Problems of Social Organization

Posted: May 3, 2007 in Culture, Idealism, Philosophy

We’re a species tragically marred by our own success. This article by Jeremy Rifkin presents the depressing numbers. Similar disaster is predicted everywhere these days. Here’s just one other example. (You’ve got to be living under a rock not to be aware of other, similar reports.) Some are considering how to face coming catastrophe: see here and here and here. The picture is bleak, and it’s been looming over the horizon for no short time.

The overarching story is that humankind and human nature has run its course and that, like the virus that eventually destroys its host, we have unwittingly sealed our own sad fate and ruined the planet for human habitation (and most other habitation with it). Unfortunately, unlike a virus, we can’t simply leap to a new host. In short, our basic form of social organization in the modern world, capitalist industry, has wrought changes in the ecosystem so vast that they’re now unrecoverable, and we’re too committed to our current paradigm to change in time to avoid catastrophe. In addition, our sheer numbers have been gained through a base exploitation of everything at our disposal, as though no other living creature has any right to survive.

Lost somewhere in the detritus of my abandoned and unfinished blog posts is the notion of maximizing, minimizing, and optimizing. Whereas most of nature occupies a niche in relative balance with the rest of creation — or at leasts lacks the wit and tools to overcome the cycles of ebb and flow — mankind since the Industrial Revolution (and perhaps since the Enlightenment) has been hellbent on maximizing its ecological niche. (Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel demonstrates rather unequivocally that this has ever been our modus operandi. Human expansion in prehistory was always the trigger for local extinctions. Basically, we ate everything.) We’ve succeeded marvelously. Now, in this our latest stage of development, our impact is astonishing. Industry has provided us the means to wrest from the Earth everything we can, and no morality has effectively suggested that a more restrained approach to living, establishing, for example, an optimized or balanced harmony with the rest of nature, might ultimately be a better way of living.

I’ve been reading on the subject for over a year now and am still struggling to get my head around it. The extrapolation of current trends is almost too depressing to contemplate, and I can’t profess to having the hopefulness of many others who have similarly recognized our dilemma. However, the ethical response is to at least acknowledge what’s happening in the wider sweep of human history and hopefully alleviate some suffering down the line.

The best statements on this topics I’ve come across so far are two essays in Orion Magazine: “The Idols of Environmentalism” and “The Ecology of Work” by Curtis White. They are beautifully written and lack the sort of doom and gloom that is inescapable for me. They suggest the basic response that Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael and other books, has been recommending: that we walk away from civilizational culture.

  1. grasshopper says:

    Certainly, you and the sources you link present an airtight argument. I’m not sure how best to “walk away from civilization culture,” though, Brutus. Some writers have made the news recently vowing to adhere to peculiar small steps, such as (I hope I have this detail right) doing without toilet paper for a year. Possibly that’s an honorable attempt and so it may be unfair to laugh at it. Yet, the idea is humorous. Sadly, too, when I imagine additional, individual measures, the result is not “Phew! So now the world might survive,” but rather, my petty, though not irrational, worry of being locked up.
    None of which makes humankind’s havoc upon the planet less selfish or fateful.
    Perhaps simply because I can find no other way to proceed, I see the problem in terms of: we’re all going to die; everyone dies; mostly likely, too, in time, every existing thing dies.
    Knowing that, we live moment to moment as best we can, and hope everyone laughs rather than fights when the toilet paper runs out.

  2. Brutus says:

    Oh my, a toilet paper metaphor. So ripe with possibilities. Right up my alley, too, considering toilet humor is one of my secret pleasures (which I’ve actually copped to several times). Unfortunatly, our response to looming threat isn’t fight or laugh, it’s fight or flight. So although some might chuck it all and go to their deaths with a happy, laughing resignation, I wouldn’t count on it. More likely, those who can will fight and claw for every last scrap, morsel, and breath.

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