Achieving Global Sustainability in the Age of the Anthropocene

Humankind is currently on the cusp of profound changes which one way or another, will soon see a massive transformation occur that redefines what it means to be alive on planet Earth. Current trends point towards an approaching period over the next few decades that could result in an intensity of environmental and social destabilisation. Environmentally, the challenges come in the form of biodiversity and topsoil loss, pollution, deforestation, and climate change among others. Socially, they include technological unemployment, food and water scarcity, increasing hierarchy, centralisation, and poverty.

As will be explained, the core value and behavioural disorder encompasses two social conditions. Specifically, the relationship humans have with non-human animals (hereafter “animals”), and an inefficient and negative-externality generating socioeconomic system. In uncovering the associated misconceptions and flawed thinking, an updated mindset and approach characterised by holism offers the potential to correctly navigate a path out of the crisis towards a sustainable future. In this context, the sources and effects of speciesism and market-based economics are examined; responding to common objections that may arise, and uncovering important interconnections. Emphasis is placed on the limits and impediments to change, in turn highlighting the necessity for both moral and systemic solutions at an individual and collective level.

As the present century unfolds, achieving global sustainability will be dependent upon a fundamental re-orientation of human thought, values, and behaviour, as-well as societal systems and structures. To understand why such radical change is needed, recognition of the full extent of the challenges faced must firstly occur.

Where Are We Now?

The rise of Homo sapiens to its dominant position on planet Earth today is astonishing; equally remarkable, however, is the drive our species has been taking towards extinction. In-fact, the Sixth Great Extinction is currently away,[1] with a new geological epoch defining current times – the Anthropocene, or “the new age of man”.[2]

In the last 50 years, Earth lost over half of its biodiversity (58%)[3] – the level of species extinctions being at a rate unprecedented since the demise of the dinosaurs circa 65 million years ago.[4] Researchers from the Zoological Society of London and WWF have determined that based on current trends, vertebrate losses may reach 67% by 2020.[3] Freshwater species, in particular, have seen a severe drop over the period from 1970 to 2012, with an 81% decline noted.[3] While marine species populations are healthier, in general,[3] large fish species (such as sharks, tunas, marlins, cods, and swordfish) have seen a precipitous decline in the past 100 years, with only 10% of pre-industrial levels remaining.[5],[6] Phytoplankton, which form the foundation of the ocean food web[7] and are the source of oxygen for every second breath humans take,[8] have similarly seen a dramatic diminution, with a 40% loss since 1950.[7] Projections based on a continuation of current trends indicate that a global collapse of fisheries could occur by the mid-21st century.[9]

Focusing on land sustainability, rates of deforestation indicate that from 1990 to 2015 the world’s forests shrank by 1.3 million square kilometres (just over 500,000 square miles), equivalent to 1,000 football fields lost per hour.[10] During the past 300 years, with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and an expanding human population (from under a billion up-to the present size of over 7 billion),[11] anthropogenic (human-caused) deforestation has become a significantly destructive practice to the environment globally.[12] In little more than 100 years since the beginning of the 20th century, Earth’s forest area has shrunk 20%.[10] Naturally, deforestation is connected to soil health, of which, a third of arable land has been lost in the past 40 years.[13] Generating 1.5cm of topsoil takes 500 years, and given existing rates of degradation, only 60 more years of traditional farming may be possible.[14]

Another deeply destabilising and catastrophic reality affecting the entire biosphere is anthropogenic climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850”.[15] In line with this finding is data provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who advise that since the year 2000, 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred.[16] Prior to 1850, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hovered at 280 ppm (parts per million).[17] However, for the first time in millions of years, 2016 saw the world pass 400 ppm – an important carbon threshold that signified to scientists the clear danger zone that has now been entered.[18] The catastrophic impact of abrupt (changes within the lifetime of a human being) climate change is already appearing socially in many parts of the world.[19],[20],[21] With the potential passing of critical tipping points[22] [Figures 1a and 1b], the existential risk posed should serve as a dire wake-up call that business as usual for the human species is over.

Figure 1a – The ‘planetary boundaries’ concept seeks to define core “environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate”.[23](p736) Corresponding to the disturbing environmental situation highlighted thus far, Steffen et al. note that out of the nine constraints in total delineated, four have crossed respective safe zones – these being, biosphere integrity (or “biodiversity loss”), biogeochemical flows, climate change, and land-system change. Note: This image only reflects data up to 2009.[23]

Figure 1b – Fourteen global tipping points that could be induced throughout the Anthropocene, as highlighted by Rockström.[24]

In a new geological epoch where humans are the dominant driver of change on the planetary level,[2] social sustainability is particularly important to appreciate if environmental sustainability is to be achieved. Accordingly, poverty is of primary interest to first consider when assessing the social sustainability of human civilisation. Evaluation is made difficult, however, by disingenuous accounting practices obscuring the true reality. This is the reasoning provided by Jason Hickel, anthropologist at the London School of Economics.[25] According to Hickel, there is a scholarly consensus that the current International Poverty Line (IPL) the World Bank has adopted to determine who is and isn’t in poverty is set far too low. Poverty, in absolute terms, refers to the condition of a person being unable to meet their most basic survival needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter.[26] The IPL figure, which as of late 2015 is $1.90, is supposed to represent the international equivalent of what could be bought in the United States in 2011 with the same amount of money. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has calculated that (in 2011 terms) $5.04 per day would be the absolute minimum necessary to merely buy sufficient food. That is, if all other requirements for survival were ignored, such as shelter, clothing, and health-care. Given these facts, a rethink on poverty metrics is clearly needed. As noted by Hickel,

“If we want to stick with a single international line, we might use the “ethical poverty line” devised by Peter Edward of Newcastle University. He calculates that in order to achieve normal human life expectancy of just over 70 years, people need roughly 2.7 to 3.9 times the existing poverty line. In the past, that was $5 a day. Using the bank’s new calculations, it’s about $7.40 a day. As it happens, this number is close to the average of national poverty lines in the global south.

So what would happen if we were to measure global poverty at this more accurate level? We would see that about 4.2 billion people live in poverty today. That’s more than four times what the World Bank would have us believe, and more than 60% of humanity. And the number has risen sharply since 1980, with nearly 1 billion people added to the ranks of the poor over the past 35 years.”[25]

Inequality, a form of relative poverty, is defined as “poverty in relation to the economic status of other members of the society”.[26] Globally, this social condition has increased to “beyond grotesque” levels, with a 2017 report by Oxfam stating that the world’s eight richest people now have the same combined wealth as the poorest 50%, roughly 3.6 billion people.[27] While the negative effects of absolute poverty are well-understood, both intuitively and intellectually, the consequences of relative poverty is much less appreciated.[28] This is unfortunate, as public health and epidemiological evidence suggests that the existence of socioeconomic inequality and hierarchy predicts a myriad of increased health and social problems, generally proportional to the degree it exists.[28],[29] In connection with the sickness arising out of status relationships, financial concerns (such as those relating to money, work, and the economy) are a leading cause of stress and anxiety in countries such as the U.S., Britain, and Australia.[30],[31],[32],[33] The role inequality and financial concerns have, among others factors, with self-harm, should be explored further, especially given suicides have increased 60% in the past 45 years globally.[34]

One possible source of poverty (both absolute and relative) as time goes on, is the phenomenon of ‘technological unemployment’. This refers to the loss of jobs caused by the advancement of automation and technological innovation. If the predictions are right, over the next 20 years jobs will continue to disappear from the labour market at a staggering rate.[35],[36],[37],[38],[39] Two possible scenarios may prevent that from occurring. Firstly, businesses within the market may compensate by creating more jobs. This could be a result of a natural evolutionary unfolding of new sectors opening up additional fields for specialisation – as complexity within the socioeconomic system increases through technological change. Or, it may occur simply because businesses recognise the need to keep people employed in some type of work, in order that market-based economics remains functioning. This last possibility is problematic for three reasons:

  1. it goes against the primary logic incentive of business within a Market to increase efficiency for profit maximisation[40],[41],[42],[43],[44]
  2. it entails the creation of ultimately unnecessary job roles, in essence artificially propping up a system and labour market that has lost relevance, and
  3. in connection with the prior point, it is clearly a non-optimising approach to sustainable resource management.

The second possible scenario that may prevent jobs disappearing over the next 20 years, is the implementation of a guaranteed or universal basic income. This would supplement individuals’ society-wide with an amount of income which could be used to allow work of any sort to occur.[45] There are valid arguments for and against such a social policy. However, it is not within the scope of the present treatment to explore this complex subject. Whatever scenario does play out, it is clear fundamental change is on the horizon with enormous implications for sustainability.

As a final point on inequality and hierarchy, a Swiss Federal Institute of Technology study[46] from October 2011 examined relationships of 43,060 transnational corporations pulled from an original 37 million companies and investors worldwide. It found that 1,318 companies controlled as much as 80% of global operating revenues (20% directly, and as much as 60% indirectly through shares). When the inter-locking directorships of these 1,318 companies were untangled, a “super-entity” of 147 companies subsequently emerged that constituted a disproportionate share of the network. This further highlights the dangerous levels of power centralization occurring today, which may grow more extreme with coming technological changes.

Now, in the interests of keeping this social assessment relatively broad, and in an attempt to unify both the social and aforementioned environmental realities together, concluding observations will be made. As noted in Figure 2, there are seven significant, large-scale, negative factors comprising environmental and social trends that increasingly represent a destabilisation of society leading up-to and beyond 2050. Food and water shortages (such as is currently being faced/ experienced by 20 million people in Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria), civil war, and governmental collapse are just a few of the developments which may occur on a local, regional, and global level as time moves forward.[21],[47],[48],[49] If the deeply imbalanced and fragile nature of present human civilisation is to be adequately resolved, it is necessary to get to the root causality responsible in order that effective solutions are advanced.

Figure 2 – “Conceptual trend depiction of the top seven factors that may lead to severe social unrest. Based on independent studies conducted for each issue, targeting ~2050 for peak problems. This figure begins at 1800 CE, around the first Industrial Revolution, where most of the issues take root. The “counteracting efficiency” factor marks the possibility that current trends may slow due to increased efficiency in some form. This is noted as “inherent” since it is assumed conduct will still be “business as usual”.”[50]

Why Are We Here?

The heart of the unsustainable nature of contemporary society can be attributed to fundamentally two sources. Briefly, these are the attitudes and practices that define the relationship humans have with animals in the larger biosphere, and the systems and structures which embody the current globally predominant socioeconomic system. Respectively, these can be narrowed down further into the concepts of speciesism, specifically carnism, and market-based economics, specifically Capitalism. These social conditions are highly interdependent and interconnected, and in combination, produce on a macro-scale the increasing rates of entropy and disorder occurring today.

A key intersecting point which carnism and Capitalism share with each other, that perhaps may aid in appreciating how and why these two dynamics characterize a self-terminating disposition, is the phenomenon of ‘social Darwinism’. Social Darwinism refers to a competitive and domineering orientation taken predicated on the evolutionary theories of natural selection and ‘survival of the fittest’.[51] It arises in human behaviour by way of exploitative treatment towards animals when it comes to food, and by way of seeking to gain advantage over other humans in the economic realm. Often these actions will be justified by conception of a “natural order” whereby nature is assumed to be unsparingly ‘red in tooth and claw’,[52] and that competition is nature’s method for improving the world and ourselves. Alternatively, a “might is right” attitude may be adopted suggesting power alone is sufficient justification.

sustainabilityFactory farming, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s), along with mechanized fishing involving super-trawlers that decimate sea floors and indiscriminately haul tons of marine life (from sardines to dolphins) into their freezing bellies, perhaps serve as the most relevant examples of the first social condition.[53],[54] The second social condition is much harder to notice due to the subtle and indirect form of harm it typically involves.[55] It is thus much less overt than the systematic killing and abuse directed towards hundreds of millions of animals on a daily basis.[56] It finds its expression in the competitive orientation increasingly found, as a general rule, the higher one goes up the business and corporate ladder.

Those who ascend up the Capitalist pyramid are often the most psychopathic individuals in society, who are more likely to engage in unethical behavior, and disregard the well-being of others.[57],[58] It should come as no surprise then, when those at the top of the system – the international banking organisations (such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), are willing to impose their destructive neoliberal (overtly-Market oriented) and regime change policies onto poorer, less developed regions of the Global South.[59],[60],[61] Speaking to the spiritual malaise of the current zeitgeist, and the interplay between moral integrity and system dynamics, Peter Joseph, author of The New Human Rights Movement brings attention to the limits of change to be expected under the present socioeconomic condition,

“Many philosophers frequently imply that moral maturity is a solution to our poverty of the spirit. However, it is incomplete to argue for improved morality merely through personal growth and increased empathy. It is not enough to “change yourself”. From a system perspective we cannot rationally conclude that an ideal moral compass can be fostered or perpetuated in a socioeconomic condition that doesn’t reward it. People typically can only walk against the current so long, no matter how strong their convictions. Humans are far too vulnerable to pressures in their environment. Without the social structure’s changing to directly embrace our idealized moral strides, little progress can be expected. The fact is, no matter how moral we may think we are or how moral we think the world could be, the structural bigotry inherent in market logic will forever get the best of us, undermining integrity, fueling this poverty of the spirit relentlessly.”[50]

Another intersecting point that connects the two destructive social conditions of carnism and Capitalism together was highlighted by author Dr. Will Tuttle, in The World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony. Noting the prehistoric basis of Capitalism’s foundation and its connection to animal husbandry, he states,

“The first Capitalists were the herders who fought each other for land and capital and created the first kingdoms, complete with slavery, regular warfare, and power concentrated in the hands of a wealthy cattle-owning elite […] Livestock in the ancient herding cultures thus defined the value of gold and silver- food animals were the fundamental standard of wealth and power.”[62]

Dr. Tuttle further points out that the word Capitalism derives from capital, in Latin “caput”, meaning “head”, as in pertaining to head of cattle and sheep. Additionally, he highlights the ancient Aryan Sanskrit word for War, “gavyaa” which means literally “the desire for more cattle”.[62] In an article examining the roots of freedom and slavery, Dr. Tuttle further observes the deep connection between how animals are treated and what this means for human relationships,

“animal slavery is more deeply entwined and ingrained into the fabric of our culture than human slavery, and it is this underlying pervasive and invisible violence of animal slavery that conditions our minds, feelings, and behaviour to create a human society that mirrors the injustice and cruelty we routinely inflict on the animals we own. Historically, human slavery followed on the heels of animal slavery, and by stealing the sovereignty of animals, we historically created precisely the mindset of reductionism, domination, privilege, and disconnectedness that has led to and continues to generate slavery and injustice in our human society. How can we ever expect to create a society of freedom, equality, and harmony among humans when we routinely and heedlessly inflict the opposite on other living beings on such a large scale?”[63]

In answering this question, it becomes apparent that human rights is intimately connected with achieving animal rights. It is also the perspective of this author that the relationship goes both ways. That is, achieving animal rights may be much harder in a world where human rights are routinely ignored.

Now, focusing on market-based economics, some may object that negative social and environmental outcomes cannot necessarily be ascribed in fault to Capitalism in its entirety, but rather, only the distorted form of “Crony Capitalism” (or Corporatism as it is also known). Such a viewpoint may consider that without government interference, the purity of what Capitalism really is will shine forth, led by an idealism which considers deregulation, privatization, and the invisible hand of the Market[64] to be the global system solutions moving forward. To explore this position further, a brief historical overview is necessary.

Prior to the Neolithic Era, approximately 12,000 years ago, the majority of human history (roughly 94% of modern humans 200,000 year existence)[65],[66] was characterized essentially by socialistic and communitarian norms. Mutual exchange and the sharing of resources defined the original socioeconomic system of gatherer-hunter societies, which could best be described as being based on a “gift economy”.[67],[68] With a predominantly nomadic lifestyle which involved constant shifting from place to place, the concept of ownership was virtually non-existent.[67] Providing resources were freely accessible, naturally there was no requirement or benefit to having a culture rooted in hoarding and restriction.

The development of agriculture, and hence settlement changed everything. Rearing animals and growing large amounts of crops gave rise to stockpiling, and consequently property, exchange, trade specialization, and social stratification –the early trappings of a market-based economy. In the same process of unfoldment, the primitive State arose. As a specialized agency of coercion, the State acted in a centralized regulatory capacity. However, it also afforded the opportunity of being used as a tool by the dominant classes in order to gain a power differential over others. Although the latter functionary role was not imperative to the operations of the State, its expression took on a life of its own as the Market-State hybrid evolved over time. From monarchs with overt top-down control, to the more decentralized and obfuscated form of governments today, the political and business element within society has constantly operated in tandem with each other, generally in a mutually reinforcing manner.[69],[70]

From a psychological and systemic perspective, corruption of the State apparatus is not, as may be thought, an unnatural aberration. Rather, it is the inherent condition – a natural by-product of the gaming strategy central to Capitalism itself. This arises by way of Capitalism’s perpetuation of artificial scarcity, due to its overt basis in competition, which results in a relentless gravitation for the seeking out of differential advantage. In other words, the structure strongly incentivizes the buying and selling of regulatory apparatuses, whether under government or private control. When survival is at stake, which it is in this system constantly, a logical incompatibility exists that necessitates either morality be downgraded in order to compete more effectively, or else suffer an existential risk towards personal or group well-being. This ties into the property of “freedom” that is associated with markets, which is nothing more than Capitalism’s resource distribution function allocating goods and services according to consumer preference.

Preferences are expressed through the buying power of consumers. If a person has no money, in effect they have no preference. Little obedience can be commanded from the Market because there is nothing by which to get its attention. The wealthy on the other hand, can practically shout and scream at the Market – such is the case when it comes to business colluding with the State via lobbying. Thus, despite the often outspoken theoretical perspectives of its ideologues, market-based economics is not fundamentally in opposition to State involvement. Michael Huemer, who wrote The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey, submits that,

“One common form of utopianism consists of confusing the way individuals and organizations are ‘supposed to’ behave with the way they will behave. When social systems are evaluated, it does not matter how a system is supposed to work; what matters is how it can be expected to work under realistic assumptions about human nature.”[71]

While Huemer himself here was referring to the functions of the State, what he says can equally be applied to the Capitalist system. Moreover, the reference to “realistic assumptions about human nature” does not necessarily have to imply biological determinism or “blank-slate” environmental conditioning. It can simply mean recognizing the dynamic equilibrium existing between both positions. The salient point here is the emphasis being placed on the emergent properties of a system – which should not be persistently overlooked in favor of romantic notions of how things could be, no matter how noble in gesture. With the host of challenges to global sustainability, a different level of consciousness is required that is not marred by “in the box” and reductionist determinations which can impede progress.

The Importance of Systems Thinking

The interdependent complexities of modern society and nature suggest that only a systems approach is adequate when attempting to meet sustainability goals. As opposed to ‘methodological reductionism’ which holds that “a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents”,[72] ‘systems thinking’ is an epistemological approach characterised by viewing complex systems as more than the mere sum of their parts. It emphasises holism, which involves consideration of as many relevant interconnecting elements as possible, seeking to define their relationships, and what the total effects produced in concert are.[73] The purpose of adopting it is to come to a more accurate understanding of nature, offering a more suitable approach when searching for solutions to a given problem. So, can we apply some “systems thinking” to economics?

To begin at the broadest level, the true definition of “economy” comes from the Greek word “oikonomia”, meaning household management, and “economise”, meaning optimised efficiency on all levels, thrift.[74] The household of-course, being Earth and all life upon it, therefore, forms the underlying root basis that concepts of organisation must arise from. Since Earth is a predominantly closed-system with a finite amount of resources and natural capital [Figure 3], the parameters for maintaining sustainability should be self-evident. Capitalism, however, with its basis in infinite growth and conspicuous consumption, simply doesn’t account for the ecosystem of which it is dependent upon and a subsystem of. The core operating principles (deregulation, privatization, and the invisible hand of the Market) are simply life-blind to the relevant processes and factors necessary for sustainability. Therefore, a lack of basic systems intelligence is an inherent feature of the economic paradigm. As expanded upon by Prugh, T. et al.,

Figure 3 – The economy as an open subsystem of the global ecosystem.[75]

“Conventional economics assumes that the economy and the ecosphere basically have little connection with each other, and land as a factor of production is relatively unimportant. This is in part because resources are considered to be almost infinitely substitutable for one another. If you run out of a resource, or if it becomes scarce and therefore too expensive to use, you can always switch to something else that is more abundant and cheaper.”[75](p18)

In-fact, the most appropriate metaphor to contextualise the way market-based economics functions, is as a cancer. This is the conclusion of John McMurtry, social scientist and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, Canada. In his book The Cancer Stage of Capitalism,[76] McMurtry goes into extensive depth and analysis detailing the global illness. Effectively, what is being dealt with is a socioeconomic condition that has decoupled from productive life functions. He notes,

“Money capital that seeks more money without producing any life good or service goes back as far as usury, but never before has it been the dominant form of social life-organization. The mutation in this macro-circuit of money investment and profit occurred when money capital became exclusively committed at every stage of its growth to the direct multiplication of itself. The comparison with a carcinogen is starkly evident. A cancer pattern of disease and metastasis is confirmed when money capital lacks any commitment to any life-organization on the planet, but is free to move with increasing volume and velocity in and out of–but not to sustain–social and environmental life-hosts. On the contrary, ever more social resources and protections are being diverted to assist the capitalist cancer to multiply.”[76]

If the host body’s immune system does not sufficiently recognise or respond to the cancer’s challenge and advance, it is eventually destroyed. This diagnosis leads us appropriately to the topic of negative externalities, and the finding that if the world’s top industries accounted for the environment in their balance sheets, none would be profitable.[77] From a system perspective, the only sustainable socioeconomic condition long-term, is one in which all (or, at the very least most) externalities are factored into the decision-making processes of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. Of critical relevance to this approach, is the work of Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist, mathematician, and the principal founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies.

Galtung coined the term ‘structural violence’ in his work “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” in 1969 to describe avoidable negative externalities and effects which result from the organisation of a social structure or social institution.[78] Following from Galtung’s work, a worldwide study[79] carried out by Gernot Kohler and Norman Alcock in 1976 found that 14 to 18 million people were unnecessarily dying from poverty each year. Bearing in mind estimates for the human death toll of ostensibly Communist regimes in the past century at between 85 – 100 million,[80] it shall be conservatively observed that Capitalism is responsible for the same amount of deaths every 6 or so years – in-fact, the real figure is likely much higher today. This is due to the increase in absolute poverty previously noted over roughly the same time-period (since 1980), along with factors outside of this which have not been accounted for. Therefore, it is increasingly important as time goes on that a systems approach is embraced for realizing a truly sustainable civilisation.

The ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan[81] attests to the highly interconnected nature of life on Earth today, and how despite arbitrary geographic policies and boundaries set up by different nations we are all still bound to one another. The astronomer Carl Sagan, speaking to this reality in his book Cosmos,[82] said the following,

“Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. […] If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.”[82]

Balance must be sought in the coordinated response necessary to shift humanity through to the next stage of socioeconomic and spiritual evolution. An awareness of the deep historical and cultural complexity surrounding the challenges faced globally is crucial, particularly as populations in the Global South seek to increase standards of living to levels commensurate with that of the Global North in the years ahead. For example, were India to increase per capita gross domestic product to a similar level to Britain, a 5x increase in per capita carbon emissions could occur. To reach the levels of the United States that figure could be as high as 8x.[83] Given the history that India and other regions such as China have of colonization by the West,[69] along with China, in particular, being a key manufacturing and labor hub which much of the Capitalist-based consumerism countries such as Britain and the U.S. have taken advantage of,[84],[85],[86] resolution must be highly sensitive to these realities. Regions or cultures which seek to isolate and distance themselves from the rest of the world must learn that, as Jacque Fresco put it, “Either we think globally or we perish individually”.[87] With this perspective, protected area management and global sustainability are seen to go hand in hand. Similarly, the remediation of the existing billions in poverty with the well-being of the rest of the global human family is considered necessary. Moving away from a sense of self which is essentially separate from the other, and recognizing that the individual is an emergent process of everything else in nature is key. This entails an alignment of individual agency with the well-being of others and the shared environment. In other words, self-interest must become social interest. That is, if we expect to survive as a species. Part of the basis for this reorientation stems from an understanding that threats to positive social and environmental outcomes seldom occur simply in direct form. They often come indirectly, by way of complex chains of cause and effect. As Lockwood, M. et al. elaborate,

“a direct threat to a protected area may be encroachment by small farmers. This encroachment may be driven by an indirect cause – the rapid privatization and concentration of agricultural land in adjacent areas. The underlying cause of this situation, in turn, may be subsidies or other changes in government policy aimed at boosting export agriculture to help pay off international debts.”[88](p224)

Additionally, these debts might be linked to the fractional reserve banking system that make up the global fiat monetary system, and so-on ad infinitum. Ultimately, without systems comprehension, resolving one issue may lead to the creation of another, and all that may end up occurring is a shifting around of problems, with the potential exacerbation of them all in the end. The ‘criminal justice system’ in modern societies customarily operate this way –with an institutionalised form of localised and reductionist thinking in place when it comes to law enforcement and problem resolution.[50],[89] Likewise, activism efforts are often focused on attacking the branch of problems, rather than the root.

To further drive this point home, and to bring the first social condition back into focus, a final illustration will be made. This will also address a relevant objection which may have been raised by the reader earlier as to the characterisation of carnism. Specifically, when it comes to breeding animals for food, there are many farms that are “free-range” – where cows, chickens, and pigs are not subjected to the confined spaces of concrete and steel boxes which comprise factory farms. Morally speaking, it is certainly the case that this is less cruel for these animals. However, are we merely shifting problems around again? Ignoring the likely huge economic costs to industry (who are unlikely to support such a shift when it comes to their bottom line), what about the effects on the environment – and the biodiversity that comprise it?

Suppose overnight all animals in factory farms were somehow transported to pastures which typify the ideal of “free range” farms. Would that be sustainable? Well, about 40% of the Earth’s land is currently dedicated to agriculture,[90] and that is with factory farms rearing tens of billions of animals per year.[91] The obvious question here is how much more area would be required for letting all animals loose to graze? In terms of scalability, it simply wouldn’t work, especially with a growing global population which may reach 9 billion plus by 2050.[92] Moreover, even if Earth was many times the size it currently is, the cumulative effects of animal agriculture are already unsustainable enough without making the situation worse.[93],[94],[95],[96] In-fact, if all the grain currently fed to livestock in just the U.S. were consumed directly by people, approximately 800 million could be fed.[97] Is that not a sobering statistic in a world where over 20,000 children die every day from starvation?[98] Of course, humanity already produces enough food to feed the entire global population – the reason why it hasn’t yet occurred, even with all the food going to animals at the same time, is economic.[99] The poor of the world simply cannot afford it. This touches on the work of Johan Galtung once again, and the unnecessary suffering and death which is occurring by way of global participation in market-based economics.

To tie things up with respect to animal agriculture, poverty, and population, it is true resource scarcity presents limits to sustaining human life –particularly as resource overshoot currently occurs two-thirds into each year.[100] But, the often Malthusian-rooted conception that conditions such as poverty are a result of Earth’s carrying capacity simply not being able to support the levels of human population[101] is ill-founded. The population of humans is only one factor in a large sustainability equation. It is really only when this reality is combined with consumption patterns (specifically, the breeding and exploitation of tens of billions of animals unnecessarily per year by humans) and an inefficient economic system (i.e., Capitalism) that problems arise. Now, at this point the final dimension of sustainability can be more fully explored – that is, solutions. Understanding the necessity for a holistic approach to global sustainability requires dramatic shifts on both an individual and collective basis.

Moving Forward

Change is often an uncomfortable act fraught with feelings of fear and anxiety, and yet it is the only constant in nature. While it may seem like some things are certain, such as the rising and setting of the Sun as Earth rotates around its axis every 24 hours, or the variations of the seasons –summer, autumn, winter, and spring, even these too, will one day come to an end. In billions of years the Sun will enter a red giant phase wherein its outer layers will expand to eventually swallow Earth, and the home of Homo sapiens will be no more.[102] By that point, however, if the human species is still around, evolution would have seen us progress in countless unimaginable ways. In the tens of millennia that the modern human has been around,[65],[66] from the ‘Neolithic Revolution’ which saw a nomadic, gatherer-hunter way of life that defined the majority of our history transform to the settled, herding culture, which set the stage for the modern State, markets, and civilisation as we know it today, we have certainly come a long way.[69],[70] Still, we must go further, we must adapt and evolve if we wish to survive and thrive into the future.

The emergence of a new way of thinking and relating to others, coupled with exponential technological innovation[103] offers the potential for the transformation of our species to a higher order of being. Just like the caterpillar that undergoes a metamorphosis to a butterfly, so too, can we radically reorganise into something equally as beautiful. Will we dare to dream, and have the courage to act on conscience? The call to change should not be expected from the leaders of modern society, it should develop first and foremost in the individual heart and mind. Politicians likely won’t get humanity out of the mess it’s in either. They lack vision and adaptive management capabilities with their strong disposition towards short-term thinking and simply doing what’s in their interest of staying in power as long as possible.[104] Moreover, the democratic values many claim to be in support of -at least in the political sphere, are heavily subverted within a Capitalist system. Certainly, less so than in totalitarian countries (like most notably North Korea – officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), however, still severe. According to a 2014 study which analysed the U.S. political administration by Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and North-western University Professor Benjamin I. Page, titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”, the wealthy few yield inordinate influence on public policy compared with the average citizen. Gilens and Page conclude,

“Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”[105]

The illustrious scholar Noam Chomsky, speaking more broadly, suggests democracy is inconsistent with most forms of Capitalism, and for all practical purposes it is impossible that they can coexist. This is a result of the structural and emergent features of the system,[106] as touched upon prior. What is considered academia today is similarly plagued by market forces and loyalties. The emergence of “industrial-science” over the past several decades attests to this reality, as detailed by scientist and educator John Ziman.[107] The normative structure of the scientific endeavour has seen a large transformation from traditional values defined by ‘CUDOS’ (Communalism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, Originality, and Scepticism) to a new orientation of ‘PLACE’ (Proprietary, Local, Authority, Commissioned, and Expert). As the behaviour of a social system is determined by the goals of its dominant social agents, the business element within society can set the implicit goals of politics and academia (and more broadly, human organisation as a whole).

A separate, but related factor which may hinder change, is the tendency for humans to engage in cognitively and psychologically biased and limited thinking. System justification theory, describes the condition by which people are compelled to rationalizing the status quo of social, economic, and political arrangements because of a social and psychological requirement to see the existing order as desirable (i.e., good, fair, and natural). For instance, people tend to consider events which are likely to occur to be more desirable than ones which are unlikely (e.g., a tendency to prefer a particular political candidate as their likelihood of winning increases).[108] In relation to this, once the flaws of market-based economics are recognised more widely in society, it is likely calls for an updated version of Capitalism may become more prominent. As opposed to calls for the transcendence of the system (which in the author’s view would be both beneficial and necessary), this would, in part, reflect a genuine perception that market-based economics can be reconciled towards sustainable outcomes (such as the emerging fields of industrial ecology and ecological economics seek to accomplish), but, also a ‘parti pris’ response to an adopted world-view under challenge.

The Giddens-paradox, highlights how even though much of the public is aware of the dangers associated with particular environmental circumstances, the perception that the effects are distant, intangible, and invisible in everyday life thwarts them from supporting action which could radically undermine or change the status quo.[104] Finally, Robert Gifford, has identified 29 “dragons of inaction” for environmental issues that present psychological barriers in transitioning to a more sustainable world. Some of these include environmental numbness, optimism bias, suprahuman powers, technosalvation, sunk costs, and tokenism.[109] Of these, technosalvation (the belief that technological innovation will mitigate or resolve environmental problems) is perhaps one of the most problematic.

It is certainly the case that the realities and potentials of human technological capacity in the modern era offer reasons for great optimism and hope,[110] but, only if such evolutionary progress is matched with a proportional maturation spiritually and intellectually. This ties in well with the subset of persons called “techno-capitalist apologists”[50] who notice the phenomenon of ephemeralization and zero marginal cost (that is, the ability of technological advancement to do “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing” as R. Buckminster Fuller put it),[111] and think that the Market system is not only the creative force behind such unfolding, but the best facilitator of it.

This perspective fails the test of systems thinking, however. For the purpose or function of market-based economic models such as Capitalism, is not to increase efficiency, design intelligently, or improve lives at all. The truth is the system has no goals as such. Ultimately, it is a haphazard and competitive system, constructed upon the faith-based self-regulation of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Some may think that because iPhones are available in the modern era this proves the merits of Capitalism. However, the fact more people in Africa can now talk on cell phones than have running water[112] does not highlight anything remarkable about its nature. Quite the contrary, it gets to the heart of the core value disorder of market-based economics.

Finally, even if the assumption was made that Capitalism has facilitated innovation and improved economic conditions in the world today -such progress, albeit important, would of course be only one factor to take into consideration in determining the best system for the future. Nazi Germany, for example, may have, in part, seen an improvement in innovation and living standards following the collapse of the Weimar Republic.[113] That point, however, obviously does little to justify the regime which existed. Similarly, China after its Capitalist reforms post-Mao, did see growth in per capita incomes for much of the population.[114] But, they’ve also seen a massive decline in environmental conditions, now being home to some of the most polluted cities in the world. In-fact, pollution in China is responsible for at least 4,000 deaths of citizens per day (equivalent to 8,760,000 over a 6 year period).[115]

Jeremy Rifkin, who wrote The Zero Marginal Cost Society, is of the opinion Capitalism was necessary and beneficial for the Second Industrial Revolution, but that for the Third – ‘The Internet of Things’ and the Collaborative Commons, this is no longer the case.[116] Instead, a purposively distributed, lateral, peer to peer, open-source model is what he suggests. This is where something like a Natural Law Resource Based Economy comes into the picture, which along with having a focus on science and systems thinking as a guiding basis, seems to make plenty of sense.[117]

The unfolding social crisis on Earth today, in combination with severe environmental destabilisation, threatens to undermine the entire basis of human civilisation if not adequately responded to. The path taken could be a continuation of the same harmful and destructive ways of business as usual. Or, it could be that which provides hope for all, especially the children and future generations of the planet, as-well as Earth and animals. In progressing away from carnism and Capitalism, the choice is up-to every human being.

Conclusion

In the 21st century, global sustainability will be dependent upon a radical revolution in human consciousness, with reflective changes in lifestyle and societal organisation. Significant environmental and social destabilisation is already underway, with critical tipping points potentially having already been crossed. The two major sources of the current existential crisis, are humans’ collective treatment towards animals, and the dynamics and effects produced by market-based economics. Of the negative environmental and social outcomes occurring today by way of socioeconomic organisation, it was determined that these are not a by-product of a distorted form of Capitalism, but rather, inherent to the system itself. In implementing intelligent solutions, great stress has been placed on systems thinking.

A systems approach is imperative to adequately deal with the significant complexity of modern society. It was pointed out that conventional economics does not legitimately consider itself a subsystem of the environment. The danger of this type of methodology is that highly negative externalities are foreign to its understandings. Social externalities are unaccounted for or ignored, with the structural violence of the Capitalist system now responsible for many millions of deaths per year. Animal agriculture was shown to offer no easy way out of the moral dilemma it embodies, with environmental impacts on a global level substantial with factory farms, and even more so with outdoor farming husbandry. In shifting away from harmful practices, a value and incentive reorientation from self-interest towards social interest is vital.

Underscoring the inevitable change which has to occur on an individual, and ultimately grass-roots basis, politics and academia was recognised for their corrupted nature. Psychological biases must be identified and overcome -which represent a strong impediment to progress. Also mentioned was the failure of “techno-capitalist apologists” to adequately appreciate the value disorder and functional flaws of Capitalism, despite any facilitation of technological innovation within the system.

It was not within the scope of this treatment to provide an in-depth look at all the factors relevant to a healthier and sustainable world. However, certain broad-scale information and perspectives were offered to the reader’s attention that may aid in realising a possible new direction. Notwithstanding the immense work required to change existing conditions, an opportunity for a great transition in human thought, values, and behaviour is possible. Whether Homo sapiens makes such a dramatic phase shift in a timely fashion is uncertain. Yet, if it can, the possibilities for the future are virtually infinite. Like the caterpillar once it has transformed to the butterfly, it’s time for our species to take flight.

Matthew is working towards the realisation of a sustainable and humane world for all. If you would like to support his ongoing work, please consider donating via paypal.me/mkeogh27

 

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Black Rhino Diceros bicornis by Yoky CC 3.0 By S.A.

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About Matthew Keogh

Matthew is working towards the realisation of a sustainable and humane world for all. If you would like to support his ongoing work, please consider donating via paypal.me/mkeogh27