Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

April 20, 2014

In Defence of Inaction

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 00:47

Beach sunset Belize

photo: Belize Beach Sunset, by the author

I have, of late, had a falling out with many of my fellow ‘progressives’, similar I suppose to that of Paul Kingsnorth, who is being savaged by Naomi Klein and others for giving up on the environmental movement and non-local activism, and by humanists for losing faith in our species’ capacity for innovation and change.

I should say at the outset that I agree that our political and economic and legal and educational and social systems are dreadful, unfair, teetering, and totally inadequate to our needs. I agree that this is a world of horrific inequality, inequitable and unjust privilege, massive suffering, and outrageous patriarchy. I agree that corporatism and corruption and propagandist media are rampant and destructive and destabilizing. I agree that militarized police and torture prisons and drone killing and massive global surveillance are repugnant and a fundamental threat to our personal safety and security and the very principles upon which our nations are founded.

And I fully acknowledge that the fact I’m white, male, boomer generation and relatively wealthy provides me with enormous privilege compared to others, including relative freedom of movement, freedom from fear of harrassment and assault, and greater social, political and economic opportunity.

But when I hear arguments that “we need” to stand up for our ‘inherent’ rights and freedoms, and wrest ‘control’ of the levers of power from the obscenely wealthy elite, and denounce and protest injustice and inequality, and acknowledge and renounce our role as privileged oppressors, as the first steps to a true social revolution in and political and economic reform, leading, somehow, to a radical redistribution of wealth and power, and a more just society, I am reduced to despair.

I used to believe people, and perhaps some other creatures, had ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’. I believed that someone was in control. I believed there were answers to the predicaments we face.

But now I realize that there are no rights or freedoms. The concept of rights and freedoms is a sop that the rich and powerful of this world use to appease the fury and frustration of the poor and disenfranchised. The ‘granting’ of rights and freedoms means nothing, because they can be and are taken away whenever those in power choose to do so, and are simply ignored when they interfere with the exercise of power or accumulation of wealth by those who allowed them to be granted.

We don’t have freedom of expression, or speech, or assembly: Under the current surveillance state I can be stopped, arrested, held indefinitely and incommunicado, tortured, ‘disappeared’ or simply killed, by a drone or in a secret gulag, whenever someone in power decides I’m a threat to that power.

Likewise, there is no ‘upward mobility’ for just about any demographic segment of our human population worldwide; most people are trapped, socially and economically, right where they are, no matter what may happen to the place where they live.

There is no true democracy, anywhere: the real decisions are made in secret meetings between bought politicians (many of them in power fraudulently or due to gerrymandering and other corruptions of the ‘democratic’ process), who represent only their rich and powerful donors, and the bankers, lawyers and corporate executives. The ‘laws’ and ‘regulations’ are just smokescreens to make it look as if the people’s interests are being considered.

There are no rights of recourse against corporate abuses: most industries are oligopolies, and corporate law is designed to protect them and their wealthy shareholders and executives from the wrath of outraged citizens, while enabling these corporations to sue citizens who pose any threat to their profits or ‘leadership’.

All that’s happened over the past three decades is that the illusion of rights and freedoms has largely disappeared, as those with wealth and power ratchet up the rhetoric that militarized police, torture prisons, ubiquitous surveillance and the oppression of dissent are ‘necessary’ for public safety and security (especially the safety and security of the rich and powerful).

There are no rights or freedoms. There is only power, and its exercise in the interest of further enriching the rich and further concentrating power.

I used to be outraged and angry about all this, but now I’m just letting it go. It’s just too easy to see this as a moral struggle, as a fight against pathology, greed, and tyranny. I don’t think it’s that simple. I think everyone’s really trying to do what they believe is best, not only for their loved ones but for everyone. I know some of these people, and their stubborn, destructive wrong-headedness is completely understandable to me (from their strange but deeply-held worldview).

Increasing concentration of power doesn’t mean is that there is an ‘elite’ in control of everything in our society. Vast wealth and power does not translate to control, especially in a world where all our systems are collapsing simultaneously: our economic systems, running on the fumes of belief in perpetual industrial growth; our nearly-exhausted energy and resource systems, utterly dependent on ample and cheap oil (one barrel of oil replaces 12 person-years of labour, and we currently use 100 million barrels per day); and our climate systems, which have long passed the tipping point to catastrophic change comparable to that of the ‘ice ages’ (though in the opposite temperature direction).

The rich and powerful are as much prisoners of these massive, complex, crumbling systems, as much cogs in the machine, as the rest of us: they just get better wages and benefits than the rest of the inmates, and will until the systems fall apart, at which time they’ll be no better off than anyone else.

No one is in control. The enemy, if there is one, is not a cabal of elites, but a set of co-dependent collapsing systems that every one of us has a vested interest in trying (insanely) to perpetuate. Systems we have all helped co-create and are almost all dependent on.

David Korowicz, in his study On the Cusp of Collapse, explains how our massively complex global human systems are far beyond the control of any coordinated group of people:

Our daily lives are dependent upon the coherence of thousands of direct interactions, which are themselves dependent upon trillions more interactions between things, businesses, institutions and individuals across the world. Following just one track; each morning I have coffee near where I work. The woman who serves me need not know who picked the berries, who moulded the polymer for the coffee maker, how the municipal system delivered the water to the café, how the beans made their journey or who designed the mug. The captain of the ship that transported the beans would have had no knowledge of who provided the export credit insurance for the shipment, who made the steel for the hull, or the steps in the complex processes that allow him the use of satellite navigation. And the steel-maker need not have known who built the pumps for the iron-ore mine, or how the oxygen for the furnace was refined.

We cannot hope to ‘fix’ these systems through political or economic or legal or educational reform, or putting some more democratically-minded group ‘in control’ of them. Fighting for possession of the steering wheel of a car careering over a cliff cannot produce useful change. Even trying to bring down our economic systems before they do even more damage is probably futile: It’s unlikely to significantly accelerate, mitigate or delay the inevitable collapse, and I’m not sure its effect on catastrophic climate change would be substantial either. There is simply no point trying to change any of these systems; it’s a waste of time, and, as Buddha said “Our problem is we think we have time.” But some would insist we try anyway, so at least “we can say we tried”. I think that’s a pathetic argument.

So here we sit, all of us, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, with no real ‘rights’ or ‘freedoms’, no hope of ‘reforming’ massive, self-reinforcing and entrenched systems utterly out of our control, coming apart because they are totally unsustainable, and no credible knowledge of what might work to even mitigate the imminent and catastrophic end of the industrial ‘growth’ economy, the end of the all-too-brief age of abundant cheap energy, and the end of a short few millennia of astonishingly stable climate.

The question we must each ask ourselves, I think, is this: If we acknowledge that our systems and hence our civilization cannot be reformed or ‘saved’, what can we do now that will make a real difference, for the future, in our communities and for those we love?

The insanely rational answer to this question, I think, is (a) probably nothing, and (b) it’s too early to know.

So if I seem impatient or annoyed when you ask me to be outraged or supportive in your movement to reform civilization, I’m sorry. I think it’s too late.

I’m in the process of writing a book of stories of how all of this might play out, just one scenario, the story of, in the short term, a Great Migration of billions of people towards the poles in search of livable habitat (what an amazing, terrifying and liberating journey that could be!), and, in the longer term, the blossoming of thousands of local communities, new and unimaginably diverse, self-sufficient, joyful and utterly alive human cultures, whose total impact on the planet will be, due to our much smaller numbers and minimal energy and technology resources, pretty insignificant. I need to write such a new story to be able to begin to let go of the old, civilized one.

Maybe that’s not enough. Maybe there’s more I could (I’ve stopped saying “should”) be doing: learning new essential skills and capacities, helping in the process of rediscovering how to build and live in community together, healing myself and helping others heal from the ravages of civilization’s innumerable, constant and monstrous stresses, and just trying to live a joyful, exemplary, modest and graceful life. I may get around to these things. But for now I’m just writing, watching, reflecting, trying to figure it all out.

It’s too early and too late, I think, to do anything more.

January 30, 2014

Relearning to Love the Wild

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 00:26


photo, and photoshopping, by the author

Seattle’s Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book Crow Planet is a description of the experiences and feelings she brings to her work as an “urban naturalist”, someone who studies and appreciates nature (“the more-than-human world”) from within the city. Crows feature in it prominently, in part because crows, like humans, have been so successful at adapting to different environments because of their intelligence that they have damaged the ecological diversity almost everywhere they live — and they live everywhere humans do. And in part because, as Lyanda says, “everyone has a crow story”.

But ultimately the book is not about crows, and it takes some wild (but always interesting) tangents from the subject of its title. It’s really about our connection with the more-than-human world (that term is not meant to deprecate humans, but to include them). She starts with this proposition and question:

There is a way to face the current ecological crisis with our eyes open, with stringent scientific knowledge, with honest sorrow over the state of life on Earth, with spiritual insight and with practical commitment… Our actions can arise from a state of rootedness, connectedness, creativity and delight. But how are we to attain such intimacy, living at a remove from “nature”, as most of us do, in our urban and suburban homes?

She then tries to answer that question by telling her own naturalist stories, as an award-winning nature writer and lifelong ornithologist. These stories inevitably include her young, curious and sensitive daughter, and it is the daughter’s reaction that brings us face to face with our own disconnection with the wild — creatures and places that are untouched, undomesticated and undamaged by civilization, and our own, buried, untamed selves. She claims that anyone can relearn to love the wild through the practice of naturalism — elements of that practice include: thoughtful study, learning to identify wild creatures, patience and perseverance, a respect for wildness, attention, purposeful witnessing, developing a personal focus, diligent note-taking (and/or sketching), and allowing time for solitary naturalist activities. She writes:

Attempting to read crow lives attunes my eyes to this quieter, penciled world — its stories, its struggle, its needs. It inspires me to watch for the next layer, and then the next. In our urban watching, we learn to remain alert to the presence of the wild on Earth, to grow an awareness that is an essential counterbalance to the isolating loss of wild knowledge [and connection] that urban and suburban living so typically brings.

As a lifelong birdwatcher and studier of bird behaviour, I can see her point, but while I agree that such a practice is rewarding and enriching (and entirely possible in the city), I’m not sure it’s enough to enable many to relearn to love the wild. Lyanda clearly is a biophile, but my sense is that many people, deprived of contact with nature in childhood, grow up never appreciating what they’re missing.

Beyond that, I think there are many others who, because of either early childhood stress or chronic stress in their lives, are so ‘disconnected’ from themselves and the world they live in, that they can’t really offer the authentic attention to the more-than-human world (or even, in many cases, the human, civilized world) needed to appreciate it, connect with it, and heal with that connection. There is a theory (called the Attention Restoration Theory) that postulates that we are capable of two kinds of attention: Directed attention (focused, intellectual attention) and “Effortless” attention (unfocused, appreciative, holistic attention), with the former dominant in indoor activities and the latter prevalent outdoors. (Interestingly, this theory is consistent with my theory that we experience two types of “presence”, intense intellectual “clock time” presence and instinctual, relaxed “now time” presence.) Attention Restoration Theory holds that the former is exhausting and can lead quickly to “directed attention fatigue”, while the latter is restorative, allowing us to regenerate our capacity for genuine attention. My guess would be that the absence of contact with wild creatures and places, and/or high levels of stress that cause us to disconnect from the human and more-than-human world, can make both genuine attention (presence) and biophilia unattainable for many people.

Gabor Maté has worked with severely addicted, chronically ill, damaged and dysfunctional people in the poorest areas of Vancouver, Canada, and his theory is that essentially all of these people (and most of the rest of us) are suffering, to a greater or lesser extent, from a lifelong disconnection or “detachment” from our authentic selves and from others and the world in which we live, brought on by a lack of secure attachment to our parents or caregivers as very young children (due to trauma, loss, neglect etc.) or other severe early stress, and that consequently most of our chronic illnesses (physical and emotional) are attributable to understandable but ultimately damaging coping mechanisms we have put in place to protect ourselves from this absence of secure attachment and the loss of our sense of authentic (i.e. in touch with itself and aware of its own needs), empowered, self.

This theory seems quite credible, especially when you listen to the stories of those suffering most in our modern society. But it raises a couple of questions that I haven’t heard answered satisfactorily:

  1. If malaises like the many autoimmune diseases, autism, ADHD, and addiction are responses, coping mechanisms for dealing with severe stress, trauma and neglect, why has it taken so many generations for these diseases to become epidemic? Surely the children who grew up in the Great Depression or daily wartime bombing during the World Wars faced more stress, and their parents (many of whom were absent for long periods contributing to the war effort or working multiple jobs during the Depression) surely were less able to provide secure attachment than today’s parents. My understanding is that “spare the rod, spoil the child” abuse, and exiling children to boarding schools, among other parental cruelties, were more common then than now.
  2. And why, if stress, trauma, loss and neglect underlie these chronic diseases and dissociative conditions, do women generally seem better able to connect with each other, with their own authentic selves, and with the more-than-human world, than men? Everything I have learned suggests to me that young girls are much more likely to be traumatized in the home than young boys.

In my own case, my mother was traumatized by an abusive father (I found this out much later in my life), and so, while she was very attentive when we children were young (to the point of self-sacrifice), she found her life increasingly hard to cope with as she got older, and left us to our own devices while she fought the noonday demon of depression. She died young, at 59, of cancer. My father was just a typically (for the era) busy man, working long hours and weekends to make a living and support his family; he was around when he could be, and did take us to his office on weekends (a printing company, in the age of “hot type”, which I found fascinating), and on fishing and sightseeing trips in the summer. He died in 2010, of Alzheimer’s complications, at 85.

My early (pre-school) childhood was pretty idyllic — it was my school life (lying and sadistic teachers, cruel and manipulative schoolmates, and horrifically bad curricula and teaching), and later work life (hard, thankless, terrifying, exhausting, disempowering, incompetent, and sometimes abusive) that traumatized and disconnected me. My parents did their best to help me manage it, at least in early grades, but they were busy and could not possibly know how my sensitive soul was suffering; nor could I articulate it well. Combine that with a poor diet as a teenager and young adult, and the consumption of high doses of oral tetracycline for many years (the preferred treatment for severe acne in those days), and it’s no surprise that I dealt with depression much of my life and have more recently suffered from ulcerative colitis. Small wonder it hasn’t been much worse. That’s perhaps thanks to good genes, caring, attentive parents in early childhood, and recently, healthy changes to my lifestyle.

But I am still fear-driven, and still disconnected. Disconnected from my (amazing) instincts and my emotions, from my body’s messages and wisdom, from other people (I’m wary of most people, borderline misanthropic), and from the more-than-human world (I love nature, conceptually, but given how much opportunity I have now, and have had, to do so, I spend surprisingly little time immersed in it, and am in many ways afraid of it). I’m learning to enjoy, in moderation, walks in the woods and the rain, spending days outside (but close to the comforts of home), and visits to safe, warm, tropical places. I’m practicing meditation more often, though I’m not sure of what it’s doing for me. And of course, I love watching birds, photographing them, learning about them, hearing stories about them, and imagining what it would be like to fly (while stepping out on the balconies of high-rises makes me queasy, even as I am enticed by them).

And although I’m capable of exceptional focus and accomplishment during some periods of directed-attention “clock time” presence (you know, those moments when you feel, and others tell you, you are “really on”), my moments of effortless-attention “now time” presence are still, sadly, rare, and far from effortless, and they’re usually indoors and at night (listening to music, or sparked by candlelight, firelight, or the light of a warm body). I want to relearn to love the wild, and I certainly talk a good story about it, but it still seems far away, so impossible I feel I should let go of it and turn my attention to more attainable wants.

Living on an island, with forest and ocean all around me, I can no longer claim to be “removed” from nature. But still, it is as if nature, most of the time, is something in another dimension, and as much as I long to embrace it, to be a part of it, achieving that desire eludes me, and I know that is because of what is going on, and not going on, inside me. And I despair that that will ever change. Knowing why I am disconnected does not bring connection. And knowing that this amazing passage from the conclusion of Crow Planet is true, and wonderful, does not enable me to really feel it, or to follow its advice:

I wonder, what does it mean to have no hope when there is a radiant, Earth-loving child singing in your bathroom, and a broken-legged bird that has learned to fly in your tree? Still, it seems that the best prospect for a flourishing, ecologically vibrant, evolutionarily rich Earth would be a massive, brutal overturning of the human population followed by several millennia of planetary recovery. Surely this doesn’t count as hope. But here we are, intricate human animals capable of feeling despair over the state of the Earth, and simultaneously, joy in its unfolding wildness, no matter how hampered.

What are we to do with such a confounding vision? The choices appear to be few. We can deny it, ignore it, go insane with its weight, structure it into a stony ethos with which we can beat ourselves and our friends to death — or we can live well in its light.

I doubt that I’m the only one struggling to figure out, especially now, how to live well in its light. Crow Planet is a heart-warming, entertaining and illuminating book. If it’s a true story, I envy the author for the connection she’s found, or perhaps always had. For some of us, perhaps most of us, such connection is and may remain, elusive, even impossible, no matter how much we long for it and how much our weary brains say “Yes!”.

Now I’m going outside to sit, with a cup of tea and a cushion and a notebook, and watch the crows, and see if they will tell me what no human can.

January 29, 2014

Food Security

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 00:12

forest garden


image from the book Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford

I was recently invited to an Open Space event hosted by the Bowen (Island) Agricultural Alliance (BAA!) and facilitated by my friend Chris Corrigan. It was a small group — about two dozen — but most of the people there were farmers. With my Transition-based knowledge of permaculture and food security, it was a humbling and eye-opening experience. This is what I learned:

  1. The Possibility of Local Food Security: I’ve been told that, since we live on a volcanic island, the soils here are pretty poor, except in the valleys, which are, paradoxically, mostly shady because of the shadow of our three dominant mountains (and hence get little sun). I’d also heard numbers thrown around (most recently 15-20%) about the amount of our daily caloric input that we could maximally get from growing our own foods, and how much land (numbers varying from 1 acre — 4000 m2 — per 2.5 person household to 1 hectare — 10000 m2 — per person) is needed to meet 100% of caloric needs sustainably. Bowen has about 5 million m2 of potentially arable area (about 10% of our total land area), so by that measure we would be able to feed between 500 and 3000 people (current population: 3800) self-sufficiently, even if we could in fact grow what we need all year round. No wonder, then, that First Nations peoples who lived in the area for millennia had no permanent settlement on Bowen — the island was a fishing and hunting ground only.

    What the local farmers told me, however, is that some Bowen Islanders are already living more-or-less entirely on what they grow and raise themselves (they do buy things from off-island, but that’s a matter of variety and taste preference rather than necessity). They also told me that with appropriate rotation and interplanting, it’s possible to fully feed 200 people with a single acre of well-nourished land. By that measure Bowen’s 1250 acres of potentially arable land could theoretically feed up to 1/4 million people! While that’s probably an ideal exaggeration, they persuaded me that Bowen’s 3800 people, and perhaps several times more, could comfortably grow and raise everything we need to provide a nutritious and comfortable diet year-round — even off-grid without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and other technologies. That includes organic meats from humanely-raised, grass-fed cows, sheep, and goats, as well as llamas, chickens and ducks (for the non-vegans, of course). It also includes an amazing variety of herbs and other nutrients.

  2. But We’d Have to Farm and Eat Very Differently: There is of course a “but” to the above statement, and it is this: Sustainable food security would and will require us to grow and raise different foods than what we do now, and to eat different foods and prepare them differently from what we do now. We’d have to forego the exotic favourites, the out-of-season produce, and the packaged and processed foods that now dominate our diets, and get used to shifting our diets with the seasons and learning to like (and prepare in more varied ways) foods that grow here naturally (you, know “Give me spots on apples, but leave me the birds and the bees, please”). For a bread-loving vegan like me, that would be a challenge (though, I was told, a local vegan diet would be possible).

    We’ll have to re-master the art of preserving (canning, cold cellars etc.) as well.This also doesn’t mean everyone grows everything they need on their own acreage. To get requisite variety in our diets, we’ll have to network with other growers, form producer/worker/customer co-ops, focus on growing a few things well and abundantly, and trade with others in a 100km radius (or whatever energy collapse defines as a reasonable trading area) from where we live.

    The key, I was told, was a lesson learned during the Great Depression: Today our food choices are driven by our wants, not our (bodies’ real) needs, and to make this transition, we’ll all have to become more aware of the latter, and change that behaviour. We will only do that, on any scale, when we have no other choice. But it’s never too early to start thinking, planning, and shifting.I’ve pledged to learn about exactly what can be grown locally, in each season, here, and to start shifting my diet towards such foods, and away from foods that, once the Western US drought becomes permanent and California can’t even meet its own food needs, we will have to do without.

  3. There Are Two Competing Models of Permaculture: As an idealist, I love reading about “edible food forests” and places where, with a few decades of careful intervention and “aided succession”, a forest garden now provides locals with everything they need to eat with no further intervention (no fertilizers, pesticides, watering or even weeding) — even in areas that are now deserts. But, I was told, such places require a huge investment in time, energy, and patience, without being prematurely harvested, and even then can, depending on location, only support a relatively small number of people without becoming depleted.

    The more practical model of permaculture will require more, not less, work than current gardening, and just as much skill and knowledge. But it will allow a larger number of people to be supported per acre, and will allow its tenders to be better able to adapt what’s grown in each area to a rapidly-changing climate. And, eventually, it can be fully sustainable without the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Sounds like a lot of work. But I appreciate some people love doing this, so I will have to make sure that I have locally useful (non-permaculture) skills and knowledge I can trade for the fruits of (mostly) their labour.

  4. The Importance of Demonstration: Show, don’t tell. That’s been good teaching, persuading and learning advice for everything I’ve studied, and it’s especially true for food security. A local family that lives in a food- and energy-self-sufficient way, comfortably (if not by any means effortlessly), is more useful to shift people’s thinking about what is needed and what is possible, than a thousand books on permaculture and a thousand exhortations on the need for transition. We need to find the local models and reward them for opening their homes and farms for others to visit. They, not the politicians or lawyers or consultants, are tomorrow’s leaders.
  5. From Water Scarcity to Water Storage: Bowen Island is temperate rainforest. We get a lot of rain and have a lot of groundwater. But the groundwater can only go so far, and the summers here are dry, with high forest fire dangers. The problem is we take our water for granted, while letting most of it run down our lovely mountains into the sea. Nothing, not even solar power, could be more beneficial to local self-sufficiency and resilience than to have every Bowen home capturing and storing rainwater. Ask the Australians — they know.
  6. The Role of Community Gardens: Most Western communities, like ours, are obsessed with private property and ownership and suffer from the Tragedy of the Commons. Yet we’ve shown, with many of our local resources (like our library) and co-ops (like our Gallery) that vibrant, visible, community-owned resources in which people take pride, can not only provide goods and services much more effectively than for-profit enterprises, they can provide the essential meeting-places at which real community-building takes place. We need model community gardens, visible to everyone in the community (in our case, down by the ferry terminal), where people can go to see what’s possible, to learn, and to co-create community in our collective interest. Even though some people think gardens are ugly. That may mean we have to volunteer to do more than our share for a while, and to clean up the well-meaning but negligent messes of some community members until we reach a critical mass of collaboration so the garden looks well-kept and productive (if not beautiful). Until people point it out with pride to our visitors and say: “Look, we did that!”
  7. Start With the Women and Children: The kinds of changes that are needed to transition us to food security, I was told, can probably only happen if we start by enabling the women in the community (who generally are more grounded, more practical, and more knowledgeable and appreciative of working in the soil) to show the way. And by encouraging young people (our local school has a community garden, run by the students, who even offer seeds at our annual seed-swap) to show us they care, and they’re up for it.
  8. Spreading the Knowledge: A lot of people, I was told, even lifelong Bowen Islanders, are simply not aware of the local food choices available right here. We (Bowen in Transition) are working on a Green Guide that will not only list sustainable goods and services, but also contain forums and libraries of knowledge on sustainable living where people can learn about food security and how to address it locally, practically, and even joyfully. At least one local restaurant offers “evening tables” regularly — buffets featuring all-local foods and information on them. Our local newspaper is considering running a regular column on sustainable living. And local permaculture experts and ecologists are offering courses, walks and tours where we can learn about local geology, flora and fauna, edible mushrooms, and wildcrafting.
  9. Trees as Renewable Resources: “Did you know”, I was told, “that at the turn of the 20th century, as a result of massive logging for fuel, timber, paper and fuel, Bowen Island was almost treeless?” I was speechless. Although I know there are only a handful of true “old growth” trees on the island, I live beside a large area of Crown forest that looks as wild as anything I’ve ever seen. This is because, I learned, these “second growth” areas were “next up” to be logged when a collapsing economy and the replacement of wood by oil as the essential energy resource of North America spared them.

    This area of seeming wilderness is all the result of just over a century’s respite from the axes and saws that denuded my lovely island. The lesson? “Don’t fret about the need to cut some trees for food security and wind energy projects. They’ll grow back just fine.”

    I guess. Learning of how the oceans and streams teemed with an abundance of fish in the eons before human settlement, and noticing how few birds I see in the lush forests beside my house that I now see with different eyes, I wonder about what we’ve lost, and its cost.But this was a day for learning, for setting aside my ideals and dreams of a world long before or long after our species’ dreadful reign, a world without the terrible knowledge of humans, and thinking about what is possible now. I thank Bowen’s farmers and permaculturalists, people (mostly women now) who know what they’re talking about when it comes to food security, for setting me straight.

January 28, 2014

Links of the Month: January 28, 2014

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 15:58

The first edition of Shift Magazine, which is all about building resilience for a tumultuous future, and of which I am and will be a regular contributor (writing a trilogy on complexity and then some joyous short stories set two millennia from now), is now available for subscription, online viewing and (for the time being) free download. I’m thrilled to be working on theme-based editions of this edgy, unsentimental but upbeat, youth-oriented publication alongside the likes of fellow ‘collapsniks’ Guy McPherson, Carolyn Baker and Generation Alpha’s Ben Pennings. Please check it out, talk about it, and tell us what you think.

LOTM changeW

cartoon by Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig

As this winter (and summer in the Southern hemisphere) of extreme weather and record-setting temperatures and precipitation (at both ends of the scales) rolls on, I am sensing a significant shift in the thinking of people who are reasonably informed about what’s going on in the world. Some climate scientists are putting aside their fear of losing their jobs or reputations and starting to tell it like it really is. Many of my progressive friends who were unwilling to accept the inevitability of civilization’s collapse are starting to buy into it. Some others, who were diligently neutral but equally disparaging of ‘doomer’ and ‘denial’ worldviews, have grown more accommodating to us ‘doomers’ and more critical of the deniers. Some progressive media are publishing articles that dare to say we’ve past the tipping point (thanks Kathleen Conmee Breault for the link). And even some deniers are deciding, if only for their kids and grandkids, to look again at the evidence.

It’s just a minor tremor of change, but it’s an important one. At some point, if it continues, the rest of the media, which always trails public opinion, are going to start at least talking about the topic. They are, of course, going to offer the main stage to rebuttals from their right-wing masters, the economic ruling class, and they are, of course, going to wildly oversimplify the topic and the debate. And they’re going to get it mostly wrong, because for the most part they don’t have the time to become informed enough, and are rewarded for dumbing everything down to a dichotomy of two choices and simple decisions.

All we can do is work around the media, and the ruling class, and the politicians and lawyers and police and military authorities wedded to sustaining the status quo to the bitter end. The work of learning essential capacities, building resilient local communities, helping each other heal, and living joyful, exemplary, present lives, will not be helped by, and does not need, this shoddy, disreputable lot. They’re all coming down, soon enough.




cormorants in the salish sea – photo by the author

“The Fatal Hypertrophy of Finance”: Jim Kunstler continues to believe (as I do) that the initial undoing of our industrial civilization will be economic, not ecological collapse. And he worries, articulately if somewhat sourly, that:

It is one of the great hidden blessings of our time, actually, that anything organized on the massive scale is doomed to failure. But it is likewise the great mission of our time to prepare to get local and smaller, something we’re not really ready for and certainly not interested in.

Leading Oil Geologist Predicts Peak-Oil Caused Economic Collapse: A former leading geologist for BP says fracking and the tar sands will bring only a minuscule delay to the onset of economic crisis caused by available affordable production falling ever-further behind what’s needed to sustain the current economy. The fracking boom is already ending in many areas, leaving behind economic and ecological disaster. Thanks to David Hodgson for the first link.

Pandemics: The Forgotten Danger: The probability of a global pandemic, possibly virulent (killing rather than just causing illness) and air-borne (and hence highly contagious and essentially impossible to stop), is as high as ever, a ticking time bomb that today only a small cadre of health wonks are shouting about. When that happens, simulations indicate it’s game over for what’s left of the global ‘growth’ economy, as much due to panic (people refusing to go to work) as costs of illness and death of workers.

Do Stories of Place Help Us Prepare for Collapse?: Increasingly, excellent magazines dealing with collapse-related issues, like Orion and Earthlines, include more and more stories about place — the places the authors lived and grew up in, or have come to love, and how they’ve changed — and less and less analytical prose about our current predicaments. Fellow Transitioner and Dark Mountaineer Charlotte Du Cann explores why: Have we run out of things to say about collapse, until it becomes more obvious? Or are these stories to help us remember what we’ve lost, and what we’re losing, so when it all falls apart we’ll have some memories of what was good and bad about industrial civilization, at the grassroots level, when we try to build something better from its ruins?

Collapsnik vs Collapsnik: John Michael Greer and Kevin Carson have both written extensively about the unsustainability of our industrial growth society. The difference, says Lakis Polycarpou, is that John thinks collapse will be manifest through a stepwise delayering of complexity, as complex systems (including the Internet) collapse and must be replaced by simpler, local, less scalable ones. Kevin, on the other hand, is more of a technophile, and believes collapse will be substantially mitigated by more-with-less peer-to-peer innovations (e.g. satellites replacing underwater cables; distributed energy and manufacturing). They both make good points, and the whole discussion is worth a read, but you’ll probably know which point of view I agree with. Thanks to Seb Paquet for the link.

Life at the End of Empire: If you haven’t yet seen Tim Bennett’s amazing 2007 film, it’s available for free streaming through YouTube (donations welcome and DVD is for sale) and can also be viewed along with many other great docs from the good folks at Films for Action. It’s six years old but still prescient, moving, thorough, and hugely informative, though Tim’s become much more pessimistic than he was when he made this.

Predictions for 2014: A very funny, and wise, post by Dmitry Orlov with some predictions, and some predictions about predictions.

But No Alien Space Bats: John Michael Greer invites writers to write (and post links to his comments thread) stories set after the collapse of our civilization. They have to be plausible, but otherwise there are few rules. Why? “Most of what’s kept people in today’s industrial world from coming to grips with the shape and scale of our predicament is precisely the inability to imagine a future that’s actually different from the present.”



And the Best Diet IS…: Lately the ‘food press’ and medical establishment have been arguing vehemently whether the best diet for your health, and particularly to reduce exposure to the epidemic of modern heart and inflammatory diseases and cancers, is paleo, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, or something else again. Several good friends are fanatically pro-paleo, while others (including not a few top athletes) are saying vegan diets are best. I’m not going to get into the argument about which was the real pre-civilization diet of humans. But there is a strong consensus from health experts of all stripes on one thing: Though processed and chemical-laden foods and refined sugars are generally bad for your health, there is no one ‘best’ diet for everyone; every body is different and only monitoring and managing your own nutrition and health will lead to an ideal diet for your body. Here’s a doctor (thanks to Chris Lott for the link) who argues for a paleo-type diet. And here’s another doctor with what I think is a more balanced view (that paleo is better than most modern diets but unnecessarily restrictive for many). My current high-variety vegan diet includes whole grains and beans and potatoes and other carbs that are anathema to those on paleo or gluten-free diets, but I have yet to see any compelling medical evidence that it’s not the best for me, and since I’ve been monitoring my health and fitness for 40 years, I know it’s working for me. Don’t take any doctor’s advice who says there’s one best diet; do your own research, wean yourself off dependence on generalizing health care ‘experts’ proffering easy answers, and find what works best for you. [PS: And if you use supplements to compensate for possible deficiencies in your diet, you might want to read this.]

The Sacred Ritual of Walking: Venkat Rao explains, for the benefit of us un-spiritual types, that sacred rituals are of four types: grounding, centring, connecting, and collecting. He then provides an intriguing exercise to assess which type most appeals to you.

When the Purpose of Meeting is Not to Agree on Actions: My friend Amanda Fenton summarizes some great thoughts on the value of conversation, connection and networking that yields no action plans, decisions or “solutions”. Sometimes, sharing and listening and learning is enough; sometimes, “the dialogue is the action”.

Managing Our Inner Critic: Mark O’Connell cautions writers that the self-doubting Thomas in each of us has its value and its hazards: “The inner critic is actually an indispensable element of any writer’s working life; it is the immune system, the necessary resistance against the toxicity of bad writing. Excessive self-doubt is therefore like a sort of autoimmune disease, caused by an overactive and overpowerful inner critic: the cure becomes the condition.” Thanks to Bob Lasiewicz for the link.

Gabor Maté on the Childhood Attachment-Adult Illness Connection: The eloquent Vancouver doctor expounds on how our adult bodies betray childhood trauma and neglect. No magic answers (not even ayahuasca), but sometimes just knowing why you’re suffering is a start. He has some interesting comments on our cultural malaise, and our two fundamental emotional needs (for attachment and authenticity — connection to others and to our selves) as well. Well worth an hour’s attention.

Tiny Houses: The Tiny House movement is driving some great innovations in sufficient and resilient living. Self-constructed homes, often from local, renewable materials, from 100-500sf (10-45 m2) are proving to be adequate and delightful for many small families, and not just for the poor. They also offer one of the few intelligent ways of dealing with soaring and chronic homelessness. And you can even take some of them on the road. Thanks to David Hodgson for the second link, and Aleah Sato for the third.

Working Better: A concise summary of the workings of the cooperative and democratic alternative to capitalism represented by Mondragon. Thanks to Michel Bauwens for the link.



LOTM ruling class parasites via michael N

image of USM Professor Jason Read, original source unknown, via Michael Nenonen

(It’s hard to know what to put in this space anymore. If you read what Snowden and other whistle-blowers are saying, what Wikileaks and their kin are reporting, and what your area’s indymedia are writing (on issues of local importance), you know what’s going on. So lately I’m focusing here on “big picture” issues and perspectives, rather than the latest particular outrages of the wealthy, the powerful, and their lackeys.)

The Servant Economy: The extreme influence of the wealthy 1% on the political process has led to dangerous levels of inequality not seen even in the robber baron days. Author Jeff Faux’s new book argues that, as the economy stumbles, the result will be the large-scale impoverishment of the remaining 99% and the creation of a “servant economy” — undignified, insecure, underpaid and humiliating to the vast majority reduced to slavery to the tiny minority who still have wealth. Thanks to David Hodgson for the link.

Wikileaks Reveals Corporatist Plan for Battling Tar Sands (and Other) “Opponents”: A recent wikileaks release reveals that Stratfor, a Texas-based “security intelligence” firm, was hired by Big Oil to advise them how to discredit and defeat opponents to the Tar Sands, using a mix of psychological warfare, deceptive PR, pressuring of police authorities, political lobbying, and/or just ignoring them, depending on which category the opposing group fell into and how much a “threat” they present. This was helped, it now appears, with some of the $1/2 billion in subsidies the Harper government “gave” Big Oil for their “green” PR campaigns. The intelligence capability of Stratfor and its cohorts dwarfs what the bumbling NSA and CIA can do, but the media (owned mostly by clients of Stratfor et al) don’t report on their atrocious actions. Wikileaks has also revealed that this gang of lavishly paid private snoops and goons were hired to undermine the work of the Bhopal victims, the Occupy movement, PETA, and Deep Green Resistance, among others, and showed no hesitation to use falsified information and expensive media campaigns to do so, in the interests of their corporate clients. Thanks to Sam Rose for the third link above.




cartoon from xkcd

Why Poor People’s Seemingly Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense: A moving portrayal of life by a member of the swelling ranks of the working poor explains why smoking, eating fast food and processed foods, getting ripped off by “payday loan” usurers, and not paying off credit cards, are sensible, desperate, inevitable coping mechanisms for those who simply don’t have better options.

Murmuration: Mind-blowing impromptu video of massing starlings. Thanks to Beth Patterson for the link.

The World’s Worst Graphics: Mind-bogglingly-bad visualizations. Thanks to Tree for the link.

Find Your Spirit Animal: An entertaining quiz. (I’m spider/crow/owl.) Thanks to Seb Paquet for the link.

A Different Model: Terrific short video about ideal body image and what happens when you confront our ideas about it. Thanks to Eric Lilius for the link.

What We’re Capable Of: From the same site as the video above, a short moving video about a dog rescue, and a dog’s heart. Warning: this will make you cry. Please support your local animal rescue organizations.

What Blogging Was, and Is: David Weinberger, one of the pioneers of the form, talks about why blogging was so important and wonders, now that blog readership has fallen so much, about its future. A host of long-term bloggers (including me, but especially check out David’s Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls’ great response) have chimed in with interesting comments. Thanks to Nancy White for the link.

More-Than-Human Play: A kitten and dolphin meet. Thanks to Bernie DeKoven for the link. And if you feel the need for more cute kitties, here is Abercrombie cat, and a cat editorial.

Let the Love Wash Over Us: Amazing gospel music video. We sing this song with its simple, stunning harmonies in our local singing circle, but Rickie Byars Beckwith and Agape take it to another level.

The Canadian Accent: No, it’s not aboot how we say things, eh? Russell Peters, back when he was funny, explains how we Canadians sound to newcomers.

Yes We Can (Farsi Edition): Slick video produced for President Rouhani of Iran shows that the same propaganda war against citizens is being waged, in much the same way, everywhere now. Thanks to Raffi for the link.

The Entire IPCC Report in 19 Illustrated Haiku: Oceanographer Greg Johnson reviews this gloomy report and distils it into 19 poems which he illustrates himself. Thanks to Tree for the link.



From PS Pirro, What You Decide to Call Good:

Do you start with the unsettling of the Americas, the creation
of an empire built on stolen Aztec gold, do you count the trees
or the dollars? Do you hold Sinclair’s blood-soaked Jungle
next to Bill’s bright white Microsoft, or do you look at the
poisoned mines in the Congo where children with the cut of the
whip across their backs dig for the columbite-tantalite to outfit
your Android? Complexity, complicity, they will get you every
time. Because so much depends on what you compare. So much
depends on what you decide to call good.

From Nassim Taleb, on the idiocy of our fascination with neo-phrenologist brain scans:

 Studying neurobiology to understand humans is like studying ink to understand literature.

From Kevin Tucker, back in 2005, explaining that the first creatures humans “domesticated” were other humans (Thanks to Decivilized for the link):

Domestication is the civilizing process. It is about turning wild humans into something for civilized use. It turns individuals into farmers, peasants, workers, bosses, police and soldiers, just as it turns forests and wetlands into gardens, and gardens into fields surrounding cities, and fields into deserts. It is about taming humans for domestic life.

From Tim Bennett, This Should Not Be (image below from his post, originally from manataka.org):

Crow In the Snow

Isn’t it amazing? I get up and it’s 4° F below and still there are gulls in the sky, still there are crows looking for handouts, still there are deer stepping quietly across the driveway trying not to wake anyone. How do they do it, I wonder, and why can’t I? Over the years, I’ve schooled myself to walk barefoot on the ground, and can now easily do so when it’s 15-20°F. I go out without coat and hat for as long as I can, and let the wind rip right through me. It seems that story and fear and culture and belief are as much a factor as anything else, when it comes to our experience of cold. So I work at that level, knowing that I won’t always be able to control my external circumstances, knowing that the stories inside of me will determine my experience just as much as any outside force, knowing that if I can meet things like cold, hunger, and discomfort without fear and judgment that that will give me an edge, knowing that Nietzsche was right about what makes me stronger. In the end, it’s my resistance to what’s so – whether it be cold, heat, biting ants, or feelings of anger or grief- that causes me all of my suffering. The story “this should not be” creates so much of my upset. And it’s a silly story, don’t you think, as anything that “should not be” surely “is” already. The cold surely “is.” And I think the gulls and crows and deers just take it as such, with no thought of personal punishment, no offense, no inner mumbling of “this should not be”.              Thank you, teachers.

And more awesomeness from PS Pirro, Love Like Water:

Perhaps it is too much to ask of love
that it surround us always, that it permeate
our days and leave its watermark on all we do.
Perhaps it is more of a privilege than we care to think,
to love the world and all of its daily obligation,
to rise and meet the cold concrete sky
with the same face we offer to the gilding sun.
Perhaps it diminishes love to expect so much of it,
that it solve all our conflict and soften every hard edge,
love like water, carving landscapes we cannot
always fathom, canyons we cannot always cross.

January 16, 2014

Requiem for a Species

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 16:33

mary mattingly
conception of post-civilization all-weather wear by mary mattingly

I‘ve added professor Clive Hamilton’s new book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change to my “Save the World Reading List” (retroactively). It’s the natural next step after the 15 essential readings and really sums up where we (our species and our planet) are now.

Clive starts out by saying what climate scientists know but are afraid to say:

Over the last five years, almost every advance in climate science has painted a more disturbing picture of the future. The reluctant conclusion of the most eminent climate scientists is that the world is now on the path to a very unpleasant future and it is too late to stop it. Behind the facade of scientific detachment, the climate scientists themselves now evince a mood of barely suppressed panic. No one is willing to say publicly what the climate science is telling us: that we can no longer prevent global warming that will this century bring about a radically transformed world that is much more hostile to the survival and flourishing of life. This is no longer an expectation of what might happen if we do not act soon; this will happen, even if the most optimistic assessment of how the world might respond to the climate disruption is validated.

In the first four chapters, he reviews the science of climate change (including the methane release and other positive feedback loops that auto-accelerate greenhouse gases), explains why we have passed the tipping point, why we (and our politicians) want growth to continue forever, how our consumerist culture has evolved, why we’re prone to believe greenwashing, the psychology of denial, and the inevitability of the emergence of dangerous, corporatist-funded “junk science”.

Chapter 5 describes the civilized human’s disconnection from nature that has allowed all of this to happen. Clive explains the malleability of our mental constructs of reality, self, and belonging and how they (we) have changed our worldview. (The chapter includes a fascinating and succinct statement of the Gaia Hypothesis written by Plato in the 4th century BCE!)

In Chapter 6, he deconstructs the discredited ‘fixes’ to global warming: carbon capture, the switch to renewables, substituting nuclear energy, and the use of climate engineering (geoengineering). I think he underestimates the perils of nuclear energy (not only the massive cost of reactors and how they would bankrupt our already-overstretched economy, but the challenge to post-civilization societies of preventing, for the next million years, the last century’s human-made radioactive wastes from causing even greater devastation for millennia to come). But otherwise this examination of proposed fixes is a good update to George Monbiot’s Heat. Chapter 6 includes an interesting and terrifying review of the politics of geoengineering, focused on the deranged proposals of right-wing darlings Edward Teller and Lowell Wood, that leads to the horrific conclusion that, because it’s so inexpensive and tempting to desperate, arrogant people, unilateral geoengineering efforts are not only likely, but probably inevitable.

In Chapter 7, Clive explains what we can expect, based on the latest projections, when runaway climate change hits us full-bore over the next few decades:

  • the uncontrollable burning of most of the world’s remaining tropical, subtropical and temperate forests due to latent heat
  • the prevalence of desertification, disappearance of glacial melt, massive water shortages and endemic high rates of heat-related deaths in the world’s temperate zones (including the Western US and Canada; worst in Southern Europe, the Middle East, much Southeast Asia and most of Mexico and Central America)
  • an ice-free world, with a commensurate rise, sooner or later, of 50-70m in sea levels
  • unprecedented and chronic floods, storms and monsoons
  • the death of almost all ocean life
  • large-scale collapse of human infrastructure not designed for such extreme and frequent weather events
  • massive numbers of climate change refugees, migrating (mostly north) thousands of miles in search of lands that are still habitable and arable

He dismisses human plans for resilience and adaptation in the face of such catastrophic (and specifically unpredictable) events, and says instead we must prepare for “a process of continuous transformation” of the way we live — societies and cultures in a constants state of rapid flux. He confesses:

It was only in September 2008, after reading a number of new books, reports and scientific papers, that I finally allowed myself to make the shift and admit that we simply are not going to act with anything like the urgency required… The climate crisis for the human species is now an existential one. On one level I felt relief: relief at finally admitting what my rational brain had been telling me; relief at no longer having to spend energy on false hopes; and relief at being able to let go of some anger at the politicians, business executives and climate sceptics who are largely responsible for delaying action against global warming until it became too late…

We [now] have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change. The Earth’s climate [will now] enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings [will] still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point. One thing seems certain: there will be far fewer of us.

The final chapter on “what to do” focuses largely on learning to accept and deal with grief and loss. Clive explains:

For those who confront the facts and emotional meaning of climate change, the [death we mourn] is the loss of the future. [Our grief] is often marked by shock and disbelief, followed by… anger, anxiety, longing, depression, and emptiness [which we suppress through] numbness, pretence that the loss has not occurred, aggression directed at those seen as responsible, and self-blame… [Denial and avoidance are] defences against the feelings of despair that the climate science rationally entails…

Healthy grieving requires a gradual ‘withdrawal of emotional investment in the hopes, dreams and expectations of the future’ on which our life has been constructed. [But] after detaching from the old future [it is our nature to] construct and attach to a new future. Yet we cannot build a new conception of the future until we allow the old one to die, and Joanna Macy reminds us that we need to have the courage to allow ourselves to [first] descend into hopelessness.

conception of art after the collapse of civilization culture by afterculture

This is the reason, I think, why I am now driven to write upbeat imaginative stories set several millennia in the future, once the crisis has passed. It is easier and perhaps healthier to see the coming collapse not as the end of something, but as a period of disequilibrium, a challenge, that we must endure in order that our descendants can live in a much better society than the one we live in today. It’s an attitude of willingness for self-sacrifice that many of our ancestors shared.

Clive goes on to explain how the loss of our future brings about a loss of meaning, and so we have to create a new story about ourselves and our purpose.

He suggests that we will reach the point at which, as much as we respect the law, we will have a moral obligation to ignore it, to mitigate or at least briefly delay the onset of runaway climate change through illegal actions. As I have written lately, I think that is a matter both of personal conscience and personal worldview: I have come to appreciate, through my study of complex systems, that such actions, useful as they may be in achieving short-term benefits for those we care about, will ultimately have no long-term effect, and they entail considerable personal risk as our surveillance society anticipates and ramps up efforts to suppress such actions ruthlessly. But I also appreciate and admire those willing to fight the system despite those personal risks and its ultimate futility.

I come back to the four safer actions we can take now to prepare, I think, for the convulsive period ahead:

  • Live an exemplary, joyful, present life: Be a model of living in the present, joyously, every day, living a life that’s aware, generous, responsible, sustainable and full of learning, wonder and love. Rather than dwell on the future or the past or what could have been done or is going to happen, focus on making the world better for yourself and those immediately around you now. Perform what Adam Gopnik calls “a thousand small sanities“. Seek to exemplify what Richard Holloway calls “an attitude of contemplative gratitude“.
  • Re-learn essential skills and knowledge that will make you and your community more self-sufficient and resilient when centralized global systems — governments, big corporations, trade, industrial agriculture, energy etc. — fall apart. Learn to make clothes, or to grow your own food organically, or how to mentor a student to learn how to learn, or how to facilitate a group to work more effectively together. And learn more about yourself as well — how to make yourself well, what triggers you or frightens you (and why), what you do really well, and what you really care about.
  • Discover your neighbours and connect with them, and learn how to build and live in community, where sharing is more important than owning. Learn how to care about, and even love, people you really don’t like very much. When hierarchies collapse, what we’ll be left with is community. Get to know yours.
  • Work with others to help them, and you, to heal from the damage this culture has already done to us, physically and emotionally, and to cope with the fear, the guilt and the grief we all start to feel when we realize what we have done to this planet, with the best of intentions, and what we’re going to face as a consequence.

December 20, 2013

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 12:53


George Monbiot’s latest article (thanks to PS Pirro for the link) claims that not only have large corporations come to dominate all aspects of our economy — oligopolies controlling every major industry sector, media, politicians and schools doing their bidding etc. — these corporations have now wrecked democracy everywhere, and replaced it with corpocracy, where executives and wealthy shareholders make all important political (and military) decisions in so-called democratic countries. Excerpt:

The role of the self-hating state is to deliver itself to big business… I don’t blame people for giving up on politics. I haven’t given up yet, but I find it ever harder to explain why. When a state-corporate nexus of power has bypassed democracy and made a mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed political funding system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians of the three main parties stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?

It’s a great rant, but it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. This imbalance of power and wealth is largely what lay behind the Occupy movement and its sister movements around the world. But that imbalance is self-perpetuating. The situation Monbiot describes wasn’t the result of a calculated plot to control the world. In fact, no one is in control. No one wants to precipitate the inevitable economic, energy/resource and ecological collapse that the current status quo is leading to. These systems are the net sum of all of our actions, decisions, desires and beliefs. We can no sooner change their direction in any quick, fundamental and enduring way than we could have changed the direction of the Titanic, or the Exxon Valdez. Too much momentum, too complex a system with too many variables, no possible levers of control.

If we did suddenly redistribute wealth and power from those who have to those who have not, it would be the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. There are no lifeboats to somewhere else on our horribly overpopulated Spaceship Earth. The people who suddenly acquired more wealth, income and power would be no less interested in keeping the systems that produce it going, despite the horrific costs and against all odds, than the current cabal.

So while I’m sympathetic with those who find our growing inequality egregious and even obscene, in a few decades it’s not going to matter anyway. There is no place to hide from what we have wrought, no matter what one’s wealth or influence is. How much time and energy is worth spending in the short term to reduce inequality? That depends on your belief in its short term success. Or the ferocity of your belief that such work is worth doing as a matter of principle, even if it has almost no chance of success.

Would it make sense to spend that time and energy instead in direct action, working to bring about the collapse of the destructive industrial growth economy sooner? Same answer: That depends on your belief in the success of such actions, or your belief we should do it on principle anyway. I think there is fairly compelling evidence that this would lessen, rather than increase, the suffering of creatures, human and not, if it were possible. I also think that, because of the Jevons Paradox and other aspects of how complex systems work, such actions may well be futile.

Or you could spend that time and energy instead just making the world of those immediately around you better, in the moment, every day, through a thousand small sanities. That might require more non-attachment than most of us are capable of, to avoid getting sucked back into the fight against inequality and/or the industrial growth economy.

I’m not sure we have the choice to decide between these three approaches. We each make sense of injustice, and of outrage, and of grief, in different ways, and it’s not a rational process. But for me at least, talking about it seems to help.

underwater photo: by the Italian Coast Guard/AP, of the sunken Costa Concordia 

December 11, 2013

The Fire This Time

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 14:58


A few days ago I watched the documentary Chasing Ice, as part of our local Transition initiative’s film series. What really struck me in the film was the narrator’s four word comment about 1/3 through the film when he was discussing what we can/should do about arctic melting and runaway climate change:

“There is no time.”

Just that. He meant that there is no time for us to continue to do what we have been doing — the politicking, stalling, denial, endless debate and research. But what these four words mean to me, and I think at a visceral and perhaps subconscious level what they now mean to many people who are informed about what is happening in our world, is that there is no time for us to pull back from collapse, no time to avoid or even mitigate runaway climate change and the emergence, later this century, of a climate on Earth as different (7-8oC) from today’s (though in the opposite direction) as the climate during the most recent glacial maxima (colloquially, “Ice Ages”) 20 and 140 and 260 and 340 and 440 thousand years ago.

During these “Ice Ages” much of the planet’s land mass was covered in ice an average of 2 km thick, and the regions adjacent to the ice-covered areas suffered constant windstorms that transformed them into scrub and desert, and beyond that desert, what are now semi-tropical areas were covered in boreal forest. Equatorial areas then, in addition to being much cooler than today, see-sawed between prolonged periods of monsoon-like rains and periods of extended drought.

What will our planet be like with 7-8 degrees of warming in the next few decades? Weather will likely be more extreme (more flooding, desertification and fires, and, later, much higher sea levels) and much more turbulent, but instead of only the equatorial areas being habitable by significant human numbers, as happened during the “Ice Ages”, only the polar areas, with whatever vegetation will have emerged there in that short time, will likely be habitable in the coming “Fire Age”.

The Fire This Time.

There is no time for us to avert this. But there is time to imagine potential future scenarios and how we might react to them, to increase our resilience to the large-scale changes to our way of living it will bring, and to prepare ourselves for them (intellectually, emotionally, and capacity-wise that is — for the coming Long Emergency, hoarding assets and building bunkers is not a viable strategy).

What complicates the future scenario for our planet is that we are also nearing End Games in our global economic and energy/resource systems, as I diagrammed in my post last month. Neither system is sustainable for more than a few more years, a few decades at most, and both systems affect the rate of atmospheric pollution and hence the extent and timing of runaway climate change.

I’m writing a series of articles that explains all this in more detail for the fledgling Sustainability Showcase magazine, but the chart above summarizes the interrelationship of our economic, resource/energy, and climate/ecological systems, and how ‘collapse’ (i.e. dramatic and uncontrolled unbalancing and change, with largely unpredictable consequences) of any of these systems would likely affect the other two. Here’s the prognosis in a nutshell:

 Best case (Eisenstein) scenario: Shift to Sharing Economy precipitates near-term, gradual collapse of the industrial growth economy, which will leave some of Earth’s energy and resources in the ground and delay and slightly lessen runaway climate change. [Or similarly, major early unexpected impacts of climate change (e.g. pandemic) precipitate near-term, gradual economic collapse, with the same results.]

Worst case (Ehrenfeld) scenario: Politicians ratchet up the economy to extend industrial growth a little longer, exhaust energy and other resources faster and more completely, then use nukes to try to mitigate energy exhaustion, all leading to faster and more severe runaway climate change and total economic collapse and energy/resource exhaustion.

All scenarios end with runaway climate change. This is kind of hard to comprehend, but once you realize how delicate the balance is that has kept our planet in a brief paradisiacal near-stasis climate for several millennia, and how often runaway climate change has happened in our planet’s past (for many reasons, mostly unknown), it’s not too hard to accept. We’ve just unwittingly accelerated the process this time.

There will be large scale species extinction — it’s already begun and it’s also not a new phenomenon on this planet. Life will go on. Some like it hot. There will be a steady exodus toward the poles by many species, with varying degrees of success. What will evolve in the planet’s new super-hot, super-stormy zones is anyone’s guess.

From that perspective, the timing of the collapse of this civilization’s unstable, global, oil-and-growth dependent industrial economy, and whether we plunder the last of the easily-accessible energy, soil, water, minerals, forests and other resources (a billion years’ worth of accumulated riches) before the climate destabilizes, may seem a bit moot. But it will be very important for our immediate descendants, and for many living today.

As the table above shows, we have little say in (or control over) how all this unfolds. But we have a little. The sooner we bring down our rapacious and wasteful economy, the less severe and longer delayed ecological collapse will be — and the more resources will be left for post-collapse life.

We can (and some say should) help precipitate that economic take-down, through direct action against its most grievous activities — tar sands, nukes, deepwater, shale, mountaintop removal, rainforest razing, ‘blood’ mining, factory farming, forced/slave labour etc. And we can precipitate it by walking away from that teetering economy and shifting our activities to that of the sharing economy — by using, gifting and conserving local, organic, low-energy, durable goods and services in community with each other, without the use of fiat currencies.

Beyond that, there’s not much we can do to prepare for The Fire This Time, except learn some useful new skills, learn how to build (and live in) community (anywhere), get and stay healthy, and cultivate what we might call a resilient, adaptable attitude. Some of the qualities I think might be part of such an ‘attitude’ — a way of being in the world — are (in no particular order) being:

  • generous
  • self-aware and self-knowledgeable
  • attentive (“present”)
  • curious and imaginative (they’re not the same thing)
  • able to let go (open, forgiving, patient, even ‘stoic’)
  • challenging (able to think critically)
  • self-expressive and articulate
  • appreciative and grateful
  • playful, joyful, and able to see beauty everywhere
  • able to relish simple pleasures
  • contemplative, gentle, and at peace

We can’t be these things if we’re not, of course, and the stresses of our modern lives make it hard to be them. But, joyful pessimist that I am, I believe most of these qualities are in most of our natures, if we can find space for them, and let them come out. Adversity tends to bring out the best in us, and we’re now in the headwinds of a maelstrom.

It’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine. One day, everything will be free.

November 26, 2013

What I Hope to Be Next Year

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves,Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 22:35


Let things ripen, and then fall; force is not the way at all.
Just let go and we will see: the way to do is to be.
(– Lao Tzu, song adaptation by Laurence Cole; thanks to Shasta Martinuk and Brian Hoover for introducing me to it.)

About five years ago I published a musing based on an exchange I had with my friend Paul Heft. It took the “three circles” diagram from my book Finding the Sweet Spot, that endeavours to help you discover what (work) you’re meant to do, and morphed it into the more existential three circles diagram shown above, that endeavours to help you discover what (who) you’re meant to be.

The differences are analogous but substantial: What I’m meant to do lies at the intersection of what I do well (my Gifts), what I love doing (my Passions) and what the world needs now (my Purpose). What I’m meant to be lies at the intersection of what I am good at being (my Capacities), what I love being (my Joys) and what I and my community(ies) need and want me to be (my/our Desires).

There are subtle but important distinctions here: Compassion, for example, is a Capacity of Being rather than a Gift (skill). Being self-sufficient is (for many) a Joy (something we(‘d) love to be, rather than a Passion (something we love to do). Patient is something those in my communities might want or need me to be (a Desire), rather than something they might want or need me to do (a Purpose). And, importantly, these qualities of Being are not just personal, but rather both collective and personal; we are social creatures, and without each other we cannot be much.

I’m re-exploring this because I’ve come to realize (especially since my retirement from paid work) that we are indoctrinated to spend most of our lives trying to figure out what to do, rather than what/who to be. The world doesn’t care who we are, this would seem to suggest, only what we do. It’s a materialistic argument that comes from a worldview of impersonality and scarcity, and I’m no longer sure it serves us well.

I’m deliberately using the expression “what I’m meant to be” rather than “who I’m meant to be” because I’m not convinced we can really change who we are. If I were to say I want to be empathetic (when I know I’m really not), that’s an aspiration about who I want to be, and I think that’s generally futile. On the other hand, if I were to say I want to be provocative (which is certainly within the realm of who I am), that’s an aspiration about what attributes of myself I want to exhibit (“be” in the state of) more often. Hope that’s not too confusing.

To my surprise, while the Sweet Spot of What I’m Meant to Do continues to evolve each year (though I confess I no longer pay it much attention), the attributes and states of Being at the intersections and centre of the three circles (shown in italics in the diagram above — What I’m Meant to Be) has not really changed for me in five years. I know the people in my communities, those I love, want me to be perceptive, sensitive and patient, and that I will try my best but largely fail to be so. I know I’m intelligent and intuitive and that is valued by those in my communities, but this brings me little happiness. I know that I’m good at being reflective and playful, and love being so, but those in my communities don’t much care about that. Oh well. I’ll be that way anyway. And I know that I want above all to be more present, but that I really suck at it — my moments of presence come when I don’t expect them, and all too rarely.

But I also know that being articulate, provocative and imaginative are in my “being Sweet Spot”: I love being these things, and am good at them, and being these things is valued by those I know and care about. My moments of true connection, appreciation, and feelings of being “nobody but myself” come when I am being these things. Same as five years ago.

So I’ve been having a bunch of conversations with people I love, people I know, and people I’ve just met lately, to explore how I can be these things, instead of trying to be who I’m not and do what I have no Passion, Gift or sense of Purpose for. Thanks to all of you for your forbearance and inspiration in that process. Because through these conversations I’ve discovered two ways I can be articulate, provocative and imaginative, and at the same time do things that are in my “doing Sweet Spot”:

First, I’ve realized that my ‘place’ among the collapsniks — the growing group of informed, thoughtful people chronicling the crumbling of our global industrial civilization with the knowledge that collapse is inevitable and even desirable — is as the one who articulates an appreciation of how complex systems work and why (provocatively) it is the momentum and inertia and positive and negative feedback loops of such systems that prevent us from steering them away from catastrophe and collapse, not any inherent failing of human character, will or ingenuity. No one is to blame; it’s the system we collectively evolved. And also, my ‘place’ is to be the one articulating how that appreciation of complexity can help us ‘be’ more resilient as we face the crises that will culminate in civilization’s slow (over a few decades) collapse.

And secondly, I’ve realized that my ‘place’ among writers about grief and history and possibility is as the one who puts our current predicament — the end of our brief few millennia of cheap energy, economic ‘growth’ and climate stability — in the context of a million years of human existence on Earth, and writes stories of an astonishing future centuries and millennia after the fall of this fragile, unsustainable, ghastly blip of  ‘civilization’, when a small remaining human population combines the ancient knowledge of how to live gently and joyfully on our planet with the select knowledge of science and art and manufacture, to create a world of unimaginable beauty, wonder, harmony, creativity, diversity, peace and joy. No dystopia after the fall; but instead, finally, the realization of what humanity might be, as part of (not the creators of) a better world. I want to tell those stories, to give us all the vision, perspective and courage to navigate the blip of civilization’s collapse.

Articulate, provocative, imaginative. That’s what this joyful pessimist hopes to be next year.

November 8, 2013

Links of the Month: November 8, 2013

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 05:26

The Three Es system chart

I‘ve just been interviewed by Janaia and Robyn at Peak Moment TV (video will be up soon). [Update Nov. 25: Video is now up].The conversation inspired me to try to come up with a short summary of why I am so convinced that our civilization is in its last few decades, and that our efforts to mitigate its collapse are largely a waste of time and energy, and what someone who shares this worldview could or should do now. This is what I came up with:

  1. We’re already past the tipping point. For ten years I have been studying our civilization, our culture, who we are and what makes us human, and the nature of complex systems. That has led me to believe that our civilization, like any system dependent on complicated technologies and unsustainable processes, is hurtling towards energy, economic and ecological collapse, any one of which would lead inexorably to our civilization’s collapse.
  2. There are three global unsustainable systems headed for inevitable near-term collapse. Inherent in these systems are both positive feedback loops and negative feedback loops. The positive (reinforcing) loops tend to lead to collapse. An example is how greater human numbers lead to greater production of human foods and vice versa, in an accelerating loop that has led to an utterly unsustainable 7.3 billion humans on the planet, a number that would reach 11-12 billion by century’s end barring the certain collapse of our industrial food and other systems. These positive feedback loops are pushing us towards three catastrophic Endgames shown in the chart above:
    • The exhaustion, in just two centuries, of billions of years’ of stored energy and other natural resources, which currently enable us to produce goods at hundreds of times the rate we could if we depended on human and animal power alone.
    • The collapse of the industrial economy, which depends on ever-increasing production, consumption, growth, indebtedness, capacity to repay that indebtedness, and Ponzi-style faith that such growth can somehow continue forever.
    • Runaway climate change, as human activity pushes our fragile atmosphere’s Earth-regulating temperature higher than it has been in million of years, with the increase between now and 2050 almost certain to be greater than the decrease during the coldest known ice age, with comparable planet-altering effects. Arctic and Antarctic melting, and the burning of what’s left of the world’s great forests, are releasing massive amounts of methane gas and other gases much more potent than CO2. So instead of warming a degree or two Celsius by 2100, climate scientists now say we are on track for 4-6C of warming by mid-century, leading to unliveable conditions of heat and storm and fire and flood everywhere but on the poles by 2100, even if we were to institute a herculean program to change our behaviours globally and immediately.
  3. Attempts to intervene and rebalance the systems are defeated by the Jevons Paradox. Complex systems also have negative (balancing) feedback loops, but in a phenomenon called the Jevons Paradox, these systems have evolved in such a way that instead of balancing and mitigating the ‘runaway’ positive loops, the negative loops act to prevent and defeat attempts to rebalance and mitigate them. So for example when we pass laws requiring greater fuel efficiency standards, one consequence is the invention of vehicles such as hybrid cars. These cars’ greater fuel efficiency alleviates both the cost and guilt feelings of driving a gas-gulper, with the paradoxic result that owners of such vehicles drive them so much more than their older cars that they actually burn more hydrocarbons than did the more carefully-driven gas gulpers they’ve replaced. Another example: In a large impersonal and hierarchical society, when we impose taxes or caps or laws to penalize pollution, or profligacy, or waste, or other foolish behaviour, instead of getting behaviour change what we get instead is more and more clever ways to circumvent and cheat the rules, and more and more money spent to buy politicians who will undo these rules. So “solutions” such as large fines for the banksters’ massive “white-collar” crimes and the Koch brothers’ ecological atrocities accomplish nothing — they actually quantify the limits to risk and hence encourage and reward such behaviour. And any activist who seriously threatens the status quo of the positive feedback loops will be quickly labeled a terrorist by those who profit from them, and neutralized.
  4. Even monumental coordinated global human interventions will only delay and worsen the inevitable collapse. So it is pretty clear to me that we are going to lurch in fits and starts over the next few decades towards energy/resource, economic and ecological collapse, and our attempts to mitigate them and balance one off against the other will simply forestall for a few more years the inevitable collapse of all three systems over the next few decades. The order of collapse hardly matters now. And there is nothing we can do to prevent or significantly lessen or delay it.
  5. It’s time to move “beyond hope“. This is a pretty bleak reality for most of us to face. Most would rather continue to believe in magical thinking — that markets or new leaders or new technologies or “human ingenuity” or some collective global consciousness-raising or the Rapture will rescue us in time, or that some deus ex machina, some white swan event or discovery will save us, that somehow things will work out OK because “they always have before”. John Gray’s Straw Dogs explains why such belief is foolish and self-defeating; we cannot be other than who we are — just another Earth species too smart for its own good driven by the needs of the moment, doing what we must.
  6. What we can do, now. But if you’ve reached the stage where you can no longer believe in such magical solutions, you need some other course of action. You can’t do nothing, especially if you have a conscience, or children, or a love for this planet’s non-human life. What you have to do, I think, is give up hoping and trying to bring the systems back into balance through interventions like progressive voting and activism and composting and solar power, and instead start learning to be resilient so that when these crises hit, you and those you love will at least be better equipped to cope and respond to them than most of us are now. I think there are four ways to do that:
    • Live an exemplary, joyful, present life: Be a model of living in the present, joyously, every day, living a life that’s aware, generous, responsible, sustainable and full of learning, wonder and love. Rather than dwell on the future or the past or what could have been done or is going to happen, focus on making the world better for yourself and those immediately around you now. Perform what Adam Gopnik calls “a thousand small sanities“. Seek to exemplify what Richard Holloway calls “an attitude of contemplative gratitude“.
    • Second, re-learn essential skills and knowledge that will make you and your community more self-sufficient and resilient when centralized global systems — governments, big corporations, trade, industrial agriculture, energy etc. — fall apart. Learn to make clothes, or to grow your own food organically, or how to mentor a student to learn how to learn, or how to facilitate a group to work more effectively together. And learn more about yourself as well — how to make yourself well, what triggers you or frightens you (and why), what you do really well, and what you really care about.
    • Third, discover your neighbours and connect with them, and learn how to build and live in community, where sharing is more important than owning. Learn how to care about, and even love, people you really don’t like very much. When hierarchies collapse, what we’ll be left with is community. Get to know yours.
    • And fourth, work with others to help them, and you, to heal from the damage this culture has already done to us, physically and emotionally, and to cope with the fear, the guilt and the grief we all start to feel when we realize what we have done to this planet, with the best of intentions, and what we’re going to face as a consequence.

That’s about it, I think. Ten years’ learning and writing about complexity, culture, ecology and collapse condensed into six points.



LOTM Overthinking-580.jpg

cartoon by Charles Barsotti from The New Yorker

Climate After Growth: Post Carbon Institute and Transition Network collaborated to produce this free e-book on the need for community resilience. It doesn’t come right out and say what I’ve said above, but the prescription is much the same as mine.

The End of Pensions: Ilargi explains: Currently pensions are funded by estimating the present value of future pension payment requirements, using absurd assumptions about the future growth of pension investments (i.e. that double-digit profit growth will continue forever). When these assumptions are shown to be false, pensions will collapse, period. People relying on them will be devastated, and those hoping to retire with them will be disappointed. And, as Matt Taibbi explains, public sector employees’ pensions are especially at risk, due to misappropriation and mismanagement. Thanks to Raffi for the second link.

The Four Horsemen is a long but engaging film about the unsustainability of our economic system, free online. It proposes a “bloodless revolution” to replace it with an egalitarian economy. Nice idea, but another misunderstanding of how complex systems work. Forbes (oops, their “thought of the day” is by Ayn Rand?!) says such a revolution could happen if extreme income inequality isn’t rectified. Wishful thinking (though maybe not to Forbes readers). Thanks to David Hodgson and Seb Paquet for the links.

Growth is Obsolete: James Kunstler argues, surprisingly, that we have to “manage contraction” (“relocalizing, downscaling and decomplexifying”) to mitigate the effects of economic collapse. Unfortunately the second part of the article is behind a paywall, but you already know what I think about the feasibility of any coordinated “management” of collapse.

School is a Prison: Peter Gray’s new book Free to Learn explains the insanity of compulsory, institutional schooling, and the damage it inflicts on young people. Then the author proposes an alternative self-directed learning “system”. Same problem as above: Great idea, impossible transformation of a large, complex system.

Peak Water: Peter Gleick describes how the Western half of the US is now using up much more water each year than nature is producing, and that, eventually, it will run out entirely. Thanks to Bryan Alexander for the link. And Gary Paul Nabhan argues this heat and drought will soon produce a huge food crisis.

Transition Into Chaos: Dmitry Orlov argues that “transition” and “community building” just won’t work when the oil runs out, and the economy (and other systems) collapse. I think he’s right that we can’t design and plan for orderly transition and relocalization, but I don’t think it follows that “squalor, destitution, chaos” and large-scale die-offs are inevitable, or even likely. System collapse will happen slowly, and in waves with brief “recoveries” in between, as has happened during Great Depressions in past, some of which have lasted for a generation or more. Much of the world already lives in a state of collapse — the homeless, ghetto dwellers, and most of the inhabitants of the cities and environs of the “third world”. If we want to look to see how to prepare and be resilient in the face of collapse, we need only look to see how these billions cope today.

Does Industrial Civilization Cause Psychosis?: Carolyn Baker describes the symptoms of psychosis that have become epidemic in our society — notably fear, passivity, helplessness and disconnection — and offers suggestions on how we can help each other heal.



LOTM 2008-Jeopardy

cartoon by Roz Chast from The New Yorker

Young Renewable Energy Collaborative Defeats Big Energy in Colorado: For several years, a group of young Coloradans has been building a local renewable energy co-op to replace the dirty coal-powered monopoly of Xcel energy in Boulder. Despite the millions spent by big energy (worried about this becoming a national phenomenon), on November 4th the grassroots movement defeated the corporatists — again. Thanks to Indigo Ocean for the links.

Could ‘Eminent Domain’ Be Used By the People to Prevent Foreclosures?: A bold initiative in Richmond, California has enabled hundreds of mortgages to be ‘marked to market’ (each reduced to the value of the house it’s secured by) on pain of having the house foreclosed by the state under Eminent Domain law if the mortgage company refuses to sell the mortgage at the reduced amount. Let’s hope the program spreads across all nations with Eminent Domain laws.

The Sharing Economy: An Update: What has been called the Sharing Economy, described by Charles Eisenstein in Sacred Economics, is being taken more seriously, as venture capitalists line up to fund potentially hugely profitable agencies like AirB&B that provide the means for people with a surplus to connect with people with needs. I’ll be writing an article on what is, and what isn’t, the Sharing Economy soon. In the meantime:

The Desperate Need for Dying With Dignity: Dr Donald Low, who I met a few years ago and who died in September of an inoperable and debilitating brain tumour, made an impassioned plea for doctor-assisted suicide in Canada and everywhere, just before he died. Canada’s right-wing government promptly announced they wouldn’t even consider it.

An Open Letter to Peaceful Protesters: Bineshii explains that modern, banal, “legal” protest demonstrations accomplish nothing, and what is needed is a return to true non-violent direct action, which is inherently and increasingly not “legal”. Thanks to Khelsilem Rivers for the link.

Could Community Meshes Survive Collapse, and Defeat the NSA?: Community mesh networks, communication co-ops that cut out the giant price-gouging (and surveillance-complicit) ISPs, work on the same principle as the Internet itself — decentralized and co-owned by users responsible only to their communities. Thanks to Generation Alpha for the link.

Better Charts for Data Comprehension: The website JunkCharts shows examples of terrible charting graphics, and then shows how each chart could be made better — more understandable, more accurate, more insightful. Here are seven other sites that know how to show data visually. And here are 40 maps that explain the world. Thanks to Nancy White, Stephen Wright and Tia Carr respectively, for the links.

Syria, and US Health Care, in Five Minutes Each: Two brilliant videos by the Vlog Brothers explain how the situation in Syria is so much more complex and intractable than the simplistic government declarations and media pronouncements would have us believe, and the real complex reasons the US health care system is so expensive, ineffective and inefficient. Oops, the second video is actually eight minutes long. Thanks to Nancy White for the links.

A Basic Monthly Income: Swiss citizens will soon vote on an idea whose time has come — replacing welfare and unemployment payments with “means tests”, bureaucracy and strings attached with a simple, universal basic monthly income.



LOTM realists idealists

cartoon by Dana Fradon from the New Yorker

Greenwald and Hersh Take Aim at the Once-Respectable NYT: Glenn Greenwald, perhaps the best hope for the revival of true journalism in Western society, responds brilliantly to NYT Bill Keller’s pathetic defence of that newspaper’s disgraceful and subservient reporting of the Iraq war, Wikileaks, NSA surveillance, and more. Excerpt:

But [the NYT and other mainstream newspapers have] produced lots of atrocious journalism and some toxic habits that are weakening the profession. A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful “here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts” formulation. That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on “objective” reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge (i.e., reporting is reduced to “X says Y” rather than “X says Y and that’s false”).

Worse still, this suffocating constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring. A failure to call torture “torture” because government officials demand that a more pleasant euphemism be used, or lazily equating a demonstrably true assertion with a demonstrably false one, drains journalism of its passion, vibrancy, vitality and soul.

Sy Hersh, investigative reporter extraordinaire and frequent New Yorker contributor, goes even further than Greenwald, describing the NYT and other mainstream media as “obsequious” cowards who dutifully report outrageous government lies as facts, and asserts that Obama is “even worse than Bush”. And meanwhile, Tom Englehardt urges other whistleblowers to come forward despite the risks, echoing what I wrote prophetically in one of this blog’s earliest articles way back in 2003.

Tar Sands “Full Throttle” Expansion Plans: Having quintupled emissions since 1990, the Alberta Tar Sands consortium, with Canada’s federal and provincial governments aggressively shilling for them around the world, have announced plans to further quadruple emissions by 2025, by which point their emissions will exceed all North American coal burning operations combined. Meanwhile, the blowouts and spills in one part of the Tar Sands (kept secret because of proximity to a military base) are out of control, unregulated, unreported, and apparently insoluble.

Why Fracking Makes No Sense: Richard Heinberg explains how the modest increase in energy reserves that fracking can provide is outweighed by the huge ecological damage it does. And a fracking engineer agrees.

Exploiting the Poor and Unemployed: The 16% of Americans who live in rural parts of the country make up 40% of the military. Thanks to Tree for the link.

Border Services Run Amok: Bloated budgets and no oversight mean that there is essentially no definition of “illegal” activities when performed by security authorities. They can mistreat you with impunity, and use whatever information they steal from you to prosecute you. Seize and examine anything they want without a warrant. And hold you without charge.

How a Cabal Keeps Generics Scarce: An explanation of why the market for pharmaceuticals is about as far from a ‘free’ market as it can be, and what would be needed (don’t hold your breath) to ‘reform’ it.



alexis birkill fog inversion

photo of a recent fog inversion over Vancouver Canada (Lions’ Gate Bridge and Stanley Park in foreground) by Alexis Birkill

The Cup Song, Irish Version: If you don’t know the astonishing story of the 1920s bluegrass song “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”, and the “cup game” now connected with it, read the history of the song and game, and then watch this dazzling performance, in Irish. Thanks to Beth Patterson for the link.

Artist Dies of Exposure: Is asking people to write for publications without payment “good exposure”, or exploitation? Writer Tim Kreider rants about unpaid writing gigs in the NYT, and then Salon gets some other writers to respond. And then, tying the phenomenon into the co-opting and corrupting of the Sharing Economy (see The Sharing Economy: An Update, above), Kevin Roose argues this is all part of a new phenomenon of indentured servitude for young people.

Hallucinogenic Video: Watch this two-minute video full-screen; then look away when told to do so. What you see will (for a few seconds) blow your mind.

Yes Men Ridicule TransCanada Pipeline: By imitating TransCanada’s greenwashing PR team, the Yes Men delightfully turned the propaganda war on the Tar Sands perps.

The Next Chris Thile?: Watch 11-year-old Bella Betts give the world’s greatest mandolinist a run for his money.

In Place of Thought: Teju Cole pokes fun at our propensity to use clichés, and the racism, sexism and other -isms (and intellectual laziness) that reflects.

The Maturity Climb: Cartoon by the amazing Subnormality. Sadly, in this ‘climb’ there is no progress: Most of us are simultaneously and occasionally at all three levels of the maturity ‘mountain’. Thanks to Seb Paquet for the link.

Baboons are Not Very Nice Creatures: Robert Sapolski explains how hierarchical creatures like baboons abuse their ‘inferiors’, causing large-scale stress-related illness. But when tuberculosis from tainted meat in human garbage led to the death of the troop’s alpha males, a non-hierarchical, non-aggressive, low-stress, healthier matriarchal troop emerged, in one generation, which indoctrinated its infants and visitors from outside troops into this new, improved social order. Thanks to Rob Paterson for the link.

Flirting vs Sexual Harassment: Bernie De Koven cites several people (including me) who think flirting is healthy and good for us. But our world is so filled with power politics, inequality, manipulation, abuse, trauma and the absence of empathy, self-knowledge and self-awareness, that it’s also fraught with danger.



zen gps via cheryl

cartoon by Dave Coverly from Speed Bump (thanks to Cheryl Long for the link)

From Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes) (thanks to PS Pirro for the link, and the one that follows): “Know what’s weird? Day by day, nothing seems to change. But pretty soon, everything’s different.”

From Alana M on xojane: People Think of You Often:

There’s a line in “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace that I used to return to often. It reads, “You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” It helps a lot when I get stuck in my head about what others think of me. But I’ve learned that it is generally ill advised to accept wisdom from a man who killed himself when you are desperately trying to keep yourself alive. I have also learned that it is remarkably untrue.

People think of you often. They think of you fondly. They think the world of you. There are office managers and baristsas that think about you. There are Facebook friends you haven’t seen in 15 years and weirdos in your building that think about you. There are dentists and high school lab partners that think about you. They would be devastated to hear the news of your death. They would mourn you. They are people that would be uncomfortable ever telling you how highly or how often they thought of you and vice versa because we live in a world that eschews intimacy and affection in favor of the allegedly “comfortable” distance we choose to keep that is actually making a large portion of the population feel cripplingly lonely.

From Tolba Phanem, African poet, on Your Unique Story (thanks to Seb Paquet for the link):

When a woman of the African tribe knows she is pregnant, she goes to the jungle with other women, and together they pray and meditate until you get to “The song of the child”. When a child is born, the community gets together and they sing the child’s song. When the child begins his education, people get together and he sings his song. When they become an adult, they get together again and sing it. When it comes to your wedding, the person hears his song. Finally, when their soul is going from this world, family and friends are approaching and, like his birth, sing their song to accompany it in the “journey”.

In the Ubuntu tribe, there is another occasion when men sing the song. If at some point the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, they take him to the center of town and the people of the community form a circle around her. Then they sing “your song.” The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment, but is the love and memory of his true identity. When we recognize our own song, we have no desire or need to hurt anyone.

Your friends know “your song”. And sing when you forget it. Those who love you can not be fooled by mistakes you have committed, or dark images you show to others. They remember your beauty as you feel ugly, your value when you’re broke, your innocence when you feel guilty and your purpose when you’re confused.

From PS Pirro:

Geography is Cruel

It can’t be about the running anymore.
It can’t be about the treasure, illusory
as the rainbow under which it never really
waited. It can’t be about the waiting.

It’s astonishing, really, how long it takes
to grow into a life. Maybe I’m just a
slow learner, having spent so many of my
young years running. And waiting.

I went as far as I could go without
falling into the ocean, as high as I
could climb without losing my grip
or passing out from lack of oxygen.

Geography is cruel, sweeping me up
with its fat-fingered mid-western hands
and setting me down gently in this place
I’d never choose, all things being equal.

But all things are never equal. Not oceans,
not mountains, not gentle hands and people
who call me ma’am and say nice things
even when I’m not listening.

October 21, 2013

“Save the World” Reading List: 2013 Update

The Three Es

illustration of the complex relationship between economy, energy/resources, and ecology, by the author (‘up’ arrow means ‘increase’; ‘down’ arrow means ‘decrease’); economic collapse, resource exhaustion and runaway climate change: we are on track to face all three in the next few decades, and with them, the end of our civilization

IBeyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn says:

People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.

The following list of books and readings is for people who are ready to listen to some very unorthodox and unsettling ideas and understandings. It’s a list of the essential works that have, along with my own thinking, synthesis and conversations over the past decade, led to a radical shift in my worldview. I have deleted many of the works listed in my previous (2008) “Save the World Reading List” and added some explanation of the key learnings from each reading in this shorter list. I hope it will give you some appreciation of the thinking in this blog, and the opportunity to experience some brilliant, insightful and astonishing writing about who we are, how the world works and what we might do now.

The links to each item in the list below are to my own or others’ reviews of these works, or to excerpts or summaries of them.


When I started blogging ten years ago, in February 2003, I was told (and believed) I was a success — as a writer, innovative thinker and business “executive”. But after 30 years on the sidelines of the environmental movement, I felt lost, as if I had somehow lost my way and didn’t recall when that had happened. I began to research what was really going on in the world, and why, after the heady idealism of the 1960s, my generation seemed to have made things unimaginably worse, not better.

My inquiries led me to explore particularly two things:

  1. How the world really works (socially, politically, ecologically) as contrasted to the simplistic way the media seemed to be portraying it, and
  2. How we, the human species, really ‘work’ — why has our civilization culture come to be what it is, what motivates us to do what we do, and who are we, really?

The first line of inquiry led me to study complexity theory and gaia theory, and to explore some of the ideas at the intersections of the various sciences. My first revelation was reading the works of evolutionary theorists, most notably . 01 Stephen J Gould’s Full House, in which he argues that evolution is more a random than a ‘progressive’ process, and explains that many ‘advances’ that appear natural or evolutionary were in fact improbable, unintended consequences, accidents. Statistically, he argued, the appearance of vertebrates on Earth was a millions-to-one long shot. Gould and his colleague Richard Lewontin also vigorously opposed the ideas of EO Wilson and others who believe that social/cultural ‘evolution’ occurs in a way analogous to physical evolution.

I found the idea that the emergence of humans on the planet was accidental and highly improbable disturbing, but compelling. I went on to read . 02 Ronald Wright’s  A Short History of Progress (and similar works by others e.g. . 03 Jared Diamond’s  “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” and .04 Richard Manning’s Against the Grain — both referring to the development of “catastrophic” agriculture), and then.05 Daniel Quinn’s  Story of B and .06  Beyond Civilization. These books argue compellingly that human history, from our emergence a millions years ago, has not been one of progress but rather one of violence, unsustainable short-term thinking, creation of technologies that create more problems (in the long run) than they solve (in the short run), brutal hierarchy, relentless and destructive violence, and a total inability to learn the lessons of our history (so we keep repeating our errors on an ever-increasing scale).

At this point I was reading an average of two books a week including everything I could find on “cultural studies” and evolutionary biology. I discovered by reading . 07 Michael Boulter’s Extinction that the Sixth Great Extinction of life on Earth has been going on inexorably since humans invented arrowheads and spears, and from reading . 08 Peter Jay’s The Wealth of Man and Marshall Sahlins’ essays I learned that prehistoric humans, far from living ‘nasty, short and brutish’ lives, lived lives of leisure, health and joy. And . 09 James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency provided a compelling portrait of how the end of the industrial growth economy, cheap resources, and stable climate would play out — a series of cascading crises over several decades leading to final civilizational collapse.

I next discovered .10 Derrick Jensen’s dark work  A Language Older Than Words and my ideas about the inherent nature of humans began to shift. While I remain convinced that humans are not by nature ‘evil’ or destructive, I have come to believe that we are inherently violent, and that our modern overpopulated, resource-depleted and stress-exhausted society has made us all mentally ill, and disconnected us from our inherent (and evolutionarily sensible) biophilia (love of all life on earth). We have lost the bearings that helped us live a life of abundance in balance with the rest of life, and now we don’t know what we’re doing.

This began to make more sense when I read .11 Stewart and Cohen’s Figments of Reality, which plausibly explains that our minds, which we have come to think of as ‘us’, are just a feature-detection system that evolved to help our constituent self-organizing cells and organs defend themselves, collect information and manage their collective movement in the big watery bag in which they’d come to live. But this feature-detection system, in yet another unintended consequence of evolution, developed an ego, a ‘mind of its own’ and developed a complicated social theory that our minds are us and that they are individually in control of who ‘we’ are and collectively in control of the planet. It is this ego, plus the self-reinforcing propaganda that humans, through our languages, are able to perpetuate to make us believe what others believe, plus the terrors our big-minded imaginations were able to invent, and then believe, and then manifest through our traumatizing behaviours and inventions, that has led to this terrible disconnection, this terrible illness that afflicts us all. Many of the “self-help” books that try to help us overcome this disconnection aim to defeat the delusion that our minds and egos are “us” so we can live more presently. I think it’s futile — we cannot be other than who we are — but the best of this genre I have read are .12 Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and .13 Richard Moss’ The Mandala of Being.

So I have come to believe that it is this illness, this disconnectedness that has caused us to overpopulate and ravage the planet, with the best of intentions, in the sincere belief that we are making the world better for those we love and those to come. But now those of us paying attention have realized that we have instead destroyed our world, desolated it to the point we have pushed our civilization to the brink of economic, resource and ecological collapse, and unknowingly precipitated the Sixth Great Extinction.

Having read these works, I still wanted to be a humanist, a believer that together we could change the world, that the unintentioned disaster we have wreaked on our planet is not irreversible and that we could turn things around. But I kept encountering evidence that we have not really evolved, socially or culturally, since prehistoric times. It’s been a random walk, with periods of enlightenment and periods of barbarism, but no particular trajectory.

And my studies of complexity theory, particularly the explanation of how complex (as opposed to complicated) systems work, including an appreciation of the real import of the Jevons Paradox, made me despair that, even if we were able to get our collective act together to agree on how to mitigate the damage we have done and start to develop a culture reconnected and reintegrated with the natural world, we could not do it. We cannot change who we are, and we cannot do anything consistently and differently at any significant scale. There is too much inertia, and too much momentum, for us to change now, and as our systems get ever-larger and ever more interconnected, they become even more change resistant and, paradoxically, even more fragile. The essence of complex systems is that they evolve slowly and they cannot be controlled, predicted or significantly or reliably reformed even when these is a considerable consensus on the need to do so. All civilizations collapse of their own weight, and ours will do so spectacularly, as we face a cascading series of economic, energy and ecological crises, all of them now inevitable because of the accumulated and accelerating affect of several millennia of unintentionally and disastrously destructive human activity.

It was at this point that I read .14 John Gray’s Straw Dogs, in which he systematically deconstructs the arguments that humanism (some great upsurge of global human consciousness and conscience), or technology and innovation (our most modern religion), or anything else can ‘save us’, writing that we humans have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value. We are doomed by the coding in our DNA to continue along our inexorable path of self-destruction, and to inflict large-scale but ultimately transitory damage on our planet in the process.

“We labour under an error”, he writes. “We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not… The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment… We can dream of a world in which a greatly reduced human population lives in a partially restored paradise; in which farming has been abandoned and green deserts given back to the earth; where the remaining humans are settled in cities, emulating the noble idleness of hunter-gatherers, their needs met by new technologies that leave little mark on the Earth; where life is given over to curiosity, pleasure and play. There is nothing technically impossible about such a world…A High-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible; but it is humanly unimaginable. If anything like this ever comes about, it will not be through the will of homo rapiens.”

He concludes: “Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.”

I read this book at exactly the right time in my research and thought process. Many of those dear to me loathe the book. But I found it liberating. I suddenly knew it was not my job (despite the name of my blog) to save the world. Having passed the first denial, that climate change and the sixth extinction were real, I had now passed the second, that they can be reversed or even significantly mitigated.

Shortly thereafter, I read a prophetic book written back in 1993 by .15 David Ehrenfeld called Beginning Again in which he writes: “The most terrifying thing about this disintegration for a society that believes in prediction and control will be the randomness of its violent consequences. The chaotic violence will include not only desperate ruthless struggles over the wealth that remains, but the last great violation of nature. What will make it worse is that, at least at the beginning, it will take place under a cloud of denial and cynical reassurances.”

And that is what I see happening now, a quarter century later. All of this has taken me from where I was to where I am now, a self-described “joyful pessimist”, freed from the burden to save the world, and free to just live, to just be.

That doesn’t mean I don’t still support humanist movements like Occupy, and the radical activism of the Deep Green Resistance movement, even though I don’t think they will accomplish anything enduring. Their heart is in the right place. And I’m still involved in the Transition/Resilience and Intentional Communities movements because their adherents are thinking in the right direction and doing some very useful things in the process, things that might be helpful to the survivors of civilization’s collapse.

What I no longer have patience for are those who would ‘design’ a better society, who believe that this is anything more than an idealistic waste of time. That is not how change has ever occurred or ever will, and a belief that we could somehow concoct a plan for a reformed, renewed civilization with all its trillions of evolved, complex, unpredictable and self-sustaining moving parts, and then implement it globally on a massive scale in just a few decades is just foolish. At any rate, although no one is listening, the climate scientists are screaming that we have already passed the tipping point, that 6C atmospheric change is coming within a few decades based on what we did in the last century and that 12C won’t be far behind. So radical redemptive change, even if it were possible, is too late. In attempting to juggle and balance economy, resources and ecology at an ever-increasing velocity, we have already dropped the ball on all three, and are now just waiting for the fall (the diagram above, which is discussed further in upcoming posts, attempts to show this precarious balance).

[paragraph added January 16, 2014] A new book by .16 Clive Hamilton called Requiem for a Species explains where we are now, as this realization of having passed the tipping point is starting to dawn on more and more of us. It presents some possible scenarios of runaway climate change, and discusses why so many are still in denial and how we can deal with the grief that we are left with when we move past that denial.

In short, our civilization cannot be saved, nor can we save the world from its ravages (which the Earth will recover from, in time). But we can start now to be prepared, so we will be resilient in the face of what we are likely to face, mostly by relearning the skills of self-knowledge, self-sufficiency, and living (and making a living) in community.

That is an extremely oversimplified summary of what has taken me from a believer in working hard towards an imagined ‘sustainable society’, to an existentialist, trying to live in the moment, joyfully, attentively. Just trying to see what really is in this staggeringly beautiful, complex, unfathomable world. I’m still writing, because it helps me think, rather than in the belief I can (or should try to) influence others’ thinking or actions.

As I say, now, it’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine. One day, everything will be free.


When I last put together this reading list, it had over 80 suggested readings. Many of them, I realize now, were idealistic and unrealistic proposals for how to mitigate civilization’s collapse. But some of them, while not essential enough to make the list above, are nevertheless very engaging and worth your time. Here is a list of them, by theme:

How the World Really Works, Where We Are Now, and What’s Ahead

  • The Unconscious Civilization, by John Ralston Saul. The globalization of corporatism and how it has poisoned our democracy, our media, and the planet, and left us as mere consumers, dumbed-down, obedient slaves of our political and economic systems.
  • 1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, by the Union of Concerned Scientists (signed by 1700 scientists including the majority of then-living science Nobel laureates). “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.  No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.  A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” A few decades have passed, and none of the proposed actions has been taken.
  • Population Projections, by the US Census Bureau. They’re no longer assuring us that US and Global Population will level out at 300 million and 9 billion. Would you believe 1 billion and 12 billion by the end of the century, and still rising?
  • The Two-Income Trap by (now Senator) Elizabeth Warren. The peril of fuelling a half-century of economic ‘growth’ entirely through increasing the debt load.
  • The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery. A scientific explanation of global warming, how we are causing it, and the possible consequences.
  • Elizabeth Costello, by JM Coetzee (novel). Why we tolerate “a crime of stupefying proportions” against our fellow creatures on Earth.
  • A Scientific Romance, by Ronald Wright (novel). A speculation on what a time-traveller five hundred years into the future would find — a world with many fewer humans and a different, more modest society.*
  • Waiting for the Macaws, by Terry Glavin. A series of portraits of ecosystem destruction around the world that illustrates “the dark and gathering sameness of the world”.
  • Heat, by George Monbiot. A rigorous explanation of why, even if we exploit every renewable energy option to the max, we will still inevitably have to draw on and burn enough hydrocarbons to fry the planet.
  • The Slow Crash, by Ran Prieur. An (online) essay that explains how civilization will end, not with a bang, but with a series of whimpers. My own two cents added in this review (from 2005, and my predictions still seem very plausible).
  • Endgame, by Derrick Jensen. Volume 1 explains where we are; volume 2 provides the argument for direct action, expanded in Deep Green Resistance (below).*
  • The Great Depression, by Pierre Berton. A stark portrait of the horrific economic collapse of the 1930s that economists swore “would never be allowed to happen again” shows us what we’re facing again, now.
  • The Five Stages of Collapse, by Dmitri Orlov. How financial/economic collapse quickly leads to political collapse and then to social and cultural collapse.
  • Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, by Paul Kingsnorth. The Dark Mountain co-founder muses on the inevitability of civilization’s collapse and the futility of trying to prevent it or mitigate its damage.
  • Deep Green Resistance, by Derrick Jensen et al. The argument for direct action: “Civilization is going to crash, whether or not we help bring this about. This crash will be messy. Since industrial civilization is systematically dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet, the sooner civilization comes down, whether or not we help it crash, the more life will remain afterwards to support both human and non-humans.”
  • Why We Cannot Save the World: My summary of Pollard’s Laws, the Jevons Paradox and why complex systems resist change.

Reconnecting with All-Life-on-Earth:

  • When Elephants Weep, by Jeff Masson. Compelling scientific evidence that animals feel deep emotions.
  • Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Heinrich. Compelling scientific evidence that animals are intelligent, complex, rational and communicative.
  • The Hidden Dimension, by Edward Hall. We need space and a natural environment to be healthy and human. When we’re deprived of them, we get mentally ill.
  • The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram. How to reconnect with nature, and rediscover wonder.
  • Rogue Primate, by John Livingston. How anthropocentric cultural prosthesis has led our species astray, and how we might find our way back by rediscovering “the sweet bondage of wildness”.
  • The Machine in Our Heads, by Glenn Parton. How the ecological crisis is rooted in a human psychological crisis of self-colonization and disconnection.
  • Humans in the Wilderness, by Glenn Parton. An intriguing proposal for rewilding the Earth. Impractical but worth thinking about.
  • The World is Dying, by Richard Bruce Anderson. Online essay about our instinctive grief over knowing what we are doing to our beleaguered planet, and our feelings of helplessness about how to remedy it.

Preparing for Collapse:

  • Tools for Conviviality, by Ivan Illich. De-institutionalize, de-school, decentralize, reduce dependence on external authority and “expertise”. Full book is online.
  • Beyond Hope, by Derrick Jensen. How “giving up hope” is the first step to moving forward.*
  • Radical Simplicity, by Jim Merkel. Ideas to free yourself from possessions and wage slavery without sacrifice.
  • The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. What makes things change, and why most things don’t.
  • The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Why collective wisdom is better than accepted wisdom and expertise at solving problems, and how to tap it without succumbing to groupthink.
  • Biomimicry, by Janine Benyus. Lessons and approaches from nature that could inspire and make more resilient our processes for food production, harnessing energy, manufacturing, health care, education, collaboration and entrepreneurship.
  • The Logic of Sufficiency, by Thomas Princen. A set of principles, assumptions and connecting theory for rationally and collectively self-managing complex adaptive systems.*
  • The Cellular Church, by Malcolm Gladwell. An online essay that suggest cellular organization principles might allow us to accomplish, bottom-up, what political entities cannot.
  • The Democracy Project, by David Graeber. Rediscovering the true meaning and practice of democracy, bottom-up.
  • Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein. A comprehensive prescription for a true sharing economy; probably not achievable as more than an uneasy supplement to the industrial growth economy until the latter collapses, but fascinating to think about.
  • In Defiance of Gravity, by Tom Robbins. An (online) essay that argues we must “insist on joy in spite of everything.”

* additions in afterthought October 2013

Postscript: I’ve made a GoodReads list of all the books in this list: You can find it here.

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