CAPITALISM AT THE EXPENSE OF ALL LIFE
Part1: The Killing Horizon
By Juan Santos
The bottom line is profit. Profit and the lust for it is capitalism’s event horizon. Much like what happens at the boundary of a black hole (“boundary of a black hole” is roughly what the term “event horizon” means in the theory of general relativity) any energy, information or meaning that passes the threshold of a consciousness driven by profit disappears into the super-gravitational field of the black hole itself – never to be seen or heard of again.
Nothing can be seen once it enters this realm, and nothing, having entered, ever escapes. No light, no sign, no dawn of understanding can re-emerge. Anything, any light, any object, any thought, any meaning, purpose, or any human feeling is swallowed and for all practical purposes, obliterated there.
No communication can transpire between inside and outside.
The event horizon of profit-consciousness functions as an inviolate barrier between what appear to be mutually exclusive worlds. Those of us on this side of the event horizon can only guess, but never really know, what happens on the other side. What we know of what is inside the black hole of the capitalist consciousness can only be inferred from what seems to happen at its horizon. We are left to assume that what happens there is annihilation, or its equivalent. It seems that the only thing that can enter that realm is money- life stripped of all meaning except a numerical designation, like a concentration camp inmate with a serial number tattooed on her forearm.
There are things we can infer from this side of the horizon about what happens on the other side, in the black hole of the capitalist mentality – things that show up outside that tell us something about what happens within it. Things like the concentration camp victim, like the mass graves in Guatemala, the unearthed Mayan corpses left by death squads… they seem to emerge from the black hole and give us a glimpse of what is inside: and, beyond that, sometimes we almost get real glimpses in. We get glimpses of
But, as often as not, we can tell what matters to those in the center of civilization’s
black gravity – its centers of “power”, by what doesn’t happen out here in the real world – on this edge of the horizon -as much as by what does happen.
Notice. Notice what is taken “seriously” by the denizens of the dark center of “power” – if anything beyond the next quarterly profit and loss statement can be said to be taken seriously at all.
Notice where the $700 billion in “bailout” money is going. The black hole that some people feared would swallow the Earth when the CERN particle accelerator was launched in
It’s going to fix problems that have no real existence, that are tied to values that have no real existence. It’s going down the rabbit hole, the black hole, into the land of illusion, the land of swindles, the land of lies, of the selling of the negation of values, of mirrors upon mirrors, into the unreal land of black magic, where it will impact nothing but the “faith” of capitalist financiers and wizards in their ability to live on – and to sustain themselves with – lies and illusion in a system that is fundamentally not sustainable. They call this psychic trick- this denial – “faith” in the markets, liquidity and credit (and to give credit, of course, means nothing but to put faith or belief in something or someone) – even as the credit markets are drying up. They are drying up because no one who is sane can any longer believe the lie. The whole thing is incredible, unbelievable. Unworthy of credit, trust, belief. One might say it this way. The system itself is “subprime.”
Such faith- faith in the unsustainable – is nothing more or less than faith in a lie. The whole thing is based on what Ayn Rand – the late high priestess of capitalism, cruelty, arrogance, free markets and the “virtue” of selfishness, called, ironically enough, given the context, the “blank out.”
All it takes is one stroll down Wall Street to get that Wall Street is “America’s” temple district – the sense of being on “holy” ground is palpable – and all it takes is one glance to get that none of the financial wizards really knows what’s going on… they know not what they have wrought, they know not whom they have robbed; they have invented a house of lies so complex that they themselves can no longer follow the plot or the floor plan. What we know – and what they know, and what Bush knows and Obama and McCain – what they all know- is that the $700 billion the US government has earmarked for the swindlers and deniers is going to cover the lie, is going to keep their asses out of prison, is going to prevent revolt against their system, which profits at the expense of all of us.
It’s not going to so-called “Main Street,” and – even if it did – who’s on Main Street if not merely the junior, local and regional versions of the players on Wall Street – the ones getting their hands dirty – the ones that exploit us face to face, rather than from the remote heights of the now-obliterated World Trade Center?
Yes, who’s on Wall Street, who’s on Main Street, who’s on ghetto streets and barrio streets, and who, after all is on Skid Row, or on a dirt street in a third world village, living, not $700 billion – not even $200 billion, not even $200 or a twenty dollar bill. Living on 2 dollars a day. Or less.
Of course, outside the black hole, outside the house of mirrors, it’s plain to see. All profit comes at someone else’s expense. They have robbed the poor blind – that’s why they are poor. They have gutted the Earth of its soil, plant life, energy, forests and water tables: we are left with deserts and a $700 billion black hole. That’s why the Earth is dying. They profit, as the traditional Hopi elders told us, at the expense of all life. That’s where the limos, and the mansions (whether its one mansion like Obama’s or 13 of them like McCain’s) come from: at the expense of all life. That’s what happens. And they want to maintain their “faith” in it.
Now, notice what doesn’t happen.
Humanity faces a real crisis – one that threatens not only Wall Street, but all life on Earth. Call it Global Warming, call it Peak Oil, call it running out of water on a global scale, call it the collapse of industrial agriculture. Call it fisheries collapsing, call it mass extinction. Call it the potential of planetary death. Call it what is inside the Black Hole made visible, palpable in its meaning. Call it the real event horizon. Call it the Killing horizon. It’s every bit as complex in all of its intersections as the financial “crisis,” but, unlike the financial “crisis,” it’s real.
And what happens?
Nothing. No significant action. At all.
There’s no $700 billion plan to save the Earth – which sustains us all.
The only thing that has ever mattered to the rulers of this empire – and of every other empire- is profit; and profit, we will recall, always comes at someone’s expense – ours, the indigenous peoples in every corner of the planet whose lands and lives have been usurped; at the expense of the enslaved, from Babylon to the USA, at the expense of Polar Bears, Wolves, Buffalo, Dolphins, Bears – and now even the Chimpanzee faces extinction, along with Whales, and as much as 50% of all living species before this century – and this system – is finished with them.
Profit. At the expense. Of all life.
The capitalists can’t look at the meaning of it. They can’t bear to see the meaning and impact of their lives and how they live them. Blank out. They don’t know and can’t know, any more than George W. Bush can really afford to know what was happening when he stuck firecrackers in frog’s mouths and sent them sailing through the air with the fuse sparkling (that, after all, is why he drinks – not to know.) Maybe he imagined as a boy that the frogs were B24 bombers in WW2, and that when the firecracker exploded, it was flak hitting the nose of the plane, right where the navigator sat, and that the blood was the navigator’s blood. Maybe he couldn’t bring himself to look at the shattered skulls, the exposed spines, the blood, and know what he had done. Or maybe he looked, and delighted in what he saw. We’ll never know. It’s lost in the black hole.
Maybe the financial wizards think of derivatives and scam mortgages like Bush thought of frogs. The thrill, the drama of making a kill, of scamming, lying, getting over on others less powerful – the nobodies – the frog people – like you and me, the frog people who live on Elm Street, on ghetto and barrio streets, on Skid Row, on dirt streets, on Reservations, and along trails in the Amazon jungle and paths in the high Andes of Bolivia. We are all, each in our own way, the frog people. One can readily infer, from what happens at the event horizon, that the financiers see us just that way.
But, maybe we’ll never know. It seems to have disappeared in the black hole of denied memory, impossibility, evasions, and lies, just as Bush’s childhood memories lay hidden in the dense black hole of unresolved alcoholism. But we know this; for them, regular people – and animals, forests, polar bears, wolves and glaciers – are invisible. We’re on the other side of their event horizon, and they don’t care what happens to us. They are pulling us all inexorably into the gravity well from which no light escapes. They call the collapse of their house of financial lies a “crisis.” In the
But, on a planetary scale, as everything unravels and is thrown into increasingly radical imbalance, people are starting to understand that what we see is what we get. And they are starting to see what has remained hidden in the realms of dark gravity and power. The event horizon, the Killing horizon, is drawing ever nearer.
And people are starting to decide for themselves what constitutes a hoax and what is, in fact, an actual crisis. We are deciding what and who needs and deserves a rescue –a “bailing out” – It’s not the wizards and merchants of death; it’s the frogs, lizards, plants, forests, beavers, bears, and human children.
You decide who and what nurtures us all and who and what destroys us. You decide. Is it saner to hug a tree, a cold stone building on Wall Street, or a stock certificate? Look at it. You decide. Everything that matters to you depends on the nature of your decision.
CAPITALISM AT THE EXPENSE OF ALL LIFE
Part 2: Burning Down the House
“...That’s part of the fundamental problem; that people do not even understand that
the real world is what is real; without a real physical world you don’t have any kind of economic system. The real world is primary; that’s the first thing we need to do; is to recognize that the real world is primary.” – Derrick Jensen –
It is upon us now to confront the greatest crisis in the lifespan of humankind.
Civilization – the destructive way of the City – has carried us to a climax of radical imbalances, a global eco-crisis, a state the traditional Hopi elders called Koyaanisqatsi:
koy.aa.nis.qat.si (Hopi) [n] 1. crazy life 2. life out of balance 3. life disintegrating 4. life in turmoil 5. a way of life that calls for another way of living.
Two intersecting realities face us; the two faces of eco-crisis. “Eco” means “home.” It is the root meaning of the terms “ecology” and “economy.” We face collapse in both arenas – arenas which are regarded as “separate” by virtue of a semantic, psycho-cultural sleight of hand, but which are, in reality, profoundly interdependent. In this essay, we will explore three premises, in the hopes that their exploration will help enable us to maintain our balance, to see clearly what is unfolding – collapsing – around us and within us; and so that we might act in accordance with the forces of Life, and thus sustain ourselves for this generation and the generations of our children’s children’s children. We live in a culture and under an economic system that is killing the world, and it is crucial that as it collapses we are able to deconstruct it, to dismantle the illusions that we have been steeped in since birth, that we become sane enough, so that – at a minimum – those of us who survive might never again reproduce a way of “life” that holds the potential to destroy all life; that we might not repeat or replicate a way of death.
All of us have been raised in a global capitalist civilization; all of us, even the most radical and astute among us, the most indigenous among us, have internalized much of its values, its premises; its lenses. The lenses are tinted. Their color is death. We don’t see clearly the relationship between ecology and economy. We are cutting off our own left hands, blow by blow, with an axe at the wrist, and call it “Making a Living.” The elitists see it more clearly: They call it “Making a Killing.”
The first thing we need to understand, in order to grasp the relationship between the economic and ecological crises, is this:
Production = Destruction, and Capitalist Production = Unbridled Destruction
Production of food, for example, for most species, means destruction of members of other plant or animal species. This is the case for humans as well, no matter how society and production is organized, and it is the case for every form of life except those involved in photosynthesis, which destroy no other forms of life, but which, rather, transform sunlight and minerals dissolved in water into life. All other forms of life, from the herbivores to the carnivores, destroy individual members of other species of life in order to survive.
Maintaining the balances between production, reproduction and destruction is utterly essential for the continuance of life on this planet. Such balance depends on reciprocity. In every ecosystem there are untold examples of such reciprocity; for a very simple example, an animal that eats a plant is also likely to play an essential role in that plant species’ propagation by spreading its seed or pollen, either through external bodily contact and transport, or through its digestive system, often providing key nutrients for the growth of new plants.
There is nothing in the nature of industrial capitalism that alters the centrality of this principle or that escapes its implications – the karmic results of willfully ignoring it. But, as I wrote in Apocalypse No! part3: The Law of Life and the Law of Death:
“Modern production is a wedding of opposites, a two faced god: its other face is destruction. Consumption for one is starvation for the Other. Production for one is destruction for the Other, and like a cancer, production has grown beyond all limits: the industrial system lives by destroying without limit, by ignoring the limits to growth.”
Far from entering into a reciprocal relationship with the rest of life, industrial capitalism simply consumes the other, reducing life to the level of a “resource,” without respect or regard for the balances of living systems or the ability of other forms of life to reproduce themselves at the species level – or, often, even at the level of the herd. Short term, short- sighted profit is the all-but universal standard for capitalist production. And profit, as noted in part one of this essay, always comes at someone else’s expense. In a recent interview, Derrick Jensen spoke directly to the essential nature of the process:
“Production, at base, is the conversion of the living to the dead…GNP is a measure of how quickly the world, the real physical world, is turned into economic products.”
At root, profit means the destruction of life and living systems for short term gain – that is its most fundamental relationship to the Earth and to all species – including human beings. Beyond that, in order to survive the competition in the interim before the final bell, every capitalist project must grow in relationship to its competitors or be driven out of business; it must convert more and more of what is living into what is dead, and do so ever more cheaply. As with cancer, the process only stops when the host expires. Capitalism as such, then, is a prescription for global suicide, one that follows its own internal logic, burning down its own house with ruthless, self-reinforcing discipline – like any other death cult. The system is producing exactly what it is designed to produce; Global Death. When the parasitism of profit can no longer expand, due to ecological or political and military limits, or due to its own inherent systemic contradictions, economic growth flips into its opposite, economic contraction – economic depression, it’s called. The disease goes into a temporary period of remission, and reorganizes itself for a new assault on the body of its host.
The next thing we need to grasp to understand the intersecting realities of ecological and economic crisis has already been clearly implied:
Profit = Theft
Profit, by definition, is imbalance, robbery and theft. It can arise only from the long term degradation of life and of the ability of ecosystems to reproduce themselves in balance. Where there is profit, something must become unbalanced, the scales must shift to take from one and add to the other without return.
Of necessity, natural economies, which are local and regional, rely strictly on what is called the solar budget, and they do not involve profit – they involve equitable trade – give and take reciprocal relationships that foster the long term well being of all of life’s communities, and in this they resemble the relationships of all other forms of life to one another; they exist in cooperation and symbiosis, and cannot take more than their “fair share,” lest they diminish or destroy the species and ecosystems upon whose existence and flourishing the natural culture and natural economy immediately depend. If we depend on Buffalo for food, we can’t kill too many of the Buffalo; we can’t destroy or diminish the prairie for our own short term “profit”; to do so would harm the Buffalo, and thus harm ourselves.
Natural cultures understand that the relationship is a tight-knit, close one, a relationship between relatives. They are the
No animal wantonly or systematically destroys other species. In just the same way, no animal wantonly reduces or destroys its own kind: to do so might be called sub-“bestial.” Perhaps “viral” would be the only term, although I know of no virus that attacks itself. Only in the case of the deadliest of conditions – AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and cancer, is there anything remotely approaching such a phenomenon.
But profit is theft. It requires not only the robbery, destruction and diminishment of other forms of life, but it also requires the robbery, destruction and diminishment of humans by humans. No one is immune.
One of the fundamental necessities or laws of capitalism – its whole point – is the generation of profit. But, nowhere in the context of the system in its “normal” operation is a word spoken about where capitalist profit comes from. There’s a reason for that.
Profit comes, in its most immediate, social sense, from the exploitation – the robbery, the diminishment – of “labor” – of human beings who work. In the simplest terms, since it is not the intent to turn this into a lecture on Marxist economic theory, profit is the result of the value added to “raw materials” or “resources” by people’s labor. The value added to the “raw materials” is produced by laborers working together in a social process, but the fruit of the process, the added value embodied in the final product, goes not to those whose labor collectively created it (they are paid a “wage” whose value is less than the value of what they produce with their labor during the time they work) – but, rather, the new value they create goes into the pocket of the capitalist, in the form of profit. Once the machinery (fixed capital) and non-human energy involved in production has been paid for by what it has produced, there is no other source for the extra value that comprises profit, except the human labor that has gone into it. The capitalist, operating at a level of function matched in its baseness by no animal on Earth, wantonly and systematically debases, reduces and even destroys its own kind in order to rob them of their energy. The capitalist functions as a parasite on the Earth and on other life forms, and also stands in the same relationship to its own species.
The subprime mortgage scam that threatens to collapse capitalist finance today is not a fluke: it’s an expression of the most fundamental nature of the capitalist system, a system based in deception, exploitation and robbery. The whole thing is a scam. The whole thing is theft. This brings us to the final understanding we need to grasp in order to put the concurrent appearance of global ecological and economic crisis into the beginnings, at least, of a coherent context. Here it is:
Money is Worthless
Not even parasites feed off of other parasites, but capitalists do. And, sometimes the most shopworn and obvious of truths are among the most profound; like this one: You can’t plant or eat money. For that matter, you can’t plant or eat gold or silver, either.
In the subprime mortgage crisis we see the same principle of rip–off that the capitalist applies to the worker, only in reverse. Rather than paying the worker less than the value of what she has produced, in this case the capitalists lured the workers into buying into what they couldn’t afford, a standard of living beyond what they were (under) paid for their labor. “Get ‘em comin’ and goin’” was the idea. After all, it always seemed to work before – the whole principle behind profit is cheating – getting something for nothing.
And, besides, that’s exactly what money is worth – nothing. Its value is invented, then sustained by faith or belief- by widespread cultural agreement. It has no substantive value in and of itself. The same is essentially true of gold and silver. They are essentially glittering metals of little practical use or value in comparison, to say, iron ore, copper or diamonds. When money was tied to the gold or silver standards, its value was just as much a convention – a matter of suspended thought, belief and common agreement, as the value of unbacked currencies – floating paper money – is today. You can’t eat a treasure chest of gold bullion, and you can’t plant it and grow it. There is hardly a rational way to assess its life-value, in the way that one can decide whether this bushel of corn is worth more to you, for your purposes, tastes and dietary needs, in the context of your natural, local ecology and economy, than that bushel of potatoes. Beyond the aesthetic value of their color, pliability and gleam, gold and silver have little tangible, intrinsic or organic value in any ecosystem or natural economy. And, as relatively rare, soft metals, they have historically had little widespread practical use. But, like the “almighty” paper dollar, they are considered “precious.” It’s a matter of sheer invention, sheer faith, sheer abstraction. It’s sheer invented nonsense – worth little more than the paper a sub-prime mortgage agreement is printed on; worth little more than the electrical energy that encodes a numeric value in a computer.
So, having shipped production of all kinds overseas, where workers produce a greater profit margin with their labor than they can in countries with relatively higher standards and costs of living, U.S. bankers and other capitalists began to scam each other, selling one another the debt owed by workers on mortgages they could not – by design – afford. Really, they were selling one another faith, based on the blank belief that the bill would never really come due – the same lie they sold to the workers who bought the mortgages in the first place. They were selling one another electronically configured squiggles in a computer data base, each preceded by a mathematical minus sign. But, the bill came due, the ripped off worker couldn’t afford it, the debt that had been sold could not be paid, and the whole game began to collapse, just like it does in the last days of any gangster. Like the last, desperate days of Bonnie and
The most important end result, however, is that socially produced wealth that might have gone toward creating a more Earth centered economy – or to halt, at least, the very worst ravages of the capitalist cancer on the body of the Earth and on all of the millions of species who will be driven to, or over, the edge of extinction -including, quite possibly, our own, will instead be funneled, as unearned profit (there is no other kind of profit), into the hands of the very forces that are destroying us all, to enable them to continue destroying us all, if possible.
That’s the logic. Capitalist civilization is a suicide pact. It’s a suicide cult – one that “profits,” however temporarily, at the expense of all life. Thank the Creator it’s falling apart at the seams, and that its smokestacks – its virtual death camps and crematoria – may fall right along with its financial racket. As Richard Heinberg wrote in an essay entitled The End of Growth that hit my mailbox only moments ago, “The worldwide financial crisis, and the decline in available energy, mean that we may also have seen the final year of aggregate world economic growth.” Let us pray that he’s correct; such a collapse may be the only chance we all have to survive.
Heinberg summed it up this way, “Growth is dead. Let’s make the most of it. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
Talking Heads – Burning Down the House
You might get what you’re after
Strange but not a stranger
I’m an ordinary guy
Burning down the house
Hold tight wait till the party’s over
Hold tight we’re in for nasty weather
There has got to be a way
Burning down the house
Here’s your ticket pack your bag: time for jumpin’ overboard
The transportation is here
Close enough but not too far, maybe you know where you are
Fightin fire with fire
Hey you might need a raincoat
Dreams walking in broad daylight
Three hun-dred six-ty five de-grees
Burning down the house
It was once upon a place sometimes I listen to myself
Gonna come in first place
People on their way to work baby what did you expect
Gonna burst into flame
’s out of the ordinary
Don’t want to hurt nobody
Some things sure can sweep me off my feet
Burning down the house
No visible means of support and you have not seen nuthin yet
Everything’s stuck together
I don’t know what you expect staring into the tv set
Fighting fire with fire
CAPITALISM AT THE EXPENSE OF ALL LIFE
Part 3: For the Earth to Live, Capitalism Must Die
This is the Day of Reckoning. This is the Time of Purification. This is the end of the “world”, the end of the city-state, the end of city life, of “Civilization.” The early Christians called it the “apocalypse,” the unveiling. Now, at last, the truth of what we have been presents itself unclothed. There is nowhere to hide. It is upon us. Like a cancer, capitalism, industrialism- truly the most advanced stage of civilization – “advanced” the way that a cancer is called “advanced” – has ravaged the body of the Earth. Life on Earth is disappearing. Nothing that can be done- or that will be done – under the system of global death called capitalism will save Life on Earth. The capitalist, as Karl Marx rightly noted, is “the soul of capital personified.” – a soul unable to see beyond the limits of its own immediate perception of “gain.” The capitalists as a whole – as a white imperial world-ruling class – understand the depth of the emerging crisis as well as we do. But they advance nothing more than schemes to sustain markets and profits, while life itself is allowed to perish in a holocaust in the making, one whose end is as certain as a nuclear winter.
There are no words to convey the depth of criminal horror and illness of the rulers of a system that would create the conditions not only for genocide on an unimaginable, all but limitless scale, but that would commit the murder of all life – ecocide, biocide and geocide – in order to shield themselves from change and protect and maintain their ability to produce “profit.”
But the holocaust we are entering is not made of a single criminal act – it is not the pushing of a button by a lone madman in a fit of religious mania or suicidal despair, it is, rather, the accumulation of a billion little deaths, the reaching of a critical threshold of death, until death itself boils over, the way that water, when it reaches its threshold of heat, roils over the edges of a pot, waging war on the fire that feeds it. It is the final explosion, the river of blood from the slaughterhouse spilling over its banks, no longer to be contained. It is the millions of children beaten, molested, raped, enslaved and “schooled.” It is the billions who live on less than a dollar a day. It is the slow soul murder of television and of going to “work.” It is a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. It is the homeless and the mad left hungry and frozen in the street. In the US, it is the millions of red, black and brown men locked behind prison bars, the mass terror of a racist system whose aim is to brutally reduce whole peoples to a state of utter subjugation, degradation isolation and immobility. Like the Nazi holocaust or the conquest of the
Marx and Engels had this much wrong. Civilization, slavery-based economies and more efficient forms of production like industrialist capitalism and socialism have not led to “progress,” unless “progress” can be counted as progress toward mass death and destruction, toward the enslavement and grave endangerment of human beings – all of us- and of every living plant, animal, fish and insect. Fundamentally, Marx and Engels believed in “profit” at the expense of the living Earth as much as any industrial capitalist – they just wanted to share the profit more broadly in a different money-system. The fundamental alienation of people from their connection with all life – and the most fundamental exploitation of life – would ultimately remain intact.
The Marxist project has failed, just as capitalism has failed. The state didn’t gradually “wither away” over a protracted period of change called “socialism.” Under the conditions prescribed by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao, the state can’t wither away. The state and the city are a single dialectical identity, a unity of opposites – they’re two faces of a single process, and the state can’t “wither away” unless the fundamental process of domination, control, exploitation, ecocide and genocide called the city – “civilization” – also withers away. The city necessitated the state and the state enabled the city. The city and the state arose together and they will die together. No one has remained free anywhere the city-state has arisen or in any area it’s conquered. No one has been free. Not the rulers. Not the ruled.
But that’s all over.
There’s a capitalist maxim: “Grow or die.” The maxim holds true within the limited sphere of the circulation of money and the accumulation of capital in a particular economic system; each individual capitalist project must compete – grow – or be swallowed by other capitalist ventures; in other words, it must “die.”
The system’s true believers never thought they’d reach the limits of growth, but that is just what has happened. They’ve reached the limits of their “resource” base – the ecological and geological limits of what can be destroyed to produce more profit. The game is over. They broke the bank. They were warned. They didn’t listen. They’re still not listening. For them, and for most of us who’ve not shaken our entrainment in the ways of seeing the world they stewed us in as children, we have come to an unimaginable passage. Call it the end of the world as we know it. That’s the deal. The inescapable deal. It’s over. One way or another. Either this
“non-negotiable” way of “life” ends, or the capacity of Earth to sustain life ends. This is not to say that some solutions can’t be found. It is, rather, to say that any “solution” that doesn’t undo the fundamental theft and imbalance inherent in the system of profit is not really a solution at all. The problem is global – total. The magnitude of the solution must equate with the magnitude of the problem. The system of theft and imbalance called profit is simply not sustainable, not on the whole, not in part. Life that can’t be sustained dies. The capitalist equation is now turned right-side up: “Stop ‘growth’ or die.” And it’s not just the capitalist mode of exploitation that must end. We’ve got to eradicate the cancer at its root, and, of course, capitalism, and modern industrialism more broadly, are built on the foundations of earlier, less “efficient” systems of exploitation and destruction. That’s where the roots of modern industrial systems of death lie.
While the psychological and biological functions or dysfunctions – the emotional splits and repressions that lie at the very core of the origins of our cultural dysfunction – have yet to be fully articulated and formulated into a coherent picture that explains their intersections with cultural suppression, economic exploitation, and political oppression, this much is clear. The first and fundamental practical expression of these dynamics in terms of their impact on the life of the Earth lies in this: The acquisition of land title by force and the enshrinement of “property” as social law.
That’s how “civilization” started: a city cannot exist without seizing the land around it. A city is all-but by definition a concentration of people too large to be supported by the land within its own boundaries – it must seize control of nearby lands or its population will starve.
The seizure of land by force – both for agricultural and herding purposes and for mineral extraction – continues as a key link in the survival and expansion of a global human population whose numbers are rapidly outstripping the capacities of the territories it already dominates to sustain any further population increase. The result is the rapidly escalating destruction of the world’s forests (and the concomitant eradication of a huge and increasing number of plant and animal species), along with the bottom trawling of the oceans for fish to feed the spiraling human numbers, with the concomitant eradication of 90% of the world’s large fish populations. Other clear examples include the seizure of the territory of the nation of Iraq for its oil and the seizure of a significant portion of Navajo Nation land and the forced removal of its population for access to the 18 billion tons of coal that lie beneath its surface – basically the same thing that is happening to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon region as their land is seized for farming, ranching and oil interests. “Growth” means an increase in exploitable “resources,” whether those resources are oil, coal, the fertility of the soil itself, or the “resources” for a “green” economy, like the ores to make the steel to build “environmentally friendly” hybrid cars (auto production creates, to cite just one example, 7 billion pounds of un-recycled scrap and waste annually.) The end result of this orientation toward economic “growth” is death for the land base, for the indigenous cultures that care for it, and for the life the land and native peoples support. It is a cancerous growth. Same as it ever was.
A capitalist – or socialist – “green” economy is little more than another step in the evolution of a millennia long series of more “efficient” systems of exploitation and destruction. The fundamental premise behind the concept of a “green” economy and “green” growth is that the exploitation and destruction of life is somehow ultimately sustainable. “He is blind,” as one Hopi elder put it, “So he destroys himself when he tries to save himself.”
“Green” Growth is a mutually exclusive contradiction in terms.
No matter what we call the mode of production and destruction, and no matter how we distribute the “profit” – the “wealth” extorted from life and living systems – continued growth in production and destruction for the sake of human consumption can lead to only one end. Sooner or later – really sooner than later – we are going to crash full bore into the limits of growth – into the absolute limits of the “carrying capacity” of the Earth – the end of its ability to feed one more human, the end of the capacity of ecosystems to endure the disappearance of one more species without a complete and perhaps irreversible collapse.
There is, if we are honest with ourselves about it, only one possible result that offers hope. It’s not, I am sorry to say, social revolution. Nor is it the process of “bringing down civilization” advocated by some anarchist greens and anarcho-primitivists. The simple fact is that there is no evidence whatsoever that revolutionary movements aimed at an overthrow of the state or at the literal, immediate, physical dismantling of the machinery of death can be developed on a sufficient scale with a sufficient understanding to undo what must be undone – nor could the seizure and wielding of state power do the trick. Not only is the state itself based on the seizure and maintenance of land title by force, but the existence of the state requires the existence of the city – it requires that the fundamental dynamics of empire, “resource” exploitation and “profit” remain intact.
Marx’s postulation notwithstanding, for the state to “wither away” the City must also “wither away”.
It is only the accumulation of wealth at the expense of other forms of life that makes the concentration of power in a state apparatus possible. Only an increasingly radical imbalance in the energy flows of the planet, an imbalance skewed toward humans at the expense of all life, makes for such an accumulation, and the imbalance must grow in concert with the human population’s growth until it reaches the very crossroads we have reached today. The seizing of state power in no way changes the fundamental equation. An ecologist might say that the equations of the solar budget are the only equations – the only bottom lines – that count.
The only way out – which is to say the natural way out – is a population crash. No human-invented scheme can overrule the way – the natural consequences or “laws” – of nature. And what happens to any and every population in overshoot in nature is a population crash. It’s nature’s way.
It can’t be improved upon. It can’t be subverted. It can’t be avoided, although, perhaps, the severity of the collapse can be softened. Blame is irrelevant, except to the extent that in identifying causes, we are able to learn and avoid their repetition. But, a human population crash will do nothing more than delay even worse results – like utter extinction – unless it is accompanied by a profound process of identifying and learning from what went awry in what has gone before.
Under the best of circumstances the global economy and the global system of dominance that rests on it will run into limits it cannot transform – so that it cannot continue until the point that the global ecosystem – life itself – collapses all around us and within us. In the best case scenario, peak oil will prove just such a limit, a limit that sinks the system of production and destruction to such a degree that it prevents it from resurrecting itself.
This formulation can, of course, be denounced as Malthusian. It can also be denounced by revolutionaries of all kinds. But here’s the simple fact. All we can do is hope, and to the best of our ability, align ourselves spiritually and strategically with the forces of life. Yes, as Derrick Jensen suggests, hope is what you do when you have no agency, no power, no control. But then, it is precisely our drive to control and reorder nature that has brought us to this point, and it is that drive for control, and the pain that drives it, that must be healed, transformed and left behind. But, while we may not be able to control outcomes, make a revolution or “bring down” civilization, we can align ourselves spiritually and strategically with the forces of Life.
By the same token and the same logic, the key tasks before us lie not in saving the global economy, not in creating a “green” economy, not in inventing new ways to exploit new energies in order to continue to mine the life of the Earth, nor in any other activity that would seek to preserve this system in any form whatsoever.
The key task before conscious people today is the forging of a profound understanding of what has gone wrong – a sweeping and utter re-evaluation of all values that will be tantamount to a new renaissance, a conscious re-creation and co-creation of culture. Much of that work began to be undertaken in the 1960s, and has borne important fruit, like William Kotke’s work, The Final Empire. It is ours to forge an authentically sustainable culture, even in the midst of this civilization’s fast approaching end – by relying on and integrating the deepest, clearest and most coherent teachings of traditional indigenous cultures, of students of the ecology, and of the multivalent healing practices of both indigenous cultures and of the new therapies that have arisen in the last 50 years. Such a movement – one that is intent on restoring the Earth and fostering social justice and renewing our cultures by incorporating the values and vision of indigenous peoples – is already underway on a global scale. Paul Hawkens, in his important book Blessed Unrest, calls it an “unstoppable movement to re-imagine our relationship to the environment and one another.” His research shows that it is the largest movement in human history, involving some 2-3 million organizations worldwide and some 200 – 300 million people whose cultural, ethical, political and ecological creativity are already impacting billions. That the processes of renewal – of healing, rectifying and relearning – will best be fostered among those in living in direct contact with, and in a caretaking relationship with the Earth and other, non- human living beings should, I hope, be self evident.
Juan Santos is a