Wednesday, September 24, 2008

It's Not "How Much," It's "Where"

In a discussion I had over the weekend over political preferences, I was asked whether or not I preferred more government (a good question given my libertarian social stance and my somewhat complicated progressivist economic stance). I didn't have a good answer at the time, and muddied the waters even further with a statement on whether such discussions even take place in contemporary American politics.

After some reflection, though, I realize that the media's inability to "frame" such discussions is largely reflective of the obfuscation that has occurred in our two-party system since the advent of neo-liberalism with respect to the role of government. I would argue that it is no longer a question of "how much government," but rather, "where your (strong) government" is. Neither party, so far as I am aware, will cut the current $600 billion defense budget, cut entitlements (social security, medicare, and medicaid), stop paying down the debt (a financial obligation), eliminate corporate, agricultural, and energy subsidies, get rid of large swaths of public land, or institute a flat tax. These expenditures, with only subtle variations between the two parties in terms of priority, constitute about 90-95% of the government's operating budget. The war, social programs, education, and other non-entitlements and "pork," make up the remainder or are ad hoc additions to the budget (as is the case with both wars).

Thus the major "differences" in the role of government can only be discerned in the few areas where the candidates might differ: welfare, the use of public land, the potential nationalization of health care, the continuation of two wars, etc. Yet these do not mean a difference in the size of government or its influence in our daily lives. Obama and the democrats would have more government influence over the environment, progressive taxation, the limitation of corporate excess (only to a degree, however, and a small one at that), and the health care system. McCain and the Republicans would place more emphasis on defense, social engineering (banning gay marriage and abortion), subsidizing the use of public land, privatizing some programs (although they've only proposed to have a school voucher program in Washington, D.C.), and having a more regressive tax system. Neither platform intrinsically denies the size of government, but rather ensures its privilege in some areas while merely maintaining it in others.

This is all echoed, of course, by the proposed nationalization of the entire financial sector to the tune of nearly a trillion dollars (it remains to be seen how we'll pay for this or what it will do to inflation). This full-scale socialization and control of banking, investments, mortgages, and so forth by the Treasury, Fed, and SEC should give lie to the notion that we actually have -- or even want -- a free market and less government. Free markets are inherently stochastic, non self-correcting (at least in a time frame that we might like), and potentially unjust. They are also anathema to subsidies, tax loopholes, privileges for certain sectors of the economy, monopolization, the "casino economy," etc. We have not had a free market at any point in U.S. history (except, perhaps, in pre-Western time), as the U.S. economy has always been a "mixed" economy which bore the traces of protectionism, subsidies, monopolization and favortism (as in the Robber Barons of the late 19th century), the artificial insularization of the dollar, and most recently neo-liberal policies that advocated corporate exceptionalism and strucural adjustment programs in most of the developing world. We have, to be short, always used government in order to dictate or promote a particular economic vision of our own country and others around the world.

Hence I think the question of "how much" government we should have should be shifted to one of "to which end do we wish to use an already present and often illegitimately strong governing body?" And, unfortunately, I fear that even this question may indeed be obscured -- or, more correctly, unified -- as we move towards what David Brooks called "Progressive Corporatism."

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Changing Nature of our Contact with Nature, Part II

I'd like to follow up on my previous post but from a slightly different perspective. In my previous entry I noted the proliferation of ATVs and RVs as a mode of "accessing" our public lands in the West.

Another trend that I have recently noticed operates to the same end, but from a different means altogether. In the past few years I have noticed a significant drop in the number of people who enjoy recreational backpacking as a means to access the backcountry. I've seen a diminished number of backpackers on trails, have less friends who backpack, and, when I've managed to get beyond the 3 mile marker on most trails (except on 14ers in Colorado), I've found them surprisingly untrammeled. Many trails in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, and even in the Sawatch this summer in Colorado, have become overgrown and more "wild" than they were ten, twenty, or thirty years previous. Add to this the fact that most major outdoor chains have reduced or discontinued the selling of long range packs, and it signals a significant drop in the number of people that backpack for long periods and distances in the Western backcountry.

This phenomenon is coupled with an increased enthusiasm for "adrenaline"-filled adventures in the wilderness: mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting, tree-climbing (see High Country News for an interesting article on the new tree climbing craze), and peak bagging. Even Grand Teton National Park has gotten into the act, reviving an old mining ferrata ropes course used to access the Tetons and marketing it as an adventurous (if not highly profitable) means of accessing the peaks without the usual threat of death that accompanies sustained pitches of climbing at high altitude.

Like the previous post, I think this signals a significant shift in how we have decided to experience nature. Backpacking is undoubtedly an elitist adventure: it requires time off from work, an expanse of land set aside for aesthetic and philosophical reasons, and it normally employs a great deal of "gear" that can cost thousands of dollars. Yet, despite the gear, it still bears a minimum of discomfort not found in hiking or many of our other pursuits. Backpacking can be quite strenuous, minimalist, and, at its best, it plunges one into a bit of solitude, quiet, and wildness that can be psychologically uncomfortable. It admits of cold, heat, bugs, loneliness, and pain. And, when done for sustained periods or for sustained distances, it allows for an encounter with something wholly other than ourselves.

Many of the other pursuits on the rise, though they take place in nature, do not attempt to encounter it as something outside of our pursuit for entertainment or self-fulfillment. While backpacking is elitist, it at least allows for a contact with nature that does not circumscribe its appearance within the bounds of what we need, want, or expect. Even though it attempts to avoid it through the gear culture (which continues to proliferate), backpacking ultimately cannot sidestep that which makes nature "natural": stochastic events, numbing regularity, or a landscape bereft of human things and voices.

One part of me is rather happy with this trend. After all, it means that there is more backcountry available for myself and my friends. Yet it also means that the newer forms of accessing the backcountry (mountain bikes, etc.) allow for a greater degree of mechanized penetration into wilderness. It also may mean that the more commercially-driven adrenaline adventures and their constituents seek to move further and further into wilderness in the pursuit of the next ferrata ropes course, 5.14-rated wall, or killer bike trail.

What is potentially most pernicious, however, is the fact that a culture which has never had a healthy relationship with wilderness (which, at least in the mythology of the West, is one of the few bastions of otherness) seems increasingly bent on severing all ties with it. This is not, as my Heideggerian training would tell me, purely the result of an "objective" ontology which sees nature and things as objects to be manipulated. Rather, more in keeping with Nietzsche's last man, we've become obsessed with being obsessed, entertained by entertainment. The explosion and escalation of gadgets, gear, and new ways of entertaining ourselves under the guise of "being in nature" are only one among many ways that we attempt to entertain and fulfill ourselves while still maintaining the jargon of naturalness, being "outdoors," etc., but they lack the genuine trappings of being outdoors: insecurity, loneliness, austerity, and the openness to surprise. As Foucault would immediately note, such adventures are still productive -- they give us pleasure, create knowledge, even fabricate new relationships. But such adventures are administered (or produced by corporate interests) and often only masquerading under the shell of being in nature or something like wilderness. They may be productive, but what they "produce" only perpetuates our severed relationship with wilderness.

The issue, then, is not whether we backpack or hike or do rooster tail turns on a Sportsman 500 in the middle of a mountain stream. It is, rather, to what end we see nature, and therefore something outside ourselves that we cannot fully fathom, of which our choice of pursuits is only symptomatic. I fear that, like weddings, sport, and even intimate relationships, our often conflicted relationship with wilderness in America has been become even more conflicted through our desire to use that which is outside ourselves as the subject of our personal quests. To this end, backpacking, dwindling as it may be as a pursuit, may remain, like art, cooking, and humor, one of the last means within advanced industrial culture to combat the dominant ways of living and to regain -- or retain -- a contact with something wholly other than ourselves.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Changing Nature of our Contact with Nature, Part I

I recently returned from a trip to where I grew up -- New Mexico and Colorado. I spent a week with family and roughly a week hiking and camping in Colorado. In the short time that I was (back) in Colorado, I saw a number of noticeable changes in how we are relating to and encountering "nature."

The most obvious trend is the move towards more and more numerous forms of mechanization and comfort. RVs and RV parks are now more commonplace than I've seen them (despite the price of gas). Campground after campground was filled with RVs parked in tent spots, RVs on gravel bars (a particularly nasty example being South Mineral Creek campground near Silverton), and RVs in large industrial-size lots (one near Blue Mesa Reservoir had to have at least 200 RVs). And, most of the time, the RVs were towing ATVs and other off-road vehicles, of which I saw more of than at any other time in my life. Each Forest Service road I was on featured a bevy of ATVs and outlaw RVs housing large families or simply a couple looking to "get away."

On one level, this anecdotal evidence simply means that Americans have changed the way that they camp and find their way into the backcountry. On another level (and I would hope deeper), though, it means that we increasingly encounter "nature" (if there is such a concept) through a host of technological prostheses which allow us to go there without actually experiencing the intimacy, discomfort, and strain that nature has generally required of our species. As a biologist who often rode an ATV, I found the experience exciting and fun, but certainly not a way of coming into contact with something greater than myself (unless, of course, one includes things you swallow while riding).

But maybe that's the point: our aims with respect to nature have changed from those of, say, our parents. Nature, like video games, business partners, or random sexual encounters, is something to be enjoyed, surveyed, and used as a landscape for a personal quest. This is opposed to my more bourgeois love of backpacking (more on that in another post), which, gear-oriented though it may be, still runs the risk of strain, cold, heat, bug bites, and the general discomforts of being outdoors.

All of this implies that our reliance on technological prostheses signals a shift from "encountering" nature to seeing it as something tantamount to other personal quests one might have while in a city, at home, etc. Or, to put it another way: our somewhat elitist orientation towards nature which kept it separate and the subject of occasionally difficult quests or adventures has faded and given way to an even more elitist orientation which sees nature as a playground or place to stash one's RV for a few days.

This is likely overstating the case, but the shift from camping/hiking to RVing/ATVing is clear, if the explosion of such dealerships, my experience in Colorado, and the changing face of stores such as REI is any indication. If anything, it implies that our experience of wilderness, or simply "what's out there," is becoming increasingly more impoverished and mediated by gadgets, roll-out beds, and generators that fuel portable DVD players.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

"The Primal Blueprint"

I tend to visit a number of websites that promote health and well-being. One of the best is run by Mark Sisson, who blogs daily on "Mark's Daily Apple." Mark is a former long distance runner who remains in phenomenal shape by eating, exercising, and living well.

One of the cornerstones of his program, and the subject of today's post, is his advocacy for the "Primal Blueprint," which, shortly stated, is a fitness and dietetic regimen based on what we have at least extrapolated to be the ways of life of our evolutionary forbears. The logic is simple: if we are the descendents of bipedal and upright homonoids who have given us certain dietetic and lifestyle constraints and adaptations, then our bodies would best be suited by following our evolved capacities. Because our stomachs, muscles, and brains are conditioned to certain stimuli and have limited adapative capacities based on the frequency and distribution of those stimuli, then we would do well to mimic the conditions under which our physiology evolved and optimally operates.

For the most part, this renders sound advice: sleep a lot, don't be lazy and/or a workout addict, engage your mind, and spend time outdoors. Practical advice that we should all follow. However, I think the program may run aground when it comes to diet. In general, Mark advocates eating lots of fruits and vegetables (no problem there), a fair quantity of meat, and little to no sugar, grains, or dairy. I have two problems with this. First, if the diet is actually intended to mimic our primate and homonoid origins, then Mark's prescription for meat is actually quite high. Most early homonoids and primates were herbivores for the most part, and were only obligately carnivorous, as protein in the form of wild animals was quite hard to obtain. And, when obtained, most meats were consumed in large quantities over a short span of time, given the lack of available ways of curing or preserving meat. Thus, if we really wanted to mimic "Grok's" diet, we would eat large quantities of nuts, legumes, vegetables, roots, leaves, some fruit, certain bugs, easily available carbohydrate sources (corn, beets, etc.), and only occasionally binge on meat in all its various guises (liver, heart, muscle, marrow, you name it). This would usually follow extended bursts of exercise in the warmer months.

The second problem is related to the first. Many of the world's longest-lived peoples come from regions where high quantities of carbohydrates are consumed regularly: Japan (rice), the Mediterranean (pasta and corn), and Scandinavia (potatoes). This likely indicates that diet is more complex than simply mimicking a primal diet. There are likely other arbitrating factors, such as exercise, sleep, genetic insulin resistance, vitamin-richness of food, etc., that moderate life expectancy and overall health. Furthermore, it means that we can't derive normative rules for how we live from what we were, though our evolutionary past certainly provides healthy constraints (still no sugar) as to what we should, and should not, do (this leaves aside the whole question of the ethics of meat consumption in our society).

One last question: if diet is related to the "aesthetic life" in some way, then do our evolutionary origins at least partially dictate the pleasure we derive from cooking, eating, and living well? Moreover, do they at least provide the "blueprint" for how we are to enjoy the procuring and consumption of the food (both ethically and materially)?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Reading list for Non-Philosophers?

A great friend of mine who is highly intelligent (a biologist that reads widely and deeply) always asks me about books I'd like to recommend. I'm often stumped, and usually end up telling him about books that aren't in philosophy.

So I decided to change that by consulting with Kenzie on books in philosophy that interested non-specialists can and should read. These aren't the books one would read in a philosophy course -- they're books we'd recommend to non-philosophers that have a high degree of insight and readability. This list also might do well as a reading list for students in high school or early college as well.

As one can see, the list quickly expanded beyond philosophy. It is also more or less representative of our tastes, which are more continental and mythic in orientation. Comments or suggested additions are appreciated!

Good philosophy books for noble and interested spirits
The Plague, Albert Camus
The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus
I and Thou, Martin Buber
The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche
Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche
Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse
Essay on Liberation, Herbert Marcuse
The Culture Industry, Theodor Adorno
Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault
History of Sexuality, vol. 1, Michel Foucault
Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud
“Art in the Age of Technological Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin
Dialogues of Plato (Symposium, Phaedo, Crito, Timaeus)
Essays, Montaigne
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume
The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida
Margins of Philosophy, Jacques Derrida (especially “Differance” and “White Mythology”)
Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard
Elucidations of Holderlin’s Poetry, Martin Heidegger
Poetry, Language, Thought, Martin Heidegger
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
Metaphors we Live By, Lakoff and Johnson

Good sociology/cultural studies books
Protestant Work Ethic, Max Weber
No Logo, Naomi Klein
Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky
Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville

Good books on religion and myth
The Bible
The Responsible Self, H. Richard Niebuhr
Dine Bahane, Paul Zolbrod (Navaho origin story)
Blessingway, Leland Wyman
Art and Language in the Navaho Universe, Gary Witherspoon
Zuni, Frank Hamilton Cushing
Mukat’s People, Lowell John Bean
The Trickster, Paul Radin
Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung
Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell
Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
Blue Fire, James Hillman
Structural Anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss

Good literature and essays
Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Man of Words, N. Scott Momaday
Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Merry Heart, Robertson Davies
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard
Candide, Voltaire
Tree and Leaf, J.R.R. Tolkien

Good poetry
The Want Bone, Robert Pinsky
The Circle Game, Margaret Atwood
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman


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