Monday, January 31, 2011

Amtrak as Allegory

The train has jumped the track and is heading off the cliff.  The front of the train is already in the air.

Meanwhile the passengers in the back are arguing about the seating arrangements.  Although there are more than enough seats for everyone, it appears that a few of the passengers have claimed multiple seats for themselves while the rest are forced to sit three and four to a seat or to stand in the aisle.   Things are getting heated and it is only a matter of time before the passengers in the aisle revolt and force a more equitable redistribution. 

Only a matter of time...   

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Machine is in Our Heads (Part 2): Statistics Don’t Feel Pain

The conceptual frame that encases our social institutions, schools, governments, media—our very language in terms of our base metaphors—is derived from the goals of industrial mass production and the obligatory mass consumption that it entails.  Qualitative features of human wellbeing are recoded into quantitative terms and measured according to standards of mechanical output and efficiency.  Statistical indicators, proportions, averages—tools of Wall Street and corporate industry—have long replaced any reference to raw, qualitative human experience.  This frame reinforces the delusion of technological progress and disguises the unrelenting and progressive dehumanization and the deterioration in the quality of human experience that the delusion of progress engenders.

Consider the case of infant mortality, a statistic that is frequently used as a quantitative indicator of the quality of life.  Thanks to humanitarian international policy, modern medical technology, and the fruits of nutrition science—not to mention industrial agriculture—the global infant mortality rate is on the decline.  What does that mean?  From an industrial frame it represents a positive outcome: an increase in the overall quality of life.  However, a positive quantitative outcome in this case does not mean a reduction in human suffering because a decline in global infant mortality does not mean that fewer babies are dying.  In point of fact, more babies will die this year than died 10 years ago.  Or 25 years ago.  Or 100 years ago.   In point of fact, more infants will succumb this one year than in any given 30 year period prior to the agricultural revolution.

“Lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Infant mortality is typically computed as the number of infant deaths per every 1000 live births.   Infant mortality worldwide stands at 44.13 per 1000 live births according to the CIA World Factbook. With a yearly global birth rate of just under 20 babies per every 1000 people, and a global population of 6.8 billion, there are, in raw human terms, 6 million infants who die each year. 

Human global population estimates for the Paleolithic range from fewer than 2 million to not more than 20 million.  Both birth rates and infant mortality were probably lower than they are now.  Women who survived to childbearing age were likely far healthier and more robust than women living today in the third-world.  And family planning takes on quite a different dimension when you are living in a small, interdependent, nomadic tribal group.  But, for the sake of argument, let’s use the numbers found in Uganda and Niger, the countries with the highest birth rates—over 50 per 1000 for Niger, and let’s take the country with the highest infant mortality rate, Angola, at 178.13 per 1000.  If we apply these numbers to the high Paleolithic population estimates, until the onset of large-scale domestication there were fewer than 200,000 babies who died in an average year  (Remember: the increase in global human population since the Paleolithic is a “byproduct” of “progress” in agricultural and industrial technology.) To frame this in the quantitative terms of industrial production:  there are somewhere between 30 and 300 times as many babies dying each year in our technologically advance modern civilization than died 10,000 years ago.             

If you measure suffering from a human perspective, according to the actual experience of individual human beings, technological “progress” brings more suffering, not less—and not just a little more!

But of course future technological “progress” will be able to fix all that…

Delusion (noun): a persistent false belief that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Machine is in Our Heads (Part 1): Drinking the Radioactive Koolaid

Today I heard someone extolling the virtues of nuclear power.  Nuclear power is “a step in the right direction” that provides a medium for us to “forge ahead” toward “positive outcomes.”  When I asked what was meant by “positive outcomes”—positive in what way, for whom, for how long—and what we might do with the spent fuel rods that will be poisoning the environment for longer than there have been humans on the planet, I was given an answer in kW-hours and long-term return on investment, and told that there have been “great strides” in converting spent radioactive fuel into relatively harmless “products” that can be “safely stored.”  Nuclear disasters like Three-mile Island and Chernobyl and past problems with fissile material storage and disposal were results of “mismanagement and a lack of foresight.”

Products?  Sure, why not?  Consumable output is the whole point of industrial production in the first place.  It’s right there in the word product-ion.  And safely stored?  What, for a rainy day? “Hey, we’re running low on spent fuel rods; could you run down to the supply closet and grab a couple?”    

But it’s the claim that nuclear “accidents” and past failures to secure nuclear waste were a result of mismanagement and a lack of foresight that is most disturbing to me.  The unquestioned belief that tomorrow’s technology (systems of management are a technology) will be able to compensate for the defects of today’s is a malignant side-effect of the delusion of progress.  Phrases such as step in the right direction, forge ahead, make great strides, achieve positive outcomes, and of course the term progress itself, are frequent players in the rhetoric that feeds this delusion. 

About next week's MLK holiday...

Passive resistance is an oxymoron.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Is "Green" Self-Eliminating?

Garrett Hardin, in his well-known Tragedy of the Commons included a section entitled “Conscience is Self-Eliminating” where he discussed Darwin’s insight that you can’t rely on human conscientiousness to control population growth because the tendency to act on conscience is a variable human trait.  The people who would act on conscience to curtail their reproductive behavior would pass this tendency along to fewer children, and the tendency to act according to conscience would be washed out of the population in just a few generations.  The potent irony with this is that the attempt to tap into our altruistic propensities would actually make things worse in the long run by eliminating those very propensities.  

Ironic and extremely counterintuitive.

I’m wondering whether there is a somewhat analogous dynamic in play with respect to “being green.”  Convincing people to “be green,” conserving gasoline, recycling, avoiding plastics, using energy efficient appliances, reducing consumption, etc., actually buys more time for the global industrial machine.  The more time the industrial machine is allowed to operate unabated, the worse off the planet will be when the machine finally implodes—the larger the dependent human population, the fewer remaining animal species, the more toxic the land, air, and oceans, etc.

Also, “green” behavior provides an outlet for the guilt people of conscience naturally feel over their complicity in the ongoing industrial holocaust.  In what ways might this guilt be harnessed if it were not for the corporate-sponsored mass-delusion that wearing hemp shirts, riding  a bicycle, and buying locally grown organic produce somehow magically helps save the planet?

I think that there might be more potent ways in which to assuage a guilty conscience.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Institutions Don't Bleed

I was recently listening to an administrator discuss the financial state of his institution.  It could have been any administrator in any institution—the fact that it was the chief financial officer of a small liberal arts college is only of minor relevance.  An unspoken and unquestioned premise behind his message was that the good of the institution outweighs the needs of the individuals whose accumulative time, labor, and assent are responsible for the institution’s continued existence.   Individuals are expected to sacrifice—or be sacrificed, if necessary—whenever the “needs” of the institution are in conflict with the needs of the individuals themselves.  This premise is so fundamental that no institution could persist without its tacit and unwavering acceptance.

But the premise is clearly indefensible.  Human beings have needs.  Institutions are abstractions, organizational tools designed to facilitate the ends of individuals.  It is always an open question as to whether the continued existence of the institution is in anybody’s best interest.  And that applies to governments, multinational corporations, and small liberal arts colleges in equal measure.

The inertia of the status quo appears to defy Newton’s laws, unassailable by any external force.  The persistence of institutions, governments, entire civilizations, rapidly becomes an end in itself, and the natural order of things is reversed: a useful tool in the service of human ends becomes human ends entrained to service the “goals” of the tool. 

To dismantle an institution that has ceased to serve human needs, to destroy—by violent means if need be—any tool that threatens our humanity is a moral imperative.