Great essay, Brink! You and I have lived long enough to see that some challenges weren't as severe as we thought, while others lurking in the background are the ones that actually need attention. Currently, I think that educational and environmental issues deserve the most attention because they will have the greatest long term impact. Anthropogenic climate change may be difficult to communicate to the public but our scientific institutions have made a convincing case that it is by far the most important challenge. AI and other technologies will likely, in the short term, make finding productive work for people more difficult. Hence, investing in parks, national wildlife refuges, state and national forests, etc. should become a high priority. Some of the wealth generated by capitalism and advanced technology needs to be put toward getting people working out in nature and the outdoors. Much better than being homeless or languishing in front of a screen consuming cheap entertainment. But, for sure, I am more optimistic about the future than pessimistic. Cheers! Keep up the cool posts.

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Apr 11, 2023Liked by Brink Lindsey

It's been mentioned before in the comments of this substack that Maslow's pyramid (what John Brothers is referring to?) has levels above physiological, safety, love and esteem. Working up the pyramid there is cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualization and, at the top, transcendence.


Maybe the permanent problem is lack of transcendence, or transcendental thinking, at the individual, societal and political, levels.

Are there any people/systems/institutions that have historically promoted transcendental thinking? Have they had any success?

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Apr 13, 2023Liked by Brink Lindsey

Another intriguing essay! Where to begin....

First, thank you for introducing me to some concepts I was unfamiliar with: the Axial Age, pareidolia, and the adjective Panglossian are now in my lexicon. I am reminded of George Will, whose ideas I disagree with nearly 100%, but whose deployment of lexical prowess in his writings makes all of his articles worth reading. Added bonus for me: I also happen to agree with Brink that our society needs to forge a viable middle path while generally eschewing the extremes of left and right!

Brink, after reading your first two paragraphs, I was immediately reminded of Ross Douthat's "The Decadent Society", in which Douthat argues that our culture is basically "spent". He talks about how in the 1960's we Americans were all gung-ho about going to space, for example, and how America artists were producing all manner of art, from high-brow down to the bottom. Now, however, we've basically given up on our collective dream regarding space exploration, and many cultural artifacts (movies, songs, books) are but mere iterations of original creative works. We are safe, rich, and simultaneously lacking in much originality, both in industry and culture; unsurprisingly, the extends the problem of biological infertility to that of cultural infertility. I don't know if you've read that book, and I'm also not sure how consistently your ideas would match his, but all this to say that Douthat's name came to mind as soon as I'd finished your first two paragraphs.

A question for you: you wrote that "The U.S. situation is complicated by the fact that our constitution’s major anti-majoritarian institutions — the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court — all presently serve to exaggerate the power of the right." When you speak of the Senate serving to exaggerate the power of the right, I'm curious what you mean, as the Majority Leader is Democrat Chuck Schumer. Are we to understand that you're saying that despite the fact that the Democrats run the Senate, the Senate's legislative accomplishments of late more often tend to favor the political right?

In the end, I agree with you that a, we do live in a time of crisis (economic, political, cultural), and I also agree with you that our social and political order is incredibly durable. When I think of political crises, I think of Donald Trump and his direct efforts (and the indirect efforts of his sycophants) towards destabilizing our political culture as well as our liberal democratic form of government, and I think about how much more successful he would have been had he been less vain and more intelligent. On the flip side, I remember being at a talk in DC and Rod Rosenstein, when questioned about the Trump effect on our politics, replied with John Adams' quote that we are "a government of laws, not of men"; that the republic will endure Trump as it has endured other storms, and that's because of the laws, institutions, and 200 + years of Americans working hard to ensure that we remain a government of laws. I think, and hope, that John Adams was right, and if we are to maintain our government of laws, we, and especially we in the middle-ish of the political spectrum, need to do our best to ensure that our government continues on this path. The last thing we can afford to do at this point is to "drop out" and sit out the game. Near the end of the Trump presidency, I remember a journalist writing that Trump taught us all that we can no longer afford the luxury of not paying attention to our politics. And we all know what Ben Franklin supposedly said about a republic, if we can keep it.....

I look forward to your next essay!

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Apr 11, 2023Liked by Brink Lindsey

The 1919 eclipse tested Einstein's theory of General Relativity and he wrote the following:

“At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason. When the eclipse of 1919 confirmed my intuition, I was not in the least surprised. In fact, I would have been astonished had it turned out otherwise. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”

Maslow's transcendence + Einstein's imagination = Way out of current mess?

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Interesting to see some of the comments focusing on Maslow (Roger Austin, Casey Jones and John Brothers), and appropriately so, since Brink opens with the observation that:

"We have achieved material plenty, and a corresponding expansion of human possibilities beyond all prior imagining, but we have thus far been unable to translate this achievement into the widespread flourishing that constitutes the next great leap of progress."

When we look at Maslow's hierarchy, material needs are at the bottom and fulfillment (relationships, belonging, self-actualization) needs are at the top. These are not phases. We all experience all these needs at once. It's just that the material needs will kill you, in the worst case. as you move up the chain, the needs get less fatal, more abstract, and harder to achieve. In some ways they become more characteristically and more deeply human.

We have learned that material abundance gets you only so far -- the $70k threshold of happiness has come in for justified criticism, but it seems a truism that the marginal returns of fulfillment that result from more "stuff" begin to decrease at some pretty basic level. And that money actually cannot buy true happiness. This is where competition for status (raised by John Brothers) comes in and becomes extremely destructive for both the competitors and society. The "hedonic treadmill" is definitely a thing.

It occurs to me that the equation of money and status is at the root of this problem. Our status should be driven not by what you gain from the current system, but by what you contribute to its success. But it is hard to create a culture around wisdom, transcendence, and contribution in a society that requires us to compete everyday for stuff, money, and power.

It does eventually come down to human nature and human potential. I think we are selling ourselves short when we assume that we are simply competitive, tribal, self-maximizing creatures. Collaboration got us here and it will get us out if we can learn to collaborate broadly enough.

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Apr 11, 2023Liked by Brink Lindsey

I have significant reservations regarding the point above, “Moreover, it’s my sense that achieving real progress while simultaneously avoiding disaster will require big changes in outlooks, institutions, norms, and policies.” It seems to me that for big changes to occur, in advance of catastrophic events, requires very large groups of people suddenly to become farsighted. We are where we are as a result of individuals being focused on short-term, individual gains. What reasons are there to believe in a sudden onset of mass wisdom?

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Apr 11, 2023Liked by Brink Lindsey

It’s nice to see one of us promoting the idea that things aren’t as bad as they look. Unfortunately the means to a great future for us all are the means to our eventual demise. Until we as a species put a value on our planet equal at least to our need for growth, that thing economists and governments lovingly repeat even in their sleep, we are living in a dream. I agree this realization doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom. We can whistle while we work.

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I was discussing the state of the US the other day with a friend. As you say, we are experiencing the greatest era of humankind ever (so far), in terms of freedom, egalitarianism, material plenty, etc.

When you and I were young, pretty much everyone thought that if we were able to achieve those things, it would be... well... the Age of Aquarius - a paradise on Earth - a land of peace and philosophy.

Instead, what we have gotten, and in retrospect what we should perhaps have anticipated, is that once you have all of the core needs fulfilled, people just start moving up the pyramid, to the point that Esteem is now the area of most conflict. Instead of competing for food or shelter, the vast majority of people are competing for status and recognition. And unlike material wealth, status competition is a zero-sum game, which provokes a near-endless cycle of provocation and retaliation.

What we need is a way to defuse that zero-sum status game before it escalates into catastrophic physical violence (up to and including civil war) I don't know what it will be (although I have ideas), but I hope it is born soon.

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