The Necessary Delusion

a bird may soar
to 30,000 feet
but eventually
must stop to eat

this freedom we chase
is only found in delusion
imagine until you sleep
there is no other conclusion

free is a bungee jump
fleeting as you fall
until the cord reminds
you’re tethered to the wall

we are all bound
equally by physical laws
and time has no mercy
on our physical flaws

we are all bound
to consider adjacent souls
each swish of our tail
affects the shoal

maybe being free
is a life without selfishness
growing your compassion
alleviating helplessness

is it possible to find freedom
living within boundaries?
can life break the moulds
forged in nature’s foundries?

maybe we can
for a time
and find
a new kind of rhyme

the burdens
we face
so real
we scrape for escape
from this oppression we feel
and so maybe freedom
is just striking a deal

because surely if we
don’t feel free
for a few moments
and lave in the stream
of a dream
while our spirit foments
life will be drudgery
with nothing but suffering
freedom is our interface
from a reality we’re buffering

and maybe without
this ability
to self-deceive
we would never know
what we could ever achieve

It All Hangs in the Balance

One of the problems I revisit regularly in my mind is the one of individualism versus collectivism.  It has been brought back to my mind as I finally concluded reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. His final two books in the series look at the idea of having individual consciousness or a more global consciousness which is inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, in which humans participate in self-regulating consciousness cooperatively with each other and all other life to create a state of perfect balance.  Asimov too struggles with the loss of individuality in favor of the common good.  Asimov seemed to be in favor of the latter, although I believe he tried to argue that a global consciousness doesn’t mean there is no individuality only that at times we must put that aside for the greater good.

The United States is a highly individualistic nation and it’s no surprise why so many nations with throngs of people forced to conform into a faceless, impoverished mass would envy the American way of life and freedom.  It occurred to me that many of the debates I seem to have about politics and ways of life are often have, at the heart, the issue of the greater good (collectivism) vs. individual freedom.  I guess it seems that I also side with the collectivist philosophy, but I also recognize the value of individuality to make that collective dynamic and adaptive to a changing understanding of our universe.  Whether it’s capitalism versus socialism, gun rights, globalism vs nationalism, justice and law, these debates often rest on arguments on what benefits the greater good and how much freedom we should have as individuals.  There is a balance to be had, and most critically thinking people I know agree on this, even if we disagree where that balance should be.

Freedom in itself is a strange concept because it doesn’t seem possible in the absolute as a social species.  How free am I to make any of my decisions? I should be free to buy my own clothes, but what if those clothes are made in a sweatshop?  But what if, even that meager wage allows people to live instead of starve, or at least a few more are able to break from that impoverished life.  When I simply provide for my family I make a thousand decisions that can impact positively and negatively others in the world, and though it may seem like I am living a quiet life causing no harm this may not be necessarily true, even if that harm is indirect.  How much does my lack of struggle in life come at the expense of someone who must struggle more?  It’s easy to ignore that which is not in front of your face and that which does not feel like part of your community.

Our species is a social one, and there is no getting around it.  Regardless of whether we are shaped as a hunter-gatherer society or “civilization” everybody has a role and can play a part.  And even if age or some accident in life, or a random birth defect we even have the ability to carry that small fragment of population along with us, and even find a way to find a use for them, even if that use is only to increase our capacity to have compassion.  As a result whatever values we hold will shape who we are as a species.  Too strong of a value on individualism over the greater good could leave us with vast degrees of inequality, decreased value on cooperation, and dysfunction in the ecosystem.  Too much emphasis on the collective can lead to greater conformity, loss of diversity of thought and ideas, and thus stagnation from individual growth and growth as a society.  The question becomes how can we promote individuality while at the same time convince people to work together and be in harmony with their environment?

If we remove humans from the Earth we would find a very self-sustaining organism.  Barring some large collision with an asteroid, life would persist until the sun went nova.  However it would be a mistake to think that there was a global consciousness such as described by the Gaia hypothesis.  I think it’s always a bit of a myth that other organisms live in balance with nature, whereas humans do not.  If you studied population dynamics in school you perhaps learned about cycles of rabbit and wolf populations.  The wolf is not conscious of the fact that it must conserve how many rabbits it eats or that it should hold off on having babies this year because if all the wolves in an area increase in population there will suddenly be a rabbit population in starve.  It thrives according to the food it can gets, and if can no longer get food, it starves, and there are less wolves, allowing the rabbit population to rebound.  Rabbits that evolve better evasion skills pass on their genes, and wolves with better hunting skills pass on theirs. And the population of both rabbits and wolves oscillates about an equilibrium, an average value that both populations of rabbits and wolves do not know they are maintaining.  One of the values of our intelligence should be that we can discover these equilibriums and we are best adapted at maintaining it.  We always haven’t been conscious of our place in the ecosystem, but we are now, and understanding more all the time.  It’s not surprising we could be so destructive, but as we learn more we also have the ability to extremely great stewards.

Annotation of the PREDATORS-PREY Relationship

Of course Asimov’s Gaia world, just as proposed by Lovelock, is likely a pipe dream in reality, because in his idea there was a collective consciousness that made decisions only in proportion to maintaining balance.  Such a reality for humans would mean that we would have all make sensible decisions about how many children to have, what to eat, and how to live peaceably in our environment.  But what’s interesting to me is that we also see examples of this in our human histories.  Many groups that ended up on islands learned how to conserve rather well.  Spacing out how often and how many children we had, techniques at preserving and storing food, techniques for domesticating plants and animals were all attempts to have ample food supplies for harsh seasons and changes in the environment.  But like any form of life, when abundance is presence, there is no thought to be conservative in terms of population.  We became masters of farming and population exploded as we began to be able to seemingly provide ourselves with food at will.  As it turns out we were only fooling ourselves, because our powers were still not limitless, although it made sense how it might seem so in the short term.

What I do see when I look at humanity is a potential for a march towards that ideal of global consciousness.  We may never truly have a global consciousness with each other and all life on the planet, but what we do have is empathy.  We have the ability to be conscious of the damage we do to our environment and other life, and what the long term impacts of that damage will be.   We have the ability to recognize that we might all be different pieces in a puzzle, but that we have equal value to the whole.  Just like each piece has uniqueness and is still integral to the puzzle, we can maintain our individuality while also recognizing what we are all a part of.  In this sense there would be no difference to an actual global consciousness and all acting in a way as if there was one.  We have a long way to go, but I believe it all begins with humility and compassion, and acceptance of the idea that all humans are part of the same tribe, the same community, the same species, and that we all have value.

Skills and Value

Topics are building up in my head faster than I have time to write them, and so despite the fact that I swore I was going to write about numerous other topics, particularly in the area of psychology a Facebook conversation has led me down a different path.

The conversation was about a McDonalds worker who wanted her $8/hr salary to go up to

From money.cnn.com

the living wage of $15/hr.  Which is still not a terribly high wage.  The conversation that ensued went as you’d expect.  Most people (who are in good jobs and living comfortably) saying that working at McDonalds requires no skill and thus should be paid accordingly.  Or criticizing the person for not doing more with their life and thus have no one but themselves to blame.  One person did make the argument that no wage has kept pace with inflation, which is true, but minimum wage has gone up at an even slower rate.

I made numerous arguments in response, most importantly challenging the assumption that the person had all these choices in their life.   Most of the people reading this blog live in a position of privilege.   And it’s not your fault.  Your parents probably pushed you, help educate you, made you aware of different options for your life, encouraged you to do well in school.  You probably grew up in relatively safe neighborhoods.  You had friends that were similar to you.  You had good schools to go to, with a lot of skilled teachers.  But not all neighborhoods are safe.  Not all parents care enough to encourage your education.

From blog.volunteerspot.com

Not all schools are equal in the quality of education they provide.  Some environments make it easier to fall into a bad crowd.  Not everyone has the freedom to go for further training after they get out of high school.  Maybe they have to work to take care of a sick parent who has massive bills because they couldn’t afford health insurance.  There are a million scenarios that could limit the opportunities one has.

I also made the argument that I did not choose my career path as a meteorology professor because of the money.  It is because I loved it.  I am glad it pays well enough for me to live comfortably.  But should all of a sudden a McDonalds job become available that pays more.  I am not going to jump ship and say, “Yay more money, flipping burgers all day is going to be awesome!”.

An argument was made by someone that garbage men get paid a good wage so they

From nypost.com

could do that instead of working at McDonalds.  Okay true.  But we can’t all be sanitation workers let alone teachers, lawyers and doctors.  It’s also important to remember that at one time sanitation workers didn’t get paid very much.  Thanks to unions though they could organize, strike, and refuse to pick up garbage until they made a decent wage to live by.  Because picking up the trash and removing waste from our streets is actually an important and necessary part of our society.

I think education and teachers are extremely important.  But do I think that makes a job that doesn’t require as much knowledge and skill less important?  Of course not.  There is nothing inherently more valuable about my role in society than someone who picks up the garbage.  In fact someone could argue that picking up the trash is perhaps more important.  When trash was in the streets, things like the bubonic plague happened.  Hygiene and sanitation are extremely important.  So let’s go a step further.  Is there anything more inherently valuable about my job than a restaurant worker?  Arguably we can have a world without restaurants and everybody cooks their own food.  Might  not be a bad world, but that’s not ultimately our world.  People like to go out to eat.  There will always be restaurants.  So restaurants are just as much part of the fabric of society as anything else.  So should the required skill level in any job be what determines the wage.  The sanitation worker, from a skill level is just as demanding as a burger flipper and yet makes more.   Is that right?  I would further argue that an employee earning a living wage at any job has more loyalty to the company and stays longer thus becoming better at their job.  If you’ve had bad service at a McDonalds, maybe it’s because they are constantly having to train new people since the pay is so bad that people leave after a short time.  The money isn’t probably worth the level of abuse they get from customers.

Now there are even more good arguments to be made about a McDonalds worker making a living wage.  They would need less social programs saving the taxpayer money, they can perhaps afford to move to send their kids to a better school to break the cycle of poverty, not to mention they may now have more free time to better themselves or spend with their kids, which also helps break the cycle.  However what concerns me the most is the attitude towards the poor.  One commenter on this thread said that “it serves them right making a low wage for their self-inflicted wounds”.  I was like wow.  As I’ve just argued it is extremely judgmental to assume the wounds are self-inflicted, but basically this person is saying:

“Hey poor person, sucks about the mistakes you made in the past.  You deserve now to suffer the rest of your life because of that”.

How callous is that? I wonder if that person has ever had somebody so unforgiving to their mistakes. And how should the poor person respond?

” Thank a lot Captain Hindsight.  Now that I realize my mistakes I’ll go back in time and fix it.”

Furthermore we can see how materialistic our society is by people who would look down on poor people in such a way.  Because where is the condemnation to the rich owner of

From socialmarketbuzz.com

McDonalds or any corporation?  Why don’t we judge him just as harshly?  Because he has money of course.  And obviously he must be working really really hard in order to make all that money.  This is of course nonsense.  A single mother working two jobs to support her family is most definitely working harder than the CEO of McDonalds. And I doubt that mother is having fancy lunches on an expensive account and playing a round of golf out in the sun with business associates.  But even if they were equal, why is that CEO more valuable than the person working at minimum wage jobs?  The corporation itself made almost $30 billion last year in revenues.  And the CEO’s take home pay is $9 million a year.  Is that CEO that much more valuable than one of his employees?  Is he/she that much more skilled?

And if workers should get a living wage, many argue about how much everything will cost.  But there is a second option.  The company could make less money.  The CEO could make less money.  Is that likely?  Perhaps not, but in the free market there is always somebody who is going to take an advantage of an opportunity and will undercut the competition and take home only 2 million a year instead.  That CEO is still living a better life than 99.99% of the people in this world.  If we want to equate a monetary value to skill, a CEO still makes far beyond what his or her skill warrants.

The Great Pyramids, one of the 7 wonders of the world, was built on the backs of slave labor to entomb the rich and powerful.  When I look at the vast wealth of a few, at the expense of countless millions who can barely meet their daily nutritional needs for themselves and their families, I wonder how much things have really changed.  What’s clear is that by dehumanizing the poor as many do in this country it allows a system to continue that allows the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.  So it saddens and sickens me when I hear people idolize wealth and abhor the poor.  If the income gap continues to widen in this country I can tell you that statistically speaking one is more likely to find themselves in a poor man’s shoes.  Perhaps only then will people learn.