Bertrand Russell, the eminent British philosopher once said that “the greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution”. That’s great I reply, thank you Mr. Russell! What however, is a person to do if he exists within a paradigm so powerfully entrenched in his culture, his belief system, yes, one that is even inscribed in his very DNA, that to escape it – and escape it he must – appears maddeningly impossible? What if this Zeitgeist, this spirit of his times, is all encompassing, here to stay and frighteningly self-perpetuating? I am talking of course about how we, as a society, have become so caught up in a system that requires, no, that feeds on our ‘wants’ and demands perpetual growth; a system that places value only on the concrete or the tangible and is blind to that which cannot be measured or commercialized. For those of you still puzzled, I am talking, of course, about the global economic system, our relationship to our planet and ultimately to ourselves.
To anyone still comfortably lounging within the status-quo of our present condition, I say that, which a once highly motivated, optimistic and much younger looking president of the United States said at the beginning of his term: “The challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many.”
Our entrenchment within this consumer based, individualistic, money driven, utility maximizing and marginalizing system is the ultimate threat to our survival as a species. If we continue to internalize this toxic combination and fail to imagine an alternative – and to do so fast – then the challenges we face today and will encounter in our future will eventually become insurmountable.
The loss in biodiversity and ecosystem functions, climate change, water scarcity, desertification, food shortages, war and conflict, inequality, poverty, disease, global epidemics – the list could go on and on – are all manageable problems if, and only if we approach them with a thinking born from without our current system.
How, after all, are we to solve conflict when our children learn that competition and success are more highly priced in society than cooperation or empathy? How can we even think about addressing food shortages or poverty when our culture is based on and our economy driven by consumerism and the concept of ‘perpetual want’? Why would we risk fighting for the preservation of our natural environment if its exploitation in the present maximizes immediate utility and economic return? How can we hope to present a united front against that which we face, if our discourse, the very words that we use, are divisive and marginalizing?
An analysis of the current system is fundamental to understanding what is needed to escape our present condition. For the sake of time and, to be quite honest, due to a lack of sufficient understanding on my part, I will not focus here on how we arrived at our current, seemingly intractable state, but will merely describe some of the symptoms that ail our society. As they are numerous, I will limit myself to those that seem to epitomize the ‘spirit of our time’.
We are, from the very top, down to our very core, an oil based society. Oil and natural gas are fundamental to all aspects of our modern society. I challenge you to look around and find a single man-made or man-used object that is not influenced, composed or manufactured by an oil based process. Farming, manufacturing, energy-generation, transportation, communication, health care, security – the fundamentals of our life – all require oil inputs. In our current mindset, the only response to the threat of peak oil seems to be, yes, more of the same and then some. But, you may rightfully protest that alternative, renewable energy sources are being developed rapidly. This might be true statistically speaking, but ask yourself, towards what end is this change occurring? Is the mad dash into alternatives not merely a frantic attempt to maintain our consumption based lifestyle? At what point do we see a real change in our mindset? Is the paradigm of perpetual growth not sustained?
Oil drives a nations economy. The United States has one of the largest economies. To sustain itself in light of shrinking oil supplies, it has several options. Promote alternatives, become more efficient or gain access to new oil supplies. The last decade has shown what choice it has made. The countless of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and periphery countries bear witness to an addicts violent rampage. Noble claims of spreading democracy aside – what a pretentious tomfoolery – an abundant but threatened oil supply was the main objective. Post war events reveal what Iraq has turned into: a massive “yard sale…a capitalist’s dream” (The Economist). Only from within the mindset of our current system can we claim that Iraqi democracy is established by allowing western corporations to ravage and pillage at will, after a tense peace was achieved by – listen up closely now – a privatized war! Yes, this is the first time in recent history that for-hire mercenaries played a significant role in war; they provided protection, engaged in conflict and even interrogated prisoners in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Only our system would fail to hold them accountable and allow them to profiteer from pain, destruction and violence.
I could go on and on. Food security worsened by for-profit speculation and land grabs; economic volatility driven by greed, incompetence and disdain; a privatized and expanding prison system; an increase of depression, suicide and a simultaneously profiteering pharmaceutical sector; a self-benefiting international aid system; the recurring failures to compromise on solutions to climate change; the need to possess the rare and place monetary value on the natural world; you get my point!
It is a sad irony of today, that living in an increasingly interconnected world, we are nonetheless highly disconnected. While we accumulate a massive amount of knowledge on a daily basis, we understand very little. As Manfred Max-Neef once eloquently explained:
“Let us assume that you have studied everything that you can possibly study, from a theological, sociological, anthropological, biological and even a bio-chemical point of view about a phenomenon called love. The result is that you will know everything that you can possibly know about love; but sooner or later you will realize that you can never truly understand love unless you fall in love. You can only attempt to understand that of which you can become a part off – if we fall in love. When we belong, we understand. When we are separated, we accumulate knowledge”.
It is this ability to ‘understand’, to approach issues from a holistic point of view rather than to strive for the accumulation of knowledge, which will be pivotal in the coming years. We have to realize that we are an intricate part of nature, of society, of poverty and of conflict if we want to understand and through understanding transcend the paradigm of our time.
Like so many concepts in life, the road forward offers us some choices. Our current system will come to an end, one way or another. There is no logical basis for the idea that a perpetually growing entity can exist within a finite planet; none! I expect two paths to lie ahead of us. If we take the easy way out and continue merrily down our path, then the house of cards that we have carefully build up around us will come crashing in. There will be disasters, turmoil, war, suffering and a radical re-ordering of our society until, at some point, with much less people, a destroyed ecosystem and an absence of beauty, we can once more live within our means. The question then will be: will history repeat itself?
The second path is one where we take a break from an endless forward process, take time to reflect, learn to understand and begin to imagine an alternative world. This world will be different – it has to be – and sacrifices will have to be made. Not everyone will come out on top and some will be left behind, but in the end we, and most importantly, our humanity, will survive.
Living within a system so highly resistant to change, how are we to develop this alternative approach? I must humbly claim that I do not know the answer. My feeling is that one approach will be to fundamentally re-structure the way by which we educate ourselves. Sir Ken Robinson, in a speech on “Changing Paradigms” stated that our education system seems to be based on a principle of economics. Classes are divided into ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ in terms of their ability to contribute to the market. Children are encouraged to pursue that which is deemed useful and are steered away from that which they are good at. This very act, so he claims, is systematically destroying the capacity in our children and ourselves to imagine. If everything is right or wrong, black or white, how can the imagination be fostered? Brilliant, talented individuals, by being judged from this system, often feel that they are somehow ‘less’. If passion is muzzled, how can we remain sane? No wonder, he argues, that pharmaceutical companies are making a killing. The sale of anti-depressants has sky-rocketed as more and more people slide into depression. Suicide rates have increased globally by 60 percent since 1960. The fact is that people in bad conditions go bad!
Robert Ardrey, screenwriter and playwright once wrote that:
“Humans were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”
Rather than suppressing our emotions with drugs, we should focus on an education that fosters creativity, vitality, purpose, pride, belonging and most of all, the twin pillars of what must be a radical revolution, understanding and imagination. If we build a strategy based on personhood and re-connection with nature and through nature with ourselves, then so I believe the current, ferociously static paradigm, can and will be shattered – one layer at a time. Only then will, as Ardrey put it, we be ‘known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses’.