Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Different Questions; Different Answers

One of the challenges we're facing today is that we seem to be constantly, frustratingly at odds with each other about how to resolve our problems. On the surface, one might surmise this is because there are two seemingly contradictory ways to address our problems. I would, however, propose that the real reason we're stuck is because we've been asking ourselves all the wrong questions, which means we've been yo-yo'ing between the "conservative" non-responsive answer and the "progressive" non-responsive answer without making any real headway toward the correct solution. Usually when we're stuck it's because we've framed the question badly, not because we're too stupid to solve the problem.

For example, the question most of us are asking right now is, "how do we create more jobs for all of the people who need work?"

I would propose that this is precisely the wrong question. The question we ought to be talking about is this: "Do we need all every able-bodied human on Earth to invest forty hours a week into making more stuff so we can all earn money to buy the things we need? Or are we already making too much stuff we don't need and over-consuming our natural resources, just to ensure all the people have adequate jobs and can earn a living?"

This is a crucial question that nobody in the media or government seems willing to discuss. It's crucial because our economy isn't just a conceptual idea; it's materially tied to the natural resources available to us, as well as their natural replenishment rates. If indeed we're making too much stuff we don't need just so we can create jobs so that people can earn enough money, that means we're consuming our limted natural resources in wasteful ways that are damaging our planet's capacity to carry human life - all for the sake of generating man-made income and making a living.

It's important to note that a single gallon of gasoline does the same amount of work as 350-500 human labor hours, and it still only costs about four dollars. That means a machine running on a gallon of gas can, for a mere four dollars, replace minimum wage labor that would cost a business at least $2800, plus benefits and sick time. Is it any wonder then, that the need for human energy is declining in real terms and that the value of human energy has been falling right alongside it? That fact gets veiled by global expansionism, because so long as we're our global economy continues to expand more raw human labor will be needed, but as a percentage of total energy being employed human labor has fallen from literally 100% before the invention of tools, to perhaps 70% once we invented tools, to perhaps 40% once we domesticated animals, to perhaps 5% now that we have fossil-fuel powered machinery working for us today. That means in order for us to generate 100% employment we have to produce 95 times as much stuff per person than we used to produce for ourselves.

As if that weren't challenge enough, technology is also replacing the need for human computation in the workplace. While computers don't offer the mental flexibility and imagination that a human brain possesses, a computer can still store far more data and do its computations much more rapidly than do humans. All this means that computers and technology are fast replacing our former middle classes in the workplace. The work that remains for us is mainly blue collar (i.e.: tedious assembly line production) or highly imaginative, innovative, clever and strategic thinking (i.e.: executive and highly specialized skills.)  Blue collar work remains available mainly because it can be expensive to build machines to do work that uneducated people will do for very little money, especially when they're desperate to survive. That explains why so many factory assembly lines have been offshored in recent years. Third-world citizens are willing to work for a dollar a day - a salary most Americans can't afford to live on. A dollar a day may still be more than the price of a gallon of gas, but it's less than the cost of machinery and maintenance.  And when it comes to highly skilled and executive positions, machines don't yet exist with the capacity to utilize intelligence in the way that a person can use it, so those jobs will continue to be the most highly paid until we invent machines that are able to compete.

If we're wondering why we are all in debt today, the above will serve to explain that. The fact is, most of us can no longer earn enough money to access the bulk of the goods and services that are mainly being created by our machines. Our labor isn't valued highly enough anymore for us to do so; yet the owners of the machinery won't just give us what the machines create unless they can earn a profit by doing so. Think about it. Human debt has skyrocketed at precisely the same time in human history that industrialization, fossil fuel consumption and technological innovation kicked into high gear, reducing the need for human energy in the workplace! Meanwhile government debt, which is in large part subsidizing our needs because we can't earn enough to acquire what we need, has also skyrocketed over the past fifty years. This is not coincidence; it's a real-world cause and effect.

If we possess a lick of sense we can use it to see which way the economic winds are presently blowing. Our economic systems have been relentlessly replacing high cost human energy with lower cost machines and technologies that run on cheap fossil fuels, so they can make their goods more cheaply. That would be wonderful if we were able to enjoy the fruits of all this cheap production without struggle, but because we don't own either the natural resources that are being fed into these systems or the actual means of production, we're generally precluded from accessing all these goods...unless we work.

And so it is that seven billion humans are now relentlessly competing for ever more scarce and lower paying jobs, with fewer benefits. Sadly, we're being pitted against each other in a war nobody can win. Eventually machines will be doing almost all of society's work, and yet we won't be able to grow anymore because we'll have hit the natural limits of resource replenishment. In fact, we may have already hit that tipping point. So what happens then? At the moment, those who apply their ingenuity and create new enterprises are still inventing newer and cleverer gadgets...but really, how much of what we're making is truly necessary and helpful, and how much is downright wasteful, in pursuit of money?

That begs yet another question: "Are we here to earn a living, or do we earn a living in order to make life more enjoyable while we're here?" That is no small question. For some time we've been socially conditioned to believe that we first have to earn a living, then - if we accumulate enough free time and money - we can perhaps use it to enjoy what's left of our lives by exploring those talents, skills and abilities we neglected while in hot pursuit of a job that paid us well. But what if we have life backwards? What if, given the modern state of things, we'd be better off as a society if we encouraged everyone to pursue their passions or master their own innate skills and then apply those to our shared needs instead of demanding everyone first fit into the economic system as it stands? It may be that our system is already so obsolete we're doing ourselves a grave disservice by demanding that everyone conform to it, rather than that it conform to where we are today as an advanced species.

I don't know the answers to the above questions. I suspect none of us do as yet. However, I suspect that if we're honest with ourselves we'll have to admit that some very large percentage of what we're currently producing isn't beneficial to either humanity or our planet. It's mainly crap.

If so, what do we want to do about it? Are we going to wait until the job crisis becomes even more acute? Are we going to wait until the race to convert natural resources into consumables has triggered an irreversible depletion of planetary resources, so we have no choice but to watch our economies collapse out of lack? Or will we - because we're able to grasp that what we're doing is inherently unsustainable - take a moment to breathe into these questions and sincerely seek good answers? Will  can calmly and thoughtfully respond to these challenges before we're forced to react to emergencies we're causing for ourselves?

I don't know the answers to those questions either. My hope is that by shining a light on these questions and inviting people to give them consideration right here and now, we can perhaps avoid the worst outcomes to our challenges that we humans might have to face if we ignore them.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this piece! You have crafted an essay that expresses precisely the questions and concerns I have had for some time, but have been much to upset to write about it. You've done an excellent job, and I so appreciate it! I intend on sharing it with my community on facebook, and if I may make a suggestion, you should share it with the Basic Income Guarantee Earth Network (or the USA Network)

    As a species, we need to rethink how we will continue into the future. Our antiquated societal models are going to be replaced one way or the other. Now's a chance for us to become actively involved in the process to reformulate how we access and distribute the resources available and necessary to our survival.

    Again, I'm very grateful to you for writing this piece!