Ethics has been a set of principles from which one can derive moral codes; codes for behavior. In the past, these ethical principles were stated in the great religions, great belief systems—were they organized, like in the West, or informal, like in the East. And you had, therefore, the Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christians, you had the ways of right livelihood of the Buddhists, and so on. Now, in our world, the power of religious doctrine to suggest moral codes that actually would influence people’s behavior has diminished, so that we need a new set of moral codes, therefore we need a new ethics. The new ethics cannot hang someplace in a free space. It has to be grounded in something. And I think where it is grounded is: it must be our new understanding—basically, based on the sciences. I’m a scientist and I believe that science gives us important insight into the nature of reality. Therefore, based on a new understanding of the human being, of the nature of life, and of the relationship between the various aspects of human life and other organic species—and, in fact, also of the physical environment that makes up this whole biosphere. This whole thing is basically (as we nowadays say) a Gaia system: a total system which is almost as if it were alive.
Now, the ethics that we derive from such an understanding is very, very different from the ethics they derive from an understanding of nature as dead, as inert, as something that is only there for our own benefit, that we can do with what we like. It’s also very different from an understanding of the world as infinite, as basically giving us all the resources we want and enabling us to put all the waste that we want into it. If we realize that we are part of a mother system which is like us, almost like a living system—an organic totality that has limits, but also has possibilities—then I think our ethics will be very different from the ethics of the recent past. And we need very badly, very urgently, to develop a new set of ethical principals so that we could have some basic fundamental codes for behavior. Not to make people uniform, but to create sufficient unity in the world so that we don’t kill each other, or that we don’t impoverish each other beyond the necessary limits.
We live on a small planet—and now we are so many; we are almost six billion people—that if we continue not thinking about the relationships between us humans and between humans and nature, we may very well deplete this planet and run into situations where only violence will erupt. So planetary consciousness is a consciousness in addition to one’s habitual consciousness; of the broader relationships that bind us together on this small but very vulnerable planet.
I think culture is absolutely fundamental as an architect of social change. We have been used—in the past century or so, in the West—to think that only technology (and perhaps indirectly, science) is an agent of social change. But, in fact, science and technology have created a changed world, but have not created a changed society. Einstein has said it very well, referring to the atomic bomb. He said the atomic bomb has changed everything in the world except our way of thinking. We can say that same thing again about all of our technologies—information technologies, energy technologies, automation, et cetera have changed everything around us, but they have not fundamentally affected our values, our thinking, our emotions. And therefore, we now find ourselves in a world that we no longer fully understand, we no longer know how to behave in it, how to control—even though “control” is an old-fashioned word—but how to manage it in a way that it doesn’t run away from us.
There is a very great danger that this world will change faster than we can cope and create inhuman conditions. Already today, perhaps one third of humanity is living in a state of poverty and unemployment or underemployment. And the problems of fresh water, of soil fertility, and of urban crowding, air quality, all of these are threatening perhaps two thirds or three fourths of mankind. Therefore it’s very important to learn to live in the world that we have created.