Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Money Makes the World Go Around

I’m reading David Montgomery’s excellent “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” and it blows me away. The message is painfully simple; abuse your soil and you die. No civilization can survive depleted soil, yet almost all seem driven by growth to deplete theirs. Here are some quotes relevant to modern times:

“half a million square miles of West African forest were cleared in under a century.”

“Soil erosion rates in sub-Saharan Africa increased twentyfold in the past thirty years.”

“More than a tenth of Earth’s land area is desertifying—about a third of the planet’s dry lands.”

“In addition, the 1972 Russian grain purchase encouraged U.S. farmers to plow up marginal land, undermining decades of soil conservation efforts.”

“The 1977 Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act required the USDA to conduct an intensive appraisal of the nation’s soil. Four years in the making, the 1981 report concluded that American soil still eroded at [an] alarming rate more than four decades after the Dust Bowl. In the 1970s the nation lost four billion tons of soil each year—a billion tons a year more than in the 1930s.”

“Recent USDA estimates show soil erosion from U.S. cropland as dropping from about three billions tons in 1982 to just under two billion tons in 2001, substantial progress to be sure—but still far ahead of soil production.”

“In the mid-1990s, David Pimentel’s research group at Cornell University estimated the economic costs of soil erosion and the potential economic benefits of soil conservation measures. [snip] They estimated that undoing damage caused by soil erosion would cost the United States $44 billion a year, and about $400 billion a year worldwide, more than $70 per person on the planet—higher than the annual income for most people.”

The last quote really gets me. Aside from throwing into sharp and sickening relief the amounts of money tossed about to save the financial system that, arguably, is destroying itself by soil (and other reckless) abuse, what most stuns me is that we need to look at dollar values at all. What sort of a mindset are we trapped in that we need to justify conserving soil from a dollar perspective?

The deeper story is one of failing to be wise even while in possession of the skill and knowledge necessary to be so. We have known for millennia how to conserve soil (the Chinese and Japanese (and others) do a great job of it in their paddy fields), and yet we somehow manage to overlook sustainability, to demote its importance, or wilfully ignore it. Money makes the world go around, right? GDP growth matters above all else.

And while we destroy the ecosystems that gave rise to and sustain us, the thing our culture prizes above all else concentrates to the sociopathically wealthy, and stays there. They can’t get enough wealth or power, and are seemingly incapable of understanding or caring about consequences, and yet we insist on playing their game by their insane rules, chasing the American Dream and confusing it for success.


Edwardo said...

There's only one solution, namely opting out, but almost no one is prepared to take it. The "system", such as it is, could be brought down-by those who are most abused by it-but the imagination, let alone the will, seems to be absent. Having said all that, I am contemplating a mad pamphleteering exercise. Tell me, if you were contemplating writing a compelling and concise, for lack of a better term, diatribe for your fellow citizens to consider regarding about where we are and what we must do to exit this madness, what might you write?

Toby said...

Last night I watched a DVD of the Tom Cruise/Bryan Singer movie Valkyrie. Three things struck me:

1. When the going gets really insane, some people lay down their lives to do something.
2. Other people still adhere to the insanity, perhaps a majority, but it need not be. It need only be a sufficient number in key positions controlling information flow (propaganda).
3. If I were a sociopathic control freak in charge of some aspect of the status quo I'd want to keep things as sane as possible so as not to risk people being driven to risk their lives to bring about change. It's when some are prepared to lay down their lives that change can happen. When there's only a job to lose, followed by a life of quiet and poor desperation, very little happens. So appearances (TV, media) are almost everything.

So somehow, just losing a job is a fear that keeps people better in check than losing a life. Don't let things get extreme. I think this might be one reason why so few are prepared to opt out. The appearance of things is not extreme. The stock market is not too bad, supermarkets are full, the oil is still flowing. If no one panics, things can be managed.

That said, there is a soft opting out (which I am doing) which means turning off the TV and the radio, not voting, moving money to some ethically oriented bank/institution, etc, then studying how things really work. There is so much literature out there. But few are prepared to do even this, and how can they find each other when they do? How close to one another do they live?

What would I write? My blog is a fumbling around to hit the sweet spot. I haven't hit it yet. I fear there is simply no quick formulation that can reach people, get to them through years of propaganda. When I first started on this journey, it was clear to me that statistics don't really change people. They can always be countered (though unfairly) by some establishment organization. There is so much shallow dissent out there, so much fake and pointless tribalism. And passion itself turns many off. I rarely take pamphlets handed out on the street. Do you? And if it were an unsolicited email with an urgent title like "You must read this!!" I'd probably bin it.

And here I come to Jacque Fresco. He's been at this for decades. He knows you can only talk around a tiny percentage of the people you engage, and they represent an insignificant proportion of the population. Talk (well reasoned argument) cannot do it, not at speed anyway (decades for a total paradigm change is very fast). That's why their website is so shiny. It's trying to impress people with a sense of hope, of something different. That some (most) people are put off by it doesn't matter. The small amount that 'get it' will hopefully donate money, which pays for further promotion of the idea, until a feature film can get the idea out there to a mass audience. The hope is for social nucleation, when a sufficient number of people want to do something different, and properly understand what it is they want, and, more or less, how to get there. They become a social movement around a simple idea 'we can do society without money.'


Toby said...

(Snappy answer, huh?)

The hard part in all this is getting dissenters to agree on the way to dissent and the direction to follow -- organization is key. There are many dissenters worldwide, but the scattered opinions and interpretations of what's wrong and what must be done, prevent nucleation, not to mention the frustrating mechanics of the rat race. Disinformation and fake agitation is everywhere too.

My wish is for people to gather around either The Venus Project (for all its faults it seems clean, and the idea is both simple and important) or Charles Eisenstein, though he is not asking for people to follow him. In the end, for me, this leaves The Venus Project. Two people, one 94, the other over 60. Jacques is cantankerous and a little batty, Roxanne is timid and uncharismatic.

Or Edwardo of Disaster Porn? Or the famous Toby of Econosophy? What might they do? Nothing much. We two, who agree on so much, live many timezones apart and disagree I'm sure on some key points. Even if we were in total agreement, what could we do? Support a bigger group. Keep on spreading ideas, talking, contributing one grain of sand at a time, hoping something makes sense to someone. As we do so, we must do so from the heart and with humility. I get angry, but I'm not ANGRY. We're all in this together. Homo sapiens sapiens is just one living creature among millions of others. We have no special rights to anything. 99% of all species that ever lived are now extinct, and that can happen to us too.

To paraphrase Eisenstein, if you want to fight for the better world your heart tells you is possible, the best you can do is stay true to your intuition and not give up. Keep on keeping on. It gets lonely, seems futile a lot of the time, but what else is there, corny as that is?

So if you write your pamphlet, do it from your heart and stay patient. Earnest beseechings from strangers are very ineffective when a visual check of the immediate environment confirms all's well!

Edwardo said...

That was an excellent response.

"And passion itself turns many off."

Very true. Though I suspect that it's not so much the exhibition of passion, as it is the intellectual substance, or lack of it, from those who display passion, that turns many, if not most, off. Passion must always be married to intelligence to move people. In fact, that is, for my money, the essence of charisma.

Of course, given how vacuous and gormless so many folks are, charisma embodied in the wrong person, as history has shown, time and again, can be a very dangerous attribute.

"Earnest beseechings from strangers are very ineffective when a visual check of the immediate environment confirms all's well!"

Another excellent point, however, the veneer of "all's well" is fast wearing thin in many realms. And that, I suspect, is the crack into which can be poured some earnest beseechings that might garner some worthwhile interest in another perspective.

As I continue to ponder pamphlets, my view is that they need to be serialized. Each pamphlet must amount to a paragraph (or two), that is part of a chapter, which, in turn, is part of a short book. No preaching, just a narrative of sorts-best served just after lunch, if not with it.

Toby said...

That they would be serialized is an interesting idea. That they might entertain would be beneficial too. If they could slowly become a 'whole' capable of ongoing adaptation to events would be a big plus.

The thing I guess most share is a sense that The System is defunct, vacuous. There is consequently a very deep and widespread hunger for authenticity and honesty, nakedness almost. One of the reasons I enjoy and respond to Charles Eisenstein so deeply is because he is honestly himself. Though a very erudite academic, his style is personal, affectionate even. He discusses his children, his shortcomings as a father, and so on. Reading him is like being in a conversation with him. This makes him real to the reader (to me anyway). When we write our communications to the outside world we must be humble and honest in some way that is not affected, and there must always be the freedom for the reader to do whatever the hell they want with the material. I'm repeating myself, but the work has to come from the heart and be generously open. It takes courage to do this.

Write on, Edwardo. Whatever we do to make our world better for others and ourselves is worth the effort, and I'd be honoured to help you in anyway I can...

Rupert said...

It's a lonely place I occupy sometimes. My thoughts continue to alienate me from those I love the most. My wife has no interest in boat rocking or blazing a trail. For someone who thrives on social coherence I am frustrated by my apparent willingness to belittle my friends 'narrow' 'blinkered veiw' of the world and humanity or lack of it. I must be wary of my addiction to smugness.
I was sat in a restaurant last week and I overheard a conversation on the next table. 3 couples, well dressed, clearly monied and well into their 50's and engaged in vigorus conversation Oddly the topic was civilizational collapse. My ears perked into focus as one of the lady diners said 'when the Roman empire collapsed, what happened to all the Romans?' I had to bite my tongue.
I have come to the conclusion that it is a subject, unless very specific environs arise, should be left out of casual conversation. I find an out of sight fork pressed firmly into the back of my hand clears the head somewhat.

Toby said...

Ooh, self-harming begins! Don't get addicted to that one, it goes bad places (to paraphrase John C Riley's bumbling cop from Magnolia).

Isolation is Cassandra's curse. To see the future clearly, to warn about it to all and sundry and have no one listen, no matter how well you explain it, is isolating. Valkyrie is a good film for capturing that. Some simply will not listen, are so invested in the way things are now they would rather die than contemplate change. Then the Cassandra-types among us would rather die than carry on with the way things are now.

It's mostly far better to follow Gandhi and be the change you seek in the world. However, when your life-partner does not agree, that's difficult. Softly opting out seems the only option. And there we have to be creative and live with a limited and restrained version of our heart's desire. But that's ok, that goes for pretty much all of us anyway.

As Eisenstein says though, the system will fail. It can't not. Nothing lasts forever and the signs of decay and disease are everywhere. Check out the Piraha on google and Daniel Everett on youtube to see the faces and learn of the culture of some seriously healthy people who live a deeply different way. After years of coaching, they can't even get 1+1=2. They need but 2 hours sleep a night. It's really wonderful to look into their eyes. At least I think so.

Start here for some much needed refreshment:

Debra said...

Just back from holiday.
Rupert... WHY do you feel like you have to stick yourself with a fork to stop yourself from saying things to strangers ?
Why not start talking with the strangers ?
(It works for me, in my evangelizing moods, I realize it doesn't work for everybody, but hard thinking has got me to a point where I can even point out some stuff to other people that COULD get them punching me out, and they never do it...)
In the British Museum this week, I spent quite a while in the European section, looking at what happened when empire disintegrated.
There was one reconstructed image of what it must have looked like in England with the decaying Roman villas and roads right next to the round, thatched roofs...
Pretty apocalyptic, right ?
Now.... one of the things that impressed me ABSOLUTELY about the British Museum was the fact that... IT WAS FREE ENTRY.
For you, Toby.
When I started thinking about that, it boggled my mind.... Do you realize what that means, that the British Museum and the National Gallery are free ??
(And the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and the Smithsonian, too, while we're at it..)
Tomorrow, I'm going to take out a membership at the British Museum BECAUSE I CAN AFFORD TO DO IT, and so that the money I contribute can be used TO PAY FOR THE VISITORS WHO CAN NOT AFFORD to do it.
That's what aristocracy is about, right ??
Edwardo, after a lifetime spent doing mucho ranting, I have FINALLY discovered that a gentle, warm smile actually works better at getting the point across.
Besides... the place of the world's best ranter has already been recently filled by Adolf, and you don't really feel like following in his footsteps, now, do you ??
Opting out GENTLY, I say. Softly and gently, as Toby says.
With a smile.

Rupert said...

Debra, it's Friday evening and I've just read your post. Thank you for your response. I get lonely at times but I am not alone. I am feeling very connected, more so every day. I've stopped greeting folks with a slap around the chops with a hot battered fish and have slipped into a 'warm smile and a hand shake' instead. If you get the chance you should visit The Museum of Oxford, it has a fantastic anthropological section that I love spending time in, and my father-in-law helped it put together.