Purchase What We Leave Behind
Read more

Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

World Better Because You Were Born? (p. 192)

From chapter "Legacy"

Would the world be better off had you never been born?

I don’t mean the culture. I mean the world. The real, physical world. Would it be more resilient, stronger, more diverse?

Is the world better off because you were born?

I don’t mean the culture. I mean the world. The real, physical world. Would it be more resilient, stronger, more diverse?

I cannot think of a deeper, more solid—more real—foundation for any morality than this question, put both ways. What is more real than the real world? What is deeper, more solid—more real—than life on earth?

For a morality to be conscionable, forgivable, livable, necessary, it must be based on the health of the world, because without a healthy world no one has any morality whatsoever, because there is no life whatsoever. In all physical truth.

In Endgame I described clean water—and more broadly the fact that I am an animal, and that without clean water, clean air, livable habitat, I will die—as the basis for a livable morality. I wrote: “If the foundation for my morality consists not of commandments from a God whose home is not primarily of this Earth and whose adherents have committed uncountable atrocities, nor of laws created by those in political power to serve those in political power, nor even the perceived wisdom—the common law—of a culture that has led us to ecological apocalypse, but if instead the foundation consists of the knowledge that I am an animal who requires habitat—including but not limited to clean water, clean air, non-toxic food—what does my consequent morality suggest about the rightness or wrongness of, say, pesticide production? If I understand that as human animals we require healthy landbases for not only physical but emotional health, how will I perceive the morality of mass extinction? How does the understanding that humans and salmon thrived here together in Tu’nes [the Tolowa name for where I live] for at least 12,000 years affect my perception of the morality of the existence of dams, deforestation, or anything else that destroys this long-term symbiosis by destroying salmon?”

I liked that moral foundation at the time, but now I see it as only a partial foundationnecessary but grossly insufficient—because while it does indirectly express concern for one’s larger community (in that clean water can benefit not only that individual but others, including fish, amphibians, and so on), it is still fundamentally self-centered. It would be entirely possible for people to trash landbases, ruin rivers—ruin the planet—yet in the meantime maintain fantastically expensive water treatment factories that provide somewhat clean water to those humans who can pay for the services of water treatment (or bottled water) corporations. Of course this would only be workable in the short run—and even then only more or less workable, and even then only workable at all for those on whom the externalities are not forced—but in that short run those who own these fantastically expensive water treatment factories; those who operate them; those who consume their product; and those in the government who oversee (and in fact order, and pay for through taxpayer subsidies) the toxification and destruction of natural water supplies (also known as lakes, rivers, and aquifers) can feel as though they’re performing a moral act by providing somewhat clean water to the humans who can pay for that product at the expense of the larger community.

But these questions of whether you make the world stronger, more diverse, healthier—and these questions hold for any relationship: if your partner isn’t stronger, healthier, more resilient because of your relationship, that person would be better off without you (and conversely, if your partner doesn’t help you to be stronger, more resilient, healthier, then you should, in the immortal words of Little Charlie and the Nightcats, “Dump that Chump”; further, if your culture doesn’t make you (and the world) stronger, more diverse, healthier then get rid of it, too)—point the way past self-centeredness. These questions point us toward a morality that works for the common good. The real common good. In other words, they point us toward a real morality.

Would the world—the real physical world—be a better place had you never been born?

Is the world—the real, physical world—a better place because you were born?

Those really are the most important questions.

What are your answers?