Money is an abstraction which has taken on a life of its own:
It seems almost unnecessary to elaborate on the lengths people
will go to try and acquire some, and the effects it seems to have
on people’s behavior.
Nevertheless, it is important to remind ourselves that money is,
fundamentally, a useful fiction: a way to keep track of obligations,
and of energy expended, and to help implement the “Tit for Tat” social program
that optimizes the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.
The problem is when the abstraction (“making money”)
becomes an end in and of itself.
It doesn’t really matter how it’s made, as long as the numbers go up.
And up, and up, and up.
We celebrate higher numbers and mourn lower ones.
We celebrate even as people suffer, and mourn even as people thrive.
In Computer Science terms, this is a “Leaky Abstraction”:
the abstraction of money does not fully align with
the underlying realities of wealth and abundance
that it is supposed to represent.
Any further derivatives of the abstraction become even “leakier”,
so that the abstractions eventually become completely divorced from reality.
This is why interest is forbidden by both the Bible and the Koran:
Interest is an attempt to create wealth from the abstraction itself,
instead of creating wealth by creating something of value.
“If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor,
you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him.”
“You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest on money,
interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest.”
Interest ostensibly commodifies time, but this too must be an illusion,
as time is the ultimate intangible, and may not even exist as such.
In other words, if money is, as an abstraction of goods and services, a useful fiction,
interest, a derivative of an abstraction, is a harmful one.
In an economy where debt is crippling both people and nations,
it is well past time to reconsider our primary mechanism for credit.
Another fiction that emerges from the abstraction that is money is
the fiction of economic growth, and more specifically,
the fiction of the necessity of economic growth.
That the number associated with the total economy ought to increase is a
strange idea indeed. Why should it?
The hypothesis seems to be that if the abstract number grows,
then perhaps “progress” is being made: “a rising tide lifts all boats”.
This is patently untrue, empirically.
Income inequality is increasing, the environment is being ravaged,
the climate is being disrupted, natural (that is, ecological) wealth is being depleted, and
institutional trust, particularly in the United States, is at a nadir.
What growth, in real, practical terms, have we as a society and a planet been seeing,
as the number goes up?
What we are actually seeing is a commodification of every aspect of human existence,
from food, water, shelter, healthcare, and education, and more recently,
to new forms of social interaction.
Religion and spirituality have not been immune to commodification, certainly.
All this in the name of economic growth.
Being that money is a convenient but “leaky” fiction, the problem is then that
it is also a consensual reality, as well as a “game”, so it is difficult to survive
in modern society without playing along.
This requires a certain cognitive dissonance, as we work aimlessly to “create value”,
even as we witness a deterioration of our ecosystems, a general reduction of quality of goods
(with “Planned Obsolescence” being the logical conclusion of prioritizing the abstraction),
heartless social policies (so-called “Austerity”), a degradation, through commercialization, of culture,
and widespread nihilism and malaise.
The solution, fortunately, is relatively simple, if not easy:
to look away from the glamour of the numbers themselves,
and to look at the reality.
Perhaps we must have income to survive, but must we charge and pay interest?
Must we speculate on “futures”?
Must we worship at the altar of “economic growth”?
Must everything in our world have an exchange rate?
These have all created at least as many problems as they’ve solved, useless abstractions that they are.
Money is useful, and I believe that ultimately we still need it
in a society where money does roughly approximate energy expended.
We need it as part of our system of give and take: it gives us a reasonable basis for trade.
But we need to focus on economic stability, and security,
so that people don’t go to bed (if they have one) at night
wondering where their next dollar will come from.
We need to focus on creating real wealth, and real abundance,
starting with protecting our greatest treasure, the planet and its ecosystems,
making sure the money part is abstracted from that,
and not pretending like it’s the other way around.
(Originally written June 7, 2017. Edited and updated.)
Technologically speaking, we live in an abundant society. We absolutely have more than enough resources to provide for every person’s needs in a sustainable manner, and we are developing new methods of increasing abundance. To name a few:
We have more than enough space for everyone, and more than enough food. By almost any measure of any basic need, we have more than enough.
Why, then, does our global society show such deprivation and fear, to the point where everyone is terrified of losing what they have? To put it in New Age terms, why are we manifesting such lack?
Alternatively, why are we pissing in the well from which we drink, and sawing off the branch on which we perch?
What is the underlying disorder that is causing our society to behave so irrationally?
“For whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”
It doesn’t need to be this way. We can have:
- Food and shelter for every man, woman, and child on earth;
- Clean air and water;
- A total cessation of warfare;
- Technological innovation;
- Mutual respect of all nations and cultures;
- Individual autonomy and dignity;
- Universal basic health care for all people;
- Excellent public schools;
- Thriving communities and safe neighborhoods;
- Participatory democracy;
- Cooperative economies;
- A free (as in speech) and unfettered internet;
- Clean and sustainable industry;
- Vibrant and evolving arts and culture;
and more, tomorrow!
What is stopping us?
It is not sufficient to blame the government: millions of people across the country empowered (and continue to empower) the current administration and allowed for its destructive policies to be put in place, perhaps out of fear, or perhaps out of a lack of a better vision.
This is a better vision. We can do better. We must.
The opposite of Sustainability is Death.
Collectively, we must embrace a positive new vision of what we actually want as a people and a society, as opposed to reacting with a doomed “Anybody But _______” approach.
An ugly, radical new vision is being presented by those in power today, and it is likely to get worse if they continue to get their way. It is up to us to put forth a beautiful new vision to counter that ugliness, to work together to achieve this vision, to insist on it, to fight for it, and to manifest it proudly and fearlessly, with love, so that there is no room for the sickening status quo, whose tired Thanatonian philosophy has long overstayed its welcome.
We in the United States are in a position where the President and his associates are currently under investigation by the FBI for collusion with a (non-democratic) foreign power, which is now suspected with tampering in the French electoral process as well. According to ongoing reporting by the thankfully still free & independent press, which the President has relentlessly attacked in true dictatorial style, undoubtedly because he understands the truth is a threat, many members of his inner circle may be violating the law by maintaining massive financial conflicts of interest. Meanwhile, the President’s hideous budget calls for cuts to or the elimination of virtually every service that vulnerable Americans depend on, up to and including Meals on Wheels, a simple, effective program that feeds the elderly who are unable to feed themselves. All this is happening after one of the ugliest and most poisonous elections in the country’s history.
The hateful, racist alt-right, which sees in Trump’s rise a resurgence of white nationalism, is mirrored by an increasingly angry, militant, and grim new Left, whose calls for resistance and revolution are becoming surprisingly mainstream. Stuck in the middle are millions of anxious, confused, & befuddled people who simply want this whole nightmare to blow over, and for things to go back to the way they were. They won’t. We have not yet reached 100 days of Trump’s administration, and we already seem to be increasingly at risk of nuclear war (!) with North Korea. If we manage to avoid that, the reality of climate change, which is, incredibly, being exacerbated by the administration’s policies, will inevitably bring misery and suffering to millions. We are engaged in high-stakes gambling with the future of the planet, and history suggests we are unlikely to win.
The political instability this country is facing is not the cause, but a symptom of deep trauma & malaise, fundamentally ethical, and also the symptom of a damaged national psyche whose origin dates at least to the Vietnam War and probably before.
“We don’t win wars anymore,” said Mr. Trump on the campaign trail. But who’s counting? Does it even matter? Who could “win” in Iraq or Afghanistan? Only for-profit military contractors that scored big no-bid contracts. Not the employees, per se, but certainly their shareholders (likely including Trump nominee Betsy DeVos).
The Iraq War was not necessarily about oil, and obviously not about weapons of mass destruction. It was really just about war, for its own sake: a way to stimulate the economy, create “jobs”, privatize socialized property (including oil), and manufacture and test new weapons. There was nothing to “win”, and no real reason to. In war for its own sake, there need be no victor: destruction and production are enough. “Nation building” means digging a hole, then filling it. Rinse and repeat.
That the whole botched “Shock and Awe” disaster has resulted in a new virulent religious death cult that is plaguing the world today simply creates another business opportunity to invest in: increasingly intrusive “security”, which Americans have been the “early adopters” of ever since. In the public sector, the increased demand for security has resulted in an increasingly militarized police.
So Mr. Trump obviously misses the point when he talks about “winning wars”, apparently thinking that they are about international contests rather than free enterprise. His even more hideous vision of war, that of white nationalistic conquest, in which black and brown people are forced into their “place” in a fictional, invented, endlessly disproven fantasy of racial hierarchy (a fantasy which, if it did not necessarily win Mr. Trump the election, obviously did not cost it for him), can only result in a literal Hell on Earth: something genuinely apocalyptic, for whites as well as everyone else, as implementing his vision would result in the suppression of all diversity and dissent, and likely any kind of individuality whatsoever. It requires everyone to be a square peg in a square hole, and Heaven help those who cannot or refuse to fit. This is Fascism at its core: conformity to an racial ideal is impossible for anyone (no matter how close they seem to be), and ultimately pointless anyway. It’s easier and much more fun to be yourself.
In any case, his awful agenda involves sawing off the branch on which we all sit, by detaining, deporting, and harassing massive and critical segments of the U.S. workforce, and pissing in the well from which we all drink, by gutting any semblance of environmental protection (of course, those are only the two of the more disturbing parts of his platform, and ignore his attacks on health care, education, the arts…).
Our world is already on the cusp of climate disaster. The seasons are being eradicated, and the weather is increasingly chaos. Temperatures vary by twenty, thirty, or more degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of hours (this is typical of a particular kind of climate region: the desert). All this in addition to the usual widespread toxic pollution that does not necessarily affect the climate, merely human health. The current administration’s literally suicidal approach is not only to do less to prevent all this, but to accelerate towards oblivion with maniacal abandon. And there were already attempts by the administration to stifle scientific reporting before Mr. Trump even took office. True, there are profits to be made by razing rainforests to produce disposable paper cups and palm oil, but at a certain point, we run out not only of ancient forests to destroy, but also of clean water to pour into the paper cup (of course, privatizing water is big business as well: the workings of supply & demand here are painfully obvious). The opposite of “Sustainability” is “Death”. We must choose Life!
The film “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a tragic, beautiful, & horrific vision of our world one click away from oblivion. The world is desert, overrun with violent gangs racing to the bottom, competing over what little food & fuel is left in the world. Humanity is ravaged with disease, and extinction seems almost preferable to the degenerate, illiterate, brutish, and miserable life the few remaining survivors lead. Few in the audience would trade places with even the “elite” of that deranged world.
This essay is primarily a prayer that we avoid that ruinous path. When the results of the election was announced, I personally plunged into an emotional darkness that I know many others across the country felt. It seemed that the bottom had fallen out, and the hell-world of “Fury Road” was just one of the possible fates looming far below that we risked plummeting towards, in free fall. It is no small miracle that we haven’t, largely because a collective “NO” has reverberated from so many corners of the country and the world. Whatever the outcome, this “NO” has shook the world.
“Now what?” is the daily/weekly/monthly question that has been asked since the election. Now what, indeed? Will the genie go back into the bottle? Will our economy continue to be based on disposable cups/plates/towels/napkins/clothing/furniture/phones/cameras/cars and virtually everything else? Are we going to continue to demonize the poor even as our systems demoralize and destroy them? Are we going to continue to try and quantify and measure every aspect of every human being as “Big Data” in order to rank them and classify them according to some misguided and asinine formula or algorithm, in a manner akin to phrenology? Are we going to continue to strip any semblance of privacy & dignity from every person while normalizing the sick fiction that the virtual world is a healthy place to maintain our social lives? Are we going to continue to treat art & culture as nothing more than a commodity to be bought and sold? Are we going to continue to hate, fear, & denigrate the “Other” as we excuse and ignore the most heinous acts from “our team”?
Or will we finally, finally, finally, halt our madness with the simplest of attitudes: one of prudence, humility, non-violence, & respect, and perhaps, eventually, trust?
There is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and not only is the amount is increasing daily, but the rate it is increasing is itself increasing, as more people from more nations continue modernize, with the effect of increased carbon
output. The long term effects of high levels of carbon dioxide are not well understood, and the short term effects are appearing today.
The most obvious solution to this problem would be to reduce carbon emissions wherever possible. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be politically or economically feasible. Cutting carbon drastically would also require significant lifestyle changes across the globe. When it comes to cutting down carbon output, likely the best that could be practically acheived would be to slow the rate down, which would not be enough, and even that appears unlikely.
Another proposed solution to the problem is geoengineering, which involves launching shiny particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from the earth, cooling it. This has two major drawbacks – first, it does nothing to reduce the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere, and second, by focusing on cooling the planet, it addresses only temperature, and not any other possible side effects of elevated CO2 levels.
I propose that a genetically-engineered bacteria designed to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen be released into the atmosphere. The bacteria would inhale carbon, and in fact thrive in a carbon rich environment.
Single-celled organisms that consume carbon and exhale oxygen already exist and are well-studied. Algae, or pond-scum, are examples of such a species. Scientists have already discovered microorganisms living in the upper atmosphere, many of which live off of carbon dioxide. It would be well within the capabilities of the scientific community to genetically modify one of these microorganisms and release more of them into the atmosphere.
It may not even be necessary to intervene in a natural process that is already underway. These microorganisms exist, and are likely to continue to thrive on the huge amounts of carbon entering our atmosphere. I suggest that we need only to speed this process along, so that the damage of elevated carbon levels in the atmosphere would be minimized.
One of the most appealing aspects of this solution is the apparent lack of side effects. Obviously, any potential perils of this approach should be carefully considered and studied. But the byproducts of these microorganisms would primarily be oxygen. Other byproducts could be controlled in the lab. These would be “good” bacteria, like many of the ones that comprise an essential part of human digestion.