CoVid-19: The Go-for-Zero Strategy

This is the 14th 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.

NB: Sweden is a day behind in reporting; its latest report shows 350 cases/day/M (ie should be dark red not grey in map on right). 

There has been much talk lately about the wisdom of the prevailing “yo-yo” approach to dealing with CoVid-19 — relaxing restrictions when cases, hospitalizations and deaths drop, and reimposing them when they rise to “unacceptable” levels.

The only reason this utterly failed policy is still being used in North America and Europe is that governments and public health organizations have been paralyzed by fierce antipathy to government, antipathy which has been repeatedly churned up since the 1980s by fear-driven conservatives and by uneducated citizens prone to believing fear-mongered conspiracy theories about “evil” governments.

So governments and health authorities are reluctant, even fearful, to impose any restrictions on the public until and unless the crisis reaches catastrophic levels. The violent knee-jerk responses of the right to even the modest restrictions that have been imposed (eg widespread death threats, occupations by heavily-armed right-wing “militias”, the blossoming of QAnon and other lunatic fringe anti-government conspiracy theory cults, and the attempted kidnapping and coup in Michigan), suggest that governments’ fear to act decisively is not entirely ill-founded.

As a result of this absurd policy, 11,000 Canadians, 275,000 Americans and nearly 1.5M people globally have needlessly died, and the pandemic is now spreading faster than ever.

In Canada, as a result of the use of the yo-yo strategy, as Andrew Nikiforuk reports, “hospitals in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec are almost overwhelmed, long-term care homes have once again become deadly hot zones, and a nation that committed $4 billion to be able to conduct 200,000 tests a day still struggles to do half that”.

The only viable alternative to the yo-yo strategy is a go-for-zero strategy, which has been successfully deployed in the so-called TANZANC countries (Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Atlantic & Northern Canada). These democratic countries have essentially eliminated CoVid-19 within their borders, put in place stringent measures to prevent its re-emergence, and hence been able to restore “normal” life, and seen their economies quickly rebound as a result.

The Australian Grattan report shows what would be required for any democratic country to achieve similar success:

  1. Make zero cases the explicit goal for the country/state, and implement a specific, public plan to achieve that goal.
  2. That plan will likely include a complete lockdown for all ages until the number of reported new cases has been reduced to approximately 3 per day per million people. [Current level in the US is 500/day/M; in Canada it’s 120/day/M, but it was about 10/day/M for much of the summer before the recent surge]. Once the 3/day/M level has been achieved, certain specific low-risk, high-benefit activities can be permitted and encouraged. Additional easing can be permitted once new cases drop to 1/day/M people, and considerable further easing once zero new cases have been reported for a week.
  3. Everyone entering the country must be tested at the border and/or strictly quarantined for 14 days or until a negative test is confirmed.
  4. Stringent, properly staffed contact tracing and isolation must be in place for any cases that do arise. Non-cooperation and lying about exposure should be prosecutable. Lives depend on it.
  5. Testing must be easily and universally accessible for free, and test results must be able to be produced and communicated within 24 hours. The technology to do this exists; the capacity in most jurisdictions currently does not.
  6. Testing with digital attendance record-keeping and follow-up must be instituted in all public venues (restaurants, arenas etc). [Australia’s success means that up to 35,000 people can now attend stadium events with zero resulting cases.]
  7. Masks are mandatory in all public places in areas which have had recently-reported cases. In all other places they are optional.
  8. Economic supports for all those disadvantaged by restrictions must be available.
  9. Strict enforcement of quarantine must be maintained; no exceptions.

I can imagine the QAnon crowd getting apoplexy just reading this list. But it works. It has saved thousands of lives and enabled quick economic recovery in areas that have had the courage and resources to implement it.

What would it take to implement it in other areas? Obviously the more out-of-control the virus is in an area, the longer the lockdown and the greater the challenge. In most of the US, interstate border crossings are impossible to restrict and the resources simply don’t exist, so it wouldn’t be possible even if cases weren’t already 100 times or more the target 3/day/M rate for achieving the go-to-zero benefits. Maybe in Vermont and Hawai’i.

But in Canada, despite the upsurge, it’s still feasible. It took Victoria state in Australia nearly 2 months to reduce their spike from 80 cases/day/M back down below 3 (and it’s now zero on most days). So Canada could probably get its 120 cases/day/M down to below 3 within 90 days (by Feb 28) if we followed a national, strict, Grattan-style go-for-zero strategy.

If not, IHME projects the Canadian infection rate will soar to 360/day/M and nearly 30,000 more Canadians will die by that date, which is likely the earliest that a vaccine will start to be available in sufficient quantities for the population at large. A go-for-zero strategy could save 90% of those deaths, 27,000 lives. Not to mention the unknown long-term damage to those infected, and the strain on our hospitals and other institutions. Is that worth a 90-day lockdown? I would say so.

Probably the most important question (since Canadian and other governments know about this strategy and have refused to implement it), is whether CoVid-19 will teach us the lesson that this is the way to go next time. The next pandemic is surely coming, and while governments shrugged off the threat of SARS and MERS ten years ago, the number of pandemics per decade is accelerating as factory farms proliferate, and as exotic animal harvesting and encroachment into the world’s last wilderness areas grows exponentially. A pandemic with the transmissibility of CoVid-19 and the morbidity of SARS or MERS would (will?) kill billions. When it hits, we cannot afford to be unready. And unless trust in government and public health institutions in most of the world’s democracies can be restored, we will not be ready.

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

Pollard’s Laws

We will just keep going
Until we drop
And this is not a sad thing.
All the leaves that ever lived
Did the same.
— Alice Walker (2020) (images of Alice Walker and Ursula Le Guin above CC-SA 2.0 from wikimedia)

For the nearly 18 years I have been blogging, I have been keeping track of aphorisms (pithy observations containing general truths), principles (fundamental ideas that underlie a system of beliefs), and maxims (rules or suggestions on how to conduct oneself — eg “Trust your instincts.” “Show, don’t tell.”) Over the years I have deleted many that now strike me as overly simplistic (no matter how wittily articulated), or as simply untrue (I am decidedly less idealistic than I was 18 years ago, and some of what I used to espouse now just makes me cringe).

When I last looked through my collection, I lamented how few of them were written/said by women. So here are a few more by some very smart women:

  • Given a choice between their worldview and the facts, it’s always interesting how many people toss the facts.
    — Rebecca Solnit
  • Reality simply consists of different points of view.
  • Every aspect of human technology has a dark side, including the bow and arrow.
  • Nothing interests people so much as themselves.
    — Margaret Atwood
  • We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.      [this is my absolute favourite]
  • There are no right answers to wrong questions.
  • My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world, and exiles me from it.
  • The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself.
    — Ursula Le Guin
  • The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
  • What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears.
  • Propaganda is amazing. People can be led to believe anything.
  • Nobody is as powerful as we make them out to be.
  • The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.
  • The most important question in the world is, ‘Why is the child crying?’
    — Alice Walker

There are some aphorisms or principles that are so profound and important that I’ve chosen to call them “laws”. To me, a law actually changes or reformulates your worldview. It creates a new lens through which you see everything.

Over the years I’ve come up with two “laws”, things that have “shaken my windows and rattled my walls”. They are:

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

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

Now I think I’m ready to add a third “law” to the list. Here it is as it currently stands (since it’s my law I have the right to rewrite it):

Pollard’s Law of Human Beliefs: We believe what we want to believe, not what is actually true. We want to believe in happy endings, simple answers, the inevitability of progress, self-control, karma, responsibility, destiny, miracles, a proper order of things, the power of love, and infinite human capacity and agency. Most of us want to believe in a higher power that can step in when we falter. We want to believe what those in our circles of trust believe (even if it’s crazy, gaslighting or propaganda). So we tend to seek sources that reinforce those beliefs and ignore those that undermine or unsettle them. Our hopes and expectations are determined by those beliefs. Our worldview is the sum of those beliefs, hopes and expectations, and bears no necessary resemblance to truth or reality. This invented reality is the only way we can  make sense of a world that is vastly too complex to ever make sense of.

Yeah, it needs some editing, and I suspect it will evolve, but I think the essence of it is there. You can probably recognize some aphorisms (like Rebecca Solnit’s above, and the third one by Alice Walker above), and some of the work by Lawrence Lessig, Francis Bacon and others, that underpin this “law”.

One of the values of a “law”, to me, is that it not only reveals a profound truth but hints at why it is so. An aphorism teases us to ask “why” it is so for ourselves. That too is valuable, but it is incomplete without the dessert of appreciation for why it is so. Sometimes we have to supply our own dessert.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 7 Comments

Deliberately So

image CC0 from

Lately I have been enjoying a series of podcasts from a young Toronto-based group called The Stoa. Some of their recent discussions have been about deliberative processes — the work we do, both personally and in groups, to think things through in a balanced, and, well, deliberate way (etymologically, the term comes from libra, the scales — nothing to do with liberation).

The best of these podcasts IMO have been those that have featured Daniel Schmachtenberger and Forrest Landry. Daniel, a home-schooled vegan, has been working on multiple fronts towards the lofty goal of reimagining (and perhaps reinventing) civilization and, towards that end, improving our dialogic and collaborative processes, on the basis that this goal can only be achieved through better sense-making and improvements to the ways we surface collective wisdom.

Forrest developed the idea of Immanent Metaphysics, and then went on to produce what he calls Ephemeral Group Process (EGP), an essentially inquiry-based collaborative process where the questions are collectively developed using a “technology” somewhat analogous to Open Space, explored in multiple small-group sessions (usually 5-7 people), and then “harvested” to make sense of the group’s understanding, using a specific methodology.

As an aside, both Daniel and Forrest have rather peculiar entrepreneurial histories: Daniel co-founded a nutritional supplement company that purports to sell products that improve cognitive capacity and health, while Forrest’s company sells portable vaporizers (perhaps to feed your mind in a different way).

The ideas and frameworks that Daniel and Forrest have developed are every philosopher-geek-idealist’s wet dream, but you may be wondering why I, having disavowed the existence of free choice, would be intrigued about ideas and processes that purport, ultimately, to improve our collective choices and (re-)make the world a better place.

I could be flip and say I have no choice as to what ideas I choose to get infatuated by (and inflict on my poor readers). But the truth is I think there is a role, even in a free-will-less world, for better — more disciplined, more open-minded, more creative — ways of thinking about the world, about what we believe about it, and about what our role is in it. If some of Daniel’s and Forrest’s ideas and approaches inspire you to think about things differently and to ultimately act differently, then, while you would inevitably be drawn to them (or not), my exposing them to you could actually make a difference. Our lack of free will does not in any way equate to determinism. None of us may have any choice, but our unpredictable interactions with each other will change our trajectories, and no one can say what that might lead to. We can run a marble race down the same track a dozen times and the outcome will be different every time, no matter how we try to control the variables.

Over my long career as an advisor to business, I witnessed and participated in many excruciating meetings that exemplified absolutely ghastly deliberative processes, many of them “led” by executives earning seven figure incomes. And away from the office, I have witnessed an equivalent number of equally-dreadful deliberative and collaborative activities, in communities, on boards, and even in very small-group conversations.

When I got involved with the Group Pattern Language Project that ultimately produced the Group Works deck, I realized that deliberative processes didn’t have to be so awful, if they were well-facilitated, and/or more thoughtfully structured. And I’ve since learned of many other facilitation tools, methods and formats that can help.

But even well-structured, well-facilitated activities can be unsuccessful, and even dysfunctional, if the processes that the individual participants employ, and which the collective group employs (influenced by an infinite number of dynamics), are poor processes. There is only so much a facilitator can do.

Daniel argues that there is a need for us to develop both our personal cognitive capacities and processes (and self-knowledge), and our collaborative capacities and processes — in other words, our personal and collective deliberation capacities and processes. Without doing so, he says, we have little hope of improving the quality and effectiveness of our collective decisions and actions, and are likely to fall back to preconceived ideas, hidden biases, and dysfunctional power dynamics. His Consilience Project (consilience = the tendency of evidence obtained from independent, unrelated sources to “converge” on strong, compelling conclusions) is designed to provide a framework for improving our deliberative processes, focused specifically on improving sense-making and combatting misinformation. And he suggests Forrest’s EGP as a method to use within such frameworks.

Both Daniel and Forrest stress that this isn’t just a matter of intellectual skill — deliberative processes are as much about how we feel as about what we think, and as much about the emotional dynamics of the group (and beyond) as it is about concepts, perceptions and ideas. And it’s not just about analytical rigour — the richer creative output and “emotional intelligence” that comes from effective deliberative work is perhaps even more important. That’s one of the reasons they both stress the importance of play in such processes.

So that has led me to ponder two questions: (1) how do we go about improving our own personal sense-making and communication processes so we contribute more effectively and creatively to group deliberations, and (2) how do we go about employing EGP or similar methods to work better as a group?

My sense is that the simple answer to both these questions is: No one knows. Daniel and Forrest are still working on these questions. The Consilient Project and EGP are both still under development, and there is nothing much online yet.

But perhaps the answers to these questions aren’t as important as the process for exploring them. If we were to follow the processes that Daniel and Forrest espouse, then in order to try to answer these two questions we would formulate additional questions, the answers to which might help us address these two ‘primary’ questions. Such questions might be of some of these forms, which apply analogously regardless of what our primary questions are (they could be applied equally to questions like how we might best address homelessness, systemic caste-ism, or climate collapse):

  1. What are the assumptions built into this question?
  2. What would we want to know in order to better answer these questions, and who would we need to talk with to know these things?
  3. What have others done to try to answer these questions, and who else is asking them, and how are they answering them, and why?
  4. What approaches to these questions have worked, and not worked, in past, and why, and what stories illuminate these past successes and failures?
  5. For whom is answering these questions not even an issue, and why not?
  6. What are the benefits of answering these questions well, and what are the costs if we fail to do so?
  7. Why do we care (or not care) about these questions?
  8. How did the situation arise to the point where these questions have seemingly become important?
  9. What are the adjacent possibilities that arise from this inquiry?
  10. How might the situation constructively change such that these questions would be rendered moot, and how might we intervene in the situation, or creatively reframe the issue entirely, to bring about such a change?
  11. Who is or potentially would be affected by how these questions are answered, and how are we involving them in exploring approaches to those people?
  12. Are we ready (personally and collectively) to commit the time, energy and resources to exploring these questions enough to come up with and implement useful and practical approaches to them, and if not, why not and when might be the right time?

You get the idea. Every one of these questions begs further questions, and the inquiry-based approach enables us to deeply explore the issues at hand rather than jumping to conclusions (decisions, preferences, actions). One of the great values of questions is that they avoid the inclination for polarization and ego-reactivity that declarative statements, hypotheses and “suggested answers” can evoke, and hence encourage more group “binding” and thus collaborative energy and capacity.

There’s a question whether an individual or group thoughtfully and deliberately exploring such questions even needs to move from asking these questions to the ultimate question: OK so what do we do? It may be that the inquiry itself evolves ideas, approaches and collective knowledge such that the answer to this ultimate question is obvious.

In his book The Other Side of Eden Hugh Brody describes an indigenous deliberative process that involves story-telling and asking questions, but, unlike western processes, doesn’t conclude with a “who will do what by when” chart; it’s left up to the individuals listening to the stories and questions to decide tacitly what actions to take personally, and to discuss one-on-one (with the people affected) what actions they might want to take collectively. How might such a trust-and-personal-responsibility approach work in large, hierarchical groups and organizations? And how might such an approach enable such groups and organizations to evolve into self-organizing, self-managing groups and organizations, and eliminate the need for hierarchy entirely?

The most astonishingly productive, instructional, and enjoyable group activity of my life was a neighbourhood ‘barn-raising’ twenty years ago. A neighbour’s old barn, being used as a garage, was dangerously falling apart. An invitation was sent out to the neighbours to meet for tea and discuss ideas for converting it into a stable, more useful structure. In an entirely self-organized way, creative ideas evolved, others were consulted, and work bees happened. The result was an amazing multi-purpose space created without any blueprint or hierarchy. We all learned new skills. And every time we passed it, we could say “We did that!”

Forrest makes the point that our political processes and systems have evolved dysfunctionally much the same way our health care processes and systems have: to focus on ‘acute’ problems (eg the latest Trump executive order, a CoVid-19 spike, or a foreign threat) rather than ‘chronic’ problems (eg inequality, homelessness, caste-ism/racism, ecological and economic collapse). And that dysfunctionality stems largely from an incapacity of large groups to get their heads around very complex problems.

Listening to others with different perspectives, knowledge, ideas and experiences enables us to see an issue ‘stereoscopically’, he notes. Two perspectives are not only richer for problem-solving than one, they allow the seeing of multiple additional perspectives, much as having two eyes provides much more than just two monoscopic views of something.

Daniel makes the point that such a multi-dimensional perspective also allows groups to identify “synergetic satisfiers” — ideas and adaptations that satisfy more than one need at the same time. It also tends to nurture what Zeynep Tüfeckçi calls “epistemic humility” — appreciation that we don’t, and can’t, have all the knowledge, understanding, and “answers” we’d like, and sometimes presume to have.

Collaboration, he says, is only effective when there are three things in place: practice and experience working together, cognitive coherence (appreciation of others’ ways of thinking and communicating), and shared values. Connecting the collaborators at a more than semantic level is also helpful (prehistoric tribes did this through music and dance rituals, which allow for individual riffs that are in concert with the collective rhythm). Ideally, achieving a (non-western) culture of individual responsibility with  shared, collective credit for outcomes is your goal.

The challenge we face, Daniel adds, is the context in which most of us have to work together: our destructive and debilitating globalized industrial culture. “There is no way to have your hands totally clean in a world that is built on institutional, structural violence”, he says. The only ethical resolution is to minimize the harms while maximizing our collective capacity to change things, which is especially difficult when so many of our harms are invisible to us personally (he uses factory farming as an example, though he could as easily have used our prison system, our education system, and toxic family and workplace environments). We all have to walk the razor’s edge between courage and sensitivity, he says, and not forfeit either.

Of course, this is easier if you have the background, the temperament, the capacity, the time, and the curiosity to work on these things. Expecting many or most people to be able and willing to do any of this is likely pretty unrealistic.

But it’s still worth keeping in mind. We can (as Daniel recommends) take training to become better facilitators. We can become guerrilla facilitators in situations when no one is facilitating, or the facilitator is floundering. We can use methods like Best Possible Outcome to exercise a group’s collaborative muscles.

And of course we can work on our own stuff. Not only the quality of our own work in groups, but the quality of our own internal deliberation — our capacity to ask the right questions of ourselves, and to be constantly self-aware and challenging ourselves about our biases, beliefs and blind spots.

So, in keeping with the theme of inquiry, instead of suggesting a process for evaluating your internal deliberation capacities, I will conclude with a question:

If you were designing a ‘scorecard’ to assess the quality of your own internal deliberative processes — leading to greater objectivity and openness, better articulation of your own thoughts and ideas, deeper self-knowledge and self-awareness, larger capacity for creativity, resilience, equanimity, effective listening, sense-making and ‘usefulness’ to yourself, others and the world — what elements would the scorecard score you on, how (highly) would you score yourself, and what one action might best improve your ‘score’?

And if you’re looking for a place to start with the process of self-inquiry, Daniel has — of course — a list of questions for you.

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

Links of the Month: November 2020

image from Pikrepo, CC0

This poem is by the winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, Louise Glück, written last month:


Leo Cruz makes the most beautiful white bowls;
I think I must get some to you
but how is the question
in these times

He is teaching me
the names of the desert grasses;
I have a book
since to see the grasses is impossible

Leo thinks the things man makes
are more beautiful
than what exists in nature

and I say no.
And Leo says
wait and see.

We make plans
to walk the trails together.
When, I ask him,
when? Never again:
that is what we do not say.

He is teaching me
to live in imagination:

a cold wind
blows as I cross the desert;
I can see his house in the distance;
smoke is coming from the chimney

That is the kiln, I think;
only Leo makes porcelain in the desert

Ah, he says, you are dreaming again

And I say then I’m glad I dream
the fire is still alive


Dr Love (Bacha Khoperia, ბაჩა ხოფერია), described by some as the Republic of Georgia’s Banksy, sums up modern civilization quite brilliantly. This work is in Bristol, UK. Street art has long been a popular art form in Georgia (Sakartvelo, საქართველო)

How do you know when civilization’s about to fall apart?: Joseph Tainter was recently interviewed, along with several other societal collapse theorists, on how close we are to collapse today. Excerpt:

In “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Tainter [writes] “The world today is full.” Complex societies occupy every inhabitable region of the planet. There is no escaping. This also means, he writes, that collapse, “if and when it comes again, will this time be global.” Our fates are interlinked. “No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.”

When I ask him about this, the usually sober-sounding Tainter sounds very sober indeed. If it happens, he says, it would be “the worst catastrophe in history.” The quest for efficiency, he wrote recently, has brought on unprecedented levels of complexity: “an elaborate global system of production, shipping, manufacturing and retailing” in which goods are manufactured in one part of the world to meet immediate demands in another, and delivered only when they’re needed. The system’s speed is dizzying, but so are its vulnerabilities. A more comprehensive failure of fragile supply chains could mean that fuel, food and other essentials would no longer flow to cities. “There would be billions of deaths within a very short period,” Tainter says. Even a short-term failure of the financial system, Tainter worries, might be enough to trip supply chains to a halt.


cartoon by Michael Leunig

The wisdom of nationalizing social (and other) media: Now that Facebook and Google are threatening to pull out of Australia unless the government backs down on rules requiring them to pay local media outlets for use of their content, people are asking how we can take back control of the media from rich private interests. While Zeynep Tüfekçi has suggested they be nationalized and run as networked national/local co-ops, the Guardian explores whether national public broadcast media couldn’t, and shouldn’t just take them over and run them as extensions of their own services, networked country-to-country. In the meantime, Zeynep argues, it’s essential to re-empower the regulatory authorities to actually regulate — break up monopolies and oligopolies, tell these companies what they can and can’t do and the penalties for not following the regulations — instead of trying to do the refereeing that these oligopolies have utterly failed to figure out how to do.

Smashing meeting privilege: Evelyn Arellano dissects the power dynamics implicit in many corporate meetings (even and especially virtual meetings) and suggests ways to confront them. And a new BYU study reveals how women are disempowered in the workplace and 7 steps that can elevate women’s voices. Thanks to Elise Keith for the links.

Portland creates THE working model for housing reform: The city has introduced radical changes to density laws, including setting maximum building sizes, to encourage greater density and affordability and reduce sprawl. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link, and the one that follows.

It’s time for reparations: Nikole Hannah-Jones explains why descendants of American slaves are owed reparations for the centuries-long deficit their oppression has left them in, and how they might be introduced.

New ways of working: In a scintillating new one-hour discussion, seven authors of books on creating self-managed organizations share their successes and challenges.

Create your own green job: continues its excellent non-profit services with a new guide for Canadians on how to start your own green enterprise.


From FB. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

The food industry is knowingly making us sick: Michael Greger explains why the food industry’s “model of systemic dishonesty” is profitable, and how it has knowingly caused the deaths and chronic diseases of most Americans. The article links to 22 videos, with transcripts, that explain in detail how and why, worldwide, the food we eat (and food industry regulatory inaction) directly causes most of our deaths and illnesses.

The right-wing judiciary’s rotten core: Masha Gessen describes how the right-wing ideologues who now dominate the US Supreme Court share an utter “contempt for the norms and processes of government”, and the execrable process that led to the latest, incompetent and unqualified, appointee. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse explained at the hearings exactly which right-wing billionaires’ money were bankrolling the nomination, but none of the Republican senators cared. A disgrace of Stalinesque proportions. Thanks to Raffi for the links.

How the Bush-Cheney regime sabotaged the OPCW: The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established to promote and verify adherence to the global ban on chemical weapons. But prior to the unwarranted and criminal invasion of Iraq, the US deliberately sabotaged the organization, orchestrated the ouster of its Director, who was successfully negotiating with Iraq to destroy its chemical weapons, bugged its offices, and strong-armed its allies to “neutralize” the OPCW to prevent it interfering with the Iraq invasion, and later to justify war on Syria based on disputed claims of that country’s chemical weaponry. Caitlin Johnstone has the story, which reads like an espionage thriller. She explains that this bullying is not limited to international organizations that get in its way, but is extended to countries like Australia (where they orchestrated the ouster of both Gough Whitlam and Kevin Rudd), Bolivia, and of course Venezuela. And it’s continued unabated during Democratic Party presidents. Now, she says, “America has no allies, only hostages”.

Women’s sovereignty over their own bodies again under assault: The newly unrepresentative US supreme court and the extreme abortion ban passed recently in Poland have again raised the spectre, even in Canada, that women will again be deprived of freedom of choice over abortion and even contraception. Here’s an interesting synopsis of the issue, which raises the obvious question about how any sane person can possibly defend forced-birth laws while simultaneously opposing humanitarian laws and programs to protect babies, children and adults after birth. But we’d better figure it out: Poland is our warning shot. And the next authoritarian right-wing populist likely won’t be as inept and appalling as the one Americans just, barely, got rid of.

When Murdoch soured on Trump: Interesting story in the centrist UK newspaper iNews about how Trump abused Murdoch’s support to the point the right-wing billionaire started to shift his publications away from supporting Trump.

Last rites for Canada’s MAID law: Trudeau has waffled again and introduced a bill that would provide only marginally better access to medically assisted death than the law that was struck down as unconstitutionally restrictive last year. If passed, it will continue to force many who want control over the own bodies and the right to die with dignity to live in pain, horror and shame. It will probably, and hopefully, again be ruled unconstitutionally restrictive by the courts. But in the meantime, religious right wingnuts are trying to force the government to tighten the law even further, claiming without evidence that it is “ableist” and will lead to people being coerced into dying against their will or proper judgement. There seems to be no limit to the sanctimonious and patronizing preaching by those screaming that we can’t be trusted to decide what to do with our own bodies. It’s the same argument that the anti-abortion forces use, and it’s bullshit. This editorial by an Anglican minister is the only analysis of the situation that I’ve read that’s sane, and sadly our government is too weak-willed to listen.


left chart from WorldoMeters; right charts from the Atlantic’s CoVid Tracking Project

We still don’t know: CoVid-19 hospitalizations in the US have three-peaked back to a record 60,000, and US daily deaths look on track to soon repeat the “second” peak of 1,100/day. But no one knows what comes after that. IHME, still sticking to its 0.68% IFR rate, is projecting a rise in hospitalizations by January to 130,000 and a rise in daily deaths to 2,300/day. My sense is that the actual IFR, at least in areas that have already been hard hit by the disease, is somewhat lower than that, thanks in no small part to the profession’s dedication and sharing of knowledge on how to best treat it. In some areas of North America that avoided the April peak, hospitalizations and deaths are at record levels and projected to reach the ghastly per capital levels that Italy and NYC saw in the spring, over the next month. Again, I’m cautiously optimistic that common sense will prevail in people’s behaviour in hard-hit areas and hospitals will be able to manage the current surge, though with difficulty in some areas. Global deaths have risen to more than 7,500/day, well above the 4-6k/day range it’s tracked for six months, with nearly half the daily deaths now occurring in a reinfected Europe/Russia. Whether they can flatten the curve better than last time remains to be seen. We just don’t know. Here’s the latest news:


New Yorker cartoon by Mike Twohy

ASL performers’ stunning music videos: The celebrated troupe Deaf West Theatre shines with moving, uplifting versions of Kelly Clarkson’s “I Dare You“, Sara Bareilles’ “She Used to Be Mine“, and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Hell No“. Just watch the faces, and how much more than mere words can be conveyed with one’s hands. Jaw-dropping. More please!

Two great classical composers you’ve never heard of: Mozart contemporary Joseph Bologne, born in Guadeloupe, created works of unparalleled skill and imagination, but racism kept his work in the shadow of that of more famous composers. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link. And just recently, Alma Deutscher, at the age of 12, premiered her own piano concerto with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, demonstrating at once her world-class compositional prowess and virtuoso performance skills.

And speaking of extraordinary musical talent…: Music teacher Paul Harvey, suffering from severe Alzheimers, was inspired by his son to try, as a therapy, repeating an improvisational exercise Paul had used in his youth (creating a piece of music based on four random musical notes, given in the moment), and the result was so remarkable it was recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

About those exit polls: Exit polls in the 2020 US election suggested again that most white women (not just white men) voted for Trump. But are exit polls even less reliable than the obviously dubious opinion polls? Pew research deconstructing the 2016 exit polls says: don’t believe it.

How to conduct an interview with a disinformation agent: NZ journalist Tova O’Brien masterfully demonstrates how to shut down disinformation perpetrators.


cartoon by the late, wonderful Charles Barsotti

The light in the trees: Paul Kingsnorth’s latest short story describes something that might be non-duality. Or perhaps not. Excerpt:

I mean you died, he said. Not your body. Your body is still in the driver’s seat. Snap your fingers and you’ll see the headlights and the wire again, just as it was. What died was your self, your will, and just for a moment. Your self gets in the way of reality, you see. Your small worlds, your little truths that are not truths, the temptations, the opinions, the striving. They have to die for you to see.

The girl stared at everything at once and it all seemed to stare back. So what is it? said the girl. The normal stuff, I mean. The everyday things. What’s happening?

My conclusion, said the man, is that everything you see every day, everyone you know, everything around you: all of it is made by your mind. None of it has any substance unless you believe it does. You created the mountain, the cave, your place of work. You created me. We create our own little worlds and we carry them on our backs like sacks of winter wood. Once they break and fall away, there is reality, waiting for you.

But what do I do with it? said the girl. What do I do now?

It’s not what you do with it, said the man’s voice. It’s what it does with you.

Best descriptions (IMO) of this, published this month:


Tribe of Assam Macaques. Photo by Khushboo Sharma. From the Frans de Waal FB page. Click on image for a larger version.

From Verta Maloney:

a white lady who voted for 45 told me i hurt her feelings because i chose to talk to her about her vote.
a white lady who voted for 45 said that my decision to no longer greet her everyday has “affected her well-being” & started to cry real tears. (🙄)
a white lady who voted for 45 said that she was not trying to keep any secrets BUT it was her business that she voted for 45 and she didn’t want anyone to know. (🤔)⠀⠀⠀
a white lady who voted for 45 told me that we would just have to agree to disagree and i told her NO we would not.
i told her that as a black woman i could get more than my feelings hurt because of the political decisions of mediocre white ladies like her.⠀⠀⠀⠀
i told her that we do not understand each other because she hadn’t said anything that made sense, actually she hadn’t said anything of substance at all.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
i told her i wouldn’t be speaking to her in the future or waving and smiling at her as we drop our children off at school because i am done doing that. politics matter AND they are personal; my very existence as a black woman/mother is political.
white ladies who voted for 45 and the lot of you “liberal” white ladies who know and love white ladies who did and don’t challenge them or call them on their shit …⠀⠀
i am not here to convince you of my humanity.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
i am not here to play nice when you are playing with lives and legacies.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
i am not here for your white fragility and your fragile/exclusive versions of feminism.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
i am not here for your denial, your guilt or your racism.
what i am here for is all of us (even you) getting and being free and i am on that quest with or without you.
stop crying. stop making this about you. stop lying. stop always talking. just stop and for a bit of time listen to, believe and follow black women.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
once you know better, before you leap to the “do better” phase how about you actually BE better! cause honestly if you can’t BE better at your core whatever you do will simply continue to cause more harm than good.

From the Beaverton (Canada’s version of the Onion): The latest headlines, explained:

Canada searches for new country to compare ourselves to now that U.S. is too sad 

COVID replaces racism as #1 thing Canadians think they handle better than the States

(a cultural study of Canadians actually determined that more than anything else, Canadian culture is defined by how we differentiate ourselves from Americans) 

Alberta removes education from curriculum 

(the right-wing extremist government of Alberta commissioned an overhaul of the province’s education system; the report recommended a curriculum that included bible verses, but excluded any mention of “Indian residential schools” or other atrocities committed against First Nations people)

From Daniel Schmachtenberger, in a recent interview with The Stoa (my paraphrasing for brevity):

If you want to solve a complex problem (like eg homelessness):

      • start by looking at places that don’t have it and find out what they did
      • look at places that have reduced it successfully and how they did that
      • then identify and connect with the major existing projects already working on this problem
      • don’t overlook how indigenous cultures have addressed it
      • engage the people dealing with it (both as problem-solvers and as those most affected by it)
      • understand the context — how did it get to be this way, and what’s been tried successfully, and unsuccessfully
      • look at the cost/benefits of straightforward alternative ways to address the underlying problems that could be easy wins
      • enable self-sufficiency among those facing the problem every day so that when interventions have been completed, those people are able to sustain the changes themselves
      • while radically reimagining possibilities from the bottom up is a useful process, it needs to look at the practicality (economic, cultural etc) of making the necessary changes, and not get caught up in idealism
      • in addressing any problem, there is a need to balance external work with internal self-awareness — your appreciation of the problem has to evolve with the understanding of how you might effectively address it
      • be patient and persevere — don’t forget that the masters in any space have failed more often than the laypeople have tried

From an anonymous FB poster on Nov 2:

When you say: “No matter who wins tomorrow, I’m going to go to work the next day, be happy, and love my neighbour”, what I hear is: “My privilege shields me from the potentially devastating effects of this election. My livelihood is secure. I am safe from racism and bigotry. I never have to question where my next meal is coming from. And no one has ever attempted to take away my bodily autonomy.” We do not all live in the same America.

From Clay Shirky in 2018 on why the arguments of progressives fall on deaf conservative ears:

We brought fact-checkers to a culture war.

From John Green on standing on the shoulders of giants and on immunity:

I think of art as being a big collaboration in which a few people get over-celebrated and the rest unacknowledged. The world’s biggest ball of paint (in Alexandria, Indiana) is a baseball painted with 40,000 layers of paint. It’s now 12-15′ in diameter circumference. Most of it has been painted by visitors to Alexandria. Your layer doesn’t much matter in affecting what the ball looks like, but the colour you choose affects the colour the next person chooses, which affects the colour the next person chooses, and so on. Your layer of paint will always be utterly invisible to the rest of the world, but it was absolutely essential to the ball of paint becoming what the ball of paint has become. And like a great coat of paint, some books and artworks are sometimes celebrated as extraordinary. And they are likely deservedly remembered (many others are undeservedly forgotten). But they’re just like the great coat of paint —still just one layer that will be painted over too. The way that it matters is that it shapes the people who come after it, the people to whom it matters. What makes King Lear so great is the conversations we’ve had around it and the responses we’ve all had to it over the last 500 years…

If a new vaccine is coming, let’s not build a statue to anyone. Let us instead build monuments to the sprawling cooperation of thousands of people who share their work openly and generously, so that together we can achieve what we cannot achieve alone: shared immunity.


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

What’s the Matter with People?

New Yorker illustration by David Hornsby

On September 1, I published an article called What If Trump Wins Again? Two months later, it seems timely. So I re-read it today, and think I called it just about right.

If the results are a wake-up call, I don’t think either “side” is reading it correctly. As in 2016, voting was an expression of anger and fear. Last night, before the early and mail voters had been counted, only one state (AZ) looked different on the US electoral map than it did four years ago. The changes even today look almost like hair-splitting; the % of popular vote looks unlikely to have budged at all. Nothing has changed.

By that I mean in particular that a significant majority of white male voters, the cohort most likely to vote, has, as they have at least since the astonishing 1960s,  supported Republicans across the board, credentials and competence not even being a consideration. In short, they supported one of their own: as I put it in my earlier article:

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?

There is nothing “the matter” with the 48% of the population that voted for this candidate and party in this election. They are acting out their conditioning just as those who voted for the other candidate and party did. I would wager that just about every voter in this election was driven largely by fear and anger and not really by the issues at all. There is plenty of evidence that neither candidate or party endorses anything even close to a progressive agenda. And I think the last Democratic president wore out the word “hope”, so I don’t believe that was a big motivator either.

The voting was entirely reactionary — on the part of conservatives to try to sustain some of the regression of the past four decades on social issues, and prevent it being undone, and on the part of progressives to try to roll back the more heinous, ecologically ruinous and cruel programs and laws that have been introduced, starting with Reagan, the first truly reactionary president in the modern era, and continuing ever since.

But with all the blaming, name-calling and accusations, what is always unrecognized is that none of us has any choice over what we apparently do, or believe. We are entirely conditioned by our culture, by our genes, and by the circumstances that emerge in the moment.

I know this is an unpopular statement, (a “cop-out”), but scientists and philosophers are increasingly coming to this astonishing conclusion. Free will is an illusion. That doesn’t mean the future is predetermined, just that given the circumstances that will arise in the future, through no ‘fault’ of anyone, our behaviours will be not be of our choosing. That doesn’t mean they won’t be rational or irrational, informed or uninformed, emotional or stoic, just that we will have no control over any of them. We can’t say what the circumstances will be in the future, but we can be sure that, given those circumstances, we will have no say over how we react, and what we do, or don’t do.

If that seems outrageous, consider that the alternative, of saying that the knowing selection of a racist, sexist, homophobic, corrupt, incompetent liar for re-election in the US was willful, ie that it was a conscious, deliberate and voluntary choice.

Try to make sense of that — you can’t. People believe what they want to believe and their conditioning will lead them to act accordingly.

With few exceptions, we don’t want genocide, mass incarceration, racist crusades, or medieval laws. We just want the things we value to be retained or restored, or implemented for the first time. And while I have no doubt that most white males are by their (cultural and perhaps genetic) conditioning racist, sexist, and homophobic (ie in the words of Isabel Wilkerson they are blind to the prejudices of their Caste), I believe the vast majority have been raised and conditioned to want to accommodate others’ views, within limits, so we can all live in peace.

That doesn’t mean we couldn’t be stirred to civil and global war. But that will only happen if and when our conditioning leads us to believe there is no other easier choice to achieve what we believe must be done.

So I think blaming the pollsters, social and other media, campaign managers, human ignorance and credulousness, foreign agents, extremists, sinister cabals, or previous generations for the outcome of yesterday’s US election is just more reactivity, unwarranted and unhelpful. It’s easy and tempting to lay blame. But we had no choice about what happened yesterday, which is very, very close to what happened four years ago.

Our conditioning hasn’t changed. The circumstances of the moment for most haven’t changed (except to get worse). Why should we expect our behaviours to be different? Except of course if we believe in the inextinguishable myth (because we want to believe it) of divine will or of progress. These myths have been thoroughly debunked, but as long as we want to believe them, we will.

So what then? What am I suggesting we should do?

My answer, which almost no one likes (possibly why readership of this once-popular blog has dropped over 90%), is — nothing. Accept that we are all doing our best, that we are now well into both economic and ecological collapse, on a global scale, and that this is how collapse plays out. It’s a complex system and we are conditioned creatures. There is no “fixing” this.

So what then? If we can’t fix it, what should we do? If you’re still asking, it’s clear that you cannot accept that we have no choice. This article might (extremely unlikely) be read by someone who is shifting their views (involuntarily), and might therefore (minutely) alter their conditioning, enough perhaps to change their vote, next time, depending on the circumstances of the moment next time. Impossible to say. Just as I have no choice over writing this endless and increasingly unpopular blather.

Tomorrow I will be on a Zoom call I dread with a real estate developer. I will be filled with rage, and try to keep my mouth shut (I was asked to attend as a favour). I cannot change what will arise for me then, in the circumstances of the moment (and I pretty much know what they will be). My rage will be futile, and it will accomplish nothing except to provoke an unhealthy chemical reaction inside my body. I can tell myself that this is the case, that it would be better if I were equanimous about what I know cannot be changed. I think it’s 50-50 that I will just shut up and say nothing (a sign my conditioning has changed over the past decade, due to circumstances I can’t control). I will be, for as long as I stay on the call, a microcosm of the American voter contemplating yesterday’s election.

It’s all I can do.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 6 Comments

Still, Stand Still

drawing by Canadian artist Pierre Surtes, from my own collection
(this is NOT the image in the poster I refer to below, which seemingly exists now only in my memory)

When I was seventeen, my gf brought me a poster that showed a little girl standing at the ocean’s edge and staring out, her arms outspread. The words beneath the photo read: “Stand still and look until you really see.”

At seventeen, I didn’t get it. Perhaps I still don’t. But somehow I “know” there’s something important there.

I’ve always fallen in love with women way smarter, more aware, more grounded than I can ever hope to be.

I’m flush from a series of discussions and exchanges with, and readings from, some extremely bright people, and I feel suddenly blessed to have more such people in my life than ever before. I’ve so often felt starved for intellectual stimulation, but that may be mainly because I’ve never paid close attention when it’s actually all around me, and instead I keep waiting for it to knock on my door. I’m lazy that way.

So a little thank you to all those who have corresponded with me recently, and exposed me to new ideas, new possibilities, new ways of thinking and feeling and being. Thank you for reminding me to breathe, to slow down, to smile, to notice, to keep things in perspective, to pay attention, to make eye contact, and to give things time, even when time seems inexorably to be running out.

The message of the poster is perhaps a different way of relaying the message of radical non-duality that I’ve so taken to heart in recent years. Except that of course radical non-duality asserts that no amount of looking, or standing still, will enable “you” to see because “you” are precisely what’s in the way of seeing. A little joke from the universe.


I am starting to sense that the turmoil of what is seemingly going on all around us, with slowly-accelerating violence and chaos, is precisely what civilizational collapse, the “long emergency”, looks like. And that terrible, wonderful realization is coming precisely when it’s also dawning on me, as I’ve somehow always known, and as every wild creature keeps quietly telling me, that none of what I imagine is real, and everything already just is, perfectly, the way it is, the only way it could possibly be. And that the anguish I feel is because I’m too full of my self, and as such cannot hope to really see, to accept, to let go, to just be, in wonder. I know to my activist friends that sounds like an irresponsible cop-out, but, well…

I knew all this as a small child, and there have been glimpses since, but most of the time I’ve forgotten, and keep forgetting. And I understand that it’s hopeless and that when this is remembered, there will be no one here remembering. And that it doesn’t matter; things only really matter to our beleaguered, exhausted, deluded selves. But this incessant noisy mattering of everything still seems to be happening here, sadly.

Some writers are now starting to write about the current period as the traumacene. The horrific overpopulation of humans, the vast chasm of inequality, and the disconnected, frenzied lifestyles we have come to live, have created massive artificial scarcities and made most of us endlessly stressed. Compounding that, we now live in an age of unprecedented dependence, where so much that we need relies on ‘efficient’ global transportation and centralized, automated production and distribution systems, and on the cheap energy needed to produce and sustain them. It is an age of precarity, and of endless unspoken dread as to when everything will run out, knowing that that time is coming soon, and that we long ago lost the capacities and skills needed to live independently and sufficiently.

And we have been programmed and conditioned to be anxious, furious, and guilt-ridden about this, to want to blame someone, everyone, and ourselves for how the dice have rolled since our well-meaning civilization began. Or to deny it. And then to somehow fix it, make it the way in our foolish dreams we thought it might be, or once was. Somehow we know that none of these feelings make sense, and that none of these urgently-sought outcomes are even remotely possible. But knowing that can’t make us feel any better about it.

I first started writing poetry about waiting when I was seventeen. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but somehow I “knew” that that was what was required, and that in the meantime everything was just an act, make-believe, faking it, unimportant. Putting in time.

For most of the fifty-two years since, I forgot I was waiting; I forgot that that was what was necessary. In that forgetting, the ‘me’ that keeps asserting its existence, its validity, has been mostly and variously impatient, angry, ambitious, depressed, outraged, discouraged, saddened, terrified, anxious. About a reality that is nothing more than a fiction, an invented world conjured up in my brain. It’s a form of mental illness that I think almost all ‘selves’ suffer from.

Wild creatures, even when they age and become more wary, seem to have no need for such nonsense. They don’t imagine unreal things and happenings into self-vexing existence. They have never forgotten what is real.

There’s a wonderful story in scientist-poet Loren Eiseley’s book The Star Thrower about the utterly different perspective wild creatures have, and occasionally give us a glimpse of. Here’s an abridged version the story:

I did not realize at first what it was that I looked upon. As my wandering attention centered, I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun. Beneath them, a small neat face looked shyly up at me. The ears moved at every sound, drank in a gull’s cry and the far horn of a ship. They crinkled, I began to realize, only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. …

He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face. … I dropped even further and painfully away from human stature. It has been said repeatedly that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe. Man is destined to see only its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.

Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of it two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.

It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox’s den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment. We were the innocent thing in the midst of the bones, born in the egg, born in the den, born in the dark cave with the stone ax close to hand, born at last in human guise to grow coldly remote in the room with the rifle rack upon the wall.

But, I had seen my miracle. I had seen the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child’s universe, a tiny and laughing universe. I rolled the pup on his back and ran, literally ran for the neared ridge. The sun was half out of the sea, and the world was swinging back to normal. The adult foxes would be already trotting home. …

For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish.

In forgetting what is hidden behind the veil of self, we’ve forgotten how to play. Young foxes (and old corvids) play to learn, to develop skills, and to practice. But true play is never serious, or even consciously purposeful. Wild creatures play because it’s fun. The benefits are incidental.

In real play there are no winners and losers, no keeping score. Only in humans’ world of artificial scarcity is play a zero-sum game. The ideas of “healthy” competition, of dog-eat-dog, and of interaction being mostly about dominance and submission are, I think, a myth, a foolish anthropocentric misunderstanding.

Competition is actually IMO a traumatic response to scarcity. Its only evolutionary purpose is to “thin the crowd” when natural means of population management have been exhausted and the population is severely stressed. Otherwise there is no need for it. And while some birds and other animals may seem to be vying for mating rights, or for what we (I think incorrectly) call “status”, I would argue that this is no more “competitive” than the game Loren played with the young fox.

These seeming “competitions” (the word competition etymologically means “striving together”) are I believe the means animal tribes use to determine and communicate roles in the community. There is no hierarchy, only collective agreement on who in the tribe is best at doing what.

A part of that, it seems, is acknowledging who actually wants which role. There have been studies that show that the “central” male and female in a wild community (what we anthropomorphically call “alphas” or “top dogs”) are not necessarily the largest or strongest, but rather those most eager and able to fill the often-exhausting key protector and reproducer roles. Don’t want the job, don’t apply.

What would a human society look like without competition? I think this can only be imagined in a post-collapse culture, one without crowding or scarcity of resources. My sense is that it would be a society full of art and music, as that is one way humans play — as a means of expression, not just a means of learning important skills and staying fit. Humans aren’t alone in that — some bird species mimic, collect and display bright shiny objects, and sing quietly to themselves at night when they’re alone.

As our incompetent human civilization gears up and spins out, there is less and less time for art. Our current mania for work leaves no bandwidth, no space for creativity, no time for wonder. There are many constraints that actually stimulate creative ideas, but a lack of time is not one of them.

To live effectively and comfortably in a world without competition and scarcity, which is the world our species lived in for its first million years, where all that was needed was within easy reach from our warm treetop perches, we would first have to unlearn all the terrible knowledge we have been conditioned to accept and believe.

That’s why I think our re-emergence into such a world will have to await civilization’s collapse. In the 21st century the only way we know to live is the constant struggle to have enough, to have more, to survive. The only thing we have learned to believe is that our deprivation and stress and unhappiness has a purpose — motivating us to “create the better world we know is possible” or some similar nonsense. We have to keep denying that our few millennia of trying to run this little blue laboratory has been an unmitigated disaster, and that the sooner it ends, the better.

But it’s fine. We’ve always done our best, and will continue to do so until Gaia gets tired of the experiment and re-sets. She will take as long as is needed to clean up the mess. Humans, it turned out, weren’t very good at playing well with others, but that’s OK. There are many other creatures that are, and they will have their turn.

The problem with waiting is that there isn’t actually any such thing as time. It’s just a metaphor, a mental invention, a way for humans to make sense of what actually makes no sense, and has no need to. The universe has no need for time; everything is always fine just as it is.

Our species that has turned all play into competition will never understand. We’ve forgotten that real play has no consequences. And there is ‘no time’ to relearn all that we’ve forgotten.

So those of us waiting — for liberation from our selves, for salvation by some gods or super-humans, for a better world for our children, for the end of suffering, for Godot — are waiting, hopelessly, in non-existent time, for things to be other than how they are, the only way they can possibly, already, eternally, be. A madman’s folly.

Still, we have no choice. We can only laugh. We can only try to play, even though we’ve forgotten how. We can — still — only stand still, and look, until we really see, what has always been, right before our veiled eyes. What we can never see, until we’re gone.

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

How to Speak Canayjun

I often get ribbed when I visit “the States” because of how I apparently pronounce the word about, and because I actually do say eh, instead of huh.

But I’m always surprised at the number of words and expressions that I thought were universal English, that Americans simply never use. So, to help out my “south of the border” readers, here is a little quiz to test how well you can fathom Canadian vernacular. (I’d be interested in knowing how well UK readers do on this quiz, since some of these words and expressions originated there.)

No cheating by Googling before you guess. Asking any nearby Canadians is OK. Answers in the comments thread.

Here we go:

PART 1: What’s that Canadian on about?

What do the following words and expressions refer to, in terms Americans would understand? (1 point for each correct answer)

  1. blinds
  2. boxing day
  3. brown bread
  4. a Caesar (not as in salad)
  5. candy floss
  6. a chesterfield
  7. a civic holiday
  8. a flat (of a consumer product)
  9. give me a shout
  10. a Gravol
  11. had the biscuit
  12. a keener
  13. a kerfuffle
  14. kraft dinner
  15. Nanaimo bar
  16. a “regular” coffee
  17. a Robertson screw
  18. Smarties
  19. a snowbird

PART 2: What’s that in Canadian?

Canadians might use the following terms and expressions, and they would certainly know what they mean. But they would be likely to use a distinctly Canadian word or expression instead. What is it? (1 point for each correct answer)

  1. the restaurant check
  2. a candy bar
  3. a convenience store
  4. to fake or feint (by zagging when they zig, to get past someone in your way)
  5. gutters (that collect rainwater from the roof)
  6. rubber bands
  7. garbage disposal (unit in a sink)
  8. taking a vacation
  9. powdered (confectioners’) sugar
  10. a long line (waiting)
  11. a parking garage
  12. next-to-last (penultimate)
  13. napkin
  14. snowmobile
  15. faucet
  16. dish towel
  17. restroom
  18. non-dairy creamer (for coffee)

PART 3: What’s that Manitoban on about? Prairie terms.

This part is probably harder, since these are terms that you would likely only hear people from the Canadian prairie provinces use. Translate into ‘Murrican. (2 points for each correct answer)

  1. bumper-shining
  2. bush party
  3. cabin
  4. dainties
  5. frost shields
  6. going to a social
  7. Hallowe’en apples! (shouted)
  8. jam buster
  9. K-Tel brush
  10. pickerel
  11. “square tires”
  12. tanglefoot

BONUS QUESTION: The greatest Canadian.

A recent CBC series reaffirmed that the gentleman pictured above is still considered by Canadians to be our greatest public figure. What’s his name (1 point) and why is he so revered (1 point)?

Maximum score is 63 points. If you scored more than 30 points, congratulations — you are now an honorary Canuck. Skookum! Lord tunder’n Jesus, eh? Collect your prize in Timbits and Canadian Tire money on the way out.

(Thanks to for many of the above expressions)

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

Facing Collapse: Ten Important Questions for the 2020s

Image of Ken Ward in 2016 Valve-Turners action, from the film The Reluctant Radical

It has been a year of terrible news and terrible realizations. A year of justifiable outrage and bewildered astonishment. A year of dashed hopes, false expectations and growing alarm and despair. A humbling year.

My response to being sad about all this is, as usual, to try to learn something new, and to recognize that offering us endless hope is just the establishment’s way of keeping us all in line.

That has me listening to some unusually bright, thoughtful, imaginative, realistic people — Zeynep Tüfekçi, Daniel Schmachtenberger, and Frédéric Laloux, among others. I’ll be writing more about some of Zeynep’s and Daniel’s fascinating ideas soon, but today, since I’m overdue for a “top 10” list, I thought I’d describe some of the interesting questions that came up in Frédéric’s most recent interview.

Frédéric is best known for his writings about self-managed organizations, but his many years studying such organizations have led to his asking questions that apply to what we do, individually and collectively, in our communities and in the world at large as well.

As I was listening to the questions he was posing, I began to realize that as recently as a decade ago, you would almost never hear these questions asked. It was, until very recently, considered bad form to ask a question without some sense of at least one “correct” answer at hand to answer it. And asking questions that acknowledged that there was likely no good answer at all was just unheard of, except among “doomers” (and, quietly, among the more knowledgeable climate scientists).

It was also very rare to hear questions asked that suggested that those with lots of experience, wealth, power and influence, and the capacity to deploy them, were just as racked with dismay, uncertainty and helplessness as the rest of us. Especially in business organizations, such acknowledgements were (and usually still are) considered a sign of weakness, rather than as a sign of maturity, candour, authenticity, curiosity and integrity.

Suddenly, quietly, it’s become OK to at least imply that “we’re fucked; so what do we do now?” It’s OK to say we don’t have all the answers, or that there are no answers. It’s OK to say most of what we’re struggling with are complex predicaments that can’t be even close to fully understood, controlled, or “fixed”, and that our best bet is to learn how to adapt to them as they play out. And it’s OK to be afraid, to be angry, and to be filled with grief. Frédéric says that over the past decades “social permissions” have changed to make these once-tacitly-taboo things OK.

Frédéric is now turning his attention from dysfunctional organizations to climate and ecological collapse. He’s discovering that these predicaments share a lot of the same attributes and symptoms, and the approaches to adapting to and coping with them are analogous. And he suggests that many of these approaches start with self-awareness and with cultivating and practicing excellent thinking, imaginative, attention and empathizing skills personally as a prelude to exercising these skills in group and collaborative work.

Although I’ve paraphrased them, here are ten “revolutionary” questions that Frédéric is now asking himself and others to consider in trying to deal with the terrible crises now facing us, and the growing likelihood of large-scale collapse. All of these questions apply at both a personal and societal level:

  1. Accepting unhappy truths: How can we recognize the wilful blindness we each have to “inconvenient” truths, and how can we re-train ourselves to appreciate and accept what is true even if it is not what we want to believe? It takes some intellectual courage, honesty, openness and patience to move to such a mindset.
  2. Sitting with not knowing: How can we learn to admit we don’t know, and that there are no simplistic answers, so that we can then create a safe space to just sit with not knowing, with incomplete understanding, with uncertainty and ambiguity, and let possibilities emerge as we learn more, think more, and interact more, instead of rushing to resolution?
  3. Admitting our powerlessness: How can we allow ourselves, especially if we’re in positions of authority, to admit that we are simply unable to solve the complex predicaments we are facing — that they are larger than all of us. That also entails breaking the co-dependency between “powerful” decision-makers (parents, bosses, preachers, and presidents) who thrive on that power and the fame and self-satisfaction it provides, and the “powerless” rest of us (who are often content to let the “powerful” shield them from any sense of obligation to make any decisions or take any actions to address what is happening).
  4. Moving to blamelessness: How can we train ourselves not to blame complex predicaments on others’ actions or inaction, and to acknowledge that we’re all doing our best and that no one (and no group) is “responsible” for the crises we face? This requires letting others, and ourselves, off the hook before we start to work to address these crises. And it requires the terrifying acknowledgement that firing the boss, or the president, will not fix the predicament that has seemingly arisen under their watch.
  5. Overcoming the fear of failure: How can we enable ourselves to push forward and not be paralyzed by the fear of what could go wrong and the potentially awful consequences? This need not require either exceptional courage or indemnification, but rather a collective shift in what we define as failure and how we assess others’, and our own, value, intentions and actions.
  6. Giving ourselves permission: How can we move past waiting for the permission of “authorities” to take whatever action we (individually and collectively) feel must be taken to address big scary issues we care about?  [And do that while still recognizing that others are scared, conflict- and confrontation- and risk-averse, and that’s OK.]
  7. Appreciating that waking people up isn’t enough: Now that many people are aware of the existential crises facing us, what more will it take to get all of us actually working on addressing these crises? It’s been a decade since Al Gore showed us beyond all doubt that merely waking people up to the reality of an “inconvenient truth” is not sufficient to lead to any meaningful action.
  8. Understanding what we long for: Personally and collectively, how can we come to a better appreciation of what really matters to us, what on our deathbeds we will be most proud, or rueful, about, and why it matters, so that we can’t not act on achieving it?
  9. Consciously and continually reassessing our role and purpose: How can we keep considering, every day, what else we could, individually and collectively, be doing right now that would be more useful, more joyful, more “on purpose” than what we’re currently doing? And, of course, then, why aren’t we doing that?
  10. Reimagining our future as the journey of a lifetime: How can we overcome our resistance to thinking and acting on plans for a better future, when it seems so scary and hopeless, and see our future instead as a great adventure? If we’re inevitably into the sixth great extinction of life anyway, why not approach it with gusto and give it everything we’ve got? What have we really got to lose? What’s really holding us back?

Asking these questions, first at a personal level, and then collectively, in our communities, in our workplaces, and as citizens of a world in collective peril: It’s a lot to ask!

We might well add an eleventh, meta-question: How can we learn to craft great questions? Great questions can help us, personally and collectively, engage in the conversations (the word conversation literally means “turning with”) needed to help the system (at whatever scale/scales possible) to self-correct. In other words, sometimes it’s enough just to ask the right question.

I confess I’m of two minds about all this. I find both subjects (facing collapse, and asking the right questions to prompt the best possible responses to deal with it) exciting, even exhilarating. But I also believe we have no free will. Our conditioning will dictate what each of us will do, individually and collectively, in the increasingly precarious circumstances that lie ahead.

We will ask, and attempt to address, important questions, or we won’t. We will act, or we won’t. Whatever we do, or don’t do, we will all be doing our best. That will either be enough to make a difference, or it won’t.

It’s out of our control, and has always been so. Fasten your seat belts; it’s getting bumpy.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End, Working Smarter | 8 Comments

The Entanglement Hypothesis

image adapted from Pixabay, CC0

This article is a bit of a wild ride. If its subject (the nature of consciousness) is not of interest, give it a wide berth. If you are interested, then since this is a particularly long post, and not an easy read, you may want to set aside some time to work through it.

I‘ve been thinking further about my review of psychologist Julian Jaynes’ 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness, and how it relates to the message of radical non-duality.

Suppose Julian was correct, and it was only about 3,000 years ago that the human brain evolved the capacity to integrate its sensemaking activities (responding to signals perceived by the senses) with its imagining activities (creating/conceptualizing mental images). This integration, or ‘entanglement’, of brain activities is, he says, necessary for what we call ‘consciousness’, the experience of having a separate self.

In other words, it was only then that the brain was able to imagine that what it imagined made sense — and especially that its idea of the self and everything else as real and separate was ‘true’. Prior to that, Julian argues, there could be no self-consciousness and hence no sense of self, and no sense of ‘other’, or of time or space or other ‘places’ where separate ‘things’ could really be and really ‘happen’. He supports his thesis with an analysis of ancient written records and ancient human activities that show evidence of a lack of any sense of self or of self-consciousness. (Even the word ‘self’ is an etymologically recent coinage.)

The sensemaking part of the brain would therefore, back then, operate purely on instinct — eg fast yellow thing is perceived ⇒ brain “makes sense” that there is danger ⇒ flee, fight, or freeze. There would already be primary and immediate feelings: fear (⇒ flee), anger (⇒ fight), and/or sadness/hopelessness/resignation (⇒ freeze).

In the imagining part of the brain secondary thoughts (perhaps of gods, or monsters, anything that might be imagined) and secondary feelings (perhaps akin to anxiety, hatred, grief or shame) might arise, but there would be no way (yet) to act on or react to them, as there would be no context for ‘making sense’ of them. They wouldn’t ‘belong’ to anyone, so they’d just arise and fall away.

As explained in my earlier article, Michael Graziano hypothesizes that what prompted the evolution of the human capacity to synthesize the brain’s sensemaking/perceiving and imagining/conceiving activities was not the need for a self. The “unconscious” human species, like many others, had apparently thrived for a million years without this capacity.

Instead, what he thinks prompted this capacity for synthesis was humans’ primal survival need to socialize with other humans. We are maladapted to a solitary existence. In collaborating ‘unconsciously’ with other humans, as many creatures do, perhaps in the search for food or in attempting to escape from a predator, there is a need to communicate. For most creatures, body language, pheromones and rudimentary vocalizations were and are sufficient communication for essential social activity.

But as we moved farther and farther from our comfortable natural habitat in the trees of the tropical rainforest, we had both the need and the capacity to evolve a more sophisticated means of communication (abstract language). And we had the need and capacity to imagine a new way of modelling reality (‘consciousness’ of the self and ‘other’), that might enable us to adapt to hostile and unfamiliar new habitats and situations.

These new evolutionary features required the capacity to integrate the brain’s sensemaking, perceptual abilities with its imagining, conceptual abilities. And so, in successful survivors in these new habitats, perhaps about 3,000 years ago, this capacity emerged, was apparently evolutionarily favoured, and has been with us ever since.

Neuroscientists have pretty much given up trying to find the ‘parts’ of the brain that ‘represent’ our sense of self. That’s likely because this sense arises not in any part of the brain but in the evolved entanglement of activities in the brain that once had separate perceptual and conceptual functions.

With this new capacity to recursively represent our selves — the capacity we call ‘consciousness’ (of self and other and ‘apart-ness’ of ‘things’ and ‘happenings’ in a conceptualized space and time), we could now evolve language to convey more precise and sophisticated information and instructions to the ‘others’ that our new ‘consciousness’ allowed us to represent and to use for our collective advantage.

I say collective because at this stage we were still subject to nature’s most fundamental evolutionary rule — the survival of the ‘fittest’, ie the survival of those collectives (within the gene, within the body, within the community, within Gaia) that best ‘fit’ with others and within the ‘system’ they were/are inseparably part of.

But from that point on, the emergence of the concept of the separate self would have brought with it the concept of selfishness, and the new challenge of weighing collective vs individual (ie the self’s) survival needs. As much as we love to anthropomorphize about self-interest (and contrary to Richard Dawkins memes), there is no evidence of selfishness outside of our species — even apparent “alpha” behaviours clearly evolved to benefit the collective. Even rats exhibit altruistic behaviours.

So this new evolutionary “advance” brought with it an unexpected “self-ish” downside — the brain-created disconnection of the apparent individual human from the collective of all life on earth, and hence a disconnection between personal interest and collective interest.

It also let loose another unexpected side-effect — it provided an anchor to reinforce what until then had likely just been fantasies and secondary negative emotions like anxiety, hatred, shame, grief, jealousy, and envy. Suddenly all these thoughts and feelings had an ‘owner’, a separate self for whom they were ‘real’.

And with that, the notion of ‘reality’ as consisting of those things the ‘self’ construes as really happening to it and to others, and only those things, was born. How horrifying these suddenly seemingly-real imaginings must have been! And how horrifying they still are, three millennia later. They might well be the source of all human suffering. Imagine ‘awakening’ from a world in which everything is already perfect exactly as it is, to one full of new and terrible imaginings that might be real, and a world suddenly filled with anxiety, hatred, shame, grief, jealousy, and envy.

This is what I have been getting at when I’ve suggested that the evolution of human brains has perhaps made us “too smart for our own good”.

YouTube has, among other things, enabled people to recognize in others realizations about the workings of their brains that they had never realized weren’t universal. So, for example, those with the seemingly rare condition called aphantasia, an incapacity to conjure up mental images inside one’s head, are generally astonished to discover they have this condition, and even more astonished to realize that this rare, unheard-of ‘incapacity’ has had no effect whatsoever on their health, lives and capacity to function perfectly well in a human society where most people regularly do create images in their heads. Now it appears that as many as 2% of humans may have this ‘incapacity’.

Another example is the incapacity of some people to have ‘inner dialogues‘, where ideas are explored ‘with oneself’ using language in one’s head, and where the next sentence you plan to say is rehearsed and practiced. It is hard to imagine living without this capacity, yet those who have discovered they lack it (mostly very recently thanks to YouTube videos from others who have discovered they lack it) are equally amazed that its absence has been unnoticed and un-missed their whole lives, by them and by those who know them well. How can our brains function so differently without any realization from anyone that that’s the case?

A couple of decades ago, a man named Tony Parsons suddenly found that ‘his’ sense of self and of separation had vanished. And at that point it was obvious (but not to him, since there was no ‘him’) that everything the self imagines to be real (including separate things, and space and time) are just illusions, fantasies, inventions of the entangled brain. And that there are only appearances — that “all there is, is this.”

What he described (and continues to describe) is, I think, very much what Julian Jaynes describes as how the “bicameral” (unentangled) brains of all humans, up until very recently, would perceive and conceive of reality.

Just as with those with aphantasia and the incapacity for inner dialogue, Tony’s subsequent videos unearthed a host of people who had likewise no sense of having or being a separate self. And its loss and absence, they all asserted, had no effect whatsoever on ‘their’ capacity to function as “normal” human beings.

On the contrary, they often described the loss of their sense of self and separation as “liberation”, freedom from the exhausting work of being and having a self which is constantly judging and causing itself endless stress. They say it is seen that nothing matters, nothing changes, nothing is really happening, and there is no one and no thing, only appearances.

This is not the “bliss” promised by mystics and teachers throughout history. Rather, it’s just a simple “seeing”, by no one, of what, with the exception of modern humans with entangled brains, has always been “seen”. That all there is, is this.

And perhaps most surprisingly, they say that this loss, or absence, of self, is so ordinary and unimportant that it’s really not worth talking about. In fact, since there is no (longer a) self to realize that there is no (longer a) self, it may well not even be noticed when it apparently ‘dies’. The apparent body of the apparent character continues to do what it was conditioned to do, “self-lessly” — what it was going to do anyway.

We don’t notice the end of thoughts (conceptualizations) and feelings (like guilt, anxiety, hatred) inside our brains, nor does anyone else. Their absence is a non-event.

Except of course there are millions of desperate seekers of “liberation” some of whom are now wondering if this might be what mystics have been talking about (and, often, preaching ways to achieve) for millennia. When hearing this radical non-duality message, seekers want Tony and others to talk about it — even if its ‘realization’ is hopeless.

Often, there is a “resonance” of this message with something unconscious, deeper than the self. And sometimes there can be apparent “glimpses” where the self seemingly utterly disappears, and that “all there is, is this” is suddenly, obviously “seen”, before the self, annoyingly, “comes back”.

What is unique about this message is:

  1. that there is never a “path” offered to achieve it; indeed there is a consistent assertion that there is no path (the loss of the self is actually a non-event); and
  2. that this message offers nothing to either the seeker or the messenger — no one is likely to pay money or offer fealty to be told not only that there is nothing they can do, but that there is no one to do it.

In fact, some of the radical non-duality messengers have said that there are probably many people who have never had a sense of self and never missed it, nor has anyone in their lives noticed its absence. So why would they even talk about it? Presumably those who are “self-less” perceive that talk about a separate self and separate things is speaking in metaphor, not about anything ‘real’. Just as those with aphantasia don’t realize that the “thought pictures” others conjure up are vivid to those describing them, not just metaphorical speech.

Over the past decade or so, those talking about this ‘radical non-duality’ message have developed a modest shared vocabulary to try to explain the message more clearly. This is no small feat when language itself is inherently dualistic and mostly about the ‘real’ self (pronouns), ‘real’ separate things (nouns) and ‘real’ happenings (verbs). Gerunds and metaphors can only take you so far. But while there can be clarity about the message, and a kind of intuitive resonance (especially if there have been “glimpses”) it remains a hopeless message.

Jim Newman has described the self metaphorically as a “psychosomatic misunderstanding” — the mistaking of the entangled brain’s imagined reality as real. This is somewhat analogous to believing a hallucination to be real. Try to convince the sufferer otherwise! The monster is right there! This self is right here! Can’t you see?

Tony has described the self, the separate ‘me’, as “a useless bit of software”, suggesting that while it may have seemed to have been an evolutionary advance, it is actually just an illusion, and is incapable of doing anything. We believe that our self does things, with free will and choice, because we have to believe it — we feel we could not really function otherwise. We jump through agonizing hoops to rationalize how and why ‘we’ have chosen to do things even when they don’t seem to “make sense”. “I was not myself” is the entangled brain’s last ditch explanation for what it cannot make sense of.

So let’s go back to Julian Jaynes’ explanation of how this possibly useless misunderstanding arose 3,000 years ago. Tony’s argument is that human babies are not born with what I am calling an entangled brain — they have no sense of themselves or anything else as existing separate from everything.

Babies “just are”, like wild creatures, until through social conditioning and language they are ‘taught’ to integrate (entangle) their brains’ sensemaking and imagining ‘messages’. They then begin to conceive (and then perceive) of themselves and everything else as separate and real.

And this sense of self and separation seems to be more than just an idea, more than just something limited to the brain. It is an embodied sense, what radical non-dualists describe as an apparent “energetic contraction”.

Our brains are to some extent genetically encoded, so in modern human infants there may well be a readiness and facility to allow and enable this entanglement, and subsequent “contraction” from boundless everything to limited self. But it seems curious that we do not seem to be born with it. The self is a learned reality, not an innate one.

Abstract language seems to be essential to us buying the idea of having and being a separate self. And the radical non-dualists would assert that the self is completely inessential to our thriving as functioning humans, and that the self is illusory, and doesn’t actually do anything. We just rationalize what our conditioning, under the circumstances of the moment, apparently has us doing. We have to believe it was ‘our’ choice, our responsibility, our agency. Otherwise, what would we do with our selves?

Let me now attempt to summarize what I am calling the Entanglement Hypothesis:

  1. Until a very few millennia ago, there was no consciousness. For a million years before that, humans, like all creatures, did as their conditioning dictated given the circumstances of the moment — very successfully.
  2. About 3,000 years ago, perhaps due to a combination of the emergence of large brains in humans, and challenging ecological circumstances, both the opportunity and the need emerged for an evolutionary advance to prevent the species from possibly becoming extinct. Whatever prompted it, the resulting evolutionary experiment is what we call consciousness, including the embodied conception of, and belief in the reality of, the separate self.
  3. This experiment began when the sensemaking (perceiving) and imagining (conceiving) activities of the brain became integrated or ‘entangled’, such that it was possible for the first time to try to ‘make sense’ of the brain’s own imaginings and inventions. This recursive entanglement of the brain’s activities apparently co-evolved with the evolution of abstract language.
  4. ‘Consciousness’ made it possible for the first time to imagine a host of terrifying and/or seductive possibilities (what might have been, or what might be or what might soon be, or what could be or should be) as being “real”.
  5. Consciousness therefore gave rise and “ownership” (and hence credibility) to unhealthy and sustained negative emotions like anxiety, hatred, shame, grief, jealousy, longing and envy. Where acute, short-term fear, anger and sadness/resignation have provided evolutionary advantage, these new, more chronic negative emotions based on believing imagined thoughts and feelings to be “real”, may be the root of almost all modern human suffering, trauma, and stress-related mental and physical illness, a huge, accidental evolutionary misstep.
  6. There are now suggestions, from those seemingly ‘self-less’, that the entangled brain’s inventions, such as consciousness and self and time and space and separation and free will, are illusory, unnecessary and useless. That is, humans can and do thrive without them.
  7. The process of ‘disentanglement’ seems to happen in some brains, but it seems highly unlikely or even impossible that it can be consciously invoked. In fact, those whose sense of self and separation have apparently ‘fallen away’ (suggesting a spontaneous disentanglement) assert that nothing happened, or ever happens, that there are no ‘real’ brains, or selves to ‘fall away’, and would hence assert that this entire hypothesis is only a story, an invention, and not possibly true.

Neuroscientists have theorized that there are ‘default pathways‘ in the brain that become entrenched due to constant conditioned reinforcement, and that psychoactive drugs and meditation can (to some extent, for a while) ‘disrupt’ those pathways, often leading to a sense that self and separation have dissolved. Some describe this disruption as mind-altering and worldview-changing. For some, reportedly, its enduring effects have included the sudden and complete end of addictions, depression and neuroses.

And there have been “glimpses” here, and reportedly by many others, in which there was likewise a temporary but complete loss of self and separation and an astonishing “seeing” of what really is, that was at once euphoric (“aha!”) and completely ordinary (“well that’s obvious, and it will obviously always be what truly is; how could I not have seen it before?”).

And those whose selves have apparently ‘fallen away’ say (while asserting that nothing actually happened) that it was not a gradual happening but an instantaneous one (“wow; bang!”).

All of the above suggest that disentanglement (if this theory has any validity) is not a painstaking process (the result of forty years of patient meditation or diligent ‘spiritual’ practice) but rather a spontaneous occurrence (leaving the impression that nothing has actually happened, since the self it apparently happened to is hence gone).

Of course, this just makes the self, which is, I would argue, longing for its own absence and the end of the terrible imaginings and negative emotions that come with having a self, even more hopeful and more anxious for this “non-event” to seemingly happen.

Those whose selves have apparently fallen away often seem bewildered by ‘seekers’ fascination with the process by which it seemingly fell away. Once it’s apparently fallen away, there is no self left to recognize its seeming loss. From that perspective, there was no ‘real’ loss, and it doesn’t mean anything or matter anyway. And as there is no time without a self and things to be positioned in it, it never happened and never mattered.

Not surprisingly, then, almost all descriptions of possible glimpses or senses or ‘experiences’ of the temporary or partial loss of self are dismissed by those without apparent selves as “just another story of the self”. How could a disentangled brain possibly see any description that entangles perception (appearances) and conception (the self’s inventions and explanations) as anything other than a story? With the loss of the self, the capacity to appreciate the self’s entangled, convoluted sensemaking and rationalization is inevitably lost too.

Just as the idea of the self being an illusion and of there being nothing that is real and separate, and no time, seems utterly preposterous to those possessed of a self, so must the idea that the self can be dissolved through some occult, spiritual or psychedelic process or practice seem utterly preposterous to those not so possessed. How could anyone function without consciousness? How could something that never existed be dissolved through some process designed by the very thing that never existed? Ridiculous! And ridiculous!

It’s as if those whose sense of self has fallen away, and those still possessed of selves, speak mutually incomprehensible languages. And while those who have lost their sense of self still have apparent memories in their brains of the ‘time’ when there was a ‘self’ there, those memories cannot possibly make sense thereafter; they can only be construed as strange, perplexing, imaginary stories, memories of a dream-time.

Some of those who long for a world free of selves, with their ghastly and ludicrous imaginings and their slew of stressful, suffering-inducing and futile thoughts and emotions, imagine that such a world would be idyllic and peaceful. But if what humans do is conditioned and not the result of the self’s decisions and free will, how could the presence or absence of selves have any impact on what humans actually, apparently do?

Julian describes the “helpless spectator” theory of consciousness and self as follows:

The [helpless spectator] doctrine assures us consciousness [aka the ‘self’] does nothing at all, and in fact can do nothing. Many tough-minded experimentalists still agree with Herbert Spencer that such a downgrading of consciousness is the only view that is consistent with straight evolutionary theory. Animals are evolved; nervous systems and their mechanical reflexes increase in complexity; when some unspecified degree of nervous complexity is reached, consciousness appears, and so begins its futile course as a helpless spectator of cosmic events. What we do is completely controlled by the wiring diagram of the brain and its reflexes to external stimuli. Consciousness is nothing more than the heat given off by the wires, a mere epiphenomenon. Conscious feelings, as Hodgson put it, are mere colors laid on the surface of a mosaic which is held together by its stones, not by the colors. Or as Huxley insisted in a famous essay, “we are conscious automata.” Consciousness can no more modify the working mechanism of the body or its behavior than can the whistle of a train modify its machinery or where it goes. Moan as it will, the tracks have long ago decided where the train will go. Consciousness is the melody that floats from the harp and cannot pluck its strings, the foam struck raging from the river that cannot change its course, the shadow that loyally walks step for step beside the pedestrian, but is quite unable to influence its journey.

We can hardly hold “helpless spectators” responsible for our violent, massively destructive civilization and what it has wrought.

If this theory (and my hypothesis) are correct, then, first of all, the emergence of consciousness and the concept of the separate self has had absolutely no effect on humanity’s evolution or survival. With or without selves, we would be in precisely the situation we are apparently now in.

And secondly, if the apparently useless evolutionary misstep of the invention of the idea of self and separation were not to continue — if nature ‘recognized’ the misstep and discontinued the experiment by evolutionarily selecting those not afflicted with, or capable of being afflicted with, selves, then, again, nothing different would happen.

The message of radical non-duality is that there are only appearances, and that things we think of as real — not only selves and time and space, but civilization and earth and evolution — are just stories we tell our selves to try to make sense of what we imagine to be happening. When it does not make sense, and doesn’t need to make sense.

So in the absence of selves, the apparent sixth great extinction of life would, it would seem, have progressed to its current dire stage, and would continue unabated. But, like everything else, it is not really happening. It’s just what we imagine, and tell our selves, is happening. Already, all there is, is this. Perfect, in the sense that it could not be otherwise, just as it is. Stunning, in that it’s an astonishing appearance out of nothing, going nowhere, being everything, for no reason, and for no one. Inconceivable, in that this can actually be “seen” to be true, without any one to “see” it.

If we were somehow able to alter the apparent default pathways of every human brain, such that there were no more troubled, delirious selves, just everything being as it is, already, it would change nothing. The suffering of billions of human selves that has been going on for, perhaps, 3,000 years, might end. But in that case, that suffering would be seen, by no one, to have never happened.

It’s possible, perhaps even probable, that after civilization’s apparently inevitable, imminent and ghastly collapse, future societies will evolve without any sense of self or separation, as they likely evolved for our first million years on this planet. If so, it will make no difference.

There are no words.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 3 Comments

The Street Drug Poisoning Crisis

Matthew Schimpky, a volunteer in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Overdose Prevention Society, takes a break from work to look after a resident’s dog. Photo by Sarah Blyth, a founding member and frontline worker for the Society, part of an amazing photo collection in the Tyee.

We have a medical crisis in BC, and it’s not CoVid-19, though the pandemic could yet explode here and become one.

The medical crisis is the deaths of over a thousand British Columbians every year (many times the CoVid-19 toll) from poisoned street drugs. To call it a “pharmaceutical opiate overdose epidemic” is a deception.

We should not be surprised when people, many of whom who are struggling mentally, physically and financially with seemingly endless and insurmountable challenges, turn to street drugs as a means of coping with their distress. Too often, because these drugs are unregulated and often laced with poisons — because it’s cheaper and more lucrative for their producers to make them that way — people who take these drugs die terrible deaths.

Surveys have repeatedly found that 95% or more of those dying from toxic street drugs were never — never! — prescribed addictive drugs. It only makes sense that those looking for respite from trauma and other societal illnesses would prefer to access safe, clean “brand name” drugs from regulated pharmaceutical companies rather than potentially toxic “street” drugs. But as governments have clamped down fiercely on doctors prescribing narcotics (even for patients relying on them for chronic conditions), those with dependencies are left at the mercy of vendors of unregulated products, which may be mislabeled, fake or laced with cheap synthetic fentanyl and other toxins.

You probably know people who, to cope with their difficulties, use alcohol, tobacco, pornography, sedatives, stimulants and other means of escape, and end up unable to properly manage their use of them, potentially leading to dysfunction, violence, and permanent harm to others and themselves. We’re all “addicted” to something, and those dying on the streets from toxic drugs are no different from us. They just have the misfortune of not having a safe, regulated supply of what they use to cope.

Many governments have been conned into believing that a “war on drugs” can be effectively won, and/or that “abstinence” programs and “aversion therapy” work, when all the evidence shows the opposite. A recent study suggests the success rate of even the much-touted “12-step” abstinence/rehab programs is between 5% and 8%. And that “just say no” programs actually produce more drug use than they prevent. These programs unfairly and cruelly blame the victims, making their situation worse, instead of working to eliminate the underlying conditions, and helping those with dependencies to live healthy, comfortable lives.

When the American Affordable Care Act extended eligibility for these failed abstinence, aversion and 12-step programs, unscrupulous operators exploited the prevalent blame-the-victim approaches by opening fly-by-night “treatment centres” that charge obscene daily rates ($1,000 a day and up). These programs cost more than 90% of the population could afford if they weren’t covered by insurance. And these same unscrupulous “entrepreneurs” have opened fake “halfway houses” for those “detransitioning” from drugs to supposedly stay safe, when in fact many of them are run by drug dealers exploiting the system and their often desperate “inmates”. Check out the link above for one man’s harrowing story of this horrific, outrageous, and worsening situation.

Those looking for better solutions have faced threats and fierce opposition from conservatives, religious groups, and the pharma industry, who want all the blame and responsibility to be placed squarely on the victims. Despite this, some governments have courageously piloted different approaches: free (and judgement-free) injection centres, or the provision of safe, free or low-cost drugs.  This allows users to escape the dread and fear of imprisonment, shakedowns, police abuse, street violence, and death-by-toxin that are often ever-present in their lives, so they can once again live fruitful, healthy lives and reestablish and sustain essential relationships with others.

Free injection centres provide those with substance dependencies with free, clean needles, a safe place to take their drugs, a watchful eye in case the drugs they take are bad, and, if desired, counselling and friendly support as well. They reduce the feeling of isolation that “illegal” drug users live with, and are often located in areas where community police have been trained to look out for them, instead of harassing them.

Dr Bonnie Henry, BC’s senior public health officer, even while masterfully coping with the province’s CoVid-19 situation, has called for the immediate decriminalization of the use of all drugs. When the government (facing an election) balked, she used her own authority to require that any registered nurse be allowed to prescribe (and even deliver) safe prescription drugs to anyone asking for them. That move has received international attention, but it’s just the first step.

Our health system, our housing system, our economic/employment system, our political system, our police and legal system, are all seriously broken, and their dysfunction impedes our attempts to deal with this drug crisis at every turn.

What is required is an acknowledgment that those using street drugs, those suffering from addictions, those struggling with poverty and homelessness, those acting out their mental illness — all these people need treatment and healing and help. What they don’t need is more laws, incarceration, arrest and abuse in the streets and in institutions, including ineffectual, unsafe and punitive “treatment facilities” (rehabs, prisons, homeless shelters).

Paternalistic solutions have utterly failed, and, just as a guaranteed annual income has been repeatedly shown to be a vastly better solution to poverty than food stamps and other demeaning regulated programs, so too do those who are struggling with dependencies need their underlying conditions (poverty, homelessness, mental illness, trauma and abuse) addressed. And in the meantime they need simple, nonjudgemental access to whatever means they use to cope with their situation.

The lesson we should have learned from prohibition is not to make wanted products illegal, and hence drive their production to dangerous, underground, ruthless, violent criminal gangs. Instead, we should make these products more available, legally and properly regulated, in safe forms, and get the real criminals out of the business. And, for god’s sake, we have to start to trust our fellow citizens to figure out, with the best help available, how best to deal with the many crises we are all facing. There is no one “right” way to live, and we should appreciate that not everyone wants to live the way we do in any case.

So please, the next time you read about an “opioid epidemic” and “overdoses”, please challenge the deceptive terminology used and the simplistic binary victimizing diagnoses and solutions offered. The people dying are not too stupid or inebriated to manage their doses, and they’re not trying to commit suicide.

Like you and me, they’re just trying to cope with dysfunctional systems out of control and the hardship this dysfunction has imposed particularly cruelly on them. Give them a hand, when you see them, when you hear their stories, when you object to the obfuscation of the problem by politicians, and when you vote. You could easily be in their place right now, were it not for circumstances over which neither of you has any control.

Thanks to Kelly Gavin, a professional psychotherapist who has lived and worked in the Downtown Eastside and other parts of Vancouver, for her thoughtful contributions and edits to this article. 

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | Comments Off on The Street Drug Poisoning Crisis