Velvety Chains: Social Values That Bind

Today I came across an article by Steve Biddulph and one paragraph therein really struck a chord with me:

There is something happening, in the new century, to the way we live, which again is harming our basic humanity. Every economy tends to enslave, and ours is the most effective of all, since the chains are invisible, velvety soft against our wrists and necks. We are induced to work, long hours, all of us, without respite for parenthood, or for anything like a natural rhythm in our days, and rewarded with shiny toys and the ability to cross the globe at will for shallow, glitzy experiences of pseudo-wealth. Then back onto the treadmill. We trade away our lives, and we don’t even question if this has to be so.

I have mentioned before that social systems tend to ‘brainwash’ us. In effect, they make us adopt values which are not intrinsically our own and often not in our best interests. Some social rules are enforced through violence or strong obvious incentives; think of capital punishments or tax breaks for home ownership. However, such rules are not as dangerous to our well-being as tacit, implicit rules which we adopt without being fully aware. Biddulph pointedly describes these as invisible, velvety chains.

Using the word ‘chains’ implies that this is something intrinsically bad, and to some degree it is, but not all the social rules we are adopting in this way (without us being fully aware that we adopt them) are bad for our individual and collective well-being. For instance, if we get into a heated argument with someone else, we more often than not refrain from punching our adversary in the face. Often, this option doesn’t even occur to us; although it is arguably one of our natural ways to resolve conflict. We don’t do so because we have a strong set of social rules (not just laws) which guide us to avoid violence.

However, it is in any case better for us to be aware of the rules which we adopt, be they beneficial for us or not. The particular velvety chains Biddulph focuses on though are at the heart of what is wrong with our world today. Our desire for wealth, material consumption and economic growth brings untold misery into the everyday lives of billions of people. It makes those miserable which are poor, but it also makes those miserable which are rich. Biddulph mentions for instance “the astonishing decline of mental health as even the most affluent and secure kids melt down over homework stress and exam results or perfection of looks or achievement.” Our reward for our struggles is “pseudo-wealth”. Why pseudo-wealth? Well, if we can buy an expensive car, it gives the appearance of us being wealthy. But real wealth lies within our body, mind and soul; and to increase this real wealth requires deep contemplation, fostering human connection and community; none of which are aided by a car purchase. This purchase instead only makes us move the treadmill of the self-reinforcing cycle of work hard, spend, work harder, spend more.

We need to become aware of the forces that drive our lives and which bring misery to us and others. Biddulph suggests that “it might be time to quietly, carefully, walk away”. I disagree. We don’t have to walk away quietly. We should shackle our chains with a roar. A roar of anger over what was done to us, and a roar of newfound freedom; a roar which hopefully those around us will hear and join our emancipation.

However we must also do so while preserving some of the best parts of the economic system which drives our world today. In order to house, feed and care for the huge population currently living requires intricate interaction between many different industries and countries. If this system is broken in the wrong way, misery on a global scale will likely follow.

Predicting a Good Future

I recently read an article published by a German newspaper which was discussed how our future might look like in 2037. Trying to predict the future is something which has always fascinated me. I think we do far too little of that in comparison with how much of our attention we direct towards the past; just think about how many books are written about history versus those about the future!

Maybe this is just because we have come to realise that predicting the future is too difficult; the world is so complex and moves into seemingly random directions. However, there are broader developments which play out over long stretches; such as the rise of China, the growing population of India or the decline of the political system in the United States. 

I think it would be an interesting exercise to try to identify strong developments in our time which are very likely to continue in the future. If we have a list of those, we could then try to extrapolate from them.

One problem is that, although we know that a development is coming, it is often difficult to predict when it is coming. For instance, I have long been convinced that property in New Zealand and Australia is overvalued and will reduce in value in the future. However, I have absolutely no idea when this is going to happen.

One notable thing about the article which I have mentioned was that they were not just trying to predict a future but to predict a possible good future. This I think is a very good objective for thinking about the future. We will never know with certainty what is to happen; so if we try to adopt an optimistic outlook we might just help realise a better possible future.

I think we can even go a step further and not just try to imagine a good possible future but try to imagine how the future could be if we were to shape it with all our available resources.

Just imagine we would redirect our resources away from the production of luxury goods towards building a more sustainable economy. Image we would abandon our focus on economic growth (both in terms of the economy as a whole and in terms of our personal fortunes) and instead focus on trying to build an environment in which all members of society are given security and the ability to engage in activities which grant them meaningful happiness. Imagine we could build one centralised, peace-loving, just and democratic power which stands above all individual countries. And, it is true, we can realise all these things if just enough of us at the same time decide that we want them to come to pass.

Sadly the article I read was not very concerned with discussing collective well-being. Instead, it focused on the particular life of one person and how technology was used to improve this person’s life. For me, things like being able to send your blood pressure readings to your doctor, having your blinds open automatically when you wake up, having your fridge order your groceries for you just don’t seem all that important. Sure, they are nice to haves but they are not essential in solving the gigantic problems which we are facing; which are a deterioration of our natural environment, overpopulation, individual misery brought about by stress and easily preventable diseases and the always possible calamity of violent conflict. However, the examples given are surely great for the economy; it is all based on things and services which need to be bought by money; just the thing we need more of!

Featured Image: Heinrich Leutemann’s The Oracle of Delphi Entranced

On Preventing the Extinction of Mankind

Few will disagree that the continuation of our species as a noble goal to pursue. It just feels inherently plausible to us. But I think that we should nonetheless reflect upon whether this is really such a worthwhile and important goal to pursue.

Some say that we may be the only species in the universe with consciousness, and therewith the only ones able to appreciate the beauty of nature as well as to imbue it with meaning. I would say: so what? That we perceive our consciousness to be so special might be one of its many inherent flaws. There is nothing to suggest that our way of experiencing the world is any less valuable than that of other animals or plants or rocks for that matter. Furthermore, statistically speaking, in a universe with many billions of galaxies, it seems very unlikely that we are the only creatures capable of producing art, laws and language. Any way we look at it, given the vastness of the universe, it seems very likely that ending mankind will go largely unnoticed on a cosmic scale.

That being said, we are here for better or worse and a pressing question is what to do with our time. I believe that we carry within us a love for ourselves and for others, and that this love is something which we should embrace as a generous present the machinations of the universe have provided for us. We also carry within us a love for nature, for animals, for mountains, for stars, for the beauty of a grain of salt and the rhythm of rain falling on leafs. If we accept this love, we see that pursuing survival for ourselves and our planet and the species which inhabit it, might be a pursuit which is in balance with our nature and not in conflict with what we know about the universe.

In any case, we need to accept that humanity as it lives now is guaranteed to be extinct. We have made changes too drastic too our environment and we are on the cusp of gaining too much power over our own genes to continue existing within the bounds of our current gene pool. Drastically changing our nature might still take some generations to accomplish but it seems quite inevitable. Interestingly thus it lies within our power to shape our own biological destiny.

I think that achieving survival for our current generations and those which will follow us should be one of our top priorities. Apart from keeping order and peace and proving us with the basics we need for day to day survival, it should be a main focus of our economic activity. Sadly, though it is not. Our economies create demand by consumption of individuals. That is not a sustainable. We cannot continue to consume more and more to assure our economies are on a trajectory of constant growth. I think we should create demand for our economies by large projects and initiatives which we decide to be important. Some of these could be related to our survival on this planet; such as reducing carbon emissions, exploring ways to protect us from asteroids and supervolcanos. Even if we do not have a strong foundation to argue for the importance of humanity in the greater context of the universe, it seems very self evident that pursuing these projects is more useful than the ability to buy a new luxury sedan every couple of years.

Featured Image: The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1777