Saturday, November 6, 2010

Three Weaknesses

For many of us who grew up in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century, life was very good compared to other parts of the world. We could, for the most part, count on safe, available food and water; shelter and heat when we needed it; and a growing collection of products and services that met wants we didn't even know we had. We convinced ourselves that we deserved it, due to superior ingenuity, social organization (democracy, capitalism, military prowess), and favor of the Universe's divine creator; there was also no problem we couldn't solve by drawing on these Three Strengths.

As the twenty-first century dawned, some of us were sounding an alarm that we had overreached, that our pursuit of wants far exceeding our needs was not sustainable, and perhaps never had been. These people were at first treated as cranks, then they were gradually taken more serious as the evidence mounted that they were correct.

Still, it was easier for a lot of us to try to tweak the application of the Three Strengths than to question them or contemplate trying something totally different. If our workers weren't producing as much as we wanted, we employed workers from other countries who were hungrier. If regulation was slowing growth, we removed it. If competition was getting in the way of economies of scale, then monopolies were encouraged. If other countries were not sharing their resources, we forced them to be more like us. If people were changing the way they lived, loved, and thought so they less resembled the norms of our successful growth period, then we restricted their behavior and freedom to be part of society.

These efforts made things worse. Globalizing the economy and centralizing command and control among a few large corporations accelerated the depletion of resources and creation of waste that was driving the deterioration of conditions. Increasing the hegemony of the Three Strengths added barriers to considering alternatives and amplified the other effects. Forcing uniformity and penalizing lack of it caused its victims to spend more effort fighting their oppressors than to focus on the problems that were building up.

We are in now in a critical period. Every year we wait to radically devalue consumption, waste (mostly in the form of pollution), and the exploitation of people and other species, it will be exponentially harder to make the practical changes that accompany them in time to avoid total calamity. It may no longer be an option to continue business-as-usual while building alternatives in parallel, though some of us still have hope that it is. This will change the way we live our lives, and still possibly for the better – though it will be a different “better.” But first we must all come to terms with the fact that the Three Strengths are illusions, our beliefs in them have become our Three Weaknesses, and that the future we expected at the end of the last century will never come to pass.

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