On one of the summer school episodes of Planet Money -- specifically, the one about scarcity and pistachios – Stacey Vanek Smith, while talking about why it was difficult for farmers in California to use less water during a drought, said –
“You have to convince people to give up their personal short term interested for the long term interest of the group, and this is not exactly how humans are built. This is not what we tend to do naturally.”
It wasn’t so much what she said, but how she said it that irked me. So matter-of-factly. Like, of course we all know this, it's not under debate at all.
It reminded me of that old fish parable – what’s water?
Personal short term interest over the collective interest is the natural order of things for humans like endlessly scrolling on Instagram is the natural order of things for people with smart phones.
It’s not nature, it’s an ideology. People living in systems designed to encourage exactly that kind of behaviour. The kind of behaviour that feeds back into the system and reinforces it. And to see it as “exactly how humans are built” is also a trick of the system.
The system, of course, is capitalism.
Incidentally, the very same day that episode came out, Seth wrote about a similar thing on his blog:
Left alone, capitalism will devolve into corruption, bribery and predatory pricing leading to monopoly. Left alone, capitalism will pollute rivers, damage our health and create ever greater divides.
Capitalism gets us an opioid epidemic, the dark patterns of social media and doom scrolling.
Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of Adam Curtis. HyperNormalisation and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. And up next I’ll either do Bitter Lake or The Century of the Self. I’m exactly in the kind of headspace right now.
Adam Curtis doesn’t trust politicians. And who can blame him. But I also think they're our best chance at reigning in capitalism.
Or, in Seth's own words:
The only way for the simple answer to solve our complicated problems is for it to have guardrails, boundaries that enable it to function for the long haul.
That’s something we need leadership to get done. And it’s more likely to get done if we acknowledge that we need to do it.