Doctrine of Limited Good
The oldest and most successful ethos in history has nearly vanished from the modern world.
In anthropology it is called the doctrine of limited good. The concept held there was only so much of the good life to go around and if one member of a group gets more than his fair share, there is less for everyone else in the group.
It is a simple idea based on sharing rather than competition, equal access to available resources and social egalitarianism. No one was considered "better" or more deserving than anyone else.
For 98% of human existence on earth the doctrine of limited good was the ruling ethos. During that time, people lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers and survived harsh conditions by cooperating with each other.
There were no police or over-arching authority to enforce the ethos. If one person refused to cooperate or tried to hoard, he was ridiculed by others. If he persisted, he was shunned and free to leave the group to go his own way. No one was compelled by force to conform.
The doctrine of limited good began to be replaced by a different ethos several thousand years ago when humans abandoned the nomadic lifestyle and built the first cities. Class structure was established in this ascending order: farmers, craftsmen, traders, military, religious leaders and royalty.
Today the doctrine of limited good is only practiced by a few peasant societies and by small religious groups like the Amish. The modern world is driven by the adversarial relationship of competition, class stratification, the rivalry of nations (including war) and the "carrot on a stick" delusion of unlimited economic growth for an unlimited population. We think more is always better and that it's possible for everyone to have the good life.
Modern technology is considered "progress," but it's not. It is just more consumption.
This is the newest experiment in human society and one that is doomed to fail because it is not sustainable in a world of limited resources and burgeoning population.
As the modern businessman seeks to gain an econonic advantage over his customers and hoard the good life for himself, advanced nations usurp the planet's resources to the disadvantage of other countries. The U.S., for example, has about 5% of the world's population but uses more than 30% of the world's natural resources. Push will come to shove after 3 billion Chinese and Indians attain a lifestyle similar to Americans and Europeans in the forseeable future.
Modern people live for today as the businessman thinks only of the next quarter's earnings. Most don't worry much about the world we will leave our children, much less our great-grandchildren and their offspring.
Inevitably, when resources become critically scarce for a population that has grown beyond the carrying capacity of the earth, people will be forced to return to the doctrine of limited good as the only viable ethos.
Africa has already become the first continent to exceed its human carrying capacity. That means if every arable acre of land was farmed in Africa using the most productive techniques, Africans would still not be able to grow enough food to feed the existing population.
The problem is that no nation or large group of people is willing to be the first to give up the modern lifestyle of unbridled consumption. This will come of necessity in brutal ways -- after resource wars and unprecedented famine, disease and social chaos.
The grim future is on our doorstep. Skyrocketing food prices have recently caused riots and bloodshed in poor countries. Fossil fuels will almost certainly be exhausted before any alternative source of energy can be developed to continue the modern ethos of perpetually increasing consumption.
After the human race finally settles for a sustainable lifestyle, historians will view the modern era as an experiment that contained the seeds of its own destruction -- a temporary diversion into madness in the course of social evolution. Unfortunately, that will be our legacy.
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa