The Lost Tribes

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

Fieldnote 8 September 2092

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess we’ll see.

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

Posted in Creative Works | 3 Comments

Links of the Month: August 2020

Turn away from your animal kind,
Try to leave your body just to live in your mind.
Leave your cold cruel mother earth behind, Gaia.
As if you were your own creation,
As if you were the chosen nation.
And the world around you, just a rude
And dangerous invasion, Gaia.
Someone’s got to stop us now,
save us from us Gaia,

no one’s gonna stop us now.    (James Taylor)


poster from a recent conference; thanks to Tree Bressen for the link

We may be distracted by CoVid-19 and BLM, but climate collapse, ecological collapse, and economic collapse are still accelerating, now far beyond the possibility of mitigation. Just as we couldn’t have imagined a world with almost everyone wearing masks just a few short months ago, we can’t imagine what our world will look like in ten years, or fifty. It will likely be unrecognizable, physically, socially, politically and psychologically. Latest evidence: Canada’s last intact ice shelf collapsed last week, losing 40% of its volume in just its final two days.


cartoon by Elisabeth McNair in The Cartoon Collections

Racism and caste systems: Pulitzer-winning culture writer Isabel Wilkerson’s new blockbuster Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents suggests systemic discrimination runs deeper and broader than just racism and is based on an implicit caste system, “an artificial hierarchy that helps determine standing and respect, assumptions of beauty and competence, and even who gets benefit of the doubt and access to resources”. It’s a bold model of the workings of oppression, one that may enable us all to investigate dispassionately how this caste system works in different societies and contexts, how it’s evolving, and how we can work to abolish it. It’s been embraced by Oprah, and proclaimed an “Instant American Classic”. It acknowledges the groundwork done by Ibram X Kendi in his antiracism books. Eye-opening. Sadly, the same can’t be said for some other bestsellers on the subject, such as the condescending White Fragility.

The role of white allies in antiracism: Another fascinating issue is how and when the BLM movement benefits from, or is compromised by, white allies, particularly when those allies are fascinating scene-stealers like the Wall of Moms and Veterans for Peace. “To be an ally is to step into a fight that is ostensibly not yours.” At what point do allies, as valuable and needed as they are, start to overshadow Black agency? (Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link, and the one that follows.)

Racism as a medical issue: The prestigious NEJM features a courageous and moving essay: “Police violence, racial inequities in Covid-19, and other forms of structural racism are concurrent and compounding public health crises in the United States.”

Proposals for a feminine economy: What would an economy built on feminist principles look like? Principles like abundance, generosity, sustainability, collaboration, honesty, empathy and connection. Thanks to Nenad Maljković for the link.

Until black women are free, none of us will be free: The fascinating, inspiring history of Black feminism.

Why people are quitting social media: The BBC explores why the time waste, the deliberate misinformation, the faked videos, and the degeneration into mindless hate and rage that are now the mainstay of Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk, are turning more and more off, moving us to free ourselves once and for all from social media’s addictive pull.

The British Columbia that might have been: Terry Glavin, a brilliant researcher and one of Canada’s finest writers, provides a fascinating summary of BC’s history on racial equality. In its early days the government was a model of multi-ethnic self-governance and collaboration. And then everything fell apart. (Thanks to Maureen Nicholson for the link.)


LEFT: store sign in Boston; thanks to Tree Bressen for the link
RIGHT: photos of victims of Trump federal troops by Robin Eric Thom; thanks to Paul Cienfuegos for the link

Focus on Portland: The shithole US president has tried using unskilled and incompetent federal troops to provoke riots in Portland, where he has nothing to lose politically and looked to exploit any reaction to incite rage in his clueless base. He consulted with Bush’s waterboarding torture lawyer to see how he could circumvent the constitution through “executive orders” to use federal troops ultra vires without authorization. The city has its own police force, notorious for racism and brutality, and the state is home to several white supremacist groups, so Trump was just pouring fuel on the flames. On top of that, obviously faked videos of Portland protestors appearing to burn bibles and flags were re-posted by hapless right-wingers including influential websites like Zero Hedge. (There was a suggestion that the protestors used volleys of live ammunition, a barefaced lie — the gunshots reported there occurred in a completely different part of Portland and were ascribed by police to an act of retaliation between two gangs. But on social media, apparently the truth has lost all importance.) Meanwhile the terror inflicted by Trump’s run-amok stormtroopers was noxious enough to provoke PTSD even in seasoned journalists. (Thanks to Lorraine Suzuki for this link.) You can see some of the results of the brutality in the photos above right.

Larry Krasner for Attorney General: Philadelphia’s DA, responding to Trump’s debacle in Portland, warned that in his city “Anyone, including federal law enforcement, who unlawfully assaults and kidnaps people will face criminal charges from my office.” Bravo.

US civil war imminent?: A study of eight predictors of revolutionary upheaval suggests the US is on the cusp of another civil insurrection.

“Some lives just mean more than others”: Underscoring the above-noted issue of implicit caste systems, BC’s supposedly progressive premier had to backpedal after claiming that just because there have been many times as many deaths from street drug poisoning as from CoVid-19 in BC this year, didn’t mean there was any urgency to decriminalize personal drug possession and use and start addressing the problem, as recommended repeatedly by Bonnie Henry, the province’s beloved public health officer.

Trudeau wimps out on right to die law again: The inept law Trudeau introduced several years ago ostensibly to expand citizens’ right to die with dignity, was thrown out by Quebec’s courts as so bad it infringed on our constitutional rights. A stay was granted, and Trudeau continues to beg for more time to rewrite it. But meanwhile it is clear he still intends to criminalize many options for dignified death, presumably out of fear of alienating his conservative wing. It’s also clear that the new law, whenever it is introduced, is certain to be as unconstitutional as the last one. Here’s the perfect reason why some things need to be abolished, not “reformed”. As his wiser, braver father famously said, “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”. And that includes the bedrooms of those living in agony waiting for his son to show some courage.

Black employees protest Nike’s ad hypocrisy: Nike’s been quick to profile Black athletes under contract to it, to show solidarity with the BLM movement. Meanwhile, it appears that their internal behaviour doesn’t match their public posturing.

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen: Yemen is now suffering more civilian casualties than any other country, thanks to US/European-supplied bombs and munitions dropped by the Saudi coalition in its surrogate war against Iran in that country. Caitlin Johnstone summarizes the vicious calculus behind the carnage. Tens of thousands have been killed, an estimated four million displaced and 80 percent of the country’s 29 million people are dependent on food aid which has been disrupted by the pandemic, for survival. Floods and locusts threaten to make the situation much worse. Aid operations are on the verge of collapse.


cartoon by Peter Kuper in the New Yorker

Put a f**king mask on: For those too polite to say it ourselves, Jonathan Pie says it for us.

Take it outside: You’re 19 times less likely to get the virus (based on equivalent time and distance from others) if your activity is outdoors than indoors. So take it outside, please. (Thanks to John Burn-Murdoch for the links.)

To no one’s surprise:


photo by Samir Sachdeva taken in India of a crow hitchhiking on a vulture’s wing; thanks to Earth Facebook page for the link

Music to get you through this:

    • Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir of 17,000 singers present Sing Gently.
    • Ólafur Arnald presents Island Songs, a gorgeous documentary on life in his native Iceland, including a glorious score of his own music for voices and strings
    • Lori McKenna’s This Town Is a Woman introduces a jaw-dropping metaphor about sexism.

Reading only women authors: A new mother’s exploration of literature by women.

Malcolm Gladwell on CoVid-19, and talking with strangers: Recorded way back in April but just released, this interview indicates just how much everything’s changed, and what hasn’t, since the early days of the pandemic. Bonus video: From the same interviewer, a chat with the brilliant Stephen Fry on political correctness, and how it snares progressives.

The end of higher education in the US?: Hank Green weighs in on how CoVid-19 has exposed the dysfunction of the American university system.

What can bonobos teach us about language?: A researcher dares to try to indoctrinate our closest cousins into human culture. It doesn’t end well.


cartoon by Lars Kenseth in the New Yorker

Are memories real?: One of the questions often asked of radical non-duality speakers is: If nothing, including time, is real, and if the self is just an illusion, how can we have memories? If they aren’t what really happened, what are they? Some new research suggests some interesting answers.

The universe shouldn’t exist: So says a group of researchers trying in vain to substantiate a theory about the nature of matter. Perhaps the theory is wrong. Perhaps the data is wrong. Or perhaps the universe doesn’t actually exist.


cartoon from Unshelved by Gene Ambaum & Bill Barnes; thanks to Sue Greer-Pitt for the link

From Caitlin Johnstone:

The USA is largely a third-world country blanketed in first-world narrative. The way so many Americans live compared to the bare minimum standard of living in other wealthy countries is absolutely breathtaking.

Every American who’s been responding to the BLM protests with “It’s about class, it’s not about race at all!” had better show the fuck up when the eviction protests start.

From Ayed Akhtar in The Millions:

I might be suggesting that narrative is not a very good way of knowing things. And that part of our philosophical confusion in our crumbling republic may have to do with the fact that everyone has now become a storyteller.

From Claire Willett:

It truly is wild to see the anti-mask backlash and realize that conservative white men are totally unfamiliar with the concept of having their bodies policed by institutions.

From BoredPanda:

The reason most anti-shutdown protesters are men is that they’re losing $1 for every $.79 women are losing.

All countries eventually got CoVid-19. But China got it right off the bat.

A poem by Clint Smith (thanks to John Green for the link):

When people say,“we have made it through worse before”

all I hear is the wind slapping against the gravestones
of those who did not make it, those who did not
survive to see the confetti fall from the sky, those who

did not live to watch the parade roll down the street.
I have grown accustomed to a lifetime of aphorisms
meant to assuage my fears, pithy sayings meant to

convey that everything ends up fine in the end. There is no
solace in rearranging language to make a different word
tell the same lie. Sometimes the moral arc of the universe

does not bend in a direction that will comfort us.
Sometimes it bends in ways we don’t expect & there are
people who fall off in the process. Please, dear reader,

do not say I am hopeless, I believe there is a better future
to fight for, I simply accept the possibility that I may not
live to see it. I have grown weary of telling myself lies

that I might one day begin to believe. We are not all left
standing after the war has ended. Some of us have
become ghosts by the time the dust has settled.

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

Is Consciousness a Mental Illness?

Perhaps my most annoying exploration of radical non-duality yet. Thanks to Richard for the lovely graphic.

As I think more about the message of radical non-duality, I’ve started musing about the nature of consciousness.

We humans of course think of consciousness as a good thing, as an evolutionary advantage, and possibly something that separates our species, in degree if not in absolute terms, from all other species.

But radical non-duality would posit, I think, that it isn’t any of these things, and that consciousness might instead be a tragic form of mental illness that became possible when

(1) our brains got large and complex enough to be able to contemplate the idea of us being self-controlled individuals separate from everything else, and then

(2) that illusory sense of humans being ‘separate’ was reinforced, traumatically, through interactions with other afflicted humans (well-intentioned of course), until, over a lifetime, we came to see this disease as normal and necessary to our capacity to function.

Many religious and spiritual teachings suggest that we should actually aspire to a higher “level of consciousness”, as if more of this disease were a cure for its symptoms.

One of the hardest things for most people to accept is that we would be (and are) completely functional creatures without the need for consciousness. We are inclined to ascribe a rudimentary level of consciousness to all living creatures, even aphids and silverfish, because we cannot fathom that any creature would be able to survive without it.

But the laws of evolution do not require consciousness at all. Aphids and silverfish have survived because they were conditioned (genetically and experientially) to fight or flee or freeze in the presence of predators; insects that were poorly conditioned, over the hundreds of millions of years they have been evolving, dropped out of the gene pool, and those with successful conditioning survived. They do not need the capacity to conceive of themselves as separate and of having ‘selves’ to do so. They probably don’t have the brain capacity in any case, and if they did it would arguably slow down rather than improve their survival reflexes.

Why should our species be any different? We’re genetically indistinguishable from our closest animal relatives, and all species of life have been evolutionarily equipped with the tools needed to survive in their particular ecological niches as long as they fit in with and contribute to the ecological health of all life in those niches. We are as utterly conditioned by our genes and cultural experiences as aphids and silverfish. Any creature that doesn’t fit, in the evolutionary sense of fitting in with the rest of the ecosystem, goes extinct.

Except, that is, in the case of rogue species, like humans and cancers, that somehow lose their connectedness to all the rest of life in their ecosystems and pursue their ‘own’ survival at the cost of all others’, and wreak ecological havoc as a result. They of course die along with the hosts that enabled them to live — the body or planet which they have so unbalanced as to cause its life’s extinction.

Our study of cancers suggests they are ‘coding’ errors — random variations that evolution is continually experimenting with in search of even greater fitness and complexity of life. These variations usually amount to nothing and are evolutionary dead ends, but they occasionally lead to great improvements in adaptability, and they occasionally produce rogue species grotesquely unfit for their environments. That very unfitness ensures that their reckless tenure in their particular ecosystems is short-lived. Our species has been around an astonishingly short time in evolutionary terms, and our extinction or near-extinction within this century is already, according to a growing number of scientists, a virtual certainty. Our sense of consciousness hasn’t helped at all.

Or consider viruses: These days we’re understandably curious about what possible roles viruses might play in our planet’s evolution. Viruses are of course messengers, transmitting information between species. But significantly, they are also population regulators, especially of bacterial and insect populations. Without the critical role of viruses (of which an infinitesimally small number are human pathogens BTW), imbalances in bacterial and insect populations would disastrously alter our biosphere and atmosphere in a matter of days, dramatically changing (and radically simplifying) life on the planet.

Even if we were to argue that aphids and silverfish are slightly “conscious”, we could not make the same argument of viruses, which are arguably not even ‘alive’. The incredible evolutionary role of viruses, and their importance to the web of life, should suffice to convince us that “consciousness” is completely inessential to evolutionary success.

I’ve explained elsewhere how and why the sense of consciousness may have evolved, at least in our species, even though (perhaps like our appendix and our separate toes) it wasn’t and isn’t necessary to our ability to function and thrive perfectly well. Nature evolves things because it can, and because random evolutionary variations sometimes prove advantageous. But they don’t necessarily disappear even when they aren’t advantageous, unless some other need for the space or capacity crowds it out.

If consciousness is indeed a mental illness, a mistaking a mental model for reality, it could probably only have been sustained in the human species through the invention and use of abstract language. The concepts of a separate self, and of commensurate free will, responsibility, and ‘personal’ danger, would be unlikely, I’d guess, to take hold in a non-literate society. I would argue that our survival almost certainly does not require such a sense.

Abstract language might have emerged initially as a coping mechanism — as a means of sharing our grief over, and commiserating about, the terrible anxiety (and sense of something important missing) that arose when we became afflicted with this delusion of separateness. And abstract language has reinforced that delusion ever since.

So if consciousness, and all the guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, anger, grief and suffering that comes along with it, is a mental illness, might there be a way to ‘cure’ it? Or are our big, under-utilized brains just inevitably going to contract this illness because of their enormous capacity to imagine?

Michael Pollan and others have suggested that psilocybin and some other hallucinogenic substances might at least temporarily alleviate, and might permanently ‘cure’, the symptoms of this mental illness, by disrupting the neural pathways that correspond to ideas about the self, separation and (self-)consciousness. Successes are, however, anecdotal, and the cultural taboos against these substances are likely to impair any definitive answer as to their efficacy.

Those disseminating the radical non-duality message are a bit non-plussed when I suggest this theory to them. When there is no self, no sense of separation, and no sense that anything is or ever was ‘conscious’, the idea of being able to ‘cure’ something non-existent just doesn’t make sense.

After all, if there is no ‘you’, how can ‘you’ be afflicted by, or cured of, anything? If there is no life or death, no time or space, nothing ‘known’, nothing separate, how can there be any disease, any misunderstanding, or anything ‘conscious’ of anything ‘else’? The idea that the brain invented the idea of the separate self, and hence everything else apart from it, can only be a fiction, since there is no (real, separate) brain or body and no time or space in which anything can be invented.

What is left is a massive cognitive dissonance: On the one hand it is somehow reassuring, even exciting, that this staggeringly radical idea not only makes intuitive sense, it makes scientific sense, makes evolutionary sense. It is comforting, somehow, that there is a possible reason for all this senseless and completely invented suffering — that we can create a model that seems to explain the ghastly, frustrating loneliness, helplessness and unhappiness of being conscious.

But on the other hand, the lesson of radical non-duality is that there is no reason or purpose for anything, no evolution or time over which anything evolves, and no one and no thing to evolve. The science is just pattern-making, just a part of the fiction, just more make-believe. It’s a nice story, until we realize it’s just a story.

So the answer to the question: Is consciousness a mental illness that might be cured or at least treated, is, sadly, moot. There is no consciousness, no one conscious. One might be able to make a quite compelling scientific case for why that is so, and for why humans seem afflicted by a complete illusion that arose in our too-smart-for-our-own-good brains. But ultimately it will be an unsatisfactory one. It’s built on the same false premises that all of science is built on, and hence it’s just a tale “signifying nothing”, no more or less credible or relevant to anything than the QAnon stories of alien lizard people ruling the world.

There is, sadly, no cure for this unreal disease.

But my conditioning won’t allow me to cease making up stories, each hopefully slightly more credible than the last, that explain what cannot be explained or known, that make at least a bit of sense in a world that makes no sense, and has no need to. This is already everything, and its denial is already over. The news just hasn’t sunk in, and, since it’s veiled and unimaginable to us absurdly conscious humans, it never will sink in.

Outside of our seemingly dis-eased human minds and bodies, it’s always been obvious.

Posted in Radical Non-Duality | 11 Comments

The CoVid-19 Endurance Test: Will We Pass It?

brilliant illustration by Nan Lee in the New Yorker

The global social distancing effort has been one of humanity’s greatest collective achievements. I don’t think any human endeavor has ever saved so many lives in such a short period of time. — Solomon Hsiang, in Nature magazine, July 2020

The reality, of course, is that social distancing cannot cure or defeat CoVid-19. It only allows us to hide from the virus while scientists do their work… There’s a good chance that the pandemic may not be over until 2024. — epidemiologist Howard Markel, in the New Yorker, August 6th, 2020

In the earliest days of CoVid-19, there was a debate among both health experts and laypeople about whether the best strategy for dealing with it was containment (testing, tracing, isolation, social distancing, masks) or “cull the herd” (let it spread until “herd immunity” has been achieved).

The main factors involved in making such a decision are (1) transmissibility (how easily the disease spreads) and (2) virulence (what proportion of those infected die, suffer permanent debility or must be hospitalized). CoVid-19, it turns out, has a relatively high transmissibility and a relatively low virulence. Epidemiologists have known for a long time that containment is hard when transmissibility is high — containment methods have to be intense and sustained until vaccines and effective treatments reduce its virulence to “acceptable” levels. The increasing mobility of humans and the increasing fragility of our globalized economy make it even harder.

So it wasn’t surprising to hear some people throwing up their hands and saying “cull the herd” — basically saying that citizens wouldn’t put up with sustained social and economic restrictions long enough to find an effective vaccine and highly-effective treatments, because the virulence (1% CFR — case fatality rate) wasn’t high enough to scare them into doing so.

This is a hard calculus: Consensus seems to be that about 1.5 million people worldwide (about 2.5x the official numbers, borne out by ‘excess deaths’ studies) have died so far from the disease, and that about 15,000 more people are dying each day (again, 2.5x the official numbers of 6,000/day, and currently trending slowly upwards). That’s a half million people every month. There was an expectation for a while that deaths were tapering off as the world got wise to the benefits of social distancing; two months ago it was one third lower than the current level and trending downward. There’s still a sense that the disease is just “working its way” around the world and that deaths will soon decline. Though an increasing number of epidemiologists and modellers are now doubting that will happen: 1.5 million deaths suggests that only about 2.5% of the world’s people have been infected to date (and are now hopefully immune, at least for a while), leaving 97.5% still susceptible.

Compare that to the 0.5-1% of the entire global population — 40-80 million — that conceivably could have died if we’d just let the disease run its course until herd immunity finally kicked in. Not to mention the collapse of hospital and health care systems all over the world trying to treat up to a quarter billion people that would likely have been hospitalized under that strategy. “Cull the herd” was not even a practical option under those circumstances.

But even with only 2.5% of the world’s population immune or dead, isolation fatigue is already setting in, bolstered by economic fears and political opportunism, leading to insanely premature easing of disease containment measures. And while vaccine research is promising, getting the majority of the world’s people effectively vaccinated is at least six months and possibly as much as 24 months away. That’s between 3 million and 12 million additional deaths at current rates. By then the percentage of the population infected and (hopefully) immune could rise to anywhere from 7% to 18%.

Even at 18%, “cull the herd” can’t work as a humane strategy — it’s far below the 60-80% estimated to be needed for “herd immunity” to kick in.

But way back in April, Malcolm Gladwell made the point that we may never be able to sustain the kind of containment measures needed to prevent infection from getting out of control until “cull the herd” ends up the de facto strategy in all but the most disciplined and isolated parts of the world (ie China, Taiwan, South Korea and perhaps New Zealand). Small differences in containment efforts can make a huge difference in reducing deaths and infections: Canada’s current daily per capita death rate and infection rate are less than one tenth those of the US, even though per capita rates in many US states had been comparable to Canadian rates until they recklessly “re-opened”.

What is particularly disheartening is how quickly the roughly 0.2% of the world’s population (about 16M people) who are currently infectious can spread the disease, spiking “positivity” rates (% of those being tested having a positive test result) from 1% (the current Canadian and Western European average) to 10% (where it remains in some parts of the US). With positivity rates that high, any easing of containment efforts will quickly lead to new peaks in hospitalizations and death rates.

The one thing we seem to be able to say for sure is that the population everywhere is willing to mostly honour containment regulations when (1) hospitals get overwhelmed, (2) corpses overflow into containment areas outside them, and (3) everyone knows someone in their community who’s died, probably horribly, of the disease. Latin Americans, not renowned for their love of regulation, are among the world’s most diligent mask wearers and social distancers (they put North Americans to shame). That’s because they’ve witnessed first hand what happens when this disease gets out of control.

But these are often too-little-too-late reactions, and memories fade, while pressures to resume normal social and economic activities are relentless.

As Canada’s top epidemiologist put it yesterday:

The health system has been emphasizing “sustainable” habits — physical distancing, avoiding crowds, washing hands and wearing masks — that people can adopt over the longer term — years if necessary.

There is no other way. Perseverance and patience, keep going, learn your routines.

Are we ready for this? I’m not so sure.

So I’m going to make a few predictions:

  1. We are going to see a see-sawing between compliance and noncompliance with containment measures, and a see-sawing between “reopening” and clamping down as rates climb again. That means that as we get inured to the death tolls, and as long as hospitals can manage the load, we’re going to see the daily annual death toll rise to at least twice its current level, and waver between that level and current levels for the foreseeable future.
  2. The reopening of schools in the fall is a disaster waiting to happen. Most schools in the western world (unlike in parts of East Asia) are simply unequipped to establish and enforce adequate social distancing and mask-wearing requirements. Schools will be the next major breeding ground for the virus.
  3. We will not see any kind of limited “herd immunity” until there’s an effective vaccine. Even with infection and death rates doubling, getting to that 60-80% level without a vaccine is many years away.
  4. For a series of reasons, best case scenario, as several experts have stated, is that we should expect containment to be necessary for two to three more years. Even if vaccines are developed, early vaccines are likely to be less than fully effective, the virus is likely to mutate possibly requiring a complete restart on vaccine research, and it is doubtful that any vaccine will grant more than one year of immunity before another shot is needed.
  5. If you do the math, that suggests that we are likely to be more than halfway to “herd immunity” levels by the time we have effective vaccines, though if there is a serious mutation, we may have to start all over again to reach that level. It could therefore easily be the worst of all worlds: a death toll half way to what “herd immunity” would have cost, plus the staggering social and economic costs of several years’ on-again, off-again containment, just to spread the 20-40 million casualties over a long enough period to prevent hospital overwhelm as they occur. Not to mention the emotional inurement that would produce, possibly to the point that if we get unlucky with the next pandemic, we will tolerate a much higher death toll than we were willing to accept this time.
  6. And, of course, we still don’t really understand how this virus kills and sickens us. We haven’t the faintest idea what damage this virus has already done and will do to those not yet infected, to our bodies over the longer term. We really have no idea.

In short, I think our human nature is going to cause us to fail what Howard Markel calls the CoVid-19 endurance test. (The necessary steps to pass it, which Howard outlines in his article, are so ambitious as to be currently out of reach for most countries.)

We’re all doing our best, but this disease, like many infectious diseases before it, knows our Achilles’ Heel.

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

The Wonderful, Messy Process of Self-Organization

pedestal left after statue of slave trader was removed in Bristol, UK; image from NPR taken by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

We humans seem to like order, and there are several ways of achieving it. We are inclined to prefer simpler, easier-to-understand processes, such as the mechanical processes involved in designing, building and operating automobiles. We can design an automobile to be functional and beautiful, and know how every part was designed to work. So we may be inclined to try to design everything that way, as if everything could be, if done properly, perfectly functioning, perfectly controlled. We too often forget that things produced by mechanical processes are also incredibly fragile, inexorably decomposing and beginning to fall apart from the very moment they are created.

By contrast, self-organization is the undirected, emergent way in which order comes about. It is a complex way of achieving order. We tend to distrust complex processes, perhaps because they are messy and often uncontrolled. The bodies of even the world’s tiniest creatures have ‘evolved’ as self-organized organisms over billions of years, and they are staggeringly, unknowably complex, and horrifically messy, full of discarded pieces, and amazingly resilient. We can’t fix them like we fix our cars, since almost all of what happens in them is autonomous, unconscious, entirely self-organized.

So it’s not surprising that when it comes to social systems (notably political, economic, educational, and health care systems) we are inclined to prefer systems that, at least on the surface, are designed for control. Such systems are almost invariably hierarchical, led by those who presumably know best how to control them. We may design them with some resiliency — checks and balances to prevent bad decisions and abuses of power — but mostly we design them for efficiency, because that is the cheapest and simplest (least complex) way.

No matter that the creatures these systems attempt to govern are undesigned, unimaginably complex, and evolved for resiliency, not efficiency or control.

It is telling that our favourite modern business word is “management”, which comes from an old French word in horsemanship meaning “to control by hand”. In that sense, the term “self-management”, which is supposedly the antithesis of hierarchical control, is actually an oxymoron. That’s why in this article I use the term “self-organization” instead (the etymology of organ is “that with which one works”).

Life on earth is pretty much entirely self-organized; that’s how the rules of evolution have apparently played out. What we might incorrectly perceive to be ‘leaders’ in the natural world are really just specialized roles that the group has self-organized for the benefit of the whole. The labels of alpha male and female, and “leader of the pack” we apply to wild creatures are mostly misunderstandings and myths we have invented to rationalize our own abandonment of self-organization in favour of hierarchy and control.

Just as the organs in our bodies have evolved to serve specialized purposes, so have social roles of specialization evolved in wild creatures, so that each does what they are best at, for the benefit of all. Internal violence and selfishness are unnatural phenomena — evidence of social breakdown in situations of extreme stress and scarcity, not of hierarchy being in any way natural. Rats only start to hoard and kill each other when the only alternative to some of the members of the group dying, is all of the group dying.

With few exceptions, hierarchy is a spontaneous and aberrant behaviour that has evolved to enable a quick and drastic culling of excess numbers in times of extreme crisis, when gentler means of reducing the size of the group to fit with the rest of an overburdened ecosystem have failed. (Yes, I know, we’ve argued about whether hierarchy is natural or inevitable or useful before; I remain so far unrepentant.)

Our modern ‘civilized’ (ie crowded into cities) culture has, just in the last few millennia, created a near-constant state of crisis, imbalance and scarcity, so this unnatural last resort of vicious hierarchy and endless violence has become, I think, the hallmark of our cancerous species. We have seemingly now institutionalized violence, inequality, control and the absurd concept of ‘leadership’, which presumes that a few of us are so much smarter than others that they can effectively tell the others what to do, better than those others can figure out among themselves what is best to do. Like crowded rats in a tiny cage, we in our “civilized” world live in a world of constant stress, violence and madness.

This civilization is, I believe, in the advanced stages of collapse, and one of the apparent manifestations of its decline is the simultaneous emergence of psychopathic populist autocrats and the abandonment of the responsibility for leadership that is commensurate with the enormous authority ‘leaders’ have been given. Whining and snivelling on Twitter is no one’s idea of leadership. Platitudinous self-congratulatory mission statements by obscenely overpaid business executives who add no more value to the organizations they leach off than the cleaning staff, are only leadership to the clueless.

There may be no better symbolism for the abdication of responsibility and our growing loathing for useless self-aggrandizing ‘leaders’ than the recent spate of destruction of statues of old white racist misogynist ‘leaders’. And the empty pedestals left behind after their toppling are perfectly representative of what this abdication has left behind — a power vacuum, and a statement that we are through being ‘led’.

So in the absence of leadership and the disarray of massively dysfunctional hierarchical systems, what do we do now? We do what any society of creatures does when it faces a sudden power vacuum — we self-organize. We collectively rearrange the roles we each play so that we are each contributing maximally to the benefit of the collective whole.

This would be fine if we knew how to do this. But, having lived so long under the foot of useless hierarchical authority, we are seriously out of practice at self-organizing. There are groups that have at least started to relearn the skill — co-op businesses, housing and social co-ops, intentional communities, and some focused movements, unions and alliances. But it wasn’t and isn’t easy for them, and it takes enormous patience and perseverance.

There is an organization called Beautiful Trouble that held workshops a few years ago on how to self-organize. It was all interactive exercises: practising, learning-by-doing and by making mistakes. The two women who ran it, Diana Pei Wu and Brigette DePape, did so brilliantly.

But there is very little collective knowledge about how to relearn the skill of self-organizing, and a discouraging number of those teaching it are old white guys. Too many of the teachings are concessions to hierarchy and ‘leadership’.

Self-organization, the way in which just about all other-than-human creatures collectively sort out who will do what, actually requires neither. Attempts to ‘reform’ existing hierarchical controlling systems like education, police, and government have arguably all failed — so abolition, painful as it may be, may be the only path to truly self-organized systems that actually work for us all. After all, these systems are collapsing anyway; rather than trying to fix them we might be better to just let them fall, and collectively self-organize (not create, not design) new ones.

Anarchy is not chaos, and it is the way most creatures coexist with each other and with the rest of life on earth. And abolition of a malfunctioning system isn’t an act of destruction; it’s an act of pruning what is dead or dying or diseased, to help make way for what is to follow.

Despite the lack of collective human memory on how to self-organize, it is clear, especially from the climate marches and the BLM protests, that we can self-organize if we have to. Leaderless organizations like Take Back the Night and XR have sprung up to reach out, coordinate and enable people to work towards desperately-needed collective goals, when existing political and social structures prove incapable of addressing them.

Philosopher and author Bonnitta Roy talks about collective insight practices (not that different from what Bohm and Schmachtenberger have described) as a part of how self-organization happens:

People often think there is just one specific outcome that results from self-organizing processes. For example, people have long argued that hierarchy is the predominant outcome of social processes in nature. But this has proven to be untenable. Nature self-organizes in complex, multivalent patterns. What we see depends on the way we investigate the patterns… For example, we used to think that the herd was dominated by the stallion, at the top of a simple hierarchy. Now we understand herd dynamics as much more sophisticated, overlapping and complex… What pattern emerges is also dependent on key features of the agents themselves — how they express their autonomy, relationality, and agency.

Bonnitta stresses how our modern coercive control culture has clouded our capacity to be authentic (“don’t want to upset the boss”), to be self-aware, and to belong, and how we might practice to recognize and free ourselves from the buried, limiting qualities in ourselves, such as our modern tendency to distrust and to hold ourselves emotionally at arms’ length from others. She talks about how these disconnecting and sovereignty-damaging qualities have been “self-intrajected” as “malware” and what it will take to untangle ourselves from them. She also asserts that self-organizing, once successful in one location, isn’t something that can be replicated from place to place: “Coherence only happens locally”.

Stuart Kaufmann’s book At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity explores this in depth, and explains how self-organization emerged and is an essential element of all life on the planet.

Sometimes, alas, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to self-organizing. The current infighting among radicals and progressives, for example, has pitted us too often against each other and sapped much of the energy that could be directed to the abolition of dysfunctional systems. This is understandable: Centuries of oppression and trauma, fear and distrust of power have made us cautious and intemperate, and easily triggered. And those with power are skilled at “divide and conquer” tactics that undermine and fragment our attempts to self-organize and to confront oppressive power together.

And often it takes a catalyzing event, like the murder of George Floyd, to overcome that fear, caution and division.

One reason it’s so much harder to self-organize now is that most human systems are overgrown, too large in scale for self-organization to be practicable. I think it will take system collapse before much post-civilization self-organization can then happen.

Three factors are likely to make any post-collapse self-organization a slow and painful process:

  1. Those attached to the dysfunction, those with power who benefit from it, and who are nostalgic for what they thought it once was, are likely to put up a fierce resistance to dismantling the existing system to clear the way for something that actually works.
  2. We have largely lost the sense of community — the knowledge of how to work together, and about each other’s skills, strengths, needs and weaknesses, that comes from living and working with a small cohesive group of people towards a shared objective.
  3. And as noted above, we have forgotten the skills and practices of self-organizing.

Wild creatures can teach us what we’ve forgotten. Wolf packs, flocks of geese, and whale pods are vastly more complex social organizations than the hierarchical lens through which we are taught to see them would have us believe. From them we can learn how to self-organize around roles, about succession of responsibility, about taking turns, about the value of matriarchy, about adapting to crises, and so much more.

Each of us can relearn what strengths we offer the others, skills we might not even be aware we have — and what we’re not very good at, which we will have to learn to entrust to others in our community. Those skills, strengths and energies, importantly, vary as we age: We need both the intense, harder passion of the young and the more measured, quieter and more self-assured passion and resilience that comes with age and experience.

We will have to let go of our idealistic passion for design — this rebuilding of radically relocalized self-organization is an emergent process, not an analytical one with “best practices”. Emergence happens best in an atmosphere of trust, attention, fast learning, and consensus-seeking. It happens when instead of too-big-to-fail or fail-safe, we evolve systems that are “safe-fail” — able to learn and improve from collectively recognized mistakes before those mistakes create new dysfunction and sclerosis. That capacity is what most differentiates resilient, organic complex systems from the fragile, rigid, complicated ones human-designed for hierarchy and control (and failure).

It is human nature (and perhaps the nature of most creatures) to try to sustain and adapt to what currently exists, rather than hurrying along their collapse when they have ceased to serve us well. It will take a while for us to abandon what is familiar, no matter how dysfunctional it has become. We are seeing in the streets that abandonment, that readiness for abolition, from those who have the least to lose. In many cases, those who have never been served by existing hierarchical systems can show us the way, as they’ve been self-organizing, mostly on a very small scale, to make things work for themselves, even as the existing systems continue to oppress them.

There is a much-viewed video that shows simply how systems collapse: A castle of sugar cubes is inundated by a flood. The cubes at the bottom start to crumble first, and slowly the decay works its way up. Slowly at first, and then suddenly, with the spectacular collapse of the top cubes into the water in the final few seconds. The cubes at the top fall farthest, fastest and last. But once the structure has become hopelessly compromised, it is madness to try to keep it standing. Best to actually encourage its collapse, and to start again.

We can learn about self-organizing from the residents of hardscrabble cities like Lagos, Nigeria whose governments long ago abandoned them to their own devices; we can learn from those who make do for themselves in villages and farms far from the big cities in struggling nations; we can learn from inner city workers worldwide; and of course we can learn from wild creatures who have always naturally self-organized.

At this stage, with most systems teetering but not yet completely fallen apart, we can at least start rehearsing for collapse — or more precisely, rehearsing adapting to each of the stages of collapse, and relearning the skills needed to self-organize resilient local systems to replace them.

This includes relearning the art of community-building, which requires self-organizing and many other forgotten skills, and also starting to identify those who of necessity, wherever we may be when the opportunity to start again presents itself, will be part of our suddenly-again-important community. If we don’t particularly like our neighbours where we’re living now, this might be an appropriate time to move. If we can’t find our intentional community, we may have to get ready, as collapse deepens, to make a life with our accidental community, those with whom we find ourselves as everything falls apart.

Dmitry Orlov in his book Communities That Abide tells the story of how birds self-organize in the face of collapse, adapting easily without needing a ‘leader’:

Fifty 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.

It’s not hard to see what is going on in the streets of North America and Europe this year, and what is going on in the hospitals, as a rehearsal for collapse. Sooner or later, we will relearn how to self-organize, most likely, finally, in radically relocalized communities, but in the meantime, in all sorts of ways, contexts and situations.

It’s going to be hard, and wonderful.

Thanks to Kelly Gavin for many of the thoughts and ideas in this article, and for wading through my long-winded and impenetrable prose to make it better, and to Alberta Pedroja for the toppled statues metaphor.

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

A Canadian Sorry

drawing by Elliot Keeler 

Perhaps uniquely, Canadians say “sorry” almost automatically when something goes wrong; it does not (often) imply an admission of guilt, or of remorse. In fact, this is so Canadian that our lawyers had to craft (I am not making this up) the Apology Act, so that prosecuting lawyers couldn’t imply that merely saying “sorry” was an admission of having done something wrong; that it could quite simply be “an act of commiseration”.

I put this propensity down to Canadians’ capacity for embracing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. We don’t tend to lay blame for things quickly (and sometimes after a rant we will follow it quickly with a “sorry” for the outburst, and an assurance that “I know we’re all doing our best”).

I am “Canadian-sorry” for many things. That is possibly because my life has been so blessed, so it is in my Canadian nature to feel guilty about that, rather than proud or rhapsodic. Here are some of the things I am sorry for, or about, these days:

I am sorry for being a seemingly incorrigible “joyful pessimist”. Sorry about being joyful, when that comes across as disengaged or unsympathetic. Sorry about being a pessimist, when that comes across as defeatist and undermining.

I am sorry for the terrible state of the world, both human and more-than-human. I more or less know that my contribution to that has been relatively negligible, but I still feel more than relatively responsible.

I am sorry for being a Doubting Thomas, such that when someone comes to me in anger or tears and is looking for compassion and reassurance and I try to parse and understand what they’re saying, so they’re forced to tell me, stupid Canadian that I am, to just STFU and agree with them, for once.

I am sorry for the ghastly plight of the world’s other-than-human animals, both farmed (97% of whom live in incredible misery and stress) and wild (97% of whom live in constant retreat as their habitats are erased by human activity). I’m a vegan, but confess I have on occasion been known to eat a cheese croissant. I excuse my inaction on animal rights on the basis that if I knew or saw more instances of animal cruelty, I would probably commit multiple serious crimes against the perpetrators. Sorry, animals.

I am sorry for being, at least for now, a fan of Radical Non-Duality, which is preposterous and unnerving to those who fear it might lead me to entirely dissociate from all the problems and predicaments of the (illusory) “real” world. Especially their particular problems and predicaments. I am sorry that I cannot explain why that will never happen.

I am sorry for not speaking out more militantly against those, both in my community and in others, who don’t social distance and don’t wear masks and who brag about how their community has done so well during CoVid-19 and are completely oblivious to how outbreaks that kill and permanently sicken people actually occur. I am sorry that I don’t know why I don’t speak out. Potentially shaming people, even for something as dangerous as drunk driving, seems somehow un-Canadian. If it’s because I’m just a conflict-avoiding coward, I’m sorry for that, too.

I am sorry for being so stupid, so self-centred, so inattentive and so un-self-aware as to have said and done all those hurtful things I said and did, and to have failed to say and do all those useful and appropriate things I should have said and done. There is no excuse.

I am sorry for my obliviousness to social, political and economic injustices of all kinds, and for the privilege that has enabled that obliviousness, and for the shameful inaction on my part that obliviousness has enabled.

I am sorry that this list may come across as flip or unsympathetic or passive-aggressive or hurtful or like one of those “Kill all x!; [and then later] you know I was just kidding right?” statements from the shithole president and his toadies and their ilk. I am sorry if this post has caused you to feel there is some barbed double meaning to this post. I am sorry if you think I doth protest too much and that there is definitely an intentional or unintentional double meaning to this post.

I am sorry for the grief and terror and destruction the shithole president and his toadies and their ilk all over the world have done, are doing, and will do, whether or not they are elected, re-elected, or otherwise take or retain power. I can’t help feeling my inaction or ignorance has somehow contributed to and/or abetted this.

I’m sorry for saying “sorry” so much that when you really need me to feel sad and sympathetic for your situation, the word, coming from me, has lost its meaning and comes across as insincere and dismissive.

I’m sorry for being so far ahead of mainstream thinking that most people just cannot fathom what I’m trying to say, so they’ve given up reading this blog. And I’m sorry it sounds so arrogant to say my thinking is far ahead of the mainstream. I didn’t mean you. I didn’t mean anyone. It’s just… I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for all the things you care so deeply about that I just cannot, despite all efforts and a ton of soul-searching and introspection and self-challenging, find it in myself to really care about.

I’m sorry for wasting so much of my and others’ time on things of no importance, and specifically for wasting so much time feeling sorry instead of actually doing something about it.

I’m sorry for being so afraid of so many things that I haven’t gathered up the courage to do things that would make an enormous difference to my life and that of others. And I’m sorry I don’t know why that fear has so paralyzed me.

And I’m sorry it has all been so hard for you. Yes, you. I keep thinking it shouldn’t be this hard, shouldn’t have to be this hard. I keep thinking we make it harder than it has to be, harder than it really is. But then I see how hard it really is for so many, perhaps for you, and I feel ashamed and sorry for even thinking this. Sorry it’s been hard, and hope it gets a bit easier.

And finally, I’m sorry if this post, instead of coming across as a minorly self-deprecating (except for the being too-far-ahead part) and strangely insightful, creative and clever essay, comes across as a veiled desperate plea for reassurance, or forgiveness, or emotional support. Didn’t mean it that way, and so sorry if it struck you that way.

Oh, and so sorry for that thing that happened last week, or was it last month? You know the thing I mean.

Posted in Creative Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

Changing Things That Don’t Make Sense

I coined Pollard’s Law of Complexity nearly 20 years ago, to try to sum up what I thought was the most important practical learning from my years of study of complexity theory. Here’s how I worded it:


Things are the way they are for a reason. To change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex (and it usually is), success at truly understanding and changing it is unlikely, and developing workarounds and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse.

To the extent we’re talking about changes to human social systems (including political, economic/financial, educational and health care systems), this law is further subject to Pollard’s other law:


Humans seem to have evolved to do what they must (the personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then do what’s easy, and then do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important. As a result, social, political and economic change happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives fills the power vacuum. Despite this, we have evolved to be a collaborative and caring species, and we are all doing our best — in fact we cannot do otherwise.

Over the years, these hypotheses that I’ve pretentiously called laws, have been subject to two main criticisms. The first is that they devalue and demoralize true change initiatives, and overlook laudable successes in movements for change. While I applaud these apparent advances, both John Gray’s Straw Dogs and Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress make, I think, a very strong argument that such ‘advances’ merely corrected obvious and untenable aberrations in the Human Experiment, and also that such advances are tenuous, offset throughout history by equally giant steps backwards, and often subject to revocation when times get tough or violent. I apologize if I come across as a defeatist or doomer, but from my study of history and prehistory, that seems to be the way things work.

More recently I’ve been challenged on the Law of Complexity on the grounds that its wording seems to be validating or supporting “the way things are”. When I say “things are the way they are for a reason”, I’m not passing a moral judgement; I’m not saying it’s a “good” reason.

In a recent discussion with Stuart Ramsing, something he said made we wonder if I was missing something. He said “We shouldn’t put too much trust in the assumption that just because something currently exists, that it necessarily makes sense.”

Things that currently are “the way things are” but which at least today don’t make sense, might, for example, include:

    1. things that happened by accident (eg the evolution of feathers to keep birds warm and cool — their original evolutionary purpose — that later by exaptation enabled flight, once it emerged that they could also serve this purpose), or
    2. things that were arbitrarily imposed through coercion by those with power (eg colonial ‘national’ boundaries, fiat currencies, interest-bearing debt, and even slavery, which still exists in many places and in many forms) when they either never really made sense, or no longer make sense; or
    3. things that were once considered at least ‘good enough’ but are now anachronistic (eg four-way intersections, the imperial measurement system, daylight saving time, anthems at sporting events) yet remain because of the inertia of the existing system.

So suppose we were to differentiate, in the Law of Complexity, between (a) things that are the “way they are” as a result of having emerged for an obvious and understandable reason and (b) things that are the “way they are” by accident or coercive imposition, or which are now anachronistic. And if it’s one of the latter,  is it likely to have the same positive (reinforcing) feedback loops keeping it entrenched that more naturally emergent aspects of the way things are, do?

An example of a “naturally emergent” “way things are” might be our current addiction to fossil fuels, which is sustained by several positive (reinforcing) feedback loops. We observe for example that when improvements are made in auto fuel efficiency, drivers of those more efficient vehicles tend to drive farther than they would have in gas guzzlers, reinforcing the seemingly insatiable appetite for fossil fuels and defeating the promising intervention of fuel-saving innovations or standards.

We can “make sense” of this entrenchment and addiction (though we might wish it were otherwise) by studying and understanding driving and buying behaviours and propensities. The consequences of this self-reinforcing system are highly undesirable, and possibly disastrous, but we can understand why the system is so hard to change. It will cease to be a problem when our socioeconomic system permanently collapses in a few decades, but in the meantime we are unlikely to be able to significantly change it. Rather than beating our head against the wall pointlessly, we might be better to focus our energies on other change initiatives. (I can hear objections that we might solve this by just banning fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, but I could describe a whole series of reinforcing feedback loops that explain why we haven’t already done so.) Simple “solutions” to complex predicaments are almost invariably flawed by failure to understand why things are “the way they are”.

So let’s look at our civilization’s systemic racism and xenophobia as an example of something that is “the way things are”, but which on the surface doesn’t make sense. It’s too easy and too simplistic to argue that this exists solely because of greed or pathology (though that may in part be true).

Just this week, Tom Cotton, an overtly racist US senator who’s running unopposed for re-election in November, declared that slavery was a “necessary evil” and announced plans to prohibit an anti-slavery program called the 1619 Project from being taught to schoolchildren. He’s the same guy who authored the NYT editorial calling for sending in the military to quell the BLM protests (it seems he’s now got his wish). How can this attitude still prevail to the point the Democrats couldn’t even be bothered to run a candidate against him, four centuries after the start of the slavery he doesn’t want American schoolkids to even know about?

A survey of millennials in 2017 suggested that, unlike African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinx Americans, half of white millennials did not think Trump was a racist, and a similar number thought BLM protestors were “not very different” from white nationalists (this was shortly after the Charlottesville shooting and car attack by white extremists). Even more white millennials thought the confederate flag was a source of pride, and opposed removing confederate statues. And this was across the US, not just in the south. So if a Tom Cotton Jr were to run for office a generation from now, he’d probably be a shoo-in too, especially as every generation tends to get more conservative as they get older (the boomers who stopped the Vietnam War are now the most conservative and hawkish voters in the US).

Like their parents and grandparents, millennials get their political views from their peers and their parents. Although they are more likely to grow up in communities with more BIPOC neighbours and classmates than previous generations, this survey suggests white millennials are not mixing with and sharing political thoughts with BIPOC millennials. As long as that continues, systemic racism is likely to continue unabated. No matter that much of it may be unconscious.

Four centuries this has been going on. And still it is entrenched. It seems we’re not going to change it with wars, with laws, with education, or with information. If we want to end systemic racism we have to smash the system that produces it — the police system, the prison system, the military system, and the patriarchal political/corporatist system with its “old boys” network. The alternatives are just to adapt to it and work around it (for another four centuries?), or to just wait until it collapses due to its dysfunction and unsustainability (which will happen soon, but for many, understandably, not soon enough).

Is this systemic racism and xenophobia across generations, which really makes no sense, “the way it is” for a reason? And if so, what is that reason? And, since it makes no sense, is it more readily changeable than existing problems and abominations that we can at least understand the rationale for?

I think there might be some clues in the ease with which laws that discriminated against LGBT+ persons have been overturned. There was no reason for them; they never made sense. Just about all of us know someone who has suffered from these arbitrary laws. So why did this happen so easily so quickly (so far; there could of course be backsliding, and that fight is far from over) when after four centuries racism still seems intractable?

Ibram X Kendi argued back in 2017 that systemic racism remains because racists see racism and the oppression of Blacks as being in their self-interest:

Protesting against racist power and succeeding can never be mistaken for seizing power. Any effective solution to eradicating American racism must involve Americans committed to anti-racist policies seizing and maintaining power over institutions, neighbourhoods, counties, states, nations – the world. It makes no sense to sit back and put the future in the hands of people committed to racist policies, or people who sail with the wind of self-interest. An anti-racist America can only be guaranteed if principled anti-racists are in power, and then anti-racist policies become the law of the land, and then anti-racist ideas become the common sense of the people, and then the anti-racist common sense of the people holds those anti-racist leaders and policies accountable.

This makes sense. You could put the word “capitalist” in place of “racist” and it would equally make sense (that’s not to in any way equate struggles against racism with struggles against capitalism). And yet there seemingly was no similar need for a seizing of power in order to radically and quickly change prevailing attitudes against homosexuality. Is that because the LGBT+ community is seen as less of a threat to the self-interest of the rest of society than the BIPOC community? If so, how can racism be so prevalent and so extreme even in cities like Dubuque, Iowa that are 97% white? Where exactly is the threat to them?

Perhaps it’s all about fear. I’ve argued before that anger is usually a mask for fear, and fear is endemic in our modern society, likely rooted in a mix of trauma and reactivity stirred up by fear-mongers through the enormous power of the media, both mainstream and social. They can make us fear things we normally wouldn’t even know about (like “murder hornets”). It’s profitable. It’s effective. It’s “the way things are”. Most of us now probably vote out of fear of the person or party we vote against, rather than for anyone. Trump (from NYC!) and other fear-mongers have found it pathetically easy to prey on the fears that many in small towns, and even some in suburbs, have of the “big city”, by simply wildly exaggerating its dangers.

If fear is what underlies racism, what is it that racists are afraid of? They are, perhaps, afraid of people who aren’t “like” them, people who are strangers to them and whose beliefs and motivations they don’t understand. They may be afraid of what seems to be out of control, or out of their control. They’re afraid of failure, and even the admission of failure. And they’re afraid of loss, and of not having enough, in our collapsing civilization of created scarcity.

Like most fears, these fears don’t make much sense, particularly in as far as they underlie racism, yet they are “the way things are”. Are they still subject to Pollard’s Depressing Law of Complexity?

I would reluctantly suggest they are. On a small scale we can combat and overcome fears by helping people see that these fears are unwarranted. All kinds of issues have been resolved by amazing representative assemblies of people who initially largely feared and hated each other, but who, through familiarity, came to appreciate and support each other’s positions. But these kinds of initiatives simply don’t scale. We can’t systematically make people unafraid, especially when the media are busy stirring up new fears and anxieties. While the humanist ideal that if we just got to know each other better and see each other’s circumstances we’d soon all be on the same page, may be completely valid, it is just an ideal, and one that is completely impractical in a world of 7.8B struggling and damaged people.

And while the humanists’ solution is hopelessly idealistic, Ibram’s seizing-of-power solution, which is equally valid in theory, is equally unlikely in practice. It may happen in a few places on a small scale (the toppling of racism-glorifying statues and the prohibition of flags and other symbols that promote hate, for example), but in a complex society of millions or billions, there are just too many reinforcing feedback loops sustaining the status quo to fundamentally change it.

A guaranteed annual income for all is a terrific, necessary, affordable idea, but, even if it were to happen, it wouldn’t solve the global intractable problems of racism and xenophobia, which are arguably getting worse each year rather than better as the stresses of civilizational collapse deepen. That’s no reason not to strive for a guaranteed annual income (and free decent universal health care and education, and a bunch of other no-brainer initiatives that could make the world a safer, saner place to live). But we should be sanguine about what we expect these things to accomplish.

This is what I mean in Pollard’s Law of Complexity when I talk about adaptations and workarounds to “the way things are”, instead of hoping to fundamentally change them.

That is not of course to excuse or defend racism or xenophobia, which are outrageous, insidious and tragic. It’s simply to say that even though they don’t make sense, they are intractable parts of entrenched global systems that are the way they are for a reason — not a good reason, but a reason.

So as we work to make things better at scales and in ways that are achievable, we can perhaps take solace in the knowledge that as our global civilization’s collapse accelerates, everything is going to change, in ways we cannot imagine. And then, things that were “the way things were”, whether for reasons sensible or senseless, will cease to be so, and we’ll have the chance to start again, and maybe, next time, come together to make things not only “the way they are” but the way they could be, for all of us remaining.

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Collapse Happens Slowly… and Then Very Suddenly

David Ehrenfeld, in Beginning Again (1994), describes our civilization as a ragged flywheel, over-built, patched and rusty, spinning faster and faster and beginning to rattle and moan as it comes apart:

There goes a chunk — the sick and aged along with the huge apparatus of doctors, social workers, hospitals, nursing homes, drug companies, and manufacturers of sophisticated medical equipment, which service their clients at enormous cost but don’t help them very much.

There go the college students along with the VPs, provosts, deans and professors who have not prepared them for life in a changing world after formal schooling is over. There go the high school and elementary school students, along with the parents, administrators and frustrated teachers who have turned the majority of schools into costly, stagnant and violent babysitting services.

There go the lawyers and their hapless clients in a dust cloud of the ten billion codes, rules and regulations that were produced to organize and control an increasingly intricate, unorganizable and uncontrollable society.

There go the economists with their worthless pretentious predictions and systems, along with the unemployed, the impoverished and the displaced who reaped the consequences of theories and schemes with faulty premises and indecent objectives. There go the engineers, designers and technologists, along with the people stuck with the deadly buildings, roads, power plants, dams and machinery that are the experts’ monuments.

There go the advertising hucksters with their consumer goods, and there go the consumers, consumed with their consumption. And there go the media pundits and pollsters, along with all those unfortunates who wasted precious time listening to them explain why the flywheel could never come apart, or tell how to patch it even while increasing its crazy rate of spin.

The most terrifying thing about this disintegration for a society that believes in prediction and control will be the randomness of its violent consequences. The chaotic violence will include not only desperate ruthless struggles over the wealth that remains, but the last great violation of nature. What will make it worse is that, at least at the beginning, it will take place under a cloud of denial and cynical reassurances.

So now we have city and state governments suing the federal government for sending unmarked and untrained paramilitary secret police, unrequested, into their streets to terrorize, intimidate and kidnap innocent citizens as a sheer show of their employer’s political might. A DA in Philadelphia has asserted that if they do the same in his city, he’ll have his own police arrest them. There is a term for what happens when two domestic militias battle for control of a place inside a country. It’s called civil war.

What Trump has done, and is threatening to do in many more places that don’t and won’t vote for his disgraceful party, is nothing less than a declaration of war on citizens of his country in areas that don’t support his incompetent, massively corrupt, out-of-control administration. It’s been predicted for a decade or two — when oppression, inequality, brutality and injustice reach the kind of level they did in the US in 1860, or today, something has to give.

The title of this post comes from a Hemingway novel in which the protagonist is asked the question “How did you go bankrupt?”, and his answer is “Gradually, and then suddenly”. Last year Tim O’Reilly borrowed the phrase to describe how technological change happens. But far more importantly, just as it describes how financial and economic collapse occurs (through many, many depressions and appropriately-named “shocks”), how evolutionary dead ends occur (so-called “punctuated equilibria”), and how social and political collapse occurs, it also describes how ecological and civilizational collapse occurs.

This is endlessly baffling to the human mind (notably those trying to make sense of historical events) because it is in our nature to look for patterns, continuities, things that seemingly applied in past and so presumably should apply in future. The hockey stick pattern, where a long slow rise is followed by a sudden catastrophic fall, always catches us by surprise, even as we are being warned of looming “tipping points”. Likewise, the idea of exponential growth — the proverbial doubling of the grains on each additional checkerboard square — is largely unfathomable to us, which is why we can’t figure out how any more than 1.5ºC of average global warming will wreck our planet and render most of it uninhabitable, or how pandemics can occur. Like the money spent on the global war machine, these are simply mind-boggling numbers, and our brains just give up trying to make meaning of them, or assess what should be done about them. Let’s just go back to believing in what, we always thought, used to work well enough.

Gradually, and then suddenly, is how the slow rise of corruption, greed, waste and stench in American politics and corporatism since the 1980s (the Reagan years), and beneath that, more profoundly, since the failure of “Reconstruction” in the 1870s — and their analogues in the rest of the world — have brought us to the global socio-economic precipice we are now teetering on.

Gradually, and then suddenly, is how planetary ecocide has soared since the start of the cheap-oil-fuelled industrial era, and beneath that, more profoundly, since the invention of agriculture and the tools used to kill other species thirty millennia ago, has brought us to the global ecological extinction and runaway climate-change precipice we are now teetering on.

This is what happens when a species that is obsessed with its personal survival over the welfare of all life on the planet, achieves ascendance through a combination of astonishing innovation and sheer brute force. The death rattle is now as deafeningly loud as the LRAD sound cannons used to quell the protests of the righteously outraged.

We see this in the streets and faces of our beleaguered, oppressed, exhausted citizens. We see it in the massive and endless contraction of all forms of more-than-human life, the despoiling of the land, soil, water and air, and the desolation of habitats for all but own rapacious, insatiable, disconnected species.

We have, if we have been watching closely, seen this slow collapse building momentum, for millennia, from when we first left the trees of the tropical forests in search of a new livable world in the advent of past ghastly climate changes (which, like the current one, crept up glacially on our early forebears, and then very suddenly, in a matter of a few years, overtook them).

The current long slow collapse is becoming sudden. But not in a Mad Max way. Earl Mardle writes:

For nearly 20 years now I have been muttering that highly complex systems do not degrade elegantly; they resist like hell, then they collapse. It’s how [our bodies] die, for example. I have also been muttering that the complex system based on the US imperial fiat has been showing secular signs … that it is not happy and neither able to enforce its will nor adapt to the changed conditions…

And then Trump refusing to confirm that he would accept the result of this year’s election. Are we going to see the same unmarked federal troops arrayed around the White House, facing National Guard or Army deployments with their weapons pointing at the centre of the US Executive Government? And who will shoot first? It used to be a dystopian film script idea. It isn’t any more.

Our civilization (like all others before it) is behaving like the body of an old person slowly being overwhelmed by an accumulation of incurable illnesses, reflecting just the natural frailty of all systems as they age, as well as some serious, but too late to rectify, mostly unintentional neglect.

When I predict that our thirty-millennium-long* civilization will soon end, I mean we will see a series of sharp declines and partial recoveries over the next six or so decades, before its heart stops beating once and for all. The last 60 years of a 30,000 year ‘life’ may seem drawn out, but it is only 0.2% of the civilization’s total lifespan, the equivalent of the last 60 days of a long human life. Just as 50% of medical costs of a typical human are spent in the last 10% of their life, we look likely to extract 50% of the world’s resources, and render extinct 50% of its species, in the last 10% of our civilization’s life, just desperately trying to keep the useless old bugger alive a little longer.

And like a human life, it won’t be a precipitous health collapse, but a whole series of small shocks and injuries — just as heart attacks and chronic diseases of the organs lead inevitably closer to organ failure, despite expensive surgeries and transplants. So we can expect to see more suffering — more and deeper and longer depressions, currency failures, wars, governmental collapses, and of course horrific droughts, storms and other climate shocks that will eventually make civilization’s infrastructure too expensive to maintain; we’ll just stop trying to repair things that seem certain to break again soon.

Five to eight decades left — the blink of an eye in cosmic time, and even in our beleaguered planet’s long and varied life. But don’t mistake this for breathing room — this is the final 0.2% of our bloated, sickly civilization’s remarkable, colossally-destructive life. This is the end stage of collapse we are witnessing, the sudden part, by all accounts except our own.

The Trump ‘era’ might be viewed, if there is anyone left to observe it after civilization’s collapse (the history books may one day be viewed as unbelievable fantasy stories, if our post-collapse descendants can even be bothered to read anything so irrelevant to their staggeringly simplified lives), as the start of civilization’s final senescence, the tragic point at which the old man, after a long and violent struggle with everyone and everything he met during his unhappy life, finally lost his marbles, and started to behave completely incoherently.

There may be moments of clarity in this final period of delirium — we might finally start to recognize the horrific oppression we have meted out to billions of our fellow humans through systemic racism, sexism and other diseases of terminal patriarchy. But it is too late to rectify or heal these ghastly afflictions — the game is up, and there is no time for those who, outrageously, unfairly, missed their turn to play. Soon we will realize that, in order to keep the avaricious, heartless, insane old man alive, we have foolishly sold and mortgaged everything. Nothing remains, already, except debts, debts extracted thoughtlessly from future generations, that can now never be repaid.

The death rattle, the drumbeat. This is how it ends. And after us, finally, the dragons.


*  If you start counting with the invention of the flint arrowhead and spear that enabled the mass slaughter of the planet’s great mammals.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 10 Comments

Links of the Month: July 2020

cartoon by the late Dana Fradon, in The New Yorker, way back in 1976

One of the signs of social collapse is, ironically, the simultaneous emergence of autocratic demagogues and a soaring distrust of perceived ‘leaders’ of all kinds — politicians, CEOs, priests, the mainstream media hegemony, the social media oligopoly, and ‘experts’ in every field. What we’re seeing in many countries now is a complete power vacuum as so-called world leaders whine and yell on social media like spoiled children instead of actually doing anything to improve the lot of citizens struggling with an increasingly desperate and teetering culture. This has the value of rather baldly showing us that no one is really in control, and that if we want things done we’ll have to self-organize and do them ourselves. My sense is that this self-organization in a power vacuum will be a hallmark of the coming decades, and I’ll be writing about it further soon. There couldn’t be a stronger symbolic demonstration of this shift than the large-scale toppling of statues of historical ‘leaders’ who are now seen not as heroes but as symptoms of a systemic and still-present disease that must now, urgently, be abolished — not by new ‘leaders’ but by all of us in self-organizing communities. (Thanks to Alberta Pedroja for the prompt.)


Cartoon by Michael Leunig

Partying like it’s 2099: David Wallace-Wells explains that arctic temperatures have already reached levels not expected to be reached until 2099, the odds of limiting global average temperature rise to the 2.0ºC limit suggested as “inadequate to prevent runaway climate change” have now dropped to 0.3%, and in some places once-in-500-year extraordinary weather events have now occurred five years in a row. While our attention has been focused elsewhere, runaway climate change has, apparently, already begun.

Next up for our short attention spans: And so we whipsaw our attention from climate collapse to social justice to systemic racism to systemic corruption to systemic misogyny to economic precarity, and then back to pandemics. None of these problems is being addressed, none of them is improving, and all of them are out of control. The salvationists continue to proclaim that we can be saved, by technology, by a wise or hard-nosed elite, by faith, by diligent preparation, or (always the loudest proclamation) by a collective upraising of human consciousness. Ever-hopeful, we humans. Even as, fed by the happiness-promising industrial agricultural machine, we anxiously eat ourselves to death.


from xkcd, of course

Why racist violence shouldn’t surprise us: Waleed Aly’s moving, eye-opening response to last year’s Christchurch massacre. Even more eye-opening is the torrent of racist responses in the comments.

The difficulty of explaining complex predicaments: Hank Green brilliantly explains why, despite the enormous success and value of the Vlogbrothers’ Explainer video series, they’ve stopped making them because they realize they can’t prevent their own biases from creeping in.

Feminism and CoVid-19: Hawaii’s State Commission on the Status of Women has drafted a feminist recovery plan for the state, including a guaranteed annual income. Hope the politicians implement it. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Seventeen things that are quite good: The list (it’s an open-edit Google Doc) originated by Vinay Gupta is now 30 items, with discussion. I don’t agree with all of them, but the discussion is great and you’re sure to learn something useful.


Facebook meme, original source unknown; thanks to Cheryl Long for the link

Just call it White Supremacy: Charles Blow on the language of oppression. “The lulls you experience between explosive revolts of the oppressed should never be mistaken as harmony. They should be taken as rest breaks.” Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Donald Trump, fascist and shiller of beans: Masha Gessen lists the ways in which the shithole president’s behaviour represents unbridled fascism, autocracy, corruption, and abuse of power, and has since his days as a failed real estate speculator. And when he’s not doing that, he’s shilling beans.

Misinformation watch:

Rogue cops in Oregon (thanks to Tree Bressen for the links):

Latest Canadian awfulness:

An apology to JK Rowling: The vicious attacks on JK Rowling for her expressed concern that the project of feminism and the needs of WBW are being trampled by an ideological fringe of “identitarian leftists” have been relentless. One writer eloquently apologizes. And now an open letter warning of a larger trend among leftists to ideological closed-mindedness and inflexibility has been likewise assailed for not spouting the rigid leftist party line. A few weeks earlier, satirist Jonathan Pie ripped into this same rigidity in “Woke” culture. We’ve got to stop taking our anger out on each other and redirect it to our common nemeses.

Has Biden been radicalized by CoVid-19 and BLM?: David Wallace-Wells in conversation with Washington governor Jay Inslee, whose climate emergency plan has just been adopted by Biden. Posturing, or shifting ground?

Prisons: Our new privatized, dysfunctional, expensive mental institutions:In the U.S., people with serious mental illnesses are far more likely to be incarcerated than they are to be treated in a psychiatric hospital — despite the fact that incarceration often makes mentally ill people worse… [And] the foremost thing that I saw over and over again is how much we want people to suffer once they’re held within our jails and prisons.”


“one of these things is not like the others 🎶…” — can you guess what’s going to happen NEXT?  — nope, sorry, wrong guess! (the correct answer is — no) — (charts from Atlantic Magazine’s CoVid Tracking Project)

Lies and statistics:

    • CoVid-19 infections and deaths: the unofficial story: Officially, the US has reported just under 150,000 CoVid-19 deaths and just under four million infections. But statistical “excess deaths” data indicates that, like just about everywhere else, deaths have been undercounted by a third, meaning the actual US death toll so far has streaked past 200,000. On that basis, working backwards from deaths to infections, it is likely that at least 17 million and as many as 20 million Americans have caught the disease. A total of 350,000 deaths and 35 million cases (about 10% of the population; nowhere near “herd immunity”) will likely have occurred by November.
    • The positive result rate on US tests has risen recently to about 8%, far above the level at which infections could be said to be under control, as they are in jurisdictions with well-established test, contact trace and isolation procedures.
    • Canada likewise has “excess deaths” numbers that suggest deaths have been undercounted by a third or more. But the fatality rate suggests that a much smaller proportion of Canadians (about 13,000) have died, and fewer than a million have been infected. A total of about 17,000 deaths and 1.7 million cases (about 4.5% of the population) will likely have occurred by November.
    • The positive result rate on Canadian tests has remained remarkably low — less than 1%, despite the fact Canada has been doing about 1/3 fewer tests on a per capita basis; this suggests that, at least for now, it’s under control. IHME suggests that will change when new cases spike in the fall in at least two provinces (BC & Québec), even if the border with the US remains closed.
    • The Atlantic explores how a younger average demographic now testing positive could mean lower hospitalization rates (though that has not yet been the case), and lower death rates. IFRs are as much as two orders of magnitude lower among those under 30 as for those over 60. But we still don’t know how this virus affects us, including long-term organ damage even among those asymptomatic, that could create health crises emerging much later on a much larger scale than the virus infections themselves.

Let’s not forget the cause: Zoonotic transmission of pandemic viruses is directly related to deforestation, habitat loss, and incursion of humans into previously unsettled areas.

Lessons from the Manchurian plague: This 1910 bacterial pneumonic plague cost 60,000 lives, and what we learned from international cooperation to study and end it (including the first use of masks as disease spread preventative) prevented even greater loss of life in the 1918 influenza, and paved the way for much that we do to combat pandemics today. Thanks to Davis Andrews for the link.

The Mask Controversy:


electron microscope photograph of an ant, source not cited, from Earth FB page; commenter’s response: “looks like a purple Joe Biden”

You’ll never shine if you don’t glow: A lovely little video essay on fireflies and vulnerability  from John Green.

Our home on Native land: The title is a take-off on the line “our home and native land” in Canada’s national anthem. The site shows all the indigenous territories Europeans have occupied throughout the world (Brasil is notably missing), and their languages. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Sy Hersh comes out of seclusion: The eccentric, much-celebrated investigative journalist has broken a long silence since Trump was elected to answer, kind of, the question why he hasn’t been re-energized by the corruption of the Trump regime. Fascinating reading. Thanks to John Whiting for the prompt.

Shari Ulrich’s homage to Canada: The renowned singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist jams with a bunch of my other neighbours in a delightful song she wrote about her adopted home here in BC. And if you’ve ever lost someone to Alzheimers, you’ll probably like her lovely new song The Sweater.

The NYT Manual of Style: There’s a ‘preview’ version of the first 130 pages (words starting with A-F) of this classic 350-page reference. If you’re a word and writing style geek like me, you’ll probably find it fascinating reading. The contrast in styles to the (free) 25-page Oxford style guide is telling.

Indigenous Americans had contact with Polynesians 800 years ago: New DNA research indicates that by 1200 CE, Polynesians had traveled to and interbred with the indigenous peoples of what are now called Colombia and Ecuador, centuries before colonization by Europeans.

Yes, it’s a satire, I think: Andy Borowitz reports that US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has promised to protect children from contact with education. And the Onion reports that the FBI has uncovered an Al-Qaida plot to just sit back and watch the US collapse of its own accord. (Thanks to Earl Mardle for the second link.)

The art of Sandra Boynton: The renowned cartoonist-author-composer has produced many fun videos featuring celebrity singers. Some, like When Pigs Fly (feat. Ryan Adams), are animated; others, like End of a Summer Storm (feat. Alison Krauss) are just profoundly moving. And she has the world’s best bio.

The Blessing: This American religious pop song has gone viral and global. Catchy melody, if you can get past the annoying salvationist lyrics, and now with more than 30 covers in many different languages. Pretty suited to CoVid-19 times if you know how to edit music clips together. My favourites are the UK version and the Haitian creole version. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the links.

The story of The Girl From Ipanema: The song is the world’s second most recorded, but it’s not the simple bossa nova song you might think. For music geeks only, Adam Neely provides a fascinating history of the song and the genre, and then breaks down its haunting melody and counterpoint, and its astonishingly innovative harmonies. Much more than meets the ear.


Wallpaper motif in a post by Mushin Schilling; original source un-cited

David Bohm on Radical Non-Duality: Long before Tony Parsons & co, David Bohm was channeling Krishnamurti on the self as illusion. He said it much more coherently than Krishnamurti did, but it’s also clear how hard it was, and is, to explain this message. Tony and the other radical non-dualists listed on my sidebar have since developed a vocabulary that makes the message much more intelligible. And of course the message is actually thousands of years old, though it has only been recently stripped of its unnecessary and distracting religious/spiritual trappings.

Some excerpts from a recent conversation between Frank McCaughey and Michael Riley:

[When the illusory self suddenly falls away] the brain at that ‘moment’ cannot cope with seeing everything… [The ‘me’ is all about reaction and] it doesn’t know how to react to this.

It’s not that the self lets go; it’s that everything lets go of the self.

The sense that anything could be other than it is, is gone; not ‘gone away’, just gone.

The falling away of the seeking energy came first and then there was a slow retroactive dawning that what that meant was that the one that was doing that seeking was over.


photos by award-winning photog Kathrin Swoboda: “Cold enough to see the melody”; thanks to Earth FB page for the link

From Caitlin Johnstone’s blog:

I am reminded of a famous contentious interview between Noam Chomsky and British journalist Andrew Marr in which Chomsky derided the false image mainstream journalists have of themselves as “a crusading profession, adversarial, we stand up against power,” saying it’s almost impossible for a good journalist to do so in any meaningful way in the mass media. “How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are-” Marr objected.

“I’m not saying you’re self-censoring,” Chomsky replied. “I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

From a Black Lives Matter poster, variously attributed (thanks to Tree Bressen for the link):

Treat racism like CoVid-19: Assume you have it. Listen to experts about it. Don’t spread it. Be willing to change your life to end it.

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

No Shame, No Blame — Just Lame

Forecast CoVid-19 death curve for British Columbia. Sources: Historical data: BC CDC; 270 additional excess deaths probably attributable to CoVid-19 in March & April per Statistics Canada; Forecast per UW/IHME as at July 14; they assume the next complete shutdown in BC to occur around October 15, as deaths begin to surge, but too late to prevent the curve above.

I went to do a bit of food shopping today, and it was an astonishing, and educational experience. I live in a very small (3,800 people) but spread-out community, and we in BC have been particularly blessed with an extremely low rate of CoVid-19 infections and deaths, due principally to good luck, but also due to our relative isolation, the extraordinary competence of our provincial epidemic health leadership under Bonnie Henry, and Canadians’ seeming natural propensity to follow the rules in times of crisis.

All food businesses in our community have clearly posted and physically marked-out CoVid-19 rules: Marks on the floor and outside walkways to delimit 6′ separation while waiting in line, capacity limits, separate entrance and exit doors, and, usually, antiseptic wash at the entrance.

There was no outside lineup in this particular business, so I walked in and took a spot in the inside demarcated line waiting to order. Between me and the person ahead of me in line was a small throng: three parents apparently from two families, two local police officers, the owner of the establishment, and, running around among them, five children. They were laughing and telling stories (it’s a small community, and most people know each other). They were, absolute maximum, three feet apart. Indoors. No masks. The kids were brushing by customers, running in and out of the doors.

I thought I’d been somehow horrifically transported to Florida. Surely this wouldn’t be happening here? The group’s conversation lasted at least five minutes before the business owner, still unmasked, returned to the kitchen. When the parents and officers continued to chat and block the way forward in the line, oblivious, I gave up and, walking carefully around them, gave up and exited.

I went to another food establishment a short distance away. An employee, masked and washing surfaces around the store entrance, told me I’d have to wait since the posted maximum number of people were already inside; I did so gratefully. When I did get in, everyone I saw in the store wore a mask and carefully avoided encroaching on 6′ space around other customers and employees. The counter was thoroughly sprayed and wiped down before I was permitted to place my items on it. At no time was I within 6′ of anyone in the store. I thanked them for their concern for public safety and for their diligence.

Many customers frequent both establishments, so how was I to account for the utterly different experience I had in them, mere minutes apart?

I’m not a fan of blaming and shaming — in my experience it usually backfires, and my community is small enough that the repercussions to all parties could easily blow out of control (I’ve seen this in other situations where residents of our community seem overly hasty to rush to judgement and take “sides”, without any concern for the facts).

And I’m sure my community is not unusual, even here in cautious BC. I just want to understand why the clearly communicated (every day!) simple advice of health experts is being ignored. Because the potential consequences are tragic. Spending time indoors with people not in your bubble/pod, without social distancing, and without masks, is, I am told, statistically as dangerous as driving drunk. We don’t tolerate drunk driving, so why do we tolerate this? It gives the lie to arguments that recent surges in cases are due to “frat boys having Coronavirus parties” — this has very quickly become endemic behaviour in the communities of just about everyone I know.

IHME at the University of Washington has recently revised its death predictions based on expected changes in social distancing and mask behaviours. The chart above shows what it now predicts for British Columbia. When I first saw the projected surge this fall I was incredulous — new cases and deaths are so low here that other jurisdictions are studying our success. But now I understand: With fewer than 1% of BC residents exposed to CoVid-19 to date (lower than just about anywhere else with a major metropolitan city), and the kind of reckless behaviour I witnessed today (and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it, though it is the first time I’ve seen business owners and police officers contributing to the problem), not only is a fall surge in deaths here possible, statistically it’s more or less certain. We, and other jurisdictions that have so far been mostly spared, are almost inevitably going to allow the levels of infection that are now hitting Florida, Texas, Arizona and Southern California, enough to bring per capita hospitalizations (already happening there) and potentially per capita deaths, up to the levels seen in New York, Québec and other hard-hit areas.

It’s discouraging, when we now know full well the consequences of our behaviour, that we seem to be knowingly sleepwalking into extending this pandemic for months and possibly years until/unless a safe, affordable, and effective vaccine can be introduced.

So what’s going on here? What is causing normally reasonable, intelligent people to act this way, when they certainly wouldn’t drive drunk, wouldn’t play Russian roulette with strangers, and wouldn’t, as one friend of mine put it “knowingly engage in a form of mindless collective mob violence with potentially catastrophic consequences for all around them”? It’s not as if their livelihoods depend on them putting themselves and others at risk.

The answer, in a word, is complacency. Or if you want two words, human nature. These are the main factors that, IMO, are at work creating this seemingly inevitable disaster:

  1. We’re suckers for mimicking others’ behaviour — our peers’, not our politicians’. The weaker the ego, the more likely we are to do what everyone else is doing and feel awkward or ridiculous for doing anything else. That worked in our favour during the first peak. It’s working against us now, and the trend is worsening. Even rats, it appears, take cues from ‘bystanders’ and won’t ‘get involved’ (they are, like all mammals, usually very altruistic) if others nearby seem indifferent to a situation needing action.
  2. We want to believe things are better than they really are (just look at prevailing attitudes on climate change, systemic racism, or any other crisis), and that they are at least slowly improving — the unquenchable myth of progress. So we systematically and subconsciously filter out the worst news and predictions on CoVid-19, and believe those all-too-willing (like the governor of Georgia, whose mental illness seems likely to cause thousands of unnecessary deaths and unimaginable long-term health consequences) to tell us that things are fine, instead of the truth.
  3. We believe what we see more than what we hear or read. If we see overcrowded hospitals and ambulances in our communities, we’re far more likely to take precautions and believe the threat is severe, than if we just hear or read data. A single story has more effect on what we believe and do than a mountain of information. We have simply not seen enough horror stories here in BC to offset our tendency towards complacency.
  4. We believe that it’s the responsibility of others, with more perceived power and resources than we have, to solve our non-personal problems. It’s so easy to believe our personal actions don’t make a difference, while governments’ and corporations’ actions could somehow make all the difference (someone must be in charge, just as someone with power must be to blame when things go wrong). It’s easy, and we want things to be easy.

It’s kind of sad to observe that we seem incapable of learning from others’ mistakes, at least unless we see them first hand. So we seem destined to repeat them. So that means another thousand or two British Columbians will needlessly die. And another 100,000 or more Americans. And another two million or more worldwide.

We may be getting a foretaste of humans’ incapacity to prepare for, or work to mitigate, crises of other kinds, most notably our imminent economic, climate and ecological collapse. Many have already drawn “hockey stick” curves showing these crises growing exponentially. We may believe that these crises do indeed loom large, but we’re not, by our nature, prepared to sacrifice much of anything we value to address them, at least until we know from direct experience and beyond all doubt that we have no other choice.

So no shame, no blame. Like rats in a maze we are just doing what creatures of our species do to deal with the needs of the moment. I can’t help but be outraged at what that leads to, and what it means for our future. But it is a pointless, futile outrage. We are wise, we homo sapiens, and capable of incredible invention, but we are also foolish, hopelessly incapable of dealing with what we have, in our blink of time on this planet, magnificently, astonishingly, and tragically wrought.

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