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, November 29, 2012

What Is The Best Way To Live?

It contains the roots of a mistake to assume that the present distribution of wealth is either correct or natural and not simply the consequence of the several variables that operate in the present distortions of human relations driven by the rapid expansions of our technical capacities and populations.  There have been no natural forces to guide these changes; the explosive growth of humanity as species and influence, on both the world and itself, is without precedent. And so, these changes will have to run their course until either controlling agencies develop within the human capacities or until the changes themselves reach such a level that biological and physical limits inhibit them.  The greatest hope is that controlling agencies can be made to exist within the human frame of action; the humorless forces of nature would not be kind should such limits be reached that human actions fail to function in the natural, and ultimately only, real world.

One of the pivotal changes that must be made is the distribution of wealth among humans and, as is most often ignored, between humans and the rest of life. To put the matter plainly and simply: material and energy “wealth” needs to be left alone to function in the ecosystems of the world to the largest extent possible. No self-interested person or collectives of persons can be allowed to establish their interests over those of the environment or those of collected humanity.  No person or persons can be allowed to become wealthy in the way that people are presently allowed, i.e., the concentration of material isolated from the flows of energy and matter in the earth’s productive cycles, and restricted to exclusive control and use (the Lockean/Blackstonean concept of property).  Such a functional conception of property is antithetical to ecological reality and therefore to the foundational principles of life on the earth. 

Secondly, compensation for the value added by labor to productive activities must be proportional to the value added and not determined solely by the imbalance of power relations.  Just as humans must not be ‘wealthier’ than the processes of life on the earth, so no individuals or groups can be wealthier than others by more than an understandable and community-based recognizably fair increment [1].

These are the “natural economic laws” by which every species of life has lived in the long history of life on the earth; for human “economics” to attempt to function by parochial principles created out of human trading is to be expected as a phase in our process of discovery, but one with only a limited useful range in time and variety [2].  Ultimately human economics must comport with the natural economics of ecosystems – that is the ultimatum being presented to us by the perturbations we have created in the biosphere.

But rather than realizing these actually quite obvious and simple principles, the entire economic world is crying for a return to and increase in economic growth as the only solution to our myriad problems, i.e., there must be more stuff or we will soon ‘fight it out over what remains’ is the implicit (though sometimes explicit) threat.  The motives are mixed: from the unimaginative certainty that only by increasing our taking, manifest as increased standard of living, can society be organized in a way that allows human life to function, to the simple greedy understanding that by making ‘more’ there will be more opportunity to gather up more for those properly positioned.  The argument that humans must take less from the environment, that humans can use less and that life can still be joyous is considered hopelessly naive.

Of course, we have used less, much much less. The real issues are: what amount of the earth’s productive capacity can humans use – if properly compensated for on sound ecological principles – and still maintain the integrity of the biosphere?  How and by what principles is that amount of productive capacity to be distributed to communities and activities? And, what are the best ways for human animals to live?  The unquestioned assumptions of economic growth ignore and reject these issues in perhaps the greatest single act of madness in the 4 billion year history of life.

What are the “answers” to these issues? And especially, what is the best way for humans to live within the real limits of the real world?

For that question to be answered there is mind-numbingly simple understanding that must be grown into a “popular” view – making it dominant among the social mores – that humans have and use as little as they possibly can for the greatest possible comfort and safety; this is a dynamic relationship in which to use too little wastes the potential of life and to use too much, first, squanders the appreciation of life and then life itself: excesses of comfort harden the heart and excesses of safety anesthetize.  These are consequences suffered by the human spirit beyond the ecological damage that we might do, consequences that dull our senses to that damage.

Using as little as possible for the greatest gain is the natural order of things in evolutionary process – the foundational Operating System of life.  Acquiring the requirements of life necessitates the expending of energy gained only by acquiring the requirements of life: each unit of life gains the greatest advantage from the least possible amount of the earth’s produce, and, as a further obligation to the nature of life on earth, replenishes the system for what is taken.  No other way can work for any significant length of time [3].  The four billion years of life on earth is testament to the stability of the design.

It is my suspicion that everyone reading this (it is certainly true of the one writing it) is using way too much stuff and gaining too little of the ordinary pleasures of being alive – the sort of joy one can see in a dog when it is tossed a stick. It is my suspicion that in our present mode of thought we would willingly allow the very conditions of life to slip through our collective fingers so to keep on with how we are right now, to say nothing of the conditions of desperation we would deliver to the essentially clich├ęd  ‘starving and brutalized children’ of the future that just about every reality-based thinker suspects is coming.

Collectively humans have never turned down an increase in their powers to influence the environment or each other; that is the basic form of the human adaptation, to imagine the control of events, to identify the processes that function in the world and to use them (biophysical, social/political and religious/mystical – what ever works). 

But, it is imaginable for humans to control their own motivations for expansion and domination.  Just as a little over a hundred years ago powered flight seemed impossible, just as 50 years ago space flight and “going to the moon” seemed impossible, 250 years ago large scale democratic governance seemed impossible, we must turn our prodigious powers of imagination and fruition to controlling our own powers.

The powers of expansion, domination and personal ascendance have been driven by a few; the powers of contraction, egalitarianism and eventually an ecologically based stability may only be possible when driven by the many.  It would be a world foreign to most of us, perhaps even very uncomfortable to many, but the options are certain; and only a “madman” would argue for destroying life on earth in preference to keeping his Ferrari or his 1983 Toyota tercel.

We have been brow beaten with the simple notion that wealth is good, after thousands of years of mistrusting those who twist their humanity to attain the condition.  We must return to that reasonable distrust – and even more, we must make the social price of wealth accumulation very high, especially when such accumulation is accompanied by an infantile selfishness, which it very often is.

Stripped of rhetoric and sophistry the present economic situation can be summarized as: approximately one tenth of one percent of the world’s people have collected (read: created systems to extract from others) so much of both the real material wealth and the arbitrary wealth of financialized transactions that they don’t know what to do with it all. Since they have worked (read: schemed) very hard to extract from transactions and to amass (read: isolate and protect from others) the wealth, they have no intention of allowing any of it to be taken out of their control: the wealth must increase perpetually; it is no longer like the wealth of the rest of humanity which is used to supply nutrient, comfort and safety needs.  It is, rather, the tokens of status and power greedily and selfishly sequestered away from the rest of humanity and used only when it can be increased in that use.

The greatest struggle, then, for those who have stolen the work and wealth of the human community and concentrated it to their own use, let us call them economic criminals, is to find ways to grow that wealth some more: this is what the economic criminals call work!  Let us be completely clear: The wealth is not to be used to allow minimum levels of comfort, safety, health, education, etc., for the humans that actually do the activities that produce the wealth.  It is to be used to make more wealth for those who have sequestered it away from the rest of humanity.

In a simple act of the imagination, however, it is possible to imagine that a critical mass of the people realize that these few are not the most valuable and imitable people in the community, but the most dangerous; are not the source of the community’s best qualities, but are destructive of them.  It is in that moment, not by the passage of any law, that the antisocial, anti-communitarian influence of wealth is restrained.  And it is that moment that many other ecologically sound imaginings become possible.

[1] This is a process that our ancestors would be familiar with, but for us today not so much; we are too overwhelmed by the sophistry of the times.  It is not too difficult to establish what is essential for the minimum comforts and safety of life. Such a modal standard could eventually create broad and completely understandable community expectations.

[2] Money wealth at present represents more than that total productive capacity of the earth.  The absurdity is completely lost on those who “hold” the “wealth.”  They seem to believe that to act on the money wealth by taking “everything” is an absolute right granted by a number written by a banker on a computer screen.

[3] The earth in its companionship with the sun is a closed system with a fixed energy input.  Only by the evolved designs that replenish and maintain the billions of material and energy exchanges that structure ecosystems is life possible.  No species is even remotely independent of any other and each must contribute to the whole in exact proportion to its taking from the whole.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Making Sense of Work, Part Five, Epilogue

(Preamble: If one begins a construction project, the basic laws of the universe are naturally engaged by using the formulas of physics and the established principles of chemistry and materials science; no one would trust a contractor who denied the importance of calculating loads and tensile strength measures or refused to use standard mathematics.  We are not, however, offered the same assurances with social and economic constructions.  We must always be reminded of our biological origins and the role that history can play in both the understanding and the facts of our actions.)

Each organism has, in body and behavior, the capacity to supply (do the work for) all of its own needs; additionally required is an environment containing the complete range of need-meeting opportunities; otherwise life would not exist on the earth.  This is not to say that meeting basic needs is always easy or can always be fully accomplished; a percentage of the time some degree of needs are not met and if not met enough, the result may be the death of that organism.  The ecology and ethology of the organism gives understanding of the particular ways in which the species and its individual members function their capacities: every organism ever studied is seen to have specific adaptations and evolved designs matching it to environmental conditions and opportunities, often with shocking elegance.

Thousands of examples can be given of these adaptive solutions, even millions; any species that is well enough known would serve.  There are however two broadly different approaches to how organisms have evolved and adapted within this overall description: individual action and group action.  Most organisms act as individuals, though on a common species pattern.  This is easier and requires less complexity of body and behavior: the biology stamps out a jellyfish, it goes off and does its jellyfish thing; living or dying by its own actions.  That this may happen in the company of thousands or millions of its own kind is only an issue of the total environmental condition and not organized group behavior.  On the other hand, many organisms have evolved to live in intimate communion with the integrated behaviors, and even the bodies, of their fellows.  It is simplest to live in collections of bodies as do many of the corals where “individual” polyps attach their “skeletons” together and communicate by various cellular connections and chemical “displays” through the water.  But this is still largely individual life grouped tightly and necessarily together.

Some insects and most mammals show the other form of organization: group structures in which individual organisms have functions within the group first and act as individual survival units second [1].  The Hymenoptera, the insect order containing bees and ants, carries one form of communal living to the absolute zenith that exists in our world: where the total commune is actually the functional organism, where individual bodies serve specialized and completely interdependent roles like the cells of organs in a single body.  Mammals have evolved several different forms of group function from herd groupings to the tribal behaviors of monkeys, apes and humans… with various other species mixing and matching aspects of both: elephants and cetaceans, for example.

I begin in this way because the human species has no reason to be seen as functioning differently than the billions of other species of life in the history of the planet. The religions and social hierarchies that we experience and claim as the basis of our special status are no more than complex behaviors originally evolved to control and organize our powerful adaptive functions in the ecosystem [2]. With the foregoing and the background of the four preceding essays it should be possible to see human work in the context of its biological functioning, as part of something more comprehensive than simply that portion of the social hierarchy defined as economics.

What the summed total of the previous essays in this series do not consider – though they do begin to draw images of the terrain – is how, in practical terms, to connect the activity design, in which humans have direct responsibility for their meeting their needs from primary sources, with the design in which essentially no one meets their own primary needs with their own hand; the design where individuals are fungible links in a vast network of activities with several competing goals, of which meeting the essential needs of its participants is only one, and not necessarily always the most important goal.  This is where seeing work (and other human actions) in a deep biological context serves two vital functions:

First, it removes the consideration of the activities from the narrow confines of political and economic advantage and, second, it places the activities in the context of the full spectrum of natural, Reality-based events and energy flows. The major multipart issue that we face is how to rearrange work and distributions of value created by work so that needs can be met, so that net human activity no longer negatively impacts environmental systems and so that the total human process appropriately compensates the biosphere for our extractions of material and energy.  What we cannot do is keep on doing what we are doing, it cannot be an excuse that we are unable to think of anything else or that other options are too difficult and disturbing of our present expectations.  These three absolute demands on our species, however, are umbrella over the nitty-gritty of a parochial reality that fails utterly to recognize the need. 

The key element in all of our options is how work and its value-creation are arranged. Frederick Engels summarized Marx's theory of historical change: “The materialist conception of history starts from the principle that production, and with production the exchange of its products, is the basis of every social order; that in every society that has appeared in history the distribution of the products, and with it the division of society into classes or estates, is determined by what is produced and how it is produced, and how the product is exchanged.”  C. Wright Mills gave a compact paraphrase to Marx’s theory of history writing in The Marxists (1962): “Political, religious and legal institutions as well as the ideas, the images, the ideologies by means of which men understand the world in which they live, their place within it, and themselves--all these are reflections of the economic basis of society.”  And As Upton Sinclair said in even shorter form, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”  The work that people do is the nexus of social order and expectation.

We know where we need to be, how we must organize our economic and social systems: briefly put: heterogeneous natural community sized groups serving as the functional interacting units; much reduced levels of the collection and manipulation of materials and energy (less economic expansion); the storage and exchange of economic products must support the social system by lessening the dependence on money based systems, using rather a hybrid of natural mores-based obligation and currency systems; community based mores that limit the accumulation of wealth and its attendant power.

I think it can be plainly stated that our current beliefs, mores and laws make these potential changes impossible.  However, if Marx’s theory of historical change is correct, as it certainly seems to be, the place to begin is with the nature and design of work since this is the contact point for all elements of society: the poor and middle-classes do it and the elite classes depend on them doing it!  Rather than attempting to “get a man to understand something” that “his salary depends upon not understanding,” discover ways to change how he works, at what and how he is compensated.  To do this other options must be available to see… and seen as not only just possible, but desirable.

Of course, this is not as easy to do as it is to say. The Cultural Revolution in China, a major example of an attempt at rapid large-scale social and economic change, got it monumentally wrong: autocracy cannot be the sustaining force for such changes [3].  What is required is a diffuse but functional community (much like a natural community, but held together by respect and ideas rather than geography and direct material interdependency) that actively looks for problems arising in the present model and develops solutions that can allow new understandings to develop.

We need large-scale social and economic engineering, but our recent historical experience with such things (1930s Germany, Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution in China, Cambodia in the 1970s, Chile in the 1970s and 1980s) are all either completely negative or have been become so in our compartmentalized history.  Such engineering requires some form of leadership; present distributions of power would almost certainly quickly resort to autocratic and plutocratic control designing change for narrow constituencies at the expense of the vast majority.

On the other hand, there is one basic reality that must be faced if large-scale directed change, as distinguished from normal processes of adaptation, is to come from the masses: Human belief systems are not based in biophysical Reality, but are a collection of historically derived myths, present habits and experienced “reality” (including education).  I see no remediation for this fact other than the unrelenting presentation of these kinds of arguments.

I am sure that there are several ways that our species might adapt to the world events that our population growth and technologies are precipitating, but I present only one as a teaser to invite others.  I am basing it on the notion of natural community and the biological principle that an organism is only fully formed when growing up and living in the environment that meets its biological expectations.  And that being a fully formed member of one’s own species is the most desirable of all states.

Imagine that rather than the amorphous social organization of modern industrial societies that humans began to organize themselves into small effective communities based not so much on common belief systems as on geographic expediency and mutual need.  There are a variety of possibilities for how such a thing might happen, but I will not go into them at this point.  Further imagine that such a community unit formed and functioned in the present larger social/economic environment as that economic system was contracting – as it will be contracting in the future.  My example is one possible way that the community structure might form and direct the actions of its members.

The first requirement for the primary community unit, or nutrient group, would be to produce sufficient food and water for itself.  If in the process of this it was favorably situated to produce excess (this would be inhibited by the time element to some extent), then the over production could be traded or sold through the system of currency created.  Each person could be, and most would be, associated with some other activity or skill than food production, as well as being responsible for a certain number of days of community service per month.  Among the items of service would be maintenance of community infrastructure like garbage collection, recycling, cleaning and repairing paths and roads, maintaining water systems; school support (including teaching – especially for parents); policing, local administration, community planning and so on.

Some people might be restauranteurs, various sorts of retailers, various craft persons like tailors and repair people. There would be scientists, writers, artists and entertainers as well.  But while people might consider these things full time occupations, only 15 to 20 days a month would be devoted to them [4].  Everyone would be expected to spend as many as 10 days working on food production and as many as 5 days on community service projects out of every 30 days.  No one would be exempt.  Of course, specialists would develop, and would be appealed to to increase the quality and efficiency of all the various operations, but they would still be expected to be part of all of the productive and community maintenance activities.

Working to community standards would give the person or the family unit full access to the community productive capacity.  The goal of production would be to meet the needs of the community with a cushion of surplus against periodic dangers.  Since everyone would have to spend less time on the production of essential needs and maintenance of infrastructure when everyone contributed efficiently, there would be a natural social design for such efficiency, but failure to contribute would have the added disadvantage of probationary levels of access to the community’s production and protection.

Since something like this kind of organization is the only viable option to the most draconian forms of a future divided into multitudes of “animal” poor fighting over scraps and a militarized elite jetting around the world driving the poor to produce for them, there needs to be some possible route to such a different future.  Here is a simplified form of the best I have thought of so far:

Once a person (of a collective of persons) as become attached to a specific activity of work – no matter how isolated or narrow it is in the context of the “ecology” of the human economy – that person will most often do all manner of rationalization to maintain it and give it importance.  The thought that, in the ‘growing down’ of the economy, thousands of occupations and work activities will cease to be specific jobs by which a person “makes a living”, in favor of more generalized human functioning, will face massive resistance and will be demonized to an incredible extent.  But, there is nothing else for it (to use a British phrasing).  The process of job creation, not just in total numbers, but also in variety, is at the beginning of a reversal of historical trends. As humans captured more and more energy, first with behaviors, solar capture technologies and then fossil fuels, total numbers and aggregate consumption increased. Energy production, as well as mineral and biological resources, are reaching or have passed peak levels, and so, total numbers and aggregate consumption will begin to trend down with the necessary corollary that the varieties of jobs will concentrate back into fewer more generalized work activities.

One of the obvious and increasingly discussed responses to the reduction in job opportunities is the growing of some of one’s own food. The “proprietor” of a home kitchen garden – especially one that saves its seeds, establishes perennials and collects a nutrient base from composting – has collapsed a large variety of jobs into the single complex occupation of gardener/food grower.  If enough people grow significant amounts of their own food in such gardens (with the additional consequence of freeing themselves and their families from having to do some amount of remunerated activities), then the occupations that are replaced by the gardening activities will be greatly reduced or disappear in their present form.

But not only would the gardener have disconnected from the seed and fertilizer factory, but also from the middleman, the financier and banker, the regulator, the trucker, the warehouse, the politician that thrives of agricultural subsidies and others. Not necessarily replaced, though changed, would be the agricultural scientist, the ad agent, the insurance agent, the policeman, the farm tool and equipment manufacturer and again an increasing variety of down-stream economic participants. All this from a critical mass of people growing enough of their own food that they might feel themselves safe from the most immediate consequences of the loss of remunerated employment.

The forces that drove the segmenting of full human activities into more and more narrowly defined employments, that is forces of expansion and capital based economic advantage, will be weakened by economic contraction.  As people begin to take on more of the immediate responsibilities for food raising, equipment repair, personal entertainment, low cost low impact transportation and so forth, then the forces will have turned face and will move more and more people to become the generalists that humans have always been.  Organizing into heterogeneous communities of mutual support and obligation would be one possible outcome.

[1] Each phylum, class or order of living things can be described, in part, by how their species relate in these terms.

[2] …and have become wildly distorted as we have increased in number and power within the world’s normal functioning.

[3] The attempt to remake the social and economic structure of a country from the top down using military style force will only empower the sociopathic.  Rather than leaving existing patterns in place and attempting to show alternatives, existing work and social structures were criminalized and new work patterns harshly enforced.

[4] In some cases only a very few hours in a day would be devoted to the give task, while in other cases activities might be concentrated into almost constant attention over multiple days.  Some tasks might be done for a short amount of time every day and others only periodically.  In a small community, based on mutual obligation, these adjustments can be easily made.  The sense of personal choice in these decisions would be far greater than in our present situation.