There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one striking at the root.
–Henry David Thoreau
I can’t count the number of articles and opinion pieces I’ve read lately that talk about terrible problems facing humanity, and then lay out some practical solutions. Yes, there are plenty of technical answers to the challenges of our times. But they won’t be implemented, because these essays all fail to address the key question of power—and I don’t mean electricity.
Why does this country still not have a universal healthcare system? Some 60 other countries do, and some have had these systems for decades or even generations. All of them spend much less on healthcare than we do; many also have better outcomes in terms of life expectancy or infant mortality. Lack of guaranteed healthcare pins many to hated jobs, causes many bankruptcies and premature deaths, and handicaps our competitiveness. Yet even with Democrats holding all three Houses, even in the middle of a pandemic, we can’t even talk about dethroning the rapacious, parasitic insurance and drug companies.
Why do we all act like it’s normal and reasonable to spend two thirds of our discretionary budget on our military—as much as the next ten countries combined? Why is the U.S. always at war in at least one place if not several, usually against impoverished, small countries whose leaders have the temerity to refuse orders from Washington D.C.? Why is war even a thing, given that it’s obviously a crazy way to settle conflicts? How is it possible that instead of finally getting rid of the unbelievable phenomenon of nuclear weapons, the U.S. is preparing to spend over a trillion dollars on a new generation of them?
Rapidly accelerating climate change is a crisis threatening to turn our world into Planet Hell, a world so uninhabitable, so filled with crises, that our children and grandchildren are unlikely to live into old age. How can it be that we are still mostly arguing over whether it’s real, or whether we should do a tenth of enough or a hundredth? How is it not cause for alarm that in one human lifetime, a majority of wild vertebrate mass has been replaced by human bodies and those of our livestock?
I think all of this can be explained by two things. Thing One: the fact that humans are herd animals, who tend to accept and believe whatever they see those around them accepting. Far beyond a folie a deux—craziness shared by two people—human society can actually generate mass madness masked as normality. Thing Two: the wrong people are running things—in fact, there seems to be a near perfect, inverse correlation between wisdom and power. The wiser you are, the less likely you are to accrue power.
But here I need to define the word “wisdom,” and I prefer to use antonyms rather than synonyms for this. The opposite of wisdom is not stupidity—because the opposite of stupidity is intelligence, not wisdom. Nor is ignorance the opposite of wisdom—the opposite of ignorance is knowledge. The opposite of foolishness is prudence. So what’s the opposite of wisdom? I assert that it’s selfishness, or short-sightedness. The wisest one is the one who sees the farthest—in distance, into the future (and often the past, which can illuminate the present and future)–and outward beyond the self. The most short-sighted person is not only the one who can only think of right now, or the next quarterly statement; it’s also the one who doesn’t care about anyone outside his own skin—a sociopath. Some can see, and care about, their own families, or a small circle of buddies. Some care about their communities, or their tribes (like football teams, states or nations, language or religious cohorts, political stripes, etc). Wiser, more long-sighted people understand that all people everywhere are one family, and those who live far away and speak another language are not any less human than those next door. The most wise are those who understand that all living things matter, and those not yet born matter as well (“the seventh generation”).
Why aren’t these wise people the ones making our decisions? For one thing, wise people usually abhor the idea of chasing after power. Whereas foolish, selfish, greedy people see that power can bring them wealth, and control over others, which they think is what matters in life. They see it as “winning.” There is plenty of competition for the wealth and power that top spots in corporations or government can bring. It’s an asset in the climb if you’re not hampered by concerns about what is truly fair, if you feel free to step on others in your path. If you can lie freely, carefully and well.
But it’s also true that these lofty places of power become clubs, jealously guarded by their inner circles, who use some of the power to make rules favoring their own kind and blocking any kind of reform. The headquarters of the empire that is running our world into extinction is here in the United States. And here, a project by the ruling class and the corporate heads to make sure their grip on power could not be challenged has been ongoing for forty years and has reached completion. Supreme Court rulings have made it impossible to put meaningful limits on political bribery; they have not merely allowed what should be flatly called bribery–in effect these rulings mandate corruption. The candidate who spends the most wins a good 90% of the time—that money comes from special interests, who then want to be paid back in the coin of political favors. Those favors always come at the expense of the public good.
Beyond political power, wealth has also bought an even more important kind of control—through their ownership of most media outlets, the rich have control of the narrative, of public conversation. Through the middle and late twentieth century, media conglomerated into six enormous behemoths with tentacles into TV, radio, magazines, book publishing, movies—as well as non-media interests. Yes, the internet opened up many new venues for dissemination of dissident ideas—which is why net neutrality was shot down, and why now the roiling of conspiracy theory-imbibing thugs is being used to justify increasing internet censorship. There may be a million little blogs and websites, but there is one Facebook, one Google, one Microsoft, one ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. The billionaires running these companies have ties with government and conventional media.
The people who benefit from this arrangement are a tiny minority—and even they benefit only if all you look at is money and power (which I expect is all they look at). So 99.9% of us would benefit from overthrowing this regime—and we could, if we were united. But because that .1% controls the narrative, they can prevent this. Of late, they have been using the Divide and Conquer strategy a great deal, bringing some societies close to the brink of civil war. A tiny elite has amassed so much wealth, that they have caused levels of inequality that in the past reliably brought out the pitchforks and torches or guillotines. But their propaganda is crafted by experts, and it works; we’re training our guns, literal and metaphorical, on each other instead of on our corporate masters.
Given all of this, discussion about ways we could solve even the immense problems bearing down on us, if only we could all cooperate, if only the people in power would do the right thing…come to seem as useful as fairy tales about how we could solve it with a couple of swishes of a magic wand, the proper incantation, and a little fairy dust. A thousand labs are hard at work seeking technical breakthroughs, because the unspoken mandate is: we must solve the problems of climate change, resource depletion and biodiversity collapse without reducing the flow of wealth to the wealthy, without changing power relations, without terminating the destructiveness of rent-seeking capitalism. And this can’t be done. So we get endless hype, stories of “breakthroughs” which turn out not to amount to much, and real solutions which are not discussed or implemented because they “are not realistic”…that is, nobody is going to get rich off them. We get reckless cowboy entrepreneurs pushing for mad geoengineering schemes, trying to ride their Strangelovian rockets into what could well be a final frontier. And given the tight marriage between corporations and governments, we will see these ventures given funding, not the small scale, community-led transitions that honor and integrate with our Earthly Mother and prioritize meeting everyone’s needs.
So how do we hack at the root? I don’t really have an answer but I think a few useful things might include: working continuously to break through corporate control of the narrative, to educate our fellow citizens; fighting to block whatever insanity is pushing through in our own locales (e.g. petrochemical plants on the Ohio, anti-protest bills); and working to set up ourselves, our families and our communities to get through the coming collapse with as much integrity as possible. This can mean putting up solar panels, growing some of your own food, learning about threats to your own ecosystem and helping (e.g. planting pollinator food plants), creating local Mutual Assistance Disaster Relief networks. It also helps to stop supporting the mega-corporations creating so much of the problems—buy from local mom-and-pops where you can’t get what you need in trade or produce it yourself. What else?