A world without hope?
What will the future look like? What direction should we take? There is so much wrong with our current way of living that it is hard to get proper handle on it. So what is wrong with us? 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. These are the first words of that speech.
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 Chief Seattle never spoke those words. It is fake history. This speech has been made up by a screenwriter in 1971. Still it strikes at the heart of the matter. Nothing is sacred any more. 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. That kind of thinking is killing us in the end. 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 in our hearts but it is hard to deal with it. The people from the Strohalm Foundation have worked for decades to define 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 from history and were part of a small group of people that kept on caring and never gave up. Here is another interesting 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 the Strohalm Foundation issued a booklet named To a Philosophy of Connectedness. It lays out a vision for a future society that is both sustainable and humane. It gives possible steering mechanisms that can help to achieve a durable and more humane society. It is a vision that long seemed unattainable, not because it is impossible to do, but because vested interests stood in the way.
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 became familiar with the Strohalm Foundation. For a long time I believed them to be naive as I considered myself to be realistic. Most people I knew did not really like environmentalists. I kept on supporting their work because there seemed to be no alternative. You cannot allow realism to stand in the way of what needs to be done. And therefore this vision exists because of the hard work of environmentalists 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 about our place in the universe. There is no other choice. Small steps can’t save us. We need to fundamentally change ourselves and the ideas we currently have. The planet we live on is given to us by God and not ours to destroy. Sadly, the fate of our planet does not compel us enough to do the right thing so God comes in handy here.
As long as we do not completely change our approach to the major problems 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 in your heart but find it difficult to admit. Admitting this can give you a feeling of hopelessness. 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 so we choose to manage existing developments with smaller measures. That may not help us in the end.
There is another way of looking at the situation. It is the rational way. Acknowledging a problem is already solving it half. Our feeling that nothing will ever help can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still most of us want a solution and help to make it happen. As soon as there is a perspective for change, many of us will let go of their cynicism and help to make it happen.1 And then change can happen very fast.
Twenty years could be all we have left. And twenty years may be all we need.
Natural World Order
You go to your job and perhaps you achieve something there. 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 so complex that the models we use can’t get a hold on what is going on. It appears that we can’t change the future in a meaningful way. 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.
Nature can us show a way out. 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 an 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 a free market competition is a major steering mechanism. Competition promotes efficiency and progress but it also causes many 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 only because it can be sold at a profit. Many corporations see little room to treat their employees well or to take 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, then you are part of the problem like nearly everyone else, and that includes me. It may be strange to realise that you have enough, or even have more than enough, and that you can do with less stuff, older models, poorer service and higher prices, so that local businesses may be able to 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. So poverty can be ended. The end of our way of living is here. Communism and state planning have failed. Capitalism and free markets have failed too, perhaps even more miserably, 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 help. But what can you expect from a compromise between two failures?
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 certainly not without hope.
There is an alternative, 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 if we do this. 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 know what needs to be done then they are willing to contribute but it does require using force against people who do not comply.
This is not the time to put more lipstick on the dying pig that the failing current order is. This is not the time to make it appear as if the current order can provide for us in the future. The limits of our planet should be respected. Administrating these limits would require a relatively small global government, but only if people, communities, businesses and governments all over the world, help to make the Natural World Order become reality. The Natural World Order needs massive support. It can only work when the vast majority of people believe in it and want to make it work whatever it takes. And that begins with everyone who has enough admitting that enough is enough.
We want more stuff because the advertisement industry tells us that we need this or that product or that this or that product will make us happier while in reality we don’t need it and it also doesn’t make us happier. Our current economic system needs growth. We must buy more stuff to keep the economy from collapsing. That is why real change is scary and can easily freak you out. The reason for this predicament is interest on money and debts. We need growth to pay for the interest otherwise the interest on debts can’t be paid and the financial system breaks down. The first priority is therefore ending interest payments on money and debts. Luckily financial markets allow it for the first time in human history.
Negative interest rates can be a steering mechanism on the global level that channels money from those who have enough to those in need and are willing to make good use of it, for instance by starting a business in developing countries. It doesn’t mean that poverty suddenly vanishes once interest rates go negative, but it does mean that the economy and the financial system can be made more favourable to the poor, most notably to those who are willing to enterprise in places where there is not enough.
Negative interest rates may signal the end of scarcity and the beginning of abundance. Eve and Adam did not know of scarcity in the Garden of Eden. They had everything they needed. Many of us can do with less and still have a good life. There is enough for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed. And so we may enter the Final Gardens of Paradise that await for us at the End of History. This may be God’s plan for the future. Time will tell. I hope you agree we should try to make it happen. So let me be your guide.
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.