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

Section Three: The Issue of Wealth

The Entitlement of Wealth and the Ecological Consequences

Wealth always confers a sense of entitlement; that is what wealth is. There is the implicit and explicit assumption that one is entitled to what one holds in a protected state and to any future goods and services that one’s holdings can be traded for.  Wealth creates a demand for future goods and services.  If the wealth of a nation is estimated at 12 trillion dollars, then it is assumed that the world can and will produce 12 trillion dollars worth of things and tradable behaviors.  To use a simpler model, if I have a thousand dollars, it is not wealth unless I can get a thousand dollars worth of stuff or tradable behavior for it (this needs, of course, to be based against some standard). The notion that wealth creation is not bounded by any natural restraint is belied by this simple fact.

The productive capacity of the planet, available for human use, is the limit of wealth.  And this is dependent on a variety of factors that give practical limits well below simplistic theoretical limits.  First and foremost, the productive capacity available to humans must consider in its calculation the capacity required to maintain environmental stability and to sustainably provide ecological “free services.”  This does not mean that humans can pick and choose among the world’s ecosystems those that we really like and need while trashing the rest.  That would be a fundamental misunderstanding of biophysical reality; as well as the way we have been doing business for more than 5 thousand years. 

We are at present, by the most conservative estimates, using the earth’s productive capacity at about 50% above a sustainable level, i.e., to maintain our present use rate would require about 1.5 earths.  To remove the most dramatic poverty, experienced by almost 1/2 the earth’s people, would require at least 2 earths if there was no major wealth redistribution and using present economic models.  The average life style of the USA, if made global, would require about 5 earths, of Europe about 3 earths.

A more realistic accounting would suggest that we are using the earth well beyond these levels.  The Ecological Footprint model developed by Mathis Wackernagel, et al., had to be very conservative to be listened to and respected at all; we are in an economic and political frame that trivializes environmental science and especially “tree hugging” ecologists. Partly as a result of this the Footprint model does not calculate nearly enough capacity for maintaining biospheric integrity.  Further more, the Ecological Footprint calculations are not considering the future demand of arbitrary wealth creation and the effect of expectation on human actions in the environment.  If “we” have accumulated 1000 trillion dollars worth of abstract value, “we” will be dissatisfied with a planet that can only return 100 trillion in goods and services.  A likely result would be an “every man for themselves” scramble to get as much as possible as fast as possible: actually what we are doing now.

Economists have wanted to be physicists of ‘value mechanics’ when they should be aspiring to be ecologists of human/environment energy exchange. Everything is connected to everything else; if you tweak here, there can be a ripple or an explosion there.  The “law of unintended consequences” is misnamed.  It is really the Law of Consequences: actions beget a spreading web of events, large and small, only one (or a few) of which we perform the action to attain in the first place.  Organic systems modify their relationships to bring all elements into dynamic balance or the system disappears and is replaced in its region or function by other systems that meet that goal.

Biological systems are homeostatic [1]. Human systems are biological systems.  When human systems were primarily mediated by genetic and protein based action, the homeostatic regulatory mechanisms were already in place through the arbitration of the living state.  As Consciousness Order designs began to replace Living Order structures, the direct connections to the homeostatic designs weakened.  This should not be taken to mean that the regulatory homeostatic systems were no longer important, just that the Consciousness Order found ways to defeat them for short-term advantage.  A simple example: naked hominids would have patterns of movement in the environment that supported maintaining body temperature (reliably being in certain places at different parts of the day or year).  The whole ecosystem would have accommodated the hominid pattern.  When humans were able, using the tools of the consciousness adaptation, to kill a bear and wear its fur, new patterns began to occur in such rapid succession that the ecosystem could ‘never’ catch up and humans were “free” of the immediate consequences, but a cascade of environmental consequences have been accumulating to which we must eventually respond.

As long as humans were not especially abundant the disruptions to ecosystems were small and local, but now that we are mechanized and global, all of our activities must be calculated into our relationship with the biosphere.  And the accumulation of arbitrary wealth and the expectation that the earth will deliver on that “promise” has become the greatest danger that we face as a species – since we will apparently use all of our technological tools to attempt to enforce that promise.

Homeostasis delayed is not homeostasis denied: ecological systems will come into balance.  Humans have defeated these Living Order and Physical Order based systems with our rapid footwork up to now – at terrible cost to many local ecologies and increasingly to the biosphere – but ultimately homeostatic mechanisms of the interrelating species will have to harmonize.  The final “adaptive” response is to go extinct and thus deny service to the ecology resulting in a cascade of extinctions that produce a much simpler, balanced ecology, but one that very likely will not provide the same “free services” to humans.

Our financial world seems almost completely disconnected from the biophysical world. We almost never put the two in the same news report.  We don’t speak of them with the same language. The digestion of a wood rat has no clear connection to the job loss at a General Motors plant; an upside down mortgage doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the migration of monarch butterflies.  But that is not because they aren’t related.  It is just that it is not in our habit to understand and recognize the relationships. More is the pity.

The industrial (including transportation) production of greenhouse gases is a major contributing factor to anthropogenic climate change. The American southwest is warming and drying. A wood bore beetle is encouraged by the warm and the dry, and whole forests, many many millions of piñon trees, have been killed.  Piñon nuts in the millions of tons are missing from the food web of the woodlands. Wood rats are starving as GM fails because of overproduction of low MPG cars and trucks.  Even if you don’t care about this, it is none-the-less a real relationship among millions of others, all of which will eventually find their way into our own digestion.

The human Consciousness System of Order adaptation allowed the accumulation of excess in our dealings with environmental energy exchange.  That excess has been stored as wealth.  Wealth creates entitlement.  Stored wealth appears to grow without limit, and thus entitlement becomes apparently unlimited in a limited world.  This is the absolute opposite of the homeostatic limiting that is the very basis of living things.

What is completely clear is that humans are but one of 10 million or so species integrated into the biospheric order, one species that is acting out a new and powerful adaptation, and with not a clue as to that adaptation’s power, properties and dangers.  It is completely clear that the adaptive interactive structures of the Living Order will absorb the human growth bubble into a re-integrated biophysical order.  What is not clear is whether the Consciousness Order will remain or what form it will take if it does remain. It is not clear whether the Consciousness Order can be marshaled by our species and made to apply its great powers realistically to our dilemmas and not just offer the ancient palliatives of mysticism. And it is not clear just when the cascade of massive ecological events will begin in unrecoverable earnest, but they have certainly begun.

The present troubles in the financial system are ultimately sourced in these larger troubles.  They will only be delayed and ultimately exacerbated by restoring the growth habits to which we have become accustomed.   The sooner our academic elites understand the ecological realities of our economics, the sooner that political decisions are made about which we value more, life or abstract accumulations of wealth, then the sooner we can get on with taking the actions we will need to take to adapt back into the biophysical order that we have been fighting to dominate and to exceed beyond for much too long.

[1] Homeostasis: We all know this word. But the concept is deep to the very center of life and life’s functioning in the biosphere.  Living things require constancy in literally thousands of reactions and chemical concentrations, but chemical reactions tend to begin and go to completion, like setting a sheet of paper on fire.  Homeostasis is a way of remaining “constant” by regulating reactions: when going too slow a secondary reaction is triggered that speeds things up, when going too fast a different secondary reaction is triggered that slows things down.  The result is that vital physiological processes function within the ranges that allow life to continue.  This is a model that we must attempt to more generally apply to our relationships, including especially our financial behavior, in the living space of the biosphere.  The model of a fire, finally, has a quite draconian result.

The Tragedy of Wealth and Power

There comes a time for certain people who have, by whatever occasions, reached such a level of power and wealth that they see themselves approaching parity with the earth’s most powerful forces, human and biophysical.  This means, along with other things, that these people tend to move against other power sources that they consider dangerous to their maintenance and increase of power and wealth [1].  Among the less obvious consequences has been, and continues to be, a general disrespect for natural processes and the human multitude.

Those of us not in such a place have great trouble understanding the lengths that people will go to maintain power and the illusions of power.  We might begin to understand this as having tasted an especially delicious food that we would very much enjoy from time to time; but for the truly powerful it is the only food that continues to contain nourishment, the only food that will sustain them and they will do anything for it.

Are the benefits of power worth the servitude to it?  Those in power must consume only power, are only allowed to think power, are only allowed to sleep power.  There is no sustenance, useful idea or rest in any other form.

But even though they are trapped in their place as much as a slave is trapped in his, the place that they are in is an inescapable velvet trap with great influence on the lives of many many others: that is what power is about; being able to tell others what to do and make them do it.  And so the powerful tell others how they must live so that all illusions are maintained.  The trapped must trap others in their constant struggle to remain trapped. Eventually no action is too extreme.

Such a pantomime has played out thousands of times in thousands of places; in tiny fiefdoms and mighty nations. In the present case, the right-wing in this country is the largely unwitting political arm of an increasingly fascist corporatocracy, while the left-wing is either bought off or looking to be; and we are watching this behemoth confronting its mortality in the possibility of final success.  True democracy is the Kryptonite to the elite’s superman illusions and certainties.  And they are so close to not being forced to stay within the bounds of law, so close to being able to do it all, take it all.  They can see that democratic governance, even wounded as it is, must effectively end as the next step in the growth of their power.

It has been a long slog; from a low point in the 1930s, regaining momentum during the war, working the McCarthy scares only to be challenged by Eisenhower’s final revelations and young Kennedy’s idealism, all those GI bill soldiers getting educated, demanding dignity and knowing a bit about how to get it.  Civil rights! But wealth is a force to be reckoned with; give it an inch and it really will take a mile.

And wealth is something else.  It is not a person that you can name; it is slippery and amorphous.  An ordinary human can be drawn in, disassembled and remade; almost against their will; almost.  It is a condition with a thousand faces.  Humans have rightly feared it for thousands of years.

The effect of absolute power cannot be imagined by the powerless and cannot be avoided by the powerful.  That is our dilemma.  We, the Great Many, cannot imagine that the powerful would be so cruel, would be so calculating with the lives of millions of their brethren, would sacrifice the very stability of earthly life-process for their wealth.  But they will and are.

The right-wing are the cavalry, out in the open, riding hard in support of wealth-power: slashing and burning, lying and stealing.  The rest of the army is marching this way and that, seemingly bumbling and unclear as to whose side they are on, but don’t be fooled; there is only one army on the field.  There is a powerful counter force, but it is like the weather, like the hills and rivers; it is us.  We are vast and vital like the landscape.  We hold all the cards and yet are not allowed to play.   Our inertia may eventually win the day, though possibly at the terrible cost of losing the support of life-giving environmental services.

It is becoming more and more obvious, wealth must be limited to levels that are comprehensible to all people.  We must be able to see into the lives and livelihoods of our fellows.  It is not so much that a particular ratio is required, but that the consequences of wealth not create such differences that one person will routinely sacrifice another to attain it.

We must act to invigorate those remaining in political power who would limit wealth by law and we must eject those who are wealth’s hand maidens in politics, media and law.  But don’t even think that this will be a fair fight.  It never has been and will not be now.  The Great Many, if they are willing to endure the struggle, can control and limit wealth by the simple expedient of withholding their respect, contributions and support; by becoming powerful in community and in their persons.  The wealthy will fight back by attempting to make such actions first painful and then illegal.

The pithy quotations go back thousands of years in all languages that been recorded, quotations that all say in essence: Wealth turns human beings into creatures that are dangerous to community, to place and to life.  It is time to, yet again, take this seriously [2].

[1] Humans are in the unusual position of having a very few extraordinary people lead the way…  It has become possible for an individual human to spend all of his or her energy in the pursuit of a goal, literally all of their focused energy on understanding some particular event, process or power; and then set the standard for all of human expectation and habit even as only a tiny few have mastered the new understanding.  This has happened over and over, step by step for thousands of years at a constantly increasing rate.  While this process has pushed us in discovery after discover and sped the process of change (what some call progress), it has resulted in greater and greater differences among people, differences that strain even further our capacity to understand and empathize.

[2] Monetized wealth is a promise to use the earth’s resources.  A $100 bill is a piece of paper that promises resources will be taken, converted and delivered in that amount.  At this time the total promised wealth vastly exceeds that capacity of the earth to deliver over any-time frame appropriate to human life.  We can expect to be witness to the anarchy of the attempts to resolve this madness.  Only our immediate and most thoughtful action will moderate it.

Wealth is the Ultimate Crime

Wealth distorts the relationship of living things to the biospheric systems upon which life depends.  Great wealth distorts the human relationship with this Reality in two primary ways: first, the accumulations of material that underwrite the wealth must be sustained and grown without regard to other conditions of wellbeing; and second, the accumulations of wealth limit the general human (and other) population’s access to essential materials supporting life and so confer power on those who control those accumulations.  Combining these two statements: wealth arrogates power to act in the world without regard for the wellbeing of other entities or systems; wealth is only responsible to itself.

The idea of, and the word, wealth has had a long run as positively valued.  The idea of being wealthy tends, in most people, to create a ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling.  For some it would be relief from the anxiety of insufficiency, for others it is the opportunity to live without the caution required by “just enough,” for still others it is the chance to ignore many restraints and for an important group it is the chance to seem to live with complete impunity.

Belief in the value of, and the desire for, wealth is ultimately the desire for impunity.  Impunity is the “freedom” from the consequences of and responsibilities for actions.  This is completely obvious in the statements of why people wish to be wealthy with almost all such statements translating into, “so I can have and do whatever I want.”

Each of these levels of “freedom” from responsibility is, however, a denial and a rejection of Reality “purchased” by wealth.  Accumulations of material excess allow those in control to avoid Reality in favor of the machinations of sustaining and growing the excess – machinations that are then called economic reality. 

Once the wealth accumulation process begins it becomes self-perpetuating – a positive feedback system (positive in this application does not mean “good”, but only that each iteration of action adds to rather than subtracts from the next iteration).  Wealth is accumulation; there is no standard that establishes what is enough.  This is unlike Reality based living in which it is straightforward that certain levels of use and accumulation are required for health and safety, accumulations beyond those levels are gratuitous; the only reason for a general need for excess accumulations is as protection from the actions of those who are driven to accumulate greater and greater excess at the expense of their neighbors.

And so, a small group of people driven to wealth accumulation and uninhibited by their communities move this process from a marginal issue for a community to making it a most important and dangerous process.  Once wealth reaches the level that some community members can act with true impunity, then the society is doomed to a convulsive end. 

Impunity of action is a powerful and destructive motivation.  When we observe it in others it is clear that we need some degree of similar power as protection, an observation that can quickly turn to the destructive uses of our own impunity should we acquire its capacity. 

We are at this moment in history in the most extended form of this process.  The tiny number of the most wealthy have accumulated the control of material to such an extent, and have come to live with such levels of impunity, that they no longer recognize any connection with either the great mass of humanity or ecological reality – beyond some recognition of the need to control them.

Large numbers of people in the “developed” countries who have accumulated enough material excess that they can imagine true impunity have come to act in the support of those with great wealth on the (utterly unwarranted) assumption that they too have a substantial chance to “have it all:” again, we must be clear, it is the impunity of action that is desired.  While the middle classes (especially corporate and political middle classes) in the developed countries do not have the wealth to actually do whatever they wish without responsibility for actions, their identification with the truly wealthy confuses them as to their real standing and power.  However, once they have ‘the taste of impunity,’ they are often driven by the same process of thoughtless acquisitiveness.

The idea of wealth must become anathema. Mores precede law, so while it would be useful for laws to be passed that regulate the accumulation of material excess, this will not happen so long as the majority of people, in general, and the people in power glorify both wealth and the wealthy.

I hear and read arguments in progressive media that go something like this: “The great concentrations of money are ruining the American political system, but there is nothing wrong with being rich; I know many fine rich people.”  Think about that for a moment: since concentrations of wealth are the source of plutocracy, then either we can only allow the “good” people to be wealthy or wealth itself must be seen as an inherent danger.  Those good people who are wealthy will be just fine with a socially comprehensible level of accumulation, and might even find a more vibrant community with which to engage.  And, if wealth were generally disallowed by social pressure, those whose impunity of action would damage human life and the ecological future would be mitigated.

We can reject wealth and the wealthy.  Only a few years ago it was unthinkable to criticize a smoker and yet today they are outcasts huddling around the dumpsters out of sight.  Only a few years ago people spoke with a strange sort of pride about driving drunk and the scrapes they got out of and into; today, people who tell those kind of stories are looked at with distain.

We need to understand that pride in wealth is pride in theft.  In fact, the whole community combined in its efforts to accumulate material and supply the effort from which the wealthy person finds a way to take an excess share, either by avarice or accident – and most often both.  I knew a man who discovered a trove of valuable objects in the possession of an old woman – things that her deceased husband had produced.  He cultivated her, eventually buying the collection for a few thousand dollars and then selling the objects for 10s of thousands of dollars each.  He was very proud of this.  His friends were envious.  He was unafraid to tell this story to strangers.  Multiply this kind of impunity by the millions of people in this country and it becomes unlivable by any standards of civility and dignity.

There are two parts to this re-understanding, a proper understanding, of wealth.  We must realize and make public our rejection of the accumulation of great wealth.  People who collect great excess must be criticized, not lauded; the person who arrives by Rolls Royce shunned, the person who arrives by bicycle applauded.  My acquaintance should never feel comfortable telling the story of his theft from the old woman.  The lie must be given to the argument that the rejection of those with wealth is envy; it is the understanding of the dishonesty of wealth, the inherent theft it requires and the destruction it delivers to social stability and health.

Secondly, rejecting wealth means that one cannot become or desire to become wealthy – even by accident.  The goal must be to accumulate a level of material that confers safety and a minimum of the distress of want.  But, everyone should have regular times of caution and consideration with how they allocate their resources.  No one should be so wealthy that they never have to make choices between items of desire and items of necessity.

The allure of impunity is powerful, but it is easy to see that no one should be able to act without being structurally responsible for the consequences of their actions.  It is exactly this easily understood connection that is ruined by wealth – with the consequence that society itself becomes inhumane and unlivable for all but those whose impunity dominates the rest (and even these people are diminished as members of the species).  There is no alternative: wealth must be properly understood and rejected as we have done with other socially disbeneficial behaviors.

The Wealth Wars

I hate that this essay has to be written.  I hate what it says.  I don’t want to believe it and hate that I do believe it, even in the face of all my desires for my children, for all children, and myself.

In the long years of our human history there has been a constant theme from the earliest days, and in all lands, of what we call civilization.  It is the formation of an elite that gathers to itself the wealth created by the Many People and adapts and manufactures the stories and conditions that allow them to maintain their power over the many.  Our history is the history of the struggles of these elites to dominate the masses and each other [see addendum].

For almost all of these last 8 thousand years there has been a great deal of room on the earth for the powerful to expand their influence – even if there were other humans and other species living simply on the land, they were easily removed.  Throughout this time there has been one primary process cutting through and across all and every complexity: once wealth accumulation creates a sense of impunity, the powerful take what they want without scruple.

Looking back in history these conclusions seem obvious, but we are loath to see our present world in these terms.  Each period of time in history seems to see its own solutions as better and more nuanced than the crude power plays, wars and ego-driven cruelties of the past. 

But we can no longer enjoy that conceit.  The times, they are a-changin’!  There is no place left to go and the attention of the elites has, of necessity, turned fully to the form of the relationship that they wish to have with what they consider to be the captive populations that produce their wealth and whose sycophancy sustains their power.  The Great Many must be completely managed, in the new paradigm, for the elites to live on in the style to which they have become accustom and as the world goes through the unprecedented changes driven by human impact.  The consequences of the coming troubles are to be delivered onto the masses, not the elites.

To that end a segment of the wealthy elite have declared war on the rest of humanity – not so much directly, rather on an ‘as needed’ basis.  It is a preemptive war; a war to prevent the masses from coming to a coherent understanding of the destruction that the elites have wrought on individual well-being, the social order and physical world in the process of accumulating and advancing their grip on power.  The second great movement of the war is to develop (through infrastructure, private or governmental; the distinction is of no consequence to the elites) the physical, coercive and information-control powers to dominate the masses as they respond reflexively to their worsening condition – even if they can’t organize effectively due to the first wave of the assault.

This is not to say that clear lines can be drawn between the elite and the masses.  There are people who live in the domain of the elite and generally share their values and attitudes, but who retain a sense of the species relationship to the living earth. They are, however, beholding to the same processes that maintain the militant class-warring elites; and if they remain uncertain of their allegiance for too long, their potential for amelioration will disappear.  In general they cannot be considered in our understanding of the possibilities for our future.

And there are those from the Great Many whose allegiance is to a bastardized version of elite values.  It is a typical human error: they see the mansion and other physical accoutrements of the elite lifestyle and assume it to be just a toss of the dice away; and so support their understanding of elite needs with an understanding fed to them by propagandists bought by the elites for the purpose.

Given the forces working to subvert our understanding, we must struggle to take a cold-eyed look at the meanings of the events that surround us.  There are first some simple tests to make. (1) Are the economic elites applying their vast economic resources to improve the lives of the people who have created that wealth: the miners, the forest and field workers, the mechanics, the day laborers, construction workers and on and on for the thousands of jobs from which the wealthy take, from each and every one, some percentage? (2) What are the most agreed-on projections for the future of human activity and impact on the earth and what are the responses to those projections by the economic elite?  (3) Are there any meaningful (measured by success) efforts to use the vast accumulations of wealth to educate and inform (and reform) the world’s “civilized” peoples, to protect indigenous people and to support our understanding of needs of the earth’s biophysical systems?  (4) Is there any reasonable evidence that “we” are all in this thing together?

The answers to these questions are uniformly negative.  There is a ‘race to the bottom’ in wages for productive work.  The rate at which both real and phantom wealth is collecting at the top is increasing.  Unemployment has been increasing, which means increasing by design as a way of reducing wages.  The elite publicly reject and deny the projections for human suffering and ecological damage and have spent huge sums, far in excess of philanthropy, to confuse and weaken mass opinion.  Elite preoccupation has been the domination of land and people for economic gain.

No other conclusion will be possible a 100 years in an objective future than that the elites were, at the beginning of the 21st century, conducting a war on the rest of the humanity and the environment, trying to get as much of what they considered wealth as possible and to protect their status in a dangerous world.

As a military commander would study maps, evaluate forces, allocate supplies, estimate the opposition and generally try to develop both factual detail and fact-based intuitive comprehensions of the situation, so we (in this case meaning those who wish to appreciate the strategic position of the great mass of human beings in the world) must determine the nature of the field upon which we are to struggle, what and who we are struggling for and against (even if it is sometimes ourselves), what talents and tools are required, what are our primary advantages, what are our primary disadvantages and how are we to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

It is to the advantage of an opposition to remain invisible or at least shape shifting.  If the entities (people and organizations) that are afflicting the Great Many can be clear to themselves about their goals, control the arena of “action” and maintain order in their own ranks while at the same time keeping the rest of us, their targets, squabbling among ourselves, confused about the origin of our difficulties and disorganized, then the game is over.  We must actively begin the process of seeing through the feints and deceptions.
* * *
Advantages and disadvantages

The Elites’ advantages:
-institutional control of governance and media
-influence on sources of deadly force
-clarity of purpose
-small numbers that allow for conspiring communications and groups
-emotional distance from those who are harmed by their actions
-confidence in their privilege and superiority
-core groups of the elite are fully aware of the war, its terms and conditions

-small numbers, requiring large numbers of the masses to serve their interests
-the constant attention needed to keep the masses misinformed and controlled
-lack of connection to biophysical Reality
-the inherent dishonesty that must be maintained in the relationship with the masses
-dependence on fragile systems often based in illusion

The Masses’ advantages:
-vast numbers (both advantage and disadvantage)
-actual hands-on relationship with all of the tools of production, security and militarism
-capacity to withhold all behaviors and services that function the society
-capacity to outlast the elite in a direct contest of austerity
-capacity to physically overwhelm all protections that the elite might employ

-vast numbers
-fear of disorder and system breakdown
-confusion of purpose
-lack of education and organization
-lack of infrastructure that could force consideration of interests
-immediate biological needs are met by existing, elite controlled, economic systems
-the masses are largely unaware that there is an organized assault on them

In summary, the elite has power, wealth and control, as well as organization of purpose supported almost exclusively by the illusions that they hold about themselves and different illusions that they depend on perpetuating in the masses.  They are few in number so would be helpless without the support of a significant percentage of the masses; they are obsessively aware of this fact.  They are willing to visit unlimited suffering and death on people and ecosystems to maintain and grow their power.

The elite cannot exist without the masses; there would be no productive activity from which to extract wealth without the Great Many.  There would be no one to work for them and no one to adore and cater to them.

The masses have the actual power in the form of all, literally all, direct productive activities, all food and water gathering, construction, transportation, manufacturing, etc.  But they have little consistent national or global organizational strength.  The moment the masses realize that they can still do all the jobs that need be done, discarding the illusions forced on them by the social and media power of the elite, will be the moment when the elites sue for peace in the class war; it will also be the moment when the masses realize with whom they have been at war.

The masses can exist without the elite.  What they cannot do is live like elites and be without the elites.  May it not be a lesson too late for the learning.

[Addendum] Who comprises the elite is not the major interest of this essay.  They are, however, people who find themselves in possession of what those around them value and are willing to use that momentary excess and advantage for themselves and against others; they are, in other words, people who would be considered anti-social, who needed to be watched and in need of guidance in an egalitarian community.  All communities have had them and managed them as just one of the varieties of human types that give texture and adaptive strength.  The “civilized” world, with its large populations and great capacity to make wealth, has offered opportunity for such people to gather outside of the moderating influences of a heterogeneous community and to see their avariciousness as virtue, drawing many others into excess and loss of specieshood.

First of all the elite are people who wish to be wealthy and powerful and who are willing to do what is required to be so.  This is certainly not everyone – the world is littered with the “remains” of those who were supposed to ‘attain these heights,’ but in some combination of not wanting and being unwilling were pushed aside; the profligate sons and daughters of great wealth are but one form of example; unwealthy writers of philosophical essays another.

A major ingredient of power (and less obviously wealth) is convincing the main body of the population that its apparent possessor actually has it, and that the form of power and, by implication, the possessor, are to be deferred to.  A telling example comes from an observation of chimpanzees in the wild.  A rather small and unimposing adult male discovered that a large metal can, when dragged violently through the forest and slapped, so impressed his community that he was treated with the deference due a dominate male – and so was, for a time, the alpha member of his group, until they saw through the ruse. 

Those of us without much power are seldom aware of the obsession with which the powerful watch for even the smallest opportunities to enhance the impression of their authority.  The corollary for wealth is the obsession with even the smallest opportunity for gain (the wife of a billionaire I knew always took all of the condiments from the table when eating out).

*Obsession is a major symptom of mental illness.  The elite are obsessed.  The elite have, at least, one major symptom of mental illness. 

*Mental illness is disqualifying for responsible leadership.  The elite have symptoms of mental illness.  It is unwise to allow the elite into positions of authority.

These two arguments set the stage for much of the behavior of the core elites; they must control reality if they are to fulfill their obsessions; so one of the reasons for the multi-millennial obsession with “human reality” defeating nature’s Reality.

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 clichéd  ‘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 – whatever 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 their own 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 the 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 ecosystem designs that replenish and maintain the billions of trillions of material and energy exchanges per second 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.

How Much is Too Much?

How much wealth is too little, too much and just right?  Lets us dispense immediately with the argument that there is no amount that is too much, that societies have no business setting lower and upper limits. 

The entire purpose of societal mores and rules, enforceable through social sanctions and governing institutions, is the stability and health of the society. First social stability: Individual members of a society devote much of their effort to recognizing and following social rules…and they also devote a significant portion of their effort in discovering how to express personal desires by circumventing and defying of those rules.  The stability of a society requires the balancing of these agreeable and disagreeable tendencies by the tricky process of giving meaning to the limits.

The health of a society is somewhat more difficult to consider, but is obviously as important as stability.  Stability can be attained by stasis, but health only by homeostasis.  A healthy society is one in which all of its parts are in functional relation, no part can be said to be dominating or irrelevant.  Think of a living body: Where would the brain be without the liver? Could the intestinal wall survive without the sweat glands?  To follow on with this analogy: fat is the storage of energy against future need and in that way resembles wealth. It might seem, in the most simple analysis, that one could, therefore, not have too much of it.  But clearly that is wrong since the whole functioning of the body is damaged by excessive concentrations of fat – the fully functioning homeostatic relationship is distorted and many different destructive and damaging conditions take control of the body; just as in a society, concentrations of wealth will disorient and distort social functioning to the detriment of the society’s health.

At the minimum, a stable and healthy society must be broadly understandable to its members, from the street sweeper to the college professor, from the employee of a nail salon to a bank president.  Though the community as a whole sets expectations, the interests of the members of the community must have clear and established routes of influence. The healthy society must be a need-meeting system from which the individual can explore the vicissitudes of life.  A society that parasitizes some of its members for the benefit of other members is not in homeostasis and is not healthy [1].  Concentration of wealth is the primary source of such imbalance.

So, there can be too much wealth, not only held by individuals and collective entities, but by the society as a whole; by this thinking, a pure collective society could have too much wealth, though not as readily as a capitalistic one.  The other end of the scale is obvious: there clearly can be too little wealth held by individuals, collective entities and societies as a whole; first defined by biological want and then by the social imbalances of exploitation and deprivation of the needed wealth to function fully within the social order [2].

It follows that if there can be too much of a thing and if there also can be too little of it, then there must be an amount or a range of amounts that are functionally “just right.”  This is the basic principle of homeostasis; the ill effects of too much trigger a mechanism for slowing down, while the (different) ill effects of too little trigger a mechanism to speed up.  Human societies are biological entities and must also follow these rules or fall to dis-ease.

Beginning with the easy and proceeding to the disputable: Too little has a clear floor of biological insufficiency; too little food, water, protection from the elements, safety and so forth.  Humans, like any animal, fight back when forced into these conditions as they attempt to establish the basic minimums for survival.  Humans are most successful when they fight back as coherent communities.

When is an individual responsible for basic biological essentials or at what point is the society to be seen as the primary force in the supplying and withholding of these essentials?  If the individual is completely responsible, then societies (collections of humans) are always at the near edge of anarchy and exist only as a momentary comfort.  If, on the other hand, human communities are recognized as the human unit and it is the community that is seen as the primary adaptive agent supplying both resource and order, then the society that doesn’t function to make it possible to acquire a minimal level of wealth to fully function in that society, is dysfunctional.

Land based communal societies all around the world clearly define this minimum and the varieties of social structures that support and enliven them.  They share a general form: materially simple, several levels of property rights and responsibilities with communal property as primary, interpersonal relations and obligations as the binding social glue.  The poor of every society always end up replicating this design in the ways available to them; it is not necessary to create this plan, humans are the plan.  These ways of organizing and living can be beautiful as well as brutal; the world abounds with example.

At the opposite extreme, as wealth begins to accumulate in a community, the disposition of it becomes the issue.  For this problem there are no innate guides; great accumulations of material surplus have never been a condition of human evolution and are only recently a concern.  And, just as with the excess of fat in a body, the excess of wealth in a community presents it with problems for which it has no ready solution.

Human societies are, like bodies, ‘flow through’ systems; when the flow of energy and material stops the system dies. “Wealth”, when it is distributed naturally in the ecosystem, can be procured on an as-needed basis. In an ecosystem every detail is exploited and magnified in an adaptive design billions of years in the making – as long as in-kind compensations are faithfully made.  But when material accumulations are pulled from the ecosystem, walled off from it and made part of a closed system that refuses to compensate the source, then a sclerosis begins that spreads into both the biophysical systems and the wealth based human societies.

The full range of consequences that follow from either accumulating wealth primarily as communal property or as discrete packets of accumulation in the control of individuals or collective entities is not my main subject here, but must be touched on. When the accumulation of material surplus comes into the control of individuals and collective entities rather than assignable to the community as a whole, the situation is easy to understand: those who have control of accumulated material surplus enjoy the consequences and will fight to maintain their position.  Those who have too little for security and comfort will naturally go to where the surplus is and try to take from it sufficient to ease their condition. 

Those with surplus will trade some of it away as a means to gain the help of a few of the less wealthy and these people will become dependent on the wealthy for their needs as they then become the protectors of the rich.  But in giving some wealth away it becomes clear that they will need more to have more and to protect the more that they have.

Control of the surplus begins to be seen by both those who have it and those who do not as a surplus attached to its controllers; it becomes associated with them in the ways of both classical conditioning and instrumental learning; such an arrangement begins to seem natural when, in fact, it is completely contrived.

Undefined assignment of resource and wealth to community can potentially lead to the problems that Garrett Hardin discusses in his much misinterpreted 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  The key, of course, is the designation, ‘undefined.’ The solution is really not so difficult: define the resource.  Mitigating the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ effect can be achieved by community regulations; mores, expectations and rules that established communities would naturally adapt and adopt.

But let us not forget where from comes the concern in the first place: the accumulation of surplus in the community.  All communities, human, other species and ecosystems exist in a world of surplus, it is being stored and renewed in the biophysical and ecological cycles.  Most organisms only store tiny increments of extracted surplus as fat in their bodies, caches of food and labor products like beaver’s dams; and this is vital, they have all evolved instinctual (genetic) inhibiting regulator structures that organize, in exquisite detail, the ecosystems in which they live.

This is where and why it is necessary to discover the levels of wealth that lead to social dysfunction and then work out the design of social ‘homeostatic’ mechanisms that limit the total amounts of wealth that can be extracted from the environment and stored outside of environmental systems.  It is vital that we (a critical mass of opinion setters) understand that humans have evolved an adaptive tool of great power, a tool that has slipped the bonds of the controlling agency of the Living System of Order; a tool that must, using its own agency, come into control of itself.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the present political/economic order is unraveling from both its internal design and its consequences on the environment.  I believe that it is more important to develop a conceptual structure that can respond to a variety of social and structural conditions than to try and develop a detailed plan for getting from our exact present state to some proposed ‘new’ one.  First, our present state has become a kaleidoscope of forms, each an almost random result of the last set of events driven only by the wealth powers vying for primacy.  And second, our most common present concepts of the future are the maddest of fantasies.

It is to that end, of setting a foundation for a vision of the future, that I make these arguments: 
  The first necessity for limiting total societal wealth is the storing of primary extracted wealth as communal property.  Private wealth as a base model will always create an exponential accumulation of excess with all the dysfunctional manifestations of our present condition. 
  Economic systems need to be localized so that total accumulations are within the capacity of the communities to comprehend and control. 
  Levels of property rights must form so that individuals and family-like units have control of tools and other basic materials empowering self-reliance and responsibility [3].   • “Business” must return to being a community-controlled function.  
  No individual should control more wealth than can be understood by all the members of the community as appropriate for community benefit. 
  It must become a principle ethic that wealth is to be left in the ecosystem, only withdrawn as needed and with a clear expectation that the ecosystem will be compensated in meaningful ways for the taking.

These proposals contain great dangers, but certainly no more than economic and environmental collapse, exacerbated by the possibility of nuclear Armageddon, a likely consequence of the political collapse of nuclear nations.  I can think of many arguments against such proposals ranging from them being impossible (certainly seems true currently) to the creation of small warring city-state like entities clashing over resources and fundamentalist principles.  And there will be no testing of such proposals, or others like them, until the present concentrations of wealth and power have exhausted themselves; but those living when that happens will need some models to go on.

[1] In ecosystems, ‘mutualism’ is the model.  The typical analogies from animal behavior for aggressive wealth accumulation, the lion and wolf, are really functional elements in the maintenance of ecosystem health; they have powerful instinctual inhibitions against attempting to collect excess using their great capacities as predators.

[2] An evocative presentation of this distinction can be seen in the Italian film, The Bicycle Thief.

[3] One of the great ironies of capitalism – especially as manifest in the present rhetoric – is that the ‘workers’ are supposed to be mature, responsible citizens trading their labor on equal footing with business owners, while at the same time being denied organizational power and essential knowledge of business realities. It is further assumed that workers will have no control over any of the conditions of their work, their lives while working or the terms under which they make the trade of their labor for compensation.

Two Plus Two Does Equal Four

I have heard it said – from spokespeople for the oligarchs, what we might call Dempublicans – that the wealth of the few is just not enough to make any substantive difference if it were distributed among the vast many.  If, in the US, a year’s income of the top 1% were to be taken and spread out evenly to the 99% there would be a one-time bump-up in income of $9,000 dollars per capita… and then the lights would go out because the engines of progress would have been turned off.

I don’t think that $9,000 was admitted to, but that is the figure that I get when I take the total personal yearly income figure, $12.5 trillion, times 23% (the percentage of total personal income taken by the 1%) divided by 310 million less 3.1 million [1].  But even that amount, as a one-time infusion, doesn’t seem so terribly significant.  It will not buy a house or even a new car.  If it were used wisely, much of personal debt could be paid off.  And then famine and ruin since all the “job creators” would be in breadlines.  But wait! This argument is so foolish as to fall into the category and reality the smelliest of bullshit.

We must look at the income distribution and see what happens when various numbers are tweaked, not what would happen if the income of one year were to be taken in total from the one percent and distributed to everyone else.  For example:
personal income range -- $US 2008
100,000 or more
75,000 – 100,000
50,000 – 75,000
25,000 – 50,000
25,000 or less

This distribution of income from 2008 (though the numbers would be slightly greater for the following years, it is the pattern that matters) gives the average income for each of the given percentages of the population; the top 7% includes a lot of people who take about $100,000 and a tiny few who take some billions – and so forth.  This distribution of income equals a total of about $12.8 trillion and represents a per capita income of $41,000, approximately the per capita GDP figure from the CIA FactBook.

Suppose we change a few numbers:
Average personal income -- $US

(note: I have used averages for each percentage rather than a range.  Just imagine that the $80K has a range with lots of $75K incomes and a few multimillion $ incomes)

This hypothetical distribution of income equals a total of $12.5 trillion and a per capita income of $40,000.  The rich have not been savaged and sent to the soup kitchens and the lowest income level has increased almost 100%.  It is important to note quickly, since I can imagine certain readers turning red faced and experiencing dangerous medical symptoms, that these are per capita INCOMES – incomes: money made from working; and in the case of especially the bottom 30% this means actually working at jobs most basic for the continuation of civilized life.

There are other optional futures that make more sense if humans are to survive, and allow the rest of life on the earth to have a chance, but the changes are so dramatic that they are very unlikely to be taken on willingly.  How about this distribution with half the total income – and therefore about half the ecological footprint (but still more than the earth can support)?

Average personal income -- $US

(note: again, the top 1% on this table would be represented by a lot of people with incomes of $47K and a few with multi-hundred thousand dollar incomes)

This distribution of income totals to $6 trillion with a per capita average income of almost $20,000.  But you will note that it is the top percentages that have the most dramatic changes, and even these still could show some amount of conspicuous consumption.  Compare this table with the first table, the real distribution for 2008, and notice that the smallest changes are in the lower percentage incomes.

There are many other issues involved in these potential income distributions, like taxation, types of work to be done, private versus public work, wages and minimum wages, consumption levels versus levels of meeting personal needs by private action, land distribution, meaning of success and a host of others.  But they are just that, issues requiring consideration and action.  What I am pointing out is that there are realistic ways to consider our economic situation other than demagogy.

What we have today are a few people desirous of and positioned to obtain huge amounts of the earth’s productive capacity.  They are using their advantaged position to take more and more.  The psychological consequence of their separation from the rest of humanity and the biophysical realities of the earth’s functioning is the special madness of privilege.  It is nothing new, but has, in the present ambience of incredible power, reached a level of danger unprecedented and perhaps beyond hope.

But at least we can see our way out in an honest accounting of the numbers even if the actual applications of power and force reject such solutions.

[1] Yes, that is right, by these calculations the 1% collect $9,000 in income for (from?) every man, woman and child in the USA.  It is certain that quite a number of the 1% are using the tax code to collect it for them and to redistribute it to them as various tax loopholes, bailouts, sweetheart Government contracts, rebates and other devices.

The Madness of Wealth

It is a very subtle thing: when you wake in the morning and, from your deepest parts, ask: “With what and with whom do I most powerfully identify?”  Whether we realize it or not this is how we start each day; though usually unnoticed and pro forma. 

A group that is most interesting to me is one that I know almost nothing about [1].  I know that they exist, that they have a collective self-interest in society, even as they are pursuing apparently different occupations.  I know that they are flesh and blood, emotional, reasoning and conscious creatures, but I also suspect when they get up in the morning and ask ‘the question’ that their answers are very different from most of their flesh and blood cousins: I am thinking of the 1% of the population who have come to control nearly 25% of the national income and 40% of the nation’s total wealth.

It is vitally important that we think about the answers they might give to my opening question since these people will decide the fate of this nation and the fate of humanity over the next generations.  This is a fact.  Short of revolutionary restructuring of national and world governance and economies, those who presently control the world’s wealth will also decide what is done with that wealth, it is a simple syllogism; what is done with it will determine the quality of our species’ relationship with each other and the biosphere; whether we will end up cooperating on initiatives to comport with biophysical reality or whether the Great Many end up eating each other for lunch.  It’s all in the answer to that question!

All we have to go on are the behaviors that we see; what we are told is of much less use. The appearance at this time is that the One-Percenters are, through their hired guns in government, doing primarily two things: (1) trying to get at as much of the collective national wealth as possible and (2) removing the legal protections long enjoyed by the common man.  What other source of influence would be weakening the legal protections of the greatest number in favor of the wealthy few?  Why would they do that?

People who can buy their protections need have little respect for protections that are part of the fabric of the commons.  In fact, such common protections can be inhibiting of the process of ‘unprotecting’ the little bits of wealth held individually by the Great Many, little bits of wealth that can be collected together into great wealth. The rights of free speech, the rights of assembly and redress of grievance, the right of being secure in one’s person – the very reason for the Bill of Rights in the first place – are all inhibitions to the formation and functioning of an economic royalty.

For the One-Percenters have certainly become an economic royalty with their own world almost completely disconnected from the rest of humanity.  How then are we to understand them? Their sophists, apologists and propagandists tell us that the rich are just like us only better: anyone can be rich by working diligently at some useful activity, giving the people what they want and need; wealth is proof that one is doing good things for humanity.  From a purely economic point of view we are told that when wealth is concentrated by the rich and superrich, it is proof that “we” are all doing better. 

Here are two questions straight from these assertions: are the very wealthy just like the rest of humanity only better? Does the concentration of wealth (the rising tide) improve the lives of everyone (lift all boats)?  Here is a chart that offers some insight into the answers.

The graphing of such data is more than a picture of the information, it is an image of the behavior of the those who generate the data, a sort of “movie” from which we can suggest motivations – in statistical evaluations this is called assigning sources of variability: as the curves go up and down; what are the variables that are driving them?

Take a look at a graph from the report ‘Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States’ by Emmanuel Saez [2]. Before concerning ourselves with the details of the numbers, what does the pattern of change tell us? When I look at this graph, it is clear that the behavior of the One-Percenters is what is driving the differences seen. Notice how the 5% curve and the 10% curve are much less animated versions of the 1% curve.  This means that many fewer people in these groups are demonstrating the behaviors characteristic of the One-Percenters. 

The 1% curve is being generated by people acting without the restraints that we would expect of a member of a society of mutual concern.  This curve is being generated by behaviors of advantage taking; it goes up when the larger society relaxes control of financial transactions and goes down when financial controls are strengthened and enforced.  We can suggest that the people comprising this group are both capable of and willing to take advantage of every opportunity to gather as much of the society’s product to themselves as they can.  The 5% and the 10% curves have that same basic form, but represent people who have less opportunity or are either less capable or are less willing. It is, however, the people represented by the 1% curve that serve as the model to drive the behavior of the top 10%.

The answer to our first question: no, the rich are not just like the Great Many only better: they are selected by the incentives of the present economic system to be narrowly capable with sociopathic unconcern for the consequences of their actions on society.  I have modified the graph in an attempt to create a source to help with the answer to the second question.

If the rest of the US population were included – with a green line, the inverse of the sum of the three curves shown – that would represent the remaining 90% of the people of the nation, every one with an income of about $100 thousand or less.  It is obvious that as the percentage taken by the top 10% (led by the top 1%) goes up, the economic take of the bottom 90% goes down (a simple requirement of distributing 100% of income). Look again at the 5% and 10% curves.  They mean that many of these people are behaving like the 90%, not like the 1%; that is why the curves have flattened out so much compared to the 1% curve.  A small number of people in the 10% and 5% groups are behaving with the lack of restraint characteristic of almost everyone in the 1% group.  The behavior of the 1% is driving the form of these relationships.

In 1928 the top 10% took 49% of total income with about 24% going to the top 1%.  In the 1950s, 60s and 70s the top 10% took a third of the total national income with about 10% going to the top 1%. In 2008 the top 10% took 50% of the national income with the top 1% taking about 23%.  If a whole variety of social and personal health and stability measures are applied to these conditions as has been done by Wilkinson and Pickett in their book, The Spirit Level, we can answer the second question: no; the so-called rising tide of 1% wealth, in fact, sinks many boats.

Somehow many of us have forgotten that the 90% are a normal distribution of people and human behavior, people trying to live happy and fulfilling lives, not consumed with trying to be a One-Percenter.  Ninety Percent is almost every one.  One-Percenters are the aberration, not like the rest of us.  It is the 90% who should be defining who we are and what our goals are.

It is the Great Many and their concern for honesty, fairness and justice, equity and the wellbeing of others that is the true normal. The social and community habits of billions of people over thousands of years, habits immortalized in the philosophy and literature of our species, that is the human normal. There are a tiny number of people in the world who are careless of others, narcissistic, utterly self-interested, also smart and greedy, who have leveraged increasing amounts of accumulated wealth into larger and larger amounts – attempting limitless amounts.  Neither the accumulation or the attitudes and behaviors required to create these accumulations of wealth are even remotely normal.

Looked at from any distance of perspective it should be clear that about 2% of the people of this country and most countries are so unlike normal functioning human beings that they should be restrained and not allowed to just gobble up everything that comes in front of them.

Remember who the 90% are (really about 98% of humanity).  They are really everyone, work at almost every job that is done in the nation, they represent all levels of ambition, intelligence, education, wisdom, talent, knowledge and competence.  They are also far and away more interested in the wellbeing of their fellow humans, more understanding of the simple aphorisms of the golden rule and human humility than the One-Percenters who, judging from these graphs, are driven to behaviors that separate them from the human behaviors that the rest of us value.

How this situation arose is a complex of the cancerous growth of human numbers over the last few thousand years at such a pace that our systems of adaptation and understanding have been overwhelmed; that and the fullest exploitation of each and every decision no matter how narrowly intended.  As a part of this unfortunate process the story that has come to predominate is that the richest are the best, they are what the rest should strive for.  The story has even gone so far as to create a Christian version in which God’s favor is judged by the amount of wealth bestowed. Such a story supports the behaviors of the rich and makes them seem both desirable and normal when, in fact, they are pathological in at least three important senses: destructive of the social and economic order, destructive of the ecological order and destructive of the full experience of human life for both themselves and billions of others.

The normal and desirable is in the ways of the Great Many, not in the behaviors of the superrich.  We need to begin to understand that greed and ambition at such levels represent a sickness of society and economic behavior.  And we also must realize that the inequities of wealth and the failures of social justice are the root of our present inability to honestly and effectively address the other major concerns facing our species.

We need to begin to understand that it is the behavior of wealth itself that we must reject.  There are people, though far from everyone, who are easily drawn into the behaviors of wealth, but they are not the issue so much as it is the accumulation of the power of wealth that drives people to accumulate more, to fall under the spell of possession; creating people who become willing to use their wealth-power to crush all opposition to retain and grow more and more.  There are not just a few ‘bad people’ who misuse wealth and power who need to be restrained; it is the accumulation of excess and inequity itself that needs to be rejected in the pubic mind.

What are the answers of the superrich to the question first posed, with what and with whom do they identify?  I will leave the possibilities to the reader – I can’t even imagine the strangeness and hubris that would have to occupy a mind that could treat 98% of the world’s people and all of the world’s processes and existence as ‘mine to do with as I wish.’

[1] Over the years I have met a few very powerful and very wealthy people.  Aside from the hand shaking trips out among the unwashed by senators, I spend an hour or so with the CEO of a major international drug company, a charming urbane man and director of a company with policies that offended human decency.  I spent the day in the house of, and saw as a fly on the wall, the director of a major stock exchange, and a couple of days with a man who was an international real estate developer of “industrial properties” (the more he talked the shadier he seemed).  I mention them together because my impression was very similar: charming with a practiced consideration, but would cut your throat and be on to the next project before you hit the ground if you crossed them: they were used to getting their way!

Proposing a Maximum Income

It is really really simple: there is just not enough to go around if a few are going to have a great and increasing amount more than everyone else; this should be an easy thing to understand, even given the overwhelming flood of sophistic propaganda from those who have so much.  If the great mass of people, billions of them, are to have enough to live with some dignity and safety, then the “economic elites,” those with many times the wealth of the world’s poorest people – and especially those with hundreds and thousands and millions of times more – must give up a significant amount of what they have…and they don’t want to…and will do just about anything, to anybody, not to.

It is like this: one person who is taking $2000 a day worth of the earth’s resources would rather that another person’s children die than that they should have to live on a $1000 a day or $500 a day.  Oh, there are a thousand reasons thrown up as to why this argument is foolish – and some of them are, in fact, difficult technicalities – but the final force that drives the human world is that the wealthy would rather remain incredible wealthy than reduce their riches for the benefit of their fellow humans and the earth’s biophysical stability.  This has been being going on for so long and so obviously as to be without question.

And what is the justification for taking $2000 a day worth of the earth’s resources when billions of people are taking only $2 a day (a 365 day year, not a 250 day work year)?  Why… that someone else is taking $4,000 a day or $20,000 a day or $200,000 a day! The richest of the obscenely rich are even taking as much as $12,000,000 a day. This is $1,500,000 an hour assuming a normal work year of 250 days at 8 hours a day.  (Calculated for 365.2 days, 24 hours a day, etc. the figures are: $8,215,000 a day, $342,000 per hour, $5,700 a minute and $95 a second; that last is the daily compensation of the average US wage earner every second for 86,400 seconds a day, day in and day out.)

Back to simple: people with the power that a million dollars a day affords don’t have to think of others.  And more obvious still when the propaganda drugs have worn off: no one should be allowed to be in the structural position where it is unnecessary to consider the consequences of their actions on the lives and the world around them.

Take a look at this table; where on it do people begin to stop caring about others in a sort of structural way? At what point do they begin to think of other people as “beneath” them, as unworthy, as inconsequential, as disposable to economic interests? 

times greater
number of people this
income for 250
income per
than $2/day
income could
day work year
hour/8hr day
living standard
support at $40 a day

equals $2/day


A few things that the table brings more easily to mind: a person with a million dollars a year income (this makes the unwarranted assumption that a million dollar a year income represents a million dollars of productivity), if they took a $250,000 a year income, and redistributed the $750,000 in some thoughtful scheme, it could allow a hundred people somewhere in the world to make a societal contribution with about the $30 a day level of income.  Imagine the dignity and security that could come with the change from $2 a day to $30 a day.

If we look at the income of the whole top 1% in the US (taking 23% of national income per year), their income above $250,000 per year would fund 70 million people at $31,250 a year as either total salary or addition to salary; the top 1% would no longer have astronomically more income, but they would have a significantly high income none the less. (I know this feels wrong given the propaganda that the wealth of the rich is just too little to matter in the overall.  Here are the numbers: total US personal income $12.8 trillion; 23% of that is $2.944 trillion less $775 billion, for a maximum income of $250 thousand each, equals $2.169 trillion; this divided by an income of $31,250 equals 69,408,000.)

Admittedly, such a drastic change in income for the wealthy would deny them the impunity with which they presently live.  With no changes in present costs and obscenely acquisitive persons reduced to incomes only a few hundred times the average poor, no one would be able to act in isolation from their fellow humans. Medical services for serious conditions would be too expensive, the loss of property to natural and manmade disasters too overwhelming.  No one could buy their way out of the effects of the human abuse of the earth’s biophysical systems and living things.  Everyone would, to some extent, have to overtly depend on the community of all others.

The argument that unless wealth can be unlimited, the wealthy would just stop doing the productive activities that define their role in society, is foolish.  If there were, as there has been through out most of our history, limiting social mores and even legal limits on wealth, then acquisitive sociopaths will structure other ways to attempt to dominate the social, political and economic spaces.  The difference is that their efforts could, with the proper designs, have an overall social benefit rather than the destructive effect currently.  This is how communities have been structured for tens of thousands of years [1].

Furthermore, the rich owner class assumes that workers will have to work no matter what they are paid; there is no reason to assume otherwise for the owner classes.

Heterogeneous communities have always contained a wide variety of human personalities and types; it was, in part, this great variety that gave the communities adaptive power in the environment.  Extreme types, if they were to become dominant, would be toxic to their communities, but in socially limited roles they added possibilities to the total community behavioral repertoire [2]. 

The social, economic and political upheavals begun by agriculture, and increased by the synergies of population increase and technical discoveries, have let community influence on the more extreme human types weaken; little community influence on them remains today, especially as they become concentrated in like-minded groups and independent, through wealth and other forms of power.

Using today’s sense of what, in the US, money can buy I think that some people begin to feel the first inklings of social impunity at about $50,000 per year.  This increases, with $100,000 or so being a major benchmark.  These levels of income in the US in no way confer economic safety, but can purchase many of the contrived symbols of wealth.  What drives, however, these lower income pretensions to impunity is the real impunity of the much higher incomes.

Capping legal income at $250,000 a year and wealth at a million or so would have a vast array of unintended consequences, just as not capping income and wealth does [3].  We would need our best and brightest rational, non-psychopathic economists to suggest the form of the limits and processes of implementation.  But first the people must begin to understand that this is desirable and ultimately essential.  These arguments must become part of the discussion from the academic conference table to the kitchen table.  The politicians beholding to the extreme elites (that is almost all of them) need to begin to hear the rumble of a new force growing from the understanding that no one should be allowed to take so much material wealth that they can use it to act with impunity.

The understanding and language must change from presenting these issues as a poverty problem and begin to make clear that it is a wealth problem: excess is the issue, not insufficiency; a culture of greed is the issue, not dissoluteness; concentration of wealth as the consequence of our economic and social institutions is the issue, not the piddling attempts to redress inequity by redistributing wealth morally belonging to the Great Many in first place.

No one should have more material wealth than can be completely understood and honestly empathized with by the poorest in a community.  No one should have less material wealth than can be completely understood and honestly empathized with by the richest in the community.  This is the standard for a healthy society; ultimately this is a maximum ratio of about 10 to 1.  Our present situation divides humanity into the immune rich and the enslaved multitudes; human history is the story of the failure of that design. 

Our imminent confrontation with a humorless environment has made continuing on with that old model impossible without the near-term large-scale extermination of the poor by the rich (small scale extermination has been going on for a long time).  Our only other option is the distribution of the excess accumulation of real wealth held by the rich into actions that will reconfigure humanity’s relationship with each other and biophysical reality.  The first step in that direction is to make clear that the problem is wealth and not poverty.

[1] Another argument is that the rate of development will slow, as if that were a bad thing.  Flying cars, implanted computers, nanotech surgery and a thousand other things have been held out as the raisons d'être for our existence; this is simple madness.  My greatest pleasures in life, and I suspect for the vast majority of people, have been with us for thousands, even millions, of years: being with my children, walking in wild country, watching the clear night sky.  Of the technologies, I love riding a bicycle and using a fountain pen; I use some of the most ‘up to date’ stuff, but it is not as useful as a bicycle.  We have been a pretty barren landscape for really valuable “new” things for all the hyperbole devoted to them.

[2] We have in our cells structures called lysosomes that contain the most powerful digestive enzymes.  Lysosomes are essential for cell function, but if they are not strictly controlled they immediately kill the cell in which they were formed.  Other examples are stomach acids, the behavior of special-forces soldiers, race car drivers… and come to think of it, thousands of activities that we expect to be limited and regulated to their appropriate places. Greed for material wealth is definitely one that has escaped and needs to be put back into the box.

[3] I pick these two values because they are understandable as truly wealthy, offering the opportunity to possess vastly more than less wealthy neighbors; I think these amounts are still much too high for social good and our relationships with human biology and the environment.

How Should We Prepare For Emergencies?

Should everyone take on the personal responsibility for being prepared for emergencies?  Libertarians, various conservatives, people like Ron Paul, make that argument.  I would say that the answer, especially put this way, has to be yes, but, to use a tiresome phrase, let us drill down into the matter.

Taking responsibility for emergencies can mean that each individual prepares to handle directly, with their own skills and resources, the emergencies most likely to affect them.  At the opposite extreme it can mean that everyone gets together to produce a plan of common action to handle emergencies that affect communities and individuals.  It seems, at first blush, that some potential emergencies might best be handled with the first and others might best be handle with the second.  It also should be noted that the types of preparation and the mind set for the two approaches are very different.

There are two sources of information and idea that need to be, at least, briefly explored as context and possibility: the history of how people have dealt with emergency and the measurements and limits that actually confront our actions.

Historically, people have not ‘gone it on their own.’  In the nearly 200,000 year history of our present species and the millions of years of history of the primates and then hominids, the vast majority of emergencies have been taken on by the community; even individual illness and injury have been organized into community response, and the group actions in response to external threats are obviously collectively organized behaviors.  Almost always the first thought when experiencing any kind of trouble is to “get help.”

The most strict libertarian view is that these millions of years of evolutionary habit are incorrect; people should take individual responsibility for emergencies (failures) and for successes.  It is not my intention to argue this fully here, just consider such a view in light of the reality of the interrelatedness of all of our actions – even more today than in times past – and the foolishness, danger and madness of such ideas begins to materialize.

But, even if we are not to consider ourselves completely isolated units with total responsibility for all of life’s outcomes, there are still responsibilities that fall on us individually.  And if this was the basic notion that was being championed by conservatives, then I would be right there with them, but right-wing conservative/libertarian policies are deeper than that and have to do with power, domination and control more than the details of how we should live with each other: what leads to their power is valued, what does not is demonized; these things change with circumstances and so are difficult to argue.

My focus here is how we are to best prepare for emergencies: public emergencies like weather, geological and industrial events and “private” emergencies like medical, accident and social/relationship events.  The libertarian answer is notable for its simplicity: you are on your own; if you have prepared, you will get your reward, and if you have not, your “punishment” is deserved.  No one “owes” you any concern.  The age-old primate/hominid response is that there are no truly private emergencies since all members of the community are the community and cannot be abstracted from it: That is the judgment of history.

What about the numbers and possibility? It is here that we must go in today’s world of fast approaching limits (in fact, the libertarian position is really a small-minded, mean spirited response to those approaching limits).  What I have prepared is an arithmetic presentation of two extreme positions, one in which everyone is expected to prepare for emergencies on their own and one in which the whole population acts in concert to provide a response to the call for “get help.”

There are several variables to consider: they are primarily income, income distribution, emergency cost, emergency frequency and environmental cost (ecological footprint) of the wealth used for general living and for emergency preparation.

I have simplified the models to the bare essentials.  Such things as administrative costs that have been left out, but these are small, especially, in government run programs.  If such a plan were to be put into effect many details would require evaluation, but I believe that the overall view would remain the same.

I am assuming a population of 310 million with a per capita GDP of $40,000.  This will make for easy and direct comparison with our present situation.  I am also using a simplified income distribution for 2008 as a reasonable facsimile of present distributions.  I have not made distinction among the young, the old or the infirm, using only the average figures for income and costs; this should make no difference in the functioning of the models.  Some of the numbers are estimates, and some of the estimates could honestly be called guesses; but, as you will see those numbers can be changed greatly while producing the same general outcome.

Emergency Preparation costs for a whole community insurance model:

The basics: if the total population had a 7% major emergency rate with an average cost per emergency of $50,000, the total cost would be one trillion dollars a year.  The per capita cost if this was spread evenly over the population would be $3500 per person, 9% of per capita GDP.  The ecological cost (at $5000 per global hectare) would be 217 million hectares of the approximately 2.5 billion hectares used to produce the whole US economy.

It is clear that an emergency tax could be more equitably spread with progressive taxation, and that a well designed system could handle, within both our economic and ecological means, the emergency needs of the population within a reasonably broad range of change in these figures.

[Many readers may not be familiar with this method of reckoning economic activity, so a short primer: the earth has only so much productive capacity – that it renews every year through biophysical cycles driven by solar input.  This productive capacity has been measured in global hectares (one hectare equals about 2.47 acres): the surface area that produces the energy, material, food, water, sequestration services and other uses upon which living things depend.  There is only so much productive capacity per year as you would expect. (search “Ecological Footprint Atlas” for a range of informational listings)

Global biocapacity is about 13 billion global hectares.  This means, quite simply, that if the total bioeconomy (all living things) of the earth uses the production of 13 billion hectares per year, the system can go on “forever.”  If it uses less than that, living things will soon find a way to increase to that use rate; and if it uses more, then the total biocapacity will decrease year by year until the squeeze is on living things to reduce that amount of use of productive capacity.  Human activity has increased the total use rate to about 18 billion hectares per year.  The observation that a 5 billion hectare yearly deficit will not sustain would be correct. (This doesn’t mean that we only have 3 years to live.  The overshoot gradually degrades the capacity to recover each year.  If you use all of your energy in one day and are completely exhausted, you don’t wake up in the morning dead.  But if you do this day in and day you will significantly shorten your life.)]

Go it alone emergency preparation:

The basic principle is that each person (or family) save up enough money and acquire sufficient skills to handle likely emergencies; people who are profligate and do not prepare for emergencies deserve what they get.  This sounds, albeit a bit mean, pretty reasonable.  People should prepare for reasonably possible adversity.  The question is: should this done individually, rejecting community help and obligation, or should it done within community structure?  The numbers are unequivocal.

What amount of liquid savings would be required to individually handle the likely, to possible, emergencies of life? Doing this individually requires a different calculation, not what are the likely emergencies, but what are the possible emergencies that would destroy me (and family) if they occur? 

After listing various emergencies and their costs I came up with the figure $300,000 as the minimum amount that someone should have saved away.  Others have thought $500,000 a more realistic number, but as an average across the population $300,000 would certainly go a long way toward making each person individually self-sufficient in this way.  There are, however, two powerful impediments: economic and ecological reality.

The incomes in America occur in a distribution with some people making a great deal and some not so much.  There is no alternative to a distribution of income, it can be taken as a law of nature.  The basic model distribution by which other distributions are evaluated is the normal distribution, a bell shaped curve created by random or uncaused events.  When we see that distribution the first assumption is that this is the random natural state.  When there are deviations from it, we look for causes.  Distributions of incomes always resemble the normal bell curve distribution, but with a fixed floor, an open ended ceiling, but still with most in the middle where one would expect.

If we look at the distribution of incomes in the US for 2008, we see:

percent of

Assuming that each income level did their very best to save up the emergency cushion, I calculate the $100,000 income level would on average require about 5 years (some would already be there and some would have to start from scratch).  The $85,000 income level would require about 10 years; the $60,000 income level would require 25 years; we don’t need to look lower in the distribution.  Requiring 25 years, if starting with no liquid savings, serves no useful purpose in this model, therefore, 87% of the population would be economically closed out from being individually prepared for emergency.

One might argue that the time lines are too long since money could be invested at a percentage return and thus shorten the times, but the very idea of emergency money is money that is safe, liquid and only protected, if protected at all, against inflation loss of value.

From the ecological reality: if it were possible for the population of the US to save up $300,000 each for emergencies, the ecological footprint cost would exceed the total use of the earth’s productive capacity used by all of the earth’s living things: 18.6 billion global hectares.  Money wealth, to have any meaning at all, has to be a call against the earth’s productive capacity.  93 trillion dollars is a call against that value of the earth’s resources; that is just more resources than the earth has.

This is no trivial matter just because economists and others are not using these measures.  That the earth is round is not a trivial matter for ocean travel even though when travel beyond coastal sightings began the common “wisdom” was that the earth was flat.

There are only two reasons for pressing for ‘go it alone’ emergency preparation: ignorance or avarice.  For some it is the special ignorance of ideology, but what makes all of this especially problematic is that there are pirates in these waters who are not concerned with the needs of individuals (other than themselves) or communities to prepare for emergencies.  They are drawn to concentrations of money or to “machinery” that will concentrate it for them.

A great pile of money for emergency protection protected by the government of the people is the greatest nightmare of the commercial pirate – and has been since the beginning of the welfare state.  There is little opportunity to steal from the people since they are not holding significant amounts and the government often has well-watched and/or honest gatekeepers that make it hard to pull off more than the small theft. 

If the people feel secure from the dangers of common and likely emergencies they are more able to individually prepare for more personal emergencies, they are more difficult to cheat and they are more likely to recognize and organize against those who would steal from them.  Altogether the pirate’s life becomes more difficult and not as rewarding. And we can expect them to fight back like pirates.

The Future of Poverty

Part one

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 where 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 of 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.

Part two

(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 are 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 overly much, even in the face of community condemnation, and a still rarer number who try to use less than even 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. (Equanimity: mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, esp. in a difficult situation; also a word rooted in notions of fairness and balance)

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.

Part three

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 the mind of every clear thinking biologist, economist, social philosopher, etc., though, most will not tell us until later!

Part four

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 the ratio that could 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 had 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 always had 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 (different) people living in cities along with all the other technological and social constructions of modern times.

The Final Choice

It is an outrageous proposal: that the materially wealthy and the politically powerful – those who dominate the processes and events of the human presence on the planet – would and could organize and implement the killing off of billions of “ordinary” humans rather than accept dramatic reductions in their privileged use of the earth’s capacity.  Or, it would be an outrageous proposal if it were not so common place an observation in less universal contexts. 

I was fortunate, near the beginning of my journeys, to be instructed on this distinction: Do not ask if this person or that group might do an action; rather, ask if the action is done at all and how commonly, then take that as the basis for your answers to the particular.   I think that we would have to agree that humans have regularly killed off other humans, both indirectly and directly, who stood in the way of attaining or maintaining a preferred life style.

Of course, that something can, or is even likely to, happen does not make it a certainty – especially when there are many other options.  I would only point out that the horror of an action has seldom been an inhibition for very long.  Other factors, such as efficacy and possibility, tend to dominate our choices.

My intention in making the argument is to excite an increased and refocused observation of events.  If the tools for such a mass murder are made available, then the condition of possibility is met.  If the totality of our situation is hopeless, then so is the condition of efficacy. 

As a species, with the capacity to project events into the unknown future and thus change the future from the grubby confines of the present, we are not fixed in our trajectory; this is one of the great lessons of the Consciousness System of Order.  It is a bit like the silly rhyme: ‘I shot an arrow into the air. It fell to earth, I know not where.’ But, if we have some knowledge of the lay of the land, we can have, at least, some idea about where our arrows might land and their possible consequences.

One of the paths into the mid-century and beyond would have all humans living with a primary concession to the Biophysical Reality of personal biological need: every person would supply, by their own hand, some significant part of their personal needs.  Such a standard could, with the ‘invisible hand’, determine population goals, energy use levels and, to some extent, environmental impact levels. However, the intellectual support for this possibility is largely lacking in our present moment.  There are bits in the kinder parts of major religions.  Various philosophers have for thousands of years spoken to the value in living in close contact with the land – this is such a common part of human thought that it has become cliché.  It is cliché because it is so simply and completely true.

The diametrically opposed possibility is something with which humanity has more recent experience, an elite parasitizing a slave-based economy (wage-slave-based serves the same function and only modifies some of the technicalities of economic design).  We have the “intellectual” arguments around this possibility, from Locke, Hume, Marx, Rand, Hayek, Galbraith and many others, and only arguments of this form are allowed to be considered for our present troubles.   The organization and manipulation of power in a Mad world structure where all things increase at increasing rates and Reality is denied as a founding principle cannot sustain, but can produce a great amount of bizarre, conflicting opinion.

Ultimately, it is a question of whether the great depth of our Madness will carry us into a final conflict with Biophysical Reality – a madman flaying at imaginary demons while being tormented by a disinterested reality to which he is blind – or will we come again into the wind and the rain, into the seasons, cycles and other realities of earthly existence?

My sensible reason answers that the Madness will dominate the final days of this iteration of my species, that over the next 30 to 80 years we will cling to the most misguided and defeating self-referenced notions of reality until an enraged environment indiscriminately smites the living world – and we will still behave badly even in the ruins of our world.

But my capacity of imagination and wonder believes, in the way that the Consciousness Order designs impossible ‘possibilities,’ that we can come to see the madness and demand its retreat; the way that smokers now have to hide at the back of the building.  We will no longer hear that we respect wealth and see its virtues, but that we respect the real “self-sufficiency” of community life, and not the pathological individualism of the sociopath.  We will no longer praise as progress the life denying objects that separate us from the work of directly sustaining, and therefore participating in and truly understanding, our lives.  We will no longer raise to adulation those who are willing to do the most harm to all things, but condemn their actions and require that they be part of the sanity of sustaining their own existence with their own efforts.  We will no longer accept a machinery of societal, economic and political control that claims superiority of idea, power and personal omniscience, but see such claims as self-servingly insane.

Just as it is “impossible’ to comprehend how billions of people could be intentionally killed to sustain the present Madness, it is impossible to see how we might come to see the Madness with increasing clarity; and in seeing it find and act on ways to reject it.  But ultimately we will end up doing one or the other.


Ben said...

Thank you so much for this e-book.
So much sanity all in one place is wonderful to behold.

James Keye said...

Thanks, Ben.

That someone appreciates my efforts is very satisfying. As you can summarize from the essays, I believe that the gradual spreading of these kinds of thoughts is the primary source of hope of the future; as well as a more purposeful way to live an individual life. Please, feel free to write your thoughts to the comments or directly to me via email.