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



September 20, 2014

Accepting That We Can’t Get There From Here: A Meditation

Filed under: Creative Works,How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 10:26

In 2005, I wrote this little story. I think it’s held up quite well (I was smarter than I thought, back then), so I’m going to start this meditation with it.

MESSAGE FROM A MUSHROOM

mushrooms

photo by Inda at givnology.com

Good morning, Dave, and any other humans who are reading this message. It will be interesting to see how good a job this ‘software’ (we love that word!) does at translating our thoughts and feelings into a language that you can understand, that has some meaning to you. We are the collection of mushrooms under the Spruce trees in Dave’s back yard. This, to our knowledge, is the first attempt to capture our message in human-readable form.

The first thing you need to appreciate is that we are unable to use, in any meaningful sense, the first person singular ‘I’ in describing who we are or what we feel. We are collective, we are plural, in three senses.

First, we are simple and integral enough to recognize that we are a collection of cells, working in harmony to do our job, which manifests itself as one organism but is in fact more like a hive, a plural presence, a billion cells each aware of each other, and each cell in turn is a collection of its parts, its members, and so on infinitely.

Secondly, as a group of mushrooms, we are indivisible, our interest is collective. We are concerned with our survival, as a group, in this lovely damp dark place in this yard you call ‘yours’.

And thirdly, our collective interest is subordinate to the interest of this entire community, this ecos, so if the bunnies who live in that burrow over there come and eat us, that is just fine — we live on as a part of their consciousness and as part of this place. We are essentially of this place, that is what defines us, the mushrooms, the bunnies, the rock and the soil and the rain, the animate and the inanimate. We are this place.

This must be very difficult for you to understand, as we see that your species lives a very lonely, individual and detached life. You are in such conflict with other humans, all of you, and with us too, as your insensitive and destructive ways, your possessiveness, this need you have for ‘property’, to own things that can never really belong to you indicates, because, you see, although you seem to have lost the instinctive knowledge and the ‘sense’ to understand it, you are in fact a part of us. You are just lost, confused by the separateness that your minds have created for you, that frightening, alien and dissonant world inside your individual heads. Perhaps one day you will master this admirably complex machinery between your ears, and rejoin us. You cannot be happy, and cannot stop being insensitive and destructive, until you do.

All of this is easy for us to understand because we are not burdened with a complex brain with all the noise and the imaginings it seems able to conjure up. We have no choice but to live here, now, in the real world and in the moment. By all rights you should be much more ‘alive’ than the rest of ‘us’, yet somehow you seem not to be, you seem very dead to the world, and your brain looks as if it spends most of its time examining itself, lost and disconnected from the whole, and its purpose, your purpose, our purpose, which is to help Gaia — that is, to help the collective us — thrive on this amazing blue ball in the dark night of space (as the birds and insects describe it to us), thanks of course to the Sun, one of our other sacred things (or gods as you call them, or at least used to).

Look now, see there the sun peeking through the Spruce needles, and the droplets of dew dripping down from them onto us. Are these not wondrous to you, the epitome of joy, a reason to live and to fight to keep Gaia whole, prevent it from dying again in what you call an ‘extinction’? And look there, a tiny spider weaves her web, its lovely pattern caught in the rays of the morning sun — how can you not see this as sacred, how can you not see it, period?

We feel so badly for you, poor conflicted humans, so unhappy, so misguided, so dissatisfied. What can we do to show you that you are still welcome here, you are still part of us, though you have renounced your Gaia citizenship and lost the intuition and the sense to see it? All you need to do is come close, really see us, feel us, sense us, trust your instincts, listen, pay attention, stop thinking and just be, let go, and you will understand?

We are using your words, your language to try to explain to you what we feel and what we want for you, but still you do not seem to understand. Your language, far from being a vehicle for understanding, seems to us so poor in its capacity to communicate anything important, anything essential! Instead it seems to further isolate you, disconnect you from us, from your home, from where you belong. It is so abstract, so weak in vocabulary of the concepts that have real meaning to us, to all of us.

If only you still had the capacity to understand our language, this communication would be easy, effortless. But your software seems able to translate in this one direction, alas.

We don’t know what else we can tell you, beyond this great important truth of belonging, of paying attention, of seeing the sacred. Keep practicing, stay close to us, pay attention and in time it will, we hope, come back to you. We are waiting here to welcome you, joyously, home.

Now, is there something you would like to say to us, something we can learn from you, with that massive human brain of yours? For a start, we love your music, and we would like to know what it means. And, please tell us, why are you crying?

~~~~~

I want to save the world, and to change myself. It’s taken me decades to appreciate that I can do neither. If only I were there, I might know how to get there from here. But in the absence of that knowledge, there is no way.

It’s the nature of complex things, I see now. So many moving parts, so many unknowable truths. I am an emergent property, “the creative open source project of a trillion cells”. ‘I’ separately am nothing; a fiction, an invention. Even time is an illusion of my mind, and every instant those trillion cells cease to be and in another instant they are there again, but different, not the same.

So I am starting to accept that I can’t get there (to being-something-else) from here, and that we can’t get there (to a world not plunged headlong into the sixth great extinction of life) from here. To accept it, and to appreciate it. To stop fighting it. To just be who I inevitably am, in this world that is as it inevitably is, here, now.

Our language, it appears now, was designed for instruction and information dissemination, not for feeling or philosophy or expression of identity. Or of anything important outside of and greater than the context of the culture in which our minds are imprisoned, minds within which we are in turn imprisoned.

The Internet depends utterly on language, as do books, conversation and teaching, even in the form of videos and demonstration. We can’t know how to do something until we do it, try it, practice it. Copying may help, but doing something ourselves is a unique, personal experience. We can’t explain, in language, who we are or how we feel or how it feels, how it is to do something. No wonder human art has been around three times as long as human language — it’s a far more useful, meaningful artifact.

In its application to meditation or presence, Gary Weber has tried to convey this limitation of language in his short, free book Happiness Beyond Thought on meditation, confessing that what is supposed to take years of diligent practice should be possible in a moment, if only we knew how, if only we could see what we can’t see, if only we could experience what we’re trying to experience. He says people who have tried LSD or ayahuasca, experienced the disruption of our minds’ usual program, find it easier, as do those who can watch the changes in their brain waves on so-called fMRI machine displays as they do their ‘presence’ practice and notice what wave patterns are closest to the ones others produce in the pure connected meditative state. Sleights of mind to try to show us how to get there from here, when it can’t be explained in language. When you have to be ‘there’ to understand how to get there. When there is no ‘way’.

And it’s the same at a different scale when it comes to changing, or ‘saving’, our culture and ‘the world’. We still have this conceit that we’re in control, or at least someone’s in control of what the human species does. Every article advocating change contains something along the lines “we all need to…”, or “all we need to…”, or “if only we would all (just)…”, as if humanity were the Borg, or all the same, changeable with some magic formula the same simple way. It betrays an unwillingness to accept the staggering complexity and unknowingness of our selves, our culture, our planet and our universe, the unwillingness of idealists and salvationists and others that long for everything to be simple, fixable, made the way we want it, or think we do anyway.

Our culture, which is inadvertently precipitating its own collapse as well as that of our biosphere and all the life that depends on it, is, just as ‘we individuals’ are, an emergent property, the creative open source project of a trillion trillion cells. Like our ‘selves’, our culture is separately a nothing; a fiction, an invention. A map. A way of seeing things simply that are not at all simple.

Sometimes I despair that I will ever find ‘presence'; it’s certainly a long shot, and possibly a Quixotic search. And I despair the amount of suffering we are all  unintentionally inflicting on the world. It’s easy to be angry, sorrowful and fearful about these things, until we realize there is no use in being these things. Even then, it’s hard just to accept, and to appreciate our wounded, disconnected selves, and our terrible, battered world, for what they are.

So, my dear mushrooms, the meaning of our music, and the meaning of our tears, is the same: that we love, we care, and we grieve. It’s all we can do. It’s who we are.

There are no words for it.

June 14, 2014

Systems Thinking and Complexity 101

Filed under: How the World Really Works,Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 23:08

This is a synopsis of a talk and mini-workshop I gave recently in Vancouver. It introduces a model for identifying and dealing with both the complicated and complex aspects of issues we face in our own lives, in our organizations and in the world, and presents an elementary method of thinking about and diagramming systems (both complicated and complex) as a means of better understanding and appreciating them.

~~~~~

complex systems model

There are four main purposes for learning about complexity and systems thinking:

  • To appreciate how organic (complex) systems (bodies, organizations, cultures, ecosystems) really work
  • To appreciate why mechanical, analytical approaches to change in organizations usually fail
  • By studying and diagramming complex systems, to be able to anticipate how they might respond to interventions
  • To be able to embrace complexity in all its ‘unknowability’, instead of fearing it as most people instinctively do

The book I recommend for studying the nature of complex systems and how to think about and diagram systems is Rosalind Armson’s Growing Wings on the Way: Systems Thinking for Messy Situations. If you buy the Kindle edition, you’ll find the illustrations unreadable, but you can download and print them in legible format free from her website.

Rosalind is a British engineering PhD, and what makes her book exemplary to me is the accessibility of her examples, that run from the destruction of downtowns by big box malls to the challenge of coping with an ill and aging parent living in another town. She uses the term “messy situations” where many of us refer to “complex predicaments”, and doesn’t specifically differentiate between “complicated” and “complex” the way Dave Snowden and others do (she calls all fully-solvable problems “simple” rather than separating them into “simple” and “complicated”), but otherwise we’re totally on the same page. Here’s an excerpt from her introduction, which includes a wonderful definition of complex predicaments and some excellent examples:

This book is about dealing with messy situations. Sometimes known as ‘wicked problems’ [or complex predicaments] they are fairly easy to spot:

    • it’s hard to know where to start
    • we can’t define them
    • everything seems to connect to everything else and depends on something else having been done first
    • we get in a muddle thinking about them
    • we often try to ignore some aspect/s of them
    • when we finally do something about them, they usually get worse
    • they’re so entangled that our first mistake is usually to try and fix them as we would fix a ‘simple’ problem

Examples of messy situations might include: the healthcare system in your country, dealing with a family break-up, exploring change and making it happen in your organisation, and worrying about how to look after your elderly parents. [Other examples include coping with poverty, addiction, inequality, a fragile economy, and runaway climate change].

The ‘butterfly’ model above includes elements of Dave Snowden’s ontology of systems, Rosalind’s approach to dealing with complex predicaments, and some of my own thinking about complexity and systems thinking. It differentiates between

  • Complicated systems: those that are not so obvious as to be ‘simple’, but are fully-knowable with study, where it is possible to thoroughly understand the causality relationships between the variables, which are finite in number, and to use that understanding to predict the outcome of interventions in the system with some degree of reliability, and
  • Complex systems: organic systems, such as the human body, organizations, cultures and ecosystems, which are not fully knowable, have an infinite number of variables affecting them, and cannot be understood with sufficient precision to assess causality with any certainty or to predict the outcome of interventions reliably. Studying complex systems and issues will allow you to appreciate them (see why they are the way they are, how they probably got that way, and what keeps them going), but you can never fully understand them.

Many of the issues we deal with in our lives involve both complicated and complex systems, and hence have both complicated and complex aspects that need to be teased apart. I use the terms ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ in dealing with the complicated elements, and the terms ‘predicament’ and ‘approach to addressing’ in dealing with the complex elements, since predicaments by definition cannot be ‘solved’ or ‘fixed’. The approaches to addressing them often entail accepting and working around them, or adapting to them. Trying to intervene to change them in a desired direction is usually ineffective and can often lead to paradoxical results that make the situation worse.

Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success in changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.

The left side of the model describes the steps involved in dealing with a complicated problem (or the complicated aspects of an issue with both complicated and complex components). If my car won’t start, for example, this model would instruct me to, first, analyze the situation (what are the possible reasons for it not starting, how do I diagnose the problem by testing each possible reason etc.), by imagining what might be wrong, questioning why and how it failed to start and whether each possible diagnosis makes sense, and conversing with others who might have useful insight or experience with the problem.

From this, I can understand the situation and deduce the most logical causes of the problem and the appropriate solution to each possible cause. And finally, through collaboration with others, and through accepting offers from people who know and care about the issue, I can intervene ‘systematically’, until the right solution is pinpointed and my car starts again. It may be an iterative process, but it is not a complex one. There are only so many variables, causes, and things that can have gone wrong, and there are only so many ways to rectify the mechanical malfunction.

The right side of the model, by contrast, describes the steps involved in dealing with a complex predicament (or the complex aspects of an issue with both complicated and complex components). As an example, I suffer from a chronic disease called ulcerative colitis. Although the incidence of the disease is soaring and globally it seems to correlate closely with affluence and stress, its causes are unknown (and, despite medicine’s hubristic claims, probably never will be known), so we can only treat the symptoms. Unlike my car problem, I can’t analyze and understand the possible causes and ‘fix’ the problem. All I can do is explore what is known about the symptoms, and the hypotheses about how some treatments appear to alleviate symptoms in different sufferers, and appreciate the complexity of the predicament and the options available to me.

Then, by imagining what might have happened to make me vulnerable to this disease (e.g. taking high doses of oral tetracycline as an acne treatment in my teenage years), questioning theories and options (e.g. will taking a ‘maintenance dose’ of an anti-inflammatory help or hinder), and having conversations with people who have studied the disease and people who know my lifestyle, and by rigorously tracking correlations between my diet and lifestyle and my feelings of well-being (something I’ve been doing since it was first diagnosed), I can begin to make sense of its sudden occurrence in 2006 (after I received some extremely stressful news), and its non-recurrence since then (except for two mild flare-ups in 2007 and 2013).

And then, by collaborating with and accepting offers from others (e.g. acknowledging the wisdom of my GP’s recommendation to immediately quit my high-stress job, discussing my situation with other sufferers and seeing how they have dealt with it, and accepting a low-stress job that came to me most fortuitously late in 2006) I can adapt my diet, exercise regime, work life and other aspects of my lifestyle to try to reduce the risk of flare-ups and work around this disease that will be with me the rest of my life.

Here’s an example of how this model might be used by an organization which is going through a ‘culture transformation’ process to deal with a lack of knowledge-sharing and collaboration among its people. This is a predicament that has both complicated and complex components:

  1. First, the issue at hand must be separated into its complicated and complex aspects. One of the complicated aspects might be poor IT systems that don’t provide a means to capture and disseminate what people know and have learned. Two of the complex aspects might be cynicism that useful knowledge can be ‘captured’ at all in a database that lacks context of the situation, and a performance assessment system that rewards individual achievement and provides no incentive for sharing or collaboration.
  2. The complicated aspects of the issue are then addressed using the analyze to understand / imagine, question, converse / deduce / collaborate, offerintervene process. Why don’t the existing IT systems have a mechanism to capture knowledge? What is the most useful knowledge to capture and what are the options for structuring it so that entering it into the system is easy? How does this new database fit with existing IT architecture and how might it most effectively be accessed? What technical problems does this present? Who do we need to talk with to understand how this will be used, updated and maintained, and whose ‘job’ will it be? Who will we need to promote this new resource, and how will this be done? Who has real passion for testing this, and whose collaboration will we need? It’s not simple, but it’s not a complex process. It should not be hard to deal with these ‘merely complicated’ aspects of the issue.
  3. The complex aspects of the issue are more perplexing; they need to be addressed using the explore to appreciate / imagine, question, converse / intuit & ‘make sense’ / collaborate, offer / adapt & workaround process. Why aren’t people explicitly sharing knowledge already? The exploration might reveal that knowledge is already being shared generously, through mostly-informal iterative context-rich conversations. Then what? Should we tell the boss that trying to capture this in databases might seem to be efficient but is actually very ineffective? How might we, instead, enable and encourage more such conversations? Is it fruitful, and practical, to try to record and ‘reuse’ such conversations? The exploration might help us appreciate that most of these conversations are based around stories that don’t lend themselves to capture in rigid data entry formats. How might we then capture and organize stories in a way that would be useful, or can we do so at all? Rather than capturing stories, should we be training our people how to be better story-tellers? How do we deal with the fact that we grade performance individually on the curve, which necessarily provides a disincentive for collaborating and helping others improve their performance? How do we ‘make sense’ of the fact our people collaborate and share generously despite this disincentive? As you can see, this is a very different process than the one that worked for the complicated aspects. It generally leaves us with a greater appreciation of why things are the way they are, and how people have worked around the existing formal processes to do their jobs as well as they do. It can be a pretty humbling process, one that leads more to actions around “how can we help you do what you already do more easily and effectively” than “how can we get you to change your behaviour”.

It’s no surprise that, for many organizations that have tried to introduce a ‘knowledge-sharing’ culture, the job quickly focused on the easier merely-complicated aspects — it became all about IT, and in fact many people began to see Knowledge Management as being just an aspect of IT (all about content and collection). No one really wants to deal with the complex aspects (having the hundreds of challenging conversations necessary to appreciate the status quo and the very human motivations behind it, and helping people in modest ways to do their best work better) because this work is hard and thankless and difficult to measure meaningfully.

Because of that, and the lack of insight, imagination and courage by executives in charge of such ‘culture change’ programs, most such programs, in my experience, fail. It requires a very different skill set to deal with the complex aspects, a skill set that in most organizations is in short supply, and is much underrated by the mostly-analytical left-brained thinkers who make the final decisions. Sadly, the only truly successful large-scale culture change programs I have seen entailed the firing of a large proportion of the staff and the hiring of new people who already embodied the desired ‘new’ culture. For the same reason, many organizational ‘consolidations’ and ‘mergers’ (takeovers), both in the private and public sector, end up with almost all of the acquired organization’s people leaving.

This incapacity is equally true, unfortunately, in our attempts to deal with complex predicaments like poverty, inequality, our fragile economic system, the exhaustion of cheap energy, and runaway climate change, in our larger society. And in this larger society there is no one ‘in charge’ to make the decisions that would be needed to bring about large-scale imaginative adaptation to the challenges we face.

So we’re left to deal with such predicaments personally, and in communities that are sufficiently small-scale and sufficiently enlightened to appreciate both the predicaments and how imaginative adaptations and workarounds can alleviate their pain and their harm, at least locally. Most people don’t want to hear or believe this; they want to believe there are miraculous ‘fixes’ to these now-global predicaments. But the more you study complex systems, the more you realize there are none. Geoengineering proposals now being made to ‘fix’ our atmosphere are a classic case of trying to ‘solve’ a complex predicament as if it were a merely complicated problem, and its outcome will almost surely be disastrous.

[At this point I gave participants their first exercise: Thinking about some of the challenges facing them in their industry currently, what are the complicated vs. complex aspects of each? We drilled down into 5 such challenges, and they all had both complicated and complex aspects; the complex aspects were the harder ones to deal with in each case.]

Systems diagrams are a useful tool to help with both the analysis and understanding of complicated systems and challenges (and the complicated aspects of systems and challenges that have both complicated and complex aspects), and with the exploration and appreciation of complex systems and challenges (and the complex aspects of systems and challenges that have both complicated and complex aspects). Here are the basic steps in using such diagrams:

  • Identify the elements (variables) in the system
  • Show the apparent or possible causal connections with arrows
  • Discover reinforcing loops (“vicious cycles” and “virtuous cycles”) in these systems
  • Identify the balancing elements that keep the system in stasis
  • Consider how interventions, adaptations and workarounds might affect the system and what outcomes they might produce

These diagrams are used differently in complicated vs complex systems. In complicated systems, they can be used to analyze, understand, predict, and intervene optimally. In complex systems, many of the benefits of diagramming emerge from the process of diagramming rather than the finished diagram, i.e. from the exploration and appreciation of the predicament.

The diagram, and the system, are models of reality – they are inherently incomplete and flawed. The map is not the territory!

There are many different ways of documenting systems and challenges, and Rosalind’s book explains a number of them. For purposes of this workshop I introduced just one systems diagramming technique that’s easy to learn and quite intuitive and robust. Here’s an example of this technique, looking at the complex predicament of introducing a big box mall supermarket into a town and its impact on the downtown (called the ‘high street’ in the UK) retail stores:

sys diagram 1

The chart shows two ‘vicious cycles’ shown as A and B on the chart. The first of these leads to the bankruptcy of downtown food stores, and the second to the bankruptcy of other downtown stores and the deterioration of the downtown as a whole.

The next exercise for the group was to watch or read the Jack Kent children’s story There’s No Such Thing As a Dragon. The synopsis of the story is:

This is the story of Billy Bixbie, who finds a tiny dragon sitting on the foot of his bed. His mother is firm in her assertion, “There’s no such thing as a dragon.” Yet, the more she denies the dragon and, in turn, convinces young Billy to ignore the dragon, the bigger he grows. By the story’s end, the dragon is filling the Bixbie’s home, with his head and tail spilling out of the top and bottom windows. Finally, Billy can no longer deny the dragon and points this out to his mother. As soon as they acknowledge that there indeed is such a thing as a dragon, the fire breathing fellow returns to his original size–small, like a lap dog. Mrs. Bixbie asks how it was that he grew so big. To which Billy ends the book by saying, “I guess he just wanted to be noticed.”

The group was asked (1) to identify and diagram the “vicious cycle” (a type of reinforcing or “resilient” loop) in red, then (2) to add the “balancing element” that pulled the system out of the cycle before it collapsed, then (3) to identify a possible “virtuous cycle” (another reinforcing or “resilient” loop) that might result in the dragon disappearing entirely, in green, and finally (4) to add another “balancing element” that might pull the system out of the virtuous cycle and back into the vicious cycle. The finished diagram looked like this:

sys diagram 2

This is a simple example of a system in balance or stasis, where the cycles that might tend to collapse it are held in check. Because it’s a complex system, and we are only identifying the more obvious variables, it’s a delicate balance, and another variable of which we’re unaware, or a “black swan” event, could pull it out of stasis. You could substitute the word “addiction” or “trauma” or “urban decay” or “economic inequality” or “climate change” for “dragon” and the model would still more-or-less work.

There are three reasons why such system diagrams are useful, especially for complex predicaments:

  • To appreciate why something is happening that might not be obvious or intuitive
  • To appreciate why well-intentioned interventions are failing to work
  • To identify possible workarounds and other interventions that might be useful, and their possible consequences

The next exercise was to draw a system diagram to appreciate the challenge of never-ending annual budget cuts, a predicament in both the private and public sector. The task was to diagram the “vicious cycle” in both sectors, and then to explore possible ways to imaginatively adapt or work around the predicament. The vicious cycle diagrams looked like this:

sys diagram 3

We discussed the fact that because of oligopolies in the private sector, and because government employees often can’t just leave and find comparable work when their job gets difficult, the kind of ‘market factors’ that might end this vicious cycle and produce a system in stasis just aren’t present. So both sectors add user fees endlessly without improving service, and eliminate or cut back or outsource or offshore services to reduce costs. Customers and employees are both unhappy but have nowhere else to turn in oligopoly markets, so the demanded profit increase and cost cutting are achieved. And since it was achieved, shareholders and citizens believe it can be achieved again each year, and keep demanding it. Such a cycle can only end in collapse.

We discussed possible collapse ‘end games’ that could result if this cycle continues — complete privatization of government services, for example, or, to introduce another variable, wide-spread business (government) failure if customers (taxpayers) are no longer able to pay for the industry’s products (their taxes) because of a continuing stagnant economy. We also came up with some imaginative adaptations and workarounds that might pull us out of these cycles (the ones we came up with were industry-specific and not particularly useful to document here).

We briefly looked at climate change as another complex predicament, studying the vicious cycles in the systems charts I developed for my SHIFT magazine articles. There was an appreciation, I think, that most of the current “solutions” to climate change (cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, sequestration etc.) can’t be expected to work because they’re defeated by the reinforcing feedback loops in the system, and there was an appreciation of why saying that “if we all just did x it would solve the problem” is mostly wishful thinking, and an improbable way to get out of the predicament.

Finally, I discussed six other tools that I’ve found useful in systems thinking:

  1. Visualizations, especially other kinds of systems diagrams, such as the famous Lawrence Livermore graphic showing all the sources, uses and losses of energy in the US.
  2. Cultural anthropology and specifically ‘business anthropology’ to observe and document behaviours in organizations as they actually occur rather than as the ‘procedure manuals’ say they should.
  3. Future state stories to imagine how things might work x years in the future, and then, after collecting current state stories, and engaging a cross section of participating and affected people in iterative conversations, devising a realistic ‘map’ to get to that future state from the current state.
  4. Games and simulations and ‘table-top’ exercises to explore more deeply the variables in play in complex systems and how they are correlated, and to envision the impact of attempted interventions, adaptations and ‘black swan’ events.
  5. Whole system in the room exercises — that allow multiple perspectives on how the system really functions and what diverse ‘stakeholders’ think would make a difference, leading to some convergence and viewpoint shifts.
  6. Biomimicry: the appreciation that nature has been adapting to and working around the predicaments and challenges of complex systems for billions of years, and the value of studying natural systems to appreciate how that has happened.

It was a challenging session, and obviously just touched the surface of this difficult subject. I’m grateful that the audience was an exceptionally bright and animated group, and not too large, and would like to thank them for their participation and helpful suggestions. They seemed to appreciate it and find it enlightening, so I may get called upon to talk with others on this subject. I would welcome any thoughts on how to tweak or add to this workshop.

November 13, 2013

Is the Sharing Economy Here Yet?

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 23:49
Industrial Growth Economy Sharing Economy
Purpose Facilitate the acquisition and ownership of property Facilitate access to the means of meeting needs
Management Hierarchical management and control Collective stewardship in the common interest
‘Work’ Defined jobs at the discretion of owners The means of making a living for ourselves
Financing of Activity Financial and venture capital and interest bearing debt issued by absentee shareholder-owners Collaborative, organic ‘social’ capital
Currency Centralized, fiat currencies loaned into existence, sustained by faith in their value Tribute, barter, gift, community-issued currencies sustained by peer-to-peer trust

 

Most of the Western world’s financial and commercial activity occurs within what we’ve come to call the Industrial Growth Economy. This economy has been around since the start of the industrial age roughly a couple of centuries ago. It requires exponential (and ultimately unsustainable) growth in production and consumption of goods and services to survive. It also requires the use of ‘fiat currency’ (state-issued notes, deemed by the state to have value) for all transactions.

Living quietly alongside the Industrial Growth Economy is another economy, an ancient one. In this pre-industrial economy, financial and commercial activity occurs through what Dmitry Orlov calls “tribute, barter and gift”. Tribute is when you give something of value to another out of respect to enable them to do something — to your church, your overseer or lord or landlord — without the expectation of reciprocation. Barter is when you trade something of value to you for something of value to another. And of course gifting is giving something of value just “out of the good of your heart“. Dmitry argues that philanthropy is not gifting, but rather the laundering of guilt money with the tacit expectation of praise and reward for doing so. I see his point but I’m not absolutely sure I agree with him.

The poor have always lived principally in this ancient economy — let’s call it the Sharing Economy, a name made popular by Charles Eisenstein in his essays and talks and his book Sacred Economics. That’s because the poor don’t have any ‘currency’ in the Industrial Growth Economy, so they are shut out of it. Despite the globalization of the Industrial Growth Economy in recent decades, that hasn’t changed much.

But it’s complex — these two economies exist side by side, and everyone participates to a greater or lesser extent in both. Even the poorest pay what they can with what cash they can earn, beg, borrow or steal, and if they live in cities (which they increasingly do) they are forced to find money to pay for food (since they can’t grow it themselves any more), and often even to pay for ‘security’ (extortion and shakedowns). And even the richest, philanthropy aside, participate in the Sharing Economy — their spouses may raise their children without ‘pay’ as such, for example.

The chart above attempts to differentiate these two economies.

The complexity of living with a foot in each economy leads to some unexpected results. Our tax, legal and accounting systems are built around the Industrial Growth Economy and don’t deal well with Sharing Economy activities. Our measurement of economic prosperity is based on GDP, which recognizes paid child care and the clean-up of pollution as positive GDP-creating activities, but not unpaid child care or pollution prevention (unless that prevention activity is ‘paid for’). Balance sheets and income statements aren’t suited to showing the value of Sharing Economy activities. And as Janelle Orsi has explained, complex, convoluted laws designed to inhibit abuse of power by large multinational corporations often make small Sharing Economy start-ups and operations impossible, drowning them (mostly unintentionally) in red tape.

So what good is the Sharing Economy, beyond something we will have to have in place when the Industrial Growth Economy repeatedly stumbles and finally (and probably gradually) collapses?

Its greatest good is that it allows people who are partly or totally shut out of the Industrial Growth Economy to obtain what they need and offer their gifts when otherwise they could not. It’s how much of the world copes with little or no fiat money.

Its other major advantage is that it leads to greater equality of wealth and well-being, while the Industrial Growth Economy is engineered to do the opposite. Sharing Economy activities tend to drive down prices and work around artificial ‘manufactured’ scarcities (e.g. oligopolistic practices and intellectual property ‘usage fees’). They also encourage local entrepreneurship (finding and meeting local needs), which the Industrial Growth Economy (in its zeal to homogenize, centralize, commoditize and ‘consumerize’ everything) discourages. The Sharing Economy is, while much less efficient, more shock-resilient, personalized, sustainable and effective than the Industrial Growth Economy.

So we should try to encourage more Sharing Economy activity, and to ‘starve’ the Industrial Growth Economy by participating in it as little as possible. The means to do that are pretty obvious (e.g. boycott large corporations, create a living for ourselves instead of working for large organizations, encourage public sector activities and reverse the trend to privatize everything). But since the line between the two economies is pretty grey, we need some means to assess which activities are in which economy, and which are kind of in between.

I’ve had several discussions about this in recent weeks, and there seems to be no clear consensus or ‘formula’ for assessing where different activities and organizations fit, and hence whether we should be encouraging them or not. What I did come up with is a set of five general criteria that tend to make an activity more Sharing Economy-like and less Industrial Growth Economy-like. Here they are:

A. Well-being created — Does the activity produce real value for the recipients of goods and services?
B. Ethical behaviour / non-exploitative & sustainable — Is the activity that funds, accompanies and/or ensues from the transaction moral?
C. Generosity — Is the gifting bona fide, without ulterior motive or reward?
D. Non-reciprocality — Is the gift without cost or strings (tacit or explicit) attached?
E. Non-monetization (in fiat currency) — Does the activity avoid the use of money? And if any money changes hands, is it in a local community-based non-debt-creating currency?

I would argue that something needs to meet at least three of these criteria to really qualify as a Sharing Economy activity, and that the more criteria it meets, the better. So a true gift, along the lines of the repentant Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Day gifts, would score 5 out of 5. Here’s how I would score some less obvious activities, in declining order of ‘sharing':

  • A library, seed swap, community garden or tool exchange: 5 (ABCDE).
  • Providing ‘community space’ or workspace free of charge: 5 (ABCDE).
  • Providing free education, information, counselling,  child care, health care or couchsurfing/’warm showers‘: 5 (ABCDE).
  • A gift of time to a charity: At least 4 (BCDE) out of 5. If it’s time spent doing something really valuable to the charity, then 5.
  • A gift of money to a charity: If by a poor person, 4 (ABCD) out of 5. If by the Koch Brothers, 1 (A) out of 5.
  • A gift in a community currency: Same as above, plus 1 (E).
  • Free expert advice given (e.g. by a hardware store) in the hopes you will buy something ‘in return': 3 (ABE) to 4 (ABCE).
  • A barter exchange where both participants get roughly equal value from the trade: 3 (ABE).
  • A service charging a ‘sliding scale’ based on ability to pay and recipient’s perceived value: 2 (AB) or 3 (ABC).
  • ‘Subsidized’ housing and food ‘banks': Not sure — depends I think on quality and how demeaning it is to qualify.
  • Co-ops and co-housing: On average I’d say 2 (AB).
  • A barter exchange where one participant gets the short end of the trade but feels compelled to do it anyway: 1 (E) to 3 (ABE).
  • Bike share, car share, ‘Airbnb’-type room-sharing etc.: 1 (A) to 3 (ABC).
  • An interest free or low-interest loan: 1 (C) to 3 (ABC). Some would argue that even a low-interest loan is usury and unethical.
  • A ‘market-rate’ loan or investment; or a regular ‘market-price’ sale or lease: 0 to 1 (A).

As the economy continues to wobble and the rest of the middle class disappears, more and more of us will be, both purposefully and of necessity, engaging more with the Sharing Economy. In the meantime, many communities are starting to create local directories and maps of Sharing Economy activities. (I participated recently in a Sharing Economy ‘map jam’ in Eugene, Oregon, hosted by Tree and Kindista, and they’re great fun and terrific learning and networking opportunities.)

When you’re tied to the Industrial Growth Economy (as most of us in affluent nations are), it may seem like a huge leap to a Sharing Economy where there is no accounting, no money changing hands, and absolute trust that one’s local community will give you what you need, and that you should give what you can offer without asking for compensation. But up until a couple of millennia ago that’s how we all lived, and until a couple of centuries ago that was still the main economy in most people’s lives. There’s lots we can do in the meantime practicing making the transition gradually, so that when the bottom falls out of the Industrial Growth Economy it will be a manageable last step to the Sharing Economy that will replace it. And as a bonus, gifting and re-use are better for the environment as well.

The next time you’re thinking of buying, or selling, or discarding something, imagine how you might share it instead — move the activity up a couple of points on the 5-point scale. What do you have to offer that’s surplus to your immediate needs that someone else in your community could use? And what needs do you have that, instead of being satisfied at the mall cash register, could be satisfied by another’s offer? And what could you do with others in your community, through organization, ‘map jams’ and directories, to make it easier for the Sharing Economy to bloom there?

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.

October 9, 2013

Articulating Our Agreements With Each Other

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 01:49

group-hug1

Before lawyers screwed everything up royally, human society operated largely on the basis of agreements. Many of these were tacit, but some were explicit, often marked by ceremony. Economies were initially sharing economies, built on trust. Currencies were later introduced, not as a means of establishing indebtedness, but as a ‘marker’ to increase the flow of activities between people in such a way that no one could seriously exploit the system for personal advantage over collective advantage.

Now, as these agreements have increasingly been replaced with legal contracts, the presumption of trust has been jettisoned, and the nature of the underlying agreements has been exploited, corrupted, and made so complex most of us don’t even bother reading the fine print any more.

So now, when people enter into a business arrangement — a partnership, or the provision of goods or services — massive legal contracts and registrations are involved. These contracts cost a fortune in wasted legal fees and red tape, and actually encourage breach of contract (by finding “loopholes” parties can exploit, like the usurious interest rates charged on credit cards and one-day overdue loans and mortgages) rather than compliance with the underlying agreement. They add no value whatsoever, except to the lawyers who exploit disagreements in the contracts they have deliberately drafted in an adversarial manner to provoke such disagreements.

I remember many years ago when I was working for a large consulting services firm, I received a call from a gentleman, a Saudi citizen, who wished to establish a new enterprise in Canada. He invited me to lunch with ten associates, a lunch that lasted four hours and resulted in agreements on the staffing, operations, management and financing of the new enterprise, and the retention of my services (I stressed that they were hiring not just me, but my whole firm, to which they just smiled). Nothing was written down. There were no contracts prepared or promised, although the value of the agreements that had been decided upon was in the millions of dollars. When I sent him the obligatory new client ‘memorandum of understanding’ (this was before policy required it to be signed and returned before we could do any work), it was never acknowledged. Yet the partners of the new enterprise called me often, and it was clear ‘we’ had an agreement. I was given a substantial retainer and asked to let them know when it was used up — no accounting was required from them. To the best of my knowledge the company still operates successfully, and has never paid a penny to lawyers for the negotiation of contracts or the resolution of contractual disputes.

Today we have employment contracts, consulting contracts, partnership contracts, agency contracts, supply, rental and sales contracts, marriage contracts, divorce contracts, prenuptial contracts, performance contracts, contracts of association, construction contracts, and insurance contracts, among many others. For the most part, their sole purpose is to make work and money for lawyers. They have replaced trusting agreements arrived at directly and acknowledged by handshakes and hugs, with convoluted, often incomprehensible lawyer-drafted and lawyer-intermediated written contracts based on distrust and preoccupied mostly with how breaches will be dealt with. They assume we are incapable of making a meaningful agreement without them.

Yet we enter into complex agreements all the time without written contracts. We join networks, help each other, give things to each other, collaborate on projects, and enter into many types of relationships with each other. Instinctively we know how to establish the basis for such agreements — what we each will offer and agree to do, what our mutual expectations are, what concerns we might have that need to be discussed. These instincts come out of a sense of conviviality — trust, respect, good faith, even love. No paperwork is needed. The underlying assumption in such agreements is that if some problem arises we’ll mutually sort it out with that same sense of conviviality.

The essential elements of any contract are an offer to do something in a certain time frame, an acceptance, an acknowledgement of the consequences of failure to fulfill the offer, and the amount of ‘consideration’ (money exchanged). The underlying assumptions are that you need this paperwork because the other party or parties cannot otherwise be trusted, that money is needed if the contract is to be meaningful, that you need to anticipate and discuss precise legal process if anything goes wrong (and involve lots of lawyers), and that something probably will go wrong (else why the need for so much of the document and drafting effort to be spent on breach provisions). It’s perverse.

Even the word ‘contract’ is telling. It comes from the Latin word meaning to shrink. The word ‘agreement’ comes from the Latin word meaning grace.

How did we get here? My guess is that the main culprit is the anonymity of our modern society. It’s harder to have a basis of trust as communities get larger and your familiarity with its members lessens and finally disappears. And as our society has grown more anonymous it’s also grown more adversarial and competitive, as a world of abundance has become a world of deliberately-created scarcity, at least of the things that are important. We have lost our innate skills of consensus and conflict resolution, and in their absence we’ve created a world of win/lose voting, litigation, exploitation and corruption.

Is there a better answer? What if instead of having lawyers draw up a contract we co-created an agreement, a mutual statement of understanding and grace? Instead of the aforementioned elements of a contract, this co-developed statement would include:

  • What we will do together, in whatever way and on whatever schedule makes sense to us collectively as we go forward, and why we’re doing it. The purpose and actions and intentions, not “who will do what by when”. The process, not what the “deliverable” will be. We can’t know that, in any important process or relationship. It will evolve.
  • What we know about ourselves that can influence our relationship and collaboration. What’s our style of working and living and figuring things out. What are our acknowledged weaknesses and triggers that may have to be dealt with compassionately and competently. What are the expectations we have that will have to be co-managed. What concerns do we have going into this relationship and collaboration.
  • What and how we envision being together. How do we imagine working and/or living together to evolve, over what time horizons.
  • How and when we will resolve differences. What process will we use to respectfully achieve consensus, resolve conflicts, and come back to grace with each other.

This could work for any type of agreement and any type of relationship. Ideally it could replace any written contract, or prevent the need for one. It could be written (as long as it’s written together), or recorded on video (for reference, not for argument), or it could be agreed to with all participants as witnesses (maybe during a four-hour lunch). The important thing is that it be a co-created statement, a collective work done any way that works for the participants.

On my recent visit with Tree in Eugene OR, at a stopover at Townshend’s Tea we ran into two of her friends, Jeremy Blanchard and Jessilyn Brinkerhoff, who told me about a form of written agreement and process similar to what I describe above, called The Blueprint of We (formerly called the State of Grace Document), developed by Maureen McCarthy and Zelle Nelson. It entails writing a 5-part document using a specific iterative writing process. It sounds like it’s been well-tested and would be suitable if you’re looking for something a bit more prescriptive than the general mutual statement of understanding and grace that I’ve laid out.

I haven’t tried developing such an agreement myself yet, though I’m intrigued at the idea of doing so at the beginning of any new group I co-create or project I undertake. I’m guessing that the best way to construct these ‘statements’ would be to start by developing, collaboratively, stories that address the ‘what we will do together’, ‘what and how we envision being together’ and ‘how and when we will resolve differences’ components. I can envision good facilitation as essential to development of these stories if they’re to truly be collective, shared work. And I expect the ‘what we know about ourselves’ component to be the trickiest to co-develop.

I’ll let you know how it goes when I get around to applying it. If you’ve used such a process to produce an agreement among members of some organization, project or relationship you’re involved with it, how did it go? Would the result meet the definition of a ‘mutual statement of understanding and grace’?

October 8, 2013

Embracing Complexity: Seeking Appreciation Instead of ‘Understanding’

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 20:20

milky way andromeda collision

NASA depiction of Earth’s night sky in 3.75B years when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are colliding

The thing that humans most hate about complexity is that it’s infinite: it can never be fully understood. And because of that, there will always be limits — serious limits — to the models of reality that scientists and philosophers put forward. And similar limits on our ability to control or even intervene in any reliable, useful way in these systems.

So today we have neuroscientists, like their predecessors who claimed to tell you who you were by feeling the bumps on your skull, who promise that we’ll soon largely understand human feelings, motivations, beliefs and behaviours by looking at brain images. And we have economists who claim to know how the economy will behave in the future, and engineers who think they can reverse climate change by hurling aluminum particles into the stratosphere. And we have otherwise intelligent scientists who still believe that the essence of who we are can be cryogenically frozen and one day implanted in a cyberstructure that will never die, and that there is still hope and sense in finding some way to send a small crew of Earthlings (human, of course) to deep space to outlive the sixth great extinction we have precipitated. And that there is some “grand theory of everything” that will allow us to predict the future perfectly and use current ‘reality’ with certainty of the results of our perfect interventions. And of course that there was a start and end to time, and space, and that there is a fundamental set of particles that are not further divisible into ever more mysterious and perplexing components.

They believe these things despite all the evidence, philosophical, scientific, theoretical and other, that these beliefs are wrong. They believe because they want to believe. They cannot bear not finding the ultimate simple answer, the ultimate truth, the map that is so precise that it becomes indistinguishable from the territory.

These foolish stubborn beliefs and hopes are perfectly understandable. We don’t want to admit that we can’t know, that our brains, which evolved through the collaborative volition of the cells in our bodies as a feature detection and mobility management system, and not as a cognitive one, cannot understand very much, let alone everything.

I don’t begrudge the muddy-thinking scientists and economists and business theorists and philosophers and neuro-“scientists” and other spiritualists their beliefs and hopes that what is unfathomably complex can somehow be made simple enough for us to understand and use effectively. People are entitled to their religions, even those who deny that’s what their models and theories and ideologies are.

My concern is that they have convinced enough other people of the veracity of their particular spiritualities and scientisms that we now live as if what they, and we, do actually conforms to their modern phrenologies. The life that results from this increasingly global worldview, the one that most now live, is an unreal one, a projection, a hologram, a mental fiction, and it’s not surprising that most people live in a state of constant disappointment in themselves and in others and in their ‘leaders’ over our inability to control ourselves and the world around us, and steer them in the directions we believe are in our personal and collective best interests.

The newest model of reality is one that comes closer to previous models to embracing complexity and unknowingness instead of fighting to simplify and fully understand it. It’s a geometric model, and it’s seriously shaking up the scientific establishment, because it does away with the need for the concepts of space and time entirely, seeing them as human mental constructs (very useful ones to us, granted) that are not essential to the nature of reality at all.

amplituhedron

Artist Andy Gilmore’s partial rendering of an amplituhedron, part of a new geometric model of reality

It’s a model that reflects the complexity of the universe, appreciates it, rather than trying to explain and understand it. Indeed, the problematic issues of black holes and the big bang and the impossibility of testing the newest theories of subatomic particles are rendered moot by this model, not solved by it. They are seen for what they are — errors in our simplistic human modelling of reality that are inherent in the very scientific language and tools we use to create them. Here’s a quote from Nima Arkani-Hamed, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the new model’s developers, talking about how “change” is represented in this new model:

“In a sense, we would see that change arises from the structure of the object,” he said. “But it’s not from the object changing. The object is basically timeless.”

Change is emergent, in other words, and emergence is the closest our language can come to expressing the concept of complexity.

Like the drawing above, the new model is beautiful, not only because it debunks the absurdly complicated and utterly flawed models it replaces, but because it has the element of humility. It does not purport to be a “theory of everything” and from my reading seems to support the subversive notion that there cannot be a model of everything, and that a model is just a model, like a portrait is a recognizable model of the person it portrays but has no illusions of being anything like the person itself. It is art, more than science, and therein lies its beauty.

As our human species pushes its civilization towards inevitable collapse, and the complex organism of all-life-on-Earth to massive (but not total, thankfully) extinction, I see the emergence of such models as a sign that humanity is at last growing up. Too late to save the world, but in time to realize the staggering beauty of life and our planet and universe, and the foolishness of our reckless and well-intentioned experiments as recent custodians of the planetary laboratory. In time to start to appreciate, and stop trying to understand.

In time to embrace complexity, even as its immediate consequence is now almost surely our civilization’s demise and the end of our significance as a force on this planet, instead of fighting to try to defeat it.

September 30, 2013

An Economy That Works for Us

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 23:46

Sweet Spot

illustration from my book Finding the Sweet Spot

Robert Reich, the reformed former US Labor Secretary (under Clinton), recently wrote a very short summary explaining how the globalized, corporatized so-called “free market” economy benefits only a very few. I’m reproducing it below in its entirety, to set the stage for some of my thoughts on why real, grass-roots, local collaborative enterprises and co-ops are suffering so badly even as this economy continues to collapse:

One of the most deceptive ideas continuously sounded by the Right (and its fathomless think tanks and media outlets) is that the “free market” is natural and inevitable, existing outside and beyond government. So whatever inequality or insecurity it generates is beyond our control. And whatever ways we might seek to reduce inequality or insecurity — to make the economy work for us — are unwarranted constraints on the market’s freedom, and will inevitably go wrong.

By this view, if some people aren’t paid enough to live on, the market has determined they aren’t worth enough. If others rake in billions, they must be worth it. If millions of Americans remain unemployed or their paychecks are shrinking or they work two or three part-time jobs with no idea what they’ll earn next month or next week, that’s too bad; it’s just the outcome of the market.

According to this logic, government shouldn’t intrude through minimum wages, high taxes on top earners, public spending to get people back to work, regulations on business, or anything else, because the “free market” knows best.

In reality, the “free market” is a bunch of rules about

    1. what can be owned and traded (the genome? slaves? nuclear materials? babies? votes?);
    2. on what terms (equal access to the internet? the right to organize unions? corporate monopolies? the length of patent protections? );
    3. under what conditions (poisonous drugs? unsafe foods? deceptive Ponzi schemes? uninsured derivatives? dangerous workplaces?);
    4. what’s private and what’s public (police? roads? clean air and clean water? healthcare? good schools? parks and playgrounds?); [and]
    5. how to pay for what (taxes, user fees, individual pricing?). And so on.

These rules don’t exist in nature; they are human creations. Governments don’t “intrude” on free markets; governments organize and maintain them. Markets aren’t “free” of rules; the rules define them.

The interesting question is what the rules should seek to achieve. They can be designed to maximize efficiency (given the current distribution of resources), or growth (depending on what we’re willing to sacrifice to obtain that growth), or fairness (depending on our ideas about a decent society). Or some combination of all three — which aren’t necessarily in competition with one another. Evidence suggests, for example, that if prosperity were more widely shared, we’d have faster growth.

The rules can even be designed to entrench and enhance the wealth of a few at the top, and keep almost everyone else comparatively poor and economically insecure.

Which brings us to the central political question: Who should decide on the rules, and their major purpose? If our democracy was working as it should, presumably our elected representatives, agency heads, and courts would be making the rules roughly according to what most of us want the rules to be. The economy would be working for us.

Instead, the rules are being made mainly by those with the power and resources to buy the politicians, regulatory heads, and even the courts (and the lawyers who appear before them). As income and wealth have concentrated at the top, so has political clout. And the most important clout is determining the rules of the game.

Not incidentally, these are the same people who want you and most others to believe in the fiction of an immutable “free market.”

If we want to reduce the savage inequalities and insecurities that are now undermining our economy and democracy, we shouldn’t be deterred by the myth of the “free market.” We can make the economy work for us, rather than for only a few at the top. But in order to change the rules, we must exert the power that is supposed to be ours.

Mr Reich may believe in the ability of the political system to change the “rules” to adopt an economy that “works for us” (though I’m dubious; he’s worked in the system long enough to know better). I, however, don’t. The mess we’re in is nobody’s “fault” — it’s the result of people using their power and influence in their personal self-interest, which is exactly how this system is supposed to “work”, the only way a large-scale political or economic system driven by money really can.

It’s also, in my opinion, beyond repair or reform. Instead of hoping to fix it, we should, I believe, start to acknowledge it, understand it, and adapt to it. I think the best way to do that is to start by looking at and accepting the facts about our dysfunctional global industrial economy in the 21st century. They’re pretty grim. Here are a few of them:

  • Skyrocketing Gini Index of inequality and disappearance of the middle class. 400 Americans now have the same combined wealth as that of the poorest 50% of US citizens. That means almost all ‘discretionary’ and luxury spending (which is half of all spending) in the US is done by a tiny number of Americans. It’s better in Canada but trending quickly in the same direction.
  • Large corporations pay very high wages to executives and select contractors (e.g. lawyers), meagre wages to everyone else, and are cutting staff, services and contractors to keep profits growing.
  • The real rate of inflation is at least 8%, not what is published by governments. For example, a prescription that cost $200/month seven years ago probably costs at least $400/month now. That rate is much higher than the rate of interest people’s pension money is yielding and far higher than wage growth for the 99%. And many benefits once given to line employees (e.g. defined-benefit pensions, automobiles, prescription and dental plans) have been eliminated entirely.
  • Market share, media clout, intellectual property laws and accumulated wealth collectively allow large corporations to dominate every industry. These oligopolies ‘buy’ tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory reductions from politicians. This gives them a huge competitive advantage over small enterprises, and allows them to buy up or crush innovative competitors (which are usually small and cash-poor).
  • The executive class work crazy hours, and mostly pay people to do stuff for them. The working class also work crazy hours at multiple jobs, and usually have no time or money for anything beyond survival and needs of the moment (cheap food, beer, escapist entertainment). The middle class were the only ones who had both money and the time to spend it on non-urgent things. So while established business-to-large-corporation products and services, luxury consumer goods makers and do-it-for-executives personal services are thriving, almost all other types of enterprises are struggling.

What does this mean if you’re working with a small enterprise or co-op, or hoping/planning to start one?

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour says: people do what they must (what’s urgent in their own personal day-to-day priorities), then they do what’s easy, and then they do what’s fun. They have no time or energy (or money) left for what’s ‘merely’ important to them or good for them. Because non-executive customers’ spending power has decreased dramatically (and these customers are working longer and harder just to keep up) sales to these customers, the mainstay of most small enterprises and co-ops, have shrunk significantly, and there’s been downward pressure on prices as well.

In short, as the middle class has disappeared, so has the capacity of citizens to buy the goods and services that are mostly provided by small, local enterprises and co-ops. It’s the Wal-Mart Dilemma writ large — people who work for companies that pay slave labour wages can only afford the cheap, shoddy merchandise (including junk food) that similar wage slavery corporations sell.

So if you don’t want to get swallowed up in an economy that makes you work longer and harder for less and less, what can you do?

The first step, I think, is to wean yourself off the global industrial growth economy as much as possible, so you’re not contributing to the problem. That means giving up junk food, buying at the mall, investments in the big banks and in public corporations, indebtedness to the usurers, especially banks, big mortgage companies and credit card companies, and paying for canned entertainment of all kinds. It means needing less, by learning to make and do more yourself (personally and in community). It means buying used. It means valuing your time more and money less.

It means doing things together with others that don’t cost money. It means ceasing to be a passive consumer. It means buying local. It means sharing. It means living simpler. It may mean getting your expenses down and your lifestyle shifted to the point you can quit your wage slave or large-corporation job and start to make a living for yourself with others in your community, meeting real local needs.

The second step is connecting with your community, rediscovering it as a shared place with an ever-growing ‘commons’ — resources and places — that you agree to contribute to, share and co-manage. And learning new skills, hard and soft, that will make you a valuable, trusted and loved member of that community. Pretty soon, you’ll know the community well enough to start to understand what they need that is no longer being provided by the crumbling industrial growth economy (or never was) that’s in your ‘sweet spot’ — something that you and partners with complementary skills can provide that you’re very good at, and love doing, your ‘right livelihood’.

Of course, it’s not that easy. We have lost our sense of community, and our willingness to build and associate and collaborate with people in our physical vicinity, some of whom we may not particularly like. Many of these essential capacities will take lifetimes and generations to become competent at again. And as long as the dregs of the industrial growth economy keep dumping cheap junk from the latest wage slave nation on us, many will be tempted to take them and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

But even if we can re-create community and tap into what we really need for a responsible, sustainable and joyful life, what do we do if the goods or services we provide aren’t affordable to, or aren’t yet appreciated by, those who need them? In other words, what do you do when you’re in the business of providing services that are not urgent, easy or fun, mostly for a middle class that has become working class and now has very little time or money for ‘non-essentials’? How can you make what you do essential and affordable to those who need it?

the only one

cartoon by hugh mcleod at gapingvoid

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Combine it with related or alternative offerings of others, so that you collectively make it easier and less time-consuming for people to get what you offer. You may be able to achieve some cost economies in the process that can be passed along to your customers. This is the advantage that led to the development of shopping ‘malls’, and Saturday farmers’ markets. 
  2. Understand and stress the benefits of what you do. People don’t buy things for their features; they buy for what those things do for them, things they think are important. People don’t buy a drill, they buy (a solution to provide) the holes they need drilled. People eat fast food to save time and energy, not (usually) because it tastes good. If you sell ‘slow food’, for example, how might you make it ‘faster’ without compromising quality? Offer to chop or mix it for the customer at point-of-sale? Offer easy recipes and provide a kit with all the (fresh) ingredients? And while you’re at it, provide the customer with hard data that shows how many days eating well adds to your life, and how many more of those days will be healthy. And no matter what product or service you provide, the fact that you, the supplier, are local, not ten thousand miles away, and that hence you are accessible, knowledgeable, and committed to the community in which you and your customers live, is a huge benefit.
  3. Talk with people who you think need what you offer but aren’t buying, and find out why not, and adjust what you offer accordingly. The people you ask will probably want to make you happy with excuses, but persevere and find out the real reasons. In the process of doing this:
  4. Discover what people really need through collaborative, iterative conversations. Most people don’t really know what they want. They need to be talked through it, to discover it with you. No one thought they ‘needed’ to be able to keep and play all their music on a handheld device. Until they realized it could save them a ton of money, enable them to share their collection, and increase its durability, and until they appreciated that the initial challenges of poor headphones, expensive digital storage, compression and processing speeds were all solvable. Now most of us would be lost without these inexpensive, ubiquitous tools. Appreciation of needs and ideas to address them co-evolve, and conversations are the best way to fast-track that evolution.
  5. Find imaginative partners. We live in an age of great creativity (making beautiful, intricate things once they’ve been invented and spec’d out), but terrible imaginative poverty. The kind of person who reads about why butterflies are so colourful when their wings have no pigment (hint: it’s molecular light refraction), and then realizes that this knowledge could be used to create un-counterfeitable currency or colourful paint-free products, is worth their weight in gold.
  6. Make using your product or service more fun. We have become passive consumers of absurdly overpriced canned entertainment, and have forgotten how to create fun for ourselves. Show us how to do it.
  7. Be unique. As the cartoon business card above says, don’t try to make a living doing something incrementally different from what others are doing. Any ‘competitive advantage’ of being cheaper or faster or ‘better’ than others is inevitably transient. Be the only game in town, even though it takes a lot of work and thought to do it. And if you succeed, be sure that others will try to copy you with their own incremental differences. But the advantage of having been there first is enormous.
  8. Capitalize on the sharing economy. What do the people in your community own that they rarely use (think: spare bedrooms, second cars, tools and toolrooms, formal wear, fruit trees), and how could you connect those people with others who could really use these ‘surplus’ goods? Who has skills and time on their hands (think: retired people, unemployed people, disadvantaged people) that could be put to good use meeting real needs? But don’t think about how this can be money-making; think about connecting the surplus to the needs, and trust that the joy of the givers and the gratefulness of the recipients will ultimately provide you with rewards different and greater than you could imagine.
  9. Give it away free, and freely. Our gifts have a remarkable way of coming back to us in surprising ways (just as our harmful acts do). Humans are essentially generous and appreciative, and as Charles Eisenstein and others have been explaining the Gift Economy is the natural economy, the one that we have lived with for most of our time on Earth. Our stingy, selfish, dysfunctional, price-driven industrial economy may make you feel foolish for giving things away without thought of reciprocation or recognition (‘charitable giving’ is not giving things away, and is never ‘free’), but try it; you may be amazed.
  10. Be patient. Most people who have found their ‘sweet spot’ have many stories of earlier failure. Fail fast, intelligently and inexpensively, learn from your mistakes, and try again. The work you’re meant to do is waiting for you to discover.

So Mr Reich is correct — we need an economy that works for us, not for the 1%. But the best way to create that economy is not through lobbying or voting or protests, but by working together in our communities to meet our own needs, intelligently, sustainably, responsibly, imaginatively, and joyfully.

It will not be easy, but its time is coming, fast.

August 20, 2013

The Death of Imagination

Filed under: How the World Really Works,Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 02:55

milky way andromeda collision

NASA depiction of Earth’s night sky in 3.75B years when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are colliding

Imagination is the capacity to conjure up ideas, stories, prose, poetry, music, images, and ways to deal with problems and predicaments, seemingly out of nothing. It is the ability to be open to possibility, to let something emerge within you, and give it voice.

Creativity, by contrast, is a crafter’s art. It is the capacity to realize, to make real, either your own imaginative possibilities or those described or specified by others. It is a different skill entirely, and while some people are both imaginative and creative, there are many more creative people today, I think, than imaginative ones.

Why should this be so? Why is the world, challenged as it is by a host of intractable problems and emerging crises that have led us to the brink of civilizational collapse and ushered in the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, suffering from unprecedented imaginative poverty at exactly the time we most need imagination?

A good imagination requires a combination of (a) innate qualities (sensitivity, lateral thinking capacity, openness to “let things come”, and the mental agility to integrate, suspend judgement, synthesize and, for want of a better word, dream), and (b) capacities learned from practice (composition, editing, articulation, reflection, perseverance, critical thinking, attention and play). The former (the innate qualities) have often been discouraged and disparaged as flakiness or weirdness; artists have almost always been under-appreciated. But the capacities that come from imaginative practice have, I think, only recently become rare. I’d argue that this is in part because we don’t really value practice of anything anymore (it’s too much work, takes too much time and in our modern world nothing is expected to last anyway). It’s also, I think, because so many of our modern recreations (hackneyed mainstream films, formulaic popular fiction and TV, insipid popular music and derivative video games) require no imagination at all, either to produce or to participate in. So we get little practice imagining. Almost nothing is left to the imagination anymore.

The most important effect of the dearth of imagination is in our processes. Process is “the way we do something”. For millennia, the processes we used were principally those handed down by parents or mentors from generation to generation, tweaked by each generation’s new sensibilities, tastes and popular passions. With the introduction of industrial culture, this way was largely replaced by more ‘efficient’ standard processes, documented in manuals, enforced with forms, close supervision and mandatory sign-offs and, as much as possible, automated.

Process is now largely imposed on us, in one or more of three ways:

  • Training in the “right way” (or “the company way”) to do things
  • Prescriptive documents (manuals and specifications we are forced to follow)
  • Embedded in technologies, from the constraint of simple forms that must be filled out/in, to automated software and equipment that can only be used in limited ways.

Many new technologies have useless manuals that are ignored because they merely restate the constraints imposed by the technology’s menus and buttons. No one can be blamed for not RTFM.

Every technology is inherently limiting. Manual, low-tech tools and media like pens, paints, knives, wood, and musical instruments can be used in nearly unlimited ways, constrained mostly by our imaginations (or lack thereof). Software constrains you to what the program has envisioned as possible and useful and hence designed to allow.

This has had its greatest impact in the industrial and office workplace. As many business writers have noted, the most important phenomenon in 21st century businesses of any size is that most workers know how to do their increasingly specialized jobs better than their bosses (many of whom have only one abstract and, in practical terms, largely useless and hugely overrated ‘skill’ called “management”). What that means is that executives have to largely trust employees to know how to do their jobs well (which is why increasingly they hire expensive experienced older employees rather than train young people to do any advanced, important jobs).

The young and menial workers are constrained by technology (telemarketing scripts, software ‘aids’ and embedded error detection and correction tools) to ensure their lack of useful skills and experience doesn’t cause any serious problems for the corporation, and to weed out any variation in processes. These are all, of course, jobs awaiting improvements in technology that will enable them to be either automated or offshored.

Survivors in the business world quickly learn that the way business works, at its best, is through workarounds. Workarounds are modifications to the prescribed, official, imposed processes that allow the worker to actually do what’s best for customers, co-workers and community, despite training, manuals and technologies that force them to follow processes designed to do what’s best for shareholders and executives of the corporation. That may sound terribly cynical, but in 37 years in business I never discovered a large corporation that worked otherwise, and many of my co-workers have acknowledged that workarounds are, in fact, how all the really important work in organizations gets done (almost none of it by executives). The key is to appear to be following standard process while actually deviating from it. This requires a great deal of imagination and no little tact, which is why most imaginative people in large corporations burn out and leave, leaving the corporations in the hands of the arrogant and the clueless. These corporations survive without imagination because through oligopoly (which is no longer regulated in this ever-more-corporatist society) they have the financial and political might to buy up, threaten, shut down and shut out imaginative upstarts, and flood the airwaves with advertising propaganda that persuades unimaginative, dumbed-down consumers that they are actually offering value (or at least amusement) for their products’ hugely inflated prices.

So we can’t expect imagination from the corporations that dominate our economy, or from the media or political decision-makers.

So if we want to create an environment that enables and encourages more imagination, before our industrial civilization dies, in part, for lack of it, where do we start?

20 ways to imagine

from one of my early articles on imagination

I’d like to believe we could start in the classrooms, but my experience has led me to believe that the mainstream education systems, both public and private, are really just another flavour of large corporation, where well-meaning teachers follow standard processes set down by corporatist administrators and only occasionally sneak in workarounds that actually allow students to learn or do anything of value.

So instead of speaking of institutions of education, let’s start instead with the processes of facilitating and mentoring young people’s learning processes, whether through unschooling (not homeschooling) or other methods of avoiding the dysfunction of large educational institutions. How could we make these processes, and the environments in which they occur, more enabling and encouraging of imagination?

For a start, we could (through exercises and examples and by demonstration) show young people how to imagine, and then how to create (i.e. to make that product of the imagination real), and then let them practice at it through play, encouraging just the practice, not the end-product. That means, for example, helping them learn how to make music without needing to rely on ‘samples’ of others’ music and canned instrumentation. That means helping them learn to write stories and poetry that is not fan fiction, but wholly original — by mentoring them to recognize what is original and what is derivative: a critical analysis of their own work. That means encouraging them to play their own compositions, not ‘covers’ of others’. That means helping them to design games that are not automated, which players can adapt and evolve easily without ‘rewriting’ them to be more fun, and more creative, which don’t require computers or complicated tools, and which don’t have prescribed ‘roles’ or invariable rules. Games that make play a creative process rather than a reflexive, constrained one, and whose object is having fun and learning, not ‘winning’.

We could facilitate and mentor them to discover how to learn for themselves, and then how to make all learning play, adventure –joyful. And to apply that capacity and their imaginations to discover what they really love doing, and what they’re really good at doing (probably things that aren’t on any list of ‘job skills’ and hence things they’re going to have to discover for themselves, using their own imaginative processes). And then to imagine what the world really needs that no one else is providing, and how, uniquely, they could bring it to the world, and in so doing, realize what they’re meant to do to make a living. No form or checklist or vocational program is going to teach them that. It’s the most important thing they’ll ever have to imagine.

We could, as well, point them to really outstanding imaginative and creative work, and not force it on them, but just invite them, in their own time, to discover it, to learn from it. It’s hard to find: I spend a lot of time in bookstores and online searching for good short stories, well-crafted written work in all genres, and needle-in-a-haystack excellent poetry (and no, I don’t think my own creative work yet measures up to those standards; I’m not practiced enough either). I’m dismayed at how many writers (of all ages) read next to nothing of others’ work, and how many musicians appreciate only one genre of music and find really well-composed work too complicated to appreciate. Like anything else, the practice of imagination involves studying those who’ve become really good at it, and understanding why and how.

This will not be easy. Most of us who live or work with young people are too busy and too exhausted to devote time to the frivolous practice of helping them to imagine. Spending time with young people is, alas, not highly valued in our culture.

And I think it’s too late to recover the imaginative capacity of most people who have reached adulthood. Just as it becomes almost impossible to learn a language if you’re not exposed to it in childhood, when your neural pathways are forming and reforming, I think it’s likely that the lack of any imaginative practice in youth has stunted most adults’ capacity to ever really become good at imagining. Unfortunately, they’ve (we’ve) been brought up to be good at just one thing: consuming, conspicuously, uncritically and insatiably.

So that’s why I speak of the death of imagination. When our culture collapses, and we run out of cheap energy and cheap money and cheap labour to provide and operate our mind-numbing technologies, the survivors will have to learn, again, to imagine. They will discover it isn’t hard, or expensive, and that it’s fun, and that with practice they can get very good at it. It’s part of who, underneath the pall of our declining culture, we are.

.     .     .     .     .

A Postscript on Innovation: You may wonder why I’ve not used the word innovation in this essay, a word beloved by business ‘leaders’. It’s because it’s become a weasel word that, for many, means derivative, incremental, style-over-substance design created in a laboratory by people disconnected from real users with real needs. Real innovation is a dance of three things: imagination, creativity and critical thinking. It is an iterative process entailing a collaborative revealing of what is needed and what is possible. It is a process that often asks “what if…?” and “how might we…?” and “why doesn’t it already exist?” questions. Both asking and answering these questions requires a lot of imagination, a lot of learning and probing and challenging and suspending judgement and further questioning. It’s the antithesis of the design process as it is normally done in most businesses. Most businesses don’t have the talent in their whole organizations to do it well, and many that do don’t recognize that talent until it’s gone. That’s why there is almost no real innovation in the business world today. And why I gave up writing about it on this blog quite a few years ago.

August 9, 2013

Enough to Go Around: The Case for Community Currency

Filed under: How the World Really Works,Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 02:29

enough to go around

One of the paradoxes of industrial civilization is that in most communities we have, simultaneously:
1. many unmet needs: for affordable housing, healthy local food, meaningful livelihoods, real communities, and the need for ‘more time’, and
2. many unused capacities: unused physical spaces (land, buildings, rooms), available labour (especially the retired and the unemployed), savings that earn almost no return, and cars, tools and equipment that sits idle most of the time

Centuries ago, once cities emerged and the gift economy could no longer fill the gap between unmet needs and unused capacities, pre-industrial humans invented something to match the latter to the former. It was called “currency” since it was an enabler of the flow of unused capacities to meet unmet needs. At first, it was used mostly for ceremonial and tribute purposes: dowries, tithes to the church, and ‘symbolic’ gifts, but grew to be a common medium of exchange.

This “currency” worked better than barter systems, since two people could enter into a transaction even if only one had something the other needed; the ‘currency’ could be used by the provider in this transaction to acquire something s/he needed from someone else.

And then something happened to mess it all up. Those who had violently stolen the commons — the property of the people — and proclaimed it their ‘private’ property decided they could profit hugely from also controlling the currency. By preventing the poor and middle classes from issuing their own currency (people had used everything from grain to salt to chits and IOUs), the rich bandits could use the ‘currency of the realm’ to siphon wealth and assets from the poor to them. They did this by usury (the previously forbidden and socially disgraceful process of charging interest for the loan of currency), by charging taxes and rents on ‘their’ land and its bounty, and by extortion for ‘protection’. And so, money — currency issued by a cabal of wealthy politicians and ‘businessmen’ — became “the root of (almost) all evil”.

Like many aspects of complex adaptive systems, the introduction of centralized fiat currencies controlled by moneyed interests quickly became entrenched through a positive feedback loop: As long as everyone needed the new money currency to pay taxes, they had to use it in their own enterprises, in order to have it to pay their thieving landowners and lords. Other, more useful and equitable currencies soon disappeared (or were banned).

Once that had happened, the only time people used community-based currencies of their own design was when (due to impropriety, greed, excessive military or vanity spending by the wealthy, or simple incompetence), the official money currency suddenly lost all its value (what we now call hyperinflation). We simply forgot, most of the time, there was any other type of currency than the national fiat money controlled by the ‘ruling’ class. And we (foolishly and essentially) ascribed a magical quality to it — ‘value’ — a quality that any currency has only by virtue of the collective faith and collective agreement of users.

Today, with the global economy massively overextended and teetering on the edge of collapse, many are starting to look again at community-based currencies, either as a fall-back in case centralized currencies collapse (as people come to realize they are actually worthless), or, as in the case of post-Soviet Russia and today’s Southern European nations, because the official currencies have hyperinflated or disappeared entirely from most people’s pockets.

But it’s a difficult process. People, ironically, have come to believe that a currency must be backed by the banks and governments to have value, and don’t trust any community currency that is not. Many experimental community currencies, to deal with this apprehension, are convertible (by some formal exchange mechanism) into the national fiat currency. But then what happens is that nervous holders quickly convert their community currency back to fiat currency, until there is none of the former left in circulation. A currency is only currency if it circulates — flows — and one that is exchanged or socked away and ceases to flow quickly becomes worthless, since no one wants to be the last to accept it.

A variety of other ways have been used to introduce community currencies. Some are backed by signed promises of individuals, whose trustworthiness is often attested by community co-signers, essentially a form of transferrable IOUs, and are often denominated in hours or minutes of labour to provide some reference point for their value.

Another method, called The Community Way by its inventor, Vancouver Islander and LETS system founder Michael Linton, is created when businesses in a community (like Vancouver) ‘donate’ the community currency into existence, issuing the local currency to non-profits who then sell (exchange) it to citizens in return for fiat currency. The citizens can then use the community currency in the issuing local businesses to acquire local goods and services. It serves the purpose of keeping the flow of economic value within the community, but it is often a challenge convincing local businesses to accept it, and overcoming fears that, without a bank or other wealthy authority standing ready to redeem it for ‘real’ currency, it may suddenly lose its value and leave the holders ‘holding the bag’. So it’s essentially a process of persuading the community to trust each other, which in today’s cynical society can be quite difficult.

And then of course there are pure and modified barter systems, when real goods and services are exchanged for other real goods and services, or alternatively are ‘secured’ by real commodities and valuable objects of one of the parties until the exchange can be ‘made good’ by the securing party’s provision of valuable goods and services to another.

A friend and co-Islander Conrad Juraschka explains that the way community currencies keep money in the community is analogous to the way ‘swales’ are used in permaculture to keep moisture and nutrients in the soil from flowing away. Here’s an edited excerpt from his article:

The failure of buy local campaigns often comes down to what economists term “leakage”: There is nothing in place to ensure that those dollars do in fact continue to circulate and remain within the community for any length of time, for mutual benefit. Often, once spent those dollars are completely removed from the communities they are used in.

Community currency can help keep money in a local economy similarly to how a swale works in a permaculture design on a landscape, maximizing energy flows and supporting the diversity of relationships in a natural system for the mutual benefit of the elements connected within the cycle. In permaculture design a swale is a technique of creating a water harvesting ditch on contour, planted on the low side, which acts to catch and slow the flow of water and nutrient over a landscape. This allows a flow to sink in supporting multiple relationships for the maximum benefit of the system.
Here’s an illustration:

swales

If we think of water (money) as a flow across our landscape (community), community currency can function like a swale to capture and store that energy and ensure that it remains within the system (local economy) indefinitely, mutually benefitting everyone involved. This is designed into the system since the currency can only be used within the community. Here’s an example of how it works:

  1. Someone buys hay from a local farm using community currency.
  2. The farmer takes their community currency and uses it at the local massage clinic.
  3. The massage therapist in turn uses the community currency at the local organic food store for eggs.
  4. The food store uses the community currency to buy eggs from a local producer – and that producer might even be the same person who initially used it to buy hay.

Since this currency can only be spent locally this cycle of mutually beneficial relationships can go on indefinitely, similar to how a natural ecosystem works. The more diverse the network is and the more connections there are in the web of activity, the more resilient the system is.

Conrad and I are part of a group on Bowen Island working to create our own “Bowen Bucks” — named after the abundant, tame wild deer everywhere on our island. We’re doing this for the same reason currencies were introduced centuries ago: to enable the flow of unused capacities to meet unmet needs.

We have lots of both on Bowen: There are many unused and underused buildings, areas of cleared land, and empty rooms, while rents here (and in neighbouring Vancouver) are so expensive that many are essentially homeless or living in intolerably squalid places. Many of the people on Bowen are comfortably retired or (uncomfortably) unemployed, employed only part-time or underemployed, yet many goods and services that these people might be producing, and which Islanders need, are not available on the island at all. And on the mainland, in addition to the cost of transportation to and from the city, these needed goods and services are often unaffordable, so ‘middle-class’ and poorer Islanders (including many in the so-called ‘creative class’ — artists and crafters and musicians and designers) do without them. And much of our commercial space is only used at certain hours and days of the week, while some commercial tenants have to give up their leases and work from home because they can’t afford the rents.

There is a huge amount of work that could be done to garden, enhance and conserve the ‘undeveloped’ land, parklands and wildlands of Bowen. Alas, this land is mostly either ‘common’ (crown) land, or property that’s sitting idle because it was only acquired for real estate speculation or because the owners are wealthy enough to just sit on it awaiting urban sprawl to push its value up. So no one is willing to pay ‘real’ money for this useful work to be done. Meanwhile, many are desperate for paying work to supplement their incomes and would love to do this kind of work, while others would willingly do it just for the love of the land.

The paradoxes go on: Very little food is produced on Bowen, and much of what is sold here is imported from far away, poor-quality, expensive and unnutritious. Yet there is lots of land that could be used for organic permaculture, and many who would love to contribute time and learn about food self-sufficiency in community gardens, if only we could get them set up.

Many of the retirees on Bowen have their money tied up either in risky mutual funds and other overpriced investments located far from the island, and their ROI on both fixed rate and speculative investments is pathetic. Yet at the same time, many would love to live on the island if they could rent instead of buy (thanks to our region’s absurdly overpriced property), so if these low-ROI funds (a ‘surplus’) could be somehow applied to buy and then rent out property here (a ‘need’), two problems could be solved at once.

Young people growing up here, unless they’re fortunate enough to be unschooled, travel to Vancouver for high school (not enough government money to warrant building a high school on the island) and then, knowing that there’s no one willing to support (with training or financing) young entrepreneurs here, stay on the mainland after graduation and pursue the scarce corporate jobs that rely on the lack of ‘currency’ to keep them supplied with desperate, top-of-their-class recruits. Yet many of the retirees on the island are perfectly capable of mentoring these young people to get them established here, and many have low-ROI financial resources as well that could be better invested in such new local enterprises.

Bowen also has lots of useful privately-owned physical resources that sit idle most of the time: automobiles, tools and equipment. But the industrial economy makes no provision for (and actually discourages) sharing these unused and underused resources with those who could use them locally. So instead many Islanders who could use these resources end up buying their own, or doing without.

And there is an astonishing diversity of skills here, know-how on just about any subject imaginable, but unless people are actually trying to make a living using these skills, the people who could benefit from them are unaware of their existence — sometimes even when the person with skills they need lives next door. We have lots of “know-how” and “know-what” on Bowen, but a tragic scarcity of “know-who”.

All of these paradoxical situations are caused and exacerbated by an economic system based on centralized fiat currency, and all of them could be alleviated by a community-based currency, one that enables the flow of unused capacities to meet unmet needs.

How much community currency is needed? Jordan Bober and his young Vancouver Seedstock currency team recently answered this question with the clever tagline: Enough to go around. Enough, in other words, to keep the flow going in sufficient volume and with sufficient velocity that it stimulates those in the community with unused capacities (space, goods, equipment, services, skills) to provide them to those who need them, and connects these capacities and needs, raising both (i) local “know-who” (by introducing these ‘unvalued’ things into the community economy, essentially creating community in the process), and (ii) the capacity to move them to those who need them.

So it’s a worthwhile project. But it’s hugely challenging, even in a community like Bowen Island, of just 3800 people separated by ocean from the rest of the nation. In one sense it’s too early: the situation isn’t bad enough for most people here to give it attention, and our confidence in the value of the Canadian Dollar is still absurdly strong. In another sense, it’s too late: Our Bowen economy, as my friend Chris Corrigan has written, is hopelessly fixated on the only ‘growth’ business on the island — increasing property values — and the island’s elected officials, thanks to the orchestrated ousting of all the Greens in the last municipal election by a cabal of developers and deluded libertarians, are now either developers themselves or in thrall to the mantra of increasing property values at any cost. And that cost includes an upsurge in the horrific destruction of the island’s wildlands and shores for monster mansions, massive driveways and docks for private yachts.

A local community currency will let people live on less, and will therefore decrease and keep down the cost of living here — totally anathema to the development industry. It will let us be self-sufficient, sustainable, resilient, and able to thrive without growth. There’s no ‘money’ in that.

My dear late friend Joe Bageant used to say “community is born of necessity”, and he may be right about Bowen — we likely won’t be motivated to develop real communities, and enable them with community currencies, until the situation here gets much worse.

But it’s still a worthwhile experiment. Learning how currencies work takes patience and practice, and we have a lot to learn. Whether or not Bowen Bucks succeed this year or this decade, we will have added an essential capacity to our island just trying and learning. That’s what transition, and resilience, are all about. We’ll let you know how the experiment unfolds.

July 26, 2013

The Illusion of Coherence

Filed under: How the World Really Works,Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 23:02

ocean-watching

Things are not as they seem.

It seems as if our political, economic, commercial, financial, social, health, education and other systems are still functioning. The media are reporting events as if everything is OK, if a bit shaky in places. Our so-called leaders are still acting as if they were in control of things, managing passably well. When you look around, other than in certain long-struggling areas, people seem to be coping, there is still much beauty to be seen, the pollution and desolation of the planet doesn’t seem too bad. The Earth from space still looks mostly deep green and blue. There is some cognitive dissonance, some worrying signs and developments, to be sure. But for the most part, it still seems possible to believe that things are, if not improving, not on the whole getting much worse, certainly not irrevocably out of control or beyond steering in a new direction if that should be necessary.

At least that’s the way most of the people I know behave, so I have to believe this is how they think.

But I have come to think they are suffering from a delusion, one reinforced by their own, desperately hopeful, resigned, dependent, anxious groupthink. If enough people believe something, and act in accordance, they can create an illusion of that belief’s veracity, an illusion that there is coherence, control, integrity, organization, direction, intention, management — when there is, in fact, none.

For any culture to survive, such a collective belief, and commensurate behaviours and actions, are essential. Everything depends on this. Everything our culture depends on — money, trade, debt, faith in perpetual growth, obedience to laws and hierarchies, public order, democracy, capitalism, prison systems, electoral systems, food systems, health systems, education systems — all of it, depends on agreements. Agreements that adhering to the emergent principles of these systems, and accepting restrictions on our ‘rights and freedoms’ to sustain them, is in our collective self-interest. As soon as we cease to believe in these principles and the value of these restrictions and sacrifices, these agreements fall apart, and when they fall apart so do the systems that are based on them.

If we cease to believe that our elected representatives are acting in our collective best interest, and not their own or vested interests’, our political system will collapse, as that of the Soviet Union did a few decades ago, suddenly and dramatically.

If we cease to believe that a dollar is ‘worth’ a dollar’s worth of goods and services, then that dollar will very soon be worth nothing. If we cease to believe that our dollar in the bank is safe and will return us more than a dollar in the future, then very soon no one will deposit their money in that bank, and the bank will be bankrupt. If we cease to believe that a dollar invested in government securities or stocks or the housing market is safe and will at least hold its value, then very soon no one will invest their money in government securities or stocks or housing, and those investments will all be worth nothing (since no one will want to buy or hold them), and the governments and corporations and investment portfolios and mortgage companies and pensions and homeowners that depended on these investments will all be bankrupt.

If we cease to believe that our health and education systems are making us healthier and more functional as citizens, then we will refuse to enrol in these systems, and they, too will fall apart.

But what is terrifying to us, even as we are starting to lose faith, to stop believing in these systems, as the evidence mounts that they are corrupted, fraudulent, hopelessly dysfunctional and increasingly useless to us, is imagining what we will do without these ever-less-useful systems. We are, after all, utterly dependent on them — for ‘jobs’, for what we think of as essential levels of health and well-being, for security, for the maintenance of the value of our life savings and pensions, for the subsidized private transportation systems and fuel we use to get to work and to the hospital and to buy what we need, for the cheap imported clothing and other goods that we can no longer make or repair ourselves, for the cheap foods that we can no longer (or never could) grow ourselves, for the massive amounts of clean water we need to live, and squander so thoughtlessly, for entertainment we can no longer provide ourselves. We are dependent on all these goods and services and infrastructure from systems that we know, deep down, are falling apart, and which we have come to believe operate the only way such systems can, at current scale, possibly operate.

The truth is that these systems have never been particularly useful, or even particularly coherent. They have depended on deceptions and self-deceptions from the start. They have depended on the absurd belief that somehow our descendants will be able to magically find ways to repay the monstrous debts that grow exponentially every year, and to fix the horrific ‘problems’ of economic overextension, energy and resource exhaustion and massive climate-changing ecological damage we have wrought. They have depended on the desolation of most of the world’s wildlands, the brutal subjugation of most of the world’s nations, and the wage slavery of most of the planet’s people. They have depended on the belief that our degraded education systems are more than just a grossly ineffective child care system to keep young people off the streets and out of the labour force until we can create enough new low-paying jobs for them to desperately agree to work at. They have depended on the belief that our industrial food system does more than just exhaust the land, poison the air, soil and water, cause the untold and endless suffering of trillions of caged farmed animals, and deliver us toxic and nutritionally-deficient foods that cause epidemic chronic disease and hence lifelong suffering. They have depended on the belief that our ‘health care’ system does more than just exploit this disease and suffering for obscene profit, managed by the most bloated and dysfunctional bureaucracies the world has ever seen.

And most of all, they have depended on the belief that all these systems are coherent — that some ‘invisible hand’ is at work managing them, steering them, keeping them ‘functional’ and keeping them from getting out of control, when in fact they have always been incoherent, and it is only our collective delusion of their coherence that has led us to expect them to serve us well, or to be at all sustainable.

We are nearing a tipping point at which the cognitive dissonance becomes so strong, the evidence of increasing failure of all these systems so overwhelming, and the precariousness and foolishness of our reliance on these systems so stark, that we will stop believing in these systems en masse. And when this happens these systems will collapse suddenly, catastrophically, with those who abandon reliance on them last, those least resilient, being hardest hit by their loss.

If we’re lucky and wise and don’t panic or go berserk when this happens, we will probably discover that, beyond the immediate chaos of transition, life for those left will be much different in the absence of these systems, but not significantly better or worse on balance.

So we think our culture is coherent, when it is not. As pattern-recognizers, even looking at the stars or the clouds, we often find patterns where none exist. But just as we come to agree that a certain pattern of stars ‘represents’ a bear or a chariot, so too do we come to agree to live as if the patterns we agree upon are real, although they are collective fictions — myths. They are fictions, but they are very useful, and it’s not surprising they have emerged as so powerful in our cultures that we cannot imagine them to be untrue. We cannot imagine another way to perceive, to behave with others, to raise children, to live. The cognitive dissonance when some of these patterns turn out, irrefutably, to be wrong, absurd, useless, is almost impossible for us to bear. It’s as if someone suddenly started dismantling the ground beneath our feet and told us it wasn’t really the ground after all. It’s terrifying.

But the illusion of coherence in our invented worlds goes deeper than just our collective myths — our culture and our interaction with others.

We also hold a belief, perfectly internally consistent and reasonable, that our ‘selves’ are coherent, when in fact they are just as incoherent as our culture, just as much an invention. Cohen and Stewart explain in Figments of Reality that living species, including humans, are emergent properties of the body’s semi-autonomous processes. We are a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit. And our mind, our intelligence, awareness, consciousness and ‘free-will’, is nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system — a process not a thing — jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. Our minds are their information-processing system, not ‘ours’.

We are not ‘one’ creature at all, but a collective. There’s an amazing quote circulating on the Internet these days: “You are the open-source collaborative project of trillions of cells.” And so we are.

Or, as John Gray puts it in Straw Dogs: “We labour under an error. 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.”

What we perceive and believe to be our ‘selves’ is a convenient model, a simplified reality that enables us to act as if we were coherent, and which most of the time enables us to function reasonably well in our personal, or even collective, self-interest. Our very language reinforces the myth we are taught from birth that we are individual, that we have free will, that we are separate. We refer to ourselves and other complicities of cells who imagine themselves individuals, in the singular, as I and you (thee) and he and she and it, as if we were ‘each’ coherent ‘selves’. But this is as illusory as the sense we have of our culture’s coherence. They are all models of how we wish things would simply be. But everything is not simple. Everything is complex, unknowable, unfathomable, uncontrollable.

Ready for another great illusion? It’s the perception of time, as something absolute, something that has ‘existence’, so that we can write formulae like E=mc2 and ‘know’ that such formulae and ‘laws’ of nature are absolutely true, when they are merely additional myths based on the myth of time — a supremely convenient myth to have, to be sure, since it allows us to coordinate our activities with others who believe in it, but a myth all the same.

There is increasing evidence that the only way to resolve most of the ‘problems’ in science (i.e. observed realities that don’t fit the rules and formulae and models) is to do away with the concept of time altogether. The physical world makes much more ‘sense’ when you do, though the resulting models would, if they are ever to be useful, require us to rethink and reperceive and reimagine everything, and it’s doubtful any culture is capable of such a stretch.

Wild creatures, it seems, do not employ or ‘believe in’ the concept of time in the sense we do, except in circumstances of immediate danger, when they shift out of their ‘real time’ into our perceived ‘clock time’ until their fight-or-flight instinct has guided them past the danger, and then shake it off and once again leave our clock-time-imprisoned ‘reality’. If it wasn’t our nature to be so ‘chronically’ anxious, we would probably be like them, living essentially an eternity.

What are the implications of accepting that almost everything we believe is an illusion of coherence? That our beliefs about who we are, what our culture is, that we are actually communicating with others, that we have ‘selves’ with the ‘free’ will to do whatever ‘we’ want, that our culture is one of ‘progress’, that we are evolutionarily advanced, etc. are just myths (or as my philosopher friend Venkat describes them, ‘scripts’) that define a setting and principles and roles within which we dutifully act, as if in a play on an un-real stage?

The neural structures of our brains have evolved since birth in response to these engrained faux-models of reality (much as they evolved to be able to make ‘sense’ of the analog electromagnetic and other sensory signals that reach our eyes, ears and other organs). So it is probably impossible for us to really ‘unbelieve’ now in the models we have come to accept as reality, and to start perceiving the world more as it ‘really’ is and ourselves as we ‘really’ are (even if we could do so, given our limited capacity to understand complexity).

Perhaps it’s enough, then, that we acknowledge the unreality of what we have come to believe, and then let go of that ‘reality’ as much as our social activities and personal situation permit. What would happen if we did that?

Perhaps it would let us appreciate how everything we think of as ‘wrong’ in our world occurred accidentally, unintentionally, an artifact of acting under the illusion of coherence. Perhaps it would let us appreciate how our chronic physical and mental illnesses are not sicknesses but maladaptations to ‘real’ reality that arose out of our attempts to survive in the mythical reality of our minds and our culture. When our civilization culture collapses, we may (I’m not sure) relearn to live in harmony with the natural world, and, like those creatures not oppressed by culture, will be much healthier and happier for it. It’s hard to say, however, whether we can ever hope to move beyond the illusions of coherence of our human minds, an adaptation to a radically changed climate many millennia ago that, in retrospect, has not been so healthy for us, we creatures who are too smart for our own good, too smart not to create and live in a world of our own invention instead of the real one.

On the whole, I’ve always found that it’s better to know than not know, even if the knowledge is not terribly useful, pleasant, or encouraging. Or even really comprehensible. We have unleashed the Sixth Great Extinction, and the collapse of the first global human culture (that we know of) in our planet’s history, all because we can’t shake the illusions of coherence of our selves and our culture and hence just walk away from our desolating, disastrous invented reality, and rejoin the family of life on Earth that has adapted to and thrived through many types of crisis and collapse before our recent arrival on the scene. That seems preposterous, but it is our legacy on this planet. It helps to know that, I think.

We are one and trillions, trillions of trillions, all a part, all connected, all playing amidst the magic of life on this planet. Until we decided ‘we’ (our illusory selves in our illusory culture) could do better, we lived joyfully, just being, outside of invented time, in the world, not inside our head. We once were part of the ‘culture’ of all life, not apart in invented ‘separate’ cultures. Why is that reality so hard for us to understand, so hard for us to remember?

Things are not as they seem. For now, knowing that will have to be enough. It is probably both too early and too late to act on that knowledge. When the time comes to act, I think, we will know what to do. The creatures of this world who live in reality will remind us, when we’re ready to face it. It may not be soon, but it won’t be long.

image: painting by Bowen Island artist Jeanette Wrenshall, from my own collection

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