The Age of Suffering: How America Abused Itself to Death

Capitalism imposes a kind of double false consciousness on us. It tells us that the world is naturally full of suffering anyways — so it’s perfectly justifiable for us to be “apex predators”, and destroy everything in sight. And it tells us that the way we deal with our own suffering, as these mortal walking apes, these bags of water and dust, is to…pile up more acquisitions and money so we can feel superior to the next ape.

The result has been catastrophic. We have accelerated and amplified the amount of needless suffering in the world to extreme degrees. The world has never suffered more than it is, right at this moment. Yes, really.

Remember how dumbstruck I felt with grief imagining Snowy suffering? The truth is that we human beings are killing off life on the planet as we know it, as tremendous rates. Don’t each of those lives suffer? Don’t you think a little family of tiny beings feels shock, pain, and fear, too? If your dog or cat does, then…you see my point.

Then there’s the ways we don’t think about suffering, but should. Nobody — and I mean nobody — can stand in front of an old, old tree, and not think: “This ancient, beautiful thing possess a consciousness, too. It feels something. I can feel it’s wisdom and truth, just standing in its shadow.” You can tell yourself that trees are just dumb, inanimate objects, but you’re only lying to yourself, and being unscientific while you’re at it. In the same way, I don’t think anyone can stand before a river, ocean, or night sky, and feel that the universe pulses with consciousness, on some deep and vast level.

That is precisely, by the way, the implication of quantum physics. The only way to explain paradoxes which are now lab-proven, like retrocausality and faster-than-light action, is that consciousness itself is the primordial stuff of being, and that “time” and “space” are just figments of our particular, bounded state of consciousness. I say that our intellectuals are fools, mostly, because they refuse to grapple with the literally earth-shaking implications of such a finding. They go on pretending as if the universe is dead and inanimate, instead of asking: “if the whole universe is alive, what does that means for us? Economics, ethics, morality, society, politics?” You see my point a little bit — but let me clarify it.

You can draw the the line of “alive” where you like. But wherever you draw it — like me, at “the universe”, or like a sensible person, maybe at “animals” — you will have to admit the following. The amount of needless suffering is at its peak in all of history at this precise moment. No greater number of beings have ever died before than now. We are living through a kind of terrible explosion in needless suffering.

Worse, it’s our fault. Us walking naked apes. We’re the ones responsible for this age of suffering. The bees and insects and fish wouldn’t be dying off if it wasn’t for us. But not “us” in the naive way. “Us” as a system, as an ideology.

Capital tells us to exploit the planet and all life on it. We do, without really examining or thinking through the consequences of our actions. What are the consequences of being a race of ruthless predators who’s bizarre, perverse ideology of capitalism have caused the most suffering in deep history? Don’t all those beings dying in terrible ways feel fear and pain, too?

The consequences of causing mass suffering are what the ancients might have called “karmic” — or what modern day economists call “externalities.” We make the world suffer terribly. It dies off, tree by tree, insect by insect, bird by bird, fish by fish. But we are part of that very world. Those fish cleanse our rivers. Those insects turn our topsoil. The trees give us air to breathe. Ecologists call these “support services.” I don’t like that phrase. They’re not our servants. We are in it together. The “we” in that phrase, though, is bigger than we imagine. It’s not just us — my tribe, my nation, my country, even my continent, or even the human race. It’s all of us. Every being.

Who matters more in my family, me or Snowy? We’re equals, is the truth. Just like your dog or cat and you are. You understand the point immediately and intuitively. It’s a funny one, too. Being equal to a tiny little furball is exasperating, idiotic, ludicrous. And yet it’s also liberating, joyful, true.

When we create systems that add to the needless suffering in the world, the only result is that those systems eventually collapse. They eat through themselves. When we create exploitative, abusive systems, those systems collapse. They eventually run out of things to break, shatter, deplete, and discard.

I’m not just talking about nature. I’m also taking about you and me. Take America. It’s a collapsing society — so badly collapsing it’s President tells people to inject Lysol, while cutting funding during a literal pandemic. What the? America abused itself to death. That is the story Americans don’t want to hear, and still don’t understand. Denying each other healthcare, retirement, education, income, savings, dignity, purpose, meaning — it only left America a society without all those things for anyone. But a society like that could only implode into poverty, fear, despair, hate, and violence.

America exploited and abused itself to death. It’s a lesson. Every system needs to renew itself, invest in itself, nourish its young bits, nurture its vulnerable parts. America was too buys obeying the law of the predator to ever understand the wisdom in the law of the nurturer.

The law of the nurturer. Our task, our challenge, our responsibility is this: to build systems and ideas and ways and avenues which fulfill this great and timeless challenge — to reduce the needless suffering in the world.

That’s always been our challenge. In the age of slavery, we forgot it. The age of slavery became the age of segregation became the age of capital. A long forgetting sunk upon us. We stopped remembering how timeless and great and beautiful and wise this challenge was.

We internalized, accepted, even celebrated the law of the predator. He who exploits and abuses best and most should be rewarded best and most. With money, power, status. With fear. All the currencies of patriarchy. How else do you think we got to Trumps and Farages and Modis ruling our world? They’re stark evidence that too many of us accepted the predator’s law. Hoping to become predators ourselves, we cheered on the predatory being showered with all of a society’s rewards. What we didn’t understand was that we were only really setting the stage for our exploitation.

When we build systems which minimize needless suffering, what are we really doing? We are building things which are strong and robust. Which can withstand shocks and impacts. Which are to last and endure for the ages. That is because such systems nourish and nurture and protect and invest.

If we were all to say, for example, the suffering of the poorest person with Coronavirus counts just as much as any other, soon enough, we’d have a planet with healthcare for all — and be far, far less vulnerable to pandemics, ever again. If we were to say, for instance, that every little fish and insect suffers, too — then soon enough, we’d have clean rivers and abundant topsoil, because we’d have to invest in the tiny lives which nourish it. If we said the suffering of the trees matters, then we’d have cleaner air. And if we said the suffering of every being counts, then we wouldn’t think ourselves allowed to trash the planet on it to begin with, and imagine economies capable of cleaning it up. Do you see how the nurturer’s law builds systems which are strong and robust, precisely because they are not fragile to shocks and catastrophes?

The economist in me can reduce all that to an anodyne phrase. Minimizing suffering minimizes risk. Me minimizing your suffering by giving you decent healthcare too minimizes my risk of disease, infection, illness. Me minimizing your anxiety and fear by giving you education, retirement, income, minimizes my risk of extremism, superstition, ignorance, folly, and ultimately, poverty.

Make sense? Extend it outward. Us — humans — minimizing their suffering, fish, bees, insects, minimizes our risk of food chains, supply chains, water tables, resource chains, raw materials, all collapsing. Us — humans — minimizing their suffering, oceans, trees, rivers, minimizes our risk of socioeconomic catastrophes, like decades-long depressions, and political implosions, like the authoritarianism which follows in the wake of depressions.

All those years ago, when we were young, and our hearts were on fire. We sat around the bar, our eyes blazing, our hands in motion. We weren’t wrong. The only point of it all was to reduce suffering. We were right then, because we understood life at a simpler and truer and more beautiful level than all the pundits and thinkers and so forth.

That has always been the great challenge of existence — not just a moral one, but the economic and social and political one, too. Only when we nurture the littlest tree can the forest rise. The chain is as strong as its weakest link, even if the steel is tempered in fire. The fish who cleanse the rivers and trees who purify the air do it just by breathing. Is there anything more basic than that? Is there any kind of suffering simpler and truer than not being able to breathe?

And that brings me right back to Coronavirus.

What is it really trying to teach us (and spare me, David Brooks, from the sophomoric point that a virus doesn’t have an “intention!”, thanks.) Isn’t the lesson simple? We’re going to have to build a world now where everything can breathe again. Free and true and clear. From us, to…everyone else. Where the tree and fish too, can take a breath.

Why? Their breath gives us life. Not metaphorically — quite literally. All those trees and fish and insects and clouds and skies breathing are the only reason we are able to be here at all. It sounds poetic, and I suppose it is, but what it really is is true. Because we have built systems which don’t recognize this fact, and they kill off everything else for another penny in profit this nanosecond, and the result is that we’re suffocating. Economically, socially, mentally, ecologically — and now, quite literally, too. That’s not a coincidence, or an allusion — it’s a relationship.

Do you see how beautiful the implication of that thought — their breath is literally our breath — is? We are not competing. We depend on each other for this most basic act of all, breathing. We are not apex predators. We’re dumb apes who wanted to think we’re apex predators, so we can feel might and strong and proud, instead of little and scared and lost. But the truth of us is that if their breath is our breath, then our challenge has always — always been to reduce the needless suffering in the world.

For me, the future boils down to one momentous choice. The predator’s law versus the nurturer’s law. We can’t breathe these days because we’ve broken our world. We’ll run shorter and shorter of breath, as the fires fill the skies, as the air turns to soot, as the pandemics strike. Until there’s nothing left to breathe at all. Until we choke on our despair, fear, and impotent rage.

Their breath is our breath is their breath. It goes on, in a circle. Can we build a world like that, where because their breath is our breath, and so we protect and nourish and nurture every single being we can? From the littlest and poorest among us, the walking apes, to the littlest of all, period? I wonder.

What I do know is this. If we don’t — it’s lights out, for our civilization. The next one that rises will be the one that meets this challenge. Until then, it’s a dark age. Because, like I said, we’re all choking now, on the fumes of the human race’s own predatory collapse.

We are all in it together. It’s something we say a lot these days. But do we really understand it?

I think back to that night. Here’s how I suddenly saw us — all of us, life — then. Like a circle of children, holding hands, staring up at the endless stars. And in that circle, a fire of truth burned bright. The question is when we rediscover all that.

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