Thursday, September 27, 2007

American Dream; Global Nightmare

On July 4th, 1776, the thirteen original American States declared independence from Great Britain, famously expounding the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”.

The document, which became known as the Declaration of Independence, set out grievances against King George III, who had ignored his Prime Minister’s advice and brought in harsh new taxes for the American Colonies and impeded autonomy.

It was written with noble intentions (the original draft even determining to abolish slavery), and ended with these words:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

So the original vision of ‘Happiness’ was a communal one — “All men are created equal” and the wealth of individuals can be pooled to help the whole community. It was the socialist ideal. Within that context, and that of acting honourably, self-determination was paramount, and the limitation of government powers was set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

This was an effective formula for happiness. We are happy when we have individual freedom and know we are doing good for the community. We are free to put in the effort to improve our lot, but need never deal with the guilt of abandoning others in need.

1776 also saw the publication of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, the book that ushered in the age of capitalism. He theorised that private competition free from regulation generated wealth more efficiently than a government-regulated economy, and that self-interest would naturally lead to the best outcome for society, as if by an “invisible hand”; there would be a steady increase in the standard of living.

Capitalism seemed to fit in with the philosophy of the newly formed United States — freedom from State interference; improving your lot; serving the interests of society. It became integrated into the emerging society, replacing the initial socialist model.

But capitalism exists through inequality — for one person to get richer another must become poorer. The richer person also acquires power. Big business wins out over small, driving it bust or taking it over. The masses end up working for big business. They have the vote, but government aims to leave the economy alone, under the principals set out in The Wealth of Nations. Within the corporations, only the shareholders get a vote, and they vote for higher returns. To achieve ever-increasing profit, the corporations pay small wages, require long working hours and lay staff off whenever they can. ‘Homeowners’ quickly discover that it’s actually the bank that owns their home when they fail to keep up the mortgage repayments.

Today, most of the most powerful people in the world run corporations or hold huge share portfolios. George W. Bush is powerful, but his agenda is to push capitalism and Christian values onto the rest of the world.

Capitalism is not sustainable. Firstly, if the biggest businesses continue buying out smaller ones you eventually end up without competition; there are only a small number of huge multinationals and they’re all in cahoots. Secondly, the natural resources of the Earth are finite — you cannot continue manufacturing goods to meet a demand you have carefully created because the materials will run out. And you cannot rely on an ever-increasing world population because the food to feed it will similarly run out.

In Global Warming Q&A we looked at the geophysical reasons for climate change. But it’s a world economy based on an American model of resource-intensive capitalism that is the root cause.

It’s time to start living within our means.

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