20 December 2008

We Lost Our Garbage

Our mayor has done some really outlandish things, but the craziest idea he ever had was to take away all public garbage cans and residential garbage collectors and trucks. The city dump had begun to overflow and the incinerator had burned out so instead of making new places for all of the garbage, he shut them all down!

You can imagine what happened around here. People didn't know what to do with all of their junk so they started throwing it in the street and there were protests pretty much all over. Some of us were afraid that diseases would break out because rats multiplied and the stench was absolutely unbearable everywhere you went.

The mayor just ignored the protests and went about his business as usual.

After about three weeks, though, some amazing things started happening. When businesses realized that people stopped buying stuff that had lots of packaging they scrambled to offer their goods and services with less wrapping. Everybody started returning their junk mail and the post office became totally inundated with it until the post office decided not to deliver it anymore.

Also, people started figuring out ways to recycle almost everything and things slowly started cleaning up. Recycling companies offered their services door to door, compost classes became popular and whole neighborhoods began organizing themselves as garbage free zones. Even large international companies began competing among themselves for consumer attention by offering to receive and in some cases buy back their products once they were no longer useful. They would recycle them, refurbish them, reuse them, anything to avoid creating garbage. Small second hand stores sprang up all over and people started renting things they really didn't need to buy. Fix-it guys became the most important job around here and they were actually able to make a living wage!

The mayor sent all of the garbage collectors and trucks to work for recycling companies, which gave them quite a boost. With a glut of recyclable material, it became cheaper than virgin material in most cases so business picked up even further.

Now that some time has passed, people see garbage in a totally new light. In fact, the idea is almost completely absurd and it seems that is what the mayor wanted to get across. People lose sight of the fact that we are part of the earth's natural cycles once we see ourselves as something separate from all other living and inert things. That line of thought progresses to the point that we feel we can throw something where we no longer have to deal with it. This becomes a blind spot that bothers our intuition in the best of cases and just becomes a non reality for everybody else.

Our mayor hit us over the head with our blind spot and helped us become more integrated with the Earth's natural cycles. The concept of garbage no longer exists here to the extent that we can reject wasteful products from other cities. Industries haven't changed as much as we would like because they depend on distant markets and can't really treat our town as a special case. Recently the mayor has contracted companies to turn organic and body waste into bio-fuels for all government vehicles, so we are pretty excited about that. We are hopeful, though, that our culture of integration and garbage-less waste will be contagious to nearby towns and cities so our region can be greener and more beautiful.

07 December 2008

Carbon Credit Offset Project in Ecuador

My wife made this video for Piqqo, a European company that provides exposure for emissions trading projects that need funding. End-users of Piqqo buy carbon credits to offset emissions from their business or lifestyle.

She really enjoyed producing this video and we learned a lot about certificates awarded by the U.N. for important environmentally friendly projects.

We don't buy sugar, though. We only consume sugar-cane in the house because it is a lot healthier. So, this sugar production plant may be energetically self-sufficient, but it would provide even more benefit to the community if it stopped processing sugar-cane into sugar.

Enjoy the video!

30 November 2008

Is the Revolution Green or Spiritual?

No serious survey of our economic reality can challenge the fact that the current crisis has laid to rest the myth that our financial institutions are sound. In a recent article, David Korten explains that “The financial meltdown pulled away the curtain to reveal a corrupt system that runs on speculation, the stripping of corporate assets, predatory lending, and asset bubbles like the real estate and dot-com ‘booms.’” When articles of real value are created as by-products of the quest for speculative gain, you know the system is poorly designed.

Two of my favorite proponents of change, Thomas Friedman and David Korten, are leading advocates for a green revolution that will align our economy with human needs and the natural environment. Of course, I agree with this perspective. And although many of the critical problems we currently face will be resolved by setting in motion the changes they suggest, we cannot overlook the fact that their proposal leaves the most entrenched and damaging element of the story told by the gurus of economic witchcraft unquestioned: the framework remains within a world view that can be accurately described as dogmatic materialism. This framework wants us to believe on the one hand that a process of trial and error aimed at social re-engineering will eventually lead humanity to material prosperity and on the other hand that any mention of spirituality (or worse religion) in this process will only deviate the search and postpone the desired outcome.

Rejecting the consumer culture,"today's inheritor by default of materialism's gospel of human betterment", and attracted by the spiritual terminology and principles that tout harmony and unity as fundamental to human prosperity, the green revolution has attracted many of our leading minds to its cause. An increasing number of people turn their efforts towards it and set hopes on it as a panacea that will somehow bring both material and spiritual prosperity.

Far from being a signal of a maturing humanity, this trend rather clearly shows how people have failed to learn the fundamental lesson that the global effort towards social and economic development has taught us: "The fate of what the world has learned to call social and economic development has left no doubt that not even the most idealistic motives can correct materialism's fundamental flaws. ... Fifty years later, while acknowledging the impressive benefits development has brought, the enterprise must be adjudged, by its own standards, a disheartening failure. Far from narrowing the gap between the well-being of the small segment of the human family who enjoy the benefits of modernity and the condition of the vast populations mired in hopeless want, the collective effort that began with such high hopes has seen the gap widen into an abyss."

Harmony and unity are, of course, spiritual principles, and although they are beautifully exemplified in the earth's natural processes, their source lies beyond the earth. Establishing an intimate connection with the source inspires people to exemplify these same principles by transcending their current condition for one which is inherently spiritual in nature. This spiritual condition is found in every human being in a state of potentiality that awaits development as a seed yearns for the nutritious soil, sun and water in just the right proportion.

Material development is a fundamental aspect of true prosperity, and thus should be vigorously pursued. Dogmatic materialism, however, by defining this search in purely material terms and imposing a fear of sounding naive upon any challenger, has succeeded in alienating or at least confusing the great majority of the human population for whom religion is still the main guiding force in their lives.

As many traditional religions ever less clearly reflect the noble truths in their original writings, the frustration for those who want to pattern their lives by these traditions grows daily. On the one hand, little truth can be found in social and economic development as it is currently conceived because it does not allow people to incorporate spiritual truths, while at the same time the social and moral guidance people relentlessly search for in traditional faiths are mired in dogmas and, well, traditions and thus the little guidance offered has become increasingly irrelevant. Growing numbers of the world's people find themselves alone rowing in a sea of religious confusion.

Proponents of the green revolution point to this situation and rightly name it for what it is: a deviation in our search for prosperity, a veil that motivates some to search beyond religion for meaning and others to sink into the dogmas and traditions in hopes of finding some acceptance and tranquility.

Critical to this exploration, as explained in the following paragraph, is the fact that religion when properly conceived can offer and has done so throughout history, what a green revolution can never provide:

Throughout history, the primary agents of spiritual development have been the great religions. For the majority of the earth's people, the scriptures of each of these systems of belief have served, in Bahá’u’lláh's words, as 'the City of God', a source of a knowledge that totally embraces consciousness, one so compelling as to endow the sincere with 'a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind'. A vast literature, to which all religious cultures have contributed, records the experience of transcendence reported by generations of seekers. Down the millennia, the lives of those who responded to intimations of the Divine have inspired breathtaking achievements in music, architecture, and the other arts, endlessly replicating the soul's experience for millions of their fellow believers. No other force in existence has been able to elicit from people comparable qualities of heroism, self-sacrifice and self-discipline. At the social level, the resulting moral principles have repeatedly translated themselves into universal codes of law, regulating and elevating human relationships. Viewed in perspective, the major religions emerge as the primary driving forces of the civilizing process. To argue otherwise is surely to ignore the evidence of history.


All quotes taken from "One Common Faith", written by the Baha'i World Centre and published in 2005.

In a future post, I will attempt to explore the question that naturally comes to mind upon reading this last paragraph:

"Why, then, does this immensely rich heritage not serve as the central stage for today's
reawakening of spiritual quest?"

20 November 2008

Financial Meltdown

The current financial crisis is not what it seems. However, because it seems like, well just about any number of things, most of us don't feel that we have much choice but to trust that the people that got us into this mess in the first place will somehow get us out. Even more frustrating is that this is exactly the attitude that those people need for us to have in order for the show to continue as scripted.

These gurus of economic witchcraft feed us a story that goes something like this:

A doctoral degree in economics or any related field, from Yale or Princeton or some similar institution qualifies certain people to understand the intricate and extremely complex inner-workings of the economic and financial instruments that have evolved over approximately 250 years to their nearly perfect current status. The prevailing crisis has occurred because many of our vital institutions have had the poor fortune of being controlled by unscrupulous and selfish individuals. The common citizen should feel assured that our leaders have learned from this crisis and will make the necessary adjustments to the system so that consumer confidence grows, private investments become more financially stable and most importantly the Gross Domestic Product and the Dow Jones Industrial Average begin rising again, so that life can go back to normal.

This sounds so plausible, neutral and reassuring that it almost makes sense. Although it may sound reassuring to some, it is neither plausible nor neutral. In fact, a carefully crafted ideology provides the underlying assumptions that have become so ubiquitous that they gain a status that sets them beyond critical examination for fear of sounding un-American. Bearing such a risk in mind, this crisis provides us with a perfect opportunity to do just that: critically examine such assumptions and look at alternative views so that we can direct our efforts towards supporting initiatives that will truly build prosperity.

With a nearly infinite number of topics at our disposal for exploration, we will look at just two. We will first turn our gaze towards a specific aspect our financial institutions, currency issuance, and subsequently explore the dizzying possibilities of breaking free from the dogmatic materialistic framework in which the above story is set.

I. Debt-Free Money

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are aspects of our financial structure that are portrayed as having survived the ordeal of natural selection not unlike Darwin’s turtles on the Galapagos Islands, rendering them the gospel truth. However, as several elements of the current paradigm have been dethroned lately, we should take the opportunity afforded to dig deep into some others.

An element that we would be wise to pry into is the way we create money. Put in the simplest terms, “One key to Wall Street’s power and to the inherent instability of the financial system is the current practice of private banks creating money with a simple bookkeeping entry each time they make a loan. Because the bookkeeping entry creates only the principal, but not the interest, unless the economy grows fast enough to generate sufficient demand for loans to create the new money required to make the interest payments on the previous loans, debts go into default and the financial system and the economy collapse. The demand for repayment with interest of nearly every dollar in circulation virtually assures the economy will fail unless GDP and inequality are constantly growing.” (David Korten)

This growth imperative puts us in a bind by making us decide to either use natural resources unsustainably or default on our debt. So, the question arises, does money need to be issued as interest-earning debt? Common sense tells us that we can, and indeed must, use our natural resources sustainably, and that this principle seems much more important than servicing man-made debt. As we haven't been inventive or courageous enough to permit this common sense to see reality, we have given the power of issuing money over to private banks, which charge us for this service in the form of interest on every loan.

However, are banks really providing a service worth charging interest for? First, banks don’t really provide society with any notable service because they create money out of nothing while making it appear to be created by government. As Ellen Brown so clearly explains, “This devious scheme was revealed by Sir Josiah Stamp, director of the Bank of England and the second richest man in Britain in the 1920s. Speaking at the University of Texas in 1927, he dropped this bombshell:

The modern banking system manufactures money out of nothing. The process is perhaps the most astounding piece of sleight of hand that was ever invented. Banking was conceived in inequity and born in sin . . . . Bankers own the earth. Take it away from them but leave them the power to create money, and, with a flick of a pen, they will create enough money to buy it back again. . . . Take this great power away from them and all great fortunes like mine will disappear, for then this would be a better and happier world to live in. . . . But, if you want to continue to be the slaves of bankers and pay the cost of your own slavery, then let bankers continue to create money and control credit.

“Professor Henry C. K. Liu is an economist who graduated from Harvard and chaired a graduate department at UCLA before becoming an investment adviser for developing countries. He calls the current monetary scheme a 'cruel hoax.' When we wake up to that fact, he says, our entire economic world view will need to be reordered, "just as physics was subject to reordering when man's world view changed with the realization that the earth is not stationary nor is it the center of the universe." The hoax is that there is virtually no 'real' money in the system, only debts. Except for coins, which are issued by the government and make up only about one one-thousandth of the money supply, the entire U.S. money supply now consists of debt to private banks, for money they created with accounting entries on their books. It is all done by sleight of hand; and like a magician's trick, we have to see it many times before we realize what is going on. But when we do, it changes everything.”

Second, even though interest has come to be regarded as a natural and fair element of a healthy economy, it creates the growth imperative mentioned above. As David Korten puts it, “Privately issued debt-money … bears major responsibility for environmental destruction because it requires infinite growth, extreme inequality because it assures an upward flow of wealth from Main Street to Wall Street, and economic instability because issuing loans to fuel reckless speculation generates handsome short-term bank profits” at the expense of failing small businesses and home foreclosures. For this reason, Mr. Korten suggests that one of the most important elements of an agenda for a new economy is converting to debt-free money.

The story woven by the gurus of economic witchcraft suddenly becomes vulnerable. These are things we can all understand. Surely any product of evolution would not cause environmental destruction and widen the gulf between rich and poor as our current banking institutions do. Self-indulgent individuals at the helm of these institutions are the product and not the cause of a larger crisis in which private institutions are allowed to create money out of nothing by sleight of hand. Has measuring human prosperity and the health of our earth through the GDP and the Dow Jones index set us on a path towards anything resembling prosperity or health?

Lastly, and most importantly, these and similar insights have empowered ordinary people to stand up and have a say in how our money is issued. We now have evidence that our banking institutions are much more vulnerable than we previously imagined.

Further exploring this necessary paradigm shift, as I will do in subsequent posts, is crucial if we want to shake our current boom-bust mentality and if we want to see how material prosperity can match its spiritual counterpart.

06 November 2008

Give W His Due

The utter joy exhibited by such large numbers of Americans with the election of Barak Obama to the office of President was truly inspirational.

Internationally there may have been just as much joy that evening for the possibilities people see in having at least a symbolic representative of themselves in the White House.

"For Obama to overcome what people consider to be synonymous with America -- race -- it's unimaginable,'' said Eric Shepherd, a professor at City University in London. "It's given the world a lot more faith in America. America has become a place that does deliver on its promises. People can achieve anything.''

"Martin Luther King's dream has been realized by Barack Obama.''

Thomas Friedman even called this the end of the Civil War after 147 years.

He goes on to quote Michael Sandel thus, “This is the deepest chord Obama’s campaign evoked. The biggest applause line in his stump speech was the one that said every American will have a chance to go to college provided he or she performs a period of national service — in the military, in the Peace Corps or in the community. Obama’s campaign tapped a dormant civic idealism, a hunger among Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves, a yearning to be citizens again.”

We must, however great the current enthusiasm, recognize the critical role W played in these accomplishments, even if he didn't mean to. The W years can be seen as necessary to provoke such a sea change in American politics.

  • We have learned, for example, that turning our collective backs on a city destroyed by a hurricane tears the whole nation apart and exposes institutionalized racism.
  • We have learned that fabricating tales of nation-building in the Middle East sets several nations up for failure, including our own.
  • We have learned that "making torture and domestic spying legal, fooling Americans by cooking up warped evidence for war and scheming how to further enrich their buddies in the oil and gas industry", as Maureed Dowd so aptly puts it, provides evidence of how such an evolved democracy can be corrupted by misuse.
  • We have learned that completely deregulating and letting "wild law" reign over the market causes financial crises possibly beyond our capacity for reparation.
  • We have learned that pitting a conventional army against a network of underground guerrillas in the vast Middle East is like eliminating malaria one mosquito at a time.
  • We have learned that not building a coalition of nations to fight against rebel states destroys legitimacy of the mission and undermines moral authority.
  • We have learned that responding to a terrorist attack on innocent civilians by asking people to go shopping belies deep ignorance and callousness.
  • We have learned that putting all of our proverbial eggs into economic growth irregardless of the web of life that such growth ultimately depends on, only raises within us a greater yearning to reconnect with this web of life even if this means reconsidering the growth imperative.

Perhaps the greatest lesson we have learned through the W years, at least from my perspective, stems from the fact that America's collective lifestyle choices and the policies designed to uphold that lifestyle have offended large numbers of people because they are largely materialistic, selfish and conflictive. America is not always right, and whether you interpret 9-11 as a manifestation of this sentiment or not, insisting that it is has made America much more the aggressor than the victim. The lesson is that America, as any other nation, has its strengths and weaknesses and will only be able to establish its ideals at home to the extent that it supports other nations in doing the same.

Why was it necessary to endure eight years of selfish mediocrity to arrive at this point? Well, why do many people need to suffer a heart attack in order to realize that their lifestyle is killing them? Why do we need to miss someone in order to realize how much we lover him/her?

On an individual scale these questions don't seem so transcendental, but collectively they take on greater significance because learning is more unwieldy, messy and painfully slow. However, W's legacy is that he sped up our collective learning process to hitherto unknown heights. To see an inversely proportional relationship between W's blunders and greater consciousness gained by the American public about the founding ideals, about the necessity to take care of people and not turn our backs on extreme wealth disparities is testimony to the resilience and vision this nation's people have.

This does not happen here in Ecuador. Even if the depths of suffering are greater in general here, it is translated into learning over what seems like generations, not over a presidential term or two. For this reason among others the world looks to America for leadership, and the time has come for that role to be properly fulfilled.

The wave of global goodwill that poured from all corners of the earth with the news that Barak Obama was elected to the American presidency is extremely encouraging. My hope is that this wave will grow as America applies a leadership style characterized by innovation and example that empowers other nations and peoples as partners, far from the bullying practiced during this past administration.

29 October 2008

Siddhartha - Gautama - Buddha

The other day I heard an interview with Deepak Chopra about his recent book Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment. In the end he piqued my curiosity enough for me to read the book, but maybe not for the right reason. Describing Buddhism, he said that it is a secular spirituality, not a religion in the Judeo-Christian sense. While it is true that Buddhism stands apart from the Westernized faith traditions in several fundamental ways, it horrified me to qualify it as secular spirituality. Now that I have read Mr. Chopra's book, and now that I have reread Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and looked into the matter at least enough to understand what that statement could mean, I'd like to share my conclusions in hopes that this exercise will help those thoughts to continue evolving.

Both books repeatedly mention the "gods" in a way that we today speak of luck as that which helps you do something surprisingly effective. Both books make it clear that at the time it was common belief that people could become gods through an ascetic and holy life. In the same way, both speak of demons as the opposite force, and Mr. Chopra's book personifies a demon as one of the main characters who eventually provokes the final battle that leads Gautama to enlightenment. If this understanding of gods and demons is historically accurate, then Buddha would logically avoid confusing people further by centering his teachings on an Absolute, or God as we understand the concept. His focus on right view, aim, speech, action, living, effort, mindfulness and contemplation were surely the proper medicine that provoked the spiritual and material transformation necessary at that moment in time.

"The following is the Buddha's description of [the Absolute] in the famous Udana passage in the Khuddaka Nikaya: 'There is, O monks, an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. Were there not, O monks, this Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, there would be no escape from the world of the born, originated, created, formed. Since, O monks, there is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, therefore is there an escape from the born, originated, created, formed. What is dependent, that also moves; what is independent does not move' (Udana 8:3). Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism, argues from this passage that without the acceptance of an Ultimate Reality (Paramartha) there can be no deliverance (nirvana) (Madhyamika Karikas, cited in Murti 235)."

If you think about it, no Founder of any religion has ever encouraged his followers to dwell on the concept of God beyond basic concepts of uniqueness and certain qualities that God embodies.
"Baha'u'llah similarly speaks of an entity, an Unknowable Essence, of which nothing can be predicated: 'To every discerning and illumined heart it is evident that God, the unknowable Essence, the divine Being, is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress . . . He standeth exalted beyond and above all separation and union, all proximity and remoteness. No sign can indicate His presence or His absence' (KI 98). It is simply not spiritually profitable to spend too much time trying to gain further comprehension of God's essence.

If we qualified Islam, Christianity or the Baha'i Faith as secular spirituality, we would surely rob each of them of their essence. So, why should Buddhism be any different? It is saddening that Buddhism seems to have gained much popularity over the past few decades because of this fundamental misunderstanding of Buddha's message.

Another key concept in both books, although more implicit than explicit, is that of reincarnation. Contemplating this has led me to conclude that reincarnation exists in the story of the Buddha, which especially as presented by Mr. Chopra, is the story of each and every human being. He grows up as Siddhartha and upon maturing beyond that role, transforms into Gautama in search of true meaning. This search leads him to again transform, this time into the Buddha when he discovers the reality behind suffering, time and all of creation. This enlightened state provides an unimaginably powerful vehicle for him to generate the same transformational process in others.

In a very real sense, Siddhartha died in order for Gautama to be born and Buddha was born from Gautama's ashes. Thus the same fundamental person was reincarnated twice in order to escape the wheel of suffering. All true change of the order presented in the movement from Siddhartha to Buddha implies death as well as birth. Embracing both as a single forward flowing journey opens us to constant evolution, a maturation process that can eventually induce enlightenment.

Moving beyond the illusion of duality is the single most important concept explored in both books, and they both do it brilliantly. In Mr. Chopra's rendition, Buddha becomes the elements around him, perceives the innermost sensations of others and is able to touch and heal them. In Mr. Hesse's rendition, this vision is personified in the river by which Siddhartha makes his final home. "He saw that the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new. Who could understand, conceive this? He did not understand it; he was only aware of a dim suspicion, a faint memory, divine voices."

Visudeva, Siddhartha's greatest teacher explains that "the river knows everything; one can learn everything from it." On this occasion, Siddhartha learned "that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek depths." He also grows to learn that the present only exists for the river, "not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future." Thus, "Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man, were only separated by shadows, not through reality." Which also clearly implies that all sorrow, self-torment, fear, difficulties and evil happen in time and are thus conquered as soon as time is dispelled.

The river has many voices, in fact the voice of all living creatures are in its voice, as all living creatures come to the river for both physical and spiritual nourishment. This nourishment becomes those creatures, and their voice and their life and death.

"Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. All the waves and water hastened, suffering, towards goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reached and each one was succeeded by another. The water changed to vapor and rose, became rain and came down again, became spring, brook and river, changed anew, flowed anew."

"Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. ... He had often heard all of this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices - the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great sound of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om - perfection."

This poetic description of the river, and the transformation into enlightenment resonates deep within me. I have felt this flow not in a river as the rivers near here don't flow too well, but in compost, of all places! The life-decay-life process that eventually becomes the source of nourishment as healthy, teeming, fertile soil attracts me like a magnet. All of our mineral, plant, animal and human ancestors are there, present, becoming nourishment. I have always felt that it is a terrible injustice to throw away kitchen waste because it interrupts this life-giving process. I tend to this process in my house, and I sit and listen to it, and watch it and work with it just to learn its lessons in my effort to become spiritual nourishment for others. Just as the river, humus carries a wisdom far beyond my current grasp.

So, beyond highly recommending both of the books under review, I hope that reading them leads the reader to such contemplation of our potential as spiritual beings as I have been provoked to undertake.

22 October 2008

Cognitive Surplus


a screen that ships without a mouse, ships broken...

Watch this video. It is really worth it. It provides an extremely insightful analysis of social evolution and the power of Web 2.0 applications in reconceptualizing mass media to provide opportunities for everybody not only to consume but also produce and share.

Spending four formative years in countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Egypt, where tv was mostly just plain bad and more often than not spoken in a language I could not understand, got me away from tv and into activities like sports and games and just enjoying simpler things. Of course upon returning to the US I watched my fair share of MASH reruns, but I escaped getting hooked to the boobtube like most of my schoolmates.

What puzzles me now is how we feel that we need to turn our brain off in order to shed and get over financial stress or other types of stress caused from having to work too long or too hard in a job that is more often than not quite meaningless. If you want to escape from something too meaningless to bear, then why do something even more meaningless? In this sense tv serves the same purpose as alcohol and other recreative drugs. True, sometimes we identify with Giligan or Samantha or the guy on CSI and we like to feel that we can be like them. However, more often than not, as Mr. Shirky says in the video, we just aren't sure what else to do with our time. This is partly because before Web 2.0 applications like blogs and social networking and podcasting, watching tv (and of course listening to the radio) was basically our only opportunity to be part of popular culture through mass media. For decades this reinforced the messages from tv adds encouraging us to become net consumers.

The cognitive surplus created from becoming such consumers needs to be looked upon as an opportunity. Having enough time to watch trillions of hours of tv while our social and spiritual fabric comes undone at the seems provides us with one of the greatest opportunities available to humanity at present. Mr. Shirky would have us believe that it is better to do something, anything, as long as it implies being an active participant and not a passive consumer. As insightful as this talk is, I just can't agree that we need to set the bar of expectation so low because doing just anything won't get us very far from our tv set.

This concept elevated to principle in the video arises from a misunderstanding of the potentiality of human capacity.

"Man is called today to the attainment of that station to which he was destined from the 'Beginning which has no beginning.' This, then, is why 'Abdu'l-Bahá so exalted the station of Servitude. This is why He intimated that man accepting any station lower than this, any putting of self before service to others, qualifies himself as of the animal, the bestial nature, and places himself outside the pale of real manhood. It is because the definition of Man is altered. That which has been hinted in the past as a possible goal is now a requisite. Man's dreams, his highest dreams, must now be realized. And the path to that realization is the path of Service; its Goal the attainment to the station of pure Servitude.

"'The sweetness of servitude is the food of my spirit.' These words of the Master indicate the source of His power. His was a vastly higher quality of service than even that of my fanciful imagination... It went far deeper; it rose to far greater heights. It was a quality inherent in His deepest being, and manifested itself in every look, gesture, deed, ... in every breath He drew." (Howard Colby Ives)

If our essential humanity means attaining to an exalted station of servitude to others, then building the capacity necessary to make that service an efficient and effective contribution to helping our society reflect spiritual values held in common by all of humanity becomes top priority. Building and applying such capacities is the true source of power, of a nurtured spirit, the means by which our highest dreams will be realized, the sweetness that cannot be equalled. Further, it provides our life with the meaning that can dissipate stress on a magnitude that tv will never hope to attain.

If this weren't the case, then doing just about anything that implies participation would be a healthy social goal. However, in light of our essential nature, and the source of our true joy, it would be foolish to not push ourselved to greater heights. Of couse, Web 2.0 applications will play an important role in deploying the current massive cognitive surplus in the right direction, but there are such a variety of avenues leading to the station of servitute that we should be constantly exploring as many as we can find.

19 October 2008

Double-Edged Prices

'There is nothing in the pot. We have no food for a meal. Often a pot is put on the fire so children think a meal is being prepared. It gives them hope. If we told them there was no food they would start crying and there would be nothing we could do. This way they just go to sleep quietly.' – Aliou, a mother from a rural village in Mauritania

Not that the current financial meltdown isn't important - it is mostly for the failed mentality that it represents - but let's not let it distract us from what is urgent. This is admittedly difficult when anti-interventionist governments move astronomical sums to prop up their banking systems while ignoring their own commitments to curb world hunger. "...in stark contrast with the response to the current financial crisis, where huge financial resources have been mobilised by the international community in a matter of days... countries suffering from the food crisis received promises of just $12.3bn at the Rome FAO conference in June 2008, well short of UN estimates of the $25bn–$40bn needed (and five months on, little more than $1bn has been disbursed)."

Oxfam International just published a briefing paper aimed at bringing us back to this reality. It is called "Double-Edged Prices, Lessons from the food price crisis: 10 actions developing countries should take". Basic staple prices have recently risen and this should have been wonderful news for countries with economies focused on agriculture, and for the small farmers themselves. However, as the report states, "decades of misguided policies by developing country governments on agriculture, trade, and domestic markets – often promoted by international financial institutions and supported by donor countries – have prevented poor farmers and rural workers from reaping the benefits of higher commodity prices. As a result, the crisis is hurting poor producers and consumers alike, threatening to reverse recent progress on poverty reduction in many countries. To help farmers get out of poverty while protecting poor consumers, developing country governments, with the support of donors, should invest now into smallholder agriculture and social protection."

During the last year, the price in staple foods around the world have risen from 30 to 150%. Even before the current food crisis, over 850 million people lived in hunger and approximately 30,000 children died daily from related causes. The title of the Oxfam report refers to the false dilemma created when donor institutions ask themselves whether they should support consumers by lowering prices or producers by raising them. This leads to food donations from rich countries on one hand, and on the other, structural adjustments to economic policies aimed at directing the agricultural sector of a nation towards producing what can be sold on the international market, even if it can't be eaten by local communities. For example, cacao prices have increased dramatically since this crisis began (people eat more chocolate in times of anxiety), so Ecuador is expanding cacao production as well as other similar products like flowers, bananas and shrimp and seeking to open new export markets. Meanwhile staple food prices in Ecuadorian markets have risen 8% over the past year. In these cases, people buy cheaper foods, that usually have less nutritional value, rather than buying less food.

Higher fuel prices have led to increases in critical agricultural inputs like nitrogen-based fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and seeds. In fact, Monsanto, the world's largest seed (genetically modified) and agrochemical company has seen a 26% increase in revenue during the past year. Vanity Fair recently carried a major feature article on the mafia-like tactics of Monsanto in its pursuit of total domination of various facets of agribusiness aimed at consolidating corporate power even in the face of increasing food shortages.

The report concludes that in general, "those countries that have invested in smallholder agriculture and social protection policies have proved to be more resilient to the crisis. Conversely, where countries have opened their markets too widely or too rapidly to food imports and have failed to invest robustly in their agricultural sectors, they have fared far worse." Mexico is a perfect case in point.

"In the 1980s, Mexico was reeling under massive foreign debt. In 1988, interest payments made up 57 per cent of federal expenditure and, following World Bank and IMF recommendations, the country set about reducing public spending and dismantling a system under which the State subsidised agricultural inputs, provided loans and technical assistance, regulated imports, set guaranteed prices for producers, and subsidised the price of tortilla.

"State marketing committees and the National Company for Popular Subsistence (CONASUPO, a body which retained 15–20 per cent of production for distribution to remote areas) were also eliminated. Control of the market was usurped by a handful of agribusinesses and intermediary companies. Currently, Cargill, Maseca, ADM, Minsa, Arancia Corn Products, and Agroinsa among them control 70 per cent of Mexico’s corn imports and exports.

"A further blow to domestic agriculture came with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, under which Mexico agreed to liberalise its corn sector. Subsidised US corn began to flood the market and the price of corn in Mexico fell by more than 70 per cent in real terms, pushing thousands of corn farmers out of production and reducing overall output. After more than 4,000 years, Mexico became a net importer of corn."

The report provides a general action guide in the form of 10 recommendations. They are well thought out from the perspective of the more vulnerable countries. However, it gives too much importance to the IMF and the World Bank, which simply need to cease to exist or be completely transformed into institutions that are democratically accountable and which move resources to mitigate the effects of and ultimately eliminate poverty and wealth extremes.

This report succeeds at providing a timely and clear analysis of the current food crisis that it hopes will make a "difference to the millions of poor people hit by the current crisis, and build resilience to future shocks."

14 October 2008

Currency, Debt and Poverty (for Blog Action Day)

This week one of my favorite blogs, Dot Earth, posted a fabulous and timely reflection called "Growth Economics on a Finite Planet". The post quotes an article written my Dr. Herman Daly, specialist in "ecological economics". The article speaks about something that many of us have been thinking for years, that speculative finance is not economy at all but a sophisticated way of gambling that only distracts our attention from the real economy of producing for real needs. "To Dr. Daly, the implosion after the burst of trading and investment in high-concept paper offerings was inevitable, and simply a reorientation of the market toward the only real economy — the one grounded in actual assets. In the end, the only economy that can’t be gamed is one that is grounded in the way the Earth works. That is where 'real wealth,' and real limits, lie, he says."

"High-concept paper offerings" (reminds me of "edible foodlike substances...") really represent the tip of the iceberg. The larger, submerged base is made of money, the principle instrument that financial institutions and corporations use in their effort to create a consumer culture. Later in the above-mentioned article Dr. Daly lists the factors that allowed financial assets to become so disconnected from real assets, and the first point in this list is especially interesting: "...the fact that we have fiat money, not commodity money". Currency systems created by fiat work when the authority issuing the currency (government) guarantees the value of the currency although it's value is not referenced by any commodity. The idea is to ground the value of money to what is produced in that country, but this connection has deteriorated over time. So, paradoxically the connection between the value of money and real assets has weakened and at the same time high-concept paper offerings and money itself have became confused with real economy and real wealth. To understand this confusion, it is necessary to briefly explore the nature of money.

Over the past century the purpose, use, issuance and meaning of money have undergone a profound transformation that has allowed it to be used towards the construction and maintenance of the globalization process. Without delving too deep into the evolution of the concept of money, let it suffice to state that money served humanity principally as a means of exchange until the globalizing, and especially the speculative, process gave it new roles to play.

For many years money was generally issued by local banks at rates necessary to facilitate exchange. However, "…with problems caused by over-issuance and speculation, governments stepped in to regulate the issuing of money, creating the first central banks and issuing money … by printing it, selling government bonds to commercial banks and the public, [and] by borrowing it from the bank at interest. Thus, in order to ensure an expanding money supply, money is issued as interest-bearing debt."

As time passed, governments discovered that a particular difficulty with this system existed because "at any given moment in time, the total amount of debt in a conventional money system always exceeds the total amount of money available in the system. The money needed to pay the interest over these loans can only come from some other similar circuits, i.e. money issued by some other borrower. If that happens, the second borrower will not be able to earn back enough money to pay his debt. In order to prevent economic stagnation, the money supply must be continuously expanded: there is need of a perpetual borrower that can never go bankrupt despite the fact that he never pays his debt. Since the 1950s, governments have assumed this role. In order to stay above this debt, economic growth must exceed the growth of debt. However, in reality the global economy is not catching up with the exponential growth of interest bearing debt."

Scarcity is then a central component of the current economic system. This brings up several issues each of which merits attention. Scarcity of money has a double effect. First, it motivates people to work harder to earn money out of fear of falling into poverty. This is a key source of society’s deterioration as people are driven towards a profit motive and are frequently forced to work for unsatisfying and often socially and ecologically destructive jobs. Second, since money is put into circulation by creating principal, but not the interest owed on the principal, people and corporations must compete to obtain the scarce money to pay the interest. If the total money supply does not increase at least by the amount owed on interest, some necessarily go further into debt and even bankrupt. However, because interest is calculated to expand exponentially, it is at odds with the impossibility of producing and consuming goods or services at an exponentially growing rate.

Both commodity backed and fiat currencies are used as a store of value. "Using currency as a store of value, to generate interest or for expected profits at a later time" encourages hoarding and therefore competition. While money is stored "others cannot use it as a medium of exchange, which works against the interests of the economy" as fewer transactions can take place causing a downturn in the economy. Of course, when signs of recession appear, more money is issued or interest rates are lowered, enabling more transactions to take place. This give and take of the money supply keeps people fluctuating with the system, a perpetual scarcity-abundance, boom-bust uncertainty. "Providing incentives to ensure that the medium of exchange does not also incorporate the store of value function would therefore automatically dampen this boom-bust tendency of the current system."

Giving money the function of a store of value also motivates people to search for short-term profits at the expense of long-term growth, creating conflicting moral and economic incentives. "Consider as metaphor, for example, the life of a tree (or any other living resource). Because of interest, the net present value of any income far away in the future is negligible. So, it literally pays to cut down a tree and put the proceeds in a savings account instead of letting it grow for another decade or century. Similarly, the only types of trees worth planting commercially are the fastest-growing varieties such as pine. (Nobody plants redwoods for commercial reasons.) So even when we plant trees, we are systematically losing biodiversity."

As we have recently been reminded, another detrimental use of money is speculation. Over the last five or six decades money increasingly developed into a tool for speculative profit until it became the dominant use for money. "Today more than 95% of all currency transactions are motivated by speculation; less than 5% are for trades of goods and services." Able to generate spectacular profits within increasingly short periods of time, money acquired a new purpose: to merely reproduce itself. Investors search for schemes that will offer the largest profits within the shortest amount of time, essentially blind to real human needs and ecological concerns.

In the meantime, money has become confused with wealth. "Wealth is something that has real value in meeting our needs and fulfilling our wants. Modern money is only a number on a piece of paper or an electronic trace in a computer that by social convention gives its holder a claim on real wealth. In our confusion we concentrate on the money to the neglect of those things that actually sustain a good life." Even those who understand the difference between money and wealth are often forced to participate in unsatisfying or damaging means of acquiring money in order to maintain a dignified style of life.

For these reasons, and I am sure there are many more, we have put ourselves in the particularly malevolent quandary of needing to produce and consume as fast as our debt multiplies or invent "high-concept paper offerings" that dupe people into believing that real wealth is being produced. It all adds up to a negative sum game that as more people and businesses lose we slowly conclude that this system is making losers of all of us.

To round out this post on a more positive note, many people are realizing that national currencies "have been designed for specific purposes only, and cannot fulfill certain social objectives (such as fostering trade and cooperation, or ecological sustainability). Some currencies already operational today or being proposed for the future are designed to fulfill such objectives, and operate best when they are used in tandem with the national currencies." Because these complimentary currencies do not bear interest, they

  • "promote longer-term planning by encouraging participants to invest in productive assets rather than hoarding currency; and

  • encourage trade and cooperation, because the money is in sufficient supply."

These new currencies open exciting possibilities for a healthy economy in which poverty is no longer seen as an inevitable and is rather viewed as the anomaly it really is.

29 September 2008

Spiritual Beings having a Human Experience

"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience ... We are spiritual beings having a human experience." - Teilhard de Chardan

Human beings consider a spiritual experience an extraordinary event to be savored and contemplated. Time and space are considered normal and a timeless or placeless experience can be life-changing as it provides a glimpse into infinity and into that which doesn't perish as the following quote testifies:

"Our souls were so assured and uplifted that we, His hearers, did not have to imagine forthcoming events. Rather, we found ourselves experiencing all the bountiful happenings of the future. The eternal glory and ultimate successes of the Cause of God were so vividly portrayed by Him that the passage of time was irrelevant, for we saw the past, present and the future at the same time." (Adib Taherzadeh)

Without these kinds of experiences, or not allowing them to effect deep change in our outlook, it is easy to conclude that this material world is the beginning and end of existence. However, "
The idea that existence is restricted to this perishable world, and the denial of the existence of divine worlds, originally proceeded from the imaginations of certain believers in reincarnation; but the divine worlds are infinite. If the divine worlds culminated in this material world, creation would be futile: nay, existence would be pure child's play." (Abdu'l-Baha)

Growth, however, is a function of time and thus the soul becomes associated with a body and enters into this soul school we call life on earth.
"In this material world time has cycles; places change through alternating seasons, and for souls there are progress, retrogression and education." (Abdu'l-Baha)

Thus the purpose of time and space is to allow and measure growth. The spiritual being considers this an extraordinary experience to be savored and contemplated as time and space are not of the soul, they are not "normal". In a very real sense, the past, present and future happen simultaneously, and none of them restrict or bound the others. The following quote explains this idea.

"Consider thy state when asleep. Verily, I say, this phenomenon is the most mysterious of the signs of God amongst men, were they to ponder it in their hearts. Behold how the thing which thou hast seen in thy dream is, after a considerable lapse of time, fully realized. Had the world in which thou didst find thyself in thy dream been identical with the world in which thou livest, it would have been necessary for the event occurring in that dream to have transpired in this world at the very moment of its occurrence. Were it so, you yourself would have borne witness unto it. This being not the case, however, it must necessarily follow that the world in which thou livest is different and apart from that which thou hast experienced in thy dream. This latter world hath neither beginning nor end. It would be true if thou wert to contend that this same world is, as decreed by the All-Glorious and Almighty God, within thy proper self and is wrapped up within thee. It would equally be true to maintain that thy spirit, having transcended the limitations of sleep and having stripped itself of all earthly attachment, hath, by the act of God, been made to traverse a realm which lieth hidden in the innermost reality of this world." (Baha'u'llah)

Thinking that we are human beings having spiritual visions only traps us in temporariness, in suffering and ultimately death. It cannot be overstated, therefore, how important it is to transcend this by maintaining a clear vision that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. Exploring the implications and consequences of this vision becomes our life work.

16 September 2008

The Left, the Right and the Spiritual Path

The simultaneous election euphoria in Ecuador and the United States accompanied by a fortuitous encounter with a highly recommend podcast ("Living Dialogues" hosted by Duncan Cambell) has inspired me to share some thoughts about the nature of our democracies, our political parties and the world view they stem from.

Episode 63 of the above podcast is part two of an interview with author George Lakoff called The Evolutionary Challenge of the 21st Century for the Political Mind. Among the many interesting points he brings up, one really stood out for me. Here he explains why people favor conservatism or liberalism:

"Our first experience with governance is in our family. And so we recognize family members and we also experience being governed. And that over and over is raised to a metaphor that a governing institution is a family. ...
Now, that’s important because in this country, we have two very different understandings of what families are. Strict father families (SFF) and nurturing parent families (NPF). And the SFF has a motive thought and a morality that goes with it. It says that you have a mother and a father. The father is head of the family, he’s there to protect the family, mommy can’t do it, to support the family, mommy can’t do it, and kids are born bad. They just want to do what they want and they don’t know right from wrong, the good strict father knows right from wrong, and it’s his job to punish the child when they do wrong, so that the punishment will be painful enough so the child will do right and not wrong and therefore develop discipline. Discipline [leads people] to be moral and with that discipline they can go out into the market and become prosperous. So if someone is not disciplined, [he or she] is not going to be prosperous. And so if you see someone who is not prosperous, it means they are not disciplined. If they’re not disciplined, they can’t be moral. And if they’re not moral, they deserve their poverty."

This model of family is then projected on to our political, religious and even business leaders. Think of the mostly absent father that lets the political or religious system or the market take its course - read: let the disciplined and obedient float and the inordinate and miscreant sink - until some people need correcting so they may develop discipline. Love through fear and a paternalist sense of respect. This family model developed during humanity's collective childhood while strict father figures that made all of the decisions were in all likelihood quite necessary.

However, as humanity has slowly matured, a different family model has become more prominent. Mr. Lakoff continues, "And similarly, you have a progressive view (based on a Nurturing Parent Family) where empathy is central and not just feeling empathy but acting on it. Being responsible, being strong, being resolute, having good judgment. That is what is required for a true nurturer. And what you do in such a family is you raise your children to be nurturers of others, to empathize, to be responsible for yourself, to be responsible for others. It is the opposite of indulgence. And what that means is a parent is there for the protection of a child and the empowerment of the child. That’s what government is about in progressive thought. It says you start with people caring about each other. The government is the instrument of that. How does it work? The government protects and empowers. It’s not just military and police protection; it is environmental protection, worker protection, consumer protection, safety nets, health care. And empowerment is not just roads and communication systems, it’s educational systems, it’s the banking system, the energy system. It’s the stock market, the SEC upholds it. It’s the court system for contracts."

This model seems to allow for a growing group of mature people to work together towards solutions that satisfy everybody involved. However attractive this description may make it seem, its not accidental marriage of convenience with laissez-fair capitalism and moral relativism has clearly demonstrated it to be riddled with essentially the same pitfalls as the first model. Thus, democracy, one of the crowning achievements of human evolution, is currently "defined as the dividing of people according to interest, talent and ideology, who then 'negotiate' decisions... The purpose of each component group is to win. The means to this end are economic advantage and the mobilization of support to overwhelm the opponent." (Arbab, 215) Both family models actively uphold this form of democracy.

A new family and administrative model is currently emerging from our collective, nascent spiritual consciousness. A basic principle enunciated by Baha'u'llah, the Founder of the Baha'i Faith, is that "Religion alone can, in the last resort, bring in man's nature such a fundamental change as to enable him to adjust the economic relationships of society." Especially in light of the almost inviolable separation of church and state, comprehension of the significance and implications of this concept are crucial at this point in time as the world's citizens search for permanent solutions to the multifaceted problems that envelop all of humanity.

All of the problems that humanity suffers are essentially spiritual in nature. In other words, even the most perfect administrative and economic structures, either at the macro or micro level, would in time deteriorate if they were not based upon fundamental spiritual truths that inspire individuals to act selflessly. Any transformation of society and its structures must be accompanied by a simultaneous transformation in the individuals that make up this society, otherwise this process will not be complete nor will it last. Although the following quote by 'Abdu'l-Bahá focuses more on the economic side of the issue, it helps illuminate this idea:

"The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and the spirit. ... Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity. ... Economic questions will not attract hearts. The love of God alone will attract them."

Central to the mission of any administrative institution therefore, would be identifying the spiritual framework within which individuals can serve their true purpose. Generosity, solidarity, broadening loyalties, engaging in a productive livelihood, eliminating extreme poverty and wealth through justice, properly assessing and rewarding currently undervalued contributions to society like that of women and farmers, serving others, and cooperation are just a few examples of the spiritual qualities that underlie a healthy society. Effective means to educate the populace about the nature and importance of these principles, as well as actively creating channels through which they could be expressed at the individual, community and institutional levels would give genuine meaning to interaction.

Two principle characteristics would define this new family model and the institutions that represent it. First, the primary posture of these institutions would be that of learning. Second, they would necessarily rest on the organizing principle that each human being must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.

Decisions motivated by partisanship, by a desire to maintain economic or political power or by special-interest groups, widen the gulf between the benefits society offers to the laborer and the capitalist. When one sector of society benefits at the expense of another, the entire society suffers as a consequence of the conflict that is inevitably generated. If, however, policies are made by a diverse body of informed citizens whose interest is the general welfare of the region, and the general electorate is educated to understand that criticizing these policies will only result in further disunion, traditional concepts of power and authority will be transformed into a genuine posture of learning.

Thus proper governance at all levels should be viewed as "the collective investigation of reality and the rational analysis of options." (Arbab, 215). A sincere search for truth and a dispassionate, flexible collective decision-making process meets success to the extent that a posture of learning is adopted. Sincerity and detachment are only two of the many spiritual qualities that members of these institutions (as well as the members of society at large) would necessarily acquire and deepen to ensure this process does not degenerate into "conflict and power play."

My point in delving into a more spiritual "family" model is that nurture and empathy, although a significant step in the right direction, do not resolve the basic issues that keep our democracy within its current adversarial framework. Nor will they help us rise above bipartisanship as conservatives will continue to react to, what is for them, the incomprehensible motherly nature it offers as a governing pattern and liberals will continue to react similarly to what they see as paternalistic and authoritarian leadership styles. The only way to transcend bipartisanship is to explore and gradually build upon the spiritual foundations of human relationships.

30 August 2008

The First Mystery: Stuff of Life, Part II

As we saw in Part I of this post, the body is nothing more than a riverbed, or maybe even a river itself, through which flows a host of compounds in such a way as to provide an illusion of relative material permanence. The gene, which we may have considered the basic building block for material existence "is also abstract as a pattern, independent of the atoms that implement it in any given moment, a meeting point between matter and energy, a message that moves in a wave of meaning through life, an acorn harboring an oak, an egg containing feathers, menu, songs and a map of stars."

In one of his many talks to youth, Krishnamurti exalts us not to fear this same flow of life, not to seek permanence where none exists. Paraphrasing him, he says that seeking permanence means desiring the pleasure of indefinite continuity and having everything that does not bring us pleasure to end immediately. For this we have built a society that guarantees permanence of property, names and fame. But life is not like that. In reality, life is like a river that moves and is eternally swirling, exploring, pushing and bouncing off its banks. Our mind, however, perceives this as dangerous, risky, unstable, insecure and so it builds a wall, a wall of tradition, organized religion, political and social theories. The gods within these walls are false gods; they are projections of our own desires and their writings and their philosophy are unfounded because life penetrates the walls and tears them down.

Only the mind without walls, without established position, without barriers, without resting places, that freely moves with life, beyond time, pushing and exploring, only this mind can be happy, eternally new because it is in itself creative.

This brings us back to the First Mystery of Life as Murchie corroborates with Krishnamurti by establishing that "an independent 'I' bounded by life and death is an absurdity..."

"...we are in the same hard-to-visualize field Einstein explored when working out his relativity theory along with its contingent concept that every individual's personal orbit through life is representable as a 'world line' framed in the common four-dimensional crystalline coordinates of space-time. And in case you didn't notice it, a prime philosophical deduction from world lines is that, if relativity be true, an independent 'I' bounded by birth and death is an absurdity, since ... the field concept now so well established as a foundation for relativity implies continuums in virtually everything, including space-time and most certainly its best-known derivative: life. In my view, furthermore, the key to comprehending space-time is the obvious (to me) fact that space is the relationship between things and other things while time is the relationship between things and themselves. The time relation thus requires some establishment of identity (between things and themselves) seeing as identity is indispensable in temporal continuity. But if identity is of the essence of time, it follows that when a human being gives himself to a cause, letting his identity be absorbed in something larger than himself, he is proportionately liberating himself from the field of time. Which tells us something about the relation between mortality and immortality and between life and death, for it presumes that, as one's self is swallowed by universality, to a comparable degree one becomes immortal."

So, it seems prudent to ask at this point, do only certain causes qualify as immortality generators? I can only guess that any cause that seeks permanence would not. However, I'd like to differentiate between seeking meaning, perhaps the most fundamental human impulse, and seeking permanence. Finding meaning or purpose in something sticks us in the middle of the raging river of life and frees us from the clutching, limited mind, only if this meaning does not need to be held up or justified by any of the barriers mentioned by Krishnamurti. True meaning opens us to further learning, is inclusive and universal, builds unity and justice and above all implies attitudinal and behavioral change as it leads us closer to living a life with fuller purpose. In this sense, meaning is life, which is what the 'I' not bounded by life or death seeks fervently.

Thus, giving oneself to a worthy cause, to meaning, through a circle of action-reflection, transcends the "I" over time, gently sets one in the torrent of life, and permits the seeker to comprehend both the abstract nature of body and soul and their mystical, impermanent fusion. The following quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha, explained brilliantly in the video below, perfectly captures the spirit of this conclusion:

"Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves."


Guy Murchie - The Seven Mysteries of Life
Krishnamurti - The River of Life
'Abdu'l-Baha - Paris Talks

27 August 2008

The First Mystery: Stuff of Life, Part I

Which came first: the hen or the egg? If you consider this question as classic and unanswerable, then your knowledge of science needs brushing up! Of course, the egg is easily proclaimed the winner by half a billion years as the hen has only been here for fifty million years.

This is just one of the lighter gems found in one of the most wonderful books ever written: The Seven Mysteries of Life by Guy Murchie. Here, a look at the first mystery which he calls The Abstract Nature of the Universe. Murchie's writing is so insightful and provocative that any summary or analysis runs the risk of extending beyond the length of an accessible blog post, so I will procure brevity.

"... this is the world where objects, without much plausible reason, shrink with distance, where thrushes pull up worms to turn them into songs, where an acorn becomes a giant oak in a century because it was forgotten by a squirrel. In other words, there is ... something fundamentally and profoundly abstract" about this world which in turn is so importantly mysterious that it almost unavoidably falls into place as the first of the Seven Mysteries of Life.

"Consciousness implies an appreciable awareness (and control) of matter, an interaction involving both the developing body and the emerging mind that is at once abstract and close to the quick of life. Indeed the fact that you can move your legs and walk, or your tongue and talk, makes you alive. And so does the fact that you can control the engine and wings and tail of your airplane when you fly. You may object that the airplane is not really alive because it is not a natural organism but only man-made and artificial. But I reply that so is a bird's nest artificial for it is bird-made and not strictly a part of the bird's body. And so too is coral artificial in the sense that it is made (or excreted) by the coral polyps. And so is the oyster's shell built of calcareous substances out of the sea. And so also are the shells of bird's eggs and a bird's feathers made of things the bird eats. And so are even your teeth and bones and your fingernails and hair, in fact your whole body. There is no definite line, you see, where artificiality begins. And there is no absolute boundary between life and the world. ... Just as your house is your shell and your coat your pelt, in effect, so does your consciousness form your aura of personal life..."

Perhaps the least abstract thing we can imagine is our body for it allows us contact with other material substances. However, "the reason a living body can be made of such everyday stuff" as water, fat, carbon, phosphorus, magnesium, etc... "of course is that it is complex and flowing and the stuff is not really the body but only what passes through it, borrowed in the same sense that an ocean wave borrows the water it sweeps over." In this sense, if we could ignore time then a wave could be considered material, but as we cannot ignore time it can only be considered abstract as "science knows a wave to be made not of matter at all but purely of energy, which is an abstraction."

"...reflecting on it at length and in the full context of time, the body progressively becomes as abstract as a melody - a melody one may with reason call the melody of life. ...although I had intuitively assumed life itself abstract, the physical body had always seemed simply material and I did not see how it could be otherwise. Then I tried to define the physical boundaries of the body and began to realize they are virtually indefinable, for the air around any air-breathing creature from a weed to a whale is obviously a vital part of it even while it is also part of other creatures. The atmosphere in fact binds together all life on Earth, including life in the deep sea, which 'breathes' oxygen (and some air) constantly. And the water of the sea is another of life's common denominators noticeable in the salty flavor of blood, sweat and tears, as are the solid Earth and its molecules present in our protoplasm compounded of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and a dozen lesser elements."

"... practically all of our material selves is replaced within a year" and if we consider even the most stubborn atom of iron in hemoglobin and even the bones which are continually dissolving and reforming, after five years one can presumably consider one's physical body completely new down to the very last atom. "Assuming this is approximately so, then of what does the body really consist? For a while I thought the body's essence might somehow lurk in the nucleus of each cell where the genes physically direct growth and development. ... Essentially no single atom or molecule or combination of them can be indispensable to a body for they are all dispensed by it. It is only the pattern with its message that proves really vital to life. On the ocean one could make the analogy that it is not the saltwater but the abstract energy that shapes and powers the wave. Likewise it is not the atoms in the DNA but their geometric relation that makes the gene. And it is not the paper and ink but the words and meanings that compose the book."

"The point is that it is the pattern of design itself that is the indispensable thing, and not just its representation on paper or in bricks and mortar. Of course the design is not really a thing in the material sense for it is abstract. Indeed it is a kind of intangible essence, something like Lao-tzu's best knot which, as he explained, was tied without rope. ... Thus our very bodies that we always thought were material ... turn out to be essentially only waves of energy, graphs of probability, nodes of melody being mysteriously played in our time."

As logical as this sounds, it is still challenging to grasp and its implications seem way beyond my current understanding. Our bodies are supposed to be material and the mysterious union formed with the soul is the necessary arena in which the soul can be tried, tested and matured. But, if the body is essentially abstract, then exactly what is the "material" context in which the soul progresses? Must this context be, as we seem to have conceived so far, such a concrete thing or is the illusion of tangibility enough to do the trick? Is the illusion of solidity what differentiates this earthly plane from such purely spiritual realms characterized by immortality and similar limitlessness?

Exploring these mysteries even further in this same post would reveal the feebleness of my attempts at brevity and so they will be taken up in Part II of this topic. Stay tuned.

18 August 2008

Bending the Rules of Capitalism

“When the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.”

I have been stricken even more than usual lately by the consequences of how our current economic model overlooks in far too many areas of human endeavor that which makes us happy and healthy in favor of that which makes at least some among us rich.

I read an interview with a medical doctor who was prohibited from practicing in her native Spain because she publicly decried how her fellow practitioners honored corporate agreements to dispense certain drugs instead of prescribing in response to real patient needs. Another example is how our food producers have spent the last 40 years selecting strains of crops based on their shelf life irregardless of how that renders most of them completely void of all nutritional value. Unlike doctors, leaders of the food industry have no commitment to anybody’s happiness or health.

This brings to mind a talk I heard the other day by the man in charge of corporate responsibility at McDonald’s (believe it or not!) who stated clearly in his talk and repeated during the question and answer period how McDonald’s would really like to make important reforms in the meat and dairy processing industries by buying grass-fed cows or “free-range” eggs for example, but that they don’t have enough clout to make any difference. Now, this guy is practically painting a target on his chest by saying this but I don’t think we gain anything by attacking or even analyzing such morally defunct fodder.

If we make an effort to try and understand where this guy is coming from, we can understand him better. Buying grass-fed cows or free-range eggs brings no benefit to McDonald’s unless it raises its profit margin, which it would not. It has no commitment that would lead us to expect anything more. Of course, sometime in the future when enough McDonald’s customers demand these changes, they will suddenly become profitable and surely then the food industry will make the necessary changes. Until then, don’t expect any miracles.

It is precisely this logic that Muhammad Yunus takes aim at in his book “Creating a World Without Poverty.” “Unfettered markets in their current form are not meant to solve social problems and instead may actually exacerbate poverty, disease, pollution, corruption, crime, and inequality.” … “I believe in free markets as sources of inspiration and freedom for all, not as architects of decadence for a small elite. … My experience has shown me that the free market – powerful and useful as it is – could address problems like global poverty and environmental degradation, but not if it must cater solely and relentlessly to the financial goals of its richest shareholders.”

He thus proposes a new type of business – one that “is totally dedicated to solving social and environmental problems. … In its organizational structure, this new business is basically the same as the existing profit-maximizing business. … But its underlying objective – and the criterion by which it should be evaluated – is to create social benefits for those whose lives it touches. … A social business is a company that is cause-driven rather than profit-driven, with the potential to act as a change agent for the world.”

He gives some interesting hypothetical examples before dedicating the rest of the book to chronicling his own existing social businesses: “A social business that designs and markets health insurance policies that provide affordable medical care to the poor.” As I have always felt that the insurance business was antithetical to happiness and health, this sounds really interesting.

This brief treatment of the urgent need for and the exciting possibility opened by social businesses leaves many questions unanswered, reason for which I suggest you pick up the book if this idea intrigues you as it does me. The more effort we spend trying to make food production, environmental stewardship, quality health care, education and equality responsive to both current market forces and basic human desires for health and happiness, the longer we will delay our date with social justice.