Not-So-Sacred Earth

I wrote recently about our tendency to reduce such things as art and athletics to something that can be measured and counted in dollars and cents. I drew on some of the things Robert Heilbroner wrote in his book The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. There is much to be learned from that remarkable book, and one of them has to do with our attitude toward the earth we are rapidly destroying in the name of “progress” and “profits.”

Heilbroner is convinced that the Judeo-Christian religion combined with modern science to engender an attitude toward the earth that encourages exploitation. He calls it the “desacralization” of the earth. If we loved the earth and regarded it as something sacred, or truly believed the earth is our Mother, as many cultures do, we could not possibly treat her the way we do. It’s an interesting thesis, though some might find it unsettling. In any event, what we have here is a serious type of reductionism indeed: reducing the earth to an inanimate thing to be exploited for our creature comforts.

To be sure, the Judeo-Christain religion teaches us that the earth is there to serve our purpose, whatever that purpose happens to be. Early on there were restraints, of course, as the New Testament taught that wealth in itself is not necessarily a good thing, that the love of money is the root of all evil. But these restraints gradually loosened and there was nothing in our religious tradition to suggest that the earth is sacred: it is there for us to do with as we might. By the time the exploitation of the earth became possible on a grand scale, thanks to a science that reduces reality to “an uncomplaining grid of space and time,” and great wealth became available by exploiting the earth, there was no moral compass in Western culture that allowed us to see that the direction we were taking would be both harmful and wrong. Heilbroner thinks that moral compass disappeared completely when John Locke insisted late in the seventeenth century that “unlimited private acquisition, for centuries the target of the most scathing religious and philosophic criticism, was in fact compatible with both the dictates of Scripture and the promptings of right reason.” Locke was of course simply aligning himself with John Calvin who had argued a century earlier that great wealth was a sign of God’s favor. As science led to the industrial age the way was being paved for capitalist exploitation of both human beings and the earth that supports them. It has now become a fait accompli.

The role of science in Heilbroner’s view is especially interesting. As he put it, the ideological aspect of science “lies in the function played by its deepest conception — an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. It thus provides a world view compatible with, and needed by, that required for the limitless invasion of the world for the purpose of surplus [capital] accumulation.” This translated in a remarkably short time into a technical explosion that made it possible to exploit the earth and take from it anything that might increase our wants and needs. Lacking any restraint from our religious tradition the cry went up to take and keep from the earth as much as possible. The result of this thinking was unfettered capitalism, greed with a capital “G,” and an earth that suffers from relentless exploitation, air and water that may not sustain us much longer, and multinational corporations that blindly rush after profits with no thought for the morrow.

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Working For The Man!

In many ways Wal-Mart is a mixed bag (no pun intended!). The company employs 1% of America’s workforce, 1.4 million people. That’s a good thing. They also support “Second Harvest” and contribute to local charities where their stores are located. And they have given the organic foods industry a huge shot in the arm. Those are all good things. But they refuse to allow their employees to unionize and they pay them an average of $12.00 an hour. That amounts to $24,960.00 a year at a time when the poverty levels for a family of four is $23,050.00. Those are not good things. As I say, it’s a mixed bag. And to make matters worse, the family of Sam Walton who founded the company is rolling in dough — among the wealthiest people in this country. One does wonder why they couldn’t put pressure on the company to shell out a bit more money to keep their employees higher above the level of abject poverty. But that’s just me.

Contrast this with Whole Foods which also prohibits unions among its employees, but pays them $15.00 an hour which raises their annual income to $31,200.00 — more than $6,000.00 above the levels of the Wal-Mart employees. They also have stock shares for many of their employees. These salaries will not put these employees in a class with Sam Walton’s offspring. But the fact that Whole Foods obviously cares about their employees and wants them to be loyal and happy workers is a breath of fresh air — and sets that company apart from Wal-Mart with its “profits-first” approach to retailing. And, as we know, Wal-Mart is famous (infamous?) for running Ma and Pa stores out of business. So it’s a good thing (note sarcasm here) they are able to hire back many of the people they put out of work! But, then, as supporters of “Second Harvest” they may also be feeding many of those people as well — not to mention their own employees.

It is embarrassing and not something we can be proud of when the largest retailer in this country (the world?) gains its reputation at the expense of the people that are forced to work for the very company that has shrunken the job pool and made the box stores one of the few places where people can earn enough to put food on the table. But of greater concern is the shrinking middle class which has historically kept the capitalist ship afloat. Paying the average worker starvation wages doesn’t do much to help shore-up the middle class and support a struggling economy. I dare say the CEO of Wal-Mart, who assuredly considers himself a loyal American, hasn’t thought about that.

More importantly, Marx talked a great deal about exploitation but he failed to account for the growing middle class, which lessened the likelihood that there would be a revolution as he predicted. But as the middle class shrinks America begins to look more and more like the capitalist model Marx targeted in the nineteenth century with the very rich exploiting the very poor. And the very poor increasing in numbers and growing impatient.

Karl Marx Redux

Karl Marx’s Capital is seldom read these days. This book by a dead, white European male has been tossed into the dustbins by the League of the Politically Correct and replaced by something more in fashion. Pity. What Marx had to say about capitalist exploitation still rings true even after more than a hundred years. This was driven home by an article I read recently about the current recession and the trend during that period to squeeze more work out of the labor force in the name of higher profits. Consider the following excerpt about the recent changes in the dynamics of the job market:

The drop comes after a string of steady gains in productivity, as employers slashed their payrolls during the 2007 recession but squeezed more output from thinner staffs. Some of those gains came from investment in technology and other efficiencies. Some of it came from asking workers – fearful of losing their jobs with the unemployment rate at 8.2 percent — to work harder and put in longer hours.

But employers have apparently wrung about as much work as they could from their existing employees. To increase output, they’ve had to hire back some of the people they laid off during the recession.

(Note here that there’s apparently a point of diminishing return in this dynamic. Employers are hiring back more workers not because they want to put people to work, but because productivity has dropped. This is not an ethical decision on the employers’ part; it is business as usual.)

I’m not a Marxist, though I think his notion of “alienation” is spot on. Further, he looked into the teeth of the capitalist beast and saw how it nurtured human greed and avarice. So let’s think about some of the things Marx had to say. He was convinced that the inherent nature of capitalism necessitated the exploitation of the workers in the name of increased profits. In the world of capitalism, the value of the products workers make is being determined independently of the amount of time they spend on the job. In Marx’s view, the opposite should be the case, as the value of the product should directly reflect the amount of labor time spent on its making. The separation here between labor and value results from the fact that the worker must sell his labor to the capitalist: his labor becomes a commodity. The ideal Marx had in mind was the intimate connection between a worker in his shop making, say, a chair, and the value he is able to realize in the market place. Once he goes to work for a factory owner his connection with the product of his labor is severed. Again, it is the intimate connections that Marx focused his attention upon. Capitalism, in his view, separated workers from their products and prices from real value. Those contradictions, he was convinced, would bring about the demise of capitalism as workers would experience increasing frustration and eventually rise up in revolt.

Well, he was certainly wrong about that. The closest thing we have to a revolt today is the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which barely causes a ripple in the capitalist fabric. And the chains that Marx saw binding the workers have been replaced by credit card debt. Capitalism has prospered as the unions (among other things) have made the lives of workers tolerable and they can now afford important things like iPods, televisions (charged on the credit card) and new cars (leased, of course). The contradictions within capitalism no longer bother most people and the moral message of Capital has been silenced by complacency. Though its numbers are shrinking, the “middle class” which has sprung up after Marx’s death is relatively content and the revolution that Marx foresaw no longer seems possible, much less likely. The “workers” seem content to take what is given them while the 1% continue to prosper and grow fat on the fruit of the labor of the other 99%. That is, the essential framework that Marx analyzed is still in place. The difference is that, for the most part, the workers no longer care that they are being exploited because they have been pacified with a smattering of goods that makes their lives tolerable in a culture that is designed to mollify their discontent.

Breaking The Ice

There are still those among us who deny global warming. Seriously, it’s true. There are even more among us who deny that humans have had a hand in it. The evidence of the latter is weaker than that of the former, but neither can be reasonably denied. In any event, the question of what to do about it is on the back burner while nations vie with one another to figure out ways to exploit the situation for profit. The opening of the Northwest passage due to the melting of the ice caps has nations actively devising ways to gain an advantage in the pursuit of gas and oil reserves in that region of the world as they simultaneously plan ways to rescue those who will most assuredly run afoul in that pursuit.

A recent story was of interest in this regard. It begins, YOKOSUKA, Japan (AP) — To the world’s military leaders, the debate over climate change is long over. They are preparing for a new kind of Cold War in the Arctic, anticipating that rising temperatures there will open up a treasure trove of resources, long-dreamed-of sea lanes and a slew of potential conflicts. By Arctic standards, the region is already buzzing with military activity, and experts believe that will increase significantly in the years ahead.

I have dealt with the issue of alternative energy in previous blogs. So I will not go there again. But the scenario sketched out for us in this article suggests yet another reason to find alternatives to oil and gas to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demands of a growing human population. Not “needs,” but “demands.” The two must not be confused. We do not need to use as much energy as we do: we waste a disproportionate amount of the energy. We simply do not want to deny ourselves the indulgence. Heaven forbid!

The issues here are complex, as a brief excerpt from that always reliable source, Wikipedia, will attest: The contested sovereignty claims over the waters may complicate future shipping through the region: The Canadian government considers the Northwestern Passages part of Canadian Internal Waters, but the United States and various European countries maintain they are an international strait or transit passage, allowing free and unencumbered passage

The notion that nations will soon be vying with one another to get the upper hand in the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, is disquieting. It will not necessarily lead to open warfare, but it may indeed lead to another cold war (no pun intended) as nations seek to gain a step up in a region that promises to yield oil and natural gas and also open the way for masses of daily freight traffic — and even cruise ships — in a region of the world that has been closed off to any boating traffic whatever for most of the year for centuries past and where many an adventurous explorer has met his slow death. There may be more casualties to come. Thus the military buildup. Not for engaging in war, but for rescuing fools who risk their lives for pleasure and/or corporate (and private) profit.

Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the London-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said militaries probably will have to rescue their own citizens in the Arctic before any confrontations arise there. “Catastrophic events, like a cruise ship suddenly sinking or an environmental accident related to the region’s oil and gas exploration, would have a profound impact in the Arctic,” she said. “The risk is not militarization; it is the lack of capabilities while economic development and human activity dramatically increases that is the real risk.”

In one sense, it is exciting to think of new possibilities, and new horizons to explore. But given the human animal and what we know about him, the possibilities bring with them the potential for conflict and catastrophe that give us pause. It will be interesting to see how this thing shakes out while we wonder why the money being spent on finding ways to exploit this region is not being used to discover alternative energies. But there I go again.