As we prepare to tackle the issue of global warming let us resolve to genuinely fix this problem. The consequences of inaction or wrong action are dire. Effective and prompt action is needed. Towards this end, let us keep in mind that global warming is a symptom of our culture. Thus, if we want to effectively address the issue of global warming, we must address its root causes.
Global warming is not the first instance in which our culture has disregarded the needs of the natural world. A cursory look at the state of the forests, oceans, prairies, rivers, and lakes will tell us that we have a history of being irresponsible and destructive citizens of the Earth. Indeed, this history portrays us as a greedy, self-absorbed culture that cares little for life besides our own. And even with our survival on the line, only time will tell whether we will act responsibly.
In any case, I propose that if we wish to adequately address the climate crisis then we need to examine the principles that drive our culture. I will begin by proposing some principles that should be at the heart of a healthy culture. I have five such principles. To the extent that you agree with these principles, you might agree with my further analysis.
First, we should support life. After all, we are nothing if not for life. This is pretty simple.
Second, we should support Mother Nature. Our lives are utterly dependent upon the ways of Mother Nature. The food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe are all circumstances that are intricately entwined in the ways of Mother Nature.
Third, we should support honesty and integrity. Without integrity, the systems of life on Earth fall apart. Without honesty, we are told by those who destroy the ecosystem that they are supporting the ecosystem.
Fourth, we should help each other out. We are all alive today because of the help of others in our lives. We would not survive our infant years but for the help we receive from our parents and caregivers. Our communities sustain us.
Fifth, we should support dignity in life. None of us wishes to live without dignity. We should support life with dignity for all.
To the extent that we all support any one of these principles, we should ensure that the institutions and rules of our culture support that principle. And here is the rub. Our culture, along with its rules and institutions, lays waste to each of these five principles. Life is on its way out. Mother Nature has been disregarded for millennia by western culture. Honesty and integrity are but hollow promises in our halls of government and on our media airwaves. The homelessness in our streets attests to the facts that neither do we help each other out, nor do we ensure the dignity of life for people in our culture.
Of all the people I know personally, I don’t know anyone who wishes to get rid of life on Earth. I know no one who thinks that the ways of Mother Nature can be disregarded. No one thinks I should lie to them, or refuse to help my fellow neighbor, or deny dignity to anyone. We are a culture of well-intentioned people who have taken a wrong turn and are heading down the path of destruction. Where have we gone astray?
I suggest that we are a culture preoccupied with the pursuit of power and wealth. In fact, it is this pursuit of power and wealth that drives decisions that go against each of the five principles I have named. It is this pursuit of power and wealth that is driving us into the climate crisis.
The pursuit of power and wealth is ingrained into the fabric of our culture to the extent that most of us equate the pursuit of power and wealth with the pursuit of life itself. I think that it is time for this confusion to stop. It is plain to see that when the wealthy among us are pursuing power and wealth they are no longer pursuing life. Any multimillionaire alive today has all that they need in order to live in our culture. It is deeply ironic that the rules and institutions of our culture are being used to increase the wealth and power of those who need no more wealth and power. It is clear to see that for the wealthy; the pursuit of power and wealth should not be confused with the pursuit of life.
Furthermore, let us recognize that money has no intrinsic value. You cannot eat money. You do not build a house out of money. Money does not warm you on a cold winter night or move you from home to work on Monday morning. Money itself does not support life. Money is a thing in our culture solely because we agree that it is a thing.
Because of this agreement, it is hard to live without earning money. Food and housing and transportation have all been folded into our economy in such a way that those of us who are successful at the wealth and power game have an easy time getting needs met while those of us who are not successful suffer. And thus, people who are not wealthy need to earn money in order to live. We conflate the pursuit of money with the pursuit of life because the rules of our culture demand that we make money in order to eat and put a roof over our heads.
But is it not time to stop pretending that this economic system is helping us out. Who among us really feels fulfilled in the work that they do to make money? Most of us work at jobs aimed first and foremost at lining the pockets of those who need no more money. The success of every company and industry and corporation depends upon the profit that it brings its owners, not the benefit it brings to life on the Earth.
Our economy is designed to transfer power to those at the top of the economic pyramid. It does this at the expense of people and life. While we must acknowledge that most people must earn money in order to create “value” and thus live in our culture, we also should acknowledge that the system itself is destructive. The “value” that we are creating is in many cases not valuable. This system values consumption at the expense of life, profit at the expense of community. This is the system that has ushered in global warming.
The people of America spoke at Standing Rock demanding that oil pipelines not be built from the fracking fields. The pipelines were built anyway at the behest of the oil corporations looking for profit. The people of the world have gathered in the streets at the climate talks calling for real solutions to global warming. Meanwhile, the rich and powerful in control of the talks have ensured that corporate profits get priority over real solutions.
In western culture, we play the game of who can gain the most power and wealth. In this game, the winners win because they cut costs and exploit resources. If you try to run a business ethically, without cutting costs and exploiting resources, you lose out to those in the industry willing to cut costs and exploit resources.
In this game, the winners work on Wall Street while the losers lose their farms. The winners sit in the boardrooms of corporations while the losers work overtime in order to afford food and housing and health care. The winners decide monetary policy while the losers drown in debt.
Our economy, by the very nature of the rules of western society, will destroy life. We are seeing this take place in front of our eyes. Most of us are caught up in this system even though we disagree with the outcomes. We are forced to chase wealth because those are the rules of our culture. People who gain wealth, be it ethically or not, get to buy food. People who don’t suffer.
It is time to do away with our allegiance to the principle that people should pursue power and wealth. It is time to stop letting this corrupt principle drive decisions in our culture.
George Palen is an educator from California.