We are facing two major threats to our way of life, and quite possibly our survival.
- Capitalism has failed because it has created unbelievable maldistribution of wealth, pushing millions into poverty. And at the same time ravages natural resources which are seen as sources of wealth instead of resources to be honored and protected for our own and future generations.
- Multiple threats of environmental collapse are occurring more rapidly and significantly than anyone expected.
For many years I have been struggling to understand why our society allows life to be such a struggle for so many. Because it is a choice. A small fraction of our military budget, or subsidies to the fossil fuel industry would provide food, shelter and medical care for those in need.
Recent study has led me to think of some things in terms of culture rather than society. Society refers to a group of people in a loosely organized community. Whereas culture is about the arts, customs, achievements and social institutions of a society.
The culture I was raised in was of small communities of people who lived near each other and spent a lot of time in each other’s company. People, not profits, were valued. Growing up in Iowa in the 1960s, people seemed happier, more tolerant, and much more equal economically. Although there was also unrest from the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, that occurred within a culture that generally tolerated nonviolent protest and working for justice. Civil liberties were protected.
With a significantly smaller population and less automation in those days, there were jobs for almost everyone. Most people had enough income to meet their financial needs, but not much more. Many had gardens as part of their food supply, making them less dependent on earned income. There was little mechanization of farm work. Many people lived and worked in small towns. There weren’t such things as student loan or credit card debt, or bankrupting medical/drug costs. It was just becoming possible for people to begin to own automobiles. There was no Interstate highway system. People rarely flew in airplanes. No smartphones, Internet, virtual reality or even personal computers. No online shopping and services. No Facebook, twitter, Instagram. No bots or algorithms to manipulate how we view the world, pushing toward polarization. It is easy to forget how much has changed in such a short time. We have been living through a cultural shift.
This capitalistic economic system worked fairly well, especially for White males, when there were enough jobs paying adequate salaries. But millions of jobs disappeared as a result of automation, or moving jobs to countries with lower labor costs. People wanted to work, but the jobs disappeared. Unemployment statistics are deceiving because they don’t include those who have given up looking for work.
Our culture has failed to come up with alternatives. The root cause of much of this change has been the failure of our culture to maintain its social contract, which was to provide each family or person with enough money and resources for adequate food, water, shelter, education and healthcare in exchange for work.
It is a moral failure to require money for goods and services, when more and more people no longer have jobs to earn that money.
As a result of that broken contract, of the failure of capitalism, what has developed over the past couple of generations is a culture of increasing isolation, loneliness, poverty and hopelessness. Many don’t have a supportive family or hope for a better future.
The second challenge to our culture is our rapidly deteriorating environment and chaos from fires, heat, drought and storms. The resulting damages are destroying lives and infrastructure. Even if our culture had been functioning well economically, socially and politically, death and destruction from worsening environmental devastation is going to be overwhelming. Those systems will (continue to) collapse.
With this post and those of the past several days, I’ve been trying to articulate how I see our present condition, in preparation for a discussion of the book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation by Jonathan Lear. The book is about how we face the possibility that our culture might collapse.