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Tuesday, December 11, 2007


We all live in a crowded theater, the law of the jungle, and other memes

So much going on, I really need to write a major essay. Instead, I'm just going to throw together a few things and let you put them into your own mental blender.

1) Al Gore's Nobel Prize acceptance speech discussing the global climate crisis. Shorter Al Gore: "I'm not going to talk about what caused the problem, I'm just going to keep using the word 'we' as if everyone on the planet is equally responsible, but capitalism is the solution." He does briefly venture into interesting territory with this:

"We must abandon the conceit that individual, isolated, private actions are the answer. They can and do help. But they will not take us far enough without collective action."
But he very quickly steps away from that "collective action" nonsense to the idea that "entrepreneurs and inventors" are going to "change the world."

2) An essay by cartoonist Stephanie McMillan entitled "At War" which is not (primarily) about the war against Iraq or Afghanistan but about the war against the planet. A few excerpts of things which Gore forgot to mention:

How is it possible that humans have developed an economic and social system that ends up destroying our entire planet?

We're told to blame ourselves for our greed and stupidity, but how much choice do we have as individuals?

The global economy is a machine with one objective: to extract wealth from the earth and the labor of the poor, convert it to money, and transfer it to the hands of the rich.

The sick drive to dominate everything has been consistently served, protected and defended by every institution in every exploitative economic system in the history of human civilization, from slavery through feudalism and on into capitalism and global imperialism. Today the "right" to accumulate wealth is held so sacred that it's considered suspect to even question it. It’s more important than freedom, happiness, or life itself. It justifies crushing anyone or anything that gets in its way. Every aspect of modern society has been fashioned to facilitate it.

This is a very important time to be alive.

We, the humans who are here right now, with all our flaws and limitations, are probably the last ones who still have a choice to either stop or allow the murder of the planet. No one smarter or more enlightened is going to come along and solve this for us. Nor is the perfect moment ever going to arrive. We can’t wait until we’re financially stable, achieve physical fitness, read more books, get family approval, or plant all our fruit trees. We can’t wait until everyone else gets something going first. We have to do this now.

At this late date, we each just need to begin, to join in however we can, wherever we understand a need that matches our ability. We need to steel ourselves for the tremendous challenges and difficulties that lie ahead. Whatever is still in our lives that doesn’t serve this struggle needs to be cast aside. We must focus every bit of the willpower and determination we possess, and take responsibility for the future.

It’s time for us to muster our courage, for each of us to decide how we will most effectively engage, and dedicate the rest of our lives to fighting for the survival of all life on Earth.
3) A speech by Prince Charles (which I used to have up on video but got taken down by YouTube) as he was given the Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment Global Environmental Citizen Award on Jan 28 of this year (where, incidentally, he was introduced by Al Gore). The quote I liked (not to be confused, if you heard the rest of the speech, with any rejection of capitalism):
"There seems to be a view in some quarters that in commerce, there is only a ruthless 'law of the jungle' to be observed. Yet this is a much-abused metaphor, because a jungle is in fact a vivid example of an immensely complex natural system in which the various parts survive and thrive as much through cooperation as competition."
4) My review of the movie "How Cuba Survived Peak Oil," showing how collective action organized by a government motivated by the needs of its people and not the needs of the profit system can make a dramatic change in the ability of people to live sustainably on the planet.

5) This article from The Guardian entitled "It's capitalism or a habitable planet - you can't have both." The opening two paragraphs:

There is no meaningful response to climate change without massive social change. A cap on this and a quota on the other won't do it. Tinker at the edges as we may, we cannot sustain earth's life-support systems within the present economic system.

Capitalism is not sustainable by its very nature. It is predicated on infinitely expanding markets, faster consumption and bigger production in a finite planet. And yet this ideological model remains the central organising principle of our lives, and as long as it continues to be so it will automatically undo (with its invisible hand) every single green initiative anybody cares to come up with.
6) And finally, my thoughts (from the review mentioned above) about how the solution to this problem runs smack into the American (even more than the rest of the "West") obsession with "freedom," which to most people means freedom of speech and "good things" like that, but to the people who run society, its essence is really the economic freedom to do whatever you want with your money, regardless of its effect on the planet or on others:
And here's what I think about that: everyone knows the classic definition of the limits of freedom - you don't have the freedom to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But here's the thing - we live in the equivalent of a crowded theater, and leaving the lights on (or whatever other behavior you choose) is the equivalent of shouting "Fire!" The metaphorical stampede might not trample the people who are alive today, but it may well kill their children, or their children's children, just as surely as if they were right there in the theater.

Socialism is the only possible future for humanity that can deal with these problems, a "social" or "community" solution in which we recognize that we are all in the same crowded theater (or the same boat, to use a more standard metaphor), and we have to work together for the good of all. Capitalist solutions cannot solve the fundamental problem - the Tragedy of the Commons.
Your thoughts in the Comments (as well as other recommendations for reading) are most welcome. I'll close with a phrase which is well-known in the socialist movement, but whose origin I cannot precisely track down with the aid of "the Google." It seems to be sometimes attributed to Rosa Luxemburg, but I can't find that exact phrase in her writings. The phrase is: socialism or barbarism. It seems an appropriate close to these thoughts.

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