CAFE NOIR » Tales of an atheist, anarchist, wannabe filmmaker of sorts, and father of three lovable little beasties

Don’t got my shit together | Life is complicated, to say the least

Impression, Sunrise | Claude Monet

And now for something a little different: An occasional series chronicling various ways in which I don’t got my shit together. Exploring topics which feel both important and very unresolved to me.

Partly to help organize my own thoughts–forcing myself to translate my scattered thoughts into written form is always helpful to me. Partly in an effort to elicit ideas, input, feedback, and criticism (I’m always hoping for that, by the way, even when writing on topics which feel much clearer to me). And partly to say: you know what, life is complicated, and I don’t pretend to have more than perhaps a small sliver of it figured out. It’s okay to think out loud, to make mistakes, to change your mind, to show vulnerability and epistemic humility.

So without further ado, to kick the series off:

How to begin prioritizing one’s time, energy, and resources. The stuff of life. An absurdly bloated topic to do any justice to in any brief format, let alone a blog post, but that won’t stop me from giving it the old college try. I suppose it helps that all I’ve really got on offer here is that I don’t have any clear or easy answers. I truly don’t got my shit together. I’m actually most interested here in simply outlining how all of this truly is vastly complicated, though I will try to offer at least vague pointers for various paths forward.

First, charity. Helping to meet the immediate, pressing needs of others, such as food, clean water, etc:

Our charitable duty, in nightmarishly concrete terms

Let me emphasize that I’m not kidding about painting a deeply disturbing picture to begin. We’ve got to, first and foremost, wrestle incredibly uncomfortably with the pain and the suffering in the world around us. Hat tip to Greg Boyd, who (in a somewhat different context) called my attention to the following passage from the work of Filip Friedman, a Polish-Jewish historian who survived the Holocaust and relayed many of the horrors to which he was eyewitness:

Zosia was a little girl…the daughter of a physician. During an “action” one of the Germans became aware of her beautiful diamond-like dark eyes.

“I could make two rings out of them,” he said, “one for myself and one for my wife.”

His colleague is holding the girl.

“Let’s see whether they are really so beautiful. And better yet, let’s examine them in our hands.”

Among the buddies exuberant gaiety breaks out. One of the wittiest proposes to take the eyes out. A shrill screaming and the noisy laughter of the soldier-pack. The screaming penetrates our brains, pierces our heart, the laughter hurts like the edge of a knife plunged into our body. The screaming and the laughter are growing, mingling and soaring to heaven.

O God, whom will You hear first?

What happens next is that the fainting child is lying on the floor. Instead of eyes two bloody wounds are staring. The mother, driven mad, is held by the women.

This time they left Zosia to her mother…

At one of the next “actions,” little Zosia was taken away. It was, of course, necessary to annihilate the blind child.

Transcribing that passage triggers waves of shock and grief and rage anew, even though I’ve read it before. Especially if I try to genuinely imagine the horror of helplessly witnessing my own little Violet fall victim to such a fate. Or my Graham or Penelope. But Violet in particular is just so observant, and empathic, and careful, and shy. I can’t quite articulate why, but it almost seems like an even greater offense against her in particular. An ultimate, unspeakable violation.

You might be wondering: what do these incredibly distressing thoughts have to do with charity, of all things?

This world is full of unbearable suffering, and we need to come directly face-to-face with it. I can scarcely imagine what it might be like to helplessly watch my Violet, Graham, or Penny slowly starve to death. Though I can get some indirect appreciation for the horror of it by imagining them in place of little Zosia. And that’s not to draw a moral parallel between myself and the Nazi guards, but rather between myself and an empowered bystander. Someone who had the means to step in and avert the horror, but who chose not to, for whatever reason.

Some estimates have it that each year, approximately three million children ages five and under die for reasons related to malnutrition. Hundreds of thousands of people die each year because they don’t have access to clean drinking water. And although I’ve long contributed a sizable share of my income to various food and clean water charities, does that therefore relieve me of any further duty?

I’m sure it’s correct in some sense to ask about who else has additional resources to help, and why they aren’t doing more. My income is incredibly modest compared with that of Bill and Melinda Gates, for example. (Come to think of it, they’re doing more financially for these kinds of immediate problems than just about anyone else on the planet, though I’m sure they still retain a comfortable personal standard of living, to say the least. Maybe a more poignant comparison is with politicians such as Joe Biden and Dick Cheney, who have donated disgracefully low percentages of their large incomes to charity.) Similarly, where might primary fault lie here, whether in terms of various policies of various governments, various personal choices of various individuals, etc?

But you know what: if a starving, emaciated face is staring right into me, desperate for food, then I don’t give a shit whose fault their hunger may or may not be, or who else may or may not have more resources to help than I do. I will find a way to help, even if that means something so outlandish as canceling my Netflix account to cover the costs. Or something so outlandish as skipping that episode of Better Call Saul in order to volunteer my time instead.

However, I haven’t canceled my Netflix account, and so far I’m caught up on Better Call Saul (it’s pretty great, by the way). When it really comes down to it, out of sight out of mind is the primary operating principle which drives my overall charitable giving or lack thereof. And I don’t know what to do with that realization. Am I a terrible hypocrite? Are we all?

These are not empty, rhetorical questions. These are real questions which are wildly distressing to me, when I contemplate them. So usually, I simply try not to think about them, as I’m terribly far off from donating all of my discretionary time and income. And much/most of my income appears, at least, to be discretionary when it really comes down to it, as does much of my time. Do I need that phone? What about that vehicle? How about that house? Do I really need to watch Blade Runner 2049, let alone for the second time? As much as millions of people need basic food and clean water? As much as little Zosia needed someone to intervene on her behalf?

But of course there’s more to the story. How about activism?

Surely longer-term, broader-scope efforts to make the world a better place are important as well, and require significant resources of time and funding. Political activism being an obvious example. But my oh my, do things start getting complicated, fast.

Take antiwar activism: the goal of peace is both incredibly important, and near and dear to my own heart. Leading up to the 2008 election, my politics were rapidly shifting away from the neoconservative views of my youth toward a thoroughgoing antiwar, anti-state outlook. And as I lived in San Francisco at the time, it was easy to start dipping my toes into the waters of the antiwar movement, attend rallies, etc. But it quickly became apparent to me that–diverse as the antiwar movement is–far too much of it was focused narrowly against George W. Bush, and far too little of it was focused in a principled manner against US and western foreign policy more generally.

If the mainstream antiwar movement was aimed primarily at electing mainstream politicians such as Barack Obama–every bit the mass murderer as Bush, and predictably so–then fuck that antiwar movement. It’s not that it was merely too tactically conservative for my tastes (I think there’s an important place within any activist movement for tacticians of various dispositions), but rather that it was actively subverting the goal of peace by diverting activist sympathies and resources directly toward the status quo. And yep, the mainstream antiwar movement almost completely disappeared as soon as Obama was elected. Disgraceful.

But let’s go further, and notice how all of this is even far more complicated yet. Even among various activist causes that I personally believe in, I’m quite certain that not all are equal on the making-the-world-a-better-place scale.

The goal of curbing and eliminating mass modern warfare? Right near the top of that scale of importance. How about alleviating world hunger? Right near the top. (And clearly: charity, activism, technological advancement, and other pursuits all intersect and blend into one another in various ways.) How about racial equality? Sexual violence? LGBTQ rights? Environmental concerns? Animal welfare? Critically important, as are far too many other causes for me to list.

But how about something like atheist activism? Probably, fairly low on the scale. Religion is not the bane of humanity that some of my fellow atheists seem to think it is. Nor is theism. I do think the world would be a significantly better place without fundamentalism–whether religious or otherwise–and activism in this area likely does help toward such a goal (though economic development appears to play the primary role by far). But, I’ve got much more in common on matters of genuine importance with a Christian like the aforementioned Greg Boyd than I do with an atheist such as Sam Harris.

And how about electoral activism? I consider myself an anarchist, as I believe a state-less world would be a far better place for almost all of us humans, but that certainly doesn’t mean I see no place for various gradualist tactics as well, or for alliances with non-anarchists. But mainstream politics at the federal level in the United States? Perhaps I’m too cynical, but it strikes me as almost completely worthless. An incomprehensible orgy of mostly wasted dollars and energy.

Hmm, so, the potential-for-making-the-world-a-better-place scale is very important to keep in mind and to be guided by. But, there’s also something quite important to be said–though I don’t know what exactly–for the division of labor. For directing your individual efforts toward causes and roles which align well with your personal interests and expertise. There’s also something very important to be said–though again, I don’t know what exactly–for directing your efforts according to reasonable expectations for impact. For example, and all else being equal, I’m at least somewhat more likely as a US citizen to have an impact on the actions of the US government than on the actions of the Uzbek government.

It all makes my head hurt. And yet it’s too damn easy to use all this as an excuse for relative inaction. Ugh. Guilty as charged.

You know what though, while we’re at it, let’s keep making this even more complicated. How about technological pursuits?

The graph to the left is courtesy of Luke Muelhauser, a self-described “amateur” when it comes to “quantitative macrohistory.” But I’m familiar enough with his body of work to say confidently that he’s typically an obsessively careful and critical thinker, researcher, and data handler (eg, Exhibit B). I know he’s trying to be modest, but “amateur” isn’t quite the right word.

In any event, by any concrete external measure, technological progress since the industrial revolution has coincided with a stunning exponential growth in average human well being. Charitable efforts throughout the ages, the birth of Christianity/Islam/Buddhism/religion-of-your choice, etc: none of these register so much as a blip on that same scale. A note that the x-axis values are years, so “-1k” is 1000 BCE, etc. And “war-making capacity” might seem like an odd measure for human well being, but as he explains in the article linked to above, Muelhauser uses it as a reasonable proxy for technological progress.

[Quick detour: It’s undeniable that average human well being has soared in an upward direction, but with global human population similarly rocketing skyward, how about comparing the total number of human individuals experiencing extreme hardship, pre- and post-industrial revolution? I’m not actually going to attempt such a comparison, as the results might reveal the ethical calculus here to be stupefyingly complex, far more so than I can even begin to process. Deleting thought in 3, 2, 1…]

So, back to technological progress. My vote for breakthrough-on-the-horizon which could see the greatest benefits for average human well being is the harnessing of nuclear fusion energy. I love these poetic words on the matter–though I can’t vouch for the specific numbers mentioned:

It’s there, it’s in nature. The raw, natural power just waiting to be harnessed. When we ignite that [fusion] fire, just imagine, there’s more energy in one cubic mile of seawater than in all the known oil reserves on earth. You could drive your car 55 million miles on a gallon of heavy water. It would be the end of pollution. Warmth for the whole world…

An incredibly dense energy source, extremely clean and safe and with a comparatively tiny environmental footprint, superabundant cheap fuel, among other massive benefits (eg, far less “need” for endless warfare-for-oil crimes in the Middle East). Check out this lengthy but highly informative presentation by Zach Hartwig of MIT. The technology has progressed by leaps and bounds in recent decades, to the point that the ITER reactor currently being constructed in France is expected to achieve, for the first time, a greater energy output than input (by a factor of 10, in fact). But along these current plans and timetables, it will still be several decades before fusion begins adding electricity to power grids around the world. However, near the end of Hartwig’s presentation, he discusses cutting edge developments in magnetic field technology which could quite feasibly shrink the size, cost, and organizational complexity of such reactors to a small fraction of that of ITER, opening opportunities for implementing fusion energy at increasingly local scales. To paraphrase an audience member during the Q&A, “How do I get involved?!” and Hartwig’s reply feels deflationary to me. More or less, “Well there’s no clear way for the average person to get involved at this stage.” Hmm, not sure I buy that. Don’t wanna buy that!

[Another side note: Nuclear fission is a far more mature technology, which could be implemented to a far greater degree than it currently is, on relatively short timescales, and perhaps in new and much improved ways. And the actual data just doesn’t seem to bear out the fear that so many people have of it, especially in comparison with extremely dirty energy sources such as coal and oil. Some estimates have it that fission has actually saved millions of lives to date, all things considered.]

One more technology on the horizon which I’d like to promote here, which could have massive benefits for the well being of humans and non-human animals (more on that in a bit–I haven’t been trying to ignore animal well being). Vertical farming.

Here’s a brief video with some of the highlights. Tiny physical footprint compared with field farming. No soil necessary. Drastically reduced water consumption (as much as a 95% reduction compared with field farming). No pesticides, herbicides, or other potentially harmful additives. Drastically reduced transportation needs. Not dependent on weather or local climate.

The primary challenge to date is economic. Field farming has a plentiful source of free solar energy, whereas vertical farming relies on not-so-free electrical power for the required lighting and circulation systems. The problem is one of energy production, in other words. Hmm, nuclear, anyone? What if vertical farming could become not only economically viable on large scales, but could become vastly cheaper than traditional farming? How might that affect world hunger? Human health? The environment?

How might that affect animal welfare? Tens of billions of intelligent beings are subjected each year to unspeakable conditions, wallowing in abject pain and misery on factory farms. Out of fucking sight, out of fucking mind would appear to best explain why these practices are allowed to continue. The vast majority of us apparently don’t care very much, because we don’t have to confront this reality face to face. And I’m not a whole lot better. I have recently gone vegetarian, though I haven’t yet gone fully vegan, and I’ve got no good excuse for why it has and is taking me so long.

Now I don’t think there’s any such thing as a completely death-free diet, as agriculture necessarily eats up natural habitats and contributes to pollution. But what if vertical farming could drastically reduce that physical footprint and provide an abundance of cheap, healthy, plant based food options? Oh, and how about lab grown meat as an up-and-coming and increasingly ethical alternative to traditional meat production?

Another topic I’d like to mention here: immigration policy. It fits more naturally in my section above about activism, but I’d like to continue on my current optimistic note. I advocate a radical open borders policy, under which anyone anywhere on the globe can move to any country they wish, so long as they’re not justly incarcerated. That’s probably not terribly surprising, as I’ve already stated that I’m an anarchist, and “open borders” would certainly seem to be a logical stepping stone toward “no borders.” But I think it’s worth bringing up separately as an incredibly worthy cause in its own right, even for non-anarchists. The human rights case for it is absolutely compelling in my opinion, but there’s also an economic case for it which gets extremely little press. By careful professional estimates, open borders around the world would lead in relatively short time to an astonishing doubling of global GDP. If you’re really worried about immigrants taking your job and your tax dollars, then you’re not understanding what a doubling of global GDP would look like and how it would be an unimaginable boon for almost every human on earth. Here’s an intro presentation on the topic from Bryan Caplan, economist at George Mason University.

And now to wrap up this section on a different note–an ambiguous and perhaps ominous one: Superhuman self-improving AI is coming. That’s almost certainly not in question, though the exact timetable is quite speculative. And what’s even more ambiguous is how that would affect traditional life on earth and beyond. It might be our blinding salvation; it could be our utter ruin. Or perhaps it would simply disappear from our horizon, concerned with other matters entirely. Or, might carbon-based life evolve directly into silicon-based life, as already is happening in limited ways? Here’s an excellent presentation from Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

But what about me? My own personal interests and needs?

Yeah, absolutely important, and I don’t have anything very profound to say. I believe that we absolutely do have a huge responsibility to ourselves, and to our close friends and family members, to start where we are. To care for ourselves, and our children, and our significant others, and our friends and family members. It can be far too easy to get carried away with so-called first world problems (eg, I need this iPhone X!), but there also are genuine first- and second-hand problems and opportunities which really do require significant care and attention. And me, myself, as an individual: Yes I’m worth something too!

And whether it’s an unfortunate reality or not, I’m quite sure that it’s just not possible for us humans to give away every bit of our discretionary time and income. We’d quickly crash and burn, to a point that we’d no longer be able to offer much of any help to anyone around us, or even to ourselves. And part of the issue here–allow me to further complicate what I said above in my section on charity–is that it’s very hard to know exactly what is truly discretionary, if we mean that in the sense of being only of personal value. A part-maddening, part-beautiful reality about human progress is that it doesn’t follow an obvious linear path. Could Isaac Newton have possibly foreseen the ways in which his pie-in-the-sky abstract mathematical inquiries would so profoundly–even if indirectly–impact human well being in the centuries to come? Would the world be a better place today had Bill and Melinda Gates spent all their time volunteering in soup kitchens rather than earning obscene amounts of money at Microsoft, and the foundation bearing their names and paying so much of that money forward had never been created? (To say nothing of their enormous contributions to technological progress and infrastructure.) Not many of us have quite that kind of impact, but I do believe that we all create ripple effects in the world around us–for better and for worse–which are far larger and more difficult to trace than we typically realize. (I’ll add this, though: Directing formidable intellectual resources toward, say, questions of Shakespearean authorship? Now that’s iffy, at best.)

Furthermore, I haven’t even touched on the spiritual dimension of life and well being, which is profound in its own ways, even if not easily quantifiable. Though these pursuits don’t contribute in obvious ways to global GDP and life expectancies, the human condition would be decidedly impoverished in a critical manner, had we never chased after the artistic/romantic/mystical/musical visions which have haunted us since our earliest days as a species.


So, all of this is finally to say that I don’t have any easy answers, or grand unified equations on offer. But if I can submit one plea in closing: don’t forget about little Zosia. As you follow your life’s twisting and turning path, remember her. Strain for her hand, in whatever forms she takes.

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