Living in the last throes of techno-industrial capitalism

Posted January 27th, 2012 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

[This post is longer than usual but stuff I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I hope you will take time to read it, comment, and share it with others. And then please consider a donation to keep this project moving along.]

Are we really coming to the end of an era? Have some thoughts to share as we go into the weekend, some inspired by the NY Times’ lengthy exposure this week of the industrial/production practices of Apple (the last one yesterday continues to reveal the human, moral, and ecological scandal of it all), some inspired by passage yesterday of a new mining bill in our corporate-bought state assembly which will roll back environmental protections and allow an outside coal-mining company to rip open 4 miles of the North Woods for an iron ore strip mine, some inspired by last night’s reading from the Morris Berman book, Why America Failed: The Roots Of Imperial Decline.

I’m reading Berman’s chapter, “The Rebuke of History,” in which he does a deconstruction of the argument that the Civil War, the War Between the States, was about the morally righteous cause of abolishing slavery. Many historians, of course, have written about this (he cites numerous sources), that if slavery had been the only issue, the war would not have been fought and slavery would have disappeared in any case, since it had fallen into global disrepute. Slavery was an issue in the sense that it was a central aspect of the traditional, hierarchical, agrarian southern economy which the North was bent on destroying in order to give the Union over to the new age of industrial/economic expansion. That expansion, the origins of the American Dream, depended on ‘free labor’ and the spread of the northern economy into the new western territories.

Well, I don’t want to use more space for a summary of this chapter, but it had me thinking a lot about the trajectory of that economic dynamic through the building of industrial America, the need to wipe out American Indian tribes at its service, the violent or devious annexations of various portions of what is now our 48 contiguous states, then to various international wars and foreign annexations, right up to Apple’s move into China and the giant industrial operations that make their clever inventions such attractive, affordable, addictive consumer items.

There is a direct line here from that northern victory over the South to globalization dominated by multinational corporations and built still and seemingly forever on exploiting human labor and ‘natural resources’ (meaning nature and ecosystems) at the service of industrial expansion.

Our part in it is just this – that our lives have come to depend upon this, that industrial expansion has fed population growth which means we need even more of it to meet human needs, which feeds population growth which means we need more of it to meet the needs of this burgeoning population of consumers with demands for food, water, housing, jobs, and consumer items. Jobs and income depend on it. Our very lives have come to depend on it. None of us exists outside of it, and those few populations that still do are being destroyed, bought off,  or co-opted.

You get the picture. The global economy is built upon our consumption of these ‘resources.’ When we buy an iPhone, for example, we are consuming the rare earth mineral mining, the building of the factories, the vast amounts of water involved in production, the industrial pollution and e-waste that results, the fossil fuels used to ship materials to factories and products to the store, and the labor of Chinese workers.

All of that is contained in each of these products.

Now Apple has made it easy to single them out because the changes in their production process have been recent, a challenge to their image of the past, and because their products are so widely lauded as ‘beautiful.’ In other words, they are wildly successful. The company is making huge profits (according to MSNBC, some $400,000 per worker – I mean, you cannot get a better definition of injustice than that single figure).

But of course every consumer item we purchase contains social and ecological content. And one of the reasons we are running into such serious ecological crises (climate change, species extinction, water stresses, toxic contamination of everything, including our bodies, etc.) is because of this economic model. Basically, what the North did to the South this nation has done to the world – ravaged it to obtain what it needs to feed ‘growth’. And of course other nations have followed our lead since World War II. What is going on in the Foxconn industrial complex is ‘scorched earth’ economics with a very, very few at the top of the Apple world – CEOs and investors – making out like bandits while 13-year-olds work 12 hours per day at a daily wage of $17.

In my old work, labor rights and fair trade became central to our mission as we continued our commitment to human rights in the Central America region following the devastation of US-supported wars there and generations of military dictatorship. For many years I had the privilege of serving on the board of the US Labor Education in the Americas Project where I received an intensive immersion into the reality of how the global economy works. I emerged from those years aware that we cannot have a world in which human rights, social justice, and ecological wholeness are values we cherish and seek to make real within the paradigm of this voracious global industrial economic model.

And the irony is not lost on me that so many people in my old circles fell in love with Apple products, even as we worked on issues of sweatshop exploitation in the apparel industry, or defending worker rights on banana or coffee plantations. I don’t mean this as judgment but as way to exemplify just how interwoven we are in this system that is built upon principles and moral values that we also find abhorrent.

I have yet to hear a clamor from Apple users that we are willing to pay more and purchase far fewer of these products in exchange for an end to these labor practices in China, or for students on campuses across the country to demand that universities boycott these products or demand changes in how they are ‘sourced,’ as once so many did around sweatshop apparel. Perhaps that day will come soon. I hope so. Consumers have some power here, and we need to use it.

But mostly what this says to me is that we really are  interwoven with, absorbed into, mesmerized by what this economy, built upon the industrial expansion of the Union from the mid-1800s on, has provided for us. What I question – fiercely – is that this was the only way that we could meet human needs and create a quality of life worth living (which a life of meaningless consumerism is not, something all our anxiety and depression symptoms and psycho-drug prescriptions ought to be making abundantly clear by now). That we can’t stop ourselves even in the face of vast human suffering and ecological threats to our habitats all around the planet should tell us just how bad this addiction and dependency has become.

What is also becoming clear in our time, in my generation in which the expansion occurred at a pace never seen before in human history (one fact alone being breathtaking, that in my lifetime our global population has exploded from 2.5 billion to 7 billion), is that this techno-industrial capitalist model of economy is causing us to approach the limits of the earth’s biocapacity very rapidly – a runaway train headed towards a precipice, or multiple precipices. It is also moving into more rapid cycles of financial wealth generation and collapse, of recovery and recession, as well as into a stage in which financial speculation produces a larger share of financial wealth than does production and consumption. All of these things are heralds of an era coming to some sort of end not too long from now. Next generation? the one after? during my old age? We do see many more signs at regional levels, of course, indicated by stories like yesterday’s reporting that a Hawaiian legislator just introduced a bill that would require the state and counties to consider an expected one-foot rise in sea level by 2050 when considering future development plans.

In northern Wisconsin and within our corporate-right-controlled state government we see how the last throes of the techno-industrial age are likely to unfold – with more super-exploitation of the planet as corporations try to wrest what they can from the earth to feed this global economic dynamo. In his State of the Union message, President Obama also made this clear – in terms of natural gas and oil drilling, we are ‘all-in’ to extract every bit of energy we can from our territory to feed the monster. Whatever he says about also committing to clean energy, that is not what is on the agenda for the corporate campaign donors who have put people like Scott Walker in state government or created secrete SuperPACs, or that create and finance groups like Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth.

We are living in these last throes of the techno-industrial era. How do we begin to prepare for what comes next? What do we want to put in its place? What kind of human community can be wrested from the shallowness and moral debilitation of this long era, one that shows a far greater sense of the meaning of the human and of all sentient and non-sentient beings than this one?

Yesterday a small group of us began reflecting on this enormous question. We acknowledged that many small communities have already begun to create this new path, this new way of life. But we all felt that in order to commit to a future that re-treasures who we are and the place in which we exist, we need to turn off the noise at times and pull within, to a silent space, a safe space, where we can listen to what is in our hearts and the hearts of those around us.

More on that next week. Stay tuned.


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One Response

  1. Sheila Isakson

    Thanks, Margaret!
    What you wrote fit into a conversation that Bill and I had last eventing over dinner with friends. We have been puzzled by the influence of Repub generated fear on decisions made by many people.
    We know that humans evolve in two ways, i.e., genetically and culturally. I did not realize that the Civil War provides a starting point to understand the shallowness and moral confusion presented by our current culture. Your suggestions to turn off the noise and listen to our hearts and those around us resonated with my observation: Humans all have a dark side, which some know how to shut down. I choose to “be” with these people. Perhaps this is because I do not know how to listen to those who do not even know how to “be” with those who do not realize that this is the end of the techno-industrial era and the beginning of new way of life.