There was a feature length documentary a couple of years back that provided me with one of those paradigm shift things that self-improvement gurus are apt to talk about. The film was called “Surviving Progress“. The premise was that there is a feature in mankind that has served us well enough for millions of years but now that same feature will destroy us all. Some may call it madness, but actually it is the same quality inherent in the majority of creatures – short term survival skills. And yes when we’re in that survival state we’re not thinking much about the long term. When a sabre tooth tiger is approaching then it’s not a good time to start working on plans for moving on from hunter-gatherer to farmer. In our panic and emergency state we can indeed act quite mad as seen from a calmer perspective.
And until quite recently in the grand scheme of things this all did not matter very much. When your number one weapon was a spear then you were not likely to permanently damage the planet. But in the last few hundred years mankind has progressed well beyond spears and clubs with nails in them. Modern weapons and industrial processes can and do cause massive, possibly irreparable damage. And modern farming, medicine and hygiene are likely also very guilty in raising the stakes. Were we intended to survive in such high numbers?
In economics the word externality can be used to refer to factors considered outside the control and responsibility of a business. For example you may replace 1000 UK workers with 1000 workers in Asia to save 20% on your pay roll. The fact that these 1000 people end up unemployed, spend less (on your products too?), need benefits and housing paid and therefore costing UK Ltd is not your problem. If you can save millions by dumping toxic chemicals in the ocean off Somalia by paying the Mafia and buying off officials then the fact that it is killing the waters there is not your problem. The problem with this is simply that we’re no longer playing with bows and arrows and our numbers are so numerous and global that we cannot regard our world as being infinite (economically and environmentally). We cannot act without considering the greater repercussions of our actions. The universe is a system; there is cause and there is effect.
Power also does strange things to man. Political and business leaders now wield massive military, industrial and economic might. This power, unchecked, becomes addictive, it fills an insatiable void, and the desire to make use of it, must become irresistible, especially in the face of so many less powerful mortals who refuse to play along with the increasingly disturbed perspective of the elite.
This picture of a bison skull mountain sums up the flaw in mankind as far as I am concerned. An inability to step back and understand ourself and our place in the universe. Hold this photograph in your mind next time you read about a politician backing more austerity, more indignation for the poor, more bombing of people that “just don’t learn”, more tax breaks for the rich, more surveillance, more “anti-terror” laws, more sheer insanity. They’ll kill the golden goose to get all the golden eggs today. In the end they will also destroy themselves, but not until they’ve taken the rest of us with them.