that only through sustaining this beautiful, fragile system will we lead meaningful and satisfying lives.
With the current recession, economic insecurity is spiking worldwide. But even before this crisis, there were almost 2.6 billion people living on less than US$2 a day. Those of us with the means to help others less fortunate than we are have an obligation to do so. I won't justify that statement here; anyone who has seen others suffering and doesn't feel compassion to help will surely not be transformed by anything I might say in this essay. Nor will I go into the ample research showing that helping others often makes one happier and more fulfilled. But what I do hope to make clear is that some ways of helping are better than others.
There's an old Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" Of course, that was before oceans were acidifying and fish threatened to become a rare luxury, but the broader point still rings true. Providing temporary aid that doesn't get to the root of the problem is futile.
Considering our rising population and declining ecological systems, it's imperative that we teach people to live simply. Not surprisingly, living simply will actually reduce economic worries, while increasing free time and reducing impact. Too often wealth is conflated with wellbeing, when in fact the two are only tangentially related. By recognizing that a good life depends not on wealth but on health, basic security, community, and purpose, lives can be very good while being simple and low-impact.
Charity, in theory, could be a perfect vehicle to teach this, but is rarely utilized in that way. Instead, most charitable operations provide a fish each day and do nothing to counteract the billions spent by advertisers to teach that unless you have not just swordfish on your...