As a parent, I tend to keep one eye on the present and another on the future. I also keep one (the third eye, perhaps?) on the past, since we need to know where we’ve been to know where we’re going. Or so they say — I’m actually not convinced that history is an accurate predictor any longer in this brave new world we’ve created in relatively short order. Then again, we in the Western world have always perceived the inevitability of an apocalypse of our own creation, from the very moment we decided to flout natural laws in favor of our manmade shackles. So maybe the past does matter.
But it’s the present and immediate future that most concern me these days. Or, more precisely, the ways in which the present is foreclosing, narrowing, and perhaps even mooting the future. My children are growing up in a world of apparent plenty and wondrous stimulations, but it all comes at the cost of rendering the continued existence of the species — even possibly within the scale of their lifetimes — seemingly speculative at best. Their bubble of ostensible freedom and perceived luxury also comes at the expense of the wellbeing of most of the planet’s inhabitants, including the children of other parents whose capacity to mask the mounting horror is likely far less than mine.
This isn’t some alarmist, Chicken Little rant; it’s the basic narrative we’ve been enacting for centuries now, if not longer. Modern society is built upon the tenuous foundations of a creation mythology that is also a prediction of ultimate demise, that the very things that make us special will also lead to our undoing if not kept in check; the line between inquisitiveness and hubris, between industry and irresponsibility, is incredibly thin. Drawing upon these civilizational planks, later treatments constructed an elaborate intellectual justification for seeing the project through to its inevitable end, all in the name of protecting us from the “law of the jungle” and promoting our rightful dominance.
For Thomas Hobbes, life before civilization was a state of perpetual struggle, conflict, and war, in which human existence was “nasty, poor, brutish, and short.” John Locke offered the flipside, that humankind could only find its true purpose and highest expression through private ownership of that which sustains us, rather than being subject to the irrational whims and wasteful habits of nature. Charles Darwin observed a tendency toward relentless competition in which only the fittest would survive, perversely turning human attributes into the “natural order” of things. None of these men, nor those that followed, were sinister figures; they were describing the emerging world around them in terms that had been given from yore and that fit the tenor of the times in which they lived.
Today’s logical inheritors, born of gatherings such as Bretton Woods in 1944 and solidified with the rise of corporate globalization, are of a similar ilk. Perhaps the clearest statement of elite ideology on these core matters of how we are to live in the world was delivered by Garrett Hardin in his famous 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he plaintively writes:
“An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable. With real estate and other material goods, the alternative we have chosen is the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance. Is this system perfectly just? As a genetically trained biologist I deny that it is…. We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust — but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.”
Injustice is preferable to total ruin. This is the false choice we’ve been presented with for centuries now, and the one that is holding the future hostage to the ravages of the present. The story essentially says that since we cannot have perfect justice in this world, better to create a system of controlled injustice rather than risk the potential ruination that would come with unbridled competition and the lack of coercive authority. Simply put, we humans can’t be trusted to self-manage or to work well with others, unless we’re made to do so. This coercion is unfortunate, yet necessary in order to keep us from destroying ourselves and everything around us, as was prophesied from time immemorial.
It’s a seductive story, one that gets great buy-in — at least from those who are predestined to be on the winning side of the ledger, i.e., the side that gets to aspire to “justice” vis-à-vis the unfortunate multitudes who bear the disparate burdens of violence, inequality, and injustice. After all, if everyone was afforded true equality in terms of access to life’s essentials and a share in the collective wealth of humankind, it would only lead to “total ruin” since there would be no limit to our unbridled, ruthless competition with one another over resources and power alike. The antidote, consciously chosen, is to adopt an inherently unjust system that skews its benefits in one direction and its burdens in another, in order to keep the entire operation afloat at all.
This is, of course, all demonstrably false. It isn’t sharing the commons and existing within the delicate balance of natural systems that bring ruination: privatization and inequality do. It is precisely the prescribed antidote to “total ruin” that brings it about — indeed, that which we have been told will forestall our demise actually hastens it. Civilization didn’t save us from the scourge of violence and the impetus toward self-destruction, it merely institutionalized these qualities and rendered them so pervasive as to be nearly imperceptible. It’s a rigged game, a blind alley, a fool’s errand, a course to oblivion. Always has been and always will be — and no degree of intellectual sophistry will save us.
But there is one thing that might: reclaiming, reinvigorating, and restoring the commons — the very alternative that Hardin says is “too horrifying to contemplate.” I’ll trade the hypothetical horror of equality and the uncertainty of negotiation among peers for the near-certitude of a managed apocalypse any day. The dominant solution of destroying the world in order to save it is nonsensical, no matter how much it is wrapped in the cloak of rationality. Rational beings do not practice self-interest to the exclusion of their communities and at the expense of the habitat that sustains them. The self-anointed “realists” are in fact the most quixotic ones of all, insisting despite all evidence to the contrary that more of what has pushed us to the brink will somehow guide us away from it. It’s like offering water to someone who’s drowning — and petroleum-packaged, bottled water at that.
Despite all of this, I believe there’s still time to change course — but the window of time in which to do so is rapidly closing. It won’t be easy, obviously, and hard choices will have to be made. On the other hand, great joys may be found as well, as humankind rediscovers its “unselfish gene.” We can start by restoring collective interests in the essentials of life and those aspects of our shared existence that must be owned by none and enjoyed by all — namely water, food, air, energy, climate, home, health. If we still want to argue about who gets more gizmos and gadgets, then so be it. But the basics need to be taken off the table as bargaining chips, never to be used again as blackmail in nefarious structural adjustment schemes, nor withheld from some in the misguided view that injustice anywhere is tolerable if it serves the interests of another’s self-fulfilling eschatology.
The vehicle we’ve been riding in for the past few centuries is going nowhere fast; it’s horribly misaligned and continually pulling to the right. So let’s grab the wheel, firmly and collectively, and chart a new course forward to the place from whence we came — or at least away from the precipice of institutionalized injustice masking as progress. No GPS is needed; we can just follow the signs and the natural contours of the open road before us…
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is the publisher and editor of New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012) and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008).