This is Part III of a 3-part series. Go to: Part I, Part II
The aim of the powerful today is not to restore balance with nature or to re-discover the divine in nature. Their aim is to become more distant from nature, more god-like (with God’s primary attribute being absolute power, not love). Billionaires rather spend their money on dreams of living in space or mining asteroids than fixing the environment. They build luxury bunkers and boltholes as ‘fail-safes’ and massively invest in companies promising ‘eternal life’ (via life extension or upload into the ’Matrix’). We do not see these billionaires and their space/matrix dreams as mentally ill or deranged. No, we celebrate them. Elon Musk has 85 million followers on twitter and is seen as a ‘visionary’.
Douglas Rushkoff, who says he is often being mistaken for a futurist by the tech elite, has written a book about their escape plans called “Survival of the Richest”. He notes: “… they were preparing for a digital future that had less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether. Their extreme wealth and privilege served only to make them obsessed with insulating themselves from the very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is about only one thing: escape from the rest of us.”
But it is not just the rich who buy into the guiding ideology of becoming more God-like outlined in Part II. That Western, and in fact most developed and developing societies, fully buy into this guiding ideology and notion of humanity is easily evidenced from looking at government budgets – health & education are almost always the top priority for those who vote and the OECD average spending on health is 9% of GDP (20% in the US!) and 6% on education.
In contrast, total spending on environmental protection was around 0.02% of GDP in France and Germany in 2018 and 0.01% in the UK. There is no OECD average as many countries don’t even bother to compile data on environmental spending).
This deeply ingrained belief in ‘progress’, science and technology combined with the equally deep-seated utilitarian view of nature means that continued economic growth and increased extraction of natural resources are central to achieving ‘our aims’ or ‘our destiny’. What this ultimate aim or destiny is supposed to be is never actually specified, but since it is about us being ‘god-like’ it’s probably some form of heaven on earth (leaving individuals free to dream up what would suit them).
That there are limits to growth was and still is a fringe belief today. Physics is seen as useful for enabling ‘progress’ but cannot be seen to spoil the economic growth party. Economists are taught to believe in never-ending growth and in unlimited extraction and substitution of natural resources (ignoring the energy cost of doing so). They see no problem with ignoring the effects of dumping waste into the environment (CO2, methane, chemicals, plastics, contaminated wastewater etc.) and that has been reflected in our policy settings for decades. When physics predicts calamity, those warnings are first ignored, then downplayed, then actively attacked and finally ‘taken seriously’ by dubious pledges and meaningless commitments (as nicely illustrated in the Netflix film “Don’t Look Up”).
The same is playing out in relation to biodiversity. The science that tells us that we have already set off the sixth mass extinction event is not the science anyone in power wants to listen to.
These basic assumptions about limitless growth and dominating nature translate into the structural settings for business that allow companies to treat nature as an externality. The lack of moral constraints in extracting from nature is central to how our laws and regulations are shaped.
Our private property rights include an implicit right to destroy, including private property rights over nature. Species designated as ‘pests’ can be killed, often without any form of permits. Land can be ‘cleared’, trees can be cut down, pesticides and herbicides that wipe out insect and bird populations can be sprayed with few regulations. Water access rights and restrictions tend to be based on agricultural ‘needs’ (irrespective of the suitability of crops and irrigation practices for the climate), not on the health of rivers and aquifers.
Destructive consumption is baked into our ideology about progress. That’s why planned obsolescence or fast fashion are not a problem to the majority. Ever-increasing consumption means ever-increasing growth and progress. This is the belief system we hold, and our politicians, media and business leaders parrot it back to us constantly. Desire, greed and amassing possessions are all part of the ‘divine’ project of making humans more like gods.
It should be noteworthy at this point to highlight that none of the categories of political discourse that supposedly shape the big questions of our time such as capitalism vs. socialism, democracy vs. autocracy or progressive vs. conservative were mentioned in this discourse. That is because the guiding ideology that is shaping our identity as humans and our human societies both predates and underpins all of those categories. 19th, 20th and 21st century incarnations of socialism equally believe in progress through economic growth and equally contain no moral objections to unlimited extraction from nature.
Arguments between capitalists and socialists are about the distribution of the spoils, not about the morality of doing the spoiling. Progressives and conservatives may argue over greater equality or moral values embedded in culture, but they don’t argue over the question of our power over nature. Both progressives and conservatives believe that our ecological problems will be solved by technology, not by fundamentally changing our relationship to nature. Autocracies pursue the same economic growth paradigm as democracies, just with a bit more state control. Both keep investing in fossil fuels and the ongoing destruction of nature.
We should also mention here that the latest trend in conservation of “pricing ecosystem services” is equally an expression of this underlying theology. If nature has no inherent value that makes it worth protecting, then the only way we can think of making it valuable is by putting a price on it. This shows a dearth of imagination that we ought to feel ashamed of.
Given this deeply held belief system and the shared aspiration to become god-like, there is little chance of a course correction before the global situation gets truly dire. At a high-level, we can predict what this trajectory will look like, but not what the endpoint will be.
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Peter Lanius is a physicist by training who has worked in IT, Telecoms and as an executive coach across many industries. He believes in collapsing early to avoid the rush and lives on a 20acre property in regional Australia.