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The Myth of Modernity: Contemporary Prophets, Ecosystem Degradation, And The Looming Global Depression

By William Hawes

20 August, 2015

“Did you hear it? It is the sound of your world collapsing. It is that of ours resurging. The day that was the day, was night. And night will be the day that will be the day.” -Zapatista communiqué, Dec. 21st, 2012.

The summer of 2015 is turning more and more into a chaotic environment around the globe. In the US we have seen lone wolf attacks in Tennessee, blatant violations of Posse Comitatus with Jade Helm, and renewed violence and arrests in Ferguson, Missouri. Abroad, war rages in eastern Ukraine and Syria-Iraq, separatist insurgents have attacked northeast India multiple times, and the Taliban and Boko Haram are carrying on with new leaders. And it’s not just organized violence that poses problems, but resource bottlenecks as well: Ethiopia and Egypt have been at each others’ throats for years over a proposed Nile dam, parts of California and Brazil have experienced record droughts, and even the humid southeast US is having its very own water war over usage disputes between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Environmental disasters pop up on a near daily basis: just this week we witnessed three million gallons of wastewater spilled in rivers in Colorado, turning rivers orange, and dozens dead in an explosion in Tianjin, China.

What is plain to see to those paying attention are the deadly side-effects of globalization and its powerful engine of capital flows and resource extraction: the disintegration of civil society, the ruining of improperly farmed/managed ecosystems, the slow dissolution of the concept of national sovereignty, family, and tribal structures. In the materially richer Western world, a parallel but much less violent process has been ongoing: the transformation of unique communities with established rituals and culture into homogenized suburbs with ubiquitous big-box stores and malls, full-time jobs with benefits replaced with part-time and temp workers, even the ideals of human rights and democratic elections have been thrown out by the infamous Patriot Act and the Citizens United ruling, respectively.

In the “race for what’s left”, our political leaders and the oligarchs behind our biggest multinational corporations have thrown out the rulebook of self-government. In the US, the fundamental human right to protest peacefully has now been usurped in many cities by the Orwellian concept of the “free-speech zone”. Even mainstream US figures like Jimmy Carter have admitted that the US no longer functions as a democracy.

Outside the established discourse of popular political thought, many radical thinkers have noted the downsides of globalization as it spreads over our fragmented, commoditized world markets. They range across a wide swath of science, academia, and political activism. Most important are those who debate against the idea of a supposedly better new, modern way of life, with technology, consumerism, and a distance from nature as its central features. I defer to former EZLN leader Marcos:

“[Globalization] is about homogenizing, of making everyone equal, and of hegemonizing a lifestyle. It is global life. Its greatest diversion should be the computer, its work should be the computer, its value as a human being should be the number of credit cards, one's purchasing capacity, one's productive capacity.” (1)

British author Paul Kingsnorth describes the myth of technological centrality quite lucidly:

“The last taboo is the myth of civilisation. It is built upon the stories we have constructed about our genius, our indestructibility, our manifest destiny as a chosen species. It is where our vision and our self-belief intertwine with our reckless refusal to face the reality of our position on this Earth. It has led the human race to achieve what it has achieved; and has led the planet into the age of ecocide. The two are intimately linked.” (2)

We should analyze and reconstruct the stories we tell about ourselves and the world and our role in it, argues Daniel Quinn:

““There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will ACT like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.” (3)

All three thinkers echo the same sentiment: the modern world is built on a series of illusions, one built atop the other, a series of “progress traps”. From the guns, germs, and steel (to borrow a Jared Diamond phrase) of the colonial era through the industrial revolutions’ explosions of technology and population, civilizations have managed to avoid keeping an equilibrium between ourselves and the natural world. In avoiding what should have been nature’s way of keeping balance, and by not setting up democratic structures to help navigate these confusing times, global civilization now hangs precariously by a thread. Many people now suffer from what Alvin Toffler dubbed “Futureshock”: ever-changing jobs due to market forces which can disrupt entire industries, atomized social relations, immigrants and refugees with little chance of stability and social mobility, seniors with a lack of help keeping pace with digital technology, and general social disorientation and anomie.

By not considering the human scale of cultures, very simple things such as human rights and freedoms of expression have been retracted, as we’ve pointed out. Yet the nature of capitalism’s about-face doesn’t end in the abstract legal realm of the courts. Due to pesticides, overtilling, herbicides, GM crops, and substandard fertilizer inputs, the mode of mechanized agriculture threatens to wipe out basic health and agriculture: from the 1950s to 1990s one-third of the world’s croplands were abandoned, and by 2006 researchers showed that worldwide farm soil is being depleted 10-40 times faster than it can be replenished. (4) Just as disturbing, wastewater from chemical plants and even fracking is being used on crops in California, the LA Times reports. (5)

Just as overconsumption and hubris have overtaken our agriculture and legal systems, they have infiltrated our financial institutions for decades. Growth and productivity are paramount. Speculation, deregulation, and insider trading practices dominate the Wall Street economy. Not to mention computerized trading schemes which are now the majority of all trading for large firms, turning fluctuations of a cent or less in stock or commodity prices into billions in profit for the top funds. As world markets rise based on the inflated bubble of speculation over the last six years, nearly all asset classes are overvalued, not just the real-estate market. Expect the bubble to burst sooner rather than later.

It was economist E.F. Schumacher who was one of the first financial experts to stand up for human-scale economic structures in his seminal 1973 work Small is Beautiful. Mass production and industry in his time was breeding bigger and bigger markets, transnational corporations, and even political alliances (the West versus the Eastern Bloc, etc.) Organizational size was further dehumanizing the average worker, and employees began feeling more and more alienated towards the products they were creating, and in many cases couldn’t afford to buy. Generating more wealth and using greater resources would only bring ruin to society, as well as a bland utilitarianism.

Earlier, academics such as Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom and Herbert Marcuse in his One-Dimensional Man made similar arguments. Market forces were used to control populations, in an endless carnival of shopping, mass entertainment, and working longer hours in stultifying, repetitive jobs. Most media outlets are complicit as they advertize for false needs, which do not make us any happier. Seemingly harmless, “fun” entertainment is put to use as a narcotic, which soon has a deadening effect: as a psychology professor once remarked to me, “First soma, and then coma.”

Widely read, these and other authors, scientists, artists, co-ops, businesspeople, sustainable farmers, and others are shaping an emerging culture which is sprouting just as the old one is dying. As small-scale society and culture is “flattened” due to the steamroller of globalization, they nonetheless endure as models of growth from official financial forecasters continue to fail around the world. Local production, ecological sustainability, and direct democracy are spreading globally as people everywhere realize they cannot thrive and live free under the corrupt yoke of coercive governments, little job security, structural racism, and homogenized products and media. Pride in your hometown/province/state is returning, but not in the old, xenophobic sense: traditional, neo-tribal, and environmental groups are reinvigorating civil society.

Thus, the “modern” world of capitalism is slowly receding: it has always been based on a series of illusions designed to exploit and control segments of society. As that world recedes, unpredictable cultural disruptions and economic volatility are bound to occur. As the emerging culture of freedom, social justice, and ecology rises, and the phantoms of global tyranny and chaos swirl about us, we should keep in mind the metaphor of the humble seed: carrying all the potentiality for greatness within us, not lamenting the small size of the growing movement, but to be watching and waiting vigilantly, ready to sprout, grow, and flourish at any moment.

William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues.


1.) http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/auto/fourth.html

2.) http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/

3.) Daniel Quinn. Ishmael. Pg. 84. New York: Bantam. 1995.

4.) http://www.fewresources.org/soil-science-and-society-were-running-out-of-dirt.html

5.) http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-drought-oil-water-20150503-story.html#page=1


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