We are not the solution: we are the problem
Arc of the Cognizant XXI
“What do you mean ‘we,’ Paleface?” — Tonto to the Lone Ranger
By Charles Jeanes
Oh, Canada. If ever there was a time for Canadians to take a prominent place in global affairs, it would seem to be now. But is the consciousness of our people up to this task?
We have a very favourable ratio of population to territory, unlike many or even most nations on the planet, and climate change might not be catastrophic for us. Perhaps only Iceland and New Zealand are as well-situated, with their low populations and island climates. We might stand to suffer less from the changed climates of the earth, since northern land, locked until now in profound frigidity, is about to become accessible. However, it remains to be seen whether that uncovering of frozen Arctic landmasses will be positive for us, and more, whether we will turn the possible opportunities toward the good of all. There are reasons to think that a warmer Canada is not a better Canada.
Charles Eisenstein says it so lucidly: as our old systems and narratives no longer convince us that they can be sustained, we still do not know where to transfer our new loyalties, and so many of us will continue to operate from the old scripts and ways of being human in the world. Old economic models and modes will still rule. Our Prime Minister is a paradigm of mind believing that something called “economic growth” is the way forward for a good life for Canadians.
Selling our raw commodities is how we do it.
Into this well-worn trench of thought comes anxiety over the planet’s capacity to let we humans continue to do what we think will serve our best interests. Our “best interests” cannot forge a consensus any longer. Growth is not the agreed-upon solution to our woes, nor is consumption of goods and services agreed to be the path to happy human living. Still the new middle classes of China and India want what we have had till now.
Canadians, like all the other humans on planet earth, in all places and cultures just now, are divided by how they foresee the future. Life “as usual” trying to keep control of nature with technology and science, and trying to solve social or economic problems with government activity and corporate capitalism – that is one way to plan ahead.
The other is less cohesive, but at bottom agrees things cannot be left to the powers of the past who led us to the many crises we face – to the politicians, the ruling class of capitalists, and the scientists who will serve whoever pays them and gives them their idea of a good life. Thankfully, some scientists are refusing to serve the systems.
Canada has not resolved an issue of justice even during the optimal performance of our capitalist, democratic, multicultural nation’s systems. We have not solved what to do about the manifest unfairness of our First Nations’ poverty and misery, the rotten lives lived by the people whom we acknowledge have a very potent claim to own the land in which Canada was erected by a colonial empire and its immigrants from Europe.
With that in our historical record, is it likely Canadians will rise to the challenge of climate change and the necessity to transform our “democratic capitalism” from planetary dominion to eco-stewardship?
I would say, it is not at all likely.
Turn back to look at how the Occupy movement evolved, a movement without leaders or agenda beyond “change the system”. It still exists as a movement, and media takes notice when some event seems to demand attention. Consciousness of the need for a transformed society has been raised by the movement, but alas, the blueprint for a new future is still very inchoate — not at all detailed in the manner of how socialism used to lay out policy plans. Occupy produced some results, but a revolution is not one of them.
“Idle No More!” is another Occupy. If you have any progressive, liberal, socialist or social-justice inclinations at all, you sympathize with the idealism of the Natives who are crying out for change. Then, you get stuck. What change would work? New legislation? New institutions? A new Constitution? Or just a better prime minister and/or policy?
The questions about justice for First Nations are really not different questions from what we ask about the future… What will turn this enormous ship of humanity and its systems, heading for an abyss of mass deaths, around? It took a long time to erect this massive structure called global civilization, on its basis of Western dominance and European political, economic and legal forms. It must take a long time to restructure it.
I cannot help myself returning to my long-held perspective on Western “progressives” in this crisis of planetary climate, economic injustice, and political degeneration. There have been no end, in my lifetime, of voices talking about social justice and revolution, and the voices are loud from middle-class Westerners with affluent, cultured, educated, and idealistic minds. We give to charity (especially if our rock star gods lead the cause – think Bono and Geldof.). We uphold the UN and peace movements. We vote social-democrat. We buy Fair Trade goods, we recycle, we help in catastrophe (especially when it hits a place we love because of our tourism – think tsunami in Bali area…)
But those progressive minds inhabit bodies which are enjoying the world’s unfair distribution of wealth. We said we loathed capitalism’s destruction of the earth, and we burned with anger against corporations’ abuse of the environment and the poor and wretched of the “developing world.” Some of us took jobs with international aid agencies.
But did we change how we lived, how we enjoyed our good fortune to be born a bourgeois in the West? Not enough to notice. We pursued the careers our overlords in capitalist corporate Canada, America, England, etc. offered to us for prosperity. People born in the Baby Boom in a Western advanced nation, have owned more stuff, had more opportunity, have had more travel, more sex, more drugs, more games, more technology, more leisure, more entertainments, than their grandparents, easily.
And more likely than not they have had more than their parents as well. Surpassing the previous generation is a North American colonists’ tradition. These same Boomers were, during the 1960s and 70s, loud in their denunciation of their parents’ materialism and how they waged wars and how they were psychologically repressed, conformist, narrow-minded, patriarchal. We would evolve. How? In a word, we were “Liberated”.
Our better ideals led to this moment in 2013. It’s not a simple case of hypocrisy, though.
I have no faith or trust in the good intentions of the West and its middle-class population who feels guilty about the injustice of their good fortune. They cannot stop themselves going on as they always have. They are not the cause – in their opinion – of the world’s injustice but they are not able to stop the corporations and ruling few who are materially responsible. Those ruling powers have given the middle classes their good lives, by creating sufficient wealth that people who serve the systems are well paid and affluent .
I see that Boomers are now the target market for a new line of luxury vehicles, since we are in our golden years and want that kind of car, or so the market research indicates.
Eisenstein says the wealth of America — measured in dollars and consumption and materials — has doubled and doubled again since 1945. What intelligent person would not connect that increase in Western affluence to the very problems that threaten our planet? We once had only three billion people to keep alive on earth, and among whom to build a semblance of justice. Now it is over 7 billion.
As I write this, the hot news of the moment is how “Idle No More!” has called out several large demonstrations of Natives and non-native sympathizers to block highways in BC and across Canada. Media has to take note, because as one Native said, “when you start getting in there, into the economy and making trouble for that, then they start to take you seriously and they have to do something.” The “they” is The Powerful.
But making trouble for the economy is precisely what bourgeois progressives can’t do.
Materialist political revolution having failed despite massive rhetoric in the 1960s and sporadically since then, what can compassionate people attempt as solutions?
My response is pretty well-worn. Each of us cannot do good work in the world if we each within our own consciousness have not first done some interior alterations. A revolutionary who is just as enslaved to materialism as the people he or she says are the source of our miseries – capitalists, corporations, politicians – will not be able to construct a better world. I speak of what was once termed “soul-searching.”
Again, Baby Boomers apparently have done a lot of that, since the vast industry of self-help and self-improvement, the droves of people trying to be Buddhists, to do yoga, to meditate, to evolve higher consciousness, indicate this interior work has been tried (and has enriched its teachers). New Agers, travelling seekers, meditators: great consumers.
Spirituality and inward focus, as part of a good life, is taught as a matter of standard practice now, by – can you guess? – Life Coaches. Yes, the Boomers are so great at creating new needs and new niches for entrepreneurial talent, that ’coaching for a good life” is a growth industry. How can I not laugh to hear a young thirty-something billing herself as a Life Coach? But I didn’t laugh; I like her. I am told she’s good at it.
All this interior self-examination (narcissism by a nicer word) has not changed how Boomers relate to material things. They still want a solidly-material comfort level and freedom that money can buy. So I do not take the self-improvement Movement as any true indicator that bourgeois Boomers have renounced their good fortune and sought ways to raise the truly oppressed and exploited masses of poor at home or abroad. It is not simple hypocrisy, I say again, but it is an astounding degree of blindness. The wealthy middle class of the developed nations are absolutely unconscious of the connections between how a Western bourgeois lives and how non-Western others have to live with the consequences of our middle-class consumerist living and the capitalist foundations of that middle-class life of choice, consumption and free-spirited ego.
Back to “Idle no more.” The reaction to it by the right-wing and the left is so very scripted. The left loves it. It looks like a revolution. It looks like it makes capitalism and corporations uncomfortable, and the progressive soul loves that. The right attacks all the usual flaws, the anarchic lack of leaders or programs or “realism.” Neither wing can really do anything for the Idlers. The Idlers are not revolutionaries, and if they were, the progressive middle classes would suddenly find it hard to sympathize with something that would mean an end to their comforts and habitual privileged material lifestyles.
Here is where the Idler Movement and Western bourgeois interior searching, seeking for an escape from materialist obsession, might have a meeting ground. We Boomers and rich-nation Native Indians seem to agree that the machinery of our global politics and economics cannot be sustained. Natives want justice. We say we do too, and we want solutions to the challenges of the systems before they ruin the earth.
Do the First Nations have an answer for those challenges? Yes. But they do not speak in one voice. Some of them want capitalism to enrich them. Why would they not? Chinese are told to “enrich themselves” by their Communist leaders. But there is no more material to enrich many people with. We are exhausting it and trashing the planet as we turn it into products.
So the other Native voices have to come to the top. The ones that say, “Abandon materialism, surrender capitalist economics, and return to a simpler life.”
Of course, Indian lives have not been merely “simple” under Canada’s Indian policies. They have in fact been impoverished by robbery of what is theirs, and oppressed by government that has been overtly racist. The results amount to a loss of culture and identity. “Idle No More” is fuelled by rage, righteous rage, against that history.
Most of us will return to a simpler life when our systems cannot sustain the capitalist way under the impact of climate disasters, war, epidemic, and famine. Millions of human lives will be terminated early, and no one will call that “justice” – the words will be “tragic” and “evil” and “avoidable.” Philosophers will add more analysis of the “human condition” to the conversation of the surviving humans, if anyone can spare the leisure for philosophy.
Someone always has that leisure. Today, I am one of those. I do not expect to be able to stay in the privileged few for the rest of my life.
I think many of us are going to face a hard future, and those who have sufficient money and material to keep themselves in security and comfort will say we others did not plan intelligently enough, as we have said about the First Nations over the centuries while they did not share our affluence.
I am thinking quite specifically of several people I know who are socially part of my life but in their minds and consciousness they are alien to me — because of the way they have enriched themselves and planned for a secure future with money and property. When I am impoverished by my lack of what they have, they will not know me. I will be an embarrassment to them.
That knowledge leaves me feeling quite unsettled. I do not know how to feel about it.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of Arc of the Cognizant can be found here.