Human values need revision

The Nation - Thursday, March 25, 2004

Human values must be revised as global consumerism strives to promote a culture of jealousy instead of peace, said Jakob von Uexkuell, founder of the alternative Nobel Prize. During a lecture yesterday at Chulalongkorn University, the Swedish philanthropist said that unless there were a rapid change in the way we treat others, our grandchildren and great grandchildren would look upon us as “outrageous criminals”.

“A global consumer power structure is taking over the world,” he said, adding that the chief goal of economic growth is to “take us prisoner”.

The Oxfordeducated Swede set up the Right Livelihood Award – better known as the alternative Nobel Prize – 20 years ago after selling his beloved stamp collection to honour those who have contributed to environmental preservation.

 He said people must decide what values our societies should prioritise, respect and protect.

One of the choices is citizen versus consumer values, he said.

“The word ‘service’ just isn’t there,” he added, referring to the privatisation of many public utilities.

 “It will be very difficult to undo these things without money, and to revamp what has been privatised.”

He said we must also choose between the value of reciprocity and solidarity to that of competition and profit, and spiritual to that of material growth.

Von Uexkuell, who is in Bangkok as part on an ongoing series of lectures organised by the International Peace Foundation and called “Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace”, said science was being dominated by money and power, resulting in genetic engineering based on “a very crude Darwinism”.

 “It’s bad science to treat a living system as a machine,” he said, adding that all technological inventions should also be placed in a moral and ethical context.

 Louis XIV once banished the inventor of a powerful gun and called his weapon an enemy to humanity, he said.

“Such an inventor would fair better today in many countries.”

Von Uexkuell also said the symptoms of abnormality in the current global consumer system could be observed when economists and politicians worry about increasing consumerism in China and reduced consumption in Japan. They also want to reduce the retirement age to lower youth unemployment, while at the same time raising it so that the young can afford to pay for their retirement pensions.

He warned that the global political system, which fosters greedy individualism, was destroying “caring capacity” at a rate that will not just threaten immigrants, but the very cohesion of our societies.

Greedy individual selfishness is celebrated as normal and commendable, “for it is what the market demands”.

It is said that the rule of “economic man” is based on incomplete understanding of human nature. But this is wrong, he said, because markets make good servants and bad masters. “The primary goal of any sustainable human endeavour, including business, is service and balance, not profit and growth,” said von Uexkuell.

Pravit Rojanaphruk

The Nation