As some of you already know, I'm taking an extremely stimulating class this quarter about work and leisure. We have analyzed the writings of philosophers from ancient Greece to modern America in order to formulate a
conception of my own place in the world. The final project was to write a paper. The prompt was, what is good and meaningful work for you? I put alot of effort into this paper, so I thought I would post it here so others could share it with me. Tell me what you think!
Happiness is the most important goal in my life. Everything I do is driven by a desire to be happy, to be fulfilled. But do not take that to mean that I am a hedonist - many things have value to me that do not make me happy directly, but I try to find meaning in them anyway. Work, at least a common contemporary version of work, is somewhat at odds with my values. In millions of jobs across the world, people mindlessly jab at keyboards, roll cigarette after cigarette, cut the loose threads on jeans, and toil at even more demeaning jobs in return for a pale imitation of well-being. They are policed in their jobs by restrictive managers, watched by police with inflated egos on the street, and are so degraded by the time they get home that their close relationships are shallow and few. How do I find a meaningful life in a world that is full of suffering? What is my place on this earth, one human among the uncounted multitude? Why am I here? These are the questions that everyone must ask themself at some point. Some turn to religion, others commit themselves to some other path. In my opinion, my duties as a human being are two: be a steward of the earth, the only home we have ever known, and be a steward of my people, human beings.
There is no doubt that there are problems beyond measure in today's world. No one has trouble listing what some of these problems are, but each person's list will be different. Let me try to list off some of the biggest problems, that, in my eyes, hold back our species from its full potential. This is a short list of the things that I take as my duty to help change, for the good of our species. I realize that I will miss many problems here, but I believe the vast majority stem from a few of these basic inequities.
Poverty is perhaps the biggest inequity in the world, and affects the most. The vast majority of all people in the world are poor. From the projects of Coney island and Queensbridge, the 9th ward of New Orleans, the post-industrial wasteland of Detroit, to Oakland and Compton in California, to the south end of Seattle, poverty is a reality for millions in the United States today. The state of the poor in the richest country in the world is small compared to the uncounted hundreds of millions living in extreme poverty, forgotten and outcast, in Sao Paulo, Rio De Janeiro, Mexico City, China, India, Senegal, Darfur, Congo, and all across the world. Wherever you go, the poor are not far away. Why are people poor? I will address this later.
The vast difference in the quality of life between the rich and the poor accounts for the majority of crime. According to the US Department of Justice, more than 2 million people were incarcerated in 2002 in the United States. Prisons are one of the fastest growing industries in this country, and a San Fransisco Chronicle article recently stated that within five years, California will be spending more money on prisons than on higher education (Sterngold). The US jails
600,000 more people than China, the second leading country, and 1,200,000 more than Russia, in distant third place (Straw). Jails are not a solution, they are a temporary fix that does nothing to address the direct causes of crime. They serve no good purpose in society, only creating a culture of imprisonment among the most impoverished people and a black hole of resources and lives.
Racism, sexism, and classism are bigger problems in this country than most people admit. The fact that these prejudices exist is evidence of a deep sickness in our culture. They are a major source of war, social conflict, and violence, and serve to alienate people around the world from one another.
War is going strong today, flourishing around the world as a means of solving a conflict. Why do people kill each other around the world, especially under the guise of nationalism? What are the primary motivations, and what justifies war? This is a rather complex, often confusing issue, but I believe that all war is fundamentally flawed, and only hurts all the involved peoples. As Gandhi once said, "I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent."
War and the psychology of violence are ingrained in out culture. Society, relationships, and the health among people in the U.S. are strained, and the principles that lead us to war also lead us to internal conflict. Abuse, fights, divorce, suicide, murder, hate crimes, and other extreme behaviors are widespread. People spend less time raising their children, with their families, with their elders, their friends, in their communities, and speaking to strangers. Overall, less time is spent with neighbors and other humans, and more time is spent watching TV, surfing the Internet, and at work. I believe that the increasing technological innovations have combined with the individualist spirit of our culture to cripple the social skills and compassion that are innate in humans.
This same technology and individualism have lead to a dangerous irresponsibility among most all people with respect of the Earth. Environmental destruction and climate changes are occurring at unprecedented rates. From the rain forests of Columbia, the strip mines of the Australian outback, the coral reefs across the oceans, the Uranium mines on First Nation land in New Mexico, to carbon emissions around the globe, contamination of groundwater with agricultural chemicals, and depletion of oil reserves, the earth is in somewhat dire shape. This destruction inevitably leads to hard questions. What is the benefit of this destruction? Why is it occurring? What are the motivations of the people and the bodies who are fostering this destruction?
These are all frustrating, persistent, and extremely destructive problems, but I believe that all of them are completely solvable, albeit on a long timescale. One of the most effective ways to understand and solve any problem is to deconstruct its causes. All of the problems I have outlined stem from only a one root causes, namely, the economic and resulting cultural system of capitalism. Capitalism is an unsound social construction that has profoundly negative consequences on every corner of the globe and every corner of your life. This may sound somewhat radical - I can assure you that it probably does - but the reality is, we live in a world of such wealth that every human being on earth should have a home, access to pure water, uncontaminated air, fresh organic food, clothes on their back, and a community of people to live with. Each person should have a loving environment to learn in, teachers to help them along their way, special consideration for any unusual needs, and the freedom to express themselves in almost any way they want. Each person should have a supporting environment, clean land to live on, and a strong family. And all this should, and can be achieved while respecting our stewardship of the Earth, continuing the advance of science to benefit the race, and cementing the future of our global family. These things are not dreams, beyond the current abilities of technology. This could be the reality. If it does not become reality, in some form, than human beings as a species are in danger of destroying ourselves.
Capitalism is based on the precepts of individualism. Individuals who work harder, get more. If an individual chooses not to work, or cannot work, then that person has no inherent worth in the system of capitalism. Capitalism alienates people from their jobs by dividing labor into ever smaller pieces, keeping workers always in danger of being fired, downsizing and outsourcing, and separating the worker from the final product, which allows them no sense of accomplishment. When the skill and the challenge is removed from an activity and replaced with mindless repetition, boredom and anxiety set in, and this is a problem seen in many jobs today. The extremes of capitalism, the very rich and the very poor, are very secure in their positions. Wealth begets wealth, and poverty spawns greater poverty. At the same time, consumerism entices poor people to buy into the very system that holds them down. Advertisers spend millions to create a need for a new product among an entire population. These new products and technologies foster the spirit of capitalism. Television, computers, iPods, video games, second life, cell phones, microwaves, online shopping, they all serve the core principle of individualism by reducing encounters the extent of relations among people. Where for most of history a person would have conversations during their free time, walk to the store to buy some food or clothes from a real person, go to the pub to see a band or maybe even play and sing themselves, and cook dinners with family, friends, and neighbors, now these things are done in relative isolation.
This system is dehumanizing to all of its participants. Consumers in our society are separated from the food we eat, the cars we drive, and everything we consume by a price tag. While this may seem trivial, it separates us, the consumer, from the consequences of the things we consume, which is very dangerous. Factory farming, while it produces cheap eggs and big profits for the owners, comes at a price. Chickens, cattle, and pigs are often squashed into tiny cages, unable to turn around or lie down, force-fed antibiotics, and most will never see the light of day or smell fresh air. We pay for a car with our labor, never seeing the results of global climate change on our scale, the earth ripped apart for raw materials, or the worn down workers on the assembly line. We browse merrily on our computers and talk on our cell phones, but almost never hear mention of the devastating civil wars in the Congo that are financed by Tantalum mines, ripping apart the jungle and resulting in more than 3 million killed since 1994, all for the sake of transistors and circuits. The irony is that we have the buying power in this system, which is the power to control what we consume. In a traditional economy, the consequences of unethical, harmful, and destructive practices was immediate and present, and this self-protecting system flourished for hundreds of thousands of years., while our system hurtles us towards our own destruction faster and faster.
Capitalism fosters a disconnect between all people. New material goods separate us from the earth, which is the ultimate source of all of our livelihood. Ancient cultures around the world, strong in their traditions and deeply rooted in their respect for the land, are exploited by globalization, free trade agreements, and outsourcing. Columbian farmers, who have grown and sold crops locally for thousands of years, are now competing with massive agri-businesses from the United States for customers. Many of these farmers, forced out of their traditional, sustainable agricultural practices, turn to Coca fields as their only means of feeding their family, only to be set upon by the forces of the War on Drugs. All of this is justified in the minds of many people by the notion of progress in the global economy, and growth in the price of their stocks.
The question that must be asked is, progression towards what? Is there some light at the end of the tunnel for capitalists? What is the point of all this work, all this labor that goes beyond providing what we need? Corporations amass wealth, vast production lines crank out millions of doo-dads per day, and dump trucks build mountains of trash upon the earth. Why do we uphold a system that necessitates a poor, underprivileged class alongside an extremely wealthy and powerful one? What is the benefit of such a system to any one person, and to humanity and the earth as a whole?
In February of 1990, the Voyager I spacecraft, launched in 1977, began to leave the solar system. As it left, NASA commanded the Voyager to turn around and photograph the solar system from 4 billion miles away. The photo, immortalized as "the pale blue dot," is the furthest picture of the earth ever taken. Carl Sagan, the famous author, philosopher, and astronomer, wrote about the photo in his book of the same title.
"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you've ever heard of, every human being who ever was lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish this pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." (Sagan)
No one holds the solution in their hands. I have no medicine, no miracle plan to save ourselves from this position we have backed ourselves into. I'm only one man, one among billions. So what do I do to change the world? What is my good and meaningful work? I choose to structure my life around compassion. Wealth and property are enticing goals, but when I consider my place as a human being, alone with my people on a tiny pale blue dot, most of the things that are considered important in our capitalist society begin to fall to the wayside. When the potential for good change in the world is so enormous, I must take some of it as my responsibility, as my work.
The first way that I seek to change the world is to live simply, and live well. The guidelines that I set here are few and simple, but it is nonetheless work to follow them. Such changes do not come easily. I try to reduce my consumption as much as possible, and to encourage others to do the same. Our power as consumers is total, but it is only as educated consumers that we can make the right choices. I try to be compassionate, and to live with an appreciation for every other being. Fundamental in this endeavor is self respect. It is often said that you cannot love another without first loving yourself, and I believe this is truth. By spreading standards of beauty and bias based on appearance and manner, our culture has seriously damaged the ability of most people to truly love themselves without compunction, and this in turn has led to a population that often sees compassion as weakness.
Perhaps the biggest victim of our modern way of life has been our relationships. Humans are inherently among the most social creatures on the planet, and the individualism preached on the pulpits of Wall Street is antithetical to our nature. I believe that the best way to build change in the world is the forge strong relationships among people. The only way to forge lasting, meaningful relationships is to spend time on them, which is why I choose to spend time with my family, with all of my relatives, with my friends, and even with strangers. You can never tell who will be a new friend. The time spent with friends and family is the primary building block of culture, and culture is among the strongest forces for change in the world.
Another aspect of my work is storytelling. My favorite methods of telling stories use writing and photography, two mediums which have a fundamental power to influence people. The disconnect between consumers and the consequences of their consumption is a fragile barrier, and the written word and printed image have the ability to pierce that wall. Both photography and writing have an intrinsic value to me as well. Both formats have the ability to capture beauty in a form that is usually unseen and unheard. With a camera in my hands, I have the power to capture and share some small parts of the beauty that, for the most part, goes unappreciated in the everyday world.
Although traditionally my leisure activity of choice has been rock climbing, it has been supplanted in the past year by a french discipline called Parkour, which was born in a suburb of Paris in the 1980's. A highly physical training discipline, Parkour is about the perfection of movement from one point to another, learning to bypass any obstacle in the path. Although it is most often practiced in urban environments, the discipline is formulated around fast, efficient, and graceful movement across any terrain. This commonly involves running, jumping, climbing, hanging, swinging, quadrupedal movement, swimming, balancing, dropping, and vaulting. However, the spirit of Parkour is much more than this. Founded by David Belle, the son of a national hero fireman of France, Parkour is a complete path toward "strong body, strong mind." As a Traceur (practitioner of Parkour) begins to develop, the world becomes a much different place. The profound self discipline required in Parkour training has a fundamental effect on my mindset at all times. One of the principle tenets of Parkour is that there is always a path, always a way to move forwards. I would even say that this is the most basic component of the discipline - the art of moving forwards. This is not something that comes easy, which is why a Traceur trains, trains, trains. The skills, mental and physical, that are taught by living the life of a Traceur have real applications in every aspect of life.
Parkour has unlimited potential. Far from the anarchic successor to skateboarding, it is a way of life that has the ability to change the practitioner and everyone in touches. It is the logical successor of the games that every child plays, jumping around, climbing on anything and simply moving in their environment for the pure joy of movement. It can be a spark of creativity in an otherwise drab urban environment, a splash of excitement and health in an unhealthy world. It causes spaces to be used in ways that were never anticipated or designed for, and bucks the constraints of traditional sport. It is often said in the community that anyone can do Parkour, at any time, anywhere in the world. This to me is power beyond imagining, a resource for humans that is just beginning to be tapped.
I have tried to give a portrait of what I consider to be my work, my path as far as it is illuminated to me now. I want to live a simple life as far as possible, rejecting consumerism, capitalism, and all the ills that come from it. I want to build strong relationships with all the people around me, and build a strong culture. I want to tell stories to people, through words and pictures, that teach them a little bit more about the world that we live in and our place in it. I want to practice and spread Parkour as a strong remedy to the monotony of our increasingly urban and digital lifestyle. In William Gibson's award winning novel Neuromancer, a grim post-information age landscape is portrayed. In this future world, "Power... meant corporate power... the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended national boundaries. Viewed as organisms, they had achieved a kind of immortality" (Gibson 203). If our current path continues, it seems that our future looks depressingly similar to Gibson's vision. I am only one person among billions, but I believe in my ability to make change. Gandhi said "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." It is my job to be it.