Joshua Headley: Morality & (Un)sustainability

By Joshua Headley / Deep Green Resistance New York

As a socially conscious person situated within the heart of global industrial civilization, I often experience, directly and indirectly, injustices on a daily basis.

A week ago, the NYPD (via two plainclothes officers) murdered a 16-year-old boy, Kimani Gray, firing 11 shots – hitting him 7 times in total; 3 in the back, 4 in the front. Monday night a large crowd began a vigil that would kick-off a week full of protest in the neighborhood – the night culminated in trash being thrown into the streets to slow down the riot police, glass bottles being thrown at officers from rooftop buildings, and the NYPD entering numerous apartments without warrants. Following that night (and for every day since) the East Flatbush neighborhood has been under military-style occupation with no less than three riot police on every single corner for more than 30 blocks. By Wednesday, the NYPD had declared the neighborhood a “Frozen Zone,” essentially affirming martial law by limiting press access and arresting anyone who did not precisely follow police instructions. One week later, tensions are still as high as ever, and justice has yet to be served.

This is just one example of many injustices that occur in this city every single day. The NYPD “Stop and Frisk” policy continues to racially profile men and women of color, funneling the youth of Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn through the education-prison pipeline at alarming rates. “Crime” is on a steady rise, not as unsurprising as one may think due to the directly proportional rise in poverty among every borough and neighborhood in the city. Every day, more people lose their jobs, their access to food stamps and medical benefits, and every day more people lose hope for the future. In the last year alone, the city has seen multiple seemingly-random outbursts of violence– one man went borough to borough opening fire and stabbing pedestrians on the street at will; another opened fire near the Empire State Building after losing his job (while the NYPD themselves, in their attempt to “bring him down,” shot up to eight passerbys in their own cross-fire); and even a few people were, for unknown reasons, pushed in front of oncoming subway trains by complete strangers.

Subconsciously (and for some of us, consciously) we all know things are bad. Really bad. We don’t really need the mainstream media’s live Twitter feed to remind us of the state of decay in which our society functions. But often we ignore it – we do our best to keep our ear buds blasting noise and our eyes focused on the concrete to avoid any confrontation with reality. We say to ourselves, “I am a moral person, and I am responsible – I would never do such things and it’s really just a matter of educating and elevating others to my consciousness. If I lead by example, others will follow.” While one could (very easily) argue that this culture makes most of us, in fact, insane (or increasingly drives us to points of insanity), it still does take extraordinary leaps and bounds to get to a point in which we lose our morality and social responsibility entirely. I certainly know way too many socialists and activists who consider themselves to be The Most Moral and Just Citizens of the World™.

But, if that is generally true– if most leftists and activists do represent a moral high ground in our society, and our collective will for more social responsibility alone could alleviate the continually degrading human condition– why hasn’t it happened yet? Why haven’t those in power been persuaded to our side? Is this ultimately possible? Is it really just a matter of switching out the psychopaths that run our culture for more moral and responsible people? Will this result in the utopia of utopia’s in which all human needs are addressed and efficiently met thus eliminating all suffering? If not– if it really isn’t this simple – why do we waste so much time discussing it, and why haven’t our analyses and strategies changed?

Moral suasion as an argument and tool for social change is a bankrupt strategy. It not only falls short in the context of our current reality, it eventually becomes a counterrevolutionary force. Effective moral suasion is dependent upon the size of the oppressor(s). It generally does not work when applied to mass groups of people, and is generally only successful on a case-by-case basis with individuals and small groups. These individuals also have to be human beings, for the sole reason that to be persuaded they must have a conscience and/or an already existing morality (although it is pretty unlikely that an oppressor could ever have a conscience).

The reason, then, that moral argument is a bankrupt strategy for social change is because we are not dealing with individuals, small groups, or even solely human beings. What we currently face are arrangements of power through abstract systems and institutions of power (multinational corporations, nation-states, civilization, patriarchy, etc.) that involve large numbers of people that can be, and easily are, replaced. Our problems are systemic and no matter whom we “elect,” or choose to act on our behalf or for the greater good of humanity, the destructive nature of the system itself will continue unabated– acknowledging this is crucial to a radical analysis and a functional understanding of root causes of problems.

Many on the left, while acknowledging the various systemic problems in our society, do genuinely believe that if we switched to a more responsible, more moral society not based on greed or capitalism, that we will finally have the motive and incentive to create a sustainable and just future. The main oppositional force that prevents this change, so goes the argument, is capitalism – a highly inefficient economic system that funnels money, resources and power from the poor to the rich. It is therefore understood that it is capitalism’s social relations that create its inefficiency, and the hierarchy of its power prevents equitable distribution of its goods and services.

“We currently produce enough food to feed the entire world and yet millions of people die of starvation every year. If we change the social relations, and develop our personal capacities for mutual aid, we can feed every single human on this planet – no one would ever die of starvation.” Or so we are persuaded to believe. Sure, we can point to statistics of how much food is thrown out and wasted (in the United States alone, even) and logically come to a conclusion that this is a problem of distribution and efficiency.

Unfortunately, this type of logic fails to address the inherent “nature” of agriculture, industrialism, and civilization itself, which are all subject to (collectively and separately) diminishing returns and collapse. Ironically, these socialists, in their failure to question the given existence of these other systems, end up re-enforcing and defending the very processes they purport to oppose – a rather classic case of “revolutionaries” acting as their own counterrevolutionary force.

If this is the case, then here are some rather obvious questions we should ask ourselves: can industrial civilization and capitalism exist exclusively? Can we have a global industrial infrastructure functioning under socialism (even solely in a transitional phase), and still have a sustainable and moral society? Can we have our cake, and can we eat it, too? The answer: No. This isn’t only a fantasy – it is a seriously dangerous one.

For perhaps one could argue that certainly, under socialism, society would be more moral and ethical than how it currently exists under capitalism. But having a more moral society does not ultimately result in sustainability. These are two distinct (although highly interconnected) ideals. If our wish is to create both a fundamentally sustainable society and a fundamentally just and moral society, then we can’t forgive one for the sake of the other, and we have to start asking more radical questions about what this all might mean.

If there is one thing we understand about civilizations other than their rise and dominance in the last 10,000 years, it is that they are all fundamentally marked by collapse and degradation. Some last for thousands of years, some for centuries, but some (regrettably for us) barely make it past one or two centuries. The unifying processes here are the rise of cities, dense concentrations of population, the overshooting of carrying capacity, the limits to growth and the point of diminishing returns, and collapse (social, political, economic, and ecological).

Industrial civilization (i.e. urbanization, industrialism, industrial capitalism, etc.) is a specific arrangement of civilization characterized by massive urban centers and their dependency on machines and fossil fuel use. In its extremely short existence, just under two hundred years, we have seen an alarming rate of growth resulting in the hyper-interconnected global civilization of seven billion people in which we live today. The Population Reference Bureau describes this urbanization as such:

In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population [estimated in total at 1 billion people] lived in urban areas. By 1900, almost 14 percent were urbanites, although only 12 cities had 1 million or more inhabitants. In 1950, 30 percent of the world’s population resided in urban centers. The number of cities with over 1 million people had grown to 83.

“The world has experienced unprecedented urban growth in recent decades. In 2008, for the first time, the world’s population was evenly split between urban and rural areas. There were more than 400 cities over 1 million and 19 over 10 million. More developed nations were about 74 percent urban, while 44 percent of residents of less developed countries lived in urban areas. [1]

Megacities, as defined as urban centers with populations greater than 10 million people, have drastically increased – “just three cities had populations of 10 million or more in 1975, one of them in a less developed country. Megacities numbered 16 in 2000. By 2025, 27 megacities will exist, 21 in less developed countries.” This process of massive urbanization –unprecedented in size and scope – was made possible because of fossil fuel use, most specifically the “cheap” and “efficient” extraction of oil.

Because civilizations, in their inherent drive to greater and greater complexity, will inevitably reach a point of diminishing returns (i.e. when the amount that is returned per investment begins to decrease), they are subject to and defined by collapse. If the dramatic rise in human population was made possible because of fossil fuels (finite resources), it becomes crucial to question and understand when our civilization will reach the point of diminishing returns (peak energy).

The implications of reaching peak energy is a rapid decline in human population, a decline that will return world population to at least (if not less) the levels seen before the beginning of industrialism (a loss marked by billions). This process will occur whether or not peak energy is reached under capitalism or socialism, or a moral or immoral society. This is predominantly a structural problem – a problem in the way in which humans live on their landbase (a kind of social relation we often forget even exists).

As we can already see, based on our current dependency on energy intensive fossil fuel extraction (ex. Alberta tar sands oil) – at the same time of escalating erosion of soils, pollution of freshwaters, a rapid loss of biodiversity, and accelerating rates of biosphere pollution via emission of greenhouse gases – it should be a given that not only are we already past the point of diminishing returns but that the rate of collapse itself is accelerating.

Today, our current crisis is global and total in scope – our entire way of life and every living being (human and nonhuman) is hanging by a thread. Each day that passes, 200 more species go extinct, furthering a rapid loss of biodiversity. Each day, that thread gets thinner and the stress becomes even more unfathomable.

Current CO2 emissions are at 395 ppm – a level not reached in more than 15 million years. The time lag between levels of CO2 and temperature rise is roughly 30 years. Based on current levels of CO2 today alone, we are already locked into a global temperature increase of 3-6C over the next 30 years. An increase of 1.5C is all that is required to reach critical tipping points in which runaway global warming will occur, culminating in an abrupt extinction of nearly all biological life.

Each day, every single day industrial civilization marches on, the responsibility of action gets greater – but are we doing anything more than making sure we remain morally pure? Are we adequately escalating our actions to the severity of the problem?

There is nothing redeemable about this culture. Structurally, it is morally reprehensible – it requires massive amounts of violence (via conquest, genocide, slavery, repression, etc.) in order to “effectively” function and exist. There is nothing moral in having to steal resources from another group or landbase because your way of life is based on expansion rates that require more and more resources (from more and more places).

As has been said many times by others, the goal of an activist is not to try to navigate this culture and its systems of oppression with as much integrity as possible – the goal of an activist is to dismantle those systems. If we have a responsibility, as activists, to dismantle all systems of oppression and have a healthy, thriving planet for humans and nonhumans alike, we have to start talking more seriously (and radically) about where our problems come from and how to challenge them. This requires across the board questioning of everything we consider to be our “reality,” even when those questions get increasingly tough and hard to confront.

Where we go from here (and what we ultimately leave for future generations) is entirely up to us. If we are looking to be successful, the first step is (for once and for all) to throw away all of our bankrupt strategies and tactics. Our morality alone will not guarantee future generations will have air to breathe or water to drink. Throwing out one economic system for another, but not also taking with it its entire industrial infrastructure, will not stop the ecological degradation in any meaningful capacity.

Our time frame for effective action is rapidly shrinking and the longer we wait, the more destructive, chaotic, and total the collapse will be. If we have any expectation at all in not just surviving, but also repairing and restoring a thriving planet, we have to adapt a strategy that matches the severity of the problem. This culture must be stopped. We must dismantle industrial infrastructure, unlearn all destructive ideologies, and begin rebuilding genuinely sustainable communities as soon as possible, and by any means necessary.

[1] Human Population: Urbanization – Population Reference Bureau

5 thoughts on “Joshua Headley: Morality & (Un)sustainability”

  1. I found it ironic – and illustrative – that this piece was accompanied by a video advertisement for a Range Rover – a vehicle that gets 13-14 miles per gallon of gas in city driving. Apparently the universe, when watching us use the very products of civilization to evoke visions of ending the civilization that produced them, cannot help but show her sense of humor. To think that we can stop the moral, social and physical decline of our species is as misguided and egocentric a notion as those held by those currently in power who insist that this house of cards can go on indefinitely in a “sustainable” manner.

  2. Any ideas? Ive been searching my heary,my head,and the etheric in between for an answer. I was hoping an asteroid would come into our atmosphere and knoc out all the satellites that basically control the systems of society today,leaving humans to find their way in nature instead of in society.

  3. I just watched a BBC documentary, A Farm For the Future, about a person who is looking to prepare her farm for the low-energy future. It is still weird to me that the time of fossil fuels is drawing to a close even though it is blindingly obvious (if one ever stopped to think about it) that it could never have lasted more than 300 or so years anyway.
    This well-thought out documentary shows there are pioneers who have been working for decades to prepare for the low energy future and it actually doesn’t look bad at all.
    That’s all I’m going to say, check out the vid. It’s about 45 min long.

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