Reflection 176: Heart Rot

January 28, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

If one size fits all, then everybody can wear the same hat. If one medium of exchange works for all, then everybody can work for the same dollar, and spend the same dollar. With the result, as Jaron Lanier puts it regarding advertising on the Web:

If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of to musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless (“The Serfdom of Crowds,” Harper’s Magazine, February 2010, page 19, from You are Not a Gadget, Knopf, 2010).

Instead of thinking for ourselves, we go shopping as we are conned into doing for our own good. So much for biological values and survival. Our role as we see it is to serve the global economy in the virtual money game it has become. Where once we would employ consciousness on behalf of personal sex-reproduction-family, eating, drinking, shelter, safety, companionship, learning, skill-building, etc., now we roll-over for those who get us hooked and support our nasty habit, going through the motions of pretending to use our minds, which now passes for a lifestyle of fake purposefulness (or let’s just pretend).

Trees are subject to a fungal infection that weakens or destroys their central core. The condition is called heart rot. People suffer from it as well, but from a different cause—being overly comfortable. When we finally “have it made,” we lose our edge and wander in Brownian motion wondering what to buy next. Hyper-sufficiency short-circuits our biological motivations (such as those listed above). What matters most is shopping, consuming, possessing, and living well. When that fungus strikes a nation, the population at large attempts to make a living by investing other people’s money in stocks, startups, real estate, mortgages, crime—whatever requires minimal effort to make the most profit at least risk.

Now it’s cap-and-trade, or you cap and I trade: I promise not to make more money than you, unless I can convince you and a thousand others that it’s your lot to stay as far below the poverty line as I can fly above it. Think capitalism and the two-class society. The Industrial Revolution was the engine for that line of reasoning, largely through exploitation of the so-called laws of thermodynamics in the instance of steam engines, locomotives, electrical power generation, internal-combustion engines, weaponry, and later, computers, the Internet, cell phones, and related technology:

The limitations of organic human memory and calculation put a cap on the intricacies of self-delusion. In finance, the rise of computer-assisted hedge funds and similar operations has turned capitalism into a search engine. You tend the engine in the computing cloud, and it searches for money. In the past, an investor had to be able to understand at least something about what an investment would actually accomplish. No longer. There are now so many layers of abstraction between the elite investor and actual events that he no longer has any concept of what is actually being done as a result of his investments (same source, page 16).

The challenge of global warming is not in cutting greenhouse-gas emissions but figuring how to make the most money from a global catastrophe by betting against our own fate. We have reached Nirvana, effectively becoming disconnected from the myriad natural processes and ecosystems that sponsor our continued existence on Earth. In the ultimate (fatal) sense, we are rotten at the core.

Does that matter? Or is it just another cell in the great database of life? I say it matters utterly and absolutely. Our Faustian bargain is for as many as can to game the system for as much as we can as long as we can, at which point Mephistopheles takes all:

The central faith embedded in Web technologies whereby users not only consume information but widely generate it is the idea that the Internet as a whole is coming alive and turning into a superhuman creature. The designs guided by this perverse kind of faith leave people in the shadows. Computers will soon get so big and fast, and the Internet so rich with information, that people will be obsolete, either left behind like the characters in Rapture novels or subsumed into some cyber-superhuman something (same source, page 15).

Our current ethos falls somewhere between seeing numbness as a virtue for the majority, with fanaticism reserved to a driven elite. If you haven’t made your first million by twenty and billion by thirty, you might as well quit. Today, that counts as thinking. The rich are too comfortable to care, the poor too weak to fight back. We put our money—not our bodies, not our consciousness—where our values are. With the result that, as far as we’re concerned, money is all, life nothing. We make a show of sending money to Haiti after the earthquake, not before, when the U.S. built a record of siding with one corrupt dictator after another in repressing the people. Regarding Cuba, Howard Zinn writes:

Americans began taking over railroad, mine, and sugar properties when the [Spanish-American] war ended. In a few years, $30 million of American capital was invested. United fruit moved into the Cuban sugar industry. It bought 1,900,000 acres of land for about twenty cents an acre. The American Tobacco Company arrived. By the end of the occupation, in 1901, [Philip] Foner estimates that at least 80 percent of the export of Cuba’s minerals were in American hands, mostly Bethlehem Steel (A People’ History of the United States, page 303).

The CIA not only tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, but in a clandestine operation in 1971, it used swine fever virus as a weapon against Cuba, leading to the slaughter of half a million pigs (Zinn, page 542f.). Ever furthering the financial interests of its industries, the U.S. has long viewed the Caribbean as its territory, never hesitating to punish the locals in foisting its economic agenda upon them. Now we regard the Internet as ours, and are determined to make it pay—even if it means the death of newspapers, magazines, thought, conscience, or consciousness itself.

Finally, let me make one thing perfectly clear: these are not bad times. That is passing the buck. It is we who are acting badly by expecting to live on too grand a scale, consuming more than our share of so-called natural resources, far longer than we deserve, regardless of the cost to others and the planet we all share together. Our collective appetites and arrogance are not only wasting our culture’s potential for living within its means, but spoiling the Earth for all living beings. In that sense, we have become fanatics both mindless and heartless. Our headstones, if any, might well read:

The Buck Stops Here

(Or Would Have


If  Only We’d

Taken It To Heart).

Grave Marker



(Copyright © 2010)

On the afternoon of January 12, 2010, Haiti was ruined by an earthquake in ten seconds. There were no winners, only losers. For nine years, the U.S. has been waging war against the very Jahadis it helped to create during the Cold War, and the Taliban who gave them a toehold in Afghanistan. Again, no winners, only losers. Looking ahead, in fifty years low-lying shores on every continent will bear scars inflicted by rising seas, upland areas suffer droughts and massive extinctions. Devastation will be the rule, not the exception. Over the long- or short-term, every unique life leads to the same end—in each case unknown. There is no way to evade personal ruin. Life will invariably cease, cells disintegrate. No winners, only losers, unless . . . .

For such minds as can grasp this inescapable scenario, there is only one way to respond: Act at all times in such a way to create as many islands and oases of order, compassion, and social justice as possible to offset the inevitable. Otherwise, the miracle of life has no meaning, or is at best a forlorn hope.

Beset by, and causing, devastation, we live fleetingly in denial, pretending we can sidestep our fate, believing in life after death, the healing power of personal wealth, that deeds can bestow immortality, that death can be deterred, outrun, or defeated. All of which sap our will for doing good rather than simply answering the roll for as long as we can when our name is called.

Living as long as we can is not a good in itself. It’s what we accomplish—what we actually do—in whatever time we are allowed that really matters. What we do for those we leave behind. The certainty of moving from the column of the living to the dead is, in fact, not only our fate but our greatest gift. The tragedy in Haiti is not that life is cut short but, in addition to suffering, that there is no pattern to which people are felled: children, adults, and the aged are equally susceptible. That, together with the violent nature of each death and the utter lack of help, produces chaos, the very opposite of social order. We saw lesser versions in the felling of the Twin Towers, looting of Iraq in the calm after the initial assault, and in New Orleans during and after the passing of Hurricane Katrina.

In better days, mortality is our greatest strength because it frames each day as an opportunity, not a time to endure. It can motivate us to get off our butts and do something positive with whatever skills and energy we can muster on the spot. If death cannot be avoided, we are wise to make the most of what little time we have. Truism, yes, but a compelling one. None packs greater punch. Go for it, live each day to the max! Later is not good enough; now is my time to engage and to act. Not for self because self is invariably a dead end, but for those left behind. For the thread of life that survives us, not our narrow little life.

Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess, inventor of deep ecology, said, “Think globally, act locally.” I add to that, Shape eternity, act in the now. Those who look ahead to consorting with forty virgins in paradise, or sitting on a cloud sipping margaritas, are committing the ultimate category error. Death is the end of consciousness as we know it, the absolute end. All else is myth, fantasy, or delusion. The test of our deeds is the world that lives after us. That is basic Darwinism. The measure of our success is the life (in the largest sense) we make possible. Not only in our genetic line, but in the natural conditions within which it survives. If we steal Earth’s wealth for ourselves today, mere money will not provide for our descendants tomorrow. The meaning or import of mortality—the 100% certainty of our end—is gauged by the living potential we are to leave, not the resources we take unto ourselves. Money in stocks or the bank is life converted to dead notes. It stands for consumption and death, not survival.

Consciousness is a sure sign of life, the realization of biologically-derived human values (reproduction, metabolism, homeostasis, safety, etc.) through actions appropriate to life-giving surroundings. For the self, life is a matter of giving away, not taking from others. That is, it promotes authentic possibilities for action—actions that do not limit life’s choices tomorrow, but maintain or expand them. Acting in the now with eternity in mind is called stewardship. The Na’vi in Avatar live (if fictional creatures can be said to live) in that realization. More accurately, they represent that realization in James Cameron’s consciousness. Jahadi suicide bombers do just the opposite by destroying the possibilities of even their own lives and as many infidels as they can ruin along with themselves.

Now is my time on Earth, my time to live, my time to build a future for all life consciously and deliberately. I don’t have answers to many of the riddles and contradictions life throws at me, but collectively, cumulatively, we can share some few of those answers among us. Each can contribute her coherent actions to the body of the whole, and all draw wisdom and appreciation from that whole as needed. Give-and-take is the nature of our engagement on Earth. An engagement that will come to a definite end. Period. End of life. Maybe eight minutes from now, maybe tomorrow, maybe in fifty-three years. The point is not to obsess over but to deal with that certainty by building a life for ourselves, for those we love, for those we don’t know, and all members of other species. Then, when smitten, we will at least have done our best by Earth and its passengers for the long haul.

Which is far different from the life capitalistic assumptions and thinking would have us live. Capitalism is a farce, a heavy-handed caricature or cartoon of how to get ahead in life. It is drawn by the asset-rich to lure the asset-poor into their employ. It is a class-based system, dividing rather than uniting us. We now think of our lives in terms of the jobs we are offered rather than how we treat other people and other species through our stewardship practices. Sure, we get good at what we do, and earn money in the process, but that is not why we’re here. We are not born warriors, mechanics, or seamstresses, we are born Earthlings who must steward their gifts if they are to survive. We are meant to accrue an understanding of Earth’s truths, not wealth in and for itself. We are meant to act positively on behalf of life itself, not negatively for self alone. We are meant to create organic order, not the mechanized chaos we do by waging wars around the globe—as if that furthered the interests of life in any way whatsoever. There are no such things as natural resources meant for our taking; that is a fundamental category error. Consciousness is an emergent aspect of life itself, a self-contained guidance system. That, our bodies, surrounding communities, and natural environments are what we are given to work with and make the most of where we are. Now, not later on.

What I am trying to say is that ruined hope for a better future is a more accurate measure of any disaster than property losses or body counts. Hope lives in human consciousness as an urge toward a brighter light ahead. True wealth tells the capacity for hope based on possibilities for constructive action in today’s world. Husbandry and stewardship create hope; monetary wealth devastates hope through possibilities removed from the commons. Haiti lying in ruin from a shift in tectonic plates is tantamount to Iraq and Afghanistan lying in ruin from America flaunting its military might. We could not have prevented the one, but could have the others by holding eternity in mind. By making the most of our individual gifts rather than the least through flexing our military-industrial capacity for inflicting devastation and despair. Consciousness is given us as a gift; unfortunately the instruction manual—our living habitat or environment—is now largely made over by us, leaving us separated not only from nature but our own gift for life. With the result we are dead before our time, carrying on, true—but doing so ideologically, not weighing the moment and engaging the living Earth instead of our rote and sorry depiction of it.

Earth is rocked by enough natural disasters as it is without humanity inflicting additional devastation of its own devising. What we need is more compassion, sharing, healing, and hope such as are conveyed by our heritage of survival, and enabled by awareness of our common Earthling predicament. Taking the long view, keeping Earth’s evolving, biological eternity in mind, equips us to cope with natural disasters when they come upon us. That way we work with one another rather than against by taking more than our share, adding our small effort, heightening the possibility that, with or without us, life on Earth just may have a future.