A missing piece from most critiques of modern capitalism revolves around the misunderstanding of ecology. To put it bluntly, there will be no squaring the circle of mass industrial civilization and an inhabitable Earth. There is no way for energy and resource use, along with all the strife, warfare, and poverty that comes along with it, to continue under the business as usual model that contemporary Western nations operate under.
There is also the problem of constructing millions of solar panels and gigantic wind farms to attempt to bring the entire world’s population to a middle class existence based on a North American, or even European levels of energy use. All of the hypothetical robots and artificial intelligence to be constructed for such a mega-endeavor needed to enact such a project would at least initially rely on fossil fuels and metals plundered from the planet, and only lead to more rapacious destruction of the world.
The dominant technological model is utterly delusional. Here I would urge each of us to consider our “human nature” (a problematic term, no doubt) and the costs and the manner of the work involved: if each of us had to kill a cow for food, would we? If each of us had to mine or blast a mountain for coal or iron, or even for a wind turbine, would we do it? If each of us had to drill an oil well or bulldoze land for a gigantic solar array next to many endangered species or a threatened coral reef, would we?
My guess would be no, for the vast majority of the population. Instead, we employ corporations and specialists to carry out the dirty work in the fossil fuel industries and animal slaughtering, to name just a few. Most of us in the West have reaped the benefits of such atrocities for the past few centuries of the industrial revolution. That era is coming to a close, and there’s no turning back.
The gravy train is running out of steam, and our age of comfort and the enslavement of a global proletariat to produce and gift-wrap our extravagances will hopefully be ending shortly, too. Some may romanticize loggers, factory workers, oil drillers, coal miners, or steel foundries but the chance is less than a needle through a camel’s eye that those jobs are coming back in a significant way. Overpopulation in much of the world continues to put strain upon habitat and farmlands to provide for the Earth’s 7.5 billion and growing humans.
Tragically, many with the most influence on the Left today, such as Sanders, Corbyn, and Melenchon want to preserve industrial civilization. Theirs is an over-sentimental outlook which warps their thinking to want to prop up a dying model in order to redistribute wealth to the poor and working classes. Empathy for the less fortunate is no doubt a good thing, but the fact remains that the real wealth lies in our planet’s natural resources, not an artificial economy, and its ability to regenerate and provide the fertile ground upon which we all rely. If we follow their narrow path, we are doomed.
Theirs is a sort of one-dimensional, infantile distortion of Vishnu-consciousness (preservation, in their minds at all costs), an unadulterated cogito, which does not let in the wisdom of his partner Lakshmi (true prosperity) or the harbinger of change and the symbol of death and rebirth, Shiva. Industrial life must be dismantled from the core for a new order to arise. Instead of clinging to this techno-dystopian model of the elites, we must replace it with what I call a Planetary Vision.
The Stone that the Builders Refuse
Only a serious education in ecology for a significant minority of the globe’s workforce can allow for a return to naturally abundant and life-enhancing complex habitats for humanity and all species to thrive. Understandably, fields such as botany, zoology, and conservationism are not for everyone, as much of humanity has been and continue to be more interested in technological fields, the arts, music, sports, religion, etc. It would only take perhaps 10% of the globe to be critically informed, and to be able to act, deliberatively and democratically, about subjects relating to ecosystem preservation and all the attendant sub-fields for a functional, ecocentric culture to flourish.
Thankfully, the foundation of such an ecological vision has been laid by millennia of indigenous cultures, as well as modern prophets and science whizzes such as Rachel Carson, Fritjof Capra, James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Barry Commoner, Donella Meadows, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, Masanobu Fukuoka, and many others.
Even Marx and Engels observed the basic deteriorating nature of advanced agriculture in what they termed “metabolic rift”, where they learned from European scientists of the overwhelming degradation of soil fertility on the continent due to poor farming techniques, razing of forests, and heavy industry.
Despite its current limitations, the United Nations offers a model of supra-national regulation and governance, especially the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the almost totally forgotten Brundtland report of 1987.
The Deep Wisdom of Ecology
Modern nations, corporations, vertical hierarchies, and industrial civilization does not serve human health or well-being. It excludes the majority, cuts them from a connection to their neighbors and the land, and privileges an elite rentier class who sponges and sucks the marrow out of the bowels of the Earth and those born without money, property, privilege, without a silver spoon in hand.
Ecological thinking, on the other hand, imparts us with the deep truth that we are all connected to each other, and the planet.
Permaculture farming has managed to match and even outpace productivity on giant agribusiness farms using low-impact or even no-till methods.
Food forests can be created around the globe using layers of edible plants at high densities to allow for the growth fruit and nut trees, vines, and perennial shrubs, groundcover, and herbs. This is the real meaning of the Garden of Eden, an agroforestry model which ancient people lived off of for millennia alongside responsible crop rotation, seasonal burns, biochar, animal herding, hunting and foraging, and obtaining protein from fish and shellfish.
Arid, barren lands have been reforested by planting native trees: in Assam, India, one man recovered over 1300 acres by planting just one sapling a day for 30 years.
In the Chesapeake Bay, oyster restoration has been ongoing for years to help improve water quality. Just one adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water in a single day.
An average acre of boreal forest can hold over 100 tons of carbon above and below ground in soil and biomass. As more forests burn carbon is instantly released, and as temperatures rise soils thaw out, leading to increased soil respiration and thus increasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. With 1,400 gigatons of methane stored in the Earth’s permafrost, any significant release into the atmosphere could ramp up warming even faster.
Wildlife corridors must be funded at multiples of current levels and substantially increased in size to allow for keystone, threatened, and endangered species to maintain population sizes and spread over increasingly patchy and unsustainable habitat due to urban growth, roads, and industry. Millions of acres of land should be reforested (some say 500 million total) to provide carbon sinks to offset the coming effects of global warming. Currently 18 million acres of forest are lost per year due to deforestation for grazing and corporate agriculture.
National parks, forests, monuments, as well as coastal, marine, and wildlife refuges as well as state-run areas should be coordinated at the highest levels of national and international regulation. I say coordinated, but I do not mean controlled by in a vertical hierarchy. Responsibility should “telescope” (borrowing a term from political scientist Robyn Eckersley) according to the size of the problem at hand: local deliberative councils may work best for bioregional approaches, whereas some framework of a supra-national structure will be needed for the mega-problems of climate change, plastic pollution, and GMO proliferation, just to name a few.
We have all heard terms such as “apex predator” or “top of the food chain” which capitalists and social Darwinists have misconstrued and adopted to fit their own hierarchical, fascistic beliefs. Yet anyone who has examined a food web knows there are interrelationships and mutualistic interdependencies between myriad species which dwarf and blow away any notion of rigid, calcified structures of permanent dominance of any species or eco-biome.
A systemic examination of global trade would teach the same lesson. There is no way to make any one country “great again” at the expense of other nations. This is a false binary embedded in Western culture that goes by the name of the “Either/Or”. Rather, we must adopt the “And/Both” model of cultures synergistically and mutually thriving.
(Trickster/Provocateur homework for US citizens: Welcome or respond to someone on our upcoming 4th of July with a cheery greeting of “Happy Interdependence Day!”)
This false dichotomy has insidiously found its way into the Earth sciences, with the categorization and response to “invasive species”. Human disturbance accounts for upwards of 95% of invasives causing harm to new ecosystems, yet even within the academy, detailed plans for shifting our lifestyles are few and far between, and predictably ignored by mainstream society.
Nowhere has this sort of milquetoast-iness been more visceral for me than in listening to a guest lecturer years ago in a conservation biology class, when, at the outset of the lecture and without prompting, she announced that she would not tolerate any questions about humans as “invasive species”. This was perhaps understandable given the narrow definition of the term by some, or the aim and scope of her forthcoming talk, yet still, the rigid reactionary nature and tone of her dictum managed to produce a chill.
Further, the steps involved in combating invasive, non-woody plants do not usually involve more than a tractor mower or a backpack sprayer and Round-up, in public and private operations. Little is done to thwart the habitat systemically disturbed by human activity, the nutrient-depleted soil, over-salinization, etc. No thought given to the notion that the invasives in many cases are the only plants able to germinate and tolerate nutrient-starved soil and edge habitat which falls outside the purview of agricultural land, or the delusional urge within forestry management to preserve wooded or grassland areas in some pre-colonial or pre-industrial chrysalis.
We all observed this duplicitous portrayal of those evil invasives for many years following the media-driven and pseudo-scientific outrage and mania of the kudzu vine in the South. Covering roadsides and disturbed, recently deforested areas, the vine was portrayed with puritanical hatred. The loathed vine cannot penetrate into shaded forest and acted as a projection of our own fears, malicious intent, and ignorance.
The Revolution as Poetic Enchantment
There is also the problem of revolutionary activity where organization and specific roles are needed. We’ve been told that any and all organizing inevitably leads to corruption, hierarchy, greed, and ego inflation. Yet nature has managed to organize and spontaneously birth everything we depend on for sustenance and pleasure. The works of Mauss, Sahlins, and others have shown human behavior to be mostly peaceful, based on reciprocity, lived in balance with a naturally abundant environment.
The succession of a habitat, from the first pioneer species advancing to a climax community in dynamic equilibrium, is poetry in motion, an endless cycle of community relations where the dead provide for the living, just as the winds of history continue to shape our present, the lessons of our ancestors provide the courage to persevere, and the very real trauma and torment of past generations continues to stalk humanity, perhaps even epigenetically in our cells.
Nature’s ability to play freely and its tendency for creative, regenerative self-discovery offers a model attractive to the public where traditional approaches to ideology, mainstream politics, and moral exhortation have failed. Ecology uniquely offers an approach to our self-interest, with pragmatic and deep ethical implications, and in our nuclear and fossil fuel age, to our very survival.
Recent uprisings in Zucotti Park, South Dakota, Tahrir and Taksim Squares, Tunisia, and many other places demonstrate the organic, spontaneous nature of our ability to resist the systemic oppression endemic to our neoliberal, colonial, imperial world order.
The question of what comes after a successful revolt undoubtedly plagues many people, considering the bloody sectarianism that followed in many historical instances. Yet one of the root causes of such post-revolutionary failings necessarily includes the loss of jouissance, the senses of optimism, exuberance, and mutual aid which erupted throughout history in Paris communes, military barracks and factories in Petrograd, communes in Catalonia, etc.
Many progressives and so-called radicals in the US today seem more interested in internecine bickering and petty squabbling over turf than in implementing an authentic plan to re-enchant a comatose public. A citizenry, mind you, which has become exhausted and disillusioned from politics and any notion of defending the public sphere and commons due to relentless propaganda, neoliberal economics, structural racism, and a perverse imperial edict of global warfare which knows no bounds and sees no end.
Such small-mindedness and insularity is only compounded by a geographically isolated, narcissistic, spectacle craving media, celebrity-worshiping culture, and chattering class smugness which has robotized, dehumanized, and intoxicated a public which no longer seems to have the psychic or physiological energy and stamina to resist. This can be countered by providing material and intellectual nourishment, especially to our youth, through wholesome organic farming, natural medicines, and alternative education systems which promote and instill environmentalism, forms of direct democracy, and critical thinking skills, as well as continuing education for adults and seniors.
Much of our culture’s confusion is reinforced by a digital, social media driven, an ahistorical narrative, and a dematerialized market in the West where information and leisure is metered out to the poor, elderly, disabled, and working classes in a slow drip of bandwidth, bytes, pixels: poisonous cups of soma which we believe must all imbibe to partake in our “culture”.
Yet so many are now beginning to rattle their cages. Part of the reason being that savings and material wealth for the majority has declined, life expectancy dropping in neglected areas, suicide and addictive behaviors are increasing, inequality and gentrification skyrocketing. Yet also partly because creativity has been stifled, free time is eaten up by a gig economy relentlessly eating up our leisure, wild open spaces are diminishing, and the effects of a polluted, over-crowded world where alienation appears to reign and many see No Exit.
Digital technology, trickle-down finance, and media narratives are pushed so hard by the powers-that-be, in a pyramid scheme Ponzi economy bound to collapse. And data-driven, quantifiable, “objective” information doused on the public is losing its effect. Masses can now see through the high priests of officialdom, because their policies do not relate to any place or time, it is not embodied in the commons. The deluge of “empirical” statistics and innovation spouting out of mainstream media, government bureaucracies, and non-profit policy centers borders on absurd, and one could summarize their work as Informationism, for it truly represents an ideology. These are the apologists and court historians for the grand viziers of capital. They have created their own veritable echo-chamber ecology within the former swamplands of the Potomac basin.
How can the hegemony of corporate and state rule be further undermined? By acknowledging how they employ words, propaganda, ideology, and a false version of history as weapons, to create a habitat of hate and fear. As the Situationists wrote: “Words work — on behalf of the dominant organizations of life…Power presents only the falsified, official sense of words.”
As the SI further noted:
“Every revolution has been born in poetry, has first of all been made with the force of poetry. This phenomenon continues to escape theorists of revolution — indeed, it cannot be understood if one still clings to the old conception of revolution or of poetry — but it has generally been sensed by counterrevolutionaries. Poetry terrifies them. Whenever it appears they do their best to get rid of it by every kind of exorcism, from auto-da-fé to pure stylistic research. Real poetry, which has “world enough and time,” seeks to reorient the entire world and the entire future to its own ends. As long as it lasts, its demands admit of no compromise. It brings back into play all the unsettled debts of history.”
Part of poetic resistance simply is awareness. We are not going to save the world without learning how to actually live in the world. Here words fall far short, they “float”, are too abstract. At the level of ontological awareness helpful concepts like “Dasein” and “existence precedes essence” can only show the doorway, yet the point is to walk through it. This is why I don’t consider, for example, Leary’s words of “Find the others” to be an escapist fantasy: they are a call to mytho-poetic revolution, for only in collective struggle can one transcend a selfish ego and a sick, dying culture. Communal living will be a big part of this, especially as the world economy seems very likely to fall into depression or outright collapse within a couple decades at most.
Initiation into adulthood, a model of dying and rebirth, is of utmost importance, as Barry Spector and Martin Prechtel, among others, have shown. Without this, the modern world is stuck in an infantile state, forever craving more, never satisfied.
The domination of man by man and nature by man now reaches global proportions. In our Anthropocene Age all boundaries between human and nature collapse, as we come to understand the web we are enmeshed in. Studies in modern psychics prove on the cosmological scale (relativity) and sub-atomic scales (quantum entanglement, superposition, double-slit experiment) have all proven definitely what ancient traditions have understood for millennia. Andre Malraux was correct when he prophesized that: “The 21st century will be spiritual or will not be.”
All major religions hold ecological balance, love of your neighbor, and conservation as a core truth. Teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, Hindu concepts of ahimsa and karma, Buddhist right livelihood, Islam’s tawhid, khilafa, and akhirah all have shown this, as well as indigenous mythology.
Sadly, most of the dissenters in our culture have been totally marginalized. The best minds of our generation have no longer fallen to madness; they are ignored, imprisoned, killed, or shipped off to a permanent “Desolation Row”. Consider the great works of Gary Snyder, Arne Naess, Robinson Jeffers, Wendell Berry, as well as environmentalists such as Wangari Maathai, Vandana Shiva, Sylvia Earle: the collective brilliance is astounding, yet industrialism allows no avenues for a praxis, for their ideas to be put to work or play.
Only an understanding of relationship and interdependencies can account for how our policy at the border, for instance, is connected to environmental destruction, factory farming, resource extraction, habitat destruction, the killings overseas in Yemen, Gaza, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the list goes on. It goes on for so long that the mind grows numb. Yet, we must counter this. Our government is the primary driver of the perpetual crimes of total warfare, planetary destruction, neo-feudal debt-based serfdom and global immiseration, and most of us have been complicit in varying degrees.
Have no doubt, many in power around the world, consciously or not, are waiting to start a new Kristallnacht against minorities and the poor which they will use to further the next stage of their privatized, totalitarian, surveillance-laden brave new world. It’s already started here in the US and in Italy against the Roma among other places. Theirs is an aesthetic of terror and brainwashing which knows no bounds.
Yet their individual pathologies only tell us part of the story: it is the system of alienation which breeds hate and must be dismantled, not replacing one figurehead leader with another seemingly benign one, as we did with Obama. Only a culture which understands the connections of how capitalism ultimately leads to fascism, one which comprehends the Earth’s limits, our own psycho-somatic frailties, and our bio-social relationships with each other and with flora and fauna can provide the resistance needed in this perilous age.
Published online at Countercurrents.org, Dissident Voice, CounterPunch, July 2018. https://dissidentvoice.org/2018/07/ecology-the-keystone-science/