Capitalism at the Service of Humanity

Learning from Water

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We are nothing but whirlpools in a river of water that flows constantly. We are not habitable substance, but self-perpetuating patterns.”  – Norbert Wiener

Hot water can freeze faster than cool water. This may be the most illogical scientific fact known to humankind. When one researcher conducted experiments in the 1960s that evidenced this mind-bending truth he told his boss not to worry, that he’d “keep replicating the experiment until he got the right result”!

When reality conflicts with what we believe to be true, we very often refuse to see reality. In fact, if we derive our identity from the challenged believe, refusal can devolve into forceful suppression of truth. This myopia may just have been inconvenient to most of our ancestors (though far worse for those brave enough to challenge orthodoxy), but given the urgent challenges we face today this myopia of belief may lead to our extinction. So this is one lesson we can learn from water: Keep an open mind.

There is another lesson here: evolution can leap forward in ways that transcend our beliefs about what is possible. Since humanity and Earth are in dire need of transcendent evolutionary leaps, this is good news indeed.

Science has yet to satisfactorily explain the perplexing mystery of faster-to-freeze hot water (though there is no shortage of conjectures). I have my own theory best illustrated by a metaphor: Imagine you want to organize a room full of people to do a simple line dance.  Do you think it would take you longer to get everyone doing the Chicken Dance if, (a) the room was full of people rocking out to Katie Perry (assuming you had control of the mic), or (b) the room was full of people sitting around watching TV?  My bet is that the rockers would be much quicker to get their Chicken on than the boob tube viewers.

763px-Snow_crystals

In hot water molecules are moving quickly (like the Perry fans). In cool water molecules are moving slowly (like the sedentary folks). Ice forms when the molecules give up their random movement and take on an ordered pattern (the line dance). Interestingly, water will sometimes dip below 32 degrees and still not form into crystalline ice – it gets so lethargic it can’t manage to get in line! (An abrupt jolt will usually get the non-frozen freezing temperature water to sync up.)

We are living in an increasingly and dangerously heated world, in terms of climate, politics, and technology.  Water gives us cause to hope that we can cool off far more rapidly than logic and reason would have us believe, and possibly save ourselves and our miraculously beautiful living planet from a tragic fate – after all, we are 70% water!


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Fool Me Once …

We’ve received several concerned messages from friends who’ve seen ads for Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s book Conscious Capitalism.  Oh no, did he write your book?!  It’s a very kind sentiment, but news like this makes us smile and rejoice – the idea that capitalism must evolve is going mainstream, and that can only be a good thing!

GoodGuide.com provides more exciting evidence that the ideas explored in Conspiracy of Dreamers are taking root and blossoming.  GoodGuide is a for-profit enterprise that employs some very sharp experts to look at the practices of large companies and their products, and issue a grade (on a 0-10 scale).  They even provide filters for things such as global warming, animal treatment, and human rights.  I used GoodGuide this morning by inputting my Amazon.com username and password (yes, I’m that trusting). The site downloaded a bunch of my purchase history and told me that only 12% of my purchases lived up to my values. (I selected every filter available, so the bar was set high.)  Wow, what an eye opener!

Among the thumbs down purchases I made was a set of EcoTools bamboo make-up brushes – and this was not a marginal call due to my high bar setting:  EcoTools is a fail on every dimension.  I thought I was being good when I bought these as they boasted cruelty-free bristles, recycled aluminum ferrules and 1% of sales donated to environmental organizations.  Fooled by green wash!  But no longer. This is the future.

GoodGuide is not exactly the True Cost Index we discuss in the book (but it’s a fabulous start). It doesn’t speak in the language of price, making it difficult to evaluate choices clearly in light of our personal economic realities and the big picture. For example, would I and the world be better off buying cheap, but marginally environmentally irresponsible laundry detergent, and putting the money saved toward the purchase of a more efficient washing machine?  If true intelligence is what we want, then we have to empower holistic thinking lest we end up being penny wise but pound foolish.

Furthermore, GoodGuide is not open sourced, so it’s not the kind of bottom-up, transparent and quickly evolving system we envision. Thankfully, its business model is transparent – its profits come from clearly marked advertisements to users and analysis it provides to companies looking to improve their rankings, so it avoids structural conflicts of interest.

There is much to celebrate! I’m committed to using GoodGuide regularly and I’m hoping you will too. We may not always be able to afford the best, but every bit counts. Align your choices with your values and corporations will too.

 

 


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Let Go My Ego

“To tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”

–       Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Pirsig’s insight came to mind recently while reading about the continued unrest in Egypt, political oppression in Russia, and Obama’s support of extra-judicial assassination by drone. Looking at our species’ history this is a very old story: the oppressed, risking everything, revolt against tyrants only to be subjugated by another oppressor with a new ideology, but the same structure. Pirsig identified the underlying force that keeps this pattern repeating – “systematic thought itself.” A mouthful for sure, but what might he mean?

While each nation and time has its own nuanced version, the source of the pattern is ego – of the part of us that needs to be better than, to dominate others, to possess more.  As long as our political, social and economic systems are arising from people who are dominated by self-righteous egos we will continue to get more of the same: more oppression, more pollution, more injustice, more war, more inequality.

Those of us in the West can see this most clearly in Egypt: conservative Muslims want to use government to impose their religious dogma on the rest, replacing the oppression of Mubarak with the oppression of the Koran (as interpreted by some). Democracy cannot thrive in the absence of a critical mass of democratically minded citizens committed to a pattern of systematic thought that includes freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of religion and political equality.

If you want peace, forgive. If you want justice, be kind to the life around you (humans and non-humans alike). If you want environmental healing, be conscious of how your choices ripple out into the world. If you want freedom, turn off your television (a voluntary form of consumption hypnosis). If you want economic equality, give to those with less than you.

Start this Christmas by giving to charity in honor of your family and friends. (If giving is better than receiving, than giving twice is even better!) Surround yourself with people committed to living Gandhi’s injunction to “be the change you want to see in the world,” as that is the most powerful way I know of to change the “patterns of systematic thought.”

 


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The Myth of Capitalism

“All cultures … are founded on myths. What these myths have given has been inspiration for aspiration … Economics is itself a function of aspiration. It’s what people aspire to that creates the field in which economics works.”

– Joseph Campbell

What will our world look like in 100 years? Before you answer, look back and consider how much it has changed in the past 100 years. Those of us in the developed world live in what our great-grandparents would consider a science fiction utopia – hot clean water from the tap, flushing toilets, central air and heat, a breathtaking array of food choices, the breadth and depth of human knowledge at our fingertips, instant global communication, international travel at breakneck speeds, astounding entertainment choices, and political freedom.

With such amazing powers and opportunities at our disposal, our look forward to the future should be hopeful and optimistic. But environmental degradation, climate change, the spread of nuclear weapons, and population growth pose urgent risks to human survival. Meanwhile, an epidemic of frustration and alienation has given rise to the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements.  Protesters from opposite ends of the political spectrum are reacting to the same underlying problem: abuse of power that is increasingly concentrated in the hands of an elite group of politicians, bankers, executives, and wealthy individuals.

Listening to pundits and reading headlines leads to the conclusion that American society is hopelessly divided, that there is an insurmountable chasm separating us. If we choose to believe this narrative, then we doom ourselves to a future of discord and frustration. The media thrives on conflict. It has a vested interest in selling us a story of division. The challenge for those who are not content to let the drive for TV ratings steer our great nation off a cliff, is to tell a different story – one of hope, cooperation, and abundance. Here is a sketch of what such a story might look like …

Once upon a time, long, long ago, (about 3.7 billion years ago to be precise), an organism came into being, striving to survive amid the primordial stew of early Earth. This particular cell, and the DNA that dictated its physical form, was destined for greatness. Darwinian science calls it LUA for “last universal ancestor,” and it formed the basis, and the essence, for every living being on our planet. This microscopic dynamo was certainly not the first life on earth; rather, untold numbers of doomed variations gave it their best shot, and failed. To this very day, LUA reigns supreme in the biological tree of all planetary life.

It is beyond human comprehension whether God created LUA, or whether LUA resulted from a fortunate arrangement of inorganic material animated by natural forces, or both. We do know that through the magic of natural selection, reproduction and mutation, LUA’s pattern has expanded, divided and multiplied into the rich tapestry that is life on Earth. LUA’s most intellectually advanced descendant – Homo sapiens – emerged just a few hundred thousand years ago.

Humanity’s universal ancestors have been identified by science: “Eve” was born about 200,000 years ago on the African savanna. She is the matriarch of every one of us. “Adam” – our common patriarch – is much younger, having come into being about 70,000 years after Eve. Adam, Eve and their offspring struggled mightily to survive; many more lost the struggle than won. Each of us descended from the champions.

Thousands of years ago the progeny of Adam and Eve set out to build a tower to the heavens. On learning of their project, “the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language … and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” Most know how this part of the story goes: God thwarted their efforts, scattered them across the globe and fractured their language so they could not challenge his supremacy. There is a lesson here (other than the foolhardiness of challenging the God of Abraham) – the key to achieving transcendent greatness is communication.

Humanity now stands at the edge of another possible triumph of unity and cooperation. This time our common language takes a different form: the ones and zeros of binary code, the language of computers. A world of possibilities is emerging from this evolutionary leap in human communication. Rather than building a tower to heaven, the project before us is the creation of a new earth, one that reflects the harmonious values that make our species unique – compassion, creativity, community, and love of truth and beauty.

We are the reigning champions of the game of life, but success is far from certain. The time has come for us to choose our destiny. The biggest obstacle to creating a world of abundance, meaning, health and vitality is our collective failure to believe that such a world is within our reach.

Communication technology and expanded human consciousness are the means by which we can create a future in which our loftiest values – love, creativity, empathy and justice – are manifested powerfully in the world. We can use technology to broaden and deepen a potent source of power: capitalism – the global economic system typified by free markets, freedom of contract, capital flow, and private property – can evolve to serve humanity in bringing forth a brighter future.

The current version of capitalism suffers serious failings. It is causing us to devour the natural environment, marginalize masses of humanity and erode our own spiritual and psychological health. The strong social quality of human nature is, in large part, responsible for our remarkable ability to survive. We flourish in communities and are fulfilled when we contribute to those around us. Unfortunately, capitalism and related changes have unintentionally undermined community and our ability to shape our world for the better, leaving many alienated and disempowered. These are not fatal flaws; they are signs that it is time to push forward. Capitalism is due for a major upgrade.  Thankfully, it has provided us with the means of executing this overhaul – technology.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs proposes that, while material survival and safety (that is, food and shelter) are essential for fulfillment, they are only the beginning. Once a person satisfies these needs, she naturally turns to more ethereal pursuits such as community, creative expression, and spiritual transcendence. Capitalism, with its relentless pursuit of material growth, has served much of humanity exceptionally well in satisfying material needs (an admirable achievement indeed). However, its current form focuses on the material aspects of life, undermining our ability to scale Maslow’s hierarchy. Evidence of capitalism’s myopia is broad and deep: Western civilization is experiencing an epidemic of dissatisfaction; symptoms include loneliness, drug abuse, obesity, depression, escapism (through TV, video games, porn, etc.), anger and frustration.

Why are vast numbers of human beings experiencing deep psychological and spiritual suffering during the most materially affluent time and place in our species’ history?  Consumer culture is a prime culprit. From early childhood, we are taught that the secret to happiness is found in material wealth. We spend countless hours watching TV commercials, viewing billboards, and hearing radio advertisements that inform us of our needs and wants. We are trained to work hard to “get ahead,” but never encouraged to ask, “ahead of what?” Social and psychological research proves that the materialism of consumer culture is toxic to true happiness. The actual source of the epidemic of dissatisfaction is a widespread failure to ascend to the higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – love, belonging, community, creative expression and spiritual transcendence – which are the most rewarding of human experiences.

There is an alternative to the myopic materialism of mainstream consumer culture – a path that leads toward the realization of human potential and authentic happiness. Those who strive to realize their full potential as helpful contributors to their communities, experience joy and increased self-worth. Happiness is not the destination; it is the splendor of the dandelions edging the path, the harmonious whistling of fellow travelers, and the invigorating breeze caressing your sunlit face as you stride ahead.  This change in focus can counter the alienation and disempowerment that is draining many of their passion for life. If we are to meet the mounting challenges of global warming, exponential population growth, and nuclear proliferation, to name a few, we must make this cultural shift. Human potential is a natural resource that holds the possibility of transforming this planet for the better; we cannot afford to continue squandering it.

Humankind has developed a system of collaboration, cooperation and competition – capitalism – with a vast ability to develop and apply natural resources. It is unimaginably powerful because it reflects the combined motivation of billions of human beings – it is a force of nature. But capitalism, like any system, is only as good as its chosen goal, and only as intelligent as the quality of information to which it has access. If we are to develop the true potential of human beings and devote it to the task of creating a world of abundance, justice and peace, then we must reconfigure our most powerful tool. Capitalism’s current goal of blind material growth must be replaced with a new and better ambition – realizing human potential.

Despite capitalism’s power, it is often shortsighted. Humanity’s highest ideals – love, truth, beauty and justice – are not well communicated in the nervous system of the economy, that is, by price and money. Thus, it is not surprising that outcomes, by and large, do not reflect our noblest goals. We look to government and nonprofits to bridge the gap between what capitalism provides and the society we’d like to live in. But these are no match for the overwhelming and expanding force of capitalism. If capitalism is to evolve, it must be pushed from within and from the ground up. In true evolutionary fashion, capitalism has provided the foundation for its next incarnation. Communication technology holds the key to upgrading capitalism so we can harness its power and use it to create a future of abundance in harmony with nature and with one another.

In light of the challenges facing humanity (and others that will inevitably arise) humanity, and its most powerful system of collaboration, capitalism must evolve quickly to its next stage of development – time is of the essence. The next phase will include the following specific features:

  • Transcendence of the for-profit versus nonprofit duality. New charitable enterprises will arise with the goal of profiting humanity rather than a few owners, and these will do so through activities conventionally considered “commercial.” Buyers will have expanded opportunities to contribute meaningfully to causes that matter to them simply by patronizing these “for profiting humanity” enterprises. These enterprises will apply the transformative force of free market capitalism to creating a better future for all.
  • The power of crowdsourcing (proven by the success of Wikipedia) will be used to create a “True Cost Index.” This index will enables users to discover the true cost of products and services – measured in terms of each user’s expressed values (for example, environment, animal welfare, and social justice). With this information, buyers can make informed and intelligent choices that reflect love, truth, beauty and justice, and their choices will steer us toward a future that embodies these values.
  • Software applications will connect informed and mindful buyers (using a True Cost Index), enterprises aimed at doing good, and wealthy donors willing to match the charitable contributions of others (important in overcoming the inertia of habit). United, these groups can powerfully direct the flow of energy (money) to people and organizations working to shape the future in alignment with the highest and most humane values. As the financial arteries delivering funds to those bringing more love, truth, beauty and justice into the world expand and multiply, more people will dedicate their buying power to such efforts. As technology continues replacing human labor at an ever-quickening pace, growth in fields that enrich life quality (that is, people climbing Maslow’s pyramid and helping others in their ascent) will provide fulfilling work that computers cannot perform.

Many examples of these changes in the structure of capitalism are already occurring – even from some not so likely market participants: Wal-Mart is developing a program that is, in many ways, a prototype of the True Cost Index.

An example of combining a conventional business enterprise with a related philanthropic cause illustrates the power of these ideas: consider the possibility of a group of wealthy environmentalists buying Orbitz.com. (At of the time of this writing, Orbitz is the smallest of several U.S. facing companies providing online travel reservations.) This new environmentally focused Orbitz contributes 100% of its free cash flow to offsetting the negative climate effects of air travel (that is, investing in projects that counter the harm caused by carbon emissions). This hybrid business-philanthropy model (that is, a “for profiting humanity enterprise”) allows the traveling public to direct profits toward solving one of the most daunting problems facing the planet – global climate change. By enabling people to align their buying choices with their higher values – without financial sacrifice – an environmentally focused Orbitz turns a conventional commercial enterprise into a source of positive change. The result is a more intelligent and conscious form of capitalism.

These simple alterations can significantly improve human lives and the condition of the planet. Complex adaptive systems, such as capitalism, have leverage points – places where small changes powerfully affect the rest of the system. The reconfigurations described above apply pressure to sensitive leverage points and thus have the power to achieve extensive positive change. The world has seen the power of such leverage points to cause cascading failures, such as the 2008 financial crisis and its lingering after-effects. But leverage points can also be used to trigger cascading successes.

Creating a more evolved version of capitalism offers the possibility for people to fulfill their material needs in ways that align with the health of the environment. It may also spark virtuous cycles of empowerment, psychological health and spiritual well-being. By putting contribution at the core of the economic system, people will regularly experience the satisfaction of making a difference. Research has shown that giving people are happier, and happier people are more giving. This reinforcing beneficial cycle can spark a deepening of human consciousness, and a psychological and spiritual transformation – a powerful antidote to the epidemic of alienation and disempowerment affecting much of Western civilization.

This vision of a brighter future may seem to be a pipedream – just another idea fated to end up on the scrap heap of utopian history. But our optimism is based on science: intelligence arises from complex systems (such as civilization), and these systems arise from the coordination enabled by efficient and expansive communication networks.  Humanity is undergoing a metamorphosis of astounding implications. Literacy and access to information are spreading, binary code and the technology it enables are connecting people, and these developments are dramatically improving the collective intelligence of humankind. The raw materials now exist – the neurons and synapses of the collective human mind – and are multiplying as you read these words. It is time to put this potential to use: as the God of the Old Testament foretold, once we, the people, are one, nothing will be restrained from us which we imagine to do. What will you imagine to do?


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Peace Wave?

We’ve all heard of crime waves sweeping a city, often during a summer heat wave, but have you heard of a “peace wave”?  Harvard professor Steven Pinker makes a compelling case that humanity is in the midst of a major transformation into kinder beings.  Pinker cites a wide array of data that empirically shows the truth of his thesis:  “Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.” Indeed, homicide, both in and out of war, saw a dramatic decline in the twentieth century.  Pinker summarizes this good news as follows:

Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution – all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.

Pinker struggles to explain the cause of this trend of kindness.  He dismisses the possibility of an evolutionary explanation, concluding that, “Even if the meek could inherit the earth, natural selection could not favor the genes for meekness quickly enough.”  But, culture is the primary means by which human beings are evolving now, and culture has a powerful influence on personality.  Pinker is correct that genes for meekness could not have been favored in the brief time since the dawning of our pacifist phase.  But cultures that value human life and the rule of law have been favored by natural selection in this brief time frame.  The default operating system “installed” in individuals who develop in these pacifist cultures inclines them toward respect for others (that is, meekness).

To see clearly our current position in the timeline of evolution – where we’ve come from and where we might be headed – it’s important to first consider one of the more thorny debates in science:  nature versus nurture.  If humans are hardwired by DNA, then the prospects for transforming human civilization in a short period will depend on genetic engineering rather than cultural evolution.  Empirical studies have determined with a convincing degree of reliability that intelligence and personality are determined by both nature and nurture in close to a 50/50 ratio. (Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2002.)  What constitutes “nurture” remains a mystery (for example, parenting appears to play a small role as long as extreme abuse isn’t involved).  For now we must be content to define nurture in the negative: it’s something (or things) that is not in our genes.

What is important for the present discussion is that, while we are tied to our genes, our tether is long enough to give room to maneuver – we are not mere puppets.  Through a better understanding of human nature we can learn to use our room to maneuver to its fullest, allowing us to be, as much as possible, authors of our own destinies.  We can apply our intelligence to finding ways to work with, rather than against, the innate part of us, which is not within our direct control, thus expanding the range of our autonomy.   The evolutionary history of Homo sapiens sheds light on the relatively fixed aspects of human nature – the anchor that determines the range of our potential.

Before mapping the human genome, scientists decoded the genome of the microscopic, spineless, primitive Caenorhabditis worm.  Roughly 18,000 genes provide the blueprint for 969 cells that comprise Caenorhabditis.  Based on this benchmark, geneticists guessed that the human genome would likely include over 100,000 genes – given our complex biology of over 50 trillion cells.  The current count puts the number of human genes in the neighborhood of 22,000.  Not many more than the simple Caenorhabditis, and fewer than a grape plant, which has over 30,000 genes.  Clearly, there is a lot more to life than simply carrying out the programs written in one’s genetic code.  It appears that much of the magic of life is in the relationships between our genes, the physical structures our genes map (what biologists call “phenotypes”) and our environment.  Epigenetics is the study of these relationships.

Our emerging ability to consciously program our operating system – to intentionally rewire the patterns of our thought processes – is transforming our species within a time frame that would be impossible through mere genetic selection.  Human beings are exceptional because of our freedom to choose and to shape our material world to suit our needs, and we are learning to focus this ability on ourselves.  We are using our intellect to self-evolve.  Pinker identifies the watershed time and place in the kindness transformation of our species.  The Age of Reason in Britain and Holland, which led to the Age of Enlightenment, encouraged the questioning of traditional customs, institutions, and ethics.  During this time, a critical mass of human beings awoke to the realization that their default operating system was full of bugs that were causing suboptimum functioning – a major modification was in order.

Astoundingly rapid changes in our beliefs about race and gender equality, religious tolerance and sexual orientation evidence the continued vitality of the Age of Enlightenment.  People are consciously choosing to draw new maps and chart new courses.  They are expanding the greatest natural resource on this planet – human potential.  It is no coincidence that the advances of the last two centuries followed the arrival of the Age of Enlightenment:  serfs and slaves generally do not invent, innovate, create, or write – these are the province of free men and women.

America just celebrated the anniversary of freedom in this country, the question now is, what are we going to do with our freedom?  If we are not using it to advance life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of humanity, then we are dishonoring the sacrifices of those who risked everything for our liberty.

 



[i]Pinker, Steven. “We’re Getting Nicer Every Day:  A History of Violence.” The New Republic Online 20 March 2007.  Web. 26 April 2010. <http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/2007_03_19_New%20Republic.pdf>.

[ii]Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate : the Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2002. We’re oversimplifying here just a bit – the 50/50 split refers only to the portion of our personality and intelligence that is variable.

[iii]Hesman Saey, Tina. “Human Gene Count: More Than a Chicken, Less Than a Grape : Discovery News.” Discovery News 20 Oct. 2010. Web. 22 Sept. 2011. <http://news.discovery.com/human/human-gene-count.html>.

[iv]The Age of Enlightenment took different shapes in Continental Europe on the one hand, and Britain and the U.S. on the other with the former having strong communal tendencies which are still quite apparent in the values of the French populace, and the latter manifesting strong individualist tendencies.


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A Lesson in Social Transformation (Baboon Style)

Our primate cousins, baboons, offer an inspiring example of the power of social transformation.  Primatologist, Robert M. Sapolsky, studied the “Forest Troop” of baboons in Kenya for years.  The troop was typical of baboons – aggressive males atop a rigid hierarchy used violence to preserve their positions of power.  Then tuberculosis killed half the males.  The disease didn’t strike a randomly though, it hit only those who frequented a nearby garbage heap within another troop’s territory.  This dump, being a source of prime grub, was the site of much fighting, so only the most aggressive males ventured to compete.  Thus, tuberculosis wiped out the most aggressive males in the Forest Troop.  (It decimated the troop whose territory included the heap.)

Sapolsky described the dramatic social transformation that emerged following the TB outbreak:

There remained a hierarchy among the Forest Troop males, but it was far looser than before: compared with other, more typical savanna baboon groups, high-ranking males rarely harassed subordinates and occasionally even relinquished contested resources to them. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other — a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.[i]

Most surprisingly, the pacifist culture of this troop persists decades later.  Male baboons leave their birth-troop at puberty to join a foreign group, so for a behavior (or lack thereof) to continue, it must be passed to the newly arrived transplants.  Normally, these males are initially shunned and must endure outcast status for quite some time before earning a place in their new troop.  In contrast, young males joining the Forest Troop are given a warm welcome by the females and this seems to set a cooperative and congenial tone for the future.  The transplants adopt the gracious ways of their adopted tribe.

While exposing aggressive people to a deadly illness might be an effective means of social engineering, it’s not likely to garner widespread support (especially since the people who would normally support such draconian measures would be likely targets).  But there is still a lesson to learn from the Forest Troop: we are not at the mercy of a violent and aggressive human nature written in our DNA.  We have at least as much flexibility in our nature as baboons.  If an accidental outbreak of TB could bring lasting positive change to the Forest Troop, then we humans should certainly be able to use our outsized brains to create a more peaceful and healthy society.  Changing a few social norms, and choosing leaders (political, corporate, and community) who embody values that encourage cooperation (respect for others and an inclusive attitude, for example) are practical and effective ways to bring lasting improvements to a society.  Perhaps we can start by embodying responsibility, respect and compassion in our own lives – that is, be the change we want to see in the world.

 



[i] Sapolsky, Robert M. “A Natural History of Peace.” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2006). Print.

Chapter 5: Attaining Happiness


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Page One, Conspiracy of Dreamers the Book

One day, 3.7 billion years ago, an organism came into being, striving to survive amid the primordial stew of early Earth.  This particular cell, and the DNA that dictated its physical form, was destined for greatness.  Darwinian science calls it LUA for “last universal ancestor,” and it formed the basis, the essence, for every living being on our planet.  This microscopic dynamo was certainly not the first life on earth; rather, untold numbers of doomed variations gave it their best shot, and failed.  To this very day, LUA reigns supreme in the biological tree of all planetary life.

It is beyond human knowing whether God created LUA, or whether LUA resulted from a fortunate arrangement of inorganic material animated by natural forces, or both.  We do know that through natural selection, reproduction and mutation, LUA’s pattern has expanded, divided and multiplied into the rich tapestry that is life on Earth.

Humanity’s universal ancestors have been identified by science: “Eve” was born about 200,000 years ago on the African savanna – she is the matriarch of every one of us. “Adam” – our common patriarch – is much younger, having come into being about 70,000 years after Eve.  Adam, Eve and their offspring struggled mightily to survive; many more lost the struggle than won.  Each of us descended from the champions.

A dramatic shift in human survival strategy occurred about 10,000 years ago.  Innovators harnessed nature’s fertile potential by saving wild kernels of wheat and sowing them in convenient locations, thus sparking the Neolithic Revolution – and the beginning of civilization.  The chain reaction set off by this momentous shift in human survival strategy continues to this day:  agriculture allowed our ancestors to literally put down roots; form cities based on cooperation and coordination (forced labor notwithstanding), and focus their talents and energy on projects other than mere survival.  Over time new advances arose, including specialization in a specific area of production, development of written language (originally a way to keep track of grain storage), and accumulation of vast amounts of knowledge.  In short, advances in food production eventually allowed our ancestors to powerfully shape their material world to suit their own aims.

According to the Bible this empowered and creative humanity came together to form a unified community that spoke a single language.  They set out to build a tower to the heavens.  On learning of their project, “the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language … and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”  (Genesis 11:6.)  God thwarted their efforts, scattered them across the globe and fractured their language so they could not challenge his supremacy.  Humanity now stands at the edge of another possible triumph of unity and cooperation.  The project before us is the creation of a new earth, one that reflects the harmonious values that make our species unique – compassion, creativity, and love of truth and beauty.  Our survival may depend on whether we seize this opportunity.  As in the biblical story of the Tower of Babble, the key to this triumph is communication.  The master cipher is at our fingertips in the form of the ones and zeros of binary code, the language of computers.  A world of possibilities is emerging from this evolutionary leap in human communication.  Will we seize this chance to transform our world for the better?  Or will we continue to allow egoistic bickering and myopic thinking blind us to the miraculous future that is within our grasp?

The window of opportunity is narrow:  humanity faces daunting challenges, but we also hold limitless untapped potential.   If we are to succeed, we must realize soon our true potential as the reigning champions of the game of life.  The time is upon us to choose our way forward:  what will we imagine to do?  Today, the biggest obstacle to creating a world of abundance, meaning, health and vitality is our collective failure to recognize that such a world is within our reach.  This book is about the means of creating a future in which our loftiest values – love, creativity, empathy and justice – are manifested powerfully in the world.  These means are found in a combination of communication technology and expanded human consciousness.  Specifically, we can use technology to broaden and deepen a potent source of power:  capitalism – the global economic system typified by free markets, freedom of contract, capital flow, and private property – can evolve to serve humanity in bringing forth a brighter future.

The current version of capitalism suffers serious failings.  It is causing us to devour the natural environment, marginalize masses of humanity and erode our own spiritual and psychological health.  The strong social quality of human nature is, in large part, responsible for our remarkable ability to survive: we flourish in communities and are fulfilled when we contribute to those around us.   Unfortunately, capitalism and related changes have unintentionally undermined community and our ability to shape our world for the better, leaving many alienated and disempowered.  These are not fatal flaws; they are signs that it is time to push forward:  our system of capitalism is due for a major upgrade.   Thankfully, capitalism has provided us with the means of executing this overhaul – technology.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs proposes that, while material survival and safety (that is, food and shelter) are essential for fulfillment, they are only the beginning.  Once a person satisfies these needs, she naturally turns to more ethereal pursuits such as community, creative expression, and spiritual transcendence.  Capitalism, with its relentless pursuit of material growth, has served much of humanity exceptionally well in satisfying material needs (an admirable achievement indeed).  However, its current form focuses on the material aspects of life, undermining our ability to scale Maslow’s hierarchy.  Evidence of capitalism’s myopia is broad and deep: Western civilization is experiencing an epidemic of dissatisfaction; symptoms include loneliness, drug abuse, obesity, depression, escapism (through TV, video games, porn, etc.), anger and frustration.

Why are vast numbers of human beings experiencing deep psychological and spiritual suffering during the most materially affluent time and place in our species’ history?   Consumer culture is a prime culprit: from early childhood, we are taught that the secret to happiness is found in material wealth.  We spend countless hours watching TV commercials, viewing billboards, and hearing radio advertisements that inform us of our needs and wants.  We are trained to work hard to “get ahead,” but never encouraged to ask, “ahead of what?”  Social and psychological research proves that the materialism of consumer culture is toxic to true happiness.  The actual source of the epidemic of dissatisfaction is a widespread failure to ascend to the higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – love, belonging, community, creative expression and spiritual transcendence – which are the most rewarding of human experiences.

There is an alternative to the myopic materialism of mainstream consumer culture – a path that leads toward the realization of human potential and authentic happiness.  Those who strive to realize their full potential as helpful contributors to their communities experience joy and self-worth.  Happiness is not the destination; it is the splendor of the dandelions edging the path, the harmonious whistling of fellow travelers, and the invigorating breeze caressing your sunlit face as you stride ahead.   This change in focus can counter the alienation and disempowerment that is draining many of their passion for life.  If we are to meet the mounting challenges of global warming, exponential population growth, and nuclear proliferation, to name a few, we must make this cultural shift.  Human potential is a natural resource that holds the possibility of transforming this planet for the better; we cannot afford to continue squandering it.

Humankind has developed a system of collaboration, cooperation and competition – capitalism – with a vast ability to develop and apply natural resources.  It is unimaginably powerful because it reflects the combined motivation of billions of human beings – it is a force of nature.  But capitalism, like any system, is only as good as its chosen goal, and only as intelligent as the quality of information to which it has access. If we are to develop the true potential of human beings and devote it to the task of creating a world of abundance, justice and peace, then we must reconfigure our most powerful tool.  Capitalism’s current goal of blind material growth must be replaced with a new and better ambition –  realizing human potential.

Despite capitalism’s power, it is often shortsighted.  Humanity’s highest ideals – love, truth, beauty and justice – are not well communicated in the nervous system of the economy, that is, by price and money.  Thus, it is not surprising that outcomes, by and large, do not reflect our noblest goals.   We look to government and nonprofits to bridge the gap between what capitalism provides and the society we’d like to live in.  But these are no match for the overwhelming and expanding force of capitalism.  If capitalism is to evolve, it must be pushed from within and from the ground up.  In true evolutionary fashion, capitalism has provided the foundation for its next incarnation.  Communication technology holds the key to upgrading capitalism so we can harness its power and use it to create a future of abundance in harmony with nature and with one another.


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Money to Burn

Last February the epicenter of bartering was rocked by market forces: in response to last year’s ticket sell-out, organizers of the counterculture desert celebration, Burning Man, held a lottery for tickets to this year’s event.  It was, by all accounts, an overwhelming failure.  Opportunists threw their hats in the ring for a chance to earn easy cash.  The lucky ones are scalping tickets for thousands of dollars, while veteran Burners, left ticketless, are feeling burned.

In this fiasco, there is a lesson: when you’re trying to outsmart market mechanisms, you’ve got to put in some serious effort.  Money is not an evil conspiracy perpetrated by greedy banksters, it’s a fundamental part of a well-functioning society.  Humans have been using seashells, beads, yams, rice, salt, peppercorns, clay, gold, silver, copper, and paper as symbols of material wealth for thousands of years because they make life easier!

Any time the demand for a resource – tickets, food, land – exceeds the supply, a community faces a dilemma.  Deciding who gets what is a fundamental challenge in any society.  The answers we come up with shape who and what we become.  Money is often a good answer, but when it comes to nonmaterial “things” – love, life, creativity – money comes up short.

Bodily organs are a perfect example of a place where money doesn’t belong (or so the conventional thinking goes).  The current kidney distribution method is totally outdated and leads to a truly tragic waste of life.  Allocation is based mainly on three factors.  How long a patient has been waiting, the sensitivity of the potential recipient (how likely a person’s immune system is to reject the organ, high sensitivity equals high likelihood of rejection), and compatibility of patient and organ.  Under this system young kidneys are often put into elderly people – precious years of life are wasted.

Thankfully some very smart people are using technology (and serious effort) to come up with efficient nonmarket solutions.  A team of researchers from MIT and Harvard has created a sophisticated computer model that works from detailed historical data and weighs thousands of variables.  It allows policy makers to measure the efficiency of alternative systems, enabling them to know when small adjustments can reap precious years.  Indeed, the researchers came up with a solution that satisfied the stated criteria of the policy wonks, but would add over 5,000 years of life in just one year!

Now, if we can get these geniuses to apply their magic to allocating Burning Man tickets.  What criteria would they consider?  Number of friends going to the event (weighted for closeness of connection)? Number of hours worked on past Burning Man projects?  Past hours of happiness gained per unit of Burning Man consumed?  Alternative opportunities for free-love hippie fun?   Life expectancy (youngsters have more future Burning Man potential)?

Or, they could stay focused on saving lives and tell us what thousands of years of evolution should have taught us:  let each person communicate to the world the strength of their desire to attend Burning Man by working hard, sacrificing, and applying his/her creative genius to amassing the price of admission.   If the Burning Man organizers end up with overflowing coffers, then let them decide how to use the extra cash – feeding starving children, funding arts programs, grants to favorite Burning Man projects.  Any of these would be better than lining the pockets of random lucky lottery winners – unworthy beneficiaries of the mistaken belief that money really is the root of all evil.