Book review: Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

October 1, 2010

Note: I cross-posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community is a collection of eight essays by Wendell Berry. Although each essay is on a different topic, covering subjects such as economics, conservation, tobacco farming, war and peace, Christianity, and sex, all eight essays are closely linked through a centering focus on the concept of community. Wendell Berry is an exceptionally clear thinker and writer, and he presents compelling arguments for why globalization is causing more harm than good and why we must instead return to true, localized communities (and, consequently, economies). In the title essay, he defines community as follows:

By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature… Lacking the interest of or in such a community, private life becomes merely a sort of reserve in which individuals defend their “right” to act as they please and attempt to limit or destroy the “rights” of other individuals to act as they please.

A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to – and will have to – encourage respect for all its members, human and natural. It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations. Such a community has the power – not invariably but as a rule – to enforce decency without litigation. It has the power, that is, to influence behavior. And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and what does not work in a given place.

A community as described above serves neither private interests nor “public” interests, but rather the interests of the localized community as a whole. A major point that Berry makes is that it is only in the context of such a community that we will take care of each other and the land and live out the higher human values of respect and compassion. For example, in the globalized economy, where our food comes from thousands of miles away, it does not seem to matter how we treat the land around us, because it does not directly impact our ability to obtain food. On the other hand, when our food comes from the land near where we live, we see the consequences of poor treatment and are therefore are more motivated to care for that land in a way that ensures it continues to produce the food we need.

Occasionally as I read the essays I sensed a hint of glorifying the past. However, on the whole Berry maintains a nuanced perspective on the reasons our society is broken and what it would take to fix it. Although his proposal for more localized communities and economies does hint back to lifestyles in the past, I do not think the Berry is proposing that we return everything to exactly as it was 100 years ago. Although Berry does not address this explicitly, I believe that we can take the aspects of life 100 years that will improve our society (e.g. more tightly-knit, localized communities and economies) and leave other aspects (such as oppression of women) behind. Overall, Berry makes important points about globalization and communities that hold a lot of truth.

Although I agree with much of Berry’s arguments, I do not agree 100% with everything he says. Take this perspective on technology:

We must give up also our superstitious conviction that we can contrive technological solutions to all our problems. Soil loss, for example, is a problem that embarrasses all of our technological pretensions. If soil were all being lost in a huge slab somewhere, that would appeal to the would-be heroes of “science and technology,” who might conceivably engineer a glamorous, large, and speedy solution – however many new problems they might cause in doing so. But soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of people. It cannot be saved by heroic feats of gigantic technology but only by millions of small acts and restraints, conditioned by small fidelities, skills, and desires. Soil loss is ultimately a cultural problem; it will be corrected only by cultural solutions.

I do agree that we sometimes try to solve problems with technology when in fact they cannot be solved in that way, because they are cultural and societal problems. However, I think there is a place for science and technology, for example in harnessing clean energy sources. Our extreme overuse of unsustainable energy sources is of course partly a cultural problem, but ultimately we will need sustainable, clean energy, and that requires a technical solution.

Reading Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community left me feeling a bit hopeless. The community-based society he describes is so very different from our current globalized society, and things seem to be going only further in the direction of globalization. I am left wondering how we get from here to there? The obstacles sometimes seem insurmountable.

I do not mean to leave you with negativity, however. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community contains important, and at times very radical, ideas and one way that we will get from here to there is if more people read it and contemplate the ideas in it. I highly recommend it – you do not have to agree 100% with Berry in order to find his ideas worth thinking about. If you are not already convinced, here are some more quotes:

But a conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exists within and because of a pattern of smaller abuses.

Many people would like to think that our diseases are caused by one simple thing, like tobacco, which can be easily blamed on one group and fairly easily given up. But of course they are fooling themselves. One reason that people die of diseases is that they have grown old enough to die of something; they are mortal, a fact that modern humans don’t like to face. Another reason is that as a people we live unhealthy lives. We breathe unhealthy air, drink unhealthy water, eat unhealthy food, eat too much, do no physical work, and so forth.

So long as there is a demonstrable need and an imaginable answer, there is hope.

This war was said to be “about peace.” So have they all been said to be. This was another in our series of wars “to end war.” But peace is not the result of war, any more than love is the result of hate or generosity the result of greed. As a war in defense of peace, this one in the Middle East has failed, as all its predecessors have done. Like all its predecessors, it was the result of the failure, on the part of all its participants, to be peaceable.

The significance – and ultimately the quality – of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.

The difficulty is that marriage, family life, friendship, neighborhood, and other personal connections do not depend exclusively or even primarily on justice – though, of course, they all must try for it. The depend also on trust, patience, respect, mutual help, forgiveness – in other words, the practice of love, as opposed to the mere feeling of love.

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Book review: A Short History of Progress

January 22, 2010

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

My thoughts on A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright, can be summarized as follows: first, that everyone should read it, and second, that it triggered a minor existential crisis. Why, you might ask, do I think everyone should read a book that has the potential to trigger an existential crisis? Well, first of all, not everyone will react the same way that I did (the are other things going on in my life right now that likely contributed to my existential crisis; if that hadn’t been the case this book may not have triggered one). But in fact I think everyone should read it precisely because of its power to make you think about and question the meaning of existence.

Essentially Wright takes you a giant step back from your daily life and gives you a bird’s-eye perspective on human civilization and progress. He looks at four case studies of civilizations in human history that continued down the path of “progress” to the point of collapse. Over and over, humans have followed the pattern of overusing their environment until it can no longer sustain their numbers, continuing towards collapse even when it should be clear that they are living unsustainably. His point is that we are currently following the same exact pattern – our growth is accelerating in a clearly unsustainable manner, and we are causing environmental change that will be our downfall. However, there is a crucial difference from past civilization collapses: during the time periods of the cases he presents, there were many mostly isolated civilizations on earth, and the collapse of one did not significantly impact humans living on the other side of the world. Now, all humans are a part of one big civilization, and if it collapses it will impact all living beings on the entire earth.

Before I reached the end of the book, I started feeling that all our attempts to reverse climate change and prevent civilization collapse are both helpless and pointless. In the grand scheme of things, why does it really matter if our civilization falls apart or not? Why does it even matter if the human species continues to exist or not? Someday it will not. Someday the entire earth will fall into the sun. Deep in my heart I feel that it does matter, but I lost my grasp of why.

As I said, these questions arose for me before I finished the book. As it turns out, Wright addresses some of these very questions in the last chapter. His answers were interesting, although I think that ultimately each of us needs to figure out answers for ourselves and find our own meaning:

The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one’s interest. It is a suicide machine… I honestly don’t know what… the hard men and women of Big Oil and the far right… think they are doing. They have children and grandchildren who will need safe food and clean air and water, and who may wish to see living oceans and forests. Wealth can buy no refuge from pollution; pesticides sprayed in China condense in Antarctic glaciers and Rocky Mountain tarns. And wealth is no shield from chaos, as the surprise on each haughty face that rolled from the guillotine made clear.

Things are moving so fast that inaction itself is one of the biggest mistakes. The 10,000-year experiment of the settled life will stand or fall by what we do, and don’t do, now. The reform that is needed is not anti-captalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking. From recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle.

Wright concludes with a strong call to learn from and avoid the mistakes of the past:

We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees’ seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones. If we don’t do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands. And this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.

Now is our last chance to get the future right.

A Short History of Progress is a compelling and important book. One way you can look at the present human situation is that we can either choose to change now and become a sustainable civilization, or we will be forced to change later by unpleasant circumstances out of our control. We have the opportunity to learn from the past, but will we take advantage of it? I believe humans are capable of much more than we currently demonstrate, and if we do not make the necessary changes now we will be failing our own capabilities.

I cannot more highly recommend A Short History of Progress. To conclude, here are a few more insightful passages:

At the gates of the colosseum and the concentration camp, we have no choice but to abandon hope that civilization is, in itself, a guarantor of moral progress.

Civilizations have developed many techniques for making the earth produce more food – some sustainable, others not. The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water – and of woods, which are the keepers of water – can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.

Capitalism lures us onward like the mechanical hare before the greyhounds, insisting that the economy is infinite and sharing therefore irrelevant. Just enough greyhounds catch a real hare now and then to keep the others running till they drop. In the past it was only the poor who lost this game; now it is the planet.

We should therefore be wary of technological determinism, for it tends to underestimate cultural factors and reduce complex questions of human adaptation to a simplistic “We’re the winners of history, so why didn’t others do what we did?” We call agriculture and civilization “inventions” or “experiments” because that is how they look to hindsight. But they began accidentally, a series of seductive steps down a path leading, for most people, to lives of monotony and toil. Farming achieved quantity at the expense of quality: more food and more people, but seldom better nourishment or better lives. People gave up a broad array of wild foods for a handful of starchy roots and grasses – wheat, barley, rice, potatoes, maize. As we domesticated plants, the plants domesticated us. Without us, they die; and without them, so do we. There is no escape from agriculture except into mass starvation, and it has often led there anyway, with drought and blight. Most people, throughout most of time, have lived on the edge of hunger – and much of the world still does.

The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.

[T]errorism cannot be stopped by addressing symptoms and not the cause. Violence is bred by injustice, poverty, inequality, and other violence. This lesson was learnt very painfully in the first half of the twentieth century, at a cost of some 80 million lives. Of course, a full belly and a fair hearing won’t stop a fanatic; but they can greatly reduce the number who become fanatics.

Archeology is perhaps the best tool we have for looking ahead, because it provides a deep reading of the direction and momentum of our course through time: what we are, where we have come from, and therefore where we are most likely to be going. Unlike written history, which is often highly edited, archeology can uncover the deeds we have forgotten, or have chosen to forget.


Humanitarian technology? (Technology, progress, and peace, Part 2)

January 5, 2009

This is Part 2 in my series on technology, progress, and peace. Read Part 1 on “Is technology progress?” here.

With deep-seated interests in two disparate topics, analytical subjects and humanitarian work, I have sought numerous times to find a way to do both at the same time. That is, to do analytical, technical work that is humanitarian in nature, that is effecting social change in some way. I have serious doubts, however, that this is possible for me or for anyone.

I have always liked math and logic, and I enjoyed learning how to program in high school, so computer science seemed like a logical field to major in. However, I already had doubts about this choice when I was still applying to colleges. When I thought about studying computer science and subsequently becoming employed as a programmer, I imagined a future of sitting at a desk with a computer all day, doing work I found intellectually stimulating but not very motivating. People pointed out that there are many positive and important applications of computer science, such as health-related software, robots to do surgery, etc. I acknowledged that but I still did not see how working on a computer all day could satisfy me in terms of helping humanity. Despite these doubts, I proceeded to major in computer science and become a software engineer (this was perhaps aided by the fact that, although I am fascinated by many non-technical subjects, I find writing essays for college classes exceedingly painful. Programming for homework was a breeze in comparison). My vision of post-college life as a programmer was, unfortunately, not too far off. I do in fact sit at a computer all day, and the work I do does not fulfill my need to make a difference in the world.

Through-out college and in the years since, I have tried to explore ways to make my technical work more meaningful. When looking for jobs I tried to find the smaller, unusual companies that were doing something a bit different. I was somewhat successful; the company I ended up at is small and makes educational software, which is certainly much more interesting to me “business” software. I have also gone to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing three times, and each time I have attended numerous sessions on humanitarian-related topics. This included subjects such as technology-related non-profits, projects for/in the developing world, university classes where students work directly with a non-profit to meet the organization’s software needs (unfortunately, my university did not offer such a class), and various other things. I have enjoyed the conferences and the first two times I went (but especially the second time), I came back feeling very inspired. I recall well my sense of excitement and hope during and after the second conference I attended, in fall 2006. I felt that it was possible, that there was a way to help change the world through software.

However, between 2006 and the next conference I attended, in fall 2008, I lost this hope about technology and humanitarian work. I again attended many sessions on non-profits and the developing world in 2008, but I felt much more skeptical, and I came away still unconvinced that technology is the way (let alone the best way) to effect social change. What happened to change my attitude so drastically?

One thing I realized is that, for me personally to feel like I am making a difference, I need to be working directly with people. No matter how much it seems that the software I am working on has positive effects in the world, it is too far removed for me to feel by programming it that I am having an impact. This is, I think, simply part of my nature. I also realized that most of the software that gets programmed for non-profits is not really having a very direct impact. It is often software to help track people or money, or software for scheduling, or some other similar thing. Working on this sort of thing does not interest me very much. If I am going to work for a non-profit, I want to work with the people the non-profit helps, not in the back-end workings of the organization.

However, my change in attitude is not due just to a personal realization. As I realized that much of the “humanitarian” software is actually just to help with the inner workings of non-profits, I also realized that this is because the problems of the world do not necessarily need software to be fixed. Many of the problems are not primarily due to a lack of technology, and thus they cannot be fixed by technology. For example, hunger is a huge problem, but it is one mainly of food distribution. It is entirely possible to grow enough food on this planet to feed everyone, but the resources are unbalanced and the countries with more than enough do not share equitably with those who do not have enough. In other cases, the problems are ones that can be fixed by technology, but rarely by software technology. For example, many parts of the world do not have clean drinking water. This certainly needs technology (but not software) to be fixed, but the technology already exists and it is due to politics that it is not implemented.

There are some problems where I think software technology can be beneficial, mainly education and communication. Giving people the ability to become educated can help them rise out of poverty, and giving people the ability to communicate can help them rise up against oppressive regimes. For example, there are various programs that distribute laptops in developing countries and work to set up wireless internet access. These seem to be positive programs but again, I am not convinced of their necessity. Giving people books could help them become educated just as well as, if not better than, a computer could. Communication is perhaps the one area where technology really is progress with respect to developing countries.

Overall, though, I think that the most significant barrier to fixing the problems of inequality, poverty, enough food and clean water, and peace, is a human barrier, not a technological barrier. Human connection and compassion for each other is the most important thing that will effect social change. We need to understand our essential shared humanity and learn how to resolve conflicts non-violently. With more compassion, we would naturally become more equal. We would look out for each other and together develop creative solutions to inequalities. Technology may occasionally aid our progression towards a better world, such as long-distance modes of communication that enable more connection between people, and technology may ultimately be part of the solutions to some of these problems, such as creative ways to make water safe for drinking. However, technology alone will make little difference. Technology can sometimes be considered progress and is at best an aid in effecting social change, but it is never a panacea.

For myself, I have therefore decided to stop trying to connect my humanitarian interests with my analytical interests. I do not think I will find meaningful work that way. These two posts on technology, progress, and peace grew out of my attempts to find meaning in my technical work, and when I continually search for such meaning I start questioning the whole idea of technology and become seriously disillusioned about my work. Thus, since my job pays well and I intellectually enjoy aspects of it, I will continue to work as a software engineer at an educational software company, but I will look elsewhere to pursue my interests in peace and social change.


Is technology progress? (Technology, progress, and peace, Part 1)

January 4, 2009

This will be a two-part series on technology, progress, and peace. In this first part I discuss the general question of whether or not technology is progress.

I struggle with technology. Not because it is difficult for me to understand or use, but because I am not convinced that the ever-progressing technologies of today lead always to a better and better world. As a software engineer, I use technology – in the form of a computer and the internet – every single day. In fact, I write software that runs on computers and is used over the internet. In my personal life, I am becoming increasingly dependent on the internet. I can hardly imagine not having email to communicate instantaneously with friends and family. Whenever I am wondering about something I have Google at my fingertips for instant gratification. I use a cell phone, a dishwasher, a microwave, a hair dryer, a washing machine, a clothes dryer, a refrigerator. Which of these things are progress and which are not? Why is it that to me a refrigerator and a washing machine seem unquestionably to be progress, but a computer and the internet do not? Perhaps it is simply that I am conservative by nature and resist new developments and change? Or perhaps there is something more to my distinctions. I would define something as “progress” if it contributes to our general happiness and well-being. The question is, at what point does one draw the line between something that genuinely makes lives better and something that is simply an unnecessary, perhaps even detrimental, “convenience” that does not noticeably improve the quality of life?

Let’s look closer at some of the technologies and inventions I consider progress. One, without a doubt, is birth control. Birth control freed women from the burden of being unable to control when they had children other than by refraining from sex. As history demonstrates, this made a huge difference in women’s lives. Other technologies that seem to unquestionably be progress include major time-saving devices such as refrigerators and washing machines, which allowed people to spend time pursuing more meaningful activities than chores, and basic communication devices such as the wired telephone and the wireless radio, which allowed people to communicate more effectively across great distances.

On the other hand, one example of something that is in my mind unquestionably NOT progress is the television. One may argue that it allows effective mass communication. While I agree that communication is important, I think the television has overall had a negative impact on our happiness and well-being as a society, as it has helped create the overly consumerist society in which we find ourselves today. Another thing that I do not consider progress is the atomic bomb. It has no value other than to kill people in huge numbers. Earlier weapons, such as the bow and arrow, spears, and perhaps some guns, had value because people used them to kill animals to feed themselves. However, the weapons in modern times have no such value and are not progress.

Finally, there are the things that do not fall neatly on one side or the other, computers and the internet being topmost in my mind. Being dependent on them myself, it is difficult for me to say conclusively that they are not progress, but it is also difficult for me to see ways in which they greatly enhance our general well-being. I am not sure it is of value to be able to have instant gratification for just about any question one might have, to have to do so little work to find an answer. I am not sure the bombardment of news and the bombardment of entertainment is leading to people’s increased happiness. I am not even convinced that the many software programs intended to be educational or to aid with learning add much value in the end (although I work for a company that produces such software). The problems with education in our society are not ones that are going to be fixed by dumping more technology into people’s laps.

The primary aspect of computers and the internet that I think could be considered progress is the increased ability to communicate – not only with people that you would already be in touch with no matter what (your close friends and family), but with people that you would otherwise never know. People living halfway across the world. The internet has made the world a much smaller place. I could have a multi-way discussion with a person living in Thailand, a person living in South Africa, and a person living in Russia. This is, I think, progress. We have a much greater opportunity than ever before to get to know people different from us, and this is the sort of bridge-building connection that can help lead to a more peaceful world.

A major issue that must be considered when thinking about whether technology is progress is the fact that technology distinguishes between social classes. The upper and then middle classes get the new technologies first. Poor people were still washing their clothes by hand in washtubs long after the wealthy had washing machines. Only after a technology has become deeply entrenched in society does it become just about equally available to all social classes – such as the landline telephone or the refrigerator. Newer technologies are still very much classist. Only the (relatively) wealthy have computers and internet access. There are millions of people in this country (the United States), not to mention in the rest of the world, who do not have a computer or internet. The way in which technology starts with the wealthy and trickles down to the poor can be one way to try to measure progress. If a technology is unquestionably progress, that would mean anyone living without it is living an unquestionably lower quality of life than those with the technology. Looking at things in this light, it is difficult to say whether any technology at all is unquestionably progress. I believe, in fact, that it is entirely possible to live a high-quality, fulfilling life, with very little technology.

Is technology progress? In my short exploration of this question, I have not come to a conclusive answer, nor did I expect to. I do not think there is a clear-cut answer. What technology is considered progress is fluid, dependent on the social context, the use to which the item is put, and the potential increased quality of life, which may vary from one individual to the next.

Part 2 of this series on technology, progress, and peace, in which I discuss the question of “Humanitarian technology?” is here.