When you mentally withdraw yourself from the world and start to observe people around you, you will find that most people are the slave of their ego, and not much else. Their motto of life is, "I have ego, therefore I am". And at first glance, this seems to make sense because "I am who I am because I have a sense of self". But, let's take a closer look.
We work tirelessly to please our ego. We buy stuff because those stuff in return buy us respect (or jealousy) from others. We say things because our speech in return says something about us. (How often do you notice people saying things just for the sake of having their voices heard?) When we don't recognize our true nature, we tend to fill in the vacuum of ego by things outside of us. We can't feel our own existence unless we define ourselves by accessories, pinning ourselves down in this fluctuating world by things like cars, jewelries, or even boy/girl friends.
We are attached to our belongings. However, even our most precious belongings --- a healthy body --- will sooner or later decay. Then why be attached to objects at the expense of our health? People donate money to have their names carved on walls. We try our best to leave marks (good or bad) on the world so that we know we have lived. We forget to enjoy living because we worry so much about being forgotten after we die.
We are attached to our thoughts. In capitalism, our thoughts are called "intellectual property". We try so hard to coin new terms so that our names would be associated with the term. We get furious when other people use "my term" without paying tribute to me in the footnote.
However, what else is more elusive than thoughts? Thoughts come and go. They come from nowhere, and go to nowhere. If I change my mind or forget a thought, do I lose my property?
When other people criticize our ideas, we feel that they are criticizing us because we identify too strongly with our thoughts. I would gladly join anyone in criticizing "my thoughts" because that is the best way to improve, and thoughts are merely the echo of my past. By the time "my thoughts" become known by others, I have already moved on, and "my thoughts" are no longer my thoughts.
We always look outward for things that differentiates us from the rest of the world. And over the years, we build a portfolio of things or characteristics that make up the image of self, just like bird building a nest. The only difference is that our nest is an illusion of self, an imagined image of who we are.
Our self perception is so dependent upon other people's perception of us. We see ourselves through other people's eyes and facial expressions. We are the mirror that reflects other people's mirror. We feel good or bad about ourselves through this third-hand information. We put our own happiness and self worth at the mercy of other people, as if other people are wiser judges than we are. Are we that suspicious of ourselves? What's more, we would never know what other people really think of us. We are only guessing, and a life-long series of guesses constitutes the ego.
But who am I without my ego? Is there anything left that makes me "me"? I don't know yet, but I can identify one candidate. Let's call him "the intellect". And I will end with a little story of Self, Intellect and Ego.
The "Master Self" had two apprentices: Intellect and Ego. Intellect was good at thinking and worked hard, while Ego was only good at flattering Master Self and did nothing else. Over the years, Intellect produced wonderful thinking, and brought fame and wealth to Master Self. Master Self didn't like Intellect because Intellect made him tired. Intellect also didn't like wealth and fame because they distracted him from his work. But Ego was a sweet heart, always making Master Self feel good. So, Master Self gave all the fame and wealth to Ego. Ego thrived on the fruit of Intellect's labor, and kept expanding his influence, while Intellect was left in the cold and lonely corner, without any recognition or further mentorship. This unfair distribution kept happening. One day, Intellect left Master Self quietly. Master Self had only Ego as his apprentice. Seeing no more wealth and fame and having no ability of his own, Ego also left, and Master Self was broke.
- What I Study
- Physical: "Trinity of E" --- Energy, Economy, Ecology
- Metaphysical: History and Philosophy
- What I Do
- Field: Creating Sustainable Future for Communities, Corporations and Countries (the Three Cs); New Energy Industry
- Role: Communications, Management, Investing
For my future career, I break down the question into two --- what field do I want to be in, and what role do I want to play in that field. I want to be in the sustainability field, or the new energy industry in particular. In this field, my role will be communications, management, investing.
The field of sustainability is vast and fast-growing, but it is also fragmented and disorganized. We need an equivalent of Adam Smith or Darwin to clear up the field and make it an organic whole, providing a new lens to understand the world. This shall be one of my goals.
Finally, I will quote a motto of our Guy's in Hampshire's Outdoor Program: "Planning is essential, but plans are useless." I plan to change my plan at any minute, and I shall be most happy to find flaws in my previous plans.
When asked what the “real world” means, most people will say: “well, the real world is the material world”. But I would say that materials make up at most 1% of the “real world”. The remaining 99% belongs to emotions and illusions, which are far from real. Materials are nothing more than the molecules they are made of; only when they are blended with human emotions do they become a part of the so-called “real world”.
The “real world” refers to money and fame. However, money is merely the digits in your bank account, and fame is no more than other people’s illusion and our own self-deception. Money and fame are as real as our own emotion. Politics is another big part of the “real world”, but I can hardly think of anything more unreal than politics.
So we can see that the “real world” is not very real in the end. But it does have a real impact on our lives because we are slave to our own illusions. The ability to see through our own illusions is the first step toward true liberation.
1. Watershed event in the history of the Earth --- we are entering "Anthropocene", where human activities are the main force in shaping the Earth. For the past thousands of years of human civilization, we are not dramatically different from other species in our ability to shape the earth. Ants build huge towers and bees build palaces as well. But since the invention of steam engine, our creative and destructive power have grown exponentially. Now we can dam rivers, remove mountains, drill into the sea bed, and change the composition of atmosphere. Our power has surpass our wisdom, and our ambition has hit the limit of biosphere. Can our heart and brain catch up with our arms and legs?
2. For the past two hundred years, resources and environment have been a big externality to our economy; they are not a part of our consideration. There's no limit to how many trees you can cut or how much poison you throw into the river because the size of our economy is modest relative to the environment. The environment can tolerate our activity. But this time is different. Our economy has become so large that in comparison, the Earth looks quite inadequate. For the first time in human history, we have to seriously face the environmental consequences of our own making. (In the past, we also need to face the environmental challenges, but those challenges are natural instead of man-made.)
3. The irony of success. The western nations have successfully converted the rest of the world to the western way of life (or the longing for it). Capitalism and consumerism have prevailed against all cultures and religions. But this success is the root of many of the West's headaches: increasing resource consumption (food, water, land, energy), a crowded and deteriorating habitat, rising competition in industries and exports, a decreasing sense of superiority, etc.
4. Capital is king in modern society. Finance and investment drives the economy, and the economic foundation determines the superstructure. Banks and corporations own the production factors and determine the direction of a nation. (China is an exception to this rule where government still dominates and has different premises, which could be a very good thing.) To have any real impact, we need to be able to think like an investor and a banker. Profit motive is the key driver in our current history, with other contributing factors like "clash of civilization". To turn our economy green, we have to show investors that "green" is the new gold.
5. The money circulating in the world today is the liability of the society. The society has to stand ready to surrender their labor and resources to meet the demand of money. The more money there is, the more our labor and resources are enslaved by the money printing machine. Now the Fed is considering QE3.
6. The energy and resource constraint has been used to support the "Limit to Growth" theory. Yes, there is certainly a limit to the current growth model, but at the end of the day, human can never stop growing --- the day mankind stop growing is the day we die. We just need to figure out other growth models that does not kill the environment. We can do it; and if we can't, we will perish.
7. Globalization is not a product of benevolence; it does not originate from curiosity of other peoples or cultures. Instead, it is a product of conquest and control. A great proportion of globalization is driven by the thirst of energy and resources. This expansion could also be turned into a good thing when managed wisely.
8. Noah's Ark. When Noah was building the ark, his neighbors were all laughing at the crazy old man, wasting time on building a big ship on dry land. Even before the huge flood, the neighbors were still indulging in their self-righteousness. The current climate change politics mirrors the ancient story of Noah's Ark. There are many enlightened people trying to build an ark for humanity, but there are many more ignorant and selfish people mocking such effort.
The nature has been very tolerant and patient for us because it has sent us so many warnings in the past several years: fire, flood, earthquake, tsunami, all on a small, regional scale. The nature expects us to learn from these modest warnings and wake up. But we dismissed it. So, the nature is left with no choice but to throw down a global environmental crisis. I think we will see it soon. Actually, the sooner, the better, because mankind needs a loud wake-up call. A Chinese saying goes: man cries only when he sees his coffin. We will see ours soon. And that, too, can be a good thing.
9. China will play a key role in building a sustainable future. For one thing: it is suicidal for China to continue business-as-usual, so it must change. The current Chinese narrative is: the West has wreck the environment for its growth, so why couldn't we do it? Instead, I think China should have the courage to say this: "China recognizes that what's at stake is not just the GDP of one nation; it is the survival and wellbeing of the whole humanity. China is willing to bear the pain of transition, China will not repeat the mistakes of others, and China has the wisdom to manage its growth in a sustainable way." China is at an advantaged position because the Chinese government is still in control of key resources and industries; Chinese politics is much less influenced by corporate interests; Chinese government has a different set of motives other than making a profit. In the case of our historic energy transition, we might need a wise and powerful central government.
10. The word "sustainability" is too wishy-washy to capture the severity and urgency of our challenge. The word "sustainability" makes it appear as if "sustainable or not" is a choice we can make. No, there is no choice. "Unsustainable" means "death". Our species is in risk of becoming fossils (fuel) ourselves, and future civilizations might burn our remains to power their growth. We are not fighting for "sustainability" per se --- we are fighting for survival. There will be blood.
After talking to economics students, professors, consultant, investors, and people working in the finance industry in China, the general consensus is that the Chinese society and the government is paying little attention to economic thinking in China, let alone "new" economic thinking. Currently, Chinese society is collectively obsessed with making money, and has little patience for "thinkings" which doesn't materialize in six months. Also, to get rich in the short run, people find that they don't really need much new economic thinking. This is a very particular historical stage for the nation.
Economics students report that they do not learn much in college. They go to classes and take tests to get the degree. They also spend time on taking extra exams for various diplomas and certificates that enable their entry into accounting and finance. One economics professor told me: "teaching is teaching, real world is real world. When you teach, you don't need to worry about economic thinking." Some professors make more money by recommending stocks on TV shows than their university salary.
The economics and finance department in Chinese universities is being dominate by professors educated in American universities. There are very few Chinese-educated economics professors in the leading Chinese universities right now. Good universities in China all teach economics and finance using English textbooks. Which textbook they choose depends on what the teacher himself used when he was in school in the U.S. There isn't much presence of the division among different school of thoughts because thoughts are not important for people's career.
Also, in order to be promoted in top Chinese universities, the economics professors are required to publish articles in English language journals. Publication on Chinese journals doesn't count as much because of the low credibility. This situation is also created by the fact that many universities care a great deal about their international ranking, which looks at publications on globally recognized journals.
Another interesting point is that several people (students and professors) mentioned to me that they feel that the Chinese language is unsuitable or even inadequate in dealing with modern economics. My own experience confirm their feeling to a certain degree. The whole modern economics is built upon western system of thoughts and is thought out and developed in the English language. As a result, many notions and logic in economics couldn't find satisfying counter-part in Chinese. When an English textbook or article is translated into Chinese, I usually find it confusing and inaccurate.
One other thing to notice: economic thinking can not be separated from the political reality, and this is especially true for China, where the government (namely, the Party) still plays the most important role. If the business runs the government in the US, then in China, the government runs the business. If the government exists to serve the needs of the market in the US by providing regulations, public goods etc., then in China, the market exists to serve the needs of the government by strengthening state control and delivering political legitimacy. The government can use executive orders to stop retailers from raising prices; the government can ask the statistics department to "come up with" the exact data that it wants. The state owned companies has been consolidating control over national industries. All these signs tell us that we can't simply apply market economy model to China's situation. Chinese economy is a unique hybrid of past and present, of Confucian central control and modern economics. The situation also tells us that any economic model is only useful to a certain degree --- and a less degree in China than in the US.
It is at first surprising to think about how China is able to develop so rapidly without much real economic thinking. But the reality is that China's per capita GDP still ranks behind Albania and Ecuador, so China's economic growth up to this point is largely picking the low hanging fruit --- it is more precisely a "coming-back-to-normal" instead of real development. China is exploiting its own labor force, social well-being and environment to increase the GDP. Now the low hanging fruit is gone, and in order for China to go forward, it definitely needs new economic thinking.