Global Study Series, Part 3: The Old System Must Die! (Or Not): Drawing on the Past to Ensure a Future
December 17, 2019
By Michael Mortimer
The idea that a new political philosophy, a new governing regime, or even just a new leader need undermine and delegitimize its predecessor is not a particularly new one. Walking through ancient Egyptian ruins, we can witness everywhere vandalism from thousands of years ago intended to erase the past. Hammer and chisel were taken to the faces and forms of Isis, Amun Ra, and Horus to eliminate the challenge they presented to the new orthodoxies, both Christian and Muslim. These stone symbols of the ancien régime held enduring power, the kind of power that threatened the legitimacy of the new ruling class’s narrative.
Often that past power was part of a more glorious, grander, and more elaborate story when compared to its replacement. The enduring, well-accepted longevity of the old posed a formidable, if often unintended, challenge to acceptance of the new. For the new to gain that acceptance and that following, to prevail against the lingering power of those stone carvings, the old system needed to die. Death by hammer and chisel.
More contemporary examples exist. In 2001, the Taliban detonated explosives and destroyed the towering 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. Why? To remove a symbol of a past, of a philosophy, that challenged their own brand of Islam. To eliminate a magnificent architectural symbol achieved by adherents to that old story, far beyond what the Taliban itself might ever achieve. Not least, to also demonstrate that they, the Taliban, owned the defining story for the present and future.
Today, in the U.S., President Trump and his allies wage war against longstanding institutions (NATO, international treaties, political norms, the rule of law, the Constitution). All of them are symbols of a respected and accepted story of governance, cooperation, and restraint, to which he appears not to subscribe. His own version of a Great America is so crass, unsophisticated, divisive, and unappealing to many, that by necessity he has to undermine and delegitimize the competition for his story to stand any chance at all.
What does this pattern of human behavior bode for climate change? There are those that argue the story of capitalism is not only inadequate to address climate change, but fundamentally incompatible with addressing it. That the new climate story necessitates undermining and destroying the global capitalist story. Capitalism must die! Karl Marx would be dancing in his grave. But does it need to die? The sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein has described capitalism as our shared “World System.” For all its flaws, it is the most powerful human institution ever devised. It is no mere Temple to Horus.
Is it possible that the power of capitalism can be harnessed to tackle one of the defining challenges of our era? Is there a middle path, where our policies (taxes, subsidies, regulations) can all be bent to create a mutually better future, without also destroying the system that led us all to this place?
Does our future narrative demand we reduce our past narrative to rubble? I sincerely hope that it does not. Meeting climate change challenges requires every tool at our disposal. And the time and effort spent taking a hammer and chisel to capitalism is time and effort that isn’t being spent developing solutions and new policy instruments that can both leverage the power and manage the excesses of capitalism’s immense presence.
Dr. Mortimer is the Founding Director of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Montana and his law degree from the Pennsylvania State University. He teaches courses in Natural Resource Law and Policy, Environmental Conflict Management, and Global Issues in Environmental Sustainability. His research is published in Society and Natural Resources, Journal of Forestry, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Environmental Management, Journal of Forest Policy and Economics, and other leading natural-resources journals. He is an avid photographer and traveler, having journeyed to more than fifty countries, camera in hand.