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.

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