Thursday, June 06, 2019

The Ants and the Grasshopper

John F, Kennedy said in his state of the union address in 1962 that "the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining."

About 2500 years before JFK made that speech a Greek slave and storyteller named Aesop told the story of the Ants and the Grasshopper

If you haven't read that very short story it's about some conscientious ants who work hard during the summer storing up grain for the winter. A fun loving fiddle playing grasshopper spends his time fiddling and playing all summer rather than storing up grain for the winter. As winter approaches he is starving and asks the ants for some grain. They refuse and tell him to keep fiddling and dancing.

I think JFK and Aesop's story have a similar message - given the choice of doing something hard that will benefit us in the future or doing something easy for immediate satisfaction we often choose the latter.

I don't think human nature has changed much in the last 2500 years. The structure of society has changed which causes different human behavior. Structure meaning the economic system and conditions, educational systems, government, religion, cultural norms and means of communication (verbal, printing press, radio, tv, twitter).


We'd like to believe that as members of some group we are fundamentally different from humanity. If we are part of the right team based on political party, race, religion, educational status or money - then we fool ourselves into thinking somehow we are fundamentally different from, and better than, or maybe worse than, all human kind. This is simple and it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Our prehistoric ancestors on the savanna had to divide the world into simple good and bad things to survive. We've inherited a physiological system with roots in primitive man who needed adrenaline to escape the saber tooth tiger. He had no time to think, only to react or be eaten.

We can't deal with the complexity of the real world, or our own shortcomings, so we create stereotypes that simply it and give us answers (often wrong) that require very little thought or effort on our part. Stereotypes like Republicans/Democrats are bad, or even the idea that there is some person somewhere who epitomizes the definition of a "Republican" or a "Democrat" let alone that there are millions of people in America who are Republicans or Democrats or liberals or conservatives or whatever. If you can't clearly define the word you are using you don't know what you're talking about. He said to himself ;-)

What the media provides when using these stereotypical words is not a clear view of the world but rather a Rorschach inkblot test where we are presented with an undefined image and use our individual bias, gaps in knowledge, assumptions, inferences and imagination to form what we think is something akin to reality.

The use of these stereotypical words facilitates tribal instinctive behavior but they are worse than useless for a group of people trying to solve problems. They do work quite well for making the news into a form of entertainment that is mostly focused on people and personalities, scandals and outrages and very little on actual solutions to real world problems. Whatever the word Republican meant when Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan was president - it means something quite different now. This is assuming words like this have any meaning outside a structured academic setting where definitions are agreed to.

Stereotypes cause people to skip rungs on the ladder of inference and think something like...oh you're a Republican or Democrat, Liberal, Socialist..I got you pegged, while actually knowing almost nothing about the other person or his or her beliefs.

When we lived in Bozeman it was sort of a thing to complain about what bad drivers the people from Livingston were. We'd call them 49'rs because that's the license plate number from Park County. "Oh boy I can't believe how those 49's drive when they get to the city." It seems so ludicrous to me now, but it's an example of stereotyping.


Stereotypes can be harmless or relatively so but if we allow ourselves to oversimplify the world it precludes us from dealing with complex issues that require cooperation, global action and hard decisions - namely climate change.

I am hopeful, and skeptical, that humans can fix the damage we've done to this world. Most people don't have the time or the inclination to read widely on climate change. Whatever they know or don't know is largely what they've received from mass media; mainly television.

With an economic system predicated on consumption it's not in the interest of the capitalist owned advertiser funded mass media to inform the population that maintaining a livable earth will require reducing consumption, redesigning communities, going from big agribusiness to small local agriculture, and working cooperatively to make those things possible.

Even if a majority of people understood something about the impacts of climate change - extreme weather, fire, floods, dying - oceans, trees and pollinators, it's unlikely that human nature would cause us to take difficult steps today to avoid catastrophe tomorrow. We're all grasshoppers fiddling and dancing - tweeting and facebooking...too distracted, or emotionally or cognitively unable, to recognize what has been happening and what is likely to happen in the not so distant future. JFK's quote was obviously true but we'd all rather be at the beach taking selfies than fixing our roof on a sunny day.

The last four decades of scientific findings regarding climate change and subsequent political inaction seem to demonstrate that our capitalist representative democracy is incapable of dealing with this issue. Perhaps if we had a representative (rather than a corporate captured) democracy we would not be where we are today. Structural changes in our government are necessary.

I hope I'm wrong and that young people can do better than we baby boomers did.

We really have two choices - either make thoughtful substantial changes to our way of life now - that in the net would make for a better, healthier and happier society or wait until we are forced to make hasty substantial changes to our way of life that will make for a far worse society where resource scarcity will cause mass migrations, war, famine and chaos.


So as this unwinds what to do?

I'd recommend voting and becoming politically involved as much as possible. If this isn't solved politically which seems quite likely then it would be good in this moment of relative sunshine to figure out how you as an individual or as a family will thrive in the coming decades.

I can't help but think that some type of utopian communities where people cooperate to grow food, build shelter, provide art, education and entertainment might be the habitat of choice. The only successful long term communities of that sort have been formed by religious groups such as the Anabaptists Hutterites, Mennonites, or Amish, so we may see an emergence of new, or revisions to old, humane and loving forms of religious belief. It's possible riding in a horse and buggy might be as cool as having a new Dodge Ram Diesel 4x4 in the not so distant future.