Progress at all costs?

A recent article in The Atlantic about seabed mining points out that the metals targeted for collection include copper, manganese, nickel, and cobalt, all used in the production of batteries. The impetus for this sudden industrialization of the ocean bottom, in part, is carbon emissions, and the growth of battery-powered devices like electric vehicles. The other reason, of course, is profit. The metalic nodules at the deepest recesses of our oceans range from marble to grapefruit size, and technology has advanced to the point where underwater mining equipment can withstand pressures 200-times greater than surface pressures.

It was once believed that no life forms could exist in the deepest trenches of the sea, but that belief has been proven false. Ecosystems of unique creatures do indeed inhabit these other-worldly realms, and the likelihood of their destruction is great as the rush to harvest metal nodules increases. The irony in all this is that battery-powered electric vehicles are now being hailed as a major way to solve our greenhouse gas emission problem, when it’s adapting to hydrogen as fuel that’s the far better and emissions-free solution. In typical fashion, we attempt to solve one problem by generating another.

What gets far too little attention, however, is the consumer lifestyle that fuels the consumption of automobiles, and the degree to which human society is now addicted to expensive modes of personal transportation. That addiction is furthered by the physical structure of human society itself, how homes, places of work, schools, and the infrastructure that surrounds us has been influenced by and for dependence upon automobiles and inexpensive fossil fuels.

Dependence upon automobiles is linked at a deeper level to matters of personal autonomy and the modern imperatives of time. At its most basic, freedom of movement is inherently a property of animal life; the ability to move is an inborn element of survival and thus our personal attachment to autonomy through the use of the automobile is deep-seated. The modern imperatives of time, however, are not inherently inborn; rather, our relationship to time is socially constructed and dictated. Most of us live and die by the clock.

In a clock-driven society where time is money, patience is poorly cultivated, and accordingly this breeds habits of instant gratification. Our desires for instant gratification are vigorously pursued by businesses and opinion-makers, all of whom futher their own profits by exacerbating our impatience. With each passing decade, we’ve witnessnessed the erosion of abilities to suspend emotional outcomes; speediness has become a virtue. Faxes yeilded to email, email to texting; standard mail yeilded to airmail, airmail to Fed Ex overnight delivery; overnight delivery yeilded to Amazon’s same day delivery. With each iteration, our ability to be patient shrinks, and commerce invests in ever faster modes to satisfy our growing impatience.

Now that we’ve enjoyed the conveniences of the modern world in the pursuit of satisfying our desires, giving up desire and instant gratification will be extremely difficult; this shift is exactly what’s necessary. Replacing gas-guzzlers with other types of personal vehicles is simply another way to continue to enjoy a sense of autonomy and instant gratification, and the continued destruction of the ecosphere — progress — is the price we pay. This is the harsh message of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg: that a fundamental shift in human culture must happen to avoid environmental calamity, that we must stop living in a fairytale, wake up and own-up to the true seriousness of our situation.

A not so grand theory of

History is written by the victor, and for the past 10,000 years that victor has been men. Accordingly, history (his story) concerns itself with power-based theories of patriarchal social order: styles of rulership, the role of warfare, and economic systems.

Herstory (not his story) is largely unwritten, or at least not well-acknowledged. Buried below the discourse and explanations of men, the global history of women is one of silencing, disempowerment, and relegation to man-serving roles. In modernity, western culture has evolved enough to allow women to vote, own property, bear (or not bear) children, and inherit wealth, but in 2019, even these entitlements are under assault by patriarchy.

History (not her story) includes a variety of patriarchal rationales, ranging in views spiritual and materialistic. Author Riane Eisler explored this territory in her book The Chalice and the Blade, as did Robert Graves in The White Goddess. Both books recount the origins and effects of the 10,000-year war on women that has consumed us. It is not a simple gender war, however; as seen in bias and bigotry towards the LBGTQ community, the rejection of the feminine is not gender specific. From the patriarchal perspective, the feminine displays weakness and duplicity — both deemed dangerous — and claims to power that must be suppressed.

Eastern religion acknowledges the legitimacy of both feminine and masculine principles, the former generally expressed as the “receptive,” the latter as the “active.” Yet eastern societies are expressly patriarchal, underlining a history of hypocrisy. The feminine has been relegated to a subordinate position, the principle of “receptivity” perverted into acceptance of submission. “The weaker sex,” as western society has conventionally called women, “requires” the assertion of male power for protection and guidance; eastern society is equally culpable in this betrayal.

Some religious sects explicitly advocate that women subordinate themselves to men, wives follow the orders and dictates of their husbands, and that women limit their own roles to those of  “traditional” housewife and mother. Such brainwashing of women can be seen in their attraction to men of “strength and power” rather than the exercise of their own. In her book In a Different Voice, Psychologist Carol Gilligan explains this “silencing” of women and the commensurate replacement of an authentic voice with that of the patriarchy. Punished and suppressed for so long, a version of Stockholm Syndrome forces women to find a voice by mimicking that of their oppressor.

Masculine objections to the “likability” of Elizabeth Warren are an example of the fear that forthright women bring out in men. The male horror fantasy is the “vagina dentata,” the emasculating, all-enveloping feminine from which men once “escaped.” Draping the feminine in costumes of “the muse” or “the whore” to mask the reality of fully-empowered women, men continue to find ways to denigrate powerful women like Warren and Pelosi, but it’s a charade. Pandora, an Ancient Greek myth about man’s creation of the first woman from clay who later releases misery into the world, speaks to the fearful projection patriarchal society placed upon women, and it continues today, unabated. Cruel sociopaths like Donald Trump draw upon fear and anger fueled by 10,000 years of anti-feminine rhetoric and behavior. He finds company in men cut of the same cloth: Putin, Mohammed Bin Salman, Erdogan, Duterte, Kim Jong Il.

Herstory, regrettably, remains a silenced discourse about a world that might have been.

The craziness

If you feel like you’re going crazy, you’re not alone. Many of us feel our ship of state is floundering and that its rudder’s fallen off. It’s not just the antics of our dishonest and quarrelsome President that’s troubling, but that America appears to have lost its way in a complicated world changing so quickly that none of us have time to catch up.

Every culture in human history has undergone periods of success and periods of failure, a developmental arc in time marked by social stability followed by social instability and collapse. Some thinkers credit such oscillations as the essential energetic force that propels human culture forward, and that from each collapse we emerge wiser and more resilient as a species.

Technological change forms the backdrop for our human drama; first fire, then metallurgy, then machine industry, and now digitized information have successively altered our relationship to nature. As people, our individual and collective beliefs and capabilities reflect the technology dominant during any particular age; despite this changing backdrop, human history appears largely cyclical, as does the arc of social evolution.

Historian Jacques Barzan described the past 500 years of western history as an age of increasing emancipation — of race, gender, art and ideas. Yet this progressive emancipation fuels resentment by those who prefer things not change, and we witness the effects of that resentment in the rise of authoritarian and fundamentalist movements — political, social and religious — an ongoing oscillation of reaction and counter-reaction.

Understanding human history was the favored subject of the social philosopher Giambattisa Vico (1668-1754), who proposed that each society repeatedly cycles through three primary phases. The Theological phase is tribal and embodies “poetic wisdom,” imaginative and mythical beliefs about humankind, nature and the divine. The Rational phase, embodying written language, sophisticated thought and heightened social organization, is marked by authoritarian power structures and hierarchy. This is followed by the Democratic phase during which emancipation movements as noted by Barzan occur, accompanied by increased social disorder and the chaos such movements engender. Ultimately, disorder leads to collapse from which a new Theological phase emerges and the cycle begins again. In the words of Vico, “Men first felt necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.”

Thus human civilizations and societies rise and fall and rise again. China, for example, provides a 6,000-year example of the cyclical pattern described by Vico, and in our modern, sped-up times, the 240-year-old United States is moving through its own Viconian cycles rapidly. Technology distorts time itself; third-world societies like India are quickly moving through the Theological phase to the Democratic phase. If Vico is correct, the craziness we are witnessing is simply the latest chapter in a history book of cyclical change that has been written over the past 10,000 years.

When it comes to craziness, should they ever be used, nuclear weapons will break the chain of human history and perhaps all life on Planet Earth.Yet, like Vico, Hindu theology also describes phases of society, and they call our present phase the Kali Yuga, the last of four phases. Yuga means age, and Kali is the Hindu Goddess of destruction; Kali Yuga is marked by strife, disorder, conflict and chaos.

Rest assured, it’s not you that’s crazy.

Passing the baton

It was recently announced that millennials now outnumber baby boomers in the United States, a milestone in the history of American demographics. For nearly all our roughly seventy-five years, baby boomers have dominated trends in fashion, economics, technology, science and environment, but this chapter is drawing to a close.

Today’s baby boomers are the world’s largest geriatric generation, seventy-five million members strong. In its youth, the post-world-war-two boomer generation led to the popularity of Dr. Spock and his theories about raising babies, the creation of the first generation of kids television, and a surge in school construction and educational reforms. And the sheer number of boomers produced a tidal wave of commercial consumerism that continues unabated today.

As teenagers, boomers created a teeny-bopper culture that supported a transformation of the music industry into a record-spinning, DJ chattering, AM radio frenzy and ultimately the rise of pop music and rock-n-roll into a full fledged, billion-dollar business. As the Vietnam War spun out of control, boomers swung into a massive anti-war movement combined with smoking pot and rejecting establishment values, though not all members of the Boomer Generation became hippies. Spaceship Earth shifted into an entirely new phase, especially when it came to consumerism; despite knowledge of impending ecological disaster, boomers joined the rush to buy, buy, buy.

As adults, boomers fueled sprawling suburban development and massive freeways; taking a cue from our parents, we became capitalist business innovators, particularly in technology. Combining business savvy with design sensitivity, over time the cars, the appliances, and the products we enjoy have become less expensive, better in quality and more widely available. But the by-products of such consumption – pollution from fossil-fuel emissions, discarded single use plastic, and dangerous toxins in the environment – were largely ignored.

The world is waking up to the consequences of Boomer self-indulgence, but perhaps too slowly. The Boomer in the White House is intent on continuing consumer consumption, and industry is addicted to continued growth at any cost. The patterns established by the Boomers so restructured culture and society that abandoning them appears to require abandoning much of the 20th century; in response, we find ourselves confronting the sorts of movements that dominated most of earlier human history, such as fervent Nationalism, Militarism, Totalitarianism, and Racism.

The aging of the Boomers does not look pretty. Unlike our parents, who grew up in a world devoid of pesticides, plastics, antibiotics, and most of the 80,000 chemicals now routinely used in manufacturing, today’s Boomers simultaneously enjoy exceptionally effective medical treatments and technology amid a startling rise in cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and resistance to antibiotics. The Boomers’ parents lived longer than any in American history, but Boomers are  witness to the first decline in lifespan in one hundred years, now succumbing to the excesses of an indulgent lifestyle as they pass the baton to millennials.

Both of my parents lived to their nineties, but my prospects appear dimmer. A poster-boy for my generation, I cope with heart disease, type-2 diabetes and take a fist-full of pharmaceuticals each day. Meanwhile, we Boomers are about to overwhelm America’s medical system.

In the wise words of Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron, “If you’re lucky you’ll live to 70, if you’re very lucky 80, and if you’re not so lucky, you’ll live to 90.” Sigh.

Front Porch Fantasy

As modern life progresses and introduces new cultural forms, our tendency leans to retrieving artifacts from the past. This process of retrieval softens the shock of obsolescence; through names, shapes or designs, outdated cultural artifacts lend their comfort and familiarity to newer, less familiar ones. Automobiles provide a ready example; the Ford Mustang retrieved the heritage of the horse-drawn carriage.

As media critic Marshall McLuhan observed, society spends considerable time “in the rear view mirror,” which is to say, harkening back to the past to ease our passage into the future. The music from the 60s and 70s used widely in today’s commercial advertising appeals, no doubt, to Baby Boomers. So too it is in the field of home architecture, where the inclusion of a front porch is de rigueur, despite the rare sight of anyone sitting there.

In my daily walks about town (I barely drive my car, anymore), I’ve had occasion to wander through nearly every neighborhood, and only rarely have I seen a front porch in use. Most front porches have comfy-looking chairs or seating just right for relaxing and watching the world go by while sipping a glass of iced-tea, but they’re 95% vacant. Front porches are an idea we like, but no longer actually enjoy.

Without doubt, a front porch makes a home feel warmer and more neighborly, what the real estate business calls “curb appeal,” and the common presence of comfy furniture completes the pleasant illusion. In earlier, more relaxed times, front porches were a place where neighbors met and caught-up with each other’s lives. And a presence overlooking the street was not only inviting, but also added a sense of security and watchfulness to a neighborhood. In these hurried times, however, when street traffic is comprised almost entirely of cars and leisurely walking is in decline, the front porch has been abandoned. Sadly, in some places neighbors have been abandoned, too, replaced by Airbnb clients and vacation rental transients. Whether out of fear or preference, it seems we prefer privacy above all else.

It may be that front porches, like single family homes, are simply becoming obsolete. The housing market in Sonoma Valley is vastly overpriced, and what’s needed is multi-family developments and apartments more affordable to a wider spectrum of tenants. In some localities, laws are zoning new single family homes out of existence. But I suspect even multi-family apartment buildings will continue to incorporate front porches of some kind.

For walkers like myself, stopping to chat with folks sitting on their front porch is enjoyable. Although the conversations tend to be brief and often perfunctory, a “hello” here and a “how are you?” there, research reveals that it is the frequency of such personal interactions that is the leading indicator of longevity. The greater the number of friendly, albeit brief, contacts with others the greater the likelihood of living longer; it’s importance ranks higher than giving up smoking or even being married.

So it turns out the front porch is not simply about “curb appeal” or the sales price of a home. Although seemingly anachronistic, providing a context for positive interaction increases human lifespan and improves health. Sometimes, retrieval and appreciation of past forms is more than simply “looking in the rear view mirror”; sometimes it’s a matter of life and death.

See you around, neighbor.

The Golem of Artificial Intelligence

Our pursuit of a machine that can think for itself — gather experience, learn and apply that learning to new situations — is long standing. The earliest computing machines, designed to calculate numbers, gave rise to fantasies of artificial intelligence through their faultless operation. As technology advanced, so too did dreams of thinking machines, but thinking — the application of information in logical ways to predict outcomes — is the least of what makes us human, and the great danger of artificial intelligence remains the absence of ethical will.

Though contemporary science fiction movies and television shows such as “2001”, “The Terminator”, “I Robot”, “War Games”, and “Westworld” all explored the ramifications of this problem, the dilemma it poses has been considered for a very long time. It is expressed best, perhaps, in a 16th century story about the Golem, an artificial intelligence created by the Rabbi of Chelm. In an effort to protect his community from persecution, the Rabbi built an artificial being made from clay, and having written the secret name of God on its forehead, brought it to life. Endless mishaps ensued, as Rabbi Chelm’s instructions to the Golem were acted upon in logical but non-ethical ways. In the end, the Rabbi had no choice but to destroy his thinking machine.

As the late, great neurophysiologist Warren McCullough points out, if machines “develop fancy” the danger is that such fancy will be inhuman. Although it’s clear the “fancy” humans develop is not predictably generous and good, it is nonetheless judged against the backdrop of a body of ethical precepts. Our western precepts are embodied in the Ten Commandments, but all societies embody ethical precepts of one sort or another, however variable they may be. The functioning and continuation of human society requires value-based standards, and these ethical standards, no matter how strange or illogical they may appear to others, provide a stable framework upon which cultures are built. Notably, exposure to varying cultural values remains a source of both inspiration and conflict between people.

The great danger of artificial intelligence is its lack of culturally evolved standards of ethical value, and before his death, the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking warned us of this problem. Although miniaturized information storage and retrieval has become increasingly adept and efficient, and can even appear intelligent — consider Siri or Alexa, for example — such capability remains, like Golem, a powerful parlor trick, lacking an ethical framework built upon the group dynamics of people, a social animal capable of complex adaptation to evolving events and environments.

People learn by evolving naturally; their tasks determine the structure of the tens-of-billions of neurons brains contain. Pathways and connections between neurons are constantly being created and altered in response to experience, thoughts and actions. Our social relationships, combined with many biologically-based, hard-wired imperatives that govern our lives, exert influence on how and what we learn, and the consequent ethical frameworks that evolve provide a stable platform from which we act and behave. An evolution of consciousness takes place over time, and in our case, has taken millions of years.

Digital technology, soon to be miniaturized to the point of quantum computers storing data at the sub-atomic scale, fills small spaces with enormous amounts of information, but as the story of Golem teaches, all the information in the world is no substitute for the evolution of ethical consciousness.

Talkin’ Dog-talk

I’m not a dog owner. As I frequently quip when asked if I have a dog, “I don’t have a dog, I have grandchildren.” On my daily walk around town I do encounter many dog owners; in some cases, the dogs are so large and the owners so small that it appears the dogs are taking their owners for a walk. This is particularly true of Huskies on a leash. Whatever case, the other thing I notice are dog owners talking to their dogs.

I’ve never heard a dog owner speaking “dog” to their best friend, it’s always English. I suppose scientists conducting animal studies must have figured out the meaning of “dog-talk” by now, the various barks, yips, whines, howls, growls and so forth emanating from canines. Perhaps, like people, different breeds use different “languages” and an owner would have to master Corgie versus Poodle in order to “talk-dog.” Or perhaps the human larynx finds such sounds too impossible to make. Who knows? In any event, it’s English I’m hearing.

Dogs seem to recognize some verbal commands; “sit,” “stay,” “good boy,” and “lie-down,” come to mind, but I’m sure there are others. And dogs seem to know their names. Recent reports indicate cats also recognize their names, but don’t care enough to show it. The serious dog trainers I know combine verbal commands with physical gestures, a sort of double-down approach not unlike the way parents point a finger down the hall when telling toddlers to “go to your room.” The gestural approach makes sense to me; dogs, like other social pack animals, use gesture and posture frequently to communicate. The baring of sharp canine teeth always gets my attention.

It’s the baby talk I hear that amuses me most. To be sure, dogs can be childlike, eager, and friendly, so it’s not difficult to understand why people feel affection for them. And unlike people, dogs do not express political opinions, which in and of itself is very attractive. That said, however, dogs are not children and will never grow up. When I hear people saying things like, “what are you doing, sweetie?” or “aren’t you the cutest puppy in the world?” I wonder if people expect their dog to answer.

When I’ve asked about it, dog owners tell me it’s not so much the words that matter but their tone and manner of speaking. They say their dogs can tell when their owners are pleased and when they’re not by how they say the words. That sounds logical to me, since dogs do have brains and being social, pack animals are sensitive to nuances of expression, loyalty and power.  Growls, yips and physical gestures work well enough in dog society to sustain stable, thriving relationships.

The bonds formed between human beings and dogs are powerful and they are ancient animal companions. From cave paintings to Grecian myths, dogs and people have a storied history. At times, though, I’m not sure if its the people in charge, or the dogs. This occurs to me when I see someone walking while holding a small dog hugged close and cradled like a baby. That dog’s got a great racket going.

Dogs can be a lot of trouble, I suppose, but in comparison to people, dogs are easy. And when it comes to offering unconditional love, dogs win hands down. Except, that is, for grandchildren.