Civilization’s Discontents and Cultural Evolution

Our current economy based on competition works most effectively in a context of scarcity, which is enhanced when we distrust each other and look to the market to meet all needs. While the globalized market may have brought abundance to many, it has also created great wealth inequality and ecological crisis. To many current thinkers, finding a way forward includes re-creating community on a local level. The intentional community movement is a crucial part of this cultural evolution.

Political Revolution Versus Cultural Evolution

“Culture changes when a small group of people find a better way to live, and the rest of us copy them.” —David Brooks (54:50)

Few are going to believe that humanity is going to somehow this time embrace the perennial philosophy and create world peace, or an equitable society. Perhaps the main reason communism hasn’t yet worked for any national government that tried central planning is because of Gall’s law. It states: A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. To the extent that democratic socialism has worked in various nations, it has worked because it taps into hardwired elements of human nature. We have reciprocity norms, a market economy, family. These are based on basic human drives, not culture. We keep trying to game human nature to work together on a large scale by pushing culture in one direction or another, or thru technology. What if the most freedom and abundance, or any type of human flourishing, can be found in groups no larger than the Dunbar number? In this small of group, the basic hardwired elements of human nature function fairly well and are balanced. That gamification to push culture in a certain direction is what we call politics. What if we refused to keep trying to gain power over others thru such games? That would mean we would have to tolerate that some group somewhere that had practices we consider abominable, that we believed brainwashed its children, the only influence we could hold over them was thru persuasion or withholding trade, never thru force. You may counter that we need defenses because other groups will develop weapons and take over, thru some ideology like manifest destiny if not outright plunder. Maybe this could only work after economic collapse. Maybe this could only work without nation-states. Maybe this could only work with increased levels of self-awareness to the point we might call moral virtue, when we have collectively realized thru our social experiment in the extravagant wealth of the western world—while chasing after happiness in power, status, and ease—what the Roman empower knew: “I have been everything, and nothing is worth anything.” Maybe this could only work with the widespread acceptance of a new mythology that connects to the old, which asserts—as do spiritualists, mediums, and near death experiencers from every religion or non-religion—that we are all connected thru karmic law.

In “a short story about what happened to the U.S. economy since the end of World War II,” Housel (2021), writes:

The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Brexit, and the rise of Donald Trump each represents a group shouting, “Stop the ride. I want off….I’m going to fight for something totally different, because this—whatever it is—isn’t working.” Take that mentality and raise it to the power of Facebook, Instagram, and cable news—where people are more keenly aware of how other people live than ever before…. And the era of “We need something radically new, right now, whatever it is” may stick around. (sec. 10)

Rana Foroohar is a columnist at The Financial Times, and the author of several books on the economy including Makers and Takers and Don’t Be Evil. Her view is that a decade-plus of loose monetary policy has been the economic equivalent of a “sugar high,” which kept the prices of stocks, housing and other assets going up, even as the fundamentals of the economy have been eroding. This “everything bubble,” as she calls it, was bound to burst, and she thinks it’s happening right now.

They call it the dual circulation economy, but basically it’s about producing local for locals. I think we’re moving to a much more localized regionalized world … and I think in that world you have to change the paradigm, because you cannot surf the wave of financialization and globalization anymore, because the paradigm is shifted. So you have to create some more income-led growth at home. (New York Times, 2022, 56:38)

Sowell (2008) makes a cogent argument that some of the outcry about wealth inequality and wage stagnation in North America is based on misleading use of statistical data. Be that as it may, there is certainly room for improvement in our overall lifestyles. For all we have gained in physical comfort, convenience, and individual choice within modern city-based lives, there is widespread loss of some of the prized values of traditional land-based cultures, such as physical health, natural beauty of surroundings, and a sense of loyalty and care within a community. This is not to say those benefits cannot be found in modern life, but rather they are benefits that were inherent to traditional lifestyles, and now must be deliberately cultivated. It is likely they are available to far fewer people within the modern context. Yet this isn’t a call to revert to some idyllic past. It’s one among many efforts to envision how to merge the benefits of land-based and city-based cultures, with awareness of the potential downsides of each.

Values Eroded by Business-as-usual

Freedom. Schmachtenberger (2020) asks an essential question: “How do we take all the technological capacity and start to use it for something that is not trying to have power over but to have strength to not be deformed by other power? (24:56). The U.S. national founders attempted to build into law the best protection against tyranny, with limited success. There were and are clever workarounds to concentrate power and wealth. We need governance, but we don’t like who is doing it—increasingly a government for the corporations, by the corporations, and of the corporations. You’ll notice we are dependent on them, and many of us are part of them. Bang (2007) writes, “Freedom can be defined as the ability to choose to live in a system which one feels comfortable or satisfied with” (p. 163). Gilman believes that choice is increasingly present as the “dominator functions” are breaking down and “self-organized consensual collaboration” will increasingly become the norm. “Choice destroys the power of coercion. You can’t have a violence-enforced hierarchy when people can choose to walk away” (Context Institute, 2014, 14:45). The connectivity that led to Arab Spring could over and over again shake off institutional control, yet it has no corresponding capacity to maintain order and safety. We have an opportunity to develop commitment to and a vision for an ultra local sovereignty that respects the local sovereignty of all other groups. We need to recognize that currently, although in many nations, families and individuals appear to have many choices, economically many experience their lives as wage slaves. Few own their physical property outright at the same time as having enuf wealth to ensure they can protect, maintain, and pay taxes in order to keep it. Many feel their prosperity is fragile and based on tradeoffs they are increasingly unwilling to make, tradeoffs that erode a sense of freedom. The trade-offs can be reconsidered and renegotiated. The anti-establishment factions at the extreme feel that no one should have power over anyone else, or at least that no one should have power over them personally. But that’s not taking into account the reality of human nature. There are always tradeoffs, because if we are “free” to maraud and plunder, even if we would not do so, so are others free, who would do so, and we are therefore not safe without some arrangement of enforced regulation. Supposedly in our prehistoric state of non-governance, primate groups had leaders. Historical records suggest that over time we formed larger and larger groups until ultimately we arrived at the government and corporate bureaucracies that rule us now, because we get something out of the orderliness. It’s convenient and safer. I find in some anarchist writing a naïve assumption that all the non-ruling people have a nature that would prevent themselves from becoming oppressors in any manner. I don’t see evidence for that. Neither did Solzhenitsyn, who wrote after nearly a decade of political imprisonment, . Take it from an Argentine that documented his nation’s economic collapse two decades ago, “With the social degradation that follows an economic collapse comes depravation of many kinds” (para. 3). Writing of child abduction, sex trafficking, and organ harvesting, he says, “these things only get worse during economic down turns” (Aguirre, 2011, para. 1). Being in groups with enforced laws prevents more abuses than would a reliance on individual self-restraint. Of course there are times that the rule enforcers are among the worst of the abusers. It takes courage and constant vigilance to support the best actors and call out the worst. That’s a better strategy than denouncing all hierarchy.

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” –Bob Marley

Equal opportunity. People differ in strength, intelligence, and adaptiveness. We simply aren’t equal from the start, and we aren’t all angels who naturally afford others more opportunity based on an apparently undeserved disadvantage. Some insist this lack of natural goodness should be made up for by legislation, yet the unintended consequences of affording non-angelic others the power of this legislation may outstrip the desired benefits. Arguably, such trials in this vein as have been conducted haven’t been satisfactory. My proposition is that we find ways of promoting equal opportunity that do not depend on such fallible assumptions and means as have been promoted by either side of the political divide. Neither party will enact policies that can adequately solve a cultural problem without creating equal or possibly worse problems.

What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. –Barbara Kingsolver

Independence. It isn’t surprising that most who are wealthy enuf to do so, prefer to live independently or as a nuclear family. That way we can distance ourselves from most other peoples’ problems and the consequences of their decisions. We avoid the hassles of others being involved with our problems and decisions. Yet we all live interconnected lives. We’ve traded our former reliance on a small group interdependence for current reliance on a global network by which—at a comfortable distance from others—we find employment to make transactions that meet each other’s needs for food, shelter, and clothing, as well as our wants. While we call that independence, aside from the homesteaders in the Alaskan wilderness, we in the WEIRD world are physically dependent on a vast network of producers and supply chains. Brown (2017) describes biological research on human interdependence: as members of a social species, we don’t derive strength from our rugged individualism, but rather from our collective ability to plan, communicate, and work together. Our evolved capacities support interdependence over independence. Our highest individual capacity is not to become autonomous and solitary; it’s to become someone others can depend on. We’re a social species, wired for belonging.

Talhelm, in comparing collectivist cultures, notes the upsides in individualistic cultures: (a) the social and legal freedom to leave relationships we don’t find fulfilling, and (b) communication tends to work a lot better, in large part due to norms allowing us to confront conflict directly. He notes the downside of individualism can be a lack of concern for those we don’t know and to whom we have no personal connection.

Individualist and collectivist cultures have different strategies for how to seek support in times of need, similar to the political polarities.

  • The preference of the socially conservative is to rely on neighbors, churches, and family members to help one of their own in a time of need. Tending to live in small towns and rural areas, they are more likely to live at a distance from institutions that administer public programs, so support from those small groups makes more sense.
  • The preference of the socially liberal is to enact government-led programs and legislation to benefit populations most in need. Tending to live in cities and suburbs, they are more likely to live at a distance from their families and less likely to know their neighbors, so support from the large group (i.e., government administrated) makes more sense.

The socially liberal perspective, at least in cities, has won out. Alvin Toffler’s (1970) Future Shock explains why. In the WEIRD world, people feel compelled to change residences for work opportunities. Our post industrial society is a transient culture where products are disposable and interchangeable, and human relationships have become more temporary.

Self-sufficiency. It’s about taking responsibility. It’s about giving up the illusion that someone else is going to take care of us for the long term, whether it’s the government, a spouse, a church, parents. We can gain some sense of sovereignty in our lives when we become someone that we and maybe others can rely on, rather than looking for someone that we can rely on to be stronger than ourselves. Yet people who say they want to be self-sufficient may not recognize the degree to which they were and are supported by the infrastructure they were born into. No one is self-sufficient except the loincloth man who lives alone in a national park, sleeps in a cave, and lives off what he hunts (Sincero, 2013). Certainly he is independent, as long as he stays away from the authorities who would fine him for poaching. Few want that extreme of independence. Self-reliance could be understood to mean we are givers as much or more than we are takers. We are so tired of the takers, whether we believe the story of the right or of the left, about who the biggest takers are. To move on, can we agree both stories have some degree of validity? We need to get out from under the thumb of both.

There are people who are dependent upon this social system which is killing the planet. I mean that’s–part of the problem is that just like any good abusive situation, we have been made dependent upon the very system that’s exploiting us, and part of the reason that we don’t fight back more is because if your experience is that your water comes from a tap and that your food comes from the grocery store…you will fight to the death to defend that system that brings you your food and water, because your life depends on it. And similarly…if your experience is that your water comes from a river and that your food comes from a land base, you will fight to the death to defend that, because your life depends on it. But we have all been so made dependent on this system. (Jensen, 2011, 36:04)

Justice. There is much less accountability in our global economic system, because roles in business and politics have changeable actors, and effects are hard to trace to the cause. Who did what, when, and to whom is often unpunishable by the time we sort it out. There is lack of accountability when exploitation can be hidden from end consumers. I hope that our preference for modern life is based on ignorance of how our comforts come at the cost of others’ discomfort. The capacity to deny and to maintain that unfairness is what constitutes privilege. Power inequity created a system that has some elements of meritocracy, but pushes many into disadvantage where their equivalent effort, skill, and talent affords them lesser outcomes. In a competitive framework, we rely on others’ sense of fair play and some level of transparency; that sense of fair play is increasingly lacking. In a competitive economic framework, willingness to exploit often makes the difference between wealth and just getting by.

Sovereignty. What we want more than self-sufficiency is sovereignty, defined most simply as a self-governing state. Nationalists want sovereignty, not to be ruled by the United Nations and/or an evil cabal of billionaire conspirators. Yet within our sovereign nation, we may feel unaligned with leaders’ choices and powerless to make any difference. Some want stronger state’s rights, yet they might not want to give up their freedom of interstate travel nor a national military. What is the ideal level of group sovereignty that is even possible? What are the trade-offs we make, funding a powerful military to protect us so our nation remains sovereign, then fearing domination by our own government?

Those who speak of sovereignty feel a need to extricate ourselves from involvement with people who take without our permission, either legally or illegally. There’s not so much difference between the pickpocket, the government that prints money to inflate its spending power while deflating ours, and the bankers who gave themselves bonuses while shifting onto taxpayers the burden of the crashed real estate market. Let them fend for themselves. The only way for us to avoid being exploited is to extract ourselves from a system in which we are also exploiters. If you haven’t noticed that yet, you will.

Mutualism. Group self-sufficiency could also be called mutualism or interdependency with a chosen few. Social ties of family and community are strained by our current needs to prioritize work or career preparation over (a) time with family and friends and over (b) remaining in a community and near extended family. Organized high-trust groups will naturally be more powerful than individuals. To avoid being overpowered or exploited by other groups (e.g., corporations, governments), we need to either join them or group up ourselves. We can group up as egalitarian not hierarchical structures, maintaining inner and outer sovereignty. We can unite in purpose and principle, not by fear of a dominant force or of being outside the access to necessities.

Let’s give up the political, religious, and ideological battles that no one will ever win. Let’s start working on some principles we can agree on, some ground-level changes that, if everyone made them, all would be relatively free to associate with those like themselves, and all would be constrained to a similar degree. All who work, or legitimately couldn’t, would be fed. We should stop fussing and fighting, then take what freedom and power we do have and use it to our best advantage in practical ways. It’s an idea that is already prototyped and successful in many cases: form small communities, develop trust, support each other, govern each other gently, and develop as much group self-sufficiency as possible. For you, this may not be the best or the only useful way forward. It is a way forward that is available to people with limited resources. I believe it is the most enjoyable and humane way forward.

Assumptions About Cultural Evolution

In academic research, there’s often a section that states the presuppositions or “assumptions” that the author starts from. The purpose is to make explicit the underlying assumptions on which the hypotheses or questions are based, and even implicitly, the values of the researcher. Here are some of the assumptions that this writing is based on.

  • Incrementalism—the idea that we are slowly progressing toward a better future—is flawed. The standard optimistic narrative of the establishment (see a nutshell version by Kurzgesagt, 2018) is a flawed and simplistic argument that fails to take into account ecological destruction, economic instability created by increasing wealth disparity, and that quality of life is not adequately measured by a material “standard of living” or the stand-in metric GDP. We can’t without painful consequence remain passive or support “business as usual.”
  • We are beginning to recognize that technology creates as many problems as it solves (Vogels et al., 2020). We’ll use the tools we have, but we won’t expect technology to save us.
  • Guilt hasn’t been the change agent that many hoped it would be. This book is not a repackaging of convincing research to emphasize problems in order to motivate voters and protestors. We’re burned out on that, because it hasn’t seemed to have done enuf to stop or reverse our course toward the devastation of everything we love.
  • Many of us feel compassion fatigue. We need proposed solutions to be fun and appealing, so solution-based movements can grow and flourish.
  • We need realistic tangible solutions that can be implemented by people with average resources and a lot of heart. Grass roots energy can tap into under-utilized private and institutional resources.
  • Change will be more effective as we retract effort from trying to convince the establishment to change and focus on building up new and existing structures of sustainability, including small farms, intentional communities, and ecovillages. We can’t convince people to quit driving and buying, and simply cutting back consumption isn’t enuf. Build the better alternatives. People need to see that other lifestyle options are available.
  • Nonviolence and nonrivalry is the best or only way toward long-term sustainable betterment of the human condition. This includes refusal to participate in injustice.
  • Tho we do not ignore injustice, the blame game erodes social cohesion and perpetuates dysfunction. We do better to seek where to heal and build, rather than where to accuse and fight.

The following subsections discuss additional assumptions. What’s not an assumption, because it remains to be decided by each person for themselves, is whether the lifestyles on offer within modern society are inferior in overall quality of life, to those of traditional cooperative village societies. What’s not an assumption—because it depends on many factors unique to location—is whether global ecological and economic sustainability can be developed and maintained with the coexistence of megacities.

Corruption is Unsolvable by Government

“Within each one of us there is some piece of humanness that knows we are not being served by the machine which orchestrates crisis after crisis and is grinding all our futures into dust.” —Audre Lorde

  1. Increasing wealth disparity. The U.S. government, under either prominent party, won’t resolve the problem of increasing concentration of power and wealth, because the current version of capitalism has become the mechanism for that concentration.
  2. Corrupt power structures. If Einstein was correct that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it, then our economy won’t be saved by the democratic government of either side. Profitable industries—if legal or linked to legal industries for money laundering—have powerful lobbies that pay off politicians to promote their desired legislation. These practices are entrenched in the United States, because the duopoly prevents outsiders and controls even the idealistic or iconoclast leaders who become insiders. We are now in a plutocracy.
  3. Perverse incentive structures. As long as there remain economic incentives to exploit, even with the threat of harsh penalties, exploitations will not end. The current economic model disproportionately benefits the wealthy, so they are invested in business-as-usual, promoting harsher penalties to seemingly address criminality, but without implementing any solutions that are workable for the long term. Their solutions are punitive rather than preventive.
  4. Information channels that distract and entertain. Click bait largely ignores the injustices experienced by the most powerless, except for an occasional story that can cause a shock to draw fleeting attention. Many don’t want to know about or think about these topics, and the victims often cannot advocate effectively for themselves, so injustices only briefly make their way to our awareness, sometimes long enuf to prompt us to send money to a charity. The blame game keeps our attention away from the foundational causes of abuse and exploitation.
  5. Diversion of resources. For the majority now, there is too little time to do volunteer work when basic needs for food, housing, and medical care are barely affordable even in a dual-earner household. We simply hope that non-profits are doing something to help the most vulnerable. We increasingly recognize that philanthropy exists to lessen the symptoms of corrupt systems, often as a PR move that deflects our motivation to demand systemic change.

Organ harvesting is a thriving black market industry in which one organ can cost $200,000 or more (Wagner, 2014). Child sex trafficking numbers are unknown, but still practiced in the United States. Illegal arms trade remains rampant, by which terrorism, genocide, and oppressive governance are perpetrated. While illegal deforestation brings in “$51–$152 billion annually, the illegal timber industry simultaneously threatens the world’s forests and steals from local communities that rely on forests for food, health, and wealth” (U.S. Agency for International Development, n.d., para. 1). Creating single-use plastics is an $22 billion industry. These products are then illegally dumped or end up thru leachate in groundwater, releasing carcinogens and endocrine disruptors into the environment, killing marine life, and reducing male fertility (Rehman et al., 2018). The challenges numbered above explain why we don’t we have the political will to devote more resources to ending these crimes. Whatever political views you have, most of these we can agree should end; we simply emphasize different downsides and potential effectiveness of the various proposed solutions. These are already illegal, so we don’t need a legal solution. We need far more resources devoted to tracking down perpetrators and remediating the effects. It is up to us to make a start, to create containers, organizations that can receive the funding and use it effectively. Past victims and others who do pay attention these crimes—and work tirelessly—most often lack the resources and training to do work on the scale it needs to be done. Those focused on resolving these exploitations often experience burnout and poverty. They need more support.  

A Fragile Peace and Prosperity Achieved Thru Exploitation

Capitalism’s success. Capitalism does what its proponents want it to: it creates plentiful goods and services for those who can afford them. Many of its proponents were and are well-intentioned. It allows for consistent comforts that in pre-industrial times were available only to royalty. Capitalism also rewards hard work and a growth mindset, motivates innovation, and demands a high degree of cooperation. Mariana Mazzucato, in “Why we need a mission-driven economy,” explains how businesses would resolve entrenched problems if policy motivated people to act in the best interest of the whole. Incrementalism can work, if policies are changed to not provide perverse incentive structures that increase the wealth divide.

Capitalism’s failure. It also has a dark side. Currently it does provide perverse incentive structures, and with politicians beholden to their campaign donors, it doesn’t appear this is likely to change. We’ve been fuming about it for decades (sometimes over false defamations, such as the email of Warren Buffet supposedly speaking out about congress giving itself a separate health care package from what other civil servants get). Many of the major problems we face now are the direct result of the last generation’s solutions to human problems. We are becoming more aware of the downsides of capitalism: externalizing the pollution created by our demand for convenience of disposable products, market demands created by advertising that plays on our insecurities and competitiveness, an increasing income inequality that creates pressure for us each to cater to the wealthiest customers and clients we can manage to attract, and lack of time for the unpaid work that nurtures connection and community well being. Some believe that it’s not the form of government but the ethics of both the governed and the governing, that make for an ethical society. While there is some truth to that, the fact is we have to start where we are, with the human nature and culture as currently expressed. What I have against under-regulated capitalism is that in its current practice, it economically rewards the worst in human nature: greed, false advertising, self-absorption, cutthroat competition, and a zero-sum perspective that encourages hoarding of wealth. The ideology is that the needs of the poor and/or powerless should be met by volunteers or whoever can make money from meeting those needs. As a result, the helping professions—public school teaching, social work, clergy—are among the lowest paid compared to professions with similar training requirements. Similarly, lawyers who are public defenders and doctors or psychotherapists who choose to serve low-income populations will be paid less.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century argued that the world is returning to an economy dominated by inherited wealth, brazenly influencing policy to the advantage of the 1%, and threatening to create an oligarchy. His assertions match those of the occupy movement that “capitalism isn’t working.” He shows how and why (a) income inequality as measured by the income of the top 1% in several countries has increased in the past several decades; (b) inequality is not a side effect, but a feature of capitalism; and that (c) without reform democratic order will be jeopardized. Altho he believes rising inequality can only be ended through state interventionism, he does not believe there is political will within governments to do so.

It may seem bleak, but we can work within these constraints to create a better world, without having to convince others to overhaul the national political and economic systems. Fortunately, transparency and quality information—available within our current context—may be a better protection than government regulation of commerce. Speaking against specific instances of corruption will get us further than bashing capitalism.

I asked my friend…former executive director of Food First if the people of India would be better off if the global economy disappeared tomorrow and she said “of course.” And some of the examples she gave is our former granaries of India that are now exporting dog food and tulips to Europe. So our people who are starving to death right now, because where they used to get their food is now making cash crops. (Jensen, 2011, 40:47)

Amorelli et al. (2021) is dedicated to exposing the unrealistic energy and climate change technology-based solutions that will waste billions on corporate handouts framed as “market-based mechanisms.” These short sighted plans distract us from real solutions that would serve our most urgent needs.


Overview of Marx’s conflict theory:

Global consumerism. Because the enjoyment of having a new handbag, a new car, a new house fades quickly, all our consumption doesn’t even satisfy us, but advertisers keep convincing people that it buying will solve their problems and make them happy. It seems most of us now recognize that a consumer-based economy dependent on constant growth is unsustainable on a finite planet, but we don’t know how to transition. Nor do we have a consensus for what we could or want to transition to.

The global economy has become a casino, and we’re all potential losers. One major casualty is our jobs are just taken over. Relocation to lower wage countries threaten the livelihood of virtually all of us: accountants, assembly workers, even CEOs, and when we retire it gets no better. As we’ve seen recently, pension funds are at the mercy of uncontrolled speculation. It’s not just in the west that livelihoods are under threat. (Local Futures, 2021, 22:36)

Fragile democracy. We’re going to agree that we need something better than the plutocracy the United States has become. What we ultimately need is possibly unlike any current form of national government we’ve yet seen, but it’s likely useless to debate what that should be. Any structure of government could be equally bad if those in the most powerful positions are unwise and unethical; conversely any structure of government could be equally good with wise and ethical leaders. Given the tendencies of human nature that exist in all of us, including those in government, to allow a way to curtail abuses of power, I tend to agree for now with Winston Churchill’s quip, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried” (McCoubrey, 2017, para. 5).

I have long since thrown in the towel on the Democratic and Republican parties because they are really a front group for the 1%, for predatory banks, fossil fuel giants, and war profiteers. –Jill Stein

The so-called free market. A free market is important. The United States does not qualify as having a free market, because of legislators paid to pass laws written by corporate sponsors that disadvantage smaller competitors (O’Dell & Penzenstadler, 2019). This helps drive the increasing wealth inequality. About 47% of U.S. citizens trust the government (ODEC, 2020).

It’s widely believed that whatever the social and environmental costs, globalization is unstoppable. It’s seen as an inevitable almost natural process driven by free markets and the so-called efficiencies of scale enjoyed by bigger businesses. If there’s one thing that political parties from the left to the right seem to agree on today it is the power and value of the free market, but the irony is that the majority of really polluting things that happened today would not exist within a genuine free market. Nuclear power couldn’t exist for example without massive state support, but there are billions and billions of dollars being poured into continuing business as usual, whether that’s subsidizing fossil fuels, whether that’s subsidizing huge monocultures, whether it’s giving corporate welfare to some of the already largest and most powerful corporations around. It’ll be impossible to maintain the current global economy as it is today without enormous support from governments around the world, and we’re about as far away from a free market as it’s possible to be. Support for big business comes not only in the form of subsidies but through the increasing deregulation of trade and finance under the auspices of such bodies as the World Trade Organization. The global level regulations are being increasingly stripped away, with the effect that transnational corporations and banks are free to operate across the entire planet. Meanwhile at the national level is ever more red tape and bureaucracy. This places an unfair disproportionate burden on small and medium sized businesses, and every year hundreds of thousands of them are going out of business. It’s basically a system which criminalizes the small producer and processor and deregulates the giant business. The leverage of international financial agreements and the world trade agreements levers people often against their will into a bugger thy neighbor dog-eat-dog global commodity market in which speculation is king, and real people in local communities are an afterthot. (Local Futures, 2021, 26:58)

Hidden exploitation. Profiting from exploitation, even to a small and normal degree, is unacceptable to some of us. Even if we do our utmost to keep our carbon footprint small and make contentious purchases, when we follow the supply chain back further, we have to admit we in the western world are all disproportionately benefiting from cheap labor of migrants and other nations, as we are externalizing the damage of pollution to wildlife or marginalized people.

Former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, agreed with Naomi Klein’s assessment of how big business and politics use global disasters for their own ends, and “a rich description of the political machinations required to force unsavory economic policies on resisting countries” (“The Shock Doctrine,” 2021, para. 14). Others criticize her failure to recognize “the necessary role of entrepreneurial capitalism in overcoming the inherent tendency of any established social system to lapse into stagnation” (para. 16).

Dependence. The economy isn’t set up to allow or encourage anyone to be self-sufficient in the sense of existing outside the economic pyramid. “The consumer culture that globalization promotes is increasingly urban” (Local Futures, 2021, 17:50). Only those who can purchase a multi-product farm outright and keep paying taxes on it could get close to self-sufficient. Self-sufficient farmers are marginalized, like the unpaid or low-paid work of caring, because they don’t contribute much to GDP.

GDP. After showing a string of American politicians stating the importance of GDP growth, Local Futures (2021) states: “It’s as if every problem we have can be solved by increasing GDP….poverty is the problem, more economic growth is the answer. Unemployment is the problem, more economic growth is the answer. Environmental decline is the problem, more economic growth is the answer” (30:20). “GDP is a good measure of economic activity, of money changing hands but a poor measure of progress or well-being. It lumps desirable expenditures (e.g., spending on food, entertainment, or investment in education) with undesirable expenditures (e.g., the costs of war, crime, pollution, and family breakdown)” (O’Neill et al., 2010, p. 13). Money changing hands enriches government, so those decision-makers are not motivated to revise their definition of progress.

The Current Economic Model Will Not Provide Enuf for Equitable Survival

Population growth and scarcity-driven conflict. If your solution is to preach the virtues of abstinence, pass out condoms, or provide midwives worldwide with copper IUDs that cost a few cents and last 10 years, more power to you. At the same time, the population will continue to grow. The U.N. Population Division expects world population, at 7.8 billion in 2020, to level out at or soon after the end of the 21st Century at 10.9 billion. Some estimates are 9 billion by 2050. With finite resources, it will take concerted effort to maintain civility and work toward equity. Ecologists warn, “There is mounting evidence that when populations are large and growing fast, they can be the sparks for both internal and international conflicts that lead to war….greater competition for an ever-dwindling resource pool” (Bradshaw et al., 2021, para. 9, 19). Brooks writes of the U.S. conflict in the middle east:

In this war, it appeared, there were no places of safety, and there could be no such thing as neutrality. This war would spare no one. This, I was discovering, is the nature of war: it abhors a vacuum. It expands until everything and everyone is subsumed by it. It resists all efforts at categorisation and containment. We keep trying to lock it into a box, but war keeps breaking out again. (Brooks, 2016, p. 33)

The western world creates enuf food and life necessities currently, but the monetary incentive structure requires some degree of scarcity to foster competition and incentive to produce. This ensures that even with the work of non-profits or government to redirect resources, little will go to those who need and cannot afford them. For example, crops without high enuf prices will not be harvested. Resources are hoarded. An intentional community member comments:

There seem to be a lot of people who have more than they need. You read about these people are buying houses for silly money in London and never live in them, and I think the founders of Braziers and my grandparents were right. This consumerism isn’t sustainable. (Braziers Park Channel, 2018, 13:13)

Pushed into urban life. The world population is increasingly becoming more urban. It behooves us to find a way forward that minimizes slums. There’s a TEDtalk that shows rural slums as virtually identical to city slums. It celebrates cities as having the potential to raise people from poverty (Brand, 2006). Altho some do make a successful transition from rural to city life, the idea that most are better off in urban than rural poverty is misguided, because it does not trace the problem of slums and poverty back to the root cause. The talk starts with a few slides of picturesque abandoned traditional villages in various nations as evidence that people are moving to cities, but there is not comment on the idea that those villages represent a lifestyle that could or should be preserved. While some leave their villages seeking better opportunities, it is also the case that policies favoring big agribusiness, exploitative lending and marketing, and sometimes climate change have created impossible circumstances for small farming villages worldwide. “In the less industrialized parts of the world, finding and holding onto a job is becoming increasingly difficult. The first victims are small farmers” (Local Futures, 2021, 23:13). Local Futures states the following:

Removing of people on land is the root of all unemployment. It is at the root of the creation of slums and the rural urban migration. [In a translation of an Indian language, a man states] ‘I don’t want to be a beggar. If I could have my land back, I’d go back to my main business, farming.’ Making people disposable in terms of working with the land is creating probably the biggest human crisis….100,000 Indian farmers have been driven to suicide. (24:00)

Such a thing as ending unemployment would never occur to Washington politicians because their corporate backers depend on the threat of unemployment to keep wages down. –Jill Stein

If your work is to upgrade cities, do it. Also recognize you won’t have a complete answer until you find a way to grow more food in cities and/or transport food sustainably from sustainable agribusinesses. Some have started a solution with rooftop gardens.

False metrics of progress. Establishment liberals and conservatives believe the doctrine that globalization is helping to alleviate poverty (Hickel, 2019). We may see statistics by the well-meaning Hans Rosling (2020) that define increased foreign earning in U.S. dollars as a reduction in poverty, but it is a false metric. Globalization provides them some products they want, but it is stripping village communities of their self sufficiency and food security. It is creating short-term westernization for a few and long term deprivation for many.

I haven’t been able to track down what writer quipped that the definition of GDP is the rate at which natural resources are converted to trash. Similarly, wasteful transport of food increases the apparent GDP, without creating any real value.

We often hear about efficiencies of scale, but actually the truth is what we’ve developed today is a system that could not be more wasteful. We have tuna fish caught on the East Coast of America flown to Japan, processed, flown back to America and sold to consumers. We have English apples flown to South Africa to be waxed, flown back again to be sold to consumers. The whole process involves incredible quantities of waste. A series of treaties, new ones almost every year, promote economic growth through international trade. As a consequence, countries today routinely import and export nearly identical quantities of identical products…. all of this at a time when rising CO2 emissions are threatening our very survival. (Local Futures, 2021, 21:21)

Booth (2020), a CEO in e-commerce and technology for 20 years, points out that the main driver of business growth today is easy credit, which is being created at a pace at which we will never be able to pay it back. Government policies still in use were set at a time when labor and capital were linked, an industrial era that counted on growth and inflation. He argues that these policies now incentivize inefficiency, and warns that on this course our world will become profoundly more polarized and unsafe.

Inefficiency and waste. This expected population growth is why some insist that we need cities and industrial farming, but this reasoning is misinformed, or is a pitch to get subsidies from governments.

At first glance high density urban living might appear to reduce per capita use of resources, but this is only true when compared with life in the suburbs. Compared to more genuinely decentralized living patterns [e.g., traditional small villages], urbanization is extremely resource intensive. This is particularly clear in the global south. The moment a person moves into the city the energy use shoots up, the water use shoots up. The infrastructure to run a city per capita is much bigger than the infrastructure to produce a high quality of life in a village. When hundreds of millions of rural people are pulled into cities, the food they once grew themselves must now be grown for them on giant chemical intensive farms. All this food must then be brought into the cities on roads purpose built to accommodate larger and larger trucks. Providing water involves enormous dams and man-made reservoirs. Energy production means huge centralized power plants, coal and uranium mines, and thousands of miles of transmission lines. Meanwhile much of the waste that is produced including countless tons of potentially valuable compost, must be trucked out of the city to be treated buried, or incinerated, or dumped at sea. The end result is that urban dwellers typically consume significantly more non renewable resources than their land based relatives. (Local Futures, 2021, 17:52)

Poor health. U.S. food production systems provide an abundance of poor quality food (Rhodale Institute, 2019, para. 22). This has led to a world with the seeming paradox of both hunger and obesity (cite percentages globally). Poor quality low-cost food contributes to obesity, now considered epidemic (cite). The hormones and antibiotics given to livestock contribute to human obesity (cite).

Unsustainable agribusiness. Our current agricultural production and transportation methods are unsustainable (Food Revolution Network, 2018), including inhumane factory farms. Large scale farming is said to make use of efficiencies of scale (Haspel, 2014), but that is true only for human labor savings, which passes on cost savings to both the agribusiness and end consumer. This analysis, Haspel admits, relies on the externalization of the cost of pollution, which can be substantial with nitrogen pollution of lakes and bays where it promotes algae blooms and destroys fish habitat. Pollution is also from intensive use of fossil-fuel-powered machinery. The Rhodale Institute (2019) states, “Agriculture accounts directly for 11-13% of greenhouse emissions and indirectly for another 12%.6. With our climate increasingly unsteady, we can’t afford to continue with current methods that erode soil and pollute the environment” (para. 6). Possibly the biggest argument against big agribusiness is that if we lose the pollinators, in part because of constant widespread pesticide use (cite), it won’t have been a good tradeoff to have excess of cheap food in the short term and too little food in the long term. In addition, with loss of localized food production, long transport increases waste. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (2019) states that one third of the food we produce globally is wasted. Holt-Giménez (2018), former executive director of Food First, explains this is a natural result of a food system that is financialized and speculative. Farmers produce a commodity, and those without access to the market risk starvation and death. He concludes that the answer to hunger cannot be resolved within capitalist markets. The answer must be something structurally unique. Secure access tenure, to water land, Local and indigenous knowledge systems, systems of exchange are accessible, fair, profitable, such as community supported agriculture (CSAs).


References include several direct links to videos.