The End of Ideas

I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am… I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

— from a remarkable and far-reaching 1929 interview, during which Einstein disavowed the existence of free will; photo above of Einstein with Neils Bohr CC0 via pixy.org

Yesterday I watched a video of a recent discussion between the late David Graeber (whose cause of death, suddenly, two weeks ago, at age 59, in Italy — CoVid-19?, poisoning?, suicide? — has still not been disclosed) and the vapid Peter Thiel, Trump-supporter and founder of the ICE-enabling Palantir data-mining corporation. Unsurprisingly, Peter Thiel had nothing interesting to say, while David, who was always a better writer than speaker, rambled on but made some fascinating and important points about the current state of the world.

One of the points he made is that, when technology companies switched focus in the early 1980s from technologies that deployed new scientific knowledge, to technologies that were all about information capture and reuse, it effectively spelled the end of innovation in western society. Indeed, this point has been made often by others, but David expresses curiosity about why this happened.

My sense is that it was mainly because the people with wealth and power at that time — the people with the resources to decide how money ostensibly for innovation was to be spent — were largely a group devoid of imagination. Often glamourized as alt-culture technology geeks, the current cohort of technology multi-billionaires (I needn’t name them) are basically kids who grew up with television, video games and other devices that offered them no practice in imagining anything daringly new. So IT is essentially an industry that makes its billions remixing old ideas and adding a high-gloss SFX varnish to them.

And in parallel to the unimaginative technology leaders we’ve had to deal with equally unimaginative financial system leaders, who seem to think innovation is repackaging worthless investments to look as if they actually have some value, to keep the existing dysfunctional financial systems and unsupportable financial valuations and debt loads going.

Our technology and financial “leaders” in the global dominant caste are not unique in this. They are a microcosm of a whole generation (or three) who simply can’t imagine anything really new or different, because they’ve never received any practice imagining anything. They’ve been passively fed novelty throughout their lives, so they have no need or want to create their own. I’ve written ad nauseam about the imaginative poverty of our current world, so I won’t go on about that here. I’m more concerned about what this imaginative poverty means for our capacity to deal with the accelerating crises posed by civilization’s current collapse, as an extension of the collapse of our global ecology, planetary climate, and global industrial “growth” economy.

Those with the wealth and power today to provide the needed space and resources to creatively address collapse are utterly lacking in vision, and lack the capacity to envision radically different approaches to dealing with current crises, as a result of their imaginative poverty.

A prime example of this is the incapacity of the technology sector to innovate one of the most important technologies in history — the ballot. Everyone appreciates that the current system of first-past-the-post representative democracy no longer functions (corporate interests make all important political decisions regardless of who the elected representatives are). Everyone appreciates that elections can be stolen by disenfranchisement, by rigged systems (gerrymandering etc), by hackable voting machinery, and by disinformation.

This is not a difficult problem to address with a little imagination. We don’t need to be held hostage to the precarities of elections every 3-5 years; there are many ways to engage and involve thoughtful citizen participation on an ongoing basis and in so doing inform and ratify political and economic decisions almost continuously. It would be a radically different system of “checks and balances” from what we use now. But it’s a challenge of imagination, not of technology.

Likewise a guaranteed annual income (like free universal health care and education) is a completely feasible and affordable idea, one that would save far more (in health, medical, police and other costs) than it would cost, if only we had the imagination to think it through to fruition — not as an incremental change to existing systems, but as a completely reinvented system that would render those doddering existing systems obsolete.

In short, I would argue that we are dying from a lack of imagination. Regenerating imaginative capacity would require us to invent wholly new ways (since we can’t simply turn back the clock) to enable children to develop imaginative capacity through continuous practice. Paradoxically, we don’t have the imaginative capacity to invent such a radically new way of enabling young people to learn and imagine; nor do we have the luxury of time to let that re-engendered capacity work its way through the systems that govern how things are currently done.

What does it mean to say that 1980 marked the end of a remarkable age of ideas — really the end of ideas for our whole culture? For what have we produced that is truly novel, rather than an obvious adaptation or incremental improvement (such as the Internet and its crappy, unimaginative “apps”), in the forty years since? How has technology actually made our lives better, healthier, happier, in all that time?

Because I see most of our centralized systems — social, political, economic, financial, legal, educational, health care etc — as in a process of rapid collapse due to their unmanageability, unsustainability, and incapacity to adapt to the evolving needs of the moment, my guess is that any true innovations from here on in will arise from the ashes of collapse, and are therefore still a ways off.

When our currency systems collapse, for example, we will need a system better than barter to replace them. In the absence of imagination, urgent need will probably drive us to try something that looks like currency — scrip for example, as was used after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has been used after currency collapses in hyper-inflationary nations. If we’re lucky (since by then it is at least possible that the current toys that deprive young people of imaginative practice will have become unaffordable and hence unavailable due to economic collapse), we will instead, or eventually, (re-)invent a “gift” or “generosity” economy, one that requires no currency at all. It makes far more sense than the systems we’ve been brought up to believe are the only systems that can work. At least, it makes sense if you have the imagination to appreciate how they could work, and why they’d be so much better.

Same for every other system. As the old systems collapse (though too late to prevent our ongoing global ecological collapse, with its ghastly consequences) we will have no choice but to replace them. We will try the familiar first, and will find that none of the familiar systems can work in a post-collapse world. Then, if we’re fortunate, we’ll be able to come up with some imaginative alternatives. Being able to do so has kept our species extant through many past crises, including drastic climate change and system collapses.

In the meantime, as collapse worsens, best be prepared for some really dumb, stale, unimaginative “solutions” to be proposed and tried. Our brains have been shrinking since the earliest human civilizations began self-domesticating, and we’re all doing our best with what capacities we have.

Once we’re liberated from our dependence on industrial civilization’s failed systems, my guess is that, over time, we will discover it makes no sense to repeat its mistakes. By then, I sense, we will have of necessity regained the capacity of imagination. And then, what we might create, in radically smaller, relocalized societies, is nearly unlimited. I feel this is right, but I don’t know it. I can only imagine.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Leave a comment

A Humble Look at Systems Thinking and How Change Happens


photo from a women’s march, source not cited

As a student of history, I’m always a bit astonished to discover how much things have changed in a seemingly short period of time. Not always for the better, of course. But when you read stories about things that happened just a few short decades ago, you tend to have one of two reactions: Wow, I hadn’t realized, or Wait a minute, that’s being spun. When we have a particular ideology or vision about the trajectory of things, we tend to focus on and possibly exaggerate differences that appear to confirm that trajectory, and to discount as unrepresentative those that contradict it.

So I’ll say it again: We tend to believe what we want to believe. What we’ve been conditioned to believe. Truth, and facts, be damned.

I’ve been updating my family’s genealogy, and one discovery was that my ggg-uncle, Stephen Ballard Pollard, the first doctor among the “Sheridan” Pollards that arrived in Canada in 1807, spent five years in the notorious Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario starting in 1909 — for performing abortions. As I went to share this information with family and friends I suddenly realized: I don’t know that everyone in my family would consider him, as I do, a hero; and it has been only a few short decades since women here have had this one small freedom from state oppression.

I remember attending a protest to support Henry Morgentaler, the Nazi death camp survivor who was imprisoned by the Trudeau (Sr) regime for performing illegal abortions in the 1970s, being freed from a lifetime of outrageous harassment and threats only when the law was ruled unconstitutional in 1988. Since then, Canada’s Conservative party tried to re-criminalize abortion in Canada under the disgusting Mulroney regime in the 1990s, and nearly succeeded. The party continues to agitate periodically for re-criminalization, and all of Mulroney’s successors have said they “personally” oppose abortions. It’s hard to believe this change is so recent — and so vulnerable to undoing.

There are two realizations here, that by our nature we tend to forget: How dramatically things can change over time (rarely quickly or dramatically enough that we are really aware the degree of change); and how, similarly, those changes can be undone, sometimes without our noticing. The poster at a rally for women’s freedom over their own reproductive systems a few years ago said it all: “I can’t believe we’re still having to protest this shit!”

This blog provides me with an all-too-sobering irrefutable reminder of how much I have changed — my beliefs, my sense of self-awareness, my whole worldview — since I began blogging in 2003, and particularly since I retired in 2010. I can only shake my head at some of the things I said (and how I said them) back then. It’s almost as if another person, a very “blame-y” person with very different sensibilities (and a disturbing propensity for getting sucked into conspiracy theories), wrote most of my early posts.

I have always been a fan of system thinking, and the reasoning charts that can enable why things seemingly change. A few years ago I would have created a credible chart explaining the current status of women’s reproductive choice in Canada, complete with causes and effects and positive and negative feedback loops.

But now I can only see such charts as massive oversimplifications, at best useless and at worst dangerous. Based on what I’ve learned about conditioning and free will, not to mention radical non-duality, as compelling as these cause-and-effect diagrams may be (to those who think like me, anyway), I’m not sure they do more than coincidentally appear to describe the dynamics at play.

If we are all simply a product of our conditioning, the apparent trajectories and backsliding that we see as happening are just epiphenomena, and our labels and judgement about them, even when widely shared by others (those who we most effectively co-condition) are merely highly selective patterning of something so staggeringly complex that it cannot possibly really be understood. It’s akin to seeing sheep figures in the clouds. If there is causality, it’s the collective result of 7.8B people’s conditioned reactions to ever-changing circumstances, and it is utterly unfathomable.

I am constantly annoyed at the endless, useless, unresolvable debate about whether climate collapse is human-caused. Who gives a shit and what difference does it make? The fact that it’s happening is irrefutable. The reasons for it are irrelevant. And it is equally obvious, at least to all climate scientists I have met or communicated with, that we cannot “fix” it, for the same reason — it is so unfathomably complex that we cannot even begin to understand it or reliably forecast what it might be leading to or what any human interventions might produce.

So if I were to now create a systems chart of Canada’s women’s reproductive choice as it stands today, it might look something like the diagram below:

Those with conditioning similar to mine would probably agree that working to increase (1) and to decrease (3) is worthy work, as it is likely to have some positive effect on (2), (4) and (5). The problem is, we can’t know the stuff in the grey areas, which will have a disproportionate effect. We might like to believe that we can intelligently guess at least the major factors in the grey areas. But history suggests we cannot.

And suppose you’re an old-fashioned conservative Joe who has been conditioned to distrust women and to like patriarchy (everyone knows their place) and populist autocrats (not to name any names). What Joe might see as box (1) is “earn freedom through hard work”, and what Joe might see as box (3) is “lack of morals and respect for authority”. Otherwise, same situation, same chart. But Joe’s conditioning would be the opposite to ours, and depending on numbers and level of passion, the Joes of the world might be more effective than us, leading to a worsening, not an improvement, of supposed outcomes. Joe’s perception of the current trajectories is likely to be nearly the opposite of ours. All because we have been differently conditioned, by our genes, our immediate culture, and what we have been exposed to (ideas, knowledge, people, perspectives etc).

And believing this doesn’t (at least immediately or significantly) change what we will do, and what the Joes will do. Our chat with Joe will inevitably have a minuscule effect on both our conditioning, unlikely to be enough to, on balance, chance our conditioned reactions in the future.

Of course, we have to try. We are conditioned not to give up just because the chances of “success” as we each define it, are negligible.

I have, of course, nothing to suggest, since I don’t think we have any free will to do other than what were conditioned to do. I just think it’s interesting to see where our seeming motivations are actually coming from, and what effect they might actually have.

These amazing brains which we think of as ‘ours’ are just furiously abstracting patterns from incoming signals — energy flows —, and assigning significance to them. That is what brains do. We have no choice but to listen to them and take ownership for what they tell us. But I am increasingly convinced that what they are telling us is completely wrong — most notably that there is an ‘us’ listening to them, claiming them.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, ‘we’ will never know.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 2 Comments

Links of the Month: September 2020

Oh won’t you come with me, where the Wood River flows?
We’ll watch it meander slowly, as the sky turns from red to dark.

And as that sun goes down, we’ll throw our arms around each other
and tell the dreams that are deep in the heart.

Because the heart is bigger than trouble, and the heart is bigger than doubt,
But the heart sometimes needs a little help to figure that out.

So won’t you come with me, where the Wood River flows?
The little Wood River knows.

— Connie Kaldor, Wood River


COLLAPSE WATCH


Remains of Oregon town burned to the ground in recent wildfires; photo from Oregon Public Broadcasting; thanks to Tree Bressen for the link

Earth in its secret, dark depths: Back at the start of the pandemic, Paul Kingsnorth, co-author of the Dark Mountain Manifesto, wrote about the impossibility of knowing what to do, in this or any other time. Our role, he says, is not to do, or to fix, but just to be. Thanks to the NTHELove group for the link. Excerpt:

Cultures that last are cultures that do not build. Cultures that last are cultures that do not seek to know what cannot be known. Cultures that last are cultures that crawl into their chthón without asking questions — Cultures that know how to be, that look at the sun on the mountain, and say, yes, this is the revelation. People last when they do not eat apples that were not meant for them, when they do not steal fire they do not understand. People last when they sit in the sun and do nothing at all. Let us learn from this! we say. Let us take this crisis and use it to make us better! Better people, more organized people, wiser people. Sleeker people, more efficient people. Let us become sustainable! Let us learn to tell new stories, for the old ones are broken now! We should be saying: stories were the problem. We should be saying: no more stories, not from us. We should be saying: break the stories, break them all. Nothing of this should be sustained.

The water’s getting warm: Henk Green notes that this — what we’re going through in 2020 — wasn’t supposed to be how the world ended. He describes how our supposed “freedoms” are going to be impinged a lot more by climate change than  by the pandemic, and how right now we can neither afford to spend trillions combating climate change nor afford not to spend trillions combating it.


LIVING BETTER


photo from Frans de Waal’s Facebook page

Kent Monkman reimagines history: The Cree artist’s amazing panoramas provide an alternative view of what might have been.

How to prevent a coup: George Lakey polishes up some historical research on anti-coup activism, just, you know, in case we might need it. Thanks to Larry Sheehy for the link.

Keep your eye on Zeynep Tufekci: The diminutive self-made Turkish sociologist has correctly predicted many recent, seemingly improbable occurrences provoked by technology. She explains, for example, why it’s good to go to the beach during a pandemic. And why public protests only work when they effectively undermine the perceived legitimacy of those in power. Her solutions are bold yet obvious: eg make Facebook et al into cooperatives, free from all advertising, corporate funding and profit demands, supported entirely by individual $20/year subscriptions, so that we, not the corporations and politicians, are the customers and owners, not the “product” as we are now. Instead, she says, “we’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads“.

What if we’ve already won?: If Zeynep is right about effective protests, then Eric Ward says “the challenge is no longer one of winning. It’s about managing space and time. Our job now is to create and hold enough time and space for the generation coming up, the generation that does not dispute Black Lives Matter, to get its chance.” Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

A victory for single-tier public health care: BC’s supreme court has struck down a challenge by a group of money-grubbing doctors trying to dismantle Canada’s health system on constitutional grounds that the rich should be allowed to jump the queue for better, faster, private health care in Canada.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


thanks to Libby Post for the link; original poster un-cited

America’s authoritarian danger: As I described in my recent article, it is now clear that the US is no longer a democracy and is edging closer to becoming an outright totalitarian state. Umair Haque draws on the president’s coddling of the Kenosha mass murderer to explain how such events have historically led to such a state. Social media are as complicit as anyone, and some fed-up employees are posting their angry resignations online. Hari Kunzru’s excellent review of Masha Gessen’s book Surviving Autocracy is essential reading on this but the review is available to subscribers only, but there’s a lengthy YouTube interview with her here. (thanks to Tree Bressen for sending me her copy of Hari’s review, and for the link to the resignation letter above).

Hobson’s choice: Caitlin Johnstone explains how the only real difference between the two US parties, both owned by the corporate elite, is whether they scare-monger about Russia/Belarus (Democrats) or about China (Republicans). Iran is of course demonized by both. The Democrats offer a doddering leader instead of a psychopath, but they’re interested only in power, not reform. Since 2001, wars launched and supported by both parties have displaced as many as 59 million people worldwide. Kenn Orphan argues that the Democratic party has squandered the opportunity to truly distinguish itself from the other party, what it could have done, and why he thinks it never will (thanks to Lorraine Suzuki for the last link).

How Trump could win again: A recent New Yorker article by Benjamin Wallace-Wells suggests that all it might take is an apology, an 11th-hour repentance for excess. Fool me twice and all that.

The Russians and the bible-burning hoax: While it’s doubtful that Russian and other interference in the US election through social media will actually change anyone’s mind, it’s remarkable how effective campaigns like the bible-burning hoax (overtly “broadcast” by Russia Today on twitter) are, among the credulous. It doesn’t matter for most if it’s true, if it’s what we want to believe.

Is America a myth?: Robin Wright questions whether what has kept the US united (relatively) for so long is a false myth, and suggests it’s only the impracticalities of geographic separation (especially urban vs rural), and inertia, that have kept it together so far. (This might also be said of the UK, Canada and not a few other countries.)

BC’s mismanagement: The NDP-Green coalition government of BC must be one of the greatest disappointments to progressives in Canadian history. The government continues to fund the ecologically and financially disastrous Site C dam project even though its energy will never be needed; and it may, Andrew Nikiforuk reports, also be structurally unsafe. And its response to the provincial fentanyl deaths crisis has been so conservative and ineffectual that its advisory group has quit en masse.


COVID-19 CORNER


photo from Texas, by Leigh Williams posted on Facebook; caption: “Worried you might be a crow? A raven? Perhaps a bluejay? We at Corvid testing are prepared to answer any or all questions you might have about suddenly becoming a bird human. Corvid testing — we’re here for you.”

How many have actually been infected?: The quality and quantity of testing for this disease have been and continue to be abysmal. Almost nowhere has the availability, promptness and reliability of testing coincided with low enough infection rates so that, as in Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand, it’s possible to quickly identify and isolate new cases in order that life can proceed “normally”. There is some indication that in the slums of Mumbai, over half the population has been infected, with more than an order of magnitude lower level of reported cases, hospitalizations and deaths than would be expected if that were so. In China, which has endured severe lockdowns and regulations (some of them spurious), mask wearing indoors is mandatory but social distancing is almost non-existent; yet almost zero new cases are being reported. In Peru, with a population of 33 million and an average age of 27 (note that mortality of CoVid-19 for those under 30 is close to zero), there have been 120,000 excess deaths since February, most of them likely due to Covid-19. But in Nigeria, with 7 times Peru’s population, there have been only about 1,000 reported deaths and forecasters don’t envision many more over the next four months. How can this be? No one knows.

Chronic underfunding and government interference lead to screw-ups: Just as with wildfire firefighters, governments have been starving public health for decades, and that is contributing enormously to unnecessary deaths, incompetent pronouncements, misinformation and misuse of resources. Bullied by HHS, the US CDC openly discouraged testing for all non-symptomatic people in an insane announcement two weeks ago. Meanwhile the US FDA ludicrously claimed 35% of CoVid-19 deaths would have been prevented if they had been injected with blood plasma. And the most common testing method used in the US produces results far too slowly to be of use and produces a huge number of false positives. On top of that, the social stigma of testing positive is so great that many people refuse to cooperate with tracing and isolating protocols. It’s no wonder the public is increasingly skeptical about the quality of its emaciated public institutions, and furious about its government’s pandemic response.

The bradykinin hypothesis: A new theory suggests CoVid-19 interferes with the body’s regulation of bradykinin, a blood pressure regulator, producing a “bradykinin storm” that results in leaky blood vessels and a ton of related vascular problems, including release of fluids and immune cells into the lungs, which combine with a CoVid-19-produced acid called HLA that “gels” the liquid in the lungs, rendering ventilators useless. Thanks to Jae Mather for the link.

A proper testing system: The always-sensible surgeon and public health researcher Atul Gawande says we could save thousands of lives and quickly return to “normal” if we were prepared to invest in a proper testing regime called “assurance testing” (rapid, regular, easily-accessible, free, quickly-processed, properly-analyzed testing for all) used by several countries (like Iceland). Doing this is a coordination and logistics problem, not a technological or financial one. But with the disjointed, underfunded public health infrastructure in place in North America (and much of the world), it will take a gargantuan effort with a top-down, informed mandate that has the authority, support and resources to make it happen. And going forward, we will need to build up our public health systems nearly from scratch, to world standards.

What else we know now:


FUN AND INSPIRATION


aerial photo of Vancouver by Bowen Island’s Emmett Sparling

Betelgeuse is back: After dramatically dimming a year ago, what was though to be the lead-up to a supernova explosion of the famous star turned out to be just a case of indigestion; the dimming was apparently caused by the star belching an immense cloud of dust that is now dissipating. Or, rather, was dissipating at the start of the 14th century when the light of the incident started its journey to us.

An understated prediction: In a vlogcast last December, Hank Green said he was “worried” about what might happen in 2020.

Time to (at least) decriminalize possession of all drugs: In an interview back in May, drug legalization advocate Hamilton Morris interviewed Michael Pollan about his then-new book on psychedelics for therapy, How to Change Your Mind. Much of the debate is about how and how fast to legalize, rather than whether.

Making astonishing portraits: My neighbour Cyrille Zellweger shows step by step how to use crosshatching in realistic drawings.

Always put a dog in your book: Ten authors distil their writing advice to a few words.

Do octopuses dream of technicolour squids?: Octopuses appear to have REM (dream) sleep, and to “act out” their dreams in body colouring. Thanks to Ben Collver for the link.

Dogs domesticated themselves: On the fascinating video series Curious Tangents, Travis Gilbert explores social and scientific phenomena in brief, fast-paced, fact-filled, provocative, well-researched synopses. In this one, he explains the remarkable chemistry behind domestication, and how self-domestication can provide evolutionary advantage.

How to link to a particular part of a web page: If you use the Chrome browser, you can take advantage of the URL add-on #:~:text=WORD to link specifically to the first occurrence of WORD on that page. Example here.

Résumé of failures: Famed poet Kim Stafford reflects on how much more can be learned from listing one’s failures in life than one’s supposed successes. Works for me. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.


RADICAL NON-DUALITY STUFF


cartoon by Bob Mankoff in the New Yorker

It doesn’t get any better than this: Tim Cliss provides a very clear and succinct explanation of the message of radical non-duality, even though that message is unfathomable, other than intuitively.

An artist with face-blindness draws herself: The brain’s capacity to imagine, to convert patterns into “knowledge” of what is “real”, and to rationalize and believe is almost unlimited. Imagine if you couldn’t recognize a face; what would you draw? Imagine if you were unable to have an internal monologue — a dialogue with yourself; how could you formulate ideas or “know” what to say next? Imagine if you were unable to visualize things in your head; how could you imagine what you can’t see? And yet people who have all these ‘incapacities’ function perfectly well in the world, often highly successfully and unaware of their ‘incapacity’, as are many of those who live and work with them. So why is it impossible for us to fathom that there are likely many of us who live without a sense of having a separate self, or of anything being separate or absolutely real, and whose understanding of others’ descriptions of self, of separation, of time and space, and about ‘real things’ is that they are just a universal metaphorical conventional way of describing things, and not really describing anything ‘real’ at all? Possibly it’s just never occurred to them or those they seemingly interact with that they’re describing completely different ‘realities’, and it doesn’t seem to make any difference, why question it? Unless, after talking with someone who claims not to have a sense of self or separation, it is suddenly, astonishingly obvious that ‘you’ don’t either.


THOUGHTS FOR THE MONTH


home, apparently

The ultimate irony, via Caitlin Johnstone: From a news release from Radio Free Europe:

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to RFE/RL in Prague, said Washington has been watching the violence in Belarus, with “peaceful protesters being treated in ways that are inconsistent with how they should be treated.”

From Rebecca Turkewitz in a humour column on math problems for students during CoVid-19:

If we move back to in-person learning, students are supposed to remain six feet away from their closest neighbors. My classroom is roughly twenty feet by twenty-five feet. There are twenty-seven of you. In the space provided below, please draw what you see when you stare into the abyss.

If the school’s budget is unexpectedly cut by ten per cent and the school’s forty-five teachers take a six-per-cent pay cut while administrators take a zero-per-cent pay cut, will your generation finally be the one to dismantle a system in which the powerful exploit the less powerful with impunity?

From Ursula Le Guin, from No Time to Spare

Actually, I don’t exactly have expectations. I have hopes, and fears. Mostly the fears predominate these days. When my kids were young I could still hope we might not totally screw up the environment for them, but now that we’ve done so, and are more deeply sold out than ever to profiteering industrialism with its future horizon of a few months, any hope that coming generations may have ease and peace in life has become very tenuous, and has to reach far, far into the dark.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End, Radical Non-Duality | Leave a comment

What If Trump Wins Again?


New Yorker illustration by David Hornsby

“I remember a time when everybody knew their place. Time we got back to that.” — supporter of the incumbent American president the day after the 2016 election, cited in Caste

Our universal propensity to think in the short term has a lot of people hoping that Trump will lose in November, even though a lot of them don’t think much of the alternative, vowing to fight on for progressive causes no matter which old white male conservative candidate wins.

There’s a kind of collective holding of breath going on, as if there is a huge proportion of undecided voters up for grabs if something ghastly happens between now and then (according to recent polls that proportion is already less than 5%), or of course if the election is stolen, as it has been before.

What I find most alarming is the wishful thinking behind many progressives’ feeling that if Trump loses, we’ll never see him or the likes of him again. That was what many said once de-facto-President Cheney’s puppet regime’s term ran out.

This is dangerous thinking. Opinion polls consistently show that Trump’s support among white males remains basically unchanged over the past four years. This, not Republicans, is his real base — a clear majority of white males continue to support Trump, and it hasn’t been that long since they were the only people allowed to vote. Whites, and male whites moreso, have voted against every Democratic presidential candidate since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

And let’s be clear — I didn’t say old white males. Young white males of all voting age groups remain committed, almost as much as their older counterparts, to supporting Trump. Their entrance into the voting age cohorts has barely caused a ripple in the plurality of white males supporting Trump. That may surprise you until you consider that a disproportionate number (about half) of young voters are non-white (only a quarter of boomers are non-white), so looking at the entire youth cohort’s seemingly progressive attitudes obscures the reality that most young whites hew to the same extreme right-wing politics that the majority of old whites subscribe to; there’s just fewer of them.

And for a whole host of mostly disgraceful reasons, mostly to do with deliberate disenfranchisement (by white males), white males are the American demographic cohort most likely to vote.

What does it tell you that a majority of white males of all ages are knowingly prepared to vote again for a candidate who is blatantly corrupt, a pathological liar, clearly mentally deranged, uninformed, racist, sexist, utterly unprincipled, and staggeringly incompetent?

Think about that. What does it tell you when this is the case in a supposedly democratic, free, educated nation?

If we catch a break and he loses despite this rock-solid and immovable base, what then? Do we really think white male Americans are going to see the light and wise up? Four years from now, even if Trump loses, we’ll be lucky to have made a start at undoing the damage he has done, let alone starting to address the blizzard of crises that Trump has ignored or denied, at his country’s and the world’s peril, over the past critical four years. And we’ll then have to fight the battle all over again, with the odds still and always stacked against us.

The US has a long-term problem, and it’s white males — a significant and hard-core majority of them. What is the world going to do about them? Trump may lose, and, if we’re lucky, may even go away. But white American males aren’t going anywhere. They stand between the rest of the world and any hope of mitigating the mounting catastrophes that we’re going to face in the coming years and decades. Our systemically racist, sexist, patriarchal culture has produced them, and their attitudes, and is still doing so. It is not getting better. White male voters tend to get even more conservative as they get older.

Of course, in addition to massive and increasingly overt disenfranchisement, the American patriarchy has invested in other anti-democratic measures like the electoral college to deprive the majority of their choice for president, an absurd system that gives Wyoming the same representation as California to subvert the will of the majority in the Senate, and computer-perfected gerrymandering to ensure white males continue to control the House. With this control of the executive and legislative branches, they also control the courts, the legal system, and law enforcement, which are created in their likeness to support and preserve white male power.

Is there any hope of this being reformed, and soon, so that the US can join common cause with the rest of the world in tackling all the important issues at hand? Issues that white male American exceptionalism has spurned.

I see no reason to be hopeful.

I don’t lay any blame, though. I’ve studied enough history to understand the appeal of brutal authoritarian populism to people who, by virtue of their hopeless situation in a nation where median income is falling, median net worth is negative, and the middle class has substantially disappeared, are filled with rage, shame, and a sense of impotence — a sense that the “ruling class” (the universities, the media,  the professional class) cares nothing about their situation and largely disapproves of them (remember “deplorables”?).

It is not therefore surprising that someone who pretends to thumb his nose at the establishment, who speaks about everything as if it’s dead simple black and white, and who is so bumbling and incoherent that he can’t be intimidating, could be seen as their champion.

Of course, many BIPOC people have been treated much worse in what has become the third-world economy and rigged politics of the United States of Inequality, and their rage in the streets of America is perfectly understandable.

History is replete with examples of citizens electing autocrats who threaten the ruling class when the ruling class disregards them long enough. It is also interesting to note that these revolutions and usurpations of power are usually launched not by the poor, who have lived with oppression all their lives, but by the newly impoverished, often members of a middle class in decline, who feel that their ‘caste’ rating in the society has fallen, and unfairly so. Hitler and Stalin benefited from this, as Trump is now.

Isabel Wilkerson’s extraordinary book Caste outlines how our implicit caste system works. It suggests that over time all North Americans of European ancestry have been melded into a single dominant ‘white’ caste, with Asians, Latinos, Indigenous peoples and new immigrants from the African continent as the middle caste, and Blacks  remaining, as they have been since their ancestors first arrived, as the lowest, subordinated caste.

While I agree with just about everything in her analysis, I think our caste system is actually more complex than this. I would suggest that in parts of North American society Asian-Americans are treated as belonging to at least three and possibly more castes depending on where in Asia (Mid-East, South Asia, East Asia) they or their their ancestors came from. I would suggest that First Nations people are, in some places in North America at least, treated as a subordinated caste.

And I would suggest there are at least a dozen ‘white’ castes, of which privately-schooled, healthy, wealthy white males whose descendants have been in the country over a century are the top caste, and various other whites rank variously lower depending on whether they are male or female, how old they are, whether they are poor, whether they own their own home (or rent, or are homeless), what schools/universities they and their children attended and currently attend, what degrees and professional credentials they have, whether they are (physically and mentally) healthy (and if not, whether their illness is seen as a disease of the privileged or of the masses), how long their ancestors have been in the country, and their sexual orientation, speaking accent, religion, club memberships, and even appearance (fitness, level of beauty, dress and behaviours).

I do agree with Isabel* that Blacks (African-Americans) were and are treated as the bottom, most subordinated caste, wherever they live in North America. In geographical areas I have lived in that have almost no Blacks, another group, usually but not always what Canadians call a “visible minority”, seems to be treated as the most subordinated caste. Over the course of my life, that has at one time or another included Jews (who for many years could not join certain clubs), immigrants from Eastern Europe, immigrants from South Asia, First Nations peoples, people in the LGBT+ community, and those with physical and mental challenges. It seems that some group has to be identified as the lowest-ranking caste, to provide the basis for self-identification for everyone else.

I would also say that many white Americans automatically (and mostly subconsciously) treat all non-Americans as being of a somewhat lower caste than they would be treated if they were Americans, all other things being equal. They do so usually politely (depending on how low the caste they’re interacting with) but often patronizingly. I think that is the main reason so many Canadians, often unconscious of our own caste, distrust and even dislike Americans who force us to realize how utterly baked into our culture caste-ranking is — and they show us by slighting us. Ask any Canadian who works for an American boss if you doubt me.

In her book, Isabel describes the astonishment and outrage that a white dinner companion expresses over how they were treated (presumably because of Isabel’s presence) by staff in a restaurant. She tells her companion that if a Black American were to get outraged every time they were so treated, they “wouldn’t last very long”. She wishes that everyone could have a taste of this, just so they would know how it feels.

As a white male, I have been buffered from such treatment most of my life. I have been mistreated on rare occasions because of my long hair (especially in the 1960s and 1970s), how I have dressed, and due to my ‘radical’ politics. But these were conscious ‘misbehaviours’ on my part, and I was prepared for what they provoked. The only occasion when I was truly aware of how others perceived my caste rank was on a business trip in the 1990s. Flying in business class (a last-minute upgrade using frequent flyer points) I found myself seated beside one of Canada’s ten wealthiest men (the wealthiest were of course all men, and all white, as is still the case). He looked with obvious disdain at my casual attire, as if I were letting the side down. When I introduced myself and told him my (executive) title, he seemed surprised. He didn’t introduce himself, but instead asked me what schools I’d gone to growing up. When I told him public schools, he cut me off, ‘apologized’ that he needed to catch up on sleep for an upcoming business meeting, and turned his face away from me for the rest of the flight.

Rather than outraged, I was completely bewildered. I had no idea that such a caste system existed in Canada. Curious, I talked to others and discovered it was well-entrenched, and in my relative privilege, I had simply been oblivious to it. I hadn’t wanted to be aware of it; I didn’t want to believe that anyone treated people differently, in any systemic way — not here, not today! How un-Canadian! [The existence of different “classes” of travel, with their private segregated bathrooms, the unapologetic use of that term, and the different treatment afforded lower-class travellers, speaks volumes all by itself].

So then, in my forties, I suddenly became aware of the presence, effectiveness, and power of the caste system, and how utterly Canadian it actually was.

Fifteen years later, I went to visit the late Joe Bageant in Belize, and he gave me a crash course in how well entrenched the caste system was in the US. (The book he wrote, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, is IMO essential reading in understanding what he called the “white underclass” — the backbone of today’s Trump supporters.)

He was the one who told me about the pride and shame of what he called those of “mostly Scots-Irish descent” — whites whose ancestors didn’t think of themselves as white when they arrived (some of them as indentured servants), and who were treated for generations as lower- but not lowest-caste Americans (that position being already taken by African-Americans, slaves or not). Caste describes their delight at their apparent “upgrade” during the gradual merging of all white castes of European descent (even the then-despised Italian-Americans who made up most of the non-Black prison population in the early 20th century) into a single, dominant caste over the last century.

But then that pride turned to shame and anger as they found themselves seemingly downgraded in rank again, due to their poverty and lack of education, since the optimism of the 1960s yielded to the jaded materialism and defeatism that has prevailed ever since. Today, the members of the white underclass are the coal miners, desolating their own home communities just to make a buck. They’re the vast bulk of the military, the only means they can find to afford an advanced education. They’re the farmers, overworked and then robbed of their farms by Big Agriculture, often ending up working for the new owners of land that was once theirs. They’re the factory workers, with no opportunity for advancement, mistreated and tossed aside as automation, outsourcing, offshoring and union-busting provides arrogant and indifferent corporate executives (almost all of them white males of the top-most dominant caste) with a means of reducing costs. Their shame and misery is expressed in the astonishing number of them addicted to and dying from heroin, cocaine and fentanyl, as well as the old working class standbys, alcohol and tobacco, and the many other diseases of despair and hopelessness that have recently started to lower life-expectancies of this caste.

As the statistics show, it is now almost impossible to move economically from one quintile of income or net worth to a higher one, even over several generations. If “higher education” was ever a vehicle for doing so, it is no more. Since the death of egalitarianism and idealism in the mid-20th century, your wealth and education has become a lifelong badge of your caste, inherited and passed down to future generations. Poverty, and the rising chasm of economic inequality, have ushered in a subtler but still oppressive form of slavery, and while Blacks remain far and away the most oppressed caste, many working class whites have fallen from the dominant caste to something seemingly hopelessly below. They are angry (especially the gender with most of the testosterone). And, being uninformed and poorly educated, they are ripe for the picking by autocrats like Trump. And their shame and rage is often directed at — you guessed it — those of subordinate castes (in the corporate caste system it’s called “suck up; shit down” and it worsens as corporate size and number of levels of hierarchy increase).

This is classic scapegoating caste behaviour, and it is being perfectly ‘played’ by Trump and his cronies. It hurts to see the bitter irony of two struggling castes of Americans — Blacks and the “white underclass”, fighting each other in the streets, as members of the topmost dominant caste (the “1%”) cynically take sides and cheer on “their” side, the result being a complete distraction from the final looting of America’s remaining wealth by this caste — a dominant caste that doesn’t really give a damn about either side (even on voting day, since the dominant caste has long owned both parties).

There is a ton of data showing an almost perfect geographic correlation between inequality and violence. As inequality spirals out of control in North America, so will violence, and the repressive militarized police-led bloodshed unleashed to suppress it. And guess who the police, which are largely comprised of members of the angry white underclass, are going to focus their violent suppression on?

Isabel writes: “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred; it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.” Said in different terms, we might say that the behaviours that arise from conscious or unconscious perception of the prevailing caste system are enculturated conditioning. If that is the case, then we really have no choice but to act, often badly, in accordance with this conditioning. This isn’t an excuse for it, just an explanation. Hopefully, over generations, we might begin to socially condition each other differently, with greater awareness of the inherent injustice of caste-driven behaviour and less judgement, discrimination and damage to the victims and to the entire social fabric of our communities. To do so will require an end to the de facto segregation of castes — We most fear, misunderstand and distrust those we have never met, never spoken to, never worked and fought alongside.

Of course, there is the huge question of whether or not we can afford to wait for that to happen. In light of the grievous level of inequality, especially in North America where it continues to accelerate and put more and more stresses on all but the top-most dominant caste, it seems more than possible that the social fabric of the country will tear before that happens, and civil war or fascist dictatorship will be the result. While this will be a war between castes, the racial divide in it will be clear. If it results in a fascist coup and dictatorship, the top-most white dominant caste will be torn, since the white underclass arguably despises them as much as they do the subordinated caste. Many in the top-most dominant caste prefer the reliable, less emotional Democratic Party it controls over the Republican Party it seems to be losing its grip on, though it still clearly controls most of both parties’ elected officials. But history tells us they are more likely to try to appease a fascist dictatorship than risk losing power by opposing them.

And it really is all about power, and the wealth and other privileges power affords. In his review of Caste, Indian historian Sunil Khilnani, wondering whether Isabel’s call for “radical empathy” may be naive, points out: “Changing power differentials in order to redress vile histories of discrimination [is always] bound to be ugly”. And as Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

None of this bodes well for the future of the rapidly-failing American state. Or for its oppressed peoples.


* Just a note here that I generally use first names, not surnames, when referring to writers and others in my posts, regardless of whether or not I know them personally. I do this regardless of people’s gender, race or perceived position. I choose to do this because I find referring to people by their surname to be both anachronistic and somewhat demeaning (it can also be confusing when referring to several family members sharing a surname in the same article). Using surnames with a title (Mr, Ms etc) seems absurdly formal. Using both given name and surname seems pretentious and redundant. I mention this here because in Caste, the author makes a point of how whites were encouraged to refer to Blacks, even those much older than they were, by their first names, while Blacks were expected to refer to whites of any age by their title and surname. I mean absolutely no disrespect in continuing my naming convention in this article, and apologize if any offence is taken by such usage.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 9 Comments

Give the Kids a Break

I wonder if there has ever been a generation that didn’t consider the generations that followed it to be spoiled, selfish and hopelessly foolish?

With cases of CoVid-19 surging in many areas that thought they’d escaped or moved past the worst of it, we’ve now got shaming of “young people” by older people across the political spectrum, for supposedly causing the surge by failing to socially distance and observe other norms.

It is not at all surprising to me that the average age of positive cases has plummeted, since:

  1. There is evidence that, while risk of hospitalization and death is up to two orders of magnitude higher for seniors than it is for those under 30, the likelihood of getting infected is just about the same for every age group. So now that testing is finally being done at a reasonable scale beyond those with serious symptoms, the average age of new infections will inevitably start to converge on the average age of the population as a whole. In fact, it should tend to skew a little below that level, since many of those in hospitals, seniors’ homes and care facilities are still essentially in various stages of lockdown and hence less likely to become infected.
  2. There have been some studies that suggest that among those of working age, more new infections are due to returning to CoVid-19-unsafe work environments than to parties and other social occasions. This virus spreads more the longer that people are in close proximity to each other indoors, and the average work day/week is a lot longer than the average social event.
  3. There is also a growing consensus that the actual infection fatality rate (IFR) — the percentage of all people infected (including asymptomatically) who die, may be only 60% as high as the current case fatality rate (CFR) which is converging on about 1.0%. If that’s the case, then nearly twice as many may have been infected as what the data had been suggesting — and record high confirmed case counts may not lead to record high hospitalization and death rates.

This is not to suggest there’s not cause for alarm — the daily positivity rate (positive tests as a percentage of all tests done) in some areas has jumped up again past the 5% threshold, notably in Spain and many parts of the US where the average is nearly 7% and in some regions it’s over 10%. By contrast, in Canada, Australia and most of Europe it ranges from less than 1%, to 3%. A high positivity rate suggests many new cases are not yet being detected, and hence cases are likely to rise in that area, and many more are likely infectious than official cases would suggest.

But there’s little indication that “young people” are taking the situation significantly less seriously than those of us in riskier age groups. The map at the top of this post shows who is and who is not regularly using masks (the rates for social distancing are comparable). What it suggests is that we don’t take precautions before/until we perceive our immediate risk to be high. The lax social distancing and mask use in Western Canada and in Australia is easy to understand when case, hospitalization and death rates there have been minimal and positivity rates are less than 1%.

I’m a resident of BC, and my observation is that mask use among all ages is still minimal, even indoors, except in establishments that mandate them (in which case, being Canadians, we mostly politely comply). Even now, with rates increasing, there are almost no places in BC where more than one person in a thousand (0.1%) of the community has tested positive, and overall only one tenth of that small number is still infectious (ie was infected in the last 14 days). Even if only a fifth of infections have been reported (which is likely the case in most areas) the risk is still tiny. But as quickly as reported cases rise, I am seeing mask use rise commensurately, voluntarily, and among all age groups.

And as much as I have been infuriated by the laxness of some adult community leaders (business leaders, police, and particularly parents, whose model young children are likely to follow) in social distancing and mask use, I think their complacency is understandable in light of what would seem to be a community-wide unspoken consensus as to their level of risk. And I think it is changing, and will change, as the level of reported cases and deaths rise.

There is also some evidence that many asymptomatic cases, and those who are infectious but wearing masks, spread a relatively small amount (called the “load”) of the virus. This would seem to be a significant reason why new cases and deaths in New York state are now at an astonishingly low level, despite the fact only an estimated 20-25% of its 20M citizens have been infected (only a tenth that number have a confirmed positive test), far below “herd immunity” level. Mask use there is about 60%, and social activity is still 30% below normal, which accounts for much of the improvement. It may just be that at that 60% threshold, many fewer infections are occurring with a high viral “load” transmitted, and hence hopefully new cases and positivity rates will fall and stay below the threshold below which test-and-trace programs can finally be effective.

Even more encouraging, a new research report suggests if your mask exposes you to only a small “load” of the virus from an infected person, you may not only be asymptomatic, you may acquire some immunity to the disease in the process. (Layperson’s explanation of this report here.)

It will be interesting to watch what happens in California, which, after a horrific month, despite mask and social distancing measures comparable to New York’s, has finally managed to ratchet its positivity rate down to 5.5% (below the US average) and its daily deaths per M people down below 3.0. The IHME is betting that won’t be enough to prevent another 30,000 deaths in California (versus almost none in New York) over the next three months. I guess we’ll see.

The chart above, published this week in the BMJ, is probably the best advice we could all take at this point. If you’re thinking of going to a high risk (red) activity, you would be wise to avoid it. If you’re planning a medium risk (yellow) activity, you would best consider taking some action (wear a mask, shorten your visit, and/or get it moved outdoors) to make it into a low-risk (green) activity. All other things being equal, social distancing will help but probably not as much as these other actions.

So, bottom line, I hope we’re willing to give the kids a break. In most places we haven’t been good, or early, models of what we are now wisely preaching. And I don’t think there’s any comparing the thoughtlessness of some “young people” during CoVid-19, to what we “old people” have done on a massive scale to wreak ecological havoc, accelerate climate collapse, rack up unrepayable levels of debt, and exhaust inexpensive non-renewable resources, without giving a tinker’s damn about the consequences to “young people”. People in glass houses and all that.


This is the 11th in a series of articles on CoVid-19. I am not a medical expert, but have worked with epidemiologists and have some expertise in research, data analysis and statistics. I am producing these articles in the belief that reasonably researched writing on this topic can’t help but be an improvement over the firehose of misinformation that represents far too much of what is being presented on this topic in social (and some other) media.

[Postscript for math & stats geeks: Just as I completed this post, IHME announced it’s recomputed its age-weighted IFR, used to calculate estimated actual historical infections, and hence to forecast, based on recent estimated-infections-to-reported-cases ratios, deaths going forward. The old rate was ~0.9%; the new age-weighted rate for the US is 0.66% (it differs for each jurisdiction based on median age). Estimated actual historical infection rates have been increased proportionally, though they remain far below herd immunity levels everywhere. What’s interesting is that they are still using reported deaths in these computations, despite the fact that excess death studies suggest actual CoVid-19 death rates in most developed nations are ~50% higher than reported rates. If you take the new IFR of 0.66% and multiply it by 1.5, guess what you get as an actual IFR? The same 1.0% that rates globally have seemingly been converging on for months. It’s just coincidence, and convenient, that reported deaths and estimated actual infections have both apparently been understated by a third. We just have to be sure that when we’re talking 0.66%, or 1%, we’re referring to the appropriate numerators and denominators. It is doubtful we’ll ever know precisely what the death total, or IFR, actually were — too many uncertainties. But it seems increasingly likely it’s in this range.]

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

We Contain Multitudes

sun flashes, blinks, glimmers
through aspen leaves rustling in late summer breeze

sparrow watches me below watching her

all this complexity, undirected
stunning complicity of countless cells,
looking after each other,
creating more of their kind,
doing what they do
for no reason

no wonder we invented gods to try to explain it all

brain’s job was never to make sense of this,
it was just to convert signals to messages:
food afoot, or danger,
as it’s done for half a billion years

too smart now for its own good
it imagines its models to be real
and imagines, at the centre, a self, me

a delusion, but one
that harms only itself
a tragic misunderstanding, source of
endless unnecessary suffering
dis-ease of confusion and of fear

sparrow
(in no way separate from
rippling ocean currents of air)
flitters
among branches of the tree
(in no way separate from either
or from anything)

just (if you look closely, quietly)
a dance of atoms, molecules, cells, strands and fibres
vibrating in such a way
as to seem to take the shape of everything,
a play of light and shadow
with no rules
no roles, no settings, no limits
no beginning and no end

no now, or later
neither here, nor there

no solidity to it, to any of these things
appearing to be separate
when they are not —
least of all me
this ponderous, bedraggled self-invented mess
endlessly grasping at thoughts and feelings
presuming them to be mine,
my responsibility to corral and order,

a ghost sheepdog trying vainly
to herd an oblivious flock

the play whirls on, explodes, flutters,
whispers, chirps, thunders, morphs, quivers
outside of space and time, complete,

as I, somehow, insanely apart, look on,
desperate to make sense
of what makes no sense, and has no need to,

self-constrained by my own inventions,
finite, limited, quarantined,
self-immiserating, victim
not of my conditioning, but of its denial

sun fades, sky opens
a roar of rain, in sheets;
sparrow calls out: look!

but my eyes are closed,
I cannot see what she is pointing me to,
joyously, wings aflutter

I am too lost in the grief of knowing


photo is my own; title is from a poem by Walt Whitman

Posted in Creative Works, Radical Non-Duality | 1 Comment

When the Aliens Come

Mitchell-kanashkevich-jellyfishphoto by Mitchell Kaneshkevich
When I was younger, I used to fantasize about our beleaguered planet being visited by aliens. Even as a child, I had a better-than-Hollywood imagination — my envisioned aliens never looked in any way humanoid, and were more often creatures of pure light or energy, who were collective, not individual, and who communicated across space and time without the need for making sound or words.

Now, while part of me recognizes that in our unreal world anything is possible, another part of me accepts Stephen J Gould’s argument that the likelihood of life emerging in any form even vaguely resembling its current form on this planet (ie predominantly vertebrates with five senses and centralized brains), is so remotely low as to be essentially zero. And there is also the argument about whether an alien species capable of making the long trip here (physically or psychically) would even be bothered to do so, there being an infinite number of other places to visit; and whether any such species by its nature is inevitably going to self-destruct long before escaping its own world.

But suppose there were a species capable of visiting our planet? I would not use the word “intelligent” to describe such a species; even less would I use the word “conscious”. It seems to me, after nearly seven decades of pondering extraterrestrial life, that the only true indication of intelligence is, as Darwin suggested, the capacity to fit well into one’s environment in order to thrive in harmony with all life. The capacity to create fragile, rapidly-decaying, prosthetic technologies that allow the creation of artificial environments, environmental destruction, weaponry and the escaping from the environment in which one was born to thrive, seems to me to be the very opposite of intelligence — I would think any aliens would see it as evidence of massive psychosis and maladaptation, a plague best terminated before it got out of control and undid hundreds of millennia of carefully co-created complexity.

What I find particularly laughable about Hollywood portrayals of aliens is the staggering arrogance that presumes alien visitors would have any interest whatsoever in communicating with our particular species, when there are so many complex creatures on this planet that have successfully adapted in astonishingly varied ways to planetary changes far beyond anything our feeble species could possibly survive, and have done so for hundreds of times longer than our neophyte species has been around.

I would think alien visitors would be far more interested in studying whales, jellyfish, and bats, than they would our miserable, cancerous, catastrophic species. In fact, an alien culture that paid any attention to us at all would probably be most concerned about whether they should quickly exterminate us before we do any more damage to the balance of life on the planet, or whether they should instead let the human plague take its course like any other pandemic, until it exhausts the capacity of its host to provide it with essential resources, and exterminates itself. The end is the same.

I suppose this is why I no longer watch movies — either sci-fi films or any other style of preposterous digital fiction. Their stories are all utterly implausible, escapist, masturbatory fantasies, designed to make their viewers feel something — anything but the ghastly, helpless, hopeless sense of shame that I think is eating our species alive as it begins to dawn on us how utterly incompetent, useless and destructive we have been during our short and brutal time on this planet. And the sheer hubris of believing we can somehow fix the catastrophic, desolating mess we have unwittingly created, or that we can or should leave and try to see if we can do better on another planet!

A film that really showed us, through the eyes of an alien species, who we are, and what we’ve done, would of course not be a commercially successful one. As Eliot said, humankind cannot bear very much reality.

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

What’s the Best Possible Outcome?


I’m a member of a Meetup group that is exploring various aspects of a non-hierarchical, self-organized approach to creating and operating business and other organizations, that is casually known as Teal, and is based on the book Reinventing Organizations.

At our latest meeting, Stuart Ramsing led us through a process he uses with some of his clients that he referred to as “Worst Possible Outcomes / Best Possible Outcomes”. My understanding of it is as follows:

  1. We are evolutionarily hard-wired in stressful situations to jump immediately to imagining Worst Possible Outcomes. When we see something coiled and green in the grass, our initial response is “snake — jump away”. This harks back to our primeval fight/flight/freeze instinct.
  2. In most modern organizational contexts, this instinctive response is dysfunctional. It leads us to be preoccupied with avoidance, or denial, and to take an adversarial, risk-averse, knee-jerk approach to dealing with distressing situations. It shuts down our creativity. It creates unhelpful tension and anxiety. It prompts us to prefer evasive action, confrontation or inaction, rather than creative or constructive actions.
  3. A better approach starts with the Worst Possible Outcome (getting it out on the table, also called “daylighting” it, since we’re immediately thinking about it anyway), airing this potential outcome to acknowledge and defuse the anxiety and other negative emotions it creates, and assessing its likelihood objectively and dispassionately. That generally leads to an openness to consider that other, more preferable outcomes are possible, more likely, and attainable.
  4. The next step then is to imagine the Best Possible Outcome. This isn’t daydreaming about a probably unachievable ideal outcome, begging the question of how it could be achieved. It’s appealing to the innate story-teller in each of us, and co-creating a story that leads to the best achievable result.
  5. Usually the best means to create this story is iteratively, with a diverse team taking turns adding to and refining the story until it has buy-in from all — it becomes a collective story and implicitly creates a sense of shared purpose and intention. This must be an appreciative, rather than analytical process — as with improvisation, it entails adding “yes, and” statements instead of “yes, but” statements. The objective is not to deny important impediments to the Best Possible Outcome, but to set them aside in pursuit of the achievability of the shared Best Possible Outcome. This acknowledges that the human mind is extremely capable of finding workarounds for obstacles once the goal (intended outcome) is clear. If the collective group can’t find the workarounds and other creative means to achieve the Best Possible Outcome and render the unspoken “buts” moot, then it isn’t the Best Possible Outcome, and the group will naturally tend (and will need to be encouraged) to refine the story until it actually is the Best Possible Outcome, in the consensus view of the group.
  6. A key success factor in making this work is ensuring the sponsor/facilitator has invited, and that all participants are listening attentively to, all the voices that can add value — those that bring as complete as possible knowledge of the situation, and a diversity of perspectives and ideas.
  7. Once the story is complete, an important part of the learning is a bit of self-learning: assessing how you personally feel about the collectively-determined Best Possible Outcome (eg proud of the group, surprised, energized, relieved), contrasted with the instinctive negative feelings (anxiety, fear, distress, anger, hopelessness, dread, shame, defensiveness etc) that you noticed immediately arose when the Worst Possible Outcome was contemplated.

It takes a certain degree of discipline (and a good facilitator) to prevent several things from happening that could sabotage the process: groupthink (it’s easier to give a nod to something that’s safe and promising, than to improve the story with more daring and realistic embellishments); backsliding (it’s often tempting and safe to agree with a stated or implied ‘but’, or a fact that seemingly raises obstacles, and hence move towards a Less-Than-Best Possible Outcome); deference to power (agreeing with the person with the most power, no matter how accurate, valuable, or helpful their comment may be); cultural resistance (in some cultures it’s unacceptable to admit weakness or doubt, or to advance unorthodox ideas); and jumping to conclusions (some participants getting impatient and trying to move to action at a perceived “good enough” stage, before the group has completed the process).

This process of story creation is a natural one, but it needs to be skilfully managed. Participants need to be coached to avoid trying to convince others of the validity of what they’re saying, and instead let the story emerge freely. Others cannot be allowed to butt in out of turn with “related ideas”, or challenging questions — power imbalances, even if they’re exercised tacitly, need to be identified and compensated for. Equal airtime must be encouraged and when necessary enforced. In that sense this process follows some of the strictures of Bohm Dialogue and other free-flow dialectic processes.

When the process or the story runs into doubts and “buts”, the facilitator needs to step in to put the process back on its tracks and get the group to persevere and “trust the process”.

Once the story has reached consensus, it’s then up to the facilitator to re-sequence it more coherently, but without paraphrasing, embellishing or eliminating anything that’s been said: It must remain the group’s story in the group’s own words.

One of the things I’m coming to appreciate is that, while we may have no “free will” (we’re going to say and do what we were going to say and do anyway, given our conditioning and the specific circumstances of the moment), our conditioning is affected by others’ conditioning. That’s why, properly facilitated, this collective process not only can produce clarity and momentum on the Best Possible Outcome (as perceived collectively by the group), you might say it will inevitably do so, better than any set of individual thinking and imagining, and better than any less smartly facilitated process, would do.

There are of course more steps to this, to bring the envisioned Best Possible Outcome to fruition. One of them I particularly like is engaging the group to each identify which aspects of the realization of the Best Possible Outcome they are particularly inspired to be involved with — a Follow the Energy approach.

I’ve already applied this to a couple of personal and group situations I’ve been involved with, so I can vouch for it, and have added it to my “toolkit” of methods and techniques I find highly useful, especially in group activities — methods like Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, and Circle.

It seems to me that this Best Possible Outcome method can be effectively applied in many different contexts. You can use it personally to “get over” anxieties that a situation has brought up for you that might be paralyzing you. You can use it when a group gets bogged down in negative thinking and productive debate. You can use it to gently correct an ill-advised and uninformed management directive. You can use it with a group who don’t know each other to tackle urgent or “wicked” problems and predicaments that will never have an obvious or complete analytically-determinable solution.

I’ve used the Group Works pattern language deck to “map” what I think are the most significant group process patterns likely to be invoked with the Best Possible Outcome method. You can see the map at the top of this post.

I think it’s a compelling approach, and one I want to explore more. As a self-described “joyful pessimist” I have a propensity to be uselessly anxious and to jump quickly to Worst Possible Outcome thinking. So this might not only be effective when I’m dealing with group challenges, it might be personally therapeutic as well.

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Reflections From the Future

this is a work of fiction, and a continuation of the previous story The Lost Tribes

Fieldnote 12 September 2092

I wonder what people living in 2020 might think if they could see what the world looked like today, 72 years later? The planet’s population has dropped to about the same level as it was then — about 7.8B — so they might think things would be much the same now as they were then. If only they knew! If only I could go back in time and warn them! Not that the outcome could have been avoided, but I’m sure they would have welcomed some advance notice for some things that turned out very differently from what the futurists were predicting back then, according to the books I’ve read.

Here are some of the things that I’d tell them:

  1. Civilization, as it was known back then, has collapsed, but not in the sudden, dramatic way they portrayed it in the old Hollywood movies. It was more like “death by a thousand small cuts”. Everything fell apart so slowly that it was kind of natural, obvious what had to happen. So we no longer have federal or regional governments, only “alliances” and community councils that resolve conflicts. We no longer have large-scale wars, because there’s not enough money or cheap energy to produce the machinery of war, and no place that is so rich in accessible resources as to be worth mounting any kind of large-scale invasion. And there’s no central security infrastructure left — no police or prisons or armies. We pretty much look after any incidents locally, since we know who the usual suspects are that create problems. That’s not to say there’s “world peace” — wherever there are inequalities between neighbouring communities there are always skirmishes, and some of them are bloody. They’re just not on the kind of scale that the word ‘war’ conjures up. War is expensive, and we’re all just struggling to make do, to live a life of sufficiency.
  2. The other big change since 2020 is that there’s no trade on any large scale. Any fuel we have is used for essential local needs like providing heat and refrigeration, so there’s none for transporting goods, or people, long distances. The start of the Long Depression 50 years ago brought about the rapid end of flying, both passenger and freight, and a decade later there was no spare fuel for shipping, trucking or private automobiles either. Hard to imagine now there being a time when everyone had their own car! So just about everything we want and need has to be produced and provided locally. You learn to need a lot less when that happens.
  3. Back then you used to have “currencies” and “prices” for everything, and I understand half the people in the world had “debts” that exceeded what they owned. Currencies disappeared a few decades ago, again due to the Long Depression, and all debts were just forgiven, since without money they couldn’t be repaid. There’s not a lot of excess of anything, now, so we just get what we need from the community stores, and provide what we can, and when things run out we figure out what to do, case by case. Nothing is for sale. Even when we trade a bit with nearby communities it’s on an honour system — we trust that everything will more or less even out in the end, so we don’t keep track of what’s traded. No need for accountants anymore. Or lawyers, thank the Goddesses.
  4. So now we all grow food, very effectively thanks to the scientific learnings of civilization times, in our neighbourhood community gardens, for ourselves and hopefully a bit extra to share. Those two billion people who moved north due to climate collapse between the ’30s and ’80s, in the Great Migration, had already learned how to grow food, how to make and mend clothes, and how to build movable shelters they could bring with them as they migrated, shelters that they could adapt to different climates and seasons. They taught us these things, as we were forced to abandon the bankrupt cities and spread out into the hinterlands. My parents said it was terrifying, and then enormously empowering, to relearn how to live without depending on institutions for everything. We also learned a lot from countries that never got dependent in the first place, like what used to be called Nigeria, which was the second most populous country in the world before the government collapsed. We learned that a lot of people can live pretty comfortably on quite little if they have to. A good thing, since our 7.8B people today have a footprint less than a tenth of what the same number had in 2020. Driven by necessity, and a lot less painful a transition than you’d think. And while climate collapse is still proceeding, with all the forests gone and the oceans dead and 80% of the planet now uninhabitable, the climate disasters would probably have been a lot worse if not for the Long Depression.
  5. There is much to be said for living in a world with a significantly declining population (down 2B from the peak, and forecast to drop another 2B over the next decade). Suddenly there’s a relative surplus of everything — land, housing, clothing. It makes subsistence living very much easier. Food, especially in variety, is still scarce, because with the soils so diminished from overuse, and chemicals no longer available, it’s a labour intensive activity, and the amount of labour available in our declining, aging population drops each year.
  6. Africa was our model, not only because of everything they taught us about subsistence, sufficient living, but also because of how they modelled adaptive community living. Most of their two and a half billion people couldn’t join the Great Migration because there was nowhere livable nearby to migrate to. When the governments there collapsed, and all the big corporations that had an oligopoly of wealth there collapsed, and the warlords ran out of money to fund their campaigns of terror, their people’s response was amazing. Average number of children per family in much of the continent went from 5 to 1 in just two decades. No government edicts, no laws or punishments. Once they had control over their own communities’ resources again, with basically nothing going out or coming in, they figured out exactly what they needed to do to live within the constraints of the resources available to them. They self-organized, and recreated a tribal model of living that had not quite been forgotten there in the rush to the cities.
  7. America, by contrast, was the anti-model. Mostly due to the fact that when the governments there collapsed, most of the people simply had no survival skills and no sense of community at all, and enormous expectations and a sense of entitlement to more than their share of everything, and way too many guns for their own good. And too much cult of the individual, those Anglos, unwilling to share anything. The second American civil war is still essentially going on there in microcosm, sixty years after it began, even though there is no more America. Total Balkan-style implosion. And the British have suffered almost as much.
  8. We have electricity, community-generated from wind and solar, though some of that technology is aging and we don’t have the materials to replace it, so we try not to be overly-dependent on it. Mostly we use it for light and heat and refrigeration, and to power the community libraries for research and learning. None of your fragile monster electrical grid with its time-wasting extravagant internets. And of course we have to keep the nuclear cooling stations and petrochemical zones operating to keep them from exploding, even though we can no longer use them for power or chemicals.
  9. We have had our share of crises, of course. The Great Earthquakes devastated America’s west-coast cities, though by then the big cities were already starting to be depopulated. We’ve had six pandemics that killed about 400 million people between them, though that number is highly imprecise, since the most recent ones, after the production of vaccines ceased in the third decade of the Long Depression, were uncontrolled and our information systems could no longer gather much reliable data on their impact. The latest one was extremely virulent, but since long-distance travel has pretty much ceased, its effects were severe but localized. We figure it’s likely to be like that going forward. The loss of the great forests to fire and insects has caused a whole cascade of ecological crises, as has the death of the oceans that preceded it. That has caused the hot deserts of the tropics and the cold deserts of the boreal areas to expand enormously, and they’re largely uninhabitable now, as are the semi-arid areas of western North America, central and east Asia, and southern Europe that have grown unbearably hot and have long ago run out of water.
  10. And water, always our most precious resource, is now probably the biggest factor driving our population down and our continuing migrations to areas where it is still available. It was the cause of the last great wars, in the northern parts of North America and Europe, and across Asia. When the Long Depression eliminated the capacity to create and maintain pipelines to transport water long distances, those wars ended in a whimper. But with the Long Migration, even that water is in danger of running out, especially as the climate collapse worsens.
  11. You might be surprised to learn that, despite not having man-made pharmaceuticals, vaccines, or hospitals, our life expectancy is about the same as it was in 2020. We apparently eat much more nutritious food than people did then — less of it, almost entirely plants, and no processed food — and we of necessity exercise more, as we live without most of the electrically-powered equipment that made lives in 2020 dangerously physically inactive. And I’m not sure why, but we seem less obsessed about dying than people back then were. Maybe it’s because we see it when it happens, whereas in 2020 it was always hidden, in institutions, behind closed doors.

I’m a demographer, so I guess it’s inevitable that I’d come back to what’s changed and changing in our populations. In much of the world that humans and their dependant domesticated animals have abandoned — the large desertified and hellishly-hot-without-air-conditioning areas — new species are only very slowly emerging. I would guess it could take millennia for life to recover there, even assuming climate collapse doesn’t make it even harder.

There have been bigger changes in temperate, populated areas where mechanized agriculture was abandoned, when that activity became unaffordable due to the effects of the Long Depression. The problem with those lands, again, is the depleted quality of the soil, but nature has now significantly regenerated those soils, and there’s a veritable menagerie of species living in the exploding forests there. It is my own desire that, when my time has come, I will be able to walk into those forests and spend my last days living the life humans lived a million years ago, and losing my life the same way — in the jaws of a cougar, grizzly or jaguar, completing nature’s food cycle.

For all our adaptation, I think there is something in us that tells us this artificial, constrained way of living is still not the way we are meant to live — we are, I think, meant to be free and wild and fearless and just a part of everything. That’s why I think the human population will continue to decline, even though our lives, modest and precarious as they may be, cannot possibly be as stressful or fearful as the lives of most of those living back in 2020.

Our civilization has largely collapsed, and it can’t and won’t be put back together again, yet still we are to some extent hanging on to its vestiges. Our numbers remain unsustainable, and the desolation that our exhaustion of this planet has wrought must leave us all in a state of deep grief, shame, disconnection and sorrow. Yet we cling to civilization culture’s dregs, as it is, still, the only life we know. We are not yet ready, and may not be for centuries or millennia yet, to take our place, raw, unsettled, uncivilized, and full of awe, in a once-again more-than-human world.

above photo of the settlement of Imizamo Yethu by Sarah Nankin for Time

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The Lost Tribes

this is a work of fiction:  I’ve been re-reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, written in 2005; it speculated then on future human population limits then when the population was 6.7B. It is now more than a billion people larger, at 7.8B. In just fifteen years.

Fieldnote 8 September 2092

I worked in animal demographics (a bit of an oxymoronic term if you’re familiar with etymology) for many years before I started to study human populations.

Animal demographics is a rather depressing area of study, thanks to the Sixth Extinction. By 2050 we had already chronicled the extinction of half of all the species we had ever identified, and estimated that there were probably an equal number of species that had by then gone extinct before we even knew they existed. It’s a bit like counting ghosts, this field. And of course since then things have only worsened; the extinction toll is up to 80%, and the havoc that has been wreaked on once-balanced ecosystems as humans endeavour to find enough food and energy to stay alive has been truly ghastly.

But demographers tend to take the long view, and as human population has declined by two billion since it peaked in the ’50s, they are growing optimistic that, in smaller numbers, our species can coexist with other species and allow the rate of extinction to come to a halt.

I call my observations, like this one, “fieldnotes” even though demographers aren’t renowned for what one might call fieldwork. But with the collapse of so many institutions, obtaining accurate data has become more of an art than a science, and so my field is increasingly one of guesswork. There is now really only one network left that is studying human demography, and we tend to rely on research done back in the early part of the century when there were a thousand times as many of us working in the field, so there was some science and confirmation behind the data, whereas now it’s mostly conjecture.

There is a prevailing view among those of us left in the field that the trend that began in the ’40s and ’50s will likely continue. Rather than the massive death and die-off by starvation and conflict that many predictors of collapse forecast, humans have quite reasonably self-managed our numbers as food scarcities arose. Even laymen like Daniel Quinn understood that human population tracks the affordable availability of food, rather than the other way around, and it is so for almost all species.

So while in the ’30s women were still on average having nearly two children each, driving human numbers up to a calamitous 9.7 billion (in 2052; that’s probably the last accurate total we have ever had), since the late ’40s, with food scarcity becoming commonplace, we fairly quickly achieved the “one child” per woman level that has pertained ever since. We’re now down close to the same 7.8 billion population that we had 70 years ago, in 2020, when there was still some doubt whether collapse would even happen.

The big question is where it will go from there. There seems no end to the decline in food production capacity that we have seen since the collapse began a half century ago now. The soils were so depleted by the ’20s that without artificial chemical nutrients, which we can no longer afford to produce, they have been mostly infertile since then. We’re doing lots at the local level on soil regeneration, but it’s really small scale, and nature takes time to replenish what’s been lost. And of course after the collapse of the oil and transportation industries during the Long Depression (fifty years and counting), and the huge disruption of the Great Migration (forty years and counting) it’s been impossible to do anything at an industrial scale, and may never be again.

Those migrating gatherer-hunters understood how to manage food supplies without industrial production and catastrophic agriculture, and we’re still re-learning.

The death of the seas in the ’30s has naturally worsened the situation, since many of the world’s societies depended on fish and seafood for sustenance.

So as food scarcity deepens, and with it ecosystem incapacity, the prevailing view of us remaining demographers is that the fertility rate will remain at about 1.0 child per woman until and unless that situation changes. Of course no one believes the resultant projections, that population will, mostly peacefully, drop to just over a billion humans by the middle of the next century. Even though that prediction was made quite accurately nearly a century ago by quite a few students of history and culture, while everyone else was either predicting some technological magic solution or a sudden and violent collapse.

There are those among us, nostalgic for pre-collapse days, who think that the human population will “naturally” level off at five or six billion. I would suggest that they don’t understand how much damage has been done to the planet, and how impossible it would be to try to restart our civilization without the benefit of the cheap, affordable, accessible energy that was utterly necessary to enable the rise of human population from the one billion who existed when that energy boom began, to the nearly ten billion who existed when it finally petered out.

So I’m more or less onside with those who see our population going back to that hopefully-sustainable one-billion-or-so level by about fifty years from now. In fact I think that’s optimistic — ecological collapse and climate collapse have so devastated our planet’s capacity to sustain life in so many areas that a half-billion might be a more reasonable limit to the number of humans this planet can sustainably support. That’s about how many lived on the planet six hundred years ago, and for most of the 12,000 years before that, after the last ice age.

But where I disagree with my colleagues is whether it will level off at a half billion or not. We’re now talking about the situation 150 years from now. We’re talking about a world where only 20% of the land surface, according to the climate scientists and biologists, will still be inhabitable by humans without the use of prosthetic technologies, technologies we can no longer afford. We’re talking about a world where food will still be scarce for everyone.

Anthropologists describe how, in such situations, human ingenuity, perseverance and passion for survival, combine to drive us to learn how to adapt to new circumstances and new environments. But, like the historians who can read only accounts from the victorious and the conquerors, they are only describing half of the human story.

I had the good fortune, a number of years ago, to have worked with an anthropologist named Irina Morozova who studied what she called “lost tribes”. These are cultures that suddenly disappeared, almost without a trace, after centuries of thriving. Their members just walked away from the culture, the communities, the infrastructure. They clearly understood that their way of living was, due to circumstances beyond their control, no longer sustainable. Some of them, Irina said, integrated into subsistence cultures nearby. But many of them just disappeared. There were no signs that they died in conflict or from disease. Her explanation was that they simply “gave up”. They stopped reproducing.

From my studies in animal demographics, this makes enormous sense. Most intelligent animals instinctively cease reproducing when the circumstances in which they live are not auspicious for the raising of young. It’s almost as if they have a sixth sense, a connection to all the other life in their ecosystem, shouting out to them “now is not a good time”. So they don’t. It’s similar to how most such animals face death. They do so equanimously, generously. If they are ill, a burden on others, they go off alone to die, and most do so amazingly peacefully, even if they must seemingly be in great pain. They don’t fight it.

But humans, at least civilized humans, don’t behave this way. We fight and rage against death. We propagate more under stress, or at least in the immediate aftermath of it. We reproduce even if it’s the last thing we do.

The question in my mind is, are we humans, living here in 2092, still civilized humans? And if we are, will our descendants 150 years or 1000 years from now still be civilized humans? Will they exhibit the civilized human behaviour to fight against a ghastly, marginal existence, and to bring children into the world to carry on that fight, or will they, like all the ‘uncivilized’ animals I’ve studied, and perhaps like some of Irina’s lost tribes, choose instead to walk away and give up that fight. To acknowledge that it’s all more trouble than it’s worth. To accept that perhaps some other species might now be better suited to carry on the grand experiment of life on this planet.

Something tells me our descendants, if not in a century or two, then in a millennium or two, will see what we cannot — that the best way for us to ‘fit’ into the world we have inadvertently wrought, is to leave it, to nod to the dragons better adapted to live in a world desolated by industrialization, poisoning, habitat destruction and incursion, and wish them well.

I guess we’ll see.


(hat tip to the NTHE-Love group for inspiring this story)

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