It is often said that the problems of modern life are due to the greed of capitalists—they are the ones who dig up the minerals and oil from the ground to make a profit; they are the ones who destroy the environment quite happily if it makes them a profit and they can get away with it; and it is the greed of capitalists which has people around the world working for very little gain, in sweat-shops and in poor conditions, so they can make more profit.
Behaviour analysts and many others know that naming a characteristic of a person as ‘greed’ is not useful as an explanation, even if in real terms it fits perfectly. As a derogatory term it might be useful to get them to look further into their own contexts, but it does not explain anything (like calling someone a ‘racist’ is satisfying but not useful for changing what goes on). We always need to look further into the contexts to understand how this all works.
Digging into the contexts is also useful to help us see the interface between individual actions and the bigger societal stuff. They are not separate ‘levels of analysis’ or worlds, they are both always present and are merely different ways of naming a single aspect of what we observe without the rest of the context. For the current example, here are three ideas for rethinking, and I will then say more about the third one and with some data:
- capitalists are not inherently greedy; they are in a context (thanks to their money or that of their parents) of being able to be greedy; we might do the same if we were in that context
- without the whole capitalist system to allow them to make profits they could not be greedy, so any individual greed arises from being in that bigger system (which needs changing)
- capitalists only make profit if they can sell; but selling needs demand and buyers, who are therefore also implicated in the capitalist system disasters
This last point is extremely important for contextual analysis of the world’s problems and for solutions. It is important because it implicates most of us in the greed of the capitalist system, not just the capitalists themselves. In future, every time you call a capitalist greedy you need to seek out the contexts for the demand by which they are able to be greedy.
I came across several writings saying that the ‘greed’ of the capitalists was to blame for various social and ecological disasters. That the oil pipeline they are trying to push through the Dakotas presently arises from the greed of the oil companies, for example. And the ‘greed’ of the owners caused the miners to die from a mine collapse in another part of the world.
Looking at this contextually, the capitalists running the show are certainly implicated in blame—I am not saying they are not. But from the third bullet point above we can also point a finger at most of us, because all those profits are coming from people who are demanding resources, and this allows the capitalists to take advantage and make their profits (I’ll leave aside here the ‘marketing and ethics’ aspects).
To make this more real, I went back to a really important but disturbing book about how the large western economies are all rapidly trying to buy up the last remaining deposits of minerals and resources from the earth: Michael T. Klare (2011). The race for what’s left: The global scramble for the world’s last resources. I went through the whole book and the index and listed all the important minerals, rare elements and energy sources taken from the earth, and then alongside this I wrote their uses. What do they end up being used to make? And who uses this stuff?
If you look down the second column of the Table given below you can see lots of the things in modern life which we all happily use, and which, indeed, we all demand. The obvious constituent materials we all know about are oil, coal, iron, etc. But there are many we have never heard of which are also being ruthlessly and greedily purchased and mined around the world by the major western countries, but which are all necessary for the things we ‘need’ in our everyday lives.
Read through, it is scary. For example, the oil pipelines being ruthlessly pushed through the Dakotas is partly happening because there is such a demand by everyone for oil. By everyone! That includes you and me.
Other scary examples include the number of rare elements being sought (and fought over) to use for electric hybrid cars and their batteries, which are supposed to be eco-friendly! And so many rare elements are ‘needed’ for computers and mobile phones. An important material tantalum is used for special steels, nuclear reactors, jet engines, automotive electronics, miniature capacitors, pagers, computers, and mobile phones, but only comes from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. So nations are trying to be friendly towards the DRC to get hold of tantalum. Even worse, Klare documents how, not coincidentally, Afghanistan has some of the largest remaining deposits in the world of aluminium, copper, gold, lead, lithium, niobium, osmium, tungsten and zinc. It is not just oil that is being fought for over there. There is a demand for all these other minerals so nations are trying to gain control of the deposits one way or another.
The point of all this is firstly, to show that we are all implicated in this, and cannot just blame the greedy capitalist alone. But the most important point of this is not to accuse or lay blame. The important thing is to look for solutions. For all the conflicts and problems in the world we can certainly try and restrict the capitalist system and the capitalists’ greed, especially come the revolution.
But we can also go back to a really old strategy from Buddhism, the Puritans, the early Christians, the Quakers, and many others: reduce our ‘need’ for things. We are part of the problem and can provide part of the solution.
Buddhism is perhaps correct, then, that the root of suffering is desire. Sure capitalists exploit our desires, and inflame them with marketing, but their greed itself is driven by most of us wanting all these things in column two. Learning once again to reduce and restrict our ‘needs’ and ‘desires’ for things will also help in the survival of the planet. And working together we can start that right now–even before the revolution overthrows capitalism, if it does at all.
|aluminium/ bauxite||Throughout industry and building|
|antimony||High-strength alloys, special industrial functions|
|beryllium||High-strength alloys, special industrial functions|
|cerium||High-tech applications, lens polishers|
|coal||Power from burning|
|cobalt||High-strength alloys, special industrial functions, arms manufacture, batteries for hybrid cars, buildings|
|copper||Buildings, electrical wiring, roofing, plumbing|
|dysprosium||High-strength magnets, hybrid electric motors, portable electronics|
|europium||High-tech applications, energy-efficient lightbulbs, fibre optics|
|fluorspar||High-strength alloys, special industrial functions|
|gallium||High-speed semiconductors, LEDs, photovoltaic solar cells, lasers|
|germanium||High-strength alloys, special industrial functions|
|gold||Jewellery, investments, corrosion resistant electrical connectors, computers, infrared shielding, coloured-glass, gold leafing, tooth restoration|
|graphite||High-strength alloys, special industrial functions|
|indium||Flat panel displays (indium tin oxide), infrared detectors, high-speed semiconductors, photovoltaic solar cells|
|iridium||Catalytic converters for cars, jet engines, electrical devices|
|iron||Steel, arms manufacture|
|lanthanum||High-tech applications, hydro-electric motors, electric car batteries|
|lead||Building construction, lead–acid batteries, bullets and shot, weights, solders, pewters, fusible alloys, radiation shielding|
|lithium||Wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries for hybrid-electric cars, glass|
|lutetium||Metal alloys, catalyst radionuclide therapy|
|magnesium||High-strength alloys, special industrial functions, corrosion-resistant steels|
|manganese||Steel making, stainless steel, aluminium alloys, buildings|
|natural gas||Power for electricity|
|neodymium||High-tech applications, high-strength magnets, hybrids electric motors, portable electronics|
|nickel||Arms manufacture, batteries for hybrid cars, steel alloys|
|niobium/ columbium||Special steels, used for oil and gas pipelines, superconducting alloys|
|osmium||Catalytic converters for cars, jet engines, electrical devices, computer hard drives, liquid crystal displays, electronic circuits|
|palladium||Catalytic converters for cars, jet engines, electrical devices, computer hard drives, liquid crystal displays, electronic circuits|
|platinum||Cars, hydrogen fuel cells, jewellery, catalytic converters, computer hard drives, liquid crystal displays, electronic circuits|
|praseodymium||Searchlights, aircraft, portable electronics|
|rhodium||Catalytic converters for cars, jet engines, electrical devices, computer hard drives, liquid crystal displays, electronic circuits|
|samarium||Glass manufacturing, high-strength magnets|
|scandium||Aluminium alloys, semiconductors, stadium lights|
|silver||Currency, solar panels, water filtration, jewellery, electrical contacts and conductors, specialized mirrors, window coatings, and in catalysis of chemical reactions, photographic film, X-rays.|
|tantalum||Special steels, nuclear reactors, jet engines, automotive electronics, miniature capacitors, pagers, computers, mobile phones|
|terbium||High-strength magnets, hybrid electric motors, portable electronics|
|tin||Homes, cars, kitchen appliances, computers, televisions, air conditioners|
|titanium||Planes, space ships, armour, arms manufacture|
|tungsten||High-strength alloys, special industrial functions|
|vanadium||High-strength steel, corrosion-resistant steels|
|yttrium||Lasers, fibre optics, energy-efficient lightbulbs|
|zinc||Corrosion-resistant plating, brass, batteries|