In the globalized world, dependency on current systems is enforced almost universally. Ironically, the very recognition of our dependency and its enforcement is fertile ground for growing truly powerful ideas for living more sustainably.
Ours is a truly complex world — with interlocking systems of finance and debt, globalized supply chains for commodities and products, highly specialized social roles and professions, and multiple technologies that tightly interface with and depend upon one another. For people living in modern societies, there is virtually no escape from dependency — technology dependency, food dependency, oil dependency — you name it. What’s more, we actively participate in maintaining and expanding social systems that circumscribe our potential. These systems limit our autonomy, our choices, our development, and our authentic engagement with others and the world.
So what is this dependency that is enforced upon us, and who is doing the enforcing?
Let’s start with the first part of the question. At the heart of the issue is the fact that huge numbers of us globally no longer have direct access to the earth’s productive capacities in ways that would allow us to meet our essential needs in localized, self governed ways as families and communities. We don’t have the land and the water to grow our own food, and if we do, we probably don’t have the knowledge to earn our entire living directly from the land. Virtually all of us are heavily dependent on earning wages as a means to provide ourselves and our loved ones with what we need to live.
We also can’t fix most of the machines upon which we rely. We need computers to build the computers that we use at work and in our day-to-day lives. We require the services of lawyers who defend our legal interests and speak for us amid the complex web of laws that surround our business relationships, our physical and spiritual unions — and the dissolution of these unions.
We need specialists of all kinds to do complex work for us, and many of us have undergone extensive training in order to perform highly complex work for others. While learning and doing this complex work, we often don’t have time to care for our own children, let alone grow gardens and care for farm animals.
But, you might ask, haven’t people always depended on one another? Yes, of course. In fact, our social nature has been an essential factor in our ability to live in diverse, challenging environments, and most of us would agree that relationships with those we count on are at the heart of the joy of being human through love and friendship.
And, you might ask, doesn’t our ability to specialize form a foundation for technological advancement? Absolutely. But as we all know, technological advancement isn’t an unqualified good. It has its costs. We all can think of some of these costs to our health, to nature, and to our relationships.
The point I am making is that most of us are almost entirely dependent on the money system for our very survival, and this dependence has proven to be extremely profitable for industries of all kinds.
Take the food industry for example. If you can, through economic and land policy, effectively remove vast numbers of money-poor but mostly self-sufficient subsistence farmers from the land and make them dependent upon purchased food — even if their purchases are small on an individual basis — the sum of these millions of new food consumers presents a huge opportunity for money making in agribusiness. Similarly, if you can privatize and monopolize the water supply and force everyone including the poor to purchase their water — even if each pays very little — again, you’ve created a huge money making opportunity for water services corporations.
Dependency feeds the money-based economic system. Self-sufficiency does not. Therefore, creating dependency quite literally pays — at least for some — and those in a position to create money making opportunities by enforcing dependency use their economic and political influence to do so. Their actions dispossess vast numbers of people worldwide and simultaneously concentrate global wealth and power. Here we also see part of the answer to the question of who is enforcing dependency.
Debt as Enforced Dependency
Debt also enforces subservience and dependence. Anyone who has struggled to service credit card debt or make a regular car or house payment knows this. When you’re in debt, your time is not your own. You must sell your time in the wage marketplace so that you can service your debts. Debt, in fact, is one of the foremost mechanisms for enforcing the dependency of both individuals and entire nations.
Debt is also the very currency of our economic system. The money that we struggle to earn comes into existence through debt. Commercial banks create money out of nothing when they credit the account of an individual or business with borrowed money. Only a small portion of the lent money came to the bank through deposits. Without debt, money would not exist in its current form. And so, as we create the substance that sustains us in the globalized, industrial world, we simultaneously create the conditions for our own enslavement. It’s important to understand, though, that money can be created in other ways besides through debt. That just isn’t done now in the current economic system. Having the power to create money out of nothing and the right to confiscate real property (collateral) in the case of a debt default gives banks an incredible amount of power in modern economies and societies.
In taking out a loan, a business, an individual, or a nation also expresses faith in a growing economy — more products and services sold to more people at prices that allow repayment of the debt plus the interest incurred. This faith has been well placed in many cases in a world with plenty of energy in the form of fossil fuels, but global oil supplies appear to have peaked, and fossil fueled economic growth is coming to an end.
For many nations in the Global South, however, due to a combination of factors, their bets on future economic growth didn’t work out so well with regard to repayment of their external debts. Globally, debt has enforced the subservience of economically and politically weak nations to relatively powerful industrialized nations, foremost among these being the United States, the world’s only remaining superpower.
One problem debtor nations in the Global South face is that their debts are often dollar-denominated. They can’t be repaid in their national currency, so in order to repay, debtor nations must export raw materials and other products to earn the dollars needed to service their debts.
Furthermore, following the oil price shocks in the 1970s and much as a result of the declining value of the dollar at that same time, interest rates were raised sharply in the United States. A global recession ensued, and the adjustable rate loans of debtor nations in the Global South ratcheted up sharply, precipitating a debt crisis.
As a result of the defaults, the International Monetary Fund required structural adjustment programs (SAPs) as a condition for the reorganization of external debt in the Global South. The austerity measures and free trade regimes of SAPs tended to open up domestic markets to outside competition. Banks, farms, businesses of all kinds often found that they could not survive in steep competition with large and sophisticated global corporations, and many folded. Furthermore, taxes that might have been collected from domestic businesses were lost as the profits of global corporations were repatriated abroad.
Furthermore, as part of an SAP, a country was usually required by the IMF to raise its domestic interest rates far above those of banks located in more stable economies. This meant that people trying to start businesses, purchase homes, or borrow money for any other purpose within their own nations in the Global South were placed at a distinct disadvantage to those able to borrow money elsewhere in order to bring their business into a new market. Global corporations found great money making opportunities in these debt-ridden countries. They could expand their global market share while domestic economies faltered.
To make matters even worse for the Global South, they have to deal with the petrodollar standard. Most people in the U.S. know nothing about this standard, but it has a huge effect globally. Every individual, company, or nation wanting to purchase oil from OPEC must do so using U.S. dollars. This standard heightens demand for the dollar and, therefore, supports its value. It also means that all nations who import oil from OPEC nations must export commodities and products to the U.S. in order to obtain the dollars needed for these purchases.
SAPs and the petrodollar standard virtually ensure that nations in the Global South will export their natural wealth in the form of trees, minerals, agricultural products, and more. It’s basically colonialism all over again, but without the need for dominant nations to plant any flags.
Recognizing Enforced Dependency: A Starting Point for a Better Future
Those of us in the industrialized world, in many cases, would rather not know the extent to which we, too, have been colonized. We want to feel like our future is bright and we’re in charge of our own destiny. And we’ve assimilated cultural myths that support this notion into the very fiber of our being. One such myth is the notion of progress — the idea that we in industrialized societies have more choices and more opportunities than people of any other civilization or “primitive” society, past or present. If this story is true, it follows that we have little to complain about.
We’re also told that the cream always rises to the top, an explanation of the world as we experience it that diffuses resistance to hierarchical control in schools, the workplace, political structures — everywhere. This myth also provides a convenient explanation for the relative dominance of industrialized countries in the world economy and the inability of the Global South to solve its vast social problems.
We might be more comfortable, in a sense, limiting our vision to internalized myths. Seeing past these myths requires us to apply our energies to learning about systemic biases built into the global economy. It also requires us to develop empathy for others caught in the webs of global economic and political structures. Perhaps the part that is most difficult, though, is that this project requires a willingness to critique oneself and one’s culture — and a healthy measure of humility.
But I believe learning to recognize enforced dependency as an organizing principle in the modern, globalized world is well worth it because this knowledge truly is power. And I think most of us would agree that we need the power to make big changes. Understanding enforced dependency is a powerful starting point for a new clear vision that can see through cultural myths and the mystification of manipulators who benefit from all of us quietly playing their game of business as usual.
Recognizing how we and others have been colonized within the globalized world helps us see behind the divide-and-conquer strategies of many leaders, strategies that divert our attention to casting blame on other victims of systemic problems instead of paying attention to the systemic problems themselves. Knowing that forces beyond our control have left millions with very limited choices in attempting to better their lives provides fertile ground in which to cultivate empathy and solidarity rather than hatred and blame as we move through difficult times that promise to prove increasingly challenging as climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and other crises converge in often mutually reinforcing ways. This knowledge can help us build solidarity among all of those whose positions are slipping dangerously toward poverty and powerlessness as the global economic crisis deepens.
In a truly globalized world like the one in which we live, there really is nowhere to run or hide that will allow us to escape all of the ravages of rapidly converging crises. And so, we must face each other. In crisis, will we face each other as enemies or as partners? I hope it will be increasingly as partners. And if we are to be partners, we need to know each other and our respective histories.
That’s where learning about how and why dependency is enforced on diverse people globally comes into play. The specific manifestations vary regarding how people worldwide experience enforced dependency, but understanding the organizing principles of this phenomenon that affect us all allows us to see how our individual stories are living variations on a theme.
Breaking Free from Enforced Dependency
The global economy upon which most of us depend for our very survival isn’t sustainable. We simply can’t maintain a debt-and-interest-based money system that requires infinite growth within the bounds of a limited Earth.
So who is this system of enforced dependency serving anyway? Well, it serves all of us who participate in it in some ways, but it’s proving to be less and less reliable in satisfying our needs, and the system is sure to become increasingly unstable as the oil supply crisis deepens and as other crises including climate change continue to unfold. The system is already failing millions who realize they must emigrate from their homes for a chance at living life with some measure of material wellbeing.
Where can we go from here? The rest of this series on “Living and Learning Sustainability” offers a response to this question. For now, we can start by considering how we can reduce our dependency and become more resilient with regard to the basics of life — our food, our water, our energy. How can we produce these things more locally? What do we need to learn to do so? There are many actions that we can take, and all of our actions must match the possibilities inherent in the places we live: our ecosystems and our communities.
What is sustainability anyway? We’ll focus on this last question in next month’s segment. Doing so will help us prepare for a future in which we not only survive, but maintain and advance the best of our humanness within an increasingly unstable world.
• This article initially appeared in New Clear Vision.