Finding a Happier Place

We are species built on tribe; yet we live increasingly alone in societies so vast and populous our ancestors would not recognize them; we are a species designed for scarcity and now live with unimaginable plenty; we are a species built on religious ritual to appease our existential angst, and yet we now live in a world where every individual has to create her own meaning from scratch; we are a species built for small-scale monocultural community and now live increasingly in multiracial, multicultural megacities.

Andrew Sullivan: The World Is Better Than Ever. Why Are We Miserable?

Sullivan’s point makes intuitive sense to me, but acknowledging that my prejudices may be motivating my agreement, I want to dive deeper.

Modern enlightened thinking suggests that blaming human nature for our alienation or other ills is bogus, not least because doing so denies our own agency in our own actions. I cannot completely disagree with that: a core tenet of my ethos is that part of our mission on earth is to elevate ourselves beyond our base nature and mere instinct, to act in ways that are subjectively right and good even when those actions are at odds with our own best interests.

At the same time, we would do well to recognize that in wishing to be angels we cannot shed our sheaths of clay. We should never excuse our choices or surrender our wills to our human nature, but neither should we ignore or paper over those aspects of our hard-wiring that vie against our virtues.

You do not defeat an enemy by wishing him away: you do so by recognizing his nature and either defeating him or coming to an acceptable accommodation. To Sullivan’s point, the satisfaction of our material needs and wants has failed to elevate us as a society or as a species. The nearer we get to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the deeper our disaffection.

And so, Sullivan suggests, we need to ask whether part of our problem is that we are forcing ourselves to adjust to an existence for which we are, at a deep sub-conscious level, utterly ill-equipped,  whether therein lies a partial cause for social ills, and whether we can change this or whether we need to search for a mode of living that accommodates – but does not surrender to – our nature.

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America the Unexceptional

In the United States, babies are more likely to die and high schoolers are less likely to learn than their counterparts in other affluent countries. Politicians may look far and wide for evidence of American exceptionalism, but they won’t find it in the numbers, where it matters.

American Exceptionalism”
Vaclav Smil

IEEE Spectrum

Patriotism is not seeing only the good things about your country and loving it for those things.

Patriotism is not seeing only the bad things about your country, and loving it anyway.

True patriotism is the ability to see both the good and the bad, and fighting to fix the bad without throwing away the good.

Ebola Demands Science First, not Politics

Nassim Taleb: What People Don’t Understand About Ebola”
Shane Ferro

Business Insider
October 17, 2014

One of the reasons that it is unconscionable to take a gratuitously partisan position on the current Ebola outbreak is that genuine dialogue is obscured by politically-motivated posturing. Let’s be blunt: anyone taking a position on Ebola to either attack or defend the current administration is taking away from our ability to address the problem, and you would be advised to shut up. You’re not helping.

And let’s be clear: some of the rhetoric being tossed about in an effort to calm the hype has shot into logically-indefensible territory. Shane Ferro quotes Nassim Taleb, he of The Black Swan, in the latter’s effort to shut down the “nothing to see here” crowd.

The argument that the US should be more worried about a disease like cancer — which has more stable rates of infection than Ebola does currently — is a logic that Taleb calls “the empiricism of the idiots.”

The basic idea: The growth rate of Ebola infection is nonlinear, so the number of people catching it doubles every 20 days. Because of this, you have to act quickly at the source of infections, he says. “The closer you are to the source, the more effective you are at slowing it down … it is much more rational to prevent it now than later.”

Isolate the source of the disease, address it there. The longer we wait to do these things, the more pain we are buying the planet.