Posted by: terrapraeta | January 7, 2008

Nesting Dolls

Natives wearing turquoise and silver
Dirty dogs barking in the distance
Ooooh people of a thousand tongues
I’m learning the primitive rights
I’m doing as the Roman’s do Mt Kalais to Mt Everest
Then down to river Ganges
Ooooh to follow your mighty past
We’re learning the primitive rights
We’re doing as the Roman’s do

INXS, Old World, New World

One of my all time favorite fantasy-fiction writers is Steven Brust. He’s a little bit fantasy, a little bit comedy and whole lot of storyteller. What more could I ask?

One of the series he has written is the story of Vlad Taltos. Vlad is a professional assassin and problem solver in the mythical realm of Drageara. Being a human assassin in the empire provides endless opportunities for storytelling hilarity and he has now written some ten installments on the story plus a second related series.

The reason I bring this up, is that book seven of Taltos: Orca, includes a back story that is quite relevant to my topic today. In it, Vlad decided to help out a woman who is about to lose her home. She has a little cottage outside of town, that she ‘rents’ from a ‘corporation’ owned/run by a prominent local figure that recently died. She has been told to get out and has been unable to find out why, or talk to anyone, or find any recourse that will allow her to keep her home.

Vlad investigates. As the story unfolds, it becomes quite clear that Fyres owns, or partially owns, everything in town. He’s in to everyone and everyone is into him. And as it turns out, he died flat broke. Which, of course, means that everyone in town is likewise, flat broke, whether they know it or not. His entire financial empire is a house of cards. Nice, huh? (As I said, this is back story, so I have really not given away anything important to the real story. So go get the books!)

Switching gears, I had the opportunity a few years ago to see a presentation by Dr Alan Thornhill, an evolutionary biologist and friend and associate of Daniel Quinn, in which he talked about the structure of our culture as it relates to the world around us. He discussed our population and ecological problems and pointed out that one of our real, fundamental problems is the way that we perceive our relationship to the world around us.

He described this relationship in terms of nested sets. In the real world, culture is nested within ecology and economics is nested within culture: in other words, cultural development is dependent upon the ecological realities of our world, and economics are dependent upon both our cultural constructs and the ecological reality ‘beneath’ them. However, in our modern culture, we invert this relationship. We determine how we are going to live and behave based upon economic concerns. Then once we know what is or is not economically viable, we then look at cultural considerations and eventually, perhaps, we consider the ecological impact of those decisions. It does a lot to explain how we have managed to so seriously discount ecological concerns that we are in danger of destroying our own life support system.

I have found that analysis to be quite useful and insightful in my own studies, and it occurred to me the other day that this is not the only inverted pyramid scheme we embrace. In fact, sitting atop that precarious structure is another equally precarious set of assumptions.

Looking at politics and economics in America (and I am sure in much of the first world), we find that there is also an assumption that our system depends upon the elites to function properly. This is overtly true on the ‘right’ side of politics, but in fact, the liberal perspective (I believe) tends to believe this as well, even as they recognize that the poor and working classes need to be ‘protected’ from a purely ethical standpoint.

I think that, in reality, society is built upon the shoulders of the poor, that without them, the whole system would come tumbling down. After all, the productive capacity of the people provide the energy that is siphoned off by the rich to be rich in the first place. It is only through the acceptance of this by the poor that the system is able to continue. However, because each individual person at the bottom of the pyramid is fundamentally ‘expendable’ to the system, it is assumed that the entire class of people is equally expendable.

Ponzi schemes have been long discredited as viable, financial systems. But I submit that the entire world economy is fundamentally a ponzi scheme, but this is hidden by the total memetic inversion of the nested sets.

So what happens when we invert a system like this? The first effect, as we can see in both the ecological and financial systems we are talking about, is that the health, viability and resiliency of the fundamental set is marginalized. We will protect our environment: only so long as it is culturally and financially beneficial to do so. We will protect and support our poor only so long as it is in the best interests of the elite. So long as we are rich and getting richer, there is always some value in ‘paying off’ the poor, the working class, the environmental activists, and the campaigners for basic human rights and ethical behavior.

In the US, we are seeing an increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots. (And this is only acknowledged in the US – the divide between the wealthiest among us and the poorest worldwide is even more dramatic: so much so that the poor in the US are positively wealthy by comparison.) This is occurring as the stresses on our civilization increase, driving the elites to greater protectionism of both our economy as a whole and their positions at the top of the pyramid. The Bush Administration obviously plays a big role in this, but I wonder if there is really any way to avoid it. After all, when you start looking at systemic interactions: fundamental structural necessities underlaying the system itself; it becomes clear that any effort invested in working against the entrenched system is diffused, while effort invested in supporting that same system are magnified.

So how do we break out of the loop? The answer is both simple and quite difficult. As individuals, we need to recognize how the world really works. Our culture and economy are absolutely dependent on the health and viability of our physical environment. And the wealthy that now want us to be dependent on them, are in fact, dependent on us. If we, (again, as individuals,) stop participating in the system that denies this reality, the system itself will cease to function. If we do not do so, then sometime, perhaps not too far in the future, the environment around us will cease to function and the choice will taken out of our hands.

(Originally Posted October 3, 2006) 



  1. “Stop participating in the system”, that’s similar to what Dave Pollard advocates, and sounds reasonable to me.

    The trillion-trees-and-holy-happiness question is, obviously: how?

  2. Keep reading, Nicola… there are a lot of steps along the way to get to that answer. Mind, I do not have “the answer” — there is no “the answer” — but there is a method to the ten thousand ways 😀


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