"And Then There Were None" is a much-anthologized sf short story by Eric Frank Russell. Its peaceful anarchism enchanted me when I first read it, decades ago; I still think that it holds great and gentle wisdom. I'll struggle to restrain myself from spoiling the tale for those who haven't yet seen it. But one facet, the monetary system that Russell sketches out, is so central that I have to describe it here.

On the planet where the story takes place people trade not coins or currency but "Obs" --- their shorthand word for "Obligations". Do me a favor and I owe you in turn: you've laid an ob on me that you can call in, or use to kill an ob that somebody else has put on you. (It's similar to a famous exchange of favors in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather.) Maybe an ob-based economy couldn't work on a larger scale than a village, where everybody knows everybody else. (Or maybe it could?!).

No matter. Think beyond mere money. Why should people try to do incredibly difficult things in their lives? Why strive against overwhelming odds? Why work so hard, when a lesser effort would suffice? Sir Edmund Hillary's excuse to climb Mount Everest, "Because it is there", seems lame and unsatisfying.

The human self-actualization movement that inspired the US Army's (now abandoned) slogan "Be all that you can be" hits closer to the mark. And Judy Decker struck a bull's eye in a letter some months ago when she explained why she has taken on some huge personal challenges. "Because I can", she wrote.

And that reminded me of obs. Most people simply can't do certain things. Most people are too poor, and have to expend all their free energies just to survive. Or they're too young to know the importance of a task, or too old and frail to physically accomplish it. Or they lack the specialized talent or education or skills required. Or they're overwhelmed with other duties.

So if I can do something really tough and really amazing and really good, well, I kinda have an obligation to try --- on behalf of those who cannot. And the ob is laid on me by my own past and future selves too. As Arnold Bennett noted (see BennettOnLife (19 March 2000)):

I am far off old age, but old age is approaching daily. The terrors of old age are solitude, neglect, boredom, lack of suitable activity, utter dependence on others, and the consciousness of wasted opportunities, of having achieved less than one might have achieved. What am I doing now to destroy those terrors, or even to minimise them? Am I sufficiently providing for the final years? Am I keeping my old friendships in repair and constructing new ones? Am I, in the intervals of satisfying my greatest interest, creating minor interests which will serve me later? Am I digging my groove so deep that I shall never be able to climb out of it? Am I slacking?

It's my ob to undertake the hardest and most important jobs I can handle ... because I can.

TopicLife - TopicLiterature - TopicPhilosophy - 2002-08-18

(correlates: BennettOnLife, NotEasy, DepartmentOfRed, ...)

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