Still a nomadic people


One thought that has been crossing my mind of late, particularly when viewing the abandoned buildings, industrial wastelands and lost hopes, is the true nature of ourselves and our civilization(s). I used to live in northeastern Ohio and drove daily past these crumbling homes of once prosperous companies and families. Even where I grew up in Chicago some of the crummiest neighborhoods were once the polished estates of the wealthy — their mansions subdivided into warrens of little rooms, their grandeur lost in providing a huddling place.

It struck me that to some extent, humanity is like some immense slime mold that crawls over the landscape in search of food and leaving behind the gooey remains of its passing. Across history it would appear that centers of activity would form and prosper — if to exploit some local resource they would thrive until that resource was exhausted, then slowly die. The people who served in these enterprises were no where near as mobile as the folks who built them — so when new opportunities emerged, the fortunes moved elsewhere. Unlike the true nomads of the past, these contemporary nomads left huge chunks of their ‘tribe’ behind as they wandered the landscape. Same process, move from place to place to exploit some resource, then leave when it is exhausted — just that now it takes decades, even centuries to go through the cycle.

What I find interesting about the current cycle — called globalization, is that the resource being exploited is human rather than physical. Companies shut down productive facilities to move the work elsewhere, leaving behind the trained workers who built their prosperity. When the new workplace gets established in some distant area, often the very machinery has to be brought in — what is being exploited are the masses of people willing to work cheap. And unfortunately accompanied by a certain casualness about the mess being created. Why could this not have stayed where it was?

The mantra is its cheaper, so the company can make more profit even though a new workforce has to be trained and the products must ship long distances. The social costs of the abandoned workforce is conveniently ignored — their costs get picked up by those lucky enough to still have work. Privatization of profit and socialization of risks is very popular these days — seems that having a social conscious is now a liability, just look at the current presidential campaign. A select group profits and everyone else pays the consequences.

As local costs go up, wages get pushed up for a while then fall to zero. All of the services that were paid for by these wages suddenly starve. Education, a core part of the prosperity of the recent past, is cut back and the ability of successive generations to take on more challenging work is compromised — in effect we burn the bridges to the future to keep warm.

There seems to be a core problem in all of this — the idea of ‘more’. Companies are lambasted for not growing forever, pushing their profit margins up and up, regardless of the cost. Workers want ever higher wages for the same or sometimes even less work. Asset values must be ever larger. This concept of unlimited growth in a bounded world is a cancer that is consuming society. And when it screws up there are savage sacrifices required of the masses — one cannot expect the 1% to give it back, can we?

Makes me wonder if to get past this point we need to rethink a lot of things. For one, we have gone to the corners of the globe — there are few unexploited areas left. Going up is the next logical frontier (as is going down) but both require huge energies that are beyond our capabilities. We are still cobbling together caravelles and long ships one by one, mass transit is a long way away. Similarly we still craft individual buildings and largely ignore the capabilities of manufacturing. And there are far too many of us — as with more of everything else, more people seems to be our mandate despite much evidence that we have overrun the sustaining capability of our planet.

So I wonder how this will end? Will we find a transformative idea to move humanity from the current state? Or like a slime mold trapped in a jar — die out when the last resources are exhausted, trapped in our paradigm?

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