jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
It's been too long since I posted anything here, so here's a taste of the sort of things I've been thinking about.

Psychologist Clare W. Graves outlined a personality theory involving eight "levels of existence" that he believed individuals progress through as circumstances permit. Those familiar with Spiral Dynamics or the work of Ken Wilber have encountered popularizations (and simplifications) of Graves' work.

Those who share my distrust of the narrative of Progress™ will be understandably suspicious the concept of levels of the personality (not to mention anything connected with Ken Wilber). I myself rejected it for some time after I finally gave up on that mythology. However, after reading Clare W. Graves: The Levels of Human Existance, a transcription of some of Graves' lectures edited by William R. Lee (available at the SD Store, linked), I've come to believe Graves' research is valid and that he was on to something important. More on that in a later post.

Briefly, Graves outlines eight levels labeled A-N to H-U. The first letter denotes the psychological attitudes and basic worldview of a person at that level, while the latter denotes the neurological subsystem associated with that level. My understanding is that these could theoretically be one step out of sync, but this seems to be of little significance; Spiral Dynamics and Wilber ignore it, and label each normal pair with a color.

The first two levels are more speculative, and were inferred from a combination of anthropological reports of hunter-gatherer societies and research into children's cognitive and moral development. The A-N level is the level of more-or-less automatic survival. B-O is a level associated with establishing and maintaining security through rigid adherence to tradition.

The more interesting levels are what we might call the "civilizational" levels, which account for nearly all members of developed civilizations. These are C-P, D-Q, E-R, and F-S. Some convenient stereotypes for these levels (as well as a mnemonic) are the Biker, the Believer, the Banker, and the Barista.

The C-P level was described as based on the ethic of "express self impulsively," and its stereotype is that of the Biker, the rough-and-tumble misfit who lives at the edge of the law. Warlords, gang members, and drug addicts are among the negative stereotypes.

Graves described the D-Q level's prerogative as "deny self for future reward." These are the Believers, who sacrifice for their family, for their country, for their gods. They look for a reward in the future, even after death. Police officers, patriotic soldiers (as opposed to C-P mercenaries), and religious fanatics are some of the stereotypes for this level.

The E-R level's motive is "express self cautiously." Like those at C-P, they are out for number one; unlike those at C-P, they mean to be smart about it. Go too far, and it just blows back in your face (not to say this never happens to people of this temperament). I've nicknamed this one the Banker, because the stereotypical business executives is a great example of this mindset.

Finally, the F-S level's motive is "deny self for approval now." People at this level are motivated by a need for approval from their peers. I've called this one the "Barista" to preserve the alliteration. You know the type: majored in liberal arts, goes to yoga classes, highly fashion conscious. (Again, this is a stereotype, meant to paint a picture of an extreme case. I'm not talking about real people. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

Above these are still more complex levels, G-T and H-U, and possibly more. Those at G-T seek to, in Graves' words, "express self, but not at the expense of others," and those at H-U are motivated by a desire to "adapt self to existential realities." (I have some ideas on what that might mean, but that will have to wait for another time.) Graves noted that in his lifetime the dominant level of Western civilization had changed from E-R to F-S. Graves conjectured that modern Western society was on the verge of a leap to G-T.

For what it's worth, I think he was wrong. I think F-S is for all practical purposes the highest level that a society as a whole can reach. Again, more on this another time.

Anyway, I want to paint some pictures of these four types with superheroes from the various eras of DC Comics. I should mention that there are some very mild spoilers to follow if you haven't been reading comics in a couple of decades. Seriously, they're barely spoilers at all. Still, I'll place the rest of this post under a cut just in case.

Read more... )
jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
The question of why professed environmentalists rarely act upon their beliefs by changing their lifestyles has had a central place in last week's post on Ecosophia. One of the answers put forward is peer pressure: as Helix put it in the comments:
How to make one’s way in a world that one will be out of step with if one gets serious about living in a manner more harmonious with the Earth? When your peers are out of harmony any you aren’t, then you’re out of harmony with your peers. We’re an intensely social species and our infrastructure and physical environment have been shaped by humans operating under the beliefs you have so eloquently pointed out. This does create some vexatious issues for people trying to live in a more sustainable manner.
JMG replied:
Helix, of course peer pressure and social status are among the things that have to be bucked in order to make change. People pursuing social change buck them all the time, To return to my favorite example, peer pressure and social status didn’t keep same-sex couples from pursuing the right to marry. They were willing to make the required sacrifices; why aren’t people who claim to love the planet?
I think a partial answer to this question can be found in the research of Clare W. Graves.

Graves is perhaps best known through the work of Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, who together wrote the book Spiral Dynamics, originally published in 1996, and that of Ken Wilber, who adopted a modified version of the SD system. The SD system is based on Graves' work on the "levels of existence," a theory of personality that is based on a hierarchy of values that emerge as old values prove dissatisfying.

The SD system as presented by Beck and Cowan fits very neatly with the myth of progress. In fact, it's practically soaked in it, despite some effort by the authors to avoid portraying "higher" stages as "better." So for the last few years I found myself reflexively dismissing it on that basis, though thinking there is probably something to it.

What prompted a re-assessment was my recent reading of Graves: Levels of Human Existence, a transcription of a 1970 lecture series by Clare W. Graves. (You can get the book at the Spiral Dynamics Store.) In it, Graves sets out how he came up with the system. I won't go into detail here because I intend to do a more detailed treatment in a later post. For now I'll just mention that I found it utterly compelling. I had found the pearl of wisdom that I'd been looking for.

Back to the question at hand: how does this help answer why environmentalists have such a hard time acting on their convictions? The (again, partial) answer is that environmentalism has taken root among those for whom acceptance by their peers is nearly everything. This is what Graves calls the F-S level, and what the SD system calls the "Green vMeme" (the color, by the way, is a coincidence). According to Graves, those whose values are centered at the F-S level have a core value of "sacrifice now for acceptance now."

By contrast, anti-environmentalists are often operating at the E-R ("express self in a calculating fashion") or D-Q ("sacrifice now for reward later") levels. While it can happen, care for the environment has a much harder time finding root in the E-R level, since people at that stage are generally chiefly concerned about getting a share of success and pleasure in the present, with only a modest interest in the consequences in the future (though far more than those at C-P, "express self impulsively at all costs," have).

Those at the D-Q level would be the ideal place for environmental care to take root, since they tend to be hardworking and willing to make the necessary sacrifices. The problem is that that level of being is monopolized by conservative interpretations of Christianity that tend to downplay the significance of the Earth. This isn't universal, but it is very common among those at this level, and it makes environmentalism an almost lost cause among them.

That leaves the F-S level as the bastion of environmentalism. I've already mentioned the problem with F-S: they care too much with what their peers think. Social status is almost as important to them as it is to the E-R crowd, except the point isn't to be on top, but just to keep up with everyone else. So if you're at F-S, you may at first denigrate the latest technological goo-gahs, but if all your friends start getting Apple Watches, you're going to have a hard time resisting the urge to get one yourself. (As someone with a strong F-S component myself, I know this feeling first-hand; thankfully, I talked myself out of the Apple Watch.)

That leaves the question: why is environmentalism so different from the cause of same-sex marriage in this regard? Certainly, the F-S crowd were champions of same-sex marriage. But so were the E-R crowd. The E-R crowd by and large looked around and said, "Why not?" The message, "If you don't like gay marriage, don't get one," resonated with their practicality and anti-authoritarianism, and the opportunity for gay men and lesbians to express themselves and be happier doing so resonated with their individuality. The fact that the whole thing really upset the authoritarian D-Q crowd was the icing on the cake.

So that, I think, is a partial answer to the question of why the two causes have turned out so differently. Another part is, of course, what JMG has mentioned in the original post: anthropolatry, an inflated estimation of the importance of human beings. That estimation probably aided the campaign for same-sex marriage by emphasizing the value of all human beings, but it is inhibiting the cause of re-adapting ourselves to Nature.
jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
If you ask the Internet, the SI (metric) system is just obviously superior to the US customary (so-called Imperial) system of measures. After all, the rest of the world uses it; the US is the only real holdout. If us dumb Americans would just switch over, everything would be so much better! (I mean, didn't you hear about that multi-million dollar spacecraft we lost because part of it used Imperial and the other part used metric?)

You've probably guessed by now that I'm not convinced by this argument. Well, I'm not. Not only would a change from US customary system be impractical and costly at this point (an argument metric devotees scoff at), I don't think it would be a genuine improvement outside of certain scientific and technical fields where the metric system is already well-established.

First, let me say that it's amusing to me that in any other domain of culture, the replacement of indigenous systems with a standard invented by Europeans a would be seen as an absolute travesty these days, and usually rightly so. In addition, the last time I checked, the metric system has only ever come to replace older ways of measuring through government force, and often it hasn't even accomplished that completely (many people in officially-metricized countries still use older units of measure informally).

That's the basic problem I have: older units of measure evolved to meet the needs of the people using them, while the metric system is based on what's just about the most arbitrary unit of measure imaginable.

Let me expand on the first point first: the US customary system of measure, and other traditional system of measure, are meant to be practical, approximate measures. You can get a sense for the length of your living room in feet by actually stepping along it. You can get a sense for the length of a piece of string in inches by using your thumb from tip to knuckle. If you need more precise measurement than that, you can get it, but oftentimes these methods are good enough.

The metric system, by contrast, is ultimately based entirely on the meter. This is its strength: all the units, whether or length, volume, or mass, are defined in terms of the meter and are thus easily convertible. One kilogram is (or was) the weight of one cubic meter of water. A liter is the volume of that kilogram of water. So if you want to know how much water you need to fill your x by y by z meter pool, the answer is x * y * z liters. Brilliant! This ease of conversion between different types of units is what makes the metric system so useful in science. I get it.

The thing is, the meter is also the weakest link in the system. It is currently defined as the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second. If that seems like an incredibly arbitrary way to define a unit of measure, it's because it's not the original definition. The original definition of a meter is 1/10,000,000th of the mean distance between the equator and the North Pole. Now, that definition would be very useful for navigation, so why was it changed it to the weird light-based equation? Because the original calculation of the mean distance from the equator to the North Pole was wrong. It was off by 0.02%. That adds up when you're talking about 10 million of them. However, the original length was already in widespread use, and it was impractical to change it (ahem), so they kept the length but changed the way it was defined--several times, in fact.

So the metric system, which was designed with science rather than everyday use in mind, is founded upon an incorrect calculation that has since been replaced with an arbitrary definition. This is the "more rational" system that we're all supposed to use for measuring carpet.

Snark aside, I admit the metric system still has two major advantages over the US customary system: (1) unit conversion is extremely simple, and (2) everybody else uses it.  But these should both be kept in perspective.

First, advantage (1) could be fulfilled by any system based around a single unit. You could start with the US foot and built an easily-convertible system around it--or better yet, let's use the pint. A pint of water is just about one pound in weight, so let's redefine the pound to be the weight of one pint of water at one atmosphere of pressure (this redefinition would have still been possible in the 1800's, before the US government officially defined customary measures; prior to that, the units had no official definition and varied a bit from place to place). That settles volume and weight, so let's get length. A cubic pint of water is just about 3 inches to a side. Redefine the foot so that measure's exact, and we'll create a new unit, the quarter-foot, or qfoot (or preferably something nicer), as 3 inches.

We thus have a system where 1 pound = 1 pint = 1 qfoot^3. Measures that need to be exact can be done in megaqfeet, kilopints, centipounds, etc, while leaving the traditional conversions for "legacy units" like ounces, miles, etc. A decimalized, easily-convertible system that fits with the natural system that we're always using. 

Now that established the reasoning. In the last bit, we'll tie this into natural constants by working backwards. One foot is about the distance traversed by light in a vacuum in 1/1,000,000,000th of a second. Let's work backwards through the reasoning by first establishing 1 qfoot = distance traveled by light in a vaccuum in 1/4,000,000,000th of second. By establishing this length, we can then tweak the definition of pint and pound to keep the equation above, but now based on natural constants.

Now this system has all the theoretical advantages of the metric system without throwing the baby of traditional units out with the bathwater of poor convertibility. Of course, I have no hope of this system being adopted anywhere, especially outside of the US. It would be too impractical and costly to change now.

As for advantage (2), I would first point out that the world has gotten along OK dealing so far in its dealings with the US, and that trade got on well enough in the past when there was no international standard at all. There are and were problems, but they've been manageable. More to the point, this advantage is only an advantage given a globalized economy that at present is based on an unsustainable consumption of resources. As the Long Descent sets in, this economy is going to unwind and trade between distant nations will be minimal for quite some time. As the next technic societies begin to rise, a global economy might become an option again, but it'll be up to them to decide how to deal with it.

A deeper point for me is that metric advocacy seems to be a far more emotional topic than it needs to be. Some of it is simply a chance for non-Americans to score points against the juggernaut that is American culture and the American economy, I'm sure. But the connection of the metric system to science suggests to me that it has become a kind of shibboleth for the religion of progress; anyone who prefers a traditional system of measure to the rational, scientific metric system is an unintelligent troglodyte who is retarding Progress(tm).

As the religion of Progress, and industrial civilization, implodes-- the one in the face of broken promises, the other in the face of resource constraints and climate chaos--I suspect the cultures that succeed us will return to more pragmatic, informal units of measure. Not officially; just as the US customary system has its roots in the Roman Empire, the metric system may continue to be the system of a better time. But among the less-educated, less-literate folks, more immediately practical, approximate systems of measure could easily come to dominate. Time will tell.


jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
James Jensen

September 2017

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