What Is and What Isn’t Ephemeral, a stab at some basics

What is and what is not ephemeral?

We’ve been getting this wrong consistently and over an increasingly wide range of situations. We treat long-lived phenomena as though they were fleeting. We treat merely passing blips as permanent conditions. We design and build structures that should last centuries with ever-shorter useful life-spans. We’ve done this intentionally.  We’ve rationalized ill-considered and one-dimensional design as the vehicles of “artistic” self-expression, and rewarded shoddy and slapdash construction, calling this savvy “economic efficiencies.” As a result we’ve made things to meet uses and conditions that just will not persist.

This unplanned obsolescence overlays an astonishingly intentional planned obsolescence that treats localities, structures, and the social and environmental fabric they disrupt, with a contempt that is psychopathic and should be considered criminal. We use up tremendous resources, human and natural, in their creation and upkeep. They disrupt environments and displace natural features and biota that do have truly lasting value.

We have been the recipients of a “One-time Only” chance to put the fossil fuel accumulated over billions of years to its best possible use, and have burned through at least the easiest half in under 150 years, spewing so much carbon into the atmosphere as a result to endanger all of life on Earth to an extent comparable to conditions at the end of the Permian when 95% of all the species then alive were extinguished.  Considering the span of human existence, taking a narrow definition of that span to be 100,000 years, we’ve blown through this “patrimony” in under .15% of our time on Earth as a species.

How did we use this ephemeral windfall? How did our decision-makers, our setters of policy, our communicators of common-sense; how did all of our Experts do? How did any of us do in the light of these circumstances? We treated this unique opportunity as the world’s grandest excuse to chase after ephemera.

Like “winners” at the slot-machines, we’ve adopted the conviction that our “good fortune” was a sign of our worthiness, and we live in the expectation that any minute now we’ll hit another jackpot that will allow us to continue to “feel good.” This conviction is behind the entire gamut of rationalizations we exhibit as we deny what is going on and turn away from hard facts.

Something for nothing is never “good fortune.” Something for nothing always ends up in overreach.

As designers we have the tools to sort this out. Sort it out, not solve it.

Treating the Human Condition as “solvable” is a “Winner’s Conceit” in a “Fool’s Game.” Bags of cash lead to an attitude that anything can be solved by its application. Since this is a “magical notion,” based on a silly and easily dis-proven assumption – “How is Life a Problem after all?” “What could possibly be its solution?” – we don’t even expect this “cash” to be “spent wisely.” As magic it should work by just being “waved around” in a ritual of misplaced sacrificial expenditure that will somehow bring us our “solutions.” This is not a “partisan” formulation. All existing “parties,” all ideologically based belief systems share in this view, however they may try to contrast and justify theirs as the correct choice.

Unless we as designers, as people, get out from under this false and truly tragically silly notion, all of our efforts are without foundation. We are sadly now quite accustomed to life without foundation, precisely as a result of having lived so long immersed in this notion of something for nothing at the basic and almost invisible scale –because it is so huge – of our energy economy.

While abundant and easy fuel has powered this binge, it has been just one manifestation of this misconception. Our “Winner’s Conceit” helped establish, and certainly entrenched, ideologies based on Reduction-ism that have led to our abilities and desires to treat the entire planet as a treasure trove to be looted. This too is a pathological condition, widespread today, unexamined for the most part; but still vulnerable to the truth if we let it in.

We hear so much about “Moral Hazard” and that “Looting” should be a Capital Crime. This only seems to apply to the powerless for some reason. What does this mean?

Moral Hazard and Looting are crimes of the weak. Overreach, and Rapine and Pillage, are the crimes of the strong. Is there a difference?

In each case the basis of the crime is Alienation. The perpetrator feels no overwhelming connection with the order they disrupt. We don’t loot our own houses. We don’t take undue risks with what we know to be ours when we know we have no recourse to make up for our losses. So much for looting and moral hazard.

The same applies to the crimes of the strong. Hubris, overreach, is never tolerated in a society if there’s an expectation that its costs will be born by those who are indulging in it. No-one in their right minds rapes and pillages their own.

In both cases, weak and strong, we have a basis for these aberrant actions in an alienation from their costs and consequences. At the bottom they are identical beneath their cover of an apparent imbalance of relative power.

The power side of this equation is interesting. On the surface it appears that one side has it all, the other none. If we scratch a little deeper we see that when the weak loot they are taking a short-term advantage, they are filling a “power-vacuum.” When the strong commit their crimes, they are surging from a longer term “balance of power” into a short-term “power-grab” that also upsets the quotidian balance. At bottom, all act out of a failure to adequately meet their needs. They exhibit a distinct, traumatic, and profound powerlessness by resorting to these extremes.

Power is not just strength, ask Archimedes. Without a place to stand, from which to exert one’s power with focus from a position firmly rooted  upon a stable base, it’s all just flailing.

In all these cases, whether the example be an act perpetrated by the “disadvantaged” or by the “well-off,” they all act out of desperation and without standing when they commit their crimes. This is not a moral or even an ethical formulation, but one based on effectiveness. When someone acts out of alienation and wreaks destruction they are placing themselves “outside” and admitting, whether knowingly or not, their ultimate powerlessness, no matter what the trappings, what pyrotechnics they may muster to “illuminate” their ultimate defeat.

This entire dynamic is well-hidden. The bluster and rationalizations around the use of force, the sheer destructive power available, with its awful actual and potential results, suspends our ability to follow the implications of its use through to their end. The institutionalization of its conceptual defenses is further proof of its fragile grip on the truth. We don’t need elaborate rituals to defend and maintain our belief in the power of gravity, but the entire edifice around the projection of violence as a way to arrive at a better result is buttressed and bolstered by an array of mechanisms intended to hide the underlying truth from us in a wave of reptilian self-justification.

So, here we are.

Truly ephemeral values:

  • Something for Nothing.
  • The acceptance of Alienation as a viable stance.
  • Force as a way to wield Power to reach a Beneficial Result.

Truly lasting values:

  • A livable Planet.
  • A direct engagement with striving towards Truth – as measured by drilling down to the fundamental processes underlying our situation – our Human Condition.
  • Lasting “Structures” – not just “brick and mortar” – built for Lasting Uses and in the Right places – this includes the concept of adaptive structures whose uses can evolve over time.

What these all have in common is the pernicious reward and punishment mechanism our economic systems have focused on human nature. We tend to confuse these two. Our ephemeral short-term – 200 years out of 100,000 – patterns of behavior are not the same as “Human Nature.” These are mutable and temporary ways of assessing value and shaping behavior. Human Nature is a much broader stream.

These are first steps towards laying out our actual conditions and working towards a suitable process leading to an integrated engagement with our reality. We hide behind a fear to look at our situation too closely. We expect the outcome of such an examination to be disheartening and use this as a rationalization for our continued, strained, forced naiveté. The opposite is true. Only by drilling down through our accustomed half-measures can we find a basis upon which to build anything effective.

When the weak flail there is danger to some. When the strong flail, they endanger us all and call into question the very survival of life on this Earth. This is a great leveler. Unless someone acts to convert some scrap of what we have left into forms that embody true and lasting worth, we are all as weak as the weakest and as dangerous as the strongest. This shared vulnerability is the greatest lesson of our time. We avoid facing it at our greatest peril. Our continued avoidance of these conditions is the ultimate sign of our admission of weakness and the inevitability of our acceptance of defeat. Think of that the next time you swell with pride at some exhibition of our apparent strength, worth, values.

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