Wednesday, March 5, 2014

An existential cry

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Contemplative] 

That's what he called it: "an existential cry". Marc and I have been having these spirited debates over the last few months and the last discussion we had was about cynicism.Who's Marc?

If someone asked me what the American Dream is all about, I would introduce them to Marc. Among all my friends, he comes closest to the classic American success story. Marc and I bonded instantly when we first met one year ago, March 4, 2013. An year to the day! Although Marc and I are a generation apart, he echoes many of the same optimistic ideas about human progress, science, technology, and civilization that most members of my own generation subscribe to.

Marc Pasturel, born in 1941, is a retired high tech marketeer with a EE degree from a French engineering school followed by a Stanford MBA (class of ’64). A US citizen since 1973 he has lived most of his working life in America. In 1962 he married Ragni, a Norwegian with the same EE degree. Together they raised three children, and now enjoy 6 grand-children. After 12 years of exclusively raising the children, Ragni embarked on a 28 year high-tech engineering career in Silicon Valley while Marc worked for 7 corporations of decreasing size until, for a 10-year period (1992-2002),  he and Ragni founded and ran their own small company of educational software for young children. Both cultivate strong roots in their native France and Norway by living 10 weeks in each country each year. They’re active in India by means of a school in a mainly Buddhist remote Himalayan valley of Jammu & Kashmir, as US delegates for Aide au Zanskar, a French NGO which in 1988 built and now funds the school of 315 students.

While shunning social networks, and consistent with his spiritual quest, Marc has developed a personal e-mailing list of about 120 anglophones and 80 francophones with whom he communicates daily on a whole range of issues of concern to him, including the increasing income gap between the super-rich and the rest of us, skepticism about global warming still present in America, the poor quality of education, particularly for the disadvantaged.

I often challenge Marc on his ideas. And Marc returns the favor graciously! Here's what he wrote to all his friends recently:
I personally opt for the optimistic belief that the great majority of us are basically good (“God is in us” thinking), that throughout history Good has slowly but surely overcome Evil for the positive evolution of mankind. To that extent I cling to hope that humankind will manage to overcome what seems like intractable problems today.
Having told my friend, Satish, that I found his worldview a little too cynical, he justifies his cynicism with the powerful existential cry below. I am forwarding it in the hope that it’s the sort of jolt that will help us wrap our arms around the baffling complexity of our modern world. 
This could shake some of your core beliefs and elicit strong emotional reactions. In that case I invite you to screen out the visceral and give yourself time to think (at least 24 hours after your first draft response, and editing what you've written, based on my own experience), so that you’re able to constructively respond.
Here's the "cry":

Can you imagine a time when cynicism is the most appropriate attitude? Why is it automatically the wrong thing to be cynical?
Marc: your accusations of the rich make it sound like it’s a new phenomenon, when in fact it’s been going on for eons (think the pharaohs of Egypt); and yes it may be accelerating with the acceleration of technology and the globalization phenomenon; and yes, we must act to stop it.
The rich are definitely not a new phenomenon. They have been around as long as our civilization has been around. The day food went under lock and key, some 10,000 years ago, was the day the first rich man came into existence. The rich predate the pharaohs. The difference between today and other times in the past is in the degree of centralization of power in the world which has given the rich the means to wrest control of our future at an unprecedented scale. Today's rich vie for control of institutions and power structures, and through them, the very oceans, the atmosphere, space, ideas, language, even thought. On a global scale. When power concentrates to such an extent as we see today, the earth becomes a playground. It loses biological cohesion and sanctity. What do you make of the fact that over 90% of the world's fisheries are gone, 90% of old growth forests are gone, 200 species die off every day and groundwater is being polluted by indiscriminate fracking? How much of it has to do with concentration of power among a few people and their need to control as much of as many things as they can possibly imagine? When do we realize that the rich have carved up the world's very life into pieces to play their games with? Their competitive winner-takes-all games with? And when do we realize our own role in facilitating these games, complicit in their dealings, crafting their legal arguments, counting their money, building their private jets and golf courses, supporting their power and authority, defending their rights, advancing their agendas, giving them a technological advantage, calling it all progress?

The longer we continue to look at the divisions between republicans and democrats or between liberals and conservatives, or statists and libertarians, or American and Russia, or the third world and the first world, the longer it takes us to realize that these are false divisions meant to distract the American people into believing that there are people somewhere on their side, who are working on their behalf and putting up the good fight. Perhaps, no one is fighting on behalf of anyone else but themselves. Each for his own. Dog eat dog. The only valid divide I see is that between the sociopaths and the rest of us. Of course, sociopaths don't arise in a vacuum... it takes an entire culture to cultivate them and the extent of the control wielded by sociopaths over society is the extent to which society encourages it. The primary characteristic of a sociopath is the need to win at any cost. Winning is achieved by controlling. Money is a proxy for control of resources. Winners generally show their victory through amassing control. Research has shown that the rich have a higher concentration of sociopaths among them than the general population. Sociopaths tend not to have any conscience or they have very little of it. If we connect these facts together, we arrive at certain conclusions. One of them is that the rich run the world, between them. They direct society's energy and time toward the objectives they deem important. The rest of us better fall in line if we're to survive, so we do. And some of us play their game and even thrive. At what point do we connect this to the multiple crises facing us? How much of the responsibility resides with the rich and how much with the rest? It's the sociopaths vs. the rest. It's also each of us fighting the little sociopath dwelling in us who is drawn out and made stronger by the culture around us.

I think we often stop short of going all the way with our lines of reasoning. It's difficult for us to believe that there are imminent threats to the future of humanity and of the planet. Especially those of us who live in economic, social and cultural bubbles like the SF Bay Area. Or anywhere in the hi-tech enclaves of the Western world or the rapidly westernizing enclaves of the East. Even if one is convinced we're headed in the wrong direction, it's hard to find fault with the dominant narratives and stories we've been telling ourselves all our lives. We find them being reinforced 24/7 through popular media, newscasters, politicians, businessmen, religious leaders, in short, all those that are gaining from the status quo. That would include us all. We do tell ourselves the same stories that the rich want to tell us. It's easier to find fault with the "other" which comes in the form of native peoples, tribal peoples, uneducated people, illiterate people, and most anyone who's not more or less like ourselves, well-educated, well-schooled, well-brainwashed co-conspirators in the pillage and rape of the planet. All modern religions including Hinduism preach that life on Earth is a preparation for what comes after. Does it cross our minds that these religions emerged only recently, in the grand scale of our species' history on this planet, and instead of looking at their emergence as progress, could we tie them with the emergence and dominance of the rich and ask if the rich who control society are the ones responsible for a culture moderated by organized religion? That would be heresy, of course. So we don't ask the tough questions. And we continue to live on as if nothing bad is happening. The bad stuff that's shown on TV is happening somewhere else, not here. We have nothing to do with that. Surely, if they were smarter, they would be like us too, enjoying a higher standard of living, consuming more, polluting more, and spreading our civilization everywhere we go. If they realized how they could help the rich just like we do, they wouldn't be experiencing all those problems that they are going through in Ukraine, Venezuela and Argentina. Or Syria or Palestine. What could we possibly have to do with it? When do we realize that we are all part of the same matrix. When do we realize that the money we invest in a mutual fund invests in a company that produces products that need natural resources from one of these countries in turmoil. When do we realize that, at 4% of the world's population, we consume 20% of the world's energy in the US? And that this energy comes from somewhere where people are displaced or killed to reach such resources? When do we realize that those of us who live in urban areas, working for corporations and driving BMWs, draw our energy requirements from outside the city, from hundreds or thousands of miles in each direction? Do we ever stop to consider how energy-inefficient cites are? What it takes to run our largest metros? Where the food comes from? Where the water comes from? Where the labor comes from? Where the oil comes from? Where the trash is taken to? Where the sewage gets dumped? What do we have to do with Warren Buffet's coal trains delivering coal to be transported to dirty coal-fired power plants that pollute the air and cause thousands of children to die of respiratory illnesses? Is this progress? Why do we think this all this is acceptable as a cost of progress? Why do we not wonder if progress should mean a decent life for all instead of space faring toys for a select few? Clean drinking water for all instead of Coca Cola for a few, fresh vegetables for all instead of steak for a few, a decent lifespan for all instead of immortality for a few? Because we hate stepping out of our comfort zones. We like living in our carefully constructed worlds that we protect from new ideas and reasoning. We take refuge in the news sources that conform to our worldviews without realizing that our worldviews were shaped by these very news sources. It's painful to look elsewhere. It's too unfamiliar out there. As unfamiliar as the ghetto, as the inner city crowd, as the high school dropout, as the single mom working 3 part-time jobs none of which includes benefits, as the Native American teenager on the reservation who is 4 times more likely to commit suicide as the average American teenager. All these people are different from us. We de-humanize them deep down in our psyches so we don't have to think about their pain. This is what the settlers did in the 19th century as they moved West in North America and occupied native lands. The natives were squaws and bucks, not people. This is what mining corporations do everywhere they blow up mountains for rare earth minerals. How are we connected to all of this? In a hundred different ways. Through the hundreds of components that go into our smart phones, through minerals like Coltan. There is no such thing as sustainable development. Development is not sustainable. We might as well go full bore and get it over with instead of playing with words. Our civilization is a commercial civilization, based on totalitarian agriculture. It needs to grow to survive. Debt makes the world go round and round. Debt creates more debt. It needs more land, more water, more minerals, more people, more life. It takes more human biomass to sustain the growth we need to simply avoid collapse. That's the bitter truth we avoid by going into our comfortable shells.

I am not surprised that this is happening, actually. Human beings generally react to their immediate surroundings. Their immediate culture. Our culture has been carefully orchestrated to make us puppets, not questioning and aware individuals who can put 2 and 2 together, but people who are trained to react to stimulus in a carefully orchestrated manner. Ideologies are in place, working in our minds in the background, as we go about life blithely, unaware. Unaware that we are unaware. Why should we expect anything different? For millions of years, we have evolved by reacting to our immediate surroundings, the plants, the animals, the rivers, the mountains, the sky, the wind. We never had to think about how things were 10,000 years ago. We never had to worry about the next 50 years. Things in the next 50 years would be just like they are today, the same today when things are more or less like they were a thousand years ago. People have lead the same lives, in harmony with things around them, observing nature, learning from it, talking with it, communing with the skies and the oceans, the whales and the deer, night and day.

Why do we expect any of us to act differently today? We're the same as we were a thousand generations ago. Cultural evolution might have surpassed biological evolution when it comes to human beings. But we have more or less the same brains, brains that react to immediate surroundings, with no heed paid to times long gone or times far ahead. Today, instead of the plants, animals, rivers, mountains, sky and the wind, we have the TV, radio, Internet, newspapers, smart phones, and people who tell us how to live, how to think, how to react. Natural signals are replaced with artificial ones. Instead of listening to nature, we listen to people. We listen to people who have insulated themselves the most from nature. We listen to the wealthy and the powerful, directly and indirectly through their vast control structures of media and schooling. The people who we ought to listen to, those who are still close to nature, the natives, the indigenous, the tribal peoples, the first peoples, we simply ignore. We even want to convert them to our mode of life. They better get used to progress as we all have gotten used to. No matter what progress really means. It's inevitable. Manifest destiny, man's destiny, dominion over nature, dominion over the feminine, the weak, the humble, the voiceless, the invisible. We fail to identify our role in the crises we're staring down at. Because we react to our immediate surroundings. And our immediate surroundings tell us everything is fine.

But could it be that the time has come to try and look beyond our immediate surroundings? Beyond the TV, the radio, the newspeople, the pundits, the commentators, the experts, the gurus, the man in the suit, the man in the castle? Beyond our own generation, our own lifespan, our own culture, our own country? Can we go back 10,000 years and ask what happened then? Can we look forward 50 years and ask where we're headed? Can we look at the interconnectedness of everything? Of man to man, man to animal, animal to river, river to mountain, mountain to forest, forest to air, and air to man? Because, perhaps, that's what it takes to connect the dots, the dots that explain the puzzle we find ourselves in. Perhaps, we need to consider the entire web of life, not just human beings. Perhaps we need to be humble enough to admit that human beings might just not be the reason why God made the planet. Perhaps we could consider the idea that it is a few human beings, not the vast majority of them, and definitely not nature who tell us that God made the planet for our purposes. Perhaps we ought to do something we're not biologically used to doing. Perhaps we need to think in terms of long time spans. Thousands of years, Millions of years. Perhaps that's where the clues lie. Could we acknowledge that our civilization is just one of many? One of many that have come and gone? And could we acknowledge that civilization itself is but one form of culture? One of many that have come and mostly gone? One of a few that survive today? Could ours be just one of many, some of which have lived in greater harmony with nature? In balance with nature, in close physical proximity to nature, as part of nature? Could we entertain the idea, just for a minute, that our culture, our commercial civilization, is just one of many ways people have lived throughout history? Could we not use the fact that it's the largest culture ever as a defense of its fundamental foundations? Could we consider, for a minute, that perhaps, our civilization is actually unsustainable and is bound to collapse, taking with it, everything else?

It's not that our intentions are misplaced. We do want to do good by the world. But we're co-opted into thinking that what we are doing is what we ought to be doing. The times we live in are rather interesting. The times we live in call for cynicism.


  1. My opinion is that you should be optimistic if that motivates you to take action towards the realization of what you're hoping for, and you should be pessimistic if that motivates you to take action to improve things. What you want to avoid is being optimistic and thinking everything's fine as is, or being pessimistic and not even trying because everything's hopeless. I personally choose to be optimistic, but I think everyone should choose what works best for them.

  2. I feel I'm not being either optimistic or pessimistic. I don't want to be either. I want to look at things the way they are, even if it's uncomfortable for me to take in the facts. I spend a lot of time looking into the question of whether something that's being presented to me as fact is indeed fact. And then I just sit and wonder. Instead of feeling sad and down about what's going on in the world, if that is how I read the facts, I try and sit with the facts and wonder what it all means. When I write about what's going on, I try and dedicate myself to it so it comes across as judgmental sometimes but my goal is to being attention to issues so we can all just wonder what it all means. When I go off about the sociopathic elites, I might appear to be ranting and complaining. That's just the style of writing I like. But in the final analysis, it's a cause for wonderment. It makes me ask questions. Like why I come across as pessimistic and why some people come across as eternal optimists :)