How Green is Your Grass?
by Hugh M. Lewis
It has not been uncommon in contemporary American culture for homeowners to become obsessively preoccupied with the state of their yards, and especially with the green and even condition of their front lawns. Their local community status in the neighborhood is often linked to how green and neat they are able to maintain their lawns, and it is always possible to tell a household that is having management problems when weeds begin to take over and the lawn becomes browner and browner over the years. A nice yard and a deep green lawn is often a deep source of pride and relative status for the home owner, and it is not unusual for individuals or neighbors to gossip about the relative merits of Joe and Jane So and So based on the current state of greenery of their lawns. It has become a norm in many busy suburbs to have a gardeners to regularly come and give the lawn a haircut and trim and to dump a few pounds of ammonia or phosphates over the yard to maintain its healthy green coloring. It is more prestigious to have in some places a Japanese gardener who really knows his lawns. Individuals are always keeping a eye on each others yards, and worrying about keeping up with the Joneses next door.
In order to maintain to what amounts to a flat, even few hundred or thousand square feet of thin turf in a perennial state of green many avid homeowners will spare no expense, or go to any expense, even if they themselves or anyone else rarely if ever even walk upon it in such a way that they might enjoy the lawn of a local park, of a baseball diamond or football field, or of a golf course, or even a backyard barbecue. These homeowners will make the seasonal sales of the local nurseries or gardening departments of bigger merchandise stores, and upon the advise of the resident expert, buy such and such kind of fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide, soil condition, at so many pounds per square feet, so many dollars per pound, rent or buy to own mechanical spreaders and self driving cutters, and commence to spread regular doses of chemicals over their browning, dying lawns in order to maintain them in a perennial state of green rejuvenation.
They will also spare no expense to install complex, self timing, multiple scheduled sprinkler systems in their yards to maintain its constant state of greenness. Homeowners will frequently invest large amounts of time, energy and money into the establishment and maintenance of green front lawns. If the old lawn falls into a state of exhaustion, they will hire a crew to come in, spray it down, cover it with plastic, and eventually scrape it off and roll out a new living carpet of fresh, green hybrid grass. Or they may be more motivated at attempt to do it themselves renting from the local rental yard a rototiller, churning up the earth, buying a few cubic yards of manure, and spreading their own grass seed, frequently with quite mixed results.
Beyond picking up a few tricks of the gardening trade, a few rules of green thumb, a limited folk knowledge of ethno-botany, and a few trade and technical names of plants and chemical products, and perhaps a few details gleaned from the local library or the gardening section of a book store, from Sunset magazine, or Better Homes and Gardens or the Home supplement of their Sunday newspaper, the understanding and awareness of the larger realities and connections with the wider world which the possession and maintenance of nice green lawn entails, usually ends at the cashier of the store they buy their gardening supplies from. And the authoritative sources of their gardening knowledge and supplies cannot really be relied upon to better inform the green consumer of where the fertilizers ultimately come from, what the wholesale mark up really is, what ingredients are in their chemical sprays and amendments and what the ecological or physiological health hazards might really be, for such information, in the hands of the consumer, might threaten their profit margins and prove in the long run bad for their business.
And broader ecological awareness of the current state of the Earth often does more harm than good in the hands of the contemporary minded consumer. The Ecology industry has become a fashionable way of being with it in the world, and often leads to the consumption of expensive plastic components or of synthetic organic products that promote the very industries pushing ecological awareness for their own private profit. People install expensive and fancy drip irrigation systems to save money, time and to conserve water, in their yards, gardens and patios, often to the point of substituting plastic process with what they used to do by hand with a sprinkling can. People xeriscape their beds with expensive mulches made from timber of trees or mulch their gardens with large sheets of thick, non-biodegradable plastics. People buy expensive, synthetic soil amendments with the name organic upon the label to improve the natural loam of their ground. These amendments typically come packaged in non-biodegradable plastic containers and typically contain unnatural and perhaps unhealthy soil additives.
The maintenance of perennially green lawns in North America continues unabated in spite of the fact that such cultural practices are probably some of the least ecologically adaptive and efficient possible. The net cost in terms of fossil fuels, phosphates, nitrates, production of synthetic chemicals and substances which do not rapidly deteriorate in the environment, and the human energy, both physical and psychological, and the human time required for such upkeep far exceeds the net return of mulching grass clippings back into the earth. The money, time, energy, and resources consumed in this activity of keeping American lawns green could be better spent on more ecologically adapted activities which benefit a far greater world besides that of private homeowners. The fertilizers which American normally dumps on their lawns could be better used for the production of food in needy third world nations. The fossil fuel consumed in their manufacture and distribution could be better conserved for the next pending oil crises. The time spent in buying, deciding and spreading them could instead be spent reading interesting books, building rocks and cactus gardens, or in therapy. The money that is consumed in support of such industry might be better spent in support of ecological programs to save natural habitats, protect wild species from further human predation and depredation or put into savings account for children’s education.
But the case of the greening of America’s front lawns is illustrative of virtually every other aspect of modern American culture which is based upon materialism, consumerism, fossil fuels, third world exploitation, multi national industry and the maintenance of widespread obsessive compulsive neurotic disorders. America’s answer to the natural problems of its frontier has always been to build a more modern shopping mall and a huge asphalt and concrete parking lot around it. It has been a part of our mass oriented approach of capitalistic culture in virtually every aspect of modern existence—media, education, eating, recreation, work, business, war, trade, charity, even our artistic expression and our religious rituals. There is no grander spectacle than to behold the story of the nativity in the Crystal Cathedral during Christmas time, just down the street from Disneyland with the huge paper mache mountain of the Matterhorn rising above the treetops and freeway overpasses.
America supports a sophisticated modern civilization based upon mass consumption which has become the paragon of power and status in the world among all the rest. It, and a handful of other overdeveloped first world nations, occupy the top of the apex of the global consumption hierarchy, and it maintains its privileged predominance through the world wide deployment of a vast, extremely expensive and extremely effective military organization that it has somewhat euphemistically called the Department of Defense. The vast resources consumed in the process of developing and deploying this massive military machine, of building ever better arsenals of nuclear Armageddon, of ever more accurate missiles, ever more protective armor, ever more sophisticated systems of detection and communication, are vast resources that have long since been irretrievably wasted upon mass consumption activities that produce nothing of benefit or lasting consequence in the world except perhaps a false and illusive sense of security based upon a narrow definition of power destructive force and threat of violence, long contradicted by the lessons of our history.
The amount of national debt incurred in making war in Southeast Asia against the phantom of communism, and now in the Middle East to establish our presence and power of influence over the primary fossil fuel producing region of the world, to protect our own guaranteed supply of black blood has been money which could instead have gone to the alleviation of a great deal of needless suffering in the world, both domestically and internationally—malnutrition, starvation, disease, poverty, lack of education—all due to a general lack of money in a world dominated by its money market economy.
Ecocide of the environments can be defined as occurring at any point of the human development process which disrupts or destroys the ecosystems of the earth beyond these systems capacity to recoup or restore their evolutionary equilibrium. The points of no return, of irreversibility, of development, are impossible to determine. No one really knows what the healing capacity of nature might be, what the finite limits of the earth’s resources really are, or how much our science can continue to discover or invent means of alleviating the destructiveness inherent to development or render it more intensively efficient without making it extensively expressed. Beyond such points, there is ecocide because its lost potential becomes irrecoverable, irreplaceable, and its power to restore itself irreparable.
This kind of definition for ecocide is problematic because it renders it relative to the process of development and to interpretive definition of what the limits of nature might be, what the limits of development should be and which directions are negative while others are neutral. This makes the relative definition of ecocide susceptible to manipulation and distortion—to compromise by interests which wish to continue with systematic programs of ecocide.
A preferable definition of ecocide is one which claims that ecocide occurs whenever there is mechanical manipulation and alteration of the natural environment. In this definition, all development, especially extensively oriented development, is intrinsically and inexorably ecocidal. It becomes a question then of the relative irreversibility, range of extensiveness, degrees of damage and destructiveness, long term consequences, costs versus rewards, risks versus benefits. Definition of what the acceptable limits to ecocide are still subject to interpretation and hence negotiation, compromise and potential corruption, but it tends to set minimal limits to development and to predefine standards of what is humanly necessary and what is relatively unnecessary.
We can neither allow development to have a free charter to go whichever direction t chooses, nor can we so limit and constrain it that we frustrate its potential progress in directions which are less rather than more destructive, more beneficial at less cost to the environment. Development should be promoted to some point that it meets minimal standards of human health, rights and freedoms but beyond this it needs to be restricted and regulated such that its further pursuit does not continue to damage the Global Ecology of the Earth.
In this sense we can say that bombs and guns are more intrinsically ecocidal than are rubber balls and running shoes. Similarly, bicycles and buses are better than sports cars and limousines. A small nature reserve is less ecocidal than a shopping mall or strip center. A passenger train driven by steam is less ecocidal than a super sonic transport, a space shuttle or jumbo jet run on jet propulsion fuel. Chicken and beans are less ecocidal than beef, pork and fish.
The history of ecocide of the earth has been a history of unintended consequences of progressively directed development. No one suspected that a dam up stream will reduce the flooding and fertilization of the riverine plains downstream and reduce the estuarine siltation at the mouth. No one suspected that spray cans, air conditioners and charcoal lighter fluid would rapidly erode the ozone layer of earth. Countless examples of the essential blindness and myopia of development designs which either backfire or produce a whole plethora of environmental reverberations that no one planned upon. No one in the fifties counting on the miracle fuel of nuclear fission/fusion and design aircraft to be powered by nuclear reactors, expected a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. No one driving new gas guzzling Cadillacs and sports cars in the late sixties anticipated a sudden oil crises and embargo in the early seventies.
Ecocide is largely a function of the ecological interconnectedness and interdependency of the entire web of life on earth. Cutting down forests in Southeast Asia or in South America might be indirectly related to the production of carbon dioxide by the fossil fuel driven economies of the industrialized first world, such that a gradual green house effect would occur and with global warming glaciers would retreat at unprecedented rates, winters would be unusually warm and summers unusually unseasonable, and that the sea levels would eventually start rising again to swamp all the developed coastal regions on earth. No one expected that wasteful over consumption and careless contamination of groundwater tables, mechanical desertification of agricultural areas, coupled with paving over core regions with concrete and asphalt, would interrupt the basic water cycle of many regions and result in unrelieved drought and the increasing cost of portable drinking water. And yet oil continues to be spilled over the ocean, contaminates continue to wash downstream, lead continues to settle in Greenland ice, and manmade mountains of wasted plastic continue to grow. Food prices will continue to rise, as will oil prices, energy costs, forest will continue to fall until few tress are left standing, skylines will continue to rise, deserts expand, and the basic mineral resources will become depleted.
The history of Easter Island is an exemplary model, and ecological paradigm, for the future history of the earth. There the Polynesians eventually cut down the all the trees of the island until no more existed. In the mania of Mana they carved out huge stone heads to capture and revitalize the forces of nature for the productivity and reproductivity of the people. The people, ruining their inescapable and fragile habitat, were left without a means of escape or of adaptation on a barren island world.
Ecocide does not just entail the irreversible disruption and destruction of the earth’s ecology and natural environments. It also has entailed the destruction and disruption of the whole process of biological evolution of life on earth, and in a deeper and more profound sense, this is a much greater and potentially devastating loss than the kind of environmental/ecological devastation which is occurring everywhere at different rates. Every extinction of a species, directly or indirectly related to human development, entails an irretrievably loss of biological genetic material and of evolutionary potential which required millions of years to create. As more and more species become endangered or threatened, they lose not only important genetic, reproductive potential and flexibility, but the natural cultures of their group ecology in the natural environments are irretrievably lost and become irreplaceable. As we deteriorate or erode the life support systems, and the life systems of different species in the web of life on earth, we deteriorate and erode the entire fabric of life on earth, and the evolutionary potential of life as a living environment on earth to respond adaptively and evolutionarily to changes on earth. We have, via the promotion of progressive development, virtually brought the whole evolution of life on earth to a standstill, and we are now attacking the very foundations for selection and survival in the natural world. Life on earth cannot be healthy, adaptive or long lived if it becomes institutionally restricted and dependent upon zoos and human goodwill.
Ecocide is the term coined to describe what has been happening to the natural environments of the earth every time human beings pursue the progressive promise of technological development. It was what happened in Vietnam with our Roman ploughs, five hundred pounds bombs, napalm and herbicides. It happens every time we level a hillside to build condominiums, clear an empty field to put in a corner strip center, or dump herbicide on weeds in order to plant new lawns. It is happening in the torching of oil refineries in the Persian Gulf, and in the spilling of oil into the ocean from oil tankers or platforms. It happens when we cut down the trees of the forests of the world to make lumber for everything from Japanese chopsticks to two six planks for our decks. We commit ecocide every time we explode another atomic bomb on earth, whether in the sea, in the desert sands or in the frigid wastelands of Siberia. It happens every time we ignite our charcoal briquettes with lighter fluid, use a can of spray paint, turn over the ignition of our cars and trucks, or launch another rocket into space.
Ecocide describes our destruction of the natural ecology of the earth’s environments for the sake of the development of our civilization, and it is a term for the natural death of life on earth and for the planet earth itself as a living, evolving entity. We continue to commit ecocide, and if we individually become disillusioned and seek to step off our merry go round of modernizing development, then there are many more others who will gladly, madly take our place on the ride. We are constrained to share in the perpetuation of ecocide because successful adaptation and adjustment to a modern, civilized world demands such participation. To do otherwise is to suffer self-abnegation, social death, ostracism, isolation and virtual annihilation in the world. Our refusal to participate is construed as a sign and symptom of abnormality in a world which has become normally and morally mad. It is to risk and suffer the consequences of rejection in a world which is moving forward at all costs, in spite of the consequences. And there are also great incentives for successful adjustment and participation in ecocide—the material amenities, the level of consumption and waste, the illusion of power and security, can be overwhelming to the sensibilities of most people.
But the apparent worldwide normality of participation in ecocide is itself a measure and symptom of the degree to which our civilization has become unnaturally diseased and destructive. The fact that for all its sophistication, individualization, and enlightenment, modern civilization offer little latitude and few other legitimate alternatives other than such participation in ecocide, is the primary indication of how evolutionarily maladaptive and inflexible our human global society has become.
This explains a generally pervasive mass psychology which is driving modern humankind forward. It is a fear motivated psychology, a hoarding panic to get what one can before the last of the supply runs out, to scramble viciously against others in the world to get ahead of them and to climb to the top of the material mountain, to do almost anything necessary, to compromise virtually any and every moral sanction, in order to make it in the world. It is a collective archosis of humankind which has come to the realization that the world is finite and that time is quickly running out—to get all you can while the going lasts. People also now know that to lose the race now, to fail out of the System, is virtually irreversible. if they opt out of participation within a basically ecocidal system, then they will become systematically eliminated from the reward structure of the system, and will not likely be allowed to reenter. This psychology is also characterized by a fundamental sense of mistrust, insecurity and existential uncertainty about the world, which entails the inordinate needs for the hypocritical illusions of trust, security and certainty in the world. The system is loaded with bobby traps, by which, if we are not careful and wise, can easily become victimized. Social relations are becoming increasingly spurious and based upon convenience and advantage—such spuriousness of social relations is increasingly built in to the structure of modern living and so are unavoidable and unpreventable. Accompanied by all this, is a fundamental sense of social and existential alienation and anomie of the individual personality—of being isolated and alone in an over crowded, busy, and impersonal world running on illusion, hypocritical values and pretentious imagery.
Getting hooked on the main line of mass media consumerism is the only way left for coping with participation in an ecocidal world system. Daily doses of mass media consumption provides us the temporary, transitory hypes that allow us to get through the boredom and essential meaninglessness of the day. The sublimation and mythological symbolization process of the mass media, combined with its distortion and selection of information about the world, is a powerful mechanism of the system for maintaining conformity and reinforcing consumption within the system. While the rhinoceros is being poached into extinction before our very own eyes, we can watch ten-year-old nature programs glorifying the natural habitats and beauty of the rhinoceros, and in the process accept the illusion that we are actually doing something to save the rhinoceros.
It is important that the representatives of the system promote the status quo of power and inequality in the world, and that they continue to convince us that there is indeed no other way for the system except through ecocide. If we come to accept what they want us to believe, that we are absolutely alone, powerless and helpless to prevent ecocide from happening in the world, and that our only personal and social salvation is through participation and perpetuation of such ecocide, then that makes their jobs of administering life and death that much simpler and more morally unproblematic. If the whole world can become convinced that continuing development of world civilization is the best possible and inevitable future, whatever the costs and sacrifices, that science can solve any problem, even the problems of ecocide, then this will seal the fate of humankind and of the earth forever as unpreventable and unalterable from its present direction of development.
To refer to earth states emphasizes the point of view that while their way may be in a general sense a single state of the earth. The current condition of the global ecology or status of the world system or the organizational structure of world order, there are also actually and more accurately different multiple and overlapping states of earth that will inter-functioning and interdependent to some extent, and also relatively separate. As such earth states may refer either to the differing ecological states of the earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere or of differing geopolitical nation states, international alliances, or of different socio economic states of the First World, Second World, Third World, etc., or of differing regional states of economic, socio cultural, historical integration. To segment the earth into different kinds of states is a way of cross examining these differing states in relation to one another, and to understand how these different parts and partitions fit together and to form the state of the earth as a whole.
Our world is understood in terms of its participation and subdivisions. The whole has long been defined by the interrelations between its parts. To the extent that certain single parts or elements have come to predominate in the world, they have come to stand for and define the whole in place of the other parts. We come to think of the whole in certain specific terms instead of other possible ways, and we come to act in relation to the world as if the primary part were the whole world in disregard of the rest of the parts.
One particular aspect of contemporary American cultural consciousness is the mono-linguistic, culturally monolithic worldview that it maintains in relation to the whole, and the relative lack of awareness, multi cultural literacy, and geographic ignorance it has about the rest of the world. American cultural consciousness is surprisingly inbound and this inboundness of our conceptuality about the world is a reflection of our attitudes about our own cultural superiority—that the world was meant to become like us, that all difference is the degree of distance from our own way of life, that our predominance in the world is legitimated by our natural birth right, that the closer different culture’s are our own, the more civilized they must be, that America is in the long run a global enterprise, in which Washington DC is the hub of the wheel, and that the rest of the world will become like us, democratic and capitalistic, if given enough time to eventually work out their own problem out.
We are witnessing not only the progressive unfolding of global ecocide in the name of world development, but we are also experiencing socio economic monopolization of the world by private capitalistic interest groups and their fascist, social nationalist governments, socio-political-economic bureaucratic encapsulization of the world, and cultural homogenization of the world within a single system of shared values of mass consumption/production. These processes are going on simultaneously in every region and part of the world, and they are stimulating contradictory processes of the balkanization of the world into competing ethno-national splinter groups under the umbrella of structural integration of the entire world, such that different identities, solidarities, and motivations cross cut the traditional monothetic boundaries of states and undermine the previous order based upon the balance of power in the international arena.
In the broader sense, these global processes render the recent pro-American involvement in the Persian Gulf, as the principal arbiter and enforcer of international justices and world peace, albeit Pax American style, and its continuing conservative federalism and republicanism, something of a maladaptive anachronism a world in which iron and bamboo curtains no longer exist, the Berlin wall has been torn down by the very people whom it repressed, and ethno-national communities everywhere have international contingents and foreign colonies.
Our own forward posturing of military might in the world has suddenly come to appear quite morally awkward when the very enemy upon which its powerful presence was predicated has suddenly dissolved in front of it.
Most Americans have been left with a deep seated gap in their conceptualization and evaluation of the world, such that they intuitive sense that something is not right, but their own systems of rationalization and mythologies preclude bringing it out and coming face to face with the problems. In the name of patriotism, national solidarity, strength even democracy, the so called leaders have secretly sold American economic interests out to foreign competitors for their own private and personal aggrandizement, in the name of prosperity and progress, and have in the process emptied American coiffures into their own pockets and into the hands of international business interests.
America voted Reagan two terms as President not because of his inherent leadership abilities, which he did not have, nor his competence, but because he was preeminently an actor and a media figure. In him, Americans voted for a symbol, an empty voice, a figurehead of big business and powerful private interests. They voted not for leadership, but to acknowledge the vacuum of leadership, to renege responsibility and forfeit independence. People voted for a false sense of security in a big, impersonal system. It was a silent, unconscious acknowledgment that no one in control, that no one should be responsible, that what was left was for everyone to take all that they could get while the going was still good. In him, America acquiesced and capitulated to values of authority and impersonal power of the system.
Americans have been slow to catch on in the Post Reagan construction period that their corporate public interests have been short changed in a bad deal with international interests, and slow to grasp that in the new world there is no more national leadership which can be relied upon. Bush has been making war here and there to divert public attention from this basic fact. Congressmen make glorious speeches about the general good and then silently vote in favor of private interests. Americans have been slow to realize that in the contemporary world, there is no more national leadership which makes any relevance or sense, if there was ever such a grand illusion. Now there are only special private interests promoting their own success at someone else’s expense.
Without another public enemy upon which to declare war and to mobilize public attention and interest, America too must begin dissolve as a political unity into many different, competing splinter groups. The Washington puppet show cannot long maintain the illusion of cleanliness and sacred authority. The rest of the world has never really suffered the real world naiveté of American culture in all its virtue. Their world has always been a world of vice and corruption, and virtue exists not because of it, or in reaction to it, but in spite of it and in disregard of its influence, America, as a culture, is coming of age in an old world of humankind.
The entire earth has changed rapidly right before all of us, and our old divisions, boundaries, and partitions of its spaces and regions are no longer adequate for the human understanding or relating to the world in an adaptive manner. As we carry our old, outmoded differences with us into our new earthbound environments, we are experiencing what Alvin Toffler long ago referred to as ‘future shock.' Our previous frames and schemas no longer fit our new sets of experiences, and we become disoriented and at a loss to figure out so quickly what has changed about our ways of seeing the world. As long as the world continues to pursue collectively a policy of global development with its concomitant ecocide of the earth, then a sense of crises, helplessness, dependency, existential emptiness, anomie, and impending climatic doom must continue to unconsciously undermine our collective illusions and to contextually overshadow our collective horizon. It will continue to accelerate in its changing in ways which we are less and less in control to direct or prevent. They will continue to happen ever more rapidly in spite of what we do, because of what we do and in negation of what we do.
The changes happening in our world are tending to skew obliquely our traditional and common sense categories and conventional ways of seeing the world, such that the world no longer seems to make sense given the inadequacy of our framework for understanding it. This skewing effect means that new experiences are transacting our previous lines of experience in ways which we can no longer clearly define and which create a sense of radical discontinuity and disorientation between past and present.
Our previous interests and intentionality structures no longer make as much sense given this skewing effect of new experience. There is a divergence and conflict of interests and intentions between those rooted to the past and those oriented toward the future. With the skewing of interest and intentionality, comes as well a shifting of basic identity and existential sense of meaning and purpose in the world. With changing identities and loyalties, with shifting involvements and commitments, our values and relations with the world become reoriented about a new and different kind of focus. Our goals, expectations, beliefs, representations, are also becoming altered and reinterpreted in the confrontation with new experiences. We elicit old frames of understanding only to have them be consistently disrupted and defeated, entailing that we need then to somehow reevaluate these frames or else replace them with new ones which makes sense of the world and work for us in the world. The general feeling is one of losing a sense of balance, or a centeredness of being in the world, which we find vulnerable and threatened by strange new environments.
The tension produced within current earth states are largely the consequence of differential distribution of resources, knowledge, expertise, money, power, material goods, food, etc. Such resources become concentrated in some regions and relatively scarce in others, and this unevenness of the structural landscape of earth leads to imbalances and stresses in its systemic functioning. The inequalities produced by this overall unevenness and differentials of distribution are becoming more pronounced and extreme as development continues in the way it has mostly been pursued.
There is something fundamental about the competitive values of Capitalism which lead eventually to monopolism and a hierarchy of resource consumption/production. Successful competitors eventually drive out unsuccessful ones, and big companies tend to swallow up or destroy smaller, weaker ones. A utilitarian philosophy premised upon the greatest good for the greatest number of people leads to an historical patterning of extreme polarization between the few have’s and the many have-not’s. Such a worldview is also premised upon a world of unlimited good. In order to increasingly maximize profits, producers must manufacture infinite numbers of widgets that are sold to infinite numbers of consumers. Such production requires that there be corresponding infinite numbers of widget components and infinite amounts of basic resources from which such components are made. Furthermore, the principle of profit maximization means driving out competitors by underbidding them, minimizing costs of basic resources by maintaining monopolistic control over their acquisition, and by ‘exploitation’ of the basic labor requirements involved in the process of their production.
Given the real world efficacy of such a world view, certain kinds of things in the world make sense. First, social evolution dictates that economic competition is a process of social selectionism in which the best survives. This selectionism underlies the principle of progress that is central to development in the world. It also then becomes understandable to link up social selection as a logical extension of natural selectionism, and to claim that only the fittest survive and the weakest must perish. It becomes of primary importance then to establish a scientific orientation that clearly and unequivocally demonstrates the casual linkages between nature and culture, between biology and behavior, genetics and social history. It is also sometimes forgivable if the System sometimes become ‘fascist’ in its extreme orientation and premises that those who survive must be the fittest because they survived, and that those who perish must be not fit to survive anyway. Therefore poor people are people somehow genetically misendowed and the biologically maladapted to success within the social system. The social system must also create bureaucratic mechanisms which reinforce this process by systematically excluding the poor, weak, failed from access to resources which would hinder progressive development and survival of the fittest. Thus social institutions of structural poverty, weakness, dependency are created to recapitulate the core values of such a world view. The flip side of this doctrine is that those who have become successful within the system must be the socially and biologically fittest to survive, and they must therefore be the chosen ones who are privileged to reproduce above all the rest. Symbolic systems should reinforce this moral universe by extolling the beautiful people as the embodiment of natural virtues and as being inherently incapable of doing wrong. If they sometimes do err in their ways then their mistakes are quickly euphemized away and they are conveniently let off the hook.
Another somewhat contradictory consequence of this is that to insure market maximization, a potential unbounded market of consumers, then birth control programs should not be reinforced. It is no coincidence that both Presidents Reagan and Bush have demoted the support of family planning in third world nations which suffer extreme problems of over population, and have also been side-line champions of ‘right to life’ movements. Over population is seen in this case not as a global problem and a global responsibility, but as a local problem and a local level responsibility. Several corollaries come from this attitude towards the plight of the poor. The rich were meant to get richer, and the poor were meant to get more children. This assures that the wealthy will stay wealthy and the poor will increase in numbers and in proportion. It is the realization of the capitalist hierarchy in reverse. Also, rich people are encouraged to have more children, as this is construed eugenically as beneficial to the future of humankind—the reproduction of greatness. Also, though the poor are not prevented from getting pregnant, they are from the beginning chastised for the problem of poverty and population. If one child dies of malnutrition or lack of appropriate prenatal care or medical attention, then the parents can be expected to soon have another one soon anyway. It can be expected that the poor are good reproducers anyway. They need proportionately fewer Cesarean sections and have higher rates of infant-mother mortality. A young girl who has her first child by eighteen, will be expected to have at least four or five more by the time she is thirty years old. If the young teenage daughter of the wealthy becomes accidentally pregnant, she can always be flown away to a different town, city, state or country to have the necessary operation. The poor get no vacations, the rich just take another vacation. Similarly, third world nations saddled with the social burden of over population are conveniently kept subordinate upon the global hierarchy by these attitudes and policies. By maintaining overpopulation, they can be kept in a position of poverty and dependency, readily exploitable for their cheap labor, resources and recreational environments. Overpopulation and a lack of birth control policies effectively reinforces and recapitulates the attitude that these nations were meant to be exploited—that their peoples are racially inferior and culturally backward, and must be looked after by the wealthier nations for their own best interests. By maintaining over population and poverty in these nations, these nations also form zones in which inferior products can be tested, experimented with, and consumed at least cost to the system.
Another related value of this world view is the basic principle of social/natural hierarchy, which is reflected in taxonomic classifications of things in nature as well as of the social world which is rank ordered along a scheme of pyramidal hierarchy of an infra-structural base, a structural middle class and an ideological superstructure, or along the lines of a Great Chain of Being in which things higher on the totem pole are higher on the evolutionary scale of progress. From this perspective the third world nations can be seen as representing effectively the infra-structural base which is seen as the resource pool supporting the upper structures. The values of social hierarchy reinforce values of social conformism and authority, especially the authority of wealth and private property. Social hierarchy becomes reflected domestically in capitalistically organized societies in terms of a three tiered class/caste structure organized in the same manner as the world capitalistic system has become organized. The history of competition is held to determine who should get ahead and who shall fall behind in the struggle to get on top of the social heap. Those who are on top, or who at least appear upwardly mobile, must be naturally endowed with the right stuff for success. Those at the bottom, or suffering downward mobility, must be cursed with the wrong stuff which prevents them from climbing up the ladder.
These values and their reflected attitudes can be referred to as social racism in the sense that it is a kind of biological determinism of class/caste boundaries which is somewhat skewed along the natural boundaries of race. It is not so much a matter of white or black, but of wealthy white and poor white and wealthy black and poor black.
Another value which is a corollary of the capitalistic worldview is that money makes right and money is a sign of sacredness. This value is very basic to the capitalist world view and goes back to the Protestant notion of one’s calling and of whether one is chosen or selected for admission into Heaven. The fear of death, or what happens in death, and the lack of certitude about who is predetermined for heaven or hell, creates a fundamental sense of existential anxiety and cognitive dissonance that leads to the emphasis of the egotism of non-being—of becoming obsessively preoccupied with behaving as if one were selected for admission into Heaven instead of Hell. It becomes vitally important then to one’s personal sense of security in life that one adopt the attitudes, symbolisms and rewards of success in one’s calling, make lots of money, own lots of property, become a father like authority figure, and embody in one’s everyday being the principles and values of hierarchy.
This close association between wealth and righteousness, not to mention cleanliness and virtue, which is found in capitalism, is not too different from the kind of hierarchy which is expressed in Hindu India under the Brahmanic tradition. Status symbolisms of wealth, showing off one’s status, as predetermined and select, becomes a focal preoccupation of culture to the point at which a dowry is more important than the bride that comes attached with the dowry—hence suttee.
From this standpoint, the three tiered capitalistic caste system, the traditional Hindu caste system,, and the ideology of racism and the Great Chain of Being, in which Whites, then Yellows, Browns and Blacks are ranked, are similar kinds of systems which prescribe rules of endogamy or hypergamy and of occupational exclusion or separation, which is reinforced by an ideological and symbolic system of collective representation and belief, incorporating values of hierarchy, authority, the legitimacy and legitimating function of wealth, sumptuary status symbols and private property.
It is possible to speak of a global market economy which is becoming increasingly characterized by a diagonally stratified class/caste system—in which vertical class boundaries are becoming skewed by overlapping horizontally stratified caste hierarchies. In such a system, individual allegiance and identity gained within a national culture is contradicted by and compromised by competing allegiances and identity with ethno-national groupings which have characteristics of both classes and castes within a global market framework. Promoting ethno-national identity and solidarity entails reinforcing internal class hierarchy and externally oriented caste boundaries in relation to other competing class caste groupings. These groupings become similar to Hindu ‘jati’s’ which tend to be localized and occupationally specialized and which juggle and struggle for position within a larger caste stratified society.
The ethno-national, class caste sub-groupings of humankind working within a capitalistic world system can be stratified and divided along the lines of a number of different distinguishing traits—religious affiliation, political orientation, racial identity, sex, age, socio-economic status, location on the political spectrum, ethno-cultural heritage or identity, geographical homeland, psycho-geographic identity, and birthplace, status role identity or occupational specialization. An Irish American Catholic Democrat whose family hails from Boston might be very different from an Irish American Republican whose interests are centered in Southern California. Characteristic of this kind of componential or conglomerated status identity is its sociological ‘interpositionality’ of status within multiple overlapping hierarchies with the correlated social psychological phenomena of increased levels of social confusion of identity, cognitive dissonance, the stress and strain of differential tensions, loyalties, commitments upon an individual, feelings of relative deprivation in comparison to other groupings or identities, feelings of frustration in blocked social mobility within one or more hierarchy of social status.
This creates a pervasive and fundamental crises of identity within a larger system which is inherently competitive, alienating and disenfranchising anyway. A lack of upward mobility is tantamount to relative downward mobility—going nowhere is a falling backward from progress. There is a pervasive need to keep up, to acquire the latest edition, the newest model of car, the most current design or fashion of clothing.
Within such a diagonal social structure of the world system, the psychology of Nonbeing becomes the social psychological phenomena of a collective archosis of a culture dedicated to the values and orientation of nonbeing in the world. Personal and social identity is no longer ideography—the cult of individuality is but a superficial irrelevance. Identity becomes preeminently nomothetic within multiple classificatory hierarchies and taxonomies on the world.
Within such a world culture and social structure, there is a pervasive, almost paranoid, mass psychology that the ‘grass is always greener’ on the other side. We need human categories upon which to externalize, project and objectify as if real our own deep seated feelings of inferiority and fear of failure in the world. We need to see our social world in such a way that our values of hierarchy, authority , status, make objective sense in the world. We need to always feel like or at least appear as if we are getting ahead, upwardly mobile, going somewhere. We need to associate with the right kind of people, evince the right attitudes, adopt the right behaviors.
Within a competitive framework, other counter reference groups success could and should be one’s own. What things of value other’s have are potentially one’s own possession, and what one does have one deserves, no matter at whose expense it might have been by.
Within such a world, the values and orientations of equality and egalitarianism is largely an ideological fiction, a falsehood, a sense of false consciousness, and, when in bodied by certain representatives within the system, a matter of fundamental hypocrisy of identity. Equality and egalitarianism become ‘anti-structural’ values which can only exist marginally, counter culturally, separately, or in ritually outlined contexts of ceremonial communitas, liminality and rites of reversal.
Social hierarchy has been a near universal principle of social organization of humankind, except perhaps at the level of the band on which almost all relations are face to face and interpersonal and everyone knows everyone else within one’s cultural universe—but this is a relative equality perhaps—elders still have some measure of influence over juniors and the group as a whole still constraints the behavior of the individual in ways which set the interests of the group above those interests of one person.
It is entirely likely that the values of social equality are inherently unrealizable and unrealistic, and that values of social hierarchy are perhaps necessary and ineradicable in the world. Even in democratic North America, where all people are constitutionally created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, still it goes without saying that within its long standing system of common law and justice, some people are more equal than others, and rights protected under the law become relative to one’s social worth and the amount of property one owns. The legal system protects the rights of private property over and above the personal rights of people such that the latter inevitably become alienable and compromised by the former when the two sets of interests they represent come into conflict. No society can be created which does not reinforce hierarchy and entail inequality to some minimal extent and still work in the world as a corporate social entity.
But both equality and hierarchy are socially relative matters—hierarchy can be more or less extreme or emphasized. Its values can be stressed or left unmarked or be basically devalued and dysphemized. Equality, too, though never absolute, can be relatively realized as a reduction of hierarchy and a general evening out of differentials of uneven distribution or access to resources. The gradient between the top and the bottom does not need to be so steep or extreme, and the hierarchy can be leveled or flattened out such that the differences between those at the top and those at the bottom are not so disproportionate. This would concomitantly increase social mobility in the world and reduce the possibility of evil which comes from the emphasis and exaggeration of hierarchy, inequality and authority.
Such leveling out entails certain fundamental changes in our capitalistic way of doing things. We need a blanket socialism of basic services which guarantees the protection of human rights and basic freedoms from exploitation and violation. We need a global reign of peace rather than of terror and threat, such that the values leading toward equality, of tolerance, respect, nonviolence can be cultivated in the world and the insecurities which nonbeing depends upon can be reduced. It requires as well that we put a handle and a brake upon development and slow it down from the speed of a hare to the pace of a snail. We must stop further ecocide and allow nature enough time to heal some of its wounds, if it is not too late.
Our basic sense of social identity would go from one stressing class caste status to one of multiculturalism and pan humanism along a single integrated multi cultural continuum. Boundaries will still be there to negotiate, but they will be more like passageways and thresholds for passing between different states of reality than like gateways or fence preventing such movement.
There has nothing actually necessary or inevitable about the recent events and developmental states of the earth which our own failure to face the facts, to confront reality with courage instead of cowardice, to direct change in alternative ways than what has actually happened, have not made it so. The probable problems that the world is now facing were recognized long ago by enough people that things could have been done to forestall and prevent many unfortunate consequences. Development has been what we’ve decided to make it, and continue to make it.
The United States had the vision and the reason twenty years ago in its first oil crises to adopt policies leading to an alternative fuel economy. Now, much of the economic stagflation and recession, the growing polarization and deficit, have been due to the continuing and increasing dependence of the American economy and development upon fossil fuels derived primarily from the Middle East. It is not an accident that twenty years ago the Pentagon and CIA shifted its long term strategic objectives from the halting of communism in Southeast Asia to the securing of America’s oil reserve in the Middle East, and it then began laying the basic tactical and strategic designs which culminated in the recent war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a very convenient and not entirely coincidental scapegoat for our own aggressive political policies and military posturing there to protect our vital national interests. An unrestricted supply of oil to the US may be vital to its national strategic interests, but it has never been absolutely necessary. We had options, and alternative avenues to development, and we failed to take them.
Now we are struggling to survive under the spell of the continuing delusion of the givenness, taken for granted necessity of our system and its way of life. It has been our grand illusion which we have failed to confront and come to terms with in its entirety. The system under that we struggle to survive is similar to the ecological system of the entire earth in that many things are functionally interconnected to many other things, such that changes in one aspect reverberate and have consequences in many other aspects of the system. Professors can in their insularity and immunity berate and derogate people like Ronald Reagan or George Bush, with good reason, and yet turn around and promote ideologies of socio biology which uphold and legitimate basically social racist orientations of the system, or in other ways of funded or endowed research, promote the existing interests of the system. An educated engineer can be against war in the Gulf and yet his/her lifestyle will continue to depend upon his/her design of ever more accurate guidance systems for military missiles. Similarly, in the name of anti-communism, we may participate in the systematic destruction of the rain forest, and its inhabitants, in Vietnam. A public housing developer may genuinely deplore the destruction of the forests on earth, and yet wipe out whole natural habitats of flora and fauna on the course of building a project. It is relatively easy to look out in a general way to see the broader outlines of the problems of the world, but it becomes an entirely different manner to focus in on the specific interconnections between these problems and our own personal existential predicaments and dilemmas. To see how and in what exact ways development and ecocide become our own reasons for being in the world and sense of purpose for the world.
We are living within a system that is increasingly embedding itself into our awareness and our unconsciousness, into our environments and our experiences. We are living in a world that is becoming increasingly bureaucratic and administratively top heavy, with an increasingly polarized class structure and increasingly inflexibility and frozenness of social mobility. It is happening within the span of a single lifetime, of a single generation. We are increasingly engaged in role performances and enacting our parts within the system without reflecting on the consequences or existential realities in which our actions are situated and over-determined. We increasingly take for granted as given and necessary a great deal of social inequality and noise that is not necessary or a priori to our own construction of it in our social realities.
The range of choices available to us today, the degrees of freedom open to us now, are much more restricted than they were twenty years ago. They will quickly become even more restricted, and alternatives increasingly more effectively impossible the longer we procrastinate and perseverate in our old, tried and true ways of doing things. The solutions and alternatives available to us twenty years ago are no longer available to us, and our ability to do anything about the developmental direction we are following will continue to diminish to the point of ultimate no return.
Today we are creating boundaries, differences, divisions between people when none need occur. We are reinforcing such boundaries and differences, and creating greater social distances between people in an increasingly over crowded and shrinking social world, when we could be bridging these distances and diminishing these differences. To emphasize and promote divisions, difference and distance in a social world of diminishing space, resources, alternatives, must eventuate in explosive consequences for all of us.
When we speak of the greening of the earth we are not talking about putting more fertilizer on front lawns of American homes, or about moving to where the grass is greener. We are talking about promoting ecologically minded, environmentally protective and conservative, and evolutionarily adaptive strategies of living on earth with ourselves, and among ourselves, in ways which do not lead to developmental destruction or ecocide. It entails a basic existential realization about the extrinsic and intrinsic limits of our lives and of the system we live within—in spite of how we were raised, we cannot have our earth cakes and eat them too, we cannot continue to have everything for virtually nothing, and we cannot expect to achieve and develop at other people’s expense. It entails an acceptance of our own personal responsibility for participation in the development, or underdevelopment of the system on earth, and a way of seeing and relating within and in spite of the system such that we can become more aware of the net, long term consequences of our own and others actions on earth, and of the alternative possibilities for acting and reacting on earth, both naturally and socially.
More specifically we associate the green movement with a radical group of ecological extremists who blockade nuclear tests and sabotage environmentally destructive development projects. But as a ground swell social movement, greening of the earth entails a more pervasive and powerful sense of public awareness and involvement in the issues of ecocide and the future directions which development will take. There is more voting power in the daily decisions made in the market place by the average American consumer to create changes, to boycott environmentally or socially destructive products or practices, to become better, more realistically informed and disillusioned with the system. In this sense, to declare an international holiday—to give the earth a day off, to take a one day break in the whole process, and to slow development by a single day, to go sit under trees and to celebrate nature, would be better than to promote development even one more day.
Where we are headed, globally, locally, and personally, we should not be in to big of a hurry. We cannot go too slowly forward, and we cannot afford to be in too much of a hurry. We should not have to feel constrained to do anything socially significant tomorrow except take the day off.
Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, © 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.
Last Updated: 03/14/05