Are We Headed for Self-Destruction?
Human life on this earth has, to put it mildly, reached a turning point.
Within a few decades we will choose whether to continue inexorably drawing down the earth’s resources to the bitter end, as both our population and our induced appetite for newer and faster apparatus sucks out the earth’s resources, or to find ways to ease our demands on the earth and thereby continue to live in some form of civilization for an extended time.
Our present course, focused on Take-Make-Waste, is taking us – I almost said straight – through unpredictable twists and turns toward a future where mirages may likely turn to real disappointments.
For example, the end of cheap petroleum energy looks like it has been postponed by new drilling technology, but the postponement will only be temporary as demand continues to grow exponentially. The replacement of key metals in some applications by plastics seems to stretch the lives of our mines, but demands for other key raw materials will also grow into bottlenecks.
Increased Information and Limits to Complexity
And the vast increase in information capacity enables, for the time being, at least, a corresponding increase in complexity – but how much complexity can it enable till we reach an edge of chaos? Things seen through the lens on my iPhone seem rosy enough, but the long-term course of humanity – beyond the temporary fixes – is nevertheless far from clear.
Who Acts – Individuals or Organizations?
One important aspect of this picture is normally left unconscious and murky. That is who the ‘we’ are in this prediction. Article after article castigates ‘us’ for doing nothing, and cries that ‘we’ should act differently; ‘we’ should stop polluting or eating meat or consuming products; ‘we’ need to end global warming.
But that phrasing overlooks a clear fact: no one of us wants such a gloomy outcome. No single person wants to create the destruction of our civilization. The ‘we’ that is driving the bus toward the precipice isn’t a ‘we’ in the sense of being a large number of individuals who can change anything without mediation.
Masses vs. Organizations
A mass movement does not make the kinds of decisions required to turn the vehicle – not even to choose which is the right direction to steer the bus. Besides, a mass movement is a rare and powerful thing, very hard to start and often, once started, uncontrollable – and its success depends as much on luck as it does on timing and skill.
Added to that: the successful mass movement soon turns itself into a large, bureaucratic organization with its own interests, one of which – in those that survive, it is the most important one – is staying in control. Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy1 is the most stable, predictable effect in political science: that the revolutionaries necessarily develop a vested interest in remaining in power that outweighs the goals of the revolution itself.
Organizations Get Results over Time
Looking for the driver of the bus, we – again, I use the word with caution – have to recognize that the drivers who are steering our present course consist inevitably of large, mostly bureaucratic organizations that seem to continue on their courses independent of any one person, any collection of persons, or even any single generation. The organization enables them to persist in their purposes over time.
General Motors, for example, makes specific plans to go on making automobiles for decades into the future. They may change the engines from gas-guzzlers to electric, but the purpose of General Motors is to make and sell cars, trucks, and busses. The purpose of Royal Dutch Shell, as the President of its US subsidiary once told me personally, is to make sure there is gasoline in every service station in New Jersey [and all the other states they serve] every day, no matter what.
Industrial Development and Environment
Contrast that continuing purpose with the truth about our future. Global warming, the latest environmental challenge, combined with disappearing forests, animal and plant species, topsoil and fresh water, and natural resources such as minerals and mining reserves, is the product of institutional industrial development.
Industrial development in turn – factories, railroads, steamships, mining, airlines, computers and chips, for example – are the work of large, often multinational corporations, organizations that exist apart from individual humans. These activities were born from large concentrations of money, originally assembled in the 17th century by kings and privy councils in Holland, France and England, and have brought forth large extractions of materials from the earth. They lie behind the growth of population, of extraction, of over-farming, of expanding markets, of commercialism, and even of waste.
They are licensed and protected by giant government agencies, military as well as civilian, so that they can continue their growth. And they constitute the web of continuing life on our planet; their stability creates the stability of our lives as well.
Corporations and Governments: Effective Control
They, and not ‘we’ – you and I and our families and friends – are the actors that are challenging our existence; they are the actors who will either change the direction of the bus or drive it (and us with it) over the cliff, necessarily sacrificing long-term benefits to the commons to gain short-term results on the stock market or in corporate returns.
These organized entities have been phenomenally successful over the last 500-odd years in increasing our ability to wrest resources from the earth and convert them into human comfort, health, and possessions – and yes, waste.
Along the way they have even learned to convince all of us more or less continuously to want to buy even more of the things they produce, even if we don’t need them. The idea of doing with less is never mentioned in their advertising, which is what we call their propaganda. All around the earth they now hold a monopoly on the organized expression of desire, the advertising.
Describe and Analyze without Condemning
I state the obvious here without any intention of condemning these organizations. They are no more guilty than a tiger is guilty of eating meat. That’s just what tigers do.2
What I want to do is to explore with as little prejudice as possible the workings of such large organizations, their strengths and weaknesses, and their limitations.
Above all I will ask: can we influence them to change course en masse in a way that would enable human civilization to persist another thousand years or so? And if so, how?
- Michel’s “Iron Law of Oligarchy” states that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop oligarchic tendencies; that is, just like all other ruling groups, they will develop an interest in staying if power that is greater than their interest in achieving their original goals. That’s not bad, it’s just the way things are. True democracy therefore may be practically and theoretically impossible to maintain over time, especially in large groups and complex organizations. See Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, 1915, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001), http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/michels/polipart.pdf.
- A footnote about a critical distinction: Ranting about Multinational Corporations does not mean I hate local businesses. Paul Hawken, one of the great minds of our time, drew the distinction in answer to a question during a recent appearance in Portland.
Multinational corporations, he said, were formed originally by the monarchs of Europe to conquer lands they could not afford on their own. They raised capital and sent troops out to plunder with the promise of profits for their shareholders. This holds true even for the Burgers of Holland who formed early corporations on behalf of the new merchant class in that state – and for the US Congress in the 19th century that financed railroads into the West to conquer the people who had lived there for thousands of years.
The tradition continues today, minus the monarchs: the purpose of multinational corporations is still to conquer and control.
Local trading, on the other hand, is as old as humanity. You’ll find, for example, sea shells from Patagonia in the middens of First Nations People on Vancouver Island in Canada. People and small groups have traded up and down the coast of the Americas for thousands of years, and none of that trade, that we know of, was linked to conquest.
That’s the difference between local businesses and multinational corporations. I’ll also admit that the distinction is difficult to draw in the middle. It’s hard to classify the large local companies and the small international ones. They seem to contain characteristics of both.