Culture Clash

Facing a natural world with which it has yet to reach an accommodation, the accelerating crisis of industrial civilization involves an intensifying clash of cultures within itself.  Climate disruption, economic disintegration, and political stagnation converge in a composite crisis of unheard of planetary proportion and complexity.  At the same time, a growing cultural divide pits deeply ingrained conventional consumer culture against the emerging ecological consciousness that values integration with the natural world over the traditional materialism of American life.

Climate denial is being overwhelmed in the public mind by irresistible evidence of the damage already underway as increasing incidents of climate disruption occur – never mind the complex but consistent scientific evidence behind conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections of accelerating climate disruption.  A very good indicator of the real world trends is the fact that each IPCC report of the latest climate data shows that the previous estimates of change, such as the melting of polar ice, significantly underestimated the pace of the disruptions wrought by global warming.  Yet, even those of us who recognize the trends and likely catastrophic outcomes of these trends have little grasp of the practical implications for our own lives as we struggle to respond to the threat.

At the same time, the vast majority of Americans understand that the Banksters of Wall Street continue to plunder the commonwealth by taking in trillions of dollars from the Fed in payments for their worthless sub-prime derivatives (so-called “assets”) while continuing down the same path, and that it can’t go on indefinitely without another “great recession.”  And most of us are aware that much of the unemployment and underemployment of Americans has resulted from the movement of capital overseas to the cheapest labor markets in the world, causing massive loss of jobs here in the U.S.  We understand the corrupting influence of corporate purchasing of elections, voter suppression, and corporate lobbyists literally writing the bills that are voted on in congress.  We get the fact that fossil fuel production, which peaked in 2005, is declining as demand continues to grow, despite environmentally destructive fracking and the fantasies of “free market” economists whose theories do not account for the laws of thermodynamics and completely fail to consider the finite nature of planetary resources.[1]  It’s a paradigm whose time has passed.  Yet, we are all implicated in the industrial juggernaut by the very way we live our corporate consumerist lives as we seek ways to mitigate the damage. 

As a people, we do not know what to do, other than make small gestures like sorting our recyclables or buying a hybrid car.  We know that is not enough, but what would be?  The environmentally conscious are looking in the right direction, although not far enough.  The rest are out of touch with the whole problem of humanity on the planet, either because they are so busy holding down two (or more) part time minimum wage jobs to pay the rent, or because they are too busy enjoying the perks of being among the 0.1% whose growing wealth will never satisfy them and whose amoral culture recognizes only privilege, never responsibility.  At the same time, we observe the increasing oppressiveness of the corporate surveillance state in concert with the glaring omission of either discussion of climate disruption or genuine political reform in the corporate media or serious consideration in the congress or white house of measures to mitigate the effects of these parallel crises.  Nor is the growing disparity between the super-rich, the shrinking middle class, and the expanding ranks of the poor – which parallel the conditions that brought on the Great Depression – considered a topic for serious discussion in the corporate media.

In all this, the cultural gap between those who recognize the need for far more drastic action than even Bill McKibben calls for to curtail the worst of the disruptions to our lives, and those who want something done without disturbing their diminishing suburban consumer lifestyles, is growing ever more rapidly.  All the while, as the intensifying crises of climate disruption, economic inequity, and political atrophy converge, the consumption of fossil-fuel energy continues to accelerate as powerful energy and industrial interests grab all they can for as long as they can on their path to catastrophic change for all of humanity.  Most Americans know something has got to give, but many delude themselves into the idea that it won’t affect their own consumer habits, while others know that it must happen but not how it can happen.  As awareness of the urgency of the planetary crisis grows more widespread, the clash between consumer culture and ecological culture will intensify.


[1] Powerful, scientifically grounded explanations of the self-deceptions of mainstream economics in service to the wealthy and powerful in contrast with the necessary relations of humanity to our finite planet are found in Philip. B. Smith & Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From power and greed to compassion and the common good.

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