One of the greatest flaws of capitalism is the way it rewards short-term focus over long-term reasoning and planning. While short-term decision-making may briefly benefit an individual (or an individual corporation) because a single life span is typically shorter than the lifespan of the system that contains it, a consistent lack of attention to the long-term needs of the whole means the overarching system may well collapse within the lifespan of the individuals it holds. In other words, when individuals ignore or do damage to the whole for short-term personal gain, their choices eventually threaten the viability of the whole. Since the survival of any individual depends upon the survival of the whole, behaviors that place individual needs above the needs of the whole don’t serve the individual very long.
Imagine what would happen if all human beings cared more about their personal survival than they cared about the survival of the species. No woman would ever give birth because it wouldn't be worth the risk of her dying to bring children into the world. No man would ever venture outside his known environment, because the excitement and challenge of exploration and discovery would be less meaningful to him than his continued self-preservation. The fact is, if all of us cared more about ourselves than we care about each other, humanity would vanish within a single generation. Ironic as it seems, we’d become victims of our own fear of death and our longing to survive at any cost!
Likewise, no system can survive for long unless the individuals that comprise it feel happy and are thriving within the system. The only way a system can ensure that the individuals within it will thrive and be happy is for the system to honor and support the needs of its many members. To do so, the system must invest the full capacity of its surplus resources into supporting the growth and development of every young individual until each individual reaches maturity and self-actualizes to its highest creative capacity. That requires the system to demonstrate tremendous patience while it waits for each individual to reach adulthood. The system can’t demand that its youth make heavy sacrifices during their growth phase, nor can it make it harder on them to grow or cause it to take longer for them than necessary to reach their highest capacity – at least not without threatening its own continued existence.
What appears to have happened to humanity some 40,000 or so years ago is that human consciousness shifted beyond the collective unconscious embeddedness in the larger ecosystem, to one where we suddenly became more aware of ourselves as individuals. Self-awareness changed everything, in that it caused us to notice ourselves as unique players in the larger game of life. What we've been doing ever since has been learning to stand upright in that truth and balance ourselves accordingly, without falling.
Our first impulse was to focus on developing ourselves as individuals, and rightfully so. Babies aren’t expected to care for their parents, but to place their full attention on self-development. As an infant species we humans needed to discover what we, as individuals, were capable of doing and creating. We needed to push ourselves, to grow and learn and experience the ups and downs of life to the fullest extent. Like children, we needed to skin our knees and bruise our shins and occasionally break a bone or two, so we could understand ourselves better and become more competent as we grew. The natural byproduct of that childish exploration was a lack of awareness of our dependence on the planet that supported us while we learned. Our benign neglect of our planet has recently ceased to be benign as our individual skills and abilities have expanded and consumed ever more natural resources. The evidence of our continued impoverishing of our mother planet is only now becoming visible to us. We’re awakening to the ongoing distress of our patient and loving mother, who needs us to wean ourselves off our dependency on her so she can recover her strength and vitality.
Not long ago the rashness and exuberance of human adolescence culminated in a few individuals putting their minds together and inventing nuclear weapons, at which point the rest of us suddenly realized that unfettered individual achievement had brought forth the power of species extermination. I suspect that realization marked the turning point in human development. It was the moment when our single-minded focus on individual development shifted, and we began to turn our attention to the health and well-being of the whole. The sixties reflected the birth of that shift with our thrust into outer space so we could look back upon ourselves, the environmental movement, more expressive human sexuality, popular resistance to the Vietnam War, early experimentation with communal living and the way Western thought (individualistic and selfish) began to embrace Eastern thought (collective and selfless) and meld the two into a spiritual perspective that has come to be known as "new age."
Meanwhile, the economic system that is capitalism, which originated from Western thinking and has since spread throughout the world, focused almost exclusively on the short-term needs, rights and capacities of the individual. It demanded that every individual care for himself first, his family and community second, the larger collective third and the greater world that contains him dead last. The underlying presumption of capitalism has been that what's good for the individual is necessarily good for the collective, so to give the individual free rein to be selfish and self-serving is to support the evolution of the whole. Were that true, we’d have no need for a legal system to harness the worst excesses of “human nature.” That we do have a legal system, and that its need to make new laws can’t keep pace with the continual expansion of human excess speaks less to “human nature” than it does to the inherent flaws in the capitalistic system that entrains and socializes human behavior.
We’re seeing the results of our overly capitalistic focus (the prioritizing of individual short-term needs over systemic long-term needs) playing itself out in the larger world today. Our corporations have long been rewarded for focusing on short-term profits over concepts like workplace safety or environmental concerns, and have been penalized for making investments in the future that may not pay off for many, many years - if they pay off at all. We’re witnessing the tragedy born of such short-term thinking as we watch oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico, where - despite the dramatic destruction of fragile habitat and the still-unchecked disaster - local politicians are already calling on the president to lift the moratorium on drilling so that individual livelihoods can resume. When making an individual living takes precedence over the essential preservation of life itself, something is gravely out of balance in our approach.
For years too, corporations have benefited by eliminating jobs, reducing wages and increasing their profitability in the short-term. Their methods of choice have been increased mechanization, the installation of technologies to increase productivity, and – where human labor is still necessary – the shifting of jobs to third world nations where people will work for lower wages and fewer benefits. The negative long-term systemic consequences of those choices are just now becoming apparent. As wages evaporate consumers disappear along with them, and corporate profits trend into decline. Without wages to generate taxes, government revenues also collapse and basic social services must be cut. Programs necessary to ensure the self-actualization of a new generation of healthy system participants – schools, hospitals, parks, nutritional programs, etc. – vanish. Programs to care for the elderly and infirm disappear as well, leaving those who’ve already given their life’s blood to a system that promised to support them feeling helpless and afraid, as well as angry and abandoned in their time of need.
Any system that for too long encourages its adult individuals to be selfish and shortsighted must collapse, because no one is paying attention to the young or the old. If the youth can’t depend on the adults in the system to nurture them into full maturity, we wind up with a stunted generation that’s forced to raise itself, one without the proper tools or supportive guidance to give it loving and appropriate direction. By the time those children reach adulthood, their resentments against the system that neglected them are well (and deservedly) entrenched. Why would they feel obligated to contribute anything of value to a system that abandoned them in their time of greatest hope? Likewise, if the elderly can’t trust the adults in the system to support then once they can no longer care for themselves, why would they feel obligated to contribute anything to the system while they’re still hearty enough to do so? Their fears (deservedly) are for their own survival, so they hoard their abundance to protect against being abandoned in their time of greatest need.
What’s the solution to the seemingly intractable mess we’ve gotten into? The first step is to acknowledge the existence of the mess, and – rather than try and impose blame, shame or guilt on each other for our present state of our affairs – accept that the development of a shortsighted system was likely a natural part of our evolution. Many good things have emerged from our extended adolescence, and there’s no need for us to reject or abandon the wisdom we’ve already gained as we move forward. The second step is to take personal responsibility for where we are right now, which means we must individually agree to take the actions necessary to shift the system into greater balance between the needs of individuals and the sustainability of the larger whole.
Making that decision requires us to “give up” a little something of our individuality. What we’re being asked to surrender, though, is our lack of awareness of our connectedness to the whole, our selfishness, our fears and our greed, all of which in the long run benefit us personally to eliminate! It's like asking a deciduous tree to surrender its dead leaves so the soil that nourishes it can revive itself in the spring. Additionally, if each of us give back even a little bit of the resources we’ve been hoarding to provide for ourselves in old age, we'll collectively restock the larder of the system and enable it nurture our young and provide more richly for the elderly – which we ourselves have been (and birthed) and will someday become.
For any system to thrive and remain sustainable, we know the whole must always be greater than the sum of its many parts. What makes a system sustainably great is threefold:
1. Its ability to love and communally support its young and nourish their hopes and dreams until they mature.
2. Its openness to gratefully accepting the unique creative bounty of all its adults and its willingness to continue to support them all in their diverse achievements as they flourish and gift richly of themselves to create more abundance for all.
3. Its respect and compassion for the elderly and infirm, and its ability to maintain their trust as it lovingly cares for them in appreciation for everything they’ve been, done and are until they die.
As capitalism continues to falter we must devise such a system for humanity going forward. In doing so we must also take into consideration the fact that life in the cosmos is a fractal experience; a series of individuals nested inside ever-larger wholes, eternal and infinite in breadth and scope. An individual person can be viewed as a cell in the body of humanity, but humanity in turn must be seen as an organ in the larger planetary body. We can’t do what’s best for humanity in the short-term without balancing our needs against the long-term needs of Earth and its ecosystems. In the same fashion, we can’t pollute our own cells with toxins and junk food and expect our cells to happily service our needs for many years. Giving joyfully and responsibly to that which is larger than ourselves - as well as taking loving responsibility for that which is smaller than us - anchors us firmly in the center of our own reality and provides us with balance as we step into our full maturity as a human species.
Surely we’ll make some mistakes as we tentatively take our first steps into species adulthood. Competence doesn’t come easy; it’s a slow, sometimes painful progression of trial and error, practice and learning, experimenting and discarding. What works against us may be our stubbornness, our impatience, our aggression and our out-of-proportion fears, which are hallmarks of adolescent thinking that we’ll hopefully outgrow before too long. What works in our favor is our capacity to persevere in the face of great adversity, our prodigious ability to learn from our mistakes, our virtually unlimited creative imaginations and an amazing wellspring of love from within us that guides us toward what is beautiful and true.
I wish us well as our human journey continues.