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Wisdom In An Age Of Ignorance

The wisdom of others can help guide us through the challenges of today.

I am a language person. Maybe it’s because I studied Latin — the precursor of many modern languages — in high school. Or maybe because when I asked my old Irish grandmother what a certain word meant, she would tell me, “Look it up!” When I was in the sixth grade, she gave me a dictionary as a gift. It was bound in leather with my name embossed in gold leaf on the cover, and I still have it on the shelf over my desk.

A dictionary is a fascinating thing. Not only does it tell us what a word means (at least at the time of printing), it also provides its etymology — a history of where it began and how it evolved over time. Often, the trail leads back to Latin, which not only forms the basis of modern day Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, but also English and German. Studying language teaches us that we share our linguistic heritage with those we often think of as “foreigners.”

My fascination with language led me to subscribe to an online resource called A Word A Day, which is part of Wordsmith, founded in 1994 by Anu Garg. It introduces people to a different word 6 days a week. On Sunday, it shares feedback from its thousands of readers about the words featured the preceding week. Many relate interesting anecdotes about how a particular word was used in their homes where they grew up. That’s how I met Mike Boddington, a resident of Laos, earlier this year.

Image courtesy of Wordsmith/A Word A Day

But AWAD does something else. It includes a thought for the day — usually from someone famous but often from ordinary people you may never have heard of. A year or so ago, I started putting the best of those thoughts into a Google Doc. Those thoughts have become a treasure trove of wisdom.

When I write for CleanTechnica, I am often struck by how the internet seems to be smashing the common bonds between us and accentuating our differences. That makes it more difficult to craft the policies and understandings we will need to address the climate crisis that confronts us. I fear we humans will fail to do the hard work needed to keep the Earth habitable for us and those who come after us because we are all bickering with each other about minutia instead of focusing on the things that matter — like how to stop using fossil fuels to power civilization.

The first day of the month usually finds me in a reflective mood. I look back at my work product over the prior month and find it focuses too much on trivia and not enough on the substantive issues that concern us all. There is a lot of good, solid, bedrock knowledge contained in my AWAD list —  knowledge that can help us focus on the larger goal of creating a sustainable planet. I decided this might be a good time to share it with you.

The list is in no particular order. Some of the names you will know, some you will not. I encourage you to read it then share with us the thoughts that resonate with you as you read it. Enjoy!

My AWAD List

  • Carl Sagan — “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.”
  • Joe Biden — “I believe at our best America is a beacon for the globe. And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
  • Andrew Carnegie — “Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.”
  • Charles Schultz — “The best theology is probably no theology; just love one another.”
  • Jonathan Swift — “Laws are like cobwebs which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.”
  • Samuel Butler, writer — “Is there any religion whose followers can be pointed to as distinctly more amiable and trustworthy than those of any other? If so, this should be enough. I find the nicest and best people generally profess no religion at all, but are ready to like the best men of all religions.”
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, novelist, Nobel laureate — “Let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose falsehood as his principle.”
  • Margaret Mead — “No society that feeds its children on tales of successful violence can expect them not to believe that violence in the end is rewarded.”
  • Florence Luscomb, architect and activist — “The tragedy in the lives of most of us is that we go through life walking down a high-walled lane with people of our own kind, the same economic situation, the same national background and education and religious outlook. And beyond those walls, all humanity lies, unknown and unseen, and untouched by our restricted and impoverished lives.”
  • Rod Serling — “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs, and explosions, and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy; and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children, and the children yet unborn.”
  • Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, physician, musician, Nobel laureate — “Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.”
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. — “We all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor.”
  • Helen Adams Keller — “The test of a democracy is not the magnificence of buildings or the speed of automobiles or the efficiency of air transportation, but rather the care given to the welfare of all the people.”
  • Thomas Edison — “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”
  • John Irving — “Religious freedom should work two ways: we should be free to practice the religion of our choice, but we must also be free from having someone else’s religion practiced on us.”
  • Thomas Jefferson — “There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents… The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provisions should be made to prevent its ascendancy.”
  • Haile Selassie — “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”
  • Robert M. Pirsig, author — “When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kind of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”
  • Sophia Loren — “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of the people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will have truly defeated age.”
  • John Brunner, novelist — “If there is such a phenomenon as absolute evil, it consists in treating another human being as a thing.”

The Takeaway

It occurs to me that there is something for everyone on that list. Maybe the most important thing is not taking 42 selfies a day and sharing them with hundreds of your closest friends online. Perhaps those who lived before us actually learned a thing or two while they were alive, things that can help us navigate the challenges of today. The digital universe is a marvelous thing, but it does not make all prior knowledge irrelevant.

Every time I visit my AWAD list, I am reminded of a bit of wisdom that is pertinent to my own life. Perhaps it will do the same for you. Personally, the wisdom that I find most powerful is contained in this song by John Lennon. The melody is simple, but the concepts are complex — and timeless.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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