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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Seven Deadly Sins – Revisited

(Special thanks to Michael Rohner for permission to use his mixed-media image)

The human animal may be, individually, capable of some subtlety, but collective action tends to be pushed along by broad-stroke principles functioning in the weeds of daily detail. Faced with a specific decision, the direction of action can be most often surmised from the general principles upon which the society sees itself as being based. Thus the attachment to lists of such principles: The Ten Commandments, The Bill of Rights, The Seven Deadly Sins, the 12 steps and a number of other shorthand prescriptions for both action and remediation.

If we examine these lists closely, we find internal contradiction, limits of application and other exceptions to strict adherence, but we don’t really understand these devices as absolute anyway, but rather as guides. Even those that have the force of law, like the Bill of Rights, must be adjudicated in specific situations since a few words can do no more than offer direction for a journey, not prescribe its every turn.

It is in this spirit that I offer this list of the Real Seven Deadly Sins. The limits and contradictions may seem especially glaring, but this is only because we are not use to them – and I will deal with some of the exceptions.

The “original” Seven Deadly Sins have a long history, quite a variety of inclusions and have been 5, 7, 10 and more sins at different turns. A society picks its sins; they are adaptive.

We have come to a time when we desperately need a new list. This is not to say that the list that evolved from Dante (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride) has become acceptable, although fashion has certainly changed for several; in fact, if we had been more serious about these, we might not be in such a present pickle. But we need to refocus on those activities and, especially, the principles that have morphed from sin to saw [1].

These are the New Sins:

1) Progress

2) Economic growth

3) Property

4) Excess

5) Censorship

6) Repression

7) Religion

One of the first things that you might note from the new list is that it is easily adaptable to collective action, where as the Dante list is more easily seen as the unfortunate qualities of individuals. For this and other reasons, we might best keep those seven available for personal use. The new list is, in some cases, the “originals” writ large.

It is, today, our institutions that are dominating human action, and human institutions are not just the summing up of individual human behavior, but are, under the Consciousness System of Order, developing into new entities with new properties for which new guidance is needed.

1) Progress:

This is the most insidious sin and one from which some others receive their motive force. We have come to see this greatest source of devastation as the essential positive value – and we rarely question it; taking the assertion, “It is progress,” as a substantive and often final argument.

Progress is change that arises from some previous condition, change that is judged by some humans as an improvement. But it has come to pass that the only guiding principle for the design of change is a previous condition that formed from some even earlier progress. That this seems perfectly normal to you is a measure of just how insidious this sin is.

Living things “progress” by adapting to the biophysical realities of the living space. Of course, they begin with what they have, but the changes occur in a universal context of long scale forces and processes . In humans, progress has come to mean changes that modify some existing condition arising in the human context, a condition that came to exist with the last round of progress. The speed of adaptation and the power to discover and use specific bits of information about how the biophysical world functions has allowed humans to ‘defeat’ certain biophysical rules. By bringing enough energy to bear and using mechanical physics, heavier than air machines can fly. By concentrating specific chemical species a concentrated consequence can be made to happen: poison, acid, lighter than air balloons, metals, etc. There are millions of examples. These things we call progress.

An evolutionary system would have to integrate every consequence that occurs within evolution’s time frame. Consciousness Order system time frames are so much more rapid than biophysical time frames that we have avoided the consequences of our behaviors. This we call progress.

Progress is building dikes to keep the waters out – both literally and figuratively; and then building buildings behind and on the dikes, and then building more and better pumps to remove the water that seeps through, and then, and then… The reality is that the water level is higher that the land level. Think for a moment on this from a position of sanity.

The sin of progress is to act outside of the context of the biophysical time frame, to make changes in response to existing conditions in such a way that the biophysical costs are deferred to other humans, other species and the future. Our societies today are dependent on billions of jobs that are the products of progress and all but a handful are made from the overcoming of the overcoming. We now have to keep trying to overcome the very fabric of universal reality to continue to ‘make progress.’ Such is the depth of our depravity.

And so Progress is a sin. Rather than seek it, we must make appeal to attempt it; must be able to demonstrate that the proposed changes enhance integration into biophysical reality, not attempt to defeat reality with some slight of hand. We would continue to change, to learn and to use the living and physical worlds, but at a pace to which all living and physical process on earth could adapt; a pace that will not create the dramatic synergies of a convulsive rejection of living things as the consequence of our progress.

2) Economic Growth:

The sinfulness of growth is more obvious than the sin of progress. One need only think for a moment of the concept of the exponent. And it needs to be clear that human capacity has created a new model for growth; it is not the same process as growth of biological systems – just the same word. Biological growth is replenishment with the capacity to exceed its bounds, but fully inhibited by homeostatic feedback so that ecosystems are no-growth, sustaining systems.

Economic growth means an increase in the volume and speed of transactions of exchange. Transactions of exchange are the trading of one thing for another. Since there are basically three kinds of things (material/energy, behaviors and abstract tokens of exchange) there are a variety of forms that exchange can take, but ultimately increasing amounts of real stuff must be extracted, moved, modified and consumed as an economy grows. To some extent the need to actually raise crops, dig in mines and cut forests brings perspective to our economic growth, but…

economic growth can occur, so long as participants believe that tokens of exchange represent real things, as a result of trading those tokens – really betting on how many of a particular token will be required to trade for a particular real thing at a particular moment. This allows ‘not real things’ to increase in amount without limit. If the tokens are in a demand relationship with real things, then it is possible for there to be more ‘real stuff’ represented by tokens than there is or ever can be. The result is that demands are made of the earth’s capacities that cannot be met; the reality of the effort and limits of extraction is overcome in the perception. This is a sin.

A component of economic growth is investment: I loan you a hatchet to cut firewood and you return the hatchet plus a bit of cut wood, or I could loan you tokens to trade for a hatchet and you give me back the tokens plus a few extra. Either way you have to cut more wood than you require. The amount of material or behavior traded becomes more and more dependent on the obligation and less and less on the actual state of need. Economic growth mutates into increasing states of obligation.

If there is not a constantly increasing need or obligation, then there can be no more than momentary or situational occasions for investment. And so – placing the cart squarely in front of the horse – our economic system sustains the investment model without regard to the relationship of human economics to the natural biophysical economy. This is a sin.

3) Property:

Property once seemed so simple; I learned it at my father’s knee: It is mine, you may not use it or touch it without my permission. I hold it by a force as close to a divine right as such things get. And yet, my ball (hat, toy or _____ ) could be taken and tossed around and eventually tossed onto a roof in the age old game of ‘humble the property owner’, AKA ‘keep away.’

I have discovered that humans come with a great variety of respect for property. Some have arm’s length rules and others will take even useless things. Different groups of people define property in different ways – what can be property, degrees of holding property, what must be done to identify property.

“Keep away” offered this instruction: property and force are intimately related. Property is mine so long as I am willing and capable to use sufficient force to keep it. A powerful man in my town lived at the end of a long road; the sign at his gate, “If you trespass, you will be shot.” This was not at his front door – his house could not be seen – but was at the most easily approached edge of the 30 or 40 acre mountain valley to which he lay claim. Records show that his family drove out the previous inhabitants with legal trickery and one punctuating dynamite explosion.

There are 3 ways that we can view property: 1) that which is, 2) that which is ours (or theirs) and 3) that which is mine (or his or hers).

“That which is” belongs to all and to no one. You may use it only as long as you don’t change it or deny its use to any other organism or process. “That which is ours” belongs to the commons, the community decides potential uses and what compensations and ablutions are required. “That which is mine” belongs to me; again, however, the community decides what can be personal property and often the limits of control and use – this should tell us something. The attempt to turn ‘that which is mine’ into absolute domination without regard to the rest of existence is a sin.

It is circumstance and excess that moves the sustaining to the sinful. Human progress and economic growth have driven property from balanced patterns of use, compensation and replenishment to the assumption of more and more private ownership; so that today we claim we can not only own the contents of our pockets and immediate living space, but we can own the land, the water, the air, living things, DNA, chemical processes and ideas. And we have even added a specialized instrument of private ownership called the corporate collective to own in even greater amounts and with greater force. This is sin.

4) Excess and Wealth:

Excess has almost always been a sin in almost every culture. Yet, in our present condition the application of Sins 5 and 6 (censorship and repression) have led the way in justifying excess, usually claiming envy as the reason of objecting to wealth. This is quite simply sin supporting sin.

Excess is a sin because it perpetuates the sins of property, is the product of growth and can only be justified by dishonest and coercive means. But, primarily it is a sin because it damages the human relationship to the planet and to each other.

Ultimately the excess of wealth (both private and societal) can only be extracted from the universal commons and it can only be extracted by the coercion of one human entity by another. It is difficult to say who is harmed more in the existential sense, the miner who must dig or starve, yet retains some vestige of specieshood or the owner who believes in the madness of his right of power to steal the life and labor of the miner and the product of the land. It is, of course, not difficult to see who lives in the greatest distress of the moment.

5) Censorship:

It is obvious to many that we must not speak of dangerous, harmful and distressing things. To do so would bring upset and disruption to our settled lives: speak the Devil’s words and call the Devil.

There is, as there always is, a major difficulty: How are we, or who is, to decide? We are ultimately faced with this simple choice: freedom of speech with only the most limited restrictions or speech controlled by whoever can wrest power over its methods and topics.

Control of speech is control of idea, is control of possibility. And yet we cannot live in a world without design, a world that limits and organizes possibility. The probability of glucose moving through a cell membrane is controlled by insulin, which is controlled by a dozen other conditions of the organism. We can expect nothing less for a super-organism collective like human societies. But there the analogy fails; the process by which biological evolution designs physiological function leaves out nothing. Every force and movement of the natural world gets its say without inhibition because it is exists in the total reality. Again, we can have nothing less for our collective social order.

Lying is a special form of censorship that denies access to a factual basis for action, but lying should be no more reviled than demanding that the truth of another’s understanding not be spoken.

This is an especially dangerous sin as new and powerful forms of human super-organism are demanding and receiving the power to censor speech that challenges their domination by controlling the means of speech and using that means to control the topics of speech.

6) Repression:

The rejection of one identifiable racial, ethnic, language, cultural or behavioral group by another is one of the oldest human actions. When there was space and available niches, this was less sin and more signal to spread the species around. It even served certain other useful functions by reducing the spread of disease and supplying gene pools from which vigorous crosses could test the genetic waters [2].

But today and for some many hundreds of years the repression of one group by another as been in the service of quite other forces: economic and political power. Billions of human lives have been lived out in the greatest of distress – truly painful, brutal and short because of the sin of repression.

Life has never had a guarantee – or so is my belief – but to assign beforehand that billions of lives will be lived in horror and pain is a sin. And this is a sin that is likely to continue to increase dramatically as it has over the last few thousand years. Never have so many lived such deprived and devastated lives as in today’s moment.

Two hundred years ago there were one billion people on the earth, nearly half of whom lived in deep poverty at the advancing edge of European expansion and industrialization and in islands of industrial servitude. One hundred years ago there where two billion people on the earth, nearly half of whom lived in the deepest poverty as the first world nations were converting the rest of the world into their larder. Today there are almost 7 billion, nearly half of whom live at the edge of survival. Local sustaining practices have been so damaged and demonized that even those who are not in immediate peril today are but one global economic decision away from dust.

7) Religious Piety:

Religion is one of the least understood of human behaviors. Its supporting structures and designs are deep in our origins, but it has become a chimera, a crossing with politics, economics and the institutional super-organism. Religion is a developmentally dysfunctional entity demanding the privilege of an infant while having the strength of a powerful adult.

In its origin religion was the combined effect of the Stories that integrated human action within the environment and the instinctual emotional connections to environment and community. It gave strength to the adaptations that formed the basis of human success. It did not create the behaviors, but responded to them as the collected Stories that organized the behavior of a group, carrying them through space and time.

Devotion to religious story has become the central madness of our time and one of the greatest inhibitions to our survival. There were in the past many thousands of religions because there were thousands of situations in which people lived. Since religion’s function is to define a way of life, then it must be completely connected to immediate and sustaining reality – it used to be! Now religions are devoted to the remains of Stories that once had some relational meaning, but are no longer connected to reality. This makes the Stories of religion easy prey for any entity to use as devices of censorship and repression.


These are the sins that we need to “hold in our hearts” as unacceptable. These are the sins that are devastating our world. 30 years ago drunk driving was a laughing matter (even as people were killed), but became a matter of scorn and rejection as people incorporated into their habits of thought, into their lists of sins, driving drunk. We need to see these seven sins in the same way. Just as with the original seven deadly sins a small number of people are empowered by them if allowed, but if enough people reject those behaviors, actively reject them, they will be weakened and more of us may begin to see them for what they are.

[1] It is an irony of our time that those who claim to champion individual freedom are really speaking for the institutional collective and the individual’s subservience to it, while those who are accused of socialist “collectivism” see the collective in service of the individual.

[2] Cultural habits combining with instinctual behaviors associated with incest created complex rules that often involved either males or females moving from one group to another.

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