(clarification)

This post is an outline of my social philosophy for my friend William‘s benefit. It is a clarification and elaboration of key points made in my previous post, which itself was a clarification of the post before it. Yikes!


Dear William,

I wanted to respond to your questions, especially your hypothetical question about farming and profit.

“If I grow (say) corn, I am putting in seed and labor and receiving fully-grown corn. How can I determine whether I am “profiting” from this? I’m putting in one thing and receiving something completely different. If I am currently not making a profit but develop a more efficient technique and am able to use the same amount of labor, land, fertilizer, etc. to grow more corn, will I suddenly be making a profit?”

I’m proceeding under the assumption that even if you *are* making a profit initially, you will always attempt to eke as much corn as you can out of the ground for as cheaply as possible so as to increase your profit margin.  This seems to be the way of the capitalist world, n’est pas?

I’m concerned with the tendency of capitalism to ignore the ecological system on which the market depends.  Space and resources that nobody “owns” are usually tallied up as “free” in economic transactions, in spite of their hidden costs.  When measuring the value of corn, it’s important to take these hidden costs into account.

Take your example: When pondering a hypothetical farming technique, you must ask how it will affect the hypothetical soil. Does it require irrigation? Pesticides? Does it increase erosion? Does it threaten biodiversity?  Will your fertilizer find its way into the ground water? Essentially, the question is this: Will your system of corn production work *for* or *against* the ecosystem that makes it possible?

I get the sense that you wouldn’t be able to answer this last question because you don’t understand what I mean. Perhaps this is because your view of the world is radically different from my own.  So I decided to write about my own views in more detail.

I – Ecology

Consider the Conservation of Energy, the law of thermodynamics which tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed — only converted from one form to another. Excepting quantum phenomena, it is generally understood that energy in the universe is finite. If living beings are to have the energy they need to remain alive within a closed system (like the Earth), they must convert it from other forms.

Given immense periods of time, Nature has evolved systems to deal with this fact. Today we can observe innumerable, ancient, integrated, self-sustaining systems for conserving energy and, hence, life. These systems, called ecosystems, function by integrating organisms and their environment so that they both work efficiently towards a common goal: the continuation of life. For example, plants have evolved an ingenious way to convert sunlight into usable energy. This allows plants to support animal life. Animals in turn support plants by spreading seed (in their feces, etc.) while the dead bodies of animals, rich in protein and nutrients, support plant species by rotting into the soil. Multiple organisms are living in tandem with other species for mutual support. This tends to be the way good ecosystems work.

On that note, it’s important to recognize that some ecosystems are better than others. They can be judged with relation to the total collection of ecosystems called the biosphere using a very simple rubric: Systems that extract the same or less energy than they put into the biosphere are sustainable; they can be maintained indefinitely. Systems that cost more than they provide in recompense to said biosphere are not sustainable; they cannot be maintained indefinitely.

Because we’re dealing with vast expanses of time, the ecosystems observed in nature tend overwhelmingly to be sustainable ones; unsustainable ones have already died, mutated, or adapted. Similarly, because of the long, continual march of evolution, animals usually have physical characteristics and behavior patterns that bolster their ecosystem in relation to the biosphere. It’s also important to point out that the adaptation of ecosystems to changes in environment depends on biodiversity in the same way that evolution depends on a sufficient level of variation in the gene pool.

II -Profit, capitalism, and difference

The systematic problem with which I am concerned in my last two posts is that our way of getting energy is wildly (for me, comically) non-sustainable. Essentially, the human strategy is to very rapidly and cheaply use all of the Earth’s pent up energy (which exists in the form of plant and animal matter gradually embedded in the Earth’s crust over the course of eons, i.e. fossil fuels) while paying back as little as possible to the biosphere upon which we depend. As I said in my last post, the entirety of contemporary civilization is based on the ready availability of these fossil fuels, which is no longer dependable.

Now, you ask, what does our non-sustainable energy system have to do with profit or difference? Indeed, what are those things?

Well, I’ve previously defined profit as the notion that you could be entitled to reaping *more* than you input into a system. Recall that in a good ecosystem, work is shared between species and energy is conserved all around to ensure sustainability of said system. In a system whose goal is profit, on the other hand, energy is extracted for individual gain.

If you want a more practical orientation for this definition of profit, I’ll define profit as the goal of capitalism. Noam Chomsky defines capitalism as “a system where everything is for sale, and the more money you have, the more you can get.” The silly simplicity of this quip belies the enormity of its implication: capitalism requires and engenders growth. Any corporation *must* expand so that it can get more money, so that, in turn, it will be able to get even more money with respect to its competitors (who are all trying to do the same thing.) The readiest historical example of this capitalist trend is the population explosion in pre-industrial Europe and the infamous colonial system that accompanied it, which pretty much set the tone for subsequent global development. Now, what better way to grow than to tap cheap, incredibly rich fuel?

Now observe the results of this cheap-oil-based global capitalist system. We have an economy dominated by a few, extremely powerful transnational corporations whose interests are intertwined with government. We have insane mass-production agriculture, over-consumption and waste on a gargantuan scale, and the wholesale elimination of biodiversity. Furthermore, we have skewed development in which economic and social disparities between sections of the world economy have progressively increased. (Core vs. Periphery is the norm of world affairs under this system; see the work of Immanuel Wallerstein.)

The competitive drive to produce better, faster and cheaper goods for consumption, thus generating profit for individuals or corporations, both ignores the all-important ecological basis of human life and causes folks to work against each other, for individual gain, rather than cooperatively, for mutual benefit. This in turn gives rise to systematic, politically charged domination of some groups by others, sustained by notions of “gender”, “class”, and “race”.

How is this justifiable in any kind of theory?

Well, as I said in my last post, capitalism thrives upon the notion of difference. I defined difference as the illusion that human life is *not* primarily and most importantly dependent upon the biosphere, a fact which connects your interests fundamentally with mine. In other words, difference is the idea that you and I are fundamentally disconnected; hence, what is yours is not mine; what is mine is not yours. (As the famous Tragedy of the Commons would have it, “community property” is an oxymoron in a system that prioritizes the notion of private property over sustainability. )

III – Morality and action

Since difference, disparity, suffering and injustice always go hand in hand with violence, I believe that the highest moral good is non-violence — towards nature as well as towards other people. Incidentally, whenever we engage in production/consumption patterns which take more than we need from the ecosystem (non-sustainable) we are engaging in violence. Hence, profit and the subsequent accumulation of capital, the primary goal of the institutional practice of capitalism, is morally questionable.

What would I change, you ask? How should people behave? How would I structure a sustainable society?

Well, I would advocate non-violence because it *protects* our ecosystem rather than undermining it. Also, since capitalist corporate dominance and state power are based on complacency, I would support the kind of massive attempt at social awareness and organization that occurred among youth in America of the 1960s in opposition to U.S. aggression in Vietnam. We must promote awareness of our place in the biosphere, we must oppose media dominance by corporate interests, we must work to eliminate the illusion of difference and expose the infinitely complex ways in which we are all linked. Indeed, this is the only way to prevent the kind of massive environmental catastrophe that Al Gore predicts.

In my view, people share a vested interest in sustainability and mutual understanding. In order to make this interest more evident, we must replace corporate capitalist power (and the divisive nationalism that goes along with it) with community-based economic systems where everyone has a stake.  As you say, people respond to incentives.  We need to design incentives so that people’s responses to them are mutually beneficial.

At the risk of sounding condescending, here are some action phrases for people to try in the meantime: Use less energy. Live closer to work. Work closer to home. Turn off your TV. Participate in civil society. Lobby for a carbon tax + gasoline tax. Try growing some vegetables (or supporting sustainable agriculture, which is less fun.) Find out about where the products you consume every day come from. And, like Arudnhati Roy has written, “Never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of the world around you. And never, never forget.”

I hope this answers your questions.

Love,

Thomas

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One Response to “(clarification)”

  1. The Zero-Sum Fallacy « William’s Continued Adventures Says:

    […] -”(clarification)“ “Food production has actually outpaced population growth, so in that sense Malthus was wrong. He was unable to foresee the effects of science, technology, and economic development — all of which have enabled us to sustain a growing population by accelerating our consumption of natural resources.” […]

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