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.


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.