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Wealth, Carbon, and Human Culture

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by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

The rising accumulation of private wealth is to civilized governments as rising levels of CO2 are to Earth’s climate.

Screen Shot 2020-02-12 at 11.03.57 PMLet that sink in. Extremes accumulations of private wealth in human society and the extreme build-up of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere are both transformative, disruptive of a complex equilibrium and ultimately destructive for humanity.

Human culture is both a cause and a barrier to solving these two great threats to our collective welfare. In fact, these two looming catastrophes of extreme wealth inequality and extreme climate change are different aspects of a singular human flaw – personal greed. More specifically, both of these threats are outcomes of a powerful cultural priority that places profits over people. We don’t do what is our health best for human society because the cost would reduce personal profits for those who profit the most. The idea that we would not sacrifice personal wealth to save our immediate family from ruin is unthinkable, yet in the abstract of corporate enterprise, the concept of sacrificing business profits to benefit society as a whole is equally unthinkable.

We are at the second great inflection point as a species. We once again face social deterioration and possible extinction, despite being at the apex of our success as a species.

Humanity’s first inflection point was over 50,000 years ago when we almost became extinct. We were down to a very small number of survivors in Ethiopia. As a species, we were incapable of self-sacrifice to benefit the survival of the clan. This nearly caused our extinction. In this regard, we were much like many other species in this regard.

Consider the wolf. In the presence of a kill, the strongest wolf defends its right to eat its fill. It cannot eat less in order to save some meat for members of the pack who are starving. This is how evolution ensures the survival of the fittest among these top predators. But humans were never top predators. Our strength as a species is in our social bonds and the coordination of our collective actions. We, as a species, needed to suppress our self-preservation instincts to achieve our survival as a species.

We are told that this genetic alteration happened at this point around 50,000 years ago. It allowed individuals to sacrifice their personal welfare for the sake of the welfare of the group. This great self-sacrifice gene has carried us forward to the present. It has allowed us to create this massively interdependent human culture we enjoy today.

But now our more primitive personal greed tendencies are finding expression in an inability to sacrifice corporate profit (a hypothetical construct, and not an actual reality) to benefit the welfare of human society as a whole. Our inability to sacrifice corporate profits is once again threatening our existence as a species.

It is my curse to see this so clearly when so many seem incapable of seeing it at all.

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