Monday, October 26, 2009

World Domination

I recently watched the movie “The World According to Monsanto,” which together with the movie “Flow” illustrates how corporations are acquiring as much power as they can, up to and including controlling the basic necessities of survival. It is apparently anathema to them for anything to be free and for anyone to not be totally dependent on them. This is the path to monoculture, and because it increases both consumption and the vulnerability of the entire population to single points of failure, total extinction.

If it weren’t real, the plot would be a top notch paranoid science fiction fantasy. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), unlike other organisms, are subject to ownership. Farmers who use them to grow food (or if the food is a GMO) must pay a royalty to the creators of the GMO. The natural interbreeding of organisms in the wild virtually ensures that GMOs will become ubiquitous. Theoretically, every farmer could ultimately owe a royalty for the food they grow. Because most of the world is poor and cannot afford to pay, only the most affluent farmers will be able to economically survive.

One way to foil this evil plot is for governments to better fulfill their traditional roles as protectors of the commons -- a set of resources and capabilities that no one can own and everyone can use -- which provides the basis for the survival of its citizens. This can and should include all the things necessary for good health, among them: food, water, air, the means to repair our bodies (healthcare). Because we are an integral part of the web of life on the planet, the rest of the biosphere should also be protected.

That governments are unable to do what’s needed is traceable to two interlinked problems: scale and accountability. Maintaining a global or even a national commons is simply too big a task for any small number of people. We must all do it, and be held accountable if we don’t. Accountability is a social function, where members of a group either reward or penalize other members of the group based on their behavior; and this too may be too large a task for a government bureaucracy subcontracted by its larger population.

In the totally sustainable world we will need to create over the next fifty years to avoid global population collapse, everything we use will be reusable or renewable (it will become part of the commons) and our population will remain constant. Critically, the energy we use to change the form of one thing into another and transport the end product to who uses it, the dominant activity of our economy, will need to be matched to its availability from renewable sources. The combined requirements of no waste and limited energy will abolish the profit motive for activity because profit itself -- synonymous with exponential consumption -- will be impossible, on average (without shrinking the world’s population, and this too has a limit). The concept of property, as exclusive use of something until it becomes waste, will be replaced with something more like loans, because the different forms of matter we create will need to be usable by other people in the present and the future. In short, avoiding catastrophe will require that we do away with the economic rewards for world domination.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Last Days of Capitalism

In his book “The Last Days of Ancient Sunlight,” author and radio host Thom Hartmann did the best job I’ve seen yet in summarizing the greatest challenges of our time, the reasons behind them, and what we can do about them. The book details the trends I’ve identified in my own research and provides a useful way of thinking about them, as a conflict between what he calls “older culture” and “younger culture” values.

Specifically, older cultures -- those that last thousands of years -- respect the right to exist of everyone and everything, embracing a view that modern science is only now proving, that we are all part of one great, interconnected and interdependent Universe. Younger cultures tend to last, at most, a few hundred years, and seek to maximize the power of individuals over each other and everything, viewing the world as a collection of resources that can be used up and waste that can be discarded -- which inevitably happens.

The crisis we now face, in Hartmann’s view, is directly due to the dominance of younger cultures over older cultures, the culmination of a process that started thousands of years ago when the invention of agriculture enabled people to use others as energy sources -- slaves. In recent times, many more of us have benefited from a different kind of slave: fossil reservoirs built up over millions of years that could be directly converted to energy. This new slave made it possible to exponentially increase its use (along with the number of people who could use it), and eventually its exhaustion.

Our dominant economic system, capitalism, evolved to maximize consumption by rewarding people who could produce the most stuff for the least effort by enabling them to consume more stuff made by others. “Least effort” was attained by both physical technology (energy extraction from fossil fuels) and social technology (organizing others to perform the most tasks while consuming as little as possible in payment). Further, our social systems have become warped so that status in younger cultures is proportional to one’s economic rewards. Capitalism is the exact opposite of natural (and sustainable) systems embraced by older cultures, which insist on cost equalling benefit, people having infinitely more value than what they consume, and everyone in a group taking responsibility for the welfare of everyone else in the group.

As Michael Moore’s movie “Capitalism: A Love Story” anecdotally illustrates, capitalism has had the net effect of devaluing many Americans to the point where their survival is jeopardized. A similar devaluation prompted the Revolutionary War that gave birth to this country, founded, as Hartmann eloquently describes, with an intentional mix of older culture and younger culture values. Moore warns, with compelling and disturbing evidence, that another such revolution may already be underway, and that our government may have become so corrupted by the ultra-wealthy that it is unsalvageable.

Hartmann holds out hope that we may have time to change our culture to promote a deep respect for all of Nature, including all of humanity as an integral part of it, before economically motivated social unrest, pollution-induced health and climate deterioration, or depletion of energy and fresh water supplies overwhelms us. If, however, it is too late, such cultural change -- beginning at the individual level -- might at least help some of us build a more rational society in the aftermath.

It seems to me self-evident that our values govern our behavior; and if our values are at odds with our long-term survival, then we will not last very long. I have personally taken a shortcut on this question: my core value IS the long-term survival of Earth-life, which goes hand-in-hand with that of our species. That humanity has become a planet-killing machine, like a cancer, has been the hardest fact for me to accept, and I’ve tried at length to find a way to justify the death we’ve wrought, such as our potential to spread life to the stars and thus avoid life’s certain extinction by an aging Sun. In light of these new insights, it is imperative that we do not project ourselves as a younger culture on other planets, as well as the rest of this one, since any such “colonies” would leave only death and destruction in the wake of their short existence. If we can change our values in time to save ourselves, then those values should dictate what to do next, and when.