Mistaking The Non-Essential For The Essential

The illusion of the economy

A Buddha statue in Bangkok (Via)

I keep thinking of a verse from the Dhammapada, “Viewing the non-essential as the essential and the essential as the non-essential they—nourished on false thinking—do not arrive at the essential.” I think about this because it seems to describe the world around me. As the Dhammapada continues, “Who is always gathering (life's) blossoms and whose mind is entangled, death snatches that man away, as a great flood sweeps away a sleeping village.” This verse might as well say AND a great flood sweeps away a sleeping village, which is what's happening these days.

What is this age but the entanglement of more and more minds in more and more sophisticated illusions? What is this age but more and more? And more and more what? Every credit we give ourselves is a debit against the planet. We shit where we eat and call it manna. Mistaking the non-essential for the essential we arrive at ruin, a sleeping global village swept away in a great global flood.

The Illusory Economy

The broad thought in Buddhism is that this world is illusion. The broad thought in modernity, however, is about creating better and better illusions. Artificial objects, artificial reality, artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, the natural world burns. These are not unconnected phenomena. They are, in fact, cause and effect, dependent arising. What we value literally consumes what's actually valuable.

The modern value is market value. Even in Marxist terms, it's use value. But these are all ephemeral phenomena. Any price exists only at the moment of transaction. Any use is eventually used up. These attributes we call value are actually the consumption of value, and its conversion into garbage or waste heat. It's like a man who burns his house and crows about how warm he is. He's measuring the wrong thing over the wrong time frame. It's a brief moment of heat and then you're out in the cold forever.

In vulgar business-speak, H. Thomas Johnson said, “Perhaps what you measure is what you get. More likely, what you measure is all you’ll get. What you don’t (or can’t) measure is lost.” Even within business there is a sense of measuring what you value, but what do we value? What have businessmen been so 'busy' doing? They have been obsessed over quarterly numbers, and never thought about the whole. And so, piece by piece, we lose it all.

Viewing the non-essential as the essential is in fact the foundation of modern economies (and the destruction of ancient ecosystems). As the original Robert F. Kennedy said,

Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

GDP (née GNP) is the most essential of measures in modern civilization, and it measures the most unessential things. It's literally just a quarterly measure of how much we're hanging, drawing, and quartering the planet and leaving entropic entrails strewn everywhere. As I've said, GDP is a literal garbage measurement. Everything we 'produce' is ultimately just 'gross' garbage and 'domestic' abuse against every creature we share a home with. What Marx called 'use-values' are all temporary, most products end up in the garbage within a year and basically all within a century. Unlike feces—which is food to somebody—Gross Domestic Products are generally indigestible for aeons. The carrying ecosystem has not and cannot evolve fast enough to process all our affluent effluence. It's actually just garbage. We take resources and energy out of the circle of life and then flood the circle with actual shit. Of course the living world is dying. What we measure most proudly is how fast we're 'killing it'.

We are quite literally 'nourished on false thinking', to return to the original verse. Something like 10 calories of energy go into every calorie of food we eat. We literally eat natural gas in the form of fertilizer and drink oil via the truck that brings food to us, not to mention the land tilled over and over again without being left fallow as commanded. We have made stones bread and worshiped money and every scripture warns about this. As the Bible my wife follows says, “And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”

What do the words out the mouths of every god say? Every faith says that this world is illusion, that this life is wicked, and that something else is much more important. They might disagree on what that 'something else' is, but this sure as hell ain't it. Mistaking the non-essential for the essential is the path of Shaytan and we're on it. Awfully hot, isn't it?

Jesus also said, For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Now, what has the modern response to this been? Today we sell diamond encrusted crucifixes and torture the Bible to give up all of its economic commandments. As Michael Hudson says in his economic text “And Forgive Them Their Debts.”

The economic laws of Moses and the Prophets, which Jesus announced his intention to revive and fulfill, are brushed aside as anachronistic artifacts, not the moral center of the Old and New Testaments, the Jewish and Christian bibles. The Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25) is the “good news” that Jesus – in his first reported sermon (Luke 4) – announced that he had come to proclaim.

The first thing Jesus talked about is the last thing we talk about today. Even the Lord's Prayer is censored to say the anodyne 'and forgive them their trespasses' instead of the frankly anarchic 'and forgive them their debts'. As Hudson continued:

Luke 4: 16–30 describes Jesus’ first public act upon returning to his native town of Nazareth. Visiting its synagogue, he is handed the scroll of Isaiah, and unrolls it to the passage in (Third) Isaiah 61, where the prophet (as noted above in Chapter 24) announces that the Lord has sent him “to preach good news (gospel) to the poor” and “to proclaim freedom (deror) for the prisoners and … to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” that is, the Jubilee Year. Jesus informed the congregation that he had come to fulfill that destiny. Treating debt bondage literally, not as merely a metaphor for spiritual bondage, Jesus the Redeemer set about preaching literal redemption from debt.

Forget the lessons from scripture, because we have truly forgotten them, if we ever understood them. Even in our reading of scripture we mistake the non-essential for the essential. That is how deeply we have been misled. You can get the same information from science if you want, it's just another thing to ignore. Science is the most violent and crude sort of learning, like pinning a butterfly to a wall to understand it, like understanding that things are bad only after you do them. Scientific knowledge is really a confession of wrongdoing more than a warning, but here we are. As the physicist Tom Murphy writes,

In the course of pursuing material affluence, we have eliminated 85% of primeval forest, made new deserts, created numerous oceanic dead zones, drained swamps, lost whole ecosystems, almost squashed the remaining wild land mammals, and initiated a sixth mass extinction with extinction rates perhaps thousands of times higher than their background levels—all without the help of CO2 and climate change (which indeed adds to the list of ills). These trends are still accelerating. Yay for humans, who can now (temporarily) live in greater comfort and numbers than at any time in history!

What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul? A lot, apparently, we've attained the greatest material affluence in history. But it's all just an apparition, leaving nothing but toxic effluence as a trace. This wealth appears on our books for a year or so but then it's gone, like a fart in the wind. The climatic, karmic debt is for millennia, and it's ruinous. The golden bull market we worship is really just a classic deal with the Devil. He piques your interest, then gets you on the interest rate. In this case, infinite growth on a finite planet, which devastates.

I return to the Dhammapada because I am Buddhist, but you can find this information anywhere. Find any prophet who was told, any sage who sought it out, or just look behind your eyelids long enough. Some things are essential and some things are non-essential, and the devil is in the details. This age has focused on the details—and what details!—but these are ultimately unimportant compared to the existence of the myriad creatures and the warnings of the gods. Worse than non-essential, the details we focus on are toxic. Everything we produce and so jealously count ends up in the dump, and us shortly after. By focusing on the non-essential, we lose the essential and—that being essential—we thus lose it all.