Self-denial as a virtue


in Economics, Politics, Psychology, The environment

Perhaps a central virtue for the world of the future will be self-denial, and specifically channeling covetous feelings toward sustainable ends: not collecting 10,000 Barbie dolls or flying into low Earth orbit, but doing instead things that will enrich and distinguish you in the community without heavy ecological effects, like writing, making art, and theatre.

The importance of self-denial extends beyond avoiding the appetites which John Borrows described in “Seven Generations, Seven Teachings: Ending the Indian Act”: “Our windigo stories strongly teach the consequences of self-destructive cannibalistic consumption. Individuals and entire communities can be eaten up by those possessed by unrestrained appetites”

For instance, self-denial is central to data and network security: splitting up information into compartments, designing trust systems that don’t rely on the assumption that people will act well or that one person should have all the control, even choosing passwords too complex to remember yourself.

We may need to deny impulses of all sorts: the desire to travel, the desire to maintain close personal relations through in-person contact, the spendour and variety of what our erosive capitalist society provides. I considered “corrosive” to take advantage of the consonance, but “erosive” is really the right word: we have a global system of production and consumption that eats away at the material adjacent to it, breaking it apart and moving it like a riverbank getting eroded.

We need to learn to live so that erosive process comes into balance with what the planet can survive, and crucially do so through a global project of decarbonization with the necessary scope and ambition to keep warning anywhere near 2 ˚C above pre-industrial levels.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan May 10, 2019 at 7:14 pm

One of our chief opponents may come to be people who want the world to come to an end, either out of religious fervour or other desperation.

anon May 17, 2019 at 3:58 pm

As global conditions deteriorate, people may just feel more inclined to grab as much as they can for themselves before everything falls apart. YOLO!

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