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 7, 2011

If I Don’t Do It, Then No One Will

A successful businessperson knows that a business plan is not a set of instructions like the ‘put tab A into slot B’ plans used to build a plastic model.  A business plan is primarily a listing of clearly enumerated goals.  By keeping these goals in front of all thought, like the heads-up display on an airplane windscreen, all of the events of the day are evaluated for their potential impact on the goals.  But even more powerfully: much of the random potential perceptions that would never otherwise be noticed get sorted unconsciously by a person practiced in this almost meditative process, sorted and processed for their usefulness to the fulfilling of the goals. 

The person without such a goal orientation navigating the same experiences might, for example, either see a trash container, while otherwise ignoring it, or fail to see it altogether.  The person with a clear and present goal of building a business to make or distribute trash containers would not only see it, but would see locations that could use such containers; the truly obsessive person would constantly be evaluating the amount of trash carried by the average person, be thinking of city littering ordinances, mentally mapping the routes of travel at present and potential should a bridge be built or a store installed. 

When I was in business, I knew where my real competitors had their places of business, what kinds of cars they drove, whom their clients were, what their talents were.  I knew their preferred equipment, their limitations of physical plant, ability and personality.  Wherever I went my mind, unbidden, ticked through the technical details of the location for current projects and possible projects.  I knew the streets, the commercial buildings; and the people, those with taste, who was honest, those who ‘got it’.  And it went beyond these petty details.  To be successful, each month or so, the goals had to be evaluated and slightly modified: study this source, practice that process, solve this or that particular problem (I watched myself do these things with both horror and satisfaction). 

The pressure was always on.  In my situation there were 4 or 5 other people who could do what I did, and 50 who were trying to.  Of my real competitors one was better at one thing, another better at some other thing, but I had found the real key: be the best at recognizing the client’s needs and meeting them.  Sometimes that meant having the best product, sometimes it meant meeting deadlines and sometimes it was a matter of just being personable, and sometimes there was bending the rules. 

My point is that small business, all the way to the control of major corporations, selects and molds habits of thought and action that are incredibly narrow and focused, that seek out every advantage, first as advantage and second (third, fourth…) as the right thing to do.  Everyday is both training and test.  Jobs pending, contracts signed and accounts receivable rewarded and punished.  The standards of honesty and community good retreat before the constant assault of “if I don’t do it, then someone else will.” 

Some adapt more successfully to this regime than others.  The most successful take it on as a necessary, natural order and design.  They create, around the daily abridgments of decency and honor, belief systems that repair and cover-over those abridgements; shoddy indecencies covered with gold plated sophistries.  But the process is such that, for the most part, the participants see their progress into inhumanity as ‘normal life;’ each step is small, but unrelenting and so the distant traveled can be far. 


It is important that we understand the opposition in any engagement of conflict; the only reason for there being no interest in the opposition is when the actions that you will take will be the same no matter whom or what it is.  By understanding where it is we need to go, it becomes possible to clarify what it is that will oppose the going. 

I have argued that the amount of wealth creation in the world must be reduced, that the existing real wealth must be distributed for the benefit of the biosphere first and the benefit of the species second: The rate of wealth creation must be reduced to maintenance levels; the same basic energy economy as all other species in which real wealth is stored in the environmental commons where it maintains its function in biophysical processes.  A relationship is established in which what is taken is compensated in ecologically meaningful ways. 

Humans have a variety of options with how to use the available energy/materials and have the information needed to workout ways of living, within our limits, that would allow the full expression of specieshood (this should be the essential life goal).  It is obscene (and catastrophic) that an economic design has adapted from the distortions of human population growth, technological discovery and social/psychological failures of function to take the earth’s productive capacity and funnel it into the control of a tiny number of humans while condemning billions to suffering. 

This, I have concluded, will always happen when the energy/material economy produces about twice to three times what is needed for maintenance.  Even small amounts of excess create the possibility of increasing rates of wealth accumulation.  Once this process begins it becomes a positive feedback, that is, the event happening makes more of the event happen rather than for it to be satiated and gradually returned to neutrality: positive feedback systems always end with the failure of the system.  Thus any process that consistently requires more of some input at each iteration must, without intervention, fail catastrophically.

If the pedestrian description of the ‘businessman’ from the beginning is combined with the above argument, where we stand is pretty clear.  Present daily activities militate against the ways of living that would both sustain our ecological relationships and allow human beings to be human beings.  The question for us (meaning those who see this stuff and have not yet slipped into a nihilistic stupor) is how to pry apart the façade of sophistry with which much of the world protects itself. 

There is only one answer and that is to understand the origins of those sophistries; that they are built from hundreds of “learning trials” a day, that they are deeply implanted with intermittent rewards and that they are supported by common experience in such a way that, as discomforting as they might be to many people, they appear normal. 

But the sophistries are sophistries – made-up ways of thinking to explain and support actions with which people are ‘normally’ uncomfortable.  They can be replaced with realities more easily than it might seem.  Powerful forces – the “businessmen” (including politicians, etc.) whose position and authority would be challenged – will fight back without mercy: ‘If I don’t do it, then someone will!’ 

But the sophistries are sophistries; they ultimately clash with reality.  Positive feedback designs, like all Ponzi schemes, collapse.  The trick will be to keep up the pressure, everyday, so that when the unsustainable designs and the lies supporting them show cracks, there are other answers, other ways of thinking and acting increasingly available. 

However, since what is sustainable is not a Ponzi scheme, not a positive feedback design, a major difference for the mind set required of those of us who see the future is, “If I don’t do it, then no one will [1].” A plan that will give great reward in the moment, but insures failure in the future is hard to argue against when those who support such a plan seem to be the rulers of the world.  One might even say that the situation is hopeless.  As I wrote in a previous essay, there is virtue in hopelessness.  There is virtue in the honest comprehension of a situation and acting honorably even when there is no hope of success. 

[1] Note that in general the, ‘then someone will,’ form is an excuse for actions that are dishonest and dishonorable, while the form, ‘then no one will,’ refers to actions that are valuable.  The difference is the community basis of action: when there is no effective environmentally connected community, dishonorable action is often rewarded over the honorable.

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