Where there is no vision, the people perish
Human beings face the greatest challenge in the history of our species. We face the destruction of the life support systems on which our very existence depends, and we face it because of our own activity.
There are some who deny or diminish that threat. They mostly either retreat into fairy tale thinking – that technology, or the ‘free’ market, or UFO’s will save us - or hope that by closing their eyes they can it go away.
Yet the evidence is mounting almost daily that the threats are very real and are gathering momentum. A new report from the UK is saying that if we don't turn carbon emissions around in the next decade, we will not be able to stop runaway climate change whatever we do.
Authoritative voices are warning us that we are very close to the point where world demand for oil will outstrip the capacity of the oilfields to supply. Our total dependence on fossil fuels, the use of which has provided the energy for an enormous expansion of human activity and population, is like a chemical addiction. And as the USA has recently confirmed in Iraq, strip a junkie of their supply and the temptation to turn to crime can be irresistable.
“The American way of life” says George Bush the First “is not negotiable”.
A time of crisis, however, is also the time of greatest opportunity. More and more people are waking up to the need to change, to change at a fundamental level, and to change right now. People are waking up to the fact that the institutions of society that so many have put their trust in are failing us. Government won’t do it. Big business can’t do it.
Because the challenge we are
facing is about more than changing a few policies or practises. It requires a
fundamental rethink of what it means to be a human being. Government and
business can become allies, but the power to make real change lies in the
hearts and the lives of ordinary people.
It is already happening. The international people’s movement against genetically engineered (GE) plants and animals has demonstrated how the reckless agenda of multinational corporations, aided and abetted by our own governments, can be stopped in its tracks and rolled back. One conglomerate has been outed bribing government regulatory officials in Indonesia, GE companies are pulling out of the EU and Australia, and GE agriculture firms are facing massive stock market losses. The promised gold rush is proving to be a fantasy, largely because of global consumer resistance.
While the campaign has significant support in the scientific community, for many ordinary people it began as a sense that something just didn’t feel right. That feeling is often quickly backed up by investigation, but the sense of something being fundamentally arrogant and wrong about GE is the key - it is our humanness talking to us.
What is it to be human? Western
society, at least, defines us as individuals whose value can be judged by what
job we have, what colour credit card, what kind of car we drive and the label
on our clothes.
Yet beneath these displays of status, real people are emotional, social and spiritual beings - intrinsic characteristics that cannot be considered in isolation from each other. We seem to have forgotten that our relationships – with one another and all the other beings with whom we share this beautiful planet – are fundamental to who we are.
There is a passage in the Bible that says “where there is no vision, the people perish”. The inability to step back and clearly see and understand the ‘big picture’ is the central problem that we face in the world today. The main motivations for Western industrial society for the past few hundred years - belief in unlimited growth and technology as the solution to all problems - are the very things that are killing us.
We cannot grow forever on a
finite planet. If we continue to assume that endless growth and consumption is
possible, and disregard the biosphere’s capacity to meet our greed, and if we
continue to neglect social justice and fair and sustainable wealth
distribution, we will reap a bitter harvest.
Neither will technology on its own fix the problem. Yes, we need better technology, more efficient technology that uses non-polluting cyclical processes and that does not depend on fossil fuels. But just more technology will not do, because the problem is in us and the way we see ourselves in the world.
We humans think that we can own the planet, as if fleas could own a dog. Our concepts of property ownership are vastly different from traditional practises of recognising use rights over various resources. A right to grow or gather food or other resources in a particular place is about meeting needs. Property ownership is about the ability to live on one side of the world and speculate on resources on the other, possibly without ever seeing it, without regard to need or consequence.
The ability to ‘own’ property is fundamental to capitalism. Since the first limited liability companies - the Dutch and British East India Companies - were formed, we have seen the kidnapping and enslavement of 20 - 60 million African people and the rape, murder and exploitation of indigenous people around the world. Colonisation was primarily about mercantile empires, not political ones. It was all about forcing indigenous, communitarian people to accept private individual ownership of resources, which could then be alienated, either by being bought or stolen. The subsequent political colonisation was just about how to enforce that ownership.
Today property rights are being extended through GATT and TRIPS agreements and through institutions such as the WTO and the World Bank. Private property rights are being imposed over public assets such as water, intellectual property and, through genetic engineering and biopiracy, on DNA sequences. Even traditional healing plants are under threat. In Aotearoa - New Zealand we have had multinationals attempting to patent piko piko and other native plants. This is all part of the ‘free’ trade corporate globalisation agenda - to create tradeable rights over our common wealth, accumulate ownership and then sell back to us what is already ours.
This is only possible because we have lost our place in the scheme of things. We think of the environment as something ‘over there’, as something separate from human activity, something to either be exploited or protected. The reality is that we are as much part of the environment and the planet as the trees, insects and birds.
It is time to relearn what it means to be human.
This first appeared in print as the preface to 'Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements' by Derek Wall
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