The Illusion of Community

graphic of four types of community and the qualities that make each cohere, by Aaron Williamson (my suggested additions are in red)
Much is being written these days, in political, social, business and collapsnik circles, among others, about community. Most of it assumes that there is such a thing.

A few years ago I wrote a response to Aaron Williamson’s then-new model of community and identity, diagrammed above. Aaron acknowledged that “a community or potential community is a complex system” and that “community itself is an emergent quality — community, per se, does not exist; it is a perceived connection between a group of people based on overlaps of intentidentity, interest and experience”. These four aspects of our ‘selves’ are shown as green circles, above. Elements of each aspect are shown in orange circles.

In this model, overlaps between ‘selves’ can result in the emergence of different types of community:

  • If the overlap is mainly common interests, it will emerge as a Community of Interest. Learning and recreational communities are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common capacities, it will emerge as a Community of Practice. Co-workers, collaborators and alumni communities are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common intent, it will emerge as an Intentional Community or Movement. Project teams, various communal living groups and activist groups are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common identity, it will emerge as a Tribe. Partnerships, love/family relationships, gangs and cohabitants are often of this type.

At the time I wrote “You cannot create community, all you can do is try to create or influence conditions in such a way that the community self-creates (self-forms, self-organizes and self-manages) [and emerges] in a healthier, more sustainable and resilient way.” I identified what I thought were 8 key qualities of such healthy communities and their members: Effective processes for invitation, facilitation, and the building of members’ capacities, strong collective processes, and members’ individual skills of self-knowledge, self-awareness, self-caring, attention and appreciation.

It’s hard to find good enduring examples of such communities. The late, great Joe Bageant taught me that “community is born of necessity”. He showed me what that meant by telling me the story of the isolated village of Hopkins, Belize (while I was visiting him there). Hopkins was formed when a group of slave ships ran aground in a storm 300 years ago, and the survivors escaped and made their way up the Caribbean coast and created a new community there, one which thrived without intervention until it was wrecked just in the last generation by foreigners through trawler overfishing of the Gulf, and the imposition of land title laws (and fences, and walls) on their ‘free’ indigenous common land.

Why did this community succeed for so long? Because the escapees had no choice but to make it succeed; it was life-and-death. This is the ultimatum the collapse of our civilization’s systems and culture will soon present us all with, as possibly two billion climate refugees in a Great Migration bring about the ultimate clash of cultures and the final demise of all of our civilization’s systems.

This is why few of what we would like to call communities today, are actually that: It’s too easy for most to just pick up and leave when they don’t like the people, processes or circumstances of their adopted, emergent communities. There is no necessity holding us together when things get uncomfortable, no requirement to live with and love neighbours we don’t particularly like.

We seek community now for a number of non-essential reasons driven by individual wants and ambitions: attention and appreciation, collaboration on projects, movements and enterprises where we share goals, skills, needs or passions, as well as for protection from perceived threats. The people I met in Hopkins sometimes sought these things, but they weren’t what created or held together the community. And as that community is being destroyed from outside pressures (the loss of their primary food source and their land), what brought and kept them together won’t help them withstand its demise. To anyone who’s studied indigenous cultures, it’s an old story.

So we look for others with whom to form community, individually — online in social media and virtual worlds, in dating services, in ‘meetup’ groups, in clubs, in social organizations. But most of us drift in and out of such groups, dissatisfied with their offerings, mourning their inability to find what we really want — existential connection. All that expectation is loaded up on the shoulders of spouses, governments and employers to fill the existential gap, which they can’t hope to deliver.

The traditional places where people seeking community congregated — churches, higher learning institutions, guilds, cooperatives etc, are in disarray, their memberships falling. This is partly because we’ve become too picky about what we want from so-called community organizations. We want them to cater to our individual wants and needs, and their ‘commercial’ replacements assert that they offer that, though they do not.

So what is this ‘existential connection’ that is lacking in modern ‘communities’? At its heart, I think it is connection to place and to all other life on the planet, which most of us have become disconnected, even dissociated from. We all ‘know’ somehow that living naturally is communal, connected, mutual, integral, unselfish, and loving — the very opposite of individual and isolated and competitive and the ‘optimizing of self-interest’ that underlies our entire modern dysfunctional and massively destructive economic systems.

When I go to meetups of new groups now, I often find such a sense of absolute desperation for community (of all four types), that when they achieve even the brief illusion of that integral sense of community, many present will start to cry in unrestrained (and infectious) appreciation and joy. They will swear to have made vital lifelong connections. But a month later those apparent connections will have vanished. Desperation is not yet necessity. We return to our fragmented, community-less lives.

If you’ve been reading my stuff in the last few years, you’ll know I no longer proffer any ‘solutions’. This predicament is endemic to our modern, global, dog-eat-dog, utterly individualistic culture, a culture that has crushed all of the remaining sensible ones. The system has to fall before we will once again learn what it means to know the necessity of living in community, of being community. There is no cure, no ‘fix’ for Civilization Disease, the disease of disconnection, fear and antipathy.

The problem with systems, as I’ve explained before, is that they don’t really exist. So while in a way the ‘system’ is the problem (it’s associated with our incapacity to reconnect and hence rediscover true community), it’s actually just a label our pattern-seeking brains use to try to understand why things are the way they are. Yet our minds, our ‘selves’ that supposedly sit at the centre of our communities (as depicted in the chart above) are themselves just labels, concepts, pattern-making, attempts to make sense of what ‘we’ cannot hope to understand. (Aaron, as a non-dualist, hints at this, though perhaps wisely he doesn’t really get into it in his writings aimed at business clients who are likely addicted to these illusions, and fiercely ‘self’- and ‘system’-driven.

Some day, in a world probably millennia hence with many fewer human creatures, there will likely once again be real community everywhere on what’s left of our planet. But they will not be communities of interest, practice, experience, capacity or even identity. The ‘selves’ in the centre of Aaron’s model will not exist. There will be no need for these parochial communities, or the selves that cohere them. There will be community of necessity, delight and wonder, non-exclusionary, embracing all life, free from self. There will be no choice. In the meantime, there is nothing to be done. One day, everything will be free.

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

The Not-So-Incredible Adventures of Equani-Mouse

cartoon by Felicia Bond on wikimedia, CC-SA 3.0
The people were worried. The Evil Drumpf had seized power in the kingdom. He had installed his corrupt Minions in positions of power, and was plundering the Commons and threatening war with any neighbour who did not accept his absolute edicts. On the ramparts, the people looked hopefully toward the horizon. The children were crying.

“We need a miracle”, said one man.

“If only a hero would come and rescue us”, said another.

Suddenly there was a flash in the sky, and a luminous grey creature descended to Earth in front of the crowd.

“Get back, it’s a giant rodent!”, warned an observant woman.

“Eeew!”, cried the children.

But the giant rodent was undeterred, and turned to the crowd, speaking in a calm voice.

“Don’t be afraid”, the creature said, in a voice that seemed to reverberate around the ramparts. “I am here to help you in this time of need. I am — Equani-Mouse!” His name echoed through the crowd.

“Are you going to kill the Evil Drumpf and restore peace and democracy to the land?”, asked a young boy.

“Just tell us what to do to get rid of this demon, and we’ll follow you”, urged an anxious mother.

Equani-Mouse shook its head and smiled, beseeching the crowd to listen. “I am an expert in complex systems, and what you are dealing with is not a problem with one man, but a predicament. The Evil Drumpf is only one of a million connected variables, evidence of a system in late-stage collapse.”

“Drumpf isn’t a predicament, he’s a whack-job”, interrupted an adolescent. “He needs to be confronted and stopped, now.” The crowd buzzed and nodded in agreement.

Equani-Mouse sighed. “What you must realize about predicaments is that they cannot be ‘fixed’. The only approach to them is to understand and accept what they represent, and learn to cope with and adapt to them. Chop wood and carry water, before and after Drumpf, who is only a symptom of a much greater malaise.”

Many in the crowd frowned, and some outright scowled.

“Boo!”, one boy cried out. “The Evil Drumpf is destroying everything. He’s sick, and incompetent. Don’t tell us to accept him.”

“You’re a fraud!”, a man said, looking at Equani-Mouse menacingly. “You’re not here to help us at all. You’re trying to discourage us. You are probably one of the Evil Drumpf’s Minions!”

The crowd grew increasingly agitated and hostile. Finally, a woman called for order and said to Equani-Mouse: “Look, maybe you’re the wrong person, er… creature, for this job. All we want is justice, what our people have always sought: global human equality, a cosmopolitan world civilisation, fair and free trade, the spread of personal liberty and secular democracy to all corners of the globe. These goals are so obviously desirable that it is inconceivable that we should ever stop progressing towards them. Your telling us to just accept this aberration Drumpf is cowardly and unhelpful. Perhaps you could send us a super-hero better equipped for the task of liberating us and getting us back on track.”

The crowd cheered and applauded this comment. Equani-Mouse took a deep breath. and then replied: “You seem to think that civilization is destined to greater and greater levels of progress and humanity. Your textbooks and media and leaders lie, telling you only what you want to hear. You may be living a much better life now than your species did a couple of centuries or millennia ago, but compared to prehistoric humans, you’re less happy, less healthy, less resilient, less sustainable, more destructive, and most importantly less attuned and connected to the wisdom of all life on this planet. Your civilization is a hubristic affront to millions of years of astonishing evolution on this fragile and beautiful planet. Yet all you want from me is to enable you to try to continue what you have been doing, which is disastrous.”

There was silence. One boy said what others were apparently thinking: “What a loser. The giant rodent wants us to accept the Evil Drumpf as punishment for something we didn’t do, as if it were a plague or pestilence from God. Its advice is hopeless. I say we send it packing. We don’t need another hero. All we want is life beyond the Evil Drumpf. We have leaders, let’s follow them instead.”

Equani-Mouse smiled sadly, and replied:

“You may not realize it, but the Evil Drumpf won’t be able to do anything different from what your last leader, HopiumMan, did. He won’t do anything that is more than symbolically different from what your usurped leader MoreOfTheSameWoman would have done. Look around you. All the systems you’ve built are crumbling. Nothing is working the way it was designed to. You have inadvertently and foolishly desolated the planet and brought about the sixth great extinction of life on it. All your civilized systems are doing is speeding up that process, and causing universal suffering. There’s nothing you can do to change that but accept it, live joyfully in the time that’s left, and do your best to help all the creatures you share this part of this amazing planet with, in small ways that are within your control. A thousand small acts of loving kindness, compassion and understanding, taking joy in others’ joy, and equanimity — these are the ways you all have to do that. What the Evil Drumpf does is of no consequence, and all the news about his deeds is just a distraction causing you stress and grief for no reason.”

“Not buying that Buddhist crap”, said a woman standing near Equani-Mouse. “We can get rid of the Evil Drumpf and his Minions, but we need to be united and forceful, not stand meekly and idly by while he pillages our land and mistreats our people. Let’s join together and send up a prayer to show us the way. Who’s with me?”

The crowd moved toward the woman and slowly the group joined hands and once again turned their eyes to the horizon as the woman uttered her prayer. Suddenly the sky darkened with the shadows of two more flying figures. The wind picked up, and with a flourish a caped woman and a caped man landed in front of the crowd. Equani-Mouse was jostled aside. The woman spoke first:

“Equani-Mouse is wrong!” she shouted. “We can show you the way! I am BeTheChangeHumyn, and this is DeepGreenGuy. A better world is possible. Together we can help you defeat the Evil Drumpf and restore peace, democracy and progress to this great land!” Equani-Mouse winced at the word “progress” but said nothing, shaking its head sadly.

“We must organize, resist, refuse to give up”, BeTheChangeHumyn continued. DeepGreenGuy nodded and chimed in: “There is no honour in passivity. We are all by nature activists, and when we listen we know what needs to be done. We may fail, but we will if necessary die trying”.

Some people in the crowd looked nervous when they heard these last words. But almost everyone in the crowd agreed with either BeTheChangeHumyn or DeepGreenGuy, and as the pair walked away from the ramparts toward the Tower where the Evil Drumpf was, the crowd followed eagerly behind.

Equani-Mouse was left nearly alone, but it shrugged off the rejection. The only people left were a woman and her daughter, who walked over to Equani-Mouse to offer thanks. “They’re not ready for your message,” the woman said. “Their humynism, their activism, their hope, their outrage, it’s a religion to them, a salve, their way of coping.”

“I know,” Equani-Mouse replied, hugging the pair. The little girl smiled at the large grey creature and said, smiling “I thought you were going to try to convince them that there was no Drumpf, that everything that seems to be is an illusion”.

As they walked off toward the forest Equani-Mouse responded, laughing quietly, “Yeah, like that would have worked.”

Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

When Our “Health Care” Systems Fall Apart

Screen capture of part of the interactive Information is Beautiful visualization “Snake Oil Supplements”. The static image above shows only the results for tests related to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, pain and infections. The disease or condition for which the supplement was evaluated is shown beneath the name of the supplement in the circle; where the visualization did not have space to identify the condition, I have added it beside the supplement name in red. Please click on the circle on the original visualization for details of the precise conditions evaluated, and links to the specific tests/trials/studies that the evaluation is based on.

David McCandless regularly updates his “Snake Oil Supplements” data visualization, that shows graphically the results of many double-blind clinical trials and other tests of the efficacy of many supplements — herbs, plant extracts, vitamins, minerals, hormones and other commercial products, most of which are not regulated or inspected by the US Food & Drug Administration. It’s a stunning piece of work worth admiring in its own right (as is much of the other work on the Information Is Beautiful site).

The credits for this visualization are:

Research: Stephanie Smith, Miriam Quick
Sources: PubMed,,
RCTs and population studies. Metastudies & large trials used where possible.

A whole bunch of caveats (some theirs, mostly mine) to consider before anyone should put stock in this data:

  1. Every body is different. Just because a statistically significant proportion of test subjects reacted in a particular way to some supplement, doesn’t mean you will.
  2. Much medical research is funded by corporations and other vested interests. Research that doesn’t conform to the message the funders want to convey may never be reported.
  3. Many of these trials involve quite small samples of patients. Most of them carry the standard disclaimer “more research is necessary”.
  4. Tests by reputable public interest groups on supplements have revealed that many commercial supplements either do not contain much (or sometimes any) of the ingredient shown on the label, or are adulterated with other substances, some of which are toxic. This is what happens when the “free market” operates without regulation in the public interest.
  5. There are relatively few tests done on the health benefits of foods and other substances that are inexpensive and easy to obtain or grow/produce yourself, because there is no money to be made from the results of such research (in fact, positive nutrition results could lessen the number of sick people and lessen the use of commercial medicines, making the medical/pharmaceutical industry less “profitable”).
  6. The fact that tests suggest a health benefit from using a particular food or supplement in treating one specific disease, does not mean that supplement is beneficial for other conditions. Example: Fish oil (omega-3) seems to be promising in prevention and treatment of colorectal cancer, but not for other cancers, alzheimers/dementia, cardiovascular disease, asthma, depression or mental illness; it doesn’t seem to increase intelligence, and correlates with a higher risk of prostate cancer. So don’t rejoice or frown just because your favourite or least-favourite supplement shows up as beneficial or harmful for any one specific condition.
  7. Some of these results are when used as a preventive measure, while others are when used as a treatment. Click on the circles in the original visualization to see specifics of each finding.

I’m a believer that the best way to stay healthy is to take the primary role in the self-management of your own health. That means carefully monitoring what works for you, and researching and double-checking anything a health professional (or commercial vendor!) tells you. It means focusing on staying healthy, rather than scrambling for treatments when you fall ill. It means tracking your whole-body health (physical and emotional), eating well, exercising regularly, and doing other things that humans did to look after their health for the million years before the industrial health care system emerged. Although human health is likely better now on average than at any time since civilization (and disaster agriculture) began some thirty millennia ago, there is evidence we’re still much sicker than “prehistoric” humans.

When I contracted ulcerative colitis in 2006, self-management was critical to my recovery, and it has been largely responsible for my complete remission since then. I tried over two dozen suggested medicines and supplements during my recovery, and used regression analysis to determine that only two of them (mesalamine, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory related to aspirin but with a lower bleeding risk in long-term use, and low-dose iron) actually improved (or prevented worsening of) my health. The regression analysis likewise indicated the value of regular weekly (10km running and/or 6 hrs fast walking) aerobic exercise, additional core/upper body exercise, good sleep, a healthy whole-plant-based diet (vegetarian, and vegan since 2010), and other stress-busting activities.

Most of the supplements I tried provided no clear benefit (I eliminated them one by one, and then added them back one by one as a double check on their efficacy). This is consistent with the findings in the visualization — that most supplements are ineffective for most people. This is likely true for a complex set of reasons: Nothing works for everyone, many people get what they need from their diets and don’t need (sometimes absurdly expensive) supplements, and many people are ill because of poor diet and poor lifestyle dating back decades, and are unlikely to benefit dramatically from changes this late in the game.

Our bodies evolved over a million years to be optimally healthy just from eating what was available locally. Why would we imagine that exotic substances ingested now would somehow improve on what nature and evolution have given us?

In my last post I mentioned Nutrition Facts, physician Michael Greger’s non-profit volunteer-driven organization whose aim is to encourage more research into how healthy nutrition can prevent or delay almost all of the diseases that kill and sicken us in affluent nations. His speeches are well-researched, immensely insightful, evidence-based, and entertaining — well worth your time to explore (and most of his videos have transcripts, so you can choose to watch or read, whichever you prefer).

A few of the things I’ve learned from his research:

  • Many of the foods my body naturally seems drawn to (raw broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, spinach, cole slaw, berries, bananas, chilis and other spices, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, tea) are precisely the foods best for me. Many of them are the richest in micronutrients and have natural anti-inflammatory properties (colitis is an autoimmune ie inflammatory disease). Many of them contain natural salicylates (like aspirin). Turmeric may even be as effective an anti-inflammatory as the mesalamine maintenance dose I’m taking now.
  • Several good reasons for adding more nutritional yeast, and taking B12 and D3 supplements, especially in the winter — good advice for all vegans.
  • While I usually allow myself occasional cheese, dairy or eggs when I eat at restaurants with no vegan options, the cheese and dairy can precipitate colitis attacks and the eggs are especially bad for LDL cholesterol. So to be on the safe side, I’m going to cease indulging in these entirely. I can bring my own vegan substitutes to restaurants.
  • Sulfites in alcohol can also precipitate colitis attacks by interfering with the positive effects of fibre in the intestines. Won’t kill me to be on the safe side here too.
  • Although my LDL cholesterol level is within safe limits, it could ideally be lower; reducing oils, using less coconut oil by substituting unsaturated oils, and using less (vegan) creamer in my tea would probably help. If I could develop a taste for tea without creamer or sweetener, that would be doubly advantageous. Could be a challenge though. And it means giving up my favourite sweet chai.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that none of the health care systems in affluent nations is sustainable. The American system is by far the worst, for reasons I’ve talked about before, and headed for collapse, no matter which party is in power. The Canadian system, which now covers only the costs of physicians, hospital care and surgeons (not alternative medicine, not prescriptions, not physiotherapy, not dental care, not eye care, not psychological therapy — ie less than half of most citizens’ total health costs) is not far behind, squeezed by out-of-control increases in drug costs, antiquated infrastructure, and, yes — over-dependence by patients.

The self-management process I follow is rare. Doctors I’ve spoken to say that if every patient followed my example the system would be fine, but few have the time, research skill, and practice looking after their own health, even jointly with their doctors, to do so. Some are completely (and deliberately) dependent on expensive medications for chronic, lifelong diseases (exactly as Big Pharma wants us).

The health systems as we know and depend on them are going down. They’re bloated, exploited by greedy pharmaceutical companies, burdened with obsolete infrastructure, fragmented rather than holistic in patient care, preoccupied with expensive cures for diseases of the very rich, and with the “war on drugs” (forcing doctors to try to solve the social problem of prescription painkillers appropriated by citizens struggling with untreated mental health issues and inadequate social support systems), unbalanced in its generalist/specialist mix, overextended (Canadian GPs can only bill the medical system for 10 minutes for each patient they see), demoralized, over-regulated in some places (thanks to lawyers and insurance companies terrifying health practitioners with opportunistic malpractice suits), under-regulated in other places (eg unscrupulous doctors trying to build their reputations by using clueless patients as guinea pigs for potentially dangerous ‘novel’ procedures), adulterated by fear-mongering hucksters of worthless-to-dangerous ‘alternative’ potions and treatments to vulnerable, ignorant customers, and utterly inflexible. It’s beyond reform.

When, like the rest of our civilization’s unsustainable industrial systems, our health care systems come apart, and are just abandoned by bankrupt governments and insolvent insurance companies and HMOs, leaving us to our own devices, if we aren’t prepared to take care of ourselves and others in our communities, we’re in for a rude shock. In health matters as in everything vulnerable to collapse, resilience starts with personal self-management, and then moves to community-based self-sufficiency. We have a very long way to go.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | Leave a comment

Being, Differently

(larger PDF version)
Last month, I wrote two articles on my endeavour to be more attentive, appreciative, playful and full of wonder in everything I do. It’s the kind of post I haven’t written in a long time, since I’ve come to believe that our selves are illusory, and that hence we really have no control over what we do or don’t do.

So I was cautious in my ambitions: The idea was to see how I could make what I know I’m already going to be doing anyway, easier and more fun, by doing it differently in a way that would also increase my attentiveness, appreciation, playfulness and sense of wonder.

Some of my regular readers justifiably called me on the contradiction between these ambitions and my assertions about the impossibility of self-change. What I wanted to see is whether striving to do these things would prove futile (vindicating non-duality), or whether my success at doing them would undermine my recent belief in our lack of free will, choice and self-control.

It’s early going, but I have noticed some patterns to my behaviour in the month since I made the original list of 17 “ways of being differently” that I had hoped would inspire and influence my attentiveness and appreciativeness. Here’s what I have noticed:

  • I need cues to remind me of these attentiveness and appreciation activities: After a brief flurry of using this list quite deliberately, I found that there needed to be some ‘marker’ to bring my attention to the 17 items on the list at the appropriate times. Lacking such cues, I have only played the Teahouse Game, for example, when I’ve found myself in a teahouse (it could be played many other places). Most of the 17 items are not my normal behaviour, not who ‘I’ am, and so remembering to do them and doing them has proven to be astonishingly hard.
  • A simple cue that can be put in place in advance seems to be most effective. Last month I explained how my treadmill desk has made my aerobic workouts easier and more fun (by allowing me to multi-task while I exercise). This past month I’ve had a list of non-duality audios and videos taped beside my free weights, and hence have been listening to these recordings to pass the time when I do my upper body and core exercises. So far, so good.
  • Some simple cues don’t work. I had a “heat turned down?” sign on the stairway for a year which I ignored. What did work was permanently turning down the thermostat and not turning it back up. Now, when I do turn up the thermostat, I immediately program it to turn back down again at a pre-set future time automatically. I may be incorrigible, but make it dead easy and apparently I can be trained.
  • Generic cues that don’t make it easier or more fun don’t work. The old tie-a-string-on-the-finger or have-your-phone-beep-on-the-hour cues (to ‘remind’ you to breathe or check in or whatever) just proved to be annoying and I quickly stopped using them.
  • A list itself is too complicated to serve as a cue. I’ve carried it around, but it doesn’t get used. There is also far too much on the list, and some of the activities on it are neither easy nor fun. I decided to slash the size of the list, and have simple cues for each in a place I’ll stumble on them when I’m doing an applicable activity.

The streamlined, re-cast list is the first 5 rows of the chart above. For each of the 5 major types of activity that make up most of my waking hours, I’ve identified one or a few ways in which I might be more attentive and appreciative doing these things. And then I’ve identified an easy-to-follow (or fun) cue, prepared and properly placed in advance that might remind me of these ways in the moment.

So when I am about to check my emails or online groups, or about to start composing an article, story or piece of music, a little “?” flag (pasted at the top of my screen beside the camera) reminds me to check in on whether I’m enjoying it and think about how it might become easier or more fun. Before starting scheduled social activities (especially those I’m not excited about), I look at a small card that I clip to the event paperwork that reminds me to pay attention to my feelings, body, instincts and to listen appreciatively without rushing to judgement or response.

In addition to putting non-duality recordings beside my weights, I’ve moved lights, candles, incense, oils, binoculars and microscope to where I’m likely to see and reach them easily (and hence use them more often) when I’m listening to music, going for walks etc.

This is all about setting myself up, by making it easier and more fun to increase my attentiveness and appreciation for what’s actually happening, in everything I do.

So back to the non-duality question: Did ‘I’ decide to do this, and if it keeps working does that mean that my ‘self’ actually does make decisions that affect the creature whose body my ‘self’ purportedly occupies? Or were all these mental gymnastics the only thing this creature could have done, ‘self’ or not?

I think it’s the latter. It’s in the curious and idealistic nature of this creature to try techniques (like Getting Things Done), and acquire tools (I have bought other exercise equipment that I quickly gave up using and gave away), to influence my behaviour. ‘I’ have no choice but to explore and lay out cues that prompt me to do things differently. This was what provoked me to acquire the treadmill desk a couple of years ago. Since then ‘I’ haven’t changed — I still hate exercising and procrastinate about it. But because it’s now easier and more fun, this creature is exercising more regularly.  Non-duality vindicated, or at least not undermined.

Something happened in the midst of all this that set this experiment back considerably: An unseasonably cold, windy and snowy winter that isolated me in my home (which depends on electricity for heat) caused my anxiety level to soar. I fell into a lethargic and unhealthy state and could not shake myself out of it. In my younger days this would have likely led to a full-scale bout of depression, but this creature seemingly has outgrown the chemistry of depression and instead now gets into an anxious, spacey, incapacitated state until the source of anxiety passes.

As soon as the weather improved, I was back to thinking about how I might reduce such unhealthy reactions in future. I know I can’t avoid stress, but I wondered if there might be tools to mitigate the risk and effect of this hyper-anxious state, and cues to alert me to the fact I was falling into it. The theory is that being self-aware of it is half the battle. When I get into this state, I’m about as un-self-aware as one can get.

The second 5 rows of the chart above reflect my thinking on this to date:

  • I started with diet. My friend Mat, who’s a fellow vegan, put me on to a delightful vegan doctor’s website and videos. Nutrition Facts is a non-profit, volunteer-driven project whose aim is to encourage more research into nutrition to prevent disease (since such research doesn’t profit Big Pharma, which subsidizes most research, little of it is done). Some foods clearly enable to body to handle stress better, and others are serious stressors. So I’ve found some simple recipes (raw veggies with dip, smoothies etc) to make it easy and tasty to eat the stress-busting foods I like anyway. And I’ve resolved not to fall back to vegetarian when tempted by some foods I really like that contain dairy (pizza, quiche etc). I suspect the latter part of this plan will be less successful.
  • There are a number of other stress-busting activities that I already like: hot baths, music, scents & incense, pampered sleep, an hour a day in the sun, relaxing tapes etc. Each morning when I think about what needs (or wants) to be done that day, I now schedule as many of these activities as practical, and ensure that the tools that make them possible are on hand and visible around the house, as a reminder. Again, this is about using handy tools and obvious cues to make it easier and more fun to do the same things I am already inclined to do, a bit differently.
  • The final rows on the chart identify the four main types of stressors in my life these days. They crop up all the time. I pondered how I might alleviate the more incapacitating aspects of the anxious, spacey state they tend to get me into, starting with how I might become at least more aware of the fact I was falling into that state. For me, this stress reaction is essential to who I am — I have no illusions I can ‘learn’ to think myself out of an anxious state (as you probably know, I’m not a fan of CBT or other ‘self re-programming’ methods). Black ice and flickering lights during a blizzard just get to me viscerally; it doesn’t matter that my fear/anxiety is unwarranted. But I do know that loved ones can calm me down by simply, objectively bringing my attention to my unhealthy, unhelpful internal state in those moments. There are some things, I suppose, that one cannot do for oneself, or one’s self — the help of others is required.

I used to believe I could change myself, that my self was real, in control, and responsible. And while I no longer believe that, I think there may be ways to set myself up to be more attentive and appreciative, more stress-resilient, and, with others’ help, more self-aware. We’ll see.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

On Dissociation and Free Will — Part Two

In Part One of this two-part article, I laid out a hypothesis about dissociation being a major phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries (which I believe will be industrial civilization’s last), and about it being a means of coping with the loss of the three core human beliefs upon which perhaps all human cultures have been built.

In this second part, I turn to the existential issue of free will and how our belief in it underpins these core beliefs and hence human cultures — and what it means to accept that free will doesn’t actually exist.

It’s been a rather stressful winter for me, and despite my recent preoccupation with non-duality, and my zeal for more attentiveness and more play in my life, I’ve been pretty unfocused the last few months.

So I decided to examine what it is that drives my behaviour. Intellectually I know it’s not my (illusory) self making decisions about what I do, and that it’s pointless to beat myself up (sometimes with ‘help’ from others) about what I should be doing. We have, I have come to believe, no free will or control over what the creature that our ‘self’ believes it inhabits and manages, actually does. The self is an illusion, its free will is an illusion, and in fact the creature (as something apart and separate from all-there-is) is an illusion. But to the self, they’re very compelling illusions!

An ‘aha’ moment a few years ago came when I realized that there’s a constant battle going on in our minds between what our bodies would have us do, and what our culture would have us do. That was my first inkling that there was not actually a ‘self’ mediating and taking sides in this battle — that we are conditioned by our biology and our culture to do (and believe) what we do. ‘We’ have no say in the matter.

Yet it appears of course that we are making decisions. How, I wondered, can we have this overwhelming sense of free will and control over ‘our’ creature’s actions and decisions, when in fact we have none?

I decided to look specifically at one recent ‘decision’ — to turn down my thermostat (and make a few other changes in my house, shown in the chart above) to save energy (and money). On the surface, it would appear that the process was:

  1. As a result of a recent energy audit, I realized that some significant savings in electrical energy consumption (my furnace is forced air electric) could be achieved through these simple means.
  2. I implemented the changes (check marks in the chart above), and reinforced the value of continuing to do so by rigorously monitoring the savings (the local electric utility provides daily data online on household consumption dating back a couple of years).

But if I were to be honest, this wasn’t the process that actually occurred at all. For a start, the energy audit happened almost a year ago, and other than putting up a sign on the stairs saying “HEAT DOWN?“, which I promptly ignored, nothing happened until this past fall.

Here’s what I think actually happened. The influence of my biological nature on the decision is highlighted in green, and the influence of my enculturated nature is highlighted in blue. My anxieties are partly visceral and partly enculturated, so their influence is highlighted in blue-green. How my ‘self’ rationalized the decision as ‘its’ decision after the fact (even though it actually had nothing to do with it) is highlighted in yellow. [If your newsreader doesn’t show the highlighting, please click the link to the original article — it will make a lot more sense if you do.]

  1. For six months, because of my aversion to being cold, coupled with my propensity to procrastinate until things get urgent, I did nothing. My ‘self’ said: “I just got distracted with other things and forgot about it.”
  2. In September, because I do get pleasure from acquiring interesting stuff and am sometimes inclined to be competitive, I bid on a personal weather station offered at a charity auction for the local animal welfare society, which, to get bragging rights I then upgraded and connected to  Weather Underground. My self said: “It was for a good cause, so I bid high.”
  3. From October 1st, believing that more knowledge about the weather means more control and hence fewer unwanted surprises, and because it seemed like fun/play and a distraction from current anxieties, I correlated my daily energy consumption against the difference between the inside (thermostat) and average outside (winter weather) temperature, later adjusting for average wind speed, occasional use of my wood stove, and power outages. I was obsessed, checking data several times a day, following up on anomalies, predicting temperatures and consumption two weeks into the future, and estimating the whole year’s consumption. My self said: “It’s fun, and useful!”
  4. Always up for a game I think I can easily win, I signed up for a ‘challenge’ with the electrical utility, which offered $50 if I could reduce consumption over the next year by 10% overall, and set a personal goal of reducing consumption by 40%. Now I was motivated since this seemed like fun as well, and over the next two months slowly turned the thermostat down and implemented the other energy-saving steps above, achieving my 40% reduction target through November 30th with almost no work or discomfort (my body, concerned about a cold house in the morning, set aside its objections to the plan when it discovered a warm robe and slippers worked just fine). I became a very accurate forecaster of daily energy consumption. But tracking the data was no longer fun; it had become tedious. My self said, bravely: “It’s saving me money, and reducing energy waste.”
  5. From December 1st on we’ve had a horrifically cold, windy, snowy and stressful winter (my house is isolated, and blizzards and power outages can be nerve-wracking). My personal goal for the year is now unattainable (I have ‘lost’ the game for reasons I had no control over). Finally today I came to the realization that my anxiety was actually increasing, and that it was no longer fun, so I have stopped tracking the data (and the weather) entirely. This was hard to do — we are taught that quitters are losers. But I worry: What else will take its place to distract me? My self said: “I’ve changed my behaviour and realized the savings so there’s no need to continue monitoring.”

What happened? This is how I behave when I ‘decide’ to introduce more play and attentiveness into my life, and vow to become more equanimous in the face of things I can’t control? Could any of this have happened differently?

Although I’m prepared to acknowledge that I don’t have any free will (in fact I — that is my self — doesn’t even exist), and that I can’t control the actions of this creature in the particular circumstances it faces each moment, I wondered if it were possible to change the circumstances. The “HEAT DOWN?” sign was a discouraging clue — it hadn’t changed my behaviour at all. The accident of the auction was what precipitated the behaviour change, convoluted as that process was. The creature with an instrument that proved how much could be saved by the simple, easy step of turning down the thermostat behaved differently from the one that lacked that instrument.

So I wondered — can ‘we’ change the conditions that ‘our’ creatures encounter in such a way as to affect their actions? And if so, what is changing the conditions, if there is no ‘we’?

If you share my belief that ‘we’ (separate ‘selves’ with agency over ‘our’ creatures’ actions) don’t actually exist — that ‘we’ are merely ideas, mental constructs in the brain trying to make sense of what it perceives — then it’s probably obvious that the answer to the first question is NO, and thus the second question is moot. But if you’re like me, you’re not going to buy the absence of the self (and therefore of free will) that easily. So let’s explore this a little.

Suppose I get my energy-saving story printed in the local newspaper (without all the non-duality stuff of course — just the “I did this, you can too” version). If someone else reads it and turns down their thermostat as a result (and gets that behaviour reinforced through next month’s much lower heating bill), haven’t I, through my deliberate actions and informed decisions, made a difference?

The answer is, of course, NO. Given my (biological and enculturated) nature and the circumstances (eg knowing the editor personally) this is the only thing that could have happened. I had no choice, the editor had no choice, and the reader had no choice, given our natures and the circumstances, but to do what we did. The reader’s dog might have eaten the newspaper before the article was read, and that would have changed the outcome, but that didn’t happen. No free will was involved, no matter what our ‘selves’ might rationalize to the contrary.

Suppose I now ‘decide’ to clear out my snack cupboard and buy a bunch of fresh veggies, and a friend ‘decides’ to whip up a bunch of fresh, healthy meals and stack my fridge with them (I have nice friends). Won’t these ‘decisions’ affect what I then eat? Again the answer is obvious. If ‘we’ change what’s in my cupboard and fridge, those weren’t ‘our’ decisions — it was in our biological and/or enculturated natures, given the circumstances that arose at that time, to do precisely those things.

You may still not buy my argument about no separate self and no free will. It has taken me two years of arguing with myself before I accepted it (and I’m still skeptical). But I need to move on to bring the two parts of this article together.

You may be able to guess where I’m going with this.

If what we do is solely determined by our biological and enculturated natures, given the circumstances of the moment, and not determined by our illusory ‘selves’ or any decisions initiated by our ‘selves’, then what happens when the culture breaks down? What happens when our social belief systems are so shattered that we no longer trust others’ advice, no longer believe that there is any bearable future for ourselves or our possible descendants, no longer see any benefit to or any functioning examples of social cohesion or community?

Or, if you bought what I argued in Part One, what happens when our enculturated nature morphs into a shattered, dissociated nature?

I have no clear answer to this. Our enculturated nature, it seems to me, is a mixed bag. The idea of facing civilization’s collapse with a cohort of humans whose enculturated nature is basically broken, and who end up acting predominantly in accordance with their biological nature, is rather frightening.

On the other hand, if this cohort is (due to distrust) relatively immune to the social propaganda of the day, perhaps they (we) will fare quite well. They might be something close to the feral children who’ve grown up without parental or other adult social influence, and are hence culturally untouched, drawing deeply on sensory and intuitive clues and knowledge to compensate for their (relative) incapacity to process the situation intellectually or emotionally. In the emerging world of precarity, that might be just what’s required to thrive. I don’t know. I think it’s worth thinking about.

That takes us full circle back to the issue of free will. Some scientists and philosophers have argued that, while they acknowledge that the evidence they have seen strongly suggests there is no such thing as free will, we dare not reveal that truth to the masses. The argument, which I find ludicrous, is that most people, if they really believed they had no free will, control or responsibility over ‘their’ behaviour, would behave nihilistically (dangerously and destructively) or fall into serious and chronic depression. Of course, if people really don’t have free will, they would not have the free will to choose to behave nihilistically (or not); their new belief wouldn’t affect their behaviour at all.

Most humans remain afflicted with a self that believes itself separate, in control, with free will and choice and responsibility for ‘their’ behaviour. I’m still afflicted, but I’ve at least begun to shake the illusory belief that the self is real (the cognitive dissonance that creates in my everyday life is staggering). Some scientists now think the self emerged accidentally and opportunistically with the evolution of large brains, and has hung on in our species despite its uselessness because large brains by themselves turned out to be evolutionarily advantageous. There are (apparently) only a few human creatures in the world not afflicted with a self.

Do we dare imagine that, as humanity struggles through collapse and depends less on what we know as culture and more on its intuition and senses — becomes more primal, more feral than it has been in traceable human history — future generations of human creatures might be born and grow up without the burden of selves? That would seem to be advantageous, in many ways.

Post-civilization human numbers (if we survive at all) will likely be a small fraction of our current numbers, and they’ll be pretty much technology free. What might they be like if they were also free of selves, living life full-on? They would have no ‘new story’ to replace our broken culture’s shattered one, since every story is a story of separation and of events over time, and a creature liberated from the self has no sense of separation, and lives outside of time.

But still, it’s a ‘new story’ I’d like to hear, or to imagine and tell. It might beat the story of progress, which we’ve been telling for far too long, hands down.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 6 Comments

On Dissociation and Free Will — Part One

This is the Part One of a very ambitious and challenging two-part article. Today I will lay out a thesis about dissociation being a major phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries (which I believe will be industrial civilization’s last), and about it being a means of coping with the loss of the three core human beliefs upon which perhaps all human cultures have been built.

In Part Two tomorrow, I will turn to the existential issue of free will and how our belief in it underpins these core beliefs and hence human cultures — and what it means to accept that free will doesn’t actually exist.

More and more of the people I know and meet and hear about are suffering from a form of mental disquiet that appears quite modern. They are seemingly becoming dissociated from other people and from the world and events occurring around them. Here are some examples:

  • I would guess that at least 20% of the people I know and have spoken with about this topic say they have been diagnosed (or have diagnosed themselves) as having attention deficit or autism-spectrum disorders. The numbers of people so diagnosed seem to be soaring.
  • Quite a few of the families that I know include adult children who appear unable to function socially in the world or in the workplace. Some of them spend most waking hours in their rooms in their parents’ homes (often playing immersive video games). This seems very similar to the hikikomori and other “lost” East Asian youths that are described in the book I reviewed the other day.
  • A large number of people of almost every generation now appear to be constantly glued to their smartphone screens, and seem to prefer to engage through this medium over face-to-face communication with others. They seem so addicted to ‘screen behaviours’ that they react with hostility when they’re pulled away from them, and struggle socially when they don’t have them to fall back on. I’ve been told this is even more true in affluent families in Russia, Latin America and parts of Asia than in North America.
  • Many of the people I know who live alone (the proportion of the population living that way has never been higher) seem to have become somewhat agoraphobic and self-isolating. (I am sometimes inclined to include myself in this category.) This phenomenon appears to be getting worse as labour force participation rates continue to plummet and as the prospect for finding meaningful work becomes more and more hopeless (and there is almost no training offered in how to create your own employment, the very idea of which seems impossible to many people, young and old).

Although dissociation has a clinical definition (doesn’t everything that Big Pharma can pathologize and profit from?), I mean it in the broader, more human sense of no longer associating intellectually and emotionally with other people. This is of course a coping mechanism — our global industrial culture is traumatizing and we each find whatever way we can to keep ourselves safe and try to heal from the damage our culture has inflicted.

Dissociation is enormously profitable. It keeps people cowed, complacent, obedient and passive, so they don’t disturb the status quo. It encourages and enculturates consumption as a salve for the emptiness in our disempowered, dumbed-down lives. It keeps us off-balance, needy and dependent, just as the modern economy wants us. So we can end up in a vicious cycle of increasing dissociation leading to behaviours (eg isolating, addiction) that prompt further dissociation.

My hypothesis is that there are three fundamental human beliefs that enable, and are shared by, all functioning human societies and cultures, and that these beliefs have broken down as a consequence of global industrial civilization. Those beliefs are:

  1. The belief in collaboration among people in community for mutual benefit. This has broken down because global industrial civilization has destroyed communities (and the sense of community) as it strives for a single worldwide monoculture.
  2. The ‘golden rule’ belief in acting towards others as you’d have them act towards you. This has broken down because the dominant ethos of global industrial civilization is selfish, untrusting and ruthlessly, heartlessly competitive.
  3. The belief in ‘progress’ — that with hard work and good fortune your descendants will live a better life than you were able to. This has broken down as all but the fiercest most Drumpfian deniers have acknowledged that ‘progress’ was always a myth and that global industrial civilization, in its ambition for perpetual growth, is utterly unsustainable.

There is some evidence that the first two of these beliefs emerged very early in human evolution, and have been ubiquitous in all but the most bereft human societies. The third is relatively modern but sustained modern cultures through horrific struggles over the early industrial era until its validity came into doubt around the 1960s with the emergence of ideas espoused in books like The Limits to Growth.

When these three core beliefs in the benefits of human association are shattered, what is left is distrust, hopelessness and anomie — the increasingly dominant characteristics of the 21st century human psyche. Without hope in the future, without trust in the honesty and integrity of others, and without the strength of community, there can be no human culture. Instead we get what Dmitry Orlov describes as “social collapse and the disintegration of humanity”. Disintegration (a falling apart) is the social counterpart to personal dissociation.

Humanists cry out for “a new story” to replace the one that has been lost, but without the foundation of these three core beliefs to support it, that’s unlikely to happen. As with past fallen civilizations, it could take centuries before the foundations for a cohesive new story emerge from the ruins. And the new stories are likely to be diverse, local and contextual, since there won’t be the cheap, easy-to-extract energy needed to power any larger-scale society.

In the meantime, we might see the growing ranks of dissociated people, people unable to see a place for themselves in the shattered social order of the 21st century, as the canaries in the coal mine of civilization. Their ‘anti-social’ behaviour, their mechanism for coping with the incongruity, struggle, incoherence and cognitive dissonance in their family and social lives, may at a larger scale be the harbinger of the impending collapse of a massively centralized global culture bereft of its foundational beliefs and hence without any compelling reason to continue.

Daniel Quinn wrote about the need for us to “walk away” from the dominant culture that no longer serves us. Perhaps dissociation is one way that those who are particularly suffering from the trauma of this culture can walk away from it. Or if they can’t walk away, this might be their way, like the (seriously dissociated) neo-survivalists now building bunkers and stockpiles in remote places, of simply hunkering down for the fall.

Image from the Marseilles Tarot deck, in the Public Domain.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

The Only Life We Know (edited repost)

This is a tightened-up version of a (completely fictional) story I wrote in 2004. Still not entirely happy with it, but I can’t let it go.

A while ago I was sitting in a hotel bar and the guy sitting beside me asked the bartender to switch the big-screen TV to the local news channel and turn up the sound. He did, and we watched the news, which ended with a human interest story about a dog named Lucky.

The story was a followup to a story earlier in the week which reported on the rescue by the SPCA of a dog that was found in the ditch of a rural road, howling, emaciated and mud-soaked from recent rain, with his legs tied together with wire. The SPCA had taken the dog in, fed him, healed him, cleaned him up, given him the name Lucky, and attempted to find out who could have done this to such an affectionate and absolutely adorable dog.

It turned out that the dog was owned by a man who’d bought it for his girlfriend. They’d broken up shortly thereafter, and she moved out, leaving him with the dog. Because he worked long shifts and the dog barked incessantly when he was away, he tried to find another home for the dog, and when that failed, he took the dog in his truck into the country, three times, and abandoned him there. Each time the dog raced after the fleeing truck and somehow found his way back to the abusive man. The fourth time the man took him to a more remote place and tied his legs so that wouldn’t happen again.

Because of the news coverage, there was a tremendous outpouring of support for the dog. Over 100 people volunteered to adopt him, hundreds made contributions to the SPCA, and good homes were found for other cats and dogs in the SPCA’s care. So, the newscaster concluded, the story had a happy ending.

The man sitting beside me turned to me and expressed amazement that the dog was so loyal and brave that he kept coming back to the abusive owner.

I responded that the dog probably ran past many houses that would have provided a much better home for him, because life with the man was the only life he knew. He didn’t know how to fend for himself and couldn’t imagine there was another way to live.

The man beside me said he was glad that at least it ended well and that the SPCA’s name for the dog was really appropriate — he really was a lucky dog.

“Yes,” I replied. “We’re all Lucky, aren’t we?”

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The Mushroom at the End of the World

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World is subtitled “On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins”. She’s not talking about the future, when the industrial economy has completely collapsed. She’s talking about the present, in places where collapse is already well underway. The book describes how alternative economies — not the neat tidy ‘sharing’ economies we idealists like to write about, but the underground economies that emerge out of necessity, and always have — evolve, and the lessons they have for us as our civilization culture continues to crumble.

It’s a radical and equanimous book — it leaves judgement about economics and justice and fairness to others, and instead describes what is, in well-researched, gritty detail. To do so Anna introduces many new terms to the lexicon of economics, necessary she says because analytic, mechanical models of economics fail to describe how economies really work, so a whole new vocabulary of holistic terms is needed, terms that describe the inseparable interdependence between creatures and environments, instead of the economist’s usual oversimplified model of ‘resources’ as something separate, and mechanisms of purported control.

To show this interdependence, she describes how one tiny piece of the economy actually works — the harvesting and distribution of matsutake mushrooms. She then shows how staggeringly complex and uncontrollable the workings of this completely self-evolved and self-organized economy are, and in so doing demonstrates that every aspect of our economy works thusly — the belief that we can fully understand and ‘manage’ an economy at any level is shown to be complete hubris.

A small and totally incomplete but core part of this economy is illustrated in the diagram above. Here are its essential components:

  1. Like almost everything in our modern culture, the creation of wealth through matsutake mushrooms starts with a salvage operation. Salvage is the process of exploiting value outside the capitalist supply chain. Drilling for oil is salvage. Harvesting crops is salvage. Contracted labour is salvage. The capitalist economy has outsourced almost all salvage operations to independent contractors to minimize risk. Capitalists attempt to control these contractors by controlling the elements of the supply chain as it enters and leaves the industrial economy (yellow area on chart). So Chinese slave labour garment factories are bonded to multination “brand” corporations through license agreements. They don’t care what goes on in the grey “salvage economy” area — let the salvagers argue with the environmentalists, lawyers, regulators and social justice advocates. Their job is to accumulate the salvage, alienate it (make it unrecognizable as to source, as much as possible, so customers are in the dark as to what factory farming or slavery or genetic alteration or other operation was involved — hence their opposition to labelling initiatives), and commoditize it for the market — the part of the supply chain that is low-risk and under their control.
  2. What we read about in economics books is just what happens in the yellow area of the chart, the most insignificant part, but it’s the part where almost all profit accumulates (as required by corporate charter), and the most expensive part (where the huge oligopolistic price increases are in the supply chain).
  3. Much of the book describes the life and process of the matsutake pickers in the forests of Eastern Oregon, in order to convey how unfathomably complex the essential salvage economy is. Forestry policies over the years (themselves dependent on innumerable variables) have resulted in ruined forest wasteland in much of Eastern Oregon. Timber companies clear-cut much of the state, then attempted to replant monoculture tree species to keep the industry going, and eventually, due to many other factors, abandoned the effort, leaving a mess. First Nations had paid close attention to the ecology and had found sustainable ways (including controlled burning) to manage the forests (as have indigenous peasant groups in most countries with forests). But when the First Nations peoples were slaughtered and driven out, their skills were lost. The unnatural mess left behind by the timber companies creates huge fire dangers that modern fire prevention measures actually exacerbate. But it would take a century (which our civilization doesn’t have) to manage these forests back to health through knowledgable ‘disturbances’ (the term Anna uses for interventions, planned and unintentional).
  4. As with our modern industrial agricultural policies (what is accurately called ‘disaster agriculture’ since it uses wholesale flooding, burning, poisons and plowing to keep unnatural monocultures going), we have no idea how to ‘disturb’ ecosystems in healthy, sustainable ways, so we just keep creating monoculture messes and abandoning them when yields disappear. Creating such disturbances, carefully and modestly, is the essence, Anna says, of intervening in an ecosystem for healthy succession over decades — true permaculture.
  5. The ruined mess in Eastern Oregon has allowed “uneconomic” fir and pine trees to flourish, and matsutake mushrooms thrive in such forests. At the same time, Japanese forestry policies and programs (which are in turn a result of western occupation after WW2 and other complex factors) have largely eliminated firs and pines there in favour of more profitable species, accidentally killing off the matsutake, a centuries-old staple and delicacy in Japan, in the process. So suddenly, with no local supply and a new supply in Oregon, a new economy was born in the ruined forests of Oregon, and also in the peasant forests in China and elsewhere.
  6. Except for a few war vets, whites are not inclined to pick mushrooms in the forest for a living. But Southeast Asians, many of them refugees to the western US from the Vietnam war and other American wars, are skilled at picking them, and delighted for an alternative to the discrimination and soulless labour in American cities, so they flocked to the freedom of the Oregon forests, creating entire communities along the ethnic lines (Lao, Khmer etc) they grew up with, in the forest.
  7. In the Oregon forests, they ran up against forest authorities, but have now reached an uneasy peace with these authorities. Legislation, Anna explains, requires “public forests” to be thinned for fire protection for one mile around all private structures, mandates the hiring of private companies to do the thinning, and allows logging but not mushroom picking in these “public forests”. The authorities have to work around these unwieldy and absurd laws. (You can be sure the anti-environment, pro-privatization Trump will make this situation unimaginably worse).
  8. Impromptu supply chains then emerged to connect the pickers with Japanese companies looking to sell to their domestic clients. Buyers, sorters, aggregators and other intermediaries evolved, again mostly along traditional ethnic lines according to the specialized skills needed. Japanese import companies, many of them based in Vancouver BC, were ready to alienate the new product and accumulate the salvage.
  9. Once in Japan, the mushrooms are re-sorted, because one of their primary uses in Japan represents an exit again from the industrial economy. Matsutake mushrooms are prized as gifts given in an economy built on relationships. They cement deals, honour rituals and provide tokens of appreciation. Gifts of this sort were once hand-made, rather than dependent on the industrial economy. With the collapse of the industrial economy, which now simply concentrates wealth and power without adding any value (affixing a label and marketing do not add real value), we will have to learn to hand-make, or hand-grow, our gifts again.

The industrial economy, Anna explains, is unable to deal with limits. It requires an endless supply of controllable, manageable ‘resources’ and endless growth. As we reach the limits to growth, the corporations in the oligopolistic industrial economy have scrambled to outsource what they cannot control, and they use their control of supply chains to bottleneck the salvage and the gift economy so they are forced to deal with, and through, the oligopolies (despite their massive cost).

One of the key concepts of the book is the idea of precarity — the reality that ‘natural’ resources and events are unpredictable and uncontrollable and can be disruptive.

“Precarity once seemed the fate of the less fortunate”, she writes. “Now it seems that all of our lives are precarious, even when for the moment our pockets are lined.” The hallmark of a culture and world in collapse is that precarity is ubiquitous. Thanks to precarity, America cannot be “made great again”, if it ever was, despite many Americans’ nostalgia for that dream.

The economy of the future will be one of increasing precarity, leaving less and less room for the industrial economy as it grows increasingly unsustainable. We have to start imagining how this emerging post-industrial economy will emerge and how we can survive and thrive in it. That post-industrial economy will not be a knowledge economy, it will be principally a salvage economy, with elements of a gift and relationship economy. It can’t be designed or controlled. It will evolve as it must, as it always has, in patchy, unorganized and then self-organized ways. It will be one, in Anna’s words, of “disturbance-based ecologies in which many species [and cultures] sometimes live together without either harmony or conquest”. It will take more imagination than what we have shown so far (Mad Max, neo-survivalism and new old west scenarios) to collectively navigate our way to such an economy.

Such an economy cannot be imposed or centralized because it doesn’t scale. Anna explains that the industrial economy began with European plantations, where (slave) labour and (conquered) land was, for a time, unlimited and controllable. The model was then exported to the factory. Without unlimited, controllable ‘inputs’, the model comes undone, as has now happened.

The emerging salvage/gift/relationship economy will of necessity be local and opportunistic, responsive to what is available at hand. The yellow area of the chart above will gradually disappear, as we find we can no longer afford to allow capitalists to exploit their concentrated power to appropriate obscenely disproportionate wealth while doing nothing of value. As they have disintermediated, so they will be disintermediated. Imports and exports will quickly become prohibitively expensive and rare, so production and consumption will mainly occur locally, near each other. That will require much more knowledge of local ecology and sustainable ‘disturbances’ that indigenous cultures had mastered. But that knowledge and those practices are local, and will not easily translate to areas they’re most needed — areas where indigenous knowledge has long been lost.

The idea of inventorying to tie up supply and force up prices will vanish — locally it will simply not be tolerated. We will have to relearn how to accumulate only the salvage we need, and how to do so simply and sustainably. And we will rediscover the value of gifts and relationships. The concept of ‘property’ will eventually die.

In the latter part of the book, Anna talks about the increasing importance of ‘noticing’ — studying humbly how things appear to work and how small disturbances work, or don’t. She also explains how interdependent we are with other creatures. For example, pine wilt nematodes, which co-evolved with pines in North America and which take out only sickly trees (healthy trees are immune), traveled with American pines shipped to Japan in the last century. Japanese pines have no immunity and hence were devastated by these insects, contributing to the scarcity of matsutake mushrooms in Japan and the explosion of matsutake picking in North America.

Nature selects relationships, rather than species, she asserts. Survival of the fittest entails how one fits in with one’s fellow species in each local place, and that’s more about relationships with other creatures (what one offers to the whole) than competitive advantage. These in turn are the result of what she calls “contingencies of encounter”, and these occur incessantly and need to be observed and appreciated in order to thrive in any local environment.

She also speculates that, based on some recent research, viruses may be the means by which DNA try out variations to see if they are naturally selected; they may not merely be ‘random’.

There is no such thing as a separate culture, she argues — creatures of different species and their environments “co-culture” each other as much or more than creatures of a single species do. Cats and dogs and even creatures in industrial confined animal operations are our co-cultures; the creatures in such operations create a human culture of enduring wilful ignorance, denial and indifference to suffering that permeates far more than just what we choose to eat.

So rather than studying cultures in isolation, we should be studying assemblages — the contingent, precarious, endlessly disturbed, coalescing “polyphonic performances of living”.

But we seem a long way from doing that, she concludes. Near the end of the book she describes the modern Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori: “a young person, usually a teenaged boy, who shuts himself in his room and refuses face-to-face contact. Hikikomori live through electronic media. They isolate themselves through engagement in a world of images that leaves them free from embodied sociality — and mired in a self-made prison. They capture the nightmare of urban anomie for many; there is a little bit of hikikomori in all of us.”

This book is an excellent summary of where, in our economic, social and ecological theories and practices, we have gone wrong, and how we might start to learn to notice what is actually happening, and then, humbly, take our place in the world.

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

A Criminal Investigation

sherlock-holmes-147255_1280Recently I’ve been going back and reviewing a lot of the ‘less-than-radical’ non-duality material I’ve saved over the past two years, to see how relevant it still is to me.

I came to the conclusion that Tony Parsons, Jim Newman, Richard Sylvester (and other radical non-dualists), and Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, Rupert Spira, Jon Bernie, Mooji, and Ilona Ciunaite (and other less-radical non-dualists) are essentially communicating the identical message about the non-existence of the separate self and free will, about time as a mental construct, about what is real, what awakening is etc. The only real difference is the way this message is articulated, and (critically) whether there is a ‘path’ to awakening (and if so what that path is).

They all tend to agree, too, that it’s in the nature of the self, the mind, the ‘me’, to be unhappy about this sense of separation and (for some) to seek a path to ‘awakening’ from this sense.

I was particularly taken by a comment by (the non-radical) Adyashanti that turns the way we usually think about this seeking on its head. Instead of trying to find a path to realize what is real beyond the self, what if we instead asked How is it that the self/mind is able to sustain its/our belief in what is unreal so effectively? He frames the contemplation of this question as an investigation (perhaps the ‘crime’ being investigated is the terrible suffering and destruction wrought by all our ‘selves’). If everything is oneness — everything is just what is, timelessly, beyond our control — how is it we are all so effectively, continuously, fooled by our self/mind into believing otherwise?

There are some clues to this question that I have written about of late. One is the startling recent discovery of science (1) that there is no physically identifiable separate self, (2) that time is in fact just a mental construct that has no basis in reality, (3) that we do not consciously ‘make’ decisions (our minds rationalize what we’re already doing as being ‘their’ decision directly after the fact), and (4) that an illusory view of reality is often evolutionarily successful, ie that those creatures with a simplified, utterly incomplete perception of reality can and do out-survive creatures who see the world as it really is. David Eagleman and Donald Hoffman have recently made this latter point compellingly.

A second clue is the high degree to which our thinking (and the neural formations in the brain that co-evolve with it, and with our learning, notably during our formative years) is conditioned by those around us. If everyone around us believes that climate change is a hoax, or that the earth is flat, or that keeping other human beings as slaves is normal, or that criminals are responsible for their actions and should be punished, or that confining and then butchering wild animals causes them no suffering, or that industrial civilization is healthy and natural, it is really hard for an individual to sustain a conviction otherwise. We are social creatures and much of how we make meaning is derived through social exchange. And as George Lakoff and others have shown, we tend to hear what resonates with what we already believe and not hear what does not.

We humans now live in a prosthetic human-made world, and are utterly dependent on it. The tropical places and ecosystems where we thrived for a million years before our selves took us to inhospitable climates have long been destroyed by civilization culture, and couldn’t support anywhere near today’s human numbers anyway. So escaping the indoctrination of other selves is impossible, even if we were inclined to seek it.

What Adyashanti is urging is the recognition that the ‘I’ can’t know that it is itself unreal, so any such realization of the truth has to come from something beyond the I. Seeing this truth, he says, can create the “gap” that allows the suspension of our belief in this great illusion and enables the sudden realization of what is real and what is illusory, or what radical non-dualists (who deny however that the gap can be created intentionally) call the temporary “falling away” of the self. I’m not sure that this conjuring trick can really work, but in the spirit of investigation let’s explore it.

Here’s the question again:

How is it that the self/mind is able to sustain its/our belief in what is unreal so effectively? If everything is oneness — everything is just what is, timelessly, beyond our control — how is it we are all so effectively, continuously, fooled by our self/mind into believing otherwise?

The illusion of the separate self is evolutionarily advantageous, persuasive and socially reinforced (if it weren’t, there probably wouldn’t be ‘selves’). But still, why are we unable to see through this illusion, even when intellectually and intuitively we know (a) it’s not real and (b) that seeing through it may be the key to ending much of life’s unhappiness and suffering? What do we value more than the truth?

Perhaps it’s more important to be happy than to know the real truth. So unless and until we can no longer be happy without knowing the truth (and that may be true for those, like me, who have had ‘glimpses’ of ‘awakening’), we will cling to and remain addicted to the illusion — we don’t want to know it’s not real. There is something in the nature of people with selves that clings to hope and believes things will get better, so it takes a lot to let go.

Quite a few people report that their moment of ‘awakening’, of seeing through, came at terribly low, desperate times in their lives (though for others these moments arose during walks in the park, or shopping trips). Is the illusion of self-control just too comfortable, better the “devil we know” than the uncertainty of what is really true, unless and until we can no longer “stand our selves”? Or does ‘awakening’ come in moments when the self simply lets its guard down? And if so, are there things that ‘we’ can do to get it to let its guard down (meditation, drugs, exercises etc)?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it presumes some thing exists for whom happiness is more important than truth, some thing that clings to the illusion of the self, something that can no longer stand its self, other than the self itself. That there is a ‘we’ apart from our selves. We’re back in duality. We’ve just made a distinction between ‘we’ (actually just a higher ‘self’ which we don’t want to call a self) and a lower ‘self’ (the one we want to get rid of). This line of thinking is recursive and won’t get us anywhere.

Let’s look instead at the metaphor of dreaming. If we’re caught in a bad dream then (‘lucid’ dreaming aside) we have no agency to awaken from it. How does the mind make this dream seem so real and believable? In its ceaseless pattern-making, is it compelled to invent stories, and is it free during dream-sleep to make those stories credible and consistent and yet untethered from the factual anchors of our waking-life stories? Perhaps it makes the illusion of our separate lives seem real, when we’re not asleep, the same way.

But again, who or what is having these dreams, these self-made stories, if it isn’t the self itself?

The only apparent answer to this question is: no one. Without the self there is no ‘we’. The self/mind, conjured out of nothing by the chemistry of the large, complex brain, is just amusing itself, and making itself suffer, with the patterns and the stories that comprise the ‘story of me’.

In this light, the key question of our investigation becomes suspect, because if there is no ‘we’ without the self, there is no one for the self to fool, no one and no thing to believe in the illusion of the self. Except itself. Is your head hurting yet?

Perhaps this is where Adya is pointing us. The answer to his question, once we realize that there is no ‘me’, is that there is no ‘self’ either, that what seems to be a self is just pattern-making in the brain that is caught in an infinite loop of self-justification and self-rationalization, like a kitten chasing its own tail. And that loop is reinforced by similar loops in the brains of others, until we have whole cultures of apparent selves foolishly behaving as if they are responsible for, and influencing, the creatures they purport to reside within, and causing those creatures (and the natural, ‘real’ world) much stress-related illness in the process. It is as if these ‘self-conscious’ creatures are afflicted with an infectious disease that causes endless hallucinations and hysterical behaviour.

There are of course no separate creatures, no behaviours, and no cultures. There is only all-there-is, perfect, timeless, wondrous, beyond control of anything. But ‘we’, we who are not afflicted with selves but are just afflicted selves, cannot know that. ‘We’ can only hope for the end of our selves, for our end, so that all-there-is is seen, though not by ‘us’. It is the mystery that ‘we’ can never unravel, but we sense it, we somehow know it.

End of investigation. At least for now. The selves of the world are collectively accused of causing the afflicted creatures of the world a form of madness, in which they suffer and cause havoc in the illusory belief that they are in control, responsible and separate from everything else. The jury has looked at the investigator’s report and concluded that the selves cannot be guilty of the charges, or of anything, because they don’t exist.

Case dismissed, pending appeal.

graphic courtesy of pixabay, CC0

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Reality Isn’t What We Think It Is

This is a repetition of the opening paragraphs of December’s Links of the Quarter. Several people have suggested that it’s substantial enough and important enough to merit its own post, so it doesn’t get lost. It’s also a useful set-up for another article I’m writing, that will be posted in the next few days. 

cartoon by the late, incomparable Charles Barsotti

Paul Kingsnorth has described 2016 as The Year of the Serpent. He writes:

History to [New Yorker editor David Remnick] is the continuing, inevitable path towards goals which he and his fellow ‘progressives’ consider to be just: the dissolution of the nation state, global human equality, a cosmopolitan world civilisation, fair and free trade, the spread of personal liberty and secular democracy to all corners of the globe. These goals are so obviously desirable that it is inconceivable that we should ever stop progressing towards them. Their triumph is tied in to the very fabric of time itself. The election of Donald Trump, who opposes at least some of them, thus represents a kind of anti-history. Not the real thing; an aberration which can’t last. Like a dammed river bursting its banks, progress will inevitably resume its natural course, sooner or later.

This is the humanist worldview, the one that most progressives still hew to. The “aberrant” election of Trump has not shattered their faith; just made them more determined to fight for the course correction needed to achieve their “obviously desirable” goals. It is doubtful that they will abandon this faith for the ‘hopeless’ one of collapsniks — the belief that even if these goals are desirable they will never be achieved, and it would be more useful to refocus on preparing for collapse than in vainly struggling to radically and quickly reform civilization’s systems and avert it. But it is as futile to debate this with humanists as to debate social and political morality with conservatives; there is no useful common ground.

And of course ‘collapsism’ — the moving past the second denial to accept the inevitability of civilization’s near-term collapse as part of the sixth great extinction — is also a kind of faith. We collapsniks cannot prove conclusively this inevitability; it’s something we have come to accept because it most makes sense in the context of our admittedly utterly incomplete and feeble knowledge of history, of human nature, and of how complex systems seem to work. This seems, to us, to make more sense intellectually and intuitively than other worldviews, even though we would rather believe we were wrong and that David Remnick, Charles Eisenstein and their fellow humanists were right.

My recent journey has been to try to see beyond this second denial to consider a third and fourth that seem, in some ways, to mirror the first two and bring us full circle to our current predicament. I’ve described them as follows:

  1. That with the useful evolution of our large brains came the unexpected emergence of ‘self’-consciousness — the illusion of separateness from all-there-is, and the resultant suffering, alienation and destructiveness that comes with this affliction. And there is no ‘path’ to liberation from, or ‘cure’ for, this affliction.
  2. That as the ‘self’ is an illusion, a construct, neither humans nor other creatures have free will, choice, control, agency, volition or responsibility for what we do. Nothing is inevitable, predictable or foreordained, but under the specific circumstances and situation in which each of us finds ourselves in each moment, we cannot do other than what we do.

Burkhard Bilger, writing about David Eagleman’s research on the nature of reality, quotes him as saying: “[What the self perceives as] reality is a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully [edited, synched and] censored before it reaches us.” Our understanding of what was, is a model pieced together by the brain, not something experienced directly. ‘We’ do not live in the present at all. Donald Hoffman asserts that reality is nothing like what we think it is. The simplified, artificial model of reality that the brain constructs is attuned to fitness (survival), not to truth.  Seeing reality isn’t beneficial to our survival, he says. “Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be.” [Thanks to Kevin Barron for the link.]

Fellow collapsnik Brutus thinks it’s “cruel and pointless” to talk someone out of their faith in the reality of the self and free will. He criticizes Adam Bear who says:

A more speculative possibility is that our minds are designed to distort our perception of choice and that this distortion is an important feature (not simply a bug) of our cognitive machinery. For example, if the experience of choice is a kind of causal inference … then swapping the order of choice and action in conscious awareness may aid in the understanding that we are physical beings who can produce effects out in the world. More broadly, this illusion may be central to developing a belief in free will.”

Cruel and pointless, perhaps, but it’s in our nature to want to know the truth. Perhaps it’s just as cruel to convince people that collapse is occurring, if, as many now believe, there’s nothing we can do to avert it.

So, looking past all four denials: The sixth great extinction is at hand (1), and there’s nothing we can do about it (2). And this extinction is largely the result of the emergence of the illusion of the separate self — something we have always thought of as an evolutionary advance, but is actually an utterly useless and unnecessary affliction (3); worse, it underlies all suffering and most human destruction, and has no ‘treatment’ or cure (4).

Pretty dismal worldview, huh? Strangely, I find embracing it quite liberating. My job, now, is to chronicle civilization’s collapse, and to make sense of it any way I can. That may change, but I’m no longer searching for something that makes more sense.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments