The End of Civilization as We Know It

I’ve been reading a commentary lauding the virtues of free-market Capitalism. The author champions the Ayn Randian conception of unrestrained capitalistic growth, giving free-rein to anyone with the wits and ambition to produce without regulative restriction, capital goods and services, which, he tells us, means more quality products produced through competition which in the end, we are assured, will raise everyone’s quality of life. A bit of social engineering through subtle advertising will convince us all to buy more, seek out the wondrous new products we had no idea even existed just yesterday.

My skeptical nature leads me to see a problem with such a rosy picture. For just one thing, these new and wonderful life-enhancing, time-saving products will (and, of course, have already) require(d) us consumers to put in extra time at work and, I suspect we will, before long,( in the immortal words of the great Tennessee Ernie Ford), ‘owe our soul(s) to the company store’.

More for you, more for me may sound good but uncontrolled exploitation of the earth’s resources will result in scarcity which will put the ‘good life’ out of the reach of increasing numbers of working poor. Without viable consumers, producing industries will fail and before long, just a matter of time, we will experience the collapse of civilization as we know it. A new Dark Age will ensue; survivors will find new meanings and values in existence and begin again to build family and community.

Well, maybe I’m being a bit extreme in my imaginings; but maybe not.

An Incurable Romantic

I suppose there must be an inclination for the thoughtful mind to balance opposites. During the 18th century the scientistic logic of the Enlightenment generated the philosophical counterpoint of Romanticism, a view of nature as transcendent ‘beauty as truth, truth beauty’. The thinking was, I guess, that Nature was the source of all knowledge, the way to deep understanding, so communing with nature, engaging in contemplation of the natural world was the way one might proceed to fully find the secrets our world holds.

I wonder if the adolescent ideas of ‘romance’ get in the way sometimes of an understanding of the significance of this early philosophy. Certainly the aspects of the romantic displayed in media dramatics: maudlin emotionalism, heroic fantasy and the like are a far cry from the philosophical significance of 18th century Romanticism.

I think that the attention to our nurturing natural world that the Romantics found so significant mustn’t be forgotten. The contemplative mind will embrace those ideas and work to philosophically assimilate them. Hopefully the true’ Romantic spirit’ won’t be lost amidst the superficiality of our popular culture.

Capitalism

I’ve been reading, how, in the 18th century the spirit of capitalism was instrumental in establishing wide spread personal freedoms and a kinder more cooperative society. The concept of free marketing meant everyone had opportunity to go into business for herself, solidifying her relationship with her fellow townsfolk and contributing to the betterment of all.

I guess it took a while before the realization there might be a downside to a materialistic prosperity to take hold. Class division, owners versus workers, made for disproportionate gains. Access to natural resources, mineral and timber rights and land ownership contentions, leading eventually to excessive exploitation of resources all spelled out a basic human fallibility: an over-blown, out-of-control self-interest. Obtaining more, often much more, didn’t necessarily translate to altruistic behaviors.

And, now, as the divide between the moneyed and the poor continues to grow, the more enlightened among us call for a moral capitalism, a conservation of the earth’s resources and a fairer distribution of wealth.

As I look about at what’s happening these days it appears we still have a way to go with that.

A Social Contract

I’ve been reading about the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who developed quite an enthusiastic following in 18th century France. The gist of his thinking had to do with the idea of subordinating individuality to participation in the ‘social welfare’ of all in the community (which he identified pretty clearly as ‘us’ not ‘them’, a xenophobe, I guess). He advocated a purer, simpler life free of the oppressive class divisions that competitive commercialism produced. The primacy of our community should always supersede personal acquisition and behaviors, he offered, which sounded to pretty much everyone at the time a virtuous direction for society to take.

Anyway, around the same time the enlightened public (the well-to-do ones anyway) were enthusiastically embracing these ideas, the king, Louis XVI was bankrupting France, allowing a lot of folks to go homeless and starving in the streets. Oblivious to the plight of the masses his Queen, Marie Antoinette, suggested that if the people were starving they should just go ahead and eat cake.

The people understandably revolted, stormed the Bastille, released political prisoners and guillotined the royal couple. The leadership vacuum was filled by the likes of an egocentric Robespierre who took to extremes the philosophical perspectives of our Rousseau such that if one wasn’t overtly sacrificing for the ‘general will’ she might likely end of guillotined or hung. Apparently, Rousseau’s ideas got a bit out of hand, applied with a bit too much zeal.

Lessons to be learned, I guess: be skeptical of leaders that attempt to isolate and demonize a perceived evil ‘other’, that find conspiracies were they don’t exist. Do we need another Napoleon?

Wisdom

I’ve been wondering lately how exactly one achieves wisdom. After reading credible commentary on the actual lives of some of western civilization’s most notable philosophers it appears that, more often than not, the great minds of history have fallen well short of achieving the high ideals they advocate in their writings. When it came to basic living and social functioning many of our philosophical heroes struggled; were pretty inept to be perfectly honest. They often capitulated to oppositional forces out of fear of retribution from an intolerant church or tyrannical politics. They tended to fail in attempts to establish lasting relationships and they regularly came up short of the moral imperatives they so often championed.

It makes me wonder how seriously I should take Socrates admonishment that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ or the Delphic injunction to ‘know thyself’. Should I even wonder what I can know or what ultimately I ought to do? Can I hope for more than what I have reasonably before me?

The alternative, though, is daunting: proceeding without direction, acting exclusively from self-interest or pursuing survival as an end-in-itself. I guess great ideas and thoughts lift us above the mundane, offer possibility and hopefully help us maintain a healthy sense of altruistic support for our fellow man.

I guess I’ll keep reading.

Saving Planet A

I’ve discovered recently the thoughts of an innovative thinker, Kim Stanley Robinson, who has some quite amazing ideas about how we might potentially nurse our threatened world back to health or at least slow its deterioration.

Could it be possible to blast particulates into the earth’s atmosphere, simulating a volcanic explosion, to filter the heat of the sun with the very positive result of lowering temperatures? How about spraying sea water onto the polar ice caps on a massive scale to recapture the melting seas? Technologically and economically challenging ideas I suppose but at what point will such extreme measures be necessary to save the world?

Then there’s the concept of ‘quantitative easing’, a method of monetary manipulation that’s already been employed to stave off financial crises by ‘producing’ large amounts of capital. Perhaps with the proper monetary incentives farmers could be induced to engage in carbon trapping technologies and to replant acreage in bio-diverse forest lands. With additional capital solar and wind farms could become a primary factor in electricity production. Everyone, given the proper incentives could move toward clean energy transportation.

Being that there’s little doubt that impending environmental disaster is imminent, perhaps innovative thinkers like Kim Stanley Robinson should be taken seriously.

 

The Ancients

I’ve been wondering, lately, if anyone thinks about the ancients anymore. I’ve been reading about the polarizing political intrigues that engulfed Plato in the later years of his life. He found his integrity compromised despite his best intentions to teach the young ruler Dionysius philosophy, geometry and the path to a deeper understanding of the ultimate realities.

I guess the idea that absolute power, which is what these early Greek tyrants had, corrupts absolutely holds most of the time. Diogenes the Cynic certainly understood this. In protest to the perverse values of the time he cast off all social conventions (along with most of his clothes) and wandered the streets of Athens seeking an honest man while living hand to mouth, without material possessions of any sort, in a castoff wine barrel.

Some things never change I guess. It’s pretty evident today that the inclination to wield power trumps thoughtful contemplation, reasoned pursuit of the good and the just and true pretty much every time.

Virtual Reality and Dementia

I’ve been reading that Virtual Reality technology is becoming pretty sophisticated these days: put on the headset and find yourself in an alternate world so all-encompassing it all becomes pretty believable. Well, as a recreation anyway.

Apparently the technology is being applied to nursing home residents suffering from dementia. The intent is to help them restore brain function, I guess. I’m wondering if or when VR will be taken a step further: headsets for hospice care. I can imagine, rather than heavy sedation a journey to a pain-free realm of serenity, beauty and peace might not be such a bad way to retire from life.

What would happen, I wonder, as physical life expires. Does one live on psychically in beautiful VR? Seems kind of religious. Could it be technological advances will redefine the notion of heaven?

Leisure Capitalism

I’ve been reading, lately, about this idea, sort of a thought experiment I guess, offered by an innovative thinker that addresses concerns about the health of our planet. The idea, leisure capitalism, proposes reducing the hours workers work by as much as half. The twenty hour work week would reduce considerably the toxic emissions we are presently spewing into the atmosphere and relieve pressure on our contaminated waterways and depleted forests. These things will be accomplished by reducing work commutes, industrial run-off and large-scale harvesting of South American rain forest.

The wealth of the developed world could easily compensate workers with a living wage and, one would think leisure capitalism would be an idea enthusiastically embraced by the majority of people who could then pursue recreational interests, the nature of which might responsibly be directed toward healthy non-polluting activities.

While the western world is scaling down production developing countries could be encouraged to increase production, raising the standard of living for many in poverty to reasonable levels enjoyed by most of us, after which production can be reduced and people everywhere can find meaning in recreational pursuits.

Seems to me like a great idea for those of us who find pleasure and meaning in activities not providing a paycheck, but I suspect there will be plenty of folks not willing to forego wealth accumulation, status relationships and economic power. The folks, who, I suspect, find it expedient to deny climate change wouldn’t look favorably toward doubling (tripling?) worker wages in the interests of bringing our earth back to full health.

Well, in my mind, the idea of leisure capitalism is optimistic and uplifting even though probably unrealizable. Still, let’s hope innovative thinkers will always be with us.

Why Western Europeans Dominated the Rest of the World for Awhile

So, as I understand it, a long time ago, way back, as humankind emerged from their hunter/gatherer roots, civilization developed in the Fertile Crescent (it being a place particularly conducive to plant and animal domestication) while much of the rest of the world,( save China and a bit later Mesoamerica), remained tribal people for millennia.

Before too long these newly sedentary farmers created complex societies that produced artisan craftsman and a written language. Unfortunately for those urbanizing folks they didn’t have a good grasp on the importance of environmental stewardship: deforestation and soil degradation took its toll. The civilizations of the Fertile Crescent fell into decline.

But, over the millennia, technologies developed by these folks traveled with relative ease and speed into soil rich Western Europe, where, before long, (relatively speaking), the Spanish, Portuguese, French, English and Dutch became the powers that dominated and exploited the rest of the world.

And so, it’s pretty clear geography and circumstance is responsible to a considerable extent for the historical dominance of the Western Europeans. One would think such knowledge would undermine the racist tendencies of our primitive minds. I fear that’s not the case.