Sunday, June 16, 2013

Finding Focus

I've held several careers in my life, but none has made me feel as fulfilled as creative writing and music, which pays barely enough for a few meals a year. No one else decides what I create, and I can explore any subject that interests me in the process. You know you've found your calling when you can work for many hours and not even feel tired. In contrast, after eight to ten hours a day at any of my "normal" careers, plus typically more than an hour commuting, it's been difficult to do more than mentally vegetate in front of a T.V. or computer while eating a quick dinner.

I share with millions the unfortunate necessity of "making a living." Because our dominant culture has deemed worthless anything that can't be traded for anything else using the universal medium of money, I must find a way to show equivalence of what I do with what a significant number of other people do. This inevitably results in pressure to reduce uniqueness, while increasing consumption of those things that appeal to the most people – along with whatever else that can be converted into those things.

There is of course an alternative, at least in principle: I can find a way to meet my basic needs with minimal economic interaction. For most of human history this was the norm for the majority of people, who could rely on their skills at hunting and gathering members of other species. Today, this is much more difficult, even with modern knowledge. Those who do, or try to, are at risk of being overrun, or having their resources taken from them, by rapacious organizations that are driven – and empowered – by our global culture of imperative growth. They are also hindered by the effects of civilization's sabotage of multiple natural systems that we and other species depend upon for survival.

Because I also want what I do with my life to have a net positive effect on the world, I've been looking at approaches such as permaculture, which are aimed at building healthy partnerships with other species to both enable self-sufficiency and heal natural systems. Essentially, they amount to large-scale gardening (or small-scale farming), which requires access to land, water, seeds, and animals, as well as security. Also required is a considerable amount of knowledge about local conditions, from both natural and societal perspectives, involving research few of us have ever done about where we live. I currently have none of these things, nor do I find anything but the research particularly attractive.

Economic interaction is unavoidable, for practical and legal reasons. My most developed skills, communication and finding critical knowledge gaps and failures, have so far been most economically applicable to technology (through technical writing and test engineering). Any jobs in technology are, by definition, dependent on the continued existence and growth of that technology and, most importantly, the infrastructure that supports it. That infrastructure, by its nature, uses critical resources and generates toxic pollution, and is vulnerable to the extreme weather amplified by climate change. Even creative writing depends on means of generating, reproducing, and distributing books and music (electronic and otherwise), which along with the rest of technology's infrastructure will become increasingly degraded. This degradation will occur either because: civilization unravels, as I expect; people come to their senses and create healthy alternatives that likely have less massive dissemination potential; or technology becomes so powerful that we dismantle it for our own survival.

One of the key features of civilizations that have avoided extinction is the ability to adapt, to radically change the way people interact with the world so that they can survive. Another is division into small groups that are supportable by their environments and able to experiment without jeopardizing other groups if those experiments yield dangerous results. There are at least two lessons here for me, as I consider what to do with the rest of my life. The first lesson is that I must be flexible in considering my options. The second lesson is that the path to having a net positive effect on the world may be as simple as finding ways to help activate the two extinction-avoidance features for as many people as possible.

In the movie "Up In the Air," the main character advocates, and later rethinks a philosophy that matches what I see as a fundamental adaptation strategy for the future: keep your life simple enough to carry in a backpack. In practical terms, it was the reality for our hunter-gatherer forebears, and will likely be a necessity for the survivors of the ecological apocalypse that we have unleashed. I would rephrase it slightly: Keep your life simple enough that you can most completely and sustainably accept responsibility for the direct and indirect consequences of your actions. Perhaps if we all tried to do this, in our careers and the other parts of our lives, many of the problems we face would begin to be solved. It could be the essence of the first feature of extinction-avoidance. Maybe it is what I should dedicate my future to promoting, in whatever media is available.

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