Civilizations are living organisms striving to survive and develop through predictable stages of birth, growth, maturation, decline and death. An often overlooked factor in the success or failure of civilizations are cultural memes—the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors passed down from generation to generation. Cultural memes are a much more significant driver of human evolution than genetic evolution. Entire civilizations have been weeded out when their belief system proved maladaptive to a changing environment.
One such cultural meme holding sway over today’s governments, institutions, and society is our economic system of capitalism. The pillars of capitalism represent a belief system so ingrained in today’s culture that they form a sort of cargo cult amongst its adherents. Cargo cults are any of the various Melanesian religious groups which focused on obtaining material wealth(manufactured Western goods that came on cargo ships) through magical thinking, religious rituals and practices. Today the term “cargo cult” is used to describe a wide variety of phenomena that involve superficial imitation of a process or system in order to fabricate a successful outcome without even the basic understanding of its mechanism.
The tenets of capitalism are ritually followed in the proclaimed belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, i.e. so-called improvements in the general economy will benefit all participants in that economy. Centuries of unbridled capitalism have demonstrated beyond any doubt that it does not lift all boats. A new study finds that half of Americans are “shut off from economic growth”. The rules of the game are so stacked against the masses that this week a professor said “only all-out thermonuclear war might fundamentally reset the existing distribution of resources.” Capitalism’s imperative for expansion, growing profit levels, and efficiency has ultimately dehumanized our culture. Not even when our basic life support systems are being torn asunder do the vast majority question the path we are on. We are all a captive audience to the system and those few dissident voices are snuffed out under the wheels of “progress”.
Truth be told, the corporate elite have long written off all those people living hand to mouth. Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary said, unlike workers, machines are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.” Massive global unemployment resulting from the automation revolution has not yet been addressed by governments. Roughly half of all jobs in the U.S. are at risk of automation and two-thirds in the developing countries. This is all coming at a time when humans are fast destroying the ecosystems underpinning the very foundation upon which human civilization has developed over thousands of years. Mass migration of climate refugees will only further destabilize governments, stoke ethnic and cultural tensions, and give rise to fascist political movements. No conspiracy is needed to exterminate the “useless eaters”, just allow mother nature to take its course and climate change will be killing billions by mid century. Those in military planning know this and periodically express their fear of what is coming, but business-as-usual rolls on.
Capitalism’s constant impetus to shift costs, risks, and burdens off industry and onto the environment and society carries on under the guise of “being more competitive”. It’s a way of externalizing costs to maximize profit and if these costs were truly taken into account, none of the world’s top industries would be profitable(Interestingly, the link to this study has been scrubbed from the internet). It’s the height of magical thinking to put so much faith in some mystical “invisible hand of the free market” to solve existential threats such as an ever-widening wealth gap and the wholesale destruction of planetary life-support systems. There is no benevolent “invisible hand” turning individual self-interest into the common good. The primary mandate of capitalism is to protect and grow capital. The “invisible hand” is just a bunch of people scrambling to make as much money as possible, not caring or oblivious to those they hurt in the process. Fuck the invisible hand of the market. The invisible hand of mother nature will punish those who squander Earth’s rich but finite resources.
it’s been clear for some time that we have past the point of no return, triggering multiple tipping points in Earth’s living systems. New findings are continually confirming scientists’ worst nightmares. A key glacier in the Antarctic that holds back 10 feet of sea level rise was just described as breaking apart from the inside out. In other grim news, the long feared carbon bomb has now been quantified and is projected to release the emissions equivalent of an industrial country like the U.S. in the next few decades, prompting researchers to say that “climate change may be considerably more rapid than we thought it was.” Biodiversity loss is another critical threshold we have breeched: “New research shows that local extinctions have already occurred in 47% of the 976 plant and animal species studied.” A new study also reveals that the planet’s tallest animal is facing extinction after its numbers have plummeted in recent years, with the ominous warning that “many species are slipping away before we can even describe them.” Forests are being wiped out by armies of invasive insects. Because of a rapidly changing climate and the vast scale of the problem, the idea that reforestation will somehow save us is a pipe dream. Those forests won’t stay healthy enough to serve as carbon sinks and besides, seven times Earth’s land area would need to be in cultivation in order to reduce the planet’s atmospheric CO2 level down to 350ppm.
Note that the Permian Mass extinction is estimated to have happened anywhere over the course of 200,000 years to 15 million years. The current 6th mass extinction is happening orders of magnitude faster due to a multitude of factors including deforestation, habitat fragmentation, chemical pollution, poaching, etc., making this current disaster very unique in Earth’s history:
The team of geologists and biologists say that our current extinction crisis is unique in Earth’s history due to four characteristics: the spread of non-native species around the world; a single species (us) taking over a significant percentage of the world’s primary production; human actions increasingly directing evolution; and the rise of something called the technosphere. – Link
Perhaps the fate of humans was written in stone once we stood upright and developed tools. To a large degree, modern technology has been an expression of the energy-dense hydrocarbon fuels we discovered and are not willingly giving up anytime soon. Once fossil fuels ignited the Industrial Revolution and the Haber–Bosch process unleashed the human population bomb, nothing could stop the deadly carbon consumption feedback loop, not even decades of scientific warnings.
From a throwback to our primate ancestors, modern humans have been hard-wired to ignore threats that are not immediate or local; global ecological overshoot(of which climate is just one aspect) is imperceptible to the real-time cognitive processing of humans and represents the ultimate under-the-radar threat able to undermine our reasoning and response:
Psychological concepts of how we view the world around us, including ‘creeping normalcy’ or ‘landscape amnesia’, block day-to-day comprehension of what accelerating human activities represent—whether it is human population, the number of dammed rivers, forest destruction, or the impact of motor car emissions in a timespan that is geologically brief. Creeping normalcy refers to slow trends concealed in noisy fluctuations that people get used to without comment, while landscape amnesia describes forgetting how different the landscape looked 20–50 years ago (Diamond 2005: 425).
In his study of how societies fail, biogeographer Jared Diamond calls global warming a pre-eminent example of a ‘slow trend concealed by wide up and down fluctuations’ (2005: 425). He likens the denial of climate change impacts by leading politicians, including former US president George W. Bush (and his contemporary John Howard in Australia), in the late 1990s and early 2000s to the elite of ‘the medieval Greenlanders [who] had similar difficulties recognizing that their climate was gradually becoming colder, and the Maya and Anasazi (in Central and North America) [who] had trouble discerning that theirs was becoming drier’ (2005: 425). – link
We evolved to react to imminent dangers, not slow-rolling and seemingly invisible catastrophes as an unintended consequence of our cushy lifestyle. From lofty corporate boardrooms to the filthy streets of skid row, the mass of humanity is following the same biological script of overshoot and collapse seen in every organism from bacteria to reindeer herds. Fossil fuels only enabled the destruction to multiply a million-fold, culminating in one final and spectacular explosion of human activity that will leave the planet nearly barren for eons.
Open-ended growth appears to be inherent in nature, all the way from the DNA to the arthropods to mammals, including humans. Open-ended growth is the psychology of a cancer cell. I am not sure I know of a species which has learnt how to limit its own growth. Unfortunately species which transcend their environmental resources can hardly survive – the final arbiter of the climate impasse will be nature itself. ~ Andrew Glikson, Earth and paleo-climate scientist, Australian National University
The beauty and wonder of this planet is being trashed by a naked ape whose cleverness in tool-building has far outstripped his ability to handle it in any restrained or judicious manner. Nature’s rich book of life is being pancaked into a cheap, crumpled comic book.
Add in the development of mass consumerism, planned obsolescence, and the hypnosis of corporate-sponsored TV and you have a passive, malleable population happily marching towards the slaughterhouse. It’s fitting, then, that the masses would be swindled by a megalomaniac bankruptcy artist who dabbled in Reality TV. Every one of Trump’s cabinet picks is a big middle finger in the faces of those who fell for his pseudo-populist rhetoric: billionaires, Wall Street sharks, Goldman Sachs alumni, and hardcore laissez-faire capitalists chomping at the bit to deregulate, monetize, and privatize every last bit of what remains. The allure of capitalism has always been that you’re just one lucky break away from becoming one of those fat cats, if only someone would give you a chance. A prescient observation by Ugo Bardi from earlier this year:
Trump is a symptom of the ongoing breakdown of the social pact…capitalizing on this breakdown by…playing on the attempt of the white (former) middle class to maintain at least some of its previous prosperity and privileges. Trump is…an unavoidable consequence of resource depletion. – Link
The bottom line is that a swing towards authoritarianism happens when resources become scarce. Climate change is simply a symptom of humans overshooting the planet’s carrying capacity. Free market ideologues are nearly always climate ‘skeptics’ because acknowledging the reality of human-induced climate change would be an admission that industry must be curtailed or controlled. Left-leaning people nearly always accept the science because it goes along with their criticisms of capitalism which externalizes social and environmental costs for the benefit of just a few at the top of the economic hierarchy. Thus we see parasitic Trump surrounding himself with right-wing, climate denying, fossil fuel corporatists and insiders who will be doing everything in their power to dismantle health and environmental regulations including privatizing social services which are barriers to capitalist expansion.
To be blunt, our chance of developing a sustainable culture passed us by a long time ago. People will try to adapt until they cannot, and myths will be created to explain away harsh realities. A dystopic future in all its horrific glory has arrived: baked-in biospheric collapse, the inherent and irreconcilable contradictions of techno-capitalism, a dysfunctional political system unable to come to terms with root causes, and the cognitive dissonance of the masses blind to the bigger picture. Our numbers are not a safeguard from extinction.