Survival, at what cost?


Feb. 2021
Miriam Sager

The decisions about whom to vaccinate first remind me of a standard ethical dilemma that used to be thrown at us in my teens: you and a friend have enough water for just one of you to survive the desert hike. What do you do? It was a realistic example, as dehydration was a real, and deadly, danger. While medical ethicists wrestle routinely with seemingly impossible moral dilemmas, I do think that if we haven’t yet, we would all do well to turn our individual attention to the question of what we would do if there was a limited supply of essentials.

Those who are even reasonably well off may rarely encounter this question, except, perhaps, when there is just one parking spot left. If that last package of toilet paper was not really a matter of life or death, whence the desperation that can cause us to forget our humanness? Was it the long-forgotten scarcity of adult attention and patience for us as young ones, which occurs even in the most loving of families? The famines passed down through generations from long-gone times when humans had to figure out how survive? The wars, poverty and displacement that our ancestors may have experienced not so long ago? These, or the like, may have formed the underpinnings of the insatiable, irrational drive for security at any cost, in the form of more and bigger profits, land, belongings —even by those who already have more than anyone could possibly need. This trend is driving the human-caused mass extinction we are witnessing.   

Inequitable distribution of wealth and racism have made us oblivious to the lives sacrificed for our convenience: the dangerous child labour, the devastated forests with their dwellers, both human and wildlife,  the stolen lands. But what if the basic premise of that old dilemma is false? What if there is no inherent conflict among humans, if what seems essential is not so, if there is enough to go around of what we truly need—if only we do not destroy our world by grabbing more than our fair share?

Our species has evolved to perfectly suit this planet, and has been gifted with the intelligence and resilience to adapt to almost any environment, but challenges like surviving on sheer cliff sides and in the icy north have been met in community. It is our social group that makes us strong in the face of adversity. True safety and well-being lie not in wealth and guns, but in closeness with others. Those who have the least know that, and tend to be the most generous. Now more than ever, selfish hogging of resources is a myopic strategy: no one can survive alone on a dying planet. 

Our culture glorifies individuals who sacrifice themselves to save others, but success is still defined, by and large, in individualistic, competitive, materialistic terms. It is time we stepped away from this contradiction, and refused to participate in harmful worldviews and practices. It is certainly uncomfortable to question our every choice— be it purchases, vacations, how we get around or whom we vote for, and I cannot claim to have mustered the strength of character to always do what I know is right.  But even more important than our individual choices is what we all do as a world-wide community. For a sustainable future, we may find inspiration in the Indigenous Dish With One Spoon Wampum agreement:  “Take only what you need, leave some for everybody else, and keep it clean.”

Miriam Sager works at the Hamilton Sexual Assault Centre and facilitates sharing circles about climate change.