This essay has appeared various places over the last several years. I am reprising it in response to Copenhagen climate conference.
(Preamble: This is perhaps the most important moment in the history of the human species since Toba erupted 75,000 years ago and nearly removed our species from the earth – there would very likely have been an ascendant species of the genus, it just would not have been us. The present economic crisis presents us with what seems a simple goal: to return to the economic stability and direction we were going in. We are deep in the details of how to do exactly that. Mike Whitney, Paul Craig Roberts, Chalmers Johnson, Paul Krugman and others are un-spinning these details for us; but, this is a time to begin to recognize the most basic and underlying cause of the present perturbations. It is vital to use such moments, not to return to the conditions that brought us to this pass in the first place, but to begin to understand how we need to live for the long run. It seems that only in times of trouble are we willing to see other possibilities. Now is just such an opportunity. Of course, we must pay attention to the details, but not to the exclusion of the larger goal of sustaining survival of all life on the planet.)
There is a very basic question that we do not often ask, but that is essential to our relationship to each other and to the flow of life on this earth – big picture stuff, with personal consequences. Where does what you use and accumulate come from? That you buy ‘stuff’ with the money that you earn is not enough of an answer!
If your child came home today with a pocket full of candy, you might ask where it came from. If he came home with a new very expensive bike, the question would certainly arise. In these situations we have a reasonably clear view. The child has an understandable "personal worth" of charm, persuasion, group affiliation and some money. Friends share candy wealth. New bicycles are sometimes loaned, but if the child consistently accumulates more stuff than you can account for, you will attempt to discover the source. That is the goal here. You and I "possess" accumulations of things; where does it all come from?
Let's examine something simple: the wooden stool next to my desk. I exchanged money for it years ago (the larger meaning of money can’t be considered here). The furniture store exchanged money for it from a shop where people were given money to cut, shape and assemble the wood pieces. The wood was bought from a sawmill. The trees came from a forest.
But, the forest was not compensated for the tree. The people driven out by the cutting, who once lived in the forest, were not compensated. The animals and the plants killed or driven out by the cutting were not compensated. Neither was the soil or the animals, plants and bacteria of the soil.
In other words, if honestly examined, the layers of compensated transactions cannot disguise the fact that at base we take what we have. Humans exert the energy, possess the ability and operate the behaviors to take the material, inorganic and organic, from the earth's surface, water and atmosphere. This taking is not compensated, i.e., we do not systematically give back something useful in reasonable corresponding amounts to the soil, to the river, to the forest, to the ocean, or to the atmosphere as compensation for what we take.
We only compensate when the material is held in some protected condition, and we compensate not so much on the basis of value of the material, but on the force of the protection. We only compensate with a full recognition of value when the force of protection is equal to our power to acquire.
If your child answered, "Oh, there was this little crippled girl with a whole lot of candy, so I just took what I wanted. Its OK though, she couldn't chase me and didn't have any weapon to stop me.” how would you respond? 99.99% of parents would be extremely troubled and many would immediately and directly condemn such behavior as absolutely wrong.
But these same parents will eat bananas or drink coffee grown on land that just a few years ago was taken by guns and fire from the people who lived there. These same parents will accumulate twice, ten times, a hundred or a thousand times as much material wealth as is needed to allow them to be safe and comfortable (considering such accumulation a duty, a right and point of pride), letting the fact of several steps of exchange disguise that all that they have was taken from somewhere without compensation.
We all in essence hire (worse than hire--demand, often on penalty of death, that they perform this work) a ‘goon squad’ to do the taking. And we then are satisfied and righteous because the last transaction up the chain of transactions is civil, orderly and compensated. Ultimately we despise those who are driven to be close to the taking, the miner, the farm laborer, the lumberjack, the mercenary solder, as tainted and unfit for association with those who have purified the theft with multiple compensated transactions of the increasingly powerful.
How would you feel if you child answered, "I gave this kid $50.00 for the bike ($2000.00 full suspension model). He took it from in front of a store where he found it unlocked.” If he said, "I paid $150.00 for the bike at a second hand store. They bought it for $50.00 from a kid who took it from in front of a store.” Would you feel better? Would you feel better still as more distance of transaction is lain on and as each layer of power (knowledge of the "true" value) is compensated? "I gave $100.00 to a friend for a quarter share in whatever he bought. He paid $400.00 for the bike to someone who paid $150.00 for it at a second hand store. They bought it for $50.00 from a kid who stole it." Would you recognize that you were supporting the uncompensated taking no matter where you were in the string of transactions? Would you speculate on a relationship between a market for the bike and forces that push someone to take the bike in the first place?
While talking about these things with a ten year-old child, she said, "But you can't pay a tree." This was the distortion inculcated. She imagined a dollar bill left on the stump and correctly recognized the silliness. But, payment is based on satisfaction of need. You will not do for me if I do not give to you what you recognize as meeting a need, and I must comply because you hold either your action or material in a protected condition. The tree's wood, the ore in the ground, a chemical or the power in water are not protected, there is only a degree of difficulty involved in taking them. Overcoming the difficulty is not compensation. If it were, then those who have to travel far to buy food would get it for less!
"You can't pay a tree.” But trees have needs: water, certain qualities of soil, light, atmosphere, temperature range, wind, certain insects, birds and other animals, certain bacteria and molds in the soil, certain association with other plants, and more (to be left alone!). While less clear, ore bodies or oil pockets and the surrounding substance have the need to be undisturbed in order to remain as they are, part of the physical process of the earth's crust; and, perhaps more persuasive to a pragmatic human, remaining as they are does not release heavy metals, silts and other extraction wastes into streams or onto the surface.
The essential need of anything is to remain in a sustaining condition in its ecosystem or physical cycle. Specific needs are all adaptively structural into this overall need. Protection from harm meets needs in this paradigm just as well as supplying some metabolically vital substance.
Every successful (long lasting) organism adapts to meet its own direct needs and to function as part of the sustaining structure of its ecosystem. It does this through direct adaptations and adaptations that modulate and inhibit its own primary need meeting behaviors from upsetting the balanced sustaining structure of that ecosystem.
This last is exactly what humans have not done. Humans are at the beginning and untried stages of their very unusual--unique—adaptation; the speed of application, power and range of effectiveness of the human adaptation combined with certain of its present defects (primarily the nature and role of illusion), may limit the chances of humans surviving long enough to adapt fully to their environment by bringing the power of their adaptations under evolutionary and ecological control.
Taking without even the recognition of the need for compensation is just one of the difficulties for humans and distorts all subsequent economic relationships. A second distorting reality occurs when compensation is based on the power of the protection over holdings rather than on value. A consequence of these distortions is the drive to incredible excesses of accumulation rather than supporting the goal of using as little material as possible to have as full a life experience as possible – a manifestation of this is the confusing of the quality of life with the amounts of our accumulations.
What we do is take whatever is unprotected, invent ways to protect what we have brought into our sway, and invent ways of defeating the protections of the other chap. All of this fidgeting about for advantage vis-a-vis other humans leads to a complete disregard for any non-human source that we might take from.
The process of compensating and protecting complicates and complicates, eventually becoming economics and politics. And creating power, creating explanations and justifications for our actions and creating the systems of ordering principles like how interest rates relate to unemployment rates and the complications of the money supply. Such explanations all serve to distract attention from concrete evolutionary realities, and are used to render such arguments as these presented here as foolish when, in fact, these arguments are the essence of our continuing life on earth.
It must be understood that human biological success is not a positive function of our present definition of economic success, but rather is the opposite. Economic growth, technological development and increasing per capita wealth are the sure representations of a species out of control. Spreading and increasing taking is modeled not on the behaviors of the large carnivores (representing 500 million years of evolutionary history and millions of potential examples), or the behavior of any complex creature. It is modeled by a wild fire that burns all the available fuel until, nothing left to burn, it extinguishes. If this is to be the major result of human evolution, the fire could be the very fire of life on earth, and the fuel could be the bulk of life sustaining substance and opportunity.
No organism can base its existence on increasing rates of uncompensated taking from fixed amounts of material and energy. What humans have been successful at doing so far is forcing the consequences of their taking onto other creatures, weaker cultures, yet unborn humans, and into distorted relationships with each other and the environment. Seen with any clarity of perspective, it is clear that this can only go on for so long. We can only refine, patch and postpone the effects of this style of relationship with the environment to a point, beyond which we will quite simply be unable to keep up with the total ecosystem distortions and failures.
There is a very strong tendency to reject this sort of thinking for a variety of not especially sound reasons: “It is not positive. It is doom and gloom.” “There seems to be no way to respond effectively to this argument and still keep 3 cars and stock in tobacco, nuclear weapons and East Indies hardwoods.” “This can't be right since we would have to live differently, and if it is right, it’s too hard.” “This can't be right because there is no way out if it is right.” These all share an essential reason for rejection—'We don't like the consequences.'
Well,... As my children might say, "No duh.” If a situation presents you with only undesirable consequences, then you had better pick the options that offer the greatest chance of coming to a new position with some desirable consequences, even if the initial effort is the more difficult.
It is to the immediate benefit of those who profit from the present patterns of material excess to deny that there is any problem or that we as a species are by our excesses contributing to our own destruction and immeasurable harm to balance and order in the biosphere. No powerful media source is going to say, "Don't buy my stuff because its production harms the environment. Our workers are exploited. You don't need it for any sound reason. And finally, it does not even do what we imply it does anyway." Even though these might be the more true of all the things that could be said about a product.
When the goal is to get as much stuff as you can – the insatiable desire for goods and services talked about in economics – from a limited world of finite resources, a distortion of perception devalues all ideas but those that support the goal. If the goal is to use as little as possible in the most efficient way so to live as fulfilled a life as possible, all ideas and experiences become valuable. Experiences, understandings and feelings about and from self, others and the world become the essential ingredients of life. We understand from this perspective that whatever we have we get by taking and that we have a responsibility to find an effective means of appropriately compensating that taking. For every other organism this is solved in the evolution of their various instinctual behaviors, and it was for humans part of our development when we lived within the order of the environment. We are no longer ordered by the environment in which we evolved and so now must make such valuing and compensating a part of a cultural ethic if we are to regain our balance and leave an inhabitable world for our children and grand children.
Another argument against these views is to say that it is fine to take without compensation what is not owned. This opens the thorny issue of what it is to own a thing. In the view presented here it only means that the thing is in a protected condition (by force or threat of harm; finally based on the willingness to inflict greater harm than a potential taker is willing to endure in the attempt to take).
The view here is that nothing is owned. No one has some abstract right to the control of anything. Humans have expanded the "right of place" -- an organism brings under its protection a certain amount of space around its own body or around its group -- to include anything definable as property. In doing this we usually get it exactly backwards claiming we have the right to protect something because it is owned by us, when in fact it is "owned" by us only as a function of our holding it in a protected condition (with threat of teeth and claw, knife or gun, moral condemnation or law). But strangely, what we “own” is not “protected” from abuse, damage, misuse or destruction by its "owner"; only protected from being assumed and consumed by another creature.
This is clearly the truth of things. It is only necessary to see what happens to desirable material when the actual protections are weakened or removed in social disruptions; the facts of ownership go in direct proportion to the failures and rearrangements of the power to protect.
Material or land that is not protected from taking or is in a condition of protection that is very weak compared to the power that is brought to taking is taken without thought of compensation because "it is not owned". It is then "owned" by the taker and may be used in any way that the "owner" wishes, again without compensation.
We have seen this function from human slavery, to animal ownership, to land ownership, to portable personal property. An "owner" could sell or kill a slave, beat an animal, monoculture farm crops, burn rather than give away clothing, all as full and "protected rights" of ownership, and with complete disregard for compensating the "thing owned", and complete disregard for any other that might have an interest in the "thing owned" (that is, be in some ecological relationship with the "thing"; soil systems and strip mines, indigenous peoples and rain forest removal, or broadcast pesticide/herbicide effects).
Ownership is then one of those illusions that distorts and misguides human relationships with other humans, objects, creatures and territories in their ecosystem. Humans have finally assumed that they own the whole biosphere and can do with it as they please, when in fact humans are but a part of the biosphere and depend for survival along with every thing else on its unmolested continuance.
The failure to have instincts that guide behaviors toward a symbiosis with the ecosystems in which we live, and the failure to develop thoughtful behaviors to the same purpose upon recognition of the inborn deficiency, may will be the ultimate failure of our adaptation. We might simply take without compensation or respect until the sources work their final and greatest power, to be used up and gone from the earth forever (or even gone or unusable for a few days or months, if immediately vital for life, would be equally devastating).
So the answer to the original question: We take what we have, because we can, from the finite supplies of the biosphere as does every other organism alive today or that has ever been in the nearly 4 billion years that life has existed on this earth. However, every organism on earth other than present humans compensate for their taking by returning to the biosphere, in appropriate amounts and forms, what is required to maintain the balance of life sustaining physical and organic processes. If this were not the case, life would not presently exist on earth.
That humans take without compensation is not a clever or "slick" move, i.e., the way that humans function in their economic exchanges is a serious distortion of the systems of compensation that have evolved as ecosystems – interwoven symbiotic exchanges of material and energy through interpenetrating physical and organic cycles.
The evolutionary rule is to take what is needed and to give back what is needed. Every organism must take (space, minerals, water, organic materials from the dead or the living, energy). Every organism changes the space in which it lives by its presence. But every organism must take and modify place in such a way that there will be material to take tomorrow and all tomorrows to come; the processes that replenish must be supported and not overwhelmed.
I don't know how to make this point with the authority that is needed; it is the most important understanding in the world for humans: no species can take without compensating. The evolution of organisms within ecosystems is the structuring of mutual interpenetrating balanced exchanges.
If humans continue to apply their adaptive powers, without major modifications toward truly compensated taking of material and energy, they will do such terrible damage to the physical and biological cycles supporting life in the biosphere that there will be a cascade of extinctions of millions of species.
This could mean that Humans in the present subspecies form (the scientific name is an appellation I cannot in good conscience apply. We are many powerful things, but wise is not one of them) lasted a little over 100,000 years, not even a good wink in geological time. If the last 3 billion years, from the beginning of simple but reasonably abundant life on earth, were condensed in time and played as a two hour movie, humans like us would occupy about 1/4 of a second of film time (7 frames) and then we would, along with millions of other species, disappear.
My best guess, however, is that humans will not become extinct. Such an event would require an almost unimaginable set of devastating conditions--the very fabric of the biosphere would have to be seriously torn to kill the cockroaches, rats, humans and other broadly adapted and adaptable creatures. For the most tenacious species to be extinguished, the very atmosphere would have to be unusable for some extended period of time, all the water poisoned or some other primary conditions of life totally disrupted.
But should we, and it is likely that we will, continue on in our present fashion, changes will be precipitated beyond which it makes no sense to try and see, other than to suggest that, at least for a time, taking will again be compensated and humans will have "returned" all that they have taken in a great convulsive act of repossession.
All this together puts people who recognize and understand it in a very difficult position. The natural evolutionary goal of any species is to function in a sustaining relationship with its environment. In personal terms for humans this means using as little material and energy as possible to attain as vital, dynamic and spiritually full life as possible. The consequences of this goal are balanced environmental relationships—the natural flow of life and death, speciation and extinction, adaptation and innovation in physiology, anatomy and behavior for 10's, 100's, 1000's, 1000000's and even billions of years.
However the social, political and economic dynamic of our time supports, encourages and demands that people use as much material and energy as they can and accumulate in a protected form as much (of everything) as possible (this is a basic tenet of economic theory). These behaviors are what society approves of and values. Not accepting and performing these behaviors is considered subversive, lazy and stupid (if you're so smart why aren't you rich!).
Both are realities. To be "successful" and accepted in the society, a person must consume excessively. To be true to our humanness and to meet the goal of being part of a sustaining ecosystem we must consume only what we need and must actively find ways to compensate all takings. The excessive consumption and its collection of supporting values has a clear end consequence for those who will see; no less than the damage of life sustaining processes of the biosphere and the violent readjustment of life to the dramatic physical changes (not just human life, but all life: virus to mammals). We would leave a legacy not of wealth and power for our children, but a legacy of contamination, disease and the violent convulsions of population reduction, economic disruption and political failure – if they were lucky.
The consequence of using only what we need – consuming very much less of everything – would have immediate consequences nearly as economically devastating as an economic collapse (it would be an economic collapse, but could be in part controlled), but if thoughtfully engaged, disease and contamination could be minimized, and the convulsions of population reduction and political failures also minimized.
It is, however, unlikely that humans will consume less so long as they can consume more. It is unlikely that humans will see the consequences of their actions and mitigate against them when they can take now and leave the full price of compensation for their children to pay later. So the dilemma is how to live in an excessively consuming society seemingly insulated from recognition of its most likely future?
The question is: Do you consume to excess and contribute a tiny fraction to the problem that will not be solved anyway, appear "normal" and live with the recognition of the potential to be more fully human, yet not make the effort to be so? Or do you consume at the level of needs, reduce the tiny fraction of your personal contribution to the overwhelming assault on ecosystems, live to increase your humanness, but in the process be undervalued and even condemned by significant parts of your society; be judged crazy, lazy and irresponsible (such a terrible thing to be called irresponsible when acting in the only possible responsible way).This is the simple reality of the choice. All that depends on it is everything. It is impossible to act in a benign way.