What further evidence is needed to dispel the great man theory of history than the impact of climate change. Responsibility for this world-changing phenomenon cannot be attributed to any individual or discrete set of individuals. It is the aggregate result of innumerable individual actions over the course of centuries, or even dating back to the invention of lighting fires, and until recently, it could not have been foreseen or intended. Likewise, solving the problem, or at least mitigating its effects, will not likely be accomplished by a particular individual’s ingenious technological breakthrough or captivating rhetoric, but rather by the aggregation of innumerable more individual actions to steadily but incrementally decrease emissions through use of low-emission energy sources, from solar power to vegetarian diets. The problem and solution will impact virtually everyone’s daily life.
The same logic applies to economic cycles. Tempting as it is to attribute blame for the Great Recession to a discrete set of reckless bankers, most of the blame rests not on individual actions that were criminal or fraudulent but rather on the structure and ideology of the “free” market system in which we all operate, which condones and rewards the pursuit of individual gain regardless of the social cost by ignoring externalities. We should not be surprised by the devastating results that follow from a market in which people who contribute the most good to society, such as educators, non-profit professionals, and public servants, are compensated at a fraction of the rate of those who impose the highest costs in terms of economic and environmental exploitation.
The lesson to draw from this dynamic is the urgent necessity to change the system that incentivizes anti-social behavior. To use Nietzsche’s words, we need a revaluation of values. We have been inflating the value of practices that experience has taught us are in fact gravely costly, and we have been undervaluing the practices we most need today. Contra Nietzsche, however, this revaluation must not be the task only of great individuals boldly advancing beyond common ignorance. The need is too urgent. We all participate in the market of values responsible for our collective fate.
How do we change it? How do we revaluate values? Let us begin by internalizing what we have conceived as external, both positive and negative. Tax or regulate the hell out of pollution including beef production, financial trading, subsistence wage employment, and so on. Reward, extol, and subsidize those who provide social goods to the public, such as education, health care including mental health care, infrastructure including transportation and communication technology, environmental protection, social services, arts, living wage employment, and public service.
These revaluations need not be imposed from the top down by elites. That dynamic has given us the market distortions benefiting entrenched power holders. Internalizing externalities simply means recognizing the lived experience of common people who benefit from public goods and suffer from private exploitation on a daily basis. Their demands are expressed in popular movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign, Black Lives Matter (for the logic of systemic value distortion can be applied to the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration), and the environmental movement, including ongoing protests against oil pipelines. It is time for supply to meet demand.