Introduction to Sustainable Thought
As alluded to in prior essays, sustainable practices can only come about by a value re-orientation towards sustainable thought. While the notion of sustainability is often reduced to an ecological context, the real issue under the surface is cultural. This hence becomes a process of education. It is the perspective of The Zeitgeist Movement that the economic system utilized in a society is the greatest influence on the values and beliefs of its people. For instance, deeply rooted in even the seemingly separate politico-religious doctrines of our time, resides an undercurrent of values set forth by economic assumptions.
The term “socioeconomic”, which is the social science that links the effects of economic activity to other social processes, could have its meaning more specifically extended to also include religious views, political biases, military initiatives, tribal loyalties, cultural customs, legal statutes and other common societal phenomena. It appears that the very fabric of our lives and hence our value system is born, most dominantly, from the cultural perception of our survival, social relationships and ideas of personal/social success.
Moreover, it is critical to restate that political systems, which most in the world still seem to award priority of importance when it comes to the state of affairs in society, are, at best, secondary in relevance (if not, in fact, entirely obsolete) when the true ramifications of the economic structure are factored in. In fact, as will be argued in future essays, “political” governance as we know it is really nothing more than an outgrowth of economic inefficiency. Very few would care much about “who was in power” or other such traditional notions if they clearly understood the process of economic unfolding and were able to contribute and gain without conflict. Therefore, there is no greater issue of importance than the system of economic unfolding when it comes to the conduct and stability of human beings on both the personal and social level.
Generally speaking, an economic system exists to meet the “needs and wants” of the population. The degree by which it is able to do so depends on the state of usable resources and the technical strategy utilized to harness those resources for a given purpose. In this context, notable engineer and thinker R. Buckminster Fuller argued that true economic “wealth” is not money or even the material outcome of a given production. Rather, true wealth is the level of energy/production efficiency enabled, coupled with knowledge development that furthers the intelligent management of the Earth's resources. In this view, he defined and expressed a trend termed “ephemeralization” which tracks humanity’s technical ability to increasingly do “more with less”.
Historically speaking, ephemeralization is, in gesture, a contradiction of the still deeply held “Malthusian” consideration which, in part, claims that humanity is forever out of balance with nature and there will always be a section of the population that must suffer, as the available resources simply do not add up to meet everyone's needs.
As noted in prior essays, this worldview is ever apparent in the economic system we still embrace today globally, forging deep structural biases that have inevitably favored one “class” of people over another in survival advantage. In other words, a “war game” has culminated, built out of the assumption of universal, perpetually reinforced scarcity, which moves forward today on its own momentum, largely absent of its original causal reasoning.
The vast majority of what we define as “corruption” today, more often than not, finds its psychological root in this competitive awareness both on the personal level, the corporate (business) level & on the level of government in the form of war, tyranny and self-preserving collusion. In fact, it can be well argued that the very notion of “ethical” in a world decidedly working to gain at the expense of others becomes a highly relative and almost arbitrary distinction.
Yet, this trend of ephemeralization, having increased rapidly from the 20th century's almost sudden industrial/scientific advancements, deeply challenges this protectionist, elitist, scarcity-driven worldview, suggesting new, paradigm-shifting possibilities for human organization.
These possibilities, in part, statistically reveal that we are now able to take care of the entire world's population at a standard of living unknown to the vast majority of humanity today. However, in order for this new reality of efficiency to be harnessed, the archaic barriers ingrained in our everyday way of life, specifically our perception of economics, need to be reevaluated and likely overcome entirely.
As noted in prior essays, the term “utopia” commonly arises as a pejorative term amongst those who tend to dismiss large scale social improvement due to either a cynicism of so-called “human nature” or an outright disbelief in humanity's technical capacity to now adjust greatly with new technical means.
For example, an objection common to the current culture, specifically the “wealthy” First World nations, rests in the value of what could be termed the “violence of mass acquisition”. At its root, this view takes the Malthusian concept of need-oriented resource insufficiency and transposes it to assume a pressure of acquisitive irrationality.
In other words, it assumes human beings empirically have infinite material “wants” and even if, say, every human being could exist with what the West today would deem an upper class lifestyle, with no one falling short, an element of our psychology would never be satisfied in the material sense and the interest in “more and more” material gain would thus always create a destabilizing imbalance in society. Therefore, the existence of “haves” and “have-nots” is perceived to be a consequence of our inherent, status-driven psychology and greed, not availability of resources and means.
To the extent that this is actually true is dubious at best given the extreme cultural condition we find ourselves in today, compared with the historical fact that outside of Western (aka Capitalistic) influence, the concept of “vain material success” is far from universal for the human being. In truth, the relationship of “success” and “property” has been culturally manufactured based upon system necessity and is now a staple value of our consumer-based society.
In a world now driven by “economic growth” to keep employment at a reasonable level; in a world which overtly praises those with great financial wealth as a measure of success; in a world that actually rewards behaviors of human indifference and ruthless competition for market share (rather than honest social contribution for overall human betterment); it is no mystery as to why the idea of a single human owning, say, a 400 room mansion on 500,000 acres of private land with 50 cars and five planes parked in the front yard has become part of an ideal, coveted vision of personal (and social) success.
Yet, from the perspective of true human sustainability, this view is pure violence and exists in nearly the same category of one who hoards food and resources he or she doesn't need and refuses to allow others access for the sake of abstract principle. If we imagine a small island of ten people were two people decide to extract and hoard 1,000% more than they need to be healthy, leaving eight people to live in abject poverty and/or dying - would you find this arrangement an act of “personal freedom” by those two - or an act of social violence against the eight?
This is brought up here to dismiss the “utopian abundance fallacy” reaction common to many regarding, in part, the implications of ephemeralization. Just as we as a global society are realizing the inherent physical limitations of our industrial behaviors, slowly adjusting away from ecologically destabilizing consequences, the understanding that an “infinite wants”-based value orientation is equally as detrimental to social balance is critical to realize.
When it comes to cultural philosophies, the human population must gain, in part, a clear understanding of its limitations and derive its expectations and values from this physical reality. The limitations imposed by our environment exist irrespective of human values, interests, wants or even needs in abstraction. If we were to remove humanity from planet Earth and observe the Earth's natural ecological operations with the causal, scientific understandings we have today, we would witness a synergistic/symbiotic system governed by the universal dynamics of nature.
Hence, no matter what we think about ourselves, our intentions or our “freedoms”, once we are placed into this system of physical law we are bound to it regardless of our beliefs or the cultural norms we have taken for granted, or which have been imposed as "inevitable" or "immutable" by our various cultures. If we choose to learn and align with the logic inherent, we find sustainability and hence stability. If we choose to ignore or fight these pre-existing rules, we will inevitably decrease stability and problems will arise, as is the near-constant state of affairs today in the early 21st century.
This awareness of natural limitations, as we have come to understand them today via the scientific method, expresses perhaps the most profound shift in human “loyalties” in history. In short, we now understand that we either align with the natural world, or we suffer. Sadly, this firm referential association still stands at odds with many common philosophies today, such as established religious and political perspectives. Remarkably also, it is a common rejoinder to label this very firmly based realization as "totalitarian" or "black-and-white", a seemingly rigid and arbitrary imposition upon human life, rather than simply the undeniable, scientifically demonstrable state of affairs.
Intriguingly, the nearly paradoxical punch line of the whole consideration of natural law is that within this rational “box” of system limitation we define as the “governing laws of nature” our range of possibility within these boundaries via the scientific method also reveals an ever-increasing technical efficiency and incredible potential to create an abundance to meet human needs, globally
.Furthermore, since humanity is the only species on Earth with the mental capacity to alter/affect its ecosystem in truly profound ways, this necessity for alignment becomes critical for species sustainability, public health and true problem solving advancement. Nothing could be more dangerous than a world culture that, given the exponential increase in our capacity to affect ecological and social balance with technology, misunderstands its power and effects. In many ways, humanity is faced with an educational race against time with respect to its current immaturity in handling the incredible, newfound powers it has realized via science and technology.
As an aside, it is important to remember that when it comes to the history of economic thought itself, the frame of reference has had more to do with assumptions of human behavior than intelligent resource management and general physical science/natural law understandings. While our most innate behavioral reflexes and genetic propensities are certainly relevant to the consequences of a socioeconomic system and are very much a part of the equation, assumptions of human behavior cannot rationally be held as a structural starting point of an economic system. Humans are a consequence of the same ecological system conditions and not the other way around.
So, in conclusion to this introduction, if the purpose of a social system is to create an ever increasing standard of living, while also maintaining environmental and social balance to assure we do not reduce this quality in the future due to possible resulting consequences of irresponsible choices - such as resource depletion, pollution, disease, negative stress, “wealth” imbalance and other issues – it then becomes critical to base our methodology on the most relevant set of technical parameters we can, oriented around the current state of scientific awareness on both an ecological and human level.
- Source: The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Verse 27, Translation: Shri Purohit Swami
- An example would be this Old Testament scripture which seems to imply that the “poor” will always exist no matter what society does: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” -Deuteronomy 15:11
- “Socioeconomic” is defined as: “of, relating to, or involving a combination of social and economic factors” (Source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/socioeconomic)
- Consumption patterns in modern society have shown an increasingly arbitrary nature with respect to human “wants”, such as the powerful shift in values that occurred in the early 20th century with the application of modern Western advertising. Human “needs”, however, are basic necessities, largely shared by all humans, which maintain physical and psychological health. While many still argue subjective interpretations of such terms, “needs” are essentially static and “wants” are essentially variable. Generally speaking, “wants” are a consequence of one's value system and are culturally derived. Therefore, “needs” are hence of greater priority in meeting than “wants”.
- Fuller States: “Wealth...is inherently regenerative. Experimentally demonstrated wealth is: energy compounded with intellect's knowhow.” From Utopia or Oblivion, R. Buckminster Fuller, Bantam Press, NY, 1969, p.288
- Ephemeralization, a term coined by R. Buckminster Fuller, is the ability of technological advancement to do "more and more with less and less..." over time. This trend can be noticed in many areas of industrial development, from computer processing (Moore's law) to the rapid acceleration of human knowledge (information technology). A common example would be the computation power and size relationships of computers over time. The ENIAC computer of the 1940s covered 1800 square feet of floor space, weighed 30 tons, consumed 160 kilowatts of electrical power and cost about $6 Million in modern value. Today, an inexpensive, pocket size cell phone computes substantially faster than ENIAC. Hence - less material and yet more power. [http://inventors.about.com/od/estartinventions/a/Eniac.htm]
- Malthusianism is a perspective linked to economist and cleric Thomas R. Malthus that, in short, has to do with the need to control/limit population growth due to an empirical assumption of relative resource scarcity. Ideas such as "not helping the poor" as "it only gives false hope" and the like are common to this view. [Suggested Reading: An Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus, 1798]
- See prior essay: Structural Classism, The State and War
- While this reality will be discussed in the following essay “Post-Scarcity Trends, Capacity and Efficiency”, highlighting the accelerating efficiency of transportation, energy, industrial design, food cultivation technology and the like, the following conclusion by R. Buckminster Fuller in 1969 is worth stating for historical reference: “[Man] developed such intense mechanization in World War I that the percentage of total world population that were industrial “haves” rose by 1919 to the figure of 6%. That was a very abrupt change in history...By the time of World War II 20% of all humanity had become industrial “haves”...At the present moment the proportion of “haves” is at 40% of humanity...if we up the performances...of resources from the present level to a highly feasible overall efficiency of 12% [more]...[all humanity can be provided for]”. From Utopia or Oblivion, R. Buckminster Fuller, Bantam Press, NY, 1969, pp.153-155
- Given that the “infinite want” assumption of human craving is still a core component of the monetary-market based economic view of scarcity and resource inequity, it is interesting how the very basis of its assumption implies an empirical irrationality of human behavior. It would have to be irrational given the basic knowledge of humanity dependence on the Earth's finite resources. Contradiction of this assumption is replete in human history, specifically with cultures that developed in less industrialized societies, in more direct association with the land, outside of the influence of our now common consumer culture. Early Native American cultures, for example, held the value of balance as a virtue rather than acquisition. Suggested Reading: The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser, A Bradford Book, 2003
- Reference: Propaganda, Edward Bernays, Ig Publishing, 1928
- The socially destabilizing ramifications of a society with great wealth imbalance were best recently exemplified by the rise of what was globally recognized as the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. (http://occupywallst.org/) Wealth imbalance has become recognized increasingly as less of an issue of subjective “moral fairness” but rather an issue of dire public health and social stability.
- The word “freedoms” is in parenthesis due to the prolific cultural use. Patriotic slogans about “freedom” and “liberty”, born out of, in part, the historical problem of tyranny and government abuse, exist today often creating an almost neurotic and misleading view of human behavior. In reality, there is no such thing as universal freedom in the world as rigid physical laws bind us. The cultural notion of “freedom”, as most propagated by the Capitalist ideology, can be argued as intrinsically dangerous to species sustainability in many ways - specifically with respect to its absolute ignoring of larger order synergistic system factors, assuming the fallacy that a detached, self-interest based pursuit secures social and ecological balance.
- Later in his life, astronomer Carl Sagan made a video commentary which can be found in later releases of his PBS series "Cosmos", stating (paraphrased here):"It is almost as though there is a God and he has given humanity the choice to use the power of science to improve life… or destroy it. It is up to us."
- See prior essay History of Economy.
- This essay belong to Zeitgeist Movement Defined: Realizing a New Train of Thought