The Not-So-United States of America – A Blog Action Day Essay

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson


I grieve.

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:

See more blogs about climate change at the official Blog Action Day web site.

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7 Responses to “The Not-So-United States of America – A Blog Action Day Essay”

  1. As always, Miryam, you express yourself beautifully and thoughtfully. However, I would disagree that it is all capitalists and capitalism that make our nation and our people somewhat disconnested from each other and from what we need to do to make the world, our world, better.  I would say it is those who are guilty of corporate greed.  Being a capitalist in and of itself is not the culprit.  There are capitalists with a conscience out there.  Companies that make money and spend some of that money to do good. Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream for instance.  (I love ice cream so they came to mind first.) And there are others. 

    What congress must do is really clamp down on corporate greed, close tax loopholes and recover off shore interests who are nothing more than American corporations having it both ways.  Then use that recovered tax revenue to invest in climate repair research and technology.

    At least that is what I think.  And I want to thank you for encouraging me to think. Because that is what you do and you do it very well. 

  2. @ Gladys — you got my attention with the phrase “climate repair research” which is something I hadn’t heard of and so I googled the phrase and among the results this link came up:

    It’s very interesting.  Yes, our Miryam here on The Back Forty sure does encourage us all to think and quite often so do our readers. So thank you for reading and commenting and making us think.
    All the best,
    Deb Kozikowski
    Co-founder, RuralVotes

  3. One big motivator is making green a reason to go green — the making of money using green technology is a tempting reason for the normally wasteful corporate entities to pitch in to save the planet too.

  4. I thought this was a very interesting post thanks for writing it!

  5. I think you are right. Capitalism is indeed the root of our planetary ills from Third World poverty and domestic economic disparity to climate change and war, it always follows the flow of profit over people. What we need are wise men and women to come up with an alternate economic plan and create global solutions before we find ourselves extinct.

  6. Gladys, thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comment. You’re the kind of reader I dream of.

    I distinguish between capitalists — people who invest large sums of money with the sole purpose of making a profit, and who hold to the principles of capitalism I outlined in my essay; and entrepreneurs,  who organize and run businesses but don’t expect to get rich off the sweat of the working class.  I suspect Ben and Jerry would gag if they saw themselves classed as capitalists.

    In an earlier time, my husband and I were entrepreneurs — Ma and Pa cable TV in Massachusetts, actually. We mortgaged our house to the hilt to build a small town cable system. We paid our four employees 75% of what we paid ourselves and they had the same benefits we had. The 25% added pay we gave ourselves reflected the risk we were taking and helped us to pay for the mortgage.

    If you know a capitalist who does business that way, I’d surely like to meet her. (Family rule: if a man is speaking, the generic pronoun is he/him.  It a woman is speaking it’s she/her.)

  7. Today is supposed to be a big announcemnet from the president about making loans available for small businesses. Small businesses are proven problem solvers. Sprouting new companies investing in green tech solutions will help make our existence on this earth less hostile to our environment. Does anyone really believe the kind of research will equal truly clean tech will ever come about from big corporate interests? What they do is buy up as much good forward thinking research and stash it away in the circular file so those innovations don’t rock their comfy corporate boats. If more investment is available to these smaller companies, they will find better answers. Our biggest worry? Keeping the big guys and their tempting offerings of immediate gain away from our more creative entrepreneurs!

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