Pulitzer

This is a work of fiction.


newsroom photo by Adam Tinworth on flickr, (CC BY-ND 2.0)

I had been very lucky to land the job at The New Yorker. I had friends of friends who knew their editors. One of their senior staff had emailed me about my blog, saying he’d never run into someone with the capacity I have for coming up with so many interesting ideas drawing on material from multiple, vastly disparate disciplines. So one day I got a letter from them asking me “If you could pick ten story ideas that you’d like to read in our magazine, what would they be? These should not be just topics — we’d like to know the angle, thesis, or people/organizations to talk to, if we assigned it. If any of your ideas are picked up by the magazine, you will of course be compensated.”

And the rest was history. Four of my story ideas ran in subsequent editions, I was asked for another set, and finally I was offered a position on staff, where my job was just to come up with ideas, insights, interesting findings worth pursuing, novel perspectives, and provocative hypotheses, every day.

Some of my colleagues, who considered this a dream job without all the hard slogging and writing they had to do, were rather unfriendly, but eventually I became like part of the furniture, and just blended in.

One day I overheard a senior editor with a small group of my co-workers, speaking rather excitedly in hushed tones. I only heard a few words, but they filled me with dread. Two of the words were “Pulitzer” and the name of a small Eastern European town I knew most people had never heard of. But that was enough. I knew what was up. It was inevitable given how things were going.

As the senior editor, who I knew only slightly, passed by my desk rather nonchalantly, I could not help myself: I said “You’re not going to go along with it, are you? You’re not going to say yes?”

“What the fuck are you talking about? Not going to go along with what?”

I spoke softly enough that only he could hear me: “With another war embedding project. With putting people at risk for a story that will inevitably be dangerous, horrifically biased and used as propaganda.”

The editor was apoplectic. “Who the hell have you been talking with? What do you know about all of this? This is a maximum security project!” He then grabbed me and ordered his staff to alert the company’s management, and building security.

For the next four hours I was sequestered in a small room and grilled about everything I knew and how I had come to know it. What confidential company records had I infiltrated and how? Who was I reporting to? I kept telling them that I had talked to no one, had no access to any company records, and reported only to my boss at the magazine.

Then I was left alone with someone who appeared to be from the Pentagon, the CIA or military intelligence. He dressed the part, anyway. He was evidently a lot smarter than the others, and he actually listened to what I said. I told him that any idiot who had studied the history of recent disastrous American military adventures, would surmise that the US had already given up on the locals and decided to take the war into their own hands. The question was, how they would do it without provoking an outcry or worse. And the answer to that, just as obviously, was to embed American reporters from reputable organizations to flood the media with stories and photos about how ghastly things were on the front lines, and how that left no option but the “defensive” one of involving American “experts”, not only in “non-combat” military intelligence and training, but in directing the entire war effort, including managing the staggeringly powerful and expensive military technologies that had mostly been sold off by the local military forces to the black market, or misused so badly they had been either quickly and completely destroyed, or had fallen into the hands of the army they were fighting.

“So you’re telling me you just made an educated guess?”, he said.

“I’m sure hundreds of people following the war have already been anticipating this and are surprised it’s taken so long. Fifty billion dollars is a lot of money to throw away on a disastrous, losing effort. This was really the only option that the Pentagon and NATO had left, and embedding journalists is the only way they’ve been able to sell such an effort in past.”

“What makes you think the effort so far has been ‘disastrous’ as you put it?”

“I don’t limit my reading to the New York Times and The New Yorker. With a little digging, and a little critical thinking, you can get a pretty clear picture of what’s actually happening despite the propaganda and censorship.”

“Has it occurred to you that this ‘picture’ you’ve been getting is just the enemy’s propaganda and censorship?”

“Of course. I always consider the source before I make up my mind even tentatively about whether it’s credible, based on the balance of evidence. If you look at my writing, you’ll see that my position on the fight against CoVid-19, for example, was pretty orthodox, supporting lockdowns and mandatory vaccines and masking, to the point I lost a lot of readers who just believe everything government does is evil.”

“So you now have this speculation about what may or may not happen in terms of ‘US/NATO’ military strategy, without evidence other than a few words overheard from some hushed voices in a newsroom. What would you plan to do with that speculation?”

“If you recall my answers to my employer’s questions, what I said to them was simply a question: About whether or not the magazine would go along with ‘it’. Their outraged answer was pretty clear, even though I wasn’t clear, and can still only speculate, on what ‘it’ is. So if your question is ‘Am I going to go to other media with a scoop about embedding journalists in a newly US/NATO-led war’ my answer would be ‘Who’d believe me?’ ”

“So you’re not planning on saying anything about this?”

“I like to write speculative fiction, so I might write a novel about it, or even a short story. I would of course preface it by saying ‘This is a work of fiction’.”

He grinned at me. “I think we’re done here.” He opened the door and my co-workers almost fell in when he did so.

He turned to my editor. “I have no reason to believe anything illegal has transpired here. Thank you for contacting us. Up to you what action you choose to take, but as far as the military is concerned, nothing happened here.”

“So you’re just going to let him go? What are we supposed to do, just go on as if no breach of highly confidential information has occurred?”, my editor replied.

“If there was a breach, and I’m not convinced there was, it didn’t originate with this gentleman. I will of course have to report my concerns about your magazine’s security protocols to my superiors, but I don’t see a need for any change in strategy. As for what you’re supposed to do with him, my understanding is that you hired him as a kind of ‘idea guy’, what’s the term you used — ‘to imagine possibilities’. I think that’s his job, and he does have a pretty good imagination. Good afternoon gentlemen.”

The military guy left, and there was a long silence. Finally, my editor said to me “You’re on suspension, until an investigation on your conduct has been conducted. Any more questions, talk to HR.”

I shrugged, and, taking my jacket from the back of my chair, walked to the exit, replying “I promise not to have any more ideas until further notice.”

Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

Links of the Month: August 2022


cartoon by Michael Leunig, of course

August in many countries is the month for holidays, for rest, for reflection and preparation for the slog ahead. At one time it was the month where you were most likely to see people outside, enjoying the year’s best weather. Now, it’s become the month of scurrying to get things done before the heat, the month for seeking shade, and the month for blackouts.

It’s starting. This is how it goes.


COLLAPSE WATCH


screen cap from new Guardian ‘explainer’ on climate collapse

Soon the world will be unrecognizable: Robin McKie, science editor for The Observer, writes: “The crucial point [according to climate scientist Bill McGuire] is that there is now no chance of us avoiding a perilous, all-pervasive climate breakdown. We have passed the point of no return and can expect a future in which lethal heatwaves and temperatures in excess of 50C (120F) are common in the tropics; where summers at temperate latitudes will invariably be baking hot, and where our oceans are destined to become warm and acidic.” Countering some of the climate scientists he knows who are afraid to tell the truth, Bill says:

In confidence, they are all much more scared about the future we face, but they won’t admit that in public. I call this climate appeasement and I believe it only makes things worse. The world needs to know how bad things are going to get before we can hope to start to tackle the crisis.

Richard Heinberg’s defensive pessimism: “The most helpful attitude from here on will be a refusal to accept the inevitability of the very worst outcomes. It is a stubborn insistence on imagining alternatives to growth and working hard to realize them—while acknowledging that most of our existing technological and social structures were designed during the era of expansion and will likely fail under conditions that are now emerging… This century, as those centralized systems fail due to lack of energy, broken supply chains, and the consequences of climate change, new grassroots social structures will need to spring up to meet basic community needs.” He goes on to list the types of new structures this will require.

Blistering summers are the future:Will our children grow up being scared of summer?” Thanks to John Whiting for the link.

Rainwater everywhere is unsafe to drink: New guidelines for toxic human-made chemicals that never degrade suggest that rainwater everywhere on the planet is now unsafe to drink. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

Sri Lanka continues to be the canary in the mineshaft: Building on last month’s series of articles, Indrajit Samarajiva explains what is happening there:

Now that global empire—standing athwart history yelling ‘stop!’—is collapsing, its two legs of capitalism and democracy are both crumbling. In Sri Lanka you can see them fall. But don’t take my word for it. Read (non-vulgar) economist Michael Hudson’s article, The End of Western Civilization. It tells you a lot about where we are. [Michael’s article is a long read, but it’s important. It explains why economic collapse will precede ecological collapse, leading to the end of our human civilization. Indrajit goes on to explain how this is playing out there now. And in a separate article, he describes the overwhelming mental illness that accompanies the fall.]


LIVING BETTER


stones glued on canvas; from Relax It’s Only Art, original source and artist Marksense

Our epidemic of malnutrition: David Oke describes the source of the failings of our industrial food and medical systems, that have led to less healthy lives even as medical costs spiral out of control, and suggests some solutions (thanks to Flatcaps and Fatalism for the link, and the one that follows):

The twentieth-century shift in mortality from infectious to noncommunicable disease—what demographers call the “epidemiological transition,” linked to the “nutrition transition” that reshaped global diets—largely eradicated diseases like polio and yellow fever, but it did not lead to conditions of general health. Instead, it created populations that are chronically ill, and thus require near-constant medical attention; in turn, healthcare systems shifted from treating acute diseases to managing populations that are permanently, but “manageably,” ill. More medicine than ever, but less health.

Seventeen theses on disability: Freddie deBoer’s blunt and powerful explanation of the realities of disability and how modern identity politics makes everything worse for those actually dealing with it.

The possibility of direct democracy: Indrajit explains how political collapse in Sri Lanka has given its citizens a brief taste of what a system of real, direct democracy might look like.

Free up doctors (and pharmacists) to prescribe safe drugs to replace street drugs: Canada’s associate Minister of Health seems to finally get it. Sadly, her boss and her department are still resisting the radical changes needed to address Canada’s toxic street drug death toll, which remains higher than our CoVid-19 death toll each year, and is still rising.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


propaganda posters used as covers by The Economist; exposé by Indrajit Samarajiva

Patrick Lawrence on the decline of western media: The long-time foreign correspondent writes passionately, articulately and courageously (enough that Twitter has “cancelled” him) about how media once devoted to critical thinking and investigative reporting have become zealous scribes and propagandists for western political and corporate interests. Some recent examples of his work:

Noam Chomsky and the larger picture: Speaking of history and context, Noam (another guy who’s basically blacklisted from western mainstream media) is taking every opportunity he can to provide some clarity and background on what is happening, especially when it comes to ecological collapse. Some of his recent takes:

It’s not hypocrisy, you’re just powerless: NS Lyons is the pseudonym for an established conservative commentator, who often addresses conservative conferences. When I first stumbled on his recent satirical article about castism/classism, I thought it was written by a leftie lamenting the stranglehold on power held by the war-mongering, corporatist, fuck-the-environment white empire that controls all the major parties in the west, leaving the left as a powerless “Class B”. It was only when I read further (including the comments and some of his other writings) that I discovered that his Class A is actually “Woke” America, which apparently includes all liberals, universities, uppity minorities, the angry poor, criminals, atheists and other non-Christians, illegals, and soft-on-crime Democrats. His poor oppressed Class B? Aggrieved over-taxed capitalists, Republicans, Christians, conservatives, and the working class. Mind-bending.

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism: Short takes:

Misinformation, Disinformation, Censorship & Propaganda: Short takes:

CoVid-19 continues to rage on, out of control: Short takes:

  • Verbatim from last month: Nothing has changed. Deaths and hospitalizations are continuing at the same pace as the previous two summers, and wave 7 has begun. This fall and winter could be as bad, in death toll, as the previous two horrific winters (waves 3 and 5), when US deaths were running at over 3,000/day and global deaths over 15,000/day. Most of the hospitalized and dying continue to be older and immune-compromised people, though there’s now a huge spike in reinfections, sometimes mere weeks apart, as the effect of vaccines continues to diminish as variants get ‘smarter’. So the advice is the same: mask indoors and in crowded places, get all the shots you can, and test, trace and isolate when you or loved ones get symptoms.
  • Biden abandons the last of the US’s metrics and preventative measures for dealing with CoVid-19
  • Indrajit outlines the four lies that allowed CoVid-19 to kill and sicken so many millions
  • A CoVid-19 sufferer laments our incapacity to allow time for rest and recovery; thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

*In their own words: Terrifying excerpts from recent actual speeches made by senescent US leaders. The US desperately needs a mental competency test for its current and aspiring political leaders:

  • Nancy Pelosi: “In our earliest days at our founding of our country, Benjamin Franklin, our presidency, said, freedom and democracy. Freedom and democracy, one thing, security here. If we don’t have- we can’t have either, if we don’t have both.”
  • Joe Biden: “[I have] made it clear that no American president, at least one did, but no American president had ever backed down from speaking out of what’s happening in the Uyghurs… So I see stiff competition with China. China has an overall goal, and I don’t criticize them for the goal, but they have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand.”
  • Donald Trump: “Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are — nuclear is so powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right, who would have thought? — but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us, this is horrible.”

FUN AND INSPIRATION


cartoon by John Atkinson

The ability to see what’s useful and what is not: Interesting review of David Foster Wallace’s writing and the “attempt to make art moral”.

Why there are no stock market experts: Canadian YouTuber Veritasium defines the four things it takes to be an expert, and explains why when it comes to complex systems, there can be no experts. (They are: A ‘valid’, predictable, rules-based, finite-variables environment; Many repetitions to learn from mistakes; Timely feedback on where you’ve made mistakes; Deliberate practice focused on areas where you most need improvement.) Also from Veritasium, Fritz Haber, the man who killed millions (chemical poisons) and saved billions (chemical fertilizers).

Lost letters of the alphabet: How English jettisoned some letters you still see traces of in old documents.

They’re lying to us: From reader and friend Djô Rudigoz, a brilliant French protest song by Gérard Manset. Also from Djô: A song from Phoenix backed by animated art classics. And from there: Stunning CGI visuals to a song by Sagans.

How some people learn just from YouTube demos: An astonishing dub-step performance by a young woman, entirely self-taught.

Road signs for your co-workers: A clever “re-working” of common road signs.

What you dance to: For me, it’s Haitian Kompa/Zouk music and K-POP. For my friend Dave Smith, author of the wonderful To Be Of Use, it’s self-composed Electro-Swing.

The essence of all great music is surprise: Rick Beato explains how to achieve it.

Learning to compose music: Canadian pianist-composer Nahre Sol demonstrates some useful time-constrained exercises.

How to survive a heatwave: Cartoonist First Dog On the Moon tells us how, hilariously. Advice for Brits, but it applies to us all. Thanks to Hilary Neilson for the link.


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH


cartoon by Grant Snider from I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf

From Caitlin Johnstone, Trapped in the Slaughterhouse:

Western civilization is a story of full bellies and starving hearts. Of a feast of information and a famine of truth. Of conveyor belts churning out processed food, conformity-enforcing media and power-serving culture. Enough food to stay alive but not enough sustenance to live.

They keep us alive but they don’t let us live. They give us enough carbohydrate to turn the gears of industry, but they keep us too busy, poor, propagandized, confused and crazy to actually drink from the waters of life. To actually experience the beauty of this world. To let the crackling potentiality of advanced terrestrial life blossom to fruition within us.

The modern empire rules us by filling our markets with Wonder Bread and our schools and media with lies. By filling our bellies and starving our souls. By churning out mountains of useless landfill without ever producing anything of real value. By making more while providing less.

They improve food production and medicine just enough to lengthen our lifespans, only so that they have more life to drain us of. They let us populate the earth with more humans only to drain us of our humanity. We’re not people to them. We are batteries. We are fuel.

This is no civilization. It’s a slaughterhouse. A fake plastic performance staged to funnel human life into the gears of an insatiable machine. A fake plastic culture designed to keep us on the conveyor belt so that our life force can be converted into fuel for a soulless empire. A fake plastic society built to keep us marching into the food processor.

From Indrajit Samarajiva, on Protest and Democracy:

The ruling classes have tried their best to bury the People’s Assembly, but it’s still there, and it still spontaneously reforms in town squares when it’s needed. We have to look deeper at our democracies and really struggle to constitute them beyond a constitution. We have to fight for them, we have to question them and we have to quite honestly tear liberal democracy up and start over, from first principles. We’ve also got to get rid of this idea that there’s one perfect form of democracy for all and that white people found it and can bomb it into everyone. Democracy is a constant struggle, an Aragalaya in Sinhala. The struggle must go on.

From my friend PS Pirro, It’s Just What Was:

Yesterday I spent time on the Abandoned America website, scrolling through images of places that are no longer one thing but are not yet something else. Shopping malls and amusement parks and roadside attractions re-absorbing into the body of the world. I’ve heard people denigrate these images as ruins porn. Yet nobody calls it ruins porn when we visit the Roman Coliseum. We call that cultural enrichment.

Maybe we’re too close, maybe it’s too soon. We walked through those malls. We worked in those factories. It wasn’t great. It’s just what was, and now it isn’t anymore.


 

 

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

We Already Live on Mars


cartoon by Shizzblatt on TAHT comics on reddit

It’s easy to ridicule the techno-utopians who, in their ongoing denial and defiance of civilization’s accelerating collapse, talk and scheme about leaving this planet and building a new civilization on another one.

But in many ways, we already live on a foreign planet, or, rather, we live in an artificial, prosthetic world, one that is utterly and irrevocably dependent on and embedded in the natural world it is aggressively destroying to manage its day-to-day functioning.

There have been many studies showing that the impact of collapse, especially economic and financial collapse and the resulting incapacity to maintain even basic infrastructure, will be especially severe in cities and suburbs. Our urbanized civilization requires vast amounts of resources — including rare goods from far away, and cheap labour to deliver things and fix things that break (like pipes and downed wires and cars and appliances and elevators), which they are always doing. A review of past economic depressions reveals that many things simply became more-or-less permanently unavailable, and people just learned to do without. Of course, if what you’re waiting for is food, heating fuel, fuel for transportation, and electricity for your lights, businesses and elevators, you can’t afford to wait long. Eventually you give up waiting and move where the things you need are still available.

It’s doubtful that most of the utopian scenarios that see suburbanites turning their lawns into gardens, and abandoning their jobs for work walking distance from home, will ever see the light of day. Those lawns have mostly already been stripped of their usable soils. There are not nearly enough jobs, especially when the collapse of the internet takes telework off the table. And when the power lines and water lines go down, they will have to wait ages for their restoration, since more concentrated urban dwellers will be served first.

Things will not be any better in rural areas. Most farm acreage is now monoculture, heavily dependent on fertilizers and irrigation and pesticides and other foreign inputs, and is owned by soon-to-be-bankrupt Big Ag mega-corporations, and as markets for their cheap-transport-dependent  products dry up, the single-product farm workers will abandon the farms, as they did in droves during the Great Depression, and join the swelling ranks of the unemployed in the cities.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The only people who are not living in an unsustainable, prosthetic world these days are a tiny number of hardworking self-sufficient independent polyculture farmers. That tiny number includes a surprising number of this blog’s readers, as I keep discovering. But they’re going to be overwhelmed by the vast numbers turning to them for jobs and handouts, and there will be far too little to go around.

While it is true that this is a Long Emergency that we’re now entering, one that will unfold over decades, our economy is so tightly wound that supply chain collapses many orders of magnitude greater than what we’re now witnessing could arrive overnight and change our living conditions very quickly. As the people of Sri Lanka have discovered, your money’s not of much help when there is no food in the shops, no fuel in the service stations, and the power, and lights, keep going out for longer and longer periods.

One recent study suggested that the average amount of time a family in the west could survive (ie keep their home, possessions and food on the table) if they were suddenly without a paycheque, is sixty days. After that they are essentially bankrupt, and without the largesse of others, they’re out on the street begging. That seems extreme, but anyone who’s lived through a depression will tell you that’s exactly how, and how quickly, it happens.

While panic is certainly no answer, our current complacency about the vulnerability of our current way of life is rather alarming. We are living on a knife age, in this era of “hyper-efficient” global interdependence, and the fact that it may take a decade or two to slowly slip off that edge won’t make much difference, since there’s absolutely no way of climbing back on it once that happens.

So when you read about the idiots planning manned trips to Mars, remember that in many ways we already live on Mars — we live astonishingly precarious lives connected by a thin, fragile, unraveling tether to the endangered sources of everything that makes life for humans possible.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

Yet More Crossword Cleverness

Over the last couple of years, I’ve largely switched from NYT crosswords to The New Yorker’s. They seem to have attracted the best of the NYT’s puzzlers, notably Liz Gorski, and they have a much better gender and ethnic minority balance than the NYT ever managed. They also have much more fanciful and imaginative clues than the rigid NYT allows, and more entries from current and minority cultures, while mostly avoiding too much “pop” culture (especially rap and electronic group names that eschew proper spelling, and vowels, respectively).

Unfortunately, I’ve decided to end my New Yorker subscription due to the ferocious anti-Russian and anti-Chinese xenophobia the magazine has exhibited over the last year, especially since the start of the NATO/Russia proxy war in Ukraine. I had expected better from them.

Meanwhile their five-day-a-week online crosswords are excellent (though I find their Thursday “beginner” crosswords too simple). Here are some of the clever clues they’ve had in some of their recent puzzles. I’ve included only the vowels for the answers to each clue, in case readers want to take a stab at guessing the answers when partially filled in. Some of the clues had, or should have had, a wry “?” at the end of the clue to indicate a play on words.

If you just want to see the answers, I’ll include them in a comment to this post:


Posted in _ Uncategorized | 2 Comments

An Age of Wonder

This clip is an 8-second excerpt of a short doc on tardigrades by Journey to the Microcosmos; this is almost exactly what I see under my little $15 microscope.

You probably wouldn’t know it from the dark tenor of my recent posts, but despite everything — despite economic and ecological collapse, despite getting CoVid-19 and other discouraging health issues, despite the endless war-mongering and hate-mongering, despite rampant inflation and money worries, and despite my predilection for fearfulness and anxiety — I have never been happier.

I have been trying to figure out why that is so. Part of it is retirement, relief from the anguish of getting up too early to do work that I knew, most of the time, was meaningless, unnecessary and of no use to anyone, but which was compulsory nevertheless.

Part of it is the realization, which is still being internalized in this body and brain that ‘I’ presume to inhabit, that I have no free will, no control or responsibility over anything that this body thinks, believes, feels or does. That’s immensely liberating, even though I still (instinctively or by conditioning) feel responsible, obligated, ashamed, guilty, furious, fearful, sad, resentful, impatient, intolerant, annoyed, and/or anxious much of the time. These feelings just have much less hold over me than they used to, largely because I appreciate that they’re not really ‘mine’, and not of any useful value to me or anyone.

Another part of it is, I suppose, age. I have less left to prove and less time left to prove anything to anyone or to myself, so I’m much less hard on myself and others than I used to be, and others now expect less of me as well. There were times, believe it or not, when I didn’t think the title of this blog was entirely tongue-in-cheek.

But a significant part of this strange new happiness is, I think, a slowly growing capacity to pay attention, to notice. Life is always wondrous, but these times are especially so. There is so much happening — amazing, terrible, astonishing, horrific, unimaginable things that I see and learn about every day, at a pace that has never before been possible, and will soon be impossible again.

Here are some of the things I am witnessing, trying my best not to judge, but just to accept — things that these strange, wondrous, breakneck, every-kind-of-superlative times have to show me:

  1. The very discovery that time and space and the self are illusory, that our entire ‘reality’ is a representation, a model, entirely conjured up in our heads. That’s not to say that there is nothing outside that model, but rather that our brains, our ‘selves’ are simply incapable of comprehending in the slightest what is actually real and actually happening.
  2. The mind-boggling willingness of human beings to believe obvious, insane falsehoods, and to cling to them with a ferocity that produces endless wars, violence and hatred, and threatens, every bit as much as ecological collapse, to bring about the end of our species.
  3. The pictures from the Webb and Hubble telescopes, and the astounding model of the universe they are creating for us, especially juxtaposed with the realization that they are as much unreal as they are wondrous.
  4. The fact that despite all we have learned about how “we are what we eat”, and how ghastly our modern industrial diets are for our health and for the wellbeing of the creatures that we confine and torture for our food and drink, the less inclined we seem to be to act on that knowledge and eat healthily, or even to acknowledge the inconvenient truths about what our diets are doing to us and to the planet.
  5. The ability to travel anywhere in the world in hours, when even just a century ago it would have taken weeks, months or years. And the impact that ability has had on the homogenization of the world’s cultures and on the planet’s health.
  6. The fact that our single little species, an unremarkable small branch on the evolutionary tree of life, has unleashed the sixth (or eighth, or 42nd, we don’t know for sure) great extinction of life on the planet, without meaning to, and despite knowing we have done so, we are still denying having done so and continuing to act collectively as if we had not.
  7. The discovery that all life on our planet has a common origin, and that the planet’s atmosphere, environments and life forms have co-evolved to produce not only the staggering complexity we see today, but previous almost unimaginable evolutions that, just to give a couple of examples, created a 60M year-long ‘snowball earth’ through bacterial overproduction of oxygen, and which adapted to a 6M year-long supernova radiation bombardment that ended just 2M years ago and obliterated our ancestors’ tropical forest homes, reducing their numbers to just a few thousand.
  8. What we call “fossil fuels” are the remains of algae, bacteria, and plants, mostly dating back more than 350M years; they’re not from animals. And lots more amazing things science has only recently learned.
  9. The astonishing diversity and superhuman (and mostly unknown and unfathomable) qualities of life all around us, including seeds, sharks, bats, tardigrades, and jellyfish.
  10. Some of the amazing inventions and evolutions of life, such as:
    • exaptation (the fact wings evolved for temperature control, and were only later used to fly),
    • languages in all their mind-blowing variety,
    • the way perceptions work (there is no such ‘thing’ as a colour; most of what we ‘see’ is actually predicted fill-ins rather than actual perception),
    • the way memory works (and doesn’t),
    • how most human invention is actually biomimicry,
    • how all imagination is a combination of metaphor and randomness,
    • the infinitely many ways music can be produced and why we love some music and loathe other music,
    • the fact that human art has been around three times longer than abstract human language,
    • how our language affects how we ‘make sense’ of the world,
    • why humans hate complexity,
    • how we learn from ‘play’ and not from schooling,
    • and a million other things.

With all of this to wonder about, and observe, and listen to, and read, and learn about, and discover, and explore, and write about and talk about — and sufficient time and space and resources to do so — how could I be unhappy?

Of course I am uniquely privileged. Most of the world’s people live incredibly difficult lives, and their unhappiness is entirely understandable. But I have always been privileged, and much of my life I was unhappy (and for much of it I was seriously depressed), and I know lots of other privileged people who have never been happy.

So what was up with me, and what’s up with them?

I can’t be sure, and I may be wrong, but the best answer I can come up with is: mental illness. The anxiety of fighting your way up the corporate ladder, being kept off-kilter by your boss and everyone else in your life trying to take advantage of you or keep you on the defensive, and the enormous burden of self-imposed responsibility and blame for everything that’s not going quite as well as you, and everyone around you, expected, can be debilitating. To be in the midst of the game of civilization and playing your heart out every day at it is exhausting and will eventually and inevitably, I think, make you ill. All these years later, I’m still recovering. Thinking back makes me shudder, even though for most of those years I acted as if (pretended, even to myself?) I was happy (after all, I was a success, why wouldn’t I be)? I think this culture takes its emotional and psychological toll on all of us, and most of us, as I wrote last time out, pretend (to ourselves and others) we’re OK. Because people are depending on us, expecting us to be OK.

Flatcaps and Fatalism, a blog from Yorkshire, recently wrote a post about joy and laughter, describing activities of current human hubris such as the absurd techno-utopian Saudi mega-project THE LINE. He wrote:

It is trendy and inhuman, implausible and real. It is also the very latest version of a very old joke, the one about the prideful fool who thinks he is king. The money will be spent and something will be built, but it will not be the dystopian utopia of THE LINE videos. The project cannot keep staff, no-one knows the underlying geology well enough to estimate costs, and the transport plans are patently impossible. The gap between pride and reality is complete and absurd. There is a sacred duty to laugh at these effervescences of the time. It is only laughter, not concern or righteous anger, which reveals that the king was a fool all along. They think they are building heaven, some fear that they are building hell, but they are only building a ruin. The Machine, the great beast of progress, is the same. The ruin it brings will ruin it too. It merits derisive laughter, not trembling fear.

When I was younger I could not laugh at such hubris. I would be angry, as I often was in those days. I was intolerant of what seemed almost deliberate stupidity (a very hard thing to give up, and I still catch myself struggling with it). We’re all doing our best. Granted, that’s not saying much, but still.

So I’m wondering if, for some of us at least:

(1) At some point in our lives, when we are young, our perceptions, conceptions, and conditioning about what is going on in the world, and especially what is going on for us personally, shift to allow despair to vanquish wonder; and then

(2) At some much later point in our lives (at least if we are privileged), we develop a sense of equanimity, acceptance, and even humour about what is going on in the world, and for ourselves personally, that allows wonder to again vanquish despair.

For me, that first point came in my first few school years, and the second came just over a decade ago. So the happiest times of my life were my youngest and my latest. The years from about age 6 to about age 60 were what I am starting to call my wasted years, not that there is anything I or anyone could have done to make them turn out differently.

I doubt that this shift applies to most people; after all, we all handle the strange complexity of modern, nearly global, civilization culture differently.

But I have started to notice now — as I learn to notice aphids’ remarkable intelligence, and how light affects my emotions, and the difference between ironic laughter and laughter born of delight and wonder — the faces of the people I meet. The faces of most young children and some of the faces of my own age cohort seem to reflect a very different, more joyous, enchanted way of being in the world. And the faces of most of those of ages in-between seem to reflect the bewilderment, wariness, and trauma that we seem to unwittingly instil in each other as we try to do our best in this wonderful, terrible world.

And each face I see, I ache for them to be free of this Civilization Disease — to never get afflicted with it, or to heal as quickly as possible from it.

Perhaps this is why I welcome rather than fear the end of this civilization, despite the suffering and hardship it is already starting to unleash.  As Indrajit puts it: “Om namah shivaya. Shiva is dancing up a storm.”

After the fall, we may never again have to learn “the terrible knowledge of cities”.

One day, I think, wonderfully and once again, everything will be free.

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

Pretending It’s Better Than It Is


Painting in oil pastels, “Family Portrait”,  by the Polish graphic artist Sławek Gruca

“When one is pretending, the entire body revolts.” — Anais Nin

There seems to be a propensity among the human species to put on our best face in the company of those we respect and care about, and pretend that things are better than they are, that they are OK, fine, acceptable, that we’re coping, at least.

I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps we’ve all experienced too many gloomy, needy, annoying-to-be-around and otherwise vexatious people who are always moaning about their situation and implying that it’s not fair and that someone — perhaps you — could or should do something about it. We don’t want to be around such people. So maybe our “it’s OK” demeanour is compensatory — we don’t want to burden or stress or depress the people around us.

There’s certainly some role-playing involved as well. We don’t want our kids getting scared (or scarred) because the world, and our lives, are so fucked up, and we seem unable to make them better. We don’t want our spouses and significant others to find us tedious to be around and choose the company of others instead. We don’t want our friends and co-workers to see us as weak, struggling, a mess — a drag.

And there’s likely some pride, and shame, at play as well. None of us wants to admit our failures to ourselves or others. We want to be looked up to, not pitied. No surprise that some 80% of citizens in international polls say they think they earn more than the median income in their country. Even the poor slobs who ‘make their living’ gambling at casinos, racetracks, and in stock markets and real estate markets tend to wildly overestimate their success in front of others.

We all probably know people who get dressed up before they go to visit their doctor, so they look healthier than they feel, undermining the doctor’s ability to assess what is needed.

And we all know about the placebo effect, which has us feeling better, when asked, just because we believe something has been done which should make us feel better; the feeling, of course, never lasts.

I remember as a young child finding the acting of adults both unconvincing and inexplicable. Why are they all pretending — to know stuff, to be succeeding, to be happy? What are they playing at? To me this was not only a transparent attempt at deceit, it seemed a self-deceit as well. Who do they think they’re fooling?

So we all pretend, and make believe, things are better than they really are. As Yorkshire’s Flat Caps and Fatalism blogger poetically relates, our cities and our countrysides reflect this false pretence that things are OK, better than OK:

The cities lie. Their radical chic is stretched tight over the bare lust for money. Their cosmopolitan diversity hides the uniformity of clawing ambition. Their youth is stolen from elsewhere, used for a time, and discarded when its looks and gullibility begin to fade. They grow little food and make fewer objects every year. They offer only services no one needs and knowledge no one believes. A blustering businessman sinks deeper into debt; but, risking it all again and again, he’ll keep up his pretence until the bailiffs arrive. That is the soul of the city.

The countryside lies. The fertilised fields barely pay the bills, but five families worked this land before it was improved. The tasteful barn conversions shelter dreamers who touch the soil with their eyes alone. The very lambs in the fields deceive. They tell you that this place feeds others, but it has long taken more than it gives. It is hungry, always hungry, hungry for oil and hungry for money. The countryside is the skin of the land, but its glow is not healthy. It is sunburn. The energy poured into it has killed it, and soon it will peel away from the flesh below.

The wildlands lie. Their treeless beauty is kept for grouse and Gore-Tex. Ninety years after the trespass, they are still luxury goods selling freedom. They offer escape, something above the fray, something that was always so and will be always so; but they are only playgrounds that pretend to be churches. Nature promises nothing but death and change. The romantics scorned him, but Capability Brown was an honest man. He sculpted the land to please the eye and called it a garden. Infatuated with the sublime, we have done the same and called it conservation.

All our lands lie, but they have only one lie: the lie that this will go on, that the oil will keep flowing, that the supply chains will not shatter, that this empire will not sink into lone and level sands.

Our entire civilization, and its now-global and homogenizing culture, is a giant lie. Through the politicians, the media, our gambles and dreams of the future that can never be realized, our borrowing of amounts (from the earth, and from future generations) that can never possibly be repaid, we pretend that things are OK and will inevitably get better. Through the factory farms behind giant walls concealing the truth of our grotesque, brutal and torture-filled food system, showing instead playful lambs on our meat pie packages and contented cows on our milk cartons, we conceal the truth from each other and from ourselves. We dare not imagine what is really happening behind all the walls we build to keep the traumatized incarcerated, the abused helpless, and the desperate in refugee ‘camps’ serving life sentences, so we can go on pretending it’s all OK.

It is fear that keeps us hiding from the truth, in denial of what is happening, unwilling to know or even think what is happening behind all those walls. We are afraid to admit that we have failed — ourselves, our children, our loved ones, and the world — and that instead we have produced a monster, an artificial, prosthetic global culture called ‘civilization’ that has never worked, can never work, and which, having produced atrocities greater and more far-reaching than we can even imagine, is quickly falling apart. Our intentions were good, and we cannot dare admit that those intentions have led to this.

Some of my fellow collapsniks have told me that if we were to truly face up to the horrific legacy of civilization and its accelerating collapse, we would all kill ourselves — we could not bear it. I’m not so sure. I think if we avoid the blame game, and just stop lying to ourselves and to each other, stop pretending that this isn’t endgame that we’re witnessing, we might find that there’s less shame in that terrible admission than in the lies we depend on to keep going as if everything was OK.

I’m not saying we should ‘confess our sins’ — I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in sin, or good or evil, right or wrong, confession or punishment, or free will. We did our best, we cannot fix or undo what we did trying our best.

What I think we could do, and may well do over the course of the coming decades, is to admit that our best intentions went horribly wrong for reasons we could not know and will never fully know, and simply pause in all our efforts, and stop doing everything we’re doing. To refuse to participate in trying to resuscitate the dead patient that is human civilization on this planet. To realize that continuing to do what has never worked is a fool’s game. To stop pretending that everything is OK. We could do all these things, if we were to suddenly get brutally honest with ourselves and each other (which may require more self-awareness and self-knowledge than most of us could muster), and give each other permission to acknowledge that collectively we inadvertently fucked up, and that the consequences of that very large and very human error will be severe. And then move on from there.

What would that look like? — A secular pause, not to lament or grieve or plan or blame or shame or pray, but to accept that it’s endgame, and that our continuing to act as if it’s not is pure folly. To say goodbye to this bizarre and amazing human-created civilization, this ersatz world within a world, this world full of what Richard Shelton calls “the terrible knowledge of cities”, and to do so in a spirit of humility and relief. And then to acknowledge and re-embrace the more-than-human world in all its wonder and joy, to breathe it in, to notice what we never thought we had the time to see.

It would look like, collectively, walking away from systems that were sincerely designed to make our lives better, but which are ruinous and no longer of service to most of us, if they ever were. It would mean stopping the work we do in Bullshit Jobs, and instead taking on the almost-impossible task of finding work that has real meaning and value to others and which is sustainable, sufficient and in humble service to our communities. It would mean ceasing to buy or sell or make anything that isn’t essential, and ceasing to buy anything industrially processed, anything we cannot mend and repair ourselves.

It would mean getting together with others in our community and giving everything we (pretend we) own back to the commons, to be stewarded collectively and modestly for the community’s collective benefit, including the more-than-human community into which it would gradually be re-integrated. And, the gods help us, it would mean learning to trust and even love everyone in our community, even those we don’t like very much.

It would mean ceasing to use or value money, and living within a radically relocalized gift economy where the currency of exchange is personal knowledge and trust. It would mean relearning, in communities of our own making, how to make and do the essential things our particular local community needs to live comfortably and sufficiently. It would probably mean, for the vast majority of us, moving perhaps thousands of miles to a place that can healthily sustain a human population without the prosthesis of technology. And it would mean so much more.

Beyond that, it would mean giving up pretending we know what we’re doing, erasing the absurd pretence that anyone is an expert. It would mean giving up pretending that things are better than they really are, and giving up all the lies and denials that prop up that pretence, all those desperate lies to ourselves, our children, our friends and communities and co-workers.

I know of a few communities that are trying this. Mostly, they are making many mistakes, some of them fatal. Mostly, their members, so accustomed and inured to lying because the truth is too hard to admit, are still lying to themselves and to each other, and when that leads to community failure, they will have to start over again, and again, until they discover and demand the absolute truth of themselves and each other. Until they learn to be humble. Until they once again become part of the more-than-human world in which they find themselves.

That’s the world I dream of living in. It will come eventually — only those of us who learn to live sustainably and modestly as part of the community of life on earth, to once again belong to the earth, will survive civilization’s collapse. There is no other way, despite what the deranged billionaires would have you believe. It will be hard, astonishing, frustrating, and magical.

I doubt I will be around to see it, but I will be thinking of those that will. Pulling for them, not to succeed, but to live natural lives where no one has to pretend it’s better than it is. Because it can’t get any better than that.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

Addicted to Crude

There are few pipelines in North Dakota, so while oil is valuable enough to truck out (weather permitting), the natural gas byproducts are not, so the gas is simply, legally, burned off, “flared”, wasted. Photo by Tim Evanson from wikimedia, CC-BY-2.0 .

Here in Carmerica, nothing is free — not the food, not the fuel, not the people, not me.
Here in Carmerica, deep in the gears of a four-stroke engine lubricated with tears —
You can hear it a-comin’, long before it appears here in Carmerica, deep in the gears.

Here in Carmerica, moments away — the pressure is building just a little each day,
Ready to rumble, let happen what may, here in Carmerica, moments away.
Here in Carmerica, land of the cruel, addicted to sex, and addicted to fuel.
But some of your people are nobody’s fool here in Carmerica, land of the cruel.

Here in Carmerica, divided they stand: They wait undecided, their heads in the sand.
Their confidence wavers, then leaves their command, here in Carmerica, divided they stand.
Here in Carmerica, land that I love: the grind of your dollar, the fist in the glove,
The smooth-runnin’ engine when push comes to shove, here in Carmerica, land that I love.

Nathan Rogers, Carmerica (yes, he’s Stan’s son, and Canadian)

Our local Facebook page has recently exploded with horrified and outraged revelations that most of the gas stations in our community are closed, because they, like some other specialized retailers these days, have nothing to sell. The signs that recently said $2.39/litre now read $0.00. The underlying message of these social media posts: Who’s to blame for this? and When will this inconvenience be over? If I were to read comments on the posts (which I never do) I’m sure answers to these unanswerable questions would be readily proffered.

We still don’t seem to fathom the idea that complex problems — predicaments really — have no solutions, only stopgaps and workarounds, or that system collapse, which is more in evidence now than ever before, is a gradually unfolding phenomenon, not a sudden Mad Max one-time Hollywood cataclysmic event.

We are living in the early years of what Jim Kunstler tagged “The Long Emergency”, a state of emergency that will last decades and will not be ‘fixed’, but rather will end only when we have learned to adapt to a completely different way and scale of living.

As Nathan’s song tells us, we’re addicted to our current way of life, and to the ruinously destructive systems, most notably fossil fuel extraction, that make that life possible. As Indrajit Samarajiva says, especially in the Global South, we’re going into fossil fuel withdrawal. And there are no drugs on offer to ease the ghastly symptoms.

What exactly does it mean to be addicted to something? It means we can’t function competently without it. It means we react in irrational, unpredictable, and unhealthy ways when we don’t get it. It means we may resort to violence or crime to get it. It means even though we know what we crave isn’t good for us, we will use any means of rationalizing why it would be worse for us to quit using it. It means we’ll deny we have a problem. It means we’ll favour the certain short term pleasure over the uncertain long term suffering that quitting would entail. It means we’ll befriend (and vote for) people who will tell us our addiction is OK. And it means the addicts who are poor will suffer disproportionally more than those who are rich.

Beating this addiction isn’t just a matter of collective willpower. In fact, there’s a danger that if we convince ourselves that we’re doing our share, or more than our share, we will shrug off facing the fact that most people will never be able to do that. Being personally right won’t provide any solace when it all comes apart, and it may lull us into complacency in the meantime.

We have become addicted to petrochemical products to the same extent and in the same way we are addicted to food, water, and air. Our civilization simply can no longer operate without them. This dependence is not like our dependence on caffeine or alcohol. Breaking that dependence is possible. Breaking our dependence on petrochemicals is not. Everything that supports our civilization depends on it — transportation, heating, cooling and much of our electricity, the fertilizers and other chemicals that are essential inputs to 60% of the world’s current food supply, industrial production, infrastructure, our beloved internet, and substantially every aspect of our present economy. Without it we will simply die, in large numbers. The only way we can significantly reduce this inevitable suffering and death is by having fewer or no children, and it is not clear that many of us are even willing to do this, though that will certainly shift as the horrors of civilizational collapse begin to unfold more fully.

The growth of our industry, our productive capacity, our infrastructure, our food supply, our trade, and our human population — as Richard Heinberg has repeatedly explained, all of these have occurred in lock-step with the growth of our consumption of fossil fuels. That’s because our exploding consumption of fossil fuels is what has entirely powered and enabled that growth, and has been and continues to be entirely dependent on its impossible continuation. It is a myth that, with collective will and effort, we could replace fossil fuels with other energy sources (including sources yet to be invented) without our economy collapsing in the process. And it is a myth that such substitution could prevent or even significantly lessen or mitigate climate collapse and other aspects of the ongoing global ecological collapse fuelling the sixth great extinction of life on the planet.

So to answer my neighbours’ questions:

Who is to blame, for these disruptions to our fuel-injected economy and its supply chains? No one. This is what happens when 7.9B people all do their best to look after themselves and the people they care about. Get used to it. Many more disruptions are coming, and some of them are going to make the ones we are now seeing look like a walk in the park.

When’s it going to end, and get properly fixed so it doesn’t happen again? Never. This is a system in terminal collapse. Like all civilizations before us, and their complex systems, this one too will end in chaos, except this time it will be global, with no frontiers left and no replays available. This civilization has used up all of its lives. What will be left of human societies when this civilization’s collapse reaches its conclusion decades from now, we cannot know, though it almost surely will be low-tech, utterly local, and include a lot fewer people than are alive today. There’s a serious chance no humans at all will survive it, though our demise may be a long thin tail that hangs on with a few remaining societies in decline for centuries. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote of societies: “Fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid.” Energy researcher Ugo Bardi has coined this observation the Seneca Cliff, and it is increasingly likely that the collapse curve we are now starting to slide down will be such a cliff.

When our addiction to hydrocarbons can no longer be fed, it will be no different from suddenly finding ourselves without food, without water, or without air. We can go on believing that when the last of the pushers of the drug we crave have all put yellow tape around the pumps and permanently changed their price signs to $0.00, there will be another candy man opening up around the corner to fill the insatiable need. But that belief won’t serve us well when the withdrawal symptoms kick in. We’ll recognize the symptoms: the feeling of being desperately hot, or desperately cold, or desperately hungry, or desperately thirsty, or unable to breathe, or unable to function, or homeless and bankrupt and feeling hopeless and ashamed, or ready to kill for relief, or wanting to die just to end the pain. Not pretty, but some of us will likely survive, and learn to live without what we thought we would always have.

You can hear it a-comin’ long before it appears.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

Plus Ça Change: Lessons from a Mall


current mall/parking lot footprint near my home, showing proposed towers

It has been above 35ºC (close to 100ºF) all week here in Coquitlam. Like most Vancouverites I have no air conditioning. On top of that, I’m on Day 15 since first being diagnosed with CoVid-19. I finally tested negative, but haven’t felt up to my usual long walks thanks to being constantly masked in the fierce heat.

Over the past year, my last post of each month has usually been a kind of meandering reflection on what I have seen, and thought about, on recent walks. So for a change, this post will be about my recent daily strolls through the large (air conditioned) shopping mall across the street from my apartment — A different kind of jungle from that of last month’s bear encounter.

Writers have been predicting and documenting the demise of urban shopping malls for over 40 years. There’s a multi-billion dollar proposal to add 26 towers housing 21,000 people on top of the huge two-story retail mall I’m walking through. In this age of collapse, that’s about as likely to happen as the Singularity or the Rapture, but I guess people have to believe in something.

The owners of this mall are private and secret; it’s fronted by a real-estate/PR firm. They own dozens of malls in Canada, cookie-cutter copies of each other. Apparently most of their financing comes from Canadian and international pension funds, whose investment managers are faithful adherents to the religion of perpetual growth and inevitable progress.

For now it’s a mongrel of a mall, with the usual trendy chains, a food court tweaked to reflect our heavily Asian-Canadian populations, some ancient signage that looks ’50s vintage, and a scaffolded, open but empty zombie of a Hudson’s Bay Company store, Canada’s oldest (and basically bankrupt) corporation. HBC is doubling down on its staggering business losses by bidding to buy the US’s largest remaining (also basically bankrupt) department store chain, Kohl’s, though it looks like a vitamin-store chain is going to outbid them.

Shopping malls were designed as community centres, promising the kind of freewheeling, everyday mix of art, crafts, entertainment, current produce and social camaraderie that ancient agoras and community markets once offered. But then “the market” intervened. Free stuff was jettisoned, and every square metre was leased to whoever could squeeze the maximum number of dollars in sales and margins out of the space. Of course how to do that has changed with demographics, economics and fashions, and many once-proud retailers fell briefly and disastrously out of step with buyers and are long gone.

A few years ago, mall owners here tore out tables near the food ‘courts’ that had been set aside for retired people, veterans, and game enthusiasts to play chess and checkers. Apparently they weren’t buying enough, so the geezers were told to go elsewhere.

There are new signs on the mall entrance doors here: For the first time since CoVid-19 began and customers began to stay away in droves, they’re reopening “extended evening hours” (until 9pm) on Thursdays and Fridays.

But you can’t fail to notice the hand-scrawled notices on the doors of at least five of these high-rent stores, saying “Closed temporarily due to CoVid-related staff shortages.”

As I wander through the mall, despite the turnover in names on the storefronts, I feel as if I am stuck in the past. We’re very close to the point where the world buys more online than it does in stores, yet this mall looks, functionally, like a relic of the Reagan era. It’s almost quaint.

The Chinese, who, unlike us, don’t live in the past, buy much of what they do via livestream shopping, a concept almost unheard of here. The vendor offers an interactive, real-time online show to customers, displaying, demonstrating and explaining the product, answering questions, and modelling its use. More service than a traditional retailer can offer, and no need to leave home.

By contrast, even the Apple store here shows absolutely no innovation or imagination in terms of processes or customer experience. Every transaction is adversarial: How quickly can they get you to buy more than you want and pay more than you planned, plus pay for extended warranties, special adapters, and other hidden charges, and then get you out of the store to make room for the next customer.

In the clothing stores, you have the choice between obsequious attention and being completely ignored, depending on the culture of the store. The staff are both incapable of and forbidden from telling you anything, or offering you anything, that you couldn’t get faster and more easily from their online store. These humans in this zombie landscape are, most of them, essentially robots, and underpaid commensurately. A total waste of potential value.

Why do people come here, I wonder, other than to get away from the unbearable weather outside? I suspect the answer is a combination of habit and imaginative poverty — they don’t know what (else) to do with themselves.

The faces of the younger children display the same kind of bewilderment I am feeling: Why are we here, when we could be doing something fun and interesting? Who are all these people anyway?

So I sit and listen for answers to this question. Unlike most Canadian malls, which are overtly hostile to ‘loiterers’ and offer no place to sit, there is lots of public seating in this one. Because it’s so hot outside, this seating is unusually full.

My first observation is how the demographics of the people in the mall change depending on time of day and day of the week. There are no people-watchers here now — most of us ‘loiterers’ are either tending to children or engrossed in or talking on their phones. But I’ve been here on weekends and late in the day when the audience is younger and more deliberately dressed, and there’s almost as much calculated people-gazing and posing then as there is on the Paris Métro at rush hour.

The voyeur in me instead has to satisfy himself today by taking stock of comings and goings. Mask-wearing is down to about 25% in the mall, an all-time low since CoVid-19 began, and I notice many of these only put their masks on when they enter the mall.

The other thing I notice is that the people coming into the mall look relatively determined and anticipatory. By contrast, far and away the majority of the leavers look sullen and dissatisfied, especially if they have no bags in hand. What’s going on here, I wonder? And then it strikes me, the appeal that this mall has, that has people coming back despite its failures: The mall lures you in with its promise, but never delivers on it. It’s like a bad girl/boyfriend, telling you all the wonderful things they’re going to do for you but never actually doing them. I look at the people going through the exit doors and I see one message on so many of their faces: Oh well — Next time it will be different, better. 

And then, I suppose, they’ll forget, and later there will be something else they’re looking for, something they’re not sure about, and they’ll be back, full of fervent hopes and empty bags. The mall is a place of unfulfilled dreams.

~~~~~

Ever since CoVid-19 hit, and increasingly now due to chronic supply chain issues that will only get worse, there have been major stock-outs in many stores. In the larger stores, you’ll see long empty shelves with “sorry” signs on them, and empty pockets in otherwise-full shelves, where someone has hoarded some specific item, or it’s suddenly just become unavailable. Ask the workers and they’ll just shrug — no one knows when anything will be back in stock.

In the smaller, lower-end stores, that operate on volume not margin, empty shelves are anathema, and are filled with whatever else they can find in the back to fill the space, usually with a slight discount. In the higher-end stores, a half-empty look is fashionable, but they’re even more vulnerable to stock-outs. As soon as you look forlornly at the empty space where what you wanted should be, the chicly-dressed clerks in these stores will rush over and tell you they’ll deliver it to your home, for free, as soon as it comes in. No, they don’t know when that will be. Would you like to come over to the desk here and give me your contact information?

As I wander through one of these stores, a young saleswoman with shining eyes and a huge grin rushes over to her co-worker and says, in a barely-controlled voice: “God I love personal shoppers! A week’s commission in less than an hour!” The co-worker offers a rather jealous-looking congratulatory nod. I have no inkling what this is all about, so I retreat to the public seating area and google: “What is a personal shopper?”

Apparently this is a thing, if you’re too old or too rich to do your own shopping. Some of them are full-fledged “image consultants” recommending looks and products for their too-important-to-shop-for-themselves clients, and then going out and picking the stuff up. Skilled personal shoppers can, the internet says, earn mid-six-figure incomes, but often work long and unusual hours, and their jobs are precarious.

I had no idea. When I later told a friend about this, he said he didn’t know about it either, and added, with a smile: “I thought that’s what spouses were for.”

~~~~~

An interesting phenomenon, at least for me as a long-time advisor to small entrepreneurial businesses, is the emergence of local independent stores in a one-block radius surrounding the mall. These stores have much less variety than the mall stores selling the same type of goods, and they’re actually a bit more expensive, presumably because they can’t get the same volume discounts from suppliers that the mall chains can. But what they do offer is an unhurried atmosphere, and personal, knowledgeable customer service.

I often wander over there, to what is ironically called High Street, to get my matcha, my pharmaceuticals and vaccinations, my organic produce, and other things, all because of the service. They know me. They address me by name. They know what I’m there for and what I like. They will special-order things for me, set things aside for me. They talk with me as if I’m a friend, though I know that’s mostly that special Asian-Canadian politeness I have come to respect so much here.

And they know that, to catch the mall-disillusioned, they have to be nearby. It’s a strategy that works. Unlike those in the mall, these quiet, smart, entrepreneurs’ stores have staying power. Though it’s not an easy life.

So now my walk is over, and I’m back in my apartment, in which the thermometer says it’s 34ºC, the same as outside. I appreciate enormously the invention of ceiling fans, independently by the Chinese and Indians, centuries before electricity. I suspect we will soon have to rediscover such manual means of creating coolth. I take a cold shower and wander back into the living room, naked, with a towel at my feet to catch the drips, stand in the shadow of the fan, and say “Aaaah!”

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

Collapse, Not Apocalypse


Thomas Cole’s ‘Destruction’, the fourth of his five-panel series ‘The Course of Empire‘, 1836. Public domain.

Several people have pointed me to Chris Hedges’ latest article “The Dawn of the Apocalypse”, which includes a lengthy summation of the current state of climate collapse, and includes links to recent interviews with Extinction Rebellion founder Roger Hallam.

I think Chris, and Roger, have it mostly right, except for two things:

  1. their preoccupation with laying blame for climate collapse on “global elites” and others; and
  2. their failure to consider climate collapse in the larger context of multi-faceted global ecological collapse (of which climate collapse is only the most-studied facet), and the more immediate and paralyzing impact of global economic collapse.

Let me take these two issues in order:

The futility of the blame game

There’s an almost religious presumption in many of the current proclamations by climate activists that a forced, death-bed repentance by the fossil-fuel industry and those who support it is possible, or would be significantly helpful.

I don’t think either of these presumptions is true. A radical reform is not possible because it runs counter to the basis of our entire economic system, and would immediately lead to the sacking of the repentant and their replacement with non-repentant corporate leaders. It would not be helpful because if Big Oil stopped meeting the now-essential needs of 7.9B citizens demanding ever-more hydrocarbon fuels, they would be quickly supplanted by nationalized enterprises, the underground economy, and individuals burning coal, wood, and anything else that’s flammable to fill the gap. We the citizens are addicted to crude, and we will get our fix, and the ecology be damned.

We’re fucked, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We are going to burn the rest of the world’s fossil fuel reserves (or substitute wood and coal and anything else that will burn if/when those reserves become unavailable or uneconomic) sooner or later, because we will never tolerate the immense short-term suffering that will come from not doing so.

Trudeau and other ‘moderate’ leaders aren’t encouraging more and more fossil fuel burning because they’re evil selfish corrupt monsters — they’re doing so because they think that, given the delicate balance of ecology and economy, this is the best ‘middle path’ they can follow given the very little control that they can wield at all. If they were to pursue the radical course Chris and Roger propose, they would be quickly deposed, and the coups would have the tacit support of the majority of citizens of all political stripes.

It’s quite simple: None of us is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to avert collapse. We have shown that to be true in our elections and our buying decisions as much as through the corporate behaviours we tolerate. We’re not “to  blame” for that. This is our well-intentioned nature, and the expression of that nature is now colliding with the longer-term interests of our planet and all its residents. This does not make us evil; it makes us human.

Laying the blame, whether on ‘evil’ others or on our ‘sinful’ selves is misplaced, pointless, and emotionally lazy. It’s merely a way for the religiously (in the broadest sense of the term) indoctrinated to feel morally better about what they have and have not done in the face of the crisis.

So yes, Chris and Roger, we’re fucked, and it’s going to be mostly awful. But only when we acknowledge that collapse is inevitable and that laying blame achieves nothing, can we start to help each other cope with that grim realization and start to prepare for the radical changes in our lives it will necessarily usher in.

The larger collapse context

There is also a giant part of the collapse equation that Chris and Roger do not discuss, partly because they will lose much of their audience if they try to explain the full complexity of the situation, and partly because it will make their suggested radical solutions appear hopeless and moot.

Climate collapse is one facet of the accelerating ecological collapse that is producing the sixth great extinction of life on this planet. Other facets include biodiversity loss, the destruction of our soils, the massive despoiling of our fresh waters and oceans, the fouling of our air, the disruption of once-stable global air and water currents, and many other types of destruction and unbalancing of the ecological systems on which we all depend. Even if climate change were magically solved tomorrow, ecological collapse would continue to accelerate. It would just take a little longer to undo human civilization.

And even more importantly, missing from Chris’ and Roger’s discussion is the impact of economic collapse, which any careful reading of history will suggest is going to precede, complicate and exacerbate ecological collapse.

Economic collapse, brought about by the realization that almost all current debts are unrepayable, and that in a fixed-resource world, perpetual profit growth (on which almost all of the value of assets from homes to stocks utterly depends) is impossible, is as inevitable as, and more imminent than, ecological collapse. As I’ve written at length elsewhere, the economic collapse that much of the world is already grappling with will be permanent, not just a temporary depression. And it will be global. We have reached the limits to growth, and instead of reducing our consumption to adapt to that hard reality, our consumption is still increasing exponentially. Permanent global economic collapse means, for example, that we will burn the last of our forests, our coal and wood and finally our furniture, because we will not be able to afford to extract the last of our oil and gas, and because we desperately need the fuel.

Economic collapse will cripple the capacity of governments and regulators to do anything to address ecological collapse, because it is almost certain to precipitate political collapse and bankrupt governments (even the few that are not already ‘technically’ bankrupt) and corporations. As those corporations go under and cease operations, we may get our wish that the remaining hydrocarbons on which our civilization depends will remain forever in the ground. But we may well regret that wish.

We are going to find ourselves, gradually and haltingly over the next few decades, in a world of helpless chaos — a world in which, like most humans throughout history, we will have to rely on our own local resources and our own local community to give us what we need to survive and live sufficiently.

This will be a massive challenge, and some communities will rise to the occasion, while others will not. We’ll have time to adjust to not bringing new children into the world, which will alleviate the suffering of collapse somewhat. We’ll have time to relearn the essential skills of living in community and with each other, which may well be astonishing. The debates we’re having today, about what we and others should or should not be doing, will be forgotten.

~~~~~

The word apocalypse in Chris’ title is, tellingly, a religious one, referring to the revelation of a divinely-invoked cataclysm followed inevitably by the permanent triumph of good over evil. The religious, it seems, can never give up their crutch of hope, their belief that, no matter how we sin, we are a species of destiny.

In the real world, nature doesn’t give a fuck about our species, and whether it survives or perishes, thrives or suffers. No other species would lament our disappearance from the planet, which may or may not happen soon.

There is no apocalypse, and there has never been one. Just plain ordinary garden-variety collapse, which happens from time to time, when things get too far out of balance.

Nothing to be done about that, and no one to blame.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 14 Comments

It Just Is

more on radical non-duality, and some new scientific theories; the usual caveats apply for those who find such blather annoying


image of the galaxy group Stephan’s Quintet, new, from NASA’s Webb telescope

I was never a fan of The Matrix, and other sci-fi works that suggest that what we perceive as reality is merely a machination, an illusion (often with some god or beast running the show). As a long-time phenomenologist, these arguments strike me as typical Hollywood-style facile simplifications developed in the interest of popular theatre, not in the interest of a serious exploration into the nature of reality.

I have written a lot in these pages on the nature of reality, which seems to me far more fundamental than the lesser but more popular questions about the meaning and purpose of life. If we don’t know the nature of reality, how can we possibly know its meaning or purpose?

The leading scientists, in quantum science, in physics, in cognitive science and in neuroscience and biology, have recently thrown all the “physicalist” theories about the nature of reality, and the human self, into disarray, to the point many are now quite comfortable arguing that there is no “real” space or time, and no “real” self, though some of their arguments are more semantic than substantial.

One of those scientists is Donald Hoffman, who two of my readers (Ivo and Dr Scanlon) have recently referred me to again, in connection to my writings (some may say ravings) about radical non-duality. Last month Donald had a long (three hours plus) interview with popular podcaster Lex Fridman. Donald has a recent (2019) book out called, provocatively enough, The Case Against Reality.

The book, and interview, advance an anti-physicalist, anti-reductionist theory, one that espouses that what is ‘fundamental’ is not matter, energy, or time, but rather ‘conscious agents’. He is attempting to prove, mathematically, that if one assumes the fundamental existence of a ‘conscious agent’, then one can derive from that an infinite network of conscious agents, from which one can derive what appears to us to be matter, energy, time, life, evolution, the Big Bang, separate beings, the self, and everything we think of as ‘real’, as ‘interactions’ or ‘interrelationships’ of these conscious agents.

His principal argument, the one that drove the development of the theory, is that evolution seems to have unfolded the way it has not to optimize the accurate depiction of reality, but rather to optimize creatures’ ‘fitness’ for survival and thriving. In other words, what we think of, perceive as, and sense as reality is merely a distorted and radically simplified model of what really is, and since we depend on our senses to define reality, we cannot think our way out of the distorted box this model presents to us — we cannot ever really hope to ‘see’ actual reality. But we may be able, Donald says, to ‘prove’ what is actually real mathematically.

It’s intriguing, but while many have quibbled with the underlying tenets and arguments of conscious agent theory, it seems to me to be rather beside the point. One of the fundamental elements of ‘conscious agents’ is “the measurable space of conscious experiences of the agent”. That ‘space’ is probabilistic, not absolute, and the ‘consciousness’ of a conscious agent is defined by its components — perceptions, possible and actual actions, decisions, experiences, and the ‘world’ these agents perceive.

So this is not ‘consciousness’ in the highfalutin sense that most of us use the word, and I have to wonder if the term was chosen deliberately to ‘warmify’ the theory in the eyes of the nonscientific and spiritual communities. It is a little like the use of the word ‘unconditional love’ used by many spiritual communities (and also by many non-dualists) to describe ‘what really is’ — this is not ‘love’ in the sense that we humans mean and understand the word, but does give an air of accessibility and humanity to the teachings and theories that use it.

The desperation to find a mathematical, scientific, or philosophical model that will allow mathematicians, scientists, philosophers and spiritual types to salvage their careers and substantiate their lifetimes’ work is understandable, but I fail to see why it is necessary. It strikes me very much like the attempt of 17th-century geocentric mathematicians, scientists, philosophers and spiritual types to rescue their earth-centred models of the universe by developing staggeringly complex explanations involving revolutions around revolutions to keep the Earth in the centre of the universe. Although Donald’s theory does have a better intuitive feel to it than string theory and other ‘unfalsifiable’ theories.

Why is it so important, to scholars and laypeople alike, that there be any theory at all to ‘explain’ reality? Is it human hubris? Is it desperation to salvage professional reputations? The quantum scientist Sean Carroll has said:

You want to know why the universe is, you’re not going to get a satisfactory answer. You’re not going to be happy. The universe just is. You have to accept it. You have to learn to deal with it. There’s nothing further there. I like this. I mean I don’t like it sort of you know in terms of again scratching explanatory itches. But I think it’s the one that is most courageous, most brave. It faces up to the reality of it. All of these other attempts hit this little kid problem of saying, ‘Well, if that’s true, why is that true? Why is that true? Why is that true?’ And here you’re saying, nope. There is one level at which you just say, that’s how it is. There is nothing other than that. This is what Bertrand Russell was trying to say. I think this is probably the right answer. And I know that people don’t like it, but whether we like it or not, is not part of how we should judge a theory of why the universe is the way it is.

What is seen by those who, for various reasons not connected to illness, study or intellect, have no sense of having ‘selves’ or any sense that anything is separate from anything else, is that ‘everything is just an appearance’ — it’s not real, and cannot be known or understood. This is not a theory they’re espousing (in fact they assert there is no ‘them’ to espouse anything). It’s just what is obviously seen there, without the illusion of self that most of us labour under. When they are asked ‘why’ that seems to be so, their answer is an unequivocal “there is no why, there is only what appears to be happening, for no reason or purpose”.

That “cold, uncompromising” radical non-duality message seems entirely consistent to me with Sean Carroll’s somewhat reluctant admission above. It is enough for me. After five years of trying to reconcile radical non-duality’s message with the findings of scientists, listening to Donald may be the final straw leading me to give up that futile attempt.

As Sean notes, “people” (mostly mathematicians, scientists, philosophers and spiritual types) “don’t like” this message. It seems to us heartless, useless, hopeless, and unintuitive. It is. It’s also wondrous, accepting, and complete. The end of the search for what was never missing.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 4 Comments