“Let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames; for it contains nothing but sophistry and illusion.”Hume, that ‘pragmatic’ philosopher, wanted nothing to do with fripperies such as love, or caring, or friendship, or luck, because such subjective experiences cannot be measured. The position is that if a thing cannot be measured, it cannot therefore exist. If it cannot exist, yet we think it does, it must then be an illusion. That in itself is a very strong assertion, a very aggressive theory, which, irony of ironies, is itself not falsifiable. For we cannot prove or disprove a theory that unmeasurable things cannot exist—we can’t measure them! So, Hernes’ soft-sounding request is evidence of a softening at science’s heart (albeit small evidence) I consider noteworthy and important. This is the deep background of this post.
The more immediate background is the ‘urge to belong’ Jeremy Rifkin cites as a primary human drive more fundamental to us than greed and selfishness. This is an interesting assertion, one I tend to agree with. However, it is not as controversial as it first seems, nor all that disruptive to current neo-Darwinian theory, since the urge to belong is likely an emergent property of being a social animal, which we humans most certainly are (even psychopaths ‘need’ a society to interact with, to feed on, and are darkly fascinated by our empathy, our rich emotions). Furthermore, the need to belong can be seen as the underpinning of selfishness and greed. For example, we may be producing hoards of unhealthily greedy and immaturely selfish people, simply because they feel like they don’t belong, strongly suspect society does not need them. This problem correlates closely with value—what do we value, how do we measure it, and how do we distribute what we have so measured (reward and punishment)? (Economics attempts to answer these questions.) But value is a subjective phenomenon impossible to measure (even with money), a delicious challenge which has been too far from our cultural mind for far too long. Economics is, in my opinion, the sequestering of richly subjective value assessments from the wider culture into the hands of the owners of wealth, where value has been standardised into money. And that process is one of the many consequences of elitism, which is itself, I suspect, an immature stage of human development which emerged from specialisation and humanity’s Ascent, its battle to control and master all of nature.
This post takes a brief look at these two phenomena, and ekes out a connection between them. To belong we must be valued, in some way, by the group to which we wish to belong. Do we need to accurately and explicitly measure value (money) in order to measure belonging, or can we have a far more open society (say, one built around resource-based economics) which thrives in the absence of an explicit and standardised measure of value?
Those like me, who hope for some form of anarchist/RBE (resource-based economy) world, are happy to see the urge to belong characterised as a stronger driver of human behaviour than competition, selfishness, or greed, since such a future mode would be built on cooperation and sharing. But, isn’t belonging a survival urge? We ‘belong’ when we are important to our group in some way, whether as a leader or entertainer or thinker or scientist or whatever; we feel we belong when what we contribute to our group visibly (this is subtly different from ‘explicitly’) helps it thrive and enjoy life. It is difficult imagining someone truly belonging to a group while being of no use to it whatsoever, contributing absolutely nothing. Always taking, never giving. We have to contribute to belong, and we need to belong. Can everyone everywhere belong to some group somewhere, be important to some people somehow? For the first time since our ‘primitive’ beginnings, I think so, and the Internet is key here, but—this is a huge “BUT!!!”—, not while money is our sole measure of value; money is just too crude and clumsy—air has a value of zero in money’s eyes, for example.
But regardless of our opinion on that, the urge to belong probably stems from the urge to survive, where, very importantly, the quality of survival is highly significant, ‘valuable,’ we could almost say vital. Humans aren’t really alive, when all they do is survive. And it is not only fear and scarcity fuelling the need to belong. Even though belonging to a group means better protection from the ravages of the wild, or the ‘safety in numbers’ principle of each relying on and helping the other, the question today should be, relying on each other for what, and to achieve what quality of life? That asked, is a quality-based inter-dependency of people constructively and sustainably binding? Could such an open and abundant society keep us healthily cohesive, when something vague and unmeasurable like quality of life is the implied reward and motivator, and not something immediate and palpable like blank survival? If existential angst were largely removed via technological development, could we humans cope with that much comfort, freedom of movement, absence of oppression? In “The Matrix”, the AI Computer Overlords construct a perfect virtual reality for their human slaves, but it backfires horribly. Entire crops are lost. Humans, concludes the AI machine, need misery and suffering to thrive. The film’s joke is funny, because we all have that kind of fear somewhere inside us. Things can be too good to be true.
In a full-on, Venus Project, resource-based economy, in which we “constantly maximise existing and future technologies with the sole purpose of enhancing all human life and protecting the environment” (Jacque Fresco), there would be close to no existential angst, certainly not for material reasons. Societal ‘interbeingness’ (to coin an Eisensteinian phrase), or interdependence, would be pleasure- and project-based, functionally speaking, not fear- and scarcity-based. We would not be meeting base needs like food and shelter by contributing and being important—such things would be available for ‘free.’ We would contribute to meet social needs like kudos, joy, belonging, reputation, respect. Our reasons for contributing, the manner in which we feel we make ourselves useful to some group or other, would be greatly different to today, where job and income are symbols and proof of our contribution to society. There would be new symbols for sure, but far richer, more contextualized, less fixed, less linear, than $, € and ¥.
Is all this a pipe dream? Are humans in fact unhealthily greedy and immaturely selfish 'by design'? Is it our ‘wiring’ makes us so? I say no, and one look at the Piraha or other ‘primitive’ peoples confirms this. We lived for hundreds of thousands of years without money-symbols of success and motivation, without ‘exact’ measures of value. All sorts of discoveries, such as taming fire, grain and beast; farming and metallurgy; specialisation; states, nation states and corporations; and elitism separate us from ‘primitives,’ but our genes are largely unchanged. These discoveries, these bio-social pressures, are recent phenomena on a biological time-frame. We are not ‘wired’ to be unhealthily greedy, immaturely selfish. Such are reasonable behavioural adjustments to environmental conditions.
(For the record, I do not think The Venus Project is going to flower as suggested by Jacque Fresco, but it does represent a powerful set of ideas, which brings into sharp relief the important questions of motivation and value. On the other hand, I do believe that our developmental arc is—if we seize this opportunity creatively—generally towards The Venus Project, or at least towards a recourse-based economics (no one yet knows what such a thing will look like), but the path thither (to use archaic language), should we tread it, will be Eisensteinian, or like this.)
Again, we are obliged to recall that we are social animals, not wolverines or tigers or trapdoor spiders, that therefore our social needs are neither weak nor ignorable. On a broader note, and by way of suggesting we are very flexible social animals, richly varied, I strongly suspect relationships—society’s glue—would necessarily be more supple; marriage would wither away, and blind loyalty—staying true to one partner, ideology, etc., no matter what—would be much rarer, perhaps non-existent. One consequence of this should be that Big Brother entities and institutions become impossible. The social soil suggested by the principles and trains of thought of resource-based economics could not be a breeding ground for systems of paranoia and control. Systems emerge from and are sustained by environmental conditions enabling them. They adapt to new environmental conditions, or die. Similarly, social systems emerge from and are sustained by an enabling social environment. Even institutional power to manipulate perception and paradigm via propaganda is not total, nor immortal.
If our general trajectory now (for sure a very turbulent one) is ever less economic activity for humans (this is key), and less disruptive susceptibility to vagaries of nature such as famine and drought (assuming the spread of all sorts of positive technological outcomes for a moment, including technologies like permaculture and wise management of commons), that trajectory will generate more ‘leisure’ time alongside an intelligently shared abundance. In such an atmosphere of abundance and ease, what pressures would be felt by people to acquiesce to group demands? Principally, the ‘inner’ (human-systemic) urge to belong, as shaped by the general sharing and cooperation of honest and transparent social structures made necessary by a new economic and environmental reality. Greed and selfishness would find new forms of expression. We would be ‘greedy’ for accomplishment, new adventures, stimulating challenges; ‘selfish’ in our support of those systems enabling and sustaining our quality of life.
If, on the other hand, our trajectory is forced towards generating ever more work and economic activity, a.k.a., the Pillage of Perpetual Growth, humanity will implode in the frenzy, and do deeper harm to ecosystems everywhere.
For my part, I believe there will be less and less economic activity for humans, less Growth—because of technological unemployment, falling population growth, the Internet, the death of consumerism, Open Source, global warming, soil fertility, water tables, and other such variables. Therefore, the RBE trajectory—‘high-tech’ style—seems the more logical … assuming sufficient, clean energy sources.
On energy briefly. After fossil fuels are exhausted, or become too energy-costly to extract, there are many who believe the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) humans enjoy will return to some 1.n to 1 ratio evident elsewhere in nature. Today, oil yields somewhere between 10-15 to 1. It yielded about 100-1 a century ago. If what awaits us is pre-fossil fuel energy, humanity goes ‘back’ to tilling the fields. Or, if we’re luckier, ‘forwards’ to permaculture. But I simply cannot believe an EROEI of 1.n awaits humanity after fossil fuels are no longer sufficiently available to us. Wind reliably delivers around 20, solar around 5 to 1 and rising, and new technologies promise more than that, including cold fusion (now re-branded as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) to make it more palatable). A steady state economics would need an EROIE about 10-1 (I dimly recall reading somewhere, but don’t quote me on that). Without consumerism; wasteful suburban sprawl; moronic Monday-Friday, nine-to-five work weeks; with intelligently designed cities, transportation systems, super-efficient housing, etc., our energy consumption would fall dramatically. (Far more troubling than energy are concerns like water and soil. These are not (quite yet) deal breakers, as far as I’m aware. Global warming might be.)
Obviously, I cannot know how all this pans out, but toying with ideas, encouraging critical thinking, discussion, and ‘independent’ study, helps us arrive at better ‘decisions.’ How ‘problematic’ is it that the urge to belong is ‘selfish?’ Well, taking care of that which takes care of us makes very clear sense. We are social. It therefore makes sense to take care of the society we cannot help but want to belong to. ‘Exactly’ how we do this, that devil in the detail, cannot be known. Ever. Even now. For who can explain exactly how it all works today, let alone in a distant tomorrow?
And is all this simply a new way of saying ‘enlightened self-interest,’ that tired, old chestnut? Have I just laid out yet another (updated?) take on Smith’s Invisible Hand? Perhaps. But a new perspective on, or perception of, an old devil helps sometimes. We don’t snap over to completely new ways of being, we slowly and disjointedly transcend, or emerge from, current ones. Maybe the market doesn’t take care of business, but ‘enlightened’ or long term self-interest might make a better fist of it, as money is demoted, and wealth (real value) promoted. Somehow. Ditto embracing uncertainty. How does that really work? How do we bring that into science? Again, I don’t know. Somehow, there is always a mystery ingredient X involved. When you plan, you cannot cross all the Ts and dot all the Is in advance, and know, 100%, you’re right. X was, is and always will be.
In conclusion, I believe we are in the midst of a sweet irony. It is science and its methodologies which have yielded the potential wisdom to ‘return’ to far more ‘anarchic,’ far less state-run, social systems; federated communities interconnected with Internet and database management technologies. But, we will only plant our feet firmly on that path, after we give up on the religious dogma that only the measurable exists. Money is the conduit between the two, since value—which money purports to measure—cannot be measured. I find it absolutely fascinating, and detect here the poetic mind of god at work, that money—a symbol measuring the unmeasurable as economics struggles to be ‘scientific’—stands between us and our continuing development, and that a softening of science’s heart can help light the way.