Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Changing Direction

[Edited for flow and a touch more humility, 16.01.15]

There is something frantic eating away the heart of modern societies. My intuition tells me it is speeding up, fear tells me there’s no escape. Not only are those in employment often asked to do more and more for less and less, even those out of work are faced with falling wages for the job offers they might get, or no opportunities at all. The void they are left in is far from immune to the acceleration I’m describing, which works on them like ever-thinning air. School children feel the pressure. Full-time mothers and fathers feel it too. Teachers, police, health care workers, business people, professionals, with a few exceptions, are very aware of this increasingly frantic scrabble to maintain what I think of as our crumbling culture. And the third world is suffering terribly to keep us lucky ones distracted by gadgets and cheap stuff so we don’t notice how untenable the situation is.

The Tower of Babel is falling, obviously so, and yet, because of the ‘forward’ momentum of our frantic efforts, of our stampede, we still need to tell ourselves the tower can be restored; with just a little more effort, a little harder work, more efficiency and ingenuity, we’ll soon continue our ascent. We cannot accept, in sufficient numbers, how wrong we are.

So we are wholly occupied by unending, desperate activities which are, taken together, damaging an environment now increasingly incapable of supporting us. The total effort is itself debilitating, utterly non-replenishing and vacuous, and on top of its fundamental absurdity the massive effort we exert actually worsens our situation, requiring yet more effort, more acceleration. A cultural death spiral.

We are driving ourselves insane. Ascent, in the manner we have been pursuing for centuries, is not coming back, and we are going crazy in our valiant refusal to acknowledge this.

Of course I am saying nothing new and have borrowed heavily from Charles Eisenstein. But that’s ok, culture is like that. I didn’t invent the English language either, nor any of my philosophies. Again, nothing new there. But this perspective needs to be laid out by as many of us as possible, as clearly as possible, from as many angles as possible. Together we bring into focus a sound perspective of where we are, how we got here, where we’re headed, and how to change direction if we agree such is necessary.

Changing direction is not easy, especially when billions are heavily invested in the current course. It’s all we know, how we grew up, and enough stuff is working just about well enough to sustain the illusion that normal is just around the corner. And the state, the market, our obsession with numerical values as wealth with final control of all variables just within reach ... this paradigm is so uniformly pervasive, so globally successful, there is now no Getting Away From It All, though some try. My own efforts have proven too little too late. Once you have a family, you have debt, even if you have no monetary debt. You have a debt to your family’s habits, friends, to the roots of your slowly built-up life. One’s life is a momentum that has a will of its own. It cannot just be stopped in its tracks and repositioned somewhere more sensible, less stressful, less environmentally damaging. We are each of us part of the system, steeped in it, coloured by it, made of it. We take it with us wherever we go, and besides, it’s there waiting for us when we arrive. And the token things we can do locally to Make a Difference (recycling, fair trade) are very far from satisfying.

As if in stampede, we are in this together. If you don’t stampede with the rest, chances are you’ll get trampled. Culturally, this adds up to a seemingly unstoppable momentum. We are not going to choose to try and change course prior to a mighty slap in the face, an enormous collective wake-up call.

Here’s my summary of where we are and why we’re in lockstep.

Growth. First but by no means most importantly, our money system requires constant growth to work, by design. If the economy is not growing, it is collapsing.

This unhappy design flaw has its far-distant roots, in my view, in the larger-scale state project (a.k.a hierarchical civilisation, thousands of years in the making). What I call the state project began innocently with farming. Farming stems, crudely speaking, from the domestication of plants and beasts, and ourselves. This experimentation set up a rift with (or even created) a very distinct Other, creating for the first time the two realms of Tamed and Wild, where Tamed is good and Wild is bad. Tamed begets Home and Hearth, which begets private property to be protected against the vagaries of the Wild at all costs, eventually as enshrined by law and the state, and sustained as a social dynamic by money, market and price. The Wild finally becomes ‘idle resources’ to be turned into economic goods and services, which transformation is endlessly accomplished by Hard Work (see below). By way of confirmation, I offer the fact that economics text books show nature (a.k.a. the wild universe) as a subset of the economy. Ah, sweet hubris.

Within this basic paradigm, once you start purposefully manipulating your (now enemy) environment to improve your situation, you can’t stop tinkering. With the beginning of the perception of problems-to-be-solved in a threatening world of Other, the unending journey (Ascent) can be begun. Tinkering to solve problems always creates new, unanticipated problems. So, solve them, create unintended and even newer problems ... rinse and repeat forever. It starts with the human ability to perceive certain situations as solvable problems (a far-from-obvious perception), then builds on or accrues to itself in the form of increasing cultural wisdom, aided and abetted by the spoken then written word, essential as recording mechanisms for handing knowledge down across generations. This dynamic, couched in the Tamed/Wild split, has slowly but surely led us into our perpetual growth cul-de-sac, because we came, in our naïve hubris, to see ourselves as somehow above nature, a view reinforced by the fact that we have been very ‘successful’ in our endeavours at this Progress thing. Also, and not unimportantly, because we have such strong emotions we’re not prepared to kill our young, say, as rabbits do.We’re not fond of resets. We establish dynasties, legacies, etc.

Thus the (now money-driven) growth/progress habit is very old and hard to break. It is civilisation’s deepest and most entrenched back story. (This dynamic also, in a way, describes evolution generally, but this is a short essay, so space does not allow me to develop this aspect fully here, nor address the distinctions. Let me just finally add that I am not at all against tinkering or progress! Indeed, we have to tinker to change course.)

Dualism. Secondly and for less time, we have been more or less convinced that reality is made of matter, that the immaterial realm is mere illusion, or at best something distinct and fundamentally separate. Either there is no spirit, there is no god, no heaven above, no hell below, and consciousness is an illusory epiphenomenon of the material brain, or the ‘religious’ among us represent a set of beliefs that relegate the immaterial realm to the afterlife, to some fully separated dominion beyond us and belonging wholly to God. The ‘physical’ universe is here and now, is thus our domain, and we are its religious and secular masters. This perceived separation informs our strong cultural conviction that Out There is a complex machine we can master and improve, an Alien Other to be tamed, perfected. With time, this attitude promises, we will master everything there is

Of course, the materialist position, a child of dualism, leads not only to scientific positivism, it can also give rise to primitivism, or the idea that nature is a certain way, that man should not tinker with it, that civilisation was a wrong turn. I subscribe fully to neither mindset, and see merits and flaws in both views. I also happen to believe both are flawed by their dualist roots, the philosophical dead end of Mind versus Matter brought into cultural focus by Rene Descartes. To put my cards on the table, I’m a systems theorist with a strong ‘spiritual’ bent (i.e., consciousness (whatever that is) is the ground of all interbeing (whatever that is)). In my view, there is no static reality Out There to be learned and thus mastered. Reality changes constantly as we do; we are of it. There is no separation, only one endlessly unfolding story created and sustained by unimaginable diversity. Nature is change, and ‘spirit’ is ‘matter’ is ‘spirit’. In sum, I assert that our cultural sense of reality as a (very complex) machine is wrong, but that unlearning this habit of perception is very, very hard.

Work. Thirdly, we also have extremely outdated beliefs in productivity and Hard Work, which arise directly from our sense of reality as a machine to be mastered and conquered in a threatening universe. We must grow forever, are Evolution’s/God’s chosen creatures with a Special Destiny, and if we don’t all work harder and harder the whole thing breaks down. It would be a secular and religious sin to flunk that destiny. Laziness is therefore Evil. If you’re not productive, you are of no use to society, and that which qualifies as productive is described entirely within the framework of the points touched on above, i.e., it earns money.

Taken together, this coarsely presented trio of memes means it is specifically and only economically valuable work that counts, that delivers the goods. It is the economic sphere that must grow. It is not more and more play, nor more and more rest, nor more and more family time or time with friends the infamous System demands. No, it is Hard Work we need to perform to sustain The Project, the glorious growth of the human species. Paradoxically, this means we are culturally driven to create ever more economic work for everyone, even though we don’t remotely need it, even though our frantic efforts in this direction are producing less and less real wealth. Our vaunted inventiveness has been automating production for centuries, and we’re getting ever better at making human labour redundant. Furthermore, and worse than not needing more economic work for humans, we happen to live on a finite planet. Consumerism is killing us. Why should we whip ourselves into a frenzy to sustain it? Better the devil you know.

Economic work—activity characterised by monetary exchange or barter—never has been and never will be a priori superior to other kinds of work. This Holy Cow is a mere assertion and has no basis whatsoever in reality, other than in a cultural misperception, however understandable. The rigid conviction that paid work is better than unpaid paiwork must be honestly examined. There’s far more to reality than money. Surely it’s ok to accept that machines can do much work for us. Let’s take this wee gem on the chin and learn to relax a bit, eh? Stop shouting at the ‘lazy’ unemployed and take a fresh look at this issue, shall we? Slow down a tad, stop consuming as if gadgets were the be all and end all. It’s a thought.

To recap: money is wealth because numbers are control because control is good because look at all these gadgets and their price tags so lets do more and more of that. The universe is a machine, therefore we can, and should, master it. Evolution/God gave birth to us, we are history’s zenith, we thus own the whole shebang and are alone in the universe, which thus belongs to us by default because we are so very intelligent. Would you like to buy a piece of the moon?

We have built machines that can create the goods, and the accelerating consumerism stampede does not make us, or the environment, healthy. We all know this. So, while we can explain why we believe Growth is God, that does not mean Growth is God. Look around you; it’s good that things mature, stop growing, and perish.

To repeat, economic activity is merely one kind of activity. It is not the best of all possible activities simply because it causes money to change hands, simply because we can ‘objectively’ measure its value, or believe we can measure its value (how much is the moon worth?). We don’t have to grow economically for biological or spiritual reasons, there just happens to be a design flaw in the money system, as understandable as that flaw is, historically speaking. Let’s change the money system to suit reality instead of fighting reality to suit the money system.

While we stampede towards the edge of the cliff, hope for humanity’s future lies in our ability to recognise where we’re headed and work out how to change direction. Sustainability is part of this, renewable energies are part of this, humility is part of this, a revolution in farming is part of this, guaranteed income is part of this, love is part of this, revolution in education is part of this, a new money system is part of this, direct democracy is part of this, as are many other bits and pieces, not one of them a silver bullet. And we are all of us parts of this. We need to get better at talking this out, and remembering where true wealth lies: in time, in health, in soil, in community, trust, inventiveness, work, joy, meaning, exploration, accomplishment, sharing, competing, cooperating, and so on. Let’s get on with that.