Addressing a World on the Brink of Self-Destruction
by David McCarthy
The New Economics leans toward the activist side of the field, as opposed to its purely academic or theoretical dimensions. In keeping with that, what I’ve really been thinking about this month, and what I want to share, is a contemplation of the urgency of the human situation right now. For me, a big part of responding to that urgency is about confronting and moving beyond outmoded ways of thinking.
Perhaps you’ve read some of the same reports and articles that I have. There is a sense now that we are decades ahead of some of the worst predictions about climate change. For example, the Greenland ice sheet, an immense mass which is over 100,000 years old, is melting at an unprecedented rate, and has become unstable. If it were to melt completely, sea level would rise over 24 feet. That doesn’t take into account ice melt elsewhere in the world of course. That sort of sea level rise (or even significantly less) would obliterate every major costal region on the planet. The Hudson River would become a vast inland estuary. You can forget about New York City, and for that matter, Albany.
I once mentioned something about this to a friend at a party, and she said, “I prefer not to let myself think about stuff like that.” OK, it was a party. But aren’t we all a bit like that? And it’s not like there aren’t any other kinds of urgency to be thinking about. One thing that I have trouble thinking about is the fact that maybe 50,000 people a day, mostly children, die from hunger and hunger-related disease on this planet.
Then there’s the issue of inequality. Oxfam—an international confederation of organizations working to find solutions to worldwide poverty and injustice—recently did an analysis of global wealth distribution, which drew its data from a report by the research institute of Credit Suisse (a major Swiss financial services and banking group). I downloaded the Credit Suisse report, and it’s very glossy and upbeat. Global wealth is up this year! But Oxfam’s analysis of the report shows that the richest 85 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion.
And to quote directly from the Oxfam analysis:
“Our estimates suggest that the lower half of the global population possesses barely 1% of global wealth, while the richest 10% of adults own 86% of all wealth, and the top 1% account for 46% of the total.”
As if the present-day suffering and injustice of all this are not enough, when we look toward the future, it gets worse. A recent study from the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), a think tank associated with the University of Maryland, speaks frankly about the possibility of complete collapse of civilization in the not-too-distant future, based on the convergence of systemic environmental degradation with intractable wealth inequality. The study points to past civilizations, where wealthy elites were able to shield themselves from the looming symptoms of collapse—and use their power to resist needed changes—until it was too late to do anything. The recent sci-fi film Elysium (starring Matt Damon) is, if anything, an optimistic take on such possibilities. In that plot, the wealthy elite escapes to an idyllic space station orbiting the Earth. In a total collapse, I doubt even the wealthy will be so lucky.
Of course, the way that wealth and power inequality is blocking solutions to human problems here in the present will differ from how it functioned in say, the Roman Empire. And we should remember that some of today’s very wealthy are giving away billions of dollars in extremely positive philanthropic work—a fact that is one of the most hopeful things out there, to my mind.
But still, the pernicious influence of let’s just say “some of the rich” is extremely difficult to counteract. The transition away from fossil fuels is a case in point. That transition is happening, though not fast enough, and many of the people who make vast wealth from fossil fuels use their money to exert huge influence in the media and in politics. These same people usually speak highly of a “free-market” even as they tilt the levers of political power in their favor.
The ideological cover for such madness—at least in the realm of economics— is a dominant branch of theory called “neoclassical” economics. I submit that we should reject this failed body of theory altogether. It is just as pernicious and harmful as the Marxist dogma that held sway in the totalitarian Communist era in Eastern Europe and China. Part of the “Big Lie” (a classic propaganda technique) of both sides of the ideological divide is that the only alternative to neoclassical dogma (AKA “free-market” Capitalism) is Socialism or Marxism, or that the only alternative to Socialism is neoclassical Capitalism. Sorry, but that isn’t going to fly any more.
A key part of my life’s work for many years has been to study the thinkers who have taken economics to a deeper and more accurate level, as well as crafting my own theoretical and practical ideas on the subject. My increasing sense of the urgency of the human predicament makes me feel like that’s not enough, and I am looking for the resolve to take my activism to another level.
Though I don’t have suggestions as to how you might want to respond to the urgency we’ve discussed here, I certainly welcome your thoughts on the matter. We would be pleased to print some of your ideas in upcoming issues of Country Wisdom News, or on our website.