May 2006: Our Leaking Planetary Lifeboat

Pursued much longer, corporate greed will bring disaster
May 1, 2006

Given the dependence of all of Earth’s inhabitants—even the wealthy élite—on the planet’s basic life-support capacity, you might think that even the most selfish and powerful business executives, investors, and stock market speculators would by now have started to have doubts about the infallibility of their “free market” doctrine.

And a few of them are indeed having such qualms, including former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz and Wall Street financier George Soros. They are now saying, in effect, that unregulated global trade and capital flows are disastrous for most people, devastating for the environment, and unsustainable if our civilization is to survive.

But their dissent from the prevailing business-knows-best ideology is not being taken seriously. They are dismissed by their right-wing associates as mavericks or even traitors. And so the global corporate plunder continues, unrestrained by governments that have been converted into business lapdogs--and to hell with the social, economic, and ecological consequences.

* * *

The current situation could be compared with that of people stranded 100 miles from shore in a large but leaking lifeboat. The leaky stern of the boat, partly submerged, is occupied by the steerage passengers, who are up to their hips in water. (Let’s call them the workers.) The second-class passengers are a little better off, the water being only up to their ankles. (Let’s call them the middle-management class.)

The most fortunate, so far, are those in first class, who are snug and dry in the uplifted bow-section. They are also the only ones with guns, so they have taken most of the food and blankets for themselves. (Let’s call them the rich and powerful.) They care nothing for their fellow passengers, especially the workers in the stern, who are getting so weak that many can no longer do the tasks they’ve been assigned--bailing out the water and pulling on the oars.

The middle-class passengers are better treated, if only because they sit between the workers and the wealthy. They are given a small share of the food, enough to keep them from starving, but are expected to replace any workers who collapse and can’t keep bailing and rowing.

Now, if the CEOs, bankers, investors, and plutocrats in the dry end of the boat weren’t blinded by their ideology and upper-class status—if they had even a modicum of real intelligence—they would see that their comfort and safety could not be maintained indefinitely at the expense of their fellow passengers. They would understand that the sensible thing to do would be to have all the passengers working together, cooperatively, to keep the lifeboat afloat while they concentrated on rowing to dry land. They would share the food and blankets equally, would have everyone—including themselves—take turns bailing and rowing. That way, they would all have a chance of surviving.

But these privileged members of the élite are so used to giving orders, to living in luxury, to treating their workers as inferiors, that they can no longer change their ways. Their ideology is stronger even than their sense of self-preservation.

So they continue to maintain in the lifeboat a society that mirrors that of the broader global economy—one based on greed, power, and predation, not on cooperation. They leave it to the wet, miserable workers in the sinking end to do all the bailing and rowing, with a bit of help from the middle-class passengers. When a worker collapses from exhaustion or hunger, they have him or her thrown overboard to lighten the load and delay the inevitable foundering.

When all the workers have drowned or starved to death, the middle-class passengers are forced to take over the rescue efforts, but by now so much of the boat is submerged that no amount of bailing can save it, and rowing any distance is impossible.

Most of the millionaires, however, are still dry and well-fed and complacent. And so it comes as a dreadful shock to them when the boat suddenly takes its fatal plunge. How could this happen to them? Hadn’t they done exactly what the tenets of neoliberalism and private enterprise had decreed? Hadn’t they won the no-holds-barred competition to amass the most wealth and power? How could the poverty and sickness and misery they had inflicted on the lower classes have backfired to bring about their own destruction? They go to their graves still wondering what happened to them.

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The moral of this little story, of course, is that our planet is the lifeboat of all the creatures that inhabit it. And our planetary lifeboat is “leaking.” Its air and water are contaminated, its arable land and forests overused, its non-renewable resources pillaged, many of its animal, plant and insect species wiped out.

\The minority of human beings who grow rich from exploiting the planet’s resources, despoiling the environment, and impoverishing billions of their fellow humans remain indifferent to the appalling effects on the planet itself. They live in palatial and well-guarded estates, far away from their victims, untouched as yet by the crop failures, the droughts, the storms, the smog, and the other environmental “leaks” that already plague billions of the less fortunate around the world.

\Will our affluent corporate rulers smarten up in time to avert the collapse of our civilization? It may already be too late, but certainly if they continue to be blinded by their greed and power much longer, the whole human race will pay a terrible price for their folly.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)