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Can The Capitalist Save The World?

     In 2014 three big E’s (Environment, Energy, Economy) and their dynamic will continue building pressures for change. Behind that obvious headline, rooted in our DNA is a pernicious myth: self-interest and competition leads to economic prosperity. It is the story used to rationalize our consumer capitalism. Thank you father Adam Smith. The unintended consequence is today a crazy race and competition in which the most common and popular measure of success seems to be in the extent one can influence and control material wealth. Those relatively few successful and prosperous write the rules governing this competition. The successful capitalist has the greatest access to, and control over the limited resource base on which we all depend. They have the means to realize our future like few others could do. They will provide for our future.

But our economic rules for engagement promote self and consumption at the expense of our natural ecology. Not just large multinational corporations and small “Mom and Pop” shops, but individually we compete one against another. Unfortunately when we apply these rules we effectively exercise moral blindness or indifference, not just to the many marginalized, or the many more outside our economy, but more, to the critical biosphere.

I am not the first to suggest we change the rules and care for the planet. But I havent heard many Capitalists embracing and internalizing this first principle. They would help to bend the arc of moral evolution away from our selfish ethos. Such a principle sanctioned and legitimized could help steer ethics and social norms in a direction more in line with our natural ecology. If this ethic were to be adopted by our capitalist culture, this new capitalist might just save the world.

Are we not misguided in principle if and when we focus on humans and our clever constructs to the exclusion of the larger planetary systems? We are after all embedded in the much larger biosphere. And few deny the mounting evidence that our growing numbers effect changes on that scale. I wonder how our economy might work when the capitalist is rewarded and revered, to the extent his novel relationships and exchanges profit the biosphere; penalized and despised when his practices degrade the biosphere? Yes, naive I know … laws already on the books, enforcement, human nature; best laid schemes, yada, yada.

But by now it should be obvious we better serve our continued survival when we protect and defend our vital ties to the ecosphere, to planet Earth. Some argue our first principle should be a flourishing humanity; it is ironic, our means and methods threaten our continued survival. Only our hubris holds dominion over nature. To think otherwise, leads inevitably to our nemesis. Still today, most disagree and defend economic principles of growth and competition.

Resistance to needed change dominates today’s popular culture. Even our elected leaders resist effecting needed change. With each Wall Street corruption exposed, with a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, with a growing population living in poverty, it is getting easier to convince ourselves something must change. And we are changing. As pressures build we plan for the next Sandy super-storm, rising sea levels, and the next Sandy Hook shooting. Still, few are planning for a new ethic.

As a boy I remember it was common to see the sides of the highways strewn with bags of trash; now blatant littering is unacceptable. I feel it’s reasonable to expect the same turn away from selfish profit motives, and temporary titillations, and toward profiting the biosphere. It will take some time; the big idea wheel turns slowly.

Serving the planet above all else is a hard sale to close. But it shouldn’t be too hard. We create the social world. The constraints and consequent selection pressures within it… they are ours to amend. We have managed to rear inspired volunteers who die in the service of “national interests”. It is not a stretch to think that we could change the rules of engagement and select for those who serve planet Earth’s biosphere and oppose anthropocentric profiteers. Again, if adopted by our capitalist culture, these new capitalist super heroes might just save the world.

But first, our new capitalsist must square an underlying and insidious phenomenon at play. Humans are subject to the tragedy of the commons. A formidable force opposing needed change; it helps explain why we kick the can down the road, why we avoid mitigating climate change in any meaningful way. It highlights why we avoid economic reform, and resist moving social norms toward something more than sustainable, something regenerative. We understand that our economic incentives promote consumption, hasten the depletion of our common resources, and pollute, all contributing to the accelerated degradation of our vital ties to the natural ecology. These practices are contrary to humanity’s long-term best interests.

Still, generally, people are reluctant to accept short-term pain for long-term gain. People will not easily give up what security they’ve worked hard to achieve when they have less relative to those surrounding them, when they feel unjustly disadvantaged by a “rigged system”. We must accept as fait accompli that citizens of the developed world who oppose the current economic zeitgeist and refuse to join the minions will suffer the pains of ostracism and a relative poverty.

Depending on one’s skill set, one might squat some piece of land and practice permaculture, and we need them. But as things stand, even when one opts out of the economy, someone else will eagerly jump at the opportunity to take their spot, access resources, and enjoy real material gains earned exploiting our increasingly scarce common resources. It’s a crazy mixed up world that socially rewards one and all for the wholesale exploitation of natural resources.

And we must admit this economic incentive to exploit resources today for material advantage is a problem for the future. Our economy competes for resources. We compete against each other for resources. When we do so, we are also competing against other systems natural and spiritual for the ethical principles that might better guide our way forward. We turn asunder deep-rooted natural systems when we compete.

Wielding economic conventions, we press individuals, firms, cities, states and nations to conform and contribute to economic growth. Economic incentives move us to exploit what precious resources we have in order to gain some advantage now, and do so at the expense of our future generations. Some resist, but like myself, more acquiesce in order to provide for their family, to put food on their table and a roof over their heads. Even knowing business as usual undermines our future generation’s well being, knowing our global order emerges from those local rules we engage today, knowing current practices undermine the well being of the biosphere, even knowing all of this, I don’t stop; we don’t stop; we move closer to ecocide, and I, like most of us, contribute with impunity. This too, seems imoral.

So, what then should we expect of ourselves in 2014? How do we move morals? As environment and energy exert greater pressures on our economy, will the capitalist and consumer heed Natural systems warning and humble themselves? Will we seriously consider a new first principle of care for the planet? Will we better serve our interests for survival by sacrificing personal interests in the defense and support of our vital ecosphere? The evidence is mounting; the pressures are building, now more than ever… We ought consider as a rational first step forward, extending our notion of kin and community to include a healthy biosphere, and adopt as first principle the flourishing of a rich and deep ecology supporting all of us. I am optimistic that in time we will come to understand and approve of our place within the vast ecosphere, enhance its vitality, regenerate vital ties, complement and nurture the planet’s biosphere and thus our own.

But now, returning to Earth, I expect, unless we are struck by some ecological 9/11, in 2014 most will disregard the need for a new ethos. And when they wake the morrow morning Remember them the Fate’s warning To Eurydice singing, Anais Mitchell’s ringing: “Gone, I’m Gone” “You can have your principles When you have your belly full, But hunger has a way with you. There’s no telling what you’re going to do, When the chips are down.”

Copyright (c) 2014 Robert W Lapsley

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If you have any examples of the capitalist profiting the biosphere please post them. Or to show me the errs of my thinking, please comment.

Posted on 2014-01-05, By: *

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