The Many, the Few, the Stuff

Is there a lot or a little?

Who has it?

These are the basic questions of how we struggle and endure on this pale blue dot. As flesh-and-blood creatures, humans are dependent on all kinds of stuff for our basic survival. Food and water, soaps and medicines, walls and roofs, clothes and shoes. We’re also dependent on other flesh-and-blood humans. To get, give, and exchange stuff with. To nurture us and teach us. For communication and community. For friendship and love.

Our existence is thoroughly material. Stuff and people. Things and bodies. We can only survive by sheer will for so long before we must sip water and chew food. If you left a newborn by itself, it wouldn’t make it very long without nourishment and the protective care of a guardian.

Loneliness at any age is disorienting and dispiriting. We are wired for touch, talk, and relationships. Poverty and homelessness are agonizing and imperiling. Everyone needs a baseline of stuff to protect and care for their body, and a safe place to rest and call home.

Whether there’s a lot or a little, and if it’s evenly distributed or held by just a few, make a significant difference in the quality of our lives and how much struggle it takes to get by. If there is abundance & equality, it’s much easier for everyone to meet their bodily needs and move beyond surviving to thriving. If there is scarcity & inequality, we’re much more likely to come to blows with neighbors or a police state, to have fewer trusting and supportive relationships, to scapegoat others for the lack of stuff or its uneven distribution, and to claw and scrape just to make it another day. Abundance & equality is the future we should fight for. Scarcity & inequality may be the future we end up with.

Today, we’re faced with abundance & inequality, but the kind of abundance there is can’t last forever. We extract, process, and ship far more than the planet can support and renew. It’s overabundance. And yet, much of the bounty is wasted–while too many needlessly go hungry or lack other stuff all humans need and deserve.

Even in the allegedly best and richest country in history, the average American struggles to cover their needs paycheck-to-paycheck, while the Few in the upper class makes tens or hundreds of times more and fortress themselves with excess. The inequality between the Many and the Few is stark and ingrained.

Even amongst the struggle of the Many, some have a much harder time of it than others. In a society with a patriarchal, white racial frame, being black or brown or a woman frequently adds additional obstacles to meeting material needs. Individual people have an individual experience within the broader tug-of-war between the Many and the Few. We need to pay attention as each person points out the intersecting injustices they encounter simply for being who they are.

To have a future of (sustainable) abundance shared equally, there’s a lot of work to do. Protesting and pressuring the Few. Voting better people into office. Imagining better futures. Right now, there’s more stuff out there than the planet can support, with an elite Few controlling and enjoying most of the overabundance. This isn’t coincidence. It’s the long-term result of extracting, storing, and selling stuff without laws and distribution channels that ensure everyone’s needs are met. The result of pursuing more and more, without reasonable restrictions to prevent a small group of people from ending up with it all–and wrecking the Earth along the way.

It’s immoral and insane—making the lives of the Many much more difficult than they should be. There’s solidarity to be found in the universals of our material struggle. If we can achieve that solidarity, we can start building a different, humane arrangement of stuff that gives everyone a chance to thrive.

This Week in Upgrades: February 20

Hey, hey! Mondays can be rough, so I hope you’re hanging in there today. If you’re feeling stressed out, you’re not alone. Americans just broke the American Psychological Association’s anxiety meter.There’s a lot of tension, confusion, and struggle all around. Let’s be patient and supportive with each other, yeah?

Were you braving nature’s fury this week? This is some insane wind in North Carolina. We got absolutely pummeled with rain here in California. Couldn’t do much else but stay at home and watch the new season of Chef’s Table (which I was OK with).

Here’s some more of the most interesting things I saw this week…

Trillions of clicks later, we’re thoroughly immersed in a culture of the Like button. It “did a lot of things it set out to do…and had a lot of unintended consequences.”

Did you see that #HurtBae video? Why do we get sucked into watching other people’s pain?

Already thinking about the weekend? Plan on shutting yourself in at home with a nice drink? There’s a word for that.

That’s just unfair.

Here’s the latest on universal basic income, which I’ve talked about previously. Seems to be gaining interest. We’ll see how things work out in Finland.

Los Angeles has so much light pollution that you can’t see many stars at night. But a 1994 power outage allowed them to shine through, and Angelenos basically thought the Milky Way was an alien invasion. How can we reclaim our connection to the night sky?

Keeping tabs on the sea ice: record lows at both poles. NBD.

Did you catch the premiere of Planet Earth IIOur planet is pretty awesome.

Here’s another reason to ditch fossil fuels: a study has linked prevalence of a type of leukemia with living near oil wells.

Asking the hard question to get important answers: Why do so many Americans fear Muslims?

It’s 75 years later, and we haven’t seemed to learn the lessons of the mass internment of Japanese Americans.

Neature: Yosemite’s firefall is blissful.

Hope you have a calm, rewarding week.

This Week in Upgrades: February 13

Hi! Happy Monday to you. I took a bit of a break last week, so I apologize if you were waiting for a weekly assortment of interesting things you may have missed. Obviously, that never happened. Sad face emoji.

Breaks and balance and rest are vital. I took my opportunity when I had it. I thrive on staying informed and browsing through all sorts of commentary about what’s going on in the world. But over the last couple weeks, I found myself mostly just getting frustrated at everything little dumb thing. I had to give my brain and emotions some time to recuperate. Have you ever been there? What do you like to do to feel like yourself again?

A recent study suggested that if you’re not getting good sleep you should go camping. Need to get back out in the woods soon.

Here’s what else caught my attention this week…

Do you like spicy food? How do you feel about a “heatless” habanero?

A number of teenage girls are experiencing major depression, with some saying they “get their ‘entire identity’ from their phone…constantly checking the number of ‘tags, likes, Instagram photos and Snapchat stories.'” Yikes.

It’s not just teenage girls. A majority of people will have at least one mental health struggle in their lifetime. What are we doing to support mental well-being?

Thank you, Kids Try…, for making me laugh out loud even in dark times.

The most remote place on Earth, the Mariana Trench, has an “extraordinary” amount of pollution. Humans literally impact every inch of the planet.

Here’s a remarkable look at the unpolluted ocean we should be protecting.

A reminder that much more automation is coming, so we better get ready.

Will this Chrome extension help get us out of our ideological bubbles?

A few books I’ve read recently that I definitely recommend: The Nordic Theory of EverythingInfinite DistractionThe Earth and I

Have a great week!

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: December 26

Hello, hello. Did you have a good holiday weekend? How is the Monday after so far? I wish the United States had a Boxing Day equivalent. I’d imagine a lot of Americans would like to have December 25th and 26th off. Maybe someday?

Here are some of the interesting things that popped up on the Internet this week:

Is winter getting the best of you? Scandinavians are good at winter. Maybe try what they do?

Researchers may have figured out what makes a Stradivarius instrument sound so good.

It’s been out for a little while, but I just saw this bad lip reading song for Empire Strikes Back and couldn’t stop laughing.

Are you working for the weekend? Economics has shaped the way that we think about time.

Parents, kids, everyone else–we’re all still trying to figure out how much screen time is healthy.

Is Children of Men the piece of pop culture that helps us understand our moment in history?

I think I’ve recommended Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, before. His newest, Hypernormalisationis also definitely worth watching.

Relatedly, the winners and losers of globalization help explain recent politics. There’s a reason I keep coming back to the common good.

Did some scientists just discover a fully effective ebola vaccine?

We’re aware that trees are important for the air we breathe, but the life of trees is a lot more complex than many of us know.

Stunning photos of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe. Our planet is still full of surprises.

Ever heard of anapestic tetrameter? I hadn’t. It’s one of the reasons Dr. Seuss books resonate with children so much.

Have a wonderful, safe New Year celebration!

 

 

How Will You Grow From It?

It’s just days away from the end of the year. Lots of people are reflecting on what the last twelve months have given us. The movies, the music, the books. The pop culture moments. The politics and historical events. What stood out for you? How are you feeling about 2016?

I lost count of the posts, articles, and conversations I’ve seen talking about how terrible this year was. There’s a lot of pessimism and defeatism in the air.

Without a doubt, 2016 was challenging and disheartening in many ways. From the changing climate of our planet to political BS to deaths of cultural icons to rampant inequality and social friction, these have been some of the darkest months we’ve gone through in some time. I’ve heard more than a few people longing for 2017–as if January 1st will be some kind of reset button.

That New Year’s Day morning may feel a bit different when it comes (hopefully for reasons other than a hangover). But things won’t actually have changed much from the day before. Or from December 30th, or from today. A different year number may give us an important psychological fresh start (are you making resolutions?). In so many ways, though, we’re going to be in much the same place we are now.

And who’s to say what 2017 will be like. The future has a nebulous uncertainty. Not yet visible, not yet formed. It could be a good year. It could be another hard year. We won’t know until we live it.

When times are hard, does that mean it’s a waste? If you’re feeling down about 2016–ready for it be over with–would you rather have skipped right from 2015 to 2017? If 2017 is hard, too, is that then two years wasted? What if those are the last two you have?

Tomorrow is never guaranteed. Some people who are around now won’t see 2017. They’ve been through years of rollercoastering from high highs to low lows, and they’re coming to the end of their ride. If they could go back and do it again–even through the difficult and lame parts–would they? Would you?

As long as we’re still here, we’ve got all of our past behind us and today in front of us. Nothing need be a waste unless we choose to waste it. Whatever happened yesterday or this last year or 10 years ago is an opportunity to grow. To learn. To become stronger. To become more agile. More connected. More whole. More fully human.

No matter the situation, there’s always something to take away from it. A bad movie is a slog to watch, but it might have a great soundtrack you end up listening to over and over. A traffic-filled commute may be a pain in the ass, but perhaps it gives you time you needed to think through some things. A dysfunctional family can be incredibly painful and debilitating, but it can reveal to you all the things not to do in your relationships. An Office Space-like workplace is a dehumanizing struggle, but it may fuel you to give your all to your real passions. A broken political environment makes you wonder how society is going to get any better, and then you realize that it’s going to be largely up to you to make it better. What crack can you fix?

Our past–individually and collectively–is always an opportunity to grow. We break time up into cleanly separated days and years, but really it all flows together. There is everything that came before leading up to now. When you think about the chunk of time we call 2016, what can you take away from it that helps you be a better you? How did you grow in 2016 from 2015? That’s something worth celebrating, however else you feel about the last twelve months. It’s never all hardship.

We can declare yesterday or the last year tough or shitty or wearying, but it’s never a waste. Never something to just toss aside and try to forget about. It’s going to shape the present whether we want it to or not. And we never know how many days or years more we have ahead of us. So we might as well live deep and suck all the marrow out of life. Take everything we’ve experienced and use it to make today something more–for ourselves and the world we live in. Out of everything that has happened this last year–the amazing things, the depressing things, the boring things, and the agonizing things–how will you grow from it?

This Week in Upgrades: December 12

Hello, friend. I hope you’re doing well. Things are crazy out there. It can be an achievement just to keep your head on straight and make it through the day. If you’re suffering–your health, a layoff, family trauma–you’re not alone. America is failing the bad-break test. It’s a mess. But I’m confident we can find the way forward. I hope you think so too.

All kinds of interesting things you might have missed this week…

Vehicle collisions aren’t really a laughing matter, but this video of minor fender-benders from Montreal’s first snowfall of the year is pretty amusing. The music is the icing on the cake.

If you’re eating nuts on a regular basis, you’re doing some good things for your health. Hopefully the chocolate-covered almonds I’ve been snacking on count.

Amazon has a crazy new concept for a grocery store. Would you shop there?

Did you watch Season 1 of Westworld? What’d you think? Here’s what many would like to see in Season 2.

Manmade climate change is heating up the planet, and many species can’t migrate fast enough to survive.

Our pollinator friends, bees, are one of the species we really can’t allow to go extinct. And just look at the great things honey can be used for.

It’s pretty obvious we need to do a lot more to minimize how much warmer the Earth gets. The good news is that reducing carbon emissions does not ruin the economy. We can fix the financial and social precarity millions of people are in and heal the planet at the same time.

Did you see this feather-covered dinosaur tail in amber? We still have so much to learn about the past.

Have a fantastic week!

The Stories We Tell

For peoples, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of the present. –Thomas Berry

Human beings are a creature of stories. We spend endless hours streaming back-to-back-to-back episodes of serialized television. We hand over record box office dollars to see the latest installment in one of the many ongoing cinematic universes. We look at best of summer book lists to find out what novel we should take to the beach. We talk about our workplaces in terms of roles and performance–the language of actors and actresses. We run political campaigns on stories like retrieving a supposed golden age (make America great again), going it alone for a future of safety and self-sufficiency (Brexit), and preventing impending dystopia (Trump must be stopped).

Stories are the way that we make sense of the world, and they long have been. The Enûma Eliš, the Illiad and the Odyssey, the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Quran, evolutionary reductionism, neoliberalism, and countless other stories have shaped and given meaning to our existence.

Because we experience life as it unfolds through time, it makes sense that we often see things in terms of the narrative elements of beginning, middle, and end. We see ourselves as some kind of characters involved in an unfolding drama: whether it’s the macro level–tales about the birth of the universe and the place of humanity in it–or the micro–a local news segment on homelessness. We make sense of how all of the pieces of life fit together by organizing them into a plot with characters, direction, intentions, and resolution.

Stories are powerful and relatable because they answer some of the most profound questions we have. Why are things the way they are? How did we get to now? Where are we going? Why are we here? Stories give answers to our aspirations for prosperity and success, security and comfort, purpose and intelligibility. (These categories come from the very excellent book The Great Turning, which I’ve previously referenced here).

Some of the stories we tell are quite good. These stories are successful because they answer questions about prosperity, security, and purpose in ways that correspond closely to reality (as best as we can tell) and make us feel more alive. Think of your favorite movies. What makes them your favorite? I bet if you think about it a bit, they tell a story that answers one or more of these questions in a realistic, humane, and compelling way.

Think of your own worldview. What makes sense about the story you tell yourself about why the world is the way it is and why you’re here? It’s likely because it incorporates everything you’ve experienced, everything you’ve seen, everything you believe about human nature, and everything you hope for in a way that feels real, deep, and full of potential and purpose.

Other stories are unconvincing or wrong. The world is the way it is because of that group of people, and we should do away with them. A free market is the only way to prosperity for all. The universe was created in six literal days by a bearded grandfather in the clouds. Men are superior to women. Whites are superior to other races.

Many of these bad stories fail to perceive the interconnectedness and value of all things. They tell their story by excluding or belittling a whole chunk of reality. These stories cannot properly narrate why things are the way they are and where they’re going, because they have an incomplete or warped view of reality as we know it.

Think of some of the worst movies you’ve seen. What makes them so terrible? Is the acting bad? That touches on an inability to represent the reality of how emotionally and socially complex human beings actually are. The very best actors usually have extremely high empathy–they’re able to emote on screen in ways that feel as genuine as real life–and, in turn, we as the audience resonate with their performance. Is the plot boring, corny, or absurd? It’s likely because it fails to tell in an interesting and satisfying way why things are the way they are, how they got there, where they’re going, and the meaning of it all.

Whether it’s the stories we’re watching on TVs, devices, and movie theater screens, or our own real-world stories about our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and current events, stories are everywhere. It’s up to us to winnow out the good from the bad, and elevate the stories that speak to the reality of the world we find ourselves in and how we can best find prosperity, security, and meaning in it.

 

This Week in Upgrades: June 6

Hello, friend! How was your weekend? I’m on a much needed vacation right now, and I’m feeling super refreshed. Very little phone and Internet connection here, so it’s been a bit of a digital detox too. I’m not mad about that.

A little shorter vacation version of Upgrades because of that, but still plenty of interesting things this week.

Tesla has reportedly offered up its autopilot data to the US Department of Transportation.

Norway is set to ban all gas-powered cars by 2025. Well done, Norway!

Is this why smart people do dumb things?

Sad news for Hamilton fans: it appears creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda is leaving the show in July. Have a few thousand dollars to see it before he’s done?

Dogs may not have become humankind’s best friend the way we thought.

The United States is trapped in a neoliberal nightmare. How will we wake up?

Is compositing a better way to get rid of medications?

Have an excellent week!

 

 

This Week In Upgrades: May 9

Hello there! Happy Monday to you. I’m still wondering where the weekend went, but let’s make this week a good one.

This past week gave us a mixed bag. We found out Alaska is absurdly warmer than it should be. Alaska is a bellwether of climate change, and things like this are not good signs.

In less dire but still saddening news, we also found out that Disney plans to replace the Tower of Terror with a Guardians of the Galaxy ride. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy, but I’m not sure how I feel about this. Tower of Terror was my first true thrill ride as a kid. I suppose change is inevitable though–especially for theme parks trying to stay current.

In really encouraging things, there’s a movement now even among many doctors for a single-payer healthcare system. Pretty soon this is going to reach a tipping point–to the benefit of American doctors and patients alike.

Also very encouraging, this long-term study appears to show that there is no link between cell phones and brain cancer. I hope other studies confirm the same findings.

A review of clinical trials has demonstrated that acupuncture has real health benefits. Have you done it? I would really like to try it sometime.

To be sure, here’s an important reality-check on scientific studies in the media from Mr. John Oliver. Thank God for Last Week Tonight. Let’s all stay a little bit skeptical.

The ride-sharing app Lyft has found their vehicle, and apparently they’ll start launching their self-driving electric cars in 2017.

Google has also found their self-driving vehicle, but why did it have to be a minivan?

Did you grow up on Barbies or Transformers? Can we let toys be toys?

SpaceX has hired a renowned costume designer to make sure their suits are as badass as their mission programs.

Have a brilliant week! Whatever happens, try to focus on self-compassion instead of self-esteem.

 

How to Adult: Dream in Years, Live in Days

As best as we can tell, the universe is almost fourteen billion years old. Earth, itself, is about four and a half billion years old. There is exposed rock in the Grand Canyon that is two billion years old. I can’t wait to see it myself later this year.

At up to 80 or 100 years, a human life is just a small sliver of time in comparison to the age of the planet we live on and the rest of the universe we find ourselves in the midst of. The writer of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible describes human life as fleeting as the mist out of a spray bottle–there and then floating invisibly into the next phase.

With just a vapor of time to work with, we owe it to ourselves to think about the course we want our life to take–to figure out how to “suck the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau once said.

No one can have the whole thing planned out at the beginning, of course. Many of us grow up dreaming of becoming a fireman or the president or an astronaut–only to end up doing something much different. Even within a year’s time a lot can change.

But I would argue that there is a way to think about how to live a life that might help you get the most out of it, and it’s pretty simple. Dream in years. Live in days.

The bigger moves and chapters of your life take time. Anyone who decides to go to college rarely chooses to do so on a whim. And college itself takes a handful of years to complete–let alone graduate school if you keep going. Despite its prevalence in film and television, most people don’t decide to get married on a whim either. There’s a slow, sometimes agonizing unfolding of dating, rejection, doubt, dating again, engagement, wedding planning, and then eventually, marriage.

So dream in years. Where would you like to be a few years from now? Another country? Married? In a tiny house you built?

Who would you like to be a few years from now? More compassionate? Less stressed? An artist?

Use your imagination to set a horizon to journey toward.

And live in days. Imagining your future–dreaming in years–will set the path of where you’re trying to go. Living life out, day by day, is how you’ll actually get there. No day can be taken for granted. Life is fragile and unpredictable. “The best-laid plans often go awry.” You have to suck the marrow out of today, not just days in the future. So do the things now that will help you get closer to what you’ve imagined for the years to come, but let the day also feel full and complete on its own. Save up to move if you’re dreaming of moving. Start the degree if you need the education. Take a cooking lesson so you can make more of your own food. Get drinks with that person that you’ve been meaning to get to know better. And laugh, sweat, rest, dance, eat, love, breathe, watch, reflect. Some of the best days can feel like a whole lifetime.

You don’t need a doctorate in philosophy to resonate with Socrates’ lesson that the unexamined life is not worth living. By dreaming in years and living in days, I’m confident you’ll be off to a good start writing chapters of your life that you’ll be truly grateful for. You’ll leave layers of your time in the universe as remarkable as the rock of the Grand Canyon.