The Great Reset

During the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum (WEF) launched a plan, The Great Reset. It aims to rebuild the world economy more intelligently, fairer and sustainably while adhering to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). These SDGs include ending poverty, improving health and well-being, better education, equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, jobs and economic growth. That sounds great, but is it a reset? It would be up to so-called responsible corporations and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to implement the agenda before 2030. Not everyone thinks that is a great idea.

The change is supposed to be powered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a fusion of technologies in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing. I get an uneasy feeling when I read that. It looks like an excuse for technology addicts to play with our future. Is it because I am against progress, or is it because of a rational fear that something is about to go seriously wrong even though I don’t know exactly what?

Under the umbrella of the Great Reset, so-called young global leaders of the WEF came up with new ideas. For instance, new technologies can make products like cars and houses cheaply available as a service, ending the need to own these items. A young global leader wrote an article titled, ‘Welcome to 2030. I own nothing, have no privacy, and life has never been better.’1 She hoped to start a discussion, and the article produced a slogan that also became an Internet meme, ‘You’ll own nothing, and you’ll be happy.’ There certainly is an economic rationale for sharing items like cars, most notably if they become more expensive to keep because of technological innovation.

Property, for instance, a home, can give you economic freedom. If you own a home, you don’t have to pay rent. And you own some capital when you retire. Some people think the WEF is a sinister elite club scheming to achieve a secret agenda where the elites own everything, and the rest of us ends up with nothing. And that might happen anyway if current trends continue because that is how capitalism works. Capital accumulates and ends up in the hands of a few because of interest. It is not a secret since Karl Marx figured that out. And it leads to a crisis when the impoverished masses can’t buy the things that capital produces. With negative interest rates, there is no need for that.

Property rights have become a semi-religious value in Western culture. That prevents us from taking the property of the elites and ending their stranglehold on our political economy. Marx advised that workers or the state would take over corporations. That might not be a good idea because workers and governments often do poorly at running corporations. Markets and private enterprises can efficiently provide goods and services, but it comes with wealth inequality and happens at the expense of future generations. Our societies must find the right balance. At some point, the disadvantages of the current political economy start to outweigh the advantages.

We use far more resources than the planet can provide, and wealth inequality is now so extreme that we might need a genuine Great Reset. Taking the wealth from the elites and discontinuing enterprises that don’t provide for our essentials is not communism, as long as there are markets and private property. People should prosper if their work benefits society and enterprises often do better at providing for our needs. But we don’t benefit from the corrupting influence of oligarchs. Their wealth comes from inheritance, criminal and shady activities, and, most notably, accumulated interest on their capital. That arrangement may have suited us in the past, but not now.

Economists believe property rights are essential for economic growth, and that business owners should be able to do as they please. For instance, Elon Musk has the right to ruin Twitter because he owns the company. Should employees and others suffer from the irrational behaviour of their owners? In the Netherlands, a series of interesting trials took place, where corporations tried to escape the influence of their majority shareholder Gerard Sanderink, who allegedly didn’t act rationally in the interest of these companies.2 Limited property rights and a collectivist attitude have not prevented China from becoming a large and advanced economy surpassing the United States and may have contributed to China’s success.

The degree of individualism currently existing in the West may do more harm than good. They promote political fights and litigation and prevent us from doing what we should do. And perhaps, less privacy can go a long way in reducing crime. Property rights and individualism were crucial to start capitalism and made the West dominate the world for centuries. And so, we have learned to see them as necessary, inevitable or even desirable. But once the European imperialist capitalist engine ran, these features became less important than economic stability. If you start a business, you must be able to estimate your returns, but you can lease everything and own nothing.

Individualism and property rights also play a positive role in society. The cultural heritage of the West is extensive compared to other cultures, for instance, if you express it in the number of books written or discoveries made. Self-interest and personal responsibility can inspire us to work harder and do a better job. The Soviet Union failed to produce enough food for its citizens while there was enough arable land. In the Soviet Union, farmers had to work on collective enterprises where they could not do as they saw fit and didn’t share in the profits. The tragedy of the commons is that we don’t care for public spaces as much as our possessions. Homeowners usually take better care of their houses than tenants. The same is true for car owners.

As they are now, property rights protect the elites. And the WEF plan is just a fart in the wind, not a Great Reset. We face unprecedented worldwide challenges while wealth inequality is at extreme levels, so individualism and property rights need limits. And we need a proper Great Reset, or a switch from economic to political control of the world’s resources if we intend to live in a humane world society that respects our planet. It is what a corporation named Patagonia did in 2022.3 We can do that on a global scale.

It begins with seizing the wealth of oligarchs and criminals and all hidden wealth in offshore tax havens, including their so-called charities, placing them in sovereign wealth funds, and setting a limit on what individuals can own or earn. And perhaps, we need to build our future on values rather than balance sheets. And everyone should contribute. Capital accumulates by interest, and people who live off interest don’t work for a living. That might be as bad as being on the dole while you can work. And peddling unnecessary products that harm life on Earth could be as bad as being a criminal.

Laws should prevent people and corporations from doing wrong, but they often fail to do that. Corporations pollute the environment or exploit employees to make a profit. But consumers desire excellence for rock-bottom prices. It is profitable to break the law if you can get away with it or when the gain is higher than the fine. And if there are loopholes, they become exploited. The anonymity provided by money, large corporations and markets turn us into uncaring calculating creatures. That is why big pharma, the military-industrial complex, the financial industry, and the Internet giants threaten us. If corporations do right out of their own, many laws and regulations become redundant. If moral values can replace the law, it could be better.

Less efficiency, poorer service and a smaller choice of products can be preferable if that doesn’t lead to deprivation and starvation. For instance, why must you get your meal from a takeaway restaurant instead of preparing it yourself? Or why do you need to dress up in the latest fashion if you have ample wearable clothing? And you must work to pay for these things, so if you don’t buy them, you have time to prepare your meal or mend your clothes. We don’t want to give up these things, so in a democracy, we can’t fix this problem. Perhaps we might accept the change if God sends a Messiah who tells us this is for the best.

That might be wishful thinking, but what else can make it happen if it is not religion? Do you believe we will come to our senses, become one humanity, and do right on our own? That is wishful thinking. God is our only hope. As we are heading for the Great Collapse in one way or another, the End Times could be now. We might live inside a simulation run by an advanced humanoid civilisation.4 Hence, God might own this world, and you might soon discover that you own nothing and be happy. God’s kingdom might be a utopian society as early Christians lived like communists (Acts 4:32-35).

So what can we achieve by taking political control of the world’s resources and means of production by seizing the elite’s wealth and placing it in sovereign wealth funds? You can think of the following:

  • We can direct our means to the goals of a humane society, be respectful of this planet, and plan long-term.
  • We can dismantle harmful corporations or give them a new purpose without starting an economic crisis with mass unemployment.
  • We can make corporations employ people in developing countries and give them an education and decent salaries.
  • We can fund essential government services in developing countries and eliminate corruption insofar as it is due to insufficient pay of government employees.
  • We can make corporations produce sustainably and pass on the cost to consumers.
  • We can determine the pay of executives.
  • We can halt developments like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nuclear energy if we believe they are undesirable.
  • We can end the incentive to produce and consume more and stop the advertising industry from tracking us.
  • We can end stress in the workplace if we axe bullshit jobs and redirect workers to the needs of society. A twenty-hour working week might be enough.

Interest stands in the way of a better future. The economy ‘must’ grow to pay for the interest. We ‘must’ work harder in bullshit jobs to pay for the interest. Corporations ‘must’ sell harmful products to pay for the interest. Corporations ‘must’ pay low wages or move production to low-wage countries to pay for the interest. And because of interest, money disappears from where it is needed most and piles up where it is needed least. Interest is our tribute to the wealthy. If we hope to live in a humane world society that respects creation, ending interest might be imperative. That is where Natural Money comes in.

Latest revision: 28 April 2023

Featured image: You’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy. WEF.

1. Welcome To 2030: I Own Nothing, Have No Privacy And Life Has Never Been Better. Ida Auken. World Economic Forum (2016).
2. Zakenman Gerard Sanderink tierend in rechtszaal: ‘Deze rechtbank deugt voor geen meter!’ AD.nl (2023).
3. Patagonia’s Next Chapter: Earth is Now Our Only Shareholder. Patagonia (2022).
4. Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? Nick Bostrom. Philosophical Quarterly, 2003, Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255.

What is the point of politics?

‘Politics is not worth a lightning bolt to me. Throw it to the sharks,’ the Dutch band Normaal sang in 1984. Many people in democracies experience disillusionment with their government and political system, but the feeling is not new. Something appears to be wrong with politics. But what is the problem, and what are the solutions? Perhaps, we expect too much of our politicians as they often have limited influence on affairs. Maybe, politicians interfere with issues that are the domain of experts. And what is the point of politics when there is no food on the table?

Still, there has been some progress in political institutions. Political institutions can be customs, laws, government organisations, and other arrangements. Human nature does not change, and politicians have remained more or less the same, but our forefathers devised political institutions to provide political stability and make governments work better. They learned from previous mistakes, so there was some improvement. But institutions can outlive their usefulness because societies change over time. So, what is the point of politics? To answer that question, it might be good to start with the basics.

The basics of politics

Humans flexibly cooperate in large numbers. That made us so successful as a species. To do that, we need language to describe what is happening. For instance, during a hunt, I can tell you that a deer hides behind the tree in front of us. Some animals have languages to communicate about the whereabouts of food or enemies, but human language serves more purposes. Most notably, we gossip and discuss what others are doing and thinking. That gives us more accurate information about other people in the group, for instance, who can do a particular job best. We use this information to cooperate in sophisticated ways.1

Another essential feature of human language is not gossip but the ability to convey information about imaginary things. Many forms of large-scale human cooperation, such as nation-states, religions, corporations, laws and money, are fictions that exist only in the collective imagination of human beings. Our collaboration depends on shared beliefs or collective imaginations.1 If you believe that a piece of paper is money, but I do not, we cannot trade. If I think a law exists, but you do not, we may get into a conflict. And if we share the same religion, we can do things together, like praying or building a temple.

Politics usually deals with questions like: what should we be doing as a group, which are our rules, and who will lead us? What we are going to do, is decided by ideas like we should sow crops in the spring, do a rain dance in the summer to please the rain fairy, and harvest in the autumn. Doing a rain dance in the summer is a rule. It depends on our belief in the rain fairy, our collective imagination. Religions and ideologies more or less play the same role in politics. Ideologies are beliefs too. They can be wrong. For instance, we could expect better results from an irrigation system connected to a nearby lake. And ideologies like socialism and liberalism do not work in practice as their proponents claim.

The rules could dictate that we need a priest for the religion of the rain fairy. Every year, he leads a procession while holding the stature of the rain fairy in front of him before the rain dance begins. The priest is a sage of the village. The priesthood is open only to highly esteemed men of a certain age. If rain does not come and the crops fail, the question of who will lead the procession next year becomes of the utmost importance, as harvests depend on rain and, therefore, on pleasing the fairy. Our ability to gossip allows us to evaluate potential candidates. And so, the village may elect a new priest, hoping the fairy will send rain next season. If droughts are rare, this approach usually seems to work.

This short tale about the village that worships the rain fairy and elects a priest explains a lot about politics. There is a belief system. There are rules about the priesthood, and the priest has authority. Villagers believe the priest can influence the rainfall. Political leaders can influence what happens, but in many cases, they have to deal with circumstances over which they have little control. Leaders might revert to public display, like doing a rain dance to show the public they are working on the problem because building an irrigation system is not an option in our religion. Imaging can trump facts, but the underlying cause is often not politicians but our beliefs, for instance, the imagination that rain dances promote rainfall.

The big man

We are social animals, and politics is part of our nature. Traditional societies have politicians too. For instance, the big man is the leader of a family group or a small tribe in Papua New Guinea. No one is born a big man, nor can a big man hand that title down to his son. Rather, his position has to be earned. It falls not necessarily to those who are physically strong, but to those who have earned the community’s trust, usually on the ability to distribute pigs, shell money, and other resources to the members of his tribe. The big man must constantly be looking over his shoulder, because a competitor for authority may be coming up behind him. Without resources to distribute, he loses his status as a leader.2

This description comes from Francis Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order. The big man is a politician. Much of politics comes down to distributing resources and favours. To become the leader, the big man forges a coalition of followers, and his followers benefit once he becomes the leader. A big man can also take actions that benefit the entire community. Likewise, a politician can look after the interests of his followers or work in the public interest. Also, the ideology-based programmatic political parties in Europe operated for the benefit of their voters. For instance, labourers often voted for socialist parties because they expected to benefit, while business owners often voted for liberal parties for the same reason.

The role of institutions

Our disappointment with politics is not always justified. Politicians in modern democracies are like the big men in Papua New Guinea or the priests of the rain fairy. And in democracies, the citizens elect their leaders, so why do we not elect better ones? Hence, the room for improvement in the quality of politicians appears limited. But we cannot do without politics. After all, it is part of our nature. The programmatic ideological political parties of Western Europe may have been an apex in the development of politics. They promoted general policies in the interest of their constituency rather than benefits for individuals.

These parties have lost their lustre. Today’s world differs from the world where these parties emerged and flourished. If you were born in a socialist or Roman Catholic family in the Netherlands in 1900, you remained a socialist or a Roman Catholic for the remainder of your life. Society was stable and politicians didn’t need to compete for attention. The ideologies and religions of these parties have not passed the test of time. They do not answer the questions of today. And many voters think traditional parties have neglected their interests. In the absence of better ideas, politics became more about personalities and emotions.

Institutions can raise politics beyond the level of individuals and their interests, emotions and weaknesses. Traditional societies already have them. For instance, the practice of electing a new priest if the crops fail is an institution. This arrangement answers the question of what we should do on such an occasion. Otherwise, villagers might disagree and start a bloody conflict. After all, the harvest is of the utmost importance, so if you do not have faith in the measures taken, you must protect yourself and your family. But institutions like rain dances do not guarantee good outcomes.

The Chinese were the first to develop a modern state with a rationally organised administration with merit-based recruitment and promotion. It was one of the most significant improvements in state institutions in history. But Chinese emperors did not have to pass an exam. They usually inherited the title or emerged from a power struggle. Emperors had unchecked powers. So the question was how to guarantee a continuing supply of good emperors?2 You cannot, but perhaps institutions can protect the country from poor rulers. And this problem does not go away by electing leaders. That is why democratic states also have institutions, most notably, the separation of powers.

The separation of powers aims to split the state into three independent branches, which are the administration (the executive), the parliaments (the legislative) and the courts (the judiciary). Each has its responsibilities, and the branches do not interfere with each other’s tasks. Parliaments make the laws, the administration executes them, and the courts verify whether they are applied correctly. Ideally, the administration has no power over the parliaments and the courts, for instance, the administration should not nominate or appoint candidates for the parliaments and the courts, and the courts should stay out of political affairs, which is the domain of parliaments.

As political leaders often change or are controversial, many nations have a ceremonial head of state to provide a sense of stability and continuity in the form of a person. Some countries hold on to their royal families, while others have presidents. Usually, ceremonial presidents are highly respected individuals who are supposed not to interfere with political affairs. Royals can also provide a stable sense of nationhood, but kingship is a birthright. Kings do not need to have particular qualities, so they may lose respect, while a ceremonial president usually has earned respect.

Our predicament

Improvements in democratic political systems are possible, but our current predicament is not so much the result of a lack of democratic oversight of governments. Our belief systems are at stake here, for instance, nationalism, socialism and liberalism, but also cultures, religions and traditions. And money can buy influence in politics. That has always been so, but wealth inequality has increased in recent decades, creating a self-reinforcing trend. Existing ideas and ideologies are models of reality with assumptions that do not always apply.

For instance, you can analyse the economy from a socialist or a capitalist perspective. The results are very different, and neither is entirely wrong or right. The proponents of ideologies and religions have an explanation for everything. Within the confines of their models, their arguments make sense. If you believe in the rain fairy, it makes perfect sense to think she is angry if rain does not come. We all have beliefs, and so do I. And it might surprise you how often I find my opinions wrong. We should let go of them and see them as models of reality with merits and limitations. That allows us to have rational debates.

Our political institutions are based on ideas from the past. Clinging to defunct ideas is like doing rain dances to prevent harvest failures. If existing ideas do not work anymore, troubles arise. If crops continue to fail because of persistent droughts, some villagers realise that electing a new priest does not solve the issue, and they may get into conflict with adherents of the religion of the rain fairy. And even though the causes appear complex, our predicament is about the failure of ideas. We are at a crossroads and some developments may soon alter human existence:

  • We are running out of resources, and a protracted period of economic decline might be upon us. Our institutions are built for growth. And so, we could expect political instability to increase.
  • Nation-states and their ambitions pose a constant threat to peace. To have peace, we need the world to be unified under one leadership, which could be democracy on a global level.
  • Humans may soon enhance themselves with biotechnology, information technology, and cyborg engineering, and may turn into post-humans with abilities we do not have, while artificial intelligence may make decisions for us.
  • Post-humans might already exist and created virtual universes for their personal entertainment. We may find out that we live inside one of those universes and who owns our universe.

Apart from that, several developments have converged to make existing political systems increasingly dysfunctional:

  • Political institutions developed on a national level. They are not well-suited for today’s globalised world. At the same time, existing global institutions lack legitimacy.
  • Globalisation changed politics. Wealth inequality is extreme, mass migration creates new social problems, while elites have undue political and economic influence.
  • Individualism makes it harder for people to rally for common causes, make sacrifices, and for individuals to submit themselves to agreed collective purposes.
  • Identity politics pits people against each other. In the past, it was about nations, but nowadays it is often about religion, gender, race, and political orientation.
  • The outcomes of policy measures are often not easy to estimate as many factors interfere. Usually, there are unintended consequences. We must allow for a degree of trial and error to arrive at improvements.
  • Many issues are of a technocratic nature and involve science and uncertainty. Most people have not learned to evaluate scientific research and statistical analysis.
  • Parliaments are theatres where politicians compete for voter attention. They often do not quietly and diligently work on the nation’s problems.
  • Many important decisions are made outside the public view. Governments and businesses collect data about us. We often do not know what is going on.

Each country has a distinct history, hence unique institutions, laws and arrangements. Nowadays, many critical issues are global, but it is not the level at which states operate. As a result, the influence of the elites and wealth inequality increased, and the elites became less accountable. The issues we face, like global warming, crime, and infectious diseases, require a global approach. Businesses increasingly operate internationally. Existing world institutions lack legitimacy and democratic oversight. And there are issues with democracy itself.

Liberal democracy emanated from liberalism, which centres around the individual. We are social animals and collaborate in groups and societies. Liberals may neglect societies. Most notably, neoliberalism helped to undermine their social fabric. Societies are more than social contracts. They can make people feel they belong to a community and it is a basis of social cohesion. That is why we can become emotionally attached to our nation-states.

The liberal view holds that you are free to do as you please unless you harm others. That can work well if we correctly identify harm to others. In the past, the definition of harm has been too narrow. As a result, we now have to deal with consequences like the disintegration of societies, mass migration, pollution and depletion of resources. Liberal democracy works best when there is a balance of power between social groups, and none can dominate the others. In recent decades, the balance of power shifted in favour of corporations and wealthy people, and conditions became less favourable to liberal democracy.

Individualism allows us to appreciate personal experiences and feelings. Everyone’s life is different, and you do not know how it is to be someone else who has a different life. For instance, a white man can never truly understand how it is to be a black woman and how it is to be discriminated against by whites and to be beaten up by her jealous boyfriend. That is true, and personal experiences can help to identify underlying problems, but once personal feelings get the upper hand, there remains less room for objective reality. And solutions more likely come from addressing facts than from catering for sensitivities. But people often desire attention and understanding rather than solutions for their problems.

It is hard to interpret data, scientific analysis, correlation and probability when multiple causes interfere with the outcome. In economics, that is all too clear, and the mathematical models that economists use can give us a false impression of exactness. Scientists can err, but usually, it is up to science to prove that. For instance, we use coronavirus vaccines based on a risk assessment. There is a chance the vaccine harms you, so you only take it if the disease is more dangerous than the vaccine. Vaccine sceptics have a different assessment of the risks of the disease and the vaccine, often based on incorrect information. Nevertheless, the coronavirus vaccines are of a new type, and their long-term consequences are not yet known.

We do not always know beforehand what will work. Technocratic issues usually are not well-suited for politics. Measures can have unintended consequences. Improvements may come from trial and error, and problems often are not fully solved. Politicians may not be interested in improvement. Instead, they may tout their ‘solutions’ based on their ideology or religion and simplify matters to play on the emotions of voters. Perhaps you have the impression that politicians are more occupied with political theatre or doing the bidding of lobbyists than the betterment of your country. You are not alone.

The boards of corporations and government agencies make decisions that affect us all. Meanwhile, corporations and governments collect data about us. Their decisions usually stay outside the public view. Lobbyists influence the political process and often operate in secret. On the local level, business representatives befriend politicians and civil servants who grant them contacts. These things happen everywhere, and also in countries with low levels of corruption. Successful people in business and politics spend much time on social networking. The elites are, above all, a social network.

We are accustomed to growth, for instance, economic growth, and so are our political institutions, but we are using more than Earth can provide. To prosper in the future, we must change how we live. We hope for a better future but think in material terms, not well-being. Property, not happiness or love, has become the ultimate goal in many lives. And for many, the ultimate nightmare is to own nothing and be happy. We will not elect politicians who tell us we have to do with less. The expectation of material gain defines our political systems. After all, big men distribute resources to their followers.

The limits of democracy

In democratic countries, leadership often changes, and that can cause discontinuity. Dictators often stay in power for a long time. The limits of democracy are most visible in times of crisis because there is freedom of speech and the press. Usually, the institutions of a nation provide political stability, but if people think the institutions fail, political instability ensues. Today, this is most visible in the United States where political violence is rising. China is moving ahead and may become the most powerful nation in the near future. During the Great Depression, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union also powered ahead but failed later on. And so, China’s success is not necessarily a failure of democracy.

Politicians often do not do what they promised to do. There might be political struggles that deflect attention away from the nation’s problems. And democracies can make poor decisions when voters don’t like much-needed measures. In times of upheaval, voters might opt for a leader who promises to take drastic action, for instance when the economy has collapsed or when insurgents and criminals wreak havoc. The most notorious example is Adolf Hitler. The suffering of the Germans during the Great Depression and the inability of politicians to solve the economic crisis helped Hitler to grab power.

Political debates can be about facts, interpretation of facts, and fiction, for instance, the rain fairy, reptilians, or the Jewish deity. People also believe in money, laws, nation-states, and corporations, but these fictions create reality. In other words, we make these imaginations come true. Our faith in the rain fairy does not produce a rain fairy, but this religion might promote social stability. Lying and misrepresenting facts to forward political goals can undermine the functioning of democracies. Usually, people believe these lies. Politics is about which collective imaginations should drive our decision-making. A correct assessment of the situation likely leads to more favourable outcomes. Ridicule and containment probably are better countermeasures than banning free speech. After all, sometimes crazy ideas turn out to have merit.

Even in stable and functioning democracies, citizens often lack faith in politicians. Politicians are easy scapegoats if things go wrong. Most people do not see their contribution to a problem. Parliaments are not a representation of the population at large. Those who like to talk, for example, lawyers and teachers, tend to be overrepresented. Engineers who know how systems work tend to be underrepresented. Perhaps that is why laws often fail to meet the intended objectives. Poor people and people with little education also do not enter parliaments in large numbers. And so, politicians neglect their interests.

Perhaps giving citizens more responsibility via direct democracy can make democracy work better. If you voted for it, you won’t blame others if it goes wrong. And that can make you think better about the consequences of your choices. Switzerland uses referendums in addition to parliaments. The Swiss are content with their political system. Hence, it could be an improvement. Implementing direct democracy the right way is not simply introducing referendums. After all, good institutions do not guarantee good outcomes. Referendums can go wrong, for instance, by reducing complex matters into simple yes-or-no questions. Referendums work well in Switzerland because the conditions in society are favourable. Switzerland has a political climate in which citizens civilly debate issues, and people are willing to compromise.

Swiss democracy

 
Switzerland combines representative democracy (the use of parliaments) with direct democracy (voting on issues by citizens). The Swiss are satisfied with their political system so it might be an improvement to political systems in other countries.

As they say, freedom comes with responsibility. Perhaps, we can only be free if we consider the interests of everyone else because our choices can impede the liberty of others. And so, individual liberty may only thrive with social equality. Societies that succeed in combining personal freedom and social equality tend to be the happiest. The American natives had a great degree of individual liberty and social equality. When making decisions, they strived for consensus. They could be an example to us.

The Great Law of Peace

 
Is a more equal and free society possible? In the year 1142, five North American tribes formed a league known as the Five Nations. The league still exists. Their arrangements are not uncommon in tribal societies, and we could learn from them.

Some countries have done a better job of creating a prosperous, free and equal society than others, and their examples can help to lead us to a better future. Denmark is such a country, and Francis Fukuyama calls the issue of creating a prosperous, free and equal society ‘getting to Denmark’. Denmark combines a competent government with a cooperative relationship between unions and employers. The Danish economy is innovative, incomes and social benefits are high, and labour markets are flexible. Many pundits argue that cultural differences block the introduction of these features into other societies. It is not easy and takes time, but it helps when everyone agrees on the goal and helps to make it happen.

Featured image: House Of Commons in the United Kingdom. Parliament.uk. [link]

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
2. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Francis Fukuyama (2011).

Earth from space

The sacredness of Creation

Thus spoke Chief Seattle

In 1854, the native American Chief Seattle gave a speech when the United States government wanted to buy the land of his tribe. You can read it by clicking on the above link.

That was a great speech. Only, these were not Seattle’s exact words. Based on Seattle’s speech, a screenwriter wrote a text that became a religious creed within the environmentalist movement. I shortened it as it is quite lengthy. The message strikes at the heart of the matter. Nothing is sacred anymore. The pursuit of money destroys our planet and values. This version of Seattle’s speech aims to make Creation sacred. The white man may think he owns the land, but he does not. He may think he controls his destiny, but he does not. Whatever befalls Earth befalls the children of the Earth. We have no destiny, no dream we pursue. Things just happen, not because we intend them to happen, but because they are the outcome of a process over which we have no control.

Perhaps, you care for our planet, but what do you mean? If the last white rhino disappears, the Earth is still there. Most of us will survive the demise of the rainforests. Humans have finished off other species for thousands of years, so why stop now? Soon we might create new species using genetic engineering. And nature does not care. Predators kill prey all the time. So, why should we care? Mr Lind, a professor at the University of Texas, wrote an article, Why I Am Against Saving the Planet. He says, ‘Saving the planet has become the de facto religion of politicians, business elites, and intellectuals in the West, replacing Christianity’s earlier mission of saving individual souls.’1 He claims environmentalism is rooted in German 19th-century Romanticism, typified by a bias against society and civilisation and a pantheistic awe before an idealised Nature. In other words, environmentalists suffer from a religious desire for Eden.

In doing so, Mr Lind inadvertently tapped into another 19th-century German tradition, that of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche hoped to leave traditional morality behind, so he said, ‘God is dead.’ He meant to say that religions like Christianity were ruses to enslave us with a false sense of right and wrong under rules imposed by a priestly caste. Nietzsche favoured the values of the aristocracy of ancient civilisations, the values of the strong, to those of the enslaved masses, the values of the weak embodied in, for instance, Christianity and socialism. Slaves think in terms of good and evil rather than good and bad because they resent the ruling class. Nietzsche divided humanity into superhumans and slaves. He aimed to liberate us from our self-induced slavery and realise our potential. But what happens when eight billion people try to realise their potential and strive for wealth and power? We might all end up as free people in hell.

Mr Lind argues for doing away with false sentiments. He goes on, ‘There are costs to mitigating climate change as well as benefits, and rational people can prefer a richer but warmer world to a poorer but slightly less warm one. These individual policies benefit humanity, so there is no need to justify them on the basis of a romantic creed that defines the planet or the environment.’ That may appear nice and dandy from behind the desk of Mr Lind’s air-conditioned Texas room. If you live below sea level or in an area threatened by climate-change-related natural disasters, you might view things differently. Ten million Dutch live at or below sea level, and hundreds of millions more risk suffering climate-related disasters like floods, hurricanes and failed harvests. And Mr Lind is not planning to compensate them for that or invite them to stay in his mansion. And the rainforests and the animals and plants living in them might be better off if the likes of Mr Lind go extinct.

As our production and consumption increase, new problems emerge faster than we can solve existing ones with laws, technology, targets and other solutions. More technology, rules and controls do not solve these problems. In the 1990s, the environmentalist group Strohalm wrote a booklet named Towards a Philosophy of Connectedness.2 It lays out Strohalm’s vision for a sustainable and humane society. The principal founder of Strohalm is Henk van Arkel, a dedicated individual who remained its driving force for decades. Van Arkel is a moderate man who does not blame anyone in particular.

Everything is interconnected, so actions have consequences. We often do not know them and may not be affected ourselves. Wall Street traders who sold bad mortgages contributed to the financial crisis. Do you think there are no consequences if you dump plastic in a river or post hateful comments on a message board? Western thinking, reflected in the scientific method, deconstructs reality to analyse the parts. In doing so, it focuses on detail, and the whole can get lost. It makes us act irresponsibly. A few hateful comments don’t make someone take a semi-automatic rifle and shoot innocent people. But if we think like that, we remain locked in a cynical and uncaring world.

And God is not dead after all. This world is virtual reality. You may think you make your own decisions, but you do not. You play a role in a script. You say the lines and do the things the computer has written out for you. And so, we may soon find ourselves slaves in God’s Paradise. It is not slavery as we understand it, the exploitation and repression of one group of people by another. It is slavery in Nietzsche’s sense, which is living under a self-imposed moral system. God owns this world, so it is not ours to destroy. So yes, the sacredness of Creation is a religion.

If religious zeal could feed us, Mao’s Great Leap Forward would have been a success. Instead, thirty million people died of starvation. So, we should not get carried away. Jesus might have fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, but it is not prudent to bet on a miracle. For instance, if we switch to organic agriculture and do not deal with the lower output, for example, by curbing our meat consumption accordingly, the Great Leap Forward might look like a minor mistake in comparison. We can have goals, but let experts figure out how to get there. Dramatic lifestyle changes are necessary for people who have more than enough. Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘There is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.’ The change will be painful. But once it is behind us, we will feel better.

You may think it is impossible, but acknowledging the problem is the first step towards a solution. Our belief that nothing will help can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need a new starting point, a new foundation for our culture, beliefs, thinking, and our place in the universe. Small steps cannot save us anymore. We need to change the way we live.2 That is what the people of Strohalm said. For a long time, I believed they were naive dreamers. I felt sure their vision of a humane world society that respects nature would never become a reality. As we head to an apocalypse, we cannot allow realism to stand in the way of what we should do. But then my life took an unexpected turn, and I figured Strohalm’s view could be God’s vision of Paradise.

Latest revision: 18 May 2023

Featured image: Earth from space. Public Domain.

1. Why I Am Against Saving the Planet. Michael Lind (2023). Tabletmag.com.
2. Naar een filosofie van verbondenheid. Guus Peterse, Henk van Arkel, Hans Radder, Seattle, Pieter Schroever and Margrit Kennedy (1990). Aktie Strohalm.

Life in Eden

A utopian society is someone’s vision. It reflects the desires of the designer, not necessarily the people who live in it. And Eden might be God’s vision. Let us picture life in Eden, so you have an idea of what it might be. A song by the Talking Heads does it well:

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
Waterfalls
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers

There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers
You got it, you got it

We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
We got it, we got it

There was a shopping mall
Now it’s all covered with flowers
You’ve got it, you’ve got it

If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
You’ve got it, you’ve got it

Years ago
I was an angry young man
And I’d pretend
That I was a billboard
Standing tall
By the side of the road
I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it’s nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we’d start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis
You’ve got it, you’ve got it

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it’s all covered with daisies
You got it, you got it

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
You got it, you got it

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
You got it, you got it

I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
You got it, you got it

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
You got it, you got it

This was a discount store,
Now it’s turned into a cornfield
You’ve got it, you’ve got it

Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

– Talking Heads, (Nothing but) Flowers

Once you have arrived in God’s Paradise, you might lament your plight, but you will be alright. At least the water will be clean, and the food not poisonous. I seriously doubt things will be as extreme as in the song. But we need to make stark choices and abandon the redundant. With the current state of technology, your life could still be far better than life has been for most people for most of history.

Latest update: 18 May 2023

Featured image: The First Kiss of Adam and Eve. Salvador Viniegra (1891). Public Domain.

The only known photograph of Chief Seattle

Thus spoke Chief Seattle

The Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. The Great Chief also sends us words of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him since we know he has little need for our friendship in return. We will consider your offer. For we know that if we do not sell, the white man may come with guns and take our land.

But 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 from us?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.

Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers.

This shining water that moves in our streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people.

The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

The red man has always retreated before the advancing white man, as the mist of the mountain runs before the morning sun. But the ashes of our fathers are sacred. The graves are holy ground, and so these hills, these trees, this portion of the earth is consecrated to us.

We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs.

The earth is not his brother but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children. He does not care. His fathers’ graves and his children’s birthright are forgotten.

He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, or sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.

I do not know. Our ways are different from your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand.

There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. What is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around the pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand.

The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath―the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a many dying for many days, he is numb to the stench.

I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and I do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive.

What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever, happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth.

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. 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 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.

This earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

God gave you dominion over the beasts, the woods, and the red man, and for some special purpose, but that destiny is a mystery to the red man. We might understand if we knew what it was that the white man dreams―what hopes he describes to his children on long winter nights―what visions he burns onto their minds so that they will wish for tomorrow.

God loves us all. One thing we know. Our God is the same God. This earth is precious to Him. Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.

Latest update: 18 May 2023

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