Last of a two-part series. See The Idols of Environmentalism for part one.
ENVIRONMENTALISTS SEE THE ASPHALTING of the country as a sin against the world of nature, but we should also see in it a kind of damage that has been done to humans, for what precedes environmental degradation is the debasement of the human world. I would go so far as to say that there is no solution for environmental destruction that isn’t first a healing of the damage that has been done to the human community. As I argued in the first part of this essay, the damage to the human world has been done through work, through our jobs, and through the world of money.
We are not the creators of our own world; we merely perform functions in a system into which we were born. The most destructive aspect of our jobs is that in them we are mere “functionaries,” to borrow Josef Pieper’s term. Just as important, we have a function outside of work: consumption. Money in hand, we go into the market to buy the goods we no longer know how to make (we don’t even know how to grow and preserve our own food) and services we no longer know how to perform (frame a house? might as well ask us to design a spaceship).
Challenging our place in this system as mere isolated functions (whether as workers or consumers) is a daunting task, especially for environmentalists, who tend to think that human problems are the concern of somebody else (labor unions, the ACLU, Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, etc.). We’re about the “Earth first.” My argument is simply that the threats to humans and the threats to the environment are not even two parts of the same problem. They are the same problem. For environmentalism, confronting corporations and creating indignant scientific reports about pollution is the easy stuff. But these activities are inadequate to the real problems, as any honest observer of the last thirty years of environmental activism would have to concede. The “last great places” cannot be preserved. We can no more preserve them than we can keep the glaciers from melting away. Responding to environmental destruction requires not only the overcoming of corporate evildoers but “self-overcoming,” a transformation in the way we live. A more adequate response to our true problems requires that we cease to be a society that believes that wealth is the accumulation of money (no matter how much of it we’re planning on “giving back” to nature), and begin to be a society that understands that “there is no wealth but life,” as John Ruskin put it. That is the full dimension and the full difficulty of our problem.
Unfortunately, on these shores the suggestion that there is something fundamentally destructive in work, money, and capitalism leads quickly to emotional denials. This is so even among self-described environmentalists, card-carrying members of the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy. So we try to persuade ourselves that capitalism can become green. I don’t believe that capitalism can become green, simply because the imperatives of environmentalism are not part of its way of reasoning. Capitalism can think profit but it can’t think nature. It’s not in its nature to think nature. What is part of its nature is marketing (“We’re organic! Buy us!”), even while its actions — industrial livestock practices that masquerade as Earth-friendly, for instance — are really only about market share, dividends, and stock value.
Capitalism as a system of ever-accelerating production and consumption is, as we environmentalists continually insist, not sustainable. That is, it is a system intent on its own death. Yet the capitalist will stoically look destruction in the face before he will stop what he’s doing, especially if he believes that it is somebody else whose destruction is in question. Unlike most of the people living under him, the capitalist is a great risk-taker largely because he believes that his wealth insulates him from the consequences of risks gone bad. Ever the optimistic gambler with other people’s money, the capitalist is willing to wager that, while there may be costs to pay, he won’t have to pay them. Animals, plants, impoverished people near and far may have to pay, but he bets that he won’t. If called upon to defend his actions, he will of course argue that he has a constitutionally protected right to property and the pursuit of his own happiness. This is his “freedom.” At that point, we have the unfortunate habit of shutting up when we ought to reply, “Yes, but yours is a freedom without conscience.”
Being willing to say such things about capitalism does not mean that one has a special access to the Truth, but it also doesn’t mean that one is a mere ideologue, or that most dismissible of things, a communist. It merely requires honesty about what looks us right in the face. It requires intellectual conscience.
For instance, as a matter of conscience we should be willing to say that the so-called greening of corporate America is not as much about the desire to protect nature as it is about the desire to protect capitalism itself. Environmentalists are, on the whole, educated and successful people, many of whom have prospered within corporate capitalism. They’re not against it. They simply seek to establish a balance between the needs of the economy (as they blandly put it) and the needs of the natural world. For both capitalism and environmentalism, there is a hard division between land set aside for nature and land devoted to production. Environmentalists consider the preservation of a forest a victory, but part of the point of that victory is (usually) that humans can’t live in this forest. Private interests have been bought out. The forest is now “set aside.” We could draw a national map that showed those spaces that we imagine conform to a fantasy of natural innocence (wilderness, forests, preserves, parks) and those spaces given over to the principles of extraction, exploitation, and profit. The boundary lines within this map are regularly drawn and redrawn by the government in some of our most bitter political fights. (“Mineral extraction! Why, that’s a national wildlife area!” “Snail darter! Why, that’s economic development!”) But regardless of which political party is drawing this map, we humans are left right where we have always been, at the mercy of the boss, behaving like functionaries, and participating in the very economic activities that will continue to eat up the natural world. For all its sense of moral urgency, environmentalism too has abandoned humans to the inequalities, the exploitation, and the boredom of the market, while it tries to maintain the world of nature as a place of innocence where a candy wrapper on the ground is a blasphemy. It’s a place to go for a weekend hike before returning to the unrelenting ugliness, hostility, sterility, and spiritual bankruptcy that is the suburb, the strip mall, the office building, and the freeway (our “national automobile slum,” as James Howard Kunstler puts it). Ideally, the map of natural preservation and the map of economic activity would be one map.
HERE’S A BALD ASSERTION FOR WHICH I have no proof scientific or otherwise: a human society would never willingly harm nature. This is a way of saying that violence is not a part of human nature. This of course contradicts the opinion commonly held by Christianity and science alike that humans are by nature violent. This fatalism has the effect of making us accept wars, the victimization of the vulnerable, and the rapacious destruction of the natural world as tragic but inevitable. But what this fatalism about our “nature” ignores is the fact that the violence with which environmentalists are most concerned is not the aberrant violence of the individual human but the violence of organizations. In particular, the violence that we know as environmental destruction is possible only because of a complex economic, administrative, and social machinery through which people are separated from responsibility for their misdeeds. We say, “I was only doing my job” at the paper mill, the industrial incinerator, the logging camp, the coal-fired power plant, on the farm, on the stock exchange, or simply in front of the PC in the corporate carrel. The division of labor not only has the consequence of making labor maximally productive, it also hides from workers the real consequences of their work.
People outside of such social and economic organizations might hunt in nature, fish, gather, harvest, use nature to their own ends in countless ways, but they would never knowingly destroy it, not because they are by nature good and benevolent, but because destruction is not necessary, it’s a lot of hard work, and it’s self-evidently self-defeating. For example, the near extinction of the buffalo was not driven by the thought “Well, if I shoot one I might as well shoot them all,” or game sport gone mad, or sheer maliciousness toward the animal. Ultimately, it was driven by the market for buffalo hides in that far-off place that was never once home to a buffalo, New York City. The extermination of the buffalo was driven by the same logic that drives the clearcutting of forests and the construction of high-pollution coal-fired power plants today: entrepreneurial freedom, the desire for profit, and “jobs for working people.”
If all this is so, it is only possible to conclude from our behavior for the last two hundred years that ours is not a human society; that it is a society outside of the human in some terrible sense. And, in fact, it was one of the earliest insights of Karl Marx that the kind of work provided by capitalism was alienating. That is, it made us something other than what we are. It dehumanized us. And so, in our no-longer-human state, it became perfectly natural for us to destroy nature (which should sound to you just as perverse as the situation really is). Alienation in work means that instead of knowing something about a lot of things concerned with human fundamentals like food, housing, clothing, and the wise and creative use of our free time, we know one small thing. One task in an ocean of possible tasks.
Aldous Huxley provided a very different and a very human account of work in The Perennial Philosophy. He called it “right livelihood” (a concept he borrowed from Buddhism). For Huxley, work should serve other people, provide learning experiences that deepen the worker, and do as little harm as possible. (You will note that there is nothing in this description about a competitive compensation and benefits package.) But what percentage of American jobs conforms to this description? Five percent? Even in the new “creative” information economy where the claim could be made that computer designers and software technicians are constantly learning, is it a learning that deepens? That serves others broadly? And what of the mindless, deadening work of data processors and telemarketers — our modern, miserable Bartlebys and Cratchits — locked in their cubicles from San Jose to Bangalore? Our culture’s assumption that there is virtue in work flatters us into thinking that we’re doing something noble (“supporting our families,” “putting food on the table,” “making sacrifices”) when we are really only allowing ourselves to be treated like automatons. We all have our place, our “job,” and it is an ever less human place. We are diligent, disciplined, and responsible, but because of these virtues we are also thoughtless.
TO END THE REIGN OF WORK as something for “functionaries,” and to end the destruction that results from that fractured form of work, we have two options. First, we can simply wait for the catastrophic failure of global capitalism as a functioning economic system. Books on peak oil, sinking water tables, and the impending doom of global warming are abundant and convincing. Huge human populations, especially in the East and Africa, are at risk of mass starvation, civil war, and the disastrous loss of human habitat due to rising ocean levels and desertification. Capitalism will have no choice but to retreat from responsibility for these crises even though they are part of the true costs of doing business.
Unfortunately, simply waiting for catastrophe doesn’t ensure that anything good will follow from it, as Darfur has illustrated. It’s true that there will be opportunities to create locally based and sustainable communities, but it’s also true that fascism, barbarism, and regression are possible. So a second option is in order. We can start providing for a different world of work now, before the catastrophe. We need to insist on work that is not destructive, that deepens the worker, that encourages her creativity. Such a transformation requires a willingness to take a collective risk, a kind of risk very different from capitalist risk taking. The kind of risk I’m suggesting is no small matter. It means leaving a culture based on the idea of success as the accumulation of wealth-as-money. In its place we need a culture that understands success as life. For John Ruskin, humans should make “good and beautiful things” because those things will re-create us as good and beautiful in their turn. To make cheap and ugly and destructive things will kill us, as indeed we are being killed through poverty, through war, through the cheapening of our public and private lives, and through the destruction of the natural world. Of course, many will argue that leaving capitalism behind is not “realistic.” “Oh, certainly,” we’re assured, “there are inequalities in capitalism, but on the whole it provides for everyone’s prosperity, it provides the greatest good for the greatest number. Why, you’ll kill the goose that lays the golden egg! Look, if there’s a patch of forest somewhere you want to save, fine, I’ll write a check. But this sort of talk is dangerous and un-American.” What we need to recognize is that the real realism for capitalism is in the consequences of its activities. As even Al Gore understands, we are living now in the early stages of an era of consequences: catastrophic climate change, species extinction, and human population collapse. It is not naïve or unrealistic to say that we ought to change; it is only tragic if we don’t.
But let’s be honest. For the moment, not even the pleasantly affluent people who regularly support the major environmental organizations (people like me) want to hear about how bad capitalism is or to think seriously about abandoning it as an organizing principle. Most of us want to believe that our quarrel is just with rogue corporations, a few “bad apples” as President Bush likes to say, and not with capitalism as such. But thinking this is simply a form of lying. We deny what we can plainly see because to acknowledge it would require the fundamental reshaping of our entire way of living, and that is (not unreasonably) frightening for most people. Nevertheless, our loyalty to capitalism makes us fools. Worse than that, we know we’re being fooled, and yet we lack the ability not to be fooled. Not for nothing did the philosopher Paul Ricoeur once observe that capitalism is “a failure that cannot be defeated.”
I AM INEVITABLY ASKED AT THIS POINT in my argument just what exactly it is that I am proposing that people do. What would I put in capitalism’s place? In reply, I am always tempted to quote Voltaire’s response to the complaint that he had nothing to put in the place of the Christianity he criticized. “What!” he said, “A ferocious beast has sucked the blood of my family; I tell you to get rid of that beast, and you ask me, what shall we put in its place!” Unlike Voltaire, I would also suggest that what has the best chance of defeating the “beast” is spirit. In accepting science as our primary weapon against environmental destruction, we have also had to accept science’s contempt for religion and the spiritual. This is the unfortunate legacy of science’s two-century-old confrontation with what it has always called “religious dogma and superstition.” But this attitude is myopic; it is science at its most stupid. Environmentalism should stop depending solely on its alliance with science for its sense of itself. It should look to create a common language of care (a reverence for and a commitment to the astonishing fact of Being) through which it could begin to create alternative principles by which we might live. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in his famous essay “My Religion,” faith is not about obedience to church dogma, and it is not about “submission to established authority.” A people’s religion is “the principle by which they live.”
The establishment of those principles by which we might live would begin with three questions. First, what does it mean to be a human being? Second, what is my relation to other human beings? And third, what is my relation to Being as such, the ongoing miracle that there is something rather than nothing? If the answer to these questions is that the purpose of being human is “the pursuit of happiness” (understood as success, which is understood as the accumulation of money); and if our relation to others is a relation to mere things (with nothing to offer but their labor); and if our relation to the world is only to “resources” (that we should exploit for profit); then we should be very comfortable with the world we have. If it goes to perdition at least we can say that we acted in good faith. But if, on the other hand, we answer that there should be a greater sense of self-worth in being a human, more justice in our relation to others, and more reverence for Being, then we must either live in bad faith with capitalism or begin describing a future whose fundamental values and whose daily activities are radically different from what we currently endure. The risk I propose is simply a return to our nobility. We should refuse to be mere functions of a system that we cannot in good conscience defend. And we should insist on a recognition of the mystery, the miracle, and the dignity of things, from frogs to forests, simply because they are.
Such a “religion” would entail a refusal to play through to the bloody end the social and economic roles into which we happen to have been born. What lies beyond the environmental movement is not only the overcoming of capitalism but self-overcoming. We take some justifiable pride in the idea that we are environmentalists, but even that identity must be transcended. A “beyond environmentalism” movement would be a sort of Party of Life. It would be a commitment to thriving, and a commitment to what is best in us. Does this mean that, for the time being, we stop working under the banner of environmentalism to oppose corporations when they are destructive? Of course not. But it is important to know that there is a problem more fundamental than a perverse “power” standing opposed to us (in villainous black caps with “Monsanto” on the brim). That deeper problem is our own integration into an order of work that makes us inhuman and thus tolerant of what is nothing less than demonic, the destruction of our own world.
THE PRINCIPLE BY WHICH THE WEST has lived for the last two centuries has been “It’s okay to use violence if you can gain something by it.” Violence against the poor, violence against the vulnerable, violence against those who possess something you want, and violence against the natural world. That is capitalism as a religious principle. What is beyond environmentalism, what is our Party of Life, is actually a return to our oldest spiritual convictions: a reverence for creation and a shared commitment to the idea that religion is finally about understanding how to live in faithful relation to what has been given to us in creation. In the end, our problem is that the busy, destructive work of functionaries has taken the place of a thoughtful, spiritual understanding about how to live. Our problem is not that we are ignoring what science has to tell us about environmental destruction. Our problem is that we are spiritually impoverished. Bankrupt, if you will.
Spiritual rebirth will mean the rediscovery of true human work. Much of this work will not be new but recovered from our own rich traditions. It will be useful knowledge that we will have to remember. Fishing as a family and community tradition, not the business of factory trawlers. Agriculture as a local and seasonal activity, not a carbon-based scheme of synthetic production and international shipping. Home- and community-building as common skills and not merely the contracted specialization of construction companies and urban planners. Even “intellectual workers” (professors and scholars) have something to relearn: their own honored place in the middle of the community and not in isolated, jargon-ridden professional enclaves.
Such knowledge was once the heart of our lives, and not that long ago. Before 1945, survival meant that most families would have all of these skills to some degree. These families were certainly materially poorer and perhaps more naïve, but they were richer in human relations, less bored, less depressed, less isolated, less addicted to food and drugs, physically healthier, and they had the rich human pleasure of knowing how to make things. It’s clear that we haven’t forgotten these skills and their pleasures entirely, but their presence for us is strange and a little unreal. What used to be life is now “fine living”: an array of expensive hobbies for the affluent that are taught through magazines, cable and PBS programs, and local guilds dedicated to gardening, basket weaving, cooking, home remodeling, quilting, and woodworking. Although we rarely recognize it in this way, through these “hobbies” we express a desire for a world that is now lost to us.
My argument is not, I assure you, a longing look back to the wonderful world of pre-war rural America. But it is to say that in the course of the last century of global capital triumphant we have been further isolated from what Ruskin called “valuable human things.” In exchange, we have been offered only the cold comfort of the television and computer monitor, and the GPS device that can locate you but only at the cost of being located in a place that is not worth knowing and certainly not worth caring about.
The turn away from this ugly, destructive, and unequal world is not something that can be accomplished by boycotting corporations when they’re bad or through the powerful work of the most concerned scientists. It will not be delivered with glossy brochures by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, and it will certainly not be sold to you by Martha Stewart. A return to the valuable human things of the beautiful and the useful will only be accomplished, if it is ever to be accomplished, by the humans among us. O
Does anyone know of a university course that teaches Aldous Huxley as the main topic as Shakespeare or Freud might be taught?
This is an inspiring read and one that made me think deeply about the actions I take every day in trying to make my way through living each day. Many of the ideas and proposals are things I have been contemplating for a very long time. ALong the way I came up with these observations: “Part of the problem in our learning or recognizing the problems in our contribution to and cause of the destruction of our world is that, as apres locked into our own animalistic behavior, we cannot, by our very natures, see beyond the limitations of our own ability to perceive and understand ourselves. As long as we don’t accept and operate under the assumption that we are but animals we will never be able to come to terms with sharing a world which operates on the laws and behaviors of animals. It is the next major cultural awakening that humans have got to get past_ that we ourselves are not the center of the universe, just like (some of us) our earlier insistence that the Earth was at the center of the world.
However, even with all these thought, I couldn’t help but conclude that Mr. White was rehashing the debate. Since this is such a dire question for all of us, I must ask: if Mr. White (and all the rest of us) believes fervently in the big change that he advocates for us to take a risk with, has he himself done so, and how exactly is this new change to be implemented? It’s all very nice to wax poetic about going back to some idyllic form of existence, but, like every time these ideas are proposed, no one seems to have the slightest idea how, practically, we are supposed to do this. And that is where we all fall flat.
Thanks for listening.
Sorry about the typos… In the middle of the quote I meant to write “apes” instead of “apres”
The article maintains that “People outside of such social and economic organizations might hunt in nature, fish, gather, harvest, use nature to their own ends in countless ways, but they would never knowingly destroy it.” What about the destruction of the Indonesian and Brazialian rain forests by the fires set by individual farmers?
Bravo Mr. White: Indeed our [we humans] return to the valuable human things of the beautiful and useful will only be accomplished by the efforts of the humans among us. Let each of us do what we can, daily, to see those numbers increase. Your two part essay ought be required reading – with tests to insure comprehension – for all graduates from High School, for all individuals seeking citizenship within the United States, for all new employees starting their first job, for all CEO’s and all political candidates; our new Senators and Congress persons – at local, state and federal levels. Thank you for so succintly listing we humans many mis-steps – so far – in our miniscule history; in contrast to that of Mother Nature, who needs no text. We need divest ourselves of our two American philosphical divisions, namely realist vs. idealists rather melding into oving caring individuals who know and believe within our heart of hearts the universe would exist if we were not around to observe it; yet waht is real is somehow mentally generated, that each of us with our day to day thoughts and actions, large and small, make the world waht it is. We need leave all our electronic devices at home while walking in the woods, along the beach, enjoying sunrise or sunset. Yes, that includes our digital cameras! We ought consider multitasking rith up there with Grand Theft Auto as one of our more grevious sins. Strike a healthy balance. Put awaythose blasted cell phones or anything else that intrudes on our being. Some silence each day! Use our hands and heads to create human things both beautiful and useful, daily. Read poety! Engage in honest dialogue with loved ones, friends and enemies; young and old – listen more than we talk. Be willing to express our true ideas, no matter how foreigh they will seem to some of our audiences. Make copies of “The Idols of Environmentalism” to give to our more receptive audiences. Set an example by living each day as nobility; recognizing the mystery, the miracle and the dignity of things from cabbages to kings simply because they are.
I thought this was silly in the extreme, because there is no accountability. Is Mr White modeling a sustainable life free of capitalist goods. Does he have a car, washer, dryer, refrigerator, computer, does he fly, have a telephone, a cell phone which we now are finding may be killing the bees. Does he make his own transportation, shelter, tools? Grow his own food. Does he live in a communal group and share his wealth and decisions?
I am not pimping for capitalism as it exists, but saying any proposal that we transcend capitalism requires the serious writer to imagine some practical transitional steps. So I agree with Miguel Arboleda that it falls flat. We have heard this and I think that it behooves Orion to screen this empty verbiage and not print something unless it is substantial as well as poetic.
Is the idea not legitimate just because this author and others may or may not currently live as maybe they know we should and may have to soon. Isn’t this just attacking the messenger?
Mr. White’s arguments take us into every nook and cranny of social commentary under the guise of social justice. The finger pointing hits everyone and I suppose that was Mr. White’s intent – identify environmental damage and reduce it to the evils of capitalism and work. How could Orion print such rubbish next to an article by Paul Hawken, author of “Natural Capitalism,” and next to an interview with the owner of a [capitalist] restaurant serving only local food? White’s article reminded me of my college days when everyone and everything was wrong and there seemed not to be any solutions. It was a time when I didn’t work and my mind was ready to criticize. Perhaps this type of college environment is the perfect place for Professor White to prey on unsuspecting victims of pessimism and reductionist logic.
Re: Part 1 –
Talk about bowing down to false idols. This is an exercise in pointless finger-pointing, apparently just to sound like an informed skeptic for the thrill of it, or maybe to undermine whatever momentum we have for rescuing our Planet. I have no knowledge of Curtis White or Orion magazine, but if they are concerned for our collective future, this essay is an act of self-destruction.
We DO have powerful corporate villains partly to thank for the sorry state of the natural world, along with the personal responsibility of every individual. And the word “ecosystem” IS a vital concept for understanding the interconnectedness of living systems and organisms, and does not in any way preclude “respect for life” or “reverence for creation,” which are not trademarked by the Catholic church at all. White’s scolding arguments seem to appeal to the the kind of self-guilt the Catholic (and many other) churches specialize in. Environmental science does not criticize more spiritual notions of nature at all, but reinforces them with earthly evidence of the miracle of Life on Earth. Who is this guy talking about?
On the first point, that powerful corporate villains are partly to thank for the sorry state of the natural world, I would like to know, just for example, who is orchestrating the campaign to keep deca PBDEs in production and on the market. Of course we have the lobbyists and the “industry reps” but behind them has to be actual individuals with names and faces, who own the industry, or the investment group that owns the industry, and hand down their wishes through boards and CEOs, who hire PR firms who hire lobbyists who then say they represent “the industry.” I’d like to pull back the curtain and see exactly who is shaping the campaign in favor of PBDEs and trying to shape the consciousness of the public to accept them. I think we need a public conversation with these individuals. They have a big influence on our lives and our future. I want names, faces, bios and contact information.
Who set up the think tanks and endowed positions that spew out the pundits that are nothing but loyal team players who have no standards of truth to fall back on, but only allegiance to the captain and to making the scores and claiming moral superiority over the other team? Who does Rupert Murdoch, for instance, have dinner with, meet at the club, go hunting with? The campaign to declare that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by corrupt scientists and greedy environmentalists was not just spontaneously concocted by Sean, Rush and Glenn Beck, to name a few. These hired guns were carefully taught to tell such preposterous lies by….who? These lies are immensely damaging to the consensus we all desperately need if we are to change our lifestyles rapidly, and for the major industries to take seriously the increasingly obvious threats of global warming, or we will indeed cook in our own exhaust fumes. It’s as if we’re all on a train that is headed over a cliff, and some of us see the danger, but we can’t get the engineer to stop or turn, because the crowd in the club car are laughing at us and calling us kooks, in an orchestrated, coordinated fashion, like a trained choir. Who trained them?
I agree with White about the fallacy and timidness of carbon credits and the inadequacy of the Kyoto protocols, but those were designed mainly by the same corporate villains, or by politicians to avoid the wrath of those corporate villains, and not by any broad-based, well-informed constituency, because such a thing still doesn’t exist, although the IPCC papers are helping bring people into reality.
White says: “It is true that there are CEO-types, few in number, who are indifferent to everything except money, who are cruel and greedy.” While they may be few, the hierarchical authority structures in multi-national corporations only require a few at the top, who are not just CEOs but actual owners of controlling shares, who control the boards that control the CEOs, to pass down policies and directives that are then repeated with gusto and personal investment by every underling down the line, including billionaire CEOs, to please their bosses, obscuring the original source of the order. This is a job for sociologists and investigative journalists, but to say that: “Besides, corporations are really powerless to be anything other than what they are.” is meaningless apology and obfuscation of these corporate villains.
Believing in powerful corporate evildoers as the primary source of our problems does not force us to think in cartoons, if we are balanced enough to also see that each of us also carries personal responsibility to live better and make the world a better place. Rather, focusing on corporate evildoers prompts us to perform the investigative, empirical work to to ferret out the actual lines of authority, not just the formal corporate flow charts that lead to the nominal CEOs, but the real, effectual lines of influence that lead to the small clusters of actual, behind the scenes, obscenely wealthy puppeteers who put people like Cheney and Bush in power, build media empires to manipulate the masses to keep them in power, and whose only true allegiance is to that ages-old and universal value of amassing personal wealth, which means power, albeit mostly illusory power. These are not “corporate entities,” but at the top are just plain human beings, with names and faces, and grandkids, who need to be brought into the light of day and talked to about the future we all face.
White says: “But many babies went out with the bath water of Christian dogma and superstition. One of those was morality.” Wrong again. It doesn’t take a prescribed, imposed, decreed-by-God-code of ethics for people to care about their families, respect their fellow citizens or villagers, understand the miraculous web of life and our dependency on it, and generally behave responsibly. The belief that morality depends on Christian (or Jewish or Hindu or Muslim) dogma is an “idol of the tribe” toward which White has no critical perspective.
I suppose if the shoe fits, wear it, and I know many people put all their faith in rigid, materialistic, positivist science and miss the joy, wonder and miracle of Life on Earth, so maybe this essay is trying to correct that imbalance. But science is the study of the natural world, not an obsession with fleeting wealth or delusional divine guidance. The scolding tone, the complete exoneration of corporate deciders, and the reliance on Christianity as the only true answer, provide no helpful guidance at all. If anyone takes this essay seriously, they will become paralyzed with guilt and inferiority and afraid to point out that, really, the train we’re on is heading straight for the cliff.
I agree with: “Even when we are trying to aid the environment, we are not willing as individuals to leave the system that we know in our heart of hearts is the cause of our problems. We are even further from knowing how to take the collective risk of leaving this system entirely and ordering our societies differently. We are not ready. Not yet, at least.” OK, that’s our problem, but White is steering us toward obedience to corporate and religious masters that in fact, are the foundations of the system that is the cause of our problems.
Is this essay masquerading as pro-environmental?
Whether you are one of the critics or one of the cheerleaders for Mr. White’s essay, we must admit that it is a necessary discussion. Wendell Berry addresses these issues in a very practical sense, and what is needed is both the slowing down of our lives along with the renewed caretaking of our local places. We can, and once did, operate this way under our capitalist system, but industrial advancements and the huge scale that it introduced allowed us to escape from the limits of our locality and thus from the responsibility for it. As many issues converge such as global warming and peak oil, we may be seeing the end of the industrial age, which will force us to focus back upon our localities. What I fear is that we may have destroyed so many of the natural systems that once were our sole support. This, coupled with our now greatly bloated population, could lead to massive starvation, disease, and conflict. The sooner we begin to discuss it and take those first steps toward a return to local responsibility and economies, the easier the transition ultimately will be.
Maybe I’m just feeling charitable, but I find no “diatribes against capitalism” in White’s two essays. Certainly they could be read that way, but I wouldn’t attribute to them the reactive angst I’ve read in some of the posts to date. Yes, he takes on capitalism, but he also takes on pretty much every social, cultural, and economic institution of the last 400 years – including my personal favorite, Christianity.
Ironically, he reaches the same conclusion about this world that Martin Luther reached about his nearly 500 years ago. We are all “mired in sin,” trapped in a system not of our making but nonetheless kept alive by our every thought, word, and deed. Luther’s solution was two-fold: repentance (of the deep, fear-and-trembling variety) and gratitude (of the deep awe-and-wonder variety).
The thing that disturbs me is that everyone so far seems to have missed his intended conclusion. The route to “saving” ourselves, our communities, and our planet lies in connecting to our own individual vocations: the places in each of us where our deepest passions meet the world’s deepest needs. It’s an interior re-orientation he’s arguing for, not a systemic dismemberment of our current socio/cultural/economic milieu.
Luther’s your buddy on this one, Curits.
Dear Curtis White,
Without any doubt you are expressing with unparalleled lucidity and coherence of mind the nature of the distinctly human-derived predicament posed to humanity in these early years of Century XXI.
(Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D.,M.P.A.
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population
1834 North Lakeshore Drive
Chapel Hill, NC 27514-6733
Has Mr. White heard of the Earth Charter? It seems to me to be the kind of ethical/religious statement that he is calling for, combining concern for ecological integrity, social and economic justice, nonviolence, democracy, and peace.
Practical Transitional Step #1: Stop doing work that contributes to the erosion of authentic community, culture, quality, integrity, and compassion.
Practical Transitional Step #2: Start doing work that conserves or rebuilds community, culture, quality, integrity and compassion.
While I typically eschew glib quotations, this one is succinct and apt in avoiding the “big” solutions that mire politicians, enviros, and nearly everything else: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Curtis White is right in pointing out that any substantial change in the current (very) bad situation is going to take a spiritual awakening in the hearts of men and women. This means seeking out your own Practical Transitional Steps. That’s one problem with our culture of avoiding responsibility: we want someone else to tell us what we need to do. I’m afraid it won’t be that simple.
This is a most insightful article. As an ecopsychologist specializing in career counseling, I find that indeed a second option is in order. We can start providing for a different world of work right now if we are willing to personally take the risk to step out of the false security of the “job world” and create meaningful employment for ourselves in independent careers that serve individuals and small enterprises that serve our communities as well as commit to supporting other self-employed individuals and small local enterprises. It’s really not that complicated, just not the current norm. Yet this is the very “dream” of two out of three individuals in the US at sometime in their lives.
The ‘C’ Word
I have one basic question for you Mr. White, What is capitalism?
In my way of understanding what makes up a human society there are three basic components: consciousness, how we think about ourselves, others, the world and the relations between all of them; power, how we govern our own and other people’s behaviors for the common good; and economics, how we exchange goods with other people to get what we need.
In your article you refer to ‘capitalism’ but I can’t figure out what you really mean by the term except as a generic reference to all the bad things in the world today. We can’t stop exchanging with others to get what we need but you explicitly suggest that ‘capitalism’ is an all pervasive idea that must be eliminated without offering an alternative.
As best I can tell in the absence of a more concrete definition of what you mean by capitalism, it sounds like you are saying that “the humans among us” are the only ones who are really going to accomplish anything, and not by boycotting corporations or by being concerned scientists, but by living in some mysterious way that does not involve any of the bad things that capitalism does.
I wholeheartedly agree with most of your judgments about the bad things in the world today, but I believe the moral obligation of social criticism is to offer people more than a very long litany of complaints about the state of the world and just a scant few suggestions.
I appreciate your thoughtful reflections on how we play out the organizing principles of our society in modern work, but please help me with discerning more specifically capitalists forms of exchange from other forms.
Much of this was covered in the ’70’s by Charles Reich in “The Greening of America”. If we want to truly make things change, we have to stop working for the companies and governments that destroy the future. Just as George Tenet should have resigned in protest against the Iraq War, we all should be resigning and minimizing our lifestyles as much as possible. Capitalism as a way of trading isn’t inherently so bad as the unrestrained greed of government-enhanced and competitive living under capitalism is. Our children have been taught to acquire and ‘succeed through exploitation of others’ for several generations now.
We are coming up on the Peak Oil Hole in a solid rock wall. Most things we know won’t make it through the Hole. People left behind will be squabbling over the bits of gold in order to try and buy food which won’t be there.
If you want Change, keep it in your pocket. Your dollar is your vote and it always votes for you to spend it.
Yes, as Mark Douglass says, White is calling for an “interior re-orientation,” and it’s not as difficult as it might seem. White doesn’t need to give us detailed instructions, and he doesn’t need to be environmentally super-pure before we listen to his message. If we want to go beyond blaming powerful corporate villains for the mess that we and the planet are in, we need to accept our own authority. No one has more authority than you, not the state, employers, church, or anyone.
Both White’s article and Rebecca Solnit’s essay in the same issue, “The Thoreau Problem,” make good claims for not submitting to anyone’s authority, and both describe artificial divisions that are hazardous to human health and sanity. White shows that industrial civilization artificially divides work from play, “producers” from “consumers,” and natural places from inhabited ones, all of which leaves people feeling alienated and lost. Solnit describes an artificial division between Thoreau’s (or anyone’s) loving the natural world and defending human rights. Thoreau did both. His desire for justice came from the same sense of integrity as his love of nature, but he is often safely packaged as an eccentric nature-loving hermit.
Artificial divisions serve people in power, but we don’t have to accept them. Why accept a job that doesn’t allow you to do work that is really yours; or a division of labor that alienates and de-humanizes you? Thoreau wrote, “Where is this division of labor to end? and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.”
Everyone’s job is to find his or her own true vocation, which is work that is not harmful. If everyone did that, rather than accepting harmful jobs in industry, corporations, or the military, our world would be healthier. I don’t know if Curtis White is advocating a mass dismantling of capitalism, but capitalism isn’t inherently bad. The artificial divisions that grow in large-scale capitalism are bad. It’s not really so complicated to destroy them on a small scale. Deny institutions the power to do violence. Blur the lines between work and play, between justice and the beauty of nature, and between observation and reverence. Don’t wait for a perfect utopia. “Idyllic forms of existence” are not far in the future or lost in the past: now, in spring, you can watch the leaves on a tree grow every day.
In response to Miquel, I want to defend the discussion of these topics. I don’t think we can accuse someone who brings the subject up of being hypocritical unless there is some means for them to follow the advice and still use the tools of conversation. In the modern world, we cannot give up everything and still have a computer to communicate. The Change we seek is in our pockets. How much we spend determines how much power we give up. It doesn’t have to be black and white–yet. We can work as hard as possible to reduce, reuse, grow our own, etc. Every dollar requires some resource to support the money exchange system. The less we spend, the sooner we can move away from the Things of the System.
As long as we keep spending, we have to keep working. Every dollar we get paid, someone makes at least two on our labors. If we can cut back on our hours, we are cutting back on the money they can use to exploit our planet and other people. It all starts with our Net Creativity ratio. How much future do we create vs. how much do we consume?
If you want Change, keep it in your pocket.
This being the internet and none of us able to see one anothers’ facial expressions and such, I guess it is to be expected that something I write might come across as belligerently attacking Mr. White. Please know, though, that I believe deeply in everyone at the table being able to have their say and others listening with respect, whether they agree or not. I do not condone arguing with someone and calling what they say as being stupid or unworthy of being said. I respect Mr. White and would ask that others join the discussion by looking at his ideas with a grain of salt.
As I stated on the very first line of my original comment, what Mr. White has written was deeply inspiring and made me think a lot about my own actions and what goes on internally for me. I very much agree with Mr. White about our having to change our very concept of how we interact with our world and one another, especially if we are going to find any way out of the morass we’ve gotten ourselves into until now.
However, we must also ask ourselves just what “work” is. If we define it within the limited parameters of “performing tasks for others in order to receive money” then perhaps Mr. White’s call for changing our notions of work makes perfect sense, but I see work as “that which we do in order to survive and keep our societies and selves functioning”. That may or may not include money. Money after all is but an abstract symbol for a promisory contact we make with others for traded goods. In the sense of doing what we must in order to survive, work is something that all living things do. Without work no creature could survive.
As physical beings in a physical world I don’t think it is enough to simply say, “We must simply change our inner landscape”. Sure, the inner landscape and how we choose to approach the world we live in dramatically affects the actual actions we end up taking, but beyond learning to see and feel about the world in a different way, we must also face the realities of the problems we live with at the moment, and not forget the very real reality of having to eat, live somewhere, and bring up our children. There are 6 billion people in the world… that can’t be ignored. How do you feed them? How do you find work for them to do? Is it possible for all of us to simply throw away the conveniences and goods we’ve come to expect, all of which come into existence under the very system that Mr. White criticizes? Can we continue to live with our amenities and NOT destroy the world? If not and if the whole problem is so dire, what is stopping those of us who advocate a big change from actually taking the steps necessary to make the change? My argument is that we have still not come up with a satisfactory and comprehensive alternative that allows us to survive while at the same time preserving this standard of living we have become so used to. So many people talk of “going back to the land”, and yet very very few actually are willing to take the steps to make that move. It sounds idyllic from afar, but actually doing it, actually living directly on the land, growing our own food, using our hands and muscles to eke out our survival is in fact very hard work, and few of us are willing to return to such hardship.
What is the alternative? Do we abandon our civililzation like the Maya did? I say yes. I say create a society which is based on community sharing (ooooh no, not communisim!) and the simple reward of working for others and caring for the landscape one lives in. I say abandon the flashy cars and big buildings and social heirarchy of kings and princes (which the whole system of “presidents” and “chairmen of the board” and such follows, a very ape-like social system) and the over abundance of food for some and the aspiration for vast wealth and benumbed ravishing of the landscape simply to accumulate more… I say abandon all this and start with nothing again.
But can we do it? And my question for Mr. White, how?
I doubt anyone could come up with a comprehensive plan for this sort of change, Miguel, but here are a few broad strokes.
1. Define needs vs. wants at the individual level. Much of what we need is non-material – friends, love, good work, etc. – while much of what we want takes the shape of consumer goods and services.
2. Gather communities to practice living the bottom-line economic value of “enough for everyone.” Clear goals, accountability, and re-orientation of personal vocations toward this value would be the primary priority of such communities.
3. Network and facilitate dialogue across communities from different regions.
4. Build power for social change.
Read into this outline the huge resistance on the part of those of us – all of us in some way – who are addicted to the system as it exists and will do everything they can to sabotage this sort of life even as we strive to re-claim it. There’s no way to anticipate or plan for this sort of resistance, so prepare for a great deal of suffering as well.
My $0.02. (The price of advice in a consumer culture?)
“Never forget this when you are pondering over your diagrams and equations! There is enough money, enough work, and enough food, provided we organize our resources according to our necessities rather than be slaves to rigid economic theories or traditions. Above all, we must not permit our minds and our activities to be diverted from constructive work by preparations for another war.” — Albert Einstein
OK, first read through, I have to say I am not impressed with Mr. White’s arguments. This is Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” (without the ape) all over again. Return to more primitive ways of living, drop out of capitalism, OK, got it. I’m aware of the drawbacks of capitalism as much as the next person, but proposing no solution, Mr. White’s arguments seem to amount to nothing more than wistful thoughts.
I think the end of the essay, dating the loss of dignity in human life back to 1945 is way off, and shows a real ignorance of the history of philosophy and history in general. Quoting people like Voltaire while not recognizing the birth of modern atheism as one of the sources of mankind’s loss of dignity seems a bit nearsighted.
On the positive side, I do think his plea to use something other than merely scientific arguments in the cause of environmentalism is persuasive. You cannot ignore the spiritual side of humanity.
I also appreciated this quote,
“In its place we need a culture that understands success as life,” as well as the continuation of this argument for the “Party of Life” later on.
Does the author realize that the “Party of Life” is what many anti-abortion activists advertise themselves as belonging to? (Myself included.) Success is not really the right word, but yes, the goal of our culture should be to care for, protect and engender life…whether for the environment, the animal world or the people, born and unborn.
Any person who really wants to stop “Violence against the poor, violence against the vulnerable, violence against those who possess something you want, and violence against the natural world,” needs to recognize violence against the unborn to be consistent.
From where does our dignity come? How do you convince other people that they should have this reverence for Life? Without God, this arugment doesn’t hold water.
Why do we constantly criticize writers for not telling us what to do? Time to bring out Antonio Machado again. “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.”/”Traveler, there is no path, the path is made by walking.” White addresses this directly at the beginning of part III of “The Ecology of Work” and suggests that we begin to search for principles by which we might live with three questions.
1. What does it mean to be a human being?
2. What is my relation to other human beings?
3. What is my relation to Being as such, the ongoing miracle that there is something rather than nothing?
He does not say that we should stop working to oppose destructive corporations; far from it, he says we should continue that work. At the same time, we must acknowledge the deeper problem, which he describes as “our own integration into an order of work that makes us inhuman and thus tolerant of what is nothing less than demonic, the destruction of our own world.”
He does hint at some concrete suggestions, not as solutions but as beginnings for exploration. He says near the end, “Spiritual rebirth will mean the rediscovery of true human work. Much of this work will not be new but recovered from our own rich traditions. It will be useful knowledge that we will have to remember.” Learn to grow and preserve your own food. Learn how to build and repair where you live. Resist being corralled into a more and more specialized profession. This is not a program for a new society, a nostalgic vision for an uncertain future. He is simply acknowledging that we will not understand or be able to change our predicament as individuals if we do not reconnect our sustenance with our work and acknowledge the consequences of our economic activity. We must resist the alienating nature of work under capitalism that White credits as one of Karl Marx’s earliest insights.
If we try to work for a better world solely based on science and rationalism, which are also used to support capitalism and the blind suicidal rape of creation, we are lost. If we attempt to also reconnect with the spirit of existence, in whatever way works for us, we will have an inner strength we can share with others and renew ourselves with, a strength that oppressive systems do not understand and cannot control, for it lies outside their field of vision.
Many comments on White’s essay suggest that he is excusing capitalists and publicly held corporations. He is simply acknowledging the logic of corporations, that they will do what they do and destroy creation, not because they are evil that is their goal but because it is in their nature to maximize profits and minimize costs and grow, grow, grow to increase stock. He suggests in “The Idols of Environmentalism” that we stop thinking that the rhetoric of science and rationalism are the only legitimate modes of discourse, and start talking about the spiritual. If there is no spirit in what we say and what we do, we risk becoming zombified defenders of an abstract “nature” and lose sight of what it is we are doing.
I am thankful to White for emphasizing the primacy of work and the need to change our conceptions of it, for it is that work that is driving all this change. Corporations would not do what they do if there were no markets for their goods and services. To paraphrase a common pacifist slogan, “What if they opened a Wal-Mart and nobody came?” By our daily labor we change the world and ourselves, and we must not let our desires and our frame of vision be dictated by the market. If we let our sense of what we need and what we want be inspired by our family, our neighbors, and our surroundings instead of advertising, we will be able to work and live in a spiritually and morally fulfilling way. The collective result of people everywhere trying to do this is the world I hope for. We will no doubt find uses for publicly held corporations, international trade agreements, federal governments, and other collections of ideas, but they can only be as solid as the people who support them. We have much work to do at the roots. White’s suggestions are truly radical in that they challenge us to confront that small part of creation called our lives.
The arguments in White’s two essays are not new but it is refreshing to see them all in one place, since they are not often gathered together so comprehensively and succinctly.
Time to get off my computer now. There’s an abandoned city park several blocks from here that has filled me with wonder each time I visit it, and I’m in need of some context and inspiration before going “to work.” Thank you for all your insightful comments.
Capitalism, at face value as I understand it, is simply a system of allowing individuals to solicit the capital they need to start a business from anyone they choose with a minimum of interference by the government. Global corporate interests love to use the term “capitalism” as a catch all phrase for everything good about how they got to be rich and powerful. For those who abhor the behavior of global corporate interests to demonize “capitalism” as a description of those behaviors is to fail to recognize what is really going on and give global corporate interests the advantage in talking about the issue.
I asked about the definition of capitalism earlier because I suspect that the term is pretty useless if it is merely a code-word for all the bad things done by the companies that make up just less than half of our economic system.
“Fully 99 percent of all independent enterprises in the country employ fewer than 500 people. These small enterprises account for 52 percent of all U.S. workers, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Some 19.6 million Americans work for companies employing fewer than 20 workers, 18.4 million work for firms employing between 20 and 99 workers, and 14.6 million work for firms with 100 to 499 workers. By contrast, 47.7 million Americans work for firms with 500 or more employees.
“Small businesses are a continuing source of dynamism for the American economy. They produced three-fourths of the economy’s new jobs between 1990 and 1995, an even larger contribution to employment growth than they made in the 1980s. They also represent an entry point into the economy for new groups. Women, for instance, participate heavily in small businesses. The number of female-owned businesses climbed by 89 percent, to an estimated 8.1 million, between 1987 and 1997, and women-owned sole proprietorships were expected to reach 35 percent of all such ventures by the year 2000. Small firms also tend to hire a greater number of older workers and people who prefer to work part-time.”
Are anti-capitalists opposed to the following benefits of our current system?
“In terms of social cohesion:
• small businesses serve as an entry point into the economy for new or previously slighted workers: women-owned small businesses, for instance, generate nearly a trillion dollars in revenues annually and employ more than 7 million workers;
• small businesses increasingly generate entrepreneurial opportunities for minorities, which census data show as owning 4.1 million firms that generate $695 billion annually and employ 4.8 million workers;
• small businesses bring economic activity to distressed areas: about 800,000 companies (90 percent of them microenterprises) are located in the poorest areas of the 100 largest U.S. cities;
• small businesses offer job satisfaction and autonomy: studies show that most businesses are started to improve one’s condition, rather than for lack of an alternative, with some half a million new businesses started each month.”
I would be surprised if you are opposed to these kinds of opportunities for people. The real question is not what to call the system of economics that we live with, it is figuring out if it really expresses our values.
I value respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness. Therefore, I want every single person to have the opportunity to put a company together because they have the gumption and enterprise to provide goods and services to others. In a system of free enterprise, where this is true because the barriers to entry are very low, anyone can start a company by appealing to their friends, neighbors, and their entire network for the support they need, financial and otherwise. When the system respects the initiative of individuals, the individuals are supported with a clear set of legal requirements for being responsible about doing their business, and the individuals can be creative and resourceful about how they accomplish their business objectives, then I support that system no matter what you call it.
On the other hand my values are not expressed by a system that supports the cheap labor trap of slave wages that disrespect workers. My values are not expressed when multinational interests act irresponsibly by devastating ecologies and cultures. My values are not expressed by a system that uses violence and threats of violence to secure the interests of the global rich and powerful over the interests of the local and sustainable.
White’s article seems to me an exploration of a certain set of values. I found that his emphasis on “capitalism” exemplified by Weyerhauser, Monsanto, and “corporate evildoers” did not expose any useful guidance for expressing the set of values he was exploring. I get that he values work that does no harm, deepens the worker, encourages creativity, takes the collective risk for success as life, and makes good & beautiful things, but how do we recognize the forms of organization or a set of regulations on organizations that help or hinder those values?
I’m sorry, I thought this was a meandering pseudo-intellectual essay – classic tenured English Department drivel. It exhibits the depressingly common substitution of freeform spiritual woo-woo for ecological knowledge and classic environmentalist effort.
While the author somehow manages to hit a few good points, most of this forgettable tome makes Gary Snyder seem empirical.
Yes, unrestrained capitalism can be hard on nature, and modern accounting and economics are no sciences, but the author is in error on several points:
–One: It’s not intellectual conscience, it’s just conscience. “Intellectual” is merely inserted here through some form of Freudian self-image mechanism.
–Two: Human societies, and many other animals as well, can and regularly do harm their environment. Many tribal societies were forced into migratory patterns not just because of seasonal food sources, but because they depleted their surrounding environment as a matter of daily life, and had to move regularly. The only reason peoples like the Inuit didn’t devastate their environment was that they had a very small population (due to periodic famine), and didn’t possess the technology to dominate nature. That same boom-bust, eat yourself out of house and home phenomenon occurs regularly in predator/prey, and parasite/host relationships. It is not exclusive to humankind, and ‘Mother Nature’ (whoever the **** that is), is rarely a perfect equilibrium system.
Currently, mankind’s main problems are that our technology is so powerful, we haven’t shed a lot of old-school toxic production processes, and our population is soooooo huge. Society has to learn how to restrain itself, primarily in regards to population (medieval religious zealotry needs to be beaten down thoroughly), and toxic technologies that can easily be replaced, if industry is forced to do so through legislation.
The idea that mankind has to “set aside our modern notions of work and embrace a right livelihood that unifies personal needs and the interests of the larger world”
…I mean what the ****?!? Kindly translate that into actionable policy for me, professor.
If human beings evolved on Earth (did not descend from heaven or come here from some other place in the universe) and the emerging data of human overpopulation of our planetary home are somehow on the right track, then humanity could soon confront daunting global challenges.
Perhaps hubris confuses human reasoning about the “placement” of humanity within the natural order of living things. There is the rub, I suppose. We have learned from God’s great gifts to humanity — natural philosophy and modern science — that Earth is not the center of the universe (Copernicus); that we are set upon a tiny celestial orb among a sea of stars (Galileo); that such things as the Law of Gravity and the Laws of Thermodynamics affect living things equally, including human beings (Newton, et al); that humankind is a part of the general evolutionary process (Darwin); and that people are to a significant degree unconscious, mistake what is illusory for what is real and, therefore, have difficulty both adequately explaining the way the world works and consciously regulating our behavior (Freud).
Now comes unanticipated and unfortunately unwelcome data from Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel that indicate we have widely shared and consensually validated an inadequate, preternatural understanding of human population dynamics and willfully refused to appreciate the necessity for regulating certain distinctly human “overgrowth” activities. That is to say, humanity could soon be presented with a predicament resulting from 1) increasing and unchecked per capita consumption of limited resources, 2)seemingly endless expansion of production capabilities in a finite world, and 3)unbridled species propagation.
Extant data indicate that human influences could directly and primarily account for excessive extinction of biodiversity, creeping environmental degradation, and the voracious dissipation of limited natural resources.
From my humble vantage point, it does look as if the challenges posed to humanity by certain unregulated human activities overspreading Earth now are huge ones. Even so, we can take the measure of the looming challenges and find solutions to our problems that are consonant with universally shared values.
Is there even a remote possibility certain activities of the human species now rampantly overspreading the surface of Earth could soon become so dominant as to precipitate the mass extinction of biodiversity, the pernicious destabilization of the climate and the irreversible degradation of Earth?
Perhaps noticing the magnitude of the human influences resulting from a rapidly growing human population (6.7 to 9.2 billion human beings in the first half of the twenty-first century) upon the natural world is like finding a proverbial “elephant in the living room.”
No one can say how so large a creature ever got into our planetary home. Its very presence does not make sense. Even so, every human being on the planet can see some part of the leviathan-like creature. Some people see a gigantic tusk or a tail. Others see its head or some part of its massive body. Because the creature is so big that no one person can see the whole of it, we are free to believe and mistakenly conclude it simply cannot be real, not really.
If we simply agree to make the choice to deny its existence within our home, then we can ignore that which, in any case, cannot be completely seen by anyone. Henceforth, there is no reason to talk about the elephant. There is also no point in discussing either human limits or Earth’s limitations to support the elephant.
And not surprisingly, if we continue to ignore the elephant in our living room long enough by not talking about the potential threat it poses to a sustainable future for our children and coming generations; to biodiversity; to the viability of ecosystems; and to the integrity of Earth, as one of the world’s most prominent, visionless political leaders (gesturing by throwing up his hands toward the sky in dismay) recently put it, “We’ll all be dead.”
An unannounced, unwelcome and unacknowledged elephant lives among us……and can barely be seen, even now, in the offing as a potential threat to human and environmental health. offing.
I am surprised by the response of those who are so quick to throw the first stone at Mr. White by asking what he is doing? It seems to me that the question ought to be “What am I doing?” “Am I contributing to this system that isolates me from the created world?”
As a person who has begun moving away from the capitalist system, I will answer some of the questions about what the transitional step looks like:
For our family of 7 we began 5 years ago growing a garden, we converted 25% of our 1/4 acre lot into garden and grow enough food to sustain our family through the summer months. Last year we became vegetarians for health and ethical reasons and currently have begun re-learning skills in pottery and sewing. While it is true, I must buy the equipment for these endeavors, we continue to seek out non-power appliances and other tools that allow us to use our own bodies and our own minds in order to be creative and to engage the natural world.
Maybe the solution resides more in yourself than asking what another is doing? Since when did the ethics of the masses translate into a mind numbing opiate that releases me from charitable, ethical and equitable living?
Professor Curtis White provides much needed clarity about issues regarding patently unsustainable lifestyles (i.e., unsustainable ecological footprints) of many people in the predominant culture, issues that are not yet getting the thoughtful, widely shared attention they deserve. Many too many people in our culture appear to be embedded in a sort of blinding miasmic mist that is making it difficult for any of us to see, or to share an adequate understanding of, what human beings are doing in our planetary that plainly cannot much longer be sustained by the Earth upon which all life depends for survival.
If Curtis White is somehow on the ‘right’ track, then he helps us see more clearly the daunting global challenges that could at least potentially present themselves to humanity in the offing.
If we do not accurately diagnose the multiple threats ( e.g., global warming, lowered water tables and rising tides, pollution, biodiversity loss, etc) to the integrity of Earth and life as we know it that are visible, even now, on the far horizon, I do not see how we can be expected to come up with timely and able responses to these global challenges when they are presented to us, likely in this opening half of the twenty-first century.
Health of the Humankind’s Global Economy and Health of Earth’s Ecology go hand in hand.
In newspapers worldwide, seven days a week, we find the presentations of the wealth and health of the world economy by means of an array of economic indicators. We can see that economic globalization is carefully tracked and watched over.
The interlocking national economies of the world economy are also significant to us because economic systems are impressive, distinctly human inventions. The global economy is not a part of the natural world per se, nor does it operate like the economy of nature, but rather is an artificially designed, human construction.
Can you think of anything on the surface of Earth that could be even more important than the success of the economy? There are some things that come immediately to my mind: the integrity of the living Earth, the preservation of its biodiversity, and adequately functioning ecosystems. There can be no such thing as successful economic globalization if there is not a healthy planet from which it can derive resources and services. Life as we know it is completely dependent upon the natural world for survival.
Our children are taught that the economy is supported by the natural world in the sense that it and living things depend upon nature for existence. They learn that the human species depends on the Earth for its survival just like the other creatures in the planetary home God has blessed us to inhabit. There cannot be a healthy economy without adequate natural resources and frangible ecosystem services.
In light of these understandings there appears to be an unmet need for vital signs and data to be provided daily by the mass media regarding environmental health, such as ecologic indicators that give humanity reliable ideas about the health of the world in which we live.
If there can be no such thing as a successful economy without a healthy Earth, then more economic investment in ecologic indicators is timely and makes good sense. Let us invite the captains of economic globalization to make direct investments in the development and use of ecologic indicators that do as much to monitor and assess the health and viability of this tiny planet as the economic indicators do to measure the value and status of the human economy.
Are there reasons for humanity not to be as active in its efforts to protect the Earth’s ecology as we are to promote the success of the human economy?
Although it is not yet widely noticed by those leaders who are currently intoxicated with power and wealth derived from the global political economy, our children are beginning to look back in anger at the way my not-so-great generation of elders are mortgaging their future; recklessly devouring resources they will need for survival; for so much we are doing poorly and for global challenges we are failing to even acknowledge, much less address. I know it seems preposterous, but it appears we, the leading elders, are now falsely construing this woefully inadequate behavior by us to our children as an exercise of virtue.
Though difficult to report, it appears that my not-so-great generation of elders could be remembered with sadness for making the most colossal mistake in human history. That is to say, during the course of my long life, the masters of the universe from my generation have repeatedly obscured and magnificently failed to make comprehensible the formidable global challenges posed to humanity in these early years of Century XXI……..challenges to the future of life as know it on Earth which continue to be ignored even though certain clear and present dangers are now visible on the far horizon.
By staying the same ol’ business-as-usual course of adamantly insisting upon 1) perpetual increases in per human consumption of limited resources, 2) endless expansion of the global economy on a small finite planet and 3) unregulated propagation of absolute global human population numbers, we could be leading our children down a ‘primrose path’ no reasonable human being would ever choose to take. What a tragedy!
What of the legacy of our great colleague, the genius, Rachel Carson?
Please note that I do not have expertise in either population science or “the environment.” My field is psychology.
Who knows, the emerging, apparently unforeseen, thus far unchallenged scientific evidence of 1) human population dynamics, 2) the human overpopulation of Earth and 3) certain patently unsustainable global human “overgrowth” activities could somehow be flawed. And the widely shared and consensually validated Theory of the Demographic Transition (the theory used to justify untethered economic expansion of the global human economy, unrestrained per capita consumption of natural resources and unchecked increase of human population numbers worldwide) might be correct afterall.
At my advanced age, with waning faculties and diminishing vision, it cannot be ruled out that I have simply lost my mind and, even worse, lost touch with science itself.
Like some of the others (e.g., Mr. Feral) commenting on the two-part article by Curtis White, “The Ecology of Work,” I was disappoited. I have not been impressed that those professing “spiritual understanding” have anything better to offer in the way of cures for our eco-destructive ways than those equally concerned individuals who eschew all supernatural and/or transcendental beliefs. In my view humans are a very anxious species. Our excellent memory and intelligence may make us the only (or perhaps one of very few animals) that knows with certainty we will die. The anxiety induced by this unfortunate knowledge (usually supressed but not forgotten)leads us to frantically seek things or actions which have some hope of prolonging our life: be it wealth, the supression or killing of our competitors, religious conversion, or the partaking of drugs known or advertised to extend life. Given our technological expertise in neutralizing our predators and the biologically evolved imperative to have as many offspring as possible in order to survive as a species, we have, as could be predicted, vastly overpopulated our planet. Then, to add insult to injury to our overstressed ecosystem, we do as much as possible to prevent or delay the recycling of the nutrients remaining in our (dead) bodies by embalming, mummifying, or encapsulating our bodies in concrete. I have yet to see any evidence that the necessary coming to terms with death sufficiently to relax and seriously consider changing our destructive ways has been helped by those institutions offering life everlasting (at least of the spirit or soul) in exchange for seeking atonement (and a donation) for our behaviors. Yes, these are interesting times.
You sound like a reluctant existentialist, C.W. Nietzche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” would probably resonate with your opinion, and perhaps even Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.”
Maybe give Paul Tillich’s “The Courage To Be” a peek as well. He takes the next step and asks what our “coming to terms with death” would indeed accomplish.
I too think there’s really no way out. We will ultimately be met either by extinction as a species or by the extinction of our unsustainable lifestyle. Both are a form of death. So then the question becomes, will we meet death (whatever its form) with courage or with denial and fear?
You might call it a spiritual or psychological question, but when the chips are down, I’m not sure what other question will accomplish the task of giving us hope for the future – and at least the possibility of survival.
I think you’re conflating White’s notion of “spiritual” with organized religion here.
Mark Douglass, isn’t the extinction of our unsustainable lifestyle – the Walmart, fast-food, strip mall lifestyle – more of a return to life than a form of death?
What’s medicine for one is poison for another. Depends on your point of view, and your investment in the current cultural patterns of consumption.
Within the human community now, there is not nearly enough of this kind of discussion, one that employs an ecological perspective to focus upon, among other things, emerging scientific data regarding human enterprise, human overconsumption of limited resources, or the adverse impacts of the expanding world economy on the integrity of the living Earth. At least to me, these unattended matters are huge in size and importance but are not being given adequate attention. As difficult as this is even to imagine, it could be that humankind does not currently have an adequate enough grasp of the “placement” of the human species within the natural order of living things, nor do we have an good enough understanding of the “rules” of the planetary home in which we live.
The idea the Earth is like an ever expressive teat, a maternal-like presence (a la Henry George and Julian Simon) that has the capacity to endlessly provide humanity with whatsoever it wishes, may be magical thinking. That humankind has been blessed by God is not in doubt; however, to think that we are not a part of the evolutionary process or not subject to limitations and practical requirements of the physical world could be grave mistakes.
Current and dominant thinking about human population dynamics could be preternatural, outdated and illusory and, therefore, not sufficiently grounded in good science. At least one reason for the unaddressed global challenges looming ominously before humanity is our failure to accept either human limits or Earth’s limitations.
New and apparently unforeseen data from Hopfenberg and Pimentel on human population numbers have been ignored rather than rigorously examined and openly discussed.
The human community is in possession of unacknowledged and unwelcome research regarding overproduction, over-consumption and overpopulation of Earth by the human species. As a consequence, for example, humans are irresponsibly consuming resources as if we have knowlege that there is no end to the amount of food upon which we and other living things depend for existence. Much clear scientific data indicate resources from which food is gathered or produced are limited.
Economic globalization is rampantly overspreading the Earth. Is there an end to this expansion? After all, the Earth is not bouldless but rather has boundaries. In the predominant human culture a mistaken belief is presumably widely shared and consensually validated that humanity can endlessly and maximally expand the world economy without regard to limits to economic growth which are imposed by practical requirements of the finite natural world we inhabit.
Thanks to all for everything you are doing to protect biodiversity from mass extinction, the environment from irreversible degradation, the Earth from reckless dissipation and, perhaps, humanity from endangerment.
PS: Perhaps the time is coming when an organization like the United Nations will sponsor a meeting of all nations for the purpose of considering the distinctly human-derived predicament with which the human community at least potentially could soon be presented.
I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. White’s article, even though it didn’t make me feel hopeful. I think the reason why people are unaware of the miracle of the existence of all things is that they live lives completely removed from the natural world. Based on my own experience growing up in a crowded city, it is impossible to have a spiritual relationship with nature if you don’t have access to it. I used to be completely indifferent to anything natural until I moved to another country and started paying attention to the birds, butterflies, stars at night, etc. Birdwatching and stargazing are not simply activities to kill time, they are nourishment for the soul and they put you in touch with something greater than yourself. When you contemplate planet earth floating in the incomprehensibly vast and lifeless universe, you realize that the existence of all life is truly a miracle. It’s interesting that going to church never gave me this kind of epiphany. I don’t need any religion to tell me this living planet is sacred and there is mystery in Being. However, I don’t think that if everyone becomes a naturalist, earth will be saved. But it might help with the spiritual emptiness a lot of people feel, and put nature back into people’s consciousness so they’re able to make connection between their consumptions and consequences to the environment.
I believe that Mr. White’s essays frame the Janus-like problems of capitalism in an insightful manner. Certainly we can improve, but I’m not quite ready to throw civilization out the window yet.
Having been to many cities in Africa, Central America and Asia where there is almost no capitalism to speak of, where people are “human” and living closer than we to Nature, there is far more disease, poverty and despair. It’s bad enough even to witness one child dying in the street for lack of basic goods.
Perhaps the professor (and the Orion editors, who after all, are selling their ideas and magazine on the news stands) should get out more?
Deep within me there dwells a keen sense of foreboding as well as a dynamic urgency that results from what I see, already visible on the far horizon, as an ominous and looming, distinctly human-driven predicament, one that could threaten life as we know it and the Earth as a fit place for human habitation.
Subjecting certain global “overgrowth” activities of the human species to careful, skillful and timely scientific examination appears to be plainly and immediately required of those with expertise in science. Scientists could be unknowingly making the most incredible mistake in human history by not considering good evidence of human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth. Even in the next three to four decades, increasing human enterprise associated with economic globalization and continously growing absolute global human population numbers could become patently unsustainable on a planet the size of Earth.
Scientific investigations related to the scale and growth rate of human consumption, production and propagation activities worldwide appear to be woefully inadequate. As a consequence, silence has ruled over science. Perhaps a sensible case can be made for changing this situation so that where there is now silence, soon there will be open scientific discussions, rigorous scientific inquiries, critiques/interpretations of scientific data, and advancement of scientific knowledge as it relates to the way the world in which we live works and to the placement of the human species within the natural order of living things.
If we do not make some changes SOON in our unrestrained consumption, untethered production and unbridled propagation behaviors, then I fear for global biodiversity, original wildlife habitats, wilderness spaces, environmental health, the integrity of Earth and its resources……and for the survival of the human species, even through the first half of Century XXI.
I thought these articles were great – motivating and stimulating – friends in Dallas are mulling it over with me, and we’re very grateful for it. I also think this article stood out in the magazine and represented something new (at least from what I’ve seen this past year). If this is tenured, classic drivel … pour me another, please.
The question of the violent nature of humans often distracts from the real problem. Violence is simply one form of aggressive behavior, usually stimulated by competition for abstract reasons (wars for patriotism, etc.).
Humans, like all life, are tasked to come up with some Net Creative usefulness that will add structure to the universe. Whether that usefulness is in our offspring, our buildings, our cooperation with Nature, it doesn’t matter; what matters is the end result that tells Nature we are worth keeping. As long as we compete instead of cooperate, consume instead of create, and believe instead of question, then we will go extinct eventually. The Net Creativity of ourselves, our community, our locality, our species has to come out with a positive number. Not null; not negative; POSITIVE. In the black. All of the things which contribute to our ability to sustain ourselves through thick and thin are important: diversity, frugality, logic, kindness, violence when appropriate to protect the true individuals who form useful communities.
Dear Friends and Colleagues All,
I am searching for a road to sustainability.
Perhaps someone can offer guidance to those many elders in my not-so-great generation who have evidently chosen to eschew science and, for the sake of the comforts in our lives alone, to hold onto our one and only God: wealth accumulation and the power associated with it. Regardless of the consequences to environmental health, human wellbeing, the future of life, and the integrity of Earth, we want more and more money and all the things derived from it. Yes, we are insatiable, intellectually dishonest, and even call ourselves Masters of the Universe. We are loathe to live within the limits of biophysical reality, share resources, make behavior changes, and do what is necessary for assuring life as we know it to coming generations.
Please consider assisting me with an unfulfilled responsibility to young people and future generations…… a responsibility I call a “duty to warn”.
Without success over the past several years, I have been inviting population scientists, demographers, biologists, economists and anyone else with appropriate expertise to openly comment on the apparently unexpected and unchallenged evidence on human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth from Russell P. Hopfenberg and David I. Pimentel. I want to identify a deeply dedicated, top-rank brother or sister in the scientific community who possesses the necessary expertise and is willing to report in a professional manner on the Hopfenberg/Pimentel research?
According to this scientific evidence, humanity could soon come face to face with daunting global challenges, ones that result primarily from 1)unbridled human overpopulation of Earth; 2) unrestrained per human over-consumption of scarce resources and 3) endless expansion of the global political economy in the relatively small, finite world God has blessed us to inhabit.
Thanks for your consideration of this feeble request for help. Please feel free to contact me directly with a name or else have the scientist get in touch with me by email. I will do whatsoever is necessary to fulfill this unlikely personal obligation, one for which I am evidently unprepared and poorly equipped.
(Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D.,M.P.A.
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population
1834 North Lakeshore Drive
Chapel Hill, NC 27514-6733
“Enough” must come to replace “more” as the measure of success for societies and for individuals. Re-investment will have to take precedence over wealth, while growth and development must be balanced against survival and sustenance. In essence, sustainability requires permanently eliminating profit as the motivating force for economic activity, and replacing it with the goals of resource security that may then become attainable as we make the adaption to nature’s budget.
Dear Johnny Sundstrom,
Thanks for some “out of the box” thinking. Incidentally, it seems to me your views are not that “far out of the box”, but an extension of the obvious. I would be curious to learn the opinions of others.
Your perspective is refreshing.
While I believe Mr. White is right, recent experience and historical evidence indicate that being right is not enough to create effective change.
While I know many who have tried, I know of no one who succeeded in separating themselves from our economic system. In my experience withdrawing from the capitalist fray to lead a life of right livelihood is at best a statement. As climate change and economic instability bear down on the planet the slow progress of individual transformation will fall well behind increasing environmental damage and loss of life. While we live our lives of rightness, the basis of our livelihoods continues to erode.
But, Mr White is right. We are hamstrung by our involvement and belief in a system of economic integration founded on a 19th century interpretation of the principles of Darwinian competition.
It is indeed ironic that biological science, the citadel of evolutionary theory, has been the arbiter of environmental protection. When we base our environmental regulations on the discipline that is the guardian of Darwin’s legacy we limit our thinking. We limit our capacity to develop policies that challenge competition as the prime mover of economic and social progress.
But, perhaps revisiting our economic theories in the light of our current knowledge of ecosystem functions will bear some fruit. Gregory Bateson pointed out that the evolutionary unit of survival is not the individual species striving against its environment; it is the organism in its environment:
“Surely the grassy plains themselves were evolved pari passu with the evolution of the teeth and hooves of the horses and other ungulates. Turf was the evolving response of the vegetation to the evolution of the horse. It is the context which evolves…
“It is now empirically clear that Darwinian evolutionary theory contained a very great error in its identification of the unit of survival under natural selection. The unit around which the theory was set up was either the breeding individual or the family line or the sub species or some similar homogenous set of conspecifics. Now I suggest that the last hundred years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its ‘progress’ ends up with a destroyed environment…. The organism that destroys its environment destroys itself. The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment [context].”
Most of us know instinctively that there is more to life than competition, that our well-being rests with family, friends, relaxation, meaningful work and the recognition of our peers. A focus on the ability to cooperate, to recognize the needs of others, as important contribution to economic survival and social progress could lead us in the right theoretical direction. It is clear that the “invisible hand” of market competitiveness does not provide enough guidance.
Dear Johnny Sundstrom and ecoshift,
Even at my advanced age, seldom have I found understandings quite so sublime as those contained in your clear-sighted, intellectually honest and aesthetically consistent reports. Thank you for them.
Capitalism is doing what it is suppose to do, creative destruction. Some type of collapse will occur, we’ve been trending toward that eventuality. Whether it’s massive war, oil shortages, world pandemics and famine or combinations of these and other problems…humanity won’t deal with these problems until they happen. Seers and futurists can be listened to, but no action is taken until the predictions comes true.
Humans, mostly, are followers. We’ve followed consumerism until this point, why would we stop until it becomes a disaster? We’ll panic when we can’t afford gasoline for our auto-addicted society, but not until then. Consumerism simply isn’t geared toward spending money on predictions of disaster toward the masses.
Sure, the oil companies and the elites can plan for oil shortages by having oil wars, but preparing New Orleans for category 5 hurricanes prior to Katrina wasn’t high priority despite predictions.
What will happen in the USA is that the masses will be scrambling to adjust to new conditions as consumerism breaks down. We will be begging the government to “Do Something!” But of course the government has become so corrupted to a consumer society that massive help won’t be there.
Who knows how we can change prior to the events of change. We could plant our vegetable gardens only to have starving people overrun them because of an unexpected famine. A person could amass gold in case the dollar collapses, yet once someone found out you have gold, you may have to defend it with your life.
Human history has had massive disasters and sometimes the results could be describe as anarchy. Europe during and after either World War had to deal with some unfortunate circumstances, the masses wouldn’t have considered those times as good.
I think we are just going to have to essentially watch and wait. Prepare in ways you might think would help, but don’t count on those preparations any more than most Americans don’t expect to work for the same company their whole lives.
Humanity will just have to deal with the future as it unfolds, don’t expect the authorities (government, corporations) to be prepared or to come to the rescue. If we had a more direct democracy, an honest government, maybe we could depend on the government, but that’s just a dream as of now.
Dear Jon B,
More clarity of vision, more coherence of mind and more objective communication. Less happy talk. Thanks.
Just for a moment consider that not ever in the course of human events has a relatively small minority of people in a single generation — my not-so-great-generation of elders — taken so much from this good Earth and left so little behind for those who come after. What is also unacceptable is our pronounced lack of regard for the need to balance accounts or even to acknowledge a requirement of practical reality: the need for humankind to find balance with nature. Rather than repay the huge debts we owe and make “balancing” behavior changes, we have determined instead to adamantly pursue the same ol’ business as usual increasing consumption and production activities and, thereby, to mortgage the future of the children and coming generations, all the while proclaiming ourselves masters of the universe. Such hubris could be without equal in recorded history.
Curtis White points without reservation to some truths, truths that are painful and difficult to face. You don’t hear many people talking so honestly about the kind of change that needs to take place, not only for saving the planet (if such a thing can be done) but saving ourselves. Few people are even able to discuss such an idea, much less try to change their lives to reflect such ideals.
And yet, we must change. Inside, many of us want to change. We just need the courage and will. And perhaps faith, not necessarily in God, but in doing what we know to be true.
Thanks so much for sharing your recognition of the predicament in which humanity appears to find itself as well as for your understanding of the need for human behavior change.
You make clear how difficult it is for human beings to know what to do about a serious problem when we have not adequate ideas of the cause of our difficulties.
Would you agree Curtis White provides us with something of great value that reminds me of the diagnosis of an illness, one from which our culture is suffering?
Sometimes I read something and it calls to the front of my mind an emotional or spiritual discomfort that has been lurking in the background. I can never explain or pinpoint the discomfort until an article like this threads it together for me. This article did that for me and I am grateful. As I continue to redefine or discover what it is that I am supposed to do “when I grow up,” this article caused me to pause and gather up all those discomforts and define them to help guide my career’s evolutional steps.
I also have to agree with Miguel’s entry from April 24th that it is nice to talk about this, but another to lay the groundwork for a cultural tranformation. A secret little part of me hopes that the rest of the world continues to be status quo capitalistically “productive” in order to afford me the luxury of improving my efforts at living for my personal enrichment.
In the header of this discussion, Orion delineates a couple of White’s conclusions: “Curtis White argued that environmentalists conspire unwittingly against themselves” and “Does saving the world require forging a new kind of work?” From my perspective, I have experienced that settling too deeply into finger pointing as a livelihood is precisely how those who say they are concerned, ‘conspire against’ the change they want to see outside themselves.
Linking this discussion to Hawken’s article, it seems to me those who are effectively orchestrating “saving the world” have moved beyond the livelihood of preaching and complaining to the choir and educating the uninformed through guilt. A religious fundamentalist is convinced heaven and hell is inevitable. His evidence of a future outcome is just as factual as the environmentalist, but with one distinct difference: he believes his salvation doesn’t depend on the actions of anyone else. It is my opinion that it would behoove us to consider this option in the context of our livelihood of “saving the world” As Wendell Berry has said: “A change of heart or of values without a practice is just another pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life.”
I translate the “reverence for Being” White mentions in his article as a intimate practice. Any livelihood that emerges from being reverent for being brings me to the present without fear, anger, judgment or guilt of what has happened in the past, or despair for what might happen in the future. The only way to actualize a right livelihood doesn’t depend on who or what we can blame, it depends on our reverence for Being.
Too much unreal happy talk and melodious “chin music” regarding endless global economic growth at the G-8 Summit by our leaders, the modern day heirs of Ozymandias, king of kings….. woefully inadequate action on global warming, environmental pollution, biodiversity loss, natural resources dissipation, Earth’s degradation….. a colossal wreck in the offing. The stage is being set for the greatest calamity in human history. What a tragedy!
Talk, whether real, unreal, melodious or dissonant…I doubt anyone attending the G8 summit is reading your rant, or even remotely interested in your desperate, doomsday complaints. It’s all too familiar.
Your comments on this forum Dr. Salmony, are exactly the useless squawking that inadvertently promote paralysis of individual responsibility. The “tragedy” is seeking power by inflating the myth of the powerful and thus the powerless.
Dear A. E. Foster,
Thanks for your comments.
Perhaps I have not made myself clear. My appeals in this forum and other places are for the responsible embrace of sustainability, science, reason and realism; for the active deployment of human intelligence and ingenuity; for necessary changes in behavior; and for our children’s future.
The self-proclaimed masters of the universe among us appear not to hold a primary positive regard for sustainable living, good science, reasonableness and whatsoever is real.
The “tragedy” I am observing is not the one about which you complain. Perhaps you can say a bit more about “inflating…myth” as well as hubris.
The tragedy I see results from leaders who have lost sight of their “feet of clay.”
Your appeals “in this forum” appear to me as nothing more than seeking company for your misery. Your appeals for others (self-proclaimed masters) to be responsible incites the usual state of powerless dependency. This in itself is how a leader’s power becomes inflated.
I see evidence everywhere of human beings deploying intelligence and ingenuity, making necessary changes all in spite of unsatisfactory leadership. Have we ever had satisfactory state leadership with regard to the environment? Not in my lifetime. The myth is that the wise and powerful leader will solve the problem. Change is not going to happen that way and the changes happening now all originate from intelligent, small scale efforts. “We” the common human being, are the ones changing the world, we are the ones responsible, not our government celebrities.
Dear A. E. Foster,
It is safe to say that I am concerned and frightened, but misery is mercifully not an accurate word to describe either my life or state of mind. While there is misery in the world, to be sure, my life has been abundantly blessed, as have the lives of most people I know. For all of that, I am grateful to God.
Please understand that we evidently share much more in the way of common understandings than your words suggest. I am imploring those among us who have been given leadership responsibilities to accept and discharge their duties in more adequate ways. Also, my words advocate the empowerment of people everywhere, which appears vital to assuring able responses to the practical requirements of the world in which we live.
If it is all right to do so, let me suggest that necessary change is most likely to occur if both leaders and followers exercise our intelligence and other remarkable capacities for effectively addressing the formidable global challenges that loom ominously before humanity in these early years of Century XXI. Every capable human being has a role to play and fine work to do in securing a good enough future for our children and coming generations.
I apologize for my comments toward you about misery. We are certainly in agreement on many fronts. I am concerned, though not frightened. And I do agree that we all have equally valuable work to do.
With gratitude, A.E. Foster
Dear A. E. Foster,
There is nothing in anything you report for which an apology is called for now…..or ever will be.
At least to me, the work at hand is so vital that any one of us deserves abiding consideration and thanks who is willing and able, as you are, to speak out loudly and clearly about unwelcome things which are also forbidding, unbelievable, and irrefutable.
With thanks your presence and participation here and now,
I’m unsure we are actually discussing the same thing. Where I stand with regard to White’s essay is I don’t entirely agree with his basic perspective and I find his style and method of expression nonconstructive. I view his basic perspective as a “us(environmentalists) vs them (capitalists)format. My personal experience has been this perspective and approach contributes more to alienate and isolate society than to transform. He states in his second paragraph that “(We) are not the creators of our own world, we merely perform functions in a system into which we were born.” This statement while ringing sensible at first is only sensible because we are attracted to the comfort that something or someone other than “us” is to blame. Thus here we are, right from the start, engaged in the age old practice of defining enemies in the win/lose conundrum. If anything, this perspective, in my view, is the more insidious “system”, not capitalism. Capitalism, in the various ways it can appear to be destructive, is just a subsystem, a symptom, a reaction to the basic illusion that challenges human existence.
What does attract me in White’s essay, amidst what I consider “war talk”, is the proposal for transcendence and notions of spiritual rebirth and discovery. He proposes “spirit” is the means for “defeating the beast” “overcoming capitalism” and “self-overcoming” and although I see his point, the “overcoming and defeating” are expressions, indicative in my view, of perpetuating the origins of our suffering, not transcendence or transformation of suffering.
White speaks of transcending “beyond environmentalism” and I heartily embrace this proposal. He claims a deeper problem is becoming integrated into a system of inhuman work, and being tolerant of the destruction of the world. I consider that a problem too, in context, but there are even deeper problems. Again from my perspective, an equally deep problem is an unbalanced preoccupation with presuming the past and present equal an unpleasant, even horrifying future.
Our preoccupation with fear leads only to the “fight or flight” reaction. The status quo for environmentalism has been this preoccupation with fear for apparently logical reasons. However, the effectiveness of motivating through fear is questionable. I have personally found it more an obstacle than a solution. A “Party of Life” as White proposes as a result of a “beyond environmentalism” movement will, in my opinion, be impeded if we cannot shift beyond our preoccupation with seeking cultural transformation by using fear to manipulate behavior.
I think it was former Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess who claimed that American capitalism was so corupting that if the Russians ever did invade the US, by the time they got to Iowa they’d be opening McDonalds franchises. I don’t mean to be snide. I enjoyed both essays a great deal and I mostly agreed with them. But in much the same way that I enjoyed reading critical theory in grad school before I had to get a job to support myself. Precisely HOW does one leave capitalism behind, or persuade 300 million others to do the same? Buy TV commercials and sermonize to them? Set up a mall kiosk? I hate to sound this snide. But revolutions of any sort require a populate that’s open to a revolutionary message and actually hears it.
I wouldn’t say leaving capitalism behind is the goal, but rather to change it, morph it, improve it into something else.
I’ve felt for awhile that capitalism and democracy are almost oppositional. Just look at the structure of a corporation, it has the looks of communism. The CEO is the premier, the board is the politburo, upper management are party loyalists and the bulk of the workers are the masses. Only the handful at the top have any input (voting power). Corporations don’t give workers any democracy within a country called a democracy.
In fact, the natural goal of a corporation would be monopoly power which is in opposition to freedom of the marketplace as monopoly would fight against any possible competition. That’s why a democracy has to make laws to stop monopoly power. Yet as globalization has exploded, corporate power is beginning to supersede state governments, individual country laws are becoming moot.
But the current ills of capitalism are as well due to its transformation into an all out consumerist society. No longer do we consider necessities our prime purchases, or at least believe they are. We’ve been advertised to death to consume things that we are lead to believe are vital to our lives…and most important…to make those purchases on credit. Consumerism has become a structured and propagandized cycle of…create a desire, advertise that desire, sell the desire to then create another desire to supersede that previous desire, and with the unspoken keeping up with the Jones as part of the motivation. If too many people should somehow reject or be unable to participate in this economic premise the system would expose its fissures (recessions and depressions) that happen periodically.
Consumerism’s architects, economists and politicians, don’t control it but try to head off those fissures with minor tweaks and that is all that they can do. But mostly those adjustments these days are done to continue the status quo thus only delaying the down periods and in my opinion probably making the next fall worse.
Capitalism used to be about making sure a company was positioned for long term growth, now it’s all about short term profit. If a corporation begins to have trouble their leaders know they can get a big payout when their company gets bought out.
Consumerism used to be about personal financial stability, paygo for the household. Now, it’s standard to leave college in debt and to consume using debt. Without the massive usury in America, consumerism would collapse. In the past, only big ticket items were the norm for paying someone else interest, now it’s virtually everything that goes on a card that most people end up paying that extra fee (interest) for the pleasure of that “thing.”
Worse, we are inundated with advertisement to be a part of this scam. There is currently a credit card running TV ads that show everyone using the card, depicting the people as automatons, except for the one person who uses cash and is looked down upon for causing the assembly line of consuming to slow down.
But as most of us in this forum know, the oil based consumerist society may be in its twilight due to the fact that oil will begin to peak and throw a wrench into that assembly line of consumerism.
An interesting recent book, “Consumed” by Benjamin Barber.
On further thought…
We can’t ignore the role of empire in our consumerist economy. America can’t be a “successful” capitalist country in a vacuum, it must have foreign markets to continue to work.
We compete with other first world nations on par (even at a disadvantage) so it’s the second tier and third world countries that have to be exploited and turned into consumers. 15, 20 years ago globalization was called neo iberalism. Now with the Bush regime, it’s being called neoconservatism. The only real difference is the increased use of military to help to open markets. Not that the military industrial complex needed more emphasis, but now it’s unprecedented.
To me it’s insanity. To wage our oil war in Iraq our military must use massive amounts of oil. But Iraq was more than just about oil. They said so. They believed that if Iraq could be turned into a democracy (our consumerist styled democracy) then the other Middle East nations would follow suit, the domino theory. What a pipe dream, mission accomplished and time to sell Hollywood DVDs, credit cards and fast food.
The added bonus was to pump the economy of weapons production. Just like our cycled consumerism, the MIC has to sell to the government the latest and greatest innovations and then need those things used up in order to continue the cycle.
And “We the Sheeple” were advertised into believing Iraq was a good thing. Fear wrapped in patriotism broadcast not as commercials but as regular TV programming. And it WAS a good thing…for the cable news networks. A war is great for ratings, the corporations came running for ad time to run on these corporate TV channels. “There may be a war going on, but BUY our car!”
Media consumerism is a vital portion of our consumerism, we are made to feel the need for cable or satellite TV, it’s must see TV, for a fee of course. More scam. TV programming has mostly become nothing more than a reason for selling advertising. And look at how pervasive infomercials have become. We pay a cable fee to watch hour long commercials? Unbelievable. But why should I be surprised when now I get to read advertisements above urinals?
But I digress. It’s looking more obvious that we can’t open up markets in the Middle East for consumerism, but ending the Iraq War would be a proof against neoconservatism and the true believers think that that would show the US as weak (as well, the MIC would have reduced profits), so the war will go on.
American exceptionalism is never having to admit a mistake, to just go on and try to innovate a different idea. The Iraq War has become the perfect storm. Capitalism’s creative destruction versus anti-capitalism Jihad, everyone with an ideology wins, except of course regular Iraqis and American soldiers. We get to constantly rebuild a country that is constantly being destroyed, it’s good for our economy.
It’s also becoming obvious that our democracy is broken. We have a domination of corporate consumerism linked to empire building that completely ignores the will of the people. Even elections are nothing but consumerism. The billions spend for media campaigns has become a real chunk of the economy. People depend on these jobs…printing the yard signs, creating the TV ads, scheduling the appearances, blowing up the balloons…like clockwork every two years.
And for what? To enrich the major donors that paid for the ad campaigns with favorable legislation and to continue the economic status quo.
There are so many examples of how democracy in America has hit new lows but one stands out for me. That energy bill that passed with billions in subsidies to the oil companies was a few months later followed by the retirement of Exxon CEO Lee Raymond with a $400 million parachute. Congress essentially cycled our tax dollars to fund a millionaires retirement. If that’s not robbery, I don’t know what is, and done on the basis of democracy, no gun or ski mask needed. In fact, we paid Congress to do this to us.
A complete fleecing but not on the scale of the Iraq War which is estimated to cost every human living in the US $2,000. That’s everyone in a nursing home to the babies born yesterday. But as of today that cost will probably be born by those born today since the war costs have simply been added to the deficit.
How this house of cards can keep going on is beyond me. But then again, trends change, up can become down, and I suppose the love of money is the root of all evil. The addiction to oil will probably be our path to rock bottom, another addiction baby boomers will have to face.
I agree with jon b. Leaving capitalism behind is not precisely the solution, nor is capitalism precisely the problem. A key in all of this is not capitalism as a system, but the values, priorities, wisdom and conscience of we who participate. In other words: what makes capitalism look demonic is a capitalist without a conscience, without a concern for (all) the consequences of his or her profit seeking. This is not a new problem for humanity. And the solution(s) have been written for us since the dawn of civilization.
Quoting E.F. Schumacher: “What are the moral choices? Is it just a matter…of deciding how much we are willing to pay for clean surroundings? Mankind has indeed a certain freedom of choice. It is not bound by trends, by the “logic of production,” or by any other imaginary logic. But it is bound by truth. Only in the service of truth is perfect freedom, and even those who today ask us to free our imagination from bondage to the existing system, fail to point the way to the recognition of truth.
Further he says: “Everywhere people ask; “What can I actually do?” The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.”
Thanks for your presence and active participation.
If speaking out loudly and clearly about good evidence from the best available science is allowed to be falsely identified and perniciously rejected as the behavior of unrealistic alarmists or silly Chicken-littles, then the future for our children begins to look bleak. At least one unfortunate result of so colossal a failure to communicate good science could be that the self-proclaimed masters of the universe in my not-so-great generation of elders, the modern heirs of Ozymandias, king of kings, will have their way with the planetary home we have been blessed to inhabit and, I suppose, will proceed by means of their adamant sponsorship of rapidly expanding big-business-as-usual activities to overwhelm the Earth with the ubiquitous adulterating effects (e.g., industrial pollution) of unbridled human enterprise.
A.E. Foster evokes the remarkable words of E.F. Schumacher to indicate that the contrived “logic of production” and the endless expansion of super-sized corporate conglomerations are not what matter. What does matter is our steadfast service to what is somehow true and real regarding the world upon which all that is alive completely depends for its very existence.
As I understand capitalism, as distinguished from global corporatism, it is the structuring of the economy to allow anyone to acquire capital resources from anyone else within the limitations set by the SEC. This is an economic idea that is distinguished from the systems of other places where there are many more numerous restrictions on who can acquire access to capital resource an from whom.
Global corporatism, on the other hand is the pernicious spread of unaccountable corporate power over the earth. Global corporatism is a governance problem, not an economic one.
Thus I am under the impression that capitalism is a more democratic form of economic organization, but it has been severely corrupted and distorted by the rise of unaccountable private corporate entities that have transcended traditional accountable forms of governance.
I suspect that what White is trying to say is that work in it’s highest form is a soul enriching activity, but when it is stripped of the meaningful connections to high purpose, intimate community, and serving real needs it is a soul sucking waste of time. The problem is the lack of control of your own destiny, a personal governance issue. The problems of global corporatism and the meaninglessness of work are governance issues about accountability at the large scale and empowerment at the small scale.
Please refer to my earlier comments from april 29th and May 4th for a little more on my perspective.
Based on my understanding I believe capitalism is a good thing but global corporations frequently misuses capitalism to abuse and degrade people and our earthly home.
If you disgree with my understanding and insist on demonizing capitalism, would you please define what, specifically, you are against?
Hi Don Berg,
Capitalism is not democratic, it’s an economic system and not a political one. Certainly a politic system allows capitalism, but that political system doesn’t have to be a democracy, note China’s capitalism currently. All countries politically manipulate their economies, no matter the economic system or political system.
In the US currently the efforts by libertarian economics (Chicago School, Milton Friedman, et. al.) has been on the rise for several decades. This is marked by deregulation, less restrictions, privatization, etc. that if taken to its extremes would naturally lead to something out of “1984,” with only a small handful of huge corporations. The libertarians won’t say this, nor do they actually think their ideas lead this way.
The only reason we don’t have that handful of huge corps. is that we regulate and we have an old law from the progressive era called anti-trust. But that anti-trust law has been altered over the years enough that most sectors of our economy have merged into two, three or four corporations. It’s that anti-trust law that prevents those sectors from becoming only one corporation and further multiple sectors owned by one corporation.
How capitalism could be called democratic under these natural tendencies to monopolize is not clear to me. We don’t vote for corporations, although the libertarians will say we vote with our dollars. But if consumers are given few choices to choose from, is that really democratic? Is America’s two party political system really democratic? I don’t think so, there should be many more choices.
Consider one industry, breakfast cereals, dominated by two major corporations with two others trying to hold their own and then a few others of the regional variety. Without an anti-trust law, Kelloggs and General Mills would buy up or merge with Post and Quaker Oats, then eventually merge together, one big corporation. Those regional and small companies would cease to exist as the big corp would stymie every attempt to have those little players shelf space. Shelf space at grocery stores already is a battleground of both collusion and suppression to get the shelves to have the make up you see today when you visit the store.
Look at nearly every sector of our economy and count the number of big players. Oil, cigarettes, beer, packaged meat, on and on. You can’t judge by the name because so many names are only subsidiaries or brands of a bigger company. Even TV and the media is consolidating faster than we can keep track of.
TV is a good example of the hiding of the lack of competition. We are told we have so many choices of stations, but just a handful of corporations own most of them. ABC/Disney, Murdock’s Newscorp, Viacom, AOL-Time/Warner. Let’s take Viacom and a partial list of stations…CBS, UPN, MTV, CMT, TNN, VH1, BET, Comedy Central, Showtime, Sundance, The Movie Channel, Nickelodeon, and that’s just a partial list of TV, they own 7 book publishers, Paramount studios, and a host of other entertainment ventures.
The only thing holding these goliaths from becoming one huge ogre is that anti-trust law. One political law, that’s basically it. The only democracy involved is when We the People sometimes get riled up and oppose more mergers which happened a couple of years ago when the FCC was going to allow the media giants to own more local media.
I don’t see where capitalism is democratic. You may think it’s just corporations, but private companies would do the same thing, the reason they don’t become as large is that “going public” allows for financing on a huge scale. Thus corporations have the advantage over private companies.
401K plans are a big piece of that money pot for corporations. High percentages of 401Ks are invested in the stock market, as opposed to other investments, thus funding corporations and allowing them access to more financing from the big banks (another industry of giants). Most people have no idea what stocks they own in a 401K, the money goes to a fund manager moving the dollars around the corporate choices. These fund managers are big players having such influence on billions of dollars in the market.
Again, where’s the democracy in all this? You might say, no one forced people to contribute to a 401K plan, yet for far too many people in this country a 401K is the only real option for retirement, they have become so pervasive. 401Ks became a political tool (invented by Congress) to essentially prop up the stock market.
Remember the stock market falling in 2002? If it wasn’t for the 401Ks, the market probably would have been a devastating crash. Plenty of people don’t have any real control over their 401Ks and can’t day trade their way out of a crash, nor yank their cash out. In fact most people in 2002 were not even aware of what little they could have done. There is vast ignorance in this country about 401Ks, people contribute but don’t even understand them.
Past crashes were the result of the natural reaction of herd mentality. Buy as the market rises until the bubble burst, sell as it free falls. In 2002, 401Ks held back that herd mentality. Not that people didn’t lose a lot of money. Those heavily invested in their own company (enticed or ruled into doing so) lost their retirements, Enron, Worldcom, etc.
I’m getting off topic. Why do I “demonize” capitalism? I don’t, I criticize it because it is a system with plenty of imperfections. Capitalism has never solved recessions for instance, has probably never solved depressions either. And capitalism has no feelings for those left behind, the poor and the individuals who can’t compete in the marketplace for numerous reasons. It takes a political system to address capitalisms castoffs.
Capitalism in America of today favors the rich and statistically has been enriching that small portion of the population like never before. A democratic economic system would give everyone an equal chance as a democratic political system gives everyone one vote. Capitalism can’t do that, the objective is to beat everyone else and not care about the beaten.
Capitalism COULD get better. There are plenty of ideas and laws and regulations and ways to nudge it into a more equal system. At different times in our nations history capitalism has been better. I’d start with a new court challenge to the concept that a corporation deserves the standing of personhood. I’d also make anti-trust more strict, for instance a company couldn’t have more than 20% of any industry and that may be high.
The paradigm behind U.S. economic principles is based on the most ancient and common of human conditions…discontent. Discontent arises out of the erroneous perception of needs. It is a loss of insight and wisdom of knowing what one actually needs distinguished from what is merely a desire running into greed. Capitalism at its worst, is simply a reflection of this ignorance.
From this perspective I think White is correct in pointing out this is “spiritually impoverished. Bankrupt ,if you will.”
In answer to ml’s “Does anyone know of a university course that teaches Aldous Huxley as the main topic as Shakespeare or Freud might be taught?” I have seen people working hard at actually practicing it, including teaching, in intentional communities in northern Missouri (amidst Amish and Mennonites). There are many more examples with a lot of teaching going on, probably most productively outside the university setting as my feeling is that the university setting already frames the learning according to a commitment to the dominant destructive institutional framework. I saw many deeply inspired young people of all ages there, who because they were outside they university, with its classrooms and systems of funding and finance, were in much better position to work these things out.
Regarding “the destruction of the Indonesian and Brazialian rain forests by the fires set by individual farmers,” the people doing this are by no means outside of the framework. They are liquidating the forests to use the land for producing export crops such as beef or else just simply trying to live in a world that has turned them into surplus laborers. It is a far cry from the burning practiced by indigenous Amazonians and other forest peoples, which has been described as “forest fallow,” or the Australians or Ho Chunk, etc. who used fire and nature’s rythms to coax nature to be even more productive.
I agree with Whites essay that capitalism is the root of our envioronmental problems.
To continue on the theme of alienation Marx would say that as a result of alienation people come to fetishize commodities…
Hence materialism and rampant consumption that outstrips natures capacity to reproduce.
But why do we become alienated and how does this class system develop in the first place?
the answer PRIVATE PROPERTY… continuing the connection between humans and nature, private property is unnatural and the root of capitalism which I believe we should transcend…
However the discussion of moral and values and whats right does not go far enough…
We might consider more the immediate needs of working class people who are the majority of America and the world….
many people are challeneged to sustain adequate wages, nutrition and health which limits their capacity to lead a happy life
True we should think of this as a moral issue, but besides that connect to thos who have an immediate interest in seeing the system change…
Inequality should be more openly discussed and challeneged by mainstream social movement organizations
OIL is the central focus here I think… Itm undegirds the global “capitalist” economy, but the capitalist system undermines itself by overexploiting this resource that threatens our global ecosystem, leads to wars and creates huge gaps in income…
Science itself does not abandon morals, but frames them in another way. If you read Darwin, for example, he tells us that that success of a new life forms comes in the emergence of more and more varieties, as it moves into different environments, something I think has been called “adaptive radiation,” in which life and cultural forms create increasingly diverse ways to capture, convert and store energy. Capitalism, though it justifies itself in terms of the “Survival of the Fittest” and being scientific, is actually anti-evolutionary and we could say anti-scientific, because, if it is diversifying, it is only doing so based on a very narrow energy base, like a fungus living off the dead matter of fossil fuels, while largely dismantling the living diverse products of evolutionary process–biological and cultural–wherever it goes. Scientific understanding would present a very different imperative from that of capitalism that calls for preservation of all forms of life as great as any religious morality, and with a lot sounder basis.
With the quality of work is the quantity of work. While it’s more fun to criticize others’ kind of work, it’s necessary that we advance a new amount of work. To the extent work is bad, less of it is better.
Look at the history of the workweek. Fourty hours is not a circadian rhythm. After one of the Black Deaths, it was as low as 14 hours, due to serfs, for a while, not having to compete for good farmland.
Bucky Fuller once figured it could be two hours. Juliet B. Schor (Overworked American) noted if increases in productivity were applied to shortening the workweek, in one lifetime it could drop to single digits.
To shorten the workweek, we can’t mandate it. Instead, we must pay ourselves an extra income, a la Alaska’s oil dividend. Not just to shrink the workweek, but for many reasons we need to redirect all the money we spend on the nature we use from a few bank accounts to everyone’s pockets. Redirect that multi-trillion dollar flow with taxes on sites and resources and dividends to us all.
Seth Long almost got it. The problem is not private property, since we all need both privacy and a place on earth, but absentee ownership. Lose that and lose capitalism.
Capitalism – that partnership of elite and state that seeks rents and dishes’em out – could not survive in a freed market, one free of tax breaks, subsidies, and the private retention of the socially-generated values of sites and resources.
A la Alaska, a la Aspen CO, share what’s ours, thereby shrink the workweek, and lose the eco-unfriendly jobs.
Yeah, Jeffrey Smith,
Absentee ownership is probably a huge reason for the economic disparity. I remember an interesting judge’s sentencing in one of our major cites (New York?) where the defendant was sentenced to living in his own poorly maintained tenement apartment.
Our housing boom (and now going into bust) was driven by several factors but one was the purchasing of second and third homes, some of those of course becoming rentals. So we got more suburban sprawl. But interestingly, there are now more houses sitting empty and what will the market look like as boomers retire to smaller homes or even out of houses to retirement condos or communities?
Capitalism of America’s 19th, 20th and now 21st century continues its boom /bust pattern. Housing is another example. Housing is also an example of the difference between the rich and poor and the people who live like they are rich, but aren’t.
We have the McMansions of newer suburbia occupied by too many who are basing their wealth on the supposed worth of that house yet are in arm mortgages contrasting poor immigrants crammed into postage stamp apartments. We have the actual wealthy with real mansions (remember Enron’s CEO Ken Lay and his wife so upset that they had to sell a mansion to pay for their defense, they had four mansions) contrasting to the working class, two incomes trying to afford a decent house to raise a family.
The housing bust is only in its first stages, it make take a decade or so to wash out, but it will be interesting to see the final results. I imagine a time when many of the McMansions become empty buildings due to the distance from city centers most of them are located, a reaction to higher oil prices and unsustainable mortgages.
Curtis White hits the bulls eye- and its on the right target! Until society looks at deeper issues, as related to Deep Ecology, most environmental approaches are superficial at best.
Dear Hunter Lilly,
The point you make is difficult to grasp, even though I do agree with it.
Somehow, we have got to help one another gain a view of what is below the surface of things as they appear, so as to more realistically see things as they are.
For example, when looking superficially at the Earth, it reminds me of a Mother’s perpetually providing teat, one that endlessly responds with nutriment to all of my desires, wishes and needs. On closer inspection of the Earth, thanks to a virtual mountain of good scientific evidence, it becomes possible to see that the planet we inhabit is really finite, relatively small and noticeably frangible.
Making an adequate enough distinction between what is not more than apparent and what is somehow more than likely real, according to good science, could have profound implications for the ways in which human beings choose to conduct their lives in the planetary home God has blessed us to inhabit.
Thank you jon b for your thoughtful reply.(#70 on jun 13th)
[I had difficulty posting before so I put my take on this conversation on my blog, too, http://blog.attitutor.com/2007/06/wrestling-with-c-word.html%5D
I don’t know where an economic system leaves off and a political system starts, it seems to me they are so intimately intertwined that it is not a practical distinction most of the time. I still can’t tell what most people mean by the term “capitalism” except as a generic term for either good things or bad things depending on their political affiliations.
But, let’s see if I understand your broader points correctly: You believe that a more democratic economic system that allows everyone an equal chance at participation in economic activities is a good thing. But, if the economic system is regulated as a purely competitive set of relations that actively excludes cooperative or altruistic behavior then it is bad. Perhaps you even believe that the well-being of real people (and the eco-systems they depend upon?) is of paramount concern therefore organizations should not be given equal status as persons because that status allows them to exert unfair influence over individuals and disadvantaged groups. If that is the case then we agree on the important stuff.
I believe that every real person who has the guts to start a business should be able to do so with a minimum of interference from the government. Our current system of state registration of businesses is, I believe, a highly effective system for facilitating that process with a minimum of hassle and expense. There are several options of organizational forms with different levels of reporting requirements which provides flexibility to meet different kinds of needs. The system also takes a largely hands-off role in overseeing the raising of capital for businesses, since complaints have to be filed before capital raising activities will be scrutinized. At small scales of business the current system is excellent as demonstrated by the facts about small business that I quoted before.
On the other hand I believe that the government has a responsibility to ensure that the conduct of business, especially by large corporations (regardless of whether they are held publicly or privately), is done in ways that preserve the purity, strength, and resilience of our earthly life support systems. The current situation of global corporate powers that act without any meaningful input from the people whose fates they are determining is wrong. It does not matter whether those decisions are made by an “economic” organization, a “political” organization, or any other kind of organization, the people who have a stake in the outcome of the decision have a right to participate in the decision making process. Until all organizations actually take their stakeholders rights to self-determination seriously, then we will continue to have injustice and corporate abuses of economic and political power in the world.
So, if we actually agree on the most important points about how the system is supposed to work, then the question is whether we can make a meaningful distinction between the generally good participation that occurs at small scales in business and the abusive participation that happens at large scales in business. The problem is shifting the behavior of organizations that are so large in terms of the extensive financial and informational resources that they wield them without any reasonable checks and balances against abuses against people, less powerful groups, and the environment.
P.S. If you would like to support entrepreneurs in the third world to participate economically I recommend Kiva.org where you can loan $25 or more to individual business owners. I loaned money to a 19-year old in Azerbajian who is a refugee but has been in business for 2 years and is now expanding his business for the second time. Wouldn’t you like to be your own World Bank and set international aid policy independent of the government?
Dear Jon B, Hunter Lilly and Don Berg,
It pleases me so that your eyes are working just as intended;
you are of sound mind;
you can think for yourselves; and
you have demonstrated an adequate capacity for experience.
Somehow, it is possible for you to see things about the human species and the world we inhabit…..things many brothers and sisters among us, the ‘many too many’ who are embedded in the predominant culture, are not yet seeing.
Imagine for a moment that you have awakened early this very morning just before dawn. Recall the quality of darkness just before dawn. You cannot see anything. Almost everyone else you know or have ever known is not stirring; they remain asleep.
With the coming of dawn the world begins to become visible. You see things you have seen every day of your life. But on this morning, for the first time, everything about the familiar landscape is somehow unexpectedly different. Once those who are asleep awaken, they will also see a new way that which is completely unanticipated in the unchanged landscape.
I would say that we are in general agreement, although neither of us can in this forum really explain our total feeling or ideology. I’m sure there are differences, probably sublet.
I certainly agree that corporate power is a huge concern and a powerful influence over our “democracy” to the extent that our democracy has become broken and the economic system is tilted in the favor of corporations. I sense you understand the personhood that corporations have been given back in the mid 19th century and that that is probably the main reason corporations have achieved such power over the decades.
As you state…”The problem is shifting the behavior of organizations that are so large in terms of the extensive financial and informational resources that they wield them without any reasonable checks and balances against abuses against people, less powerful groups, and the environment.”…I agree, unfortunately corporate power has taken hold of the political system.
I don’t see a change in this problem until the corporate capitalist system falters and proves itself highly unreliable for its workers (I use the word “highly” because corporations are often unreliable for workers), a depression would be the obvious proof.
Looking back at our history, progressive changes (child labor laws, unions, equal rights, etc.) occurred when corporations and trusts showed their true colors to the masses, those colors were economic failure or worker oppression.
Those colors are happening now, we notice it less because of globalization where corporations use other nations workers as they did American workers in the past. And corporations could care less if those workers are in democracies, in fact they prefer dictatorships or weak governments that can’t prevent the abuse or actively help in the abuse.
Your beginning…”I don’t know where an economic system leaves off and a political system starts, it seems to me they are so intimately intertwined that it is not a practical distinction most of the time. I still can’t tell what most people mean by the term “capitalism” except as a generic term for either good things or bad things depending on their political affiliations.”….is such a huge subject.
I can offer this about capitalism vs a political system (democracy). Capitalism unaffected by a political system comes down to “everything is for sale.” In our history it took a political system to enact and enforce laws to end slavery, humans were for sale in our fledgling capitalism.
We can compare China’s capitalism to America’s. In China there is a communist government that decides what is allowed to be produced without the peoples input. They allow large companies to accumulate capital to expand, they oversee the companies and as well subsidize them. In the US, we elect politicians to represent our desires of capitalism (or so it’s suppose to work that way) and they set the rules for companies, regulate them and even subsidize them. Both governments tax their economy to fund their governments.
China now as opposed to the Soviet Union has a different economic system. Russia had no private companies, the production was all controlled by the government.
What hasn’t really been tried is a economic system of government run (socialist) but with a direct democracy (instead of electing representatives the people would vote on direct issues that would affect the government companies as well as the laws of state. Workers at a entity might get some type of extra say about their entity. Think of the postal service workers as well as the rest of the population deciding perhaps the price of stamps.
Or perhaps a direct democracy and capitalism with companies having to be open for all to see and direct democracy within the company, workers having the power to vote on all sorts of decisions, such as what product to make, how much to pay in salaries and how much to invest from profits, etc. We have these now in the form of cooperatives. A direct democracy might elevate cooperatives to the highest economic entity rather than a corporation.
Economic systems and political systems both work together and work against each other, they overlap yet try to repulse each other.
Anyway, I’ve gone on too long.
After reading the articles by Curtis White and the letters-to-the-editor about the articles, I would like to point out an idol, or myth, that guides Mr. White’s arguments.
Most cultures have myths about a “golden age” in pre-history when humans were in harmony with nature and each other. Archaeology shows that most pre-industrial and pre-capitalist societies had the ability, and the lack of vision, to destroy their environments and have near constant intertribal warfare. From the Khemer Empire at Angor Wat, to Mesopotamia, to the Inca, Maya and Aztecs in Mesoamerica, humans have proven their effectiveness at deforestation, erosion and soil depletion. And their ability to independently create slavery, genocide and class systems. For examples of low tech deforestation we only need to look to Scotland, Lebanon and Haiti. Farmers and goats can be as effective as bulldozers and chain saws in changing a landscape.
The times and places when ecological devastation was not the norm were when human population densities were low. History does not provide us an example of sustainable civilization at a high population density. If the present global human population of six and a half billion were to try to subsist without fossil fuels, the planet would be treeless in a very short time. Population fluctuations are normal for most species. As they have successful seasons of reproduction, they over harvest their food sources and have seasons of stress and mortality. We too live within the cycles of nature. We have also proven ourselves to be a feisty species which recovers quickly from famine and epidemics.
The guiding questions that Mr. White suggests should lead our decisions: what does it mean to be human, what is my relation to other humans, and what is my relation to Being, have never been the guiding principles for individual decision making, even in the mythic era of human nobility. Security and comfort for oneself and ones family have always guided daily decisions. And replacing the language of science with the language of morality will not suddenly “wake up” humanity. The Darfur and AIDS crises , and many others, that are brought to our attention with pleas to our ethics, still face public apathy. Housewives in China, Syria and Denmark will still choose to buy a new refrigerator to serve their families’ needs over trying to defeat world hunger.
There are two sources of insight and inspiration that I would like to suggest to your readers. The first is from your long time contributor Wendell Berry. He wrote a commencement speech for the College of the Atlantic in 1990 titled “Word and Flesh”. He makes the argument to work well, commit to place and live “poorer” very eloquently. The second is a book by the economic historian Robert Heilbroner, The Promise of the Coming Dark Age. Gray clouds do have silver linings.
I agree with most of Mr. Whites insights and conclusions, including the fact that environmentalists are as dependent on a dysfunctional system as the rest of us. But this just emphasizes the fact that everyone, including environmentalists, is in the same boat and must change society’s norms and presumptions together.
Whether you are working for a better world as a poet or a marine biologist, I thank you.