By Jake and Stefy
The reason for this blog
The writers of this blog (my fiancé and I) decided to create this because many parts of the world don’t make sense to us, and we decided we might as well share our questions and developing thoughts in case others are wondering about the same. When talking about the world I don’t mean the literal rock of course (that would be a geology blog), but rather the way we—us, other humans—live and organize our lives within it. I think it often goes unappreciated how far the set of assumptions that govern our daily lives have changed in an astoundingly brief period of time—about ourselves, about the nature of reality, about what constitutes a right to a thing and how exactly it is that we are meant to relate to each other and the other living things around us. When my mother was my age, developmentally disabled (or just odd and misplaced) adults were being forcibly sterilized, when my grandmother was my age African-Americans were barred by law from nearly every part of society , my great-grandmother at my age had just gained the vote and seen electrification, and just a generation or two before that you could you could own other people as slaves. In other parts of the world (like China for instance), the change in just one or two generations has been far more radical. I could go on listing all the incredible ways these stories that constitute our systems and our selves have changed over the last few hundred years, or just the last ten, particularly in many parts of the world, but I would rather just encourage you to go read any book from 50, 100, 300, or 1000 years ago and try to really imagine what they’re saying as your sky-is-blue worldview (I find the ideas around women and health to be particularly interesting examples to trace). I find we often lose sight of just how quickly ideas and systems change, and it is an important starting point for any attempts to make sense of the world. I’ll move on to the bigger point here.
We worry the “system”, meaning the ideas, assumptions, and social structures that underlie most of the daily lives in the US and Europe, and now most of the rest of the world, are insufficient for creating widespread wellbeing, and often downright destructive. This idea is a long ways from new, and most everyone has a particular bogeyman, be it an institution, political group, or human tendency that if we could just get rid of the world would finally be right. I want to try keep this blog as far from that kind of thinking as I can—as with nature, all things are always in flux, meaning some new problem is always cropping up, and new solutions with it. That said, there are a few assumptions out there that strike me as particularly pernicious, both in terms of how far they’ve been taken, and how much I worry they are causing unnecessary suffering. Throughout this blog, we will dive deeper into these (and undoubtedly add more), as well as take a gander at some possible alternatives being tried or proposed at individual, community and systemic levels. Here are a few, for starters:
Nature is “out there,” we are “in here”
For a certain strata of the world (which happens to contain most policy and large decision makers) the control over most immediate elements of life creates quite literally an alternate reality. I experienced this first-hand, driving from my climate-controlled house in my climate-controlled car to my climate-controlled office to stare at a screen with information about the activities of other people I had never met, eating food that was grown and cooked who knows where (there are pad thai bushes somewhere right?), seeing changing numbers in an account which somehow I could exchange for things made in faraway places in ways I could not begin to understand, that after a little while I would get rid of by placing in another magical bin that would whisk it away to who-knows-where. And let’s not even get started on the mystery of where my mystery-food went when it was done…
What? In all of this, I am completely numb to the amount of energy that powers all of this, the extraordinary complexity that enables it, and the damage caused to extract the resources required, turn it into the myriad things I use throughout my day, and store and process the waste. “ Waste disposal” is one of my least favorite terms, as it is really only disposed from the perspective of the person whose attention is no longer on it. When we think of nature only in terms of soaring vistas and national parks, or as a source of resources and food, we lose sight of the fact that nature is just the reality that we ourselves are a part of. If we grow our food by pumping the ground full of toxic chemicals, then we are only creating a natural world full of toxins (that we will likely eat or drink). When we chug a bottled water or pick-up and toss that plastic fork, that moment of convenience, momentarily enjoyed and immediately forgotten, bears out its legacy in infertile landfill and an ocean full of garbage. Every action that we do is part of a larger system and a larger cycle, and while money can isolate us from the costs of those actions, somewhere they are borne, either by future generations, those who lack power (google garbage dumped illegally in Africa), or unknowingly by ourselves. Many of the theoretical efficiencies trumpeted by modern economics, in terms of specialization, globalization, etc. only widen this distance between our immediate selves and our broader place and effects in the world.
We are individual, atomic units in the way we experience the world, and our decisions only affect ourselves
This is a shockingly recent idea for the way it often feels as a given, like David Foster Wallace’s young fish asking what the hell is water. Obviously we all understand the idea of doing harm to another, or maybe, in some squinty way, to a system, but that’s not really what I’m getting at. That the only way we can imagine being in relationship to another person or thing is as a benefit or a harm is in and of itself the assumption, because it relies on a desperately lonely vision of ourselves. I see and experience this in so many ways, in our relationship to government as this faceless entity we are subject to and participate in only in our shuffle to a voting booth, in a vision of companies as ticker symbols or doodles or a machine we plug ourselves into. I see it in families gazing into different sets of electronic devices without a word between them, in the constant breaking down of people into demographics or preference groups, or in the idea, that I hear over and over from wonderful, discouraged people, that everything is so screwed you might as well get what you can for yourself. All these things, and so many more, are manifestations of a view of identity and the experience of consciousness as a series of choices disconnected from the rest of the world around us. Think about being in the happiest gathering in the world. That lovely place in a family vacation, or that truly quiet spot out behind the house sitting with a few best friends, or your favorite pub. Then think about the way it feels to have someone anxious in that space, maybe a couple quietly fighting nearby. Or how it feels when you’re at a concert with an aggressive crowd, or one that lets you move through without an elbow. The experience of our emotional reality takes cues from the people around us– or even the space– a thriving woodland versus dying weeds behind a carpark. These are the things that affect our conscious experience in the moment, and what of all the moments before then? What of the physical realities that come together to allow us to be, the energy passing through the sun to microbes to plants to our mouths, the long ago formation of our parents and future effects on our children, our communities, our friends. We aren’t parts of a system, like cogs, with no thoughts of our own, nor independent blobs picking to go this way or that in a sea of jelly. We are shaped and in turned shapers of our communities, our governments, our families, our lands, from now and forever on. This is not to induce guilt or paralysis– how can you be guilty when a conduit of such larger flows? But nor can we be bystanders with the knowledge that there is no such thing as having no effect.
Prices are as good a way to prioritize things as we can get, as they are most neutral and reliable way to understand what people want
This one really is everywhere, and I’m far from the first to point it out as an issue. However, I think it really is the fundamental one of our age, as this assumption, and the policies derived from it, are both as elaborate and as critical to the distribution of power in our world as geneology and the scholasticism around the bible were before that. I could go deeper into econ-land (and gnaw at it from the inside!) but for now I’ll just list out a few issues:
- Prices only reflect the preferences of people, with the money to express them, in a given moment. So future generations, every other living thing and the eco-systems that sustain them (and us), people who don’t have money because of past injustices or hindrances, all of them, they are out, or at best, dependent on someone’s largesse. And a system based on prices alone will over time only squeeze them out further.
- Many things are too complex to price, so changes from stable environments need to be thought about carefully. Take a map of desertification (the process of fertile soil turning to sand as the trees and other life that held it in place are destroyed) and civil war in Africa and stick them on top of each other, and you’ll be shocked (or maybe not) by the correspondence. In the most enlightened policy environment, where noble technocrats tried to price the damage of ripping out every tree to make way for a mining company, how could they possibly, a priori, include the price of civil war, even if it’s the natural conclusion of those causes?
- People will have different preferences under different sets of conditions. That may sound obvious, but in the world of academic policy making or simplistic market-morality, it’s anathema. Imagine a city designed with walking in mind, with beautiful open plazas and zigzagging alleys protected from the elements. Cars would be cheap, or there would just not be very many producers. In a surburban sprawl, it would be the opposite. In either case, people’s preferences, and the production that results, is a function of the broader system. Whether it’s a walking city or sprawl, however, is often not a market decision, as it will often be a function of historical circumstance or policy decisions. Ah, someone might say, but wouldn’t changes in real estate prices between cities fix it? Depends where people’s jobs are located, their families, whether such variety even exists, or if they are able to move, and in many cases, the existence of one prevailing paradigm narrows the choices that are even possible. The broader point (and you can take it beyond real estate to any time people make micro-choices under a larger system) is that the accumulation of small choices, like pasta or chicken for dinner, do not always build a system that actually reflects people’s larger preferences, as the larger system already in place creates the context in which those choices are made. And what about the future versus the present? How often have you done a big purchase and thought afterwards “I really didn’t need that…” Or wished that you had paid a little more for something that would have lasted? Or not even had the option because “that’s how things are these days?”
Technological innovation will solve any problem via market incentives, and whatever isn’t solved will be brought into balance via those prices anyway
I hear this a lot when having conversations about environmentalism with some of my friends. People often point to all of the Malthusians of one stripe or another who have continually been proven gloriously wrong by the progress of technology and that when there really is a problem, new operations and discoveries will respond to the resulting high prices and save the day. On the technological progress bit, the time period people talk about is stunningly short, and most of those breakthroughs, particularly over the past hundred years, have been various forms of figuring out how to throw oil at more and more problems. Additionally, the scale of our operations is growing hard to fathom, particularly when taking the exponential pace of population and economic growth into account. On the energy side, it’s near impossible—a hilarious (and insightful) physicist noted over on this blog http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/can-economic-growth-last/ that if energy use grew at the same pace for the next two-hundred years as it did over the past two hundred, everyone’s skin would literally melt off, not from global warming, but simply from the implied energy released at any given time. Then there’s the inter-linked nature of the problems—there’s energy, but there’s also the fungal blooms swallowing the oceans from fertilizer run-off, the garbage piling ever higher, diseases becoming increasingly resilient to the antibiotics we have overused, flat-lining food yields requiring more complex chemicals to stay ahead of the new pests, and dwindling supplies of just about everything we think of as supporting a modern life styles (and that’s not even touching climate change). The point is, every system has certain constraints, and while they can be pushed, the act of pushing those constraints themselves comes with consequences, while improving efficiency can only go so far. With changes that threaten entire life-support structures, rather than individual problems, it asks a lot of faith (of the frankly religious variety) to believe that technology will wipe them away, and more than that to believe that they will enable every person in China or India to live like an American (or even a middle-class Brazilian). And what of the argument that it’s not worth worrying about, because when and if scarcities do occur, prices will regulate them? Well, I guess in some sense, yes, prices would regulate who gets what, though that’s really just a tautology, as under the current system the alternative is war. And what does that really mean? That the people who became wealthy off of the system that caused the shortages and problems are the ones that get to escape the eventual consequences? Most of all, why do we want to catapult ourselves at that kind of world? I understand that the future is always unknowable, but is a little thoughtfulness about how we treat the world around us, the only world we’ve ever known and that we took millions of years to evolve to suit, so much to ask? It seems much easier to avoid spilling the milk than putting it back in the glass. There are many more assumptions underlying our modern world, particularly around the nasty, selfish creatures we all are and the hopelessness of it all, but this post is already far too long, and I want to get to the happy bit!
Are there any better ways to think about things, and by extension, to live?
This is what we’re trying to figure out. But many of the big ideas we’re thinking about focus on taking a broader view of our lives and the lives of others in both place and time. We want to visualize ourselves not as consumer-units floating in a sea of competitors, snapping out for the easiest way to fulfill our immediate need, but as participants in a community, one that encompasses both the other people and living things around us and the unbroken chain of such life extending into the unknowable future. And we’re off!
If you’re interested in reading on, the follow-up to this post is now available: here