December 31, 2008

[Paradigm Shift] The New "Everything"

A few years ago I was told a joke about the five Jews who changed the world: Moses, who said “the law is everything”; Jesus, who said “love is everything”; Marx, who said “money is everything”; Freud, who said “sex is everything”; and Einstein, who said “everything is relative!”

Indeed, those voices which have been most influential in history have tended to offer prescriptions for the success of the human race. Perhaps Moses’ ten commandments and Jesus’ advocacy of love were important priorities for the pre-modern societies in which they lived - plagued by murder, theft, slavery and violence. Marx, bearing witness to the horrors of capital exploitation on workers in the modern era, saw wealth distribution as the most important tool for human progress. And maybe Freud thought everyone was a little too uptight and felt that society could benefit from an awareness of the subconscious. Of course, there are many other wise figures in history (of various skin colors and sexes and religious backgrounds) who have changed the world and helped usher in a paradigm shift.

Recently, the “everything” joke came back to me as I pondered the key messages of Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-prize winning book Guns, Germs and Steel and his recent book, Collapse, which both argue that environmental factors can explain most civilizational collapses and achievements. Judging from Diamond’s work, he would likely assert that our present era can be characterized by the assertion “the environment is everything.” (Incidentally, it turns out that Diamond also happens to be of Jewish heritage). After some reflection, it is became clear to me that the environment is indeed the new “everything”, as now, more than ever, we are realizing the vulnerability of human civilization in the face of ecological demise.

What we are witnessing today – as we walk down the typical grocery store isle and see the growing amount of “organic” foods; as we are affronted with millions of advertisements for “green” products on a daily basis; as we hear of peak oil and of the building of green economies – is the emergence of a new paradigm for the human civilization. After so many years of pollution, of ecological contamination, of soil degradation, species extinction, deforestation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the entire planet is facing a severe health condition – and the great masses have finally begun to notice the symptoms. The greatest challenge to humanity at present comes down to this: Either we clean up the environment and decrease our civilizational ecological footprint, or we face societal collapse on a global level.

An increasing number of environmentalists are asserting this idea in so many words. The list of environmentalists who have clearly expressed an undying commitment to the new “everything” is endless – from Rachel Carson to David Suzuki to Bill McKibben to Paul Hawken to Henry David Thoreau to Al Gore. They may differ in method, but the general goal is the same: We need to make the planet our number one priority.

Since the late 1970s, a powerful strain of thought has dominated the world’s political economy. The ideology of neoliberalism – with its espousal of free markets, free trade, and strong private property rights – was also the birthchild of various ‘wise people’ who thought that human progress would be best achieved by unfettered capitalism. Thus Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, and Ludvig von Mises all genuinely believed that economic growth was the key to human progress. But as we serge into the 21st Century, it is becoming more apparent that economic growth as we know it is only a short term remedy for “progress”, and in fact, it appears to be directly correlated with ecological destruction on the mid to long term. I believe it is only a matter of time before “economic growth” is surpassed by “ecological sustainability” as the foremost priority of most societies around the world.

While many of us believe that this paradigm shift is generally a good thing, there are some potential pitfalls of which we need to be wary. The foremost concern is that we fall into an impassable state of false environmentalism, which fails to get to the root of the problem – our mode of production (which in turn guides our mode of consumption). Genuine ecological rehabilitation will therefore require revolutionary changes to our very way of life and the very fabric of our societal organization. We will need to look beyond band-aid solutions to environmental problems, and begin to focus on new sustainable methods of living in concert with the planet and its myriad of other guests. A second but equally important concern is that we fail to find equitable solutions - wherein the richest countries and richest people in the world are able to buy their way into a comfortable lifestyle while the rest of the world suffers from the food and energy shortages that are certainly to result from ecological damage.

The new “everything” is here. Now it is time to get on board and make history while we are still here on this Earth. Let us prevent the next “everything” from being something extremely morose – like "escape" or "annihilation". Let us work on the new everything, critique it, understand it, learn it and teach it.

1 comment:

  1. Tonight, on Radio New Zealand National, I heard a super interesting documentary about Phoenix, Arizona. I always thought it was a bit of a ridiculous name for a city in the midst of a desert, but a little social research and one could easily find out where it comes from. The city that now resounds urban sprawl is built upon the ruins of an earlier civilization - on from which the mythic bird (supposedly the city) rises out of - hence the name. This earlier civilization failed for reasons environmental as well as economic. These problems seemed to have accumulated to the point of exacerbating relationships between people, including the development of several religions. Sounds eerily familiar to this day and age. Within three generations the population dropped from 40 000 to possibly under a 1000. Now Phoenix continues a similar trend - overdrawing the environment and stressing human relations - relations that may be a bit further afield than the immediate desert itself and in areas such as the middle east. That was interesting in a Jared Diamond sense.

    Secondly, the problem with environmental concerns related to this kind of economic collapse is that they take a back seat. Everyone wants to be rich again before they start thinking of making sacrifices for "the environment" i.e. buying green. In times of economic woe, the environment won't be front and centre on the radar, although this is a time when it is possibly most important. This is the time in which the shakedown reveals the Madoffs (also Jewish ;)) and other problems in our system and the time in which renegade bills can be passed - maybe Obama can do something as Harper won't. On that note, what is going on in Ottawa these days?!?