Monday, October 8, 2012

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part One

Bob Fiske

Reciprocity – Like Water to Fish, Part One

Prologue: Why Now.  These thoughts have been in my head for some time without achieving escape velocity.  Something had to goad me into action.  What lit the fuse?  It was the news that the Occupy group near me, Occupy Long Beach, would be discussing “What We Value”.  Suddenly, I knew I had to try to share this point of view.

Are Values Central?  There are diverse ways that people use to explain human behavior.  Why should values stand in relief against the backdrop of the other qualities of experience, including thoughts, feelings, perceptions, points of view, beliefs and attitudes?  I believe that values have a primal distinction.  Values—those things that tell us who we are and what we want—sit at the well of being, situated so deeply that many people may have only dim awareness of their power.  From there, values motivate so many choices, and we scarcely appreciate that they are the primal reasons for much of what we do.  So I will propose that, if you change a person’s values, you will change his or her beliefs, actions and social affiliations.

The Politics of Values.  In the early 1970s an international group of businesspeople, academicians and politicians formed “The Club of Rome”.  They started with a realization that humanity’s progress was so rapid that none of us could lay claim to knowing—much less planning—our collective destiny.  Consequently, one of the Club’s first acts was to produce a white paper that attempted to define The Predicament of Mankind.  (See .)

A result of the early efforts of the Club of Rome was a project whose hub was MIT and which integrated the knowledge of experts from many countries.  This project was published in 1972 as a slim paperback entitled The Limits to Growth.  Using the method of system dynamics the MIT investigators built a “simple” computer model of the world and tested it to understand how the many components might affect human destiny.  The book sent shockwaves through the halls of policy-makers, for it suggested that, without careful management, human civilization could collapse fairly rapidly.

The phrase “without careful management” is hinted at in the book’s title, the limits to growth.  It is a statement of values: new choices would be necessary, a new definition of “what is the measure of a good life”.  Perhaps that explains what happened in the years after its publication.  In a show of massive denial, the governments, financial institutions and economists of developed nations (especially in the greatest consuming nation, the United States) belittled the Limits to Growth project to such an extent that nobody talked about it anymore.  “Progress” continued.

That demonstrates the powerful nature of values.  Many values that dictate human behavior are mutually dependent with a vast infrastructure of industry, financial systems and political institutions.  The response to the Limits to Growth project suggests that this infrastructure reacts somewhat like a living being.  If you attack the values at its foundation, it will move swiftly and forcefully to maintain its methods of operation and the values that motivate those methods.

To say this somewhat differently, the values underlying modern Western civilization (which, of course has spread to all parts of the globe) may allow certain modest changes.  Thus, we regulate auto emissions, and it is possible to buy recycled toilet paper, and some people are installing sustainable energy systems on their houses.

However, if you ask the system to examine and change out its core values, that is like trying to turn an oil tanker with the force of one finger.  (It can be done, true.  But, alas, humanity may not have that much time.)  Thus, we can understand the tremendous resistance to quitting fossil fuels, defunding weapons companies and ending cruel exploitation of cheap labor.

Summary of Part One.  If you change a person’s values, then you can expect a change of his or her beliefs, actions and social affiliations.  Many values connect with the larger, containing social infrastructures.  These include industrial, financial and political structures.  The social infrastructure reacts like a living being.  If you attack its values, it will forcefully maintain its values and its methods of operation.

CLICK HERE to go to Part Two.


  1. I've noticed that when you question/challenge a person's motives, you get the coiled rattlesnake response.

    1. Flying Bland,

      I believe we build our identities according to lots of personal elements: motives, values, points-of-view, etc. And I agree with you: calling one of these into question is often taken as an attack on the person's identity. This signals the person that he/she is confronted with a grave danger, hence the coiled rattlesnake response.

      -- Bob