What REALLY matters? ... Part 1

Sent: September 12, 2004 3:30 PM

I have gone most of a year now without writing much. That is not really true - my sweetie took off for Spain last Spring and I wrote a lot of email while she was gone, but aside from that I have not written much except for responses to people who think they want to buy stuff from me until quite recently.
But there are some things I have been SAYING a lot, even if I have not been writing them, and I feel like it is time to write them down.

So here is the first one:

What is it that makes something worth doing?

When I was really young - just 20 years old - hanging out in New York City trying to turn into a rock star, one of my friends rappelled off the end of his rope, spiritually, and decided he was Jesus. He was so damned powerful - so empowered by the idea of it - that none of us could talk him down. I decided that we had a case of demon possession on our hands and went to find an elder to do an exorcism and eventually found Tim Leary and asked if he would make a house-call and coax the demon out. Dr. Leary refused to make the house-call, and in the end, Bob walked down McDougal street on Christmas Eve giving away money. Our money. All of our money. And because he was walking around totally naked and bleeding lightly from a cut across his abdomen (acquired in a fall when we tried to restrain him and keep him from leaving the apartment) with blood on his hands explaining that he was in fact Jesus, the cops kindly escorted him to Bellevue Hospital. Or at least I hope they were kind to him.

But earlier that night Richard Alpert gave me an unforgettable assignment: "... do nothing that increases the sum total of misery in the world", he told me. That is without doubt the hardest task I have ever been handed. I fail the assignment every single day. If I look around the world with a sharp enough lens, I cannot help but notice that everytime I turn on the lights, or get in the car, I kill, and that the way of life I was born into depletes the richness of the environment for both the people around me and the people who will follow me. And I cannot escape doing so.

I went to church today. A friend from High-school called and said he was flying out from Grand Rapids, Michigan to hear the new minister of the UU church down the street from where I live give his first sermon in our community. I figured that if he was going to come that far, I could put on a jacket and wander down the street. First time, except for a couple of weddings and a couple of funerals in the past 40 years. The sermon was about What is the most persistent "human" need? I found myself constantly battling with the minister's rhetoric. He was mired in the "human" part of the experience - the needs we feel for self and external approval. The need to feel that we are part of a community, that we have purpose. But if you let go of the psychological trappings of arrogance about "self awareness" that we presume separates us from all the other organisms with central nervous systems, hearts and brains, then I suspect it's a lot simpler and a lot deeper: we need air that is safe to breathe and water that is safe to drink. After that comes food. Then a warm, dry place to sleep. Everything else is sort of a luxury.

I accept that the role of the minister is to create that sort of internal dialogue in the congregation and that the positions he presented this morning are quite likely NOT his deepest thoughts on these matters - just the ones most likely to stir up the embers of fire in the bellies of the spirits buried in his audience. And that this is a useful service. But that internal dialogue, and the desire to engage in debate on these issues, actually led me to unfold my own emerging set of criteria for what is actually worth doing.

Last Spring I was digging around the web looking at the projects that George Soros was funding. Ever since the WTO Riots in Seattle in 1999 I have been thinking about him and what he said about the WTO - that the WTO might be the ONLY chance we will have in our lifetimes to create an organization strong enough to counteract and control the rogue states and the multinationals who own them, and that if it was to serve as an antidote, then what was needed was a stronger, not a weaker WTO.

And pretty soon I found Thinkcycle and from that this, a program at MIT called Design that Matters, and not surprisingly, I hated either the underlying premise or the obvious-to-me-but-not-to-the-designers unintended consequences of or many if not all of the projects I saw there. Except one.

There was this project I found pictured, but not described or referenced on their site. So I found it almost by accident, not clearly associated with DTM in any way, and it set the gold standard for me for projects worth doing.

That is to say, it gave me a tool to measure possible projects against. Not something that I necessarily need to do - because someone else is already already doing it - but there have to be an infinity of other projects this worthwhile, they just need to be this good.

Their project is a locally-constructable almost-zero-cost ceramic point-of-use water filter that allows people to get access to one of those basic, persistent human needs: safe drinking water. Marketing this technology is the work of an organization called Potters for Peace and it appears to have been brewing for literally decades without gathering great momentum, in part because it is so difficult to subvert it into a corporate marketing model. The way they describe the process is quite a bit different than the way I describe it, in part because I am far more interested in the underlying idea than in either the technology or the organization they have developed around it.

Here is my take on it.

I take the position that civilization is a major component of the human condition. A value-neutral approach - civilization is just something that exists - both as a cause and a by-product of concentrated human activity that has allowed the density of humans to increase and increase, to the point where their toxic by-products are threatening themselves and other species with extinction. And it is so entrenched in so many ways that it is not going to go away right away. Whether or not it can be reformed to make it work for the betterment of more of its participants is another matter. I would like what is left of my life to be part of that experiment.

When I look back through history for milestones or hallmarks - the definitive lines people cross when they enter the arena of civilization, I see two lines, two factors. Terrence McKenna might offer the gourd that carried water and floated fishing nets, Paul Stamets might offer carrying a fire-starting-ember of a prior fire around in the hollow of a mushroom, but although figuring out how to use these "found objects" as tools is clearly a critical step, those steps came far before civilization. I will paraphrase Jared Diamond and postulate that the "line was crossed" forever when people unwittingly elected to become enslaved by the planting and harvesting cycles of their cereal grains and domesticated by their domestic animals, creating surplus seeds that could be eaten long after the harvest, but needed to be protected for planting the next season.

The step that followed immediately, in direct response to the needs of our enslavers, was the development of vermin-proof storage to protect their seeds, as well as our food surplus. The human response - combining "earth" with "fire" to create "pottery" from "clay" - was the first chemical revolution. This was a huge step. The first step of its kind, and in many ways, it would appear that no single step since that time has been more significant for mankind, until the development of the ceramic water filter. Which combines the "earth" with the "fire" with the "seeds" to create a new kind of tool, an effective "antidote" to some of the unintended consequences of civilization - a water filter that can remove harmful organisms: coliforms, parasites, amoebae, and cholera from their water, at the point of use. And any organization of people, anywhere on earth where people collectively practice agriculture and animal husbandry NEED such a tool, because one of the side effects of their domestication is that they stop moving long enough to create dangerous concentrations of waste and begin to pollute their environment, and compromise their supply of safe drinking water. And yet, they already know how to make pots from clay and fire ...

So if they only knew how, that same group of people could grind some of their seeds into powder, mix the flour with their clay, and fire the pot into an effective water filter to remove their sewage from their drinking water.

I am convinced that there is additional technical refinement available - perhaps based on Fuller's work with Carbon60 - that a combination of a reducing kiln and some simple but as yet unimagined pyrolysis system could fire the organic materials in those pots into an effective activated-carbon matrix that could sequester a wide range of toxic chemicals as well as excluding the pathogenic organisms, but those are subtleties related to development of effective antidotes to some much-farther-downstream impacts of civilization.

The real point that makes this project a "gold standard", compared to most other projects, is that it is also an antidote to the concentration of knowledge in priesthoods and the creation of artificial scarcity: there is nothing to sell or commercialize here - because all one really needs to do is to show someone else how it works and they can show it to someone else and ...

©(mostly) Joe Breskin 2004
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