The Business of America

The business of America, as they say, is business. Politics, like education and even medicine, has become business. Indeed, there is scarcely any activity we can think of that has not been transformed into business, including sports. In education, we are now told to do what is best for our “clients,” and that translates into giving them what they want and not what they need — and making it profitable. Medicine has huge billboards and runs countless advertisements on the television selling their latest product or service to their patients. Businessmen, successful or not, are elected to high public office. And sports, well, we know about sports: even at the collegiate level they have become commodified. We have known for years that this was coming, but we were not quite expecting what has occurred.

So much of what is going on results from our collective attitude to the earth which we regard with indifference (contempt?) and threaten to destroy in our rush to garner greater and greater wealth and bigger and bigger profits. Let me explain — with the help of my friend Robert Heilbroner, author of The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. He points out that we need to ponder what he calls “the bourgeois attitude toward nature.”

“[In contrast with our bourgeois attitude] one aspect of the culture of most past civilizations strikes everyone who examines these extraordinarily diverse societies. This is their sacred view of the world. Whether in China or India, Greece or Rome, the Americas or Africa, the earth is seen by earlier civilizations as peopled with spirits and living presences, suffused with an animism that inhabits every rock as well as every living thing.”

This attitude cannot be found in the Judeo-Christian religion, however,

“which from Genesis on bids man to seize and shape, appropriate and subdue nature for human purposes alone.”

This attitude has come to permeate the thinking of much of the West and has given impetus to the tremendous success of the capitalistic system of economics which has given Western (and recently Eastern) people so much they can be proud of: a diverse culture, extraordinary creativity both in the arts and in science, longer and healthier lives, and wealth beyond rubies. But it has come at a price, because our attitude toward the earth threatens to bring down the entire edifice around our ears and bring suffering to millions of people as never before in human history. As Heilbroner goes onto point out, this attitude

lies rather in the function played by its deepest conception — an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. [The earth is no longer our Mother. It does not live. As we are taught by science and technology, it is simply there for the taking.] 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 accumulation [i.e, profit]. . . . . Capitalism requires and engenders a belief in the indifference of ‘nature’ to the operations performed on it my man, a point of view epitomized by the scientific outlook. The culture of capitalism thus expresses a voracious, even rapacious, attitude toward a material world — a point of view that would be impossible if the world were portrayed as “mother” Nature. The ideological function of science is to delegitimize this animistic view, replacing it with the much more powerful view of nature as object, the obedient servant and uncomplaining treasury of man.”

To begin with, as I have noted in previous discussions on this topic, it is part of the nature of capitalism that it has no intrinsic moral dimension. Capitalism, is a-moral, at the very least.  Moreover, many of those in business who rely on science to assist them in taking from the earth as much plunder as they can would deny science in the form of the predictions of climate change which would thwart their desires and curtail their avarice. They lean heavily on the scientific attitude that the earth is inert and there for the taking — “obedient servant and uncomplaining treasury of man.” But they ignore its dire warnings that there is a price to be paid. They fly about the world making money; rely on computer models to tell them the latest stock predictions — not to mention the weather; they plant and harvest crops based on the latest information provided them by agricultural science. They quantify everything and rely heavily on calculations and predictions that depend, in turn, on scientific evidence. When it is useful science is leaned on heavily, but when it tells them to beware they refuse to listen.

It is not surprising, however, that an economy like ours would ignore warnings about climate change since such a thing cannot be fathomed by those who think in terms of profit and loss and who see the world as something to be exploited and to render up its treasure to them and to no one else. So we should not be surprised when those in Congress and the White House, so heavily dependent on the business community for their jobs, ignore the warnings about climate change and insist that it is a Chinese plot to destroy the American economy. They find it more comforting to keep their collective heads buried in the sand than to admit that it might be wise to proceed with caution. After all it’s only the earth and it’s there to plunder and exploit. It’s not our Mother, it is simply inert and lifeless. Or it soon will be.

Mother Earth

I recently commented on a blog by my pal Emily who had reported on the novel The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Emily wondered aloud if perhaps humans have lost their contact with the earth, and I cited the example of the modern farmer sitting high atop his twelve-wheel tractor, air-conditioned and navigated by computers in which the farmer sits listening to country/western music. I exaggerate for effect — he may listen to Beethoven or Vivaldi for all I know. But you get the picture — the farmer is probably hired by a corporation, and that is not an exaggeration.

In any event, one does wonder what has been lost when humans ride in huge machines and never touch the earth from which we draw sustenance and from whence we all came and to which we will all eventually return. The great writer Joseph Conrad wondered aloud about the same sort of thing — except that he was reflecting on the replacement of the sailing ships he worked on for so many years by the steamships that rudely shoved them aside.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

In his reflections on his life at sea, titled The Mirror of the Sea, Conrad mentions “affectionate regret which clings to the past.” Indeed. He himself served briefly — the last time as captain — on steam ships, but he hated them and left the British merchant marine, which he served for twenty years, primarily because he could no longer find a sailing vessel to command. They were declared redundant, as the English would say. Conrad’s loss is our gain as he then became one of the greatest writers of English prose who ever set pen to paper (and he a Pole who never spoke English until he went to sea with the merchant service as a 17 year-old boy!).  Conrad, who waxes poetic in several chapters about the wind, reflects on the changes he saw:

“Here speaks the man of the masts and sails, to whom the sea is not a navigable element, but an intimate companion. The length of passages, the growing sense of solitude, the close dependence upon the very forces that, friendly today, without changing their nature, by the mere putting forth of their might, become dangerous tomorrow, make for that sense of fellowship which modern seamen, good men as they are, cannot hope to know. And, besides, your modern ship, which is a steamship, makes her passages on other principles than yielding to the weather and humoring the sea. She receives smashing blows, but she advances; it is a slogging fight, and not a scientific campaign. The machinery, the steel, the fire, the steam have stepped in between the man and the sea. A modern fleet of ships does not so much make use of the sea as exploit a highway. The modern ship is not the sport of the waves. Let us say that each of her voyages is a triumphant progress; and yet it is a question whether it is not a more subtle and more human triumph to be the sport of the waves and yet survive, achieve your end.”

As we grow older we do naturally tend to reflect on old times, though in his superb movie “Midnight in Paris” Woody Allen shows us the dangers that lie in thinking that everything was truly better “back then.” However, at the risk of falling into the trap Allen warns us about, I find myself drawn to the profound remark of one of my other favorite writers, George Eliot, when she wishes nostalgically for a time when “reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

Not only have we lost touch with our Mother Earth, we have lost touch with the world itself in our hurried pursuit of material success in the conviction that faster and bigger are better when they are not and that all movement forward in time means progress when it assuredly is not. Perhaps we might all slow down a bit and look around to appreciate what a beautiful world we humans seem to have grown apart from.