What Will It Take?

Last evening a group of about 30 Bowen Islanders watched a documentary called The Reluctant Radical. I arranged it, since the film profiles Ken Ward, who is a friend of Tree’s and who I’ve met a couple of times myself. Ken joined us for Q&A via video link after the screening.

It’s one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever seen, and I’d be saying that even if I hadn’t met Ken. It’s concise — no superfluous material, no sensationalism, no waste. It doesn’t manipulate the viewer — it simply tells Ken’s story from his early years as a within-the-system activist to his more recent Direct Activism, most notably as one of the five “valve-turners” who, for a day, stopped the flow of tar sands bitumen to the US through four major pipelines by brazenly, but safely and carefully, breaking into the fenced pipeline enclosures at strategic places across the US and  turning off the valves that controlled the flow.

What makes this film remarkable is that it answers, completely and definitively, the question that I suspect all of us are going to have to answer for ourselves at some point in our lives, and possibly quite soon: What will it take to get us to the point we will be willing to do whatever it takes to halt the destruction of our planet? That could include giving up our safety, our freedom, or even our lives. The film makes it quite clear that until enough of us reach that point, the destruction will continue unabated.

It will, at the very least, require us to personally move beyond symbolic and passive protests, to Direct Action, which Derrick Jensen has explained using the following chart:

Non-Violent Direct Action, according to Extinction Rebellion, must, in addition to being safe, respectful, well-researched, and carefully planned (to avoid the risk of itself causing harm to the environment or living creatures), be disruptive of the destruction it aims to stop, as the top box of the chart shows, by blocking, breaking, or taking control of land or property to prevent or reduce the damage being done to our planet.

It’s a time-honoured way of forcing change, used effectively in achieving women’s suffrage and ending slavery in many countries. But it carries with it the risk of arrest and incarceration, and even injury or death, by the agents of the political and economic establishment that are unwilling to tolerate any direct interference in their world-destroying activities. This establishment would much rather we limit our activities to protests, petitions and other passive actions they know will have no enduring effect. Since 2011, Ken has become a Direct Activist, at enormous personal cost, but with no regrets. Watch the film to see why this is so.

Since the 2016 “valve-turner” event described in the film, there have been some important developments:

  • Ken has joined the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement, since its goals and methods are closely aligned with his, and since it brings a new, younger, global, and much larger cohort into the fold of those committed to Direct Action.
  • While Ken’s first trial for the 2016 valve-turning resulted in a hung jury, and the second resulted in a conviction for “burglary” only (with a sentence of two days’ time served and community service), the burglary conviction was recently overturned because an appeal judge ruled Ken was deprived of his constitutional right to use the Necessity Defense. This ruling (which the prosecutors have just appealed) will be essential to the success of many Direct Actions going forward (which is precisely why the prosecutors have appealed it).
  • Ken has been arrested again (last month) for blocking rail access to trains carrying tar sands bitumen from Alberta to a port in Portland OR, for shipment on to China. In explaining this latest action, Ken and his colleagues wrote a stirring Letter to Portland City Council.

This is only the second documentary I have seen that moved me to tears (the first was March of the Penguins). I am trying to figure out why. In the first place, while I have consistently expressed support in every way possible for those who take the risks of Direct Activism, it has been more than forty years since I participated in such activities myself. And while I don’t believe any of the actions on the chart that fall short of Direct Action will make any enduring difference (they certainly haven’t so far, except in very local, small scale battles, and even those will likely have to be fought again, and again, what Joanna Macy calls holding actions), I don’t believe Direct Action will make any enduring difference either. Why? Because the complex systems driving our global industrial civilization are designed to work around disruptions and quickly and expediently restore the status quo, and to continue to do so until they can no longer be sustained, and hence collapse. All complex systems work this way.

But that doesn’t mean there can’t be any short-term effects, with long-term impacts, even though they won’t be enough to significantly alter or delay the Endgame. What if, in the latest action in Portland, when the police issued the ultimatum that anyone who did not immediately leave the area would be arrested, instead of 52 people remaining on the tracks, there were 5200? As the predicament of our planet worsens, we will get to that point. While 52 people can easily be arrested and a rail line hence cleared to resume its shipments of toxic cargo, with 5200 it’s not so easy.

What happens when all destructive industrial activity, from tar sands production to factory farms, faces cradle-to-grave disruption from so many thousands of people that arresting and charging or otherwise stopping the disruptors becomes unfeasible and the economic viability of the destructive activity falls apart? History suggests that, after a brief period of extreme violence from the oppressors, they will give up and look for easier ways to make profits. Oil companies will, reluctantly or not, sooner or later, shift to making a living from so-called renewable energy. Other destroyers and oppressors in other industries will likewise make the necessary shift to keep profits flowing; very few actually want to fight battles with their customers and neighbours using threats, coercive power and misinformation.

So there will be changes, Direct Action or not, and Direct Action might make some of them happen sooner. But none of them will be enough. Our global industrial economy is so far overextended in its massive and accelerating debt to the environment, struggling nations, and future generations that its collapse is certain, quite possibly before climate change has fully weighed in and layered ecological collapse on top of it. And there is growing evidence that we passed the tipping point for stopping climate collapse decades ago, and that massive reduction of human numbers due to plunging carrying capacity of the land, massive extinctions and biodiversity loss, endemic disasters and immiseration of human life, unwillingness of the survivors to bring more humans into the world, the end of affordable energy, and the unfathomable challenge of dealing with billions of migrants seeking the last livable lands on the planet, will inevitably bring about an unrecognizably different world. In light of that, does it really matter if we stop extracting the ruinous Alberta tar sands bitumen sludge in five years or in fifty?

The reality is We don’t know. And as long as the Direct Activists are working to make it five years instead of fifty, I will cheer for them, support them, and cry with them, whether they win or lose each small battle. The Direct Activists are doing what they are doing, terrifying and personally risky as each action must be, because they can’t not do anything. They can’t, any longer, do what they know isn’t working, what they know isn’t enough.

We will all be there, fighting alongside them, and I increasingly believe it will for most of us be soon, in our own lifetimes. Each of us will answer the What will it take… question our own way in our own time, and join them. Too late, but never mind. This is the nature of the human creature, and we’re not going to change it.

There’s a poignant point in the film where Ken’s sweetheart says “One day people will ask us if we did everything we could, when there was still a chance to do something about it. And he [Ken] will be able to say that… I won’t be able to say that.”

And yet, none of us has a choice. None of us should feel bad or guilty for what we do, or don’t do. I’ve learned that what each of us does, each moment, is the only thing we could possibly have done, given our embodied and cultural conditioning and the immediate circumstances. That’s not an excuse; it’s the realization that our pretence of free will is an illusion.

I will cheer on Ken, and Derrick, and all the other Direct Activists who have no choice but to continue to put their safety, their freedom and possibly their lives on the line, because they cannot do anything less.

In this, none of us has any choice. We will support the Direct Activists, and one day, when it is our time, we too will reach that tipping point, and have no choice but to join them, doing whatever we can do, whatever it takes, to stop the destruction of our planet. It will ultimately not make a difference, not change the Endgame. But that will not matter.

I will see you, then, on the line.


Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments

Nothing on Offer Here

image CC0 via maxpixel

People want to believe, and they want people who seem to have found answers to tell them what they’ve learned, and what to do as a result. It’s flattering to be asked for advice, and very tempting to reply to such requests, but I’m coming to believe it’s best not to offer it, as credible and comforting as one’s advice might come across. I want to explore briefly why I think that’s so.

Thanks to a couple of decades of study of human nature and how the world really works, I now live in a world of constant and bewildering cognitive dissonance. I am driven by my idealism to want to make the world a better place, but know that nothing I or anyone can do will prevent the slow but total collapse of our global industrial civilization over the coming decades. I am inspired by activists but acknowledge that all their courageous and dangerous work will ultimately be futile and fruitless. I am hungry to learn to cope better with stresses and crises and adversity, but realize that ultimately we have no free will or agency or control over what the creature whose body we presume to inhabit will do regardless.

There is nothing I can do to persuade you of the inevitability of collapse, the futility of activism, or our utter lack of personal agency. Unless you have a propensity to read and learn the kinds of things that I have, to think and behave the way I do, to suspend disbelief as I do, to constantly challenge everything and to live (relatively) comfortably with ambiguity and irreconcilable understandings as I do, you will see these things differently from the way I do, and find my beliefs unpersuasive, absurd, cowardly, and/or defeatist. That doesn’t mean one of us is more right, or more informed, or more enlightened.

In a recent essay Paul Chefurka laid out ten “precepts” that govern his approach to life, and his counsel to others. It’s a great read. While I offer no counsel, I thought it might be useful to lay out my precepts (or, since they’re not prescriptive, my appreciations), and explain why I believe them, so that it might be a little more apparent why I no longer believe it makes sense to give others advice or to try to change what we do in the world. So here they are:

Dave’s Seven (Outrageous) Appreciations:

  1. There is no one. The sense of a separate person with free will and choice inhabiting a body is an illusion, an evolutionary misstep, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that seemingly arose about thirty millennia ago as a spandrel of the growth of our brains. There is compelling evidence of this in biology, theory of mind, and neuroscience — what we think of as ‘our’ decisions have been found to be merely the brain’s after-the-fact rationalizations for what the brain or body had already and inevitably begun to do, as a result of its innate and cultural conditioning. The self, being an illusion, has no free will or agency whatsoever. Tragically, the brain and body have no need of a self — this abstracted mental model of apart-hood reality — in order for the apparent human creature they are seemingly a part of to function perfectly well. Humans that have no sense of being separate or of having a self are, amazingly, at least as functional as you and I, and you’d never know their secret from talking with them. And, since there is no you, there is nothing you can do or learn or become to dispel or see through this illusion. The self cannot see that the self is just a mental construct, cannot ‘see through’ its self.
  2. Nothing is real. Nothing is separate. There is no thing. There is only ‘this’ (or everything, or whatever word you want to use), appearing as things and actions in (apparent) time and space. These appearances are not illusions like the self, and they’re neither real nor unreal; they are just appearances. Inexplicably. For no reason or purpose. This is being confirmed by the latest scientific discoveries in astrophysics and quantum theory, which allows that time and space are merely abstract mental constructs, and the universe or multiverse (or whatever you want to call ‘what apparently is’) is actually just an infinite, timeless ‘field of possibilities’. As a corollary, there is no causality, and no life or death, and hence nothing matters (in either sense of the word).
  3. The ‘conscious’ self prevents seeing everything as it truly is. We define the term ‘consciousness’ as awareness of our separateness, and see it providing us with an advantage over what we perceive to be ‘unconscious’ creatures. But when there is no longer the illusion of a separate self, what is seen (by no one) is everything, ‘what apparently is’, in all its wonder, unfiltered by the self’s veil of egocentrism and conjured-up meaning-making. All of us have, mostly without being aware of it, at least briefly (in moments of awe, of ‘self-less’ love, or of extreme exhilaration or calm) ‘lost’ our ‘selves’ and seen, without the mask of (self-)consciousness, ‘everything’ as it truly is. This is impossible for us to fathom — we can’t conceive of seeing everything without a separate self to see it, when in fact it is the separate self that prevents us from seeing everything exactly as it (always and everywhere) is, infinite and eternal.
  4. Our global human civilization is quickly and inevitably collapsing. And there is nothing wrong (or right) about this. Complex systems always collapse when their level of complexity becomes unsustainable. Feedback loops in these systems tend to perpetuate increasing complexity and the status quo until they cannot continue, and then they collapse. This is the nature of such systems, and no interventions (even if you believe we have the free will to intervene, and the capacity and power to intervene cohesively at the necessary scale) will significantly alter the trajectory. Yet, as tragic as this may appear — evolution leading to devolution, the dislocation and suffering that collapse inevitably inflicts — it is all just an appearance. There has never been any civilization arising or collapsing in time and space. There is no one and no thing separate, no civilization, no evolution, no birth or death. Just a wondrous show, for no one, for no reason, outside of space and time.
  5. No one is to blame. Whatever appears ‘wrong’ in this world, it is not the fault of evil or deranged people, or despots, or stupidity, or ‘the system’. Everyone is doing their best, the only thing they can apparently do given their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, and no one has agency or control over what they apparently do. Because there is no one to do anything, no agency, no wrong or right, no ‘system’, no free will, no time in which anything can be done. Just appearances, for no reason. Just wondrous expressions of everything.
  6. We can’t help ourselves. We can tell ourselves things we ‘should’ or ‘need to’ do to make ourselves more successful, or smarter, or healthier, but we have no free will or agency to do anything other than what the creature we presume to inhabit is predisposed to do anyway given its conditioning and the circumstances of the moment. At a collective level, we can argue, for example, that we ‘need’ to learn new self-sufficiency and community-building skills to increase our resiliency in the face of coming collapse, but except for a few new-age learning dilettantes, we won’t actually do that until there is a collective acknowledgement that we have no choice but to do so immediately. Humans, like all creatures, are driven by the needs of the moment.
  7. Our destructiveness stems from self-domestication, not our inherent nature. Human activity has inadvertently brought on the sixth great extinction of life on earth, but it’s not because we are inherently a violent and rapacious species. We are inherently collaborative and peaceful, even lazy. It was only when our brains’ intellectual capacity enabled us to domesticate ourselves that we lost our connection with all life on earth and began to behave dysfunctionally — expanding into uncomfortable ecosystems, exploding our population, and creating scarcities and cultural memes that produced fear-driven, destructive activities.

Here’s how these seven learned ‘appreciations’ map to our enculturated perceptions and conceptions, to create the staggering cognitive dissonance that anyone who shares these appreciations must feel:

There is no one. No self, no free will, no control. I am real and have free will, self-control and responsibility for my actions as does everyone else. We live and suffer and then we die. It’s in our power to make the most of it.
Nothing is real, or separate. Everything is just a wondrous appearance. Everything I perceive is undeniably real and separate. Time and space exist and everything that is real happens in time and space.
The ‘conscious’ self prevents seeing everything as it truly is. Without a self there cannot be any real consciousness of anything.
Civilization is inevitably collapsing, within this century. Nothing can be done about this predicament. We need to take responsibility and action urgently, locally and globally, to address the problems that are threatening civilization’s collapse.
No one is to blame. We’re all doing our best, the only thing we can do in the situation given our conditioning. ‘Bad’ people and groups are to blame. Inaction, stupidity and ignorance are to blame. We are all to blame.
We can’t help ourselves. We have no free will, no capacity to ‘make’ ourselves do or be anything, even when we believe we ‘should’. With self-awareness and self-management work we can make ourselves better, more resilient, more useful, happier, more present, smarter, and perhaps even enlightened.
Our destructiveness as a species stems from self-domestication, when we tragically lost our connection to the rest of life on earth and ‘forgot our place’. We are inherently a wild but collaborative and loving species. We are an inherently violent, rapacious and destructive species. We need self-control and regulation to prevent ourselves from hurting each other and destroying our planet.

Perhaps you can sense from the above table how the dissonance between what I have come to appreciate (left column) and what I have been conditioned to believe (and what almost everyone I know believes unquestioningly — right column) often leaves me speechless and paralyzed. What do I say to the activist who has risked everything to challenge our passive acceptance of climate collapse? That “nothing matters”? What do I say to the victims of life-destroying, immiserating atrocities? That it’s not real, only an appearance? What do I say to the person who has overcome staggering obstacles to finally flourish and help others do likewise? That it was what was inevitably going to happen anyway because of their conditioning?

What do I say to the person who has spent a lifetime getting bad laws changed and progressive laws passed? Or to the person mourning the loss of a loved one? Or to the person struggling with an impossible hardship they had no role in creating?

I, of course, say nothing. I nod with genuine admiration and compassion, if not empathy. My new ‘appreciations’ are useless in relating to my fellow humans’ ‘selves’. These appreciations are of no use to ‘me’, to the self, that dreadful bit of software that comes embedded in human babies just waiting to be installed and launched by our well-intentioned culture. For many, gaining these useless appreciations is probably worse than simply being trapped unawares in the prison of the self, even with its ghastly life sentence with no parole.

And yet… I would not for all the world undo these new appreciations. They have somehow made my life more bearable by giving me, if only intellectually, and somehow resonantly, intuitively, a perspective from outside my sad, lost, scared self. For me, that’s enough. I write about it, here, because it’s how I try to make sense of things that don’t seem, at least yet, to make sense. I wouldn’t presume to try to ‘sell’ these appreciations to others. They’ve cast doubt upon everything I once believed was true and thought was possibly useful to others, and given me nothing new to offer at all. 

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 8 Comments

Simpler, Yet

Our brains, crazy patterning devices that they are, are constantly trying to see patterns — connections, causes, continuities, reasons, purposes, justifications — for everything they perceive. There actually aren’t any, but that doesn’t stop the brain. It has to try to know, and there is something about the aha! that comes with seeing a new pattern that makes sense of what previously didn’t, that makes the self just jump all over it.

Internally, the self employs the brain and body’s reactions to rationalize and emotionally justify what the creature that the self presumes to inhabit has already ‘decided’ based on its conditioning and the circumstances of the moment. (Though the conditioning, the circumstances and the ‘decision’/action are all just appearances anyway.)

Externally, the self employs the brain and body’s perceptions to make connections — between apparent cause and effect, and apparent past, present and future. Some of the connections, such as Gaia theory or evolutionary theory, are quite elegant. They make sense to the self in some very satisfying, resonant way. They appear to hold under a broad range of apparent conditions and circumstances. But they are just stories, as delicious, true and ‘real’ as they may seem to the reactive, interpreting self.

The self is the ‘person-ification’ of the brain’s and body’s reactions, and the inventor of a false but compelling reality of separateness and meaning.

So we can have a model, a theory, of the self — how it seems to exist even though it is an illusion, how it seems to have agency and to make decisions, how it seizes on thoughts and emotions and sensations and perceptions and claims them as its own, though they are just stories and it (the self) is just illusion.

There is a certain comfort in ‘knowing’ that. We might be able to fathom that our self is an illusion, and a useless one at that, but the fact that there seems such an elegant, internally consistent and apparently predictive theory that seems to explain all these appearances is reassuring to the haggard, exhausted self — a self that wants there at least to be some plausible explanation for its illusive reality and everything that it perceives to be happening, when often everything seems nonsensical, unfair, terrifying and out of control.

There is no comfort in knowing that nothing matters, that nothing is real, that there is no time, no thing separate. It just doesn’t make sense, doesn’t resonate at all. It flies in the face of what seems to the self obviously real. There will never be a compelling argument to support it, or ‘evidence’ of its veracity. It’s just incredible. Even as science comes to recognize the reality of this terrible knowledge, most people won’t accept it, won’t be able to bear it. It won’t be the first time the majority will conclude that scientists are lying to them.

But the comforting model of what seems to be doesn’t actually offer much comfort, because it is based on a false premise. It’s not that the theory of evolution and Gaia theory fail to accurately describe what is apparently happening on Earth over time. It’s that there is no one and no thing separate to evolve or co-evolve, and no time in which to do it. Given “not A”, what possible value can there be in the apparent veracity of “if A then B”?

It is not that the idea that humans’ apparent actions seem entirely determined by their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment (rather than by the self’s moral and intellectual deliberations) is invalid. It’s that there are no humans, no actions, no conditioning, and no circumstances to determine anything or be determined by anything, and no moments in which to determine anything. The problem isn’t the logic of the argument of apparent causality, it’s the psychosomatic misunderstanding of the essential nature (and unreality) of the perceived elements of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’.

The argument about whether we have free will, or not, becomes moot with the realization there is no ‘we’.

So what remains is a series of rhetorical puzzles:

(1) How can the true nature of reality be ‘seen’ if there is no one to see it?

This is a complete mystery; but it has no ‘answer’. There is no one to ‘see’ anything, yet somehow things (apparently real and apparently not) are (apparently) seen. An interesting twist on “if a tree falls in the forest…”.

(2) If the self is not real, how can it have the seeming effect of making the human character more neurotic, and how can its absence have any effect on the character ‘left behind’?

It cannot. The seeming contraction and seeming expansion of energy when a self seems to emerge are just appearances. Anything is possible. everything is just appearance. Nothing is ‘really’ happening so there is no causality connecting the ‘appearance’ or ‘disappearance’ of the illusory self with any ‘subsequent’ tendencies of the apparent body/brain.

(3) What is to be done when the self continues to apparently think thoughts and feel feelings that contradict the knowledge that there is no self, causing needless anxiety and suffering?

Nothing. Or maybe just self-awareness of that apparently happening. Plus coping with enormous cognitive dissonance, both internally, and externally in the self’s dealings with the ‘world’.

(4) When it is seen that ‘nothing matters’ does this not necessarily bring about a more peaceful state of mind, and if so, whose state of mind?

No, because no one exists to have a state of mind, and everything is just an appearance; and there are no ‘real’ consequences.

Even simpler and more hopeless than anyone can imagine. Nothing to do, and no one to do it. Just the astonishing wonder of all that apparently is, which the self, tragically, ironically, can and will never see. A ghost, haunting its self.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

The Rogue Primate

Image from wikimedia by Nick Hobgood, CC-BY-SA 3.0

I. Is human destructiveness a consequence of the evolution of the self?

I have spent much of my life arguing that humans are not significantly different from any other living creature, and thus deserve no special consideration. And to some extent I still think this is true: genetically, biologically, our species is not exceptional, and certainly isn’t the culmination of anything evolutionarily extraordinary. Genetically we are more similar to the potato than many species of bacteria are to each other. We are an enormously ‘successful’ species, if you define that as ecosystem domination, global spread, or biomass, but no more so than other unexceptional species like dinosaurs, rats, jellyfish or bacteria.

Because we are unexceptional, I will not mourn the demise of our species over the coming decades. I don’t think humans will become completely extinct, though without the abundance of accessible, cheap energy needed to power civilization cultures, the remnants of our species will probably play a very marginal and unimportant role in post-civilization evolution on this planet. And even if humans disappear altogether, dying out, like the dinosaurs, not with a bang but a centuries-long whimper, I don’t think that would be anything to mourn about either. Life on earth will continue to evolve and thrive without us, until inevitable cosmic changes render this place unfit for life of any kind. Our universe is so vast that it is inconceivable that there won’t be still an unfathomable number of astonishing things unfolding in it long after our little blue planet, sooner or later, goes molten or gets sucked into an expanding, dying sun.

But I think I was wrong in saying there is nothing unique about the human species. We are not biologically unique, and in a real sense the species is not unique in any sense. What is unique is the affliction that our species appears to have succumbed to, due to what would appear to be an evolutionary accident, and a terrible mistake. That affliction is the illusion of separateness, of there being a self residing in the body of each human, that has agency, free will, responsibility and control over the body and its actions. The self — ‘you’ and ‘me’ — is a persuasive and enduring illusion, but astrophysics, quantum theory and neuroscience are converging on an appreciation that it is no more than that.

Even the body is not real, any more than anything is real in space and time. Ultimately, there is only everything, the appearance of what is happening. Nothing ‘really’ separate or apart. Ever.

So if the seemingly real self is merely a useful illusion, and everything (including space and time) that it conceives of as real is in truth only a meaningless appearance, to whom exactly are these conceptions of reality useful?

Self-invented languages aren’t helpful in answering this question. Maddeningly, recursively, it would seem the self and its imagined reality only seem useful to the self. Selves have no effect on the apparent behaviours and actions of the body, though they appear to, to the self. Each moment, the body (apparently) does the only thing it could possibly have done, given its conditioning and the immediate circumstances it faces. Our brains then rationalize, after the fact, what the body apparently does as somehow being the result of actions or decisions of our selves. In fact, our selves have nothing to do with it.

The affliction IS us. Human beings, bodies, aren’t really afflicted by our selves — what those bodies do is not affected at all by what our selves think, feel or decide. Our selves are afflicted with themselves. And that is what makes ‘us’ unique. Not the human species — it isn’t unique at all. What is unique — perversely, recursively, damnably — is our selves.

There is an obvious, and rather compelling, temptation to therefore blame our selves, and not our species, for the sixth great extinction, wars, violence, climate change and all the other apparent ills that have been unfolding since the fateful beginning of human civilization. Surely, if humans hadn’t been afflicted with selves, we would still be living simple, uncivilized lives in balance with nature as even our closest evolutionary cousins, the chimps and bonobos do?

Alas, this argument is too easy, and impossibly wrong. Our selves are illusory, and the affliction has no impact on human creatures’ behaviour. So we can’t hold our selves to blame for anything. Though as the illusory self is an embodied, psychosomatic (mind + body) misunderstanding, it may be that the self can incidentally (not purposefully) produce apparent ailments (neuroses, trauma, stress-related diseases) in the apparent body, which might in turn, one could argue, lead to dysfunctional behaviours.

But even that line of argument is weak. There is nothing separate, and no time or space, so there is no causality either, no association between one thing apparently happening and another. It is the self that insists on there being a causal connection. Chemical imbalances and traumas (physical and emotional) apparently happen, and there seems a connection between them and ‘subsequent’ (remember, there is no time) suffering and behaviours, but that is just the brain’s patterning and the self’s rationalization. Everything that apparently happens is just an appearance; it’s not real (but not unreal, not an invention, either). The self, however, has to belief there’s a reason, a connection, cause and effect. That’s how it makes sense. When something doesn’t make sense, that’s assumed to be because the reason, the connection, isn’t known yet, but will be sooner or later.

So the real question remains: If human brains had not (apparently) evolved to the point they were capable to abstracting the idea of separation and creating the illusion of self, would the human species have (apparently) evolved in the destructive and violent way it did?

The answer to this is complicated and probably unsatisfying (at least to the self). Because there is no separation, and no time, and since nothing is ‘real’ (the way the self understands that term), only appearance, there is actually no evolution either. Evolution is just a story made up by selves to make sense of what is apparently happening. Any question that is founded on an ‘if…then’ supposition implies that causality is real, and it is not. That we see our selves as moving through space and time, and see things as evolving over time, is just part of the self’s story, which is just a baseless mental construct (as incredibly and sometimes terrifyingly real as it seems to be to the self).

There is no reason for the appearance of what seems to be the sixth great extinction of life on this planet, nothing that ’caused’ it, human, self or otherwise. It is just an appearance. That extinction is not happening continuously and sequentially over time. That is just an appearance also.

So the answer to the question of whether the evolution of large brains and/or selves led to humans’ ruination of our planet is moot: there was and is no evolution; there is no time over which anything can evolve or cause anything else.

While all of this is a new and daunting realization on the frontiers of physics, quantum science, neuroscience and philosophy, it is accepted, more or less, by many eastern religions and spiritual disciplines. The terms are different, since none of this can really be described in language, but the essence of the message — empty fullness, no-self, not-two, the whole idea that everything is one, inseparable, nothing appearing as everything — is present in messages from some forms of secular Buddhism to the ‘teachings’ of Adyashanti and Eckhart Tolle and the ‘insights’ of shamans, some of them on psychoactive drugs. Though couched in different ways, this is essentially the same as the ‘radical non-duality’ message I’ve written about extensively on this blog. This message says that while (the appearance of) anything is possible, suffering is a maladaptation, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that the self somehow owns and is responsible for the thoughts and feelings and pain that just arise.

It would seem implausible that so many different scientific, philosophical,  mystical and spiritual explorations are coming to the same conclusion about the nature of reality, from very different starting points, if there weren’t some validity to it.

II. Is human destructiveness a consequence of self-domestication?

In his remarkable 1994 book Rogue Primate, the late Canadian naturalist John Livingston argued that humans have domesticated ourselves, possibly because our species appears to have all the qualities needed for easy domestication: docility and tractability, a pliable or weak will, susceptibility to dependence, insecurity, adaptability to different habitats, inclination to herd behaviour, tolerance of physical and psychological maltreatment, acceptance of habitat homogeneity, high fecundity, social immaturity, rapid physical growth, sexual precociousness, and poor natural attributes (lack of speed, strength, and sensory acuity). We share these qualities, he argued, with most of the creatures (and many plants) we have domesticated. The only difference is, we domesticated ourselves.

Domesticated creatures, he said, are by definition totally dependent on a prosthetic, disconnected, surrogate mode of approaching and apprehending the world, to stand in the place of natural, biological, inherent ways of being. Such creatures see the world through this artificial prosthesis, instead of how it really is, and this self-domestication is what we call civilization.

Wolfi Landstreicher, in a quote I have used often on this blog, says that this way of being is unnatural and abhorrent:

In a very general way, we know what we want. We want to live as wild, free beings in a world of wild, free beings. The humiliation of having to follow rules, of having to sell our lives away to buy survival, of seeing our usurped desires transformed into abstractions and images in order to sell us commodities fills us with rage. How long will we put up with this misery? We want to make this world into a place where our desires can be immediately realized, not just sporadically, but normally. We want to re-eroticize our lives. We want to live not in a dead world of resources, but in a living world of free wild lovers. We need to start exploring the extent to which we are capable of living these dreams in the present without isolating ourselves. This will give us a clearer understanding of the domination of civilization over our lives, an understanding which will allow us to fight domestication more intensely and so expand the extent to which we can live wildly.

John and Wolfi, interestingly, both equate civilization with (self-)domestication. Although causality may be just an appearance, they both make a compelling case for self-domestication being what has (apparently) led to our disconnection from, and subsequent (apparent) destruction of, the natural world.

III. Are civilization and self-domestication a consequence of the evolution of the self? (Or, put another way, is the self the “artificial prosthesis” that enabled civilization and self-domestication?)

So: We can’t blame human disconnection and destructiveness on the emergence of the illusory self. We may be able to argue that this apparent disconnection and destructiveness stemmed from our species’ apparent inherent predisposition for self-domestication and ‘civilized’ culture. Did the emergence of selves lead to, or at least precede, the emergence of this predisposition for self-domestication and ‘civilization’-building?

No. As in the first argument, something illusory cannot ‘do’ anything. Not ‘really’. An appearance can appear to lead to or cause another appearance (when it comes to appearances, anything is possible). But the self is not an appearance; it is an illusion. It can’t ‘do’ anything, even apparently, because it does not exist, period. When the illusion of the self drops away, it is realized (by no one) that it never was, and that all there is is everything, all that appears. So the self, being non-existent, can’t be blamed for anything.


So, to bottom-line all of this preposterous, wild, convoluted, radical thinking:

  • The apparent evolution of large brains in humans apparently led to self-domestication, domestication of other species, a propensity for building complex civilizations, the emergence of the illusion of separate selves with agency, and an apparent disconnection from “natural, biological, inherent ways of being”, ie living as wild, free creatures. We apparently thus became horrifically destructive rogue primates. But we had no choice in the matter, and have no choice over what is apparently to come.
  • Intuitively, apparently, humans sense and lament the loss of the natural, wild, free, inherent ways of being, and the disconnection from everything ‘else’, but we can do nothing about it.
  • The illusory self, a spandrel (an apparently accidental and maladaptive consequence of the apparent evolution of large brains) suffers enormously from its invalid belief that it owns and has agency over thoughts, feelings, decisions and actions that apparently emerge in the apparently separate-from-everything-‘else’ human body it incorrectly believes it inhabits. In other words, it suffers recursively and monumentally from itself. There is nothing that can be done about this.
  • The apparent phenomenon of human self-domestication (civilization) and the illusion of the self are not causally connected. The illusory self is not to blame for the appearance of self-domestication, any more than it’s to blame for the apparently consequent destructiveness of the human species.

All of which is, of course, outrageous. There is no one. Nothing matters. Nothing is real. No one is to blame. All there is is everything, a wondrous profusion of appearances. And nothing can or need be done.

Impossible. Unthinkable. Absurd. Deranged. Useless. Infuriating.

And, it seems to me, against all logic, true.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

What Happened Next, Apparently

image by amira_a from flickr, via pixhere, cc by 2.0

What apparently happened was that among the eight humans who had seemingly gathered on the beach to watch the sunset, it was suddenly realized that there was no one. That nothing was real, or unreal. That there was only everything — everything apparently happening.

At first, nothing was said about this. There was just looking in awe at everything, that had always been there but never seen. This was not an awkward silence, as there was no one left to be awkward.

There was much smiling, but not by anyone, or towards anyone or anything in particular, since there was nothing particular to smile at.

No one remarked about how astonishing it was that everything could not have been seen before when it was now so obvious, because there was no one to remark about it, and never had been. Everything had seemingly changed, but it was actually quite ordinary, and nothing had actually changed at all. Just some illusions had disappeared.

The behaviour of the humans did not seem to change at all. As before, the eight humans did what they were conditioned to do, the only things they could have done given the circumstances of the moment, or so it appeared. A careful observer might have detected more (or fewer) far-away looks, less urgency, less anxiety, but the two couples still acted like couples, and the others still acted very much as they seemed to have before, even though there was no longer anyone purporting to inhabit these humans’ bodies.

There was no inclination to start a movement to tell people how awesome it was to see everything, and how tragic it was that, being people, they could never hope to see it. There was no need to do anything. It was just suddenly obvious, but not worth talking about, and besides, there was no one to talk about it, or talk about it with.

None of this happened for a reason. There was nothing special about these particular eight humans, or where they were, or what they were doing, or had been doing in past, when it was realized there was no one. It just happened, apparently. Nothing remarkable at all.

When nothing is real, anything is possible.

Posted in Creative Works | 3 Comments

Links of the Quarter: March 2019

I posted a special ‘links of the month’ in January to showcase some important new writing about civilization’s collapse, so this quarter’s links are a bit lighter in both volume and tone than usual. Hope you enjoy them.


cartoon by the brilliant Michael Leunig

David Suzuki Says “We’re not going to make it”: He still talks about what it would take, but he’s given up hope that climate disaster can be averted. Noam Chomsky is getting close to the same viewpoint.


image sent to me by my friend Ron Woodall

Irish Koans: A new collection and translation of Zen koans suggests that the Irish language, with its propensity for mystery and ambiguity, is particularly suited to the understanding of ancient koans, and that a core message of them is non-duality:

What became abundantly clear to me when I started investigating the koans more closely was that there is one fundamental message permeating through a great number of many of the more well-known classical koans and that is the message of non-duality. Non-duality simply means ‘not two’. We all have the perception that there is an ‘I’ inside our body and that ‘I’ is looking out at a separate world. In other words, that there is a subject and an object observed by that subject, a knower and a known, a seer and a seen, a hearer and a heard. What many of the koans help to discover is that the knower and the known are, in fact, one and the same.

A Theory is Often a Reflection of its Creator: A brilliant critique by the Corporate Rebels of naive thinking that organizations can ‘reinvent’ themselves, that some oft-cited large organizations epitomize sustainable democratic principles, and that the “integrative thinking” model (of Wilber et al) is anything more than an arrogant idealistic exercise in wishful thinking. One of the best and most courageous examples of critical thinking I have read in a long time.

The Lancet on Diet: The esteemed medical journal weighs in on the advantages of a balanced plant-based diet for our health and the health of our planet. And so does the new Canadian Food Guide, free for the first time from food industry lobbying.

Craigslist Founder Refuses to Sell Out: Craig Newmark is a billionaire despite the fact that he’s never sold out to venture capitalists who want to ‘monetize’ (ie charge money for) the amazing free service he offers.

Why We Feed Birds: The wonderful Cornell Lab of Ornithology asks if we even should. The answer is a resounding yes, but mostly for our benefit, not theirs — they don’t need us.

How Not to Dominate the Conversation: Chris Corrigan suggests that rather than ignoring or fighting the power dynamics in a conversation or discussion, acknowledge and work with them.


image from a post by Lulastic, uncredited

All Depends on How You Ask the Question: But have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too Canadians seem to want more pipelines, urgently, plus actions to stop climate change. The increasingly right-wing Trudeau “Liberal” government seems hell-bent on ruining our environment and climate with its reckless energy development agenda, and ultra-conservatism is now creeping into its public political stances, notably its ganging up with other conservative regimes calling for the undemocratic overthrow of the government of Venezuela. Astonishing that it takes the conservative Globe & Mail to call them out on this, and also to call them out on our government’s tepid response to the rise of right-wing extremist white nationalist terrorism.

The Colonization of Activism: Jane Anne Morris explains how the work of activists has been colonized, coopted and de-activated, and what would be needed to make it effective again. Thanks to Tree Bressen and Paul Cienfuegos for the link.


image from the Bizarro facebook page; thanks to Sam Mills for the link

Scary Time for Men and Boys: Lynzy Lab sings a brilliant, scathing rebuttal to 45’s assertion that thanks to the metoo movement it’s a “scary time for men and boys”. The unusually large number and proportion of anonymous “thumbs down” for this video is telling.

Not Going Back: Another compelling appeal for us to stay on daylight savings time all year round.

Time Lapse Map of Europe Since 400BC: Learn more about European history in 11 minutes than you did in any of your history classes.

Stunning HD Footage From Hawaii: Ryan de Seixas shows you some of the incredible scenery we get to see in Hawai’i (from where I’m writing this). Extra: manta rays’ mating ritual.

The Return of Humpbacks: My friend, geologist and videographer Bob Turner, chronicles the recent return of humpback whales to the area of my home, the Salish Sea.

Georgian Music: Georgian music boasts a unique, somewhat haunting form of polyphony. If you’re not familiar with it, check out Orera, or the astonishing voice of Salome Tetiashvili. Thanks to Raffi Aftandelian for the first link.

Beautiful Maps of the Earth’s River Systems: Cartography as art. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

We Don’t Stay: A lovely new song about our disconnection from our past. Watch the eclectic, subtle electric guitar work of Anthony da Costa quietly steal the show.

Speaking Shetlandic: Let your ear accustom itself to Scottish poet laureate Christine De Luca’s conversation and it will teach you much about language in general. The poem she reads is transcribed below.


image from Quantum World

From Nicolette Sowder, at Wilder Child (thanks to my friend Kim Howden for the link):

May we raise children who love the unloved things – the dandelion, the worms and spiderlings. children who sense the rose needs the thorn, who run into rainswept days the same way they turn towards sun. And when they’re grown and someone has to speak for those who have no voice may they draw upon that wilder bond, those days of tending tender things, and be the ones.

Little wild one, remind me how to run again barefoot through the pathless woods. Show me where the fairies hide messages in curled up maple leaves. Show me treasures, rocks and feathers, frogs that beckon us forward, forward through the curling grapevine. Lead me under a moon that is as full as our pockets, past chicory & mushroom rings, down, down to the river where I can see myself, as if for the first time, peering back at me.

If you want a child to listen to their heart, start by teaching them to listen to the wind, the rain and the littlest birds.

From the Writing About Writing FB page:

The Grammar Bar:

  • A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.
  • A bar was walked into by the passive voice.
  • An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.
  • Two quotation marks walk into a “bar.”
  • A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.
  • Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.
  • A question mark walks into a bar?
  • A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.
  • Papyrus and Comic Sans walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Get out — we don’t serve your type.”
  • A mixed metaphor walks into a bar, seeing the handwriting on the wall but hoping to nip it in the bud.
  • A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
  • Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.
  • A synonym strolls into a tavern.
  • At the end of the day, a cliché walks into a bar — fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack.
  • A run-on sentence walks into a bar it starts flirting. With a cute little sentence fragment.
  • Falling slowly, slowly falling, the chiasmus collapses to the bar floor.
  • A figure of speech literally walks into a bar and ends up getting figuratively hammered.
  • An allusion walks into a bar, despite the fact that alcohol is its Achilles heel.
  • The subjunctive would have walked into a bar, had it only known.
  • A misplaced modifier walks into a bar owned by a man with a glass eye named Ralph.
  • The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.
  • A verb walks into a bar, sees a beautiful noun, and suggests they conjugate. The noun declines.
  • An Oxford comma walks into a bar, where it spends the evening watching the television, getting drunk, and smoking cigars.
  • A simile walks into a bar, as parched as a desert.
  • A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.
  • A hyphenated word and a non-hyphenated word walk into a bar and the bartender nearly chokes on the irony.
  • A woman walks into a bar. She tells the bartender, “I need an entendre, make it a double.” So he gave her one.
  • Pronouns entered the bar, replacing everyone and everything.
  • A spoonerism balks into a war.
  • Who and Whom walked into a bar. The bartender didn’t know which to serve.
  • A split infinitive decided to boldly walk into a bar.

From Christine De Luca (transcription by Vira Motorko):

Spelling it out

It’s the way a cat fawns, a bird flaunts,
a dog recoils and whimpers;

it’s the way a cricket
chooses from his bag of chirpings

or a whale sends a long distance message.

It’s the way our fore-fathers moved
to the forest floor, and in the tonality

of their vocal chords said ‘I’ and ‘you’
in a thousand different ways;

picked up the grammar of polemic
and persuasion,

the lexicon of lewd and lovely,

the tenses that made sense
of time past and time to come.

It’s the borders, armies and classes
that cornered the limits of Language:

Patois or Pidgin; Colloquial or Kailyard;
Vernacular or Slang.

It’s the famous thesaurus that suggests
three meanings for dialect

other than
dialect in language –

speciality, intelligibility
and speech defect.

It’s the funding that flows
from decisions;

it’s the boundaries and commissions

that decide that ‘pub’
is kosher in Norwegian,

but only if pronounced püb;

dat Heron Heights an Hegrehøyden(1)
is baith languages

but Hegrie-heichts(2) is dialect,

dat Hrossagaukur(3) an Snipe
is language

but Hrossgauk(4) is dialect.

Hit’s da passion we hadd
whin we nön ta wirsels,

whin we bal soond fae
wir bosie inta da heevens

whin we lay a wird o love apön een anidder

whin we dunna budder

wi nairrow definition.


(1) the Norwegian word for heron
(2) the Shetlandic word for heron is hegrie
(3) the Icelandic word for the snipe
(4) the Shetlandic word for the snipe

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

We Can’t Imagine

image from spirit111 at pixabay cc0

to see that there is no ‘us’, nothing apart,
that everything is just a wondrous appearance,
that there is only ‘oneness’
(though that poor word doesn’t begin to describe it,
it’s as close as a ‘language of separation’ can come).

to see that nothing is personal, or important,
nothing is about us, or happening to us or to anyone,
it is just what is appearing to happen, outside of space and time.

to see that it’s just an amazing show of serendipity and joy
a magical expression of endless possibility,
a gentle, eternal wow.

we can’t imagine how perfect this is, right here, now,
unceasingly and everywhere,
as long as we are caught in the terrible prison of our self,
sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

we can’t imagine how it is to be free,
to see everything as it really is, to be everything,
a song and celebration without end.

but we will.
even for ‘us’,
(though there will then be no ‘us’),
beyond the struggle and the suffering,
beyond the anger and fear and sorrow,
one day everything will be free.

it is already,
but we can’t imagine.

Posted in Creative Works | Comments Off on We Can’t Imagine

Collaboration is the Hallmark of Community

I‘ve spent many hours over the past four months rehearsing for a choir performance, a benefit for our local food bank. The world premiere concert was last night and played to a sold-out crowd, and it was a huge success for the works’ composer, my friend Brian Hoover.

As our chorus of 25 rehearsed, I was reminded of the incredible sense of community and joy that learning and singing great music together brings. I haven’t performed music publicly since my high school days, and the rehearsals brought back some of my finest memories. There is just something about such collaborations — working personally and collectively towards a common goal where everyone’s work has to mesh. What’s amazing is that this sense of community arises despite the fact most of the chorus members are not personal friends, and are probably unlikely to ever be. I have learned from such collaborative work that you don’t have to know, or even particularly like, your fellow collaborators to get astonishing joy from the experience, and end up feeling towards them what can only be described as love. And of course, nothing can compare to the exquisite pleasure of being in the middle of 25 voices blending skilfully and harmonically into a wall of gorgeous sound.

We have been collaborative creatures, as much as we have been social creatures, since our prehistoric emergence on this planet. Collaboration is evolutionarily selected for: Before the recent advent of scarcity driven by technology, overpopulation and our perverse modern industrial economy, we were inherently collaborative, and only competitive and individualistic in rare moments of extraordinary stress. That’s easy to forget when everything in our indoctrinated, conditioned modern society has been made into a competition.

The experience got me thinking about the roles in collaboration. In our modern hierarchical culture every collective activity we pursue is imbued with the cult of leadership, with the idea that things only happen under great leaders. Despite the pro-hierarchy propaganda to the contrary, there is absolutely no evidence that leadership, in the sense of extraordinarily gifted people telling others what to do, actually works in our or any society. My experience in nearly 40 years of business, with organizations of every size, was that what gets done that is of value in these organizations occurs when front-line people do what they know is best, despite instructions from self-proclaimed or anointed ‘leaders’ who are generally removed from contact with customers and no more experienced or skilled at the hands-on work needed to accomplish the organization’s work than anyone else. In fact, in many cases the best work in organizations is done despite the ‘leaders’, as employees have to find workarounds that contravene the directives from the ‘top’ and the policy manuals, a politically challenging and sometimes even dangerous act, to do what they know needs to be done. Many others have told me that is also their experience, including more than a few purported ‘leaders’.

But surely, I thought, recalling the many hours of patient guidance, instruction, correction and repetition that Brian, our organizer, composer and teacher, and Alison Nixon, our indomitable conductor, had to endure to hone our work to the point it was ready for last night’s performance, these are the kinds of situations that really require exceptional leadership, aren’t they?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, despite the appearance of teachers and conductors ‘leading’ a group, what is actually happening is nothing of the sort. Unlike ’employers’, Brian and Alison were drawing on a pool of volunteers, and our entire participation, attention and energy was voluntary. What they did so brilliantly was to elicit those three qualities, and impart their own experience as a suggestion for us to draw upon. They did so without the kind of command and control that so-called ‘leaders’ can exercise from a position of power. And therein was the magic of our work together, and perhaps of all true collaboration: A group of disparate individuals voluntarily came together and worked very hard and diligently together, paying attention to each other as well as to Brian and Alison. We were, including Brian, Alison and the others who contributed to making this happen, a substantially self-organized group, participating and supporting each other for no other reason than because it gave us joy. That’s collaboration.

I’ve said before  that what I think are the two most important skills for the 21st century are facilitation and mentoring:

Facilitation is the process of skillfully helping a group of ordinary people do their best collaborative work. Facilitation includes supporting the group, process stewardship, watching and helping manage the vibe and flow, and ‘holding the space’ for the group to achieve its goals. Tree Bressen describes the role as akin to that of a midwife, enabling delivery without being the actual producer of the ‘product’.

Mentoring is active, empathic listening and providing a sounding board for self-directed learning. Sometimes a mentor’s gift is just to be present, to listen with compassion and appreciation. Sometimes it’s to demonstrate, a suggestion of “you might try this”.

This is far from the textbook definition of ‘leadership’. But these two roles are, in my experience, the only ones that actually work, enabling self-management rather than trying fruitlessly to impose management.

The etymology of director and conductor is substantially about ‘keeping straight’, not about giving expert instruction. As our educational systems have endlessly proven, instruction is not the way to impart knowledge or learning or to get anything accomplished effectively. Leadership and instruction are anachronisms of the industrial era where those in power felt obliged to impose their will to prevent disobedience and to demonstrate their own importance. This has never worked.

When we listened to Brian and to Alison, and paid attention to their movements of direction (what might best be described as impassioned suggestions) and to their facial features, we were acknowledging their enormous competence as facilitators and mentors — as co-creators of the amazing work we heard, movingly and confidently, last night.

I thank them both for showing us how collaboration, at its best, works, and how such collaboration is the essence of community. Last evening, right up to the final sounds of applause, we were all — facilitators and mentors, singers and audience — collaborators, and we were a true community.

I will post the video of the performance when it’s edited and published, here. I would also like to thank the musicians, soloists and crew who made every moment of this experience so delightful and rewarding.




Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

A New Model for Transition?

It’s been a while since I’ve written on this blog about a real ‘aha!’ moment. Thanks to Kate Raworth, I just had one.

Kate is the author of The Doughnut Economy, an astonishingly simple economic model that captures our current predicament, and the inadequacy of the current economy, perfectly. It’s illustrated in the diagram above, and explained in this one-minute animation, the full text of which is as follows:

In the 20th century, economics lost its purpose, and started chasing the false goal of GDP growth, pushing us to deepening inequality, and pushing us all towards ecological collapse. This century calls for a new goal: meeting the needs of all, within the means of the planet. It’s time to get into the doughnut: the sweet spot for humanity [green area of the diagram below]. But that’s no easy task: Today billions of people still fall short of their daily needs, from food, housing and energy to health care and education, and yet we’ve already overshot our capacity in some of earth’s most critical life support systems, driving climate change and the breakdown of biodiversity [red areas of the diagram].

What we do in the next 50 years will shape the next 10,000. So let’s replace that last-century goal of endless growth with the goal of thriving in balance, and if we’re to have half a chance of getting there, what economic mindset will be fit for the task?

As for any predicament, this one has no solutions, only adaptations and coping mechanisms. Our technology-fuelled capitalist, industrial-growth economy only encourages overshoot. But this economy is the evolving result of the actions of billions of people: No small group created this economy, no one is to blame for it, and no group has the power to change or replace it. We just have to acknowledge its reality, and its inevitable collapse, and adapt ourselves to its unfolding as best we can.

That doesn’t mean doing nothing. Kate’s website has many ideas on how to deal with the apparent Hobson’s choice of reducing overshoot by eliminating growth at the global scale (hence increasing inequality, scarcity and suffering for most), or reducing inequality, scarcity and suffering by accelerating even more quickly towards economic collapse. In our current economy, we can’t do both. But in small ways we can (and must) reduce both scarcities and overshoot, even if our actions are unrecognized and merely what Joanna Macy has called “holding actions”. Even if we will have no idea whether they did any good.

We could quibble about which essential human needs belong in the inner circle of the diagram (Michael Dowd’s new video based in part on one of my articles summarizes what I think are eight essential human needs that deserve a place in this centre circle):

And we could quibble about the dimensions of overshoot in the outer circle. But what is important, I think, is that we start to think of human activity as a balancing act, the ultimately impossible task of reducing the red areas in both the inner and outer circles, so that we ultimately live at least a bit more in “the safe and just space for humanity”. In other words, we must learn to live within our means, as we did brilliantly during the first million (“prehistoric”) years of our time on earth.

The chart also shows that we don’t have to worry about other creatures in striving to do this. It’s hubris to think that we are responsible for stewarding this planet. If we take care not to be in overshoot (and when we are no longer around), the rest of life on earth will take care of itself, as it has always done.

Another feature of this model is that it clarifies the role that human overpopulation plays. The more humans on this planet, the more potential shortfall/scarcity we create trying to accommodate them, and the greater the risk of overshoot in doing so. Population is the denominator in the equation, but it is not the only cause of overshoot, and not the only thing we must reign in to reduce it. Waste, inequality, and the vast inefficiencies of scale that globalization (in its well-intended but ill-conceived attempt to reproduce first world wealth) contribute much more to both the inner and outer red areas on the diagram, than raw human numbers.

Finally, this amazing and simple model really presents a blueprint for what any proposed Green New Deal must try to accomplish. Their goals are the same.

So as a joyful pessimist, a student of our culture, and as a collapsnik, I love this new model. We cannot prevent collapse, but this model shows us what we did wrong, and what we continue to do wrong, and how we can at least moderate some of the most devastating effects of our economy and human activity, before collapse makes all our efforts moot. It is a predicament, and as such it is far too late to “get the red out” and restore our economy and ecology to health and balance. But at least, and at last, this gives us a picture, and a useful, meaningful scorecard, as our civilization enters its final decades, to chronicle its, and our, demise, and our attempts to reduce and undo what cannot be undone.

Thanks to Jae Mather for pointing me to David Suzuki’s reference to this model, to the Rockstrom team who developed the first iteration of the model, and to Kate for saying so eloquently what should always have been obvious.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That

image from youtube video by principieuniversi.com 

I‘ve always had a deep-seated, intuitive preference for explanations and theories that are at once simple (“a theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler” as Einstein possibly said), and complex (not mechanical or reductionist, and respectful of the impossibility of complete understanding, and appreciative of the inextricable interrelatedness of all things).

Since I was a child I have been intrigued by the effort of scientists and philosophers to come up with a compelling explanation of the nature of reality, and why every new theory seems unduly complicated, dubious, and unsatisfying.

Part of this, I suppose, is my inherent skepticism of convoluted theories (like string theory), which remind me in their earnestness of the 16th century Ptolemaic anti-Copernican models of complicated circles circling around other circles around earth, to refute the simple but then-outrageous truth of a heliocentric solar system.

Part of it is something inside that somehow ‘remembers’ when everything just made sense as it was, and which found the subsequent vehement teachings of tortuous and labyrinthine alternative explanations for the way things are, to which we are all subjected from early education until we die, so utterly absurd. When I heard these assertions, about morality, about mortality, about progress and struggle and creation and purpose and human nature and later the nature of time and the universe, I kept saying to myself: “Is this just a joke that they’re soon going to let me in on, or do they really believe this preposterous nonsense, and if they really believe it, why?”

So it’s not surprising I suppose that I’ve taken a liking to the message of radical non-duality. It’s the simplest, and most outrageous, “theory of everything” I have ever studied. It is unprovable, and irrefutable. It is utterly useless, and, for those looking for something useful or better than established models old and new, totally hopeless. It’s just this:

There is no you. The sense of a separate person with free will and choice inhabiting a body is an illusion, an evolutionary misstep, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that arises in creatures with large brains. The brain and body have no need of a ‘self’ in order for the apparent human they are seemingly a part of to function perfectly well. Since there is no you, there is nothing you can do or learn or become to dispel or see through this illusion. It’s hopeless.

Nothing is real. Nothing is separate. There is no thing. There is only this (or everything, or whatever word you want to use), appearing as things and actions in (apparent) time and space. These appearances are not illusions like the self, and they’re not real, or unreal; they are just appearances. Inexplicably. For no reason or purpose.

That’s it. That’s the message. Everything else that radical non-dualists talk about is just an elaboration, an illumination, of the essence and consequences of this simple, hopeless message. There are lots of terms that can be used interchangeably with ‘you’ and they are all describing the same illusory thing: the self, contracted energy, the individual, the person, the seeker, the experience (of seeking etc), the experiencer, separation, knowing, understanding, the dream, the dreamer, ‘I am’, the story of ‘me’, consciousness, awareness, duality. All just a dreadful illusion.

There are lots of terms used to describe things that the self believes are absolutely real, but which are simply appearances ‘out of nothing’: time, space, distance, objects, position, meaning, purpose, intention, need, perception, beginning, end, life, death, events, result, cause, free will, choice, control, agency, change, right and wrong, responsibility, thoughts, feelings, sensations, continuity. These are not illusions, but neither are they real. They are just appearances. (I would add “Enjoy the show!” but the self can’t see these things as just wondrous appearances, so it is doomed to ‘miss’ the show, and to be hopelessly unhappy seeking to solve its apparent unhappiness and struggle.)

Not much more to say about it. It’s an elegant, totally internally consistent message. If there is a remembrance or a glimpse of a moment when there was no ‘you’, this message may be intriguing, or even very compelling. Otherwise it will probably just make no sense. Even when, as I think will happen in this century, scientists and philosophers start nodding that this message really does best describe the nature of reality and of human nature. Like Copernicus’ heliocentric model a mere half-millennium ago, it is just too outrageous.


Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments