The Humanist Trap

(right click on the image, or click here, to open full size in another tab/window; I made this in 2015 so it’s a bit dated)

A lot of people who profess to be atheists or pantheists in their youth, tend to adopt religions when they get older. More than anything else, this seems due to their running out of capacity for feeling responsible for all the world’s ills. Deciding to believe in some higher power and authority — a god, a guru, a Gaia — to some extent gets you off the hook.

Most of my friends throughout my life have been salvationists of one stripe or another (right half of the chart above), and the lion’s share of them have been what I would call Humanists — people who, in wikipedia’s words have a “philosophical stance that emphasizes the individual and social potential and agency of human beings”. They believe that humans can and must exert social and ethical responsibility for our personal and collective actions, and the stewardship of the entire planet. More importantly, they believe, mostly, in the myth of progress, and that there is almost nothing that humans cannot accomplish if we set our minds to it.

This can, of course, be exhausting, especially when things are going particularly badly for the human experiment, as they are now.

Religions offer the comforts of tradition, rigour, continuity and ritual, all salves for the exhausted and disenchanted. In most people’s lives, it seems, there comes a time when they just want to be told what to do, what to think, and what to believe by someone they trust, instead of being overwhelmed by having to make personal, informed, rational, caring decisions about every little thing.

Because few of my friends have been religious, my observation of this has been mostly in, of all places, the workplace: In most offices and factories, a ready co-dependence develops between bosses, who come (I believe psychopathically) to believe they are divinely inspired/gifted to lead and impose their decisions on others, and their exhausted, clueless workers, who are more than content to leave their brains and hearts at the door when they arrive at work. Like military troops on the front lines, they run no risk for simply following orders, and are usually rewarded for doing so even when the results are disastrous. (Though, as in most hierarchies, a “suck up, shit down” culture prevails.)

I see the same mentality among the devoutly religious — a willingness to cede personal authority and control over their own decisions and lives, in return for absolution from any ‘sins’ because they’re doing some god’s will. It’s perhaps no coincidence that much of the military comes from areas with high levels of religious fundamentalism.

More devout atheists might see this as moral and intellectual laziness, but my sense is that it’s mostly a matter of conditioning — We tend to believe the same things as the people around us, and in our modern isolated world where most never meet people with radically different ideas or cultures one-on-one, those beliefs are often never challenged and hence fervently held. And to some extent it’s also a matter of exhaustion, of overwhelm, of giving up when everything seems impossibly complex. So, a retreat to the simple.

I do believe we’re all doing the best we can, but I don’t believe this the same way humanists do. Humanists would say “We need to try even harder, and keep trying”. Whereas, as a non-believer in the cruel philosophy of free will, I don’t believe we have any choice whatsoever in what we do, think, or believe. People who are conditioned by other humanists and not exposed to other belief systems are going to become humanists, full stop.

The life of a humanist is not an easy one, holding all that sense of responsibility, frustration, anxiety, distress, despair and grief about what we have done and are doing to each other and to this planet, when, in their minds, we could have done better.

It’s also a trap: If you’re a Denialist, someone who always believed civilization was going to last forever, you have a lot of pretty easy alternative salvationist political philosophies to migrate to. If you’re religious, you can become a Rapturist. If you’re a one-world idealist, you can become a Globalist and pray to the Davos gods. If you think Elon Musk is not deranged and love reading about singularities, you can become a Technotopian. If you’re drawn to new-agey gurus who urge you to transform to purple, you can become an Integral. If none of these appeals to you, the Humanist tent is big enough for everyone else, and you can go on believing that salvation will come, though it’s going to take a lot more work than you’d hoped.

But once you’ve become a Humanist (and, damn, I was there a long time), you’re trapped. There’s no going back to denial, or to any of the forms of simplistic, idealistic utopian thinking. And going forward to accept that civilization’s collapse is inevitable, no matter what, is a violation of everything you believed, an admission of the personal and collective failure of our entire species. Ugh!

And even if you are able to admit that failure, and move on to collapsnik thinking, it doesn’t get any easier: Become a Deep Green Activist, and risk imprisonment, death, and losing most of your friends, when you know nothing you do will change the end game anyway. Or become a Communitarian, trying to create a functional system that is constantly undermined by the existing economic system and replete with really dysfunctional people who were drawn to communitarianism out of desperate need rather than idealism. Or become an Existentialist and watch your Humanist friends call you a lazy defeatist and “part of the problem”. Or become a Voluntary Human Extinctionist and watch them call you a misanthropic nihilist. Or become a Near Term Extinctionist and have them call you a nutcake. The options are all grim.

Better to stay in the Humanist camp, even if it is a trap. At least your friends will still talk to you.

Paul Kingsnorth was one of the first to articulately convey the absurdity of believing that civilization’s collapse can be avoided or mitigated. He got a lot of flak for that, but he co-started (with Dougald Hine) a movement (Dark Mountain). That movement, unfortunately has devolved, like Rob Hopkins’ and Ben Brangwyn’s Transition movement, into yet another idealistic humanist movement, preoccupied with the need for “social justice” and drawing on “indigenous wisdom” and “mythic transformation” and other platforms of belief about what we can and should do to make the world, and ourselves, “better”.

Humanists can be a bit of a cancer — they will infect and take over anything they touch. But the two movements were (like the humanist Occupy movement) fascinating while they lasted.

Paul has recently converted to Orthodox Christianity and regularly speaks on the subject. He has also “changed sides” and now opposes all government mandates, including vaccines. He has not become a salvationist, but his endless search for a “new story” to replace the hopelessly flawed story of civilization has taken him to embrace religion. He now asserts that the “question of the times” is: “If/when I fully accept the reality of this time, how am I called to live a faithful, fully human life, here and now?” Called by whom? Faithful how and to whom? ‘Human’ meaning what? I guess he knows what he means. To me this question is as meaningless as “What am I going to do once the Rapture comes?” But I bet a lot of people like his question, especially the humanists who can take it to mean almost anything they want.

When I met him at a Dark Mountain gathering during its early days, a group of us attempted to identify the myths held by and underlying our civilization, and some of the new myths embraced by its discontents. Of course, myths aren’t necessarily false, and they are the foundation of almost all religions. Paul seemed nonplussed when, back then, I suggested that, rather than look for a new story, we should give up on stories, and myths, and see whether, like wild creatures, we could live just fine without them. So now he has his new story, an ancient one, and I am still trying to live without one, shaking off the ones that seem, like burs, to cling to me at every turn. Salvation, and collapse, are, of course, stories too. And all stories are fictions.

Living with “unknowingness”, with uncertainty and complexity and ambiguity and endless cognitive dissonance is something humans seem disinclined to do. I will never understand that about most people, and have no idea why I embrace them with such endless curiosity and joy.

Beliefs and ideas and stories, to me, are fascinating, and fun, and exploring them is a bit like trying on new clothes. They can be pretty, and flattering, but after a while they wear, and wear on you, and fade and fall apart. They are affectations, unnatural, and they start to smell when they get old.

I suppose I pick on humanism because it afflicted me for much of my life, and still characterizes most of those I know. It’s an old and compelling story, like the story of progress, but any objective examination of the evidence shows it to be untenable.

Just like all the other stories that so many people, so fervently, believe.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 8 Comments

Noticing What’s Missing

painting of ivory-billed woodpecker by John Audubon (public domain); despite large rewards for a proven sighting, it was declared extinct last year

An interesting aspect of human nature is our obliviousness to the disappearance of things that we once took for granted. We often immediately notice things that are new, like an ache in our chest, but we rarely notice what has stopped (such as that ache that was there for a while, or that bird we used to see and hear, or that favourite blog we used to read regularly).

And we are even less likely to notice what has been conspicuously missing for a long time, or seemingly forever — intelligent, nuanced, articulate perspectives on topical issues, for example, or a properly graduated and equitable tax system, or mass anti-war protests, or self-immolations or suicide bombers, or family doctors, or a prevailing attitude of trust in and respect for (at least some) other people and (at least some) public institutions.

What’s worse, we are more likely to ‘remember’ things that never were, nostalgically, than we are to notice things that once were useful and important but no longer exist. When we can’t remember these things, we impoverish our imagination of what is possible.

We forget things easily when they’re no longer around: The horror of the bodies of dead and maimed soldiers returning home after useless wars. The terror of military draft in countries with endless imperialist ambitions. What it’s like to find oneself or a loved one is unintentionally pregnant when abortion is illegal. The once-widespread and open tolerance of racism and segregation, misogyny, spousal and child abuse, and ghastly animal abuse. And the good things too: When I was born, 70 years ago, there were only 2.4B people living on the planet; there were no factory farms yet; the average house was 900 sf and cost $8,000, about twice the median family annual income; the wealthy paid a top tax rate of 91%, and there was little complaint about it.

In The Place You Love is Gone, Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes:

Something gets into you, and you want to yank on the collars of people in the street until their eyeballs make noise. You mean to horrify them with the news, amply documented if they cared, that the earth is pretty much a goner. What you do instead is convince them of your lunacy… Suddenly now it hits, bizarrely easy to grasp. We are inexorably headed for the Big Goodbye. It’s official. The unthinkable is ready to be thought. It is finally in sight, after all of human history behind us. In the pit of what is left of your miserable soul you feel it coming, the definitive loss of home, bigger than the cause of one person’s tears. Yours and mine, the private sob, will be joined by a mass crying: whole cultures, ways of life, languages, beliefs, landscapes, climates, now falling at a cataclysmic rate along with millions of trees in the Congo basin and the Brazilian rainforest and along the Mongolian border. The echo of their crashing is a prelude to the final kiss-off, the extinction of our species along with every other that is made to suffer by us…

There is not a power upon the earth that will stop progress. Except progress itself. When the air can’t be breathed, when the psyche starts running amok from too many others crowding the elbow, when the spring comes four weeks too soon, when the floods come, when the trees wither, when the billion diverse creatures that weave together in ways we cannot comprehend to make the net that holds us up die, when selfishness calls the chickens home to roost, then it will stop.

Everything has changed, and so much has been lost — including 3/4 of the wildlife and wildlands of this planet — in 70 years (most of it in the last 20), but it’s happened so slowly we’ve hardly noticed.

This is our nature — we react to new things, to obvious change, to things that happen overnight. We don’t notice things that don’t appear anymore, especially if their disappearance is gradual. And we don’t notice things that appear gradually, as the proverbial boiling frogs don’t notice the temperature being increased until it is too late. (The frogs do notice, by the way, and jump to safety; they are much more sensitive to changes in their environment than we humans, locked and lost inside our heads, and disconnected from what’s happening outside, especially in the modern human prostheses of cities).

The appalling downside of human self-domestication — the ease with which we can be conditioned to put up with almost anything if it’s continually reinforced — is our capacity for tolerating atrocities: grotesque untruths, horrific discrimination and abuse, and unlimited suffering. It’s amazing what people get used to, and come to consider as ‘normal’.

What I am trying to do, now, is to notice not only what’s there, when I walk in my new community, but what is no longer there, what might be there but seems absent, what I noticed before but don’t see now. Everything changes, of course, and nothing lasts forever, but in my ‘paying attention’ practice I’m trying to focus not only on what I can see, when the endless noise in my head momentarily becomes quieter, but what I imagine I might see, or might have seen, or might one day see, in the infinite small spaces and places that make up this terrible, and wondrous, world.

Thanks to Chris Corrigan for inspiring this post.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

How Abandonment of the $US Could Precipitate Global Economic Collapse

Chart of relative stock market values since 1870, from Morningstar via Indrajit Samarajiva. Note that the scale is logarithmic. Since 1870, while energy and industrial production have increased by a factor of 20, stock “values” have increased by a factor of 20,000

Economic systems are horrifically complex and how they operate is generally poorly understood. Economists who glibly claim they understand what’s going on, and that it’s possible to control unwanted economic events through managed ‘interventions’, have been repeatedly proved wrong.

In fact, you might seriously ask whether there even is such a thing as an ‘economic system’, since it’s essentially the result of 7.9B people doing ‘economic’ things (buying and selling things, getting into debt, having children etc), and their behaviour is often illogical and always unpredictable.

And economic systems are also enormously fragile. Reckless lending practices very nearly ushered in a global economic collapse in 2008, and trillions of dollars of taxpayer money were shovelled out to the reckless gamblers to bail them out and prevent that collapse. Yet those practices have now been fully resumed, and we’re once again on the brink.

What has happened over the past century, and especially over the last 40 years, has been a dramatic shift from an economy that is industrial — focused on producing goods and services of value to citizens, though at a catastrophic ecological cost — to an economy that is financial — focused on hyping the value of assets (physical property, “investments”, and “intellectual property” in order to relentlessly shift wealth from consumers and producers to the “rentiers” (passive owners) of these insanely overpriced assets.

This boondoggle has been sold to us on the basis that, as long as we can become “rentiers” ourselves (ie own property and investments), we benefit from this Ponzi scheme: Our homes and investments go up in value, giving us security, more “wealth”, and possibly a nest egg for our retirement. Of course, the billionaires own a million times as much property and investments and benefit a million times as much, while essentially doing nothing except gambling in the real estate and stock market, producing essentially nothing of value at all.

And as long as interest rates are kept artificially low, way below actual inflation, as has been the case for almost 40 years now, the rentier gamblers can borrow vast sums of money almost free (secured by the market “value” of their assets), and use that money to “invest” (gamble) on even more hyper-appreciation of their assets.

Who loses in the boondoggle? The environment, and hence all future generations, who will have to repay the costs of our extravagant overconsumption, pollution and waste of finite resources, and pick up the pieces of the economic and ecological collapse we have created. The poor, who can’t afford the ante to get in on the game. The billions of citizens of the Global South, whose resources are stripped and stolen for a pittance by the gamblers, and who are left with desolated and polluted land, slave labour wages (or no employment at all), and massive debts which the World Bank and IMF demand be repaid promptly to the rentiers on threat of crushing sanctions, and requiring brutal austerity measures to be imposed on their defrauded and impoverished citizens. And the unlucky, who get ripped off by the rentiers, bombed or starved because their governments didn’t play ball with the hegemony of rentier nations, or evicted from their homes, or who are foolish enough to invest their paltry life savings in the Ponzi scheme just before it goes bust.

The thing about valuation of assets is that they’re worth only what we all agree they’re worth. This is, in short, all about trust. That trust can be earned genuinely, or acquired through arm-twisting, bribery, extortion, blackmail, propaganda, and mis- and disinformation. And the number of ‘votes’ we get in determining the value of assets and what’s done with them is proportionate to the value of the assets we have, as any minority shareholder will tell you. The owner of a $100B hedge fund or currency speculation fund has far more say than we do in what assets are “worth”.

New Yorker cartoon by Paul Noth

Financial and currency collapses occur when that trust is lost, which can happen for many reasons.  The value of each currency is therefore the result of a kind of highly-unbalanced collective agreement.

An industrial economy is only as healthy as its capacity to sustainably produce goods and services that are of value to citizens. By contrast, a financial economy is only as healthy as the confidence of citizens that assets are worth what they are currently priced at. As soon as it becomes clear that prices bear no resemblance whatever to the underlying real value-in-use of the goods and services they represent, then the Ponzi scheme is over, and everyone who still has money in the game loses big. When houses are “valued” at 10x the cost of replacing them, and stocks like Tesla are trading at a value equal to more than 1,000 years’ current earnings (P/E ratio), you know this is now just a game of nerves to see who will, and who won’t, bail out in time.

So, for example, if some deranged billionaire were to decide to invest $40B in the Vancouver real estate market, the effect of this would probably at least quadruple the average house price there from $2M to $8M. Many Vancouver homeowners have ridden the housing market up as it actually has quadrupled over the past 15 years, and used the appreciation to finance multiple additional house purchases on the way up. They would instantly become multi-millionaires if prices quadrupled again.

Would they use their new mega-wealth to buy even more Vancouver homes? Or would the “market” say “enough is enough” and burst the bubble, selling out and moving their profits to other less-inflated markets? Given the amount of (low-interest, cheap, risky) mortgages many real estate speculators have taken out on these high-priced homes, the bursting of the bubble could instantly bankrupt tens of thousands of suddenly-underwater homeowners, and possibly (unless bailed out by the government) bankrupt the banks that recklessly offered these mortgages. Not to mention hollowing out the city with unpaid mortgages many times higher than the value of the foreclosed and shuttered properties they “secure”.

There are a series of cons that are essential to keep this big con going.

The first con is to convince people that the economy is in much better shape than it actually is, by replacing legitimate measures of economic health and well-being with fake numbers. When this is done, those not doing as well as the fake statistics indicate, are made to feel that this must be their own fault — that they are failures, and need to work harder to catch up.

A second con is to count things as productive activity (GDP) that actually add no value to the economy at all. So, for example, the $40B in mostly-munitions expenses just earmarked for Ukraine, which military experts predict will most likely be blown up by the Russians before they are actually deployed, is included, as are the rest of the $1T annual military/security expenditures. The $3M/inmate/annum cost of running Guantanamo, is included. Oil spill and other eco-disaster clean-up costs are included. Subsidies to Big Oil, Big Pharma etc are included. Arbitrary administrative fees charged to foreign subsidiaries to repatriate profits to the home office country and avoid taxes, are included. The value of all new property and other new “investments”, is included, as are your rent, and the “imputed rent” (at today’s rates) on your house if you’re a homeowner. The amount of bonuses and stock options given to executives, is included. Other than property construction, none of these expenditures actually produces anything, or provides anything of value to citizens. But that, the government tells us, is how we measure increase in wealth and well-being. If you’re not feeling it, you must be doing something wrong.

The stock markets, which would have you believe (see chart above) that since 1870 a “smart” investor’s wealth would have risen by a factor of 20,000, even though actual production of real stuff has risen only by a factor of 20, play upon this con in three main ways:

  1. First, these values are “adjusted” only for “official” rates of inflation, which, since 1870, have averaged 2%/year. Actual average rates of inflation, at least since Reagan changed the “official” rate calculations to make the economy look vastly healthier than it actually is, have been closer to 8%/year, per SGS data. So these “inflation-adjusted” values of real wealth appreciation are overstated by a factor of 12.
  2. Second, these values ignore the values of stocks that were delisted or went bankrupt and hence were removed from indices; only the “winners” are counted. You invested in the “losers”? You idiot.
  3. Third, these values depend substantially on “income” from things that have only ‘financial’ value, not real value from producing anything of use to citizens. For example, a 50% buyback of a company’s stock using a company’s excess cash, will double that company’s stock price, when no new value has been created. The creation of monopolies and oligopolies in every industry sector likewise pumps up prices and hence stock “values” while creating nothing of value. And since as much as 40% of stocks are owned by the richest 1%, who therefore wildly disproportionally determine what every stock is “worth”, the lion’s share of this “value growth” merely reflects the transfer of wealth from average citizens to the 1% rentier class, who keep pumping their paper wealth back into the markets, creating ever-greater bubbles, because it’s their best return on investment.

As many people have pointed out, the net worth of the poorest 90% of the population has steadily declined since 1980, and that’s true even using the fake government inflation statistics.

All of the increase in “wealth” since 1980 has accrued to the richest 1% of the population, and all of that increase has been produced as a result of a combination of (a) ever-increasing production of non-renewable resources (and commensurate environmental destruction), and (b) the financial shenanigans that create utterly non-productive “wealth” described above.

So, what role does the “highly-overvalued” (per Goldman Sachs) US dollar play in the unravelling of this? It depends. Here’s a bit of background:

In 1944, the US dollar became the sole “official” reserve currency in the world.  Then, fifty years ago, in 1971, Tricky Dick Nixon, dealing with double-digit inflation and a collapsing war-based economy, decided, unilaterally, that the US would no longer honour the gold standard (converting other countries’ US dollars into actual gold, when requested), and that henceforth, the US dollar would simply take the place of gold in all financial affairs.

The combination of these two things has given rise to what economists call Exorbitant Privilege, which means that the value of the US dollar is dramatically higher than its national balance of payments and accumulated debt would warrant, were it any other nation’s currency, allowing the US to print unlimited dollars and borrow money far more cheaply than its precarious financial situation would otherwise allow. The IMF has been worried about this for decades and has proposed a number of ‘currency basket’ alternatives that would be less subject to collapsing the entire global economy if the US economy tanked. But guess who controls the IMF?

As a result, many countries are required to keep large amounts of money in US dollar reserve accounts in order to pay for things like oil, fertilizer, food, and their massive foreign-owned national debts, in US dollars, under various often-coercive agreements imposed upon them.

That was OK when the US respected that those reserve funds belonged to those countries. But, starting with Iran, and then Venezuela, and then just this year Afghanistan and Russia, the US government first “froze” those accounts as part of sanctions against those countries in punishment for acts disagreeable to the Pentagon and US government, and has now seized (ie stolen) those funds — hundreds of billions of dollars of other nations’ money, causing, among other horrible things, widespread starvation in once-affluent Venezuela and in Afghanistan.

Of course the US government mouthpieces have furiously attempted to reassure other countries that the US would never do that to them. (At least as long as they behave.) But this rash action has essentially destroyed trust in the US dollar as a “safe-harbour”, reliable currency, and there is now a scramble going on in many countries to move assets, as much as possible, out of US dollar reserves into domestic or other currency.

What’s worse, the oil crisis that the sanctions/siege against Russia has created, has driven up oil prices to nearly twice pre-sanction levels, creating economic crises in many countries, especially in the Global South.

And in many countries, inflation is now at record levels, driven up by massive increases in debt loads (much of it to pay costs of the CoVid-19 pandemic and, in the US, by multiple costly military adventures including Ukraine), and by soaring commodity prices, especially oil,  due to supply disruptions.

These massive debt loads are going to have to be repaid, or at least renegotiated, at dramatically higher interest rates. At the household level, at the corporate level, and at the government level, the combination of wildly excessive debts (partly the result of reckless levels of leverage — sound familiar?) and much higher interest rates will almost certainly result in massive numbers of bankruptcies and possibly a full-scale global economic collapse. All because of reckless lending, obscene levels of military spending, overinflated property and stock prices, and our complete dependence on artificially suppressed interest rates.

This is especially true in the US. No surprise, then, that many countries and investors are very worried about keeping their accounts and investments in US dollars, even though it is the reserve currency of record and has always therefore been considered a “safe haven” currency during military, political and economic upheavals.

There have been a lot of discussions about what might replace the US dollar as the international reserve and settlement standard currency, including suggestions of digital and cryptocurrencies and currency ‘baskets’, and a return to the gold standard. No currency or commodity seems large, stable and reliable enough to serve as the international reserve. The assumption has been that there has to be a replacement, because there always has been (prior to WW2, which essentially bankrupted the UK, the British Pound had been the international reserve currency for over a century).

My perhaps-naive belief (I am not an economist) is that there is actually no need for an international reserve currency. If the US dollar can no longer be trusted, and there is no ready replacement, then an obvious solution, at least in the interim, in this day and age of vast, rapid and secure electronic communication, is to continually negotiate, track and post bilateral trade and settlement agreements in whatever currency or currencies the participating nations agree to use.

This is already how things are commonly done in the Global South, where US dollars are at a premium and where trade with the US is not as dominant as it is in the North. Saudi Arabia and China have an agreement to settle oil sales in Chinese yuan (renminbi). Several Latin American countries are negotiating to create a new common Latin American currency called the Sur. The Indian rupee is increasingly used in Asian agreements.

This of course infuriates the US, since challenges to US dollar hegemony threaten to devalue the US dollar and undermine or end its Exorbitant Privilege. And meanwhile, the Euro, Pound and other European currencies, and the Canadian dollar, are in free-fall relative to the US dollar (or in the case of the Canadian dollar, to half of its value relative to what it would normally be trading at with $115/bbl oil). Their utter dependence on the US and its currency is now clear to all, and can only further attempts in the rest of the world to distance themselves from falling into the same trap.

What happens when you have a ton of US dollars that no one really wants because they don’t need them for most of their trade or financial transactions, and when US debt loads are out of control and substantially un-repayable? You have massive market turmoil. And with the economies of so many countries, over-leveraged, drowning in debt, dependent on low inflation and interest rates, and with ownership of their resources and industry largely bought by western corporations (often in league with corrupt domestic dictators) at bargain-basement prices, teetering on a knife-edge, market and currency turmoil could easily tip them, and the whole world, into economic collapse.

Sri Lanka is an excellent case study. While government incompetence has clearly greatly exacerbated that country’s economic crisis, many of the same factors that have had them on the edge of bankruptcy for years, similarly threaten many other countries.

So in most so-called “developing” nations, economically and ecologically ravaged by domestic corruption and foreign rapacity and greed, the economies are dysfunctional, dependent on massive loans and constant renegotiations with the IMF and World Bank, and ever-increasing austerity forced on their already-suffering populations to pay for them.

And meanwhile the so-called “developed” nations, utterly economically dependent on a US that is so horrifically in debt that, were it not for its “privileged” status, would be declared obviously bankrupt, desperately curry favour and support the US’s endless imperial ambitions for fear of being cut off and having their money stolen, and prop up the US dollar to which their currency is inextricably tied, a dollar that is issued in unlimited quantities by a country with a hollowed-out economy that essentially now produces nothing of real “value” except weaponry.

Sounds like a recipe for collapse to me. But then, what do I know? I’ve been predicting this for fifteen years, and, still, the old boys pony up another trillion, and another, since they have no better use for their money, hoping against hope that things will keep going a few more years, until it’s no longer their problem.

Once a gambler, always a gambler, I guess. But we all know how it’s going to end.

If you’re interested in learning more about this from a real economist, I would recommend Prof. Michael Hudson’s recent talks, including one with Margaret Flowers (audio, transcript), and one with Ben Norton (video, transcript).

Also worth reading on this subject:

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

Facing My Misanthropy

cartoon by the incomparable Michael Leunig

I‘ve never really liked most people very much. I don’t seek out, or need, much human company, preferring to interact with a few who are as interested as I am in the subjects of this blog:

  • Creative works of all kinds
  • Appreciating how the world really works
  • Understanding our culture, and human nature
  • Tracking the collapse of our civilization, and the sixth great extinction
  • Exploring radical non-duality, free will and conditioning

I also enjoy interacting with an even smaller group of people who, for reasons I can’t really fathom, seem to really enjoy my company. I put that down to chemistry, which I wouldn’t even try to understand.

This year, my misanthropy has had the upper hand over me far too much of the time for my liking. I can tell myself that, like everyone else, I have no control over my reactions, beliefs, preferences and passions, but it doesn’t stop me from being distressed by them, from finding them ‘inappropriate’. It’s not even that I find the views and actions of people unfathomable. As I keep saying, no one is to blame and we are all doing our best.

So why do I get so exasperated by seemingly intelligent, thoughtful, informed people who, for example, support sending massive amounts of munitions to expand a war, who support censoring and ‘cancelling’ radical feminists and others with ‘unacceptable’ views, who think vaccines are evil and masks are an unreasonable restriction on their ‘freedom’, who think many or all government services are non-essential and unaffordable and should be privatized or discontinued, who think it matters which party you vote for in the next election, or who think climate collapse can be averted?

I appreciate that most people simply can’t help themselves. Why do I expect more of more intelligent people?

I used to agree with most people who call themselves ‘progressives’, on almost all issues. But now, when I am writing or speaking with people, I have to remind myself which subjects we agree on, and which we utterly disagree on, basically because I’ve found it completely pointless to even broach the latter. And ‘the latter’ seems to be an ever-growing proportion of what everyone is talking about.

Nevertheless, I get grumpy when I see or experience stupidity, ignorance, mis- and disinformation, naïveté, simplistic thinking, over-reaction, narcissism, cruelty, violence, aggression, righteous indignation, sloppiness, arrogance (including my own), self-pity, fearfulness, self-preoccupation, manipulation, meanness, incompetence and other very normal, understandable human characteristics and behaviours. Why does that happen, when I understand why things are that way?

And so I worry about a world sliding into fascism, a world utterly incapable of coping with the ever-growing challenges of collapse, although I know in my heart and my head and my bones, there is nothing to be done about it. What then is the point of worrying? I suppose we feel fear even when we know what we fear cannot be avoided, especially when the form the things we fear are going to take is so unclear and uncertain.

Recently, however, there have been times when the misanthropy just kind of disappears. When I see people struggling with difficult circumstances, or in physical pain. When I see people just smiling quietly, or singing, or obviously in love. When I see people working passionately on a project they love. When I see children in non-competitive play, or hear birdsong, or beautifully-composed music, or see pink and purple clouds at sunset. When people obviously brimming with joy greet me and everyone they see cheerfully.

In short, it is when I pay attention, right here, right now, that the misanthropy seems to melt away. When I get outside my head, and discover others likewise not locked inside their heads, not dwelling on everything that they imagine to be wrong with their world, or the world.

I have often said that I believe wild creatures move easily between two states — excitement and equanimity — save in the rare moments they face existential stress. I think that is how I want to live, and how I, or at least the idealist in me that is still hanging on, want all humans to live. Accepting of what is, noticing more here and now, thinking a lot less about abstract things and things they can do nothing about, and not getting caught up in their heads.

It’s a cliché that the things we presume to dislike in other people are the things we actually dislike about ourselves, which we resent seeing reflected back at us in others’ behaviours. All those things that I said above make me grumpy — stupidity, ignorance, expression of mis- and disinformation, naïveté, simplistic thinking, over-reaction, narcissism, cruelty, violence, aggression, righteous indignation, sloppiness, arrogance, self-pity, fearfulness, self-preoccupation, manipulation, meanness, incompetence — when I see them in others, are things that I am embarrassed to acknowledge I have been ‘guilty’ of, and sometimes still am.

So perhaps my misanthropy is a mask for shame. And the things I mentioned above that melt away my misanthropy do so because they do not reflect back on me the things I am ashamed of in my past or present self.

After all, since I know we cannot be other than how we are, my misanthropy cannot have any logical underpinnings, so it must have a psychological basis. We are all healing, and perhaps it is just too uncomfortable and embarrassing to be reminded of old and unhealed wounds when I see them freshly gaping in others. Perhaps I am afraid that the fearfulness and other lamentable and useless frailties of others will tear open the same fearfulness and frailties, anew, in me.

Of course, knowing this, if it is even true, doesn’t make any difference; it is not useful knowledge. There is no solace in feeling “Too Far Ahead” of most other people, and even believing that anyone is “ahead” of anyone else is just one more arrogance to invoke even more self-shame.

Like everyone else, I cannot help myself. Of late I have been trying to spend less time inside my head, less time online, more time sensing and less time trying to make sense. Not that I have any control over that — that just seems to be who I am, now, what I seem inclined to do. Might just be a new form of escapism.

But whatever it is, I am driven, now, to go out and walk by the river, smile for no reason, pay attention to small things, make eye contact with people and greet them cheerfully (even when that raises eyebrows), watch the birds and the squirrels, think less about what my senses are sensing, and just see where that takes me. Hopefully, to a place that is less misanthropic, less self-possessed, and more useful to the world.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

How Many Canadians Have Died From CoVid-19?

The enormous inconsistencies and dubious premises underlying some recent reports about actual vs reported CoVid-19 death rates in Canada cast serious doubt upon the reliability of the findings and conclusions in several of these reports, which are in some cases being used to make critical decisions about the pandemic.

They also raise serious questions about the competence of journalists reporting on health issues, and in particular their capacity to think critically and ask appropriate questions about the data and assumptions behind the reports they are publicizing. Just because an “expert” says something is true, doesn’t make it so, and when the claims of various authorities diverge wildly (and hence make easy headlines), this lack of journalistic capacity, IMO, borders on professional negligence.

The chart above shows cumulative reported Canadian CoVid-19 deaths (in green); the total to date is about 40,000. Because the estimated actual number of deaths according to IHME (yellow) has whipsawed all over the place since the pandemic began, I became curious, and concerned, about what methodology they were using. It turns out that over the past two years they have used a whole series of completely inconsistent methodologies, abandoning several entirely in favour of other models with wildly different assumptions.

Some of these models concluded that Canadian CoVid-19 deaths were being underreported by a factor of up to four times. Why? Because those are the only death data they could get to ‘fit’ with their assumptions about IFR, CFR, and other factors in their models. They apparently made no attempt to understand how, given the history of thoroughness, skill and depth of data collection and analysis of Canada’s very accomplished and long-established epidemiologists, they could be so utterly incompetent at such a straight-forward task. So rather than question their assumptions, or attempt to resolve how such extreme underreporting could have occurred, they just disregarded the incongruity and went with the models. Until the models were proved preposterous, when they switched, without explanation or apology, to completely different models. In many professions, this would justifiably be described as misconduct.

Knowing that the Canadian professionals could not have been so incompetent in their data-gathering, I looked at some evidence that would either support or contradict these models. I used Statistics Canada’s excess deaths data — its report on total deaths from all causes, and the variance from previous years’ averages. This data is notoriously slow to compile, because the data has to come from the provincial authorities and local hospitals and facilities, which are in some cases seriously backlogged. But once it is in, it is good data. It is in, now, for the period up to December 31, 2021, and that data is shown in grey on the chart above.

This data has consistently confirmed what has also been found in many European countries with advanced health-care systems — that the reported CoVid-19 deaths were remarkably consistent with excess deaths in the same period. In some cases, there were other causes for excess deaths (like the heat dome in the Pacific Northwest last summer), but for the most part, health measures that had been put in place have actually reduced the number of deaths from non-CoVid-19 causes (influenza, accidents etc.) below historical normals, such that, even given that data collection is not perfect, and suffers from considerable lags, the reported number of CoVid-19 deaths in Canada and many Western European countries aligns very closely with excess deaths totals over the same period.

Disgruntlement with wildly inaccurate, whipsawing models based on flawed and quickly-abandoned assumptions, led a group of statisticians to try to develop a global database of normal and excess deaths, so that actual death tolls could be more accurately, and consistently, assessed. The World Mortality Database (WMD) was born, and many health authorities began using its data in place of those based on fragile and flip-flopping models like IHME’s.

Within a couple of months, IHME again abandoned its most recent model and switched to using WMD or equivalent excess deaths data for its new estimates, but only for the US and selected Western European countries where the new data still ‘fit’ its previous assumptions about IFR and CFR.

So, for example, in May 2021, IHME’s old model said that actual deaths to that date were 905,000 in the US,  50% more than had been officially reported. By September 2021, they claimed actually US deaths had already exceeded one million, again 50% more than officially reported. But two months later, in November 2021, they estimated, using their new model, that  deaths to date were just 900,000 — less than they had estimated they had been six months earlier, despite the intervening Wave 4 toll, and now only about 10% more than had been officially reported.

Meanwhile, the WMD excess deaths data for Canada and some other countries just didn’t fit their new model assumptions, so IHME continued to estimate that Canada, unlike the US, must be incompetent in tracking CoVid-19 deaths, since to fit their model actual deaths must have been at least 35% higher than reported deaths, and would continue to be do in future. So they continue to claim 54,000 Canadians have died so far, not the 40,000 that have been officially reported, or which track excess deaths data.

The hapless and hopelessly-underfunded WHO, which has bounced from blunder to blunder, finally got on board with using excess deaths as a base-line for their estimates last month. But they seem to continue to have problems with numbers, since the excess deaths data for Canada they are using (which I have copied carefully from their new database) is shown in blue above. Their report doesn’t talk about Canada, other than to say that Canada’s reported numbers are reasonably accurate, while the actual numbers for the US are 75,000 deaths (about 8%) more than officially reported.

Because neither the IHME nor the WHO data make sense, I looked at one more source to see if I could substantiate the reasonableness of the data Canada’s hard-working health professionals, who have no earthly reason to lie about it, have been providing.

Sadly, the Canadian model I next examined was even more ridiculous. I read a CBC report based on this model that claimed that some provinces’ death data (including that of my home province of BC) was low by a factor of 3-4x (and had earlier been low by a factor of 5-7x). The model also claims that Québec has vastly over-counted its CoVid-19 death toll (but why?).

The modellers included a link to their data tables, and the links on those tables took me to more detailed tables. And it appears they are still making the assumptions that the IHME model has, at least for selected countries, abandoned. They assume that, from other data, they ‘know’ the IFR and CFR, and based on that, and based on further assumptions about what proportion of the population has been infected, they have ‘backed in’ to an estimate of how many have actually died. Suffice it to say that their estimates, which even exceed IHME’s preposterous numbers, are alarming, eye-catching to lazy journalists, and completely incompatible with any understanding of how epidemiological data is rigorously collected in this country. Their forecasts for the future, which hopefully aren’t being taken seriously by decision-makers, project that in the months ahead nearly half of actual Canadian CoVid-19 deaths will continue to go uncounted. Their wacky model also claims that over 300,000 Canadian CoVid-19 deaths have been averted by vaccines alone, almost 10x the official death toll.

So, how many Canadians have actually died from CoVid-19? The data suggests that the reported 40,000 death toll is not far off. It also suggests that the precautions we took for the pandemic (which we have now been encouraged to abandon) have modestly reduced deaths from other causes, such as influenza, and probably cut the death toll to a third of what it could otherwise have been.

There is something else that seems to have been overlooked in the myopic reporting in most of the Canadian media — the slope of the green line in the chart above. It’s basically unchanged over the past 16 months, and not sloping down at all. That slope represents 1,250 avoidable Canadian deaths every month, about 42 every day.

If only the politicians, of every stripe, were half as diligent at collecting and using the evidence at hand to make policy decisions in the best interest of their citizens (rather than their popularity), as our health care professionals were, until the decisions were wrenched from their hands.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

Links of the Month: May 2022

cartoon by Ali Solomon

Despite my aspirations to be more equanimous, and to accept that my role is simply to witness and chronicle the collapse of our global industrial growth culture and the sixth great extinction, I am quite terrified these days by how quickly misinformation and disinformation — especially when it plays into what people really want to believe — can spread and lead to levels of distrust, dangerous actions (and inaction), and violence that are utterly incompatible with maintaining a civil society.

Dmitry Orlov in his five-stage collapse model worried about limiting collapse to financial, economic and political collapse, which are at least survivable, and avoiding social collapse. I’m worried, now, that social collapse might actually come first, or at least hand-in-hand with looming global economic collapse and the accelerating global slide into fascism.

I hadn’t expected things to come apart quite this fast, or in quite this way.


chart from, updated to May 10 2022; thanks to Indrajit Samarajiva for the link

No hope of stopping climate collapse: Indrajit Samarajiva reviews the latest evidence and reaches the obvious conclusion : “The hard truth is that the climate has already collapsed, and there’s no going back.” And he talks about how we might manage the grief that comes with this realization. And in a related article, he describes how his country, Sri Lanka, is coping with collapse now, giving us a preview of what we’re all going to have to face in the coming decades. That includes rationing, folks. Not sure how the anti-all-government ‘freedom’ fanatics are going to handle that.

Open letter from Roger Hallam to XR: The “R” in XR was supposed to stand for Rebellion. And “this is a war“. Thanks to Jerry McManus for the link, and the one that follows.

“The road ahead is a dead end”: Another synopsis of our current state, and how we got here.

End of the story of progress: Rhyd Wildermuth explains how current events have shattered “the fantasy of historical progress, urban civic religion, and the Pax Capitalis — the faith that universal capitalism could unify all people in peace”, and that defenders of these myths, and those who desperately want to believe in them, are furious about it.

Actions speak louder than words: And as we continue to posture and proclaim our concern, governments’ approval of more non-renewable energy projects, more military spending, and utter inaction on collapse, tells us what they really believe. Even when that entails knowingly destroying ocean life to foster commercial fish farms.

Big Oil steps up: Encouraged by high oil prices and urging from Biden and other western leaders to increase production to reduce dependence on Russian sources, Big Oil has put forward proposals for new projects that will produce a total of 192B barrels of new oil, of which construction commitments and financing is already in place for 116B barrels. These projects alone will emit 646B tons of CO2, which is 125% of the entire globe’s remaining budget for emissions to have a 50% chance of staying below 1.5ºC of warming.


cartoon found on Relax It’s Only Art facebook page, artist not cited; anyone recognize/read the artist’s signature so s/he can get credit for it?

Love letter to all draft dodgers: Caitlin Johnstone understands.

No pronouns for me, thanks: “You didn’t consider how this ideology is erasing women and removing their spaces.” Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link, and the one that follows.

Janelle Orsi wants to reform “lawyering”: It’s a worthy goal, but probably an impossible one. The whole “legal system” IMO needs to be replaced, not reformed, by what might be called a “conciliation system”, whose function, and functioning, would be utterly different from the current legal system, which exists solely to exercise, sustain and enforce power, not to achieve reconciliation or remediation.

Addressing antibiotic resistance: Sabine Hossenfelder explains the enormous dangers we face if we don’t find better ways of dealing with bacterial infections than soaking everything in antibiotics, and suggests some different approaches.

I dream a world: Joan Szymko’s deeply-moving choral music set to the famous Langston Hughes poem.

A tool for thinking differently: My friend Dave Snowden recommends the use of aporia (irresolvable internal contradictions or tensions) as a means of shocking the brain into thinking about something differently. So an example of a linguistic aporia might be coming up with a neologism like exaptation, a foreign word like weltschmerz, or a metaphor. An example of an aesthetic aporia might be a drawing, cartoon, photo, or other work of art, improvisation or storytelling. An example of a physical aporia might be exhausting exercise, meditation, ritual, fasting, or immersion in water — any means of “creating a space of difference” to allow something out of the ordinary to emerge.

A not-for-profit world: Jennifer Hinton’s podcast and book explaining how an economic system based entirely on not-for-profit enterprises might work. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the links.


cartoon by Michael Leunig

Maybe it’s not quite that bad: Tom Lewis suggests several seemingly-awful political developments are not as bad as they might appear, and that if we have to be afraid, we should be afraid of climate collapse instead. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

Striving for Peace: I wrote a lot about Ukraine in a recent post, so this time around I just want to focus on how we might work towards, and achieve, peace, there and in other war zones:

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism: Short takes (thanks to John Whiting for several of these links):

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:

And the poisoned street drug death toll keeps rising: As governments of all stripes dither, backslide and stall, the monthly death toll from poisoned street drugs has now surpassed, in many places, the monthly CoVid-19 death toll. There is a simple answer — legalization, testing, dispensing and regulation of currently illegal drugs, and treatment of users as ill patients, not as criminals. But the “war on drugs” moralizers will have none of it.

CoVid-19 Becomes the Pandemic (mostly) of the Unvaccinated: Short takes:

  • What more is there to say about this horrific pandemic and how it’s been managed? If you’re not still wearing a proper medical mask whenever you’re indoors or in a crowded place for an extended period, you’re being reckless. If you’re not vaccinated and boosted, you’re being reckless. You should no sooner be going around unmasked and unvaccinated than you should be driving a car without wearing a seat belt. But the governments have all abrogated their responsibility for dealing with this ongoing emergency, and in many cases are no longer even reporting the data, or are doing so in an inconsistent, imprecise, untimely and unreliable way. It’s up to us, now, folks, exactly as the conspiracy theorists wanted all along.
  • New data reported in JAMA suggests that without vaccines, death tolls would have been roughly three times what they have actually been.
  • Ready for the next one? Influenza virus H5N1 has already caused 35 million deaths in North America this year alone. Of course, they’re deaths of poultry in factory farms, where because of its >50% fatality rate, a single infection requires killing (by gas chamber suffocation) of the entire farm’s poultry (average factory farm size affected: 20,000 birds). There have been a slowly-increasing number of reports of H5N1 and similarly-dangerous H7N9 viruses crossing the species barrier to humans since 2000, but they’re still rare. We shouldn’t worry just because a new strain might cross the species barrier easily, should we? After all, the virus only has 33 billion unhealthy chickens on crowded antibiotic-soaked factory farms to serve as a soup to develop new variants in. If there were a risk, we’d know, right?


cartoon by Will McPhail

You don’t have to be you all the time: Lovely reflection by Indrajit Samarajiva on how our identities are varied, and emerge from our relationships. We only exist through our relationships, and we are never alone.

Occupy Sri Lanka: Indi also describes the almost surreal, circus-like atmosphere of the public display of anger against the government where he lives in Sri Lanka. It seems eerily similar to what Occupy Wall Street was like, in those crazy, disorganized, early days.

The unexpected mass murderer: Veritasium explains how three inventions by one well-meaning scientist caused millions of deaths.

In which Paul Kingsnorth confesses to having converted to: Orthodox Christianity.

Blind side: Euan Semple explains how we assume we all see the world the same way, but we don’t. Not even close.

Funny (fake) headlines of the month:

  • “Florida judge rules that airlines cannot require passengers to have tickets” (Andy Borowitz)
  • “Kids play house by having their imaginary friend price them out of the market” (Beaverton)
  • “Businesses experiencing ‘just average’ call volume for the first time since 2020” (Beaverton)


Poll results over 60 years, graphic by Olivier Berruyer translated by Ben Norton at Multipolarista. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.

If you didn’t already know the world was fucked: First the US Democrats removed (‘de-coupled’) all the funding for CoVid-19 projects from a bill that would also provide $33B of additional munitions for Ukraine, because the first was ‘controversial’ (ie wouldn’t pass filibuster) while the second was ‘bipartisan’. Then the House inexplicably increased the war funding to $40B. And then the bill passed, with all Democrats (including the entire so-called ‘Squad’ of ‘leftists’) voting for it, and the Republicans split. Questioning in the Senate came only from Republican Ron Paul, not from Bernie Sanders. And then today there was a tweet from Marjorie Taylor Greene (fresh off accusing ‘leftists’ of torching food processing plants to create a global food shortage), who voted against the appropriation, to AOC, who voted for it:

@AOC, what’s the carbon footprint of the proxy war with Russia you voted to fund?

From Joanna Klink:

Some feel rain. Some feel the beetle startle
in its ghost-part when the bark
slips. Some feel musk. Asleep against
each other in the whiskey dark, scarcely there.
When it falls apart, some feel the moondark air
drop its motes to the patch-thick slopes of
snow. Tiny blinkings of ice from the oak,
a boot-beat that comes and goes, the line of prayer
you can follow from the dusking wind to the snowy owl
it carries. Some feel sunlight
well up in blood-vessels below the skin
and wish there had been less to lose.
Knowing how it could have been, pale maples
drowsing like a second sleep above our temperaments.
Do I imagine there is any place so safe it can’t be
snapped? Some feel the rivers shift,
blue veins through soil, as if the smokestacks were a long
dream of exhalation. The lynx lets its paws
skim the ground in snow and showers.
The wildflowers scatter in warm tints until
the second they are plucked. You can wait
to scrape the ankle-burrs, you can wait until Mercury
the early star underdraws the night and its blackest
districts. And wonder. Why others feel
through coal-thick night that deeply colored garnet
star. Why sparring and pins are all you have.
Why the earth cannot make its way towards you.


Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Leave a comment

Cognitive Dissonance

Every day, I shift back and forth between three ‘personas’, completely incompatible systems of belief, worldviews and ways of trying to make sense of the world. One writes:

This ‘Dave’ believes there will come a time, probably in about ten years, when I will be ready to sacrifice my life to defend this planet. Whether this entails attempting to ‘block, break, or take’ the tools of its destruction, and regardless of how hopeless and useless I may know my personal direct action to be, I will act.

Meanwhile, a second ‘Dave’ writes:

This second Dave is not outraged by collapse, but equanimous about it. He thinks the first Dave is bone-headed for risking his life to achieve an impossible goal, or even getting pointlessly worked up about it. The first Dave thinks the second is disconnected and in denial of his true feelings, his grief and shame and rage, and is giving up, and hence disappointing colleagues and letting down all life on earth.

And then there is a third ‘Dave’ who writes:

This third Dave doesn’t think Dave has any free will, and more than that, doesn’t believe Dave, and Dave’s ‘reality’, is anything more than a construct of the brain. He believes all there is is ‘what is apparently happening’, neither ‘real’ nor ‘unreal’, just ‘apparent’. So he believes there is no planet, no life, no individual, no civilization, no collapse, and no time, not ‘really’, and that hence the beliefs of the other two Daves are based on illusions and therefore quite absurd, akin to believing that action must be taken to correct something that happened in a dream, or that there needs to be a serious coming-to-grips with what was learned in a dream.

The first and second Daves are completely puzzled by the third Dave, and worry that he might be dissociating because the anxiety, grief and shame about collapse are just too hard to bear.

But for the most part the three Daves have little to say about each other, because they live in different worlds. As readily as they appear to take turns occupying this body and typing the words in this blog, they are not simultaneous.

I go back and read the three articles linked above, and they all seem evocative, interesting, compelling, and earnest. As I read them I nod and say to myself: Yes, yes, and yes.

They are completely incompatible. Can they all be ‘right’, whatever that means?

The first Dave’s message feels right. The second Dave’s message seems logically and rationally right. The third Dave’s message has been seen, during so-called ‘glimpses’, to be obviously right, and continues to seem intuitively right at some deep level.

For some people, I think the cognitive dissonance of all this would be just too much to handle, and suspect they would jettison two of the three incompatible views. As Euan Semple recently wrote, being at war with yourself is a losing battle.

I have learned, somewhat begrudgingly, to live comfortably with uncertainty and ambiguity, and the endless cognitive dissonance. I’m not even sure there is a ‘right’, and I’m not perturbed that this weary little body I presume to inhabit, with its insatiable curiosity, its ever-doubting nature, and its passion to know how the world really works, and to decide if that’s OK or not, seems further and further away from coming to any conclusion or understanding.

I have a sense that, if I were able, for just a few moments, to change places with a bird, all of the confusion would be gone. Barring that, I’m growing content with never knowing, with acknowledging more and more often that I don’t know, and just trying to cultivate a sense of wonder about it all.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End, Radical Non-Duality | 10 Comments

Understanding Why (Part 2): The War in Ukraine and the Destruction of Mariupol

This is the second of a multi-part series. In this part, I’m going to use the Ukraine War, and specifically the destruction of Mariupol, as a case study of the importance of asking Why?, and moving beyond the rhetoric, the propaganda, the mis- and disinformation, the censorship, and the absurd oversimplification of the narratives the leaders, media and spokespeople of both the west and Russia have (very successfully) shoved down the throats of their citizens about what is going on there. And why. 

Citizens of the ruined city of Mariupol, walking the streets because their homes have been destroyed or are unsafe to occupy, cook meals on outdoor grills and tell Ukrainian journalist Patrick Lancaster that the destruction of their city was almost entirely a scorched-earth operation by the Azov Battalion, not bombing by Russian forces. April 29, 2022. At the end of the video they beg Patrick not to edit and distort their comments, so that viewers can see what’s really going on there.

In my previous post, I attempted lay out some of the factors, which are mostly more about emotions than reason, that provoke people to launch or support wars. This time I’d like to delve into the emotions (and a bit about the ‘logic’) of the Ukraine War.

If you have been reading the press releases developed jointly by the US DOD, NATO command, the CIA, and the Ukraine government, and dutifully transcribed, mostly without any critical review, by the mainstream media, you have probably been led to believe:

  1. That the attack on Ukraine was completely unprovoked, evil, insane etc.
  2. That the vastly outgunned Ukrainian army have bravely and successfully beaten back the Russian invaders so they are stalled and demoralized.
  3. That Russia’s invasion has been chaotic, resulting in blanket bombing of Ukraine’s cities, and multiple atrocities committed against citizens.
  4. That millions of have fled Ukraine out of fear of being killed by shock-and-awe attacks by Russian invaders on civilians.
  5. That despite its pleas, Ukraine has basically held off the invaders using their own troops, resources, technologies, arms, ingenuity, courage and intelligence.
  6. That Mariupol has been destroyed by a barrage of indiscriminate Russian bombing and missile attacks, leaving the remaining citizens trapped in a vast steel mill with Ukrainian troops, desperately seeking a humanitarian corridor which Russia refuses to provide.
  7. That the US/NATO has no desire to see regime change in Russia. They just want Russia to end the invasion and withdraw from Ukraine.

The mainstream media and many of the so-called ‘alternative’ and ‘progressive’ media, have been faithfully reporting these ‘truths’ since the war began, along with photos of the country’s leader comforting troops and civilians and witnessing Russian atrocities.

Before we can discuss why the war started and why it’s still going on, I want to provide some other sources of information about what has been happening in the area over the last decade. This information is entirely provided by western sources, many of them with a long history of working in or reporting on the region, and none of them has been censored (at least not yet) by the western media and social media czars that are now determining what news we receive about Ukraine. None of these sources think Putin was right to invade Ukraine. But they provide a very different perspective on what has happened, in historical context, that might help us better understand why he did it. We’ll get to that in a moment.

And I am not saying that all of the following are true. Some of it may be disinformation, or even propaganda. All I’m saying is that these reports and interpretations are credible, and worth considering in trying to understand the current situation. Articles that I think are the most important to read are boldface, since I don’t expect anyone to read all of them. Thanks to John Whiting, Paul Heft, Caitlin Johnstone and Bart Anderson for many of these links:

  1. Russia is still emerging from a devastating, sustained economic and social collapse: What precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, far more than member states clamouring for independence and democracy, was an utter economic collapse. This was caused by an unsustainable debt load, a collapse in the value of its major resource and export (oil & gas) and hence a huge trade deficit and collapse in the value of the ruble, a vastly over-extended military, and a wrong-headed attempt to rush the transition from a centrally-planned economy to a free-for-all capitalist one. That idealistic transition meant that almost all government workers, including those in important scientific and medical positions, were laid off or left unpaid, while a small cadre of well-connected oligarchs essentially stole all the government assets and moved their money offshore. There were, essentially, no jobs. As a result, in the 1990’s, Russian male life expectancy dropped to a lower-than-third-world level of 57 years. Suicide, malnutrition, addiction, grinding poverty, ‘accidents’, crime, corruption, and even starvation, especially outside Moscow, soared as living conditions plummeted. With rubles worthless, many citizens lived off barter and scrip, and huge lineups and empty shelves became the norm. Even today, Russia’s once-giant economy remains smaller than France’s (source: Dmitry Orlov et al)
  2. The west has repeatedly broken promises on expanding NATO to countries on Russia’s borders: Putin came into power determined to bring Russia back from collapse, to restore some pride to the citizens of a broken nation. Many Eastern European nations, remembering Stalinist brutality and oppressive Soviet puppet governments, chose to join NATO to be protected from a feared resurgent Russian state, and allowed a massive buildup of military and missile bases right on Russia’s doorstep. This happened in contravention of repeated promises that had been made by the US and NATO to keep these Eastern European countries as neutral buffer states. As these deadly weapons pointed directly at Moscow began to completely surround Russia, there were again promises that at least Ukraine and Georgia would be kept as neutral buffer states. (source: Noam Chomsky; Sky News, et al)
  3. The US government has a long-term, publicly-declared plan to destabilize Russia (and China) to achieve pro-US regime change there, rather than allow a multipolar world to emerge: Biden did not “misspeak” when he said that US policy is to take out Putin. (sources: award-winning war correspondent Chris Hedges; Foreign Policy; Michael Brenner; wikipedia; RAND Corporation)
  4. Putin has been absolutely clear and consistent in his messaging and his actions on his reasons for the invasion and the tactics he has used: (sources: Prof. Michael Brenner; Noam Chomsky; Putin press conference)
  5. The US, Canada and NATO were complicit in the Ukraine coup of 2014 that overthrew its democratically-elected government, following the Maidan Massacres whose snipers’ origin has still not been resolved. (sources: Aaron Maté; Prof. Ivan Katchanovski)
  6. US, Canadian and NATO troops have armed and trained and provided intelligence to “tens of thousands” of troops in Ukraine’s army and militias since the civil war began in 2014, and continue to do so. (sources: CTV news Canada; Ottawa Citizen; Noam Chomsky;  Yves Engler; Jerusalem Post)
  7. Zelenskyy has banned all leftist political parties in Ukraine, arrested all of their leaders, consolidated all media under his personal control, and declared Ukrainian the only official language of the country. (source: Multipolarista ; Human Rights Watch et al)
  8. The civil war in Donbas has been going on since 2014, with western peacekeepers documenting that most of the violations of the Minsk accords came from Ukrainian militias bombing Russian-speaking areas of Donbas. Much of the weaponry used by the independence forces in Donbas came from demoralized Ukrainian militias who changed sides during this useless conflict. As many as 15,000 people in Donbas died before the invasion began. (sources: UN/NATO advisor Jacques Baud; VICE news)
  9. The full-scale war in Ukraine actually began on Feb 16, with a massive artillery barrage by western-supplied troops on Donbas; Russia invaded two days later. (source: UN/NATO advisor Jacques Baud.)
  10. Most of the Ukrainian military in the Donbas region are a mixture of foreign mercenaries, and cobbled-together deputized militias whose leaders are openly xenophobic, racist and fascist, with a history of atrocities against Russian-speaking Ukrainians like the 2014 Odessa Massacre, in which they burned 48 anti-coup protesters alive. (sources: Consortium News; wikipedia; Rhyd Wildermuth)
  11. Many of the people who fled Ukraine at the start of the invasion were young anti-war pacifists fleeing the draft, leaving the Ukrainian army and militias staffed mostly with old people and extremists. (source: Yahoo news)
  12. The Russian invasion was meticulously planned to succeed quickly (but patiently) and completely, with minimal casualties and risks and quick destruction of Ukraine’s firepower, and it has been hugely successful. (source: UN/NATO advisor Jacques Baud.)
  13. Much of the billions of dollars in US-taxpayer funded spending on munitions for Ukraine is being blown up by Russia as soon as it lands, resulting in immediate “repeat orders” to the corporate arms manufacturers (source: Ron Paul, of all people)
  14. The Russians quickly occupied Mariupol, and surrounded and ordered the Azov Battalion, who essentially are the Ukrainian army there, to surrender, with minimal damage to structures and complete demobilization of Ukraine’s aging tanks. (source: UN/NATO advisor Jacques Baud)
  15. The Azov Battalion responded by retreating to the Mariupol steel mill complex, and from there launched what locals described as a scorched earth program of destroying as many as possible of Mariupol’s structures. (source: Patrick Lancaster)
  16. US and NATO have continuously refused to talk with Russia about a ceasefire or a peace settlement; and their delivery of billions of dollars of additional arms has come at times when Ukraine and Russia have been closest to agreeing to hold peace talks. (sources: Prof. Richard Falk ; Noam Chomsky; Prof. Richard Rubinstein); Jacques Baud; Quincy Institute; Salon; The Intercept; Antiwar)
  17. The US government has admitted that it is using propaganda — deliberately spreading lies through western media about what Russia is and is not doing in Ukraine — to “counter” Russian propaganda. (source: Caitlin Johnstone et al)
  18. This war is dangerously destabilizing economies globally, causing famines in the south, causing countries to seek to abandon the wildly overpriced US dollar in favour of regional currencies, and causing massive distrust in banking systems that are now freezing and stealing nations’ and people’s money on behalf of the US and NATO governments. (sources: Credit Suisse; Swarajiya; Multipolarista; Democracy Now)

If you’ve waded through this list, you might now have at least a fuller and more balanced idea of what has actually been going on in Ukraine. So now come the Whys:

  • Why has the US/CIA/DOD/NATO pursued a policy of belligerence towards Russia for so many years, rather than, say, inviting them into NATO? (and no, it’s not because they are evil, war-crazed, corporatists)
  • Why did Putin actually decide to invade Ukraine (and no, it’s not because he’s evil, insane, or aiming for global domination)
  • Why have Canada and Europe, including traditionally neutral countries, gone along with the US position and sanctions, while those in the global south have not? (and no, it’s not because their leaders are stupid and gullible)
  • Why has the Ukraine government, elected as a protest against corruption and hate from both sides, swung so hard right so fast? (and no, it’s not because they’re dominated by fanatical ‘Pure Ukraine’ xenophobic fascists)
  • Why is no one talking about a negotiated settlement? (I mean seriously talking, not posturing for the media)

While we can’t know for sure, we can at least make better guesses now that we’ve been equipped with more information about what has actually happened. My guesses start with continually asking Why? — The answers are complex, not simple. And I start with the presumption that everyone is doing what they think is “best” for the people they care about. And then I try to figure out how they got to where they got, and, as a consequence, how the world has rapidly slued to the edge of a global, perhaps nuclear, war precipice.

Here are a few of my thoughts on these Whys:

  • Most of all, I think it’s about fear. I don’t think the people who work in the overwhelmingly largest US government department, the revolving door between the war and security and intelligence apparatus and the private munitions corporations, have ever heard any other narrative than that Russia and China threaten us and they have always been evil, opposed to everything Americans believe in. It’s like the Satan myth — hear it often enough and you believe it. Americans are hugely isolated from the rest of the world — most of them don’t even have passports, and most have never seen a culture other than their own. They’re even terrified of ‘alternate’ cultures in their own country. All of the recent American presidents have been xenophobes and war-mongers, I think because that ‘fear of others’ — Russians, Chinese, and Arabs in particular — has been pounded into them from birth. Like cops, they’ve been conditioned to think the world is full of bad guys who must be suppressed or defeated. We fear what we do not understand. Doddering Biden’s speech about China pretty much terrifyingly tells the story:

[I have] made it clear that no American president, at least one did, but no American president had ever backed down from speaking out of what’s happening in the Uyghurs… So I see stiff competition with China. China has an overall goal, and I don’t criticize them for the goal, but they have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand.

  • Putin quite justifiably also fears a western coalition that is twenty times its size and military might. He’s seen the US and NATO destroy other countries they fear or dislike. He doesn’t want to be the guy in charge when that happens to Russia.
  • That same phobia permeates the NATO countries as well, even though they are more likely to have travelled to Russia or China. Here’s the worldview of the current head of Canada’s CSIS spy organization, for example, per wikipedia:

The institutional focus of CSIS returned to state actors (such as Russia and China) after a February 2021 speech by the CSIS director, David Vigneault, warned that the Chinese “strategy for geopolitical advantage on all fronts — economic, technological, political and military” uses “all elements of state power to carry out activities that are a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty.”

  • I think there is a tendency among most of us to cheer for the underdog, especially if we’ve been oppressed or bullied. Except, of course, if we are the bully. Especially if we’re in denial that we are the bully.
  • Ukraine has a long and complex history that has entailed more death and suffering relative to its size than almost any country in the world. It doesn’t surprise me that people close to or descended from those who have suffered at the hands of another country or empire would have long-simmering animosity towards that country. The US since the Civil War, the ‘Troubles’ of Ireland — those hatreds and that distrust die slowly and it doesn’t take much to stir them up again.
  • In the previous article I identified fear, guilt, shame, indignation, outrage, resentment, the desire for retribution or redemption, grief, hopelessness, desperation, scapegoating, simplistic thinking, ego, and imaginative poverty as some of the main emotions and mindsets underlying a willingness to fight or support a war. Just about all of these can be seen in the civil war that has been raging in Ukraine since 2014. Ukraine is a failed state, riven by corruption and duelling oligarchs, plutocrats and kleptocrats who robbed the state of everything and left it bankrupt and dysfunctional. Through much of its history it has been brutalized, exploited and robbed by invaders from all sides. That’s true of much of the world, especially countries that seem to be endlessly at war.
  • What I think underlies the unwillingness of any of the leaders of the participants in this war to engage in serious negotiations for a peace settlement is, most of all, a fear of backing down, or being seen to back down. While I think the victims — most of the peoples of all ethnic and linguistic groups in Ukraine — would have no hesitation about seeking peace at almost any cost, the leaders don’t dare to be seen as opting for a “dishonourable” peace. Shame, fear, ego, guilt and outrage prevent them from seeking it.

Of course these are only my guesses. We can’t know what any of them are going through. But by trying to understand Why, which starts with gathering different perspectives and information, and getting around the inflammatory propaganda, censorship, mis- and disinformation, I think we can at least start to appreciate the different positions. And from there we can at least understand that there are no “good guys” and no “winners” in any war. And that any peace is better than any war.

I was a peace protester in the 1960s. My Dad helped find homes and jobs for Vietnam War draft dodgers who fled to Canada. I have never cheered the so-called “winner” of any war, just breathed a sigh of relief that the war, at least for a while, was over. I am bewildered that so many of my age cohort are far more outraged about the invasion than they are about the utter absence of any real efforts to bring a quick and lasting peace to Ukraine. And to Yemen and all the other countries still at war, many with our complicity, for that matter.

That’s the question I have no “Why?” answer for. Maybe, there isn’t one.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 7 Comments

Understanding Why (Part 1): Why War?

This is the first of a multi-part series that attempts to move past the grotesque propaganda for war that has once again enveloped us, and understand what underlies it, and whether our species, at least when under stress, always seems to end up resorting to wars, genocides and other inhuman atrocities, and why.

image from the National Archives, public domain

When I was a teenager, in the 1960s, we had a Black South African teacher (a refugee from Apartheid) who was so well-versed in politics and economics, and so articulate, that we cajoled him into holding after-school classes in current events for us. During those classes he provided us with newspapers and other documents that provided a radically different perspective on world events than we were getting in the “mainstream media” (mostly, in those days, the CBC, the Winnipeg Free Press, and the Globe & Mail.

He invited us to visit a little socialist bookstore in the north end of the city where we could read more, and we did. We bought Canadian Dimension magazine, feeling very daring and looking to see if the RCMP (responsible for “domestic security” and spying back then) were photographing people entering and leaving the store, as they often did. The Vietnam War was in full swing.

Our teacher was, of course, fired when parents caught wind of all this. But by then we’d learned to challenge the narrative that was almost universally espoused in the mainstream media. And, more importantly, as Mr September taught us, we’d learned to ask why things were the way they were and why people and nations did what they did. And, he told us, the reason why is never that “they are just evil people” or “they are insane” or even “they’ll do anything if the money is right” or “people are just gullible”. Search to understand why, he said, and you’ll start to understand how the world really works. Even Apartheid, he said, had an explanation, rooted in history and education and ways of thinking handed down from one generation to the next. Question everything and you’ll discover that things are rarely as simple as they might seem.

Ever since then, I have tried really hard to understand why wars and other atrocities have occurred repeatedly in our civilization’s history.

So, for example, I grew up with history textbooks like this one, written in 1947 and published by Canada’s Southam Press, which relates with zeal how the brave soldiers of the British Empire, fighting both cruel nature and the “savage treachery” of the “barbaric”, “ugly” Indians (who, unlike “their Indians” from the east, were mere “inmates” of a “miserable habitation”, wherein “the usual appendages of Indian houses, filth and nastiness were present in abundance”), built Fort Langley. The subsequent theft of First Nations land and the attempted genocide of First Nations peoples, launched from this fort, is celebrated in the book.

This is the Canadian history I was taught. When I dutifully wrote in my grade 2 notebook about how the brave New Canadians had been “torchered and scalped by the Indian savages”, the teacher’s only correction was to my spelling.

This book was written after Canada stole the property of, and incarcerated, Canadians of Japanese descent during WW2.

The systematic slaughter, brutality and oppression of a people requires that the perpetrators be indoctrinated to believe their victims are less than human, that anything less than utter ruthlessness will be taken as a sign of weakness, and that the possibilities for any kind of peaceful rapprochement or integration are nil.

That kind of advance indoctrination is readily in evidence in the accounts of just about every war in recorded history. War is an unnatural, deplorable, instinctively inhuman state, and it requires extraordinary, irrational and relentless hatred and disinformation to sustain. Yet our species has been almost continuously at war for centuries.


The whole ‘clash of cultures’ myth is based on the assumption that both clashing cultures understand why the other side believes and does what they do, which is basically a ridiculous, simplistic and dangerous assumption. In fact if we really understood the thinking and feelings that underlay both sides’ animosity to the other, war would be largely inconceivable. That is one reason why war-mongers like Putin and Biden rely so heavily on propaganda, censorship, and mis- and disinformation.

So what are the feelings and thinking that lead someone to propose, launch, or join a war against another group? To get at these, I think you have to be ready to keep asking “Why” until you get at what’s really behind it. Why are people xenophobic and filled with hate? What is it exactly that they fear or hate, and why? Where did this come from?

I think there are nine basic emotional reasons, if you keep asking “Why” often enough, that we go to war, and support wars:

  1. Fear: Fear of loss. Fear of the unknown, of what might happen or what might not happen unless decisive action is taken. Fear of being harmed or of having loved ones harmed. Fear of animosity or ridicule from others in our community if we don’t support them in their willingness to go to war. Fear of failure (especially, fear of failure to act when action was possible). Fear of being seen as weak (and self-perception as weak).
  2. Angry provocation and righteous indignation: A sense of outrage about what we have witnessed or been told has happened.
  3. Shame and guilt: About not having taken action to prevent something happening, or about not taking action now that it’s happened.
  4. Retribution, resentment and grief: The instantaneous, unthinking rage that arouses when an atrocity is witnessed. This is common to all animals, but in humans, thanks to our language, it can seethe for generations as that rage is stirred up again and again.
  5. Hopelessness and desperation: When there is seemingly nothing to lose, and not enough to go around, so that even death seems better than the status quo.
  6. Imaginative poverty: The incapacity to conceive of a different explanation of the underlying circumstances, or a different way of dealing with the situation.
  7. Scapegoating: The very human desire to identify and take action against a perpetrator, even when it’s the wrong one, and even when there isn’t one.
  8. Ego or “glory”: The desire to prove or redeem oneself, one’s courage, or one’s worth or self-worth, through a dangerous but ‘righteous’ act.
  9. Simplistic thinking: Unthinking acceptance that war is the only way to deal with an horrendous situation, that arises especially when the alternatives have been dismissed, oversimplified or misstated.

These are not mutually exclusive, and often war-mongers and warriors have several of these reasons for supporting and participating in wars.

Let’s consider a simple, personal situation to illustrate these ‘reasons’. Imagine that a loved one has been assaulted by someone, and the police have said there isn’t enough evidence to press charges. How would you feel, and what would goad you into attacking the perpetrator?

You might be afraid that, unless you took action, the perpetrator would repeat or increase his violent actions. You might be afraid or ashamed of being seen as weak for not taking action to protect your loved one. You might attack out of pure rage. You might feel ashamed you weren’t there or didn’t take some action to prevent it. You might want to exact revenge for its own sake — because it feels good. You might be at a loss about what else could be done other than attacking the perpetrator. You might see the perpetrator as a symbol of everything that was wrong with your community, your society, or the system of law enforcement. You might want to redeem your long-standing reputation in the eyes of others as being cowardly or good-for-nothing. You might believe wildly exaggerated, oversimplified or completely untrue stories about the perpetrator or about what actually happened, and why it happened.

These feelings, and their potential deadly consequences, are possible whether it’s immediately personal, or happens to someone, or a whole group of people, you don’t personally know, but whose story moves you. It’s very human. Our history books, and our novels and myths, celebrate these feelings and the violence they precipitate. The history books are written by the victors of war, and the novels and myths are written to enable and encourage you to relate personally, viscerally to the heroic protagonists.

But surely, you may say, no feeling person could simply sit and allow this (whatever the atrocity of the moment may be) to happen and not take action to right the wrong. That’s not just human, it’s basic ethics, common decency, no?

This of course assumes that there is a right and wrong, and that you understand completely what happened and why. It assumes that violence is the only way of dealing with violence. Which of course it isn’t, but it’s completely understandable and very human for us, in the heat of the moment, or in the face of endless provocations and reminders, to simply say: I support the fight. And even: I’m ready to join the fight. Pick your battle — Iraq, Ukraine, Yemen, social or racial justice, climate collapse, gang wars — I’m willing to bet there’s a point at which, on more than a few issues, you’re ready to take sides, give up hope on peaceful resolution, and support, or even participate in, violence against another human or group.

And, as human as this propensity is, I would also argue that it is always wrong-headed — there is always a better way, even if it is unclear and difficult to discern.

The most common reaction I get when I make this point is that when violence is being proposed or supported it is “defensive” — that to not support someone’s ability to meet violence with violence in their own self-defence is immoral. That is why the War Department is always called the Department of Defence. It is why almost all wars are launched on the premise of defence of something or someone — a beleaguered people, “democracy”, “freedom”, or some god or religion. It makes people feel righteous, and disinclined to object. What, you’re against democracy and freedom?

So, the two Iraq wars launched by the two Bushes were launched on the utterly false and professionally fabricated premises of defending Kuwait, and defending the west’s Mideastern allies from WMD, respectively. The real reasons for these brutal wars were far more complex, insanely difficult to “sell” to the citizens who had to pay for them and fight in them, and have never been seriously explored.

The Bushes were no more “evil” and “insane” for launching these wars than Putin was for launching the war in Ukraine (more about that in Part Two). But after all these years, we still have these two diametrically opposed and completely indefensible narratives for why so many millions have been killed, tens of millions maimed and displaced, and trillions of dollars wasted that could have been spent on desperately needed projects. And no one — not the anti-Islamic neocons, and not the anti-war liberals and moderates — knows why.

Each side got its simplistic answer, and stopped questioning further.

Until we start to seriously ask the question Why?, and move beyond the rhetoric, the propaganda, the disinformation, the censorship, and the oversimplification, we are never going to understand why our supposedly modern, informed human civilization lives under the pall of never-ending war. Or why the Doomsday Clock is stuck at a few seconds to midnight, at this perilous time when all our efforts and attention should be focused on ecological collapse and the accelerating Sixth Great Extinction of life on our planet.

In Part Two, I’m going to use the Ukraine War, and specifically the destruction of Mariupol, as a case study of the importance of asking Why?, and moving beyond the rhetoric, the propaganda, the mis- and disinformation, the censorship, and the absurd oversimplification of the narratives the leaders, media and spokespeople of both the west and Russia have (very successfully) shoved down the throats of their citizens about what is going on there. And why. Stay tuned.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

Do We Know Ourselves Only Through Our Relationships?

Aaron Williamson‘s Model of Identity and Community, 2013

Most of us define ourselves in terms of our relationships — who we work with, who we live with, and who we consider to be in our ‘circles’. When we write a bio, or when we chat with people, we relate, mostly, our interactions with other people and what they have led to.

Euan Semple’s latest post, describing the very different nature of blogging (small, relatively engaged and enduring networks) versus social network posting (huge, anonymous, unengaged and transient networks), ruminates about to what extent we write to be liked.

No matter what we may tell ourselves, and others, the truth is that attention and appreciation and reassurance are inevitably a part of what motivates us to write in public ‘spaces’. For the large majority of former bloggers — those who quit blogging over the past fifteen years — social media simply offered more and easier attention, appreciation and reassurance than blogs. I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes wax nostalgic for the early days when I was a “Canadian Top Ten” blogger with 2000+ readers a day. I quit using Twitter, and Facebook (except for occasional visits for a specific purpose) long ago, when I realized they were hazardous to my mental health.

There has recently been a small resurgence of blogs, mostly on platforms like Medium (eg Umair Haque), Substack (eg Caitlin Johnstone), and Ghost (eg Indrajit Samarajiva) that are essentially newsletter content creation tools, since most people rely on email notifications to read blog content, rather than going to a blog’s site or using an “aggregator”. I suspect that the 550 subscribers to my blog using the free newsletter subscription service, represent a significant proportion of my total readership. Medium and Substack “monetize” blogs by nagging you to pay money to subscribe to “their” blogs (they share some of that money with content providers) and may block you, like the MSM do, if you try to read too much without subscribing.

If you are not already a celebrity and believe that you can become even modestly rich, or an “influencer”, by blogging on one of these platforms, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.

If you’re not a member of the 1% of 1% that can earn real money on these platforms (anyone remember Clay Shirky’s Power Law of blogs?) the question remains then: Why do you write in a public ‘space’? Is it all about getting attention, appreciation and reassurance? Are you looking for ‘friends’ in all the wrong places?

Or are you seeking, as Euan suggests, to know yourself better through your relationships with others? And, he asks, Can we truly be ourselves if it becomes too important to us that we be liked, listened to, appreciated and reassured we are right?

These are brilliant and important questions, and we can only answer them for ourselves (and only then if we know ourselves well enough to be honest with ourselves).

So this is just my personal answer to these questions:

As I get older, I become less and less concerned with what I know, including what I know about myself. Instead, I’m seeking to be a little more self-aware of why I think what I think, believe what I believe, and do what I do. If you’ve read my other work, you probably know that I believe we do what we do purely out of conditioning, and then rationalize it as being ‘our’ choice afterwards. Some of that conditioning is genetic, visceral. Much of it is cultural, and this is where relationships come in. Who and what we pay attention to, I believe, determines the sources of that conditioning.

But of course, who and what we pay attention to depends (if you buy my ‘conditioning’ logic) on our previous conditioning. That’s why, as someone who has recently and uncomfortably given up believing in free will, I don’t think we have any choice whatsoever about our actions, or about the thinking and belief systems that rationalize (rather than determine) them.

The best we can hope for, I believe, is to be a little more self-aware of how we are being conditioned and hence what underlies our belief systems. The people who have most influenced me, throughout my life, have always challenged their own beliefs, and mine, in search (perhaps in vain) for what is really true. So I’ve been encouraged to challenge everything I believe. That is, I’ve been conditioned to be less concerned with being ‘liked’, appreciated and reassured than about knowing what’s actually true. And I’ve been conditioned to be open (even enthusiastic) to ideas and evidence that completely undermine what I had believed to be true. And I’ve been conditioned (more biologically and genetically than culturally) to trust my instincts, which have told me, all my life: Life shouldn’t have to be this hard. Look at how effortlessly and equanimously wild creatures live. We must have it all wrong.

I’ve been blogging for just about 20 years now, and over that time my beliefs about almost everything have radically changed. I’m much less sure about what I believe than I used to be. And my beliefs are now wildly different from those of most of the people in my ‘circles’ — notably on matters of veganism and eating well, on the inevitability of global collapse, on my belief that everyone is doing their best and no one is ‘to blame’, on free will and the nature of ‘reality’, and, most recently, on the causes and resolution of the Ukraine war.

And I don’t really care that those I have relationships with don’t agree with or even understand what I believe. I mean, it would be nice if everyone agreed with me about these things, but I appreciate that what they all believe is not in anyone’s control (including mine). I will not convince a single soul on any of these matters unless and until they are ready to hear the message. If I do manage to convince someone, then that would have happened anyway.

So, like Euan, I now write my blog basically to think things through for myself, to “see my reactions placed before me for inspection”. When someone agrees with me, it is reassuring, but at the same time a bit troubling: Have I oversold this argument? Am I really sure I believe it myself?

As I get older, there are fewer people in my circles than there used to be. That’s been a mutual decision, as I tend to not burn bridges, nor assert myself to keep a relationship going unilaterally. Perhaps that’s why I feel I ‘know myself’ less well than I did when I was younger and more sure of everything. I am content not knowing myself, and content believing tentatively that one cannot know oneself. I am even dubious that there is a real ‘oneself’ to know.

So why do I have relationships? Not to be liked, or appreciated, or reassured, or to know myself better. It’s simply for the pleasure of their company. Like when they share a novel insight, a new idea, an enjoyable story, a warm hug, or a visit to a beautiful place or interesting event. Enjoying another’s company is an animal thing for me, not a means for self-exploration. Increasingly, I prefer to not even talk much; when I find people whose company I enjoy, I’m content to listen, or even with silence.

So, I don’t know who I am, or even if I am. And therefore I depend not a whit on relationships to try to figure it out, or express it. When asked how I self-identify, in any context, I simply reply that I do not.

Have there been times when I have self-censored or misrepresented my beliefs (which some would simply call lying) in the company of others? Of course. We are conditioned to conform, suppress, compromise. Without that conditioning, our overcrowded, collapsing, overstressed world would be, I think, an unimaginably violent place, and collapse would have occurred long ago. We are not meant to live this way. 

But my concealing my feelings or beliefs is something I (at least now) do consciously, rather than because I want to be liked, or listened to, or appreciated, or reassured. The cognitive dissonance can be massive, but it’s bearable if you don’t take yourself too seriously! If I wanted to be popular, I certainly wouldn’t be writing about radical non-duality, collapse, our lack of free will, or the vulnerability of people across the political spectrum to propaganda, cognitive bias, simplistic thinking, and groupthink.

It is true that I don’t write much about the health benefits of a balanced, minimally-processed, entirely plant-based diet, or the dangers of other diets. This is the only subject in my 20 years of blogging that has attracted death threats. I don’t write about it, not out of fear, or not being liked, or losing readers, but because it’s simply not worth debating. When people are ready to listen to this message, they will hear it, probably from experts in nutrition. I’m not being inauthentic, to them or to myself, to consciously avoid wasting time and energy talking about it.

So, I can’t speak for others, but my sense of self-worth is not tied up with others’ opinions of me. I may be deliberately cautious about what I say to people, and sometimes (I think tactfully) even leave people with the impression I believe something when I don’t. Sometimes it makes sense to pick your battles, or wriggle out of them entirely. There’s no shame in that. But that doesn’t change what I think, believe, or feel. It doesn’t change ‘me’ (if there even is a ‘me’).

Thank you to Euan for posing these fascinating questions. Here are a couple more questions (shades of blogging’s notorious Friday Five!) that I have been thinking about of late, somewhat along the same lines:

  1. If you had to make a map of the 5, 15, and 150 people in your innermost ‘circles’, what questions would you ask yourself, and what criteria would you use, to come up with the list?
  2. On what (non-trivial) subjects have you recently, radically changed your mind, and what caused you to change it?

No answers are required. These are just, perhaps like some of the best questions, provocations to think about things that might help us know ourselves a little better.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Using Weblogs and Technology | 4 Comments