7.1 The Signs of the Metamorphosis

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Throughout his life, Gandhi urged Indians and the whole world to adopt a simple lifestyle for the true pursuit of happiness, for such pursuit is entirely inward looking once basic necessities are met. Looking back, we now see that Gandhi's harsh assessment of Western civilization in Hind Swaraj was premature. But he couldn't have known at that time what all these Western obsessions over money, machinery and material progress were really about. Indeed, imagine if the world had heeded Gandhi's words then and halted the Military Industrial Complex that was fueling Western civilization throughout the 20th century. Then there would be no Internet, no nuclear weapons, no space technologies, no computers and, consequently, no defenses against asteroids, comets or prolonged volcanic eruptions. All these essential technological developments and scientific discoveries occurred within a century at such a breathtaking pace due to the singular Western belief, however false, that continuous economic growth, together with a competitive, militaristic culture steeped in consumerism, is necessary for the pursuit of happiness.

Such is the paradox of perfection. The perfection of the whole arises despite the blatant “flaws” in the individual elements. As the spiritualist and philosopher, Ram Dass, said[4],

"It's all perfect, and it all stinks. The conscious being lives simultaneously with both of these."

A strange paradox, indeed!

Currently, the industrial world is embedded in a hierarchical socioeconomic system that was optimally designed for the tool-building Caterpillar phase of our species. This system is really just a huge military-industrial undertaking, with animals, workers, smelters and miners, along with clerical, administrative, marketing, executive and financial personnel. Think of this system as a vast pyramid, where animals and Nature occupy the lowermost layer, with humans layered above in the order of increasing rank privileges. These privileges are assigned on the basis of merit or ancestry or cultural or physical attributes, such as race, color, creed, caste, gender or sexual orientation. There are educational privileges, male privileges, skin color privileges, caste privileges, heterosexual privileges and class privileges, to name a few. The pyramid is fueled by energy and capital in the form of money, poured in at the top, issued through debt. The money is then fanned out to the lower layers with the requirement that the principal plus interest must be returned back to the top. Since there is no currency issued to cover that interest, it creates a game of musical chairs and therefore an environment of scarcity and competition. This provides a strong impetus for the pyramid to grow with new money (i.e., debt) being issued continuously in order for this economic system to work. As it grows, the pyramid increases its footprint on Nature, destroying wildlife habitats and forcibly displacing or assimilating indigenous communities at its base. This is a system rooted in violence, but optimally designed for its militaristic purpose!

This system spreads misery and suffering to every participant. The animals at the very bottom of this pyramid are brutally enslaved, oppressed and slaughtered. The humans right above the animals are the miners, the smelters, the farm workers, etc., while those in the middle layers perform the administrative and clerical functions and those in the top layers take on the executive, marketing, financial, research and development responsibilities. While the misery in the lower layers occurs in the form of poverty, hunger, physical oppression and diseases of scarcity, the misery in the upper layers occurs in the form of mental anguish and diseases of excess such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Indeed, the suffering can be even more acute in the uppermost layers than in the lower layers due to the extreme isolation that people experience.

Denials, deceptions and coercion are like the nuts, bolts and glue that hold this pyramid together. The many myths that sustain this system include cultural myths that extol the superiority of the industrial civilization over indigenous ways of living, sexist myths that extol the superiority of men over women, racist myths that extol the superiority of the white race over people of color, homophobic myths that extol the superiority of heterosexuals over LGBT people and above all, speciesist myths that extol the superiority of human beings over all other creatures.

The hierarchical organization of the socioeconomic system, by itself, fosters myriad oppressions. In the documentary, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, Peter Joseph observes[5],

"Make no mistake: the greatest destroyer of ecology, the greatest source of waste, depletion and pollution, the greatest purveyor of violence, war, crime, poverty, animal abuse and inhumanity, the greatest generator of social and personal neurosis, mental disorder, depression, anxiety, not to mention, the greatest source of social paralysis, stopping us from moving into new methodologies for personal health, global sustainability and progress on this planet, is not some corrupt government or legislation, not some rogue corporation or banking cartel, not some flaw of human nature and not some secret hidden cabal that controls the world. It is, in fact, the socioeconomic system itself at its very foundation."

But this system is clearly at its breaking point. This is why leaders from across the political spectrum in every nation are going to extreme lengths to maintain a continuous economic growth paradigm even in the face of global environmental catastrophes, because without such growth, its debt-based monetary system could collapse, just as any financial Ponzi scheme would collapse when there are no fresh recruits to contribute to it. No leader wants such a collapse to happen on his or her watch. As George Monbiot writes[6],

"To try to stabilize this system, governments behave like soldiers billeted in an ancient manor, who burn the furniture, the panelling, the paintings and the stairs to keep themselves warm for a night. They are breaking up the post-war settlement, our public health services and social safety nets, above all the living world, to produce ephemeral spurts of growth. Magnificent habitats, the benign and fragile climate in which we have prospered, species that have lived on earth for millions of years, all are being stacked onto the fire, their protection characterized as an impediment to growth."

It is not just governments. Upon the altar of growth, leaders of all stripes are beginning to blatantly deny various aspects of reality. The leaders on the political left selectively ignore any environmental signals that question the viability of a continuous economic growth paradigm. In his NY Times blog, The Conscience of a Liberal, the Nobel Laureate economist, Paul Krugman, claimed[7],

"Saving the planet would be cheap; it might even be free… [It] would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth and might actually lead to faster growth."

But, faster growth invariably entails more human consumption! As the economist, Charles Eisenstein, explained[8],

"What does economic growth actually mean? It means more consumption – and consumption of a specific kind: more consumption of goods and services that are exchanged for money."

Therefore, anything that reduces global consumption becomes anathema to leaders on the political left. This is why most mainstream environmental organizations advance the view that some form of grass-fed beef eating, solar-paneled, electric car driving continuous economic growth consumer culture can be spawned from the ashes of our current fossil-fueled consumer culture. Even the climate scientists of the UN IPCC go out of their way to deny that addressing climate change would have a major impact on our way of life or on economic growth. As Rajendra Pachauri, the former chair of the UN IPCC, said[9],

"We have the means to limit climate change. The solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change."

The latest UN IPCC report goes on to state[10],

"Tackling climate change need only trim economic growth rates by a tiny fraction, and may actually improve growth by providing other benefits, such as cutting health-damaging air pollution."

While making such statements, the UN IPCC is selectively ignoring the reality of species extinctions, habitat loss, nitrogen cycle disruptions, ocean depletion and other environmental alarm signals that are blaring for a contraction in our human footprint on the planet. In contrast, leading conservatives on the right appear to have understood that seriously tackling climate change would be incompatible with maintaining an ever-growing economy and therefore choose to clutch at any stray data that reassures them that climate change isn't happening or that it isn't human induced and therefore, might naturally reverse itself. Writes Jonathan Kay of the National Post[11],

"In the case of global warming, this dissonance is especially traumatic for many conservatives, because they have based their whole worldview on the idea that unfettered capitalism — and the asphalt-paved, gas-guzzling consumer culture it has spawned — is synonymous with both personal fulfillment and human advancement. The global-warming hypothesis challenges that fundamental dogma, perhaps fatally."

Therefore, leaders on all sides appear to be blind to the clear indications that everything that we consider normal today needs to change, that our material growth phase is over. But the views of these leaders percolate through the media to the masses. With respect to climate change, Erik Lindberg described the situation as follows[12]:

"We have a situation, then, where one half of the population says it is not happening, and the other half says it is happening but fighting it doesn’t have to change our way of life.  Like a dysfunctional and enabling married couple, the bickering and finger-pointing, and anger ensures that nothing has to change and that no one has to actually look deeply at themselves, even as the wheels are falling off the family-life they have co-created."

That is surely due to the cultural conditioning of the system that we're embedded in. After all, it is easy to articulate the behavioral changes that are needed to create a steady state version of the industrial civilization. The Cinderella Principles are not that hard to comprehend. As the 12-year old Severn Suzuki told the delegates at the UN Rio Summit in 1992[13]:

"At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us how to behave in the world. You teach us to not fight with others. To work things out. To respect others. To clean up our mess. Not to hurt other creatures. To share, not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do? Do not forget why you are attending these conferences - who you are doing this for. We are your own children. You are deciding what kind of world we are growing up in. Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying "Everything's going to be all right. It's not the end of the world. And we're doing the best we can." But I don't think you can say that to us anymore. Are we even on your list of priorities? My dad always says "You are what you do, not what you say." Well, what you do makes me cry at night. You grown ups say you love us, but I challenge you, please make your actions reflect your words."

But her words fell on deaf ears. Later, after watching 20 years of global dithering on climate change, and as a 32-year old mother, Severn Cullis-Suzuki said at the UN Rio+20 summit[14],

"Twenty years on since Rio, we need nothing short of a massive paradigm shift to a strategic way of living that will carry our human race forward to a future with dignity."

The climate scientist, Dr. Kevin Anderson, made a similar assessment in 2013[15]:

"Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post)-industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.”

But such a revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony would need revolutionary changes in our personal behaviors as well, along the lines that Severn Cullis-Suzuki articulated in 1992. After all, almost everything we do in our global industrial society, what we wear, what we eat, what we do and how we live harms the environment. Our per capita energy use is already so enormous that every human being has the equivalent of 22 energy slaves at his or her beck and call. This does not even include the energy embedded in the food we eat! In richer societies such as the US, it is on the order of 150 energy slaves per person. On average, Americans use more energy in a month today than most of their great grandparents used in their entire lifetime, just a century ago. But such profligate energy use levels were surely just a one-time splurge during the most productive, tool-building, technological growth phase of our global industrial civilization! In fact, more than 90% of our energy use is currently for wasteful, planet-destroying activities[16]. Just think that the non-profit Wikimedia foundation serves 500 million unique monthly visitors to the Wikipedia website with a staff of just 200, whereas the for-profit corporation, Google, employs 50,000 people for the 1 billion unique monthly visitors that Google serves. Those 50,000 Google employees are mostly engaged in the business of trying to persuade all of us to buy things that we don’t really need[17].

There are other signals indicating that our material growth phase is over as well. Apple Computer, the largest corporation in the world in terms of market capitalization, was as usual, being very secretive about what its next major "iProduct" was going to be.

Will it be the "iWatch"?

Will it be the "iGlass"?

But did it really matter?

These gadgets are now more about titillation than necessity, even as we're being exposed, almost daily, to the sheer misery involved in producing these electronic products at such a frantic pace and gargantuan scale. There is misery in the mining of the minerals used in the products, misery in the assembly line at the factories and misery due to the chemical pollution during production, disposal and even recycling of these products. Meanwhile, the iPhone 6 does almost exactly the same things as the iPhone 5, but with a flimsier frame that easily bends. On the defense front, the US military is now seeking one trillion dollars to develop a new fighter jet, the F35, a blatantly unnecessary appendage to the already vast American military arsenal. President Obama has authorized spending another trillion dollars for a complete renewal of American nuclear weapons.

These are all indications that we have saturated in our military and technological needs as a species. That it is time to transition to a steady-state civilization, assume our identity as the sentinel caregivers for all Life on Earth, and awaken into our Butterfly phase.

Signs of that metamorphosis are all around us.

[4] http://bit.ly/1qzUMfp

[5] http://www.zeitgeistmovingforward.com/

[6] The quote is taken from his article on “The Insatiable God,”  http://www.monbiot.com/2014/11/18/the-insatiable-god/  

[7] Paul Krugman wrote this in 2014 http://nyti.ms/1wu9C59
[8] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/643596-what-does-economic-growth-actually-mean-it-means-more-consumption

[9] As quoted in this blog article: http://bit.ly/1t7mMkl

[10] As reported in the Guardian here: http://bit.ly/13uCrWh

[11] As quoted in http://bit.ly/Zc8x7j

[12] Erik Lindberg’s article is found here: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-11-26/six-myths-about-climate-change-that-liberals-rarely-question

[13] A transcript of Severn Suzuki’s speech can be found here: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/severnsuzukiunearthsummit.htm

[14] Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s speech from 2012 can be found here: http://www.unfoundation.org/news-and-media/press-releases/2012/rioplussocial-six-minute-speech.html

[15] Please see the blog article here: http://kevinanderson.info/blog/why-carbon-prices-cant-deliver-the-2c-target/

[16] This statistic is found in the 30 year update to the Limits to Growth, Meadows, et al, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Chelsea Green publishing, 2004, ISBN-13: 978-1931498586, http://amzn.to/1W7sVB6

[17] Google’s relies on advertising revenues, unlike Wikipedia which operates on donations. http://mklnd.com/1PRqf8E