Friday, September 5, 2008

Expand or Die

In his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination for president, Senator John McCain summarized his primary philosophy of life, that all of us must fight for everything we have and hope to get, with country first. This followed a convention that promoted the world view that protecting, enriching, and growing the ranks of people like us is the duty of every American.

In a nutshell, this world view explains much of what has happened over the past eight years under ultra-conservative political domination: Military occupation and economic plundering of other countries, privatization of government, arbitrary detention and torture (of “others” who might pose a threat), domestic spying (finding the “others” among us), and environmental destruction (where the rest of Nature as simply a set of resources to be consumed). People who don't match their rigid definition of a “real American” as a Christian, heterosexual, economically productive Caucasian have been at best pitied, and at worst subjected to ridicule and restriction of opportunities to survive and thrive.

That many liberals choose to broaden the definition of “us” to include all of humanity (for some, even other species) is too much for ultra-conservatives to handle. They are lost in a world where “others” can't be easily identified and controlled; where behaviors rather than people are evil; and where survival depends more on cooperation than competition. Unfortunately for them, such a world is the one we currently live in, and pretending that it's something else can only lead to pain and suffering on a massive scale (as fundamentalists of other faiths and cultures continue to prove).

The “us versus them” attitude has had historical value. In small, relatively isolated groups, it has led to the evolution of different behavioral and physical attributes attuned to the unique environments where they reside. “Others” who did not have such attributes threatened the survival of the groups, which meant they either had to be assimilated, marginalized, or eliminated. As resources ran out and waste overcame them, groups needed to expand or die, which led to either conflict with occupants of areas they expanded into, or exploration and settlement of uninhabited areas that required a strong focus on taking risk for personal gain.

Most such groups have merged into larger communities with global reach (or are in the process of doing so). These larger communities are forced by common interest to cooperate with each other in an era where their actions can jeopardize the future of the entire human species. At the same time, our exponentially growing consumption of resources (such as fresh water, arable land, fossil fuel, precious metals, other species) and its attendant waste (pollution) is forcing our new global community to make the same choice its ancestors dealt with: expand or die. To expand, we will all need to work together as the problem is too big for any of us. If we choose to die, by complacency or mindless pursuit of self-interest, then competition will sadly become more valuable as resources run out and the environment gets more toxic.

Expansion cannot include the increased drilling and environmental exploitation that ultra-conservatives like John McCain champion. In fact, pursuing such a strategy will only make the problem worse, by adding waste and increasing the rate of depletion. What we must do instead is increase the amount of renewable resources we can use as fast as possible (and not using them any faster than they can regenerate) while limiting the amount of non-renewable resources that we use. We will need new non-renewable resources to be sure, but only to create and be able to use renewable ones. What this means immediately is that we must focus the majority of the world’s economic growth on developing our ability to use renewable energy, and reuse (or get more use out of) the products we make. What’s left of our growth should be spent acquiring more non-renewable resources to further this effort, without adding harmful waste; this may involve a serious and vigorous pursuit of the settlement of other worlds such as the Moon and Mars, a task well suited to those driven by competition and stressed by highly ordered and unavoidable social interaction.

There are those of us who are comfortable with fighting for what we want, and there are others who work best when we are cooperating with other people toward improving our common welfare. Both types of people are necessary in a society, but they must be free to be productive in their own way; otherwise they will clash and the resulting stress will become too great for all of them. There is no one left to fight except ourselves, and we can’t expect that learning to better live together will solve our problems. In the world we share today, converging toward a single community that faces the historical challenge of expanding or dying, the competitors need to be turned loose to find and develop new resources while the cooperators work on getting the most use out of what we have.

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