We are living at a critical time in our collective, planetary, history. We know that our fragile world is undergoing massive changes to its life systems. Scientists warned us that we may face extinction due to these transitions in the life systems. The timeline is well within the lifetime of most humans alive today. We know we are facing the worst crisis for life on the planet. According to the Center for Biological Diversity:
We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at up to 1,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.
We also know this crisis is related to the climate crisis, which is of our creation. It is our experiment that we are running on the atmosphere of the planet. It started with the industrial revolution and has accelerated since. In our quest for wealth, we are creating more trouble than it’s worth, and some of it comes to fundamental western values that are tenets of capitalism and our religious views. When one speaks of this, one needs to confront Dominionism as ideology, which posits the earth was given to humanity to do as we wish.
Yes, there are those who refuse to see the danger quickly rising, as plastics cover the oceans, storms increase in intensity, droughts and fires fill news reports. It is as if we were talking through the pages of the book of revelations every day, and yet, they are still blind. They have interests tied to the current energy systems based on fossil fuels. They have made billions of dollars, and a move away from fossil fuels to clean energy will affect their money stream.
Then there are those who refuse to see these changes because of religious reasons. When the world ends, the second coming will start, the dominion of God. And with that, the restoration of the world that was. All will be fine. Ergo, we enter into questions driven by core ethical principles and philosophy that have driven the Western economic model for at least five hundred years. These are opposed to the land as it is, and impose the value of transformation.
We must ask the first overwhelming question. One that usually does not enter the discussion on values, especially commercial standards.
- What is the value of life?
- How do we measure Bio-Diversity as a value?
- Are we above nature or part of nature?
Our present crisis comes down to what is the value of life and whether we can, or will, quantify it. Until we do, our assault on nature will continue, as we see beauty, bio-diversity and a weave of life as something that we are not part off. We may very well be living as the last generation on earth, but hardly in a Christian second-coming, sense. Just as the last generations that are aware of the crisis we have created, and how we face the end of history.
There will not be a second coming or the end of days. Nor will there be a restoration of life as we know it. We may very well be the last humans to walk the earth. Life will find away, and in ten million years it will start to recover. Life, as long as the planet endures in the Goldilocks zone of the solar system, will evolve. Bacteria are already able to eat plastic, and the higher radiation levels will push life in a different direction. Alas, humans will not be part of this.
This is a turning point in human history. For the last ten thousand years, trade has gone around first barter, and later money. We have learned to till the land and converted forests to fields. We have domesticated grasses, that became staples of our diets. We have domesticated animals, which again depend on us to live, and in turn, feed us. We have converged all we do into symbolic pieces of paper and metal. What is the value of money? Do we need to change how we conceive of commerce? Do we need to rethink what is of value? Are we at the end of capitalism as an economic system? This is only 300 to 500 years old, so it is not essential to our survival. However, our concept of the free market is preventing the solutions we need to implement to ensure our survival, The planet will be fine, with us or without us. It will take a different direction in the weave of life and evolution.
The Amazon is burning
We are living at a turning point in human history. The Amazon burning is an allegory to the damage we are doing to our, our planet, This is an insignificant rock, that goes around an ordinary star, on the stellar arm of an ordinary galaxy. However, it is home. It is the only planet that we know of that has life, let alone intelligent life. We can ask questions, and try to answer them. We know our home is in trouble. We know we are in trouble.
We are facing an environmental disaster of unprecedented size that is damaging our collective home. We are doing damage to the life support systems, and we seem to be entering into feedback loops that are making the crisis worse. The amazon is burning, and while it’s true that some of these fires are cyclical, most are on purpose.
Clearing the land for soy and cattle is the goal. The jungle and diversity of life have no value that we have defined. Yes, it’s pretty, yes it is needed But in our economic system this is the wild waiting to be developed. It has no value. This growing of crops and cattle It’s to meet the food demands of people on the other side of the world. It is for short term profit as we understand it. It is ones and zeros in a bank account, a figment of our collective imagination. The taste for meat among new middle-class people in China is growing. The image we have of progress is farmland, roads, bridges. It is not the virgin forest. The forest does not translate into those fictions of ones and zeroes.
This is not a good thing, for multiple reasons.
There is a whole philosophical context to this Are we part of nature, or above nature? How are we to use the resources at hand? Why? Is there a right to life for other species on the planet? Do we need other species for our own survival? Do we see value in other species beyond our companion animals and domestic species that feed us?
In the end, what is our place within nature? Or as the dominant philosophy in the west states, are we to have dominion over nature?
Our burning of the amazon, while symbolic of other attacks on nature, is a sign of what we believe. We are above nature and believe that we were given dominion over nature. This toxic philosophy still pervades our relationship with the natural world. It is not a good thing since at this point we are at a turning point. It will kill us, and none will be here for the natural world to recover in ten to fifteen million years.
The other aspect of this is our relationship with what we consider valuable. The forest is not what we believe to be of value. Howling monkeys, parrots, plants and animals, some which we have yet to discover, is not part of what we consider important. We have not believed this for at least a thousand years, if not more. We know that we need to tame the wilds, and the wilds are where strange monsters exist. We need to make all predictable, and the wilds are not this.
This brings us to what the tribes in Amazonia have said. The current government of Brazil, led by the very right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro intends to destroy them. He will not respect their land or reservations, for lack of a better term. His intention is to develop the whole Amazon basin, in a western model, and in the process commit both cultural and physical genocide. There is a precedent for this. The United States and Mexico are good models that he is following. They both have destroyed the lives and traditions of native peoples. To this day, we ignore the messages of the Hopi and others at our peril. Nor is this unique to Brazil in the here and now.
I think that a lot of tribes are really frustrated at the lack of inclusion in this process that’s guaranteed through our treaty rights,” says Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Goldtooth says their primary concern is that the State Department’s permitting process has overlooked tribal treaties with the federal government.
For example, he says, “the Keystone pipeline passes right through the heart of the Oceti Sacowin Treaty area that was established before the Laramie Treaty back in 1868. A lot of the tribal nations really stick to the wording and negotiated agreements that were made and are treaties and we really encourage the federal government to really stick to those.”
But tribes on both sides of the US-Canada border are also concerned about a range of environmental problems like pollution, accelerated climate effects and potential danger to the tribes’ water supply.
We do the same, in the present, for the nightly dollar and profit.
However, the people of the forest, and there are many tribes, live with the forest. They are part of the forest and respect the forest as the great mother. They understand the bio-diversity of the forest matters, and they are part of that biodiversity. Just like the Sioux understand the nature of the water basin that the XL has the potential of destroying. Theirs is a long term game. The peoples of Amazonia also get this: By burning the forest, their culture will be destroyed, since they depend on the mother for many of their rites of passage and everyday life. We are committing cultural genocide and remain silent in the face of this assault.
After all, For the modern westernized right-wing government of Brazil none of this has any economic use as we understand the value. There is no profit. Why the government intends to destroy the basin, according to leaked documents:
The documents show arguments put forward by Jair Bolsonaro that a strong government presence in the Amazon region is important to prevent any conservation projects going forward.
Intending to build bridges, motorways, and a hydroelectric plant in the rainforest, the Brazilian government hopes to ‘fight off international pressure’ to protect the Amazon, according to the leaked information.
The trees and the plants do not have value. Or at least, they do not have a value that can be monetized right now. They may have compounds in them that could cure cancer, (ergo could be monetized) but so far, we do not know that, and likely we will never find out. Wheat and soy have value right now. So for those seeking a western economic value system, the plants, the animals and the people stand in the way. This is why they must go. So when the indigenous people make the claim that the government wants to commit genocide, they are on point, The government considers them primitives at best, less than human at worst. And as I wrote above, this is not limited to Amazonia.
This is part of the last five hundred years of western dominance in the economic system It was internalized by many of the former colonies. It is a result of colonialism. If we are to survive, we need to overcome this.
Bolsonaro has told the world that they have no say in what happens in his country. He is directing his wrath, in particular, at France. Why? They are telling him how to develop, or not develop, his country. In his mind, they want to stop him and keep his nation subservient to the advanced economies. What we consider advanced is likely part of the problem.
He wants, so he says, to achieve the same standard of living that let’s say French citizens enjoy at the moment. In order to do this, he needs to exploit the natural world the same way the West has. He is also telling western democracies that he can do this because this is sovereign Brazilian territory. The global pressure has forced some of his hand, but likely he will do what he wants once attention diverts to somewhere else.
There is also another message from Bolsonaro, one other developing world leaders have repeated. The west should stop telling Brazil what to do. The country is nobody’s colony and it is his right to develop the jungle just like Germany developed the forests of Bavaria, or the United States exploited the West. Oh, never mind that there have been significant ecological consequences with both that affect the world, and the climate emergency is affecting all, no matter where we live.
Bolsonaro, like President Donald Trump, does not believe the climate emergency is real or could kill humanity. They both know that this is a hoax meant to slow down their road to riches. They want to use the resources of the earth as they wish. They seek to maintain dominion over creation. Oh never mind we need more resources at this point than we can extract.
This attitude goes back into what we value as a society. For the most part jungles and wild places are not seen as anything that we can acquire. They are not important, for their own sake. They are to be exploited and transformed into a commodity. Why Ecco-tourism is one way to deal with this. Another is to find something of value, such as compounds that can be of used medically. Otherwise, a howler monkey is not something we can use. Nor is a parrot, or a tree, or nature in general. They just get in the way of profit.
This speaks to what we believe matters. We do not think those wild things have. an ultimate place in the world. They all have to be brought under our control and our system of economic exchange. They have to become part of commerce. If this cannot happen, they are just in the way. This is destructive at its core.
So we are faced with that we consider of value. In our western mind, development is the only valid way to interact with nature. Bridges, roads, fields, and mines are the only valid way to exploit the world. Only those things that add value in the human eye, even when they remove biodiversity and damage the environment matter.
This attitude is old as far as the species is concerned. It probably goes all the way back to the rise of agriculture, which meant we needed to clear land. This land was used to raise our crops, which gave our early settlements some layer of normalcy and protection from hunger. This led to the first population explosion since tilled fields could support more humans. It also led to writing, early forms of government and taxes. It allowed for specialization and the earliest forms of both leisure and religious life we could recognize.
In the beginning, there was enough land that people could burn a piece of forest, and raise crops. Once that land was done for, move to the next patch. This slash and burn agriculture is still practiced, and it’s at the heart of the burning of Amazonia. Back then the forest would soon take over the scar in the land, and a new cycle would start. There were not that many humans, and our activity did not cause long term damage. However, we are at the point where we are. Our crops are not diverse enough to maintain the weave of life, and our frontier continues to recede. We are taking over the land, and the weave of life we depend on is under attack.
What Bolsonaro wants to do is grow crops for export. The Chinese market has opened, partly due to the trade war between the United States and China. It is a very large opportunity for the Brazilian agriculture sector. And if this means burning the amazon, so be it. After all, the values that Bolsonaro is exhibiting is the very short term search for profit we are familiar with. The development of Amazonia into a modern region, preferably full of farms and factories, with a mine or two here or there, is modernity. The natural world is not.
Bolsonaro also knows his nation has the absolute right to develop and achieve the standard of living in places like the United States. He feels that the west is trying to prevent his nation from doing this because they do not want the competition. When the economy becomes a zero-sum game, it is what it is.
The profit motive
While this may seem repetitive, this bears repeating. Our economic system has commodified all that it can, However, life seems to be out if its reach, which is why life and it's systems are under attack. When life and life systems are not part of what we consider important, how the heck do we commodify it?
While I am using Amazonia as a model, this is a global problem. Life, in all its richness and variety, has not entered our value system which translates into what we consider wealth. In our society, a diverse ecology is not part of it. What is are commodities and goods and services that directly impact human life. Meaning the grasses abs animals we domesticated. This is impacting our world and the weave of life, however, we seem unable to get out of the quarterly balance sheet mentality. This is a short-sighted view of the world. One that will translate to zero profits.
The next quarter matters more than the next fifty years. Or for that matter the next year. It is all about the fiduciary obligation to produce wealth for investors, who demand this, and a legal system that mandates it. This is about money, not the future. Which also means that for the first time in ten thousand years we might be faced with a choice: The survival of the species, or the balance sheet. After all, I doubt there is much nutritional value in a dollar, peso or yen note.
The value of the stuff we consider important is artificial but it also makes things like clean water, air and a healthy ecosystem beyond the commodification need. How do you charge for clean air? How do you account for dirty air? This is what economists call externalities which for the most part we ignore this at our peril. We need clean air and water to survive. But corporations fight the regulations needed to control effluents into our collective water, and corporations privatize water. We have been told that clean water is not a human right.
What is the value of a dollar?
We come down to the most basic of questions: What is the value of the dollar? Most people know what we can buy with a dollar. These days it barely covers a cheap coffee at the local corner store. However, what is the value? How is this number determined?
At the most basic of levels, the value of any currency depends on the collective agreement that a piece of paper is of value. A dollar, or peso, or yen, is printed on paper after all. We all agree that this signifies something. Central banks guarantee it, and we all play along. There is nothing backing this. Why gold bugs want to go back to the gold standard. However, the value of gold, shiny metal with no nutritional value, is also agreed upon. Gold has a use in the electronics industry, and in the age of extensive credit, gold reserves could not remotely cover the physical and digital notes around the world. Increasingly the value of money is what we agree its worth.
Because of this, we can barter for goods and services including the food we eat, and the shelter we inhabit. It is far better than carrying chickens to exchange for bread…or beads for shells. Ultimately the shells and beads had agreed upon value as well. However, we do not place the same value to virgin land.
What is the value of the air we breath?
What would happen if we added to the equation the air we breath? How many dollars is clean air worth? We know how much dirty air costs in the treatment of lung problems, and how many people die before they should. According to the World Health Organization, seven million people die a year from polluted air.
And there is more:
More than 1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 years of age are attributable to unhealthy environments. Every year, environmental risks — such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene — take the lives of 1.7 million children under 5 years, say two new WHO reports.
The first report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment reveals that a large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged 1 month to 5 years — diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia — are preventable by interventions known to reduce environmental risks, such as access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.
”A polluted environment is a deadly one — particularly for young children,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”
What is the value of those lives? We rarely ask these questions because they are not part of our collective value system or the in-group. These children are not commodities. These children are just lives, that end early. Many of them in developing countries that have not reached our standard of living. Nor do they speak our language, or look like us.
This is why countries like Brazil want to reach a higher standard. And in some sense, we should not blame them. This is why these lives that end early are not accounted for by our accountants of the economy. We have no idea what those children could have discovered. They are part of that undiscovered country of possibility.
It is not just clean air, but also clean water. It is the oceans that now are full of plastics, affecting the weave of life. It is the warming waters that are becoming more acidic. It is even roadways, which contain the effluvium of our daily trash.
The Sixth Mass Extinction
We have reached the end of history. We are now at the edge of our own destruction, but the next quarter is taken care off. At a rational level, we know that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction. Do we also understand that our age will leave a mark on the strata if intelligent life ever rises again and once again ponders where it came from? Like us asking what happened to dinosaurs, they will ask what happened to the toolmakers? Plastics, chemicals, and tools will tell part of the story. May it serve as a warning to out hubris.
Truth be told is that life recovered from the last five mass extinctions. Every one of them saw the destruction of the apex species, the ones that were so finely tuned to the old environment that they could not make it through to the next stage. Humans are that apex dominant species, and as much as we like to pretend, we are part of nature. Our technology may delay the inevitable, but if the planet warms up beyond a certain point, the planet will be all but friendly to us.
As the life systems continue to be under threat, and the planet changes, life is ending for many species. Nature does not care about the dollar, the peso or the market. It cares little about the next quarter. Nature will find its new balance. If, or when, humans go extinct, the nuclear reactors we use for our power will meltdown. They will contaminate vast swaths of the planet. And in the end, life will prevail and find a way to persevere.
The Anthropocene is a human geologic era, that will show in the geologic record, why? Plastics, of course, and other detritus humans are accumulating in the strata. We are causing extreme and rapid climate change by burning both present and ancient forests. We are doing an atmospheric experiment that is destroying the very web of life we depend to survive.
We act like gods, who are not affected by nature. This is partly the ideology of our dominion over the natural world. It is also apocalyptic, as the end of days will bring the restoration of the world, for our use. It is the most extreme of folly, that an intelligent self-aware animal still believes in this fantasy that we are above nature.
We must ask again, what is the value of the dollar in this context?
So once again we are faced with the question? What is the value of the dollar, an inanimate object made of paper? What can a dollar buy? How can a dollar determine our existence and our value? Should we change the central tenet of our economy? Should we change our collective values? Should we rethink what we believe to be important? Is it time to evolve, no pun, to a new way of living?
So far, western values are based on Bronze Age religions. It is in the sacred text that we see the ideology of dominion take shape. Since the western development model is the dominant one, dominion is the main one as well. It ignores the basic idea that we are part of nature, not above it.
We need this planet to survive and evolve. While theoretically there are a few planet B, they are not within reach, at least not with current technology. And if we did go, what damage would we do to our new home if we cannot take care of this one? Likely we will bring with us this toxic ideology of dominion. This is something we need to overcome.
We need to grow up and become one with nature and the space we occupy. We must become aware of how small and precious our world is. We must embrace being part of the weave of life, not above it. Or we can commit species suicide, as we are doing.
Then there is another philosophical question: Would we feel more attachment to a world where we did not evolve? In that case, we truly would be an invasive species into a new weave of life. If we cannot treat this one with the respect we should, what tells us that we will do so with a new world?
Amazonia is burning, a metaphor
Amazonis is a metaphor for our values. It is a metaphor to the modern-day capitalist system, and our disdain for nature, and things we cannot make into commodities.
It is significant in how we think of ourselves, and how we conceive of us as above nature. We hate those who live within nature and with the cycles of nature. Whether it is the many peoples of Amazonia, or any of the manifold of first peoples on the American continent, or the planet. We see them as primitives and in the way.
Yet, it is these people who are in tune with the natural world. We must learn from them, and grow up. Time is running short. If we do not change our values, and fast, we face extinction. Perhaps that will be for the best for life on earth…an insignificant speck, going around an average yellow star…on the spiral arm of an average galaxy.