Remember the theory I put forward about why the Roman model of civilization failed? While I have no intentions of playing the game “Pin the Tail on the Reason Rome Failed,” an undeniable reason was simply because the empire became unsustainable. The Romans couldn’t maintain the relentless conquest and expansion needed to feed the monstrous economic engine it had created. Sure, the lead pipes and barbarians also played a role, but, still, the simple truth is that Rome reached its technological limit during the reigns of the emperors Hadrian and Trajan and, resultantly, was unable to meet the challenges it faced in the latter part of its history.
In case it isn’t clear by now, I’m trying to draw an analogy between Rome and the Twenty-first century First World in this regard. There will come a point when civilization will reach some sort of limit that cannot be overcome. More likely than not, that limit will be environmental in nature. In other words, there simply won’t be enough resources to meet demand.
We see harbingers of that at present: the depletion of global fossil fuel supplies, the felling of the world’s oxygen-producing rain forests at a horrific rate, the acidification of the oceans due to the increased carbon in the atmosphere, and the list goes on. Human beings are being confronted daily by the fact that the Earth is not an infinite source of resources and raw materials; there are limits to how much we can exploit it to satiate our own greed. Whether of our own volition or if we eventually run up against the Earth’s own natural productive boundaries, that exploitation will end. For our sakes, we should probably do something about it now while we can still take measures to ensure the continuity of our prosperity.
I previously asked if continual growth was a good thing and left the answer ambiguous. It depends, I wrote, on the ultimate reason why men work and produce goods. I’d like to discuss that further now.
Manfred Max-Neef is a Chilean-born economist who teaches at UC-Berkeley. In an interview last fall with Amy Goodman on the independent news show Democracy Now!, he related a story that beautifully illustrates the issue I’m getting at.
He told of a group of Peace Corps workers in South America who come across a woman in a remote village. This woman has a machine that allows her to make two ponchos in week that she then sells to make a living and provide for her family. The Peace Corps workers tell her they could give her another machine that would allow her to make twenty ponchos a week and, therefore, more money. The woman gladly accepts the machine and the group leaves.
Several months later, the workers return to the village to seek out the woman and see how her life has changed with the new machine. What they find, however, isn’t quite what they expected. Upon asking the woman how many ponchos she now makes, she replies, “Two per week.”
The Peace Corps workers are incredulous and tell the woman she could be making much more. The woman replies to this by saying she doesn’t need to make more.
“But what good is the machine if you aren’t making more?” the flabbergasted Peace Corps workers ask.
“Well,” the woman answers, “I make two, but now I can make them much faster so I have more time to spend with my friends and children.”
Contained in this little parable is a picture of the great tragedy of our time. We’ve ironically come to value the tools more than the project, the road more than the destination, the labor more than its fruits.
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” said Jesus in Matthew 6:21. The woman’s treasure wasn’t in making more ponchos and increasing her socioeconomic status. Her treasure wasn’t in her work but in people.
Max-Neef went on to say after he told the story:
“In our environment, you know, you have to do more and more and more and more. No, there, instead of making more, they have more time to enjoy themselves, to have a nice relationship with friends, with family, etc. You see? Lovely values which we have lost.”
The fruit of our labor should be the means to live. The means themselves have virtually no intrinsic importance; they are the mere tools we use to enable us to live. Food, drink, shelter, they are all meaningless without people to share them with and if a quixotic quest to get more of these things has surpassed in importance the act of sharing them, then we’ve lost perspective. Indeed, we’ve ceased to live.