Humankind must have a death wish; how else are we to account for our continuing failure to confront the gravest threat to our species since the last ice-age? Even the staunchest defenders of the status quo no longer doubt the reality of global warming. But we remain paralysed, unable to generate either the moral or political will to convert the concerns of a growing minority into action to save the planet for future generations.
The scale and nature of change necessary to counter the accelerating threat to our planet's capacity to sustain life is enormous; and here perhaps lies the root our paralysis. We know what needs to happen, but we have little idea where to start. Politicians fail to give any leadership and the most powerful nation on earth is led by an administration which cares more about the short-term privileges of a small minority of its citizens than the long-term well survival of humankind.
It is understandable that as people become more aware of what is happening to the planet they resort to a steadfast denial of reality. This psychological defence mechanism has long been employed by humans in the face of problems which they feel powerless to overcome. But global warming is the make or break issue for our civilisation. It is clearly not a challenge which can left, with any confidence, in the hands of those who currently wield power and determine policy. The present system of global political and economic management is based on the promotion of national interests, the defence of minority privilege, and the creation of an economic system which endures mainly by appealing to the basest of human drives and desires. We should not be surprised that such a system is unable to tackle the environmental threat.
Global warming provides the ultimate test of the moral maturity of humankind. It is the climax of a historical struggle between two key aspects of cultural change: moral progress and economic advance. We have now reached the point where the moral progress of the last two thousand years can no longer be reconciled with the scientific, technological and economic progress of the last two hundred. The accelerated moral progress that began with the Enlightenment is foundering badly, and it must be rapidly rekindled if the planet is to be saved.
Before we can outline an effective strategy for addressing global warming, we need an explicit statement of what the outcomes should be; a statement which says more than simply 'saving the planet'. We also need a clear definition of a social morality which is up to the challenge. Most importantly, we need to understand the content and source of the values which shape that morality, and we further need to understand how those values inform and direct individual behaviour and collective social action through political and economic structures.
So how are we to know what is needed to save the planet? We must look to science, but science is a slowly evolving tool. If it is to help us better understand reality, it will need proper investment, and it will need to be applied towards providing essential intelligence in the battle to save the planet. It is through science that we know of the reality of global warming, and of our contribution to the factors which cause it. Science can tell us the extent to which we need to cut emissions of greenhouse gases and other harmful pollutants which accelerate the process of global warming. Accurate science will also be vital in monitoring progress. It is a learning process: we will need scientific reassurance that our efforts are delivering the required outcome in terms of reducing the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and that this is having the desired effect of temperatures. If it is not, science will have to set us new targets, or identify new strategies for reducing global temperatures. A self-aware, intelligent species like our own has never - to the best of our knowledge - tried to save a planet from the effects of its own excesses. The process will require constant evaluation and recalibration.
Science also helps predict the consequences if global warming were to continue unchecked. The principal effect is the destruction of previously viable human habitats. The process by which such habitats are lost is also responsible for the massive increase in the extinction rates of other species over the last century, so by taking steps to protect habitats which support human life we also address the problem of shrinking biodiversity. We must reverse global warming as much as is necessary to prevent the continued destruction of such habitats; again science can help us determine what steps are required to attain this goal. In a nutshell, the outcome of our strategy to combat global warming should be to prevent the further destruction of viable human habitats. If we succeed in this we will at least provide future generations with a planet capable of sustaining human life in large numbers, and all life in considerable diversity.
A social morality is a set of principles which govern relations between individual human beings as well as those between different groups; but unlike human-made laws, which force a degree of social cohesion through the threat of punishment or ostracisation, a social morality draws on no such sanctions. Its efficacy relies entirely on the capacity of people to recognise its validity, to live according to its principles and to work towards its acceptance among the wider population. We need a clearly defined and understandable social morality because of shortcomings in our systems of democracy, law-making and international relations which make it is impossible to legislate solutions to problems like global warming or poverty and inequality. Nobody can be forced to adopt a particular social morality; that process has to be voluntary. It is possible to imagine an ultimate social morality which, if adopted by all, or nearly all people, would deliver outcomes which served the best interests of the entire global population. But such a social morality would only be useful if large numbers of people adopt it because they want to, because they perceive it to be in their best interests, and because they have come to identify their interests with the best interests of all human beings.
The only social morality adequate to the task of combating global warming is that which is sometimes referred to by philosophers as 'universalism'. Universalism argues that the interests of all human beings are equal and therefore should be treated equally. It also implies that the social structures by which we live: cultural, political, economic and judicial should acknowledge and encourage the equal treatment of the interests of all people. Our present social structures clearly do not reject this core value, and this is why, despite the individual desires of many people for a more just and inclusive world, millions suffer social exclusion, poverty and hardship, while the rest of us devour, ever more rapidly, the planets resources to the point of exhausting it of the capacity to support life.
The complete failure of prevailing social structures to deliver an 'equality of interests' society strongly suggests that this universalist social morality is currently understood and applied by too few people. It also raises questions about the relationship between the adoption of such a morality at a personal level by large numbers of people, and bring about change to the social structures which currently constrain the moral ambition of so many.
A society based on equality of interests is also the only kind of society in which the enduring problems of poverty and growing inequality can be addressed. While it may appear possible to counter tackle global warming without addressing poverty, the moral ambition necessary to counter either is derived from the same values - the same determination to build and just and inclusive world. It is impossible to combat global warming without as part of the same process finding a permanent solution to poverty and inequality. If we do not care sufficiently and in sufficient numbers about our fellow human beings to bring an end to poverty, where will we ever find the moral and political will to take steps to improve conditions of human beings as yet unborn? Only if we are more ambitious for the present are we likely to care sufficiently about the future to make the necessary changes in individual behaviour and to social and economic structures.
Our universalist social morality needs further work if its going to help us combat global warming: the principle of equality of interests needs to be extended in scope to include future inhabitants of the planet. We cannot avoid the fact that at some point in the future our planet will cease to make a viable home for humankind, not as a consequence of our own avoidable neglect, but because cosmological forces beyond our control will inevitably come into play. Nonetheless, there is no reason why we should not set our sights high and aim, for example, to put in place measures to assure the life-sustaining capacity of the planet for another ten thousand years - the same period as has passed since human culture began to flourish in the aftermath of last ice-age.
If the interests of all human beings - present and future - are to be treated equally, then we can make a number of statements which must be true. These statements describe the component values which go to make up our social morality. They are derived from what we known to be the crucial ingredients for any human being to live a happy, healthy and fulfilled life.
First and foremost is the belief that every human life needs to be economic viably. Each person needs to be able to find the economic opportunities necessary to obtain adequate food, clothing and housing, for without these life is impossible. As infants and children we require those life-sustaining essentials to be provided for us by parents or other adults. We also need to be provided with a degree of security from physical danger, be they attacks from wild animals, or the consequences of wandering across a busy road unaccompanied by a responsible carer. All of us require access to adequate health care, and the evidence of our recent history suggests that access to education of a certain standard is key to a fulfilled life. Time for leisure and relaxation is also important, as are opportunities to explore our apparently innate desire for creative expression, along with the chance to be involved in collective activities. Freedom of thought and expression are crucial as is the capacity to organise politically. Finally, the freedom and opportunity to practice and follow any spiritual or religious belief. This list is not exhaustive, but it covers the all that is most important in living a full and fulfilled life. If we are serious about treating all people's interests equally, then integral to our belief system must be an acknowledgement that everyone has an equal right to each of these things. These are the things we value most, so these are the values which we are prepared to defend and promote in respect of all human beings, now and far into the future. Of course, if these values are truly universal, it means that no individual or group can take action in pursuit of any of these ends for themselves in any way which denies access to the same for others.
Clearly, a world which has become so polluted and ravaged by the effects of global warming is not going to provide either an ecological or economic platform in which these opportunities will remain available to any but a small minority of human beings. This might seem obvious, but it does no harm to remind ourselves precisely what we are fighting for as we struggle to find an effective strategy to reverse global warming.
We have a social morality, we know the essential values that shape it, but on its own, this understanding is not enough bring about the required change. Next we need to consider the source of those values, and the means by which they can help inform and direct individual behaviour and promote the necessary changes to social and economic structures.
Philosophers have argued about the source and merit of human values for several thousand years. In the early days of human civilisation, it was generally accepted that the values which encourage equality, justice and coooperation must be derived from some non-human source. As much early individual and collective behaviour seemed to demonstrate a complete absence of such values, a minority of learned and enlightened souls concluded that the only chance of persuading the masses to show more concern for their neighbours was to suggest that a higher power - - one endowed with ultimate power and authority and not afraid to use it - required us to take some account of the interests of others. To love thy neighbour as thyself. The invocation of gods, and ultimately a single God, as the source of moral authority and values clearly played a major role in 'civilising' human culture, although more recent evidence suggests the 'God' strategy to be rather limited in its capacity for progressive social change.
Certain thinkers among the ancient Greeks were less persuaded by the arguments for an external source of moral values, and set about constructing a secular basis for ethics: a way of understanding how human beings came to articulate their understanding of right and wrong which allowed for the possibility of moral values not being derived from an extra-human source at all, but instead being constructed by humans individually, or as a consequence of social interaction and cultural advance. This began a debate which has been the staple diet of moral philosophers ever since. Since the Enlightenment, rationality or human reason has begun to win out in the argument over the source of moral values, but while the debate has remained illuminating and ever fresh, it has remained frustratingly limited.
So much attention has been paid to determining the source of moral value, that it goes seems to go unnoticed that the considerable improvement in the moral awareness and understanding of many people, seems to have little impact on reality. The argument between those who argue for a traditional religious or extra-human source of moral value, and those who argue for a secular or rational source ramble on as if there are only two alternatives. Little mention is made of the role of individual human emotions and feelings or the role of empathy in shaping values. And there is certainly no place for a third source of moral value, a source that many people would call spiritual. In the industrialised world, where highly educated population is no longer convinced by argument for a religious source of moral value, and is all to aware of what happens to society when rationality becomes the principal driving force for change, the effect has been to alienate many millions of people from the processes by which social decisions are made.
If polled, a large and growing proportion of the population would state that neither religion or rationalism adequately explain the phenomenon of moral value on human culture or the individual psyche. They might not be able to tell you with intellectual conviction what that source is, but their many and varied prescriptions would, I believe, fit loosely under the umbrella of what has come to be known as spiritualism. Growing numbers of people are motivated by what they perceive to be a spiritual force, the source of which is not identifiable in rational of scientific terms, but which enables them, instinctively or intuitively, not only to make decisions about right or wrong, but also to make judgements about the moral rectitude of statements about what it will take to transform the world into a just and equitable home for all human beings, and to preserve it as such for the next several millennia.
There is also frustratingly little debate about the process by which values shape and drive the process of change in society and culture, and none at all, as far as I have been able to discover, about the relative merits of differently sourced values in respect their efficacy in bringing about change. This is an important question. Many of the values outlined above are held by many people, and each can be derived religiously, rationally or spiritually. It is possible that the key to promoting the kind of change necessary to combat global warming is sufficient numbers of people holding the right values, regardless of people's perception of the source of those values. But what if the perceived source does make a difference?
It is not easy measure moral progress within a society, and even harder to compare the moral progress of one epoch with that of another. Huge advances in moral awareness occurred during the 19th century in the wake of the Enlightenment, yet the twentieth century gave us the two most devastating wars in history as well as the holocaust. There certainly seems to be a trend for increased moral aspiration over time: as society advances, more people seems to believe in the possibility of a better world, but there seems to be no correlation between this increased ambition and reality. This observation finds its most worrying example in the case of global warming.
So what is the link between values and change? And are spiritually sourced values more or less likely to bring about change that religiously or rationally sourced values? Surely it is time that spiritual values were given a chance. The track records of religiously sourced values up to the Enlightenment and of rationally sourced values since, are both very poor. Neither seem up to the task of reversing global warming, not least because of the global nature of the problem and the need for action now. Organised religion once provided the means by which a privileged minority were able to maintain power and keep society reasonably stable. Today religion serves a quite different purpose, providing a collective voice for the huge swathe of humankind which with some justification perceives itself to be to be economically excluded, exploited or oppressed. This is progress of a sort, but it is unlikely to help combat global warming.
Rationality alone is not sufficient a force for the rapid and transformational change required because it does not appeal to instinct, emotion or empathy. It is too cerebral to trigger conscience in the individual. Moral philosophy still has depressingly little to say about social conscience, the means by which the scope of moral concern in individuals is extending to include all human beings.
There is only one vehicle through which the values held by individuals can be translated into social change: our system of democratic politics. The current failure of democracy failing to provide solutions to the problems of poverty and global warming does not mean that democracy itself is at fault, only that our democracy has been corrupted by the defenders of minority wealth and privilege in pursuit of quite different goals. If spiritually sourced values offer the only hope of saving our planet and civilisation from the ravages of environmental breakdown, we need to understand why spiritualism is failing to influence the democratic process. It fails on two levels. First it fails to appeal to sufficient numbers of people, and second, among those for whom it has become central to their belief system and world view, too few are sufficiently involved in the democratic process to make a difference.
Both failings will be difficult to remedy, but we have no choice given the urgency of the situation. How are we to get more people to identify with and adopt spiritualism in their lives? Given the importance of spiritually sourced values, spiritualism becomes not just a lifestyle choice, but the key factor in the survival of our planet. What distinguishes spiritualism from other belief systems or ideologies is that it has no fixed creed, it requires the practice of no particular forms of prayer, contemplation or meditation; it requires the following of no particular god, guru or leader. It is a way of life which is usually embraced by individuals voluntarily, rarely as a consequence of prosletysation or of social or peer pressure. This suggests that spiritualism offers more hope than traditional religion based belief systems and more recent secular-driven political ideologies, although it does present problem in respect of the need to get many millions of people to take up spiritual values quickly enough to address the immediate crisis.
This is not the place to debate the meaning or content of a spiritual life. There are almost as many descriptions of what it is to lead a spiritual life as there are advocates of spiritualism. What we do know, many of us having experienced a non-spiritual lifestyle before embracing spiritualism, is that given the choice, we would never return to a non-spiritual form of existence. Perhaps the essence of the spiritual existence is the sense of oneness with nature and all of life that the sense of spirit embodies. This sense provides so powerful a feeling that it is hardly surprising that spiritualism has for so long concerned itself with questions of the survival the planet and our species. It is a sense which makes those of use fortunate enough to experience it uniquely aware of how lucky we are and how wonderful it is to be alive. What must motivate us now is the determination to make that experience available to all of humankind in perpetuity,
But if the rest of humankind is to benefit from the insights and understanding of those of us who consider ourselves spiritually guided, then some form of political organisation is necessary. The principal criticism of those who pursue a spiritual lifestyle is that we tend to be isolationist. We gather ourselves into groups of like-minded individuals. It is very rewarding and quite natural to enjoy the company of people who feel as we do, but it will not help to save the world as long as our numbers remain so small. The only way to do that is to generate a platform for the promotion of our often misunderstood spiritual values through democratic politics.
Politics is seen by many as a complete turn-off; not only is it dull, it seems unable to address many of the problems which most people would like to see resolved. It is ignored and avoided because people are increasingly unable to relate what goes for politics to the reality of their daily lives. One of the reasons people detest politics is because it is deeply aspiritual, and this deters everybody, because politics does not even try to appeal to the spiritual side of people's lives, even those yet to discover their spiritual side.
It seems unlikely that any of the established political parties could provide a platform for a new spiritual politics. Even the Green Party is struggling under the burden of involvement in a largely unchanged political landscape. It has had some notable successes, but seems little closer to power, or to persuading the longer established parties to adopt policies which will give us a serious chance of saving the planet.
A new political party is required as a vehicle for people who care passionately about their fellow humans and about the fate of the planet. A party which will be founded and shaped by spiritual values and spiritual people. It will be a party which will be open to anyone who shares those values, passions and concerns, and its mission will be to use the mechanisms of democracy to encourage greater understanding and adoption of spiritual values and to bring about the changes in individual behaviour and social and economic structures to save the planet.
Without spiritual values there is simply no hope of effectively addressing the current crisis of values or the threat to our planet. But the spiritually inclined and motivated will have to get their hands dirty - we will have to engage with the rest of humankind in ways which will at times be uncomfortable and will often cause us to doubt our resolve. If the human spirit is to survive, then the planet must remain a viable home for current and future generations, and this demands a new spiritually guided politics, one which must challenge ignorance and inaction, and bring about conditions in which the power of spiritualism, rather than the dry and emotionless ethic of secularism becomes the driving force for progressive social change.