A world without hope?
The future prospects for humanity appear grim. At best we manage to avoid a planetary ecological disaster. And that already may be too high an aim. So what will our future look like? Which direction should we take? Can we build a sustainable and humane world society? And what is wrong with our current way of living? Perhaps the answer can be found in a speech the native American Chief Seattle allegedly gave in 1854 when the United States government wanted to buy the land of his tribe. Here are his first words:
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clear and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.
Only, Seattle never said this. It is fake history. It has been made up by a screenwriter in 1971. Still, the speech strikes at the heart of the matter. Nothing is sacred anymore. The pursuit of money destroys our values and our planet. For instance, it is argued that if we don’t allow the airport to expand, money and jobs will be lost. This is killing us. The speech contains some more interesting words:
This we know – the Earth does not belong to man – man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the Earth – befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life – he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
We know this deep down in our hearts but it is hard to deal with it. What can we do? The people from the environmentalist group Strohalm worked for decades on an outline for the society of the future. They were not hindered by established interests nor did a lack of perspective deter them from continuing their search. They tried to learn their lessons from history and were part of a small group of people that kept on caring and never gave up. Here is another take-away from the speech:
Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see. One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover – Our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot.
In 1991 Strohalm issued a booklet named Towards a Philosophy of Connectedness. It lays out their vision for a future society that is both sustainable and humane. It gives possible steering mechanisms that can help to achieve such a society. It is a vision that long seemed unattainable, not because it is impossible to do, but because vested interests stood in the way. Seattle also never said:
That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are slaughtered, the wild horses tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.
In 1994 I was an active member of the environmentalist movement. In this way I became familiar with Strohalm. For a long time I believed them to be naive dreamers. Most people I know do not like environmentalists. And indeed, they weren’t always realistic and sometimes decades ahead of their time. I kept on supporting their work because there is no alternative. You can’t allow realism to stand in the way of what needs to be done. And so this vision is here because of the hard work of environmentalist groups like Friends of the Earth and the Strohalm Foundation.
A new perspective
We need a new starting point, a new foundation for our culture, our beliefs and thinking and our place in the universe. There is no other choice. Small steps can’t save us anymore. We need to fundamentally change ourselves and the way we live. The planet we live on is given to us on loan to live off and not ours to destroy. Sadly, the fate of our planet does not compel us to do the right thing so God may be needed to make it happen.
As long as we do not completely change our approach to the major issues of our time, our societies will not become more humane and respectful of our planet. As long as production and consumption increase, new problems emerge faster than old problems can be solved with laws, technology, targets and other solutions.1
We are not confronted with an array of regrettable separate incidents, but with a culture that is on the loose. It is a throw-away culture in which not only materials and energy are wasted. Human relationships and values end up on the waste dump too.1
You probably know that but you may find it difficult to admit. It can make you feel hopeless. And so you may be inclined to ignore this, to focus on smaller and more concrete problems, or to withdraw yourself1 by fleeing into cynicism, new age spiritualism or conspiracy theories.
Most of us believe that massive structural changes are impossible and that we can’t influence the course of history in a meaningful way. And I can’t blame you for having what I for a long time believed to be a realistic view on this matter. And so we choose to manage existing developments with smaller measures. That is not going to help us in the end.
There is another way of looking at the situation. Acknowledging a problem is already solving it half. Our belief that nothing will help can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soon as there is a realistic perspective for change, many of us will let go of their cynicism and help to make it happen1 and then it can happen fast. Twenty years may be all we have left. And twenty years may be all we need.
Natural World Order
You do your job and perhaps you achieve something. Your activities do not only have the intended consequences but many others as well. If you succeed and get a promotion, a colleague might get jealous. If you go to your job by car, the exhaust gases can make other people sick.1 The unintended consequences of your actions hardly play a role in your decisions but they change our reality in unexpected ways.
The world is complex so the models we use can’t get a proper hold on what is going on. And so it appears that we can’t change our future in a meaningful way, and that at best we can anticipate what is going to happen. The failure of communism demonstrated that centralised planning does not create a happy society. That left us with capitalism and markets. They brought us prosperity while our living conditions are being destroyed.
Perhaps nature can show us the way. Organisms start relationships with each other. These relationships can become permanent if one organism makes something another organism needs and the other way around so that both benefit. For instance, plants and animals have such a relationship. Plants produce oxygen that animals need while animals produce carbon dioxide that plants need.1
Plants and animals are part of a self-sustaining cycle. They are connected. They are parts of a whole. If plants die then animals including humans die too. There are many of such relationships in nature. Such a natural order emerges spontaneously but it takes a long time. It starts with individual organisms starting relationships. These relationships can grow to a global scale as long as the external conditions allow for it.1
External conditions are like a dictate. If there were no fossil fuels then we can’t burn them. If there was no technology to build cars, we can’t drive them. External conditions are usually taken for granted but when they suddenly change then we must adapt and that can be brutal. For instance, the spread of the corona virus brought long-distance travel to a standstill. And climate change can become far worse than that.
Make no mistake. Running into the limits of our planet will be more brutal than anything that ever happened before in the course of human history. That leaves us with no other choice than setting global limits on human activities before the planet does it for us. But the sudden stop of air travel also teaches us that we don’t really need it. And there are many more things we do not need.
People, businesses and governments must deal with these limits. Once they are in place, communities, governments and businesses all over the world can reorganise themselves via communities, so that the Natural World Order will arise more or less spontaneously. Humans can make this happen fast because they can quickly change the ways they cooperate by changing their cultures. That doesn’t require planning every detail but it does require altering the steering mechanisms of our societies and economies.
One of the most important things we must change is the way we look at wealth and conspicuous consumption. Wealthy people are seen as great examples and their consumption is seen as good for the economy. If conspicuous consumption is frowned upon, there is less fun in being extremely rich, and a lot of crime becomes pointless. For example, what’s the point of risking your life by being drug dealer if you can’t drive around in your expensive cars any more? This way looking at wealth and consumption is essential to make the Natural World Order come to pass.
Money is now the most important steering mechanism in society. Realising goals of any kind usually requires the cooperation of others and therefore money. That is understandable. Everyone needs money but it may be better that we are motivated more by our job or our contribution to society and less by money. Economic decisions are affected by interest as well. Interest is a steering mechanism. High interest rates promote short-term decisions while low interest rates promote long-term decisions. So how does that work?
If the interest rate is 5% then € 1,00 next year is worth € 0,95 now. That makes you prefer to get € 1,00 now rather than next year, even when you need the money next year simply because you can receive interest and will have € 1,05 next year. Interest reduces the value of future income and therefore the future itself. Interest makes people and businesses prefer the present to the future and short-term gains at the expense future generations.
This is why a sustainable economy requires low or even negative interest rates. Ending growth also requires negative interest rates otherwise the interest on debts can’t be paid. Interest is any return on capital so interest doesn’t depend on money but on capital. As the wealthy own most capital, interest is a flow from everyone else to the wealthiest. A humane society may therefore need to end positive interest rates. Central banks do not determine interest rates in the end. The supply and demand for money and capital do. But ending interest may soon be possible.
In markets competition is a steering mechanism. Competition promotes efficiency and progress but it also causes problems. Competition affects economic decisions.1 It can force corporations to produce as cheaply as possible or to produce stuff that no-one really needs because it can be sold at a profit. Some corporations faced with intense competion see little room to treat their employees well or to care for the environment.
If you desire that latest model, the best service, the lowest price, and want more money to buy even more stuff, you are part of the problem like many others, and that includes me. It may be strange to realise that you have enough, or even have far more than enough, and that you can do with less, older models, poorer service and higher prices, so that local businesses may survive.
Another important steering mechanism is the distribution of cost. Short-term gains are for corporations while societies deal with the long-term cost like pollution and unemployment. Education and health care are public costs that corporations often do not pay for. Taxing systems do not take into account the limits of the planet. They need to be changed in order to attribute the true cost to the products and services people buy.
Shifting taxes from labour to raw materials and energy can help. This measure can induce people to use items longer and promote repair and recycling. Corporations must be responsible for the entire life-cycle of the products they produce. Non-essential products that are harmful can be banned completely. The advertisement industry can be regulated to stop people from buying items they do no need.
Laws are a steering mechanism too. What is legal isn’t always fair. Unethical behaviour is often not punished by the law. A greater role for ethics in law is needed, most notably in matters of business. Savvy people and corporations use loopholes to their advantage or bribe politicians into changing the law into their favour. Exploiting people, misusing public funds, and harming the planet should be sufficient ground for persecution and conviction, even if the specific activity is not declared illegal.
Most people take the existing steering mechanisms for granted. A few people like the anti-globalists and religious extremists think of an alternative. Only most people would not like a reign of terror. And so we limit ourselves to taking small measures in order to reduce the fall-out. It is hard to believe that the steering mechanisms themselves can be changed. Perhaps technology will save us, we hope. That may not be the case.
The throw-away culture
Science, technology, society and culture are closely interconnected. It is fair to say that we live in a technological society and a throw-away culture. If we have a problem then we look at scientists and engineers to solve it. Even our emotional problems we address with therapy sessions and pills. This is also true for environmental problems.
A good example is perhaps a report of the Dutch research agency TNO in the 1980s about replacing milk bottles by milk cartons. Milk bottles were used many times while cartons are thrown away. The discussion that followed was about the number of times a bottle was reused, which determines whether or not the bottle is better for the environment. That depended, amongst others, on the number of times a bottles was reused.
These discussions can be useful. What was not discussed however, was the throw-away culture. Milk bottles were part of a culture of reuse that was disappearing. The cartons are part of the new throw-away culture. Discussions are about quantity, objectivity and efficiency, but not about fundamental questions about the way we live.
The things we use deserve more respect. Valuable resources and energy have been used to make them. We should not depart from them until they are worn out completely. If they are broken we should fix them until they can’t be fixed any more. And why should we buy frivolous items or make long distance trips for recreational reasons?
The fourth way
The damage done to our planet is escalating. There is a lot of excess. Nowadays there are more obese people than hungry ones. The end of our way of living is here. Communism and state planning have failed. Capitalism and free markets have failed too, but most people have yet to find out. Many countries have combined state planning with market economies and called it a third way. That didn’t change much either. Many people have become cynical. But there is no need for poverty.
It is not surprising that people distrust stories that have a claim to the truth like religions, ideologies and science. But it is the absence of great stories we can believe in that makes our societies directionless. Individuals and their desires are now at the centre stage. So is there anything left that binds us together? Sure there is. A soon as a crisis emerges people join and help each other. The future is not without hope.
There is a fourth way. It can be called the Natural World Order. It is setting limits on a planetary level and letting people deal with them via communities, governments and markets. It is not clear from the outset what will happen because this can’t be planned from the top. Developments can take different turns. For instance, if energy is to become expensive, international trade would diminish and local products would be favoured. If most people do what needs to be done then it can be done.
This is the time to act. The current order can’t be sustained. The limits of our planet should be respected. Administrating these limits would require a global government and the same laws everywhere around the planet. It can only work if people, communities and businesses help to make it become reality. It can work when we want to make it work whatever it takes. It all begins with admitting that enough is enough.
We want more stuff because the advertisement industry tells us that we need this or that product or that buying it will make us happier. Our current economic system needs growth. We must buy more to keep the economy from collapsing. That is why fundamental change freaks us out. There can be enough for everyone. Eve and Adam had everything they needed. And so we may enter the Final Gardens of Paradise that await for us at the End of History. The change is not going to be easy but there may be no alternative.
Featured image: the only known photograph of Chief Seattle taken in 1864
1. Naar een filosofie van verbondenheid. Guus Peterse, Henk van Arkel, Hans Radder, Seattle, Pieter Schroever and Margrit Kennedy (1990). Aktie Strohalm.