Tag Archives: trust

Thankfulness and After

The History Of Thanksgiving: A Native American Perspective

Here’s a critical history of the Thanksgiving holiday on Facebook.

 It is notable that this thanksgiving celebration probably did not include the Indians, as the celebration was meant partly to be in recognition of the colonists’ recent victory over the “heathen natives” … more

Red Friday, Black Friday

President Obama declared the day after Thanksgiving to be “Native American Heritage Day.” Not that you’re likely to hear much about it, what with the other distractions.

Native Americans Suffer, Americans Shop

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

According to Wikipedia (and they should know, shouldn’t they?)  FDR moved Thanksgiving up a little in the calendar to the fourth Thursday in November to ” give the country an economic boost.”  Which brings us to…

There are many good reasons to stay home on Black Friday.
 For one, it’s actually Buy Nothing Day.  A day without shopping would be a good day for the vast majority of the denizens of earth.

“Today, humanity faces a stark choice: save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet.”
– Fawzi Ibrahim

It is a great time to pause and reconsider the difference between what a functioning economy is, and what our current money culture tells us it is.

Economics actually has nothing in particular to do with money; it’s about how we meet our needs. The monetary economy is one model out of many, and is a very recent one at that. It’s a model that seems intent on converting all our intimate human relationships into services to be bought and sold, whilst reducing the splendour and pageantry of the Earth into imperishable units of account.
– Mark Boyle

Of course, it gives me a little happy to hear that the wage-slaves of Voldemart… er… Walmart… are using the day to rise up a bit.  I hope they make some waves.

And don’t forget, there are other things you can do in a mall, like this

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/Ad2wMQI?p=1 width=”550″ height=”443″]


or even just

so get out there and have some fun!

The Shared Dream at the Top of the Stairs

Apparently (I have not yet read it), E.O. Wilson has a new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, promoting his ideas about multilevel selection.  What’s that?  That’s the idea that Natural Selection is taking place not only at the level of the individual (as the overwhelming majority of biological scientists infer from observable facts, and a few have observed firsthand), but is also occurring at the level of competition between groups of organisms.  This second idea is usually given the epithet “group selection,” and frequently accompanied with sneering.

I myself expend a good deal of effort getting students to understand that in most circumstances Natural Selection will favor traits that enhance individual survival and reproductive success, even when they decrease the success of the group or species.  Most evidence suggests that, with the exception of things like the eusocial insects (what E.O. Wilson studies) and naked mole rats – all things that have unusually high within-group genetic similarity – individual selection overrides group selection.  It is intriguing, that even in our highly individualistic and competition-driven late-capitalist culture, the default assumption seems to be that everybody generally works for the good of the group.  However, we find very little evidence of other species being team players.

However (in a riveting TED talk) psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that selection for something like eusociality and improved cooperation and altruism in humans might have lead to the evolution of a type of consciousness that is associated with spiritual or religious experiences:

How do we create the “all in the same boat” feeling associated with these “top of the stairs” religious epiphanies Haidt describes?   Partly, I think we’re already doing it.  We have been ever since we as a species got our first look at the Earth entire, in 1966

First View of Earth from Moon | NASA Image #67-H-218

First View of Earth from Moon | NASA Image #67-H-218

… or at least, by the time we got a really good look at her face in 1972.

Apollo 17’s “Full Earth” image (a.k.a. “The Blue Marble”)
NASA image AS17-148-22727

Buckminster Fuller probably grokked it before 1968 with his 
Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
, and Stewart Brand inspired multitudes of hippies with the basic notion through the Whole Earth Catalog (1968-1998).

So that puts us all in one boat, surrounded by the same thin membrane of atmosphere.  But multilevel selection seems to necessitate competition between groups to provide group selection pressure, keeping the success of more cooperative groups (or super-organisms) high relative to those groups that have an overabundance of selfish “free riders.”  The intensity of the warriors’ experience of “us” is dependent on a contrasting “them,” particularly in a high-stakes game where self-sacrifice is potentially so profound.  Globally, can we promote “the shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’,” without external competitors?

Many science-fiction writers have said that the next logical step is to have another “world” or “civilization” with which to compete.  They don’t need to be enemies, per se, just competitors.  Simple-minded creatures as we writers often are, this usually comes down to a fight, providing “entertaining” fiction for us to consume.  This is an option, admittedly with a low (though non-zero) probability of happening in the next century.

Option two, humans diversify by colonizing distant worlds.  This is another favored theme, be it in classics like Frank Herbert’s Dune or the latest Kim Stanley Robinson book, 2312.  My first-started-but-now-on-hold novel project works in this realm also.  Effective separation of different human populations over time and space leads to cultural diversification, somewhat like the way separation of different populations of one species can lead to their diversification into new species (this is called allopatric speciation in evolutionary biology).  Such projects are not impossible, though the likelihood in the next century is for very little of this (as much as I’m inspired by the call to Occupy Mars and support the 100 Year Starship program).

Option three, we re-entrench in smaller communities or tribes.  This is often the fertile ground in which post-apocalyptic fiction takes place, and my current novel project is rooted here.  Again, the most common scenario is that these tribes will fight when they interact, unless they’re forming alliances to fight off mutual threats.  I believe this option has much higher probability than the previous two, though I’m not ready to commit to a probability above 50% (take some time for Peak Prosperity’s “Crash Course”, and decide for yourself where you think we stand… and he didn’t even account for climate change).

Maybe there is a fourth way.  In the comments for the bold and radical article “Self-Evident Truths” by Derrick Jensen (comment 11 by mike k.), it is suggested

We can begin by coming together in small groups to deeply consider these things, and make truth, love, and beauty effective realities in ourselves and in our world.

One response suggests World Café as a method for accoplishing this, and I have found it a useful tool also.  There’s a great set of similar tools for coalescing the brilliance of small groups at Liberating Structures.  But this only gets us working together in small groups.  The essence of the argument for multilevel or group selection is that this is an evolutionarily stable strategy for competing with other groups.

Can we rethink what that competition is? Could it be a competition between groups for the best solutions, the most vibrant, ecologically-integrated, just and regenerative communities?  Could local pride and tribalism work in way that didn’t invite violence, but instead amplified positive deviance?
Maybe these are the questions to explore via World Café. Such questions invite us to dissolve the self in the greater “we,” perhaps even at the global level, in a collective effort by humans to improve the well-being of all.

Gift Economics (and Free Hugs)

I came across this intriguing essay on the gift economy.

Want to fix the economy?

Next time you buy coffee, purchase a cup for the person behind you. Or as you grind your way through the morning commute, pick up the tollbooth charge for the driver behind you, draped over his steering wheel and ranting at the long delay.

You’ve heard that famous Gandhian quote about being the change, well these are good measures to start with, packing more punch than you might imagine…

It makes some nice points, but (of course) a couple of things about it bother me:

1. It’s still so “bought into” the money culture.  Not just the “buy something for the person in line behind you” but what that something is and where the lines are:  toll booths and take-out coffee… arrrgh! It’s not just the money culture, it’s the car culture, the disposable culture, the drive-through convenience culture.

2.  I thought about what I might do that was a “gift” act while not being so beholden to the money culture and car culture.  What could I give someone that I know they would appreciate and use?  I envisioned making some muffins or somesuch, and taking them to the guys who hang out in front of the parking lot of the local big-box home repair place (and one for whoever took the prime panhandling spot today, at the island in the middle of the street at the nearby big intersection).  But I realized that this wouldn’t result in a pay-it-forward cycle.  Where there is genuine need, that ripple doesn’t actually spread.  The gift itself may be appreciated, but probably with that twinge of uncomfortableness that comes from being part of a culture that says begging is wrong, and getting charity is wrong.  But their means to pay-it-forward are limited.  Perhaps they’re friendlier or more helpful that day.  I suppose that should be enough, but I wonder.

And, along with that is the trust problem.  If I gave food that I made to some stranger less in need, it would probably be discarded, and not paid forward.  They would be too creeped-out to eat it, too suspicious that someone would just give them something of value. It’s like the inclination I have every Halloween, to bake something or give fresh fruit and thereby avoid pre-packaged crap.  Only, parents wouldn’t let their kids eat non-pre-packaged food… it’s not “safe” to take food that a stranger might have tampered with.  The toll-booth and the take-out coffee work because the gift is really just money,  just paying for something that they were about to pay for anyway.

How did we come to this level of craziness?  I suspect the Halloween issue is media-driven, and I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to imagine that packaged candy manufacturers put pressure on some media/advertising outlets to hype the razor-blade-in-the-apple or poisoned-cookies stories they might come across, just to ensure that only factory-processed, individually-wrapped treats will be considered acceptable.  Humans have offered food to other humans, even strangers, for millenia – probably since before we were recognizably Homo sapiens.  Only in the last few decades, inside the money culture, did this become a source of suspicion and mistrust.  Heck, even free hugs are met with skepticism, and were outright banned in some places.  And who wouldn’t want a FREE HUG!?!?!?!?!


And then, of course, there’s the getting off my butt and going out and doing something part of this equation.  Free hugs, homemade treats, whatever… making the time, garnering the ambition and courage… it all sounds highly unlikely.  But maybe, later today, or someday soon, it will come to me.  How about you?

The Money Culture, Part 1

Can you think of five things you did today that were not somehow connected with or influenced by money? As mentioned in my first post, I’ve been itching to delve into the origins and possible alternatives to this thing that Lynne Twist so aptly described as “the Money Culture.” The Money Culture would almost certainly be the culture of anyone reading this post – anyone who regularly encounters money or something like paid work, rent or purchases mediated by money is part of the Money Culture.

Upon hearing Lynne Twist‘s depiction of someone from outside the Money Culture first encountering our culture, I believe (I hope) many of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology students experience a sudden “paradigm shift,” where they are first asked to face a crucial set of unquestioned assumptions that form the deep structure of their worldview.  I remember this experience myself, 20-some years ago – that thrilling, vertiginous sense that everything you thought you knew about how the world works turns out to be a fanciful story, not unlike Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

The Money Culture is something that is only characteristic of very recent history in terms of human evolution (offhand, I’d say only the last 5,000 or so years, so only about 0.1% of the time since genus Homo and genus Pan diverged, or less than 3% of the time that there has been a species we call Homo sapiens), and only became truly ubiquitous over the last few hundred years.  To an anthropologist, this is a very new phenomenon, that has rapidly spread over the globe, and threatens to drive other cultural forms extinct.

From what we know about a handfull of food foraging (gatherer-hunter) cultures, who were/are the last remaining representatives of the lifeways of all humans until the first appearance of food domestication (about 10,000 years ago), foraging peoples did not use any form of money.  They had no need for such a cultural invention, living in “The Old Way” (read Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘ outstanding 2006 book of this title for a deep exploration of one such foraging culture, the Ju/wasi).

Sometimes, one of my students asks, “So does everyone else just use barter?”  In fact, barter is probably only about twice as old as money.  Most foraging cultures studied by anthropologists do not practice barter – they have food-sharing (especially among members of a hunting party returning with meat from large game) and other forms of gift-exchange, but it never takes the form of “I’ll give you three of these tubers if you give me a basket of berries.”  Such direct barter exchanges probably became more common as people began to rely on more intensive food production (agriculture) and live in larger groups.

In foraging societies, food sharing was essential, because hunting is unreliable and food is not easily stored.  Foraging peoples had to remain mobile, ready to pack up and leave as an area was temporarily or seasonally depleted of good food sources.  Their communities could never get very big (you can’t have more mouths to feed than can be supported on what you can find within about a day’s walk), so they would rapidly get to know who is likely to cheat or be stingy with gifts.  These non-reciprocating individuals would then be shunned by their peers, or at least would be less likely to receive gifts.  The way to win friends was to be generous.  In traveling bands of a few dozen adults, with little privacy and little in the way of possessions, reputations of generosity or stinginess spread quickly and reliably.

Economist Paul Seabright’s book In the Company of Strangers posits that money, and the systems of trade it allowed us to develop, originated as a proxy for trust among people who do not have the opportunity to work and live with one another on a day-to-day basis.  Barter is a simple way of reducing the risk of being cheated because you do the exchange immediately.  Money fills in as societies become larger and more complex, allowing you to exchange something you have (goods and/or services) for an item that you can be fairly confident will subsequently be accepted by someone else – even a stranger – who has something you want.   [BtVS fans: I’m sure you can hear overtones of Anya here.]

So, now that we’re here, with the Money Culture impacting pretty much every ecological and cultural system on the planet, maybe it’s time to rethink this basic structural component of our way of life.   In later posts, I’ll explore some of the ways that the Money Culture operates in more detail, and speculate on how it drives many of the converging crises we are facing as a civilization. I believe someone once said that “Money is the root of all evil.”   If we did without it for 97% of the time we’ve been human, can we find a way to do without it now?  What would take its place?  How can we get there from here?

…End of Part 1 in a series of indeterminate length…