The Climate Crisis (and Other Crises) Require the Transformation of the Basic Cultural Structure of the Modern World (Part 1)

EDITORIAL, 14 Oct 2019

#608 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

Read Part 2 HERE

Today it is in the news that 906,000 hectares have burned in the Amazon forests so far in 2019.  It is in the news that an even larger –although harder to determine- number of hectares have burned this year in African forests and savannahs.  The media often mention that the fires of 2019 continue an ominous trend.  There has been worldwide a steadily increasing loss of vegetation to flames that has been accelerating for several decades.  The feedback loop is negative.  Less vegetation means less rainfall means less vegetation.

It is in the news that millions of people around the world –inspired by a Swedish teenager so honest that looking at a picture of her will cure a headache—have taken to the streets demanding that something must be done.  I will use this editorial to offer an answer to the question what must be done: The basic cultural structures of the modern world must be transformed.   I will not try to prove this thesis here.  I will try to state clearly the thesis to be proven.

Walking back in time to 1990, when I wore a younger man’s clothes, I imagined I could save the world by selling my car.  The train of reasoning leading to my fantastic belief began more with nausea than with logic.    Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana was then Chair of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee.   The first U.S. invasion of Iraq was about to begin.  I read in a newspaper that Senator Lugar had threatened that if the French would not join in the invasion, then we would not share the petroleum with them.  Gasping for air and trying not to vomit, I did a little research. I learned that the number of people in the world driving automobiles was then a little under one billion.   The number of people living in extreme poverty was nearly equal.   Now imagine that all the cars and all the poor people were lined up in pairs, with each car matched with one person whose goods and/or services had remained either unsold or sold for too little to live on.  Then in 1990 at the equilibrium point where supply equals demand (as Keynes might have put it), then the pairs (x, y) where x is a car and y are a poor person would have formed a line stretching several times around the earth.   The last x and the last y –as a close approximation– would have been located at the same place.   If that place turned out to be over an ocean, then you would have to imagine that the car and the person were held above the waves by an angel or by a helicopter.

I reasoned that I could use the money I saved by selling my car and then walking, bicycling and using public transportation, to lift one person out of poverty.  If I could explain the simple math to everyone else –having had some experience as a math teacher I thought I could do that – then all other car owners would do the same.   The outcome would be no private cars, no extreme poverty, less CO2 in the atmosphere, fewer wars, and (because people would walk more) fewer heart attacks.

Subsequently, when my mathematical model was tested using myself as a one-person empirical sample, the money saved by not driving a car proved to be enough to lift more than one person out of extreme poverty.   But when the sample was enlarged it turned out that nobody else understood my math.  Or if they did understand the math they preferred to continue driving while leaving in poverty the people they could have promoted to the lower middle class by walking and sharing.

Or –perhaps more likely—everyone else understood my math perfectly well.   They would have given up their cars if they had believed that walking would save the world.  But everyone else was smarter than I was. They always knew my reasoning was invalid.  They always knew that the auto industry was indispensable to keep the economy going, and that long before I succeeded in shutting it down, whatever it  takes –a fascist coup if necessary—would be done to keep it going.  They knew from the beginning that the more people got out of poverty the more they would become drivers of cars.

Contrary to my fantasy of frugal peace, as the history of the last forty years has enfolded, while extreme poverty has declined, automobile ownership has increased.  The bottomless violence and deceit and muddled thinking deployed to defend the system have gone baroque.  The climate crisis has gotten worse.

Also, during those same forty years I and co-authors (hereafter ‘we’) have demonstrated in detail in numerous unread books, chapters in books, and papers that surviving the climate crisis (and other crises) requires the transformation of the basic cultural structure of the modern world.[i]   Not always in those exact words.   Anything true can be said in more than one way—would you not agree?

God help me to be clear.  So much depends on being able to communicate.

What is the basic cultural structure of the modern world?

In one word: Sales.

In two French words: séparation marchande.[ii]

Remember that nine paragraphs above (of which four were short) I identified the poor people with the people whose goods and/or services had remained either unsold or sold for too little to live on.  I was relying on Keynes’ point that supply usually equals demand (so that everything supplied is sold and if more were supplied it would not be sold) not when all needs are met but when the needs of people with money and a desire to spend it have been met.[iii]

Transposing to an ethical key, there can be a duty to work, or at least a duty to be willing to work, but there can be no duty to earn an income by working.   Being employed requires finding someone able and willing to buy your work.  There can be no duty to buy, hence no duty to employ, and hence no duty to be employed.

Given sales as the basic structure, history and logic tell us that over time, inevitably, investing in order to produce for sale for profit will become essential.[iv]   It will become essential in the physical sense that if it does not happen (or happens too little) many (normally most) people’s physical needs will not be met.   As happened in Chile in 1973, and as is happening in Venezuela now ‘the economy comes to a standstill.’

As Michael Kalecki wrote: ‘Under a laisser-faire system the level of employment depends to a great extent on the so-called state of confidence. If this deteriorates, private investment declines, which results in a fall of output and employment (both directly and through the secondary effect of the fall in incomes upon consumption and investment). This gives to the capitalists a powerful indirect control over Government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis.’[v]

The result is that whatever else happens, investors must be pleased.  They can shut the system down for any reason or no reason.  Jobs depend on them.  Food depends on them.   Normally (i.e. not in cases like those just mentioned when political motives are major factors) everything depends on sales being large enough at high enough prices to keep the motor that drives the system going.  Some people call such a way of life a ‘regime of accumulation.’   This phrase has come to mean that everything about a culture, all its institutions and all its behaviour and beliefs and ideals, must be –whatever else they are—conducive to investors making profits.

This does not mean humans do not do other things that cause problems—like multiplying their population beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, or like fighting wars because they like fighting and looting.    Or like—as mentioned above—poor people when they stop being poor wanting to live like rich people, making ecological and other problems (like traffic) worse.

It does not mean governments can always succeed in attracting investors by trying harder and sacrificing enough social, financial and ecological objectives to that end. Each has    195 other governments competing with it.   Usually all or most of the profitable business niches have already been found and occupied by someone else.

The greed of the rich, or some fraction of them, no doubt explains some of the concentration of wealth in their hands –but the main factor is not greed.   It is structure.  When making the necessities of life structurally depends on accumulation by using capital to produce goods or services for sale to customers who have money to buy, this is a fact about the rules of the game that constitute the system.  Redistributing wealth on the scale necessary to cope with today’s and tomorrow’s mass unemployment and other crises calls for transforming the basic structure.

The necessity for transformation does mean that it must become possible to make rational and ethical decisions about climate change, mass unemployment, growing inequality, making social human rights realities instead of empty promises, and so on.   Now, as things stand today, rational and ethical decisions cannot be made and implemented without first doing whatever it takes to please investors.  Therefore, they cannot be made at all. Until further notice there is no rational and ethical set of public policies that coincides with what must be done to assure investors (as far as possible) that investment in country A will be profitable, and indeed more profitable than investment elsewhere.

Therefore, surviving the climate crisis, or any life-threatening crisis, requires transforming the institutions of the basic cultural structure of the modern world    Transforming does not mean destroying.   It does mean, as José Luis Coraggio says, ‘resignifying.’ [vi] Change their meaning so that they become institutions that function to meet needs in harmony with nature.   This process can be called ‘ethical construction,’ remembering that Aristotle’s arete (often translated as ‘virtue’), the key to his ethics, means performing one’s functions well.  It can also be called value-centred education. The same philosopher said that a well-educated person finds pleasure in virtue (justice, for example) while a badly educated person finds pleasure in vice (greed for example).  (This slogan is one that could be declared true by definition by massaging a little the meanings of the words that compose it.)

Is it possible for human beings to organize the physical basis of their existence without today’s excessive dependence on investment for production for sale for profit?  Well, they did so, organizing the physical means of subsistence (to cite just two examples) by reciprocity and redistribution,  for more than 95% of the time homo sapiens has been on the planet. Humans have survived and sometimes flourished in cultures with myriad structures too numerous to count. Relying more on reciprocity and redistribution and less on séparation marchande is going back to the tried and true.  It is also resignifying the indispensable roles reciprocity and redistribution play today; as Ecuador does in its new Constitution by listing reciprocity, redistribution, and customary practices alongside markets and planning as guiding principles of its plural economy.    As Elinor Ostrom says, what is possible in practice must be possible in theory.


[i] For example, volume two, letters 26-50 of my Letters from Quebec.  San Francisco and London:  International Scholars Press, 1995 is titled ‘Methods for Transforming the Structures of the Modern World’

[ii] André Orléan. L’Empire de la valeur : refonder l’économie.  Paris : Seuil, 2011.  Position 328.

[iii] E.g. General Theory, p. 209. there agreeing with Hobson

[iv] This point is explained in more detail in Howard Richards. Moral (and Ethical) Realism.  Journal of Critical Realism.  Volume 18 (2019) pp. 285-302.

[v]  Michael Kalecki. Political Aspects of Full Employment. Political Quarterly. Volume 14. (1943) Pp.322-331. P.325.  Paul Krugman makes a similar point in his The Return of Depression Economics. New York: W.W Norton, 2009. P.111-114.



Prof. Howard Richards now teaches at the University of Santiago and the University of Cape Town.  He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He was born in Pasadena, California but since 1966 has lived in Chile when not teaching in other places. Professor of Peace and Global Studies Emeritus, Earlham College, a school in Richmond Indiana affiliated with the Society of Friends (Quakers) known for its peace and social justice commitments. J.D. Stanford Law School, MA and PhD in Philosophy from UC Santa Barbara, Advanced Certificate in Education-Oxford,  PhD in Educational Planning from University of Toronto. Books:  Dilemmas of Social Democracies with Joanna Swanger, Gandhi and the Future of Economics with Joanna Swanger, The Nurturing of Time Future, Understanding the Global Economy (available in PDF on line), The Evaluation of Cultural Action, Following Foucault:The Trail of the Fox (with Catherine Hoppers and Evelin Lindner),  (on Amazon as an e book), Unbounded Organizing in Community (with Gavin Andersson, also on Amazon),  Rethinking Thinking (with Catherine Hoppers),  Hacia otras Economias with Raul Gonzalez, free download available at www.repensar.clSolidaridad, Participacion, Transparencia: conversaciones sobre el socialismo en Rosario, ArgentinaAvailable free on the blogspot lahoradelaetica.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 14 Oct 2019.

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3 Responses to “The Climate Crisis (and Other Crises) Require the Transformation of the Basic Cultural Structure of the Modern World (Part 1)”

  1. rosemerry says:

    Tell me, is this recent article just a terrible coincidence, when mention is made of “Ecuador does in its new Constitution by listing reciprocity, redistribution, and customary practices alongside markets and planning as guiding principles of its plural economy.” surely this is the opposite of the destruction of Ecuador under “Neocon Moreno” as shown in articles.

  2. […] (and other crises) requires the transformation of the basic cultural structure of the modern world.[i]   Not always in those exact words.   Anything true can be said in more than one way—would you […]