This is quite a disturbing subject for me to write about and it will require a great deal of generosity of spirit to complete. The reason I find it so distasteful to even discuss, in writing, is because it is so ubiquitous and such an anathema to what I think is the only survivable way of organising human affairs. Artists, generally, are all about replenishment, growth and giving. Sadly, they appear to be in the minority. Even among artists, there are those that are all about extraction, selfishness and taking. It’s not pretty. No wonder so many people are depressed. So they should be, with the state of most people’s mindsets. It’s a total drag.
With that optimistic opening out of the way, let’s begin our discourse on the matter of extraction and replenishment.
Some people, as we are all too painfully aware, are all about taking and never giving. We have an entire, global, economic system predicated on that ethos. Taking is enshrined in law and culture. We live in a fundamentally extractive system, purpose-built to take as much as it can get away with taking. To be effective and favoured actors in this humanly constructed game, of our own devising, one must fully embrace extraction and take more than the next fellow. It’s a form of arms race, where one’s value and worth is measured by the size of the pile of stuff you have extracted, both from the planet and from others. The heads of this hierarchy are those that take the most.
We also know that those who set their mind to taking (and taking and taking) encounter no practical limit to their avarice save for the complete exhaustion of whatever resource it is that they purloin for their own dubious purposes. In other words, it’s an open loop system. There is no feedback to limit the extent of absolute extraction, other than ultimate exhaustion of the environment we depend upon to sustain life. The feedback built into our thinking is only relative, where we regard the taking as a zero sum game: what I have, others cannot have.
This also turns out to be untrue and we sacrifice abundance by insisting on extracting from resources we ensure are scarce. It doesn’t need to be this way. There is another choice. We can opt to replenish, but there are few incentives to do so, in a society that is hell bent on taking more, the moment replenishment occurs. We’re never content to let a replenished resource just be, unexploited and unspoilt.
If we all take and nobody ever (voluntarily) gives, while still fewer replenish, then eventually everything runs out. Are you a giver or a taker? Honestly? If you’re like most people, the human being inside you knows, intuitively and instinctively, that taking without self-restraint is not sustainable. You will, by nature, be inclined to be a giver (assuming you are not pathologically psychopathic). However, you will have chosen, through the constraints of the society we have agreed to uphold, to take relentlessly, because that’s what everyone else does in order to get on. Against your better nature, you may be burning down your own house in the name of status, wealth, impressing others doing the same and to fool yourself into thinking it makes you more important, special and powerful, in the hierarchy we made up.
Burning down your own house and all the furniture in it, in fact, leaves you naked, vulnerable, unprotected and exposed to the vagaries of the weather, but few see it that way. Why do we do something so unarguably irrational, en masse?
It starts from another human folly – a mindset constructed from zero hard evidence that we all buy into without question. We feel entitlement. From a young age, we’re taught that everything and everybody exists solely for our pleasure, entertainment and fulfilment. It’s a self-centred, narcissistic and infantile world view, but it’s an article of faith and axiomatic of modern life in our society. The message is reinforced hourly. We’re bludgeoned into adhering to this nonsense by the media and our leaders. Vast fortunes are spent ensuring that we continue to believe in this idiotic premise because still others, suffering from the same entitlement delusion, find a way to extract even more for themselves, if the rest of us do.
If you accept the orthodox premise uncritically, without question, as so many of us do, you begin to think life is little more than an opportunity to wield your personal power capriciously. Your agency is applied to the purpose of destruction and extraction. It never occurs to most of us that the alternative is to view life as an opportunity to contribute. We can play our parts, as part of an interconnected biosphere, to help it survive and prosper, through our actions and agency. Our powers of creativity can be equally well used to enhance the biosphere, rather than being used to find ever more devious ways of fooling everybody else into allowing us to steal the lion’s share of it. We think we can own parts of the biosphere, failing to see that it is we, in fact, that are owned by it.
The belief in infinite extraction, which is at the very heart of our global economic system, is an unrealistic insanity. As much as economic theorists and business leaders clothe themselves in credibility costumes and with stern, serious, studious countenances, pronounce on the rationality of their self-made game, the facts of the matter are that these people are completely unbalanced. They are, quite literally, suffering from a mental illness, in plain sight. Their belief system is, at root, totally crazy. What they tell us can happen, cannot happen. It’s a mass delusion. The self-appointed and elected prophets of this orthodoxy are hallucinating. They are not of sound mind, for all their pretence to the contrary. If you consume non-renewable resources, without constraint, eventually they will be gone. Forever. Then what will you do? What will you extract, at that point? Indeed, how will you even sustain your own life, in order to carry on taking? Extraction is a slow suicide.
Those of us that insist on fostering growth and tapping the enormous powers of creation that humans, by some happy accident, happen to possess are called stupid, unrealistic hippies and tree huggers. We’re ridiculed and insulted, denigrated and lampooned, for our dedication to what is, in truth, the only rational option available to us. The people dedicated to destruction think of those of us dedicating our lives to creation as madmen, when in fact it is precisely the opposite way around. If our ideas begin to resonate with other people, we’re branded as subversive reactionaries, hell bent on revolution. And so we are, because if nobody does change, the end-game is drearily and depressingly predictable. We’re ultimately doomed, if we carry on mindlessly extracting, without ever replenishing.
Economic inequality, which is inexorably rising and to an extent that most people cannot even comprehend and visualise, is a symptom of this entrenched extractive mind set. It exists because we are extractive and have been so, for a very long time. The solution to economic inequality, some posit, is for everybody to have the opportunity to take to the same extent as those at the top of the heap. That’s ridiculous. The real solution is twofold: firstly, ensure that those at the top of the economic rankings consume much less (since they acquire far beyond their material needs, feeding only their egos) and secondly, for the rest of us to focus on making more available. Switch from non-renewable resources to relatively renewable ones and ensure, through our technology and creativity, that we make these abundant.
We think we need government to protect us from the extractive, but our governments are the extractive. They are not the givernment. They are the takernment. Elected leaders are as avaricious, self-serving and extractive as the worst excesses produced by our economic system. They extract money, with menaces and threats, from the population, calling it taxation and spend it on massively extractive projects, in the main. Relying on these people to overturn the insanity is like allowing the lunatics to take over the asylum. We’re mad for believing they’re going to solve the problem for us. Whatever the solution is, to changing the human mindset from taking to giving, it won’t be found through elected leadership.
Dictatorships, fascism, oligarchies, monarchies, capitalism, communism, kleptocracies and plutocracies are fundamentally extractive, in mindset. Wars, too, are extractive. They’re all about taking what belongs to other people (even though it doesn’t really belong to them either; we belong to it) and they do so wastefully and destructively. The preparations for war are especially wasteful and extractive. We’re using resources we can’t get back to prepare for an orgy of destruction which may or may not ever happen. Either way, we lose.
Even anarchy can be either extractive or replenishing, depending on its complexion. Extractive anarchy is the one they always scare you with, where you have to single-handedly fend off hordes of violent thieves that want to take everything you own, by force, with pitchforks and fire. Replenishing anarchy sees people conducting themselves in a more relaxed, generous and abundant manner. Always choose replenishing anarchy, when given the choice.
I think the most effective solution lies in collectively snapping out of the hallucination that prevails. We all have a part to play and we can all take individual actions which, collectively and in aggregate, amount to a seismic shift. The sun only shines because one in every few thousands of millions of fundamental particle collisions results in the release of a single photon. That photon takes on the order of 170,000 years to reach the surface of the sun, whereupon it is emitted with a spectrum that relies on the vanishingly unlikely occurrence of an exotic isotope of hydrogen, present in a vanishingly thin photosphere. Yet, the sun powers the entire solar system and gives us life. I think it’s analogous to the sort of revolution we have to make happen. A few of us need to start emitting our replenishment powers, like those photons and the collective mass of those individual acts will eventually become an unstoppable force of nature.
Expecting creatives, the artists among us, to do all the giving, while others continue idly to do all the taking, won’t work. We all have to challenge and question our blind loyalty to extraction. Today, the takers think they’re really clever, while thinking the givers are complete and total imbeciles – rubes to be exploited mercilessly and with contempt. Creation is not honoured or respected. Rather, it’s despised as a weakness. This has to change.
The essence of art is a certain generosity of spirit. You can’t do art well unless you are prepared to put something of yourself into its creation. It’s hard to be a giver surrounded by rampant, delusional takers, though. You always feel as though you’re being taken advantage of, because largely you are. This is the courage that is required of makers, in order to make a significant difference. We’ll have to stare the takers in the eye, even as they rob us and know that what we’re doing is ultimately rational, sane and sustainable, whereas the behaviour of our robbers is infantile, self-defeating and wrong. That’s going to take quite some courage.
Artists and artists’ managers can be extractive too. We’re not immune from the madness, just because we’re creative. There are legions of artists that have been exploited to destruction by their managers and artists that have preyed on their fellow men, to achieve success. The mindset of an artist is not necessarily that of a giver. There are artists on the dark side that are pure takers. Artist burnout is the ultimate proof of extraction. We even have the fable of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs to describe it. Alternatively, artists, their careers and output can be managed for sustainability. An artist managed in this way is productive for their whole life. Sustainability is a much better goal than rampant extraction.
If we truly believe we humans are, by nature, an extractive species, then we really are doomed, because extraction has hard limits, which we are rapidly approaching. I, for one, don’t believe that for a second, though. We are, by inclination, generous, communal, social and sharing. Somehow, we’ve talked ourselves into suppressing that side of us, but it’s an overturnable choice and we should overturn it. On the other hand, few species are as extractive as we currently are and many, like the bees, replenish abundantly, in contrast to how we behave. There is some evidence that, given our creative powers, we could be abundantly replenishing too, by choice. It’s just a mindset, after all.
How could we start? Well, we could all adopt permaculture and live sustainably, without the sheer wasteful overhead of opulent, extractive rulers. Why are we carrying those leeches and why do we enable and empower them, in their quests to extract even more? That’s not sensible at all.
In looking for technical fixes, those that want to cling to extraction as a way of life may propose biodegradable plastics to solve the ocean waste problem, for example. You can still make money selling plastics, if the plastics eventually break down, when tossed into the ocean, after all, right? Or, you could just not toss plastic into the ocean.
You could also make something that isn’t plastic; to do the job of those six pack can holders that are the bane of ocean life. You could invent edible beer can holders, made from the stuff you would otherwise throw away as waste product anyway, which not only biodegrades faster (in hours, not decades), but also can be eaten by sea life, as food. Or you could question why beer has to come in cans and why do you need to be paid to clean up your own ocean? There are many approaches to adopting a replenishing mindset.
Instead of thoughtlessly killing things, you could take more care to ensure that they live and live well. Bernie Sanders recently tweeted: “It can seem easy to turn our backs on the vulnerable, but I believe what human life is about is everyone has an impact on everyone else.”
When you ask somebody extractive in mindset, an extractavist, to forsake extraction for replenishment and they reply, “What’s in it for me?” as they are likely to do, there can be only one response to them:
“It’s so that you can thrive, you idiot!”
Here are some excellent articles I used as inspiration for this post. Please read them, because my blog stats will tell me if you don’t and I will be very disappointed in you.