The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Tuesday 29 August 2023

Malaise of Modern Life

Recently I listened to, and overheard, a couple of conversations that got me thinking about the malaise (bad ease from Old French = mal (bad) + aise (ease)) of modern life.

One conversation involved one person telling another that they had 75,000 air points, and that they could use these to “escape from here for a while.” The other person made some suggestions of locations to escape to.

The second conversation was around a dinner table in which one person began a new turn in the conversation with a statement something like, ‘this place has very little art or culture. You have to go to Sydney to get good experiences.’ A couple of those around the table took up this refrain, agreeing with the first person.

When I thought about these two conversations, I found some sadness within me. In each case, those speaking were expressing a dissatisfaction with where they are. They wanted to escape here and obtain a good experience somewhere else.

Surely, such thinking displays a malaise with life.

Why should this be? What is it about our everyday life, or where abouts on this planet we are, that induces this malaise?

Over the centuries, philosophers, psychologists, spiritual teachers, and others have attempted to answer these, and similar, questions. Meantime, others have attempted to exploit and promote this malaise.

In 1967 the French philosopher, filmmaker, and founding member of the Situationists International, Guy Debord published his classic treatise The Society of the Spectacle.1 The article is a series of 221 short aphorisms critiquing the spectacle that modern life had become.

Debord’s first aphorism summed up the basic reason for modern life’s malaise. ‘In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.’

Simply put, Debord’s argument is that instead of being active participants in life, humans were becoming mere observers. Debord contends that this process by which we become less participants (and more spectators) leads to inauthenticity, so much so that our ability to think critically is impaired. Thus, we become incapable of even recognising this de-humanisation of life.

It is little wonder that Debord made this claim, when during the forty years prior to Debord’s article, a number of thinkers were actively promoting this shift towards humans as simply spectators, observers, and consumers.

One of the leading proponents was Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and known as the father of public relations. In the early part of the 20th century, Bernays and his cohorts utilised the ideas of his uncle (Freud) and set out to turn Americans into consumers. One of Bernays’ business partners, Paul Mazur, insisted that, ‘People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality. Man’s (sic) desires must overshadow his needs.’2

Bernays went on to become a leading light of this propaganda,3 first coming to prominence by manipulating women to take up smoking.

As Guy Debord so well articulated, Bernays and others of the new public relations ilk, managed to severely undercut the sense of participation in life and replace it with a spectatorship.

Almost a hundred years after Bernays, and more than fifty years after Debord, conversations seeking escape and a desire for good experiences are commonplace.

The malaise of modern life has set in, has become commonplace, and we hardly even question it.

But, this malaise, or dissatisfaction is not new. Bernays, in using the ideas of his uncle, only manipulated it and encouraged it.

Overcoming Malaise

Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha recognised malaise. In fact, the existence of malaise is the core of the first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. In English, the First Noble Truth is often translated as ‘There is suffering.’

Suffering however, is an insufficient, and obscuring, term. The Pali language (the language of early Buddhism) uses the term dukkha which more completely suggests not only suffering, but also unease, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, discomfort, unpleasant, or pain. With respect to the title of this blog it could be translated as malaise.

It is worth unpacking the concept of dukkha a little further. Imagine you are eating something that you really really like (e.g., ice cream, chocolate, or whatever is your food of choice.) Now imagine eating more of it, then even more. In fact, keep on eating it. No matter how much you enjoy that food, there will come a time when you feel uncomfortable, and you don’t want to eat anymore. You may even feel sick just looking at the ice cream, chocolate, or whatever. This is dukkha at work.

And that too is dukkha in our modern life.

We are dissatisfied and uncomfortable with where we are and what we are doing. We want to escape. We want to experience something else, somewhere else.

Buddha, however, did not just identify dukkha, he also went on to explain (2nd Nobel Truth) its causes: aversion and craving. We hear both of these in the conversations. We hear the aversion in wanting to escape. We hear craving in the desire for good experiences.

Furthermore, in the 3rd Noble Truth, Buddha noted that it was possible to overcome dukkha and to let go of aversion and craving. His 4th Noble Truth outlined the path towards letting go, via what is known as the Noble Eightfold Path.

This blog will not describe the eight aspects of this path (there are many ways to find out about them), except to note that each of them are related towards one’s inner journey, rather than focussed outwards.

Hence, the malaise of modern life begins with our aversion for the here and now and our inner experience, and with our craving for experiences elsewhere and outside of ourselves.

We need not succumb to being cast as simple spectators, observers, or consumers.

Notes:

1. French edition published by Buchet-Castel in 1967. The English edition was published in 1970 by Black & Red.

2. Cited in Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instict, Prometheus Books, Lanham, Maryland, 2017.

3. The word propaganda was transformed by Bernays into public relations. He wrote: ‘When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And "propaganda" got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it, so what I did was to try and find some other words, so we found the word "counsellor of public relations".

Thursday 24 August 2023

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - A Technological Reading

Two hundred years ago Europe was in thrall to the fascinating discoveries of science and the possibilities of new technologies. For many at the time, this seemed to be an era in which nature had finally been conquered and humanity could enjoy the riches and comforts of progress.

Yet then, as now, there were those who questioned this thinking. As ever, it was the story-tellers, novelists, and poets who first attempted to warn of potential disastrous consequences. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for example, was published in the early 1800s.

In this blog I wish to consider a 1797 poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,1 the great German poet, novelist, scientist, and philosopher. Many readers may not know of the poem, but likely will be familiar with one of the segments of the 1940 Disney animated film Fantasia based on Goethe’s poem - The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In that segment the cartoon character Mickey Mouse is cast in the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Allegorically, the poem can be read as a warning that we mess around with the mysteries of the world at our peril. Furthermore, when we create time-saving, comfort-inducing technologies, things can rapidly get out of control.2

Let us proceed through excerpts from Goethe’s poem (in italics) with an interpretation of this possible allegorical meaning. Not all of the poem is quoted here, only selected excerpts. The full poem comprises 98 lines, made up of 7 stanzas of 8 lines each, interspersed by 7 indented stanzas of 6 lines each.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

That old sorcerer has vanished

And for once has gone away!

Spirits called by him, now banished,

My commands shall soon obey.

These first four lines of the poem tell us that the wisdom of the ages (that old sorcerer) is no longer with us, and along with that, the mysteries are now banished. In wisdom’s place we humans will command nature to obey.

Come, old broomstick, you are needed,

Take these rags and wrap them round you!

Long my orders you have heeded,

By my wishes now I've bound you.

The third stanza tells us that we will take our technologies (old broomstick), expand them and bind them to our whim.

See him, toward the shore he's racing

There, he's at the stream already,

Back like lightning he is chasing,

Pouring water fast and steady.

And look, in stanza 5, it is working. Look how wealthy and mighty we are becoming. Our GDP (pouring water) is rising, we are growing fast on the back of our genius.

    Stop now, hear me!

    Ample measure

    Of your treasure

    We have gotten!

    Ah, I see it, dear me, dear me.

    Master's word I have forgotten!

But wait! What is this? The sixth indented stanza warns: climate catastrophe, pandemics, and social decay. We have had ample measure and have overshot our carrying capacity. Sadly, we have forgotten wisdom (Master’s word) and do not know how to stop this.

Ever new the torrents

That by him are fed,

Ah, a hundred currents

Pour upon my head!

It’s all happening so quick. Collapse is getting quicker and quicker, more and more (a hundred currents).

Brood of hell, you're not a mortal!

Shall the entire house go under?

Over threshold over portal

Streams of water rush and thunder.

By the ninth stanza we are in danger of total collapse (shall the entire house go under?)

    Can I never, Broom, appease you?

    I will seize you,

    Hold and whack you,

    And your ancient wood

    I'll sever,

    With a whetted axe I'll crack you.

Hang on! We’ll get out of this. We’ll create new technologies (a whetted axe) with which to save us.

What a good blow, truly!

There, he's split, I see.

Hope now rises newly,

And my breathing's free.

Hooray! Hope is rising in the eleventh stanza. We’ll get out of this and breathe free.

    Woe betide me!

    Both halves scurry

    In a hurry,

    Rise like towers

    There beside me.

    Help me, help, eternal powers!

Oh no! It has all gotten worse. Technology now taunts us. Hope has soured and become hopium.

Off they run, till wet and wetter

Hall and steps immersed are lying.

What a flood that naught can fetter!

Lord and master, hear me crying!

We’ve reached, and surpassed, tipping points and planetary boundaries. No matter what we do, things will collapse (what a flood that naught can fetter!). Perhaps too late, we cry for wisdom (Lord and master).

In Goethe’s poem the master sorcerer does return and with an appropriate spell relieves the apprentice of the calamity. The Sorcerer commands the broom:

    "To the lonely

    Corner, broom!

    Hear your doom.

    As a spirit

    When he wills, your master only

    Calls you, then 'tis time to hear it."

When Goethe wrote this poem I am sure he was not thinking of climate catastrophe or impending collapse of environmental and social systems. However, he was clearly cautioning humankind to not tamper with things we do not have the Master Sorcerer’s wisdom to understand. For when we do so, we unleash consequences that are beyond our ability to reign in. Furthermore, our attempts to do so, by utilising the thinking used in creating the situation, tend only to worsen and exacerbate our predicament.

Fortunately for the Apprentice the Sorcerer returned before it was too late. Can we too expect a return of wisdom? The signs are not good.

Notes

1. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in https://www.poemofquotes.com/johannwolfganggoethe/the-sorcerers-apprentice.php sourced 23 August 2023

2. I first became aware of this possible interpretation/reading in: Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct, Prometheus Books, Lanham, Maryland, 2017.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Scientia Potestas Est

Francis Bacon
‘Ipsa scientia potestas est’ is a well-known phrase within the scientific world. Most of us will know it as ‘knowledge itself is power.’

The phrase was first used by Sir Francis Bacon in 1597, who, along with René Descartes and others propelled the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe.

Bacon, Descartes et al were born into a culture that was infused with a centuries old concept of a split between nature and humanity. In this worldview nature is simply a conglomerate of matter and hence of little value. Descartes for instance, held that the rational mind was the true source of human meaning, and that our bodies were mere matter. From this presupposition he was able to deduce that nature too was simply matter as humans were the only entities able to use reason and rationality.

With such a viewpoint Descartes was able to say, ‘I do not recognise any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.’

It is hardly surprising then that the early promoters and explorers in the new scientific methods considered nature as needing to be tamed, subdued, and brought into the service of humans.

The writings of these early scientists are revealing:

‘Let the human race recover the right over Nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.’ - Francis Bacon.

‘Unite forces against the nature of things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds and extend the bounds of human empire.’  - Francis Bacon.

(We are)‘…putting it (nature) on the rack…’ – Gottfried Leibniz.

‘(We can) render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.’ - RenĂ© Descartes.

‘(I approve) the desire to command her (nature).’ – Robert Boyle

(Nature must) ‘be put in constraint.’ – Francis Bacon.

Nature's and Human Suffering

Notwithstanding many of the scientific breakthroughs and re-interpretations of the 20th and 21st centuries (e.g. ecology, systems theory, quantum physics), nature has been suffering the consequences of the Scientific Revolution ever since.

We have continued to plunder, exploit, damage, and pollute nature.

Not only nature, but our relationships with each other have also suffered because of the notions of the Scientific Revolution – primarily because of the metaphors of conquest and exploitation.

Although the Scientific Revolution is considered historically to have taken place during the 16th and 17th centuries, the scientific quest, and its implications, has remained a significant keystone of our present-day westernised view of the world.

Conquest and exploitation of other cultures by European nations had been taking place since the late 15th century, largely self-justified by a religious sensibility that viewed non-Christians as ungodly savages needing to be shown the right ways. The Scientific Revolution shifted this sense of European superiority from a religious basis to a biological one.

When Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace independently published their theories of evolution in the mid 19th century, one of the first to take up the seemingly social implications was Herbert Spencer. It was Spencer (not Darwin as many assume) who coined the term survival of the fittest and went on to apply this to sociology, ethics, and morals. Spencer’s interpretation of Darwin became known as social Darwinism and provided the pseudo-scientific basis for European superiority. So much so that this “biological” superiority became a moral duty of Europeans to dominate the rest of the world.

Yes, knowledge – scientia – is power, and when infused with notions and metaphors of conquest, exploitation, and human superiority, becomes destructive.

We are living now in the fires wrought by these metaphors and the machinery constructed by the knowledge we have gained from the Scientific Revolution and its descendants.

We must now let go of the notion of scientia potestas est (knowledge is power) and replace it with sapientia concordia est – wisdom is harmony.

Wednesday 9 August 2023

Should Not Wisdom

There is a common saying that, for some reason or other, is getting mentioned more frequently of late. The saying is this: “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

This saying has been attributed to Confucius, or sometimes simply noted as a “Chinese proverb.”

There are at least two caveats or questions that must be applied to this proverb.

First Caveat

There is no evidence that Confucius ever said this, and it may not even be of Chinese origin. The misappropriation to Confucius is because of the once popular phrase: “Confucius say…” followed by the supposed Confucian saying. According to William Peterson (professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University) such attribution was a fashionable way to introduce a stupid remark or weak joke.

If anything, the phrase may be of Austro-German-American origin. In 1867 the Austrian born cartoonist Joseph Keppler emigrated to the USA. In 1876 he founded the New York based humour magazine Puck initially in the German language, and in English the following year. Most of us know of the mischievous Shakespearean character Puck. Puck likes to play tricks on people. Indeed, the word puckish means mischievously playful.

A December 1902 edition of Puck included this sentence:

‘Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying “It can’t be done” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.”

Sixty years later an adult education periodical adapted the phrase as an adult education motto, writing:

‘Confucius say:Man (sic) who say it cannot be done should not interrupt man doing it.”

The saying is not one of Confucius, and is not even Chinese.

Second Caveat

The saying as it stands speaks of action, inaction, knowledge, and applied knowledge. Either it can or cannot be done.

There is at least a third possibility.

The wisdom to ask, should it be done?

Simply because something can be done, does not imply that it should be done.

Environmental law includes a precautionary principle, a translation of the German Vorsorgeprinzip in the 1970s. German lawmakers introduced a clean air act that included banning of substances suspected of causing environmental damage even though conclusive evidence of them doing so was inconclusive. Simply put, this is erring on the side of safety and caution.

Being cautious is wise. Had the physicists working on the Manhattan Project applied the precautionary principle we may not have seen the horror that was unleashed upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Indeed, in hindsight, two eminent physicists expressed regret following the dropping of those two atomic bombs. The head physicist of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, met with President Truman in October 1945 (just two months after the bombs had been dropped) and told Truman, “I feel I have blood on my hands.”

When Albert Einstein, whose famous equation E = mc2 set the foundation for the possibility of harnessing enormous energy (and explosive power), heard of the bombing of Hiroshima wailed, “Woe is me!”

Asking “should it be done?” is an example of the precautionary principle at work. It also asks us to apply wisdom to our endeavours, instead of recklessly approaching the future making and doing things simply because we can.

Would we be in the mess we are today if we had asked this question in earlier times? It is impossible to answer this question. However, we can ask the question as we head towards our future.

Most importantly it is the question we should be asking of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The three most prominent business uses of AI are: chatbots, predictive behaviour analysis, and highly personalised customer experience. Is this the future we want?

Or, would we prefer a future where we are not treated simply as consumers. Do we want a future where community and human-to-human interaction is valued? Would we prefer to not have a future where a nameless, and faceless, artificial intelligence is predicting our every move?

These are questions we must ask ourselves.

“Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it” is the advice given. However, both (the denier and the doer) need to listen to the wise person asking, Should it be done?

Tuesday 1 August 2023

Understanding Overshoot

This year’s Earth Overshoot Day falls on 2 August. But, what is it? 

When I tell people about Overshoot Day, or ask them about it, I find that very few people know about it, and even less understand the concept – including many concerned about climate change or the state of the Earth’s ecosystems.

Environmental scientists define overshoot as demand exceeding regeneration. What does that mean in layperson’s language?

How about an analogy.

Suppose at the beginning of the year (on 1 January) you have capital of $1,000. During the year you spend $200. Suppose your investments give you a 10% return, giving an income during the year of $100. At the end of the year (31 December) you will have $900 ($1,000 - $200 + $100.)

Now suppose you do exactly the same the following year, only this time you start with $900 (the amount you had left at the end of the previous year.) Again, you spend $200 and get a 10% return on investments. What are you left with at the end of this second year?

$790.

Your investments give you an income of $90 (10% of $900) and you spent $200. Thus, you have $900 - $200 + $90 = $790.

If you continue doing the same thing year after year then you can easily see that your capital base will diminish each year, and eventually you will have none of it left.

This is overshoot. You are spending more each year than you are making.

It is easy to envisage a theoretical date during the year upon which your spending surpasses your income. For the first year this would be 9/10ths of the way through the year – 25 November. All money you spend after this date puts you into “overshoot.”

So, how does this relate to Earth Overshoot Day?

Think of the amount you spend ($200) as being a metaphor for the quantity of materials and resources that humans extract from the Earth plus the volume of waste (pollution) we pump back into the Earth.

Now consider your return (10%) as representing how quickly the Earth can replenish the materials and resources extracted, plus how long it takes for the Earth to repair from the waste and pollution.

In a nutshell, that is what Earth Overshoot is. It is the difference between the extraction and pollution rates of humans and the ability of the Earth to restore and repair. This difference has been negative for more than 50 years.

Just as with the theoretical financial situation it is possible to calculate the extraction and waste production rates; it is also possible to calculate the restoration and repair speeds. Using these figures calculating a symbolic date for Earth Overshoot becomes workable.

This year it is 2 August.

Earth Overshoot Day has been calculated for every year since 1971 when it was calculated to land on December 25th.

Returning briefly to the financial analogy above: this date would represent having spent as much as was earned by Christmas – leaving just one week to either go without, or dip into your capital.

Sadly, since 1971 we have been experiencing Earth Overshoot Day earlier and earlier in the year.

The importance of Earth Overshoot Day cannot be overstated, as it is our overshoot that is the fundamental driver of all our environmental (and increasingly, our social as well) woes. Climate change is the issue that gets most attention, yet climate change is only one of a myriad symptoms of overshoot. Other symptoms include; species extinction, deforestation, land/soil loss, desertification, plastic pollution, air quality pollution, litter and rubbish, toxic waste issues, and water pollution.

William R Catton, Jr., is recognised as having written the foundational study on overshoot in his classic 1982 book Overshoot:The Ecological Basis for Revolutionary Change.1 In that book Catton noted that since the European colonisation of the world the world has been living in what he termed the Age of Exuberance.

The Age of Exuberance saw the massive increase in technology which, along with the extraction of fossil fuels, resulted in enormous increases in the ability of humans to exploit the world. The Age of Exuberance also suggested that resources and human innovation were limitless and there was no stopping human “progress.”

Now, the exuberance is fading rapidly, and we are finding that we cannot continue extracting, exploiting, and polluting. As Catton puts it, ‘technology (has) come to enlarge our resource appetites instead of our world’s carrying capacity.’

We cannot keep feeding our appetite at the rate we are doing. We are growing fat and the kitchen cupboard is becoming bare.

Note:

1. William R Catton, Jr., Overshoot:The Ecological Basis for Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1982.