What Makes Problems Possible

Posted: May 3, 2015 in Culture, Ethics, Idealism, Idle Nonsense
Tags: , , ,

I’m not in the business of offering pat solutions to intractable problems plaguing modern society. That’s the mandate of government, which aims to manage the affairs of men and women as well as possible — yet typically fails abysmally. (Recurring war is an obvious example of inability to discover better solutions, except that war is now relished as a profit engine in a world gone mad, so it’s become desirable.) Rather, my interest is directed to attempting to understand the ways the world actually works. Perhaps that is too pointlessly abstract until such understanding is put into practice and acted upon, not just in policy formations but in legislation, incentives, and behaviors that make differences in how we live. However, so many well-meaning policies of the past have led us down the primrose path that I hesitate to suggest my understandings are in any way superior to or would lead to more effective policy than those formulated by folks whose mandate it is to address problems of social organization head on.

Accordingly, teasing cause-and-effect or correlation out of the hypercomplex interactions of myriad moving parts (people mostly), each possessing agency and ambition, is tantamount to chasing a chimera. Curiously, Paul Chefurka, whose writing and thinking I admire, revealed in comments at Nature Bats Last (April 2015) that he only recently abandoned his search for root causes behind the imminent collapse of industrial civilization, and with them, plausible solutions and/or ways out of the quagmire. Whereas some might take such an epistemological collapse as their cue to punt and say, “fuck it, let’s party,” I still find myself struggling to makes sense of things. So it occurs to me that without recommending root causes or solutions of my own, it may be nonetheless worthwhile to observe that specific problems often proceed from generalized attitudes that may be amenable to change. Put another way, it’s our own attitudes that give rise to our problems or make those problems possible. Let me take as an example just one issue, which is one of the larger elephants in the room.

Resource Consumption

Life (and death) on Earth is characterized by predator-prey relationships, where everything eats and is in turn eaten. Humans are not full participants in the food web, reserving their bodies to be consumed mostly by flame, and grudgingly, by worms and microorganisms. Thus, there is a short circuit in the nutrient cycle. Why might this be? Because we bizarrely think ourselves special somehow, not like ordinary flesh, and are irked by the idea that our bodies might be buried simply, say, in a burlap bag under a tree and eventually returned to life as the flesh and fruit of the tree. But wait, it gets worse. Unlike other species, we consume and store profligate quantities of all resources and exceed the carrying capacity of our environment (these days, the planet) by a large measure. These behaviors are building up as ecological deficits to accompany more conventional financial deficits. What makes this possible?

The short answer is that nothing in the world, according to humans, has any inherent right to its own existence either as lifeless material (water, air, rock, etc.) or as other living beings (plants, animals, insects, etc.). Even that simple distinction (inanimate vs. animate) breaks down, since everything is considered available to harvest for human consumption. Millennia ago, when humans lived in small bands at subsistence level (like other animals), such thinking had not yet developed. Instead, humans believed that everything is imbued with vital essence, which is known as animism. Animals killed for food were honored for their sacrifice. In contrast, the scientific/mechanical worldview that followed on the Enlightenment drove us to the brink as we taught ourselves how to manipulate resources with increasing facility. Regrettably, there were no brakes. In fact, we now celebrate excess and are compelled by consumer culture to raise our standard of living (and ecological footprint) as high as financial resources allow. No hesitation, no shame, no conscience. Those we leave behind are suckers, since they’re obviously not playahs, and are as disposable and inconsequential as the animals we mistreat. Again, our thinking permits, allows, and even encourages all of this.

If, on the other hand, conspicuous consumption were the object of scorn and extremes of wealth and poverty were cause for shame and embarrassment, we might think and act differently. Perhaps, by dint of population growth, we would arrive at the same untenable position, but that’s a difference discussion.


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