At last, global warming has hit the tabloid headlines. Up until now, any trace of ecolacy in the mainstream media has been rare indeed. Ecolacy, you may be asking – what’s that? We all know what mathematics is – it’s the study of numbers. People who understand numbers are numerate – the skill they share is called numeracy. Likewise, you are reading this, so you know something about letters. People who understand letters are literate – they possess the skill called literacy. Now, the study of the natural environment is ecology. People who understand the interdependencies that underpin the natural environment are ecolate: the skill they share is called ecolacy.
Like thermodynamics, ecolacy has two key laws:
- 1st Law of Ecolacy: “For every intended outcome there is at least one unintended outcome”.
This is also known as the law of unintended consequences, or Hardin’s Law, after the great pioneering ecologist Garrett Hardin. Another formulation is this: “The solution to a technical problem is always another problem”. Or, more simply still: “The problem is … solutions”. When evaluating the consequence of our actions, we must consider not only what we wanted to happen, but also all the things we didn’t want to happen – the unintended consequences. It requires that we think in terms of systems, not only components. Global warming is, of course, an unintended consequence of the burning of fossil fuels.
- 2nd Law of Ecolacy: “Morality is always relative”.
What is right and responsible in one set of conditions may be wrong and irresponsible in another. There is no dogma that can instruct us in moral behaviour under all circumstances. Burning fossil fuels may be acceptable with a population of six million, but it’s a disaster if six billion do it. To the ecolate mind, the planet Earth is finite, rather than infinite: it can best be likened to a lifeboat. The ethics of the lifeboat depend on its capacity, and on the number of people in it. A lifeboat with spare capacity is ethically very different from a lifeboat that has exceeded its capacity. Ecolacy requires that we view the world as dynamic, rather than static. What was wrong yesterday may be right tomorrow. There are no fixed stars in the ecolate moral universe.
Ecolacy requires us to be grown-up. It asks us to recognise the difference between what we want, and what is right – a distinction that today seems quaint and old-fashioned. Lacking an ecolate education, we have become used to doing things simply because we could. Technology has given us a fantastic range of things that can be done, but it doesn’t help us decide what should be done: for that we need to think ecolately. Our collective state of denial over global warming is only one of the consequences of our inecolate education.
Ecolacy is not unscientific, or anti-scientific: it arises from the synthesis of various branches of science. The modern world was constructed by the piecemeal application of various sciences and technologies: ecolacy combines these sciences and technologies into a coherent and consistent whole. In the coming world, our technical and moral choices will be judged by their outcomes, not by the intention behind them. If the atmosphere warms by four degrees centigrade in the next hundred years, as some climate scientists fear, our good intentions won’t defend us from the harsh judgement of posterity.
If you hadn’t heard of it, you may be rather surprised to hear that ecolacy is the essential skill of the future. It is the skill we will need to survive the second half of the hydrocarbon era. Numeracy and literacy brought us to the dawn of the 21st century, but it’s ecolacy that will bring us – or our descendants – to the end of it.