The real meaning behind that meaningless job

I recently listened to an interview about “autonomous technology.” The main message was that increasing automation means that more and more people are losing their jobs to robots.  And apparently it’s not just assembly line factory jobs that are at risk. White collar jobs are being absorbed at a rapid pace as well.  We don’t need to worry so much about all those jobs being shipped overseas; the real threat is the microchip.

The technology part of the discussion went into all of the predictable places: “It’s part of an inevitable and unstoppable process.”“Progress is irreversible.” “We can’t turn back the clock.” Etc.

Then the conversation took a rather unexpected philosophical turn, which began with the idea of providing a universal government wage so that the consumer economy could continue to function. We could easily provide a living salary to all persons in the country right now, and at a microscopic fraction of the defense budget. But the problem with providing a universal wage in lieu of actual employment is that people derive meaning from being gainfully employed, and without a job their lives would become meaningless.  And what’s even worse, life without meaningful employment brings into question the true purpose of industrial civilization—and the whole meaning of humanity! What is at risk here is nothing less than a culture-wide slide into crippling nihilism.

So, let me see if I have this right. We need jobs, even mindless factory jobs, in order for our lives to have meaning. And without the meaning we derive from wage-slave employment, we would all suddenly realize that the whole thing—industrial corporate consumer civilization—has no human purpose?


Is howler monkey good for your heart?

The Tsimane people live in the Bolivian jungle and eat a diet of monkey, piranhas, peccary, wild harvested nuts and fruit, and plantain, rice, and corn from small gardens. Although they are plagued by a variety of jungle diseases and parasitic worms, their average age of death is around 70, and they currently hold the record for the lowest incidence of cardiovascular disease of any group of people on the planet.

Recently some medical researchers convinced about 700 of these folks to take a two day trip to a clinic downriver and undergo high-tech x-ray scans of their coronary arteries, where they were found to have an average “arterial age” almost 30 years younger than the typical denizens of Western civilization.

Although the researchers can’t determine which part of the Tsimane lifestyle is responsible for their heart health, diet, exercise, the general lack of stress, some other variable, or some combination, cardiologist and author, Randall Thomson, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying “Obviously the Tsimane are achieving something that we are not.”

Stop. Heart health is an achievement? Let’s think about that for just a moment.

Doesn’t this have things backwards? The Tsimane are not trying to be healthy. They are just doing what they do, what they have always done: living their lives in a manner similar to that of their ancestors and their ancestors before them. They aren’t worried about their cholesterol. They don’t count their carbs. They don’t have a gym membership or a Fitbit recording their daily steps. Their health is not something that is achieved. It is a side effect of living a traditional lifestyle.

Wait, that’s not quite right, is it? I’m so metabolized into the civilized frame that I fell for it once again myself. Health is not a side effect of anything. It’s lack of health that is the side effect.

The cardiologist’s simple statement provides a window into the warped, carnival mirror perspective that civilization imposes on everything it comes in contact with. There are two main distortions on display in this particular story. The first is technological: that everything can ultimately be reduced to a mechanical system. Cardiovascular health can be “achieved” by assembling the right combination of behaviors. Second, that civilization is the default state for humans. The authors were a little too quick to emphasize that life is not all peaches and cream for these folks. Living in the jungle is hard work and fraught with danger and gross parasites. We can’t have anyone getting any ideas about going Tarzan here. The only thing we want from the Tsimane is to identify the specific causal factors involved in their superior heart health so that we can incorporate those things—and only those things, and only if they aren’t too onerous—into our (incomparably superior) civilized lifestyles.

The reality is the Tsimane haven’t achieved anything. They are healthy because they are living an authentic human lifestyle. It is corporate consumer industrial civilization that has done the achieving, and heart disease is only one among many of civilization’s noteworthy achievements.

Not your typical mass extinction

I’m reading Jensen’s Dreams.  Many of his claims border on hyperbole, some of his literary gimmicks seem contrived, and his stream of consciousness writing style is a bit too self-absorbed to be truly enjoyable. But his books are laced with kernels of insight, and some of his ideas are subtle and unexpected. For example, he suggests that it is wrong to equate the mass extinction event occurring now with the half dozen or so that have occurred in the distant past. Although that by itself is neither subtle, nor, given his particular radical environmentalist posture, unexpected, he takes it one step further and suggests that, not only is the equivalency between current and previous mass extinction events a false one, it is also potentially dangerous.

It is true that the present mass extinction event it is on track to exceed in size and scope the event that heralded the end of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. And it may eventually eclipse the great Permian extinction which wiped out over two-thirds of the land animals and almost all marine life.

But, suggests Jensen, unlike the mass extinctions of the past, there is nothing natural about what is happening now. What is happening now is a direct result of global industrial civilization. And global industrial civilization is not a natural event. To call industrial civilization an extinction event, and to position it relative to the mass extinctions of the past, is a form of validation. To think of what industrial civilization is doing, destroying the biosphere in a calculated and intentional way, as just another example of what has happened before, creates a false sense of inevitability.

Jensen’s “dangerous line of thinking” concerns also apply to the recent addition of the Anthropocene to the list of geologic time periods. Let’s be clear about this: industrial civilization is not just another stage in the geological progression of the planet. It is not an inevitable side effect of human evolution. It is a historically contingent cultural artifact that can be eliminated permanently at any point in time without violating a single physical law or biological principle.