Review & Comment: Locked In

March 21, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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It was more than language, it was mathematics that allowed humanity to exceed all other species, in growth, in longevity, generally in prosperity … and to sow the seeds of its ultimate destruction. It’s not nuclear annihilation (although that, too, is a possibility), but the combination of population growth with the contamination and exhaustion of what was once thought to the inexhaustible resources of earth and oceans that will do us in. Made possible by an understanding of mathematics we devised a brilliant system — capitalism — that enabled small investments to be leveraged into ever bigger enterprises, with ever more powerful tools and machines, to provide ever more goods and services for an ever increasing population. And that’s the problem.

The Times columnist David Brooks, who tries to look beyond day-to-day issues to find the underlying patterns, lamented in his March 13 column that birth rates in many countries have been declining, leaving us with graying populations that do not stimulate production and consumption. For years, Brooks wrote, we “saw population growth as a problem. Now we’ve gone to the other extreme, and it’s clear that young people are the scarce resource.” In other words, Brooks was suggesting that we go back to unrestrained population growth so that capitalism could go on producing ever more goods and services for ever more people, and collecting the profits needed to continue the process ad infinitum.

But there is no infinitum. Unless we find a way to populate other parts of the universe, we are up against the finite. It appears we have already reached the point where, as Bill McKibben wrote in the March 8 New York Review of Books, “The planet is running short of the easy stuff, where you stick a drill in the ground and the crude comes bubbling out.” McKibben went on: “We could, as a civilization have taken that dwindling supply and rising prices as a signal to convert to sun, wind, and other non-carbon forms of energy … .” Instead, through hydraulic fracturing and other environment-threatening methods, we go chasing other ultimately exhaustible sources of energy.

We are locked in. The machinery of capitalism has become so big and so unadaptive, so dependent on a continuing stream of profits, that it can’t change. There is no way our global monster-capitalism can deal with a population that doesn’t grow. There is no way it can stop depleting the earth’s resources.

To be sure, we can probably go on this way for quite a few more generations. We can probably farm enough fish to compensate for the oceans’ wild riches disappearing; we may come up with miracles of hydroponic agriculture when all the fertile fields have been built over; we may all learn to be vegetarians when space for cattle raising is eaten up. But will we give up our cars? The one population-limiting technique that seems to offer some small hope (if that’s the word) is war. We still go on killing.

Why a Draft Is Necessary

One of the things the United States has locked itself into is that we fight all these wars we still lust for (let’s attack Iran!) with a limited number of professional soldiers that we send again and again into combat until, like the staff sergeant who murdered 16 Afghan civilians, they crack. Meanwhile the great majority of Americans have become insulated from every reality of war except its economic cost. The widespread desire to escape all taxes has not yet yielded a prescription to avoid taxes for the military. While politicians do their best to minimize or excuse this reality, they are also eager to avoid any return to universal service. The draft protests during the Vietnam War have left a lasting aversion to the idea that everyone should serve.

With the draft not a factor, it’s that much easier to commit soldiers to war, and, in the immortal sentiment of Donald Rumsfeld, to fight wars with the troops “we have.” If the draft were reinstituted, it would be harder to win public support for starting wars — everyone’s sons (and by now, daughters) would be at risk. But it would reduce the often unbearable pressure we put on the relatively few, and it might encourage greater thought about the advisability of war in the first place. And universal service, which could be for other projects in the public interest as well as for the military, would bring together the different classes of Americans that are now so widely separated between privilege and the lack of it. The draft, in engaging young brains, might even encourage a climate for wider re-examination of the contradictions into which we are locked in.

— Henrik Krogius, Editor

Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News

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