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 31, 2007

The Mainstream Media Model

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 18:22
tar sands
Photo: Alberta tar sands, Melina Mara, Washington Post

A recent survey suggests Canadians now think the environment is the most pressing issue facing us ñ ahead, for the first time, of health, education, the economy and unemployment. This finding follows a series of embarrassing news stories about the Canadian Conservativesí Bush-style disregard for the subject, and minority PM Harper’s personal and long-standing loathing of environmentalism as a “socialist scheme“, plus news coverage of the election of environmentalist StÈphane Dion as leader of the Liberal Party and shoo-in for next PM.

Canadians have always been environmentalists. But until Harper there were no anti-environment political leaders. Even Albertans, the most conservative Canadians, are distraught about their tar sands eco-holocaust, an immense and catastrophically destructive project with absolutely no regulatory oversight. And the media are starting to report this (way too late, of course). Today, a Canadian conservation group made headlines by issuing a report suggesting zero development in Canadaís Northwest Territories would produce ten times the economic value of the proposed (and approved) mega-pipeline, drilling and highway project for the pristine and fragile Mackenzie River valley.

Whatís going on here? In normal times, the environment is not even on the mainstream media radar. The Green Party, with 5-10% of popular vote in recent elections, has always been consciously shut out of the pre-election leadersí debates sponsored by the mainstream media oligopoly. “Theyíre a one-issue fringe party”, one media executive said. But now, suddenly, we’re deluged with environmental stories. “Itís going to be the deciding issue in the next election and probably others to come”, one radio media pundit said the other day.

Meanwhile, Canadians haven’t really changed their views on the subject at all. We always and overwhelmingly supported Kyoto, no matter what Harper would have you believe. We believe mega-polluters should be jailed, no matter who they are or how many jobs they have allegedly created. And environmentalists like David Suzuki consistently prevail in lists of Canada’s most admired people.

What has happened is that the mainstream media, instead of doing their job — making what’s important interesting — have been simply lazy, attending press conferences at which they’re spoon-fed sound bites. And when they started to notice that a lot of these sound bites prepared by politicians were suddenly about Green issues, they switched from completely ignoring the environment to over-reporting it. Extensively but superficially. And then Canadians, inundated with environmental stories and offended by Harper’s anti-Green extremism, and then pursued by pollsters, did the expected and elevated the issue to number one on the oversimplified media hit parade.

But the disaster of the Alberta tar sands continues unabated, with more mainstream reporting on it but no investigative journalism (too expensive and too much work). The Mackenzie River megaproject is proceeding full speed. The so-called ëliberalí government of (ex-Conservative) Jean Charest in QuÈbec has just announced another god-awful massive flooding of Northern QuÈbec wilderness for yet another devastating hydro dam and diversion project. Our politicians, for all their rhetoric, are aiding and betting these and other mega-polluters, and the media (most of whom rely on advertising from these same corporatists) will not call them to account.

The CBC is the best of a sorry lot, but theyíre financially starved and bureaucratic (the latter a result of being too big and too centralized, not a consequence of being publicly funded). There is no money to be made by private broadcasters in the mainstream media oligopoly from investigative journalism, and lots to be made  by turning a blind eye to corporatist misdeeds, and just blandly regurgitating self-promoting government and corporate press releases.

It’s the same the world over. The mainstream legacy media are too lazy, complacent and profit-focused to learn what’s really going on and then tell us. They are doing the public a great disservice. And judging from the assessment of the media by citizens in recent polls, the public knows it. But the public will only care enough to do something about it when it affects them personally, and by then it will be too late.

As I’ve said before, the political arena is no place for environmentalists who actually want to accomplish something. We need instead to do the journalists’ job and investigate, research, learn and spread the word through our own personal networks and personal journalism. Neither the corporatist mega-polluters nor the politicians can hide from the truth. Once the citizens realize the degree to which corporate-political complicity is despoiling our land, ruining our air, poisoning us, exhausting and fouling our water, stealing and depleting our resources, and depriving us of any sustainable legacy to leave our children andgrand-children, we will starve them out and bring them down.

Just donít expect the mainstream media to lend a hand.

Categories: Canadian Politics, and The Media

January 30, 2007

Finding Our Way Home

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 19:25
bird of paradise by atpm.com
Bird of Paradise, photo from ATPM.com

We are all dislocated people.

We were not meant to live in cities, in climates that our naked bodies are not suited to, in lands where finding wild and healthy food isn’t easy and delightful. We are creatures of the jungle. There is no room for us now, in the jungle, and we have forgotten how to live there anyway. And within a few decades the jungle will all be gone in any case. If we long for that home we will do so in vain.

A couple of years ago I wrote a passage, from the perspective of a duck, that I still get comments on from time to time:

I thought I would offer this blog’s human readers some advice on how to be human. From what I can see from my pond, homo sapiens isn’t very good at it. I suspect that’s because you’ve only been around for three million years or so, unlike us longer-term residents who have had more time to figure out the rules. Here are a few of them for your edification:
  • The flock is everything. A flock is a tribe. A flock of ducks is known as a raft or a team. A flock or tribe is much more than a family (in every sense) and nothing like your human culture’s towns or ethnicities or nations. The tribe teaches you most of what you need to know to live successfully. You (plural) are the tribe. Without the tribe you are nothing.
  • Senses are honed by exercising them, but you humans spend much of your life in abstractions. Look until you really see what’s happening and why it’s happening and why it matters. These are important learnings, not minutiae. The devil isn’t the only thing in the details. If you stop listening, seeing, learning, you are no longer really alive.
  • Know your place. We are all part of a web, a mosaic, and we all travel, but ultimately we have our own place, our ‘home’. If you’re not totally connected with everything and every creature that is part of your place, then it isn’t your place. If you don’t have a place, then you don’t yet really exist. A house is not a place, though if it’s open it can be part of one. A mind is not a place.

Study us ducks, or even your cat and dog companions, and you will learn more about teams and tribes, about how to ‘come to your senses’, about the meaning of home, and about how to really belong in this world, far more than you will ever learn in books and classrooms and blogs and the workplaces where you meaninglessly slave away your lives.

I could tell you much more, but that’s enough for now. As your T.S. Eliot says, Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

When I wrote this, I had been sitting quietly at the edge of my wetland home, watching the ducks and imagining what they could say to me if only I understood their language. And I began feeling ‘homesick’. Not the nostalgia for the sanitized, idealized past, in the place I grew up. Not the insecure yearning for a simpler, secure, responsibility-free existence. Rather, a longing for a place I had never known, calling to me.

My current home is a lovely place, one that I leave as rarely as possible and spend as much time as possible exploring and learning more about. It is my connection to this current home that allows me to hear the call of my true home, in some faraway jungle that exists only in my imagination and in my bones and in my genetic code, my intuition. I can only describe it as a joyful ache, because the mere thought of it, and what I, and others for whom it is also home and with whom I am meant to be living, would be doing there, if only we could make our way forward to that place, makes me smile.

I am very content with my current home. It is the best home that one could hope to find in this terrible, crowded modern world. It has allowed me to discover a great deal about myself and what it means to be human, and alive. And it has enabled me to Let-Myself-Change. But it is not my true home, and much of the learning I ache for is not possible here or anyplace that is left for humans to choose to live.

This is what makes me despair most about our future. With all the challenges we face in this century, we are not very well equipped to know what we must do, because we are so disconnected from the only place, our true home, from which such knowledge can come. We can, of course, adapt to any place, learn to call any place home; that is the great strength of our species. But in that adaptation so much learning and knowledge and capacity is inevitably lost. Even indigenous peoples — who appreciate this far more than most, and more than I, lucky as I am to have found a wonderful half-way surrogate home — cannot really know what must be done. And as they, and we, become further displaced, again and again, by what we strangely call ëprogressí, that knowledge fades even further from our grasp. We may call these astonishing places ëhomeí, but we do not belong here.

Most of the very bright people I know have spent all their lives in cities, and when I speak to them about this it is as if I were speaking a foreign language. They have no idea what I mean. Soon, this will be true for all of us. We will have such knowledge as the world has never seen or imagined.

But it will not be the knowledge we need to be human, to be who we really are. We will have lost the final compass that could have shown us, at last, theway home.

Category: Our Culture

January 29, 2007

Decision-Making: Weighing the Evidence

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 17:49
Decision Process Wisdom of CrowdsEarly in The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki makes this statement about decision-making:

“There is no evidence that one can become expert in something as broad as decision-making, policy, or strategy…or perhaps even management. … Large groups of diverse individuals will make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled decision-maker.”

The implication of this is that individual business executives, expert consultants, investment analysts, learned doctors and heads of state are not competent to make important decisions related to cognitive, coordination or cooperation problems, and should always defer to the collective wisdom of large diverse groups when such problems arise.

Surowiecki identifies five types of decisions that qualified (reasonably informed, diverse, independent) ‘crowds’ are especially competent at:

  • ascertaining (all the) pertinent facts surrounding an issue
  • predicting outcomes
  • making a decision among a discrete set or finite range of alternatives
  • determining an optimal process to follow (in simple or complicated situations, but not complex ones)
  • assessing causality (in simple or complicated situations, but not complex ones)

Crowds are not particularly good at imagining solutions to problems, or knowing which tools and methods to use to solve them ñ creative groups and individuals are better at these elements of decision-making.

Most decisions involve some aspects that are best done by a substantial diverse crowd, and other aspects that are best handled by small creative groups or individuals. The chart above right shows how these aspects could be combined to make an overall decision.

We make decisions based on a judgemental synthesis of what we ‘know’ intellectually, perceptually, emotionally, and intuitively. That knowledge may be direct, from personal experience, or indirect, from what we’ve read or been told by someone whose judgement we trust.

Indigenous peoples tend to make decisions more holistically, rather than biasing their decisions in favour of intellectual knowledge alone. They are more tentative in their judgements and try to allow more time for all knowledge, including that which is subconscious, to be considered and integrated. They will place great weight on the judgements of those they trust, but ultimately each individual will be trusted (given the authority) and expected (given the responsibility) to make any decision that affects them alone, without having to justify it to others. When the decision affects others, they will make the decision-making process a collective one, and will allow those who disagree with the decision to opt out of it (provided that does not adversely affect the welfare of others).

In today’s crowded and massively interdependent world, nearly every decision affects many people, and we rarely have either the responsibility or the authority for making decisions alone. And, as Surowiecki points out, when we do have the personal authority to make decisions for others (because of our position atop the hierarchy), we are likely to do so badly. So many important decisions either are, or should be, collective decisions.

If you have watched decisions being made by a collective, you can see how this process can go terribly wrong. A particular vulnerability of collectives  is the all-too-human propensity to be grateful that someone else is taking on the difficult work of running the group and making the tough decisions. The politics of collective decision-making often comes down to the grabbing of authority and the shrugging off of responsibility, until the decisions end up being made by a small faction (or even an individual) willing to accept (most of) the responsibility for the decision as long as they have (substantially all of) the authority. Itís a copping-out process that allows the power-hungry and indifferent to collude and bully the remainder, and this invariably leads to sub-optimal decisions.

Collective decisions also tend to give greater weight to intellectual knowledge than perceptual, emotional, and intuitive knowledge, because of its perceived ‘objectivity’ (and hence simpler process of achieving understanding and agreement on its veracity). As a result, collective decisions, even those we have acceded to, often leave us feeling uneasy, since we feel (emotionally or intuitively, but in ways we can’t readily articulate) that the decision-making process was incomplete and flawed.

Nowhere is this prejudice for intellectual knowledge more evident than in the new field of “evidence-based decision-making’. Evidence (=what can be seen or understood easily) will not allow for the introduction of emotional or instinctive judgement, no matter how valid it may be. It can be applied tyrannically to overrule experience with the greater weight of ‘empirical data’ and so-called ‘best practices’, even when the result may be catastrophic. It can also be applied helpfully to overrule pigheadedness and short-sightedness.

So, for example, the egomaniacal doctor who ‘knows’ that prescribing x is always the best solution for every patient can be reined in and made more responsible when ‘the evidence shows’ that y is usually a better prescription. But so too can the professional whose insight into individual differences may cause him/her to occasionally prescribe z because in a rare few other cases in his/her experience, with a certain combination of symptoms (too few to constitute substantive ‘evidence’), z proved to be a better answer.

You can be sure the lawyers will weigh in consistently on the side of treatment y, to the advantage of the patients of the egomaniacal doctor doling out x, and to the detriment of the patients of the wise doctor, patients for whom z is a better prescription. The result is that every patient with the general symptoms will get prescribed y, and will be unable to sue even if the doctor knew z or x would have been a better prescription. And every patient prescribed z or x will be able to sue their doctor, even if that was the best prescription in their individual case. We should all have learned by now that in complex (human and ecological) systems there are no best practices ñ every situation is different, and the ‘best practice’ for dealing with it is unique.

Evidence is, after all, a loaded word. What we call evidence is the data that we personally find useful in a particular context, and in complex systems we all have different contexts and perspectives, so we will never agree on what is appropriate evidence, or on what the evidence ‘means’. For example, when a conservative politician reads crime news, he sees ‘evidence’ supporting a decision for more law and order. The liberal considering the same data will see ‘evidence’ for a decision to improve social welfare, improve education and strengthen gun control.

The best sort of evidence is first-hand observation, since the context is harder to omit or misconstrue, but even it must be filtered through our personal worldviews, worldviews that are inherently subjective and biased. And sometimes that’s a good thing: unemotional, insensitive, unintuitive decisions can be colossally bad ones.

Stories are the best second-hand evidence, but we all know how subversive they can be, by selective omission and emphasis. As for lesser evidence, lies, damned lies and statistics, as they say. You can make the numbers say whatever you want them to say.

So there are six major obstacles that interfere with our ability to make good collective decisions:

  1. Exclusion: Not involving all of the necessary or appropriate people in the decision-making process (e.g. excluding the patient from medical decisions).
  2. Political Interference: Precluding fair and equal participation of all members of the collective group (e.g. by bullying, back-room deals, power games and abrogation of responsibility).
  3. Personal Bias: In how our worldview filters and interprets the ëevidenceí.
  4. Bias Towards Intellectual Knowledge: Because what we know holistically is subtler and more complex than we can ever express in language and hence communicate persuasively to others.
  5. Context-Free Evidence: Some of the best ‘evidence’ can only be properly internalized when it is observed directly, or at least understood through exceptionally-crafted stories; without such context, mere data loses much of its decision-making value.
  6. Consensus-Building Incompetence: Few of us have learned the difficult skill of engaging other points of view, synthesizing, working through differences instead of glossing them over, trivializing them, or over-compromising ñ work that is necessary to achieve true consensus. Most of us have little patience for this process, which can take enormous time and energy.

The solution, as with most complex problems, is to discover and follow good working models. Open Space and its invitation process can help address the problem of exclusion. So can simple humility: find the politician and the doctor and the planner who consult genuinely with those affected by their decisions before they are made. My experience has been that informed groups with good facilitators can minimize political interference.

Only good critical thinking skills, and patience, can begin to overcome our most dangerous personal biases: Things are the way they are for a reason, and we are oh so quick to judge and oversimplify what that reason is. Knowing people who do think holistically (hard to find in the corporate world, alas) can help you acquire this capacity yourself, reducing your bias toward ‘objective’, rational knowledge.

Getting out of your house and office and seeing things first hand will increase your appreciation of the complexity of issues and your insistence on creating a context of understanding before jumping to conclusions (and decisions). So will learning to tell better stories. And the only solution for improving your consensus-building competence is practice. I know a dozen people who seem to be able to achieve remarkable consensus, but only two of them (both women) do so genuinely, and it’s a skill that did not come easily (the other ten are just great at sweeping differences under the rug, which inevitably resurface later with greater virulence).

So, like motherhood and apple pie, Evidence-Based Decision-Making is a great idea. But what evidence, according to whose interpretation, arrived at how, in what context, assessed through what decision-making process,and including whom?

The devil, as always, is in the details.

Category: Collaboration

January 28, 2007

Sunday Open Thread – January 28, 2007

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 11:40

What I’m planning on writing about soon:
  • Experience-Based Decision Making: It seems an obvious choice, until you understand why the alternatives hold sway.
  • Finding & Working With Others to Save the World: Ways to enable billions to sync with us, on their own terms, in their own context, developing their own plan of action, and then to connect and collaborate in powerful ways, in experiments and in creating and refining working models in their own self-selected communities, so that they no longer need the systems that are destroying our world.
  • Intentional Community: Related to the above, how a stewardship model might come into effect, evolving to replace the ownership model.
  • MRSA and Prion Diseases: A greater threat than Poultry Flu?
  • What’s Holding Us Back: Our modern society’s three-way tension between falling into the Centre, progressing to the Edge, and just giving up.
  • Finding Our Way Home: How can we hope to find it when we don’t know where it is, or whether it even any longer exists?
  • The Mainstream Media Model: Ignore and under-report every issue until it reaches a threshold of public attention despite that under-reporting, and then hype the hell out of it, using absurdly oversimplified dichotomies, until the public gets tired of it.

What I’m thinking about:

My health, again. I’m working through my first flare-up of colitis since I was first diagnosed last summer. This time it does not appear to have been triggered by stress (my stress level is lower than it has been in a long time), and there have been no significant changes to my diet, exercise regime, medication or anything else. So I’m perplexed. Whatunknown environmental poisons are confusing my immune system?

How about you?

January 27, 2007

Saturday Links for the Week – January 27, 2007

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 14:47
Susan Hales painting
Ink and watercolour by fellow Salon blogger Susan Hales

Preparing for Civilization’s End

Wild Food: A BBC program tells you how to find wild edibles in your own neighbourhood. Thanks to Andrew Campbell for the link.

Learning Self-Sufficiency: India’s Barefoot College teaches people community-based skills on less than a shoestring. Thanks to Ellen Fish for the link.

Funds to Make a Difference: IdeaWild provides hundreds of small grants to people who just need a little to make a big difference in protecting biodiversity. Thanks to Evelyn Mitchell for the link.

Technologies With Promise: Technology generally creates more problems than it solves, but these eight new promising technologies could make the world a little greener. Thanks to my colleague Allen Monstratt for the link.

A Model for Sharing and Collaboration: Simon Fraser University’s SCoPE free open collaboration and virtual meeting tool allows researchers to link up and share information powerfully with others.

Emergency Preparedness Around the World: Fluwiki has a list of preparedness plans from around the world, and also a list of flu pandemic preparedness guides.

How the World Really Works

The Rich Get Richer: Salon’s HTWW links to Mark Thoma’s report on how income disparity in the US continues to soar.

The average after-tax income of the richest one percent of households rose from $722,000 in 2003 to $868,000 in 2004, after adjusting for inflation, a one-year increase of nearly $146,000, or 20 percent. This increase was the largest increase in 15 years, measured both in percentage terms and in real dollars. In contrast, the income of the middle fifth of the population rose $1,700, or 3.6 percent, to $48,400 in 2004. The income of the bottom fifth rose a scant $200 (or 1.4 percent) to $14,700.

The Dangers of Genetic Engineering: Also from HTWW, a link to a new book refuting a recent Atlantic Monthly report lauding genetic engineering, showing just how dangerous genetic engineering is.

Thought for the Week: From Thomas Pynchon: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worryabout the answers.”

January 26, 2007


Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 18:29
diceThe major media are buzzing again with concerns about the extent of gambling addiction, especially among young people. Estimates are that about 4% of gamblers (between 0.5 and 1.0% of the adult population) are ‘addicted’ to gambling, compulsive to the point at which it causes significant social or financial harm.

What intrigues me is that these studies only involve games of chance ñ poker, bingo, casino games and lotteries. But the most serious gamblers I’ve met make a living (or pretend to do so) gambling ñ day traders, stock brokers, currency and commodity speculators, developers and real estate speculators, even eBay vendors who work full time just buying and selling stuff they don’t produce. For some reason there is no stigma associated with such gambling, though it is indistinguishable in nature from gambling on games of chance. This is completely unproductive work, adding no value to the economy, and it is in many cases very destructive work, since there is a loser (and often many losers) for every ‘winner’. Much of this ‘work’ entails great temptation and opportunity (insider information, bribes and payoffs, and outright fraud) enabling the ‘players’ to cheat, the only way to guarantee an edge over the losers.

This is shabby business, transforming harmless fun into chronic, ruinous, devastating compulsion, and too often, finally, pathological behaviour.

What is it that pushes some people off this edge, leading so many do-gooders to demand a ban on the activity for everyone to save the vulnerable few? It seems to be that addiction to gambling, in whatever form, is really not that different from any other addiction: to alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, to food and diets, to the Internet and pornography, to exercise, self-mutilation or work. Even the experts admit that separating the physical from the psychological aspects of addiction is almost impossible. They tend to prescribe the same old ‘interventions’ that seem to work for some, but don’t for many: psychological counseling and therapy, notably the notorious and grueling ’12-step’ programs and aversion therapies; and detox programs involving sedation, substitution, and physical therapies like acupuncture.

I have argued before that we are all addicted to something, and that we cannot change who we are. I do know some people who have beaten their addictions, but they have either had powerful motivation to do so (we do what we must…) or else were not really addicted at all. The people I know who are the most obvious and troubled addicts tend to be multiple and serial addicts — their addictions often seem to be substitutes for some other craving they can no longer satisfy, and tend to reinforce each other (unhealthy diets and excessive exercise; tobacco and alcohol; work and alcohol; gambling and porn).

I’m not a fan of banning activities and substances that can be addictive. That’s not libertarian zeal, just an acknowledgement that making addictions illegal doesn’t work. The number of smokers has dropped mostly because it’s become socially seriously unacceptable, and because some older smokers have suffered health complications that leave them no choice but to quit. It’s not because people know it’s unhealthy, and not even because it’s expensive, and making it illegal would just drive it underground or move the addicts to other drugs. And nearly all the serious ex-smokers I know have acquired substitute addictions.

We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. Addictions start as fun, which none of us has enough of, and, for some, quickly progress to ‘musts’. This terrible world has most of us enslaved, giving up most of our lives, time, energy, and healthy years to mind-numbing and/or exhausting work, anguished or unsatisfying personal relationships, and endless chores we loathe. When that’s done, we want easy fun, and most of the addictive activities and substances provide, or at least promise, easy fun, a rush, a high, a temporary respite from too much boring work and too much depressing news. Who can blame us, especially when commercial interests are all too willing to pander to and profit from our addictions?

I don’t intend to minimize the anguish that addictions, and their darker side, can inflict on addicts and their loved ones. If therapies and detox programs work for them, that’s great. I do suspect, however, that those who are prone to addiction will, unless their lives are free from stress, boredom and confinement, end up addicted to something. Recent studies of mice have in fact shown that they are only prone to addictions when they are stressed, bored and confined. In healthy natural environments, addiction is virtually unknown. And our modern world is so far from healthy and natural that we’re not going to cure addiction by transforming the environment that nurtures it.

The best we can do, and should be trying harder to do, is to discover drugs that are relatively harmless (and really cheap), and invent other substitutions for our more dangerous and destructive addictions. Something that gives the euphoria without the judgement impairment, the fun without the social or financial cost. A challenge perhaps, but with the shared creativity of open source and the technologies alreadyoriented towards entertainment without limit, not an impossible one.

Brave New World come true.

Full disclosure: While I have no financial interest in any aspect of the gambling industry, some members of my family do.

Category: Being Human

January 25, 2007

Unlearning Helplessness

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 18:30
Critical Life Skills mindmap
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an extraordinary piece in the New Yorker on Learned Helplessness a couple of years ago, and it remains one of his most important articles. What is Learned Helplessness? It’s the exaggerated feeling of lack of control, of enormous danger, of inability to respond to danger, that comes from repeated exposure to actual or apparent threats.

It’s the syndrome that afflicts battered spouses and children, and citizens who have given up on the apparent inadequacy of law enforcement and, armed to the teeth with weapons, taken the law into their own hands. It’s what causes people to buy SUVs in the fear-driven and utterly mistaken idea that they will be in less peril on the road in them than they would be in smaller vehicles. It’s what causes us to slaughter tens of millions of farmed, domestic and wild animals in the hysterical belief that that’s the most sensible way to reduce exposure to poultry flu and BSE. It’s what caused the US to be able to divert trillions of dollars from needed social programs to the lunatic extravagance and cruel, arbitrary and idiotic policies of ‘homeland security’, sold as somehow making people’s lives ‘safer’. The war in Iraq was sold on the same fraudulent basis. Firestone was almost bankrupted when a few faulty tires resulted in deaths and spread panic among buyers, despite data showing that tires as a whole are remarkably safe and Firestone’s tires were no worse than most competitors’.

While conservatives are especially prone to this syndrome (it fits better with their crime-obsessed worldview), liberals are far from immune to it. It’s easy to whip up by those with a political agenda or ulterior commercial motives, because most of us are unable to put risks, dangers and fears in proper perspective, especially when they hit close to home.

So what can we do to avoid this syndrome, and to unlearn helplessness if we’re already afflicted with it?

Well, first, we can get our facts straight. Gladwell’s article shows data, taken from reliable and extensive studies, that show that you’re safer off in a convertible than an SUV, for example. If we think the best way to prepare for and handle an emergency is to wait helplessly for the authorities to look after it and tells us what to do, we should read about FEMA’s track record and compare it to that of Central American countries like El Salvador whose preparedness is local and community-based. Data on rare/unlikely but devastating and uncontrollable catastrophes (like being deliberately murdered by a stranger) can be easy to misinterpret, and must be compared to data on far more common, less disastrous and preventable occurrences (like dying from common influenza, or an accident on the job). Only by comparing risks objectively can perspective be achieved and learned helplessness over the uncontrollable averted.

Secondly, we can empower ourselves to be less helpless. Get rid of debts that make you paranoid about job loss, illness or injury. Learn to live on a smaller salary (the average low six-figure income earner would be in financial crisis within a month if that income suddenly ceased). Become less dependent on the electrical grid and on heavily-subsidized oil and food prices. Take charge of your own health so you’re not dependent on your doctor for every little thing that happens (and so that fewer little things do happen). Build up your critical technical and social and thinking skills (see the mindmap above), and build reciprocal relationships with handy friends and neighbours, so you don’t have to run to the yellow pages or the store every time something breaks down, wears out or falls apart. Buy fewer and more durable things, so they don’t break down as often. Learn to ‘make your own’. Have fewer possessions that need huge amounts of space and maintenance. In general, make yourself more self-sufficient and resilient and less dependent on others and on infrastructure that can break or break down.

Third, we can learn how the world really works. Don’t believe those who tell you that someone is in control, or should be in control. Don’t believe those who tell you crime and risks and danger are rampant, because in most places they aren’t, in where they are the perpetrators are usually well-known to the victims. Involve yourself in the political process enough to realize that it doesn’t take much to get the attention of those in power, and that those in power don’t have much power anyway. The more you know about the systems that govern much of our lives, the more you will realize that it’s less harmful than you feared and less in control (especially in a crisis) than you might hope. Learn especially about the power of communities working in common cause.

By doing these things, you change how you see the world in two important and positive ways: You fear the unknown and uncontrollable less, because you realize how unlikely itis. And you increase your control over what is controllable, which, for the most part, is things that are far more likely to occur.

January 24, 2007

How to Be Good (To Yourself)

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 19:29
salsa 2
Recently a couple of people have written me that they’re feeling defeated, and about ready to give up, and asked what keeps me going. I’m less depressed now than I have been in years, and I think it’s largely because I’ve learned to be good to myself. If we’re going to save the world and stuff we need to be at the top of our game, and that means being good to ourselves and to others fighting the good fight.

Here are ten ways to do so. Some of them are difficult, but they’re all worth trying:

  1. Stop comparing yourself and competing with others: Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I don’t understand envy. I know so many people who are eaten up because they don’t think they have the looks, the smarts, the possessions or the power of some other people they (think they) know. I see people whose whole life seems to be about getting attention and approval and appreciation from others. This is insane, consigning yourself to slavery to others’ judgements. How do we get this way? Is low self-esteem something that is bred into us to keep us in line, acquisitive, dissatisfied with what we have? Whatever the cause, we need to get over it. The only standard that counts is whether you’re doing what you love, what you’re good at (in your own assessment), and whether, in the process, you’re happy. Popularity, wealth, power, and awards mostly measure good fortune and fads, nothing more. 
  2. Get things done: There are few things better for you than a sense of accomplishment. The keys to getting things done are not over-promising, making your GTD list achievable, doing what’s important not what’s urgent (and training others not to give you urgent unimportant tasks), and breaking big tasks down into small, manageable ones. 
  3. Let-yourself-change: Stop trying to change the world. Adapt yourself to the world instead. Let yourself change. Become resilient. The model you represent to others is more likely to bring about sustained change than big, impossible projects.
  4. Stop worrying about what you can’t do anything about: Easy to say, hard to do, I know. I wrote about this yesterday. Whenever you catch yourself getting stressed, practice letting go – you’ll get better at it in time.
  5. Learn something new (useful or fun) every day: It’s the best way to cope with sadness and feelings of helplessness. Learn things that will make you more self-sufficient – learn skills and capacities, not about unactionable events and facts.
  6. Be good to others: Acts of kindness tend to pay unexpected and compound dividends, and they make you feel good about yourself too. 
  7. Centre yourself: To be more in control of yourself, pay attention to what you feel, what your senses and instincts and body tell you, turn off the noises in your house and your head. Learn to meditate or otherwise relax. Give yourself more time by realizing your time is worth more than what you’re paid for it, and then spend and take that time, in nature, in peaceful places, just taking stock and being in the moment.
  8. Look after your body: Exercise, eat and drink well, and get lots of sleep and rest.
  9. Surround yourself with loving people: People you love and who love you. Animals and children. People who give a damn. People who are happy and respectful of others. Avoid miserableand angry people. Spend some time alone, but not too much.
  10. Do some spontaneous, playful things: Create something bold. Travel on the spur of the moment. Entertain. Run. Indulge. Dance. Get a massage. You get the idea.

What else? How are you good to yourself?

Category: Let-Self-Change

January 23, 2007

Preparing for an Emergency: What We Should (But Probably Won’t) Do

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 18:18
Hurricane Stan
The aftermath of Hurricane Stan, Guatemala, 2005

What would you do if an emergency ñ a pandemic, earthquake, or building/bridge collapse, happened where you were at 17:00 tomorrow?

Chances are, you wouldn’t be prepared. You wouldn’t even know what to do. You would instinctively react to the best of your ability, and for the most part you’d do the right things.

You’d screw up on some things however:

  • You’d probably try to find and round up your family and then flee the area, causing traffic chaos, blocking emergency vehicles, clogging communication lines and exposing yourself and loved ones to more danger than if you stayed put.
  • If it was a health emergency, you might well head for a hospital, clinic or doctor’s office to get Tamiflu. Waste of time.
  • You might well help overwhelm government, medical and emergency authorities with your frantic calls for information.

The problem isn’t that thousands or millions will make such mistakes, it’s that emergency workers are counting on you to wait passively for information and instruction, and to stay out of their way. You won’t, and as a result their plans will be jeopardized. And even if there’s no panic, because emergency plans depend on other departments’ and groups’ and governments’ emergency plans working as well, all it takes is one group to fail, or something to fall between the cracks of all these plans, and all of the plans will fail.

We saw this in the response to Katrina: FEMA failed utterly, and all those depending on FEMA to do its job couldn’t do theirs. And none of the local plans anticipated the unavailability of communications infrastructure, so the result was chaos and anarchy. In the aftermath, each group pointed the finger of blame elsewhere, so preparedness plans for most groups have not substantially changed. So if, as many expect, we will see another Katrina this summer, we can expect the same completely inadequate response.

We never learn. It’s not human nature to be prepared for anything that isn’t highly probable and imminent ñ the needs of the moment always take precedence over longer-term thinking. We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. Emergency preparedness, until itís too late, is none of these things.

There is no human answer to this problem. Just look at the trillions that have been squandered (and the rights trampled and abuses committed) in the insane attempt to prevent a repeat of 9/11, when in all likelihood the next attacks by organized desperados will use utterly different tactics. They have hundreds of obvious ones to choose from, even more if they’re imaginative, and trying to anticipate and preempt them all is ludicrous. Spending money on large standing reserves and task forces which will go into action if and when an emergency of the type they are specifically trained for comes into effect is futile. And the psychological and social damage caused by trying to prepare for a thousand unpredictable possibilities is horrific.

This is not to take anything away from the many organizations that have to cope with emergencies every year, or those who are valiantly trying to prevent them from happening and mitigate the damages they will cause. These are (mostly) intelligent, committed people. But what they are trying to do probably cannot be done. It is another attempt to find a complicated solution to a complex problem.

So what should we do? I’ll suggest some ways of coping with emergencies at the institutional and societal level in a future article (I suggested some in my earlier article on pandemic flu preparation). But at the individual level, there are probably four things that make sense, and a fifth if you’re a keener and live in a close-knit community:

  1. Go about your business and your life. Worrying about things that may never happen and which you can’t do anything about is a waste of time, money and energy and will make you ill. People in struggling nations get this, I think, since many in those nations face it day-to-day for their whole lives.
  2. Donít expect authorities to look after you in an emergency. They’ll do their best, if they can keep their own people from breaking ranks and looking after their loved ones instead of their duty. And if it’s a relatively minor emergency they may do just fine. Just don’t count on it. Learned helplessness is endemic in our society, and in an emergency it’s a liability.
  3. Expect the majority of people to panic as peacefully as they can. Forget the Hollywood hype about massive arson and murder and rape. If you’re hungry and there’s no one in authority, you’ll steal only what you need and only get violent if thereís no other choice. The vast majority of people are like that. In fact, most people really rise to the occasion in an emergency, and some behave absolutely heroically. But expect the roads to be mayhem and ill-conceived, even stupid behaviour to be the norm.
  4. Educate yourself and those in your communities on things you can and should do (and not do) when an emergency occurs. The list varies depending on the type of emergency, but hereís eight things to do for starters:
    • Have a manageable list of emergency supplies on hand in your home and in your car, and keep them fresh. Include in your house kit: 6 litres of fresh water per person, 3 days’ worth of dried or canned food (and an opener), a flashlight (and batteries), a portable radio (and batteries, even if it’s a crank-type), a first aid kit, prescription medicines, baby food and needs for disabled family members if applicable, extra keys, and cash. Include in your car kit: food, water and first aid as above, plus blankets and spare clothes/shoes, candles-in-a-can (and matches), a knife, emergency light or flares, a shovel, scraper and brush, and emergency contact phone number list. Donít forget to include supplies for your pets, and keep them close! 
    • In a health emergency, keep yourself and loved ones away from other people. Take them out of school, stay home from work (unless you’re an emergency worker, in which case stay at work), don’t travel anywhere you don’t have to, and avoid stores, airports, and any other places with lots of people.
    • In a health emergency, wash your hands often and thoroughly with hot water and soap, don’t touch potentially contaminated surfaces, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, and, when you cough or sneeze, use a disposable tissue or your sleeve, not your hands.
    • In case the emergency drags on, learn where you can get fresh food locally, from farms and gardens, and have a back-up source of heat for your home.
    • Learn emergency first aid.
    • Keep your cellphone (plus charger and spare batteries) and a list of emergency information numbers and URLs handy, but don’t expect these to work in an emergency.
    • Get a flu shot. It won’t protect against pandemic flu, but it will improve your resistance, and you don’t want to be sick during an emergency.
    • If you absolutely have to leave, tell people where you’re going.
  5. If you live in a friendly, tight neighbourhood and you’re keen, put together a neighbourhood plan ñ who’ll pick up the kids, who’s best at doing what, how to share the difficult tasks you may face, what’s unique to your neighbourhood that must be dealt with, etc. Teach each other what you need to know. Practice, at least on a tabletop, what you will do, when you get everyone together.

If you’re like most people (me included) you won’t prepare an emergency kit, and even if you’re fortunate enough to live in a community like mine you probably won’t do #5 either. But most of the rest of these ideas are really just common sense and don’t require you to do anything until an emergency actually happens. These are mostly about preparing yourself mentally and psychologically, rather than physically, for an emergency. They’re about building your resilience.

In my earlier article I suggested you should think about what you will do if there’s a pandemic and you find you have a natural immunity, or if disease strikes a loved one but not you. But I’m not sure thinking about this in advance serves much purpose ñ if this happens you will do what you will do.

And that’s the overall message that a study of history, an understanding of human nature, and a reading of all the literature on emergency preparedness out there, should probably teach us: Emergencies are going to happen, and they will touch us personally or they won’t, and if they do we will probably do our best even though we won’t be prepared, so there’s no point staying awake worrying aboutit.

More about learned helplessness later this week ñ The more I think about this subject, the more important it seems to be.

Category: Being Human

January 22, 2007

Art as Story

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 19:46
Kate Bush CD art
Artwork from Kate Bush CD A Sky of Honey, via Andrew Campbell

In an article last week, I described Jungís four orientations for learning, understanding and seeing the world:

  • sensual (through the senses),
  • emotional (through the heart),
  • intellectual (through the mind) and
  • instinctual (through the body/genes)

I described artists as those particularly competent at the sensual and emotional orientations, and one of the notable capacities I listed under those of sensual orientation was storytelling. That’s because stories are detailed creations, and require the journalist’s precise and perceptive attention to who, what, when, where, why and how, and ability to capture them in ways that speak to others. Stories are about telling what is (or was) from a particular perspective.

As I thought about that I read this from Zane at Lichenology:

I believe that art is central to the process of change that needs to happen in the world, but the connection is not straightforward. I’ve never been attracted to art that serves as a vehicle to deliver a Message. While it may have some value, it ceases to be art, in my eyes, and becomes propagandaóor just bad art.

I’ve struggled in my own creative work (I count four short, solo dance performances and a smattering of poetry as my small opus) to be relevant, but not preachy. I’ve wanted to stir people up, to stretch their perception of the world, and to raise questions without pretending that I have any pat answers. I find that in the process of creation, I have to turn off my normally active analytical mind or it gets in the way, always trying to make sense.

Art ferments in the shadowy world of association and dream, not in the rational light of day. Like a mushroom, it draws energy from a vast tangle of subterranean mycelium and fruits briefly, sending out its spore to the breeze.

Part of what I always wanted to create through performance was a common experience and a shared participation in meaning. Our society has perfected the separation of roles and the partitioning of experienceóthe separation of church and state, of mind and body, of performer and audience. It fits very much with our passive role as consumers, but it doesn’t bode well for the process of social change, where active engagement and renewal is needed. Good artists bridge boundaries, like the shaman of traditional cultures, crossing into a different fabric of experience and bringing back knowledge about how to heal human rifts and live in accord with some larger truth.

The change that needs to happen in the world, like the best art, needs to be participatory. It is not a spectator sport. And like anything in which we fully participate, there is the possibility of falling short. So we stand back, we shy away from getting sucked in, preferring the endless possibility of distraction to the risk of engagement.

A major new focus of business is on storytelling, and, in the larger sense, adding context and meaning to information, precisely what Zane describes as the role of art as a ‘shared participation in meaning’. The essence of good storytelling is engaging the audience, drawing them in, transporting them, making them participants in the experiencing of the story, so they really understand its meaning. And so it is with art. In a sense, all art is storytelling, helping us to understand in a sensual, emotional, intellectual and visceral/instinctual way what ‘it all’ means. It is a bridge between the four ways of understanding and knowing. Some arts (novels, film) tell stories in a clearly linear way, while others (music, painting, sculpture) tell their stories holistically, non-sequentially.

Why is it then that for most of the last century, there has been a growing dichotomy between ‘popular’ art (the mass media, including popular music, film and novels) and more complex art? We need to know this because if art is to be a vehicle for social change, it must be accessible and engaging to activists, to those who would take personal (Let-Self-Change), political, economic, social, educational, technological and scientific action as a result of the understanding that art brings them.

The reason, I think, is not anti-intellectualism or (as Joe Bageant would have us believe) a dumbing-down of the population to the point complex art cannot be fathomed, but rather that its very complexity makes it inaccessible and ëunpopularí and hence not useful as a vehicle for social change.

As I’ve said before, we loathe complexity ñ it offends us that elegant simplicity is usually an illusion, that everything is beyond our control and understanding, that effective things are inefficient and efficient things are ineffective to the point of dysfunctionality. We don’t want to work that hard. We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is no time or inclination for the complex.

The mainstream media with their sound bites and reductio ad absurbum pander to our longing for simplicity, but they do not create that longing. We create the paradox ourselves (with some complicity of politicians and other corporatists) by filling our lives with difficult work (the work of making a living, the work of making love last, and the work of satisfying our needs of the moment). After all that exhausting work, to spend our ‘spare’ time on anything difficult is surely masochistic.

And likewise, too many ‘artists’ donít want to work that hard either, especially when formulaic, unoriginal, amateurish ‘popular’ works can be so profitable, and complex works so unappreciated. The enormous popular success of most rap music, trash fiction, and some really mediocre blogs can only frustrate the true artists, composers, creators, investigative journalists, craftspeople and other hard-working ‘storytellers’ whose work requires an investment of time and energy that few seem inclined to give. We all want attention and appreciation, and few will persevere when the terrible and important truths we show the world are ignored and misunderstood.

So what do we do, when none of us, not even those who appreciate the need to know and to act, has the time and energy to appreciate? To appreciate complex art or complex reality. Itís all just too hard.

For example: Andrew Campbell sent me an image of one of his works (below) as an attempt to articulate the meaning of Now Time.
Lightening Branches Andrew Campbell

Many of us try to interpret works of art on a strictly intellectual level, to ‘decipher’ it as if it were a puzzle. But complexity cannot be understood on that narrow level. We have to allow it to be internalized within us in its own way and in its own time, to ‘ferment’. We have to allow it to engage our senses, our emotions and our instincts holistically with our intellect. We have to think ‘about’ it. And in todayís world of instant gratification and attention deficit that is a challenging and unrewarded activity, and one that we are increasingly unpracticed at.

Just as we must bear the responsibility for making this world as bearable a place as possible, a little bit better each day, despite knowing that our civilization is unraveling and that what we have done will be undone (though hopefully remembered by the few brave survivors of this century), we must, too, bear the responsibility for telling our stories despite knowing that few are listening and even fewer understand. This is nothing new.

And so, we brave storytellers, each in our own way, continue to tell our stories as best we can, perhaps much as the cave artists did in the millennia before civilization, as the indigenous peoples did during the millennia of civilizationís hopeful dawn, and as the artists of the renaissances of our civilization did as that civilization churned forwards.

We, artists all — painters, composers of music, sculptors, investigative journalists and many others — represent to the world the portrait of our civilizationís fourth and final turning. We ‘just’ tell its story. Whether its meaning will be understood and provoke needed action is not our business.

Perhaps those who survive civilizationís end, and build a more joyful and sustainable society, will have the time and energy to appreciate what we do. And learn from the self-confessed mistakes that cry out in ourportrayal of our terrible world, and its terrible beauty.

Category: The Arts
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