The View Outside My Window
I’m currently reading Plan B 3.0 by Lester Brown and even though I already knew about the dire straits the planet was in environmentally, the way in which he describes in detail just how royally fucked we are is depressing on a whole new level.
What I frequently think about while reading his descriptions of melting ice, depleted water tables, broken agricultural systems and a multitude of other problems, is how arrogant we are as a species to think we can manipulate the planet however we see fit without suffering from any repercussions. Although, perhaps that isn’t a fair assessment of us as a species, because I do firmly believe that human beings aren’t intentionally malicious by nature. However, the way in which we organize ourselves and conduct ourselves within our organized societies can either affirm our more sophisticated and enlightened selves, or our baser and more primal instincts. I tend to think that free market capitalism, more than any other system of organization, has affirmed our most base and primal of instincts to the point where it is literally destroying civilization.
Free market capitalism is an economic system of organization. And economics is all about how you distribute scarce resources. Economics operates off of the assumption that there are indeed finite resources. Free market capitalism is the idea that in order to divide up finite resources, one requires capital in order to acquire the necessary resources to provide the goods or services that the market demands. Access to the capital is limited only to those who can succeed within the market, hence how it distributes scarce resources. Sound good? Well, I admit, at first glance, it sounds good to me too. However, what many fans of this system forget to either mention, or completely forget themselves, is that for all of this to work, human beings, the actors within this system, must act in a rational, self-interested way 100% of the time. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. A rational actor would not make decisions based upon emotion, because emotion is inherently biased and might lead you to make a decision that may be in your own self-interest at a particular moment, but that decision might come back to bite you in the ass later on. Or it bites other people (or more importantly, the planet) in the ass as a consequence.
Now, if you are a human reading this (which for the moment I will assume you are as the robots haven’t taken over quite yet) then you probably know from both personal experience and anecdotes from others that human beings are NOT purely rational actors. We make decisions based upon emotion all of the time. Some decisions involve more emotional investment than others, but it is nearly impossible to separate the emotional from the rational completely. And this is especially true with decisions made within the economic context. Just take the field of behavioral economics as an example of how this is true. There is now an entire field of study dedicated to determining what behaviors (a.k.a. emotions) motivate individuals like you and me to purchase or not to purchase a particular product. And businesses across all industry sectors are making significant investments in this field of research to enhance their bottom line. And this is only a recent example. If you wish to look to the past for evidence of this, look no further than advertising.
The marketing of products to the masses for consumption has developed not around the idea of appealing to people’s rational analysis of their own needs and wants. Advertising agencies have succeeded because they know that their job is to appeal to your emotion. To your sense of wonder, of desire, of compassion, of [fill in with your chosen human emotion here]. They know the power of emotion and how it drives people to make the decisions they do throughout their lives. Their job is to manipulate that emotional connection and steer it towards the purchase of a particular product, so as to validate that emotional connection in the eyes of the consumer. Hence the reason you get car companies like Chrysler advertising about coming back to Detroit, or Budweiser saluting American troops coming home from overseas. All of those ads are designed to associate your positive emotion about either revitalizing a forgotten city or bringing men and women home from danger with a car company or beer company. The goal then being that the next time you go to buy a car or buy a six-pack of beer, you’ll choose these brands over others because you remember the positive feeling you had when you saw that company’s ad on the television.
Of course, these ads seldom if ever tell the whole story, and never will they tell you the consequences of your purchase, which you might have considered if it were not for that fantastic commerical about revitalizing Detroit, or honoring our solidiers when they come home. For instance, what you might have considered is that if you purchase these products (both of which you don’t really need), you might be reinforcing an economic system that exploits people’s emotions and the planet’s finite resources, which might cause you to question why this exploitation is even happening in the first place.
It might even lead you to question whether there is another way of allocating our scarce resources, because right now, free market capitalism is not only founded upon a false assumption of human nature, it seems to have forgotten that the planet we inhabit is a finite one and that the whole purpose of an economic system is to properly allocate scarce resources, not simply to allocate resources that are assumed to be infinite. An assumption of which is most certainly one based upon emotion rather than rational thought.
It might have allowed you to think all of these things and more.
Ah, but alas, that commerical was just too damned good! I think I’ll watch another and just ignore what’s going on outside my window.