Essay #1 - October 12, 2019

The Problem of Modern Civilization

Where Moth and Rust Destroy

By Robert Allen


The question that I ask myself everyday, is why are we as a society, continuing to collectively ignore the real problems that we face as a civilization? At the very best, we can come together in symbolic acts of protest to call out global industrial capitalism or the ongoing environmental crisis, but we then seem content to return to our small business parks, iPhones, Starbucks lattes and Netflix accounts. As much as we may say that we are unhappy with the current state of affairs, the fact that we collectively continue to go about our daily lives reveals the sad truth: it is harder for us to give up our excessive material comforts than live with the guilt; the guilt of knowing that the system on which our material comforts depend requires much of the globe to remain in crippling poverty and requires the ongoing toxification of the earth’s ecosystems.

We all know about the sweatshops, the slums, the wars for oil, the toxic rivers, the deforestation, the whales washing up dead stuffed with plastic bags, the pesticides we spray on our food killing all of the bees and other pollinators, the African children picking through burnt wire insulation in e-waste dump sites and digging cobalt out of the ground with hunched backs, the exhausted Foxxcon employees committing suicide, the bankrupt Indian farmers committing suicide.

We all know that this suffering lies behind the Apple store selling shiny new iPhones, behind the grocery store where everything is shrink-wrapped in plastic, behind the trendy coffee shops and restaurants we go to, behind the exotic vacations we take by plane. We all know that almost every financial transaction we make can be found to include the exploitation of someone or some piece of the environment. And what I find so strange is that we continue to ignore these problems, and keep consuming.

I am not writing to shame consumerists, politicians and business leaders for their apathy. I feel the same apathy myself. “Its too big a system to fix.” “This is just the way the world works.” “Its not worth thinking about problems that we have so little ability to change.” While political activists may want to believe that “if we just fight hard enough, we can overcome all the odds and get the world back on track,” there is something that rings true about the futility of trying to change this system fundamentally.

Unfortunately, a fundamental change is exactly what is needed if we want any chance of stopping the accelerating destruction of the ecosystem and the horrible treatment of the global poor. So why does it seem so impossible to stop the current momentum of civilization? No matter how much we may scream and protest as a global community, the world inevitably drifts in one and only one direction: more industry, more wealth concentration, more environmental destruction. What is going on?

One way to get to the bottom of this is to run a thought experiment. It is clear that the exploitation of the global poor and the environmental crisis would go away if we got together as a planet and decided to slowly begin to shut off factories producing non-essential goods – toys, smartphones, furniture, beer, ice cream, televisions, sports equipment, etc. – and begin to scale back the usage of essential goods – fossil fuels, military equipment, animal agriculture, cars, airplanes, construction materials. We could set targets for decreasing the size of the economy each year until we reached a more manageable and sustainable size as a society that did not so utterly threaten the poor and the world’s ecosystems. We could use the displaced labor to replant forests, redesign cities and towns to be less dependent on cars and imports, clean up polluted waterways and so on. What would happen if such a road map were proposed?

We actually don’t need to imagine it because we have a real world example regarding the public’s reception to the “Green New Deal.” The reception was not great. After a brief resolution for a Green New Deal was introduced into both the House and the Senate in early 2019, the media and political pundits sunk their teeth into the fact that the proposal wanted to reduce air travel and meat consumption. The most honest criticism of the plan came from former Trump White House advisor, Sebastian Gorka, at the 2019 CPAC conference: “They want to take your pickup truck, they want to rebuild your home, they want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved. You are on the front lines of the war against communism coming back to America under the guise of Democratic socialism.”

The Democrats, while not openly protesting the bill, showed disapproval in their own way. While cashing in on the optics of singing the praises of the Green New Deal to their progressive base, not a single Democratic senator voted for the resolution. It failed 0-57, with all of the Democrats voting “present” instead. So we can see that from both ends of the political spectrum there is absolutely no desire to pass such an anti-consumerist bill.

Another interesting, but smaller, example is the reception to the plastic straw bans passed in various cities and the shift to paper substitutes. A movement that was promoted after a graphic video of a sea turtle with a straw lodged in its nose went viral on the internet. But even something as insignificant as getting rid of straws created a litany of controversy. It became a national story, with people complaining about the paper alternatives and how they got soggy too fast; articles were written talking about whether it was worth the trouble given the small impact it has on the global plastic problem; or that it unfairly hurt disabled people who need plastic straws to properly drink things. On and on. Trump of course, in response, couldn’t resist manufacturing thousands of sturdy overpriced plastic straws for sale on his campaign website with the slogan “liberal paper straws don’t work” to reassert American’s God given right to consume whatever we want, no matter what the cost.

The question, then, is why are we defending with tooth and nail our material possessions and privileges? Why do we really care if a paper straw makes drinking Coca-cola just a little bit less enjoyable? Why do we really care if we can’t eat hamburgers on a daily basis? Why do we really care if we own a pickup truck or not? Why do we really care if we own a smartphone or not? Why does stripping us of our material possessions come across like an affront to our very identity?

The truth is because our purchases largely do define our identity. We define ourselves by what we wear, what neighborhood we live in, what video games we play, what hobbies we have, what trips we can afford to go on, what trendy restaurants we frequent, what car we drive, what stickers we put on our laptop and water bottles, what books we own, what grocery stores we shop at. In other words, we define ourselves in large part by the things we buy.

The supreme example of this is the smartphone. This have become the indispensable extension of almost every person in the industrialized world and a large part of the developing world. It holds all of our photos, contacts, social networks, schedules, entertainment, books, newspapers and personal notes. Our smartphones hold a shockingly comprehensive amount of information about our lives. And to lose one’s phone, as I’m sure many people know, is like losing a part of yourself; your life is not right until its found.

This seems ludicrous. Why do we so deeply entangle our own lives and identities with material objects that can be so easily lost or broken or stop working without constantly being charged? What indispensable role are they playing?

They provide the indispensable role of purpose. We see purpose in our lives if it means saving up for the next smartphone release, or finally going on that Disneyland vacation with the kids, or moving into that new house, or being able to buy that microphone to record your new podcast you want to start, or buying those nice Winser Newton oil paints to complete your latest painting. It gives us a reason to work those long hours every day, to sit in traffic each day, to put up with the job that pays too little and the boss that yells too much. Without chasing the stuff, what would be the point?

This question applies equally, if not more so, to the people at the top of the capitalist pyramid. What drives Jeff Bezos to grow his net worth from $1 billion to $100 billion? What drives Walmart’s board of directors in the name of profits to slash the wages of its employees to the point where they have to apply for food stamps? What drives the U.S government to add another $80 billion in defense spending to its annual budget by going farther into debt? What does that added wealth give these people? It gives them purpose. If they are growing, if they are finally able to get the Citation 10 with their name painted on the side instead of a lowly NetJets card, they have purpose. If they are finally able to secure funding for the next upgrade to the Large Hadron collider; or they finally have the money to build that rocket capable of sending a man to Mars; or they finally can pay enough to convert their entire country to renewable energy infrastructure and give every man woman and child a “decent” standard of living; or finally getting to build those shiny new Triton nuclear submarines; all these material pursuits provide purpose.

The point I’m trying to make here is that chasing materialism is not limited to our individual consumption. The most problematic part about chasing materialism is that it extends to billionaires and entire governments. The idea is the same, but the budgets, exploitation and pollution are exponentially greater. And when we view materialism through this lens we unfortunately see that things we consider noble pursuits, like pushing the limits of science and technology, are themselves simply more organized and coordinated forms of consumerism. Large scientific and technological projects still pollute and exploit, maybe not in the research labs, but somewhere along the line, those incredibly complex components and materials usually lead back to someone digging cobalt out of the ground with a shovel at the point of a gun, or some toxic waste being dumped in a river.

This is why the notion of the “techno-fix” to the environmental problem is an oxymoron. Why would growing the renewable energy industry and innovating those technologies help the environment? We don’t need more “green” energy we just need to use less energy. If you really look at the problem that the renewable energy technologies are trying to solve, its not “how do we help the environment?” Because that answer is simple: the way to help the environment is to shut down factories and power plants. The problem renewable energy technologies are trying to solve is how do we continue to use fifteen trillion watts of energy a day without burning fossil fuels? Because what is more important to global civilization is how to continue making smartphones, Squatty Potties and beer cans after fossil fuels have ceased to be a viable form of energy.

Perpetual growth is an unquestionable good in modern civilization, whether that’s in science, technology, the welfare of countries or the quarterly profits of corporations. Because perpetual growth means continued growth in material prosperity, and continued growth in material prosperity means continual purpose for consumers, billionaires, scientists, and governments. But obviously this perpetual growth is rapidly leading to existential threats to our ecosystem and continued exploitation of the global poor.

One point worth addressing is if we see a problem with this trajectory? It can without a doubt be said that industrial society is raising the material standard of living of the globe. Yes, the slums are horrifying; yes the environment is being destroyed; but also we have created a world where over 3 billion people have access to the internet through smartphones, the global sphere has mainstreamed liberal ideas of racial and sexual equality, death from disease has been drastically reduced through modern medicine and hygiene.

It could be even be imagined that through increased efficiencies in automation and the slow march of liberal governance, we may be able to eliminate the unfortunate lot of the global poor ensuring them access to clean water, food, shelter and access to the technological wonders of industrialized civilization (Of course this is obviously not the case today, and visions of a future, idealized form of capitalism become dangerous forms of justification for the very real horrors being committed today by this system on the global poor).

There is one unequivocal loser, though –regardless of how we choose to distribute the fruits of industrial capitalism and regardless of the benefits industrial capitalism provides – wild nature. In fact the inclusion of the global poor into consumerist society would only help to accelerate the eradication of the (wild) natural world. There are many in the environmental community who see the steady march of the global economy as leading towards the end of all organized life on the planet. There is growing evidence that the positive feedback loops of artic ice loss, methane clathrate melting and many other systems could lead to rapid non-linear warming across the globe, far faster than any species—including humans— could adapt. However, this apocalyptic scenario is to me not what I find the most disturbing. What if we are able to stop climate change?

What if we are able to continue this industrial way of life, indefinitely? What if there is truly no natural impediment to our continual modification of the earth? It is surely true that humans have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges in the past; we may simply continue our current trends of deforestation, mining, fracking, drilling, urbanization, digitization, etc. until the entire surface of the earth has been converted, organized and controlled to serve the interests of humans. Where will that leave us?

How do we weigh the benefits that we derive from industrial society with the parts of ourselves that we lose by drifting farther away from our wild, natural heritage? Can this purpose that we derive from material pursuits be replaced with a different (immaterial) value system? One that would allow human’s to feel useful while also preserving wild nature and the sacred dimension that it emboides? Is there something to be learned about such an immaterial value system from the religious texts and writers of the past? This is the mission of this periodical.