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 for the Next 7 Generations

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Reigning in the Scourge of Extreme Capitalism


The Prophets of Greed and the Prophets of Wisdom



Writings by Charles Sullivan


*The Ghosts of Misplaced Conscience

Henry Thoreau and the Patrons of Virtue


The Ghosts of Misplaced Conscience


Everything about America is done to the max—super sized—including ourselves. Americans are fond of excess, fond of glitz and glitter, the bright beads and trinkets of capitalism; the symbols of conspicuous consumption. Millions of us live in McMansions, drive fast cars and hulking tanks and work at high stress glamorous jobs that provide enormous financial reward but leave us spiritually empty.

We tell ourselves that these events signal that we have arrived and achieved greatness worthy of respect and envy. They are a declaration that we have played the game and won; that we have acquired economic power that results in elevated socio-economic status and disproportional influence over the lives of the less successful; and those who have utterly failed or refused to participate.  

We love to consume and waste with an appalling sense of entitlement. Our lives are enacted amid heaping mounds of swelling garbage and filth, while some of our fellow human beings pass lives of quiet desperation in cardboard boxes beneath our nation’s highway bridges, like beetles that move beneath the bark of  trees: out of sight, out of mind, inconsequential—or so we think. 

It’s a jungle out there where only the fittest survive. Those who cannot compete must not survive to reproduce; they must be expelled from the gene pool. Modern capitalism is economic Darwinism carried to the extreme.   

America is a land of extraordinary contradictions. She has produced not only George Bush and Dick Cheney but also George Carlin, Upton Sinclair, Eugene Debs and Howard Zinn. This is a land of extremes; enigmatic even to itself. It is a place of posh surroundings with all of the amenities money can buy; but it is also a land of unknowable hardship and destitution that often exists in close proximity to stupendous wealth.  

Just as the continent holds lush temperate rain forests, so it also harbors deserts where only the strong and well adapted survive the harsh conditions of heat and drought and oscillating cold. 

Surely the national pastime must be shopping, which has acquired the stature of a genuine addiction; a disease on a par with alcoholism and played with the passion of a competitive sport. Witness the insanity of black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year where people are annually trampled at the doors of Wal-Mart in the quest for the latest incarnation of the X-Box. He with the most toys wins and the losers are trampled underfoot, ground into dust. Possessions matter more than people. 

And we are a restless, fiercely competitive people—constantly on the move; a people that cannot countenance open spaces or unmanaged nature. 

Hundreds of thousands of shopping centers and strip malls bear ample testimony to our excess, as do the mountains of debt that rise out of our spending habits like a newly spawned volcano swelling above a rising column of molten magma. Eventually they will become our gravestones—monuments to our lack of empathy and testaments to our unbridled greed and contempt for the earth.  

The developers cannot relax until every inch of the earth is urbanized and paved and there is a McDonald’s and Wal-Mart on every street corner; a development in place of every orchard and farm. We cannot relax until everything wild and natural has been eradicated or imprisoned in zoos and admission is charged. Imagine a continent sized gated community for the well-heeled and the wealthy. The poor and destitute need not apply.  

More than democracy, more than liberty, more than life—give us our shopping malls so that we can purchase happiness and fill our empty lives with possessions. Our senses are incessantly assaulted by merciless commercialism—we are programmed to consume and to be consumed by our programmers in the advertising industry whose job it is to plant the seeds of want in our all too receptive minds. Conspicuous consumption is the cornerstone of mature capitalism and no people in history have been more prominent consumers than we Americans—as measured by the girth of our waistlines and the girth of our mounting debt.  

But as much as we are the products of Madison Avenue advertisers, we are also products of arrested psychological and spiritual development. We exhibit extreme pathologies because our lives are not rooted in nature and community; nor are they rooted in reality. Like spoiled adolescents, we have locked ourselves away with our box of toys and we call the world our own. We are a danger not only to ourselves but to the entire world. Quarantine should be drawn around us lest we infect the rest of the world with our madness.  

Oblivious to the consequences of our own excess, our sphere of caring rarely extends beyond the self and our immediate families to the communities in which we are embedded that in turn spill into the great world beyond. We have erected psychological and physical barriers that isolate us from the rest of the world which have given rise to pathological visions of grandeur and exceptionalism. And, like a run-away virus, we are replicating our madness to the rest of the world which is, thanks to the disciples of Milton Friedman, seeking to emulate our example.  

Better the world turn away and run for their lives as if we were infected with a new strain of pox or rabies. Better they should save themselves and let us perish, as will surely occur when we are consumed by the festering sewers of our swelling vanity.  

We call ourselves a free people but we are prisoners of our own petty desires; prisoners of greed and excess and manufactured want; the products of capitalism taken to the extreme—replicating with the ease of cancer cells unrestrained by reason or empathy for others and for the earth.  The world cannot tolerate another America. She cannot much longer sustain the one she already has. We have a carbon footprint vastly disproportional to our numbers and we are not only blotting out the sun; we are stamping out countless species of plants and animals and casting them into the abyss of eternal extinction. The ecological cost of our excess is incalculable.

We go on as if there are no consequences to what we do, ignoring the wolves baying at our door and the grim reaper peering at us through the curtain. We tell ourselves they are only apparitions of conspiracy theorists and alarmists, the ghosts of misplaced conscience.  

Millions of Americans are experts at self-denial and delusional to the extreme, while others are realists and components of active resistance. But, cause and effect rarely enters our vocabulary. History, science and ethics are not our strengths—we prefer to go shopping or watching television, giving no thought to the kind of world we are leaving our children and their off spring, much less the offspring of other species. We hold that the universe turns on its axis and we are its center; but it is not so.

As a result of our excesses, terms such as ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak water’ have come into existence. Gluttony occurs on one end of the supply chain at the expense of the other; just as food webs are affected by events occurring at all parts of an ecological web the size of the world. One cannot pluck a flower without also troubling a star. All things are interconnected.  

How easily we forget that commercial exuberance rests on the broken bodies of the exploited worker; it rests on the scrolls of flora and fauna that have been pushed out of existence because there isn’t enough room for them and us with all of our precious, energy consuming toys.  

Thus we live in a world that is not enriched by our example but is diminished by us. Injustice is a byproduct of commercial exuberance as manifested by declarations of superiority through class warfare and other avenues of inequality. And it is felt in the dimly lit sweatshop somewhere in the belching slums of industrialized China, engulfed by the droning hum of sowing machines that never cease behind bolted doors; and guided by gnarled hands attaching Nike labels to athletic apparel destined for upscale Target and Macy’s stores in the US.  

True, capitalism has made cheap products available to the voracious American consumer; but it has also given the world preemptive war and famine, global corporatism, pestilence and wage slavery; it has stoked the fires of mass extinction, global warming and ecological collapse—all of which have acquired an unstoppable momentum of their own with unimaginable consequences that extend indefinitely into an already uncertain future. There are consequences to everything we do, just as there are consequences to inaction. 

Yet it is increasingly obvious that too few of us care enough to take action, as long as we are free to buy and to consume. We keep the consequences of gluttony out of sight and out of mind and pretend they aren’t there. But they are present and they matter.  

And this brings me to the main point of my essay: it cannot go on. The age of exuberance—like the age of cheap oil—is mercifully drawing to a close. So I will say what was never meant to spoken aloud in the land of excess; and I will say it loud and clear so that it cannot be mistaken: Americans must dramatically simplify their lives to want less and learn more. We constitute less than five percent of the of the world’s population while usurping more than a quarter of her bounty. This is not acceptable—nor is it ethical.  

No one has a moral right to take more than their fair share when that taking jeopardizes the chances of others of living a decent life, or makes nil their chances for survival—including other species.  

Contrary to what one might think, we do not have to live like third world nations or like the hunters and gatherers of the past. But we must dramatically reduce our consumption and shrink our carbon footprint. Not only must we live within our own means but within the means of the planet to support us.  

The majority of our food should be locally grown and mass transit must supplant the gluttonous and polluting automobile that proliferates on our nation’s highways. Moratoriums on development and urban sprawl must be enacted in order to protect critical habitat and rainwater recharge areas. Cities and towns must be redesigned and revitalized with sustainable industry. Goods and services, including work and jobs must again, as they were n the past, be rooted in vibrant, small scale local economies; and free trade agreements revoked.  

Technological advances—no matter how boldly they are touted as saviors of humankind cannot increase the world’s carrying capacity and they cannot invoke justice. The latter is entirely up to us as sentient beings endowed with conscience. And this brings me to a second point: we must reduce the human population through adoption and cease to procreate for at least one generation—so that the earth can recover her own carrying capacity. What better way to save the world, literally.  

Simultaneously simplifying our lives by wanting less and reducing the human population will allow room for other people and other beings to share the bounty of the earth. And it will almost certainly have a beneficent rather than pathological social and psychological consequence: it will end our isolation and reconnect us to the rest of the world. We could finally realize our enormous potential to become world citizens and good neighbors worthy of respect and love.  

Rather than an economy based upon savage greed and exploitation, let us create an economy based upon justice and equality, need rather than excess; a society that does not leave people behind but invites the full participation of everyone and recognizes that, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Let it be all inclusive and worthy of respect: where every woman, man, and child, every being of this earth is the same under the law and equally respected and valued—a great global community seeking harmony rather than competitive advantage.  

In the end, equality is beholden to the system we choose. Did we ask that the world be run on the profits of greed, or the prophets of wisdom? Where was that democratic choice? The profits of greed have given us voracious greed, consuming everything in sight; but they didn’t give us a choice; they took away our freedom and made us into lesser beings. But, if we are to muster ourselves to call ourselves Human one last time, where the prophets of wisdom really did have something to say, where people and the planet are put before profits in the Golden Rule, and where we have one large collective foot standing on the profit of greed then maybe, maybe YES we will turn this thing around:

Charles Sullivan is a nature photographer, free-lance writer, and community activist residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of geopolitical West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at 


Henry Thoreau and the Patrons of Virtue

The form of government we have is anything but the democratic republic it purports to be. The more access to wealth a person has the more responsive to his or her needs the government is. Justice and equality cannot follow where access is denied or restricted. Far from a government of the people, for the people and by the people, we now have a government that is the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful and has the same level of exclusivity as an expensive country club or resort. The poor and disenfranchised are barred from entry and are thus marginalized.

Capital government is the equivalent of a bank’s automatic teller machine. Corporate lobbyists put their money into it and the machine prints out the legislation they paid for. It is a system in which the creator of the machines is no longer their master. We have become, as Thoreau said, “the tools of our tools.”

The people should not, and must not lend their material support to a government that so obviously works in the private corporate interest at the expense of the public well being. To do so is an exercise in self-deception and futility.

Material wealth is only rarely attracted to virtue. Voluntary poverty and simplicity is the usual domain of virtue, as history attests. Conversely, immense wealth is attracted to vice, to the mean-spirited, the selfish, the very aggressive and the morally depraved. The best people throughout history did not possess great material wealth. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “Humanity was their business.”

What could be more incompatible than virtue and wealth, than business and morality? What could be more opposed to beauty, to truth, justice; to art and poetry, to life—than big business and capitalism? It is telling that our cultural icons are people like Donald Trump, Bill Gates, George Steinbrenner and other business tycoons, not virtuous men like Frederick Douglas and Henry David Thoreau or women like Mary Harris—the fiercely tenacious Mother Jones.

Corporate governance and plutocracy are manifestations of capitalism that invariably appeal to the worst in human nature. Expansive economic self interest is resulting in an ever expanding private domain and a shrinking public commons. The concentration of wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands is not in the public interest; nor is the wholesale exploitation of labor and ecosystems. A system in which means always justify the ends—a values neutral system of production and waste is contrary to the needs of the people, as well as the health of the planet.

The Holy Grail of mature capitalism is the belief that markets should be the final arbiter of all things, the greatest purity that can be attained by unleashing the ravenous dogs of greed upon the world. Free market capitalism does not account for anything that cannot be commodified and traded; and so it assigns them no weight. Hence morality, honesty, virtue, self-sacrifice and public service have no worth and no place in capitalism’s economic formulations because they impose restraints that limit growth. They are as ethereal as the ruddy glow of the morning sky and as unmarketable as the mist rising from a brook.

Any belief system that is not regulated by healthy societal values and the laws of nature is destined to degenerate into a monstrosity. In reality, ecological restraints always exist but they are ignored until catastrophe results and force them upon the public conscience—as in the case of global warming.

Capitalism, with its dependence on ever expanding markets and continuous growth behaves like a planetary malignancy that if left untreated, eventually consumes the host and results in mortality. It persists by virtue of its providing obscene wealth to a few through the exploitation of the many. In this country it is the few who own the political system, not the many. Capitalism would be quickly abolished in a truly democratic society as surely as darkness retreats before the light and ignorance yields to knowledge and understanding.

By participating in capitalism we have created a culture that over emphasizes competition and conquest; a culture that defines greed and lust as the highest expressions of success and as the most desirable symbols of status. It is a culture that feeds at the public trough and gorges itself on imperial wars; a system that pays favors to the legal fiction of corporations while rejecting social justice, the needs of the people and planetary health.

Thus we witness coal companies blowing majestic Appalachian Mountain tops to smithereens: destroying world class biodiversity, polluting streams and rivers and poisoning the air in quest of profits while disregarding the social and environmental damage they cause. The cost is always passed on to the public but the profits remain private. Without massive public welfare, what some might call socialism—capitalism could not exist. Capitalism is always on the public dole.

It is beyond bizarre that corporations enjoy the legal status of persons but without the social responsibility required of real citizenship and personhood. Corporations often serve as masks to hide the faces of criminals operating behind the scenes, just as the white hoods of Klansmen conceal the cowardly faces of those who burn crosses on black people’s lawns in the night. Any force that operates out of public view is liable to criminal intent, especially government.

Corporations routinely commit crimes against earth and humanity but are rarely held accountable. When was the last time that a corporation had its corporate charter revoked for malfeasance? When has a corporation ever been executed for murder?

Under capitalism, competitive advantage is sought at any cost and it is used as a weapon against the competition and the people. The status of the individual is thus elevated above the collective good. The purpose of competition is to rise above others and to lord power over them, rather than for everyone to rise together and share the bounty equally through cooperation. Ideologies that foster equality and fair play are dismissed as unattainable Utopian fantasy or socialist propaganda. We are told there is no alternative to capitalism, so we cease to look for them and make little effort to create something better.

In purely market driven economies—virtue, character and social justice have no use unless they can generate wealth for their owners. Imagine the life of Christ valued only by the income his carpentry brought to his employer; his teachings dismissed as worthless because they did not produce money in great enough abundance.

What remains of the Jewish carpenter’s essence exists outside of the socio-economic paradigm of today’s capitalism and in clear opposition to it. Betrayed by the religious institutions of our time, the prophets of religion have given way to the profits of religion, as documented by Upton Sinclair and others.

With the corporatization of the church, the teachings of Christ were discarded and cast to the four winds in order to give religious authority to capitalism, greed and exploitation. Rather than producing men of virtue like Jesus, who called for restraint and shared wealth, it has yielded a morally depraved leadership as exemplified by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson; men who have risen to prominence to fleece their obedient flock, rather than to enlighten and save them from the ravages of unregulated greed.

Rather than imposing the moral restraints of Jesus upon an unjust society, Pat Roberson and his kind champion the cause of aggressive exploitation, effectively turning the teachings of Christ upside down and using them to justify everything that Jesus Christ railed against and died for. How ironic that the Christian church so often turns out an army of anti-Christs rather than Christians in the image of the man they so eagerly idolize but continuously dishonor.

And so it goes. Virtue, arguably the greatest of human traits, has no presence in the market place and it is slowly sinking into the oblivion of euphemisms and the boiling cauldron of corrupted language from which nothing emerges intact.

Due in part to our unquestioned acceptance of capitalism, we are a people who pay homage to concepts such as democracy, equality, social and environmental justice and freedom, even as we continually undermine them in nearly everything we do. Thus we bear a history of genocide, chattel slavery, racism, sexism, ethnic cleansing, imperial wars and occupation and manifest destiny that have flourished despite the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

Henry Thoreau astutely observed: “There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.” Thoreau hit the nail squarely on the head, as he so often did. We Americans are patrons of virtue rather than virtuous people. It costs nothing to be a patron of virtue; but it requires character and effort to be a virtuous person. Apparently, we have yet to learn the distinction.

We know that Thoreau was a virtuous man rather than a patron of virtue, as demonstrated by certain events in his life. Like Christ, he found himself in formal opposition to the cultural orthodoxy; he lived apart from society—outside of the social and political mainstream, an oddity to his neighbors and often persecuted by them. Thoreau refused allegiance to money and wealth, understanding that the most important things in life could not be bought and sold. For him, property and possessions were burdens, not assets.

Thus Thoreau wisely refused to waste any more time than absolutely necessary in earning a modest living. He did not rent himself to factories and bosses or to any of the respectable professions; he worked sporadically and only when necessary—usually on his own terms. He was a man of principle who refused to pay taxes that he knew supported an unprovoked war on Mexico; a war that sought to expand the territory of slavery; and he went to jail for his beliefs. Thoreau was also a fierce abolitionist who, against the law, put many a run-away slave on board the Underground Railroad to Canada and to freedom.

Like all virtuous people, Thoreau lived by a higher law. He did what was right, not what was legal or considered respectable or expedient. Unlike today’s political leadership and contemporary Christians, he was guided by incorruptible conscience that could not be bribed.

Thoreau’s freedom from menial work also provided independence from possessions and debt. Thoreau was a minimalist. His freedom to explore Concord and vicinity gave birth to several literary masterpieces, including Walden and Civil Disobedience—works that sold poorly in his time and provided but little income; but are known worldwide today. World renowned moralists such as India’s Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King were strongly influenced by Thoreau.

If Thoreau’s life could be summed up in three words they would be, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” To simplify and reduce one’s wants is a paradigm in stark contrast to the ravenous consumption required by capitalism. It was a way of living that eschewed money and markets; a way of being that afforded opportunity for intellectual pursuits and life long learning. Above all, it was a spiritually enriching way of life that was in harmony with the planet; it was gentle, sustainable, and fulfilling.

In contrast to Thoreau, most of us unthinkingly support a system that is fundamentally unjust, unsustainable and superfluous. It is a system that has no room for virtue and character because these characteristics cannot be commodified and marketed; and they impose market restraints. Yet, these are the very traits that can save us from ourselves and make a better world possible. How ironic that the traits of character that are most valuable to our survival as a species are the ones appreciated the least by capitalism.

Markets unregulated by morality and governments unbounded by justice serve no useful purpose to anyone in the long run, even those who champion them. Planetary destruction is not in anyone’s interest. Sustainability is. Sustainability, unlike its economic counterpart—capitalism, requires virtuous people rather than mere patrons of virtue. Virtue requires people who not only understand what is going on but who have the courage to do something about it—a consciousness that knows the distinction between patronage to virtue and actual virtue.

Our current form of government is a spectacular failure because it is an arm of business and capitalism rather than an institution of democracy with powerful ethical moorings derived from the grass roots—a decentralized, non-hierarchal power that radiates equally from the people like the spokes of a wheel from a central hub. As such, it often attracts the worst kind of people rather than the principled and just. The interest of big business is now and always has been at odds with just causes and the public welfare. Corporate interests and the people’s interests must never be confused.

Charles Sullivan is a nature photographer, free-lance writer and community activist residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of geopolitical West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at 




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