Not literally, but figuratively. Sorry for the clickbait title.
First of all, if you haven’t watched this movie yet, don’t read further until you do. It’s on Netflix and it’s excellent. The rest of this post assumes you’ve seen the movie.
What I mean is the premise of the movie is real, thematically, right now, in reality. What’s different are the details which, to be fair, are significantly different.
Our global civilization is currently, non-metaphorically, in real life, facing an existential threat – it’s just not an asteroid (at least that I know of). But we are facing something just as potentially deadly – the Metacrisis.
What is the Metacrisis?
The Metacrisis is the sum of a large number of crises that are all bearing down on us. A non-exhaustive list includes: climate change, desertification, soil loss, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, polarization of society, wealth and income inequality, collapse of the financial system, peak oil, AI, bioweapons, water scarcity, pandemics, and nuclear war. There are, of course, more.
This is obviously a very different threat than the one in ‘Don’t Look Up’. Probably the most significant difference in the natures of the two different threats is how deterministic they are. In ‘Don’t Look Up’ the threat is very deterministic, i.e. it’s eminently clear how and when the threat (asteroid) will appear. This is due to the fact that the motion of large bodies in space is very well understood and the math of physics can make extremely accurate predictions thereof. In the movie they were able to determine precisely when and where the disaster would strike with extremely high confidence (99.78% or whatever it was) more than 6 months in advance.
The Metacrisis is an entirely different animal. Most, if not all, of the crises that compose the Metacrisis arise from complex systems, each with many variables, interdependencies, and feedback mechanisms that may or may not be well understood. These complex systems in turn interact with each other, introducing yet more interdependencies and feedback mechanisms. Covid provides a perfect example to illustrate what I mean.
A virus led to the shutting down of businesses, which led to people not working, which led to stimulus checks funded by central bank money printing. All of the above impacted the supply chain causing serious disruption. Supply chain disruption combined with vast money printing has led to inflation, which is causing economic hardship on people. Attempting to control the virus led to most nation states adopting totalitarian control measures, causing many people to lose trust in institutions and polarizing society even further. While covid itself is mostly in check, its consequences are still rippling through society and will likely be doing so for the foreseeable future.
Putting aside the likelihood that covid was the result of a lab leak, there is a constant probability of a new pandemic occurring at any point in the future. But we have no idea of knowing what that probability is. What are the chances of a new pandemic arising in any given year? 1%? 2%? No one knows. We have no certainty around this question. But we do know that the probability is non-zero, and likely to increase as we reduce natural habitats and continue to engineer viruses.
What all this means in practice is that the Metacrisis is far too complex for us to have high certainty of any of the details. There’s no way to predict with any degree of determinism how the details of these issues will play out. We’re stuck with educated guesses.
This being the case, we can still use an understanding of probability, history, and trends to make a prediction that points to a strong likelihood (so strong that I personally consider it a certainty): that global civilization as we currently know it will not make it to the end of this century. This idea has come to be known simply as Collapse.
The collapse of past civilizations has long fascinated historians. I found the eponymous book by Jared Diamond to be very well thought out and educational. Over 30 different civilizations have arisen and then fallen. Collapse is a constant.
The general trajectory of all of these civilizations is establishment, concentration of material wealth and status in an elite, over-exploitation of the environment, human population exceeding carrying capacity of the environment, and then civilizational collapse as the environment can no longer support the number of humans living there. The Fall of Rome is a literal textbook example.
What makes our civilization unique is that it’s the first global civilization. Globalization and capitalism have tied the entire world together into one civilization, what Immanuel Wallerstein calls a world-system. This has a few implications for the discussion at hand.
First, our civilization is able to draw on more resources than any previous civilization by orders of magnitude. In doing so it is quickly running through the once abundant natural capital that our beautiful planet was blessed with. Just as spending more than you make depletes your savings account, consuming more resources than nature produces causes them to run out. This is why the fisheries have disappeared, why the rainforest is getting cut down, why we’re likely in peak oil, and why we’re constantly losing farmland to cities and deserts. This is obviously not sustainable.
What ‘not sustainable’ means is that it cannot continue indefinitely. You can’t eat fish that aren’t there, nor dig for oil that doesn’t exist. As abundant as Earth is, it is not infinite. It has limits. And we have crossed them. A reckoning is unavoidable.
Second, what caused our current civilization to become global is that it is predicated upon growth. Economic growth is what allowed our civilization to subsume or outcompete rival ways of life. Our entire global economy is inexorably dependent upon constant growth. Yet it is now that same growth that threatens everything. It is an impossibility to have infinite growth in a finite system. This is why technoptimists talk about colonizing Mars. The only way to keep the current socioeconomic order in place is to expand our civilization beyond the limits of our planet. The only alternatives are to switch to a non-growth based society or collapse.
Lastly, that our civilization and its collapse is different than the collapses of all past civilizations in an extremely significant way – they were all localized civilizations while ours is global. The fall of Rome didn’t impact the Mayans, nor did the failure of the Mayans influence the Inuit. Easter Island’s collapse impacted only Easter Island.
This is not true of our global civilization. For better and for worse we are all in it together now. There will be no escaping the global collapse unless Elon Musk successfully colonizes Mars. We have been given a little preview of this with the current Pandemic. While some issues will remain local, as our world grows evermore interconnected local issues will increasingly ripple out to effect the whole world, the consequences of which will send out their own ripples in turn. The bigger they are the harder they fall, and no civilization has ever been as big as ours.
Don’t Look Up
This finally brings us to the genius of Don’t Look Up. Jared Diamond, in Collapse, proposes a roadmap of factors contributing to failures of group decision making at the societal level.
Reasons a society may fail:
1. Failure to anticipate a problem before it arrives 2. Failure to perceive a problem when it does arrive 3. Failure to even try to solve a problem once perceived 4. Fail at attempt to solve perceived problem
This rubric gives us a wonderful lens with which to compare Don’t Look Up to our real world.
Failure to anticipate a problem before it arrives
The fictional world of Don’t Look Up and our real world both successfully clear this first hurdle. The young grad student discovers the asteroid 6 months before it is due to strike. Numerous forward thinkers are sounding the alarm that our society must make radical changes or face the existential threats of the Metacrisis.
Failure to perceive a problem when it does arrive
This is where things start to get good.
Don’t Look Up
When the scientists first tell the President of the US about the asteroid they are dismissed. Then when they go on national TV they are once again not taken seriously, dismissed, and even mocked. The movie doesn’t go into why this is, leaving it to the viewer to speculate. However Diamond makes his own speculation that I find quite compelling:
The final speculative reason that I shall mention for irrational failure to try to solve a perceived problem is psychological denial. This is a technical term with a precisely defined meaning in individual psychology, and it has been taken over into the pop culture. If something that you perceive arouses in you a painful emotion, you may subconsciously suppress or deny your perception in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical results of ignoring your perception may prove ultimately disastrous. The emotions most often responsible are terror, anxiety, and grief. Typical examples include blocking the memory of a frightening experience, or refusing to think about the likelihood that your husband, wife, child, or best friend is dying because the thought is so painfully sad.
For example, consider a narrow river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a considerable distance downstream. When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam’s bursting, it’s not surprising that fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases among residents increasingly close to the dam. Surprisingly, though, after you get to just a few miles below the dam, where fear of the dam’s breaking is found to be highest, the concern then falls off to zero as you approach closer to the dam! That is, the people living immediately under the dam, the ones most certain to be drowned in a dam burst, profess unconcern. That’s because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one’s sanity while looking up every day at the dam is to deny the possibility that it could burst. Although psychological denial is a phenomenon well established in individual psychology, it seems likely to apply to group psychology as well.
Jared Diamond, Collapse
Because the possibility of a planet destroying asteroid was so terrifying, both the President and the nation simply didn’t even consider it. It was dismissed out of hand because it was too incongruous with their worldview.
Even more ludicrous yet all too real is the campaign later on in the movie extorting people to ‘Don’t Look Up.’ The willful, even proud, ignorance really hits home in this day and age. The existence of an asteroid became a battleground of the culture war, instead of being left to astrophysics as would be rational. But we humans are not rational as much as we like to pretend we are.
The Real World
Hopefully the parallels to our world and the Metacrisis draw themselves, but just to be thorough let’s look at just one example, climate change.
Just as people in the movie denied the existence of the asteroid, many people in our world deny the existence of climate change. Corporations with large financial interests in a fossil fuel economy actively fund misinformation, seeking to establish room for reasonable doubt in the narrative.
In a different vein, how many of the crises I named earlier as components of the Metacrisis are you familiar with? Being ignorant of an issue guarantees that we can’t perceive it. And what we don’t perceive we can’t attempt to address.
Do we see the asteroid coming towards us or are we just not looking up?
Failure to even try to solve a problem once perceived
Don’t Look Up
The movie has a mixed record in this regard.
They set up the first mission to destroy the asteroid, but call it off at the last minute when it becomes known how much valuable resources it contains. So this kinda counts as an attempt, but also doesn’t.
Then a coalition of non-US countries attempt their own mission, but fail at launch. It’s unclear why, but sabotage is hinted at. If it was sabotage, then once again it kinda counts as an attempt but also doesn’t. This could also be considered a failed attempt though.
The Real World
Earlier I mentioned climate change deniers, but they’re low hanging fruit. Instead let’s look in the mirror.
How energy intensive is our lifestyle? How often do we fly on a plane? How often do we drive in our cars? How far away does the food we buy come from? How much plastic do we throw away?
We might say that we recognize climate change is a real threat, but do our lifestyles reflect our words? What are we doing personally to address the various threats of the metacrisis? Are we trusting in our competent leaders to identify and solve the problems for us?
Fail at attempt to solve the perceived problem
Don’t Look Up
In the movie the one real attempt to break up the asteroid fails due to technological failures, the robots don’t launch correctly nor do they work correctly. But this is cutting the world of the movie too much slack.
It’s worth pointing out that the aborting of the original mission could also be counted as a failure. The state was captured by an elite, who placed his potential to make more money above the well-being of the entire planet. I think it’s very fair to consider this a failure of our group decision making processes known as government and capitalism. The same argument applies if the failure of the non-US countries’ attempt was in fact sabotage.
It’d be easy to blame Isherwell as a bad actor, but that’s letting us off too easy. Rather than blame Isherwell as a scapegoat, I think it’s far more productive to examine how an Isherwell ever came to be in the first place. The fact that our society and institutions are constructed in such a way that someone like Isherwell can amass that much power and influence in the first place is a far more interesting place of inquiry for me. It’s also worth pointing out that pretty much the only way to amass that much power and influence is to be a sociopath, and that society rewards, conditions, and trains sociopaths to rise to the top of the power hierarchy.
One of the primary contentions that I espouse is that our current institutions are not just no longer serving us, but are actively harming us. I think the movie very eloquently makes the case that it is the fault of society as a whole that it was unable to stop the asteroid, a case worth considering as we reflect upon our own world.
The Real World
Luckily our asteroid is still many years away. The threats of the Metacrisis are still just that – threats – and not foregone conclusions. It’s still not too late to prevent the worst of them. The question is, will we look up?
Quick summary: Someone on Reddit noticed that hedge funds had a massive short position on GameStop stock and talked a bunch of other Redditors into buying the stock, thus squeezing the shorters and costing the hedge funds billions. Lots of billions. Like over $23 billion so far this year.
I’m all for the little guys sticking it to the man, but that’s not what I want to focus on in this post. I want to highlight three things: 1) the insanity of financialization, 2) the institutional crackdown against retail investors, and 3) how powerful regular people can be when they organize against existing power structures.
The Insanity of Financialization
From the fantastic book The New Human Rights Movement, by Peter Joseph:
“While the root socioeconomic orientation of capitalism is built around scarcity, competition, and dominance, the financial markets embrace the pure abstraction of capitalism’s primary incentive structure—that being the art of reducing costs and maximizing income. This translates into buying an asset at one price and selling it at a higher price, making a profit. It doesn’t matter what that asset is or even if it exists, just as long as one can reasonably assume it will gain value and can be sold back off, securing profit.
The evolution of this practice is in lockstep with the rise of merchant capitalism. Upon the advent of agriculture and settlement, labor specialization and good markets slowly emerged, along with mediums of exchange or money. A merchant class developed where producers would create goods and their merchants would take them to public market centers and sell them. This division of labor then led to more modern systems of distribution, where the merchants simply bought items in advance, selling them independently at higher prices. At this stage, you can begin to see how the idea of trade for the sake of trade started to take hold as an abstraction. It didn’t matter what the merchants bought and sold, they simply made profit on the act of exchange.
So, what we have is a kind of financial parallel universe. There are real producing companies and resources in one universe and these proxy, avatar-like financial representations of them in the other. … Then we have derivatives, which are financial instruments that “link” to underlying assets created out of thin air once again. These are cartoonish proxy instruments that take anything from stocks, bonds currencies, interest rates, indices, options, commodities, credit, or just about anything two financial parties can agree upon, deriving a new instrument for gambling.
Now, this abstract trading reality is only part of a larger trend termed financialization. Financialization can broadly be defined as a “pattern of accumulation in which profit making occurs increasingly through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production.”117 Generally, it has to do with the increase in the scope, power, and range of application of the world economy’s financial sector. The financial sector is composed of financial services. These deal with the management and administration of whatever financial activities are in play, usually based around bank loans, stocks, investment services, insurance, and so on.
Financialization is an evolutionary outcome of market capitalism, prevalent in economically mature nations. It appears to be part of an increasingly common developmental path as countries’ true productivity declines, pushing nonproducing mechanisms for income. Now emerging as, indeed, the most profitable industry on the planet, this economic mutation from merchant capitalism into financial capitalism is further expanding the already problematic inequality and oppression-producing tendency inherent to the system. Like the growth of cancer in an organism, the global market economy is becoming increasingly more life-blind and polarized as financialization takes over and abstraction becomes reality.
From the broad view, given trends over the past forty years, it is difficult not to view the growing financial sector as little more than an upper-class money machine that does little for the normal economy. Its growth and profitability has eclipsed other sectors’ growth, even though there is little evidence this disproportionate income has had any benefit for anyone in the world but the investment banks, brokers, and other financial players. In fact, if you compare the profit trends from the manufacturing sector to the financial sector, you will notice they are now inversely related.118 The production of goods is becoming less profitable while immaterial financial services are becoming more so. This is particularly bothersome since the number of people employed in the financial sector has virtually stayed the same, while the amount of profit they extract has skyrocketed.
According to economist Michael Konczal, “Between 1980 and 2006, while [US] GDP increased five times, financial-sector profits increased sixteen times over. While financial and nonfinancial profits grew at roughly the same rate before 1980, between 1980 and 2006 nonfinancial profits grew seven times while financial profits grew [again] sixteen times.”119 In 1950, the US financial sector accounted for about 2 percent of GDP, growing to 9 percent by 2013.120 In the 1980s, profits in this sector were about 10 percent of GDP, while thirty years later they are more than 30 percent.121 Yet, the number of people employed in this US sector has been less than 5 percent since 1950.122 That is a ton of money going to very few people. Again, we are talking about an industry that deals with intangible financial assets and fees, not true production. This radical income growth has been occurring during a time when wages for the rest of the American (and global) economy have been stagnating for decades.123 In fact, research conducted on countries with large financial sectors has found that this trend is actually detrimental to overall economic expansion and prosperity. Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine how the growth of any given sector of a country’s economy could be a negative pressure in general, but that is exactly what has been found.124”
In other words, we live in a crazy world where people who move numbers around on a screen somehow earn vastly more money than people who actually contribute to society by providing real goods and services. This fact alone should make people find the claim that “capitalism is the most efficient system for the allocation of resources” outright laughable. Yet they don’t.
The financial system does not contribute to society, it just legally (and illegally) steals a shitload of value from it.
In the current debacle, clearly the price of GameStop’s stock has absolutely nothing to do with its value as a company. It is completely decoupled. We couldn’t be in this absurd situation if not for the decoupling of the financial system from the real world. The fact that we have collectively been tricked into giving the financial system the outsized and undeserved valuation that it has is insanity and most stop.
With the ongoing saga of Gamestop shares surging as a result of the r/wallstreetbets subreddit, Robinhood and other trading platforms such as WeBull and Apex Holdings (the clearing firm for among other, Public.com) have refused to allow for the buying of more GameStop GME -44.3% shares. WeBull cited “extreme volatility” and its clearing firm refusing to honor any more clearance. WeBull users were forced now to only liquidate or sell GME as well as a number of other stocks that were adjacent to the same “short squeeze” strategy. Robinhood also cited “extreme volatility” as part of a blog post it put out on the situation.
This latest array of actions follows a bunch of system attempts to stop trading in GameStop shares, or more specifically, to try to stop retail investors from buying more shares, everything from tripping circuit breakers, to now having trading platforms and clearing companies put pressure on shares by restricting trading.
In short, popular stock trading platforms recently refused to let retail investors continue to buy GameStop stock to continue the short squeeze. They would only let them sell. The hedge funds were under no such restrictions.
For all market apologists love to go on about the “free market” and the invisible hand, the market is not and has never been free. This event is special in that the market forces that protect the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us were forced to show their hands in a spectacularly visible manner.
It’s not a fair playing field. The people behind the markets are absolutely fine with the wealthy screwing over regular people like in the Housing Bubble that led to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, but heaven forbid if the little guys ever get one over on the wealthy.
Hopefully this event has made the above reality more clear to more people.
The Power Lies in the People
Finally, I hope that this spectacle wakes more people up to the reality of how much power regular people have. The catch is it takes cooperation. For millenia, economic elites have used division to maintain their asymmetric power over the rest of us. This is why we have no unions in this country anymore, they were busted. But they were busted because those in power were scared of them. The vast majority of the 1% don’t produce anything of value, they’re just really good at taking what others have made. The reality is that they need us, not the other way around. And the thing that scares them more than anything else is us realizing it.
If you think watching a bunch of degenerate gamblers on Reddit take down a hedge fund is fun, wait til you hear about General Strikes and General Tax Strikes 😉
Disclaimer: This post is written by a liberal for a liberal audience.
I didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election, and I won’t be voting in this one either. This is of great consternation to a number of fellow liberals. I’ve already outlined my reasoning before, so I won’t repeat myself here. However I find the line of argumentation of those who think I should vote is interesting and worthy of examination.
Their argument goes thusly: Yes, neither candidate is good, but one is far worse than the other. We must make sure the less bad one wins. To be moral, you must not only vote, but vote only for the not-as-bad candidate of the two main parties. This is because elections are consequential and materially effect the lives of everyone, but especially marginalized Americans. Thus, you must vote for the correct candidate or you do not care about marginalized Americans and are a bad person. If everyone voted, things would be different/better.
First I want to acknowledge the truth in this argument. I absolutely agree that who sits as President is consequential. I further agree that it has an outsized impact on marginalized Americans. However I do not grant that this truth morally necessitates voting for a particular candidate.
My critics and I come to different solutions to the same problem because we hold differing assumptions. Let’s unpack them.
First, we view the process of voting in fundamentally different ways. They view voting as a way to nudge the behemoth that is the US government one way or another. I don’t disagree with this, because it’s true. Again, I agree that the Presidency is consequential and is even more so for the marginalized. Where we diverge is that I don’t think this is the only role that voting plays.
To be accurate, it’s not voting itself that I see as problematic, but rather the entire edifice of American politics. It is the very structure of the American political system that makes voting in it problematic. To illustrate what I mean let’s look at this century’s Presidencies.
21st Century Presidencies
I was a Freshman in highschool when Bush was elected and had little understanding of the true ways of power at the time. Thus I have a rather simple impression of his Presidency, but I think that’s actually to the benefit of this current discussion. Growing up in the Blue State of New Jersey I had essentially a mainstream, American liberal, opinion. Bush was dumb, couldn’t speak well, and lied to the American people about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a pretense to invade them for their oil. He passed regressive tax cuts on the wealthy and didn’t care about the marginalized. Bush was an embarrassment to the country.
My simplistic view of his presidency is sufficient for our current purposes because it mirrors the standard liberal narrative: Bush bad.
And then we were saved by Obama! His poise, articulation, and ethnicity redeemed us from the embarrassment of Bush! He even won the Nobel Peace prize just for being elected! I hear many people even today touting Obama as an exemplary President.
Was he better than Bush? Absolutely. Would I take him over Trump? Hands down. But being better than is not that same as being good enough.
Even before he was elected he flip-flopped on the FISA amendment (H.R.6304).
In doing so he voted to give telecommunication providers immunity against civil damages that they might incur in the course of enabling the government to execute wiretaps and other types of electronic surveillance. He did so, after an amendment to the bill that would have stripped out the immunity provision, S.Amdt. 5064, was defeated 32-66. In voting for the bill, Obama acted in direct contradiction to his earlier statements. In 2007 Bill Burton, an Obama campaign spokesman, said “To be clear: Barack will support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies.”
The original F.I.S.A statute was passed in 1978 in order to protect civil liberties against overly expansive government surveillance, and had clear penalties of $100 per person, per day, plus punitive damages, for telecommunications companies that conducted electronic surveillance without judicial oversight. Given that each day tens of millions of people have their data go across the networks of some of the larger telcos, the risk that these companies faced by working with the government on extra-judicial wiretaps was extreme. In giving companies that work with the government immunity from these penalties, H.R. 6304, and Barack Obama who voted for it, just took away the only reason stopping AT&T, Verizon, and others from helping the government use extra-judicial wiretaps. In voting for the bill, Obama not only helped the telco’s, but also broke his promise to protect the American people from expansive government surveillance.
If you don’t think supporting the Surveillance State is a big deal, you might want to do a little more research.
And then there’s his war record.
Before he took office in 2008, Barack Obama vowed to end America’s grueling conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. During his second term, he pledged to take the country off what he called a permanent war footing.” But Obama left a very different legacy “U.S. military forces were at war for all eight years of Obama’s tenure, the first two-term president with that distinction. He launched airstrikes or military raids in at least seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.
He even outspent Bush on war; $866 billion to $811 billion.
Obama has also embraced special-operations forces. In fiscal year 2014, U.S. special-operations forces deployed to 133 countries, or roughly 70 percent of the entire world, The Nation reports. General Joseph Votel, the commander of SOCOM, has said, “The command is at its absolute zenith. And it is indeed a golden age for special operations.” The size of SOCOM has expanded by almost 25 percent since Obama took office, increasing from 55,800 people to 69,700, according to McGraw at SOCOM.
He vastly expanded our nation’s Drone Striking program, launching more than 10 times as many drone strikes as his bad predecessor.
The US’s [official] estimate of the number of civilians killed between January 2009 and the end of 2015 – between 64 and 116 – contrasted strongly with the number recorded by the Bureau [of Investigative Journalism], which at 380 to 801 was six times higher.
That figure does not include deaths in active battlefields including Afghanistan – where US air attacks have shot up since Obama withdrew the majority of his troops at the end of 2014. The country has since come under frequent US bombardment, in an unreported war that saw 1,337 weapons dropped last year alone – a 40% rise on 2015.
Afghan civilian casualties have been high, with the United Nations (UN) reporting at least 85 deaths in 2016. The Bureau recorded 65 to 105 civilian deaths during this period. We did not start collecting data on Afghanistan until 2015.
Despite the Nobel Peace Prize laureate outspending his bad predecessor on war, the Anti-War Left – so vocal during Bush’s term – virtually disappeared during the Obama presidency and has yet to be seen since.
Obama also failed to introduce universal public healthcare despite the Democrats controlling both Houses and the Presidency for two years.
This brings us to the 2016 Presidential race and the eventual Trump presidency. But before we get to the Presidential race itself, it’s worthwhile to look at the Democratic Primary.
Of particular note is early 2016, before the July 25th Democratic Convention nominated Clinton. Polling clearly demonstrated that Sanders would beat Trump. This May 14th Aljazeera article both speak to Sanders’ much higher chances.
Recent polls have demonstrated that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a much higher potential to defeat Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, in an election than Hillary Clinton, although the latter is the Democratic party’s frontrunner.
RealClearPolitics showed on Tuesday that Sanders had a 13 percent advantage over Trump, while Clinton had five more points than Trump. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday signalled a tight coin-toss race between Clinton and Trump, without reporting on Sanders.
Dustin Woodard, an analytics expert who played a major part in the discovery of the Reuters poll trend, told Al Jazeera that a significant reason for Sanders’ advantage was due to disproportional support from independent voters – a group that he says other polls failed to factor in. “Independents are the largest voting population in the US. Gallup reports that independents are 42 percent of the voting population, while Democrats are only 29 percent and Republicans are only 26 percent.”
Sanders and Trump have been the favourites of independent voters, he noted, adding how their voice changes the outcome of polls.
“When I look at other head-to-head polling sources, the 10 most recent polls show Clinton only beats Trump in eight of them and her margin of win averages 4.6 percent, but most, if not all, of the polls do not have their independent numbers correct.”
This would suggest Clinton v Trump is a really tight battle, possibly in Trump’s favour. However, on Bernie Sanders side, he beats Trump in every single poll and by an average margin of 14.1 percent. Again, if independents were adjusted, his margin might be even larger.
This prediction was confirmed a year later by Trump’s own pollster, Tony Fabrizio, who “stated flatly at a recent Harvard University Institute of Politics event that Sanders would have beaten Trump. He said Sanders would have run stronger than Clinton with lower-educated and lower-income white voters.”
But of course we’ll never know for sure if Bernie would have beat Trump because the DNC chose Clinton instead. And that choosing itself was very problematic.
The core facts are straightforward: As Barack Obama’s presidency drew to a close, the DNC was deep in debt. In return for a bailout, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign more potential control over its operations and hiring decisions than was either ethical or wise. But those operations were mostly irrelevant to the primary and couldn’t have been used to rig the process even if anyone had wanted to use them that way; the primary schedule, debate schedule, and rules were set well in advance of these agreements.
But there’s a larger context that is more important than what happened at the DNC and is getting lost in the back and forth over joint fundraising agreements and staffing power. The Democratic Party — which is a different and more complex entity than the Democratic National Committee, and which includes elected officials and funders and activists and interest groups who are not expected to be neutral in primaries — really did favor Hillary Clinton from early in the campaign, and really did shape the race in consequential ways.
Democratic elites, defined broadly, shaped the primary before voters ever got a chance to weigh in, and the way they tried to shape it was by uniting behind Clinton early in the hopes of avoiding a bruising, raucous race.
The harder question in the larger one: What role should party elites play in primaries? It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that they fully decided primaries, meeting in smoky back rooms during the political conventions to hash out the next nominee. Before 2016, the reigning political science theory of primaries was called “the party decides,” and it argued that political elites still largely decided party primaries, albeit through influencing voters rather than controlling convention delegates.
“Nominations define parties, so of course party actors are going to fight hard to define it how they want it to be,” writes Jonathan Bernstein. “As they should.”
Thus, Democratic elites chose Clinton over Sanders and handed the Presidency to Trump, who obviously is very, very bad.
But Clinton would also have been bad, just not as bad as Trump. She was Obama’s Secretary of State, and thus had a hand in shaping his foreign policy including his use of the military.
This overview of recent political history gives us enough context to flesh out my stance.
According to Wikipedia, “Politics is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.” Put more bluntly, politics is about power.
This brings us back to my assertion that the entirety of the US political system is irredeemably broken, and calls for a broader framing of what constitutes moral political action.
My position is simple. Our nation’s (and almost all others’ to boot) decision making process is shit. Any process that determines that out of all 330 million Americans, the two best choices to lead this country are Donald Trump and Joe Biden is obviously a terrible process.
The thing that gets me is that my liberal critics agree with the above sentiment. They recognize that our political process is deeply flawed. They don’t support Biden because of what Biden stands for (which is what exactly?) but instead support him because he’s not Trump.
The thing is though, is that we don’t have to accept that our only choice is deciding between two out of touch old white men.
Admittedly, the alternative to the old white men is not easy. It’s not easy because the only other option is revolution and rebellion.
I’m told to vote for Biden because he’s not Trump. He’s the lesser of two evils. But instead of asking what a vote for Biden is against, what happens if we ask what a vote for Biden is for?
A vote for Biden is a vote for the status quo. The very oppressive, world-threatening, status quo. A vote for the return to the Obama era.
Now many people see this as a desirable thing. But I don’t. A return to the status quo is a return to complacence with American imperialism. Complacence with 9 million people dying from hunger every year. Complacence with one in four American children going hungry. Complacence with government agricultural subsidies so that American farmers can undercut the rest of the world’s farmers so that they have no food security. Complacence with child miners and women sweatshop workers. Complacence with millions of people living in slums. Complacence with climate change.
This is because the US political system, like all political systems, has been captured by those with a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. They have power in the current system, and use that power to maintain and grow their power in it.
By voting, you are implicitly agreeing that our system is just. It is a tacit agreement that the Way Things Are is acceptable, it is condoning the status quo. By participating in this upcoming election, you are saying that it is a good way to choose our leaders. That Biden and Trump are the two best people in this country to lead this country. When you vote in a broken system, you are handing that broken system your power. Furthermore, I feel that believing your vote has meaning actually dis-empowers you. By believing that your vote matters, you are less likely to engage in political action that does actually have an impact.
Instead of voting, I say rebel.
I also see voting play a far more insidious role in American politics, that of capturing and dissipating dissent.
Our elections consume a tremendous amount of time, attention, energy, and money to produce an objectively terrible result. I submit that those resources could be far better spent in other avenues. All of the energy and money spent supporting Bernie and Warren? It’s gone, wasted. Our elections process cause those who try to make meaningful change to blow all of their energy with no result.
Thus, our political process channels time, energy, and money that could be spent on things that actually make a difference and dissipates it.
The Lesser of Two Evils
I grant that Biden would be a better president than Trump, but that’s quite faint praise indeed, and doesn’t qualify him to lead the country. It’s a classic sales technique that I learned as the “alternate of choice.”
The Alternate of Choice is a closing technique in the form of a question with two answers — and either answer is an agreement. The key is to give two solutions that both lead toward the sale. By giving two choices, one or the other is usually chosen. This is much better than what happens when you give one choice and the only other option is “no.” Here’s an example: “The way I see it, Mary, the only real decision we need to make today is how soon you can start reaping the benefits of our fine service. Shall we schedule our people out here tomorrow, or would the next day be better for you?” Once it’s scheduled, it’s sold.
“So Citizen, which will it be, the blue asshole or the red asshole?”
I submit that the illusion of choice is no choice at all.
And heaven forbid you vote for a third party candidate, that’s throwing away your ever so meaningful vote!
Another belief I hold is that the differences between the two main parties are very small compared to what they have in common. Yes, there are some important differences such as abortion, but such issues pale in comparison to what both parties have in common.
In a better world the largest issues we would face would be social justice issues such as systemic racism and women’s reproductive freedoms, but unfortunately this is not the case. According to the Washington Post, 1,337 black people were fatally shot by police since Jan, 1, 2015. However, every single year, 9 million people die of hunger. That’s almost 7,000 times more, clearly a much larger issue. But neither party talks about the evils of capitalism, and the singular role that our country plays in maintaining it. Neither party talks about the Fed, and the injustice of our debt-based money system. Neither party talks about the dangers of industrial agriculture. Neither party has plans to address climate change in any meaningful way.
Climate change could be the end of this country, and is barely addressed by either of the two ruling parties.
Our political system has been captured and irredeemably broken by our economic system. Our economic system is killing our planet and us while it’s at it. Meaningful change is not possible within it. Thus, change must come from without. Sure, vote if you want. But if the only political action you take is within our political system, that is not enough.
Want to create real change? Stop being part of the problem: Meet as many of your needs outside the money system as possible. Reduce your ecological footprint as much as possible. Stop paying your taxes and supporting the American empire. Start being part of the solution: grow as much of your own food as possible. Engage in bioregional trade.
The lesser of two evils is still evil. The French Revolution proved once and for all that the power lies in the people. It’s time to take our power back.
I support the protesters. I support the rioters. I support the looters.
That said, I don’t think protesting, rioting, and looting will be enough. To truly pull a weed out, you must get its roots, otherwise it just grows back. Similarly, to effect real social change, we must address the root cause.
To that end, in this post I trace the origins of American racism and police brutality and demonstrate that they spring from the same well – capitalism and the elites that created it, maintain it, and benefit from it. I further suggest that to end racism and police brutality, we must end capitalism.
The Invention of American Racism
The following excerpts are all taken from the phenomenal A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. The emphasis is mine.
Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. In the early years of slavery, especially, before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation.
By the years of the Revolutionary crisis, the 1760s, the wealthy elite that controlled the British colonies on the American mainland had 150 years of experience, had learned certain things about how to rule. They had various fears, but also had developed tactics to deal with what they feared.
The Indians, they had found, were too unruly to keep as a labor force, and remained an obstacle to expansion. Black slaves were easier to control, and their profitability for southern plantations was bringing an enormous increase in the importation of slaves, who were becoming a majority in some colonies and constituted one-fifth of the entire colonial population. But the blacks were not totally submissive, and as their numbers grew, the prospect of slave rebellion grew.
With the problem of Indian hostility, and the danger of slave revolts, the colonial elite had to consider the class anger of poor whites-servants, tenants, the city poor, the propertyless, the taxpayer, the soldier and sailor. As the colonies passed their hundredth year and went into the middle of the 1700s, as the gap between rich and poor widened, as violence and the threat of violence increased, the problem of control became more serious.
What if these different despised groups – the Indians, the slaves, the poor whites-should combine? Even before there were so many blacks, in the seventeenth century, there was, as Abbot Smith puts it, “a lively fear that servants would join with Negroes or Indians to overcome the small number of masters.“
It was the potential combination of poor whites and blacks that caused the most fear among the wealthy white planters. If there had been the natural racial repugnance that some theorists have assumed, control would have been easier. But sexual attraction was powerful, across racial lines. In 1743, a grand jury in Charleston, South Carolina, denounced “The Too Common Practice of Criminal Conversation with Negro and other Slave Wenches in this Province.” Mixed offspring continued to be produced by white-black sex relations throughout the colonial period, in spite of laws prohibiting interracial marriage in Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, Georgia. By declaring the children illegitimate, they would keep them inside the black families, so that the white population could remain “pure” and in control.
Edmund Morgan, on the basis of his careful study of slavery in Virginia, sees racism not as “natural” to black-white difference, but something coming out of class scorn, a realistic device for control. “If freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done. The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt.”
In the 1720s, with fear of slave rebellion growing, white servants were allowed in Virginia to join the militia as substitutes for white freemen. At the same time, slave patrols were established in Virginia to deal with the “great dangers that may … happen by the insurrections of negroes….” Poor white men would make up the rank and file of these patrols, and get the monetary reward.
In other words, the 1% of the time feared the white indentured servants would realize they had common cause with the black slaves and together overthrow those taking advantage of them both. To prevent this, they created laws and policies to create division between poor whites and black slaves to keep them divided. They were obviously very effective.
Not too many people are aware, but the institution of American policing came directly from these slave patrols.
Gary Potter is a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies and the author of The History of Policing in the United States. He says public police forces began around the mid-1800s. They were born out of slave patrols in the south and industry policing in the north.
In the late 1800s, police were involved in union busting. After major corruption scandals during the prohibition era, Potter says there were “efforts to professionalize the police.” This led to more public funding and starting with the Nixon administration, federal funding for police forces. This is also when police departments started getting military-style equipment.
Another thing most people aren’t aware of is that the Police have no legal responsibility to protect citizens.
“Neither the Constitution, nor state law, impose a general duty upon police officers or other governmental officials to protect individual persons from harm — even when they know the harm will occur,” said Darren L. Hutchinson, a professor and associate dean at the University of Florida School of Law. “Police can watch someone attack you, refuse to intervene and not violate the Constitution.”
The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the government has only a duty to protect persons who are “in custody,” he pointed out.
Warren v. District of Columbia, in which two women heard their roommate being attacked downstairs by intruders called the police several times and were assured that officers were on the way. After their roommate’s screams stopped 30 minutes later they assumed the police were present and went downstairs, only to themselves be held captive, raped, robbed, beaten, forced to commit sexual acts upon each other, and made to submit to the sexual demands of their attackers, for the next 14-hours. The “officials” in legal land claimed that official police personnel and the government employing them owe no duty to victims of criminal acts and thus are not liable for a failure to provide adequate police protection.
Something true throughout the history of policing in America is the focus on property. “The police are primarily there to protect business property first, and residential property second, not human interactions. If that were the case, they would fail miserably,” says Potter.
In reality, police are the domestic enforcement arm of capital (analogous to the military for external imperialist affairs), and the only force authorized by capitalists to use violence to protect capitalist property rights. The history of police crackdowns on unions, workers organizing for better conditions, and minority groups challenging the inequality of the capitalist order goes back to its inception. Cops are class traitors, serving the capitalists by inflicting violence on workers when necessary, and keeping capitalist property safe from the pesky plebs.
Class traitor is a term used mostly in socialist discourse to refer to a member of the proletarian class who works directly or indirectly against their class interest, or what is against their economic benefit as opposed to that of the bourgeoisie.
In other words, the police’s main function today is to maintain the current class structure, i.e. capitalism. Since racism strengthens classism, the police are encouraged to be racist. Here’s a fantastic look into the systemic issues of policing as recounted by an ex-cop: Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop
Economics and Control
Let us not forget that slavery was an economic enterprise. All of the horrors of American slavery were committed so that rich, white, elites could make money. It was profit seeking capitalism that created American slavery.
Michael Perelman’s incredible (yet dry) book The Invention of Capitalism details how that exact same profit seeking led the nascent capitalists to convert a self-sufficient European peasantry into wage slaves by force (emphasis mine):
Some of the forthright accumulationists, however, were sophisticated enough to have realized that once the work of primitive accumulation was complete, what Marx (1977, 899) called the ‘‘silent compulsion’’ of the market could be far more proﬁtable than the brute force of primitive accumulation. Consider again the generous vision of Reverend Joseph Townsend (1786, 404, 407):
[Direct] legal constraint [to labor][i.e. slavery] . . . is attended with too much trouble, violence, and noise, . . . whereas hunger is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure, but as the most natural motive to industry, it calls forth the most powerful exertions. . . . Hunger will tame the ﬁercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjugation to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and the most perverse.
Similarly, Rodbertus, a German socialist and government minister rather than an outright primitive accumulationist, asserted:
Originally this compulsion was exercised by the institution of slavery, which came into existence at the same time as tillage of the soil and private ownership of land. . . . When all the land in a country is privately owned, and when the same title to all land has passed into private ownership of land and capital exerts the same compulsion on liberated or free workers. . . . Only now the command of the slave owner has been replaced by the contract between worker and employer, a contract which is free only in form but not really in substance. Hunger makes almost a perfect substitute for the whip, and what was formerly called fodder is now called wages. (cited in BöhmBawerk 1959, 253)
In other words, early capitalists realized that the market functioned as a better means of control than outright slavery.
Economics and Racism
Nor is the connection between racism and economics only in the distant past. Modern racism and xenophobia are fueled primarily by economic concerns. The motivation behind Trump’s wall is of course to keep Hispanic immigrants out of this country lest they “steal our jobs.” This of course was the same motivation behind anti-Irish and anti-Italian sentiment in the late 1800’s.
For the poor and working classes, immigrants willing to do their low-skilled jobs for less are a real threat to their livelihood. As long as capitalism-created scarcity has the many fighting to stay out of poverty, there will be the necessary and sufficient conditions for racist sentiment to form.
Whether pitting laborers of different races against each other, stoking racial fears through a sensationalistic and profit-driven media, or politically scapegoating entire ethnic groups, America’s white elite have successfully modernized age-old strategies of using racism to prevent the formation of a broad coalition of people along class lines — and across racial lines.
The truth, of course, is that it is the capitalists, not their fellow laborers, who are the enemies of the poor and working class whites.
“You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings,” the famous Georgia populist leader Tom Watson told a crowd of black and white laborers in 1892. “You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both.”
Again, in no way am I trying to co-opt, distract, or detract from the BLM movement. I support it wholeheartedly.
I’ve tried to demonstrate what I believe to be a clear line of causality from capitalism to racism to police brutality. It is my belief that racism derives largely from economic motives and economic inequality. I further believe that because racial injustice stems from economic injustice, to truly address racial injustice we must address economic injustice.
In this, I am beat to the punch by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.
And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.
From King’s last speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivered in 1967
The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.
From a speech titled “The Three Evils of Society,” delivered to the National Conference for New Politics in 1967
King thought that if you could pull together the poor blacks of the inner cities, the poor American Indians of the reservations, the poor Latinos of the barrios and the poor whites of Appalachia, if you could get them to put aside their differences and unite around the meagerness and exploitation they all had in common, you’d have the makings of a movement that would break the old paradigms.
King had in mind nothing less than radical transformation, musing about “a democratic socialism” and arguing for a guaranteed income [UBI much?] and a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.” “True compassion,” he wrote, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
While I wholeheartedly support protesting, looting, and rioting, I do not believe them to be effective nor sufficient methods of creating meaningful change.
I do not think the current protests are asking for enough. Changing a few laws around the institution of policing is not enough. It does not address the gross economic inequality that lies at the root of not just American police brutality but also mass injustice and unnecessary human suffering worldwide. What we need is the “radical redistribution of political and economic power” that King called for more than 50 years ago. What we need is the overthrow of capitalism.
Capitalism Must Go
Capitalism and the classism it creates and depends on lies at the root of racism and police brutality. If you want to address these issues, you must address Capitalism
But those are not the only evils of Capitalism. It is also the force that is driving ecological destruction and climate change. Capitalism, if left unchecked, will literally kill us all. Furthermore, in the pursuit of profit capitalism inflicts gross iniquity upon millions upon millions of people in the Third World.
What is Capitalism? In America, it’s all of us. Our entire society, our entire way of life, is built on the exploitation of the natural and human worlds. So I want to expand Black Lives Matter. Because really, that means American Black Lives. What about African Black Lives? What about the 9 million people who starve to death every year? Do their lives Matter? What about the sweat shops that employ 80% women? Do their lives matter?
Let’s expand the fight and make that radical change King spoke about a reality. As he said, it’s not just about black people, it’s about all oppressed people, everywhere.
I know I’m a privileged white male. And again, in no way am I trying to diminish or take from the BLM movement. I’m inspired by it. But if you support BLM, then you should support oppressed people of all stripes and colors.
Oppressed Lives Matter, Worldwide.
Just as there is White Privilege, there is First World Privilege. Our comfort and affluence comes at the cost of the exploitation of hundreds of millions in the “Global South.”
Ending police brutality and systemic targeting of black people is crucial and mandatory, but it’s not enough. I believe that the radical redistribution of political and economic power that King called for is the same revolution that Marx called for a hundred years before him.
I put forth that the modern American lifestyle is fundamentally immoral due to its utter dependence on exploitative capitalism. To all those who support BLM and consider themselves an ally to oppressed people, I encourage you to examine how your lifestyle contributes to the very oppression you speak out against.
We are all one people. Capitalism serves the few at the great expense of the many. Capitalism. Must. Go.
As I said earlier, I don’t think protesting, etc. is enough. So what is? I have two practical actions to suggest.
Don’t pay your taxes. The rich and powerful care about only one thing: money. So hit them where it hurts – their pocketbook. A general tax strike would absolutely bring them to the negotiating table. They live off of us. Their biggest fear is us realizing this, just as it was in the American South in the 1700’s.
Meet as many of your own needs as possible. Grow your own food. Learn to sew your own clothes, work on your own car, etc. Until we the people are once again self-sufficient, the elites have us in the chains of the “silent compulsion” of the market.
We are in a class war. The rich are winning. It’s time for that to change.
The Covid-19 crisis is a wakeup call. It is a literally once in a lifetime opportunity for every single person in the world to stop and question the status quo.
This crisis has shown everyone that real, meaningful change is possible. Governments around the world are issuing Universal Basic Income to their citizens during this crisis. The US 2.2 trillion stimulus measure is the largest federal response in history. Things we were long told were impossible are now simply reality. Now that this is undeniable, it is up to each and every one of us to make meaningful change.
All human institutions are simply stories. In other words, every human social institution is real only because a group of people agree that it is real – a social construct if you will.
An easy example to point to are nations. Despite being the global hegemon and the most powerful country in the world right now, the United States of America did not exist 300 years ago. Looking at a map, it seems so substantial, but in a very real sense the border between the U.S. and Canada does not exist. A black bear has no idea that it is passing from one country to another when it crosses our invisible line. To that bear there is simply the land, regardless of whatever stories we humans tell ourselves about it. America is a story that enough of us hold in common, and for that reason, and for that reason alone, it exists.
For just about all of us, we live almost entirely inside of these social constructs. Property is a story. Money is a story. Religions are stories. Political ideologies are stories. Culture is a story. We live in a world that is built out of stories. What makes stories like these so powerful is that few recognize them as stories. Most of us take them to be as real as gravity. It of course makes complete sense to think of them as real, because they are. But they are only conditionally real. Their reality rests on the agreement, the belief, of enough people.
This belief is implanted in us as young children and then continually reinforced as we grow older. Social science refers to this process as enculturation and/or socialization. It is through enculturation that societies keep themselves alive. Human cultures maintain continuity and perpetuate themselves as each generation passes on its stories to the succeeding generation. Thus we inherit the bulk of our stories – our agreements – from those that have come before us. It is through this process that we are taught how to see the world, our worldview. We are taught right and wrong, what is and what is not acceptable behavior in our society. It is through this process that we are taught the shape of the world.
Many of the things we are taught are ultimately arbitrary; learning English instead of Spanish for example. Others are just plain incorrect. I believe that is the responsibility of each of us to critically examine the beliefs we were raised with, and see if they are true and worthwhile. It’s not your fault if you were born to a racist household and raised with racist beliefs, but it is your responsibility as a moral adult to challenge that belief in yourself.
It has long been my position and message that the current social institutions of the world have not been serving us for a long time and need to be changed. By us I mean all of us. Every single person on this planet. The few benefitting at the expense of the many is not in service to all.
The beauty of this is that our institutions are ultimately arbitrary and thus are able to be changed. All it takes is the breaking of old agreements, and the creation of new ones.
The Covid-19 crisis is just one of many facing us as a species. What makes it special is that it’s sudden, highly visible, and can affect anyone and everyone (most notably the rich and powerful). This is in contrast to the many other crises facing us, which are much slower moving, less visible, and disproportionately affect the poor and other marginalized peoples.
Let’s look at world hunger. Around the world, 821 million people do not have enough of the food they need to live an active, healthy life. One in every nine people goes to bed hungry each night, including 20 million people currently at risk of famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. About 9 million people die of hunger every year – that’s 25,000 a day. At the time of this writing, I would be very surprised if the death count of Covid-19 will reach that high.
The problem isn’t that there’s not enough food in the world – there is – the problem is that it is not worth it to those that have the food to give it to those who don’t. Put another way, 821 million people go hungry and 9 million of them die each year because the rest of us don’t care enough that they do. This is a systemic issue. A feature – not a bug – of capitalism. As long as we continue to practice global capitalism the way we have been, this will continue to happen.
To bring it closer to home, Covid-19 is highlighting other crises here in America. Many people are predicting domestic violence to spike because of quarantine. Our response to this crisis as a country was incredibly impaired due to the polarization of our social discourse – half of the country can’t talk to the other half (I examine this in detail in my last post). Even before Covid, America was in the midst of several “epidemics,” including obesity, opioid abuse, and child hunger. Our population is not a healthy one, despite our spending more money per capita on healthcare than any other country by a good bit. Perhaps the largest pre-existing crisis that Covid is both highlighting and exacerbating is economic inequality.
Per the American Payroll Association and the National Endowment for Financial Education, 74% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. In the wealthiest nation in the world. Examining the causes of economic inequality is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that they are systemic, and not just people making bad decisions. With many businesses closed due to quarantining, many people have lost their jobs and will run out of money. America’s social safety net is minimal compared to most other developed nations, and will be stretched to the ends of its ropes by this crisis. I will state, without making the case for it, that economic inequality is another feature, and not a bug, of capitalism. Furthermore, people living in poverty are much more likely to have already had health issues, and thus Covid-19 will be much more severe and deadly among the poor.
There are too many existential crises facing us as a species to go into them all, climate change, AI, ocean warming and acidification, and ecosystem loss being just a few of them. These, as the ones we explored above, are all consequences of what has up until now been the norm. Normal, our system of relating to each other globally known as capitalism, is the problem. And these crises, when they hit fully, will be far, far worse than Covid.
Luckily capitalism, like all our other social constructs, is not a fact of life but simply one out of many possible ways we could relate to each other. It is a choice. We can choose other possibilities. It is this knowledge, that we don’t have to accept the status quo, that we do have a choice, that I hope I get across in this post.
But it is we, the ordinary people, the 99%, who must make this choice. Real, meaningful change will not come from our so-called leaders. Our current leaders are in the position they are in because they have sought power and attained it, and it is this self-same pursuit of power that created the mess we now find ourselves in. Those in power will make only the bare minimum concessions to the rest of us, just enough to prevent outright revolt, while making no real changes to the underlying system that is the cause of all the symptoms.
The truth is, those in power are in power only because the rest of us agree that they are. The French Revolution, and the many revolutions that followed it, proved once and for all that the true power lies in the people. It is they who need us, not us who need them. They have gotten very good at tricking from us our agreement, but that is only because they need it so badly.
As Charles Eisenstein often points out, none of the challenges and crises facing us are technically difficult. We have all of the knowledge and technology that we need to solve them. What we lack is the political will. The system, and those that rise to the top of it, have failed us.
So, what are our alternatives? I will offer two different ones. One that I consider idealistic, and one that I consider realistic.
We collectively realize that we are all equal members of one human family. It is globally agreed upon that every human being deserves to have their basic needs met. This, and repairing the damage we’ve done to the environment, become the priorities of the world. This could look like:
Universal basic income for all humans on the planet
Universal healthcare for all humans on the planet
A wealth cap. Say $10M
An income cap. Say $1M/yr.
Removing fossil fuels from global supply chains as quickly as possible
This would entail massive relocalization, which is great for the environment and human well being (it restores the basis of community, which is just about destroyed here in America)
Eventually switching to a closed loop resource cycle.
Remove the economic necessity of growth by switching from our current debt-based money system to an alternative model, perhaps demurrage.
The global economy becomes centered on meeting the needs of each human, and preserving and restoring the environment.
As I said, idealistic.
The above does not happen. Not enough people are willing to challenge the status quo. Instead, we get disaster capitalism. The rich get richer, the poor die or get poorer. Covid-19 is used as the reason to increase totalitarian measures – increased surveillance, mandatory vaccinations, etc.
However, even though there isn’t a sufficient critical mass of people willing to challenge the status quo, this crisis is the final straw for some people. These people realize that the system is irredeemably broken, and start to look for alternatives to it. They realize the system is based on power-over dynamics and built on taking advantage of the weak. No longer wanting to contribute to it, they realize that if you’re not meeting your own needs yourself or locally, then you are dependent on and contributing to the system. There’s a new Back to the Land movement as more and more people reclaim their personal sovereignty by growing their own food. They realize that there is no freedom without food security.
These people realize that to directly fight the system is to lose. The only way to win is to not play the old game. They see the truth of Buckminster Fuller when he said, “In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.” As the old system and its stories fall apart, these people will be the seeds of what is to come.
Normal was not serving us. Rather than seek to return to it, let’s instead create The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.
Sensemaking is the process of making a reasonably accurate mental model of the world. We have information coming in from all over: from marketing, from government sources, from campaigning, from what our neighbors and friends tell us, our own senses, from social media, etc. We use that information to make sense of the world, to then make choices that are aligned with our goals, values, and what’s meaningful to us. What we hope is that the information that’s around us is mostly true and representative of reality so we can use it to make choices that will be effective. Good sensemaking is necessary for good choice making. It’s hard to get to your destination with an incomplete or inaccurate map.
Good sensemaking has become incredibly difficult in this day and age. Misinformation and disinformation abound; the information ecology has become incredibly polluted. The coronavirus crisis is a great demonstration of why good sensemaking is necessary and why a polluted information ecology is dangerous.
My life-path has been rather twisty and windy, which has brought me into contact with a wide assortment of different kinds of people. Many of them are friends of mine on Facebook and as a result I have seen a huge variety of responses to the coronavirus crisis. Additionally, I live in an intentional community of 70 people and get to hear and witness how they respond.
What I’ve seen is that a large percentage of people were/are not taking coronavirus seriously, for a number of different reasons.
It’s not a big deal
Lack of care for others
Just so we’re on the same page, let’s start with the basic facts of the matter. (Schmachtenberger provides a much more in depth look here ) If you’re familiar with the scientific consensus about the virus, feel free to skip ahead to the ‘Sensemaking’ heading. Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a novel virus that first showed up in Wuhan, China. Novel in this context means that no one has any immunity to it before being introduced to it which means that everyone can catch it and spread it. It is quite virulent, which means that it spreads quickly and easily. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.
Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
Before going into the numbers, to avoid doing poor sensemaking ourselves let’s talk about how reliable the numbers are. The main statistics being reported are the number of cases testing positive, the number of cases that present severe symptoms, the number of deaths, and the number of cases fully recovered.
The first thing to be aware of is that the number of cases testing positive does not reflect the number of people who actually have the virus. Especially here in the US there is a severe shortage of tests. I can’t find the source now, but I’ve seen estimates from experts that say there are from 10 to 50 times as many people who actually have the virus compared to the number of cases tested positive. This number is increasing exponentially every day.
Next, not everyone experiences symptoms. According to Forbes about 18% of people who contract coronavirus will show no symptoms. These people will likely not get tested, and thus will not show up in the statistics. This has the effect of skewing the numbers to look more dangerous than they actually are. The only people who are likely to be tested are those displaying more serious symptoms. Thus the percentage of people who have severe symptoms or end up dying will be disproportionately represented in the official numbers for a while to come, causing the reported statistics to be higher than they are in actuality. Therefore the WHO’s reported mortality rate of 3.4% is likely to be higher than the actual mortality rate. People who do not experience symptoms are still contagious and can pass on the virus to others.
Furthermore, not every country is sharing their numbers. Iran has not been transparent in reporting cases, etc. and there are people casting doubt on the accuracy of China’s numbers.
Recognizing the inherent unreliability of the numbers at this time, it’s still worthwhile to explore them. According to the WHO: “while most people with COVID-19 develop mild or uncomplicated illness, approximately 14% develop severe disease requiring hospitalization and oxygen support and 5% require admission to an intensive care unit to try to prevent the most severe complications including septic shock — a significant drop in blood pressure that can lead to stroke, heart or respiratory failure, failure of other organs or death.” These are the statistics that make coronavirus so dangerous. They also mean that 86% of people will be fine, at worst getting bad flu symptoms.
The reason these are the dangerous statistics is that 14% of the entire country is A LOT of people. The population of the US is pretty much 330 million people. 14% of 330 million is 46.2 million people. The number of staffed beds in all US hospitals is 924,107. 5% of 330 million is 16.5 million. The number of ICU beds available is 97,776. It is easy to see that we have far too few hospital beds and ICU beds available to treat everyone who needs them should everyone get sick at the same time. It would overwhelm our hospital system. It is also worth remembering that coronavirus is not the only reason that people need to go to the hospital, and many of those beds are already occupied.
To avoid overwhelming the hospital system, we need people to not get sick all at the same time. To do this, we need to slow the spread of the virus. You may have heard this referred to as “flattening the curve.”
Slowing how quickly the virus spreads will limit how many people get sick at any one given time. As the people who get sick first recover, the bed they were using would then be available for people who are just getting sick. As long as the number of sick people at any one given time stays under the number of available beds, there will be no unnecessary deaths.
What do I mean by unnecessary deaths? Some percentage of people will die despite getting the best treatment available. These deaths are unavoidable. There is another percentage of people that would live if they receive treatment, yet die if they don’t. These people are what all of the fuss is about. If someone dies from failing to receive treatment, their death was preventable. Unnecessary deaths = deaths that could have been prevented, but weren’t due to lack of treatment. So if the number of cases requiring hospitalization exceeds the number of available hospital beds unnecessary deaths are virtually guaranteed.
Slowing the spread of the virus so that the severe cases don’t overwhelm the hospital system is the only way to prevent these deaths. All of the measures being asked of us (handwashing, social distancing, closing businesses, etc.) are designed to slow the spread of the virus, and thus save lives. Thus us collectively doing these things is how we can best respond to this crisis responsibly.
Now, above I wrote “let’s start with the basic facts of the matter.” This brings us to the meat of this post. If we’re reading critically, we’ll see that I just brought in a number of assumptions. First, that there are such things as facts. This is an epistemological argument, and outside the scope of this post. Worth noting though. Much more relevant to the issue at hand is that by couching the information I share as facts I am claiming that they are true. By using the modifier ‘basic’ I am further implying that they are comprehensive and simple to understand. Now, I believe what I wrote above to be true. But what exactly does that mean?
The difference between true and truthful is an important distinction. When we say someone is being truthful, what we mean is, that what they are sharing maps to what they believe. There is a correspondence between the signal you’re communicating to me and what you believe is true. Breakdowns in truthfulness happen when people intentionally distort the information they give others. This can happen through lying, lying through omission, or lying through emphasis bias.
In general, if we say someone is saying that something is true, we don’t just mean that there’s a correspondence between what they’re saying and what they think, but there’s a correspondence between what they’re saying and independently verifiable reality. Someone can be truthful, meaning they’re saying what they believe, but what they’re saying is misinformed because it doesn’t correspond to independent reality. So they’re propagating the information honestly, but it is not true.
So these are two sources of misinformation: information that is untruthful, and truthful information that is untrue.
A third type of misinformation is representative. Which is, it’s possible for someone to be truthful – share exactly what they think is going on – and what they’re sharing is actually true – they’ve done epistemology and empirically validated what they’re saying, it maps to reality in some clear way – and yet the interpretation I get from that will still actually mislead me because the true information is not representative of the entire context – there is missing information.
For example in biotech, I can get a patent on a synthetic molecule but I can’t get a patent on a natural molecule. Therefore a lot more money is going to go into researching synthetic molecules compared to natural ones. Someone could then look at this and say, “There are not that many Phase III trials on herbs compared to pharma meds, so pharma meds must be superior.” Well, no, it’s a consequence of profit seeking in the pharmaceutical industry. Even with true information, preponderance of evidence will create problems for good sensemaking. This is true information that is being shared truthfully and yet is still misrepresentative of reality.
This then is the criteria for good information: it must be true, truthful, and representative.
This understanding established, I want to elaborate and say that the information I shared about Covid-19 is true to the best of my knowledge, that I’m being truthful and honest in sharing it, and that it is representative of the biological and social-health reality of the crisis.
But how can I claim that my information is true? I’m not a virologist. I didn’t count the hospital beds in the country. I’ve yet to personally witness anyone get sick. I am basing my information on what I’m being told by others.
This, right here, is the heart of the matter. How do we know what information to trust? This is what sensemaking is all about.
Broken information ecology means that we can’t trust that most of the information coming in is true, representative of reality, and will inform good choice making.
Where does information come from? Signals are being shared by people, and by groups of people that have shared agency like corporations, governments, political parties, religions, etc.
Why do people share information that is not true and representative of reality? This is a key thing to understand.
If I’m just in nature watching what’s happening with rabbits and trees and birds, I’m getting information about them that they aren’t even intending to transmit. So the information is just reflective of the nature of reality.
As soon as there’s an agent that can share information strategically, with an intention, then I don’t know if what they’re sharing is reflective of reality or if it’s reflective of what they think will advance their intention. The moment we have abstract signalling, which language allows us, along with the ability to forecast/model each other’s behavior, and your wellbeing and agency doesn’t seem to be coupled with my wellbeing and agency perfectly – there is now the incentive to mis/disinform. An example is cheating in a romantic relationship.
If I’m a marketer of a product, I want you to purchase it whether my product is actually the best product or not. Regardless of whether a competitor’s product is better, regardless of whether you need the product, I want you to think that you need it and that my product is the best.
When there’s a breakdown between what seems to be in my wellbeing and what seems to be in yours, whenever there’s a conflict of interest and there’s the ability to share information for strategic purposes, then there is potential for there to be signal that’s being shared that isn’t truthful. Where is this happening? Everywhere.
When you’re playing poker you learn how to bluff, because it’s not who has the best hand that wins, it’s who makes everyone else think that they have the best hand. Poker is a zero sum game, my win does not equal your win, my win is going to equal some other player’s loss. Because of this, I have an incentive to disinform you because information about reality is a competitive advantage.
This is the key way of thinking about it. Disinformation even happens in nature, with other animals. There are caterpillars whose tails look like a head to disinform birds so that they go to peck at the false head and the caterpillar might survive. Camouflage is a type of disinformation – it’s an attempt to not signal – because there are rivalrous dynamics between the caterpillar and the bird in this scenario.
Market dynamics are fundamentally rivalrous, meaning my balance sheet can get ahead of your balance sheet and that my balance sheet can get ahead even at the cost of hurting the commons. The goal of marketing is to compel the purchaser’s action in a particular way. Which means that companies want to do sensemaking for us because they want to influence our choices. They’re not interested in our sovereignty nor in our quality of life. They are interested in us thinking that they’re interested in our quality of life. They’re interested in us believing that their product will improve our quality of life. But whether it actually does or not they don’t care.
If they can sell us food that is very addictive, or cigarettes, or social media, or media, or porn, or whatever it is that actually decreases our baseline happiness but makes us need another hit, faster, and is addictive, that’s really good for lifetime revenue of a customer. Because their fiduciary responsibility is to maximize profitability for their shareholders, and so they need to maximize lifetime revenue of their customers multiplied by maximizing the customer base, addiction is the most profitable thing they can get. But this is never in the best interest of the customer.
Agents of all different kinds have incentive to mis/disinform others to attempt to get ahead. As a result the information ecology is incredibly polluted. Little information can be trusted. This is the key understanding.
Consequences of a Broken Information Ecology
Now many people don’t have the words to put to the ideas I just shared, but they know they’re being lied to somehow. On top of this, the modern world is incredibly complex. Far more complex than any one person can make sense of. In the face of mass disinformation and overwhelming complexity, it’s no wonder that most people give up on doing good sensemaking. That’s when we get simple heuristics like, “Don’t trust the government” and “Don’t trust the media.” It’s because our information ecology is so broken that Trump can simply say that anything he doesn’t like is ‘fake news’ and get away with it.
Thus, it is sad yet totally understandable to me that so many people are not taking COVID-19 seriously. After years of being told to be afraid of SARS and zika, etc. how is this any different?
This crisis highlights just how dangerous this can be. Because the truth (see what I did there?) is that there is a base reality that doesn’t care what you believe. Lots and lots of people are going to die unnecessarily due to our broken information ecology.
Especially towards the beginning of the pandemic I saw and heard quite a few people dismiss the reality of COVID-19. Claims that this was a cover-up to arrest pedophile elites, or just a ruse to introduce totalitarian measures.
From Charles Eisenstein:
Because Covid-19 seems to justify so many items on the totalitarian wish list, there are those who believe it to be a deliberate power play. It is not my purpose to advance that theory nor to debunk it, although I will offer some meta-level comments. First a brief overview.
The theories (there are many variants) talk about Event 201 (sponsored by the Gates Foundation, CIA, etc. last September), and a 2010 Rockefeller Foundation white paper detailing a scenario called “Lockstep,” both of which lay out the authoritarian response to a hypothetical pandemic. They observe that the infrastructure, technology, and legislative framework for martial law has been in preparation for many years. All that was needed, they say, was a way to make the public embrace it, and now that has come. Whether or not current controls are permanent, a precedent is being set for:
The tracking of people’s movements at all times (because coronavirus)
The suspension of freedom of assembly (because coronavirus)
The military policing of civilians (because coronavirus)
Extrajudicial, indefinite detention (quarantine, because coronavirus)
The banning of cash (because coronavirus)
Censorship of the Internet (to combat disinformation, because coronavirus)
Compulsory vaccination and other medical treatment, establishing the state’s sovereignty over our bodies (because coronavirus)
The classification of all activities and destinations into the expressly permitted and the expressly forbidden (you can leave your house for this, but not that), eliminating the un-policed, non-juridical gray zone. That totality is the very essence of totalitarianism. Necessary now though, because, well, coronavirus.
This is juicy material for conspiracy theories. For all I know, one of those theories could be true; however, the same progression of events could unfold from an unconscious systemic tilt toward ever-increasing control. Where does this tilt come from? It is woven into civilization’s DNA. For millennia, civilization (as opposed to small-scale traditional cultures) has understood progress as a matter of extending control onto the world: domesticating the wild, conquering the barbarians, mastering the forces of nature, and ordering society according to law and reason. The ascent of control accelerated with the Scientific Revolution, which launched “progress” to new heights: the ordering of reality into objective categories and quantities, and the mastering of materiality with technology. Finally, the social sciences promised to use the same means and methods to fulfill the ambition (which goes back to Plato and Confucius) to engineer a perfect society.
Those who administer civilization will therefore welcome any opportunity to strengthen their control, for after all, it is in service to a grand vision of human destiny: the perfectly ordered world, in which disease, crime, poverty, and perhaps suffering itself can be engineered out of existence. No nefarious motives are necessary. Of course they would like to keep track of everyone – all the better to ensure the common good. For them, Covid-19 shows how necessary that is. “Can we afford democratic freedoms in light of the coronavirus?” they ask. “Must we now, out of necessity, sacrifice those for our own safety?” It is a familiar refrain, for it has accompanied other crises in the past, like 9/11.
To rework a common metaphor, imagine a man with a hammer, stalking around looking for a reason to use it. Suddenly he sees a nail sticking out. He’s been looking for a nail for a long time, pounding on screws and bolts and not accomplishing much. He inhabits a worldview in which hammers are the best tools, and the world can be made better by pounding in the nails. And here is a nail! We might suspect that in his eagerness he has placed the nail there himself, but it hardly matters. Maybe it isn’t even a nail that’s sticking out, but it resembles one enough to start pounding. When the tool is at the ready, an opportunity will arise to use it.
And I will add, for those inclined to doubt the authorities, maybe this time it really is a nail. In that case, the hammer is the right tool – and the principle of the hammer will emerge the stronger, ready for the screw, the button, the clip, and the tear.
Either way, the problem we deal with here is much deeper than that of overthrowing an evil coterie of Illuminati. Even if they do exist, given the tilt of civilization, the same trend would persist without them, or a new Illuminati would arise to assume the functions of the old.
True or false, the idea that the epidemic is some monstrous plot perpetrated by evildoers upon the public is not so far from the mindset of find-the-pathogen. It is a crusading mentality, a war mentality. It locates the source of a sociopolitical illness in a pathogen against which we may then fight, a victimizer separate from ourselves. It risks ignoring the conditions that make society fertile ground for the plot to take hold. Whether that ground was sown deliberately or by the wind is, for me, a secondary question.What I will say next is relevant whether or not Covid-19 is a genetically engineered bioweapon, is related to 5G rollout, is being used to prevent “disclosure,” is a Trojan horse for totalitarian world government, is more deadly than we’ve been told, is less deadly than we’ve been told, originated in a Wuhan biolab, originated at Fort Detrick, or is exactly as the CDC and WHO have been telling us. It applies even if everyone is totally wrong about the role of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the current epidemic. I have my opinions, but if there is one thing I have learned through the course of this emergency is that I don’t really know what is happening. I don’t see how anyone can, amidst the seething farrago of news, fake news, rumors, suppressed information, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and politicized narratives that fill the Internet. I wish a lot more people would embrace not knowing. I say that both to those who embrace the dominant narrative, as well as to those who hew to dissenting ones. What information might we be blocking out, in order to maintain the integrity of our viewpoints? Let’s be humble in our beliefs: it is a matter of life and death.
Probably the most common thing that I’ve seen/heard is that people just don’t think COVID-19 will be a big deal. This is due to ignorance, both true and willful. For whatever reason, these people can’t be bothered to look into the issue themselves, and dismiss the attempts of others to get them to take it seriously. This is what happens when people give up on sensemaking.
This is further complicated because all of the preventative measures being asked of us are precisely to make it not a big deal. If quarantining is successful, and the curve is flattened, then those who didn’t take it seriously will be able to point to this and say, “See, told you.”
Lack of care for others
This is actually not bad sensemaking at all. Whoever that young person is, it’s hard to argue with their logic. This became especially more poignant with the many calls from conservatives to sacrifice lives to protect the economy.
What does good sensemaking look like?
Being open to being wrong
Understanding logic and rationality, when they are appropriate, and how they are to be applied
Finding people/sources who themselves do good sensemaking
Asking yourself if new information is compatible with what you currently believe to be true
Why we need good sensemaking
As a species, we’ve developed the capability to drastically affect each other and the rest of the biosphere. The Bomb, CRISPR, AI, rearranging entire ecosystems – we’ve gathered the power of the gods. For this to not be disastrous we must therefore have the wisdom of the gods.
The power we wield is largely collective. Climate change is due to the actions of no one individual, but instead the cumulative actions of each of us. This pandemic is the same. No one person is responsible for the spread of this illness – it is the result of many people’s actions.
Our power as a species comes from our coordination. Coordination comes from the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Money is a story. America is a story. Capitalism is a story. What we are witnessing are the consequences of the stories that have driven our social world for the last several millennia. The old stories are no longer serving us, and have actually been harming us for quite some time. And the stories we believe shape our actions.
The problems facing the world today are problems that are and will affect all of us. Climate change, automation, growing economic inequality, ocean acidification, desertification, risk of nuclear war, financial collapse – these are all systemic problems caused by the collective actions of many, if not all, of us. Their only solutions lie in similarly collective action.
Collective action requires coordination. Coordination can only truly come from voluntary assumption of roles and tasks. Coercion can also shape collective action, but there must be agents applying that coercion and these agents must voluntarily agree to do so.
Coordination requires communication and agreement. A goal must be agreed upon. A strategy must be agreed upon. A plan of action must be agreed upon. Those who agree to executing an action must actually follow through with it.
To gain this agreement without coercion, people must buy in to a story. So, what story is the right one? That is the purview of sensemaking. Before people will agree to a plan, they must agree to a story. Covid-19 as virus calls for very different action than Covid-19 as hoax. Before you can get people to voluntarily take on quarantine measures, you must convince them why they must take on quarantine measures. It is the responsibility of each of us to do the work of good sensemaking, so that we can make responsible choices. As more and more of us do proper sensemaking, the information ecology will become healthier and healthier, in turn making good sensemaking even easier.
The spread of Covid-19, especially here in the US, is far worse than it could have been. There are many measures that could have been taken to greatly reduce its impact on our country. The reason that these actions weren’t taken was due to poor choice making, which in turn was due to poor sensemaking, which itself in turn is due to the difficulty of good sensemaking in our polluted information ecology.
Yes, Trump failed as a leader, especially by down-playing the severity of the crisis until its reality was unavoidable. That said, we, each of us, are sovereign individuals. We could have taken action ourselves. We didn’t. Government (coercive) quarantine wouldn’t be necessary if people would voluntarily self quarantine.
We will only come to collective action if we can find a collective story. Until now this has seemed unlikely, as social discourse has become increasingly polarized. Perhaps this crisis is the wake up call we need.
Covid-19 as Example
Covid-19 is a global crisis. As such, it is simply one of many. What makes it stand out is its immediacy. Unlike climate change, ocean acidification, and deforestation (etc.), Covid-19 is fast acting and highly visible. And, as bad as it is, thankfully it seems to not be all that incredibly deadly. As such, it offers a great window into how the world can and will respond to future crises.
Just as the leaders of the US failed to handle this crisis well, global leaders are failing to handle the other crises bearing down on us. Let’s look into climate change as a counter example.
Just as there were people casting doubt on the validity of Covid-19, there are people casting doubt on the validity of climate change. Just as many governments around the world were too slow to act in responding to Covid-19, governments around the world are failing to act in time to avert climate change. Just as it takes a critical amount of people cooperating by quarantining to slow the spread of the virus and flatten the curve, it will take a critical amount of people making the necessary lifestyle changes to reduce the impact of climate change.
Covid-19 highlights the interconnectedness of the modern world. We are dependent upon each other. Quarantining to slow the spread only works if enough people do it. It takes a critical number of us. If only one person quarantined, it would be ineffective. That one person’s being responsible would be negated by everyone else’s being irresponsible. Same thing for climate change. Only one person giving up driving a car and flying on planes is not enough. In this connected world, certain of our actions are only effective if a large enough number of us do them.
Charles Eisenstein recently shared a phenomenal essay about Covid-19 (which I already quoted from above and very much recommend). It’s long, but it does a beautiful job of highlighting how Covid-19 has disrupted most of the habitual actions of our global civilization. This disruption gives us the chance to reconsider our habits and ask if they are serving us. We could try to return to the way things were. We could be facing increased totalitarianism and social control measures. Or we could decide that the old way of things was not working. Hopefully, this crisis has shown enough people that the human world is a socially constructed one, and is only upheld by enough people agreeing to those social constructs. So many things that those in power told us would be impossible to do were done quickly when they were threatened. The fact that people staying home from work has tanked the stock market shows that the true power lies in the people. The 1% need us, for they live only off of us. They don’t create value themselves, just appropriate it from others.
I do not believe that those currently in power are looking out for the well being of all. Meaningful change will not come from the top. If it is to happen at all, it must come from each of us.
In order for us to take our power back, we must come up with a new global story that we can all get behind. Only then will we be able to take the collective actions necessary to face the coming crises that will make this one look tame in comparison. To come up with this new global story we must first do good sensemaking, individually and collectively. So, what do you believe to be true, and why do you believe it? Are you open to being wrong? Are those you trust worthy of that trust?
Meat is, of course, produced by industrial agriculture (IA), and the meat thus produced – IA meat – is absolutely bad for the planet and for the health of those consuming it. IA meat makes up almost all of the meat that is produced today, and thus it is very understandable that meat in general seems terrible for the environment – most people don’t realize that there is meat that isn’t produced by IA.
It is very important to recognize, however, that plant-based IA is also terrible for the planet. This often goes unacknowledged by those advocating for vegan and vegetarian diets.
Before going into the details of these distinctions, I want to acknowledge the truth – to the extent that they are true – of the many articles and studies that claim that meat is terrible for the planet. The meat available in grocery stores (IA meat) is terrible for the planet, period. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) are hell-holes of animal cruelty and disease, as are IA slaughterhouses. IA beef, as an example, takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. IA figured out that chickens would eat their own shit if it was mixed with enough molasses and salt. IA meat is absolutely worse for the planet than IA plant-based foods. In South America they are cutting/burning down the Amazon to make room for more pasture for cattle. These things acknowledged, let’s now examine how these facts don’t tell the whole story.
The primary misleading assumption is that IA is taken as a given. Given the choice between IA meat and IA plant-based foods, the choice is clear: IA plant-based foods are more humane and better for the planet. But this is a false dichotomy. IA plant-based foods are still inhumane, terrible for the planet, and terrible for people’s health. IA plant-based foods are heavily reliant on fossil fuels and IA plant agriculture is unsustainable.
So it is not meat production and consumption in and of itself that is harmful but instead the constellation of bad practices that comprise industrial agriculture. Let’s now dig into how exactly IA plant-based foods are problematic:
Large amounts of fossil fuel are required to power heavy farming machinery, to process foods, to refrigerate foods during transportation, to produce packaging materials, and to manufacture and transport chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers containing nitrogen are particularly fossil-fuel-intensive; production and transport of 1 lb of nitrogen releases an average of 3.7 lbs of CO 2 into the atmosphere.
A tremendous amount of energy is also used to transport our food. As a result of the development of centralized industrial agricultural operations and the corresponding disappearance of local family farms, food is now shipped extraordinarily long distances before it reaches your dinner plate. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, food and agricultural products (not including imported or exported foods) are transported 566 billion ton-miles within U.S. borders each year, constituting more than 20% of total U.S. commodity transport. In 1969, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that, on average, food traveled 1,346 miles. Another study conducted in 1980 determined that fresh produce traveled 1,500 miles!
Furthermore, an increasing quantity of food is now being transported internationally; in 1998, a total of 172 million tons of food were shipped into and out of the U.S.10 In 2001, the U.S. imported 39% of all fruits, 12% of vegetables, 40% of lamb, and 78% of fish and shellfish. This excessive and unnecessary food transportation requires the consumption of large quantities of fossil fuel, thus polluting the environment and damaging human health. Lengthy food transport also generates additional energy expenditures by creating the need for increased food packaging, processing, and refrigeration.
If we recognize that we have to cease all carbon emissions, relying on an agricultural system that depends on fossil fuels is insane.
Monoculture and artificial fertilizer
IA plant-based foods are essentially synonymous with monoculture. Monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area. Think endless rows of corn, soybeans, and wheat. This is obviously not a natural state, and there are many problematic consequences of practicing it.
First, to create cropland one must destroy an ecosystem. Instead of a forest or a prairie, there is now a field. Instead of many birds, animals, and plants, there is now one. Monoculture is the exact opposite of diversity, and diversity is necessary for a healthy environment. There’s a lot of death and destruction that goes into creating cropland.
Monoculture breaks the cycle of life. Simplified: the soil feeds the plants, the plants feed the animals, and the animals feed the soil. Growing for market entails taking from the soil – from the land – and not giving back to it (because it’s shipped far away). This is unsustainable. In order to grow, plants require nutrients. The big three are nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus. When plants are grown and harvested, the nutrients are taken from the soil, which then has fewer nutrients for the next crop. Continue this for too long and the soil becomes barren – it will no longer grow crops. To rejuvenate the soil, nutrients must be added back to it – this is what we call fertilizer. Non-monocultured soil is fertilized by dead plants and animals, and animal feces. Monocultured soil misses out on most of these inputs.
Back in the early twentieth century we were starting to run out of nutrients in our soils, which was resulting in diminishing crop yields. This problem was overcome (at least for the time), with the Haber-Bosch process, which allowed us to “fix” nitrogen out of the atmosphere, at the expense of immense heat and pressure fueled by natural gas. The Haber-Bosch process was discovered as the result of a multi-year, focused, competitive effort responding to the widespread fear of food scarcity.
The Haber-Bosch process has dramatically changed the face of agriculture and with it the face of our planet. The introduction of nitrogenous fertilizers and their increasing application had a dramatic impact on grain yields. Together with new high yielding, short-stalked varieties and chemical protection, yields of wheat and rice worldwide eventually tripled and quadrupled during the 20th century (Smil 2011). The availability of these fertilizers also opened the door for farms to move away from the proven and millennia-old system of cycling and re-cycling nutrients and organic matter in each farm. Diversified farms growing crops for humans, soil-building crops for livestock where the manure was applied back onto the land had been the norm. Now it suddenly became possible to look at a farm in a much more linear way, importing plant nutrients and exporting crops. Industrial monocultures began to take over. Farms moved away from being diversified and multi-dimensional and the `modern’ corn-soybean crop farm took over. Also the disconnecting of animal husbandry from the land and from crop growing set the stage for the so-called CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). What used to be the perfect “marriage” between cropping and livestock turned into two serious problems, the need to import expensive fertilizer into farms and the necessity to dispose of animal manure. A much-valued resource, `black gold’ has suddenly become a waste disposal problem (Pollan 2006, Montgomery 2007, Hager 2008). Haber-Bosch also made possible the `Green Revolution’, which transformed agriculture during the mid 1900’s in many so-called developing countries. This massive technology transfer of a more industrial style agriculture rested on the availability and application of nitrogen fertilizer.
The increased yields worldwide supported the rapidly expanding global population, which grew by 5 billion between 1900 and 2000. The number of humans supported per hectare of arable land has increased from 1.9 to 4.3 persons from 1908 to 2008 (Zmaczynski 2012). Today our world food supply has become very dependent on anthropogenic nitrogen. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers supply just over half of the need of our world’s crops (Smil 2011).
Without this industrial nitrogen our soils today simply could not grow enough food to provide for our current dietary needs. While this fact might be a reason to celebrate, it does come at a higher and higher price. The increasing application of soluble nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides into soils and environment brings with it serious ecological challenges in the form of emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, as well as ground water contamination and surface water eutrophication (Smil 2001, Smil 2011, Charles 2013). The well-documented `dead zones’ in the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea have gained infamous notoriety, among countless other examples. Additionally, industrial agriculture and the `Green Revolution’ have had other dramatic negative, unforeseen and unintended consequences. Socio-economically, with the advent of industrial agriculture came the disruption and weakening of traditional farming systems and the communities and local economies they were embedded in (Berry 1986, Shiva 1991). The significance of Haber-Bosch in our current world can hardly be overstated.
The energy and hydrogen required to power the Haber-Bosch process are provided by fossil fuels, which are of course problematic and unsustainable.
The Haber process now produces 450 million tonnes of nitrogen fertilizer per year, mostly in the form of anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and urea. The Haber process consumed 3–5% of the world’s natural-gas production (around 1–2% of the world’s energy supply). The Haber–Bosch process is one of the largest contributors to a buildup of reactive nitrogen in the biosphere, causing an anthropogenic disruption to the nitrogen cycle. Since nitrogen use efficiency is typically less than 50%, farm runoff from heavy use of fixed industrial nitrogen disrupts biological habitats. Nearly 50% of the nitrogen found in human tissues originated from the Haber–Bosch process.
Monocultures are also vastly more susceptible to diseases and pests than polycultures are. Thus they require herbicides like Bayer’s RoundUp (glyphosate), fungicides, and pesticides. These are toxic, and end up in the soil and water harming humans and other life.
You might be thinking that you can avoid the above issues by buying non-GMO organic. You’d be partially correct, as non-GMO organic is less problematic. It’s still however quite problematic. Most of the issues with monoculture still pertain to organic plant-based foods. Large amounts of fossil fuels are still required to grow, preserve, and transport it.
Organic farming, as it is practiced now in the U.S, is largely reliant on the very synthetic fertilizers and the confined animal feeding operations that it prohibits. The link in this reliance is animal manure and the key nutrient is [once again] nitrogen.
The exception to this is of course if you buy from local farmers whose methods you trust. But how many people buy exclusively from local farmers? And even then they are still using fossil fuels, as we all are. And as the above link points out, pretty much any farmer growing for market benefits from synthetic nitrogen fixing.
IA plant based agriculture also draws heavily on water resources. The reason California has droughts and water issues is the same reason as why the Ogallala aquifer that feeds America’s breadbasket is running out: IA agriculture uses more water than is sustainable. Addressing water scarcity would take an entire blog post on its own, but is a huge deal, and IA is a huge contributor to it.
In short, IA plant-based foods are neither healthy nor sustainable. When articles tell you to stop eating meat, this is what they want you to support instead.
And believe it or not, there are viable sources of healthy meat. In fact, when done properly animal husbandry is good for the planet. I’ll even take it one step further and say that responsible animal husbandry is actually crucial to the future of agriculture.
Let’s start by talking about cows. Cows and beef get a lot of bad press, for example, the statistic I quoted above that it takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. The argument goes that this grain could instead go to feeding people directly. Ignoring the fact that no human would want to eat the grain that gets fed to cows, let’s instead talk about how cows shouldn’t be eating grain in the first place. They should only be eating what they evolved to eat, which is motherfuckin’ grass.
Cows are incredible. They are renewable solar energy sources. They turn sunlight into beef and dairy. Grass, unlike monocultures, requires very little management. Now you might say here, plants turn sunlight into food even more efficiently. You are of course correct, but you might not be aware that pasture is not the same as cropland.
Pasture =/= Cropland
Intact grasslands inhabited by herds of large herbivores have a tremendous capacity to sequester carbon in the soil. Data in terms of tons of carbon per hectare is hard to pinpoint because estimates obtained through measurement and modeling vary by several orders of magnitude, depending on geological conditions, rainfall, types of grasses and whether they are cut, and the presence or absence of herd animals (whether wild or domesticated livestock). Furthermore, sequestered carbon can remain in the soil for varying lengths of time. Some carbon-containing soil organic matter decomposes in a year or two, much of it remains in the soil for a few decades, and some isn’t recycled back into the atmosphere for thousands of years (if ever). The ten-foot-thick topsoil of the American Midwest (much eroded today) testifies to the ability of grasslands to store carbon underground.
The highest carbon storage comes from native grass mixes occupied by large, roaming herds of herbivores. Sadly, 97 percent of the original North American highgrass prairie has been converted to cropland, suburbs, and sown pasture. Originally covering 70 million hectares, its carbon-regulating capacity was enormous. Judging by the data, albeit sparse, coming from management-intensive grazing practices that seek to replicate natural herbivore grazing behavior, it is conceivable that highgrass prairie could sequester 8–20 tons of carbon per hectare per year. Today, instead, most of this land is a carbon emitter, because it is cultivated for crops. Plow-based cultivation that exposes bare soil to the air, water, and wind makes its organic matter (carbon) available for oxidation. A similar story has transpired in the steppes of Asia, the veldts of Africa, the pampas of South America, and so on. According to the FAO, up to a third of global grassland has already been degraded. What could be a carbon sink is becoming an emissions source.
Charles Eisenstein, Climate, A New Story
Furthermore, not all soil is the same, and there is plenty of soil that is unsuitable for growing crops yet grows grass well. Thus, done properly, cow pasture does not compete with cropland, and expands the amount of land that is able to contribute to human food.
As mentioned above, large ruminants (i.e. cows, bison, etc.) play a crucial role in healthy grasslands. Their main contribution is their heavy hoofprint which presses grasses down into the soil, thus sequestering carbon, but their poop also contributes. What makes a ruminant a ruminant is that they have four stomachs that allow them to ferment grass inside themselves, growing bacteria, which is what actually provides them nutrition and energy.
Rumens are meant to digest leafy plant matter. In the case of cows, mostly grass. Their stomachs are not meant to digest grain, nor do they handle it well. Thus, it makes little sense to be feeding cows grain. IA does it because it causes them to gain weight faster, with higher fat content, at the expense of their health.
As large ruminants, cows in particular have a huge roll to play in regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is practicing agriculture in such a way that it is not only sustainable, but actually regenerates the land upon which it is practiced. An example would be reclaiming the land now used for cropland in the American high plains and restoring it to prairie. This would stop the carbon emissions that cropland causes, and start to once again sequester carbon. Since the American Bison was hunted close to extinction to remove it as a food source for Native Americans by colonizers, cows will be very helpful in restoring the prairie. Cows are also incredibly useful for building soil and soil health in any grassland setting when managed properly. Pastures sequester more carbon than do forests.
Carbon sequestration is important for more than just fighting climate change, it also makes for better, healthier soil. In the soil, carbon is commonly referred to as ‘organic matter content’ and is one of the primary things that determines how healthy soil is. This is because carbon enters the soil in the form of plant matter, which then becomes food for the bacteria and insects that make soil alive. Soil with high organic matter content can also absorb much more water during rainfall, making less runoff and therefore less soil erosion.
Pigs and Chickens
The main two other meats that we eat are pork and chicken. IA pork and chicken are way worse in pretty much every way than IA beef. Given the choice between IA pork and chicken and IA beef, I’d choose IA beef every time, both in terms of my own health and that of the planet.
Outside of IA, however, both pigs and chickens have valuable contributions to make to a holistically managed farm. Pigs turn compost into bacon and lard, and chickens remove insect pests and produce eggs and meat. Pigs also can provide value by working the land. Look up Joel Salatin for more information. They can be raised in a way that is beneficial for the land, and provide valuable nutrition.
Done properly, animal husbandry is much more labor efficient than plant-based agriculture in terms of calories and nutrition produced (Outside of IA. Of course it’s more labor efficient in terms of man-hours to have fossil fuels do all the work). I don’t know how many people have ever tried to completely feed themselves out of a garden, but gardening is long and hard work. Properly managed animals require a lot less time.
If you actually care about the planet, the thing to do is stop supporting the Industrial Agriculture system. This, however, is harder than it sounds. It pretty much means that you stop buying food in the grocery store. And since that’s where pretty much everyone gets their food, it’s a tall order.
However it’s easier and easier to support local, regenerative agriculture. There are CSA’s (community supported agriculture) all over the place, likely near you. Most metropolitan areas will also have access to a butcher that sources local, healthy meat.
One way or another, at some point we will no longer use natural gas to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. We might stop when we realize that burning fossil fuels is no longer tenable. At the very least we’ll stop when we run out of natural gas at some point in the future. By being dependent on a non-renewable resource, the Haber-Bosch process is by definition unsustainable. A sustainable agricultural system will need animals, especially cows, to maintain soil fertility.
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”
In this quote Thoreau is referring to philanthropy as practiced in his time, yet I feel it is relevant today in an even broader sense.
The United States is a house divided. Never before has our social discourse been so polarized. The Left and the Right cannot even speak to each other. Both sides feel under attack. Both sides are scared. Each side feels like the other is the Enemy.
There are countless problems in the country and the world, all existing simultaneously. The Left is killing unborn babies. The Right is dictating control of women’s bodies. The Left wants the country to be overrun by immigrants. The Right is tearing children from their parents. The Left wants to make it harder for people to earn an honest living. The Right wants to destroy the environment and kill us all through climate change. The Left wants to take the money of working people and give it to lazy slackers who don’t contribute. The Right wants to destroy the social safety net. And so many more.
My contention in this post is that all of these issues, and any future issue that is the focus of national attention for a news cycle, are branches of evil. This doesn’t mean that they’re not important, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about them, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything about them. What it means is that these issues are symptoms, rather than causes.
Let’s take the hot issue right now – kids in detention centers being taken from their parents and abused. Is it terrible? Absolutely. But why is it happening? The Left says it’s because Trump’s administration is heartless and cruel. The Right says it’s because illegal immigrants are trying to come here with no respect to our laws and take hard-working Americans’ jobs away from them. To an extent, both of these narratives are true. Both they are both incomplete.
Why are these people trying to come to the US? Because they are seeking a better life. Why are they seeking a better life? Because their old lives were shit. That’s the only reason you’d walk your family thousands of miles to an uncertain future. Why were their old lives shit? For a number of reasons, but the biggest is that foreign (mainly US) corporations, with the help of the US government, have been taking their resources and destabilizing their governments.
…we must also acknowledge the role that a century of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability, and violence that now drives people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras toward Mexico and the United States. For decades, U.S. policies of military intervention and economic neoliberalism have undermined democracy and stability in the region, creating vacuums of power in which drug cartels and paramilitary alliances have risen.
From John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man:
I was hoping to end a war I had helped create. As is the case with so many things we [Economic Hit Men] must take responsibility for, it is a war that is virtually unknown anywhere outside the country where it is fought. I was on my way to meet with the Shuars, the Kichwas, and their neighbors the Achuars, the Zaparos, and the Shiwiars—tribes determined to prevent our oil companies from destroying their homes, families, and lands, even if it means they must die in the process. For them, this is a war about the survival of their children and cultures, while for us it is about power, money, and natural resources. It is one part of the struggle for world domination and the dream of a few greedy men, global empire.
Ecuador is in far worse shape today  than she was before we introduced her to the miracles of modern economics, banking, and engineering. Since 1970, during this period known euphemistically as the Oil Boom, the official poverty level grew from 50 to 70 percent, under- or unemployment increased from 15 to 70 percent, and public debt increased from $240 million to $16 billion. Meanwhile, the share of national resources allocated to the poorest segments of the population declined from 20 to 6 percent.
During this same period, the indigenous cultures began fighting back. For instance, on May 7, 2003, a group of American lawyers representing more than thirty thousand indigenous Ecuadorian people filed a $1 billion lawsuit against ChevronTexaco Corp. The suit asserts that between 1971 and 1992 the oil giant dumped into open holes and rivers over four million gallons per day of toxic wastewater contaminated with oil, heavy metals, and carcinogens, and that the company left behind nearly 350 uncovered waste pits that continue to kill both people and animals.
Trying to help the families in detention centers on the border is all well and good, but it does not address the conditions that created the situation in the first place. By enjoying the resources that our corporations have taken from Latin America and paying taxes to a government that has overthrown democratically elected presidents to install military dictators friendly to US corporate interests, we are the cause of the very problem we are now trying to fix. Even if we were to somehow rescue and save all of the families currently in the detention centers, there will be more. Cutting down a branch without digging out the root is a temporary solution at best. There will soon be another branch.
So what is the root? In the case of immigrants in the detention centers, it’s US corporate and governmental pillaging of Latin America. Even more broadly though, I put forth that almost all worldly injustice has a foundation of economic injustice. As long as there is economic injustice (the root), it will breed countless other forms of injustice (the branches). Where does ecological destruction come from? Short-sighted pursuit of profit. Where does racial injustice come from? Historically, slavery was obviously an economic endeavor, and today the main fear of immigrants is that they will take current citizens’ jobs – again, economics. Helen Fischer in her fascinating book The Anatomy of Love makes a very compelling case that the injustice between men and women was first started with the adoption of the plow 4,000 years ago which created an economic imbalance between the sexes. This economic imbalance persists to this day, and is behind most of the injustices that men perpetuate on women. Why is there sex trafficing? $$$. Why are there starving children? Because they have nothing to offer to trade for food. Perhaps the one type of injustice that economics don’t play a large role in is LGBTQ+ issues, and even here I have a suspicion that economic issues do factor in somehow.
To put it all into a word, it’s capitalism. Capitalism as practiced today, and the scarcity that inevitably accompanies it, can reasonably be said to be behind almost all modern injustice. What’s much harder to swallow is that by participating in capitalism, we first world citizens create the demand that is the fuel for the world destroying machine. We Americans have cheap gas because we kill innocent civilians in the Middle East and support cruel dictators there as long as they allow us access to their oil. We have cheap clothes and shoes because they are made by women and children in horrifying conditions. Our cellphones are made in factories that more closely resemble prisons and which have nets installed to catch people attempting to escape by suicide. We destroy the earth and sea digging for fossil fuels and valuable metals. All so that we can have air conditioning and Netflix. In other words, we are “doing the most by [our] mode of life to produce that misery which [we] strive in vain to relieve.”
Now we did not choose capitalism, we were born into it. Most of our affluence and privilege is never even thought of, it simply is The Way Things Are. Growing up my family used A/C in our house, because why wouldn’t we? In many places you need a car simply to live. But we can no longer claim ignorance. A casual look at any problem of the world, much less all of them, reveals that things cannot continue as they have been.
As an individual, there’s very little most of us can do to directly help the immigrants in the detention centers. Unless you’re a doctor or such with the available time, probably the most you could do is donate to the ACLU. Most of us will probably voice our disapproval on social media and call it a day.
What you can do as an individual, however, is stop contributing to the conditions that created the current immigrants and thus prevent a similar thing from happening to others. This is how you strike the root. What does stopping contributing to capitalism look like? Many things.
A simple heuristic is to seek to meet as many of your needs as possible outside of the money system. Food offers an easy example. By growing your own food, you prevent a great amount of injustice. Bananas are instructional. Banana plantations are often hotbeds of human rights abuses. Bananas must also be shipped to the US using fossil fuels. By no longer buying bananas, you are no longer personally culpable for that expenditure of fossil fuel nor the market demand that fuels human rights abuses. (Sorry to ruin bananas for you) A much more domestic example is corn and soy in the US. Monocropped industrial agriculture is terrible for the planet, farmers, and your health. And corn and soy are in almost everything. Similarly, ditching your car for a bike relieves you of the culpability for all of the death and destruction that accompanies oil production.
Thinking along this line however quickly reveals how hard what I’m asking is. Most Americans meet pretty much all of their needs through the money system. To meet your needs without using money would require a radical restructuring of your life. Most of us would have no idea how to even start going about this.
It’s easy to point a finger at the other side and make them the bad guys. It’s easy and it feels good. Self righteousness is seductive. What’s not easy is to look in the mirror and recognize that you may have been out of integrity.
Perhaps though, recognizing these truths might grant us some grace for others. Underneath our seemingly unbridgeable differences, we’re all the same. We’re all looking for the same things. We all want to feel safe. We all want to love and be loved. We all want respect. Perhaps recognizing the ways in which our lifestyle choices are out of integrity can help us understand and have empathy for the choices of others. This is a hard time to be a human. There is so much suffering in the world today. But fighting each other is not the answer.
I believe that the world’s problems will only be getting worse. I further believe that the solution to them lies not in authority or an institution, but in each of us taking personal responsibility for the consequences of our lifestyles. This is difficult because we humans are loss adverse, meaning that losing $100 feels way worse than gaining $100 feels good. This applies to us first world citizens because we have a lot of privilege and affluence, and letting it go will feel like a loss. It is not easy.
When the next outrage is reported in the news, rather than blaming someone else, I encourage you to examine how your lifestyle may have contributed to it.
An idea for a new law: next to every normal price tag
must be an “Energy Price Tag” that tells you how much energy was
spent to get that item/service to where it is – in other words its
cost in terms of energy.
First, a brief digression into what I mean by energy.
In this post when I refer to energy I will mean in the physical
sense, i.e. as defined by science/physics. Energy is the ability to
do work. There are a large number of units that all measure energy.
The SI unit for energy is the joule. Energy is also given in terms
of: BTUs, kWh, calories, and other units.
Why would we want to do this?
Because it would raise awareness around energy
consumption. Most people have no idea how much energy it takes for
our economy to function as it currently does, and this would make it
far more transparent. It would make it much easier for people to
factor in environmental costs to their purchasing decisions.
For example, pre-industrial agriculture was an energetically positive endeavor. What I mean by this is that more energy was gained by eating the food than was spent to grow it. This is not the case for modern industrial agriculture, which is completely reliant on fossil fuels. Now on average 12-15 Calories of energy from fossil fuels are spent to create one Calorie of food. This results in a huge net energy loss.
How would this work in practice?
Businesses at each step of the supply chain would be
responsible for monitoring and reporting the energy that goes into
their process/product. It would be the energetic equivalent of a
value added tax – without the tax.
There would of necessity be some sort of compliance
enforcement. Perhaps the IRS could be expanded to include energy
monitoring, or there could be independent firms that do the same
thing, like accounting firms today.
Once the system was in place, it would be simple for
the last step in the supply chain to add up the energy cost of the
previous steps, add their energy cost to it, and then display it for
What would the difficulties of implementing this
Most of the
difficulty in implementing this new law would be in getting the
necessary systems to do so up and running. A standard would have to
be created and agreed upon, and then some kind of monitoring agency
would have to be created. Businesses would have to implement new
processes to determine and then monitor their energy usage.
and reporting energy use would be an added burden on corporations,
they will be opposed to doing so. Corporations will almost certainly
lobby against this, should this idea ever make it into potential law.
difficulty would be that this would have to happen world-wide.
Because supply chains are so globalized, instituting this law in just
one country wouldn’t work. However, it would really only take a
handful of the largest economies to insist on this rule for it to be
What might the consequences of implementing this
and especially if this effort is accompanied by an educational
campaign, consumers would display some amount of preference for lower
energy cost goods and services. For a (made up) example, if a bottle
of Coke and Pepsi cost the same amount of money, but it takes twice
as much energy to create that bottle of Coke than that of Pepsi, some
amount of people might decide to purchase the Pepsi on the basis of
its lower Energy Price Tag (EPT). All other things being equal, I
imagine that most people would chose the energetically cheaper
option. I can even see people being willing to pay more money for a
product with a significantly lower EPT.
If the above bears
out, this could have all kinds of eco-friendly effects. Companies
might start advertising that their product is energetically cheaper
than their competitors’. Companies would be incentivized to be more
energy efficient. Local goods would almost always be energetically
cheaper than foreign goods, and thus there would be some amount of
incentive to shop local which is good both ecologically and socially.
New machinery would almost always be more energy expensive than
repairing old machinery, and thus EPT might help combat planned
I glossed over it
earlier, but coming up with standards to properly measure energy
usage and then allocate it appropriately among goods and services
will not always be easy and in some cases could be incredibly
difficult. For example, how would one allocate the energy spent
researching a new pharmaceutical over the pills it leads to? This
might require two separate EPTs, one covering the manufacture and
transport of those individual pills and another noting the net
research energy cost. However, I think the time and energy it takes
to do so will be well worth it.
In my initial
conception of this idea, I think it would be best to only measure and
account for non-biological sources of energy (fossils fuels not being
considered biological). Thus fossil fuels, wind, solar, geothermal,
etc. would all factor into EPT, while human and animal physical labor
would not. An exception to this would be biofuels such as ethanol.
The EPT of biofuels would only measure the energy that went into
growing them, not the energy that they captured from the sun.
Determining the EPT
of energy itself would be another interesting case. Perhaps noting
that energy source’s EROI (energy return on energy invested) would be
sufficient. Dividing the amount of energy you use from a given source
by its EROI would give the EPT of that amount of energy.
It is also worth
keeping in mind what EPT would leave out. EPT would not measure
ecosystem degradation or destruction. EPT would not account for
socially disruptive practices. EPT would not measure humans rights
abuses such as sweatshops, and perversely would actually incentivize
them. Perhaps this could be addressed by requiring sweatshop use
disclosure in products.
I’m sure there of
many considerations I haven’t thought of, and would love to hear from
you if you think of one.
It would not occur to anyone to question the statement that we ‘need’ iodine or Vitamin C. I remind you that the evidence that we ‘need’ love is of exactly the same type.
– Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being
This is the first of a series of Case Study posts. The Story of Progress would have us believe that things have never been better than they are now. While modern living does have advantages, I would contend that they are less and fewer than many believe. These Case Studies will highlight things we have lost as we have pursued modernity.
In the 1960’s the small town of Roseto, PA offered a puzzle to the U.S. medical establishment. The residents of Roseto did everything you’re not supposed to do, and yet were far healthier than the U.S. in general and neighboring towns in particular.
In 1964 a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined a population of recent Italian immigrants in Roseto, a small town in the state of Pennsylvania. The study was instigated because the town doctor was completely baffled by the Rosetans’ near immunity to heart disease. He reported his observation and an extensive statistical population study funded by American State and Federal governments was conducted.
The study compared health statistics of Rosetans to neighbouring towns and the initial results were astonishing. During the seven year period of study from 1955-1961:
No-one in Roseto under the age of 47 died of a heart attack; there was a complete absence of heart disease in men under the age of 55
The rate of heart attacks in men over 65 was half the national average
The death rates from all causes was 35% lower than anywhere else
The study confirmed the town doctor’s findings and went on to examine the factors that gave the Rosetans such improved health. It became known as the ‘The Roseto Effect’.
So what gave the Rosetans a near imperviousness to heart disease?
Well, the researchers asked the same question and first looked at the most obvious factor – diet. Being Italian immigrants, the researchers thought that the Rosetans must be eating a healthy ‘Mediterranean’ diet of fish, olive oil and fresh vegetables. Not so – in fact the researchers discovered that the Rosetans did not have enough money for fish and ate high fat meatballs and sausages, with an average fat intake of up to 40% of their entire diet! And the fats weren’t your ‘healthy’ types of fat, for the Rosetans liked to fry all of their food in good old lard.
The researchers then thought that surely if diet was not the contributing factor than it must be lifestyle, so they looked at how the Rosetans spent their leisure and work time. It turns out that the Rosetans were very hard workers but mostly worked in slate quarries or mines, which were renowned for having extremely harsh working conditions with high rates of on-site accidents. As for leisure time, the Rosetans loved their wine and cigars and consumed both with reckless abandon.
So let’s get this straight – the Rosetans had extremely low to no heart disease, yet they ate red meat deep-fried in lard, smoked and drank heavily, and worked in toxic slate mines? Yep.
This also had the researchers totally stumped as well and they studied all other possible factors such as ethnicity, water supply, environment, you name it. In the end, the researchers concluded that the unusually low incidence of heart disease in the town could not be attributed to any of these factors.
While living in the town to conduct the study however, the researchers observed several major differences as to how the Rosetans related to others in their community. They noticed a remarkably close-knit social pattern that was cohesive and mutually supportive with strong family and community ties, where the elderly in particular were not marginalised, but revered. Put simply, the Rosetans lived in brotherhood with one another.
So the researchers instead suggested that “the quality of family relationships and the social milieu may be pertinent to the occurrence of or protection against death from myocardial infarction.”
When investigators sought to unravel Roseto’s secret they conclusively determined it to be the ties of family and community in Roseto. What made Roseto different than neighboring towns and America in general was that it was peopled exclusively by close knit Italian American families who still practiced their Old Country ways.
Each house studied contained three families, or three generations. The elderly were neither institutionalized nor marginalized, but were “installed” as informal judges and arbitrators in everyday life and commerce. 80% of Rosetan men were members of at least one community organization.
Rosetans, regardless of income and education, expressed themselves in a family-centered social life. There was a total absence of ostentation among the wealthy, meaning that those who had more money didn’t flaunt it. There was nearly exclusive patronage of local businesses, even with nearby bigger shops and stores in other towns. The Italians intermarried in Roseto, from regional cities in Italy. Families were close knit, self-supportive and independent, but also relied…in bad times…on the greater community for well-defined assistance and friendly help.
Because they supported each other, they did not need outside assistance. There was no crime rate and few applications for social assistance (then called Relief). That’s not a typo… there was a zero crime rate (meaning no reported crimes) and no files for any emergency relief. “Back then everybody knew everyone else,” said Michael Romano, 62, the borough council president. “If you walked down the street and you were doing something wrong, the parents didn’t have a problem disciplining someone else’s child. It’s not that way today.”
In 1963, the investigators made a prescient observation: they believed that as Rosetans became more Americanized (meaning less close, less modest, and less interdependent), they would also become less healthy. The wearing off of the now famous “Roseto” effect would be apparent within a generation. And so it was.
In the 1970’s, the region was suburbanized, including Roseto. Single family homes, fenced yards, and country clubs were brought in. The social ties weakened and then started to fail. A 1992 survey, as published in the American Journal of Public Health, confirmed this sad prediction. The officials of the AJPH, no doubt beguiled by Roseto’s fate, descended on the town yet again. Again the investigators rifled through the death records of Roseto, and again they compared them with the surrounding towns of Nazareth and Bangor. The result: the Rosetans now suffer equally from the ravages of heart disease as every other town does, in the vicinity or not.
In fact, the wearing away of intra-marriages (Italian to Italian), the dismantling of the social ties between family and community, the adoption of conspicuous consumption by wealthy Rosetans, and ignorance of common values, could be charted with precision from decade to decade. Lo and behold, there is an almost perfect correlation between Americanization and heart disease death rates.
We humans are social animals. We evolved in close knit bands of relatives, knowing those around us intimately. This is necessary for our health. There are countless articles detailing the dangers of loneliness. In particular are highlighted the Lonely American and the Lonely Man. This is due to the breakdown of family and community in modern society and its attendant separation and isolation.
One-in-six Americans are prescribed psychiatric drugs. Are that many of us born with abnormal brain chemistry? Or is there perhaps something crucial lacking from our society that is making us sick?