Friday, December 21, 2018

On A New Wealth

There are two kinds of people who threaten to destroy organized human life on the planet earth. You probably worry about both of them across some spectrum of anxiety. The one wakes up in the morning and takes a security briefing (probably) on the state of Nuclear or Biological weapons program process and contemplates questions of when and where and how to act, playing a dangerous and consequential game of chicken with the future.
The other is at far less of a remove, waking up and making a cup of coffee, some breakfast poured out of cartons, bottles or unwrapped from some kind of packaging. Turn on the news and inattentively absorb a bunch of stories they have no attention to act on, and probably prior to all this have checked their phones or tablets for activity concerning them that may have taken place while they were sleeping. This person may or may not have done some exercise routine but they proceed to shower and get dressed and embark upon some kind of commute across town to engage in an activity necessary to put their shelter over their heads and food in their pantry. Individually their work is of little consequence, it may in fact be of absolutely no consequence, apart from the fact that they get paid. At work, when concentration wanders or owing to a lack of useful work and restrictions upon their break times they open their browsers and if able probably check out social media or partake in the modern western form of window shopping where they merely check out goods they might fancy or fantasize buying. From something as impractical as a second house, a bigger house, a beach house etc. to a costume for themselves or their child for a party on the weekend. They might peruse Yelp reviews looking for a place to eat that coming weekend, or golf clubs, yoga pants in a bright new print, new shoes anything. They eat lunch out of tupperware in the kitchen or take a short walk to a sandwich shop or whatever tantalizing options are available. They may get up and leave their desk when the trays of leftovers from an over-catered meeting are brought out and dumped in the kitchenette. In an office of some 200 people it is frequently someone's birthday providing cake for communal consumption. There's a vending machine with snacks they might hit up when the blood sugar levels dip in the long stretch of the afternoon. They may have got it in their head that the path to career success is the appearance of hard work, made by staying later than their manager who gave them the idea because they indeed hold the belief that staying late is the same thing as productive work. The commute back home creates a kind of equilibrium where congestion drives incentive to hang back an hour or two, but the commute is still long. Music or talk radio is consumed, and increasingly dinner is purchased, not even picked up but delivered by someone in the gig-economy, most likely a student whom with time and application hopes to one day live a lifestyle like the person they are delivering food too. Bills are paid, disposable income is disposed of. Occassionally clutter is thrown out or left in hard rubbish for scavengers to pick through before the council picks it up. They do laundry, they have afterwork drinks on a friday night and pick over the myriad inefficiencies in their office. There is one word to describe the lifestyle of this person who threatens to destroy organized human life, and that word is 'momentum' terrifying momentum where each day resembles the last, each week, each year and yet the momentum itself is driven by existential angst.
Even when life deviates, through a bi-annual travel trip, where consumption is increased, and great expense is undertaken to make life cheaper than holidaying nearer to home. It is still part of an ongoing momentum, the fulfillment of a deal that has been struck, trading time for stuff and experiences.

It's incredibly hard to describe the latter person, as factually and as one-size-fits-all as I can without judgement creeping in, a need to wash my hands and distance myself from the latter. On the one hand I do a bunch of this shit, I have hobbies I have over-invested in, my wardrobe no doubt has a bunch of garments I will never wear again, and at the very least are underutilized. I own some fast-fashion items, and I've crossed the Pacific Ocean in an Aeroplane 4 times this Calendar year, and I'll have to do so once again meaning if I avoid that for another 10 years and continue to never operate a petrol burning vehicle in 5 more years I'll have gotten my carbon footprint back to that of most people this year.

And conversely there's a bunch of shit where empathizing with the hypothetical 'average' person is not easy for me. Freud has a nice eloquent saying I endorse which is "He does not believe who does not live according to his beliefs." and in all the ways my lifestyle does not resemble the cross-section of say, my highschool classmates 27 years on, that is because for sure, some aspect of differing fortunes plays a role - if you want to have children for example, you need to be fortunate enough to meet someone who wants to have children with you etc. - but also because whatever belief was attendant in the head of someone who made different decisions, is not present in mine.

So forgive me, but here is my completely unqualified, armchair-developmental-psychologist theory of what happens to a lot of people betwixt the ages of 16-25.

Assuming I have my statistics right, and that for post baby-boomer generations the majority of people not only complete high-school but go onto some form of tertiary education. Around the age of 16 the ground perceptibly seems to tilt, and life starts accelerating towards a psychological cliff-edge. A child realizes that their life isn't going to be structured forever. School ends and momentum is going to carry them through to that end. The routine is going to be destroyed of getting up, getting ready for school, eating breakfast, packing lunch, getting a lift, riding a bus, walking, riding a bike etc to school. Following your time table from class to class, shooting the shit or playing with friends during recess and lunch, more classes, maybe some afterschool sports, going home, watching TV and (I'm told) doing homework, eating dinner, watching TV or playing videogames or whatever and then going to bed. On weekends you get time to yourself, go down the street, finger your partner and sniff your fingers and other awkward forms of budding romance etc.

That will end, your social network will convert into a diaspora and drift apart and you will be responsible for your life. Terrifying freedom from the pretty okay for the most part, and for the bullied and picked on kids of low social standing, at least familiar routine of life in the clutches of the education system.

To some sense, tertiary education works as a form of transition where children begin to gradually take on the responsibilities of an adult. However there is a crucial decision made somewhere betwixt the collapse of a routine that is most often simply thrust upon an individual, and emerging onto a frontier where one's life is truly in their own hands.

We ask children what they will do with their lives.

Compatriots of my age may remember watching this after school:

And I don't feel most people do sufficient prospecting, they don't think like Daria decades into the future what will really be awful, like realizing they wasted their one precious life.

However, existential crisis' are hard. I don't know how to tweak the structure by which our society currently asks the question of of 17-18 year olds 'what will you do next year?' (a very practical question) whilst conflating it with 'what will you do with your life?' (a very philosophical question).

And sure, some kids have a calling, a sense of vocation, an ambition to get the fuck out of a comfortable routine and very proactively pursue a career. But I remember enough of the classes where we filled out surveys and went through phonebook size directories of career paths to know those kids are the exception not the rule. Furthermore, I am prejudiced toward a skepticism of those kids with well defined post-highschool ambitions, as to whether these ambitions are actually a manifestation of parental ambitions or expectations (and thus a symptom of the problem faced by the kids with no clear path forward, simply removed a generation) and/or being a product of some nested anxiety as often this ambition drives dilligent hard work, removing youth from enjoying the present as they hit the books in an attempt to remove all risk they don't achieve that goal.

But as always I'm getting diverted. I feel we ask this question badly, and for the most part, the result is that between the ages of 17-25 what happens psychologically for most people is they spend these years heading for any port in a storm. The societal equivalent of throwing kids in a pool for them to swim furiously back to the edge and cling to the concrete - a brief flirtation with sink-or-swim.

If I lost you with the metaphor, what I suspect happens is we briefly threaten to take away a routine that defines a life, a routine that requires no expenditure of energy in answering the question 'what am I going to do today?' and what I feel most people in our society must do is scramble quickly for a replacement routine which can loosely be called 'a career'.

But a routine is not a narrative. It's the difference between playing a story and character driven video game that lasts some 40 hours of gameplay, and Candy Crush.

We know most people work for someone, relatively few people start their own businesses and wind up employing people. We know very few people ever make it out of middle management. Very, very few people become household names. A tiny minority of people are ever talked about, despite 15 minute of fame projections.

We know when things are humming along, most people have a job, live in a house, generally have a partner, and depending on where they are life-cycle wise (and permitting sexual orientation and access to fertility technology), they have children who go to a school.

These are ordinary people, of which I am one, and our ability to destroy human civilization is only slightly more discussed than our significant role in building it.

It is an application of the important idea of 'Ordinary Causes' one of the best ideas to keep salient if you want to succeed in life. It's similar I guess to Pareto distribution, the old '80/20' rule, though it's a 90/10 rule. Some examples to explain ordinary causes.

1. You are running a factory with some heavy machinary, the operation incurs some losses. 10% of those losses comes from 'special causes' like a computer virus shutting down your machinary, or a fire causes the plant to shut down for an afternoon. Special causes have alarms and emergency procedures usually set up around them, flashing lights that make us notice them. They don't occur every day, and so we notice them. 90% of your losses comes from the ordinary operation of the machinery, the material that gets stuck to the edges of the tank, the fuel that evaporates off due to heat, the slow turnover that comes from the gradual wear and tear of equipment, the ways your employees have found to shirk duties that escape detection, or are an endemic status quo. No alarms, just business as usual. These are ordinary causes and they are far more significant than the special causes in consequence.

2. You have a number of hospital visits over a lifetime, 10% are generated by snake bites, broken limbs and car crashes. 90% are generated by you skipping exercise, eating processed foods, failing to wash your hands or brush your teeth, drinking coffee or softdrinks, smoking cigarettes. All bar cigarettes don't have alarms attached to them. They are part of the routine.

3. Henry the 8th abandons the Holy Roman Empire and establishes the Church of England. However most of the era is defined by what the uneducated serfs do in the fields, growing crops of wheat and barley, raising heads of cattle, flocks of sheep, brewing beer, and digging for coal and copper. These activities dictate 90% of the architecture, the fashions and culture of the times.

And so there's just a handful of people in this world that could trigger a nuclear winter, and there is an elaborate and numerous apparatus set up to monitor this. On the other hand there are billions of people whom just through going about their ordinary days have us approaching, and possibly passing the brink of catastrophic environmental destruction. And the only apparatus really in place to stop these billions of people from destroying us all, are our annoying environmental friends.

Who are heroes and I appreciate what they do. It's taken me a long time, but I have conceded, consumer activism does something.

However, it's not the way I personally would bet. I'm a bit too fixated on ordinary causes. I do not consider a solution that requires people to act against the incentives of the game we are playing, any solution at all.

The solution is opaque and has not yet been found, but I believe it is changing the rules of the game. In the defining of a new wealth.

I remember visiting Beijing in the early 2000s and feeling a tragic disconnect. A failure of empathy. My Chinese friends were really excited about cars and shopping malls and restaurants where waiters wore earpieces. The number of lanes dedicated to bicycles on Beijings great ringroads was transitioning to zero.

It seemed highly unfortunate that China's economy was just waking up to the 80's as the Western cities were starting to put this concept to bed. In the same year, I travelled through Europe where everything is more or less dedicated to moving away from cars. City centers were pedestrianized, dedicated bicycle roads were being built along the countryside and you could catch a Train just about anywhere.

Having said that, I also witnessed the destruction of Prague and many other great places in Europe thanks to the advent of Ryanair. 

I am currently in Mexico.

This is relevant not because Mexico has much to teach us about the true meaning of wealth per se. But because part of why I am here is because I decided to actually start listening to my teachers.

I am specifically referring to philosophers. And no, not those incredibly painful living people you meet at parties with almost nothing of interest to say on any subject, and if they do have that air about them that makes you intuitively distrust the notion of wanting to live in any world they would design.

But I mean the long dead philosophers, that etymologically were studying 'the good life' and approached the question of what a good life consists of with a large degree of empiricism.

And from the Epicureans, to the Cynics to the Stoics in the West, and in the Eastern philosophies of Buddhism and it's offspring Zen, the Poets of the Middle-East and the martial philosophies of Japan and China, recurring themes emerge that ordinary folk like me are real fucking good at completely ignoring.

People who have looked at the question of a 'Good life' very seldom come up with hedonism as an answer.

Our concept of wealth is 'saturation' in most cases. The pursuit of houses as featured in Grand Design, vast open plan spaces with high tech finished surfaces and devices and gadgetry put into every nook and cranny. To automate the home as much as possible. To pursue good food, the richest tasting food balancing sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami or whatever. The reason caramel is no longer good enough it must be salted caramel. Vanilla icecream better have fucking specks of vanilla bean in it, because damn it, ice cream wasn't good enough already. Adding dimensions to our movie watching experience in the form of glasses to wear over our glasses at the movies, or ever wider ever higher resolution screens at home and VR headsets.

This is what I mean by saturation, the natural intuition that if what we are doing is not gratifying enough you need to grab the dial and crank the signal up.

This is the intuition, the popular intuition and what wealth really means in practice as of now.

The philosophers, the people who for thousands of years actually sat down and tested the predictions of our intuitions against results found that saturation fails the test.

The good life is reaching for that dial and turning it as far down as you can fucking tolerate. Deprivation is the path to happiness.

And my early results from just a few years of pursuing deprevation concur, it makes me much happier. And it's fairly easy to implement, in every aspect of life you are just seeking the minimum you need to get by.

Much of my life is congruent with much of what environmentalists advocate in terms of living more sustainably. Simply because in the reduce, reuse, recycle maxim, 'reduce' is the most significant by far. But the problem with environmentalists from my perspective is that they take a world view where people should look after the environment because it is the right thing to do.

What I'm advocating is something that I feel is already underway, and simply needs it's signal amplified somehow, those who do the right thing because it confers upon them status.

So for all the above examples of the saturation solutions, there is the silver lining of hope. Grand Designs often features houses that are super eco-efficient. The ecology of the home is what confers a lot of status upon the designers, the builders. Food that is prestigious because of it's 'authenticity' or the 'naturalness' of it's ingredients helps steer prestige back toward home cooking, a domestic chore that is half a century too late, also breaking down as a gender role. The Danish cullinary school of foraging and what not offers the promise of eating seasonally and greatly reducing food miles, of redistributing the balance of plant to meat ratios in our diets. There is a certain prestige to cinemagoers that would not be caught dead watching a Michael Bay movie in an Imax but instead want to be conspicuously caught at the local independent theatre watching some shite boring independent film about somebody doing nothing.

A lot of environmentalists suffer. And that's a problem. They possess a psychology where acting relieves them from a greater anxiety, and yet the actions they take do make their lives harder, more joyless and put them on a treadmill very similar to that of people pursuing saturation in consumption as a path to happiness. They could always be doing more, which is to say, less.

Sadly, for the planet, the people with the conviction to suffer like this are rare and inadequate. But the people who aspire to imitate them, while having their cake and eating it too, are numerous and they need to be elevated as the prestigious elite that people want to be like.

I was on my recent visit to Melbourne, subjected to standing in a shop while my companion for the afternoon was instructed as to how to properly use zero-waste cakes of conditioner. My zero waste strategy for conditioner, is more inline with the Cynics, in that, I don't fucking wash my hair or condition it. But I was witnessing something far more important in the interaction playing out before me: status.

Cakes of conditioner have the potential to become the fancy pink salt of tomorrow. If they haven't already. This is the new wealth. This is the greener grass we need ordinary folk to be fixated on as they glance over their neighbors fences.

The psychology of ordinary people is important. How we compete for status with those 30~60 people who see our news feeds, or that we share an office with, or playgroup etc. is really important. And creating a 'new wealth' is not unprecedented. I'm told by I believe, Qi, that Potatoes were introduced as a crop in Germany after several unsuccessful attempts to get the peasentfolk to take it up, by decreeing it an exclusive crop for Royalty and planting guards around a field. Sure enough it was then that the peasant-folk adopted it.

This is my favorite marketing term 'Prole drift' that due to the aspirational nature of humanity, that constant sense it is a worthless imposter on the verge of being exposed, that make us fight hard to justify our place. It means any luxury good, or luxury brand will eventually be 'infiltrated' by the lower classes. And sure enough, we live in the proof of it. Gen-Y/Millenials all hold almost worthless university degrees, once the providence solely of the elite and far less common as to guarantee middle class income for life. International skii holidays are had by bogans holding casual jobs. Airplanes are the new buses. I'd guess 80% of Australians have tasted truffles by the time they are 40.

Psychology is on the side, provided you brand wealth right. Unfortunately it is more problematic than that, there's the big game we are all involved in that is called the economy.

I had the providence to spend my formative years embedding a sense of nostalgia for Grunge. Event hough Kurt Cobain had already blown his skull open before I first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit, this was the early 90's. Pre-dial up. Fashion travelled slower then. Grunge was a movement where the prestige was in not spending money. You were cool for buying clothes at Op-shops or Army disposals.

It had to die, because it is very hard to make money off a trend where the idea is to not spend money. The British Invasion had to happen, Spice Girls had to happen. Mechanical Animals had to bring most of us in the alternative/indie scene back to manufactured consumption of the 80s.

If people cook at home and ride bicycles everywhere, a lot of jobs disappear. If people wear and repair their own clothes, a lot of jobs disappear. Our economy is graded on GDP, and investment is predicated on the expectation that companies will grow in the future. We are centered not around quality of life, but around growth. It is the economy that either manifests, or drives that intuition that saturation is the path to wellbeing. To wealth.

I don't have an answer for this catestrophic and painful transition to deprivation as status, but some future where people who drive a car to their work are pitied and condescended to for not having 'worked hard enough' to 'earn' a prestigious job within walking distance of the home or accessible by public transport is a start. Where the cranes hoisting building materials into the skyline of Beijing is an indicator of 'third world' status is a start. Where eating meat daily occupies the same mental space as having KFC or McDonald's daily occupies now.