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…But How Can We Modernize? August 7, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Environment, Nature, Philosophy, Saving the World.
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(…A follow-up to yesterday’s post, “On Being a ‘Modernized’ Society.)

“Suppose that you are in a room studying; after a few hours you feel that the atmosphere is a little stuffy and you need to change the air and you open the window. You let the fresh air enter the room, after a while you close the window, that’s all. That’s evolution. You are in a room and you feel that you need a change of air and you take a stone, put that through the window and break the window, of course the fresh air enters, but after that you have to repair the window. That’s revolution. I don’t see myself the need to break a window; I know how to open it!”

– Maurice Ravel

Yesterday a very interesting question came up in the comments to my post “On Being a ‘Modernized’ Society.” I had argued that the Western lifestyle, far from being the “modern” way of life we seem to assume, is actually profoundly un-modern in that it is founded on principles (limitless growth, infinite resource supply, fossil-fuel technology) that do not reflect the most recent developments in science, economics or technology. In contrast, a “primitive” lifestyle like the Bushmen’s is actually more modern since it is sustainable given the current scientific model of our planet’s ecology.

Danya wrote in response:

…just to take it to the next level – what kinds of practical steps might we take to “modernize,” so to speak, like the Bushmen? The discrepancy that currently exists between their lifestyle and ours is so great that we can’t simply drop everything and immediately begin acting as they do.

I found this an extremely relevant, in fact essential question. If we’re to make any practical use of the new data we do have, how can we remodel our society to bring it into line with our modern ecological and technological findings? I think there are two possible routes (one more desirable than the other) and they both lie in a major paradigm shift: moving from an open-system to a closed-system model.


Most of our current societal systems (the modern corporation, our banking system, our political models, our methods of transport, our engineering and design priorities, etc) were founded based on open-system models. In an open system there is – theoretically at least – an infinite resource supply (water, trees, food, land) to draw upon and infinite capacity for absorbing waste products (i.e. pollution). Logic, of course, tells us that no system is indefinitely open, but until very recently the limitations imposed by our planet itself were not recognized for practical purposes. (European colonialism and expansionism played a large role in this: until less than a century ago it really did appear  – from the viewpoint of aspiring developers and manufacturers – that there were vast amounts of land and resources simply waiting to be “used up”.) In an open-system model, maximizing profit will always be seen as a higher priority than preserving a renewable resource base, since more resources can be readily be obtained from outside the system.

In contrast, the Kalahari is a pretty obviously closed system and the people who live there have developed a lifestyle that recognizes its limitations. In this model, preserving a renewable resource base is automatically prioritized over acquiring money, luxuries, or personal possessions. Money is not intrinsically necessary for survival and once used up is gone; food and water are essential and, unlike money, are renewable if used wisely. To trade the essentials of long-term survival for cash is lunacy; if you deplete your long-term land base or food supply for quick returns now, you and your people will starve the next year.

Therefore each system has a “non-negotiable” principle. In a closed system it is to ensure renewability of resources; in an open system to maximize profit. It’s pretty obvious that our society and global economic system currently adopt the obsolete “open system” model. Preserving our global resource base falls a distant second (at best) behind maximizing profit, which most companies view point-blank as a non-negotiable value. If we are to successfully modernize and move to a “closed-system” model, we need to change our value system as well so that preserving our global environment (and thus ensuring our collective survival), not profit, becomes the non-negotiable priority. Anything else is collective insanity.

I see two main alternatives for how this paradigm shift could be done. Let’s take an analogy: it’s the late 1970’s and you own a factory that manufactures record players. Business is great and your product is in high demand. A few years later, cassette tapes and then CDs come along; suddenly, your product is obsolete. You can either throw up your hands, tear down your whole factory and start from scratch. Or – if you’re innovative – you can try to convert your existing machines and protocols to produce something different, a product that is in demand.

In the same way we could, theoretically, jettison our whole societal structure, our obsolete political and financial and industrial and social systems, and build them up again from scratch on a better (global) model. In other words, we could have a global revolution. Unfortunately this sort of transition would almost certainly be extremely difficult to achieve smoothly; it would likely involve a great deal of societal and violent conflict. In addition we might well end up with something even worse along the way (a global totalitarian regime or nuclear/biological war). So I’m going to propose we use the second method: to retain most of our existing societal “infrastructure”, harness its existing strengths and tweak it to remove or limit the weaknesses that make it and its intended product (uncontrolled expansion, consumption, and waste production) obsolete in today’s world. In Ravel’s words as quoted above, I think we should work towards evolution, rather than revolution.

This is the moment when readers will undoubtedly get cynical. How, they will ask, can we possibly hope to persuade governments and corporations that sustainability is a non-negotiable priority? I agree that it is a substantial task, but it is by no means impossible. As a parallel situation, consider this: our Western society does, in fact, have a number of non-negotiable priorities valued even above profit maximization. Some examples:

Safety. It is illegal for a company to construct unsafe buildings, violate traffic laws, sell food or pharmaceutical products containing dangerous substances, or order employees to operate dangerous equipment or work under hazardous conditions.

Individual and child rights. A company may not use slave labour or child labour (at least not within the country) to increase its profits. It can’t make its employees work for less than the minimum wage or in substandard conditions.

Minority and gender rights. A company may not discriminate against handicapped workers or against women, or use racial slurs in advertising its products.

This is just a small sampling of the rules that corporations must respect in our society. These laws are there precisely because, if allowed to operate unfettered by such limitations, most corporations will discard all other considerations in favour of profit. (This is simply a consequence of the Western capitalist model, based as it is on competition). Obviously none of these values became “non-negotiables”, valued even over profit, automatically or by default. There was a time when none of them were recognized and they each required years or decades of hard-fought, bitter campaigning against entrenched interests within the industries in question, to be made into law. However, they are necessary since the safety and basic rights of citizens must be protected, even over corporate interests.

Environmental sustainability needs to become a non-negotiable issue in the same way: a set of limitations placed upon companies’ freedom in order to protect all the citizens of our society and our world. Right now when a residential or commercial building is constructed, by law it needs to meet certain safety codes which are enforced by inspection. Why not make it mandatory to meet “environmental codes” (sustainable building materials, rooftop solar panelling, efficient water use, etc) as well? Any farming or food production facility is regularly inspected to ensure its products meet health standards; why not require it to meet substainable agricultural standards as well? To speed development of electrical/fuel cell/hybrid vehicles, why not simply levy a per-vehicle carbon offset tax for each “traditional” (gasoline-consuming) vehicle manufacturers produce, while providing tax breaks to companies which produce “clean” vehicles? And to finally end that scourge of sustainability – planned obsolescence – require companies to meet minimal design/compatibility standards and provide repair services for older models rather than simply telling consumers to upgrade.

The industry will fight the changes, no doubt. But after all the wailing and enraged protest and “sky is falling” predictions of imminent economic collapse, a funny thing will happen…the industry will adapt. It always does. This is the greatest strength of our capitalist economic system: that corporations are amazingly innovative and versatile when it comes to ensuring their own survival. (It’s the flip side of the weakness I mentioned earlier.) It’s this versality we need to harness and direct, not towards maximizing our GDP, but preserving our global environment.

Perhaps in this new scenario with sustainability as the non-negotiable value, profit margins will not be as ridiculously high or ensure instant wealth for the lucky few. But there will be profits, and products will still be manufactured and sold, and customers will continue to buy them because, in any model, people still need food, clothing, housing and other essentials. Bringing our runaway, snowballing, expansion-oriented economy under control will not cause it to collapse. Instead it will adapt to the new situation (as complex systems have a way of doing) and will serve our societal needs better than before. We will not need to “throw out” our technological developments; instead we will finally be able to make most efficient use of them.

And once the Western world leads, the rest of the world will follow, as it has followed our “modernization” patterns in the past. Few countries, after all, want to be “left behind” following an outdated system (nor is it to their advantage in global trade for their products to be obsolete or non-exportable to the Western world).This is the blind spot in all our collective wrangling at Kyoto and Copenhagen: if we are to modernize our world to adjust to the model science gives us, somebody must lead the way. At this point in time, it is Western countries that have the necessary technology to do so. And, when you think about it…would we Westerners really be satisfied in being “second-best” at modernization? 😀

Thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* The Botswana government in fact offered many of the Bushmen cash or food handouts if they would cooperate with the enforced resettlements. Their response: “Being given food is not good. You don’t know how long that person is going to keep giving you food. We know this land, we know what to do. We would not know what to do in Kaudwane [the resettlement camp]. In Kaudwane, if you don’t have food, you have to go and beg the government for it. Here, if we are hungry, we all go out and find some food.”



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