Responsibility and the Spirit

PRAGUE - A paradox of our era is that, though humanity knows well the dangers it faces -- in overpopulation, environmental exhaustion, nuclear proliferation, the pathologies of crime and social alienation -- it does almost nothing to confront or divert them. How preoccupied we are with catastrophic prognoses; how little we take them into account in our lives!

It would be unfair, of course, to deny the existence of numerous projects for averting this or that peril. However, all attempts of this kind have one thing in common: they do not touch the basic trends from which these threats arise, but merely regulate their impact. Typical examples of this are laws, ordinances, or international treaties stipulating how much toxic waste this or that plant may discharge into the environment. I am not criticizing such safeguards; quite the opposite: I am glad that actions like this are taken at all. I only claim that these are technical tricks that reduce some unfavourable impact but do not, in the end, effect or address the substance of the matter.

What is this substance? What indeed could change the tendencies of today's civilization? It is my deep conviction that the only option is for something to change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience, in the actual attitude of man towards the world and his understanding of himself and his place in the overall order of existence. Inventing new machines, new regulations, new institutions will not suffice. Whenever I encounter a deep civilizational problem anywhere in the world -- be it logging in rain forests, ethnic or religious intolerance, or the brutal destruction of a centuries-old cultural landscape -- somewhere at the end of the chain of causes I always find one and the same first cause: a lack of accountability to the world and responsibility for it.

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