In The World Peace Diet, Dr. Will Tuttle suggests that the essence of Western civilization is the commodification of animals, beginning with pastoralism in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia around 10 to 8 thousand years ago. His thesis is that this objectification of animals (seeing “beings” as “things” that are there to be owned, bought, and sold) has led to war, human slavery, abuse and exploitation of animals and other humans, disease (physical, mental, and cultural), poverty, alienation, and many of the systemic problems that plague modern society.
One of the unfortunate effects of this heritage is that it has led to an cultural assumption that money is equivalent to everything. That is, we act as if anything and everything can be “monetized” — bought and sold, converted into money. We talk of “monetizing” blogs, websites, “content”, services, experiences, even art. We are indoctrinated from an early age to be preoccupied with monetary wealth. We judge each other and accord status based on “what a person is worth”, meaning how much money they earn.
On the other hand, if we think about it, we all know in our bones that some things cannot be monetized: truth, aesthetic appreciation, honesty, integrity, personal fulfillment, and good health are all examples.
The Proprietary Paradigm
Ownership and money has been culturally successful because it is a surprising useful set of concepts. It allows us to allocate resources among ourselves effectively. It makes it possible to reward societal contributions in very nuanced and incremental ways. It provides an incentive for individuals to make contributions to their society and a mechanism for penalizing behavior that is deemed unacceptable (eg., fines).
However, it also has its limits. The ownership and money concept implies a particular set of values. It includes an assumption that making a profit is the highest good and that any other behavior has to be judged against that standard. For most businesses, if an activity is not profitable, it’s not even to be considered as worth doing. Yet there are many things that need doing that are not immediately monetarily profitable: cleaning up the environment, planting trees, teaching people to make healthy choices so that they have more control over their own health outcomes, teaching children to live well in their culture.
So the cultural paradigm of ownership, what we might call the “proprietary paradigm”, encourages the commodification of everything, including animals and people (seeing “beings” as “things”). While it has its uses, this paradigm has become a monster that is eating us alive. We need a new paradigm to challenge and control the traditional proprietary paradigm by which most of us live. Here’s a proposal:
Experience is self-guiding
This is the essence of the scientific world view. Science is the process of trying things out to see what works and what doesn’t. Science is another cultural paradigm that has been amazingly successful. Up to the present, the scientific paradigm has been a thread within a broader culture rooted in ownership. The scientific paradigm and the proprietary paradigm need to be flipped. We need to make the scientific attitude deeper and more fundamental than the proprietary attitude so that instead of science being controlled and driven by ownership concepts, ownership is modulated and informed and limited by the scientific attitude that we’ll do what works with regard to ownership and let go of ownership attitudes where they have undesirable effects.
For example, it has become clear that managing resources on the basis of maximizing profit by reducing costs is, in some areas, not effective. It has led to strip mining of coal since that’s a less expensive way of producing energy than more renewable options like wind or solar energy. It has led to environmental degradation since it is less expensive to simply dump waste in the environment than to reduce waste and/or handle it more appropriately.
It is becoming clear that the profits of some industries depend on a reliable supply of addicted, sick consumers, trained to docilely ingest artificial food products that will keep them addicted and sick so the medical and pharmaceutical industries have a reason for being. The profits of agribusiness depend on the abuse and destruction of beings with their own interests, concerns, and lives.
Making the scientific attitude our cultural foundation would allow an optimistic understanding of where we find ourselves. One way of parsing our situation is that we are greedy, nasty, violent creatures who will cause any harm we can think of to get what we want and there’s no way to change us. Our history would bear out this interpretation. However, the scientific lens suggests that the last 10,000 years of human history have been a grand experiment. We’ve tried out the proprietary paradigm as a cultural foundation and learned that it has both strengths and limitations. Our challenges now are 1) to shift the foundation of our culture from the proprietary paradigm to one that can help us grow into the future, and 2) to find ways of applying the proprietary paradigm where it’s appropriate while limiting it so that it cannot continue destroying people, animals, and the environment.