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.

February 26, 2010

The Meaning of “I’m Sorry”

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 23:34

(This is the third of at least four ‘miniature’ posts. I’m spending most of my time these days digesting what I’ve been learning, about myself and about others, from a raft of new people I’ve met in the past month, and from the experience, for the first time in 30 years, of living alone. This isn’t giving me enough time for my usual lengthy blog articles, but I wanted to at least get these four ideas out, for your thoughts.)

One evening last week I was ranting on Twitter about “What the World Needs More Of”. I wrote:

the world needs more: lovers, dreamers, people unafraid to be different, people who know who they are, appreciative listeners…

the world needs more: people honest enough to admit they are broken, damaged, disconnected, seeking healing and sanctuary…

the world needs more: people who shout that the emperors, all of them, have no clothes…

the world needs more: people not afraid to say “i’m sorry” for things that aren’t their fault.

This last rant raised questions from some perplexed followers: Why should we apologize for things that aren’t our fault? I explained:

“i’m sorry” = i empathize with your pain, suffering, situation, and don’t pretend to have a way to “fix” it so i’ll just be present with you

The discussion moved over to Google Buzz, as the puzzled followers found my explanation more interesting than the initial rant. Here’s how it went:

Melinda Fleming wrote: ” The small hours do bring truth to those who listen deeply, don’t they?”

Karen HayDraude wrote: “My sister who lives in the US calls this, “Canadian sorry”, since her American pals were forever asking her what she was apologizing for.”

Melinda replied: “That’s funny! There’s a difference, though. In Afrikaans we use the word “meegevoel” which literally means “to feel together”. It seems that, in English, the only way to express such a sentiment, is to say “I’m sorry” which sounds like an apology for wrongdoing on one’s own part. But “meegevoel” is a simple expression of being & feeling empathically “with” the other person.”

I chimed in: “More evidence that modern language is designed to convey information not feeling. Just did a crossword for which ‘sorry’ was the answer to the clue ‘Not my problem!’ “

Mushin Schilling added: “The dutch (zuidafrikaans) ‘meegevoel’ is properly translated, I think, with ‘compassion’ – but knowing of this English inadequacy I have introduced the Germanic “I feel with you” into conversations.

What exactly do we mean when we say “I’m sorry”? It can be an apology (“oops I didn’t mean to do that”), a regret (“I should have done that.”), an excuse (“not my department”) or an expression of empathy (“I empathize with your pain, suffering, situation, and don’t pretend to have a way to ‘fix’ it so I’ll just be present with you”). The “Canadian sorry” is deliberately ambiguous, allowing the listener to choose which of these three meanings s/he chooses — I’ll leave it to you whether doing that shows cowardice, indifference or cleverness. As a Canadian I’d say it’s potentially dangerous, if you’re called on which you intended.

The words “sorry” and “sore” mean, etymologically, “in pain”. “Sorrow” originally meant “grief or sickness”, so to be sorry meant to be so full of grief or sickness that it was painful. The use of the term as an apology is at best a hyperbole and at worst a lie. As an apology “Pardon me” is more apt (though that expression is now used as a question, with the tacit “… I wasn’t listening to or didn’t hear what you said”, or even as an accusation if said angrily).

The truth is that “I’m sorry” too often means nothing at all. Like “I love you” it is important when said genuinely, but prone to overuse and hence cheapening of meaning. We should use it to mean what it originally meant: I’m pained by the grief/sickness that you and/or I feel. If we’re not really suffering, we shouldn’t imply, with the word “sorry”, that we are.

This brings us back to empathy and compassion, the appreciation of the feelings (suffering or joy) of others. This appreciation is about attention, understanding, and caring. In our attention-deficit society, it’s in short supply. I’ve often said (infuriatingly to many) that with notable exceptions men tend to seek attention more than appreciation, while women tend to seek appreciation more than attention. Men try to “fix” simple and complicated problems, while women appreciate the complexity of predicaments. If it’s a predicament it can’t be fixed, and if it’s a problem, just empathizing rather than doing something may seem lame. The trick is to know which is which. Generally, if there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind, it’s probably complex, and in that case empathy is called for.

What I’m doing is asking to be “pardoned” when I’ve done something wrong, or think I may have (the Canadian in me), acknowledging regret in the rare situations when I wish I’d done something differently, and, when I’m genuinely feeling pain or suffering for my own situation or that of another I care about, briefly describing how I feel and then, as appropriate, acknowledging the other person’s suffering. And when someone expresses their own pain or suffering and I cannot honestly say I feel their pain or suffering, I simply acknowledge that suffering.

Clarity of expression means never having to say you’re sorry. Our language is so poor at conveying emotion, and the other languages I’m aware of are only marginally better. There are times I genuinely loathe language, and prefer to empathize silently, which tends to be better appreciated by animals than humans (and which does not work at all over the phone and other social technologies).

Perhaps we need to study animals to relearn their skill at conveying and detecting empathy. Perhaps we need to either abandon or improve communication tools that are limited to disembodied words, which are so clever at conveying ideas, at rhetorical expression, and at deception, and so useless at conveying things that really matter. The world needs a better way to say, and show, “I hear, I appreciate, and I care.”

Where might we find, or how might we invent, this better, nonverbal way?

And what else does the world need more of?

February 25, 2010

I Don’t Cook, I Forage

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 23:47

(This is the second of at least four ‘miniature’ posts. I’m spending most of my time these days digesting what I’ve been learning, about myself and about others, from a raft of new people I’ve met in the past month, and from the experience, for the first time in 30 years, of living alone. This isn’t giving me enough time for my usual lengthy blog articles, but I wanted to at least get these four ideas out, for your thoughts.)


There is compelling evidence that for the first million years of human existence on Earth, we were almost entirely vegetarian, living in the trees, in rainforest. Those who lived near the sea were doubly charmed: not only was there an abundance of fruits and vegetables in easy reach, there were also sea plants and sea animals easy to catch and eat. Seafood provided us with the fatty acids necessary for brain growth, and that, combined with prehistoric climate change, allowed and/or forced us to expand our range outside the rainforest. There, plants of the type we could eat were in short supply, so we adapted and became almost entirely carnivorous, with the invention of the arrowhead and the discovery of fire. Then, perhaps thirty thousand years ago, we discovered catastrophic agriculture (the fact that certain hardy grains grew plentifully and exclusively in areas ravaged by flood or fire). We learned to exploit and perpetuate this agriculture and to process the grains to be edible, and this allowed us, finally, to settle, to have children more often than once every four years (since the little ones no longer had to be carried on long migrations), to eat an astonishing variety of foods, and to desolate the Earth with our soaring population and ravenous appetites.

That is a short history of human food, as we are coming to know it. A million years foraging easily as vegetarians, perhaps a hundred thousand as struggling hunter-gatherers, and then thirty thousand as settled omnivores. Our digestive systems have adapted remarkably well, though we never did have time to evolve the speed, agility, teeth and claws needed to chase down prey and tear raw flesh, so it’s a good thing those fatty acids gave us the brains to invent tools to do these things for us. All of this is imprinted in our DNA, indelibly. We are the product of over a million years of evolution.

Many of the people I know love to cook. One of the first bloggers I got to know when I began my Salon blog was Julie Powell, whose Jule/Julia blog, book and movie are now legendary. As I remember it, Julie’s fans were less interested in her personal life (or Julia Child’s) than in exactly how that day’s recipe on page 132 of the cookbook worked out, and how other readers’ experiences with the same recipe compared to theirs.

I was married to a woman who cooked very well, and preferred that I stay out of the kitchen where I was, she felt, just in the way. I expected that now, living alone, I would rediscover a passion for cooking, and jump into my barely-touched Veganomicon with enthusiasm and abandon.

I have not. I’ve read the book, and found it well written and entertaining, but most of the recipes seem to be, well, work. I’ve ploughed through a few recipes and they turned out OK, but much of the time I prefer to just throw together a bunch of raw foods, cut ‘em up, make a salad of them, or a sandwich, or a soup, or a simple stir-fry, or just lay them out around the edge of a plate or two and eat them just as they came from the garden.

I’ve concluded that I don’t cook. I forage. Whether it’s in my kitchen with its bins of nuts and seeds and crisper drawers of vegetables and leaves and sprouts and shoots, and bowls of fruits and cupboards of breads and crackers and shelves of jams and salsas and spices, or in the local organic foodstore the Ruddy Potato or the cheaper Vancouver Whole Foods (a ferry ride and a bus ride for those like me who are now car-less),  I am the primeval gatherer. Instinct tells me what to buy, though I avoid non-vegan foods, choose local, organic and raw whenever possible, and avoid GMO and any processed foods whose ingredients aren’t natural and recognizable. But I’m not averse to buying (mostly locally) prepared foods that are not highly processed, especially when it comes to desserts or difficult or time-consuming to make foods.

I guess that makes me lazy. But I feel great kinship with our ancient ancestors. Like our cousins the (mostly vegan) bonobos, they ate an astonishing diversity of different plants, most of them as simple as bananas to obtain and eat. Eating shouldn’t have to be work. It should be easy and fast and fun, and healthy and nutritious, and it should occur when you’re hungry, not at any specified meal ‘time’. We’re natural foragers, in our kitchens and our grocery stores.

Eating is, of course, a social act, and I appreciate that there is a joy in preparing food for others to share, and in the appreciation of that gift. But still: The popularity of the ‘buffet’ shows that we still like to forage, to make personal choices, to mix things up for ourselves, to take what comes, to try stuff. That can be done with raw vegan foods too, and I can’t imagine a guest being insulted at having the choice of many fresh, well-laid-out natural foods, without the fuss and time required to actually cook anything.

I suppose I’m just too new to this cooking thing to really get it. I have at least a million years of catching up to do. What’s this desire for heat and the mingling of flavours all about, anyway? Are my taste buds missing something, or is this a cultural thing, like the desire to wear shoes?

February 24, 2010

Are We All Broken?

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 20:44

(This is the first of at least three ‘miniature’ posts. I’m spending most of my time these days digesting what I’ve been learning, about myself and about others, from a raft of new people I’ve met in the past month, and from the experience, for the first time in 30 years, of living alone. This isn’t giving me enough time for my usual lengthy blog articles, but I wanted to at least get these three ideas out, for your thoughts.)

broken egg shell

Over the past month I have heard at least a dozen candid ‘life stories’ from people, mostly in answer to the questions, “Who are you, now?”, “Why are you here?”, and “What are you going to do next?” There is a strong recurring pattern in these stories, and I don’t think it’s just because almost all these people are living on the West Coast of North America. The pattern is, to put it indelicately, brokenness. As I hear people open up and talk to me (and others, often in groups) about what they are feeling, I get a growing sense that we are all broken, wounded, suffering, seeking sanctuary, bewildered, wondering how we lost something important that was part of us.

I think the reason I never heard this clearly before is that I wasn’t listening. If you show, by your inattention, that you don’t care about other people (and I confess to having been notorious at that, to the point of acknowledging a certain misanthropy within me), they will never trust you enough to tell you what they feel. We have all been conditioned, by parents’ reprisals, by the school system, by peer pressure and by the work world, to hide what we feel, to suppress it, to take on a more stable and mature persona than the one we really are. We assess people as a result by their demeanour and their appearance, by what they do rather than who they are underneath all the gunk they have taken on to act out the identities expected of them, the only identities tolerated in this harsh, homogeneous and judgemental society.

When I suggest we are ‘broken’ I’m not saying there is something wrong with us, that we need to be ‘fixed’. I mean that we have been broken, tamed, like wild horses. We are, after all, the first domesticated species, having taken our own medicine and become ‘civilized’ before we ran roughshod over the entire planet with our civilization religion, our civilization dis-ease, this culture of fear and acquisition and disconnection.

I think despite this cultural conditioning we are all, still, as a result of a million years of living in trees and in forests and as a part of all-life-on-Earth, wild at heart. This civilization stuff is just a veneer, a cloak we wear that is ill-fitting and uncomfortable, too heavy for us, smeared with all the gunk we have taken on, a mask of what is expected and what we are not.

We are broken, damaged, suffering, but we do not need to be fixed. What we need is to rediscover who we are, authentically, and to re-become that real person, the person underneath all the acting and artifice and false personas. We need to become as wild as we always were, feral, uncivilized, reconnected.

How do we do that? It has taken a lifetime of practice to appear to become (and to the point we have taken these false identities seriously, to really become) someone we’re not. What ‘healing’ practices will it take for each of us to become who we really are? In this world where money is valued too highly and time not highly enough, can we even make enough time for such practices? What will others think and say and do if we start to become our true wild selves again? Will they fight us or follow us? Is this the first step, perhaps the only needed step, to walking away from a civilization that no longer serves us and which is destroying our planet?

That’s a lot of questions, and for now that’s all I have. Tell me what you think. I’m listening. Go wild.

February 18, 2010

Imagining Post-Industrial Society

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 18:30

virtuous natural cycle

I have spent much of the past two weeks in community with others, immersed in discovering how, when and why community works, and how it might be encouraged to work better. I was exposed to a diversity of alternative cultures, all of them progressive, but some spiritual and others not, some healthy and others not, some informed and others not, some joyful and others not. In addition to learning some important things about myself, I also have achieved, I think, a better understanding of human nature, and why community is so hard to achieve in our modern, anti-communitarian, disconnected (from all-life-on-Earth and from the needs, knowledge and desires of humans) society.

These communities each have their own unique micro-economy, more or less generous, more or less integrated with the modern industrial economy, more or less functional. This has got me thinking again about the Gift Economy and other alternatives to industrial economy.

The much-envisioned successor to our dysfunctional, teetering industrial economy has been given many names: the steady-state economy, the sustainable economy, the information economy, the attention economy, the relationship economy, the gift economy, the abundance economy, the generosity economy. Perhaps the challenge with envisioning and naming this economy stems from the fact one cannot sustainably separate economic systems from all the other systems that make up a society: social, educational, technological, media, political, health etc. These systems need to be aligned, and in the industrial society that is nearing its end, they are:

  • Industrial economy – focused on uninterrupted growth of material production, acquisition, ‘ownership’ and consumption by humans, totally ignoring all ‘external’ costs, and based on large-scale centralization and concentration of wealth (“globalization”), on principles of scarcity and on a pseudo-“market” that steals from the poor and middle class and rewards the rich
  • Industrial society – conversation and social activity centre around what is being consumed (media, brand names, political propaganda, advertising)
  • Industrial education – teaching students to be obedient to hierarchy and industrial authority, fearful, dependent, ignorant of history and what is really happening in the world, unthinking, uncritical, and unimaginative
  • Industrial technology – designed to con ‘consumers’ into believing they can consume more, and grow endlessly, provided it is done ‘smartly’, and deployed to control, to stifle innovation, and, of course, to wage war on invented enemies as a means of preoccupying and distracting these consumers from realizing how the world really works
  • Industrial media – contrived to dumb down the citizenry, oversimplify issues into emotional dichotomies, and entertain in lieu of informing, to reduce expectations and reinforce the dogma of the corporatist elite
  • Industrial politics – two Tweedledum and Tweedledee interchangeable political parties in each jurisdiction are carefully designed to provide the illusion of choice and democracy, while massive centralization (which the corporatists call “globalization”) is employed to provide the small elite corpocracy with exclusive and discreet access to political ‘leaders’, thus ensuring extension of their wealth and power, while protecting those ‘leaders’ and the corporatists who control them from the wrath of ‘ordinary’ citizens
  • Industrial health – designed to ensure the rich are coddled and the rest are kept in fear and self-blame for the illnesses caused by the industrial food system and the wastes and excesses of the rest of the industrial economy, so that the masses are neither willing nor able to challenge the hierarchy or the principles of the industrial systems

An economy and society that would live up to any of the alternative post-industrial names above is so utterly different from the industrial model that it is almost impossible to imagine getting there from here. Which is exactly what the proponents of the industrial systems want – a sense of the hopelessness of reform, a sense that the industrial way is the only way to live. Here’s how I imagine these same seven systems in a post-industrial world:

  • Post-industrial economy – focused on the well-being of all (rich and poor, human and non-human), egalitarian, non-materialistic, sustainable without growth, community-based, hugely diverse, and self-sufficient within each community; achieved through the generosity and reciprocity of loving, caring, attentive citizens living in relationship with community and with all-life-on-Earth, through stewardship of the land for all future generations
  • Post-industrial society – conversation and social life revolve around care, love, respect, curiosity, diversity, discovery, creation, re-creation and learning, and the focus is almost entirely local, without losing sight of the fact that each creature and community is an essential part of all-life-on-Earth
  • Post-industrial education – revolves around self-discovery, self-exploration, self-learning, creativity, imagination, self-sufficiency and self-empowerment within and as part of interdependent community, life-long, undirected, and achieved through observation, practice and experimentation
  • Post-industrial technology – designed to make life simpler, healthier and more leisurely, and to enhance learning
  • Post-industrial media – designed to inform, enable, enrich, make interesting and facilitate learning, conversation, imagination and understanding of how things really are and, when necessary, what might and must be done or done differently
  • Post-industrial politics – largely dormant, since in an egalitarian, abundant, uncrowded, peaceful world there is little need for political decisions or action; activated at the community level to seek consensus and resolve dissention, inequality, unfairness or conflict when necessary
  • Post-industrial health – focused on the prevention, self-diagnosis and self-treatment of illness and injury (physical and emotional), and on the reduction of pain and suffering rather than the longevity of life; community-based and accepting of and adaptive to natural catastrophes and illnesses

Not surprisingly, these qualities are those of natural systems – those that existed in the millennia before modern civilization, and those that still prevail in uncivilized and non-human societies. For that reason I choose to call these systems “natural” rather than “post-industrial” systems, since while I think they will emerge from the ruins of industrial society once civilization collapses, I am not sure that what remains of human society will have the context or culture to realize them as such. They are as much pre-industrial (or at least pre-civilization) as post-industrial. Yet they are not nostalgic, and do not presume we could ever return to the culture from which civilization evolved.

Here is the contrast between Industrial and Natural Systems again, boiled down to a few essential descriptors and differentiators:

System Industrial System Natural System
Economy Based on growth, material consumption, acquisition, centralization, scarcity and inequality Based on well-being, sufficiency, love, community, abundance, generosity and egalitarianism
Society Based on consumption activities Based on love/caring, conversation/sharing, community and creative activities
Education Creates dependence, fear, obedience and passivity Creates self-sufficiency, respect, curiosity and critical thinking
Technological Vehicle for control, stifling innovation, and war Vehicle for discovery, learning and joy
Media Designed to disinform, propagandize, and distract Designed to inform, stimulate imagination and creativity, and draw attention to needed action
Politics Means to concentrate and protect wealth and power, and to wage war Means to achieve consensus and resolve conflict peacefully
Health Designed to treat and increase the longevity of the rich and further disempower the rest of society Designed to prevent, self-diagnose and self-treat illness and injury simply and hence improve quality of life and reduce suffering for all

Read this table and it’s hard not to conclude “you can’t get there from here”. That may be true, but there are many things we can do to ‘model’ the Natural Systems on the right side of this chart in our own communities, especially if these communities are relatively small and progressive in their thinking. I’ve seen lots of examples in the last two weeks of communities that behave very much as if they were Natural Systems, despite the impracticability and near-impossibility of completely extracting one’s community from the global industrial society:

  • I’ve seen communities where there are no ‘price tags’ on the goods and services exchanged, where because the community is small and intimate, no one can ‘cheat’ the system by taking more than s/he gives, at least not for long. There is no money in these communities, no ‘currency’, no accounting for what’s given and taken. They trust each other to be fair. It doesn’t always work, but usually it does.
  • I’ve seen communities where what is valued is not possessions and income but collective well-being. Some members of these communities have reached ‘zero footprint’ and have also made a pledge to leave nothing behind — to give away everything they come into possession of before they die. Some of them live quite comfortably (if insecurely) on incomes that to most of us would be seen to be sub-poverty-level.
  • There is an interesting and ingenious new business model that Jerry Michalski has developed that provides three ways for people who are creative, or have other talents that are not ‘commercial’ in the industrial economy model, to ‘make a living’ comfortably without having to worry about selling anything. I’ll be writing more about this soon.
  • I’ve seen communities where time spent learning (about oneself, and about the world, developing capacities and competencies), and time spent caring for others, is valued much more highly than time selling products into a commercial market. In fact, in these communities, participating in the industrial economy is viewed with some pity: “Why are you wasting your time and talent earning money when it could be put to much better use?”
  • I’ve seen communities where unschooling is the norm and learning is lifelong and continuous. The children in these communities are more curious, more mature, more informed, more creative, more articulate, and more connected to everything than their counterparts in the institutional industrial education system. I worry for them: If they eventually try to enroll in the industrial education system, how long will they last, and what will they think of a world where most of their peers accept this as something of value?
  • I’ve seen local community-based media that contain real, actionable news, and interesting, novel ideas, knowledge, insights and perspectives that are used in the community for lively and generous debate and conversation.
  • I’ve seen local community-based ‘political’ organizations focused on specific, real local problems, organizations that encourage dialogue and innovation and which produce a broad local consensus on how to live better in community.
  • I’ve seen local ‘wellness’ organizations, some of them Gift Economy based (pay what you can afford and think appropriate) that appear far more effective at improving the physical and mental health of members of their communities than institutional industrial health clinics and facilities. A key part of their success is that they work with the patient to co-develop and co-operate a personal wellness program, instead of doing their health work to and on the patient, as if the patient were a dumb machine.

Lots more on this topic to follow in the coming weeks. If you have examples of models of Natural Systems behaviours and successes, please tell us about them.

February 12, 2010

Links and Tweets of the Week/Month: February 11, 2010

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 11:16

rice crop art

artwork constructed of hundreds of thousands of rice plants in japan, seen from an aerial view; thanks to tree for the link


25 Plants You Should Consider Growing: Unlike most “Post-Civ” bloggers I rarely write about growing your own food. Sharon Astyk often does, and this low-maintenance edibles list is inspiring. Time to start some serious gardening. The plants are:

buckwheat beets turnips sumac elderberries
sweet potatoes flax maximilian sunflowers parsnips sunflowers
blueberries popcorn hopi orange winter squash potato onions rice
amaranth kidney beans annual alfalfa winecap mushrooms jerusalem artichokes
chick peas rhubarb potatoes filberts/hazelnuts kale/collards

Walking Away From Mortgages: Many Americans are now living in homes with mortgages that are greater than the value of their property. Why would anyone continue to pay a debt that is higher than the asset it secures? After all, big corporations view pulling the plug on unsuccessful ventures and sticking the debtholders and shareholders a key business strategy. The whole idea of “risk capital” is that the interest and other fees you earn for lending to risky borrowers compensates you for the risk, so that if the borrower defaults you accept the loss and chalk it up to experience. Yet for some reason homeowners feel some moral obligation to throw good money endlessly after bad. This of course is exactly what the corporatists, who have no such moral compunction, are counting on, what economists call moral asymmetry. The logical response would be to tell the lender to write off the excess of the mortgage beyond the property value, and refinance the mortgage accordingly. Apparently in some US states (called “recourse” states) this moral asymmetry is institutionalized — lenders can go after a mortgagee’s personal assets if they default. There is, of course, no recourse when these corporatists walk away from debts, offshore their operations, and stiff the taxpayers whose subsidies and bailouts paid for the corporatists’ ventures. Where is the sense of outrage here: Have the education system and media so dumbed down the citizens that they can’t see this for the cruel and criminal con it is? If everyone with a mortgage greater than the value of their home either walked away from it, or was legally empowered to require the excess to be written off as the “bad debt” it is, then of course there would be many bank failures and plunging profits. That’s how the market system is supposed to work. The lenders, of course, want it both ways, and Obama and the citizens seem blithely willing to let them have it.

The Bottleneck Century: William Catton, author of Overshoot, has a new book Bottleneck, that describes the collapse of civilization in this century, and forecasts an 85% human population die-off to about one billion people. To Catton, the culprits are overpopulation, overconsumption, and short-termism, compounded by competition, the ideological corruption of language, and hyper-specialization that have reduced our societal resilience. His message is very consistent with John Gray’s, and mine, in asserting that collapse cannot be prevented, but that working models of a better way to live and make a living, developed now, might benefit its survivors. Thanks to David Hodgson for the link.

Until the Party’s Over: Stoneleigh describes the mania that allows us to be collectively irresponsible in ‘boom’ times: “When people feel they are operating within the bounds of properly structured criminality, they feel no personal responsibility and do not fear consequences.” Now, will someone please turn the lights off?

Growth Isn’t Possible: A new research report from the New Economics Foundation concludes that we have to move immediately to a zero-growth, steady-state economy if we want to get atmospheric carbon concentration under 350 ppm in time. Of course, that’s not possible either.

Shorter Showers and the Nature of Complexity: Melanie Williams weighs in on the Derrick Jensen argument that individual action is inadequate in dealing with the economic, energy and ecological collapses we now face. Derrick argues that actions like taking shorter showers, recycling, and turning down/up thermostats, even if taken by millions of people, will have an insignificant impact on these problems, and that, in addition to this, we need to take direct, personal action in areas where we have particular expertise (Derrick’s is in dismantling dams that no longer serve any useful function, and which destroy habitats and migration). Melanie argues that our collective power as consumers is enormous. She also lists “Personal Ways to Disengage from the System: sell your car, don’t buy processed foods, build passive solar homes, give up gadgets, use a clothesline, don’t use airplanes, stay where you are.” I think we need to do both, but I am also convinced that even doing both will not be enough.

Manifesto for Relocalization: The New Rules Project outlines steps that will be needed to relocalize our economy before the industrial economy collapses. Thanks to Tree for the link.

View Collapse Online: The film about Michael Ruppert, Collapse, is now downloadable on YouTube in 8 parts. Thanks to David Hodgson for the link.

“Steady-State Economy” Idea Goes Mainstream: The links and articles on the site are lame, but it’s good to see a broad-based appreciation of the principles of moving to a zero-growth economy, and an acceptance that this is a viable option for the future, albeit one that is nowhere in sight.


Eight Maxims of the New Media: A great recap from Mark Coddington. Thanks to Jerry Michalski, the smartest guy on the freakin’ planet, for the link:

  1. “Do what you do best and link to the rest.”
  2. “If the news is important, it will find me.”
  3. “Information wants to be free.” (actually Marshall McLuhan said this first, not Stewart Brand)
  4. “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.”
  5. “Our readers know more than we do.”
  6. “The people formerly known as the audience”
  7. “The sources go direct.” (i.e. intermediaries that add no real value are toast)
  8. “Transparency is the new objectivity.”

Electric Bicycles, for Better and for Worse: For those, like me, trying to become car-free, electric bicycles would seem to be an important part of the solution. But China seems destined to wreck this green technology opportunity as well: Whereas a quality electric bicycle costs about $2,000 and an upgrade kit for your manual bicycle $1,000, China, home to a staggering 120 million electric bicycles, is dumping heavy, shoddy electric scooter “bicycles” (where the pedals are just there to skirt licensing and insurance regulations), into the Western market for $500.

Oregon Taxes the Rich: Bucking the historical, geographical and ideological trend, Oregon voters approved tax increases for rich individuals and corporations to pay for social services. Maybe it will start a trend.

Fifteen Emerging Conservation Issues: Most of the complexity of natural ecosystems remains unfathomable to us, but here is an intriguing list of 15 emerging issues in conservation from synthetic meats to biochar — newly discovered problems and interesting ideas — that need more study. Beware unintended consequences. Thanks to Dave Riddell for the link.


Elizabeth Warren on How Big Banks Still Don’t Get It: The head of the TARP oversight board says that financial institutions will simply not participate in the economic reforms needed to prevent the disappearance of the middle class and that they still feel entitled to obscene salaries and profits. Only by wrenching power and wealth away from these organizations will we be able to redistribute wealth sufficiently to prevent the US from becoming essentially a third-world elite-versus-everyone-else nation, she says. Thanks to Raffi Aftandelian for the link.

Some Religions are More Equal Than Others: An American Christian hate group is trying to exploit the extreme right-wing orientation of the US Supreme Courts to narrow religious rights in that country to just Christianity and selected other large organized monotheistic religions. Thanks to Tree for the link.

Last Word on Citizen United Case: Glenn Greenwald and Kevin Drum talk sense about the Supreme Court’s decision to throw out all restrictions on corporate campaign financing, when others can’t see past the ideology and emotion it has stirred up. The decision really is logical in the context of the granting of personhood to corporations and the breadth of the US First Amendment. There is an answer: To elect policy-makers and appoint Supreme Court judges to undo corporate personhood rights and recognize that non-profit organizations deserve rights that for-profit corporations do not. But don’t expect to see that happen anytime soon.

Post-Copenhagen Climate Process at a Standstill: Copenhagen was a disaster, proof that multilateral accord even on urgent matters is essentially hopeless as each country defends its turf and national agenda, but the discussions that were supposed to make things better in 2010 are going even more badly.

Downer of the Month: If you still foster any hope that the mainstream media might somehow help raise ecological consciousness, just watch this pathetic car commercial, which was shown during the Superbowl and has been seen by millions since. Then read the even more pathetic comments by viewers. A sure-fire cure for optimism.


Music for reflection and meditation from Japan: MARTH. Thanks to Miralee for the link.

Silly pictures from the I Can Has Cheezburgers / Lolcats folks: There I Fixed It: unsafe fixes and your tax dollars at work.


From Sharon Astyk, on the suffering of men, and how it differs from that of women:

Statistics from cultures undergoing major crises seem to bear out the assumption that often, women adapt better than men to many difficult situations.  The decrease in lifespans in the former Soviet Union that accompanied the collapse was in part due to loss of health care, but a lot of it had to do with rises in suicide rates, stress and alcohol abuse.  At one point, the division between lifespans for women in Russia and for men was more than a decade.

This does not mean that every man facing a transition into a poorer, less energy rich world is doomed to crisis.  But I think it is important to talk about – because just as I’ve written many times about the changes that peak oil and climate change and their economic consequences are likely to bring about for women, the ones that come for men are important and real.  All men, and all  of us who love husbands, fathers, brothers, friends, sons need to be aware of these  issues – to be aware of the degree to which watching your world unravel seems to engender different responses.  Women who turn to each other, who talk, whose identities may be more complexly built on a mix of personal and professional identities may not grasp how hard this is for the men in our lives to face unemployment and shifts in everything they’ve known. I think this is an important thing to be able to be open about, for both men and women, and also and important thing to be conscious of.

Have you had this experience, either personally or for someone you cared about?  None of us want to see the rates of suicide rising. None of us want to watch the guys in our life struggling.  None of us want them to turn to drugs and drink to dull a sense of loss.  Of course many men won’t.  In many cases it is the women who struggle with these issues.  But overwhelmingly history suggests that the psychological trauma of watching your world transformed often strikes men, particularly men of middle age and above, harder than it does women.  How do we soften the blow?

February 6, 2010

Hacking Massively Complicated Systems

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 11:19


As most of my readers know, I’m in the process of retiring, and reorienting my life towards three sets of practices, illustrated above and inspired by the work of Joanna Macy. These three sets of practices are:

  1. Competency and capacity-building (personal and collective)
  2. New model creation (developing working models of better ways to live and make a living)
  3. Activism (work to undermine industrial systems so that they collapse and make room for the new models)

One aspect of this third set of practices that I’m hoping to focus on is what might be called ‘hacking massively complicated systems’.

Just to explain what I mean by ‘massively complicated’: while social and ecological systems are inherently complex — evolutionary, effective (but inefficient), and resilient — most of the political, economic and corporate systems that are driving our civilization off the edge of a cliff are, by contrast, complicated systems – efficient but dysfunctional, centralized, inflexible, and massive (mostly global).

Complicated systems are mostly man-made and somewhat mechanistic. They are built like a car engine (lots of parts, but a finite number, such that you can see cause and effect and can predict the results of an intervention). As a result, they are inherently fragile: they break down easily, and constantly, and they’re vulnerable to sabotage.

By contrast, complex systems, like ecosystems and communities, have an infinite number of variables, and it is virtually impossible to discern cause from effect, or to predict what the result of an intervention will be. As a result, complex systems are much harder to hack.

I have written before about how we might use Donella Meadows’ 12 Ways to Intervene in a System to hack massive complicated systems such as the Alberta Tar Sands, or the Industrial Agriculture system. By hacking, I mean disruptive intervention. I’m impatient with the tried-and-true methods of trying to confront The Man, which in my experience are mostly negative, ineffectual, blunt, directly confrontational, and oriented to try to change public opinion rather than directly disrupt what these systems are doing. Worse, they play to the advantages of the system we’re trying to undermine.

Why can’t we use the same ingenuity to hack these systems and reduce the damage they do, that was used by the architects to create these systems in the first place? For example, in fighting the Tar Sands, how might we hack the financial and reputational systems of Big Oil to undermine the credibility of their financial and assay data, to the point lenders would stop lending them the vast amounts of money they need for their horrific ‘development’?

I was fortunate to have the opportunity yesterday in California to speak to a very smart group (including some experienced and wily hackers) about this challenge – how do we hack these destructive systems to undermine them, to exploit their centralization and vulnerabilities, to bring them down? Here is what some of the group (besides reminding me about the value of Donella Meadows’ systems approach) told me:

  • Be careful about the assumptions we make in any change movement. If we’re going to brainstorm ways to hack industrial growth systems, we’d better be confident that we’re fighting the right enemy and not precipitating something that might be even worse.
  • We may be more effective (both directly and in terms of the stickiness and transmissibility of our message) if we use more of the Yes Men type of approach – galvanizing people through wit, humour and play rather than anger.
  • Part of the set of approaches we use to hack these systems should be Carrot-Mob actions that reward sustainable behaviour as well as punishing destructive behaviour.
  • We should be looking at the area of Emotional Design for inspiration for ideas on effective hacking of these systems.
  • We should consider constructing “Ethical Mosquitoes” – organizations that mimic all of the processes and behaviours of the dysfunctional organizations that are part of these destructive systems, but differ sharply and positively in the few ways that these organizations are most destructive. This focuses attention on what is wrong with these organizations and processes and provides a clear ‘migration path’ to less destructive and more sustainable behaviour.
  • We should expect that the more adversarial we are to the organizations and systems we want to undermine, the more we will invite responses – propaganda, greenwashing, legal and political opposition to what we’re doing. We need to be clever to appear less adversarial than we really are. But on the other hand, there is power in bringing to bear social disgust against the more repugnant aspects of these systems.
  • We need to have moles working inside these organizations and systems who will help us undermine and topple them from the inside while we’re working to undermine and topple them from the outside. There are good people still trying to fix the system from within, that we need to tap into.
  • It’s better to suggest and show people a better solution than to simply criticize what’s wrong with the existing systems.
  • Be aware that, beneath the merely massively complicated economic and political systems we’ve erected, that are behind so much of the damage, there are people in social systems in these organizations, and these social systems are complex, not complicated.
  • It was suggested that we look at the book Influence, the work of the “world’s greatest hacker” Pablos Holman, and the book Power vs. Force
  • We should look at how and why the music industry was undermined and destroyed, as a model for how to undermine some of these other systems.
  • A small segment of the group took the position that all of the above ideas are politically naïve, and that nothing less than a violent, revolutionary confrontation, a war against civilization, can possibly work.

What became very clear to me from this discussion was the need for those of us who want to make the world a better place to get a much sounder basic understanding of complexity theory and the challenges of bringing about change in complex versus complicated systems. As much as I love my friend Dave Snowden’s work in this area, it’s pretty dense reading, and something more basic and accessible is needed. One of the people in the group I was speaking with has written a book on complexity that I’m looking forward to reading.

So when I hold my Open Space sessions on hacking the Tar Sands and hacking Industrial Agriculture this Spring, I’ll need to ensure that participants have a grounding in social complexity theory before we start. And I’ll have to include some of this august group, who I thank for the opportunity for a first airing of my third set of intended practices.

The ultimate objective is to evolve a methodology that can can be used to hack any destructive complicated system.

February 1, 2010

Why is Community So Hard?

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 20:37

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In a recent article, I discussed one of the great challenges of creating model communities that might, when our civilization collapses later in this century, show the survivors a better way to live and make a living than the fragile, hostile, globalized, centralized, dependent, anonymous, suspicious urban and ex-urban agglomerations most of us live in now.

That challenge was and is the cult of individualism – the bizarre worldview that holds that we have a ‘right’ to acquire, possess, ‘enjoy’ and refuse to others, anything (and, if we were to be honest, anyone) we can ‘afford’ (no matter how our money was acquired), including as much property as we choose, and that we have a responsibility to and for no one except ourselves and our immediate families. The corollary of this cult worldview is that we have a ‘right’ to secure that property with guns and fences and locks, and that those who have no money or property have only themselves to blame and, in a sense, deserve to suffer illness, poverty, hunger and an early death..

The cult of individualism is likewise the cult of materialism and consumerism – our ‘value’ is a function of what we own and how much we consume.

As my friend Nelda Martinez pointed out, this pervasive and now-global worldview is the antithesis of communitarianism, and poisons every effort to make community work, because as soon as the desires or needs of the individual and those of the community are at odds, the individual always wins – s/he walks away from community, or refuses to accept its authority and the commensurate responsibility that every member of a real community must embrace. The idea that everything belongs to the community (or beyond that, that it belongs to no one and that community belongs to the land) is anathema to the cult worldview, totally irreconcilable with it. The idea that authority resides in the collective, achieved by consensus and continuously re-earned, rather than being bought by money or achieved by wielding political power coercively, is likewise unthinkable. The idea that we are individually and collectively responsible for the well-being of all life in our community and through it for all-life-on-Earth, now and for generations to come, is unfathomable.

It is hard to imagine how we could make the transition back from this only-life-we-know cult worldview to a communitarian worldview, but as Nelda explains that is precisely what we must do if we are to hope to find a sustainable alternative way to live and make a living.

In a comment on my initial post, another reader, Sue Greer-Pitt, points out that there is another major challenge to making community work in our modern civilization. That is our inherent desire to find and make a life with people like ourselves, rather than with the people who happen to be our immediate neighbours. As Sue puts it, “Community has always been about finding others like ourselves and imposing conformity. “ Our modern geographic transience, she says, can be ascribed to the fact that this “exclusive” conformity and closed-ness of homogeneous communities left most of us, in a world with an ever-exploding population, out in the cold, driven to the anonymous cities in search of those who would accept us, seeking with other “ex-communicated” people others who share our worldview with whom we can make our own exclusive community.

It’s hard to accept that this intolerance of difference and diversity, this xenophobia, with its undercurrent of racism and every other –ism, is truly the inherent nature of our species. When we were a steady-state species in a world of abundance without growth, this constant dynamic of separation and reconnection was sustainable (if disruptive). In the pre-industrial world where you could expect to meet perhaps a few hundred people in your whole life, your choices of who to live with were few, and you either settled for those you knew who you liked best, or opted for a solitary life, essentially self-selecting yourself out of the gene pool.

But when you can expect to meet and choose from among perhaps tens of thousands, even millions of people, and when at the same time the world has run out of space for new pioneer communities, and has become so monstrously overpopulated and crowded with humans that our world of abundance has become a world of previously unimaginable scarcity, competition and suffering, you have the makings of a total societal breakdown. Too much choice, too much unrealistic, impossible expectation, too much friction between heterogeneous neighbourhoods barely concealing their fear of and loathing for each other.

It would be magical thinking to believe we are going to solve the horrific problem of overpopulation and exhaustion of our resources and our natural world, or that we are going to suddenly change, on a large scale, millions of years of evolved human nature. So what can we do? How can we create viable model communities that really work, in the face of the double dilemma of the pervasive cult of individualism and our inherent and insatiable longing for homogeneity, to be comfortable with others ‘like us’, who we can work with and play with in activities that we share a love of, and share ideas with sympathetically, and just love without fear or restraint?

My friend Joe Bageant’s son says that “Community is born of necessity”. His answer to this question is that we will create workable, sustainable communitarian models when we have no other choice, when the only life we know has ceased to be.

While I think this is true, I wonder whether there are enough of us now who see the necessity of putting aside our idealism, recognizing and overcoming our individualism and desire for homogeneity, and creating what my brother calls Gravitational Communities – groups of people who have enough of a common worldview, and enough self-knowledge and self-esteem, to do the hard, post-modern pioneering work of creating model communities that really work, to show others what is possible, or at least what will be when there is no alternative.

How would we go about finding people altruistic and self-aware enough (and not too busy dealing with the all-consuming needs of the moment in industrial society) to create such model communities ‘gravitationally’? And if we found them, how would we go about creating, consensually, collaboratively, collectively, models that will serve as a beacon for others, and as perhaps the only useful legacy of civilization culture for the survivors of its collapse?

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