What Have We Done?

There’s a great article on titled “The Ecology of Work” by Curtis White.

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.

… 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.”

There is a lot more, I hope you read it, and it’s companion article (Part 1), The Idols of Environmentalism.

A fair and honest examination of our society, even our cherished Constitution, would reveal that our desire to live in peace and harmony with each other and on the planet wherein we reside, is based on the idea of ownership. I’ve presented this argument before. The perceived need to “possess” things is because of fear. The “Getting me and mine” mantra permeates the very fabric our civilization. This is the exploitation principle at work.

Unlike White, who holds the view that humans are not violent, I disagree. Humans are just animals, competitive and vicious. Our social structures enhance this tendency. The difference between us and the animal kingdom is we are the only real species capable of self-inflicted harm. An example of this is found in this statement:

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.

We well know that corporate America is killing the planet, but our competitive and vicious nature prevents us from acknowledging that. Fear drives us to ownership, and ownership provides the illusion of safety. But that “safety net” that we so carefully crafted by dismantling the world and reorganizing it into our image is now falling apart. And this is all happening because of our deep seated fear that drove us to extinguish the planet.

I don’t see White’s conclusions of the “benevolence of mankind” as being evident in history. Civilizations have long been warlike and highly destructive to each other and their environment. White claims:

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.

Human society as long as mankind has had one has been earmarked by war, violence and competition. Capitalism may indeed excaberate that tendency, but it’s always been there anyway.

White’s conclusion in Part III is confusing, to say the least. The future holds a huge promise of the very violent nature of humans to come forth. And the survivors of that conflict (if any), which will last several generations, will very likely repeat the entire process all over again. The Party of Life that he envisions is likely the fiction of his imagination. A nice fiction, but not one based in the reality of human nature or human history.

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5 thoughts on “What Have We Done?

  • April 30, 2007 at 11:03 am
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    Great link and post. Just about the time I get caught up reading and pondering the last topic everyone has moved on to some new tread to read and ponder, know that I appreciate your input as I follow along and grow in my own way.
  • May 2, 2007 at 1:39 am
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    I take exception to your generalization that human society is and always has been violent and that war/violence cannot be avoided. This is a view based on selective history. Good counter-arguments can be found in “Confronting the Powers” by Walter Wink and “The Chalice and the Blade” by Riane Eisler. To summarize, there is evidence of peacful periods in human history that are ignored or downplayed by those who love and promote war. Some of the most dramatic victories for justice in modern history have been brought about through non-violent methods: Civil Rights in US, the Velvet Revolution, fall of the Berlin Wall, Independence in India. Even in the animal world, there are many examples of groups/herds living in peace and research has recently shown examples of democratic decision making. (as per Thom Hartmann in “What Would Jefferson Do?”) In societies where women are well-regarded and have more power there is much less violence and a better quality of life for everyone. Think Scandinavia. I know you are seeing a lot that disturbs you about our current situation, but I urge you to please open your mind and consider positive scenarios as well.
  • May 2, 2007 at 4:57 am
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    The examples and time frame you give are drops in the ocean. Humanity has been earmarked by incessant warfare since rocks were discovered. It’s not a generalization.

    The social structures your post implies are fragile, temporary and reliant upon several things; energy, control, production and social change. None of these are possible for long in a collapsing world.

    I despise war, but realize that it’s inevitable.

  • May 3, 2007 at 6:58 pm
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    Einstein has famously said that we can’t use the same kind of thinking that got us into the problem to get us out again. He also said that world war 4 would be fought with sticks and stones. We’ve had thousands of years of prehistory with co-operation when we worshipped the Goddess/Mother Earth. Ownership/competition/domination values lead to war and violence. Look at ancient cultures that have not yet been wiped out and you see sustainable communities that could provide a template for the future and proof of the possible without energy, contol or production. After the die off, it may be this version of the meek that inherits the world.

    In another post you express anguish regarding care for the old and helpless in a time of scarcity. Survival of the fittest is a domination value that leads us to oblivion. A peaceful caring community may not survive, but if the harsh, violent view of humanity you envision is the only possibilty, I’d rather die pursuing peace than live in hell.

  • May 3, 2007 at 8:29 pm
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    Isn’t survival of the fittest the process of natural selection? And if that is true, then how could it lead us to oblivion?

    I’m not advocating anything (especialy our present culture), but your reasoning seems odd. The civilizations that are here today exist because of the process of natural selection. That doesn’t make them better, just stronger, if only tempory. But competition for resources won’t just stop oneday or somehow because we have a committee meeting or something. It will continue, except it will be worse then it is today as people starve.

    Here’s what I’d like to know – in a supposedly democratic world, why is there all this competition and violence now? How could it get any better then, after the collapse?

    I forget who said this, but they said that our world of peace, prosperty and happiness can only exist because of abundance, otherwise, we will revert to the law of the jungle once again. I suspect that they were right. The meek won’t inherit anything. They will only exist if there permitted to exist by the strong. That’s the real law of jungle and survival of the fittest.

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