Going Out to Market

With the introduction of the market within economic systems, we see the power of the capitalist class over the people. Capitalists, who hope to protect their capital/wealth, push their values onto society and help to maintain the economic system still in place today. Karl Polanyi discusses the emergence of the market economy in his book The Great Transformation. The hegemony the capitalist class has over the people has created what Polanyi explains as the belief in spontaneous progress. It makes individuals within society followers to the ideas of the elite and creates a blind spot of the true power and influence held by there people. While this market system is perceived as emerging within societies around this world, this does not mean the people have control over it or agree with it. Increasing awareness on the hidden costs within a market system have created a backlash by proletariats around the world.

This market economy allows for the accumulation of capital and assumes that all individuals will focus on maximizing their own profit.  The limited regulations created in the market economy along with the privatization of land allows externalized costs. One important externalized cost is environmental degradation which has become a major consequence of capitalism. Pollution, habitat depletion, dead zones, reduction in biodiversity, etc. have all been consequences of the nonregulated market system. From a social perspective, capitalism has been shown to alienate people dissolving community bonds and social ties. The repetitive forms of labor and the separation from production found within a market economy have created apathy towards work for many laborers. The disappearance of passion in the work individuals do also hurts the mentality of individuals.

Polanyi goes on to explain that a market economy could only occur within a market society. (Fun side note: An example of how our society has been shaped by the market is how we think of time. “I spent some time with my friends” “don’t waste my time”. We monetized our time and it is fairly common within our culture to speak of time in the form of monetary value. As a minimum wage worker, I tend to look at items I buy in terms of how many hours I worked and do an analysis on whether the suffering was worth the item!) This helps explain why changes towards sustainability are so hard to accomplish: it would chip away the society helping to maintain the economic system. Actions towards sustainability can only occur with a systemic overturn of the economic system enforced. This in turn would allow societal changes to create a more sustainable world.

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The Gift of Life

Within the conversation: The Gift Economy and the Commons, Charles Eisenstein (from first glance, I thought his last name was Einstein!) and James Quilligan discuss the faults of the current economic setup and suggest potential solutions for the future. A major focus within the talk was the idea of the gift economy; this is the idea that focuses on reciprocity and potentially redistribution. This idea, although not labeled the same way, is brought up frequently within my major. A gift economy focuses on the commons. People within the system rely on each other for capital in the form of resources or labor and therefore will help each other to survive. This system works fantastically in peasant communities today which I have studied in my anthropology courses. One example is a Peruvian peasant community who share a common pool resource, water, through equally distributing the water to all residents. The system relies on the participation of all residents within the community and has been efficient in reducing almost all forms of crime within the community. Individuals within these gift economies rely on their social bonds as a source of survival and this is idea is defined as social capital. While these communities are fantastic for living more sustainably, it has an issue of scalability. Since social bonds are an important part of the system, everyone needs to know each which limits the potential of this system to maybe a few thousand. This makes it impractical to apply to a global scale due to the nation-states already in place, unless we completely overthrow all economic and government systems!

In the sixth chapter of Jane Jacobs’ book, The Nature of Economies, the characters discuss the idea of human nature. The author argues that ingrained within the minds of human beings are characteristics that inhibit them from destroying the planet. Other species inhabiting the globe do not destroy their surrounding environment due to the reliance on the resources. While this is also ingrained into the human psyche, the author argues there are more traits that impact human behavior. One aspect that was brought up in the chapter was this idea of “aesthetic appreciation”. It is fascinating that on a globe scale, human beings share this amazement and intrigue in the beauties of nature. Every individual can find one aspect of nature that they can appreciate or find beauty in. Aesthetics is an important factor in the reasoning as to why humans do not completely destroy the planet. The author also modifies the traditional definition of fitness to encompass the idea that individuals with high fitness “must have traits which prevent it from destroying its own habitat.” Within this new definition, it makes me question what the fitness is of human beings in the modern generation compared to other species. The change in the definition creates a linear relationship where the higher the fitness of the individual, the more sustainable they are.

We the Corporation

The documentary We the People 2.0 addressed a stressing issue in American society: our fading democracy. They started the documentary bluntly when stating “let people think they govern and they will be governed”. People perceive the United States to be a democracy since our Constitution starts with the phrase “We the people” but in reality, this is becoming less of the case. Actions speak louder than words and the actions of the government show legislation is enacted not with the people in mind but corporations. The documentary spanned over portions of the United States to show the failings of the government to protect the people in “sacrifice zones”. These are areas with horrific pollution from either factories, farms, mining, or drilling. This has degraded local environments and has had major health impacts on the local community. Despite the outcry of local residents, all levels of government have explained there is nothing that can be zone which shows the power of the corporations over the political process. But, the local residents used their power of the masses to take control of the situation and create their own rules outside of the government system. Cities around the nation started to create their own unique Bill of Rights which protected not only the citizens from these corporate exploitations but also nature itself. These Bill of Rights were proposed and accepted in dozens of cities which has created better environments for people to live in. The documentary not only shows the faults of the government in protecting its’ citizens through the social contract theory but it also shows the strife citizens had to go to through to create change. The bureaucracy within our government and the influence of money over politicians reduces the capabilities of individuals to reinvoke democracy in our society.

When the Constitution was being created, Madison and the other white men writing it wanted to avoid mob rule, basically a true democracy. They believed that the average citizen was not bright enough to make decisions for the sake of the nation which is why the initial check and balance was created on the people. This was done in the form of delegates and representatives who are supposed to speak for the people. So, we can complain that our democracy is fading with corporate controls, but we could also argue that our democracy was always limited by the way our political system is set up. These representatives are supposed to vote to support their constituents’ values, but they are also free to make decisions for their own well-being. The introduction of corporate money into the political scheme has stripped away our power over our legislative members because no longer do these individuals need to rely on citizens for their position in office and campaign funding but can rely mainly on these corporate machines.

Within my major of anthropology, we discuss the issue of international policies and globalization. A major part of the discussion is the role of economics around the globe and the proper way to analyze it. As Jane Jacobs explains in her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, nations are not the proper level of scale for analysis since there is economic diversity within. The anthropological perspective for the proper level of economic analysis follows the Marxian ideology of class level. Within the bourgeoisies or capitalist class, there is homogeny and the same goes for the proletariat class. I was intrigued when Jacobs explained that cities were the proper level of analysis considering the diversity of economic systems within. As an individual with limited knowledge in economics, a lot of her explanations flew over my head. She argues import replacement is the only way an economy can grow. Import replacement is the idea that instead of relying on materials to come in, a city could instead produce the products themselves. She then goes on to say that when this happens, the imports the city obtains will change to other types of imports creating economic growth since there are both the created products within the city and also the imported products from external areas.

Get Your Gut Checked

Throughout this course, the most important idea stressed is a systemic view towards society. This focuses on the ideas found within nature where everything interacts and impacts each other. Almost nothing is mutually exclusive and independent. Once this idea is accepted, it becomes a game of finding systems in our everyday lives and changing our perspective to a systems view.

Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician, uses this systemic view when addressing health. He calls it a biopsychosocial perspective and it is the idea that our culture can impact our health. This can come from social, economic, and/or political outlets and multiple sources of research have found that stress from our environment have long term impacts on the health of individuals. In Maté’s speech, Toxic Culture – How Materialistic Culture Makes Us Ill, he starts off by explaining rates of mental and physical illness are alarmingly high in the United States and lists chilling statistics like fifty percent of adults suffer from some type of chronic illness, for example. Maté stresses the idea that living in stressful environments doesn’t only impact the stressed individual but everyone around them. The unique medicine this physician suggests to heal people is community. By having a support group and being surrounded by caring individuals, the overall health of an individual increases. Externalizing the issue of health to be influenced by our environment makes health issues a systemic issue. To truly improve the health of a society, we need to improve our community ties and shift away from materialism. Maté explains that materialism allows people to falsely fill holes in their lives with resources when it instead should be filled with relationships and friends. Consumers have essentially become addicts. To fill the empty part of our lives we buy clothes, eat food, use drugs, etc. Falsely filling our needs creates a continual process of sorrow which can easily be fixed if we had instead focused on creating community ties.

One could argue that this push towards consumerism during times of sorrow or stress can be subconscious decisions as individuals try to fulfill their needs in the fastest way possible. This subconscious mind fuels a lot of our decisions and shapes the behavior of individuals. Malcolm Gladwell discusses this idea deeper in the book Blink. The book uses diverse examples within our society to show the importance of our subconscious or “gut instinct” in our everyday activities. This “gut instinct” uses feelings instead of logic to determine our actions leading individuals to be unable to explain their reasoning behind their decision-making when using their subconscious mind. In an evolutionary sense, this subconscious brain is important because it allows humans to react quickly in a form of “fight or flight” but it can create issues in modern society. Stereotypes and prejudices enforced by mainstream society can become ingrained in the subconscious impacting the way people act around different ethnic groups, sexes, and genders. While this can make people lose a sense of hope in creating change since we are conditioned a certain way by our subconscious, Gladwell ensures we should not lose hope just yet. This error in thought that creates prejudices towards people can be fought. A tumblr post I read once (not the most creditable source but still useful) said “the first thought that goes through your mind is what you have been conditioned to think. What you think next defines who you are.” So, when these thoughts come, fight them back. Gladwell explains some of the subconscious responses are so miniscule that we could not possibly notice but we should try to become more aware of our actions to reduce the power of our subconscious. Become Golomb the salesman!

The Cultural Price Tag

As an anthropologist, we study human beings and a major aspect of that is their culture. Culture has been defined in a multitude of ways depending on the theoretical perspective of the researcher, but one overlying theme is shared between them: culture is created by the people. The ability to create and alter culture should stay within the hands of the people but the documentary RIP: A Remix Manifesto showed how this idea has changed in today’s society. The entertainment industry has created a monopoly on music in the form of copyrights which limit the creative capacities of individuals within a culture. There was a glimpse of hope with the creation of the internet which allowed information to be quickly shared and downloaded around the world, including music, but downloading music quickly became illegal to support big business. The fight between “intellectual property” and the “public domain” is the major focus of the documentary as it shows the immense benefits of public domain in the form of the creative process. Allowing everyone to share their ideas allows others to build off of them which can advance cultural changes and the spread of ideas. The documentary portrayed the system of copyright enforcement as a way for big businesses to “manipulate” the people and their culture for profit. Capitalism tries to monetize the world around them which has led to the control over ideas in all aspects of society. By monetizing and privatizing the entertainment industry, copyrights are an example of a degenerative system.

Big businesses hope to maximize their profits in anyway possible which leads to the capitalization of culture in the form of the entertainment industry. While this is the case, cultural change follows an emergent system that big business cannot always control. A new cultural subgroup in the world are these cultural creatives that are blossoming around the United States. Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson discuss this group’s values and basic background in their book, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World. This is a group of environmentalists and truth-seekers and minimalists and community-focused individuals. They go against the grain of the “mainstream” culture in American society but they follow a better, more sustainable path for cultural growth. Cultural Creatives despise materialism, stratification, and question government and corporate actions. These individuals are slowly influencing American culture and bringing awareness to their values and beliefs. While some people will claim they are cultural creatives, one major factor distinguishing this group is their authenticity. It is the idea of “actions speak louder than words”; this group’s actions accurately correlate to the values of the cultural subgroup. People who claim to follow this cultural subgroup are not true cultural creatives unless their actions follow the same values.

One example of cultural creatives within the book was the hyper car. A company created a car that was extremely lightweight by using carbon fiber and efficient which made the car comparatively more environmentally friendly than other cars. Instead of putting a patent on their idea, the company gave it away for others to create. The focus was not on creating a profit but instead bettering society. This ties to the documentary and the importance of “public domain”. Our society should consist of more collaborators than private owners.

“Fail Early, Fail Often”

 

The Documentary, Replan It, focuses around inventor and founder of the Full Belly Project, Jock Brandis, as he tries to create technological solutions for developing countries. Brandis focuses on keeping the technologies fairly simplistic and cost-effective so that local communities could maximize their use of the machinery. The Full Belly Project is a great example of sustainable practices by focusing on renewable sources of energy and creating a systemic way of learning when creating new technologies. From the peanut desheller to the water pump in a school well, all invented systems by Brandis are either powered by solar energy or human beings. Not only does this have environmental benefits but also cost benefits because relying on fossil fuels for energy is too expensive to be reliable in these areas. Using the communities labor or harnessing the sun for energy gives the community a constant source of energy to create independence from other expensive, unreliable forms. During the creative process of making these diverse technologies, the Full Belly Project follows their slogan of “Fail Early, Fail Often” to help allow for out-of-the-box thinking. The organization differs from others because when trying to come up with solutions, they conduct experiments and use hand on learning practices. This a systemic way of thinking where everyone builds off of each other’s knowledge to come to solutions. The organization has been fairly successful in their endeavors of giving communities around the world sustainable technological innovations to increase local efficiency.

A major theme in sustainability is learning from nature and applying it to human systems. Last week proved to be an interesting example of this by focusing on biomimicry. Since the natural world has been inhabiting the planet sustainably for a long span of time, humans should look towards nature as the example. This week, slime molds take the center stage as another example of looking to nature for solutions. Steven Johnson discusses this mold within his book: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. The slime mold has become famous for it’s complexity that scientists do not fully comprehend. The organism is a collection of autonomous agents which means that there is no one central area of control leading the actions of the mold. This was baffling to scientists as the mold was able to learn and do complex tasks without any central “brain”. This means that the mold follows a complex adaptive system where an organism will adapt as a whole over time as the autonomous agents try to accomplish simple rules or tasks (the prioritization of obtaining food). Within a single agent, the system is not seen as complex, but as a whole unit or organism, the capabilities are mind-blowing. This is the overlying idea of emergence which is defined as simple entities operating in an environment forming complex behaviors as a collective. The slime mold was just a stepping stone into this idea which can be found widespread in nature. Schools of fish and the way they move according to their surrounding environment is another great example of this.

After spending some time thinking about the idea of emergence, I found some difficulty when trying to apply this idea to human beings. When I looked up “examples of emergence in human society”, I found the definition of emergence slightly modified to fit human terms. Emergence was now redefined as the idea that when a group of humans is left free to regulate themselves, they tend to produce spontaneous order. While this definition is easier to grasp, I am still uncapable of creating any real-world examples. Help!

Biomimicry and the New American Dream

 

Janine Benyus, cofounder of Biomimicry 3.8, is an avid environmentalist pushing the developmental concept of biomimicry for the future. In her TED Talks, she explains biomimicry as copying nature for future designs. The importance behind this is that the natural world has been living on the world sustainably for a lot longer than humans have been inhabiting the planet; by following the ideas created in nature, Benyus hopes that the human species can live on the planet sustainably for a long time. Her presentations consisted of listing creative and intriguing examples of biomimicry being applied in societies and ties them to the natural systems occurring around the world. These examples showed the out-of-the-box thinking on the part of the engineers and designers, but her speeches left me wanting more. Lots of sustainable options tend to occur at a small scale and I wish Benyus could have addressed the success of these technologies long term. Statistical long-term research studies were needed to show the viewers their practicality, scalability, financial feasibility, and efficiency. While the idea of biomimicry gives me hope for the future it also leaves me with a feeling of skepticism. Only time will tell if these sustainable designs will take over the world and save the future. While Benyus looks for technical innovations and designs for the future, Courtney Marin instead stresses the importance on social reform.

In The New American Dream TED Talk, Courtney Martin proposes a new ideal for Americans to try to achieve. She begins her presentation with the stark analysis that this will be the first generation of society that will not be better off than the previous one. Because of this, Martin explains that instead of focusing on economic prosperity, societies should look towards social prosperity. Research has shown that people feel happier when connected through a community of interdependence than when in an independent living style. Her ideology of a new American dream fits a sustainable mindset as community is an important focus in sustainable living.

One aspect of her speech I want to discuss is when she states in times of comfort we do not grow or think of change. This idea is a major part of why people fear the consequences of taking steps towards sustainability. The standard of living within the United States is extravagant compared to the rest of the world and we do not want to lose what we have. Uncertainty is contained within the environmental agenda as some fear sustainable societies mean the complete uprooting of the capitalist system and therefore their livelihood. Our consumer model has made humans comfortable while the globe suffers around them and while the familiar is comfortable, people are not going to want to create drastic changes. It is because of this comfort that true environmental changes cannot occur until individuals are pushed outside of their comfort zones. This will probably be when it is too late. People learn from their mistakes and grow from them but right now our mistakes are being pushed to the side because we are comfortable with where we are. The disappearance of comfort will lead to the appearance of change, hopefully towards a more sustainable path.