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Salvation Will Not Be Found in Politics — Updated 03/14/21

There is an apparent “war” of cultures in American politics. The so-called Red/Blue divide that seems unbridgeable. Red struggles to overcome Blue. Blue struggles to overcome Red. Each side believes fervently that it is the defender of “Truth.” Each side attempts to eke out a victory so that it might impose its view of truth on the nation as a whole. Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett, in their recent book The Upswing, describe this struggle in a way that suggests a cycle. They describe one turn of the apparent cycle. The first leg of the current cycle began in the late 19th century when Blue began an ascendance and imposed its views on society. The cycle peaked around 1971 and began its second leg, which is where we are currently positioned. During the past 50 years, Red has been in ascendance and has been reversing Blue’s accomplishments and has been imposing its views on society. In discussing what needs to be done, the authors propose that the answer is to restore Blue’s programs to a dominant position. I think this is a mistake made by not taking into account the significant portion of the population that sides with Red. In my view, the only thing suppression will accomplish is to initiate a new cycle, which is not a solution at all. Both viewpoints need to be transcended.

On a longer-term basis, Iain McGilchrist, in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, discusses a back and forth tug-a-war between the left and right brain functions. He thinks the tug-a-war has its origins in the ancient Greeks and has been operating throughout history. He spends a considerable amount of effort to document this process. McGilchrist, a neuro-psychiatrist, discusses the underlying reason for our split brain. He says that the right brain is responsible for relating and integrating our understanding of the world. Because of its relational nature, the right brain provides a dynamic and holistic view of the world and is the source of meaning in our lives. The left brain on the other hand is responsible for separating out of our perception of the world isolated pieces, which are rendered static and then divided further into pieces for examination.

According to McGilchrist, there should be cooperation between these functions. The left brain should inform the right brain about its understanding of examined pieces of the world and then the right brain should integrate this understanding into a dynamic and holistic view of the world. In short, the left brain evolved to be a tool of the right brain, which should have the overall responsibility for our understanding of the world. McGilchrist argues that currently the left brain has gained dominance over the right brain, which evolved to be the dominant partner.

Human beings can skew the intent of evolution through their ability to form concepts and abstractions that model the world. Concepts, abstractions and models are left brain functions grounded in language. The left brain has in effect “hijacked” the functions of the right brain through the use of concepts and abstractions. Unfortunately, the left brain approach leads to fragmentation rather than the needed holistic view. Ken Wilber, discussed below, would probably agree with the essence of McGilchrist’s analysis. I think this is because Wilber argues that most of our current problems are due to an extreme emphasis on quadrant three of his model (see Table in the section about Wilber), which he thinks is dominated by scientific materialism with its emphasis on the senses of perception and an objectifying and externalizing of everything to the exclusion of humanity’s inner life and resources.

The political cycle described by Putnam and Garrett and possibly the tug-a-war described by McGilchrist seems likely to be linked to how we form identities and worldviews. Before proceeding, it is necessary to provide some background. I will attempt to describe identity formation through the lens of psychological development. I will begin by mentioning the French developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, who sequenced cognitive development into a four-tiered structure. The first tier was sensorimotor, then preoperational, then concrete operational and finally the formal operational tier. While there have been criticisms of the model and suggestions for one or more additional stages the original model, in practice, has held up robustly.

For example, the Harvard psychologist, Lawarence Kohlberg, adapted Piaget’s scheme to his study of moral reasoning. He structured moral reasoning into a three-tiered sequence. The first tier was pre-conventional, then conventional and finally post-conventional. Each tier was divided into two stages for a total of six stages. The sixth stage is often omitted from the developmental sequence. This omission occurs because its achievement is so rare that there are not enough examples of it available to study and give it a firm empirical basis (see Addendum I at the end).

Kohlberg’s developmental model for moral reasoning has been widely studied and validated in cultures around the world, including both developed and emerging societies. The structure and stages have held up across cultures. The primary differences found between cultures has been the rate of development through the stages and the stage that emerges as the dominant typical stage in any given culture.

Further, studies have confirmed a relationship between moral reasoning and behavior, though it is a complex relationship. Studies have found deficits in moral reasoning in psychopaths as compared to neurotics. Research also shows a significant difference in moral reasoning between delinquents and non-delinquent adolescents. A common finding in these studies was an association of preconventional reasoning with antisocial behavior. Development of moral reasoning has also been found to be slower and more variable in troubled children relative to typical children.

Research has also supported structured, developmental discussions of moral issues as a method for stimulating development of moral reasoning. This has been shown to be supported in programs with public school students, emotionally disturbed adolescents, college students, delinquents and prisoners. In a study to see if public school teachers could implement a moral education program, teachers successfully conducted the program and produced significant changes, which upon a two-year follow-up were either maintained or continued to progress. One caveat is that research found that moral reasoning in a natural context with real life content was lower than moral reasoning in an educational setting with hypothetical content.

The primary criticism levied against Kohlberg’s model was from a former student of Kohlberg’s, Carol Gilligan. Her criticism was not about the model structure but of the assessment content used to place individuals in the scheme. Her criticism was that the assessment material was male-centric. Her argument, which was shown to have merit, was that moral reasoning in men tends to be best assessed through issues related to rights and justice, while moral reasoning in women tends to be best assessed through issues related to care and responsibility. She would rename some of the stages in Kohlberg’s model when applied to women using names related to care and responsibility.

Here it is worth mentioning another example. A student of Kohlberg’s, Robert Selman, developed a model of social reasoning. At the end of this essay, Addendum I provides an outline of Kohlberg and Selman’s models based on material in a textbook that I wrote in 1989.

The psychologist/philosopher, Ken Wilber, suggests that about 40% of the U.S. population is at stage four and has an ethnocentric personal identity. This stage marks the transition from preoperational to concrete operational thinking. Ethnocentrists identify with others from similar backgrounds and with similar attributes. People at this stage can take a second person perspective. This stage is often described as being populated by “true believers” and conformist. They are literal thinkers that view the world through narratives (a.k.a. myths). Moral behavior is governed by internalized rules, which are rigidly held and enforced.

Wilber indicates that about 50% of the U.S. population is at stage five, which is based in thinking at the formal operations level and is associated with a worldcentric personal identity. Persons at this stage can take a third person perspective. One identifies with an integrated and unified view rooted in a concern for the wellbeing of the whole. Whereas stage four might be called an “us” stage, stage five could be called an “all of us” stage. It is an orientation that views the world as rational. Moral behavior is governed by strongly held principles or ideals. This stage did not start to take root in the west until about 300 years ago.

The third relevant stage to this discussion is stage six. This stage did not begin taking root until the middle of the twentieth century. It was first evident in the revolutionary youth movement and counterculture of the 1960s. The ability to take a fourth person perspective at this stage led to criticism of and deconstruction of third person perspectives that arose out of stage five. This stage led to an emphasis on egalitarianism, cultural relativism and multiculturalism. Wilber suggests that this group represents about 25% of the U.S. population. While the percentages for the stages discussed add up to more than 100%, it must be taken into account that due to transitions some people are double counted. The above configuration sets up a perfect situation for a clash between traditional, rational and multicultural values.

Wilber’s model is more complex than the simple and brief description above. Wilber’s full analysis is detailed and quite complex. If you’re interested in the detailed analysis, I suggest that you read it for yourself. Probably the most comprehensive presentation is his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. If you are put off by the word spiritual, I don’t think Wilber would mind if you simply substitute the term “consciousness,” where the term has a much broader meaning than merely being the opposite of unconscious. I have included a brief description of all eight stages in Wilber’s model below as Addendum Two.

Back to the “war” of political cultures. The bad news is that the research indicates that in American society, the majority of adults function at either stage four or stage five. This means that most Americans will have either a conformist attitude toward life or an individualist attitude. These two groups are supported by value systems that clash — traditional versus rational. The conformists depend upon mythologies or stories about the nature of the world, how it operates, what is necessary and so on. These narratives provide their blueprint for understanding the world, which can be a fairly simplistic such as “my country right or wrong.” The individualist depend on logic and rational analysis, which can be fairly complex such as scientific materialism, which assumes that everything arises from matter and that everything can be understood by objectifying it, isolating it, reducing it to its constituent parts and examining the relationship of the parts to one another. The important point here is that these beliefs or assumptions, if you prefer, are a product of an attained pattern of thinking. One does not change such patterns of thinking by persuasion or by coercion. One must develop or evolve beyond them.

If one thinks that they can be changed otherwise, I would ask you to consider the ethnic conflicts that erupted in eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USSR had largely suppressed ethnic conflicts for many decades through its coercive domination of eastern Europe. However, as soon as the external inhibition was removed, the conflicts soon bubbled to the surface because the patterns of thinking of the involved populations had not evolved but had only been suppressed. They may have even regressed under authoritarian domination. On the other hand, let’s look at scientific materialism as an example of the failure of persuasion. For over a century evidence has been accumulating that scientific materialism cannot account for all the phenomena being documented. I have two large volumes in my personal library cataloging evidence that can’t be explained by scientific materialism, persuasive evidence developed through the methods advocated by science and meeting and exceeding the criteria established for judging such data. The response has largely been to ignore the data, discount the data, attack the researchers producing the data and so on. It is no wonder that it has been said that science progresses one funeral at a time. It almost seems that death is the only way to overcome the resistance to different ways of thinking.

Which brings us back to the American culture war. What we have here is a conflict grounded in various conflicting identities. The difficulty of ending this conflict is evident in the observation of the French philosopher Francis Jacques, who noted that participants in such identity-based conflicts usually see only two options. Either they can assimilate the worldview of the opponent or they can impose their world-view on the opponent. We see very little if any migration of members of the Red tribe to the Blue tribe or the converse. So, the exercise of the first option doesn’t seem very likely. What we do see are attempts to implement option two. Both tribes strive to attain the political power necessary to impose their worldview upon the other tribe. Even if one of them succeeds it will be a temporary victory. There will not have been a fundamental change in the pattern of thinking in the “suppressed,” nor will they cease seeking a way to regain the upper hand.

So, is there a way out of this dilemma? There may be but it isn’t a quick and easy fix. The way out is to evolve out of current patterns of conventional thinking. I mentioned research that suggested that evolution of thinking can be stimulated by educational programs. Broad-based education efforts with children is one strategy. Targeted educational programs for adolescents and adults is another strategy. The late and renowned physicist and philosopher David Bohm attempted to address this problem in his book On Dialogue. This book discusses a format for large group dialogue intended to alter patterns of thinking. His is not an educational or a persuasive approach but rather an exposure and assimilation approach. The main thing that he thinks must be overcome is thinking that one’s opinions or assumptions are necessary and therefore justify anything in their defense. He finds that sitting in a large diverse group and listening to but not challenging the freely expressed assumptions of group members will in time bring the members of the group to a level of understanding of one another and a softening of the certainty of their assumptions. Once one becomes less dogmatic about and less identified with one’s assumptions then the path toward evolution in one’s pattern of thinking becomes a possibility. It is mentioned that this careful examination of one’s assumptions can be done individually but lacks the breadth and diversity of a group process. As Bohm says, “[a] problem is insoluble as long as you keep producing it all the time by your thought.”

Ken Wilber has also suggested that on an individual level an effective strategy for changing one’s pattern of thinking is meditation. He says this because meditation is an introspective observation of the arising and dissolving of one’s thoughts. Such observation leads to a clearer understanding of the nature of thought and its influence over you. One of the principle experiential insights that meditation can produce is the recognition that at root you are not your thoughts. Another is that your core identity is non-conceptual. The operative word is experiential. This recognition is not an idea, concept or belief but an experience. You might think that skydiving would be exhilarating but until you actually have the experience it is just an idea. The meditation strategy is associated with quadrant one in Wilber’s map of human knowledge and experience shown below in a simplified format.

                        Internal                                                                 External

1. Interior-Individual-Intentional (I)

       3. Exterior-Individual-Behavioral (It)

2. Interior-Collective-Culture (We)

       4. Exterior-Collective-Social (Its)

Wilber suggests that part of the problem we face is an overemphasis on exteriorized products of thinking, especially objective knowledge. He doesn’t think objective knowledge is bad, just that it has been emphasized to the point of crowding out other equally important aspects of being human. His meditation strategy belongs in quadrant one, representing individual interiority. As the ancient Greek aphorism says, “Know thyself.”

Any attempt to implement programs like those mentioned above are certain to be met by resistance, especially large-scale educational programs imposed on the unwilling. Voluntary programs are more likely to be accepted. If such programs produce positive results, then more people are likely to be open to participation. Probably the easiest group program to implement would be a group dialogue program such as proposed by Bohm. These should be community-based to ensure that sufficient diversity of views are represented. Of course, the suggestion by Wilber to undertake a systematic observation of one’s own thought processes through a meditation program has only one person’s opposition to overcome – yours. Should you be interested in a solo exploration, I recommend his book Integral Mindfulness.

It appears to me that the only way to resolve the dilemma that we face is to evolve our way out of it. This may be a difficult solution and perhaps we lack the foresight and long-term perspective needed to succeed. All other tactics, even when they appear to be successful, will in the end prove to be temporary and we will find ourselves cycling through the same struggle again and again. How long this can be sustained without imploding our civilization is difficult to say but that is the probable price of failure.

If this post has stimulated your interest, I recommend you to read the books mentioned and draw your own conclusions. I also suggest that you take a look at the two addenda below, especially Addendum II.

 

Addendum I

Levels I,II, III.              Stages 1, 2, 3…               Models (a) Kohlberg, (b) Selman

I.              Pre-conventional

1.          a. Punishment-obedience orientation. What’s right is what avoids punitive consequences.

            b. Individuals as physical entities. One socially interacts with others who have similar superficial and      observable characteristics, such as sex, skin color, etc.

 2.          a. Instrumental-Relativist, exchange orientation. What’s right is what secures a reciprocal exchange; i.e., I’ll scratch your back, if you’ll scratch mine.

              b. Individuals as intentional agents. One socially interacts with others to temporarily secure their support or assistance.

 II.          Conventional

3.          a. Good-boy, good-girl orientation. What’s right is what is consistent with social expectations, especially with family expectations.

             b. Individuals are introspective. One employs mutual perspective taking as a strategy to further one’s self-interests in specific situations.

 4.          a. Authority-rules, law and order orientation. What’s right is what conforms to the rules set by authorities, especially social institutions such as religious authorities or legal authorities associated with the community in which one lives.               

               b. Individuals have relative stable personalities. Social interaction arises out of mutual interests and sharing with others. Relationships have duration over time based on the expectation that the other will continue to conform to one’s expectations.

 III.          Post-conventional

5.          a. Social-contract orientation. What is right is what satisfies standards examined and agreed upon by society.

             b. Individuals are complex self-systems. Social interactions are recognized as involving complex and often conflicting needs met through a variety of relationships.

6.          a. Universal Ethical Principles, personal conscience orientation. What is right is what is consistent with comprehensive, self-evolved and logically consistent ethical principles.                     

             b. No parallel.

Addendum II

Stages of Growing Up from Ken Wilber’s AQAL Model

Introduction

The following stages are based upon a large body of research by a variety of developmental researchers, such as Jean Piaget among many others. Note that developmental stages imply a progression where one must begin at the initial stage and then through developmental experience move up to the next stage in the sequence. When a move up occurs the lower stage is absorbed by the new stage rather than the previous stage being left behind. Thus, someone at a higher stage can understand where someone at a lower stage is “coming from,” so to speak. However, a person at a lower stage has little or no basis for understanding where someone at a higher stage is coming from. Further, one cannot skip stages in a developmental sequence though movement through a stage can be sped up. There is no guarantee that one will move through the entire developmental sequence. Typically, one arrives at what will be one’s final stage by late adolescence, however, there are emerging methods for stimulating development into adulthood. Keep in mind that except in transition periods, there is usually a dominant developmental stage evident in the majority of persons in a population. This does not mean that other stages aren’t present during a given period just that they are less common or in some cases even rare. Finally, note that the descriptions below are brief stage summaries and are fixed descriptions of what is a dynamic process during the developmental period.

1.              Archaic (Infared) : The most fundamental stage and the least significant. One exist in a state of fusion with the environment. At this stage, when an instinctual drive arises one becomes that drive; e.g., one isn’t hungry one is hunger. Normally only seen in infants prior to individuation. It is never seen in a typical adult. It is possible for typical adults to carry fixations from this period, which means that the person is still identified with some part of this stage.

2.              Magic Tribal (Magenta) : Very few adults will be found at this stage. It is the beginnings of a separate self. There is a fundamental distinction between self and other at an emotional level, but there continues to be some confusion around self and the exterior environment. This confusion gives rise to animistic thoughts in which human qualities are attributed to things in the exterior environment; e.g., Lightening strikes because it wants to kill me. Magical thinking also occurs in this stage; e.g., if I hold a wish intensely enough I will manifest what I wish for. If I pray hard enough I will be cured.

3.              Magic Mythic (Red) : A person at this stage engages in preoperational thinking and has an egocentric identity. A separate self is more fully developed in this stage and this leads to a concern with security and self-protection. At this stage a power drive emerges. An exaggerated power drive often produces an inner critic that may create feelings of inferiority. For someone at this stage what they want is what is right and this justifies simply taking it. They tend to be not only egocentric but narcissistic. They are only capable of taking a first person perspective (me/mine). They are incapable of being empathetic; i.e., seeing and feeling a situation from someone else’s perspective. Joseph Stalin is often offered as an example of this stage.

4.              Mythic Traditional (Amber) : This level can also be described as the conformist stage. Cognitive processing shifts from a preoperational mode to a concrete operational mode. Thinking is now capable of performing cognitive operations on things in the external world. A person at this level has developed some capacity taking a second person perspective. This marks the shift from an egocentric to ethnocentric identity. This means that such an individual can now find belongingness in groups; e.g., family, clan, tribe, nation, religion, political party, etc. Wilber indicates that about 40% of the American adult population is at this stage, which includes people not fully transitioned into it and those beginning to transition out of it. People at this stage are highly rule governed and believe in stringent enforcement of rules. They are concrete thinkers and hold unquestioned belief in cultural narratives, which are viewed literally and held as absolutely true. They are easily led to place all power and authority in a single person who is viewed as omnipotent. People in this group may become true believers in a fundamentalist religion, political movement or scientism (scientific dogma).

5.              Rational Modern (Orange) : Cognitive processing shifts from a concrete operations mode to a formal operations mode. Thinking is now capable of performing cognitive operations on thought. A person at this level as developed some capacity for taking a third person perspective. They can now step back from themselves and come to a relatively objective opinion about themselves. This leads to the development of self-esteem needs and true individuality. For such an individual there can now emerge a drive for excellence, achievement and progress. Wilber indicates that about 50% of the American adult population is at this stage, which includes people not fully transitioned into it and those beginning to transition out of it. There is a shift from an ethnocentric to a worldcentric identity, which means the person is capable of taking an objective, scientific and universal perspective. This stage marks a move to an ability for greater inclusiveness; i.e., from “us” “to all of us.” Stage 5 didn’t begin to emerge in any significant degree in the west until about 300 years ago. It is viewed by Wilber to be a highly significant development. Stage 4 (Conformists) and Stage 5 (Individualists) together make up a majority of the current U.S. population and should be expected to be in direct and regular conflict.

6.              Pluralistic Postmodern (Green) : With this stage there arises an ability for fourth person perspective taking, which can reflect on, analyze,, critique and deconstruct third person perspectives. People at this stage only began to show up in any numbers around the middle of the twentieth century. The emergence of the youth revolution and counterculture movement at this time marked the arrival of the first postmodern stage. The fourth person perspective of this stage led to an emphasis on relativism and multiple approaches that rejected any universals or unified views. All viewpoints are seen as local and culturally constructed. Postmodernism especially rejects any “-isms” of any type. The pluralistic view is egalitarian and sees everyone as absolutely equal and no culture is superior to any other culture. Thus the emergences of multiculturalism in the late twentieth century. Members of this stage lead with the heart and rely on feelings rather than the head and logical analysis. Another characteristic of this stage is the rejection of all hierarchies as evil. What it fails to do is differentiate between “dominator” hierarchies and “growth” hierarchies. The self-contradiction in postmodernism, of course, is that it holds and promotes its view as being superior to all others. Wilber indicates that about 25% of the U.S. population can be classified at Stage Six. While Stage 4 at 40% and Stage 5 at 50% and Stage 6 at 25% exceeds 100% bear in mind that there are people in transition and likely counted twice. Some writers on developmental stages use notation along these lines 1, 1/2, 2, 2/3, 3, etc. This sets up the perfect storm of a clash between traditional, rational and multicultural values.

7.              Integral (Turquoise) : This stage has only begun to be noticed by developmental researchers in the past few decades. It is still quiet rare and probably evident in less than 5% of the population. It is a second tier stage and the major mark of this stage is a drive for wholeness. One result of this is that the Integral stage is the only stage that sees the value of all the lower stages and their necessity for the developmental process. Bearers of this stage function at next to the last step in Maslow’s needs hierarchy — self-actualization. At this stage, thinking and feeling for the first time are brought together in a tight integration. This stage’s value for wholeness and inclusiveness leads people at the integral level to look at issues and problems in large, broad contexts, such as seeing environmental problems as a biosphere problem not purely a local issue. This broad perspective leads to little sympathy for partisan politics either nationally or globally. As an established stage it is the stage with the greatest depth of all the stages to date.

8.              Super Integral Stages (White) : This represents possibly as many a four additional stages that would be tier three stages. These projections are based on the assumption that the universe is inherently loving and creative otherwise evolution would never have gotten underway and produced anything new at all. These stages are thought to be driven by an increasing focus on wholeness, inclusiveness, increasing consciousness, increasing love and care and concern, which is inherently built into the universe as we know it. It is thought that persons operating at this level currently exist but are very rare and represent significantly less than 1% of the population.

Is Economic Growth a Viable Long-Term Goal?

         To begin, let’s distinguish between economic activity for expansion, economic activity for maintenance and economic activity for sustainability. Expansion is how the standard of living in a country is increased. In short, when economic activity exceeds what is required to maintain a baseline level for a population of a given size, the result is greater affluence per capita in the population. Think of affluence as that portion of income that can be devoted to discretionary spending beyond meeting truly basic needs. On the other hand, maintenance merely keeps up with population growth, or lack thereof, and maintains the status quo. Depending on where you live this could be well beyond or below basic needs. Sustainable economic growth would be economic activity that for a given population size and life style could be continued indefinitely. An economic model that could continue indefinitely would require a lifestyle that rests upon a sustainable draw on resources and waste generation that can be absorbed and processed by the planet.

Presently, a minority of the world population enjoys an affluent lifestyle that was generated by the expansion model and depends upon an unsustainable draw on resources and waste generation. Many such developed economies are having difficulty, for various reasons, with expansion and may be reluctantly trying to hold to a maintenance model by default. There are a number of impediments to economic activity based on expansion. These impediments open up an opportunity to consider the possibility of developing an alternative model, which should focus on sustainable economic activity. It may be possible for sustainable activity to also maintain some level of affluence, given a small enough population, or significant improvements in technology and its application.

Several factors currently depress expansion of economic activity, especially in the developed economies, which are responsible for a major portion of the world economy. In no particular order of importance, the first of these is debt. Almost all of the developed world’s economies are heavily in debt, both public and private. Heavy debt is also widespread in the developing world. In January, 2017, Reuters News reported that total global debt had reached 325% of global gross domestic product (GDP) and rose by 11 trillion dollars in the first nine months of 2016 alone. The report also indicated that approximately half was public (government) and half private debt. Few embrace the implications of this situation, but it seems obvious to me that a sound economy cannot be built upon a foundation of burgeoning growth in public and private debt. Generally, debt is most defensible when it is put to productive purposes. The underlying premise of capitalism is that capital is accumulated through saving surpluses and then lent to productive enterprises that will yield sufficient return to, at minimum, repay the debt plus a reasonable return on the loan. The developed economies have drifted so far from this view of debt that to call them capitalist economies is laughable.

The second factor is birth rates (see Figure below). Again, virtually all developed countries are at or below the replacement rate for their population, which is on average 2.1 children per adult female of reproductive age. This has two obvious consequences. The first consequence is that the size of the population in developing countries is either no longer expanding, is static or is declining. For example, according to data reported in Wikipedia, as of 2005, the fertility rate in Europe was down to 1.41, in North America down to 1.99, in Japan down to 1.5 and in China down to 1.6. When population is expanding in developed countries, it is almost always due to immigration. The mere shifting people around doesn’t, in itself, affect total world population to any significant degree. It does, however, increase the demand for resources as immigrants move to developed countries with the expectation of being able to improve their lifestyle, a goal that they often achieve. This could have an effect on total population because there is a close relationship between improvement in lifestyle and lower birth rates. Lifestyle, of course, includes more income but also includes other factors such as better health care and greater personal sovereignty, especially for women. The decline in fertility rates is a global phenomenon illustrated by a worldwide fertility rate of 5.02 in 1950 and a rate of of 2.65 in 2005. It is estimated that the worldwide rate will be down to 2.05 by 2050. This rate is slightly below the projected replacement rate of 2.1. Even so, large portions of Africa and the Middle East are projected to remain above their replacement rates.

The second consequence of the decline in birth rates is to increase the proportion of older people in the population. An examination of spending by age cohort indicates that spending begins to pick up for people in their 30s as a result of career progression and family formation. Peak spending occurs in people in their 40s and 50s. People moving into their 60s and beyond, as a group, make fewer purchases in the consumer economy than do younger people. Thus, as a population ages and becomes progressively older, on average, there is a reduction in demand for consumer goods. As the demand for consumer goods falls, this further suppresses the potential for expansion of the economy.

A third factor is the proportion of the working-age population that is employed. It is obviously difficult to be a consumer of any consequence if one has little if any discretionary income or perhaps no income at all. Governments are prone to manipulate economic statistics such as unemployment rates so this problem is a bit difficult to appraise. However, an independent estimate from Shadowstats for the U.S. put the true unemployment rate at approximately 23% in 2016. At the same time, U.S. government statistics suggest that unemployment in 2016 was 4.7%. This discrepancy is due in part to Shadowstats including discouraged and displaced workers in its estimate while the government only counts individuals actively seeking employment within the past four weeks. If you’re unemployed and haven’t sought employment in the past four weeks, you aren’t counted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as unemployed. Whatever the true figure, it is clear that declines in economic activity will further increase unemployment.

To add fuel to this already bleak outlook, a recent estimate put the loss of jobs to automation, worldwide, at over one million per year, with acceleration likely going forward. This will have its biggest impact on older workers who are less able to retool for alternative employment. This is due to time constraints relative to remaining working life, existing financial demands and lack of resources to pursue such training. Many of those unemployed now and not counted because they have given up seeking employment probably belong in this group. Even for those older workers fortunate enough to retrain for alternate employment, they will be facing new careers at the entry level that seldom provides the income and benefits lost. This is not a solid basis for expanding economic activity.

A fourth consideration is resource limits. The World Population History site defines ecological footprint as the rate of consumption of natural resources and the generation of waste, together with the planet’s ability to replenish those resources and absorb the waste. Carrying capacity is an estimate of how large a population can be supported by the available resources and their replenishment, along with the capacity to reabsorb waste. The Population Institute estimates that the human species’ ecological footprint is currently between 140% and 150% of carrying capacity. Further, they estimate that before the population expansion stops and begins to decline, the total population will be between 9.5 and 11 billion people (see Figure below) and will be at approximately 300% of carrying capacity. In short, to maintain the status quo now requires the resources and capacities of 1.5 planets and will soon require the resources and capacities of 3 planets. Obviously, this is not sustainable. Perhaps the load can be reduced by greater efficiency and new technologies, but if not we may be in a race. A race to see which line we cross first — an ecological or a population implosion. If the latter comes first then the former might be avoidable. If the former comes first the latter may be far greater than expected from a decline in fertility rates.

Fred Pearce, in his book The Coming Population Crash, offers a couple of interesting statistics. First, the figures he presents indicate that the ecological footprint of the average U.S. citizen is just shy of ten times that of the average Indian or African. He further compared the world’s wealthiest one billion people with the remaining people and found that the ecological footprint of the wealthiest is 32 times that of the remaining population. If you, as an individual, have an income of at least $12,500 (just above the U.S poverty criterion for an individual), you can count yourself among the top one billion. He offers the following illustration.

 A woman in rural Ethiopia can have ten children and her family will do less damage and consume fewer resources than the family of the average soccer mom in Minnesota, Manchester or Munich.”

In short, the suggestion was that a decrease in the number of affluent persons would do more to reduce the ecological footprint of the human species than to merely decrease the size of the overall population. Perhaps this will be accomplished independently of any policy initiatives or programs. A demographer recently pointed out that demographic trends, especially in the developed countries, foretell an impending world population implosion. He thinks this could begin as early as 2050 while others think 2100 is a more likely date for population declines to begin. Fortuitously, the leading edge of the predicted decline will be in the developed countries with the most affluent populations. Longer term, the trends will impact the overall world population. The critical question is whether or not this population decline and lessening of the demands on the environment will be large enough and occur soon enough to save the planet from ecological disaster.

Given all the factors potentially contracting economic activity, especially in the developed countries, one must consider whether the goal of expansive economic growth is truly a viable concept except perhaps temporarily for the most impoverished countries. Over the last decade there have been massive attempts by governments in developed countries to stimulate economic growth through lowering interest rates and by infusing money into their economies, which has been “borrowed” through various mechanism and thereby further increasing levels of government or public debt. The premise that lies behind these moves is that lower interest rates and more money available for lending will result in more borrowing and spending for consumption. The hypothesis is that this increase in spending using borrowed money will in turn stimulate economic activity. The simple fact is that private debt is already excessive. If this strategy yields any positive effect on discretionary spending, it is likely to be limited and of short duration. One technique that is invariably turned to under such circumstances is to lower credit standards to stimulate borrowing. This often has the desired effect short-term but makes likely further undermining of the economy through subsequent credit defaults.

It would appear that it is past time for the developed countries to wake up to the fact that expanding growth economies based on consumption simply can’t be sustained. Where resources should be focused is not on how to bring back expansive growth but rather on developing a new economic philosophy that is not consumption and growth-oriented. What is needed is an economic philosophy that is oriented toward a sustainable standard of living. Such a philosophy would, on average, result in a lower standard of living in developed countries and a higher standard of living in developing countries. This clearly will not come about under an economic model that emphasizes consumption and expansive growth. Whatever form such an economic philosophy might take, it will likely meet with massive resistance on many fronts. There are billions of people who aspire to an affluent life- style, many of whom will not be happy to hear that it is not possible. There are many hundreds of millions of people who enjoy affluent lifestyles who will not be happy to hear that it cannot be equitably justified nor environmentally sustained. In addition, there are huge vested interests in the business community, government and social institutions that will fight change to the bitter end.

At present, economic thinking holds that the goal should be to raise the standard of living in economically depressed countries to one approximating that in the developed countries. However, it seems highly unlikely that the resources exist to make this a viable goal. Even should it be accomplished, the demand on resources would, in all likelihood, result in an environmental collapse. Even if the environment proves more robust than believed, the current and anticipated future consumption of resources isn’t likely to be sustainable.

Presently, it is estimated that between 800 million and one billion people live lives in which hunger is a regular experience. In a recent article (March, 2017) in the New Scientist magazine, it was suggested that enough food is being produced now to meet the needs of those people short of sufficient food. All of the food necessary to feed the hungry is lost through waste, according to the author of the piece. However, the problem isn’t simply to stop wasting food, because there are coincidental factors such as infrastructure, distribution and payment for the food even if made available. It is estimated that to meet the growing needs moving into the middle to the end of the century will require an increase of 70% over current agricultural production levels.

One major problem area going forward is Africa. Africa presents a special problem for several reasons. The two most critical problems are robust population growth and failure of the green revolution, that has ended hunger in other parts of the world, to penetrate into Africa to any significant extent. However, it is time for green revolution 2.0. The first version of this revolution has relied upon intensive agriculture employing manufactured fertilizers, pesticides, new crop strains, massive amounts of water for irrigation and mechanization. All of the components comprising green revolution 1.0 pose problems that need to be addressed in version 2.0. According to the New Scientist piece mentioned above, one solution is to develop an intensive and precision-based approach to agriculture. This would include new types of food crops relying on things like algae and genetically modified crops that require less use of pesticides, fertilizers and water. Further, such crops should not require expansion of the amount of land under cultivation. Version 2.0 should also employ technology to provide precision amounts of pesticide, fertilizer and water only to the plants that need it and only in the amounts needed (see an example of precision agriculture). Finally, while 2.0 needs to be adopted throughout agriculture, it especially needs to be implemented in the areas where the need is greatest and by the people in need. To do this successfully will require overcoming political, cultural and attitudinal obstacles.

Another area that will surely become more problematic as we move deeper into this century, with growing population pressures, is farming animals for meat. This practice is a highly inefficient method of producing food. Animal farming uses more energy and water than growing crops like wheat or potatoes. Further, it puts significant amounts of the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere. The US DOE estimates that there is three times as much man-made methane as man made CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Sooner or later, efforts to reduce greenhouse gases will have to come to bear on methane and that means on animal farming. The worst offender is beef. Of popular meats probably the best environmental choice is poultry. If you want to make a personal contribution to reducing greenhouse gases, perhaps the best contribution you can make is to become a vegetarian, at least until cultured meat becomes viable.

We do not presently have a sustainable economic model, especially in the developed world. Keeping everything as it is now leads to projections of a doubling of the demands above equilibrium by the end of the century or earlier. We may somehow manage to meet the needs of a world population that is expected to expand, at least until mid-century, if not to the end of the century. However, it is unlikely that we will reduce resource consumption to a sustainable level, even if we manage to cut in half resource consumption through greater efficiency while demand doubles or even triples. Likewise, it seems unlikely that we will be able reduce pollution of the environment to a sustainable level given the needs and demands of an expanding population. Perhaps, abundant additional resources can be obtained and processed off-planet. That would reduce pollution and lessen the strain on this planet’s resources and still permit a high standard of living for everyone. A scientist and science fiction writer, Ben Bova, wrote a book, The High Road, outlining such a plan several decades ago, but it did not garner much interest. Critics think this approach is not truly viable at present and they may be correct. However, plans exist to begin exploiting asteroids for resources. If not viable, then there is always the hope of salvation by new planet-based technology.

Assuming that we manage to survive until world population goes into decline, the next big problem is to determine what would be the most realistic economic model that would permit sustainable economies. I am not an economist and won’t even hazard a guess as to what such a model might be (an alternative model). I’m just an observer commenting on things as I perceive them. However, I think the model would need to accomplish at least three things. First, it would need to adequately meet the material needs of everyone, which I would define in terms of providing a level of resources necessary for good health. Second, it would need to provide the opportunity for everyone to have a constructive role in society, which could include what has traditionally been viewed as work but would not be limited to such activities. Third, there would need to be enough opportunity for flexibility in lifestyle to provide for individual differences and freedom of choice without placing unsustainable demands on the environment. A model of this sort is probably not a realistic goal for a world population anywhere near its current size and expanding. Thus, the model would need to be implemented to coincide with the low point in the predicted population implosion. Some estimates put that low point at a worldwide population of approximately five billion, which would be about half the maximum of 10-11 billion projected for the end of the century. Some studies suggest that the upper limit on population, consistent with attaining sustainability, is about 7.5 billion. The goal would be to hold population, once down, to between 5 and 7 billion people. A population that stays within this range is probably the best hope for a sustainable economy and a healthy environment.

The second big problem is to get a large enough buy-in to such a model that it can be successfully implemented. On this point, I will hazard a guess that, when proposed, it is highly unlikely to be freely embraced by a majority, especially in the developed countries. In my view, for such a model to be freely embraced would require a significant shift in attitudes. For this to happen, I think there would have to be a change in the prevalent philosophy underlying the thinking of a significant percentage of the world population. The current philosophical underpinning of thinking for many people is materialism. While this has been a productive way of looking at the world for science and technology, it has a significant downside. Implicit in scientific materialism is the view that the universe and life within it came about accidentally and has no inherent meaning or purpose. At the level of the average individual, this leads to the bumper sticker philosophy of “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” In short, the average person, especially in developed countries, derives meaning and purpose from consumption and accumulation. As long as this is how many people find meaning and purpose in their life, there is no hope for acceptance of a model for a sustainable economy and healthy environment that ultimately depends more on cooperation rather than on competition.

If a sustainable model isn’t freely embraced, which doesn’t seem probable, then when circumstances reach a crisis level sufficient to make it clear to most people that there is no alternative, except the collapse of civilization and perhaps extinction, then an alternative model might be embraced. Such a crisis might be sufficient motivation, but species-suicide is not off the table. Leaving aside “crisis motivation” as the solution, what are the other options? I will answer this in terms of my own value system, which places a high value on individual sovereignty. One can use force, threat or intimidation, contrived incentives or persuasion to influence people’s behavior. Clearly, the first two options are coercive and inconsistent with the principle of individual sovereignty. Albeit more subtle, the third method is also coercive. The use of contrived incentives to influence a person’s choices is an effort to manipulate the person and therefore represents a soft form of coercion. The final method, persuasion, may be the only method that is consistent with individual sovereignty and is fully acceptable to me. However, this is an approach that takes long-term thinking and planning and cannot be implemented quickly.

The mostly likely approach that I think governments will take, if they act at all, will be coercion by “police” action broadly applied and possibly leading to what might become a military dictatorship. Such an approach, I think, would require coordinated action by most of the world’s governments. It seems to me this would be very difficult to bring to fruition. There would probably also be massive resistance, overt and covert, to a broadly coercive approach. Whatever your position is on “climate change,” it serves as an illustration of how an activity requiring restraint that has to be implemented worldwide can generate resistance on many fronts. Widespread resistance would probably undermine the imposition of a sustainable model. Further, the stronger that governments become, the more susceptible they are to intellectual, economic and political corruption. Even if a strong arm approach should be initially successful, I think it would be eventually doomed to failure.

Economist Steve Keen is optimistic about the final outcome, with a caveat, “Ultimately I believe we’ll work out a means to live sustainability on this planet and, in the very distant future, to live beyond it as well. But to do so, we have to understand our current situation properly. There is no chance to move towards a better future if we misunderstand the situation we are currently in.” See the Addendum at the end of the essay for a perspective on the current situation.

I am not at all optimistic that a workable solution can be found and implemented in a successful manner quickly enough to save the planet and save Western-style civilization. I am reminded of a comment by Terrance McKenna, a commentator on culture, who described technological civilization as a cultural temper tantrum. This brings us to the most basic question of all and one that many might avoid — does it really matter whether we save the planet and ourselves or not? The quick and thoughtless answers is yes. However, consider two diametrically opposed ontologies. One has already been alluded to above — scientific materialism, which sees reality as having an independent existence, external to ourselves. The reigning paradigm posits that the material universe came into existence as a random event. As luck would have it, it just happened entirely by chance, to be organized in such a way that it would unfold with the necessary conditions present for life to evolve. Finally, again by chance, the random interaction of elements in the universe combined in such a way as to yield living cells. These living cells evolved through mutation, adaptation and reproductive fitness into ever more complex biological structures until self-aware and intelligent life arose and eventually became us. The crowning achievement of chance.

Under the materialist scenario, I think humans are a species without purpose and therefore without meaning beyond the existential meaning that each of us can wring for ourselves from our brief existence. As individuals and as groups, we weave narrative stories that give our lives meaning but only within the context of the narrative. These narratives are, after all is said and done, just stories. We are a species in a habitat subject to extinction at any time by a cosmic roll of the dice. Without belaboring the point, I suggest that you consider recent examples of some past events that without much ramping up could, under today’s conditions, have a civilization-ending impact, if not extinguish the human species. As relatively recent examples, consider super volcanic explosions such as Krakatoa in 1883, coronal magnetic ejections from the sun like the Carrington event of 1859 or incoming space debris such as the Tunguska explosion of an asteroid over Siberia in 1908. If you’re unfamiliar with these, look them up and then consider their potential impact on modern technological society. A catastrophic result would be even more likely should the event be much larger like some that have occurred farther back in the past. Then there is always the possibility that we’ll follow one of our narratives into a blind alley and destroy ourselves. We have many options for self-destruction among which we can also count the effects of nuclear weapons, weaponized biology and environmental overload and collapse. Of course, even should we survive all rolls of the dice and suicidal behavior, science predicts that the universe will eventually end. The nature of its termination is not certain but it could expand until it exhausts itself, grows cold and dies with a whimper, or it might contract, implode and die with a bang.

The second ontology and counterpoint to scientific materialism is what I have written about as panentheism and others as monistic idealism. One contemporary proponent of this worldview is Bernardo Kastrup, whose several books (amazon.com) and papers (academia.edu) I recommend to you. He has a short video summarizing monistic idealism (see links page). If one looks at the the two ontologies as pyramids, they look very similar but hold radically different implications. Before describing the pyramids, recognize that all ontologies make assumptions. If there is only one base assumption, it is termed an ontological primitive. Such a base assumption is necessary because you can’t go on indefinitely explaining one thing in terms of another (e.g, where does X come from?, from X1, where does X1 come from?, from X2, where does X2 come from?, from X3 and so on ad infinitum). The “buck” has to stop somewhere and that is at the ontological primitive or base assumption. The materialist pyramid begins at the base with the assumption of space/time, which reminds me of Einstein’s remark, “Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.” Moving up the pyramid toward the apex, we come to energy & matter, then atoms & molecules, then chemistry, then biology and finally mind. The pyramid for idealism is almost identical except that it begins at the base with the assumption of awareness or consciousness and then moving toward the apex comes space/time and so on. Everything moving up the pyramid is derivative of the base assumption nx times removed.

Briefly, the big shift with this change in base assumptions is that now instead of thinking of reality as something “out there” it is something “in here.” That is, what you take to be an external reality actually is a manifestation in consciousness, and you likewise are a manifestation in consciousness. By way of analogy, think of reality under idealism like a virtual reality, computer game. If you don’t have any experience with these games, it may not be a good analogy for you. If you want to explore this analogy further, one source you might look into is the book My Big T.O.E. (theory of everything) by Tom Campbell. An analogy that has been used for millennia is that of a dream with which you probably do have some experience. However, whether you are in a dream or a virtual reality game, everything would seem real to you. The game runs under a set of rules and if the rules won’t allow you to walk through walls, you will be deflected by a wall should you walk into one. It would seem like a “real” wall but it is actually just an illusion created in a “computing” space by a computer. Essentially, the same applies to a dream, except it is being created in your consciousness by mind. In fact, some have suggested that one function of dreaming is to remind us that consciousness can generate “realities” and thereby serves as a hint for recognition of the actual nature of our perceived reality.

Under the idealism scenario, there is meaning and purpose, which for brevity’s sake I’ll just say is Awareness’ way of generating experience for itself and the opportunity to evolve. Put another way, we and our world are illusions within an infinite, eternal,  intelligent and creative Awareness or Consciousness exploring itself. Thus, the illusion, like a virtual reality game, once set in motion plays itself out according to the defining ruleset governing it. Should, for example, the evolution of the universe, under the ruleset, happen bring into our orbital path a large asteroid or engage in a nuclear war and life on this planet is extinguished or even if the entire planet is destroyed, it doesn’t really matter in any fundamental sense because Awareness or Consciousness goes on and you are a thread within it. It is like failing the fifth grade — embarrassing but not fatal. There will be a new game or dream on a new planet, perhaps even in a different universe.

 

Addendum

“The standard run represents a business-as-usual situation where parameters reflecting physical, economic, and social relationships were maintained in the World3 model at values consistent with the period 1900–1970. The LtG standard run scenario (and nearly all other scenarios) shows continuing growth in the economic system throughout the 20th century and into the early decades of the 21st. However, the simulations suggest signs of increasing environmental pressure at the start of the 21st century (e.g., resources diminishing, pollution increasing exponentially, growth slowing in food, services, and material wealth per capita). The simulation of this scenario results in ‘‘overshoot and collapse’’ of the global system about mid-way through the 21st century due to a combination of diminishing resources and increasing ecological damage due to pollution.

“The comprehensive technology approach attempts to solve sustainability issues with a broad range of purely technological solutions. This scenario incorporates levels of resources that are effectively unlimited, 75% of materials are recycled, pollution generation is reduced to 25% of its 1970 value, agricultural land yields are doubled, and birth control is available world-wide. These efforts delay the collapse of the global system to the latter part of the 21st century, when the growth in economic activity has outstripped the gains in efficiency and pollution control.

For the stabilized world scenario, both technological solutions and deliberate social policies are implemented to achieve equilibrium states for key factors including population, material wealth, food, and services per capita. Examples of actions implemented in the World3 model include: perfect birth control and desired family size of two children; preference for consumption of services and health facilities and less toward material goods; pollution control technology; maintenance of agricultural land through diversion of capital from industrial use; and increased lifetime of industrial capital.”

Turner, G. M. (2008). “A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of  reality.” Global Environmental Change 18(3): 397-411.

A Brief Comment on Paradigms

          Paradigms are conceptual models that serve an umbrella function for theories in diverse areas of study. For example, the current paradigm in science (see What is Science?) is scientific materialism. This paradigm serves an umbrella function for theories about such things as physical process, biological processes and behavioral process. This paradigm has its origins in the scientific revolution inspired by the scientific thinking of Nicolaus Copernicus in the sixteenth century and Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. Scientific materialism as a paradigm posits that everything is comprised of physical particles (principle of materiality) governed by cause and effect relationships (principle of causal determinism), that change is continuous (principle of continuity), that phenomena occur within a finite space and over finite periods of time (principle of locality), that phenomena have objective existence independent of observation (principle of strong objectivity) and can be understood through reducing phenomena to their essential components (the principle of reductionism), which implies that phenomena are assembled from the bottom up, piece by piece. All theories falling under the umbrella share these basic assumptions. See Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy (Part I) and Goswami’s Philosophical Alternative for more detail.

One tenet of science as a methodology is that it holds to certain principles about the nature of knowledge. One of these principles is that our knowledge consists of models of reality and are not elucidations of reality itself. In other words, what we know is always considered to be an approximation never truth. Another principle is that what we know is held as tentatively valid until shown otherwise. How we know is through creating explanations for what appear to be related observations or facts about phenomena in the world. These explanations (a.k.a. theories) are then used to derive hypotheses that can be experimentally tested. Successful tests of hypotheses derived from theory increase the confidence that we can have in the explanation or theory. Confirmation of an hypothesis is sometimes possible by successful prediction of an outcome, such as the prediction of planetary motion based on a theoretical model or explanation of the forces governing such motion. In other and more confounded cases, confirmation of an hypothesis is sought through statistical testing in which a conclusion is reached based on probability calculations. The typical standard in such cases is a p. <= .05, which means the observed result would be expected by chance only 5 times in 100 or 1 time in 20. Standards such as this can, of course, result in some false positives but is considered an acceptable error rate for theory testing (see “What is Science?“)

The flaw in this system is that a paradigm can come to be so central to the scientific process that it begins to be viewed as Truth. Once this happens its assumptions acquire the status of dogma. When this occurs, theories subsumed by the paradigm become inoculated against accepting results that are contrary to dogma, which also means contrary to theory or theories grounded in the paradigm. Once this happens, science has become scientism. It appears that contemporary science is grappling with the problem of scientism. With the advent of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century the basic assumptions of scientific materialism came under challenge. Experimental evidence refutes or strongly questions the validity of the principles of scientific materialism enumerated above. Resistance to this challenge has been evident in a variety of fields that have simply ignored the challenges and continued to act as if nothing had changed. This is especially true in the cases of biological and behavioral sciences. Many physical sciences have found ignoring the shifting paradigm more difficult. However, even in the physical sciences the tendency has been to attempt to limit the shift to effects occurring at the micro level and preserve the paradigm at the macro level. Unfortunately, experimental evidence is accumulating that demonstrates quantum effects can also be detected at and thus have effects at the macro level.

Another source of challenge to scientific materialism that became evident during the twentieth century was the results from psi experiments (e.g., see Spirituality and Religion). One early body of experimentation was that done by J.B. Rhine at Duke University. Rhine produced evidence that certainly should have caused some serious questioning of the adequacy of scientific materialism, he and his results were widely rationalized away because they were inconsistent with the prevailing paradigm suggesting that the assumptions of the paradigm had become dogma. Later in the twentieth century a large body of research was accumulated under the leadership of Robert Jahn at Princeton University in its engineering anomalies laboratory. This work too was rationalized away to maintain the integrity of the paradigm or if you prefer to preserve the dogma of scientism. In both cases, the correct scientific response should have been intense investigation rather than out-of-hand dismissal.

There are of course researchers that continue to pursue investigation into these challenges to scientific materialism (e.g., see Society for Scientific Exploration) From the work of these open minded investigators a new and better paradigm may slowly emerge. Whether or not a new paradigm is justified, careful investigation of challenges should be applauded, not ridiculed as is often the case from those wedded to scientism.