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Rectifying Names

With all of the changes that need to happen and all of the critical problems that humans need to resolve to ensure our success on the one planet we share, people are often surprised that AHEM puts so much emphasis on the words we use to talk about the problems we face.

The Confucius rationale

The twitter-length Confucius rationale for AHEM’s problem solving approach is that presently “language is not in accordance with the truth of things”. Words greatly impact the way humans perceive, understand, and structure society because words signal intention. They shape our behaviors and define our actions.

Saving the planet is just one example

Today is April 22, 2013, Earth Day. It is a day Gaylord Nelson founded in 1970 during his tenure as a US Senator from Wisconsin. The first Earth Day boasted activities that displayed concern and raised visibility for air and water pollution. In the US, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and Environmental Protection Agency resulted shortly after the first Earth Day. Sounds like a great success, right? Well, in many ways it really was, but that first Earth Day also sparked a debate about which problems are the most important issues people face. Senator Jacob Javitz from New York gave a speech on Wall Street cautioning against allowing environmental concerns to overshadow other critical issues. “This fight against environmental and physical pollution is so popular," he said, "that it will tout us all, to use the New York phrase, it will tout us all, the long standing, and at least equally vital efforts, to deal with poverty, alienation, racial tension, the gross inadequacy of health services, education, housing, intelligent population control and the ending of the war in Vietnam.”

Senator Javitz wasn’t alone in his concerns that focusing too much on the environment threatened shifting attention away from other important problems so the debate never actually ended. People became engaged in perhaps the most heated competition of modern times, a debate that sought to answer one question: What should our priority be? Over the years a wide variety of leaders and organizations surfaced to tackle various problems. They have competed for attention and funding. Today people continue to dismiss one concern over another. Environmental concerns might not seem so serious when faced with other, seemingly more pressing, problems like extreme poverty, starvation, disease, and widespread conflict.

Yet people still frequently insist we need to save the planet

Saving the planet is an idea that fails to accurately depict our circumstances and initiates action around a faulty concept. Just look at today - we have a whole day focused on stewardship of our planet. Meanwhile, the planet has survived many mass extinctions. Remember the dinosaurs? They came, they lived, and after they went extinct the planet continued on. In fact, more than ninety percent of all organisms that ever existed on Earth are now extinct. That's right, MORE THAN 90%. One of the tidbits AHEM has learned from the planet's tumultuous past is that in the long term, we don’t need to worry about saving the planet. It’ll be fine. So why do we continue to insist on something we can’t carry out?

Our real issue is whether or not humans will be able to continue living here on Earth, and that’s an issue that’s actually up to us.

Humans share the one and only planet currently known to sustain human life. How people have allocated Earth’s resources is what’s caused the serious social problems we face. It’s why some people fly around in private jets while others live in extreme poverty, why some people can see a doctor when they’re sick while others die of easily curable health problems like dehydration, and why some children are able to play outside while others are forced to go to work or war.

Our problems are interdependent, and people are independent, because we are all connected to the limitations of Earth’s resources and all share the same basic needs for survival. To survive, humans all need a suitable place to live and a supportive group of people who share a common culture so they can learn how to survive (what AHEM refers to as habitable surroundings and nurturing societies).

At AHEM, we got tired of people arguing about what the most important problems are we need to fix because we face a LOT of serious problems today. All of these serious problems need fixing if humans intend to combat the eminent threat of human extinction. If we solve air and water pollution but deny many among us access to clean water because of the arbitrary idea of property, we’re still in trouble. If we remove toxins from our products but continue to rely on finite resources, like oil, to create them, we’re still in trouble. If we stop easily curable health problems but ignore widespread conflict, we’re still in trouble.

That’s why we created the Anti Human Extinction Movement

Solving the problems we face requires collaborating and learning to live within the means of the one planet we share. To do that, we need to forget about there being any single problem we need to fix more than ensuring our ability to continue living here on Earth. Without a shared goal, we’ve been caught in a vicious and unproductive cycle of debate. With a shared vision of one planet living that’s based on the best scientific data from around the world, we can set aside our desires to win some heated debate started years ago about our most important priority and FINALLY collaborate to fix all of the serious problems we face. All of our efforts are important because if we solve all but one of our problems, we haven’t been successful. And let’s face it, the problems we face are connected so it doesn’t make sense to debate which is the most important anyway. Healthy debate about how we tackle each of our problems can certainly bring about innovative thinking, but the unproductive debate we’ve been having needs to end.

Since nobody can be the expert in everything, it'll take all of us working together to get these problems solved. How do we do that? Well, intention is the first step that drives human choice. If we want to pass on the whole humans going extinct thing, we cannot go about business as usual. We cannot solve the problems we face using the same thinking that created these problems.

But why must there be such rectification of names?

In short, we need to start by ensuring that “in [our] words there may be nothing incorrect”. If we do not begin by using words that honestly depict our circumstances, then our words do not accurately represent the truth. If we use the wrong words, we are describing circumstances that don't really exist and explaining intentions we don't really have. If our words do not convey our intentions, our actions will not match our intentions or take our circumstances into consideration either.

By misrepresenting issues or pretending that they exist in isolation instead of focusing on the truth of our words and the interconnectedness of our problems, we've been going in reverse. By ignoring this simple insight about words and intentions that Confucius shared with the prince of Wei ages ago, we have and will continue to set ourselves up to experience, at best, short-term productivity and, at worst, long-term failure.

The prince didn’t listen, but we can do better

So, as we celebrate Earth Day today, let’s not focus on saving the environment or planet but instead focus on recognizing the connection we all share to one another and Earth’s resources. Let's acknowledge the serious problems we face because of how unequally we’ve allocated the resources on the one planet we share. Then, with our names correct, language will be in accordance with the truth of things so that we can finally take meaningful action.

Together, we can do better.

this post was co-authored by Laura Stanik and Chris Blockus, AHEM Founders | April 22, 2013


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"The prince of Wei has been waiting for you, in order that you administer (cheng) the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?"

The Master replied, "What is necessary is to rectify (cheng) names."

"So, indeed!" said Tzu-lu. "You are wide of the mark. Why must there be such rectification?"

The Master said, "How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties (li ) and music (yüeh) will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires, is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect."

— Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7

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