February 27, 2012

America's Desperate Struggle to Remain Obscenely Wealthy

I'm still working my way through Craig Dilworth's Too Smart For Our Own Good, a highly informative compendium of the world's ailments and their human causes. I particularly appreciate Prof. Dilworth's explanation of the evolutionary instincts which explain the intransigence of Homo sapiens when faced with what is obviously not working anymore.

One recurring concept is the idea of territoriality, which exists in both an individual form (where it plays out mainly in the sexual sphere) and the social mode, which in modern times takes the form of patriotism (scaling up the aboriginal idea of tribalism). These are extremely powerful, determinative influences on our thinking and behavior.

Dilworth's book made me rethink the rationale for the first Gulf War, for example, "Desert Storm." Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, thus posing a threat to our oil and, by extension, our "nonnegotiable" (in Dick Cheney's immortal description) lifestyle. It's not easy to convince several hundred thousand young men and women to lay their lives on the line to keep gasoline cheap at the pump. It doesn't have quite the nationalistic zing of stopping Hitler's conquest of the modern world, for example. This is where the concept of territoriality, in the disguise of "patriotism," fills in so admirably as a motivating force. If one tinpot dictator decided to overrun a neighboring kingdom operated by another set of burnoosed crooks and rule both sand piles, what is really the difference to us other than the economic consequences? And aren't the economic consequences solely and only the result of the elevation of the personal auto running on gasoline to a sort of God-given right in this country? Thus, it was necessary to invent myths about premature babies snatched from their incubators by Iraqi's heartless thugs and other tall tales as a cover story (or at least an accompanying narrative, since President George the First was actually pretty candid about what we were doing) in order to sell the war and play to the territorial instinct.

Dilworth cites some very interesting statistics. For example, of the Earth's 7 billion human beings, about half (3.5 billion) try to get by on less than two dollars a day, or $730 a year. The Third World exists primarily as a kind of plantation for the developed countries of the First World; the developed countries extract necessary minerals (oil, bauxite, iron ore, copper and many other things) from Africa, and poor Asian countries, "investing" in such countries in order to perform such extraction, and as a result the 25% of the total population living in the First World uses about 17 times as much energy per capita as the wretched of the Earth, and vastly more of the minerals extracted than do the countries where the stuff is found. This "investment" has inflated the economies of the poor countries and disrupted ancient tribal life, so that to get by millions and millions have moved to urban cities (such as Lagos, Nigeria) and taken up residence in shanty towns where they live out their brief life spans (life expectancy measured from birth is about 40 years in sub-Saharan Africa), dealing with epidemic malaria and HIV infections.

Back here at home, we compete on the "liberal-conservative" continuum by one-upping each other on symbolic gestures. For example, you drive a Prius while I drive a less efficient Ford, or you put your iMac in sleep mode while I, in my wastrel way, just leave the thing humming away. Because of the intensity of the territorial instinct, this sort of lunatic meaninglessness largely passes unnoticed in our conversations: we take our futile gestures seriously, and "liberal guilt" is largely about whether our personal lifestyle choices seem ethical enough, even if they are totally, completely irrelevant, measured on a real scale of effectiveness (the competition arising from the other form of personal territoriality, based on sexual instincts).

It is gratifying to see Dilworth praise the work of the "early" environmental thinkers and writers, such as Barry Commoner (The Closing Circle), E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful), the Club of Rome (Limits to Growth) and Paul Erlich (The Population Bomb). When the Earth's population was about 3.5 billion, Erlich predicted, a little over 37.5 years ago, that humans would double in number in about...37.5 years. Similarly, Commoner was writing in 1971 when carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were up about 6-7% higher than pre-Industrial Revolution levels (270 parts per million). Such CO2 levels now hover at 380 ppm, or an increase of about 41%. It isn't much comfort now to realize they told us so, and anyway, in this country (incredibly enough) we deal with our massive cognitive dissonance by simply denying that the greenhouse effect is real. Well, denial got us where we are today; why mess up a good thing?

It's not a point that Dilworth makes in exactly these terms, but one trend that I have noticed, in reflecting on America's "environmental movement," is that we have definitely accomplished some laudable things, such as (in particular) the Clean Air and Water Acts and the Endangered Species Act, all in the early 1970's. Such developments as the catalytic converter and improved fleet mileage have arisen from these movements, and Lake Erie is now less likely to catch fire spontaneously. However, when you think about it, one thing an honest observer might have to admit is that we never actually change anything which would...actually change anything. Not in real lifestyle terms, not in terms of the real "transactional business" (as Thoreau called it in Walden) betwen a human being and the planet which supports him. This is the key to seeing the effect of territoriality on our thinking. Many among us (the Christians foremost) pay lip service to the idea that "all men are brothers" et cetera, but no one gets hysterically excited enough about this laudable slogan to begin suggesting that maybe Americans should not use 17 times as much energy per capita as the poor use in Lagos or Mexico City or Manila. That would be really inconvenient, you know?

It is estimated that the grinding debt service performed by Third World governments to pay back the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as the result of corporate "investment" in Africa and other poor areas of the Third World (which allow Western corporations to cart away the mineral wealth while employing a fraction of the locals), subtract so much of the national wealth from such Third World countries that about 500,000 children die each year from lack of health care or sanitary water supplies. Oops: our bad. But you're obviously a Commie if you think this means that Chevron or Citibank shouldn't get paid.

Having hit a resource wall, with oil now over $100 a barrel, and the massive debts used to prolong a privileged lifestyle weighing on our prerogatives, we're getting pretty pissed off. How are we going to get the economy "growing" again, so it can resume that upward-sloping trend line to which Nature's God and the Laws of Nature entitle us? We don't want to wind up like a garbage scavenger in Lagos or a rag picker in Manila, do we? We're paying nearly five bucks a gallon for gasoline (about 2-1/2 times the daily subsistence of half the world's human beings). Is there someone we can go to war with and get this straightened out?

We are, indeed, a unique species. Brilliant, stupid, self-defeating, oblivious and suicidal all at the same time. I'm not sure, however, that the honeybees and cockroaches are going to miss us.


  1. hammerud4:47 PM

    You end with "We are, indeed, a unique species. Brilliant, stupid, self-defeating, oblivious and suicidal all at the same time. .." There doesn't seem to be much optimism there. As a Christian, I think you have it right though, especially with the belief that all hope must be pinned on our "unique species." In fact, in the gospels, speaking of where it is all headed (in the last days), Jesus said, "unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved" (on the earth). Believing, as I do, the Bible, I don't pin my hope for mankind on man. In fact, Scripture makes clear that the problem with man is man. My hope personally is on God, the One who in Scripture tells us the end from the beginning, where it is all headed and what the end will be. On a personal level, I put some effort into trying to make the world a better place, but my primary focus is on sharing the gospel when I can. Doing that may seem a bit futile, but, as Peter Marshall said, "It is better to fail at a cause that will ultimately succeed, than to succeed at a cause that will ultimately fail." Mankind, left to mankind, will ultimately fail. The good news is that God, not man, is running things.

  2. Dear Waldenswimmer,

    Perhaps you would like to be on my mailing list? If so, please drop me a line.

    Craig Dilworth

  3. Dear Waldenswimmer,

    Perhaps you would like to be on my mailing list? If so, please get in touch.

    Craig Dilworth