Everything Isn’t Always OK

connection-to-the-world

I was listening to an Ezra Klein podcast interview with Elizabeth Kolbert as I cleaned the bathroom today (BTW, Klein’s podcasts are consistently worth listening to).

As they discussed the fragility of our life on this planet, I thought of a quote from a whisky tour in Scotland last summer that has stuck with me:

Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.

(Pronounced in a heavy brogue, of course.) In other words, what is maybe not-so-pleasant but necessary gloom now will replenish our stocks and become, with time, refined and complex and to be savored much later.

Elizabeth Kolbert made the point that we live in the climate of the past, while altering the climate of the future, and that’s why this quote came back to me. Because there’s that flip side, too:

Today’s abnormally warm but kind-of-pleasant winter will become tomorrow’s drought.

In other words, at a more general level, everything may not always turn out OK.

We might not make it as a nation. We might not make it as a species. There might not be a technology or leader or alien lifeform or god that will save us.

The fact that we exist at all, on this particular planet, right here and now at this moment in time, is remarkable. (Read Sean Carrol’s superb From Eternity to Here for more on this). The happenstance cosmic circumstances and events and conditions that have come before us that enable us to now live are tenuous. We are lucky to be alive. Our existence, as a species, as an individual, is highly fragile, just as our planet’s current state is highly fragile.

There are moments in our lives when we suddenly see our extreme fragility through the lens of our own frail existence. Times such as when a friend or loved one dies, or when any other cherished relationship or job or possession is lost or close to being lost. When we have an accident. When we are sick or our health is compromised, whether due to circumstances beyond our control, or due to our own shortsighted decision-making. When we are expecting a child, and realize just how precious and influential every feeling, every nutrient, everything that we say and do has on our child to be.

Our lives are short and so very, very fragile. And only precious when we recognize them as such.

As my first love, Sade, croonsI cherish the day. I won’t go astray. I won’t be afraid.

We may not be able to have much influence over the cosmic and planetary changes under way, nor the brutal reactions of a nation’s mob. But we can channel our attention. We can savor the ones near to us. We can love every moment of our lives as closely and dearly and desperately and passionately as we can.

Even as our bodies or nation or earth may crumble.

 

A New Vision: The Market as Subservient to Nature

What is needed is not ever more refined analysis of a faulty vision, but a new vision. This does not mean that everything built on the old vision will necessarily have to be scrapped, but fundamental changes are likely when the preanalytic vision is altered. The necessary change in vision is to picture the macroeconomy as an open subsystem of the finite natural ecosystem (environment), and not as an isolated circular flow of abstract exchange value, unconstrained by mass balance, entropy and finitude. . . . .

The major task of environmental macroeconomics is to design an economic institution analogous to the Plimsoll mark–to keep the weight, the absolute scale, of the economy from sinking our biospheric ark.

The market, of course, functions only within the economic subsystem, where it does only one thing: it solves the allocation problem by providing the necessary information and incentive. It does that one thing very well. What it does not do is solve the problems of optimal scale and of optimal distribution. The market’s inability to solve the problem of just distribution is widely recognized, but its similar inability to solve the problem of optimal or even sustainable scale is not as widely appreciated. . . .

Economists have recognized the independence of the goals of efficient allocation and just distribution and are in general agreement that it is better to let prices serve efficiency, and to serve equity with income redistribution policies. Proper scale is a third, independent policy goal and requires a third policy instrument. . . . . The point is that the market’s criterion for distribution income is to provide an incentive for efficient allocation, not to attain justice. These two values can conflict, and the market does not automatically resolve this conflict. The point to be added is that there are not just two, but three, values in conflict: allocation (efficiency), distribution (justice), and scale (sustainability).

–Herman Daly, Beyond Economics

Fighting Climate Change Through Prevention

In this article in the NY Times, analysts correctly ascertain that climate change could result in threats to national interest. What is sad about this form of analysis–which as, of course, the FOXNews reporting eagerly highlights (Climate Change Could Warrant U.S. Military Action)–is the reactive mentality that this lends to the debate about policy and strategy. Instead of talking about methods of combating climate change in terms of establishing carbon emission reducing policies, funding ‘green’ technologies, and mitigation of climate change in those areas most affected, war hawks eagerly begin anticipating increasing weapons cachets and military budgets. But what good will it do to send in troops to areas devastated by climate change? That’s like trying to staunch a wound with a toothpick. The only effective measures we can take to address the potential threats to U.S. interests and security from climate change will be preventative: through policy, funding, and diplomacy. And that must happen now, not later.

Public Policy and Global Cooperation

“Sustainable development may be achievable in theory but not reached in practice if public policies and market forces do not lead to the needed investments.

We can summarize in the following way: the world is facing enormous ecological and environmental problems, but running out of natural resources is not the right way to describe the threat. Earth has the energy, land, biodiversity, and water resources needed to feed humanity and support long-term economic prosperity for all. The problem is that markets might not lead to their wise and sustainable use. There is no economic imperative that will condemn us to deplete our vital resource base, but neither is there an invisible hand that will prevent us from doing so. The choice will be ours to make through public policy and global cooperation.”

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet

Collaborative Interdependence

I’ve been undergoing a mild case of “writer’s block” lately, wherein everything that I attempt to write just comes out flat or completely uninspired. Frustrating, because then it drives me to playing mahjongg instead of articulating deeper sentiment (mahjongg here being the virtual “bottle” in which to drown my woes).

One of the things I’ve been constantly trying to write about but having trouble clearly spelling out is my perspective on enacting progressive change. I’ve discussed elsewhere my evolving views on politics and economics, and I’ve been trying to find a way to more fully explicate my new views while still embracing, intellectually speaking, the perspectives which I’ve developed out of, such radicalism, anarchism, anti-globalization, postcolonialism, etc.

Rather than present a cohesive thesis, therefore, let me just discuss what my thought process is at the moment vis-a-vis these general topics and maybe I can work my way over the obstacles I’m currently facing just by talking it through.

I think what I’m finding is that I can still relate very well to viewpoints such as socialism and anarchism because such perspectives are ultimately humanist, in that there is an idealistic attempt to extricate humanity from what are perceived as inhuman and oppressive structures. There is still a lot of misunderstanding out there about what “anarchism” really means, and you can see this quite powerfully in The Dark Knight as depicted by the Joker, as one current example. People think of chaos, terror, pimply youth in black apparel heaving Molotov cocktails as an expression of aimless hormonal angst. But anarchism is not about chaos and terrorism: it is simply a philosophical rejection of the need for institutionalized systems of governance. Extending out of this are many disparate branches of anarchist philosophy, but that is its central tenet. Contrary to being a negative and nihilistic perspective, this is in actuality an extremely positivist take on human nature, in that anarchists believe that human society will run much more efficiently and naturally when not subsumed to overarching systems.

I was drawn to anarchist philosophy because of this deep humanism, and some anarchist writing is the most well-articulated writing out there on politics. You don’t feel like you are being talked down to. Go here and browse through the library to see for yourself. It isn’t much at all about violence or chaos. It’s about believing in a world that can be better than what we are taught to accept.

However, one of the problems with this perspective is in answering the question: well, how do we get from here to there? There are many different answers to that, some of which I will agree with, but ultimately, what one comes to understand is that holding the highest of ideals makes it extremely difficult to come to terms with the existing state of the world, generating anger, bitterness, and violence and/or apathy.

I will devolve into an oblique comparison here: in a long-term relationship with another human being, you come fairly quickly to realize that compromises must be made between you and your partner’s ideals in order to live together. If your ideals are too high, it may be that instead of coming to terms with the human reality of your partner and accepting them as they are, you are rejecting parts of them in order to try to fit or mold them to your ideals. These high expectations can blind you to the beauty of the person that already exists right before you, if you could allow them to be themselves rather than what you want them to be. You both can work together on developing towards the ideals that you share and cherish.

This does not mean that you should accept a drab reality. What I am getting at is that there is a process in working towards ideals. There must be development and evolution in order for ideals to become reality. Perfect harmony does not just fall into your lap without extensive effort. So one could feasibly hold anarchist philosophy as the ideal state of human society, but still work within and around existing government and market structures in seeking to achieve that ideal.

That is fairly self-evident, I suppose, but as I talked about in my other post, it seems to me that there are a lot of idealists out there who are constricted, rather than motivated, by their ideals.

In any case, even though I sympathize with the philosophy of anarchism and of radical thought in general, I ultimately feel that it is misguided. Anarchists and other philosophies of dissent rightly perceive that there are problems with institutional and market systems, but they wrongly perceive the correct redress as being a complete rejection of these systems. To use another obtuse analogy, it is like looking at a fan which doesn’t blow air very efficiently or equitably about a room, and deciding that the solution is to throw out the fan. While such a solution might appeal to instinct, it would make much more sense to attempt to analyze the failure of the fan and seek to alter, jerryrig, or otherwise upgrade to a whole new model.

To say this, however, doesn’t mean that one couldn’t choose to live ones life according to anarchist or other radical ideals. One has that right and capability. But what I am talking about is being involved in the greater community, and subsuming some of those ideals to accepted law and policy in order to extend greater influence.

Another issue I think I see with philosophies that reject existing market and government systems is that they are often mired in a mentality of a bygone era. We have come into a time, due to the unforeseen confluence of technology and rapid information dissemination and sharing, in which civil society and individuals as a whole have a power and command that they did not once have. Civil society thus is becoming evolutionarily enabled to play the critical part in balancing and restraining and guiding the efforts of institutions and markets in providing a fairer and more sustainable society. Demonstrators and protesters, even when not covered explicitly by the big media outlets, have a strength that corporations and governments have had to pay close attention to. Anti-globalization protesters, though misguided in their conclusions (multi-national corporations and interconnected markets = evil), have had a tremendous and positive impact on drawing attention to economic inequity and iniquitous barriers to trade. Similarly, the increased influence and power of “bloggers” has given big media a run for its money. Due to this increased power of civil society and of individual citizens, people are not simply oppressed workers underneath the inhumane strictures of the one-dimensional demand of capitalism. In collaboration—not opposition—with public policy, the legal system, and economic investments and incentives, civil society, government, and the economy can work in tandem to address the problems that exist in society.

This is not an argument against dissent or protest. What I’m attempting to get at is that the process of speaking up and getting involved and asking critical and probing questions is in fact a necessary and positive aspect of well-organized and functioning social systems. It is not a movement against the “system” or against the “machine” or whatever one chooses to call government and business structures: rather, it is a movement that enhances, collaborates, and guides these systems into greater harmony.

I have argued elsewhere for the need to view these systems in the sense of design, with a holistic, whole-systems approach. This is especially apparent when it comes to entrenched issues such as the current failure of many of our public schools to adequately and equally educate all our nation’s children, irregardless of race, class, or gender. Educational policy, on both a federal and state level, often nobly, but wrongly, attempts to tackle their problems solely within the confines of the classroom by initiating misguided programs that work to increase performance on standardized tests. Obviously, there are circumstances outside of the classroom that are critical to a child’s success, such as family, friends, and wider local community support, in addition to institutional programs. It will take a multifaceted approach, addressing not only education, but furthermore socio-economic conditions, access to information and technology, not to mention access to healthy, positive, inclusive environments and public spaces for children to study and play in.

Our schools have become effectively segregated due to the seemingly innocuous effort by well-to-do parents to place their children in “successful” schools. The successful schools being the ones with money and community support. It is thus apparent that investments must be made simultaneously not only in education and the public school system in general, but furthermore broader investments must be made in low income neighborhoods, to provide access to healthy public spaces, to provide access to technology and information, to provide smart planning for a sustainable future in employment, etc. The more that the middle class divides itself from the poor, the greater problems will become.

What is evident in an issue such as this is the approach that I am talking about: a whole systems, collaborative approach. Civil society must do its part to draw attention to the problems. Government must do its part to respond with effective and unbiased policy changes. The market must do its part with directed investments and innovative micro-businesses. What is apparent, to me at least, is that we can’t rely on any one of these systems to do the job for us. The market is not going to solve any of our problems unless we direct it and harness it with policy and incentives. Government will not update its policy or open up funding unless it has its attention drawn to the problem. Civil society, NGOs, citizen organizations must agitate, petition, utilize the media, and organize to focus on the problems.

Furthermore, policy making and business governance and legal affairs cannot be over-specialized. They can’t be compartmentalized and vivisected such that they can’t work effectively across the fields of public health, education, fiscal tuning, management philosophy, environmental departments, etc. They need to be able to unite and work within these fields all at once.

This kind of approach demonstrates that no matter what ones particular ideals may be, what is the most important is a pragmatic and responsive attention to the current climate and issues in our society. Putting our heads in the sand, whether due to reactionary or radical or centrist thought, is simply unacceptable. Good management, governance, and policy practices are forged by looking ahead to the future, constantly and consistently. Our future lies in our children. Whatever our beliefs may be, we all want our children to be healthy, to be successful, to have access to the resources that will empower and enable them. We want them to be educated, to be well fed, to be well read, to be sound of body and of mind. We want them to be positioned to respond effectively to reality, to be positioned for a market that looks ahead to sustainability.

The process, therefore, in achieving an equitable and sustainable future is determined by the collaborative interdependence of differing aspects of human identity, mind, infrastructures, and society. Only when these multiple points converge and work together are effective and positive changes made. It is misguided to focus ones efforts solely in rejection and opposition to existing systems. The more positive approach is to focus on working across boundaries to enact changes beneficial to all.

Phew. You can see why I’ve had trouble laying this out. It’s kind of a big mess in my mind. I’m working on getting this out in a more concise manner.

Reasons for Positivity

As you can tell from my frequent subject matter, I am highly concerned with issues of personal, social, and economic development, focused specifically on issues of human rights, sustainability, poverty, and spiritual insight. One of the encouraging things I’ve been realizing lately is that many of the fundamental insights which I have developed in my own mind are already in application in the real world. Now that I’m at a point in my life where I am reaching out beyond myself, and can safely maneuver beyond my ego, stubbornness, and insecurity, I am finally recognizing the enormous amount of networks and organizations that are in existence, actively disseminating and applying information in their communities. I am now overwhelmed with the amount of learning that I have to sift through.

I admit that there is still a part of me that wants to reject others developments, so that I can find my own way, find my own insights and developments to claim. I want to have something powerful and uniquely my own, something new, something revolutionary. But of course, it is simple conceit to imagine that anything I could come up with hasn’t already been done, as well as to imagine that I could possibly create some philosophy to right all the worlds wrongs. Humbleness is required in affecting change.

Once I recognize this essential humility and get beyond my ego, I’m finding a lot of reason for hope and positivity out there. It’s easy to feel like you are isolated and that nothing is changing when you think of all of the world’s problems, especially when you read the daily news or just watch TV. But now that I’m looking around and reaching out, I’m realizing just how many groups, schools, non-profits, individuals, and even businesses are out there doing a lot of amazing work towards understanding the root sources of problems, guiding individuals into supportive communities, and finding methods and solutions that are practical and that work. It’s encouraging. And it’s making me extremely eager to start discovering the tools that others have been using and find a way to combine them and apply them in my own life and community. To get involved, get my hands dirty, get my heart dilated.

My goals: I want to find a way to connect public policy directly to individuals and communities and render its processes transparent. I want individuals to have access to funding to green roof gardens on their buildings, install rainwater harvesting systems, utilize graywater, and compost all of their communities’ foodwaste. I want everyone capable of starting their own business. I want plastic to reflect its true cost and become prohibitively expensive to produce. I want chickens and goats to infiltrate our cities. I want to combat poverty, rats, and pigeons. I want practical, immediately applicable, and effective solutions to all of my society’s problems, and I want them now.

Updates on how I am progressing towards these goals will be forthcoming.

The More the Problems, the Simpler the Solutions

In this day and age, as the perennial problems of humanity grow ever greater in the face of our increased global interconnectivity and environmental fragility, it becomes more evident that all of our problems are interrelated and cannot be solved without an enlightened holistic approach. We cannot tackle the problem of public health without tackling the problems of poverty, which cannot be tackled without confronting the issue of rampant hydrocarbon dependency, which cannot be conquered without resolving fundamental issues of human rights and freedom, and this goes on and on and on. It can also be phrased thus: we cannot ignore human rights abuses in Sudan, nor environmental degradation in China, for the cost will ultimately fall upon all of us.

While that may at first make resolving any of the major dilemmas humanity faces in the oncoming years of increased natural disaster and antibiotic resistant microbes seem especially daunting, these compounding converging problems in fact present us with opportunities to enact revolutionary structural changes that can work to harmonize disconnected and fragmented elements of humanity and bring them together in a greater, unifying global interconnection.

An example of this point could be taken quite literally down to the case of a human body. Our bodies eventually let us know when we have pushed them beyond their capacities of maintaining health, and some organ will fail, or a disease will take hold, or a heart will exhibit stress. At that point, we look at immediate symptoms and seek a means of addressing that sole symptom. Beyond that, however, we then seek to discover how to prevent a reoccurence of this problem, as well as to prevent other related issues springing from the same source, and we thus must seek manners of altering our lifestyles, our behaviors, and our perspectives in order to resolve more fundamental issues.

Our environment is letting us know that we are toeing the line–and may well have already significantly crossed–on the path to complete destabilization of all life supporting habitats. There is no doubt in the mind of any cognizant scientist, activist, politician, nor concerned citizen that we are facing some major problems due to global warming and widespread environmental stress. And so we are now looking at immediate ways to address these symptoms, such as by seeking alternative sources of energy, carbon emission cap and trades, and worldwide standards of environmental regulation. But as we begin to look beyond these immediate symptoms, we also begin to see that we must address even more fundamental issues in our societies, governments, economies, cultures, and perspectives, as they all stem from the same source.

So now is the time that we are really gaining the opportunity, as a human species, to deeply address issues that we have had since the birth of human consciousness, such as disparity between the rich and the poor, segregation and bigotry due to birth and appearance, and all other manifestations of hatred, division, and greed. Does that sound idealistic and glorifying of my own age and time? Undoubtedly. But what can also undoubtedly be stated is that the world we are living in, as of this writing, is a world quite unlike the world that it was a mere 50 years ago. We are globalizing, networking, trading, and traveling at an exponentially snowballing rate. And due to this global interconnection, all of our actions and behaviors become magnified in effect. So while once upon a time we were only destroying some land downstream, now we are destroying the entire globe. We cannot detach ourselves from the fate that we are creating. We cannot ignore the effect that our actions will have on our children.

Anyway, I could go on like this for a while. The point that I wanted to make is that all of these major problems that we are now facing can be seen as an opportunity for widespread positive change. Never before has humanity as a species been so positioned as to fundamentally address our disconnection from our planet, from each other, and from ourselves. The time is now.