The “Real World” Is Not So Real

We hear it often that we should be realistic and focus on the “real world”. But we rarely think about how real the “real world” actually is.

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.


Trinity of E: Energy, Economy, Ecology

Trinity of E. This is my framework of analyzing the material world. I got the idea from Professor Michael Klare's "energy, environment and economy". Here are ten points to help organize my current thinking on "Trinity of E: Energy, Economy, Ecology."

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.