Sunday, May 15, 2016



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(This was generated during a back and forth today [2016 May 15th, Sun]  on the current Democratic primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  However, it touches on much wider issues.)

I personally have lived my own life always trying to see people and their affairs, not in black and white terms, but also noting the grays. That's a harder way to go about things, and one often finds oneself blasted by those who would take the simpler route.

That said, there are things on which one should not just shrug and yield.

These are matters, just for instance, that humans have always held to be crucial in our interpersonal interactions. We see these being violated everywhere, and so tend to become cynical. But the very fact that we still notice these things as they occur shows that these violations are hardly universal.

There is, for instance, such a thing as trust. If a person violates our trust and we get to know of this, it is very difficult to trust him/her again. Indeed, to do so appears foolish in the extreme. But should we then either shrug and trust most people in most things as we might perhaps have done before, or should we now distrust most people in most things, becoming suspicious, even paranoid?

In societies that most of us regard as "primitive", consisting of relatively small clans or tribes--the way most of our ancestors lived through most of our human and probably prehuman evolution--you will often find there is a high degree of trust within the clan or tribe.

This is not to say there are never any violations--but those who violate trust usually cannot escape the consequences.

While there may be occasional conflicts or even violence between clans and tribes (along with many peaceful and essential interactions), agreements between tribes are usually honored--and violations of trust viewed with outrage.

All of this might seem Utopian and absurd to us--but is very real to those who have lived and worked with such people, as my father, for example, did in India, visiting and photographing tribes (similar in some ways to the Amerindian tribes that vanished here) who had then been living in their traditional fashions in remote, forested and hilly areas of the subcontinent, not as other large-group folk did.

Over the past many decades, especially recently, all of that has been rapidly changing. Sadly, this was not unexpected. All over the world, over the last several centuries, the great diversity of our human cultures, each with it languages, arts, crafts, healing, and particular outlook and store of knowledge, has been vanishing just as rapidly as has the great diversity of our biological species, each with its genetic and cultural information, evolved over the eons.

So there is a greater reality that might be lost when we focus only on what we have experienced and understandably grown accustomed to in our own spheres, where each of us must survive. So we see or focus on certain priorities, based upon those experiences, and are blind to or ignore other priorities that might in fact be more pressing by far, and neglect of which might have far greater consequences.

In this, I am surely as limited as are others. However, I should say that the views I have expressed earlier in discussions about politics, economics and other matters have not usually been come to lightly.  Often I have arrived at them reluctantly, after years of observation and so also of reflection. This hardly makes me sage or expert about all such matters.

There are certain things (such as the science and mathematics it was my lot to study and work in for many years before I began teaching in the high schools here in New York City almost thirty years ago) in which one can make rather strong, definitive statements, noting also the limitations on the generality of such statements.

In other things, especially human affairs (including teaching) one finds oneself on much shakier ground.

One of the reasons for this is that it is not possible, even within a family or a close relationship, to know all that is going on or what the other persons are really thinking and feeling--nor would it be desirable to attempt to do so. So there is that trust that one extends, hoping it will not be violated, and trying not to violate others' trust.

But when it comes to what happened two hundred years ago, or what is happening right now in a place on the other side of the planet, or even in another section of town or even across the street, we are often very much in the dark.

Meanwhile, even within what might remain of our past clans, that we might be born into or construct through our interactions, we see breakdowns of trust, often brought about by distance, preoccupation and the general economic and social milieu we live in.  This is also often so between co-workers and neighbors.

Yet, that same modern human world that so isolates us from one another also makes us dependent on one another, and affecting one another, within a city, and across the globe, in ways that could never have been imagined before.  

What others do affects us, and what we do affects them.  

There are imbalances of power in this, and those who make decisions that vitally affect the lives of others are often able to escape what would, in the past, have been the consequences of their actions on themselves.

This cannot be sustained.

Arjun Janah
2016 May 15th, Sun.

Brooklyn, New York

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On Progress

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On Progress 

When we were children in school, and (for some of us) even students in college, we were taught and even believed that we were in an extraordinary era of "progress".

But we should by now have come to realize that this "progress" was clearly along several directions.

If we consider, for instance, the degree of biological diversity on the planet or the degree of cultural diversity within our species, then clearly the "progress" made over the past century has been in the direction of decreasing both of these diversities.

Since the viability of the biosphere is dependent on its biological diversity, and that of our own species is dependent also on our cultural diversity, it follows that the progress in these two areas has also been towards greatly decreasing the chances of survival of our ecosystems and of our own species. This is so even if we only consider our prospects through the next few centuries.

The current ecosystems might be replaced by or transition to degraded substitutes, and our own species might also, for a while, experience something similar. However, in the latter case (that of our own species), the direction in which we are making progress seems to be towards extinction or near-extinction in the not-too-distant future, with extreme suffering in store for most of us en route to that.

Such a fate would perhaps be only fitting, since we have also been the prime movers in the recent extinctions of countless other species.  This has taken place in a time-span perhaps shorter than those of most of the great mass extinctions of the past. These ancient mass extinctions, as recorded in our planet's sedimentary rock layers as part of its fossil history, followed impacts by comets or asteroids or eruptions from super-volcanoes that rapidly altered, over decades or centuries, ambient conditions on most of the planet's surface.

So perhaps what should be taught in today's schools is that we are heading, ever faster, towards multiple catastrophes unless we take individual and collective action. The main thing we can do to avert or diminish these disasters is to slow production and consumption. Unfortunately, our economies are dependent on maintaining and increasing the rates of production and consumption.

This is what is touted by economists and governments as indicators of "growth", what drives corporate profits and government revenues and, let it be said, gives many workers and small businesses their incomes.

These incomes could be received directly from jobs or contracts that depend upon these corporate profits and government revenues, or they could be obtained indirectly from consumers who spend part of their own incomes on purchases, rentals, etc.

Increasingly, the sector that profits most from all of this activity is the financial sector--the banks and investment firms, along with the insurance businesses associated with these. Of every dollar or rupee that we produce through our labor (or even take home as pay) it would be interesting to figure out how much, on average, goes to a bank or other financial institution.

While human labor is still the fuel, interest from debt, along with rent, are the gears and crankshafts of our economic engines.

Some might point to fossil fuels and other energy sources as the more basic fuel, along with the labor of living plants that gather energy from the sun and so power the flows through the food webs on which we are still as dependent as ever for survival.  But human labor, physical and mental, remains essential even in the utilization of these and other natural resources.

Of course, the labor of those who do not work at paid jobs, but carry on those perennial human activities without which none of us would have survived even the first few months of our lives, will never be counted by economists and financiers.

Unless we figure out a way to get out of this economic trap, preferably without causing great hardships for ordinary folk, we seem doomed to continue on this path of "progress".

Most of the movement that many would agree has constituted progress that they consider positive and meaningful can be traced back to those advances in science and technology which have been put to what we consider good use. Of course, for every one such positive effect, one could find, perhaps, one or more that are negative.  "A better world through chemistry" had once been the advertised promise.  The reality turned out to be rather different.

Nevertheless, in the realms of public health, medicine and more, there have been advances that have been beneficial--at least for many humans.  However, increasing pollution, climate change, land scarcity, drainage of resources and capital, wars driven by globalized economic forces and made even more horrific through technology--and much more--have negated much of the benefit accruing from the kinder applications of science and technology.

Another area, in which many will agree there has been some positive movement, is in the social domain, where there has come to be some recognition of past and current injustice and unfairness.

In the economic realm, progress had been made, over the course of the last century, in advancing the rights of workers to a greater share of the wealth they produce. This had only been possible when workers were able to gain more political power. And this was not won easily or quickly.

But we have seen, over the past several decades, a global push back against even that advance, concomitant with the loss of whatever little political power workers and their political organizations had gained.

Other species will never, of course, have any power over human politics and economics, except through whatever voice may be gained by environmentalists and whatever political and economic power those who are affected directly by the loss of species might be able to exert.

The parallel loss of so many of our human cultures, including the accelerating loss of languages and even of entire language families, seems also almost unstoppable, given the fact that the people affected have been relentlessly displaced, scattered and reduced in number, with little or no power or influence over the great juggernauts that drive our economies and our species on their tracks of relentless "progress".  Many of us seem to have less regard for the fate of entire populations of our own species than we do for those of some others that we now suddenly favor after having driven them to near extinction.
The question that should be asked of those who still tout human "progress" remains the same as always, except that it is increasingly more urgent: "Towards what?"

Arjun Janah
2016  January 26th, Tue.

Brooklyn, New York