Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Gaia Shrugged


In the previous post we looked at rabid individualism gone very wrong.  The poster-child representation of selfishness and greed is found in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  In the philosophy behind that book we saw a system of self-serving values that is at the heart of the national debate about the economy, and one that has undermined it.  But out of this we mined the gem of human purposefulness.  We saw a calculated, self-serving, ruthlessness.  But out of that we pulled a nugget of collaboration.

In this post I address the fundamental question of human values:  the choice between right and wrong.  Specifically, is our purpose purely personal, that is, selfish, or is our purpose in life related to the success of the human species as a whole?

Human Evolution
We are experiencing what many consider a great evolutionary moment in history.  For the pro-growth crowd this is “progress,” the latest advances of the industrial/technical revolution.  Indeed technology has pushed us into a whole new framework of living.  But is it right?  There are also the metaphysicians who think the way out is an evolution in human consciousness.  There are dozens of such models going around.  Are any of them right?  By “right” I mean simply, what model of life will allow us to live like human beings?

I will argue that what we are experiencing is not an evolutionary transformation at all; merely another epoch in human history.  There have, in fact, been only two verified evolutionary jumps in human history.  The first was the emergence of modern humans, self-aware, language using people who would be interchangeable with ourselves; who if born into our time would simply be one of us.  This was nature’s doing.  It happened, more or less, about 200,000 years ago.

The second is agriculture.  By learning to raise food and settle into villages and towns we created a profound evolution in not only how we live but also how we think.  We did this ourselves.  That was about 10,000 years ago.

The industrial revolution is also called an evolutionary step.  In might be, it could be; but the jury is still out because it isn’t clear we are going to survive this experiment in social organization and the way we modify our consciousness. 

The great wave of change today makes us feel like we are on the edge of an evolutionary event.  Leading thinkers have been talking about that for several decades.  It does indeed appear that we are in fact, at this juncture of history, teetering on the edge of an abyss.  I believe that it is not so much due to the scientific – industrial society we have created, which is more an effect than a cause, but that we have separated ourselves from the world, from the biosphere which gave us birth and discarded our legacy as a living species; indeed, our very humanity.  

That separation is something that actually started happening thousands of years ago but was formalized about the time of the Greeks: the time of Plato and Aristotle – and for that matter, over the course of barely a century, across the entire span of what we called the ancient world.  Karl Jaspers called it the “Axis” in human history.  He thought it was a good thing.  I call it the Platonic Fallacy:  the formal split between mind and body, between self and world.  I see it as a very mixed turn of events.

A new manifestation of this split, formulated during The Enlightenment, characterized by Descartes and Newton, has taken root in these modern days.  Let’s call it the scientific method.  It is a powerful system of thinking.  It created the technical and industrial revolution.  It mobilized a wave of innovation from printing to the atomic bomb to the iPad.  Today, however, this way of thinking is the wedge between our world and us; a wedge characterized by a mechanistic, urban, industrial culture.  That logic, that way of thinking, is the smoking gun. 

We have failed to learn to live with this new industrial culture and that may be because it is “unnatural.”  We can describe the effects of that wedge, in part, in terms of the transformation, or more accurately, the eradication of an agrarian culture that had dominated human life for millennia, a way of life we found natural, comfortable and prosperous. 

Agrarian Culture
America was founded as an agrarian culture.  Jefferson is famous for trying to describe it in ideal terms but farmers in New England, on the prairies and in every corner of our continent, actually lived the American agrarian culture.  A Frenchman traveling in American, Alexis DeTocqueville, did a great job of describing it in the 1830s.  His contemporaries, Emerson, Thoreau and friends, gave this American agrarian era another hopeful voice (while already well aware of the toxic evolution of the just emerging machine culture of the day.)

Our present malaise is not about trade and commerce as a human institution.  There has, throughout human history, always been trade and commerce.  It is a fundamental feature of healthy societies.  Viable agrarian societies always maintain a class of artisans, craft workers and businessmen and women.  They were about one in ten of the workforce.  Agriculture was the other ninety percent.  One of the best examples of this non-agrarian class is Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, a highly successful businessman.  He made a fortune.  He used it to pay the cost of his public service, his scientific experiments and his invention.  He gave away the patents rights.  He retired early to serve his people, the American colonist, even at the risk of his own life. 

In Franklin’s day trade and commerce was mostly on a personal scale.  It was small-scaled.  The problem today is the scale of our global economy and the emphasis on consumption verses production.  The problem is not “business” or “government” but BIG.  It is also about a vice that has always been with us:  Greed.

Alexander Hamilton, an early student of Adam Smith, First President George Washington’s Secretary of Treasury, wanted to create a wealthy business aristocracy.  Hamilton, by the way, despised democracy.   His side, called the Federalist, carried the day.  Business and industry thrived in this new nation but it did manage to stay a democracy, of sorts.  As industry grew, our agrarian culture fought a loosing battle, finally succumbing to the inevitable just a couple of generations ago.  Agriculture too is now an industry.  It is part of the global trading network.

On the balance we see our history of commerce as a positive one.  Ruthless industrial barons they might have been but they helped create an abundant society and at some point in their lives many committed their vast fortunes to the betterment of society.  Some still do so.  In Rand’s day, the real champions of business and industry were all about the American way of life:  patriots and leaders.  Like Franklin, they were the creators and owners of small business.  They were not bent on destroying the society that gave them wealth and prestige.  That was before the rise of the corporations.

One of our biggest problems is that the global financial ledger is out of balance.  There are costs of doing business that are not on the balance sheets.  We do not treat nature, the place we get our resources, as an asset, nor count the cost of its exploitation.  Then, as now, industry had no concern for nature.  Then as now, nature was seen as savage, hostile, to be conquered.  The effects then had not become as egregious as they are today.  We can no longer write off those cost of doing business.

Ironically, as the impact of industrial pollution mounted, it was conservatives who acted to clean up air and water, to save the ozone and to clear our cities of smog.  But those were, in retrospect, token efforts and more recently, special interests have worked successfully to pull the teeth of those laws.  Most importantly, the effects of environmental exploitation have been cumulative and now we have a systematic breakdown of the world’s environment, the iconic image of which is global warming.  It is perhaps primarily coincidental that we experiencing a breakdown of the economy but I think they have different causative stories.  More on that another time.

If we don’t stop our assault on the environment, Gaia may shrug and divest herself of the burden of one more failed species (999 out of every 1,000 are extinct).  But as nature itself came to consciousness with the emergence of our species, giving us the power to perceive and choose, we hold our fate in our own hands.  We have to choose to just keep on doing what we have been and pay the price or do something very different.

Self-abortion 

Rand was a novelist turned philosopher.  She was evidently a genius.  Her works deserve no less thoughtful study than other great thinkers.  Her influence is on the rise today.  Her political influence is increasing.  She is an increasingly visible part of the 2012 political campaign.   Atlas Shrugged is a bestseller.  We need to understand why this is.  We need to understand why this book, as one critic said, devoid of goodness, has mobilized the passion of so many.  We need to find an alternative.  We need to create a clear and purposeful vision of our future that is consistent with the best in us, not the worst.

Rand adopted a philosophy first formalized by the Greeks that separates mind from body.  This is objectivism at its source.  It separates us from nature, indeed makes us an adversary of nature.  It is the Platonic fallacy:  Plato’s legacy marks the formal division and separation of mind and body.  Plato’s student Aristotle created a system of formal logic:  Thesis A and Thesis B logically result in Conclusion C.  This is called the syllogism.  It is a powerful system but it has aided and abetted the process of successively wedging us from nature.  It is the type of thinking that created science, which is found in Descartes and other rationalistic Enlightenment philosopher, of whom Rand was a modern proponent, and which, by reductionism and partition, irrepressibly divides reality into narrow, unconnected specializations.  We have thus lost the basic sense of wholeness that is part of our human essence.

In effect we have aborted ourselves from Mother Nature.  By separating ourselves from nurture, by poisoning the nest, we have jeopardized our own well-being, if not survival.

John Galt was a man of Purpose.  He saw his world irreparably flawed.  He knew he couldn’t fix it, that it must fail.  Like the Communist Rand hated, he set about to accelerate and insure that failure.  He didn’t raise arms but he left a starving, suffering, dying world in his wake nonetheless.  The enemies of the good society today are by comparison mindless.  They just want money.  They don’t want the economy to fail but like barbarian hordes of old they are plundering and pillaging for their own gain without regard to consequences.

People in the sustainability movement would do anything to stave off the collapse of civilization.  They don’t want revolution, conflict and violence of any type.  Hope is eternal.  We can see this in the recently concluded Rio+20 conference at which a resolution was adopted to not only sustain the world’s growing population, projected to reach nine billion by 2050, but to lift them from poverty.  It is a humanitarian goal (albeit tightly bound in hundreds of pages of governmentese).  There is a lot of optimism in such a vision.  But is it realistic?  We have, in fact, lost considerable ground since the first Rio Summit twenty years ago.   We need a vastly sharper clarity of Purpose if we are to change the course of history.

It is in the nature of civilizations to collapse.  Civilizations, like all living things, have a lifecycle.  They grow old and loose the power of life; they loose the capacity to retain organization; they become unhealthy.  For us today, as for many earlier failed civilizations, the collapse is clearly economic.  We have pushed the margins of economic growth to the limits of the carrying capacity of the planet.  Far worse we have vastly aggravated the problem by creating a substantial change in our climate.  Yes, climate changes occurred in the course of geological time but this time it is something a living species has caused by deliberate action.  The effects of climate change, however, are secondary to the potential collapse of the economy.  It will take decades for the full effect of climate change to be felt.  The instability of the global economy is a real and present threat.  It is happening now.  The effects of climate change on our civilization will be, in a word, anti-climatic.

Gaia is no damsel in distress.  She has survived for four billon years.  We read of the five great extinctions.  They were things that happened only in the last 500 million years.  They were things that happened to higher forms of life, life after it had emerged from the sea.  There were many others.  Gaia prevailed.  Now we have what looks like a sixth great extinction.  The question is will we prevail?

A Naturally Purposeful System

The rationalists, like Rand, see no purpose in nature.  To the rationalists nature is just one accident after another, merely chance.  But there seems to be something of inevitability about life.  Scientists believe that anywhere water exists in a liquid state for long enough life will appear.  We just landed a new robotic explorer, Curiosity, on Mars to test this theory.  (That project itself is a powerful expression of human purposefulness if perhaps on the wrong planet.)  Life first appeared as single-celled organisms, simple things.  If even one of them survives it will reproduce and fill the seas again.

Gaia (the name of a mythical goddess of old) is the biosphere.  The biosphere is a thin film of living material that covers the Earth.  It occupies a volume equivalent to the layer of moisture that would be deposited if you exhaled on a bowling ball.  The biosphere has modified the Earth in successive stages.  For example, it created an oxygen atmosphere.  Maybe evolution is without purpose but life has evolved:  It has become increasingly complex.  Simple organisms formed muti-cellular bodies, sensory organs and a nervous system.  Eventually a highly complex nervous system emerged that became self-aware.  We are that evolutionary stage.  As a result we are as distinct among living things as living things are in the realm of matter.

We have no clue how this happened.  We can only marvel at it.  But that is exactly what we do:  we marvel.  Rationalists say this is all accidental but some scientist have said that the chance of life appearing at all, let alone as soon as it did after the seas were formed, is like a tornado going through a junk yard and assembling a functional machine.  But even an airliner or supercomputer is nothing compared to the complexity and wonder of a single-celled organism.

We may never know, by scientific standards, if nature is purposeful, if there is a grand design, a God.  But we did invent the idea of purpose, of meaning, of will, of enterprise.  Human purposefulness fully emerged with the appearance of agrarian society.  There was no neurological difference between our ancestors who settled into agrarian life some 10,000 years ago and those who lived before them for at least 200,000 years.  Settling on the land compelled us to consider how the world works, how to use the cycle of seasons to produce crops, how to domesticate animals, how to form more complex social organizations.  It made us incredibly inventive.  These early agrarians people gave us writing.  They gave us civilization.  They created the world of ideas we have built the modern age out of.

“Homo Sapiens” means “wise man,” or “knowing man.”  I think it is the wrong description.  Human beings are not just knowing; we seek to know in order to solved problems and to achieve goals.  Knowledge is not an end in itself.  We use it purposefully.  We are adaptive.  We have an instinct not only for survival, like all living things, but for achievement.  We admire business because it is purposeful, because it is about achievement. We also commemorate warfare for much the same reason. Once we respected politics for the same reason:  the purposeful advancement of society.  Increasingly we are seeing life as purposeless.  We have lost our sense of control over the course of events.

We have a fundamental belief that achievement is personal.  It takes an individual to have purpose.  It takes a number of purposeful individuals to make an organization that works, that not only survives but also achieves goals, visions, dreams, ideals.  This is not, I will argue, “evolution.”  It doesn’t change our capacity to achieve.  It doesn’t change our neurology or our physiology.  It doesn’t change who or what we are.  It is not, therefore, “evolutionary.”  It is just the way we go about life.  Seeing life in these terms helps to keep us focused on the moment.

Purpose, then, is arbitrary.  It is anything we want it to be.  It can be in the realm of imagination as well as in the world in which we live.  And that is an important distinction, a very important distinction.  Achievement exists only in the world, only within the realm of the laws of nature and life, only within the context of interaction with other human beings.

We have been conditioned by over two millennia of western philosophy to dwell in the imagination, to put reality outside the world.  That has taken the form of the overpowering individualism of this age, not a healthy individualism but a profound pathology, an awful alienation, isolation from the world and from intimate interaction with other human beings.  It has given us Ayn Rands, John Galts, today manifest as legal entities called corporations, and the emerging world of the twenty-first century.

We carry a burden we have inherited from a hundred generations.  That burden is our separation from nature, from life, and from our self.  It is time to shrug

There is a road back.  It starts with the realization that we need to confront this crisis in history, in the life of our species.  It means that we must achieve a clarity of vision about our life in this world, in the here and now.  It means that we must understand ourselves as a part of nature, of the biosphere, a product of it.  It means that we must understand the very special nature of this thing we call consciousness and the vital force that drives the unfolding script on this page, language.  It means that we must get back to basics and for us that is an agrarian culture, an agrarian community.  It does not mean we discard all we have learned but like a team that is failing, we need to work on the fundamentals of our game.

That is the purpose, the mission and meaning of Transition Centre and the New School of Living.  We have a problem and we are going to solve it.  The vast collective genius that is the human condition got us here.  Einstein, one of our greatest recent thinkers, knew that we would have to think our way out of this mess, and that we must think more clearly than before.  That does not mean coming up with something all new and different.  It may rather mean doing a reality check on the way we live and falling back on things that work. 

It is not about abandoning science and technology.  We owe much to what we have learned in our deep penetration of the way our universe works.  We have created important advances in medicine and built engineering marvels.  The digital age has given us the potential to extend our senses, enhanced communications, memory and thinking power.    Yet even in this great arena of human advancement we see distortions, imbalances and application of human knowledge for very inhumane purposes.  Knowledge is no longer power; it is greed.  We use what we have learned not for human advancement but to make money.  We restrict access to knowledge for the benefit of profit.  We distort the best features of this advanced understanding for reasons other than the well-being of the human race.

No, rather it is about reassessing what we call culture, putting our existence into perspective, choosing whether we live for ourselves alone or for principle.  The principle in question is the human condition; it is about the nature of that spark of intelligence behind the eyes that are reading these words.  That is, in fact what we do.  At least that is what we do when we feel the necessity.  Many are feeling the anxiety.  We need to put that into words.  We need to probe and question.  We need to reexamine our underlying assumptions.  We need to check the list and see what has worked and, I strongly argue, we need to discard what seems not to work and go back to those basics we know give us a sense of meaning, security and purpose in life.  We need to reconnect to nature, to life, to soil and our food, and to our human community.

As this blog site unfolds this is exactly what we will do.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Who was John Galt?


I ran across a notice that Part II of the movie version of Atlas Shrugged will appear in theaters this Fall (2012).  I heard Part I had been a box-office bust.  It made me curious.  So I got a copy of Part I from my local library and as you see, this flight of fantasy has given me pause for thought. 

Atlas Shrugged is by the late Ayn Rand, an arch-conservative Russian-American author most of us are probably at least passingly familiar with.  I’ve read Rand, including both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, and I find her writings both attractive and repelling.  I am an environmentalists, a sustainability advocate and communitarian and those are things she didn’t like.   I am also a planner, manager and have a fair share of business experience – things she did like.  What troubles me about Atlas Shrugged the most is that it doesn’t totally offend me.  There is something haunting about it.  Part of that is that I find Rand’s ideas both based on sound philosophical principles and profoundly warped.  Her stories, however, have a strange resonance with our day, 55 years after she first published Atlas Shrugged.

Atlas was a mythological man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.  Ayn Rand decided that the Atlases of her day, the champions of capitalistic democracy, were indeed carrying the weight of the world.  It was they who, in her words, “moved the world.”  But the masses, living comfortable, took their labors for granted and the socialist/communist wanted the able to carry those masses whether they wanted to work or not.  In her novel, that has sold approaching eight million English language copies (and millions of them on the used book market), she tells Atlas to shrug, to drop the weight of an unappreciative world.  In this book Atlas takes the name of John Galt.

Rand fully expected a John Galt to appear; that her novel was prophecy.  Rand’s disciples, however, seem to have turned her thesis on its head.  They are, today, pro-business, just out to make a lot of money, and not revolutionaries trying to bring the world down.  Nonetheless, it is exactly these people who have brought the world to its knees.  What I intend to do in this article is to turn her theories inside out:  It is time for us, and as I will explain, Mother Nature, sometimes named Gaia, to shrug off the burden of mindless commercialism and consumption, to put our house, our ekios (home/economy) back in order.  As Rand did clearly foresee, before a new order can come into existence, the old must pass.  It just didn’t happen the way she intended, there is no John Galt, and it is up to us, roughly defined as the sustainability movement, to learn how to put our world back together.

Who Was John Galt?

John Galt was a character invented by Ayn Rand for the 1,100 page novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957).  The iconic line of the novel, “Who is John Galt?,” was the response down and out people gave as the answer for their distress.  The name became the symbol of despair in a economy sunk to depression levels, a society of hopeless and homeless people.  There were no answers to the problems of the world.  It was about quitting, giving up.  But a select elite of business characters, symbolized by Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, could not do that.  They fought to save their businesses even as John Galt undermined the economy.  Galt did this by persuading the leaders of society, the achievers, to go on strike, to abandon their businesses and homes; to suddenly drop from sight.  But for the aim of making a story, Dagny and Hank are left out in the world to the bitter end, as clueless as everyone else about John Galt, or even that he really existed.

John Galt was a genius who invented an energy device that would have provided cheap and abundant electricity, pollution free, forever.  The workers of the company he worked for decided to form a collectivist union, a growing national trend (remember, this was the 1950s, Red Scare days).  Those who didn’t want to work insisted those who could, the able, support them.  John Galt walked out.  His parting word was that he would shut down the motor of the world. 

Ayn Rand died in 1982, at the start of the Reagan economic era.  It wasn’t until a half century after the novel that her prediction has seemingly started to come true with the Great Recession of 2008 and the faltering “recovery. “ As she predicted, the leadership of the great businesses of the world did slow the motor of the world.  Not as Galt and his friends did, not intentionally, but mindlessly; consumed by greed that drained the world of wealth and productivity. 

Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve and a one time Ayn Rand associate and devotee, was stunned by this course of events.  In October 2008, testifying before Congress, he said: 

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”

Yes, he clearly misread Rand.  Greenspan thought the leaders of industry and commerce around the world would work for wealth and that the world would benefit.  He did not, is seems, approve of Rand’s revolt.  Obviously he missed something.

How popular are Rand’s ideas today?  Atlas Shrugged is selling close to 400,000 copies a year.  It’s not in the Harry Potter league but close enough.  It has a different agenda.  It does have an agenda, a political objective. 

Atlas Shrugged is a very hard book to read.  Perhaps that is why it took so long to make it into a movie.  In 2011 a movie version, part one of three parts, was released.  It was a box office bust.  Supporters, Rand disciples, raised the money for part 2, to be released October 2012, on the eve of Presidential elections.  Just coincidence sponsors say.  Maybe so: An Ayn Rand Institute leader described Mitt Romney, business leader in real life, “empty;” a man without leadership value and one who would not be a crisis leader.  The movie does appeal to Tea Party followers.

The John Galt, character, embodies Rand’s personal philosophy, something she worked on for many years.  He (she) is an objectivist, a hard-headed, and as it turns out, a hard-hearted, philosopher.  Galt is one of three young students mentored by a philosopher who shaped their revolt:  Hugh Akston: “One of the last great advocates of reason.”  The other two great anti-heroes of the novel are his college friends Francisco d’Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjold.  Francisco and Dagny, it turns out, had once been childhood friends and later lovers. 

The philosophy, Rand later named it, is called Objectivism.  It is a cold, hard, unemotional thinking that celebrates self-interest above all virtues, indeed, the “art of selfishness.”  In this philosophy there can be no logical contradictions.  If there is a contradiction, one of the premises must be wrong.  The premise that is never challenged is self-interest.  She wrote and spoke extensively about this philosophy, appeared on a number of network talk shows, and had a following of students who later set up the Ayn Rand Institute that prospers to this day.  Greenspan is but one of a number of prominent men and women who champion Rand’s ultraconservative politics.

Ironically, Galt is a cold, ruthless intellect not unlike Rand’s hated Joseph Stalin.  Rand grew up in Stalin’s Russia.  Like Stalin, there is no flamboyance in Galt, no Hitlerian histrionics.  To give her credit, Galt is not the bloody-handed tyrant Stalin was.  His weapon is reason, a cold, intense will to create, or to destroy, that which he sees hindering his own life and the lives of those who he believes actually make society work, the business leaders.   The late arch-conservative William Buckley, and Buckley knew Rand, once commented that Atlas Shrugged is a book without a hint of goodness.  After Buckley published a downbeat review of Atlas Shrugged (not his own) Rand refused to attend parties at which he was a guest.  Odd behavior for one whose characters have no lack of ability to confront adversaries.  But then Rand’s realm was fantasy.  We will review the world of fantasy in an upcoming blog, a psychology that speaks to our world today and one reason it is failing.

Atlas Fainted

Today we see a world coming apart at the seams not because of deliberate manipulation of business revolutionaries but as a result of decades of pro-business policy and deregulation that have failed.  The true beneficiaries of “welfare,” have actually been businesses:  tax breaks, incentives, massive government spending, and now bailouts, a rising trend of them in Europe.  The “free market” is myth.

Rand’s entrepreneurial heroes were self-made men and women, Horatio Alger types who became rich by dent of hard work.  They created businesses and they ran them.  They were the American Dream.  We still have such types in the likes of Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs and an army of mostly high-tech entrepreneurs.  They are the One Percent and there are a lot of them.  There are more than 300,000 US citizens in the One Percent, some 400 of them billionaries.  In fairness most of them are not sociopaths.  A lot of their fortunes go to human welfare.  But this is also the era of the notorious, overpaid, CEOs of failing firms, living off assets and public bailouts.  No, what we have today is by no stretch of the imagination a free market.  It is also not an environment of opportunity and hard work and success, the American Dream.

This is an era of financial institutions that derive huge profits from highly questionable products.  These institutions produce well over one-third of US corporate profits.  They produce nothing tangible.  They are classed as part of the service sector of the economy but increasingly are in a sector of their own, serving only their own interests. 

Investments have become a financial enterprise in its own right.  Financial markets are places where hedge funds and futures commodities are traded.  Whether or not concrete capital and corporate profits are created from “investments” or not is secondary to repeated transfer of money, real or imaginary, and with each transfer the collection of a fee.  These financial products are in fact in imaginary dollars or Euros.  The fees are real money. These are not the products of achievers, of men and women of drive and ability.  They are not the production of wealth but rather the harvesting of wealth.

This model allows manufacturing plants to be built and promptly closed, newly hired employees release and assets sold for a fraction of what they cost.  These closed plants are built with guaranteed loans, local and state tax breaks, land acquires for a pittance and any number of other incentives.  After they are closed, and assets liquidated, what remains can be acquired for as little as five cents on the dollar of original investments – well under market value of land, buildings and equipment.  Taxpayers eat the guaranteed loans.

Business leaders like to complain about high tax rates.  Fact is the incentives we provide businesses in the form of tax breaks cost us far more than taxes in other, high-tax, countries, said conservative journalist David Brooks.  We are, when the books are truly balanced, one of the world’s leading welfare states.  In our case the corporations are the primary beneficiaries. 

The conservative chant, a platform of cutting public spending, is a measure of foolish ignorance.  Reduced spending has already taken a toll on both the economy and corporate bottom lines.  Our tax dollars, government spending, is on the order of one-quarter of our GDP.  Cutting public spending has a negative impact on the GDP, on growth.  And that is a job killer.  While I do not advocate maintaining the US economy on the backs of working people, taxpayers, the mindless, ideological dismantling of the Golden Goose will only accelerate the end of this system.  There is an alternative.

Paradoxically, we have a fanatical conservative tribe that wants more of the same toxic mix that has brought the world’s economy to a faltering stagger.  But on the balance, we don’t seem to have a viable political option.  Like the government in Atlas Shrugged, what we have today is something that many people hold in scorn.

Prevailing policies and practices are what slows the motor of the world.  And we should mention the fuel that runs the real motors, oil, coal and gas.  We are running out of these fuels, have already burned the cheapest, easiest to extract.  The cost of oil has skyrocketed over the last decade.  Only recession slows the rising cost of energy but not by much.  We are also running up an environmental cost that is not found on the financial statements, a cost that is either assumed by public programs (now facing budget cuts), by corporate welfare, or increasingly put on the ledger for the future, a future that is no longer that of our children but much more immediate.

This is not a rant against business or capitalism or government, merely a reflection. Things are, as Rand suggested, just what they are:  A = A.  I believe the free market is a good idea that ought to be tried. 

All good things have a dark side.  Our Eastern cousins understand this.  Our life is gained by the sweat of our brow.  Nature is not altruistic, or for that matter forgiving.  We survive only when we produce at least as much as we consume (profit).  We should learn from that.  Business and trade are part of human social organization.  They work best when they work organically, without regulation or manipulation, and on a scale where the people involved understanding the value of goods and services they trade.

Human society, be it family, village or other social organization, is inherently messy; always has been.  Rocks are hard, water is wet, human nature is faulty.  History is largely the story of how we adapted when things went wrong.  And things go wrong on a regular basis.  There is nothing special about the crises of today except its scale, a global-sized, all eggs in one basket, scale.  We are at our best when things are toughest.  This is a tough time, a time to rise to the occasion as hundreds of generations of our forbearers have done so valiantly.

One of Rand’s premises, at least, was wrong.  She was wrong about human motivation, human nature.  Ayn Rand was a troubled individual:  Brilliant but warped.  But as there is a dark shadow were the light doesn’t reach, there is also light in the darkness.  As American philosopher Ken Wilber (who we will meet by and by) said, and Wilber read hundreds of them, no author is every completely wrong. 

Rand evokes a love-hate response in many of us.  We are troubled by her cold, ruthless disregard for human well-being but we are attracted to her characters, to Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggert and Eddie Willer and even her anti-heroes Galt and his friend the debonair Latin aristocrat, Francisco d’Anconia (we don’t see much of Ragnar). 

The 2011 movie provided better characterizations of Hank and Dagny than Rand did (but new actors in these roles in Part II).  Hank and Dagny, like us, are caught in the rising storm of social disorder, struggling to hold their ground, determined to do or die, living up to the standards that made them the business leaders they are.  There is a profound element of the American myth in these characters that we are drawn too.  Hank and Dagny are not the enemies of the world, not trying to take it down, indeed quite the opposite, but they are caught between two classes of predators, both equally ruthless.  Their motives may be selfish but their companies support their society in a very real way.  They are driven in part by the awareness that if their businesses fail, it will cause terrible suffering across the country.

I need to add that most people these days have no idea of what is going on, either in life or literature.  We live in a fantasy world and increasingly so in this digital age.  Rand and her characters, in contrast, lived in a different time, in a more concrete world, one that has gone the way of history.  Reagan lamented its passing, Mainstreet America, but he did much to create the current train wreck of an economy. 

We then lived in the here and now.  Local business leaders were respected; they worked to make their communities prosper.  That world, just a half-century ago, was one that could still be encompassed by the imagination.  There was a sense of order.  There was a threat you could point your finger at, a real enemy.  That is not true today. 

On the movie DVD is an extra labeled “I am John Galt!”  A large number of people were invited to chant this line.  Not!  This is the fantasy world.  A few of them might but most of them do not have control of their own lives, let alone hands on the levers of the engine of the world.  In reality they are victims looking for an ideology of self-justification.

Perhaps the most important lesson we glean from the Rand epic is determination, purposefulness, a will to survive, to self-actualize, to be beholding to none, to be, in Emerson’s words, Self-Reliant.  These are virtues that ring true.

The motor of the world is slowing.  There is no John Galt causing it and there is no John Galt living with talented friends in a valley in Colorado waiting for the time to come out of hiding and build a new human renaissance.  We are at the tail-end of a cycle of history, a down cycle, one brought down in large part by a dysfunctional economy, that is disconnected from society, that serves its own ends and has increasingly little in common with the real world we live in.  Ditto the political system.

In another deep irony, Galt’s hidden community is a self-sufficient one.  People there work and work hard; they produce.  They are united by common values, by a common purpose.  They are free, independent and prospering.  These are values Jefferson would have approved of.  But even in his day the minions of the Free Market and industrialization, were coming to maturity.  The John Galt of his day was named Alexander Hamilton.

In the next installment, “Gaia Shrugged,” we will take up how we can capitalize on the changes in our world; how we can adapt to those changes and by doing so create a human-scaled life.  That is the mission of the New School of Living.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

About the New School of Living


The New School of Living is a project to create a life-long learning institute to support self-reliant, sustainable communities.

The NSoL program is founded on the educational principles of back-to-the-land pioneer Ralph Borsodi.  Borsodi founded the first school of living during the Great Depression.  Those were times of severe economic and social distress; much as we are again experiencing in the US and around the world today.

A thriving community requires an educational enterprise designed to facilitate the transfer of knowledge, skills and psychological preparation (motivation and attitude) necessary to develop and maintain a sustainable economy and community.

The primary goal of the New School of Living is to develop the human resources necessary for forming a viable local economy and community.  By viable we mean a local economy that is self-sustaining.  By self-sustaining we mean that the local economy provides for increasingly larger shares of the community’s needs for material, energy and information.  The goal is to prepare homesteaders to achieve a degree of self-reliance and to form communities of such economically independent families into a viable community.

This approach drives a strong local economy that creates wealth through productive enterprises such as high quality local foods, local manufacturing and local services.  The local economy re-circulates wealth as investment capital to drive a rising spiral of local economic growth and security.  

By sustainable we stipulate that the community has a plan in place to understand what its needs are, how those needs are met, where resources come from and how sustainable these sources are, what resources it consumes and how it does so, what waste products are produced and how they are progressively eliminated, and what products and services are created that can be exchange with other communities.

Such communities are human scaled:  they represent a scope of involvement with the world that is meaningful, manageable and provides a sense of place, of home, where people want to live, raise their families and leave a lasting legacy.

The New School of Living is intended as a catalyst of the local economy.  As such it becomes one of if not the central institution of the local community.  Like the community it supports, it is self-sustaining, earning what it needs to sustain its own activities, beholding to none but its own community.

The New School of Living project is supported by Transition Centre.  The core objective of TC is to form the first NSoL, to create its curriculum, learning materials, a library, print and digital publishing, conduct research and develop a viable architecture of a sustainable community, build a pilot community, expand that pilot into a viable village environment, train people to set up their own communities and provide the resources for them to establish their own programs.  

Each of these communities, it should be noted, will be independent and self-determining.

A brief account of how the New School of Living began.

Ralph Borsodi was a successful New York City financial consultant and advisor.  During the 1920s he moved his family to a homestead near the city where they worked to meet their basic needs.  His book, Flight from the City (available for download on most e-book readers), gained him recognition as a founder of the back-to-the-land movement.  As a response to growing economic uncertain, after working to create a public homesteading project near Dayton, Ohio during the Great Depression, Borsodi established several homesteading communities built around a learning institute he planned to provide the knowledge and skills necessary for unemployed city dwellers to meet many of their own needs on a few acres of land.

Borsodi established a university in Florida, worked with Ghandian activists in India devoted to developing local economies and wrote four books about education and living.  He was honored for his work with a doctorate from the University of New Hampshire where his papers are now archived.  The School of Living has continued to the present as a not-for-profit land trust organization.  Borsodi’s books went out of print (now being restored).  The learning institute model was largely abandoned and is now also being restored.

Borsodi coined (and Schumacher borrowed) the term appropriate technology.  The New SoL format is entirely capable of embracing both traditional and emerging technology, of working with local colleges and universities, the business community and other institutions necessary to form a stronger local economic system.  Reinvestment of local wealth insures the formation of other enterprises to produce goods, provide services and create revenues for public services.  In that regard, Borsodi also developed and got approval from the U. S. Department of Treasury for the first US local currency.

The School of Living is a life-long learning program to promote general education, a model that consults the collective wisdom of the human race, preparation of citizens who are well informed participants in local democracy, formation of strong character, promotion of a strong culture and development of local institutions that are capable both of sustaining the community and adapting to inevitable change and challenges.

New School of Living goals.

The New School of Living proposes:
1.      To establish a learning institute to provide the knowledge, skills and preparation to support establishment of small agricultural enterprises and their supporting infrastructure.
2.      Create an experimental farm enterprise to house and support the NSoL.
3.      Develop and deliver an experiential curriculum to train small agricultural business owners to sustainably produce food, manage assets, develop businesses and participate in local self-governance.
4.      Support a land trust management model for the acquisition and development of homesteading properties and acquire new land for sustainable community development.
5.      Extend the curriculum to include supply and distribution chain components of the local food enterprise model.
6.      Promote financial models for development of local, sustainable small businesses.
7.      Achieve the object of producing ten percent of food consumed locally as an initial objective.
8.      Work with small distressed cities to establish a foundation for viable local, sustainable economies.
9.      Provide leadership training and development for sustainable community developers.
10.  Provide for ongoing general education of the community.