Rearranging the Deck Chairs


George Monbiot’s latest article (thanks to PS Pirro for the link) claims that not only have large corporations come to dominate all aspects of our economy — oligopolies controlling every major industry sector, media, politicians and schools doing their bidding etc. — these corporations have now wrecked democracy everywhere, and replaced it with corpocracy, where executives and wealthy shareholders make all important political (and military) decisions in so-called democratic countries. Excerpt:

The role of the self-hating state is to deliver itself to big business… I don’t blame people for giving up on politics. I haven’t given up yet, but I find it ever harder to explain why. When a state-corporate nexus of power has bypassed democracy and made a mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed political funding system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians of the three main parties stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?

It’s a great rant, but it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. This imbalance of power and wealth is largely what lay behind the Occupy movement and its sister movements around the world. But that imbalance is self-perpetuating. The situation Monbiot describes wasn’t the result of a calculated plot to control the world. In fact, no one is in control. No one wants to precipitate the inevitable economic, energy/resource and ecological collapse that the current status quo is leading to. These systems are the net sum of all of our actions, decisions, desires and beliefs. We can no sooner change their direction in any quick, fundamental and enduring way than we could have changed the direction of the Titanic, or the Exxon Valdez. Too much momentum, too complex a system with too many variables, no possible levers of control.

If we did suddenly redistribute wealth and power from those who have to those who have not, it would be the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. There are no lifeboats to somewhere else on our horribly overpopulated Spaceship Earth. The people who suddenly acquired more wealth, income and power would be no less interested in keeping the systems that produce it going, despite the horrific costs and against all odds, than the current cabal.

So while I’m sympathetic with those who find our growing inequality egregious and even obscene, in a few decades it’s not going to matter anyway. There is no place to hide from what we have wrought, no matter what one’s wealth or influence is. How much time and energy is worth spending in the short term to reduce inequality? That depends on your belief in its short term success. Or the ferocity of your belief that such work is worth doing as a matter of principle, even if it has almost no chance of success.

Would it make sense to spend that time and energy instead in direct action, working to bring about the collapse of the destructive industrial growth economy sooner? Same answer: That depends on your belief in the success of such actions, or your belief we should do it on principle anyway. I think there is fairly compelling evidence that this would lessen, rather than increase, the suffering of creatures, human and not, if it were possible. I also think that, because of the Jevons Paradox and other aspects of how complex systems work, such actions may well be futile.

Or you could spend that time and energy instead just making the world of those immediately around you better, in the moment, every day, through a thousand small sanities. That might require more non-attachment than most of us are capable of, to avoid getting sucked back into the fight against inequality and/or the industrial growth economy.

I’m not sure we have the choice to decide between these three approaches. We each make sense of injustice, and of outrage, and of grief, in different ways, and it’s not a rational process. But for me at least, talking about it seems to help.

underwater photo: by the Italian Coast Guard/AP, of the sunken Costa Concordia 

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4 Responses to Rearranging the Deck Chairs

  1. Earl Mardle says:

    This is a fiercely rational piece and it will challenge most of the people who read beyond their ability to follow it to the end.

    There is, however, another option. We can try to construct for ourselves and those nearest to us, the form and function of the world that we think might exist beyond the failure of the system so that, on the day that everyone else is trying to figure out how to survive in it, we will already have the experience and resources we need. I think of it as a bridge to the future. We are trying to build such a bridge at the moment with no expectation that we will complete it in time nor that, when the time comes, it will lead to the correct place.

    But it gives us a sense of being able to act positively in the face of an appalling predicament. We are all going to die. We have little control over how we get there but we can choose whether to wait for the axe like unsuspecting cattle or to at least engage in our own lives. We are choosing the latter and trying to maintain as much as possible of the non-attachment that you talk about.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Agreed Earl — thanks. I think this is what people living in intentional community, fledgling permaculturalists, and those experimenting with the sharing economy are doing now. Creating models that, while they won’t replace the wrecked ship, will at least give useful clues on what to build to replace it that will be more sustainable, is the best we can do. What’s interesting to me is that most of the current model-builders and -testers are older people with the luxury of time. The young people who will most need these models are still mostly too busy to take note. Not their fault — they’re repeating our mistakes. They’ll come when they’re ready, if we’re open to listening to them instead of trying to foist our models on them.

  3. Kari says:

    This is something I find difficult as, by default, I am an idealist rather than a rationalist or pragmatist – it’s just an ingrained personality trait I guess (if you find any value in MBTI I’m an ENFP, so the consummate idealist). That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the capacity to think in rational terms or behave pragmatically – we all do. But I have so far been unable to detach from my feelings about the suffering of the world.

    So, although I agree that it isn’t rational to rearrange the deckchairs while the Titanic is going down I do think it’s ideal to try to include the world’s most vulnerable in the building of sustainable alternatives to our system that may either assist pockets of society to survive the coming crash, or assist them in “rising from the ashes”. So for me it’s not a matter of redistributing wealth, but of distributing access to alternative economic alternatives such as the “sharing economy”.

    My idealism also tells me that the alleviation of any suffering is inarguably a positive thing. I envisage a great deal more suffering in years and decades to come, and cannot be comfortable with my relative comfort from at least the early stages of it. I feel compelled to do whatever I can to ease the suffering of others who are largely unaware of what is inevitable.

    The economy is coming down whether we like it or not, so to alleviate the otherwise inevitable suffering of those who are currently unaware that this will happen I do whatever little I can to help people unhook themselves before the shit hits the fan.


    “What’s interesting to me is that most of the current model-builders and -testers are older people with the luxury of time. The young people who will most need these models are still mostly too busy to take note. Not their fault — they’re repeating our mistakes. They’ll come when they’re ready, if we’re open to listening to them instead of trying to foist our models on them.”

    Yes, this is overwhelmingly the case, but there are a few 30-somethings around like my partner and myself, and a few late-20-somethings like Theo from Doing it Ourselves, who are digging the downshifting. We have committed to the tough journey of being among the pioneers of downshifting for our generation, and it’s not as hard as many might think. It’s just that we have to manage our expectations – we cannot afford to scale the “property ladder” as we have not already cashed out on the system before rejecting it. We are starting out from a far less financially empowered position so can’t do the eco-home on a patch of land biz, but we are less isolated as a result, due to living in already existing communities that we are gradually encouraging to powerdown along with us. There is hope in youth, but we need the encouragement of the older generations as well as the alleviation of expectation as we don’t have all the resources that those who have already made their money have.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Kari. Good to know a lot of younger people are savvy about what’s happening, and I agree that many boomers need to become aware of how much the economic security they have been able to rely on is not available to younger generations.

    Like you I am an idealist, and it’s really hard to let go of ideas of how things could be “if only we could…”. The good news is that at least in N.America many of those with few resources are, of necessity, embracing the sharing economy, because it’s happening at the local level and hence knowledge is spread by word of mouth and is therefore below the radar and so far immune from media attacks. Alternative medicine, dumpster diving, back lawns converted to food gardens, “illegal” second suites in homes, tiny/homemade houses, solar/off-grid heating, and other aspects of a true ‘gift’ economy are emerging, and as more and more people realize the opportunity they offer to the 99%, the more these experiments will grow and evolve. The multinationals can only live off the 1%, even though they are doing 40% of the spending, for so long.

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