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Out of the Crisis


We are living in a world in crisis. But it’s not too late to save it–and ourselves.

It would be difficult to summarize with any accuracy the problems we currently face, as a species. Even just narrowing down to a specific culture or country, the complexities are too numerous to faithfully generalize. But there are definitely trends we can examine, and those trends tell us a lot about where we may be headed if we don’t change course.

Take climate change. The targets set, which were meant to limit global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius this century, are practically impossible. We’d basically have to start cutting fossil fuel emissions dramatically right now, all over the world, in every industrialized and developing economy, in order to make that. And because we prioritize our current way of life and our historical expectations of economic growth above the long-term habitability of the planet, we’re content to ignore the problem.

Globally, climate change is the greatest challenge we face, but it’s hardly the only one. Because of its far-reaching impacts and significant time lag between cause and effect, it is not just a problem we have to address head-on, but one that will produce myriad knock-on effects that must be dealt with on their own, too.

At the same time that particular crisis is developing, we’re seeing change all over the world. Some of it is good news. Extreme poverty is down, for instance, as I examined at length recently. We are still making strides in medicine, in the combating of disease and premature death. Though we’ve yet to use it to its full potential, information technology offers many possibilities for measuring large-scale social problems and searching for solutions. Big Data’s greatest purpose right now is to help throw ads at consumers–it could be so much more.

Waves of right-wing populism are spreading through Western countries, from Eastern Europe to the UK to the United States. These movements are xenophobic, violent, and destructive. They have no appreciation for democracy, nor do they value a social order built on pluralism and multiculturalism. The real danger of populism is self-evident: such movements, while allegedly “for the people,” are selective about which people they represent. They are not broad-based, inclusive movements, but exclusive clubs of nationalists, nativists, and white supremacists.

Such groups must be counteracted by organized resistance. This resistance has largely failed to materialize, perhaps because the neoliberal consensus has never concerned itself too much with the nuts and bolts of upholding inclusive democratic traditions. Economic growth, yet again, was prioritized over social development. And as growth was globalized, some got left behind. It would be easy to blame neoliberalism for our current bouts of right-wing populism. Xenophobic rhetoric has filled a void that neoliberals preferred to ignore, and now we are all paying the price.

The dirty secret is that capitalism and democracy are not natural brothers-in-arms. While they are compatible, they also have inherent conflicts. Every dollar extracted as tax is a dollar not spent in the consumer market. Every regulation on a business bears a financial cost that ultimately impacts the bottom line. This does not mean that taxes and regulations are bad, but that they are inconvenient to capitalism, and so those who benefit the most from capitalism will often seek to have such impacts negated.

This is precisely what we have seen, as well, as we’ve neglected to invest in our infrastructure, in education, in communities. The market does not solve these problems because it does not care to. Rent-seekers and profiteers can only see the short horizon–it takes longevous institutions designed to serve the public good to see these bigger problems that stretch far into the future and address them before they become crises. In other words: it takes governments.

But when governments become beholden to the worship of economic growth at any cost, the rest of society is left to wither and die. A citizen’s value becomes not his or her own inherent worth, but their economic production. Those who do not produce are not valued. It is the human life as commodity. It holds for the other side of the equation, too. We produce so that we may consume, and those who do not consume are a drain, as well. We are taught that work gives us income, income gives us security, security lets us consume, and consumption makes us happy.

Except it doesn’t, because it is the work itself that is the true source of contentment. It is through our work that we self-actualize. By this, I don’t merely mean jobs or occupations. Work is everything we do that requires effort and is not strictly for ourselves. It is raising families, it is organizing and cleaning up our communities, it is creating art, it is sharing ideas and working toward common goals. It is learning so that we may teach others. The concept of work has been mutilated into a grotesque caricature of itself. It is now what we do for a set number of hours in the day, to acquire money that we need to house, clothe, and feed ourselves, and to further consume on the expectation that it is the consumption, not the work, that will bring us joy. There are certainly those who enjoy their jobs, and this is viewed as the Holy Grail of working precisely because we know that if we do not enjoy our occupations, we’ll likely never find happiness in our daily lives.

This is a cruel joke, isn’t it? The inborn human desire to create, to achieve, to be useful, to grow, is shrunk into the form that capitalism requires, where creativity is reduced to rote, achievement replaced with condescension, usefulness turned to redundancy, and growth into stagnation. This is not all that we are, and it is not all that we could be.

Talk about the nature of work may seem to be beside the point, but I believe it’s central. As a species, we must come to value more than economic production and the demands to produce and consume that it entails. We must value each person as a person, merely for being a person, and to see the worth and necessity of all people. It is obvious that production will always be required–we need food, we need homes, we need medical care, we need amusements–but must it always be the central focus of all civilization? The path we’re on is killing us in a very real way. Our lust to consume, which is itself driven by our production focus, is destroying our ecosystem, not only through climate change but through deforestation, desertification, contamination, and man-made (and man-exacerbated) droughts.

Religion is not the answer, either. So many religions only promise relief in the afterlife, if they promise any at all. Others are bent toward division and violence–exactly what we need less of. On the other hand, some forms of belief promote charity, cooperation, community, and humanity. My preference would be a world of humanists, but if people must be religious, at least let those beliefs be compatible with a humanist perspective, rather than destructive.

Science may solve some of our problems, but it cannot tell us what kind of future we should make for ourselves. That is a question of philosophy, of culture, of human experience. Now that most of the world’s population lives under at least nominal democracies, we are seeing the very concept of popular government diminished and threatened. Many so-called democracies are anything but–and this includes our own. A functioning democracy is responsive to its people while having numerous safeguards built into it that preserve the system, prevent abuses of power, sustain accountability to the people, and perpetuate the traditions that made it possible in the first place.

The US falls down hard on the last one in particular, and if right-wing surges elsewhere are anything to go by, it’s not our problem alone. Our failure to take these trends seriously and aggressively combat them has let them grow into a truly dangerous force. They must be beaten back, not just with rhetoric, but by ensuring that they have a real stake–that is, something to lose. Even with that, they may hold onto their retrograde beliefs. It may not be possible to change those, but it may be possible to quell and quiet them by improving their lot in life. At the same time, people who have been systemically oppressed for generations, who have lagged behind due to structural biases, need to be swiftly brought into the fold, as well–the historically marginalized must be brought to the center and invested into the whole.

Achieving both of those goals at the same time will surely not be easy. It may well require a new kind of politics, but as I described above, possibly a new form of economics, as well. Our current way of life encourages cutthroat competition, punishes economic losers with destitution and even early deaths, and forces desperate scrambles in which systemic bigotries become convenient levers for downtrodden oppressors to get a leg up.

Will a world in ever-growing crisis bring us closer together, or tear us apart? Will the devastation of our planet be enough of a wake-up call to turn competition into cooperation? Whichever one enough people want, and want badly enough, we can have. None of this is to say it would be easy. Not at all. I expect changing the ways we behave, both as a species and within individual cultures, would represent the greatest transformation in human activity since the advent of settled civilization. But by no means does that make it impossible, and the path we’re on tells us quite clearly that radical changes are in the offing, if we are to survive at all.