General Assembly 2009 Event 4010
Most Unitarian Universalists (UUs) can tell you, chapter and verse, about all the things that are going wrong with the world:
Rev. Michael A. Schuler, minister at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, WI, and the author of Making the Good Life Last: Four Keys to a Sustainable Future, argues that all these diverse problems are connected, and spring from the same source. At the root, he says, they all came about because we have a deeply misguided sense of what constitutes "the good life." And solving them, he says, begins with re-defining that notion.
Schuler noted that a Google image search of the phrase "good life" turns up lots of pictures of big houses, fabulous vacation destinations, fast cars and piles of money. A very few show homespun scenes of people enjoying each other's company. None of them call into question the American assumption that "the good life" is predicated on our ability to move up socially and economically over the course of our lives, in an endless "escalator effect" that has us constantly keeping up with the Joneses.
But dozens of studies have shown that happiness, on a worldwide basis, is only marginally related to wealth. It increases greatly as people move from up from the level of bare subsistence to greater security; but once they hit a level approximating the American lower-middle class, it levels off. After that, more money does not equal more happiness—and may actually equal less.
According to these cross-cultural comparisons, human happiness depends on eight basic factors:
How much emphasis does our culture place on these values? Schuler asked. Of course, the answer is "not much." And what do they all have in common? Every one of them is rooted in the idea of sustainability.
Schuler admitted that "sustainability" is a slippery word, and that not even the people who are working full-time in the field agree on what it means. Paul Hawken calls it "restorative"—the idea that you don't take more out of the system than you're able to replace. Matthew Fox said, "What is sustainable is just. What is unsustainable is unjust." Bill McKibben said that we may not know what it means; but we do know that "it does not mean fast, it does not mean cheap, and it does not mean easy."
Sustainability hasn't been a major Western value until now because, in most of the world for most of history, there has been enough to go around. Sustainability was just assumed. There was so much abundance we didn't have to worry about limits. While there are places in the globe where it's been a local problem for a long time, it's only been recently that it's become a problem for everyone.
Restoring sustainability—and thus addressing all the problems and dissatisfactions noted above—begins with re-adopting four overarching precepts, which are discussed at length in Schuler's book. These precepts include:
Schuler noted that Thomas Hobbes believed that this lack of foresight was the fatal flaw that would ultimately bring down the human species. Our unwillingness to even consider the consequences of any endeavor we initiate dooms us to make easily avoidable blunders. All we need to do is adopt the precautionary principle, which tells us that we shouldn't proceed with any endeavor until we've done a solid scan of the horizon, and have a clear sense of what the hazards will be.
Schuler wrapped up his talk by outlining the four ideological barriers to change—cultural assumptions that must be challenged in order to move toward a more sustainable culture. These include:
Getting to sustainability will require us to address our future on all four fronts, always looking for ways to re-affirm the eight criteria that lead to true human happiness. The ways and means of this are discussed at greater length in his new book Making the Good Life Last, which is available from the UUA Bookstore.
Reported by Sara Robinson; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.
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Last updated on Sunday, February 12, 2012.
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