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Wealth at too great a cost PDF Print E-mail
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by Jan Lundberg   
27 March 2008

Culture Change Letter #181

An observation on modern society, from a Mayan village

Rich people can afford anything, or so it is assumed. But our rapidly changing world demands a new accounting of what goes on in the creation and distribution of material wealth amidst unprecedented global population size.

We've heard that the high mucky-mucks will eventually find they can't eat money, nor get into Heaven as well as a camel can get through the eye of a needle. We've heard that "You can't take it with you," from the Keef Hartley Band's song of that title. But now it's time to think in terms of the historic change facing humanity, as the excesses of the pinnacle of Western Civilization take our breath away.

The result of pursuing gain and privilege has been self-destruction for a large segment of modern humanity and life in general. The obliteration of countless species is seldom mentioned in mass-media commentaries or political speeches. Yet, even as we all -– rich and poor -– notice the unraveling of nature's intricate structure that wealth has been built upon, we see the blind continuation of massive exploitation by the few for the few.

There are two time frames being considered separately: (1) the present and short-term, and (2) the long-term that stretches beyond our own lives. The second time-frame is moving into the first one, when we see long-term effects (e.g., climate) showing up sooner than scientists thought possible a few years ago. In the present we see profit maximizers and foolhardy consumers closing their eyes to the future. They knowingly compromise the survival of their own progeny.

Those who either do not want to participate in predatory behavior, or who see the future's unfolding mega-crisis, are the rare element in the dominant culture -– when caring for fellow beings is a passport to self-imposed poverty.

Yet, living now the future -- what must become our sustainable culture -– is an experience of greater wealth of a different and sometimes intangible sort! The rewards include learning to live in the way that maintains and builds real wealth, like composted soil is created and spread for greater food production and erosion-prevention.

Petroleum-based products are pervasive planet-wide, and can be had by anyone regardless of race, class, gender or creed. Yet, the purchase of and reliance on petroleum actually costs a great deal, both financially and socially/ecologically. And, once the adoption of a petroleum oriented life-style is accomplished, going back to nature and social cooperation is difficult. According to the mass illusion, it is impossible.

After only a few generations of depending on cheap petroleum and witnessing the resultant growth of the population and the economy, we have lost our way. Modern people as well as "developing" populations have a very hard time picturing a way of life without plastic, for example. It is far easier to imagine living without petrochemicals for crops, because organic food is popular –- even though this loss will cull the major petroleum-consuming societies of hapless consumers who’ve been brainwashed into employment and enjoying the wonders of technology.

The rise of cancer, birth defects and degradation of our formerly beautiful landscapes has only partially awakened us to our folly. Today's huge gap between rich and poor, and the ongoing crime of pollution to satisfy greed and power, have only opened a few eyes widely thus far. It is all too easy for intelligent people to prefer complacency:

"I have to keep using these (toxic) products because I need them."
"We can't make a sudden change away from petroleum because it would be too disruptive and people will suffer."
"If we overtly oppose the government and the corporate state we will be crushed."
"Science and technology will figure out a way to solve our problems."

Such attitudes lack imagination and are ill-informed. I would wager that no one who has taken a Permaculture course or who has been part of a bicycle collective could hold such self-defeating views.

Today's wealth has been created or stolen at too great a cost to tolerate any longer. Even if we do not oppose it, it will crash soon. It's all dependent on volatile petroleum supplies and an infrastructure that will grind to a halt when peak oil's effects hit us. Even before the advent of petroleum for mass consumption and wealth-creation, the generation of material wealth at the expense of others (including the forests, for example) was becoming intolerable and unsustainable.

Western history is full of examples of exploitative societies collapsing, as they were based on “totalitarian agriculture" (Daniel Quinn, Ishmael). The history of the world (since civilization) has definitely not been "green" (Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World).

We have come to a point in humanity's experience that is like a crossroads. But roads are part of the problem, and must be abandoned if many of us are to attain a truly healthy relationship with nature. So, we might better conjure up the "fork in the trail" –- an apparent diversion off to the side that actually offers salvation, while the direction straight ahead assures we dig our own graves.

I've written this essay long-hand from a Mayan-country village. Here one encounters the invasion of plastics and the indiscriminate watching of DVDs. Such modern phenomena have invaded a still self-sufficient culture. Fortunately, the close and extended families, and their love of their ancient land, are still real and can keep the impressionable young people rooted. Besides, there aren't many opportunities to go off and be "gangstas" with cars, fast food and whatnot. For me, this Mayan environment and comforting social situation are vital relief -- that a thirsty, hungry man gets from a fresh coconut's nectar.

Having recently taken an excellent Permaculture Design Course nearby, I'm still enjoying my respite from San Francisco, California and my hectic, uptight nation I affectionately call The United Paved Precincts of America (UPPA). My present surroundings and experiences are the source of this overwhelming feeling: that the quest for material wealth is finally not worth it, even for the wealthy and those who refuse to see this time of change we find ourselves in. My sense is that the average person in the UPPA is unaware of the track we have been riding on. I believe the harried, debt-ridden consumer cannot yet see or feel how simple and beautiful is the "alternative" of sharing and caring in a respectful, revered, natural setting. I wish there was a shortcut to reasonable consciousness in the UPPA, but going down with the rotten ship will be our fate -- unless we stop now and open our minds, and act expansively for the common good.

* * * * *

JL, March 25, 2008, Belize

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