(/recent/) Awakening or Extinction
For 10,000 years, we’ve endured war, poverty, and other torments, generally without seeing the real causes. But now modern technology has raised the stakes: Ecosystem collapse, if continued, will soon make our species extinct. Our doom is much closer than most people realize, because they have not understood feedback loops and tipping points. We’re also facing extinction from nuclear war, which is growing more likely as our culture grows more insane. And, short of extinction, we are nearing the collapse of our economic system and the homelessness and starvation of millions or billions, for a variety of reasons. Strangely, one of those reasons is that modern technology has been increasing productivity. That would give us all lives of prosperity and leisure if our economic system were sane, but it is not.
It might not be too late to avert apocalypse, but that requires huge changes at all levels — personal, community, national, and global. (Incidentally, those changes will also end the various non-apocalyptic cruelties that I’ve just mentioned.)
Why are we faced with all these horrors? A first-level explanation is that they have all arisen just by random chance. But if that were the case, then our national governments would already be fixing the problems. That’s not happening. For instance, the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact banned war, but did not actually stop war. And in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, nations of the world agreed on goals but not methods; in effect, they agreed on what to wish for. We are rushing toward extinction, and our governments are doing essentially nothing about it. Why is that?
A second-level explanation is that our governments are all corrupt, all filled with people who are lazy, incompetent, greedy, selfish, or just plain evil. This explanation does contain some particle of truth, but it’s not adequate. Why don’t we replace those government officials with better ones, through elections or revolution? Elections haven’t worked: The replacements are just as bad. And a revolution would require the masses to be united, but we’re far from that.
Yet another explanation: Some people suggest that the problem is not just in our governments, but in the nature of the entire human race. The problem is that most or all people are lazy, incompetent, greedy, selfish. In this theory, our species is genetically programmed to self-destruct; our demise is inevitable.
I have a more hopeful variant of that last explanation. Yes, we are self-destructing, but the program is not genetic. Rather, it is in our culture, our habitual behavior, our institutions, our way of life, something that we can change. Our culture breeds greed, but that makes no one happy. Thus, there are excellent selfish reasons for becoming unselfish. Our culture has changed before and can change again.
Still, this time our culture change must be intentional, and in a hurry, for the old world is dying. We saw at Standing Rock that change won’t come easily. Perhaps we need elections, but even more we need songs and stories. We need to laugh and love and live in a new way.
We can’t restore some past era or mimic some past revolution. Technology has irreversibly raised productivity, reducing the voice of human labor. Technology also has irreversibly made us all more powerful, for good or ill, and thus made us more vulnerable to each other. Last month a shooter in Florida, a bomber in Texas, and a drone commander in Washington DC murdered dozens of our cousins. But we don’t shoot our friends; why can’t we all be friends? We’ll only be safe in a caring society that leaves no one behind. We must change our fundamental concepts not just of government, but also of property and neighbor.
Our destination is simple but difficult, like a single word in a foreign language. A new idea can’t be seen and implemented through gradual reforms: Either a candle is lit or it’s not; you can’t be half pregnant. The caterpillar died, and woke with wings. Look inside yourself and find the best parts; those prove we can make this change. We will all live happily ever after, and some will call it “rapture” — but it will be so strange and alien that some initially will run from it, preferring the pain they already know.
The new world itself is simple; our difficulty is in disentangling ourselves from the old world. To do that, we must see the old world more clearly. We must question things all around us and inside us, things as ubiquitous and unnoticed as air, things whose absence is hard to imagine.
John Lennon sang “imagine no possessions — I wonder if you can.” Fredric Jameson wrote that people can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But capitalism is causing the end of the world, so we’d better imagine harder.
Reformists believe a kinder, gentler capitalism is possible. I guess they’ve only looked at capitalism superficially, not at what really makes it tick. At its root, capitalism is about not sharing, and that connects with not caring. How could that have any outcome but disaster? It causes inequality, corruption, alienation, sexism, racism, violence, and externalized costs such as the destruction of the ecosystem. I’ve written about those in more detail elsewhere.
I’ve compiled a long list of “Myths of Capitalism,” ideas from which we must disentangle ourselves, and I may revise and expand that list soon. I’ll just mention one of those myths here, because it is so laughable. It is the assertion that the only alternative to capitalism is dictatorship. That assertion reveals a total lack of imagination, and I will leave as an exercise for the reader the imagining of a dozen other alternatives. I would also point out that any workplace that someone else owns is a dictatorship.
Mind you, I’m not advocating that we should give up our property right this minute. If we do that without first changing our culture, the results will be disastrous. But I am advocating that, right this minute, we begin changing our culture, by imagining and discussing a different world. Find your heart, and show it to others, today.
I tell political beginners that capitalism is the source of all our troubles. That’s a good place to start, but it’s a simplification. More advanced thinkers point out that the USSR had problems even without capitalism, or that wars are older than capitalism. I tell those thinkers about hierarchy, property, and our culture of separateness. Imagine a world without possessions, but also without bosses. Just equals. Just friends. Let’s be friends.
2018 April 5, version 1.10. This essay is recent, and still being revised, and I haven’t yet made it into a leaflet or a video.