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Indra's Net and the Midas Touch

Indra's Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World

Leslie Paul Thiele
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Indra's Net and the Midas Touch
    Book Description:

    We live today in a global web of interdependence, connected technologically, economically, politically, and socially. As a result of these expanding and deepening interdependencies, it has become impossible fully to control -- or foretell -- the effects of our actions. The world is rife with unintended consequences. The first law of human ecology -- which declares that we can never do merely one thing -- is a truth we ignore at our peril. In Indra's Net and the Midas Touch, Leslie Paul Thiele explores the impact of interdependence and unintended consequences on our pursuit of sustainability. Unfortunately, good intentions provide no antidote to the law of unintended consequences, and proffered cures often prove worse than the disease. Biofuels developed for the purpose of reducing carbon emissions, for example, have had the unintended effect of cutting off food supplies to the needy and destroying rain forests. We must fundamentally transform our patterns of thinking and behavior. Thiele offers the intellectual and moral foundations for this transformation, drawing from ecology, ethics, technology, economics, politics, psychology, physics, and metaphysics. Awareness of our interconnectedness, he writes, stimulates creativity and community; it is a profound responsibility and a blessing beyond measure.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29885-8
    Subjects: Political Science, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: The Fabric of Life
    (pp. 1-20)

    Consider the unnerving features of contemporary life: global climate change, massive species extinctions, acute shortages of freshwater and other natural resources, growing food insecurity, impoverishment and economic devastation, increasing disparities between rich and poor, political instability and alienation, rising numbers of failed states, the juggernaut of genetically modified environments and unprecedented technological transformations. Nearly 7 billion human beings are trying to make ends meet on a finite planet, and these numbers will grow substantially before they begin to decline. An increasing portion of this population is committed to the individual and collective pursuit of endless and accelerating economic growth and...

  6. 1 Ecology
    (pp. 21-56)

    Our actions not only have effects; they also have side effects, which are generally unanticipated, unpredictable, and all too often pernicious. In 1963, an ecologist and microbiologist from the University of California in Santa Barbara coined a phrase to capture this unforgiving phenomenon: “We can never do merely one thing.”¹ Its author, Garrett Hardin, believed his words to be “splendidly original.” More research would have him acknowledge that the insight, dubbed the first law of human ecology, could be found within the wisdom traditions of numerous cultures.² Pithy aphorisms from sages well convey the insight. Illustrative examples are also to...

  7. 2 Ethics
    (pp. 57-92)

    Ethics concerns relationships of reciprocation, obligation, and caring within communities. It is generated in response to the affective bonds we have to others and our reasoned understanding of the requirements of social order, justice, and wellbeing. Humans are not the only creatures on this earth that develop norms and values; communal mammals such as great apes, for instance, appear to value, promote, and enforce reciprocity. However, our species has most fully developed its ethical habitat—to the degree that it affects most, if not all, of our cultural practices.

    Ethics is a field of study and a facet of life...

  8. 3 Technology
    (pp. 93-130)

    In Greek mythology, a titan named Prometheus was given the job of distributing to all the beasts of creation their unique capacities. For reasons unclear, Prometheus allowed his absent-minded brother Epimetheus to carry out the task. Epimetheus took on his new charge with gusto. He gave the lion its powerful jaws and claws, the bear its brawn, the birds their feathered wings, and the snake its venom. At the end of a very long day, Epimetheus was greatly satisfied with his work—until he realized that he had left one species, humankind, empty-handed. On learning of his forgetful brother’s blunder,...

  9. 4 Economics
    (pp. 131-168)

    Dr. Seuss taught me my first lesson in economics. His fanciful tale,The Lorax,published in 1971, the year after the first Earth Day, had a lasting impact. The enterprise of the ambitious Once-ler demonstrated that endless economic growth, or “biggering,” leads to the destruction of environments and communities. When the Once-ler first arrives in the land of Grickle-grass, the sight of swaying Truffula trees starts the wheels spinning. Soon the softer-than-silk Truffula tufts are being knit into thneeds. No one needed a thneed before the Once-ler started making them. But supply fed demand, and soon the brightly colored Truffula...

  10. 5 Politics
    (pp. 169-204)

    Sophocles’sOedipus Tyrannustells the famous tale of a king pledged to rid his kingdom of pollution. But King Oedipus is no environmentalist. The pollution in question is a person, the suspected source of a plague that wracks the city of Thebes. Years earlier, the former king of Thebes was murdered, and the culprit was never caught. This murderer at large constitutes a form of religious pollution that must be extinguished for Thebes to regain its health and stature. In his ruthless pursuit of the culprit, Oedipus learns the most terrible truth imaginable.

    The myth that inspired Sophocles’s classic tale...

  11. 6 Psychology
    (pp. 205-240)

    This chapter explores the nature of the mind. Its basic thesis is that an individual’s participation in and sense of belonging to the web of life is best grounded in her appreciation of the interdependent parts of the mind—that inneroikossometimes called the soul, psyche, or, simply, the self. In chapter 5, we saw that freedom is experienced in the realm of politics through the responses that action provokes within a web of interdependence. Likewise, we experience freedom of the mind or soul through an inner, psychological interactivity.

    Though an internal dwelling place, the mind has a powerful...

  12. 7 Physics and Metaphysics
    (pp. 241-276)

    The earth, ancient peoples said, was a flat disc that supported itself in the ocean of space on the back of a giant elephant. The elephant, in turn, stood on the back of a giant tortoise. Asked what the giant tortoise stood on, one adherent of the archaic belief famously remarked: “Ah, yes, well after that, it’s turtles all the way down.”

    The previous chapters have demonstrated that key fields of inquiry and facets of life are defined by relationships of interdependence. Examine one thing in these realms of study and life, and you find it connected to something else,...

  13. 8 Conclusion
    (pp. 277-286)

    With hands that grasp, minds that plan, and hearts that crave, human beings have made claim to dominion of an entire planet while thrusting themselves into the galaxy. We might rightly wonder if there are any limits to our species’ ambitions and power. The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles had an answer to this question. The clever and ambitious Oedipus receives this counsel: “Do not seek to be master in every way.” The pursuit of sovereign power brings doom. Sophocles acknowledged that human beings are “clever beyond all dreams” and the most “wondrous” of creatures. Our “inventive craft,” however, wears away...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 287-316)
  15. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 317-322)
  16. Index
    (pp. 323-330)