January 24, 2014 § 18 Comments
Rolling Stone recently published a piece titled, “Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For,” which was apparently written by a “veteran” of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Jesse Myerson. The quality of the writing is low, in that the voice of the piece sounds like a character out of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” The author describes everything negative about society using the choice phrase that these things, “Blow.” Of course, Rolling Stone is probably trying to appeal to young people in the hackneyed way that media outlets usually do, assuming that everyone between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five are perpetually stoned and that they have never read a book voluntarily in their lives.
Despite the tone and vernacular of Myerson’s piece, there are concepts within it that are worth discussing. What Myerson does offer are these reforms:
1. Guaranteed Work for Everybody
2. Social Security for All
3. Take Back The Land
4. Make Everything Owned by Everybody
5. A Public Bank in Every State
I’d like to examine the first two of these concepts, but must start by noting that if these reforms are to be taken seriously, then we must start by accepting a handful of premises. The most obvious is that by implementing such notions as policy, we would be maintaining a large megalithic social organism, i.e. the nation state. With this nation state, we would also be preserving a hierarchical structure of rule, and a money economy complete with private property and banking. Deep green anarchists like myself are primarily concerned with industrial civilization’s strangling of the biosphere, so we don’t roll through life assuming that such institutions now and forever will be in place. However most people in our culture assume that institutions and social concepts like money, property, banking, and nation states are more immutable and more important to human life than the world of plants, fungi, insects, and animals despite humans relying upon these neighbors for the basic sustenance of life, but I digress.
Partly due to the horrid nature of Myerson’s writing, and partly due to the seeming influence of communism in his proposals, his editorial is garnering a bit of attention, primarily in conservative outlets that are looking for easy intellectual prey. It’s easy to debunk poorly articulated concepts, and it’s easy to then use this debunking as proof that your own concepts are thus well heeled and reasonable.
The rabbled response to Myerson’s five suggestions has drawn forth much defense of the status quo. Defenders of money economies usually speak of money from one angle, as a reward for work done. Their reasoning goes, that If a person doesn’t have enough money, it is their own fault for not having worked enough or for not having any particularly in-demand skills. Their reasoning also implies the inverse, that people who have plenty of money do so because they have done much work to achieve it, or that they are particularly skilled or ingenious in some capacity which society demands.
When money is viewed through this lens, it is presumed to be innocuous in and of itself. It’s merely a token, a chit for hours or labor put in. This view removes money from the context of the society in which it is used. It is ignoring the context of the social arrangements which make money a survival requirement, and also ignores the power dynamics that are born between individuals within money economies. When viewed with a wider lens which incorporates social context, it cannot be denied that money gives one the power to buy another’s labor. Money gives one the power to buy another’s time, power to buy their bodies, their minds and even, the power to buy their souls. Money is also the power to deprive others of land, of resources, and of autonomy. Point blank, money is power over other human beings.
There is a general attitude that capitalism is democratic, that it’s implementation was agreed upon by all as “for the best,” and even that we are all daily consenting to leave capitalism in place as our economic architecture. When describing the condition of a particular individual or set of individuals as either wealthy or poor, their life choices are often invoked to explain their financial standing. Consistently ignored is the fact that the overarching paradigm of the economy was not selected by the individual. We all don’t elect to “play the game” of capitalism. It’s thrust upon us from birth by those who have already entrenched their wealth and power. The language of capitalism’s defenders also creates a false equivalency between man made conditions and our natural state. To them, failing at capitalism is spoken of as if he who fails is a “loser,” and social Darwinism is invoked giving the impression that the poor, due to their own deficiencies, essentially don’t deserve to survive. The language used by capitalism’s defenders makes their position clear; they do not believe that poverty is a component of a system created and perpetuated by humans with conditions that make “success” extremely difficult for some and a guarantee for others. Capitalism’s defenders speak as if the economic system is as natural as the jet stream or the seasons.
This thinking is of course, ludicrous. It is insane to use the language of natural selection to describe economic failure or success despite the stark contrast between nature and the man made social paradigm in which individuals are forced to acquire money to survive. Such an inference is not only absurd, it’s an intentional obfuscation of what poverty and even wealth, are. If money is power over other human beings, wealth is access and domination while poverty is deprivation and powerlessness.
We cannot examine money, as defenders of the status-quo do, by merely looking at it as a reward for work done. We must also see the social reality by which people must acquire money to survive. Requiring money is not a natural condition. Requiring food or shelter are natural conditions, sure, but requiring the acquisition of a man made currency is a social construct. Money is a middle-man, if you will, between people and their needs. And here the picture starts to emerge; humans are made to need money by other humans in order to attain their needs, and the primary way of attaining money is as a reward for labor. Who benefits from this system? Who is the primary recipient of the labor of the masses? Who seems to be doing very little in the way of labor, yet are having not only their needs met, but surplus wealth with which to consume to excess?
If we are exploring what money is, we must investigate how it is that humans in modern societies require money. There is a quaint and conventional understanding that money is merely a tool that replaced barter, making trade more efficient. It is assumed then, that before money, humans met their needs via trade. This myth was shattered one hundred years ago in the work of Alred Mitchell-Innes which David Graeber invokes in his work, Debt: The First 5000 Years. In his book, Graeber states:
“We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, appears to be largely a kind of accidental byproduct of the use of coinage or paper money: historically, it has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when they for one reason or another have no access to currency.”
Though money is seen in ancient Sumer as a method of accounting for the rations available in the great temples, it was not used for exchange. Money as coinage is a product of hierarchical social arrangements in which the leaders of a society pay soldiers with to protect their rule and expand their empires. Graeber:
“Say a king wishes to support a standing army of 50,000 men. Under ancient or medieval conditions, feeding such a force was an enormous problem… On the other hand, if one simply hands out coins to soldiers and then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you [to pay taxes], one would, in one blow, turn one’s entire national economy into a vast machine for the provisioning of soldiers, since now every family, in order to get their hands on the coins, must find some way to contribute to the general effort to provide soldiers with the things they want.”
This is all to say, money wasn’t an invention created to make survival easier for the masses, but to make hierarchical and state structures more secure and immutable.
In this culture, we have no common space where we can live without paying a sum of money. We also must pay for food, which is a situation caused by the fact that land is all privately owned or state held. This paradigm of restrictions, of deprivations by owners of non-owners creates a dependency of non-owners upon owners. I covered this in my essay, Privare. Non-owners cannot grow or wild harvest food, they cannot just build a small shelter to live in. As long as this paradigm is in place, every new human born (to a non-owner) in this culture is necessarily immediately in debt. This condition is not natural or accidental. It was intentionally created by elites via primitive accumulation and enclosure of the commons. In essence, those with power and wealth took control of all lands where free peasants lived, exploited the land for materials for industry, passed laws to prevent survival by gathering from the wild, and created social conditions in which the only manner in which it was legal for one to gain sustenance was by first working for wages which could then be used to buy food and other goods.
Those who refused were often cast as criminal beggars by legal edicts. Howard Zinn writes of this in his seminal work, “A People’s History of the United States.” Zinn writes:
“In England, the development of commerce and capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s, the enclosing of land for the production of wool, filled the cities with vagrant poor, and from the reign of Elizabeth on, laws were passed to punish them, imprison them in workhouses, or exile them. The Elizabethan definition of “rogues and vagabonds” included:
… All persons calling themselves Schollers going about begging, all Seafaring men pretending losses of their Shippes or goods on the sea going about the Country begging, all idle persons going about in any Country either begging or using any subtile crafte or unlawful Games … comon Players of Interludes and Minstrells wandring abroade … all wandering persons and comon Labourers being persons able in bodye using loytering and refusing to worke for such reasonable wages as is taxed or commonly given….
Such persons found begging could be stripped to the waist and whipped bloody, could be sent out of the city, sent to workhouses, or transported out of the country.”
This set of conditions allowing for only one legal means of attaining survival is still in place today. The wild has been devastated by ownership and economic “progress”. The closest one can come to “opting out” of participation in the money economy is either to buy enough land on which to attempt self sufficiency, or to live a houseless life dependent upon the excesses and waste of capitalism, e.g. dumspter diving. The former option still requires participation in the money economy in order to acquire the money with which to buy land, and at some level requires continued participation in order to pay property taxes. This option is also primarily individualistic while sustenance living is more practical as a communal activity. It is also unrealistic as an option for the majority of the poor. The second option is only quasi legal, as there still exist laws concerning loitering, vagrancy, trespassing, curfew, etc. By and large, the architecture of society forces participation in the money economy. The controllers of money, the wealthy, those who work in high finance, and politicians know this all too well. They understand there is a subjugation of the poor to the wealthy, and they very much intend to maintain this subjugation because they benefit so greatly from it. By depriving the majority of humans of access to the basic needs of survival, the wealthy “owner” class can make demands of the non-owners and confiscate the surpluses created by their labor.
To be sure, this arrangement was not invented with capitalism, merely refined and perfected. Humans can create a surplus of food using agricultural techniques, and the history of civilization is essentially the history of one set of humans finding ways to manipulate other sets into laboring. This first set can strip the second set of the surpluses they generate, and thus live toil free themselves. This is our society in nutshell, but it is packaged in flowery language, titles, laws, and many other forms of pomp used to legitimize the acquisition of these surpluses by non-laboring owners. Money is just some of this pomp. Money is a magicians trick used to convince the masses that their perpetual labor is owed to the perpetually non-laboring wealthy. With a wave of their wand and some academic babble, exploitation becomes merely, “the economy.”
When understood from this angle, a society based on the deprivation of the masses and inequity of the relations between the owner and the non-owner classes can never be truly equal or free.
Returning to Myerson’s piece, I would like to meditate on his second suggestion, “Social Security for All,” and his mention of a universal basic income for all citizens. This is a concept that has been making its rounds in various online discussions lately. I do think there is a kernel of merit contained within this suggestion. If the hierarchy of wealth begins between the owners of land (as well as the means of production) then some sort of distribution of sustenance income could begin to even the playing field. Land being the source of both home and food, and most people being deprived of free access to land, a basic income with which to afford a reasonable home and diet removes the immediate debt non-owners are born holding to owners. This is to say, that if a person is not even given the opportunity to build a home or raise their own food as any human would be devoid of the current set of social arrangements, then at least giving them the money to acquire these things could be said to mitigate this deprivation.
Defenders of the status-quo will of course, find this idea foolish because they see money only as a reward for work done. Their reasoning will be that people who have done no work should receive no reward. These defenders are failing to acknowledge the totality of what money represents, as well as where both money and wealth originate.
I wouldn’t say this basic income idea is one that I necessarily support, because I do not support the overall set of social arrangements which the basic income concept seeks to make more equitable. However I do think it’s an idea worth exploring conceptually as it reinforces the folly of money economies. If everyone is given a sum of money with which they can afford modest housing and a healthy diet, one of the first consequences of such a distribution would be for a large portion of people to quit their jobs. As it stands now, people must go to a person with capital and fall into their employment in order to attain money. This means that at some level, those with the most capital control the majority of society and what it produces and in which sectors the most work is done. Capitalist “investors” disproportionately control the momentum and direction of society. For instance, if an investor owns shares in petroleum extraction companies, they have little incentive to invest in any competing energy source until they have maximized profits from their petroleum investment. They will also dedicate a mathematically reasonable amount of money into preventing others from destroying the value of their in-the-ground petroleum assets, be this through political manipulation, corporate buy outs, etc. By holding the majority of the available money, the wealthy have the ability to steer both industry and the government. The sheer weight of their wealth outflanks even the combined wealth of so many poor, that even a union of the poor is unlikely to be able to shift society in a direction which benefits them.
It is kind of difficult to examine money without investigating where money comes from in the modern sense. Money in modern economies is loaned into existence, either by the central bank or smaller banks. The numbers in accounts, whether digital or annotated in paper ledgers, spring forth in the form of loans. That’s it. Reserve requirements exist to limit the amount of loans lower banks can make, but even these rules are easily circumnavigated. Central banks are limited in money creation by policy only, which boils down to their own fears of ruining the good thing they have going by opening the spigot too much or too little. The flip side of this is that loans need to be paid back with money acquired through labor. This is truly a con game, in that those closest to the control mechanism of money creation are in a position where for themselves, the social requirement to buy one’s life through money acquisition is essentially negated. A quote from Mayer Amschel Bauer Rothschild comes to mind.
“Give me control of a nation’s money and I care not who makes it’s laws.”
Many of the wealthy have learned how to game the capitalist system through participation in the machinations of finance. By manipulating numbers and laws, they have generated for themselves in some cases more money than can be spent. Combined with the corruption of usury (interest) the wealthy literally get paid just for having money, whereas the poor are told they owe the rich for not having enough. For the wealthy, this is essentially ultimate power. They can buy the time, labor, influence, and lives of virtually anyone. They can buy absurd land holdings so large they could not conceivably walk them. Despite the obvious system rigging evident in how the wealthy become and stay rich, defenders of money systems still convince themselves that the wealthy have earned their money through reward for work done.
The last conflict presented by money that I would like to address is that money as it currently functions, can be used as universal value conversion unit. Combine this fact with the fact that modern people must acquire money in order to exist, and the result is that they will destroy anything of perceived value in order to stay alive. Examples are tragically bountiful. In West Virginia, mountains are strip mined layer by layer for the coal they contain. The land base is irrevocably altered and the human communities surrounding this ecocide suffer many maladies including high incidence of brain cancer. It would seem strange to us then, that so many residents of these mining regions in West Virginia defend the mining industry and the corporations that are destroying the region, killing the wildlife, and immiserating the people. The defense always boils down to a word; Jobs. We hear it again and again in any environmental struggle. Jobs are prioritized over everyone and everything. This is of course because of the money requirement placed on non-owners by the owner class. Without money, these people will be thrown out of their homes and starved. They must work for money and the only option given to them is to destroy their landbase and their bodies mining coal. The more they mine for coal, the more the health of their ecosystem is diminished, making it more and more impossible to survive off of the land instead of the economy.
It is this cycle which has placed a price tag around the neck of every living being on Earth. People need forests, but people think they need money more, so out with the chainsaws and feller-bunchers. People need oceans, but they think they need money more, so out with the fishing trawlers which drag nets so large a 747 could fly into one. People need bees and other pollinators, but they think they need money more, so out with the neonicotinoid insecticides. It could be a rhino’s horn or a child sex slave, everything is convertible into money, and thus we are all at risk of being thrown into the hopper so someone else can squeeze out the dime they have been made to need by a completely imaginary set of social conditions.
As long as we exist within the confines of the capitalist paradigm, we will owe our lives to the controllers of capital. We will buy our survival day by day via the bending of our backs. Capital will accumulate, poverty will grow, and the natural world will be converted into an arid waste dump as we watch powerless to help. Mike Ruppert has presciently said, “We will change nothing until we change how money works.” When we understand that money came into being as a direct accounting of social debts community members had to one and other and to the whole, and has now morphed into the relation itself between people, it becomes clear that money is power over others, and that the accumulation of money establishes non-negotiable power dynamics in which those with large sums of wealth can subjugate those without. If we seek to interact with one and other horizontally and to destabilize the current pyramid of power, we must take the power out of money. There are likely several theories on how this can be done, and reforms such as those presented by Myerson are too little too late. We need to abolish money altogether, and we need to abolish monoculture and industrialism along with it.
The question is can we achieve this actively, or must cataclysm do the heavy lifting for us?
January 5, 2014 § 1 Comment
Solving a problem relies first upon a trustworthy identification of the problem. This can be easy with simple problems, like a flat tire. It can be extremely difficult with complex problems such as climate change or the social ills of poverty and exploitation. It should be a no brainer that complex societies create complex problems with not one but various strands of the root establishing any particular issue. Most analysis that gets peddled by the architects and shills of the dominant culture is usually lacking in comprehensive diagnosis. This was summed up famously by H.L Menken when he said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
In our culture, it is not uncommon for positive outcomes of a system or arrangement to be credited widely to the culture as a whole. This is evident for me any time I try to have a discussion about the destruction wrought by a culture dependent upon industrialism and technology. Those who have never questioned the society in which they live immediately point out medical advances, knowledge of the cosmos, communications technology, etc. as these pinnacles of human development and existence, as if these inventions and discoveries are the new floor for human existence which we can never again sink beneath. These advances are attributed to democracy and capitalism, and the theme becomes, “Industrial capitalism may not be perfect, but it has given us a standard of living once unfathomable, and there is no conceivable reason to not only retain these developments, but to continually expand upon them.” This is bundled in a word; “progress.”
There is a very intentional paradox that comes into play if the problems created by industrial civilization’s “progress” are trotted out. Poverty for instance, is often blamed on the individual who struggles with it. Staunch defenders of capitalism will nit pick the minutiae of decisions and habits of each individual poor person who ever dares associate their condition with overall social or cultural architecture. The resounding lie is that anyone can rise on the economic ladder should only they work for it. This lie is successful because on it’s face, it appears true. Anyone could become rich. But not everyone could become rich. Not everyone could be middle class. Capitalism requires a struggling underclass that can be forced through social conditions and laws into taking low wage work. Low wage work is the majority of the work available within a capitalist paradigm, and thus it requires a majority of people to be trapped in a social condition which will leave them no option but to undertake this work.
Arthur Young, an English writer and pamphleteer of the mid and late eighteenth century wrote, “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.”
Poverty is a necessary condition of capitalism. How an individual navigates this poverty is in part up to them, but they do not create the condition, and they do not create the other social parameters which stem from it.
Social conditions from access to education, housing, and food, quality of medical care, level of policing in one’s neighborhood, race, perceived gender or sexual orientation, access to a clean environment, etc. will all play a role in the development of the individual from the time they are a newborn, or even in utero. Black children raised in a poor urban community with a high crime rate, lack of grocery stores, and lower quality education will clearly have a disadvantage economically relative to upper middle class white children who attend higher quality schools and eat a more balanced diet. This should be obvious. When the disadvantages manifest as individual inability to escape poverty, or as criminal behavior or drug addiction, the blame is always place squarely and solely on the individual.
In Dr. Bruce K. Alexander’s paper, “The Roots of Addiction in a Free Market Society” it is argued that the dislocation caused by capitalist society is a major factor causing addictive behavior. He writes:
“[D]islocation is the necessary precursor of addiction. … [F]ree markets inevitably produce widespread dislocation among the poor and the rich. As free market globalization speeds up, so does the spread of dislocation and addiction. In order for ‘free markets’ to be ‘free,’ the exchange of labour, land, currency, and consumer goods must not be encumbered by elements of psychosocial integration such as clan loyalties, village responsibilities, guild or union rights, charity, family obligations, social roles, or religious values. Cultural traditions ‘distort’ the free play of the laws of supply and demand, and thus must be suppressed. In free market economies, for example, people are expected to move to where jobs can be found, and to adjust their work lives and cultural tastes to the demands of a global market.”
Alexander goes on to reference specific native tribes in North America removed from their lands and stripped of their cultures and he directly links their high incidences of addiction to this dislocation. What his paper clearly lays out, is that social problems have social causes.
Whenever a person in the US snaps and goes on a rampage with a firearm, the society that created that individual is rarely implicated, and never implicated with any level of seriousness. Such implication would have serious ramifications for the ego and identities of those who support the dominant culture. It would also create a condition of responsibility society would then be compelled to address through altering it’s internal parameters. To ignore the culture that creates the psychosis, nihilism, and other mental and emotional disfunction prerequisite to waltzing into an elementary school with a rifle and murderous intent is to essentially declare that the occasional massacre of children or movie patrons is OK, a necessary evil of our otherwise high and glorious “way of life.” Instead of the culture taking responsibility for the monsters it creates, guns are blamed, whether an abundance or a lack.
The scope with which most social critique is attended is variable depending on the desired outcome. A macro view is applied to hide the blood in the cracks, a micro view zoomed in on the individual whenever the culmination of a sociopathic culture of death results in an individual acting out this cultural psychosis in a socially “unproductive” way. Should Adam Lanza or James Holmes had joined the Marines and manifested their violent sociopathy in an Afghan village or from behind the controls of a CIA drone attacking weddings in Pakistan or Yemen, we would likely never have known their names. People would clap for them as they walked through an airport in their fatigues.
No doubt, the prescription psychotropic drugs both Lanza and Holmes were taking affected their behavior. I do not think this is contrary to the thinking that the dominant culture generated their psychosis. In fact, I think it proves the point. More and more people in the US are taking prescribed anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. The numbers are one in five men, and one in four women are taking these mind altering drugs. If industrial civilization and capitalism provide such a wonderful “standard of living;” if this way of life is the pinnacle of human existence, why does almost a quarter of the population require a drug to make them feel better about it? Add in the number of people who drink alcohol or smoke marijuana, and it’s likely that a large majority of the population needs to achieve an altered state of consciousness on a regular basis merely to cope with the daily requirements leveled on their shoulders by this society.
But if we zoom out, we see happy shoppers and smiling twenty somethings taking “selfies” by the thousands.
If we cannot identify the cause of a problem, we will not likely solve the problem. If depression, addiction, and poverty, or even cancer, pollution, and climate change are viewed with the improper lens, these problems with social and cultural roots will always be attacked at the individual level. Individuals are blamed for their addictions. Individuals are blamed for their poverty. Individuals are even blamed for their cancer, and treatment is always about the individual, never prevention of the spread of toxins which cause it. This blame will not always sound like condemnation, harsh and critical as the blame attached to poverty, because cancer crosses class and race demographics. White grandmas get cancer, so we won’t be mean about it. But illness prevention is offered through individual diet, individual exercise, never through a social change that bans coal fired power plants, the creation and ultimate incineration of plastic, or the use of sodium nitrite in meat. Of course individuals can do their best to maintain their health and fitness. But we cannot not breathe in the dioxin or glyphosate in the air.
Even in the case of climate change and ecosystem collapse, what are the solutions proffered by capitalists and purveyors of the dominant culture? Individual reduction in consumption. Individual bicycling. With this focus on the individual behavior, corporate profits are safe and anyone who raises the alarm about ecological destruction and climate change can be attacked for their lifestyle impurity while the message itself drowns under screams and howls decrying the use of a car or computer by she who raised the alarm. I suffer this madness regularly both as a writer who publishes my work online, and as a direct action activist who has used a pick up truck to transport the materials and people into forests where tree sit campaigns blockaded the construction of tar sands infrastructure. Never mind the basic equation that I’d be willing to burn one million barrels of oil if it were able to prevent the shipment and ultimate burning of several hundred thousand barrels of oil per day for the next decade or two. Never mind Jevon’s paradox and the fact that conservation of oil by one individual only results in extra consumption by another who takes advantage of increased supply. The idea that the solution to a problem with global reach and social, economic, and cultural underpinnings rests entirely on the individual is patently absurd and intellectually lazy.
Striking one’s gaze in an intentionally overly broad or overly minute direction is an obfuscation employed regularly by the media, politicians, and others who have a vested interest not in solving problems, but in perpetuating them and profiting off of false solutions. A recent study demonstrated that two thirds of the emissions responsible for climate change are generated by ninety companies globally. According to the author of the study:
“There are thousands of oil, gas, and coal producers in the world, but the decision makers, the CEOs, or the ministers of coal and oil if you narrow it down to just one person, they could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two.”
The implications of the study are fascinating and grabbing headlines, but I fear there is a reductionism in the reactions to the study, as a complex and global problem which has not one taproot but many roots that stretch and meander in various directions, is being described as something that can be halted by focusing on a busload of individuals. To be sure, the power of these individuals is great, and I in no way want to diminish the negative impact of the decisions these people daily make. Financing climate change skepticism, altering media coverage through advertising and influence, and regularly seeking investment for new coal, oil, gas, bitumen, and kerogen projects is absolutely disdainful behavior with globally deleterious ramifications. These individuals and these companies should be pressured and punished respectively. But lacking a cultural and social shift away from capitalism and antiquated profit and domination based definitions of “progress,” such pressure and punishment will ultimately prove ineffective at solving our penultimate problem.
We look at our bodies and we see flesh. If we look at them under a microscope, we can see our tissues are comprised of cells. A little more zoom and we can see the organelles within the cell. Building those organelles are compounds comprised of molecules which are in turn built of atoms which consist of variously charged particles, themselves containing quarks and on and on possibly to infinity. If we turn the device around and look outward we see that our planet exists within a solar system, spiraling around a galaxy, itself but one small galaxy housed within a universe of billions of galaxies which itself may be housed within a larger super universe that might be nothing but a quark within God’s cat’s butt. This is all to demonstrate that scale and scope offer perspective, but the perspective is meaningless without context of where it resides within the whole.
Mechanistic thinking and reductionism was a product of the enlightenment period In this time, the conceptualization of the Earth as a living entity was diminished. It is commonly known that indigenous cultures looked to the Earth as a living entity with spirit and flesh and consciousness. Even the ancient Greeks and Renaissance Europeans held such views, surprising as this may seem. Of course, cultures varied in their interpretations of how this was to play into their behavior, but the predominant response was that as a living Mother, the Earth must be respected, and her resources must be harvested and utilized consciously and with care.
This view of a living universe, with even stars and planets as living and conscious entities was stripped away during the so called “enlightenment” period. Carolyn Merchant writes eloquently on this transformation in cultural concept and it’s disastrous results for ecology:
“Whereas the medieval economy had been based on organic and renewable energy sources–wood, water, wind, and animal muscle–the emerging capitalist economy was based on nonrenewable energy–coal–and the inorganic metals–iron, copper, silver, gold, tin, and mercury–the refining and processing of which ultimately depended on and further depleted the forests. Over the course of the sixteenth century, mining operations quadrupled as the trading of metals expanded, taking immense toll as forests were cut for charcoal and the cleared lands turned into sheep pastures for the textile industry. Shipbuilding, essential to capitalist trade and national supremacy, along with glass and soap making, also contributed to the denudation of the ancient forest cover. The new activities directly altered the earth. Not only were its forests cut down, but swamps were drained, and mine shafts were sunk.”
The rise of Francis Bacon’s scientific method came hand in hand with new cultural understanding. The Earth was dead, inert, without life or feeling. The Earth and nature were impediments to an increase in human “standard of living.” Belief systems which held the Earth to be a living and sacred mother to be tread upon delicately and with care were obstructions to progress and wealth accumulation.
“The removal of animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted the death of nature–the most far-reaching effect of the scientific revolution. Because nature was now viewed as a system of dead, inert particles moved by external rather than inherent forces, the mechanical framework itself could legitimate the manipulation of nature. Moreover, as a conceptual framework, the mechanical order had associated with it a framework of values based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism.”
“The emerging mechanical worldview was based on assumptions about nature consistent with the certainty of physical laws and the symbolic power of machines. Although many alternative philosophies were available (Aristotelian, Stoic, gnostic, Hermetic, magic, naturalist, and animist), the dominant European ideology came to be governed by the characteristics and experiential power of the machine. Social values and realities subtly guided the choices and paths to truth and certainty taken by European philosophers. Clocks and other early modern machines in the seventeenth century became underlying models for western philosophy and science.”
While civilizations based upon exploitation and expansion predate the thinking of Bacon, Decartes, and their contemporaries, these “enlightenment” thinkers founded a nihilism which became the cultural basis for an exponential increase in the rapacious destruction of the living Earth as well as the destruction of people’s and cultures which refused to adopt such methods of thinking and behaving.
This mechanistic view, this selective lensing of poverty, addiction, disease, and psychosis has the elites of money and privilege singing the praises of the dominant culture and maneuvering the levers of power for ever more of the behaviors and policies that are bringing about these maladies while never solving them. Viewed as merely cogs in a grand social machine, individuals suffering poverty and addiction are told to shape up or be removed into a cage where defective cogs are isolated.
Humans globally now stand on the precipice of catastrophe. Mechanistic approaches to food production have boosted short term yields at the expense of long term soil health and fertility. Despite water now tainted with glyphosate and phosphorous and soil stripped of the organic material which provides fertility, scientists are genetically modifying plants and trees to continue raising production yields despite common sense screaming that dominating nature is shortsighted and priming society for an agricultural collapse. Human attempts to manipulate nature under the mechanistic view that one part can be destroyed without affecting the whole continue to fuel climate change even as storms of record size and ferocity make landfall across the globe and as the jet stream is skewed bringing extremes of cold and hot into regions both south and north of their usual boundaries.
The ability to view the world holistically is not merely the ability of the grand scientist or mathematician who can compile and compute all of the variables in a system and spit out an accurate prognosis of a given issue or problem. As our ecological and social problems beg for holistic approaches, society instead seeks more and more compartmentalized “experts” who have spelunked into the deep caverns of their niche specialties. Hence the economists who don’t understand peak oil, the business people who don’t understand climate change, and the doctors who treat the symptoms, never once seeking the causes of various diseases and conditions.
The holistic ability this era craves is wisdom, itself the product of patient and caring people, listeners and observers who understand where the value of science and logic both begin and end. Wisdom is rare, it is quiet, it is humble, and thus is almost never even requested let alone respected by the dominant culture.
“Progress” is the grand value of the day. It is to be unquestioned. No endangered species or human culture is allowed to stand in the way of progress — not even if that endangered species is the human animal herself. It was a demented and flat thinking culture that wrote the definition of progress which is now vaunted, and if there is any hope for humanity I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that this hope at least partially resides in a redefining of “progress.” New widgets, wealth accumulation, and the bending of nature to the whims of the capitalist should not by default be considered progress. More often than not these contrivances do not advance the comfort or position of but a minority of the human population, and they do so on the backs of the poor majority. More often still, such “progress” is so destructive ecologically that were it not for mechanistic reduction hiding the costs from view, one would have to be a dedicated and shareholding huckster to call it “progress” at all.
If the survival of our species and the living web we depend on is a concern at all, we must begin to understand progress as peace, not production. Progress must mean equality, not subjugation. Progress must mean sustainable stewardship, not domination and control. Most of all, we must foster the wisdom that we are all linked with each other and with the living world, and that we cannot manipulate each other or the world for a benefit in one capacity without likely causing a deficiency in another. We need to praise the slow and thoughtful analysis which attempts to understand all parts of an issue. Where the living planet is concerned, we must understand that our meddling has consequences that multiply themselves in seen and unseen ways, thus meddling should be kept to a minimum and undertaken with grave attention.
The scale of human industrial activity is so large and it’s rate of process so fast, that such a revolution in consciousness seems unlikely absent some cataclysm which halts the furious pace of capital flow. To be sure, the cataclysm is waiting in the wings. Whether or not the challenges it brings are met with true progress of the mind and being is to be seen.