How Unchecked Capitalism Has Brought the World to the Brink of Apocalypse—and What We Must Do Now
by Robert Jensen
The first step in dealing with a difficult situation is to muster the courage to face it honestly, to assess the actual depth and severity of a problem and identify the systems from which the problem emerges. The existing social, economic, and political systems produce a distribution of wealth and well-being that is inconsistent with moral principles, as the ecological capital of the planet is drawn down faster than it can regenerate. The systems that structure almost all human societies produce profoundly unjust and fundamentally unsustainable results. We have both a moral obligation and practical reasons to work for justice and sustainability.
We need first to imagine, and then begin to create, alternative systems that will reduce inequality and slow, and we hope eventually reverse, the human assault on the ecosphere. To work toward those goals, individuals can (and should) make changes in their personal lives to consume less; corporations can (and should) be subject to greater regulation; and the most corrupt political leaders can (and should) be turned out of office. But those limited efforts, while noble and important in the short term, are inadequate to address the problems if no systemic and structural changes are made.
That sounds difficult because it will be, and glib slogans can’t change that fact. A longstanding cliché of progressive politics—organizers’ task is to “make it easy for people to do the right thing”—is inadequate in these circumstances. Given the depth of the dysfunction, it will not be easy to do the right thing. It will, in fact, be very hard, and there’s no sense pretending otherwise. At this point in history, anything that is easy and can be achieved quickly is almost certainly insufficient and likely irrelevant in the long run. Attempting to persuade people that large-scale social change will come easily is not only insulting to their intelligence but is guaranteed to fail. If organizers can persuade people to join a movement based on promises of victories that won’t disrupt privileged lives—victories that cannot be achieved—the backlash is likely worse than the status quo.
There’s one simple reason that serious change cannot be easy: We are the first species in the history of the planet that is going to have to will itself to practice restraint across the board, especially in our use of energy. Like other carbon-based creatures, we evolved to pursue energy-rich carbon, not constrain ourselves. Going against that basic fact of nature will not be easy.
Modern humans—animals like us, with our brain capacity—have been on the planet about 200,000 years, which means that we’ve lived within the hierarchical systems launched by agriculture for only about 5 percent of human history. We are living today in a world defined by systems in which we did not evolve as a species and to which we are still struggling to adapt. What today we take to be normal ways of organizing human societies—nation-states with capitalist economies—are recent developments, radically different than how we lived for 95 percent of our evolutionary history. We evolved in small gatherer-hunter groups, band-level societies that were basically egalitarian. Research on human social networks suggest that there is a limit on the “natural” size of a human social group of about 150 members, which is determined by our cognitive capacity. This has been called “Dunbar’s number” (after anthropologist Robin Dunbar)—the number of individuals with whom any
one of us can maintain stable relationships. In that world, we pursued that energy-rich carbon without the knowledge or technology that makes that same pursuit so dangerous today.
So we are, as Wes Jackson puts it, “a species out of context.” We are living in a world that is in many ways dramatically out of sync with the kind of animals we are. If we are to create systems and structures that will make possible an ongoing human presence on the planet, we have to understand our evolutionary history and adapt our institutions to reflect our essentially local existence—people live, after all, not on “the planet” but in a specific place, as part of an ecosystem—on a scale and with a scope that we are capable of managing. But we also have to acknowledge that we are inextricably connected to others around the world because of more recent history. As a result of the centuries of imperialism that have advantaged some and disadvantaged others, we are all morally connected, as well as literally connected by modern transportation and communication technology. The task is not to go backward to some imagined Eden, but to understand our history to create a
more just and sustainable future.
This means we have to recognize that the biological processes that govern the larger living world, along with our own evolutionary history, impose limits on human societies. Either we start shaping our world to reflect those limits so that we can control to some degree the dramatic changes coming, or we will be reacting to changes that can’t be controlled. That isn’t an easy task; as James Howard Kunstler points out, “the only thing that complex societies have not been able to do is contract, to become smaller and less complex, and to do it in a programmatic way that reduces the pain of transition.” Though history suggests that “people do what they can until they can’t,” it’s still imperative that we face the challenge:
Our longer-term destination is a society run at much lower levels of available energy, with much lower populations, and a time-out from the kinds of progressive innovation that so many have taken for granted their whole lives. It was an illusory result of a certain sequencing in the exploitation of resources in the planet earth that we have now pretty much run through. We have an awful lot to contend with in this reset of human activities.
If there is to be a decent future, we have to give up on the imperial fantasy of endless power, the capitalist fantasy of endless growth, the technological fantasy of endless comfort. Those systems have long been celebrated as the engines of unprecedented wealth, albeit for a limited segment of the world’s population. Instead of celebrating, we should mourn the world that these systems have created and search for something better. Systems that celebrate domination are death cults, not the basis for societies striving for justice and sustainability.
Our task can be stated simply: We seek justice, the simple plea for decent lives for all, and sustainability, a balance in which human social systems can thrive within the larger living world. Justice and sustainability have a common economics, politics, ethics, and theology behind them—rooted in a rejection of concentrated power and hierarchy—but there is no cookbook we can pull off the shelf with a recipe for success. We can articulate principles, identify rough guidelines, and search for specific solutions to immediate problems.
On justice: Our philosophical and theological systems all acknowledge the inherent dignity of all human beings. We say that we believe that all people are equal, though we accept conditions in the world in which all people cannot live with dignity, where any claim of equality is a farce. In that case we understand the principles but do not live accordingly.
On sustainability: There is less consensus on the philosophy and theology on which we ground a concern for sustainability. Is it purely pragmatic? Do we need to conserve the world to sustain ourselves? Should we have some more expansive concern about the non-human living world? Do other living things have a claim on us? There are no simple or obvious answers. We may have some general reverence for all life, but most of us value the lives of our children, our friends, and other humans more than we value the lives of other animals. But even with a lack of clarity about how to value various forms of life, we have to understand that we are part of that larger living world and that we should be careful about how we carve it up into categories.
For example, we should be careful not to value the pristine and ignore the human-built. We should not value the part of a forest that is untouched by human hands more than the part that has been cleared for human shelter. It is seductive to label wilderness as sacred and development as profane. Instead we should learn to see all the world—the last stands of old-growth redwoods in northern California and the most burned-out block of the South Bronx—as sacred ground. Until we do that, we have little hope of saving the former from destruction or restoring the latter to health. At its core, sustainability is about the acknowledgment of interdependence: the interdependence of people on each other, of people and other animals, of all living species and the non-living earth. We must see the interdependence of the redwoods and the South Bronx.
Again, no one has a blueprint for creating a just and sustainable society, but here is a list of a few basic assumptions and assertions that make justice and sustainability imaginable: (1) nature is not something humans have a right, divine or natural, to subdue and exploit; (2) for most of human beings’ evolutionary history, our social systems encouraged the solidarity and cooperation required for survival, and our social systems today should foster those same values, (3) systems that place profit above other values inevitably cause problems they cannot solve; (4) solutions must be holistic, linking the always interdependent parts of a system, such as producers and consumers; (5) technology is not automatically beneficial and must be scrutinized before being used; and, perhaps most importantly, (6) humans have the moral and intellectual capacity to make choices that will preserve rather than destroy the larger living world.
That human capacity to choose wisely does not guarantee we always will. The ease with which intellectuals can be co-opted is a reminder of that.
Originally published on AlterNet. [This article is an excerpt from We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out, in print and on Kindle
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is also the author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue.