Monday, September 12, 2016

Money, Technology, Population and Civilization

Following my response mentioned in the last blog post, my friend wrote back:

I find myself asking, a la: "Is money evil, or the obsession with it?" Or, "Is technology evil, or the obsession with it?" Or, "Is civilization evil, or the hubris of it?", or, "Is population evil, or the drive to over-populate?"

And, "Could it be a little of both or all and more, that we need to re-examine ethically, ecologically and intensely?"

My response back, edited for clarity:

Thank you for participating in my intellectual work connecting the dots. I'm only reporting to you what I have been reading but after examining the interrelationships among all the resources I have come across. Modernity puts a lot of value in specialization. The one who knows a lot about a narrow subject is deemed an expert and granted a doctorate. Generalists are under-rated but it is imperative that we take all those seemingly unrelated fields (that we have created by chopping things up) and stitch them back up into a coherent whole. Then we see this tapestry emerge. In the tapestry lie all the fields - history, prehistory, sociology, culture, economics, technology, science, religion, theology, spirituality, nature, psychology, philosophy, language and linguistics and many other areas - but now sewn up together and we find out just how exactly we got to where we are. In fact, this chopping up of the study of life into all these areas is itself a prime example of the problem of reductionism that has plagued the modern worldview. It's time to see all the interconnections holistically. Yeah, that often overused word there!

The history of money is fascinating. We have come a long way from barter to digital currencies and now, bitcoin! Somewhere along the way, we lifted the ban on usury and all hell broke loose. It's one thing to have a money system that's backed by a scarce resource but a whole another thing to have usury - the charging of interest. Christianity had long considered usury a sin but over time, due to pressure from the financiers and money changers, it became standard operating procedure. The book "Medici Money" is an interesting read in this regard. So is Debt: The First 5000 Years. When we understand that all that money does is represent access to Earth's resources, it becomes easy to understand the devastating role usury has played in the destruction of the planet. If I loan you $100 and ask you to return $110 at the end of the month, where would you find the additional $10? You're forced to extract something from the Earth, or cut a tree for lumber, or work for someone else who does something similar. Ultimately, that extra $10 has to come from the Earth. What we now have with usury is constant and rapid extraction of Earth's resources, constant population growth to support interest-based debt (a pyramid scheme) and a constant need for more efficient ways of servicing the debt (which requires extraction of resources), and hence technology.

This isn't to downplay the role of the money system in itself... we lived lives of abundance without the need for money for a really long time. The advent of money was an indication of centralization and came well into the journey of civilization. If money marked the separation from land and the beginning of villages and city-states and rulers, usury turbo-charged the deleterious impacts of the money system.

Some would argue that money comes from innovation and human ingenuity. They point to the dot-com billionaire who invented a clever way to connect people or to create music. When we realize that all money-making activity is simply tapping into the giant chipper that constantly turns natural resources into money, as illustrated below by the social critic, Steve Cutts, we'd see human ingenuity and inventiveness as little more than merely a quest for more efficient ways to speed up the process of transformation of natural resources into money. Let's take the example of Google. One of the largest companies in the world by market capitalization, Google makes most of its money through advertising. Advertisers are in turn companies that make money by selling goods and services and hence directly involved in the conversion of natural resources into money. They are willing to give away a part of the money they make to Google in return for help with pushing their product to its users. That's all Google does, in the final analysis. All those PhDs with highly rated skills in Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, etc. are merely coming up with slightly better ways to push products and services than the ones we already have.

So we have a culture which we call "civilization" whose main activity is the conversion of natural resources into money with the help of technology. It's easy to see how a better bulldozer helps clear a forest faster but a little harder to see how Facebook or Google or Instagram are all nevertheless playing the role of pimps pushing products directly or indirectly - albeit using sophisticated computer magic to speed up the global extraction-manufacture-marketing-sales-consumption cycle. All technology companies have to figure out where and how they are going to tap into this cycle. Those that eventually do are the ones we end up calling "profitable" and "successful".

Where does population come into this picture? Civilization and its economic systems are pyramid schemes. They need more and more people constantly to simply survive. It's either growth or death. There's no such thing as sustainability even as we throw around that word liberally. Newer generations find themselves under increasing pressure to come up with more and more innovative ways to keep the system going, blissfully unaware that it's been a pyramid scheme all along. They don't necessarily see themselves as contributing to the system but simply by making a living, they are unwittingly contributing to the system. In doing so, they leave a much less desirable planet for their offspring than the one they inherited from their own parents. There's a reason why governments all across the world subsidize families and children, even large families. It would seem counter-intuitive that they do this in a world with increasingly scarce resources. But they must do this or face collapse. Hence we see some European countries facing a population peak providing incentives to encourage their citizens to have more children. The State (government) needs to keep the tax dollars flowing. Governments that do regulate population growth risk the prospect of an aging population that needs to be supported by a diminishing tax base, as we now see in the case of China.

Money, technology, civilization, population... they are all interrelated. We have a system that encourages rapid population growth, rapid technological advances and rapid extraction of natural resources (oil, coal, metals, trees, sand, water, etc.) It's the story that this is how it ought to be that's the problem. People today are more or less the same as people 100,000 years when we consider biology. But people today are vastly different from our ancestors when we consider culture, or the stories that we tell ourselves and our children. There's nothing inherently evil or base about our species. Human beings are not flawed. But we are susceptible to propaganda, manipulation and influence and the ruling classes throughout history have taken advantage of their excellent knowledge  of human psychology to design and build ever more sophisticated social systems that work for them at the expense of all else.

We are way overpopulated at our current level of 7.4 Billion humans. People who lose connection to their land and indigenous culture rapidly grow out of proportion and explode in numbers given the resources to do so. This story has repeated all over the planet especially in the last 200 years as more and more tribes and villages began to be dislocated and integrated into mainstream civilization. Once they are cut off from their land and stories that have sustained them for thousands of years and kept them in balance with their local habitat, they are subject to no natural limitations in the artificial confines of towns and cities and they began to increase in numbers. All they need is access to bread in the grocery store and there's been plenty of it available (although not to everyone) to increase the population to current unsustainable levels. It's like a bacterial culture that's taken from its natural habitat where the bacteria lives in balance with other organisms and hence keeps its numbers within limits and suddenly placed in a petri dish full of sugar syrup... free from the interconnections and constraints of its natural habitat, the bacterial colony soon grows until the sugar syrup runs out. That's where we are today in terms of civilization and the resources it needs to survive. We're running out of easily accessible resources. The sugar syrup is almost over. No wonder we see billions of dollars being spent on research aimed at commercializing the extraction of resources from asteroids and other heavenly bodies! Our separation from land and migration to towns and cities is analogous to taking a bacterial culture from its natural setting and dropping it into a petri dish.

If we look at the last 100 years, we'd realize that our sugar syrup has been petroleum. We have been extracting oil from the ground and the deep oceans and converting it into food (through fertilizers, pesticides, farm machinery that runs on gas, and a global food supply chain that uses oil) and converting the food into human biomass. Well, we actually convert a lot of the oil into animal biomass first (factory farmed meat) before turning it into human biomass, but the input remains petroleum and the output the human biomass! Of course, the output also includes much trash, pollution and emissions. But as far as the population explosion of the 20th century is concerned, it would not have been possible without our sugar syrup, petroleum.

The role of yet another institution on population growth - organized religion - cannot be underestimated. For thousands of years, followers of Hinduism have regarded children as gifts from God and even avatars of God. Children are often given names of Gods and Goddesses. Although Hinduism doesn't explicitly say, "go forth and multiply", it's implicit in the culture and the stories that Hindus believe. India is the second most populous country and is soon set to overtake China and there doesn't seem to be a break in the growth curve.

I hope I was able to connect a few more dots with all of that! As bleak as it sounds, it's important to understand where we are and how we got here. Otherwise, we risk working hard on issues that lead us nowhere ultimately. Many an idealistic person has been led astray by incomplete problem definitions by so-called philanthropies and non-profits that are part of the non-profit-industrial complex.

An excellent critical perspective on the major institutions of civilization come from an indigenous Papua New Guinean man who had spent time in the UK and who, in a letter to his tribesmen back home, explains it all from his unique vantage point... "Just Leave Us Alone" In order to get a better understanding of our current situation, it helps to listen to what an outsider has to say. This letter is just one of the many resources indigenous peoples all over the world have given us over the centuries, and which we have conveniently ignored, that point to the unsustainable nature of our civilization, money system, population and the technocracy that powers it all.