I’m going to start this post by veering away from my areas of expertise to comment on our prospects as a civilization. I promise to circle back to the arts a bit later on. My inspiration was a recent article in the Nov. 23, 2015 issue of The New Yorker by Raffi Khatchadourian called “The Doomsday Invention.” The article is about the inherent threats of artificial intelligence and the work of philosopher Nick Bostrom. In the article, there is a powerful argument made for the existence of life on other planets, given our increasing sense of the immensity of the universe and recent signs of life-supporting conditions nearby. The question is raised: If we believe it’s out there, why haven’t we seen it? One compelling answer is that life most certainly exists and develops on other planets, but it never reaches the point of evolution where interplanetary travel is achieved. Simply put, civilizations self-destruct before they can take off.
Looking at our world today, it’s hard not to see the seeds of our own destruction, or at least the beginning of our decline. We are killing each other like no time before, and we are damaging the planet to the point that its future health is questionable. I’d like to suggest that the common element between these two destructive forces is the continuing glorification of acquisition and consumption as the basis of prosperity and happiness.
The modern market economy is based on the production and consumption of goods and services. And success in the global economy depends on getting more people to buy more and consume more. Advertising delivers a powerful and relentless message that all will be well if you buy that new thing. We see images of beautiful and happy people and their families over inspirational music that make us want to make more to buy more to have more, whether we need it or not. And idiots like Donald Trump aggressively promote the idea that success is all about the selfish pursuit of money and stuff.
The related economic problem is that there is vast amounts of capital roaming the world looking for ways and places to go to work and thus generate income for those controlling that capital. Pension funds, venture funds, hedge funds, sovereign funds and other larger players can’t get a high return on passive investment, especially in this low-interest rate environment. So there is a strong compulsion to dig, drill, build and harvest.
This endless and accelerating cycle of production and consumption is clearly hurting the planet. In the beginning, we scratched the surface to find simple food and shelter. Now there are billions more people recycling the same elements and using so much energy to transform raw materials into consumable goods and services. We are running out of those materials, and the energy and processes required to create goods are damaging the planet and the atmosphere, potentially beyond repair.
The second problem is that the desire to acquire and consume as the basis for happiness and fulfillment actually drives violence. All over the world, people see that happiness comes only to those that have, and that happy end justifies whatever means are necessary. So individuals pursue what’s best for them alone, as opposed to what’s best for their community or society. Other people realize that the only way to get more is to take it away from others, often using religion to condemn and attack those who have more than they do.
This violence comes from people who have nothing and see aggressive action as the only means to get what they want. It rises up from the people who have been, and are, ruthlessly exploited so that others can prosper. It comes from so many people left frustrated and exhausted by the pursuit of wealth. And it comes from the many people left unfulfilled and even unhinged by the wealth they accumulate.
So, how are we going to get out of this mess? Governments are absolutely dependent on the market economy and the tax revenue that flows from the sales of goods and services. I love David Brooks and his frequent calls for government to provide the moral authority necessary to help our civilization advance, but there’s no way that government can get its head out of the trough to reduce its own size and scope. And there are too many individuals in (or wanting) power who are not easily going to give it up.
I’m also skeptical about the suggestion that organized religion is able to move us in a better direction, especially since organized religion has caused humanity so much pain and violence since the beginning of our ascendance. How are faith-based groups suddenly able to go from problem to solution in a credible way?
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]This cycle of production and consumption is clearly hurting the planet.[/pullquote]
Maybe the answer lies with the arts. Might there be artists uncompromised by wealth and its pursuit and thus in a position to help this one civilization avoid destruction? Maybe they can create the work that shows us the folly of our ways and the end to come. Maybe they can suggest how better behavior might lead to a brighter future? Maybe they can help us come to terms with the fact that our human qualities can just as easily send us to destruction as to salvation?
And, by the way, the answer is simplicity itself. Fulfillment comes from giving, not taking. Salvation begins by helping other people and finding happiness through that effort. Then it’s about sharing what we have, taking no more than we need, and putting the needs of our communities, society and planet in front of our own desires. If we can do these things, we — and the arts — might have a future.