The Politics of Half-Full or Half-Empty

It seems to me that any discussion about what it’s going to take to move the human race forward on its evolutionary path (which is what life is all about as far as I can see) needs to start with a basic question. Is our glass half-full or half-empty; do we live in a world of abundance or scarcity? For 5000 years (at least according to Riane Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade) we have framed the world in terms of scarcity. Not enough food to feed everybody. Not enough of the superior “us” to resist and/or control all of the inferior “them” (however “them” is defined in any locale in any given moment in history). This has led to what, by conventional wisdom, is generally framed as an imperative (but I think is a choice) to adopt a human society based on a hierarchy of control that is often described as Patriarchy, rather than the profoundly different societal model called Partnership.

As you can see by all the embedded hyperlinks, this piece is an attempt to get at an underlying axiom of how our society is modeled, and in the process connect various pieces I have written about that society. Forgive me if I am trying to cover too much ground too quickly and maybe with not enough filling in of the gaps and polishing the rough edges. Anyway… here goes…

We human beings are very adaptable creatures, maybe too adaptable at times. If we look around us and see the glass as half-empty, that there are not enough resources for everyone to thrive, then we tend to adopt an approach of fear, “circling the wagons” and taking care of our own family, tribe or nation (however we define “us”) at the expense of others (“them”). If, on the other hand, we see the glass as half-full, that there is enough to go around if we are thrifty and prudent, then we operate instead from love and share towards building an encompassing “us”.

Many people argue persuasively that there is not enough food to feed the burgeoning population of the world, and there is merit in their argument because of two key choices some of us have made. But that said, about a billion of us (of the total six to seven billion) have chosen to adopt a meat-based diet that depletes the world of grain (at least six pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat) that could otherwise feed everyone.

We (among that billion) have also chosen a lifestyle involving excessive consumption of energy and riddled with other practices that waste a range of other resources. We celebrate our lifestyle in our cultural presentations (movie, television, etc) and put it forward to the rest of the world as a model to be strived for. Yet if even another one or two billion of the world’s people adopt it, the strain on resources and the biosphere could well lead to mass starvation, fuel tans lacking gasoline, and air and water choked with toxic waste.

This celebration of excess puts pressure on the people among us that we have designated as our political and economic leaders to see the world’s glass as half-empty and implement hierarchies of control through military and economic policies that protect “us” and our channels to all these resources from “them”, those that might challenge us for access to those resources.

At a much more micro level within a single family, parents scan their community and societal landscape and see that good jobs are hard to find and that many people live difficult lives without enough. They make the choice (easy enough to do) to see the prospects for their children as half-empty, and through the resulting fear, adopt hierarchies of control to program their kid’s lives to be the lucky/smart ones who achieve “success”.

This puts pressure on our political and educational leaders to maintain an OSFA (one-size-fits-all) educational system, (the best possible system designed by the nation’s best possible experts) that creates a programmed path through K-12 and university to the best jobs and that “success”. The path that has been designed by these experts is an increasingly structured and regimented “schooling” that provides for maximum control of the teachers and students by administrators and other “educrats” that have to answer to parents.

This expertly designed path increasingly rewards those kids who can jump successfully through all the hoops of testing, ranking and graduation and best “work the system”, assuming that they will learn what they need along the way and successfully plug into jobs in that “system”. It also increasingly rewards those teachers that are willing focus their efforts on helping those kids “work the system”.

But like any hierarchical system of control (see my piece on “Power-Over Corrupts”), it tends toward corruption. It favors those parents, particularly the well-to-do ones with the time, wisdom, and resources to work the system to their kids’ advantage. They can best ensure that their kids’ have the more well endowed schools and necessary test preparation to best get to the finish line with the highest ranking (see my piece on “A System Rank with Ranking”), and the best chance at those scarce good jobs.

This system tends to be perpetuated because it works at many levels, powering a consumer economy by driving families to over-consume educational (including test-prep) resources to assuage their fear and anxiety that they have done all that they can for their children. In a system featuring a hierarchy of control (in this case parents being responsible for their children’s success) the “superiors” (parents) are judged by how well their “inferiors” (their children) do in fulfilling these externally defined goals.

I had my original epiphany watching Michael Moore’s documentary “Bowling for Columbine”, and realizing how much of American over-consumption is driven by fear and anxiety, and how much this viewing the world as half-empty feeds that fear and anxiety. Since watching Moore’s provocative film, I cannot walk into a shopping mall without my skin crawling!

The alternative to all this ratcheting up of half-empty fear and anxiety (and the hierarchical societal structures it pushes us towards) is seeing (yes, choosing to see) the glass as half-full instead, framing the world in terms of abundance. If we relax, celebrate joy, lead with love, we have the resources, skill and wisdom to develop sustainable lifestyles that could be adopted by all six or seven billion Earthlings for one grand “us”. As the Police sang in their early 80s song “One World is Enough for All of Us”, “We can all sink or we can float… ‘cause we’re all on this same big boat”.

Rather than increasing hierarchies of control, putting their tentacles into increasing aspects of our lives to try to “engineer” success in difficult circumstance, instead we can develop hierarchies of facilitation, of power with, and celebrate our common “us-ness”. In this half-full framing, education can become the facilitation of the flowering of the unique gifts of every individual, rather than high-stakes programming and ranking towards an externally defined OSFA “success”. It’s that contemporary gospel of “Do what you love and the money will follow”.

International politics and economics can be about power-with and facilitation as well, minimizing the “them” that we spend so much of our nation’s treasury defending “us” against. As Tom Friedman writes in The World is Flat, we can reframe…

…the world as a level playing field in terms of commerce, where all competitors have an equal opportunity.

We can gradually lose the corruption inherent in inequality and slowly save the resources we devote to defending ourselves against our own species, against the rest of “us” that are “on this same big boat.

5 replies on “The Politics of Half-Full or Half-Empty”

  1. According to the United Nations, there exists right now enough food to make every person on Earth morbidly obese- famine and starvation are political problems, not supply problems. I discuss it, with links to raw data, here and here

  2. Joel… thanks for your comment and t.he links to your posts. I agree with you that politics is a big issue in food distribution and people all over the world (including America) not having enough to eat But at its base, we still have enough food to feed the world, even with current population trends. But I’m curious if you agree with me when I say that if another one to two billion of Earth’s people adopted the American meat-based over-consumption diet, the redirection of grain to meat production and the toxicity of all those factory-farmed animals will take its toll on food supply and quality of our ecosphere.

  3. Yes, we tend to eat way too much meat. At this moment, our meat consumption has no effect on world hunger, as grain shortage is not the problem- but if everyone else ate like us, it would become a problem quickly. The first and biggest effect it would have on the ecosphere would be the waste treatment plants needed to handle the huge output of that many animals living in small spaces- that’s the biggest problem with pig farms right now; that many large animals were never meant to live that close together.

    How do you feel about education vouchers to let poor parents get their children out of flawsed school systems?

    By the way, in engineering class we used to say that the glass is neither half full nor half empty; it is over engineered, having excess capacity. 🙂

  4. Joel… Well maybe my whole thing about meat-based diets diverted from the point I was trying to make about societal framing of scarcity or abundance, and where we tend to go from there. What your saying is that the facts at this moment in time is that we can feed everyone, if we can resolve the ethical and logistical problems we are wrestling with.

    Though I come from a secular liberal worldview that is very suspicious of vouchers as a backhanded way to support parochial education, I am for giving poor parents vouchers. I am all about giving people options, “many paths”, particular when it comes to education, because all people don’t learn the same way and therefor one type of “school” can never be the appropriate learning environment for every student. It is hubris to think that the conventional instructional school can and should work for every student. It puts too much pressure on the teachers to “wrangle” and try to motivate the kids that don’t belong there, and destroys the learning environment by their presence.

    And saying the glass has “excess capacity”, though I assume is intended to be a joke, is an interesting third framing that I have to think about. Is that case of engineers only having a hammer so they see every problem as a nail?

  5. Actually, the thing about diet makes your point… as long as people believe the world is overpopulated, they need do nothing about feeding the hungry. Join ZPG and forget about it, because you can’t fix it- nothing can be done in the short term about overpopulation. But if people knew that hunger could actually be solved and still did nothing, they’d feel shame at least. So framing the question correctly matters… frame it as a population deal, and people will say “Whatta ya gonna do- put contraceptives in their water?” Frame it as a political and distribution problem, and people might actually work on doing something.

    I’m for vouchers as well, and for many of the same reasons. Let’s be pro-choice after they’re born, as well as before.

    As far as the engineers go, yes it’s a joke, but a joke with a point- framing the question correctly is of critical importance in engineering, too.

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