Our Place

Draft manuscript

 

I have put this on the back burner for now, because it did not have enough coherence.  It attempted to reconcile the humanitarian with the rational, the heart with the head.  We need to do this, but I could not see how to do it in a short book.  So it may become a separate book.

The manuscript also features artwork by Julie Tucker Hughes, an indigenous artist of the Kaurna people in the region of Adelaide, South Australia.

 

Here is an extract.

Prologue: A Kinder Conception

“What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.”

“It is the withdrawal of human compassion and kindness in the name of some greater cause that is the real danger that western humanity, with its restless search for significance, continually faces.”

The world is a rich and wondrous place.It is wealthy with the creations of a thousand cultures.The the diversity, vitality and creativity of people is uplifting.The world is also wealthy with species, millions, of astonishing variety and beauty.These species live in thousands of ecosystems whose intricacy we are only beginning to glimpse.Each species, each organism is itself of a complexity that we probably have not yet fathomed.

I am lucky enough to be among the globally connected, materially wealthy portion of humanity.Because of my wealth, and the technology it can buy, I can be uplifted by the buoyant happiness of Peruvian flute music or move to the joyous rhythms of West African drums.I can savour the graceful, convoluted boldness of the art of the Native Americans of the northwest coast.The music of Appalachia, the fiercely disciplined taiko drummers of Japan, the voice music of the Baka people of the African forest and the poignancy of a Celtic ballad all enrich my life.

Yet my own delight in our cultural richness often brings with it a jab of sadness.Many of these people are so poor.Many of them contend not only with difficult land or climate but with injustice or oppression.Many cultures are not just poor, they are being obliterated.Many have already gone from the face of the Earth.I grieve also when I hear of timber companies rampaging through the Congo forest.They reap a few selected trees and trash the rest, they open roads that enable a local trade in “bush meat” that includes the flesh of chimpanzees, our closest relatives, who will soon be extinct if we don’t soon act to stop the destruction.I grieve for our grandchildren, who are likely to inherit a difficult and impoverished planet, with many of its wonders and half its species gone, victims of an entirely preventable shift in climate.I grieve for all those wondrous living creatures that didn’t need us to bring them into existence, that can survive well without us, and that would thrive if only we would leave them some living space.

There are deep paradoxes in the present state of the world.Poor people express great joy even though their lives are a daily struggle, too often punctuated by tragedy.Many people in rich countries feel stressed and dissatisfied, and many in the rich countries are poor by any standard.The wealthy countries have come to conceive their purpose to be confined to the acquisition of ever-greater material wealth.The world is abundant, and could support well even the present numbers of humanity, but we degrade its abundance even as we demand more from it every day.

The happiness of the poor, expressed through their music and art, persists because they live in the embrace of family, community and culture that nurture their human spirit.We in the materially rich countries can learn from them.However, adding a sting to my sadness is the knowledge that their lives do not have to be so burdensome.There is enough food for everyone on the planet.The Earth is bountiful enough for every person to live a dignified life.

It is not a law of the universe that two thirds of humanity has to be deprived.Nor is it true that people can only live by destroying the natural world around them.Just as there are connections between falling apples and the motions of planets around the sun, so there are connections among shrinking forests, dying orang-utans and cheap goods in the big-box stores of wealthy countries.There are connections between financial market cowboys and the lives of ordinary people who don’t seem to have enough time for their families and friends any more.There are connections among abstract academic theories, poisoned rivers and vanishing forest people.

Though we don’t mean them to, choices we make every day create poverty and oppression, just as much as they create wealth and opportunity.We live within a dense web of connections, and those connections gather and combine our individual choices in certain ways, ways that tend to bring ridiculous material wealth to a few and poverty and lack of choice to many.This book is about those connections.It is about how the connections work, and how they determine the effect of our choices on the lives of others.It is also about how we could hook things together differently.We can ensure more wealth stays with the people who generate it.We can have the option of deciding we have enough material wealth, and choosing to spend more time with our families, friends and communities.We can live so the natural world can thrive around us.We can live with hope for the future.We can live fulfilling lives on a healthy planet.

The opening quotation is from Barbara Kingsolver’s fictional character Hallie, who went to Nicaragua to help ordinary people.Those people’s lives were, and are in reality, blighted by a conflict fuelled by ideology, and the ideology gains its power from greed and fear.The conflict was sponsored by Barbara’s and Hallie’s government, the government of the once and, may we wish, future beacon of mankind, the United States of America.Hallie wasn’t there to be a revolutionary heroine.She was there because she could no longer stand to be passive while people suffered at the hands of her compatriots.She was no longer willing to be hooked into a system of connections through which murderous barbarity was perpetrated.She had to find different, more direct, less compromised, more loving connections.

The second quotation is from Roger Osborne’s history of Western civilisation.It is his summation of the lessons from that history, and especially from the two World Wars and the Holocaust.Osborne quotes Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz and who sought to understand how the German people could have allowed the Holocaust.Not the just the ringleaders but others, including “those I had seen from close up … who did not have the frail courage to look into our eyes, throw us a piece of bread, whisper a human word.”Just to have offered those simple gestures would have created a bond of humanity.Without that bond, Osborne observes, there was no hope for the Jews.Nor should we simply condemn that generation of Germans, because we each have in us the potential to be ruled by fear or by love.Which way we live is for each of us, in every moment, to choose.

Our civilisation manifests other deep paradoxes.It has sponsored the creation of great beauty with wealth acquired through greed and brutality.Western civilisation, especially, has aspired to great goodness even as it perpetrated not just one but a series of holocausts that wiped cultures and peoples from the face of the Earth, and even as it descended into ever more horrific internal convulsions.Far too often, in our grand scheming, we have lost touch with simple kindness.

The economic regime that currently dominates much of the world is very much a product of this Western civilisation.It comes from the so-called Enlightenment, a time when Europeans discovered the power of reason, and used it to understand and control the world.Their conception of a rational, understandable world worked brilliantly for the physical world, but it gives a dangerously incomplete account of living things.Included among living things are human beings, our civilisations, our societies, and the economies that have supported those societies.That old Enlightenment conception of economies misses the essence of living systems, which is why people and other living things are suffering and dying in great numbers.

The extreme form of free-market economics that has ruled for the past three decades has been performing poorly, even by its own standards, and even without counting the collapse that began in 2008, as these words were being completed.As well, the theory that is supposed to justify the regime is hopelessly unrealistic.It also denies and negates our most human characteristics.The system is incompatible with living things at every level, from its basic assumptions through its financial machinations to its treatment of the Earth as an unlimited mine and dump.It mines the Earth rather than cultivating it, and it is precipitating a multifaceted planetary crisis.A flawed conception has given rise to a pathological global industrial system that is fragile and vulnerable, and the prospects for it surviving the next several decades must be considered poor.

Because economies arise out of human societies, and because humans have arisen within and function within the living world, economies have many of the characteristics of living systems.Our understanding of living systems has advanced rapidly in recent decades.We now recognise how living systems tend to hold themselves in dynamic balances through complex systems of push-me-pull-you feedbacks.Meddling in such systems can produce surprising results, and big disturbances can tip them into degraded states.Even economies’ own internal feedbacks produce complicated responses that are often counter-intuitive.A discipline based in this new view of economies, and their place in the world, has been developing rapidly on the fringes of mainstream economics.It has already yielded insights into some important and hitherto puzzling economic phenomena.For example it can explain why a simple supply chain can remain stuck in erratic, disruptive fluctuations, why stock market gyrations are much larger than expected, how wealth or poverty can be determined by chance events and how large price differences can persist in a free market.

This new conception of economies differs radically from the old view.It implies there is not just one way to organise economies, there are as many ways as there are human cultures.It makes clear that markets are powerful, but there is no assurance at all that “free” markets will yield desirable results.Rather, markets are like wild horses, and must be managed.The sterile and destructive conflict between twentieth-century ideologies, one advocating pure competition and the other pure cooperation, is replaced an understanding that healthy lives are those that balance complementary polarities, as the old Taoist wisdom also advises.The way is opened to bring our economies into compatibility with living systems – including people.

At the same time many practical developments demonstrate how we can live much more lightly on the Earth.Through thoughtful design we can accomplish many of our tasks using only a fraction of the energy we use now.We are learning to recycle materials, not just once but indefinitely, so we can drastically reduce our mining of Earth’s living and non-living materials.We are learning (again) to grow abundant crops by working with nature instead of making war on it.A prospect is emerging of healthy and perennial human economies that encourage the biosphere to thrive around them.

5 thoughts on “Our Place

  1. Robert Standish-White

    Dear Geoff,
    Once again you have shone a reasoned light on dark complexity, and helped us get some handle on it. It’s great to see comment that is both realistic and optimistic!
    Looking forward to the new book.
    Robert Standish-White

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    Reply
  2. Ian Baddock

    Geoff,
    Economia was a fantastic book and I’m look forward to Better Nature.

    Economia has been, and still is, an inspiration and if people would allow themselves to think more freely, publications and ideas like yours could prevail.
    Regards,
    Ian

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    Reply

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