Of Surpluses and Survival: Do We Have Enough Left to Invest for the Common Good?

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the Kent-Ravenna Record Courier

Of Surpluses and Survival: Do We Have Enough Left to Invest for the Common Good?

In a broad sense, life is capitalism: having a surplus that can be invested forward to make life better is what has created life on earth, human beings, human communities and human civilization. Until there was a surplus beyond what was needed for mere survival there could be no progress, no moving out to new fields or forests, no risking today's rations for a bigger harvest tomorrow.

It's biological: a surplus of individual cells or organisms means there will be some survivors of change. Until there are enough individuals for some to be wasted as resources change, for some to be risked for innovation, and some to be lost in lotteries of mutation or predation, change leads to extinction.

Even the storage of body fat is a kind of capitalism. Subsistence hunter-gatherers survived lean times because they could overeat when the hunting was good and store the surplus as body fat. The agricultural revolution grew when we learned to create "capital" of grain -- grow and store a surplus to feed the population during seasons of scarcity and provide seed for the next planting.

The capital of human knowledge and skills, captured in writing and counting, provided another kind of surplus for human progress. Human societies developed a system of portable, fungible surplus: money and credit. And participatory democracy created a rich surplus of knowledge for solving human problems.

But the joker in the pack today is the surplus of people. Biologically they are there in all their numbers and diversity so that there will be some survivors to start over when populations are decimated by crop failure, disease, natural disaster, climate change, or wars.

Culturally, there are too many people because breeding surplus individuals (warriors, laborers despised /expendable classes) by encouraging pregnancy, protecting mothers, and nurturing children has survival value. Our present dilemma is partly that our cultural capital, with its emphasis on the value of human life, has put us on a collision course with the practical economics of both biological and capitalistic systems. When we cannot feed all the people, what happens? Or when a few wealthy corporations will feed only those who can pay, what do poor people do?

We are rapidly learning that free market capitalism is not working toward a better tomorrow for all the human family. But we are a long way from knowing how to manage the cannibalistic capitalism of biology, let alone the myths and metaphors we take for reality.

We propagate elaborate myths to glorify warriors who sacrifice their lives to the dreams of power of our leaders. We fabricate fables to justify slavery, racism, homophobia and to deny global warming. We argue that the poor deserve to be hungry, and that fighting terrorism justifies killing children. We even work to tweak the Constitution and laws to make sure some lives are wasted to enhance the survival of the rest of us.

We seem determined learn the hard way whether the costs in energy consumption and CO2 emissions of nuclear power generation are tolerable and the risks acceptable. We repeatedly test the proposition that investing in war and the destruction of human lives, homes, factories, roads, bridges, water supplies, farmland creates a better future for everyone.

We're basically tinkerers, good at getting along with kin and neighbors and making small systems work, locally and temporarily, whenever we have a little surplus capital -- financial, cultural, social, political, technical or informational -- to work with. Our penchant for grand schemes has almost done us in before, because almost any grand scheme, practical or fantastical, will go -- somewhere. Hardly any have gone where they were expected to go.

There never before has been a test of grand schemes on the scale provided by the Bush Imperium. We don't know yet whether the lemmings are heading over the cliff or toward the bean-fields. Those of us watching from the hillsides aren't even sure what to wish for, let alone what we might do, ought to do, or even could do, to get a better outcome for the lemmings, for ourselves, for the Earth.

Here in Portage County most of us have enough surplus to look up from personal survival to the common good for our communities and our nation. We are watching the presidential and congressional contenders hoping they will hear our concerns.

Some of us believe the costs and risks of bombing Iran are well worth the projected outcome. Others are convinced that any attack on Iran will lead to World War III or a nuclear holocaust. Depressingly, many believe that there will be an attack on Iran before the election, and that there is nothing We-the-People can do about it.

Worse, many don't really believe we can pull ourselves out of this one and cope with the next Big One -- whether it's Bush spending our remaining surpluses on war, or Mother Nature thwacking us with earthquakes, cyclones, peak oil or global warming.

* * *

The cartoon character Dilbert recently commented that a class he took on being 'less useless' made him recognize that though his job was a waste of time, he was powerless to do anything about it. "Now," Dilbert concluded, "my helplessness makes my uselessness seem unimportant."

Human helplessness trumps human uselessness? Is that all that remains of the great capital of democracy?

Caroline Arnold

Caroline Arnold retired in 1997 after 12 years on the staff of US Senator John Glenn. She previously served three terms on the Kent (Ohio) Board of Education. In retirement she is active with the Kent Environmental Council and sits on the board of Family & Community Services of Portage County. Her Letters From Washington has been published as an e-Book by the Knowledge Bank of the Ohio State University Library.  E-mail: csarnold@neo.rr.com

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