Ref. :  000034998
Date :  2012-03-23
Language :  English
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Maximization versus Optimization

There is an underlying ethic behind the producer/consumer culture, which is now in crisis due to the ecological state of planet Earth, whose limits we have exceeded by 30%. It now takes one and a half years to replenish what we extract in a year from the superabundant goods and services that the Earth had until recently. And it does not appear that the consumerist fury is slowing. To the contrary, the current system, trying to save itself, encourages ever greater consumption, that simultaneously requires ever greater production, which ends up stressing even more all the ecosystems and the planet as a whole.

The ethic presiding over this form of living is that of maximization of everything we do: maximizing the building of factories, of highways, of cars, fuel, computers, mobile telephones, maximizing entertainment programs, novels, courses, recycling, intellectual and scientific production. Production cannot stop, if it did, consumption and employment would collapse. In the end, it always is more of the same, with no awareness of nature’s limits of endurance.

Imitating Nietzsche we ask: how much maximization can the physical and spiritual human stomach tolerate? A point of saturation is reached, the direct effect of which is an existential vacuum. It can be seen that human happiness lies not in maximizing, in fattening bank accounts, or in the smount of goods in the basket of consumer goods. The fact is that the human being hungers for other things: for communication, solidarity, love, and transcendency, among others. These hungers, by their nature, are insatiable, because they can grow and diversify indefinitely. The secret of happiness is hidden in them. But in the words of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, quoting Saint Augustine: «we have had to build tortuous paths through which we have been forced to walk with a multitude of hardships and sufferings imposed on the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve».

Logically, we need certain amount of food to maintain life. But excessive, maximized, food causes obesity and disease. The rich countries have maximized the means of life and material infrastructure in such a way that they have destroyed their forests, (Europe only has now 0.1% of her original forests). They have destroyed their ecosystems and a great part of their bio-diversity, in addition to creating perverse inequalities between rich and poor.

We must seek a different ethic, the ethic of optimization. That ethic is founded on a systemic understanding of nature and of life. All living systems try to optimize the relationships that sustain life. Such a system seeks a dynamic equilibrium, making good use of all the ingredients of nature, without producing residues, optimizing quality and including all. In the human sphere, this optimization presupposes a sense of self-limitation, and the search for the just measure. A sober and decent material base makes it possible to develop some materials that are spiritual goods, such as solidarity with the more vulnerable, compassion, a love that undoes the mechanisms of aggression, overcomes prejudices and does not allow differences to be treated as inequalities.

Perhaps the present crisis of material capital, which is always limited, will teach us to start living from the human and spiritual capital, always unlimited and open to new expressions. It will enable us to have spiritual experiences, celebrating the mystery of existence, and gratitude for our place in the gathering of beings. With this we can maximize our latent potential, that which guards the secret of the much sought after plenitude.

Leonardo Boff, Theologian / Earthcharter Commission
Free translation from the Spanish sent by Melina Alfaro, done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.

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