Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



January 23, 2005

A PRAGMATIC APPROACH TO ANIMAL RIGHTS

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 19:26
wolf3
There’s been another well-intentioned discussion over at Salon TableTalk about animal rights, as Soybean, the originator and moderator of the discussion, attempted to persuade other progressives that “Using animals for food and clothing causes suffering, is bad for human health, is bad for the environment and is a huge public safety risk.” When the discussion, as in past similar threads, degenerated into name-calling, Soybean asked me to diagnose what had gone wrong. My answer was that discussion forums are not a particularly good vehicle for persuasion at the best of times (they’re more useful for debating, and for gathering ideas and collaborating with others), and also that there is a tendency for those of us who are idealists on the subject of animal rights (or any progressive subject for that matter) to tick off pragmatists by not offering a practical, achievable process to achieve our stated objective.

That got me thinking about a pragmatic approach to animal rights, one which could unite all progressives in common cause, and become an integral part of all progressive organizations’ agendas.

The end-game on animal rights for us radical idealists — a large part of the planet set aside as wilderness with minimal human intervention allowed; an end to factory farming (and perhaps even all animal agriculture) as a means of providing human food and clothing, and acceptance of a vegan lifestyle — is just too big a jump for many progressives to accept in a single leap. Some progressives even see such an agenda as anti-humanist, at a time when the people of many countries are desperately striving to achieve self-sufficiency and an end to poverty, through the raising of farmed animals. To them, more wilderness means less land for the struggling poor, and they have a point.

What I have been chatting with Soybean on is a two-stage approach with both a short-term and long-term vision. The short-term vision, the first stage, is to enact laws that punish people who needlessly abuse domesticated animals or subject farmed, laboratory, or wild animals to extreme or protracted cruelty or suffering. This is, I think, an acceptable goal to the vast majority of people on the planet: It is consistent with almost every human moral code and its acceptance does not impose significant economic hardship on anyone. Even this first stage, however, will require both sides on the sometimes rancorous debate over animal rights to hold their nose when they agree: For many of us, the word ‘needlessly’ is a weasel word that could be used to excuse otherwise inexcusable behaviour. It is, for those with more advanced animal rights agendas, a pitifully small step in the right direction. At the same time, even this will be troublesome to farmers and laboratories who will be concerned about how the courts could interpret ‘needlessly’, ‘abuse’, and ‘extreme or protracted cruelty or suffering’. They will see it as threatening to their livelihood by opening them up to ‘frivolous’ prosecution by animal rights ‘extremists’, and as the thin edge of the wedge to further incursions and eventual shut-down of their operations.

I believe the courts would be able to establish precedents fairly quickly and easily on the definition of these terms, and we would then finally have laws with teeth that could reduce the extraordinary number of heinous and deplorable cases of unprosecuted and unprosecutable animal abuse and neglect that occur every day. At the same time, we need to start working to develop genuine innovations that would replace much of the need for the most morally repugnant factory farm and laboratory practices, and so allow the broadening of the term ‘needlessly’ in these first-stage laws. Such innovations could include:

  1. Procedures for testing on tissue cultures instead of live animals (already in use in much of Europe, and in Japan);
  2. Processes to make free-range organic farming economically competitive with factory farming (these could be greatly enabled by eliminating the agricultural subsidies that today go almost entirely to big agribusiness, or at least by making such subsidies available equally to organic and small family farms, so that there is a level playing field); and
  3. Invention of new organic, vegetable-based proteins with flavours, colours and consistency and nutritional value indistinguishable from animal foods (without genetic manufacturing or the use of petrochemicals, please), to ultimately render raising animals for food unnecessary.

As these new innovations occur, we could remove the economic objections to the ending of factory farming, laboratory and medical testing and other inhumane treatment of animals as part of commercial activities, by providing viable alternatives. These alternatives would also remove some of the moral objections to the ending of the use of animals in medical research, by rendering the use of live animals in such research unnecessary.

I’m not saying this will be easy. It will take a concerted effort by a lot of creative and motivated entrepreneurial businesses. But what better goal for a young entrepreneur with a scientific bent than to invent something that will enormously reduce the suffering of animals without adversely affecting the achievement of human ends that currently require such suffering?

Let’s be clear about one implication of what we’re talking about here: Ultimately, we will be reducing suffering to farmed animals by substantially eliminating these creatures, which are utterly dependent on humans for their well-being (or lack of it), from the planet. With very few exceptions (like foxes and mink) farmed animals could not and would not survive in the wild. The 70% of the arable land mass of Earth currently used to graze such animals would then go to other uses: either human uses (mostly urban sprawl) or semi-wilderness (increasing the planet’s biodiversity).

In Soybean’s discussion thread, there was absolutely no disagreement over the objective of reducing unnecessary animal suffering. We all seem to ‘get’ this as being a worthwhile end. It’s that word ‘rights’ that gets people up in arms, and that’s what the second stage, and achievement of the longer-term goal, is all about.

The second stage of this pragmatic approach to animal rights is to provide just two ‘rights’ for all sentient creatures on the planet: the right to self-determination (i.e. not to be treated as ‘property’ of humans) and the right to live in a healthy and sustainable ecosystem.

Animals are, under the law, either property (in which case they have no rights) or not (in which case they can have some rights). Until relatively recently in civilization’s history both women and slaves were considered ‘property’. As society became enlightened, laws were enacted in most countries under which both these human groups ceased to be property, and were given some or all of the same rights as other humans. The two basic rights, what might be called the Core Inalienable Rights, are the rights of self-determination and healthy survival that I describe above. They are consistent with both the laws of nature and the fundamental expressions of rights in many human charters (they even equate, roughly, with the right to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”.

Granting these two rights to all sentient species will be a much longer-term proposition, because to do so strikes at some fundamental economic and moral tenets of civilized man, tenets that have been around for thirty millennia, as long as civilization itself.

As I’ve described in an earlier post, books like Richard Manning’s Against the Grain explain the history of agriculture and how and why animals went from being free creatures (with essentially the same implicit rights as humans, in gatherer-hunter cultures) to being human ‘property’. These books also explain the evolution of land as ‘private property’ as human population soared with the advent of agriculture to the point that, for the first time, it became scarce. The only way we can extend the right to live in a healthy and sustainable ecosystem (in a broad sense, the right to life itself) to animals would be to do one or more of the following: (a) abolish the concept of private property entirely, (b) reduce it to apply only to small parts of the Earth’s surface, and allow the rest of the planet to return to near-wilderness state, or (c) so massively reduce human population that land ceases to be scarce and the whole need for private property goes away. My personal belief is that (a) and (b) are non-starters: The only way we will be able to give the rest of the creatures on this planet ‘the right to life’ would be if, as a result of a sharp drop in our own numbers, we no longer needed all the land that currently precludes us leaving it to other species. I’m not holding my breath. The current Sierra Club debate over immigration, which pits one set of progressive values (including animals’ right to life) against another (including our responsibility to look after all our fellow humans on the planet), shows how intractable this problem is.

And even if we could miraculously solve the economic challenges that preclude us giving animals a fair share of the planet’s resources in a reasonably livable state, we would still have to overcome the moral challenges. Even among progressives, there are many who challenge whether animals are sentient beings, capable of self-awareness, self-management, intelligent thought and deep emotion — as When Elephants Weep and other scholarly works have patiently and thoroughly demonstrated. But such science can take centuries to overcome religious and other moral dogma, which is why the term ‘animal rights’ stirs up such a stink while ‘animal welfare’ does not. It’s also the reason why farmers and labs so vehemently and irrationally deny that animals have self-awareness and feelings — how could they live with themselves if they acknowledged it? The comparison to slavery is entirely fair — abolitionists threatened not only the economic foundations but the moral foundations of America, which is why they fought a bloody civil war over it. The comparison to women’s rights is also entirely fair — equality for women is deeply troubling in many third world countries where they have always treated women as property. Imagine yourself as someone who had bought a slave or a wife, trying to reconcile your actions with a dawning realization that what you have done, and what you have been brought up to believe, is actually morally repugnant, ghastly, horribly wrong. This same illumination about animals will be a slow, agonizing process.

So I think, pragmatically, animal rights advocates should start by getting all progressive organizations to adopt, as a key plank in their platforms, the need for laws against the needless abuse of domesticated animals and against the subjecting of any sentient creature to extreme or sustained cruelty or suffering, and the desirability of finding innovative, economically viable alternatives to factory farming and the use of live animals in laboratory testing and medical research.

Giving animals ‘rights’ is a great ideal, but one our civilization has neither the economic capacity nor the moral will to grant, so there is no point yet in pushing this as part of the progressive agenda. And while a vegan lifestyle is a healthy and worthy personal life choice, it will not become a mainstream choice until it becomes an easy, affordable, and aesthetically preferable one. Innovation, not moral suasion, is the key to making it so in our lifetime.

The use of the wolf image is a reference to the decision last year of the government of Alaska to allow the resumption of the despicable practice of shooting wolves from airplanes, a practice that causes enormous suffering, and whose sole economic purpose is to increase the size of caribou and elk herds so hunters can pay for the privilege of killing the artificially-created excess.

EXTERMINISM, BY GLENN PARTON

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 11:09
Following is the first part of a new, previously-unpublished three-part essay about the implications of last year’s US election, written by Glenn Parton, best known for his eco-philosophic and psychological essays The Machine in our Heads and Humans in the Wilderness. The ideas in the essay are Glenn’s, not mine, and you can tell him what you think through the comment facility below, or e-mail him directly. I’ll add my two cents at the end of part three.

Exterminism, by Glenn Parton

The 2004 Election established a new stage of American Empire or Global Capitalism, beyond Fascism to what is best described as Exterminism, because the end of the Bush Republican agenda is not merely the conquest and exploitation of the entire world, but rather, The End Of The World or Armageddon, either by causing World War 3 or catastrophic ecological collapse. This agenda cannot be adequately explained in terms of selfishness, greed, or the endless pursuit of money. Something much more irrational and pathological is going on: there is mental illness in the White House, Congress, Courts, Pentagon, and various intelligence agencies such as the CIA, FBI and Homeland Security. If politically aware people do not stop the self-destructive insanity that has taken over the American political process, the course of world history, and the fate of the earth, then we might as well say that we want to die because that is definitely what is going to happen to all of us, sooner or later.

The Republican Party is getting away with terrible thingsófor examples, state-sponsored torture and murder, and massive poisoning of fish, meat, air, water, drugsóbecause tens of millions of psychologically damaged people are seeking, consciously and unconsciously, deliverance or release from personal suffering through political and social suicide. These people voted not only against their own economic interests, but also against their own survival, and the survival or biological interests of everyone. What is the underlying pathology that has pushed ìcraziesî such as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz to the top? If we donít understand this problem, and solve it, then the replacement of Rumsfeld and DeLay, and Bush and all his appointees is futile because many others will rise.

In a word, fear is propelling us toward global disaster, but in order to understand it we must distinguish between rational fear and irrational fear. If you are in Sudan or Iraq right now, then your fear is rational because of imminent danger. Irrational fear, on the other hand, is the fear of something that is not there, or a gross exaggeration of something that is there; it is a misinterpretation of reality. Another term for irrational fear is paranoia, and the inner mechanism of paranoia is projection (what is inside is experienced as coming from the outside). This means that paranoids are afraid of themselves. What is it that so many Americans fear about themselves?

The answer that this Election provides is that paranoid people fear their own erotic nature because they have adopted (through force) a false morality, an anti-sexual morality that persecutes and punishes them for expressing or even acknowledging this dimension of essential human nature. For two thousand years, Christianity has been trying to wipe out or deny the sexual nature of human beings, spreading sexual sickness across the land, and now many Americans have been made mentally ill by the accumulating effects of self-hatred to the point that they are ready to die, want to die, believe that they deserve to die.

Thanks to the ìgeniusî of Karl Rove and the Republican propaganda machine, the sexually sick have been politicized, republicanized, and neoconed. War and hate-propaganda appeals to those who have wounds that never heal because it offers them a Final Solution to their suffering. Not having the courage to improve their own miserable lives, many are drawn to the indirect and coded Republican strategy of social suicide, called the War On Terror, which is nothing but a detour to oneís own death via the death of everyone. The War On Terror must be understood, at its source, as a war against the true self, whose core is Eros, and it can only be won (in a morbid way) through Exterminism.

Not everyone in the GOP is sexually sick, some are ignorant, while others are too rich to care or think. Nor are sick people only in the Republican Party, or in the Churches, but the Party has become a gathering place for ideologues, with the sickest of the sick as leaders, who are determined to achieve the impossible goal of self-conquest at all costs. 11/2, 2004 (not 9/11, 2001) was a critical threshold in American history, the day that self-destructive people consolidated and expanded control over the lives of everyone.

In response, Democrats, Greens, Socialists, Communitarians, and everyone above Republicans on the evolutionary scale of consciousness should form a coalition of the politically awake with a dual strategy:  1) we need to develop and practice a politics of emergency (electoral politics, petitions, demonstrations, educational films, political conversations, and other acts of resistance) that stops, or significantly slows down, the Republican Party agenda, and 2) we need to articulate and practice a long-range visionary agenda that transcends Party politics.

The political issues that mobilized Republicans and independently sick Americansófor examples, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-sex education, anti-Hollywoodóhad to do, directly or indirectly, with opposing sexual freedom. Those with ìspines of tempered steelî (to quote Zell Miller) are threatened by the breakdown of ìtraditional family values,î with its rigid self-discipline and self-denial of sex, so they are escalating a cultural war against the natural self, but it will not work because the more a person represses sexual desire, the more it grows, distorting and twisting the resisting personality into madness. This Culture War has already organized itself into a Project for the New American Century, which is about suffering to death by means of our own Imperial Will.

With Republican self-loathers pulling the political and economic levers, life in America and elsewhere is going to get ugly fast. Be prepared to work harder and longer for less, for an ascetic culture with a vengeance, with no appeal or sympathetic ear in the corridors of power. Squeezing the joy out of life, reducing its quality, is the Republican plan for converting everyone to the worldview that human nature is ìseriously flawedî (as the patron saint of the neocons, Leo Strauss, said), or that the world is ìa dark and forbidding placeî (as the conservative columnist, George Will, said), leading eventually to the collective conclusion that life is not worth living. The evangelical spirit of capitalism, making the earth a living hell, is the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Apocalypse.

In sum, it was both fear and ìmoralityî that decided the outcome of this Election, or more precisely stated, it was the fear of sadistic morality, fear of a false value system, that is at war with the natural erotic self. No amount of rational argumentation, facts or evidence will influence people who are caught in the self-destructive eschatology of original sin, Atonement, and the Rapture. With nuclear weapons in America still on hair-trigger alert, launch-on-warning, there is real danger of a miscalculated, unauthorized nuclear war, but on a deeper level a nuclear or ecological holocaust has already been born in the deranged mind of Bush Americans, and if we ìstay the course,î then The End Of The World will not be an accident.

January 22, 2005

SHORT, THOUGHTFUL

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 12:26
dolighanmadcow
This weekend’s roundup to ponder, all short articles:

The NYT on the Environment: A recent short editorial at least acknowledges the extent of the problem. “As so often happens, the more we come to know about the life of any individual species, the better we understand how extensive the human impact on this planet really is.” It’s a start. Maybe, next, a daily column. And then a whole section?

Resource for Transplanted Professionals: Imnotfromhere is a website that helps people new to a town get their bearings and meet other newbies and locals. Laurie hosts a ton of local events in the Twin Cities area for ‘transplants’, and there are now chapters in Richmond and Milwaukee as well. Time on your hands? Want to meet new people? She’ll help you set one up in your town.

Takeoff on Consultants: The hilarious HuhCorp site spoofs the newspeak and hype of marketing and management consultants. If you’ve been one you’ll wince. Also politically incorrect. And click on the auto-generated Google ads to see just what they’re satirizing. Thanks to Incite by Design for the link.

Animal Welfare Organizer Needs Marketing Help: A new sculpting business based in Fergus Ontario is donating all its profits to animal rescue. The owner, Barry, also maintains a site for advice on animal adoption and lost-and-found pets. He is looking for advice on how to publicize what he does to raise more money for stray animals. He’s just set up a parallel site for US stray adoption and support. If you’re in marketing, or experienced in animal rescue, e-mail him with your suggestions. It’s for a great cause.

WHO Plans Genetically-Modified Smallpox: Allegedly for purposes of studying the smallpox virus to develop anti-virals in case of terrorist bio-attack, this has to be the most moronic idea since the invasion of Iraq. Despite previous ‘accidents’ with this virus, and despite the fact this virus has killed more humans than anything other agent, natural or man-made, in history, the WHO really believes they can do this ‘research’ safely. And since Bush was the guy who wanted to develop ‘mini-nukes’ to counter terrorism last term (whatever happened to that loony idea?) does anyone think he’ll say no?

Bush Expands Alaska Drilling Area: In the last push before attacking the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bush has approved exploration and drilling in the ecologically-sensitive (and critical for local biodiversity) northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska.

Cartoon from the local paper by the inimitable Tim Dolighan. In my recent post on Implausible Deniability, I mentioned that three cases of BSE (Mad Cow) have now been found in Canada, but in the US, which has larger stocks from the same sources, the same standards, but lower levels of inspection, there have been none. The cartoon shows I’m not the only one who finds this odd.

January 21, 2005

THE WISDOM OF CHILDREN AND A SELF-TEST ON VALUES

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 15:17
eldoradoWhen I was a kid in Winnipeg, it was something special to be allowed, during the oppressive summer nights (no air conditioning back then) to sleep in the basement. It was pretty spartan, because every couple of years after a heavy summer rain the sewers couldn’t handle the volume of water and basements would flood, so you didn’t put anything in the basement that you couldn’t afford to lose. Our basement had that cheap patterned “wood” paneling on the walls, and the floors had ‘indoor-outdoor’ carpeting (which we called ‘astroturf’) laid right on the concrete, which was cracked and uneven due to winter frost heave. The furniture included two somewhat ratty sofas that folded out into beds (‘chesterfields’), and the Zenith TV, black and white, which in the late fifties was a novelty, but not respectable enough to put upstairs.

You got the English and French CBC channels, and later the CTV private network, and a few years later again if you adjusted the rabbit ears just right you got a very grainy station from Pembina, North Dakota. I used to race home at lunchtime to watch Concentration, moderated by Hugh Downs, on that channel, where you had to match up squares from memory and if you did, they were taken off the board to reveal part of a rebus puzzle that you had to solve to win the prizes you’d matched up. It was followed by the original (black and white) Camouflage game, hosted by Don Morrow (this was 1961, and I was nine) where if you answered questions correctly part part of a jumble of lines disguising an outline picture of some everyday object was removed, and you had the chance to trace the object correctly in 10 seconds to win. I saved up for the ‘home game’ versions of both shows.

The wood paneling separated the room from the laundry room and the workshop where all my Dad’s tools were kept, and which later housed our first shower. The ‘basement room’ was curtained off from the stucco wall, and behind the curtain was storage. But just in front of the curtain lay my favourite toy — a linoleum mat printed with streets and houses that became the village where my imagination ran wild, and which was home to my prized collection of Matchbox Toys (miniature cars made in England of, I believe, solid lead, which probably accounts for at least part of my madness). I used to make up games by sectioning off the ‘roads’ on the lino with crayon, and have different cars race (controlled by a dice roll) to be first complete a designated route (with required stops e.g. ‘to deliver milk’). This was how my creative spark first found vent, and I am still enthralled with the much more sophisticated Playmobil and other ‘village’ sets to this day — as long as there is a playing surface with roads and houses of course.

I was a pretty sociable kid until adolescence hit, and we used to play a lot of games and sports outdoors (even at -40†), but my basement time was solo — just me and my ideas. My brother used to take the other fold-out sofa on the hot summer nights, but he was four years younger than I was, and moved in different circles. But at night we used to talk, or rather, I’d think out loud and he’d play along until he got bored or fell asleep. With cardboard and coloured pencils I had created a ‘dashboard’ for a space ship and tacked it up beside my pillow, so these night-time conversations were mostly role-plays in space, with each of us taking multiple roles (“now I’m the pilot and you’re the engineer”). At first, my dashboards got more sophisticated so I could control the ‘ship’ without moving, but later I simplified it, reasoning “Why have a whole bunch of buttons when you just need one very smart one”. This was in the days before computers. I was of course delighted years later when Star Trek (to which I quickly became addicted) introduced the ‘replicator’ that did just what my one-button bedside dashboard did.

By the standards of the day we weren’t poor, and my ambitions for life were modest. I wanted to travel, all over the world and into space, but I never had material aspirations and if there was any jealousy or envy over possessions among our circle, I wasn’t aware of it. I had no intention of marrying, since that would “tie me down”, and I remember when the series Run for your Life came out five years later (when I was fourteen), featuring Ben Gazzara as a man who discovers he only has a few months to live and spends it traveling all over the planet and enchanting every woman he meets with his bravado and charm, this became my role model. By then I was suffering the anguish of early teenage years, my naive self-esteem shattered by the strange new rituals of my peers, my face ravaged by acne, and my ego and social stature further ruined by my horrendous lack of coordination (an inability to learn how to swim, dance, or properly play a musical instrument). Although I longed for popularity, I never longed for fame or fortune (the game Careers was a hit in those days, and in it you were required to gather a minimum of fame, fortune and happiness by pursuing various careers, but the game seemed kind of silly to me — if you only wanted happiness, why bother pursuing a career at all?)

Well, if you;re still reading, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all this. Here’s my point: In my own case, my ambitions in life were set pretty early, and they were (space exploration plans notwithstanding) pretty modest. At various times in my life I have achieved some measure of fame and financial success, but I was always a bit apologetic about them, because I didn’t aspire to them and they never seemed to come to those who wanted them most. I only wanted to be happy, and to learn everything that could be learned. Those personal values have never really changed.

Richard Douthwaite, in his wonderful layman’s book on progressive economics The Growth Illusion, cites a 1970s British survey ranking what participants said were the things that represent and increase quality of life and happiness. Here’s the list in order of ranking:

  1. Good family and home life
  2. General contentment
  3. Financial security and affordability
  4. High standard of living and consumption
  5. Meaningful social values
  6. Personal beliefs
  7. Strong and multiple social relationships
  8. Quality of housing
  9. Quality of health
  10. Quality of work
  11. Personal freedoms
  12. Leisure time and travel
  13. Proximity to natural environment
  14. Quality education
  15. Progress relative to other times and places
  16. Possessions and personal wealth
  17. Freedom from stress
  18. Equality and justice

Respondents were able to check as many answers as they wanted, so there is no ‘vote splitting’ to bias these results. My guess is that thirty years later the answers wouldn’t have changed much, and that for most of us our personal ranking hasn’t changed much since childhood either. We can only guess at why respondents gave such different scores to #2 and #17, and to #4 and #16, but it seems clear that for most people the key to happiness is social rather than economic. Why then do so many of us devote so much of our lives to achieving economic goals? Is it because most of us think we’ve already achieved the social goals? Or is because we’ve deluded ourselves into believing we have more control over the economic goals, and that our social goals will (or won’t) be achieved regardless of our investment in reaching them? Or is it because we have a nagging fear that if we don’t devote most of our waking hours to achieving economic goals (even though we don’t think they’re that important in and of themselves), we will become economic failures, and that economic failure will jeopardize our achievement of our social goals as well?

I suspect, and perhaps I’m guilty of judging other people by myself here, that most of us look at what our peers and our role models have done and what our parents have done and then do what we do because we really don’t know what else to do, how to live any differently. The harried, hierarchical, partly-fulfilling and partly-anxious way we go about our lives is the only way we know to live. We don’t see any credible alternative models presented in schools, or on television. So although there is some fear involved (just look at the face of anyone who has just passed a homeless person if you don’t believe me), I think most of us do what we do, haplessly contributing to our ruinous and unsustainable economy, largely because no one has shown us any alternatives. We have unwittingly come to believe that there is no choice, and as a result our culture has become monolithic. Our instinctive rankling at being told this is what we must do, this is how we must live, is discharged by the vendors of consumer products who give us astonishing choice when it comes to things that (if you believe the above list) don’t really matter. We are seduced by this comforting deception, and before we know it we are part of the machine, we are addicted to consumption and to the debt that allows us to finance yet more consumption.

The list itself is rigged, ‘framed’, semantically aligned with the objectives of passivity and enslavement of economic man in pursuit of perpetual growth. Family and home are a respite, a refuge from the daily grind, the prison of our jobs. The word ‘community’ is not even mentioned in the survey. Housing and health are the carrots we are perpetually chasing and never quite catching — we work long, hard hours because without toil we can not be sure, even in this world of staggering abundance, that we won’t suddenly be without housing, health, and other necessities of life. No one has ever taught us, or showed us, that there is, or was once and could and should be again a way to achieve all of the above ‘quality of life’ ends (except #4 and #16), and many other important ends not listed in the survey, without participating in our growth-and-consumption-and-debt economy. This is why we need to create Model Intentional Communities.

Give yourself this self-test of your definition of quality of life, and of your personal values:

  1. Rate on a scale of 1-10 how important each of the eighteen factors listed above is to human quality of life.
  2. Now go back and ask yourself which are ‘ends’ in themselves, and which are primarily ‘means to ends’, in other words, which do you think are important only because you perceive them to be necessary to achieve other factors that are important in and of themselves. Be a reckless idealist for a minute, pretend these ‘means to ends’ factors are not necessary to achieve those other factors, and strike them off the list. For this exercise, we’re only interested in the ends.
  3. Next, ask yourself what’s missing from the list. Imagine a perfect world, like the one with Star Trek’s replicator (“Tea, Earl Grey. Hot. Black. Thank you computer”). Pretend you’re a child. Dream big. Add and rate the additional factors you come up with.
  4. Now list the five factors you have rated highest. For each of those five factors, grade yourself on your achievement at this point in your life of these factors.
  5. I would suggest the average grade you give yourself in step 4 represents the true quality of your own life. I’ll also guess, just to be mischievous, that this average grade isn’t as high as you might have rated your quality of life in the ‘real’ world, or as high as others would rate your quality of life.

Of course the final step is to ask yourself what changes you need to make to improve your self-scores. And, more importantly, what changes we need to make, all of us, together, to improve everyone’s scores. I’m guessing that a lot of those changes will be impossible in the current economy, but that if we built a new economy, focused on sustainability and egalitarianism and well-being, not only would they be possible, they’d be easy, even inevitable.

I’ll share my answers to the above self-test in a couple of days. I’d be delighted to hear your answers, and especially to see the factors you added in step 3. Who knows, we might be on a road to building a new, collective value system for the next human culture.

January 20, 2005

THREE RECIPES FOR SMASHING CORPORATISM

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 14:31
thetakeThe world finally seems to be waking up to the fact that corporatism — the bald and amoral use of power and wealth to control political decision-making, eliminate competition and increase profits no matter what the social and environmental cost — is the scourge of modern society. Corporatists use globalization as a mechanism for increasing their power and profits, the consequences of which are mostly negative to third world countries that misconstrue imperialist expansion as partnership until it’s too late. And corporatists use every political machination at their disposal to interfere with the market, from creating oligopolies that gouge consumers to preemptively suing innovators and entrepreneurs to intimidate them from entering their markets, to using the IMF and other global economic bodies under their control to strong-arm poor, struggling countries into giving the corporatists their land and their resources for a pittance, and, with the complicity of weak and corruptible local governments, allowing the corporatists to ravage and pollute their land and waters and disgracefully exploit local workers. When corporatists press the governments beholden to them to sign laughably-named ‘free’ trade agreements like NAFTA and MAI, they know that these agreements are only ‘free’ for the corporatists — for the people and the land they exploit, these agreements are anything but ‘free’. And on top of it all, taxpayers are robbed by the corporatists’ political stooges to pay monstrous and market-deforming subsidies back to the corporatists, which are nothing less than kickbacks for political campaign contributions and theft from taxpayers.

Progressives have no quibble with true capitalism or true, measured trade liberalization, yet the incoherent and largely corporatist-owned media have labeled anti-corporatists as anti-capitalists, anti-free-marketers, anti-trade and, of course, as ‘terrorists’. And the dumbed-down citizens, at least in North America, no longer learn the lessons of history and economics that could let them see corporatists and their actions and deceptions for what they truly are — ruthlessly and aggressively anti-democracy, pro-oligopoly, anti-labour, anti-environment, anti-innovation, anti-entrepreneurship, anti-consumer and anti-citizen.

In the past year, three books have painstakingly laid out the case against today’s corporatism run amok, and each has provided a recipe to bring this Frankenstein monster back under the control of the people, whose broad interests corporations were originally designed to serve. All of them build on the courageous work of David Korten (When Corporations Rule the World), Charles Derber (People Before Profit), Thom Hartmann (Unequal Protection) and others who have explained both the terrible history and current unbridled litany of ills of corporatism. But these three new books go further and tell us specifically how to put the tyrannical genie back in the bottle.

I’ve already reviewed Joel Bakan’s book (and film) The Corporation. which explains the psychopathy that has been imbued unwittingly in corporations by making them amoral, responsible only to their majority shareholders, and giving them nearly unlimited statutory power and rights (more than we give individuals, in fact). My review laid out Bakan’s 13-point plan and my seven additional suggestions for ending corporatism.

Bakan is a Canadian, but his recommendations consider American and European corporation laws and charters as well. A second, more recent book, The People’s Business, by Lee Drutman and Charlie Cray of Nader’s Citizen Works Corporate Reform Commission, covers much the same territory in a more leisurely and substantial way, and is focused on the US legal system for chartering and controlling corporations. The Commission is made up of of people with astonishing progressive credentials (Herman Daly, Charles Derber, Hazel Henderson, David Korten, Ted Nace (Gangs of America), Anita Roddick, Nader himself and a host of others). It’s conclusions and recommendations are virtually identical to Bakan’s, though they are more thoroughly explained and justified but not as succinctly laid out. Both are specifically aimed at re-engineering corporations to do what they were historically created to do.

Derber has a new book as well, peculiarly named Regime Change Begins at Home. I say peculiarly because it’s not really about Bush or Republicans at all, but rather, as its more apt subtitle Freeing America from Corporate Rule suggests, about corporatism. Derber’s vision for change is a bit more expansive than Bakan’s or Citizen Works’, and he lays it out as follows in the final section of the book:

  1. Take down the 5 pillars of the third Corporate Regime: Eliminating corporations’ anti-democratic features, ending corporate interference in politics, restoring health, education and worker protections to New Deal levels, ending imperialist adventures, and removing the we’re the market, we can do no wrong corporate mystique. Earlier in the book he’s explained that twice before in US history corporatism has been out of control, and on those occasions, with huge effort, it was reined in.
  2. Build a new democracy: Take back control of business, media, education, the health system, and the political system and parties from corporations:
    • Rewrite corporate charters to ensure corporations serve the public rather than vice versa.
    • Strip corporations of constitutional rights that belong only to individual citizens.
    • Get corporations out of politics.
    • Prohibit corporate involvement in education, health, the media and the military.
    • Reform corporate globalization by taxing speculation, mandating global corporate codes of conduct, protect labour and environmental standards in trade agreements, offer debt relief to poor nations, and create new democratically-elected trade and financing authorities.
    • Pass laws to guarantee all Americans food housing, medical care, education, jobs, and a living wage.
    • Renounce imperialism and unilateral wars in favour of collective security
    • Restore and entrench civil liberties

Derber believes these massive changes are possible, because there is a history of successfully overcoming corporatist excesses, because it’s in most Americans’ self-interest (even if they don’t yet realize it), because the US grassroots culture and tradition supports and demands it, and because it is inclusive, consistent with both progressive and conservative values.

So now we have three visions, three re-tellings of the terrible lessons of history about corporatist excess and how it was overcome, and three recipes for overcoming it again now. What’s interesting is that despite the differences in style, format, and effusiveness, they’re really all saying the same things: The people must come to understand what corporatism is, the damage that it is doing, and the successes of dealing with it in its previous manifestations, and use that knowledge to reform the legal and political systems to rein in corporatism and redirect corporations to do what they are good at (raising capital) and to stop doing all the self-serving, destructive and ultimately psychopathic things they are doing today.

For the skeptics who think it cannot be done, I recommend you read The People’s Business or Regime Change Begins at Home, specifically the sections that describe the ravages of corporatism in the past, and the remarkable job the people did, grassroots style, to end it. Then once you’re convinced reform is possible, read The Corporation for the succinct, point-by-point process for doing it.

Image from Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s film The Take.

January 19, 2005

IMPLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY: LA LA LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEEEEAR YOU!

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 15:47
LaLaLaWhat’s the first thing you do when you hear, or think you are about to hear, bad news? You go into denial mode. “It can’t be. You must be mistaken. I don’t want to listen to this. Change the channel. Why are you (the messenger) doing this to me?”

It’s human nature to react this way. We are programmed to change s-l-o-w-l-y.

Prior to the collapse of Enron (and any of the other spectacular recent corporate frauds) there was a ton of hints that something was very wrong. The auditors, Arthur Andersen, must have been virtually tripping over it. But this was an American icon, the golden boy of the new economy, so they ignored the clues. They didn’t want to believe them. Neither did the directors or the analysts who went on bragging about and recommending the company to the bitter end. There’s now a new law, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, that prescribes exactly what auditors must do to try to unearth evidence of this type and follow up when they find it. Will it prevent more Enrons? Maybe. If the evidence is overwhelming enough to counter human nature to deny and discount bad news. I wouldn’t bet on it.

AIDS, Mad Cow, the Avian Flu virus, and other epidemics of our time all caught hold largely because of our reticence to believe there was a problem. We didn’t want to know. In some African countries AIDS continues to spiral out of control because governments refuse to believe the causes of it could be happening in their country. “Not happening here.”

When we began to realize that our pollution was threatening the ecological stability of our planet and threatening Earth with catastrophic global warming, we were just waiting for the deniers* to show up and tell us not to worry, everything was all right. Opportunists like Bjorn Lomborg** jumped into the fray, with the support of and later in the pay of the corporations causing much of the pollution, to provide ‘evidence’ that if we just go on doing what we’re doing and think good thoughts, the problem, if there is one, will go away by itself. The overwhelming evidence that Lomborg is dead wrong has been largely ignored, notably by the US Presnit whose news is ‘filtered’ so he only hears what he wants to hear, but as well by the corporate establishment and their media handmaidens like the WSJ and the Economist. We just don’t want to hear the ‘bad news’. “Make it go away!”

There is a long tradition for this kind of ostrich behaviour. During World War II both the British, initially, and for even longer the Americans, simply refused to believe that Hitler planned to conquer the whole world militarily. And throughout the war and to this very day millions, perhaps billions, still refuse to believe the atrocities and death toll of the Nazi concentration camps. “It couldn’t have happened. Not that many. Not like that”. We just don’t want to believe humans could treat other humans that way. Likewise, we refused to believe the treatment by Stalin and Mao of their own people could have caused tens of millions of deaths and suffering unprecedented in human history. And as recently as 1994 we refused to believe that humans could be so deranged in one of the world’s worst ecological disaster zones, Rwanda, that in a few short days 800,000 of them would be massacred by their neighbours, with machetes. It just couldn’t happen. So we denied the evidence and stood by and let it happen.

Canada has just reported its third case of Mad Cow. The reactions were swift and immediate: Denial that there was any kind of systemic problem. “It’s an isolated incident. One guy got sloppy”. But it turns out the conditions were and still are ripe for a full blown epidemic of Mad Cow in Canada, because, unlike Europe, which learned its lesson the hard way, Canada still allows farmed animals to be fed the entrails and waste products of other farmed animals susceptible to the prions that cause BSE (Mad Cow). When this came out, the immediate response was predictable: An expert in animal epidemiology said that US standards are the same as Canada’s, sources of stock are the same, and inspection standards there are even lower, so it’s “virtually certain” that “isolated” cases of BSE are present in US herds as well, just not detected. An American farmer interviewed said “No, it couldn’t happen here.” So if the Americans are ignoring a ticking time bomb (and conveniently using the Canadian cases as a means to protect their domestic cattle industry from Canadian competition) why shouldn’t Canadians?

Surveys indicate that on average about one in ten women and children is routinely physically or sexually abused, one in five suffers such abuse at some point in their lives, and many more suffer psychological abuse, a subtler but just as damaging form of torture, with lasting traumatic effects. But most of us simply refuse to believe it is so widespread, or that it is going on in our own neighbourhoods. “I don’t believe it! I would never have thought him capable of that. He always struck me as such a nice person”. So we don’t clamp down on, or try to treat, any except the most extreme abusers. We don’t have animal anti-cruelty laws that prevent and allow prosecution of the staggering horrors perpetrated by some farmers and most factory farms. We don’t even have legislation that will force many deadbeat parents to provide for children they bore. Why not? Because if we passed laws on these things, we’d have to admit there was a problem. And in all of these areas, there’s always a couple of deniers to allow us to keep our head buried in the sand, where we can’t hear the screams.

Many of us flinch when we see the fundraising ads for children living in poverty and destitution in the third world. We change the channel. We know this happens but we don’t want to know, we don’t want to see the gory details. Then we’d be sick. Then we’d have to do something. Learned helplessness. There is a reason why you haven’t seen many of the dead bodies, most of them civilians, in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Darfur, or in any of a hundred countries living with perpetual desperation, crisis, and interminable suffering. It’s not because it’s illegal, or too expensive, to get the photos. It’s because we, the customers, don’t want to see them. Someone told me the other day that the most successful charity fundraising campaigns show children laughing. The ‘after’ pictures we can bear. Just don’t show us any of the ‘before’ shots.

In America, and in many third world countries, there is a move afoot to teach creationism in schools. It doesn’t matter that it’s junk science, that it’s not only implausible, it’s factually impossible, and contrary to mountains of evidence. People want to believe in it. They don’t want to learn that we’re evolved from, undifferentiable from, every other species on the planet and every bit as inextricably a part of the ecosystem as the birds and the bees. Because if they believe that then that means they’re responsible for all these creatures, and for the mess of our planet, and it means they aren’t God’s chosen, separate, able to be forgiven and saved. And it means there will be no second coming, no Rapture, no being swept up by some higher power who can get us out of this mess. We don’t want to hear that. Bad news. “La, la, la, la, la, la I can’t heeear you!”

The term ‘plausible deniability’ stems from the Reagan era. It means allowing executives/presidents to be able to deny knowledge of illegal and immoral acts by deliberately blocking communication of troubling information from reaching them. The CIA used it so Reagan could deny knowledge of Iran/Contra. Bush and his lieutenants have been similarly, deliberately, protected from hearing about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and now probably the intelligence-gathering to support the invasion of Iran, so they can plausibly deny knowledge of them. This practice is so effective that it has allowed confirmation of an Attorney General who has expressed contempt for the Geneva Convention and indirectly authorized its violation in the torture of prisoners, because although he made it possible, he was not told how the lower-downs acted upon it. He has, thinly, plausible deniability. “I didn’t mean that they should so that! No one told me about that happening! It must be an isolated incident”. And we go along, because we don’t want to hear the really bad news.

I used to bridle when activists told me that my passivity, my lack of effort to find out the gruesome truth, made me complicit in all the crimes and catastrophes listed above. My reply was always to say that there’s no point in dwelling on bad news if there’s nothing I can do about it. It would only make me upset. I still respect that point of view, and for that reason I very rarely do write-ups or show pictures of atrocities against people or animals on these pages (some readers have told me, in fact, that they would stop reading if I did), and I try to temper my whining with some practical, easy steps we can all take to make things better. What’s the harm in being seduced by false comforts if it has no impact on our, or anyone else’s, lives?

Well, exactly. That’s the ultimate bad news we don’t want to hear: That if we were willing to give up everything, risk everything, drop everything we’re doing, radically and immediately change our life style, agree not to do some things we really want to do (have another child, or buy that house we’ve been saving for) it would have an impact. We could, if we all acted fast, collectively, now, change the world, end poverty and suffering and global warming and crime and restore biodiversity and create a sustainable and harmonious world. But we don’t want to hear that news either. Like the Ten Years After Lyrics say: “I’d love to change the world but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you”. So we find solace in the belief that it’s all bigger than us, that it would be impossible to coordinate such an effort, that most people don’t know and don’t care and so wouldn’t participate so it wouldn’t work, that the powers that be wouldn’t allow it, and mostly that it’s really not that bad, is it?

I’m sorry, dear reader. You didn’t want to hear that. Who the fuck am I sitting here in my easy chair doing nothing more than anyone else and telling people that they should be doing something drastic? What kind of hypocrite am I to be trying to deprive you of your plausible deniability that your inaction and your unawareness of how bad it really is, is complicit in all the horrors going on in this world, and the much worse horrors that our inaction will doom our children and our children’s children to? This idiot Chicken Little Pollard is running around telling us the sky is falling, but we’ve read the fable, and everything turns out just fine. Somebody shut that guy up.

I’m no leader. I learned that long ago. I haven’t the charisma, or the articulateness for that job. I’m a coward, with insufficient courage to go with my convictions.  GI Gurdjieff said that civilized man lives in a dream, and needs to learn, through a very difficult process, how to awaken and live in the real world. You know that state when you first wake up in the morning, especially if it’s really cold outside, and you know you have to get up but you don’t want to, you kind of go into denial, pretending it must be Saturday, or that you’re still dreaming and when you really wake up everything will be warm and beautiful and peaceful? Well I think that’s where I am. I’m just awake enough to know I have to get up and do something, something important, but not yet awake enough to know what that is, or who I need to do it with, and I’m still kinda hoping someone else will call and say “Don’t worry, it’s done, go back to sleep.” But now I’m a little more awake than I was, enough to be aware of the fact that something must be done, and I can’t depend on others to do it for me. And, for the first time, my denials of that imperative, that need for action, have become implausible. And those of us who care enough to have to do something are calling each other up, in our half-awake state, making their denials implausible too.

But wait. It’s really not that bad, is it? Just let me lie here another five minutes, OK?

.

* The words ‘deniability’ and ‘denier’ do not appear in most dictionaries (in fact ‘denier’ does appear, but only as a measure of the thickness of cloth). And while there is only one reasonable spelling for ‘deniability’, I have occasionally used ‘denyer’ rather than the confusing ‘denier’, and that spelling is consistent with other extensions of English root words (e.g. fryer, flyer). But the ultimate arbiter of new spellings is the people, and through Google they have spoken, and voted for ‘denier’ as the spelling of one who denies.

** One reader has taken me to task for ridiculing Bjorn Lomborg without addressing his arguments. Those who think this charlatan’s nonsense needs to be refuted should read this, this, or this. There’s about 300 pages of detailed refutations by dozens of qualified, award-winning scientists (neither of which Lomborg is). I consider Lomborg’s arguments to be in the same class as Zundel’s.

Cartoon from the latest Tom Terrific strip This Modern World.

January 18, 2005

TOM AND KENNY’S CRAZY WISDOM

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 12:46
hangedmanI‘ve been chatting back and forth with Kenny Ausubel, founder of Bioneers, whose amazing essay The Empire Strikes Out I posted last year. The important messages of this essay are:
  • Historically, the disintegration of cultures occurs quickly, just after they peak
  • The places in the world with the worst environmental crises are, not coincidentally, also the places with the most poverty, illness, and violence (“terrorism”)
  • We know the solution: We need an immediate global plan of clean, renewable energy, and the re-design and rebuilding of our decaying infrastructures and transportation systems; transition to an ecological agriculture that produces healthy, nutritious food in regionalized foodsheds — restores the land, air and water — and revives rural economies thriving with small and medium-sized farms; and a just legal system that puts human and environmental rights above corporate rights. All of these are attainable if we have the political will.

Kenny wanted to bring to environmental readers’ attention two other essays he’s written:

  • The 21st Century Blues — about the enormous body of scientific evidence of the damage we have done to our ecosystems and the historical consequences of such damage, and the unwillingness of politicians to face the facts or even exercise precaution.
  • The Long Way Home — on the suppression of science in the US for political and ideological ends, and the near-theological acceptance of “a dog-eat-dog world of extreme inequality” and corporate economic globalization as the solution to all the world’s problems.

Our discussion has been about Kenny’s optimism. Although my instincts tell me his optimism is unwarranted, I respect enormously that he’s on the front lines of the battle to save us all from civilization, and I’m just reporting from a distance. I mentioned in an earlier post on the Green Manifesto that historically the most knowledgeable people in society are also its most pessimistic, so I wanted to know how he has remained at once relentlessly informed and relentlessly upbeat. His answer was to refer me to an article from last September’s Harper’s, In Defiance of Gravity, by fiction author Tom Robbins, the guy I keep quoting for his eternal quest for the answer to how to make love last.

In that article, Robbins describes his personal experiences with near-suicidal depression, and how he was able to pull himself back from the brink of what he calls Weltschmerz (What a wonderful word! — per dictionary.com it means “Sadness over the evils of the world, especially as an expression of romantic pessimism.”) The trick was to rediscover playfulness, or what the Tibetan Buddhists call Crazy Wisdom. Robbins says it is “the wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one’s gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything“. That’s a very generous reading of the Tibetan Buddhists’ approach, which, from my research, seems to be more about teaching by entertaining and distracting the students from linear thought through crazy behaviour. I like Robbins’ literary license of the term better, because to me it makes better intuitive sense. Our Western approach to struggle and adversity is to bear down and ‘work through it’, and that is what we do, all of us who have not stopped paying attention to the mountains of evidence that this culture is truly terrible and the damage it is doing is catastrophic and unnecessary. It is not surprising that Weltschmerz is a German word. Our symbol is the Hanged Man in the Tarot deck, who symbolizes self-sacrifice, and perhaps the seeing of the world as totally turned upside down. I had adopted him as my own, since he showed up in all three Tarot readings I have had in my life.

tarotfoolBut the Tarot deck has another interesting character in it, the Fool or Jester. Here’s what an Australian writer says about him (or her?):

The archetype of the wise Fool is one that is found in many cultures in all parts of the world. His lack of experience in the ways of society is seen on the surface to be a disadvantage, but in reality it ensures that his mind is not closed to unusual experiences that are denied to ordinary men.

He is the vagabond who exists on the fringe or organized life, going his own way, ignoring the rules and taboos with which men seek to contain him. He is the madman who carries within him the seeds of genius, the one who is despised by society yet who is the catalyst which will transform that society.

The Fool is the Green Man, the harbinger of a new cycle of existence, the herald of new life and fresh beginnings. He can be seen as the innocent spirit about to embark on physical incarnation; the young child who has yet to learn of the perils of the world; or as the seeker after enlightenment chasing the elusive butterfly of intuition in the hope that it will lead to the mysteries.

Like the Court Jester, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the madness of the Fool is part deceit, part misinterpretation. As in Tibet, the craziness is a mechanism to reframe and make her underlying knowledge more palatable. But perhaps, too, it is a defence mechanism, a way of coping with too much terrible knowledge.

Robbins says the epitome of Crazy Wisdom is the cat. I have seen cats of all ages, cats of amazing wisdom and style who otherwise show themselves to be cunning and astonishingly self-sufficient, chase a piece of string dragged by a child around the house for an hour or more, indefatigably and with enormous concentration, creativity and energy. What is the purpose of this unexpected playfulness? Is this the cat’s way of discharging the tension and anxiety that preoccupies her more sombre and sober moments? Is it her way of teaching the child (or the adult, since I get great pleasure from such games, until usually some intrigued child coaxes the string away from me to learn more about this magic trick) important lessons about instinct, about reflexes, about strategy, about the need for play, and a hundred other lessons we are too besotted with WeltSchmertz to appreciate?

Kenny and Tom are on to something here. If we really want to capture the attention of the world and teach them what needs to be done, and soon, to save us from catastrophe, might we be better to act The Fool than The Hanged Man? No, not just act the fool, but be the fool. We might in fact find the costume fits us better anyway. And not only will this amuse our comrades and possibly beguile those that don’t yet understand, it might also make our own lives much less painful, less sorrowful.

Is it insane to resolve to behave in a playful and joyful way even when you know, deep inside, the world is horrendously misdirected and filled with unnecessary hardship and anguish? Well, maybe. But they don’t call her The Fool for nothing.

January 17, 2005

CRITICAL LIFE SKILLS: LEARNING TO LEARN

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 13:45
CriticalLifeSkills
Modern Western education teaches us collectively, and then kicks us out to beg for a job where we will work, for the most part, individually. No wonder this crazy system, which gets it exactly backwards, is so inefficient and dysfunctional. What if we were to invent an intelligent system, one which recognized that we learn in unique and individual ways. What would it look like?

In an earlier article, I described the cognitive experts’ theory of how we learn: We take in information through our senses, at least when we’re paying attention. Then we process this information through our personal mental models or ‘frames’, coded right into the neurons of our brains, kicking out any concepts that don’t fit the frames and any references we don’t understand. Next, we store the filtered, processed, regurgitated, parsed ‘learnings’ in our ‘working memory’, the brain’s RAM, where they continue to be molded, considered, and amended until we have essentially ‘decided what they mean’. Then they get filed away in long-term memory, to be accessed and extracted if and when they are ever needed again, or forgotten if they are not.

Picture a teacher in a classroom telling 20 students about, say, monarch butteflies. Because the learning process is so individual, the twenty students will end up with twenty very different conceptions of what the relevant information is and what it means. If you don’t believe me, debrief with a bunch of people who have just attended a presentation — you’ll be astounded at the different perceptions you’ll hear. The best way to convey information is to do it in a way that can be self-paced and immediately tested, by prompting participants to articulate the learnings in ways that make sense to them, to challenge and discuss them, and to apply them in a useful context. Telling stories also helps the learner to grasp the concepts in more concrete and memorable terms. Good teachers, of course, try to compensate both for the lack of context in the sterile classroom (using visual aids) and the differences in the way we internalize information (by discussion and exercises), but teaching-by-telling, in a classroom, is a hopelessly dysfunctional way to impart both information and skills.

There is a reason why ‘on the job’ training has such an excellent reputation. It provides an immediate context that makes learning easier. It provides an immediate chance to practice or apply what has been learned. And it provides one-on-one coaching for the many aspects of learning that may require iterative reinforcement, and a chance to ask questions. It’s especially valuable when what is to be learned is a skill, not information.

Ideally, then, education should not be ‘taught’, but instead illustrated, demonstrated, self-taught by doing, evoked through discussion and questioning, in an interactive, iterative, and personal way that will accommodate different learning styles and frames. Ideally, too, it should take place in a location where it can be learned ‘live’ and immediately applied in an appropriate context. That means not in a school.

The map above was developed by reviewing a variety of school, university and applied curricula, and considering how they might be applied in three different contexts: making a living, deciding where and with whom to make a life, and gardening. It lists six main fields of information about the world that would provide useful knowledge to do this work, eight core skills that would be useful to apply to this work, and two sets of applied skills or competencies that integrate the eight core skills.

How might these be crafted into a curriculum without ‘teachers’ and without walls, a curriculum that could replace the boring and impractical curricula that are taught in most schools and universities today?

The best way to explain this is to describe a day in the life of a ‘student’ in, say, her late teens. Let’s suppose our student, Kim, is looking to be a musician, a writer, or a veterinarian. How might she acquire the 16 critical learnings in the above map, in a way that also integrates the technical learnings of music, language and medicine she needs for her chosen work?
InfoProcess
I described in an earlier post the (up to) 12 steps involved in the creative problem-solving process. The chart at right simplifies this process. Whenever we face problems we draw on three resources: The information we have acquired (“know-what”), the skills we have acquired (“know-how”) and the assistance of others through conversation, collaboration and/or canvassing (“know-who”).

Our success, and the quality of the solutions we come up with, is a function of the quality of these three inputs, and our ability to apply them effectively. For Kim, the problems, the context we want her to use to learn and practice applying knowledge and skills, is that of her three chosen fields of endeavor, music, language and medicine. So suppose one of the information modules that Kim has to complete (part of the third field of information, The Economic System) is The History of Agriculture, with Richard Manning’s Against the Grain as a suggested reading. It might be paired up with the second of the core skills, Critical Thinking. And suppose the chosen application for these learnings is Animal Nutrition, related to Kim’s interest in veterinary medicine. So her assignment for the next two days is to do the History of Agriculture reading, and the self-study on Critical Thinking, to call on the people in her self-compiled Animal Nutrition resource list (which would include other people also studying Animal Nutrition, and some veterinarians, and some experts, and some potential customers, people with animals), and to bring all of that information, skills, and people help to bear to address some specific assigned problems in Animal Nutrition. From those people, and in applying what she’s learned, Kim also picks up what she needs to know of the technical learnings of veterinary medicine.

See how this could work? It meets all of the criteria in the pink coloured box above. It entails no scheduled classes and requires no bricks-and-mortar buildings. Integrated, contextual learning. And what’s the chance Kim’s going to be bored doing this?

Let’s try a couple more examples. From the sixth field of information (Arts, Science & Technology) the information module is Acoustics, paired up with the fourth of the core skills Attention Skills: Making ‘Sense’ of the World (learning to listen not only to music but to bird songs and train whistles), and the chosen application is Composing Harmony. The resources could include scientists, musicians, musicologists, experts in meditation, engineers in recording studios, and, of course, other students of music.

Or, from the fifth field of information (Human Nature) the information module is Negotiation & Conflict Resolution, paired up with the sixth (Collaboration & Collective Wisdom) and eighth (Story-Telling) core skills, and the chosen application is Writing About Making Love Last. The resources could include negotiators, teaming consultants, James Surowiecki, Thomas King, Tom Robbins and other successful writers, and other student writers.

This approach turns education on its head, and centres it on the student instead of the teacher and on learning instead of teaching. There would be no need for what we now call ‘teachers’ with this system. Instead, we would need learning facilitators, and personalized curriculum developers to organize and coordinate the resources (information, self-directed learning materials, lists of people to talk to, and appropriate ‘pairing’ of the information modules, the core skills and competencies, and the people in the community who can provide context in which to learn them). Kind of like bibliographers, connectors and coaches rolled into one. Giving each student a personalized ‘map’ of what to learn and where to find the resources, and then leaving them to their own resources to go out into the great wide world and learn.

That’s my model for education. To me it seems inclusive, flexible, engaging, and yet eminently practical. It is participatory, both in the way it requires students to practice what they’re learning, and in its outreach to the community. And with the money we would save on school buildings and administrators we might even be able to pay Messrs Manning, Surowiecki, King, Robbins and millions of other writers, doctors, musicians, teachers and experts to spend some of their time mentoring the next generation.

Or is my vision clouded by my own mental models, my own instinctive and perhaps naive belief that motivated young people will learn on their own, their own way, and need only a gentle framework and some occasional coaching from someone who will listen to them, instead if teaching them, in order to make a living for themselves and those they love, joyously, in our brave new world?

January 16, 2005

THE TEN MOST IMPORTANT IDEAS OF 2004: BLOGS AND THE INTERNET

Filed under: Using Weblogs and Technology — Dave Pollard @ 18:55
InfoFlows1. The Blog is a Journal, and Online Journalism is Our Game: ‘Journal’ is a very inclusive term, and broadly means ‘daily writings’, and journalists are therefore those who write (or photograph) daily. A diary is a journal, and so is a distinguished medical publication (though the latter is often a monthly, and hence more accurately an anthology or review). So everyone from the author of minutiae of a teenager’s life written for a handful of friends, to a prolific daily poster of articles read by thousands, is an online journalist. That’s what blogging is, and to attempt to categorize it or restrict it or define it more narrowly is to miss the point. Our tradition goes back centuries, from the writers of regular letters to the poets who wrote from the bunkers of wars to the pamphleteers whose work was critical to the emergence of democracy around the world, we are all journalists, pure and simple daily writers. The fact that our writing is online makes it more accessible but that is all. It is no new phenomenon or quantum leap, merely the rediscovery by many of the joy of composing paragraphs of fact and fiction and sharing them with others.

2. We Are Our Own Content Providers, and
3. Content Has Value Only in Use:
The Mainstream Media (which some writers are now calling the ‘legacy media‘ have this arrogant view (reinforced in a recent Atlantic Magazine article, ironically available only to print subscribers) that they are the font of all news, and that the blogosphere would ‘have nothing to talk about’ if it weren’t for them. Such a luddite perception of the entire online community (not just bloggers) explains why these media are losing audience, making ‘Rather’ unnecessary mistakes, and failing to partner with online journalists and researchers. My diagram above illustrates their strange POV. In reality, legacy and online journalists both use a combination of information sourced outside and their own primary and secondary research and analysis, both write stories based on those content sources, and both use a mechanism to add value to the content called ‘journalism’ of varying degrees of quality. And online journalists go two better: Unlike the legacy media, they can use The Power of Many to quickly add to, clarify, and when necessary correct mistakes (Britt Blaser calls this recursive journalism). And unlike the legacy media, online journalists have the numbers and front-line perspective to provide a much more personal context than more remote reporters. That’s important because news only has value if it’s useful, not just merely entertaining. News and other ‘information’ that is unactionable, which has no impact on what we do with our lives, is merely distraction. Bloggers are just beginning to learn that by providing unique local content (facts and perspectives) they can help the citizen-reader answer the question that the legacy media can’t, or won’t: What do we do about this?

4. The Content Management Challenge: For all of us on this side of the digital divide, organizing and finding information on our own hard drives and on our blogs is a growing and momentous challenge. For the hard drive, Google Desktop and its imitators are a new, first step. For many bloggers, their posts are ephemeral, and neither they nor their readers really care whether they’re lost in the ether, or whether they’re even available once they drop into the archives. But an increasing number of bloggers are adding original content or perspective with enduring value, and both they and their readers want it to stick around and be easy to find. Google searches are hit-and-miss. Tagging, assigning your own keywords to content using your own taxonomy, may be an improvement. But ultimately bloggers will face the same challenge as mainstream journalists, librarians, archivists, and anyone with a filing cabinet or a MyDocuments folder: How do I index, sort, organize and present all this stuff in a way in which I, and others I trust, can both browse it and search it? Even non-bloggers, who have taken to using shareable ‘social bookmarking’ tools like del.icio.us are now facing this content management problem.

5. It’s All About What The Big Media Aren’t Talking About: All information has spin. The 2004 elections in the US and elsewhere made it clear that the mainstream media, and bloggers, all have a bias in what they present, and, more importantly, what they don’t present. It is no coincidence that when citizens are asked what the most important issues of the time are, they mostly parrot what the mainstream media are reporting on. For those on the other side of the digital divide, they don’t really have a choice — other than person-to-person conversations, they have no way to get information on the things that are important to them personally that the mainstream media don’t cover. In fact they often don’t even think about these as political issues. When Gallup gives people the ten choices of issues to pick the ‘most important’ from, citizens tend to pick the one on the list that they relate to most personally — with unemployment, health care and education usually topping the list. But even in the very rare cases when issues like the environment, peace and civil liberties are raised in these surveys, they are described using these abstract and impersonal terms, rather than terms like ‘clean air, water and food’, ‘resolving conflicts peacefully’, ‘workplace safety’, ‘safe, affordable quality schools’ and ‘protecting privacy & other personal freedoms’. So because these hard-to-capture-on-video issues aren’t mentioned in surveys of the masses, the mainstream media are vindicated for continuing to ignore them, and the vicious cycle of ignorance is complete. This, of course, is where bloggers come in, to fill the void. Maybe that’s why the mainstream media are trying to pre-discredit us as ‘a million guys in pajamas‘.

6. Blogs’ as Echo Chambers, or Not: The failure of the left side of the blogosphere to see that Dean would lose the primary, and that Kerry would lose the election, led many to see the blogosphere as an echo chamber, where like minds (falsely) reassured like minds. But guys like Dave Weinberger disagree, and point out that compared to the mainstream media, or the cloister that filters news for the US Presnit, blogs are pretty open-minded. Does the blogosphere open up people to new ideas or solidify what they already believe and close them off from other points of view? I’ve argued that people tend to make up their minds once on each issue, and then look for reassurance and only change their initial opinion when they directly experience first-hand conflicting evidence. So blogs can be helpful in allowing people to make up their minds in the first place, and, as long as they are critical thinkers, giving them reassurance that supports those views. Nothing wrong with that. And just because blogs aren’t likely to change many minds (written material rarely does by itself) and may allow non-critical thinkers to go on believing foolish things (kinda like Fox News), doesn’t invalidate their benefits.

7. Bloggers’ Need to Get Out and Investigate More: The most important kind of journalism, the kind that brings real change, is investigative journalism. Blogging is perfectly suited to this challenge, because it requires people out in the community to invest significant personal time and energy in things they care about (since it incurs risks, and pays poorly). The mainstream media have curtained investigative journalism for that reason (libel suits and expensive research budgets don’t impress media conglomerates’ shareholders). There are some fledgling groups trying to organize bloggers as investigative journalists. They are not cowed by the harrowing experiences of the courageous journalists in Into the Buzzsaw. But in order to provide this value, bloggers need to get away from their comfortable computers and do some things that, to many, will be very uncomfortable: Getting first-hand accounts and taking photos of unpleasant things in unpleasant places, writing up exposes that will incite the wrath of the rich and powerful (and their lawyers), doggedly pursuing the truth in the face of lies, evasion, and bureaucracy. It’s a lot harder than sitting and writing about things second-hand, but if we are to be credible, it’s vital.

8. Information Is Still Trying to be Free, and Keeping Journalists Poor: Marshall McLuhan’s deliberately ambiguous statement “Information is always trying to be free” is great news for the consumers of content, but bad news for those who try to make a living from it. Freelance journalists have been starving for generations, and blogging has created thousands of online journalists with a secret desire to make a living from writing. It’s a classical case of a business with low entrance barriers and not even Shirky’s Power Law, which would suggest A-list bloggers with a wildly disproportionate share of readers should be able to make a buck from writing, has made it easier. Several recent articles have suggested that blogging is poised to make a breakthrough to profitability, but I’m skeptical — with so much information available for free, why would anyone in their right mind pay for it? And the argument that advertising will make the difference, that companies will pay for eyeballs, especially if they’re in their ‘target demographic’ are equally uncompelling, because ‘broadcast’ advertising is anathema to the whole idea of the Internet where everything is customized and one-to-one. If bloggers really want to make money, they’re going to have to do it face-to-face with people who are impressed with their writing, and follow the advice of successful consultants: Give content (ideas, surveys, stories) away free, and charge for the add-ons, for effectively implementing them for the customer. As Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell can tell you, that’s where the value is.

9. The Silence of the Web as Negative Assurance: Dave Weinberger explains why, in the absence of much positive evidence, he’s inclined to believe that Bush was wired for the first debate with Kerry because despite everyone talking about the story on the blogosphere there were no plausible other explanations for the bulge. It’s the same logic that led intelligent people to ‘know’ the unknowable — that there were no WMD in Iraq. In professional auditing circles it’s called ‘negative assurance’, and it means that sometimes you believe what you do in the absence of any compelling evidence to the contrary, if a lot of people have had the opportunity to proffer such contrary evidence. Auditors send out letters of ‘negative confirmation’ of account balances to their clients’ customers with the request that they be returned with corrections only if they’re incorrect. This is not as comforting as ‘positive confirmations’ where a written, signed response is required of each customer, but it’s much better than nothing, and usually very effective. So the vast blogosphere provides negative assurance of facts and declarations made by politicians and other vested interests, in the absence of any compelling contrary evidence from bloggers who would be positively disposed to tabling such information if it existed. Further evidence of the Wisdom of Crowds, and comforting in places where the media tend to treat press conferences and press releases as ‘facts’ needing no corroboration, question or inquiry.

10. The Ultimate Utility of Blogging: Last, but certainly not least, is this remarkable statement from blogger Rob Paterson on the utility of blogging: “The utility of blogging to me is that it is recreating the lost world of a humanity that is connected to itself and hence to everything.” Rob and I and a group of bloggers have been working on a compendium of our best and most important work, and we’ve been exchanging ideas on a theme or shared vision for the book. I suggested that, if it’s going to sell, the book needs to have utility to the reader, especially the reader who barely knows what a blog (or online journalism) is. Rob identified three ‘values’ of blogging to him personally: Finding one’s voice; Noticing what gives and what drains one’s energy; Redefining the meaning of work as a function of community and fellowship instead of wage slavery. So he’s saying, and I agree with him, that blogging (the participation in the conversation as both a journal reader and writer) re-centres you, frees you from being like, and seeing the world like, everyone else, and allows you to see the world and yourself differently, more profoundly (for better and for worse), and hence to liberate yourself and take charge of your own life. Self-awareness, self-reliance, and the personal liberation that comes from deep knowledge. Could there possibly be a higher utility for anything?

Coming up later this month: My Ten Most Important Ideas lists for politics & economics, and for business.

January 15, 2005

WEEKEND ROUND-UP

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 12:19
BastishSwans

Gladwell and Surowiecki Chat About Each Other’s Books: An interesting e-mail exchange over three days on Slate has Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, and James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, chatting about each other’s books and contrasting their messages. It starts here. [Thanks to Mark Brady of Fourboros for the link]

New Developments in Solar Energy Technology: Canadian company Solar Hydrogen Energy Corporation claims to have a revolutionary new process that uses mirrors to focus sunlight on a chemical reactor that cleanly and efficiently separates water into hydrogen and oxygen using a catalytic thermal water splitting process that works at 400 degrees Celsius, not the 3,000 degrees Celsius of previous technologies using this process. Lots of impressive sounding scientific certifications and testimonials. Meanwhile a team at the University of Toronto claim to have invented a solar cell that is five times as efficient as previous technologies at capturing solar energy, and which can be woven into clothing which could then power your cellphone, laptop and other portable electronics. Is there an engineer in the house who can tell us if this is too good to be true?

Making Investors Take the Long View: GreenMoney Journal explains three changes to accounting and disclosure that could make companies and investors realize the folly of short-rage thinking: Internalizing (adding in all costs created by the company, including social and environmental costs, even if the company currently doesn’t have to pay them); Blended Value Accounting (combining financial, social and environmental performance measures into an overall score); and Wealth Consolidation and Concentration (the disparity of wealth and the concentration of ownership in an industry, which leads to costly social unrest and risky brittleness of supplies and markets). Although all these things have a long term impact on sustainability of profits and hence stock value, investors will only be able to factor them into decision-making if and when this information is part of mandatory disclosures.

Bush Tries to Spin Deficits: The NYT reports that, in the light of the Bush administration’s astronomical and soaring trade deficits, even after a dive in the US dollar and oil prices, Bush is saying the deficits are actually good news, and that they’re Europe’s fault for not buying more American products. None of the reputable economists are buying it, and the Europeans simply reply that if Europe isn’t buying, that means the quality, the price, or the suitability doesn’t meet market demand. You need only sit in New York harbour and watch hundreds of tankers arriving daily from China packed to the brim, and then heading back with the only product the Chinese are interested in taking back from America — its garbage and packaging materials, to realize that this just can’t go on.

The Perfect Sweetener You Can’t Buy: It’s a Paraguayan herb called Stevia Rebaudiana, and in Japan it’s 40% of the sweetener market. It’s been around for years, and is completely natural — none of the risks and side-effects and expensive processing of aspertame. It’s sweeter than sugar. It’s grown in countries that could desperately use a cash crop for export instead of cocaine. But because of intense pressure from lobby groups, it’s illegal to bring Stevia into the US. Oh, and our friends at Monsanto have a corner on aspertame. But since we have ‘free’ markets and ‘free’ trade, that must be just a coincidence, right?

Photo of swans is by Kevin Cameron at the visually stunning Bastish.

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