Why We Do What is Wrong — Holding Ideologies
Some writers have broken history into four or five sequential ages and their dominant world views, depending on when in the historical record they started looking. The earliest age for humanity was the “prehistoric” or hunter-gatherer age before agriculture began to play into the organization of human social structures. Of course, technically this age is not strictly “historical” as there is no writen records to examine. There are however many good archiological and anthropological signs now known that give us a reasonable account of what humans were doing and possibly thinking prior to written records. In this age the human mental framework had to have been basically how to survive from day to day. The second age, developing during the agricultural revolution, is sometimes referred to as the “traditional” age, referring to the mental life of humans in which we began to wonder where we came from, what we were, especially as compared with animals, and what did it all mean. Starting from a base of ignorance of how the world worked (though humans had considerable knowledge of what those workings were) they began to use their imaginations to create stories about our origins and what forces controlled the workings of the world, mostly gods and spirits. This was the beginning of “belief in belief”, or taking as being true stories that we made up in an attempt to explain phenomena where we could not directly experience causal predecessors.
The traditional age gave rise to the “classical” age, a time, roughly three thousand years ago (up to about 300 AD when the so-called Middle Ages, a time of stagnation in thinking, began) when a few individuals began to wonder about the very act of having beliefs and what it meant for a belief to be true of the world. Classical thinkers built upon the mental structures created in the traditional age. Gods were still often implicated in the events that took place in the world, but there was a new sophistication in the formation of ideologies. Thinkers had discovered various “logics” and some early mathematics with which they tried to discern and explain how the world worked. Whole systems (or schools) of thought were constructed in which one test of truth was the extent to which the parts of the system were internally consistent with the logic or mathematics employed. This was the age of “belief in complex and internally consistent beliefs”. Of course there were many different systems, each seemingly internally consistent, so there were lots of “debates” over which truths were really true. This was the beginning of philosophies.
The Middle Ages, from the end of the classical age to roughly the end of the 17th century are generally characterized as a time of stagnation in thought, dominated primarily by religious doctrine. Except for some efforts in Europe to preserve writings and thoughts from the classical age, nothing of great consequence (except wars) is thought to have been happening. Then we come to the age of reason, the Enlightenment, spurred by successes in empirical studies of natural phenomena that suggested natural causes were responsible for natural phenomena even if they could not be directly perceived with the senses. It seemed that this was a mental framework that would lessen, if not completely displace, ideologically-based beliefs. The scientific process emerged and matured giving rise to the “belief in a true truth”. Unfortunately humans are not computers and much of our reasoning turns out to be motivated and guided by passions after all. Thus belief in science as the only way to gain knowledge became its own ideology, what has been called “scientism.” Holders of this belief, like all holders of ideological dogmas, meant well. They clearly saw the truth (in their minds) and insisted that everyone else should follow their lead. This dogged belief is still with us today in our education system where we insist that every student must learn STEM subjects or else they will not be successful in life.
Thus we come to the modern age, where we have transformed all of that (provisionally) true knowledge we gained from science into machines, have created a social system composed of producers and consumers, and have even suggested that we've come to “the end of history.” The ideologies of our day are focused on the political economy. We harbor certain beliefs about how we should govern ourselves (e.g. democracy), what our God-given (or inalienable) rights are as human beings, and how to manage our resources, produce wealth, and live happy lives consuming whatever we can. The “American Dream” is the epitome of ideology based on stories going back to the traditional age and only slightly modified by the evolution of newer age cultures and mental frameworks. We still believe in magic!
In the last post I mentioned a few items that are action-inducing ideologies, such as beliefs in progress and competition as the only driver of progress. In this post I want to provide a few more examples of the more egregious ideologies that underly our justifications for much of what we are doing that is harming the planet and our own psyches.
Money as Wealth
Money was an invention that took hold sometime after the early empires had emerged. Exchange between individuals and groups had been practiced since prehistoric times when bands exchanged obsidian or other valuable stones (for making tools) for everything from foodstuffs to mates in what we call barter. During the agricultural revolution the trade of grains and goods could not be easily handled in bulk quantities so clever humans turned to abstract symbols etched in clay (first tablets then tokens) to represent amounts of a commodity, first as a means for keeping accounting records of who owned what in the granary, then as an exchange medium for buying and selling the commodities. State-backed coins may have been invented by the Romans who had to make exchanges of all sorts of goods and services among many different cultures they had conquered.
Money has always been just a means of representing the work that went into producing goods and services with a small differential or premium added for relative value in a marketplace of competing buyers and sellers. Money started out as an abstract representation of free energy (exergy), the energy available to do useful work, or emergy, the energy expended in having done useful work. In its use as representing free energy or future work to be done, it could be used to regulate what work would get done in the future. Market decisions about what to buy gave information to producers (and potential producers) about what products or services they should expend their energies on in the future.
Those small premiums (price as compared with raw costs) were the beginning of money-based profits and had the same psychological effect on sellers as the biological-mandated acquisition of excess resources had in pre-money times. Over time, money itself became a new kind of commodity wealth. First because it represented buying power and then, in more recent times, as pure wealth in its own right. In our modern financialized world money has become the end goal and humans (bankers and Wall Street types) have become motivated to do whatever they can to accumulate more of it. They certainly can buy more stuff with what they make (anyone see "The Wolf of Wall Street" movie?) but that isn't the point any more. In the minds of modern neoliberal capitalists, making money IS the point.
The failure to recognize the true purpose of money has given rise to many negative feedback situations. For example, it is the basis for the growing wealth disparity we see happening (yet again) in our societies. The so-called “one percenters” who greedily absorb what little income growth there is today while the middle class and poor all suffer diminishment is an example. Of course, those in the lower classes would love to have more income if they could get it too. “The love of money is the root of all evil,” is often quoted as words of wisdom. Perhaps the lack of wisdom on the part of humans in general is evidenced in the belief that money is wealth.
A significant loss of memory about the original social role of money as a means of signalling value in terms of work to be done or already done meant that human ideology started to think of money as wealth itself. This was probably the most significant loss of consciousness in human history. It made it possible for magical thinking to explode.
Of all of the various economic models that have evolved since the advent of agriculture and settled societies the one that seems to have beaten all others is capitalism. By “beaten”, I mean in terms of providing the most rapid increase in material wealth production. But rapid growth and taking over all of the resources is characteristic of a dysfunctional process we are all too familiar with. The current variety of capitalism (neoliberal) is looking more and more like a cancer than a means to allocate scarce resources.
Capitalism refers to the process of aggregating production resources in order to initiate an expanded production facility. Modern capitalism is the result of an evolution driven by a basic requirement of a growth-oriented economic system. Its roots go back to the days of early agricultural societies when surplus seeds were stored not just for emergency food supplies but to provide stock for starting up newly developed agricultural fields. This was driven, as in figure 1, by the expanding population. More food was needed so new fields were needed to provide it. When the technological advances and money came into play in the early civilizations capital became associated not just with land and seeds, but with tools and organizations. During the mercantile era the need to up-front finance ventures for trade gave an impetus to pooling financial resources (excess profits stored as savings!) in order to invest. Merchants could borrow money from the rich with the promise to pay back in kind and much more upon return and sales of the goods. In an era of belief in economic growth (or growth of economic activity) this made perfect sense. It was easy for people to think, “Not only can we do this but we should do this.” The idea of borrowing resources (that might not be needed to cover tomorrow's deficits) came to be an accepted norm. Since the past had always (generally) proved that investments paid off in extra profits, the normal thought was that this was a good approach to expanding the economic wealth.
Banks got into the business of loaning money for investments. The idea was simple enough. If a bank held assets for a multiplicity of savers and the savers had confidence in the bank's ability to watch over their assets, then it would be possible to skim a small amount from each savings account to package as a loan to a promising entrepreneur. The latter would, if successful, be able to pay back the loan with interest. The banker would make a profit (the interest) and the principal would be returned to the savers' accounts. Fractional reserve banking, as it came to be known, literally created new money where none had previously existed, by a trick of accounting and a time lag between deposits and withdrawals. This also created a new kind of debt, one with risks that had to be taken into account in order to know what sort of interest premium should be charged.
Debt financing has been growing in all aspects of our social system. Governments and central banks created fiat or nominal valued money, which is completely divorced from the energetic realities. They create monetary supply by fiat (think of Janet Yellen and gang at the Fed setting the interest rates). Governments sell “bonds”, a form of borrowing from the buyers, strictly on their “reputations” as reliable payers. The debt created goes on the books, a bond market would seem to validate the credit. But in the end what money is created is no more than a promise to pay back the value of the bond in the future, a future assumed to be in the offing simply because no one grasped that the amount of money that should be in circulation has to be based on the amount of actual free energy that will be available. In theory, a growing economy makes the citizens more wealthy and they pay more taxes on their incomes so that the government has the necessary resources to pay off the bond holders. Except for the last nearly half a century this theory seemed to hold in practice. But since the mid 1970s, as growth started slowing and the potential for paying back principal and interest have diminished governments have kicked the can down the road. They are literally trying to borrow themselves out of debt! Incomes have not increased in real terms, citizens are hostile to anything that smacks of tax increases, and the debt ends up being serviced by new debt. Why? Because the availability of net free energy per capita has been in decline since the 1970s. The economy can't grow any faster than there is energy to do useful work being produced. And it is net free energy not total gross energy (say in barrels of oil equivalents) that is the important difference. As long as economists have focused on gross energy and its nominal costs, they have completely missed this subtlety. Thus they keep believing that government borrowing and spending will somehow turn things around.
The situation is little different for ordinary citizens. As real economic growth started declining in the mid 1970s sellers turned to accepting credit purchasing as a way to keep moving merchandise. Buyers could, instead of putting some money down on a lay-away plan, take the merchandise home with a promise to pay off the debt in a revolving account. The notion of ending up paying interest on accrued interest now being treated as principal was a bit more than most people could figure out. The wheels of industry continued to churn and consumers were going into significant debt outside of the mortgages they used to finance purchasing of a solid asset, a house. Today households run on debt financing of just about everything, including food. The Big Recession of 2009 and the less-than-normal recovery in jobs, income, and wealth have caught the middle class off guard, pushing them down the net wealth ladder. The sub-prime mortgage market was just the most visible poster child for what happens when debt exceeds any feasible means of producing more wealth per capita in the future. And that is the situation we are in today.As long as there was growth of energy to do useful work, the original relation between money and energy, seemed to be intact. The advent of the age of fossil fuels in the so-called second industrial revolution boosted the availability of net free energy considerably. Combined with advancing technology, which got its boost from WWII, the economies of western countries, and later Japan, grew at a spectacular rate hiding the underlying problem with debt financing. The Great Depression response prior to the war, thanks to Keynes, was for the governments (mostly the US of course) to expand borrowing (selling bonds) and spending that money on public works projects to create jobs to goose the economy. It turned out this only worked because of the jump in free energy from really cheap oil. Oil extraction rates were growing exponentially and US oil companies established substantial control over global reserves, which put the US into the enviable position of enjoying substantial productivity gains, further bolstering their economic and military dominance on the world stage. Very few historians or economists understand the role that abundant oil played in the economic growth of the west after WWII. Nor are they able to understand now the role that declining energy return on energy invested (EROI) has had on net free energy. Starting some time in the mid 1970s the net free energy per capita, globally, started to decline, partly due to declining EROI but also due to continuing growth of the population. The US, much of the rest of the world (including now China and India) began to feel a decline in the rate of growth of GDP, the main measure of economic health in neoclassical economics.
The reason this biophysical reality is important is because of how governments and international corporations reacted to the onset of malaise in the economy. They started relying more heavily on debt financing. More importantly, governments, in a bid to boost GDP growth, began loosening the restrictions on businesses, promoting globalization (find the cheapest labor) through trade agreements, and most importantly, tried to manipulate the availability of money through interest rates on borrowing [I know, the Federal Reserve is independent - want to buy a bridge?] As part of the easing of restrictions on businesses, governments began to ease their oversight of banking and finance. In response, financial wizards began to invent new investment products so bizarre no ordinary investor could understand them. But they were designed to do what everyone had come to understand was most important — they made money. Or at least they seemed to.
Financialization of the economy was the epitome of neoliberal capitalism. Making money by investing in money itself was so stupid it actually made sense to a lot of people. Those in positions where they could actually understand what was going on were loathe to do anything about it. They were the ones who would stand to make the most gains by gaming the money creation system. Government agencies and politicians got to the point of just wanting to keep the wheels on the truck long enough to get their rewards and get out. The the Great Recession of 2009 sent a wake up call that something fundamental was wrong.
The only problem was, no one was either listening or wanting to heed the message. So used to the idea that capitalism was a superior system, so used to the idea that money could make money, so used to the idea that money was true wealth, the people simply could not comprehend that it was all a fairy tale.
The people are asleep at the wheel. They are definitely suffering from an inability to comprehend what is happening to them today. Have we become zombies, walking through the world but unconscious of reality?
Free Markets Solve All Problems
Closely related to capitalism is the notion that the only mechanism needed to solve economic problems is a free market. Back in Adam Smith's day this seemed like a reasonable idea. The publication of Smith's book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776 coincided with the start of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence (see below re: individual freedom). Smith had the insight that when merchants, craftsmen, and buyers of goods and services were able to act within a market framework and acting in their own self interest the allocation of resources, if not the distribution of wealth, seemed to happen almost magically, as if an invisible hand were guiding the process.
Of course the marketplace that Smith observed was substantially simpler than we find today. There are several factors in the workings of a market for allocation and distribution that need to be true in order for the market to work efficiently and fairly (see: Could Free Markets Solve all Economic Problems? for more in-depth analysis). Markets work when:
- Buyers have adequate (and truthful) information
- Sellers are restricted to reasonable profit margins
- Competition among buyers is regulated to assure best uses
- Competition among sellers is regulated to assure non-overuse of resources
- They are not expected to provide coordination over larger scales (smaller is better)
- The system as a whole is either in steady-state or growing.
Buyers of goods and services need to be able to see what goes into the goods and services for which they are paying a price. They need to have visibility into the operations of production such that they can judge for themselves if the value of the product is reflected in a fair price. As per the discussion of profits above, reasonable profit, here, means just that premium above costs that reflects the producers' value added and a small premium to go into savings.
There needs also to be some form of overarching regulatory mechanisms to assure that buyers do no waste their purchases. The same concept applies to producers when they acquire their supplies. What this addresses is the costs of externalities, pollution on the output side, and depletion on the input side. Regulation by something external to the market itself is a touchy subject for many who hold the ideologies addressed below. The scale issue has to do with time lags and information distortions that accrue when the market size grows beyond a reasonable point.
The marketplaces we find today, consumer goods and services, financial, real estate, etc. violate all of the above in one way or another. They certainly violate the scale rule, which means they also are overly complex and none of the other rules can be effectively enforced. Our markets are nothing like the ones Smith observed.
Our modern governments, furthermore, recognizing the need for some kinds of regulation have made efforts to make these conditions obtain, but with varying degrees of success. It is clear that the markets themselves provide no solution to the violations that end up costing everyone money. Even so the vast majority of people believe that so-called free markets are all that are necessary to solve all problems. Consider that even people who are trying to solve the global warming problem tend to believe that some kind of market solution is the best way to go, e.g. cap-and-trade of carbon units. They believe this because it is the Zeitgeist of our age. Everyone else believes it so it must be true.
Human Rights, Liberalism, and Democracy
Finally I want to address a collection of related and most difficult ideologies that emerged from the Enlightenment with roots deeper in the Classical age and that we have to face as being wrong for our time. And this won't be easy. There are actually a collection of related ‘-isms’ that work together to reinforce what may be the most fundamental force that will make our task of changing our consciousness near impossible. I am not going to go into a long treaties on any of these because that would require many volumes of philosophical and especially ethical arguments. Rather I will simply name some of them and argue how beliefs in the truthfulness of their claims is ultimately causing our harm. Basically it amounts to the fact that holding these “truths to be self evident” is what gives us licence to believe the other ideological stances above. Once, when the species was young, this and the others served a useful purpose. But now it is going to be the core of our demise.
Humanism in all of its various guises and attachments to different philosophies asserts that we humans are the most important things in the universe. It goes back to a time when we imagined we were created in God's image, that we were special creations that owned the Earth (had dominion over it). Without getting into an evolutionary discussion of why this was a natural way to view things when we were ignorant about evolution itself, I will just say that this was just a bit arrogant. But as a claim about our place in the Universe, it felt good. We were special. It was easy to adopt a view that gave us the impression that we could do anything we wanted. For most of human existence we did not know about the way in which our species came into existence. Even now that we do, a fair number of people reject the concept of our evolution completely, wishing to remain special beings, and in control of our destinies and that of the worlds.
I have no problem with the belief that we are special kinds of animals, from an evolutionary point of view. In my theory of sapience I clearly allow that human beings are special for a number of traits that transcend mere animalness (see: Chapter 5 - The Evolution of Sapience). But I don't think we can believe we therefore can do whatever we want to satisfy our selfish desires and face no consequences. In fact the whole point of sapience is to acquire wisdom to know what you should not do because it goes in the face of nature.
One step further than humanism is individualism, the belief that every adult individual is completely autonomous (free will) and therefore has individual rights that cannot be tampered with. Of course this not only flies in the face of what we know about group selection in evolution, and our origins as a species, but taken to its logical conclusion, as the extreme libertarians are wont to do, it is completely fallacious. Exercising my rights to do whatever I want would trample your rights if what I want belongs to you. Nevertheless it is easy to understand how this ism can appeal to the selfish side of the psyche. Not only does the notion make one feel superior it gives licence to all sorts of narcissistic behaviors. I will say more on this in a future post.
Together, humanism and individualism, frame the modern view of liberalism. If the individual is the most important unit of the human social system, and humans collectively are the most important species on the planet, then obviously everything we do in terms of organizing our societies and cultures that promotes these twin beliefs is justified. Gradually, over the past 700+ years since the signing of the Magna Carta in Britain the evolution of thinking has been toward the idea that all individuals of an age should participate in the decisions of governance, principally by electing representatives to some body that is engaged in law making. Today, in the modern age, the belief extends to the assignment of executive authority to an elected official. Even though there have been lapses to executives with dictatorial powers, the general trend has been toward more democratic processes of governance. Certainly the most successful economic systems in the world have been aligned with democratic governance. This is why the issues associated with democracy actually being part of the problem are going to be very hard to deal with. Undoubtedly half of my readers, at this point, are already feeling uncomfortable with the direction I am taking!
Perhaps a distinction between what I will call “ideal democracy” versus “democracy as practiced” would be helpful. The former, even the representative version where only a few legislators work on legislation that represents the interest of all of the populace, is based on a proposition that has various versions but is basically a recognition that some “men” are smarter, more knowledgeable, and wiser than the ordinary citizen and thus more competent in making important decisions. Its claim to legitimacy is that within any society there will be a subset of people who fit in this category and be in sufficient contact with the needs and desires of the population that they could do a good job of representing them in governance decisions. This was in contrast to the notion that a single executive decision maker should do the work. The idea of a king, emperor, or dictator stood in stark contrast to ideal democracy where the recognition that a single decision maker could make egregious errors as compared with what might be characterized as the wisdom of a subset of the crowd. Democracy as practiced has turned into something quite different.
The original concept of democracy arose in the Classical period, for example in Grecian city states. But it was limited to “citizens of standing”, which generally meant being male, and representation based on a lottery-like selection process (no politics!). The idea that a citizen of standing would or should include the wealthy land owners, who were also male, a condition that extended into the early American version, should be elected by the general body of citizens arose more recently in history. Thus a political process of decisions on who would be representing the general body in a government came to be coupled strongly with the notion of democratic governance. What has been lost in translation through the modern age is the reason for limiting the membership to those who had wealth and property, something understood by the Greeks and, at least, Thomas Jefferson. It was because they were also the educated persons of their time. It is not wealth or land that makes a person able to vote. It is education and a capacity for critical thinking which were highly correlated with land/maleness in those days. Or at least that was the original theory.
And therein lay the reason that democracy as practiced has become a liability to good governance in the modern world. The majority of people in the world have not gotten an adequate education to be good and thinking citizens. They are not prepared to think about the complexities of modern life that need good governance judgement. I am pointing my finger directly at the United States of America, once the shining beacon of democracy in the developed world and now, especially in this current presidential election cycle, the laughing stock of the world. How either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton got to where they are is a case study in the lack of education and critical thinking abilities in the general populace (the polity), or at least a significant proportion of them. The US congress is a further example of the lack of mental capacity of both the electorate and the members of the body. Governance in the US is now a joke. And it is a result of the way our society has failed to provide adequate education and a social milieu that values critical thinking skills.
While the US has turned into an extreme example of how democracy fails in a society that looses their perspective, it is by no means the only democratic society to be experiencing problems along these lines. Democracy is touted as the best approach yet to emerge for rational and humanistic governance of states. Yet as we witness its demise around the world it is clear that the concept is hollow. People believe it because they want to believe it, not because it is true. At least it is not true for the current sapience capacity of the human species of today.
Why do I count the idea of education as an ideology? For the vast majority of people education is one of those self-evident truths. A society must “educate” its young so that they can fit into the social milieu as adults. For me the central problem is that we have come to believe that education is something we must do to our children to make them fit. Nothing could be further from the truth. We do not actively educate our children. Rather, they become educated about social norms and behaviors, including those things deemed important to our societies, by their own natural tendencies. Children absorb information and construct knowledge on their own, because it is the natural capacity of the human brain to do so. If children are exposed to interesting problems and see others, primarily adults, working on solutions to those problems using mathematical or logical thinking, they will quite naturally get curious about math and logic and probe their caretakers for how they solve problems. The worst thing we do as a society is cram math and logic down children's throats in a vain attempt to make them good workers in some supposed future job environment.
The reality is that very few adults actually engage in mathematics in their daily lives and do not attempt to model the use of mathematics to solve problems for their children. So, naturally, children do not experience observing the importance of mathematics to life and culture. The majority of children will not automatically be interested in math (especially as currently taught). The few who do endure math classes and experience a natural affinity for ideas mathematical can sometimes emerge to master aspects of math (or the sciences) in spite of what they experience in school, not because of it. Education has become an outsourced activity in which we imagine schools and teachers substituting for the role of parents and grandparents showing their children how to accomplish things using math (and language and logic) to solve complex problems. This is why the myth of school-based education is actually an ideology and not a reality.
Just like conservatism, or liberalism, or any number of beliefs in how things should work, we have come to believe that education based on schooling is the natural order of things. I agree that something like a school system might be useful to make more economical the process of children learning to live in our society. However, we have distorted the whole enterprise far beyond any practical benefits. Children are rebelling in increasing numbers because they are feeling that the way schooling is done now is completely wrong for them. And they are right. I have a dream of what a real education system would look like. It is dedicated to the fact that children learn automatically. They learn what they are exposed to that seems important to their lives.
Our current way of educating children is to force-feed them what we call knowledge, which is actually a bunch of crap in terms of what is important for human life and the development of self-actualization. Is it really any wonder that we are sinking ever deeper in despair for our “education system”? And given the deplorable lack of sapience in our species is it any wonder we continue to double down on forcing this ideological stance to its ultimate, destructive conclusion?
Can We Understand?
Let us, for a moment, consider that there is some truth to the idea that we humans are special and should take care of ourselves better than we have. Let us assume that the emergence of democratic governance represents an evolutionary progression toward an ideal form that we might more closely approximate with more understanding. Let us concede that our children must learn advanced, complex concepts that will help us all progress in understanding. Where we as a species have failed is our incapacity to recognize that ideologies are just the best guesses we can make at any given time. Our guesses about what we should believe, and act upon, have been getting “better” over our history. But they are not working positively in the modern age when we insist that they are the final truths. We should ask why this is so.
Unfortunately, I think the answer we will get is that something critical and fundamental is missing from our mental frameworks. We rely on ideologies because we lack the critical capacity of wisdom. It remains to be seen whether it might be possible to boost our capacity for wisdom in the general population in time to stop doing what we are doing now and understand what needs to be done in the future in order to survive as a species. Greater wisdom depends on higher consciousness — the ability to be aware of greater scales of space and time, and greater capacity to understand consequences of actions. I will take a look at this aspect next.