Optimizing Ourselves into Oblivion

The short story “Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral” (“An anecdote about the lowering of work ethic”) is one of the most famous stories written by the German author Heinrich Böll. In the story, an affluent tourist encounters a poorly clad fisherman who is comfortably napping in his boat. The assiduous tourist accidentally wakes up the fisherman while taking photos of the peaceful scenery – blue sky, green sea, fisherman with an old-fashioned hat – but then goes on to engage the lounging fisherman in a conversation. The friendly chat gradually turns into a sermon in which the tourist lectures the fisherman about how much more work he could be doing, how he could haul in more fish instead of lazing about, use the profits to make strategic investments, perhaps even hire employees and buy bigger boats in a few years. To what end, the fisherman asks. So that you could peacefully doze away at the beach, enjoying the beautiful sun without any worries, responds the enthusiastic tourist.

I remembered Böll’s story which was written in the 1960s – during the post-war economic miracle years (Wirtschaftswunder) when prosperity, efficiency and growth had become the hallmarks of modern Germany – while recently reading the book “Du sollst nicht funktionieren” (“You were not meant to function”) by the German author and philosopher Ariadne von Schirach. In this book, von Schirach criticizes the contemporary obsession with Selbstoptimierung (self-optimization), a term that has been borrowed from network theory and computer science where it describes systems which continuously adapt and “learn” in order to optimize their function. Selbstoptimierung is now used in a much broader sense in German culture and refers to the desire of individuals to continuously “optimize” their bodies and lives with the help of work-out regimens, diets, self-help courses and other processes. Self-optimization is a routine learning process that we all engage in. Successful learning of a new language, for example, requires continuous feedback and improvement. However, it is the continuous self-optimization as the ultimate purpose of life, instead of merely serving as  a means to an end that worries von Schirach.

She draws on many examples from Körperkult (body-cult), a slavish worship of the body that gradually replaces sensual pleasure with the purpose of discipling the body. Regular exercise and maintaining a normal weight are key factors for maintaining health but some individuals become so focused on tracking steps and sleep duration on their actigraphs, exercising or agonizing about their diets that the initial health-related goals become lose their relevance. They strive for a certain body image and resting heart rates and to reach these goals they indulge in self-discipline to maximize physical activity and curb appetite. Such individuals rarely solicit scientific information as to the actual health benefits of their exercise and food regimens and might be surprised to learn that more exercise and more diets do not necessarily lead to more health. The American Heart Association recommends roughly 30-45 minutes of physical activity daily to reduce high blood pressure and the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Even simple and straightforward walking is sufficient to meet these goals, there is no need for two-hour gym work-outs.

Why are we becoming so obsessed with self-optimization? Unfortunately, von Schirach’s analysis degenerates into a diffuse diatribe against so many different elements of contemporary culture. Capitalist ideology, a rise in narcissism and egotism, industrialization and the growing technocracy, consumerism, fear of death, greed, monetization of our lives and social media are among some of the putative culprits that she invokes. It is quite likely that many of these factors play some role in the emerging pervasiveness of the self-optimization culture – not only in Germany. However, it may be useful to analyze some of the root causes and distinguish them from facilitators. Capitalist ideology is very conducive to a self-optimization culture. Creating beauty and fitness targets as well as laying out timelines to achieve these targets is analogous to developing corporate goals, strategies and milestones. Furthermore, many corporations profit from our obsession with self-optimization. Companies routinely market weight regimens, diets, exercise programs, beauty products and many other goods or services that generate huge profits if millions of potential consumers buy into the importance of life-long self-optimization. They can set the parameters for self-optimization – ideal body images – and we just obey. According to the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, such a diffusion of market logic and obedience to pre-ordained parameters and milestones into our day-to-day lives results in an achievement society which ultimately leads to mental fatigue and burnout.  In the case of “working out”, it is telling that a supposedly leisure physical activity uses the expression “work”, perhaps reminding us that the mindset of work persists during the exercise period.

But why would we voluntarily accept these milestones and parameters set by others? One explanation that is not really addressed by von Schirach is that obsessive self-optimization with a focus on our body may represent a retreat from the world in which we feel disempowered. Those of us who belong to the 99% know that our voices are rarely heard or respected when it comes to most fundamental issues in society such as socioeconomic inequality, rising intolerance and other forms of discrimination or prejudice. When it comes to our bodies, we may have a sense of control and empowerment that we do not experience in our work or societal roles. Self-discipline of our body gives our life a purpose with tangible goals such as lose x pounds, exercise y hours, reduce your resting heart rate by z.

Self-optimization may be a form of Ersatzempowerment but it comes at a great cost. As we begin to retreat from more fundamental societal issues and instead focus on controlling our bodies, we also gradually begin to lose the ability to dissent and question the meaning of actions. Working-out and dieting are all about HowWhen and What – how do I lose weight, what are my goals, when am I going to achieve it. The most fundamental questions of our lives usually focus on the Why – but self-optimization obsesses so much about HowWhen and What that one rarely asks “Why am I doing this?” Yet it is the Why that gives our life meaning, and self-optimization perhaps illustrates how a purpose-driven life may lose its meaning. The fisherman prompted the tourist to think about the Why in Böll’s story and perhaps we should do the same to avoid the trap of an obsessive self-optimization culture.

Reference:

von Schirach, Ariadne. Du sollst nicht funktionieren: für eine neue Lebenskunst. Klett Cotta, 2014.

 

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog. 

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Dismantle the Poverty Trap by Nurturing Community Trust

Would you rather receive $100 today or wait for a year and then receive $150? The ability to delay immediate gratification for a potentially greater payout in the future is associated with greater wealth. Several studies have shown that the poor tend to opt for immediate rewards even if they are lower, whereas the wealthy are willing to wait for greater rewards. One obvious reason for this difference is the immediate need for money. If food has to be purchased and electricity or water bills have to be paid, then the instant “reward” is a matter of necessity. Wealthier people can easily delay the reward because their basic needs for food, shelter and clothing are already met.

Unfortunately, escaping from poverty often requires the ability to delay gratification for a greater payout in the future. Classic examples are the pursuit of higher education and the acquisition of specialized professional skills which can lead to better-paying jobs in the future. Attending vocational school, trade school or college paves the way for higher future wages, but one has to forego income during the educational period and even incur additional debt by taking out educational loans. Another example is of delayed gratification is to invest capital – whether it is purchasing a farming tool that increases productivity or investing in the stock market – which in turn can yield greater pay-out. However, if the poor are unable to pursue more education or make other investments that will increase their income, they remain stuck in a vicious cycle of increasing poverty.

Understanding the precise reasons for why people living in poverty often make decisions that seem short-sighted, such as foregoing more education or taking on high-interest short-term loans, is the first step to help them escape poverty. The obvious common-sense fix is to ensure that the basic needs of all citizens – food, shelter, clothing, health and personal safety – are met, so that they no longer have to use all new funds for survival. This is obviously easier in the developed world, but it is not a trivial matter considering that the USA – supposedly the richest country in the world – has an alarmingly high poverty rate. It is estimated that more than 40 million people in the US live in poverty, fearing hunger and eviction from their homes. But just taking care of these basic needs may not be enough to help citizens escape poverty. A recent research study by Jon Jachimowicz at Columbia University and his colleagues investigated “myopic” (short-sighted) decision-making of people with lower income and identified an important new factor: community trust.

The researchers first used an online questionnaire (647 participants) to assess trust and asked participants to choose between a payoff in the near future that is smaller and a larger pay-off in the distant future. They also measured community trust by asking participants to agree or disagree with statements such as “There are advantages to living in my neighborhood” or I would like my child(ren) to be raised in the neighborhood I currently live in”. They found that lower income participants were more likely to act in a short-sighted manner if they had low levels of trust in their communities. In a second online experiment, the researchers recruited roughly 100 participants from each state in the US and assessed their community trust levels. They then obtained real-world data on payday loans – a sign of very short-sighted financial decision-making because people take out cash advances at extraordinarily high interest rates that have to be paid back when they get their paycheck – for each state. They found that the average community trust for each state was related to the use of payday loans. In states with high average community trust ratings, people were less likely to take out these payday loans, and this trend remained even when the researchers took into account unemployment rates and savings rates for each state.

Even though these findings all pointed to a clear relationship between community trust and sound financial decision-making, the results did not prove that increased community trust is an underlying cause that helps improve the soundness of financial decisions. To test this relationship in a real-world setting, the researchers conducted a study in rural Bangladesh by collaborating with an international development organization based in Bangladesh. The vast majority of participants in this study were poor even by Bangladeshi standards, earning less than $1/day per household member. The researchers adapted the community trust questionnaire and the assessment of financial decision-making for the rural population, with live interviewers asking the questions and filling out the responses for the participants. After assessing community trust and the willingness to delay financial rewards for greater payouts in the future, half of the participants received a two year intervention to increase community trust. This intervention involved volunteers from the community that acted as intermediaries between the local government and the rural population, providing input into local governance and community-level decisions (for example in the distribution of social benefits and the allocation of funds for development projects).

At the end of the two year period, participants who had received the community intervention showed significant increases in their community trust levels and they also improved their financial decision-making. They were more likely to forego immediate lower financial rewards for greater future rewards when compared to the villagers who did not receive any special intervention.

By combining correlational data from the United States with an actual real-world intervention to build community trust, the researchers show how important it is to build trust when we want to help fellow humans escape the “poverty trap“. This is just an initial study with a limited group of participants and a narrow intervention that needs to be replicated in other societies and with long-term observation of the results to see how persistent the effects are. But the results should make all of us realize that just creating “jobs, jobs, jobs” is not enough. We need to invest in the infrastructures of communities and help citizens realize that they are respected members of society with a voice. Empowering individuals and ensuring their safety, dignity and human rights are necessary steps if we are serious about battling poverty.

Reference

Jachimowicz, J. M., Chafik, S., Munrat, S., Prabhu, J. C., & Weber, E. U. (2017). Community trust reduces myopic decisions of low-income individuals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201617395.

Note: An earlier version of this post was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

ResearchBlogging.org

Jachimowicz, J., Chafik, S., Munrat, S., Prabhu, J., & Weber, E. (2017). Community trust reduces myopic decisions of low-income individuals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1617395114

Let Them Make My Cake: Exporting Burden, Importing Convenience in the Externalization Society

On 5 November 2015, an iron ore tailings dam burst in Bento Rodrigues near the Brazilian city of Mariana, releasing 60 million cubic meters of a reddish-brown mud-flood. This toxic flood buried neighboring villages and flowed into the Rio Doce, contaminating the river with several hazardous metals including mercury, arsenic and chromium as well as potentially harmful bacteria. The devastating and perhaps irreparable damage to the ecosystem and human health caused by this incident are the reason why it is seen as one of the biggest environmental disasters in the history of Brazil. The German sociologist Stephan Lessenich uses this catastrophe as a starting point to introduce the concept of the Externalisierungsgesellschaft(externalization society) in his book Neben uns die Sintflut: Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis (“Around us, the deluge: The externalization society and its cost”).

What is the externalization society? According to Lessenich, this expression describes how developed countries such as the United States, Japan and Germany transfer or externalize risks and burdens to developing countries in South America, Africa and Asia. The Bento Rodrigues disaster is an example of the environmental risk that is externalized. Extracting metals that are predominantly used by technology-hungry consumers in developed countries invariably generates toxic waste which poses a great risk for the indigenous population of many developing countries. The externalized environmental risks are not limited to those associated with mining raw materials. The developed world is also increasingly exporting its trash into the third world.

The US, for example, are the world’s largest exporter of paper trash, exporting scrap paper worth US$ 3.1 billion each year. The US is also the largest producer of electronic waste (E-Waste), estimated at more than 7 million tons of E-Waste per year (PDF). Every new smartphone or tablet release generates mountains of E-Waste as consumers discard their older devices. Re-cycling the older devices sounds like a reasonable solution bu true recycling and re-using of electronic components is quite costly and time-consuming. It is also often not clear which electronic components of devices actually get recycled. To track the fate of discarded electronic devices, Jim Puckett from the Basel Action Network and his colleagues placed GPS-trackers in old electronics dropped off at US-based recycling centers. They found that a third of the “recycled” electronics were shipped overseas to countries such as Mexico, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, Thailand and Kenya. Puckett used the GPS signal to identify the sites where the E-Waste ended up and visited such a location in Hong Kong, where he found that the “recycled” electronics were being dismantled in junkyards by migrant workers from mainland China who were not wearing any protective clothing that would have protected them from hazardous materials released during the extraction of salvageable E-Waste materials. There are many regulations that restrict the trading of E-Waste but the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that up to 90% of the world’s E-Waste is traded or dumped illegally. This means that even though dropping off old devices at a recycling center may alleviate the conscience of consumers, a significant number of these will not be re-used but instead shipped off to junkyards in other countries – without appropriate monitoring of how these electronic waste products will affect the local environment and health of the population.

Exporting environmental risks to developing countries by either outsourcing high-risk extraction of raw materials or simply dumping waste is just one example of externalization according the Lessenich. Externalizing occupational health risks and poverty by severely under-paying workers are other examples. Bangladesh has now emerged as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of clothing because of its cheap labor. In 2011, the typical monthly wage of a garment industry worker in Bangladesh was estimated at $91 per month – roughly one and a half dollars per day! In addition to this dismally low pay, garment factory workers in Bangladesh also face terrible occupational risks. The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in 2013 which called over 1,100 people and injured more than 2,500 people is just one example of the occupational risks faced by the workers.

Lessenich’s concept of the externalization society isn’t just another critique of the global inequality that we so often hear about. The fundamental principle of the externalization society put forth by Lessenich is the interdependence between the “imperial lifestyle” of wealth and comfort in the developed world and the “wretched lifestyle” of poverty and hardship in the developing world. If those of us who live in the developed world want the convenience of upgrading our smartphones every few years or buying cheap cotton t-shirts, then we need those who manufacture these products in the developing world to be paid lousy wages. If those workers were paid humane wages and their employers instituted appropriate occupational safety measures, as well as health and disability insurance plans that are routine in most parts of the developed world, then the cost of the products would be incompatible with our current economy and lifestyle which are fueled by consumerism and the capitalist imperative of incessant growth.

The pillars of the externalization society are indifference and ignorance. We are indifferent because we see the differential in lifestyle as a Selbstverständlichkeit – a German word for obviousness or taken-for-grantedness. They were born in developing countries, so of course they have to struggle – tough luck, they ended up with the wrong lottery tickets. This Selbstverständlichkeit also extends to the limited mobility of the people born in the developing world. They lack the birthright of the developing world citizens whose passports allow them to either travel visa-free or obtain a visa to nearly any country in the world with minimal effort. This veneer of Selbstverständlichkeit is easiest to maintain if “they” and “their” problems are invisible and thus allow us to ignore the interdependence between our good fortune and their misery. We might see images of the toxic flood in Brazil but few, if any, members of the externalization society will link the mining of cheap iron in Brazil to the utensils they use in their everyday life.

A decade ago, disposable single-use coffee pods such as the Keurig K-cups or the Nespresso pods were extremely rare but by 2014, K-cup manufactures sold a mind-boggling 9 billion K-cups! A new need for disposable products that had previously been met by standard coffee machines arose without considering the environmental and global impact of this need. In theory, the K-cups are recyclable but this would require careful separating of the paper, plastic and the aluminum top. It is not clear how many K-cups are properly recycled, and the E-Waste example shows that even if items are transported to recycling centers, that does not necessarily mean that they will be successfully recycled. Prior to the advent coffee pods, our coffee demands had been easily met without generating additional mountains of disposable plastic and aluminum coffee pod trash. Out of nowhere, there arose a new need for aluminum which again is extracted from the aluminum ore bauxite – another process that generates toxic waste. Instead of feeling a sense of absolution when we drop a disposable item into a recycling bin, we should simply curtail unnecessary consumption of products in disposable containers.

How do we overcome the externalization society? We can make concerted efforts through advocacy, education and regulations that restrict exporting environmental waste, improve health and safety conditions for workers in the developing world and try to restrict our consumerist excesses by clarifying the interdependence between wealth in the externalization society and the poverty in the developing world as well as the moral imperative to abrogate the inequality and asymmetry. Numerous advocates have already attempted this approach for the past decades with limited success. Maybe instead of appealing to the ethics of interdependence, a more effective approach may be to educate each other about the consequences of the interdependence. When millions of refugees show up at the doorstep of the externalization society, “they” are no longer invisible. One can blame wars, religious extremism and political ideologies for the misery of the refugees but it becomes harder to ignore the extent and central role of the underlying inequality. Creating humane working and living conditions for people in the developing world is perhaps the most effective way to stop the so-called “refugee crisis“.

Global climate change is another threat to the externalization society, a threat of its own making. Transferring carbon footprints and pollution to other countries does not change the fact that the whole planet is suffering from the consequences of climate change. Political leaders of the externalization society often demand the closing of borders, erecting walls and expanding their armed forces so they are less likely to have to confront the victims of their externalization but no army or wall is strong enough to lower the rising water levels or stabilize the climate. The externalization society will end not because of a crisis of conscience but because its excesses are undermining its own existence.

Reference:

Lessenich, S. (2016). Neben uns die Sintflut: Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis. Hanser Berlin.

 

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.