I used to think that capitalistic greed explained most of the world's problems. But what if it's not as simple as that?
Have you ever stumbled across an article that somehow managed to explain the increasing insanity of the world to you? That’s how I felt after reading “Could Modern Crises Stem from problems in the Human Brain?” by Lynn Parremore.
The insanity I’m referring to is our collective inability to address our multiple climate and environmental crises. Think of the recent flooding in Asia and Europe, the massive heat waves in Northern Canada, wildfires and drought across the planet, soil and ocean pollution, biodiversity loss. The list could go on and on.
There is clear, mounting evidence that our consumption patterns have both wounded and destabilized the planet. Yet, it is also clear that our attempts to address the multiple crises we now face are token. We naively think that we can perform some quick fixes, mostly technological, that will somehow put things right. Why is that? Could it be because of the way our brains have been rewired over the last 150 years?
Our Divided Brain
Iain McGilchrist, author of “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”, has put forth the idea that humans have come to rely too much on the left hemisphere of the brain. This is the side of the brain that thrives on learning facts. The left brain lets us categorize and be precise. These are the attributes of a good engineer or bureaucrat.
Lynn Parremore, in her analysis of McGilchrist’s work, goes on to explain why and how the left brain, with its emphasis on mastering discrete parts, come to dominate first science and technology, and then economics and finance.
Shifting to Left Brain Analysis
The 19th century Industrial Revolution profoundly changed the way we interacted with the world in that scientists and engineers were encouraged to pay limited attention to the impact of their inventions on the environment. Pollution belching from factories, for example, was an externality to be ignored.
That narrow focus has continued to dominate in many industries, with oil and gas a major culprit. There, it’s not just air pollution. Think of the 170,000 orphaned and abandoned wells in Alberta that our left-brained oil executives are seemingly blind to. To them it doesn’t matter if these wells are leaching toxins. They see their responsibility as simply extracting and delivering oil efficiently enough to satisfy market demands and make a good profit for their shareholders.
The neoliberal economic paradigm that we have followed for the last 40 years has reinforced this blinkered view of the world. For far too many economists there is no place in their fancy mathematical equations for the environment. As for the finance sector, they have created their own casino style bubble world which increasingly has little to do with the main street economy, let alone the environment. Why bother with the real world when you can make oodles of money buying and selling shares, derivatives and other pieces of paper?
Capitalism’s Siloed View of Reality
Both production and finance fit smoothly into the larger capitalist paradigm – a paradigm which those who are still predominantly right-brained will tell you is profoundly short-sighted. Why? Because capitalism deliberately ignores the fundamental limitations of our planet.
Capitalism’s most basic tenet is continual growth. It’s bad enough that this growth has nothing to do with making useful things and everything to do with making money, increasingly for a very small group of people. But the real absurdity of capitalism is that it demands continual growth while at the same time depleting or destroying the resources of our planet.
This shrinkage of the natural world is not even gradual. With a global economy compelled to grow each year in order for capitalism to survive, the biodiversity loss, the depletion of resources, and the pollution that goes along with that, are constantly accelerating. Yet our capitalist financiers and industrialists, ensconced in their comfortable silos, will fiercely resist any attempt to regulate production or slow it down. That’s that left-brain dominance at work.
As for our political leaders, it's not hard to understand why the majority feel compelled to accept the capitalist version of reality with its notion of growth. How else, they ask themselves, can jobs be created or maintained? In our province, burdened as we are by crippling debt and high unemployment, that has meant continuing subsidies to the oil companies in an effort to keep them here. One also has to wonder what subsidies have been attached to the purchase this week of the Come By Chance refinery by private equity firm, Cresta Fund Management. Come By Chance is going to become a biofuel facility!
It’s no different elsewhere. Alberta, our richest province, doesn’t have our debt load and has notoriously dirty oil. Nevertheless, they too are passionate about keeping the oil flowing. Norway is the richest country in the world with average incomes twenty percent higher than in the US. Yet Norway is planning a major expansion of oil exploration in the Arctic.
What's noteworthy in all three cases, although less so in the case of Alberta, is that the effects of climate change have not yet hit these locations hard. This suggests that if the silo we are in is still comfortable our left-brains simply don't want to shift paradigms, no matter what the forecasts.
Why is "degrowth" never talked about?
After decades of ignoring or denying climate change, the finance and business sectors finally are beginning to acknowledge that the multiple environmental crises around the globe might be connected to irresponsible human activity. Unfortunately, their solutions are, not surprisingly, left-brained. Very much in the news is carbon trading – a practice that essentially allows an entity to pay another to avoid meeting its ethical obligation to reduce emissions. This coupled with green technology, not just wind and solar energy, but also more dubious “solutions” like nuclear energy, electric cars and biofuels is supposed to reverse the trend.
What’s never mentioned as a way forward, but should be, is "degrowth". Apparently, it’s unimaginable to our left-brained experts that we reduce production and consumption. How would capitalism survive? Think of the loss of profits that would cause. Think of the loss of jobs.
Loss of profits, yes. Loss of jobs, not necessarily – or at least not if the economy were to be reoriented towards services that respond to community and environmental needs. There are historical precedents for that, most notably the 1930s New Deal in the US. Here in Canada, innovative Bank of Canada policies financed the infrastructure development that put unemployed Canadians back to work.
Of course, both of these initiatives were government led and controlled, which is probably why our finance and business leaders ignore the precedents. They don’t fit the prevailing neoliberal paradigm with its view that only the private sector knows what is good for the economy. No hints of socialism are apparently to be tolerated, even in times of crisis. That would mean shifting the frame, something which the over-confident left-brains of our corporate leaders don't like doing.
Instead we will probably continue to behave "as if" things are not as they are.
The absurdity of our "as if" philosophy of the world
The accelerating pace of disasters worldwide suggests we are already in deep trouble. Yet our interventions progress at a snail's pace, are done half-heartedly, and often get sidetracked or sabotaged. Iain McGilchrist would probably say this is inevitable when you let left-brained expertise trump right-brained wisdom.
If his analysis is right we will continue to behave "as if" things are not as they are, simply because it's inconvenient to do otherwise. For a good rant on the absurdity of this myopic view of the world, check out Phil Leeke's recent article "The Philosophy of As If".
So how do we move forward? If we are going to meaningfully address the existential crises we now face, we need to take our heads out of the sand, acknowledge that what is convenient may not be balanced, rethink our consumeristic priorities and choose leaders with courage and vision.
And we need to start thinking about how we think!
If you want to learn more about the degrowth movement, check out Jason Hinkels’ book, How Degrowth will Save the World , or Timothée Parrique’s Ph.D thesis, The Political Economy of Degrowth.