Ted Cleaver

Tag: Capitalism

Greed and Spirituality

I detest the spiritual bitterness that comes with greed. I also detest fascists.

Man Eating Trees, AgfaPhoto GmbHGreed, as per definition, is not a matter of wanting nice things. We all want nice things, rightfully so, because they are nice. Greed however is wanting not because you want a thing, but because you want. Infinitely. The need to always have more, with a total disregard of what you have and how that is part of your self.

Spirituality is the journey into your self. Name it what you will, but with recent trends it is safe to say spirituality is about nourishing happiness within yourself. One might argue that happiness depends on recognizing that we are all connected, having realistic expectations, being optimistic and enjoying a sense of being useful in your community.

Now, how do these two intersect? They don’t. That’s the problem. Spiritual fulfillment, meaning the pursuit of internal happiness, does not require greed. It detests it.

I am not saying less is more all the time. Less may be more when we consider how much stuff we want in our living rooms, or how many words we use to say: “I love you, unconditionally.” These fundamentals are surprisingly simple. Equally simple is the fact that we all want to get ahead. In life, in our careers, our relationships, contributions to society, our social standing, and of course our bank accounts.

But here is the problem. Greed. Our bank accounts are a means to an end. As long as they are, we are good. If they become an end in themself, we become this: An entity that functions in order to accumulate more. Always. More. It is never enough. This is bad because reasons. The entity might become so obsessed with the more-aspect of things, that it forgets to enjoy things for what they have to offer.

I detest greed because it results in complete abdication of recognizing, that, at the end of the day:

  • We are all brothers and sisters,
  • Understanding that it won’t ever be possible to always have more than anyone else,
  • There is no optimism in a worldview that dictates ruthless competition,
  • The utility of greed is contingent upon a society where greed is kept in check (Adam Smith).

I detest greed because always wanting more makes you forget what you have. It is debilitating, deletes harmony and rejects appreciation of nature. Greed is spiritual bitterness. Spirituality is the antidote.

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Drugs

Reality is socially constructed. What we consider to be a drug depends entirely on the context. In Germany, a drug is a substance with addictive and malignant properties; in English, a drug may very well be a remedy for a condition. Next to differences across languages, the social setting determines the meaning. Discuss possible treatments for androgenic ailments with your physician and the word “drug” means one thing, talk about an extreme night out with a bunch of hippies and the signifier signifies something else, by a mile. As a fan of constructivism, I offer some interesting facts – modus operandi: smug.

More than smug actually, since I will demonstrate to you how our understanding of drugs is completely irrational. Completely. The simple question, what is a drug and what is not, is not that simple. To begin the discussion, a professional distinction is made between pharmaceutical and recreational drugs. The lines are however consistently blurred. Medicinal marihuana and novocaine are examples of drugs that are perceived to function in one domain, but are regularly used in the other. There is considerable merit in the distinction, nonetheless it is flawed and unsatisfactory. From a theoretical perspective it may be summed up as the difference between substances that alleviate a problematic condition and substances that are used to alter a given state for fun/addiction, not out of necessity.

In real life this distinction does not hold. The above-mentioned examples are obvious ones. It becomes more problematic, and nasty, when you examine pharmaceuticals that have addictive properties and/or significantly alter brain chemistry. Sedatives come to mind, use of prescription sleeping pills by far exceeds the scope of professional supervision. The addictive potential of benzodiazepine is a call for serious concern the second it does not target a problem, but becomes part of a problematic pattern. This process is just one that blurs the distinction between pharmaceutical and recreational. Perhaps even more alarming is the trial and error approach of psychiatry in general, or even more so the aggregate power of the pharmaceuticals industry, representative of capitalism and not Hippocrates’ oath. What we sell as medicine and what we designate as substance abuse hardly offers clarity.

Another approach may be judging the severity of a given effect. When effect is the measure, our perception is largely based on societal norms. These are informed by governmental policy. Drug classification has strong roots in the 60ies. The rules that were established then influence the way we perceive drugs to a great extent. In pharmaceutical and in recreational drug use there are substances that should obviously be subject to more control than others. Then, the question should arise how to measure effect. In an independent study, aired on the BBC, several British scientists developed a method to evaluate the effects of drugs. They defined three criteria. The first is the actual effect on your system, the second is addictive property, and the third criterion is societal cost. This system generated provocative results, to put it mildly. Alcohol and tobacco scored higher in their ranking than six traditional hard drugs.

Reality is socially constructed. We are socialized into viewing your daily cup of coffee as the norm, binge drinking as a side effect of youth, and smoking is now counter culture. The reality is bleak. Coffee is the drug of choice for swaths of men and women desperate to boost their productivity. It is a highly addictive nerve toxin that actually triggers drowsiness when the required dosage is not administered. Next to that, there is a range of other negative, as well as positive, effects. Moving on to alcohol, drinking is a hugely underestimated cause for concern. Binge drinking causes serious (long-term) brain damage. The obtainability of ethanol-induced highs is a matter of economics. Alcohol is a drug, and the readiness with which we consume it is a direct reflection of the efforts alcohol selling companies make to market their poison. I do drink, however the fact that alcohol would be rated as a hard drug if invented today has woken me up. Finally, there is tobacco. Smoking is responsible for 400,000 deaths annually in the US (more than all deaths combined from hard drug abuse) and roughly 50% of hospitalizations in the UK. The societal cost of smoking is, and remains, detrimental.

The way we see drugs does not reflect the reality of the drugs, far from it. Looking into the subject, it is shocking to see that scientists rate common drugs as nicotine and ethanol as more harmful than several hard drugs. Whether pharmaceutical or recreational, the test for how to rate a drug should be in terms of their effect. Do this objectively, and the socially constructed status quo of what is okay and what is not will be shaken to its core.

Made a Difference

The day turned out to be quite the surprise. One of the two speakers nailed it. First of all, he says, consumers are clueless and relying on them for change towards sustainability is hopeless. He’s the President of CSR for a major retailer. The quote that stuck: Consumers are “social rebels in surveys and economic conservatives in the market.” So true. Or do you, does anyone, make a conscious decision based on criteria such as carbon footprint or social responsibility when buying FMCG’s? Hardly. I have a serious disdain for statements like “we’re too busy with Facebook, YouTube, and IPhones.” That doesn’t cover the complexity of the issue. It’s rather that the issue is exactly that, too complex. Who in the world would keep track of which raw materials go into the thousands of products they buy?

Well, said retailer offered a workshop in the morning, the first I attended. Now I know that all own-brand products have a certificate relating to product integrity. A-brands? Can’t do business without ‘em, even if some are well known for unethical behaviour. 75% of consumers state cost as the major selling point. The companies mission is, naturally, profit maximisation. A key takeaway however is that the ethical crusaders sense less resilience from their colleagues towards change now, after a decade of spearheading a sustainable vision. The workshop ends with a business case and presentations. My team is awesome. We have a supply chain student, one marketing, one IBA, one law, and me, sociology. I present our idea. The three other teams never had a chance. We win a nice book, one that I intend to discuss with Tony Montana at some point – basically any interesting topic is worthy of discussion with him.

Lunch was sweet. One thing I like about conferences, theme days, events, seminars, and the like is that you always meet interesting people. A couple of good conversations later the second workshop starts. Construction. Not really, I was brief yesterday; it’s project management of construction projects. A field I am wildly enthusiastic about. The construction industry and our building stock are the second biggest contributor in the world to CO2 emissions. Progress in this sector is major. And this company does fantastic work. They also presented us with a challenging business case. Come up with a concept and function for a designated vacant building, make a financial plan and assess risks and opportunities, keeping in mind 8 trends in the industry. Teams of five or six, 40 minutes, some data, and the possibility to call someone for extra technical specifications. Again, my team was cool. I started the pitch and ended it, with three other team members making major contributions to our presentation. The two other teams did pretty well, but lost in the end. As winners my team and I were invited to the boardroom – of this company I actually admire for quite some time – for champagne and lunch. Life is good.

Make a Difference

Tomorrow is Make a Difference Day. It’s about making a difference, get it? With business. Two speakers with impressive titles, created by progressive companies, will start off the day. Then, 6 companies forced some of their young talent to provide workshops for us. We are students. I imagine most students present have a strong set of morals and an intrinsic drive to do good. As do I, and who knows, maybe the day will be more interesting than reproduction of politically correct idealism.

“The business of business is business,” a man whose ability to bridge theory and reality was fried by mathematical abstractions once said. Neo-liberal derivatives of Smith’s paradigmatic ideas created a maelstrom: the academic justification of uninhibited greed. Pursuing economic gain in a strictly rational fashion became a deeply rooted assumption across the board. Everything was subjected to economist’s reductionist market functions. Think about it. It took a Nobel Prize for the world to realize that cost/benefit analyses will not always result in the rational maximum. Who knows how long it will take until the realization seeps in that supply and demand functions will not produce stable equilibriums by the slight of an invisible hand.

Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow will be about doing the right things right for the right reasons. Tomorrow will be all about ideals. It’s an interesting proposition. Is it possible that the influx of a generation who have heroes like Yunus and Obama can fundamentally change a system that runs on profit alone? Will sustainability become more than a marketing tool when most of the decision-makers in a company are of a generation that grew up with impressive and memorable documentaries on our planet? It is entirely possible. Reality is constructed socially. The individual is a minor actor, but change the moral fabric of a generation and anything is possible. History has proven that anything can happen, for better or for worse.

For worse, most recently. Capital is without a doubt the most important production factor in our economy. What, 8 (or 7?) of the biggest companies are banks. And then, the financial crisis, largely attributable to the ability of it’s main actors to uncouple their system from their environment, hits. 2008 delivered evidence beyond reasonable doubt that the most powerful industry in the world functions according to principles that champion only one of the three P’s, and that this industry is relentless and harmful.

There is this seeming dichotomy. There is capitalist structure, there is the dark side of power, there is the incredible skill of the elite to bend governmental law to their will. Then there is hope, the potential for change, and perhaps most significantly, manoeuvring space for innovation that does take People and Planet into account. My mission for tomorrow is to press the representatives of two of this countries’ biggest companies (one retailer, one construction) for answers. I want to know which actors and institutions inhibit a more green, or blue-sea, or sustainable, or take-your-pick trajectory. And I want to know which actors facilitate positive development. How much can you achieve as an employee? How much can you rely on governmental support, societal pressure, and NGOs?

To be continued.