Overall, culture is the footprint of our collective ways of actually obtaining the basic necessities of life from our home planet. Necessities including air, water, food, shelter, warmth, fuel, clothing, sex, safety, healthcare, and help with projects we can’t handle alone.

Omitting environmental protection (along with the arts, sciences, religions, sports, entertainments, and other cultural interests), the U.S. President’s cabinet of top advisors is concerned with agriculture, commerce, defense, education, energy, health, housing, homeland security, interior, justice, labor, state, treasury, transportation, and veterans affairs.

That brief list hints (by what’s on it and what’s missing) at the intricacy of the infrastructure necessary to maintaining a modern national culture. The shadow of the Washington Monument reaches farther than we commonly suppose. In that shadow, the U.S. is governed by a lopsided, Washingtonian synopsis of the culture we engage with every day of our lives, whether we know it or not.

We are governed by the rules of “fair play” in the form of legislative and judicial decisions, edicts, proclamations, ordinances, policies, and guidelines of every imaginable sort. We are subject to the rule of law—layer upon layer of it—which regulates our engagements in more ways than we can keep up with or even imagine.

This system results in a state of full employment with good pensions for government employees, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of our system of laws. Think of the potholes filled, snows plowed, ditches dug, wrecks hauled, votes counted, tax bills sent out, hearings held, reports issued, checks cashed, jails filled, witnesses sworn, and on and on. The pulse of state never skips a single beat.

On the other hand, we now use the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to gauge the success of the U.S. Economy, and by extension, the standard of living of its culture and people. Little Bhutan on the slopes of the Himalayas, to the contrary, gauges its national quality of life by an index of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Other alternatives to the GDP include the Happy Planet Index, Better Life Index, and Social Progress Index. Or if you’d rather wallow in the mud, there’s the Misery Index.

How about cultural ratings based on Justice for All, Peaceful Solutions, Nonviolent Alternatives, Earth Forever, or Small is Beautiful? Once you start thinking about other ways of rating cultural achievements, it’s hard to stop.

One thing is clear: It’s time to raise the bar for the cultural measures we use to rate our success. The GDP ignores environmental degradation and exploitation as direct consequences of production, as well as inequality of wealth distribution. Who are we kidding. Who else but We the People?

Clearly, culture descends from above and outside as a distorted reflection of the concerns we sent aloft in the first place. We the People are the proposers of culture. The instigators. The starting impetus is our doing, each of us bearing the burden of the share for which he or she is personally responsible. And for which her/his parents are personally responsible. And their parents before them.

But the disposers—the administrators—of culture are the powers that be. It is they who take our little yearnings and view them through the lens of their personal advantage. Culture is like an archaeological dig down through the midden of human activity until we hit bedrock, which is nature’s doing before our tribe came on the scene. Ultimately, our culture is founded on the native ground of our planet. We inherit a version of culture that, beyond being built on that substrate, is modified by the cumulative impact of all who have come before us.

Culture shapes us according to the free-floating pressures and concerns most alive in our minds at the time and place of our birth—and those same concerns as translated and answered by those who are in charge. Where do we find shelter? Water? Something to wear? A place to sleep? Our next meal? Work? Help? Care? A potential mate? A dump for our waste?

Our culture shows us the path. As wayfarers, we learn from those around us. We go where they go and do as they do, modifying their example to fit our personal needs and desires. As we engage with our culture, so do our minds learn, so do we become.

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