When scientists first measured how much of the energy of sunlight was being converted by plants into biomass, they were surprised to find that only something like 1% of incident energy was being used to produce new plant material. They were surprised at how "inefficient" life was. But such "inefficiency" supposes that plants are working to maximize their size and numbers, to reproduce as rapidly as possible. They were supposing that Nature, like a farmer, was trying to maximize the yield of its fields, and the size of its flocks. Is Nature a farmer? If it was, would there be any need for human farmers to cross-breed and select and cultivate in order to produce what the natural world has not produced in 500 million years of evolution? But if plants, as Idle Theory suggests, are trying to minimize effort, the conversion of a mere 1% of incoming solar energy into plant mass indicates a very high degree of "efficiency" of the kind that hundreds of millions of years of evolution might be expected to produce.
If there is any truth to Idle Theory, then laziness is a virtue, not a vice. A disinclination to work is not a disorder, but an indispensable survival trait that evolved with the earliest forms of life. If so, the modern attempt by governments, industrialists, economists, and the like, to keep people busy and "usefully employed" runs entirely contrary to the nature, not only of human beings, but of life itself. This may begin to explain the anomie of modern Western culture.
The story of the modern epoch, at least on the level of mind, is one of progressive disenchantment... Translated into everyday life, what does this disenchantment mean? It means that the modern landscape has become a scenario of "mass administration and blatant violence," a state of affairs now clearly perceived by the man in the street. The alienation and futility that characterized the perceptions of a handful of intellectuals at the beginning of the century have now come to characterize the consciousness of common man at its end. Jobs are stupefying, relationships vapid and transient, the arena of politics absurd. In the vacuum created by the collapse of traditional values, we have hysterical evangelical revivals, mass conversions to the Church of the Reverend Moon, and a general retreat into the oblivion provided by drugs, television, and tranquilizers. We also have a desperate search for therapy, by now a national obsession, as millions of Americans try to reconstruct their lives amidst a pervasive feeling of anomie and cultural disintegration. An age in which depression is a norm is a grim one indeed.
From the point of view of Idle Theory, modern human society is being organized to work against real human interests, and such cultural disintegration is inevitable. Instead of society being organized to minimize work, it has become organized to maximize work. The mismatch between what people are culturally required to do - to work -, and their natural inclination - to play -, results in deepening psychological conflict, breakdown, and disorder.
An intense sense of guilt characterizes modern life. People feel that they ought to be happy, and feel inadequate because they are not. Blaming themselves, they try to reform themselves through counselling, therapies, guidance. And when that fails, they seek oblivion in drugs and TV. The therapies all fail because there is actually nothing wrong with them, and everything wrong with the society in which they find themselves. It is simply not possible for people to live happy lives in a society which is organized as a labour camp. It is no more possible for anyone to live a happy or fulfilled life in modern Western society than it was for the inmates of such camps.
As Idle Theory sees it, the problem began at the outset of the modern epoch when Western society abandoned the goal of Christian salvation of 'fallen' humanity - the liberation of humanity from work -, and began to regard human life as already liberated, as a kind of game, and the economy as an arena in which human free agents chose to work manufacturing and trading luxuries and amusements which enhanced their 'standard of living'. The inevitable result was that, with the goal of liberation from work discarded, human life in Western society became one of increasing rather than decreasing toil. It became ever more stressed, rushed, hurried, and urgent. Technological innovation simply acted to shift obligatory work from the production of necessities to production of luxuries. And the resultant vast absurd productive effort now loots the world's resources and poisons its seas and its atmosphere.
Underpinning all this is not science, but an irrational post-Christian ideology, which is itself arguably a Christian heresy. Almost all modern economic and political and ethical thinking is built upon this ideology. And it is precisely because this ideology has no basis in science, that science holds out the principal hope for its overthrow. For it requires an explanation of the world which is at least as coherent and general to replace such an ideology.
For science and the ideological humanities - ethics, politics, and economics - have always been rigidly separated. The cultural ideologues began to set out their stall in the late 17th century, with Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith. The scientists - Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and their successors - pursued entirely separate enquiries. Their science had nothing at all to say about life, human society, ethics, or economics. It has only been in the past century or so that science has even begun to take a grip upon the nature of life.
Seen from Idle Theory, what is most needed by modern Western society are realistic economic theories, which distinguish wants from needs, and whose primary goal is the minimizing of human toil, rather than, as at present, the maximizing of production. With effective economic control, the present obligation for many people to produce luxuries in order to buy necessities would vanish. The overheated modern economy would effectively shut down, and the pollution of the planet, the depletion of resources, and sweated labour would end. It would mean the end of Big Business and the start of Big Idleness. With little work, and a great deal of disposable free time, people would be able to easily acquire the necessities of life. Many people would freely choose to use this disposable time to make and trade luxuries. They would determine their own "standard of living", either opting for a simple life with few possessions and a great deal of idle time, or a choosing to work for a materially richer existence, with less free time.
Human society evolves. Human technology, in the past few centuries, has broached abundant new energy sources - in coal, gas, oil, hydroelectricity, and nuclear power. Once machines could perform the work of men, slavery became unnecessary, and the medieval social organization of masters and slaves became redundant. Contemporary human society is in transition from a medieval serf culture to an automated culture in which most work is performed by intelligent machine tools, and in which humans themselves will be largely idle. Politically, this has meant the rise of democracies in which everyone had a say, and not just the erstwhile slaveowners. Economically, exponentially multiplying technologies have resulted in a increase in production and trade unprecedented in human history, and equally unprecedented economic puzzles and problems, ranging from unemployment to boom and bust, inflation and stagnation. Socially, it has meant that, since fewer human hands are needed to drive industry, previously high human reproduction rates are unnecessary, and the human families that produced the human workforce redundant. Those religions which asked their adherents to look forward to bliss in an afterlife are being replaced by new religions that reach for bliss right now. War, subjection, and enslavement - the traditional means of increasing wealth for a minority - have become counter-productive.
The scale of contemporary change in human society is so great, and disturbs so many aspects of traditional human life, that it has produced a conservative reaction which seeks to restore traditional life. Since the family has been the centre of human life for millennia, attempts are made to bolster the flagging institution. Since work, from childhood to old age, has been the norm of human life since remotest antiquity, attempts are made to invent new forms of employment. Contemporary conservatism attempts to maintain and restore traditional values, and traditional ways of life, in the face of social, political, and economic forces which destroy all traditions.
At the same time, much of contemporary thought is still medieval in character, assuming the values and circumstances of a previous era. A master-slave mentality still permeates political thought and political structures. Human technology has far outstripped human political and ethical and economic thought. This is a time when everything needs to be rethought, when imagination is at a premium, and when everyone can contribute.
The impending world is one of a human freedom which has never been experienced in the entirety of human history.
Author: Chris Davis
Last Edited: 6 Nov 1998