ABSTRACT: A STUPID WAY OF LIFE, Manfred Max-Neef Adapted from The Schumacher Memorial Lecture, Bristol, England, October 8, 1989. [Manfred Arthur Max-Neef (b. October 26, 1932, Valparaiso, Chile) is a Chilean economist and environmentalist. He is of German descent. Mainly known for his human development model based on Fundamental human needs. Max-Neef started his career as a teacher of economics at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1960s.]
Since childhood, I wondered: “What makes human beings unique? Is there a human attribute that no other animal shares?” The first answer was: humans have a soul, animals do not. I love animals; a just and generous God – which I believed in then – would not make such a discrimination.
I was told that we are the only intelligent beings, animals only have instincts. Wrong again. We know animals have intelligence. Are humans the only beings capable of humor? No, studies prove, even birds make jokes and “laugh” at each other. My father said: “Why don’t you try stupidity?” I am probably founder of a new and important discipline — stupidology. Stupidity is the unique trait of human beings.
In 1975, I gave a course in Wellesley College entitled “Inquiry into the-Nature and Causes of Human Stupidity.” It was very well-attended. The first two sessions were fun; by the fourth, there were long faces. We discovered that it was a damn serious subject.
Later, after three trips around the world in twenty months, I thought: “I have seen too much. I don’t want anymore. I am fed up!” What grows fastest and is diffused widest with greatest efficiency, velocity and acceleration is human stupidity. Whether bulldozing thousands of rural villages in Rumania to modernize and expand agricultural production; or transporting millions from one end of the country to the other in the colossal World Bank-financed transmigration for the Indonesian development program; or Thailand proudly announcing destruction of several hundreds of villages in the forested north with people reinstalled in fourteen urban centers “with all the amenities they would require for a developed society” — all reflected the same kind of stupidity.
Stupidity is a cosmically democratic force. It contaminates everyone. No one is safe. North, South, West or East, race, creed and ideology, we commit the same stupidities over and again. Something renders us immune to experience. But, there are positive trends. We watch the last few meters of a race between two irreconcilable forces; one will win by the most important “tip of the nose” in history. Two forces, two paradigms, two utopias make a schizophrenic world. This is our reality, we cannot fool ourselves. How do we face and interpret it? The world has not always been schizophrenic.
Ludwig Wittgenstein focused me on the problem of language. Language is the expression of and generates a culture. If language is poor, culture is poor; we are trapped by language. The way we use words or concepts influences and determines behavior and perceptions. Every generation has its own theme, preoccupation, and language trap.
ON CONSTRAINTS OF LANGUAGE:
We are trapped, like it or not, in the language of economics, which has domesticated the entire world, permeating everyday life and expression; used in the kitchen, with friends, scientific associations, clubs, work place and even bedrooms. It dominates the world influencing behavior and perceptions. If a certain language domesticates it is not necessarily negative, although in this case it is. It boils down to a question of coherence or incoherence. In the late 1920s and early 30s, the language of Keynesian macroeconomics emerged as response to the “Great World Crisis,” enabled interpretation, and was an efficient tool to fix it. It was a language coherent with its historical moment.
The next language shift in the 1950s was optimistic “development language”, not due to crisis; but to enthusiasm for spectacular economic reconstruction of post-war Europe, based on belief that we could eradicate poverty by use of its clichés: rapid industrialization, modernization, urbanization, self-sustained growth, etc. It delivered important spectacular changes in the 50s and 60s that encouraged optimism. Again a case of coherence between language and historical reality.
Since the mid-1970s through the 80s (called “the lost decade” in the United Nations), a new mega crisis we are still unable to fully interpret arose. This crisis has not generated its own language. We still use the language of development, “enriched” by the most reactionary principles unearthed from the cemetery of neo-classic economics. We have a language based on enthusiasm for unlimited economic growth and expansion faced with a reality of social and ecological collapse. Our language is now [dangerously] incoherent with our historical reality.
More coherent alternative languages may enter the dominant language as cosmetic improvement. “Sustainability” metamorphosed into “sustainable growth.” The merits of unending growth are undebated, its assumed virtues are paramount in conventional economic fundamentalism. The dominant language only allows “nicer” growth.
If alternative languages do not penetrate to those with conventional and traditional positions there is no intelligent dialogue, we remain schizophrenic. Skeptics will not go away; to change things we must be understood. It is our turn and we need a sense of self-criticism; we do not own the truth; we search in good faith, but we may be wrong.
Making mistakes is not wrong; but dishonesty is; we cannot afford it. Humans naturally make proposals and propositions, and we tend to believe that every proposition is right or wrong, passionately taking sides. Propositions are not necessarily right or wrong. Perhaps the majority are nonsensical, keep in mind. It is very dangerous when beliefs turn rigid and inflexible. I shudder at fundamentalist intolerances.
The world is tired of grand solutions and people who know exactly what has to be done. The world probably requires something extremely simple—to be together with it, and enjoy the magnificent diversity such an effort brings about. I mean be, not be this or be that. The greatest personal challenge we each face is to be brave enough to be.
Societies are increasingly interconnected and interdependent in everything positive and negative. This should be true of all living systems. Yet, due to the human attribute of stupidity, we do not take advantage of interdependence and interconnectedness so that solidarity can display its synergic possibilities for overcoming our grave predicament. We still favor the economic efficiency of greed and political dynamics of paranoia in a global system in which poverty keeps increasing and major scientific and technological effort is directly or indirectly aimed at destroying the human species.
It makes no sense to talk about developed and developing countries, unless we add under developing countries or countries headed for underdevelopment. This category fits most presently rich countries, where quality of life is deteriorating at alarming speed. In 1989 one in five U.S. children were below the poverty line [one in four in 2010], in a country with 6 percent of world population and 55 percent of world total energy consumption.
UNICEF reports that the majority of poor are children and, worse, the majority of children are poor. Unsustainable development will not solve unsustainable poverty.
The paradox is that we know a lot, probably all we need to know, but understand little. We tend to believe that having described and explained something, we understand it. Describing plus explaining does not equal understanding. We can never understand love, unless we fall in love. This is valid for every living system. You cannot attempt to understand something of which you are not a part. Hence, how can we understand a society, a world, a planet, a biosphere by detaching ourselves from it?
How many actually understand the problems we are trying to solve? Problem solving belongs to the realm of knowledge and requires fragmented thinking. In the realm of understanding problem posing and problem solving do not make sense, because we must deal with transformations that start with, and within, ourselves.
Now, what about the future? Dr. Gilberto Gallopin proposes three possible scenarios.
Scenario one: total or partial extinction of the human species. The most obvious way is nuclear holocaust. But a number of processes can do it: destruction of the environment, pollution of seas, lakes and rivers, greenhouse effect, ozone layer depletion and so on.
Scenario two: barbarianization of the world. A new way of turning human kind into barbarians. Bubbles of enormous wealth, surrounded by fortresses to protect from immense territories of poverty and misery; a Mad Max scenario. It is in mental attitudes and actual creation of isolated areas for the very rich who do not want to be contaminated by seeing, hearing or dealing with poverty. It includes resurgence of repressive regimes cooperating with the wealthy bubbles to impose further hardships on the poor.
Scenario three: the possibility of a great transition—the passing from a dominant rationality of blind economic competition and greed to a rationality based on the principles of sharing and solidarity. Passing from Mutually Assured Destruction to an era of Mutually Assured Solidarity. But can we do it? Have we the tools, the will and the talent? Can we overcome the stupidity that keeps such a possibility out of reach? I believe we do and can. But there may not be too much time left.
We want to change the world, but are confronted with a great paradox. I lack the power to change the world or any significant part of it. I only have the power to change myself. If I decide to change myself, there is no police force in the world that can prevent me from doing so. It is just my decision and if I want to do it, I can do it. If I change myself, something may happen as a consequence that may lead to a change in the world. But we are afraid of changing ourselves. It is always easier to try to change others. The dictum of Socrates was “Know thyself,” for he knew how afraid human beings are to know themselves. We know a lot about our neighbors, but we know little about ourselves. So, if we simply manage to change ourselves, something fascinating may happen to the world.
I hope the day comes [when] every one of us may be brave enough to say in absolute honesty: “I am, and because I am, I have become a part of…” It seems to me that this is the right direction to follow if we want to put an end to a stupid way of life.
http://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/background/maxneef.htm HUMAN NEEDS, HUMAN SCALE DEVELOPMENT – CHART
http://www.max-neef.cl/download/Max-neef_Human_Scale_development.pdf HUMAN SCALE DEVELOPMENT: CONCEPTION, APPLICATION AND FURTHER REFLECTIONS
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