Crisis of human energy

'The greatest energy crisis of the world is a crisis of human energy'

Bertrand Russell said he never felt tired until he was 81.  Well, good on him.

An enormous burst of human energy changed the world over the past six hundred years. People have enjoyed themselves tremendously exploring the world, discovering nature, making inventions, putting cleaning next to godliness, dressing to the nines, talking non-stop, thirsting for knowledge, never a bored moment.  The sociologist Max Weber thought this was the Protestant conscience trying to prove to yourself that you were saved by hard work. But the Protestant idea that God likes to see people doing useful work has been a symptom of this work-drive rather than the major cause.

A great burst of this human inventive energy has gone into replacing soul-destroying human labor with energy from fossil fuels. 'Soul-destroying' is not a mere phrase. A French philosopher voiced the common opinion that townsfolk could have consciousness and thought, but the poor French peasants could have no consciousness of themselves, because they were driven into the ground by their ceaseless labour. Today, lives which would once have been wrecked with manual toil, including slavery, have been changed by inventions and machines, through our mental energy. Anyone reading this clearly has some mental energy.

But anything good can be taken to extremes.

Saving human physical energy has perhaps gone to extremes. Electric egg-slicers in the home - really? Human effort reduced to pressing buttons that set robots going?  Ironically we are discovering that human beings need physical exercise.   But our reaction to this discovery is ironic. Do we respond to finding that we need exercise by saying, right, let's save some fossil fuels by replacing some of the ways we use electric power with human power again? Slice our eggs by hand? On pocket-size lawns, push a manual lawn-mower? No. Instead, people go to the gym and jog. In the olden days slaves and helots did the physical labor that was needed, while the citizens did physical jerks at the gymnasia and competed in Olympic games, to excel in sports to fit them to be warriors and hunters. Physical labor is still so low in status that physical exercise for the sake of our health has to be play, not work that serves any useful purpose. Even the Labor Party now sets a goal of upward social mobility rather than fair pay for all useful work, however menial. Our physical exercise has to be useless and even expensive. You can buy extraordinary torture instruments for your own home, to stretch your triceps and do things to your stomach, while around you electric machines hum that get going by one finger touching a button.    Even children are set to exercise their physical energy in high-status ways, organized into competitive sports, exercising muscles to run and jump and catch balls. Before TV, after children had helped with the physical work of domestic chores, they could roam free to get into all sorts of healthy although sometimes dangerous mischief, exercising all the muscles they might need as adults to lift, pull, push, carry, twist, and clean. Don't worry about a future ageing population - we should worry about a future bad-back population.

Experiment, and see how you can avoid boring exercise drills.

Pedal to power your electronic gear, perhaps with a book on the handlebars. Trim the waistline with carpet-sweepers.  I can show how in a small household with a properly-designed dish-rack, dishwashing by hand can be as fast as stacking and unstacking a power-wasting dishwasher.  Households of one or two white-collar people don't need those giant turbine washing machines that are such a boon when there are children or lots of dirty clothes. They can have gentle arm exercise for fifteen minutes a week with a twin-tub washing machine, saving water and power while they listen to Radio National. It is mistaken to feel that useful physical exercise is almost morally wrong - but worse is happening.

Worse is happening. The drive to save human energy has been extending not just to physical energy, but to mental energy too.

What do I mean by mental energy?  There doesn't seem a psychological test readily available that measures this essential zip, this capacity for vigorous mental activity, which, if it could be measured, would be measured in joys rather than joules. Mental energy is a way to be alive. Children are normally full of it. How can parents say that staying at home with children is rusting their minds? The normal child has a mind that is active the whole time it is awake. Where are these normal children? Why aren't there more of them? The ability to enjoy sustained thinking and mental hard work is essential for our future - but instead we are being conditioned to value short sound-bytes, slogans, nothing over 200 words, and any sequences on TV interrupted by advertising to give the mind a break! Microsoft Word advocates short sentence - no connecting clauses to connect ideas. Children learn to read with one line of print per page. Editors cry 'One idea at a time.' Radio National is not alone in obscuring the human voice with background noise, as if its verbal message was not sufficient to entertain. What do you hear people are encouraged to do with their brains? Explode them! Blow them away! Surely rather, as popular as the footy, there should be Brain Olympics with a $160 million Brain-Sports Institute support. And those Brain Olympics would be about real-life problems and exertions needed. We need Applied Sports. Why no Skill Olympics at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games? The Japanese, realising that brains need exercise, are now spending billions of yen on commercial computer games and puzzles designed to make them brain-sports. But none of this exercise is directly useful.

You can enjoy exercising your brainpower usefully.

While you are doing your Useful and Thrifty Household Exercise, dancing with brooms so to speak. To develop your mental energy, for example, there is the Wishing Game, you can play any time. You wont need a Sony Walkman any more on your journeys, or fret during sleepless nights. Step 1 of the Wishing Game - think of a problem. Step 2, think how to solve it - use magic if you like. Step 3. Think of how the bastards will mess it up. Step 4. Think of how you can stop the bastards messing it up. And, if Step 5, Action, turns into something really useful for everybody - your heart can beat more strongly as you receive the Goldest Medal at the next Skill Olympics.   

People worry today about ADD and hyperactive children with attention deficit disorder. As they bound around, it might seem they have too much energy - but in fact, they have insufficient mental energy to be able to control what they do. The violent behaviour of adults is usually also a manifestation of lack of mental energy sufficient to control themselves and do something constructive instead. Patience is actually an active quality, and people who say, 'I wouldn't have the patience' are admitting that they lack something, or have not exercised that quality enough to be able to use it.

 Another essential aspect of mental energy is being able to make connections - to be able to think of more than one thing at a time. This can need courage - so many things in the world are almost unbearable to think about at all, but escaping and avoiding is no permanent solution. Reading a newspaper can be like a game to think - 'What is missing?' If all a media commentator can think about is winning Gold Medals, what happens to the idea of the Commonwealth in Commonwealth Games? If all you can think about is how to cure a problem, what happens to trying to prevent it? What you might call 'Adult Arithmetic' is thinking of connections such as 'If six dozen 4 Wheel Drives splash through the bush like they do in the advertisements, what is happening to the bush they have ploughed through?' 'If ten million Australians are all throwing away ten plastic bags a week, does it matter if I am one of them?' Lack of mental energy can also lead to using words as shorthand without inquiring too closely into what they may mean. Growth. Big Ideas. War against Terror. Wealth. Mental energy drives curiosity

Curiosity is like handling gunpowder and many cultures and parents have tried to squash it. But curiosity does add spice and thrills to life, and nothing is humdrum when it is fizzing. However, Freud may have had a real insight when he thought that wide-ranging mental curiosity was a diversion Š a sublimation - of basic sexual curiosity. When a culture and its Internet are obsessed with curiosity only about sex, those who are obsessed can limit their opportunities to be curious about the rest of everything around them. Why does using our mental energy to think often feel like hard work, like hard sport? It uses up calories at a great rate, or so it seems to me, feeding my thinking habits with sandwiches. Since hard thinking is like hard sport, we ought to regard it as sport, and enjoy its difficulty, as we enjoy mastering some physical skill like roller-blading. Teachers in schools have often threatened classes with, 'If you don't behave I'll set you some hard work.' I have seen brilliant teachers operate the other way. "If you are good, I'll set you some hard work'.  In the classes of brilliant teachers, the children are avidly asking the questions, to acquire the knowledge to encourage more curiosity. Unlike Socrates' young adult disciples, children are still acquiring the knowledge to be able to try to answer his questions. Teachers who ask all the questions risk squashing children's own curiosity, to turn them into docile answering machines.

Governments and businesses can actively seek to squash mental energy. They may think that passive non-thinking voters and consumers are just what they want. They may like the media to entertain and condition the public to be mentally docile, to buy as they are told and to submit to anything imposed upon them with nothing more than whingeing. But in the coming years, Australia and the world cannot afford lumpen-proletariats that don't want to think and don't want to know, for the result is that 'the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity' - as Yeats saw in Ireland.

The greatest energy crisis of the world is a crisis of human energy.

More about mental energy and thinking

In all my schooling, the greatest personal help was when I was twelve, and a teacher said to me one day after class, 'It's not naughty to think , you know.'.  I went home with a light shining bright, lighting up my whole being. I had always thought that I was naughty if I thought for myself - and I could not stop thinking, and so I was iredeemably naughty.   

Measuring mental energy

After all, there are thousands of psychological and psychological tests you can take, but there doesnÕt seem to be one readily available that measures this essential zip, this capacity for vigorous mental activity, which, if it could be measured, would be measured in joys rather than joules.

Mental energy is a way to be alive - it is not the same as intelligence, although you canÕt be intelligent without some mental exercise to develop your IQ and the capacities and knowledge which make an IQ score.

Think of the people you know or know about who seem to have been full of mental energy - Galton, Leonardo, Edison,

It is sad that people take drugs in order to cut down their capacity for mental energy, or to acquire through intoxications of various sorts the experiences of consciousness that could be more healthily obtained through using the mental energy  not distorting and squashing it.  They very often do this because they are depressed, and depression not only damps down mental energy so that thinking is a drag, but makes thinking unpleasant because of the thoughts that come. 

A child has mental energy as much as physical energy.  This is not realised when people refer to them as nuisance ankle-biters.  Or when parents say that staying at home with children is rusting their minds.  The normal child has a mind that is active the whole time it is awake.  Where are these normal children?  Why arent there more of them?

A physically energetic child can become a couch potato through being taught to watch television, or dosed on Ritalin for hyperactivity, or just kept indoors because it is safer.  A mentally energetic child can have its mind soused down even more easily.

A babe that finds out that what it learns is horrid in its family life and environment and relations with those who should love it - then it doesnt want to learn any more because that will be horrid too. 

A tiny child sat in front of a television will risk losing its natural mental energy because it cannot understand most of what is going on and learns to expect no meaning - and it is the great drive, search for meaning which gives a young child its greatest mental exercise.

A possible clue for a healthier diet than is usually suggested to keep down weight - Mental energy is also a huge burner of nutrition.  If you think enough it might even burn enough calories to keep you slim.    'Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much.  Let me have men about me that are fat,' said Julius Caesar, who was pretty slim and mentally energetic himself.  What a solution for a diet!  Think hard! Think often!  Obviously one does not think too much about Balzac and Chesterton and other physical heavyweights who were also mental heavyweights. It is hard to imagine that these giants could have thought any harder than they did, but perhaps their eating was also in the giant range.

The brain, they say uses 25% (or name your own high figure) of what we absorb for our nourishment.  Certainly many people who are studying find they need to snack a lot - or perhaps going off for a snack is an excuse to get off thinking for a while, because it can be pretty exhausting if kept up. Then minutes at a time might be the best way to start getting into the habit of thinking without fatigue - or possibly, think slowly and meditatively in a beautiful garden, taking longer to get the same results perhaps, or perhaps qualitatively different results, visited more often by the genius of the garden.

So what encourages mental energy? Obviously some people seem constitutionally more mentally energetic than others, but as with all forms of activity, cultural ambience is the greatest encourager and developer.    Look at the ferment of minds in Elizabethan England, in Renaissance Florence, in Athens 5th century BC. So many catalysts, and so many catalysed, so to speak.   A human-scale group, rather than an immense collection of population, can foster genius with its 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

Children too can be stimulated without being prodded.  When a child finds that what it can learn is fascinating.  When a child finds that the adults around it enjoy helping it to hone its mental skills. When a child sees those around them also with lively minds. When a child's curiosity is encouraged rather than damped down as being 'naughty'.   In schools, or even with parental pressure, there can be prodding to be more mentally energetic in fields chosen by adults.  This is like poking sticks at snails to make them move faster.  Thinking can be presented as hard work, and hard work can be presented as NOT GOOD: AVOID IT.  So the child's agile mind works out how not to think in the directions it is being prodded - but may also rust by not going in other directions either.

The greatest personal help I was given in all my schooling was when I was twelve, and a teacher told me one day after class had finished, 'It's not naughty to think for yourself, you know, Valerie'.  I went home with a light shining bright, warming, indeed heating, and lighting up my whole being. Until that moment, I had always thought that I was naughty if I thought for myself - and I could not stop thinking for myself, and so I felt all during my childhood that I was naughty irredeemably.  It was easier to not be naughty about things like not dusting under the bed properly.

Well, do you want to measure your own mental energy?  Bear in mind that for most people it probably varies enormously - there are times when it is zilch, and possibly times when there is such a head of steam that bubbles surround you. Few indeed keep up a steady pace.  Many of the most mentally energetic people have had long periods of fallow, even of deep depression, or of what is labelled psychiatrically 'bi-polar disorder'.  It can help survival during those periods to imagine that all fertile soils need compost or fallow-time, to be renewed, and for seeds to germinate in the dark unseen.  

But hey, if you do want to measure your mental energy from time to time, and then make an average, hey, invent the tests yourself.  And if you can do that, then score yourself 100 MEQ - which almost sounds like and almost may be that unforgettable mc = something squared, or whatever.  

Nothing too much.  There can be hyperactivity in mental energy, and that may get nowhere. Pope thought that Dryden had an 'energy divine' in his 'varying verse' and so it was.  Energy is Eternal Delight, said Blake, as the Voice of the Devil in 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell', and certainly the idea of perpetual motion has a demonic quality to it.  Mental energy is a reservoir of delight, not much use as a raging torrent unless there are hydro-electric turbines or aesthetic observers or . . .

Two most important aspects of mental energy - probably the two most important - are that it drives learning, and it drives imagination.  The common factor is curiosity.

Be curious.