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.

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