We want a prospering planet, and the empire of global capital is destroying it.
We want this ruinous system to end, but its grip is strong on our personal lives as well as on public policy.
Sometimes I feel as helpless to overcome its hold over my life as Frodo was against the Enemy’s Ring in Tolkien’s novel.
In the Lord of the Rings fantasy, the enemy Sauron once molded an enchanted ring. Into it he poured much of his immense power, in a scheme to overcome all opposing powers and rule over them in total darkness. But the ring was lost, and through ages and unknown events it came into the hands of Frodo the hobbit. The book tells of Frodo’s quest to carry the ring back to the fire in which it had been melded—the only way to keep Sauron from destroying Middle Earth.
When Frodo learns of the ring’s malevolent power from Gandalf the wizard, he tries to destroy it in the fire of his own hearth.
Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its color, how perfect was its roundness. When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire, but he found now that he could not do so, not without a great struggle. He weighed the Ring in his hand, hesitating, and forcing himself to remember all that Gandalf had told him; and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away—but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.[i]
As Frodo committed to saving Middle Earth, I’m committed to the saving-Earth efforts of our day. I’m on that quest, and yet my hand is stilled at the point of throwing some parts of my lifestyle into the fire. I don’t know how I would survive without them. My functioning at all seems to depend on using aspects of the very economy that I would condemn.
This quandary may be the major ethical question of our time. In a New York Times editorial written in August 2014, psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton says there is a growing sense that destroying the planet is “deeply wrong, perhaps evil.”
But to place our complicity in historical perspective: I didn’t and you didn’t design the system that’s doing it, and we profit little from it if at all. The Powers of our era have taken us along with them, because their project requires our participation. To keep us ensnared, 297.5 billion US dollars was spent in 2021 for advertising in North America alone. Our legal system increasingly binds us to their purposes, as they attack every restraint the people, through collective effort, have placed on their influence (e.g., the “money is speech” Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010).
COP27, official society’s strongest gesture toward controlling CO2 emissions, was attended by at least 636 fossil fuel lobbyists, more than the combined delegations of the 10 countries most impacted by climate change. It was “a dystopian nightmare,” writes Simon Pirani. “To prevent dangerous global heating, systems must change—not only technological systems, but economic and social ones. And those governments’ function is to defend and manage those systems, not transform them.”
Our hands are, in many ways, tied, as Jared Yates Sexton says in an October blog: “It is borderline, if not totally, impossible to be ethical under capitalism.” We can’t live without at least some of the goods and services it provides, but for ethical people it is also not comfortable to live with them. Joel Johnson writes:
I don't know if I have a right to the vast quantities of materials and energy I consume in my daily life. Even if I thought I did, I know the planet cannot bear my lifestyle multiplied by 7 billion individuals. I believe this understanding is shared, if only subconsciously, by almost everyone in the Western world.
Johnson wrote this in a thoughtful article after he toured the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, where seventeen Foxconn workers have killed themselves in the past half decade. At that time Foxconn made 70% of the world’s iPhones.
Whether I buy iPhones or make them, whether I drive cars or repair them or only ride buses and trains—whatever my interactions, I can’t completely cast away the enemy’s ring, because it does have power over my existence.
But as I continue on this quest, I am finding ways to loosen its hold. Three practices in particular seem to help me detach from first one and then another aspect of the dominant economy.
(1) I try to acknowledge more deeply the damage it is doing.
(2) I seek to identify more strongly with the world of nature.
(3) I invest more of my resources into helping other humans.
Acknowledging more deeply the damages of the industrial capital economy
I do this as a way to counter the situation Sexton names in this blog: “The entire system is designed to provide luxuries and goods and services that are at a distance from the exploitation that makes them possible.”
I deliberately resist that distancing. When I’m reading about Coca-Cola’s water grabbing, or Shell’s oil spills, or Cargill’s destruction of rainforests, I take time to consider what those actions mean to the lives they overturn. By letting my heart break for the victims rather than stifling the impulse to care, I keep alive an important aspect of my being. When I identify with the injured, my antagonistic emotions (disgust, sadness, fear, anger) are awakened toward the perpetrators—the network of powerful people who enable these corporations to do harm. Thus I can gain distance, not from the suffering caused by the system, but from the system itself.
Strengthening identification with the world of nature
Nature is the real world. The fossil-fueled capitalist industrial economy is a passing thing, whether I’m presently bound to it or not. The more strongly I realize my place among the wild things—damaged as they may be by human activity—the less I value the benefits of industrialization. In the words of Rachel Carson, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
The connection with nature happens most strongly out in the natural world, more than through words about it, or film or photography, or any other intermediary. I let nature convey to me what nature might find me able to absorb or understand. Beyond entertainment or even appreciation, there is magic in the connection between Earth beings of different species. Few purchases or comforts have such allure.
Recently it has been trees that capture my attention, and in particular one special tree. I spent long intervals with our backyard beech tree this summer, in an unexplainably contented state of mind. And while it hasn’t been my culture to do it, I’ve come to believe in the Indigenous practice of giving back, of reciprocity or thanking the tree, or deer, or land, with a tangible gift. To my current understanding, anything precious seems appropriate.
Investing significant resources into helping other humans
What we want are social and economic ways to live that serve the true needs of human society. To the extent our system does otherwise, individuals and their personal alliances must meet these needs. What I find when I extend myself toward other human beings, as with my reaching out toward the rest of nature, is that I’m rewarded with unexpected pleasure. Humans are made for each other, and at the deepest level something good happens when we are involved in helpful human contact.
Together, these three practices increase my strength to resist the dishonorable, demented, deadly way of life that has been imposed on me without my instigation or consent. I may not be able to toss it all into the fire, as Frodo intended to do with the Ring at Mount Doom, but as I increasingly release attachment to it in the ways open to me, I’m also preparing to survive without it when its own doom comes.
As you may know, by the time Frodo reached his destination, the hold of the Enemy’s Ring on him was so strong he couldn’t cast it away. The Ring did end up in the fire, however, and this capitalist industrial economy will also end.
At present, the people in power seem determined to deplete and pollute until there’s nothing left to turn into profits. But I like a scenario in which the heroic masses reach the end of their tolerance before that happens. They—we—rebel, withdraw, dismantle, and replace the evil practices with more ethical ones while the planet is still livable. It’s the Ring story with Frodo’s own hand making that final toss.
[i] J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1954) 59.