In Praise of the Ordinary

The company for which I work celebrated its 50th anniversary on Sunday May 31, 2009. I had planned to attend the celebration, but given that my sister was hosting a family get-together the same day, I declined. As I reflect today on the company and its founder, however, it occurs to me that although I have had admiration for this man, perhaps that admiration has been misplaced. In fact, an irony occurs to me as I reflect on him.

The company was founded by a man with a Polish-Jewish heritage, whose parents had come to this country while he was young. Although his family was by no means wealthy, because of native intelligence, the acquisition of a good education, a willingness to work hard, and determination (along with a little luck!), he was able to develop a fledgling company into a relatively stable and large firm. In terms of the dominant value system of this society, this man has not only become successful, but has made an important contribution to our society—and likely he is convinced of the latter.

Where I find irony is in the fact of his Jewish heritage; for as I reflect on Jewish Scripture—the book of Genesis in particular—it occurs to me that God is said to have created, during a 6-day period, the various components of our world (and beyond), and to have pronounced his creation good. Although the creation process itself is presented as a step-by-step one, the impression is given that the end product was an integrated whole—in which the various components mesh one with another. The impression is given that although activities—including interactions—are continually occurring, these activities are of a basically harmonious nature. And although motion is a virtual constant in this world, change is not. God created what became a system; and although this system was (by definition) characterized by dynamism, it was not characterized by temporal change.

Given this latter fact, the implication given by the writers/redactors of Genesis is that God, having created what He pronounced as a good system, wanted it to remain as He had created it: it was a good system as it was, and could not become “gooder.” So that the role given humans by God—that of steward—consisted of maintaining the integrity of the system, not changing it. But could I say regarding the founder of the company that I work for—a man presumably somewhat familiar with Jewish Scripture—that he perceived his role that way? Or, rather, had he acquired a conventional American mentality?—so that he saw his role as making a contribution to the society (a technological contribution in his case).

Now if one perceives one’s role as being one of making a contribution, it does not follow that one’s contribution will necessarily result in change of the Earth system. For example, if one composes music, creates a painting, does empirical scientific work, etc., one is making a contribution, but not a sort of contribution that is likely to result in Earth system change. Rather, one’s contribution results in adding beauty (perhaps!) or understanding. If, however, one’s contribution consists in developing new technology or an ideology, it holds potential for affecting behavior that will result in how one interacts with Earth and/or others. In short, it has potential for resulting—via direct and indirect causation—in change in Earth system.

I find it inconceivable that the founder of the company for which I work has had a conscious intention of changing God’s creation (to adopt here the perspective of Genesis). Yet it is very possible that the innovations that can be attributed to him and his employees have played some role in changing Earth system. And if one takes all of those who have developed new things and ideologies, and examines the “fruits” of their efforts, it is certain that one would conclude that those efforts have been responsible for change in Earth system. Have, in fact, been the primary factors responsible for such changes.

We have tended to take for granted that those who have originated and introduced innovations have made a positive contribution. So pervasive, in fact, is this belief in our society that one does not need to be taught it. Rather, one simply acquires it in the process of living here. And although histories used to focus on reigns and rulers and battles, for some time now they have tended to focus on “accomplishments” and the resulting “progress.” The very fact that positive connotations are associated with such words as “accomplishment,” “success,” “energetic,” “productive,” “ambitious,” “creative,” etc. is proof enough that the dominant value system in our society is based on the assumption that such traits are desirable.

But are they? Was Eugene Linden wrong in presenting, in Affluence and Discontent (1979), Western history as a story of anything but progress? As consisting, if anything, of developments that are propelling us toward disaster? My own conclusion on the matter is that Linden’s history is one that I find convincing—and compelling. Although I do not develop herein a case for such a perspective (read Linden for one!), I agree with the general thrust of his presentation—and would add that (a) existing trends suggest that our emissions of “greenhouse gases” will soon (if they haven’t already!) result in a period of “runaway”—i.e., that the negative feedback mechanisms that have been maintaining relative stasis will give way to positive feedback mechanisms, thereby resulting in rapid change in the global mean (among other consequences). This change will result (directly, and indirectly—e.g., via diseases) in many extinctions, and may even include our own! Underlying these events is the human development, and application, of technology (especially). And the irony here is the possibility that humans have been digging a grave for themselves, all the while being convinced that they have been digging for diamonds! In effect, humans have been committing “speciecide” while being convinced that they were creating an ever-better world.

Fortunately, although the beliefs and values that have been dominant in our society have been leading us to the precipice, contrary beliefs-values have not been entirely suppressed—and our “salvation” (if there can be such) lies in this fact. A century ago Thorstein Veblen argued that although a “pecuniary” mentality was dominant in our society (with its associated de jure mode of thinking), an “industrial” mentality (with its de facto, causation-oriented mode of thinking) was also (still) present. For Veblen, the latter was rooted in “human nature,” whereas the former was not. And Veblen adopted an ecological perspective, at least in the sense that he saw the latter as the productive members of society, whereas the former were predators and parasites who lived off the society’s productive members—being the dominant element in the society, and thereby the most highly rewarded!

Philip Slater (Earthwalk, 1974) has also perceived a dualistic society, with an even stronger ecological perspective. For Slater, it is “disconnector” concepts—such as ambition, honor, courage, self-reliance, and spirituality—that are the dominant ones that guide behavior; concepts which, when acted upon, result in “disconnecting” us from Earth. Slater contrasts these “disconnector” concepts with “connector” ones such as cowardice, inconsistency, dependence, sensuality, and corruptibility—which, when acted upon (he claims), connect us to Earth.

I like the distinction that Slater makes (Veblen’s is too much Economy-oriented), but would identify a different set of “connector” concepts: being passive, phlegmatic, un-ambitious—and ordinary, among other virtues. People having such characteristics might be characterized as lazy good-for-nothings in terms of the dominant value system; but perhaps it is that system that is deficient! If it is “progress” that we want, the dominant value system will do. But if it is survival that is our goal, it would seem that we should not value being hard-working, driven, creative, etc. For people with such characteristics are the ones responsible for us being in our current (rather dire) situation; and given this, it would be foolish for us to think that they can lead us away from the brink.

There is a stigma attached to being ordinary in our society. And those who are ordinary often have difficulty accepting themselves because of this fact: if others perceive one as being inferior, it is difficult for one to acquire and maintain a good self-image. Ostensibly, ordinary people are—virtually by definition—lacking in intelligence. But consider this possibility: IQ tests are geared to the nature of modern society, and will tend to yield the highest scores for those who are “tuned in” to modern society. If one is not so “tuned in”—which, I suspect, is the case with many “ordinary” people—one is unlikely to score well on such tests. What may characterize many “ordinary” people, rather, is that they are “programmed” for a way of life in accord with human “design specifications”—i.e., a way of life rather different from the one that prevails. They may be the sort of people with more of an innate urge for passing time than spending it (to use a distinction borrowed from an article (“The Gospel of Consumption”) by Jeffrey Kaplan on the Orion Magazine web site). Such people may not be admired in our society—but should be, given that they bear little, if any, responsibility for our being in our current dire situation.

It is not surprising that ordinary people have little influence in our society, and also not surprising that they tend to have modest means. However, these are unfortunate facts because what they suggest is that our situation is hopeless: Those in the best position to “save” us lack both the motivation and means so to do—so that insofar as disaster occurs, they will suffer along with everyone else. Indeed, they may be the first to suffer! Where’s the justice?!

Al Thompson works (data management) for an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: A.Thompson@Astronautics.com. Read other articles by Alton.