Links of the Quarter: September 29, 2015

hansen warming glacial melt
one of many disturbing warming scenarios from the latest study by Jim Hansen’s team shows that global warming is far from uniform; total glacial melt in Greenland (or Antarctica) would set the stage for constant storms of unprecedented size and total disruption of ocean currents and jet streams, rendering adjacent land areas frozen and unliveable (thanks to Sam Rose for the link to Robert Fanney’s work) UPDATE: The Greenland Cold Blob has apparently already started (thanks to 3Es Global Risk Report for this new link)

More and more I’m beginning to think about our future in terms of the kind of Great Migration that accompanied the last ice age 20,000 years ago — but this time it will be a migration (generally) toward the poles instead of toward the equator, and it will be billions of humans on the move, not millions, as runaway climate change makes much of the planet from 45ºN to 45ºS uninhabitable, and as drought, inexhaustible wildfires, massive storms, flooding and tropical diseases encroach and push us further every few years.

This will likely start within the next 20 years and then become the usual way of living in the decades to follow, until life as we know it today is forgotten, and human numbers (mostly due to collapsing birth rates) plummet. Even if the essential infrastructure of civilization survives (which is unlikely in the face of the utter economic collapse that such massive forced migration will bring about), that infrastructure will simply be abandoned, since it will be of no use to post-collapse nomadic humans. This is the way almost all civilizations have ended — not by conquest or internal purge, but when they became unsustainable and their citizens found they no longer served a useful purpose and simply walked away from them (thanks to Eric Lilius for this link).

“Poor Richard” (Saunders) has started thinking about what this might mean for preparations today. If we’re all going to be on the move, progressively toward the poles and away from storms and flooded coasts, how does this change our concept of “sustainable community” and what we might do now to prepare for the Great Migration? He suggests:

Self-reliance is revolutionary. In the past self reliance has often been built upon resources such as land and capital. In a collapse of civilization assets including land may become too hard to hold onto. In that case the greatest asset may be a body of knowledge and a set of skills that allow people to live off the land in a more mobile or nomadic configuration. If that’s the case, it might behoove us to acquire that knowledge and those skills in advance. It might also make sense for us to prepare for a modern, nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle by “planting” resources into the environment, perhaps hiding some resources in plain sight. One way of doing this might be scattering permaculture plantings, forest gardens, etc. throughout the range of territory we might expect to inhabit.

I’m attending an Intro to Permaculture session next month, and this is the thought I want to plant in the minds of the organizers and attendees.



recent regional air quality report, the result of wildfires burning out of control longer than usual due to an international shortage of wildfire fighters

Goodbye Cascadia:An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.” The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schultz, in an award-worthy article, explains why.

Toxic Bloom Threatens West Coast Marine Life: As if overfishing and pollution weren’t enough, climate change has unleashed a massive “blob” of hot water sitting long-term off the entire North American west coast, which has produced a “red tide” algae bloom that has infected much of the offshore marine life with deadly toxins.

One Economic Collapse, Coming Right Up: Zero Hedge explains why we’re headed for a crash that will make 2008 look like nothing. “A critical thinking individual might wonder how new home sales could be down 60% from 2005, while home prices are 15% higher than they were in 2005. Don’t the laws of supply and demand work anymore?… I wonder who is responsible for this?” (hint: it’s the bankers, and the Fed)

Top Predators (Other Than Humans) Self-Limit Their Numbers: Wild creatures at the top of the food chain are so connected to the web of life on Earth that they intuitively self-limit procreation to stay in balance with the ecosystems in which they reside, minimizing suffering for all. Contrary to popular belief that animals procreate as much as possible until and unless limited by predators or disease, this self-management seems endemic to almost all bird and mammal species, and it makes perfect evolutionary sense. If only the human species was still similarly so connected…

“Sustainability is Destroying the Earth”: A writer in the Deep Green Resistance movement explains why none of our “green” activities, conservation activities or protests have any real effect on the destruction of our planet. If you really want to bring about change, the writer suggests, you will have to become much more radical in what you do. I think that’s correct —Bill McKibben, 350, Greenpeace (as if it rather than the economy had anything to do with Shell’s decision to stop arctic drilling!), Naomi Klein, Avaaz and the rest of the neo-environmental movement have been completely coopted and their efforts are, in my opinion, worse than useless. But as a student of complexity I’m not convinced that Deep Green Activism will accomplish much more on any scale — the “block it, break it, take it” direct actions that DGR calls for may cause minor delays to the destruction, but will give corporatists and their PR machine ammunition to discredit opponents (all of us) as “terrorists” and won’t have much long-term impact in any case. Better I think to do below-the-radar local actions, quietly, and what Joanna Macy calls “holding actions” that are realistically intended not to bring about change, but to slow down the destruction a bit, in unspectacular ways, so that the industrial culture will have destroyed less by the time it sputters and collapses of its own weight. This is not work for idealists, optimists or the impatient. Thanks to Emily MacDonald for the first two links.

Complexity and Climate Change: Jonathan Franzen explains why complex systems are so hard to change, and why it’s so much easier to claim (and believe in) some simple, blame-shifting cause for every problem. Thanks to Raffi Aftandelian for the link. Excerpt:

The reason the American political system can’t deliver action isn’t simply that fossil-fuel corporations sponsor denialists and buy elections, as many progressives suppose. Even for people who accept the fact of global warming, the problem can be framed in many different ways—a crisis in global governance, a market failure, a technological challenge, a matter of social justice, and so on—each of which argues for a different expensive solution. A problem like this (a “wicked problem” is the technical term) will frustrate almost any country, and particularly the United States, where government is designed to be both weak and responsive to its citizens. Unlike the progressives who see a democracy perverted by moneyed interests, [philosopher Dale] Jamieson suggests that America’s inaction on climate change is the result of democracy. A good democracy, after all, acts in the interests of its citizens, and it’s precisely the citizens of the major carbon-emitting democracies who benefit from cheap gasoline and global trade, while the main costs of our polluting are borne by those who have no vote: poorer countries, future generations, other species.

The Great Forgetting: An excerpt from The Story of B by Daniel Quinn recently turned up on the Films for Action site. If you haven’t read the book, it’s a great introduction to a book well worth reading. It explains how our modern disconnected industrial “taker” culture emerged as dominant over thousands of connected, sustainable “leaver” cultures. Thanks to Seb Paquet for the link.



leunig self-help
cartoon by Michael Leunig

A New Law of the Commons: David Bollier explains how existing private property laws and “rights” lie at the root of inequality, poverty, abuse of power and the dysfunction of our economic systems, and proposes a new emergent Law of the Commons. “What is this all about, ultimately? It’s about honoring the sovereignty of people to devise their own forms of governance to meet their needs and local context. It’s about the importance of bottom-up initiatives and participation, and of transparency and accountability. It’s about meeting people’s needs without relying on the dysfunctional formalities of bureaucracy, the market/state duopoly of power, or the social inequities associated with markets.” Parallel steps include legal reforms to liberate cooperatives from the burdensome laws required to prevent the worst abuses of for-profit corporations (the work the SELC is doing), and the development of Community Land Trusts to enable stewardship of the land for the benefit of all. Thanks to “Ah Uhm” at PLAST for the link.

Returning Land Profits to the People: Martin Adams goes a step further than David Bollier, advocating the use of Community Land Trusts to gradually supplant private ownership. This might start with freezing the value of land at current values and returning all future appreciation to the community; land then becomes something to use (hopefully with care and good stewardship) rather than something to speculate on, and because the increase in value stems from the actions of the community (and not those of the investor) it’s only fair that the incremental proceeds from sale at that higher value accrue to the community. Thanks to Mark Frazier for the link.

The Worker Co-op Academy: The SELC is also now offering training in how to set up co-operatives. I would love to see this expand beyond California, and to see it radicalized to adopt the Natural Enterprise model.

Malama Aina: A stunning short Hawai’ian film (the title refers to “careful stewardship of the Earth”) questions a society that rewards and celebrates “profit” — the taking of more than one gives — and suggests a better, more ancient worldview. Thanks to Jacqueline Massey for the link.

Why I Defaulted On My Student Loans: A very controversial article (a lot of people who have struggled and suffered for years with un-repayable student or other debts complained that the author was “irresponsible”) suggests just walking away from exorbitant debts. There used to be a way for people in this situation to escape; it’s called declaring bankruptcy. But since the banksters seized power it’s now much more difficult to do, and has lifelong consequences. The Occupy movement is taking a lead here, blocking foreclosures and evictions and supporting citizens buffaloed by the criminal usury gangs called the “financial services industry” into getting into debts they (the lenders) know full well can never be repaid. If there’s ever a revolution against inequality, this will be the front line of activism.

petting chart
(graphic circulating on the Internet; original source unknown)

Shaking Off the Stress: Mimicking wild creatures’ vigorous physical “shaking off” process after a stressful incident, Trauma Releasing Exercises purport to offer the same stress-busting benefit for humans, focusing on tightening and relaxing the psoas muscles. Thanks to Beth Patterson for the links.

Learning How to Die: Stephen Jenkinson explains how our radically individualistic culture, separated from history and nature and tradition, leads us to fear and shun death, among a host of other dysfunctional behaviours. Thanks to Eric Lilius for the link.

How Children Really Learn: Institutionalized schooling leads to a distorted sense by education “experts” of how children learn, and hence to a brutal, dysfunctional and damaging education system. Do your children and the world a favour and help them escape. Thanks to PS Pirro for the link, and the one that follows.

Struggling Nations to Do-Gooders: We Don’t Need Your Help: Back in 1968 Ivan Illich wrote a scathing attack on the incredible damage and waste caused by well-intentioned but arrogant first world do-gooders coming to developing nations and imposing their culture, “assistance” and ideas on them, before going home thinking they’d helped. It’s still pertinent today.

Bowen Island’s Green Resource Guide: The Green Guide is the latest useful initiative from Bowen in Transition, which I’m honoured to be a member of.

The Idaho Stop Law: A really sensible law in Idaho allows bicyclists to treat stop signs as if they were yield signs and red lights as if they were stop signs. This results in cyclists clearing intersections quickly and safely. When SF police were ordered to enforce stops and red lights for cyclists the same as for cars, protesters showed what happens when bicyclists actually do that, with comical (except to frustrated, backed-up motorists) results. In another sensible ruling in Idaho, the courts have ruled their ag-gag law unconstitutional. However, dozens of other state ag-gag laws, passed under pressure from factory farm corporations, remain on the books. Thanks to Tree for the links.

No Such Thing As Time: If we (by which I mean I) could only realize that there is no such thing as time, or the separate ‘self’, everything would be so much easier. Maybe. Thanks to Tia Carr for the link.



Keith Tucker 20150624_TPP
cartoon on the TPP by Keith Tucker

Conservatives Lead in the Polls, Again: As Canada’s four progressive parties snipe at each other and split the vote, the ultra-right governing Conservative Party looks likely, with just 32% support, to win another plurality, and perhaps even majority, in the election October 19th. A NYT editorial explains what this means for Canada. A Macleans magazine investigation explains what’s already been lost (thanks to Eric Lilius, who also sent me this hilarious spoof of Harper’s warmongering, for the link).

Even the New Yorker Criticizes “Free” Trade Agreements: James Surowiecki acknowledges that the provisions in so-called “free” trade agreements like NAFTA and the upcoming TPP that allow corporations to sue governments (i.e. to extort money from taxpayers) when their “freedoms” to pollute, to exploit, and to overcharge are restricted by domestic laws, are outrageous and need to be excised (see cartoon above). US Senator Jeff Sessions, who opposed TPP, wrote “Washington broke arms and heads to get that 60th vote–not one to spare–to impose on the American people a plan which imperils their jobs, wages, and control over their own affairs. It is remarkable that so much energy has been expended on advancing the things Americans oppose, and preventing the things Americans want.”

Nutritional Supplements: What’s Not in the Bottle: If you’re taking vitamins and other nutritional supplements, please ensure (a) you’re actually getting what’s on the label (you’re often not), and (b) that they’re actually effective for what ails you (most aren’t).  This also applies to vitamins and minerals, most of which are useless if you eat properly.

A Dark & Sticky Business: Linda McQuaig, a Toronto NDP candidate in the October 19th federal election, dared to say the Tar Sands bitumen should be left in the ground. The reaction, even from within her party, was predictable.

Coopting the Sharing Economy, Part LXI: Having coopted the sharing of spare rooms and cars for profit-making purposes, capitalists are now trying to coopt the co-living movement. They just can’t understand why anyone would do anything without a profit motive. Thanks to Tree (and Pax) for the link.

Debunking the 9/11 Truthers: The brilliant investigative reporter Nafeez Ahmed explains why, despite the incompetence of the media to explain the total collapse of the towers on 9/11, it was no inside job. Rather, he suggests, it was likely shoddy design and/or corner-cutting in the safety of construction of the towers in the first place that led to the massive collapse of four entire buildings.

But Some Are More Equal Than Others: Ultra-rich Californians argue that as long as they can pay for it, they should not be restricted in how much water they use on their lawns and golf courses, no matter how serious the drought gets. Libertarianism run amok.



microscopic photo of a tardigrade, a recently-discovered clawed bear-like aquatic creature about 1/16 of an inch long, that has been found thriving everywhere, including places of extreme cold and pressure; in poor climates they self-dehydrate to tiny condensed size and can hibernate, seemingly indefinitely, until they bounce right back when conditions improve; calling Dr Seuss!

Evolution and Complexity: David Sloan Wilson interviews evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, who explains how our incapacity (or unwillingness) to appreciate complexity hurts science, and why applying evolution theory to culture and sociology is flawed thinking. One of the best interviews I’ve ever read. A separate article by David Sloan Wilson explains why best practices don’t work — why inertia, preconceived ideas and aversion to innovation prevent very successful trials from getting permanent traction and allow obviously flawed and dysfunctional practices to continue in use. Another paradox of complexity.

Vegan with Attitude: Vegan Black Metal Chef shows you how to prepare some simple, wonderful, vegan meals. Hellishly funny.

The Girlfriend Closet: What’s a poly guy, living alone, to do?

Amazing New Renewable Energy Source Discovered: Some levity by Richard Heinberg. Thanks to (naturally enough) Tree for the link, and the one that follows.

Explaining Straight White Male Privilege to Straight White Males: Imagine a video game with the lowest difficulty setting ever.

Seattle Jim Page: I first heard Jim live a few months ago, and found his stirring protest songs, and lovely celebrations of simple living, truly inspiring.

(photo circulating on the Internet; original source unknown)

Live Video of Alaskan Bears in Brooks Falls: These remote 24/7 cams bother me a bit; seems like an invasion of privacy. But watching wild creatures live is fascinating. In addition to the bears, the site has other wilderness cams as well. Thanks to Susan Avery for the link.

Jim Henson Tribute: The rest of the faces behind the Muppets do a mashup of Jim Henson’s favourite songs. Really moving. Thanks to Kelly for the link.

Hyperrealist Paintings: Watch Portrait Painter Pabst make portraits using dry brush techniques that are almost alive; he also does some amazing 3D illusion paintings.



EMJBEcom cartoon
cartoon from (thanks to Seb Paquet for the link)

  • From Paul Kingsnorth, in the invitation for submissions to Dark Mountain volume 9, earlier this month: “Humanity is going to be humbled one way or the other, so we may as well begin the process ourselves. What might the alternatives to the Humans-As-Gods story look like, told in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art,  starting from where we are?”
  • From Umberto Eco (thanks to Todd Suomela for the link): “A good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of.”
  • From actor/musician Hugh Laurie (thanks to Jon Husband for the link): “It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”
  • From PS Pirro, a new poem, No Hard Feelings:


It’s the water that carries us, after all,
like mermaids astride the glistening shell
of the giant sea turtle, we are slippery wet,
slick as newborns.

We are filled with the oceans, we are alive.

All my friends are anemones, supple, pliable,
bendy beneath the waves,
the salt and the sea that softens the flesh
and even the hardest of feelings.

All my friends are fluid.


When John was twelve he came upon his father
golden in the early morning light, hanging
by a noose from a rafter in the barn.

When Tim was twelve he followed his mother
to the Belgium Bridge and watched as she threw
what remained of herself into the Seneca River.

When Mark was twelve he watched his father
give himself up to the tumors that stole the hard,
dry breath from his lungs.


We did not kiss or hold each other close
one last time, we did not wish each other well.


When the edges get ragged, you can turn
a new seam. Again and again, you turn,
until the garment that once covered you
is a collar buttoned at your throat, a bib to catch
what crumbs may fall.

But this is not the edge.
This is the center, this is the heart,
where the rend is new
and the soft fray has only just begun,
there is still time to lay a patch,
still time to stitch things
back together.
If only I had a needle.
If only I could find some thread.


All along the shores of Lake Ontario
I gather the pieces of beach glass,
frosted blue and green, bits of vessels once
whole and transparent, now fractured into
fragments, small and opaque as moonstone,
buffed and lustrous, the product of time
spent tumbling, of turbulence, of friction,
of abrasion, bruised like knees for years and years.
I fill my pockets to overflow with the beautiful
battered bits and carry them all back home.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Against Hope: A Primer on Complexity and Collapse

Saturday evening I participated in a PechaKucha-style evening of presentations sponsored by the Bowen Island Arts Council as part of the Canada-wide Culture Days events.

For those not familiar with PechaKucha, it requires you to make your presentation precisely 20 slides long, with each slide lasting precisely 20 seconds — so the entire presentation is exactly 6:40 in length. You can of course choose your own slides, but you are encouraged to use few or no words on your slides, so that the audience listens to what you are saying instead of reading your slides.

Since the idea of doing this as our contribution to Culture Days was initially my idea, I felt both obligated and inspired to be one of the presenters. I challenged myself to see if I could capture the essential ideas of complexity and why civilizations always collapse, into this short a presentation.

The audience (about 50 people) was appreciative, and all of the presentations were outstanding. I was struck by how the feedback you get from a live audience differs from that you get from writing the same things (though less economically) on a blog. Your physical presence seems to give your ideas more credibility — perhaps it’s because you’re willing to stand up there and look people right in the eye and say things, which is much harder, and more of a commitment, than just putting them up on the Internet. So I had the sense I got through to some people who would not have been as receptive to the same ideas presented in writing. The fact that humour was present in all the presentations, and that the wine was flowing throughout the evening, probably also helped.

It was a valuable exercise distilling and re-distilling an hour’s content down to just over 6 minutes — I have an even greater appreciation for good editors now.

The video of my 20 slides with my voice-over is now up on YouTube here. Those of you I’ve never met and who have never heard my voice may find it interesting. Next time we do such an event we’re planning to record it, so you’ll be able to see me as well.


Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 3 Comments

Stuck At The Doorway

hummingbird 4
photo by the author
For almost a year now, I have been preoccupied (perhaps even obsessed) with the search to realize who ‘I’ really am, beneath the illusion of self, beneath the stories of life history, beyond ego, time and separateness. I have tried many practices, and come to appreciate that this realization must not require a lot of practice, just the capacity to see what really is.

I have been listening to this 2014 ‘meditation’ by Eckhart Tolle a lot over the past year. I think it is, for me, the way to that realization, possibly the most succinct and articulate explanation of this simple, infuriatingly elusive truth ever produced (at least from where I am coming from; my mind seems to work the way his does, and I find his terminology meaningful, coherent and accessible).

A feel I am so close. Every day (except when I get too discouraged) I sit outside and look at the natural beauty around me and listen, starting from the awareness and appreciation of external sense perceptions to try to move deeper to the awareness of the inner body/energy field, and then deeper still to the spacious awareness of true nature, totally present, here, now, as part of the universal consciousness of all life. But I’m stuck at the doorway.

I don’t ‘feel’ the inner body/energy field; I cannot sense it as real, beyond a conceptual level. And although I intellectually appreciate the goal of ‘being aware of being aware’, it is beyond my ability to realize it. My ego, my constant stream of habitual thoughts and propensity to (over-)analyze, perhaps my many fears (notably the fear of letting go), my long-reinforced neural pathways, my well-entrained pattern of blanking out when I get anxious or outside my comfort zone — all of these are blocking me, holding me back from taking the simple step through the doorway to realization.

I sense that this realization is the first, necessary step to the discovery of how to be and from there how to know what to do, that will inform how to best be of service to the world for what’s left of my life (and keep me healthy as I do so).

Perhaps I am banking too much on this intuition; it’s possible that this realization will never come. I’m not ready to concede that yet.

In the meantime, if I’m not writing much, or doing much of any perceived value, if I seem restless, impatient, distracted, indifferent, lazy or inattentive (and I do get the irony in that), that is why. I know that’s no excuse, and I’m sorry. It’s now or never for this.

This is my healing journey.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

Mud and Salt

Mud Girls 1
the stunning meditation hut at Mud Girl Molly’s place on Salt Spring

This past weekend the Coordinating Team of Bowen in Transition made a trip to nearby Salt Spring Island to meet up with our counterparts at Transition Salt Spring, talk about our recent initiatives like the Fix-It Fair and Green Guide, learn about their many organic food programs, and learn about natural building from the Mud Girls.

I enjoyed meeting the Transition Salt Spring team, who were doing multiple duties supporting the annual Salt Spring Fall Fair on Saturday. We visited their tents at the fair, learned about their remarkable Electric Vehicle initiative, and shared Green Drinks with them at Moby’s Pub. We agreed to share the contact info of our respective project leads so that we can continue the collaboration.

Earth Candy
Earth Candy Farm greenhouse, photo from their Facebook page

We visited Earth Candy Farm, with astonishingly prolific crops growing everywhere (and sky-high in their organic greenhouses) and delectable goodies in their lovely cool domed mud yurt and fun organic cafe. We learned about the island’s Emergency Program, which is shifting from disaster preparation (earthquakes, storms, wildfires, power outages, flooding, pandemics) to longer-term programs for sustainable resilience. We learned how the island has co-organized all of its many volunteer/sharing economy activities under an umbrella Volunteer and Community Resources hub (brilliant idea).

We had our local-ingredients dinner at the awesome Rock Salt restaurant.

Mud Girls 2

For me, the highlight was Sunday’s magical tour of the natural buildings at Molly’s place (her house is pictured above). Molly is one of the Mud Girls, a small province-wide women’s natural building collective with remarkable building talents (wattle and daub, straw bale, cob and a host of other techniques) and delightful values (read their principles; the Transition Movement should adopt them as our own).

Mud Girls 3

Their craft is mixed with playfulness and artistic skill, as exemplified by the work shown above, in the laundry / shower shed. The wonderfully healthy kids are an essential part of the experience and come to many of the Mud Girls’ workshops across the province as part of their own learning journey. Here’s their playhouse-in-progress:

Mud Girls 5Here’s a great video showing a workshop and building event.

We’re planning a set of workshops next year with them to construct three funky bus shelters on Bowen Island, as part of our learning about natural building and sustainability.

Thanks to all my Bowen in Transition colleagues, especially Jessica who organized the event for us!


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

next time

age 6
learning to ride a bicycle, frustrated
falling off and falling off, again and again
wanting so badly to figure it out
father running behind holding the back
saying to pedal faster to make it easier
or to turn in the direction you’re falling
and still falling, falling
watching younger kids flying by, smiling
afraid of being hurt, afraid to fall at high speed
afraid to fail
and almost giving up after endless trying
and wondering what’s wrong with me
everyone else can do this

and then, finally, success
and wondering why, what had changed
and feeling so foolish, that it was so easy
what was there to be afraid of?

age 9
learning to swim, frustrated
sinking and choking and failing, again and again
wanting to pass to the next level so badly
practicing all the moves, doing each fine
but not being able to put them together
still stuck here, in beginners
watching younger, newer kids in class advance
and never seeing them again
still being told what to do and trying, trying
sinking, gasping, panicking
afraid of drowning, afraid of having to be rescued
and finally, giving up, no more frustration
no more humiliation and failure

and trying again years later, again without success
and being told you have low body fat
which makes it harder so it’s ok to fail
and giving up again
and trying again years later, again without success
and being told you’re uncoordinated,
or you’re not trying,
not paying attention, not concentrating
and wondering what’s wrong with me
everyone else can do this

age 15
learning to drive, frustrated
misunderstanding the signs
splashing people, driving over curbs
not looking far enough ahead
the instructor jamming on the brakes in panic
and saying it’s ok let’s try it again
dreading the lessons
but wanting to learn so badly
and then the first driving test, failing utterly
not even close
and the second test, so nervous now
terrified, just wanting it to be over
promising to only drive on special occasions
and failing again
all too much, too much to focus on at once
too much to learn
afraid of hurting someone, of wrecking the car
of humiliation, of letting people down
and then the third test, determined
and failing again
wanting to give up, no more frustration
and then waiting six months
before being allowed a fourth test

and somehow, on that fourth attempt
just passing, and wondering
did he just say “ok enough
we don’t want to see you again”
or was it just luck, no real challenges encountered
not a real test at all
and wondering what’s wrong with me
everyone else can do this

age 20
learning to dance, frustrated
stepping on the teacher’s feet,
forgetting the steps, starting again
even falling down
trying so hard
afraid of falling, of humiliation, of rejection
and then being told
you’re just not coordinated enough
and it’s time to give up

and trying again years later
and being told you’re not trying
you’re not paying attention
and giving up again
and trying again years later
and being told you know it all
and you just have to keep practicing
and eventually it will come
but not on my time please
find another instructor
and finally giving up
no more frustration
and wondering what’s wrong with me
everyone else can do this

age 25
learning to speak in public, frustrated
stuttering, speechless, failing as a substitute teacher
having to read your notes to get through it
(long before the days of powerpoint)
full of shame and self-loathing
for not being able to extemporize
work from points
teach and speak without notes entirely
and wondering what’s wrong with me
everyone else can do this
afraid of humiliation, disgrace
being talked about
but this time failure is not an option
you will not get ahead in your job without this skill
so you struggle, you try again
you find most others struggle with this too
and over thirty years you get better, bit by bit
not good, by any means, but good enough

other things, too, you try to learn, frustrated:
industrial arts, chemistry lab,
music lessons on different instruments,
gymnastics, sewing, art, orienteering
failures all, though not for lack of trying
and wondering what’s wrong with me
everyone else can do this
but these are things you can live without doing

so now, much older
learning to be present
learning to realize what really is
and what is just the mind’s invention:
self, separateness, mind, time, all illusions

this is the ultimate learning
the difference between a life that’s real
and one hidden behind a veil
lived in fear inside your head

this is the most frustrating failure of all:
still the echoes of “you’re not paying attention
you’re not trying, you’re not focused, it’s simple”
and still the arguments that it just takes practice
don’t be such a lazy, self-obsessed wimp
just do the work
ten thousand hours and it will come
you have to keep at it
and hearing so many say they have seen it
and here’s what to try
and trying and trying
and being told you’re not really trying
or you’re trying too hard
you’re doing it wrong

and still being afraid (of what this time?)
afraid of the endless struggle against fear
afraid of suffering and being trapped
not really alive at all, stuck in the doorway
between life and this space of holding back
afraid of admitting failure, of failing others
and of letting people down
afraid of being ordinary
afraid of taking up space
in this world coming undone
and not being “part of the solution”
not being part of anything
and wondering what’s wrong with me
(even knowing there is no “me”
to be doing it wrong)

still falling, scraping my knee, fearfully
getting back up and trying again
full of self-loathing and self-frustration
(even knowing there is no “self”
to loathe or be frustrated with)

next time (even knowing there is no “time”)
will be the time without pain
without falling, without failing

next time, lightness, effortless gliding, flight
next time it will be easy
it will all make sense
(what was there to be afraid of?)
and nothing will be wrong again

(photo: immature black-headed grosbeak, by the author)

Posted in Creative Works | 3 Comments

This Should Be Easy

wandering leunig
“I have lived with many zen masters, all of them cats.” — Eckhard Tolle                                                   (drawing by michael leunig)

  1. Pay attention to, and allow a relaxed, alert awareness of, sense perceptions of your surroundings right now, in this present moment; acknowledge what is.
  2. Appreciate what is being paid attention to; in the process, notice the lessening of the compulsive thinking and reactive feeling identified with life situation, personal history, and stories — these thoughts and feelings are usually insignificant, and often negative, full of dissatisfaction, anxiety, a sense of incompleteness or inadequacy, and they are not ‘you’.
  3. Turn awareness to the aliveness of the energy field of the inner body (practice: be aware of parts of the body, and postures, without looking at them).
  4. Become aware of the spaces opening when there are no thoughts or feelings.
  5. Inquire what enables awareness, now, of sense perceptions, the inner body, thoughts and feelings:
    ⁃ it is the light of true presence, the essence of you, now, the space between thoughts and feelings
    ⁃ it is emptiness, stillness, the one consciousness
    ⁃ it is free of the false sense of self, the illusory self, the habitual mind activity of compulsive thought patterns and reactive emotional patterns

For an hour, the person who purports to be ‘me’ sits, noticing the garden, the leaves, the stone and brick and wood, the trees and the sea behind. Listens to the birds, the creaks of wood expanding and contracting. Lets form dissolve into shade, colour, shadow, darkness and light. Feels the cells in my body, growing, flowing, doing what they must do to be part of the complicity. Imagines the molecules, the atoms, the stars and planets, and all that space, that light-ness that is almost all of them, almost everything. Watches a tiny spider, on the table less than a foot away, try to catch the air currents to weave a web from table to chair, from table to body, fail and slip and climb back up and try again, and again. Feels the warmth of the sun on the body, the coolness of wind and shade.

Kali is laughing at me.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

Now isn’t the Time

(more rumination on my “presence” practices, thinking out loud to try to make sense of my (lack of) “success”; unless you’re on a similar journey, or know me personally, you may want to give this “diary entry” a pass)

my synopsis of a key idea from The Power of Now, from this 2010 post

As I reported recently, I’ve been preoccupied for the last while with an attempt to be more “present”, or, more simply, to just be, in the now, instead of caught up in my mind and emotions (lost in the past or the future). For me this is all about finding a way to cope better with fears and anxieties that have left me largely unconscious and incapable of dealing with stressful situations that inevitably arise in everyone’s life.

I have a strong intuitive sense that this will prove to be the fourth major belief/worldview shift in my life, and probably the most important one. Since I’m impatient, I’m looking for a quick way to get there (or perhaps more correctly, to get here). I’ve tried Liberation Unleashed, a method of “just looking” to see the illusion of the self. I’ve tried the runaway best-seller meditation app Headspace, and a variety of guided visualizations and binaural beat meditations. I’ve briefly tried two personal coaches to break through the cognitive dissonance I’ve struggled with. They’ve all been helpful, and have worked very hard to understand and guide me to a personal breakthrough, but (perhaps prematurely) I have at least temporarily set these approaches aside in favour of those that seem more intuitively suited to my way of thinking, and shifting.

Mostly for now I have returned to the meditation and other practices of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti. I don’t think either of these gentlemen has any particular special insight into helping people achieve epiphanies of “enlightenment”. What I like about reading and listening to them is that they speak my language — they seem to have been through similar life experiences to my own before they “suddenly” realized how to be present, and they use vocabulary that resonates with my own and does not rub me the wrong way.

Eckhart for example eschews talk of “mindfulness”, “personal growth” and “God”, and speaks instead about presence, the illusion of self and of time, and the destructiveness, insanity and mental illness created by civilization culture. I especially like this excellent short video of his that summarizes his book The Power of Now, a central thesis of which I summarized five years ago when I first read (and rather unsympathetically reviewed) the book, as follows:

Ego would appear to be an unintended and unfortunate consequence of the development of the brain to the point where it began to mistake its processing of thought and feelings for our consciousness, and we have been in a fight with our egos ever since. Whereas most “present” creatures handle stress instinctively, and let it go quickly, we “too smart for our own good” creatures have become consumed by our egos, ever ready to cycle viciously through negative thoughts and stories and feelings to the point we become unconscious of what is real, and end up traumatized and trapped in and by our minds and reactive feelings.

So I am now re-reading The Power of Now, with what I hope to be a more open mind. Eckhart’s own breakthrough came at a personal nadir in his life, a time of suicidal crisis, and he suggests that many people won’t ever have the will to realize the illusions of self, mind and time without an existential crisis to precipitate it — for many it’s too much of a hurdle, he suggests, until and unless you have almost nothing left to lose.

Here’s my diary of thoughts as I have been working my way through it:

  • People I know who have achieved this “there is only the Now, and one Consciousness” realization say that it is scary — when your ego “dies” it is as if you are dying, they say, and there is nothing left to hold on to. Although I am a fearful person, I do not sense this; perhaps I am so unaware that I can’t see just how threatening to my ego this realization really is. Or perhaps my egoic mind is so firmly in control it doesn’t see any threat of “me” achieving any such realization.
  • I still recall my most vivid experience of presence over 40 years ago, standing under a streetlight in winter with softly falling snow, and writing that my greatest desire was to achieve a similar state, all the time, that was paradoxically “at once very relaxed and very aware”. Friends told me then that such a “euphoric” state was unsustainable and expecting to achieve it all the time was naive and setting myself up for disappointment. Yet Eckhart uses almost identical words to describe the state of presence, and says it is “our natural state”.
  • Much meditation teaching is about noticing your thoughts and letting them just pass until they become less frequent and allow a space for presence (or mindfulness or enlightenment or whatever expression you prefer) to emerge. But I think in times when I am not present I am more “spaced out”, even numb, than preoccupied with thoughts and reactive emotions — the opposite of presence, a state that is mindless and not in a good way (what Eckart calls “extreme unconsciousness”). Perhaps I am just unaware of the thoughts that preoccupy me, especially in times of stress and escapism. Or perhaps it’s my coping mechanism for stress — to just zone out, in a desensitized state akin in some ways to depression but without the deep suffering that accompanies depression. For some people, I suppose, highly stressful situations can “force you into the Now”, and if so I envy those who find danger makes them more alive, more present; in my case it seems to lead to the opposite.
  • These days I am very impatient with myself. All this work I am doing, coming at it from every conceivable direction, and still not getting anywhere! What’s the matter with me? This reminds me of the struggle I have had trying to learn to do other “simple” things like swimming and dancing, that lead to nothing but failure and self-annoyance. Is lack of capacity to notice, to be attentive, behind all of these failures? If so, how can I move past this incapacity? Will learning to be present be the key to turning all these failures around?
  • I keep thinking/feeling that meditation should be a joyful experience, but for me it is just work. It would be easier to persevere if it gave me a few glimpses of joy.
  • I’ve written before that I think there are two kinds of presence, one intellectual (when you are “really on” presenting to or helping people) and one instinctual (when you are feeling connected to all-life-on-Earth), that don’t ever seem to co-exist. Is this a personal thing? A male thing? My sense is that the latter is the kind of presence I am seeking, but the former seems more “useful” and appreciated. Some people equate this (latter) sense of presence with disengagement and detachment from people/human society; are they right, or does intuitive presence bring “un-attachment” that actually makes you more helpful to others, more capable of intellectual presence?
  • Perhaps it’s a romantic belief (I don’t think we can ever really know), but I’ve always sensed that wild creatures (as opposed to domesticated creatures, including humans) live in a state of perpetual presence, except when stress forces them briefly into “clock time”, after which they “shake it off” and return to a still, relaxed present state. This suggests to me that achieving presence is not transcending the level of consciousness of wild creatures, but rather freeing ourselves from the uniquely human disease of being possessed by our egoic mind and (what Eckhart calls) our emotional pain-body, feeding constantly on each other. It’s not a “higher” level of consciousness we aspire to, but rather just getting back to the lost level of consciousness wild creatures experience all the time. Or rather, reconnecting with that one universal consciousness that they (unlike us) have always been connected with.
  • I am disturbed and dumbfounded by the vast majority of comments and questions in videos and on forums stemming from Eckhart’s (and others’) teachings. They suggest to me that almost all of these readers either (1) are so inarticulate they can’t convey coherently what they have come to believe, or (2) don’t really understand in the least what these teachers are saying, and are just blindly nodding and parroting out of (I’m guessing) some desperation to believe in, or follow, some ‘saviour’. I guess this makes me insensitive; it also makes me very cynical.
  • An exercise that seems to work for me is focusing attention on my body’s organs and even (imagining) its trillion cells, each part of the staggering complicity called me, functioning without the need for or help of my mind. The knowledge that none of these is really “separate”, that all are inseparable parts of a greater whole, is helpful in starting to realize that “I” too am just an inseparable part of a larger whole, that there is no “I”, no self, that self-control is impossible, and fear-for-self and self-ishness are foolish.
  • As a fanatic crossword solver, I was intrigued that Eckart uses crossword puzzles (along with games, sex, food, shopping and other compulsions) as examples of how “our mind uses us as its slave”. He does tend to vilify the actions of the mind and the pain-body of negative reactive emotions, as though they were somehow ‘deliberately’ harming us in their own ‘self’-interest (though carefully avoiding using words like “evil”). I appreciate that he’s exaggerating this to point out just how challenging it is to escape the grip of these self-reinforcing occupiers of our attention. Why should a mind or pain-body “fear its own death” if it’s just an illusion, a construct? I think what he means by personifying the conjurers of our thoughts and reactive emotions is that it is their ‘nature’ to look for patterns and “make sense” of things, and to disregard/deny anything that doesn’t fit those patterns. In this regard I am perhaps more charitable than Eckhart, since I believe this pattern-making is inherent in the evolution of large brains, and it is really all in the cause of trying to help, trying to warn us of imbalances, threats and dangers to our (constituents’) health. The vicious cycle by which thoughts and reactive emotions reinforce and perpetuate each other is an unfortunate and unintended consequence of this evolution of large brains. That unfortunate consequence has produced the accelerating sixth great extinction of life on Earth. Evolution inherently makes mistakes; no one is to blame for that. Likewise, we are unlikely to overcome that evolutionary error and achieve Eckhart’s “Whole New Earth” — he may have a brilliant understanding of the ways of the human mind, but he is clearly not a student of complexity or he would have chosen a more sombre and less hyperbolic title for has latest book.

Well, that’s where I am now. If you’re still reading this, thanks for your attention, and I hope you’ve found it interesting, and maybe even helpful.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 9 Comments

Then Suddenly, Maybe — Aha!

complex system diagram, from this earlier post

Last month I wrote about the 5 “turning points” in my life, the culminations of events and changes in circumstances that caused my life to significantly shift direction.

I have argued before that while we may change our beliefs, our behaviours and our personas throughout our lives, we don’t fundamentally change who we are. The turning points described in my recent article all changed my way of being, and what I did day-to-day and how I did it, but underneath I was (and am) still the same person.

In addition to these situation- and event-driven shifts, there are times in our lives when we suddenly have a realization that what we thought or believed to be true was utterly wrong. We then begin, rather more slowly, to act in accordance with a strange new realization of truth. In my life there have been three such occasions:

  1. In 2004, after reading over 100 books on human history and culture (16 of which were most influential in changing my thinking), I realized that our civilization was inevitably going to collapse in this century, and that nothing any or all of us could do would change that. Rather than being depressing and paralyzing, I found this realization liberating.
  2. In 2006, I finally understood how complex systems actually work, and in particular how and why they evolve to resist change. Now not only did I accept the inevitability of civilization’s collapse, I understood why it was inevitable. This led me to coin Pollard’s Law of Complexity. It also made me realize that most of what we try to do in our work lives, in our lives as activists, and even in our personal lives, will really change nothing. Retrospect has since showed me how true that is. Just about everything I tried so earnestly to do, for fifty years, was substantially a waste of time. That’s not to say that I didn’t have an impact, but what had the impact wasn’t my ideas, programs or projects, or really anything I did or created,  but rather it was the time I spent with people I loved and/or worked with, listening, supporting, encouraging, suggesting, telling them stories, showing them things, and trying to get obstacles out of their way.
  3. In 2011 (or so), I finally appreciated that we humans are not in control of who we are or what we do, and that we’re all suffering from Civilization Disease and doing our best to make things better for ourselves, those we care about and the world in which we live (this led to my coining Pollard’s Law of Human Nature). This realization has given me a much more charitable, more empathetic and less judgemental view of our species and everyone I meet. It’s still hard to reconcile with my outrage over the destruction and suffering this collective ‘doing our best’ has wreaked on us and on our planet, but I understand it.

What I find most interesting is that these “sudden” realizations came as the result of years of reading, thinking and learning, so in that respect they weren’t sudden at all. But until a particular moment, a tipping point, had been reached, I was resisting and/or unaware and/or missing some piece of information or insight that prevented this “sudden” shift from happening. Until those moments I was not ready for the shift and would have argued with (or ignored) anyone who had already made the shift.

But once these shifts happened, they then had a profound impact on just about everything else I believed, much of what I did thereafter, and my entire worldview.

What is this process we go through, resisting or oblivious at first to an understanding, idea or perspective, then appreciative but unmoved, and then finally and “suddenly” — aha! — accepting and starting to integrate this new way of thinking and believing into our lives?

Here’s how I think it might happen:

  1. A profound cognitive dissonance begins to emerge between what we believe and the information, ideas and perspectives we are being exposed to. At first, when we’re exposed to things that don’t conform to our beliefs, we ignore them. We may not even be aware that we’re doing so. But when we start seeing a lot of ‘data’ on a subject, none of which conforms to our beliefs, cognitive dissonance arises. This is especially true if the ‘data’ comes from sources we trust, or if it is put forth in a particularly articulate and compelling way. Passionate well-crafted ‘rants’ and humorous or satirical ‘pokes’ can be particularly effective in ‘unsettling’ us. So can intense stories.
  2. For awhile, we sit with the unsettling ambiguity and uncertainty of tolerating both our old view and this new view. It’s uncomfortable because it makes it hard to make decisions and even to talk with people about the subject in question. We don’t like this feeling, so we look hard for anything that will resolve it, in either direction. We want to ‘make our minds up’.
  3. At this point, we will constantly test the new idea against the old across all four ways of knowing: intellectual, emotional, sensory/evidential/experiential, and intuitive/instinctual. The weight we place on each of the four ways will be personal, based on our life’s experience of the reliability of each way. For example, some people are deaf to their intuition but rely heavily on their emotional sense (in fact they confuse it for intuition). For them, a powerful emotional argument will trump everything else, and if it’s in favour of the new idea, they’ll “suddenly” shift. For others, with a more equally balanced ‘decision-making’ process, it will take more than this, probably at least something persuasive in all four ways of knowing, and greater ‘support’ for either the old or new idea in at least three of the four ways. At this point we will “suddenly” sense that the new idea seems right or feels right to us, and make the shift; or we’ll reject it and return to our previous belief. That rejection may be once and for all, or it may be tentative, open to revisiting, depending on our tolerance for ambiguity and dissonance.

So here’s an example:

For most of my working life I believed that things like mission statements, change programs and strategic plans actually influenced and even changed the organizational culture. That is what I had always been told and what everyone around me seemed to believe. I even developed models on how actions focused on people (training, reward systems), processes and technologies could change organizational behaviour in a comprehensive way. The ‘case studies’ and business books backed up this belief.

The first seed of doubt came with my study of something called ‘cultural anthropology’, which suggested the best way to change behaviour was to study it, like an anthropologist studies a human tribe, find the behavioural patterns, understand them, and then intervene in ways that demonstrably shift those behaviours. At the time I had started studying complexity theory and had read Donella Meadows’ essay on places to intervene effectively in systems. I had also befriended Dave Snowden and learned his theories of how change happens in complex systems, and his bottom-up narrative/anecdote ‘probing’ approach to understanding and intervening in complex organizations.

At this point I was wrestling with the cognitive dissonance between my long-held belief in the effectiveness of top-down interventions, standards and motivators in organizations, and this new perspective that the most effective way to bring about change was bottom-up. I had also discovered (from actually applying cultural anthropology with some clients) how much of what gets done on the front lines occurs by workarounds, circumventing obstacles and acting often in direct opposition to what the top-down ‘people’ (training programs and policies), ‘process’ (policy manuals) and ‘technology’ (actions mandated by limits on data input, and rigid performance evaluation system measures tied to salary/rating) programs of organizations were trying to impose. And I learned that ability to deploy these bottom-up workarounds, counterintuitively, correlated with high customer satisfaction, high worker satisfaction, and hence high employee performance assessment (at least by peers).

At this point, I was still intellectually wedded to the old point of view (that top-down interventions work effectively); after all, there were all these case studies and business books that ‘proved’ it! But from a personal evidentiary basis (anecdotal as it may have been) it was compellingly clear that this new point of view (that workarounds are how things actually get done, for the best) was closer to the truth. The cognitive dissonance between what my head said and what the evidence of my senses said was brutal.

It was my emotions that tipped the balance of the argument in favour of this heretical (and dangerous, in conservative organizations) new view. I have always been a shit-disturber, a challenger, a change enthusiast. It tickled me to believe that everything we’re taught in business school about how change happens is wrong.

It still required me to do more probing to be willing to make the shift. I read critiques of case studies and discovered how biased and distorted they are. I studied more about complexity theory. I found a few allies who dared to question the people-process-technology orthodoxy. I realized that in my own dealing as a customer with large organizations, I appreciated and celebrated workarounds and was frustrated and angered at the top-down constraints that not only prevented people from doing their best work, they did not seem, in the long run, to even maximize organizational profits. Who was  actually benefitting from this top-down crap? Apparently only the executives who had deluded everyone (themselves included) that what they did was of value, and the consultants, academics and case study writers paid to reinforce that delusion.

With my intellectual resistance overcome, it was now easy personally (not professionally) to make the shift. If I hadn’t been close to retirement, I might have just lived with the cognitive dissonance and shut up about my new belief. I discovered quite a few people who were doing just that, waiting until they could say what they dared not.

So these three stages — the emergence of cognitive dissonance, sitting with uncomfortable ambiguity, and resolving the dissonance by testing the old and new ideas against the four ways of knowing — seem to be involved in the “sudden” shifts we make in our belief systems and worldviews. It’s no wonder we’re averse to such shifts if we can avoid them!

I may now be on the verge of a fourth aha! shift, related to the illusion of self, the way in which our culture reinforces that illusion, who/what ‘we’ really are, and that we are not ‘all of a piece’, but rather a ‘complicity’ of the trillion cells that comprise us. Tied up in that is the realization that there is no ‘separate’ individual, that there is no ‘thing’ at all (processes ‘exist’, not the stuff they appear to happen to), and that time, too, is an illusion. I get this intellectually and it seems to make sense to me intuitively. And because I sense this illusion of self etc. is at the root of my incapacity to deal well with stress and the cause of a lot of suffering (my own and others’), I’m emotionally ‘pulling’ for the shift to happen.

But I have yet to realize most of it experientially. Because I don’t ‘get’ it experientially, I cannot act in accordance with this radical new belief, so I continue to behave as if I ‘am’ this separate self moving through linear time, and dealing poorly with stress. Maybe I never will ‘get’ it. Sometimes cognitive dissonance never gets resolved. Since I tend to use this blog to ‘think out loud’ about these things, I hope it won’t be too excruciating for readers to endure for a while!

This is the hardest and most frustrating shift yet for me, the one taking the longest and the most effort, and the one likely (if it happens) to have the profoundest impact on my worldview, and on how I ‘am’ in the world and what I do going forward. I’m trying a lot of different approaches these days to push past this impasse (if that is what it is), and I’m grateful to be blessed with the time to do so.

And if it doesn’t happen, well, at least now I can appreciate what’s behind the dissonance, and the unresolved process I’ve been going through. Hope this exploration has been interesting to read, and that for some it might be useful in your own shifts.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 8 Comments

Sorting Ourselves Out

gated liverpool
gated community in Liverpool England; photo by Ronnie Hughes

We humans are pretty good at self-organizing. We’re a social species, after all, and we want to know where we ‘fit’ in our communities, even though “community” has largely lost its true meaning. It is through conversation, collaboration and observing others that we make sense of things, so we naturally want to make sure the people who make the most sense to us will welcome us into their circles.

The downside of this is that it is easy to exploit, and can lead us into behaviours that are unhealthy for us and for our communities. Fear of ostracism can make us obedient and compliant. We can also self-select (“self-sort“) into echo chambers that make us deaf to ideas, knowledge and points of view from outside these chambers, and can leave us dangerously out of touch with what most people actually believe and how most people actually live.

So we get entrenched in our perspectives and worldviews, less open and adaptable in our thinking, less able to learn and appreciate things outside our circles and comfort zones. We lock into labels and brands — both those that commercial and political organizations eagerly urge upon us, and those we create for ourselves — and they become a limiting part of our identity. We are defined by these labels and the demographics that correlate with them. Those who defy pigeon-holing are often viewed with suspicion.

We then become “unconsciously exclusive” and others in turn unconsciously exclude us. This is understandable human behaviour. We are by nature pattern recognizers and simplifiers, and our minds quickly learn to accept information, and people, that resonate with our evolved worldviews, and to disregard, disbelieve, ignore and avoid information and people who don’t fit those worldviews. We associate with people who share our views, our goals, our activities and our interests.

We end up living in huge cities remarkable for their anonymity and loneliness, and obliviously pass by those who live near to us to ‘meetup’ with those, farther away (or online) whose worldviews echo and mirror our own. Talking to the “stranger” next door or at the bus stop becomes an act of courage and defiance, crashing the implicit boundaries that separate all of us, until and unless we’re explicitly invited across them.

No wonder then that change is so hard to bring about, when the prerequisite association and trust needed to broadly inform, persuade, expose and share knowledge, ideas and perspectives is absent by default in our modern society.

We are well-trained, we self-domesticated humans. We self-sort, for marketers’ easy mass distribution of whatever garbage or propaganda they are hawking. We raise our hands, our profiles, our ID cards and our ballots on demand, when asked to identify ourselves and our preferences to the aggregators of consumer products, services and ‘political’ messages.

We self-censor, out of (often exaggerated) fear of prosecution, opprobrium or ostracism. We self-colonize, twisting ourselves into who we are not, for fear of being thought “crazy”, or of thinking ourselves to  be so. We “haze” those who want to become part of our groups, in brutal, devious and often-subtle ways. We engage in coercive groupthink with others we think we belong with or want to belong with. In this manipulative behaviour we prey, often abusively, on the inherent human craving for appreciation, attention, belonging and reassurance, and the human fear of ridicule.

And so, whether or not it really makes any sense to us (and even if it makes the cognitive dissonance in our lives bewildering), we willingly:

  • accept responsibility, even for things we have no control, power or authority over
  • overwork at jobs we loathe, because of others’ expectations and unsupported claims that “we are capable of anything if we only apply ourselves sufficiently to it”
  • accept that our culture is the best (or only viable) culture that has ever existed
  • “play well with others”, even when the others are cleverly abusive
  • persevere doing things (notably in large organizations, schools, and “self-help” books and programs) that have never actually worked, because other people allege, without real evidence, that they do
  • “get with the program” rather than challenge its failings or even its absurdity
  • present everything with, and maintain a posture of, hopefulness and “forced optimism” for fear of being ostracized as a complainer, or lazy, or an unconstructive, defeatist doomer
  • self-ghettoize into places with others dealing with the same endemic scarcities (of power, education, wealth, income, health) so we are invisible to, and won’t inflict our misery on, those living with abundance
  • self-victimize (blaming ourselves for our poverty, our lack of “achievement”, our unemployment, our mental or physical illness, our despair and our exhaustion)

This is the system that evolves when it becomes necessary to have nearly 8 billion people vigorously support the economic, political, social and other systems of industrial civilization culture to prevent their utter collapse. It is, of course, unhealthy and massively destructive. But large complex systems evolve to prevent reform and change, so now they’re the only systems, and the only conceivable culture, on offer for most.

Even where that civilization culture has already collapsed (like most third-world nations and many chronically poor and resource-exhausted and desolated parts of first-world nations), the well-financed leaders and propagandists perpetuate the hope that with hard work and good fortune each of us can escape the disaster and join the ‘exclusive’ ranks of the rich and powerful.

This is an observation, not an accusation, admonishment, call to action, or claim of personal exemption from this propensity. It is a key sustainer of abuse of privilege, discrimination, abuse of power, and inequality, and many other outrages. The fact that we self-sort does not in any way exonerate those who exploit it and those who commit these outrages, nor does it mean that self-sorting, self-censoring and self-colonization are the cause, “to blame” in any sense for these outrages, which we should never tolerate and should work tirelessly to recognize and defeat.

But I have no faith that awareness and education and condemnation of self-sorting, self-censoring and self-colonization will reduce these human propensities. They are in our nature, especially in times of stress (discrimination, abuse and inequality, on the other hand, are not in our nature: they are personal and systemic pathologies of our sick and reeling culture).

What we can do is ask ourselves these questions:

  1. In what ways do I self-sort into and self-identify with particular groups? Why do I do that, and why these particular groups?
  2. What are the dangers, harms and other costs (of ignorance, misunderstanding, discrimination, mistreatment) of this self-sorting and self-identifying with selected groups to the exclusion of others?
  3. In what ways do I self-censor, self-victimize and self-colonize? What am I afraid to say and do, and why?
  4. What are the dangers and costs of this self-censoring, self-victimizing and self-colonizing (see the bullets above)? To what extent is doing this a disservice to myself, my loved ones and my communities? At the end of my life, to what extent will I regret doing so?

We may not be able to change the culture, but knowledge and awareness of what we do to ourselves, and allow to be done to us, can at least help us appreciate some of the costs of this culture, and how we can cope with, and adapt to, the damage it does, with our unwitting complicity.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments


tar sands howl arts collective

Alberta Tar Sands, soon to cover an area larger than NY State; its toxic sludge ponds alone are large enough to be visible from space. Photo by Dru Oja Jay, Howl Arts Collective, for The Dominion CC-BY-2.0

I have often described myself as “the world’s most blessed agnostic”. I have been incredibly fortunate both by the accident of my birth and with the events (almost all outside my control) that have transpired at critical points in my life. I should be grateful, and in many ways I am.

But I am not grateful to have been born into human civilization culture.

Many people I know have a regular practice of taking time to identify, write down, acknowledge and appreciate the things they are grateful for. They believe this makes them happier, healthier and more positive, optimistic and productive citizens, and I’m sure they’re right.

I’m also sure that this process of convincing ourselves everything is all right and will turn out fine, while essential for our personal state of mind, represents precisely the folly of human cultural adaptability that has led to massive human overpopulation and desolated our planet. Our civilization culture is both our lifeline to sanity and the cause of our disease.

There is now fairly compelling evidence of the following (though of course we can never be sure):

  • Pre-civilization humans (prior to the invention/discovery of agriculture and the simple weapons — arrowheads, knives and spears — that led to the massive extinction of large mammals on our planet) generally lived long (until they were eaten by predators) and very healthy, stress-free, leisurely lives. Our modern and false belief in the “progress” of the human condition and our culture conveniently starts with the nadirs of humans health and leisure time (the Roman era, when average life span had plunged to 29, or the eras of wide-spread genocide and inquisition, or the early years of the Industrial Revolution when life expectancy plunged once again).
  • Wild creatures intuitively self-regulate their populations for the optimization of the health not only of themselves and their species but for the entire ecosystems in which they live. This is a feature of evolution that has taken 2 billion years to reach its current level, and in that context it makes perfect sense. Creatures whose fertility (via subtle hormonal adjustments) adapts to the carrying capacity of the place they live are inevitably going to be more successful and joyful (and hence enthused to propagate the species) than if population numbers have to be corrected by massive coercive die-offs. Famine is substantially a consequence of inability to self-regulate, a consequence of human civilization culture and its disconnection from attention to balance with all the other species we live with. This disconnection stems largely from urbanization (physical separation) and the mental illness of believing we are the master species on the planet empowered and evolved to control and run everything, yet intuitively aware of our utter incompetence to do so, and the consequent turning away from and inurement against honestly looking at how much suffering we inflict on all the other creatures of this planet (emotional separation).
  • Our culture is so successful at indoctrinating us that no matter how horrific our situation, we generally end up feeling about as happy as if we had recently won the lottery (Dan Gilbert exaggerations notwithstanding). This is in the short run (a few millennia) a successful survival strategy: Most wild creatures that have experienced freedom and joy and then are put in a situation of captivity, chronic stress and suffering, quickly stop procreating, whereas in our culture we actually breed more humans so we’ll have more offspring to help deal with the costs of chronic disease, the burdens of chronic shortages and dependence on centralized cultural systems. And we put up with lifelong misery and struggle that any wild (undomesticated) creature would surely consider worse than death. But in the long run this human optimism-in-spite-of-everything leads to where we are now: a desolated planet with a climate shifting disastrously, the immiseration of all, and the rapid advancement of the sixth great extinction of life on Earth.

For all this I am ungrateful. Our global and increasingly-homogeneous culture evolved with the best of intentions (possibly to deal with the Ice Ages; possibly to deal with the unintended consequences of our too-smart-for-our-own-good brains’ discovery of agriculture and weaponry). But that culture is killing our planet.

So each day I express wonder and joy at the magic of life, and gratefulness for where, in the spectrum of life on 21st-century Earth, I have lived and continue to live my life. And each day I curse our civilization for what it has unintentionally wrought, for what it has inflicted on me and every struggling, suffering creature on this planet.

This is the worst of times, and we don’t even know it, and won’t, even as it gets worse still. It is in our nature to know, and to bring the failed human experiment to a quick and merciful close. But it is not in our culture, and we have withdrawn so far from nature that now, it is only our culture we are listening to.

Nature knows what to do, and will do it, reluctantly, when all other self-managed options have been exhausted. We will learn, alas, the hard way. The madness will soon be over. The fire this time.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 13 Comments