Links of the Quarter: June, 2016

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cartoon by the late, wonderful Charles Barsotti
This blog is now in its 14th year, and over that time most of the blogs I’ve followed have either ceased to exist or dwindled to a trickle. Although my posts have gradually slowed from daily to (on average) weekly, the amount that I write that is original content (as much as any commentary or fiction can really be said to be original) hasn’t fallen off all that much. And my articles have, on average, grown considerably longer. In total I’ve written about 2,000 posts, enough to fill about 7,000 pages, even without graphics — about 35 books’ worth. I keep wondering when I’ll run out of things to say.

Over this period I’ve become considerably more radical in my worldview, largely due to three astonishing realizations that have changed how I look at everything:

  1. Imminent Collapse: Our civilization, because of its massive complexity, dependence on debt and cheap resources, and unsustainable excesses, is going to come to an uneven and bumpy end some time in this century, and nothing we do, or stop doing, can prevent this. Our human descendants, many fewer in number than live on the planet now, will, after collapse has settled out, most likely live in amazingly diverse and culturally vibrant communities that will be unrecognizably localized, tribal, self-sufficient, opportunistic, modest and low-tech. That is, after all, how humans have, mostly, always lived.
  2. Universal Good Intentions: We are all doing our best. We really believe civilization culture is the pinnacle of human achievement, and to try to keep it going we have sacrificed our physical and mental health, the planet’s resources, and our humanity. We are all damaged (though many are still in denial) and trying to heal. We have desolated our planet, our home, and our spirits, in our fervent and misguided striving to make the world ‘better’. There is no evil cabal to blame, and shifting the concentration of wealth and power will achieve nothing. We’re an unforeseeable, surprising, colossal evolutionary failure. But damn we tried!
  3. No Separate Self: The illusion of the individual as some ‘one’, something apart from all there is, something with free will and control and responsibility, emerged as an evolutionary exaptation which was, in the short run, extremely successful, an amazing and useful trick. But it is a trick, one that our species has come to believe in so totally that we are now uniquely disconnected from all life and everything-that-is, to our endless dismay and immiseration. Billions of fearful, anxious, unhappy selves are seeking, hopelessly, to free ourselves from that illusion and find our way back to being-part-of-everything.

I sense these realizations are connected, incremental appreciations of how the world really works and what it means to be human. They now colour everything I think, believe and do, and I’m much happier and at peace as a result. But this is no accomplishment; we cannot be other than who we are.

I turned 65 this week but feel very young. Much of my young life was, sadly, full of the struggling, depression, and anxiety of the seeker in Charles’ cartoon above. Now there’s mostly playfulness, like the clown. But as the realizations above really start to really sink in, there’s this growing sense of freedom, lightness, quiet excitement, invulnerability and the inevitability of remembering, and easing back into just being. Almost home, though it’s always been right here, waiting for us all.

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PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END

hopeful hour
cartoon by Michael Leunig

Dark Age Ahead: Historian John Michael Greer has a new book coming out this fall, and it’s outstanding. It’s an explanation (through the lens of previous civilizational collapses) of how we got into the economic and ecological mess we now face, and the importance of starting now to (re-)learn (by trial and error) the skills your community will need as civilization’s systems increasingly break down and fall apart. John understands how complex systems work, which is refreshing. More on the book as we get closer to September publication date.

David Holmgren on Preparing for Collapse: The permaculture co-founder suggests that suburbs might fare better than cities when collapse hits full-bore, because even small plots of land around single-family dwellings might be usable for growing food. And he suggests the real hope is in the experiments that sub-cultures are doing right now in community-building and alternative ways of living and making a living. Thanks to my Bowen in Transition colleague Jessica Mitts for the link.

The Non-Dual Economist: I’ve followed Umair Haque’s writings on economics for years; he’s an original and courageous thinker. Now, following a horrible illness, he has (to my surprise and delight) discovered non-duality. Thanks to John Keliden for the link.

Property: The Second Worst Human Invention: Jared Diamond describes (monoculture “disaster”) agriculture as the worst mistake in the history of the human species. You could make a compelling argument that the invention of personal property was the second worst. Steve Roth explains that “property rights are ultimately based, purely, on coercion and (the threat of) violence.” The concept is essentially exclusionary and requires enough power and authority (outsourced these days to lawyers, police, armies and governments) to be able to coerce and inflict violence on anyone disregarding these “rights”. Matt Bruenig goes further, describing title deeds as “violence vouchers“. (Matt’s site is currently down, perhaps hacked by those who don’t like his views?). Thanks to Flemming Funch for the links.

Forgotten Knowledge: A new report from the National Academies notes that our long period of very stable climate has given us the brief luxury of forgetting what we know about how to live on the land, in the unique places we call home. But, it warns, as climate destabilizes more and more, that lost knowledge cannot be recovered in time to prevent another dark age. More or less what John Michael Greer is saying.

Unplugging the Rivers: The Colorado River provides water to one in eight Americans and supports one-seventh of the nation’s crops. But the lakes behind the dams are dwindling to the point the dams no longer make economic sense. Thanks to climate change, the Colorado River is running dry.

Wildfires Burning Earlier This Year: One of the harbingers of chronic drought and desertification is a recurrent uptick in wildfires, and we’re now into a second year in a row of more-than-usual, earlier-than-usual fires. The challenge is that the budget (and competent staffing) for wildfire fighters is already maxed out, so firefighters have to use triage — letting fires, even huge ones, that don’t immediately threaten human settlements and assets, burn out of control, to focus on the ones that do threaten humans. That means acreage lost to fires is soaring. That increases tree and groundcover losses and adds further to desertification, runoff, soil loss to wind and water, and flooding (when it does eventually rain). Just as we can no longer afford to maintain the trillions of dollars we’ve invested in fast-decaying infrastructure, we can no longer afford to keep our forests from turning to deserts as warming and extreme climate events increase.

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LIVING BETTER

LOTQ via richard saunders cage free
from RealFarmacy.com; thanks to Richard Saunders for the link

How Change Actually Happens: Victoria BC sustainability consultant Ruben Anderson takes on the issue of free will, and concludes that we might have it on rare occasions. But his best insight is about how change (in human behaviour) actually happens, and why (often) a desired, expected or coerced change doesn’t happen. Here’s the ‘aha’ punch line:

Since most of our behaviour is reactive to our physical and social contexts, the most effective way to change people’s behaviour is to change the context. Regardless of the speed limit, if the road is wide and straight, people drive fast. If the road is narrow and twisty, people drive slow. The most effective way to change behaviour is NOT to educate and inform people about the dangers of speeding, then post a speed limit and expect them to make a good choice with their free will—especially when everyone around them, their social context, is responding appropriately to the physical context of the wide road by driving faster than the posted speed limit. Imagine how we might respond to issues if we stopped telling a story that behaviour is a product of choice, and instead compassionately acknowledged it is mostly a product of context. Think of the lives lost and families destroyed by lung cancer, drunk drivers, malnutrition, poverty, and lack of exercise. Think of arguments with loved ones and lost friendships. Think of the billions wasted on ineffective infrastructure. Think of the school system and the justice system.

Consensus Always Decays: An interesting article by Richard Bartlett explains that, even in organizations where consensus has worked well, turnover and changing conditions can start to erode trust and mutual understanding, so that needs to be continuously cultivated, like a garden. Thanks to Tree for the link.

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POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL

LOTQ david-sipress-can-you-please-stop-arguing-in-your-ted-talk-voice-new-yorker-cartoon
David Sipress cartoon from The New Yorker

Why Are We Being Fed By a Poison Expert: The Undercurrent explains how Monsanto gets away with what they do. Thanks to David Griffiths for the link.

Killing Environmentalists: Investigative reporters at Global Witness survey the near-record 185 environmental activists murdered last year.

Death to the Poor: In the US now, depending on where you live, the rich live 11-15 years longer than the poor, and the spread is getting worse.

Coopting the New Economy: After corrupting the idea of the Sharing Economy with profit-seeking commercial ventures, the vultures are now trying to co-opt the idea of Co-Working, turning it from a communal, cooperative activity to a new way to make real estate profits and rental income. Thanks to Tree for the link.

Canadian Incompetence Corner:

The Globe’s Worst Writer Hangs On: The Globe’s most right-wing reporter and serial plagiarist Margaret Wente is still working for the newspaper. The essence of conservative privilege during this period of declining empire seems to be that if you have money, you are entitled to do anything with impunity.

Trudeau, the next hopeless Obama clone: Canada’s new PM shows stunning wishy-washiness producing a long-awaited assisted suicide bill that is so compromised to various interests watering it down, that his own party members already assert it will be struck down as unconstitutional, just like the previous more egregious law was. Canadians will have to continue to fly to more civilized places for merciful end-of-life health services until we get a more principled government.

Ghomeshi Gets Off: Read Kathryn Borel’s courageous and damning indictment of the ex-CBC host, the CBC establishment and the Canadian legal system that exonerated him.

And Duffy Gets Off: So far, Harper’s wacky Senator Mike Duffy has been cleared of 31 fraud charges over his expenses, costing the Canadian taxpayer half a million dollars for nothing. Another ‘entitled’ right-winger from the Canadian media, Duffy has spent taxpayers’ money like water, but the courts found the real villain in his dubious expense claims was the Harper Prime Minister’s Office that quietly told him this was all OK. Now the ethics commission, trying to save face, is investigating that office.

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FUN AND INSPIRATION

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Photo: Tui birds, by my friend Pohangina Pete

The Earth From Space: A new film Overview describes how astronauts felt seeing the Earth from space for the first time, especially the “paper-thin layer” of our atmosphere, the scars humans have inflicted on our planet’s surface, and the sense of being a part of all life. Thanks to Liliana for the link.

Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person: Three reasons: (1) we reject “certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right — too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable — given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign”; (2) we may find our anxiety about being forever “single” outweighs our common sense in waiting for the right person; and (3) we want desperately to make the good feelings of falling in love last: “We imagine that marriage will help us to bottle the joy we felt when the thought of proposing first came to us.”

The Comma Queen: New Yorker editor Mary Norris has a whole series of fascinating and charming short videos about grammar, punctuation and spelling.

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THOUGHTS OF THE QUARTER

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This image above and the poem below are from the blog SeekersClub; thanks to Eric Lilius for pointing me to it. Photo credit above: Daniet Etter/New York Times/Redux /eyevine. “Syrian refugee Laith Majid cries tears of joy and relief that he and his children have made it to Europe.”

“Home”, by Warsan Shire:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body.
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
mean something more than a journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

(The poetry and prose extracts below are all from the blog Words for the Year, which posts an exemplary piece of writing daily.)

By David Foster Wallace, from Oblivion:

The truth is you already know what it’s like. You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.

But it does have a knob, the door can open. But not in the way you think. The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universes inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul.

By Warsan Shire, from “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”:

they set my aunt’s house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who used to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

By Annie Dillard, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.

The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.

By Dorianne Laux, “Twelve Days of Rain”, from What We Carry:

I couldn’t name it, the sweet
sadness welling up in me for weeks.
So I cleaned, found myself standing
in a room with a rag in my hand,
the birds calling time-to-go, time-to-go.
And like an old woman near the end
of her life I could hear it, the voice
of a man I never loved who pressed
my breasts to his hips and whispered
“My little doves, my white, white lilies.”
I could almost cry when I remember it.

I don’t remember when I began
to call everyone “sweetie,”
as if they were my daughters,
my darlings, my little birds.
I have always loved too much,
or not enough. Last night
I read a poem about God and almost
believed it—God sipping coffee,
smoking cherry tobacco. I’ve arrived
at a time in my life when I could believe
almost anything.

Today, pumping gas into my old car, I stood
hatless in the rain and the whole world
went silent—cars on the wet street
sliding past without sound, the attendant’s
mouth opening and closing on air
as he walked from pump to pump, his footsteps
erased in the rain—nothing
but the tiny numbers in their square windows
rolling by my shoulder, the unstoppable seconds
gliding by as I stood at the Chevron,
balancing evenly on my two feet, a gas nozzle
gripped in my hand, my hair gathering rain.

And I saw it didn’t matter
who had loved me or who I loved. I was alone.
The black oily asphalt, the slick beauty
of the Iranian attendant, the thickening
clouds—nothing was mine. And I understood
finally, after a semester of philosophy,
a thousand books of poetry, after death
and childbirth and the startled cries of men
who called out my name as they entered me,
I finally believed I was alone, felt it
in my actual, visceral heart, heard it echo
like a thin bell. And the sounds
came back, the slish of tires
and footsteps, all the delicate cargo
they carried saying thank you
and yes. So I paid and climbed into my car
as if nothing had happened—
as if everything mattered — What else could I do?

I drove to the grocery store
and bought wheat bread and milk,
a candy bar wrapped in gold foil,
smiled at the teenaged cashier
with the pimpled face and the plastic
name plate pinned above her small breast,
and knew her secret, her sweet fear—
Little bird. Little darling. She handed me
my change, my brown bag, a torn receipt,
pushed the cash drawer in with her hip
and smiled back.

By David White, from Sweet Darkness:

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

By Rosemarie Urquico, “You Should Date a Girl Who Reads”:

Date a girl who reads. Date a girl who spends her money on books instead of clothes, who has problems with closet space because she has too many books. Date a girl who has a list of books she wants to read, who has had a library card since she was twelve.

Find a girl who reads. You’ll know that she does because she will always have an unread book in her bag. She’s the one lovingly looking over the shelves in the bookstore, the one who quietly cries out when she has found the book she wants. You see that weird chick sniffing the pages of an old book in a secondhand book shop? That’s the reader. They can never resist smelling the pages, especially when they are yellow and worn.

She’s the girl reading while waiting in that coffee shop down the street. If you take a peek at her mug, the non-dairy creamer is floating on top because she’s kind of engrossed already. Lost in a world of the author’s making. Sit down. She might give you a glare, as most girls who read do not like to be interrupted. Ask her if she likes the book.

Buy her another cup of coffee.

Let her know what you really think of Murakami. See if she got through the first chapter of Fellowship. Understand that if she says she understood James Joyce’s Ulysses she’s just saying that to sound intelligent. Ask her if she loves Alice or she would like to be Alice.

It’s easy to date a girl who reads. Give her books for her birthday, for Christmas, for anniversaries. Give her the gift of words, in poetry and in song. Give her Neruda, Pound, Sexton, Cummings. Let her know that you understand that words are love. Understand that she knows the difference between books and reality but by god, she’s going to try to make her life a little like her favorite book. It will never be your fault if she does.

She has to give it a shot somehow.

Lie to her. If she understands syntax, she will understand your need to lie. Behind words are other things: motivation, value, nuance, dialogue. It will not be the end of the world.

Fail her. Because a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax. Because girls who read understand that all things must come to end, but that you can always write a sequel. That you can begin again and again and still be the hero. That life is meant to have a villain or two.

Why be frightened of everything that you are not? Girls who read understand that people, like characters, develop. Except in the Twilight series.

If you find a girl who reads, keep her close. When you find her up at 2 AM clutching a book to her chest and weeping, make her a cup of tea and hold her. You may lose her for a couple of hours but she will always come back to you. She’ll talk as if the characters in the book are real, because for a while, they always are.

You will propose on a hot air balloon. Or during a rock concert. Or very casually next time she’s sick. Over Skype.

You will smile so hard you will wonder why your heart hasn’t burst and bled out all over your chest yet. You will write the story of your lives, have kids with strange names and even stranger tastes. She will introduce your children to the Cat in the Hat and Aslan, maybe in the same day. You will walk the winters of your old age together and she will recite Keats under her breath while you shake the snow off your boots.

Date a girl who reads because you deserve it. You deserve a girl who can give you the most colorful life imaginable. If you can only give her monotony, and stale hours and half-baked proposals, then you’re better off alone. If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads.

Or better yet, date a girl who writes.

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Disruption

wolf tattoo freetattoodesigns.orgRen stood in the middle of the stream, tossing his line into the water, not looking at all like a real fisher. He wore only a brief bathing suit, revealing the huge tattoo of a wolf howling at the moon that covered the whole back half of his body.

Gabrielle sat on the bank near him, playing with one of her piercings, her legs stretched out into the fast-rushing water. Her peasant dress was wet from wading in the stream and was now plastered to her body. She was shivering despite the day’s warmth and sun.

“You’ve gone all weird since you got into this non-duality shit,” she said to him. “I’m not sure I like you very much any more. We need you at the Lelu Island occupation. We’re not going to stop this LNG disaster by meditating. We have to block it. You’ve done this stuff, Ren, you know what we have to do to stop them.”

Ren didn’t reply, other than shrugging; he just kept casting into the water.

“You still have a great butt, though,” Gabrielle added, shouting a little over the noise of the water. Staring at the wet rocks in front of her she yelled out at him “You have an activist rep that goes back a long way, and your presence would make a difference. We need your organizing skill. Most of the people on the front lines are just kids. They don’t know what they’re doing, and the PR scum from Petronas are trying to scare them and provoke them into doing something stupid on camera so they can call in the cops. We need leadership, Ren.”

He waded over toward where she was sitting and crouched down in the stream. “You see this stream, and how it works its way around my body? I can’t stop the stream flowing no matter how I splay my hands and body. I could get 50 people out here with their arms out trying to stop this stream and it would accomplish nothing. That’s how complex systems work. They work around obstructions. The political and economic system that is working to introduce LNG is another complex system. You can’t stop it. We can’t stop it. It will just work around us. I’ve wasted too much of my life trying to change complex systems. Not going to do it any more”. He wandered back to the centre of the stream and cast his line out again.

Gabrielle scowled at him. “Activism can bring about change,” she shouted at him.

“Give me an example,” he called back at her.

“End of slavery and segregation. Women’s vote. LGBT rights.”

“Physical slavery, the ownership of people as property, was no longer needed with the advent of automated machinery, otherwise we’d still have it. Instead we have economic slavery, wage slavery. Most of the world’s people are economic slaves. We may not have legal segregation but it was just replaced by economic segregation. It costs money that most people of colour don’t have to live in the neighbourhoods with decent schools, and to pay for a university education that has any economic value at all. If your parents had wealth and power, you are pretty much guaranteed that you will have it, and vice versa. Your chances of moving out of the economic quintile your parents were in are less than 5%.

“And as for women’s suffrage, the vote was only ‘given’ to women when voting ceased to make any real difference, when the essential part of the political process had shifted from the voting booth to the back rooms. The ERA was never ratified for the same reason — it might have actually led to real change. Corporations have all the power now, and they’re totally dominated by men. And LGBT rights cost no one anything, so they were an easy ‘gift’ for the people in power to give away. Discrimination on the basis of sexual preference has been diminishing because it’s an anachronism of religious fundamentalism, and because the generation of terrified fundies is all dying off, not because people marched in the street for the end to it.”

Gabrielle jumped on Ren’s last remark: “Are you telling me that all the Pride marches had nothing to do with the incredible changes in the laws in the last decade?” she asked.

“Most of the people in the country couldn’t see why there should be discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the first place, but they don’t feel passionate about it. The fact that the marchers did feel passionate about it might have accelerated the change in laws a bit, but practices were already changing before the laws changed, and the minority of people who hate and fear them aren’t going to change their behaviours because of laws anyway. They’ll find ways to discriminate, to work around the laws, until they finally die off.

“Look at what all the marches for access to safe abortions have accomplished — the situation in many places has been getting steadily worse for four decades. The marches and activism temporarily moved the goalposts, but over time the stream of people in power — the patriarchy — who fervently believe abortion is wrong, have just found new ways to work around the laws, to erode them. Eventually the people who think abortion is evil will die off, and their kids and grandkids won’t care about the issue the same way, so then the practice, which was perfectly legal (though not safe) until around 1850, will become fully legal again. Not because anyone marched, or changed their mind, but because a new generation came along with a different mindset from the old one.”

“So you’ll admit that protests can at least ‘move the goalposts’, that they can lead to at least temporary changes?” Gabrielle replied.

“At least and at most, yes. I greatly admire people who are willing to put in the time on that basis, to do ‘holding actions’ as Joanna Macy calls them, that can at least prevent things getting much worse for a short time, and might even produce some fleeting victories. But in the long run they mean nothing. I haven’t got the heart for that any more.”

Gabrielle waded out into the stream and hugged him from behind. “Yeah, we’re getting old and tired. It’s hard. But to me it’s harder not to fight. If you won’t acknowledge the long-term value of passive protest, will you at least agree that direct action works? The work Derrick Jensen is doing to decommission dams and restore rivers is accomplishing a lot.”

“It’s ironic. The new resistance movements think they’ve invented something new with ‘Block it, Break it, Take it’. But this is precisely the tactics of the patriarchy, of the military and corporations. It’s always been that way — that’s what the system rewards. New regulation coming in to ban pollution that we profit from? Block it. Protest group chained together in the path of our new development project? Break it. New competitor threatening our margins or market share? Take it — buy them out and shut them down. Legal threats, bribery, offshoring, hiding profits in tropical island banks, numbered companies, deregulation, ghost-written laws for bought legislators, dumping toxins, paying third world authorities to kill opponents and protesters, everything involved in ‘externalizing’ costs and risks — they’re all workarounds using these same three direct action tactics to maximize profit and growth. Everyone knows its psychopathy but no one knows any way to change it. It’s the system, my dear, it’s designed and evolved to resist change and to block, break or take any attempt to change anything long-term.

“So by all means, take direct action. Just don’t expect it to have any enduring effect. For every dam that Derrick gets decommissioned there’s a huge new Site C dam to take its place. Your cleanup of the local riverbanks and oil slicks will make a difference for a while, but the effluent from the city nearby and the next deepwater or tanker disaster will undo it all soon enough.” He turned around to face her, hugged her and added, “Just promise me you’ll stay out of jail, and not get yourself hurt. No short-term victory is worth that.”

Gabrielle looked despondent. She buried her face in his shoulder and said quietly, “So let me get this straight. Your disillusionment with activism has to do with your understanding of the way complex systems work, and not with this non-duality stuff you’ve been reading, right?”

Ren smiled, and said: “The term ‘non-duality’ has a lot of very muddled meanings. Let me summarize what I currently believe before I answer your question. A lot of ‘moderate’ non-dualists argue that we have to behave responsibly, to do what we believe needs to be doing, even though they accept that there is no free will. They say otherwise we might well sink into nihilism. A lot of people who’ve studied the subject, scientists in particular, get fussed about whether our world is deterministic or subject to some degree of volition or ‘free will’. Einstein said, for example, ‘I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly. . . I know that philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crime, but I prefer not to take tea with him.’

“Radical non-dualists, on the other hand, assert that the world is neither deterministic nor subject to free will. For them, the whole question of ‘free will’ is moot because there is no ‘one’ to exercise it. And there is no ’cause and effect’ so the world is not deterministic either. They would argue that Einstein had no choice about either his behaviour or who he would take tea with, not because his actions were pre-determined but because there was no separate ‘person’ called Einstein. But the illusory self believes it is separate and has free will, and from the perspective of that illusion it can’t believe anything else. Nothing else makes sense. Einstein was getting close to this realization, though, I think, when he said ‘Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. Space and time are not conditions in which we live, they are modes in which we think.’ At the moment the radical non-dualist position is the one that intuitively and intellectually makes the most sense to me.

“So to answer your question, yes, my disillusionment with activism has everything to do with an appreciation of the intractability of complex systems, rather than my enthusiasm for a radical non-dual worldview. In fact, as long as my ‘self’ hangs around, it has no choice but to act as if it has free will and hence act ‘responsibly.’ ”

Gabrielle thought for a moment and then smiled at him slyly and said: “You’re telling me that your very intellectual ‘self’ thinks that activism is risky and ultimately futile, but also that your ‘self’ must behave responsibly as if it had free will and self-control. So what, I ask your ‘self’, is the ‘responsible’ thing to do about Lelu Island?”

Ren laughed, bowed to her, and pointed at her, and then, with a sigh, almost reluctantly said “Stop the bastards.”

“And how, oh exalted and wise ‘self’ that is under the illusion of being Ren, do we do that?”

“You know what I was saying about complex systems being like a stream? It’s all about disrupting the flows. It’s about taking actions that cause the maximum amount of time, energy and money to restore things to the position and momentum they had before the disruption. Since they have the money and the bought politicians and the police and the media and the armies of lawyers on their side, we have to be smarter, and we have to catch them off guard. I knew I wasn’t going to dissuade you, so I wrote down some ideas that might work, and which will be inexpensive to pull off with minimal risk. Shall we call it a day and go stir up some veggies and I’ll walk you through them?”

“Yay,” Gabrielle replied. “I knew you’d come around. And I’m freezing. Are you just going to lay these ideas on me or are you going to come with me to Lelu?” Tweaking his bum gently, she added “I’ll make it worth your while!”

He refused to promise, but she knew the trick to convincing him, a technique she’d learned when they’d studied complexity theory together: She made it easy, and fun, for him to agree to join her.

As they unlocked their bikes and packed up their gear, Gabrielle said, “Now, let’s suppose one of these days the illusory self that calls itself Ren should vanish into the ether of enlightenment. Should we be concerned that the character that is left will shirk all responsibility and leave us high and dry on the front lines?”

“I have no idea. Since ‘I’ wouldn’t be around to take any responsibility for ‘my’ actions, it’s anyone’s guess. But since there actually is no free will, ‘I’ would think it likely that the character that once self-identified as Ren would probably continue to do the only things it could possibly do, so your ‘self’ might not even notice much difference, other than a little less moodiness and internal conflict.”

“I think I might like the self-less non-you even more than your current self-ish self. Just as long it doesn’t act all ‘enlightened’ and holier-than-thou,” she replied. Then she added: “Oh, and just out of curiosity, since I happen to know you’re vegetarian, what’s with this fishing thing?”

“It’s for my cat. Do you know what crap they put into packaged pet foods? It’s criminal.”

“Maybe we should do something responsible about that, too,” she replied. “Even though, in the long run, it is of course futile.”

image from freetattoodesigns.org

Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

Seeing Through Stories


image from Nick Smith’s friend John Wareham’s collection

This essay, like all essays, is a story. It’s my own patterning of what I’ve perceived, intuited, thought about and felt, and then recalled in an effort to make sense of it all. In the case of this particular essay, there is no empirical evidence of its veracity. In fact, it’s evidently not true. But it’s my story anyway, at least for now. Here it is, in all its apparent truthlessness:

Every story is an invention. If enough people hear it and believe it to be true — if it fits with their worldview i.e. the collection of other stories they have come to accept as true — it becomes a myth. A myth is not necessarily false; it’s just a story sufficiently widely accepted that people act as if it were true and are hesitant to challenge it. At this point it might as well be true, because anyone who denies it is likely to be, at best, ignored. Like all stories, myths are just simplifications, attempts to see meaningful and reliable patterns in the firehose of sensory and cognitive messages we are all bombarded with.

Every story is a lie. Not (usually) a deliberate one, of course. Most stories are invented with the best of intentions — they seem to make sense, and to be useful. They seem to fit with our other stories. But reality is unfathomably more complex than any story can ever tell. What we believe we perceive with our five senses and our dim brains is just an insignificantly tiny, filtered, incomplete and imprecise representation of all-that-is. Other creatures perceive the world very differently, and their stories of reality are utterly different from ours.

All stories are absurd oversimplifications, pale representations of the truth, sketches of what little our impoverished senses are able to pick up, that our muddled brains then fashion into models of reality. We do the best we can, but we have absolutely no idea what reality is. We cannot possibly know. The tools evolution has equipped us with only show us enough partial glimpses of reality to optimize our chances of survival without overwhelming us. So we make do with our stories, our sad representations, and in telling them to ourselves and each other often enough come to believe not only that they are accurate representations of reality, but that they are reality. We come not only to see our stories as reality in our minds, but to embody them with our apparently-separate whole being.

Behind every story is an attempt to rationalize what is happening. What is happening has nothing to do with ‘us’, these conjured-up ideas of separate, volitional selves. What is happening, what we seem to be deciding to believe and do, is the only thing that could have happened. ‘We’ act, seemingly with volition, and then our minds attempt to rationalize our behaviour, make it fit with what we believe we believe, what we believe motivates us. Our evolved minds are doing their best to help us, to make sense for us. But they actually are of no help at all.

It’s as if we are desperately playing along with a joke that we don’t understand, so that we don’t appear foolish for not getting it, for not expertly going along with it. It’s all a mad attempt to make sense of reality and truths that can never be made sense of, because we can’t possibly understand them, because we are trying to understand them from a perspective (that of the apparent volitional separate self) that is, like other stories, a complete fiction. Reality does not and cannot, to the separate, limited self, ever ‘make sense’.

Here is a partial catalogue of human stories:

  • What apparently was: histories and recountings and gossip and tales and reports
  • What apparently is: perceptions and conceptions and beliefs and worldviews and identities and selves
  • What could be: hopes and dreams and imaginings
  • What apparently happened: rationalizations and judgements
  • What allegedly happened: news and documentaries and essays and non-fiction (in all forms and media)
  • What might have been or might be: fiction and fantasy (in our heads and in all forms of media)
  • Why/how things apparently happened: models and theories and science and teaching
  • Art in all its forms: art re-presents all kinds of stories, meandering freely among all seven of the above types of story

So there is this blizzard of stories, those compiled and stored in a hopeless jumble in our heads and many more bombarding our senses. The pattern-sense-making that is the story of you is buffeted by trillions of other stories, the stories of other people, their pattern-sense-making, all of the stuff in the catalogue above and more. People telling you to listen to their story, to believe it instead of the story you already believe, to become that story instead of the story of you. And sometimes you will do so.

All of these stories are fictions, made-up imaginings, attempts to assemble a coherent whole from the tiny fraction of reality we can even begin to fathom. At one stage, a few of these stories might have seemed to have been useful, might seem to have helped us cope or get something apparently accomplished in the short run. They seemed to confer some evolutionary advantage. But even the appearance of accomplishment is just another story.

‘What seemingly happened’ was actually the only thing that could have happened, and it happened to no ‘one’, no separate ‘person’, and it was in any case just another story. There is actually no time within which anything can happen, can be ‘accomplished’. We just piece the results of our patterning, our sense-making, together by inventing time as a matrix, and then we fit what seemingly happened into it, to try to make sense of it. Our minds are good at such inventions, and it is all they can do to try to make sense of ‘what seemingly happened’.

But there is no sense to ‘what seemingly happened’, no purpose. And a little voice inside us whispers to us that something is not quite right with all these stories we want to believe, but we don’t know what it is. We have no other way of making sense. So we’re always unhappy, always searching, trying to make the ‘story of us’ turn out, somehow, a little better. We are perhaps intuitively seeking the wholeness that the accidental emergence of the separate self inadvertently destroyed.

You may say this story does not make any sense. And it doesn’t, it cannot. It’s just another oversimplified raid on the unknowable. But unlike most stories it might just point to something that is not a story. It might point to an intuition, a remembering, of what it was and is to be not-separate, to just be, indistinguishable from all-that-is. But since we lack any knowledge of how ‘we’, somehow, got separated, or how to get back home, ‘we’ are inclined not to listen to this little voice, and its annoying intuition that all our stories (including the story of us) are untrue, and that what is actually real is outside and before our apparently separate selves, that what is actually real is only and entirely and always all-that-is (paradoxically including all our stories). That not only is ‘all-that-is’ real, independent of any observer, but that there is no observer. There is only, unfathomably, all-that-is.

There had to be a story of you before there could be any of the other stories in the above catalogue. The story of the volitional separate you was an evolution, an adaptation or exaptation, a random variation tested out by Gaia to see if it might ‘fit’ better than what was there before the story. There is some evidence that something of the story of self exists in all creatures in brief times of stress. They see their ‘selves’ as a somewhat horrifying illusion that nevertheless enables them to escape from some acute crisis through fighting or fleeing or freezing. Gaia is merciful to those whose existential threats are rare and fleeting — she invokes the ghastly sense of self in such creatures only as long as the threat lasts, and then enables them to shake it off, as the nightmare it was.

For those of us who live in constant stress, however, we ‘smart’ domesticated creatures, the ghastly story of the volitional self endures until it overcomes us, until it becomes us. For us, the wonderful adaptation of the temporarily separate self becomes a horrific maladaptation, an eternal nightmare, a lifelong prison.

This is just another story, and a particularly useless and frustrating one, one that cannot be ‘realized’. Why then am I so attracted to it? In those rare astonishing moments when I seem to fall away and remember what it was like to just be, without story, what is happening?

When I watch the birds, I can sense that they are free from the horrible affliction of stories. They are not selves, they just are. They exist in the world raw, not sheathed inside the false protection of the illusory self. They have no illusion that anything can be other than the way it is. They have no illusion that they exist apart, or that ‘they’ will die. They are much wiser and freer than I, burdened with this self and these terrible stories, can ever be.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

The Admission of Necessary Ignorance (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

citizen scientist
image licensed cc-by-2.0: NOAA National Ocean Service via flickr

The title of this article comes from an interview earlier this year with the distinguished biologist and philosopher Richard Lewontin. Richard has fought for years (often alongside his more famous colleague Stephen J Gould) with scientific absolutists of every stripe, from genetic determinists like Richard Dawkins to the neo-phrenologist pop neuro-“scientists” who would have us believe that we will soon understand what it means to be human (and accordingly understand and be able to modify all human behaviour) by deciphering the patterns of coloured lights in brain scans.

Richard, now in his mid-80s, begins the interview by asserting “You can’t be overly humble.” We all want to know the truth, to have something we can believe (and believe in) with certainty, but Richard is here to tell us the limitations of science and the dangers of believing we will ever know more than a tiny fraction of the whats, hows and whys of our lives and our world.

And while the new cult of scientism produces louder and louder assertions of grand theories of everything and promises of immortality and singularity, scientists and philosophers who know “you can’t be overly humble” marvel at the mystery of how the more we know and learn and examine with a critical and open mind, the more mysteries and inextricable complexities we discover and the faster absolute knowledge of anything retreats from our grasp. As Marshall McLuhan famously said: “Learning creates ignorance.”

Richard’s work is steeped in an appreciation of complexity. In his book The Triple Helix he argues that attempts to determine causality in complex systems fail to acknowledge the difficulty of separating causality from agency — stress, for example, is an agent that appears to trigger many auto-immune diseases and other increasingly-prevalent modern chronic illnesses. But stress is not the cause. Determining the possible causes requires a more nuanced, patient and holistic study of the entire system and all its inter-dependent parts.

He explains, for example, that 90% of the drop in rates of infectious diseases between 1830 and 1960 occurred before 1910 — before the emergence of understanding of germs or the use of isolation procedures, and long before the development of modern antibiotics. Why such an astonishing drop in the rates of these diseases? Nothing to do with science or medicine at all, he says:

The most plausible explanation we have is that during the nineteenth century there was a general trend of increase in the real wage, an increase in the state of nutrition of European populations, and a decrease in the number of hours worked. As people were better nourished and better clothed and had more rest time to recover from taxing labor, their bodies, being in a less stressed physiological state, were better able to recover from the further severe stress of infection. So, although they may still have fallen sick, they survived. Infectious diseases were not the causes of death, but only the agencies. The causes of death in Europe in earlier times were what they still are in the Third World: overwork and undernourishment. The conclusion to be drawn from this account is that the level of mortality in Africa does not depend chiefly on the state of medicine but on the state of international production and exchange.

Still, today’s scientists pore over the model of the human genome in the unquestioned belief that most if not all human diseases will soon be cured by finding and fixing the “defective” genes. It is perhaps not surprising that brain scan images look much like modernistic crystal balls.

Richard’s appreciation for complexity comes from the realization, as he explains in his book Biology as Ideology, that science’s — and notably biology’s — modus operandi is to disconnect, separate, and study things “in isolation”. When you study biological systems you discover that they are inextricable — there is no clear and functionally distinct boundary between genes, the organisms they seemingly comprise, and the environments within which we imagine them located and moving about as discrete things. Genes, organisms and environments co-evolved. Early living creatures exuded an oxygen-rich environment which then evolved other living creatures (including, unremarkably, humans) that thrived as part of that environment and evolved it further.

Likewise, the study of permaculture teaches you about succession, and that in order to create the most abundant garden you may have to encourage some plants that are ultimately of no use either in our diet or in the “mature” garden that evolves from these intermediary agents. Alas, even many permaculturists lack the patience and humility to spend decades studying and learning about the local ecology before they can understand how to intervene effectively, starting from today’s desolated soils, the legacy of ubiquitous catastrophic agriculture and, carefully following nature’s own sometimes convoluted and inexplicable pathways, yield an edible forest garden that — surprise! — thrives without further human intervention in precisely those ecological areas humans evolved to thrive within.

What complicates the role of the scientist in the 21st century is that they are tethered to the modern ideology of progress. Just as politicians and economists would have us believe that life is, on the whole and over the long haul, getting better and better, scientists have now been sucked in to believing and asserting that human knowledge, and hence our ability to apply that knowledge to solve problems, is getting better and better.

As Richard’s friend and colleague Stephen J Gould spent a lifetime demonstrating, there is no evidence for evolution being a “progressive” process. Evolution, we are learning (slowly) is a process of experimental adaptation and exaptation — full of the emergence of unexpected consequences of random variations that could never have been predicted or even imagined.

Evolution is not from lower to higher, or from less advanced to more advanced, or even from simpler to more complex. There is nothing progressive or intentional or foreordained about it. Humans are not the crown of creation or the culmination of any inevitable and extraordinary evolution — we are just one tiny new branch in the tree of life, a species whose only remarkable feature has been our inability to appreciate the necessity of living in balance with the rest of life on Earth, and our commensurate large-scale destruction of the very environment of which we are a part.

Of course, science doesn’t like to acknowledge that. That would require humility. It would require acknowledging that for all our learning the most important thing we’ve discovered is how staggeringly little we know and how unlikely it is we will ever really understand anything beyond the absurdly simplistic models of reality we have cobbled together so far. It would require admitting that we aren’t progressing, and aren’t likely to. It would require an admission of necessary ignorance.

What might happen if we were to emulate Richard Lewontin’s complex-systems approach to scientific exploration, discovery and appreciation?

What if we were to look at our feeble scientific models of reality with humility, and appreciate that we can’t hope to fully understand anything we study? What if we took a nuanced and holistic approach to complex phenomena, the type of analysis that leads to the discovery that the best approach to eliminating devastating diseases is probably political and economic, not medical?

What if we were to give up trying to control our genes and our people and our environments and instead sought to increase our adaptability and resilience and mobility, and to liberate ourselves from dependence on large centralized industrial systems — including the health-care, pharmaceutical, agricultural, educational and high-technology systems that currently fund, employ and draw their value from the scientific community?

Sooner or later, we are going to have to face the fact that our economic, energy and ecological systems are unsustainable and will, unevenly but inevitably, collapse, probably sometime in this century, in the lifetimes of our grandchildren if not our own. The Union of Concerned Scientists has already said this, and you can read it on the faces of climate scientists, even if they dare not say it in front of their employers, or to audiences not ready for the truth.

How might scientists shift their role from servants of a bankrupt industrial civilization to scenario planners, teachers of complexity, imaginers of possible ways to adapt to extreme and unpredictable change? What if we could put all those minds together, not to plan an escape from the planet or to conduct some reckless adventure in geo-engineering, but rather to look as cultural anthropologists at the collapse of past civilizations, and help us discover how to bravely, intelligently, creatively and even joyfully embrace and adapt to the hard road ahead. As a journey in humility. For our grandchildren.

We should ask them.

 

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Leave a comment

Beyond Belief (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

I’m not spiritual. Really.

meditation 3

image: from a video made by a fan of Deva Premal’s Moola Mantra, original source uncredited

People often ask me if, in my self-proclaimed state of joyful pessimism and contemplative gratitude, I’ve finally discovered spirituality.

I insist that I have not.

Just about everyone I know who self-identifies as “spiritual” also believes our civilization will somehow be ‘saved’ from collapse (by science or technology, or the market, or wise leadership, or human ingenuity, or by a god or gods, or by a massive human consciousness-raising). What good is a ‘spirit’, after all, if he/she/it can’t save you from perceived disaster?

No thank you, no salvation needed here.

I’d like to think that most non-spiritual people have moved on, as Derrick Jensen puts it, “Beyond Hope” for saving our culture and our species. Tom Robbins says we now have no choice but to “insist on joy in spite of everything”.

We who are resigned to the inevitability of civilization’s collapse strive instead to be unattached and equanimous, but not nihilistic or depressed about it. We humans can only be who we are, and who we are is ignorant of complex systems and preoccupied with the needs of the moment. So it is. Life is wonderful and worth living every minute anyway. No soul or striving or sacredness required.

But a little voice inside me says: “That sounds kinda spiritual to me. Borderline Buddhist even. Are you sure you’re not spiritual? You throw around the word Gaia as a shorthand for all-life-on-Earth, but it sounds pretty Goddess-like. You have a picture of her in your mind, some kind of wise, wild, beautiful meta-creature?”

And I must confess that my belief that complex systems are unfathomable, and cannot be known or understood or ‘managed’ or predicted or changed or controlled by humans, no matter how rich or powerful or organized or skilled or motivated, sounds not dissimilar to the faith that some ancient peoples had in some higher, invisible, awesome power.

And I am on a journey these days to try to really see what I know intellectually – that my self, my mind, my sense of being all-of-a-piece, my sense of separateness, my sense of self-control and my sense of time are all illusions, conceptions, ideas that are extremely useful in surviving day to day, but ultimately false. If that truth-seeking isn’t a spiritual journey, what is?

Although it’s defined a thousand ways, spirituality is ultimately about belief, and faith. For most who call themselves spiritual, it is about belief in something larger and more important than ourselves and our species, and faith that there is a purpose to our struggle and a meaning to our lives.

I don’t understand the need of spiritual people for purpose or meaning or something larger than everything-that-just-is, the need for something to strive for and to progress towards.

My great-great grandfather, who lived through the Long Depression (which lasted from 1873 more or less until 1896) wrote in his diary about his duty to do whatever was necessary to leave things better for his children than they had been for him. This was the era of robber barons, urbanization caused by bankruptcy of family farms, and child labour, an era which followed a period of relative agrarian prosperity and equality. He was spiritual. He had faith that his struggle and belief would be rewarded in the afterlife and through increased opportunity for his children. He never lost his faith. His children and grandchildren would contend with WW1 and the Great Depression. Whether he was rewarded in the afterlife is anyone’s guess.

We boomers were really the first Western generation in recent history to challenge that faith en masse. Many of us became secular humanists in youth, and believers in the gods of money, markets and technology in middle age. Or were “born again”. Most of us have now become salvationists of one kind or another, seeing the world through very different evolved worldviews, and defining life’s meaning and their purpose accordingly.

These days we also have the advocates of scientism whose faith is, paradoxically, in scientific certainty and the knowability of everything. Science, its advocates contend, can ultimately solve any problem, reduce everything that can be known to simple equations and perfect models, and allow us to transcend our bodies and live anywhere, forever. It’s the new salvationist religion of science that, preposterously, self-identifies as atheistic. The myth of progress expresses itself in many different ways, each with its fervent and unshakable believers.

But every generation has its skeptics, and I think the boomers, the first generation whose rebelliousness was largely celebrated rather than suppressed, has retained more than its share. And just as we have politically moved Beyond Hope, we have culturally and philosophically moved Beyond Belief.

Stephen J Gould argued in Full House that the emergence of vertebrates (let alone humanoids), even in a physical environment ideally evolving for life as we know it, was a one-in-millions long shot. If we manage to render life on this planet extinct, he said, there is very little chance of it re-emerging in any fathomable time span, and even if it did re-emerge, it would almost certainly be unrecognizably different from the web of life that emerged from the primordial soup a few billion years ago. Our search for extraterrestrial life (at least in the sense we define the term) is foolish, he would assert, and the search for extraterrestrial “intelligence” (some form of life we could communicate with), is absurd, and based on nothing but faith, a will to believe in something in spite of its staggering improbability.

This does not sit well with people who argue that life tends to emerge and grow in complexity and resist “death” tenaciously whenever and wherever it can. Life, these believers assert, is predestined, the will of all existence. No matter that such belief is tautological.

So what does it mean to be “Beyond Belief”? It means appreciating and embracing complexity, and accepting that we cannot ever hope to fully know, predict or control complex systems (including our bodies and the microcosms within them, and social and ecological systems, and our planet, and all the macrocosms beyond it). It means accepting that in our study of science and technology (including the so-called “social sciences”) we may devise interesting and useful, within limits, models of reality, but that these are only absurdly simplistic and limited representations of reality — stick men on cave walls.

It means challenging everything you are told, everything you believe and everything you want to believe. It means appreciating and accepting what is without pretending or hoping to fathom it. It means becoming humble. It means learning to live without the need for meaning or purpose or progress or something larger and more important than the miracle of what just is, what has evolved from the universe’s infinite random walks through possibility.

OK, I used the word ‘miracle’. That’s pretty spiritual, isn’t it?

Nope, afraid not. ‘Miracle’ comes from the proto-Indo-European word meaning to wonder and to laugh. That is what awaits those who can let go of their beliefs and faith. To wonder, and to laugh. To notice. To really see. To really be.

Beyond belief, that is all that you need.

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

The End of Politics (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

new political map 2015

image by the author; click on image to view full-size

If you’ve contemplated the possibility of civilization’s global collapse, you probably envision its social and political consequences to be violent and chaotic — a world dominated by struggle to fill the power vacuum, leading to despotism and ruthless ethnic, class, intertribal and inter-gang warfare.

A study of history, and of collapse scenarios, suggests however that Mad Max, Taliban, clash-of-civilizations, and history-going-in-reverse outcomes (like those portrayed in Jim Kunstler’s wild-west-again cli-fi novel A World Made by Hand) are improbable. If the prognostications of futurists and sci-fi/cli-fi writers seem imaginatively impoverished, perhaps it’s because our global human civilization is now so all-pervasive and homogeneous that even creative writers can’t imagine a future radically different from our present, or from our recent colonial and industrial past, projected forward or run in reverse.

If you want a more nuanced sense of what politics in a post-collapse future might look like, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Cultural homogeneity is abnormal and maladaptive: For at least 1000 millennia, up until just a few millennia ago, our planet probably offered a staggering diversity of human cultures, behaviours, languages, and political systems. There was likely very little contact between these cultures, since human population was less than 1 person per 30 habitable acres, and not perceptibly growing, so even ‘adjacent’ human cultures would likely have been unrecognizably different in their social and political makeup. Most collapsnik demographers envision human population quickly falling back to these levels, and similarly low-complexity, low-tech, low-interaction, widely-divergent societies emerging.
  1. Politics is a very recent human phenomenon: The whole idea (and even the etymology) of ‘politics’ came about with the evolution of fortressed city-states: high-density, high-hierarchy, resource-scarce societies where the need for arduous work, slavery and repression of human freedoms meant that the powers of decision-making and law-making needed to be delegated to expert, elite ‘representatives’. The concept of politics was unknown in pre-civilization rural areas, where, presumably thanks to abundance of space, resources and leisure time, politics was simply unneeded. Anarchy worked just fine. Unfortunately, the repressive, political city-states quickly colonized and destroyed the surrounding apolitical societies, and warred with neighbouring political states, until politics became endemic to human presence on the planet.
  1. Political states are extremely costly to run and inherently unsustainable. They require massively complex systems to be constructed, and massive levels of security, repression, bureaucracy, law enforcement, maintenance, concentration of wealth and power, and continuous expansion to acquire ever more resources. These needs grow exponentially as size increases linearly, so political states and civilizations (urban-centric social-political-economic states) will inevitably collapse.
  1. Despots, warlords and gangs require the machinery of a still-functioning political state to operate. They need weapons, security forces and armies, which in a collapsed society are too expensive to manufacture and maintain. They need access to wealth when, after collapse, the preponderance of pre-existing wealth, being either paper or resources (like gold) with no intrinsic utility, will be worthless. They need access to people in power they can bully, bribe and corrupt, but since collapse bankrupts governments there is no one, after collapse, with power to do much of anything. When the collapse is a global one, and everyone is broke, poor, and powerless, there is nothing to do but cooperate with one’s equally destitute neighbours to just get by. The collapse of a global civilization culture means, essentially, the end of politics.
  1. Collapse does not happen all at once — in a week or a year or even in a single ‘fall from grace’. Whether collapse is ultimately brought about by the end of the unsustainable growth economy, the end of affordable energy and resources, or the end of stable climate, or a combination of all three, we will likely see periods of partial collapse and then partial recoveries, until the crises begin to pile on faster than our reeling civilization can cope with them. We will have at least a few years to learn how to deal with collapse, which means we will be able to learn from some of our mistakes. That won’t prevent or mitigate collapse, but it will at least psychologically prepare us for it, so that rather than panicking, most of us will be able to accept it with some equanimity.

Past collapses and prolonged depressions provide some clues as to how humans will behave in a global collapse. In areas where there remains a huge inequality of wealth and power between rich and poor, there is a motivation for the rich to defend their wealth and repress the poor, and a motivation for the poor to seize the wealth of the (presumably unfairly) rich. But in areas where everyone is left poor, and there is little inequality, human nature, it turns out, seems to be to share and help each other.

This behaviour was evident during the Great Depression. Farmers whose monoculture, no-longer-viable farms had to be abandoned in favour of work in the city, left their homes and property open to the homeless and to other farmers.

In many of today’s third-world slums (where collapse has already happened), whole collaborative infrastructures spring up to provide needed resources and utilities, and to defend against (wealthier and powerful) outsiders. Crime statistics repeatedly show that rates of violent crime are highest not in poor communities, states and nations, but in communities, states and nations with the highest levels of inequality of wealth and power.

My recent work with intentional communities has made me a fan of direct decision-making by consensus, rather than representative democracy where decision-making is delegated to elected officials. Direct consensual decision-making doesn’t scale — it probably only works in radically relocalized situations with small numbers of people. But that’s what I think the post-collapse world will be mostly about — there will be no centralized governments, distribution networks or economic systems to make decisions about, because they’re just too complex and costly to sustain.

I see direct consensual decision-making as essentially a tribal form of anarchy. It worked for many indigenous cultures before we colonized and destroyed them. Anarchy is, after all, just the absence of governance, of hierarchy, of “power over” and inequality. It is not essentially violent. It can in fact only exist in the absence of power structures, which are inherently violent. In the absence of overcrowding, resource scarcity, and other stresses, such power structures are unnecessary and unsupportable. In a future with many fewer humans, we can and will live without such structures.

Far from being disordered and chaotic, an anarchic society is one free of coercion. It’s not amoral — anarchy does require a prevalent respect for the freedom and life and well-being of others. This is why misanthropic conservatives believe ‘peaceful’ anarchy is impossible. We will show them they are wrong.

Anarchy is a state of reality — the absence of inequality of wealth and power and hence the absence of the abuses that inherently stem from that inequality. (This is in contrast to anarchism, which is the ideology that espouses, somewhat ironically, that anarchy be nurtured and managed).

For those of us who have grown up in a culture of massive and self-perpetuating inequality — one that rewards and prides itself on the relative ‘successes’ of its rich and powerful, and which looks dubiously on the poor and powerless as somehow lazy or weak or stupid — the end of politics and a future of unimaginably diverse anarchic societies seems inconceivable. But the issue, I think, is not the viability and inevitability of such societies emerging after collapse (that is, if our species survives collapse at all) but rather the issue of how we can, relatively painlessly, get there from here.

We know that, as collapse worsens, the rich and powerful will retrench and do everything in their power to protect themselves and their wealth and power base. We know that those who suffer most from collapse (as always, the poor and powerless) will, at once, resent and envy the rich and powerful (and strive to join their ranks). That process is already visible everywhere.

So what happens next? Here are the questions we need to be asking now, I think, as we plunge inexorably off the collapse cliff:

  1. A duty of activism?: Is there any point to creating or joining activist groups trying to reduce political and economic inequality now, and reform these teetering systems before collapse levels the political and economic playing field? If we don’t join the ranks of activists, what should we do instead?
  1. Fight the rich or smash the system?: As the actions of the rich and powerful to insulate themselves from collapse become ever-more extreme and abhorrent, and as the situation worsens and demagogues arise prescribing various extreme ideological panaceas for our growing malaise, should we try to take them down? Or should we instead work to take down the economic system they depend on (and, if so, how do we best do that)?
  1. How to prepare for an unknowable future?: When we can have no idea what post-collapse society will ultimately look like — what forms of governance will last the longest, what power will devolve to who, what resources will disappear and what infrastructure will collapse first, where we will live (after probably a series of migrations to avoid some of the worst crises of cascading collapse), and what skills will be necessary wherever we may find ourselves — how can we best prepare now to be of use to those with whom we will find ourselves living, no matter how collapse unfolds?

Dmitry Orlov’s recent essay on collapse and climate change suggests that the various ‘camps’ of collapsniks depicted in the New Political Map above seem to be converging and coalescing with remarkable speed. I find this encouraging — together we constitute a significant, educated and growing minority of the human population. The recent Great Debate between several collapsnik factions held at the Melbourne Sustainable Living Festival also demonstrated this convergence.

The last time I can recall a similar global phenomenon was in the 1960s, when we grew large enough and loud enough to be noticed, and for awhile at least everyone jumped on the bandwagon and claimed to agree with us. And we weren’t even really very coherent.

We collapsniks all agree, I think, that politics has now all but given up the pretence of being representative and has devolved to being theatre: today’s politicians are entertainers, distracters, actors reading the scripts written for them by their corporate sponsors, for our consumption, not for our consideration.

It might be useful, now, to try to figure out how the energy and momentum of the 1960s got so lost in the 1970s and 1980s. If we can get our act together again, so that preparing for collapse is taken seriously in public discourse and in social, political and economic decision-making, we don’t want to blow the chance again. We can be sure to face opposition, as we did in the 1960s, from those who want to crush us, jail us or co-opt us. This time, we can’t afford to let the deniers and salvationists re-take the political centre-stage.

The various ‘flavours’ of collapsniks, from humanists to near-term extinctionists, bring different viewpoints and answers to the three questions I pose above, but they increasingly understand and appreciate these differences. We could be formidable and awesome allies.

Not that this is likely to change the endgame, but it could make the final chapter of our civilization less psychologically devastating, more civil, and a lot more interesting, and might get the survivors of collapse off on a better footing. Regardless of how each of us would answer the three questions above, we owe them that.

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

Technology’s False Hope (and the Wisdom of Crows) (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

innovation graphic

“What have we to do but stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
in an age which advances progressively backwards?”
— TS Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

Only a decade ago, I was part of the Strategy and Innovation Core Team for a huge multinational consultancy, and writing exuberantly on my (then-new) blog about innovation and technology and how they could possibly save the world. The image above, from the Credit Suisse First Boston New Economy Forum Synthesis, describes a universal “technology development process” popular at the time. One of the leading business speakers in those heady days was Chris Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, whom I more or less idolized.

And then something happened. My own research into the history of innovation and technology suggested that, rather than being the result of rigorous process, excellence and inventiveness, most enduring technologies of any value seemed to be the result of fortuitous accidents, or were the throw-away byproducts of massive, outrageously expensive military programs. Complexity science was by then throwing serious doubt on a lot of accepted theories about how change actually happens in organizations and societies. Ronald Wright’s book A Short History of Progress and similar works by Jared Diamond and others argued that ‘progress’ was an illusion, and that all civilizations inevitably collapse (taking the capacity to support their technologies with them).

We actually likely lived healthier, happier (and often longer, when we weren’t eaten by predators) lives in prehistoric times, it seems, way back before the inventions (or more accurately discoveries) of the first great technologies (the arrowhead, fire, the wheel, and then abstract language and later, agriculture (which Richard Manning in Against the Grain says should more accurately be called “catastrophic agriculture”), enabling the unnatural human evolution we call “settlement”. Settlement brought with it a blizzard of new problems for technology to solve (most notably infectious and emotional diseases), and each well-intentioned new technology has produced yet more problems, arguably greater in number, size and intractability than the benefits the earlier technology provided.

Nothing is new in any of this. Back in 1994, in his book Beginning Again, David Ehrenfeld described our civilization’s technological underpinning as a ragged flywheel, over-built, patched and rusty, spinning faster and faster and now beginning to rattle and moan as it inevitably comes apart.

In the past decade, disillusionment with innovation and technology has grown. Christensen’s work has been largely discredited by a review (by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker), with the benefit of hindsight, suggesting that “innovative” companies don’t ultimately fare any better than those they “disrupt”. A recent study by Peter Thiel in MIT Technology Review claims “technology stalled in 1970”. As global corporate power is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands, he explains, there is less and less motivation for innovation and more wealth to buy it out and squelch it, with the help of armies of IP lawyers.

My own research in recent years substantiates this claim. My greatest learning from 35 years in (and studying) organizational culture has been that size is the enemy of innovation and that most of the useful and creative things that happen in large organizations happen through workarounds by people on the front lines, in spite of, not because of, the cultural tone and processes established at the top. Looking back at hundreds of expensive strategic and change-oriented programs and projects I was involved with (including not a few that I led myself) there is almost nothing left to show for them ten, or even five, years after they were conducted.

The most damning critique of the Kurzweilian technophilia that so many bright people now embrace comes from John Gray, who devotes an entire chapter of Straw Dogs to deconstructing the idealistic and uncritical notions that technology, in the long run, steadily and sometimes astonishingly improves our lives. He writes:

If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. If it becomes possible to clone human beings, soldiers will be bred in whom normal human emotions are stunted or absent. Genetic engineering may enable centuries-old diseases to be eradicated. At the same time, it is likely to be the technology of choice in future genocides. Those who ignore the destructive potential of new technologies can only do so because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies, but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

Whether we believe that innovation and technology ultimately make the world better or worse, there is now overwhelming evidence that they are unsustainable in any case. Between economic over-extension, energy over-dependence, and the ruination of our atmosphere and other environments by our civilization and its technologies, it is now almost inevitable that we will soon see a collapse that will make the Great Depression, and perhaps even the five previous great extinctions of life on Earth, look like nothing.

This collapse is going to require us to live a much simpler, more local and more diverse and place-dependent life. We are destined to be very nostalgic for the good old days of modern technology as soon as it is gone, and that’s likely to happen soon. Modern technology requires cheap energy, and, notwithstanding the recent power games between the US and Russia temporarily and artificially driving down oil prices, we are quickly running out of it. Modern technology requires massive standardization and globalization, and without cheap oil, cheap foreign labour and cheap raw materials, none of which is sustainable, we cannot expect it to last much longer. A barrel of oil replaces six person-years of labour, and when those barrels become unavailable or unaffordable, the vast majority of what we all do is going to change drastically.

But at least, you may insist, the Internet will survive and it will allow other technologies to continue to thrive even if they must be manufactured and operated more frugally and locally. Dmitry Orlov, as he explains in The Five Stages of Collapse, clearly doesn’t think so, and the staggering cost and time required to keep the Internet afloat when the economy is in free-fall seems utterly unsustainable as server farms become luxury items and people’s time is diverted to living sufficiently in the real world.

Likewise with other technologies we pin great hopes on for our future, or have come to take for granted: solar panels and other expensive and resource-dependent goods; the private automobile; non-emergency airplane travel; the miraculous products of the pharmaceutical and plastics industry (including synthetic fibres); industrial agriculture; the mass media, and anything that depends on a reliable and consistent electrical or communications grid.

What will life look like without oil-powered technologies? It will vary hugely from one increasingly-isolated community to the next. Much will depend on the state of the land (the quality of the soil, its capacity to produce sustainable food, the proximity to abundant healthy clean water, its vulnerability to drought, floods, pandemics and natural disasters induced by climate change), the number of people in the community that must be supported, their cohesion as a community and their physical and mental health, essential skills and capacities.

It will depend on our collective ability to live sufficiently, not extravagantly, and to be resilient to change. Dmitri Orlov, in Communities That Abide, says such communities need three qualities: (1) self-sufficiency, (2) able to self-organize and recover in the face of calamity, and (3) mobility: not being tied to any one place. Most modern technologies don’t fit well with such a model.

Ronald Wright not only wrote the aforementioned A Short History of Progress, but also the novel A Scientific Romance, which depicts life in the present-day UK centuries after collapse. When I read it, I was struck by how much our ancient human nature (as scavengers, more like crows than fellow mammals) comes out in his vision, and how much the world he describes resonates with the world described in Pierre Berton’s book The Great Depression. Both books describe worlds that are accepting (or even resigned), self-supportive, full of struggle and joy, and only occasionally (and briefly and spectacularly) violent.

Both books describe people initially trying to perpetuate their technologies, to make them work illogically in a world where the underlying infrastructure can no longer support them. And both books describe how people finally let go of these technologies, and free themselves from dependence on them.

It is not so terrible, a world without modern technologies and the Internet. It is the world hoped for in Mark Kingwell’s The World We Want and Thomas Princen’s The Logic of Sufficiency, though it will not come about as elegantly as their authors would have hoped. Technology has always offered us false hope, and continues to do so (the latest technological “miracle” sold to us was fracking). The sooner and more gently we let go of it, and our dependence on the systems that it underlies so precariously, the sooner and more gently we can begin to make our way to a more resilient way of living.

Crows, a spectacular evolutionary success both with and without us, have much to teach and show us in this regard. They have almost no technologies, and those they have discovered (e.g. the elaborate use of hooked sticks) they hold lightly, using them for non-essential, amusing tasks. They have a sophisticated sense of fun, and creatively use their leisure time joyfully and exuberantly whenever and wherever it’s available. They love, support and teach each other without expecting reciprocation. They adapt themselves to places, instead of foolishly attempting to adapt their chosen places to them.

Technology’s false hope can bring us only disappointment, sorrow and suffering. It’s time to learn to let it go, gradually but starting now, and give up our dreams of “smart” technologies that are too smart for our own good. In so doing, we will embrace not progress and the wisdom of crowds, but resilience and the wisdom of crows.

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

See No Evil: The Morality of Collapse (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

new political map 2015

image by the author; click on image to view full-size

As we wade into discussions about the consequences of collapse, and the most effective ways to become resilient in face of it, most of us would prefer to avoid getting mired in discussions about morals (personal standards of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) and ethics (collective standards of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ behaviours). It doesn’t matter whether climate change is human-caused, we assert, we need to focus on how to deal with it, not who to blame for it.

Alas, it is not so easy to avoid the issue, because our worldviews are inevitably rooted in our beliefs, including our moral and ethical ones. Libertarians have tried to avoid such issues for centuries, and have failed utterly, which is why “left libertarians” and “right libertarians” have so little in common (mainly the shared belief that laws should only be imposed when absolutely necessary) that the word, unmodified, becomes meaningless. They will never agree, for example, on whether the exclusion and discrimination, by a group of racists, or a group of radical feminists, of those not of their colour or gender or creed, should be illegal or not.

When it comes to preparing for collapse, as much as we might want all of the different groups who have come to accept the near-term collapse of industrial civilization as inevitable (or at least requiring immediate and drastic action to avert), these various different groups’ worldviews are rooted in different moral and ethical standards that, I would argue, are almost irreconcilable. That makes collaboration, or even agreement on what to do, fraught with difficulty if not impossible.

In the chart above, I’ve identified several such groups, each of which has come to accept that our civilization either may not or will not be ‘saved’ from collapse. They are in that regard distinct from the many ‘old-style’ political groups, and from some new age groups that I call (without meaning to be disparaging) ‘salvationists’ (groups A through E on the chart above). They believe, for a variety of different reasons (listed on the chart) that civilization can and will be ‘saved’ from collapse.

In contrast, there are five groups (groups H through L on the chart above) whose members no longer harbour serious doubts that industrial collapse is either imminent or already underway, and that this collapse is unstoppable; I call them ‘collapsniks’. They differ in how they believe we (all of us) should be preparing for the fall (these reasons are also listed on the chart). Both ‘salvationists’ and ‘collapsniks’ fall along a spectrum that indicates how strongly they believe in humanity’s capacity to change (higher in the chart, stronger the belief in that capacity). See the value judgements creeping in here already?

In addition, there are three groups that straddle the salvationist/collapsnik divide – they aren’t sure (groups F & G) or don’t care (group M) whether collapse is inevitable or not.

Few of us ‘fit’ neatly into any of these groups – we migrate among them as our learning and context evolves and shifts, much as many old-school politicos have come to embrace social liberalism and economic conservatism, and then may flip to the opposite as they get older, more fearful and more dependent.

I have argued that we ‘collapsniks’, including the Humanists and Transition/Resilience movement fence-sitters – everyone, in other words, who shares some of the worldview of any of groups F, G, H, I, J, K, and L – need to work together if we are to have any hope of being at least somewhat prepared for the collapse to come. At one point or another over the past year I would describe myself as being in fundamental agreement with each of these seven groups, and I am constantly inspired by articulate speakers (notably at the moment Charles Eisenstein, Rob Hopkins, Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn, Paul Kingsnorth, John Gray and Guy McPherson respectively) espousing these seven diverse worldviews.

The different moralities and ethical beliefs underlying these seven worldviews surface pretty quickly, and these differences have driven wedges between us and made us, to some extent, our own worst enemies. Consider these questions:

  • Is it acceptable to use violence when pacifism seems inadequate to the task of confronting the most devastating aspects of industrial civilization, of getting the job done?
  • Are large public protests an essential means of raising awareness and political pressure, or a useless distraction from the real work of preparing for economic and political collapse?
  • Is social justice and the end of inequality of wealth and power an essential precondition for collectively addressing climate change, or just a proposal to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic?
  • Would we be doing the world, and human society, a great service or a great disservice to deliberately provoke a collapse of markets and the economy in order to reduce consumption and energy use?
  • Is giving up on environmentalism and attempts to bring about large-scale change in our response to climate change, and focus instead on local initiatives and personal and community preparedness, a realistic and pragmatic strategy, or dangerous, irresponsible defeatism?

On all these questions, and more, there is strong disagreement among collapsniks. This disagreement stems in part from different interpretations of what we know about what is happening in the world and what is technically possible, but it stems I think principally from different worldviews informed by different moral and ethical beliefs on what is humanly possible.

Humanists, for example, tend to have a worldview that suggests humans are, essentially, good, and that hence by sheer force of numbers (say, 99%?) we can accomplish anything we put our collective minds to, even at this late date. Reform the systems by popular demand and save the world. Others will argue that the 1% don’t have nearly the power that is commonly presumed, and certainly not enough that their conversion or demise can prevent the juggernaut of industrial civilization from its acceleration off the collapse cliff. Still others will argue that the so-called 1% are doing their best, like the rest of us, and that the enemy is all of us (leading to a wide variety of prescriptions on what that realization might lead us to do, if anything). And others will argue that the 1% are psychopaths, and that the only thing that will work is to smash the systems that they lead (and, presumably, hope that what fills the resultant power vacuum will, perhaps improbably, be significantly better).

There is no ‘right’ perspective on these issues, no answer that is certain or even highly probable. There are too many variables, too little appreciation of the sheer unknowingness of the massively complex systems industrial civilization has (perhaps with the best of intentions, perhaps not – it doesn’t much matter) produced, and the reinforcing feedback loops that have evolved to perpetuate it to our peril, and hence the impossibility of knowing how, or even if, we can intervene in these systems effectively.

If that weren’t enough, the two ‘newest’ groups on the collapsnik spectrum, the Voluntary Human Extinctionists (group K on the chart) and the Near Term Extinctionists (group L) add a whole new layer of moral complexity for collapsniks to deal with. The Voluntary Human Extinctionists would have us believe that (see if you can detect any moral judgement here) the human species is inherently violent, aggressive and destructive, and hence the world will be much better off if and when we vanish from the planet. The Near Term Extinctionists would have us believe that climate change is accelerating at such a pace that the human species will be extinct (i.e. not one of us left) as soon as mid-century, along with most complex life forms on the planet.

If the world would be better off without us, does that mean we should do nothing, or even try to accelerate our demise (perhaps by working on some new viruses)? If the human species is doomed in our lifetimes anyway, does that mean we should party like it’s 1999 (or perhaps 2049)?

Every time I find my worldview shifting along the group F-to-L spectrum, I find myself asking myself all these questions, and apologizing to the true believers in different places along that spectrum with irreconcilable worldviews and action (or inaction) plans. And apologizing to myself for my earlier, and recurring, foolishness. I’m living in a philosophical, epistemological, ontological and moral minefield, navigating it as my viewpoint constantly shifts.

Guy McPherson’s ‘Near Term Extinctionist’ advice is to act to make a better world even though people are not going to be part of it, for the sake of those species that might survive. He has also said that we should act as if the Earth is in hospice, and treat it with commensurate respect, and honour its decline by living full, joyful, responsible and meaningful lives. How many people do you know who could handle doing that?

John Gray’s book Straw Dogs is my favourite treatise on the current state of the world and the actions available to us as we face collapse. He says unequivocally that have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value, and that we are doomed by the coding in our DNA to continue along our inexorable path of self-destruction, and to inflict large-scale but ultimately transitory damage on our planet in the process. He writes:

A human population of approaching 8 billion can be maintained only by desolating the Earth… [Quoting Reg Morrison, The Spirit in the Gene] If the human plague is really as normal as it looks, then the collapse curve should mirror the growth curve. This means the bulk of the collapse will not take much longer than 100 years, and by 2150 the biosphere should be safely back to its preplague population of Homo Sapiens — somewhere between a half and one billion…

Climate change may be a mechanism through which the planet eases its human burden…[or] new patterns of disease could trim the human population…War could have a major impact…weapons of mass destruction — notably biological and (soon) genetic weapons, more fearsome than before…It is not the number of states that makes this technology ungovernable. It is technology itself. The ability to design new viruses for use in genocidal weapons does not require enormous resources of money, plant or equipment… By ceding so much control over new technology to the marketplace, [governments] have colluded in their own powerlessness…

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction… What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter…

Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.

I found John’s book liberating and exhilarating, though most of my collapsnik friends found it negative, unconvincing and depressing.

But recently, reading his more recent works, I’ve begun to wonder whether John’s brilliant intellect was being steered by an unstated worldview, a profound misanthropy that might be rooted in part in some trauma he has suffered through, some indignity in his past that has coloured his thinking. Is he really a Voluntary Human Extinctionist, or is he rather a wounded and disillusioned Humanist or Existentialist?

This month, in his new article in the Guardian John builds further on this pessimistic view of the human species. He writes:

It’s not that [western leaders] are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don’t really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished. In believing this, those who govern us at the present time reject a central insight of western religion, which is found also in Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians: destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves. In this old-fashioned understanding, evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.

No view of things could be more alien at the present time. Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved.

Paradoxically, this belief in the evanescence of evil is what underlies the hysterical invocation of evil that has lately become so prominent. There are many bad and lamentable forces in the world today, but it is those that undermine the belief in human improvement that are demonised as “evil”.

As radical as my beliefs may be, I can’t quite accept that “evil” is a propensity that is humanly universal. I think what is missing from Gray’s argument is that, yes, we are an inherently destructive and aggressive species, but only when we are suffering from chronic and severe stress. I believe (perhaps I have to believe) that, like the bonobos, rather than the chimps, when we are free from stress these traits of destructiveness and aggressiveness are recessive, unneeded and therefore unexercised.

John would probably laugh this criticism off, and likely provide more forceful arguments for this being naive and faith-based thinking than I could muster in its defence. But I would also argue that we can’t know, because civilization has been an incessantly stressful experiment (likely evolved in response to some great natural stresses like climate change), and because we therefore have no credible data to show, or know, what we are like in the absence of great stress.

Robert Sapolsky has studied bonobos in the wild for twenty years, and admits he doesn’t like them much – they’re violent, arbitrarily cruel and self-traumatizing creatures. But he tells the story about one baboon troop whose alpha males all died from eating tuberculosis-tainted meat from a garbage dump. The survivors quickly evolved into a peaceful, gentle, egalitarian matriarchy and remained so generations later.

Gabor Mate has similarly argued that almost all human violent behaviour and stress is rooted in childhood trauma, suggesting that a human ‘reboot’ (perhaps after a collapse), allowing children to grow up trauma-free, might produce a human society so gentle, healthy and egalitarian we might hardly recognize it.

So unlike John I continue to use the word ‘evil’ very cautiously, either to describe the inherent nature of individuals or the propensity of groups and our entire species. When we are ill, I think, we are not our true selves. And our species has been ill, and getting more so, for 30,000 years. We can’t know or remember who we were when we were well. And though it may be wishful thinking or faith, rather than profound instinct, I believe that when we were well, and when the descendants of the survivors will be well again after the dust of collapse has settled, humans were and will again be good to each other and to the world.

I’d like to believe that’s a pragmatic and rational perspective, a healthy one. But I may be deluding myself. Those who believe the Earth will be better off without humans may well be right. Those who believe the Earth will be without humans within a short few decades, centuries or millennia (an instant in the planet’s long history) may well also be right.

But I don’t believe they are. I can’t believe they are. My worldview can’t accommodate such beliefs. And therein lies our quandary, fellow collapsniks. We need to open our minds, and hearts, to a much broader range of possibilities, including those we may, in our quiet moments, think ‘impossible’, if we are going to be able to prepare, together, for anything.

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

Fireproof (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

fire photo courtney schoenemann

(This is a work of fiction. The characters are invented, and build upon the characters in the stories Flywheel and Distracted. The painting is real, and awesome. And the fires were real. Fire photo by Courtney Schoenemann. Artwork “Burden of Guilt” is by Rogene Manas.)

“Jeez, look at that. There’s fires up ahead as far as you can see, some of them right beside the highway! I wonder if this is part of that combined mega-forest fire they’ve been fighting for a month now. Awesome.”

Rafe took his cap off as the four of us stopped our bicycle ride home to survey the flames running along the ridges ahead and to the right of us, on the far side of the highway our trail paralleled. He looked frightened and awed by the sight. There were dozens of fire trucks with flashing lights along the highway, and several helicopters hauling water from the river to the fire sites. Smoke blew across the highway and the bike and hiking trail beyond.

“Believe it or not,” said Lori, “this isn’t even big enough to make the papers, unless there’s a photo op in it. This is a grass fire not a forest fire, and it’s too far west to be part of the Deception Complex fire. If it were a serious or uncontained fire with any risk of jumping the highway they would have closed the highway. They’re probably focused on reverse-911 calls to tell area residents that they should keep the 911 lines clear unless the fire comes within a certain distance of their homes or barns. This thing’s well under control.”

“Wow, I’m impressed, Lori,” Daria chimed in. “How do you come to know so much about fires?”

“I took a Fire Science course a couple of years ago. I thought I might want to sign up as a wildfire fighter, since I figure as global warming accelerates, it will be an increasingly handy skill to have, especially around here.”

“What made you give it up?” Daria asked, watching intently as firefighters extinguished a line of fire no more than 100 yards from them.

“Too macho for me,” Lori said. “The training regimen is military, which is where a lot of firefighters come from. I decided I could do just as much good as an EMT, without all the heavy lifting, so I chose to do that instead.”

I looked up at the helicopters and commented: “I read that if the atmosphere had just a little more oxygen than it does, a single lightning strike might be enough spark to ignite and burn every tree on the planet,” I said. “Guess it’s not surprising that our messing up the delicate balance of gases in the atmosphere is having such dire effects.”

“Yup,” Rafe said. “Seeing fires like this break out almost spontaneously is going to become commonplace. Mega-fires are now expected to pretty much extinguish the boreal forests of North America and Asia by mid-century, if the north-migrating insects don’t wipe them out first. Ironically, more rain in the tropics is supposed to actually reduce naturally-occurring forest fires there as the climate changes, but the tropical forests are being cleared for crops, mostly using slash-and-burn, fast enough to clear them out by the mid ‘30s anyway. Get ready for tree museums, I guess.” He sighed.

I pondered out loud whether, as climate change made fire and flood insurance unaffordable and then unavailable, if it might cause people to become less attached to their ‘stuff’.

Rafe looked at me dubiously, and replied: “People can’t imagine things getting that bad that fast. They read Berton’s book about the Great Depression, when sisters had to take turns going to school because they had only one dress between them, and they think he’s making it up. People from the 1% in 1929 going door to door asking to do odd jobs for food in 1931. People can’t change that fast; it’s too hard. No one believes it will really happen, that the economy will collapse or that billions of people will have to migrate or that runaway climate change will wipe out all the forests in their lifetimes. Complexity and punctuated equilibrium and tipping points are all too unfathomable for the human mind to comprehend.”

I laughed. “If people can think it is even slightly sane to live in a big house in a big city or suburb that produces almost no essentials of life, and expect that civilization’s systems will always be able to provide them with whatever they want and need as long as they have this magical stuff called ‘money’, then how can we expect them to imagine anything changing that much?”

burden of guilt rogene manas

We resumed our bike ride home from the gallery tour we’d been visiting. We rode silently for a while. Then Lori said “Remember that amazing painting by Rogene Manas we saw at the mayor’s gala? That one with the woman with all the ‘arrows of guilt’ in her basket and sticking into her body, each one with a label? I really related to that as a woman. I’m curious if you guys feel guilty about the same things she and I do?”

Rafe asked what some of the labeled arrows said, and Lori and Daria rhymed a few off that they remembered from the painting.

Not calling home guilt.”
Not giving money to the homeless guilt.”
“Unhealthy eating guilt.”
Not exercising guilt.”
Not picking up hitchhikers guilt.”

Pretty soon Rafe and I chimed in, and soon between us we were coming up with new ones every few seconds:

Watching TV guilt.”
Not spending time with the kids guilt.”
Working too hard guilt.”
Slacking off guilt.”
Forgetting birthdays guilt.” (Lots of agreement on that one.)
Driving instead of walking or biking guilt.”
Eating meat guilt.”
Not signing petitions and not demonstrating against corporatism guilt.”
“Guilt about being poor.”
“Guilt about being too wealthy.”
Yelling at loved-ones guilt.”
Eating out and ordering in guilt.”
“Guilt about our bad habits.”
Not flossing guilt.”
“Guilt about climate change and species loss.”
Complicity with factory farming and animal testing guilt.”
Calling in sick guilt.”
Sleeping in guilt.”
Not cleaning the house guilt.”
Not weeding or lawn-mowing guilt.”
Using power tools guilt.”
“Guilt about being late.”
Daydreaming guilt.”
Buying something you don’t really need guilt.”
Not listening/paying attention guilt.”
Not being good enough guilt” (More nods and sighs.)
Letting people down guilt.”
Not knowing the right answer guilt.”
Trying to ‘fix it’ instead of just listening empathetically guilt.”
Not caring enough guilt.”
Caring too much about crap guilt.”
Half a load in the washer guilt.”
Throwing out anything guilt.”
Not picking up the phone when you see who it’s from guilt.”

“It’s funny,” Daria said. “The ones that are just about guilt are funny, and probably pretty universal. It’s the ones that go beyond guilt, to shame, that are more serious, more personal, more likely to remain unspoken. The stuff that makes you shudder and blush.”

“And the ones that go beyond guilt to grief, like climate change and animal suffering and not knowing how to prevent a future full of fires like the one we just saw,” Lori added. “The stuff that makes you rage and cry and fills you with dread.”

“When our world becomes more precarious, more improvisational, more full of punctuated lurches from crisis to crisis, I’m guessing we’ll put a lot of the guilt and the shame and the grief behind us and get more focused on the real needs of the immediate moment,” Rafe said.

“How do you mean?” I asked. “How do you see this all unfolding, let’s say, for someone living in a coastal North American city, a couple with a young kid?”

“Well, to start”, he replied, “I think cities and suburbs will mostly be abandoned, over a period of several decades. In response to past Depressions, government and military spending soared and the cities were the major beneficiaries, but these days there is no money left, even before the economy fails, for those kinds of major spending rescues. So I see millions — the young and able-bodied mostly — gradually abandoning the cities, especially those cities most affected by coastal storms and growing Western and Southern droughts. And as industrial agriculture collapses, I expect most of them to take up jobs as small farmers or as service providers to small farms, living in towns near arable land. They will include the former 1%, whose paper wealth will be mostly eliminated but who will have the means to buy land and equipment. Foreclosures will be huge at first, but as the value of urban and suburban homes plummets and the jobs there disappear, they’ll be occupied by poor squatters and their mortgages will be written off, as the banks collapse one by one. I think it will be an interesting and exciting time for those healthy and resilient enough to manage the transition.” Rafe, ahead of us on the trail, looked back with an ambivalent shrug.

Guilt about being totally dependent on unsustainable systems,” said Daria, adding to our list. “Or maybe that’s shame.”

“So that means we should all expect to be sorta homeless as we migrate to our new countryside places?” I said. “Glad I bought that book on tiny homes. I was just reading a book by a guy who’s deliberately chosen to live a homeless life for 20 years. His three top pieces of advice were: (1) keep or get a car big enough to migrate and sleep in; (2) stay fit, healthy, dry, out of the sun, and accident-free; and (3) find a troop of 5-7 people who all trust and look after each other. Wanna be in my troop?” I smiled at my friends.

“You wrote that article about the four things we can all do to prepare for collapse: reskilling, community-building, helping people heal, and exemplifying presence and joy for others,” said Lori. “But you also wrote that it’s both too early and too late to do much of anything. I agree with you that it’s too early for reskilling and community-building — we can’t know what skills we’re going to need, or who or where our ‘community’ will be when the shit hits the fan. So if we focus on your other two ideas: helping people heal and exemplifying presence and joy for others, I’m curious to know how you all think we might do that, right now?”

“You’re way ahead of us on ‘helping people heal’ with your EMT work,” said Daria. “But I think before we can be of much help to others healing from ‘civilization disease’, we have to heal ourselves. And to do that we have to know ourselves better than I think most people do. And I think we learn most about ourselves when we’re stretched — when we have to deal with a crisis, when we do something hard in collaboration with others, when we travel to a foreign country and immerse ourself in their culture, when we try things outside our comfort zones. And my sense is that most people don’t do much of any of that. So most of us, I think, are not and won’t be very good healers.”

I nodded to Daria as I pulled up alongside of her: “I think the key to healing anyone is appreciating that we’re all very different, and that we’re complex creatures, that we can never hope to really understand how either our bodies or minds work, let alone our culture, and that just being open and accepting and appreciating what is is most of what we can do, to heal and to help others.”

“You sound like a woman,” Lori said, smiling at me. We stopped cycling and sat beside the river to watch the sunset. “A different kind of fire,” she said, nodding to the sun in a blaze of red and purple clouds, the result of haze from nearby forest fires. “What Daria calls ‘civilization disease’ is so much a part of our culture and our everyday lives that most people won’t even recognize it; they think it’s normal, the only way to live. It’s pretty hard to help someone heal if they can’t or won’t acknowledge that they’re even sick.”

“Well that’s where the ‘exemplifying behaviour’ comes in,” I replied. “If you show people that there’s a more self-knowledgeable, more present, more healthy, more informed way to live, that is still joyful, still full of wonder, that’s far more compelling than telling them they’re sick, or living in denial or illusion. It’s like telling a story instead of telling people what they should do, except that the story is your whole body, your whole life.”

“Maybe,” Rafe said, sounding doubtful. “Or you might just make them feel jealous and resentful and they’ll rationalize that you have what they don’t because of your privilege. People want things to be easy and fun, and showing them an awesome example of what they aren’t can be intimidating, not encouraging.”

“Daniel Quinn says you have to wait until people are ready to listen, that it’s a waste of time and energy to try to convince them of anything until then,” Daria chimed in. “Maybe that applies to exemplifying as well. Or maybe your model of how to live joyfully, like the stories you tell, are just subversive seeds you plant in the hopes that they will germinate when the ‘soil conditions’ are right for those other people, until they are ready to listen. Stories have staying power, and maybe exemplifying behaviour will stick in people’s minds a while, too.”

“I suppose that’s possible,” I replied, “though it’s also true that people tend to reject anything that doesn’t fit with their worldview of how the world works, and only appreciate stuff that confirms what they already believe. Your stories need to be pretty carefully crafted and your exemplifying behaviours need to be pretty subtle and modest to avoid triggering that ‘not-my-worldview’ rejection before the story or the memory even takes root.”

We were quiet for a while until the sun had set and we busied ourselves layering up for the rest of the ride home and getting our bike lights on.

Then I realized Rafe was crying. I embraced him and asked “what’s up, man?”

He composed himself and replied “I’m afraid… I’m afraid of everything. Of not being able to handle the hardship and the suffering and the loss ahead. Of not knowing what’s ahead. Of not knowing whether we’ll even survive it, whether all the struggle will be even worth it… I’m not a believer in any religion or any higher power. I think it’s just us, and we’ve really fucked up, and it’s going to be awful and I just won’t be able to handle it.”

“We’re your troop, man, we’ll make it together. You just finished saying it’s going to be an exciting time for those who are healthy and resilient enough for the transition.” I looked him in the eye.

He looked exasperated. “No one is that healthy and resilient,” he said. “This isn’t like recovering from a storm or a war or a forest fire or a Depression. This is going to be decades long, one thing after another.”

“All the more time to cope with each thing as it comes. We’ll have time in between the struggles for recovery, for healing, for joy. We know it’s not going to be about rebuilding, about getting back to some unsustainable nirvana. It’s going to be about discovery, moving on, learning new things, discovering new places and people, learning to collaborate and help and love people, and be helped an loved in return. We’re in this together. It is going to be exciting. It’s just that it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We need to pace ourselves, learn from our mistakes.” I was making it up as I went along, trying to reassure him, thinking these thoughts for the first time, not sure if I believed them myself.

Daria and Lori joined us and we hugged, the four of us, bikes around us like a circle of wagons protecting us from this terrible, wonderful world.

“So the question for this troop,” Lori said, leaning in and putting her face against Rafe’s shoulder, “is whether this is the right place for us, as things start to change faster and faster. Remember that Sharon Astyk article about when not to ‘adapt in place’? She said there were a bunch of situations when you should move, now. Let me see if I can recall them. One was ‘if your mortgage is under water’; one was ‘if you’re living far away from family or loved ones’, One was ‘if your area is especially vulnerable to climate change’. One was ‘if you don’t share the values of the people in your neighbourhood’. One was ‘if you’re planning on moving anyway, for yourselves or because your kids will have to’. One was ‘if the culture that (once the trappings of civilization are swept away) is inherent to the place you live isn’t a culture you like’. One was ‘if you live in a suburb or exurb that is resource-poor or far from arable land’. And one was ‘if the place you live just doesn’t feel right, to your body or soul.” I think that was the list. How does our ‘home’, our ‘place’ fit with those criteria?”

We thought about the list, going through the criteria one by one. As we mounted our bikes to finish the trip home, Daria said “Awesome list. Makes me feel much better about where we live, now. This is it. This is our place. Billions may have to migrate, or choose to, but I think we’re set, we’re right to make our stand here, take on all comers. What do you think?”

Rafe said, smiling, “Yeah. We’re not there yet, but the values, the culture, the ecology of our place is pretty solid and headed in the right direction. If my troop’s in, so am I.”

“OK then,” said Lori. “Ready for anything. No guilt, no shame, and soon, no time for grief. Agreed?” She looked at me.

“Agreed,” I said, toasting my troop with an invisible wine glass as we rode. And smiling at each of them I added:

“We’re fireproof.”

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Them, You, Then, Now, Always (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

them you image 1

photo credit: photoshopped image from wallpaperstock.net

“50 blackbirds nest in a dead tree, congregating and socializing raucously each evening, the babies squawking for food. Then someone cuts the tree down, and the birds scatter. Collapse. The tree-killer sells the wood and the empty nests for profit. The birds circle and regroup, and in a few hours find a new tree and start building new nests. Three days later, for the birds, it is exactly as it was before the fall. They understand community, and resilience.” – story taken from the writings of Orlov|Dmitry, c. 2014 Old Calendar

Cultural Anthropology Visit, 6462 New Calendar: Notes

The Tsilga people cannot tell you their story. At least, not in words.

Like many of the survivors of the Sixth Extinction, now thriving all these millennia after the Great Burning of the Earth, they have no need for words. They have gestures and sounds for the important concepts to communicate: danger, love, joy, anger, pleasure, grief. What more is needed? Their faces will express more to you than you can imagine, or ever hope to say. If you visit them, they will not tell you about themselves; instead, they will show you.

They will show you that they love music. They will play, and dance, and sing, making beautiful sounds with their voices, sounds that seem like words bristling with significance, but are just cadences, patterns, vocalizations that sound wonderful together, and that is their only meaning. They mean to be beautiful. Their life, you see, is about beauty, and its appreciation.

The way they adorn their unclothed lovely bodies, their hair, their faces, it will astonish you. You cannot help falling in love with them, all of them, male and female, young and old: They paint themselves to be a reflection of the sky, the forest, the water, the earth, the fire that still burns, spontaneously, over much of our planet’s face.

They will show you that they love food, and sex, and other pleasures of the senses. They will teach you, by covering your eyes, that fruits can seduce you just with their scent, can get you high with the mere anticipation of their touch on your lips and tongue, and their taste is just the orgasm of the delicious and prolonged process of eating, the love-sharing of taking in and becoming one with this exquisite composition of flavour, texture and smell.

And after that you will not be surprised to see that their love-making is as complex and delicate and nuanced as a symphony, and lasts so many hours you lose track of time, the passing of day and night, the space between bodies and worlds.

They will show you, too, that they love games, and play. They will show you how to invent a game with only winners, an impossibly new game, improvisational, changing every moment, a brilliant and razor-sharp and magical co-composition, and in so doing they will teach you a million different ways to laugh.

And last, they will show you their art – sculpture, drawings, paintings, pottery, weavings – more intricate and perceptive than anything you’ve ever seen, and containing such understanding and intensity, such synaesthetic power, that you will just stare at them, stunned, mouth agape.

Their art, you see, is their story. Not in the sense of past, and present, and future, since they have no sense of time, no need for such constraint. No, their art is a story of how they belong, how they are a part of all life around them, of their dreams, their connection, their oneness… There are no words to explain this. Just look, take it in, shake your head in wonder and disbelief, as if you were seeing faeries and supernovas and the birth of galaxies and creatures morphing in a flash of blinding colour into gods. Because you are.

Their art conveys the continuity of their make-up, our make-up, the make-up of everything from sub-gluonic minisculae endlessly smaller and more complex than you can conceive, to magisculae whose gravity and splendour dwarf universes, transcend meaning, explode mythologies. All there – in that tiny dish, that urn, that sketch, that crafted splash of paint across his or her rippling, muscled thigh – everything, you included, right there, captured, explained, presented, and represented.

So you ask, even after seeing this, their story, who they are, their magic – you ask, “What do they do?” And their response, since they can intuit your question from your puzzled expression, even without hearing your words, is to smile, and point first to the tree above you, filled with the songs of blackbirds, and then to the sea just beyond the ridge, where a pod of great whales are breeching, plunging, glistening in the sun, calling to the stars, and to you.

And then they give you this raised-eyebrow smiling shrug which you know, somehow, means “Do you understand now?”

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