Solving a problem relies first upon a trustworthy identification of the problem. This can be easy with simple problems, like a flat tire. It can be extremely difficult with complex problems such as climate change or the social ills of poverty and exploitation. It should be a no brainer that complex societies create complex problems with not one but various strands of the root establishing any particular issue. Most analysis that gets peddled by the architects and shills of the dominant culture is usually lacking in comprehensive diagnosis. This was summed up famously by H.L Mencken when he said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
In our culture, it is not uncommon for positive outcomes of a system or arrangement to be credited widely to the culture as a whole. This is evident for me any time I try to have a discussion about the destruction wrought by a culture dependent upon industrialism and technology. Those who have never questioned the society in which they live immediately point out medical advances, knowledge of the cosmos, communications technology, etc. as these pinnacles of human development and existence, as if these inventions and discoveries are the new floor for human existence which we can never again sink beneath. These advances are attributed to democracy and capitalism, and the theme becomes, “Industrial capitalism may not be perfect, but it has given us a standard of living once unfathomable, and there is no conceivable reason to not only retain these developments, but to continually expand upon them.” This is bundled in a word; “progress.”
There is a very intentional paradox that comes into play if the problems created by industrial civilization’s “progress” are trotted out. Poverty for instance, is often blamed on the individual who struggles with it. Staunch defenders of capitalism will nit pick the minutiae of decisions and habits of each individual poor person who ever dares associate their condition with overall social or cultural architecture. The resounding lie is that anyone can rise on the economic ladder should only they work for it. This lie is successful because on it’s face, it appears true. Anyone could become rich. But not everyone could become rich. Not everyone could be middle class. Capitalism requires a struggling underclass that can be forced through social conditions and laws into taking low wage work. Low wage work is the majority of the work available within a capitalist paradigm, and thus it requires a majority of people to be trapped in a social condition which will leave them no option but to undertake this work.
Arthur Young, an English writer and pamphleteer of the mid and late eighteenth century wrote, “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.”
Poverty is a necessary condition of capitalism. How an individual navigates this poverty is in part up to them, but they do not create the condition, and they do not create the other social parameters which stem from it.
Social conditions from access to education, housing, and food, quality of medical care, level of policing in one’s neighborhood, race, perceived gender or sexual orientation, access to a clean environment, etc. will all play a role in the development of the individual from the time they are a newborn, or even in utero. Black children raised in a poor urban community with a high crime rate, lack of grocery stores, and lower quality education will clearly have a disadvantage economically relative to upper middle class white children who attend higher quality schools and eat a more balanced diet. This should be obvious. When the disadvantages manifest as individual inability to escape poverty, or as criminal behavior or drug addiction, the blame is always place squarely and solely on the individual.
In Dr. Bruce K. Alexander’s paper, “The Roots of Addiction in a Free Market Society” it is argued that the dislocation caused by capitalist society is a major factor causing addictive behavior. He writes:
[D]islocation is the necessary precursor of addiction. … [F]ree markets inevitably produce widespread dislocation among the poor and the rich. As free market globalization speeds up, so does the spread of dislocation and addiction. In order for “free markets” to be “free,” the exchange of labour, land, currency, and consumer goods must not be encumbered by elements of psychosocial integration such as clan loyalties, village responsibilities, guild or union rights, charity, family obligations, social roles, or religious values. Cultural traditions “distort” the free play of the laws of supply and demand, and thus must be suppressed. In free market economies, for example, people are expected to move to where jobs can be found, and to adjust their work lives and cultural tastes to the demands of a global market.
Alexander goes on to reference specific native tribes in North America removed from their lands and stripped of their cultures and he directly links their high incidences of addiction to this dislocation. What his paper clearly lays out, is that social problems have social causes.
Whenever a person in the US snaps and goes on a rampage with a firearm, the society that created that individual is rarely implicated, and never implicated with any level of seriousness. Such implication would have serious ramifications for the ego and identities of those who support the dominant culture. It would also create a condition of responsibility society would then be compelled to address through altering it’s internal parameters. To ignore the culture that creates the psychosis, nihilism, and other mental and emotional disfunction prerequisite to waltzing into an elementary school with a rifle and murderous intent is to essentially declare that the occasional massacre of children or movie patrons is OK, a necessary evil of our otherwise high and glorious “way of life.” Instead of the culture taking responsibility for the monsters it creates, guns are blamed, whether an abundance or a lack.
The scope with which most social critique is attended is variable depending on the desired outcome. A macro view is applied to hide the blood in the cracks, a micro view zoomed in on the individual whenever the culmination of a sociopathic culture of death results in an individual acting out this cultural psychosis in a socially “unproductive” way. Should Adam Lanza or James Holmes had joined the Marines and manifested their violent sociopathy in an Afghan village or from behind the controls of a CIA drone attacking weddings in Pakistan or Yemen, we would likely never have known their names. People would clap for them as they walked through an airport in their fatigues.
No doubt, the prescription psychotropic drugs both Lanza and Holmes were taking affected their behavior. I do not think this is contrary to the thinking that the dominant culture generated their psychosis. In fact, I think it proves the point. More and more people in the US are taking prescribed anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. The numbers are one in five men, and one in four women are taking these mind altering drugs. If industrial civilization and capitalism provide such a wonderful “standard of living;” if this way of life is the pinnacle of human existence, why does almost a quarter of the population require a drug to make them feel better about it? Add in the number of people who drink alcohol or smoke marijuana, and it’s likely that a large majority of the population needs to achieve an altered state of consciousness on a regular basis merely to cope with the daily requirements leveled on their shoulders by this society.
But if we zoom out, we see happy shoppers and smiling twenty somethings taking “selfies” by the thousands.
If we cannot identify the cause of a problem, we will not likely solve the problem. If depression, addiction, and poverty, or even cancer, pollution, and climate change are viewed with the improper lens, these problems with social and cultural roots will always be attacked at the individual level. Individuals are blamed for their addictions. Individuals are blamed for their poverty. Individuals are even blamed for their cancer, and treatment is always about the individual, never prevention of the spread of toxins which cause it. This blame will not always sound like condemnation, harsh and critical as the blame attached to poverty, because cancer crosses class and race demographics. White grandmas get cancer, so we won’t be mean about it. But illness prevention is offered through individual diet, individual exercise, never through a social change that bans coal fired power plants, the creation and ultimate incineration of plastic, or the use of sodium nitrite in meat. Of course individuals can do their best to maintain their health and fitness. But we cannot not breathe in the dioxin or glyphosate in the air.
Even in the case of climate change and ecosystem collapse, what are the solutions proffered by capitalists and purveyors of the dominant culture? Individual reduction in consumption. Individual bicycling. With this focus on the individual behavior, corporate profits are safe and anyone who raises the alarm about ecological destruction and climate change can be attacked for their lifestyle impurity while the message itself drowns under screams and howls decrying the use of a car or computer by she who raised the alarm. I suffer this madness regularly both as a writer who publishes my work online, and as a direct action activist who has used a pick up truck to transport the materials and people into forests where tree sit campaigns blockaded the construction of tar sands infrastructure. Never mind the basic equation that I’d be willing to burn one million barrels of oil if it were able to prevent the shipment and ultimate burning of several hundred thousand barrels of oil per day for the next decade or two. Never mind Jevons’ paradox and the fact that conservation of oil by one individual only results in extra consumption by another who takes advantage of increased supply. The idea that the solution to a problem with global reach and social, economic, and cultural underpinnings rests entirely on the individual is patently absurd and intellectually lazy.
Striking one’s gaze in an intentionally overly broad or overly minute direction is an obfuscation employed regularly by the media, politicians, and others who have a vested interest not in solving problems, but in perpetuating them and profiting off of false solutions. A recent study demonstrated that two thirds of the emissions responsible for climate change are generated by ninety companies globally. According to the author of the study: “There are thousands of oil, gas, and coal producers in the world, but the decision makers, the CEOs, or the ministers of coal and oil if you narrow it down to just one person, they could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two.“
The implications of the study are fascinating and grabbing headlines, but I fear there is a reductionism in the reactions to the study, as a complex and global problem which has not one taproot but many roots that stretch and meander in various directions, is being described as something that can be halted by focusing on a busload of individuals. To be sure, the power of these individuals is great, and I in no way want to diminish the negative impact of the decisions these people daily make. Financing climate change skepticism, altering media coverage through advertising and influence, and regularly seeking investment for new coal, oil, gas, bitumen, and kerogen projects is absolutely disdainful behavior with globally deleterious ramifications. These individuals and these companies should be pressured and punished respectively. But lacking a cultural and social shift away from capitalism and antiquated profit and domination based definitions of “progress,” such pressure and punishment will ultimately prove ineffective at solving our penultimate problem.
We look at our bodies and we see flesh. If we look at them under a microscope, we can see our tissues are comprised of cells. A little more zoom and we can see the organelles within the cell. Building those organelles are compounds comprised of molecules which are in turn built of atoms which consist of variously charged particles, themselves containing quarks and on and on possibly to infinity. If we turn the device around and look outward we see that our planet exists within a solar system, spiraling around a galaxy, itself but one small galaxy housed within a universe of billions of galaxies which itself may be housed within a larger super universe that might be nothing but a quark within God’s cat’s butt. This is all to demonstrate that scale and scope offer perspective, but the perspective is meaningless without context of where it resides within the whole.
Mechanistic thinking and reductionism was a product of the enlightenment period In this time, the conceptualization of the Earth as a living entity was diminished. It is commonly known that indigenous cultures looked to the Earth as a living entity with spirit and flesh and consciousness. Even the ancient Greeks and Renaissance Europeans held such views, surprising as this may seem. Of course, cultures varied in their interpretations of how this was to play into their behavior, but the predominant response was that as a living Mother, the Earth must be respected, and her resources must be harvested and utilized consciously and with care.
This view of a living universe, with even stars and planets as living and conscious entities was stripped away during the so called “enlightenment” period. Carolyn Merchant writes eloquently on this transformation in cultural concept and it’s disastrous results for ecology:
Whereas the medieval economy had been based on organic and renewable energy sources–wood, water, wind, and animal muscle–the emerging capitalist economy was based on nonrenewable energy–coal–and the inorganic metals–iron, copper, silver, gold, tin, and mercury–the refining and processing of which ultimately depended on and further depleted the forests. Over the course of the sixteenth century, mining operations quadrupled as the trading of metals expanded, taking immense toll as forests were cut for charcoal and the cleared lands turned into sheep pastures for the textile industry. Shipbuilding, essential to capitalist trade and national supremacy, along with glass and soap making, also contributed to the denudation of the ancient forest cover. The new activities directly altered the earth. Not only were its forests cut down, but swamps were drained, and mine shafts were sunk.
The rise of Francis Bacon’s scientific method came hand in hand with new cultural understanding. The Earth was dead, inert, without life or feeling. The Earth and nature were impediments to an increase in human “standard of living.” Belief systems which held the Earth to be a living and sacred mother to be tread upon delicately and with care were obstructions to progress and wealth accumulation.
The removal of animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted the death of nature — the most far-reaching effect of the scientific revolution. Because nature was now viewed as a system of dead, inert particles moved by external rather than inherent forces, the mechanical framework itself could legitimate the manipulation of nature. Moreover, as a conceptual framework, the mechanical order had associated with it a framework of values based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism.
The emerging mechanical worldview was based on assumptions about nature consistent with the certainty of physical laws and the symbolic power of machines. Although many alternative philosophies were available (Aristotelian, Stoic, gnostic, Hermetic, magic, naturalist, and animist), the dominant European ideology came to be governed by the characteristics and experiential power of the machine. Social values and realities subtly guided the choices and paths to truth and certainty taken by European philosophers. Clocks and other early modern machines in the seventeenth century became underlying models for western philosophy and science.“
While civilizations based upon exploitation and expansion predate the thinking of Bacon, Decartes, and their contemporaries, these “enlightenment” thinkers founded a nihilism which became the cultural basis for an exponential increase in the rapacious destruction of the living Earth as well as the destruction of people’s and cultures which refused to adopt such methods of thinking and behaving.
This mechanistic view, this selective lensing of poverty, addiction, disease, and psychosis has the elites of money and privilege singing the praises of the dominant culture and maneuvering the levers of power for ever more of the behaviors and policies that are bringing about these maladies while never solving them. Viewed as merely cogs in a grand social machine, individuals suffering poverty and addiction are told to shape up or be removed into a cage where defective cogs are isolated.
Humans globally now stand on the precipice of catastrophe. Mechanistic approaches to food production have boosted short term yields at the expense of long term soil health and fertility. Despite water now tainted with glyphosate and phosphorous and soil stripped of the organic material which provides fertility, scientists are genetically modifying plants and trees to continue raising production yields despite common sense screaming that dominating nature is shortsighted and priming society for an agricultural collapse. Human attempts to manipulate nature under the mechanistic view that one part can be destroyed without affecting the whole continue to fuel climate change even as storms of record size and ferocity make landfall across the globe and as the jet stream is skewed bringing extremes of cold and hot into regions both south and north of their usual boundaries.
The ability to view the world holistically is not merely the ability of the grand scientist or mathematician who can compile and compute all of the variables in a system and spit out an accurate prognosis of a given issue or problem. As our ecological and social problems beg for holistic approaches, society instead seeks more and more compartmentalized “experts” who have spelunked into the deep caverns of their niche specialties. Hence the economists who don’t understand peak oil, the business people who don’t understand climate change, and the doctors who treat the symptoms, never once seeking the causes of various diseases and conditions.
The holistic ability this era craves is wisdom, itself the product of patient and caring people, listeners and observers who understand where the value of science and logic both begin and end. Wisdom is rare, it is quiet, it is humble, and thus is almost never even requested let alone respected by the dominant culture.
“Progress” is the grand value of the day. It is to be unquestioned. No endangered species or human culture is allowed to stand in the way of progress — not even if that endangered species is the human animal herself. It was a demented and flat thinking culture that wrote the definition of progress which is now vaunted, and if there is any hope for humanity I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that this hope at least partially resides in a redefining of “progress.” New widgets, wealth accumulation, and the bending of nature to the whims of the capitalist should not by default be considered progress. More often than not these contrivances do not advance the comfort or position of but a minority of the human population, and they do so on the backs of the poor majority. More often still, such “progress” is so destructive ecologically that were it not for mechanistic reduction hiding the costs from view, one would have to be a dedicated and shareholding huckster to call it “progress” at all.
If the survival of our species and the living web we depend on is a concern at all, we must begin to understand progress as peace, not production. Progress must mean equality, not subjugation. Progress must mean sustainable stewardship, not domination and control. Most of all, we must foster the wisdom that we are all linked with each other and with the living world, and that we cannot manipulate each other or the world for a benefit in one capacity without likely causing a deficiency in another. We need to praise the slow and thoughtful analysis which attempts to understand all parts of an issue. Where the living planet is concerned, we must understand that our meddling has consequences that multiply themselves in seen and unseen ways, thus meddling should be kept to a minimum and undertaken with grave attention.
The scale of human industrial activity is so large and it’s rate of process so fast, that such a revolution in consciousness seems unlikely absent some cataclysm which halts the furious pace of capital flow. To be sure, the cataclysm is waiting in the wings. Whether or not the challenges it brings are met with true progress of the mind and being is to be seen.
Eamon Farrelly has no fancy credentials. He lives with his partner in occupied Shawnee territory where he does his best to care for the small wooded parcel they call home. He is a frothing biocentrist who spends his free time haranguing the oil and gas and timber industries with his comrades in Earth First!