Letter of The Earth Commission

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Leonardo Boff

When I consider the state of the Earth and the world political scene, I become fearful. We could be headed towards an encounter with total disintegration. That is because, as noted by several analysts, starting with Marx, with Karl Polanyi, the Northamerican economist of Hungarian descent, and in our midst, with Brazilian Michael Löwy: the economy has become divorced from society. Separated and detached of all social control, human or state, the economy has run amok. It functions according to its own logic, that of maximizing profits, minimizing investments and reducing the payments on one’s debts to the greatest extent possible. And that is occurring on a world scale, with no concern for ecology. Everything is turned into a huge «Big Mac», all is thrown together into the market: health, culture, organizations, religion... It is a sign of the «general corruption and universal venality», as Marx said in 1847 («The Misery of Philosophy»). It is «The great transformation» - as Polanyi characterizes it - something never before seen.

The most disastrous effect of this transformation lies in the reduction of the human being to a mere producer and simple consumer. Everything else is a worthless economic zero: persons, social classes, regions and whole nations. Inanimate work (machines, equipment, robots) takes the place of living work (laborers.) Everything is reduced to markets that must be conquered to facilitate limitless accumulation. Competition, the more ferocious the better, is the motor that governs this logic. Only the strong survive; the weak do not resist: they desist into «non-existence.»

It so happens that this ferocity will collide with a limit: nature, whose resources are limited and whose capacity of resistance is not infinite. And nature is not respected. If it were, the economy would destroy itself... This is why it must cut down the Amazon jungle, to keep generating profits. The Earth is of late showing her displeasure: Global warming, hurricanes, droughts, floods ... and, at the human level, a growing violence in social relations. A Pentagon study on the climate warns: in the next three decades, the changes in the weather will be more dangerous than terrorism. Humanity is teetering on the brink of generalized disarray, chaos. It has to change direction. But... Is humanity willing to do so?

I see much wisdom in this sentence: the human being learns from history who learns nothing from history, but learns from suffering. Suffering is what makes a human being change. When submerged in water up to the neck, a human being shakes and does what it takes to change, or dies.

As things go, a great suffering, either ecological or socioeconomic, is coming upon us. If we were rational, we could avoid it. But, since we appear irrational and insensitive, we do not want to change our ways; and come ever closer to possible disintegration. But, let us console ourselves: disintegration is always formative, and chaos brings creation, as contemporary cosmologists are witnessing. The possibility of other orders is opened.

What alternatives are there to disintegration? In the next reflection we will return to this worrisome and sinister topic.