Standing strong against the Furies


Just as people in places like the Maldives, Bangladesh and Japan shook their heads at the cluelessness of Americans who suddenly woke up to climate change when Sandy came to town, people living in hot spots of violence around the world now have every right to be shaking their heads at the collective American refusal to see and understand how, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, we are the cause of our own misery.

t1larg.pakistandronerally.giThe U.S. is the largest arms manufacturer and exporter in the world.  We have by far the largest military.  We are also by far the most heavily armed civilian population in the world, with some 300 million guns circulating among our population of about 300 million people.  Americans, we need to acknowledge that collectively, as a nation, we have been responsible for hundreds, and probably thousands of deaths of children worldwide through the weapons we sell abroad.

There is not a conflict in the world today that has not been fueled by American weaponry.

It is hypocritical to weep crocodile tears for the slaughter of innocent children in a kindergarten in Connecticut but to callously ignore the slaughter of innocent children by American drone fire in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We need to start connecting the dots and realizing that the violence we mete out to the world will come back to haunt us a thousand-fold.

I’m not just talking about gun violence or missiles. I’m talking about the violence of inhuman labor practices and poverty, leading to rage that is sometimes turned inward, as in the spikes of farmer suicides due to heavy-handed Monsanto tactics in places like India and Asia, and sometimes outward, as in the terrorist strikes against targets inside the U.S. (9/11, anyone) or at our representatives abroad (did someone say Benghazi?).

I’m talking about the violence Western-style “development” has wreaked on the natural world, which is now boomeranging back to slam us against the wall of a destabilized climate.

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

If you create lethal weapons and spread them widely among the populace, you should not be surprised when they discharge and kill people.

If you overheat the climate and bulldoze all the trees, you should not be surprised at the deadly droughts, wildfires, storms and temperature swings that result.

Back in the 19th century, Charles Darwin taught us to understand that competition is good, that the strongest and fittest will survive, and that if the weak perish it’s all for the best.  It was a perfect rationale for the capitalist/imperialist narrative of the past 500 years, domination as evolution, at gunpoint and bulldozer blade.

Would Darwin look out at today’s dangerous world and proclaim serenely that the coming population drop of humans, due to violence of our own making, is simply part of the grand scheme of Evolution?

If the answer is “yes,” does this mean we should just sit back and watch it all unfold with detachment?

I don’t think so.  I believe it’s the great task of our generation to meet the violence of our time with unwavering, clear-eyed resistance.

To a large extent, the damage has already been done.  The guns are circulating out there in the world; the nuclear power plants are whirring; the oil and gas rigs are pumping; the myriad plants and creatures with whom we grew up in our era on the planet are disappearing.

Pandora’s box is wide open, and the Furies have been released in the world.

We may not be able to get them back, but we can continue to insist that they do not represent us.  We can continue to stand as beacons to another mode of living, based not on competition and aggressiveness, but on collaboration and respect.

As we move into the darkest week of the year, let us not give up hope that as the planet swings back towards the Sun on December 22, we can collectively climb up out of the abyss of violence and pain and unite around the finest human values of life, peace and love, for our fellow human beings, and for the planet as a whole.

All that solid melts in air: Labor Day reflections on Marx, Darwin and the need for new paradigms

As always around Labor Day, I am getting ready to talk with young people about some old, dead people: Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, all of whom loom large in the curriculum of the General Education seminar required of sophomores at my college.

Rereading Darwin and Marx, who we’ll be discussing this week, it’s not hard at all to find ways to make these old thinkers, whose ideas are more than 100 years old now, relevant for our times.


Darwin believed that life is a constant battle for limited resources, with the “struggle for existence” being entirely material, rather than spiritual.  When a dominant species overruns a weaker species, it is always for the best:

“It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up that which is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.”

He believed that humans are the highest, most important species, and that within the species men are higher than women, and white-skinned, “civilized” people are better than dark-skinned “savages.”  And implicit in his theory of natural selection is the ideology of Manifest Destiny: that strong, rich people got that way because they were “better” than poor, weak people.

It’s the logic that paved the way for the ruthless capitalist paradigm that presided over the industrial revolution of the late 19th and 20th centuries, along with the relentless search for new markets and new sources of raw materials: colonialism, imperialism, globalization.


Writing back in the mid-19th century, Marx was incredibly prescient.  His description, in “The Communist Manifesto,” of the process of colonial globalization could have been written last week:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

This actually doesn’t sound like much of a critique—Marx describes the positive side of capitalist globalization first.  But then he shows, with remarkable foresight, how the capitalists are unable to control the economic system they have created:

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells….It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.

We have just lived through one of these episodic crises that Marx is talking about here—the bursting of the housing bubble, and the broad financial crisis that was generated by an over-reliance on debt.

The “enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces” is a nice way of saying “war”; and indeed, our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have kept the military-industrial complex humming, along with companies like Halliburton that snapped up all the rebuilding contracts.

Marx believed that the capitalist system would fail because it is structurally unable to support the needs of the masses.  It is built on inequality—on the Darwinian framework of the “struggle for existence” where might makes right, the strong survive and the weak perish, and the spoils of industry are concentrated tightly in the hands of a small dominant class, the bourgeoisie.

The modern laborer… instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.

Marx thought it inevitable that the middle class would sink into the proletariat as wealth became more and more concentrated in the hands of the few capitalists controlling government and industry.  And the proletariat, having nothing left to lose, would eventually rise up and seize power, overthrowing the capitalist system and instituting a new economic system, more truly “by the people, for the people.”

However, Marx was still a prisoner of his time as regards his understanding of humans’ relation to our natural environment.  He was not able to foresee that industrial growth, whether under the leadership of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat, would bump up against the carrying capacity of the planet, providing a natural (in Darwin’s terms) limit to growth.

Darwin would look out at what’s happening to our planet today, in the age of climate change, and see it quite dispassionately, as part of the process of natural selection. People in low-lying areas will have to migrate or die. We will figure out ways to adapt to our new climate reality, or we will be swept away.  The strong will survive, the weak will perish.

Marx, on the other hand, would be ranting about how the bourgeoisie have, in his own words, “dug their own graves,” and taken everyone along with them.  He would be calling for the international proletariat to rise up and fight for a better social system, in which labor is rewarded with well-being and the profits circulate among the many, rather than being concentrated in the hands of the few at the top.

We know with the power of hindsight that no Communist system has ever actually been successful at making people happy.

This is because the old hierarchical structures that have pervaded human civilizations for thousands of years still tend to creep back, no matter what name we give our socio-economic structure.

The challenge of our time is to envision a social structure that is horizontal, circular and interdependent, rather than vertical, linear and unidirectional.

A social structure in a harmonious give and take with the natural world, rather than one that only takes and takes to feed the maw of human industry.

Darwin may be right that the strong will survive and the weak will perish, but our concept of strength needs to change to meet our new reality.

Strength is not about domination and the ability to force others to bend, it is about cooperation and the ability to bring people and the natural world into productive harmony.

Black Elk

What we need now is a renaissance of indigenous tribal social systems, based on reverence for the natural world, and respect for one another.

Those people Darwin dismissed as “savages” may turn out to be the only ones who are able to survive in our new planetary epoch, as “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”


Facebook vs. Dead Space 2: which 21st century geo-political model will win?

This week I am teaching Darwin again, Darwin being a staple of the Simon’s Rock Sophomore Seminar, required of all students.  I have always found The Origin of Species difficult to read, but lately I am realizing why: because Darwin seems so sure that aggressive competition, the infamous “survival of the fittest,” is THE biological paradigm on our planet. All species are locked in a relentless “battle for life,” from which only the strongest and best adapted (which often means the most ruthless) will emerge evolutionarily victorious.

However, there have been some persistent voices in the past few years arguing that Darwin understated the case for altruism and empathy as an evolutionary advantage for human beings.  Jeremy Rifkin, in The Empathic Civilization, argues that cognitive neuroscience is now proving that we are in fact at least as empathetic, as a species, as we are aggressive.  He believes that the linking potential of the internet age has the power to help us overcome the divisiveness that marred the past 500 years or so of human history, and make a great leap forward in our social evolution.

“The information communication technologies (ICT) revolution is quickly extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale, for the first time in history,” he says.

“If we can harness our empathic sensibility to establish a new global ethic that recognizes and acts to harmonize the many relationships that make up the life-sustaining forces of the planet, we will have moved beyond the detached, self-interested and utilitarian philosophical assumptions that accompanied national markets and nation state governance and into a new era of biosphere consciousness. We leave the old world of geopolitics behind and enter into a new world of biosphere politics, with new forms of governance emerging to accompany our new biosphere awareness.”

Human beings’ amazing use of technology has always been both our blessing and our curse.  Technology is enabling me to send these ideas out into the ocean of the Web, a digital message in a bottle that could potentially reach millions of people across the globe.  Amazing!

But my reliance on electricity generated by oil and coal to perform this technological wonder is the Achilles heel of the whole enterprise, since collectively we as a species are overloading the biosphere with our wastes and driving the planet to the brink of what Darwin would call an “extinction event.”  Our own.

Will we make that great leap forward that Rifkin is foretelling, waking up to the necessity of moving from global competition to global collaboration in a new, more localized model?

Rifkin imagines a future global society based on the localization of energy sources like solar, wind, tidal and geo-thermal, as well as the re-localization of agricultural and manufacturing economies.

“In this new era of distributed energy,” he says, “governing institutions will more resemble the workings of the ecosystems they manage. Just as habitats function within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the biosphere in a web of interrelationships, governing institutions will similarly function in a collaborative network of relationships with localities, regions, and nations all embedded within the continent as a whole. This new complex political organism operates like the biosphere it attends, synergistically and reciprocally. This is biosphere politics.”

I believe that this rosy vision is theoretically possible, but I sure don’t see anything like it on the horizon today.  Rifkin puts his faith in the upcoming generation, who have grown up as “digital natives” and are more likely, he thinks, to be collaborative across traditional national and political boundaries. Facebook Nation!

Maybe so, if the young can be roused from their entertainment media trance and made to see the urgency of the mission.

I read with dismay yesterday that the U.S. video-game industry is one of the most highly subsidized sectors of our economy, rewarding, for example, the makers of “Dead Space 2, which challenges players to advance through an apocalyptic battlefield by killing space zombies.”  Dead Space 2 shipped 2 million copies in its first week of sales.

How can we expect young people to focus on serious, urgent issues like global climate change when they’re so busy chatting with friends on Facebook and killing zombies on Wii?

If this is the best we can do as a society, then I’m sorry, folks, but maybe an extinction event is not only on the horizon, but, as Darwin would say, “for the good of all.”



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