By Will Shonbrun
Some of us have been active in political, social justice, civil rights or environmental causes for a good bit of our lives if we’re now in our 60s and 70s. We might have been active in marches, demonstrations and rallies for one cause or another, to some degree of commitment or another. Some have truly put their asses on the line and gotten jailed, beaten or worse, while others have taken a less dedicated but still active engagement in trying to change things.
Those who took action in causes did so because they believed it was the right and just thing to do, that it was an obligation as citizens in a democracy to be engaged in our society and because we thought we could change the world and make it a better place. Now I find myself wondering if any of it, certainly most of it, really mattered and here are the reasons for what in truth is a deep and abiding pessimism.
Taking stock, on the plus side there’s no denying that in the realm of civil rights great progress has been made. It took a hundred years for the Proclamation ending slavery to take hold through the establishment and protection of Congressional Acts, but it did happen. No efforts or sacrifices on these behalves were wasted and some were courageous beyond the dedication of the many. On the plus side have been legal environmental protections, including wilderness and wildlife conservation, although the record of enforcement of these safeguards has been very spotty. And there have been significant advances protecting and regulating the rights of labor from abuse and exploitation, though the minimum wage is an absurdly low rate of pay in today’s economy. Add to these positive and progressive advancements Social Security and Medicare and it presents a somewhat impressive picture of accomplishment. But despite these gains the question remains: Do we stand in a better place in this time, in this world?
We need to consider the state of our country and the world in order to answer that question.
There can be little doubt that the paramount, overriding and profoundly affecting crisis we face – we humans around the world – is global warming and climate change. This will literally change the face of the planet and impact billions of people and other species as well. This is the biggest game changer for the human race save perhaps a nuclear Armageddon, which is easily not beyond possibility.
Runner up on and in league with climate change as a global scale crisis (the word problem doesn’t begin to do it justice) is that we must abandon fossil fuel energy and convert, all of us, to sustainable, non-polluting forms of energy. Obviously these first two imperative crises are entirely interwoven. Thirdly of global scope is the rate at which we humans are depleting the Earth’s resources; resources that humans depend on, anyway.
We know that the oceans are being over-fished at a rate where certain species are bound for extinction and other fish stocks are being reduced faster than supply is sustainable. Less than 1% of the Earth’s water is potable and that supply is dwindling due to unprecedented world population explosion, man-made pollution and warming climate. Drinking water has become a corporate commodity joining the list of shrinking resources. The replenishing of fresh water is governed by rainfall, which in turn depends on climate conditions. Agriculture is dependent upon fresh water supplies and when this vital resource decreases the world’s food supplies are affected. The rate of planetary desertification is well documented as well as increasing drought and famine in certain parts of the world. Rainforests and woodlands are being clear-cut to accommodate human needs and can never be replaced once gone. Yet humans keep on reproducing like there’s no tomorrow; almost racing over the cliff to extinction like lemmings. Very smart.
Focusing the lens here at home in America we have this picture before us: a steadily declining democracy, once a republic, but one that has been usurped by mega corporations whose only interest is the bottom line. It employs armies of lobbyists to deliver its messages, cajoling and or threatening, to politicians and their parties who in turn do their bidding. Anyone naïve enough to believe this isn’t so is beyond the reach of logic. The military/industrial-corporate complex is now and has been for decades so well entrenched as to be untouchable. Government … politics, as it’s played out here, is for and by the corporations, which for the most part control elections by lending or withholding monetary support in an electoral system dependent upon it. It’s a neat trick and big business interests have pulled it off. They even own the media so as to have in-house public relations “information” spinners to manipulate mass appeal and acceptance.
In short, we the American people are bought, sold and owned by the corporate masters that are driven only by profits; principles, morality, integrity, justice or any human philosophical attribute that strives for a greater society is absolutely inconsequential. It’s the result of unregulated, unrestrained capitalism that is driven by greed and short-term monetary gain. We, all of us, are completely in their grip, and knowing this they can occasionally throw us some bones in the form of watered-down legislation, e.g., health care “reform” or Wall Street “reform.”
And it doesn’t much matter who gets to play president, or to which party those pompous, posturing asses strutting around as self-important politicians belong, big business runs the show and the military polices the world enforcing its demands. The people always get screwed. It’s only a matter of degree. The corporations – oil, defense, insurance, banking, media, et al. – are international, multi-national behemoths, richer and more powerful than most of the nations on Earth; they rule and we all work for the companies whether we know it or not.
Corporate industry doesn’t want an end to war – it’s very profitable and life is cheap. Large corporate industries deny global warming and climate change because it will affect profits; it’s not good for business. Cleaning up industry’s pollution of land, air and water is not in businesses’ interest; it costs too much and cuts into profits. Business wants everything for sale including water suitable for drinking and air suitable for breathing.
If one needs proof of these claims simply look around. Unemployment is the highest it has been since the 1930s [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/opinion/10herbert]. Our government pours hundreds of billions into wars, national security agencies, military bases in hundreds of countries across the globe and weapons systems powerful enough to destroy the world in an afternoon, but we really don’t give a shit about our schools, our crumbling cities, highways and bridges and all the rest of it. Political claptrap is mouthed about caring about these things, and priorities, and the like, but it’s a lot of crap when we look at where the money is really spent. It’s spent on war, preparing for war, arming for war and using our military might to enforce U.S. “interests.” It’s in our interest to be in Iraq or Afghanistan, or in league with Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, we’re told. The U.S. has between 700-800 military bases around the world protecting our interests [www.global research.org]. Is that so, one wonders? Whose interests? Well it’s not my interest; is it yours?
We are literally awash in pollution – from industry, agriculture and what has become our everyday life. We all know there are islands of crap, plastic and other non-biodegradable garbage, larger than some states and growing by the day. There are dead zones in our oceans where nothing can live because the oxygen has been so depleted because of human-made pollution. Our answer to this is to double our (world) population every 20 years – world population in 1950 was 2.5 billion and in 2010 it’s 7 billion [U.S. Census Bureau] – effectively increasing scarcity of vital needs and resource degradation, and enhancing human suffering to unprecedented proportions. But who gives a rat’s ass, and who won the Big game is what we Americans want to know. That’s what we care about.
For all these reasons and many more I believe it’s end game, checkmate, bill paying time. We’ve fouled our nest to a point beyond repair, we’ve sold ourselves to consumerism for the ephemeral promises of happiness, and maybe worst of all believe we can pull our sorry asses out of the fire because we’re so damned smart. Yup, pride will do us all in, just as we’ve been told all along. Pride eradicates intelligence, pushes reason aside and obscures the reality of what is before our eyes. Maybe it’s our greatest sin because it makes us believe when there are no grounds for belief. It blinds us to see and feel what is real and what is really going on.
What can we do about it? My answer is not a fuck of a lot. Many I know disagree with that prognosis. They say we can change government by working inside the system. If we’re Democrats we can work within the party to make it more progressive, enact progressive legislation and change the game. I wish I could believe that, but I don’t. Others say we must build a green/progressive/peace-oriented third party to compete with the big boys, but that doesn’t seem feasible either. The current political system is rigged against that happening. Flukes like Ross Perrot’s libertarian challenge, or Huey Long style populism arise every now and then, but these only serve to advantage one of the two parties; they’re not fundamental game-changers.
I believe that we’re dug in too deep, and ironically instead of trying to dig our way out we just keep on digging deeper. Whether the world ends in a whimper or a bang remains to be seen, but our unsustainable ways of being on this planet in every respect have failed. What it would take to change our ways – great disasters or miraculous epiphanies – I don’t know. That Prince of Optimists, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, delivered what I’d call a remarkable speech, especially from a politician, at a conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia in 2002. It’s far too long to reproduce here, but can be accessed at www.praxispeace.org. At one point in the speech, reflecting on our human proclivity for making war, Kucinich says: “Though flames of war from the millions of hearts and the dozens of places wherein it rages, may lick at our consciousness, our gaze must be fixed upward to invoke universal principles of unity, of co-operation, of compassion, to infuse our world with peace, to ask for the active presence of peace, to expand our capacity to receive it and to express it in our everyday life. We must do this fearlessly and courageously and not breathe in the poison gas of terror. As we receive, so shall we give [emphasis added].
Can we grow to understand that all humanity, all living creatures and Nature itself are one family and that we inhabit one world, interconnected, interdependent and interrelated to the whole? Whatever is done to or for one part, one individual, one group, one nation, affects all. Until it’s understood at the most fundamental level that we are literally all in this together we cannot hope to extricate ourselves from a spiral of death and dissolution in the only world we have. Perhaps, maybe we can reach this understanding despite all the signs that point the other way. All things are possible, I suppose.