Are We Willing to Start Living for Others?

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The Kent-Ravenna Record-Courier (Ohio)

Are We Willing to Start Living for Others?

"... walking is much healthier than jumping to conclusions or running off at the mouth"
-- Record-Courier "SoundOff!" comment

During a discussion of sustainability at a recent breakfast caucus of the Healthy Transportation Task Force of the Kent Environmental Council, my friend Larry Cole remarked that technologies for far more efficient internal combustion engines – which could make substantial contributions to the sustainability of world energy supplies – have existed for a long time, but have been ignored or resisted by the auto industry.

Sustainability (never a goal of the auto industry) is an infant concept, first proposed in 1987 as ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.' Its similarity to the "seventh generation" philosophy of the Iroquois has been noted: chiefs must always consider the effects of their actions down through seven future generations.

In US capitalism, sustainability is often parsed as a "triple bottom line" – increasing profits, improving the planet and improving the lives of people. Some critics question whether increasing profits is compatible with improving the planet or people's lives.

But there is general agreement that sustainability is about planning our actions today to ensure a liveable world for future generations. The city of Kent has a Sustainability Commission and a Sustainability Plan; Kent State University has a Sustainability Task Force. The USEPA has a Sustainability Program.

But how do we do sustainability? How do we address our human destiny – either for local communities or for the 6.7 billion people on our frail little planet? Although we have incredibly advanced technologies, our economic, political and social systems are proving totally inadequate for governing ourselves or managing our powers in sustainable ways.

Sustainability is founded on altruism – caring for others. Auguste Comte (1798 -1857) coined the word, proposing that we should ‘live for others' – vivre pour autrui – instead of living for God, or money, or self-gratification.

Living for others can be based on religion (Christianity "love your neighbor", Islam "give alms"), humanism (Do unto others ...), family loyalty ("He's my brother), as a freestanding moral virtue (It's the right thing to do) or the evolutionary imperative (alone we die).

And sustainability – the altruism of caring for all others down to through many generations – is for all practical purposes socialism: how we as societies or as a species manage our commons – the resources, risks, and challenges we share in common with others.

Over the past decade I have been alarmed by an increase in what I will call "missionary conclusions" jumped to by many so groups religious, commercial, technical, military, Left, Right, and Extraterrestrial. These conclusions – unsustainable and un-altruistic – go something like this: "We know the truth, (the whole truth and nothing but the truth) and know what to do to create the right future for everyone. Others who do not accept our truth or support our programs may – indeed should – be forced into compliance – for their own good as well as that of future generations – with whatever coercion or violence it takes."

We hear this conclusion in proposals for escalation of the war in Afghanistan: the only right way forward is to punish the terrorists of Al Qaeda and/or Taliban with a bigger and better war with more soldiers, bombs and drones.

We see this in the conclusion that the best we can do to control a nation we suspect is building a nuclear bomb is deterrence by threat of obliteration by our nuclear bombs. (Dale Butland: "Living with a nuclear Iran", ABJ, 10/14/09 )

We hear this conclusion from those who fear that illegal immigrants or the undeserving poor might cost us money, or that giving everyone health care might raise our taxes.

Sustainability through altruism is also healthier than jumping to conclusions in another sense: caring for others, mutual help and interdependence have repeatedly proved to be more effective and durable in human societies than force and selfishness. Our human fitness to survive to seven generations (or even to the next generation) may be impaired if we keep jumping to short-term, local and self-centered conclusions.

Who should decide what sustainability goals get priority? Scientists, technologists and statisticians? Congress? the US President, the Pope, the UN, Generals at the Pentagon, the Free Market, guided by Wall Street CEOs? 2 billion Christians? 1.6 billion Muslims?

So far we haven't even agreed what realities we are dealing with (e.g:. global warming, energy consumption, wars, 6.7 billion people, pandemics, genocide, GM foods, etc.) How will we ever agree on a reality we want for future generations?

Instead of jumping to short-term conclusions about how the world should be, and running off at the mouth about our own incorruptible truths and others' scurrilous lies, we need to walk with others in the real world and talk about what we see – altruistically, sustainably – calling on our basic human kindness, sense of justice and ideals of freedom to help one another.

It won't be easy. There is a strong current of YOYO (You're On Your Own) running though our society. Our democratic practice of political accountability has been overwritten by a culture of consumerism and the buying of political compliance. Our economy is largely controlled by myths about free-markets and the individual's freedom to make money and not pay taxes. Many people believe that God commands certain outcomes, and that they must force God's will on everyone.

Do we want sustainability? Are we willing to live for others? 

Walk.  And tune in around AD 2250.

Caroline Arnold

Caroline Arnold retired in 1997 after 12 years on the staff of US Senator John Glenn. She previously served three terms on the Kent (Ohio) Board of Education. In retirement she is active with the Kent Environmental Council and sits on the board of Family & Community Services of Portage County. Her Letters From Washington has been published as an e-Book by the Knowledge Bank of the Ohio State University Library.  E-mail:

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