The Need for a Greater Vision: Recognizing Reality

November 19, 2019

Ed. note: This piece is Part 1 of a 3-part series. You can find Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Question Beliefs

We live in a culture that is embedded in unquestioned beliefs passing as truth. These beliefs are the source of our current crisis. We attempt to solve the problems of degradation of our environment and climate disruption, but we do not look at these core beliefs. We hold on to the idea that capitalism is the only right way to organize an economy, that democracy is essential to our freedom, that freedom itself is a core ingredient to our happiness. We believe corporate slogans such as “Progress is our most important product” (General Electric), and subscribe to the belief that technology will solve whatever problems we have, even the ones caused by technology.

Grasp the Scope of the Crisis

Most of us are unable to back away far enough to grasp the whole picture. We are like a tourist with a flashlight trying to get a view of a huge mural that covers a block-long wall. The news media can only focus our attention on a tiny fraction of the image at any one time. We read daily reports of record temperatures in the arctic, of ice sheets melting in the Antarctic, of floods, forest fires all over the world, political gridlock, and recession fears. We are deluged with information. Most of us have been touched directly by at least one aspect of the crisis. Today I am breathing the smoke of fires in British Columbia and Alaska hundreds of miles away. These are direct experiences, yet there are still those who deny that climate change is real or that it is a problem. And worse yet we do not have the political will or mechanism to respond. Many scientists clam we are beyond the tipping point. They say the damage done to the ecosystem is so great that further decline is assured, even if we drastically reduce our impact in the next 5 years.

We are confronting a confluence of issues – environmental degradation, climate disruption, political tension and economic instability – that create an unprecedented risk to future generations. Climate disruption is getting all the headlines, but talk to a fisherman anywhere on the coast and he will point to depleted fish stocks making it impossible to earn a living fishing. Some of that is due to climate, but over fishing, water pollution and destruction of spawning grounds also play major roles. Agricultural runoff is creating large dead zones at the mouths of rivers, areas that used to be some of the most productive.

Insect populations are plummeting with some reports of 75% loss in the last 50 years1.Insects are the base of the food chain for many creatures. If they die off then we will all go. The cause is not simple but insecticides on farm land and habitat destruction are major factors.

Fresh water is another resource in critical decline. We have been pumping water from aquifers at rates that far exceed the rate of recharge. Worldwide, 40% of our food grown on irrigated land.2 Without irrigation we will face severe food shortages. In addition, much of the remaining irrigated land is dependent on snowpack that feeds reservoirs in the mountains. As the climate warms there is less snow and it melts sooner, reducing the amount of stored water available.

If we listen to the economic news we cannot help but be aware of the rapid increase in the US national debt. Politicians seem incapable of holding the debt in check, especially the Trump administration that established policies and tax cuts that have dramatically increased the debt at a time when the economy is doing relatively well and we should be reducing the debt. Despite the ignorance of some lawmakers, debt cannot continue to rise indefinitely. Many countries have tried that. In the end it leads to hyper inflation, and in extreme cases, a collapse of the government.

A more subtle and less talked about issue is that of resource depletion. True, Malthus warned the world of this 200 years ago during a time when energy resources in the form of wood were being depleted.Then we discovered coal, then oil, and the industrial revolution sparked a new level of development and environmental destruction on a level Malthus could never have foreseen. The issue is that while technology has kept the price of raw materials from increasing dramatically, metals like copper, and energy sources like oil and gas are finite. The deeper we have to mine or drill and the more complex the extraction process, the smaller the final product derived from the energy expended to get the material. When oil was first discovered it took roughly one barrel of oil’s worth of energy to extract 100 barrels. Now that one barrel might get us 10 barrels. The costs are multiplied throughout the system. In other words if it now takes 3 times as much energy to mine a ton of copper as it did 50 years ago, because the high quality and easily extracted ore are gone, and that energy is derived from oil which itself requires 10 times more energy to extract, then the two factors multiply the real cost of the copper. In our example it now “costs” the equivalent of 30 times more oil to produce a ton of copper. Again, we run into limits.

I am proposing that the solution is a radical redesign of our civilization based on a more sustainable model. To do that we need to examine the core beliefs of our society to see which ones are compatible with a new vision and which ones need to be abandoned. This requires that we face our fear of change, grieve for the losses, clear our nervous systems of intergenerational trauma that blinds us to seeing the reality of our time and open our hearts to living in connection. This cannot come about by any rational decision by a governing body. Those in power have a vested interest in keeping the current system alive as long as possible. Call it a form of corruption, but it is also simply a matter of self preservation. We can, however, make changes on a personal and local level. We can have working models established on a small scale that can replace systems on a national level as they fail. We either cling to the existing paradigm as it implodes, or we can place our attention and focus our energy on creating new systems that support life in harmony on the planet.

Look Below the Symptoms

A partial list of these beliefs was mentioned already – that our prosperity depends on capitalism, democracy, and progress through technology. Let’s go deeper to see how these structures of society evolved, and how they affect us today. The core belief that underlies our current civilization is the idea that we are separate from nature and superior to other creatures and even other races of human beings. It leads to a distrust of nature which shows up even in the fables we tell our children, which are filled with images of the dark and dangerous forest and the merciless ocean depths.

Another belief is that security consists of having enough food or money stored away to last through hard times. In itself the belief is true, but it becomes dysfunctional in a world of finite resources when each person is focused on maximizing their own resources without consideration for the whole. To justify our actions we convince ourselves that there are no limits, we can have it all and, through technology, everyone can be raised up to the lifestyle we enjoy in the USA.

We are embedded in the psychology of capitalism, and we live in a world shrouded in fear. The combination is lethal. Fear leads to contraction and thinking only of one’s own survival. Capitalism promotes the value of gathering resources for our own use and enjoyment. When capitalism is combined with the Puritan work ethic, it allows us to justify income inequality because of the unspoken belief that if we have more than our neighbor it is because we worked harder or smarter and therefore deserve the rewards. We may feel no obligation to share our good fortune because those who are less well off obviously did not work hard enough. The result is a society that is fundamentally adversarial, pitting the wealthy against the poor, those in power against those who would like to be in control.

That leads to us versus them thinking that pervades our culture and shows up on all levels, particularly in public arenas like politics. The two party system has devolved into two conflicting ideologies that feel irreconcilable. Each party has become more isolated and rigid in their doctrine to the point that many people only listen to information that supports their point of view or their party’s view. Where is the middle ground that allows for a cooperative solution? Problems that require dramatic solutions like climate disruption cannot be effectively addressed.

Capitalism has been the driving force behind the industrial age. It has brought us technology that was unimaginable 200 years ago.  The problem is that it is fundamentally incompatible with a sustainable world. The core precepts – private ownership of goods and land, a competitive market for labor and materials, emphasis on capital accumulation – lead to a society that is made up of a few wealthy “owners” and a large number of “workers”. The system is dependent on keeping the wages paid to labor low enough that the owners can produce products that are competitive in the market place. When labor unions were strong there was a balance of power, but the advent of free trade and multinational corporations has robbed labor unions of their bargaining power because of the availability of cheap labor in the developing world. The result is an ever increasing disparity of wealth between the owners and the workers, and an ever increasing number of workers at the lowest level of the economy. Until the last 10 years, this has been partly disguised by an overall improvement in living standards through technology, but when one compares the hours worked in 1950 to support a family, when one person’s income was adequate, compared to the present when both adults of the family have to work, it’s clear that the average working family has to work harder simply to pay for the necessities of life. Free time to enjoy life has evaporated. We do not account for that in the statistics of progress like GDP.

To facilitate the transactions of a capitalistic economy we invented money and a banking system to manage the creation of money. In our system, money is created by the banks in an equal amount to the loans they make. In other words the creation of money is dependent on the creation of debt. Debt, however, once created, tends to grow faster than the money supply because of the effect of compounding interest. Debt will tend to accumulate with those members of society that are unable to pay it off, and capital will accumulate to those who have wealth already and are free from debt. At first it works well, but as debt accumulates to the workers, they have less money to buy the goods produced by the owners and the economy goes into recession. Debt is reduced through bankruptcies and foreclosures. Capital is reduced by the downsizing and failure of businesses. Eventually a new cycle begins. Historically, the cycle often becomes extreme and outcome is revolution as the tension between the wealthy and the poor becomes intolerable.

Capitalism is a natural outgrowth of our survival instinct in disconnected world. If we do not feel supported by our fellow humans, by the natural world, and by a greater presence, then there is a level of insecurity that we continually try to appease by building protective shells around us. In modern times this translates into ownership of land, house, and enough money and other resources to allow us to feel secure. Unfortunately in the rush to acquire these items we have sold our soul to the banks which in effect own our homes and often our cars. We end up feeling even less secure because we now have even more to lose if the economy turns down and we lose our job. We crave a sense of control over our lives, but we can no longer hunt for our food or harvest it directly from the earth so even to eat we are dependent on a complex web of corporate-run systems of transportation and production that we do not control or even understand.

Healing the Wound Of Separation

In order to live in harmony with each other and with the earth we need to heal the core wound of separation from a close community, separation from the earth and the natural world, and separation from the spiritual ground from which all of this manifested world arises. Without resolving all three levels of separation we will continue to live in fear and grief, maybe depression. It is that core sense of not enough that drives the Euro-American addiction to doing, to trying to get somewhere or get something that we think will cure that sense of not enough. We invent better technology, more powerful machines to get us there faster, but the result is that we find out ever sooner that the goal we had set is not going to satisfy the sense of lack. We may accumulate more wealth at the expense of the community around us and defend that wealth with all our strength, but it does not bring us the security we seek.

In order to heal, let us acknowledge the true state of our own life and of the world. Let us fully feel the grief of the separation and fully feel the rage that lies hidden. We may have a sense of being betrayed by the society that we were taught to trust as a child. We accepted the promise of perpetual progress and came to expect that we should have a better life than our parents.

On a global level, can we feel the pain and destruction this has caused to the earth? Can we acknowledge and feel the horrors of genocide against the native population of this country and other colonized places in the world? Can we feel the full impact of enslaving millions of African natives to work our fields? The grief is immense. We have kept it suppressed for centuries, but it must be felt. Let us clear the intergenerational trauma so we can come into our hearts and truly feel the connection with the earth and with each other.

Only then, free from clinging to a failing system, in the hope of preserving the status quo, can we reconnect with source and make the leap to a new way of living. We do not have to invent better ways of living on this planet. There are models of aboriginal societies that have lived here for more than 10,000 years without destroying their environment or collapsing from internal dysfunction. They have evolved sophisticated systems of government and economic systems that allowed the wealth that was accumulated to be redistributed to those in need. They held their land in common for the benefit of the whole tribe. We have much to learn from their societies.

1. In 2017, scientists reported a decline of more than 75 percent in insect biomass across 63 nature areas in Germany between 1989 and 2016. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/as-insect-populations-decline-scientists-are-trying-to-understand-why/

2 .http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/infographics/Irrigated_eng.pdf

Norton Smith

I have been observing and living the progression of environmental activism as it has become more mainstream, and simultaneously the counter force of climate change deniers as they have gained in power. I have a BA in Economics from Johns Hopkins University and further work in biology and energy consumption at Southern Oregon University. I co-founded Whole Systems Recycling in Mill Valley CA with Neill Smith – setting up the first curbside pickup for recyclables in the USA, have run an organic farm, worked with solving the plastic crisis in the Pacific Gyre, and spent much time out in nature and learning from the native peoples of North America.

Tags: building resilient societies, connection with nature, cultural stories, environmental crises