Conversations with Fear

Self-Interest: April 1, 2002

     "What on earth is wrong with the notion of 'self-interest?'" asked a familiar voice.
     "Why do you ask that? And who invited you anyway?" I challenged as Fear interrupted my concentration.
     "I was just perusing the book you're writing on my favorite subject, violence, and I disagree with your notion of 'self-interest,' that's all. So, what's wrong with that?"
     "In a sense nothing," I replied, "because it's impossible to imagine our American system of values, especially our economic system, throwing out self-interest. As a practical matter, however, it's comfortable, reassuring, and desirable that the systemic order allows us to go about our daily activities with the knowledge that it's in the basic interest of others to be in their places doing their jobs. As someone once said, 'I want the farmer's and grocer's dinners to rely on them getting me mine."
     "If that's the case," countered Fear, "why are you concerned about the perceived shortcomings of what you call 'piece thinking'? You know, those people who can only see the individual parts of a system in isolation from the system itself and therefore subscribe to my wonderfully self-centered way of thinking."
     "Because the fundamental question," I answered, "is a matter of individual interpretation and awareness of exactly what is  really in one's own and best self-interest. The specific risk is that cultural conditioning will lead us to define self-interest too narrowly, causing us to think we must compete with the very people and institutions with whom cooperation and coordination are a much wiser order of the day.
     "If social-environmental sustainability is to be a viable option, self-interest must be culturally (collectively) defined, even though economic theory still takes a totally individualistic approach to the treatment of consumer preferences. Although this may sound unrealistic, there's some hope in shifting the economic paradigm to more realistic reasoning.
     "It's completely logical to assume that our economic 'theory' (despite whatever problems we may observe with it) includes our relationship with family, friends, and neighbors, to name a few. The upshot is that viable self-interest can't be divorced from our concept of community. Placing importance on the health and well-being of our community, including the health of our many personal relationships, is therefore a realistic proviso for anyone's definition of self-interest."
     "Yes, but," objected Fear, "you're expanding self-interest beyond the individual. You're stealing its integrity, making it into nonsense."
     "No, I'm not. Neither you nor anyone else is an island, an independent variable, within an interdependent system. Although it may sound trite, any goal dealing with sustainability must also emphasize that the health of one's own community is, of necessity, in one's notion of personal self-interest because we are inextricably a part of our respective communities, and ideally want to be. This would merely require emphasizing the communitarian thread of the American dream as opposed to the individualistic thread."
     "But," objected Fear again, "'self-interest,' as  I conceived the idea, is simple and clear. I look out for myself. Period!
     "Now, here you come and mess it all up. What right do you have to tinker with my creation?"
     "Well, if you think about it, we are, in an almost evolutionary sense, drifting into a world of the 21st century, where the state of Nature is such that traits like sharing, cooperation, and coordination promise to bubble up as those individual characteristics most likely to contribute to the survival of our species. The theory of evolution indicates that such characteristics as sharing, cooperation, and coordination have always been somewhere in the gene pool, as exemplified by biological symbiosis and the hunter-gatherer communities, but to develop the perspective fully, we must briefly review the nature of the rampantly individualistic world of nineteenth century America and its stepchildren—Manifest Destiny and The American dream."
     "In many ways, that was a world much more to my liking," butted in Fear. "It was simple and direct—take what you want and as much of it as you can get."
     "Yes," I conceded, "I can see that. After all, nineteenth century America was a time dominated by abundant natural resources (both unexplored and unexploited by the European invaders) in which a lack of people was defined (again by the European invaders) as the chief detriment to material progress. In economic terms, labor was the scarce resource.
     "It was also a time of westward expansion over the continent, which the European invaders mythologized as settlement—again to steal the land of the indigenous peoples. During this time, the cultural details of the American character emerged, many of which, despite their extreme self-centeredness, we still lionize today. The American traits of the times favored expansion, growth, and dominance over Nature and the indigenous peoples. Acting as a trustee of the natural resources to ensure their long-term availability for future generations was simply not an important concept, or even a conscious idea, to most people in that world of temporary superabundance."
     "Quite right! Quite right!" chanted Fear. "Today is no different. After all, they let the future take care of itself, why shouldn't you. Besides, there's abundance everywhere. Why, for example, do we need forests when we plant ever-more trees? Huh? Huh?
     "Yes, I know what you're going to do," chided Fear. "You're going to hide behind that science of yours and claim I'm babbling about 'informed denial,' as you call it, which of course I'm not because you have no conclusive proof of anything you say. So why shouldn't I take what I want and let the future fend for itself. Isn't that the survival of the fittest?"
     "While that might be the survival of the fittest, it could also be humanity's ultimate undoing," I said. "The 20th century was largely spent urbanizing our industrialized society to the benefit of our economic system and its elite wielders of corporate power. To accomplish this, we continually and aggressively develop and implement more sophisticated 'space age' technology, much of which is—and will continue to be—inappropriate for social-environmental sustainability. We therefore rationalized this movement with a constantly adapted version of our cultural mythology left over from the 18th and 19th centuries."
     "But you must always want more, if life is to have any meaning. What would you do with yourself if you didn't always want something else, something other than what you have?" asked Fear incredulously.
     "Learn to be satisfied with what we have, I expect. Then we might actually have what we want and want what we have," I replied. "You ought to try it sometime.
     "As it is now, our continual emphasis on growth has caused us to experience the problems that inevitably attend the movement toward, and in some cases beyond, the maximum biologically sustainable rates of resource use that are consistent with the long-term, biological carrying capacity of various resources and resource systems, which says nothing about the declining quality of life when human survival is simply a numbers game.
     "A comfortable transition to social-environmental sustainability in this century would thus have self-centered traits (such as acquiring, competing, and growing) evolving into sharing, cooperation, coordination, and sustaining. To move toward this type of a future, people must be so educated that the concept of self-interest is expanded and refined in the dimensions of both time and space. Self-interest need not—and indeed should not—be eliminated, however, because it's a powerful tool that must be used to consciously focus community development on a sustainable track through time."
     "I give up," sighed Fear. "There's absolutely no reasoning with you. You're just bound and determined to remain poor. 'Sharing, cooperation, coordination,' they make me shudder. I can't stand it. Whatever happened to 'The American Dream' of becoming all you can by getting all you can?"
     With that, Fear vanished, and I went back to my writing.

© chris maser 2002. All rights reserved.

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