Right now, people in rural communities in Ireland are digging up their future. So that they can keep warm now, because energy prices are high.
Meantime, twenty years ago members of a tight-knit farming community in Paraguay sold out to industrial agriculture. Those left are paying the price.
Can I say with confidence that when faced with similar decisions today, I would think of the future? What would give me the motivation to think of others when making my decisions?
More than two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace wrote:
Ask not ('tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years, / Mine and yours [...] life is short; should hope be more? / In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb'd away. / Seize the present; trust tomorrow e'en as little as you may
That last sentence, often translated as "Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow", might as well be the catch-phrase of our culture.
Yet I know this approach to life will be our undoing. Not mine, perhaps. After all, I might not live to see the consequences. But, probably, it would be worse for people in the future.
How could I be motivated to make decisions differently?
It's been a cold start to the winter in north-western Europe; something that I can relate to sitting here in a darkened room typing this article. A combination of post pandemic inflationary pressures, and the repercussions of war elsewhere, have caused the price of fuels for heating, and electricity for virtually everything else, to climb. Many are having to take difficult decisions.
The government of the Republic of Ireland recently committed protection of their country's delicate bogs and wetlands into law. Year on year, the plantlife living on the surface of these bogs trap carbon in their leaves and stems. As these die and are compacted into the mud, they are trapped there by overlaying layers of other plants that grow on top of them. These plants are also the habitat and food source of a surprising variety of invertebrates and other small animals, and those that prey on them.
It takes thousands of years to lay down a depth of peat in these bogs. Some of them are more than ten meters deep. Human activity over quite a short timescale to remove the peat, often in the form of blocks for fireplaces, can lead to former peat bogs being completely dug out. There's plenty of evidence of destruction on this scale in the past. What is now known as the Norfolk Broads were once peat workings, entirely dug out, abandoned, and allowed to flood.
All that carbon stored in peat then goes literally up the chimney as peat blocks smoulder in the fireplace. With so much emphasis in recent years on carbon sequestration, biologists, soil scientists and conservationists have demonstrated the tremendous potential in letting the peat bogs grow once more. Some say that conserving peat bogs is more effective than re-afforestation.
Yet all this seems rather nebulous, distant. If my home is cold and I cannot afford it, doesn't growing peat bogs seem like a ridiculously unaffordable luxury? What value are a few insects and butterflies to me when I cannot keep warm? Why should I care about future years and generations when my need is here and now? Who are these faceless bureaucrats and obscure scientists to tell me my business anyway. And Dublin does seem far away ...
To be frank, these are hard decisions. Who can say that any one of us wouldn't make similar decisions when faced with situations like these?
In a very different place, across the other side of the Atlantic, on frontier lands in eastern Paraguay near the Brazilian border, a similar story and dilemma plays out.
During the years of the brutally oppressive dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner, a group of pioneers hacked their way through thick forests to found a small farming colony. Each family was supplied with a generous amount of land with which to subsist. Each of those families, tied together by a common cause, swore on their blood that they would never sell their land to the rich industrial farmers who had impoverished them before.
However, when twenty years later, the finance-backed agricultural corporations arrived in the neighbourhood, they started to make offers to people in the community that could not be refused. Very large sums of money were involved. Enough to transform lives from the hard labour of subsistence farming.
Some families in the community took the money, and moved far away.
The industrial farmers moved in, with their mono-cultures of maize, rice and soy-beans. They planted seeds that had been especially adapted and bred to tolerate high concentrations of the pesticides and insecticides conventional farming logic said were necessary to grow the crops. And they sprayed. Sprayed from the air, and from ground level, indiscriminately.
The result? Allergies, asthma, skin rashes, deformed babies, chronically high blood pressure. Vomiting, diarrhea, headaches. And more people dying of cancers and heart attacks as a result. For those who are left, the pain - both physical and psychological - is constant. They feel like they are falling apart from within.
Being honest, how can I be sure that if I were in the situation of the poor subsistence farmers that I would do anything different. Take the money, and damn the future of the community I used to belong to. I mean, frankly, there are plenty of contemporary examples - why wouldn't I take my lottery winnings, and move to a nice place far away from other people?
Why wouldn't I think any differently if I believe that this life is all there is that we've got. Once chance at living. I never know what is going to happen tomorrow - I may as well live for today, and care less about the consequence of my acts.
I should dig up another few blocks of peat. After all, who is going to notice? And I've got a home to keep warm.
I'll take the money the developers offer and move away. I've had a hard enough life as it is. Why should I begrudge myself the chance to make a fresh start?
As Bertrand Russell once put it:
… we see, surrounding the narrow raft illumined by the flickering light of human comradeship, the dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour; from the great night without, a chill blast breaks in upon our refuge; all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears.
In all this, where would the motivation come from to connect across time and space, and make decisions that benefit people living far away from me, on in a future time? Even at the cost of being uncomfortable - of making hard decisions - in the short term?
I've come across many such sources of motivation. One that I want to share here is that expressed by the many millions of people who have nearly died, who had something transcendent and utterly inexplicable happen to them. Very private, very personal, whatever happened to them completely changed their lives and outlook.
Modern-day researchers of the near-death experience have shown that it is not necessary to have had an experience like this to find the motivation to change one's values and decisions. Like a benign virus, just learning about the impact a near-death experience has on the person, and on people around them, is enough to provide that motivation.
Though experiencers suffered much pain, grief and turmoil in their lives as a consequence, one consistent theme that arises is the unconditional love and universal connectedness they feel afterwards. Viscerally, in the gut.
Here is an excerpt from the account of one such experiencer:
I hoped but was not convinced that there was a higher power outside ourselves, that life continued beyond this existence, and that there was some purpose to everything. I had a lot of fear around pain, death, and loss. I did not have a strong faith and was fairly agnostic. I was very cynical about some things. Afterward I still have a lot of uncertainty and worry, but I am absolutely convinced that this is not the 'only' life and that there is an overall purpose and value to life. Death is not to be feared. […] I wish everyone could experience what it felt like being there. I think a lot of conflict in the world would be eliminated if we all could feel how much we are all connected.
It is this turnaround in attitudes towards death - not the darkened vision of Russell, not the annihilation to be feared - but a gateway to renewed growth and connection, that could provide the motivation that I am looking for.
As 'Abbas Effendi, known as Abdu'l-Baha (Servant of Glory), son of the founder of the Baha'i Faith, put it:
The conception of annihilation is a factor in human degradation, a cause of human debasement and lowliness, a source of human fear and abjection. It has been conducive to the dispersion and weakening of human thought, whereas the realization of existence and continuity has upraised man to sublimity of ideals, established the foundations of human progress and stimulated the development of heavenly virtues; therefore, it behooves man to abandon thoughts of nonexistence and death, which are absolutely imaginary, and see himself ever-living, everlasting in the divine purpose of his creation. He must turn away from ideas which degrade the human soul so that day by day and hour by hour he may advance upward and higher to spiritual perception of the continuity of the human reality. If he dwells upon the thought of nonexistence, he will become utterly incompetent; with weakened willpower his ambition for progress will be lessened and the acquisition of human virtues will cease.