Little Words Matter

care

I followed a link to an article from the Sri Lanka Sunday Times entitled, “Consuming with care: The why and how.” Since care is central to my strategy for flourishing, I dug into the article. The author is commenting on the World Environment Day (just held on June 5th) theme this year: “Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.” Sounds good but these seemingly powerful words lost something when I read the short description of the theme:

The WED theme this year is therefore “Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.” Living within planetary boundaries is the most promising strategy for ensuring a healthy future. Human prosperity need not cost the earth. Living sustainably is about doing more and better with less. It is about knowing that rising rates of natural resource use and the environmental impacts that occur are not a necessary by-product of economic growth.

The message turn out to be little more that a plea for eco-efficiency. “Living sustainably is about doing more and better with less,” is not about caring; it’s about reducing the human impact on the Earth. Full stop! This strategy deals only with the symptoms of our malaise, that is, unsustainability. As I have often written, “Reducing unsustainability is not the same as creating sustainability (-as-flourishing). It is both true and compelling that we lessen our footprint, but that will not bring us flourishing or any other norm that we would want to sustain. Sustainability in the sense of the article pertains to the maintenance of growth, but in a way that preserves the life-support capacity of the Earth. This statement is all and only about growth as both end and means. That is a terrible combination. The proper end must be something like flourishing or another word to describe the fullness of being. Growth will not get us there; so far it has moved us further and further away, even as we have gotten richer overall.

A simple and seemingly minor shift in the theme might do much better. If the theme read, “Consume for Care” or “Consume to Care,” the intentional role of the actor as a caring being would become clear. “Care” as it appears in the theme relates to paying attention to the planetary boundaries. A good idea, but not caring in the sense of acting to support the well-being of the other. This kind of caring is close to loving the other. Accepting the existence of the other on their terms and acting from an understanding of those terms. Love and care of this sort have become replaced by affective notions, that is, about feelings in place of actions. Words like care and love, like other verbal forms arose out of observations of distinctive actions that needed labels so that humans could talk about or reproduce them by calling up the names. It was only later that they became reified and took on thing-like characters, identified by their form as nouns.

That’s the problem with the theme above. Care appears as a thing, a way of being, but not “being” directing. To regain or create a flourishing world, we must truly care for it, that is, take care of it. That kind of care requires that we understand our interconnections with the Earth and our place within the planetary system. Worrying about its boundaries is an abstraction that is hollow and lifeless. There is no love or care there. We lose sight of the real world so long as we follow some sort of gauge. We cannot measure flourishing; we can recognize it only by observing it directly. The act of care carries a sense of responsibility that is fundamental to it. Such responsibility is only partially or indirectly there when one recycles or does some other eco-efficient act. Worse, it produces a false sense of true caring, by interposing some intermediate end in the way.

At the risk of going into the clouds, the care I talk about is fundamental to being human; it is ontological, that is it is central to out distinctiveness as beings in the world. No other being, animate or not, cares. (At least we think that is the case, but we cannot be sure, as we do not understand the language of other beings.). Such care is intentional and ethical because we act out of a sense of doing something good for the other. Another word that come close is loving-kindness, a word I remember from my Jewish upbringing. It too has lost its active sense. Merriam-Webster defines it as “tender and benevolent affection,” turning it into a feeling. I cannot think of a simple, everyday adjective to make it’s meaning clear. Loving care come close as it connoted the sense of acceptance and understanding of the other’s needs.

Instead, I turn to the prepositions that are used to place care in context. Act for care, act out of care, act to care are close; none are perfect. All do a better job of adding some context of intentionality or responsibility. “To” is probably best as the preposition “to” serves to introduce action as well as direction. So, I will go with “to.” To consume is merely a form of action. So next year, perhaps the World Environment Day organizers will change the slogan to “Consume to Care.” Such acts have dual results. The other gets taken care and you feel better. When all of us have done enough caring of this kind, we will not only feel better, we will recognize that we are flourishing, living to the fullest extent of our potential.

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