Marxismo Ecológico: The “I Have a Midterm Tomorrow” Edition

I’m writing this post essentially as a review for my parcial (midterm exam) tomorrow afternoon… however I do find this stuff important and interesting and I’ve been pleasantly surprised in my studies to find Marx’s opinions on the human-nature relationship both logical and… agreeable — not generally the word people would associate with the author of such world-infamous revolutionary dogmata. But my goal, by the end of this (hopefully concise) post is to convince you that Marx was not only an extremely progressive ‘environmentalist’, but furthermore founded his entire body of academic work on the necessity of repairing the human-nature relationship. Which (spoiler alert) he eventually says is impossible to do within the context of our current capitalist system, and thus suggests socialism or communism, and.. yeah. Revolution, yadda yadda etc.

So let’s start off tens of thousands of years ago, when the first human-ish populations were hunting and gathering and hadn’t quite figured out how to plant seeds in a row. At that point, humans did effect their ecosystems, but only proportionately similarly to any other animal specie of our size and reproductive prowess. All of that Native-American-Pocahontas lore of living with nature and respecting (her) natural flows? That, according to Marx, is the only sustainable state that humans have ever known. We had to respect nature’s flows, because even early humans’ primative ‘ecology’ enlightened them to realize that if you overuse a resource, it dries out, whether it be animal/plant/fish/bug/water. Even then, if early humans DID overuse a resource, they often would pack up camp and leave, allowing for nature to naturally replenish itself, causing (as far as we know) little long term harm.

Then we discovered how to plant seeds in a row. Agriculture, that crazy paradigm shift that allowed humans to generate food surplus which allowed for some humans to specialize and craft goods which could then be traded with other humans so that we could build massive, dirty campsites and generally distance ourselves from soil toils; this, the dissociation the human producer from the source of his production (nature) is problematized by Marx as the metabolic rift, (referencing the action of intaking and transforming (labor) resources and outputting goods as a type of metabolism). Since we are not directly connected to our own production from natural resources, Marx says we are alienated from nature; capitalism inserts labor between man and nature, which indicates, given the emergence of large-scale agriculture, long-distance trade, and general globalization, that this metabolic rift is only intensifying.

And the result of this metabolic rift is the ideology that modern capitalism was built upon: the Great Chain of Being; Natural Theology; the teleological notion that nature was created by God or a higher power for man to use and abuse (the bible actually says that we should act as a “shepherd” to nature, implying an element of caretaking, but that was conveniently overlooked by Christian colonialism). Ownership by divine providence, says Marx, is a philosophical idealism which has been used to justify and encourage the domination of nature by man. Hence, we have private property, anthropocentric arrogance, and the earth and her resources are commodified whilst man is elevated to a semi-devine, non-animal, non-God, ‘superior being’.

In contrast to this idealism is Marx’s materialism, which could be understood as ‘thinking scientifically.’ We are comprised of matter, and even though we can’t see them, atoms, and we are the product of millions of years of evolution by way of natural selection according to the laws of nature. According to this epistemology, man is clearly not anything divine or superior, and even though we’ve operated (..since hunter-gatherer days) on the false ideology that we’re not part of nature and are not subject to the same set of natural rules and regulations as the rest of our biotic community, we are just as much a production of our evolutionary pathway as is a flea.

Though, says materialist philosophy, we are different, in that we have actually changed the earth itself over time, and as we went about transforming the world, we transformed ourselves:

primates, who constituted the ancestors of human beings, descended from the trees, erect posture developed first (prior to the evolution of the human brain), freeing the hands for tool-making. In this way:

the hand became free and could henceforth attain ever greater dexterity and skill, and the greater flexibility thus acquired was inherited and increased from generation to generation. Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour.

Our brain is perhaps the most remarkable result of this reflexive socio-natural relationship— as we developed cultural items, such as the ability to use tools or pass on knowledge or ultimately develop language, natural selection also acted to favor those who were most adept at participating in such culture, leading to our current cranial capacities which we’ve neatly abused to figure out the most creative freaking ways to destroy the earth that birthed us. Anyways,

So now we’re here today with our titanic chasm of a metabolic rift, and frankly it’s not even the religion idea that motivates our further worldly destruction but rather flat anthropocentrism, justified by the exalted pursuit of profit (which is still part of the idealist philosophy, as anthropocentrism is a teleology)— where does sustainability fit in? What happened to respecting the laws of nature, which are still-and-forever-will-be conditions of the human existence? How can we justify ownership of this land? Finally in line with his esteemed manifesto, Marx writes:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].

We’ve been shitty heads of the household. And I’m certain we will continue, if not worsen, our reign of terror.

Capitalism, writes Marx, “creates the material conditions for a new and higher synthesis, a union of agriculture and industry…” — in other words, capitalism is a powerful engine which has led us to a point where we’ve got the brains and brawn to figure out a path towards a “higher synthesis”, which he suggests to be a system of “rational agriculture, which needs small independent farmers producing on their own…” and the regulation of associated producers. HOWEVER, since we’re humans, and we’ve got to have free will and self determination and especially-in-God-bless-AMURICA, this sort of regulation is immediately termed socialism or communism, which it very well could be, except it won’t, because these systems fail, or at least we’re convinced they do.

DOOM AND GLOOM, we’ll probably keep hacking and fracking until Iceland is an anachronism and Sweden is the only place with no garbage.

Until then, VIVA LA REVOLUCION

***

~~ Keep in mind, Marx was convinced of the omnipotence of reestablishing our metabolic link in ~1850’s, long before the Teddy Roosevelts and Rachel Carsons of modern environmentalism. Environmentalism wasn’t even around yet, heck, the idea of the “scientist” had just been coined in the ’30’s, and the concept of “ecology” in ’69… progressive ‘environmentalist’? I think so.

And I would call that damn concise. Have you ever read Marx????

Flow State

As I begin to write this, I would like to announce that I am currently not experiencing this yet-undescribed “flow state”. On the contrary, I’m feeling pretty tired and not particularly motivated, and I’m admittedly surprising myself by continuing to write now. And now. And tonight, because today and yesterday and for the last several weeks, I’ve felt only few scattered hours of (still-undescribed) “micro-flow”, even though I do generally consciously and meticulously arrange my life so as to lead to the highest chance of my experiencing this state of being that is called “flow”. So struggle with me here, hopefully I finish this post (having begun and abandoned a healthy handful in the last week)…

Time to define: “flow“, as first described in 1975 by positive psychologist Csíkszentmihályi Mihály, is a “state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” Mihály suggests that in order to achieve a flow state, “a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.”

It’s a very intuitive concept. It’s a reference to being “in the zone” or finding the “rhythm” or the “groove” of a task or activity. I think that this balance can be found on a micro scale, say, when you’re outside raking leaves in an autumn breeze, or gliding through the second mile of your afternoon jog, or when you’re writing or reading or browsing Reddit and everything except that singular cat GIF in front of you just melts away. Bask in it, feel alive and aware of the wondrous capacities of the human being; chase it, but not too much (consider that eating mind-numbing amounts of chicken wings or potato chips might also be considered some sort of “flow”..)

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So micro-scale flow is — nice. It feels great, and makes for great productivity and reliable momentary happiness. And I’ve had several hours of this, usually after I drink a café doble and have only before me two hours to kill and a thick stack of teoría sobre el medio ambiente en relación con la sociedad to read. Awesome.

But that’s not what I’m really talking about. That’s a nice moment, but then it’s gone. Flow state, I believe, can be achieved on a much larger scale; or, at least, Mindvalley CEO Vishen Lakhiani thinks so. In his widely viewed speeches and TEDx talk, Lakhiani describes how he turned his company around not because of busniess plans or venture capital but because be enacted a state of flow for himself and his company by monitoring and adjusting his environment so as to create conditions for flow state to regularly occur for himself and his employees. He puts it nicely: to personally achieve a state of flow, you must “be happy in the moment” and also, simultaneously, maintain “grand dreams for the future.” He describes four types of people: 1) People who are unhappy in the moment and have no dreams for the future. 2) People who are good and happy and so therefore don’t feel the need to think about the future. 3) People who are unhappy with their lives as they are but have grand visions for their future, and 4) People who are happy in their daily moment and still maintain grand dreams for the future. This fourth state would be considered (as opposed to micro) — macro-flow.

But how to get there, and then stay there. That’s the important question. Great that Mr. Lakhiani has achieved this nirvana of mind and business that has resulted in the rapid growth of his multimillion dollar company, but how can I get there myself?

Mr. Lakhiani’s suggestions are a series of progressive business practices that are meant to stimulate systematic happiness: He has his employees keep a gratitude log, which has been psychologically proven to increase one’s base happiness quotient  He has an “awesomeness bell” which he rings “only in moments of sheer and total awesomeness”; He created a company ritual where employees get handsy with a statue of Wonder Woman and yell, “I will blind you with the light of my awesomeness!”; He distributes a portion of his company’s profits (not stock options) to his employees; He constructed a web app to provide a platform for coworkers to praise each other (and encourages them to do so); He limits their working hours, and tells them to use 5 hours of their 45 hour work-week studying a  subject separate from their job; Group meditation, group sharing of outside interests, halloween parties, incredible company retreats, 3pm siestas— etc; happiness, happiness, happiness.

Innovative stuff for the labor unions, but the great takeaway for us humans is to build independent and resilient systems of happiness into our lives to keep our happiness levels elevated enough so that we can be productive.

The alternative to systems of happiness I’ll call band-aid happiness, which is the transient kind: one-more-cupcake, or one-more-pair-of-shoes, or one-more-interesting-article, by themselves, will never lead to anything but momentary happiness. Having arrived at that realization sometime towards the end of high school, I have generally considered myself against the direct pursuit of happiness. I still do not see happiness itself as a goal. A certain amount of it is necessary, as too little happiness will cause downward spirals, just as much as excessive “happiness” blinds you from the realities of life. But as Mr. Lakhiani does aptly point out, it’s about having sustainable systems of happiness that are independent of accomplishing goals or social politics or consumerism. This is a valuable takeaway.

Why, then, for the last several weeks, have I been sub-flowing? This is me, personally, wondering here. I’m asking. I know, I generally like to be the blogger-with-the-answers, because at my well-marinated age of 21 I’ve got so much experience to boot. But I am frustrated, because I don’t like not-having-answers. I spend much of my life arranging these systems of happiness. I carefully and often reflect on what activities I do and do not enjoy, and then I arrange those tasks that I do enjoy in logical portions and sequences every day. I don’t work too hard, or too much. I work effectively, for a few hours every day, and spend the rest of my days pursuing other “enjoyable” elective tasks, (reading, writing, exploring the city, being with friends, etc).

Why, then, for the last several weeks, have I been sub-flowing?

I suppose at this point in the conversation, grief is a necessary mention, as there are always moments every day where this plays into my mood and actions. But I do not think that my general state is still fully a function of this external adversary, or perhaps I just can’t see it. 

I do not think that I have a nice conclusion to this post, and I am sorry for that. No full circles or pretty metaphors, and for the record, I did not achieve anything even mildly semblant of flow while writing this. It was more laborious than you’d think, though not overly time consuming.

But I accomplished something, and that feels good. I’ll keep chasing that feeling and arranging my systems, and maybe I’ll pursue happiness a little more and spend a little less time arranging. That might be an answer. Honor thy happiness! (but only because it allows me to work! B-)

Thanks for reading, readers. May you each find your flow!

To Be, or [What] To Be?

WHAT SHOULD I BE

This is a terrifying phrase. It’s the one we laugh about as youngsters. We say fireman or doctor or pilot and dance around and forget about it until we’re almost 20 and need to… decide. What do be? What to do with my life? Where to start?!

I’m lucky. I am a rather (but not very) affluent, middle-class white male with an excellent high school education and an opportunity to study at an elite university. I am good at many things, but mostly because opportunities have been provided for me. Piano lessons, running shoes, endless familial encouragement- these things have come together to give me enormous privilege. I know it. The question is then, what should I do with this privelidge?

My goal in life, which I’ve known since I was very young, is to do the greatest good for the greatest number. This is a goal that is completed differently for each individual because we all have different strengths that allow us to contribute in vastly different (and important ways). For example, I do not know how to fly a plane, but someone who has been trained to be a pilot can contribute hugely to the world by transporting thousands of people across continents safely. I do not know nearly enough to become a doctor, but doctors contribute hugely to the world by helping thousands of individual people to retain their health and live a healthy life. How can I, personally, best contribute to the world in which I live?

For a long time, I wanted to be a doctor. Simply, (arguably, of course) it is the most direct way to help a lot of people. I have read books, books, books, about being a doctor, shadowed physicians, taken (intro) Biology, Chemistry, and Physics (3/5 of the Pre-med course load at Wesleyan) and dedicated an enormous effort to determining whether this track is correct for me.

It’s not. My skills wax creative; I am not good enough at the brunt learning that doctors must undergo. Or maybe I am capable of it (for I truly love learning), but I am harassed by too much other motivation. I am good at a certain “skills.” I am good at persuasion, inspiring people, leading, thinking creatively, digital art, music/audio manipulation, teaching/instructing, and others. I am a bit of an intense person. To circumvent a host of self-exploration and gut-spilling on the internet, I will just reveal my “plot” so-to-speak: I wish to become an entrepreneur.