Thursday, May 22, 2008

Earth Abides without Multi-Colored Paper

In 1949, the author George R. Stewart wrote Earth Abides, a novel about the death of humanity on the planet. For those who've not read this apocalyptic book, it is worth the time. Although it does give into some of the Modernist style writing of the period, it is, at heart, a genre novel. I mention it because I've always thought the title was clever. With or without life on the planet, the Earth abides.

Of course, there is a plethora of reason why this theme resonates in today's world, most of which I'll not venture upon. Instead, I'll keep to the locus of Earth Abides, and other works of this genre. And what is at the center of these books is the collapse of social structures combined with the return to a "natural" or something that is assumed to be natural state of living. So what in the blue blazes am I writing about here. Let a quote from Earth Abides sum it up:

Now, apparently, he was happier than he had been before, because there was no one to interfere with him and he could merely withdraw and store up around himself all these material goods. He had canned food, sometimes in neat boxes, sometimes in mere piles and heaps of can. But he also had a dozen crates of oranges, more than he could possibly eat before they spoiled He had beans in cellophane bags...

In addition to food he had boxes and boxes of electric light bulbs and radio tubes, a cello (though he could not play), a high pile of one issue of the same magazine, a dozen alarm clocks, and a host of other miscellaneous materials which he had collected, not with any definite idea of use, bu merely for the comfortable feeling of security which came to him from surrounding himself with all kinds of possessions... he was insane.

This really hits at the core of the subject - the world we've created opposing what is "natural." It does this through "owning things," and that many of the things "owned" are human abstractions. But, what I'm aiming at here is somewhat related to the last post. Progress often involves the creation of abstractions that we learn to view as being quite natural. Working 40 hours a week is natural in our society, but there is nothing inherently natural about 40 hours of work. Laboring for money is quite natural to us, but money is an abstraction - an economic system . . . multi-colored paper.

Alas, we arrive at my point. I recently watched a group of senators interviewing folks from the oil industry, asking why the price of oil is so high. As I'm sure most everyone knows, the price of oil has lengthy tentacles, and when the price of crude goes up, the price of many things goes up. That is to say, when more multi-colored paper is required for the oil, more multi-colored paper is required for food. This means people ask for more multi-colored paper from employers, and sometimes even driving to work requires more multi-colored paper than is garnered by the labor. Essentially, multi-colored paper is one of humanity's greatest marvels. We live for it; we die for it; we toil for it; we kill for it. And sometimes, as with a few of the oil executives testifying, we forget how much multi-colored paper we collect from our labor.

And while dreams are inspired by the spiraling shades of paper, and happiness and suffering are brought about by an abundance or a lack of a material of many hues, the world progresses as does human creations - this strange paper being one of the most powerful. Yet, should anything ever occur that halts the existence of humanity, the value, the purpose, the power of mutli-colored paper dies as well. And the Earth abides, and continues on as though money were not natural or even a necessary.


Brook said...

In what seems like a related tangent there is a federal suit in the works, a class action for the blind, that states that the blind are discriminated against by paper money because they are unable to identify the denominations. They are lobbying to change our bills to allow the blind to distinguish between them.

You are writing about a person's perceived value in what is essentially more an idea than a material possession. How does the inability of a person to distinguish between the perceived values effect their view of the item? The blind are told money has a value, and learn to value it without a full perception of the item. Could you convince someone of a perceived value in something without their being able to distinguish the difference between it and other items? (One peice of white paper compared to another, one type of rock over another...) What does that say about the nature of things?

Jeff Edwards said...

I certainly agree that the 40-hour (or more) work week is far from "natural," and that an obsession with money is abominable. However... standard work hours and currency are necessary constructs in large societies. Sure, it would be wonderful to work only when one needed some food, or to barter and trade labor for what is needed, but this isn't feasible in, say, the city of Chicago.

Another thought... When people grasp for that paper money, they're usually really grasping for what it represents to them: power or material possessions. The example you provided from EARTH ABIDES might just as easily describe the man collecting stacks of currency.

I'll wrap this up by paraphrasing a Buddhist thought here: The way to happiness is not through the satisfaction of desires, but through the elimination of desires, which is contentment.


Charles Gramlich said...

Money is definitely an abstraction, but a useful one in many cases. The problem is not money but human nature, the nature of those who would "acquire" far in excess of what they need at the expense of others. Money just makes it easy but these folks would be the same if it were canned foods, or toilet paper, or whatever.

Stewart Sternberg said...

William, this is why you need to cut down on the caffeine.

I love the idea of re-examining the things we impose on ourselves as though they were "natural". Time, for instance. We accept the division of a day into twenty-four hours as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

Imposing ourselves through such abstract constructs is a way, in my opinion, of fending off a certain degree of insecurity we feel when we realize how insignificant we are when faced with the unknowable questions that link us to the primitives who first stared skyward.

Hey Brook, interesting tidbit there about the blind and changing the currency. It made me stop and consider how use of currency is vanishing to be replaced by debit cards and the like. Debit cards. They will make things easier for corporations when the idea of "the company store" is reinstituted.

William Jones said...

Brook - You make a good point about the abstractions of a human world. And, I would emphasize "human" because most animals don't create social abstractions that are not connected to the physical world. And your example of the "value" and color of money with the blind is on the mark.

Jeff - Yes, really a 40 hour week seems to be a bit short compared what most people work today. And you are correct in that work, and money, and even "time measurement" are all essential parts of our society. I'm a big fan of money, personally. But it seems a number of disaster books intentionally or unintentionally bring to the surface the material values of our social existence by suddenly placing people in a world where those social constructs have no meaning.

Basically, I'm playing with notion that "money makes the world go around," so long as we all agree to let money so do. There is no intrinsic value to most of what we place value on today - seems odd when stated that way.

Charles - My slogan is "Just give me money . . . that's what I want." :) You are right, it is an artificial exchange system where we can use it with set values. No more , "I'll trade you 1 horse for 2 cows, or 1 bag of wheat for 2 gallons of milk." We can place a price on things and ignore the barter system.

Stewart - Caffeine in itself is a topic I intend to post about - although, probably not "me and caffeine." :)

I like your insight. I like it so much that I'm going to rephrase it in agreement. By creation abstract constructions with artificial value, we elevate human status among the natural order and within human society. (Might, I point out Stewart, that is a rather dry way to say it. I'd go for something less "formal"). Nonetheless, I agree. :)

Brook said...

Jeff: I agree to a certain extent with the buddhist philosophy. I think that we do have so many more 'wants' than we need. However I think that to completely loose all desire is to loose the desire to live. If all you can do is to be, then is there any real point to existance? Or does there have to be one? I believe that some of the Hindu religion believe the ultimate end to existence is to not be yourself, to join with the All. To tie this in with William's latest... all creatures, whether conscious or not, seem to struggle to be.

Charles: I agree with your view on human wants. Money represents the power to get what you want, whether it is comfort, enjoyment or safety. It could just as easily be power through authority or destruction. People want control over their surroundings and money gives them that. Many go further and further in seeking power beyond what they need simply to ensure their existence, and power for one aften seems to mean lack of power for another.

Stewart: Nice call on debit cards. It would be interesting to see how the further abstraction of money/power effects a person's perception and desire for it. If I can't see it or hold it, how do I know I have enough? I also like the idea about our insecurity in the face of the universe. It ties back into the human need for power over our environment. Define something and you begin to have power. For what is in a name... However what you have brought up as Time is more the natural cycle of day/night which is a little less an abstraction for being directly observable and present also in our circadian rhythm. (Try sleeping in irregular time intervals, it's a torture technique.)

Jeff Edwards said...

Brook, I am not one for philosophical debates, but I will add a little bit here. The Buddhist idea I paraphrased says that the elimination of desire leads to contentment. A content person is happy simply to be. Contentment is not apathy or resignation. It is an appreciation of what one haves and a happiness to live in the moment.

Trying to satisfy a desire will result in a never-ending quest. Example: "I want a bigger house. Well, my new house is big, but I want an even bigger one." Or, "I want a new car. Well, my new car was nice, but now the fender is dented. I want another new car."

That's the end of my philosophical musing. I just wanted to add a note that I don't believe eliminating desire eliminates the will to live. It should increase one's appreciation for life in the first place.


Brook said...

No problem jeff, I appreciate the clarification and please muse away. Rather like the Toa of Pooh then, you're point would seem to be 'take what comes to you and be content". This is something I can agree with whole heartedly, even if I have trouble following it.