Someone special

I haven’t written anything for a while* because I’ve been sad.  The trouble with this particular kind of sad is that it has the ring of truth about it; it cannot hope the clouds will part, the sun will shine, and the dreamer will be woken.  The only good thing to come from this kind of bedrock truthy sadness is nuggets of realisation which – if clawed from the rock and hauled to the surface – can perhaps be shown to others so that they need not descend that deep, dark mine themselves.

* (I wrote this a year ago … just didn’t finish it until now)

One nugget is this.  No good will come by accident.  I am a healthy, reasonably compassionate (at least by the Modern Western Norm), reasonably productive (again, MWN: good) human.  I do not steal (MWN: good).  I do not beat (MWN: good) people**.  I do not kick cats or throw stones at dogs.  I do my best not to lie or deceive others.  I do my best to be friendly and kind.  I’ve not killed anyone**.  I pay my taxes and help my neighbours** and say hello on the street and do my best to remember birthdays.  I must, therefore, be A Good (MWN) Human.

** By “people”, I mean, of course, only those in my immediate society. I am ignorant of the effects of my choices on any other people group.

Except, no.

The saddest, darkest part of my latest journey down the mine was the realisation that those two words have become oxymoronic.  One can be good at being a human, where human carries with it the inbuilt measurement standards of the MWN, but this is not the same as being good.  It’s like saying that a drawing of a tiger is a “good tiger” because it closely resembles an idea of what a tiger looks like.  A good resemblance or nearness to an idea of human – even a good human – is not the same thing as being good.

I’m reminded of the genius of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon:

He comforted himself with whiskey, and an eternal hatred of women.  “You drink too much,” Dr Goldstein told him.
“Drink too much for what?” he asked in reply.

If something is good, we must also ask, good for what? Or good for whom? Or good in what circumstance or context?  Much of our definition of good come from the horizons of its context.  Good for me may not be the same as good for my family (I ate all of the last piece of chocolate cake).  Good for my family may not be good for another family (house prices are rising, one family owns a freehold home, another family rents).  Good for my community or country may not be good for the world (refugees, immigration, wars, exchange rates, etc).  Context, perspective, and scope are the biggest influencing factors in our definitions of good (as I’ve said before).

But I think this analysis could be better, a little less dependent on perspective.  Let’s just look at one person in the MWN context.

I am a consumer.  A taker.  An apex predator.  As a part of the MWN society, I eat food which is shipped on trucks and trains and sometimes planes.  I breathe in oxygen and I breathe out carbon dioxide.  I have a computer, which uses electricity and whose innards use cobalt mined by children in slavery.  I drink coffee.  Fair Trade, it says, but that still comes with its own problems.  I eat meat.  I wear clothes.  I write computer code for a living (sometimes).  Even choosing vegetarian or vegan options in my diet doesn’t change the fact that my most fundamental characteristic as a human is that of taking.  Consumpsi ergo sum.  I consume therefore I am.

The natural world exists in a balance, a trade, a two-sidedness, an exchange.  Whales – consumers of fish – nonetheless enhance their environment by moving nutrients and oxygenated water throughout the ocean, which in turn increases the number of the fish upon which they feed (despite pro-whaling Japanese government arguments to the contrary).  Trees may release consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide during the night, but the oxygen they produce during daylight hours more than counteracts it, as well as supplying all kinds of other benefits.  Sharks – perhaps the highest of all predators – still contribute to the wellbeing of their environment, and the decline in shark numbers “has led to the decline in coral reefs, seagrass beds and the loss of commercial fisheries.”

So what do we humans really give in exchange for what we take?  Well, nothing.  It’s not part of our definition of good.  We think we’re different.  Special.  Above it all.  Yeah, that’s worked out great so far.  Custodians of the planet? Nope.  Even amoeba are smart enough to understand that it’s a bad idea to kill your host.  We humans don’t have the smarts of an amoeba. 

(Did I warn you that this was a sad kind of post? Any time I find myself a) reading and b) agreeing with Dan Brown, (see Inferno) I know something is probably out of whack somewhere. Perhaps it’s time to escape into the real and rational world of maths …)

In mathematics and engineering, eigenvectors are a concept related to specialness: eigen from German/Dutch/Norwegian meaning own, particular to, inherent; and a vector being something containing two pieces of information: a direction (or rotation), and a magnitude (or length).

Imagine a square of rubber with a bunch of lines drawn on it.  When the rubber is stretched, some lines change length, some change direction, most do both (all the red lines). But in a few special directions, the eigenvectors of this particular stretch, no rotation happens (pink, blue). No matter how strongly you pull, they will not change direction. What’s my point? I think we mistakenly believe ourselves to be special. I think that this belief in our own specialness has caused us to value the magnitude of our progress alone, without considering its direction.

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. 

— CS Lewis, The Case for Christianity.

No good will come by accident.  It’s not enough to Not Be A Bad Person (by MWN standards). It’s not even enough to be a MWN Good Person, because that person is not, in any context broader than their immediate surroundings (and sometimes not even then), good.  And, what’s worse, is that in addition to not being good, our ambitions take us further from good than our current position.  Let me give you an example.

An ex-colleague has moved on to something bigger and better.  Go him.  Here is someone mid-career, well-recognised and vibrantly ambitious who, through determination, hard work, talent (all those good things) is moving in the trajectory in which he could be expected to go.  Again, go him.  But part of this MWN success means that he has chosen to commute from Australia to New Zealand.  Every.  Single.  Week***.  Becoming a more successful (some might say better) MWN person means becoming a whole lot less good for the planet.  But I shouldn’t single him out because it’s everywhere. Being more successful means driving a bigger car.  Flying higher and further to fancier destinations.  Using the air-conditioning all the time, because I can afford the electricity bill.  Buying strawberries in July in New Zealand or January in the northern hemisphere.  Because I can afford it.  Building a bigger, newer, fancier house.  Because I can afford it.  Replacing a smart phone each time a new model is released.  Because I’m worth it.  All these are the marks of the Successful MWN person. Looking at magnitude alone, without considering direction.

*** This has obviously been curtailed somewhat because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank goodness, perhaps? The pandemic has taught us that we’re capable of change when it’s needed. The new challenge is to understand just how large and persistent that need really is.

While living in Switzerland I received a magazine from my university in NZ proudly announcing its place at the top of the Times Higher Education ranking for sustainable development goals.  Well, that’s a little surprising, but kinda cool, I thought.  Then I wondered why that same university thought that the best way to announce this was to send an unsolicited, glossy-papered, heavy, plastic-wrapped magazine via airmail to the other side of the planet, and use the entire back cover to advertise how “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” they were.  Inigo Montoya sums up my reaction best.

And of course, a little goes a long way.  Because good publicity like this is surely more than enough to offset the vague murmurs from student groups protesting their underlying investments in fossil fuels and coalIngenio, sure.  Labore, of course. Integritas, well, that’s not part of it.  (Even more depressing is the realisation that if this is the best, then every other university out there is doing a worse job.)

My trip down the mine gave me conclusions, but not answers; ideas but not plans. (Yet, I hope).

1) We – you, me, humanity, all of us – are not special.

2) To be successful in a societal context bears no resemblance to anything that could be considered good in a wider, ecological or even sociological context. Thus no good will come by accident: it’s not enough to be a good person, or not to be a bad one. Our entire definition is wrong.

3) The faster we remove that eigen specialness from our thinking; the faster we allow our direction to be changed and informed; the faster we turn around and choose a better path; the swifter and truer our real progress will be.

I can – as always – be grateful for this trip down the mine and grateful for the nuggets that are to be found there. But it’s not pleasant. It’s hard work. I wish I knew better how to talk about these nuggets. How not to forget them; how to so present them that other people can understand too; how to prevent the false distractors of shame from distorting the message or hiding the danger. These nuggets are precious. And I don’t want to have to go and dig them out again.

Cover photo from here, photographer Michael Robinson Chavez.

Eigenvector animation from here, creator Lucas Vieira.

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