No Accounting


Freedom of the press, 2019, rated from good (deep blue) to very serious (deep red), as self-assessed by members of Reporters Without Borders. From NordNordWest, CC-by-sa-3.0 de, via wikipedia. These are not good times for journalists and independent media. Not only are many investigators, whistle-blowers, journalists and reporters murdered every year for simply reporting the truth, in many countries the ‘information’ media are concentrated in very few hands and hugely biased and/or corrupt, so much of their citizenry has no access to truthful reportage or to accurate, complete facts about what is going on in their country and our world.

I confess: I am an accountant. That is true in two senses. First, I made my career, much of it anyway, with a large public accounting firm. I did the usual accounting stuff: preparing and auditing financial statements, doing taxes, and, when it didn’t conflict with my auditing duties, providing a gamut of financial and business advisory services to hundreds of (mostly entrepreneurial) companies.

But I’m an accountant in a more essential way as well. The word “account” originally meant “to calculate or reckon” — to assemble data and draw conclusions from them. When a reporter provides an “account” of something that happened, she provides both the facts and reasonably deduced or inferred conclusions drawn from them. This involves a mix of investigative science (determining what all the relevant facts, which may not be obvious or entirely known, are) and the art of critical thinking (deducing, through analytical thinking, and inferring, through inductive reasoning, what the facts “add up to” — what they mean).

Good reportage, accounting for what happened, is very different from entertainment or editorialization, which is the business that almost all the so-called ‘information media’ are now largely or exclusively pursuing. Entertaining stories (including fiction, ‘personal interest’, and celebrity news) are deliberately designed to distract from the issues, and they are completely unconcerned with the truth or its significance; as fiction and faux news outlets now have far more readers than the few remaining real information media, this is clearly a profitable strategy. Editorial stories (statements of pure opinion, unsupported, distorted and/or invented data, and conjecture about the future) deliberately obfuscate the truth by omitting opposing perspectives and the data that support them; they are designed to comfort readers that those readers’ current opinions are righteously correct, whether they actually are or not, and they, too, as the popularity of the wankers on talk radio and online wingnut sites demonstrate, can be profitable undertakings.

In short, our capitalist system, which has no intrinsic regard for the truth but only for increasing revenue and income, offers no place for true reportage, for actual, rigorous accounting of what happened and what it means. The truth, as Greta Thunberg is showing us, provides neither comfort nor distraction. There are many, these days, across the political and philosophical spectrum, who argue that there is no ‘unvarnished’ truth — that everything has multiple interpretations. This argument is flip and disingenuous: any competent reporter, investigative journalist or critical thinker can explain the process of ascertaining the truth and its implications, and the errors to avoid, to provide the reader or listener with a complete-as-possible accounting of what is known, and not known, the various ways this information can be interpreted, and the plausible conclusions.

This blog has endeavoured, over the past 16 years, to provide an accounting of what I’ve read and thought and learned, a chronicle of what I see as a civilization in full-on collapse and my own coming to grips with that, and of what science and philosophy seems to be telling us about the nature of reality and what it means to be human. With practice, I think I am getting better at it.

So I am, in that sense too, an accountant.

What got me thinking about this was an article by Craig Mod, sent to me by my friend Ben, entitled Media Accounting 101. In it, Craig describes the implicit ‘contract’ between writer/publisher and reader, in books and to a lesser extent newspapers, CDs and DVDs: The content is fixed and, as a consequence of the transaction, the reader/customer is free to resell it and use it any time and place any way they wish. Contrast that with the content of social media and to a lesser extent all online media: The seller is not selling content, but rather advertising — readers’/viewers’/listeners’ attention. The actual customer is the advertiser, not the content provider. In fact in this contract the content and the content provider are largely irrelevant and ignored — the sellers of consumer attention (the NYT, Facebook etc) may be somewhat or completely indifferent to what content passes through their channels (and would prefer not to be ‘responsible’ for it), and the content provider (investigative reporter, writer, composer, performer) is often paid a pittance, or nothing at all.

This is a very different contract, which is probably why books remain trusted, carefully read, and valued, while the content of online media — slippery, ephemeral, artless, mostly unverified and unverifiable, and needing no ‘truthiness’ at all (to sell advertising, it need merely be attention-grabbing) — is throw-away, unabsorbed, not taken seriously, and pretty much worthless.

The contract with a real information medium requires that the producer invest energy and integrity to create a credible and useful product, and that the reader invest energy in the form of critical thinking in order to make sense and use of the content. When there is nothing ‘in it’ for the seller to care about the quality or integrity of the content, when there is no money or reward (and much risk) for the content provider to do their important investigative and thoughtful work, when the content is mostly unverified, fake, and/or useless, and when the reader has never been educated to be able to think critically or to appreciate the value of corroborated, well-reasoned reportage, the result is a contract that is worthless to the reader and content provider, and valuable only to the advertising seller and the advertiser. And if you believe, as I do, that advertising is almost entirely a waste of time, money and human energy, then the value of the entire enterprise is zero.

Craig makes the argument that only publications that draw their revenues overwhelmingly from subscriptions rather than advertising need to worry about the quality of their content (in doing so they switch back to the type of implicit contract between book-seller and book-buyer). That means they at least theoretically have to care about its veracity, its thoughtfulness, its imaginativeness, and how well it is composed, which, again theoretically, means there should still be incentives for content providers — investigative journalists, great synthesizers and teachers, and thorough and balanced reporters.

But if you look at the newest ‘subscription’ models they have shifted from pay-for-specific content to stream-everything — so that now content providers are again being paid for the attention they can grab, which is much easier if you’re loud and outrageous (or heavily bankrolled by vested interests), than if you’re competent, painstaking and thoughtful. So instead of getting a dollar for each ‘sale’ of a song, the musician now gets a half-cent for each minute their song holds a listener’s attention, each time they play it. The inevitable result is the infantilization of the music industry — the pandering to morons who listen to nursery-rhyme rap ‘songs’ over and over for hours, and the starvation of serious musicians. The same is true in all other media using this model — just look at the “trending” videos on YouTube and you will quickly feel much more hopeless about the future of our world. Oceans of amateur, mindless, worthless garbage.

And now you can get your video on a flat-fee-per-month ‘subscription’ (Netflix); you can get books the same way (Amazon Prime). If they can get everyone to subscribe, then they can raise the flat fee every year and make more and more revenue without any ‘selling’ work. And as they control the channel, they can squeeze producers to give them the content at a lower price each year (sound familiar? It’s the WalMart race to the bottom model, where producers get paid ever less and customers get ever more shoddy products). And the producers in turn, eager to please their shareholders too, will squeeze the content providers, which means — surprise! — a constant deterioration of quality.

And that’s precisely what’s happened to the information media, which is a large part of the reason that the map at the top of this post looks so grim. There is no money to be made in our industrial growth economy in quality, in originality, in the crafting of remarkable work — or, ultimately, in the truth.

Our preoccupation with constant-attention technologies is clearly dopamine-related, as Craig points out — we are in every sense addicted to these modern toys, and unable to tear our attention away from them. But while Craig is convinced that we can wean our way off them by making it easier to turn our attention to more high-value activities like reading books, I think he’s naive. There is simply no incentive for the modern human to break this habit, and there are a million corporations working furiously to get us even more hooked.

Although none of this can survive the accelerating collapse of industrial civilization (so this mass addiction can’t last all that much longer), it’s all predicated, in my opinion, on a house of cards that no one seems to want to acknowledge. And that is the fact that advertising doesn’t actually work.

It’s a myth, one that everyone benefiting from it wants to keep believing, and so it continues. There are several similar myths — the myth that stocks are actually worth the ludicrous prices that investors keep paying for them (especially when interest rates are suppressed to near zero, so there’s no opportunity cost to throwing ever more money at stocks), which is completely predicated on high rates of growth continuing forever. Or the myth that it’s a lack of scientific knowledge and of ‘cures’, rather than our abominable industrial western diet, that is responsible for our soaring rates of chronic and debilitating illness, and almost all of our deaths. Or the myth that our fiat currencies are actually solid and worth staking our future on, or worth anything at all. Or the myth that executives in corporations actually make better decisions and therefore deserve more credit and (obscenely) higher salaries than their front-line workers.

Why do we believe these myths? Because we want to. Because they reinforce the systems that we think are instrumental in giving us the quality of life we enjoy and which we are terrified of letting go, so domesticated have we become. They don’t need to be true as long as everyone keeps on believing they are true and behaving as if they are true.

What would happen if we stopped believing that advertising is a worthy investment, that it generates much less than it costs? For a start, our economies would collapse, especially the economies whose costs are most advertising-heavy and whose revenues are most advertising-dependent. The internet would surely collapse, deprived of the illusion that it was actually providing anywhere near enough value to anyone to justify its colossal cost, and starved of 90% or more of its operating funds. The reality is that advertising simply raises cost, and forces ‘competitors’ to do more advertising to keep from losing market share, and so it continues, in runaway inflationary style, to the point that the vast majority of the cost of almost everything we consume is a pass-through of the cost of the producer spending ever-more to shout ever-louder over the similar voices of competitors about why it’s worth more than them. It’s a giant con. To the customer, it provides absolutely no value. But don’t dare tell that to the producers, or the advertisers, whose margin and whose very existence depends on the myth that it does.

Perhaps someone should call them to account. It’s an age-old expression, meaning ‘hold answerable for their actions’, and it takes us full circle, back to the assembling of data and the drawing of reasonable conclusions from them. Back to valuing accurate information and not convenient myths. Back to an acknowledgement and healing of our addictions instead of pandering to them.

Back to a curiosity and thirst for the truth, instead of a fearful and bewildered acceding to lies, inurement and distraction. Back to wanting to know, at all costs, instead of amusing ourselves to death.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 8 Comments

Haunted by the Ghosts of Our Selves

Sometimes when I write these articles, trying to figure out why I have come to believe the unpopular and unfathomable message of radical non-duality, I feel a bit like a cat chasing its tail. It’s fun, but it doesn’t seem to get anywhere. Still, I can’t seem to help myself; “I bought that ticket, and I’ll take that ride.”


image assembled from vector graphics provided by the good folks at Pixabay, CC0

Out of nothing, for no reason, arises the appearance of three human creatures, portrayed above, seemingly engaging in a conversation. They look real enough, and their discussion (about climate collapse, perhaps) seems earnest and animated. But they are just appearances, actors in an impromptu play. There are not actually any individuals doing anything. Nothing is separate; there are no boundaries between these appearances in the timeless, infinite field of possibilities.

No self, no individual, no ‘consciousness’ is needed for this wondrous appearance out of nothing to be seen; indeed, there are no selves and no individuals to see anything. And there is no consciousness, no ‘awareness’, since consciousness would be consciousness by some thing of some thing else, and there is no thing else, no thing apart, no thing at all.

This is seen, but not by any one, nor by any creature (afflicted by a self or not). It is just seen. There is the mystery, the wonder, but it is not a mystery to any one; there is no one.

Accompanying this appearance of a conversation among these three apparent people is a bizarre but common phenomenon, a kind of haunting. The apparent brains of these apparent people have been able to create, apparently, a model, a figment (etym.: false representation) of reality in which (a) there are real, separate ‘things’ and separate ‘selves’ — discrete ‘individuals’ apart from everything else, and (b) these separate selves somehow are able to inhabit and control the apparent bodies of these apparent creatures.

It is an astonishing, recursive trick — for an appearance to be so ‘imaginative’ that it can perceive itself as real, and separate, and everything else as real and separate as well, when there is actually no thing, and no thing separate. But this trick, this illusion, this ‘slight of mind’  is fully consistent with the apparent evolution of more and more complex life on Earth, and a not-unlikely spandrel (inadvertent consequence) of the brain trying out different survival techniques and strategies. Illusion or not, it seems a convenient, sustainable and useful model of reality upon which to pin, and make meaning of, all the sensory inputs the brain receives on behalf of the creature (or, actually, the complicity of creatures) that seemingly live within the apparently separate body.

So each self believes it inhabits and controls a creature. This is a very complex and compelling illusion; the idea of it apparently emerges in the brain of every small child at an early age and is reinforced by the stated beliefs of other illusory selves from that point on, so it is no surprise the illusion is so pervasive and ubiquitous. How could these three individuals, engaged in an earnest and thoughtful conversation about what they should do, possibly not be separate and real?

For millennia, human creatures believed the Sun ‘obviously’ revolved around the Earth; given what was known, then, what other explanation could there be, or would ever be needed? Analogously, there is now compelling and growing evidence from a variety of sciences to suggest that what is actually apparently happening is completely unaffected by our haunting selves. The ghost self rationalizes what the apparent creature it presumes to inhabit was inevitably going to do anyway, given its inherent and enculturated conditioning and the situation of the moment. This apparent creature is, after all, just an appearance, akin to pixels on a screen.

Just as we cannot will the characters in a program we are watching to do, or not do, something, the self cannot and does not actually influence the character it presumes to inhabit. As ghosts, as illusions, we selves are merely audiences for the play, dogs in the stands barking furiously at behaviours on the stage or screen that we like, or don’t like, as if that can somehow change the course of the play.

If the three participants in the conversation had no selves — if there were no seeming homunculus directing and controlling each participant’s actions — absolutely nothing would change. These characters, appearances all, have no free will, and their selves do not and never did exist. These characters don’t need selves to what they apparently do. No creature needs a self. Apparent evolution has produced trillions of thriving creatures utterly devoid of selves. The fact they are, apparently, completely conditioned, devoid of free will, and not subject to the vagaries of some inept controlling self is cause for celebration, not despair.

That is not to say that creatures, human and not, are insensate — a self is not needed in order to feel pain, or joy, or curiosity; but a self is needed to take ownership and responsibility for those feelings, to claim them as its feelings, and that is where this evolutionary misstep has come to cause such grief to all the world’s endlessly lost and frightened (and completely illusory) selves. The self is a useless appendage, a psychosomatic misunderstanding. We (selves) would be better off without our selves, and if we were rid of them, absolutely nothing would change.

So what, you might ask, is this ‘conditioning’, and what is evolution, if everything is just an appearance, an arbitrary, meaningless and random throw of the dice, a play in which each character is playing a role and is handed their next line without advance notice? Why are the rules, the patterns, apparently so consistent, so compelling? What is it that prevents the apparent characters from suddenly sprouting wings, that prevents dogs from suddenly speaking Creole, that prevents us from suddenly shrinking to microscopic size or going through apparent dimension or time warps? If everything is just an appearance, why does everything seem so damned consistent, so solid, so undeniably real?

There is of course, no reason. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be Creole-speaking dogs and spontaneous metamorphoses. That’s just not what is apparently happening in this apparent time and apparent space. The brain will look for patterns and assign meaning, purpose and causality to the sensory inputs it processes — that is what it does, apparently, in hopes that that information will assist the complicity of the brain’s creatures to survive and thrive.

There is no meaning to the apparent laws that govern evolution, elegant as they may seem, just as there is no meaning to the elegant fractal patterns that ice forms inside a poorly-insulated window. It is just what is apparently happening. It is not happening in time or space — those are, quantum science now tells us, mere mental constructs, representations, models unrooted in anything beyond human pattern-making around sensory perceptions. Nothing actually has a cause or purpose, just as nothing actually has a colour, or sound — these are all just tentative assignations of the patterning brain, converting electric signals to neuronal memories and conceptions, pure imaginings.

But, you might say, if our selves have no affect on the beliefs and behaviours of these apparent characters we presume to inhabit, why is the human world so full of trauma, violence, destruction and despair? Surely our selves, twisting our, uh, selves in knots over what is happening to us and our culture and our world, must be responsible for the levels of mental illness, rage, depression, and the horrific desolation humans have, apparently, inflicted upon this world?

Ah, we do so like it to be all about us, don’t we? These three characters engaged in the conversation, arguing now whether the Green New Deal is essential action or delusional folly, are conditioned not only by their inherent, embodied nature (hormones etc) but by their culture — by each other. One of our three characters might well move the other two past a ‘tipping point’ and persuade them to quit their jobs to devote all their energies to halt carbon emissions by whatever means necessary.

But that doesn’t require any selves. It doesn’t require any volition or expression of free will. If two of the characters become XR Rebels, or revolutionaries, that is because of their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment (which include the circumstances of their conversation). The self of the convincer may be exuberant, or alarmed, at what her argument has apparently wrought in her apparent colleagues, but this is sheer hubris. Neither her character nor her colleagues’ characters had any control over what they would say or subsequently do. And her self is just a ghost, barking on the sidelines, with glee or alarm, to the three oblivious characters, just as their selves are ghosts, worrying for no reason whether their lives’ new trajectories were reckless, as if they had any control over them.

Now I’m not saying, precisely, that if our world is fucked up, it isn’t our ‘selves’ fault. There are no selves, and there is no causality — these are just mental constructs, not real. But it’s the first part of this ‘if/then’ argument that is flawed. The world is not fucked up; it isn’t anything. It is just an appearance; what seems to be happening. As an appearance, it isn’t real, and it isn’t unreal, rather like the acting out of a mysterious script by a brilliant cast, just pixels on a screen. It is our selves that judge and give import and infer meaning to what is happening, positively or negatively, not these innocent characters apparently doing the only things they could have possibly done. And this judging, while perfectly understandable given the persuasiveness and seeming pervasiveness of what we selves have come to see as real, is as absurd as judging the behaviour of a fictional character on a screen. Tempting, irresistible even, if the screenplay is really good, but ultimately ridiculous.

So my ghost analogy is in one respect a poor one. Our selves are like ghosts in that they aren’t real and in that they affect nothing. But it’s not the characters they presume to be inhabiting that they are haunting. It’s themselves that they haunt and cause to suffer, for no reason. We selves completely misunderstand what is real, and what is really going on, and that is, for us, a terrible, ghastly tragedy, a life sentence of imprisonment without parole.

But wait, you say, what about ulcers, depression, suicide — surely if our selves have no effect on the characters we presume to inhabit, these characters should be equanimous, care-free, constantly joy-filled. If they can accurately see what is real (nothing) and what is just appearance (wondrously, everything), why are so many so ill?

We just can’t get over our selves, can we? We can’t forget that these characters aren’t separate, aren’t ‘real’ in the way we imagine them to be; that they live outside of time and space and the illusion of us. That they are just appearances, and the ulcers they get are the apparent result of their conditioning, inherent and enculturated. That’s how the script reads for them, but not really for ‘them’ — the pain of ulcers, and trauma, and loss, is real, but they don’t and can’t take it personally, any more than one can take the anger expressed toward one’s character in a play personally. The person doesn’t exist. There is pain, and it is surely awful, perhaps more awful than we selves, who suffer in an entirely different and intermediated way, can imagine. But it is not the same as the pain of the self.

Of course this could all be my rationalization, my attempt to inure myself from the suffering of believing that the endless awful crap that appears to be happening is real, here and now — by denying that anything is real. Were it not for the glimpse, I would harbour such suspicions myself, and still haven’t entirely ruled them out.

I have often been accused of being insensitive, and if that’s correct, which it well may be, it’s likely because this self is too lost, scared, un-self-aware and bewildered to be able to empathize the way some people I know and love seem able to do. No excuse, and I hope I will get better at this, though at my age I’m starting to run out of time. This self is unlikely to fall away until the body/brain it seems to inhabit has been exhausted, so it behoves me to recognize and face the real tragedy of having a self, of being a self — the disconnection, the loss, the anguish, the terror, the grief, the rage, the shame that is for all intents eternal, awful, and horribly, excruciatingly imprisoning and immiserating — for no reason. Every self suffers this, and compassion is the only reasonable response. Even for an illusion, a ghost.

That’s enough to haunt anyone.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

Pollard’s Laws and XR


some of the half-million Montréalers who participated in yesterday’s climate march; from Greta’s twitter posts

One of the things that intrigues me about XR is that their three demands are simple, measurable and revolutionary:

  1. Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, and working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
  2. Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
  3. Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

The actions of XR are all about government action, because XR believes (a) that many people already know there’s a climate emergency, and those that don’t will eventually be persuaded by rapidly-occurring changes, so it’s government that has to change, not public will, (b) meeting demand 2 will dictate unbelievably rapid and radical policy changes and actions in every area of government, so no other stand-alone actions, like emission quotas, ludicrous cap-and-trade schemes, and conservation regulations will be necessary, and (c) the Citizens’ Assembly, properly constituted and empowered, lets elected officials ‘off the hook’ for the very unpopular decisions they will need to make to meet demand 2 (they can say ‘the Citizens’ Assembly forced us to do it’, much as they now blame courts and others for things they do reluctantly).

What’s more, the clever wording and structuring of these ‘simple’ demands essentially recognize the truth of what I have been calling for the past 10 years (because they seem to hold up so well as more and more evidence comes to light), Pollard’s Laws. I thought it would be useful to explain how these laws apply and how XR so brilliantly recognizes and taps into them. So here they are:

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: Humans have evolved to do what’s personally urgent for them (the unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then to do what’s easy, and then to do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important. Social, political and economic change happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives fills the power vacuum. We have evolved to be a collaborative and caring species, and we are all doing our best — we cannot do otherwise.

Until XR, Greta and others who acknowledged the existential peril of climate catastrophe came to public attention, most polls indicated that the majority of people in most countries with decent education systems and information systems, believed a climate catastrophe was a real possibility, but conceded they were unwilling to change their lifestyle to address it — other priorities were considered more important and more urgent. That has changed very quickly; recent polls (and the Swiss gnomes who rate the world’s greatest risks) have quite suddenly acknowledged the climate catastrophe as our most urgent priority. If taken to heart, that moves the issue from the #4  category (merely important) to the #1 category, which has huge ramifications for governments and public policy.

This is particularly notable because grappling with this predicament is the opposite of easy, and the opposite of fun. (Neither are the climate marches a picnic.) It remains to be seen whether the shift will continue to gain momentum or fizzle out, but the odds of the former are increasing.

This movement (perhaps like the anti-war movement of the 60s) is a youth-driven phenomenon, and its elder leaders (like Roger Hallam, who’s much like Gene McCarthy in the 60s ) draw all their energy from the young. If the young show up in significant numbers, not only in the streets but at the polls and in the legislatures, they could dramatically change party platforms, election results and key vote outcomes, especially if XR stays true to its policy of relentless but non-violent disruption, so they can’t just be ignored.

When I meet conservatives now, it is obvious that most of them are realizing that they cannot possibly look young people in the face, including their own children, and baldly deny that their actions and inactions are accelerating climate catastrophe and imperilling their and other children’s futures. Just as radicals were ostracized in the ’50s and change resisters were likewise running for cover in the ’60s, it may be that for the rest of this decade, at least, global polluters and the politicians that pander to them will be excluded and shamed. That will be, perhaps, their final legacy, and their arguments that they didn’t know any better will carry no weight, least of all to their children.

If this shift can continue (and it may not, as we learned from the progressive movements of the 60s), we may see something of a quiet revolution, as the old step aside and, at least, say “OK, here are the reins of power, see if you can do any better.”

This mindset is clearly evident in the actions of Canada’s tarnished try-to-please-everyone pseudo-progressive PM Trudeau, who marched, heckled much of the way, in yesterday’s Montréal climate strike march, along with 400,000 others, led by Greta Thunberg. He met with her, and she told him, as she’s told other world leaders, that he’s not doing nearly enough. Perhaps it’s the idealist in me, but I think he marched not because it was politically expedient (his principal rival, in the current polls at least, the arch-conservative Andrew Scheer, whose do-nothing climate plan has justifiably been dismissed as “obscene”, was a no-show), but rather because he knows that climate catastrophe has arrived, and that he in fact has done much less than “not nearly enough”. He marched, of course, with his children. Could he have not?

We are all doing our best, and despite the enormous inertia in our political, social and economic systems, and despite the staggering cost that mega-polluters, foot-draggers, denialists and self-righteous 1%ers will have to face if they lose this battle (many of their corporations, to meet demand #2, will be quickly rendered worthless and wiped out), and despite the 1%’s massive economic and political clout, it is not inconceivable that power and law could radically shift, and the next few decades become a universal all-hands-on global battle to mitigate centuries of destruction. In some places, there was such a shift (including 90% personal and corporate tax rates) in the 1930s, when the urgency of ending the Great Depression at any cost became undeniable even to those buffered from it.

I think it’s too late, and that, even with enormous and coordinated political will, system change cannot happen nearly fast enough to prevent climate collapse (and economic collapse) bringing down industrial civilization in this century. But I’m stoked to see us try. Already, over 1,000 political jurisdictions have met the first part of demand #1.

My pessimism in the face of such a possible major shift in collective will has little to do with human nature and much to do with how change happens in complex systems — including ecosystems and social systems. That’s the subject of my second ‘law’:

Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. To change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex (and it frequently is), success at truly understanding and changing it is unlikely, and developing workarounds and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse. For that reason, the systems of global industrial civilization culture are now collapsing rapidly and inevitably, producing the sixth great extinction of life on Earth.

Civilizations that collapsed in the past certainly saw the writing on the wall, as any student of Jared Diamond or Ronald Wright can tell you. It’s not that many caught up in them didn’t want to reform them or change them or overthrow them in favour of more sustainable societies, it’s that they couldn’t.

In nature, everything is connected, and there are a trillion moving parts that evolve to keep the system in balance. Sometimes, the system gets so unbalanced that these balancing mechanisms can’t right it. When this happens, it collapses. It’s called overshoot, and in some species (mosquitos for example) it’s endemic — endless cycles of boom and bust (collapse). But nature has evolved to prevent these extremes happening in species that are essential to ecological balance, including, until recently, our own. Many larger creatures, for example, somehow self-regulate their fertility rates so that, even in the absence of many predators, their population remains in check.

Ours did the same, for a million years or so. Until the advent of civilization and its technologies (agriculture, settlement, language etc), human women almost never had children more frequently than once every four years (breast-feeding is nature’s premier contraceptive). This meant that lugging the babies around until they could walk wasn’t an ordeal for nomadic pre-civ cultures; there’d only be one per family at a time. This is the kind of elegant balance a billion years of evolution enables, as long as there is a connection, a recognition of the a-part-hood and inter-dependence of all life on Earth. We lost this with the dawn of civilized, un-natural cultures, and now, like plagues of locusts, we have quickly desolated the world we live in, and at such a scale that we’ve wrought the sixth great extinction.

I’d love to believe we could change this now, but everything I’ve learned convinces me it’s preposterous to believe so, and our only avenue now is to relearn to adapt to sudden (a generation or two) and ongoing massive ecological change. That means relearning how to live in community, and relearning the skills needed to survive in low-tech, relocalized, massively migratory and highly-collaborative societies (which includes a ton of ‘soft’ skills like consensus-building along with the technical skills like mending clothes and growing food, and does not include ‘skills’ like hoarding and killing).

That we will do, or at least try, because, as Pollard’s first law says, we will have no other choice. It will be an interesting next millennium or two, as nature struggles to restore the balance, as it did when a meteorite caused the fifth great extinction, and as we rediscover, to our astonishment, that in this struggle we are all on the same side.

I’ve done quite a few things in my life that inspired and excited me, even though I knew in my heart they would not succeed, or, if they did, their effect would not last. That’s Pollard’s first law playing out in me. I can’t not do what I do, no matter what my instincts or my heart tell me. Like everyone, I’m doing my best, and I’ll be damned if knowing its futility will get in my way.

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

IFLS


image from nutritionfacts.org

There’s a new survey that suggests that 1/3 of Canadians, up from 1/4 in the last survey, are “skeptical” of scientists and scientific research. And globally, 45% say they only agree with science “if it aligns with my personal beliefs”. It’s part of an ongoing survey of attitudes by 3M corporation on the subject.

At first blush, I find these findings mystifying and alarming, but they actually do make some sense. The truth is, we do tend to see things that agree with what we already believe (or want to believe) as more credible than things we don’t believe, regardless of the quality of the science behind them. We do like things to be simple, and in the 3M surveys the #1 reason given for science skepticism is “too many conflicting ideas”. There is considerable financial and political incentive to fake or obfuscate “scientific” data, and the more fake data and lies we hear everywhere every day, the more our skepticism about all facts is inevitably likely to grow.

And when scientists align themselves with lying or partisan institutions, and accept money on the basis they will only publish the results of their research if those results support the sponsors’ objectives, they discredit all science in the process.

I am skeptical of any reported scientific study until I am persuaded it is free from confirmation and other bias and from selective inclusion and exclusion. But once I have been persuaded that the research is unbiased, coherent and thorough, I am all over it. Science has changed my life in profound ways:

  1. Personal health: I am quite convinced that my change to a balanced whole plant-food diet, combined with regular exercise, has made me much healthier, led to a remission in at least one debilitating chronic illness (ulcerative colitis) and quite possibly prevented or alleviated others to which I am vulnerable (back spasms, depression, kidney stones, intestinal and prostate cancer, and maybe even Alzheimers). I collect and monitor personal diet, exercise and health date to this day just to stay on top of this.
  2. Climate change: Based on a ton of science, I do believe, so far (I am always open to changing my beliefs, unlike the 45% of the population referred to above) that we are headed for 4º-6ºC of average global temperature increase well before the end of this century — enough to doom civilized (high technology, settled) society and create what I’ve called a Great Migration of at least two billion humans, as much and possibly all of the planet becomes uninhabitable. That knowledge has changed my entire worldview.
  3. Human nature: Along with my study of history and philosophy (debate on whether these ‘social sciences’ are in any way ‘real’ science I will leave for another day), scientific knowledge has led me to believe that humans are, like our fellow creatures, innately peace-loving and collaborative, and doing our best, but are largely incapable of either long-term or large-scale coordinated action, and that we have been ‘disconnected’ from our inherent biophilia and rendered mentally and physically ill by the monstrous stresses our civilized, domesticating cultures have inadvertently put on us and put on our global ecosystems, and by our cultures’ polluting byproducts.

I hold some scientifically-based beliefs that cause great dismay and even insult to some close friends.  I do believe, so far, that while I am sure the symptoms felt by sufferers are quite real, electromagnetic waves are not actually a cause of illness. I do believe, so far, that while vaccines are bizarre, the vaccines designed to inoculate against crippling and fatal diseases have saved millions of lives, and I believe that vaccine toxicity risks are far outweighed by the risks to our whole society of a significant portion of the population refusing to be inoculated. These beliefs are based on very large and compelling studies by earnest and unbiased scientists.

As a sense-making creature all too inclined to see patterns before there is any real substance to them, I am vulnerable to conspiracy theories (the Epstein ‘suicide’ being only the latest of them). Despite this tendency, I am unaware of any such theories that I still find particularly persuasive, and that includes those surrounding 9/11 and UFOs. The problem with almost all significant conspiracy theories, IMO, is that they require too many smart people doing too many smart, coordinated things and covering them up without any of them leaking the truth. Eventually, nearly always, as Shakespeare said, the truth will out.

That doesn’t mean that the tobacco industry didn’t bribe and lie to protect its profits, directly causing the agonizing illness and premature death of millions, or that the food industry isn’t doing precisely the same thing now on an even larger scale. That’s not a conspiracy — it’s overt, deliberate, and ignorant, and science will, in the end, halt these terrible tragedies. Just as oil company executives I’ve spoken with continue to assert that climate collapse is a myth, or at least that a gradual shift to renewables will prevent it, they are also terrified for the health and welfare of their children, and suppressing, as long as possible, their doubts. Eventually, but too late, science will persuade them.

Part of the predicament is that we don’t want to believe things that upset us and disillusion us of our beliefs, especially our beliefs about ourselves. For people who have been told, all their lives, that they’re successes and role models, it is agonizing to realize that everything you’ve done and believed in is a lie. Such a shift, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, will never come easily.

We’re all afraid of dangerous truths, truths that threaten our core beliefs. That’s human nature. We’re all just doing our best, and that collective effort has wrought the sixth great extinction and climate collapse. Nothing evil, no one to blame — just stupidity, ignorance, stress-induced mental illness, and the hubris that is in our nature. We’re way too smart for our own good.

Also, as much as I love it, I acknowledge that science has its limitations, and they’re actually quite severe. Science constructs a model of reality, using the best available ‘evidence’, which is often not very good, more wishful thinking and hypothesis than verifiable fact. It’s just a model, just as a map is a model of the territory. Of necessity, this model is a representation, and an enormous simplification. The more detail we add to the model, the more interesting and sometimes useful it is, but it is still just a model. It cannot fathom infinity, and infinite complexity, because it is merely complicated, as a massive computer is compared to a human brain. We may intuit the true nature of reality, but science cannot hope, with its blunt and limited tools, to describe it for us.

And in the process of simplification, we lose so much — possibly everything. The very process of ‘analyzing’ — breaking (our understanding of) what exists down into separate discrete parts — destroys much of the essential truth of the whole. And that’s a scientist’s view.

Perhaps even worse, scientists are forced to generalize, and then they’re forced to admit to the loss of much of the utility of what they have found, as they try to guess how what is known about their tiny sample might apply to the whole population — or not. Every generalization is, in a way, a lie, and often a dangerous one. Sometimes it helps us, and sometimes it leads us astray.

So when, thirteen years ago, I went to the doctor, having already lost 30 pounds, so much blood that I could barely stand, and was in so much pain that, each night, I prayed I would be able to sleep and never wake up, I already knew I had ulcerative colitis. I did not know that it was likely caused long ago by the damage my awful youthful diet, and eight years of high-dose oral tetracycline in my teens (then the preferred treatment for serious acne), did to my gut flora. I did not know that the stress of a single piece of terrible news was almost certainly the trigger of this near-death experience. But I know now, and that scientific knowledge has arguably saved my life, and certainly lengthened it and made it much healthier. And that knowledge has also increased my resilience in the face of other stressors.

But science, in its rush to generalize, to make its findings ‘useful’, can also hurt. Every body is different, and doctors and scientists who fail to appreciate this can cause terrible suffering. My body cannot tolerate steroids, for example, so the first attempt to ‘cure’ my colitis almost killed me. Likewise, my extreme reaction to going off a prescribed anti-depressant “cold turkey” years earlier, was so far outside the norm that my doctor said it was “unheard of”. The medical books describe the body as a complicated mechanism, when it is actually a complexity, a complicity, something that is not apart from its environment and everything else in this infinitely mysterious world. No surprise the medical scientists get so much wrong. Sometimes even our insistence on large amounts of ‘evidence’ can cause us to do wrong.

It is almost certain that, as our fragile and untethered climate spins more and more into unimaginable and unpredictable extremes, we will try, desperately, fruitlessly and insanely, to use our minuscule knowledge of the geologic and atmospheric sciences to restore its stability — geoengineering. The last time such scientific extremism was used to address a global predicament the result was the atomic bomb. Such extremism is almost certain to end badly, because, again, we have no idea what we’re doing and what the consequences of geoengineering are. This is the dark side of scientific knowledge. We think we know, but we don’t.

Equally disturbing is the ludicrous belief of many that science can solve predicaments — not only climate collapse, but ‘sustainable’ energy (ie the laws of thermodynamics), complex and chronic diseases, finite resources, the limits to growth, human ‘misbehaviour’, and even human mortality. Sadly, as we become less naive and disillusioned about science’s vast limitations, our ‘skepticism’ about it is likely to grow to even higher levels.

And every new science-based invention brings with it (not scientists’ fault of course) unanticipated side-effects and technologies that exploit it in unexpected and harmful ways. Nuclear science gave us the bomb. The passenger train enabled gas chambers. Agriculture science gave us DDT, and trans fats. Refrigeration science gave us CFCs. And the Internet… well, you get the idea.

Still, IFLS. One of my few endearing qualities is my insatiable curiosity, and my insistence on constantly challenging whatever I’m told, and whatever I believe. Perhaps that’s a childlike quality, but I think it puts me in good stead, and I think the world could use more of it. It must be hell to never be curious.

So here’s to the strange combination of opposites that make up the scientific community — the painstaking, detail-oriented people who patiently gather the data that makes scientific inquiry possible and credible, and the thinkers and dreamers who ask the “what if?” questions no one has asked before, and imagine what the data before them might possibly mean.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 2 Comments

Latest Interview With Michael Dowd

Michael Dowd recently interviewed me (again), this time as part of his series on collapse, our preparedness for it, and looking beyond it. The interview is here, and the complete set of interviews he’s done on this topic is here.

Thanks to Michael for his excellent interviewing skills, and to his partner Connie Barlow for her brilliant editing work.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

How to Respond to Impending Collapse (Guest Post by Paul Heft)

My friend Paul Heft has written a synopsis of the ‘advice’ that a score of writers have recently given on how to respond to accelerating climate collapse. You probably know that I no longer offer advice on what to do, since I don’t think collapse can be averted or mitigated, don’t think any advice will make any difference, and doubt whether we have free will over what we do in any case. Nevertheless, this is a pretty illustrious list of engaged writers on collapse, and this is an excellent synthesis of their current thinking. Paul has given me the OK to publish his synopsis here. His full paper in .docx format, with quotes and links to the writers’ articles from which they’re taken, is downloadable here.


How to Respond to Impending Collapse 

by Paul Heft

I have more frequently been seeing articles (blog posts, etc.) reflecting on the collapse of civilization that appears increasingly likely. What advice do they offer to individuals who are looking for a path into the future?

For context, my current beliefs are:

  • Trends in politics, economics, environment, etc. are such that collapse is probably inevitable. Our civilization will not be able to continue much longer in anything like the present mode, nor will it be able to plan a sensible transition to a sustainable mode. The current ecological overshoot will be followed by a crash, including a dramatic drop in global population. The current institutional arrangements will change radically, becoming unrecognizable, in an atmosphere of increasing conflict (including warfare).
  • Technological advances will make differences but will not solve the multiple global problems that are becoming increasingly apparent.
  • People across the world will tend to distrust and separate from each other, even while a portion continue to call for universalism (human-centered or not).
  • Beliefs about progress, order, standard of living, and “obviously right” ways of doing things will gradually fade, as life becomes much more precarious and unpredictable for the vast majority of the world population. People will decreasingly rely on religion, tradition, education, law, electoral politics, and other cultural components that used to be fairly constant.
  • People will increasingly wonder how they should think about the world. Do they have loyalties and moral obligations toward others in a group, or toward all humans, or toward all life? Can they take responsibility for the predicament that becomes clearer every year? Do they have agency as voters, as workers, in mass movements, or otherwise? Do they have legacies? Should they have children? Do they have any wisdom to pass on? Do their lives matter?

For this review I am not considering:

  • Discussions about how likely collapse of civilization might be

Whether it can be avoided; whether climate change or other factors are more important or more immediate; whether collapse will be dramatic or will proceed in various places at various paces

  • Recommendations for new political and economic systems or reforms of institutional arrangements or policies

Whether socialism or a new form of capitalism is required to avoid collapse; whether democracy or autocracy will prevail; various reforms and new policies; social justice; internationalism and global governance; possible actions at global, national, or more local levels

  • Tips for survival as individuals, or how to “prosper”

I am trying to orient my own thought, and I imagine that more and more others are likewise looking for orientations that make sense to them. I am interested in how my ideas are gradually aligning with or diverging from others’ ideas, and my impression is that worldviews are continually shifting without any obvious clear trend. Mine are slowly shifting too.

I describe below some rough categories of advice, numbered in an outline format, that I derived from reading various authors. For each category I give a short opinion of my own, but see the full document for the various authors’ advice and references to the sources. My own opinions are hardly as interesting as the quotations in that document.

Categories of advice

1.    Demand the truth

I appreciate the advice to not fool others and not fool ourselves; it seems foundational. Sometimes this results in being resented or being outcast—more often, in just being ignored.

1.1. Tell the truth. Stop hesitating from fear, or to avoid scaring others (as a political communications strategy).

1.2. Learn to live with the truth: have courage. Seek truth from within, without letting others impose their ideas on you.

1.3. Have the humility to realize that there is no single right approach—or perhaps no right approach.

2.    Follow spiritual advice

This category of advice is common to various spiritual traditions, and has been repeated in one form or another through the ages. None of it is particularly easy to follow, since it usually conflicts with our habitual thought patterns and culturally developed worldviews. (“Demand the truth” is an example above.) While this advice is generally useful even without the impending collapse of civilization, but it may be particularly useful as we face great uncertainties and changing ideas.

2.1. Awaken from delusions of separation, and help awaken others.

2.2. Open our hearts. Allow grief.

2.3. Reconcile with one’s mortality—the impermanence and uncontrollability of life. Let go of attachment to how things should be, hoping for the good ending.

2.4. Attend to the present. Pay attention, make life relevant and beautiful.

2.5. Respond to wonder, engage with the mystery of life, rejoice in our existence.

2.6. Live with love and compassion.

2.7. Engage in contemplative gratitude: reflection, acceptance (facing the unknown with courage and an open heart), compassion, kindness, and equanimity.

2.8. Reconcile with others and with nature. Open to our interconnectedness to all beings and the natural world.

2.9. Reground to the earth.

2.10.Live with inconsistencies even while fixing problems.

3.    Reconsider what to hope for

“Hope” has become a controversial term. Increasingly authors are trying to avoid illusory hope and magical thinking. What sort of hope is appropriate when our ideas of the future are darkening, when the promises of “progress” are slipping away? Is hope merely a convenient delusion, or all that’s left as uncertainty and sorrow grow? A new term, “radical hope”, is gaining currency. In my own case, even this very limited hope is elusive.

4.    Design the sequel

Shaun Chamberlain coined the term that I use for this category, which well describes the project to leave our current civilization behind and construct a more beautiful world based on imagination and an understanding of what’s wrong with the current civilization. The positive orientation is very attractive to writers who have not really accepted the collapse of civilization (they imagine it still can be reformed) or who look forward to a better, newly self-organized society after collapse. They seem to believe that if something can be imagined and desired, people can make it a reality. (To me that smacks of magical thinking.) My own opinion is decidedly pessimistic: I believe the opportunities for reorganized domination with continuing environmental destruction and human misery are much greater than for something beautiful to arise from the ruins of civilization.

4.1. Live creatively. Imagine the future, what we might gain.

4.2. Orient toward a positive outcome. Create a more beautiful world.

5.    Believe that what we do matters.

We want to know if what we do really matters, if we have any agency in the world beyond our immediate relationships. Are each of us part of a large “we” that has real influence in world affairs, and that can address the predicament of our civilization? If we only really affect those near us, that feels unsatisfying. In my opinion, most people believe that they matter even though evidence mounts that the world is out of our control, and (at least to a large extent) our individual lives are out of control. The belief is comforting while we identify primarily as individual egos, fearing oblivion.

6.    Accept moral obligations

A number of writers assume a moral obligation to do something. They imply that their readers probably share the same moral beliefs, rather than arguing for their particular morals. Perhaps the morals are commonly held much less often than they imagine, which might explain why environmental (and other) campaigns are so slow to build steam. I have no argument with people for whom moral obligations drive their activism, but that is not happening in my case.

6.1. Keep pushing forward, driven by moral urgency. Fight for what can be achieved, even if it’s not enough.

7.    Aim for goals

Writers propose a variety of goals for their activism. Are the goals typically quite vague because pinning them down is actually impossible (except within a small organization)? Or in the case of a demanding goal (such as reducing CO2 to 350 ppm), perhaps everyone believes it’s impossible so it doesn’t have to be taken seriously. I interpret the goals as being aspirational and think they point in useful directions, but I don’t take them seriously as guides for political strategy or building mass movements. At present, I have not adopted any of these goals.

7.1. Lessen suffering. Reduce harm and misery.

7.2. Avert further disaster.

7.3. Aim for human flourishing.

7.4. Strengthen useful systems; save what you love.

7.5. Move from fear to trust, creating spaces of belonging and trust.

7.6. Serve and care for Earth and its life. Preserve the planet.

.     .      .

Here are the authors who proffered this advice. The full paper from which this article is taken is available here, and it contains pertinent quotes by each author and links to the articles from which they’re taken:

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

This Creature


cartoon by the late Charles Barsotti

I am looking in the mirror. I no longer see myself; I have come to appreciate that this creature, this character, this strange water-filled bag of organs called a ‘human’, is not ‘me’, that despite what I had always thought, I do not occupy it, own it, or control it.

It is easier for me to empathize (with it) when I see this creature for what it is, and is not. I was going to say it is “something separate” from me, but it is not separate from anything. I am the one that is separate, or at least have the illusion that I am. This creature, or at least what I perceive and imagine to be a creature, is amazingly everything. It has no real boundaries; it is not really an ‘entity’, not really apart from everything. It is everything, and I, seemingly separate from it, separate from everything, am an illusion, an invention. Worse than unreal — a fiction.

This creature’s brain has conjured me up. It invented me as part of a model of what its senses were perceiving, as a means of explaining, making sense of what it had perceived. The brain of this creature, at least as I imagine it, looking in the mirror, this brain inside its apparent skull, has apparently evolved to be able to store away patterns of sensations in a way that creates a very rough representation of what it conceives of as reality. An evolutionary accident: Just because it could do so, it tried that out. It had to invent the ideas of time and space to categorize these stored sensations, these remembrances. And with those inventions came the astonishing inventions of separateness, and of selves. The crazy idea that things were apart, that they existed separately in space and time. And that one of those things was me, the label given to ‘this’ as separate from ‘everything else’. This self. How imaginative, and how terrifying!

If this crazy idea were true, and if the model, this representation of reality that this creature’s brain has invented, is an accurate representation of reality, then this self, this me, now has an enormous burden to carry — it has to be responsible for this separate creature, to make decisions to protect it and help it survive and thrive. To control it. But at first, when this invented me has just emerged, this creature doesn’t seem to be in my control. It does things I didn’t decide to do. This is even more terrifying. If I am really in control of this creature, how do I control it?

I watch the behaviours of what seem to be other creatures, big, adult creatures, and what I see seems to reinforce the idea that there are selves struggling to control these creatures as well. And when this creature starts to use language, it seems obvious that all these selves believe they occupy and control, often badly, the creatures that they are associated with, and that with ‘work’ they can control them ‘better’, and that I should believe the same is true for me too.

I don’t want to believe that. It doesn’t make sense. What makes sense is that there is only everything, with nothing apart, and no need for anything to control anything else — that has always been obvious to the young me. But it soon becomes evident that such a belief is not acceptable, and that the other selves will not tolerate such beliefs, and that what was previously obvious is now simply wrong, absurd. I acquiesce, and retreat, frightened and lost, inside myself.

For the next apparent six decades I remain unhappy. There is something obviously not right, but I can’t put my finger on it. Occasionally there is a glimpse, and it is remembered, with total clarity and certainty, that there is nothing separate, that there is no time or space, just wondrous appearances, nothing appearing as everything, and that I and all the other selves are illusions, useless and burdensome afflictions, ghosts that see themselves as influencing the creatures they believe they inhabit, but which only really haunt themselves.

But then the apparent glimpse ends and I am back, unhappier than ever. I don’t want to be any more, but I don’t want to not be, either. I just want everything to be as I, increasingly vaguely, remember — perfect, timeless, free, everything appearing wondrously out of nothing, for no reason, for no one. No thing apart.

The other selves are annoyed at me. Focus, get real, they say. Do responsible work. Struggle to make things better, at least for those you love, for yourself, for the future. Empathize with other suffering selves. Do something useful — you’re getting old, and time is running out.

I am afraid to tell them that nothing is really happening, that there is no one, that there are no selves, no future and no past. That would be seen as insensitive, disengaged. They will say to me: You have just invented, or latched on to, this ludicrous belief in radical non-duality and ‘self-less-ness’ to inure yourself against feeling bad for your failings, your laziness, your spiritual and moral weakness, and to inure yourself against feeling so much futile anger, paralyzing fear, abject shame, utter and indefensible exhaustion, grinding hopelessness, and unconsolable grief over what has been lost. They will say to me: Dust yourself off, get back on the horse, and get back to work.

What can I say? Like the anti-Copernicans, and the inquisition torturers, they are earnest, doing their best, and incapable of hearing what I am saying, which sounds to them like disturbed, irrational, cultish ravings. So sad, they say to each other — he used to be such a concerned, productive, intelligent member of society; just got burned out we suppose.

So I say and do what I can. I try to empathize. I am, after all, not at all inured to the anguish of the billions of selves and the million small injustices and injuries they struggle with and suffer from every day; I am one of them, one of you, one of us, much as I long not to be. I suggest things that might make us feel better, that sometimes even make me feel better, though I know it changes nothing.

I look in the mirror, and I know it is not myself I see. I’m kind of proud of this creature named Dave for what it has apparently done, even though it has actually only ever done, in each moment, the only thing it could have done; even though it has not actually done anything; even though I had nothing to do with any of it.

I have to smile to think that I, not really here, am an invention of this creature, seemingly there, in the mirror. I am just its fleeting thought, its brain’s idea, a figment of reality, going nowhere in the infinite, perfect and timeless ocean of nothingness. But this does not make me feel better. Often, it seems, it’s better to know than not know, even when it’s the terrible knowledge of agony, atrocity and collapse. But sometimes, like now, knowing doesn’t seem to make a difference. Some knowledge, perhaps, is too terrible even for an illusion to bear.

And then the sun comes out, or someone smiles, or I read something especially clever, or a cat entices me to play with it. And then knowing is enough, and the cognitive dissonance becomes bearable. And the self, always searching, never beyond hope, trudges on, sure that soon, everything will make sense. Sure that, one day, it will be free.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

If You Wanted to Sabotage the Canada/US Elections…

(In case it isn’t obvious, this article is meant as satire.)

image from The Daily Show
Canadians go to the polls for a federal election this fall; Americans do so next fall. There is already evidence of large-scale election meddling through social media, with campaigns of misinformation attempting to convince target demographics to change their votes or their views on particular subjects.

These misinformation campaigns prey on the fact that, under our hopelessly broken first-past-the-post electoral system, people vote against the party/candidate they least want to win, rather than for anyone or anything. And in referenda, they are much more likely to show up and vote against a resolution if they’re unsure or frightened about it, than to support it if they’re OK with it.

The objective of misinformation campaigns is usually to find ways to outrage one side, or sometimes both sides of an issue simultaneously, in order to polarize, obfuscate, and/or distract. To polarize so that reasonable consensus can never be reached; to obfuscate so that the important aspects of an issue, or the important positions of the candidates, get lost in the shouting over one particular (usually misrepresented) fact, issue or position; and to distract so that no one is paying attention, either to what’s really important or to those who are coherently offering understanding and new ideas about the real issues and crises we’re facing.

Danah Boyd recently wrote a fascinating article about the deliberate propagation of misinformation through social and mainstream media, including gaslighting (the systematic, psychological manipulation used by cults and abusive partners to the point the victim begins to doubt their perceptions, reality or even sanity), using untruths to encourage conspiracy theories, and flooding the Internet, its bubbles, and the faux-news channels and talk-shows, with inflammatory made-up phrases (“partial-birth abortion”; “death taxes”) for which there is no rebutting or factual information available, because there are no links to articles where the correct terms are explained. In other words, this is the business of deliberately manufacturing ignorance, misunderstanding, and conflict to subvert the political process.

Such misinformation campaigns are not used exclusively by the Russians and Chinese (though there is evidence they have become particularly advanced in those heavily repressed countries). They are increasingly used everywhere in campaigns by the parties and candidates themselves, and especially by special-interest groups with a vested interest in keeping the public uninformed, misinformed, distracted and put off by the whole political process to the point they cease participating in it, so the special-interest groups’ political power and influence is unchallenged.

This is not hard to do. But why would anyone want to do this? Several reasons: To change the results in favour of candidates the saboteurs prefer, most obviously — candidates who are dysfunctional or easily corruptible and/or who share the saboteurs agendas. Or simply to destabilize the country’s body politic to weaken its global influence. So much power is at stake there is always great motivation to try to steal it, and misinformation (in both mainstream and social media) is an increasingly effective way to do it.

If you wanted to sabotage the upcoming Canadian or US elections, here are a few things you might do, if you had the money and power (that probably lets you and me out):

  1. Propagate demoralizing stories that suggest a tight hegemony of powerful interests will override the will of any elected government, so that “it doesn’t matter who wins”. In some of these stories, you could paint this hegemony as left-wing (and throw in the name ‘Soros’), and in others, you could paint it as right-wing (and throw in the name ‘Koch’). This would outrage and frustrate some older and more polarized voters, and discourage many younger and more moderate voters. Especially in missives that will be read by the young and others with very limited power, you might reinforce that (a) all politicians are liars, (b) all parties are the same, and (c) what happens is unaffected by whoever gets into power — to discourage people from voting — this is particularly easy and effective because it is more than slightly true.
  2. Infiltrate public demonstrations, and counter-demonstrations, with paid agents who identify themselves as ‘anarchists’ (or some other title almost no one wants to be associated with). You might ensure these agents are masked, and suggest they randomly but ferociously confront authorities, provoke counter-demonstrators, use obscene, inflammatory and threatening language, and commit meaningless and visually-spectacular acts of property destruction. This would demoralize both sides and polarize them at the same time, as they point fingers at each other.
  3. Fiercely defend the current electoral system, especially the first-past-the-post electoral system, to encourage fewer and fewer parties to run, and to discourage supporters of third parties from bothering to show up. This way, only two parties will be left for you to bribe and control, and they will generally have close-to-identical platforms (for fear of alienating the mythical ‘moderate’ voter). You would of course run misinformation/fear campaigns to ensure all attempts at electoral reform fail. Likewise, you would (through op-eds and lobbying) defend gerrymandering (but call it ‘redistricting’), and encourage large-scale voter disenfranchisement (but call it ‘reducing voter fraud’). This can further discourage voters from showing up, and ensure that incumbents already under your control are not challenged.
  4. Hack voting machines. This is incredibly easy to do, and has the advantage of frightening voters of all political stripes into believing that perhaps their votes don’t/didn’t count and the election has been stolen. Outrage and helplessness — great combination for manipulating voters!
  5. Distribute wildly inflated, conflated and invented stories about political correctness, especially at universities. Nothing enrages struggling people across the political spectrum as much as the fiction that privileged students are boycotting their English literature classes because some of the books have ‘trigger words’, and nothing infuriates traditionalists as much as the insistence that in most contexts the word ‘Christmas’ be dropped in favour of ‘holiday’. You might therefore insist that all candidates denounce political correctness as something that ‘was well-intended but has gone too far’ and then leave them to fight over what the hell that means. This is especially effective when there’s a need to distract people who want to hear candidates’ positions on real issues like climate change, gun control and reproductive choice.
  6. Finance single-issue negative candidates, and, if it’s not too unpleasant or dangerous, hate groups. This helps them get more media attention, so that extremists are emboldened to make outrageous statements, terrifying much of the electorate and focusing them on that particular single issue, and distracting from other issues you don’t want talked about.
  7.  Support candidates who play on people’s fear and shame over being poor, sick, or uneducated, especially by exaggerating (or fabricating) isolated stories of misbehaving poor, sick and uneducated people. This will distance people from the victims (particularly if they appear ridiculous or inarticulate on camera), make progressives feel more defensive about supporting social programs, make conservatives feel more self-righteous about cutting social instead of military programs, and make those struggling feel too ashamed to speak up. Triple win!
  8. Propagate conspiracy theories. Finance candidates and ‘experts’ who whip up fears of government conspiracies on issues like 5G, 911 and vaccines. These are perfect issues for turning progressives against each other and hence neutralizing their momentum on other issues, because it’s essentially impossible to prove conclusively that something didn’t happen. They also help foment further anti-government sentiment among conservatives, but then again, there are so many conspiracy theories that you can use to work up anti-anything fervour among conservatives that it’s not even a fair fight. Several can be squeezed into a single sound bit.
  9. Invent and redefine words and phrases. Deliberately and repeatedly use words that misrepresent and connotatively slur perfectly acceptable and desirable projects and groups. A great example: “entitlements” — a way better word to use than “pensions for public service workers” if you want to make people think there’s something wrong about them.
  10. Use lawyers to scare advocates and opponents. Lawyers should be employed liberally to support and enhance your democratic subversion efforts — that’s what they’re there for! For example, enable parties and governments to launch or threaten legal actions against each other’s supporters, or against your opponents. This can have a particularly chilling effect on any free speech you want to squelch. Just make sure not to call your witch hunts by that name: they’re ‘investigations into possible impropriety’. Best to say the investigation is focused on unnamed ‘foreign interest groups’ to get the xenophobes whipped up into a fury too.
  11. Blame ‘foreigners’. You don’t have to name which ‘foreigners’ specifically, but be sure to blame ‘them’ generously for everything, including your election hacking. If you can work in ‘illegal immigrants’ or the subtler ‘political refugees’ into your statement of blame that’s a bonus — thanks to the media, even liberals are afraid of them now, and they can’t defend themselves! Particularly effective is to blame ‘foreign influence’ and ‘foreign money’, which sounds shady as long as it isn’t referring to what your country does elsewhere, and it’s so vague you can’t really be called on it.
  12. Paint both sides as anti-semitic, anti-democracy, or anti-(your country name here). No one wants to be labelled any of these things, since they’re anathema to every part of the political spectrum. And it doesn’t take much to get the label to stick (supporting a boycott of Israeli goods, or opposing holding a referendum before electoral reform can occur, or ‘disrespecting’ the flag, should be enough to deep-six the labelled candidate or group for at least one election).
  13.  Create out-of-context and faked videos: This is the newest and sexiest way to disrupt any campaign. Issue lots of videos of candidates that have been altered by selective mixing and editing to convey a completely different picture from what actually happened, and which make what was said or done look particularly egregious. If that isn’t convincing enough, create faked videos from scratch using new digital graphics, sound and animation technologies to show something that never happened at all, and then attribute the video to an ‘anonymous source’ that sent it indirectly to you. Act concerned and alarmed, and be agnostic about its veracity, putting the onus on the victim to ‘prove’ it is altered or faked.

Then again, you may not need to do any of these things. The political parties and candidates in both countries seem bent on sabotaging their election campaigns all by themselves. Nevertheless, I think we may be unnerved by what may happen over the next months and years about how election processes work, and don’t work, in the 21st century. There are some rumblings that the entire idea of (at least representative) democracy is in inevitable and permanent decline. Whether that happens or not, we should be prepared for a roller-coaster ride, and some big surprises, in the elections to come. The voters, in both countries, and across the political spectrum, are not happy with the current processes, or the candidates and actions they produce.

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

Links of the Quarter: September 2019


cartoon by Lars Kenseth in the New Yorker

What have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?
   (TS Eliot)

Hiraeth (heer-eye-th) (Welsh)
A word with no direct English translation. It means a longing for a home, or a time that felt like home. This isn’t homesickness, it’s a deep yearning for somewhere that may not quite exist as you remember it.
   (from the Guardian)


PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END


cartoon by Ed Hall 

What if we stopped pretending?: Jonathan Franzen talks about the inevitability of collapse. The environmental establishment is, of course, aghast that such a celebrity would write candidly about the fact climate collapse is occurring and complete collapse is inevitable (such acceptance threatens their ‘hopium’ jobs); Grist went so far as to call him a “climate coward”, and Scientific American told him to “shut up”. Ah well, two steps forward, one step back. Excerpt:

All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any world-improving action. In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities. In this respect, any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combatting extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons—these are all meaningful climate actions. To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it.

You and I are doomed; the Earth not so much: Martin Shaw suggests how we can come to accept collapse, and in the process get over ourselves. “In the darkness, we remember what we love the most. Thanks to Eric Lilius for the link.

Collapse: the only realistic scenario: In an excellent series on collapse by French documentarian Clément Montfort, scientist Arthur Keller explains how and why collapse is now inevitable. Thanks to the NTHELove group for the link.

A Latin-American leader takes responsibility for his country’s desperate emigrants: “It is our fault”, said El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele responding to the death of a father and daughter who drowned while trying to reach the US. His country exemplifies what collapse looks like: Desolated soils, stolen and exhausted resources, political corruption due largely to foreign and plutocratic interference and bribes exhausting the treasury, gang violence and extortion filling the local power vacuum fuelled largely by foreign money and arms, endemic impoverishment and unrepayable debts thanks to exploitation and economic blackmail by mostly foreign ‘investors’ including the IMF. There are scores of countries around the world in a similar state of irreparable collapse; they mirror the collapse of impoverished poor families everywhere as inequality of wealth, income and power skyrockets. Study them, and see the possible future for all of us in a world of collapse. The Salvadorian president’s acceptance of responsibility, brave as it is, is misplaced; no one is to blame for what we all, with the best of intentions, have created.


LIVING BETTER


image from Greta’s Facebook page

Why public disruption is necessary: XR guru Roger Hallam on the necessity of disruption to achieve change. Goes along with their excellent FAQ.

How to stop procrastinating: Nothing terribly new here, but some useful reminders — a behavioural scientist suggests:

• set specific, concrete, doable goals
• break big projects into small tasks
• set daily time/place routines and stick to them for at least 2 months
• schedule downtime and deadlines that must be met before each
• sleep, eat and exercise well
• banish distractions, mess,
• find ways to make worthwhile tasks easier

1619 Podcast: The NYT is running a series on the 400th anniversary of the start of slavery in the US, on several media. The print stuff is all buried behind the paywall, but the podcast is available to all. For now, anyway.

The True Story Award: This is a new award, originating in Switzerland, recognizing exceptional narrative journalism that illuminates non-western perspectives on world events. Here are the latest winners, some of which are moving; others are gut-wrenching. Some staggeringly-courageous journalism. Here is a gentler story that particularly moved me, as it describes how a citizens’ assembly can transform worldviews and morph distrust into solidarity. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the links.

Advancing women artists: To overcome misogyny in the arts, an American-Italian women’s collaborative is bringing to light some extraordinary and overlooked women artists in Tuscany‘s “museums, churches and storage facilities”. Thanks to Nathaniel James for the link.

Women game designers kick butt: Some of the cleverest, most engaging, and most collaborative games were and continue to be designed by women.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


image from Twitter, original source unattributed

Quantum shift in law-enforcement thinking?: There’s been a major shift in US sensibilities about what constitutes the greatest threat to public safety — essentially from a belief that it was “foreigners” (of various stripes), to a belief that it is deranged young male right-wing racist loners goaded by predatory right-wing media. There was only so much evidence that could be ignored by even the most NRA-revering Americans before they realized the truth. But recently there is evidence of an even more surprising shift — the same belief has penetrated law-enforcement agencies, long a bastion of right-wing attitudes. As evidence of this, concerted, coordinated police investigations have recently thwarted many US attacks, almost all by this disturbed and dangerous demographic. We can only hope that as this dawns on more and more people, there will be a greater willingness to rein in the massive proliferation of WMDs in individuals’ hands, greater scrutiny of militarized right-wing hate groups, and a growing abhorrence for incitement to (and defence of) violence by politicians and the media. And that religious leaders and their followers will no longer support or tolerate politicians, organizations and parties that pander to hate, violence, disrespect and fear.

How green are the Democratic Party candidates?: Here’s a “rubric” that assesses where all the declared candidates stand on the various issues in the Green New Deal. And here’s a profile of the demographics of the supporters of the leading candidates — probably not what you expected.

How US Republicans subvert democracy: Right-wing extremists in the US have long been advocates of “end justifies any means” tactics. Now, in Oregon, Republican politicans are subverting the will of the people by leaving the state to deprive the majority of the quorum they need to pass climate catastrophe legislation.

Boris Johnson “doesn’t remember” calling the French “turds”: Only a BBC interviewer would have the courage to call the clownish unelected British PM on his blatantly xenophobic and despicable generalizations. He laughed it off and didn’t deny saying it. There is a growing realization that the UK won’t survive his tenure, and will break up.

The paradox of fossil fuel subsidies: George Monbiot reports: “The oil and gas industry intends to spend $4.9T over the next 10 years, exploring and developing new reserves, none of which we can afford to burn. According to the IMF, every year governments subsidise fossil fuels to the tune of $5T – many times more than they spend on addressing our existential predicament. The US spends 10 times more on these subsidies than on its federal education budget.”

Canada’s right-wing conservatives declare war on health-based food guide: The extremist Scheer Conservatives want to ditch the evidence-based food guide and return to the old guide that was heavily influenced by the meat, dairy and processed foods industry. To them, it seems, the health of Big Ag is more important than the health of Canadian citizens. Health experts called Scheer’s plans “intensely stupid”. These are the same nutbars who when last in power eliminated the census and replaced it with a voluntary household survey (when it was restored, a host of new and important information about Canada’s demographics was recovered). But the anti-science Conservatives are running at 36% in the polls, which in Canada’s flawed FPTP system (which Trudeau promised to reform, but then reneged), that could be enough to put them back in power later this year, with the help of the misinformation bots already hard at work. Arno Kopecki laments “What’s a progressive voter to do?” — a good read for Canadian voters, that confirms what is true almost everywhere where an election now looms: the real work begins after the polls close.

And everyone has their price: Despite fierce opposition from many First Nations across Canada, a First Nation business plans to buy 51% of the Tar Sands pipeline that Trudeau bought to bail out Kinder Morgan. The pipeline, recently approved in a farcical process by a Trudeau-appointed Board, will be used to send the ecologically ruinous tar sands’ bitumen sludge from Alberta to China through Vancouver and the Salish Sea. Bitterly disappointing. But opposition First Nations groups and other opponents have filed multiple suits and vow the pipeline will never become operational.

The pathetic misogyny of male critics: There must be some kind of common character flaw that leads some men to decide to become critics. Perhaps it’s so they can deflect criticism from themselves. Whatever it is, the “profession” of “critic”, this Guardian article points out, seems rife with males who are utterly aware of their own misogyny and double standard.

… and the misogyny of birders: The role of female ornithologists has been likewise under-recognized and neglected. And it’s not only the human females studying birds who’ve been overlooked, but the female birds too, which turn out to be a lot more important to avian evolution than anyone expected.

And the rich just keep on getting richer: The top 1% of Americans’ combined net worth has risen from $8T to $29T over the last 20 years. Over the same period, the net worth of of the bottom 50% of Americans has slid into the red — ie more than half of Americans now are under water (owe more than they own). Thanks to AD Mitchell for the link.

Post-note on Epstein: I’m holding off saying anything substantial on this, because I think we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg so far. Attempts to bury the extent of the involvement of a host of the world’s richest and most powerful men are, I think, going to fail this time, because some of those implicated are getting cold feet and talking (and offering absurd excuses) before the SHTF. Stay tuned.


FUN AND INSPIRATION


left: image of a hand dryer in a washroom in a Manitoba shopping mall, original source unattributed; right: image of a sign above a sink in a washroom in Thailand, via languagelog — geez! what CAN you do in a washroom these days?

The seal: My friend Bob Turner plays with a seal off the coast of our island, and then wonders if he should have. World-class video. Bonus: Belugas in Lancaster Sound in the Canadian arctic.

Georgia on my mind: I confess to having become deeply infatuated with the music and musicians of the ancient Republic of Georgia. The astonishingly-talented Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili talks eloquently and refreshingly about how it feels to play Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. A Georgian adolescent, Salome Tsulukidzis, with her grandfather’s accompaniment, sings a brilliantly nuanced and accomplished version of a Georgian folk song Tetri Verdebi (White Roses). And a Georgian jazz group riffs off their renowned countryman Giya Kancheli’s famous film music (original version played by Khatia here). I wonder to what extent Georgians’ vocal versatility is attributable to their unique and complex polyphony (which predates western polyphony).

The phenomenon of “net non-permanent residents”: When agencies like Statistics Canada monitor populations, they have to introduce “net non-permanent residents” (NNPRs), a fudge-factor that, at least theoretically, should zero out over any 12-month period (NNPRs are theoretically seasonal workers and students). The problem is, they never zero out, and in Canada’s case they now account for a third of our 1.5% population growth rate year after year — more net population growth than our 0.4% net natural growth (resident births minus deaths) and almost as much as our 0.6% net migration (“permanent” immigration minus emigration). This is 10x the forecast rate of increase of NNPRs in government population projections. It’s not “illegal” immigration. It’s people so desperate to escape their own desolated countries they come here as NPRs and then take whatever work they can get to get their NPR status renewed as long as they can. This is the leading edge of what I have called the Long Migration from economically and ecologically ruined nations (where social collapse is following economic and ecological collapse). It’s very good for Canada — these 1.3 million (3% of all of us) ‘temporary’ Canadians are motivated, hard-working and mostly skilled and competent. But when will we stop fooling ourselves that they’re ‘temporary’, start welcoming them as the refugees they are, and revise our policies and programs accordingly?

Dialogue without quotation marks: The use of ” ” quotation marks to denote dialogue in fiction is a relatively new phenomenon; it was previously assumed that to any attentive reader, what was direct speech rather than narrative was obvious. Now, it seems, we can’t do without them. Or maybe we can… Yes, we can.

Making America great again?: Dmitry Orlov discovered a way to transform the US into an efficient, productive, self-sufficient nation again, one that would certainly, in its simplicity and hubris, warm the heart of any megalomanic president. And he found the prescription in an old, little red book… Wonderfully funny.

The epitome of bad design: An entertaining look at municipal flag design. First, a global overview; then a review of all of BC’s 126 municipal flags, in declining order of sheer awfulness. What’s most interesting are the explanations of why the designs are so bad. Thanks to Maureen Nicholson for the links.

Owl-Kitty, Hollywood star: A Portlander edits famous Hollywood movie scenes to include his cat.

Why we think: A new book argues that thinking did not evolve as a means of communication, but rather as a means of making sense of our spatial environment. We were apparently making maps before we were using language. Thanks to Decivilized for the link.

Real cities give their people places to pee: A report on public washrooms around the world. I confess I have an almost visceral reaction to signs I see everywhere that say, in one way or another, “washrooms for paying customers only”.

Stuff I do anyway: A hilarious self-confession by Olivia de Recat and Lars Kenseth at the New Yorker.


THOUGHTS OF THE QUARTER

cartoon from Reza Farazmand at poorlydrawnlines.com 

From Caitlin Johnstone: (who also explains how to get ‘archive’ copies of essential articles behind mainstream media paywalls — thanks to “Dr Scanlon” for the link)

The best form of meditation is to just allow everything to be as it is, without trying to manipulate or control your experience. This is also the best form of foreign policy. The path to world peace is the same as the path to inner peace: just quit trying to control everything. “But-but-but if we don’t control the world, the world will be out of our control!” is the most common objection to anti-interventionist foreign policy. It’s also the mind’s most common objection during meditation. We’ve all got a miniature John Bolton living in our head assuring us that the world is a hostile place which we must bring to heel by any means necessary. As within, so without: we will know peace when we finally rid ourselves of the John Boltons. (PS: Yay! One John Bolton down!)

From an unknown source (endlessly recopied on social media):

Weed isn’t a gateway drug. Alcohol isn’t a gateway drug. Nicotine isn’t a gateway drug. Caffeine isn’t a gateway drug. Trauma is the gateway. Molestation is the gateway. Neglect is the gateway. Rape is the gateway. Drug abuse, alcoholism, violent behaviour, hyper-sexuality, self-harm etc. are the symptoms, not the cause of bigger issues, and it nearly always stems from a childhood filled with trauma, absent parents and abusive families.

From Jane Mead:

The Geese

slicing this frozen sky know
where they are going—
and want to get there.

Their call, both strange
and familiar, calls
to the strange and familiar

heart, and the landscape
becomes the landscape
of being, which becomes

the bright silos and snowy
fields over which the nuanced
and muscular geese

are calling—while time
and the heart take measure.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse


It’s encouraging to see that the terms “climate crisis” and even “climate collapse”, which even five years ago were ridiculed as doomerism, are now considered perfectly reasonable descriptions of our current state. That doesn’t mean there is any consensus on how to address it, or any widespread willingness to change our lifestyle to match this new worldview. And it certainly doesn’t mean that climate collapse can be avoided or significantly mitigated. Still, it’s a start.

Lost in this new awareness, however, is that our global industrial economy is once again teetering on the edge of what will be a long drawn-out but ultimately permanent collapse. That’s a concern because if the more pervasive effects of economic collapse come first, there’s a good chance climate collapse will once again be ignored as our attention focuses on the more immediate existential crisis of economic suffering.

And it is very likely that the first dominoes of global economic collapse are, as a recent NYT article highlighted (sadly, behind a NYT paywall), about to fall. And the reasons for this are even more complex and even less understood than the reasons for climate collapse. Here are a few of them:

  1. This economy is built on faith in perpetual growth: faith that rapid and accelerating economic ‘growth’ can and will somehow continue indefinitely, so that investments in the future will continue to make sense. If that faith is shattered — if people begin to doubt that investing now in stocks, bonds, loans, real estate, commodities, and businesses will not yield a positive return commensurate with the risk in the intervening period — then the market value of those goods and securities will crumble, in some cases (like with stocks) to zero. No one will pay money for common stocks, which are the riskiest and lowest-ranking (in the case of insolvency or bankruptcy) securities, unless they believe that the present value (discounted at a rate that reflects the risk of the return being lower than expected) of future cash flows (dividends and sales proceeds) from that investment exceeds the current price. That means the price is hugely vulnerable to changes in perceived future cash flows (profit increases) and to perceived risk. There have been many recessions and depressions precipitated by nothing more than just such a change in perception. And to some extent that change in perception is self-fulfilling.
  2. The value of ‘fiat’ currencies is built on faith: the currencies on which our economy is dependent no longer have any underlying collateral other than the ability and willingness of the issuing government to redeem them at face value. These governments have incurred (especially over the past four decades under conservative governments that have cut corporate and high-worth individual taxes and accelerated ‘defence’ spending and subsidies to corporate friends), colossal levels of indebtedness, and the annual deficits and accumulated debts levels are accelerating every year. Guess what the acceptability and continuance of such debt levels is based on? The ability of future governments to increase revenues, based on accelerating personal incomes and corporate profits. When faith in this ability drops, currencies collapse. See Argentina, Russia, Venezuela etc etc to see how fast and profoundly this happens, and the economic consequences of it.
  3. Economic growth is dependent on ever-accelerating amounts of debt. The economy needs people to continue to consume at ever-increasing rates, which requires most of us to borrow more and more money so we have it to spend. If citizens were to (wisely) decide to repay their debts and live within their means, it would collapse the already-leveraged money supply and bring down the economy. Unfortunately for most citizens, they don’t have the luxury to hold the line on new debts, let alone repay the existing ones. The same thing would happen, incidentally, if the banks decided to become more careful (responsible) about their lending, instead of their current practice of hard-selling gullible customers on incurring additional debts they can’t afford, at usurious repayment rates, and lending money recklessly on the strength of the ‘value’ of wildly-overpriced collateral, or simply to generate more profits and commissions.
  4. Governments and banks are deliberately suppressing interest rates far below current rates of inflation. They are doing this to encourage ever-more borrowing and spending, and to force investors out of bond and other ‘fixed income’ investments into stocks (and real estate), so that the illusion of perpetual increases in stock (and real estate) values (necessary to prevent economic collapse) is continued. This is now hugely difficult to do: Interest rates in most places are near or even below zero, a nightmarish situation for those on fixed incomes, and for pension fund managers prohibited from investing all their funds in stocks. This means that, to avoid the wrath of investors and plunging values, fund managers have to buy extremely-high-risk ‘junk’ and ‘near-junk’ bonds to get any return at all, and have to take higher and higher risks on stock investments. It means listed companies are buying back their own stock to make the remaining shares more valuable on a per-share basis, because they simply can’t keep generating more and more profits-per-share any other way. It means that banks have to furiously fight anti-usury laws that would block them from charging 29% interest on credit card balances while they’re paying the same customers 0.5% on their ‘savings’ accounts — without usurious interest rates on such loans to the poor, they could not generate the needed double-digit increases in profits every year to keep their shares from collapsing and to avoid insolvency and bankruptcy. This ‘tax on the poor’ is a large part of the reason net worth for the vast majority of citizens is now negative and declining, while essentially all wealth accrues to the 1% (tax cuts for the rich also contribute to this). As income and wealth disparity soars, it tears at the very social fabric our economy is supposed to be supporting.
  5. Most citizens are now a few months’ income away from bankruptcy, homelessness, and even hunger. Secure full-time jobs with benefits have disappeared by the millions (they’re too ‘expensive’ for profit-obsessed corporations to offer), leaving most citizens no choice but to work multiple low-paying, insecure jobs, perpetually caught in the two-income trap. While life expectancy has flat-lined, healthy life-years for the poor have fallen due largely to poor diets (they are too busy working to have time to cook healthy food), chronic anxiety and stress, and decreasing access to essential health care (whose costs continue to skyrocket year after year), leading to more and more people who are unable to participate in the labour force and hence dependent on other family members, or rendered homeless. And the population is aging rapidly, facing accelerating health-care costs and sick days, and mostly unable to even think of retiring before they die.
  6. Governments, politicians and corporations are consciously lying about the real rates of inflation and unemployment. Factoring in the soaring costs of health care and housing in affluent nations, true inflation rates are 6-10%, and true unemployment rates are 20-30%. When the typical citizen is paying 8% more per year for essential goods and services, and paying 16% interest on their borrowings (the average for lower-income earners, per the Two Income Trap), while receiving average wage increases of only 2%, and earning just 0.5% on their savings, while facing a high risk that they, or their spouse, will become unemployed in any particular year, the situation is unsustainable and potentially explosive.
  7. Our economy is totally dependent on inexpensive, affordable fossil-fuel energy, water, minerals, construction materials and other resources. The claims that economic growth stems from innovation, efficiency, ‘consolidation’, globalization, and ‘economies of scale’ are complete bunk. All of the growth in our industrial economy over the past century has been due to one factor: the use of cheap energy and resources. Many studies have confirmed there is an almost perfect correlation between energy production (and consumption) per capita and GDP per capita, whether measured over time or between countries. Over that century, cheap fossil-fuel energy constitutes an amazingly-consistent 80+% of that energy, and there is abundant evidence that the only thing that will change that is if (when) available fossil-fuel resources become too expensive for consumers to afford (eg if there is an economic collapse). There is likewise an almost perfect correlation between total energy production (and consumption), total GDP, total stock market value, total world population, total world imports & exports, total resource consumption, and total CO2e emissions. They have all risen, and will all fall, in lock-step.

When economic crises are local, or when there are ways to re-jump-start the economy by correcting the underlying causes that led to the recession or depression, there are levers that can be used to intervene and restore the economy to health. But we used up the last of our available levers in 2008, and we are once again at the tipping point, and this time we are looking at a permanent and global economic collapse. We are finally going to have to face that our perpetual-growth, high-resource use, environmentally-ruinous, debt-faith-dependent economy was never sustainable, and was destined to collapse sooner or later. We will soon (probably in fits and starts over the next three decades or so) be forced to return to a radically relocalized, low-tech economy of sufficiency. It will not be a graceful transition.

In short, while climate collapse will render centralized, high-tech, high-energy use civilization unsustainable, and make much (and possibly all) of the planet uninhabitable, economic collapse will likely make our lives radically different, and will do so well before climate collapse weighs in with full force.

The collapse of our global industrial civilization will have two chapters. The economic collapse chapter will come first. The climate collapse chapter will just be the final blow. It’s unlikely that the survivors, by the end of this century, will be able to read this forecast, and it’s unlikely they will care about why or how it happened. They will be otherwise occupied.

Charts above from OurWorldinData.org CC-by-SA via Sustaining Capabilities blog 2018. Note that the recent drop in proportion of CO2e emissions in affluent nations corresponds to their offshoring much dirty industry to Asia, whose proportion of emissions grew commensurately.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 23 Comments