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Leonardo Boff: Suicidal Tendencies

I read the principal economic commentators of the big newspapers from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.  I learn a great deal from them, because I come from another realm of knowledge.  But, in my opinion, they continue applying the neoliberal primer, that prevents them from more critical thinking.  They still use the classical interpretation of the cycles of capitalism after abundance, without considering the substantial changes in the condition of the Earth that have occurred recently. This is why I see a certain blindness at the base of their paradigm. They comment on the crisis that erupted at the center of the system and note the collapse of their master theses, but they continue with the illusory belief that the model that has brought us such disgrace can still rescue us from it.

This myopia prevents them from taking into account the Earth's limitations, which limit capitalism's projects.  These limits have been exceeded by 30%. The Earth is giving clear signs that she cannot stand any more. This is to say, sustainability has entered a process of planetary crisis.  Every day the conviction grows that it is not enough to make corrections. We must change paths if we want to avoid the worst, which could be proceeding to certain systemic collapse.

Specifically, the system in crisis, is, with respect to the mode of production, capitalism, and its political expression is neoliberalism.  It fundamentally responds to these questions: how to earn the most profit with the least investment, in the least possible time, while ever increasing its power? The system takes for granted the total subjugation of nature and is oblivious to the needs of future generations. That so-called development has proven to be unsustainable, because, where it has been followed, it has created grave social inequalities, devastated nature, and consumed resources beyond the level of sustainability. In fact, it is simply about material growth, measured by economic benefits, and is not an integral form of development.

The problem is that the logic of this system is directly opposed to the logic of life. The logic of that system is lineal, ruled by competition.  It tends to technological uniformity, to single crop farming, and to private accumulation.  By contrast, the logic of life is complex.  It encourages diversity, interdependencies, and complementarities.  It strengthens cooperation in search of the common good. This model also brings production, but in the service of life, and not just for the sake of profit.  It is in an objective equilibrium with nature, in harmony with the community of life and the inclusion of all human beings. It opts to live better, with less.

Paul Krugman, the New York Times editorial writer, courageously opined (Jornal do Brasil, 12/20/08) that there is no real difference between the machinations of B. Madoff, who defrauded many individuals and institutions of some 50 thousand million dollars, and the Wall Street speculators who lied to millions of investors and also destroyed great fortunes. He concludes: «what we are now witnessing are the consequences of a world gone mad». Is this madness momentary or systemic? I think it is systemic, because it derives from the very dynamic of capitalism: to accumulate.  It maintains a large portion of humanity as slaves "pro tempore", and endangers the base that sustains it: nature with her resources and services.

The question arises: is there not a suicidal tendency inherent in capitalism as a paradigm of civilization, a drive to unlimited exploitation of a planet that we know is limited? It is as if all of humanity were pushed into a violent current, and can no longer escape. Death would surely be our destiny. Is that the sign embedded in the very DNA of our present civilization, inscribed more than two million years ago when homo habilis, that species of humans who, for the first time, began to use tools in its attempts to dominate nature, empowered itself with the agrarian revolution in the neolithic period, and reached its zenith in its present state of willingness to completely dominate nature and life? If we continue on this path, where are we headed?

Since we are intelligent beings, with an immense capacity for learning and doing, it is not impossible for us to give a new direction to the trajectory of our civilization, according greater centrality to life than to profit, and more importance to the well being of all than to individual benefit. Then can we save ourselves in extremis and still have before us a future to contemplate.

Leonardo Boff, Theologian
Earthcharter Commission

Free translation from the Spanish by,
sent by Melina Alfaro, done at




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