How Should We Then Live?

First, I am not actually trying to tell anyone how they should live their lives. I think each of us should first decide how we think the world works and where we fit within it. Only then can we decide how best to live our lives. Since no one really knows for sure how the world works and where we humans fit within the whole of it, we each must decide for ourselves.


Many people seem to just live day to day, trying to enjoy life, with little thought to where they fit in the world or what they should do. They apparently don’t believe what they do, or don’t do, matters much to anyone other than themselves—and maybe a few friends and relatives. Others seem very mission-oriented and driven to excel in whatever ventures they choose to do. They believe if they work smart enough, hard enough, and long enough they can make their own place in the world and do whatever they want to do. Regardless of their lifestyles, most people in the U.S. today seem to accept making money and accumulating wealth as measures of personal and professional success.


Over the past several months, I have posted a series of blog pieces outlining one specific vision of the world that I believe is essential for long-run ecological, social, and economic sustainability. Others may disagree. First, I believe we humans, individually and collectively, have a specific place in the world and a specific purpose to fulfill. I believe also that we must fulfill our purpose in collaborative relationships with the other living and nonliving things of the earth. The worldview of sustainability defines specific ways we should live, if we are to do part to sustain life, including human life, on earth. My purpose in this post is to summarize the reasons for these conclusions outlined in my previous 15 posts: “The Essentials of Economic Sustainability.”


First, the worldview of sustainability sees the world as a complex living organism, rather than a complicated inanimate mechanism. We humans are a part of this living earth, rather than separate or apart from an inert earth. We are but one living species among many. The earth is not a boundless source of natural and human resources that we can extract and exploit endlessly. The earth’s resources instead are finite and limited—but are enough to sustain a desirable quality of human life on earth if they are used wisely.


Everything that is of any use to us, including everything of economic value, ultimately comes from the earth—energy, air, water, soil, minerals, plants, animals, and other micro- and macro-organisms. Beyond meeting our needs directly from nature, beyond self-sufficiency, we must meet our needs through social and economic relationships with other people—within families, friendships, communities, societies, and economies. Economies are simply means of meeting our needs through impersonal transactions rather than through personal relationships.


All the living things on earth are living systems—living organs, organisms, or organizations—made up of smaller living systems. The earth is a subsystem of the universe and humans are a subsystem of the earth. Humanity is made up of societies, communities, families, and individuals. Individuals are made up of organs, macro-organisms, and microorganisms. Everything within and among these living systems is interconnected with everything else. The whole of life on earth is interconnected and interdependent. Some of these connections are weak and insignificant but others are strong and critical.


The purpose of each component of a living system is derived from the purpose of the larger systems of which it is a part. The purpose of the organs of the human body—the heart, lungs, stomach, kidneys—is to maintain the health and life of the body as a whole. The purpose of the individual is to help maintain the health and life of the families, communities, and societies of which he or she is a part. The purpose of the earth is derived from the purpose of the universe and the universe from whatever is beyond. The ability or potential of each person, community, and society to fulfill its purpose is dependent on the support it receives from the organs, organisms, and organizations of which it is composed.


Economies, societies, and cultures are organizations created by people to help them fulfill their purpose—individually and collectively. Humans, like other species, are inherently social beings. People create societies not only for mutual protection but also to meet specific needs that they cannot meet by themselves. People also need to care and be cared for and to love and be loved—regardless of whether they receive any tangible or material benefits in return. As suggested previously, societies create economies to meet needs that can be met through market transactions, rather than having to rely on personal relationships. Economies were never intended to provide a measure of inherent worth or serve as a proxy for purpose.


Over generations, societies develop ethical values that reflect how they collectively have concluded people should relate to each other and to the other living and nonliving things of the earth. Ethical values define what is considered right or wrong and good or bad in specific cultures. Individuals may or may not agree with the ethical values of the societies in which they live. Regardless, individual ethical and moral values reflect how people believe the world works and their place within it, and thus how they should live their lives. People may or may not be consciously aware of their individual worldviews.


However, if life on earth is to be sustainable, the ethical and moral values of individuals, societies, and ultimately humanity ultimately must conform to the basic laws of nature—including human nature. People must respect the physical laws of nature, such as the laws of gravity, motion, and thermodynamics. The natural laws or principles that guide sustainable natural ecosystems include diversity, individuality, and interdependence. The principles of healthy societies are laws of human nature, including trust, kindness, and commitment. The basic principles of economics, including scarcity, efficiency, and sovereignty reflect the nature of people as independent, self-interested individuals. We are not forced by nature to respect these principles, but neither we nor humanity cannot avoid the ultimate consequences of our failure to do so.


Perhaps the most important principles for sustainable living are faith, hope, and love. We can’t prove that there is a purpose for life on earth, including human life. We must accept it by faith. We also must accept by faith that life on earth, including human life, is meant to be good. Otherwise, there would be no logical reason for concern about sustaining life. Love is a belief in the inherent goodness of the object of affection. To love life is to act on the belief that life on earth is inherently good, including human life. Hope is a belief that something good is possible—that it is possible to realize the potential goodness of life on earth. How should we then live? We should then live in ways that reflect our love for ourselves, for others, for society, humanity, the earth, the universe, and beyond. In faith and love, there is always hope.


John Ikerd