6.3 Winner Takes All


The Caterpillar culture is built on the use of “winner takes all” style competitions as the engine for progress. This is so fundamental to the culture that a patent and copyright clause “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries,” was written into Article 1 of the United States constitution[25]. It doesn’t matter if the inventor is standing on the shoulders of countless giants and takes just the last tiny step to develop the invention; he still gets to keep all of the profits from that invention once the patent is granted. He won the horse race! Of course, it is only for a limited period, currently 17 years. These days, it is probably the inventor’s large corporate employer who gets to enjoy those profits for 17 years. But 17 years is now a very long time as product cycles get shorter and shorter.

“Winner takes all” systems create monopolies. Monopolies wield power and power begets monopolies in a self-reinforcing cycle. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Corporation, now ExxonMobil, that wielded such power. It required a dynamic President like Teddy Roosevelt to bust up that monopoly and put in place anti-trust laws to prevent future monopolies[26]. But increasingly lax enforcement of anti-trust laws in both Republican and Democratic US administrations has been a godsend for the new near-monopolies of the late 20th century and early 21st century.

“Winner takes all” is so ingrained in our modern industrial culture that we think nothing of it even when it results in the flagrant display of insensitivity and even cruelty. There is a very popular Indian television program along the lines of “American Idol,” called “Little Champs[27],” where little children sing their hearts out to a worldwide audience. Advertisers clamor to sell their products on this program and the angelic children do a wonderful job captivating the audience. However each one of these programs invariably ends with one child sobbing in tears as he or she is eliminated from the competition. For, according to the judges of the competition and the worldwide audience, that sobbing child was just a tad bit less talented than all the other children on stage. After making every child, except one, cry during the entire season, the winning child is crowned and that child can then be found selling products for advertisers in the following years of the program. And we call this entertainment, while we justify the public humiliation of these beautiful children as a character building activity.

Due to the “winner takes all” paradigm, in almost every profession, we now find “superstars” earning untold riches, while the majority of the practitioners languish in the basement fighting over the crumbs. The new communications technologies, the internet, cable and satellite TV, wireless and WiFi technologies, have perversely increased the audiences and hence the wealth accruing to superstars, the best of the best sports heros, movie and television stars, celebrity chefs, fashion models and music icons. These superstars are then used to hawk products to the masses and redirect wealth to the executives and CEOs of major corporations who can afford to employ them. The result is a widening of the wealth gap between the rich and the poor to the point where the rich have become the dominant drivers of demand in many large economies around the world. With these widening gaps, the global economy has now truly become a non-sustainable pyramid scheme.

According to the Wikipedia[28], “A pyramid scheme is a non-sustainable business model that involves promising participants payment, services or ideals, primarily for enrolling other people into the scheme or training them to take part, rather than supplying any real investment or sale of products or services to the public. Pyramid schemes are a form of fraud.”

Pyramid schemes are illegal in many countries including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Yet a strong case can be made that the entire global economy, as it exists today, is actually the mother of all such pyramid schemes[29].

The global economy is based on extracting minerals, timber, and living organisms including fertile soil from Nature and for the most part, returning carcinogens, pollution and radioactive waste back to Nature. That is, the main depositor in the global economic Pyramid scheme, Nature, is not getting any interest on the deposits and, in fact, is receiving injuries instead. The people who are enjoying the most benefit from the global economy are high up in the pyramid and thus, far removed from the depredations being done on Nature, the depositor. In his book, “The Ascent of Humanity[30],” Charles Eisenstein correctly traces the coming convergence of environmental crises to the human ego, the sense of separateness from Nature and from reality. The long supply chains of modern industrial civilization necessarily lead to such separateness as those individuals and entities that are high up in the pyramid don’t have much sense of all the transformations that Nature had to undergo to create the products that they consume. I doubt that the people who are busy waving a finger over their smart phones while walking down a city street are fully aware of all the minerals that had to be extracted and processed to create the gadget that they are interacting with. Indeed, they are not even fully connected with the person that they are interacting with over the electromagnetic spectrum, even as they are not fully connected with the people surrounding them in the city street.

For technology can promote separateness while providing the illusion of connectedness. While we each have lots of Facebook friends, we have become too busy to sit and eat meals together at home.

However, I believe that this separation is a consequence of the various absurdities that we have bought into as an industrial culture and not a fundamental feature that evolves with the rise of intelligence. There are cultures deep in the Amazon and in the forests of India who are living sustainably in harmony with Nature and these cultures don’t find the compelling need to separate themselves from Nature, despite their intelligence.

While the vast majority of people who are making the most demands on Nature are separated from the consequences of their demands, the people who are actually doing the dirty work of extracting the deposits from Nature, the slaughterhouse workers, the farm hands, the miners, the shepherds and the lumberjacks, tend to be poor laborers who are forced to do such work out of necessity, not choice. They are driven to this necessity as the global economy destroys the environment around them, reducing the natural bounty that their ancestors enjoyed into their present day scarcity. The Caterpillar culture depends on this scarcity and the ever increasing population of the poor – and the limitless bounty of Nature – to fuel the expansion of the base of the pyramid and consequently, the wealth that flows to the top. Unfortunately for the Caterpillar culture, the bounty of Nature is turning out to be not so limitless after all.

To ensure that there is sufficient demand for products and services to fuel the growth of the global economic pyramid scheme, the Caterpillar culture depends on another great, big Lie, a whopping absurdity. That absurdity is the 20th century Freudian assertion that human happiness can be attained through the fulfillment of desires, a lie that the Rig Veda dispelled in the Cosmic Fig Tree story and which the great Buddha shouted himself hoarse about 2500 years ago. Clearly Sigmund Freud and his lineage of psychologists were oblivious to the contents of the Rig Veda or to the Buddha’s teachings, but the Freudian theories were cleverly used by corporations to create the consumer societies of the 20th century. At present, consumption accounts for 70% of all the economic activity in the US, which is why President George W. Bush and many Western leaders advised their countrymen to go shopping as a patriotic duty[31], right after the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2011.

But for a brief period, in 1968, this consumer culture appeared to be in its last throes.

In March of 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy put it eloquently while addressing students at the University of Kansas during his bid for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party[32], “Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

But the mass movements of the sixties that could have blossomed into a full fledged reversal of the Caterpillar culture depended upon the charisma of leaders such as Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to sustain. Unfortunately, soon after the Kennedy speech in Kansas, in April of 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the icon of the civil rights movement in America, was assassinated[33].

In May of 1968[34], the largest ever wildcat general strike in the world brought the industrial economy of France to a virtual standstill. The strike involving 11 million workers over two weeks, began with the staging of student protests, and almost caused the collapse of the government of Charles De Gaulle. At its heart, it was a revolt against modern consumer and technical society. Says Wikipedia, “Many saw the events as an opportunity to shake up the “old society” and traditional morality, focusing especially on the education system and employment. It began as a long series of student strikes that broke out at a number of universities and lycées in Paris, following confrontations with university administrators and the police. The de Gaulle administration’s attempts to quell those strikes by police action only inflamed the situation further… The protests reached such a point that government leaders feared civil war or revolution. De Gaulle fled to a French military base in Germany, where he created a military operations headquarters to deal with the unrest, dissolved the National Assembly, and called for new parliamentary elections for 23 June 1968. Violence evaporated almost as quickly as it arose. Workers went back to their jobs…”

Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated[35]. On June 23, 1968, the Gaullist party emerged stronger than before in the national elections in France[36].

And the Caterpillar culture got its second wind.

In 1971, the eminent barrister Lewis Powell, who months later became a justice on the US Supreme Court, wrote a memo to the US Chamber of Commerce detailing the steps that corporations and especially the Chamber, need to take to combat the environmental movement and the corporate bashing populism of consumer advocates such as Ralph Nader[37].

And the rest is history. The Caterpillar culture continued on, stronger than ever.

The Caterpillar culture assumes that Homo Sapiens is the divinely selected, pre-ordained winner in the ultimate “winner takes all” competition, the one between species. And as the winner, Homo Sapiens is entitled to take all of the resources of Nature, except in designated Nature preserves set aside by governments. And even those Nature preserves come under enormous pressure when a desirable mineral is discovered under them and politicians usually relent and let the business interests exploit those resources. It is a rare political decision when the economy does not trump the environment, even in countries where the environment is already perilously close to collapse.

Contrary to common belief, “winner takes all” style competitions are not necessary for achieving progress. In fact, most of the significant inventions of the 20th century were made by scientists working in Bell Laboratories[38] and other research institutions throughout the world. The inventors of the transistor, the laser, the cell phone and the internet were not motivated by a desire to make a lot of money. They had a much better motivator: curiosity and the fun of discovery. Besides the “winner takes all” approach becomes a formula for ensuring that both the winner and everyone else eventually take nothing. For, when applied ad infinitum, it diminishes the bounty of the planet and reduces it down to zero. The base of the pyramid of the global economy has already destroyed half the forests on land and much of the marine life in the ocean, mostly within the past fifty years, and it is still attempting to grow its footprint exponentially within the same destructive paradigm. It is inevitable that this pyramid scheme will face the exact same ending as every other pyramid scheme – it will dissolve. It is not a question of whether it dissolves, but when.

Nevertheless, at the moment, the individuals and entities that are perched high up in the pyramid are reluctant to voluntarily let it dissolve and left to their devices, will probably keep it going until it collapses. It is mainly the large corporations that have cornered the riches flowing up the pyramid that are strongly motivated to maintain the status quo. Our democratic societies are attempting to walk that fine line between Communism where the government controls corporations and Fascism where the corporations control the government and this is not always easy. For individuals high up in the pyramid, along with the separation from Nature comes the fear of not knowing what the reconnected state would look like. And fear leads to paralysis.

Perhaps it is this fear-driven paralysis that led President George H. W. Bush to proclaim to the world in 1992 that “The American Way of Life is Non-Negotiable.” President Bush’s stance was quite popular in America and the US Senate even voted 95-0 to reject the Kyoto protocol to mitigate climate change[39], in a 20th century equivalent of a “Let them eat cake” moment. But the corporations that control the power structures in the halls of Washington are exporting this American Way of Life to the whole globe in an attempt to increase the wealth flowing up the pyramid. It is unlikely that they will stop until Nature gets exhausted and turns the tap off.

But what if we the people, stop believing that it is in our interest to prop up those at the top of the pyramid? Then, we can voluntarily dissolve the Caterpillar culture.

But to dissolve the Caterpillar culture, we must first stop believing in the absurdities underlying it.


[26] See the section on Trust Busting at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidency_of_Theodore_Roosevelt

[27] http://saregamapashow.com/

[28] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramid_scheme

[29] Joe Romm who runs the popular ClimateProgress blog wrote an article on the Global Economic Ponzi Scheme or Pyramid Scheme. http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2009/03/08/203784/ponzi-scheme-madoff-friedman-natural-capital-renewable-resources/

[30] Charles Eisenstein, “The Ascent of Humanity,” Panenthea Productions, March 2007. http://www.ascentofhumanity.com/

[31] Here’s the Time Magazine article from Sep. 21, 2001 on President Bush’s speech, referring to the “shopping,” http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,175757,00.html

[32] Excerpted from http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Robert-F-Kennedy-at-the-University-of-Kansas-March-18-1968.aspx

[33] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassination_of_Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.

[34] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_1968_in_France

[35] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassination_of_Robert_F._Kennedy

[36] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_legislative_election,_1968

[37] The text of the Powell Memo can be found in http://reclaimdemocracy.org/corporate_accountability/powell_memo_lewis.html

[38] Here’s a short list of Bell Labs top inventions: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2006-12-01-bell-research_x.htm

[39] The text of the Senate resolution and the vote tally can be found in http://www.nationalcenter.org/KyotoSenate.html

6.2 War on Nature
7. The Butterfly Culture
Sailesh Rao
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