Friday, November 2, 2012

Humans in Society


Imagine three people naked and separate in the woods.  They have nothing with them, no one with them, no starting point.

One recognizes his coldness and gathers wood, and struggles for a spark, until he has a fire.

Another recognizes her hunger, sharpens a rock, and kills an animal for food.

A third recognizes his thirst, and searches far and wide for water, until he finds a spring.

The first is warm, but dies of thirst.  The second is full, but dies of exposure.  The third is slaked, but dies of starvation.

But if instead the three meet, and recognize what each the other can bring, what each the other needs, and what they themselves have and need, they can share one to the other and live.  The water carrier is fed, the hunter is warm, the fire-builder does not thirst: this is society.  

When humans come together and agree that they will do better together than alone, we build a social contract.  Perhaps I can build my own fire, grow my own food, and find my own water; perhaps so can you; but I will eventually sleep, and my fire will go out.  You will walk alone, and so you will meet the tiger alone.  The hunter who has fed herself will get too old to hunt.  So we agree: I will find food, and you will find shelter, and she will find skins, and they will keep watch in the night, and we will survive together.  None needs be starved or hunted or naked.

Thousands of years pass, and we find that you build homes, and I bake bread, and he raises chickens, and she weaves cloth.  And still later, she teaches, and he nurses, and I make machines, and he builds roads, and on and on towards finer and more minute actions.  The things we share one to another, the needs we have and things we can offer, are different now, and more abstract and separated, because there are thousands of us and millions of us, each with different needs, different skills, different knowledge, and the beginning absolutes of water and fire and food are very remote, now.  But we are still a society, still each putting in and taking out and absolutely reliant on the other.

It seems to me that now that we are so far from those absolutes, all so content and assured that we can turn the tap and have water, turn on the gas and have heat, and go to the store to find food, that we have developed the luxury of forgetting what a society is, what benefits we take from it, and what responsibilities we owe to it.  We have created an illusion of absolute independence, of solitary self-sufficience, because we make our money and pay for our goods and never need to agree to trade one service or one kindness or one promise to another human being who needs to do the same.  We come to a place and we are not naked, and we are not cold, and we are not hungry, so we can fail to recognize the person who sews as someone we rely on, the person who farms as someone we are beholden to, even though were we to suddenly be without clothing or food, we would just as surely die.  Our social contract has worked so well for us that now there are people who believe absolutely that they need nothing and owe nothing.

But I am not machining the factory that produces my heat.  And you are not paving the roads you drive, or that the trucks carrying your food drive.  Without those who are, we are cold and hungry.  So even though I don't give you fire for water, I do put a little in the pot so the water keeps coming from the tap.  And even though you don't build a roof for someone so that they will dig out a sewer, you put in a little so that the sewers keep moving.  Each of us benefits daily from utilities, from trade agreements, from infrastructure generally, so each of us gives a little back to maintain our utilities, make our treaties, and build our roads and schools and hospitals.  Otherwise, we are failing our side of the contract; we eat but provide nothing for the warmth of those feeding us.  We drink but provide nothing to the water-carrier.  In the short term, this is cynical exploitation of a society we rely absolutely on.  But in the long term, this destroys the contract, and consequently, the society - when we have no contract, we have no heat, no water, no sewer, no access to food and clothing, no one to watch for the tiger in the night.  

This is not a plausible system; this is not a livable world.  Without a society, we are all more or less doomed to die alone, whether of exposure or starvation or disease or attack.  So be wary of anyone who tells you that all will be well when we stop supporting our society; this is nihilism.  In the most basic terms, this is the end of civilization.  If they have already reaped enough benefit from the society that they have fire and meat and water to last them for now, they won't be the ones to suffer when the contract is broken--they may walk away without paying their due or owning up to their responsibility for the society that sheltered them so far.  But we are all only one cold night away from the fire going out, and one lonely walk away from the tiger.  The lines aren't as clear as they used to be, but we may still look face to face to face and see our survival in the eyes of the other. 

18 comments:

Cody Hayward-Morrison said...

I enjoy the things you write. They are interesting and thoughtful. Just so you know.

Lulu--Back in Town said...

Thank you so much, Cody - that's really lovely to hear.

Mabura said...

Huh
I didnt look at life that way

Thanks

@MaburaZeGuru

Ivan Pylat said...

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Armin von Kink said...

im afraid your original premise is flawed!-only insects specialize-the same human being that assists childbirth in the morning is also capable of planing an invasion the very same afternoon...the only reason some of us mimic insects is the quest for efficient production to make the industrial revolution 'work' for all of us,which it does not and probably never will...YOU are capable of ANYTHING you can imagine-if you do not believe me,just give it a try!

Lulu--Back in Town said...

Do you make your own shoes? Bake your own bread? Raise and sheer your own sheep - and then spin their fleece and knit it into garments? Did you build the structure you live in? What about the well that pumps the petroleum powering vehicles you rely on or that is processed into the plastics you use? You may well do some of that - and kudos if you do! - but I'm guessing that at least one or two of those things you let someone else do.

Human beings specialize more than anything else in the animal kingdom - perhaps even those bees and ants you're thinking of. Most insects live independently and die quickly without passing on much aside from genes to their young, whereas ants go to war, farm aphids, and bury their dead - they have something like a society to be a part of, the way humans do. But humans have tens of thousands of years of civilization and all of its knowledge and skills to pass on. Yes, it makes production more efficient to specialize, but pre-internet, the vast array of human learning was impossible to condense in such a way that a single human could even hope to access all of the information and skills needed to live comfortably. And it long pre-dates the industrial revolution; prior to that, specialization was even more rigid, because there was no way to provide (for instance) good shoes or books or hand-crafted machines without a lifetime of learning being passed on through apprenticeship generation after generation. It's precisely the industrial revolution and the bizarre distance it put between people and the things they rely on to survive that lures us into thinking we can live without anyone else's help.

I appreciate your vote of confidence in my human ingenuity, capability, and learning - and in fact, I try to do as much of the actual production of my goods as possible. I can go from raw material to garment, gathering and spinning fiber and knitting it into fabric. I bake all of my own bread, make all of my own stock/broth/soup, grow vegetables and fruit, compost, sew, make my own detergent and some of my hygiene products; I can make paper, fiction, music and art; I can do some (very, very basic) woodwork, and even installed my own toilet... but all of that has made very clear to me just how unfeasible it is to do EVERYTHING ALL of the time. I could stockpile, buy, or steal sufficient goods and services to get me through for some amount of time, but it would be buying from someone - from some other human being - the fruits of THEIR labor, or of the industrial revolution and its anonymous production that I had no part in. I am one of the most resourceful, diversified, intelligent people I know (I don't want to brag; it's just the way it is), and even on my best day I don't think I could make everything I would need to live the way I want to. And even if I made or found everything I needed to survive, I would only last as long as it took for some blind infection to take me out or my own human body to give in.

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