The human quest for love, power, beauty, happiness, understanding, truth, and the like can be thought of from an ecological perspective: it is enabled by (low entropy) sources of plentiful energy (food, cooking and heating fuel, drought animals, hydro-electric power, fossil fuels, etc.) along with places to put the inevitable (high entropy) waste. As consumption and human numbers have risen, we have ushered in a new era—the Anthropocene—in which we are altering the biogeochemistry of the planet itself, destabilizing climate and influencing co-evolution at the planetary level. The Anthropocene, itself likely a period of transition, appears to be a regrettable exit from the relatively placid past ten thousand years—the Holocene—a period of climate stability in which “civilization” arose.
Thus we enter the stormy present without an adequate ethical guidance system. In a word, we are lost. The now globally dominant Western culture remains entangled in a project it does not clearly see: the quest to emancipate ourselves from nature; and to assert our superiority over those less blessed—as we Westerners see it—than ourselves. The emancipation project reaches back to the beginnings of agriculture itself and has deep roots in both Biblical and Greek sources—a journey that went further off course in the European Enlightenment.
Yet help is on the way. The explicit and implicit agendas of ecological economics open our minds to questions about the human/nature relationship that may help us find a path through the thicket. These agendas force us to question arrogant assumptions that are deep in Western culture with regard to our sense of separation from and superiority over other cultures and nature. The insights from ecology and many other sciences in the last 150 years open the door to a new underlying narrative that provides a foundation for an ethic that is critically needed. This is an ethic grounded on three premises about the human place and role on Earth:
- as members, not masters of, life’s commonwealth,
- as custodians of Earth’s household, and
- as those entrusted with duties to preserve and enhance the low entropy sources on which a flourishing Earth depends.
This in turn provides a tripartite structure built around scale, distribution, and efficiency which provide foci for these postulates. Fresh consideration of the idea of efficiency helps to underpin an account of the virtues that are necessary if we are to achieve a civilization worthy of the name. An ethos—an over-arching understanding of our relationship with life and the world—comes into view. Ethics and ethos alike reground our understanding of how we ought to assess and redirect the global economy and finance; and indeed civilization itself, as we enter the stormy Anthropocene.