Links of the Quarter: December 2019

The stuff in this post is pretty heavy so I thought I’d start off light:

“The reason we know the earth isn’t flat is that if it was, cats would have knocked everything off it by now.” (origin unknown)

cartoon by Scott Metzger from Facebook


cartoon by Michael Leunig

Bill Rees on why collapse is inevitable: The Canadian ecological economist, who has said he expects human population to decline below two billion once the full extent of climate collapse weighs in, explains why renewables will not help prevent collapse (“just the annual increase in demand for electricity far exceeds the entire output of photovoltaic electricity installation in the world”). In a follow-up, he outlines 11 steps that would need to be taken immediately to prevent climate collapse, and acknowledges “It’s not going to happen…Disastrous climate change and energy shortages are near certainties in this century” leading to “global societal collapse”.

The legal system won’t save the planet: DGR explains how the legal system protects mega-polluters and big oil (and the wealthy in general). Doesn’t matter the merits of your argument, money always wins. No surprise there.

Staying with the trouble: The fascinating (but challenging to read) Donna Haraway coins the very useful concept and term “staying with the trouble” to explain how we can keep our wits about us as collapse unfolds. You can download the introduction to her book here. Thanks to Jan Wyllie for the link. Excerpt:

The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response. Mixed-up times are overflowing with both pain and joy—with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killing of ongoingness but also with necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.

Fighting among ourselves: A harsh critique of XR, with, of course, an alternative suggestion. Sigh. Have we forgotten? We need it all. Thanks, I think, to Michael Sliwa for the link.


graphic from XPLANE (click on image to view full size); this is a great tool for presenters! (thanks to Tree Bressen for the link)

Mosquito Fleet’ blocks cargo ship from bringing in pipeline construction supplies: A fleet of kayaks successfully prevented and delayed the import of tar sands pipeline construction materials to the port of Vancouver Washington.

Sistas are doing it for themselves: An Australian women’s choir of abuse survivors finds strength and success in their collective voice.

Global biodiversity map: My new Bowen friend Jennifer Rae Pierce is part of the team that has created this global resource of bioregional reports, initiatives and analyses about local biodiversity.

The benefits of food forests: A short documentary explains how patient, wise, low-intervention land stewardship can provide food while enriching local ecosystems. Thanks to Jae Mather for the link.

Helsinki’s radical solution to homelessness: Give them homes! Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Civics lesson: CIVICUS rates the “state of civil society” in every country in the world. Click on the map tab to start.


another cartoon by Michael Leunig, of course

Facebook allows paid ads full of lies: The rogue elephant of social media has announced that lies paid for by corporate and political interests, even if they are racist and incite violence, will be allowed without intervention or qualification on its pages, creating the greatest propaganda machine in history. Employees are outraged, but management is ignoring them. Mind you, they will intervene to obfuscate the truth if their government friends ask them to. Laws in other countries like Canada also give liars a pass, as the global Liars Club (all of its members old right-wing men) swells with every election.

African swine fever poised to kill half a billion ‘domestic’ pigs: The combination of diversity loss, factory farming and unsanitary farm practices is expected to cost a half billion pigs their lives in the latest monstrous atrocity of industrial agriculture.

Greedy doctors on the verge of toppling Canada’s universal health care system: A legal suit with a ton of money behind it may soon end Canada’s health care system and replace it with a two-tier system where the rich will get privileged care and the rest of the system, like other two-tier systems, will be starved of resources. A ruling in the case is imminent.

Pipeline protesters face 110 years in prison: The two defendants in the sabotage of the Dakota Access Pipeline are currently on trial and face ludicrous prison sentences; a spokesman for the pipeline company wants them “removed from the gene pool”. No damage to living creatures or the environment resulted from the vandalism.

Anyone but the Tories: An impassioned and articulate rant from Jonathan Pie on the eve of what looks from the polls to be an overwhelming election victory for the ghastly Brexit Conservatives.

1600 neglected US dams in ‘high’ danger of collapse: A new study of the US’ neglected and crumbling infrastructure shows lives are imperilled to pay, instead, for tax cuts for the rich.


from Andrea Scandurra (click on image to view full size); thanks to Giovanni Spezzacatena for the link

Five composers one theme: Classical music composer David Bruce and five colleagues rise to the challenge to write a one minute theme for the Chroma Quintet, based on a very strange but familiar set of cues. A fascinating look into the art of composition.

A feast of seals, seabirds and sea-lions: My friend Bob Turner films a breathtaking feast near my home at the site of the annual herring spawn.

Runners who get on your nerves: A very funny New Yorker cartoon lampoons jogging stereotypes. I’m the second one. The cartoonist, Teresa Burns Parkhurst, also wryly pokes fun at people (like me) who wait too long to clean their car.

How to sound like Debussy: Toronto classical composer/performer Nahre Sol analyzes and then brilliantly spoofs the ‘sound’ of classical composers including Debussy and Rachmaninoff.

Making pop music interesting: Composer Adam Neely ‘rearranges’ the pop hit Hello using more complex chord progressions and instrumentation.


Reamed up the third eye: The always-inspiring Caitlin Johnstone advises us to remember “that moment of clarity” (what radical non-duality would call a “glimpse”), and realize “It was the most real moment of your entire life.” Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

Jack Kerouac’s non-duality letter to his ex-wife (thanks to Jeff at Night Sky Sangha for the link):

I have lots of things to teach you now,
in case we ever meet,
concerning the message that was transmitted to me
under a pine tree in North Carolina
on a cold winter moonlit night.

It said that Nothing Ever Happened, so don’t worry.
It’s all like a dream.
Everything is ecstasy, inside.
We just don’t know it because of our thinking-minds.
But in our true blissful essence of mind is known
that everything is alright forever and forever and forever.
Close your eyes,
let your hands and nerve-ends drop,
stop breathing for 3 seconds,
listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world,
and you will remember the lesson you forgot,
which was taught in immense milky ways
of cloudy innumerable worlds
long ago and not even at all.
It is all one vast awakened thing.
I call it the golden eternity.
It is perfect.
We were never really born,
we will never really die.
It has nothing to do with the imaginary idea
of a personal self,
other selves,
many selves everywhere,
or one universal self.
Self is only an idea, a mortal idea.
That which passes through everything, is one thing.
It’s a dream already ended.
There’s nothing from staring at mountains months on end.
They never show any expression,
they are like empty space.
Do you think the emptiness of space will ever crumble away.
Mountains will crumble, but the emptiness of space,
which is the one universal essence of mind,
the one vast awakenerhood,
empty and awake,
will never crumble away because it was never born.

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.


(Caution — the description below may be triggering to some readers.)
Chris Chinn Facebook post about the photo above: 
On the 2nd of July 1942, in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich the children of Lidice were taken to the Gestapo in Łódź. 13 were selected for “Germification”, the remaining 82 were then taken away and gassed. The artist Marie Uchytilová spent 20 years making this bronze sculpture based on details of the missing children supplied by surviving mothers. Her husband completed it after her death. Don’t look away. This is where fascism leads. This is how all extremism works. It never stops with just someone else. Whatever your complaints about democracy today, it is not this. Whichever voice screams or whispers to you that democracy is flawed, corrupt, weak, ineffective, a danger to your way of life. Remember this. Remember what democracy does give you, and realise what you actually have to lose.

From Nate Hagens & Rob Mielcarski:

The developed world is using finance to enable the extraction of things we couldn’t otherwise afford to extract to produce things we otherwise couldn’t afford to consume…

All 8 billion of us owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains; 6 billion of us also owe our existence to nitrogen fertilizer created from natural gas by Haber-Bosch factories. [3/4 of the planet’s food production depends on fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides produced by this carbon-intensive process to replace depleted soils; 1/2 of all the nitrogen in human bodies was produced using this process: wikipedia]

From 45 — yes, verbatim, he actually said this:

Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are — nuclear is so powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right, who would have thought? — but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us, this is horrible.

From Ali Smith, the introduction to her new book Spring (caution — contains words that some may find triggering; to read full size click on the image):

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

Understanding Collapse: A Physical Systems View

image from the good folks at Pixabay CC0 (thanks Guillaume Preat)

While my belief in the inevitability of civilization’s collapse in this century is rooted in my study of complexity science and a commensurate appreciation of how change happens in complex systems, this is almost impossible to convey convincingly to those who haven’t studied and thought about complexity.

I don’t expect readers (or friends or loved ones) to have the interest and time to study complexity, so I often end up rather sheepishly just saying: If you take the time to study complexity science, you will understand how change happens and why it won’t happen in time to prevent civilization’s collapse. Not very compelling. Perhaps even annoying.

Thanks to a recent exchange with collapse podcaster Sam Mitchell, I’ve learned about a novel approach to explaining the inevitability of collapse using the metaphor of “super-organism” postulated by atmospheric physicist Tim Garrett and economist and Oil Drum/Post Carbon Institute editor Nate Hagens.

While Tim and Nate use the super-organism metaphor to represent global human civilization, my sense is that it would be even more apt to expand it to describe the entire organism of the living earth, what James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis affectionately if romantically call Gaia. I believe we are, in fact, inseparable from all-life-on-earth and our belief that we are separate is an illusion, a trick of our too-smart-for-our-own-good brains.

So with that expansion, let me describe this metaphor and how it might, drawing on Tim’s and Nate’s arguments, explain why the predicament of runaway climate change and the sixth great extinction is so intractable. (Please note that this is my elaboration of Tim’s and Nate’s metaphor, not how they have described it.):

  1. Over several billion years, just five physical elements have co-evolved to create what we call Gaia; together they are the ‘whole system’ that has produced everything that has ever happened on this planet:
    • the earth itself, five billion years old, with its soils and raw materials, volcanic eruptions and shifting tectonics
    • the earth’s environments (atmosphere, hydrosphere etc)
    • the ever-changing myriad of living creatures (all-life-on-earth)
    • the solar radiation that reaches and warms the earth and provides most of its energy
    • the occasional extra-system visitors (meteorites and other bodies that have impacted the earth, altered the planet’s spin etc)
  2. Gaia is of course a massively complex system, but when we view it as a single super “organism” we can also see it as amazingly simple — analogous to a single creature on a rock in a Petri dish under a heat lamp.
  3. From this perspective we can see that Gaia is really inseparable. As Stephen Jay Gould (in Full House) and Richard Lewontin (in The Triple Helix) have explained, the complexity of the interdependence between all the living creatures in the organism, the earth on which they live and the atmosphere in which they live is such that any analysis that attributes separate qualities to ‘parts’ of Gaia will be hopelessly flawed and possibly dangerously simplistic. Gaia is, and acts as, One living creature.
  4. It pretty much evolves by itself. In this part of the universe (unless you believe in UFOs), it’s the only game in town. It’s recently evolved into a much more complex form thanks to its ‘learned’ ability to stabilize its atmosphere, which has really worked well over the past 10-20 millennia, and thanks to the absence of any large external bodies hitting it, the absence of major eruptions within its crust affecting its atmosphere, and the absence of major anomalies in solar radiation. It’s gone through countless expansions and contractions of complexity, but the recent stability has greatly reduced the number and severity of collapses (extinctions) of its life-mass, greatly increasing its diversity and complexity.
  5. But at some point about 10-20 millennia ago, it became dysfunctional. Somehow* a part of it became ‘disconnected’ from the rest of Gaia and began to behave in ways insensitive to and damaging to the whole organism. As every part of the organism is utterly interdependent, this ‘disconnected’ part quickly became dis-eased and unhealthy, and in its desperate attempt to survive ‘independently’ it has dug into the core of the earth and exhausted the mineral resources the entire organism depends on, and spewed the wastes from this frantic activity into the atmosphere. So now the earth is depleted, the atmosphere is poisoned, and the entire organism is in a state of exhaustion and collapse that it inadvertently brought upon itself. And there is nothing left to mine and nowhere else to put the waste poisons the now-cancer-ridden organism continues to emit.
  6. Absurdly, the dysfunctional part of the organism acts as if it believes it can ‘save’ itself and the entire organism, either by continuing to accelerate its dysfunctional behaviour slightly differently, or by somehow ‘reforming’ itself and the entire organism, or by escaping Gaia entirely. Such is the delusion of disconnection. Clearly, this cannot end well. Still, it is in the nature of the organism to continue to try to heal itself and restore equilibrium; it cannot do otherwise. It limps along, immiserated by its now-massive, bloated and useless cancerous part. Somehow it knows its self-healing is not working very effectively this time, and that this collapse, this extinction, will be much more severe than any that it can ‘remember’.

Yes, I know this metaphor is a bit strained, but I think it’s useful, and better than telling readers that if they study complex systems they’ll understand the inevitability of near-term (this century) civilizational and ecological collapse. I also like that it doesn’t place humans apart or in apposition to the rest of life on earth, the rest of the Gaia organism. No one is to blame. We are all One. We are all doing our best, what we’ve been conditioned to do for a billion years, the only thing we can do.

It may seem strange to take individual people, culture, economics, politics, technology and other factors out of the equation about what the future might hold in store, but Tim makes a compelling case that “Our personal feelings aside, we are just sacks of matter that enable electrical and fluid flows down potential gradients. It sure has been hard for neuroscientists to find any evidence for free will; so perhaps people are really no different than any other physical system.”

Tim says that our current situation is a “double-bind“: One of two things will happen (again this is my elaboration of Tim’s conclusion, not his description):

  1. Human civilization collapses soon, economically/financially, politically, socially: Resource consumption and emissions drastically fall, human population plunges, the climate convulses but does not reach the runaway collapse stage, and the sixth great extinction slows and ends. Over millennia, the equilibrium of Gaia is restored.
  2. Human civilization continues to grow at or near a “business as usual” trajectory: CO2e concentrations reach 1000 ppm, and average surface temperatures rise 6-12ºC or more, which cannot support human or much other life, so human civilization collapses anyway; runaway climate change accelerates the sixth great extinction and eliminates all but the simplest life forms, and the equilibrium of Gaia either takes many more millennia to stabilize and slowly recover, or the climate is ‘permanently’ changed to a Venus-like lifeless state.

The end-game, as far as humans and our civilization is concerned, is pretty much the same. And we humans, just a part of ailing Gaia, can do nothing to choose between these equally-awful alternatives. We can’t even plan or prepare for this, because we cannot possibly predict precisely how and when this will all play out; we can only know how it will end.

What if there’s nothing we can do? That’s the question I’m starting to think about now. Like a passenger in a vehicle skidding off the edge of a huge cliff, what do you do when nothing you can do will make any difference?

My thoughts on that, coming soon.


* Ajit Varki has called this dysfunctional disconnection the Mind Over Reality Transition, that seemingly occurred uniquely in the human species as our brains evolved the dual capacity to reinterpret and deny ‘unpleasant’ realities, and to ‘realize’ (conceive of as ‘real’) the idea of separate personhood and personal death , which he calls “intrinsically maladaptive traits”, as they condition us to ignore what’s true and to put the ‘self’ ahead of the collective interest.

It’s anyone’s guess, of course, but I’d be inclined to say this dysfunction arose because early humans, pummelled by the ice ages, cosmic radiation, and other climate disasters, had to abandon their long-time comfortable tropical homelands and venture into new ecological zones fraught with new dangers and the constant stress of scarcity. Those early humans that found this reality too much to bear might have decided not to procreate, while those that had these “intrinsically maladaptive traits”, less connected to the natural world and what was perhaps ‘good for them’ might have persevered and procreated, producing a hardened, desensitized, disconnected species that used denial as a coping mechanism and ‘laughed in the face of death’. Perhaps this evolution, while dysfunctional in the longer term, was, in the short-term, adaptive rather than maladaptive?

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

The World’s Most Blessed Agnostic

I’ve said before that I believe we’re all suffering, and all healing, from what I’ve called Civilization Disease — the combination of mental and physical illnesses that results from the relentless stress of horrifically overpopulated industrial society and the global nutritional poverty of the now-ubiquitous industrial food system.

I thought it might be interesting to look at Civilization Disease from a non-dual perspective. Radical non-duality says that there is no real you (that the separate ‘you’ is an illusion), and that since there is no space and time, just an eternal and infinite field of possibilities, nothing is actually real (or unreal) — everything is just an ‘appearance’, without reason or purpose.

As I’ve argued before, as crazy as that sounds, it is entirely consistent with new discoveries and theories in astrophysics, cosmology, quantum science, philosophy and cognitive science. So, while there are thoughts and feelings, they aren’t anyone’s thoughts and feelings; they just arise, as appearances, for no reason. It is the illusory self that claims that thoughts and feelings are its thoughts and feelings, and that they are real and pervasive and meaningful, and cause for action.

As a passionate fan of Gaia theory and evolution, it’s hard to square this with the sense that Gaia (ie all life on earth and its ecologies, as a single staggeringly-complex ‘organic’ system) seems to be co-evolving life on earth in a logical, consistent and ‘biophilial’ way. But Stephen Jay Gould (in Full House and elsewhere) has argued that while there is pattern in all of this, there is no intention, no direction, no ‘intelligence’ to evolution. It is just (apparently, if you’re a non-dualist) a playing out of a possibility, a game full of randomness, without purpose or ‘progress’.

But if we try to at least understand the apparent ’rules’ of the game of evolution, it seems that at some point brains evolved, and have been creating havoc ever since. Stewart and Cohen in Figments of Reality argue the evolution of brains happened because the creatures* that make up organisms experimented with a centralized ‘feature-detection system’ as a means of protection for the body’s component creatures, and, as this seemed to be an evolutionarily successful development brains are now standard equipment in most (but not all) animal species.

The brain may have evolved to detect ‘features’ (mostly food and predators), but its complexity allowed the development of intricate ‘predictive’ models (‘figments’) of reality, including, at least in humans, the recursive invention of the ‘conscious self’ as the centre of the model.

There is increasing evidence that this invention was an evolutionary misstep, since, according to radical non-duality and recent neuroscience, the ‘self’ is completely unnecessary to the success and survival of the brain-equipped character*. We would be better off without a self, since it is “a useless appendage” that comes with a ton of undesirable side-effects; most notably it ‘suffers’ from the illusion that it has free will, choice, agency, responsibility, and control of the apparent character that it presumes to inhabit.

This suffering is to no avail, since it changes nothing — the character that the suffering self struggles fruitlessly to try to control and understand is completely indifferent and oblivious to the existence of the illusory self.

One of the largest causes of the self’s suffering is its (mis-)identification with and claim of ownership of, emotions (feelings). You’ll have a hard time explaining this to health professionals, however, since the worldview of radical non-duality and that of psychology are so utterly different. But let’s see if it’s possible to reconcile these worldviews.

One of the best-known taxonomies of feelings is that of Karla McLaren. She identifies 17 key emotions in three main clusters, which I’ve depicted (as I understand them) in the chart above. Karla believes there are no ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ emotions — that they are all messages from the body to advise ‘us’ of appropriate actions to take for our well-being. She doesn’t list depression as an emotion, describing it instead as a ‘shutting-down’ coping mechanism that arises when facing a situation that is just too much to handle.

Like most psychologists she’s a believer in CBT and MM, the fanciful and hopeful idea that we can master our feelings and change ourselves by how we think about them and react to them. Tragically, people are so desperate to believe that there must be a way to deal with depression, anger, addiction, sadness and fear, that they’re prepared to ignore the overwhelming evidence that CBT and MM don’t actually work.

Non-duality would explain this quite simply: these therapies can’t work because there is no ‘you’ to undergo them, and because the illusory self has no free will or choice, no control or agency over the character* it presumes to inhabit or indeed over its (the self’s) own (claimed) feelings or thoughts.

Although it’s perilous to try to explain the evolutionary ‘purpose’ of claimed emotions (non-duality, after all, asserts there is no purpose for anything), it’s irresistible to the pattern- and sense-making self to at least try, so let’s have a go at it.

Let’s start with the three principal reactions of most apparent living creatures in response to existential threat: fight, flight and freeze. These map rather obviously to Karla’s three major categories of emotion — anger/hatred, fear/anxiety and sorrow/grief (perhaps including depression when the sorrow is deep, chronic and relentless). The chemicals that drive these responses to threats are evidently the same as those that register the corresponding emotions.

Assuming you accept that non-human creatures feel emotions, let’s take a look at Karla’s emotion taxonomy from the perspective of a squirrel. If the squirrel’s young are threatened, the squirrel will react with rage and risk all to protect them. If the squirrel sees a cat, it will react with fear, and most likely ‘choose’ to flee. If it is surrounded by cats, so that flight is not an option, it will likely freeze, play dead, and then, when the danger has passed, furiously ‘shake off’ the dreadful frozen feeling and get on with its life.

I would argue that envy/jealousy is also a characteristic emotion of squirrels just as it is in humans, and that this feeling is related in part to fear (fear of not having enough if another squirrel hoards more than its share) and in part to anger. I would also argue that squirrels fall in love, in the sense that their behaviour in certain circumstances is totally driven by a rush of chemicals that lead it to mate and bond with another. And I would also argue that squirrels, in the absence of any of these ‘negative’ (sorry Karla) emotions, feel something akin to happiness, pleasure, contentment and joy, or at least equanimity.

I’m not so sure the other two groupings of emotions — boredom/apathy and guilt/shame/loneliness — are felt by squirrels. These are particularly complex emotions, and what is interesting to me is that they are the only emotions on Karla’s list that I am not personally familiar or experienced with. In fact, I don’t understand them at all. I am astonished when someone says they’re so bored they want to gouge their eyes out. I have had some fleeting experiences of guilt and shame (though since I no longer believe in free will I am quick to ‘forgive’ myself for whatever has caused these feelings, so they rarely last). And I can’t relate to feelings of loneliness at all.

This is a bit distressing because I know and care about people who suffer terribly from loneliness (and sometimes boredom as well), and I have no basis of experience to fathom it and hence empathize with it. I have simply never been bored, or lonely, even in the darkest depths of depression, or when afflicted with the ‘winter blues’, or feeling bereft from the loss of a loved one. Perhaps I’m more like a squirrel than a typical human.

Let’s suppose that our emotional squirrel is not afflicted with a self like we poor humans. How does it ‘feel’ these emotions? My sense, from personal observation and from discussion with non-dualists who appear not to have a ‘self’, is that without a self to take ownership of these emotions and dwell upon them, feelings simply arise as a manifestation of the body’s chemistry, and act upon the conditioned creature to provoke an appropriate fight/flight/freeze response, and then they quickly dissipate. The squirrel does not ‘stay’ angry, sad or fearful, because it has no self (or need of a self) to continue to feel and think about the event that gave rise to these feelings. That is not to say that there isn’t great anguish in the moment — it may well be that without an intervening self, these intense feelings are felt even more strongly than they are in humans, and that likewise the physical manifestations (pain and distress) are felt more acutely by them than by humans.

But in creatures not afflicted with selves, there is (to use Eckhart Tolle’s terms) no reinforcing cycle of egoic-mind thoughts and pain-body emotional reactions to preoccupy and distress them once the immediate source of the distress has passed.

(A side-note: I confess I’m uncertain about what happens in non-human creatures that face chronic stress — those in factory farms, zoos, laboratories, abusive homes, and areas under relentless human or other encroachment and threats. Such situations are anomalous and symptomatic of collapse situations, and not sustainable. That’s a subject for another article, so chime in and stay tuned if this is a subject that interests you.)

So in the absence of chronic stress, it seems to me that while pain is real and inevitable (and sometimes intense) for all creatures, suffering is not. Suffering requires a self.

I think that may be why squirrels probably don’t feel lonely, ashamed, guilty, apathetic or bored. These emotions require a judgement that the situation is unfair and that someone or something (possibly the creature itself) is to blame. I doubt that such thoughts and feelings preoccupy squirrels the way they (uselessly) do human selves. I share the view of radical non-duality that no one is to blame, not even one’s self, so perhaps that’s why I am seemingly not prone to these emotions either.

Loneliness may be even more complex to understand. Gabor Maté has a hypothesis that most chronic mental and physical illnesses arise as a maladaptation to the failure of the young child to get two essential needs fulfilled: attachment (to its mother and then to others and to its community; a sense of comfortable and supported belonging), and authenticity (the capacity and freedom to be one’s true evolving self, rather than living a lie based on others’ demands and expectations). Some of the emotions on the chart might not arise in those who’ve grown up with a strong sense of attachment and the freedom to be authentic. Loneliness in particular seems to entail a feeling of social alienation that may stem from the kind of early-life physical and psychological abandonment that is endemic in our fractured and disconnected industrial civilization culture. Similarly, boredom, the desperate feeling of emptiness and the need to fill one’s life with distracting activity, might stem from the acedia that is bred in the absence of a sense of attachment to the world and a sense of oneself as worthy and authentic.

I don’t think I would ascribe all emotional suffering to lack of attachment and authenticity though. Much of it, I think, is a reaction to the ghastly and relentless stresses of our massively overpopulated, crowded, disconnected and dangerous civilized world — ie Civilization Disease. We all have it, but those who also have suffered the absence of early-childhood attachment or authenticity probably have it worse. Or, to be more precise, their selves have it worse.

There is no help for Civilization Disease. The illusory self is the embodied, incessant reaction to this chronic disease, and it can’t overcome itself, or think or wish itself away. That’s the CBT/MM myth.

But I have not given up (no self can) wondering if by simply being more aware of the self’s tragic plight, and where we seem to be moment-to-moment on the feeling path between the self’s dark emotional circles and the joyful equanimous space shown in white on the chart above, our selves might lessen the intensity and duration of their reactivity and hence the extent of their suffering.

It seems ludicrous to think that an illusion can do that (or can do anything), but as I slowly become a little more self-aware, and learn more about the ideas of radical non-duality, it seems to me that suffering is gradually losing its hold on me. I am still angered and saddened by the same things, but not as intensely or enduringly. I am still driven by fear, and have no control over that, but the realization that it is usually ungrounded or disproportional does seem to lesson its charge a bit. And I’m guessing that my continuing struggle to deal with anxiety has a lot to do with getting less and less practice at it, as my life becomes less and less stressful, so that when something stressful does happen it hits me harder than it once would. But I’m not sure. This may be just wishful thinking on my inconsolable self’s part. I probably need to explore this further too.

So when I say I’m the world’s most blessed agnostic, I’m being ironic, but not entirely. I did grow up, it seems, with a healthy sense of attachment and the freedom to be authentically myself, and although that early-childhood health was severely tested by the subsequent shock of encountering and dealing with our brutal educational system and work world, and by the astonishing insensitivity and savagery of those most severely afflicted by Civilization Disease, as well as by decades of recurring deep depression, I seem to have survived these tests, and now live an astonishingly healthy and blessed life. And my life is relatively free of the stresses — financial, social, and cultural — that bedevil the vast majority of humans, so in that sense I am truly blessed.

Life should not be so hard, and it actually isn’t. “The dark and gathering sameness of the world” that Civilization and its Disease have wrought may seem awful, but it is only so to the selves that cannot help but judge it. To the characters we presume to inhabit, it is all unreal, a wondrous appearance of everything out of nothing, outside of space and time, a magic show. But although we may know it’s all sleight of mind, our selves can still, somehow, feel the bite of the magician’s ghastly saw, as it separates us from everything.


* This is mind-boggling stuff to absorb, so I am continuing to use the term ‘character’ to describe the (actually plural) complicity (the term Stewart and Cohen use) of (apparently) living creatures that their shared brain serves. As Richard Lewontin has explained (in The Triple Helix and elsewhere), evolutionary biologists now understand that there is no real border that separates one apparent creature from another, or indeed one creature from its apparent environment. Gaia really is just one, and trying to analyze it by separating it into discrete parts is dangerous and ultimately futile. Radical non-dualists would, I think, appreciate why this is true. So though I would prefer to describe the apparent creatures that arise, wondrously and for no reason out of the ‘one nothing’, as complicities, to convey their plurality, I will continue to use the terms characters, or creatures, depending on context, to describe the apparent bags of water-filled organs we call people, as it’s more familiar and easier to fathom.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 8 Comments

Dave’s Favourite Songs of the 2010s

seal photo from a recent video by my friend Bob Turner

In my last post I described the qualities of a great song, and specifically what certain songs evoke in me. This list is my favourite songs of the thousands I listened to for the first time in this (now nearly-finished) decade. I’ve been making these lists since the 60s.

It’s an eclectic and diverse list; I suspect few readers will have heard more than a handful of these. For each song I list the length, the genre, the year (if it was actually released before 2010 and only recently discovered by me), and a brief descriptive blurb. Clicking on the number of a song will take you to a YouTube or SoundCloud recording of the song (just hit your ‘back’ arrow to return you to the list after you’ve sampled).

Genres (as close as it’s possible to categorize some of these songs): D: Dance, F: Folk, N: New Age, S: Singer-Songwriter (mostly, again this decade, by women), W: World. For the second decade in a row, half the songs on my favourites list were written by women.

 Song, Length, Genre, CommentsArtists
1Totally Illégal (Harmonik song remix)
Canadian/Haitian duo Freakeyz riffs off the 'kompa' (instrumental groove) of Haitian supergroup Harmonik's song Illégal; then DJ Mayass remixes that. I looped it to make it longer.
Freakeyz/DJ Mayass
2The Seal Lullaby
The composer famous for his 'virtual choirs' dusts off a song that he wrote for a Disney movie that was never made; words by Rudyard Kipling.
Eric Whitacre Singers
3Restless Fool
4:26/F 1988
The masterpiece of the Scottish folk superstar, written in open D tuning.
Dougie MacLean
4Yaw Rek Leu (feat. Corine)
4:43/W 2009
Cabo Verde's Philip and Sénégal's Corine combine on a love song sung in Wolof, with the very recognizable zouk/kompa/kizomba rhythm.
Philip Monteiro
5Long Way
6:08/S 2002
The ultimate find-yourself-by-travelling song, with an homage to Jack Kerouac.
Antje Duvekot
5:00/S 1996
First of 3 songs by Patty on this list, and this is probably the rawest.
Patty Griffin
7Love's a Game
A tour-de-force of guitar and compositional virtuosity, with its heart on its sleeve.
The Magic Numbers
The live version of this song with lots of improvisation; possibly the spark that started a lot of DIY kompa musicians, including quite a few on this list.
9So It Goes
5:01/S 2006
Perhaps the most intense, gut-wrenching anti-war song ever written.
Chris Pureka
10Mad World
3:08/S 2003
The stripped-down remake that out-charted the '80s Tears for Fears original.
Gary Jules
11Joue Tululute (Milca) Remix
Floridian/Haitian duo riffs off the kompa groove from French/Haitian Milca's hit song.
Gello Keyzz & Sonson
12Totally Incroyable (Dave Bo Kote mix)
My own concatenation of the kompa grooves from two big hits by Haitian supergroup Harmonik.
13Désenchantée (Live / Lyon / 2013)
The #1 hit of the French superstar who plays to sellout crowds throughout the country.
Mylène Farmer
3:24/S 1993
First of 2 songs by Cheryl on this list; gentle and ironic. When she performs now it's mostly fun stuff.
Cheryl Wheeler
15Where I Find You
My fave song of the Aussie neo-folk star.
Dustin Tebbutt
16The Kind of Love You Never Recover From
4:37/S 1990
Best know for her satires like Sensitive New-Age Guys, Christine absolutely soars on this raw and revealing lament.
Christine Lavin
17Broken Things
4:05/S 2001
If you're sensing a trend here of World Weary Women Song-Writers (WWWSS), you got me. Here's another soul-wrenching masterpiece.
Lucy Kaplansky
18Longtime (feat. Javon J)
Another Floridian/Haitian kompa artist; this original song adds a reggae counterpoint to the rhythm.
19Young Black Pearl
4:16/W 2001
First of 3 early 2000's 'ghetto zouk' songs on this list from French/AfroAmerican/Vietnamese Shydeeh; this is what rap could be with complexity, composition and crafting.
3:05/F 1997
The wildly underrated Winnipeg trio's finest song IMO,
Wyrd Sisters
21Sylvia Hotel
3:21/S 1997
The quirky hotel in question is in West End Vancouver, and it's just as Cheryl describes.
Cheryl Wheeler
22First Crush
The Australian EDM duo channel the Beach Boys at their most harmonic and nostalgic.
Empire of the Sun
4:35/W 2001
Profane and outrageous, this song is an angry feminist rant, with brilliant and complex composition.
Fun and inventive instrumentation make this innocuous dance number into something irresistible.
25Mwen Bouke (BODO Remix)
BODO is Yves Clément Michel ex- of Haitian groups Zenglen and Disip, riffing off yet another Harmonik groove.
26Soon Be to Nothing
4:14/S 1999
The veteran Atlanta folk rock duo write a song that could be about non-duality, with an enchanting rhythm.
Indigo Girls
27Om Namo Bhagavate
7:12/N 2002
The classically-trained German mantra artist spins stunning melodic lines and harmonies that you never get tired of.
Deva Premal
28Good Morning
The long-time UK champion junior Steel Band plays the brilliant Trinidad master Duvone Stewart's arrangement of Barbadian Peter Ram's hit.
Ebony Steelband
29Swear Like a Sailor
Toronto tropical house master's breakout hit.
Tep No
30Angels (Kygo Remix)
The Norwegian superstar DJ brilliantly remixes the English band's hit with his signature instrumentations.
Kygo & The XX
31Moola Mantra - Part I II III
38:42/N 2007
Another classic from Deva, with layers and variations that go on for over half an hour; I first heard this in Second Life.
Deva Premal
32Kite Song
3:09/S 2004
It is, of course, not really about kites at all.
Patty Griffin
33Key to My Soul
2:34/F 1997
My favourite from Seattle Jim; the protest song king shows his heart. Catch him at fairs throughout the Pacific NW.
Jim Page
34Gouyad Addict
Gouyad is the provocative dance that accompanies kompa music; original work by the Haitian-American trio.
AlexCkj Ralph_MMG CamKeyz
35You're Free Now (feat. Sarah Jarosz)
This clever and brooding guitar virtuoso seems to flourish in collaborations with smart women singers.
Anthony da Costa
36The Deal Yo
4:53/W 2001
More complex rhythm, vocalization and instrumentation in this 'ghetto zouk' hit.
37My Best Friend (Cap-Verde)
The 'princess of Zouk' hails from Guyane Fr but sings in many languages and has an international following.
Tina Ly
38The Mhairi Bhan
6:37/F 1988
Another classic from the Scottish folk master, about a fishing boat of course.
Dougie MacLean
39Riding Shotgun (feat. Bonnie McKee)
Another smart collaboration by the Norwegian tropical house whiz, this time with the Swedish DJ Oliver Nelson.
Kygo & Oliver Nelson
40Ighvidzebs Chemi Tbilisi (Tbilisi Awakens)
A lovely folk song from the Georgian Republic sparkles thanks to Salome's jaw-droppingly powerful and nuanced voice.
Salome Tetiashvili
41Kickin' This Stone
4:23/F 2004
Wisconsin's Johnsmith tells a complex story tinged with double-meanings and clever, gentle social commentary.
42Time and Space
8:45/N 2007
A clever piece of electronica is sparked by the astonishing sultry voice of Lou Rhodes.
Cinematic Orchestra ft Lou Rhodes
4:03/S 2002
You'll never think of rain the same way after listening to this; watch the inspired animated video too.
Patty Griffin
44She's Saving Me
5:03/S 2002
Another love song from the Atlanta duo with an enchanting rhythm.
Indigo Girls
45Alberta is Her Name
The Small Glories' Cara Luft co-wrote this song with James Keelaghan. She and SG partner JD Edwards now live in Winnipeg. Gorgeous lyrics.
The Small Glories
46Small Of My Heart
This award-winning female duo from Cape Breton blend several genres to make savvy and penetrating songs.
Madison Violet
47Stress Release
Floridian Leo from the Haitian Kompa group Klimax does both remixes and laid back original songs like this one.
This Guadeloupe Zouk artist is one of the founders of Femmes Fatales, dedicated to supporting Caribbean women musicians.
49Alive and Well (feat. Bishop Anstey High School Choir)
A simple soca song by Trinidadian superstar Voice comes alive with a local school choir's inspired backing.

Happy exploring!

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Why Music Is Like Sex

Ebony Steel Band Juniors — UK National Competition Champions 2017

In the process of putting together my list of “favourite 30-40 songs of the decade”, I’ve been listening to my favourite songs from other decades (I’ve been making these lists since the 60s). My objective is to try to make sure that my ‘scoring’ from decade to decade is reasonably consistent, so when I create playlists they’re of songs I like equally.

My list for 2010-19 currently has 78 songs on it, and I admit that trying to winnow the list down is a nice problem to have.

I have to say that these decennial lists are my favourite songs that I first heard in that decade, even if the song was actually released long before the decade began. That’s been the big challenge this decade — the explosion of music that has recently become available on YouTube, SoundCloud, Apple Music and Spotify (particularly with their increasingly-sophisticated ‘recommendation engines’) absolutely dwarfs what has been available in previous decades, and some of it, especially the ‘international’ (non-anglophone country) stuff, is decades-old, but was never available here in Canada until recently.

So I expected the 2010s list to be longer than usual, but as I’ve also found I have to listen to proportionally more music each year to find stuff I really like, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t scoring the songs inconsistently from those of previous decades.

That got me thinking about what it is that makes a song exceptional enough to make a favourites list. I put in some time researching what’s been written on the subject, and while of course musical tastes are highly subjective, I was dismayed at the dearth, and shallowness, of the research that’s been done on this subject. Apparently, pop music is preferred by “extroverts”, country music by “conservatives”, and rock by those “open to new experiences”. Really? This is the best that science can come up with?

On the basis of absolutely no scientific or empirical research, I would speculate as follows:

  1. What TS Eliot said about poetry is equally applicable to music: It must give us both pleasure and some fresh understanding; ie it must connect with us both emotionally and intellectually. Of course, what brings pleasure and understanding depends on the individual; where they’re coming from. TS was careful not to say that this applies only to ‘great’ poetry. If it doesn’t provide these two things, it’s just not poetry, just not music.
  2. While the emotional aspect of good creative writing often depends on the skilful use of imagery, this doesn’t necessarily apply to music. Even when a song has intelligible lyrics, it’s not a requirement of a great song that its lyrics, or title, or any other aspect of its composition evoke a particular image or story.
  3. Like poetry, with its cadences and varied repetitions, music can delight us with its ‘track’, its predictability and familiarity, but not too much — variability and some surprise are also important. In that way music is a bit like sex. We learn a song’s ins and outs and may even learn to play it, and as such we gain appreciation as we learn what makes it ‘work’ for us and why, which is different for each individual. But too much repetition and predictability can be deadly, though again, each person’s tolerance for variety is different.
  4. Also like sex and falling in love, enjoyment of music entails the release of chemicals in the body, mostly of pleasure, but also of tension, and of relaxation. I’m not surprised that many people who suffer from depression report that they find sad songs calming and that they help pull them out of their depressed state. The same internally-produced chemicals: oxytocin, dopamine and phenethylamine, are involved in both activities. And you can no more make yourself love a song than you can make yourself fall in love with someone.
  5. While research has suggested that listening to music “makes you smarter” (at tasks done immediately thereafter), I would suggest that listening to music focuses your attention, and it’s that focus that makes you more adept at subsequent tasks. Music can also, of course, be a distraction, focusing your attention on the qualities of the song instead of that tree you’re about to walk into.
  6. Music will often evoke memory and hence association, and that will inevitably colour your like or dislike of a particular song.
  7. What is considered “pleasant” sounding music depends far more on culture, learning and memory than on anything ‘magic’ about frequency ratios or anything intrinsic to the notes or their qualities themselves.

That’s as much as I’m prepared to speculate on this subject. I’m interested, of course, in why I passionately love some songs and absolutely loathe others. So today I listened to parts of 100 songs I really like, selected from many different genres, and as I did, I looked online for scores for each song that might suggest what they had in common.

Here’s what I discovered:

  • I like highly complex music that still has a discernible underlying pattern and is ultimately somewhat predictable. Even the superficially simple songs on my list have unusual chord sequences, challenging melodic and harmonic runs, novel and changing rhythms, and a lot of variation in notes, rhythm, harmonies and instrumentation.
  • I was surprised to discover how many of my favourite songs had complex orchestration behind them — far more than I would have guessed.
  • At the risk of overusing the metaphor to sex, I like to be teased, played with, kept guessing and kept on the edge for awhile. So for example I like chord sequences that involve many complex and varied steps but which ultimately reach a reliable resolution. Barber’s Adagio for Strings is an obvious example.
  • I like chords that have a certain amount of tension in them; in particular major sevenths, minor ninths, sixth+9 chords, suspended chords, augmented chords, added elevenths and even more complex chords often created by passing notes. Neil Young‘s early work and much of James Taylor‘s have a lot of such chords, as does Todd Rundgren’s Hello It’s Me. So does much of Rachmaninoff‘s work. The published scores of some of the more popular songs on my list often show relatively mundane chord sequences, but when I listen to the music carefully, I realize the performers are actually playing more notes, and adding more complexity, than the simplified score indicates.
  • I like variation. In my favourite songs no instrumental sequence (melody or harmony) longer than one or two bars is ever exactly repeated. They add a turn, a trill, an accidental, a hammer/pull, something different each time. The rhythm track has extra or different instruments substituted, or extra beats, rather than being exactly repeated.
  • Lyrics, interestingly, are important to me but not essential. If they’re clever or moving they can add a lot to a song, and sometimes one astonishing turn of phrase can ‘make’ a whole song. But quite a few of my favourite songs are instrumentals, and quite a few others have either inane or unintelligible lyrics that I just tune out to focus on the music.
  • Certain songs always make me cry, but never make me feel sad. Gonzo’s (Paul Williams’) I’m Going to Go Back There Some Day is one. My newly-discovered favourite Eric Whitacre’s The Seal Lullaby (words by Rudyard Kipling) is another. The former has some very lovely and unusual chord sequences. The latter is reportedly hugely difficult for choirs to master despite its innocent and simple appearance. Both have brilliant lyrics, composers renowned for their compositional skill, and amazing “builds” that then back off to a gentle resolution. Both are in 3/4 time. Why do they make me cry, every time? I don’t know.
  • I love the Haitian ‘kompa‘ rhythm. When the instrumentation and percussion are complex and varied enough, it’s impossible for me to keep from moving. Basically it’s various drums being played on the first, fourth, fifth and seventh beats of a two-bar, 4/4 section, about 80 bpm. But not quite. Play this on a drum machine and it sounds wooden, dead. I’m not sure if kompa is slightly ahead of or behind these beats, or some combination, but there it is. The same rhythm is found in quite a few of my other favourite songs, notably Joni Mitchell’s Just Like This Train (it’s described as a “three-against-four hemiola” rhythm and it has this amazing chord sequence: G13, Am7/G, C/G, Gmaj13, G7sus, G13sus, Fmaj9, Fmaj7 ). The rhythm mimics the “clickety-clack” of a train. You hear this rhythm as well in Zairian Soukous music (though it’s much faster — more like 120 bpm). I’m also a sucker for certain dance rhythms. My head can’t figure it out, but my body gets it.

The 2010-19 list, with links, is coming up soon. Even more eclectic than last decade’s.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

What Would Net Zero Emissions by 2025 Look Like?

graph by Our World in Data

The latest IPCC report says that in order to prevent catastrophic climate change global net CO2 emissions will have to reach net zero by 2050, from their current levels of 33-38B tons rising by nearly 2%/year. The IPCC’s past reports have been almost laughably conservative and optimistic, which is just one of the reasons Extinction Rebellion have set a net-zero deadline of 2025, just 6 years from now.

It should be noted that total greenhouse gases will continue to rise for at least another 15-20 years after net zero CO2 is achieved, due to the ongoing run-on effects of other greenhouse gases, notably methane, that have been unleashed ‘naturally’ as a result of the damage we have already done to the atmosphere. And it is at best a long shot that even if we were to achieve net zero CO2 by 2025, it isn’t already too late to prevent climate collapse. Our knowledge of the science remains abysmal and every new report paints a bleaker picture. Expect a fierce anti-science, anti-reality backlash as more and more climate scientists concur that runaway, civilization-ending climate change is inevitable no matter what we do, or don’t do.

So what would be required to reduce the course of the hockey-stick trajectory shown in the chart above and achieve net zero CO2 in just 6 years, for a population that will at current rates be 7% (at least 1/2 billion people) greater than it is now?

I think the reason that, while parliaments and political parties and scientists will readily accept XR’s first demand of proclaiming a climate emergency “and communicating the urgency for change”, for most the second demand of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss to zero by 2025 is simply absurd. Western economies have merely shifted production to Asia; their accelerating consumption of CO2-produced goods continues unabated. Our global economy depends utterly on cheap hydrocarbon energy. It’s completely preposterous to think a short-term shift is even vaguely possible. Renewables won’t help us; as the chart below shows, new solar energy isn’t even keeping up with the annual increases in demand, let alone cutting into the still-accelerating need for hydrocarbon energy:

graph by Pedro Prieto, cited by Bill Rees

So let’s be preposterous. What would have to happen, at a minimum, to achieve this valiant goal? Based on what I’ve read and on my understanding of complex systems, here’s just a few of the things that I think would have to happen:

  1. An immediate, complete and permanent grounding of all air traffic. That means no executive jets, no flying for diplomatic or business meetings or emergency family reasons — or military adventures. Achieving meaningful carbon reductions is simply impossible as long as planes are flying.
  2. Immediate rationing of liquid/gas hydrocarbons for essential and community purposes only. To get all the hydrocarbon-fuelled cars and trucks off the road in six years no more travel in personal hydrocarbon-burning vehicles could be permitted. And we’d have to work hard to convert all public buses, trains and ships to non-CO2 producing vehicles in that time. If you look at supply/demand curves for gasoline, we’d be looking at carbon taxes in the area of 1000% to ‘incent’ such conversions. My guess is that most shipping and much ‘privatized’ public transit would not be able to stay in business with these constraints. So say goodbye to most imported goods.
  3. All hydrocarbons in the ground would have to stay there, all over the world, effective immediately. We’d have to make do with existing reserves for a few years until everything had been converted to renewable resources.
  4. Industrial manufacturing based on fossil fuel use would have to convert in equal steps over the six year timeframe, and any plants failing to do so would have to be shuttered.
  5. Construction of new buildings and facilities would have to stop entirely. Existing buildings would have to phase out use of fossil fuels over the six years through rationing and cut-offs for non-compliance, and they would have to be remodelled to meet stringent net-zero energy standards and to accommodate all new building needs.
  6. Trillions of trees would have to be planted, and all forestry and forest clearing stopped entirely. Likewise, production of other new high-energy-use building materials (especially concrete) would have to cease. We’d have to quickly learn to re-use the wood and other building materials we have now.
  7. All this centralized, ‘unprofitable’ activity (and enforcement of the restrictions) would need to be funded through taxes. As during the great depression, the rich could expect tax rates north of 90% on income. And a very large wealth tax would be needed to quickly redistribute wealth so that the poor didn’t overwhelmingly suffer from the new restrictions.
  8. The consequences of the above would be an immediate and total collapse of stock and real estate markets and the flow of capital. The 90% of the world’s wealth that is purely financial and not real (stocks, bonds, pensions etc) would quickly become substantially worthless in a ‘negative-growth’ economy, adding a complete economic collapse to the crises the governments trying to administer the transition to net-zero were trying to manage. In such an economic collapse, many governments would simply fail, leaving communities in their jurisdictions to fend for themselves, and making it likely that much of the world would abandon the constraints of net-zero transition because they wouldn’t have the power or resources to even begin to enforce them.

Of course, none of this will happen. Even if governments had the power and wisdom to understand what was really required to make the net-zero transition, it would be political suicide for them to implement it. It won’t happen by 2025. It won’t happen by 2050. It won’t and wouldn’t happen by 2100 even if we had that long, which we do not.

The message of all this is that we cannot save our globalized civilization from the imminent end of stable climate, affordable energy, and the industrial economy — all of which are interdependent. No one (and no group) has the power to shift these massive global systems to a radically new trajectory, without which (and perhaps even with which) our world and its human civilization are soon going to look very different.

No one knows how and how quickly this will all play out, and the scenarios under which collapse will occur vary from humane, collaborative and relatively free from suffering, to the very dystopian. There is therefore no point dwelling on them, or even trying to plan for them. As always, we will continue to do our best, each of us, with the situation that presents itself each day, and our love for our planet and its wondrous diversity will play into that. Our best will not be enough, but we will do it anyway.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 30 Comments

Happy Now?

image from Succo at pixabay CC0

You’ve probably seen the 2004 talk where “happiness guru” Dan Gilbert says that people who have won the lottery and people who have had limbs amputated are equally happy with their lives a year after these respective events. No matter how good things seem to be, soon enough we seem less happy with our situation; and no matter how bad things get, in time we adjust to it and make peace with it and are seemingly just as happy as the people who have everything they’ve ever dreamed of.

What’s going on here? Dan describes it as the human brain’s capacity for “manufacturing” (rationalizing) happiness and envisioning different futures, a survival adaptation strategy.

My life is damned near perfect. I took a short trip today to pick up some odds and ends, nothing urgent, on a lovely sunny windless November morning. I got everything on my list, without a problem. Afterwards I sunbathed, clothes-free, while doing a crossword puzzle, on my deck. My health and fitness are exceptional for someone my age, or even for someone twenty years younger. I am comfortably retired. I live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I have no real enemies that I know of. I have meaningful relationships, full of love and friendship. I seem to have discovered, mostly by accident, qualities and skills people respect and admire. My relentlessly curious and imaginative mind has unlimited opportunities and outlets from which to learn, to discover, to perceive, to play, to make sense of things, and to conceive of how things might be even better, or much worse. In every sense I am astonishingly blessed.

If I believed we were possessed of free will and choice and self-control, I would say that I should be endlessly, ecstatically happy. I have essentially no wants and no needs. Just about every day I can wake up, when I want to, and do just about anything I could want to do.

But except when I really think about it and really pay attention, my sense is that I’m not especially happy. What’s wrong with me? I’ve tried to pursue practices about living well, learned from some very brilliant and wise people, that seem to work brilliantly. But I often forget, and slip back into that disengaged, slightly dissatisfied state. The cognitive dissonance of my life (anxious, when I know there is nothing to be anxious about; infuriated, when I know everyone’s doing their best; self-reproachful, when I know I have no free will, choice or agency over what this strange body I only seem to inhabit does) keeps me constantly off-balance, stuck too much in my head.

I can push myself to get out into the forest (a two-minute walk), to really look and pay attention, to slow down and smile and make eye contact with people, and when I do I usually get into a state of awe, wonder, and bliss. If I’m on a tropical beach, it happens effortlessly. But for some reason I’m not driven to do this — call it laziness or spiritual torpor or whatever, if any effort is involved I tend to shrug and put it off, and just read or play indoors by myself. Maybe it’s the same procrastination that makes it so hard for me to exercise even though I immediately feel and look so much better after I’ve done it.

Truly wild creatures, I think, are not happy or unhappy, because they have no expectations or sense of a gap between what is and what could or should or might be. And while they have excellent memories, my sense is that those memories are not ‘personal’ — they’re about useful things rather than how they felt or what they thought. Why? Because their brains are otherwise occupied with the intuitive processing of sensory data, rather than thinking about and reacting to things they have no control over. Perceiving rather than conceiving. They of course feel pain and pleasure, but my sense is they are not judgemental about it. They live their lives, I think, full of wonder — that is as long as they’re free. Freedom, it seems to me, is their instinctive passion, and the loss of it is their instinctive fear. That’s my reading from seeing both wild and semi-domesticated creatures trapped in confined spaces (where their anguish is obvious) versus being in physical pain (where it’s clearly not comfortable, but seemingly accepted and endured). So different from ourselves!

My sense is that wild creatures are this way because they don’t rationalize their situation, judge it, or see any value in imagining it otherwise. So by our standards they are never “happy”, but rather are, so long as they are free, wondrous, which I suspect is a healthier, more connected and more ‘alive’ way to be.

What if we humans were not possessed of (or by) a rationalizing, reactive, judgemental, personalizing self? We would be, I think, free of chronic fear, sadness, anger and shame, and live in the same kind of timeless, infinite, un-separate wonder that free wild creatures live in — except perhaps in rare moments of existential threat, when instinct would momentarily trigger the fight/flight/freeze response and we would be, until the danger passed, possessed for a few instants by the ancient capacity for preservation of the illusory separate self. No wonder wild creatures shake this awful ‘self-awareness’ off so profoundly once the threat has ended!

But this isn’t quite right either. Humans are not actually possessed by selves — the bodies, the characters that we selves presume to inhabit are actually oblivious to our selves, which are only self-constructed illusions, conjured-up models, figments of reality. Although we ‘selves’ believe that the feelings and thoughts and stress-related illnesses of these characters’ bodies and brains are reflections of our (selves’) distress, they are actually entirely unconnected.

For example, while it is true that I (my ‘self’) was triggered and severely stressed by some terrible personal news that immediately preceded this body’s incapacitating bout of ulcerative colitis 13 years ago, and while it would be perfectly reasonable (for any ‘self’) to conclude that one caused the other, they are actually not, I think, causally connected — the correspondence I drew between them is just ‘my’ making sense of the incident.

So, going further back in my medical history, my serious bouts of depression (which ended about 15 years ago) were likely partly genetic, partly situational, and partly maladaptive responses to the circumstances that the character named Dave encountered and reacted to in the only way it could in the face of the pressure cooker of modern civilization culture. It has often been suggested, and for quite a while I considered it possible, that the real cause was the horrifying experience of early school years, after an idyllic and naive pre-school life, when I discovered that many people are deliberately mean, cruel, unfair, irrational, and dishonest. It’s the kind of thing a ‘self’ will grab onto to make sense of something that otherwise didn’t seem to make any. Now I don’t think those anti-socializing childhood experiences really had much at all to do with my depression, which seems to have almost completely vanished over the past two decades, although my colitis and some other seriously ‘depressing’ things all happened during the early 2000s.

There are likewise other explanations for my horrific colitis outbreak. As a teenager and young adult I consumed massive doses of oral tetracycline (a strong antibiotic) for about a decade as the treatment-of-the-day for serious acne, which surely ravaged my gut flora, possibly for life and likely made my intestines into a kind of time-bomb. The outbreak came at the end of a decades-long period of chronic environmental and situational stresses of the kind which this body has always seemed to have had trouble adapting to.

So if there had never been a ‘me’ — had this apparent Dave character never been afflicted with a self (and there is much evidence that a ‘self’ is completely unnecessary to a character’s effective functioning) — I’m guessing that nothing in the apparent life of this character would have been, or turned out, any differently. Given its biological and enculturated conditioning, and the circumstances of each moment, this character did and felt the only things it could possibly have, and ‘I’ had nothing to do with it.

That means that this Dave character has never been happy or unhappy, at least in the sense that ‘I’ understand these feelings, though I continue to erroneously project these feelings into the body and character I presume to inhabit.

The apparent human race self-domesticated (and gave up its cherished freedom, wildness, sense of wonder and unconditional love) as its numbers rose and as it was dislocated by recurring prehistoric climate change, but this was not because of any illness or other effect created by selves, but rather because self-domestication seemed a good adaptation at the time. Just as when wild creatures become parents, they sacrifice these same cherished values temporarily to care for their offspring; this conditioned behaviour is conditioned for because it seems to confer evolutionary advantage. Our selves had absolutely nothing to do with our species’ self-domestication or its tragic and ghastly consequences (civilization culture’s massive destructiveness and endless strife, the total loss of freedom, wildness, and connection to and sense of wonder about everything-that-is).

But, unlike these creatures we presume to inhabit, our selves have major issues with humanity’s self-domestication and its consequences. Our selves intuitively sense and “remember” the total freedom and wildness and sense of wonder and unconditional love that has seemingly been “lost”, and they “seek” endlessly and agonizingly to find it again. That endless and hopeless seeking lies at the root of our (selves’) chronic unhappiness, anxiety, dissatisfaction, rage, shame and grief.

But that is our (selves’) unhappiness, not theirs. So when Dan Gilbert talks about manufactured happiness and unhappiness, he is not talking about human characters’ happiness and unhappiness, but about our selves’ happiness and unhappiness. If I’m correct in my thinking here, no actual (apparent) creature, human or not, domesticated or not, is ever happy or unhappy. Happiness and unhappiness, unlike wonder and connection and pleasure and pain, are the exclusive domain of the illusory separate self, and as such, they are myths — they don’t exist.

That of course is completely unhelpful to the selves trying to find happiness and avoid unhappiness. But they can never be found, because what is doing the looking (the self) is an illusion, and to the characters the illusory seekers presume to inhabit and speak for, nothing has ever been lost.

So this morning, it was this apparent Dave character that did errands and crosswords and sunbathed, and spent the rest of the day in various forms of play, including writing this. And procrastinated on doing some other things.

‘I’ had no part in any of it. ‘I’ did nothing except vainly claim ownership of, and try to make sense of, what was done. ‘I’ have never done anything.

If you don’t like this article, take it up with the Dave character. I’m just stuck here, in what I thought was the Dave character’s brain and body (brain, mostly) trying, hopelessly, as always, to figure a way out, or perhaps back.

I’m not especially happy, or unhappy, about that.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

What to Believe Now

cartoon by Mort Gerberg ( in The New Yorker

I am reading Michiko Kakutani’s new book The Death of Truth, and my enduring reaction to it is, “Yeah, obviously, the idea of objective truth is being systematically undermined and mocked by those with vested interests in perpetrating lies (notably psychopathic politicians, hostile foreign governments and corporations and their toadies). That’s happened before (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Big Tobacco, Exxon, Monsanto etc) and it’s frightening. And of course we should be exercising more critical thinking and ‘defying cynicism and resignation’ and fighting to defend democratic institutions and other victims of misinformation and disinformation campaigns. But surely we’re already doing that to the best of our ability, no?”

The book provides lots of data to support its undeniable thesis, but paradoxically its lack of practical ideas to deal with this challenge may actually exacerbate our cynicism and resignation. And in fact there are probably not any solutions to this predicament.

I’m less interested in lamenting that than in trying to understand why and how it came to be. Why are people so malleable in their thinking and in their beliefs that they would come to unthinkingly support and defend preposterous untruths?

We can blame our education system for not providing us in early years with critical thinking skills, but I am not sure the dearth of such skills is a recent phenomenon.

We can blame the faux-information media for spreading and repeating such nonsense that we no longer believe anything they or anyone else says, but this is nothing new either, and if anything the lies they disseminate today are balder and more explicitly not science-based, evidence-based, or even reality-based than was the case a generation or two ago (McCarthy Era, anyone?).

We can blame corporations and their ad-men for inuring us to lies and distortions and exaggerations perpetrated at enormous cost (passed along to us in the cost of the product) to generate more profit. But this isn’t new either (tobacco ads, anyone?).

Or we can blame social media for the global ‘amplification’ and ‘democratization’ of untruths and for creating ‘bubbles’ where the truth is, by intention, never aired. And there is no question that Russia and other hostile foreign interests relentlessly exploit the ignorance and gullibility of citizens of countries they want to undermine, and flood them with millions of inflammatory and libelous fabricated stories and spread them using millions of fake and bot identities. But to some extent we choose to belong to and partake of such ‘bubbles’, and choose to believe uncritically what is said in them. And just as we unsubscribed to printed media that stopped doing their job (when it didn’t produce enough profit), we can opt out of Facebook (which continues to defend allowing and accepting money for political ads that openly lie), Twitter and the rest of the social muck media. I know people across the political spectrum who have simply stopped using these miscreants’ platforms. And I know ignorant, massively-misinformed people who never significantly participated in social media in the first place, and who never read newspapers or news magazines either. You don’t need to go online or even to a newsstand to be misinformed and lied to.

So if none of the usual suspects is to blame, why is it so many people believe such nonsense, and as a consequence exercise those misguided beliefs whenever they vote, shop and talk with others, including their own families and others who seemingly trust their judgement — all to the detriment of our health, our environment, our democracies and global peace?

My hypothesis is simple: People don’t want to know or to believe the truth; and more than that, they don’t want to think, and they don’t want to imagine the future. The real, actual, fact-based, evidence-based truth feels bad. Thinking about what is happening, and what we are, or are not, or should be, doing about it feels helplessly, hopelessly bad. Imagining the world we are leaving for future generations feels bad.

Why would anyone aspire to believe or think or do what feels bad, when there seem to be no solutions, no hope that any of it will make a difference or make anything better?

It’s not that, in this unoriginal (it’s happened often before) time of the Death of Truth, we don’t know what to think or believe, so bombarded are we with conflicting and erroneous information masquerading as truth. It’s not that truth doesn’t exist, that it’s all a point of view (short of existential arguments, there is an enormous consensus of people who have carefully and objectively studied important issues — like climate collapse and vaccines and the value of incarceration and whether smoking and other vices are bad for your health — on what is factually and on the weight of evidence true).

It is, rather, that we can’t handle the truth. We already feel bad, and we don’t want to feel bad. Our genetic and cultural conditioning, our very human nature, is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Why, when we’re all struggling to deal with our own personal physical, emotional and situational traumas, and struggling to provide for ourselves and our families, would we want to know or believe or think or imagine anything that would make us feel even worse?

I completely understand the mentality of those who choose to believe a Rapture will wash away all the terrible things seemingly happening in the world, who choose to believe technology or a singularity will fix (or render moot) everything wrong with us and our civilization, who choose to believe that the unstoppable crises bringing about the sixth great extinction of life on Earth are just hoaxes that will go away by themselves, or will go away if we let some demagogue apply a simplistic fix to them all, or who choose to believe it is some “other” group that is to blame for all these predicaments, and that getting rid of this “other” will solve everything.

And I completely understand the mentality of those who cannot resist the pull of addictions that, at least for a while, let them feel better, let them not have to worry or care about what is oppressing them, and what is, horrifically, true or real.

The bigger question in my mind is — what’s up with those of us who willingly reject simplistic solutions, unscientific and unsupportable beliefs, and lies designed to make us feel better or at least shift the blame? Are we truth-lovers masochists?

I can only answer for myself, of course. I am privileged to have lived relatively free from trauma and stress, to have been encouraged to think critically, and to have been endowed with a curious and creative mind and a rich imagination. This extraordinary privilege allows me to entertain and handle with some equanimity some very dark truths. This privilege has allowed me to get a lot of practice thinking critically, and imagining possibilities from the ghastly to the exquisite (since even if you have the mental faculties for these things they need constant practice or you quickly lose the capacity to exercise them).

So, while I am afraid of many things, the truth is not one of them. But in that, I am blessed; it has nothing to do with my own doings or initiatives.

That hasn’t always been the case: A significant part of my life was spent dealing with the Noonday Demon — utterly incapacitating depression. So I have considerable sympathy for those who haven’t had the privilege and blessings I have had (though sometimes I have to remind myself!). Those for whom even vaguely believable lies are often a respite from the grind of everyday misery. Those who believe the absurdities they have to believe because the alternative is just too much, too hard to handle. Those who dismiss inconvenient and uncomfortable truths and opt instead for oversimplifications, distortions and misrepresentations because it makes their unmanageable, impossible lives a little more hopeful, a little easier, a little less painful, a little more manageable.

Those for whom the Death of Truth is just an unacknowledged byproduct of the need to keep going, day by day, in a world that seems impossibly complicated, unbearably out-of-control, and getting inexorably, hopelessly worse.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

Links of the Month: October 2019

Too many links already to wait for December, so here’s a special monthly edition of Links of the Quarter. Warning for the soft-hearted: There are at least five tear-jerkers in these links.


award-winning photo by Turkish photographer Ílhami Çetin; the story of 83-year-old Ali Mese and his kitten Sarikiz has a happy ending (thanks to Salome Tetiashvili for the link)

Robert Jensen on Collapse: My opinion on Robert keeps changing; sometimes he seems so depressed he becomes incoherent and maudlin, but in his recent, mostly-positive review of Naomi Klein’s new book On Fire (for Common Dreams), he’s right on the mark, and provides a cogent critique of the entire environmental movement, including the Green New Deal, and suggests where we should be focused instead. Here are some excerpts, but read the whole thing:

At the conclusion of [the book] that bluntly outline the crises and explain a Green New Deal response, Klein bolsters readers searching for hope: “[W]hen the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.” It is tempting to embrace that claim, especially after nearly 300 pages of Klein’s eloquent writing that weaves insightful analysis together with honest personal reflection. The problem, of course, is that the statement is not even close to being true. With nearly 8 billion people living within a severely degraded ecosphere, there are many things we cannot, and will not, achieve. A decent human future—perhaps any human future at all—depends on our ability to come to terms with these limits. That is not a celebration of cynicism or a rationalization for nihilism, but rather the starting point for rational planning that takes seriously not only our potential but also the planet’s biophysical constraints…

[The] key points Klein makes that I agree are essential to a left/progressive analysis of the ecological crises: First-World levels of consumption are unsustainable; Capitalism is incompatible with a livable human future; The modern industrial world has undermined people’s connections to each other and the non-human world; and We face not only climate disruption but a host of other crises, including, but not limited to, species extinction, chemical contamination, and soil erosion and degradation [DP: not to mention economic collapse]. In other words, business-as-usual is a dead end, as Klein [acknowledges]…

Klein does not advocate [technological] fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire… But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have the technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail…

The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion…

My answer [to the question of what is actually sustainable on our planet]—a lot fewer people [consuming] a lot less stuff—is adequate to start a conversation: “A sustainable human presence on the planet will mean fewer people consuming less.” Agree or disagree? Why or why not? Two responses are possible from Green New Deal supporters: (1) I’m nuts, or (2) I’m not nuts, but what I’m suggesting is politically impossible because people can’t handle all this bad news.

The Green New Deal is a start, insufficiently radical but with the potential to move the conversation forward—if we can be clear about the initiative’s limitations. That presents a problem for organizers, who seek to rally support without uncomfortable caveats—“Support this plan! But remember that it’s just a start, and it gets a lot rougher up ahead, and whatever we do may not be enough to stave off unimaginable suffering” is, admittedly, not a winning slogan…

I offer a friendly amendment to the story [Naomi Klein] is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

Naomi Klein on Radically Overhauling Our Economy and Politics: In light of the above, here is an interesting chat Naomi Klein had recently with the Guardian (audio only, no transcript) on the scale of change demanded by the Green New Deal, and the requirement to couple it with social and ecological justice. (She quotes Gilets Jaunes protesters to French PM Macron: “You care about the end of the world; we care about the end of the month.” She says we have to find solutions that address both.) She also talks about the subtle link between the rise of ultra-right nationalism and the fear of environmental ruin (the Christchurch mass murderer blamed “immigrants” for, among other things, the destruction of the environment; and anti-immigration bigots attempted to take over the Sierra Club a few years ago). Worth a listen. She’s right, I think, in her diagnosis of the problems we face, but, as Robert Jensen says, terribly naive about how, and if, they can be addressed by political and economic reforms.

Yes, the Climate Crisis May Wipe Out Six Billion People: Vancouver professor Bill Rees goes through all the outraged responses to XR adviser Roger Hallam’s warning of the consequences of not preventing the current trajectory of runaway climate collapse, even those from scientists, and find that Roger’s estimate is probably about right after all. He concludes:

A more important point is that climate change is not the only existential threat confronting modern society. Indeed, we could initiate any number of conversations that end with the self-induced implosion of civilization and the loss of 50 per cent or even 90 per cent of humanity.

And that places the global community in a particularly embarrassing predicament. Homo sapiens, that self-proclaimed most-intelligent-of-species, is facing a genuine, unprecedented, hydra-like ecological crisis, yet its political leaders, economic elites and sundry other messiahs of hope will not countenance a serious conversation about it.

Jevons’ Last Laugh: The Jevons Paradox explains how, in complex systems, attempts to bring about change are almost always defeated by qualities of the system (“positive feedback loops”) that reinforce the status quo. So, as fuel-efficiency of cars grows, drivers subconsciously and guiltlessly drive farther than they would have before. When we try to find clean “renewable” energy, we find nuclear energy has fewer emissions but produces horrific radioactive waste that will outlast all of us and potentially kill far more than hydrocarbon emissions will, and both nuclear plants and fossil-fuel generating stations require vast amounts of water as a coolant. Hydro-electric plants, it turns out, have a large carbon footprint (especially their construction, and methane release) and are at risk of collapse when rain patterns shift, beside their impact on reducing water for other purposes, flooding reservoirs, disrupting fish habitats etc. And we’ve just learned that SF6, an artificial insulating gas ubiquitously used in electric transmission “switchgear” is a potent greenhouse gas, 23,000 times as disruptive as CO2, and its use is growing at 8%/year as we switch to more “renewable” forms of energy. There is only one way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and that is by consuming 90% less energy, starting more-or-less now. In other words, dismantling the industrial economy.

Canada Dithers as the World Burns: Canadians, terrified of electing another right-wing extremist Conservative government, held their nose and re-elected Trudeau, the guy who tries to please everyone and pleases no one. He’s a disaster, having reneged on the promise of proportional representation, and signed climate accords while buying a pipeline and reasserting of the ecologically ruinous Alberta Tar Sands: “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.” (And it’s about to expand again). He waffled on right-to-die legislation that turned out to be so weak the courts have had to step in to assert this essential constitutional Canadian right to the terminally ill. Meanwhile his minority government can be propped up by either the Bloc Québecois (price of support: weakening of federal rights in favour of provincial self-management ie Mulroney all over again) or the NDP (price of support: impossible to tell, since leader Jagmeet Singh seems to be a man of great principle, but his caucus and provincial counterparts are reminding him never to put the environment ahead of jobs for the working class who elected him). The Greens fizzled late in the campaign to just 6.5%, due largely to an inept campaign by their incompetent leader and her right-hand man, the arrogant and equally incapable Andrew Weaver, who botched the proportionate representation referendum in BC when the Greens held the balance of power (giving up its opposition to the execrable and endlessly-litigatable Site C Dam), and purged the party of some of its strongest leaders over his vicious and pandering opposition to BDS. Weaver has just, mercifully, resigned, though it’s not clear if the party has anyone left who can competently take over. And the Canadian media shamefully refused to admit the sad truth that the collapse of the federal NDP to just 15% of the popular vote was mostly the result of racism. Bottom line: There is no real progressive party to vote for in Canada, and Canadians are simply not willing to do anything substantial to address climate collapse, beyond politely and quietly cheering Greta Thunberg and hoping she will fix it all for us.


cartoon by Michael Maslin in the New Yorker

Let’s Tell Men to Lean Out: A recent editorial by Ruth Whippman in the NYT (sorry, behind paywall) suggests that too much emphasis has been placed on teaching and encouraging young women to “lean in” — to be more assertive, self-confident, skillful, forceful and unapologetic in putting their ideas, opinions and feelings forward; and not enough on encouraging men (of all ages) to “lean out” — listen and pay attention to what women are saying, and be less assertive, patronizing, inattentive, arrogant, and overconfident. “Women generally aren’t failing to speak up; the problem is that men are refusing to pipe down.”

On Empathy: A short, wordless film shows how we heal. Thanks to Jae Mather for the link.

The Carrier Bag Theory: Siobhan Leddy writes (Thanks to Jeff Aitken for the link):

The Carrier Bag Theory, an essay [Ursula] Le Guin wrote in 1986, disputes the idea that the spear was the earliest human tool, proposing that it was actually the receptacle. Questioning the spear’s phallic, murderous logic, instead Le Guin tells the story of the carrier bag, the sling, the shell, or the gourd. In this empty vessel, early humans could carry more than can be held in the hand and, therefore, gather food for later. Anyone who consistently forgets to bring their tote bag to the supermarket knows how significant this is. And besides, Le Guin writes, the idea that the spear came before the vessel doesn’t even make sense. ‘Sixty-five to eighty percent of what human beings ate in those regions in Paleolithic, Neolithic, and prehistoric times was gathered; only in the extreme Arctic was meat the staple food.’…

As well as its meandering narrative, a carrier bag story also contains no heroes. There are, instead, many different protagonists with equal importance to the plot. This is a very difficult way to tell a story, fictional or otherwise. While, in reality, most meaningful social change is the result of collective action, we aren’t very good at recounting such a diffusely distributed account…

The introduction of a singular hero, however, replicates a very specific and historical power relation. The pioneers and the saviors: likely male, likely white, almost certainly brimming with unearned confidence. The veneration of the hero reduces others into victims: those who must be rescued. ‘The prototypical savior is a person who has been raised in privilege and taught implicitly or explicitly (or both) that they possess the answers and skills needed to rescue others,’ writes Jordan Flaherty in his book No More Heroes. To be a hero is fundamentally privileged, and any act of heroism reinforces that privilege…The carrier bag gatherer, meanwhile, is no lone genius (genius being its own kind of heroism, after all), but rather someone rooted in a shared existence.”

Homeless? How About A School Bus?: In Ashland OR they’re converting old school buses into very comfortable, affordable, portable homes. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

What Birds Can Teach Us: Ellen Ketterson’s lovely and thoughtful lecture on Juncos has lots to teach us about how we (all creatures) evolve in place, and interact with “strangers”.


cartoon on Facebook, cartoonist’s name uncited; KriGur? Anyone know?

The Sad Truth About the Addiction Industry: Two new harrowing works depict the life and struggle of those living with chronic pain, and of those addicted to hard drugs. Amy Long’s memoir Codependence explains how, for the millions of patients suffering from chronic pain, life is lived in harrowing fear that anti-drug zealots will curtail their access to medications they simply can’t live without. “In 2016, the CDC changed its opioid-prescribing guidelines in a way that has really hurt pain patients, and I’m afraid I’ll never get the level of pain relief I need in order to write another book. So, it is a fear I live with daily but not in the way most people would expect.” And in this week’s New Yorker, Colton Wooten explains how the down-and-out are being collaboratively abused and destroyed by drug dealers and greedy “12-step” rehab/relapse centres and “sober homes” that exploit the availability of funds under the Affordable Care Act to keep addicts addicted. The addiction industry, groomed by its founders, the tobacco and alcohol industries, is much more robust and destructive than just drugs, pills, smokes and drinks. It includes our whole industrial food and pharmaceutical industry, where the profits to be made from addicting people to sugar, salt, fat and other ingested substances are dwarfed by the shared community costs of death, disease and chronic illness. Where there is more money to be made creating a few designer drugs for billionaires than drugs to cure the epidemics of the poor, and more to be made selling ineffective lifelong treatments for illnesses than selling a one-time cure. And the addiction industry includes our entertainment (including porn) and “information” and fashion industries, hooking us on the latest gadget or video and the rush of the latest “viral” meme. When you have an economic model that puts profit above everything else, the addiction industry flourishes.

The Industrial Food Industry Digs In: One of the fronts of the addiction industry vs the citizenry is the “official” dietary standards promulgated by national health departments. In past years, the deliberations for these have been dominated by self-interested industrial food corporations, to ensure the “food guidelines” continue to encourage consumption of the toxic and addictive foods that eventually sicken and kill most of us living in affluent nations. In the US, it looks as if this will continue indefinitely: The USDA and Health Dept have jointly announced that any changes will not consider any adverse health effects of “ultraprocessed foods, sodium, or meat”, despite mounds of scientific evidence just as compelling as that implicating the tobacco industry. In Canada, the industrial food industry was outraged at not being invited to create and co-write the latest standards, and Canada’s ultra-Conservative leader said that if he was elected (he wasn’t) he would scrap the new guidelines and invite the industry back for a rewrite. Money talks; download and save a copy of the new guidelines while you can.

The Dark Side of Techno-Utopianism: We so love new technologies, and the hopes and dream they might possibly fulfil. But we turn a blind eye to their dangers — exploitation, corruption, tyranny, abuse, hucksterism, propaganda, and misappropriation. Neither Gutenberg nor Zuckerberg ever understood what they’d unleashed.

Another Bank Bailout Needed Please: Uh, it’s the Repo Market this time. Um, it’s seized up, rates are bouncing all over the place. We need about, uh, $400B to get it moving again. Thanks! Thanks to Nicole Foss for the link.

45 Reacts to Greta, and Vice Versa: If you haven’t seen this short clip, take a look. No words need be said.

The Opposite of Democracy: The corrupt autocracy/plutocracy of the Russian state is evidence that democracy does not naturally follow the demise of an unpopular dictatorship. But its effects are not limited to the Russian borders. Those living in the annexed provinces of Ukraine or Georgia, or under the Russian puppet regime in Chechnya cannot even see the hope of freedom from fear and repression, even if they move to more democratic nations. Count your blessings.

NYT Paywall Corner: Behind the NYT paywall (which I can now only see with the help of news readers, to the extent I still bother to read their stuff at all), there are some strange things happening. Apologies if these links don’t work for you; if they don’t you’ll have to take my word for it. The NYT seems to be not-so-subtly endorsing Biden and subtly (using selected op-ed writers and pushing their stuff up the masthead) dissing Elizabeth Warren. Their rationale seems to be that Elizabeth is too “radical” to beat 45. So a recent article suggested that Facebook will prevent her from ever being elected. And an editorial by “opinion columnist” Bret Stephens, which appeared right at the top of the NYT’s RSS feed Friday, was headlined “Elizabeth Warren is Trying to Lose Your Vote“, and was nothing short of a character assassination, accusing her of being a radical “socialist” who would bring in an army of “mandarins” to implement her “unrealistic”, “risky” and “unsafe” plans. Stephens lauded fracking as a huge success and boon to the US economy, said that Medicare for All would mean huge increases in taxes for the middle class and put a half million administrators out of work, and said that the breakup of the mega-tech companies threatened an essential $500B, 800,000-employee industry. By pushing this ultra-right-wing, climate crisis-denying, negative, fear-mongering editorialist’s view, what does the NYT think it’s doing? And where did this wingnut get the credentials to warrant his “opinion” being published in the ostensibly progressive NYT anyway? [Meanwhile, in less visible, fairer coverage in this troubled publication, Robert Scott lauds Elizabeth’s plan to devalue the US dollar by up to 27% to create new domestic jobs as a “shock” fix to chronic underemployment, cheap imports and lost American manufacturing jobs. And another op-ed from last June talks at length about her sensible but radical policies to reduce income inequality, corporate power and corruption.] There; now you don’t have to read the NYT.


via Eric Lilius; several versions of this going around over the past 5 years; not sure who originated it

Improvvisazione Per Eccellenza: The annual international classical music festival MiTo (Milano/Torino) draws some of the best artists from all over the world. Sometimes, some amazing improvisational work just happens, as in this performance by Coro il Polifonico Adiemus of Rachmaninoff’s Vesper Bogoroditse Devo, or this one of Eric Whitacre’s Sleep. (The stunning 2,000 virtual voice version of Sleep is here.)

Speaking of Excellent Choirs: South Africa’s Stellenbosch University Choir is breathtaking in their energy, skill and variety of undertakings, from the local IsiXhosa song Indodana (“I Am The Voice”) to the soaring Jake Runestad work Let My Love Be Heard that even has some of the performers in tears. Bravo/brava, singers, Jake, and maestro André van der Merwe. (And one more extraordinary choral work: Octet VOCES8 performs a choral version of Elgar’s Nimrod Enigma Variation.)

Girls in Space: Award-winning animation One Small Step.

Anti-Vaxxers Beware: In a priceless take-off on medical warnings, “Doctors warn this year’s flu vaccine may contain high levels of immunity“. The Beaverton is Canada’s answer to the Onion.

My Ireland: Then-eighteen-year-old Sibéal Ní Chasaide sings Mise Éire, My Ireland, on the centenary of the country’s War of Independence. As Brexit again threatens Irish peace, this song now comes across as disquieting rather than cathartic.

Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour: The dynamic duo team up on Peter’s In Your Eyes, also with Angelique Kidjo and the Soweto Gospel Choir at a benefit for Nelson Mandela back in 2010.

Even More Music: The World Listening Post has a carefully-curated collection of audio and video samples of modern folk music from over 100 countries.

Joy Williams, Anyone?: Readers tend to either love or loathe Joy Williams’ work, which is quirky, ambiguous (though not meanly so), and sometimes Kafkaesque. I love her stuff. Here’s a sampler of her most recent New Yorker stories, with the latest, The Fellow, IMO especially intriguing.

Extinction, Anyone?: Jonathan Pie cheers on XR and lampoons those who object to its “inconvenience”.

Feline Cystitis Explained, Hilariously: A Hungarian vet-cartoonist explains this common and uncomfortable cat disease. Ouch! Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link, and the one that follows.

Fungi Twice As Old As Previously Thought: A new discovery of fossils of one billion-year-old fungi requires the re-dating of the entire evolutionary path of life on Earth.


cartoon by Edward Steed in the New Yorker

Things I’ve Found Strangely Reassuring, by PS Pirro:

I recently finished Tim Flannery’s Europe, A Natural History. Millions of years of shifting continents, changing climates, giant creatures that came and went. Not to absolve us humans of our tendency toward wreckage, but it’s pretty clear the planet doesn’t need us to save her. Polar bears, redwoods, songbirds, they’re at our mercy. But the planet? She’ll sneeze and there we’ll go.

Edra Ziesk, on friendship:

I think some of my early – and longest – friendships were modeled on the relationship I had with my mother. Who was jealous, unkind, and angry. Who wished me healthy, but not really well: not more successful, more creative, happier than she perceived herself to be. I’m a loyal person and friendship, to me, is a permanent state, so I stayed friends with people who, as it turned out, at bottom didn’t really like me. Or who, like my mother, wished me healthy, wished me okay, but not well.

The one thing a friendship requires, always and only, is that the friends wish each other well. How that’s demonstrated matters less than that each friend knows they can rely on the good will and ear and heart of the other.

Tom Blakeney, in response to this Jonathan Pie video:

In one corner: hypersensitive immaturity. In the other corner: malevolent bigots. In the middle of the ring: the majority, who can not only take a joke, but can differentiate between humour and hate speech.

From Peter Kaminski, 5 recent tweets about Greta Thunberg:

William Gibson, @GreatDismal –
[responding to a tweet with “more flies with honey than with vinegar”]
No flies on Greta. Her autism, her lack of “honey”, is the result of a clinical inability to bullshit. Hence we, neurotypicals, hear a human voice of oracular clarity. Which terrifies and/or enrages some of us.

Zoe Rose, @z_rose –
I know it’s a side point, but it’s reasonable to predict that hundreds of thousands of previously unidentified autistic girls and women will recognise themselves in @GretaThunberg and realise what makes them different, and the very idea of that mass liberation makes me cry.

Margo Claire, @margowithan_o –
I am EXTREMELY inspired by Greta Thunberg’s refusal to smile or make jokes throughout all this media coverage. To see a woman so young not give up any of her power to ease the tension in the room is wildly thrilling and significant. I hope it’s contagious.

Dr. Ann Olivarius, @AnnOlivarius –
So rare to see a girl (not to mention a woman) so utterly devoid of any desire to please, placate or cajole. Greta Thunberg is effortlessly giving a master class in female anger. We should all take notes.

Greta Thunberg, @GretaThunberg –
When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!
I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.  #aspiepower

From Kevin Armentrout:

While waiting to board our plane, my daughter was being her usual inquisitive self wanting to meet and say “hi” to everyone she could, until she walked up on this man. He reached out and asked if she wanted to sit with him. He pulled out his tablet and showed her how to draw with it, they watched cartoons together, and she offered him snacks. This wasn’t a short little exchange, this was 45 minutes. Watching them in that moment, I couldn’t help but think, different genders, different races, different generations, and the best of friends. In a country that is continuously fed that it’s so deeply divided, this is the world I want for her. Joseph, thank you for showing my daughter what kindness and compassion looks like. Continue to shine your light in the world.

Seal Lullaby, by Rudyard Kipling, also wonderfully, heart-breakingly set to music by Eric Whitacre:

Oh, hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us
And black are the waters that sparkled so green
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between

Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow
Oh weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee
Asleep in the arms of the slow swinging seas

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on Links of the Month: October 2019

What You Do Not Know

Look closely: focus on the space in between
the instant passed, that moment
just a moment ago,
that we somehow thought was real,
and the instant upon us,
that we somehow think will really come —
what is that between the two?

Look closer and that space, too, seems made up
of many tinier moments, past or yet to come,
so that you have to gaze even more closely
looking for the still point we’re sure we know
lies just after one and just before another.

But it, too, is just, on closer examination,
an infinite line,
and the more you look,
it doesn’t even quite seem a continuous one —
how do you know
that moment ‘followed’ this,
or ‘preceded’ another?

Go all the way down the rabbit hole
and, up very close,
it’s seen that there are no moments,
not even the grand imaginary Now,
the only moment
we must believe in —
all there is
is that lonely space in between.

How could we be so deluded?
What magic trick is this, and who’s behind it?

Now — turn your careful gaze to this leaf,
and to the tiny aphid
crawling across it. Put your strongest lens on it
and suddenly it isn’t an aphid,
it isn’t any ‘thing’,
but rather an array of quarks and gluons,
in an unfathomable pattern
comprised mostly of nothing at all.

Look closer still,
and the quarks have disappeared
and in their place are some things tinier still,
each still
with the illusion of solidity,
of being substantial, until
you magnify by another order of magnitude
and then they’re gone too.

Now you search in vain,
because there was something tiny there
one turn of the lens ago,
but now you can see nothing —
all there is
is that forsaken space in between.

Another trick! —
surely we just aren’t looking right,
we haven’t got the right point of view,
the right tools
to see the solid end
to this fathomless mystery.

This is not fair! We’re being tricked
and not told what the trick is, the answer
that makes sense of it all — aha!


Yet there is something inside us,
or somewhere,
whispering to us
that it is no trick,
that it doesn’t make sense,
that it doesn’t have to make sense,
and that in fact there are only appearances,
nothing ‘real’ at all.

There are only figments of reality,
sleights of mind.
No matter!

But this is not acceptable —
if there is no real time, or space,
or thing, then how, who…?
Look out! Think like that
and you might disappear.

And then what?

Well, then everything.


image of aphid from USFDA via Wikipedia, public domain

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments