Logic of Nature vs. Logic of Capital

(The youthful rambling below is an attempt to clear my mind, and to put a stick in the ground to record my current thinking and life aspiration. It will change, as it should.)

Billions of years of evolution have created enough biological complexity to bring about the homo sapiens. Millions of years of evolution of the homo sapiens led to the rise of complex human societies. Thousands of years of development have generated the material and social condition for the birth of modern capitalism. Hundreds of years of competition among social systems and ideologies have declared capitalism the winner of this round of “natural selection.”


Why I Committed Facebook Suicide

In the eyes of Facebook, the most important events in my life are: Born --- Joined Facebook --- Started Using Facebook for Android.

And I can’t change this peculiar display of my life’s meaning. Upset by Facebook’s dictatorship and arrogance, I decided to leave the Empire by committing Facebook suicide --- terminating my Facebook Avatar, shutting down my account, and never return. This is probably one of the most liberating things.


Book Review: A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac: with essays on conservation. By Aldo Leopold, Oxford University Press

A Sand County Almanac, published in 1948, is hailed as one of the sacred texts of the environmental movement. (Other literary cornerstones being mentioned in the Introduction of this book include Thoreau’s Walden, Marsh’s Man and Nature, and Carson’s Silent Spring.)


A World Saved

Should I go to law school on a full-tuition scholarship? I used to say to myself that this is a no-brainer. Really, what do I have to lose? Law school opens so many doors, and a JD title sounds quite impressive --- especially back home in China. And I don’t even have to pay a dime! Isn’t it an idiot-proof option?

Or so I thought. And I was indeed a full idiot for thinking like that.


Three Realizations Over the Summer

Summer is a time of change and growth. Over the past summer, there were three realizations that helped to shape my life.


News Thinking

For the past few years, I have been troubled by the fact that I read a lot of news, but am not able to deeply process or retain the intelligence. I have been reading passively, letting the media shape my mind. Enough of that. So from now on, I will periodically pick out interesting news, and write down my reflections and analysis. Let's call it the "News Thinking" series.  This habit should help me read proactively, think deeply, and communicate wisely.


Some Reflections

Today is the beginning of the second half of 2012. Some reflections are due. Writing things down serves as a good reminder, and a hedge against inertia and slacking.


A Diet For The Mind

Most of us pay attention to the food on our plate. But how about our intellectual menu, the feedstock for the mind? If physically, you are what you eat. Then intellectually, you are what you read.

Our physical menu has its nutritional value and balance. So does our intellectual menu. Paying attention to our intelligence intake is as important as choosing healthy food. However, most of us feed our mind unconsciously and leave our intellectual diet in the hand of advertisers, cable news, Google and Facebook.

There are dire consequences of such neglect. Some people have their heads stuffed with lyrics from popular songs and conversations from TV shows. As a result, they are programmed to function like a soap opera. The mass media has created conditioned reflexes that dictate one’s behavior and way of thinking. From this perspective, there is a great deal of virtue in memorizing Confucius, Koran, Bible, poems, or the value of Pi (3.1415926…).

In today’s consumer society, it takes conscious effort and hard struggle against the current to maintain independence and critical thinking, and to avoid intellectual malnutrition or poisoning.

Recently, I conducted a very helpful mental exercise. I listed all my subscriptions, newsletters, email alerts, and other sources of reading. Then I took a step back to examine these sources, and pondered their impact on my worldview and mindset. One result of this exercise is that I started a subscription of Fox News Opinion. I think it’s important to know what is out there --- just to be “fair and balanced,” you know.

Such “internal audit” of our intellectual diet can be applied to many more aspects of our life, and will certainly yield surprises and improvements.


Reflections on American Outdoor Industry

After attending part of the Northeast regional conference of Association of Experiential Education, some thoughts come to mind regarding the United States’ outdoor industry. My disclaimer reads as: I have limited exposure to the industry as a whole, so my thoughts would be biased and incomplete. Since I could say so many wonderful things about the conference (which most people would agree), here I will focus on my reflections and critique, which people should feel free to disagree.

1. Outdoor industry is called an “industry” for a good reason. It is closely tied to industrial production and consumerism. It has its own guild, conference, publication, etc. It sells nature and the outdoor experience as its products. Money-making might not be the primary goal, but it is definitely the industry’s chief worry and bottleneck.

2. Outdoor industry as a whole is probably the most eco-conscious industry. Organized in an industrial form, the outdoor industry is actually teaching and practicing anti-industrialist philosophy and methods, like leave-no-trace, land preservation, intrinsic value of nature and human, etc.

3. Outdoor industry, by embracing the industrial form, can not escape the curse of industrialization: the commodification of nature, the packaging of outdoor experience, the lack of accessibility, etc. The outdoor industry carves out a part of nature, mix it with gears and commercial practice, and then sell it to the customers who pay a high price for a pre-packaged, non-organic experience. The outdoor industry has become the gatekeeper of nature’s beauty and magnificence, only letting in those who have the free time and money. Should nature be hijacked and sold to the affluent for a profit?

4. The entire conference was 99.5% white and has only one black person. This might partly reflects the demography of the Northeast, but is no excuse for the shocking absence of any diversity. Some workshops are titled “multicultural” and “underprivileged neighborhood”, etc. I wonder who the audience is.

5. The outdoor industry is in the grip of an insatiable Fetishism of Certifications. There are all kinds of cards and certification you must have in your wallet to be a qualified outdoors person. Is this a good use of people’s time and money? Do certifications translate into real abilities? Is there an inflation of skills? Is it just the certification-agency’s money-making needs gone wild?

6. The outdoor staff in the college has continually been treated as second-class educators. They are over-worked and under-paid. This might reflects American society’s imbedded discrimination again physical labor, but why are football coaches paid so handsomely? At the bottom of this, is the dominance of money-making logic, "if you are not making money for the school, why should you get paid more?" However, I have to say that I have spent more quality time with my college's Outdoor Program than with all my professors combined.

There’s a long way till we could reinstall the intrinsic value of nature and labor. The outdoor industry, despite its paradoxes and limitations, still holds great hope for true progress.


Darwin and Marx

This semester, I am in good company --- I have been studying Darwin and Marx closely, one of the most rewarding and stimulating things to do.

A giant is a giant. After having read Darwin's and Marx's original works, all other secondary materials seem so pale and boring. There's nothing like the direct transmission through the words of the masters. If you press your ear hard enough against their monumental books, you can hear the heart beat.

Studying these two bearded men is especially important for my future direction. Darwin explores the Logic of Nature; Marx explores the Logic of Capital. Both men's works are about life and death, although in very different context. (Engels said at Marx's funeral, "Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in human nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.")

My role is to create harmony between the Logic of Nature and the Logic of Capital. This, too, is a task of life and death.

Studying Darwin and Marx makes me realize how much work I still need to do. Both men hit upon their revolutionary ideas around the age of thirty. But it took each of them another 20 years of hard work to produce the "Origin of Species" and "Das Kapital". The intensity of their focus and intellectual labor is mind-boggling. Their passion and devotion are very touching and inspiring. With them in mind, I shall never be lonely.


What’s Wrong with the World?

Everywhere we look, things are not right: failing regimes, falling growth rate, stalling democratic processes, worsening social unrest, decreasing physical and mental health, rising unemployment, increasing wealth gap, growing corporate influence, intensifying ecological destruction, shrinking resources, and less and less optimism and time. Geographically, no regions have been left unaffected by this systematic crisis in the global society. And as far as we can see, there’s no light down in the tunnel.

We all know that things are not right. But what exactly is wrong? What’s the root cause of all the sufferings? To answer this question, the Democrats blame the Republicans, and the Republicans blame the Democrats. And the rest of the U.S. blames the blaming-game between the Democrats and Republicans. The 99% blames the 1% for greed and crookedness; the 1% blames the 99% for being unemployable. Socialists blame the capitalists; the capitalists blame the terrorists. In one word, nobody is innocent, and everyone is the victim.

Part of the problem is that there are so many problems in the system that it becomes numbing and dizzying. However, this is exactly the right time for us to keep a cool head and a compassionate heart, and see through the surface to get to the root of the issue.

Like a good doctor treating a desperate patient, we will first look for symptoms of illness in today’s system, and then try to make sense of them. I will arbitrarily put the world’s problems into four categories:

1. Political
  • Domestic politics is messed up. Old Social Contracts have been broken or have expired. There is a big disconnect between the older and younger generations, and between a helpless ruling elite and an awakening civil society.
  • International politics is messed up. Global governance is defunct, as is evident in the several rounds of climate talks. Military spending is on the rise globally, with nations ready for a fight.

2. Economic
  • High unemployment. Technology is eliminating large number of job. There is a mismatch between the education system and the employers’ demand.
  • Lack of growth. The developed world hasn’t seen much growth for a while, and the developing world is slowing down. Old growth model won’t work anymore, but new models are too painful or too far away.
  • Too much debt in the economy. Both households and nations are under huge amount of debt, which reduces their ability to spend and invest.
  • Economic system is hitting the wall of ecosystem. The Earth’s carrying capacity is being reached. Cost will go up.

3. Ecological
  • Population is heading toward 9 billion by mid-century. Per capita consumption is rising. Human society’s ecological footprint is unsustainable.
  • Diminishing resources and a worsening environment are creating a double squeeze on current way of life--- a problem solely of our own making. We are seeing scarcity of energy, water, land, food, precious or rare metals, etc.
  • The waste and toxicity in our ecosystem is a ticking time-bomb. We have over-drafted our children’s resources, and have left them with our poisonous crap.
  • As the ecosystem’s health decline, so does the humans’ health. We are living through the most obese, over-drugged phase of human history. All kinds of new illness are emerging --- no cures in sight.

4. Cultural
  • Today’s culture is enslaved by money. Culture exists to stimulate our desires and glorify consumption. For example, culture creates a stereotype of beauty in order to sell plastic surgeries, cosmetics, etc., but leaves 99% of the girls constantly depressed.
  • In our culture, you are what you own. Fetishism of commodities has gone to such extreme that people live by the motto of “I buy, therefore I am.” Your value is not measured by your character, but your financial net worth. Virtue is not rewarded or respected.
  • Faith in capitalism has replaced all other faiths as the dominant belief system. Making profit is an end in itself. Market is God, and money his angel. The spiritual vacuum has both created personal suffering, and opened the door to religious extremism.
  • Globalization is creating big confusion and conflict between tradition and modernity, and between the West and the rest. There’s not yet a set of universal value that unites all of us while accommodating our differences.

The list above has left out many important issues, but might be good enough for a first diagnosis of our patient. My next question is: what’s the interconnection of these aspects of the problem? What’s the cause and effect? Is there a “root of all evil”?

It is tempting to blame everything on “human nature.” Indeed, greed and selfishness are an undeniable part of our nature. But saying so is not helpful: it both denies potential for good, and creates a sense of pessimism --- “it’s in our blood, we are doomed.”

If not “nature”, then how about “nurture”? It seems like the system has been designed to bring out the worst within us, and throw us into the race to the bottom. For example, capitalists are not evil --- they just don’t have the choice if they want to stay in the game.

However, here is where my analysis had to stop because I need to go study how the system works. It’s all too easy to say that capitalist system is in crisis. But take a look: the rate of profit is at all time high, and businesses are expanding globally. The capitalist sees no crisis at all!

On this note, I will summarize and then go back to studying how the system works. As we’ve seen, the world is facing a fundamental crisis. No superficial solution could stretch the life of the system by much longer. We need a fundamental redesign in many aspects of our life. If human society will still be on earth in 100 years, it will look very, very different. That’s our mission, and our fun.

I remain optimistic about the future because I have no choice --- it’s my future, my only future. But if we fail, then that’s OK. If human society collapses, then all other forms of life will have a much better time on earth. No one will lock them up in the zoo, at least.

Let’s hope that the next intelligent species would look carefully at our fossils and study why we failed. I’m sure it will be a lesson worth learning.

What Makes You Creative?

Why are some people so creative? Why are they able to come up with revolutionary ideas?

Some say that creativity is a gift --- either you are born with it, or not. Others say that creativity is a discipline --- it can be learned and applied. Here I will speculate on what makes you creative.

1. Creativity is a habit. Always ask “why”; be curious and skeptical; surround yourself with creative energy and people; meditate; write a diary; etc. Most importantly, keep an open heart.

2. Creativity is the habit of breaking the habits. Inertia and repetition are among the top enemies of creativity. So, paradoxically, we must acquire a habit of breaking with the convention or the past. We must be willing to self-critique and step out of our comfort zone.

3. Creativity is a property of the mind. Out of the vast emptiness of the mind, wonderful ideas emerge. My best ideas always come into my mind first, and after a split-second, I become aware of the new idea. In our busy life these days, we keep ourselves distracted all the time, thus lose contact with our own mind.

4. Creativity arises from interdisciplinary efforts. Being narrowly focused on one area is like eating only one kind of food. It will create malnutrition. Mix them up!

5. Creativity comes from learning from the past. There’s nothing new under the sun. History is full of inspiration.

6. Creativity requires us to embrace nature. Mother Nature is the source of all human creativity. Humans’ best ideas are all stolen from the nature, but we never pay royalty for nature’s intellectual property. Nowadays, as we confine ourselves into the man-made world, we are cutting off the root of imagination.

Let’s end with a few things that make us less creative: Facebook, smart-phone, caffeine over-dosage, and sleep deprivation. I am not stereotyping college students.


Spring 2012

Hu Shi once said, "Expression is the best means to appropriate impressions." Very true. Writing helps us to think clearly, to be articulate and logical, to engage in dialectics and self-critique, and to be diligent. So, I shall write.

In Spring 2012, I will climb the Mt. Everest of human intellectual achievements in the past 200 years. The previous semesters have upgraded my intellectual firepower to the level where I feel confident taking on the two giants: Marx and Darwin.

There is probably not a third person who has made a comparable impact on the trajectory of human history since the 1800. Marx and Darwin not only revolutionized their own fields and influenced their contemporaries, they also fundamentally changed the way everyone thinks about and engages with the world, even till today. Amazingly, all the groundbreaking new thinking came out of two individuals born and died at around the same time. Marx was nine years younger than Darwin, and died one year after Darwin. Marx published "The Communist Manifesto" at the age of 30, and "Das Kapital" at around 50. Darwin published "Voyage of the Beagle" at 30, and "The Origin of Species" at 50.

What happened in those two brains? What did they go through in life that led to their revolutionary thinking? Why were they able to see what others couldn't? How do I compare to them? These are the questions that fascinates me.

Climbing the highest mountain would give me courage and inspiration to create my own mountains. It might be time to construct my own system, using what I've learned from Marx and Darwin. I will further develop my framework of "Trinity of E", or reject it if it is not helpful. No matter what, getting started is half of the work.