The Choice and the Responsibility

by Ervin László

Ervin László, Ph. D., is a prominent member of the Club of Rome, President of the Club of Budapest, and advisor to the director-general of UNESCO. He is the author of 27 books, most recently The Choice: Evolution or Extinction? (Putnam, 1994).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.131-133, Vol. 22, Number 3, Fall, 1993. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Whatever we do either creates the framework for continuing the grand adventure of life and mind on this planet, or sets the stage for its termination.

The Choice

Today, at the portals of the 21st century and the dawn of the third millennium, we have the freedom to choose our destiny. The alternatives before us are evolution with distinction -- or devolution, ultimately to extinction. The choice is real and it is ours. The responsibility for making it can be neither ignored nor postponed.

Human life on Earth and in the wide reaches of the cosmos is a rare and precious resource. Among billions of galaxies, one is ours; among billions of stars in our galaxy, the sun is ours; among billions of living species on Earth, we are one. We may be but one among many living things on a small planet swimming in the endless spaces of a vast galaxy within an almost infinite cosmos, yet surely we are among the most astonishing manifestations of evolution in the whole of the universe. As atoms form from particles, and molecules form from atoms, so crystals and cells form from molecules and organisms form from cells. The human organism, too, formed in the course of this grand evolutionary beat, is co-evolving in a delicately balanced rhythm with the embracing web of life on this planet. In the last fifty thousand years, after twenty billion years of evolution in the cosmos and four billion years of evolution on Earth, the evolutionary beat brought forth the remarkable phenomena of human mind and consciousness.

A conscious being is a rare and perhaps unique element in the evolving cosmos. The atoms and molecules from which life has been fashioned are universal; life itself exists in myriad forms on this planet and may exist on myriad other planets in this galaxy and in countless others, but a conscious mind capable of thinking and feeling is unique on Earth and may be unmatched in the whole of the universe. Conscious human beings can rise above their history and gain insight into their condition. They can, if they so decide, take control of their destiny, and the destiny of their planetary habitat.

Yet, as we look at the contemporary world, what we see is not the panorama of a growingly conscious mastery of human destiny, but the unthinking courting of collective disaster. Political, ethnic and religious strife, social and economic injustice, and environmental degradation put in jeopardy the very future of life on Earth. If our generation makes wrong choices, the generation of our children will be the last in history. And if our children disappear, the untold potential for insight, for creativity, and for love and compassion of which the human spirit is capable, would vanish from the stage of the unfolding cosmic drama.

The choice between evolution and extinction confronts us this very day, and every day. Whatever we do either creates the framework for continuing the grand adventure of life and mind on this planet, or sets the stage for its termination. Our problems have assumed critical dimensions. Our ranks have exploded from one billion souls in the middle of the last century to five-and-a-half billion today, and will inflate to twelve or more before demographic growth could stabilize a hundred years hence. Our weapons of mass destruction could kill all the billions of humans, together with all life higher than insects and grass, not once but a dozen times over. And we are not only numerous; we are also avaricious. We exploit the Earth’s resources and place a growing load on its biosphere. In the last quarter of this century we have used more natural resources, destroyed more lifeforms, and created more air, soil and water pollution than in all previous ages put together.

Our generation, of all the thousands of generations before us, has been called upon to decide the destiny of life in this corner of the cosmos. This is an unprecedented challenge. In centuries past, even as a tribe or village overreached itself and destroyed the integrity of its immediate environment, its people could move on, seeking virgin territories and fresh resources. Today there is nowhere left to go. We are living throughout the habitable regions of the planet, and living close to the carrying capacity of its biosphere. There are no more islands, protected backyards where one could do as he or she pleased; what one does affects all others. There are no merely local populations and local ecologies; strands of interdependence criss-cross the globe. Overreaching ourselves could lead to the collapse of the planet’s entire life-support system. Living within a crowded and delicately balanced economic, social, and ecological system, we have become vitally dependent on each other, and on our collective habitat.

Though meeting the challenges that face us is difficult, it is not impossible. The remarkable faculties of a conscious mind embrace the powers of reason and intelligence, as well as the powers of love and solidarity. If we grow conscious of our condition, if we recognize the choices facing us, we shall develop the insight as well as the will to opt for a life-enhancing path of evolution rater than a life-destroying descent into extinction.

The Responsibility

Human beings seek more in life than food, water, shelter, and sex; more even than self-esteem, social acceptance, and love. They also seek ideals and causes of fundamental value -- something to live for, ideals to achieve, responsibilities to accept.

Conscious beings can be aware of the consequences of their actions and hence they can accept responsibility for them. Because in our interdependent and rapidly evolving world all actions impact on one another; even local actions can have global and long-term consequences. Thus accepting responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions means accepting responsibility for one’s impact on the future -- not just one’s own future and the future of one’s family and enterprise, but the future of all people in the present and in coming generations, the future of humanity. In an era of rapid transition and chaotic change, responsibility for one’s actions means responsibility for the evolution, rather than the extinction, of humanity.

The human responsibility for evolution entails specific responsibilities for one’s actions as: private individuals; citizens of one’s country; collaborators in a business; creators and transmitters of one’s culture; and members of the human species.

-- As private individuals, we are responsible for seeking our interest in harmony with, and not at the expense of, the interest and well-being of others; responsible for condemning and averting all forms of killing and violence; and responsible for respecting the right to life and development of all people and all living things on Earth, next door to us the same as on distant continents.

-- As citizens of our country, we are responsible for demanding that our leaders beat swords into ploughshares and relate to other nations peacefully and in a spirit of cooperation; that they recognize the legitimate aspirations of all the communities of the human family; and that they do not abuse sovereign powers to manipulate people and nature for shortsighted and selfish ends.

-- As collaborators in business enterprises, we are responsible for ensuring that corporate objectives do not center uniquely on profit and growth, but include a concern that products and services respond to human needs and demands without harming society and impairing nature; that they do not serve destructive ends and unscrupulous designs; and that corporate strategies respect the rights of all entrepreneurs and enterprises who compete responsibly and fairly in the global marketplace.

-- As creators and transmitters of culture, it is our responsibility to raise our voices to promote mutual understanding and respect among people and societies whether like us or different; and to demand that people everywhere should be able to respond to the problems that face them, benefiting from basic education, unbiased communication, and relevant information.

-- Last but not least, as members of the human species, our universal responsibility is to encourage comprehension and appreciation for the excellence of the human spirit in all its manifestations; and for inspiring awe and wonder for a cosmos that brought forth life and consciousness and holds out the possibility of its continued evolution toward higher levels of insight, understanding, love, and compassion.