Happy Now?


image from Succo at pixabay CC0

You’ve probably seen the 2004 talk where “happiness guru” Dan Gilbert says that people who have won the lottery and people who have had limbs amputated are equally happy with their lives a year after these respective events. No matter how good things seem to be, soon enough we seem less happy with our situation; and no matter how bad things get, in time we adjust to it and make peace with it and are seemingly just as happy as the people who have everything they’ve ever dreamed of.

What’s going on here? Dan describes it as the human brain’s capacity for “manufacturing” (rationalizing) happiness and envisioning different futures, a survival adaptation strategy.

My life is damned near perfect. I took a short trip today to pick up some odds and ends, nothing urgent, on a lovely sunny windless November morning. I got everything on my list, without a problem. Afterwards I sunbathed, clothes-free, while doing a crossword puzzle, on my deck. My health and fitness are exceptional for someone my age, or even for someone twenty years younger. I am comfortably retired. I live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I have no real enemies that I know of. I have meaningful relationships, full of love and friendship. I seem to have discovered, mostly by accident, qualities and skills people respect and admire. My relentlessly curious and imaginative mind has unlimited opportunities and outlets from which to learn, to discover, to perceive, to play, to make sense of things, and to conceive of how things might be even better, or much worse. In every sense I am astonishingly blessed.

If I believed we were possessed of free will and choice and self-control, I would say that I should be endlessly, ecstatically happy. I have essentially no wants and no needs. Just about every day I can wake up, when I want to, and do just about anything I could want to do.

But except when I really think about it and really pay attention, my sense is that I’m not especially happy. What’s wrong with me? I’ve tried to pursue practices about living well, learned from some very brilliant and wise people, that seem to work brilliantly. But I often forget, and slip back into that disengaged, slightly dissatisfied state. The cognitive dissonance of my life (anxious, when I know there is nothing to be anxious about; infuriated, when I know everyone’s doing their best; self-reproachful, when I know I have no free will, choice or agency over what this strange body I only seem to inhabit does) keeps me constantly off-balance, stuck too much in my head.

I can push myself to get out into the forest (a two-minute walk), to really look and pay attention, to slow down and smile and make eye contact with people, and when I do I usually get into a state of awe, wonder, and bliss. If I’m on a tropical beach, it happens effortlessly. But for some reason I’m not driven to do this — call it laziness or spiritual torpor or whatever, if any effort is involved I tend to shrug and put it off, and just read or play indoors by myself. Maybe it’s the same procrastination that makes it so hard for me to exercise even though I immediately feel and look so much better after I’ve done it.

Truly wild creatures, I think, are not happy or unhappy, because they have no expectations or sense of a gap between what is and what could or should or might be. And while they have excellent memories, my sense is that those memories are not ‘personal’ — they’re about useful things rather than how they felt or what they thought. Why? Because their brains are otherwise occupied with the intuitive processing of sensory data, rather than thinking about and reacting to things they have no control over. Perceiving rather than conceiving. They of course feel pain and pleasure, but my sense is they are not judgemental about it. They live their lives, I think, full of wonder — that is as long as they’re free. Freedom, it seems to me, is their instinctive passion, and the loss of it is their instinctive fear. That’s my reading from seeing both wild and semi-domesticated creatures trapped in confined spaces (where their anguish is obvious) versus being in physical pain (where it’s clearly not comfortable, but seemingly accepted and endured). So different from ourselves!

My sense is that wild creatures are this way because they don’t rationalize their situation, judge it, or see any value in imagining it otherwise. So by our standards they are never “happy”, but rather are, so long as they are free, wondrous, which I suspect is a healthier, more connected and more ‘alive’ way to be.

What if we humans were not possessed of (or by) a rationalizing, reactive, judgemental, personalizing self? We would be, I think, free of chronic fear, sadness, anger and shame, and live in the same kind of timeless, infinite, un-separate wonder that free wild creatures live in — except perhaps in rare moments of existential threat, when instinct would momentarily trigger the fight/flight/freeze response and we would be, until the danger passed, possessed for a few instants by the ancient capacity for preservation of the illusory separate self. No wonder wild creatures shake this awful ‘self-awareness’ off so profoundly once the threat has ended!

But this isn’t quite right either. Humans are not actually possessed by selves — the bodies, the characters that we selves presume to inhabit are actually oblivious to our selves, which are only self-constructed illusions, conjured-up models, figments of reality. Although we ‘selves’ believe that the feelings and thoughts and stress-related illnesses of these characters’ bodies and brains are reflections of our (selves’) distress, they are actually entirely unconnected.

For example, while it is true that I (my ‘self’) was triggered and severely stressed by some terrible personal news that immediately preceded this body’s incapacitating bout of ulcerative colitis 13 years ago, and while it would be perfectly reasonable (for any ‘self’) to conclude that one caused the other, they are actually not, I think, causally connected — the correspondence I drew between them is just ‘my’ making sense of the incident.

So, going further back in my medical history, my serious bouts of depression (which ended about 15 years ago) were likely partly genetic, partly situational, and partly maladaptive responses to the circumstances that the character named Dave encountered and reacted to in the only way it could in the face of the pressure cooker of modern civilization culture. It has often been suggested, and for quite a while I considered it possible, that the real cause was the horrifying experience of early school years, after an idyllic and naive pre-school life, when I discovered that many people are deliberately mean, cruel, unfair, irrational, and dishonest. It’s the kind of thing a ‘self’ will grab onto to make sense of something that otherwise didn’t seem to make any. Now I don’t think those anti-socializing childhood experiences really had much at all to do with my depression, which seems to have almost completely vanished over the past two decades, although my colitis and some other seriously ‘depressing’ things all happened during the early 2000s.

There are likewise other explanations for my horrific colitis outbreak. As a teenager and young adult I consumed massive doses of oral tetracycline (a strong antibiotic) for about a decade as the treatment-of-the-day for serious acne, which surely ravaged my gut flora, possibly for life and likely made my intestines into a kind of time-bomb. The outbreak came at the end of a decades-long period of chronic environmental and situational stresses of the kind which this body has always seemed to have had trouble adapting to.

So if there had never been a ‘me’ — had this apparent Dave character never been afflicted with a self (and there is much evidence that a ‘self’ is completely unnecessary to a character’s effective functioning) — I’m guessing that nothing in the apparent life of this character would have been, or turned out, any differently. Given its biological and enculturated conditioning, and the circumstances of each moment, this character did and felt the only things it could possibly have, and ‘I’ had nothing to do with it.

That means that this Dave character has never been happy or unhappy, at least in the sense that ‘I’ understand these feelings, though I continue to erroneously project these feelings into the body and character I presume to inhabit.

The apparent human race self-domesticated (and gave up its cherished freedom, wildness, sense of wonder and unconditional love) as its numbers rose and as it was dislocated by recurring prehistoric climate change, but this was not because of any illness or other effect created by selves, but rather because self-domestication seemed a good adaptation at the time. Just as when wild creatures become parents, they sacrifice these same cherished values temporarily to care for their offspring; this conditioned behaviour is conditioned for because it seems to confer evolutionary advantage. Our selves had absolutely nothing to do with our species’ self-domestication or its tragic and ghastly consequences (civilization culture’s massive destructiveness and endless strife, the total loss of freedom, wildness, and connection to and sense of wonder about everything-that-is).

But, unlike these creatures we presume to inhabit, our selves have major issues with humanity’s self-domestication and its consequences. Our selves intuitively sense and “remember” the total freedom and wildness and sense of wonder and unconditional love that has seemingly been “lost”, and they “seek” endlessly and agonizingly to find it again. That endless and hopeless seeking lies at the root of our (selves’) chronic unhappiness, anxiety, dissatisfaction, rage, shame and grief.

But that is our (selves’) unhappiness, not theirs. So when Dan Gilbert talks about manufactured happiness and unhappiness, he is not talking about human characters’ happiness and unhappiness, but about our selves’ happiness and unhappiness. If I’m correct in my thinking here, no actual (apparent) creature, human or not, domesticated or not, is ever happy or unhappy. Happiness and unhappiness, unlike wonder and connection and pleasure and pain, are the exclusive domain of the illusory separate self, and as such, they are myths — they don’t exist.

That of course is completely unhelpful to the selves trying to find happiness and avoid unhappiness. But they can never be found, because what is doing the looking (the self) is an illusion, and to the characters the illusory seekers presume to inhabit and speak for, nothing has ever been lost.

So this morning, it was this apparent Dave character that did errands and crosswords and sunbathed, and spent the rest of the day in various forms of play, including writing this. And procrastinated on doing some other things.

‘I’ had no part in any of it. ‘I’ did nothing except vainly claim ownership of, and try to make sense of, what was done. ‘I’ have never done anything.

If you don’t like this article, take it up with the Dave character. I’m just stuck here, in what I thought was the Dave character’s brain and body (brain, mostly) trying, hopelessly, as always, to figure a way out, or perhaps back.

I’m not especially happy, or unhappy, about that.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

What to Believe Now


cartoon by Mort Gerberg (mortgerberg.com) in The New Yorker

I am reading Michiko Kakutani’s new book The Death of Truth, and my enduring reaction to it is, “Yeah, obviously, the idea of objective truth is being systematically undermined and mocked by those with vested interests in perpetrating lies (notably psychopathic politicians, hostile foreign governments and corporations and their toadies). That’s happened before (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Big Tobacco, Exxon, Monsanto etc) and it’s frightening. And of course we should be exercising more critical thinking and ‘defying cynicism and resignation’ and fighting to defend democratic institutions and other victims of misinformation and disinformation campaigns. But surely we’re already doing that to the best of our ability, no?”

The book provides lots of data to support its undeniable thesis, but paradoxically its lack of practical ideas to deal with this challenge may actually exacerbate our cynicism and resignation. And in fact there are probably not any solutions to this predicament.

I’m less interested in lamenting that than in trying to understand why and how it came to be. Why are people so malleable in their thinking and in their beliefs that they would come to unthinkingly support and defend preposterous untruths?

We can blame our education system for not providing us in early years with critical thinking skills, but I am not sure the dearth of such skills is a recent phenomenon.

We can blame the faux-information media for spreading and repeating such nonsense that we no longer believe anything they or anyone else says, but this is nothing new either, and if anything the lies they disseminate today are balder and more explicitly not science-based, evidence-based, or even reality-based than was the case a generation or two ago (McCarthy Era, anyone?).

We can blame corporations and their ad-men for inuring us to lies and distortions and exaggerations perpetrated at enormous cost (passed along to us in the cost of the product) to generate more profit. But this isn’t new either (tobacco ads, anyone?).

Or we can blame social media for the global ‘amplification’ and ‘democratization’ of untruths and for creating ‘bubbles’ where the truth is, by intention, never aired. And there is no question that Russia and other hostile foreign interests relentlessly exploit the ignorance and gullibility of citizens of countries they want to undermine, and flood them with millions of inflammatory and libelous fabricated stories and spread them using millions of fake and bot identities. But to some extent we choose to belong to and partake of such ‘bubbles’, and choose to believe uncritically what is said in them. And just as we unsubscribed to printed media that stopped doing their job (when it didn’t produce enough profit), we can opt out of Facebook (which continues to defend allowing and accepting money for political ads that openly lie), Twitter and the rest of the social muck media. I know people across the political spectrum who have simply stopped using these miscreants’ platforms. And I know ignorant, massively-misinformed people who never significantly participated in social media in the first place, and who never read newspapers or news magazines either. You don’t need to go online or even to a newsstand to be misinformed and lied to.

So if none of the usual suspects is to blame, why is it so many people believe such nonsense, and as a consequence exercise those misguided beliefs whenever they vote, shop and talk with others, including their own families and others who seemingly trust their judgement — all to the detriment of our health, our environment, our democracies and global peace?

My hypothesis is simple: People don’t want to know or to believe the truth; and more than that, they don’t want to think, and they don’t want to imagine the future. The real, actual, fact-based, evidence-based truth feels bad. Thinking about what is happening, and what we are, or are not, or should be, doing about it feels helplessly, hopelessly bad. Imagining the world we are leaving for future generations feels bad.

Why would anyone aspire to believe or think or do what feels bad, when there seem to be no solutions, no hope that any of it will make a difference or make anything better?

It’s not that, in this unoriginal (it’s happened often before) time of the Death of Truth, we don’t know what to think or believe, so bombarded are we with conflicting and erroneous information masquerading as truth. It’s not that truth doesn’t exist, that it’s all a point of view (short of existential arguments, there is an enormous consensus of people who have carefully and objectively studied important issues — like climate collapse and vaccines and the value of incarceration and whether smoking and other vices are bad for your health — on what is factually and on the weight of evidence true).

It is, rather, that we can’t handle the truth. We already feel bad, and we don’t want to feel bad. Our genetic and cultural conditioning, our very human nature, is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Why, when we’re all struggling to deal with our own personal physical, emotional and situational traumas, and struggling to provide for ourselves and our families, would we want to know or believe or think or imagine anything that would make us feel even worse?

I completely understand the mentality of those who choose to believe a Rapture will wash away all the terrible things seemingly happening in the world, who choose to believe technology or a singularity will fix (or render moot) everything wrong with us and our civilization, who choose to believe that the unstoppable crises bringing about the sixth great extinction of life on Earth are just hoaxes that will go away by themselves, or will go away if we let some demagogue apply a simplistic fix to them all, or who choose to believe it is some “other” group that is to blame for all these predicaments, and that getting rid of this “other” will solve everything.

And I completely understand the mentality of those who cannot resist the pull of addictions that, at least for a while, let them feel better, let them not have to worry or care about what is oppressing them, and what is, horrifically, true or real.

The bigger question in my mind is — what’s up with those of us who willingly reject simplistic solutions, unscientific and unsupportable beliefs, and lies designed to make us feel better or at least shift the blame? Are we truth-lovers masochists?

I can only answer for myself, of course. I am privileged to have lived relatively free from trauma and stress, to have been encouraged to think critically, and to have been endowed with a curious and creative mind and a rich imagination. This extraordinary privilege allows me to entertain and handle with some equanimity some very dark truths. This privilege has allowed me to get a lot of practice thinking critically, and imagining possibilities from the ghastly to the exquisite (since even if you have the mental faculties for these things they need constant practice or you quickly lose the capacity to exercise them).

So, while I am afraid of many things, the truth is not one of them. But in that, I am blessed; it has nothing to do with my own doings or initiatives.

That hasn’t always been the case: A significant part of my life was spent dealing with the Noonday Demon — utterly incapacitating depression. So I have considerable sympathy for those who haven’t had the privilege and blessings I have had (though sometimes I have to remind myself!). Those for whom even vaguely believable lies are often a respite from the grind of everyday misery. Those who believe the absurdities they have to believe because the alternative is just too much, too hard to handle. Those who dismiss inconvenient and uncomfortable truths and opt instead for oversimplifications, distortions and misrepresentations because it makes their unmanageable, impossible lives a little more hopeful, a little easier, a little less painful, a little more manageable.

Those for whom the Death of Truth is just an unacknowledged byproduct of the need to keep going, day by day, in a world that seems impossibly complicated, unbearably out-of-control, and getting inexorably, hopelessly worse.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

Links of the Month: October 2019

Too many links already to wait for December, so here’s a special monthly edition of Links of the Quarter. Warning for the soft-hearted: There are at least five tear-jerkers in these links.


PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END


award-winning photo by Turkish photographer Ílhami Çetin; the story of 83-year-old Ali Mese and his kitten Sarikiz has a happy ending (thanks to Salome Tetiashvili for the link)

Robert Jensen on Collapse: My opinion on Robert keeps changing; sometimes he seems so depressed he becomes incoherent and maudlin, but in his recent, mostly-positive review of Naomi Klein’s new book On Fire (for Common Dreams), he’s right on the mark, and provides a cogent critique of the entire environmental movement, including the Green New Deal, and suggests where we should be focused instead. Here are some excerpts, but read the whole thing:

At the conclusion of [the book] that bluntly outline the crises and explain a Green New Deal response, Klein bolsters readers searching for hope: “[W]hen the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.” It is tempting to embrace that claim, especially after nearly 300 pages of Klein’s eloquent writing that weaves insightful analysis together with honest personal reflection. The problem, of course, is that the statement is not even close to being true. With nearly 8 billion people living within a severely degraded ecosphere, there are many things we cannot, and will not, achieve. A decent human future—perhaps any human future at all—depends on our ability to come to terms with these limits. That is not a celebration of cynicism or a rationalization for nihilism, but rather the starting point for rational planning that takes seriously not only our potential but also the planet’s biophysical constraints…

[The] key points Klein makes that I agree are essential to a left/progressive analysis of the ecological crises: First-World levels of consumption are unsustainable; Capitalism is incompatible with a livable human future; The modern industrial world has undermined people’s connections to each other and the non-human world; and We face not only climate disruption but a host of other crises, including, but not limited to, species extinction, chemical contamination, and soil erosion and degradation [DP: not to mention economic collapse]. In other words, business-as-usual is a dead end, as Klein [acknowledges]…

Klein does not advocate [technological] fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire… But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have the technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail…

The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion…

My answer [to the question of what is actually sustainable on our planet]—a lot fewer people [consuming] a lot less stuff—is adequate to start a conversation: “A sustainable human presence on the planet will mean fewer people consuming less.” Agree or disagree? Why or why not? Two responses are possible from Green New Deal supporters: (1) I’m nuts, or (2) I’m not nuts, but what I’m suggesting is politically impossible because people can’t handle all this bad news.

The Green New Deal is a start, insufficiently radical but with the potential to move the conversation forward—if we can be clear about the initiative’s limitations. That presents a problem for organizers, who seek to rally support without uncomfortable caveats—“Support this plan! But remember that it’s just a start, and it gets a lot rougher up ahead, and whatever we do may not be enough to stave off unimaginable suffering” is, admittedly, not a winning slogan…

I offer a friendly amendment to the story [Naomi Klein] is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

Naomi Klein on Radically Overhauling Our Economy and Politics: In light of the above, here is an interesting chat Naomi Klein had recently with the Guardian (audio only, no transcript) on the scale of change demanded by the Green New Deal, and the requirement to couple it with social and ecological justice. (She quotes Gilets Jaunes protesters to French PM Macron: “You care about the end of the world; we care about the end of the month.” She says we have to find solutions that address both.) She also talks about the subtle link between the rise of ultra-right nationalism and the fear of environmental ruin (the Christchurch mass murderer blamed “immigrants” for, among other things, the destruction of the environment; and anti-immigration bigots attempted to take over the Sierra Club a few years ago). Worth a listen. She’s right, I think, in her diagnosis of the problems we face, but, as Robert Jensen says, terribly naive about how, and if, they can be addressed by political and economic reforms.

Yes, the Climate Crisis May Wipe Out Six Billion People: Vancouver professor Bill Rees goes through all the outraged responses to XR adviser Roger Hallam’s warning of the consequences of not preventing the current trajectory of runaway climate collapse, even those from scientists, and find that Roger’s estimate is probably about right after all. He concludes:

A more important point is that climate change is not the only existential threat confronting modern society. Indeed, we could initiate any number of conversations that end with the self-induced implosion of civilization and the loss of 50 per cent or even 90 per cent of humanity.

And that places the global community in a particularly embarrassing predicament. Homo sapiens, that self-proclaimed most-intelligent-of-species, is facing a genuine, unprecedented, hydra-like ecological crisis, yet its political leaders, economic elites and sundry other messiahs of hope will not countenance a serious conversation about it.

Jevons’ Last Laugh: The Jevons Paradox explains how, in complex systems, attempts to bring about change are almost always defeated by qualities of the system (“positive feedback loops”) that reinforce the status quo. So, as fuel-efficiency of cars grows, drivers subconsciously and guiltlessly drive farther than they would have before. When we try to find clean “renewable” energy, we find nuclear energy has fewer emissions but produces horrific radioactive waste that will outlast all of us and potentially kill far more than hydrocarbon emissions will, and both nuclear plants and fossil-fuel generating stations require vast amounts of water as a coolant. Hydro-electric plants, it turns out, have a large carbon footprint (especially their construction, and methane release) and are at risk of collapse when rain patterns shift, beside their impact on reducing water for other purposes, flooding reservoirs, disrupting fish habitats etc. And we’ve just learned that SF6, an artificial insulating gas ubiquitously used in electric transmission “switchgear” is a potent greenhouse gas, 23,000 times as disruptive as CO2, and its use is growing at 8%/year as we switch to more “renewable” forms of energy. There is only one way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and that is by consuming 90% less energy, starting more-or-less now. In other words, dismantling the industrial economy.

Canada Dithers as the World Burns: Canadians, terrified of electing another right-wing extremist Conservative government, held their nose and re-elected Trudeau, the guy who tries to please everyone and pleases no one. He’s a disaster, having reneged on the promise of proportional representation, and signed climate accords while buying a pipeline and reasserting of the ecologically ruinous Alberta Tar Sands: “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.” (And it’s about to expand again). He waffled on right-to-die legislation that turned out to be so weak the courts have had to step in to assert this essential constitutional Canadian right to the terminally ill. Meanwhile his minority government can be propped up by either the Bloc Québecois (price of support: weakening of federal rights in favour of provincial self-management ie Mulroney all over again) or the NDP (price of support: impossible to tell, since leader Jagmeet Singh seems to be a man of great principle, but his caucus and provincial counterparts are reminding him never to put the environment ahead of jobs for the working class who elected him). The Greens fizzled late in the campaign to just 6.5%, due largely to an inept campaign by their incompetent leader and her right-hand man, the arrogant and equally incapable Andrew Weaver, who botched the proportionate representation referendum in BC when the Greens held the balance of power (giving up its opposition to the execrable and endlessly-litigatable Site C Dam), and purged the party of some of its strongest leaders over his vicious and pandering opposition to BDS. Weaver has just, mercifully, resigned, though it’s not clear if the party has anyone left who can competently take over. And the Canadian media shamefully refused to admit the sad truth that the collapse of the federal NDP to just 15% of the popular vote was mostly the result of racism. Bottom line: There is no real progressive party to vote for in Canada, and Canadians are simply not willing to do anything substantial to address climate collapse, beyond politely and quietly cheering Greta Thunberg and hoping she will fix it all for us.


LIVING BETTER


cartoon by Michael Maslin in the New Yorker

Let’s Tell Men to Lean Out: A recent editorial by Ruth Whippman in the NYT (sorry, behind paywall) suggests that too much emphasis has been placed on teaching and encouraging young women to “lean in” — to be more assertive, self-confident, skillful, forceful and unapologetic in putting their ideas, opinions and feelings forward; and not enough on encouraging men (of all ages) to “lean out” — listen and pay attention to what women are saying, and be less assertive, patronizing, inattentive, arrogant, and overconfident. “Women generally aren’t failing to speak up; the problem is that men are refusing to pipe down.”

On Empathy: A short, wordless film shows how we heal. Thanks to Jae Mather for the link.

The Carrier Bag Theory: Siobhan Leddy writes (Thanks to Jeff Aitken for the link):

The Carrier Bag Theory, an essay [Ursula] Le Guin wrote in 1986, disputes the idea that the spear was the earliest human tool, proposing that it was actually the receptacle. Questioning the spear’s phallic, murderous logic, instead Le Guin tells the story of the carrier bag, the sling, the shell, or the gourd. In this empty vessel, early humans could carry more than can be held in the hand and, therefore, gather food for later. Anyone who consistently forgets to bring their tote bag to the supermarket knows how significant this is. And besides, Le Guin writes, the idea that the spear came before the vessel doesn’t even make sense. ‘Sixty-five to eighty percent of what human beings ate in those regions in Paleolithic, Neolithic, and prehistoric times was gathered; only in the extreme Arctic was meat the staple food.’…

As well as its meandering narrative, a carrier bag story also contains no heroes. There are, instead, many different protagonists with equal importance to the plot. This is a very difficult way to tell a story, fictional or otherwise. While, in reality, most meaningful social change is the result of collective action, we aren’t very good at recounting such a diffusely distributed account…

The introduction of a singular hero, however, replicates a very specific and historical power relation. The pioneers and the saviors: likely male, likely white, almost certainly brimming with unearned confidence. The veneration of the hero reduces others into victims: those who must be rescued. ‘The prototypical savior is a person who has been raised in privilege and taught implicitly or explicitly (or both) that they possess the answers and skills needed to rescue others,’ writes Jordan Flaherty in his book No More Heroes. To be a hero is fundamentally privileged, and any act of heroism reinforces that privilege…The carrier bag gatherer, meanwhile, is no lone genius (genius being its own kind of heroism, after all), but rather someone rooted in a shared existence.”

Homeless? How About A School Bus?: In Ashland OR they’re converting old school buses into very comfortable, affordable, portable homes. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

What Birds Can Teach Us: Ellen Ketterson’s lovely and thoughtful lecture on Juncos has lots to teach us about how we (all creatures) evolve in place, and interact with “strangers”.


POLITICS & ECONOMICS AS USUAL


cartoon on Facebook, cartoonist’s name uncited; KriGur? Anyone know?

The Sad Truth About the Addiction Industry: Two new harrowing works depict the life and struggle of those living with chronic pain, and of those addicted to hard drugs. Amy Long’s memoir Codependence explains how, for the millions of patients suffering from chronic pain, life is lived in harrowing fear that anti-drug zealots will curtail their access to medications they simply can’t live without. “In 2016, the CDC changed its opioid-prescribing guidelines in a way that has really hurt pain patients, and I’m afraid I’ll never get the level of pain relief I need in order to write another book. So, it is a fear I live with daily but not in the way most people would expect.” And in this week’s New Yorker, Colton Wooten explains how the down-and-out are being collaboratively abused and destroyed by drug dealers and greedy “12-step” rehab/relapse centres and “sober homes” that exploit the availability of funds under the Affordable Care Act to keep addicts addicted. The addiction industry, groomed by its founders, the tobacco and alcohol industries, is much more robust and destructive than just drugs, pills, smokes and drinks. It includes our whole industrial food and pharmaceutical industry, where the profits to be made from addicting people to sugar, salt, fat and other ingested substances are dwarfed by the shared community costs of death, disease and chronic illness. Where there is more money to be made creating a few designer drugs for billionaires than drugs to cure the epidemics of the poor, and more to be made selling ineffective lifelong treatments for illnesses than selling a one-time cure. And the addiction industry includes our entertainment (including porn) and “information” and fashion industries, hooking us on the latest gadget or video and the rush of the latest “viral” meme. When you have an economic model that puts profit above everything else, the addiction industry flourishes.

The Industrial Food Industry Digs In: One of the fronts of the addiction industry vs the citizenry is the “official” dietary standards promulgated by national health departments. In past years, the deliberations for these have been dominated by self-interested industrial food corporations, to ensure the “food guidelines” continue to encourage consumption of the toxic and addictive foods that eventually sicken and kill most of us living in affluent nations. In the US, it looks as if this will continue indefinitely: The USDA and Health Dept have jointly announced that any changes will not consider any adverse health effects of “ultraprocessed foods, sodium, or meat”, despite mounds of scientific evidence just as compelling as that implicating the tobacco industry. In Canada, the industrial food industry was outraged at not being invited to create and co-write the latest standards, and Canada’s ultra-Conservative leader said that if he was elected (he wasn’t) he would scrap the new guidelines and invite the industry back for a rewrite. Money talks; download and save a copy of the new guidelines while you can.

The Dark Side of Techno-Utopianism: We so love new technologies, and the hopes and dream they might possibly fulfil. But we turn a blind eye to their dangers — exploitation, corruption, tyranny, abuse, hucksterism, propaganda, and misappropriation. Neither Gutenberg nor Zuckerberg ever understood what they’d unleashed.

Another Bank Bailout Needed Please: Uh, it’s the Repo Market this time. Um, it’s seized up, rates are bouncing all over the place. We need about, uh, $400B to get it moving again. Thanks! Thanks to Nicole Foss for the link.

45 Reacts to Greta, and Vice Versa: If you haven’t seen this short clip, take a look. No words need be said.

The Opposite of Democracy: The corrupt autocracy/plutocracy of the Russian state is evidence that democracy does not naturally follow the demise of an unpopular dictatorship. But its effects are not limited to the Russian borders. Those living in the annexed provinces of Ukraine or Georgia, or under the Russian puppet regime in Chechnya cannot even see the hope of freedom from fear and repression, even if they move to more democratic nations. Count your blessings.

NYT Paywall Corner: Behind the NYT paywall (which I can now only see with the help of news readers, to the extent I still bother to read their stuff at all), there are some strange things happening. Apologies if these links don’t work for you; if they don’t you’ll have to take my word for it. The NYT seems to be not-so-subtly endorsing Biden and subtly (using selected op-ed writers and pushing their stuff up the masthead) dissing Elizabeth Warren. Their rationale seems to be that Elizabeth is too “radical” to beat 45. So a recent article suggested that Facebook will prevent her from ever being elected. And an editorial by “opinion columnist” Bret Stephens, which appeared right at the top of the NYT’s RSS feed Friday, was headlined “Elizabeth Warren is Trying to Lose Your Vote“, and was nothing short of a character assassination, accusing her of being a radical “socialist” who would bring in an army of “mandarins” to implement her “unrealistic”, “risky” and “unsafe” plans. Stephens lauded fracking as a huge success and boon to the US economy, said that Medicare for All would mean huge increases in taxes for the middle class and put a half million administrators out of work, and said that the breakup of the mega-tech companies threatened an essential $500B, 800,000-employee industry. By pushing this ultra-right-wing, climate crisis-denying, negative, fear-mongering editorialist’s view, what does the NYT think it’s doing? And where did this wingnut get the credentials to warrant his “opinion” being published in the ostensibly progressive NYT anyway? [Meanwhile, in less visible, fairer coverage in this troubled publication, Robert Scott lauds Elizabeth’s plan to devalue the US dollar by up to 27% to create new domestic jobs as a “shock” fix to chronic underemployment, cheap imports and lost American manufacturing jobs. And another op-ed from last June talks at length about her sensible but radical policies to reduce income inequality, corporate power and corruption.] There; now you don’t have to read the NYT.


FUN & INSPIRATION


via Eric Lilius; several versions of this going around over the past 5 years; not sure who originated it

Improvvisazione Per Eccellenza: The annual international classical music festival MiTo (Milano/Torino) draws some of the best artists from all over the world. Sometimes, some amazing improvisational work just happens, as in this performance by Coro il Polifonico Adiemus of Rachmaninoff’s Vesper Bogoroditse Devo, or this one of Eric Whitacre’s Sleep. (The stunning 2,000 virtual voice version of Sleep is here.)

Speaking of Excellent Choirs: South Africa’s Stellenbosch University Choir is breathtaking in their energy, skill and variety of undertakings, from the local IsiXhosa song Indodana (“I Am The Voice”) to the soaring Jake Runestad work Let My Love Be Heard that even has some of the performers in tears. Bravo/brava, singers, Jake, and maestro André van der Merwe. (And one more extraordinary choral work: Octet VOCES8 performs a choral version of Elgar’s Nimrod Enigma Variation.)

Girls in Space: Award-winning animation One Small Step.

Anti-Vaxxers Beware: In a priceless take-off on medical warnings, “Doctors warn this year’s flu vaccine may contain high levels of immunity“. The Beaverton is Canada’s answer to the Onion.

My Ireland: Then-eighteen-year-old Sibéal Ní Chasaide sings Mise Éire, My Ireland, on the centenary of the country’s War of Independence. As Brexit again threatens Irish peace, this song now comes across as disquieting rather than cathartic.

Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour: The dynamic duo team up on Peter’s In Your Eyes, also with Angelique Kidjo and the Soweto Gospel Choir at a benefit for Nelson Mandela back in 2010.

Even More Music: The World Listening Post has a carefully-curated collection of audio and video samples of modern folk music from over 100 countries.

Joy Williams, Anyone?: Readers tend to either love or loathe Joy Williams’ work, which is quirky, ambiguous (though not meanly so), and sometimes Kafkaesque. I love her stuff. Here’s a sampler of her most recent New Yorker stories, with the latest, The Fellow, IMO especially intriguing.

Extinction, Anyone?: Jonathan Pie cheers on XR and lampoons those who object to its “inconvenience”.

Feline Cystitis Explained, Hilariously: A Hungarian vet-cartoonist explains this common and uncomfortable cat disease. Ouch! Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link, and the one that follows.

Fungi Twice As Old As Previously Thought: A new discovery of fossils of one billion-year-old fungi requires the re-dating of the entire evolutionary path of life on Earth.


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH


cartoon by Edward Steed in the New Yorker

Things I’ve Found Strangely Reassuring, by PS Pirro:

I recently finished Tim Flannery’s Europe, A Natural History. Millions of years of shifting continents, changing climates, giant creatures that came and went. Not to absolve us humans of our tendency toward wreckage, but it’s pretty clear the planet doesn’t need us to save her. Polar bears, redwoods, songbirds, they’re at our mercy. But the planet? She’ll sneeze and there we’ll go.

Edra Ziesk, on friendship:

I think some of my early – and longest – friendships were modeled on the relationship I had with my mother. Who was jealous, unkind, and angry. Who wished me healthy, but not really well: not more successful, more creative, happier than she perceived herself to be. I’m a loyal person and friendship, to me, is a permanent state, so I stayed friends with people who, as it turned out, at bottom didn’t really like me. Or who, like my mother, wished me healthy, wished me okay, but not well.

The one thing a friendship requires, always and only, is that the friends wish each other well. How that’s demonstrated matters less than that each friend knows they can rely on the good will and ear and heart of the other.

Tom Blakeney, in response to this Jonathan Pie video:

In one corner: hypersensitive immaturity. In the other corner: malevolent bigots. In the middle of the ring: the majority, who can not only take a joke, but can differentiate between humour and hate speech.

From Peter Kaminski, 5 recent tweets about Greta Thunberg:

William Gibson, @GreatDismal –
[responding to a tweet with “more flies with honey than with vinegar”]
No flies on Greta. Her autism, her lack of “honey”, is the result of a clinical inability to bullshit. Hence we, neurotypicals, hear a human voice of oracular clarity. Which terrifies and/or enrages some of us.

Zoe Rose, @z_rose –
I know it’s a side point, but it’s reasonable to predict that hundreds of thousands of previously unidentified autistic girls and women will recognise themselves in @GretaThunberg and realise what makes them different, and the very idea of that mass liberation makes me cry.

Margo Claire, @margowithan_o –
I am EXTREMELY inspired by Greta Thunberg’s refusal to smile or make jokes throughout all this media coverage. To see a woman so young not give up any of her power to ease the tension in the room is wildly thrilling and significant. I hope it’s contagious.

Dr. Ann Olivarius, @AnnOlivarius –
So rare to see a girl (not to mention a woman) so utterly devoid of any desire to please, placate or cajole. Greta Thunberg is effortlessly giving a master class in female anger. We should all take notes.

Greta Thunberg, @GretaThunberg –
When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!
I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.  #aspiepower

From Kevin Armentrout:

While waiting to board our plane, my daughter was being her usual inquisitive self wanting to meet and say “hi” to everyone she could, until she walked up on this man. He reached out and asked if she wanted to sit with him. He pulled out his tablet and showed her how to draw with it, they watched cartoons together, and she offered him snacks. This wasn’t a short little exchange, this was 45 minutes. Watching them in that moment, I couldn’t help but think, different genders, different races, different generations, and the best of friends. In a country that is continuously fed that it’s so deeply divided, this is the world I want for her. Joseph, thank you for showing my daughter what kindness and compassion looks like. Continue to shine your light in the world.

Seal Lullaby, by Rudyard Kipling, also wonderfully, heart-breakingly set to music by Eric Whitacre:

Oh, hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us
And black are the waters that sparkled so green
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between

Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow
Oh weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee
Asleep in the arms of the slow swinging seas

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

What You Do Not Know

Look closely: focus on the space in between
the instant passed, that moment
just a moment ago,
that we somehow thought was real,
and the instant upon us,
that we somehow think will really come —
what is that between the two?

Look closer and that space, too, seems made up
of many tinier moments, past or yet to come,
so that you have to gaze even more closely
looking for the still point we’re sure we know
lies just after one and just before another.

But it, too, is just, on closer examination,
an infinite line,
and the more you look,
it doesn’t even quite seem a continuous one —
how do you know
that moment ‘followed’ this,
or ‘preceded’ another?

Go all the way down the rabbit hole
and, up very close,
it’s seen that there are no moments,
not even the grand imaginary Now,
the only moment
we must believe in —
all there is
is that lonely space in between.

How could we be so deluded?
What magic trick is this, and who’s behind it?

Now — turn your careful gaze to this leaf,
and to the tiny aphid
crawling across it. Put your strongest lens on it
and suddenly it isn’t an aphid,
it isn’t any ‘thing’,
but rather an array of quarks and gluons,
in an unfathomable pattern
comprised mostly of nothing at all.

Look closer still,
and the quarks have disappeared
and in their place are some things tinier still,
each still
with the illusion of solidity,
of being substantial, until
you magnify by another order of magnitude
and then they’re gone too.

Now you search in vain,
because there was something tiny there
one turn of the lens ago,
but now you can see nothing —
all there is
is that forsaken space in between.

Another trick! —
surely we just aren’t looking right,
we haven’t got the right point of view,
the right tools
to see the solid end
to this fathomless mystery.

This is not fair! We’re being tricked
and not told what the trick is, the answer
that makes sense of it all — aha!

No?

Yet there is something inside us,
or somewhere,
whispering to us
that it is no trick,
that it doesn’t make sense,
that it doesn’t have to make sense,
and that in fact there are only appearances,
nothing ‘real’ at all.

There are only figments of reality,
slights of mind.

No matter!

But this is not acceptable —
if there is no real time, or space,
or thing, then how, who…?
Look out! Think like that
and you might disappear.

And then what?

Well, then everything.

 

image of aphid from USFDA via Wikipedia, public domain

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

XR and the Defence of Necessity


Image of Ken Ward in 2016 Valve-Turners action, from the film The Reluctant Radical

Last week, Donald Zepeda was found guilty by a jury in Washington State for his actions to disrupt the flow of Alberta tar sands bitumen sludge to the US by turning off a pipeline valve. He was allowed, thanks to some encouraging earlier cases involving the valve-turners, to use the “defence* of necessity” .

Sadly, the defence failed, and Donald explained why he thought it did. This week he was sentenced to 60 days in jail on three counts, but other than 5 days’ time already served, the remaining sentence can be served as community service. All sides considered the sentence “lenient”, though the judge suggested that any repeat offences will not be treated as lightly (it was Donald’s first conviction).

Even before the verdict was rendered, Washington State prosecutors had already decided to recharge Ken Ward for a third time for the original “valve-turners” action, which they can do — if they allow the defence of necessity, since the state supreme court refused to review the ruling throwing out (but not overturning) the verdict in the second trial because introducing this defence had been refused. The third trial is now scheduled to begin on Feb. 10, 2020.

Ken welcomes the opportunity to use the defence, even though he may be opening himself up to a longer prison sentence if he loses (he got ‘time served’, for a single charge of burglary, in the second trial). Ken is not optimistic that the defence will be successful, and he is prepared to go to jail. (If you want to support him and other valve-turners with their legal costs, here’s where to donate.)

Reading more about the guilty verdict against Donald, and Donald’s post-mortem on the trial, it seems to me that the fix is in: The defence failed because the jury didn’t think they met the 4th clause of the defence, “that no reasonable legal alternative existed”. The wording of the defence provision (as it applies in the US anyway) says the onus is on the defence to “prove” all 4 clauses are met “on the preponderance of evidence”. But especially in our byzantine legal system, how do you prove “no reasonable legal alternative exists”? How do you prove something doesn’t exist? I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me that this defence is so onerous that it is almost no defence at all.

My guess is that the prosecutors in both the Washington State cases are being encouraged and provided with free legal advice by legions of other closely-watching prosecutors all over the world, who want to make the point that this defence is basically useless, so that it will not be used again in climate actions.

The necessity defence has a long history, and the precedents lean heavily towards discouraging its use; they say its use must be “strictly controlled and scrupulously limited” lest it lead to, as an early British precedent put it, “anarchy and disorder”.

In countries where it is has been used, all seem to have a “no reasonable alternative” requirement, which has been taken to mean no alternative from the perspective of an “objective reasonable person” rather than the more liberal “no alternative that the defendant could reasonably foresee in the circumstances”.

So, firefighters are allowed to speed to get to a fire, and to destroy a house to prevent the fire from spreading to other homes, but the defence could not be used if someone speeding to hospital with a woman about to give birth caused an accident in the process (or probably even to beat the speeding ticket).

The other three criteria needed to prove necessity (i. defendant didn’t cause the harm they were trying to prevent; ii. defendant genuinely believed they were preventing a harm; and iii. defendant’s harm was less than the harm they were trying to prevent) are not that difficult to prove, but the fourth criterion is a hugely challenging one, and precedents suggests it’s deliberately there to make this defence almost impossible to prove. It has been successfully used in climate action in the US just once, and that was a judge’s decision, not a jury’s.

Canadian law apparently attaches the words “urgent” and “immediate” before the word “harm”, and applies a standard of “imminent peril” to the situations where it can be applied, making it even harder to use. It continues to work its way through the courts (lower courts refused to allow its use) as a defence in the Burnaby Mountain case (blockade of the Trans Mountain pipeline construction by several groups that included two members of Parliament; the MPs plea bargained and paid fines to avoid jail time). The use of the defence of necessity in the Burnaby case would be based on Ken’s precedent-setting success, but IMO it’s even less likely to succeed because of those additional words. I hope I’m wrong.

However, since Canada’s Parliament did approve a motion declaring a “Climate Emergency” in Canada, this should make for an interesting case — does a nationally declared “emergency” make actions to deal with it automatically “urgent” and “immediate”?

I think, sadly, this defence will ultimately fail on the same grounds (the 4th, “no reasonable [legal] alternative” criterion) that the defence in Donald’s case failed on, and I fear that Ken’s next trial defence might fail on the same grounds, depending, of course, on the sensitivities of the jury and the instructions of the judge.

The necessity defence also has a dark side, that climate activists would be wise to keep in mind when using it: It has been used (thankfully unsuccessfully) by right-wing anti-abortion groups to justify the blockage of access to medical facilities offering (constitutionally-defended) abortions, and even to justify the murder of abortion providers. And it has been considered for use to justify torture of alleged terrorists.

If use of the defence continues to fail, then this will likely put a damper on what XR can and will do, and it will likely embolden enforcement authorities to arrest XR participants in future actions with the knowledge this defence is unlikely to work.

Of course, it is possible that, as climate collapse deepens, juries may actually start to conclude that there is no longer a “reasonable alternative” to direct action. It would appear that this is still a way off, however.

So why is Ken so equanimous in facing a third trial when it seems quite likely the necessity defence will fail again, and the sentence may be considerably less lenient? Ken is committed to the end to what he is doing, and not afraid of serving time in jail. His presence in a jail cell, while the Tar Sands perpetrators of the atrocities he’s fighting on our behalves just go on destroying our planet, will hopefully be sufficiently galling and outrageous that it will drive more citizens to join the fight — in government, in the courts, in the streets, and ultimately, almost assuredly, in front of the bulldozers and in the jails.

At the same time, Ken must be aware of the potential dampening effect the failure of the necessity defence on the numbers of XR and other direct climate activists willing to pursue direct action, and on the courage these activists will have in the face of the threat of jail time. But Ken knows that as the situation we face, if we fail to take drastic action to reduce our environmental destruction, becomes more obviously and unavoidably horrific, the number of people with the courage to take direct action to stop mega-polluting activities will eventually surge, and eventually those numbers will reach the level at which arresting and incarcerating everyone becomes impractical and unarguably ineffective, and the level at which these destructive activities become uneconomic, reputationally ruinous, and ultimately illegal.

Ken and other climate activists are determined to drag not only the worst perpetrators of climate crimes, but the large majority of acquiescent and wilfully ignorant citizens, to the point they realize the urgency, vital importance, and massive degree of coordinated change needed (most notably to our economy and our lifestyles) to prevent runaway climate change, the rendering of much of our planet uninhabitable and much of the rest horrifically impoverished and desolated, and unimaginable suffering in the face of the resultant ecological, economic and civilizational collapse.

So what then?

Revolutionaries (and XR is in every sense revolutionary) have long acknowledged that challenging laws can lead to incarceration or worse before public opinion shifts and insists on changes to those laws and political action to stop the catastrophic destruction of our environment. Opinion polls suggest that waiting for public opinion to shift isn’t an option — even the majority of those agreeing there’s a climate crisis are opposed to spending any taxpayer money to deal with it, let alone the draconian changes to laws and lifestyles needed to achieve XR’s demands (and to prevent catastrophic climate collapse).

And I think hoping the legal system will be in any way an ally in our fight is absurdly idealistic. The legal system exists to protect the status quo that is destroying our world.

And direct action (break it, block it, take it) generally makes most people anxious, not inspired. But increasingly disruptive direct action is going to be needed, IMO, to jump-start the utterly inadequate pace of current climate actions.

So we have a broken economic system, a broken legal system, and a broken political system — and a largely ignorant and complacent citizenry all too willing to believe the media propaganda that denies, grotesquely understates, misrepresents and makes excuses for the accelerating climate catastrophe.

Hard road ahead, I think.

Thank you, Ken, the Valve Turners, Donald, Greta, XR, and all those climate activists putting it on the line at such great risk and against such powerful opposition. We’re cheering for you. And struggling with the decision on when to join you.

_____

(*Americans are free to substitute an “s” for the “c” in “defence”; I’m Canadian and the defence was originally a British precedent.)

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

No Accounting


Freedom of the press, 2019, rated from good (deep blue) to very serious (deep red), as self-assessed by members of Reporters Without Borders. From NordNordWest, CC-by-sa-3.0 de, via wikipedia. These are not good times for journalists and independent media. Not only are many investigators, whistle-blowers, journalists and reporters murdered every year for simply reporting the truth, in many countries the ‘information’ media are concentrated in very few hands and hugely biased and/or corrupt, so much of their citizenry has no access to truthful reportage or to accurate, complete facts about what is going on in their country and our world.

I confess: I am an accountant. That is true in two senses. First, I made my career, much of it anyway, with a large public accounting firm. I did the usual accounting stuff: preparing and auditing financial statements, doing taxes, and, when it didn’t conflict with my auditing duties, providing a gamut of financial and business advisory services to hundreds of (mostly entrepreneurial) companies.

But I’m an accountant in a more essential way as well. The word “account” originally meant “to calculate or reckon” — to assemble data and draw conclusions from them. When a reporter provides an “account” of something that happened, she provides both the facts and reasonably deduced or inferred conclusions drawn from them. This involves a mix of investigative science (determining what all the relevant facts, which may not be obvious or entirely known, are) and the art of critical thinking (deducing, through analytical thinking, and inferring, through inductive reasoning, what the facts “add up to” — what they mean).

Good reportage, accounting for what happened, is very different from entertainment or editorialization, which is the business that almost all the so-called ‘information media’ are now largely or exclusively pursuing. Entertaining stories (including fiction, ‘personal interest’, and celebrity news) are deliberately designed to distract from the issues, and they are completely unconcerned with the truth or its significance; as fiction and faux news outlets now have far more readers than the few remaining real information media, this is clearly a profitable strategy. Editorial stories (statements of pure opinion, unsupported, distorted and/or invented data, and conjecture about the future) deliberately obfuscate the truth by omitting opposing perspectives and the data that support them; they are designed to comfort readers that those readers’ current opinions are righteously correct, whether they actually are or not, and they, too, as the popularity of the wankers on talk radio and online wingnut sites demonstrate, can be profitable undertakings.

In short, our capitalist system, which has no intrinsic regard for the truth but only for increasing revenue and income, offers no place for true reportage, for actual, rigorous accounting of what happened and what it means. The truth, as Greta Thunberg is showing us, provides neither comfort nor distraction. There are many, these days, across the political and philosophical spectrum, who argue that there is no ‘unvarnished’ truth — that everything has multiple interpretations. This argument is flip and disingenuous: any competent reporter, investigative journalist or critical thinker can explain the process of ascertaining the truth and its implications, and the errors to avoid, to provide the reader or listener with a complete-as-possible accounting of what is known, and not known, the various ways this information can be interpreted, and the plausible conclusions.

This blog has endeavoured, over the past 16 years, to provide an accounting of what I’ve read and thought and learned, a chronicle of what I see as a civilization in full-on collapse and my own coming to grips with that, and of what science and philosophy seems to be telling us about the nature of reality and what it means to be human. With practice, I think I am getting better at it.

So I am, in that sense too, an accountant.

What got me thinking about this was an article by Craig Mod, sent to me by my friend Ben, entitled Media Accounting 101. In it, Craig describes the implicit ‘contract’ between writer/publisher and reader, in books and to a lesser extent newspapers, CDs and DVDs: The content is fixed and, as a consequence of the transaction, the reader/customer is free to resell it and use it any time and place any way they wish. Contrast that with the content of social media and to a lesser extent all online media: The seller is not selling content, but rather advertising — readers’/viewers’/listeners’ attention. The actual customer is the advertiser, not the content provider. In fact in this contract the content and the content provider are largely irrelevant and ignored — the sellers of consumer attention (the NYT, Facebook etc) may be somewhat or completely indifferent to what content passes through their channels (and would prefer not to be ‘responsible’ for it), and the content provider (investigative reporter, writer, composer, performer) is often paid a pittance, or nothing at all.

This is a very different contract, which is probably why books remain trusted, carefully read, and valued, while the content of online media — slippery, ephemeral, artless, mostly unverified and unverifiable, and needing no ‘truthiness’ at all (to sell advertising, it need merely be attention-grabbing) — is throw-away, unabsorbed, not taken seriously, and pretty much worthless.

The contract with a real information medium requires that the producer invest energy and integrity to create a credible and useful product, and that the reader invest energy in the form of critical thinking in order to make sense and use of the content. When there is nothing ‘in it’ for the seller to care about the quality or integrity of the content, when there is no money or reward (and much risk) for the content provider to do their important investigative and thoughtful work, when the content is mostly unverified, fake, and/or useless, and when the reader has never been educated to be able to think critically or to appreciate the value of corroborated, well-reasoned reportage, the result is a contract that is worthless to the reader and content provider, and valuable only to the advertising seller and the advertiser. And if you believe, as I do, that advertising is almost entirely a waste of time, money and human energy, then the value of the entire enterprise is zero.

Craig makes the argument that only publications that draw their revenues overwhelmingly from subscriptions rather than advertising need to worry about the quality of their content (in doing so they switch back to the type of implicit contract between book-seller and book-buyer). That means they at least theoretically have to care about its veracity, its thoughtfulness, its imaginativeness, and how well it is composed, which, again theoretically, means there should still be incentives for content providers — investigative journalists, great synthesizers and teachers, and thorough and balanced reporters.

But if you look at the newest ‘subscription’ models they have shifted from pay-for-specific content to stream-everything — so that now content providers are again being paid for the attention they can grab, which is much easier if you’re loud and outrageous (or heavily bankrolled by vested interests), than if you’re competent, painstaking and thoughtful. So instead of getting a dollar for each ‘sale’ of a song, the musician now gets a half-cent for each minute their song holds a listener’s attention, each time they play it. The inevitable result is the infantilization of the music industry — the pandering to morons who listen to nursery-rhyme rap ‘songs’ over and over for hours, and the starvation of serious musicians. The same is true in all other media using this model — just look at the “trending” videos on YouTube and you will quickly feel much more hopeless about the future of our world. Oceans of amateur, mindless, worthless garbage.

And now you can get your video on a flat-fee-per-month ‘subscription’ (Netflix); you can get books the same way (Amazon Prime). If they can get everyone to subscribe, then they can raise the flat fee every year and make more and more revenue without any ‘selling’ work. And as they control the channel, they can squeeze producers to give them the content at a lower price each year (sound familiar? It’s the WalMart race to the bottom model, where producers get paid ever less and customers get ever more shoddy products). And the producers in turn, eager to please their shareholders too, will squeeze the content providers, which means — surprise! — a constant deterioration of quality.

And that’s precisely what’s happened to the information media, which is a large part of the reason that the map at the top of this post looks so grim. There is no money to be made in our industrial growth economy in quality, in originality, in the crafting of remarkable work — or, ultimately, in the truth.

Our preoccupation with constant-attention technologies is clearly dopamine-related, as Craig points out — we are in every sense addicted to these modern toys, and unable to tear our attention away from them. But while Craig is convinced that we can wean our way off them by making it easier to turn our attention to more high-value activities like reading books, I think he’s naive. There is simply no incentive for the modern human to break this habit, and there are a million corporations working furiously to get us even more hooked.

Although none of this can survive the accelerating collapse of industrial civilization (so this mass addiction can’t last all that much longer), it’s all predicated, in my opinion, on a house of cards that no one seems to want to acknowledge. And that is the fact that advertising doesn’t actually work.

It’s a myth, one that everyone benefiting from it wants to keep believing, and so it continues. There are several similar myths — the myth that stocks are actually worth the ludicrous prices that investors keep paying for them (especially when interest rates are suppressed to near zero, so there’s no opportunity cost to throwing ever more money at stocks), which is completely predicated on high rates of growth continuing forever. Or the myth that it’s a lack of scientific knowledge and of ‘cures’, rather than our abominable industrial western diet, that is responsible for our soaring rates of chronic and debilitating illness, and almost all of our deaths. Or the myth that our fiat currencies are actually solid and worth staking our future on, or worth anything at all. Or the myth that executives in corporations actually make better decisions and therefore deserve more credit and (obscenely) higher salaries than their front-line workers.

Why do we believe these myths? Because we want to. Because they reinforce the systems that we think are instrumental in giving us the quality of life we enjoy and which we are terrified of letting go, so domesticated have we become. They don’t need to be true as long as everyone keeps on believing they are true and behaving as if they are true.

What would happen if we stopped believing that advertising is a worthy investment, that it generates much less than it costs? For a start, our economies would collapse, especially the economies whose costs are most advertising-heavy and whose revenues are most advertising-dependent. The internet would surely collapse, deprived of the illusion that it was actually providing anywhere near enough value to anyone to justify its colossal cost, and starved of 90% or more of its operating funds. The reality is that advertising simply raises cost, and forces ‘competitors’ to do more advertising to keep from losing market share, and so it continues, in runaway inflationary style, to the point that the vast majority of the cost of almost everything we consume is a pass-through of the cost of the producer spending ever-more to shout ever-louder over the similar voices of competitors about why it’s worth more than them. It’s a giant con. To the customer, it provides absolutely no value. But don’t dare tell that to the producers, or the advertisers, whose margin and whose very existence depends on the myth that it does.

Perhaps someone should call them to account. It’s an age-old expression, meaning ‘hold answerable for their actions’, and it takes us full circle, back to the assembling of data and the drawing of reasonable conclusions from them. Back to valuing accurate information and not convenient myths. Back to an acknowledgement and healing of our addictions instead of pandering to them.

Back to a curiosity and thirst for the truth, instead of a fearful and bewildered acceding to lies, inurement and distraction. Back to wanting to know, at all costs, instead of amusing ourselves to death.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 8 Comments

Haunted by the Ghosts of Our Selves

Sometimes when I write these articles, trying to figure out why I have come to believe the unpopular and unfathomable message of radical non-duality, I feel a bit like a cat chasing its tail. It’s fun, but it doesn’t seem to get anywhere. Still, I can’t seem to help myself; “I bought that ticket, and I’ll take that ride.”


image assembled from vector graphics provided by the good folks at Pixabay, CC0

Out of nothing, for no reason, arises the appearance of three human creatures, portrayed above, seemingly engaging in a conversation. They look real enough, and their discussion (about climate collapse, perhaps) seems earnest and animated. But they are just appearances, actors in an impromptu play. There are not actually any individuals doing anything. Nothing is separate; there are no boundaries between these appearances in the timeless, infinite field of possibilities.

No self, no individual, no ‘consciousness’ is needed for this wondrous appearance out of nothing to be seen; indeed, there are no selves and no individuals to see anything. And there is no consciousness, no ‘awareness’, since consciousness would be consciousness by some thing of some thing else, and there is no thing else, no thing apart, no thing at all.

This is seen, but not by any one, nor by any creature (afflicted by a self or not). It is just seen. There is the mystery, the wonder, but it is not a mystery to any one; there is no one.

Accompanying this appearance of a conversation among these three apparent people is a bizarre but common phenomenon, a kind of haunting. The apparent brains of these apparent people have been able to create, apparently, a model, a figment (etym.: false representation) of reality in which (a) there are real, separate ‘things’ and separate ‘selves’ — discrete ‘individuals’ apart from everything else, and (b) these separate selves somehow are able to inhabit and control the apparent bodies of these apparent creatures.

It is an astonishing, recursive trick — for an appearance to be so ‘imaginative’ that it can perceive itself as real, and separate, and everything else as real and separate as well, when there is actually no thing, and no thing separate. But this trick, this illusion, this ‘slight of mind’  is fully consistent with the apparent evolution of more and more complex life on Earth, and a not-unlikely spandrel (inadvertent consequence) of the brain trying out different survival techniques and strategies. Illusion or not, it seems a convenient, sustainable and useful model of reality upon which to pin, and make meaning of, all the sensory inputs the brain receives on behalf of the creature (or, actually, the complicity of creatures) that seemingly live within the apparently separate body.

So each self believes it inhabits and controls a creature. This is a very complex and compelling illusion; the idea of it apparently emerges in the brain of every small child at an early age and is reinforced by the stated beliefs of other illusory selves from that point on, so it is no surprise the illusion is so pervasive and ubiquitous. How could these three individuals, engaged in an earnest and thoughtful conversation about what they should do, possibly not be separate and real?

For millennia, human creatures believed the Sun ‘obviously’ revolved around the Earth; given what was known, then, what other explanation could there be, or would ever be needed? Analogously, there is now compelling and growing evidence from a variety of sciences to suggest that what is actually apparently happening is completely unaffected by our haunting selves. The ghost self rationalizes what the apparent creature it presumes to inhabit was inevitably going to do anyway, given its inherent and enculturated conditioning and the situation of the moment. This apparent creature is, after all, just an appearance, akin to pixels on a screen.

Just as we cannot will the characters in a program we are watching to do, or not do, something, the self cannot and does not actually influence the character it presumes to inhabit. As ghosts, as illusions, we selves are merely audiences for the play, dogs in the stands barking furiously at behaviours on the stage or screen that we like, or don’t like, as if that can somehow change the course of the play.

If the three participants in the conversation had no selves — if there were no seeming homunculus directing and controlling each participant’s actions — absolutely nothing would change. These characters, appearances all, have no free will, and their selves do not and never did exist. These characters don’t need selves to what they apparently do. No creature needs a self. Apparent evolution has produced trillions of thriving creatures utterly devoid of selves. The fact they are, apparently, completely conditioned, devoid of free will, and not subject to the vagaries of some inept controlling self is cause for celebration, not despair.

That is not to say that creatures, human and not, are insensate — a self is not needed in order to feel pain, or joy, or curiosity; but a self is needed to take ownership and responsibility for those feelings, to claim them as its feelings, and that is where this evolutionary misstep has come to cause such grief to all the world’s endlessly lost and frightened (and completely illusory) selves. The self is a useless appendage, a psychosomatic misunderstanding. We (selves) would be better off without our selves, and if we were rid of them, absolutely nothing would change.

So what, you might ask, is this ‘conditioning’, and what is evolution, if everything is just an appearance, an arbitrary, meaningless and random throw of the dice, a play in which each character is playing a role and is handed their next line without advance notice? Why are the rules, the patterns, apparently so consistent, so compelling? What is it that prevents the apparent characters from suddenly sprouting wings, that prevents dogs from suddenly speaking Creole, that prevents us from suddenly shrinking to microscopic size or going through apparent dimension or time warps? If everything is just an appearance, why does everything seem so damned consistent, so solid, so undeniably real?

There is of course, no reason. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be Creole-speaking dogs and spontaneous metamorphoses. That’s just not what is apparently happening in this apparent time and apparent space. The brain will look for patterns and assign meaning, purpose and causality to the sensory inputs it processes — that is what it does, apparently, in hopes that that information will assist the complicity of the brain’s creatures to survive and thrive.

There is no meaning to the apparent laws that govern evolution, elegant as they may seem, just as there is no meaning to the elegant fractal patterns that ice forms inside a poorly-insulated window. It is just what is apparently happening. It is not happening in time or space — those are, quantum science now tells us, mere mental constructs, representations, models unrooted in anything beyond human pattern-making around sensory perceptions. Nothing actually has a cause or purpose, just as nothing actually has a colour, or sound — these are all just tentative assignations of the patterning brain, converting electric signals to neuronal memories and conceptions, pure imaginings.

But, you might say, if our selves have no affect on the beliefs and behaviours of these apparent characters we presume to inhabit, why is the human world so full of trauma, violence, destruction and despair? Surely our selves, twisting our, uh, selves in knots over what is happening to us and our culture and our world, must be responsible for the levels of mental illness, rage, depression, and the horrific desolation humans have, apparently, inflicted upon this world?

Ah, we do so like it to be all about us, don’t we? These three characters engaged in the conversation, arguing now whether the Green New Deal is essential action or delusional folly, are conditioned not only by their inherent, embodied nature (hormones etc) but by their culture — by each other. One of our three characters might well move the other two past a ‘tipping point’ and persuade them to quit their jobs to devote all their energies to halt carbon emissions by whatever means necessary.

But that doesn’t require any selves. It doesn’t require any volition or expression of free will. If two of the characters become XR Rebels, or revolutionaries, that is because of their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment (which include the circumstances of their conversation). The self of the convincer may be exuberant, or alarmed, at what her argument has apparently wrought in her apparent colleagues, but this is sheer hubris. Neither her character nor her colleagues’ characters had any control over what they would say or subsequently do. And her self is just a ghost, barking on the sidelines, with glee or alarm, to the three oblivious characters, just as their selves are ghosts, worrying for no reason whether their lives’ new trajectories were reckless, as if they had any control over them.

Now I’m not saying, precisely, that if our world is fucked up, it isn’t our ‘selves’ fault. There are no selves, and there is no causality — these are just mental constructs, not real. But it’s the first part of this ‘if/then’ argument that is flawed. The world is not fucked up; it isn’t anything. It is just an appearance; what seems to be happening. As an appearance, it isn’t real, and it isn’t unreal, rather like the acting out of a mysterious script by a brilliant cast, just pixels on a screen. It is our selves that judge and give import and infer meaning to what is happening, positively or negatively, not these innocent characters apparently doing the only things they could have possibly done. And this judging, while perfectly understandable given the persuasiveness and seeming pervasiveness of what we selves have come to see as real, is as absurd as judging the behaviour of a fictional character on a screen. Tempting, irresistible even, if the screenplay is really good, but ultimately ridiculous.

So my ghost analogy is in one respect a poor one. Our selves are like ghosts in that they aren’t real and in that they affect nothing. But it’s not the characters they presume to be inhabiting that they are haunting. It’s themselves that they haunt and cause to suffer, for no reason. We selves completely misunderstand what is real, and what is really going on, and that is, for us, a terrible, ghastly tragedy, a life sentence of imprisonment without parole.

But wait, you say, what about ulcers, depression, suicide — surely if our selves have no effect on the characters we presume to inhabit, these characters should be equanimous, care-free, constantly joy-filled. If they can accurately see what is real (nothing) and what is just appearance (wondrously, everything), why are so many so ill?

We just can’t get over our selves, can we? We can’t forget that these characters aren’t separate, aren’t ‘real’ in the way we imagine them to be; that they live outside of time and space and the illusion of us. That they are just appearances, and the ulcers they get are the apparent result of their conditioning, inherent and enculturated. That’s how the script reads for them, but not really for ‘them’ — the pain of ulcers, and trauma, and loss, is real, but they don’t and can’t take it personally, any more than one can take the anger expressed toward one’s character in a play personally. The person doesn’t exist. There is pain, and it is surely awful, perhaps more awful than we selves, who suffer in an entirely different and intermediated way, can imagine. But it is not the same as the pain of the self.

Of course this could all be my rationalization, my attempt to inure myself from the suffering of believing that the endless awful crap that appears to be happening is real, here and now — by denying that anything is real. Were it not for the glimpse, I would harbour such suspicions myself, and still haven’t entirely ruled them out.

I have often been accused of being insensitive, and if that’s correct, which it well may be, it’s likely because this self is too lost, scared, un-self-aware and bewildered to be able to empathize the way some people I know and love seem able to do. No excuse, and I hope I will get better at this, though at my age I’m starting to run out of time. This self is unlikely to fall away until the body/brain it seems to inhabit has been exhausted, so it behoves me to recognize and face the real tragedy of having a self, of being a self — the disconnection, the loss, the anguish, the terror, the grief, the rage, the shame that is for all intents eternal, awful, and horribly, excruciatingly imprisoning and immiserating — for no reason. Every self suffers this, and compassion is the only reasonable response. Even for an illusion, a ghost.

That’s enough to haunt anyone.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

Pollard’s Laws and XR


some of the half-million Montréalers who participated in yesterday’s climate march; from Greta’s twitter posts

One of the things that intrigues me about XR is that their three demands are simple, measurable and revolutionary:

  1. Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, and working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
  2. Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
  3. Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

The actions of XR are all about government action, because XR believes (a) that many people already know there’s a climate emergency, and those that don’t will eventually be persuaded by rapidly-occurring changes, so it’s government that has to change, not public will, (b) meeting demand 2 will dictate unbelievably rapid and radical policy changes and actions in every area of government, so no other stand-alone actions, like emission quotas, ludicrous cap-and-trade schemes, and conservation regulations will be necessary, and (c) the Citizens’ Assembly, properly constituted and empowered, lets elected officials ‘off the hook’ for the very unpopular decisions they will need to make to meet demand 2 (they can say ‘the Citizens’ Assembly forced us to do it’, much as they now blame courts and others for things they do reluctantly).

What’s more, the clever wording and structuring of these ‘simple’ demands essentially recognize the truth of what I have been calling for the past 10 years (because they seem to hold up so well as more and more evidence comes to light), Pollard’s Laws. I thought it would be useful to explain how these laws apply and how XR so brilliantly recognizes and taps into them. So here they are:

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: Humans have evolved to do what’s personally urgent for them (the unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then to do what’s easy, and then to do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important. Social, political and economic change happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives fills the power vacuum. We have evolved to be a collaborative and caring species, and we are all doing our best — we cannot do otherwise.

Until XR, Greta and others who acknowledged the existential peril of climate catastrophe came to public attention, most polls indicated that the majority of people in most countries with decent education systems and information systems, believed a climate catastrophe was a real possibility, but conceded they were unwilling to change their lifestyle to address it — other priorities were considered more important and more urgent. That has changed very quickly; recent polls (and the Swiss gnomes who rate the world’s greatest risks) have quite suddenly acknowledged the climate catastrophe as our most urgent priority. If taken to heart, that moves the issue from the #4  category (merely important) to the #1 category, which has huge ramifications for governments and public policy.

This is particularly notable because grappling with this predicament is the opposite of easy, and the opposite of fun. (Neither are the climate marches a picnic.) It remains to be seen whether the shift will continue to gain momentum or fizzle out, but the odds of the former are increasing.

This movement (perhaps like the anti-war movement of the 60s) is a youth-driven phenomenon, and its elder leaders (like Roger Hallam, who’s much like Gene McCarthy in the 60s ) draw all their energy from the young. If the young show up in significant numbers, not only in the streets but at the polls and in the legislatures, they could dramatically change party platforms, election results and key vote outcomes, especially if XR stays true to its policy of relentless but non-violent disruption, so they can’t just be ignored.

When I meet conservatives now, it is obvious that most of them are realizing that they cannot possibly look young people in the face, including their own children, and baldly deny that their actions and inactions are accelerating climate catastrophe and imperilling their and other children’s futures. Just as radicals were ostracized in the ’50s and change resisters were likewise running for cover in the ’60s, it may be that for the rest of this decade, at least, global polluters and the politicians that pander to them will be excluded and shamed. That will be, perhaps, their final legacy, and their arguments that they didn’t know any better will carry no weight, least of all to their children.

If this shift can continue (and it may not, as we learned from the progressive movements of the 60s), we may see something of a quiet revolution, as the old step aside and, at least, say “OK, here are the reins of power, see if you can do any better.”

This mindset is clearly evident in the actions of Canada’s tarnished try-to-please-everyone pseudo-progressive PM Trudeau, who marched, heckled much of the way, in yesterday’s Montréal climate strike march, along with 400,000 others, led by Greta Thunberg. He met with her, and she told him, as she’s told other world leaders, that he’s not doing nearly enough. Perhaps it’s the idealist in me, but I think he marched not because it was politically expedient (his principal rival, in the current polls at least, the arch-conservative Andrew Scheer, whose do-nothing climate plan has justifiably been dismissed as “obscene”, was a no-show), but rather because he knows that climate catastrophe has arrived, and that he in fact has done much less than “not nearly enough”. He marched, of course, with his children. Could he have not?

We are all doing our best, and despite the enormous inertia in our political, social and economic systems, and despite the staggering cost that mega-polluters, foot-draggers, denialists and self-righteous 1%ers will have to face if they lose this battle (many of their corporations, to meet demand #2, will be quickly rendered worthless and wiped out), and despite the 1%’s massive economic and political clout, it is not inconceivable that power and law could radically shift, and the next few decades become a universal all-hands-on global battle to mitigate centuries of destruction. In some places, there was such a shift (including 90% personal and corporate tax rates) in the 1930s, when the urgency of ending the Great Depression at any cost became undeniable even to those buffered from it.

I think it’s too late, and that, even with enormous and coordinated political will, system change cannot happen nearly fast enough to prevent climate collapse (and economic collapse) bringing down industrial civilization in this century. But I’m stoked to see us try. Already, over 1,000 political jurisdictions have met the first part of demand #1.

My pessimism in the face of such a possible major shift in collective will has little to do with human nature and much to do with how change happens in complex systems — including ecosystems and social systems. That’s the subject of my second ‘law’:

Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. To change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex (and it frequently is), success at truly understanding and changing it is unlikely, and developing workarounds and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse. For that reason, the systems of global industrial civilization culture are now collapsing rapidly and inevitably, producing the sixth great extinction of life on Earth.

Civilizations that collapsed in the past certainly saw the writing on the wall, as any student of Jared Diamond or Ronald Wright can tell you. It’s not that many caught up in them didn’t want to reform them or change them or overthrow them in favour of more sustainable societies, it’s that they couldn’t.

In nature, everything is connected, and there are a trillion moving parts that evolve to keep the system in balance. Sometimes, the system gets so unbalanced that these balancing mechanisms can’t right it. When this happens, it collapses. It’s called overshoot, and in some species (mosquitos for example) it’s endemic — endless cycles of boom and bust (collapse). But nature has evolved to prevent these extremes happening in species that are essential to ecological balance, including, until recently, our own. Many larger creatures, for example, somehow self-regulate their fertility rates so that, even in the absence of many predators, their population remains in check.

Ours did the same, for a million years or so. Until the advent of civilization and its technologies (agriculture, settlement, language etc), human women almost never had children more frequently than once every four years (breast-feeding is nature’s premier contraceptive). This meant that lugging the babies around until they could walk wasn’t an ordeal for nomadic pre-civ cultures; there’d only be one per family at a time. This is the kind of elegant balance a billion years of evolution enables, as long as there is a connection, a recognition of the a-part-hood and inter-dependence of all life on Earth. We lost this with the dawn of civilized, un-natural cultures, and now, like plagues of locusts, we have quickly desolated the world we live in, and at such a scale that we’ve wrought the sixth great extinction.

I’d love to believe we could change this now, but everything I’ve learned convinces me it’s preposterous to believe so, and our only avenue now is to relearn to adapt to sudden (a generation or two) and ongoing massive ecological change. That means relearning how to live in community, and relearning the skills needed to survive in low-tech, relocalized, massively migratory and highly-collaborative societies (which includes a ton of ‘soft’ skills like consensus-building along with the technical skills like mending clothes and growing food, and does not include ‘skills’ like hoarding and killing).

That we will do, or at least try, because, as Pollard’s first law says, we will have no other choice. It will be an interesting next millennium or two, as nature struggles to restore the balance, as it did when a meteorite caused the fifth great extinction, and as we rediscover, to our astonishment, that in this struggle we are all on the same side.

I’ve done quite a few things in my life that inspired and excited me, even though I knew in my heart they would not succeed, or, if they did, their effect would not last. That’s Pollard’s first law playing out in me. I can’t not do what I do, no matter what my instincts or my heart tell me. Like everyone, I’m doing my best, and I’ll be damned if knowing its futility will get in my way.

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

IFLS


image from nutritionfacts.org

There’s a new survey that suggests that 1/3 of Canadians, up from 1/4 in the last survey, are “skeptical” of scientists and scientific research. And globally, 45% say they only agree with science “if it aligns with my personal beliefs”. It’s part of an ongoing survey of attitudes by 3M corporation on the subject.

At first blush, I find these findings mystifying and alarming, but they actually do make some sense. The truth is, we do tend to see things that agree with what we already believe (or want to believe) as more credible than things we don’t believe, regardless of the quality of the science behind them. We do like things to be simple, and in the 3M surveys the #1 reason given for science skepticism is “too many conflicting ideas”. There is considerable financial and political incentive to fake or obfuscate “scientific” data, and the more fake data and lies we hear everywhere every day, the more our skepticism about all facts is inevitably likely to grow.

And when scientists align themselves with lying or partisan institutions, and accept money on the basis they will only publish the results of their research if those results support the sponsors’ objectives, they discredit all science in the process.

I am skeptical of any reported scientific study until I am persuaded it is free from confirmation and other bias and from selective inclusion and exclusion. But once I have been persuaded that the research is unbiased, coherent and thorough, I am all over it. Science has changed my life in profound ways:

  1. Personal health: I am quite convinced that my change to a balanced whole plant-food diet, combined with regular exercise, has made me much healthier, led to a remission in at least one debilitating chronic illness (ulcerative colitis) and quite possibly prevented or alleviated others to which I am vulnerable (back spasms, depression, kidney stones, intestinal and prostate cancer, and maybe even Alzheimers). I collect and monitor personal diet, exercise and health date to this day just to stay on top of this.
  2. Climate change: Based on a ton of science, I do believe, so far (I am always open to changing my beliefs, unlike the 45% of the population referred to above) that we are headed for 4º-6ºC of average global temperature increase well before the end of this century — enough to doom civilized (high technology, settled) society and create what I’ve called a Great Migration of at least two billion humans, as much and possibly all of the planet becomes uninhabitable. That knowledge has changed my entire worldview.
  3. Human nature: Along with my study of history and philosophy (debate on whether these ‘social sciences’ are in any way ‘real’ science I will leave for another day), scientific knowledge has led me to believe that humans are, like our fellow creatures, innately peace-loving and collaborative, and doing our best, but are largely incapable of either long-term or large-scale coordinated action, and that we have been ‘disconnected’ from our inherent biophilia and rendered mentally and physically ill by the monstrous stresses our civilized, domesticating cultures have inadvertently put on us and put on our global ecosystems, and by our cultures’ polluting byproducts.

I hold some scientifically-based beliefs that cause great dismay and even insult to some close friends.  I do believe, so far, that while I am sure the symptoms felt by sufferers are quite real, electromagnetic waves are not actually a cause of illness. I do believe, so far, that while vaccines are bizarre, the vaccines designed to inoculate against crippling and fatal diseases have saved millions of lives, and I believe that vaccine toxicity risks are far outweighed by the risks to our whole society of a significant portion of the population refusing to be inoculated. These beliefs are based on very large and compelling studies by earnest and unbiased scientists.

As a sense-making creature all too inclined to see patterns before there is any real substance to them, I am vulnerable to conspiracy theories (the Epstein ‘suicide’ being only the latest of them). Despite this tendency, I am unaware of any such theories that I still find particularly persuasive, and that includes those surrounding 9/11 and UFOs. The problem with almost all significant conspiracy theories, IMO, is that they require too many smart people doing too many smart, coordinated things and covering them up without any of them leaking the truth. Eventually, nearly always, as Shakespeare said, the truth will out.

That doesn’t mean that the tobacco industry didn’t bribe and lie to protect its profits, directly causing the agonizing illness and premature death of millions, or that the food industry isn’t doing precisely the same thing now on an even larger scale. That’s not a conspiracy — it’s overt, deliberate, and ignorant, and science will, in the end, halt these terrible tragedies. Just as oil company executives I’ve spoken with continue to assert that climate collapse is a myth, or at least that a gradual shift to renewables will prevent it, they are also terrified for the health and welfare of their children, and suppressing, as long as possible, their doubts. Eventually, but too late, science will persuade them.

Part of the predicament is that we don’t want to believe things that upset us and disillusion us of our beliefs, especially our beliefs about ourselves. For people who have been told, all their lives, that they’re successes and role models, it is agonizing to realize that everything you’ve done and believed in is a lie. Such a shift, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, will never come easily.

We’re all afraid of dangerous truths, truths that threaten our core beliefs. That’s human nature. We’re all just doing our best, and that collective effort has wrought the sixth great extinction and climate collapse. Nothing evil, no one to blame — just stupidity, ignorance, stress-induced mental illness, and the hubris that is in our nature. We’re way too smart for our own good.

Also, as much as I love it, I acknowledge that science has its limitations, and they’re actually quite severe. Science constructs a model of reality, using the best available ‘evidence’, which is often not very good, more wishful thinking and hypothesis than verifiable fact. It’s just a model, just as a map is a model of the territory. Of necessity, this model is a representation, and an enormous simplification. The more detail we add to the model, the more interesting and sometimes useful it is, but it is still just a model. It cannot fathom infinity, and infinite complexity, because it is merely complicated, as a massive computer is compared to a human brain. We may intuit the true nature of reality, but science cannot hope, with its blunt and limited tools, to describe it for us.

And in the process of simplification, we lose so much — possibly everything. The very process of ‘analyzing’ — breaking (our understanding of) what exists down into separate discrete parts — destroys much of the essential truth of the whole. And that’s a scientist’s view.

Perhaps even worse, scientists are forced to generalize, and then they’re forced to admit to the loss of much of the utility of what they have found, as they try to guess how what is known about their tiny sample might apply to the whole population — or not. Every generalization is, in a way, a lie, and often a dangerous one. Sometimes it helps us, and sometimes it leads us astray.

So when, thirteen years ago, I went to the doctor, having already lost 30 pounds, so much blood that I could barely stand, and was in so much pain that, each night, I prayed I would be able to sleep and never wake up, I already knew I had ulcerative colitis. I did not know that it was likely caused long ago by the damage my awful youthful diet, and eight years of high-dose oral tetracycline in my teens (then the preferred treatment for serious acne), did to my gut flora. I did not know that the stress of a single piece of terrible news was almost certainly the trigger of this near-death experience. But I know now, and that scientific knowledge has arguably saved my life, and certainly lengthened it and made it much healthier. And that knowledge has also increased my resilience in the face of other stressors.

But science, in its rush to generalize, to make its findings ‘useful’, can also hurt. Every body is different, and doctors and scientists who fail to appreciate this can cause terrible suffering. My body cannot tolerate steroids, for example, so the first attempt to ‘cure’ my colitis almost killed me. Likewise, my extreme reaction to going off a prescribed anti-depressant “cold turkey” years earlier, was so far outside the norm that my doctor said it was “unheard of”. The medical books describe the body as a complicated mechanism, when it is actually a complexity, a complicity, something that is not apart from its environment and everything else in this infinitely mysterious world. No surprise the medical scientists get so much wrong. Sometimes even our insistence on large amounts of ‘evidence’ can cause us to do wrong.

It is almost certain that, as our fragile and untethered climate spins more and more into unimaginable and unpredictable extremes, we will try, desperately, fruitlessly and insanely, to use our minuscule knowledge of the geologic and atmospheric sciences to restore its stability — geoengineering. The last time such scientific extremism was used to address a global predicament the result was the atomic bomb. Such extremism is almost certain to end badly, because, again, we have no idea what we’re doing and what the consequences of geoengineering are. This is the dark side of scientific knowledge. We think we know, but we don’t.

Equally disturbing is the ludicrous belief of many that science can solve predicaments — not only climate collapse, but ‘sustainable’ energy (ie the laws of thermodynamics), complex and chronic diseases, finite resources, the limits to growth, human ‘misbehaviour’, and even human mortality. Sadly, as we become less naive and disillusioned about science’s vast limitations, our ‘skepticism’ about it is likely to grow to even higher levels.

And every new science-based invention brings with it (not scientists’ fault of course) unanticipated side-effects and technologies that exploit it in unexpected and harmful ways. Nuclear science gave us the bomb. The passenger train enabled gas chambers. Agriculture science gave us DDT, and trans fats. Refrigeration science gave us CFCs. And the Internet… well, you get the idea.

Still, IFLS. One of my few endearing qualities is my insatiable curiosity, and my insistence on constantly challenging whatever I’m told, and whatever I believe. Perhaps that’s a childlike quality, but I think it puts me in good stead, and I think the world could use more of it. It must be hell to never be curious.

So here’s to the strange combination of opposites that make up the scientific community — the painstaking, detail-oriented people who patiently gather the data that makes scientific inquiry possible and credible, and the thinkers and dreamers who ask the “what if?” questions no one has asked before, and imagine what the data before them might possibly mean.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 2 Comments

Latest Interview With Michael Dowd

Michael Dowd recently interviewed me (again), this time as part of his series on collapse, our preparedness for it, and looking beyond it. The interview is here, and the complete set of interviews he’s done on this topic is here.

Thanks to Michael for his excellent interviewing skills, and to his partner Connie Barlow for her brilliant editing work.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment