The Not-So-United States of America – A Blog Action Day Essay
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
When I see this video of a polar bear struggling against ice melt, I force myself not to look away. I let myself feel the bewilderment and silent desperation of those magnificent creatures fighting for footing on ice that once supported them. They seem so stolid and accepting. I cannot be. I grieve.
When torrential rains wash precious topsoil into rivers and down to the sea; when farmland becomes wasteland; when babies and elders unaccustomed to extremes of heat or cold suffer heatstroke or hypothermia and, too often, do not recover, I grieve.
And I grieve, too, for the time when the states in my country were truly united. We held values in common and disagreed over details, without trying to shout each other down. We held to different religious beliefs, including none at all, but we knew we were all children of the same universe, that we were all connected, one to the other.
We still are all children of the same universe, but you’d never know it from the way we behave. Not only have we forgotten that we all live on the same planet, we appear to have forgotten that we all inhabit the same country. We have become the Not-So-United States of America.
Must we have a common enemy to bring us together?
If so, we’re in luck. We have one – an economic system organized to benefit a minuscule portion of the world’s human population at the expense of the rest of the sentient beings who inhabit Earth. It claims to value freedom, competition, and personal responsibility, as though people who are hungry, homeless, and without hope can possibly be free, competitive, and in charge of their own lives.
Our common enemy is an economic system that values above all wealth and privilege, that fosters the belief that the worthy prosper and those who are deprived don’t deserve more. Its proponents know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. They speak of economic growth as though it were a universal good. It is not. “Growth for its own sake,” said the author and environmental activist Edward Abbey, “is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
We call this system capitalism. We are told capitalism is the opposite of authoritarianism. That is a lie. Capitalism’s opposite is socialism. The two are economic systems, ways of distributing wealth. One keeps it for a few; the other shares it around. No wonder capitalists say the word socialism as though it were an obscenity.
Democracy, not capitalism, is the opposite of authoritarianism. The two are social systems, ways of distributing power. Authoritarianism keeps it for a few; democracy shares it around. No wonder capitalists pretend to prefer democracy; they dare not admit they want all the power for themselves.
Capitalism is hostile to democracy. To see proof of this, you have only to look at the way members of the US Congress are trampling on the will of the majority of those who elected them. See how the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries, two of capitalism’s outstanding successes, have bought the votes of enough legislators to deprive the majority of citizens of the kind of health insurance reform they so clearly want. If the people’s will meant anything, their elected representatives would not be for sale. They’d be out of office.
Unbridled capitalism puts profit first. Anything that interferes with profit must be overcome and eliminated. That is why it is so difficult for this country that produces orders of magnitude more than its share of pollution to stop destroying the planet. Money spent to reduce noxious emissions reduces corporate profits.
As long as capitalism dominates the world’s system of distributing wealth, solutions to negative climate change will be piecemeal and only as much as the rich will tolerate. And the polar bears will struggle until they drown.
And I will grieve.
There is a law of nature that says when an organism’s environment changes significantly, the organism perishes. And when enough of a particular kind of organism perishes, their kind goes extinct.
Maybe the argument over whether global warming is really happening is really about what the definition of “significantly” is.
Put a frog in a pot of cold water. Put the pot on the stove. Put a fire under the pot. The water will not get significantly warmer from moment to moment. If you wait enough moments, the frog will be cooked to death without ever having felt a thing. It will not even try to jump out of the pot. Yet the result will be the most significant thing ever to have happened to that frog. We are approaching the point where every creature on Earth is in the same position as that frog.
Debate over the significance of climate change is a diversion of the sort that makes those who benefit from the capitalist form of economic organization rub their hands in glee. What matters is that micro-environments are changing, organisms are dying, and their kind is going extinct.
But as long as we let them, capitalists will distract and divide us with quibbles about whether the global climate is really changing for the worse, and arguments over social issues such as sexual preference, reproductive rights, and immigration – none of which has anything to do with whether sentient life survives on Planet Earth. As long as we are distracted and divided, as long as we remain the Not-So-United States of America, they win.
As long as we let them, capitalists will persuade us that our happiness and the world’s economic well being depend on our buying things, using them up or throwing them away, and buying more. As long as we do that, they win.
And, eventually, and we all lose.
Learn more about capitalism: Richard D. Wolff’s “Capitalism Hits the Fan”
Act against negative climate change: 350.org
See more blogs about climate change at the official Blog Action Day web site.
Posted on October 15th, 2009 by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Filed under: Uncategorized