We’re Doing It….

We’re doing it wrong?

If you grow up in a hunter/gatherer or simple agricultural society, the skills needed to cope with life are pretty simple and basic. Furthermore, they are learned from early childhood, by watching, helping and doing. Those skills may not always be sufficient to handle extraordinary events – new diseases, natural diasters, invasions – but they do a pretty good job on a day-to-day basis. For the most part, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to be a farmer.

That’s not to say that intelligence has no place in farming or that a farmer may not be intelligent. However, the smarter farmer has only a limited advantage over the average farmer simply because the venue for exploiting intelligence is limited in scope. By and large, the good, the mediocre and even the marginal farmer can get by most of the time, certainly enough for the society as a whole to survive and even flourish. In a simple economy, most of the problems are not subject to intellectual solutions. One may plant drought-resistent crops, but there are droughts too severe for even those – the smart farmer and the margninal farmer alike will starve – or migrate elsewhere, or give up farming.

What happens when dealing with life becomes so difficult it is behond the capabilities of the average person to cope with effectively?
Obvious answer: the average person copes less than effectively.
And the more complicated life becomes, the greater the disparity between needed skills and available skills and the less effective the coping.

The solution we seem to have come up with is to let others make the decisions we are unable to make ourselves; to let ‘our betters’ decide. In America, of course, we do not officially acknowledge that anyone is ‘our better’, but unoffically we are all too happy to hand over our vote, cash, dreams and future to others, then find some face-saving way to rationalize it for the sake of our egos.

Unfortunately, that leaves us at the mercy of the intentions of the decision-makers. Even a cursory glance at the state of the world makes it pretty obvious that the intentions of the Powers That Be are not focused on what is benefits the general citizenry but on what benefits themslves and their social/economic/political class. Looking at the detrius of American society, it appears a lot of us are not coping very well with contemporary life.

For example, aside from the expected resistance on the part of those who profit from processes which brought us Global Warming, the lukewarm response from the world at large may well be due to the average citizen’s inability to imagine a solution and therefore being willing (eager?) to leave the matter to the ‘experts’. This ‘trust’ in others and perhaps the myth of Perpetual Progress frees us from taking personal responsibility – which we don’t feel (and may not be) able to live up to.


I often wonder if many (most?) people don’t feel overwhelmed by modern life much of the time; if that isn’t perhaps the major reason so many people seek a simpler lifestyle. The odd thing is that much of the back-to-basic activity is not coming from those who are most patently unable to cope, but by intellectuals, most of whom are coping successfully, at least for now. Perhaps they just see the handwriting on the wall and fear that in another 20 years or another generation or another 7 generations we will have created a FrankenSociety; beyond our ability to manage or deal with.

Perhaps the FrankenSociety is already upon us. Maybe that should be the definition of Civilization: a society so complex that only a small proportion of its members can prosper. And maybe a Civilization falls when the ‘incompetent’ majority grows so large and helpless that it removes itself (or is removed) from the processes that support the society. When the decisions-makers lose our trust, when the citizens can no longer support themselves, no longer exert any influence on the political mechanisms which protect (and control) them, will no longer serve as cannon-fodder in the society’s wars, something has to give.

7 Replies to “We’re Doing It….”

  1. There Are A Few, Steeleweed…,

    doing it right. Wendell Berry is one. Here’s a quote from him on Bill Moyers last night…, or at the link today:

    WENDELL BERRY: We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?

    I also highly recommend the book of his that I read a while back…, and am reading again now, “What Are People For?”

    And…, right on Steeleweed…, write on.

  2. “a society so complex that only a small proportion of its members can prosper.”

    That makes sense and there is some evidence for that. An economist looked at government debt and found that it was highly correlated with the extent of government services. The more services, the more debt in an unending cycle. If you look at the US and Europe, that would seem to be the case.

    I don’t think that the complexity of our current society differentiates the average intellect from the very much above average intellect. I’d bet that the complexity of society is created by those with the means of control for the purpose of keeping them in control. It’s really not a difference in intellect that determines how well complexity is handled, it is an inside track as part of the group that makes the rules.

    1. Well, having lived a sheltered life, I’ve probably only personally known perhaps 20 upperclass offspring. Some were intelligent (sometimes arrogant but usually polite as long as their position was not threatened), some were average and a few were downright stupid twits.

      The intelligent ones would eventually inherit the reins of power, the average would be tolerated and supported as useful functionaries somewhere in the Organization (albeit very well paid) and the stupid ones were entirely surrounded, protected and controlled by mandarins acting on behalf of the parents.

      The less-than-brilliant don’t need to cope – that’s what their retainers are for.
      Rather like the line in ‘Sorrows of Young Werther’: “As for living, our servants can do that for us.”

      Complexity? 20% of the population can’t find work. Millions of homes are foreclosed. Millions lack health care, not to mention insurance to provide for a family and a few bucks saved up against the rainy day when the car breaks down or the furnace needs replacing or the daughter needs braces, or……etc. You can blame the conditions on various causes, entities and policies but the bottom line is that millions of people cannot cope successfully with the world the find themselves in. Note that I’m not saying what successful coping might involve: perhaps being more flexible at gaining employable skills or being better at maintaining and using social networks – or grabbing the torches and pitchforks and heading Uptown.

      When the natives lived on the beach and the weather changed and the tides got higher, they picked up their gear and moved a few miles to higher ground. Can NYC, Boston, Philly & Charleston do that when sea-level rises? How will they cope? When drought hit the Southwest, the Anasazi migrated. Can/will half of AZ/NM/TEX do that? When the price of fossil fuel rises so high transportation costs make food unaffordable, how will consumers cope?

      I really don’t have answers, but I think the questions need to be asked.

      1. I’m increasingly dubious about our perceptions of intelligence. Acting upperclass in social manner, speaking conventions, and the like generally make people define you as intelligent. Or conforming to the conventions of any other self defined group (academics, politicians, business managers) will get you quite the reputation for brains. Prime example seems to be someone like Larry Summers, whose acquaintances universally call brilliant but who has left an unbroken string of failures in his wake. Apparently his whole manner and philosophical pontifications flatter the self-image of the predatory elite.

        Complexity does offer the opportunity for powerful to increase their power, but I think there’s a lot more involved than a supposed mediocrity of intelligence among most people.

        1. I really don’t estimate someone’s intelligence by their ‘social dialect’ or their job – I’ve known brilliant CEOs and idiots, genius professors and fools, ignorant ranchers and educated ones. I would agree that many if not most ‘reputations for brains’ are undeserved, or at least indicative of things other than native intelligence. Failure, on the other hand is not necessarily counter to intelligence. Thomas Edison was quite intelligent, yet he failed with hundreds of lamp filaments before settling on tungsten.

          How about judging intelligence on the ability to deal effectively with one’s environment?

          Perhaps we might say that the complications of contemporary life are beyond many people, not because they are stupid but because they are ignorant. Which raises the question of why they do not educate themselves, since ignorance is a problem in their environment.

          One may be brilliant in a narrow area and ignorant otherwise, so I guess the question from a social/political point of view is what aspects of our environment we safely remain ignorant about. The average person may know how to do a job,but does he/she now know to find a job when unemployment is 20%? Is the average voter intelligent and educated enough to evaluate politics? Economics? Foreign policy? In a very simple world, these issues didn’t really affect most people. Now they effect everyone.

          1. How about judging intelligence on the ability to deal effectively with one’s environment?

            That seems as though “social dialect” is the right metric. It makes you effective dealing with your environment. By this definition, who’s more intelligent — the activist whose time, energy, and thus financial security have gone into working for a better society with minimal results or the suburban homeowner who has devoted all that to his job and his entertainment and been successful at self-indulgence?

            I think we need to deal with people as they are and not as we judge they should be. Well, why don’t they educate themselves to see things as we think they should? That’s a good question, but I think we usually give short shrift to our expectations in favor of their shortcomings.

        2. My younger brother is much impressed with his own intelligence, certainly more so than I am, says he has trouble finding people “at his level” with whom he can associate. He was running his own business so poorly that he was unable to pay his taxes including, amazingly enough, being delinquint on payroll taxes on his single employee, but when the adjoining office space became empty he signed a lease on it because he might someday need it and wanted to assure that it would be available when and if he did. He called me and wanted to borrow money for an airline ticket to Las Vegas for the Comdex trade show because he had already rented the display booth and “hired the models” for it, but didn’t have the cash to get there himself. In the 1960’s he crashed his VW Beetle and paid $3200 to have it repaired when he could have bought a new one for $1400. I could go on.

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