The Path to Progress: Part Four

We Americans tend to measure progress quantitatively. “More, more, and more” is our perpetual mantra. Our brand of capitalism depends on growth in terms of production, distribution, and consumption. We have created an economy which necessarily depends on this spiraling and expanding exploitation of the planet’s resources. 

However, Homo sapiens and the earth are facing a grave crisis. We are consuming more than the planet can replace. For example, it took millions of years to produce the fossil fuel we insanely continue to depend on for our society to function. These fuels are the result of countless eons of plant and animal life undergoing decay, heat, and pressure in the past. Oil companies have exhausted the supplies of these fuels close to the surface of the earth. They must now drill deeper into the earth and the oceans further harming nature. 

Added to this reckless consumption is our pollution of the planet beyond earth’s capacity to neutralize such short-sighted foolishness. As the climate crisis continues to increase at alarming rates, Mother Earth cannot cope with our waste. Such pollution of the air, earth, and water and the accompanying destruction and extinction of so many species of flora and fauna will eventually (like real soon) have a devastating impact on us humans who are responsible for the doom facing God’s exquisite creation. 

Most ecological experts tell us that it’s too late to avert an eventual collapse of human civilization and the earth as we know them today. Collapse will come even though no one wants to seriously consider that tragic outcome. Even if we could stop all pollution, reverse our consumption of the earth’s resources, lower the human birthrate, and spend trillions of dollars to “save the earth” as we have experienced it, the damage is already done. What we do not realize is that all things are connected. When we demolish forests, we destroy the trees which bless the earth by taking the CO2 we produce and turning it into lifegiving oxygen. When we pollute the atmosphere with CO2, we heat up the planet which melts the very ice and glaciers which cool the earth. When we over-till the earth, we turn soil (an incredibly complex organism) into lifeless and unproductive dirt. When we use pesticides, we destroy the bees and butterflies which pollinate the very plants our lives depend on. We are facing a “metacrisis” which includes many different challenges. 

For several centuries Western civilization has assumed that to understand and control reality, the whole must be broken down to parts. What the wisdom traditions for millennia have taught is that the whole is much more than the sum of its parts—that all reality is relational in character and is alive with meaning, energy, flow, and connectedness. Balance, harmony, wonder, and humility are the paths to any sustainable and desirable “progress.” The rugged individualism we have idolatrously embraced in our culture must be replaced by an acute awareness of our innate interdependence as a part of a miraculous, spectacular, and fragile whole. 

Of course, I fear we are unwilling to take any of the above needed measures because of our shortsighted greed, the influence and stakes billionaires and corporations have in keeping the status quo, and, frankly, the stupidity of those who continue to deny we are facing a crisis—think #45! In the 1970s when we were first alerted to this coming crisis, we could have perhaps acted to avoid such a collapse. President Jimmy Carter tried to prepare us for what he and many others saw coming. But we preferred the nasty greed of President Reagan and “progressed” in wealth, production, and consumption not realizing that we were choosing to exhaust the world’s resources for short-term gains. Payback for this shortsightedness is looming on the horizon. 

The only responsible action we can take is to try to lessen the impact of that collapse on us, our descendants, and our fragile planet. Such efforts will require repentance, sacrifice, generosity, integrity, global cooperation, and a drastic redistribution of resources. Our economy must be primed to save as much of us and our beautiful Mother Earth as possible. 

I’m not optimistic about our willingness to repent, mature, and change our priorities and values. We would prefer to go on acting like this collapse will never happen. And then there are those who have been brainwashed by the likes of “Rapture theology” –those who, instead of trying to save the earth as a habitable planet for humans and countless species of fauna and flora, will rejoice that the end which they believe was “predicted” has finally come and they will be taken to heaven leaving God’s good creation behind. (I call this “Beam me up, Scotty” escapism and lunacy.)  

Now for the controversial part: If we are to secure a hospitable home for future generations (including our children and grandchildren), we must recognize the giant “elephant in the room” which no one wants to admit exists. Our American brand of capitalism is an economic system which is unsustainable. As I stated earlier, our parasitic economy depends on the production, distribution, and consumption of increasing goods—a dependence which requires the exploitation of more and more of the planet’s resources. We have created a cancerous economy which must grow/metastasize to survive. Such reckless growth has limits, and we are fast approaching those limits as we demand more from the earth than it can give. This glutenous approach of our culture has a long history, but the last seventy-five years have witnessed the most damage to our planet through careless human greed and distorted values. 

We have assumed that “an invisible hand” has been at work in our brand of capitalism which promises that if we each seek our own wealth and advantage, everyone in the culture will benefit. I call that mistaken assumption “the original sin of capitalism.”  Recent decades have disproven such a ridiculous notion. The rich (especially the billionaires) have gotten richer; the poor have gotten poorer; and the middle class is being squeezed out of existence. The “trickle” in trickle-down economics has been reversed as a flood of more and more wealth and advantages go to the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class. Those benefiting from this unjust and deplorable system are experts at convincing victims of this arrangement that the fault is to be found with others. Through lies, scapegoating, racism, and pandering to the fears, anger, and prejudices which are so prevalent today, these wily and greedy villains have succeeded in shifting the blame to the most vulnerable in our society. (See Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.) 

When the collapse begins to occur (which I believe is already slowly happening and will mushroom over the coming decades), these same plutocrats will do all they can (including the use of violence and oppression) to keep what they assume is theirs. The rest of us, bit by bit, will be “left behind” to fend violently for ourselves.  

If you think I’m exaggerating, that’s exactly what is happening in countries which are already experiencing the first waves of this coming collapse. That’s why many are immigrating to survive. The resources in their own countries are in the hands of plutocrats and dictators. The “unified Reich” #45 promises to build will probably follow a similar pattern. (Did you notice how quickly Wall Street tycoons began to contribute to #45’s presidential campaign after he was rightly convicted of thirty-four felony accounts? They would rather have an incompetent, wannabe dictator as President of the most powerful country in the world and sacrifice our democracy than to pay their fair share of taxes or surrender any of the unconscionable wealth they have amassed. Remember that #45 has already said he will become a dictator on his first day in office; in the past he has talked about suspending or terminating the Constitution when it suits him; he plans to effectively dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, end support for renewable energy, and base his economy on polluting fossil fuels; and he denies we are even facing a climate crisis! But after all, he’s smarter than all the scientists, doctors, generals, admirals, educators, and theologians in the world!) 

If the greedy in our society are willing to sacrifice the earth as a habitable home for coming generations, they will have little reason to pause in sacrificing the masses to keep their wealth and advantages. In all of history, has there ever been a time when those with massive power and wealth have voluntarily and sacrificially shared their fortunes? 

As far as achieving the common good, American capitalism as it is being practiced has failed. It has become a parasitic system which will fall either through its own greed or because the earth can no longer sustain its abuse. Our only hope is to discover the wisdom to prepare for such a collapse by beginning to live in a radically different way on this planet and in our neighborhoods. The wisdom offered by Jesus can help us face this crisis and perhaps overcome some of the most destructive dimensions of that collapse.

(The brand of capitalism I criticize in this article is the one we are practicing today. I suppose there could be another type of capitalism which would not be as destructive and exploitative as the American brand. But any economic system which encourages and rewards unbridled and unjust greed is untenable in light of the crisis the planet faces today. To paraphrase E. F. Schumacher, we need economics as if people and the earth matter, not profits for an increasingly smaller minority. Some economists like Robert Reich have suggested some models of capitalism which may be helpful. 

Let me also say that I am aware of some measures being taken in the world to mitigate the coming crisis. I applaud those efforts. However, they are too little and too late. A broken system cannot be reformed. It must be replaced with something that is life-sustaining.)

[The next article will look more deeply at the ecological crisis we are facing in preparation for the wisdom we as followers of Christ may find in his teachings and example.]

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