What I've been mulling lately is the fact that humanity itself has for eons been an energy commodity, one we've self-directed and used in service to whatever it is we desired to create. Our energy has gifted us the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the great cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame. It's gifted us a global library of wisdom that is overwhelming in its breadth and scope. It's gifted us telescopes and space ships, electron microscopes and super-colliders. It's produced technologies to make our lives better, and technologies so destructive we could ruin the ability of this planet to host complex life forms for many thousands of years. Human energy is, when we examine it from this perspective, a great beast of a resource, one that - if we cooperated - could be consciously directed and applied in service to whatever shared vision we chose to hold as a species. Never mind fossil fuels, wind energy, geothermal or solar power; the greatest energy pool available to us is humanity itself. That's because solar, wind and fossil fuels can't think. They aren't creative, they don't know beauty, they can't feel what we feel, know what we know, love what we love or desire what we desire to create. While we can still steward them in support of our visions and ingenious designs, they can't produce those dreams on our behalf. Only we can do that.
For thousands of years, it seems that what we've chosen to create using our vast and growing repository of human creativity and physical energy has been a society that services the desires and whims of a wealthy few, whose happiness is attained by purchasing the energy and output of many, many others. In essence, that's because we've been selling our time and physical labor to the highest bidder, in exchange for the cash we need to purchase the products of other people's labor and creative output (energy = reward.) This arrangement has led to constant imbalances between the haves and the have nots, because in every era some few people have been able to capitalize more fully on what they had to offer in comparison to the offerings of others. They found themselves at the right time, in the right place, with the right idea to resolve the right challenge, and connected with just the right people to help them create it. Whatever it was that enabled the output of one person's creative energy to be desired by many, it's clear that a few humans in every generation have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, while the rest of the people struggled to put in their time and take out whatever they could get in exchange for their own hard work. The fundamental inequity in that system is that whenever someone comes up with something new that happily advances the whole of human civilization, our system rewards them with material wealth far beyond their capacity to spend it in a given lifetime. As more and more inventions explode on the scene, more and more material wealth gets bestowed on those few lucky persons. Because there's a limit to how much material wealth exists on this planet, while the human race can expand and reproduce indefinitely, we've lately run into trouble with that formula for success.
This defines the economic system we devised thousands of years ago when material wealth seemed infinite, much of the planet was still an unexplored mystery and the human population was but a fraction of what it now is. That system has not only caused imbalance, it's led to multi-generational imbalances, because monetary wealth (unlike stores of grain or cattle that rot and die) could be passed down from parent to child. Children of the wealthy quickly began to apply a whole new economic formula that trumped energy = reward. They found they could use the power of their inherited wealth to purchase whatever they wanted in the open market without having to invest their own energy in productive social pursuits (money = power.) Centuries ago we labeled such people royalty. Today they're simply called the upper class. In any case, for as long as we've employed an energy = reward system, it's fostered a division between those who daily have to sell enough of their energy to provide for their own survival, and those who do not. Of late the imbalance between these two classes has widened precipitously. It's gotten so bad that we're facing imminent social and economic collapse, because the billions of people who today need to sell their daily energy can no longer find buyers who will pay them what it takes for them to survive.
Technology is partly responsible for the fix we're in. Where technology has taken us over the past few hundred years is into a mechanical replacement cycle. Fossil fuels are now being fed into machines that, in turn, replace human energy in the production process. Machines don't demand wages, benefits, have medical issues or family problems or negative attitudes. They don't question authority, and they don't wonder why they're creating what they're producing. Fixing a machine when it breaks down is much simpler than dealing with a person and all their feelings, needs and wants. When we retire a machine we can throw it away without mercy or compassion, or take it apart and recycle its many parts.
In a post-industrial society, human energy is now no longer as necessary for the production of goods and services as it once was. We even measure that by tracking what's called "productivity." Productivity is a way of determining the amount of goods and services produced per man-hour of labor. As more and more products are produced using fewer and fewer man-hours, productivity increases. This is good news for producers since it increases their profitability, but it's bad news for humanity, which needs to sell more of its man-hours so it can pay its societal bills. Meanwhile, the pool of human energy (which translates into man-hours) has grown huge over the years - we now have nearly seven billion people on this planet! That means human energy, which is in lower demand, has been getting cheaper than even the price of fossil fuels. This increased competition to sell human energy to fill the few remaining slots where human energy is still required for production or service has driven down the price of human energy on the open market. Additionally, globalization has enabled businesses to seek out the absolute cheapest human energy pools and draw upon them to produce the goods they create. Unconsciously then, we've elevated the value of using technology to cheaply produce goods and services above the value of caring for the human lives that are supposed to consume those goods and services.
This imbalance is unsustainable. Not only because it cheapens human life, but because in the long run, the energy = reward formula entirely breaks down as the imbalance between the haves and the have nots widens. When people are denied the opportunity to input their energy into society via the open market, they are likewise denied the opportunity to earn monetary rewards. And what are those rewards, but cash prizes (allowances, really) that enable us to pay our mortgages, purchase cars, buy energy, food and clothing, provide education and medical care for our families - all of which ARE the products and services being offered for sale by the for-profit business establishment?
The are really only two ways around this systemic breakdown without redesigning the entire system. The first is to outright gift money to the people who can't get jobs, so they can infuse that cash into the for-profit engine and keep the machinery running and themselves alive. This is often derisively called, "the nanny state." The second option is for businesses (and the wealthy people who run them) to bypass serving most human needs altogether, mainly by making products that other corporations need and that governments will purchase, or by making products that primarily serve the needs of the very rich. An example would be the continuous production of new war machinery, which governments can then use to blow up other countries' war machinery, along with those expendable people who aren't contributing much to their society anyhow. Governments can then contract with the weapons companies and pay them to make more of the destroyed war machinery, only this time better and stronger, thereby keeping the business "economy" running. Where budget cuts occur in this type of corporate state are in the arenas of public health, education and welfare, as well as the arts and other human services that the jobless folks can't pay for anymore. The general population in such a state is provided only with as much as people need to barely survive so they can continue to energize the ongoing production of war machinery, and nothing more. Another example of how this type of state functions would be through a stock market and banking system where the wealthy can buy and sell each others' holdings and try to make even more money off of each other by using the money they've already made, without offering any new products or services to the general public. When companies in this kind of state do offer a service to the public, it's usually grudgingly, for their survival needs alone, and on such onerous terms it enables companies to bleed as much free cash as possible from a struggling, stressed population without offering them much value in return.
Until we first realize this is exactly the kind of state that we're creating, and that the political battle being waged today is a war of values between the nanny state and the corporate state - neither of which serve humanity's long term interests - we can't fix it. When enough of us do realize it, painful as it may be to accept the unvarnished truth, we will likely need to redesign our entire economic paradigm. The old energy = reward formula clearly cannot hold, since it already failed us in the past. Meanwhile, it's getting clearer all the time that the money = power formula is only increasing our social imbalance and creating more suffering. So then, what formula might we wish to consciously adopt to replace those outmoded equations?
I would humbly suggest we go with something like wisdom = value added. Unless we end the practice of materially rewarding people (paying them allowances) in exchange for their physical effort and instead begin to celebrate the wondrous, diverse and unique creative capacity that is contained within every human life, our species is likely to continue to suffer, struggle and experience stress. The thing is, even while our supply of fossil fuels is running dangerously low and we're discovering the risks of nuclear fission, we still have plenty of energy available to us - it's called human creativity, ingenuity, talent, skill and physical ability. Wisdom, which emerges from the sum totality of every individual life experience, seems to be something we can produce in infinite supply as we employ our human energy for the sake of our own evolution. To value and nurture what we can produce in seemingly infinite supply (wisdom) means we can create eternal value added so long as we thrive. In a very real sense, humanity has the innate capacity to become a self-designing perpetual motion machine, utilizing the wisdom gleaned from past generations and all their trial and error experiments - combined with the energy, ingenuity and creative capacity of the people alive in the present - to construct an ever-better platform for new generations to then build upon. Right now, we have on this planet seven billion amazingly diverse minds and bodies that carry within them a vast potential to contribute the best of what they are to the world at large. We're just tragically wasting much of that energy, allowing people the world over to suffer and die unloved, unsupported and unappreciated, because we think we no longer "need" their human labor to earn a profit.
So here's the deeper question we may wish to answer: For what purpose are we focusing on earning a financial profit, if not to better the world in which we live so that all of us can thrive, ourselves included? What good will all our money be if we don't create and maintain a healthy, stable human society? And because happiness is a huge factor in maintaining human health and stability, shouldn't we be supporting the expansion of happiness in everyone?
Perhaps one solution to the imbalance that presently threatens to topple modern society is to cease perceiving ourselves (and each other) as mere energy units to be bought and sold, or as liabilities or assets on some vast global business accounting statement. Perhaps the solution lies in remembering who and what we are - living, feeling, reasoning creatures within a vast living ecosystem - and then asking ourselves why it was that we started evolving and building societies to begin with. Was it to ensure that everyone on the planet would be endlessly enslaved to a monetary for-profit paradigm (energy = reward?) Or was it so we could personally suck all the juice out of life at the expense of everything else (money = power?) Or was it, perhaps, to help everyone and everything alive live better, feel better and become the best they can be as they mature, so we can all benefit from what everyone and everything else has to offer?
Perhaps we'll never know what the original intent of societal construction was when it first began, but surely we can thoughtfully consider what we'd like it to become - what feels best for us to create in the here and now - and then aim for that.