Why ‘Leaders’ Can’t Help Us

BLOG Why ‘Leaders’ Don’t Get It

pogo poster

The famous Pogo cartoon from Earth Day 1971 (c) Walt Kelly

The best thing about the job I just retired from has been the opportunity to speak with some of Canada’s business leaders, specifically about sustainability. While I don’t expect them to be far enough ahead in their thinking to recognize the imminence of civilizational collapse, I do expect them to be informed about how the world really works — the current state of our political, economic, technological, educational, social, and environmental systems and the prognosis for the future — since this has profound implications for their organizations.

I find them to be, generally, better informed than the average Canadian, and, mostly, very uneasy about the future. I also find them to be disturbingly short-term focused and in profound denial about the implications of what they know to be true for the future of the planet, and hence for their organizations.

A year ago I co-wrote a paper on business risk and sustainability that was presented at the Prince’s Trust forum in London, England. The three principal theses of the paper were that:

  1. ecological sustainability and business sustainability are co-dependent (can’t have one without the other),
  2. the primary objective of any business (analogously to the primary objective of any organic creature) is to sustain itself — to “stay in business”, and
  3. nothing can exist independently of the complex environment in which it ‘lives’ and of which it is a part.

These are obvious, even tautological, to anyone who understands the basics of business and of how complex adaptive systems operate. But if you accept them, it follows that it is in everyone’s interest that we optimize the health and well-being of our entire interdependent planetary environment and all of the creatures in it. The idea of ruthless “crush the enemy” competition, and of “externalizing” costs to another country or to the “external” environment or to a future generation, in the interest of maximizing short-term profit growth, in this context, is absurd.

Yet we go on doing it. And political, business and religious ‘leaders’ encourage us to compete, to crush the competition, to externalize our costs to ‘others’, and to relentlessly and exponentially grow by every measure of growth. Why?

Perhaps it’s for the same reason we go on eating meat, or at least eggs and dairy products, long after and despite knowing the cruelty it inflicts on trillions of sentient creatures, year after year, and depite knowing that it is environmentally wasteful and irresponsible on a massive scale, especially the way it has come to be managed by the horrific industral agriculture oligopoly.

We call the people we think foolish or ideologically misguided or just pathological (like the industrial agriculture oligopoly I just referred to in the last sentence) “them”, to distinguish “them” from “us” who presumably are doing the right things, doing our best, willing to help solve the problems if only the ‘leaders’ would tell us what to do, and ‘lead’ us.

So we have this disconnect between what we know and what we do (which gets worse as we become ‘leaders’ and come to know more), and this dysfunctional and paralyzing co-dependence between ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’, neither of whom are taking responsibility to act sustainably.

The mainstream media are blandly and uncritically documenting this absurdity to the point that, for most of us who all of this is dawning on, these media have become unbearable, terrible reminders of this collective dysfunction, creative inertia, destructive momentum and pathology with which we are all, if we were to be honest, complicit. The ‘news’ of the mainstream media, as a result, is oversimplified, sensationalized, self-censored to omit any information that cannot be dumbed down to a one-sentence headline, and unactionable. It’s grating, worthless, and disgraceful.

What’s going on here?

Well, first, we have political ‘leaders’ preoccupied with doing what will get them re-elected in 1-5 years. Their objective is to be seen to be doing something effective, not to actually do anything (doing something costs money and incurs risk). Because of the execrable media, their actions and propaganda (advertising and press releases) are focused on posturing and trying to make potential opponents look more incompetent and dangerous than they are. Their funding, generally, depends on campaign contributions from large corporations which expect regulations and subsidies that favour them, and deregulation of anything that interferes with their untramelled pursuit of limitless growth and profitability. These ‘leaders’ inevitably are cynics, do-nothings, alarmists, and corporatist toadies — anyone else thinking of playing a political leadership role is quickly discouraged or crushed by moneyed interests. There is only one notable remaining exception in the US, Dennis Kucinich, and he is systematically ridiculed in the mainstream media.

Then, we have business ‘leaders’ preoccupied with doing what will achieve double-digit annualized profit growth every quarter for the next year or two. They cannot afford to look further than that. Whatever they may care about sustainability (and in my experience most do care about and worry about this) is pushed to the background. Shareholders will simply not tolerate long-term thinking that jeopardizes short-term profits, because most shareholders are only investing for short-term gains.

Third, we have an institutional education system that discourages independent thinking, and prepares young people for a life of learned helplessness, wage slavery, mindless consumption, escapism, absurd oversimplification of how the world works, and obedience to ‘leaders’. Once the school system is finished with them, the media take over, delivering identical messages of the only acceptable ways to think, live and behave. They all do this because they believe that this is the best way to create ‘productive’ citizens, and, because this is the way they were brought up. They lack the imagination to conceive of any other way of informing people.

It’s all self-perpetuating. ‘Leaders’ who know better (or should), doing what they must do in their own short-term self-interest, instead of acting sustainably and responsibly. Educators and media lying (mostly by omission) about what is really happening in the world because it’s too difficult, and because most of the rest of us, citizens and ‘followers’, either haven’t the capacity to understand or don’t care to understand.

Those of us fortunate enough to have learned what is really going on are stymied by massively complex and opaque political and economic systems that provide no simple means of acting sustainably and responsibly, of becoming part of the solution instead of part of the problem. We essentially have no choice but to be complicit. Couple that with the fact that most people are incapable of discussing the complex issues of the day intelligently, and it’s not surprising that most of us start to wonder:

  • Is it just me? Is this terrible knowledge that I’ve acquired actually true, even though most people either don’t know it or don’t believe it? 
  • What can I do that will actually make a difference, when all the choices I have either make an insignificant difference or make matters even worse? 
  • Why are the ‘leaders’ doing, essentially, nothing, except making the situation worse by claiming, absurdly, that what is needed is a return to economic growth

It’s easy to blame ‘them’, the ‘leaders’ who are doing nothing or worse, and the soporific and infantile media. But (with the exception of a few wingnut ideologues) ‘they’ are just as caught up in this massive and self-perpetuating dysfunction as the rest of us. The bloated, corrupt corporatist economic and political oligopolies show this dysfunction at its ugliest, cruelest, most dishonest and exploitative and self-serving, but we are all complicit, and ridding the system of all the corporatists, even if that were possible, would probably not significantly improve matters. These systems are bigger than all of us, no one controls them, and they have an unstoppable momentum.

We do what we must, and until there is absolutely no alternative to change, we cannot and will not change — not enough to ‘reform’ our industrial growth society and ‘save’ civilization anyway. The power of our ‘leaders’ is a myth — they too do what they must, in their short-term personal interest, and in fact they can’t do very much anyway.

My friend Ivor thinks it’s like a war, and that you have to be psychopathic or inured to the terrible violence of the world to be a party to it. His answer is that it has to be made personal, that if both ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ could really see the consequences of their behaviour and inaction, they would quickly change.

I don’t think so. I am of course angry at “them”, the real psychopaths, like the people who run ExxonMobil, Monsanto, Koch Industries, Dow Chemical and other megapolluters, the ADM/Cargill/ConAgra Industrial Agriculture oligopoly, the military/industrial complex, the Tar Sands conglomerate, the climate change deniers and their cynical funders, the right-wing political reactionaries and the religious wingnuts. But they are the minority of ‘leaders’, and if we think they are the difference between changing the Industrial Growth society and being run over by it, we give them far too much credit.

We are not going to be ‘saved’ by ‘leaders’, any more than we are going to be saved by human ingenuity, technology, market forces, a sudden global consciousness-raising, or the Rapture. We are all complicit, but we can’t ‘save the world’ either. As John Gray says in Straw Dogs, we humans have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value. We are doomed by the coding in our DNA to continue along our inexorable path of self-destruction, and to inflict large-scale but ultimately transitory damage on our planet in the process. He concludes:

Humans cannot save the world, but this is no reason for despair. It does not need saving… Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.

There is not much point, then, in getting angry at the psychopaths, or being disappointed in or infuriated by our ‘leaders’. We had best come to grips with our grief, get on with our astonishing lives, and do what we can to make the world better in small, personal, collective, local ways. I have already written about what I intend to do, since I have the rare luxury of knowledge and time to do more than most. I will do what I can, working with others, to end factory farming and the devastation of the Tar Sands, to create some models of better ways for the survivors to live, free of the systems and scourges we struggle with.
I am moving past grief and anger and helplessness, and am happier and more connected and full of love than I have ever been. And I would encourage you to appreciate what can be done, that it’s not just you feeling this sorrow and rage and sense of futility, and that most people, despite their ignorance and incapacity and imaginative poverty, are trying to do their best.

And I’d encourage you as well to get away from the noise and madness of our civilization and explore, gently, with those you love, wild and natural places that will help you reconnect with your emotions and instincts and all-life-on-Earth, and realize who you really are, and what you’re meant to do. No leaders needed.

Category: What You Can Do

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11 Responses to Why ‘Leaders’ Can’t Help Us

  1. Viv McWaters says:

    Nice post Dave – I like your analysis, and your conclusions. What you can keep doing is keep writing stuff like this – for the rest of us who think it but can’t (or won’t) articulate it.

  2. Ivor Tymchak says:

    A beautifully crafted exposition Dave, thank you for taking the time to construct it. Your conclusion appears unassailable, if not a little depressing. It is almost as if you are endorsing the short term thinking of the leaders – ‘we’re all going to die anyway so just keep doing what you’ve always been doing, good or bad’. I find this fatalism hard to accept (even if it is probably true). Am I right in thinking that you believe we are caught in a runaway feedback loop of destruction that is way past its tipping point? Surely, as an ‘imagineer’ it is your job to describe the impossible so that it becomes a little less impossible for the engineers to build? My best guess is that an alternative needs to be suggested to the ‘war’ that we have all been conducting for so long (the analogy holds good; we always use the excuse, “I have no choice, I am just following orders,” for our complicity). What that alternative is, is of course, the impossible that we need to describe and construct. That is our calling, for it is ideas that change the world – money is just an idea, hierarchy is just an idea, burning fossil fuels is just an idea. As an ‘intelligent’ species, we particularly respond to clever ideas – so where are they?Imagine being a foot soldier on the front line and someone said, “Here’s an idea, why don’t we just refuse to fight?” or even, “Why don’t we talk to the enemy, get to know them, look at the photo’s of their kids, empathize with them.”In the end, it’s true, nothing at all really matters. So why do we fret about the future? Maybe it’s because, ultimately, we are only passing on the baton of life to other individuals. Maybe it’s because when we see our children play and laugh in the sunshine, we want the moment to last a little longer… just a little longer.

  3. Amen to about 95% of the article Dave, but of course I would say that :-)The only thing I would disagree with is the “inevitability” of our destructiveness. Tribal, sedentary living is implicitly sustainable because it cannot overreach the carrying capacity of the local environment, and this type of living is not uncommon throughout history. Yes, nomadism is necessary in unreliable climates, but I don’t think localising and living sustainable is denying your DNA in any way, so long as there is a sufficient genetic mix, and we are able to thrive in a *normal* connected way.CheersKeith

  4. Janene says:

    Hear Hear Keith!Janene

  5. vera says:

    Dave is retired! Woo-hoo! Let’s do the “happy happy joy joy dance”! C’mon everybody! :-) :-DCongratulations, and, you made my day, friend.

  6. prad says:

    nice post dave!it is interesting that leader and bleeder share such a ‘rhymsical’ companionship.great scenario with the foot soldiers too, ivor.

  7. Chaitanya says:

    If human DNA is inherently self-destructive, how did it bring out Dave Pollard — A human being who uses higher intellect and wisdom to challenge what is wrong with current paradigms. I would say this blog (and all the wise commentators) is a proof that DNA is self-corrective and ever evolving, rather than self-destructive. If it were truly *inherently* self-destructive there would not even be a *single* voice of dissenting opinion, which is clearly not the case.Saying DNA is not inherently self-destructive doesn’t mean there won’t be a collapse. If enough people (enough copies of DNA) don’t get wiser in time and alter their world views, surely it might bring about collapse. I don’t know why a person of intellectual caliber of Dave would keep endorsing theoretical position of “self-destructiveness”, when elementary logic says it’s not a correct view.

  8. prad says:

    i tend to agree with you chaitanya – the position is a theory, but not necessarily proven or possible to prove. nor is it likely to be conclusive through statistical analyses either.here is an interesting commentary from another site touching on the leadership issue (hope it shows up ok here – if not, just copy and paste the url between the quotes.the interesting phrase here is:”Until people become enlightened they must suffer the consequences of their ignorance.”so anyone’s dna can likely be given an educational boost, i suppose :D

  9. raffi says:

    viv, you speak my meart (mind and heart)warmly,raffi

  10. Seb says:

    Regardless of the validity of your diagnosis, I’m pretty sure the course of action you choose to take is the best one, both for you and for others. Go Dave!

  11. Barry Mapp says:

    I am with you on many of your points such as:”So we have this disconnect between what we know and what we do (which gets worse as we become ‘leaders’ and come to know more), and this dysfunctional and paralyzing co-dependence between ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’, neither of whom are taking responsibility to act sustainably”. AND”It’s all self-perpetuating. ‘Leaders’ who know better (or should), doing what they must do in their own short-term self-interest, instead of acting sustainably and responsibly. Educators and media lying (mostly by omission) about what is really happening in the world because it’s too difficult, and because most of the rest of us, citizens and ‘followers’, either haven’t the capacity to understand or don’t care to understand.” AND “Well, first, we have political ‘leaders’ preoccupied with doing what will get them re-elected in 1-5 years. Their objective is to be seen to be doing something effective, not to actually do anything (doing something costs money and incurs risk). Because of the execrable media, their actions and propaganda (advertising and press releases) are focused on posturing and trying to make potential opponents look more incompetent and dangerous than they are.”However you quote John Gray (so I presume you go along with this thinking): “As John Gray says in Straw Dogs, we humans have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value. We are doomed by the coding in our DNA to continue along our inexorable path of self-destruction”And here would be where your and my ideas diverge. We need to start seeing our DNA not like ‘scientism sees it – as our destiny and the cause of all ills BUT as our encylopedia set, where we have considerable choice (depending what happens in our surroundings) as to which of the encyclopedia parts we take instruction from. There is growing evidence (for scientists have started only now to look for it) that if there is some determinism in our genes (which Idon

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