Monday, September 25, 2017

The Crisis was Foretold

For most of my 61 years, people have been discussing the various ways in which the human species was lurching toward destruction. Whether the discussion started with population pressure, environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, runaway diseases or some other self-created hardship, it usually led to the collapse of civilization and a time of violence as humans fought each other for a piece of whatever was left.

The inescapability of nightmare scenarios led to three distinct coping strategies: Averters, Deniers, and Enjoyers.

Averters are trying to figure out how to prevent disaster. They want to slow down the pace of destruction and try to give everyone alive a shot at an enjoyable life while we figure out the balance between unfettered freedom and long-term survival. They generally advocate population control through voluntary family planning. The more radical of them might make it mandatory. They believe in environmental stewardship, and often promote respect for human diversity as another way to forestall conflict based on xenophobia.

Deniers just please themselves and hope for the best. They may take on attributes of Averters or Enjoyers, but they really just live as opportunistic scavengers, as we have done for millions of years. Don't think, just live. It's attractive because it's easy.

Enjoyers are those scary bastards who are eager for the shooting to start. They like to divide into armed camps exhibiting close philosophical uniformity. They may be defenders of a narrow definition of goodness or they may look forward to being marauders, preying on the multitude of weaker people just asking to be slapped around.

As you can see, at least two thirds of the population are aiding the collapse.

The Averters keep trying to find ways to persuade the other factions to either smarten up or stand down. As some of them get more desperate, they really do start to sound like the totalitarian overlords that the Enjoyers have always said they were.

It has to be hard to bring kids into a world you think is evolving -- or is at least capable of evolving -- a certain way, and then realize that the future is forming much more ominously. Even a peacenik has limits.

The vitriol with which the Enjoyers greet every idea presented by the Averters creates a climate of frustration and anger on both sides. The tension pulls a few Deniers to each camp, and unsettles the remainder of the herd. For the most part, consumption goes on unabated, or even increases, as the depressed and anxious populace consoles itself with material things. Everyone has a justification, and everyone thinks that their little bit can't hurt that much.

Add them up. The whole material universe is made of tiny particles. They add up. Elections are made one vote at a time. They add up. You may not matter, but you do count.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Roll the dice: Health care American style

My wife is about to get out of the emergency room after several hours. She had some chest pains this morning, after I had left for work. She took herself to a local walk-in urgent care center. They recommended that she head on down to the hospital to get a bit more in-depth examination.

Right after the stab of death fear, those of us on the lower economic rungs immediately ask ourselves whether our symptoms are really bad enough to incur the long slog through the medical billing process that will drain our coffers for months. When you're part of the huge deductible or self pay category, you are placing a sizable bet. You hope that it's expensive nothing, because the alternative will be lingering and could be death.

We've convinced ourselves that this is the way to treat ourselves and each other, rather than the easy access and peace of mind that comes with a universal system of health care. Peace of mind is tyranny! 

When you turn out to be okay, that means you're in good shape to get back to work and pay off that debt.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Substance is so passe

Human history has been divided into periods with weighty names like Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. There was the Age of Discovery, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Industrial Age. We proudly proclaimed The Nuclear Age, The Space Age and The Information Age. It was all part of our glorious progress to a brilliant future. But now, like an airplane climbing too steeply, it seems to be stalling.

We're in the Entertainment Age.

Despite the principle that we are all created equal, some people clearly have had more technical minds and more detailed visions of the future. This minority has managed to forge ahead against various setbacks, to advance technology that makes all things seem possible.

Advancement depends on conveying information clearly and memorably, and on creating searchable repositories of knowledge. Enlisting mass cooperation depends on various techniques of persuasion or coercion. And people just like to diddle with things, and express their interpretations of the world around them. Art was born, in all its forms: verbal, performance, visual, sculptural, musical, to create a world of entertainment.

When all the major challenges to survival seemed to be surmounted, and information technology made the transmission of beguiling images pervasive and immediate, The Entertainment Age began.

Entertainers have always attracted a following, but when stars could be recorded and displayed nationally and globally they became major economic and social influences, rapidly displacing actual thinkers and producers. We have become a culture of the entertaining and the entertained. If you are entertaining enough, you can become wealthy. Wealthy is good, right? Wealthy is the best. Anyone who has become wealthy is automatically better than anyone who has not.

The majority of people in any age are idle dreamers. Before The Entertainment Age, they might dream idly of actual inventions and achievements. Now they dream of performance skills most of them don't have the work ethic to develop. And even if they do, someone still has to set up the stage and clean up after the show.

Our existence serves no discernible purpose, so entertainment is as good a goal as any. As long as we can imagine great things and depict them in more and more convincing facsimile, we don't really need to accomplish anything. Someone will always manage to be good enough to keep us watching.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A dark truth becomes ever more obvious

As a Baby Boomer, I accepted without question that the human race wanted to last a long time and grow ever more friendly toward each other. How could I have been so blind to the fact that nearly half of all people are outright hostile to such a utopia? I joined vast numbers of others who bought into a vision of a world beyond hatred and divisiveness, unaware that the very concept fostered deeper and more bitter divisions.

The descendants of that world view continue to work toward it in spite of the continuing opposition. We dig through the muck of hostility and greed, thinking we're building a permanent road to higher ground, only to see the mire close behind us and grow deeper in front.

Believers in a higher power have an advantage when it comes to organizing. That's the way in which they will gather and march forth to destroy a secular society created by ethical -- but non-religious -- citizens who may come to outnumber the believers in a specific, narrow version of religious doctrine. The believers in their small groups can plan their campaigns of violence and sabotage in the name of goodness and righteousness. With the stamp of God's approval they can dedicate themselves to destroying the enemies of their belief system. These enemies include religious people who believe that believers in different faiths can and should get along.

Any way you look, you can see a final confrontation brewing. Obstinacy and superstition demand it.

In the Christian tradition, God will whisk the virtuous true believers straight to heaven before the shit hits the fan. It would be interesting if this roster included a lot of people who were not scripture-waving churchgoers.

Meanwhile, in another Abrahamic religion, the self-styled Islamic State is trying to bring about their own version of the final battle, as described in an article from 2016 about the attacks to date in Europe and America.

No religious narrative has to be true for religious warfare to bring about the end of our species. Everything does happen for a reason. Unfortunately, the reason turns out to be that humans are suckers for suicidal delusions.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The future of opportunistic scavengers

Modern media have made it possible to worry about the future far beyond the lifespan of any human currently alive. We can use our concern for future generations to support arguments in favor of everything from environmental stewardship to ethnic cleansing.

Various cultures considered less evolved by the technology-obsessed Europeans had a sense of generational responsibility and a reverence for the land that gave them life. Whether their practices actually worked we cannot say, since the Europeans sprawled across so much of the globe and smashed the balance those cultures had maintained. That's a part of history and a reality from which the life of our species must go forward. Technologically advanced science may manage to put measurable numbers on the things that older cultures handled intuitively, so it could net out as a gain overall.

Our ancestors did hunt species to extinction. You have to eat, after all, and they were only human. On the rise to become human, plenty of them probably became meals for other predators. This engrained a sense that humans can do anything they feel they need to do, in order to survive and proliferate.

In reality, in any era, a person will do whatever looks like a good idea at the time, to get ahead. This may mean just staying one jump ahead of starvation or it could mean acquiring another million dollars to bolster an already immense fortune. Most people are wired to seek a sense of security. If a little is good, more is better. While many things may be normal, their effects can still be pathological. In other words, everybody feels a certain way, so it is widely accepted, but its long-term effect is detrimental. Think of fossil fuel consumption, or the presumption that wealth is good.

The idea that one individual's actions can do no harm grows directly from the sense that a person can and should do whatever is necessary to survive and proliferate. When survival itself is no longer in doubt, the perception extends to mere wants that loom in stature to seem like needs.

Humans have eaten carrion and each other in the course of our often unappetizing history. Someone, somewhere, has tried to eat just about everything. And when we learned to exploit more difficult resources, we developed more and more efficient implements to extract and refine everything from trees to minerals to sea creatures.

We are really just opportunistic scavengers. While some of us have figured out that we need to set limits on this tendency, the vast majority of people live by the old rules: if you need something, take it. If you no longer need something, drop it by the wayside, or throw it somewhere far from your house, if you don't want it stinking up the neighborhood. That may be in someone else's back yard, but we can deal with that later if they complain.

Sure, we have Earth Day and a lot of public awareness. But then a guy I know who seems quite environmentally aware shows up with the lunch his wife packed, with every single item in an individual plastic bag, and he tosses all the bags into the trash after he extracts the food. These bags get used for a total of three or four hours to contain this guy's food before they go into the waste stream. And we're talking sturdy zippered sandwich bags. Opportunistic scavenging supersedes education even in someone who appears to care. Lunch comes to him in these bags, and he consumes it without a critical thought.

As we revert to divisiveness and distrust, as we embrace insular religions and draw up teams for a future of conflict, our children's children could end up eating carrion and each other once again. Will we be honest enough to admit that we don't really care how they live? Evolution moves forward on a broad front, never stopping. Whatever is alive at any given time figures out how to manage conditions as they find them. There is no real need for long life, or happiness. Planetarily speaking, there is no need for life at all. We who are alive at this moment will do whatever makes us feel happy.  If you want to cloak it with some glorious embroidery about the future, go ahead. We're all just taking our best guess, and hoping we remain comfortable up to the point of our individual deaths.

Our species will only have the future that enough of us collectively turn out to want.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Flipside of The Greatest Generation

Never underestimate the value of a good bad example.

Well-deserved praise has been heaped on those who answered the call of duty to defeat militarily the Axis powers in World War II. If you ignore the fact that we couldn't have done it without our own ally, that sweetheart Joseph Stalin, it really was a clash between Good and Evil.

The Nazis in particular did future generations a favor by being so categorically and undeniably evil. Of course they didn't view it as evil. They considered it an admirable rigidity of principle, and the iron will to carry out a ruthless plan to impose a virtuous monoculture across the globe. The urge itself is evil, but it has its adherents even now.

Because World War II came along when humans had developed film, broadcast, and recording technology, and because the Nazis were so stuck on themselves that they kept meticulous records, we have a lot of detailed history about who did what when. We can rapidly draw parallels to current events and show without a doubt what can happen when the logic of a hateful ideology is drawn out to its grimmest conclusion.

Mass killing is a human tradition. Some instinct impels us to try to wipe out rival DNA, to compete for global domination, starting right in our own back yards. It doesn't happen everywhere, all the time, but it recurs enough throughout history to show that we have a chronic problem. Returning to the bloodbaths of the mid 20th Century, we find plenty of historical records related to every theater of war and land under occupation.  Other examples than the aggressive Nazi regime haven't had the great marketing that makes the Third Reich such a strong brand, but the idea of killing people who don't agree with you needs no introduction, wherever it arrives.

It is this very archive of evil that gives us the graphic rebuttal to plans put forward now in countries that once considered themselves bastions of freedom. The hypocrisy of the United States is unfortunately evident in the persistence of official and unofficial racial segregation after the Second World War, but at least some efforts were made to acknowledge the rights of more than just white guys as the 20th Century passed the half. Those very efforts solidified the core of evil that predated the Nazis by a couple of centuries in our great country, and that sympathized with the actual Nazis in their rise to power.

Recognizing an evil does not automatically cure it, but it is the vital first step. Parallels to the Nazis are too freely drawn, but the sensitivity to Nazi-like encroachments is an early warning system for the advancement of a truly free and inclusive society.

The monoculturists consider the desire for a free and inclusive society to be the evil. They despise the weakness of accommodation. They pride themselves on their admirable rigidity of principle and iron will. That's why we keep having this argument. They must be refuted on principle, not just bested on the field of combat. In fact, combat merely obscures the real issues in a cloud of smoke and a spray of blood. That's why hardasses would rather fight a war than lose an argument. War is exciting, and some day they might win. Until then, they'll take whatever beating they have to, and retire, grumbling, if it goes against them again.

The real Greatest Generation will be the one that confronts and vanquishes its own evil in quiet meditation, and never inflicts its misery on the rest of the world. While I would welcome that at any time, I'm not holding my breath. Every generation has to interpret the world they find, and choose a way through it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Do you deserve to live?

The capitalist system places a dollar value on everything and everyone. More dollars mean greater value. Greater value means greater virtue, because success is money, and success is good. The rich really are better than the rest of us, simply because they are rich.

When ambition is satisfied with modest returns, a money-based system can perk along fairly sustainably. But ambition is a virtue in the pursuit of money, and the power that money represents. A money-seeking system stimulates ambition.

When someone's pursuit of money succeeds enough to surpass a certain threshold, the money itself attracts more money. But social forces will also be trying to strip away that money, as other seekers try to get their own pile. A big enough pile of money creates its own community, feeding off of it and supporting it, which is why immensely wealthy people are not bled dry and left as stripped carcasses. The ownership of the fortune is irrelevant to the industry that forms to exploit it. The symbionts know better than to kill the host.

Sometimes the symbionts turn into parasites and do kill the host. Or the pile of money is too small to breed its own protective colony of workers and soldiers, so rival colonies raid it. Picture the poor schmoe whose investment portfolio tanks, leaving him without a retirement income just when he needs it. Sorry, loser! Please see the Assisted Suicide Department for your new retirement plan.

Unfortunately, fortunes are often made in destructive endeavors. The supporting community that feeds off of the wealth at the center of it must therefore serve the destructive enterprise faithfully in order to maintain position. The destructive enterprises tear down society as a whole, but this only makes the island built around wealth look like a more vital refuge against personal failure, poverty, and misery.

All the while, humans have been getting better and better at staying alive. Even during the mass slaughter of World War II, the human population went up, as we fought back against the diseases and famines that had always been more deadly to us than our own aggressive tendencies. All those people want to live. They look for the necessities first and luxuries soon afterward.

Clearly, a lot of the world's population still seeks to secure the necessities, while a privileged minority seeks more and more luxury. That privileged core shrinks steadily as it attracts more and more resources to itself. This places an ever growing number of people at risk of calamity.

A major part of the problem is the ever growing number itself. Instinct drives us to replicate. Hardship encourages us to replicate more energetically, so that someone might survive to carry on. Instinct never notices how successful this imperative has already been. And instinct gets awfully whiny when intellect tries to take a different path.

In a world already carrying more people than the ecosystem can support, people from many different belief systems can see the value of eliminating some of them. The ranks of the disposable will vary depending on the belief system. Even that is based in instinct, as our centuries of warfare over territory and resources will attest.

The United States is currently under the control of a faction that believes with religious fervor in the notion that your monetary worth defines your actual worth. They'll pay lip service to charity, but their actions betray the sink or swim mentality that motivates their policies. It's pay to play here in the land of the free.

Pay to play sounds okay as a way to eliminate the dead wood, as long as you believe that a person's ability to attract money is the primary filter by which we should select. Get a job, slacker! Pull your weight! No work, no eat! Of course a sufficiently disciplined communist or socialist society could say the same things, without the slippery pricing structure. Truly inert people are a drain on any form of society. But in capitalism as currently practiced in the United States, every person is an independent contractor, trying to negotiate prices in a hostile marketplace where everything is priced for the vendors' maximum profit.

I'll bet insurance actuaries have already figured out the optimum lifespan that will provide the most profit. This information will be more tightly guarded than the nuclear launch codes, and is potentially more explosive. But it is also a moving target, as the people's earning power changes. For vast numbers of us, that change is downward.

Is downward bad? A massive die-off, particularly among industrialized nations, would take a lot of pressure off of the environment. First you become poor. Then the industrialist system makes sure you die of it. The industrialist system subsequently dies because no one is left to buy its products, but it's a good run of quarterly reports leading up to that. Think of mass death among the poor as the ultimate layoff.

I try to be a useful citizen, but I set myself against the destructive economy decades ago. Thus, I have been worthless to society my entire adult life. Promoting tolerance and a gentle, largely non-motorized lifestyle is an attack on what the monetarians believe makes this country great. If a younger generation decides I was on the right track, norms may shift, but I fear it will be too late for me. Even if the social climate embraces sustainable and kindly practices, it may discover that longevity is itself unsustainable. A person needs to be contributing to the general welfare. Anyone who does not is just an expensive pet. That includes Grandmom and Granddad. Who cares if you're still enjoying yourself? If we have to chip in for expensive medical interventions, you need to go out into the wilderness and quit burdening the tribe.

It's easy to play with such thought experiments until the pangs of age start to chip away at you. Life is a habit. Even in my darkest depression (so far) I don't want to give it up. But logic inclines me more frequently to run a balance sheet on myself to see if it might be time to get out of the way. I dread the day when I can't make the equation work in my favor. I also find myself running the calculation every morning.

Having failed to provide myself with the protective cocoon of money I would need to pay for the various medical services that an aging person requires, I don't deserve to live, as far as capitalism is concerned. I can spin the game out a bit longer by selling my home and most of my possessions. Poor people don't deserve homes and possessions. And in nature, any creature that can no longer furnish a nest and dodge predators will shortly become food. So by any measure, the vast majority of humans do no good, even if they do no harm. The bottom line is suffering. Ask not what the money supply can do for you. Ask what you can do for the money supply.