On Taking Things for Granted

When one wakes up in the morning, one takes for granted that the sun will take its usual (apparent) course across the sky.  One assumes that the earth will continue to rotate, at a constant speed, on its axis; that the earth will revolve around the sun along a plane, making a complete revolution in about 365 days.  And that as the earth revolves around the sun, it will not only maintain a 23 ½ degree inclination relative to the plane of revolution, but that the earth’s axis will maintain parallelism with itself as it revolves around the sun.

One assumes (if but unknowingly) all of this because this is “the way it’s always been” so, therefore, that’s the way it always will be.  That assumption is, of course, not quite true, but from the standpoint of a human life it’s a reasonable assumption to make.

The reason why the above regularity exists is that physical laws are involved—laws over which we humans have no control.  And even if we have objections to how those laws operate, our objections are pointless, for the simple reason that those physical laws are beyond our control.

Much of what we take for granted on earth is a result of human decision-making rather than—or in conjunction with—physical laws, and those “things” can be objected to.  That fact implies that there is a point in objecting to the “thing” in question because it is subject to change via human action.  Beyond that fact, the fact that one objects to something not only implies that it can be changed but, one believes, should be changed.  That is, when one raises an objection to something that resulted from human decision-making, one is making a value judgment.  The basis for that value judgment will be the system of values that one accepts—either tacitly or explicitly.  And it is a truism that such systems have changed over time, and that at a given point in time have varied from place to place.

Although few in our society are aware of the fact, an important “thing” that members of our society take for granted is the Existing Order—with its array of institutions, dominant (and subordinate) value system, technology, physical entities (e.g., structures), etc.  That is, there is much about our societal system of which our society’s inmates take—in effect, if not actually—as a “given.”

One important reflection of that fact is that when members of the society perceive problems other than strictly personal ones, they tend, virtually automatically, to (a) reach the conclusion that the problem in question must be solved via the political process (e.g., enacting a new law or laws), and then (b) act on that decision by, e.g., contacting their “representative(s).”

Such a reaction seems to make eminent sense.  What such a reaction ignores (likely out of ignorance!), however, is the long history, in the West, of:

  • Concluding, or at least sensing, that the Existing Order was problematic; but that
  • A Better Order was not only conceivable, but possible of realization.

A very early example of this is given in Micah 4:4:

Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.

Implicit in this brief passage is that:

  • Formerly, with the group in question, members of the group were able to sit under “their own vine” and “own fig tree.”
  • They liked being able to sit under their own vine and fig tree.
  • At present, however, they are not able to do so.
  • But there is reason to hope that in the future they will be able to do so once again.

Also implicit here is the “fact” that the previous period when members of the group had their own vines and fig trees was recent enough that some of those alive not only (a) remembered how that period was but (b) recognized that it was a “good” period.

This is what enabled them to critique the present, while also holding out hope for the future.

That fact may help explain why today one finds so little critique of the Existing Order:  The period of past “good” is so distant in the past that no one living person has any memory of it.  Granted that we can read about past periods of goodness, such as this one by anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull (the book from which it was extracted—The Human Cycle (1983)—having, however, been—to be fair here—criticized by Edmund Leach) (pp. 21 – 22):

There are many who say that for the primitive, life was and is, in Hobbesian terms, nasty, brutish, and short.  On the whole, anthropologists have found otherwise, and over the years have accumulated an enormous mass of data to support their view.  This evidence is based on years of living within such societies, suffering the same deprivations, including sickness and, sometimes, premature death.  If we measure a culture’s worth by the longevity of its population, the sophistication of its technology, the material comforts it offers, then many primitive cultures have little to offer us, that is true.  But . . . in terms of a conscious dedication to human relationships that are both affective and effective, the primitive is ahead of us all the way.  He is working at it at every stage of his life, from infancy to death, while playing just as much as while praying; whether at work or at home his life is governed by his conscious quest for social order.  Each individual learns this social consciousness as he grows up, and the lesson is constantly reinforced until the day he dies, and because of that social consciousness each individual is a person of worth and value and importance to society, also from the day of birth to the day of death.

(Note here Turnbull’s assumption that the “primitives” of old—i.e., prior to the Agricultural Revolution of 10,000 years ago) have their counterpart in modern such people.)

Although “good” societies may have been rare, or even non-existent, since “civilization” began (after the Agricultural Revolution), there have been numerous writing over the centuries that have posited a possible “good” society—the name “utopian” having been given to such writings (after Sir Thomas More’s [1478 – 1535] Utopia)—a body of literature described in detail in Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel’s Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979).  However, because few people—even educated ones—have read, or are even aware of, much of that literature, it is understandable why so few people in our society today question the Existing Order.

Here in Milwaukee “sewer socialists” dominated politics in the first half of the last century, the last one to hold office being Frank Zeidler [1912 – 2006].  At some time after 1976 (when I moved to the Milwaukee area from Ohio) I went to his office, and conversed with him for some time.  By that time I had become a “communitarian,” philosophically, and argued for that philosophy as against the sort of socialism espoused by Zeidler:

Milwaukee Socialists sought to reform the legacy of the Industrial Revolution on the local level by cleaning up neighborhoods and factories with new sanitation systems, municipally-owned water and power systems, community parks, and improved education systems. Progressivism and Socialism had different leaders and spoke different languages, but were, in many ways, remarkably similar in practice.

I don’t recall the details of our conversation, but doubt that I was able to win him to my way of thinking!

What had brought me to my way of thinking was not only my reading in the utopian literature, but my growing awareness of the threat posed by global warming—a threat that I came to believe would be best countered by conversion of our society into one of small eco-communities (for which I provided a strategy in my 1984 “Ecotopia:  A ‘Gerendipitous’ Scenario”).

If Milwaukee’s socialists did not question the basics of the Existing Order, this may be because global warming was not yet on the “radar” of many at that time, so there was no need for societal system change.  There was, however, a need for such change 1984 and before, because of the long—roughly, a 40-year one!—time lag between cause and effect with global warming.  That is, the (unusual!) weather that we have been experiencing in 2014 had its origins in (approximately) 1974!

Had this fact been realized in 1974, and that fact been made widely known, it’s conceivable that actions would have been taken—here and in other countries—that would have prevented our extinction.  As it is, however, it is not at all surprising that Guy R. McPherson states in the Introduction of his Going Dark (2013):

Shortly after the arrival of the 21st century I realized we were putting the finishing touches on our own extinction party, with the shindig probably over within a few decades.  (He states elsewhere that he expects our species to be extinct by 2030!)

The “actions” referred to above would need to have been of the societal system change variety, for only such change—of the right sort, of course—would have (possibly) prevented our extinction.

However, even if scientists, in 1974, had known about this time-lag matter, it’s doubtful if that fact (a) would have been publicized widely or, (b) if publicized widely, acted upon.  Why not?  Our society is controlled by individuals in the economic sector—the energy portion of it in particular—and the thought patterns of those individuals are unusual:  For such people the future does not exist, only next quarter’s bottom line!  How individuals with children and grandchildren can think this way is difficult to understand.

But this is how they think, and in consequence our species is doomed!  Taking things for granted has its place; but taking for granted that the Existing Order can and must continue on into the future—with a little “tweaking” now and then—is one thing that we should not have been taking for granted!

Al Thompson retired almost six years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: sven3475@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.