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The First Task for Prosperity Is Ending Artificial Scarcity

2015 September 8
by Ian Welsh

We have more empty homes than homeless people.

We have more food than necessary to feed everyone in the world.

This is not an era of actual scarcity. It is an era of artificial scarcity.

We either already have, or we have the ability to create, a surplus of every necessity that is needed.

This includes housing, food, and clothing. We still have enough water, globally, if we are wiling to be smart about how we use it, and where there are geographical problems regarding access, the problem of access is easily solved. In general, we need to be a bit flexible in how we grow our food; we need to stop draining aquifers and help those farms that over-use aquifer water to grow crops that use less water, or help those farmers find other livelihoods.

Early research shows that intensive urban agriculture creates between three to ten times the food that traditional agriculture does.

We are also short of security. This is another artificial shortage, though it’s harder to fix. Most countries that have been destroyed recently were destroyed in large part because of outside intervention, whether from Western, Eastern, or Jihadi influence. We are in a cycle of blowback after blowback, with the first step being to stop doing things that will cause devastation.

Education is unequally spread throughout the world, but this is another problem which is solveable: We have the books, which cost cents to reproduce, the telecom networks are almost everywhere, and we can train the teachers. If we wanted to spend more money on teachers and less on finance, we wouldn’t have a problem.

Again, most of this “scarcity” is artificial. It is imposed through a money system where a few people have the right to create money, and everyone else has to access it from them. That money is nothing, more or less in this context, than permission to use society’s resources, whether it’s people’s labor or the results of that labor.

The only real restrictions on our ability to supply what people need are overuse of sinks (like carbon) and overuse of resources, whether renewable or non-renewable, but we either have the necessary technology to move away from that overuse, or we have scientists and engineers who would love to create it for us, but who can’t get the resources/money they need to do so.

But much of this is low hanging fruit; we already have enough food and housing and far more textile capacity than we need.

Dividing up the world as we do between countries is a huge problem in which our resources are wasted where they aren’t needed, while others go without. Colonial powers have drawn ineffective and nonsensical borders, as is the case with most of Africa and the Middle East.

By centralizing the production of various resources (and that includes both ideological and intellectual resources) in a few areas and to a few people, we have pooled necessities in places they aren’t needed and denied them to other people.

These are social problems, with social solutions. The idea that technology will “fix” them is somewhat (though not entirely misguided.) We already have the material means to care for everyone, we do not.  This cannot be laid directly at the feet of technology–we have had this capacity for at least a century or so.

Oh, and the shortage of spare time for so many; with the shortage of work for others? Complete social construction. We are doing too much of the wrong kinds of work, and too little of the right kinds of work, and those choices are also social.

In the end, scarcity of the goods humans need most is almost always, in the modern world, artificial: It’s a social choice.

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Is Russia About to Send a Thousand Troops to Syria?

2015 September 5
tags: ,
by Ian Welsh


Russia is building a military base in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s heartland, according to American intelligence officials, in the clearest indication yet of deepening Russian support for the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The anonymous officials say Russia has set up an air traffic control tower and transported prefabricated housing units for up to 1,000 personnel to an airfield serving the Syrian port city of Latakia.

Why would they do that?

Syria is already home to Russia’s only base outside the former Soviet Union – a naval station in Tartus.

The humorous part is that Russia is claiming that they want to expand their role to “fight terrorism” and “ISIL.” Everyone claims whatever they’re doing in Syria is to fight ISIL and terrorism, of course, including the Turks, who are bombing the Kurdish forces who are the only people to consistently win against ISIL.

Of course what Russia is really doing is supporting its interests, which don’t include allowing a loyal client state to be overthrown by Islamic forces which are hostile to Russia and supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Or to lose a warm water port it cannot easily replace.

Or to be shown to let down a loyal ally.

Everyone else seems to think they have the right to bomb Syria in the guise of “bombing ISIL,” why not the Russians?

As for the morality of it, well, I see no “good” actors in Syria. However, it is a simple fact that Syria was a better place to live before the civil war and those who have encouraged that civil war either: a) shouldn’t have, or; b) should have applied the necessary force to end it quickly. (At which point, Syria would have probably become a failed state, like Libya.)

As anyone was unwilling to do either, and then rebuild properly (which, again, no one is willing to do), perhaps Assad, as nasty as he is, should have been left alone?

Just a thought.

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As You See the Images of the Refugee Crisis

2015 September 5
by Ian Welsh

I want you to realize that this sort of thing will be the norm when climate change really gets going. Drought, starvation, rising sea levels: The migrations will be vast.

Three Simple Policy Heuristics

2015 September 3
by Ian Welsh

A number of people (and most of those who run our societies) don’t understand the policy default: “Be kind.”

There is a widespread belief that life is shit, “hard choices” have to be made, and those hard choices usually involve someone else suffering and dying.

Life may well be lousy, but most “hard choices” don’t have to be made, and those hard choices are one of the main reasons why life is lousy for so many people.

The most important thing to understand is this: Harm ripples, kindness ripples. People you hurt go on to hurt other people.  People who are treated with kindness become better people, or more prosperous people, and go on to help others. Yes, there are exceptions (we’ll deal with those people), but they are exceptions.

First: Do no harm.

Again, people who are abused, go on to abuse others. Rapists were often raped before they raped others. People who have no money can’t buy other people’s goods. People who are crippled physically, mentally, emotionally, or socially cannot contribute fully to society and tend not to make those around them happier or more prosperous. Rather the reverse.

While it is necessary to imprison some people for committing crimes (though far fewer than most societies imprison), it is not necessary to make having been convicted an economic death sentence. People who can’t get living wage jobs (or any job at all) when they get out of prison gravitate back to crime.

We don’t want people raped in jails, because many become rapists themselves and virtually all are damaged by it. When they get out of jail, we have to deal with that damage. We don’t want them stuck in solitary confinement for long periods of time because brain scans show this inflicts traumatic brain damage, and, yeah, we wind up having to deal with those people when they get out.

If someone runs out of money, we don’t want them to lose their primary residence. Even if you are soulless, you shouldn’t want a society that creates homeless people; it takes far more money to support someone on the street than it does to pay for almost anyone’s mortgage or rent. We don’t want people who are sick to be denied health care because they become pools for disease. We’re treating these people eventually anyway (when they turn 65 or become so poor they qualify for Medicaid), which is far more expensive than dealing with their illnesses when they first present themselves.

We don’t want to destroy other countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, etc.) because their people become refugees with whom we then must contend; this produces scads of angry people, some of who may wind up killing us, and it further ruins their economies, rendering them unable to buy our goods (except our weapons.)

Damage to others who live on the same planet as you can come back to haunt you. Damage to others in your own society will come back to haunt you.

So, first, do no harm. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are radically rare. Almost every bit of harm we do to others through government policy is a bad idea. The only common class of exception is covered in rule three.

Second: Be kind.

As the harm you do others comes back to you (insofar as you are “society”), so the good you do comes back to you. I almost don’t know what to say about this, as it is so brutally obvious. Happy people are better to be around. Prosperous people are better to be around.  Healthy people are better to be around.

Only when goods are legitimately scarce is there reason not to help make other people better off, and, in those cases, it is only applicable to the scarce goods, and only until you can make the goods no longer scarce. Short on food?  Ration and plant more crops.

But in today’s society, all the significant shortages of the goods which matter most are artificial; we have more than enough food to feed everyone. America has five empty homes for every homeless person. Europe has two empty homes for every homeless person. Clothing is cheap as hell. Internet is vastly overpriced. Our main sink is just carbon: We need to spew less of that, and we can do that. Our second main limitation is the destruction we are imposing on biodiversity, but we could produce our food with far less impact on the environment if we wanted to, and, even in the short term, we’d be better off for it.

People need stuff: food, housing, safety, education. None of these things should be in shortage anywhere in the world, including safety.  They are in shortage because we choose to act greedy, violent, and selfish when we do not need to.

Third: Remove the ability or reason for people to do harm.

Humanity is not a race of saints. It does not need to be. Most people are neither good nor bad, they are weak. They do what the social and physical environment disposes them to do, with the social environment being far more important in the modern era.

Still, some people are bad. The hard core is probably around five percent of the population. And many other people are damaged, because our society has damaged them. They take that damage out on others.

The most dangerous class of malefactors are incentivized to do evil. Think bankers, corporate CEOs, billionaires (almost all of whom do evil as routine). These people do evil because they profit greatly from it, BUT (and most of you will not believe this) what makes a profit in the modern world is overwhelmingly a social choice. The government chooses who can create money, what counts as profit, who is taxed how much, who is subsidized how much, what is property, how much it costs to ship by rail vs. road, etc, etc.

There are independent technological and environmental variables, but they are overwhelmed by social variables. Change the variables and you change the incentives.

The policy is simple: Take away incentives for people to do evil. Take away their ability to do evil (aka. excessive access to money.)

Those who continue to do evil, lock them up. Do it completely humanely, no rape, no violence, no solitary confinement. But make it so they can’t do evil. While they are in prison, try to rehabilitate them. Norway has half the recidivism rate of America for a reason: Rehabilitation does work for some people.

When they get out, bring them back into society. Make sure they have housing, food, clothing and so on. If they do evil again, lock them up again.

None of this is complicated, in principle. This is simple. This is straightforward. It is work, mind you, we must stay on top of incentives and ability, and not allow anyone to become so rich or so powerful that they are able to buy the rule-makers or be above the law.

None of this should be controversial, though it is. None of this is new, these strands of thoughts go back to Confucius, Ancient Greece, and beyond. They are only controversial because it is in the interest of many for these ideas to be painted as such. And many people, having done evil, develop a taste for it.

Running a society well is hard, in the details it is complicated, but in principle, it is simple. Do the right thing. Make it so that people do well by doing the right thing. Make it so people who do things that are harmful to others stop doing them.

When you want a good society to live in, inculcate these principles. Until then, know that you will only live in a good society briefly and by chance.

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The Right Thing to Do

2015 August 31
by Ian Welsh

What makes me saddest of all things in the world is this: In the vast majority of situations, the right thing to do morally is the right thing to do in terms of broad self-interest, and yet we don’t believe that and we do the wrong thing, thinking we must, or thinking that we’re making the “hard decisions.”

(Originally published August 25, 2010.  Back to the top. If you learn one thing only from me, learn this.)

This spans the spectrum of issues. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about foreign affairs, where the money used on Iraq and Afghanistan could have rebuilt America and made it more prosperous. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about health care, where everyone knew that the right thing to do was single payer or some other form of comprehensive healthcare, which would have reduced bankruptcies massively, saved 6 percent of GDP and massive numbers of lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the financial crisis, where criminally prosecuting those who engaged in fraud (the entire executive class of virtually every major financial firm) and nationalizing the major banks, wiping out the shareholders and making the bondholders eat their losses was the right thing to do, and didn’t happen. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about drug policy, where the “war on drugs” has accomplished nothing except destabilizing multiple countries and giving the US the largest prison population proportional to population in the entire world and where legalizing marijuana, soft opiates, and coca leaves would save billions of dollars, reduce violence, help stabilize Mexico, and would help tax receipts. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about food, where we subsidize the most unhealthy foods possible and engage in practices which have reduced the nutritional content of food by 40 percent in the last half century. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about environmental pollutants, which have contributed to a massive rise in chronic diseases so great it amounts to an epidemic.

And on, and on, and on.

Now, the fact is that there is no free lunch. When you spend money on war, you can’t spend it on education or health or crumbling infrasture or civilian technology. When you allow oligopolies to control the marketplace and buy up politicians, the cost of that is a decreased standard of living. When you refuse to deal effectively with externalized health pollution, whether from soda pop or carcinogens, you pay for that with the death of people for whom you care from heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses.

The response to this is usually, “We have to do this to protect ourselves/to make a profit.”

No, you don’t. America would be more prosperous and just as safe if you didn’t waste trillions on wars and a bloated military whose purpose isn’t to protect you, but to beat on foreigners (who is going to invade the US?  No one. Next.). America would be happier if you did not allow health pollution because you and your loved ones would be healthier and it’s damn hard to be happy when you or your loved ones get cancer, or diabetes, or asthma, and so on. Cheap consumer goods do not make up for this and the costs are so high that it’s questionable whether the consumer goods ARE cheap—you’re just paying for them in illness and health care bills.

All of these things are moral wrongs. We know it’s wrong to invade other countries that haven’t attacked us. We know that it’s wrong to put illness-inducing substances into the air or food. We know that we shouldn’t subsidize high fructose corn syrup and that if we’re going to subsidize food we should subsidize healthy food. We know that’s immoral, yet we do it anyway.

One of the great ironies of human society is that we create it ourselves, but as individuals–and even groups–we feel powerless to control what we created. We’ve forged our own chains, and we can’t get out of them.

But the first step to freeing ourselves from our chains is to stop telling ourselves that the moral thing to do isn’t the right thing to do, in practical terms. The right thing to do… is the right thing to do. When we refuse to do the right thing, instead we impoverish ourselves and our loved ones, we make ourselves sick, and we kill ourselves. When we do horrible things to other people, we make them hate us, and then they try and do horrible things to us.

Doing the wrong thing, the immoral thing, is almost never the practical thing–if you care about the well-being of yourself, your children, your friends, and your family. It always blows back. If you’re lucky, you may die before the cost comes to bear, but that’s only if you’re lucky, and in the American context, if you aren’t dead yet, you probably aren’t going to get lucky.

So do the right thing. Not just because it is the right thing morally, but because it’s the right thing to do for you and your loved ones in a very practical way.

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Look, Trump’s Policies Are Nativist Populism

2015 August 31

He supports Social Security.

He wants universal healthcare (something better than Obamacare, which is not universal healthcare).

He believes in a bilateral trade policy rather than “free trade.”

Now Trump wants to increase taxes on the rich, including getting rid of the carried interest exemption, which would hammer hedge fund managers and so on, whom Trump is correct about: They build nothing—in fact, they are a drain on the economy, straight and simple.

This is married to a nasty, anti-immigrant side, of course, and to some equally nasty social positions. However, on economics Trump is proposing some stuff that any progressive should want, and which has been anathema to the Republican party since Reagan. (In 2000, Trump was for some stuff, like eliminating capital gains taxes, a position with which everyone should agree.)

Moreover, he is winning with these proposals, showing that right wing economic populism is still powerful: It was simply not being represented by the Republican party (or the Democratic party, for that matter).

Trump, Sanders, and Corbyn are all showing what is actually possible, if you dare to propose it. Positions which have polled with majorities for decades are not death to politicians. Who knew?

Corbyn and Trump, in particular, have been vilified and ridiculed by the Press, yet both are winning their respective elections.  Ten years ago, such vilification worked. A candidate could propose those policies showing well in the polls, yet still lose the primaries.

Today, this doesn’t work, because people have had it; they know that just because a politician is favored by the press does not mean that politician will help them, and, in fact, will most likely make their lives worse. They know this because the politicians to whom the press and the establishment have granted their approval, for over 40 years, have (with only a few hiccups) have made their lives worse.

Meanwhile, if trend lines continue, Sanders will take the Democratic nomination (though, of course, trend lines may not continue).

This is a realignment moment: People are no longer willing to put up with politics (and economics) as usual. All three men, if they win, will have mandates. They have been running honestly on what the press and establishment consider “radical” policies (the population does not agree, and never has. Americans, in particular, said they were right wing and consistently polled as wanting rich people taxed, along with various other populist policies).

Expect the vilification to continue, and if Sanders continues to make ground, expect the press to turn from largely ignoring him, to attacking him.

Looks like Brits and Americans may finally, after about 30 years, have a chance to vote again for something other than Tweedledee or Tweedledum.

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As the Dow Jones Drops

2015 August 24
by Ian Welsh

Down about 1,000 as of this writing. (Since mostly recovered.)

Let’s review: First, various “emerging economy” exchanges lost value, then China, then Wall Street.

The actual economic contagion started with resource prices. That was driven by reduced demand, primarily from China. Oil prices (only one commodity), already under pressure from moderately increased supply (it was less than boosters make out), were crashed by Saudi Arabia’s decision to increase production rather than cutting it back. There’s plenty of speculation why, the practical result was to trash multiple exchange rates and economies and to encourage everyone to overproduce, breaking OPEC solidarity. I don’t think Saudi Arabia is going to win this bet, whether it was to crush specific countries (Russia, Iran) or to crush American high cost oil production.

During this period we had repeated currency devaluations in an attempt to increase the competitiveness of exports. These devaluations had marginal effect at best, didn’t work at least.

China’s growth had been slowing (thus the reduction in their demand for commodities), they encouraged a stock market bubble as consumers were proving reluctant to continue piling into real-estate. They printed vast amounts of money, at least twenty times as much as Europe, Japan, and the US combined, but exports were no longer leading growth. Regular Chinese and private firms have massive amounts of debt.

To put it simply, China had reached the point where export-led mercantilism was no longer working. They needed to shift to domestic consumer demand.  They chose to try and inflate bubbles instead.

Virtually every country in the world was either rolling off a cliff, or struggling to keep their head above water. Most of the South of Europe had never really recovered (Ireland is a partial exception). Latin America was diving, Turkey’s real-estate driven, neo-liberal growth was stalling, India’s “miracle” was always more of a paper tiger than most made out, being concentrated to a minority even as the average number of calories consumed in the country dived.

But this started in China, which is important.

We are now in a situation analogous to the late 19th and early 20th century. America is the global hegemon (as Britain was then), and China is the world’s most important economy (America was then.) China is the global manufacturer. It buys the most resources, which is what most of the world sells, since most countries have given up manufacturing most goods for themselves. It prints the most money, dwarfing America and Europe. Its rich people are driving up real-estate prices all over the globe.

Yes, yes, by some measures the US economy is still “bigger,” but those measures are even more inflated than inflated and bogus Chinese ones. China is the key maker of goods. There are a few other countries that also make goods as the most important (not largest, most important) part of their economy. Everyone else is a commodity producer, a financier, or trying to sell intangibles (intellectual property, whether inventions or fiction or branding).

So what and how China does now matters most, economically. The contagion started in China, spread to emerging economies, money fled to the US and a few other safe havens, China’s economy continued to stall, its stock market fell despite radical attempts to keep it inflated, and that has now come home to New York.

Some are worried this is 1929, but in China. I have been stating for years that the big one would start in China. Whether this is it, we won’t know for a while (just as they did not know in 1929 that it was 1929).

Welcome to the new world. The US and Europe put a LOT of effort into moving as much industrial production as possible to China. China just promised that a very few people would get very rich doing it, and those people made sure it happened. (Look up the profit margins on iPhones.)

I will note that there are still bubbles. Real-estate bubbles (Canada, Britain, a few important US cities, Australia, etc.) and a vast amount of highly leveraged derivatives have been pumped back out since the 2008 crash, since no one actually bothered to regulate or forbid them. And banks and financial companies are now larger and fewer, making the economy and financial markets both more subject to contagion.

The elites learned from 2008 that the important thing to do in a financial crisis is to just print enough money and relax enough accounting rules–extend and pretend. That will be the play again this time if this contagion turns truly serious. I would guess that it will work, sort of: More zombies will be created, they will need higher profits, the real economy will be even more stagnant. And people like Corbyn, Trump, Sanders, and so on will reap the rewards electorally.

Printing money is a viable strategy only as long as the elites control the regulatory apparatus (including prosecutors, finance departments/treasuries, and central banks), legislators, and executives. The reason people are screaming so loudly about Corbyn is not because he can’t win in England, it’s because if he did, and he’s serious about his policies, he will inevitably have to confront them. And an English PM with a majority he controls is pretty much a dictator.

A lot is at stake here. Our elites are losing control over the electoral apparatus and the common narrative. In both cases, the signs aren’t terrible yet, but they are there; the rise of the old right and the old left is visible.

So, there is more pain to come, but there always was. The decision was made in 2008 and 2009 to not allow an actual recovery and to protect the rich at all costs. There was a cost, it has been paid for the last six years, and this is yet and simply another one of those costs. China, as an exporting power, cannot carry the world economy when the people to whom it exports insist on various levels of austerity (be clear, the US is in austerity too, just not as bad an austerity as Europe).

The way the Chinese are fumbling this crisis also convinces me that they are now past the point where enough competent people who remember poverty and fear remain in power.

We continue to live in interesting times.

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Social Facts Rule Your Life

2015 August 20
by Ian Welsh

The most deadly forces in the world for most people, for much of history and certainly today, are not physical forces.

If you are homeless in America, know that there are five times as many empty homes as there are homeless people.

If you are homeless in Europe, know that there are two times as many empty homes are there are homeless.

If you are hungry anywhere in the world, know that the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, and that the amount of food we discard as trash is, alone, more than enough to feed everyone who is hungry today.

It is very difficult to argue that the current refugee crises are anything but social facts: War and famine are social facts, straight up.

How likely you are to be in jail is almost entirely based on where you live, plus race and ethnicity. Born black in the US? Too damn bad.

How much money you make is almost entirely a social fact. Yes, that includes billionaires. Born back when the top tax rates were eighty or ninety percent? You wouldn’t be nearly as rich.

The value of the money you have is determined almost entirely based on where you live. For most people, this is based on where they were born.

North Americans and Europeans have better standards of living than most of the rest of the world because they conquered or subjugated most of the rest of the world. And I do mean most. Americans and Canadians do well because they virtually wiped out the original residents of North America (and the remaining Native Americans live in conditions that are generally as bad as third world countries).

Most of the prisoners in American jails are there for selling or using a prescribed substance which was not prescribed–nor stigmatized–for most of history. Social fact.

If you don’t have a job, well, that comes down to how many jobs there are. If your job is shitty, it has less to do with you than the time and place in which you live: 40 years ago, the largest employers in the US were car companies, who paid much better than the largest employer today: Walmart.

Even most environmental facts are social facts. Climate change, the collapse of ocean stocks, the terrible pollution in China: These are all a result of human action.

If you live in China, how happy you are is partially based on a social fact: Those still in traditional villages are happier than those who moved to the new cities with the new higher paying, but shitty, jobs. (In terribly polluted cities, to boot.)

Virtually everything that matters in your life is a social fact. It was created by human decisions. That’s the good news, of course, since it means human decisions could make it better.

It’s also the bad news, for what it says about human decision-making.

I want to emphasize something here: Progress is not always good for the people caught in it. The people who lived through the industrial revolution were mostly worse off than those before it. Idiots who sneer at the Luddites, who wanted to smash the machines, are clueless; the Luddites were right for themselves, for their children, and for their grandchildren. It took a long time for industrialization to pay off.

A great deal was lost with industrialization, including, and most importantly, community. The loss of community increased with the rise of the car. Community, my friends, is practically the most important thing when it comes to life satisfaction (about tied with equality), so long as basic needs, including safety, are met.

Heck, agriculture was a goddamn disaster for 95 percent of the world’s population. Hunter-gatherers lived better in almost every way than peasants, and peasants were most of the world’s population under agriculture.

We can remain victims of social facts, including our dominant technology, or we can decide that social facts are choices and make choices.

This is becoming more possible, not less, because of the rise of global culture. I’ll discuss this later. But for now, remember, while biology determines we all die, society generally determines how and when. (Including when you have a heart attack, how likely you are to get cancer, and so on.)

Social facts.

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Clinton Looks Like Toast to Me

2015 August 19
by Ian Welsh

These revelations keep coming out, keep looking bad, and keep being handled worse.

I don’t think she can win the nomination. If she does, the Republican nominee had better be very, very weak.

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The Problem with Identity

2015 August 19

We all have an identity, or rather, we all have identities. You may have a religion, a country, a profession, and so on. A Buddhist American Accountant female bisexual Patriots fan.

And so on.

Our identities are both accidents and predetermined. They are accidents of birth–the body we are born with, where we are born, who are parents are; the nature (the body, including the brain) and the nurture (the conditioning we receive through our lives and the physical changes our lives impose on us–starting with nutrition. Few things will screw you up for life faster than bad nutrition as a child).

We take these identities to be who we are in different contexts. You are never more your nationality than when in another country, for example: ex-patriot communities can be very strong and if there aren’t a lot of you, suddenly just coming from the same country is a very strong tie. As a teenager in Bangladesh, I experienced this first-hand. Every Canadian was a potential pal. Anyone who spoke English and was from a western country ranked close.

Within our own countries, we often identify first by what our work is: The first question we ask others is usually, “So, what do you do for a living?” We assume this is important.

One can base their identity on skin color or gender–or the rejection of gender norms.

Identity  is often strongest if the identity is in conflict with society. To be gay in 1950, or Russia today, is defining. To be a public cross-dresser matters. To be dark-skinned in America gets you a ton of unpleasant attention, to be visibly Muslim in Germany the same. Some identities mark you out as a safe target for certain types of aggression: transgenders, women, and black males, for example.

The more people treat you as an identity, the more you either become that identity or react against it. For every gay who makes that integral to who they are, there is one who thinks it shouldn’t be so important, who wants to be recognized for something else. The same for women or those whose skin color isn’t the norm in their country, and so on.

To be proud of an identity one didn’t earn is an odd thing. People who are proud of their heritage always strike me oddly: You didn’t chose your parents or ancestors, of what is there to be proud?

Most people who are religious just belong to their parents’ religion and don’t take it very seriously. If they’d been born in a different religion, they’d be at the same level of engagement.  Again, what is the source of pride?

Likewise, to be proud of your biologically and socially assigned gender seems odd. Did you choose to be male or female? Even if your society has norms that must be met to be a “real man” or “real woman,” well, you just did what almost every other man or woman does.

Proud of your parents? Well, I guess, but, ummm, if anything it should go the other way.

Identity, too often, is little more than tribalism.

It is, however, an advanced form of tribalism.

Humans are wired to operate in groups of up to about 150 people. That’s as many people as most individuals are able to treat as individuals.

You can treat those people as individuals, you can care about them and look after them as individuals. You can trust them because you know each of them individually

To care about more people, you must have an identity in common which allows you to see them as part of your band, and to trust them.

Tribes (the step above bands) did this. Nations did this. Religions did this. The Zeus cult was used to allow people to trade safely together, since they worshiped (and feared) the same God.

To have a shared identity is to belong to a community. There are shared communities everywhere. One woman I know travels the world and finds friends and places to stay because she is a long-time fan of a particular band, and knows other fans.

Identity can become community, and members of communities can care for each other.

The strength of shared identities can pretty much be determined by looking at how much they care for each other or trust each other.

Shared identities leading to caring communities (which can mean caring enough to pick up weapons to defend each other) is the bright side of identity.

The dark side, of course, is that anyone you don’t share an identity with is someone you don’t owe as much care to.

“Not one of us” is one of the most dangerous statements in the world; ostracism is often death. You can see it today in all the refugee deaths: They aren’t “us.” You can see it in the refugee camps, statements of, “We aren’t going to let them become one of us.”

We find ourselves in four types of games. Me against the world. My group against the world. Humanity against the world.

And then there’s “We are the world.”

It is jejune to act as if me against the world, or my group against the world, or even humanity against the world doesn’t work. North Americans and Europeans have higher standards of living than most others because they out-competed many other groups, and that includes “wiped entire other groups out.” They won their wars.  They ruled or bullied almost every part of the world at one point or another.

As individuals we can certainly create “good” lives by out-competing everyone around us. Many people extend this to their own families.

And humanity can use the entire world as its preserve, without caring much (if at all, in practical terms) what happens to other life forms, including ones like dolphins, which are clearly sentient. We can “win” from this, and we have.

But we can also lose by doing this, because we are not isolated from other people, other animals, other plants. Heck, from microbes (especially not from microbes).

How we treat other people comes back to haunt us. We hurt them, they hate us. We make them poor, they pollute, that pollution eventually hurts us. We deny them medicine, they get sick, that sickness pool eventually hurts us.

We treat other beings and, indeed, the unliving world, as something other than us, not caring for them, or for it, and we get climate change. We pollute, which is a win for the industries who do it, and we suffer huge levels of chronic illness.


We do this because we do not identify with other people. America is against Russia, against China. India is against China. Muslims and Christians are against each other. The rich are against the poor.

Blah, blah, blah.

We certainly don’t give a damn what happens to other animals, not in any practical sense; the number of large fish in the ocean, for example, has dropped about 90 percent since the 30s, and the 30s had already seen huge drops. The Grand Banks, off the Canadian Maritimes, in the 15th century, were so rich with fish you could simply drop a bucket in and come up with fish. Today that fishery is gone.

We are killing trees that create the oxygen we need to live. The ocean’s oxygen cycle is in danger.

Our identities, our refusal to identify with everyone, and especially with everything, is going to wind up killing a lot of us. A hell of a lot of us.

But I want you to consider this another way.

What sort of people do you like being around?

I will posit that most people enjoy being with other people who are happy. People tend to be happy when they are healthy, have enough stuff, and do work they enjoy.

Happy people are just way better to live with. Happy people also don’t commit nearly as much violence. Security for others is security for us. Happiness for others is happiness for us. People who are prosperous in the truest sense, which is to say, people who are not scared of losing their prosperity, are generous. (Most people in the world are not prosperous in that sense.)

Identity links us to others, but it also cuts us off from others. We can win from that, as individuals and groups, but we are at the point now, due to limited resources and carrying capacity, where we cannot win as a species that way.

And perhaps we have always lost as a species, and as individuals, if you consider the highest good to be love. For those who truly love, want the best for others.

I recognize in identity the attempt to connect with others, to overcome human limitations. I hear in it the attempt at human choice, when our identities are not the ones approved of by our communities.

But I believe, in the end, that if someone’s most important “identity” doesn’t allow them to identify with all life, that identity has become mal-adaptive to our survival.

Identifying with all life doesn’t mean tolerating all behaviour, rather the contrary, by the way. The problem we have can be boiled down to selfishness, greed being a species of selfishness.

That doesn’t mean people have to live like crap; that’s a myth. Yes, we will need to reduce carbon expenditures and environmental impact and make room for other species, but that can be done in a way that is win/win because we live in ways that are terrible for our health, for our sense of meaning, and for our happiness. We will have to live differently, not worse.

That’s another article, though, but to want to do the right thing, you have to believe it is the right thing. If your identity doesn’t include the rest of humanity, or the rest of life as worthy of life, and a good life, you will not and cannot do the right thing.

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