A Future Without “Us”

This is a modestly revamped version of a thought experiment I wrote five years ago entitled Several Short Sentences About Earth’s Distant Future. At the time it provoked a lot of interesting and mostly positive comments, so I thought I would update it to reflect how my thinking has evolved since then.



image: earth during the eocene epoch, the last time the average surface temperature was 25C, via bbc nature

Imagine this:

  1. Imagine that, a few millennia from now, down the steep slope that followed Peak Everything, the sixth Great Extinction is finally winding down. The pace of species extinction is slowing, and landscapes, while still often showing the signs of many recent ecological catastrophes due to ongoing tumultuous climate change, are beginning to show more patterns of succession. Our lovely planet has been through this kind of change many times before: At least twice it’s been choked in dust after meteorites or volcanoes that produced a global night that lasted a year and soaked the planet in a deluge of rain with the pH of battery acid. At least once it’s been totally encased, pole to pole, in a sheet of ice miles thick.
  2. Imagine that this Future Earth looks about as different from the way it did in the 21st century as it did the last time the average surface temperature was 25C rather than 15C — during the early Eocene epoch about 50 million years ago. Imagine that more than half of the planet is therefore now desert, including the Western US, Southern Europe, the Western 2/3 of all tropical areas, and all of the areas that were already desert in the 21st century. Much of the rest of the planet is now rainforest, subject to torrential and relentless monsoons, including former Arctic and Antarctic areas. There are no ice sheets or glaciers now. Rising sea levels have engulfed the formal coastal areas and reduced overall planetary land mass by about 20%, and coasts are now mostly steep and mountainous.


image: depiction of eocene rainforest in the antarctic, from this site, original source uncredited

  1. Imagine that human population has declined to about 50 million, and is still declining, though much more slowly than during the earlier stages of the Great Extinction. The remaining humans have abandoned all technologies, in part because there is no cheap accessible energy to power them, and in part because with a population now so small and declining (and hence abundant food and warm places to live), there is no real need for technologies for a full and healthy life. Population is still declining because humans are just not naturally well-adapted to very hot or changeable climates, whereas many of the succession species that now feed on humans (jaguars and crocodiles, for example) are much better adapted to prevailing climates. Nuclear radiation from abandoned 21st century power plants has also created ongoing birth rate and illness problems for humans and other species.
  2. Imagine that humans have readapted to living in the trees (because it’s safer and more comfortable), to gathering rather than growing food (because it’s healthier, more reliable and easier), and to a vegetarian and insect diet (because it’s better suited to our digestive system and more accessible in post-tool-use societies). Humans still look much like they did in the 21st century (and, for that matter, much like they have for the past million years), but they behave much differently. They have given up abstract languages because such languages are no longer of value or use, though they can communicate essential messages very accurately through vocalizations (whistles, calls and songs) and gestures. They retain a passion for art and music and practice these extensively. They live in small, autonomous tribal cultures, each with a territory large enough to provide abundant food even when catastrophic climate events occur, and little or no contact with adjacent human cultures, which are, as a result, very diverse. With a small and declining population, migration outside each tribe’s established territories is (except after local climate disasters) neither necessary nor wise.

baraka
image: from the documentary film baraka

  1. Imagine that such humans have lost their sense of time, again because they have no need for it. They live entirely (except for brief periods when under attack by predators) in the present, joyfully, in the moment. They have, of course, memories (so do most creatures) but their minds, without clocks, calendars and abstract language, now evolve differently from the way they did in the old “civilization” times, so they cannot and do not dwell on the past, nor fear nor long for the future. They live lives of great joy, leisure and abundance, and are unaware of the trajectory that will inevitably lead, many millennia hence, to their ecologically maladapted species’ slow and final extinction. And they are unaware of how humans live/lived in other places and times. It doesn’t concern them. They do not fear death; they accept it. Their curiosity is focused on here, and now.
  2. Imagine that such humans have begun to evolve cultural and coping characteristics more aligned with their forest-dwelling bonobo cousins than their savannah-dwelling chimp cousins. Their best-adapted societies are peaceful, gentle, matriarchal, affectionate, and egalitarian, and resolve internal conflicts and stress through embrace, caress, and sexual calming methods rather than through the expression of violence.
  3. Imagine that, despite the apparent similarities between these post-civilization humans and prehistoric tree-dwelling humans, there are a number of qualities that clearly distinguish them. These differences are not physical but behavioural, due to differences in selected genetics, learned behaviours passed between generations, and differences in environment. Post-civilization humans are still not as intuitive as prehistoric humans, but they are more imaginative and hence more playful. They are more empathetic, because they still pass on the embodied grief of having experienced massive suffering and hardship just a hundred generations ago. They still retain vestiges of skill at abstraction and capacity to synergize, that comes through in and is practiced in their art and music composition. They also ironically retain vestiges of competitiveness, even though this no longer serves a useful purpose. While they have varied embodied and enculturated characters, like babies and wild creatures they do not perceive of themselves as separate from all-that-is, or of life having any start or ending, boundaries, purpose or meaning. They are just one with everything.

Imagine that.

This is a future freed from the terrible affliction of “consciousness”. Yet it is the opposite of dull. It is life full on, eternal, vivid, wondrous and endlessly new. It is intuitive, sensuous, fearlessly wild, passionate, and unveiled by the brain’s abstraction of what is and isn’t real.

When I imagined this five years ago, it was impossible for me not to add that, despite the hopelessness of preventing civilization’s collapse and the inevitability of a subsequent long road back to planetary sanity, “we” needed to imagine what we could do now to “prepare us to cope better, to be hurt less, to do less harm”.

I no longer have such conceits. We can and will only do our best, in our own way, in the moment, as events unfold. But while I no longer profess to offer advice or suggestions about what “we” should do, the above flight of fancy fills me with questions. So, in lieu of answers, here are some questions I am thinking about:

  1. What might it be like to be truly wild, free of the terrifying illusion that we are separate and in control of our own fate?
  2. Why is it so hard to imagine a future utterly different from anything we’ve known (we tend to imagine the future being like the present “only more so”, or, even worse, imagine it being like the recent past played in reverse)? Why does the idea of future human societies that use substantially no technology, have no abstract language, and aren’t incessantly violent, strike us as so preposterous, even impossible?
  3. Is there something in the essential nature of the human animal and its oversized brain that makes us inevitably dissatisfied with just being, makes us endlessly want and strive for more, disconnects us from the rest of life with which we’re co-dependent, and inevitably fosters overreach, hierarchy and struggle with our own kind? These would seem to be evolutionary disadvantages.
  4. Why do so many want to live in cities? It wasn’t always that way — what’s changed?
  5. Our art, languages, dance and music, and the way we adorn our bodies, demonstrate the enormous cultural diversity of our species, despite the effects of our modern monolithic industrial culture. Why do we strive so desperately to make everyone and everything the same? And, with enough time and enough distance between them, how staggeringly and delightfully different might the many tiny far-flung cultures of humanity millennia from now evolve to be?

I watch the body language of the fawns that come each evening to nibble at the edges of my garden and sleep in the secluded mossy patches of my back yard, for clues. I listen to the intricate songs of the birds that feed outside my window, and wonder. I look into the faces of purring cats, crows huddled together, the astonished looks of babies, for signs of what is really going on.

They’re not telling.

Posted in Creative Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

The Paradox of Self-Management

If you are a student of complexity theory, and of philosophy, you can quickly arrive at a place of great cognitive dissonance: On the one hand, our culture is driving us, for quite compelling reasons, to take actions that make things better for the rest of the world, and to “self-improve” — to change our own unhealthy and destructive behaviours. But on the other hand, some of us have come to believe, intellectually at least, (1) that our personal actions will have no discernible sustained impact on the rest of the world (complex systems tend to self-perpetuate and to counter the effects of even the most persistent and well-conceived interventions), and (2) that we have no free will, agency or choice in what we do in any case — rather than making decisions, the brain/mind/self is merely rationalizing decisions that have already been ‘made’ and started to act upon by the conditioned creatures ‘we’ presume to inhabit and control.

The former dilemma — that we feel driven to make the world better through personal actions even though we may know in our hearts that that won’t make any enduring difference — has been hashed over a lot in activist circles. The argument is that we have to try anyway; that it’s in our nature. Direct action certainly seems to make a small difference, at least for a while, so why not (protest local polluting projects and entities, clean up a river, blockade a destructive development etc)? It’s not our business to worry about what will happen when we’re gone, or what is happening beyond our sphere of influence. Though we may be by nature preoccupied with the needs and imperatives of the moment, still we do our best. It’s both enough and necessarily to try, even when it may be, in the longer and broader context, hopeless.

The latter dilemma — that we feel an obligation to “improve ourselves” through personal behaviour change, even though some of us have come to ‘know’ intellectually we have no real agency over what we do or do not do — is the subject of this essay.

The question here is not whether our behaviour changes or not; it’s about whether personal volition plays any role in that change, or whether, given our conditioning and the events and options presenting themselves moment-to-moment, what we do, or don’t do, in each moment, is the only thing we could possibly have done, and therefore all the angst and anguish we have about our decisions is pointless, and changes nothing.

That’s not to say that we can rid ourselves of this needless angst and anguish — it’s just one more thing we have no agency over. In the long run, the human mind seems compelled to be unhappy with the apparent sub-optimality of ‘its’ decisions, and with the apparent unfairness of its situation. Hindsight is perfect, and nothing can ever match the ideals we can imagine — not for very long anyway.

You may find this preposterous — we certainly seem to have personal volition over what we do. It’s a paradox, and in that sense it is preposterous. But bear with me for a few moments.

Over the years this blog has recommended a process called “self-management” for taking charge of your own situation, informing yourself with personally-collected data, and acting in accordance, in a number of situations:

  1. Managing your own health and fitness: I used statistical analysis to identify what treatments seemed to work best for my body when it was coping with debilitating ulcerative colitis. And annually I review, plot and analyze the data from a comprehensive blood test (here in BC you are able to access your health records and test results personally online). Possibly as a result of that, I am now 10 years symptom-free.
  2. Making healthy/helpful behaviours easier and/or more fun: Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour asserts that we do what we must (our personal imperatives of the moment) and then we do what’s easy and/or fun; there is never time left for what is ‘merely’ important. So I made exercising easier and less tedious by investing in a treadmill desk that allows me to multi-task (reading, writing, watching videos) while working out. Even my upper-body and core workouts with weights are done while listening to podcasts I particularly enjoy. For the first time in my life, my exercise is done regularly, and it’s something I actually look forward to. My long history of maintaining my times for 5k and 10k runs over the past 40 years (sometimes being a data geek really is useful), adjusted for the inevitable slowdowns that come with age, also enables me to know in advance when I’m getting sick (my times go well over the regression line) and to take steps to heal.
  3. Eating better: While the statistical analysis referred to above had already helped me improve my diet, I have more recently shifted further to a whole-plant based diet (persuaded by the science of nutritionfacts.org) with less salt, less sugar (especially processed sugar), less fat (especially saturated fat) and less processed food in general. This was at least as challenging as going vegetarian and then vegan had been years ago, since I really do like salt, sweets and oils, and I am generally a lazy chef. But I’ve managed to make the changes, again by making it relatively easy:
    • a meal a day of varied raw veggies and salad stuff with a tasty low-fat dip takes little preparation or clean-up
    • fruit and veggie smoothies
    • keeping useful ingredients like turmeric and ground flax seeds handy and adding them liberally to meals
    • keeping a pill-pack of B12 and D3 vitamins so it’s easy to remember to take them regularly, and
    • finding several one-pot, 5-or-less (but variable) ingredient, 20-minutes-or-less prep time recipes that fulfil my “daily dozen” (see graphic above)
      Taken together, these discoveries have made it easy and even enjoyable to eat healthier.
  4. Increased self-awareness of stress: I’ve learned that I can’t avoid stress in my life; nor can I avoid the anxiety that arises in me because of it. But I’ve learned to become aware of when I am getting reactive to a situation (bad weather, vexatious people, a loved one’s distress etc). Just being self-aware helps, though it doesn’t eliminate the reactivity. I have a list in my wallet of the things that I know trigger anxiety, fear, distress, shame, anger and sorrow in me, and recognizing the trigger reaction (it helps that those I love know the symptoms and point it out to me as well) seems to be enough to bring some perspective and at least lessen any overreactions.
  5. Reducing personal environmental impact: Over the past year, by monitoring my daily household energy consumption, informing myself about opportunities for reducing consumption, and tracking consumption against temperature (my heat is electric), I’ve reduced my electricity consumption by 40%, effortlessly. I didn’t think such savings were possible without discomfort and inconvenience, but the data made me do it!

So there have been changes, for the better, in my personal behaviours, apparently as a result of this “self-management” process. What’s going on here? If I have no free will, agency, control or choice over my actions, how did these changes come about?

My guess is that they were inevitable. By nature I’m a data collector. I’m curious and imaginative about trying new low-risk things, and that’s led to me being an avid reader of books on health and self-management. I’m averse to pain and suffering so I was really motivated to do the statistical analysis to manage the colitis. While I hate exercising, I’m vain about my appearance, and that, along with the personal, statistically verified health benefits (less illness, less pain, more resilience) made it inevitable that once I found an easy way to exercise, I’d do so. And the people I love showed me, by example, how a higher level of self-awareness reduces their reactivity and hence their stress, anxiety and suffering, so it’s only natural that I would over time pick up this skill from them and apply it to my own life.

No free will was really involved. If you had been watching me over the past ten years from a distance, and could see inside my head, these self-improvements would have seemed inevitable, given my basic nature and the circumstances that I was presented with over that time. I really had no control over, and no say in the matter. There are probably other apparent ‘self-improvements’ that didn’t happen to me, because they weren’t in my nature, or because the right circumstances didn’t present themselves. If I hadn’t met the people, or read the books (all happy accidents) that have influenced me so much, my life would probably have unfolded very differently.

So if it’s all dependent on our inherent or enculturated nature, and on the circumstances that arise in our lives, and we have no control over either, what’s the point of talking about any of this? Or more broadly, what’s the point in aspiring to any ‘self-improvement’ whatsoever?

The following could perhaps be a circular argument, or an oxymoron, but it seems possible to me that if it’s in your nature to experiment, and to want to learn, there are two things you might be able to do to increase the probability that the circumstances that arise will be more auspicious towards the changes you are hoping for than they would be otherwise:

The first of these is to learn more — about yourself, about your body, your health, your nature, what motivates you, what (perhaps for reasons buried in your past) triggers unreasonable and unhealthy reactions in you etc. Better self-knowledge would seem to open you to possibilities that otherwise might not arise. For example, knowing that a chronic physical or emotional illness is inflamed by something in your diet (or something missing from your diet) would seem to make it more likely that you would change that diet, even if you might not be that excited about the change. Or, if you discovered that walking an hour a day on a treadmill would reduce your risk of heart disease by 75% (helped by personal blood test data showing improvements in LDL cholesterol etc), it might be more likely that you would take up and stick with a regular walking regime.

It could of course be argued that we are either curious enough by nature (and fortunate enough to have the time and capacity) to learn, or we aren’t, and that therefore there is no free will involved in this either. If you’re going to stumble on this article and find it useful and act on it in some way, that is all because of some combination of your inherent or enculturated nature and happenstance — no free will or agency involved.

It’s said that people who seem exceptionally lucky make their own luck. That’s perhaps saying the same thing — we don’t make choices; it’s either in our nature to learn and try things that increase the likelihood of good fortune befalling us, or it isn’t.

That brings me to the second thing we might be able to do with some degree of volition to increase the probability that the circumstances that arise will be more auspicious towards the changes we are hoping for than they would be otherwise: to make space for a change of behaviour — to open up the possibility for it.

How might we do this? Again, I think it comes back to self-awareness. If we’re aware of what motivates us, of our propensity for certain behaviours, and about our inherent nature (curious, courageous, persevering etc, or not) and our enculturated nature (to be defensive, to procrastinate, to judge people in certain ways etc, or not), then perhaps we can use this self-awareness to create opportunities for us to act in ways that are better for ourselves and those around us.

Complexity theorists argue that while human-scale interventions will have little or no impact on a complex system (which is inherently unknowable and unpredictable), it may be possible to influence the initial conditions of a small system in its early stages before it becomes ‘unmanageable’. So for example, ensuring that we get enough sleep might affect us in all kinds of positive ways. Putting a list like the graphic above on our refrigerator door might cause the uncontrollable creatures we believe we inhabit to engage in slightly more healthy eating behaviours (or to tear down the list and throw it away, depending on our nature).

This could also be a circular argument. Perhaps it’s either in our nature to get enough sleep or not, and to maintain and use lists, or not, and we’re just fooling ourselves believing that the apparent ‘decision’ to go to bed earlier or to post the list or to change what we eat depending on what the list suggests, would be any different without the intention or the list. It’s probably impossible to know.

All I do know is that ‘self-management’ seems to be in my nature, though it’s only very recently that I’ve begun to use it, and reaped the astonishing benefits it’s given me. If we see our lives as a play, with all the parts already written (though not given to us more than a line or two in advance of us acting them out), then agency, self-control, self-management, volition, free will and choice had nothing to do with me being, and becoming, such an incredibly blessed agnostic. Hard, but not impossible, to believe.

No wonder then I am increasingly averse to giving advice, and more and more inclined to just tell my own rather tedious and ordinary story, mostly so I can get (as my nature drives me to seek) the gist of how the plot seems to be unfolding. No wonder I am increasingly silent, here on this blog and in my interactions with the world. If there is no free will, then freedom, it would seem, must lie in some other, possibly unknowable, unimaginable place.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

Interlude


I wander out onto the small balcony, seeking a quiet place to get away from the earnest people gathered inside, people trying to make a hopeless situation better. It is more than I can bear tonight.

You, a stranger to me, are already out there, sitting on a deck chair, alone, in the dark. We nod, and you turn your gaze back to the still world outside. Wordlessly, we watch the rain and the lights in the distance, your eyes shining in the lamplight. We listen to the rush of the wind, the drone of tires on the road beyond, the muffled French music playing in the room inside.

I like your smell. You are drinking something with alcohol and some exotic fruit. You are well but not ostentatiously dressed, in red and black. The silence seems natural, comfortable, but I am looking for something to say, to acknowledge you. But I don’t know what. And when I turn to you to speak, you put your finger to your lips and shush me, with a smile. You point out into the darkness, cup your ear, inhale deeply, and nod gently. You rise and stand beside me, arms on the railing.

And we just stay there, together, silently, taking in the view, the sounds and smells of the wind- and rainswept night. We point out things rustling in the distance in the mist. I am smiling, hoping no one comes out to disturb our innocent flirtation. We are like two birds on a wire, having met by accident, nestled together. You brush your arm against mine, pushing your hair back. You touch your fingers to my hand, and turn to look at my face for acknowledgement whether this is too forward. I nod and smile so you continue, eventually leaving your hand lightly on mine.

I point out the leaves shimmering in the rain, in the wind, in the patio light below. We stay like that for what seems a long time, senses alert, silently. You are sighing. Your glass is empty but you shake your head when I point to it as an offer to go for a refill. The wind picks up and you shiver, and when I turn toward you, you step forward into my arms and wrap mine around you, smiling and then nestling your cheek in my collar, your arms under mine and your hands curled over my shoulders.

I am overwhelmed by the sensations of you, the feel of your breath on my neck, your hair on the side of my face, the complex smell of you, the strength of your grasp, the slight quiver in your body in the wind gusting around us. I want to wrap you up. I want this moment to never end.

Just then someone opens the door to the balcony, and seeing us, says “Oops sorry!” and retreats inside. You laugh, the first sound I have heard from you. I hold you tighter, but you’ve sensed the tension in my body, and you draw your head back, look in my eyes, and then point at the side of my head and repeat your “shush” signal, and then, to my surprise, put your hand on my heart and repeat the “shush” again. Then you nestle back into my arms.

What am I supposed to make of this? Of course my mind has been racing, and your shush was to tell me to stop thinking, imagining, and to just be in the moment without thoughts about what it might mean, or lead to. But what of the heart gesture? Was that to say to calm my heart, that this wasn’t anything to get emotional about? That I should not be falling in love with you? I am such a fool for love.

So I just close my eyes and drink in the sensations, and try not to think, or feel. Impossible, of course. I imagine kissing you, and more. I imagine who you might be, behind this mysterious silence. Who we might be, together. Madness. Why can’t I just be in this moment with you? Why do I have to spoil it, worry about it, imagine it being other than all it is?

But I’m already in full flight, preparing for the fall. I imagine that you’re already living with someone, who you’ll be rejoining inside and leaving with, soon, hand in hand. I imagine how awful you might be — a dangerous and damaged person who does this with everyone, just for thrills, to incite confrontation. I imagine my broken heart, and how I can shield it, recover from it.

And then you laugh, gently at first and then uncontrollably, your body shaking in my arms. I wonder if I’ve missed something, if something in my body language has given me away, if I have done something wrong. But as you lift your face to mine I can see you are laughing with me, not at me. So I start laughing too. You sense — you know! — that I was unable to just be with you, that my mind and emotions had destroyed the spell, the magic of our — how long was it, minutes or hours? — moment together.

You touch two fingers to your lips and then to mine, and then, stepping back, you hold my hands, and then, releasing them, give me a little bow and a huge, generous smile. Then you point me to the railing of the balcony, and flash your hand three times — 15 minutes? — and move to the balcony door. I watch you leave, and then stand at the railing, like a zombie, incapable of thinking of anything. Fifteen minutes later I wander inside, where you are nowhere to be seen, pick up my coat, and head outside.

(vignette partly inspired by listening to torch songs; photo by Marian Jaslovsky, CC0 on the wonderful Pixabay)

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Rune

So I decided to look closer,
to see if I could see
the true wonder of everything that is.

I bundled up against the rain and chill,
set up my tent in the back yard, positioned so that
out its open door I could see no human artifacts,
and stared out through the mist
at the green-grey mountains and the blue-grey sea.

I tried to look, to pay attention
without attaching words, interpretations, to what I saw.
I wanted to see what was really there,
not how my brain belittled it, labelled it, judged it.

I tried to listen to the sounds,
without making meaning from them, identifying them,
attaching them to anything.

I wanted there to be no tent, no grass, no trees,
no mountains, no sea:
just pure colour, texture, scent, whispers, waves
contour, shadow, dampness. earthy-ness, hue.
No thing apart. Only this.

I wanted to be home.
I wanted to stop being afraid of all the wrong things,
to stop taking things personally,
to stop trying to make sense.

To stop running away.

What is this foolish fear we have
that without our thoughts and feelings,
with just our raw animal senses, our oneness with everything,
we will somehow be failures, irresponsible, insensitive, absent,
less than whole?

I am leaving. I just don’t know when, or how.
You will not notice when I’m gone.

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Links of the Quarter: September 2017


Photo taken out the author’s front door yesterday.

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So says Hamlet, poking gentle fun at the science (“philosophy”) of the day. A few centuries later an increasing number of scientists, and philosophers, seem inclined to agree. The more we learn, the more mystified and wondrous we become at the impossibility of really knowing how anything works, or even what really is.

Apparently, there is just what’s happening.


PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END


Hubble telescope photo of a rapidly evolving new galaxy, from NASA; public domain. Thanks to NASA for its work, and to the YouTube channel Astrum for the link.

If we think of our industrial civilization as a patient (though it might be fairer to describe our planet as the patient and civilization as the disease), the diagnosis that has been made on these pages and elsewhere for some years now is unchanged. The writers about collapse on my right sidebar can give you the daily scorecard (eg Gail is writing about the gap between the price of oil that producers need to get and the price that consumers can afford to pay, and about the myth of renewable energy being cheap to bring on at scale; Ilargi’s writing about the unaffordability of maintaining industrial civilization’s essential infrastructure). But in any case the patient has less than a century to live, and its declining years are not going to be healthy.

The patient, Industrial Civilization, has three essential organs without which it dies: a perpetually growing economy (its heart); stable, affordable energy (its blood); and a diverse environment with an extremely stable climate (its body). These are now all on life-support.

The economy increasingly looks like the first organ to fail. Real economic growth for all but the 1% has ceased, while the ever-swelling population adds relentlessly to the pressure for even more. Spending is now almost completely dependent on unsustainable ever-increasing borrowing, which depends on a willingness of those with money to lend, and on insanely low interest rates that only governments, idiots and the clueless would lend at.

For two centuries, almost 100% of economic growth has been the result of ever-increasing supply and use of cheap (relative to earning power) energy, which as Gail explains is now at an end. And as we’re seeing in more and more places (storm-damaged cities, inundated islands, drought-ravaged nations whose soil has turned to dust and natural resources exhausted), increasing climate instability means settlement in any one place for an extended period of time is becoming more and more foolhardy, and yet our whole civilization has been built on, and needs, settlement and stability. This ‘patient’ needs constant ‘transplants’, increasing in frequency.

So this is Industrial Civilization: A frail heart needing more and more blood in a body increasingly wracked with injuries and illnesses. And we’re all dependent on this ‘patient’ for our very survival. Betting our lives on this patient was a poor decision, but it seemed to make sense at the time. And for generations we’ve just doubled down on the bet, because it’s the only game we remember how to play. Sad, understandable, unavoidable, and fatal. Fatal for the patient, but not for the remnants of our foolish and arrogant species, or for the at least temporarily diminished diversity of life on our suffering plant. The play of life will go on, with other, hopefully more fortunate players. After us the dragons.


LIVING BETTER


I believe this captioned anti-logging photo came from someone here on Bowen Island, though I’m not sure whom. Via the Bowen Island Everything Else Facebook group.

Teach Your Doctor: Doctors get almost no training about the essential connection between good nutrition and health. Those that have learned, didn’t learn from conferences or books. As Michael Greger explains (37 minute mark of video), when doctors explain their appreciation of this connection their story almost invariably starts with “I had a patient…” Learn to self-manage your health, starting with finding the diet that works for you. (Be careful to avoid the quacks, and beware what the food industry tells you.) And then teach your doctor.

How Art Speaks Through You: If you haven’t had enough Jim Carrey yet, here he is talking about what inspires his painting and sculpture, and what it gives him in return. And in that moment he was freed from the prison of becoming. (Thanks to Shana Deane for the link).

Living Simply in a Tiny Off-Grid Cabin: I know people who live like this couple in NZ. As they say in the movie “I have a suspicion that this is the blueprint [for living in the modern world] and if they had the chance to experience it, everybody would want to live this way, though it might be a long journey for some to realize it”. Beautifully crafted little film. Thanks to my friend Philip in NZ for the link.

To a Child There Are No Borders: An artist has erected a massive portrait of a Mexican child peering innocently over a section of the US-Mexico border wall that already exists.

The Fantasy of Space Travel: John Michael Greer deliciously skewers “science promoter Neil DeGrasse Tyson” for his infatuation with space travel as the solution to global collapse.

How to Reward People in a Self-Managed Organization: The future of organizations (and communities) is collaborative self-management by small autonomous groups. But it would be easy to repeat the mistakes of large hierarchical organizations that claim to value one set of behaviours but actually reward another. Thanks to Tree for the link.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


Photo of alt-right demonstration in Charlottesville VA, attributed to Kimberly Payne Hawk

Let’s Call the Fentanyl Crisis What It Really Is: The CBC’s Jeremy Allingham laudably calls upon doctors, politicians and media to call the problem of people dying from toxic and adulterated street drugs — prescription or no — what it really is: a poisoning crisis, not an ‘overdose’ crisis. Their deaths weren’t suicides; they were murder by unscrupulous or indifferent pushers. Let’s stop blaming the victims. And let’s stop depriving chronic pain sufferers of much-needed prescription opiates and demonizing them as abusers. Have we learned nothing from prohibition?

The Scourge of Salmon Farms: Massive nets in pristine Pacific waters enclose millions of caged, sickly Atlantic salmon, commercially bred and fed unnatural industrial feed for profit, damaging local ecosystems and ravaging wild populations. They infect the waters with non-native diseases, they live horrible crowded lives, and they escape and breed with local species. The corporatist Harper government lied, denied and covered up the destruction, and so far Trudeau hasn’t proved any better. David Suzuki weighs in as well, arguing that if you want to save a whale, first save its food.

Noam Being Noam: Although he’s sometimes annoyingly strident, dismissive and closed-minded, Noam Chomsky has a brilliant mind. Listen to him talk about technology, politics and economics, and learn something new.

Close the Loopholes and End the Anti-Tax Rhetoric: While money and media attention is focused on right-wing groups trying to drown government in a bathtub, a group of Canadians says enough is enough, and wants unfair loopholes in the tax system closed. Trudeau was listening, but he’s now wavering.

Some Small Victories in the Fight Against Climate Change: It may be hopeless, but most of us are still driven to do what we can — what Joanna Macy calls “holding actions” — to delay and obstruct the worst environmental damages being wreaked in our own communities. Locally here there have been some small successes: The proposed construction of the Lelu Island LNG plant (that I wrote about in this short story) has been abandoned. Another LNG plant proposed for construction near Prince Rupert has likewise been abandoned. Here on Bowen Island we beat back a proposal for logging 28% of the island, forwarded as “non-negotiable” by a provincial crown corporation, through a massive letter-writing campaign and a planned 1000-person demonstration. And there are increasing signs that the gargantuan Site C hydro power plant may be stopped dead in its tracks — the independent consultants cite many reasons it is non-viable and wrong-headed, and the former head of BC Hydro wants it stopped. Still, as Vancouverite Bill Rees explains, these are just tiny, temporary wins: “Accelerated hydrocarbon development, better pipeline regulations and improved navigational aids for tanker traffic don’t cut it as sustainable development in a world that should be abandoning fossil fuels“.


FUN AND INSPIRATION


Image by Lloyd & Vicki Atkins, Vancouver BC, via CBC, with the caption “The two most overlooked virtues are patience and wisdom.”

If We Could See Inside Each Other’s Hearts and Minds: Then maybe instead of anger, fear, and sorrow, we’d feel compassion, appreciation, and connection.

The Littlest Eagle: In Sydney BC, a baby red-tailed hawk dropped into a Bald Eagle nest as food for the eaglets, decided it was home, and now acts like an eagle, and is fed by its now surrogate parents.

Mark Knopfler, Guitar Teacher: The master of the instrument jams a lifetime of key learnings about guitars into a 15-minute video.

Bringing Up Your Parents: Allegra Goodman’s brilliant short story cuts to the heart of the dance between well-meaning parents still trying to grow up themselves, and their adult children trying to make their own lives.

Albatrosses Learning to Fly: All self-taught, by trial and error, until they finally succeed, and then they spend most of the rest of their lives airborne.

More Alike Than We Think: Alike, a short animated film on conformity and courage from a Spanish cinematography team.

Casual Love: Carsie Blanton expounds, with incisiveness and humour, on the value of loving many people and not making a big deal about it. Thanks to Tree for the link.

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?: Evidence that this modern technology preys on social anxiety and exacerbates mental illness.

The Complex Story of Julian Assange: The larger-than-life wikileaks founder shows some disturbing personal traits, though given what he’s gone through, perhaps a little paranoia is understandable.

Generation Désenchantée: French pop superstar Mylène Farmer leads a crowd of 81,000 young people in her protest-song anthem, a paean to the generations we’ve screwed out of a future. And then, six minutes in, she stops singing, turns the mics on them, and lets them carry it. Gave me goose bumps. Translation of lyrics for non-francophones.


THOUGHTS OF THE QUARTER


New Yorker cartoon “Luggage Reunion” by David Sipress

“There is no real magic in the world. Only love. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.”
— Russell Lewis (Endeavour Morse)

“While companies rarely say so explicitly, in practice they often want employees who can be let go easily and with little fuss, employees who do not expect long-term commitments from their employer. But, like employment, loyalty is a two-way street – making jobs short-term, commitment-free enterprises leads to workers who view temporary work contracts as also desirable. You start hiring job-quitters. A good job used to be one with a good salary, benefits, etc. Now, it’s one that prepares you for your next job.”
— Ilana Gershon, “Down & Out in the New Economy” (thanks to Ben Collver for the link)

“No matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough… When it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination… [Likely near-future scenarios include] large-scale heat death… permanent extreme drought and famine… climate plagues [when polar melting unleashes frozen, fast-mutating diseases from which we have no immunity]… unbreathable air, smog that suffocates millions… perpetual war [over scarce resources], violence baked into heat… permanent economic collapse… and poisoned oceans.”
— David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (thanks to Tree for the link)

 

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 3 Comments

We Have No Choice


 New Yorker cartoon by the late Charles Barsotti

“Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on!”
– Stephen Stills

My friend Nancy White just wrote an article lamenting the loss of thoughtful asynchronous communication — the modern equivalent of the longhand letter. There is seemingly no time anymore to engage in thoughtful back-and-forth online discussions over an extended period of time on interesting and important (but not urgent) subjects, often with people we respect and value as sounding boards but have never met in person.

Nancy will probably not like my response to this, which is in essence that we have no choice over what we do or don’t do, so we shouldn’t mourn the loss, or blame ourselves (or others) for what is happening around us — or hope for, expect, or even agitate for improvements.

“It’s going to take a major shift in thinking [to improve things]”, writes the author of the article in Fast Company that inspired Nancy’s article. But let’s be real — there isn’t going to be and never has been a “major shift in thinking” of the type needed to avoid the global collapse of our industrial economic system, runaway climate change, or any of the other dangerous trajectories we are now on. Our thinking is biologically and culturally conditioned; it is beyond our control. I may change my personal beliefs on some subject, but only if my past conditioning has been to challenge what I currently believe, and if the change is consistent with what I’ve been conditioned to believe anyway. That “re-conditioned” change in my beliefs is inevitably going to happen, or not, and has nothing to do with what is “needed” at any scale. We have no control over our “thinking”, so we cannot “shift” it, especially at any scale like an organization or entire culture.

Change in beliefs and behaviours — that is, cultural change — occurs only when a generation passes the torch to another and shuts up or dies. Changes in attitudes, and hence laws and actions, about slavery, the equality of women, LGBT rights, the social acceptability of smoking and drinking, and other issues happened — generally slowly over several generations — because younger generations were differently conditioned than their forebears. They didn’t grow up thinking that slavery was acceptable or economically necessary, that women were inferior, that LGBT people were dangerous or mentally ill, that tobacco was healthy and alcohol inevitably socially ruinous, as previous generations had been indoctrinated to believe.

For the same reasons, we have seen no such welcome changes in our beliefs and behaviours related to (just a few examples here) our toxic diet, our insane faith in GDP and economic growth as a “good”, our horrific, condoned treatment of farmed animals, our reliance on pharmacological and chemical treatment of illness instead of prevention and self-management, our utterly unwarranted belief in the superiority of institutional schooling, our willingness to spend trillions waging foreign wars, or our disrespect for those providing and advocating government services and regulations that might alleviate the obscene inequality of wealth that is tearing apart our social fabric.

If our civilization and our habitable planet survive long enough, we might see such changes in coming generations — younger citizens’ attitudes towards them are largely untrammelled (so far anyway) by the blindness and propaganda that formed our attitudes on these matters, and which perpetuate the resultant tragic current ills.

We are conditioned by our bodies, our culture and our environment, and we cannot think or do otherwise than what that conditioning causes us to think and do. Biologists are now beginning to find compelling evidence that there is no “self” — nothing in the brain or elsewhere that constitutes “conscious” “us” — and that “we” don’t actually make decisions (the neurological activity in the brain that purportedly represents the decision-making actually occurs after we’ve already started to implement the decision, and all the brain is doing is an after-the-fact rationalization of what we’ve been conditioned to do, as being somehow “our” thought-out decision).

That is not to say we’re automatons. It’s worse than that — “we” don’t exist at all. The play of life and all its apparent creatures and elements and environments goes on not automatically but improvisationally, continually adapting to the changes of the moment in amazingly creative and utterly unpredictable ways. But “we” have nothing to do with it. Our belief in individual control, free will, agency and choice is an illusion, or more accurately the mental delusion of a brain obsessed with finding patterns and making meaning (with the best of intention to advance our survival), where there is actually none. Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on. 

So getting back to Nancy’s article: Is “focus and balance” of reflective time and thoughtful asynchronous communication actually something “companies need to protect in order to be successful”? And if so, what if anything can be done to restore it?

In the context I have tried to outline here, these questions have no answers. Companies and the complex billions of influencers (human and otherwise) that affect their success will do what they will do, what they are conditioned to do; they have no other choice. We cannot predict their success any more than the grossly overpaid “leaders” that take unwarranted credit for it (and get unwarranted blame when it fails) can influence that success. What we do know is that humans are conditioned (it’s an evolutionary success factor) to do our best to help others we are in contact with — unless that conditioning is overridden by conditioning to fiercely compete or to exploit (which it often is in larger organizations, organizations that, as explained in The Corporation tend to become more and more psychopathic as they get larger, and start to condition such behaviour in their “leaders”).

It doesn’t take much cultural anthropology to discover that (not-too-large) organizations whose people are unrestricted in their freedom to do their best to help those close to them (colleagues, customers etc.) almost inevitably “succeed” no matter how you define that term. Exceptional “leaders” are unnecessary, as are mission statements, strategic plans, goals, roles, sophisticated technologies and processes — in fact these are all usually a waste of time and money, and a distraction from the essential work of people on the front lines doing their best (in spite of these management-mandated obstructions), through “workarounds”.

Communities that are similarly unrestricted do likewise, though nowadays we have more or less obliterated true communities, unwittingly, as we tried to do our beleaguered best to help our families survive the economic and social brutality of modern industrial civilization culture, leaving us no time at all to nurture community. No one is to blame for this; this is the game of life playing itself out, with an inevitable and unfortunate end in the cards for what we have built up in this culture, leading to what is likely to be a long period of misery for generations until the collapse is complete and some new temporary equilibrium begins. To change this we would have to smash the systems, and we can’t, and won’t. They won’t last much longer anyway.

I wrote many years ago, when I still believed individuals had agency to change organizations and cultures, that the only way knowledge truly gets “transferred” or exchanged is through one-on-one iterative conversations (and demonstrations) between people with shared values, on subjects they have knowledge about (know-how, know-what or know-who), and care about. I said this sacrilege as one of the founders of, and early “thought leaders” in, the field of “knowledge management”, charged with increasing “organizational knowledge” (whatever that means) through online tools and repositories. The statement in bold above is still just as true today. We can’t change human nature.

Asynchronous communication (thoughtful back-and-forth online discussions over an extended period of time) is a feeble attempt to achieve this exchange of knowledge and understanding without face-to-face contact. The challenge with it is that even face-to-face conversations are becoming ever-more fragmented and incoherent. The chaos of the modern uncaring corporation prevents trust from developing, encourages rapid turnover, and makes long-term thinking impossible (and largely irrelevant). So we are less likely to care, to share values, to have shared context, or to have a useful coherent history to impart to others in our organizations. We also have less and less experience with extended, deep, probing, intellectually challenging oral discussions with others, since our attention is increasingly fragmented and our communications increasingly short, online, and one-way. We have endless distractions, and we tolerate them because they make us feel important.

So here I’ll make another outrageous statement: Adulthood is the process of pretending to know, to have our act together, and to be in control of ourselves. Children wonder at how adults can pull this off, and wonder if it’s just a game, because there is so much evidence that it is just pretence. Children know that nothing is under control, that nobody really knows anything, and that to the individual everything is kind of terrifying. It is a game, a con, one that we increasingly come to believe and accept as truth mainly because everyone around us is pretending too, so it seems humiliating and foolish and nonsensical to go on believing that it’s just pretence. Adults fool each other into actually “buying” the life-long relentless role-playing as being, somehow, who they really are. Growing up is just buying the con, for life.

So things that make us feel important — appreciated and paid attention to — like the mountain of distractions sent online “to us” (by email, on Facebook, on Slack, through Sharepoint, etc.) help us with the pretence that we’re important, in control, knowledgeable, connected. And it’s easier to keep up the pretence online than face-to-face or even by telephone — it’s like a little mask between us and the rest of the seemingly-in-control world.

The combination of the ever-accelerating stress of trying to make ends meet (for the 99% anyway) and the ever-increasing firehose of seemingly-urgent distractions that make us feel important, in control, knowledgable and connected, mean that there is less and less time for real communication (“knowledge exchange”).

It’s also true, I think, that time has made us a bit cynical of the enduring value of thoughtful back-and-forth discussions over an extended period of time — whether online or face-to-face. Why exert so much energy to carry on a deep conversation, no matter how interesting or apparently important the subject, when it’s unlikely anything substantial or enduring will come out of it anyway? In writing the many thousands of pages of this blog over 14+ years, I’ve had many conversations, both online and face-to-face, but looking at the “Best 58 posts” on my sidebar, more than three times as many of them were inspired by reading books or articles (or in a few cases, by watching long, substantial videos) as were inspired or informed by asynchronous conversations. That’s pretty sobering, since my blog is basically a record of what I’ve learned over those 14+ years.

Those books and articles and videos have utterly changed my worldview, and modestly changed my behaviour as well. But they came at the right time, when I was ready for their messages. Why was I ready? Was it due to conversations I’d had previously? Mostly not, though in a few cases the books or articles or videos were brought to my attention during a conversation in one medium or another.

Of course I have had no control over any of this. I am by nature intellectually curious, especially about culture, human nature and how the world really works. Once my life and career allowed time for me to explore these subjects in more detail, it was pretty inevitable I would end up taking in these books, articles and videos. They’re very complex and challenging issues to try to deal with satisfactorily in conversations, especially online.

So I’m less distressed than Nancy at the decline in the number of conversations, especially asynchronous ones, I’ve had over the last few years. There is, it seems to me, less and less that is really important to say.

It’s not like I really know anything anyway. It’s kind of nice not having to pretend anymore that I do. Not that I have any choice in the matter.

 

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 17 Comments

The Worst Idea of All Time: Act 1

[SCENE: The scene is sometime in the future, in a large meeting room, looking dusty and shabby from disuse. There are a dozen people in ragged, patched clothes milling around, seemingly setting up the room for a meeting. At the front of the room is a white board on which is written in large block letters “SO NOW WHAT?”

A man dressed in a polo shirt with coloured patches all over it, SKIP, ends a brief sidebar discussion with his colleague LAURIE, who wears a black t-shirt on which the words “no thing apart — only this” is emblazoned. A woman moves to the front of the circle to speak.]

CHANEL: Welcome colleagues! [pause] So — now what? [looking at white board]. Three times we have tried to get this plant up and running again, and three times we have failed. This may be our last chance to get the internet back up and running again in this part of the world at least.

In a moment I’m going to introduce our guests, but first, for everyone, I’m going to ask Emily to summarize the current predicament we are facing.

EMILY: Thanks. Hi everyone. What we’ve been trying to do here is greatly simplify the supply chains involved in producing the components for the three main elements of internet infrastructure: network technology, server technology, and end-user technology. Some of you may know that, before the so called “Endless Recession” began, supplies for this equipment came from over 20 different countries and involved vast amounts of transportation for production, assembly and distribution. [shows slide:]

As we now realize, this kind of complexity no longer works in our shattered economy. With currency collapse and the end of liquidity of capital, almost nothing is moving beyond local levels: the airlines and shipping lines we depended on are all grounded due to lack of fuel and reliable, stable currency for business.

So what we’ve been trying to do is shrink this map so that everything essential to the production of internet equipment is locally sourced and produced. The problem is that this seems impossible to do. This system is so complex and there are so many players involved that our logistics people say it could take 3 decades to accomplish this, even just to get the internet and existing computers and servers functioning at a basic level in this country’s major cities. Hence our theme for today: “So now what?”

KAREN: Chanel has asked me to recap the economic and political context in which we’re trying to achieve this objective. As you know, the government announced last week that we have reached the third level of collapse in the Orlov model, specifically level 3.2 [shows slide:]

This has created all kinds of problems in trying to establish supply contracts, finance purchases, power our generators, pay our people, and get government support. It looks as if our insolvent regional government is going to be dissolved next week and, since privatization hasn’t helped keep these services running, the new local community co-ops are going to be charged with operating them, and with taking over the equipment to do so.

We are fortunate, so far anyway, that we here have been spared the climate crises that have made life miserable in so many places, but I have to tell you with no immediate money for salaries and food, and no expertise trying to run a very complex operation like this, I have no idea where to even start trying to get the supplies we need to get this plant operating, or even whether if we do so, the other organizations downstream needed to do their part will be able to make our work worthwhile.

If something doesn’t get better soon, we’re just going to have to give up and focus on our and our families’ immediate needs at home.

CHANEL: So that’s where we stand. Our guests aren’t promising us any solutions, but they have been very successful getting plants that produce more local goods, like textiles and foods, up and running again. So we thought we’d invite them to tell us what they’ve been doing. And they’re doing this for free, so we thank them for coming.

LAURIE: Thank you for inviting us.

We’re going to start by telling you a story. It’s about a tribe in the jungles of Brasil that is thriving, since the government of that country went bankrupt and the so-called “development” of the Amazon rainforest where they live, has ceased. Skip?

[slides showing the life of an Amazon tribe appear on the screen as Skip talks]

SKIP: So this tribe has about 20 families in it, about 100 people in all. They appear to have no abstract language, no sense or understanding of time, quantities, exchange or personal identity. They seem to have what scientists call a “hive mind” — no sense of themselves as separate from the rest of the tribe, the rest of their ecosystem’s life, or even from the place where they live. But they’re not mindless zombies — they seem to have lots of fun, they’re amazingly healthy, they work very little since local food is still abundant and the climate is, for now, ideal for them, and they seemingly have no hierarchy or separation of duties.

So they are entirely, spontaneously, self-organizing. And entirely accepting of whatever happens. They seem incapable of anger, fear, or sadness. And completely incapable of taking instruction, or giving it for that matter. I would be inclined to say they live completely in the present, except they don’t appear to have any sense of time. It’s more like they live outside of time.

As crazy as it may seem, what we have found to work in stage 3 collapse environments like the ones we’ve been working with, is to emulate their way of living, which apparently follows two rules [he pulls down a flip-chart to display this]:


The Irreducibility of Complexity: The Two Rules

1. Everyone in the group should do whatever they want.

2. The group should be allowed to self-organize without intervention or direction.


[noises of surprise and modest outrage are heard from the attendees]

JOSH: That’s ridiculous. That’s anarchy. Where exactly have you implemented this preposterous scheme?

LAURIE: We haven’t implemented it. We have presented this possibility to 36 organizations and communities. Gradually, 28 of them have started operating according to these rules. Some of them seemed much more hopeless than yours. After one year, 26 — 93% — of them are still operating, and 60% report that their success has been “far beyond what had been expected”. That compares to survival and success rates of 35% and 5% respectively in all organizations in this country. There are 64 additional organizations that are now looking at this way of operating, and once they’ve been at it for a year or more we’ll update the data.

What may surprise you even more is that the proportion of people who say they “enjoy” working for these organizations is 85%, versus 6% in other organizations in the country. Given how grim our economy is, this is an astonishing result. And this way of operating not our wisdom. We’ll leave you the film about the Brasilian tribe; it’s their simple wisdom, honed over at least 30,000 years.

JOSH: So how exactly does this work? What exactly does “do whatever you want” mean? How does such an organization deal with slackers, thieves, and idiots?

SKIP: It lets them be, unless and until the group spontaneously ousts them. There are no meetings, no “teams”, no instituted mission statements, goals, roles or processes. The organization just evolves, like an indigenous community, everyone doing their best, trying to solve the needs of citizens, colleagues and customers as best they can. We’ll leave you the contact information for all of the organizations that are doing this, and you can choose your own sample and confirm with them. It is impossible to say how or why it works, but it does.

LAURIE: And this is pretty much all we have to offer you. We’re not consultants. We don’t have books or implementation plans or workshops. We’ve told you everything. You can try it, or not. It’s up to you. I warn you it’s both easier and harder than it seems.

SKIP: We’ve been studying everything we can find on this tribe, and if you think these rules are crazy, looking deeper we’re finding things about them that are even more bizarre. When you watch the film you’ll see them discuss what we have called in English “The Three Conceits” — conceit in the sense of “things conceived of”, or underlying principles or ultimate truths about life and existence. We’ve watched how they manifest them and it’s mind-blowing.

[he pulls down another flip-chart that reads:]


The Three Conceits:

1. Nothing matters.

2. To the individual, what seemingly matters is resolving the apparent sense of loss that accompanied the feeling of becoming a separate individual that arose in infancy.

3. To those in love, while that lasts, love is all that matters.


So they seem to essentially believe that “self-consciousness” isn’t a blessing or sign of higher intelligence but a curse, an illness that afflicts all of their people in early childhood, a tragedy that needs to be healed over a lifetime. When we asked them whether there is actually a cure for this “curse”, they simply restate the First Conceit. They also seem to see love as a form of delightful but transient insanity, to be cherished but not clung to.

They seem to live in a sense of total acceptance and connection. They witness what we would call death, suffering, atrocities committed by other tribes or by the government, but they seem unmoved by any of it — not insensitive, but rather completely accepting, not taking it personally, as if it’s not actually happening to any one. It’s as if they have no individual personalities at all, and even the tribe as a whole shares its “collective” personality with everything and every creature around it. They are bursting with joy, with an almost childlike wonder at everything. My guess is that if it weren’t for their extreme isolation, they would have been wiped out by others by now, because there is no fight in them, no sense of possession, property, or rights.

But can you imagine what our civilization might be like if we all lived their way? No competitiveness, no personal property, no pride of ownership, no personal grief or rage or jealousy or shame or any of the other emotions that tear us apart and set us against each other?

JOSH: Yeah, I can imagine it. The competitors who do have these survival instincts and emotions would wipe the fools out in no time. They’re living in a idealistic dream.

LAURIE: Perhaps. They seem to believe it is we who are living in a dream, a hallucination of fear and separateness and anxiety that has no basis in their reality. So they may well be exterminated. But we have built our civilization on these adversarial, fearful, unaccepting foundations, and if you look around at what it has now wrought, it looks pretty shaky, unsustainable, and almost unbelievably naive and foolish. The idea of perpetual growth, the idea that vicious competition works better than cooperation, the idea that we are separate from and better than and in control of our ecosystems and everything in them — these are truly insane ideas, yet they dominate our actions and have brought us to the brink of global collapse.

At the same time, if you look at this tribe, they continue to thrive after 30,000 years living a way that is inconceivably foreign to us. Maybe it’s time to see if they have some answers that might guide us as we head into what appears a perilous future.

CHANEL: I have a question. If this tribe is so successful, why aren’t there millions of them, rather than just 100?

SKIP: That’s a mystery we haven’t figured out. They clearly don’t have any birth-control, and they seem to have a lot of sex, but somehow the metabolism of the females of the tribe seems to be such that they only get pregnant often enough to sustain their population at its current level. It seems very fragile — an infectious disease or an attack by another tribe or, at one time, a proposed logging or mining operation — would seemingly be the end of them. I’m very worried about that, but they don’t seem to be.

EMILY: Your chart with the two rules has the subtitle “The Irreducibility of Complexity” — what exactly does that mean?

LAURIE: That’s another mystery. The tribe has a song, that all of them learn to sing at a young age — in fact the whole language seems more like songs than language, since it appears not to have tenses or syntax or sentence structure. When we asked them what the song “meant” they just reiterated the First Conceit. When we asked them what it was about they used this series of hand gestures that was absolutely magical to witness;

[he gestures, his arms moving in a series of circles and spirals]

and they all “know” these gestures, as if it were a tribal dance. The gestures include something like the ragged “enso” circle design on my shirt, which also appears in some of their art. Although we cannot know for sure, these gestures would seem to suggest that their world is irreducibly complex — that it cannot be known or controlled or reduced, but is in every sense complete, timeless and perfect. They have no artifacts, no tools or mechanical devices, as if such fragile contrivances, being merely complicated, were an affront to natural laws. That acceptance seems to underlie their rules and conceits, their whole way of being.

KAREN: I have to say, as fascinating as all this is, I think what you have proposed might go down in the history of organizational and community management as the worst idea of all time.

SKIP: Yes, it’s actually closer to “unmanagement”. If you have other ideas that have not been tried, you might want to try them first. The organizations and communities that are using this had pretty much run out of other ideas. Fortunately, it seems.

LAURIE: I love the idea of this being “the worst idea of all time”. We’ve been looking for a title for this presentation, and for the second film about the tribe, which delves a bit more into the three conceits. Do you mind if we use it?

KAREN: Only if it doesn’t work — or if you don’t credit me for it.

LAURIE: Deal!

[Chanel has a brief, inaudible conversation with one of the other attendees]

CHANEL: I’m told that it’s lunch time, and that soup’s ready. We’re in recess until one.

[END OF ACT ONE]

[Author’s Notes: This start-of-a-play was inspired by a lucid dream I had a couple of weeks ago, in which the precise words “the irreducibility of complexity”, and the two rules and the three conceits noted above, were stated. The top image is from the brilliant and generous artist Geralt at Pixabay, CC0. The map is from Sourcemap, and the Orlov Model is based on Dmitry Orlov’s Five Stages of Collapse. Other than the “enso” circle, none of these images appeared in my dream.]

Posted in Creative Works | Comments Off on The Worst Idea of All Time: Act 1

The Hanged Man

When I was younger, two Tarot Cards turned up repeatedly in readings done for me: The Hanged Man, and the Fool. The Hanged Man was interpreted at the time as a sign that I was destined for a life of self-sacrifice, and possibly asceticism. This explanation seemed implausible, and while my youth was not particularly happy, I have in fact been blessed all my life with great fortune, and whatever struggles I have faced have been largely of my own doing.

In more recent years, the Hanged Man has not featured in the rare readings I have had done, or done for myself.

Until last week that is, when, returning from a short trip to Wales (mostly to attend a meeting about non-duality, but also to visit with my remarkable Welsh family, and to hike in the Brecon Beacons with my friend Ben Brangwyn), I decided to ask the Tarot: Where do I go from here, now that I have come to accept the ‘hopeless’ message of radical non-duality?

I did a three-card (past/present/future) spread, and there, in the all-important future spot, was my old friend the Hanged Man. Here’s what the interpretation was this time:

A man hangs by his ankle from a T shaped tree. The calm expression on his face and the fact that his hands are hidden behind his back indicate that he is not struggling; he has chosen to do this to gain enlightenment.

The Hanged Man in your future indicates that your situation will best be improved by letting go. This may mean that your struggle to manipulate and control things may make your situation worse. The action you should take in this case is to choose to be passive. If you relax and let events unfold, rather than second-guessing others and their motivations, you will discover the truth. The Hanged Man may indicate that you should do the opposite of what would be expected of you.

This is why I love the Tarot, and, in general, the genius of randomness.

Tarot card in the public domain, from wikimedia.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

Fourth Composition

I’m pleased to present my fourth composition, entitled Konpasition. Once again it’s entirely original (no loops, no samples). This one was inspired by the rhythms of Haitian Konpa or Compas music (formerly called Zouk, sometimes called Gouyad though that is mainly the accompanying dance style). The modern masters of the genre are T-Vice and Harmonik.

For those subscribing to my blog posts via feed, since you won’t see the Soundcloud graphic above, here is a link to all four compositions in my first ‘EP’:

Dave Pollard Untitled EP:

  1. Konpasition
  2. What the Swallow Told Me
  3. The Silent Journey
  4. The Paraglider
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Why We Eat So Badly (and No One Is To Blame)


When I came to appreciate how complex systems work, it enabled me to take a more dispassionate and sympathetic look at the myriad of problems and predicaments facing us. The downside of this was the realization that predicaments can’t be fixed, period, no matter how brilliantly designed, elegant and popular our ‘solutions’ might appear. The best one can do is to learn, probe, experiment and adapt. The upside is that I no longer waste energy hoping and striving for what is beyond my personal, and our collective, control, and no longer feel motivated to assign blame to anyone for the situation — fixing blame is a very human first step in any process leading to a ‘solution’, and when it’s acknowledged that there is no ‘solution’, there is no point in looking for who was to blame.

This is the approach I have brought in recent years to self-management — learning and becoming more aware of what’s happening inside me, physically, intellectually, emotionally and instinctively, so that I am less reactive and so that my actions are better informed than they used to be, and hence probably more useful to others, and to me.

My health self-management journey began in 2006 when I contracted a horrible case of ulcerative colitis as a consequence of my body’s inability to cope with massive chronic stress. At that point I didn’t really understand complexity (I was still, foolishly, bound and determined to reduce the amount of stress in my life, and you probably know how that usually turns out). But nevertheless I, perhaps intuitively, used the only viable approach to dealing with complex systems — learn, probe, experiment, adapt. Through regression analysis I was able to identify precisely which therapies improved my health and which didn’t, and I adapted my lifestyle, as much as possible, to go with what made me healthier. I’ve now been symptom-free for 11 years.

Seven years ago I made the decision to go vegan instead of ‘just’ vegetarian, and again closely monitored my health (I have decades of data on my daily feeling of wellbeing, plus my times for my regular 5k and 10k runs and 3-hour hikes, so I know when my health is off), and have been healthier than I have ever been.

This year I discovered (thanks to friend Mat Hallam-Eames) the non-profit website NutritionFacts.org, which provides a wealth of clinical research and other factual evidence on the connection between nutrition and health (the doctor’s suggested “daily dozen” foods/activities are shown in the graphic above). The evidence suggests that for most (not all) people, a balanced whole plant based diet is healthiest. That means vegan, but more importantly it means weaning yourself off processed foods, especially sugars and oils.

For me, dependent as I was on coconut milk, stevia, Earth Balance (“hippie margarine”), veggie burgers, vegan desserts, frozen convenience foods, and frying in oil, trying to eat even healthier and fulfil the “daily dozen” has proven to be harder than either going vegetarian or going vegan. I have a long way to go — on a typical day, this dedicated vegan manages just 7 of the daily dozen, and that’s 3 more than I averaged just a few months ago. And I thought I was eating healthy!

And that brings me to the point of this article: We eat badly in part because we don’t know better, and in part because eating is both a social activity and a way in which we reward ourselves for coping through another day in this wonderful, terrible, stressful, fucked-up world.

It is easy to blame the pharmaceutical industry, which tells us the way to get better is to take pills instead of preventing ourselves from getting ill in the first place by eating what our bodies are designed to eat. But nutrition is not their bailiwick; their job is to make pills that will make you less ill if you don’t look after your own health.

It is easy to blame doctors, who fail to tell us how vitally important nutrition is to our health, and hence allow us to get sick so they can do what they see their job as being — healing you. But they get almost no training in nutrition in their medical program, which is already exhausting. And because there is no money in research that tells you eating a balanced whole plant food diet will prevent and alleviate many chronic illnesses far better than expensive drugs and endless therapies, there is too little research done, and what is done is not enough to get doctors’ attention (or the media’s, or teachers’, or parents’, or for that matter even nutritionists’ or dieticians’). So everyone is in the dark, when the apparent path to a considerably longer and much healthier life is staring us in the face.

It is easy to blame the processed food and fast food industries, who feed us crap that is bad for us. But they’re giving us what we want — food that tastes good (at least what our taste buds have been conditioned to appreciate as ‘good’), and that is cheap and easy when many are working two jobs and have no time left to cook (or even to learn to cook). Same for the coffee shops, bars and liquor stores. Most people would, quite understandably, wrinkle their noses at the “daily dozen” above — a diet worse than death.

It’s easy to blame grocery stores, who operate on very thin margins and yet still do their best to accommodate the infinite variety of different choices customers demand. It’s not their fault the deli counter is crowded and the produce aisle is empty.

And it’s easy to blame advertisers, product labellers, factory farm operators, politicians who allow food producers to lie and hence endanger consumers’ health, and lawyers who enable them to get away with it. Our economic system, which no one controls, ensures that these roles will continue to be filled even when some walk away when they learn the truth about the consequences of their work.

And of course it’s easy to blame ourselves: For not having will-power, for not managing our time enough to have the energy and to develop the knowledge and skill to make nutritious food delicious. And our parents for not knowing either, so they could pass on this knowledge. And our kids for refusing to eat the nutritious food we try to provide.

But that blame won’t stick either. We eat the foods we eat because we can’t help it. It’s not some kind of moral weakness that has us nibbling french fries and downing diet soft drinks and putting that extra spoonful of sugar in our coffee. It’s a physical and psychological addiction to flavours we have been conditioned all our lives to love, a coping mechanism to reward us for surviving another meeting or another day of stress and anguish and struggle, and a powerful social sharing with others that is as old as our species.

And all of these factors work together brilliantly to ensure that we continue to eat badly, even when we know the cost is to reduce, perhaps by as much as a third, the number of healthy days in our short lives, with the commensurate staggering cost to our mental health, the cost of health care, loss of productivity, and all the costs that flow from them.

This is a predicament. It has no ‘solution’. We are no sooner going to start eating healthy than we are going to reverse global warming. The best we can do is learn, probe, experiment and adapt.

That means becoming a bit more knowledgable and aware of how the food system, and our bodies, work, and what our bodies are telling us, and making small incremental changes that are not self-punishing. But who has the time, money, energy and opportunity to do even this? Very few people. But just as we might start an organic community garden or help decommission a dam or clean up a river or prevent our island from being logged, we can do a few personal, local things that are not too hard, and maybe even fun, that will make things a little better. The combined effect of what Adam Gopnik has called “a thousand small sanities” can add up, though not in ways we can hope to depend on or even anticipate.

Sometimes, it might seem like it’s hopeless, and therefore better not to know. Sometimes, just knowing, just being a little more aware of what is really happening, is enough.

.     .     .     .     .

Postscript: Here are the small, easy steps I’ve taken personally to eat just a little better. I mention them as an example of how to make significant improvements to nutrition and health (in my case, moving on average from 4 to 7 of the “daily dozen” each day) without having to change much, do anything I don’t like, or work hard. I don’t intend them as advice for others (every body is different):

  • Make one of my meals every day a large bowl (or large smoothie glass) of at least 6 different chopped vegetables that I like, with a dip/dressing on the side, sprinkled with ground flax seeds and chopped nuts.
  • Dish of sliced whole fruit once a day; berry/fruit smoothie 3 times a week.
  • Two mugs of green tea a day, with non-GMO erythritol sweetener, non-GMO soy creamer and (first mug each day) 1/3 tsp turmeric.
  • Listening to interesting podcasts or audiobooks while doing my hour/week core and upper body exercises; using my treadmill desk to multitask while doing my four hours/week aerobic exercises.
Posted in How the World Really Works | 1 Comment