In an earlier post, I posed the question, which is the world’s most advanced nation?
For that discussion, I considered several ways we might measure national advancement, and how each measure – or each alternative framing of the question – produced very different national rankings.
At the end of the discussion, and as I did in my first book The Seven Keys of Natural Life, I encouraged readers to consider a relatively new measure called the HPI, produced by the New Economics Foundation. In my reading, the HPI can serve as a rough or preliminary measure of national adaptivity, or adaptive health. HPI stands for Happy Planet Index, though for me it would be better named, and in any case thought of, as a Healthy People Index.
Importantly, however adaptive health is best measured, and thus predicted, for me adaptive health is the ultimate performance metric, whether for individuals, groups, species, or whole ecosystems. In nature, health – here defined as the ability to steadily survive over time and amid progressive challenges or uncertainty – is the final test of life, and therefore the ultimate measure of all measures.
Some Nations Are Wealthier or Happier, But Which Ones Are Healthier?
Since my earlier advocacy of the HPI, the metric has undergone an important and I believe positive change, increasing from three to four internal variables. In this post, I’d like to review the change, highlight why I believe the HPI is improved via the added variable, and explain reasons why the HPI remains an important preliminary or suggestive measure of what matters most at a national level today – adaptivity or each nation’s likely potential to survive, and therefore thrive, in time.
I want to add to this body of work and explore this crucial idea with you, since it can be so important to the mastery of life, and even the path to a whole new way of life.
As you will see, my treatment of the topic may be different from the perception-door analogies you know best, or that are most common in popular culture today.
Overall, our discussion will distill and build upon a central theme from my Seven Keys – the often overlooked but always waiting, reliable, natural, and naturally transformative power of conscious attentiveness.
The World We Pass Through Each Day, Sublime And Waiting To Be Perceived
As a contemporary person, the perception-door analogy that may first come to mind for you is Huxley’s Doors of Perception, a counterculture classic and staple, and the inspiration for the name of the still more famous American rock band, The Doors. Huxley’s work recounts, and recommends, his extraordinary and evocative experiences under the influence of the psychoactive drug mescaline.
Huxley’s book, in turn, takes its title from a line by the 18th century British poet, William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Though Blake’s work and the meaning of this particular line are each subject to different interpretations, I will take his original intent with the words cleansing perception as meaning looking past authority and convention, in favor of freer and more individualistic life, or more freely-perceived and freely-led life.
In contemporary terms, we might think of this idea as seeking new perspective or clearing our minds of preconceptions and assumptions. And with the word infinite I will take Blake to mean that the world can be far richer or more expansive in content than we generally realize or appreciate.
As you may know, Blake’s 18th century proposal to eschew conventional thinking and routinized perception in favor of broader or more vitalizing outlooks is of course a theme from antiquity – the shunning of Apollonian order for Dionysian sensation or indulgence – and an idea that would find new footing and be re-examined in the 19th century by the German philosopher Nietzsche and other writers of his time.
There are of course many other historical and contemporary writers and teachers who have directly or indirectly likened perception to a door or gateway, one waiting to be opened and generally affording new perspective, growth, or even liberation. In particular, they include Gautama Buddha and modern mindfulness advocates writing about or cognizant of eastern meditative practices. And they include various scientists and philosophers exploring the natural limits and opportunities of perception. As you will see, my own views about the doors of perception are a blend or synthesis of mindfulness and scientific viewpoints. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been planning a U.S. election recap for some time – to make sense of and find lessons in what has been an unusually tumultuous political campaign and larger period of cultural division in my nation.
In many ways, these are undeniably the best of times, with startling technological and social advances in the U.S. and around the world. At the same time, our era also can be understood as the worst of times for some, with many still left behind or otherwise feeling alienated by the new opportunities of our rapidly emerging, but naturally disruptive, global society.
Based on many weeks of polling data, my original idea was to warn U.S. progressives that they were lucky to have won a third presidential term, given an obvious gap in their programs and priorities, and to thank Mr. Trump for making this abundantly clear. But as we all now know, luck and the polls did not hold.
U.S. Populists: White, Pressured & Energized
And yet, my principal takeaway from the U.S. election and primary lesson for progressives, across the developed world and beyond, is unchanged. Indeed, Ms. Clinton’s unpredicted but not completely unforeseeable defeat is consistent with other recent populist or anti-establishment votes, in Europe and elsewhere.
Our rising populism, in turn, is a natural and recurring consequence of increasing economic inequality, social stratification, and cultural infringement, all of which are strong trends around the world today. And while populism may be a blunt or imprecise social force, it is an understandable, important, and addressable one too. In particular, current outbreaks of disquiet and opposition to established power and order have clear and instructive parallels with other populist periods in Western history (including the 1890s and 1930s).
Today, in substantial parts of both the U.S. and Europe, there is now a large minority of people who have been inattentively missed, comparatively disadvantaged, or directly harmed by the last four decades of information age expansion and prosperity, by rising globalization and multiculturalism, and by our generally impactful but sometimes narrowly-focused progressive reforms and policies. The presence and natural importance of this large but often systematically overlooked minority group – and the group that is primarily driving popular rebellion in the developed world – is the lesson I want to offer to U.S. progressives, their European counterparts, and others seeking progressive change in their nations and around the world.
I’m recently back from an extended summer vacation, and an unusual one in some regards.
I wanted to talk about it with you briefly, with the goal of encouraging you both to take extended vacations and to make your vacations into true adventures. By this, I mean creating breaks in our routines that are more than holidays, and that become integral, inspiring, and informing aspects of our life.
My summer vacation this year lasted about six weeks, though as I will discuss, its ending point has been somewhat diffuse and I have been feeling “still away” for a few weeks now.
This summer, I backpacked about 900 kilometers, first through California’s Central Sierra mountains and then along the state’s lesser-known Lost Coast, a stretch of coastline simultaneously too rugged and fragile for the coastal highway and thus left unimproved and pristine. You can see photos of the two legs of my trip here and here via Facebook.
Perhaps surprisingly, my long distance trekking was not the unusual part of my vacation, since I typically take long summer wilderness walks. But more expectedly, this trip was indeed an adventure, providing rich experiences and new perspectives, which I think should be the standard for all vacations, whatever the season or locale.
Reflecting on my time away, five simple but I think often overlooked lessons recur, and I would like to share them with you – so you perhaps will have more successful, evocative, and adventurous vacations in the future, whether you choose to spend them walking through mountain ranges or not:
This year’s U.S. Presidential elections have been unusually energetic and polarized.
One might attribute this fact to the unusual, energetic, and polarizing personality and candidacy of Republican nominee Donald Trump. But much like Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, Trump is unlikely to have garnered such strong interest unless the U.S.’s basic political coalitions were not themselves especially polarized and far from the country’s political center right now – and perhaps near or at the end of a period of realignment and consolidation.
Put another way, both Trump and Sanders are unlikely to have emerged as robustly and credibly as they did, or to have found such significant political space and momentum, if the U.S.’s two dominant political parties and their establishment figures were not so significantly misaligned with a divergent or repolarized national culture and electorate.
This new post-infotech, post-recovery, and post-globalization environment is one more preoccupied with economic security, alternatively via either cultural primacy or inclusiveness, than either party had realized in earnest (see Michael Lind’s excellent article, Future of American Politics, for a discussion of these trends).
While similar dynamics are underway in many countries today, now and of course in all times to some degree, the case of the U.S. is unique and especially illustrative in some ways.
First, its persistent two-party political system quintessentially embodies and institutionalizes the natural conservative and liberal forces at work in all countries, multiparty and single-party alike, and really in all complex social settings. Second, as the world’s leading or at least most watched country in many domains, the U.S.’s political machinations are observed, reported on, and scrutinized like no other country in the world today.
Given this, the currently quite polarized and habitually dualistic institutional politics of the U.S. can offer a distilling window into societal political dynamics more generally, and provide an opportunity to understand these dynamics more plainly and fundamentally. In particular, and as my title suggests, I would like to use current U.S. political events as an opportunity to specifically explore a simple but powerful model of two distinct orbits, axes, or alliances in politics, one that substantially describes social life around the world and even across history.
Do you live in the world’s most advanced nation? Or is it next to yours, or nearby?
Leaders from many nations are apt to declare theirs exceptional – perhaps the most prolific, the most righteous, the best positioned, or indeed the most advanced. Such declarations are often good politics, frequently are viewed internally as self-evident or sacrosanct, and naturally play well to local audiences, especially ones that have not considered these claims too carefully.
But which modern nation really is the best, or most advanced? It’s a question I take up in my book, The Seven Keys of Natural Life, and one I think is quite important and productive.
One answer of course is to hold that the question makes no sense, that it is impossible to answer, notably since nations are all complicated, distinctive, and thus incomparable. Other responses might involve the idea that the question is divisive and unhelpful, that none are foremost and therefore all are similar, or even that all are similarly flawed and unworthy of the label of most advanced. Importantly, each of these answers involves the assumption that such comparisons or rankings – whether involving nations or other complex entities – are inherently unreliable, dubious, or absurd.
By considering the specific question of the world’s most advanced nation, I will demonstrate that this thinking is generally unwise, dismissive, superficial, or naïve. Overall, and building on my recent piece Answering Hard Questions, I believe it overlooks the practical power and enormous natural learning opportunities reliably available to us by considering just these sorts of comparative (and comparatively hard) questions, even if our answers to them are always imperfect, controversial, and debatable – but thereby also improvable.
After all, we routinely compare things, even complex things, and often quite usefully, beneficially, and instructively. Our level of information and rigor in making these comparisons can of course vary widely, influencing the quality of our judgements. But this fact suggests the need and opportunity for care with our comparisons, rather than avoiding or downplaying them altogether, especially in crucial areas – and again especially since incisive comparisons can be quite helpful, even as they are always naturally incomplete or imperfect.
A more constructive, and ultimately more learning-rich, way of answering the question of the most advanced nation on earth today, or the most advanced anything at any point in time, is to begin from the idea that the answer inevitably depends on our criteria, our decision factors, or what is often called the foundational framing of our analysis. Not only does this approach at once aid, and wisely temper, comparisons of all kinds, the process of making our comparison criteria explicit and subject to review can be as instructive and beneficial as the specific conclusions we ultimately draw when employing them.
Are you a creative type, or do you tend to focus your energies on consuming? All of us of course naturally do both, and each form of functioning can be understood as essential to the other.
If we want to live a creative life, we must at least consume enough to meet our basic material needs. At the same time, we cannot consume very much without enabling creativity – on our part and especially that of people generally.
In my book, The Seven Keys of Natural Life, I discuss the importance of creative human life in some depth. And though creativity and consumption are both natural, and naturally circular, we have good reason to believe that creativity-focused life – or high creation/low consumption lifestyles – are superior overall.
All Of Us Live On A ‘Consumption-Creation’ Continuum
This is because creativity-oriented life tends to be more natural, satisfying, beneficial, intelligent, and sustainable than living patterns marked by high consumption levels, even ones with significant amounts of creativity. Put another way, life that is principally creative, especially when aligned with or focused on crucial natural needs, often produces greater personal and social health, or natural adaptivity, than other patterns of modern living.
I would like to acquaint you with these crucial ideas, and the discussion that follows will: 1) define consumption and creativity, 2) discuss their respective natural merits and limitations, and 3) make the case for personal and collective functioning that is highly creative and also attentively limits excessive – distracting, inhibiting, unhelpful, irrational, and unsustainable – consumption.
Consumption Versus Creation
You already may have a good idea what the words consumption and creation mean, and the very different forms of natural functioning they describe. Both involve the use of resources, but in dissimilar and even opposing ways. Consumption, in its essence, is the using of resources – from raw materials to finished goods and services, and even intangibles such as security and time – as they are presented or available to us.
By contrast, creation entails the use of resources in new or inventive ways – or the production of new value with them in the terminology of economists – resulting in the generation of transformed, more efficient, or more effective resources, goods, or conditions compared with earlier ones. (In this definition, resource use that does not increase value is technically not creation, regardless of our aim or intention.) Since both consumption and creation involve the use of resources, we might be tempted to think of them as equivalent in important regards, but this would overlook essential differences in each mode of natural functioning.