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

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Future of Poverty 4

Think of a sampling of major historical events. Mine might include the reign of Ramses II (circa 1290 bc), the Norman conquest of England (1066 ad) and the burning of the Chinese fleet by the Ming Emperor (circa 1433 ad). There are many thousands to pick from.

While these events have had major consequences on the details of our history and, of course, the actual composition of the present nodes of biological expression, i.e., the existence of my and your person [1], but these and trillions of other events, major and minor, have been of no great consequence in directing the general process of change followed by our species over the course of our evolution and Consciousness Order adaptations. It is the grand designs that have been the source of the major changes in how we organize our experience, real changes of our most basic expectations and understanding, not just the reorganizing of the cosmetics of leadership and regional/national design.

Our species has been through 3 primary phases of change: (1) Species formation stage when ‘we’ formed out of the variety of hominid possibilities; (2) Consolidation stage during which time the species began “exploring” our remarkable capacities, in particular the Consciousness System of Order as an information processing system separate from the Living System of Order; (3) Expansion stage in which Consciousness Order processes began “filling”, and continues to fill, the species with information about the operating principles of the universe, with the consequence that the human animal has grown exponentially in number and power.

We are now on the threshold of a fourth phase. The direction is clear (the process is still being worked out): the expansion phase will end replaced by a phase in which the human presence on the earth will realign with the biophysical principles that have, for more than 3 billion years, guided the relationship of a species with its ecosystems. We can go into the next phase kicking and screaming or we can go, seeing the handwriting on the wall, by applying our capacities to comprehend, imagine and implement new behaviors; but we will go.

Physics, chemistry and biology all say that we have reached the end of this phase. Energy and matter cannot be created or destroyed. Molecules have consequences. All living things are inseparably integrated into synergistic systems. These are real rules. We will not go leaping off of this planet like the spatters of grease from too hot a pan, grabbing up bits of this or that from asteroids, populating nearby planets as this one is ruined by our thoughtlessness. We have bigger fish to fry in that too hot grease.

How can billions of people live within their true ecological means? Since we have already overshot our ecological limits, who is going to live and who is going to die? How are we to get from here to there, and will the method make a difference (I say it will make all the difference)?

Here are the things that must be done – not how; first we must get used to what. The absolutely most important first:

1) As individual human beings, as communities, as regions of collected communities, as national collectives (governments and the like) we must reject concentrations of wealth that are not in the immediate control of the people, democratic control through processes for the expression of the popular will that are transparent and tamper proof. No private entity can function with impunity within the human ecology. Wealth concentrations create impunity of action.

All of the concerns about democracy as a form of governance remain and are addressed in part further on, but it has to be realized that concentrations of wealth are like concentrations of mass, they are both attended by other properties: for mass it is gravity and momentum. We can’t say, “Gathering up great amounts of mass is just fine, you just can’t have gravity?” We also should begin to understand that wealth creates forces that distort the social and economic systems in which it concentrates. The Sun and Jupiter “control” the earth’s movement in this region of space; are we willing to have Rupert Murdock, Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil control the movements of our lives? Theirs and other wealth concentrations are certainly doing so now, but they are not inevitable like the stars.

2) The ethic of efficiency has to be replaced with an ethic of efficacy. Efficiency focuses attention on selected details of a process. The most efficient way to capture the greatest amount of energy from the burning of sugar has no efficacy for a living thing. What matters for life is that the burning of sugar is integrated into a matrix of chemical reactions and pathways, interconnected and self-supporting; and oh yes, that a sufficient amount of energy is captured to supply the system. The maximum capture of the energy would destroy the living order.

Our economic systems have come to be dominated by the ethic and the excuse of efficiency: humans must accept painful outcomes so that economics can function efficiently – that is just insane.

3) The standards against which efficacy is measured must be based on human wellbeing. This region of judgment has been a thorn in our side (or a spear!) forever. It would help with wealth distortion reduced or removed, but we are still left with a cacophonous chorus singing the praises of quite incompatible notions. There are volumes to be studied. I would only argue that the animal must be fully appreciated and that we have enough science of behavior to offer really useful beginnings from which to further adapt more universal notions of wellbeing.

4) All human societies prior to civilization, i.e., most societies, for most of the time humans have been on the earth, have devoted their greatest effort to the raising and teaching of their children. Without the distorting influences of wealth concentration we might be able to adapt this most basic human concern to the needs of this time.

We have added enormously to what is possible to know about. I remember so clearly; me, a wild country boy of the rural south, standing in front of the main library building on the campus of a great university awe-struck by the physical manifestation of the human effort to understand and communicate that understanding, and the terrible-great devotion required to honestly receive that effort.

A commitment of the most eternal form must be made to the passing on of human comprehension to all members of the species who have come into the modern sphere. This is compensation for having taken from them their birthright as a human animal born into the world ready to grow up in an environment that has been removed from the earth, and in recognition that only with such learning can democratic beings properly express themselves.

5) All human beings must live close enough to the biological imperatives that are the substrate of life that they ‘know’ them as natural intuitions. The most basic activities of life are the consumption of oxygen, water and food. Being divorced from appreciating these activities by distance, denial and distortion of understanding is a primary crime against every human being so affected (afflicted).

We will need to use our best understandings to move the organization of human communities to forms that can interface ecological realities, meeting of human needs, high levels of scientific and technological power and the political realities of control and governance for large populations. To be successful, and not to repeat the errors of the past, we must begin with the most basic needs, making it a primary human ethic to supply one’s own needs directly with one’s own effort.

Furthermore, having the capacity and knowledge to meet primary needs frees the possessor from unfair domination by those who would use ignorance to advantage, as is one of the most ‘normal’ forms of relationship among people today.


In the present state of our mass confusion, driven in large part by wealth concentration and the illusion that the primary human goal in life is to concentrate wealth, there are many who would consider the above arguments and ideas both crazy and evil, perhaps even terrifying.

Many of today’s people in developed countries, especially the US, seem to be the products of a mental and emotional neotony characterized by the retention of childlike selfishness and narcissism reaching far into sexual maturity and titular adulthood. Such people cannot imagine not striving for more stuff or more power and are inured to the needs and suffering of others. It is the way we live that supports the creation of such people, and allows them to become both successful by their values and even leaders and goal setters for others.

A call to poverty as a way of life, I would rather say equanimity, a call to equanimity, is maddening in a world devoted to material excess. This is especially true when the Great Many are being told that they must sacrifice the little wealth they have so that the truly wealthy can have more, and the ‘gravity’ of that wealth concentration is felt as more and more spirit crushing. But it is what we must begin, and rapidly, to contemplate.

The conventional wisdom is that we can return to economic growth, make some adjustments in our tax code, increase employment and go on more less as before – but it is the going on as before that brought us to this place. Everyone must increase the real standard of living by living well and reduce their standard of material use and accumulation. That many people do not see the difference has to be changed.

The economic world must be based on living in equanimity – like poverty only better. Society’s significant wealth would be contained in communities and administered democratically, not controlled by individuals. Differences in individual material accumulations would never be greater than could be comprehended by members of communities at the opposite pole of the continuum, that is, the way the richest lived could be accurately understood by the poorest and vice versa. The exact details would be worked out by research and adaptation, but I would think that somewhere about 10:1 would be a ratio that would energize human action, if that were needed, while not producing the disruptive effects of inequity documented in The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Human beings have the capacity to live outside of or beyond the ecologies that support them, but this is what has brought us to this moment and will always ultimately fail. We also have the capacity to live within the margins of those ecologies, live in ways that keep ecological realities in our daily experience. We have now a technological encyclopedia from which to select options that will allow the species to live in comfort and safety, albeit in smaller numbers than at present, at a quarter, even a tenth, of the present use of the earth’s productive capacity. These are the visions that need to be before us as the failures of the period of expansion multiply, not increasingly irrational notions of some final domination of nature.

[1] If your great, great, great,… great x N grand parents had not met up (any pairing from the millions that preceded you), then there would be no you. While I can’t easily think through the details of how Ramses might fit into this picture, I can certainly see my existence in some randy Norman soldier’s presence on England’s fertile soil. Just imagine the down-stream effects had an especially overzealous Viking actually been sterile from an accident with heavy metal consumption? The detailed composition of northern Europe would be quite different, but it is almost certain that there would still be millions of people living in cities along with all the other technological and social constructions of modern times.


Michael Dawson said...

I don't know that I'd grant that the present "economy" really embodies an ethic of efficiency, except in a narrow sense that doesn't exhaust the concept. In fact, aren't vast swaths of what's now money-efficient actually about as energy-inefficient as anybody could imagine? Suburbs, cars, etc.?

James Keye said...

Michael, you’re right: economic efficiency often dictates biophysical inefficiencies. The point I am trying to make is that arguments for economic efficiencies, even for some biophysical efficiencies, (really very narrow, self-serving maximizations) are often incompatible with efficacy of function. Focusing on efficiency as an idea allows, invites, a narrowing of analysis, whereas asking the question of efficacy broadens the scope of the inquiry and suggests a concern with larger purpose.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a cheap trick of language, but I’ll try anything. Did you see Robert Freeman’s piece on Common Dreams (3/6/11)? It is what I have been feeling.