Expanding Our Moral Universe

2012•03•30 Joy Merwin Monteiro Indian Institute of Science

The United Nations University International Human Dimensions Programme recently ran a writing contest with a focus on the human dimensions of the Green Economy. Young scholars from all over the world were invited to submit their articles, with those from developing countries particularly encouraged to take part. Our World 2.0 is pleased to share the winning entry by Joy Merwin Monteiro who is currently completing his Ph.D. at the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

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Energy is a fundamental necessity for life, let alone a vigorous society or civilization. This fact has been recognized by humans for a very long time — Sun, Wind, Fire and Water (in the form of rivers and waterfalls and rain), worshipped by most cultures, are manifestations of energy in one form or the other. The main difference between pre-industrial times and the present day is that we have restricted our worship only to Fire, neglecting the others almost entirely. Why this became the case, and as humanity again pays due attention to the other Gods again, what entities must again return into our moral equations, is what this essay tries to describe.

Sun, Wind and Water are, by nature, non-constant but rhythmic entities. The sun is up every day, but disappears during the night, winds change according to seasons, some rivers dry up in the summer and others flood during the rains and still nobody understands perfectly how the rains come and go.

Other important aspects of these sources of energy are that they are diffuse and not easy to store. Sunlight, wind and flowing water cannot be stored by themselves, but must be converted to some other form that can be stored. Such entities are normally called “fluxes”, and they are the most natural form in which energy is present around us. Even the purest form of energy that we know, electricity, is a flux and has to be converted to chemical energy in batteries before it can be stored.

The fact that these sources were hard to handle and diffuse (or not concentrated) was counterbalanced by the fact that they are, for all practical purposes, eternal. A European sailor planning to come to India to trade had to plan his visit to catch the monsoon winds, but he did not need to fear that these winds would stop some day. If today is cloudy, you can sun-dry your vegetables tomorrow. Pre-industrial society’s entire existence revolved around recognizing this variability and developing means to “harvest” this energy. Economic, social and cultural activity revolved around this ebb and flow of energy. Agriculture, wind/water mills were among the primary methods of harvesting this flux of energy, converting it into stocks of energy (in food grains) or using it immediately.

The main issue with these “gods”, as mentioned above, is that they are quite moody. Thus, those human activities that had to happen without break, everyday, like cooking for example, could not depend on them. It was Fire that came to our rescue.


© IHDP Secretariat/Louise Smith

Constant movement

Before moving onto the miracle of fire, it is necessary to analyse the moral universe of a person in a pre-industrial society. By necessity, a lot of objects in the world needed to be incorporated into her moral decision-making, the way she would decide something was “good” or “bad”. The rhythms of nature that manifest themselves in the movement of the sun, the seasons, flowering of plants, migration of animals, fruiting of trees were very important. Any activity that did not fit into this rhythm was not desirable. Restrictions on grazing, fishing, hunting, leaving land fallow, plucking flowers and fruits at certain times in the year are all indicators of the consciousness that humans depend to a very large extent on natural cycles over which they have no control. Therefore, any decision on the goodness or badness of any activity depended on the season, the time and the natural environment we found ourselves in. This was not due to altruism or an abstract love for nature, but due to sheer necessity.

Fire is unlike others in this pantheon. Rather than being energy in itself, it is a signature of a source of energy. Not only that, it indicates the presence of a highly concentrated source of energy. Sunlight in itself cannot become fire, but when concentrated through a lens or a mirror, it can become a very destructive fire as Archimedes discovered. Fire also yields easily to his worshippers, you can switch him on and off at will, once you have mastered the art. Therefore, it was but natural that those human activities that required constancy were built upon the foundation of fire. As long as there was fuel available, fire was there, regardless of time, region or season.

It is therefore not surprising that Prometheus, the one who gave fire to mankind in Greek mythology, is treated as a great champion of mankind. If gods are defined to be the masters of humanity, then fire, in giving us greater control over our own destiny, made us gods. The fundamental reason for this capacity of fire is that it depends on stocks of energy already stored and not the eternal fluxes that surround us at all times.[quote quote=”Not only was constancy attractive to the trader, but also to every section of humanity: constancy implied security and it increased the natural capacity of humans to build upon their ancestor’s work.” type=”text” ]

As humanity grew from being primarily agricultural to also indulging in trade and commerce, the prominence of fire grew very rapidly. The reason for this lies in the very nature of trade and commerce — it is the movement of things, people, ideas and cultures and all movement requires energy in one form or the other.

Controlling trade to some extent means controlling the energy that drives it. For this reason, initial trade (and, by implication, industry) was driven by animal and human (slave) power, firewood and sail boats. Mankind was making the move from harvesting energy to “mining” it from forests, animals and other, more unfortunate humans.

From the point of view of the enterprising businessman or trader, constant movement (of something or other) was required — movement implied trade and trade implied profit. Not only was constancy attractive to the trader, but also to every section of humanity: constancy implied security and it increased the natural capacity of humans to build upon their ancestor’s work. In this sense, it is a hallmark of civilization itself. This demand for constancy was at odds with what we had to work with — seasonal winds, disobedient labourers, lazy slaves and rapidly depleting forests that simply did not grow back as fast as we wanted.

It is from this point of view that the shift to coal (and later to oil) must be seen. It reduced the necessity to include the multitude of objects that previously entered our moral equations. Mankind could finally look inward and achieve magnificent progress without too many worries about what was happening in the non-human world. This was the era in which both the pessimists and the optimists, when discussing the future of the world, were simply discussing the future of the human species. Nature did not matter, for sooner or later we would completely conquer it anyway.

Fossil fuel-based transport, electricity to drive industries and homes, pesticides and fertilizers, which made agriculture less of a gamble, all combined together to provide the constancy we wanted and ensured a period of unparalleled prosperity and population growth. A mining civilization had more or less replaced the harvesting one. Fire was now our one and true God.

With fire came a profound shift in the way we worked and viewed the world. Farmers who could previously grow certain crops only at certain times of the year, could now grow them all around the year. People who previously aligned work and leisure with the sun and seasons now relied on casual leave, medical leave and government holidays. We began to work all year round, eat strawberries all year round and live in houses that were maintained at 27°C all year round. Corporations set up branches all over the world, so that the sun never set on their empires, forcing people to stay awake when they are supposed to sleep and vice-versa. Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, we had to keep running to stay in the same place. Constancy was showing us that it was not all great, after all.

The severe jolt

It is therefore not surprising that, gradually, what was “good” and “bad” was decided by taking ever fewer objects into consideration, the logical conclusion of which came to be enshrined in the Homo economicus. To be fair, a life driven by coal and oil does not provide one with the time to do otherwise. Nothing but a severe jolt to the sensibility of humans could shake them out of their breathless but optimistic race towards an ever-receding perfection.

One by one, every resource that humanity has mined over the past few hundred years has either withered away or stood up in revolt. The first signs came when the humans being mined for their energy and skill revolted under the banners of communism and socialism. The frenetic movement that characterises our era moved diseases, plants and animals to places where they were not known, not always with good results. Agriculture is currently under siege by stubborn insects that simply refuse to be eradicated, no matter what is thrown at them. The oceans are nearly empty of fish, and the sky full of gases that threaten to heat our planet beyond the capacities of our best air-conditioners. When you play with fire, it is unlikely you won’t get burnt.

Slowly but surely, and somewhat reluctantly, humanity is beginning to realize that an inward looking civilization simply cannot survive forever. Those unsightly trees and insects will always have to be part of our culture, no matter what we do. The first few steps towards this consciousness have been taken (somewhat ironically) by identifying the rhythms of the Sun, Wind, Water and Life itself. Scientists are mapping out what are the best places to harvest solar energy, what areas of the world have high wind energy potential, hydroelectric potential and what places have large biodiversity. Modifying crops to suit local circumstances, using biological control for pests, understanding the response of ecosystems to our activities are under way. In essence, what was known before, and conveniently forgotten, is being painfully relearnt in a more “scientific” manner. Our moral universe is slowly but surely being reclaimed from the wasteland to which it was condemned for the past few hundred years.

[quote quote=”The survival and prosperity of all life must be embodied within our notions of justice.” type=”text” ]

However, as we are making this shift, a very fundamental contradiction arises — our civilization, still predominantly a mining one, wants to be driven by technologies that belong to a harvesting civilization. We demand the constancy that we have been used to for many generations, and which we idolize as the epitome of civilization, but we hope this constancy will be driven by technologies that are moody, uncontrollable and unanswerable to anyone.

This contradiction is manifesting itself in many contemporary debates and concerns: Can organic farming feed the world as it is designed today? How can solar thermal plants run round the clock? How can we design an electricity grid that is smart enough to provide constant power supply when connected to solar and wind installations? How can we design newer batteries and fuel cells to shelter us against the vagaries of the Sun, Wind and Water? What are the “sustainable” pollution levels that our skies and oceans can tolerate?

That we can go back to a completely harvesting society is a pipe dream, similar to the nineteenth century dreams of infinite progress and complete social equality. But it is equally apparent that unless our moral decision-making does not encompass at least a larger part of our natural and social environments, we cannot achieve what we cherish and aspire toward. The energy industry has always sought to modify consumer behaviour through prices. However, given that the largest consumers are those that are also the most affluent, it is questionable how effective this strategy will be in the future. It is unlikely that a person living in a house with an A/C, goes to work in an office with an A/C and travels in a car with an A/C will even relate to the symptoms of global warming.

Moral decision-making must include a notion of duties towards other beings, human, non-human and even non-living. Some actions must be performed simply because we consider them to be our duty towards others. Our moral universe must not be one forged in Fire, but also kissed by the Sun and caressed by the Winds and Water. Most importantly, as these elements come together in the glorious phenomenon called Life, the survival and prosperity of all life must be embodied within our notions of justice. Our happiness and survival depend on an intricate web of causality that encompasses everything from simple molecules to the well-being of the vast oceans. May it never be thought of otherwise.

♦ ♦

This article was first published in the inaugural issue of Dimensions, a new publication from the UNU International Human Dimensions Programme.

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Expanding Our Moral Universe by Joy Merwin Monteiro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Joy Merwin Monteiro

Indian Institute of Science

Joy Merwin Monteiro has an undergraduate degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering, one Masters in Information Communication Technologies for Development and another in Climate Science. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. One of his pastimes is to try and understand the implications of the side-by-side interaction of ancient and modern civilizations on material, social, economic and philosophical planes.