Thursday, September 24, 2015

choose your value hierarchy, not your consumer products

The article in the Guardian:
growing food in the desert panacea about growing food in the desert as yet another triumph of Technology, neo-liberal Economics and the ever onward and upward March of Progress, presents an excellent illustration of several points I have been trying to make in this blog.

First of all, the title is very dramatic, but wait.. What food crisis? The same alarmist propaganda was used by the corporations (e.g. Monsanto) who brought us the “Green Revolution” and they have produced more problems than they have solved (soil depletion, addiction to petroleum, unexpected deleterious health effects, superweeds, putting family farms out of business, breaking up small farming communities etc). Sundrop seems to use the same strategy and same mentality to sell their product, with probably similar results.

There are people in certain parts of the third world (and arguably the first world with its obesity and diabetes “crisis”) who are malnourished, and this could possibly be called a crisis, but how is producing more food going to help them? The problem is not lack of food, there is an overabundance of food production. In the mainstream paradigm, there are distribution issues, but this is not addressed by Sundrop. Sundrop is most interested in making a profit at yuppie supermarkets and less in helping starving people in Africa. As most baby boomers, Sundrop's PR media would probably deny this and say they can have it all and not have to prioritize their values, but their behavior so far demonstrates otherwise and for good, game theoretic reason: in order to stay competitive in the global market, profit HAS to come first. But in order to create a better world, we need to try something different than the value hierarchy (with profit and convenience at the top) that have driven our society since the industrial revolution.

Perhaps Sundrop is proposing that there is a crisis in food production because most food is not organic?  But Sundrop isn't organic either, using artificially produced nutrients for their plants in a way that has not been tested extensively on human for long-term health effects.  Maybe they claim to be more sustainable than Cascadian Farms or other industrial organic farms? This needs to be shown. It is not true, as the author of the article claims, that they use virtually no fossil fuels. All their solar panels, desalination plant and GAS (fossil fuel!) backup generator all used fossil fuels in their construction, and their capital costs show it. These machines will need to be constantly maintained and updated with fossil fuel inputs. Greenhouse plastic is a petroleum byproduct and needs to be replaced every four years, probably sooner in the intense UV sunlight of the desert.  The many plastic pipes used in aquaponics suffer from the same shortcoming. Transporting the food to “billions”, as the article mentions, again uses fossil fuels. There are alternatives that avoid these unsustainable dependencies on fossil fuels, but they involve a new paradigm, which has been discussed in this blog before, which can be called radical re-localization.

Besides the by-definition-unsustainable (because it is finite, more than half gone, getting more difficult to extract and can't be replenished at quick enough rates) fossil fuel use in Sundrop's operation, there are other environmental costs which sundrop does not take on. This is the realm of environmental externalities—all the pollution in the manufacturing of the machines, materials and transport mentioned above. But that is just de rigueur in global capitalism. He who externalized costs most, wins, but as in all prisoner's dillemma games, society and the environmental commons lose.

Last, so far Sundrop has produced tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. These provide very little calories per pound of food and in order to provide a significant fraction of people's caloric (and nutritional in general) needs, many other crops would need to be grown in the hydroponic environment. My understanding is that this is not possible, only a few crops are amenable to the conditions of hydroponic culture. But this is no problem if you fall for the hype, so standard nowadays in this superficial culture of image over substance.

The article mentions a “difference in styles” (see values vs lifestyles for more insight into global capitalism's use and co-option of “lifestyle”) or a political difference between old/new labor (and Hurray for Corbyn for showing that old labor can be more pragmatic and win) as prime reasons why Patton and Saumweber have parted ways, but this is very superficial. I do not know Patton and Saumweber at all, but I am guessing there is a difference in paradigms between the two men, not in “lifestyles”. Patton comes from a tradition of british thinkers and doers who lived these values which includes Albert Howard, Alan Chadwick, Rob Hopkins and John Seymour. He values profit less than community, edifying work, individual autonomy and a mutualistic relationship with nature.  Saumweber does not seem to care about these 4 values at all, and certainly values profit more than any of them. To see why this is, let's look at each of these 4 values in turn, relating them to Sundrop's operation and Patton's life.

1. Community-- compare producing food for “billions” of people through an impersonal market with the click of a few buttons on a smart phone, with a local economic network (or many such networks) of hundreds of producers/consumers who each connect with many others in the network personally as suppliers and customers for each other,  and genuinely need each other. The first produces the alienation of the modern era which Marx first diagnosed and Wendell Berry made relevant to farming communities and the so-called “environmental crisis” in the US. The first focuses on mass production, which is the only way to make a profit in the global economy, the second on people as if they were more than animals to be fed in a trough en masse (“billions served”). Community is an organism with a soul, whose cells (the individual people) need to interact in complex ways, not just fed like cattle. Patton cares about keeping things small, local and personal, the fertile ground for community. His family is his main community, though I bet he is connected to others in a more personal way than Saumweber, the “king of the spreadsheet”.
2. Edifying work-for a few engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs the Sundrop operation might provide edifying work. But these you can count on your fingers. The rest of the “billions” now have nothing to do (structural unemployment) or bullshit work not worthy of human beings.
3. Individual autonomy—though this value is often traded off with community, in our global economy most people do not have very much of either autonomy or community. The wealthy have autonomy but everyone else is a slave to the global market and their life is highly constrained by laws, debts and institutions. After they pick a career or job, their only choices are consumer choices. This was not the promise of the industrial revolution, but it was its result. People were supposed to be freed of menial labor and replaced by machines. Though machines have proliferated, people's freedom has declined, either in active leisure or in work. Hundreds of farmers and craftspeople connected through their local market, work, leisure and products produces more individual freedom than billions of people connected through their computers, smart phones, spreadsheets, impersonal market and passive television.
4. Though Saumweber says he has “eco-values”, what he really means by this is that he sees the eco-movement as a profit-making market opportunity.. I have personally known people of his ilk. There is very little love of nature, not as a resource to be exploited and parasitized, but as a living being to exchange love and reciprocate energy with. The whole operation is about market  efficiency (profit/costs); the desert, highly controlled greenhouse environement and machines are so far removed from any deep eco-ethos as to be laughable.  Saumweber is about PR, which is about image, not substance or soul. To connect with nature one needs a soul, depth, substance. To make a lot of money one needs to sell one's soul, image, superficiality,

Monday, September 21, 2015

Co-opting Gandhi

Gandhi popularized the notion of visionaries living out their values as a strategy for achieving them. In this essay I will try to show that this is not always possible, nor is it always a good strategy. Success or attempt to carry out this strategy is looked out with the lens of "purity", and failure to carry out this strategy is seen in the popular mind as a failure of moral character with the label of hypocrisy. These are the flip sides of a strategy for controlling people,  common in religions that demand a certain code of ethics, with rewards for the compliant ("pure"), and punishments for the deviant ("hypocrites"). This is a good strategy for controlling people (and who or rather what is trying to do the controlling will be talked about later), but that was not Gandhi's intention.

It is useful to make a distinction between values that can be lived out easily in the present system, those that are very difficult and impractical to live out in the present system and those that can't be lived out at all in the present system, even if one desires to very much. Values are part of a wholistic system of memes, they are not independent. In a concentration camp, optimism is very difficult to live as a value because of all the other values and circumstances in that environment. Kindness is easier to practice but easier still in a Gandhian ashram. Honesty is not difficult to practice in a concentration camp but sometimes counterproductive when dealing with people who want to kill you, your family or your fellow inmates. These are all internal values and so they are always possible no matter what the external circumstances, though as we just saw there are environmental influences affecting their ease or the wisdom of their practice. With external values it may not be possible at all to live them in a particular system. For example, if someone values a pre-industrial technology, it is impossible to live that unless a whole bunch of people have built the infrastructure for that technology. Another example is if one values folk dances, which by definition require many people, it is impossible to dance them alone. We are all part of wholistic cultural, technological, economic and ecological systems and certain values are just not possible to live out in those systems (but possible in other systems), certain ones are counterproductive and certain ones are just very difficult and may not be worth it because they compromise other values.

Here is an example of the latter: the person who values honesty and lives in a concentration camp but lies to the guards about something that saves his son's life is being pragmatic. He can be called a hypocrite but that misses the mark completely. He values his son's life more than honesty (Dietrich Bonhoffer offers a similar example to illustrate the same point). When people think I am a hypocrite because I am not an environmental purist, they miss that I am not an environmentalist, I am a personalist (in Peter Maurin's sense of the word). I value community and edifying work for people sometimes more than love of nature, and I think (along with a long list of revolutionaries like Gandhi and Wendell Berry) that local technology and personalism would ensure all 3 and so that is what I am willing to give my life to, not some controlling ego-boosting game of adhering to people's preconceived one value of environmentalism. I drive cars, though in the system I am working towards there would probably be no cars, unless they are locally manufactured. That system requires hundreds of technological, craft and farming specialties and is not just about having or not having cars. Not driving cars in that system works. In this current system it doesn't very well.

The person who values optimism, freedom, kindness and life but loses hope, is highly constrained, not so friendly and sees death all around sometimes in that camp can also be called a hypocrite, but what if he just doesn't have the resources to be optimistic, free, kind and life-affirming in the face of daily horrors? He might be trying to escape and digging a tunnel so he can be in an environment where optimism and the other values above is easier. He might avoid getting shot by looking forlorn instead of being cheery. Calling him a hypocrite again misses the point that the issue is not one of some religious purity but of how to work towards values one desires given the present technological, economic and environmental system of memes and values.

The only possible useful negative meaning of hypocrisy is one where a person wants to be in an system conducive to certain values but is not working very hard towards that. The other meanings of not being in the system one desires just by choosing so are counterproductive and silly. Sometimes it is hard to tell. One might look at Al Gore and think he is not really making a difference as far as global warming but he might see his plane and car and mansion use as a strategy towards educating people by e.g. making that movie. If someone is not willing to make any sacrifices towards the values they want they are not working very hard towards achieving their values and the negative connotation of hypocrite is justified. If I thought that giving up the convenience of cars and airplanes and computers would promote a local technology and peronalism better than using them I would. As it is I make some sacrifices with my comfort and convenience such as living in a one room cabin, drinking rainwater, riding bicycles and walking, being beaten up by the legal system for starting an urban homesteading community, using very little electricity (mostly from sun), working as a farm hand and not having many colleagues to do physics with but I still use cars and computers. And most of all, I make hundreds of sacrifices a day with my values, every time I consume a product or service that is not traded personally, but that is gotten from the impersonal global market or work at a stupid, spirit-numbing job. Most people who have just adopted mainstream market values do not have to make such sacrifices.

The person who values non-industrial technology but is currently in an industrial ecosystem would not magically be in a non-industrial ecosystem if he just dropped industrial technology. Nor would he achieve it even if he single handedly tried to and had several lifetimes to do it. It is by its nature a mass action problem, not an individual action one. Even if hundreds of people got together with the purpose of creating a non-industrial, craft and agrarian based technology and economy, if they don't use power tools, cars and electricity for that purpose, they get alot of "purity" points, but don't end up accomplishing their goal because they are struggling just to survive, and the system tries through negative feedbacks, as all complex systems do, to maintain itself by either beating them up for not conforming or offering them hard-to-resist rewards for complying.  Time is of the essence in order not to slide back into the memetic (negative) fitness valley of the status quo. If we're working towards achieving a non-industrial, craft and agrarian based system, we would do better to use computers, the internet, money and cars than just dropping all these.  I've plotted a hypothetical cartoon illustrating the two paradigms of "purity" and utilitarian below, contrasting in each the two strategies of Gandhian vs utilitarian (using the tools of the prison to get out of prison).

In the first paradigm, the people who eschew much of industrial technology are clearly being more "pure" than the ones who use it, at least at first (but both have the same goal of creating a non-industrial system).  Eventually, if the utilitarian strategy is able to keep on track and not lose sight of its goal, it is able to create an alternative technology which eschews industrial technology, and achieves a larger measure of "purity".

In the second paradigm, we are measuring "good done", or harm avoided in the two strategies. The graph exagerates the good done by the gandhian approach so it will stay visible. The approach is a drop in the ocean, not just because only a few people are doing it, but because unless they are able to produce a non-industrial production system they are still totally dependent on industrial production, despite their reduced consumption. Also, by not having a complete system of non-industrial production, they are not benefiting from the good that comes with varied, edifying, connective work. The utilitarian approach starts out slow and at first not much good is being done, but at some critical point, a non-industrial local technology is built, and good done increases as more people see the benefit of such a system.

Purity Paradigm, two strategies


Utilitarian Paradigm, two strategies

The current global market industrial economy wants us to believe that we can choose everything. We can't. We can choose what products to consume and how to make money to buy them and that is why the global market is pushing this agenda of rational individual actors, because it is good for its self-maintenance, it promotes more consumption and more people playing the game of making money. Gandhi did not have this intention when he came up with "Be the Change", but Empire co-opted his intention (as it is prone to do with almost any alternative, especially ones that are a threat, e.g. Christianity) and used religious memes to facilitate this co-option. Another way of saying this is it shames people into being good consumers by calling them hypocrites if they propose a different system, while still participating to whatever extent in the current system. The same strategy was used to control people into Empire's version of Christianity.

Gandhi meant to propose a model of change in which individuals were seeds for change at a higher level of organization, rather than merely complaining about the discrepancy between the envisioned system and the present system. By trying to live some of the values one aspires to, a creative tension is produced that can inspire other people as well as oneself. But the seed approach is not restricted to individuals. A cell can't inspire other cells or individuals or societies, an individual can so that is the lowest level of organization for seeds of social change. But a small group that achieves coherence and is able to form an autopoeitic resonance can also inspire change at a higher level. The activation energy for a group is greater than for an individual, but so is the amount of work that can be done. I have been trying for a while to find that group that would be a seed but I have not quite succeeded yet. That does not make me a hypocrite--it is not wholly within my control.

The other thing I think Gandhi was pointing at was that certain values are not subject to a utilitarian calculus, such as doing direct violence against another person (except in self defense). Only in theory can such violence decrease total harm. In practice it does not.

We can choose to work towards values other than market values but that does not mean we drop everything and just live them, as I have tried to show in this essay. Gandhi certainly did not do that: he used planes and cars though he was a luddite, he provoked violence though he was a pacifist, and there are probably other examples. Let us be inspired by his example and not misuse it.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Lifestyles for sale vs passionate values

I've been trying to figure out why the word “lifestyle” has been annoying me. First of all, the word has been invented by marketers in order to sell products, following the increase in production of goods brought about by industrialization. You don't just sell a product, but a “lifestyle” that gets associated with the product. The term is used in both the psychological characterization of individuals and their overt consumer behavior (marketing lifestyle.) This is useful for marketers, but it is a problem for people who choose to live a certain way because of values other than market values, or for people who live a certain way out of necessity.

To understand why it is a problem, we need to understand how values motivate people and how some of these values might be different from market values. What are market values?
  1. There is efficiency which translates to price and sometimes less labor or environmental impact.
  2. There is individual choice in consumption, which makes all choices equal before the market The hate mongering skinhead lifestyle is just as valid as the creative and loving Christian monk lifestyle as far as the market is concerned., as long as both can be used to sell products. The environmentally destructive lifestyle is just as valid as the environmentally responsible lifestyle. This market value is a combination of individual freedom and equality (the first two values of the french revolution), but note only as far as consumption is concerned.
  3. There is appealing to basic drives for status, power, security and sex, which translates to projecting an image unto people and having them project an image through their consumption choices. These values are easier to use for selling purposes, compared to critical thinking, sharing resources, community level production, loving interactions, or ego-transcendence for example.

Most people who try to live according to deeply held beliefs that they have spent a lifetime thinking about and trying to imploement, share the first two values and sometimes even the third to some extent but they have other values that they value more strongly than these three. For example, amish people value community, simplicity and edifying work more. They're not anti-tractor because they are against efficiency, but because they see that the tractor destroys community and edifying work and they are willing to trade off some efficiency for these two values. Certain back-to-the-landers value life and ecology more. I value personal loving interaction, nature connection, intellectual freedom and craft-based production more. What matters with values is how they fit in a hierarchy, which ones are more or less important and which ones can be traded off for others. I don't hate efficiency, just don't value it as much as the other values I mentioned.

The global market though tries to impose its own values hierarchy (the 3 above are most important) and discount all other values relative to these 3. Any other values are just instrumental in figuring out what and how to sell to consumers. After analyzing consumer choices and psychological states, it projects images of “lifestyles”  in advertising. It pretends to care about ecology by selling certain products that are supposed to be more “eco-friendly”, but it really just cares first about selling those products, and only second about the ecology part. It is very insidious in this way, coopting any other values and putting them to the service of market values.

For those who have sacrificed comfort, wealth, status and other values for the values they are passionate about, equality with trivial choices such as what color is your house, what clothes or other consumer goods you buy is disrespectful. No, not every choice is equal to every other choice, just because it is equal as far as the market is concerned. Value choices have consequences that go beyond the market. One choice can lead to depth, community, nature connection and edifying work, whereas another can lead to shallowness, alienation from people and nature and ridiculous work that is a waste of human potential.

Herbert Marcuse noticed long ago that capitalism, like all other systems/games complex enough to try to maintain themselves, attempts to coopt any other system/game and resigned himself to this with a "resistance is futile" attitude. George Soros complains about how market values have taken over all other human values, but suggested no remedy. What would happen if a few of us just stopped (gradually, in order to make it practical) playing the game of buying things from the global economy, and instead created an anti-global-market, pro-local-market religion (the technological infrastructure would need to be created for this, see previous posts:massive online collaboration game and luddite manhattan project) where people would vow to only trade with people they know personally, not with institutions or impersonal markets? How would global capitalism respond to coopt that?

Besides marketers, young people also have an interest in lifestyle. Many young people try to join an existing lifestyle (that was mostly created or coopted by marketers) as a way to gain an identity and belonging. Some of them (I have personal experience of this) think that their parents love them or not based on this consumer-philosophy-based choice. But parental bonds are stronger than market values. Also, though most of the time nowadays both parents and children adhere to the same market values, some parents hope that their children can be loving, deep and thoughtful, transcending market values, though they usually do not base their love on the fullfilment of this hope.