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On the Eve of the Next Round of Terrible Mistakes

What is to be Done (Now)?

by JAMES KEYE

(With apologies to Tolstoy and Lenin.)

Stripped of arguments around correctness and efficacy, humans are at base a ‘doing’ animal.  It is never that as a whole we do too little, but always a matter of what is done.

There is a simple initial answer to the question of what to do: you need to know who to trust concerning the several vital issues confronting you personally, the political/economic structures in which your social system functions and the issues facing humanity in general as we impact the limits of the biophysical possibilities of the earth.  There is another alternative, of course: that you study all of these issues well enough on your own that you can tease out from the various presentations those that are the closest to Reality.  In one of those twists that can sometimes save a bad situation: making a serious effort at the second creates the possibility of the first.

We usually begin trusting parents or other significant “adults.” From that uncertain beginning categories like teachers, preachers, certain political and news media figures and, often, scientists and academics are added. And far too often, because of the massive burden of nebulous information and the swarming bees of self-interest obscuring every issue, we retreat into a local cynicism, even anti-intellectualism.

These are vital considerations since they determine whether our societies are to be functionally totalitarian or democratic (regardless of what we call them).  In a world with great real latitude for action, a world that is forgiving, that has effectively infinite resources and “unused” spaces, people and societies are allowed many errors of judgment; in such a world it is often possible to throw aside the consequences of mistakes and take up other options.  But, in a world of narrow options, when a 5 %, or even 1%, miscalculation ripples through the population with starvation, disease or war, with the consequences spreading through all human societies as well as nature’s essential processes, then decisions need to be arrived at using the best information available, from the most trusted, historically accurate sources.

A disengaged and therefore ultimately ignorant population cannot support a democracy when the collective action of that population has little room for error.  This a stark statement.  It is not that a totalitarianism will be, by any natural process, more aligned with Reality, only that it has a chance while, with a disengaged populous, a democracy does not; it would be a political system poorly adapted to its situation.  To act quickly and massively in situations of great moment requires the agreement of the significant actors in the population…regardless of how that agreement is attained.

* * *

These are the options before us to the extent that we can recognize them.  They are “theoretical” options, not choices, since the forces driving change are generally beyond our understanding and certainly beyond our controlling, especially as we move, more and more, into unforgiving regions.

And as is typical of our species, we have two opposing reactions.  One is to deny that we are facing great demands for the most carefully considered change – thus increasing the disengagement and ignorance – and the frantic and near frantic effort to learn as much as we can, in the ancient habit of survival, so we can overcome the obstacles confronting us.

The human animal will never form a global society of philosopher/scientists dispassionately examining the detail of evidence, evaluating, discussing and concluding by consensus. It therefore, falls to the beliefs that underlie our actions to guide us. Beliefs that disengage us, that lead to distrust and distortion must be replaced with beliefs that allow engagement with the best designs and methods for approximating Reality.

Here are simple statements of belief and understanding that need to be constantly presented to all who can be brought to listen – and eventually to ‘everyone.’  These must be simple statements, clear and unambiguous, regardless of how much they might differ from present beliefs.  Reason, logic and scientific understanding may be used in making arguments, but it is not argument that will ultimately prevail.  It is repetition, recognition and acceptance.  Humans are a community animal and, in their numbers, they believe and act in sympathy with their comprehension of community’s story of itself.

*  Humans can change the environment in which they live: a few humans with limited technology make small changes; many humans with powerful technology make huge changes.  Corollary: humans must be personally and individually careful of what they do to the world around them.

*  Humans are part of communities.  Individuals are biologically unique while also only being psychologically complete when acting as an element of community and integrated into its functioning.

*  Privacy and secrecy are rights of individuals and never of collectives; collectives are too potentially powerful to allow them to act in secret.

*  No person or group of persons can be allowed to act with impunity. Freedom is not to be understood as impunity. Corollary: All human action must be limited by the needs of the living world, other humans and biophysical stability.

*  Each person and community is responsible for the property in their care; property cannot be ‘that sole and despotic dominion’of English common law derived from the history of kingship.  Ownership must mean that the owner learns about and cares for that which is held in the relationship called property.

*  The whole community is responsible for its total economic product, its distribution and its excesses.  Individual persons may be moved to lead and innovate, but without the inherent design of community, its many forms of social support, history and infrastructure, such motivations could form no action. Corollary: all members of the community must have a just equity share in the community’s economic product based on a full evaluation of their contribution, not based on distorting power relations.

*  Having more wealth than is needed to be safe with basic comfort is obscene and not to be tolerated in our communities.  As a natural function for the maintenance of stability, communities should establish a maximum ratio of wealth between those who have the least and those who have the most. Corollary: desiring wealth in excess of needs is an emotional and ecological illness.

Individual humans must use as little of natural resources as they possibly can for the greatest possible gains in comfort and safety. Corollary: using little is good, using a lot is bad.

*  Health is both a well-working body and a purposeful relationship with community and environment.    If living long is the primary goal of life, it is then a long life wasted giving little account to that which forms a life of value.  Corollary: the hours spent trying to live long are no substitute for the hours spent living with purpose and joy and should not be traded one for the other.

Volumes of argument can be created (and have been) for each of these propositions, but that is not what is needed. These statements, in simple and direct form, can be the basis for a variety of sustainable human-based belief systems.  Of course, these beliefs have little constituency at this time, and there is no method or model to enforce them; in fact, an attempt to enforce them would defeat them.

Some of the consequences of holding such beliefs can be identified and some of them, that are appropriate, might be separately legislated. But, only by these beliefs taken as a whole, forming the basis of general understanding and action, will human action and the corresponding legal structure increasingly comport with the Realities that humanity faces as the result of our own prodigal behaviors.

The vital question is: how are these beliefs – or a better set – to be made central to human thought and action?  There are two basic answers. People need to see this synergism of beliefs as increasingly commonplace, they must hear them from trusted sources, see them working among their fellows and become comfortable enough with them to speak and act on them for themselves. Simply, if we wish them, we must act and speak them. And secondly, there must be an historically relevant motive force to drive them into those recesses of the human domain that will pay attention to nothing else: such as the imminent and undeniable failure of ecological systems.

I see various groups of humanity poised to make the next series of terrible mistakes, all based on beliefs that are almost in every case diametrically opposed to the ideas above: terrible mistakes of war, economic and social oppression, environmental damage and generally increased human suffering; driving all of earth’s miraculous life processes to ruinous extremes.  There are humans who realize that there can be no substantive change in our relationship with our fellows and with the earth itself until there is change in belief moving toward those offered here: there must be many more such people to make any difference. That is what is to be done.

James Keye is a retired teacher and small businessman living in Santa Fe, NM. He writes the blogs Keye Commentary and The Metacognition Project; his email is jkeye1632 at gmail dot com.