Canada’s Election Non-Event


cartoon by David Parkins in the Globe & Mail

Monday was election day in Canada. Nothing changed. The results were essentially identical to those of the last election. If there were any significant changes in voting patterns, they were these:

  1. The urban/rural voting polarity increased. Conservatives (and the BQ in Québec) swept almost every rural riding by a huge margin. The Liberals and NDP swept almost every urban riding by a huge margin. Those margins almost invariably increased compared with the last election. Of the dozen or so ridings that changed hands, almost all of them changed to conform to this rural/urban split pattern. The overall votes for the four progressive parties vs the two conservative parties remained unchanged at 60%-40% — it hasn’t moved much in a generation.
  2. The borderline fascist “People’s Party”, which is very closely aligned in policies to the borderline fascist US Republican party, received 5% of the votes. That’s one out of every twenty Canadians. One of its riding association leaders was arrested for pelting the Prime Minister with handfuls of gravel during the campaign, which pretty much says it all.

The Liberal party, which has governed for most of the last century, often, and again now, as a minority government propped up by the near-socialist NDP, is at heart socially liberal but economically conservative. It has been totally gutless when it comes to dealing with economic inequality and climate change, and was hoping to win a majority so it could start ignoring the NDP’s calls for action on these fronts and slide further right. But the Liberals are not heartless, and have been less incompetent at dealing with CoVid-19 than any conservative government.

Under the undemocratic “first past the post” system that the Liberals promised to replace (but then reneged on that promise), the results are about the best that could be hoped for. If we could ever get proportionate representation, we could have a government that looks much like what we have now, but it might be able, and would probably be driven, to introduce more progressive economic and environmental legislation (tax the rich, carbon taxes and pollution penalties, GAI, pharmacare, shift away from non-renewable resources etc). But with the current system, we can expect to see the Liberals continuing to largely ignore inequality and climate change, as they think it’s too politically risky to do more than pay them lip service.

But at least we should be able to avoid the creeping fascism evident in so many other western ‘democracies’ over the past few decades.

So we hold our noses and plug on.

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Overshoot: Where We Stand Now (Guest Post by Michael Dowd)

My friend Michael Dowd has been researching and writing about economic, ecological and civilizational collapse as long as I have, and he’s interviewed many of the world’s leading thinkers on the subject. In my latest links I mentioned the article in the Salt Lake City weekly where he was interviewed with some of them (Time’s Up: It’s the End of the World, and We Know It). Here’s his “state of the world 2021” summary — a synopsis of where we stand now, and what lies ahead:

Overshoot: Where We Stand Now (Guest Post by Michael Dowd)


The Club of Rome model, developed in the 1970s, and vindicated as still being accurate in 2000, and again this year by a KPMG study, predicts, with its “most likely” updated-business-as-usual scenario, that human population will peak at about 8.5B people and then drop precipitously to about 2.5B by 2100, based on the planet’s carrying capacity. (NOTE: The LtG authors did not factor in abrupt, runaway climate mayhem and cascading tipping points.)

The single most important book I’ve ever read, by far, is William R. Catton, Jr.’s masterful, paradigm shattering book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, published in 1980. I even audio recorded the entire book with permission from his publisher, University of Illinois Press.

Many of us, including Derrick Jensen and Paul Ehrlich, consider Overshoot to be the most important book of the 20th century. Stewart Udall, former Secretary of Interior under the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, writes in the book’s Foreword a scathing critique of techno-optimism and (what would be called today) eco-modernism. One of the reasons Catton’s book was so transformative for me is because it provides the foundational ecological paradigm for understanding how we got in this mess, the fundamental differences between problems and predicaments, and why, in the words of Richard Heinberg, “Climate change is not our biggest problem; overshoot is. Global warming is but a symptom of ecological overshoot.”

And perhaps no where is this more evident than when pondering the idea (indeed, the empirical reality) of self-reinforcing and cascading thresholds, or tipping points that we have already passed. What follows are some of the main points I make, and text and video resources I recommend, when discussing this sobering realization.

I am painfully aware of how emotionally challenging and potentially depressing is the idea of tipping points that are already in the rear-view mirror! Still, I am convinced after several years of study that what follows is factually and inescapably true. Moreover, I suggest that the sooner we accept this, the more likely we will have peace of mind even in the midst of TEOTWAWKI collapse and the less likely we are to collectively commit geological-scale evil, as I discuss at length in my hour-long video: “Unstoppable Collapse: How to Avoid the Worst”

I especially recommend my 25-minute video, “New Serenity Prayer: Emotional Support for Climate Anxiety and Environmental Dread”. This short video was created to help people experience as little suffering as possible, now and in the near-term future, by providing a clear and compelling guide for “accepting what we cannot change, changing the things we can, and having the wisdom to know the difference.” This short video is a basic primer on how to stay sane, sober, heartful, and on-purpose in contracting and crazy-making times. It is also now the main introduction to my “post-doom” website and resources related to climate change, ecological overshoot, true vs. faux sustainability, and how to discern what to accept and what to passionately engage in.

A very powerful short (8-min) video clip of HBO’s “The Newsroom” (2014 EPA Segments), is widely considered to be the most scientifically accurate reporting on climate ever done on American TV, and it’s “fake news” – i.e., a fictional TV show. :-) Mother Jones magazine did a fact check after the airing of the above.

It’s now obvious that we’ve already crossed a number of planetary thresholds, or tipping points and that the planet is barreling toward a hothouse Earth.

(A) Crossing the Boundaries of Sustainability
(B) We’ve Crossed the Planetary Threshold
(C) (12-min video) “This is Code Red for the Planet

Despite the way the IPCC, governments, economists, and the mainstream media speak of them, the following tipping points (self-reinforcing and cascading thresholds) are not merely “possible” or “at risk” or “in danger of exceeding” — they’ve been passed. As Toby, the EPA scientist in the above HBO Newsroom clip states:

Will McAvoy (News Anchor): “So it sounds like you’re saying the situation is dire?”
Toby (EPA Deputy Administrator): “Not exactly. Your house is burning to the ground, the situation is dire. Your house has already burned to the ground, the situation is over.”

Here’s the painful truth about our situation being “over”:

No matter…

    • how massive and effective is nonviolent civil disobedience…
    • who, or which party, is voted out or elected into public office…
    • how many people change their habits, become vegan, stop flying…
    • how many miraculous, AI-driven technological advances are made…
    • how successful we are at instituting a GND, or greening capitalism…
    • how rapidly we shift to “renewables” or achieve “net zero” emissions…
    • how much “evolution of consciousness” occurs in the next decade or two…
    • how many accords, what is pledged or agreed to, what laws are enacted…
    • how many people commit to regenerative and restorative soil building practices…

… a dozen or more tipping points are already in the rear-view mirror. For example, each of the following is two or three decades into unstoppable, rapidly increasing and cascading, out-of-control (runaway) mode…

    • Loss of the world’s ice (Arctic, Greenland, W. Antarctica, mountain glaciers)
    • Methane belching: permafrost, hydrates, clathrates, gas & oil wells, wetlands
    • Ocean acidification, deoxygenation, 25+ feet rise in abrupt non-linear ways
    • The great conflagration of the world’s forests — out-of-control CO2 emissions
    • Loss of most animal and plant species on land and in lakes, rivers, and oceans
    • Increasingly severe & deadly weather (storms, floods, droughts) and wildfires

What this means, practically, is that, prior to 2030, I suspect that there is a greater than 50% chance of a global economic meltdown and multi-bread-basket failure (2 or more of the 5 main grain growing regions of the world failing in the same year) resulting in further civilizational collapse and several billion or more human beings dying. This is almost certainly unstoppable, unpreventable. 

No one need take my word on any of this. In addition to what I offered above, I also recommend:

And it is important that we not ignore (as most Green New Deal, techno-optimist, eco-modernist, and “clean green growth” advocates do), the Aerosol Masking (Global Dimming) Effect:

Finally, I would like to offer the following as food for thought…

SIX ECOCIDAL SECULAR IDEAS

  1. Human beings are the pinnacle of evolution and the smartest, most advanced creatures on Earth.
  2. Humans can prosper and progress within an abruptly changing climate and toxic, collapsing biosphere.
  3. We can forestall collapse by reducing emissions, shifting to renewables, and greening the economy.
  4. Industrial civilization has eternal life, therefore there’s no urgency to prevent potentially dozens or hundreds of nuclear meltdowns.
  5. There is still time to avoid catastrophic tipping points and the extinction of Homo colossus (and possible extinction of Homo sapiens).
  6. There’s nothing we can do to avoid worst-case scenarios.

ONE ECOCIDAL RELIGIOUS IDEA

  1. G🌎D is either supernatural or G🌎D doesn’t exist.

(For more on this subject, please see: “Sustainability 101: Indigenuity Is Not Optional”.)

POST-DOOM LIVING AND LOVING

For more along these lines, and especially to experience a wide range of examples of “post-doom” thinking, living, and loving, I invite readers to experience for themselves at least a few of the 80 amazing conversations and wide range of text, audio, and video resources available on my post-doom website.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 14 Comments

The Future of Activism

direct action
forms of activism, adapted from the book Deep Green Resistance

We are learning, I think more and more, that most activism simply doesn’t work — it may change minds for a while, but it rarely seems to change anything in the real world, at least not on any scale or for long. Arguments about the “ripple effects” by which symbolic actions by leading activists produce major shifts in what is tolerable to the majority of the populace are pretty much, I think, a leap of faith; they remind me of conservatives’ arguments for the validity of “trickle down” economics.

So the perpetrators of the atrocities that activists rail against are quite content to allow activism as a safety valve for public outrage, as long as it remains impotent.

Some activists are now realizing that impotence, and they now seem to be moving in one or both of two directions: towards direct action that obstructs, occupies, destroys, reclaims and expropriates the activities of the most egregious ecological miscreants (“take it, break it, block it”, as shown at the top of the chart above); and/or towards hyper-local action that remediates damage in one small but significant way, at least for a while.

Activists are mostly finding, I think, that the former will simply not be tolerated, as there is no limit to the level of arrests, police actions and other steps the perpetrators will go to to prevent, punish and discourage such actions. The jails, hospitals and morgues may fill to overflowing as long as the disruption continues, but soon enough business as usual will resume.

The hope is, supposedly, that such activism will reach the scale at which it becomes impracticable to arrest everyone, and there won’t be enough enforcers to keep the atrocities going, so eventually the perpetrators will give up and cease their ways. This might be possible, but particularly given the current state of the media, it seems unlikely to me that enough people will ever be roused enough to take the very real risks needed to make this happen, until and unless there is an immediate, existential threat to all of them personally.

Many of the past takeovers of national power by fascists have been enabled by this lack of critical mass of people roused enough to put their lives on the line to oppose it. And fascist movements in many other countries are counting on similar reticence as they plan their antidemocratic takeovers for the coming months and years. This is happening all over the world, and so far there is not much evidence it won’t continue despite all the protests. Most of us have become understandably cynical about our quasi-democracies, and most of us have never lived under a fascist tyranny and hence don’t realize how awful they will be (though Texans and Floridians are getting a taste). It seems doubtful to me that enough of us will be willing to put our lives on the line to defend a system that seems pretty dysfunctional, when most can’t imagine fascism being much worse (though it will be). A recent global survey suggested that relatively few of us, especially young people, still think it’s essential to live in a democracy.

And globally, relatively few of us still live in a real democracy.

Good luck to any activists who continue direct action under fascism. To discourage followers, they will simply be shot, or worse. Lots of Guantánamos and gulags waiting to be built. Reeducation is a growth industry.

The more pragmatic activists are opting for focused, hyper-local actions — getting dams decommissioned, cleaning up local water supplies etc. You can fight successfully to save a particular grove of trees that locals have come to love. But as soon as you try to increase the scale to, for example, try to end harvesting the last 2% of old-growth forests in a region, the corporatists’ gloves will come off, and you’ll find yourself made an example of.

So my guess is that, soon enough, activists in more and more countries will have to turn their full attention to fighting fascism, principally within their own country. The war against climate collapse, ecological collapse, and economic inequality will have to be shelved, as it so often has been in past, to focus on the more immediate, personal existential threat of political and social oppression. And power is so unequally distributed now, and public opinion so imbued with disinformation and misinformation, that that struggle is likely to be long, and not go well.

Before it’s resolved, global economic collapse will be upon us, and over the following decade or two it will be exacerbated by the more severe manifestations of climate and ecological collapse. Power will then inevitably devolve to the local level, and we will have no choice but to put aside our political differences and work together to deal with the everyday crises at hand. We will all, at last, be activists.

We’ll then learn what we’re really made of, as so many around the world, living in collapse under undemocratic but largely powerless, inept and ineffectual governments, are already experiencing.

It won’t be easy, but it will be interesting. This is what collapse looks like.

 

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

Links for the Month: September 2021


Photo by Steve Toombs, North Vancouver, young bobcat in the rain

I can see the place where I came from
I can hear those sounds right now
I can find the paths I used to run
And believe I still know how

Time keeps moving faster and faster
I’m not losing track
I’m afraid that something’s forgotten
So I keep looking back

I shake my head, clear my vision,
Keep those scenes at bay,
Feel the way I used to feel
Slip further and further away

Cheryl Wheeler


COLLAPSE WATCH


Cartoon by Graham MacKay; thanks to David Svarrer for the link. The fifth wave at the right end is, of course, civilization’s collapse. Text at left says “Be sure to wash your hands and all will be well.”

Five ways to deny collapse: Utah environmentalist Jim Catano outlines the five stages of denial that precede recognizing that civilizational collapse in this century is now inevitable. He interviews four people who have accepted that reality, including Guy McPherson and Michael Dowd, who sent me this link.

The stock market is a ticker of doom: Indi Samarajiva describes how our current multifaceted crises reflect a state of ongoing collapse, and reminds us that, in past collapses, no one recognized it or called it ‘collapse’ until after it had ended, in retrospect.

All growth is based on increasing energy consumption: Tim Watkins explains how our economy is founded on ever-increasing low-cost energy use and low-interest debt, and how the current collapse of EROEI (energy return on energy invested) belies its continuance.

The empty sea: A new Club of Rome report describes the ongoing collapse of ocean life and what that portends for our future.

When collapsniks become conspiracy theorists: Facing the cognitive dissonance between the denialist messages of the press, economists and politicians on one hand, and the increasingly obvious realities of climate, economic and ecological collapse on the other, it’s not surprising that many of us have become skeptical of what we read. What’s tragic is that this cynicism, combined with a lack of appreciation of scientific knowledge, has led a number of once highly credible collapsnik writers, including Ilargi at The Automatic Earth, Dmitry Orlov, and now permaculture pioneer David Holmgren, to become CoVid-19 skeptics or to embrace other ill-founded conspiracy theories. This is a great tragedy, because it leads otherwise sensible followers off the cliff of anti-science paranoia and misinformation, and in so doing undermines the entire field of research and study of civilizational collapse, and energizes denialists. It’s almost too depressing to write about. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.


LIVING BETTER


Cartoon by Drew Dernavich from his website

Putting public health first: Atul Gawande explains why Costa Ricans live longer healthier lives than Americans despite spending a tenth as much per capita on health care, because of how that money is spent.

How China eliminated malaria: From 30 million cases a year to zero, largely because of the dogged determination and brilliance of an unknown, under-acknowledged woman epidemiologist named Tu Youyou. Thanks to Kavana* for the link.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


chart by Eric Topol, via Leo Beletsky

A terminal case of capitalism: Indi uses the chart above to explain how unregulated capitalism has become so dysfunctional that it now produces not just diminishing returns but negative returns.

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Propaganda: Short takes:

CoVid-19 Becomes the Pandemic (mostly) of the Unvaccinated: Short takes:

This week, I’m thinking about how little we actually understand the broad non-vaccinating population. Yes, for sure, there are some strong ideologues among them. But I’m also pretty sure there is a whole range of reasons people have found themselves unvaccinated at this point in the United States ranging from mistrust to misinformation to fear to identity to a mix of everything. That is why I think most people will go along with mandates.

I suspect the actual quitting the job because of vaccine mandates will be less than the [recent WaPo] poll indicates. The unvaccinated include many people who were just hesitant or scared rather than forceful ideologues, but when asked, people like to sound like they know what they’re doing.

I know the social media/mass media examples tend to highlight committed, outspoken anti-vaxxers but this is where a real ethnography/reporting with better sampling would help. When looking at reporting/self-narratives, I see a lot of “I was scared, kinda waited, kinda got stuck.”

Just today, I saw a tiktok from someone who, tragically, died from COVID. She says she was scared, worried vaccine wasn’t yet FDA approved, and wanted to do it later, together with her family. She needed a nudge, a push and hand-holding. A mandate could have saved life her life.

But I’m also frustrated as a researcher. I want to go talk to people, read more systematic research and try to better understand the dynamics and the proportions in the population. The pandemic has distorted our understanding of people, too: many of our examples come from social media which tends to highlight extreme and non-representative cases. It’s not that they are not real, but they are not representative, and they are especially flattened.

On pandemic news: not much new to say. I think this will rage on in the United States till more people get vaccinated or infected (but I suspect this is not a lot of time). I think there is a good case for immunocompromised, elderly, high-risk and J&J recipients to get a booster, but still not seeing the data that justifies it for healthy and immunocompetent people—especially given the still ongoing global shortage.

Inequality and Caste-ism: Short takes:


FUN  AND INSPIRATION


Cartoon by Drew Dernavich in the New Yorker

The viruses that shouldn’t exist: We’ve only just discovered giruses (= giant viruses), a new form of life (or perhaps non-life) with a staggeringly complex ecosystem, most of which was also just newly discovered. We thought they were some kind of bacteria, but they’re not. They’re something else again. We’re basically clueless about what they’re for, but they’re everywhere.

Caitlin Johnstone channels Tony Parsons: Caitlin can usually be found railing, brilliantly and persuasively, against war-mongers, powerful psychopaths, and dumbed-down media, but here she perfectly articulates the core message of radical non-duality. What I can’t fathom is how she can reconcile this message with cajoling her readers to wake themselves up from their ignorance and passivity. If there is no “one” there is no “one” that can do anything. I love reading her work, but she makes my brain hurt.

Scientific tangents: A podcast developed by the vlog brothers, on fascinating aspects of everyday science. Silly, harmless fun. Like, did you know bee pheromones are being used to repel elephants from nearby farmlands? Or that Bill Gates has a huge campaign to reinvent the toilet?

First there is a mountain: Ever wondered what that mountain is that you can see from your house, your favourite campsite, or from another mountain you’ve just climbed? Now there are some fun online tools you can use, together, to solve the mystery:

  • First, enter your coordinates into this site, PeakVisor. Or just move around the map in the upper left until it’s pointing where you are. Once it’s mapped the mountains, use the black and white bar to set your elevation. Then just wait for it to show you the entire 360º skyline from that location.
  • To confirm your identification, enter the mountain’s name in the quick search bar in this site, Peakbagger. Copy the mountain’s precise coordinates in the upper left.
  • Now, paste those coordinates in the “Coordinates B” box in this site, SunEarthTools. Enter your coordinates in the “Coordinates” box, and then click “Calculate distance and bearing”. It will show you a map, and the distance and bearing should make sense from what you are seeing. Or, alternatively, if you see a mountain that PeakVisor doesn’t identify, estimate its bearing from other mountains you can identify, and enter that bearing and the distance of the farthest mountain you can identify, and click “Calculate destination point B”. It’ll probably show you your mountain at point B on the map, or somewhere along the intermediate line.
  • And of course you can use Google Maps/Earth’s 3D features to do the same, though it takes some practice to use all the settings. Once you’ve got the mountain showing on your map, right click and copy its coordinates, and paste them onto another Google Maps tab to identify the mountain. Or right click and then click “What’s here?”

Headline from the Beaverton: Toronto police leave homeless encampment in peace after residents say they’re just a 24-hour anti-mask protest.


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH


This is how Conservatives in North America fundraise. Canadians will find out Monday how well the strategy works.

From Richard Heinberg’s Museletter #342 in response to the question: Do electric, biofuel, and hydrogen powered vehicles make it somewhat more difficult to wean ourselves away from fossil fuel power?

The one thing we could do within the transport sector to ease and speed the transition would be to reduce transportation in certain modes, particularly air transport. Some vehicles are practical to electrify (bicycles, cars), while others aren’t (planes, ships, big trucks). Biofuels are ecologically a dead end, and hydrogen is problematic because it leaks so readily, and because producing it is energy inefficient. Synthetic fuels made with hydrogen solve the leakage problem, but are even more inefficient. So: there are alternatives, all of which work in the laboratory, but each suffers from some serious practical drawback if scaled up. That’s why we need to reduce transport and re-localize our economies as much as possible. As we do so, we should prioritize public transit and bicycles over automobiles of any kind, because bikes and well-designed public transit systems use much less energy and materials than cars—even electric cars.

From Caitlin Johnstone, from “Nothing to Celebrate”:

This [withdrawal from Afghanistan] is not something that Biden should be applauded for. Nobody deserves praise or credit for ending a twenty-year disaster, especially one they helped start. Nobody applauds the mass shooter for finally setting down the rifle and surrendering…

Invade a nation, kill hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants, stay for decades, accomplish nothing besides making war profiteers wealthy, drop everything and leave, then have your armed goon squad take PR photos with local infants so everyone thinks your military is awesome.

From Tim Cliss This:

This is complete vulnerability. Without the one who fears vulnerability, and works hard to assuage this fear with the illusion of invulnerability… there is neither.

The nakedness of no one to protect is total vulnerability, but no one to feel vulnerable.

Everything is nothing. Life is not a matter of life or death. Nor a question of one thing or the other. When things are no things the questions cease. This is nothing. Nothing to questions, nothing to gain, nothing to lose. Just always everything already.

This isn’t a story, but what is said or thought about this is. This is, regardless of thoughts and words about this. These words too are a story about this. Of course any thoughts or words are this too. Only this, and this alone.

From Dan Riffle, advisor to AOC: Every billionaire is a policy failure.

From Derrick Jensen, in A Language Older than Words:

What do you do, how tired do you get, when each day you struggle against an entire culture based on the normalization of trauma-inducing behaviour? There is no sanctuary.

From John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath (thanks to Caitlin Johnstone for the link):

“We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.”

“Yes, but the bank is only made of men.”

“No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”


* Kavana is Tree Bressen‘s new name.

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

No Animal is Meant to Live the Way We Have Lived for the Last Ten Thousand Years


Photo credits, clockwise from upper left:  1. China pollution — Damir Sagoli for Reuters; 2. Trump stormtroopers in Portland — Noah Berger for AP: 3. Garbage-pickers in Lagos — Samantha Appleton, in The New Yorker;  4. Refugees in Greece — Daniel Etter/New York Times/Redux /eyevine:  5. Child labourers in Pennsylvania — Lewis Hine in the National Archives

Discuss.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 9 Comments

Something Better Than Democracy

(This is a thought piece. It’s far too late to reform our political or economic system, but it might be worth thinking about how and where we went wrong, and what a better system might look like.)


Democracy index from The Economist. Another recent international survey suggested that only one in four citizens under the age of 40 consider it essential to live in a democracy.

Despite the popular myths, it’s likely that early tribal humans, far from being hyper-hierarchical, made decisions collectively, though they respected the right of individuals to do their own thing, as long as those personal actions did not negatively affect the group. Those decisions were made, probably even before language evolved, by the subordination of personal interests to the collective interest of the tribe. But they listened to and respected dissenting voices. The collective decision thus emerged, from listening, until there was a clear consensus. There was no need, or space, for debate, or voting.

Of course in those early days many decisions were made instinctively rather than by consensus, and most of the decisions to be made were fairly straightforward.

There’s a famous story of three Inuit tribe members who get stranded in a blizzard during a hunt. They discuss their situation. The two elders say their experience and instincts tell them to stay put and wait for rescue. The younger hunter accepts the argument but states his belief that it would be best for the group if one of them were to attempt to make it to safety and tell the rest of their community about their predicament. Finally the younger hunter heads off. In the end, the elders are rescued and the younger man dies. There is no blame, no repercussions, no second guessing the decisions. The choices were the only ones the trio could have made in the circumstances. They were respected, the young man’s death was mourned, and life went on.

At this scale, tribal decision-making might be termed a form of direct democracy. Everyone who wants to have a say has one, and a collective decision emerges by consensus, but it is not binding on anyone, unless an individual who ignores or defies that consensus clearly significantly disadvantages the rest of the group.

Direct democracy, kind of, would thus seem to be how human tribes made decisions for most of our time on the planet. It probably isn’t even a stretch to suggest that herds and flocks of many other animals use a form of direct democracy in making their decisions. Again despite the myths, “alphas” do not make decisions for others, “leadership” roles rotate regularly, the “law of two (or four) feet” tests the group’s readiness for consensus, and principles such as the “first follower” enable wild creatures to reach a decision in their group’s best collective interest. Dissenters and unpersuaded group members are free to go off and look for another group, except at critical times (such as breeding season, or when under attack), when all members of the group instinctively pitch in to share the extra burden or workload, or help work through the crisis or challenge. We’re not so different, or, at least, we weren’t.

As human societies evolved in size and complexity, it became impractical to involve every community member in every significant decision. Decision-making was then bifurcated —

  • Some decisions were delegated to specific individuals or roles, where the decision-maker was given both the responsibility and the authority to make decisions for the benefit of the whole group, without direct or continuous oversight; and
  • Other decisions were delegated to representatives who were selected by some process or other by the community to learn enough about a complex problem to deal with it more effectively than the whole group could, since the whole group would not have the time, knowledge or experience needed to understand enough about the problem to make a decision competently.

This is the start of so-called representative democracy. Arguably, it has never worked well, and has become more and more dysfunctional as the representatives have become further and further removed from the constituents they presume to represent, and as the issues have become so complex and plentiful that no one can hope to be knowledgeable enough to make competent decisions about them. This is the point at which highly complex societies start to collapse of their own weight.

At the same time, our whole sense of community has been lost as the requirement of modern societies rely on us living in anonymous neighbourhoods with people we don’t know or share much of anything in common. Who are these representatives presuming to represent anymore anyway?

So now we have self-important elected full-time politicians whose only competencies are public speaking, spreading propaganda and misinformation that advances their re-election prospects, and taking money from wealthy and powerful interest groups in return for rubber-stamping regulations and laws that favour those interest groups over the interests of the supposedly-represented community. It’s no wonder that fewer than half of citizens can be bothered to vote, and that most of us who still do, hold our nose and vote for the seemingly least objectionable, with no expectations they will live up to their promises. The system is impossibly broken.

In recent years a new idea has emerged as a suggested solution to restore representative democracy to its original ideal: the citizens’ assembly. These assemblies are comprised of randomly selected members of the citizenry, with care taken to achieve reasonable demographic balance. Unelected and beholden to no one, they then, with some light-touch facilitation, self-organize to study and discuss one or more critical issues (like climate change, or election reform) in great depth, so they know enough to be able to intelligently (and indifferently) evaluate possible approaches to deal effectively with the issue. They then make recommendations which can be implemented in a number of different ways:

  • The recommendations may be enacted into law and implemented, regardless of what either elected officials or the citizenry as a whole think about them. This is the approach XR has insisted is the only way that the radical changes needed to address runaway climate change and ecological collapse can be made in time to be effective. It’s basically an acknowledgement that neither elected officials nor the citizens as a whole, can be trusted to take the necessary actions or even to properly understand why these actions are needed.
  • The recommendations may be forwarded to the government of the day, but are advisory only and not binding on the government. The idea is that the government will have to have a compelling reason not to accept and implement these informed, unbiased recommendations, and that if they don’t, the electorate might instead vote in a government that will implement them.
  • The recommendations may be subject to a ratification or referendum by the citizens as a whole. This approach has been used to inform complex plebiscite issues and “proposition initiatives” on US ballots, where the recommendation and rationale of the assembly is included with the ballot papers and in the local press, but this is not always enough to win the vote.

Despite making sense in theory, none of these approaches has a particularly good track record. The first strikes many as being “undemocratic” and hence scary, and I am not sure I know of any case where it has actually been tried. The second has run into a “double jeopardy” problem — it’s too easy for governments to put their own short-term interests ahead of any radically new and potentially frightening policies, and for pressure groups of those disadvantaged by the changes to fear-monger against them.

And the third has usually worked only when the changes are not threatening or intimidating (or very expensive) — quite a few citizens’ assemblies’ recommendations on ballot initiatives have been approved by voters, though that might have happened even without the assemblies’ weighing in. But when the recommendation is considered to be more radical (eg introduction of proportionate representation in some areas), fear-mongering by high-paid pressure groups has almost always led to them being voted down.

Complicating matters is the issue of charters and constitutions of rights and freedoms, which are designed to prevent discrimination and oppression of individuals and minority groups at the hands of an over-zealous or hate-driven majority. Their effect generally (though usually not intentionally) is to paralyze any action in the collective interest if any group with sufficient political clout will be disadvantaged by that action. They do little to protect those who are truly oppressed and disenfranchised.

At the tribal level, it is not hard to assess and prefer the collective interest of the tribe over the personal preferences and interests of individual members. But this just doesn’t scale. When the tribe is not a cohesive group but an assemblage of thousands or millions whose only commonality is the place they call home, what exactly does the “collective interest” even mean? By contrast, the interests of individuals and groups within the larger group (be they unlicensed gun owners, protesters of various stripes, or hate-mongers on social media) are pretty easy to delineate. No surprise then that the dysfunctional courts often choose personal interests over an amorphous and undefinable “collective interest”.

And the political problems of scale go far beyond the issues of rights, freedoms, and courts’ decisions. The whole system of public security and incarceration was dysfunctional from day one. A tribe knows how to deal with those who offend the collective interest of the group — they know their names, their families, and the traumas, addictions and tribulations that generally lie behind their misbehaviours. But as soon as you scale the system up, and have to introduce criminal laws, enforcers, punishments and sentences, the whole system breaks down.

And then we have all the problems that come with the introduction, definition and regulations (and more ‘rights’) related to personal property, including the added modern wrinkle of corporate personhood and corporate rights. How is the collective interest of a community supposed to be assessed against the ‘personal’ interest of a giant corporation? If we believe, for example, as AOC’s advisor Dan Riffle puts it, that “Every billionaire is a public policy failure”, how can we possibly reform or design a political system so that it mitigates and legislates against gross inequality, without getting utterly mired in insoluble issues of rights?

We can of course dream about a system that might fix all these problems. It would be so radically different from our current system that, as they say, “you can’t get there from here”.

But there are some things we can at least practice. At the local level, intentional communities learn about consensus decision-making, with a mix of (i) delegation of most tasks to those who have the competency to do them (and are willing to take on the responsibility that comes with the authority), and (ii) collective accountability and consensus decision-making in those few areas where the interests of the collective group are best ascertained and met by listening to everyone’s thoughts, and then letting the consensus emerge. But it takes a long time, and a lot of practice, before the group learns the skill and patience to let this happen.

The same kinds of experiments and learning are happening in some progressive organizations and companies, such as those using the Teal approach to self-management. I understand that some small educational and health-care organizations are exploring similar approaches.

The larger and more unwieldy systems are likely beyond rescuing, but they are all in the process of collapse anyway, so rather than trying to fix centralized governments and large corporations and institutions, it may make more sense to wait for them to go bankrupt and get out of the way, so we can establish much-smaller-scale political and economic systems and organizations that actually work in our interest.

We all think democracy is a great idea, but perhaps it’s time to realize that it’s never worked very well, and that in a radically relocalized world democratic decision-making is really not needed that much or that often, in order for things to work just fine, in the collective interest. Like early human tribes, and wild creatures, we don’t really need any kind of “-cracy” to live and work together with decency, trust, and care for each other.

Our real challenge, perhaps, is in relearning what the “collective interest” actually means, and why it is so important, and how we got to this perverse situation where we have such monstrous distrust of each other, and of collectives in general, that we have assumed that, somehow, 7.8B people acting in their isolated individual, personal, and often trauma-influenced self-interest, will somehow be synonymous with an optimal collective interest.

It’s an absurd idea, one that could only ever be popular with reality-challenged market theorists, (“self-made”) billionaires, billionaire wannabes, and the severely alienated and traumatized.

So let me say it one more time: This is what collapse looks like. Our ability to cope with it over the coming decades will depend on our ability to work together in our collective interest, which in turn will depend on our relearning what community really means and how to build it, on our capacity to care about and trust each other, and on our willingness to let go of what was never in our collective interest — including our faith in an idea of democracy that has never actually worked as promised, and never really served us well.

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

This Is No One’s Utopia


photo by włodi on flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

PS Pirro recently riffed off a quote from Margaret Atwood that went: “Every dystopia is someone’s utopia. So whose utopia is this?” This was my reply:

Margaret is a brilliant writer, but sometimes she says/writes things that sound very clever but are actually just wrong. IMO, this is no one’s utopia. This is just one more outcome of 7.8B people desperately doing what they think is the best thing they can do under the immediate circumstances of each moment.

No one is in control. This is not a game between two clearly articulated sides working within well-established rules. This is collapse, and chaos, playing itself out. This is the end of the myth of progress — that things will inevitably get better for most, with occasional setbacks. This is fear of loss and of lack of control frantically and foolishly inducing more fear in other groups, destabilizing everything. This is terrified, angry people nostalgic for a past that never was, trying, impossibly, to wish a time of stability, familiarity, authority, security and changelessness into existence. This is happening all over the world.

This is what happens in end times. First there is the scapegoating, the burning of witches and heretics, in an atmosphere of disbelief and denial. Then there is the scramble for what is left, the glorious and ghastly migration (physical and psychological) in search of enough to keep going on. Finally, for those unable to adapt, there is the eating of the young. And then it will be over, and something utterly new, unpredictable, unimaginable will emerge. Whatever that is, it’s got to be better than this. No animal is meant to live the way we have lived for the last ten thousand years.

Humans think and make sense of things through metaphor. Our metaphors are of necessity simplistic. One of the reasons we loathe complexity (and all ecological and social systems are, inherently, massively complex) is that complexity defies metaphorical description. It can’t be understood by metaphor. It can’t be understood at all — complex systems entail an infinite number of variables interacting in an infinite number of completely unpredictable ways. They can’t be usefully reduced to a merely complicated diagram or chart, like a car engine. No human story (and we also make sense of things through stories) can hope to embrace and tell the tale of what is far too complex, nuanced and unknowable to learn any practicable lessons from.

Still, metaphor and story are the tools we have to work with, so we do our best. We make charts, we keep score, we invent simplistic theories, models, games and simulations. And we tell stories, total fictions. It’s all we can do. Using the metaphor of a game, life has winners and losers, and the rules of the game can be changed by collective will to make the game fairer. And as the rules are refined, the game will get better, fairer for all. The myth — the story — of progress is one we cling to most fervently. Without it, our religions, our history, our politics, and all our striving has no meaning, no purpose.

But life is not a game, nor “like” a game. We don’t make the rules and we can’t change them. Progress and human control over our species’ actions and evolution are indeed a myth. But we’re addicted to this myth. We cannot give up our belief in it. And as long as we believe in it, we will continue to believe that this is, outrageously, someone’s utopia, that things can be and will be better if only we understand better and take appropriate actions. We are shouting furiously at the actors in the tragedy flickering on the screen in front of us, as if the characters were real, as if the plot were really happening, as if our shouting could possibly have any impact on the events or outcome we are witnessing. “No, no, don’t go up into the attic!!”

My blog’s primary purpose, beyond allowing me to publish my pretentious fiction and to think out loud about what’s going through my head, is to chronicle our civilization’s collapse. A chronicle is, of course, a story, just as much a fiction as my poetry. But where most chronicles are attempts to make sense of what has happened and is happening, by documenting facts and observations, my chronicle is in a way the opposite. It’s an attempt to undo, at least in my own mind, the mythological sense-making and meaning-making of the day, as reported in the press, bleated by politicians, pundits and other self-important blowhards, and mindlessly, desperately parroted on social media, in cafés, on street corners and around dinner tables, all in an attempt to make sense of what we cannot hope to make sense of, or even understand. Because it makes no sense, it has no meaning or purpose or direction.

When we can’t make sense of things, we are rendered impotent to act on them. And that we can’t abide. The abominable, illusory human self has no choice but to make sense of things, forge that sense-making into a worldview, a set of consistent beliefs, and then to act on them. That is what the human self does.

Except it doesn’t really do any of those things. It only believes that it is real, and in control of its actions and decisions, and that its beliefs bear some semblance to the truth. It’s furiously wielding and manipulating the joystick and watching the video game unfolding on the screen, unaware that the joystick is disconnected from the game module, which is displaying a game in demo mode. But it seems, at least sometimes, as if the movement of the levers on the joystick are having some impact on what is happening on the screen. And that is enough to keep us going, red-knuckled until the final flash of the Game Over sign.

So, no, this is no one’s utopia. Not even those who might think they are living in a utopia, and might think that their personal actions have had anything to do with how things have played out. The first pixels of the Game Over sign are already starting to appear on the screen, everywhere on the planet. Nice try, though, player. You did your best.

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

Trust in a Collapsing Economy


currency exchange in Somaliland, an unrecognized country within Somalia, from the BBC, photographer Simon Reeve

One of the hallmarks of civilizational collapse is the loss of trust. Societies are built on mostly-unwritten agreements, and these agreements require an enormous amount of trust to sustain them.

I remember many years ago attending a business meeting among about a dozen people from several Arabic countries, some of whom had never met before. Over a long lunch and coffee, agreement was achieved on several large new projects, and on who would do what on each project, and what each would expect in return. It was all done orally, based on handshakes and trust. No lawyers were needed. When I told them that my firm would require an engagement letter to spell out the details of what I, and they, had agreed to, I was told simply “Do what you need to do to make it happen”. And with gracious thank you’s, the meeting ended.

Even back then, I was astonished at the level of trust granted and expected at that meeting. Today, in an age when letter-opener vendors have to include a five-page safety warning and disclaimer with their products, including a requirement that “face protection be used at all times” when opening letters, trust seems to have completely evaporated.

As I am so fond of saying at every turn, there is no one to blame for this. Our civilization culture has evolved the only way it could, including in some diabolically unexpected ways:

  1. Marketers and advertisers sell more goods, at higher margins, when they deceive and manipulate customers. So they do so. There are no rewards for doing otherwise.
  2. Politicians lie and promise the impossible. When they get elected, others shrug and follow their example. On issues like climate change and pandemics, most people don’t really want to hear unpleasant truths, so why tell them?
  3. Experts, in most fields, overpromise, exaggerate their skills and capacities, and overstate their level of conviction that what they recommend will achieve useful results. Even when their recommendations blow up or are shown to be dead wrong, they’ll simply say the situation or circumstances changed in a way no one expected, and sell you on yet another recommendation.
  4. “Leaders”, social media posters and con artists blatantly lie either to get our attention or to get our money. Some of them are really skilled at doing so, and we’re so embarrassed when we’re taken in, that we continue to defend them even when we learn we’ve been lied to.
  5. We believe what we want to believe, even when it’s completely untrue. We want to believe things are better, we are better, and our level of control is higher, than it really is. We want to believe that “others” are at fault for all the problems, and we want to believe still others, mostly people from our own caste, when they say they have a simple fix for those problems. So we will gullibly accept what conforms to those beliefs, and deflect, ignore and deny whenever we’re told otherwise.

After a while, we reach the point that we don’t believe what any corporation, politician, marketer, advertiser, salesperson, expert, leader or pundit says, except for the handful who haven’t let us down yet. Who do we trust, then? Close friends, and almost no one else. There is simply no reward in our evolved political or economic systems, or in subsidiary systems like education and health care, for behaving in a completely honest and trustworthy way. The rewards, more and more, are for clever deceit and wilful ignorance.

We can’t lie to, or con, people who we care about — unless we’re really sick, or don’t yet know that what we’re saying or doing is a lie or a con. Eventually the truth will out, and that means it gets harder and harder to trust, and harder and harder to care about anyone outside our increasingly tiny circle of trust. In our ever-more-isolated society, many people now have no one they trust at all, and no one they dare care about too much. When everything that most people believe and say is a lie or a con, or is the result of clever deceit or wilful ignorance, how can there be trust?

It’s not as if we choose not to care about most others. It’s that we can’t care. It’s too costly, too hard, too dangerous, when caring leads to us dropping our guard and suffering as a result, or when it simply hurts too much to witness all the suffering others (human and more-than-human) endure in our harsh modern, collapsing world.

And without trust we cannot have a functioning society. The value of things like real estate or stocks, the capacity for trade, the viability of currencies, the running of healthy organizations and purported democracies — all these things are based on agreements that our culture depends on, and all of them depend in turn on trust.

Many of these things — business and stock valuations, house prices, currency values etc — now operate largely as lotteries, speculations, casinos, and Ponzi schemes. Things are worth what people are willing to pay for them, but when what they’re willing to pay is utterly divorced from the reality of any true value, who do we dare trust in any transaction?

No one believed that 1929, or for that matter 2008, could actually happen — that trust in the value of all financial assets would suddenly and dramatically dry up. The governments of the world almost bankrupted themselves in 2008 bailing out worthless companies to try to restore “trust” to the markets. Next time it’s unlikely to work. There’s not enough slack left in the financial systems to repeat that con.

And we’ve now learned better than to trust any politicians’ promises, but we haven’t a clue how to replace our broken political system, or the clever deceits and wilful ignorance that power it, with anything we could re-learn to trust. Especially when most of us profoundly distrust most of the voters. That system is just going down, and is beyond rescue. What will replace it is anyone’s guess, but it’s likely to be orders of magnitude smaller than what it replaces.

The actual cost of living, and actual unemployment rates, are in most countries many times the “official” rates, which are just bare-faced lies designed to prop up the parties and corporations in power. How could we ever have trusted them? We only trust them now because all the parties hew to the lie of the “official” rates, in case they happen to come into power and have to deal with them.

Talk to people who’ve experienced the collapse of their currency, triple-digit inflation, a complete halt to trade, empty shelves, shortages of everything, and they’ll tell you where we’re headed and, with the benefit of history, what we can expect to happen as a result. Fiat currencies, soon to be as worthless in the street as they are in any real-world accounting, will be replaced with systems of gift, barter and scrip, and transactions will only be with people we know and still trust — and for the most part, care about. Legal contracts and documents (like leases, deeds of ownership, and employment contracts) will be replaced by oral agreements — with people we trust to live up to them. Given this constraint, there will of necessity be many fewer of them, at more realistic and sustainable prices.

The gift economy will dominate, because a price of zero is the only viable one when no one trusts the price of anything. We will once again become principally scavengers in a salvage economy, using whatever we can find at hand, because the cost of new production, import and export will simply be too high to justify the effort. For just about everything, the supply/demand curves will have no intersection — the price people are able to pay for most goods will be less than the cost of production.

So our relationships with people who have a surplus of what we will need in this radically new economy will be paramount. Better get to know our neighbours a whole lot better — especially those who produce food or who know how to hand-make and fix things.

And we’ll have to relearn how to build true community in the physical place we live. Once we’ve done that — gotten to know our neighbours and what we can do for each other, narrowed our transactions to people we directly know, evolved to accept that gifts, salvage/reuse potential, and personal relationships will determine the value of everything, and who we transact with — trust will likely follow and prevail naturally, as it did for most of our species’ history. There will be no affordable oil, cheap imports, reliable power grid, stable climate, or fiat currencies to drive us back to impersonal transactions and anonymous markets. We will move on to a world where life is one of subsistence and sufficiency, and a hyper-local exchange of needed goods and services based on gifts, trust, relationships and salvage values. And constant migration to places still not rendered un-livable by ecological collapse. Much of the world is already there.

Challenging and exciting times ahead. But it’s no one’s fault, and there are no solutions. We will learn to adapt where we are and in each new place we migrate to, adjusting to civilization’s gradual and awesome collapse over the coming decades. Exactly as past civilizations have done as they collapsed. It will be that adaptation, in place and while migrating, not some grand new design for a better global economy and society, that will determine our species’ future, if indeed we have one.

I understand if you don’t trust me on that.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments

Afraid to Love

Maybe I’ve never really loved. I guess that is the truth —
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes
   — Joni Mitchell

It’s been a while since I’ve written about love.

I enjoyed Laura Kipnis’ book Against Love, but as I wrote back then, the author was not so much opposed to the emotion of love as she was to the entrapments of our cultural rituals around relationships with those we love — producing the corruption and colonization of our feelings to the point it often emerges as just another form of oppression — another job, a means of keeping us in line.

Since I’ve come to appreciate the message of radical non-duality, which asserts there is no self or separation, I’ve been intrigued by the number of questions this message seems to raise about the subject of love. If there is no ‘one’, no ‘you’ then what’s love all about? Is it just another part of the illusion of selfhood and other-hood, a chemical con by nature to keep us together when otherwise we’d have no inclination to do so?

Radical non-duality claims that ‘personal’ love, with its expectations, judgements, obsessiveness and neediness, is in fact illusory, really almost a kind of mental illness, but it distinguishes such love from ‘unconditional’ love, which is the essence of everything being perfect exactly as it already is, the only way it can possibly be. Unconditional love is not euphoric, not a state at all, but rather an unconscious, appreciative acceptance — a quiet and always/everywhere ‘wow’ when this is seen as it really is. It is a seeing, or being, not a condition, feeling or emotion.

Personal love, on the other hand, is, when you look at it dispassionately, really mostly a compulsion. If you believe, as I do, that we don’t have free will, it’s not as if there is any personal choice in the matter. We are creatures of conditioned response. When a stimulus occurs, it provokes in us a variety of responses — physical, emotional, aesthetic, sensual, and intellectual — and the ‘feelings’ we have flow directly from that chemistry. As the chart above illustrates, ‘we’ really have no say in it. And we don’t really understand it at all.

That’s not to suggest that we are completely stupid when it comes to love (though I know some people who seem to be just that). As my granddaughter once told me, we can’t choose who we love, but we seem to have some say over who we do not love, despite a chemical pull. Our conditioning may have ‘taught’ us that some people to whom we seem strongly attracted, but who exhibit certain traits, tend to turn out to be manipulative, narcissistic and/or hurtful, and are best avoided from the outset.

In my own case, I’ve found that my relationships with women who are physically attractive but not very bright, perceptive or curious, tend to turn out to be disastrous. Even a slow learner and a fool at heart, like me, eventually figures out not to get involved with them, for everyone’s sake.

For humans, with our illusory sense of self, separateness, and control, love can be excruciating and misery-making in a way I don’t think it is for other creatures. That’s because, when we fall in love, we insist on creating a story about it. That story, not being the thing itself, is inherently a fiction, and the more we believe in the story and lose track of the thing itself, which is just a lovely chemical ride, the more hurt inevitably results.

It is not the feelings of love that provoke the angst, the rage, the shame, the guilt, the jealousy, and the grief, and hence the violence and trauma they often produce. It is rather our believed stories about love that provoke this distress.

We cannot hope to know another person, who they really are, what they really think and feel, how the chemistry that is bowling us over in the moment of first love, or playing itself out during love’s final disentanglement, is actually affecting this other person. But we insist on creating and believing (oh, how we want to believe!) the story we have made up about this love, and about us, singularly plural.

Enough theory, though. When it comes to love, we can only really tell the story of our own lovely, sordid experiences. As someone whose life’s course has been dictated largely by my fears, I am both a coward and a fool when it comes to love. A coward in that I’m afraid to love, and even more afraid to be loved (with the terrifying commensurate feelings of responsibility, obligation, vulnerability and risk). Afraid to love because I’m afraid of being hurt, of suffering, and of inflicting hurt and suffering on others. Afraid to be loved because my feelings seem to be fickle, and I don’t ever want to be the one to acknowledge, shamefully, that they’ve diminished or they never really were what I thought they were.

And I’m afraid, perhaps most of all, of letting people I care about, or at least cared about, down. For reasons I can only speculate on (mostly also fear-related), I am rather pathetically insensitive and inattentive, and only recently have I started to start to learn about self-awareness. So I can be hard on those I love and who love me, and the fact we both know it’s not intentional doesn’t help a bit.

And I’m a fool for love because I fall in love too often and too easily, even recklessly, or at least I used to until a very few years ago. Being lost in love has been in past like a sudden liberation from my fears, my hesitancy, my lack of courage. I was suddenly alive, full on, fearless. But of course that was the chemicals talking. Soon enough, the euphoria had ebbed, the fearful me was back, now additionally terrified by the threat of loss or diminishment of this new, fragile love, with the new demons of doubt, insecurity, envy and jealousy weighing in. And the ever-present fear of letting my newly loved one down.

Better to stay, like Joni, up at those icy altitudes. Idealistic, imaginative love, preferably with someone you have no hope of actually meeting, is so much safer, easier (both to conjure up and to extract yourself from when the feelings end). This is where having an exceptional imagination can really be a double-edged sword. Having invented love stories, and fallen in love with them and their creations, when I actually fell in love with real women, there was often no hope for me or them. How could we ever measure up? Of course, that did not stop me.

Through no credit of my own, I’ve mostly been really lucky when it comes to love. It was generally reciprocated when the relationship had real potential, and not when it had none. Every break-up (not that there have been many for me, coward that I am in getting into relationships in the first place) has been for the best. I’m especially fortunate because the combination of idealism and imagination that infuses my feelings for someone in the early days of falling in love, can make navigating relationships, and their missteps and expectations, particularly perilous.

The thing about love, though, is most of the time you never really get over it. There is always the wondering about what might have been. And sometimes that desperate love — for the fiction of what never really was — becomes more real than what was truly there, lost in the story, the impossible dream.

The other day I was walking past the neighbourhood pop-up park, which has a sand volleyball pitch, hammocks and table tennis tables. There was an impromptu co-ed sand volleyball game in progress, and the players were very good. It was a gorgeous day, and one of the women players immediately caught my eye. She was positively glowing, electric, making astonishing moves to keep the ball in play. Pretty, self-confident, completely aware and focused. I could immediately feel those old feelings rising, the start of a wonderful and improbable story.

But now, for better or worse, I’m not so much a fool for love. I can feel it coming, and I just smile and acknowledge it and its absurdity and impossibility and inescapability and (often) total inappropriateness, and let it go. Even in situations where there has been a reasonable probability of love of some kind blooming with someone new, I am inclined, now, not to encourage it, to leave it for someone else, someone who needs it, someone better suited to its vagaries and disappointments.

Still, there may be another story in such encounters — a more appropriate channel for my mind’s fictions. That story will probably show up in these pages, and will likely have a happier ending with me as its author, rather than if I had been one of the hapless characters playing it out.

These days, I’m content to love a very few, very different women, in my own peculiar (still cautious, fearful) way. They apparently love me in return, in their own unique and very different ways as well. They are exceptionally intelligent, way smarter than I could ever hope to be, which certainly helps. They have taught me so much, and I am so grateful and honoured to know them and to have them in my life. I keep my personal relationships private, for a bunch of good reasons, but aspects of them also turn up in my fiction from time to time.

Scary as it may be, I have no choice but to love them. Fortunately.

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

The Greatest Rock Song Lyrics


image by limitrofe on pixabay, CC0

This post will likely stir up some outrage, since poetry is so subjective, and music lyrics are especially so. Dave Barry has become quite famous for his survey and book of the worst song lyrics ever, but awfulness is much easier to identify than greatness.

Some musicians have become almost as famous for their poetry as for their music, and several of the lyrics that would make my list are from such artists. Then there are the writers like Anna Tivel whose lyrics are frequently stunning, so much so the accompanying music just is no match for it.

The best lyricists, it seems, tend to burn out — they write great stuff in their youth, and then coast on much weaker stuff thereafter. Still, if I could produce even a handful of songs like the best of Neil Young or James Taylor (“and where will we hide, when it comes from inside?“), I’d probably coast in my old age too, especially if I’d taken as many drugs as those two. James also wrote the music for Reynolds Price’s extraordinary poem New Hymn.

Two artists who’ve published separate books of poetry are Bob Dylan, who has written lyrically extraordinary songs like Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word and Like a Rolling Stone, and Jewel, who gave us wry and piercing songs like Who Will Save Your Soul?

The clever collaborations of the Beatles and George Martin gave us (at the time) brilliant, original lyrics in songs like You Never Give Me Your Money (with its reprise in Carry That Weight later in the album). The lyrics of Come Together are also very witty (“hold you in his arms, yeah you can feel his disease”).

My favourite Canadian lyricist is Marc Jordan, who has penned a number of remarkable songs including the gut-wrenching Little Lambs.

And of course we can’t forget the world’s most biting lyricist, Tom Waits, who wrote the incomparable How’s It Gonna End?

So how’s this gonna end? With my choice for favourite rock song lyrics of all time. Back to Bob Dylan, though the song sounds much better when sung by his friend Joan Baez: Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

I can hear the howls of protest. Impenetrable! Perhaps, but I think its use of incongruous, evocative imagery and synesthetic phrasing are unparalleled in the genre. I think it’s just stunning. Really worthy of his Literature Nobel. Such a shame that shortly afterwards, following his motorcycle accident, his creative power seemed, IMO, to dwindle to a trickle of its former self.

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes
Who do they think could bear you?
With your pockets well protected at last
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass
Who could they get to ever carry you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I put them by your gate
Or sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace
And your basement clothes and your hollow face
Who among them to think he could outguess you?
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims
And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns
Who among them would try to impress you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

The kings of Tyrus with their convict list
Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss
And you wouldn’t know it would happen like this
But who among them really wants just to kiss you?
With your childhood flames on your midnight rug
And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs
And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs
Who among them do you think could resist you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

The farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide
To show you the dead angels were that they used to hide
But why did they pick you to sympathize with their side?
How could they ever mistake you?
They wished you’d accepted the blame for the farm
But with the sea at your feet and the phoney false alarm
And with the child of the hoodlum wrapped up in your arms
How could they ever have persuaded you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row
And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go
And your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show
Who among them do you think would employ you?
Now you stand with your thief, you’re on his parole
With your holy medallion in your fingers now that hold
And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul
Who among them could ever think he could destroy you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

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