Death machine: striking at the heart of the planetary problem

May 30, 2024
A slide bar with two options, protect or destroy the Planet concept

What is it going to take, asks climate activist Violet Coco, to stop the death machine, to save humanity and the living world? We first need to find the engine, the beating heart of this global materialist-consumerist-industrial civilisation.

Jared Diamond observed, in Collapse, that some past civilisations’ greatest accomplishments came just as they began to collapse. This pattern is a signature of exponential growth and overshoot of the resource base. The power of global consumer capitalism has never been greater, but it is beginning to fragment.

Not all past societies in crisis collapsed. Some saw the error of their ways, reformed and continued on a different path. Many of us see the errors of our present society and try in various ways to change it, so far in vain.

There is clear scientific knowledge supporting change, the majority wishes for some kind of change, there are protests and obstructions of many kinds, our energy sources shift slowly and alternative practices demonstrate many possibilities. All of this has made very little difference. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, habitat continues to be destroyed, fresh water is squandered and polluted, the planet is littered with our plastic trash and so on.

Standing in front of a bulldozer might raise awareness, or not, but it won’t stop the machine. Peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death as she stood in front of a bulldozer in Israel (where else?) in 2003. They claimed the driver didn’t see her, and anyway it was a combat operation. Israel continued targeted demolitions of houses in Gaza.

To properly stop the machine we need to look more carefully, to find the off-switch. Only turning the machine’s engine off will finally stop the destruction. Where is the engine, the beating heart of this global materialist-consumerist-industrial civilisation?

It is not enough to blame greed, there have always been greedy people. What has enabled greed to dominate the world as never before? Blaming ‘capitalism’ is too vague. There have been many forms of capitalism, and there are many parts to it. Where, more precisely, is the problem?

I think we know. The key components are unconstrained markets, enclosures, induced scarcity and profit maximising firms.

The great transformation, as Karl Polanyi called it, replaced social roles and social exchange with market exchange, though markets were and still are embedded in social context. The earlier enclosures of peasant land and commons, and of many kinds of ‘commons’ since, enabled the creation of artificial scarcities, so called by Jason Hickel. Corporations programmed with the over-riding instruction to maximise share-holder profit complete the system. The deliberate removal of social constraints on markets since 1980 turbo-charged the system just when we least needed it.

For a corporate CEO, investment finance is always scarce. He has to compete for it, by maximising profits by any means he can get away with. If he were to perceive the destruction and misery he was causing and try to change it, either his corporation would fail and be displaced or, more likely, he would be replaced. The system would roll on.

There is no single switch that will turn off this great machine. We can only hope to succeed if we aim for its beating heart, even though multiple approaches and many actions will still be required.

To begin with, humans are innately highly social – and competitive some of the time. It is the balancing of these tendencies that creates the richness of our lives. Perpetual competition is pathological. Clearly we need to rebalance.

The Earth is abundant, if we treat it well. Perpetual scarcity is not a natural condition. We are intimately a part of Earth’s living biosphere: all of our food, water and air comes from it or through it. It’s health is our health.

Competitive markets go where the profit is. If it is profitable to trash the planet, the planet will be trashed. If it is profitable to minimise the level of care in our so-called aged care system, then our elders will be neglected and abused.

We don’t have to abolish all markets, but we do need to monitor the financial incentives under which they operate. Incentives can be managed through taxes, subsidies and regulation, as we do haphazardly all the time, this is no mystery.

Markets are not good at providing social services, which are better managed by communities and governments focussed on service, not profit, perhaps with subsidies if necessary.

Some tasks require government action or involvement, as was illustrated for example in escaping the worst of the Global Financial Crisis and in dealing with the Black Summer fires and the Covid pandemic.

We need to reclaim commons of many kinds, including key ecosystems, communications, media, and our shared inheritances of knowledge and culture, just for example.

We need to replace the implicit goal of ever more stuff with the goal of enough. We can aim to reduce the quantity of resources we use, and discard, while increasing the quality of our lives.

How might we accomplish such comprehensive change in so many aspects of our society? We do have power. The most basic is the power of our vote. If we vote for the old parties, which are captured, we will get more of the same. By voting in more enlightened parties and independents we can begin to change. Some representatives might only get part of this agenda, such as reducing greenhouse emissions, but they can help to start the shift. Key actions like ensuring a much fairer sharing of wealth, as we used to do, can bring a lot of punters along.

Even though petitions, demands, protest, blockades and so on have not yet achieved fundamental change, we may be approaching a social tipping point, and small actions can have big influences during tipping points.

Talking, sharing ideas and positions, are central to shifting widespread opinion. The mainstream media are propagandists for the present system, and people need to be weaned from them.

We can carry a vision of a more cooperative, compassionate society that seeks to return to being part of the living biosphere of this miraculous planet. It is well within our capacity if we choose it. Humanity’s indigenous cultures have much relevant wisdom to offer.


For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

Full spectrum resistance: we need militant teams who are willing to destroy the death machine

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