(Actually) Living Walden Two

A utopia is, by definition, nowhere. But that has not stopped people from trying to make it somewhere.

Most attempts throughout history to create such communities separately from society were done so for religious or political reasons. More recently, such communities were created as scientific utopias. Many of them were inspired by a single book called Walden Two, by B.F. Skinner.

Skinner was one of the most prominent behavioral psychologists of the 20th century. Turns out he originally wanted to be a novelist, but went into behavioral psych instead.

Its thrust is that human society is grossly inefficient, and that all of us working against each other makes a society where nobody is happy. By living communally and using behavioral psychology to shape human expectation and behavior, a planned society can make life better for everyone. It presents a completely different way of living than we experience now. Continue reading

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The Story of Our Stories: Part III

Continued from Part II

Meta-narrative and the Individual

“You are the Hero of your own story.”

– Joseph Campbell

Thinking of ourselves as heroes is an intoxicating idea. What better way to imagine the arc of our lives than slaying dragons and the rescuing princesses? We imagine that we are lionized the way we lionize politicians, business leaders, artists. We value people that make their lives their own, that carve out their own destinies.

This is the idea that a person can, and should, be an individual, that they should forge their own path through the darkness of existence. The rights of the individual, and the liberty of the individual, should come before the needs of the state. It is the story of human dignity, in whatever form that might take.

We believe that a person should be able to chose the path for themselves. That we should be free to work, free to build lives, free to speak, and free to worship as we please. It is the cornerstone of our civic religion. It is a good and noble thing.

But there are problems with the way we venerate the individual. Continue reading

The Story of Our Stories: Part II

Continued from Part I

The Meta-Narratives and Their Destruction

The term was coined by Jean-François Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. He described meta-narratives as the ‘big’ stories that we tell ourselves that help us understand the world: things like Religion, Nationalism, Racism, Capitalism, Democracy, etc.

Meta-narratives are the stories used to understand and legitimize other, smaller stories, and they are the ways by which we understand the world. In a very real sense, they’re what we use to create order and meaning out of existence. They are what gave the modern world its character. Continue reading

The Story of Our Stories: Part I

1969.

A Cleveland train running over the Cuyahoga River throws off sparks from its fly-wheels. The sparks land white hot in the river below.

The river, however, doesn’t swallow these sparks. They don’t land harmlessly on the water. Instead, the river ignites:

Cuyahoga River

Rivers used to burn in this country. It’s odd and scary, but true.

But the 1969 fire did more than throw smoke on downtown Cleveland. It helped create a national impetus for environmental control. It was in that era that the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts were passed, and environmental protection agencies at both the federal and the state levels were created.

We, of course, are still having the conversation about conservation, especially with climate change so high in the national consciousness. But Progress was made. We are better than we were before

Progress is the idea that life will be better for our children than it is for us. It is the idea that the inevitable march of technology, of social justice, of economic power, will lead to better, more free lives than were available for our ancestors.

This also rests on the bedrock idea that life was terrible before society. That things began, as Thomas Hobbes put it, with:

no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.That’s weird, though, when you think about it.

Small children understand sharing before anyone tells them about it. They understand fairness. They want to help each other.

The archaeological record that we have of early humans showed that they took care of the sick and aged. They gave proper funerals for their brothers and sisters that died. They made art.

But what about agriculture? Surely that was Progress. There’s no way food could be more abundant and predictable in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which predominated before agriculture. Hunting and gathering would be a lifestyle exposed to famine and want.

While it is difficult to understand ancient societies, which left no written records, there are a few ways we can determine which type of society afforded a better life. First, we can look at societies that are still hunting and gathering, and we can look at the remains of those ancient hunter-gatherers.

On both counts, the evidence for Progress is shaky.

To the first point, hunter-gatherers didn’t work nearly as many hours as we do. The ones still around only work between 20-40 hours a week; sometimes they work as little as 12. Work itself was different as well. Because hunter-gatherer work is so varied and requires knowledge and creativity, it seemed less like work and more like play. Work was not toil to them. Most living hunter-gatherers don’t even have a word for it, and even when they do, they use it to describe interactions with outsiders, not their own labor.

These societies that still exist are also much more egalitarian and less stratified than their agricultural counterparts. It is only with the excess that agriculture produces that we see the rise of classes:

Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses.

Jared Diamond, the author of the above quote, uses the fact that the remains of the ancient elite indicate their superior health, in terms of bone lesions caused by disease, superior height, and fewer cavities than the common people. He uses the same tactic to speak of the difference between hunter-gatherers and early farmers, relaying that modern Greeks and Turks still have yet to recover their former pre-agricultural height.

Continue reading

Abby Library

Come in

The door has no lock
It is warm to the touch
Warm and kempt and polished with hand-oil

The books sip dusklight
And drink heavy from the lamps
They are ready for a banquet
That makes tables groan in protest

There are breaths
As loud as engines
Bells, as loud as shot
Furious, a ticking clock

Is small and slow here
Its arms heavy with perfume
The smoke of old dreams
Turning into something else

A shop-worn place
Of well-used lives
Weeded of vanity

By a librarian that knows his work.

God in the (Vending) Machine

The first job that ever taught me anything was at a bar by my house. My commute was a five-minute drive.

It was late one night, the end of a shift, and I was wrapping up the host booth. Not too far away, one of the bouncers was there eating.

He was a great guy, great at his job, rarely complained. From what I could gather, his life wasn’t easy, but that night he was eating like a king; the kitchen had cooked a steak by accident, so that was what he was getting for an end-of-shift meal.

We started chatting, and he told me that earlier, he had thought of how great a steak might be. This thought, he said, had been broadcast to the universe, and the universe had provided him with a steak, just like he wanted. He was convinced that this was the secret to getting rich, living life to the fullest, and being successful. He talked about it like a preacher talks God, or a barefoot runner talks about how running shoes ruin your joints.

I didn’t think much of this at the time, but looking back, this was my first encounter with a particular American belief system, one supersedes all our other beliefs, even the Christianity many of us believe to be the bedrock of our country.

It’s part of a faith I call the religion of the Vending Machine God.

The Vending Machine God has its own church. It has its own texts, doctrine, and clergy.

It’s a faith you’ve never heard of, but it’s everywhere.
Continue reading