fork in road

We, in the US and other so-called modern, capitalistic, market-driven nations, need a different framework for the way we discuss and decide our political choices. The traditional polarization between left and right, or liberal and conservative, or some other pair no longer enables anyone to find and examine the real issues facing everyone on the Planet. Any conversation that takes economic growth for granted, whether implicit or explicit, creates a blindness that will make whatever choices are made eventually exacerbate the problems for which the choices are believed to be the solution.

The planet cannot stand any additional material growth without destabilizing the planetary environmental system further than it already has. Whatever technological remedies are being proposed to prevent this heightening threat cannot, even if they produce some immediate relief, keep up with the pathological impact of economic growth, as we have come to think about it and measure it and its relation to human well-being.

Ordinary mortals do not possess the capacity to see what the future will bring, except for the very near future. The ancients relied on seers and prophets to foretell what was ahead; we rely on science. Neither can be counted on to provide reliable answers for the distant future of complex systems, such as is the Earth system. The certainly of predictions beyond the near term is very low. Scientists do tell us what is going to happen to the Planet, say, by 2050, but hedge their bets to account for the unpredictable possibility that the system will behave far differently than they have predicted. The incremental responses to human activities may be acceptable by whatever criteria is used, until some sort of tipping joint is reached, at which time the systemic behavior may jump into a new unwelcome and unfriendly regime.

Conventional ways of accounting for the costs and benefits of any investment made today do not reflect such non-linear possibilities. Even if future behavior follows a relatively stable arc, cost benefit analyses have a hard time coming up with accurate figures for future benefits, in the case of impacts from climate change or extinctions, the value of whatever costs were to be prevented. Potential “remedies” to global warming, like geoengineering in any form, may appear to pass a cost-benefit test, based on conventional analyses, but such analyses are subject to great uncertainty.

But that’s not the only or primary reason why examining technological solution as the main way to offset future damages is flawed. Virtually all such analyses make the assumption that the political economies around the world will continue to be driven by growth policies. If these policies are looked at critically, the origins can be traced back to Adam Smith and others who developed the idea of the human as a self-interested, needy creature, driven by an insatiable bundle of wants. The key here is the very idea of a self, some inner nature, that provides the driving force behind normal everyday cultural behavior. The idea of a nature, as a mechanistic metaphor, is useful in thinking about what it means to be a human being, but not necessarily the selfish way it was painted and continues to be painted by economic policy makers and the politicians that echo their output. That model of human being has brought us to the brink of an uncertain future for obvious reasons. Continued growth and its material impacts will inevitably reach a point in a finite system of resources when it exceeds the capacity of the system to support its existential needs. We are clearly there. Even conservative estimates of our footprint on the Planet indicate that we are using those resources at the rate of about 1 1/2 planet’s worth. Sooner or later, our withdrawals from the future will upset the present.

The failure of the ability of existing political economies, based on increasing wealth, to avoid this catastrophe should be obvious to all. The moral imperative to raise the standard of living for the multitudes of impoverished human beings is clear, but to do that by increasing the global material output is not the way. A rising tide will not lift all boats; it will merely cause a monumental flood.

Another, perhaps the only other way, to avoid a future that we dread is to reconsider the way we think about what is means to be human, that is, what kind of self we are. There is evidence, these days that the Smithian, needy model does not describe some inherent, fixed nature, but one that has become embedded and reinforced by materialistic economies and cultures. The behavioral patterns that support this interpretation of human being come from the dominance of the left-brain hemisphere, which dominance results from a dialectical connection to the way that institutions of modernity have evolved.

The right brain presents a different kind of world and set of governing values to the acting human being that, if used to re-design social institutions instead of those of the left, could halt the present trajectory toward disaster. The right values caring over needing, relationships over things, and quality over quantity. More is not better in its frame. Better is better, and that does not require an ever-increasing materiality to the individual or the collective world. This blog is not the place to fully elaborate these last few paragraphs; they are the core themes of my book to be published in August. One does need things to be able to perform caring actions, but not for their equivalent material worth. Even operating without knowledge of the brain’s two ways, Amartya Sen proposed an economic calculus based on providing the material means to care for one’s concern, not for their intrinsic monetary value.

Many of the consequences of acting from the right-side are subtle and even unpredictable but some should be obvious. People would begin to assess their lives by the quality of their relations to others and to the world. When attention is placed more on the result of using things to take care than to the things themselves, the need for more and more of everything material would diminish, and with that, the stress on the earth lessen. Flourishing, in my thinking, the realization of the full potential of the human species, depends more on the nature of one’s intentions than on the acts that follow. Flourishing comes when the right-side is the master hemisphere.

The decision to stop being dominated by the left-brain can and must be made. However, there is no theory to tell us how to proceed once that decision has been made. The modern tendency to call in the experts when we cannot determine what to do next is part of the reasons we are in our present dilemma. We need to use our basic smarts, try new ways of doing things, and keeping the ones that move us in the right direction. Given the heightened focus on current political choices here and elsewhere, it is critical not to let the volume drown out the need to look more closely at the ability of modernity and its various political economies to conform to the constraints of the present Earth system.