(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
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
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
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.
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