On the wisdom of the grasshopper

Elon Musk wants you to be the ant. But make room for the grasshopper, too

Fresno Bee, May 29, 2023

Elon Musk recently suggested it is “morally wrong” to work remotely. He said it wasn’t fair for “the laptop class” to work outside the office while others toil in the factory. In the same interview, Musk said that he works seven days a week, sleeps six hours a day, and only takes a couple of days off per year.

A workaholic boss is not the best source of wisdom about the morality of work. Is there a virtue in toil? Or is the laptop class wise to phone it in?

The fable of the ant and the grasshopper comes to mind. This allegory can help us clarify our intuitions about the morality of work. The grasshopper spends the summer fiddling, while the ant labors under the hot sun. When winter comes, the anthill is stocked with food. And all the grasshopper has is memories of the music of summer.

Of course, human beings are not insects. We invent technologies to make work easier and more efficient. Repetitive tasks are mechanized. Robots do the heavy lifting. Computers and AI will make it possible for us to have even more free time.

Almost a hundred years ago, the philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed that human beings should work about four hours per day. Some work is necessary. But Russell argued that work is not an end-in-itself. The higher goods of civilization such as music, art and science are products of leisure. Russell said that only a “foolish asceticism” would make anyone insist on working in “excessive quantities.”

We should also question the distribution of leisure, income, and wealth. The mechanization revolution is uneven and unfair. While the laptop class sits at home, calloused human hands pick our food, and millionaires live off interest income. The hardest manual labor is often paid the least. The ants and grasshoppers of modern capitalism show us unfairness in the system.

Forcing folks to return to the office won’t solve the fairness problem. But the shift away from the office does create other economic problems. There are empty office buildings. And the ancillary workforce of janitors, parking attendants and coffee shop workers will lose jobs. But if office work is not necessary, we could repurpose those empty buildings, and find other jobs for those workers.

Another concern is about the social aspect of work. Laptop laborers don’t chat at the proverbial water cooler. Nor do they care about office parties or lunch meetings. There is some value in those informal chats. But the technology revolution now allows creative conversations to occur on Zoom or email.

The biggest question here is about the value of work in our conception of a good life. This takes us back to Elon Musk’s own work life. Even before his recent interview, Musk bragged about how hard he works, often sleeping at his Tesla factories. When he acquired Twitter, he slept in the office there, as well.

Some entrepreneurs may see Musk as a model to be emulated. But his life seems sad, frankly. What about family life? Or taking a hike in nature? Or a day at the beach, or a weekend music festival? And what about a summer afternoon lounging by the pool with a good book? Most of the best of human life occurs outside of work, in our free time.

Ants build impressive anthills. But the work of the creative imagination is done by grasshoppers. Humans play and sing. We don’t aspire to the drudgery of the anthill. Our playful, creative spirit gives us architecture, art, literature, music and a sense of justice. These human goods are leisure activities. It is in our free time that we are most fully human.

When the mind wanders and explores, we dream of a world beyond the anthill. These dreams led human beings to invent technologies that make life and work easier. We also imagine a world that is fairer, and more humane.

As summer approaches, it’s worth considering the value of play and free time. There is no sense in working for the sake of work. And while the workaholic bosses in the anthill may warn against the idleness of the grasshoppers, it’s worth pointing out that human beings are not insects, and that human life is richer than work.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article275806896.html#storylink=cpy

The Dream of Leaving Earth

Humans need to care for Earth before blasting off to Mars

Fresno Bee, June 23, 2017

As this planet overheats, some people are planning to leave. Billionaire Elon Musk wants to start colonizing Mars. He imagines 1 million people migrating to the red planet within 100 years.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies

Musk argues that we should become a “multiplanetary species.” He says that there are two paths that humanity can take. “One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event … The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multiplanetary species.”

The most likely extinction event is global warming. An asteroid could wipe us out – or a deadly virus. But climate change is already happening, posing a threat to the human future.

Global warming gives us a reason to worry about the ethics of interplanetary colonization. Until we can prove that we are able to care for this planet, we have no right to colonize another. Until we evolve ethically, we ought not leave this planet and destroy another. The colonizing impulse is connected to the hubris that created the climate catastrophe.

We are living through the hottest years on record. Deadly heat waves have killed tens of thousands of human beings. The World Health Organization predicts that between 2030 and 2050 climate change will contribute to 250,000 excess deaths per year. In addition to the heat itself, risk factors include malaria and other diseases exacerbated by climate change.

But we mostly ignore this. Malaria and hyperthermia don’t make headlines. Perhaps we think common-sense measures provide adequate solutions: drink plenty of water and use mosquito repellent.

The problem is that the poorest people do not have access to clean water or mosquito repellent. The laboring masses live and work outside in the elements. Most of the people who will die from the changing climate are in countries we don’t care about – in Africa and Asia.

Americans will be the last ones affected. We can simply crank up the AC, sip icy beverages and avoid mosquitoes by staying inside. But many humans don’t have such luxuries.

It will be the rich few who will venture off planet, seeking a new start on Mars. Musk wants to get the price of a Mars trip down to around $200,000. At that price, affluent Americans can save or borrow to get on board.

Such a trip is beyond the wildest imagination of those living on $2 per day. But those impoverished people are the ones least able to cope with the world we’ll leave behind.

This is a question of what we call “environmental justice.” Environmental justice is concerned with the fair distribution of environmental benefits – and harms. It seems especially unfair for rich people, who already burn more than their fair share of carbon, to head off planet, leaving behind a ruined world inhabited by poor people with no hope of departure.

Planetary escape is a fun summer fantasy: a diversion to chew on while fishing in a cool mountain stream. But our extra-planetary fantasies should not distract us from the stark reality of the present. Global population is increasing. Fragile earth resources are overexploited. And the climate is heating up.

A harbinger of our hot future is seen in California’s fisheries. California trout, salmon, and steelhead are threatened by increased heat, which changes river flows, even in wet years. Combine the heat with overfishing and increased need for water for agriculture and you’ve got a recipe for fishery collapse.

An old adage about eliminating poverty says, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The problem is that this assumes that there are fish left to catch.

This is also a problem of the Mars dream. There are no fish on Mars. And no flowing water. Musk suggests that life on Mars would be “quite fun.” But human happiness occurs within our ecological niche. We have evolved in a Goldilocks world. It is not too hot and not too cold. It contains clean waters abundant with fish.

The Goldilocks days may soon be ending. Our ethical task is to fairly distribute harms and benefits on this hot, crowded planet, while preserving an inhabitable world for our grandchildren.