Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Please help me.

(Caption: The Dalai Lama "helped" a Tibetan religious minority by; calling for a boycott of their businesses, asking businesses not to serve them, kicking them out of their homes and otherwise persecuting them. Awesome.)

Please help me. I have a problem. It's a problem of "helping." I don't know how to help. I don't think anybody does. And I want to help.

This is not a "criticism" of those who help. It's more a zen "Koan."

My artwork always explores a "problem" or "koan" like this, things that truly and deeply trouble me, and "help" is the topic of my current novel. With the Gulf Coast, and so many other recent man-made quagmires, I cannot get this problem out of my head. So my request for help is not ironic, but sincere.

And this problem is intractably wound up with the topic of this blog, central planning VS. organic, evolving culture.

I'm going to lay this out in a syllogism. If you disagree with my logic, or with any of my priors, let me know and I'll see if I can convince you, so that you can appreciate this problem and try to solve it with me.

I. We humans are full of illusions about reality and nature. This causes most, if not all, of our problems. For example, we treat nature and reality themselves as "problems" which must be overcome. Or for another example, that this current "system" of unending and exponential resource consumption is sustainable and that "security" can be had by conforming to it.

II. Human intentions to "help" are usually based on the same illusions that caused the problems, so our "help" often makes things worse, or at best, only makes our problems more philosophically... "pure."

This is far more complex than just:

I. Humans are flawed.
II. Human solutions are flawed.

Here's a quick and incomplete list of these "illusions" so you can understand why I use that word:

--Humans believe we are in conflict with nature, but in truth, we are a part of nature and we've evolved within it. Man Vs. Nature is such a fundamental assumption that its even dealt with in our art and literature. This is the human desire to re-create the world in our image. We build floating castles despite gravity, then curse nature when they come crashing down. You can see this in the current response to the Gulf oil spill.
When we pollute the water with oil, we "fix" it by adding a billion gallons of detergents containing toxic dioxin. This "disperses" the oil, keeps it from sticking together and coming on shore, where nature would have dealt with it better. Next we'll add 70 miles of artificial sand dune to that ecosystem, to again keep the oil from coming on shore where natural decomposing organisms would deal with it. This will destroy the water flow that the ecosystem evolved in and force the oil into a deep-sea area that 90% of Gulf life spends part of its life-cycle in. Which is why politicians say we need a new work program to completely "re-engineer" the gulf ecosystem that's evolved over millions of years--a project that will require a huge escalation of fossil fuel consumption and increased deep-water drilling in even more hazardous and risky conditions....

All to keep the Gulf the way we want it, to make it in OUR image, and not nature's. This also highlights a second illusion:

--We believe that "change" is a problem. Again, change is inherent in the universe. God damn the laws of thermodynamics. Natural systems are dynamic and in constant flux. But we try to "help" by fighting this. We beat our heads against reality like a wall.

--We also believe that uncertainty is a problem. Insurance has become a "responsibility" in our nation, because we believe we can mitigate every risk. But uncertainty is the nature of the human condition.

--We believe our way is best. We judge according to our own egocentrism, our ethnocentrism, our "manufactured desire" for ideas and certainty, so anything that doesn't "fit" requires "fixing."

--We believe WE know what a human being should want. But we've spent generations "manufacturing desire" for crappy products nobody needs. We can no longer tell the difference. The Hummer: Most expensive vehicle in its class, universally ranked as the worst in its class--worst quality materials, worst performance, highest complaint/vehicle ratio, horrible aesthetic design, most expensive to own and operate, bad for the planet, bad for society...

And also the best seller.

--We believe we are entitled to something for our help. But it's illogical to think that if helping OURSELVES is priority, that we will do the best job for the people we're helping. Yet, we've institutionalized "incentive" in our Western conception of "help." So mostly, we end up "helping" people into servitude to our own interests. When I examine the "help" being given these days, it's this illusion that fucks things up the most. And yet, in 'Merka, it's the most intractable of our ideals about helping.

So, how can a person "help?"


Luckymortal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luckymortal said...

That's right, "helping" even turns Tenzin Gyatso into a dickhead:


Anonymous said...

Interesting. Just some random thoughts on each of your "illusions."

Humans believe we are in conflict with nature, but in truth, we are a part of nature and we've evolved within it.

Of course we're in conflict with nature. Every living thing on this planet is in conflict with nature. Sure, we also happen to be a part of it and get everything we need from it, but I'd argue that the story of the first few thousand years of human history completely boils down to "man vs. nature." that's what leaves that trope in our art and entertainment, not some misplaced grudge against Gaia.

--We believe that "change" is a problem. Well, that depends on the change. The spill is a change. It's more or less a problem. On the other hand. should Justin Bieber lose his spot in the Billboard Top 100, I'll get over it. Perhaps what you're getting at is how we determine the difference between the two?

--We also believe that uncertainty is a problem. Of course uncertainty is a problem. I can't think of any recent catastrophe (the spill, Haiti, Katrina, 9/11) that couldn't have been at least somewhat mitigated with some foreknowledge. It simply isn't a problem with a solution, though we have a whole "intelligence" industry working on one.

--We believe our way is best. If I didn't believe my way is the best, it'd cease to be my way. :) I think this simply ties in to some of your other illusions up there; can we allow "our way" to change, and can we ever be certain we are making the right decisions? The root problem here is that for most of our country, "my way" is set in stone. A fluid "my way" that constantly re-evaluates based on new data.. can a human being ever manage any better than that?

The Hummer: (snip) bad for society... and also the best seller.

Discontinued. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hummer#Failed_sale

Maybe there's hope for us after all. :)

So, how can a person "help?"

1) Act.
2) Hope that your knowledge, foresight, abilities, or raw, unadulterated luck work in your favor to...
3) Get positive results.

Unfortunately, steps one and two there are also how you cause a worldwide catastrophe, so... good luck! :)

Luckymortal said...

Thanks for helping out!


Maybe "help" maybe cause a world-wide catastrophe--those don't seem like very good options to me!

As far as man being in conflict with nature for a few thousand years of history, that was a narrative we chose. It was one instilled in many by their religion. Look at the development of the "civilized" agriculture that was based on an attitude of working against nature:

"'Food Forests' have existed for millenia in the tropics, though early anthropologists didn't recognize them as gardens at all. Accustomed to row crops and annual vegetables, the first white visitors to the tropical home gardens assumed that the small plots of manioc beans or grain near African, Asian or South American houses provided most of the food. The surrounding tangle of vegetation was assumed to be untamed jungle and these people were branded as practicing only primitive agriculture...."

Current evidence suggests that this kind of agriculture was practiced widely before the introduction of "civilized agriculture."

But to save these "savages," we taught them to strip off their topsoil or plow it under, kill off their soil's biodiversity and plant labor-intensive monoculture crops requiring the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. People who once had food independence and a healthier diet with less work were "helped" into a position of subsistence farming with an attitude of opposing the natural processes of nature as opposed to working with them.

And now the remaining "savages" have become a university for us! They're teaching us how we can improve our agriculture by working WITH nature instead of against it.

And this is the cutting edge in many sciences. When I speak to planners and engineers, I always talk about natural systems planning. Whether we're talkking about flooding, or subdivisions or roads, engineers now agree that we're always better off to find ways to work WITH existing natural instead of against them.

If this is true, why didn't we learn this lesson long ago?

It's because we were stuck in the illusion that we had to "tame" nature.

And the biggest problem with our "fight" against nature is that, again, we are a part of this system, so we really can't win. We're finding more and more that our attempts to re-engineer nature come back to kick our asses.

You can see this oil spill as the consequence of that few-thousand-years war against nature....

And when I speak of change, I'm talking about negative change. Sure, the oil spill is a problem...

But the symptoms we hear people complaining about most are all inevitable changes: that their way of life--based on an unsustainable system--is going to change. If the oil spill had never happened, this change STILL would have come! UN says fisheries will be depleted by 2050 under the current system--sooner according to other sources!

Fighting against this "change" because we see it as a problem is only going to make things worse for everyone and everything involved.

And everybody's life is subject to change.

Uncertainty? We're human! Not omnipotent! To view uncertainty as a problem is to view not being omnipotent as a problem. The REAL problem with uncertainty is this: "helping" people move to a position of "certainty." Because, for humans, there's just no such thing!

Luckymortal said...

Oh, and yeah, we DID finally get rid of the Hummer, but we're still doomed. Proof?


Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to cede Man vs Nature to you, as it seems our passion and knowledge on this topic are not even in the neighborhood of equal (I'm also not entirely convinced we are even engaged in the same debate).

On the topic of certainty, however... Listen, reducing everything down to black and white terms, I agree that nothing is certain. Especially as an atheist and sceptic, I am willing to ponder the notion that I don't KNOW (for sure... well, anything at all. I don't KNOW that I won't be pulverized by a meteor three seconds after I type this. I don't KNOW that the sun will set at the end of the day today. I don't KNOW that my wife and friends and co-workers are not just government agents paid to mess with my head. But I have pretty good ideas.

If you allow shades of grey into certainty... Nothing may be like 100%, completely, for sure, I'm not even kidding, cross-my-heart-and-daggers-in-my-eyes certain, but there are a lot of things that are close. I challenge you to find any bookie in the world who won't give you whatever odds you ask for on a bet that the sun won't rise in the morning (if you're offering a reasonable enough bet to not waste his time, anyway).

In fact, I'd posit that ignoring that shades-of-grey type of certain-- just throwing up your hands and saying "Well, I guess there's just no way to know anyway"-- is dangerous business, and a root cause behind a lot of the awful crap that the human race gets itself caught up in the first place, like... botched deep-sea drilling! "Hey, we can't be SURE that we're doing this right. But there's no way to be CERTAIN, so we should just do it and hope for the best."

Yup. This is a problem. We can't be Certain about the things we do, but we can be... certain enough. If we care to be. Which usually... we don't. Usually, we don't care to think about it much at all.

Which brings me back to my thesis on helping. How do you help? My steps were a little muddied, so here:

1) Plan
2) Act
3) Sit back and see how well it goes.

If you're stick in Black and White Certain, you'll never be able to predict 3). In which case, you should never act at all, becasue you can't be CERTAIN you won't... I dunno, kill someone, even. But put a little grey in there, and enough work and skill and knowledge towards 1), and you can have a pretty good idea, enough to make a sincere, unselfish attempt to help a worthwhile prospect.

Luckymortal said...

Hey, thanks, the feedback is very helpful as I try to pound these strange thoughts into a convincing fake argument.

What I'm proposing is very radical...
related to the Ayn Rand argument that "do-gooders" only make things worse, but selfish people fix everything just by being selfish. Only without the "selfishness fixes stuff" part.

So, basically, a very extreme version of the ole "humans trying to help people almost always end up doing harm" meme.

But I'm not seriously saying that people should try. Just that there needs to be a deep appreciation for consequences. And this is what we often lack.

So... something of an elaboration of the "Prime Directive" I guess.

Kristen said...

I don't disagree with the premise, and I don't disagree entirely with the conclusions. I simply think, (and yes -feel,) that while being mindful and aware is a critical component of being of the world. Too often we are, "in the world but not of it," or, "of the world but not in it." Balance is hard work. Existing in balance is nearly impossible. Striving for balance is what we must do.
My conclusion for myself is simple: I can debate until there's nothing left to debate - turned to stone by imperfect solutions, or I can act in good faith, good will and step mindfully. Doing the best we can in good will is better than turning a blind eye to suffering and destruction.