Monday, November 23, 2009

Fear, Responsibility and Change

I recently read Nadeem Aslam The Wasted Vigil. It’s terrifying and fascinating and I don’t know what to do with this information about the nature of terrorist thinking, religious thinking. I start to understand why the right wing pro-war people, the Generals and politicians, sound so crazy – they’re more scared than the rest of us and can’t understand why we aren’t. I begin to understand the appeal of deciding to be just fine with the ideals by which we live existing in a protected bubble, and in the zone of “protection” anything is permissible to keep the centre safe.

And why not? I love my life. Am I really willing to live in an equal world where my average goes down so that more people’s averages can go up? Am I willing to accept more filth, more careful use of resources, more manual labour, less privacy, less convenience, less safety, less individual power? Other people in the world live daily lives filled with fear and powerlessness, concern about having enough food, water or protection to stay alive, let alone comfortable. The slightest inconvenience, delay or difficulty can try my patience – I’m spoiled, whiny and undisciplined next to people who learn to live and grow in those environments.

Which means my “hierarchy of needs” are being met at a pretty high level. Ideally, everyone would have a standard of living high enough that they could become aware of inconvenience, because achieving that level of comfort is a milestone past which people can settle in and look around themselves, start thinking and wondering and looking for creative outlets. Below it, many people are too desperate and busy to spend time analyzing or expanding their understanding beyond opinions handed to them, especially within environments where such activity is not valued or is actively discouraged.

But I’m not convinced that there are enough resources on this planet to allow for that standard of living for the entire earth’s population. In fact, the current system in which some part of the earth’s population has much while most of the population has very little, looks to me like a bell curve with the height of the bell at too low a comfort level, and a very steep drop at the edges. It’s possible this is part of “the natural pattern,” allowing some portion of the human race to focus beyond survival. Even in the poorest places, there are people who have more and people who have less, and those power structures often go right down into family units.

Ideally, the lucky people able to focus beyond survival will turn their minds to finding ways to move the bell curve forward on the comfort scale, so eventually the height of the bell is at a level where people can focus beyond basic survival. I’d like to see the entire human race move toward that. The world’s poor play a role, as do the world’s rich.

It’s like that old, old concept of Divine Right. What if our privileged lives are serving a purpose towards the greater good of future generations of a larger portion of the human race? If our society fed back to the people it uses and exploits to achieve its standard, raising their standards bit by bit in ways that made sense to them at a basic survival level, would that just breed more resentment, or would they see the greater good?

It doesn’t really matter because North American society is not focused on raising the world level of comfort over generations, it’s focused on raising it’s own level of comfort in decades. There’s a chance that the resentment much of the world feels wouldn’t be affected one way or the other by our society’s actual behaviour, given envy and limited available information. But when the behaviour is overtly exploitative, dismissive and violent in nature, there is much to fear.

We need to get the mean comfort level up to above survival – those who have the luxury of looking beyond survival have the responsibility to try to get others there, too. That doesn't mean we’ll all be equal, mind you – the “haves” continue to increase their own standard of living as the bell curve shifts to the right.

I follow the arguments that the current system must be destroyed because it is cruel. But I don’t think that will solve anything. If there is to be a general positive trajectory toward a world of abundance for all, it can only occur as a deliberate, steady improvement over time - a concerted effort among a majority of "haves." When there are too many desperate people and revolution takes place, it shifts the “haves” and “have nots” around, but doesn’t change the basic issues with society. There is loss and suffering, but no progress towards greater good. It’s the new saddle on the old donkey.

The current system can be turned toward an increased awareness of, and willingness to invest in, raising the mean comfort level. Those of us who understand that it’s our duty to do this need to work hard at helping other people see that it’s in all of our best interest to be devoting a larger part of the world’s resources to the general good of the human race.

We can do it, we should do it, and we must do it faster, or the whole system will come crashing down and none of us will be comfortable any more. At the same time, protecting the current system is like taking drugs for symptoms while they research a cure. But, we’d better make sure the means we employ to protect the system aren’t causing other side effects, or killing us in other ways, and I don’t think anyone knows how to do that.

I want to protect my life as it is because I love my life – I wish everyone could love their lives like I do, and I think it would be a lot easier to get along if everyone did. I also think the current system has hope of producing a strong, cohesive, concerted effort at raising the world’s comfort level, even though it will take generations beyond my own efforts. If the current economic system is destroyed by anger and ignorance, hatred and selfishness, it could be several generations before another group of “haves” gets to the development point where the “human” cause is taken up again. And so much knowledge will have been lost in the meantime, ground to re-cover, learning to re-learn. It’s true that most of western society is not focused on the human race. Yet, maybe only this decadent a society can produce a sufficient number of aware, committed “haves” to really make change.