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

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Future of Poverty 3

What is happening today – the “legal” stealing of the tiny amounts of ‘wealth’, actually the safety margins, of the many – is exactly what is to be expected in a world in which wealth creation is ending and the struggle to control a diminishing amount of real wealth is picking up speed [1].  The true nature of “economic” wealth becomes exposed along with the true nature of the sociopathology of the wealthy; there are reasons that the wealthy have been distrusted throughout human history.  A resuscitation of that distrust from its present coma would serve us well in this time. 

Our situation is this: 2 to 3 billions of people have next to no material possessions and few resources.  And, dangerously for them, they offer little to nothing to the economic systems that dominate the earth.  They have only their existence as living human beings to recommend them.  Their needs and value will get a very limited hearing in the halls of power.  The only concern they generate is how to move (remove) them to allow ‘productive’ use of the spaces and resources they currently occupy.  The words spoken on their behalf are no more than rhetorical flourishes like waves of incense floating among their departing souls. 

Of the remaining 4 or so billion, a huge majority are slave labor in one form or another to extractive industry, primary material manufacture or the industrial production of energy or consumer products.  They are slave labor because they have no option but to take the job offered and to do as they are told.  Increasingly, the compensation they receive is just sufficient to maintain life and basic levels of health; and increasingly, the ‘luxury’ of a self-directed life is removed by the need to devote more of their energies to work directed by others. 

This great number – nearly all of the 4 billion – cannot grow or gather their own food, supply adequate clean water, provide their own safe shelter or other protections.  They are completely at the mercy (actually lack of mercy) of the economic systems that control the delivery of these primary needs. 

The remaining millions of people – just a few millions – have the information and knowledge, the organization and lines of control, to keep the existing structures functioning.  In the world of appearances the Great Many have come to believe that these people, as individual persons, are necessary to maintain the flows of goods and services and to keep stable the value of the abstract tokens that are exchanged for those goods and services. 

Taking full advantage of their position of control, these few millions have collected for themselves vast amounts of the productive efforts of the Great Many.  Rather than organizing human productive capacity to distribute the rewards among the many people who do the actual work, these people have devised methods, arguments and legal structures to, first, collect large parts of the rewards to themselves and, second, to keep the others working as much as possible in the support of the first goal. 

It is true that almost all people will only work as much as is needed to meet their needs and then they will play; that is, they will enjoy life, spend time with family and friends, explore and study, create, rest, recharge; all the things that human beings should be doing with a great portion of their most remarkable lives.  But these activities, especially if they do not involve consumption, are useless to the few millions who only gain from the work of others.  And so, the Great Many must be made frightened and insecure; compensated at the lowest level possible regardless of the true value obtained from their productive efforts so that they will have to work to excess as the means to create excess. 

Billions of human beings are driven to work for the benefit of others in order to gain a minimum sufficiency for their own lives.  The wealthy few who parasitize the productions of the many have never had a sense of humor or humanity when challenged.  The list of atrocities committed in the name of economic domination rival those of religion.  From the mixing of blood in the mortar for the Great Wall of China to the Ludlow Massacre, from the savage slavery of Rome, the slavery of the New World to the conscriptions for the fields and mines of the third world, the economic elite have demonstrated their insane capacity to harm their fellow human beings for material gain.  

What will be their response to systematic loss of authority delivered from the environment by their own overreaching?  It will be completely predictable; the impoverishment of all and everything, human and natural world alike…and concomitantly themselves, especially so in a time when economic growth of the sort that supported them will have ground to its inevitable halt. 

The Great Many, try as they might, cannot collect together enough material wealth to, individually or as family sized collectives, protect themselves as the present economic systems enter their death spiral; this will, over the next decade, be recognized as either wishful thinking or cruel illusion.  401Ks, a couple of million in stocks, a closet full of canned goods (or long guns) will simply not do it.  These things are not the solution, they only speed us toward the uncontrolled failure of the systems that presently support us.  They are, of course, the “solutions” that the elite want us to pursue since they continue to be empowered by such foolishness. 

How we live has to change in ways that can support the Great Many and actively disempower the economic elite (even as times are hard and many may die in the process).  As long as the people are incompetent to supply and manage their most basic needs, then they are at the ‘lack of mercy’ of the elite.  As long as there is an apparent dependency on the opaque complexities of economic systems run by shadowy figures behind the curtains, the only way to go will seem to be with the values and substance of those systems [2].  But let true human communities form that can meet a significant portion of our own most basic needs and suddenly the human spirit revives and tells the overlord to ‘stick it.’ 

This is possible.  We know how. What we don’t have is the understanding that what we think of as poverty – what we fear as deprivation and suffering – can become equanimity, both material and psychological (or spiritual if you like).  Only by rejecting the material production and accumulation by which the economic elites control the masses will the Great Many be able to have the simplicity and competence to form the basis for a new kind of leadership, a body of people and a leadership that can ignore the elite and return them to their proper roles as ‘accountants’ who work for us rather than as our overlords.

Human societies have always had their useful bean counters, but when they come to dominate societies, and when the counting becomes more important than the humans that the counting is supposed to be done in the service of, we get what we have today.  It is time to return the bean counters to counting real beans. 

Simply challenging the elite without changing our own expectations – expectations that we have copied, though in an abbreviated and perverted from, from the elites – will only lead to more of the same or worse.  Enough people must begin to live in equanimity, must model for the rest the possibility of being materially poor without living in poverty of spirit.  It is through material simplicity that community can begin to be relearned as a way to meet many of the needs that we attempt, and most often fail, to meet with wealth. 

We will not grow our way out of the present dilemma; it is possible that this really is the moment when recovery will not mean, cannot mean, a return to what we have known, but must be about a real recovery of our relationship with Reality.  We must deny the wealthy the products of our effort by meeting our own needs with knowledge, work and community.  In such a new world the elite will have to make it on their own or join us. 

If we can begin to do this now, ‘this’ being a rejection of the excesses of wealth, the nascent formation of real communities and the denying of our consumption and labor to the elite, then there can be a cushion of material wealth to carry many of us through, up and over the learning curve with the least possible distress.  The longer we wait the less of a buffer we will have.  I think there is a chance; the thoughts and questions of millions of people are beginning to drift into these regions.  The alternative is too awful to even consider [3]

[1] The loss of real wealth is the result of costs increasing exponentially faster than production.  The loss of environmental free services is a real cost, generally unaccounted for, but nonetheless becoming a dominating factor.  Soil loss, environmental toxification, ecosystem instability, health consequences, environmentally driven economic instabilities, human rejection of present economic and political structures are all costs to existing wealth whether accounted for or not. 

[2] Somehow the Great Many don’t realize that they do all the work right now.  The elite do not add value, but are a drain on the earth’s resources, a disproportionate drain.  While the contributions of order and leadership supplied by the elites can and have been supplied in many different ways and at hugely lower costs, only properly tended soil can grow a bean.  Given a choice between a plate of ‘rules of order’ and plate of well grown and prepared beans, the hungry will always make the right choice. 

[3] But I will briefly: billions of people will be without food and water in all regions, north and south.  Armies will begin to act as entities devoted to their own preservation, will use their organization and powerful weapons with predictable consequences.  Millions of people will be on the move with regard only for survival.  Disease and famine will be the twin levelers of the human enterprise and a Dark Ages will form from the ashes.  I understand that this sounds crazy, but is in the mind of every clear thinking biologist, economist, social philosopher, etc., though, most will not tell us until later!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Future of Poverty 2

(Prologue: This is tricky to write about.  I am making the claim that there will have to be an acceptance of decreasing amounts of material goods, that human beings who are accustom to choice and excess will have little choice and little to no excess and that human beings who have never had anything, in the most likely scenarios, never will.  The feedback that I’ve gotten when I’ve hinted at these ideas has often been angry; acquisitions of blaming the victim, making the assumption that I am supporting an economic elite action to disempower working, producing people.  This is in no way my intention.  I am not suggesting that the Great Many should remain or become poor so that the rich can stay rich or get richer, though this seems to be happening. 

The whole frame of understanding that sees having easy access to literally millions of manufactured goods, services, entertainments, etc. as an unquestioned good has been destructive of not only our environment, but our relations with each other; we have come to select objects over relationships, wealth over mental health and the humanity of our species. 

Ideological and disingenuous arguments are made by places like the Heritage Foundation that poverty doesn’t really exist in the US because poor people have more than one TV and eat enough to get fat.  These are, of course, much more complex arguments in support of the economic beliefs and behaviors that enshrine the economic elite as superior in both method and being.  I certainly don’t support such views; most of the wealthy are sociopathic in either actual psychological make up or they have adopted sociopathology as lifestyle.  I am saying that no one should have such excess and that we entering a time when eventually no one will.  It is how human beings rediscover living with material simplicity, and regrowing their native biological/emotional/social complexity, that will decide whether this transition is to be the horror that the loss of wealth is presented as or the ameliorative pressure to adapt to Reality yet again after several thousands of years in the wilderness of economic civilization.) 

An important conclusion from the first part of this essay is that, at the very least, a serious reconsideration of being poor is warranted.  Bringing together all of the various forces moving us into the future seems to make abundantly clear that the amount of energy and material per capita will be less in the immediate future than today; either because humans, through conscious planning, reduce the rate at which, and the methods with which, we take from the environment or because biophysical systems become so damaged from overuse that they decline in function. 

This reality runs headlong into the economic expectations, hopes and dreams of billions of people.  People are going to be more materially poor, quite a bit more materially poor.  How can such a change be accomplished in such a way that humanity is advanced in its capacities rather than thrown back into a totality of “less in all things?” 

If damaging levels of deprivation are not surpassed, what does poor mean? When a person, family or community has enough material wealth to be safe and sound, are they poor?  When and under what conditions does the collection of excess material wealth (over what is needed to be safe and sound) violate ‘the rules’; and what rules would those be?  Would we not be better served by a focus on the concepts of excess and the dangerous consequences of wealth obsession than focusing on an arbitrary need to have minimally more than is required for basic comfort and safety? 

A mythology has been woven around the idea of poverty and being poor.  First and foremost these are supposed to be undesirable and unfortunate conditions, conditions that a right thinking person will ‘work their way out of.’  Even if a person has adequate and nutritious food, safe and comfortable shelter, and the rest at effective, if not opulent, levels, then they are often considered poor, substandard, even if the person is comfortable, happy and fully engaged in a full range of life affirming activities. 

So it is not so much being poor that is the issue, but rather it is not being rich.  It is easy to understand how a person could come to be materially poor, they simply need only not devote very much of their time and energy toward making money or other activities that would add to their material wealth.  Being poor has a floor, has a clear definition in real terms: so many square feet of shelter, so many BTUs of heat required, so many calories and so many nutrients, etc.  Do enough to meet these conditions then physical comfort and safety are attained; it is then possible to do other things (there is literally a world of other things). 

“Poverty” is not something to be eradicated, but rather something to be embraced and expanded upon. There is not a single reason that life can’t be lived with great fullness and fulfillment from the platform of poverty.   In fact, it is often wealth that defeats the fulfilling of life’s greatest promise by confusing our goals.  Mystics and philosophers have been saying this for thousands of years.

But living near deprivation risks entering into it. And so we hedge against it.  Throughout most of our history we have hedged against hard times by living in communities that spread risk, supply innovation, support and protect members and serve as the adaptive nexus for communing with the environment. 

I must at this point add another item of context (number four) fleshing out the nature of community and the individual in community. 

There is a type of person – a personality if you will – that will take from what is available all that they can get so long as what they take doesn’t single them out for retaliation by the community.  Community expectation is the limiting agent.  There are others, most others, who self-regulate; they maintain an awareness of how those around them are using resources and generally attempt to match the community.  A much smaller number attempt to take much even in the face of community condemnation and a still rarer number who try to use even less than the community standard. 

These four styles of functioning within a community can easily be understood as adaptive options.  The community functions best when all the members are consuming environmental resources at sustaining levels. It is useful then for most members to pay attention to the consuming patterns of others and try to match them – useful so long as a community process is measuring the community’s impact on the environment.  

Those who attempt to take as much as they can to a point just before community condemnation tend to push community consumption up; a useful adaptive design in good times.  Those who tend to use less than community standards suggest serve as a reservoir of austerity behavior that is useful in tough times.  Those who are sociopathic, whose consumption is as unrelated to community standards as is possible before they are expelled or killed are useful in conflicts with others as well as representing the random process tendency to fill out possibilities; that is, for there to be variation, occasional examples outside the adaptive range will occur.  For most species these die; humans commonly find uses for them in the social structure. 

What is essential to recognize is that community standards control the behavior of the members, and it is the adaptation of the community to the environment that creates the standards.  When there is no longer a community to guide behavior, people will create an ad hoc “community” from whatever organized or organizable structures there are available.  This results in an essentially unlimited number of and forms of structures that take on aspects of community function; these are not actual communities. 

A human community is a collection sufficiently large to be fully heterogeneous for the major variabilities of the species and low enough for a member of the community to recognize and develop some knowledge of the other members.  Clubs and other voluntary groupings can be of the right numbers, but fail the test of heterogeneity.  Common purpose groupings like business associations, many religious organizations and others also fail for the same reason.  This is not to say that these groupings don’t attempt the functions of communities, just that the results are often disorienting rather than orienting of the most basic human and environmental relationships . 

Individuals have no private means to orient themselves in the world; that is the role of communities.  Communities, groups of the different sorts of people that typically exist, adapt an overall behavioral solution to living in the environment in which they are found.  Individuals express their differences in the context adapted by the community. 

When communities become special purpose, when they are no longer heterogeneous and when they are no longer adapting general behaviors to real environments, then there is no longer any inhibiting or guiding order other than the expedience of the moment.  Religions have attempted to take on many of the functions of communities as these functions have disconnected from the environment and as they have mutated into other forms, but without success in maintaining the most primary and essential functions.  Only real communities can perform the functions of communities – this is both obvious and simple. 

The point of this diversion from the topic of poverty is as explanation for the dysfunctional associations that have become the rich, the poor, the economic elite, the intellectual elite, the red-neck, the bigoted and so on.  Ultimately these groupings and the destructive forces that form around them can only be addressed by the power of real communities, adapted to real environmental realities.  But we are a long way from being able to produce them. 

One of the first things needed is a new, more accurate language and understanding of materially simple living.  Poverty is too associated with deprivation to be a good choice.  I like the idea of living in equanimity.  This expresses both the material and the spiritual designs of living simply.  

The struggles of our time have been about having more not less, though it is absolutely clear that there is no devilishly clever nuance that will let the human species continue increasing either our numbers or our consumption of the earth’s productive capacity.  The conflicts that animate our activity are about the poor and the less-than-rich “improving” their position.  But what is required is the rejection of concentrations of wealth, the distribution of existing concentrations to the proposes of educating as much of humanity as possible about our true condition and to the formation of social and economic systems that will allow for, first, the survival of the present ecological structures and then the development of the human species as both an organism integrated into native ecologies and as the repository of the Consciousness System of Order, a process that requires the recognition of consciousness processes and their relationship to the evolutionary processes of the Living Order. 

We, in the near future, can either be living in poverty or in equanimity.  This is the only decision that we will have the opportunity to make; continuing on as we are is out of the question.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Future of Poverty

You can’t read an article or essay on our economic condition without there being some reference to “the poor.”  The comment may be one of concern, admonition, repudiation or despondency, but what all share in common is a lack of clarity about what is presented as an assumed undesirable condition of humanity. 

The Poor are defined in various ways: the amount of money that one lives on; inflation adjusted US dollars is the typical measurement (for example, 2 $US a day).  Sometimes available calories is an efficient metric.  A more subjective measure is to describe poverty in the negative by presenting what one aspires to; no one is supposed to aspire to poverty.  This is almost always done in money terms; “I want to be rich!”  The assumption, usually correct, is that the speaker wishes to have lots and lots of money, and so is defining poor as having not so very much money.  That it is possible to be rich in some other commodity than money is rarely realized, appreciated or desired. 

But these ways of thinking and measuring are so foolishly limited as to only be useful in the news media and conservative propaganda.  This is a far richer field of study than it is given credit for.  It will return vast dividends on the investments of time and effort to accumulate the wealth of understanding contained there in. 

Is being poor a bad thing?  Is being poor and poverty the same thing?  If being poor is a condition to be avoided, then how is that to be accomplished, individually and in societies?  What is the relationship between being poor and social status?  More questions will be added to this little treasure trove we go along. 

George drove the school bus in the mornings and afternoons; there were two buses in the district.  He took care of the town garbage dump on garbage days and drove the backhoe that dug the holes and buried the packaging, wasted and rotted food, broken things and other derelict items.  I first meet him when he came to my house with an envelope in his hand, my address on it; not my address in the little village were I was then living, but my name was on it.  He politely informed me of the designated garbage days and the proper procedures for the use the town dump – especially pointing out the ones I had recently violated (I write in a somewhat stilted style, not in mocking, but to represent the correctness with which George performed).  At the end of the conversation George had established himself as an authority and the superior man.  He parted with a rapid reversion to warm hearted joviality.  

A few weeks later I walked into a locals-only hangout, bar and liquor store for a bottle of wine.  The narrow room was filled with what might be called local toughs conversing in a provincial Spanish, George was among them.  I am tall, fair skinned and blond; I stood out!  As I walked toward the bar a tension crackled.  I heard a little grunt.  Everyone did a quick glance at George.  He spoke to me by name, something utterly forgettable, and I was suddenly acceptable (not accepted, that being another state altogether). 

Just down the road (the only road) was a big, well-groomed house with a barn in back.  Well maintained farm equipment, tended fields and very pretty sheep surrounded the place.  In the two years that I lived in the town I never saw the man who owned that land or his family in a store or on the street in the village, although he was occasionally spoken of –in unflattering terms. 

George was a village leader, had little money, but had everything he wanted since he apportioned his energies to that purpose.  The “rich” man may have had everything he wanted also, but to live in a town where you are not really welcome would seem to belie that. 

In the largest city in the region live a couple who both received large financial rewards for their work.  They had, at separate times, left jobs with even higher levels of financial reward to do the creative work that they preferred.  Still they never had enough. 

These are a tiny few of the personal data points that create the intuition over which the demographic and other research can be spread.  What they do is suggest a form and understanding (what might be called a theoretical basis) that is not inherent in the research.  It is too easy to take on the monetary model that equates amounts of money with being poor, wealthy and ultimately with wellbeing. 

Is being poor a bad thing? If poverty and being poor equate with inadequate nutrition, unsafe shelter, ineffective protection from the elements and other failures to meet primary biological needs, then it would be unambiguously a bad thing.  However, most developed-world ‘poverty’ is defined, not against such absolute criteria, but against the conditions in the immediate experience of the community.  George would have been considered impoverished in the regional city – he might have even come to see himself in that way.  In the village, money was only one, and not the most important measure, of wealth and wellbeing. 

The question can be rephrased to be: Is being money poor a bad thing if the primary biological needs are satisfactorily met?  Now the focus can be on what is required of the person, family or community to meet those needs; how much time, attention, effort and even suffering must the people contribute (and sometimes endure) for those needs.  This is a very different question.  A question that I will get to a bit later, but first there is need for more context. 


Context one: What must begin to be understood – slowly at first and fully eventually – is that as long as there is significant excess (energy, material, basic needs) there will be the temptation to hoard, then to steal: those who hoard will steal from each other so to hoard more and those who have nothing will steal to have something.  This will create a need to control or remove those who steal, a need for armies and for war.  There is no social, political or economic design that is not driven by the existence of excess into some form of plutocracy. 

The vast effort and barrels of ink that have been expended on trying to solve this issue without giving up the wealth and the privilege that comes with excess has been wasted. 

The unquestioned, even more absolutely accepted and basic, assumption that economic growth is the cure for poverty, or being poor, misses an essential understanding.  Reading projections and prescriptions for improvement, population growth is presented as some natural process like progression of changes in a star or force of gravity.  Economic growth is always presented as the way to reduce absolute poverty, evidenced by the reduction of poverty in developed countries, but it is not recognized that economic growth is the source of population growth and the increases in the numbers living in absolute poverty. 

This leads to various absurdities.  In 1800 (a little over two hundred years ago) there were about 1 billion people on the earth.  Of that number perhaps a third lived in absolute poverty; many in Europe, the US, China, India.  Indigenous peoples were under severe stress in many parts of the world, but much of the world’s agricultural peoples lived, much as they had for millennia, in the protection of their lands and skills.  In other words, absolute poverty, while in regional pockets, was spread around the world. 

In 1900 there were about 2 billion people on the earth and about a third of them lived in absolute poverty; a increase from 300 million to 600 million over a hundred years.  But those living beyond poverty had gone from 700 million to 1.4 billion.  Again, this poverty was spread around the world but was beginning to concentrate outside of the developing countries.  Traditional agricultural communities around the world were being disrupted by aggressive extractive and agricultural interests from the developing world with the result that low income, but self-sufficient communities, were driven into absolute poverty.  This was ‘compensated’ by a reduction in poverty in the industrializing “north.” 

In 2011 there are almost 7 billion people on the earth and about a third of them live in absolute poverty, roughly 2 billion (the total population of the earth just about a hundred years ago).  But, they are concentrated in the so-called Third World, or that part of the earth that the developed world has determined to use for its own purposes.  This has been accomplished by using the force of superior arms, the hiring of willing local leaders to suppress the people and by disrupting local traditional property mores and replacing them with property rules that remove land from the local people and put it in the control of foreign entities. 

The natural and eventual consequence of this process is not the reduction of absolute poverty, but the return of poverty to those places that have used the third world as the repository of poverty to relieve their citizens of poverty’s burden.  The projections are that the earth will top out at about 9 billion people in 30 to 40 years.  There is no reasonable way that that increase will not result in, at least, 3 billion people living in absolute poverty.  If there are the expected reductions in cheap energy and material sources, loss of agricultural lands, increasing climate variation and systematic change, social and economic disruptions and other possible perturbations, we can expect much more absolute poverty; and this will have to be, increasingly, in the developed world. 

Context two: Biological populations (people, muskrats, pea plants) distribute qualities in a pattern, a pattern typically like the one that statisticians call a normal distribution.  The mathematical origin of a normal distribution is based on the assumption of randomness: a ‘population’ of behaviors (say throwing a hundred coins at a time, many many times and counting the numbers of heads and tails) will produce a perfect normal distribution with all the numerical properties that are learned about in a statistics class.  If the hundred coins are thrown a thousand times a remarkably accurate guess can be made for how many times the throws will contain 20 heads or fewer, or any other prediction. 

Much of human life can be described with some version of a normal distribution.  One meaning of this is that much of what happens in the overall is random.  We don’t like this so very much – assigning causes has been and remains an important part of our survival – but ultimately, in the big picture there is much randomness in the world.  Healthy people “go with the flow” or understand that “shit happens” and keep on plugging along.  

The limits on energy and material means that these will be distributed in greater and lesser amounts and never in equal amounts to all participants; that is, there will always be a distribution, resembling the normal distribution, of material wealth and other measures of wellbeing.  There will always be those who have too little and those who have too much.  The question is, how can our species adjust to this reality in ways that do not destroy our best efforts to live well – and much of the rest of life on earth in the process? 

Context three: Look at ecological foot print data.  In essence, the present world population (of humans; more if all of life is added in) is using the earth’s productive resources at a rate that would require 1½ earths to sustain (2 or more to avoid a major extinction event).   About a third of the world’s people are using 1½  hectares of productive surface or less a year.  On average the developed countries are using between 7 to 15 hectares per capita with the wealthy requiring up to hundreds of hectares per capita of the earth’s productive capacity for their exclusive use (exclusive meaning that no other living thing is getting the benefit of that amount of productive capacity).  This means that total material/energy taking by humans will be reduced either by us or by exhaustion of capacity in the near term future. 

More next time.  

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Economic Growth Must End, Not Be Reinvigorated

There is only one way up a ladder, but there are two ways down.  I have always preferred to climb down carefully – actually more carefully than climbing up – because of the alternative method for descending.  This is also true for economic societies.  Economic growth is the way up, but thus far we have really only tried economic collapse as the way to get down.  We have not yet learned how to or the need for climbing down with care. 

In fact, human economic systems are not designed to climb down, and so, new sections of ladder must be added at the top forever.  The Mesopotamians got into trouble with Yahweh (or a brother) for a form of this absurdity by building the tower of Babel; we (meaning We) are getting into trouble with the infinitely more potent Biophysical Reality for our absurdity. 

It should be clear to even the casual observer (but is not) that economic growth cannot continue either forever or even very much longer.  It should also be clear (but is not) that, like any good physical system, actions have their opposing forces: one must push down to climb up and economic growth of the developed world has been made possible by pushing down on the backs of the undeveloped world. 

Humanity is facing, or rather is hiding its face from, the reality that it must begin to climb down the ladder of economic growth or fall from it.  What is completely unclear is how to do that.  Have you ever seen a dog climb a ladder?  It can go up, but when reaching some height it cannot come down.  The dog begins to shake with fear, some will bite those who try to help and they will fall unless rescued.  It is not a pretty sight: a friendly family pet turned shaking, whining and vicious; suddenly just striking out as though it could walk on the air and tumbling, bone-breakingly, down the useless rungs of the ladder [1]

Humans are not dogs.  We have mastered ladders; our climbing limbs and prehensile thumbs let us ‘thumb our noses’ at gravity’s best work.  But can our brains and cultures perform as well?  With them we have climbed to great heights of energy use, material manipulation and real wealth extraction and sequestration.  The consequences are becoming unavoidable and we must begin to climb down. 

Human beings must begin to slow the rate of the increasing consequences of our presence on the earth, stop increasing altogether and then begin to reduce human impact on every measure.  Ultimately the other things – revolution in Egypt, the legal structure of social security, the proliferation of lies we are told – don’t really matter, they are acne on a terminal cancer patient.  Economic growth must end; we must begin to climb down. 

But, of course, these other things do matter because they prevent us from being able to see the real source of our danger.  These things are the unavoidable product of growth and our coming to the end of growth, of having climbed as high as we are going to go and facing the immediate and multiple prospects of falling; but they are also smoke screen to hide these very same facts. 

But like a dog at the top of a ladder, we have absolutely no way down; every official option for “correcting” our present troubles is some form of ‘returning to economic growth.’  Demand must be increased.  Production must be increased.  New products must be developed.  This or that industry saved. Wealth must be created.  Mines must be dug. Ground must be cleared, tilled and planted.  Water must be pumped.  Salaries must be raised.  Inflation must be adjusted to incentivize growth, not too much, not too little.  There is no plan to climb down and there has never been one. 

First we need the ideas, the imaginings, and then the search for how to manifest the imaginings.  There can be no change in policy from the very top of the ladder where all that glitters is gold. What will be required is a change in understanding, a change in how certain concepts organize our actions and experiences; changes that glimmer for a moment in ten thousand different places until enough can happen all at once to bring the light to see. 

Property, wealth, community, social responsibility, excess, these and other concepts have been formed around a process of conquest and domination: first to the immediately surrounding regions, then geographical domains and now the whole biosphere and all that inhabits it.

Property must be seen, not as possession, but as responsibility.  Wealth seen as the capacity to meet the needs of community, and as sourced in the environment not in individual human beings.  The goal of life must become the finding and expressing of the full measure of our biological and consciousness order natures.  Trivializing the remarkable living and consciousness states by equating them with buying personally useless and environmentally damaging objects is ignoble beyond comprehension.

The metaphor of climbing down gives some guidance; there is the changing direction of all motions, the feelings are all different, the focus is different.  There is so much that we do not need.  There is so much that we waste.  There are so many things that we each personally need to be able to do: competencies that we have lost, capacities unexplored and unfulfilled. 

A ladder gives only one direction to go in; two, if you count climbing down.  Once you make it back to the ground you can go anywhere. 

[1] Some dogs have been trained to climb down ladders without falling just as some humans have personally discovered how to ‘climb down’ the economy without catastrophe, but these are far from the common examples.  It is even unclear what we can learn from them.  It is perhaps best that dogs not climb ladders in the first place!  In fact most dogs cannot be made to climb a ladder, showing a wisdom that should make a sapiens blush.