Money and Technology: The Alternate Worlds

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I tend to think of money as an alternate world, or creating an alternate world. Currency of the old-fashioned sort is derived from natural materials, but I can’t see it as part of the natural world. And now, when money is part of a computer memory as much as it is anything, I find it difficult to see it as anything but an abstraction. A very powerful abstraction, though.

I think money must have come into being with technology, as human societies became more complex. When you have cities instead of just tribes, a medium of exchange becomes necessary. Now it’s evolved into an ideology, and in concert with technology, insulates us from the natural world.

According to Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae, humans created society to protect themselves from the destructive power of nature. On the one hand we piously talk about how nature gives us everything, but on the other, it can and does take everything away, often with little notice.

Humans have used technology to create worlds that were safer and more secure for themselves. But that effort became unbalanced and metastasized. Nature is the basis of our life, and while it’s legitimate for us to protect ourselves from her destructiveness (notice that nature is always referred to as a woman), the history of the western hemisphere seems to coincide (though the tendency must have started much earlier) with an exploitative attitude towards nature.

Wendell Berry, in The Unsettling of America says that although the exploitative mindset was always dominant in the European conquest of these continents, there was also always a nurturing strain, certainly among the farmers who decided that here was a good place to settle, and entered into a relationship with their land. He’s a farmer himself, farming land that’s been in his family for some 200 years, so he knows something of this from the inside.

But the paradigm of exploitation is dominant in this country and the rest of the developed world, as also in the former colonies. And it has reached the point of serious consequences. It’s more comfortable to deny that climate change is because of human activity as much as anything else. And even less palatable is the idea that climate change is a subset of pollution, which has several other unpalatable booby-traps waiting for us. As  various plant and animal species are driven into extinction, we have less of a foundation on which to live. But we don’t often consider that.

Technology hasn’t been content to create just artificial worlds: it’s taken to creating virtual worlds too. Farms are artificial worlds. Barns protect livestock from the weather, so they can be taken care of by farmers and used to produce milk or food. Crops are artificially planted every year and watched over to make sure they grow, insofar as the farmers can control that, so that farmers make a living, and the land continues to be fertile.

Virtual worlds include movies, TV and the internet.The worlds they invent have little to do with the natural world. They may include others, but are largely imaginary, even if based on realistic situations. Artworks aren’t supposed to take all your time and attention, but they become more profitable if they do.  Everyone who sells you something intends for you to keep on buying from them, to become obsessed with their product so that you wouldn’t just buy one time and then do something else. That’s the sense in which addictive drugs are the perfect product: once you’re hooked, no sales pitch is needed.

Berry says the exploiter’s approach is to make a killing, rather than a living, and to do as little work as possible. Work has become devalued, as something we all want to avoid. But do we have a right, he asks, to avoid it? Nature made farms possible, but didn’t provide them fully equipped. Human labor did that, and the farm may be seen as the archetype of how to live in nature: cooperatively rather than exploitatively. If we won’t cooperate with nature, eventually nature won’t cooperate with us.

And making a killing, attractive as it may be, is also a questionable activity. It usually means making a lot of money no matter the consequences to one’s self or anyone else. While capitalism has accomplished amazing things, the temptation to profit at any cost is inherent in it, and is a danger to the world and human society. Money is a very tempting idol to worship.

Maybe we’ve reached the position of the child who wants unconditional love to continue, even though he or she has reached the age of responsibility. If we refuse responsibility, certain things will happen, and we probably won’t like them. An old saying is that ignorance of the law is no excuse. That particularly applies to nature’s laws.

As a species we’ve been refusing responsibility a long time, and the bills are starting to come due. Money may have a certain kind of reality (inflation argues that it does), but it’s also a delirious dream that many of us would do almost anything for, without regard to the ethics or morality of what we do. Just because cyanide separates gold from ore doesn’t make soaking a mining area in cyanide a good idea. And internal combustion engines are among the leading producers of carbon dioxide at the same time that we’re destroying forests that would use the CO2 and provide us oxygen in return. One of the results of this seems to be not only excess CO2 in the atmosphere–one of the leading causes of global warming, but excess CO2 in the ocean, rendering the ocean too acidic to support life as it has in the past. One of many ways of destroying the foundation of life that supports us, as well as other plant and animal species. And what’s bad for other organic life is also bad for us.

These human activities are undertaken primarily for profit. Profit is sacred in the money universe, but in the material world it leaves out other values.

Wendell Berry points out that agribusiness as it is now wants to charge as much as possible for its products, while consumers want to pay as little as possible. Money is the dominant factor in this dynamic, while other values get lost.

Profitablility drives farmers to produce as much as possible, which means that farms have to be extremely large, and to use cruel and short-term strategies to produce as much  as possible. Quantity drives out quality in both the food we eat and the treatment of the land and livestock that produces it.

Traditional farmers came up with the idea of rotating crops and leaving certain areas of land fallow to ensure the land’s continuing fertility. Soil is a very complex phenomenon, and mistreatment can destroy its fertility ought not to be planted all. Profitability is an incentive to plant on such land, and not to rotate crops. It demands more of the soil than the soil should be asked to give. Artificial fertilizers and insecticides are also a bad idea, though they increase yield.They’re bad because they depend on petroleum and power to produce crops, instead of techniques that work in harmony with the natural world. They’re also at least questionable because they introduce chemicals into the environment whose effects we don’t know. That’s at least reckless behavior, and may have negative consequences we have little idea of. Greed prompts these illogical and unthought-out behaviors.

Native Americans had a different view of the land: it belonged to God, and COULDN’T belong to individuals. At least one chief of a western tribe foresaw our mistreatment of the land. Being unable to oppose it, he was resigned to it, but didn’t think it was right.

So money is our obsession, and the main thing we depend on. We would be on firmer ground if we depended on traditional skills to take care of our environment, but blind worship of technological fixes coupled with greed to make ever more profit blinds us to the dangers of our behavior.

Traditional farmers, on the other hand, HAD to have a whole variety of skills. A farm demands that kind of versatility. A farmer has to know how to do many things to take care of animals and crops, buildings, equipment, etc. Specialization has its place in society, but can become too narrow to the point of being unable to see alternative solutions to problems.

Farming was considered a lower-class activity, even though the rest of society depended on what the farmers produced. An innovation in this country was farms where individuals could own their own land, rather than being employees of large landowners. Obviously this wasn’t true in all areas, especially the South, but it was a lot more true than in Europe, where there was a great deal less land, and a formidable establishment that monopolized most of it.

So we now see the United States becoming a similar establishment, in which individual farmers are unable to survive. Berry points out that official thought on this in the 1960s and 70s was that this was good, and conceived agriculture’s productive capacity as a weapon to be used internationally. He doesn’t at all like the idea of food as a weapon, and also sees these officials as not realizing the social dislocations that the loss of family farms produced.

Things haven’t changed much since he was writing this book. There are no more family farms than there were then, and little for people to do in small communities, which is why drug problems are no longer confined to cities. When people feel trapped, drugs are one of the things they’re likely to turn to.

Family farms were once the source of a practical morality. Laziness would be punished in a pretty unmistakable way, so successful farmers weren’t lazy. They also realized that they would need help at times, so they helped their neighbors.

Such areas were the source of community, which is lacking in this country now. Loneliness and alienation have to do with the lack of meaningful community, which may also have to do with lack of meaningful work, but may also have to do with isolating effects of technology. TV, movies, and the internet may give the illusion of community, but not the real thing.

People now routinely leave the areas they grew up in and reinvent themselves elsewhere. That’s not intrinsically bad, but may not provide the sort of deep connection that humans really need. Not everyone wants to live where everyone knows them and everything about them, but may need that kind of environment more than they realize. Not all communities are good, but humans need community, which may have a lot to do with the fear and despair we see in contemporary society. Too little community means little trust, and inability to trust leads to fear, and fear leads to terribly destructive behavior.

Family farms may have provided a corrective to that sort of loneliness. They wouldn’t have prevented loneliness entirely, but they did provide roots that many of us now lack.

They also were units of independence. Traditional farmers had to be able to do many things, and the result of their work was being able to support themselves, with minimal dependence on anyone or anything else.

That sort of independence is highly praised, but doesn’t actually exist in many places now. Most of us are dependent on the power grid and the mass transportation that brings us our food, our cars, and the fuel for them. Without those things we don’t survive–unless we take the trouble to learn the skills of survival.

Money and technology have transposed survival into a different world from nature. We are dependent on both. And the alternate and virtual worlds are a contraction of consciousness of both our actual condition and how to solve the problems brought about by the very tools (now become idols to worship) that we thought would set us free.

 

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