FIVE ESPECIALLY
DANGEROUS BELIEFS


(An excerpt from “You Can Change the World: The Global Citizen’s Handbook for Living on Planet Earth)
By Ervin Laszlo



1. Nature Is Inexhaustible
The belief that nature is a limitless resource and provides an infinite sink for waste, goes back thousands of years. It did not occur to people of ancient Babylon, Sumer, Egypt, India and China that their environment could ever cease to supply them with edible plants, domestic animals, clean water and breathable air, or be fouled by waste and garbage. Nature seemed far too vast to be tainted, polluted, or defiled by human activity.
The classical belief in the inexhaustibility of nature was understandable and relatively innocuous. In most parts of the world people did not overstep the limits of nature’s capacity to regenerate the required resources; they lived in balance with their environment. This changed about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, now the Middle East.

Here, at the cradle of Western civilization, people were not content to live within the rhythms and cycles of nature but sought ways to harness the forces of their environment. In some places, such as ancient Sumer, their practices had vexing consequences. In deforested lands flash floods washed away irrigation channels and dams and left fields arid. In the course of millennia of cultivation, the Fertile Crescent of biblical times became an arid region dominated by sandy desert.

In classical times people could move on, colonizing new lands and exploiting fresh resources. Today there is nowhere left to go. In a globally extended industrial civilization wielding powerful technologies, believing in the inexhaustibility of nature is extremely dangerous. It gives rein to the overuse and thoughtless impairment of nature’s resources, and to the overload of its self-regenerative cycles. If unchecked it will render nature incapable of satisfying the basic needs of our vast and still growing populations.

2. Life Is a Struggle for Survival
This age-old belief was given fresh substance by Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. The social application of Darwin’s theory, “Social Darwinism,” holds that in society, as in nature, the fittest survive. This means that if we want to survive we have to be fit for the existential struggle — fitter than our competitors. In society fitness is not determined by genes. It is a personal and cultural trait, expressed as smartness, daring, ambition, and the ability to garner money and put it to work.

In the 1930s and ‘40s Social Darwinism was an inspiration of the Nazi ideology. It justified the conquest of foreign territories in the name of creating Lebensraum (living space) for Germany, and was put forward as a justification of the genocide of Jews, Slavs and Gypsies: the fitness — defined as the racial purity — of the Aryan race was to be preserved. In our day Social Darwinism has not disappeared, although it is not as virulent as in Nazi Germany. Armed might is still used to secure perceived interests, whether they are territorial, cultural, or economic.

Today’s struggle for survival also takes another form: it emerges in the subtler but equally merciless struggle of the marketplace. In this struggle fitness rewards corporate executives, international financiers, and speculators: they become rich and powerful. The resulting gap between rich and poor creates frustration and issues in violence, but the “fit” usually ignore these consequences. The market variant of Social Darwinism is nearly as dangerous as its armed variant.

3. The Market Distributes Benefits
In the industrialized world this obsolete belief elevates the market to the status of a tribal god. Unscrupulous business leaders accept pollution and global warming as the unavoidable cost of market competition. They sacrifice to it farmlands, forests, wetlands and prairies, ecosystems and watersheds. Afterall, the market distributes the benefits, so if one company or one economy does well, the others will do well, too.  

Unfortunately this belief ignores a fact noted by economists themselves: the market distributes benefits only under conditions of near-perfect competition, where the playing field is level and all players have more or less the same number of chips. But in today’s world the field is far from level and the chips are far from being evenly distributed. Consequently the global market favors the rich at the expense of the poor. The richest 20% of humankind earn 90 times more than the poorest 20%, and the gap between them is growing.

4. The Richer You Are, the Better You Are
On the personal level this typically modern belief justifies the struggle for profit and wealth. It tells us that there is equivalence between the size of our wallet — as demonstrated among other things by the size of our car and house — and our personal worth as the owner of the wallet.

This equation of human worth with financial worth has been consciously fueled by business. In former years, companies advertised conspicuous consumption as the ideal. Writing in 1950s Amer-ica, Victor Lebov, a retailing analyst declared, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, and that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. The economy needs things consumed, burned, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

Today we know that the classical forms of consumerism lead to over-consumption and resource-depletion, and are neither healthy nor sustainable. The purely quantitative forms of economic growth are not inherently desirable. The hoarding of wealth by an individual, the same as the single-minded pursuit of wealth by a government, is a sign of insecurity, rather than of integrity.

5. The Way to Peace is through War
The ancient Romans had a saying: if you aspire to peace, prepare for war. This matched their conditions and experience. The Romans had a worldwide empire, with rebellious peoples and cultures within and barbarian tribes at the periphery. Maintaining this empire required a constant exercise of military power. Today the nature of power is very different, but the belief about war is much the same.

Like Rome in classical times, the United States is a global pow-er, but one which is economic rather than political. Maintaining it requires not armed enforcement but fair and sustainable relations between the world’s remaining superpower and the rest of the international community.

This insight needs to dawn on the U.S. President the same as on all world leaders. Wise people have pointed to it already. Gandhi said that acting on the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth ends up by making everyone blind and toothless. The Dalai Lama remarked that today the world is so small and interdependent that war has become anachronistic, an outmoded approach — it should be relegated to the dustbin of history.

The Pope has likewise condemned war as an instrument of national policy. The statement endorsed by the Members of the Club of Budapest (reproduced in the book’s Appendix) went still further: it affirmed that in today’s world, war is a crime against humanity.

We can see the futility of war and violence when we think of relations among individuals instead of states. Take a boardroom or council chamber. The agenda of the people around the table calls for dialogue and negotiation — the problems they face require shared decision and cooperative action. But some in the group hide a gun in their pocket, thinking they can prevail by threatening the others. Others in the group suspect this and pull their own guns to disarm those who might become aggressive.

Still others feel that such preventive action is an aggression in itself; before using one’s guns, those who hide arms should be given a chance to surrender them. But those with the biggest guns decide to use them. Then the whole table becomes polarized — some side with the big guns, others go against them. Bedlam erupts; shared decisions and cooperative actions are out of the question. Since everyone around the table owns guns, the situation can soon get out of hand.

When it comes to relations among states, the dynamics are similar, but the outcome is more dramatic. The lives of entire populations are at stake. The consequences of violent or violence-provoking actions are suffered not by those who make the decisions, but by the millions and billions whose interests they are supposed to represent.

In any event, in an economically divided and hate-filled world, investing in armaments and war is a poor choice. Global military expenditures already top $800 billion a year; the United States alone spends more than $340 billion, not counting the additional $75 billion for the war on Iraq.

Yet starvation and the worst forms of malnutrition could be eliminated from the face of the Earth for an estimated $19 billion; shelter could be provided for the world’s homeless for $21 billion; clean water could be provided for everyone for about $10 billion; deforestation could be halted for $7 billion; global warming could be prevented for $8 billion and soil erosion for $24 billion.

Investing in such programs would be far more effective in alleviating frustration and defusing hatred than funding military campaigns to kill terrorists and attack “rogue” states and unfriendly regimes.

Published by SelectBooks, Inc., You Can Change the World: The Global Citizen’s Handbook for Living on Planet Earth, is available at www.selectbooks.com and at your local bookstores.




Return to the March/April Index page