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.

October 30, 2010

A Culture of Dependence

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 23:52
Essential Human Activities How We Did This Before Civilization Culture (30,000 years ago)
How We Do It Now Under Civilization Culture
Learning and Staying Informed self-directed, with self-selected mentors dependent on massive hierarchical education systems and dumbed-down mainstream media
Making a Living simple and instinctive (we gathered what we needed from nature’s abundant wild resources) dependent on large corporate employers “offering” us jobs
Staying Healthy preventive, self-diagnosis and self-treatment dependent on massive cumbersome medical systems
Getting Around on foot dependent on complex, fragile transportation systems and cheap oil
Dealing with Antisocial Behaviour self-managed in community, rehabilitative dependent on punitive, coercive, invasive, incarcerating centralized security systems
Eating Well simple and instinctive (we gathered what we needed from nature’s abundant wild resources) dependent on huge, cruel, toxic agribusiness and factory farms
Clothing Ourselves unnecessary (self-adornment is craft, art and fun) dependent on globalized, exploitative trade in shoddily-made clothing
Sheltering Ourselves, Keeping Warm unnecessary (the forest provided all the shelter and warmth we needed) dependent on globalized, exploitative trade in materials for constructing shoddily-made buildings, and on cheap oil
Entertaining Ourselves self-developed and self-performed in community (art, music, performance arts) dependent on massive over-hyped, overpriced ‘entertainment industry’ products
Coping with Retirement not applicable (there was no arduous ‘work’ to retire from) dependent on inflated housing valuations and ever-increasing stock market prices to provide annuity income

Before civilization culture, children were dependent on their parents for a period of about ten years, during which, following the model of most wild creatures, they spent most of their waking lives learning to be independent, through play.

So now let’s look at what happens to us in modern civilization culture:

  1. We’re dependent on our parents essentially until we get “full-time” work, which on average in North America is now age 23.
  2. Our education system teaches us nothing that is of any use in living independently. In fact, it “teaches” us that our lot in life is to work hard to get good marks (for which we’re dependent on that education system) so that we will be sufficiently attractive to potential employers that they will “offer” us a job.
  3. At this point we will become dependent on our employers, and on their business’ success and continuity, until we are wealthy enough to retire or dead, whichever comes first. That means for almost all of us we are dependent on the continued growth of the unsustainable global industrial economy.
  4. We are perpetually dependent on governments for our education services, our health services, and most transportation and other essential social services. If we are unfortunate enough to live in the US or a third world nation, we are also probably dependent on our employers for our health services.
  5. Because we are not taught to take responsibility for our own health, most of us are also dependent on doctors and their Big Pharma friends for our continued health and well-being.
  6. Because we no longer live in communities that are able to look after their own problems, most of us are dependent on centralized police and other security services that have acquired almost unlimited authority over us, for our “safety”.
  7. Because most of us no longer know how to (or live in areas where we cannot adequately) grow our own food or make or repair our our clothing, personal transportation vehicles, buildings and other essentials, we are dependent on a vast subsidized centralized global agribusiness oligopoly, on cheap materials and labour extorted from struggling nations, and on cheap energy in ever-increasing amounts, for these essentials of life.
  8. Because we have forgotten how to imagine and how to amuse ourselves, most of us have become dependent on mainstream media organizations, conglomerates that used to provide both information and entertainment, for our musical, audio and visual entertainment. Few seem to have noticed that most of the mainstream media have ceased providing any information at all, and those that still do are seemingly all in financial difficulty.
  9. Because virtually all of the additional wealth created in the last 40 years has accrued to the wealthiest 1% of the population, the rest of us have become dependent on ever-increasing amounts of indebtedness to be able to buy what we need to live.
  10. Because we live mostly in shoddy, vulnerable, built-to-fail buildings, and because our economy relies on just-in-time shipment of goods and materials around the globe, and is designed to be efficient, with no built-in redundancy, rather than effective, we are dependent upon a continuation of the cool, peaceful and stable (by historical standards) climate we have enjoyed for the last ten millennia.
  11. If we are fortunate enough to acquire enough wealth to retire, we are (unless we have a rare and generous defined benefit pension) dependent for the rest of our lives on substantial and consistent annual increases in stock market valuations to fund our retirement. That means we are dependent on the continued growth of the unsustainable global industrial economy, even when we are no longer contributing actively to it.

The chart above contrasts the dependencies of prehistoric and wild cultures, with those of today’s civilization culture.

I’m not saying we can or should attempt to live completely self-sufficient lives. I am saying that we are now at a stage where we are utterly dependent on institutions that are unwieldy, unsustainable, and collapsing. They are completely undependable.

An increasing number of us realize this, and have attempted to become more self-sufficient. How are we doing? Here’s my scorecard:

  • Dependence on education systems: Worsening. We spend more and more of our lives in these largely useless and damaging systems, and most of us have been brainwashed to the point we believe that only “special” children can be deschooled and are capable of self-directed learning.
  • Dependence on big corporate employers: Worsening. As employers dump more an more workers into the ranks of the unemployed, and as our over-stretched and debt-submerged economy teeters, more people are fighting for fewer jobs. Almost no one is learning how to make a living for themselves (our education systems don’t teach this), and most people have been brainwashed to believe they could never make a living for themselves.
  • Dependence on governments: Staying the Same. It’s easy to blame governments for all our ills, but research consistently shows that it is their unwieldy size and detachment from the people they represent, not the non-competitive nature of governments, that is to blame for their inefficiency, and that large public organizations are actually more effective and just as efficient as private organizations doing the same work. Nevertheless, when national and state/provincial governments collapse, we’ll be in big trouble, because so few at the community level have the competencies needed to take over the services big government agencies and departments provide.
  • Dependence on the medical establishment: Worsening. In most affluent nations health care costs are skyrocketing while quality of care is not improving, so health care systems are close to collapse. Most people don’t know how to prevent illness and accident, nor how to self-diagnose and self-treat even simple ailments. The health care system continues to encourage that ignorance, and what’s making it all worse is that the average age of our population is increasing, and hence the average citizen needs more services every year.
  • Dependence on security authorities: Worsening. As we become more globalized and more mobile, we have become more anonymous and isolated from each other and hence more dependent on centralized institutions to keep us safe from each other. And as income and wealth disparities rise, so does injustice, anger, and desperation, and therefore crime, violence and war.
  • Dependence on agribusiness: Worsening. Factory farming is now a global phenomenon. Affordable food now depends on massive subsidies, animal cruelty, homogenization and chemical treatment of everything we eat (and our soils), exploitative international trade, and availability of ever more cheap energy.
  • Dependence on exploitative international trade: Worsening. Globalization continues to eviscerate the effective production of goods locally, and is now likewise making local provision of services non-viable. Increasingly the people of affluent nations no longer make anything, and provide ever fewer services. All we contribute to the economy is consumption.
  • Dependence on cheap, abundant energy: Worsening. The achieved and possible improvements from renewable energy, technology, and our modest conservation efforts, are dwarfed by the soaring and insatiable energy demand from China and India, where almost everything that used to be made in affluent nations is now made, and whose people are seeking a US-style life and level of consumption and waste.
  • Dependence on mainstream media: Staying the Same. We have won some victories online, and there is at least a voice to counter the corporatist media conglomerates, but that voice remains imperilled by corporations seeking to ‘own’ all the channels to and from the Internet. And the average citizen is just as dependent on the mainstream media for entertainment as ever, and is no longer critically consuming any information at all, just accepting the propaganda they’re fed.
  • Dependence on increasing debt and credit: Worsening. Except for the wealthiest 1% of the population, real income has declined since the 1970s, and all the apparent increase in wealth is illusory — it’s all dependent on ever-increasing amounts of unrepayable debts. The “recovery” of the industrial growth economy now depends on cheap and abundant credit and a willingness of citizens to get even deeper into debt.
  • Dependence on a stable climate: Worsening. Our economy is increasingly global, relying on global movement of people, products and materials anywhere we need them on short notice. And more and more of us are living in ghettos and shoddy buildings not built to last more than a few decades before they start to fall apart, and not built to endure violent climate events.
  • Dependence on the unregulated industrial growth economy: Worsening. In addition to our reliance on this unsustainable economy for employment, energy, health, entertainment and essential services, we depend on it to maintain the value of our homes (our primary collateral for our ever-growing debt), investments and pensions. And as this economy falters, its corporate interests are pressuring their corporatist political friends to prop it up by dismantling or ignoring the few regulations that prevent them from becoming a psychopathic, oligopolistic clique of price-fixing, environmentally-ruinous thugs.

We are, in short, dependent on a complex set of unsustainable systems, and that dependence is getting worse. So what are we to do?

I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to ‘save’ these systems, or most of the people who just aren’t aware or capable enough to wean themselves off them. But those of us who want to be models of more independent, self-sufficient ways of living, I think the best approach is the same one nature uses to wean young wild creatures off their parents: play. Here’s some things we could play at:

  • unschooling ourselves and our children
  • natural entrepreneurship: learning how to make a living for ourselves, doing what we’re meant to do
  • walking and cycling, instead of using energy-inefficient vehicles
  • taking charge of our own health: prevention, exercise, self-diagnosing, self-treatment
  • living in community e.g. creating our own self-organized and self-managed community centres and other community-shared resources; looking after our own security and conveying important and actionable news and information among and between communities
  • singing, playing instruments, acting, drawing, and participative non-competitive sports
  • gardening and permaculture, eating a vegan diet (and learning to cook delicious meals for ourselves), learning to make our own clothes, learning to construct zero-net-energy, zero-waste buildings, learning to repair instead of replace, learning to buy less (and shop more carefully), and sharing instead of buying equipment
  • practicing emergency preparedness in our communities, through simulations and table-top scenario planning exercises

Why “play”? Because play is all about learning by experiment, joyfully, and being fully open to outcome. In the greater scheme of things, our skunkwork efforts at reinventing a working, community-based culture are not going to change much. They are not scalable (trying to do things at a scale larger than what can be managed through local personal responsibility is part of what got us into this mess). Most of them will probably fail. But a few of them will succeed, spectacularly, and perhaps give the survivors of our crumbling civilization culture some ideas on how to do things better next time.

I’m starting to explore some of these, and I’ll be writing about some of my playful experiments in coming months.

October 15, 2010

Links and Tweets for the Month: October 15, 2010

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 03:24

organic permaculture Marc Roberts

cartoon by Marc Roberts — thanks to Dwight Towers for pointing me to his great cartoons; there’s another later in this post


The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged (or Tweeted): Sharon Astyk on our overuse of computers and the folly of technophile thinking:

[Citing Jared Diamond] “All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology. The rapid advances in technology during the 20th century have been creating difficult new problems faster than they have been solving old problems: that’s why we’re in the situation in which we now find ourselves. What makes you think that [now], for the first time in human history, technology will miraculously stop causing new unanticipated problems while it just solves the problems it previously produced?

The computer… is not lasting, is complex, often needs to be thrown away and cannot be fixed – or is more costly to fix than replace… Overwhelmingly, it isn’t making us smarter, or know more, saving us energy or changing the world. It is just another technology, doing some good and some bad…

I hear more and more from people who say they can’t get along with the people they actually live near, who are on an endless quest for people just like them, to spend their future with the mythical community of perfectly like-minded people. I hear more and more that someone can’t have a relationship with their neighbors and the people near them, and need to move somewhere else… Perhaps that’s an unintended consequence of the internet, no? Now that we’ve experienced the joy of little clubs filled entirely with people focused on X or Y shared thing, we’re less able to get along with the people whose common connection to us is a place, or a history or a more formal relationship?

Unless we are willing to ask “is this really good for us, now and forever?” we are likely to be trapped in the assumption that the next thing will magically set us free. And it won’t. The next thing will further invest us, and move us a little closer not to a solution, but to a collapse.

[Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker concurs, but for a different reason: Despite the strength of social networks’ weak ties (giving us access to essential information and critical connections), the social network form of “activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” And that’s not really activism at all.]

The Spectre of Deflation: Economist Mike Maloney tells a bankers’ conference he is predicting chronic deflation, to the point banks collapse, tax revenues drop, governments cease functioning, defaults soar, currencies collapse, stock markets tumble, even commodities collapse in value, as money supply seizes up and capacity to spend plummets toward zero. It’s all due to unrepayable debt levels — in the US $60T when you add it all up, and $180T if you add in the deficiencies in current value of pensions, medical and social security liabilities, that also need to be funded (and cannot possibly be). I’m not sure that he’s right about $10/bbl oil in the near-term, or about gold’s value soaring by additional factors of 10, but Ilargi has persuaded me his logic is mostly sound. What he’s missing is that, when people run out of money to spend, they won’t be able to buy gold either, so its price will also fall. [As Dmitri Orlov says, “the ultimate commodity in which to invest is not gold or shotgun shells but people you can trust”.] It’s compelling viewing nevertheless, even though he stomps off the stage at the end when he’s told he’s run out of time. The video has 2 parts; the link above is to the first half.


Living Intentionally in Ethiopia: Awra Amba, a small intentional community in Ethiopia, where religious observance is prohibited and everyone’s work is equally valued, is a model for both struggling and affluent nations. As in many communities worldwide, because the soil is now so poor, it’s not self-sufficient, but they have found ways to live comfortably through local trade. Thanks to Tree for the link, and the one that follows.

Worker Co-operatives: The Natural Form of Business: Once the domain of artists, credit unions and tradespeople, the co-operative movement is shifting to the service industries. [And speaking of co-ops, Dwight Towers writes about co-op movement founder Robert Owen and his Equitable Labour Exchanges, that used a local currency denominated in hours — where everyone’s time was valued equally.]

Practicing Presence: Richard Moss struggles to explain in an hour what he says can take thousands of hours of practice: To know that we are not our thoughts and feelings, get beyond our brain’s controlling ego, let go of stories and just be in the present. This video gets better at the end. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

The Benefits of Natural Burial: Natural burial is greener than cremation. Thanks to Beth Patterson for the link.


financial share of profits

“This is Very, Very Bad”: Paul Krugman in the NYT sums up the foreclosure mess as the simple continuation of a massive and ongoing government-backed fraud perpetrated by US and global financial institutions against homeowners and taxpayers. Why is it allowed to continue? Because as the chart above shows (from oftwominds.com), financial services make up 1/3 of US profits (and GDP). Only the war industry is comparable in size. Without banks and wars, there simply is no US GDP. Without these two industries, and rising housing values and consumer spending, there is no US economy.

We Can’t Even Be Bribed to Eat Well: New research suggests we are now so addicted to food that is processed, chemical-laden and saturated with fat, salt and sugar, and so frightened to actually prepare foods ourselves, that even when good food is easy and inexpensive we choose junk food instead.

Pipeline Safety Hazards Highlighted: We know (thanks to BP) about sloppy construction and lax safety in oil and gas exploration, and last month I highlighted the dangers and hazards in Alberta Tar Sands oil pipeline construction and operations. The NYT reveals that construction and operation of gas pipelines is equally lax. Profit before people and our environment.

Obama’s Bloated Run-Amok Security Machine Gets Worse: Glenn Greenwald explains that, out-Bushing Bush, Obama is now justifying secrecy about his assassination program against alleged enemies of the US (even US citizens) on national security grounds. He’s essentially saying that if the US government decides it wants to kill you, you don’t even have the right to know of that decision, or that it was involved, or why it made that decision, or to appeal that decision or charge them for their action. Madness.

Big Pharma Gets Medicinal Herbs Banned in EU: Intensive lobbying has paid of for Big Pharma and Agribusiness which successfully pushed the European Parliament to make its only competitor, small medicinal herb producers, meet staggeringly expensive registration and testing rules that effectively put them out of business. Thanks to Tree for the link, and the one that follows.

Monsanto Kills: Their “safe” Round-Up herbicide is now connected to birth defects.

Nature Conservancy: Just Another Front for Mega-Polluters: Take a look at the Nature Conservancy’s “Leadership Council” — talk about a rogues’ gallery of the world’s worst corporate citizens. Thanks to Keith Farnish for the link.

Google Amps Up the Echo Chamber: The president of MoveOn warns that, now that Google automatically customizes our search results based on past search history and other information in our profiles (at one point you could choose to opt out of customized search and see what ‘everyone else’ would see as search results), there is an even greater risk that we will only be presented with information and viewpoints that conform to what we already believe.

(whew, that was a depressing round-up; bet you’re ready for some…)


This Is a News Website Article About a Scientific Paper: A brilliant parody of modern-day science reporting. Falling-down funny, and a bit scary. Thanks to Karen Hay-Draude for the link. [In the same vein: Robert Neuwirth’s Circle of Caveats — thanks to Brian Hayes for this link.]

Imagining What’s Possible: A lovely post-peak-oil animation by Anita Sancha. Thanks to Dale Asberry for the link, and the one that follows.

If Jealousy is Biological, Why Do Gays Get Jealous?: Author Christopher Ryan dissects a study showing that jealousy is independent of sexual orientation, and concludes that jealousy is a conditioned, learned behaviour. It stems, he argues, from endemic abandonment issues in modern societies where babies are deprived of natural, constant touch and attention from parents, and reinforced by a society that promotes heterogeneity, jealousy and monogamy as a means of psychological control. He supports his argument by referring to the pro-hetero, pro-monogamy, pro-partner-as-possession messages in popular media (exemplified by the nauseating song When a Man Loves a Woman).

The Suck Fairy: Ever noticed how, just sitting on your bookshelves, the books and films you thought were wonderful when you were young, are, on rereading or reviewing, pretentious, unbearable, awful? Jo Walton blames the “suck fairy”. Hilarious. Thanks to Bowen’s Corbin Keep for the link.

The Aching Voice of Patty Griffin: Two songs to reconnect you with your heart. The videos of both songs demonstrate the astonishing creative potential of YouTube-type sites; mashed up by Patty’s fans, they mesh perfectly with the music and lyrics and are works of art in their own right:

(1) The Kite Song:

(2) Making Pies:

pedal power marc roberts

cartoon by Marc Roberts

Pedal Power!: A high-speed pedal-powered monorail. And a 60mph pedal-powered car. And if you drive on short trips (<5 km or <3 miles) the Swedes will embarrass you into bicycling instead, and reward you if you switch. Thanks to Tree for the links.

John Cleese on Creativity: Geoff Brown provides the notes. “Sleep on it…  Avoid interruptions… Create boundaries of time and space for creative work… And understand that to know how good you are at something requires the same skills as to be good at that thing.”

The Hedgehog Song: A song from the 60’s, for all times. “You say all the words and you sing all the notes, but you’ve never quite learned the song.”

Keziah: A Profile of Courage: What if you couldn’t just sit by and watch the horrors of daily life that children face in Haiti’s storm- and poverty-wracked cities and towns?

Wanna Be My Neighbour?: You can pick up this cozy little number (ten minute bike ride from my place) for just $7M. No housing bubble here, uh uh.


From Dave Bonta:

The Machinery of Time

The time machine was our only answer to the apocalypse we’d set in motion. Some chose to travel 10 million years into the future, by which time, they figured, new multicellular organisms would’ve evolved. Others of us decided to go back & try to change history. Someone thought she could help Carthage win the Punic Wars. Someone else wanted to insert a fable about hubris into the Homeric epic. But the backwards travel unraveled us, thinned us out & made us ineligible for death. We appeared only in mirrors, or to people with second sight, provoking fresh terror at a haunted world. When after millennia of helplessness we reached our own birthdays, we crumbled like the pages of a burnt book.

From Chris Corrigan (Thanks to Tenneson Woolf for the tweet): “Emergence is when everybody takes something away that nobody came with.”

From Antje Duvekot:


Judas Iscariot is kicking up seashells and he is cursing
He’s being tortured by the roaring in his mind that won’t surrender the scene
And even here alone in the dark, a thousand eyes are burning holes into his heart

Jesus, he was the schoolyard martyr, was every mother’s perfect son
Not like Judas In the back of the schoolbus invisible to everyone

Well, there was lots of love in between Joseph and Mary
Joseph was the head coach at the high school and they were living down on Judas’ street
They’d be pitching Sundays in the grass and usually Judas’ father would be drunk off his ass

Last night Judas’ father threw his son against the wall
And that’s how you learn to become invisible
And it may well have been any day like the rest but the tape shows him moving
And he’s standing in the hall, he’s never felt this alone before
He’s walking through the door and it’s springtime

Judas Iscariot is kicking up seashells and he is cursing
And if he stands here long enough maybe he will turn to stone and wash away
He won’t find the bullets on that fated morning and he will wake up from this dream

Jesus, he was the schoolyard martyr, was every mother’s perfect son
Not like Judas In the back of the schoolbus invisible to everyone

Also from Antje Duvekot:

Long Way

We bid our friends goodbye, we promised we would write them
And headed north up 95 Into the great unknown
We turned up our stereo and felt so reckless and alive we didn’t know who we would be
We didn’t know where we would end up when we headed down that road
A little food and our guitars in the backseat and that old cello
The one that would get stolen in a town in Idaho

And it’s a long way to Michigan and back, and it’s a long way
Cause it’s a long way, the clouds upon our backs, and it’s a long, long, long, long way

And I have never seen reflections of the cleanest of blue as the Minnesota lakes
Those were the longest nights of wood smoke and Northern Lights
As we talked until the morning came the light of glowing embers
As sweet as I remember among the rustling of the trees
The legend of the harvest moon and sweet ballad of the loon
I felt as ancient as I was meant to be

And it’s a long way to Washington and back and it’s a long way
Cause it’s a long way, the clouds upon our backs and it’s a long, long, long, long way

I called you from a payphone In windy, cold Missoula and then from Midland in the rain
A place as proud and sad as the South Dakota badlands
It touched me more than I could explain
The dirt poor reservation where the Avala nation tries to hang on to its ways
Feather and Peyote pipe and a six pack of Miller Light
Sits on the dashboard of a beat up Chevrolet

And it’s a long way to Tennessee and back, and it’s a long way
Cause it’s a long way on the worn out heels of Kerouac and it’s a long, long, long, long way

Out in California we touched the other ocean
And I still have that jar of sand In the Arizona desert
The sky goes on forever, you’ve never seen a thing as grand
And North Montana was cold, she keeps her secrets frozen
Under glaciers way up north
And people have got lost up there in the home of the grizzly bear
And you can ask the mountain but the mountain doesn’t care

And it’s a long way to Delaware and back, and it’s a long way
Cause it’s a long way, the clouds up on our backs and it’s a long, long, long, long way
It’s a long way on the worn out heels of Kerouac and it’s a long, long, long, long way

From Robert Bly (from the collection Eating the Honey of Words):

The Resemblance Between Your Life and a Dog

I never intended to have this life, believe me –
It just happened. You know how dogs turn up
At a farm, and they wag but can’t explain.

It’s good if you can accept your life – you’ll notice
Your face has become deranged trying to adjust
To it. Your face thought your life would look

Like your bedroom mirror when you were ten.
That was a clear river touched by mountain wind.
Even your parents can’t believe how much you’ve changed.

Sparrows in winter, if you’ve ever held one, all feathers,
Burst out of your hand with a fiery glee.
You see them later in hedges. Teachers praise you,

But you can’t quite get back to the winter sparrow.
Your life is a dog. He’s been hungry for miles.
Doesn’t particularly like you, but gives up, and comes in.

What if you could fly like a bird?:

October 11, 2010

What the World Needs Now

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 16:25

(This morning I received a message from my dear British friend Andrew Campbell, expressing frustration with a couple of people he looked up to, and riffing off the anti-expert, anti-‘leader’ tone of my post yesterday on coping with complexity. Here is how I replied.)

facilitator-graphicOver the years I’ve met a lot of ‘leaders’, from senior business executives in large corporations to revered authors to senior government officials. A lot of them have the act right: the charismatics, the leaders that people expect to have all the answers, act as if they do (though they proffer few if their speech-writer or editor hasn’t vetted them). The good speakers know how to use the right words with the right inflection while still not really saying anything except to reassure you that you are right. The good writers know how to take their one interesting new idea and build a $20 book or $1000 seminar around it, and some of them even know enough not to talk about it without rehearsed scripts, because generally they don’t talk as well as they write.

The business leaders, some of whom are astonishingly dimwitted (in my observation, people are promoted because they match the image of those doing the promoting, not on merit) just give orders and aren’t foolish enough to try to justify them (they have staff for that). What’s funny to me is that when ‘leaders’ admit to being unextraordinary, when they dare to be authentic, people are usually bitterly disappointed. They believe their adored leader just had an off night, and will be ‘themselves’ again when they put the make-up back on (and may it please be soon). ‘Leaders’ can’t, daren’t, take the costume and the greasepaint off.

As much as our world is built on hierarchy and the acceptance that some people are just meant to be leaders and the rest just meant to be followers, my experience is that intelligence and practicality and judgement and emotional wisdom and imagination and creativity are pretty evenly distributed across the global gene pool, and the ability to articulate or otherwise apply whatever one is good at is mostly a learnable skill. That’s why I have no use for leaders, and believe the future rests in the hands of facilitators — people who are able to skillfully help a group of ‘ordinary’ people do their best collaborative work. Facilitators are not teachers; they are from the unschooling school of encouraging people to learn how to learn for themselves (or relearn how to learn if they are victims of the education system, the workplace system and/or the media).

active-listeningI hold mentors in equal esteem to facilitators. I mean mentors in the sense of sounding boards and active, empathic listeners for individuals. The word ‘mentor’ is not quite right, since it connotes smarter-than; the best mentors in my experience only speak to help clarify, or to offer advice if it is asked for (and that advice is usually more like possible avenues of exploration or questions to ponder than “what you should do”, since no mentor worth her salt would presume to know what someone else should do). Sometimes a mentor’s gift is just to be present, to listen with compassion and appreciation. Sometimes it’s to demonstrate, a suggestion of “you might try this”.

I confess I am a terribly facilitator (I even took a test that confirmed this). I can’t retain my objectivity and refrain from proffering content. But thanks to my imagination and years of reading and thinking about a broad range of subjects, I’m often a pretty good content provider in a well-facilitated group.

I am not much better as a mentor, in the sense I describe above, since while I’ve learned to be a better listener, I often can’t resist throwing out unsolicited ideas and advice, and I’m not terribly empathic (too unclear, still, about my own feelings, and often incompetent at conveying them, quietly).

What I am, alas, is a visionary — someone who excels at imagining what is possible. Not a very useful skill in an age when we are utterly preoccupied with fighting dragons.

(Image of facilitation from NCSU; image of mentoring from UConn)

October 10, 2010

Complexity: It’s Not That Simple

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 22:53


Complexity theory has been around for a generation now, but most people don’t understand it. I often read or listen to consultants, ‘experts’ and media people who proffer ludicrously simplistic ‘solutions’ to complex predicaments. Since it seems most people would prefer things to be simple, these ‘experts’ always seem to have an uncritical audience. Because most of what’s written about complexity theory is dense, academic and/or expensive, I thought I’d try to summarize the key points of complexity theory (focusing on the social/ecological aspects of it, not the mathematical/scientific ones) using lots of examples for clarity, and in a way that might be used practically by those grappling with complex issues and challenges.

Complexity theory argues that simple, complicated, complex and chaotic systems have fundamentally different properties, and therefore different approaches and processes are needed when dealing with issues and challenges in each of these types of systems.

As the diagram above illustrates, natural systems (both social and ecological) are inherently complex. It is the nature of evolution that natural systems, at every level from unicellular life up to our global ecosystem, tend to become more complex and diverse over time, until a crisis (e.g. natural disaster, epidemic, meteor strike) occurs and brings about chaos, system collapse and/or extinction, after which the cycle begins again to evolve towards greater complexity. Even an apparently ‘simple’ natural system (like an amoeba) is astonishingly complex, and there is a kind of fractal (or Bohmian hologram) quality to it: all its content is contained in any part of itself, at a lower resolution.

Human invention, for the most part, uses biomimicry, i.e. we attempt to manufacture, to replicate mechanically, things that appear to work in nature. A simple invention like the arrowhead, for example, mimics the speed and penetrating sharpness of predatory birds and animals. Agriculture mimics the natural diversity-diminishing processes of flooding and wildfire. In similar ways, most industrial systems mimic natural systems. But these simple and complicated systems do not evolve of their own accord, they are not self-sustaining, and they lack resilience. They are also fragile, and subject to rapid decay and obsolescence. It takes a huge amount of effort to repair, replace and maintain the components of such systems.

Natural systems are highly effective but inefficient due to their massive redundancy (picture a tree dropping thousands of seeds). By contrast, manufactured systems must be efficient (to be competitive) and usually have almost no redundancy, so they are extremely vulnerable to breakage. For example, many of our modern industrial systems will collapse without a constant and unlimited supply of inexpensive oil.

As natural systems evolve to become more complex, their resilience increases. For example, more biodiversity means less vulnerability to pandemics. However, as manufactured systems become more complicated (e.g. through centralization and globalization) their resilience is reduced. A breakdown in a single component can cause the entire complicated system to seize up or collapse.

The more complex natural systems become, the harder they become for humans to ‘manage’ (control or influence).  That is why much of the complex and varied natural world has been replaced by monolithic, homogeneous manufactured systems (e.g. cities, factory farms, dammed waterways), that are much less resilient than the natural, sustainable systems they replaced. Similarly, the more complicated manufactured systems become, the harder they become for humans to ‘manage’. Large organizations (businesses, public organizations and governments) therefore become inherently more and more dysfunctional (and less resilient) the larger they grow.

Our modern civilization is built on amalgams (combinations) of natural and manufactured systems, and it has components that are simple, complicated, complex, or a combination of all three. Almost all businesses, for example, have both social systems (which are complex) and automated systems (which are complicated), and most offer both products (which are mostly complicated) and services (which are mostly complex).

Most of the so-called intractable problems we are now facing (e.g. war, violence, poverty, epidemic disease, and the growing economic, energy and ecological crises) are not ‘problems’ at all, but complex predicaments. The challenges of complex systems are predicaments, not problems, because, since they are not mechanical, they cannot be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’. Alternative, non-mechanistic approaches must be used to deal with them, which is what this article is mainly about.


Simple problems or situations (like hammering in a nail), with few variables (i.e. few things to consider) and which have obvious solutions (strike the nail with the ball of the hammer until it goes in), are best approached intuitively.

Complicated problems or situations (like fixing a car), with many variables, all of them knowable (at least with some study), and where the solutions aren’t obvious but cause-and-effect relationships can be determined, are best approached analytically. Systems diagrams and analytical processes — the type that competent managers and advisors employ — are useful for dealing with complicated situations and problems. Unfortunately, we are all too easily tempted to try to reduce complex predicaments (e.g. how to deal with the nightmarish global debt crisis), to simple or merely complicated problems (e.g. how to get banks to give consumers more credit in the short term so they can spend us out of recession, for now), because we’re good at solving merely complicated problems.

In some complex situations, it is possible to simulate the complexity of the system with a simple or merely complicated model, and achieve useful results, at least in the short term. For example, if you can isolate your organization’s customer service problem to a single cause (say, that service staff don’t have the authority to do the things customers need), you can ‘solve’ this problem by giving them more authority. But complex predicaments usually defy such simplification; things are generally the way they are for a good reason, one that’s not obvious or simple (or someone would have ‘fixed’ it already). And people are excellent at finding workarounds for clumsy simple or complicated ‘solutions’ that managers or consultants have imposed to try (inevitably unsuccessfully) to ‘fix’ complex challenges. Complicated approaches generally don’t work for complex predicaments, any more than a simple hammer will fix all the complicated problems you might encounter with your car.

Complex predicaments (like running a social event or a business, or coping with economic, energy or ecological collapse) have these four characteristics:

  • The number of variables that can have an effect on the system/situation/event is infinite
  • Most of these variables are unknown or unknowable; only the most obvious ones can be listed or diagrammed
  • The relationships between cause and effect in the system are unfathomable; at best you can notice correlations that may or may not be meaningful
  • It is impossible to predict the outcome of an intervention in the system/situation/event (or when Black Swan events and other unforeseeable interventions will occur)

As we come to understand complex predicaments better, we’re learning that the best approaches to them are very different from what works best for simple or complicated problems. Because all the variables cannot be known, and because cause-and-effect relationships cannot be established in complex situations, analytical approaches (like systems flowcharts) used in complicated problem-solving simply won’t work.

The best approaches in complex situations are, well, complex. They entail the use of many different techniques, some of which we are not very good at, and some of which are quite sophisticated, novel, or nuanced. What I have learned so far is that an effective approach to a complex predicament should have these attributes (and I’ll be using the challenge of peak oil and how the Transition movement is working to address it, to illustrate these attributes):

  1. Methodical: Coping with complex predicaments requires a focus on continuously improving processes, not achieving outcomes. A key feature of complex predicaments is that an appreciation of the true nature of the predicament and an understanding of possible workable approaches to deal with it co-evolve. You can’t know the desired outcome up front, because you just don’t know enough about the situation. Your approach needs to facilitate this co-evolution of understanding, and enable you to go beyond selecting from currently known alternatives and simplistic dichotomies. It also requires an appreciation of the four best ways to intervene effectively in a complex system. In my experience, a methodical approach to any complex predicament requires the skills of an excellent, practiced facilitator, someone with an appreciation of complexity and group process, and the competence to enable the group to do its best work. A good facilitator will:
    • Clarify and keep the focus on the group’s purpose and intention (see point 2 below)
    • Optimize the use of available space & time
    • Help the group manage and enhance its knowledge, learning, and appreciation
    • Encourage free flow of creativity & ideas
    • Manage the flow of energy in the space
    • Help the group deepen and navigate interpersonal relationships
    • Help the group appreciate, broaden and shift its perspectives and worldviews
    • Model the behaviours the group needs to demonstrate to be effective
  2. Purposeful: If a group is addressing a complicated problem, the purpose is obvious (to find and implement a solution). When it’s faced with a complex predicament, the purpose is not obvious. The purpose is often itself complex: to deepen an understanding of the predicament, to learn what has worked and not worked in similar situations, to explore options for addressing and coping with it, to imagine how things might be done differently, to identify what the group needs to know and be able to do that it currently does not or cannot, to appreciate the knowledge, ideas, shared values and perspectives of others, to deepen relationships for future collaboration, etc. The group needs to understand and agree on its purpose in all its complexity, and stay focused on that purpose. It also needs to be intentional, i.e. to be willing to and begin to stretch energetically towards achievement of its purpose even as the understanding of that purpose may still be emerging and evolving. For example, a community Transition group’s overarching purpose might be to enable their community to make the transition to a post-carbon economy, and its intention might be to form working groups to focus on various aspects of working towards that purpose. Note that the purpose describes a process not an outcome.
  3. Visionary: If a group is grappling with a complex predicament, it needs to have a shared vision of what should be different at each step along the process of working towards the purpose, and also a vision of what might happen if they didn’t do that work (often called a “worse- or worst-case scenario”. What would coping with and adapting to the predicament, versus doing nothing, “look like” in the near and more distant future? Several of the Transition communities have developed “timelines” that contain their imaginings of each stage of the transition, possible Black Swan events, and the consequences of inaction. This is how you navigate through complex predicaments, where the outcome is unknown so there’s no clear path from current state to desired future state.
  4. Preventive: One step in coping with complex predicaments is to try to imagine and anticipate possible negative occurrences as you work towards your purpose, and take steps to head off such occurrences before they happen. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say. George Monbiot’s Heat, for example, presents a comprehensive climate change prevention strategy, and while many would now argue that we’re too late to prevent catastrophic climate change (and that in any case our society is incapable of moving as fast or as far as Monbiot’s strategy required), the book contains many suggestions for actions that community Transition teams could employ to make the local transition to a post-carbon economy.
  5. Defensive: When the system is complex, it doesn’t respond to proactive steps (at least, not predictably). It requires some humility and realism to acknowledge that you can’t always control a situation; in complex situations, usually the best you can do is mitigate risks and consequences of what is happening, as you become aware of them, and in the moment, and hence reduce the impact of undesirable situations on you and your community. Ilargi and Stoneleigh’s Automatic Earth for example outlines many steps you can take (such as extinguishing your debts and selling your equities) to mitigate the risks and consequences you will face when the next economic depression hits. A Transition community might likewise mitigate the risks and effects of the end of cheap oil by improving public transport, establishing local renewable energy co-ops, etc.
  6. Attentive: Complex systems are in constant flux, so it is essential to continually monitor and ‘probe’ to collect information and make sense of what is happening, so that you can respond to unfolding occurrences knowledgeably and effectively. Sometimes the best way to probe what’s going on in a complex system is just to try something, a systematic intervention, and see what happens. Another method is to gather stories and anecdotes and look for meaningful patterns. Sometimes by scanning broadly for data and synthesizing it, you can get a clearer and more actionable picture of the situation. Transition communities across the globe are trying various methods (e.g. car-share and ride-share programs) to see how they effect local dependency on fossil fuels, and collecting and sharing stories, knowledge, ideas and findings with other Transition communities to get a better picture of what works and what doesn’t.
  7. Experiential: The analytical techniques that are used to address complicated problems are inherently theoretical and hopefully repeatable, and our (left) brains love this “best practices” stuff. Unfortunately, theoretical approaches and “best practices” don’t usually work in complex situations. What works better is experimenting with an array of diverse approaches in parallel and in series, and examining the results and get a collective understanding of what is effective and what isn’t in the real world, and where might be the best place to go from there. The Transition movement doesn’t have a set of “best practices” for coping with the end of cheap oil; what they have instead are “patterns“, synthesized from experiential work, of what approaches seem to be effective across an array of different situations. Two examples of such patterns: Iteration (going through a process iteratively to refine and learn from it is more effective than trying to get it perfect the first time) and Self-Organization (actions seem to work better when the group embracing them organizes itself to plan and implement the actions, rather than having the work assigned to its members by a central control group). More about “pattern languages” in an upcoming post.
  8. Improvisational: As we have learned from our response to Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina and other modern crises, preplanning doesn’t work in complex situations. Improvisation entails responding to situations on the fly; for example, emergency workers find improvisational capacity far more useful when dealing with complex crises than procedure manuals, provided these workers are armed with the right tools and knowledge, empowered and connected with others for consultation. Adaptation entails changing yourself or your situation to respond to an outside event, rather than (as we too often try to do, futilely) trying to anticipate, change or control a complex system (the weather, for example). Improvisation and adaptation skills cannot really be learned in a classroom; it takes extensive ‘field’ and/or simulation practice to become competent at them. For example, some Transition community trainers have learned that it’s impossible to know how much their students know, or are ready to know, about peak oil, until the training session is underway, so they often have to improvise their curriculum on the fly. Likewise, some Transition initiatives have run into unexpected obstacles (e.g. bird-lovers objecting to wind turbines), and have had to adapt their programs to suit local sensibilities.
  9. Collaborative: It’s foolish to believe anyone has all the answers, or can possibly cope alone in this massively interconnected society. Local knowledge, ideas, perspectives and skills are collective assets, and in our atomized, nuclear, specialized civilization, collective understanding and collaboration are the only ways to compensate for the lost core and generalist knowledge and skills that we need to relearn to cope with complex situations. Each member of a group brings a piece of the truth, and unique knowledge and skills, that, especially in dealing with complex situations, are essential to equip the group with collective capacity, competence, understanding, consensus and wisdom. Most of the real work in community Transition initiatives is done through self-organized and self-managed collaborative working groups, that use consensual decision-making processes.
  10. Holistic: We are usually part of the complex systems whose predicaments we have to cope with. From inside, we get perspective and knowledge of four types: intellectual, emotional, sensory and intuitive. The best approaches are rarely purely rational; it requires synthesizing and balancing all four types of knowledge. Some indigenous peoples say that before making important decisions it is essential to “sleep on it” so that the subconscious knowledge from our hearts, bodies, spirits and DNA can be integrated with our conscious, intellectual knowledge. An essential aspect of the Transition initiative is the “heart and soul” component — appreciating the feelings of grief and anxiety that come along with facing energy, ecological and economic crises. Only when we make space for all four ways of knowing, understanding and responding to predicaments can we bring our full capacity, skill and energy to addressing them.
  11. Appreciative: There is a tendency for some consultants, managers and experts to presume they know “from experience” how to deal with an organizational challenge, and fail to appreciate the unique context of each situation, or to appreciate that things are the way they are for a reason. It’s essential to understand that reason in all its complexity — how things got the way they are and why they’ve stayed that way — before we can begin to address them effectively. No one is to “blame” for complex predicaments, which often have long and complex histories, and may be self-reinforcing. For example, the Transition movement discovered that trying to reduce the impact of peak oil by improving average gasoline mileage for cars may be ineffective, because as mileage improves drivers may decide to drive farther (for the same price), or drive bigger cars (with the same mpg as the older smaller ones), and hence negate the impact of the regulatory or technological change that enabled the mileage improvement.
  12. Open: Groups addressing complex predicaments need to be completely honest and transparent, and must be open to different approaches, points of view, directions of inquiry and exploration, and conflicting information. The sponsors and facilitators of such groups must ensure that their invitation is sufficiently open to attract the right, diverse mix of people to address the predicament competently, and that the process they use is open and flexible to the ideas and insights that emerge. Group members can’t afford to “burn bridges” or be closed-minded to even bizarre-sounding scenarios, proposals and knowledge (Einstein said “If at first an idea doesn’t seem crazy, there is no hope for it”.) George Monbiot’s Heat makes some proposals for reducing fossil fuel usage, for example, that some dismissed out of hand, such as converting AC electrical power to DC to reduce power loss, and shutting down all non-essential airplane flights because there is just no way to make such travel energy-efficient. The people who might have moved such ideas forward were just not open to them, and a chastened Monbiot is sounding increasingly pessimistic that his reforms will ever see the light of day.
  13. Bottom-up: Historically, most solutions have been devised and implemented top-down, by leaders atop political, corporate or social hierarchies. But complex predicaments like poverty, violence, climate change, the debt crisis and resource scarcities have defied all attempts at top-down “fixes”. The best approaches to such issues have come from bottom-up initiatives to deal with them at the local level, at a scale where actions can be taken quickly, and where the people involved know each other and what needs to be and what can be done in their community. This is why the Transition movement is organized as a network, where all the work is done at the community level, and there is no hierarchy.
  14. Trusting: (This one’s a toughie.) When organizations confront complicated problems, the usual result is a solution (usually imposed top-down) and an allocation of tasks (who will do what by when). By contrast, in confronting complex predicaments, it is essential that team members trust each other to decide what they will individually do, and what they will decide in small groups to collaborate on, and then to do those things. The responsibility rests with each individual — no one can or will stand over them and tell them what to do or how to do it or stay on their case if they haven’t done it. Such implicit trust is foreign to many people experienced with group work, and some believe trust “has to be earned”. What many find difficult in confronting complex predicaments is that they need to just trust people to accept and follow through on their responsibilities, and also that they have to trust a group process that is emergent and pliable, even when that process struggles with lack of consensus, lack of knowledge, lack of ideas, lack of direction, or internal disagreements and conflicts. The Transition movement focuses a lot of attention on trust-building activities, and on ensuring facilitators have the necessary skills to help the group navigate through trust issues.
  15. Humble: Implicit in the idea that innovation and human ingenuity can ‘solve’ any problem is a level of arrogance and hubris that has no place in the struggle with complex predicaments. As I have explained, there is no ‘solution’ to complex problems, so what is required is the humility to accept what is, and what cannot be changed, and to adapt. Even now, some technophiles are proposing to ‘solve’ climate change by geoengineering — firing trillions of small reflective metal fragments into the atmosphere to deflect much of the sun’s rays. They have absolutely no way of knowing whether this will have the desired effect; this complex predicament has an infinite number of variables, most of them unknowable. Their action, if taken (and it is quite feasible) might backfire, or might plunge us into another ice age — no one knows. Their energies would be better spent learn studying and learning from nature, a humbler pursuit far more likely to come up with sustainable ideas that, at least at the community level, might help reduce energy usage or deforestation or factory farming — three key sources of atmospheric warming. What is impressive about the Transition movement is that their handbooks are not “what to do” guides for dealing with a post-oil economy, but suggested approaches and resource lists for local Transition groups to study and adapt as appropriate to the situation of their community. They’re staying humble, and setting an example for others working to address complex predicaments.
  16. Redundant: I mentioned earlier that industrial systems strive (out of competitive necessity) for efficiency, and minimize redundancy, which makes them fragile. As we develop approaches to deal with complex predicaments, we need to take the opposite approach: because we can’t know the outcomes of these predicaments, we need to build in redundancy so that we are resilient no matter what happens. Some of the community Transition movements are working to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels entirely, even though there will probably be some hydrocarbons available in the future (e.g. in local coal mines). This gives them a cushion to fall back on in a worst-case scenario, though it probably means they will have a redundant (excess) supply of energy.

Complex indeed! You can appreciate why many people would prefer to recharacterize complex predicaments as simple or complicated problems, and use tried-and-true analytical methods to ‘solve’ them — even though the solutions won’t work (though that often isn’t discovered until the consultant, ‘expert’, manager or ‘leader’ has collected their pay and moved on). Fortunately approaches and processes that employ some or all of these attributes are being employed by groups all over the world who have given up on experts and simplistic ‘solutions’ and are striving to develop real, working, sustainable strategies to cope with complex predicaments. And an increasing number of facilitators are studying complexity theory and amending their roles and their approaches to this vital work (which is mostly in the public, NGO, and NPO sectors, and mostly unrecognized and under-appreciated), supporting and encouraging the use of complex (emergent) techniques instead of complicated (analytical) ones.

When complex predicaments are left unaddressed for long periods of time, they can sometimes worsen into chaotic predicaments (like the horrific challenge of homelessness in Haiti). Chaotic predicaments have the same characteristics as complex predicaments, with the additional attribute of massive turbulence, to the point that change and crisis are occurring so rapidly or continuously that any type of coordinated, rational response becomes impossible. Any complex system can become a chaotic one during a period of protracted war, hyperinflation, depression, extreme endemic scarcity or other situation where panic or other irrational behaviour prevails. There is no consensus on how best to cope with chaos, or even if an effective approach in such situations is possible; spontaneous approaches, moment to moment, seem to be the main option.

The hopelessness and desperation that often prevails in chaotic situations often produce a power vacuum that can allow charismatic and despotic leaders to take control; the struggling nations of the world are replete with stories of this happening, and there is a danger that, as we in affluent nations face multiple crises in the decades ahead, we too could see the emergence of chaos and fall victim to the false and simplistic promises of fools and tyrants. The best insurance against this, I believe, is to tackle these predicaments while they are complex, using approaches and processes with attributes like the ones I have suggested above, before they become chaotic.

.     .     .     .     .

So that’s my introduction to complexity theory. There’s much more to it, of course, but I’ve tried to focus on what I see as the key issues of (i) differentiating complex from complicated systems and situations, and (ii) laying out the attributes of effective approaches and processes for addressing complex predicaments. Let me know if you think I succeeded.

October 5, 2010

Ten Important Questions

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 23:48

questionThese are the questions I’m asking myself these days, trying to come to grips with why, now that my life is idyllic, now that I have the time and opportunity to do anything I want, I’m sitting here, doing nothing, my hands turned up, feeling fearful, disconnected, directionless.

These are no-escape questions: No closed-ended “yes or no” questions. No hypothetical “if’s” that I can safely answer knowing that the “if” is just a fiction (“What if I had only 37 days to live?”) and no “why’s”, the answers to which are probably just excuses.

I’ve answered these questions for myself, but my answers aren’t the point of posting these questions. Probably best we all keep our answers to these questions to ourselves anyway: Private answers are likely to be more honest.

So here are the questions:

  1. Who am I, really? Behind the veneer, behind the ego, beneath the roles that I play, behind who I pretend to be, who I think I want to be — who am I? What’s my sense of myself? Not what I do, or what I think or believe, or what adjectives I apply to myself, or what I associate myself with (vegan, poly, radical, naturalist). What really motivates me, what frightens me, what drives me to do what I do, what stresses me and stops me from acting, what am I really good at and not good at? How do I really feel about myself? What are the stories I continue to tell myself even though all stories are fiction? What am I addicted to, without judgement as to whether that addiction is good or bad (sugar, sexual fantasy, TV, shopping, “stuff” and the work of taking care of that “stuff”, escapist music/movies, love, comfortable escapist job, the approval and attention and appreciation of others, etc.)?
  2. What do I really care about? Not what I think I should care about. What keeps me awake at night, including things that scare me and things I’m ambivalent about what, if anything, I could do to make things better (factory farms, climate change, poverty, war)? What do I really want to do before I die, even things I lack the courage to try (hang gliding, to sense what it would feel like to fly like a bird)?
  3. What am I really accomplishing? Viewed from the perspective of someone else looking objectively at my actions, is what I am doing important, purposeful, achieving anything enduring, aligned with what I want to do, with who I am? What, of the things I’m doing, follow Pollard’s Law (We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun.)?
  4. Of the things I do now, what could I stop doing? Do I know what I have to keep doing, and what I could let go? How much of what I do is just because I’m caught up in routine, or living up to others’ expectations?
  5. What could I live comfortably without? How much of what I do is to acquire, or keep, stuff I don’t really need? Why am I so afraid to let that stuff go?
  6. What does the world need from me now? Not stuff that I want to give that the world doesn’t really need or want. Not stuff I don’t want to give, or don’t think I’m competent or ready to give.
  7. What’s holding me back? I’m not who I think I want to be, and I’m not doing what I think I want to do. But things, I’ve learned, are the way they are for a good reason. What’s the good reason I am who I am, and the good reason I’m doing what I’m doing (and not doing what I’m not doing)?
  8. What’s really holding me back? This is the Byron Katie twist on question 7 (or for that matter, any of these questions.) Do I really know that what I said in my response to question 7 is true? What if it weren’t?
  9. What one simple thing could I do, in the next 24 hours, that would just get me started towards learning or doing something I always wanted to learn or do?
  10. What would it take for me to accept myself as I really am? How can I accept myself without needing affirmation from others that that’s OK?

Answering these questions was a pretty sobering experience for me. In some cases I don’t yet have very good, or clear, answers. I’m going to try to draw a self-portrait that shows me as I portrayed myself in my answer to question 1. Should be interesting.

And I’ve put my answer to question 2 on my laptop, alongside my Six Principles, to look at whenever I decide, as I do often these days, what to do next, and how to go about it.

And beneath them, I’ve written question 8.

October 3, 2010

Too Smart For Our Own Good

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 03:41
purrr cartoon by patrick mcdonnell

purrr cartoon by patrick mcdonnell

Last month I linked to an excellent CBC video summarizing the life, work and philosophy of uber-celebrity Eckhart Tolle. Tolle doesn’t really say anything new in his books — I think Richard Moss’ Mandala of Being delivers the same “learn to be Present” message more effectively, and the bookstore shelves are crammed with meditation, spirituality and self-help books claiming to be able to teach you how to do this.

I confess that none of these books ‘works’ for me, though I continue to strive, through a variety of daily practices, to learn to be Present.

What intrigued me about Tolle’s horribly-named A New Earth is that in it he hints at how we humans came to be so un-Present and why it seems so hard for most of us to re-learn Presence.

In both his best-sellers, he tells the story of two ducks:

“After two ducks get into a fight, which never lasts long, they will separate and float off in opposite directions. Then each duck will flap its wings vigorously a few times, thus releasing the surplus energy that built up during the fight. After they flap their wings, they float along peacefully, as if nothing had ever happened. If the duck had a human mind, it would keep the fight alive, by thinking, by story-making…[even] years later… [Imagine] how problematic the duck’s life would be if it had a human mind. But this is how most humans live all the time.”

Tolle, unlike most writers on Presence, seems willing to credit most non-human animals with the “intelligence” to live (almost always) in the Present, in the Now, except for brief moments of stress. In the model below, which I have developed to attempt to illustrate Tolle’s thesis, wild creatures and human beings who have re-learned presence live the conscious, integral life shown on the right side. For such creatures, the triggers that cause suffering for most humans just bounce off; they fail to have any enduring impact. The spirit remains integral, unruffled and unpolluted.


By contrast, most humans live in the unhappy, anxious state shown in the left side. For them, triggers produce a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and “stories” (the “egoic mind”) and negative emotions (the “pain-body”). The stories we tell ourselves about the past, the future, ourselves and others are fictions, but our insatiable human egos grab onto them, and these thoughts trigger emotions like anger, fear, jealousy, hatred, self-hatred, shame, and anxiety, which fester in us and cause our egoic minds to invent even more stories to justify and perpetuate the pain-body negative emotions. Both the egoic mind and the pain-body are easily triggered by negative events (real or imagined) — in fact Tolle thinks they are addicted to them. The ego even casts a shadow over our sensory and instinctive lives, which the egoic mind cannot control and therefore does not trust. We therefore become “possessed” by our egos, which are not us. Our egos would have us believe that our thoughts and beliefs and feelings are “us”, when in fact all along we are really the consciousness that lies behind those thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Presence, then, is developing the capacity to push out and free ourselves from our egos and the negative thoughts and emotions that “normally” possess us, that we “normally” identify with.

Implicit in this model is the intriguing idea that, at some point in our evolution (and perhaps also in the evolution of other large-brained creatures like chimps, whales, elephants and ravens), we became too smart for our own good. Our brains, which were evolved by our bodily organs as a feature-detection, non-urgent decision-making and navigation system for their benefit, at some point passed the tipping point at which they developed ego. This is not the same as consciousness — indeed there is a mountain of evidence now that most creatures possess consciousness. Ego would appear to be an unintended and unfortunate consequence of the development of the brain to the point where it began to mistake its processing of thought and feelings for our consciousness, and we have been in a fight with our egos ever since. Whereas most Present creatures handle stress instinctively, and let it go quickly like the ducks in Tolle’s story, we “too smart for our own good” creatures have become consumed by, perhaps even addicted to, stress, and our egos, ever ready to cycle viciously through negative thoughts and stories and feelings whenever stress hits us, absolutely feed on it, to the point they possess us and we become unconscious of what is real, traumatized and trapped in and by our minds and feelings.

In this hellish unconsciousness, we crave attention and appreciation and adrenaline, anything that will give us temporary respite from our egos’ stories and the wrenching emotions that feed them and feed off them. This drives most human behaviours, which is why our species has become, through its inventions of civilization, dysfunctional, disconnected, massively destructive, and unsustainable.

Having explained this, Tolle then takes us through a variety of practices to relearn Presence. Most of them are familiar and, for most of us, I suspect, inaccessible and unhelpful:

  • practice awareness to realize that the egoic mind and pain-body are not “you”
  • don’t “mind” being unhappy, to break the addictive egoic thinking/feeling cycle
  • give: be generous
  • know yourself (i.e. your consciousness, not the “content” of your life — your job, your roles, your possessions, your beliefs etc.)
  • appreciate chaos and complexity (e.g. by spending time in “untidy” nature)
  • accept, don’t “mind” what happens (i.e. don’t label events as “good” or “bad”)
  • don’t “give yourself more time”, but instead “eliminate time”
  • learn to be still, and silent, and appreciate both
  • practice being at once aware (alert) and relaxed
  • become non-resistant, non-judgemental, non-expectant, and non-attached to whatever happens
  • rather than acting or reacting, let “right action happen through you”
  • practice sensing and perceiving without naming, thinking or conceiving
  • be aware of your breathing (and note that this is not the same as thinking about being aware of your breathing; I keep recalling my recent satori experience of waking up at early dawn and seeing nothing but a thick blanket of fog through all my bedroom windows, and then becoming aware of a strange noise and then realizing it was my breathing)
  • practice inner body awareness (sensing/feeling parts and then all of your body “from within”)
  • recognize and resist your attention- and appreciation-seeking (and other ego gratification) behaviours

All easier said than done, and mostly said better by others. I was intrigued that this list resonated quite strongly with my recently published list of Six Principles (be generous; value your time and its passage; live naturally; self-accept; practice being present; let go of stories). I suspect this might have something to do with the fact that Tolle and I have both spent much of our lives oppressed by anxiety and depression.

None of this is particularly new advice, either: The ancient Upanishad wisdom reiterated in Eliot’s Four Quartets put it more succinctly — datta, dayadhvam, damyata — give, empathize, exercise self-control.

Tolle seems to dismiss the human propensity for daydreaming and fantasizing (including, I would presume, activities in virtual worlds like Second Life), and even “falling in love” as forms of unhealthy, “compulsive”, addictive behaviour. He prescribes breathing and other “awareness” exercises as a means to learn to stop such behaviour from “tricking” you into continuing your compulsion, and learning to stop trying to justify it. This seems outrageously dismissive to me: artists, writers, players, lovers, creators, and other imaginers of possibilities may be “addicted” to their (our) recreations, but I see this as no more harmful or “unconscious” than our addiction to eating or sleeping. And a world of Presence without imagination would be, I think, a poorer one.

In the latter parts of A New Earth Tolle becomes, I think, a little carried away with the power of Presence. He appears to claim it can cure depression, anxiety disorders, addictions and lifelong traumas. While I’d acknowledge that stress (which is everywhere in our modern society, and that is no ‘story’) is only the trigger for many of our modern illnesses, not the cause, I think it’s arrogant and even cruel to encourage people to believe that these illnesses can be extinguished by what is in essence a mental trick.

Tolle also believes that millions of people are now re-learning to be Present and potentially ushering in a new era of global consciousness (hence the title of the book); I think this is a hyperbolic delusion, and the type of magical thinking that is the last thing we need as we begin to cope with the collapse of our civilization.

But the idea that we have become, as an accident of evolution, too smart for our own good is an intriguing one. If only the remedy for that — thinking less and being more — did not require more intelligence than most of us may ever hope to possess.

(Cartoon by Patrick McDonnell of ‘Mutts’ fame, from Guardians of Being, co-written with Tolle)

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