There is something frantic eating away the heart of modern societies. My intuition tells me it is speeding up, fear tells me there’s no escape. Not only are those in employment often asked to do more and more for less and less, even those out of work are faced with falling wages for the job offers they might get, or no opportunities at all. The void they are left in is far from immune to the acceleration I’m describing, which works on them like ever-thinning air. School children feel the pressure. Full-time mothers and fathers feel it too. Teachers, police, health care workers, business people, professionals, with a few exceptions, are very aware of this increasingly frantic scrabble to maintain what I think of as our crumbling culture. And the third world is suffering terribly to keep us lucky ones distracted by gadgets and cheap stuff so we don’t notice how untenable the situation is.
The Tower of Babel is falling, obviously so, and yet, because of the ‘forward’ momentum of our frantic efforts, of our stampede, we still need to tell ourselves the tower can be restored; with just a little more effort, a little harder work, more efficiency and ingenuity, we’ll soon continue our ascent. We cannot accept, in sufficient numbers, how wrong we are.
So we are wholly occupied by unending, desperate activities which are, taken together, destroying an environment now increasingly incapable of supporting us. The total effort is itself debilitating, utterly non-replenishing, empty and vacuous, and on top of its patent absurdity the massive effort we exert actually worsens our situation, requiring yet more effort, more acceleration. A cultural death spiral.
We are driving ourselves insane. Ascent, in the manner we have been describing for centuries, is not coming back, and we are going crazy in our refusal to acknowledge this. White noise everywhere, the hiss of repressed despair.
Of course I am saying nothing new and have borrowed heavily from Charles Eisenstein. But that’s ok, culture is like that. I didn’t invent the English language either, nor any of my philosophies. Again, nothing new there. But this perspective needs to be laid out by as many of us as possible, as clearly as possible, from as many angles as possible. Together we need to establish a sound perspective on where we are, how we got here, where we’re headed, and how to change direction.
Changing direction is not easy, especially when billions are heavily invested in the current course. Enough stuff is working just about well enough to sustain the illusion that normal is just around the corner. And the state, the market, our crystalline obsession with numerical values as wealth, with control of all variables guaranteed any day now, is so uniformly widespread there is now no Getting Away From It All, though some are trying. My own efforts have proven to be too little too late. Once you have a family, you have debt, even if you have no debt. You have a debt to your family’s habits, friends, to the roots of its slowly built up life. This cannot just be stopped in its tracks and repositioned somewhere more sensible, less stressful, less environmentally damaging. The token things we can do are mere gestures.
Like a stampede, we are in this together. If you don’t stampede too, chances are you’ll get trampled. Culturally, this adds up to a mighty and unstoppable momentum. Changing direction is hard. We are not going to do so prior to a mighty slap in the face. Here’s my snapshot of where we are and why we’re stuck together in a doomed lockstep.
Growth. First but by no means most importantly, the money system requires constant growth to work, by design. If the economy is not growing, it is collapsing.
This unhappy design flaw has its far distant roots, in my view, in the larger-scale state project (a.k.a hierarchical civilisation, thousands of years in the making), which stems from farming, which stems, crudely speaking, from domesticating plants and beasts, and ourselves. This experimentation set up a rift with (or even created) a very distinct Other, creating the two realms of Tamed and Wild. Tamed is good, Wild is bad. Tamed leads to the home and hearth, which leads to private property to be protected against the vagaries of the wild at all costs, eventually as enshrined by law and the state, and sustained by money and price. The wild finally becomes ‘idle resources’ to be turned into economic goods and services, which transformation is accomplished via Hard Work (see below). As a direct reflection of this, economics text books show nature (a.k.a. the universe) as a subset of the economy. Ah, sweet hubris.
Within this basic paradigm, once you start purposefully manipulating your (now enemy) environment to improve your situation, you can’t stop tinkering. With the beginning of the perception of problems-to-be-solved in a threatening world, the unending journey can be begun. Tinkering to solve problems always creates new problems. So, solve them, create unintended new ones, rinse and repeat forever. It starts with the human ability to perceive certain situations as solvable problems, then builds on itself in the form of cultural wisdom, aided and abetted by the spoken then written word, essential as a recording mechanism for passing knowledge down the generations. This dynamic, couched in the Tamed/Wild split, has slowly but surely led us into our perpetual growth impasse, because we came, in our naïve hubris, to see ourselves as somehow above nature, a view reinforced by the fact that we have been very ‘successful’ in our endeavours at this progress thing. Also, and not unimportantly, because we have such strong emotions, we’re not prepared to kill our young, say, as rabbits do.
Thus the (now money-driven) growth/progress habit is very old and hard to break. It is civilisation’s deepest and most entrenched back story. (This dynamic also, in a way, defines evolution generally, but this is a short essay, so space does not allow me to develop this aspect fully here. Let me just finally add that I am not against tinkering! Indeed, we have to tinker to change course.)
Dualism. Secondly and for less time, we have been more or less convinced that matter has primacy, that reality is made of matter, and the immaterial realm is mere illusion, or something distinct and fundamentally different. Either there is no spirit, there is no god, no heaven above, no hell below, and consciousness is an illusory epiphenomenon of the material brain, or the ‘religious’ among us (most likely) occupy a set of beliefs which relegate the immaterial realm to the afterlife, to some fully separated dominion beyond us and belonging to God. The ‘physical’ universe is here and now, and we are its religious and secular masters. This separation feeds into our strong cultural conviction that Out There is a complex machine we can master and improve, an alien other to be conquered and perfected. With time, our attitude suggests, we will master everything there is. Onwards and ever upwards.
Of course, the materialist position, a child of dualism, does not lead only to scientific positivism, it can also give rise to primitivism, or the idea that nature is a certain way, that man should not tinker with it, that civilisation was a wrong turn. I subscribe fully to neither position, and see merits and flaws in both views. I also happen to believe both are lost in dualism, the philosophical dead end of Mind versus Matter set in train by Rene Descartes. To put my cards on the table, I’m a systems theorist with a strong ‘spiritual’ bent (i.e., consciousness (whatever that is) is the ground of all interbeing (whatever that is)). In my view, there is no static reality Out There to be learned and mastered. Reality changes constantly as we do; we are of it. There is no separation, only one endlessly unfolding story created and sustained by unimaginable diversity. Nature is change, and ‘spirit’ is ‘matter’ is ‘spirit’. In short, I assert that our cultural sense of reality as a (very complex) machine is wrong, but that unlearning this habit of perception is very, very hard.
Work. Thirdly, we also have extremely outdated beliefs in productivity and Hard Work, which arise directly from our sense of reality as a machine to be mastered and conquered in a threatening universe. We must grow forever, are Evolution’s/God’s chosen creatures with a Special Destiny, and if we don’t all work harder and harder the whole thing breaks down. It would be a secular and religious sin to flunk that destiny. Laziness is therefore Evil. If you’re not productive, you are of no use to society, and that which qualifies as productive is described entirely within the framework of the points touched on above, i.e., it earns money.
Taken together, this coarsely presented trio of memes means it is specifically and only economically valuable work which counts, which delivers the goods. It is the economic sphere which must grow. It is not more and more play, nor more and more rest, nor more and more family time or time with friends the infamous System demands of itself. No, it is Hard Work we need to perform to sustain The Project, the glorious growth of the human species. Paradoxically, this means we are culturally driven to create more economic work for everyone, even though we don’t remotely need it, even though our frantic effort is producing less and less real wealth. Our vaunted inventiveness has been automating production for centuries, and we’re getting ever better at making human labour redundant. Furthermore, and worse than not needing more economic work for humans, we happen to live on a finite planet. Consumerism is killing us. Why should we whip ourselves into a frenzy to sustain it?
Economic work—activity characterised by monetary exchange or barter—never has been and never will be a priori superior to other kinds of work. This Holy Cow is a mere assertion and has no basis whatsoever in reality, other than in a cultural misperception, however understandable. The rigid conviction that paid work is better than other work must be dropped. There’s far more to reality than money. It’s ok to accept that machines can do work for us. Let’s take this wee gem on the chin and learn to relax a bit, eh? Stop shouting at the ‘lazy’ unemployed and work this out, shall we? Slow down a tad, stop consuming as if gadgets were the be all and end all. It’s a thought.
To recap: money is wealth because numbers are control because control is good because look at all these gadgets and their price tags so lets do more and more of that. The universe is a machine, therefore we can, and should, master it. Evolution/God gave birth to us, we are history’s zenith, we thus own the whole shebang and are alone in the universe, which thus belongs to us by default because we are so very intelligent. Would you like to buy a piece of the moon?
We have built machines which can create the goods, and the accelerating consumerism stampede does not make us, or the environment, healthy. We all know this. So, while we can explain why we believe Growth is God, that does not mean Growth is God. Look around you; it’s good that things mature, stop growing, and perish.
To repeat, economic activity is merely one kind of activity. It is not the best of all possible activities simply because it causes money to change hands, simply because we can ‘objectively’ measure its value, or believe we can measure its value (how much is the moon worth?). We don’t have to grow economically for biological or spiritual reasons, there just happens to be a design flaw in the money system, as understandable as that flaw is, historically speaking. Let’s change the money system to suit reality instead of fighting reality to suit the money system.
While we stampede towards the edge of the cliff, hope for humanity’s future lies with our ability to recognise where we’re headed and work out how to change direction. Sustainability is part of this, renewable energies are part of this, humility is part of this, a revolution in farming is part of this, guaranteed income is part of this, love is part of this, revolution in education is part of this, a new money system is part of this, direct democracy is part of this, as are many other bits and pieces, not one of them a silver bullet. And we are all of us parts of this. We urgently need to get better at talking this out, and remembering where true wealth lies: in time, in health, in soil, in community, trust, inventiveness, work, joy, meaning, exploration, accomplishment, sharing, competing, cooperating, and so on. Let’s get on with that.
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