Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A life of its own

I just arrived here at the Fishbowl after listening to a talk by Dr. Condoleeza Rice. Yes, the Dr. Condoleeza Rice. (A wonderful way to get you riled up! Try it for yourself!) She mentioned how Japan will not be able to "grow [economically] unfortunately" for a little bit, because of the earthquake and tsunami. Along the same lines, I was reading an article from The New Yorker, Aftershocks, by Evan Osnos, in which he describes how the Japanese have dealt with the recent natural events that have impacted their country. He wrote at length about his interactions with Yukio Okamoto, a former diplomat and high-ranking adviser to Prime Ministers of Japan, who now runs a political and economic consultancy called Okamoto Associates. Osnos asked Okamoto how he thought the events would alter Japan's sense of self. Okamoto replied,

“We were not humble enough to Mother Nature. We were building reactors on the basis of the most hideous earthquake in the Edo period, which was magnitude 8.5. Many experts expected a large earthquake would come, but not 9.0. Nobody said 9.0. Japan was in a euphoric slumber for two decades. Our life has been so comfortable, we became introverted. We forgot the need for struggle, during which time many top positions were taken over by Chinese and Korean companies. It’s too soon to say, with us still facing the threat of nuclear reactors, but perhaps, eventually, this sense of crisis will be the push to the back of many Japanese, and we will regain the strength of the sixties and seventies, when we had a concrete goal. So no doubt our economy will slip down, but then we may bounce back.” (emphases added)

I found it incredibly fascinating how Dr. Rice almost exactly shared Okamoto's viewpoint - that the Japanese are defined by their economy. Well, it may not be shocking that in fact most people and countries of the world are defined by their economies, and their abilities to "compete" in this "globalised world." Our identities as individuals have been tied to large, ecologically destructive social constructs such as economy.

There seems to be a tendency to let our lives slip beyond our control. Of course most of us are a part of society, and we are in a way bound by our emotional and physical relationships to people and places. In a sense, the defined social norms and the constraints put upon society by external factors (like weather, for example) are thrust upon us as individuals, and we are obliged to partake in collective effort, particularly if we want to be accepted. At the same time, society has created constructs, such as economy, that have allowed different sorts of interactions among individuals and smaller groups of people in society. We have somehow been taught or told that it is a duty to participate in the economy, that shopping is the only way we can make change, and that we "vote by our dollar." It is telling how we have let a completely man-made construct take on a life of its own, such that it is this vague, ill-defined, and irrational construct that defines who we are as individuals and collections of individuals. (Many people have placed immense faith in concepts such as economy, and have been let down, not surprisingly. What has happened over the past few years, especially with "bubbles," is now being better understood by terrific journalists and investigators.)

I believe it is important to realise that it is not me, or you, or us, that are defined by such constructs. At an even larger scale, the value of the environment and our relationships to it are not defined by such constructs. Our value in this world, and the value of the world, is not set by people at the Federal Reserve or some government agency. Rather it is you, me, and us that lend legitimacy and credence to these constructs, and it is you, me, and us that define these social constructs, and the bounds of operability and validity of these constructs. It is not surprising then that something like the economy is only a small part of our society, and that it cannot be placed at the same level as society, the environment, or as us, as individuals. Japan is more than its economy, and its ability to make cars. It is a land with a culture, with a history, with nature and trees and flowers.


  1. I agree with this point that our economic endeavors do not define us. I would even go so far as to say that what we do for a living, who we know, our relationships, our bodies, our minds do not define us either, but rather something unchanging and eternal that is within all things. It is too bad that we have come to this point in our world that we don't even remember what it was like to feel pure joy and richness by noticing the richness around us rather than creating it artificially (and always coming up short).

    This reminds me of a very interesting documentary I saw recently called "The Economics of Happiness." You may have heard of it, but if not you should maybe check it out. It uses the lens of a community called Ladakh in the Himalayas to explore the ways globalization and capitalism have changed our sense of self. I bought the dvd after the screening (which I don't do often, but I thought this film was particularly good) so if you would like to borrow it let me know. Or maybe we can do another screening of it at the co-op!

  2. Great post!!!!!!! Thanks for putting it together.