* Even when I write fiction, it’s transdisciplinary. I made it part of the latest small sci-fi project I’m part of. Now, I can’t tell anyone a damn thing about until December. But I’ll periodically tease this with ironic jokes about how I have to keep my mouth shut for months.
|There's only over so much to consume. Earth isn't infinite; it only felt
that way when our powers to transform it were very small, or else
worked only on a very slow pace when they grew large. Not anymore.
Call this gathering my thoughts.
Do you remember a post I wrote earlier this summer about Hungary’s inflation crisis during the Second World War? The seeds of the argument start there, the most ludicrous crisis of economic over-intensity seen yet.
So to finance their total war production, the Hungarian government printed so much currency that the value of its currency ballooned from US$33.50 in 1943 to US$460,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in 1946.
Friedrich Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom, offered (among many things) that this fate of catastrophic hyper-inflation was inevitable unless industrial production slowed to a comparative crawl. His prescription to do so was to shut down state-financed industries and massively lower wages to take as much money supply out of the economy as possible.
Both paths, he said, involved terrifying human suffering. Millions would be reduced to poverty. But those were the only two futures he could conceive of – a world of hyper-inflated currency or a world with almost no money at all.
|Keep building and building and building. Even highways wear away
and need replacing. Build it all on top of the ruins of the old. But in
just a couple of decades instead of centuries.
In America, their whole economy was one massive Marshall Plan. They didn’t have anything to rebuild, so a culture of consumerism developed. This is when Arendt saw American economic life changing its focus from the value of work to the value of labour.
Ironically – or maybe intentionally – this was during the McCarthyite crackdown against socialists and the labour movement. But we’re talking concepts here.
So Arendt identifies how American industrial production – to prevent the disaster of over-production and hyper-inflation Hayek predicted – encouraged consumerism, planned obsolescence, and the culture of disposability to keep the economy moving.
She never mentions Hayek by name of course. These are the arguments I’ll set against each other to make a more general point.
Production that lasts – what Arendt, in her trilogy of concepts at the heart of The Human Condition’s analysis, calls work – is what made the world human in the first place. The infrastructure – buildings, roads, cities, warehouse districts, oil refineries – that stands for decades and reconfigures massive landscapes.
|You eat to live. Something's always
going to eat you eventually.
** Arendt’s philosophical concept of work.
Arendt depicts work – the creation of a lasting human world – as an activity of great dignity. It is, as far as it’s powerful. And it’s impressive. When I was visiting the Louvre last week, what I found most impressive were the Babylonian and Mesopotamian ruins. After thousands of years, these massive stone building fragments – three-story-tall doorframe columns! – were even more awesome simply for having lasted so long.
The Burj Dubai, Taipei 101, and CN Tower would envy such luck of lasting for literally thousands of years.
Yet to build our permanent home, we have to carve it out of the ecosystems that actually keep us alive. For many thousands of years, human civilization never got that intense. There have been ecological crises that brought down major empires – soil exhaustion, water pollution.
But only in the last couple of centuries have we been able to clearcut entire countries. We’ve built dams so huge that the weight of their reservoirs’ water causes earthquakes. All the water on Earth is threaded with plastic molecules, heavy metals, sewage, oil slicks, radioactive waste.
This is what comes from valuing work that lasts. You produce work that destroys itself and takes you with it.