I was asked to write a chapter for a new book on saving humanity from self-destruction. Specifically, the book's author asked me to address the following topics:
1. What is wrong with the world today?
2. What can be done to prevent the self-destruction of humanity?
Sometimes the simplest questions can catch you off-guard. I stepped away from my computer and felt myself getting a bit frustrated. I've been talking a lot about the Silent Crash, the disruptive change happening in our lives, and what it all means to us as individuals...but I haven't said much about what can be done to prevent the large-scale self-destruction of humanity.
I like that the question is phrased as "what can be done" because I want to believe that this isn't just one more naive, futile attempt to ask "what can we do". There is an important distinction here, because we cannot truly do anything to prevent the self-destruction of humanity. We are not in control. We are not the ruling elite who have designed and who manage the functioning of the systems that are destroying the world. Therefore, we are not going to be given the power to do anything on a large enough scale, as individuals, to change the world in any drastic way. It doesn't matter how good our ideas are or how well-meaning we may be.
Yet the question is still staring at me. I am just one tiny, insignificant part of the we. Would it not be my moral duty to provide an answer if I have one? Would it not be selfish and lazy if I were to decline to address such a topic because it is based on what appears to be an impossible premise? How do I even begin to present my analysis, my solutions, if I have no power to influence the ruling elite anyway? In doing so, would I not be banging my head against the wall in an empty room where nobody even notices?
After several days of thought, I realized that it is my duty to try to answer this question, yes, but also to do so in a realistic way. So let's start with the first question:
1. What is wrong with the world today?
This is a simple, high-level question that deserves a high-level answer. Humans are animals on planet Earth. By any measure, any "right" way of living that will ensure our survival must be compatible with the laws of nature that govern planet Earth. We know that planet Earth contains a biosphere in which life can exist. Within this biosphere, the principles of evolution govern everything that life is and what life does. Evolution describes all behaviors and changes within all of life's ecosystems and systems. It is such a simple concept, really. Whether we are talking about an ecosystem in the jungle, an economic system, an industry, our agricultural system, or anything else that life does...I believe it is all part of the same thing. Evolution, as a concept, illuminates so much more than just the way that species change over time (the part that scientists tend to focus on).
In nature, species often die out. This happens when an ecosystem breaks down. Perhaps a predator eats too much of its prey (causing the prey to first go extinct, and then next the predators well because there's nothing to eat). Sometimes the entire ecosystem vanishes (species vanish when humans slash and burn the jungle, for example). So the question about what can be done to prevent the self-destruction of humanity is a question about nature and of evolution. Because it is a question of evolution, we must return to the idea of systems.
Which systems (man-made or otherwise) risk threatening the survival of human beings on Earth? How do our man-made systems undermine or destroy the natural eco-systems we depend upon for survival? It is difficult to know where to begin, but here's a short list:
- Our entire lifestyle is built on a system that depends upon a massive amount of power (some non-renewable fuels, some nuclear, all destructive and devastating).
- Our economic systems are only concerned with economic growth...even if at the expense of the destruction of nature and life.
- Our monetary system incentivizes us to do terrible things we would otherwise not do because we have been made slaves to money
- Our religious institutions teach us that man has dominion over the Earth
- Our way of mass-producing food damages the soil and uses up non-renewable resources unnecessarily (both threatening our ability to continue producing food at the current volume)
- The world's militaries, together with corporations selling to them, have built weapons that could easily destroy humanity
- The legal system puts property above all else and provides corporations with the mandate that their only concern is profitability. The real-world result is oftentimes as catastrophic as an oil-spill that can destroy an entire ecosystem.
- Bankers provide debt that fuels and accelerates all of the systems described above. Hold-on to that thought for now because I will return to it.
These are only some of the fundamental problems with the world today. These are the systems that threaten the ecosystem and threaten the survival of humanity. These are the systems that justify and legitimize our tendency to do ridiculous, harmful, destructive things in such a rational, cool manner.
We could get into a conversation about who created these systems and why, but that's beyond the scope of this topic. The more important question concerns those who have the actual power to actually change or improve these destructive systems. The question that matters is this: what exactly do the ruling elite stand to lose or gain if these systems are changed?
Indeed, any discussion concerned with changing the world has to start by considering how to sell the idea to the ruling elite -- those few who have the power to truly change or improve the systems that govern our lives. Nothing I, as an individual, can do or say will have any real impact. The only chance I have would be doing something or saying something that might persuade the ruling elite to somehow behave differently. We need to persuade them that their power, influence, and lifestyle would improve by implementing our idea. Whatever change I'm suggesting cannot be a threat to them. Therefore, I cannot demand through protest (they will easily ignore it), I cannot vote for change (the most destructive systems are governed outside of the charade we call democracy these days), and so even if I could write something so brilliant that it persuaded 1 billion people, the idea would have absolutely no impact if it did not pursued the ruling elite.
So we need an idea that 1) helps prevent destructive behavior in the real world, and 2) convinces the ruling elite that it will improve their lives as well.
To be intellectually fair, I should also mention that there is only one other way to change the world: through violent revolution. An angry and violent mob, if large enough and out-of-control enough, could smash everything and kill everyone responsible for the systems undermining our ability to survive as a species. The problem with this, and the reason this doesn't seem to happen, is that taking part in such a movement would threaten our individual survival. We might die in the battle. Even if we did succeed, even if we did destroy all the destructive systems, we might be left standing in a chaotic world where we end up dying from starvation and lawlessness.
This brings up another interesting point: in nature, individual survival always trumps that of the species. So, to convince anyone of anything, you have to convince them that their life will be better than it is today. Nature has designed all of its creatures primarily to look after their own survival and self-interests. Just as the ruling elite will not give up everything they hold dear, neither will any of us. So, to put it into evolutionary terms, we are an over-populated species competing for an ever-shrinking supply of food. We will continue to become faster, stronger, and better at catching our prey regardless of the long-term consequences our actions might have our species. Indeed, we're just an over-populated species. We get bigger and bigger, consume more and more, until one day we all might just consume everything that supports our ability to survive at all.
But what caused us to get to this state and what can be done to prevent the self-destruction of humanity? I already provided a very high-level answer (that we should pursued those in power to change). But this is probably quite useless without a specific idea or example. Now I'll get to that.
The goal, unlike what some environmentalists would have us believe, isn't for man to have "zero-impact". The Earth can certainly handle a lot of impact. Just look at what we've done to it and how beautiful it still is! We all have a right to exist, to eat, to burn some wood, and to make a mess now and then. The natural environment can certainly absorb this, just as it has throughout the centuries. So what exactly has accelerated our economic activity to the point that is completely destructive and out-of-control? My answer is this: easy access to credit or, in a word, debt.
Debt allows us to conduct economic activity right away -- without having to first earn the right to do so by saving money. How much of our economic activity in the past decades has been fueled by debt? How many expenditures would not have occurred without debt? Debt fuels shopping sprees, construction of houses, purchasing of cars, vacations, etc., etc. Not everything we do is fueled by debt, some of us do spend the money we earn. But a huge percentage of economic activity is made possible through easy access to credit. How many plastic toys made in China would not have been sold if not for credit cards? Go even further; how much of the destruction our government causes is funded by debt?
How would the world change if all governments would agree to make all debt illegal? "Impossible!", you might say, "there's no way to get all the world's governments to agree on anything." Really? What about slavery? Where exactly is slavery legal? And how exactly is debt different from slavery?
Debt is, indeed, a form of slavery. Under slavery, the slave-holder provides food and shelter and, in return, the slave is forced to work for free. Similarly, in debt, the banker provides the loan for food and shelter and the debtor works to pay the banker's interest. The difference between debt and slavery is only a matter of degree. It is only a legalistic distinction.
So the elimination of debt would slow our economic activity enough that, perhaps, we might get it back to the level that the Earth can support. But, to my previous point, any idea to prevent the destruction of humanity is not practical or realistic unless it persuades the ruling elite that it is in their own best interest. See, the beauty of this idea is that, right now, debt is the number one problem threatening the global economic status quo. Consumer debt is undermining consumer spending, national debt is making it impossible for governments to provide basic services, and the issuance of bad loans are making it impossible for many banks to avoid bankruptcy. For the past decade, and especially since 2007, the answer has always been to solve debt problems by adding more debt. But this cycle cannot go on forever because new loans cannot be repaid. Many economic foresters believe that what we will be left with is a painful, 10-year cycle of deleveraging. At the end of this process, without fundamental change, so many lives will be destroyed and we'll still only be left with the same conditions that led to these problems to begin with. To make debt illegal would solve the problem immediately and for good.
It should also be said that, regardless of whether or not debt is made illegal, the economic depression ahead will be good for the environment and good for the the long-term viability of human life on Earth. Even if conditions were to worsen to the point that a very large percentage of humans died, this would also go a long way toward preventing the self-destruction of humanity as a whole. Yet none of us want our species to be saved through catastrophe. All of us, ruling elite or otherwise, want a life worth living...a life of happiness, comfort, and plenty. Oh, and ideally, we would prefer not to destroy the world in the process if at all possible.
So here's my answer: world leaders should erase all debt overnight and make any future debt illegal. If you have a mortgage on a home, the debt is gone and you get to keep the house. Of course the value of your home will plummet because, going forward, homes will only be bought with cash that has actually been saved. But that's fine, because at least you own it and don't owe anybody anything. You can start spending your paycheck instead of giving it to the bank. If you have a credit card, the debt is gone but you can no longer use it. If you have a car-payment, you get to keep the car but owe nothing. Your lifestyle improves short-term, which should give you enough time to understand the new economic paradigm and adjust to the new reality: if you want something, save money and then buy it.
What about those who do not own a home, who paid for their car with cash, and who don't have any debt? Your benefit (aside from helping to save humanity) is that everything will get cheaper. The cash you've saved will go further. What would house prices be if houses could only be bought with cash? What about car prices? If you've saved some money, you're in very good shape and will enjoy this new future. You will no longer be competing with all those debtors for goods and services.
What about the bankers? Why should they lose out on all the payments coming to them on loans they made? This is probably the most important question. I'm not sure I can answer this. Perhaps many of them may not mind so much either because the debts they own to other institutions have become a huge threat to their survival. Didn't we just bail them out? So I'm assuming they had some debts that they couldn't pay? Banks do have a lot of cash. They'd get to keep it. Moving forward, they could continue to provide financial services like deposit accounts, debit cards, etc...but no loans.
The elite bankers are, however, the ruling elite. Their world is confusing, murky, and invisible to us. I don't know for sure how the banking elite would feel about this idea. Probably not great, since it ruins their whole business model. But if this economic crisis gets bad enough, might they consider supporting the idea that debt is illegal? Perhaps some of them would. I don't know. The bankers are the slave-holders in this scenario. Slave-holders typically don't like freeing slaves. But the times are changing and somebody may be forced to change. Are there enough other ruling elite we could reach with this idea, or are the people in charge all bankers?
Those in government would breath a huge sigh of relief on the day debt was made illegal and wiped-0ut. National debts would be gone. Everybody defaults at once. China is screwed, but what are they going to do if the whole world has made this decision? From that moment on, all government services would have to be paid for with money actually collected through taxes. The decision about whether or not to raise or lower taxes would be based on something tangible -- based in reality. Also, future tax-payers would no longer be forced to pay for the spending of previous generations. We could start building again (hopefully the right kinds of systems this time) and never get into this mess again.
So much of the systematic destruction of our world today is funded by debt. Bankers issue as many loans as they can in order to control our behavior and extract natural resources from countries (if you can't pay us we'll simply demand that you sell your iron, gold, or oil so that you can). All of this debt has led to wide-spread, systematic behavior that is starting to threaten the survival of the human species. Debt certainly isn't the only problem. It maybe isn't even the core of the problem. But making debt illegal would probably solve the problem in a simple, elegant way that produces minimum pain.
Today, we work in jobs selling plastic devices made in sweatshops in order to pay for the mortgage on a house that costs 10x more than it would if not for the widespread practice of using mortgages to buy homes. We buy cars on credit to transport ourselves to that job and pay for gas and lunch on credit cards. This very example shows widespread, unnecessary destruction at each step and yet, in the end, most people taking part in this lifestyle never even seem to get ahead. They stay locked in this cycle. For what? These days, even the ruling elite don't know what to do to avoid the impending crash and 10-year deleveraging cycle. I know this sounds radical. But this could be a real answer.
What would making debt illegal do for jobs? Obviously decreased economic activity might lead to a decrease in jobs. But, since government debt would be wiped-out, there's be a lot more tax money left to spend on social programs to help the poor. If we are going to survive as a species, then full-employment and never-ending economic growth cannot be our measure of success. We have to get real. What about a Hybrid Economy that provides the economic freedom of Capitalism (without the debt and without all the destruction) and the social safety net of Socialism (without all the restrictions on freedom and red-tape)? More on this in future posts.
With the enactment of one simple idea -- making all debt illegal -- we can enter a new, post-debt era and begin building a future in which we are happier, healthier, and more free. Most importantly, this new future would cause far less destruction to planet Earth. We can begin living within our means, both as individuals and as a species, and can do so without being asked to make any impossible sacrifices. The bankers, who have been driving off a cliff, are starting to lose all control. It is time for the competing elites to consider a new idea. I wonder how we can reach any of them.