A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Driving Through a Foreign Country

I have just come back from what turned out to be a foreign country.  All my major traveling recently has been by motorcycle – pretty Spartan stuff, camping at night, no radio, TV or media beyond a handheld communication device – but this Christmas I drove by car to Arkansas from New Mexico and back: an 800 mile one-day affair one way.  I sort of knew that the nation’s midlands were home to a tribe of nominal Americans calling themselves conservatives and I decided to see if I could find and observe their native dances and songs as I drove through their region. 
Turning on the car radio I soon discovered that whenever the static cleared and the language was English (I can understand a bit of Spanish, but the intensity of concentration distracts from driving) various shaman of the tribe I was seeking were right there singing and dancing their little hearts out. 

In fact, there was nothing else to be heard (other than the closely related Jesus shows, the occasional sports show and the aforementioned Spanish music stations).  I scrolled through stations from Albuquerque, Clovis, Tucumcari, Amarillo, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Denver, Fort Smith, Nashville, Cincinnati, Cheyenne, St. Louis and other places that were not identified during the time that their signals sounded through with some clarity on the moving target of my car radio. 

I was shocked, shocked I tell you that there was gambling going on at Rick’s place…  But I was really shocked.  I had not heard conservative talk radio for more than snippets since the mid 90s when I had listened to the Limbaugh for an hour or so 3 times a week on the only station I could get as I drove to town.  The meanness level had gone skyscraper along with uninformed and uninforming, angry, frightened and hostile; and most of all it was speaking its own language: death panels, freedom and liberty, president Urkel.  Angry, confused callers were led by the shaman to speak the language, to ring out the truth.  

One caller debunked what she saw as the global warming fraud by pointing out that she had heard on Fox News that an earth sized astronaut (sic) had hit Jupiter and lowered the temperature of the whole world 2 degrees.  The shaman-host thought this quite reasonable, figuratively patting her approvingly on the head. (No, I haven’t a clue either how the pieces got strung together.) 

Another caller, an IT guy, misguidedly thinking that the discussion of net neutrality might be improved with facts, was led repeatedly back to “ but it’s all about human freedom and personal liberty; now isn’t that true?” after being told that he was putting the audience to sleep by suggesting that the major concern was that media companies could be paid to decide what content would get priority.  I could hear the incredulity and confusion in his voice as the shaman-host rejected his informing detail. 

After many hours of listening I think that I can summarize what I heard thusly: blah blah blah, free market! Blah blah blah, freedom and liberty.  Blah blah blah, president Urkel.  The callers fell mostly into two categories: those who knew the rules and called to chant the cheers along with the cheerleader-shaman and those who were genuinely frightened and confused by the evil liberals who ‘are trying to destroy America and take away our liberty.’ 

This summary, however, does nothing to improve our understanding and so I set about to try to make some sense not depending on an assumption that conservatives are stupid and evil – though I did find myself, embarrassingly, yelling at the voice coming from the radio in just that vein. Here is some of that effort:

It is the oldest of human philosophical concerns: how to know what is true, what is real.  Clearly, knowing what is real is more effective in guiding action than ideas that are false – that is, at least it seems so on the face of it.  But the problem is deeper than that.  For example, ghost and spirits are not real, but a belief in them can be an effective way of guiding the behaviors of a village, adapting community behaviors to the Realities of a complex environment vastly beyond the detailed understanding of anyone and everyone. 

Living things have to ‘act on the future’ to be successful; and the summed transactions with the environment have to be “right.”  There is a right and a wrong measured by survival, and it is obviously important to be more right than wrong. But there is no prior knowledge to measure by; there are only consequences.  And it is from these consequences that the Living Order, in the form of instincts, and the Consciousness Order, in the form of story, designs behaviors that function as anticipations of events and their outcomes.  Thus the importance of stability: it is only from the constancy of previous events and the ways that they and their outcomes have been perceived and stored that subsequent behaviors form.  

Unstable conditions result in behaviors adapted to previous events being the only behaviors available to respond to new events.  When things go badly, that is, our behaviors in response to new events being less than effective, it is the habit of an organism, like us, that evolved within geological/evolutionary rates of change, to dig-in and stay with what we know, habits that have worked in the past; this is the most effective strategy in a stable world.  This doesn’t mean that humans don’t change; they do and can change very quickly.  It means that the way they change is by trying not to change; by clinging to an established habit: its failings are made clear and new behaviors are forced forward.  This process is messy, seemingly wasteful and all that is possible.  
And we can think up new behaviors, speculate on their outcomes and try them out with awareness.  It is just that not every person in the community needs to have these skills in identical amounts to be successful, in fact, the method works best when some people are the repositories of established habit and some are the creators of new behaviors, all functioning together in synergy. 

The result is two primary life stances: absolute certainty anchoring one end of the continuum and unaddressable skepticism at the other.  For the rest, imagine a normal bell shaped distribution of these qualities with most people functioning in the middle, neither rigidly certain or unremittingly questioning of everything.  But as one approaches one end, attitudes harden toward total confidence in the positions held and, going the other direction, all statements are modified by degrees of probability. 

This design was effective in human communities for many tens of thousands of years and is apparently codified into our biology, but has become less and less effective, finally becoming a problem in its own right as people are not arranged in broadly heterogeneous communities, but are more and more likely to gather into like minded groups that gather power to themselves by holding fast to only half of the process that previously was integrated with its “opposite number” as a means of arriving at the most propitious outcomes. 

The ‘certainty’ continuum is different from the knowledge—ignorance continuum, though the two are often confused.  Looking out from deep inside the total certainty camp gives the impression that those who don’t agree with you are ignorant since you are “absolutely right,” and ‘they’ think otherwise.  Similarly, looking at those who hold ideas as completely true or false, the failure to recognize degrees of truth is seen as ignorance from the probability point of view. 

Clearly some people tend toward one habit or the other, and some dramatically so, but the two approaches are not symmetrical or equally appropriate.  In human history confronting the uncertainties of existence beneficially combined these habits into a process that led most reliably to community actions that were successful, that is, allowed life to go on.
Certainty arises from a different set of processes than assignment of probability.  When conditions are constant the processes that generate certainty result in useful guides for action.  The hard-won intuitions can combine with varieties of influences, recognized and unrecognized, refining community behavior to exceptional accuracy.  But when conditions are changing quickly the details of response to events become just as quickly inappropriate.  With relatively constant conditions certainty is supplemented by research and skepticism, which is often viewed with some distain.  ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix’ it is the base principle. 

Certainty arises from unanalyzed accumulations of experience mixed with all the coincidental events that, by whatever chance, have come to be attached.  This is fine and even best when the surrounding conditions are stable; relationships of the greatest subtlety can eventually be adapted into the behavioral repertoire.  Real relationships have the time to become intuitive and the greatest complexities can be unraveled without an aware knowledge of their actual detail.  This is how instinct evolves in the Living Order: it is a form of certainty embedded in the genes. 

But in human societies there is great advantage in the novel, in the new untried action – and great danger.  In a community, some people can be allowed to explore different ways of doing things without endangering either themselves or the community if other groups of people implore that most things are done according ‘to the rules.’  Societies fail when either changes are driven faster than the people can meaningfully adapt to them within their biological natures or when narrow ad hoc practices are taken to be ‘God’s truth’ and inviolable. 

People who have no final answers, who look first to collecting information and who, by their natures, never come to absolute conclusions, are always moving toward the truth, though never reaching it, these people are less easy to understand in general.  But it is from their efforts that we know almost all of the detail about our world.  Certainty does not discover, there is no need when the answers are already known! 

The human world has become more and more unstable over the last several thousand years as a result of human agency: our discovery activities, technology and increasing numbers have increased the rate of change year in and year out.  These changes have also changed the synergy between the advocates of certainty and the avatars of discovery. 
While not being absolutely divided along these lines, conservatism is primarily populated with those who champion certainty and liberalism contains many who appreciate and practice novelty and discovery.  The added spice (or if you like, poison) in this soup is power and the designs functioning on this model to attain and sustain it.
Power is best served by certainty and challenged and frightened by novelty and questioning (though power also covets novelty so long as it can co-opt it).  A result is that ‘the conservative movement’, really a conspiracy to control as many people as possible, sees its audience as stupid and uninformed.  And it attempts to maintain their ignorance, guiding it in ways useful to the elites of the movement (who are not necessarily conservatives at all).  This allows the movement to say and do anything that will gain the short and mid-term objectives.  The “truth” is in the goal of power and wealth; what the masses are told in order to achieve that truth matters only in its result. 
The so-called liberal movement also sees the masses as stupid and uninformed, but rather than seeing this as an opportunity to manipulate, it is seen as a need to educate.  The elite-driven conservative movement says, “You are smart if you believe as I tell you.”  The liberal movement says, “You are ignorant and must learn this seemingly difficult thing.” 

I see no way out of this dilemma in the present functioning of the world.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Environmental Activism

There is a most basic question: What can I do? 

A long list can be made of the evils humans are fomenting on the earth; each of them should be (must be) stopped, but where to begin?  Derrick Jensen and others point out correctly that taking short showers, sorting the recycling and composting are not enough, especially if there are two cars in the garage of your 3,000 sq. ft. house.  Not nearly enough.  So much not nearly enough that you might as well not even do it – unless, of course, it is a gateway activism that leads to bigger things. 

The fact is, our situation is really quite desperate: extinction rates that will soon begin to disrupt ecosystems such that environmental “free” services will become limiting; changes of atmospheric chemistry that reach trigger points and overrun buffering systems; changes in ocean chemistry that trigger cascading changes in the whole biophysical living space.  The consequences for humans would be that our food and water sources would disappear for large numbers.  All the complex support systems currently in place in developed countries would be soon overwhelmed and the tenuous delivery systems in developing and third world countries would end; billions of people would be on their own without the resources of material or knowledge to meet their needs. 

If you were confident that the above description was accurate, then you would do whatever it took to stop it.  Right?  Because just think of the worst possible thing that could happen to you or to anyone, you can see it coming, and you have the capacity to do something to stop it – that is the way this is.   So we all agree… let’s go stop this environmental disaster.  “I’ll be over at 8 to pick you up.  Should I get you something at Starbucks?  Oh yeah, I’ll come over in the Prius!” 

But we are back to the original question.  We are sitting in the Prius ready to go.  You have your latte and I my plain dark roast with cream and sugar.  Now where do we go? 

To answer this question I have to begin by disagreeing with Derrick Jensen.  We will not win this battle – and it is now and will become a more serious battle – by fighting on the historical model of revolution.  We have largely lost our leverage of numbers for direct action for two reasons: one is that thousands, even millions of people can act without anyone knowing if the media refuses to tell the story, and it is refusing to report what the corporate elite doesn’t want reported; secondly, there are so many people today and so much of the material support system is automated that millions could die, not to the dis-benefit of the present economic structure, but to its actual benefit, i.e., life is cheap. 

So, living well on little, reducing your personal ecological footprint is a worthy pursuit.  Also supporting and comforting your life with the natural world is valuable – to bring others into this way of thinking and acting it is necessary to show with one’s own life that the deep joys of the living world are immediate, personal and fulfilling.   And then it is time to act. 

This is no different than martial arts training or boot camp; people must be prepared.  Prepared for what?  Prepared to confront a society, other human beings, that are brainwashed in materialist expectations, who would rather believe the lies that they know are lies than begin to accept the truth and have to give up their material possessions, possessions that they don’t even have the time to use; prepared to accept rejection and condemnation for pointing out the simple facts of the madness that we call ‘normal’ life. 

This is the first battlefront: your front porch, the coffee counter at work, the person in line at the store, your church, your car pool.  Tell them the truth.  Show them how you live, show them your pride and your balance.  As part of the battle plan, don’t correct them, just model for them the possibility of a life that is different with your own real life.  

This is where I think Derrick Jensen is wrong: if your life is approaching the rates of consumption that are far less damaging to the planet and you actively and with courage model that possibility for others, the seeds of a movement can be planted; it is the only way the designs of a possible future can form, and without it the more dramatic actions are only the bloody battles of a useless war. 

The second front is the relationship that your local community has with local ecologies.  Where I live the rich and superrich are building 10,000 sq. ft. homes on hilltops and mountainsides. Land developers are putting in subdivisions faster than the water from our drained rivers and aquifers can reach them. Road paving is apace. Schools have lost 20% of their budget and we were already about 48th in the nation. Many thousands of people get into their cars every morning, and mostly one at a time, drive 5, 10, 30, 70 miles to work and do the same in the opposite direction in the evening.  Coyotes, bears and mountain lions are starving as their habitat is compromised and coming to town like rural peasants looking for a meal.  Just pick a couple of these issues and learn about them, then you would know what to do. 

The third front is for ‘professional soldiers.’  The obscenity of national and international incorporated groups, really borderless nations that have as their only interest to grow using the earth’s resources as food and the human masses as their captured metabolic support systems, they must be stopped.  In theory these groups are legally chartered by the people, and these charters could be revoked, but in practice they are like a cancer that has overgrown the patient – has become the seeming reality, as though the patient can be cut free to give the cancer full control.  These entities are doing the greatest damage to the biosphere, to the real value on earth, life and the biophysical designs that support life; and especially to the remarkable new creation, the Consciousness Order, the human adaptation that has the capacity to appreciate it all.  

We have yet to devise a plan for dealing with this enemy.  I know that it has something to do with successes on the first and second fronts, but those will not be enough.  The corporations are like monstrous viral parasites; they mutate and co-opt healthy behaviors, especially behaviors designed to limited and control them.  Media would illuminate them, so buy and control the media.  Government would regulate them, so buy government and use media to trash government.  Workers would demand of them, so buy the worker’s representatives – or kill them – and drive the workers to financial ruin and dependency.  Activists would challenge them, so criminalize the activists and buy an army of mercenaries to do whatever they are told.  

The people have been convinced that corporations are essential for our survival; here we can fight them on the first front.  Many have local projects that can be fought on the second front, but the central core, the power to tear off mountaintops or kill whole oceans, the power to control what every person on the world is told as real, the power to buy and sell leaders, the power to fail and stop delivering many of the most basic services that we have allowed them to control; it is here that we are like a tiny army of serfs with hoes and pitchforks facing castle walls guarded by soulless zombies with laser weapons. 

Nonetheless, these corporate forces will have to be brought into compliance with a Reality that the people absorbed into the corporate matrix don’t even realize (or refuse to believe) is important.  The plan to do this must not precipitate an actual guerrilla war, it would harden the resistance and we don’t have the time even if corporations could be defeated and restructured in that way, but the threat of such a war, sniping and targeted actions against the most egregious corporate behaviors, would be necessary.  If corporate power, morphed into military power, has to be defeated in direct conflict in order to protect the earth’s biophysical stabilities from human excess, then we are lost.  We must create a plan of battle that has, at least, a chance of success. 

Just as castles became irrelevant with the introduction of good cannons and fixed fortifications inconsequential with motorized cavalry, so we must find the weaknesses of corporate power; first to invite them to join us and then to remake them, by whatever means necessary, into forms that comport with the Reality of a biological and humane existence on this little rocky planet.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Madness of Wealth

It is a very subtle thing: when you wake in the morning and from your deepest parts ask, “With what and to whom do I most powerfully identify?”  Whether we realize it or not this is how we start each day; though usually unnoticed and pro forma.  

Examples: there was a time when I strode out my front door as a psychologist/teacher/mountaineer/lover/Colorado-American/poet.  A neighbor was a father/store manager/husband/Republican-American/little league coach.  These identities adapt over time.  When a group of people share a collection of elements they can form associations around those elements and act collectively in support of those that are seen as needing support.  In fact, challenge to these identities is one of the primary forces that motivate the forming of like-minded associations in the first place. 

Some sets of identities have been more culturally fixed than others. The rural deep-south is only slowing changing.  Suburban areas pressured by immigration are changing fast.  There is no standard rate, just the general proposition that change begets change. 

A group that is most interesting to me is one that I know nothing about, or almost nothing [1].  I know that they exist, that they have a collective self-interest in society even as they are pursuing apparently different occupations.  I know that they are flesh and blood, emotional, reasoning and conscious creatures, but I also suspect when they get up in the morning and ask ‘the question’ that their answers are very different from most of their flesh and blood cousins: I am thinking of the 1% of the population who have come to control 25% of the national income and 90% of the nation’s total wealth. 

It is vitally important that we think about the answers they might give to my opening question since these people will decide the fate of this nation and the fate of humanity over the next generations.  This is a fact.  Short of revolutionary restructuring of national and world governance and economies those who control the world’s wealth will also decide what is done with that wealth, it is a simple syllogism, and what is done with it will determine the quality of our species’ relationship with each other and the biosphere; whether we will end up cooperating on initiatives to comport with biophysical reality or whether the Great Many end up eating each other for lunch.  It’s all in the answer to that question! 

All we have to go on is the behaviors that we see; what we are told is of much less use. The appearance at this time is that the One-Percenters are, through their hired guns in government, doing primarily two things: (1) trying to get at as much of the collective national wealth as possible and (2) removing the legal protections long enjoyed by the common man.  What other source of influence would be weakening legal protections for the greatest number in favor of the wealthy few?  Why would they do that? 

People who can buy their protections need have little respect for protections that are part of the fabric of the commons.  In fact, such common protections can be inhibiting of the process of ‘unprotecting’ the little bits of wealth held individually by the Great Many so that those little bits can be collected into great wealth. The rights of free speech, the rights of assembly and redress of grievance, the right of being secure in one’s person – the very reason for the Bill of Rights in the first place – are all inhibitions to the formation and functioning of an economic royalty. 

For the One-Percenters have certainly become an economic royalty with their own world almost completely disconnected from the rest of humanity.  How then are we to understand them? There is a clue in the history of their take of income over the last hundred years: 

Take a look at the graph in this report, page 7.  I have spent many years looking at and constructing graphic representations of data.  The point is to discover and represent the origins of differences, the sources for the variations in the numbers.  When I look at this graph it is clear that the behavior of the One-Percenters is driving the differences seen.  They are acting like the water that runs down the mountain, it is and they are restrained only the lay of the land. They take everything that they can get, everything that is not nailed down; and the history of nailing things down is exactly the inverse of their take. 

If the rest of humanity were to be represented – say a green line of little stars – it would be the inverse of the average of the three curves shown.  That would represent 90% of the people of the nation, every one with an income of about $100 thousand or less. 

Notice how the 5% curve and the 10 % curve are much less animated versions of the 1% curve.  This means that many fewer people in these groups are demonstrating the behaviors characteristic of the One-Percenters.  Imagine a restaurant with its normal clientele and a few people practicing for an eating contest.  A tally of the establishment’s food use would show spikes driven by the gluttons, but be dampened down, not looking so extreme, by contributions of the regular eaters. 

But let us return to the 90%.  Somehow many of us have forgotten that the 90% are a normal distribution of people trying to live happy and fulfilling lives, not consumed with the trying to be a One-Percenter.  Ninety Percent is almost every one.  One-Percenters are the aberration, not like the rest of us.  It is the 90% who should be defining who we are and what our goals are. 

Look at the 5% and 10% curves.  Again they mean that most of the people are behaving like the 90% not like the 1%; that is why the curves have flattened out so much compared to the 1% curve.  A small number of people in the 10% and 5% groups are behaving with the lack of restraint characteristic of almost everyone in the 1% group. 

It is the Great Many and their concern for honesty, fairness and justice, equity and the well being of others that is the true normal. The social and community habits of billions of people over thousands of years, habits immortalized in the philosophy and literature of our species, that is the human normal. There are a tiny number of people in the world who are careless of others, narcissistic, utterly self-interested, also smart and greedy, who have leveraged increasing amounts of accumulated wealth into larger and larger amounts – attempting limitless amounts.  Neither the accumulation or the attitudes and behaviors required to create these accumulations of wealth are even remotely normal. 

Looked at from any distance of perspective it should be clear that about 2% of the people of this country and most countries are so unlike normal functioning human beings that they should be restrained and not allowed to just gobble up everything that comes in front of them. 

Remember who the 90% are (really about 98% of humanity).  They are really everyone, work at almost every job that is done in the nation, they represent all levels of ambition, intelligence, education, wisdom, talent, knowledge and competence.  They are also far and away more interested in the wellbeing of their fellow humans, more understanding of the simple aphorisms of the golden rule and human humility than the One-Percenters who, judging from this graph, are driven to behaviors that separate them from the human behaviors that the rest of us value. 

How this situation arose is a complex of the cancerous growth of human numbers over the last few thousand years at such a pace that our systems of adaptation and understanding have been overwhelmed; that and the fullest exploitation of each and every decision no matter how narrowly intended.  As a part of this unfortunate process the story that has come to predominate is that the richest are the best, they are what the rest should strive for.  The story has even gone so far as to create a Christian version in which God’s favor is judged by the amount of wealth bestowed. Such a story supports the behaviors of the rich and makes them seem both desirable and normal when, in fact, they are pathological in at least three important senses: destructive of the social and economic order, destructive of the ecological order and destructive of the full experience of human life for both themselves and billions of others. 

The normal and desirable is in the ways of the Great Many, not in the behaviors of the superrich.  We need to begin to understand that greed and ambition at such levels represent a sickness of society and economic behavior.  And we also must realize that the inequities of wealth and the failures of social justice are the root of our present inability to honestly and effectively address the other major concerns facing our species. 

We need to begin to understand that it is the behavior of wealth itself that we must reject.  There are people who are easily drawn into the behaviors of wealth, but they are not the issue so much as it is the accumulation of the power of wealth that drives people to accumulate more, to fall under the spell of possession and who become willing to use their wealth-power to crush all opposition to retain and grow more and more.  There are not just a few bad people who misuse wealth and power; it is the accumulation of excess and inequity itself that needs to be rejected in the pubic mind. 

What are the answers of the superrich to the question first posed?  I will leave the possibilities to the reader – I can’t even imagine the strangeness and hubris that would have to occupy a mind that could treat 99% of the world’s people and all of the world’s processes and existence as ‘mine to do with as I wish.’ 

[1] Over the years I have met a few very powerful and very wealthy people.  Aside from the hand shaking trips out among the unwashed by senators, I spent an hour or so with the CEO of a major international drug company, a charming urbane man and director of a company with policies that offended human decency.  I was in the house of, and saw as a fly on the wall, the president of a major stock exchange, and a man who was an international real estate developer of “industrial properties” (the more he talked the shadier he seemed).  I mention them together because my impression was very similar: charming with a practiced consideration and would cut your throat and be on to the next project before you hit the ground if you crossed them.