Asking the Wrong Question


Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.” So what questions should we be asking?

What are the most significant problems facing us today? Let’s look first in the Pacific Northwest.

Cascadia or the Pacific Northwest

Why do we have a national boundary running along the 49th parallel that separates children of a common mother stemming from the tree in Africa where humans were born?

We live in a bioregion that should be called Cascadia whose boundaries are natural. Cascadia arcs from Cape Mendocino near the 39th parallel where the tectonic plates that shake our lives begin and goes north to the 60th parallel where fault-lines converge in the world’s largest mountain mass, Mount Logan, then east to the continental divide and the hot spot of Yellowstone.

At the University of Washington there is a new slogan, Be Boundless. Their website says: “What does it mean to Be Boundless? It’s a spirit. It’s a hunger. It’s a passion for possibility and a daring desire to do. It’s what makes Huskies, well, Huskies. So, what are you waiting for?” Our institutions are trying to maintain a grip on our lives and this catchphrase is to inspire us to go one step beyond. I see other organizations tagging on to the boundless concept. What should that mean? We must come to grips with national boundaries as being impediments to the survival of our species, and the planet. I want to focus on this slogan, be boundless.

I’ve proposed to UW’s School of Public Health that to be boundless means to consider not just what is going on in Washington State, but throughout the Salish Sea and across the Straits and the 49th parallel to learn from British Columbia. People live longer healthier lives in British Columbia and they are more in touch with the earth and nature there. For example, mortality rates for working age men in BC are about half those of similar men in Washington. I’ve proposed making these comparisons with BC in Olympia to the health department and in Seattle’s health department juxtaposing Seattle to Vancouver which is healthier by far. No one takes it seriously because, to quote Upton Sinclair: “It is hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” We take on the values and beliefs of the company or organization we work for. If we don’t believe in those for whom we are working for, that eats away at us. Workers don’t like to lie or say falsehoods all the time. And we have to please our masters.

I used to think providing medical care was what made populations healthy. My critical thinking had been bought by the very profitable industry of providing health care. It took me decades to begin to think critically. We should be teaching critical thinking but instead we teach obedience to the rich and powerful, the masters, because it serves the interests of the rich and powerful. Asking the wrong questions, then, serves the rich and powerful.

We must ask why in Cascadia there are such vastly unfair health outcomes between those living north of the border with Canada and those south of it. Here the Salish Sea does not recognize international boundaries.

Let’s ask how things are in Washington state.

Washington State

Consider trends in vital signs of health in Washington. Your health department has useful reports presenting this material. While they make comparisons with the entire state, they do not look at British Columbia as a reference for what is possible. Rates of infants born pre-maturely or of low birth weight are increasing here, below the state average, but much worse than in BC. This portends more chronic illnesses as these infants become adults. The United States has the highest rates of death from child abuse of all rich countries. Leading rich nations on deaths from child abuse is not something to be proud of. Length of life, life expectancy, although still increasing for the state as a whole. In many parts of Washington, women’s mortality is increasing, that is the chances of dying if you are a woman is greater than it was a decade ago. This is not being seen in men, nor in British Columbia. In Grays Harbor, or Pacific or Wahkiakum or Thurston counties women’s death rates are increasing. They are living shorter lives.

We need to ask why when there are so many maps now that have health indicators on them, that they almost never cross national boundaries. Cascadia needs to be boundless.

I doubt many of you here would say on your deathbed: “I’m glad I lived a shorter life. I wouldn’t have wanted to live a longer one.” If that is you, then you will be amply rewarded for living in the USA. The question here is why are people in the U.S. not living as long or as healthy as people in British Columbia? I’m sure most of you here would rather live longer healthier lives than shorter sicker ones.

Let’s think bigger than Cascadia. What are the questions we should be asking globally?

Strange things are happening with economies everywhere. Brazil is experiencing a decline in GDP and their president faces impeachment with corruption rampant. We are told Greece is a basket case and may soon collapse despite all the loans with horrible conditions they have been subject to through the EU in order to bail out Greek banks. Global GDP, measured in US dollars, has declined since 2014. There is a global crisis in the growth for growth’s sake ideology. Evidence is everywhere.

Central banks are perplexed as to what to do about this crisis. The Fed is raising interest rates in the U.S. while in Japan the central bank is now having negative interest rates, namely if a business parks its money in the bank, it will lose some of it. This is designed to force businesses to spend! Nobody knows what to do about this crisis.

Then there is an immigration crisis in Europe from people fleeing ISIS that leads to ridiculous policies. For example, it has been legal for refugees to cross from Russia to Norway on a bicycle but not on foot nor in a motor vehicle. Over 5000 Syrians cycled through an Arctic Circle crossing to Norway last year. They obtained visas in Damascus or Beirut, and then flew to Moscow and went by train to Murmansk. They went to the border with Norway traveling the last part by bicycle. The Norwegians have closed this legal loophole and refugees will be taken back across the border by bus. Canada is taking considerable numbers of refugees, but we are taught to be afraid of Muslims here so have not extended a welcome hand. One way to deal with the refugee crisis is to be boundless.

Instead of asking what to do with refugees, something we don’t even consider in the US, we should be asking why we have nation states.

That is why do we have nation states with impermeable membranes, or semi-permeable membranes instead of recognizing the entire globe as the sovereign state? Whose interests does the concept of nation states serve?

An answer you don’t want to consider is that nation states serve the rich and powerful and encompass legitimate violence carried out by governments of the Koch Brothers, for the Wal-Marts, by the Federal Reserve. Central banks are the most powerful institutions that shape the globe today. This is the neoliberal model of capitalism that has sneaked in and dealt an almost mortal blow. We weren’t paying attention to this quick right punch.

Which brings me back to my central question: What is going on in the global economy right now and why?

Consider that a decade or two ago we were very concerned about peak oil. We worried that we would run out of this captured sunlight and it would result in a disaster. Now the price of oil, or gasoline here is ridiculously low. A gallon of gasoline costs almost the same as a gallon of bottled water. The declining price of oil has wreaked economic catastrophes around the world. Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Brazil come to mind. What is now affecting the economies in so many places is that declining revenues from oil is a disaster for corporations and for governments. The question we should be asking is how should we organize our global society to serve all life, including humans. What economic relations will further that goal?

Recall the epidemic of consumerism that preceded the global banking crisis a decade ago. Since employers wouldn’t pay us any more, we borrowed our salaries to buy stuff we didn’t need with money we didn’t have all in the attempt to buy the happiness that we are entitled to pursue from the Declaration of Independence. Notice it is the pursuit we are entitled to, not the attainment of happiness.

A pandemic in our midst has been the storage industry providing us with space to keep the crap we acquired that we didn’t need nor have time to use. Have we reached the epoch of Peak Stuff? Consider that since our happiness has been declining slowly for the last half century, will more stuff work to regain it? What do we need to live satisfied lives besides stuff? The question we need to address relates to who benefits from our being close to having achieved Peak Stuff? Japan’s crisis for the last twenty years has been caused by their having attained Peak Stuff.

For many years I felt I was falling behind in the pursuit of stuff. I didn’t use a mobile phone and didn’t want to. When I saw people around the streets in Seattle they were always doing thumb work. You know, their necks were flexed while they exercised their thumbs on smart phones and were oblivious of others’ digits or companionship. I was always struck by the observation that no smiles appeared on their faces as they worked out on the thumb elliptical exercise machine at the thumb gym. I was falling further behind so asked Santa if I was worthy of becoming smart by getting a smart phone. Now I have an iPhone. Using this device is like being incredibly thirsty and then being presented with a wide bore firehose erupting water from which you try to parch your thirst. It can’t be done. The information pours out and you can’t stop it. I’m doing everything I can to limit its effects and don’t want to be a slave to this master. I’ve reached Peak Stuff.

I’m reminded of the book I read in 1978 titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which Robert Pirsig categorized two kinds of people. Those who use technology in ways that are undeniably useful to them and society and those that are ruled by technology.

We have reached Peak Stuff. And it is not helping us be fulfilled. The question we need to ask is how can we have a system of life for the planet that is fair to all living things? What stuff can be cast off, not harm other creatures, and still allow us to lead meaningful lives? What are critical issues to consider?

To go beyond Peak Stuff we must understand the engine that drives it: capitalism. There are groups looking at decroissance, the French term which can be glossed degrowth. Continual economic growth violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, something pointed out over 50 years ago. Every time we produce a smartphone, we irrevocably destroy an amount of low entropy that could otherwise be used for producing a plough or a spade which benefits all of us as a form of appropriate technology that enhances not only the human species but life on earth.

Capitalism is predicated on violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is like the Titanic, eventually it will destruct even if we see the iceberg on the horizon. Recall that most of the ice that will have those on board plunging to the bottom of the ocean was under water. Sixty percent of those with first class tickets survived but only a quarter of those with third class tickets. This represents the socioeconomic gradient found everywhere. Poorer people do more poorly in practically every measure of importance.

The key question we need to ask is how are we going to transition to a global system that is boundless and not dependent on perpetual growth. I was at Stanford medical school in the early 1970s when the Club of Rome, actually a team based at MIT, produced the analysis titled Limits to Growth. It considered various models for the future and pointed out that the course we were on would produce a singularity. That is the situation would spiral out of control. It could be abrupt like the Titanic, or it could be a slow boil. Today we are almost there.

Back in 2008–9 I was thinking we were heading not for a slow boil but a vigorous boil and that we would all see the limitations of so-called free market economies. The February 16, 2009 issue of Newsweek had the headline: We are all socialists now. Their point was very clear. In bailing out the banks, and the rich, we were practicing a form of socialism, albeit a toxic form. They called it socialism nevertheless. I was certain that we were going to debate political and economic systems, political economy as it is called in Europe, and that we would consider options to capitalism.

That hasn’t happened, Capitalism has adapted to the successes of the crisis in unimaginable ways. The benefits of economic growth accrue to those who hold power and the costs are shifted to the rest of us. Another way of looking at it is the more technologically advanced and efficient our economy becomes, the more resources it consumes because resources get cheaper. The global footprint increases. Global heating makes the lives of the majority worse. That is what we see today.

A century ago, most of us did physical work for our livelihoods. Now machines and various technologies do the physical work. Are we better off now that most of us only do mouse work? We stare at a graven image we call a monitor (is it looking at us?) and move this now tailless device in highly ritualized motions. That is mouse work. Most of us get paid for doing mouse work. What is real work? If we are wealthy enough we can pay to do real work. I’m talking about the kind of work as conceived in physics namely move an object by applying a force to it. It takes no force to move a computer mouse. No work there. We pay to do real physical work by joining an exercise facility, by hiring a personal trainer, by going to a spa, or by taking adventure vacations and climbing mountains. Most of the people in the world cannot pay to work, they are too poor. So the gap between the have-too-much and the have-much-less increases and that is bad for all of us.

What are the first steps we should consider to change our capitalist system and pursue degrowth. There is no specific recipe we can get from the Joy of Living or from the Internet. That is the beauty of the concept. Decroissance will mean different paradigms in different regions.

What might it look like in Cascadia? We have tremendous resources here but they are not equitably distributed. The richest person in the world lives here and has his own ideas about how to influence the world by investing in more technology that is likely to make things worse. We must become informed about philathrocapitalism and recognize that there is no such thing as a free gift. There are huge societal and planetary costs to philanthropy.

The resources in Cascadia must be conserved so there is no loss of species diversity which is continually threatened. Our resources can be also shared with other humans. Consider homelessness. Despite plans to half the homeless in King County by 2015, the opposite has happened. A year ago the homeless count was the highest ever and ranged from a newborn to age 92 years. When you have a phenomenon such as too many homeless in this country, consider that it serves a purpose for us. It is like having more poverty in the US than in any other rich country. We need the poor and the housing deprived to know what it is like to be well-off and housed. We count their numbers to show our progress. Read a book titled The Value of Homelessness about how it serves us to have marginalized people with this insecurity in our midst.

As we approach degrowth we must understand that benefits will take generations. We must sow the seeds right now and nurture the soil in Cascadia for future generations. How do we begin?

First, pay respect to creatures, those living and those whose forms, such as the magnificent mountains near us, live in a different realm.

More important is to not stand in the way of life forms here. One way this has been accomplished was to take down the Elwha Dam in the Olympics. A whole host of positive changes occurred as the river was brought back to life. There were no losses. Another example is to support human early life. The United States is only one of two countries that does not grant a working woman paid leave after having a baby. The other, by the way, is Papua New Guinea. We could pass and fund a Washington State Paid Parental Leave Act giving every family six months of paid leave.   There is no single step that will do as much for our health as giving parents time and resources to parent. We must not stand in the way of raising the next generation.

I could go on and depict many other examples of this process of not standing in the way of changing the world to embrace degrowth in whatever way that benefits people here and throughout Cascadia.

Albert Einstein once said: “The important thing is to never stop questioning.” There are many wrong questions. Instead, ask questions that will get others worrying about the answers.

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