Author: Craig Axford

I'm a US citizen, but for most of the past decade I've been living in British Columbia, Canada. I have degrees in both anthropology and environmental studies from the University of Victoria. I am currently working on a master's degree in environmental management at Royal Roads University. I've been a Green Party candidate for the US Congress as well as an organizer for the DNC. I've also served as the program director for a local non-profit environmental group.

Agency and Free Will Are about Influence, not Control

Craig Axford | Canada

By now, just about everybody who has taken an interest in the question of free will is familiar with the arguments for and against it. On the one hand, it can be shown that it is at least possible under the laws of nature to react multiple ways in certain situations. It can also be demonstrated that many people act differently in the same or similar situations. On the other hand, the strict determinists respond, everything has a cause and therefore, all things being equal (right down to the last atom), anyone finding themselves in exactly the same situation could not have done otherwise.

Both arguments come with their own particular set of weaknesses that makes absolutism in defense of either total agency or unyielding determinism difficult to take seriously. When it comes to agency, though it may be possible to do otherwise under the laws of physics — stand up or keep your seat, for example — it’s impossible to prove that the person doing the standing or the sitting possessed enough agency to make that decision entirely free of the influences of either her genes or the environment. If you don’t believe it, just try creating a test in which a human subject makes a choice, mundane or otherwise, completely independent of either external environmental or internal biological inputs.

And of course, the determinists are right: everything does have a cause(s). But who is to say we can’t be one of the causes? To argue that a gene or collection of genes caused me to stand up while the rest of me had nothing to do with it is taking reductionism to a ridiculous extreme. After all, genes lack any knowledge of either sitting or standing. Likewise, my back pain may cause me to either want to take a load off or stand and stretch, but can it truly be said that it made me do either?

A single action may be the product of multiple causes, while a single cause can open the door to several choices that each invite us to act upon them. Roy F. Baumeister pointed out in his 2008 paperFree Will in Scientific Psychology, “Most psychological experiments demonstrate probabilistic rather than deterministic causation: A given cause changes the odds of a particular response but almost never operates with the complete inevitability that determinist causality would entail.”

The fact that when provided with a particular stimulus, the outcomes are more like a roll of the dice than throwing a light switch won’t come as a surprise to most people. That’s exactly how it feels to have agency. The fact that the dice are often loaded won’t be coming to determinism’s rescue because even loaded dice are an example of “probabilistic rather than [absolute] deterministic causation”.

That said, free will deniers will be quick to point out that we have no choice when it comes to rolling the dice and no control over which numbers turn up, but that’s true for all living things. If you’ll forgive me mixing my metaphors, the fact that we all must play the cards we were dealt doesn’t mean we lack the ability to play them creatively.

. . .

In the opening pages of his book, Freedom Evolves (2003), the philosopher Daniel Dennett lays the groundwork for what is to follow by emphasizing the important role language played in the development of Homo sapiens:

In just one species, our species, a new trick evolved: language. It has provided us a broad highway of knowledge-sharing, on every topic. Conversation unites us, in spite of our different languages. We can all know quite a lot about what it is like to be a Vietnamese fisherman or a Bulgarian taxi driver, an eighty-year-old nun or a five-year-old boy blind from birth, a chess master or a prostitute.

Other animals, Dennett points out, “can’t compare notes.” Since Dennett wrote those words nearly two decades ago, we’ve learned that there are, in fact, other creatures engaged in their own kind of mental and linguistic note taking too. But none of them do it in as many ways or cover nearly the variety of topics that humans do.

Using language to “compare notes” via so many mediums means we have integrated numerous opportunities to learn from each other into our individual lives as well as our cultures. As new information comes in, sooner or later we accommodate it by altering both our thinking and our behavior in response, creating more space for even greater possibility in the process.

The capacity to intentionally attempt influencing the course of events using the information we’ve gathered from others and from our surroundings is the most likely place to find a little bit of freedom, albeit nowhere near as much as we imagine ourselves to possess. Our influence is always shared with other actors and forces pushing and pulling upon the universe, making the exact quality and strength of our contribution difficult if not impossible to determine with anything like precision.

Sam Harris and other critics of free will like to point out that the problem with the concept of free will isn’t that we lack any influence, but that we lack any capacity for intention in the first place. Rain is the product of a number of atmospheric conditions combining at just the right moment, but none of these intended to cause a downpour. As biological creatures, ultimately we are no different, even if the processes involved in keeping us alive and conscious are far more complex than the weather.

Those denying we have the capacity to truly act intentionally have abundant research available to them to help make the case. In the 1980s, the neuroscientist Benjamin Libet demonstrated a brain state which he dubbed the “readiness potential”. This potential could be detected on an EEG before a person was even conscious of the “decision” their brain was preparing to carry out. How can a person be said to make a decision at all when their brain knows what they’re going to do before they do? That’s a good question.

Some have responded to Libet’s research by arguing that free agency doesn’t come in the form of “free will” but “free won’t”. Having become conscious of a temptation that we had no power to prevent — for example, the sudden urge to break our diet and eat the box of chocolates we just got for Christmas — we are faced with a choice of either giving in or not to our desire. Maybe we compromise by rationing the chocolates or we decide to remove the temptation altogether by giving the chocolates to a neighbor. Regardless, these choices arise from our awareness of the temptation to consume the chocolate, not an absolutely uncontrollable impulse to eat chocolate whenever it’s available. Our consciousness of the desire is what gives us the power to say no to it.

In these “free won’t” situations, psychologists like Baumeister don’t think the tests by Libet and others really tell us much about how free will actually operates. He writes, “Modern research methods and technology have emphasized slicing behavior into milliseconds, but these advances may paradoxically conceal the important role of conscious choice, which is mainly seen at the macro level.”rb

It’s tempting to conclude that Libet and others using his research to once and for all bury any possibility of free will are merely stating the obvious. All information in the universe is necessarily generated before we can become aware of it. The light from my laptop screen travels to my retinas and is converted to neural signals before I am conscious of the letters and images appearing on its screen. That some part of me should already be formulating a reaction to this information before it has reached every corner of my skull and become an integrated part of my present reality not only seems natural but inevitable, under every conceivable scenario.

. . .

We exist in a universe that is a chain of causes and effects, with effects inevitably turning into causes for more effects, and so on. Humans are, like everything that has come before and that will follow, both a cause and an effect. As information enters consciousness, that that awareness should become a cause for effects like intention shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

That we are beings trapped in a web of causes and effects is an ultimate argument against free will. But we are proximate creatures. There are good reasons we cannot defend ourselves from criminal charges by arguing that we had no say in our conception or the Big Bang and are therefore ultimately not responsible for our actions. Free will is about what we do or don’t possess while we are alive, not whether we had any choice about entering the world in the first place.

There’s no intuitively obvious place to put the brackets around concepts like determinism and free will. But if we start assessing agency at the moment I “decided” to write this article or to accept a new job offer a few weeks ago, instead of the moment the universe started around 15 billion years ago or the night in 1968 my parents were feeling particularly amorous, the arguments for strict determinism blur quickly. I don’t have article-writing or job-offer genes, and saying that I suddenly felt like writing about free will because my blood sugar had spiked doesn’t really bring any clarity to the question either. Other people feel like going for a jog or take a trip to the mall to do a little shopping when they’re feeling energized. Why an article on free will in my case?

That our capacity for self-control diminishes when we are hungry or tired doesn’t weaken the case for agency either, even if it usually does come in the form of free won’t. The state of our blood chemistry at the critical moment certainly matters. How we react to low glucose levels or high levels of adrenaline provide evidence that self-control and highly conscious states require our body to be functioning in a particular optimal condition, but that’s a far cry from proof that blood chemistry determines our actions.

Our brain is a glucose consuming machine. It’s not in its interest to waste energy resisting a box of chocolates when it’s running low on the very fuel it needs to effectively exercise self-control. Restraint demands more brain work (willpower) than just going with the flow. If the box of chocolates will help you resist the pack of cigarettes, reaching for the chocolates can actually be a good choice even if it’s not the ideal one.

I, like Sam Harris, Robert Sapolsky, and others, am a firm materialist. I have yet to hear anyone articulate how a force liberated from the laws of physics could even function. To say something like a soul is responsible for free will without offering any sort of description of what a soul is, where it came from, or how it acts upon our brain is just a cowardly evasion of the issues arising from consciousness. Arguing a soul rather than a biological entity is conscious merely moves the problem of consciousness and questions regarding free will to another realm. It doesn’t dispose of them.

If free will exists to any degree, it will have emerged as a property of a materialist universe. We need not default to some sort of ill-conceived dualism or deny we live within a universe governed by physical laws to make room for it. It could very well be that because each cause is itself the effect of another cause, it’s impossible to distinguish where intention begins and internal biological and outside environmental influences end.

Even free will skeptics like Sam Harris and Robert Sapolsky spend a great deal of time making ethical arguments about what we should doShould implies canwhich is very different than must. In the opening chapter of his book, The Moral Landscape, Harris states “I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want — and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.” (Italics included in original)

If, in fact, Harris believes we have absolutely no control over what we do, let alone what we want, his argument regarding science’s ability to contribute substantively to moral issues — an argument with which I largely agree — isn’t merely dubious, it’s self-contradictory. Plants or animals that lack any capacity to develop informed intentions regarding how they are going to behave in the future are by definition amoral creatures incapable of giving any meaningful consideration to what they ought to do. In such a world, Harris’ “moral landscape” isn’t made up of peaks and valleys; it’s perfectly flat and featureless.

Robert Sapolsky, like Harris, has gone on record stating he doesn’t believe humans have anything like free will. Yet in the final chapter of his book, Behave, Sapolsky also can’t resist reaching ethical conclusions when it comes to how knowledge of our implicit biases should shape our actions. He writes, “revealing implicit biases indicates where to focus your monitoring to lessen their impact. This notion can be applied to all the realms of our behaviors being shaped by something implicit, subliminal, interoceptive, unconscious, subterranean — and where we then post-hoc rationalize our stance.” Sapolsky concludes, “For example, every judge should learn that judicial decisions are sensitive to how long it’s been since they ate.”

Sapolsky and Harris can’t have it both ways. While it’s true, judges tend to issue their harshest sentences just before lunch, you can’t tell a judge they should mitigate the effects of low blood sugar by having a glass of lemonade or a candy bar handy by no later than 11:00 AM in one breath and use the fact that low blood sugar leads to harsher sentences as proof people have no free will in the next. If a judge’s knowledge of his or her implicit bias can truly lead to choices that will minimize or eliminate the bias, isn’t acting on this knowledge an example of the moral exercise of free will? Is a judge with normal blood sugar in a better position to make wise rulings probabilistically speaking or isn’t she? Is a judge capable of intentionally regulating their blood sugar toward this end or not?

If by free will we mean absolute control over ourselves and our environment, then I agree, we don’t have it. But if by free will we mean something more subtle — the capacity to intentionally influence our world, even if only a little bit — then the answer is at worst a qualified maybe. People are complex creatures, prohibited from ever gaining an outside objective view of themselvesWe are both cause and effect, both subject and object. As animals with a consciousness, we are both determined and intentional at once. Just how much our intention matters may be impossible to know, but it does matter.

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Universal Basic Income Isn’t a Challenge to the Work Ethic

Craig Axford | Canada

“Universal basic income degrades the work ethic that is at the core of working-class life,” so writes David Brooks in a recent column in the New York Times. Brooks’ statement echoes the most common attack on the universal basic income (UBI). Like other critics of the idea, he offers no evidence to support the claim.

Universal basic income won’t undermine the work ethic, but it is a threat to some of our most deeply embedded ideas about what constitutes meaningful work. With the large-scale adoption of wage labor beginning in the 19th century, we began to identify work with a paycheck. Instead of a job being a kind of work, jobs came to be seen as the only work that really mattered.

Unfortunately, by connecting ‘worthwhile’ work to a regular income we’ve devalued almost to zero many of the most important and meaningful activities within our society. The most obvious example is parenthood. Motherhood, in particular, has taken the biggest hit.

Being a Parent and Citizen

Every parent knows that raising children is difficult and exhausting work. Especially in the early years when a child is most dependent upon the adults in its life parenting can leave a mother or father with too little energy at the end of the day to do much else. Raising a child is considered a duty, and one that is supposed to be its own reward at that. No good parent, least of all a good mother, would ever suggest society should provide a minimum guaranteed level of financial security in exchange for the honor of giving birth to and raising the next generation of responsible citizens.

Yet in identifying work so strongly with a paying job, we’ve implicitly demeaned those raising our children whether we intended to or not. Work is what we do at the office, at the factory or at the retail store. Parenthood, on the other hand, is a role.

Of course, parenthood isn’t the only work we refuse to validate on the grounds it doesn’t come with a wage attached. Caregivers of all sorts often go unpaid. So do those sacrificing hours each month to help out in our schools, clean up their local park or provide countless other community services. This is justified on the grounds that volunteerism, like parenthood, should come from the heart without any expectation of a monetary reward.

Many supporters of universal basic income could reasonably argue that framing it as a kind of compensation for work our society has so far let go uncompensated is to miss the point of the policy. If an individual decided to take advantage of a monthly UBI payment and, as David Brooks and others fear, opted for sitting on the couch watching TV or playing video games all day instead of engaging in more constructive activities, they would still get their monthly check, no questions asked. UBI is about ending poverty, not making parenthood or community service pay.

While it’s true that universal basic income isn’t intended as compensation for services that society currently doesn’t pay for, at least not directly, it is none-the-less a means of making it easier to raise a family and of empowering people to engage in even more volunteerism. That doing these things is not a condition of receiving a UBI payment in no way changes the fact that determining UBI’s success would in large part rest upon shifting our focus to the kinds of worthwhile human activities that our economy currently fails to even bother to measure.

As RFK reminded us in 1968, our leading economic indicators count just about everything except what really matters. Economic security isn’t just a social justice question. It’s also about creating more space in people’s lives for the things that make life worth living.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. ~ Robert Kennedy, March of 1968

Universal Basic Income and Work Ethic

Critics of universal basic income who insist that placing a floor beneath people’s feet below which they cannot sink will turn them into lazy dullards must have a particularly cynical view of humanity. Otherwise, why would they claim that we are inherently uninterested in leading fulfilling lives? Why do they consistently argue that our species consists primarily of individuals who would sooner gorge themselves on junk food all day than play with their children or grandchildren, pick up a paintbrush, write a little poetry, volunteer at a local care center, or take a class at their local college if given the chance to do so?

Whatever the reasons behind their dark misanthropic assumptions regarding human nature, the evidence can’t possibly be one of them. In their review of the results of a basic income experiment conducted in Manitoba between 1974 and 1979, the economists Derek Hum and Wayne Simpson found that “the reduction in work effort was modest: about one percent for men, three percent for wives, and five percent for unmarried women.”

Of course, by “work effort” Hum and Simpson mean time spent at a paying job. But even if they had found that people spent far less time on the job and a lot more time with their families, would this really have counted as a good argument against UBI? Does time away for the office or factory necessarily translate into laziness? How we answer these questions says a great deal about our priorities.

In reality, a universal basic income would actually help those living in poverty avoid what’s known as “the employment trap”. The employment trap describes a situation that arises far too often among current welfare recipients. Frequently, the only jobs available to them are low-income entry-level positions. These typically minimum wage jobs don’t pay enough to cover rent, food, clothing and childcare expenses, but they can provide just enough money to make someone ineligible for public assistance. As a result, welfare recipients often lose more money than they gain by going back to work.

By making a return to work a requirement of its welfare program, the United States has actually turned jobs into traps rather than escape hatches for the poor. A universal basic income, on the other hand, provides assistance each month whether a person is working or not. With a full-time minimum wage job AND a basic income of roughly $1000 a month, a single mother who chooses to go back to work could increase her annual income to nearly $30,000 a year without being penalized for doing so.

A universal basic income should be something voters and politicians from across the political spectrum can get behind. From the conservative perspective, it strengthens families by empowering parents who want to do so to stay at home with a child during its formative years. From a liberal point of view, it tackles poverty directly and efficiently without the bureaucracy and stigma associated with most of our existing anti-poverty programs.

While David Brooks and other critics of UBI clearly embrace the myth that humans are inherently lazy creatures who are unwilling to do anything constructive with their lives without the cattle prod of perpetual financial insecurity at their back, that’s a false and demeaning narrative that is more suited for the Dark Ages than the 21st century. People can achieve great things under even the worst of circumstances. But they can achieve even more when things are going well for them. Poverty is no longer an inevitable part of life. It’s a societal choice. We need to stop listening to those who seem to think it’s the right one.

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Movements Are Visionary, Not Cautious

Craig Axford | Canada

Hearings, dialogue and debate are, or at least should be, means to an end in a functioning democratic society. Unfortunately, they’re too often ends unto themselves. Promising to study a problem or hold a hearing “to look into it” is what politicians do to make it appear as though they’re interested without ever having to risk their necks by endorsing a particular idea.

So when likely incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced plans to bring back a select committee on climate change that had been disbanded by the previous Republican majority, it was reasonable for some of the incoming freshmen Democrats to question its real purpose. If committee hearings are going to be held, they’re insisting the hearings be about meaningful climate legislation instead of even more learned testimony on science that’s was settled long ago. As Evan Weber of the Sunrise Movement put it to Politico, “We’ve been talking about the science for the past two decades.”

The incoming Democratic House majority will find it tempting to spend much of the next two years doing little more than poring over Donald Trump’s tax returns, which they will presumably issue a subpoena for early next year. Likewise, the current administration’s cabinet is full of individuals as venal as their chief. It will certainly be refreshing to finally see them all held accountable for their misconduct.

That said, governments don’t build and retain confidence among their citizens merely by diligently investigating corruption. People have proven over and over again that they are willing to tolerate a great deal of unethical behavior in their leaders if, in exchange, they feel they are receiving a reasonable degree of economic and physical security, or even just listened to.

The GOP has mastered the art of creating the illusion that people are getting something in return when they vote for them. Whether it’s so-called “tax relief” or protecting jobs by getting tough on immigration, the Republican Party has consistently been able to convince a significant number of Americans it’s looking out for them even as it stabs them in the back. The antidote to their misleading and often dangerous rhetoric isn’t hearings; it’s direct positive action that translates into real change people can actually see and feel in their lives.

The leadership of the Democratic Party would be wise, therefore, to embrace incoming Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call for the creation of a select committee that instead of just talking about climate change is charged with drafting legislation to do something about it. She is calling it the “Select Committee on a Green New Deal”.

The select committee shall have authority to develop a detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan (hereinafter in this section referred to as the “Plan for a Green New Deal” or the “Plan”) for the transition of the United States economy to become carbon neutral and to significantly draw down and capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and oceans and to promote economic and environmental justice and equality. ~ Section 2 A(i) of the Draft Text for Proposed Addendum to House Rules for 116TH Congress of The United States

 Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution is similar in its approach, if not yet in its level of detail, to Canada’s Leap Manifesto. That document translates the progressive principles that emerged from the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s into concrete proposals aimed at achieving both equality and sustainability.

We want a universal program to build energy efficient homes, and retrofit existing housing, ensuring that the lowest income communities and neighbourhoods will benefit first and receive job training and opportunities that reduce poverty over the long term…We declare that “austerity” — which has systematically attacked low-carbon sectors like education and healthcare, while starving public transit and forcing reckless energy privatizations — is a fossilized form of thinking that has become a threat to life on earth.~ Leap Manifesto (Emphasis included in original)

I had the privilege of working as a DNC organizer for three years. I was hired as part of Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy following his election as Chair of the DNC in 2005. Dean’s vision for party-building paid off in 2006 when the Democrats took back Congress, and again in 2008 when Barack Obama won the presidency.

However, the organizing effort that arose from John Kerry’s defeat in 2004 took place in the context of growing opposition to the war in Iraq and a Democratic Party galvanized against the domestic policies of George W. Bush. Then as now, opposition was the driving unifying force on the left. The failure to clearly and consistently articulate what it was for quickly came back to haunt it in 2010.

Yes, there was the passage of Obamacare in 2009, but Democrats have traveled so far from the eloquence and clarity of leaders like JFK and RFK that even when debating universal healthcare they sound wonkish and inconsistent. As I learned upon my temporary return to the United States from Canada last year, even under Obamacare, plans with high premiums and deductibles are still the norm. Mandating the purchase of insurance that doesn’t really provide much coverage is a curious policy to emerge from a political party with a base that consistently argues healthcare is a right, not a privilege.

The Green New Deal and Leap Manifesto offer the left a way out of the political wilderness they’ve been wandering in since at least 1980. These initiatives provide something to be for. They can finally transform the left of the 21st century into a movement that wants to say YES! to something.

By uniting both labor and the environmental movement behind an effort that creates good paying jobs while providing the public with clean technologies that improve lives in both rural and urban communities, the Democratic Party could ensure itself decades of majority status not unlike the one it enjoyed from the 1930s through 1994. It seems like the obvious choice for them to make. So what’s taking Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Leadership so long?

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It is the Best of Times, it is the Worst of Times

“This illustration depicts NASA’s exoplanet hunter, the Kepler space telescope. The agency announced on Oct. 30, 2018, that Kepler has run out of fuel and is being retired within its current and safe orbit, away from Earth. Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 exoplanet discoveries.” Credits: NASA/Wendy Stenzel.

Craig Axford | United States

 We live in an age of discovery far beyond any other our species has experienced so far, yet we hardly seem to even notice. We live in an era of staggering loss, but we seem paralyzed by the immensity of the problem. Had Charles Dickens foreseen the early 21st century, he may very well have reconsidered his opening line in A Tale of Two Cities.

Over this past week, two news stories drove home the point that we’re living in an extraordinary time. The first broke on October 29th. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced the results of a report indicating that between 1970 and 2014, global wildlife populations had declined by a staggering 60%. Even if their estimates are off by half, a 30% decline over such a relatively brief period would still be alarming.

The second story, coming just one day after the first, was NASA’s announcement that its Kepler space telescope had run out of fuel and would no longer be continuing its stunningly successful search for exoplanets. NASA’s Kepler had discovered more than 2,600 planets orbiting other worlds during its lifetime, further dislocating humanity from its perceived place at the center of the universe. By revealing “that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars”, NASA’s Kepler seems to support those convinced that we are unlikely to be the only place in the universe where life has emerged.

The tension these two stories represent stirs something deep within me, and not just because they arrived within 24 hours of each other. Because of their coincidental relationship to my own personal arrival on this planet, they each, in their own way, reflect the seemingly conflicting currents of history that have become increasingly evident with age.

 I was born just one month before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon. I also entered this world just a few months before the WWF’s baseline year of 1970. So the 60% decline in wildlife populations and the nearly 28,000% increase in the number of known planets discovered during my lifetime is jarring, to say the least.

 As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not fond of adopting either optimism or pessimism as default outlooks. Going through life either perpetually cheerful or gloomy seems like avoiding confronting the world on its own terms, even if an often unconscious one. Even terrible news for us is good news for somebody. If you and bunch of your coworkers get laid off, odds are the company’s shareholders are happy. Even a corpse can be a reason to celebrate if you’re a bacteria or a vulture.

 I’m also not too keen on the way we often describe ourselves as a species. We tend to point to our impact upon the planet as though it was an indication either of genius or stupidity, leaving little room for the vast landscape of complexity and nuance that lies between these two extreme assessments. It’s just trade-offs all the way down.

As the Kepler telescope and all the other probes we’ve sent into space demonstrate, we aren’t idiots. That said, as the WWF study reminds us, scaling up our civilization to this point has also too often been an ad hoc operation that fails to consider all the possible consequences of our actions or quickly correct for them once those costs have become clear.

The progress paradox refers to a curious phenomenon that social scientists have documented over and over again: that there is often an inverse relationship between objective improvements in human well-being and people’s reported overall happiness. While those living in extreme poverty will report significant gains in personal life satisfaction following increases in income and access to resources, these gains don’t continue to follow a linear trajectory as income continues to grow. Instead, people’s happiness growth curve begins to flatten once their basic needs are satisfied. For many living in the wealthiest nations on the planet, they have even take a U-turn.

In a recent article published in the October 2018 issue of Science, researchers Carol Graham, Kate Laffan, and Sergio Pinto cite both the United States and China as strong examples of the progress paradox. “The United States has one of the wealthiest economies in the world,” the authors state, “yet life expectancy is falling owing to deaths driven by suicides and drug and alcohol overdose. This particularly affects Caucasians with less than a college education.”

In China, which “is perhaps the most successful example of rapid growth and poverty reduction in modern history,” with GDP increasing “fourfold between 1990 and 2005” and life expectancy during the same period skyrocketing by more than 6 years, life satisfaction none-the-less dropped significantly as the nation’s middle class ballooned and overall health improved. Graham, Lafan, and Pinto report that there too “suicide increased, reaching one of the highest rates in the world.”

In China’s case, however, it wasn’t those lacking an education but those with one that was “the unhappiest cohorts” surveyed. While they “benefited from the growing economy,” they also had to endure “long working hours and a lack of sleep and leisure time.”

It’s difficult to appreciate all the new planets being unveiled by instruments like the Kepler space telescope when our lives here on Earth don’t even allow us to get enough sleep. Furthermore, all our city lights are blocking out the stars that our ancestors previously enjoyed: stars that we can no longer see without first traveling great distances deep into the heart of one of the few remaining desolate landscapes large enough for us to escape the nearly omnipresent urban glow.

This rapid scaling up of our civilization without regard to its toll on the individual psyche is also happening without much regard to its toll on nature as a whole. Our inability to find the time to spend even just a few hours each week outside smelling the roses, let alone spending a leisurely weekend in the woods now and then, is directly connected to our failure to find the political will to protect the environment upon which all life, including our own, depends.

In his book On Trails, the Canadian author Robert Moor writes “We can travel at the speed of sound and transmit information at the speed of light, but deep human connection still cannot move faster than the comparatively lichenous rate at which trust can grow.” As with individual connections to one another, so it is with connections to our wider world. Slowing down enough to observe and build a relationship with the earth can only happen at a “lichenous rate”.

We cannot continue to pull ourselves out toward the stars and toward an ecological crash simultaneously. Sooner or later the lights will need to be dimmed not only for survival’s sake but so that our children can again see what it is we are reaching for. Reaching into the heavens can sustain our spirits and bring us the wisdom we need to carry on, but only if we take the time to look at what we’re finding there. Ultimately, even our loftiest achievements are still grounded here on Planet Earth.

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A Glass Half Full is Still a Serving of Possibility

By Craig Axford | Canada

The poet Florence McLandburgh, writing under the pen name McLandburgh Wilson, described the two competing perspectives we have convinced ourselves people see the world from using a pastry metaphor:

Twist the optimist and pessimist

The difference is droll:

The optimist sees the doughnut

But the pessimist sees the hole.

But who sees both the doughnut and the hole? Who sees the baker filling tray after tray with colorful pastries to say nothing of the sugar cane workers toiling under a tropical sun to provide him with the sugar to sweeten them? The world is far more interesting and complex than those who would have us see only the optimist’s doughnut or the pessimist’s hole would have us believe.

What optimism and pessimism really function as are ready-made prediction generators. Because they are outlooks, not the product of careful analysis, they apply their built-in doughnut vs. hole perspective to everything they encounter before bothering to learn much if anything about it. Optimism and pessimism, like most ism’s, presume to know the world without having to make any real effort to understand it.

Rarely, if ever, does a realist find life presenting her with situations that obviously justify either cheerful prognostications or dire statements regarding pending doom and gloom. Because the universe is a probabilistic place, the chance that things will turn out favorably eventually is constantly being weighed against the possibility of failure. Optimism and pessimism place extra weight on their respective side of the scale before we even have a handle on the full extent of the problem.

So far in the human experience neither the enthusiastic ‘Everything will turn out okay in the end’ nor the defeatist ‘We’re screwed’ have proven themselves accurate summations of our experience. The jury is still out, and it is going to remain out until extinction finally catches up with us. To extend our race against time constructive assessments are what’s called for.

To clearly understand the possibilities inherent within a situation it’s necessary to take a somewhat longer view than either those prone to wearing rose tinted glasses or their counterparts dressed in rain-gear expecting the sun to give way to a downpour at any moment tend to take. Optimism and pessimism, to the extent they are useful attitudes at all, are best suited to assess proximate personal circumstances that lend themselves to quick calculations and linear thinking. Will you do well on your final exam? Or, will you get the job you just interviewed for? Will someone you’re attracted to agree to go out on a date?

A realist, on the other hand, is curious rather than either Pollyanish or circumspect. She is a possibilist with a willingness to risk a certain amount of failure in order to test the limits of what can be done. She knows that in the long run mistakes are as crucial to success as positive results are.

Neither optimism nor pessimism sees failure as a silver lining, though the optimist will often say they do after the fact. Their focus is on likely outcomes rather than possible ones, which leads each to ultimately see success or the lack thereof only as a confirmation of their earlier predictions about how things would go.

It’s easy to forget that the very act of predicting the likelihood of a particular outcome has the potential to make the outcome we predict more likely than it would be otherwise. As part of the equation, not objective calculators of it, the act of viewing the world optimistically, pessimistically or realistically each come with considerable ethical baggage. We owe it to ourselves and our posterity to cast the problems we encounter in a light that maximizes the chances things will turn out as they should.

Because the attitudes we bring to the issues we face come with an inherent self-fulfilling prophecy quality, neither optimism nor pessimism is ethically scalable much beyond our own personal day-to-day affairs. For example, it isn’t a long cognitive walk from taking the position that we don’t think people will deal with climate change to losing faith that people can deal with it. Once we’ve concluded that’s the case there’s no point in trying and presto, our prediction that anthropocentric climate change cannot be resolved comes that much closer to becoming a reality.

Likewise, the “optimistic” view that the market, technology or some combination of the two will come to the rescue without us really having to do much of anything at all justifies inaction. In this case, instead of taking a fatalistic dose of pessimistic cyanide to kill our political will we’ve gotten drunk on wishful thinking. But either way, climate change becomes less likely to ever be proactively dealt with.

Will and won’t are conclusions about a future we don’t believe can be changed. They do not call us to action but rather summon us to take our seats. Likely and unlikely are better. They, at least, accurately describe our world in probabilistic terms. But if our goal is to inspire people to make the world a better place, likely and unlikely are hardly words that stir the soul.

However, if we find things that we can do that we also should do, with the right arguments it’s possible to get people to move mountains to get them done no matter how difficult they may seem at first. Optimism and pessimism only deal directly with how likely we are to do the right thing. By themselves, neither offers an inspiring vision of their own for why the right thing is both possible and worthwhile.

American politics provides us with a case study in just how toxic pessimism, in particular, can be. Until Bernie Sanders nearly toppled Hillary Clinton’s dream of winning the Democratic nomination in 2016, Democrats in the United States were extremely fond of arguing that Americans won’t accept a truly universal healthcare system. It was primarily for this reason that a public option never even received a floor debate during the struggle to pass Obamacare in 2009 and 2010.

Until 2016, with each consecutive election cycle that passed without anyone making the principled argument for Medicare for all the likelihood of the American people ever really embracing the concept appeared to drop even further, thereby confirming the conviction that Americans won’t accept it. We see a similar dynamic at work in the gun control debate, which likewise is full of rhetoric about what the American people will and will not politically accept and almost completely devoid of any discussion of what a truly rational gun policy should be.

What Senator Sanders did in 2016 showed the left the merits of framing their arguments around what both can and should be done instead of what they’ve convinced themselves will or won’t happen. He proved that just by forcefully arguing for what he believed was right, the needle of public opinion could move to make the unlikely more likely.

Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible. What’s possible has to do with what can occur, improbability aside. What’s likely to occur in the near to medium-term can serve as a worthwhile calculation when it comes to determining the degree of difficulty and formulating strategy, but should never get in the way of fighting for the right thing when it is possible to do it.

Probable and possible are not the same thing, in spite of our tendency to conflate them. As leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, FDR, Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, and RFK all understood, what is possible but improbable today can become probable tomorrow if we consistently and unwaveringly pursue it.

Florence McLandburgh was right to associate optimism and pessimism with a sugary pastry. Cognitively speaking both are full of empty calories. They draw attention away from our aspirations with unfounded speculation about the relative ease or difficulty associated with making them a reality. Life is full of possibilities. That’s really all anyone needs to believe in order to keep moving forward.

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