Our Oil Reserves Are Depleted; It's Time for Utopia
By Jim Schumacher and Debbie Bookchin
Last week at a Christmas party in the hills of Umbria, we were part of a captive audience listening to an American businessman holding forth on an ever-popular expat subject - the dismal exchange rate of dollars to euros. He informed his listeners that they needn't worry: In just a couple of years, he said, America will have pulled out of the recession and the economy will be growing strong; Europe, on the other hand will still be facing the ripple effects of the global meltdown - and will be suffering.
"You'll see," he said blithely, "the dollar and the euro will be at par."
Although the conversation took place in Italy, it could have as easily occurred in a Wall Street boardroom. Despite the ongoing economic meltdown, the dominant, "business as usual" wisdom is that the ascendancy of the American model of global capitalism can only continue. It's just a matter of time before the good ship USS Free Enterprise rights itself and we have smooth sailing ahead.
But exactly what resources will the U.S. call upon to fuel the economic recovery that our American businessman and millions of others like him continue to believe in? Our longtime economic paradigm - growth fueled by cheap oil - has no future. Even when it did, it was a flawed concept because the constant growth required under the "grow or die" capitalist paradigm demands that we relentlessly exploit natural resources - how else to increase profit margins and pay investors their ever-greater dividends?
This paradigm has brought us to the brink of ecological disaster, with a planet so over-heated that even the most optimistic climate experts are doubtful whether we will be able to prevent cataclysmic disruptions unless worldwide carbon emissions are drastically reduced in the coming years - an unlikely scenario given the unwillingness of most governments to enact tough standards and regulations.
Not only has the planet been brought to its knees as a result of this capitalist ethos, but we humans haven't fared so well either. Can we really say we're succeeding as a human race when half of the world's population is starving, or lacks adequate access to potable water, or is suffering from preventable diseases? Even in the U.S., our "high standard of living" leaves much to be desired, not only for the 45 million people who have no health insurance but for the tens of millions who work 40-80 hours a week and find themselves with little time to socialize, go for a walk, prepare and enjoy a meal with friends, or read a book - in short, have less free time and a lower standard of living than their parents did.
With oil virtually at an end, what better time to re-examine the economic paradigm that allowed us to think we could use up finite resources and just "grow" forever? Isn't it time to rethink our blind embrace of the "grow or die" philosophy that led us down this self-destructive path?
In her recent post, "Laissez-Faire Capitalism Should Be as Dead as Soviet Communism," Arianna Huffington suggests that the collapse of our financial system as a result of deregulation proves that this form of deregulated capitalism should be relegated to the dust bin of history. But is it just deregulation, or is it capitalism itself that needs to be junked? Inherent in the capitalist ethos is the endless exploitation of natural resources. Indeed, not only the exploitation of nature, but the exploitation of individuals by individuals is a guiding principle of modern capitalist society. You needn't travel to 19th century England to understand this; it's not just the exploitation of workers in factories anymore. As capitalism colonizes the realm of interpersonal relations, we've ceased to become human to each other and instead become "resources" (think "networking") to be exploited for one type of gain or another.
Considering the tremendous advances in labor-saving technology in the last century, isn't it time for a new form of social organization? One that prizes mutual aid over competition, collective stewardship of nature over its rapacious exploitation, and recognition that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" must include the provision of basic necessities for all, regardless of status: shelter, food, free healthcare. Even better, imagine if we could recognize that ultimately human beings are capable of much more than just earning money? It's time to use our immense powers of reason to ask ourselves: What does it mean to build a truly civilized world? History has shown us that Leninist Communism - itself a form of state-sanctioned exploitation of nature and human beings - wasn't the answer. But neither has capitalism allowed us to fully realize our potential as free, creative beings.
We stand on a threshold. Will we use our extraordinary technology, science and rationality to create a just, humane and truly free society? Or will we continue down the path of domination - of each other and of the natural world - destroying our environment and ourselves?
The great utopian, Murray Bookchin, said: "If we do not do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable." When he said those words, more than a quarter of a century ago, the notion that capitalism could bring the world to the brink of destruction was ridiculed by almost every mainstream intellectual. Yet here we are on the precipice, confronted with the unthinkable. The only course left to us, is to do the impossible - to abandon the paradigm of capitalism that has defined our cultural, political and economic life for the past 250 years, and whose supremacy has led inexorably to the despoilation of our planet and demeaning of human existence.
Let us choose to end the domination of each other and the unthinking exploitation of nature, and find a more human, decent form of social organization, one that prizes true, decentralized democracy, basic decency and the common good.
The oil is almost gone. The hourglass is about to run out. It's time to create a utopia.