New Year, New Lessons
This piece has nothing to do with the pandemic. Rather, once we beat that, and are still left with where we started—what we’ve wrought with planet and one another, alike—we must still reinvent much of what we do, in order to save us all, in the long-term.
2020 is now in our rear-view mirror. It will take some time — perhaps most of this year — to unpack just what happened, and to clarify the lessons we can take away from what will assuredly be remembered as a pivotal year.
Whether you were on the losing side of the year’s global disruptions, or escaped it largely intact, but for inconveniences of the social kind, it remains nonetheless a year worthy of honest reflection and reappraisal — a “reset year”, as I wrote less than a month ago, for An Injustice!.
But beyond politics and the pandemic, itself; beyond jobs and the economy; beyond the future of cities and the Internet; there are life lessons about our own conduct we needn’t wait to internalize as we turn the page, and consider making resolutions, as we do every year.
Some resolutions are more consequential than others, either because they will literally sustain us, as humans, on an increasingly inhospitable Earth, due to our own actions; or because, assuming we find solutions to these man-made crises, they will improve everything else that we may be secretly hoping for in the sphere of mental and economic health, as we bumble our way through everyday life.
So, I’d like to take a moment at the outset of 2021 to revisit just two categories of human activity that are, in my view, among the most consequential, and from which we can learn, and improve outcomes.
Everything is Connected
This isn’t metaphysical hyperbole. Every action we take lives on long after its end, in the impact it has had in the world, both physically and psychologically.
The Physical Earth
Let’s start with the physical.
We’ve seen the interconnectedness of things catastrophically, with human impact on the natural world. Parts of the planet now constantly burn, like California and Australia. 90% of America’s 57 thousand wildfires in 2020 alone were caused by humans, according to iii.org, destroying 10.3 million acres of habitat. That’s equivalent to burning the states of New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island, down to the ground.
Waterways are now literally composed of trash dense enough to walk across in places, in the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere, as Americans and others export more than 90% of their plastic waste — mostly conveniences for shipping, costs and marketing — to foreign lands ill-equipped to deal with it. I’m speaking of the garbage we feel good about, because we have put it in the blue bins, and therefore assumed it would be recycled, and free of environmental impacts.
It ain’t so.
More than 157 thousand large shipping containers filled with plastic waste were shipped to nations brimming with such waste and unable to manage it just last year, thereby ending up in our oceans. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where currents gather much, but not all, of the plastic we toss into the ocean — a material that takes 1,000 years to decompose — is now larger, at 617,000 square miles, than all but seventeen of the world’s nations.
Then, there’s groundwater — the kind that undergirds the world’s food supply. Earth has 37 enormous aquifers, which take on average 20,000 years to fill. In just a few generations — one three hundredth of the time they will take to refill — we have depleted 21 of them to unsustainable levels, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories. The United States, Pakistan and India are collectively responsible for 2/3 of that total. In Saudi Arabia, their own aquifer was emptied in just 30 years, sending the desert nation’s only water source elsewhere, bound up in exported wheat. Many of these aquifers are within a decade or two of drying up altogether.
The impact on the world’s food supplies will be huge. These three nations collectively house nearly one quarter of the world’s humans.
It’s not just the water. A landmark study by the University of Texas’s Department of Chemistry and Biology, and published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, tracked USDA data spanning 50 years, from 1950 to 1999, for 43 different fruits and vegetables. Due to two forces — selective breeding for robustness, yield and sweetness, i.e.: return on investment; and chemical depletion of the soil itself, as we demand more and more from it, and impregnate it with chemicals, also for ROI — the foods themselves are far less nutritious than they used to be, and the soil itself is increasingly unable to grow it.
Before World War II, the way the world farmed was by mimicking biology. The crop foods, livestock manure, and cover crops meant to recharge the soil were all planned to benefit the earth on which we depended. One teaspoon of native grassland contains 600–800 million individual organisms, fueled by plants, fungi, bacteria, lichen, moss and algae… in their natural state. Once Agri-businesses took over food production after the war, turning it wholesale into an industrial, mono-culturing process wholly dependent on engineered biology and deadly pesticides, not only did the Earth itself become stripped of its biodiversity, but the foods themselves became the quasi-empty, carbohydrate-laden vessels that they are today.
Let’s remember: the reason we eat food isn’t for joy; it’s because the human body requires 14 vitamins, 16 minerals, amino and fatty acids in certain proportions and intervals in order to survive — absent which illnesses and death of our nutrient-dependent biology is what’s left. The fact is that on average, the foods we eat today are between 20 and 40% less nutritious than the same apple, carrot or cucumber was just a generation ago. A British study found that you’d have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of vitamin A as your grandparents did from just one.
If you want to do a deep dive on the topic of nutrition and farming, I wrote the following article back in 2016.
Then, there are animals. The World Wildlife Federation reported in 2018 that humans have fully wiped out 60% of the planet’s remaining mammals, birds, fish and reptiles on Earth… in just fifty years; and that we are facing “the annihilation of wildlife” within our lifetimes.
The impact on humans will be catastrophic. It’s not just cute bunnies that we won’t be able to pet. We’ll probably still grow these, along with cows and chickens to eat. But. The interdependency of insects, animals and terrestrial habitat — foods included! — is utterly all-encompassing. Any single piece of this, out of balance, takes the whole system down. Take bees alone. They pollinate 70 of the 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world. The BBC reports that “a world without bees could struggle to sustain the global human population.”
And it’s not “just” the bees.
Let’s look at forests. These “lungs” (we breathe in the oxygen that they produce, to live) cover 30% of the world’s land, today. In the past 26 years alone, humans have cut down 46% of the world’s trees — nearly half. As photographer Sebastião Salgado is fond of asking rhetorically, “How long do you think humans will survive once the last tree is gone? 30 seconds? A minute?”
The central point is this: a planet mistreated is a planet that will no longer sustain those who deface it. Climate change isn’t about how much rain falls, or what jacket we need to wear. It is about annihilating the world’s animals; decimating its forests; plugging up its waterways; rendering the Earth unable to grow foods; and hammering away at human settlements that find themselves increasingly prone to the threats we’ve created.
If you’re not getting the hint yet: ignoring climate change — or contributing to it — is synonymous with self-destruction.
The Institute for Economics and Peace says that greater exposure to natural disasters, water and food shortages will likely lead to the displacement of 1.2 billion humans within the next 30 years.
Where do you think they’ll go?
We need to stop thinking about climate change in particular as inconvenient weather and start thinking about the impacts of human acts as Earth-changers. So far, it’s the only planet we have. Without plants, animals, safe water, food and a hospitable climate, as Salgado says, “The Earth itself will be fine.” It’s gone through six mass extinctions, so far, and reinvented itself each time; and it even shifted from a hypoxic methane atmosphere to the oxygen-rich one that allowed every living creature today to exist, patiently waiting the millions and billions of years it required to do so, in order to rebalance itself in the process.
But we won’t be here to witness it. Not unless we begin treating our “house” the way it deserves: with whatever it requires in order to sustain itself, in perpetuity — and by extension, us.
The Earth doesn’t give a flying f*ck about quarterly returns.
We need to stop, too.
The Psychological—aka: Human—Earth
Let’s imagine for a moment that politicians and capitalists will wake up and decide that the Earth needs protecting and rehabilitation; that we stop destroying it for quarterly returns or re-election; and that we stop the centuries-long siege, tomorrow. (Just go with me here.) There’s still the matter of what kind of human we are, to one another, as a species: whether we empower or weaken one another; whether we treat ourselves in a healthy way, or abuse ourselves, both physically and emotionally.
The human mind, like the planet, is an ecosystem — one made up of emotions and interdependencies with other humans. We, like any natural system, are co-dependent on things and people both within and outside of ourselves. And like the planet, we have defaced our inner landscapes, waging war on ourselves and on one another. The political systems we live with, and the infrastructural ones, are so unnatural to what it is to be part of a natural human community in balance that we sicken ourselves emotionally at every turn; which in turn has a physiological impact on our wellbeing.
It’s not hyperbolic to say that capitalism — forget the returns — has waged a continual war not only on the Earth but on human psychological health. We evolved in small tribes consumed with one aim only: the maximized wellbeing of the community, which included everyone in it. Since the advent of two Industrial Revolutions and Adam Smith’s capitalism, however, we now largely — mostly; entirely — exist exclusively to game one another, for our zero-sum gain (I win; you lose; I get a mansion, fleet of cars, private jet and access to everything that keeps me healthy; while you get a rat-infested apartment, a quasi-functional subway system, a bicycle and half a life spent begging wealthy professionals to examine what it is that’s making your family sick, to no avail). Politicians are the worst offenders, plundering the land and its riches while treating humans as chattel, there for the manipulation of those in power, to whatever ends it decides.
We have largely lost our virtue, our values and our ethics in the bid for quarterly returns, and a transaction-centric existence. We no longer know or trust one another, our government included; and most of us struggle and fail to get atop the first few tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, so that we can tackle the higher order tasks of growth and fulfillment we began the human journey with.
The physical defacement of the planet is just an outward manifestation of the internal defacement of our human character. We are sick, inside; and it is sowing actions that weaken the human project and its host planet.
Much as we need to stop ruining the Earth, we need to stop ruining ourselves, and one another. We need to repair our emotional ecosystems, because it is only with emotional health that we can act healthfully in the world, in a way that will better it for our communities.
The Journal of Abnormal Psychology reported in 2019 that among over a half-million respondents, depression has climbed by 52–63% in the past 12 years, while psychological distress has increased by 71% over the same period.
The American Psychological Association found that suicides have increased by 30% in the past sixteen years, while that number is far higher, at 50%, for girls and women, making it the tenth-leading cause of death in the US, in 2016.
Then, there’s the impact of income inequality on mental health. In a separate article, the American Psychological Association reports that socioeconomic status (SES) has a big impact on domestic violence. Specifically, that “youth from lower SES backgrounds tend to have increased exposure and likelihood of suffering from detrimental future outcomes.”
Adverse childhood experiences are associated with chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death.
Adolescents exposed to violence in youth have decreased odds of getting married, graduating, or contributing economically. A significant portion of these also believe they will die before the age of 35.
Women in abusive relationships frequently lose their jobs, or are forced to quit, or fired, impacting their lives dramatically.
The WHO reports that one in three women worldwide have been physically or sexually abused.
17% if cities cited domestic violence as the primary cause of homelessness.
40% of military veterans with PTSD are living in poverty.
Four million American seniors per year are victims of psychological or physical abuse, or neglect.
1 in 20 older Americans have experienced financial mistreatment.
It goes on. And on. And on.
These are not the signs of a healthy human race.
Oxfam International reports that “Just eight men now own the same wealth as half the world.” Their report, An Economy for the 99 Percent, cites “how big businesses and the super-rich are fueling the inequality crisis by dodging taxes, driving down wages, and using their power to influence politics.”
Filed under “no sh*t.”
I have many wealthy friends, and I’m convinced all of them will take great exception to what I’m saying here and would likely wrestle me to the ground fighting to argue with my conclusion:
Capitalism is the weapon that will kill humankind.
The end game for this kind of inter-human toxicity is a bifurcated world full of humans with the financial might to insulate themselves to an increasingly inhospitable world, waging constant war on other humans for financial gain and for self-preservation alike, on one side; and a massive human majority of increasingly uneducated, abused, mentally ill, nutritionally deprived, physically displaced and physiologically prone people, waging their own war as they fight over scraps in a downward spiral that perpetuates itself.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World isn’t far off the mark.
Until — as Oxfam posits — we “build a human economy that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few”, we will continue to weaken all of humanity physically which — as we saw in the examples above — lead to psychological illnesses that in turn create or exacerbate physical ones.
We must, in short, replace capitalism with another system whose end goal, once again, mimics that of our early ancestors: the maximized wellbeing of the community, which included everyone in it.
I wrote a long piece on this for The Startup called The Relationship Economy, if you’d like to do a deeper dive on what a healthier alternative of human civilization looks like, in practice today.
My intention wasn’t to start the new year with depressing thoughts. But. I care too much to pretend things are rosy, and that as soon as we are all vaccinated, we can return to the plastic-shredding, soil-depleting, human-mining, thoughtless creatures we’ve been, of late.
We cannot make life better until we do an honest self-appraisal, because we alone are in control of our actions and choices; and simultaneously, we have proven time and again that when sufficiently aligned and fired up, we can exert significant influence over those whose actions affect us all — chiefly the politicians, leaders and businessmen whose self-centered manipulations are destroying both our physiological and psychological health, as well as that of the planet on which we fully rely to keep us alive, safe and fed.
We just need to be clear on what it is we are fighting for, and to have workable solutions that would benefit all.
So, no; this isn’t a fluff piece, or an encouragement to lose 20 pounds, or buy that bauble you’ve coveted for “too long”, this coming year. What it is, is a reminder that we are physically and psychologically fragile; that our actions directly impact our individual and collective health; and that we are — this is the good news — eminently capable, and in possession of tools to do the job, of “righting the wrongs” we’ve foisted on one another and the planet for two hundred years now, with increasing ferocity and efficacy, in time to make it all better for everyone, while we still can.
We simply need to change the calculus from one that weakens the whole to one that strengthens it.
To accomplish this, we need to change the systems and the priorities our species has settled on, over the past two centuries, in particular.
For anyone paying close attention to the world without making excuses, or prematurely filtering it through “what’s good for me and my family, in the short term”, you’ll realize that there is only one game that ends with the survival and wellbeing of our species:
The long game.
And the long game has real short-term costs. It is difficult. It is painful, especially since we now have to undo many things we’ve done, of late. Humans aren’t very good at taking short-term pain for long-term gain. We are near-sighted, addictive creatures who want what we want, now. Just look at Amazon. The wealthiest company — and human — on Earth is the one who has traded on these things, more than anyone: convenience, low cost and our own impatience.
This isn’t about Jeff Bezos. But it is about all of us.
Capitalist systems will finish destroying the planet.
Relationship systems must replace them, and we must have leaders who want nothing more than to repair our terrestrial and human interactions.
What a thought: that relationships are more important than anything.
Give it some thought this year.