Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Chapter 2-Peace and Permanence

Permit me to begin with a metaphor: this past weekend, Brad and I took our dogs to go swimming in the Willamette River. Now, the Willamette is so heavily polluted that it is not safe for humans to swim there. A recent study showed that it contains high enough levels of dissolved Prozac in the water to resolve most depressive complaints. (ok, not quite that high, but still pretty high.) But we go in anyway. Why? Because we grew up near Lake Erie (see Schumacher’s comments [pg. 17 of my edition]), and gosh darn it, if swimming in there didn’t kill us, nothing will.

We as human beings, if used to swimming in muck, will many times continue to swim in muck. Greed, envy, individualism (and a host of other –isms) can all act, to varying degrees, as muck. Perhaps one of Schumacher’s most important points in this chapter is best stated as a question. “Why must we continue to accept as a given the world situation when we are, at best, barely keeping our heads up, and at worst, poisoning ourselves?”

Schumacher opens “Peace and Permanence” by dismantling several false assumptions regarding conventional reasoning on how to establish peace. These erroneous beliefs include:

-universal prosperity will build peace
-universal prosperity is possible
-our science and technology will, at minimum, save us from disaster, and at maximum build universal prosperity. Translated for the poor, this amounts to “Just wait, and eventually the system will work for you too.”(trickle-down economic theory)

Schumacher’s personal conclusion on the matter is that if (and a big if at that) universal prosperity is possible, it cannot be achieved in the modern sense, as it would only be possible through greed and envy. (Schumacher, 19)

By and large, I agree with Schumacher’s perspective, although I find many of his points and assumptions to be a bit simplistic. Schumacher discusses how historically when the rich have taken aggressive action, it has been the result of their fear of the poor. I think that this explanation works, many times, at the local or national level, but it is not a wholly effective predictor of conflict at the international level. Think back in the history of this country, when plantation owners lived in fear of slave revolts. An additional example would be the constant fear that gripped the Russian aristocracy, especially leading up to the events of 1917/18. However, WWI and WWII were fought mostly between rich countries. There are additional scenarios, despite this hang-up, where I can see the Schumacherian perspective working. If Communism is seen as an action of the poor to reconcile their world perspective with that of the rich, then Vietnam/various interventions throughout Latin America (I’m thinking particularly of Guatemala, El Salvador and Chile) make sense. Applying this philosophy to today’s events, particularly the supposed “War on Terror”, becomes more tricky. I believe that perhaps Schumacher would say that this war resulted not out of fear of the poor, but out of greed and the need to acquire more natural resources (but that is pure conjecture).

I see a constant battle in this chapter between Humanism and man’s fundamental animal nature. Can we, as humans, with our ability to manipulate the environment, take steps to better our world? Or, by contrast, even with our technology/science, is “homo economicus” doomed to failure; the victim of her own desires? Schumacher adds a religious overtone to his discussion, believing that man must seek additional direction “wisdom” from a spiritual authority to temper his nature. I believe this to be one of the most controversial aspects of Schumacher’s work. What does “and God gave man dominion over the Earth” really mean? Would it be best, perhaps, to assume that there is no celestial help, and that we really must learn to care for ourselves? However, if we take this perspective, are we ultimately doomed to failure anyway? Does our search for religious perspective always force us into spiritual conflict with our fellow humans? These are questions for which there is little rational possibility of a complete answer.

Schumacher goes on to describe the conditions for which science and technology would be most helpful to humanity. These include the development of methods and equipment which are cheap enough to be accessible to the whole of humanity, suitable for small-scale application, and compatible with man’s need for creativity. (Schumacher, 20) I think that many times, at least in developed countries, our orientation is more toward wants than needs; the economy reacts in kind by producing many wants to the ignorance of needs. Consequently, when we innovate, much of this innovative energy is put into innovating more wants, not innovating for our needs. We are on the precipice of a great change, as it seems that some industries are beginning to realize that there is a demand for green products. The fact that it has taken so long to get to this point indicates just what all that change theory from back in the 60’s dictated-that people will hold on to their old ways as hard and as fast as they can. Can we innovate greed out of our industrial process? As Schumacher writes, our systems cannot do it for us.

There are many more items I could put out there for discussion, but one last point: I was routinely struck by how accurately Schumacher gazed into his crystal ball and was correct. The resource wars, the fears over the potential impact of uranium in the wrong hands, alienation and insecurity-these are our modern realities.

I look forward to your comments, as well as the direction our discourse takes over the rest of the book. Please do not feel that all posts have to be this long, that’s just how this one turned out. =-)


Chris said...

With the final Harry Potter book on the verge of release, I couldn't help connecting Schumacher's point about the limits of science and technology with Rowling's vision of the magical world: even with the incredible possibilities of their magical powers, Harry and his friends still find themselves in a broken world.

Michelle, great post! I second your point that these by no means have to be as long as yours or mine have been. Now, on to my responses…

Regarding the "rich fearing the poorer" point, you're right to show that Schumacher could have given historical examples to support his argument that the rich can also fear the rich (often even more than the poor, as he seems to suggest on p. 19). However, I didn't get the impression that he thought "historically when the rich have taken aggressive action, it has been the result of their fear of the poor" (something which he also provides no examples for). Instead, I thought he was simply taking the opposing side's position for granted to begin with, only to point out its flaws from within.

I heartily agree, however, that the Keynesian and classical economic approach to peace does not seem feasible (and personally, sounds quite deplorable). If anyone disagrees, I'd really be interested in hearing your point of view.

As for the battle "between Humanism and man’s fundamental animal nature," I too see it going on. In fact, I think this tension within us has to be one of our most fundamental problems. We live in this peculiar state of being quite dependent upon and intertwined within our evolved physicality, yet in some mysterious sense we are simultaneously able to consciously transcend (to a limited degree) our instinctual tendencies. Not only is this the concern of nearly every major religion, but it's also been one of the most talked about subjects in 19th and 20th century philosophy.

So indeed, it would be difficult to get to the bottom of this in one little blog post (though I will keep these issues in the back of my mind). And again, it would have been nice to see more explanation from Schumacher himself concerning his beliefs. Honestly, if there's one recurring theme in these essays of his--often originally talks that he gave--it's that they're packed full of interesting ideas that unfortunately have remarkably little development. Is this a tendency in his writing? Or are we simply missing out on the Q&A that would have originally taken place with our author? Yet where was the editing before publication? Or was he more concerned with simply getting the ideas out into the public forum, rather than provide a full blown defense of each and every one? Perhaps one can only speculate...

steven said...

I will mix my would-be comments with my next post...