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.

The United States Cannot Be The World’s Superhero

There’s a natural urge to want something done when you see injustice. Human beings are wired for community, collaboration, and fairness. If someone or a whole group of people is wronged, we can feel in our gut that there’s a need for the wrong to be made right.

At a time when people around the world are as interconnected as they’ve ever been, with 24/7 media coverage of nearly every corner of the globe, we are constantly made aware of a multitude of conflicts, crimes, dysfunctions, and dehumanizing acts. Famine, war, oppression, poverty, and more.

Once you become aware, you feel the weight of the injustice and the longing for resolution.  

Who’s going to fix this stuff?

For some time now, there has been a widely held assumption that–as the world’s only true superpower–the United States will step in to right such wrongs. If there’s a brutal dictator, the US will remove them from power. If there’s a war, the US will show up with guns blazing to take over for the good guys. If there is famine or poverty, the US will provide essential resources.

That all sounds pretty hopeful and noble. Captain America will be there when things get bad! We all long for a force that can intervene no matter how dire and horrifying things get. That’s the appeal of superheroes. If only it were that simple.

With nearly 200 countries in the world, there’s no way that one of them–however powerful–can show up and rectify every act of injustice in the world. It would require an impossible amount of people, resources, and time. How much thinner can the United States stretch itself than it already has? How do you choose which international injustices get attention and which can be ignored?

Even if the United States or any other superpower could intervene anywhere and everywhere, countries are sovereign spaces. They have their own political systems, beliefs, identities, and goals. The US should not step in as it pleases–no matter how good the intentions. Millions of Americans were outraged at the slightest suggestion of foreign interference in our 2016 presidential election. How do other countries feel when the US barges in and imposes its will in much more drastic and consequential ways?

Frankly, the United States doesn’t have a great track record. There’s a long history of fragile and struggling states because the US intervened without a long-term plan for the prosperity and sustained independence of those places. Without a plan that meets those countries’ ideals and goals and respects their autonomy. More often than not, US intervention creates a vacuum, establishes what’s purely in America’s interests, or leaves things worse than they were before.

As often as possible, justice needs to emerge from within a country rather than heavily influenced by external forces. The United States and others may be able to provide support, guidance, or some resources from the outside. But they should definitely not be the primary actor and influencer within other countries. Too often it leads to destabilization and ruin.

And honestly, we have enough of our own injustices to rectify within the United States. A broken healthcare system. Voter suppression. Widespread unemployment, underemployment, and economic inequality. Various local environmental disasters and a transcendent climate crisis that’s constantly worsening. And much more.

How might things be different if we had used the amount spent on the deadly, failed wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria–something like 3.5 trillion dollars and counting–on the wrongs within the United States?

What effort has gone into establishing more fair and accountable police forces? Toward fair and equal voting? Toward employment and a robust social safety net? Toward a renewable energy system and environmental restoration?

The United States can’t do it all. It often makes injustices in other countries worse. And there are already millions in American neighborhoods who are suffering and forgotten. America needs to learn how to be just in our own communities instead of arrogantly and brashly trying to be the savior of the whole world. If we must lead, let’s lead by example in the way our own country’s wrongs are righted. That would be truly patriotic and powerful.

Boundaries and Spaces

Some of the things you can’t control…

How long you have to wait at the DMV. The weather. Where Earth is in the universe. If your favorite team wins the championship this year. Sunday night is the end of the weekend. Getting laid off. Who your parents and siblings are. Heartache is painful. Some drunks decide to drive. Humans can’t spread their arms and fly. Meritocracy is mostly a fiction. People need oxygen, water, and food (and many other things) to survive. You have to actually do the chores for things to be clean. Time travel is probably impossible. Others misunderstand and judge you. The typical lifespan is 71 years.

These are the boundaries of life. The things that are out of your hands and constrain who you are and what you can do. You might wish things were different. Or that you could have superpowers to overcome limits. But there’s little, if anything, you can do to change and control these things.

Some of the things you can control…

What food you eat. Who you ask out on a date. Where and when you take vacations. How you exercise. What time you go to sleep. How much of your income you save. If you play it safe or take a risk. Your outlook for the future. The city you make your home. Being better informed. Caring about what other people think of you. Your attachment to your phone. Learning new things. How you treat strangers and vulnerable human beings. The time you spend with the people you love.

These are the spaces. The undetermined, pliable things you can largely build and shape as you want. To do like this or like that. To prioritize or ignore. To do the same way for a while, or evaluate and change as you go.

A lot of being able to live well comes down to understanding the things you can’t control and the things you can. The things that guide and limit our path, and the things that we can do the way we want.

We don’t have superpowers. We’re not powerless. We are people. We are both limited and full of potential. Understand, explore, try. Know what shapes you and what you can shape.

Find your place in the boundaries and spaces.

This Week in Upgrades: January 16

Hello, friend. I’m running behind today. It’s been a normal, full workday for me. Did you get Martin Luther King Jr Day off? If so, I hope it’s been a reflective and restful holiday.

Here are the most interesting things I came across this week…

Life’s much better with plants in your home. Here’s how to do it without ending up with a pot of dead branches.

Why are people ticklish?

The ongoing conversation about who gets to be an expert on cuisines from certain countries and cultures.

People who swear have been shown to be more honest. (That doesn’t mean they’re more moral).

Antibiotic resistance is getting worse. I feel like nobody’s really talking about this?

The world’s eight (8!) richest people have as much wealth as the bottom 50%. Just a little bit of inequality. Hierarchies may be vital to capitalism, but they’re not natural.

What can actually fix inequality? Policy? War?

The historically low amount of global sea ice should be a huge wake up call about the climate (in a long line of wake up calls).

Another wake up call.

A reminder to take studies praising or villainizing a particular food with a grain of salt (yeah, pun definitely intended).

Alaska is incredible.

Have an awesome week!

 

 

 

 

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: May 30

Bonjour! A pleasant Monday to you. I hope you have a very enjoyable day off if you’re on vacation. If you’re grilling, this might be a good place to start. I’m working myself but I’m feeling pretty good since I’m nearly back to full health after a wicked cold. Illness can strike at any time, guys. Take good care of yourself!

We keep marching closer to the halfway point of the year, which is just insane. So much to do and enjoy still and we’re already kicking off summertime. What’s left on your 2016 to-do list?

Once again, the past week hasn’t let us down. All sorts of interesting, important, and unexpected things. Here are just a few:

This little guy should motivate all of us to care more about the environment. He just found out. What’s our excuse?

Do you use this meaning of actually (maybe without realizing it)? Be careful what your words convey.

I am a big fan of Person of Interest (watch it if you haven’t!). This inside perspective on how the celebrated tech thriller got cancelled makes me wonder how we even got the five very good seasons we did.

Speaking of shows, season 2 of Chef’s Table on Netflix just released. You should definitely watch that too. As great as season 1, especially the Ana Ros episode.

Here’s the hourly wage you need make in every state to comfortably afford a two-bedroom apartment rental.

The US reported its first case of last-resort antibiotic resistance. This a possible health crisis we’ve heard very little about so far. Recommend Missing Microbes and The Hidden Half of Nature if you haven’t read them.

The average CEO last year made $10.8 million, having received a raise of over $460,000. Not the common good.

This is probably the only time that I’m cool with wasps.

Native Americans have a right to be upset about this, and everyone else should be too.

Pho is so, so good. Here’s a history of the delicious dish.

Private funding is changing the possibilities of human longevity.

Have a great week!

 

The Common Good: Imagination

If someone had asked you what you think about “Harry Potter” in 1996, the year before the first of the seven celebrated novels was published, you probably would have stared at them in confusion. Before any of us knew what someone was talking about when they said muggle, Quidditch, or Dumbledore, the entire universe of Harry Potter existed only in the mind of author J.K. Rowling. Fast-forward to the present week, and the third Wizarding World of Harry Potter is set to open in Universal Studios Hollywood, allowing people to smell, taste, touch, and hear the world of the story in physical form. You can kick back with friends over butterbeers in Hogsmeade or take a picture in front of Hogwarts.

The power of imagination is astonishing. What once exists in only one person’s brain can go on to sweep through the rest of the world, causing new structures and ways of life to emerge. Words and images, on a page or in a speech or on a screen, can create dramatic social change. Imagination has shaped the world we live in now, and it can shape the world we live in tomorrow.

Before there were cities, cars, computers, the 40-hour workweek, hospitals, political parties, recycling, and countless other things we take for granted as normal now, certain people thought them up, shared their ideas with others, and constructed them as real, concrete things in the world.

We used to have great imagination about what society could be like. When no other country had set aside expanses of nature to preserve for the enjoyment of the public for generations, America created a National Parks system. When the United States was rife with some of the worst racism and structural inequality in its history, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famously profound speech about having a dream of a different kind of humanity. When for centuries people had looked up at the moon and wondered what it was like over there, John F. Kennedy proclaimed in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

Where are we at now?

Is the United States a country that treasures nature even more than when the first Parks were formed? A good chunk of Americans won’t even acknowledge the science of climate change and the painful consequences to come in our lifetime.

Is America a country that’s realized Dr. King’s dream–respecting the life and worth of every human being no matter their race, gender, age, or other uniqueness? We have a contending presidential candidate succeeding largely because of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric.

Is the United States spearheading greater space exploration, pushing the limits of what we know, where we can travel, and who can go there? NASA is so strapped for cash that any real space endeavors are being contracted out to private companies like SpaceX. Though space is the necessary frontier for the future of humanity, things are hardly different–if not worse–than the days when we enthusiastically launched astronauts to the moon decades ago.

Our collective imagination has disintegrated and died out. Our visions of what this country could be are uninspired or nonexistent. We’re stuck in the status quo, occasionally fighting over relatively negligible changes.

When we should be coming up with a compelling, comprehensive vision of what work in the 21st century should be like so that every person has the resources they need to live well, it’s “pie in the sky” to even move for something as meager as a $15 federal minimum wage. To be sure, $15 would be an appreciated improvement for many people, but it’s an amount that’s still almost $4 per hour shy of where it should be if minimum wage had increased at the same rate as overall productivity. We should already have a $19 minimum wage nationally; instead, we’re bickering about maybe going to $15 sometime in the next decade. We’ve hardly begun to think about how we’ll deal with rampant unemployment as more and more jobs are taken over by automated technology.

We have to get back to dreaming big, together, and transforming society into the better world it can be. Take what we know about what’s good for people, look at where we’re at today, and invent a future that brings everyone closer to the common good.

If we can turn Hogwarts and butterbeer into real things for millions of people to see and taste as if they were actually wizards, we can surely imagine and construct a better world in the theme park of our nonfiction world.

 

The Common Good: What’s Good for People?

A couple months ago, I wrote a Part I for a series of posts about the common good. It’s here if you want to check it out.

The basic idea in Part I is that our barometer for whether or not society is working for its people is too simple. That barometer is a nebulous thing we refer to as the economy. Apparently, if the economy is doing well then all of us are doing well. If the economy isn’t great, politicians and journalists start to peek at more refined measurements like new jobs created, interest rates, unemployment, or wages.

Do any of those things really get to the heart of the common good? Do they get to the heart of your life and what’s good for you?

I don’t think so. There’s an underlying problem that we aren’t sure what’s good when we say common good. And whatever good is, we don’t seem to have it in common. The economy is a kind of lowest common denominator to be able to say something about whether life is going well or not. But it doesn’t tell us much about the complex lives of actual people.

Zoom in a bit closer, and what you’ll find is:

Some do put money, career, and purchasing power at the center. For them, the economy doing well probably does indicate life going well.

Others put most of the weight on adherence to a particular religion. Perhaps for them, if we were all devotees of their worldview then society would be doing well.

Still others are strong believers in maximizing individual freedoms and liberties. The fewer limitations that exist, the more we’ll find happiness in being ourselves–however we please to do so.

And some find their greatest sense of well-being in relationships–in strong bonds with family, friends, and romantic partners.

When we talk about the common good, there are many different ideas of what’s good–none of them held in common–so we have a gauge like the economy slide in. We should talk about that.

Despite our great differences as people, we actually are quite similar. Academics refer to a whole set of shared qualities called human universals. These are the things that are true of human beings because they’re human beings, no matter the place they’re born, the time they’re alive on the earth, their political party, what their favorite sports team is, how much money they make, who they want to have sex with, and everything else that makes us distinct from one another.

Behind the pursuit of money, career, religious perfection, civil liberties, and specific relationships, there are fundamental desires we all long to fulfill.

What are they?

Surprisingly, six basic needs make up the roots of all our other longings and pursuits. The list of six comes from a sociologist, Christian Smith, who’s studied human nature and society extensively. He compiled the work of several other academics into one universal grouping.

First, the endurance of our bodies: survival, security, and pleasure. What does that entail? Avoiding injury and illness. Feeling and being healthy and energetic. Enjoying the pleasures of our senses–music, sex, food, art, and the rest.

Second, knowledge of reality. It’s hard to function if the world doesn’t make some kind of sense to you. So we all have a map in our minds how what we believe and experience fit together. The mental map we establish allows us to navigate life better, even though none of us know or understand everything.

Third, identity coherence and affirmation. That’s a bit of academic-speak for what’s actually a straightforward concept. Each of us seeks to develop a sense of self-identity and self-confidence, and have it endure and strengthen through the course of our lives. Knowing who you are, and feeling comfortable with who you are.

Number four: exercising purposive agency. OK, clearly our friendly sociologist could have given us some more accessible terms. Exercising purposive agency just means you’re able to have at least some influence or power in the world when there are results or goals you want to achieve.

Fifth, moral affirmation. Each of us, on the whole, seeks to do what we think is right, admirable, or justifiable, based on a set of ethics that makes sense to us. We do what we can to avoid fault, blame, and guilt.

Finally, social belonging and love. None of us functions very well alone. We crave and require relationships of varying depth–to know others, and be known. To be welcomed, included, and cared for. In some relationships, to a depth and intimacy best referred to as love.

Together, these six needs form a kaleidoscope of basic humanity. To fulfill these needs is to live well, a state some have called flourishing.

Which allows us to say succinctly: A society that is successfully achieving the common good is a society in which every person, individually and as a community, is able to flourish.

If a society is set up in such a way that it systematically threatens someone’s safety, it’s not yet achieving the common good.

If it systematically marginalizes, discriminates, or oppresses certain people, it has not realized the common good to its fullest potential.

If a society denies or obscures aspects of reality–things like man-made climate change or racial injustice–it is not functioning for the common good.

There are a bajillion examples.

Point the lens of the six basic needs at anything in society, and the common good comes into focus.

Is survival, security, and pleasure preserved?

Does it enhance our knowledge of reality?

Does it promote self-identity and self-confidence?

Does it allow all people to have the influence or power they need?

Does it cultivate a sense of morality, justice, and admiration for what’s right?

Does it encourage strong relationships with family and friends, and the pursuit of love?

Make sense? Is that a way of understanding the common good we can all get behind? I hope so. There’s so much more depth, beauty, and potential than what the economy can fathom.

If you don’t think so, say why in the comments. And, as always, thanks for reading. More to come in Part 3.

 

This Week in Upgrades: Feb 1

Good Monday to you! It’s an exciting day. A new month is a good time for a fresh start, whether it’s big things or small. We’ve got a February 29th since it’s a Leap Year, so you have an extra day to become more awesome between now and March. Here’s why you can’t stop doing that thing you should stop doing.

The Iowa Caucuses this evening officially begin the election of our next President. I’d love for you to read my thoughts on voting from Friday’s How to Adult and tell me what you think. Hope you’re planning on voting when it’s your state’s turn.

The Super Bowl is on Sunday, and even though most of us are not Broncos or Panthers fans we’ll probably still tune in: for the commercials, for the Beyonce, for the GIF-able moments, for the food. I’ll definitely be watching. If you want to impress your friends and family, Alton Brown has your back with a Short Ribs Queso Dip recipe. Sounds incredible.

 

Here are some other interesting human things this week:

We learned beautiful words in other languages that do not have an English equivalent. We should work on that.

 

The Atlantic made a compelling case why wealthy kids like healthier foods. Did you know that some studies have suggested it takes 8-15 times eating a particular thing before kids will appreciate it? It’s not exactly inexpensive to get them to like their vegetables. How can we make it affordable for everyone to eat well?

 

Elon Musk announced that he’ll be unveiling SpaceX’s mission to Mars plans in September. Hopefully Matt Damon isn’t on the crew.

 

Speaking of Mr. Musk, it looks like several others, including the US Government, are intrigued by a Hyperloop. Would you travel like this? I feel scared and excited at the same time.

 

The CDC has declared Chipotle’s foodborne illness outbreak over. Will you be going back for a burrito?

 

Love it or hate it, Macklemore and Jamila Wood’s “White Privilege II” was discussed left and right after it was released. What do you think? Here’s a Q&A they did with NPR about the creation of the song.