My Palo Alto friend and Transition colleague Paul Heft and I have often shared ideas and thoughts on how the world really works, our culture, and what it means to be human. Recently he wrote the following, which he’s allowing me to repost on my blog. It pretty much summarizes my view of things, other than the fact he’s a bit more pessimistic than I am about the violence that will accompany civilization’s collapse, and the likelihood of healthier human cultures emerging afterwards:
Less Than Enthusiastic (A Guest Post by Paul Heft)
My pessimism leaves me in a very awkward position in discussions with my friends. It’s hard for them when I can’t get excited about their strategies for change, or the “victories” or “advances” in the movements they identify with, or their meetings, marches, letter writing, electoral campaigns, and many other ways they participate in politics. I applaud their passion, but it’s not infectious; I wish them the best, but I don’t join in. I continue to share ideas (usually articles that I have read) but I don’t expect much conversation to result.
If you’re allergic to dark viewpoints, or just liable to slip into a bad mood, you should probably ignore the rest of this message. It just provides some explanation for my point of view, in case that’s of interest.
My pessimism is a result of my attempts to understand how the world works. To understand, one must be willing to inquire deeply. This inquiry has led me to explore economics and human consciousness, since those topics seem pretty basic to what’s going on. Any conclusions I reach necessarily remain open to question; they are in danger of solidifying as beliefs, but I choose to take that risk rather than conclude that I just don’t know.
According to my current understanding:
- The machine of capitalism is destructive, exploitative, unjust, and ecocidal. I think of it as a machine because as a political economic system it operates without depending on particular human thoughts and actions: individuals come and go, and the system continues in much the same way as before, according to its own logic of accumulation (amassing wealth, generally through profits, largely from mass consumption). It demonstrates very limited morality. It generates inequality in status and in economic power. It forces participation and conformity through the threat of insecurity (controlling access to food, shelter, and medical care), through the imposition of desires (marketing things that promise to increase status, eliminate discomfort, and satisfy supposed lacks), and occasional violence (imprisonment, bombing, etc.). It assigns greater rights and power to owners of property, especially productive property, and to their representatives (government officials, police, managers, etc.). It prefers to ignore what can be avoided as costs, such as degradation of workers and of nature, pollution, habitat destruction, resource depletion, and (the most recent, glaring example) climate change. Nothing is sacred (unless it supports profits, such as the idea of unfettered markets)–we are increasingly losing our sense of morality and of connection to place and to nature. Environmental damage is increasing to the extent of threatening the continuation of civilization, and conceivably even our survival as a species.
- Capitalism requires economic “growth”–increasing opportunities for profit–both as an incentive for shareholder and corporate investment, and as a source of funds to pay interest on loans. Growth is proposed as the solution to a multitude of ills (poverty, recession, low tax revenues, etc.) and has become practically an end in itself. Growth has meant greater destruction, exploitation, and ecocide, and arguably greater injustice. Some “green capitalists” argue that capitalism can, through efficiency improvements, other innovations, and a modicum of regulation and taxation (but while retaining human dominion over nature), reduce such ill effects, but its history shows no such promise–rather, it seems quite obviously unsustainable. One side effect–the financialization of the economy in recent decades as private and public debt have been tremendously pumped up–threatens to burst a debt bubble that central banks are desperately trying to stabilize, thereby tossing global economies into depression.
- Alternative economies are actively discouraged, so much so that they seem difficult to imagine. Capitalism relies on control of opinion, especially through the mass media, by filtering out views that might question the ultimate goal of generating increasing profits through mass consumption. Capitalism idealizes competition among individuals to determine merit, wealth as a measure of virtue, and elevation of the individual over the community and nature–all elements of the American Dream which are widely accepted, perhaps even by “progressives“. The system is portrayed as fair, as the best possible way to improve our welfare, as the best mode of organization for “progress” in today’s world–any exceptions must be the fault of bad actors that can be reigned in or purged through our system of law and politics. Propaganda aside, if we were to move away from the consumerism that capitalism fosters and depends upon, the effect would be an economic depression–unless we gave up on capitalism with its need for increasing profits.
- We often wonder why other people don’t think the way we do: what seems obvious to us may appear very differently to others with a different worldview. Why can’t we all just get along, and deal with problems rationally and in good faith? Human consciousness rarely operates in the ideal manner we imagine or prefer, and offers many obstacles to dealing with global problems in the modern age. Our conception of a separate and vulnerable “self” encourages us to fracture into groups (nations, races (cf. white privilege), religious sects, tribes, etc.) that might increase our security; capitalism derives much of its energy from our pursuit of “self-interest”, and the corresponding belief that we are each responsible for our lot in life and get what we deserve. Our “herd consciousness” supports conformity, so that we resist new views. The belief in human agency, the will to power, easily leads to fantasies of control, and we can fall victim to magical thinking, unrealistically believing that intentions will shape reality (c.f. Richard Heinberg’s criticisms of plans for renewable energy, Kevin Anderson’s criticisms of climate modeling). We often filter out bad news: people aggressively filter information that doesn’t conform to their worldview. Rational thought is often undermined by our unconscious, leading to mere rationalizations–which are very difficult to recognize, as those pursuing self-knowledge quickly discover. Groups often preserve arbitrary belief systems, regardless of reality, to maintain the legitimacy and coherence of the group itself. The “previous-investment trap” makes it difficult to give up the common wealth we have created, even though it might not be maintainable with future diminishing resources.
- Our modern culture offers its own obstacles. The feeling of vulnerability inhibits emotional honesty, so that we have trouble sharing and dealing with feelings such as grief and anxiety. Ethics are undermined by the modern fragmentation of experience, such that most people are dissociated from things that are crucial to their lives. Resistance too often relies on shaming or violence, which generate strong reactions leading to disunity.
- Society develops over time as a complex system with a strong tendency towards maintaining stable institutions, general beliefs (such as worldviews), and ways of doing things. Short of experiencing an immense trigger such as a global disaster, can capitalism’s push for growth at the expense of everything be turned around? Is it possible for people around the globe to adopt a worldview that allows us to relate more harmoniously among each other and with the natural world? Could we accomplish it through rational discussion, through moral suasion? My impression is that worldviews are barely susceptible to change, as suggested by a lot of recent research by psychologists and sociologists. In my view, this is a key reason that the problems of our civilization are posing an insoluble predicament.
- Some people argue that complexity has peaked and collapse has already begun. As it continues, as systems more obviously break down, my prognosis is that stresses will increase and people with different worldviews will find it even more difficult to tolerate each other or work in concert. Frustration and desperation will lead to more blame and division.
- Similar to other articulate social critics, Pope Francis (in his recent encyclical) has called for “a bold cultural revolution”, a society “in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome.” This reminds me of my own desire, and belief (while in college) in the likelihood, of a communist revolution. Now I believe that any radical change–of the sort that would allow us to move away from capitalism, shutting off its engine of destruction, preserving the possibility of our civilization maturing around principles of global cooperation, mutual respect, dignity of the individual, strong communities, reversal of climate change, and regeneration of natural systems–is very unlikely. It’s much more likely that the world’s political systems will fracture, capitalism will survive in some uglier, reconfigured form, climate change will exceed “limits” we are setting today, and “ecological overshoot” will drastically reduce population.
Why am I such a pessimist? my friends ask. Most of them retain hope for the future, a faith that humans are basically “good”, or have their mutual interests at heart, and therefore will join together to change what increasing numbers of people see as civilization’s wrong course, avoiding self-destruction. Some grasp onto hope in order to retain a self image as powerful, effective, dependable, or good; to generate the optimism that our society appears to insist upon; or to avoid experiencing a despair that they are afraid they could not survive.
Some friends, even without much hope for a great transformation, continue campaigning for political reforms or to prevent reversals of the “progressive” project. There seems to be an implicit credo that, since we have compassion, “free will”, and the intelligence to act for the benefit of the common good, we therefore have a moral obligation to be agents of change and to believe in our potential effectiveness. While I am sympathetic with most of their political goals, I do not subscribe to that credo and I see their efforts in the context of a system which, out of our control, is exceeding its limits and is inevitably breaking down. From that perspective, their incremental efforts in national and international campaigns appear too little by far.
That leaves me sad, but not despairing, not blaming, and not resenting others’ different opinions; I just want to accept what appears to be reality, my current understanding of truth.
(drawing above by Michael Leunig)