Life and Death: How Absurd!

We are born, we live and breathe for various lengths of time, then we die. Seems rather pointless, really. For as long as we know, and from all the historical records that we have unearthed or discovered one way or another, we can only conclude that humans have not ever been terribly enamoured with this situation.

Of course, most animals are averse to death, or at least to dying. Death itself isn’t particularly scary, it’s the getting there that we have a problem with. Even an ant feeling attacked will flee or fight. Of course, once it’s dead there is no issue. Not all animals face dying in the same way. Without being too anthropomorphic, some are stoic, some are frantic. In humans, some are even self-destructive but I’m not sure that death is what suicides want. Relief from pain and suffering is probably the goal more often than not, but in many cases, death seems the only respite, the only place where there may be peace. Of course, that’s silly because there is no ‘place’ after death. Death cannot be a respite from pain and suffering because we have no way of experiencing relief from pain in death. Death is the absence of sensation, of thought, or feeling; it’s the absolute negation of consciousness. Death is no thing. Before we are conceived we are also nothing, no thing. Life as we think of it as sentience, feeling, consciousness, starts sometime in our development. It’s hard to know when. In a way, death puts an end to the whole story.  Historically and linguistically, we have wanted to contrast living with dying, but they are not opposites. Death is the only way life can happen. So, why, generally, is it so hard for us to let go of life? Well, like all other animals we have a survival instinct, or an instinct for self-preservation. With rare exceptions, there seems to be an inherent drive in all animals to continue to live. I don’t think any species would get very far without it. It does present a problem for us, however. It means we go to great lengths using our big, unfortunate brains to deny death using whatever means we can, and boy do we have lots of means! Our cat is afraid of death. She skulks around wary of a stray cat in our neighbourhood we call Mean Gene because he beats up on our Princess Pretty Paws. Still, she hasn’t managed to institutionalize death denial. She just can’t take it that one step beyond immediate, visceral run-like-hell action. And when Mean Gene is no longer in sight, Princess is just fine. She is not anxious and preoccupied with dying. She’s still interested in her food bowl, however. 

What it gets right down to is the fact that as animals we reproduce sexually and engender offspring who are themselves immediately on a trajectory to death. Living and dying are the same process. Stop dying and you’re dead. Now that seems completely unfair. We are built to die! What the hell! Well, that just can’t be, damn it!

Over the millennia, we’ve created any number of ways to convince ourselves that we don’t really die, that although our bodies may perish, our ‘souls’ do not, and that makes us immortal in a god-like way, really. For us to be immortal we must be gods and by our earthly deaths experience apotheosis. Millennia ago, when we were still in our infancy as a species, we were awed by the powers of nature and our extreme vulnerability in the face of them. We decided that there must be some sentient power that controlled the forces of nature, the floods, volcanos, fires, landslides, and other deadly phenomena. Not only were there powerful natural forces, but they were capricious and unpredictable as well as uncontrollable.

In our silly wisdom, we figured out that maybe, just maybe, we could barter with the gods so that they would leave us alone. If we presented the gods with gifts, even living gifts (as in virgins thrown into a volcano), maybe we could obviate the damage the gods inflicted on us. It was fine to kill all the people in the next village, but leave us alone, please. Well, that didn’t always work according to plan, so an explanation was necessary. So, if our village was ravaged by a fire even though we had been really good and had made lots of sacrifices to the gods, maybe those sacrifices just weren’t enough. We just had to kick up the giving a notch or two. Sadly, we are still very much controlled by this narrative. 

A parting thought: Try not to think of life and death as experienced by individuals. What if the life and death individuals experience is no more than the experience of a mushroom growing out of the underground mycelium. The mycelium is the important, continuing force. We, as individuals, are just fleeting and temporary expressions of the mycelium (in our case, the DNA) that is the source of our lives and deaths. We are just expressions of a process whether we like it or not, whether we think about it or not, and whether we fear it or not. The mycelium itself is not immune from death although it can live on year after year, decade after decade, through the lives of countless mushrooms. Eventually it too will die. As Brian Cox, the famous British physicist put it, the universe itself lives and dies in a moment. Individual organisms come and go in an instant. The passage of time is an illusion that allows us to cope with the need to die. One human life lived over a period of eighty years is no more fleeting than the life of the universe itself. 

 

“Indians” in the Fur Trade

In my last three posts I considered the fur trade in the northern half of North America. I suggested that indigenous peoples traded fur (beaver as well as otter, mink, fox, muskrat, lynx and many others) for manufactured European tools, the most important being axes, hatchets, kettles, knives and guns. The trade began we don’t know quite when but possibly as early as the early 15th Century incidentally to fishing on the Grand Banks and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I also wrote that the trade didn’t really get off the ground until the 17th Century when Samuel de Champlain made several trips to the St. Lawrence in search of furs or whatever else he could return to Europe for a profit.

Indigenous peoples as early as 1534 when Jacques Cartier entered the St. Lawrence on the first of his three trips to North America, were eager to obtain European trade goods. That’s not in dispute.¹ The superiority of European iron, brass, and copper tools was not lost on indigenous people although some might argue that this superiority is strictly one that is adapted to capital accumulation and commodity production rather than for the creation and use of tools designed for immediate use. Still, the Indigenes, by all accounts, were driven to adopt European tools and soon lost the capacity and the skill to use their old tools. 

To say that Indigenous people were driven to adopt European tools is not to say that Indigene and European were equal in the trade. Hunt (see footnote 1) goes so far as to say: 

The great desirability of the trade goods to the Indian who had once known them became shortly a necessity, a very urgent necessity that permitted no renunciation of the trade. As new desires wakened and old skills vanished, the Indian who had fur, or could get it, survived; he who could not get it died or moved away. But, whatever he did, life for him could never again be what it had been: old institutions and economies had profoundly altered or disappeared completely at the electrifying touch of the white man’s trade, which swept along the inland trails and rivers with bewildering speed and wrought social revolution a thousand miles beyond the white man’s habitations, and years before he himself appeared on the scene. 

It was the incursion of Europeans into North America that eventually wrought the decimation of Indigenes in North America through intertribal war, smallpox, measles, whooping cough and displacement in the face of settlement. If a real accounting of the European invasion of North America were done, one would find that the Europeans had ‘won’ the contest hands down. I’m not sure, however, that the ‘win’ is especially sweet given the current state of our land, sea and air, our societies, our ways of ‘making a living’, and our often strained interpersonal relations.  That said, I’m not sure all Indigenous people would want to return to pre-contact times. Life then was not as idyllic as we would like to think and the ‘noble savage’ was neither particularly noble, nor savage, at least no more or less than the rest of us. 

We must keep in mind that the commercial fur trade based on the beaver lasted almost three hundred year as a dominant industry with the period 1670 to 1870 standing out as the most active. A lot can happen in two hundred years. For generation after generation, the Indigenes were driven by the lure of European trade goods but in the process, they transformed themselves and were coerced, often with the help of the clergy, into becoming the workforce of European capitalists. Old rivalries turned into bloody conflicts with the arrival of European guns and other weapons. The Mohawk, who numbered at most 12,000 people and who had been dominated for a long time by the Algonquin and Huron, who numbered probably 100,000, crushed the Huron in a bloody war culminating in 1649-50. 

It can be argued that early on in the fur trade, Indigene and European were on a much more equal footing than there were to be later, say in the 19th Century. Early on, Europeans relied as much on Indigenous technology as the Indigenous peoples relied on European technology. The canoe made the early trade possible and Indigenous agriculture fed the drive of the trade inland. After 1830, and the decline of the demand for beaver fur in Europe along with the virtually complete destruction of the bison and the rise of forestry as a staple trade, the need for Indigenous workers in the fur trade declined. They were abandoned more and more to their own devices. Starvation was rampant and disease murderous. In all of this in what we now know as The West, Catholic clergy vied with the Protestants for the souls of the remaining individuals. The Oblate missionaries declared the Protestants as the ‘agents of Satan’ but to their chagrin, the Protestants were often aligned with the British trading out of Hudson’s Bay and their work was doubly challenging as a result. 

By 1870 when the Hudson’s Bay Company sold Rupert’s Land to the Canadian Government the tragic trajectory of the Indian Act was about to be played out. Indigenous people became wards of the Canadian state and are still technically so with some exceptions. Indigenous people were crowded onto reserves and their rights eroded with several amendments to the Act. Nevertheless, resistance was always a factor in Indigenous life and the flowering of Indigenous political activism and individual success, even at the white man’s game, business enterprise, is testament to the resilience of Indigeneity. Still, the structural disadvantages and personal racism Indigenous people face are staggering. 

To study the fur trade and the colonization of the northern half of North America is to study the trials and tribulations of Indigenous North Americans coming to grips with the inexorable, inevitable, spread of Western Civilization into their lands, into their families, their social relations and their ways of life.  Their struggles were human struggles, not unlike the ones we experience today. Their lives weren’t simpler than ours. In fact their lives were often more precarious and more complicated than ours. Their loves were no less so. Alliances were often sealed with marriages between Indigenous women and European men although sexual intimacy and desire don’t need the sanction of politics to flourish. Indigenous men and women were as capable as we are of subterfuge, of lying, of deceit, and of treachery. They were also as capable of love, joy, caring, mutual support, as well as profound grief from loss of family members from disease and death as we are. They had dreams and arguments. They ‘othered’ people as we do. They had an idea of who was ‘good’ and who was ‘bad’, just like we do. They were just as powerless in the face of historical, global political economic forces as we are. In the end, they lived and died, just as we do.  

 


¹ See esp. 

Hunt, George, 1940. The Wars of the Iroquois: A Study of Intertribal Trade Relations. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. The introduction is most relevant here, especially pages 4 and 5. Also see:

Innis, Harold, 1930. The Fur Trade in Canada. New Haven: Yale University Press. See especially page 392 but the whole book is about the spread of the fur trade west from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

 

Beaver Tales, Colonialism and Science Pub Nights. Part 3: How Beaver were the Reason Canada Exists.

Human beings kill. We kill plants and animals at an incredible rate and transform their basic life elements into ourselves when we eat them. We cannot do otherwise. We must ingest other organisms to survive. We are generally omnivorous. That means we will shove anything and everything down our throats even if now and again we choke on something. So, we kill for food. We also kill for fur, bones, scientific research and just for fun. We seem to enjoy driving lead into other animals and into each other. We have institutions that encourage it, thousands of them. The market is one of the most important ones but the military is close behind as is factory farming both on land and water.

For this blog post, however, I want to focus on one historical incidence of our obsession with killing other animals, and it’s on beaver that I focus my attention here. This post is about our obsession with killing beaver leading to the creation of Canada.

I’ve already written about how the fur trade was initially (in the 16th Century) incidental to the fishery on the Grand Banks and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. From there, and moving into the 17th Century, the fur trade moved inland. Samuel de Champlain first arrived in the St. Lawrence River in 1603 and in the next couple of decades travelled up the Ottawa River, along a trade route that had existed long before contact, to the Mattawa, Lake Nippising, the French River and on to Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior. In 1968, Parks Canada published a book by Eric W. Morse called Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada/Then and Now. With an introduction by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who canoed with Morse on occasion, the book presents a detailed first hand exploration of historical fur trade routes and their conditions as of the publication of Morse’s book in 1968. The current landscape barely resembles the one extant when Champlain first explored it in the first half of the 17th Century. It seems we just couldn’t leave well enough alone. We killed off most of the beaver whose dams mitigated flooding and erosion and replaced them with concrete dams and culverts. What could go wrong? Ask Sudbury. It just declared a climate emergency. It sits at the epicentre of the historic beaver kill off.

Morse’s book clearly shows how the fur trade routes originating in the St. Lawrence essentially followed the southern edge of the Canadian Shield all the way to Lake Athabasca via Lake Superior, Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnipeg, the North Saskatchewan River, and winding it’s way into the Mackenzie River drainage system through La Loche in what is now northern Saskatchewan. In a sense, a shorter route to the interior was via Hudson’s Bay and it’s drainage system which included Lake Winnipeg, but which followed a number of routes inland depending on the time of year and the conditions at the time. The fur trade necessarily followed the geography of the rivers, lakes, and portages that would lead to the quickest and most efficient route to the money embedded in beaver fur. The further away from salt water the beaver had to be hunted because of their depletion along the established routes the more the trade cost in terms of infrastructure and human power. For the first hundred years until at least the 1650s, Europeans had not set foot in the interior as traders. Indigenous middlemen such as the Algonquin, the Huron and later the Odawa and others west of the Great Lakes, including the Chippewa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi and further west, the Dakota Sioux, the Assiniboine and the Cree. In the north, the Chipewyan were dominant. To the west of them the Strange, the Sikani and the Carrier among others east of the Rockies. The Tlingit provided important trade routes to the West Coast as did the Tahltan who were connected to the coast along the Stikine River, and other groups.

Every Indigenous group in what is now Canada coveted European trade goods the moment they first encountered them and did whatever it needed to do to get them including waging war with their neighbours or competitors wherever they might live. For instance, the Iroquois (as we know the Haudenosaunee) terrorized the Montagnais and other groups who trapped beaver and wished to trade with the Europeans along the St. Lawrence and down the Richelieu River to Lac Champlain and beyond. By 1650, the Iroquois (mostly the Mohawk) had routed the Huron and broken up their Georgian Bay trading empire. The Wendat (Huron) had earlier displaced the Algonquin. Once they became dependent on European trade goods, Indigenous peoples no longer had fetters in their hunt for beaver. They participated wholeheartedly in the industrial pursuit of beaver fur. Indigenous peoples were the workforce for the fur trade and were thus not deliberately eliminated. The Americans, in contrast, worked to systematically eradicate indigenous populations south of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico because they were in the way of agricultural settlement moving west at an increasingly rapid rate. They did not succeed entirely but there is little left of pre-contact indigenous culture. Of course it’s true that there is very little left of European culture of the 15th Century either.

To follow the settlement of the west in the early 1870 with the creation of Manitoba and British Columbia, with Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 is to know that the area north of the 49th Parallel was to remain tied to the British Empire as a part of Canada. The Americans realized early that they could advantageously trade with the Northwest Company to bring furs through Michilimackinac. John Jacob Astor of the American Fur Company, the wealthiest American of the time arranged a deal where his company, the Michilimackinac Company, and the Northwest Company agreed to mutually respect ‘their’ territories. Astor was an astute businessman and negotiator. His strengths as a trader lay on the Pacific Coast and in the Lake Michigan area and he was more than willing to leave the north to the British (for a price). Ultimately the trade in beaver fur would be the base of his wealth, but it would not remain so. Astor made most of his wealth in New York real estate after the signs of the demise of the fur trade were too clear to ignore. Harold Innis writes:

“The northern half of North American remained British because of the importance of fur as as staple product. The continent of North America became divided into three areas: (1) to the north in what is now the Dominion of Canada producing for, (2) to the south in what were during the Civil War the secession states producing cotton, and (3) in the center the widely diversified economic territory including the Now England states and the coal and iron areas of the middle west demanding raw materials and a market. The staple-producing areas were closely dependent on industrial Europe, especially Great Britain. The fur-producing area was destined to remain British…

The Northwest Company and its successor the Hudson’s Bay Company established a centralized organization that covered the northern half of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific…It is no mere accident that the present Dominion coincides roughly with the fur-trading areas of northern North America…The Northwest Company was the forerunner of the present confederation.” ( from The Fur Trade in Canada, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1930, page 396)

From this perspective, the true Fathers of Confederation are Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson and Simon Fraser of the Northwest Company rather than John A. Macdonald and Etienne Cartier.

Beaver Tales, Colonialism and Science Pub Nights. Part 2: Beaver fur makes nice hats especially after indigenous people have worn it for 15 months.

In my last post I wrote about the various biomes in North America and how Indigenous groups were adapted to the local conditions. It’s safe to say that we know very little about the thousands of years pre-contact in North America especially from the perspective of Indigenous people themselves. There are tons of accounts of European colonialism and the history of Europe is accessible to us all although it may not be as objective as some people think. The question is: Who gets into the history books? Why, kings and Queens, Knights, Bishops, and Popes. You’d think it was a giant chess game!

That said, and getting back to beaver, the trade in beaver fur was largely concentrated north of the 49th Parallel and in most cases, north of the 55th up to the barren lands of the Canadian Shield. In the south, beaver fur was of lighter and poorer quality that in the north and beaver were nowhere near as abundant. On the eastern seaboard, beaver were soon wiped out in the Hudson-Mohawk River system. By the mid-17th Century, the beaver were virtually wiped out along the eastern shores of North America they were so heavily trapped.

The hunt for beaver makes for a fantastic story because it is nowhere near as straightforward as it might seem. The image of a beaver graces our nickel in honour of its role in the creation of the country. See the beaver on the nickel:

It has a rightful place there, I believe, but it would be just as right to have it grace a one-pound British note or a Euro because the trade in beaver fur had as much of an impact on European economic development as it had in North America. During the 17th Century in Britain the mercantile capitalist elite and the gentry were able to capture the British government (we sometimes call it the Cromwellian Revolution) but the newly-created industrial capitalist class was just getting a full head of steam, and employed over fifty percent of the working population. The situation was not the same in France where the Absolutist Monarchy maintained a much higher grip on economic activity. The need in North America for European trade goods like knives, kettles, awls, guns and steel traps created a huge impetus for European industrial development and innovation. That impetus was the result of the North American Indigenous peoples’ desire or craving for tools that made their lives so much easier than they had been previously.

So, the beaver fur most sought after by European hat makers was called castor gras d’hiver or fat winter beaver which is also called coat beaver. It was fur that had been worn by indigenous people for fifteen to eighteen months, fur on the inside which tended to loosen the long guard hair leaving the soft, velvety ‘wool’. As I noted before, the early fur trade was incidental to the fishery on the St. Lawrence. Even in 1534 as Jacques Cartier sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Indigenes, probably Abenaki and other coastal groups he encountered, offered him coat beaver that they waved over their heads stuck on long poles. He traded with them in 1535 and 1541 meaning that they already had knowledge of the European market for beaver pelts before Cartier even showed up. No doubt Basque and other European fishing boats had landed on the coast and sailors had recognized the value of the clothes that the Indigenes wore and traded some European tools for a few skins. However, the fishers had no organization to exploit the fur trade so it stayed incidental to the fishery until well into the next century after the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in 1602 when he brought organization to the trade and build Québec in 1608. The Montagnais who lived north of the St. Lawrence traded with the Europeans at Tadoussac, having come down the Saguenay River fully clothed and leaving naked after trading the very clothes off their backs for European trade goods.

Another grade of beaver fur was called castor sec or parchment beaver. It was beaver that had not been worn but prepared immediately after the animal was killed, dried and readied for sale. Hat makers in Europe used both types of fur when making beaver hats like the ones below:

This photo is in the public domain.

Beaver hats were, for the most part, felted hats. That means that the beaver ‘wool’ was shaved from the beaver skin and then felted by a process of applying heat and moisture which causes the hairs to mat together to create a smooth ‘cloth’. Beaver hats in these styles were popular from 1550 until 1850 or so when Chinese silk became the fabric of choice in the making of hats for the well-to-do.*Incidentally, there is a Eurasian beaver (castor fiber) but it had been virtually wiped out in Europe by the mid-sixteenth century. The Russians were manufacturers of beaver hats too and they turned to new sources when the Eurasian beaver disappeared from their territories due to indiscriminate hunting and trapping. The Russian invasion of Siberia was largely due to the fur trade. My focus here, though, is on North America.

In my next post I trace the growth of the North American Fur trade as it spread across what we now know as Canada and its transformation of Indigenous groups into hunters and trappers or middlemen for the European trade.

____________________________________________________________________
*The story of the European hat making industry and market is intriguing in itself. Many of the hat makers were in Spain and Portugal but the hats in many grades were sold all over Europe although at times they fell out of favour and the North American Fur trade faltered.

Family Ties That Bind

I haven’t written much here in the last while because of my other commitments. I chair a Museum board of directors and we’re very busy right now with governance reviews and all kinds of other activities. I’m also involved in an affordable housing nonprofit and other community organizations. It’s funny, but, on the one hand, when I don’t write for a while I feel restless and more anxious than usual. On the other hand, when I do write or draw or paint or sculpt, I often feel guilty for being so self absorbed. It’s not rational to feel this way, but that’s the way it is and I’m not about to get psychiatric help for it. At my age, I’ve learned to accept some of my more irrational feelings knowing that my frontal cortex is not completely in charge of my feelings and behaviour.

Besides, there are great alternatives to psychoanalysis or psychiatry, family time being one of them. I know that family time for many people means tension, pain and sorrow. That’s not true at all for me. My family is the glue that holds me together. We don’t always agree on everything as a family but on the important things we do agree. We absolutely all agree in the healing power of family connection. As a sociologist, especially one influenced by Norbert Elias, Thorstein Veblen, and Emile Durkheim among others, I understand the power of human connections. The absence of closeness, touching (physical and psychical), and interdependency can lead to early death in children and lifelong stress and anxiety in adults. We need other people, it’s as simple as that. Elias goes so far as to say that we as individuals don’t exist. We exist only on the social level. Everything beyond our most basic physical, tropismatic activities like peeing and pooping are social and even those activities are shrouded in social valuation. We don’t exist in society only in the present either. Our social connections go back a long way and often in ways obscure to us in our current mindscapes.

All that said, for two weekends in a row now, I’ve spent time with family. We don’t live close to our daughters and their families so if we want to get together we have to travel or they have to travel. It takes a substantial effort and it costs money. This past weekend my daughters came over from Vancouver with their families to where we live on Vancouver Island. We have three grandchildren under the age of ten and they make great house guests. One of our daughters and her husband also brought along one of his brothers and his wife. They all came to help us old wounded elders get a new porch built on the house and do a lot of gardening and related work. Without them our acre of gardens would soon revert to a natural state and we would be compelled to seriously consider downsizing. I’m just not yet ready for that.

The weekend before, Carolyn and I travelled to Vancouver to stay with one of my daughters and her family so that we might all attend a Mother’s Day Brunch event that one of my older sisters puts on every year for the family and friends. The whole family was not in attendance (I still have thirteen brothers and sisters as well as countless nieces, nephews, cousins and assorted other relatives) but it was well attended. My sister puts on a spread fit for kings and queens. Lots and lots of great food on offer. So much love goes into that event. My grandchildren had never experienced it before so this was a first for them.

I could go into more detail about each event, but the point is that on both weekends the spirit that reigned was one of helpfulness, caring and sharing. I’m not the most effusive guy out there, but I know that even if we’re not always on the same political wavelength, we know the value of family solidarity and togetherness. I’m also not given to maudlin outbursts. This is as close as it comes. However, I need to acknowledge my deep-seated need for human connection and love. That need, my family fulfills to my heart’s brim all the time, every day but especially on weekends when they come to help build a new porch! I pity people without family support no matter how one defines family.

Unfortunately, when our natural families do not or cannot provide us with the love and support we naturally crave as humans, we sometimes turn to other types of family in the form of gangs, politically or religiously extreme groups or we turn on ourselves and die inside like children in orphanages who literally died from emotional deprivation, neglect, or suffered hospitalism (See Rene Spitz’s study of Hospitalism). That’s the downside to our craving for connection.

People are Strange.

I haven’t written here in some time because I’m working on another writing project that’s taking up a lot of my time, plus I have a number of other gigs that are taking my attention away from here.

I’m still very much concerned with social justice issues and, for today, the nature and reliability of science. I’m a scientist (retired). I care about the nature of the scientific method and that all of us can trust the findings of science. Science education is woefully inadequate for the task at hand, which is educating the public (all of us) as to the scientific method and how critical thinking is such an essential part of it.

The article I’m sharing with you here by Dorothy Bishop is aimed at educating us to the dangers of shoddy science and the ways that are leading to more reliable and trustworthy scientific findings and publication.

That said, there’s no accounting for the reliability and integrity of journalists and reporters who, without any background in science or any sense of the impact of their reports, publish misleading and often tentative or even false scientific findings. Journalists and reporters have their own deadlines and job requirements, I understand that, but not checking basic facts is unacceptable. The report falsely linking autism with vaccinations is a case in point. The fraudulent report made for what journalists might consider good reporting, but it fed into the general public’s distrust of science and scientists.

Add to that the general ignorance and fear that drives large segments of the population and we end up with a perfect storm of ridiculousness and absurdity.

As Gwynne Dyer notes, most people are fine as individuals but get us together in groups and we can behave very badly. People are strange indeed. I don’t see the future being much different from the past in terms of how humans behave. We haven’t evolved that much in the past thirty thousand years. We’re just as collectively short-sighted and stupid as ever and I don’t see that changing any time soon. We’re still strangled cognitively by our fear of death and our longing for immortality. That pushes us to allow our amygdala to dominate our behaviour rather than our frontal cortex. Good luck, all. We’re going to need it.


Lose your job to automation: Mourn or celebrate?

The three links below of several hundreds that can be found on the internet news sources these days indicate clearly the rapidly accelerating advance of automated technology moving towards the elimination of jobs.

Walmart

Australia

Japan

So far, the action seems to be very widespread but is moving especially rapidly in retail as is clear from the evidence in Australia, Japan and the US. The rationale used to justify automation by Walmart management in the US is creative and ridiculous at the same time. Nobody in management wants to say that their companies are trying to reduce or eliminate their workforces altogether. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

Karl Marx predicted this very outcome in the mid-19th Century arguing that in their efforts to control or reduce their costs of production, businesses, after overproducing in the search for profits, turn to automation to control their labour force and return to profitability. The process has been going on for a long time.

It seems perfectly reasonable for businesses to try to become more ‘efficient’ by automating jobs that are tedious and repetitive, often dangerous. For individual businesses this seems like an effective strategy to control their costs and their processes. The problem is that there is anarchy in the business world, no coordination, and competition prevents cooperation between businesses in the same field of operations. The result is that there is a reduction in the aggregate number of workers in any given area and the reality is that bots don’t buy anything. Workers are also consumers so doing away with workers is doing away with your very own customers. Nobody I know in business is worried about taking customers away from their competitors, but if Walmart eliminates much of its labour force by automation that will inevitably also reduce its customer base.

So, the question is should you mourn or celebrate the loss of your job through automation? The answer is yes and no. The actual issue is not jobs, but income. You should definitely mourn loss of income. The loss of a job not so much. Jobs, i.e, employment, are not really in sync with the human capacity to work. Humans, as Veblen is quick to point out, are programmed to work, but if they are presented with meaningless, repetitive, boring work that is really to make someone else look good or get rich, they balk. So doing away with boring, stupid, meaningless jobs is a good thing in my mind. Several countries are now toying with a guaranteed basic income. It will take some time yet for the importance of this strategy to become more widespread.

We’re at a real crossroads at the moment. With the advent of advanced robotics, automation, and especially artificial intelligence, work will be required of fewer and fewer people for shorter and shorter lengths of time. There will be, in a very short period of time, a huge surplus of people as workers and a shortage of people as consumers. The elimination of tedious labour could result in an explosion of creative energy as people are freed to think for themselves and act according to their talents and abilities. However, they will need income to be able to do that.

One thing for sure, there will have to be a greater distribution of wealth because it does no one any good to hoard cash and take money out of circulation. It sure doesn’t help corporations involved in the sale of consumer goods. From this perspective, banks and financial institutions are at loggerheads with consumer driven businesses. There will have to evolve a very different ethic, one at odds with the current capitalist Neo-liberal one that I wrote about in my last blog post.