Fireproof (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

fire photo courtney schoenemann

(This is a work of fiction. The characters are invented, and build upon the characters in the stories Flywheel and Distracted. The painting is real, and awesome. And the fires were real. Fire photo by Courtney Schoenemann. Artwork “Burden of Guilt” is by Rogene Manas.)

“Jeez, look at that. There’s fires up ahead as far as you can see, some of them right beside the highway! I wonder if this is part of that combined mega-forest fire they’ve been fighting for a month now. Awesome.”

Rafe took his cap off as the four of us stopped our bicycle ride home to survey the flames running along the ridges ahead and to the right of us, on the far side of the highway our trail paralleled. He looked frightened and awed by the sight. There were dozens of fire trucks with flashing lights along the highway, and several helicopters hauling water from the river to the fire sites. Smoke blew across the highway and the bike and hiking trail beyond.

“Believe it or not,” said Lori, “this isn’t even big enough to make the papers, unless there’s a photo op in it. This is a grass fire not a forest fire, and it’s too far west to be part of the Deception Complex fire. If it were a serious or uncontained fire with any risk of jumping the highway they would have closed the highway. They’re probably focused on reverse-911 calls to tell area residents that they should keep the 911 lines clear unless the fire comes within a certain distance of their homes or barns. This thing’s well under control.”

“Wow, I’m impressed, Lori,” Daria chimed in. “How do you come to know so much about fires?”

“I took a Fire Science course a couple of years ago. I thought I might want to sign up as a wildfire fighter, since I figure as global warming accelerates, it will be an increasingly handy skill to have, especially around here.”

“What made you give it up?” Daria asked, watching intently as firefighters extinguished a line of fire no more than 100 yards from them.

“Too macho for me,” Lori said. “The training regimen is military, which is where a lot of firefighters come from. I decided I could do just as much good as an EMT, without all the heavy lifting, so I chose to do that instead.”

I looked up at the helicopters and commented: “I read that if the atmosphere had just a little more oxygen than it does, a single lightning strike might be enough spark to ignite and burn every tree on the planet,” I said. “Guess it’s not surprising that our messing up the delicate balance of gases in the atmosphere is having such dire effects.”

“Yup,” Rafe said. “Seeing fires like this break out almost spontaneously is going to become commonplace. Mega-fires are now expected to pretty much extinguish the boreal forests of North America and Asia by mid-century, if the north-migrating insects don’t wipe them out first. Ironically, more rain in the tropics is supposed to actually reduce naturally-occurring forest fires there as the climate changes, but the tropical forests are being cleared for crops, mostly using slash-and-burn, fast enough to clear them out by the mid ‘30s anyway. Get ready for tree museums, I guess.” He sighed.

I pondered out loud whether, as climate change made fire and flood insurance unaffordable and then unavailable, if it might cause people to become less attached to their ‘stuff’.

Rafe looked at me dubiously, and replied: “People can’t imagine things getting that bad that fast. They read Berton’s book about the Great Depression, when sisters had to take turns going to school because they had only one dress between them, and they think he’s making it up. People from the 1% in 1929 going door to door asking to do odd jobs for food in 1931. People can’t change that fast; it’s too hard. No one believes it will really happen, that the economy will collapse or that billions of people will have to migrate or that runaway climate change will wipe out all the forests in their lifetimes. Complexity and punctuated equilibrium and tipping points are all too unfathomable for the human mind to comprehend.”

I laughed. “If people can think it is even slightly sane to live in a big house in a big city or suburb that produces almost no essentials of life, and expect that civilization’s systems will always be able to provide them with whatever they want and need as long as they have this magical stuff called ‘money’, then how can we expect them to imagine anything changing that much?”

burden of guilt rogene manas

We resumed our bike ride home from the gallery tour we’d been visiting. We rode silently for a while. Then Lori said “Remember that amazing painting by Rogene Manas we saw at the mayor’s gala? That one with the woman with all the ‘arrows of guilt’ in her basket and sticking into her body, each one with a label? I really related to that as a woman. I’m curious if you guys feel guilty about the same things she and I do?”

Rafe asked what some of the labeled arrows said, and Lori and Daria rhymed a few off that they remembered from the painting.

Not calling home guilt.”
Not giving money to the homeless guilt.”
“Unhealthy eating guilt.”
Not exercising guilt.”
Not picking up hitchhikers guilt.”

Pretty soon Rafe and I chimed in, and soon between us we were coming up with new ones every few seconds:

Watching TV guilt.”
Not spending time with the kids guilt.”
Working too hard guilt.”
Slacking off guilt.”
Forgetting birthdays guilt.” (Lots of agreement on that one.)
Driving instead of walking or biking guilt.”
Eating meat guilt.”
Not signing petitions and not demonstrating against corporatism guilt.”
“Guilt about being poor.”
“Guilt about being too wealthy.”
Yelling at loved-ones guilt.”
Eating out and ordering in guilt.”
“Guilt about our bad habits.”
Not flossing guilt.”
“Guilt about climate change and species loss.”
Complicity with factory farming and animal testing guilt.”
Calling in sick guilt.”
Sleeping in guilt.”
Not cleaning the house guilt.”
Not weeding or lawn-mowing guilt.”
Using power tools guilt.”
“Guilt about being late.”
Daydreaming guilt.”
Buying something you don’t really need guilt.”
Not listening/paying attention guilt.”
Not being good enough guilt” (More nods and sighs.)
Letting people down guilt.”
Not knowing the right answer guilt.”
Trying to ‘fix it’ instead of just listening empathetically guilt.”
Not caring enough guilt.”
Caring too much about crap guilt.”
Half a load in the washer guilt.”
Throwing out anything guilt.”
Not picking up the phone when you see who it’s from guilt.”

“It’s funny,” Daria said. “The ones that are just about guilt are funny, and probably pretty universal. It’s the ones that go beyond guilt, to shame, that are more serious, more personal, more likely to remain unspoken. The stuff that makes you shudder and blush.”

“And the ones that go beyond guilt to grief, like climate change and animal suffering and not knowing how to prevent a future full of fires like the one we just saw,” Lori added. “The stuff that makes you rage and cry and fills you with dread.”

“When our world becomes more precarious, more improvisational, more full of punctuated lurches from crisis to crisis, I’m guessing we’ll put a lot of the guilt and the shame and the grief behind us and get more focused on the real needs of the immediate moment,” Rafe said.

“How do you mean?” I asked. “How do you see this all unfolding, let’s say, for someone living in a coastal North American city, a couple with a young kid?”

“Well, to start”, he replied, “I think cities and suburbs will mostly be abandoned, over a period of several decades. In response to past Depressions, government and military spending soared and the cities were the major beneficiaries, but these days there is no money left, even before the economy fails, for those kinds of major spending rescues. So I see millions — the young and able-bodied mostly — gradually abandoning the cities, especially those cities most affected by coastal storms and growing Western and Southern droughts. And as industrial agriculture collapses, I expect most of them to take up jobs as small farmers or as service providers to small farms, living in towns near arable land. They will include the former 1%, whose paper wealth will be mostly eliminated but who will have the means to buy land and equipment. Foreclosures will be huge at first, but as the value of urban and suburban homes plummets and the jobs there disappear, they’ll be occupied by poor squatters and their mortgages will be written off, as the banks collapse one by one. I think it will be an interesting and exciting time for those healthy and resilient enough to manage the transition.” Rafe, ahead of us on the trail, looked back with an ambivalent shrug.

Guilt about being totally dependent on unsustainable systems,” said Daria, adding to our list. “Or maybe that’s shame.”

“So that means we should all expect to be sorta homeless as we migrate to our new countryside places?” I said. “Glad I bought that book on tiny homes. I was just reading a book by a guy who’s deliberately chosen to live a homeless life for 20 years. His three top pieces of advice were: (1) keep or get a car big enough to migrate and sleep in; (2) stay fit, healthy, dry, out of the sun, and accident-free; and (3) find a troop of 5-7 people who all trust and look after each other. Wanna be in my troop?” I smiled at my friends.

“You wrote that article about the four things we can all do to prepare for collapse: reskilling, community-building, helping people heal, and exemplifying presence and joy for others,” said Lori. “But you also wrote that it’s both too early and too late to do much of anything. I agree with you that it’s too early for reskilling and community-building — we can’t know what skills we’re going to need, or who or where our ‘community’ will be when the shit hits the fan. So if we focus on your other two ideas: helping people heal and exemplifying presence and joy for others, I’m curious to know how you all think we might do that, right now?”

“You’re way ahead of us on ‘helping people heal’ with your EMT work,” said Daria. “But I think before we can be of much help to others healing from ‘civilization disease’, we have to heal ourselves. And to do that we have to know ourselves better than I think most people do. And I think we learn most about ourselves when we’re stretched — when we have to deal with a crisis, when we do something hard in collaboration with others, when we travel to a foreign country and immerse ourself in their culture, when we try things outside our comfort zones. And my sense is that most people don’t do much of any of that. So most of us, I think, are not and won’t be very good healers.”

I nodded to Daria as I pulled up alongside of her: “I think the key to healing anyone is appreciating that we’re all very different, and that we’re complex creatures, that we can never hope to really understand how either our bodies or minds work, let alone our culture, and that just being open and accepting and appreciating what is is most of what we can do, to heal and to help others.”

“You sound like a woman,” Lori said, smiling at me. We stopped cycling and sat beside the river to watch the sunset. “A different kind of fire,” she said, nodding to the sun in a blaze of red and purple clouds, the result of haze from nearby forest fires. “What Daria calls ‘civilization disease’ is so much a part of our culture and our everyday lives that most people won’t even recognize it; they think it’s normal, the only way to live. It’s pretty hard to help someone heal if they can’t or won’t acknowledge that they’re even sick.”

“Well that’s where the ‘exemplifying behaviour’ comes in,” I replied. “If you show people that there’s a more self-knowledgeable, more present, more healthy, more informed way to live, that is still joyful, still full of wonder, that’s far more compelling than telling them they’re sick, or living in denial or illusion. It’s like telling a story instead of telling people what they should do, except that the story is your whole body, your whole life.”

“Maybe,” Rafe said, sounding doubtful. “Or you might just make them feel jealous and resentful and they’ll rationalize that you have what they don’t because of your privilege. People want things to be easy and fun, and showing them an awesome example of what they aren’t can be intimidating, not encouraging.”

“Daniel Quinn says you have to wait until people are ready to listen, that it’s a waste of time and energy to try to convince them of anything until then,” Daria chimed in. “Maybe that applies to exemplifying as well. Or maybe your model of how to live joyfully, like the stories you tell, are just subversive seeds you plant in the hopes that they will germinate when the ‘soil conditions’ are right for those other people, until they are ready to listen. Stories have staying power, and maybe exemplifying behaviour will stick in people’s minds a while, too.”

“I suppose that’s possible,” I replied, “though it’s also true that people tend to reject anything that doesn’t fit with their worldview of how the world works, and only appreciate stuff that confirms what they already believe. Your stories need to be pretty carefully crafted and your exemplifying behaviours need to be pretty subtle and modest to avoid triggering that ‘not-my-worldview’ rejection before the story or the memory even takes root.”

We were quiet for a while until the sun had set and we busied ourselves layering up for the rest of the ride home and getting our bike lights on.

Then I realized Rafe was crying. I embraced him and asked “what’s up, man?”

He composed himself and replied “I’m afraid… I’m afraid of everything. Of not being able to handle the hardship and the suffering and the loss ahead. Of not knowing what’s ahead. Of not knowing whether we’ll even survive it, whether all the struggle will be even worth it… I’m not a believer in any religion or any higher power. I think it’s just us, and we’ve really fucked up, and it’s going to be awful and I just won’t be able to handle it.”

“We’re your troop, man, we’ll make it together. You just finished saying it’s going to be an exciting time for those who are healthy and resilient enough for the transition.” I looked him in the eye.

He looked exasperated. “No one is that healthy and resilient,” he said. “This isn’t like recovering from a storm or a war or a forest fire or a Depression. This is going to be decades long, one thing after another.”

“All the more time to cope with each thing as it comes. We’ll have time in between the struggles for recovery, for healing, for joy. We know it’s not going to be about rebuilding, about getting back to some unsustainable nirvana. It’s going to be about discovery, moving on, learning new things, discovering new places and people, learning to collaborate and help and love people, and be helped an loved in return. We’re in this together. It is going to be exciting. It’s just that it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We need to pace ourselves, learn from our mistakes.” I was making it up as I went along, trying to reassure him, thinking these thoughts for the first time, not sure if I believed them myself.

Daria and Lori joined us and we hugged, the four of us, bikes around us like a circle of wagons protecting us from this terrible, wonderful world.

“So the question for this troop,” Lori said, leaning in and putting her face against Rafe’s shoulder, “is whether this is the right place for us, as things start to change faster and faster. Remember that Sharon Astyk article about when not to ‘adapt in place’? She said there were a bunch of situations when you should move, now. Let me see if I can recall them. One was ‘if your mortgage is under water’; one was ‘if you’re living far away from family or loved ones’, One was ‘if your area is especially vulnerable to climate change’. One was ‘if you don’t share the values of the people in your neighbourhood’. One was ‘if you’re planning on moving anyway, for yourselves or because your kids will have to’. One was ‘if the culture that (once the trappings of civilization are swept away) is inherent to the place you live isn’t a culture you like’. One was ‘if you live in a suburb or exurb that is resource-poor or far from arable land’. And one was ‘if the place you live just doesn’t feel right, to your body or soul.” I think that was the list. How does our ‘home’, our ‘place’ fit with those criteria?”

We thought about the list, going through the criteria one by one. As we mounted our bikes to finish the trip home, Daria said “Awesome list. Makes me feel much better about where we live, now. This is it. This is our place. Billions may have to migrate, or choose to, but I think we’re set, we’re right to make our stand here, take on all comers. What do you think?”

Rafe said, smiling, “Yeah. We’re not there yet, but the values, the culture, the ecology of our place is pretty solid and headed in the right direction. If my troop’s in, so am I.”

“OK then,” said Lori. “Ready for anything. No guilt, no shame, and soon, no time for grief. Agreed?” She looked at me.

“Agreed,” I said, toasting my troop with an invisible wine glass as we rode. And smiling at each of them I added:

“We’re fireproof.”

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Them, You, Then, Now, Always (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

them you image 1

photo credit: photoshopped image from wallpaperstock.net

“50 blackbirds nest in a dead tree, congregating and socializing raucously each evening, the babies squawking for food. Then someone cuts the tree down, and the birds scatter. Collapse. The tree-killer sells the wood and the empty nests for profit. The birds circle and regroup, and in a few hours find a new tree and start building new nests. Three days later, for the birds, it is exactly as it was before the fall. They understand community, and resilience.” – story taken from the writings of Orlov|Dmitry, c. 2014 Old Calendar

Cultural Anthropology Visit, 6462 New Calendar: Notes

The Tsilga people cannot tell you their story. At least, not in words.

Like many of the survivors of the Sixth Extinction, now thriving all these millennia after the Great Burning of the Earth, they have no need for words. They have gestures and sounds for the important concepts to communicate: danger, love, joy, anger, pleasure, grief. What more is needed? Their faces will express more to you than you can imagine, or ever hope to say. If you visit them, they will not tell you about themselves; instead, they will show you.

They will show you that they love music. They will play, and dance, and sing, making beautiful sounds with their voices, sounds that seem like words bristling with significance, but are just cadences, patterns, vocalizations that sound wonderful together, and that is their only meaning. They mean to be beautiful. Their life, you see, is about beauty, and its appreciation.

The way they adorn their unclothed lovely bodies, their hair, their faces, it will astonish you. You cannot help falling in love with them, all of them, male and female, young and old: They paint themselves to be a reflection of the sky, the forest, the water, the earth, the fire that still burns, spontaneously, over much of our planet’s face.

They will show you that they love food, and sex, and other pleasures of the senses. They will teach you, by covering your eyes, that fruits can seduce you just with their scent, can get you high with the mere anticipation of their touch on your lips and tongue, and their taste is just the orgasm of the delicious and prolonged process of eating, the love-sharing of taking in and becoming one with this exquisite composition of flavour, texture and smell.

And after that you will not be surprised to see that their love-making is as complex and delicate and nuanced as a symphony, and lasts so many hours you lose track of time, the passing of day and night, the space between bodies and worlds.

They will show you, too, that they love games, and play. They will show you how to invent a game with only winners, an impossibly new game, improvisational, changing every moment, a brilliant and razor-sharp and magical co-composition, and in so doing they will teach you a million different ways to laugh.

And last, they will show you their art – sculpture, drawings, paintings, pottery, weavings – more intricate and perceptive than anything you’ve ever seen, and containing such understanding and intensity, such synaesthetic power, that you will just stare at them, stunned, mouth agape.

Their art, you see, is their story. Not in the sense of past, and present, and future, since they have no sense of time, no need for such constraint. No, their art is a story of how they belong, how they are a part of all life around them, of their dreams, their connection, their oneness… There are no words to explain this. Just look, take it in, shake your head in wonder and disbelief, as if you were seeing faeries and supernovas and the birth of galaxies and creatures morphing in a flash of blinding colour into gods. Because you are.

Their art conveys the continuity of their make-up, our make-up, the make-up of everything from sub-gluonic minisculae endlessly smaller and more complex than you can conceive, to magisculae whose gravity and splendour dwarf universes, transcend meaning, explode mythologies. All there – in that tiny dish, that urn, that sketch, that crafted splash of paint across his or her rippling, muscled thigh – everything, you included, right there, captured, explained, presented, and represented.

So you ask, even after seeing this, their story, who they are, their magic – you ask, “What do they do?” And their response, since they can intuit your question from your puzzled expression, even without hearing your words, is to smile, and point first to the tree above you, filled with the songs of blackbirds, and then to the sea just beyond the ridge, where a pod of great whales are breeching, plunging, glistening in the sun, calling to the stars, and to you.

And then they give you this raised-eyebrow smiling shrug which you know, somehow, means “Do you understand now?”

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A Complex Predicament: How Our Energy, Economic and Ecological Systems are Connected (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

complex predicament map export

image courtesy SHIFT Magazine; click on image to view full-size

Part One: The Energy PredicamentFeedback loops, the Jevons Paradox, and the three End Games

It’s called the Jevons Paradox. It explains why increases in the efficiency of resource-consuming technologies tend to lead to an increase, rather than a decrease, in resource use. So, for example, it would explain that drivers of hybrid cars, rather than banking the savings on gasoline their vehicles provide, because of reductions in both cost and guilt, instead drive them further, sometimes even to the point they use more gasoline than they would have if they owned a non-hybrid.

In a broader sense, the Jevons Paradox is a way of explaining a puzzling behaviour of many complex systems. In essence, because we humans don’t really like to change, we will tend to ‘work around’ interventions in a system that were designed to bring about some desired change, so that the status quo of the system is maintained.

So, for example, Malcolm Gladwell’s research has discovered that you are actually safer driving in a convertible than in an SUV, because drivers of convertibles know the dangers of an accident and compensate by more careful and attentive driving, while SUV drivers, in the (mostly false) belief that their risk of and in an accident Is much lower, tend to drive more aggressively and less attentively, so they have significantly more accidents per mile (and in total face more injuries and deaths per mile as a result). (Don’t try to sell this logic to your insurance company, however.)

In addition, there are Jevons Paradoxes inherent in complex systems, that lead to undesired results that have nothing to do with deliberate human behaviour at all. For example, if we put a ‘carbon tax’ on fuels in the hope of reducing consumption and encouraging conservation, we may find that the reduced consumption will temporarily lower prices (as a result of lowered demand). But those lower prices will enable drivers to buy more gasoline for the same outlay, so they will fill their tanks more often — until that increased demand enables the gasoline vendors to raise their prices, completing the cycle.

And when the vendors can increase their prices, they can also economically justify exploring for and developing more costly, marginal hydrocarbon resources (fracking, deepwater oil, shale oil, tar sands). That increased supply starts another cycle, since more supply relative to demand tends to lower prices until the new supply can be fully sold. It’s all a delicate balance.

That is, until affordable oil (and other resources) run out entirely. The energy industry is fond of telling us there are centuries’ worth of potentially extractable hydrocarbons in the ground. But with the cost of extraction getting ever higher and the life of each new find getting ever shorter, the amount that can be extracted at a price consumers can afford is finite, and when it is used up we reach what Derrick Jensen calls EndGame.

This is where complex systems get especially tricky to explain, because they’re interrelated. What exactly is ‘a price consumers can afford’? This depends on our economic system, not our energy and resource systems. That system, as I will explain in Part Two of this series, is hurtling towards its own End Game. But the bottom line is that, as we come to realize that our unsustainable industrial growth economy is already hugely overextended (the debts we have incurred could only ever be repaid if we lived on a planet of infinite wealth and resources), the entire Ponzi scheme of our markets will collapse, and what ‘consumers can afford’ will plummet. End Game.

And all of this economic activity and resource development has pushed atmospheric CO2 and other global warming gases past what many climate scientists believe is the tipping point, so that ‘runaway’ climate change, and with it, massive droughts, desertification, fires, storms, water scarcity, species extinction, pandemics, infrastructure destruction and sea level rise are now, they say, inevitable in this century – a third End Game. (More about this system in Part Three below).

The very busy diagram on the next page of this article attempts to capture the most essential variables in these three systems – energy and resources, economy, and climate/ecology, and the three End Games that provide us with no futher possibility for intervention, and could well precipitate the end of our current globalized human civilization. It’s an expanded version of a chart in (Transition Movement co-founder) Rob Hopkins’ and (Post Carbon Institute Executive Director) Asher Miller’s excellent paper Climate After Growth.

It shows some of the major self-reinforcing and self-sustaining ‘feedback loops’ (e.g. how a destabilized climate characterized by rapid polar and glacial melting leads to increased methane release which in turn leads to more destabilized climate and more melting, with ‘runaway’ climate change as the result). It also shows the balancing ‘feedback loops’ that currently keep our energy/resource, economic and climate/ecological systems in ‘net stasis’ – not appreciably changing – for now.

But because of the three End Games, this stasis is not sustainable. We will, sooner or later, run out of economically affordable resources. Or we will run out of faith in the possibility of perpetual economic growth. Or we will face the realities of runaway climate change. All systems collapse when they fall out of stasis, and all civilizations end. The question is no longer how or whether we can prevent one or any of these End Games. It is, now, how do we prepare for the consequences of any or all three, as we enter the decades James Kunstler has called The Long Emergency, and how can we gauge whichever of the three is going to hit us first, and hardest.

And, once collapse comes, how we can learn from this astonishing life experience – from being at this pivotal point in human evolution – so that those living after the fall will be able to create sustainable, joyful societies (probably very localised, small scale societies that will, because they will be adapted to place, seem amazingly diverse to those of us living in our current homogeneous global human culture). And how we can help our descendants draw upon the best of pre-civilization (‘prehistoric’, since in our arrogance we presume that history only began with our civilization) ways of living, and also on the lessons of (civilization’s) history and the scientific and technological learning of today’s world, to create future human societies better than we could dream of.

But back to our complex energy/resource system chart. What this diagram explains is the futility of us trying to intervene politically or economically to bring about significant, sustained changes in the systems pushing us inexorably to the End Games. Carbon taxes, energy conservation and innovation, protests and blockades of dirty energy and resource exploitation are admirable and necessary, but they cannot hope to fundamentally change the status quo which will ultimately take us to resource exhaustion. Our entire civilization depends upon the ready availability of cheap resources that enable us to feed 7.5 billion humans today, and by mid-century 9.5 billion or more, most of whom will want to live, and hence consume resources, as we do today. If we run out – when we run out – we will find that such a horde cannot live on what we can produce with the energy of our hands and that of domesticated animals. (The average human can produce about 0.1 horsepower of energy in sustained manual labour; a car requires 150 hp or so, a train 4,000 hp per engine, an airplane 60,000 hp, a cargo ship 100,000 hp, a power plant 3,000,000 hp.)

I would like to believe, as Donella Meadows so eloquently explained in her Places to Intervene in a System paper, that a transformational human evolution, a way of fundamentally changing our whole global way of thinking and acting, our whole paradigm, is possible. As a student of history I don’t believe such changes happen, however, at least not on a large scale, not persistently, and not quickly. But even if I did believe, I would want to understand what we are facing if we are not successful in such a transformation, and how we might prepare for it.

I believe the key to doing that – to understanding what we are facing and what is possible – is through the use of story. That is how we have always learned and come to understand these things. I believe it is never too early to start to study and learn from the stories of previous civilizational and economic collapses – Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, Jarod Diamond’s Collapse, and Pierre Berton’s The Great Depression are excellent starting points for this. And I believe it is the right time to start to write the story of the unfolding collapse of our current energy/resource, economic and climate/ecological systems, and hence the collapse, over the next few decades, of our own fragile civilization. Not as a story of apocalypse – the Mad Max scenario may make good cinema but a study of human history suggests it’s highly unlikely, and that collapse will occur more gradually and unevenly than we might expect, and our collective response to it will be gentler and more generous than we might imagine. We could probably learn much, too, from the homeless in our own communities, and from the people in the massive, sprawling slums of the third world, who are already living in cultures of collapse.

Through an understanding of how the complex systems of our world really work and how change happens, and through an appreciation of history and the telling of stories, I think we can move past denial and blame and start to move towards preparation for a future that will be unstable and unpredictable and much different from how many of us in affluent nations live today, but also exciting and satisfying and engaging and meaningful in a way our current culture does not provide. And that work can make us collectively resilient – not in the sense of ‘bouncing back’ to an unsustainable style of life, but in the sense of moving forward, courageously and joyfully, to a relocalized, communitarian style of life that is sustainable.

.     .     .     .     .

Part Two: The Economic PredicamentShould We Try to Precipitate Economic Collapse to Mitigate Runaway Climate Change?

David Holmgren, one of the founders of the Permaculture Movement, recently stirred up a firestorm of controversy with his Crash on Demand essay, suggesting that it would be useful for us to precipitate economic collapse as a means of mitigating both energy/resource exhaustion and runaway climate change. He summarizes:

My argument is essentially that radical, but achievable behaviour change from [being] dependent consumers to [becoming] self-reliant producers (by some relatively small minority of the global middle class) has a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff. It may be a slim chance, but a better bet than current herculean efforts to get the elites to pull the right policy levers… My argument suggests this could happen by reducing capital enough to trigger a crash of the fragile global financial system.

This insight shows David’s appreciation of the nature of complex systems and the interrelationship between our global energy/resource, economic and ecological/climate systems.

As the chart at the top of this post shows, economic expansion is dependent on energy/resource supply, which is itself a function of the price, demand, investment and regulation variables I described in Part One, and in any case not endlessly sustainable even if the economy is able to support higher and higher extraction and development costs. A significant drop in energy/resource demand and use will precipitate a strong economic contraction (which has happened each time energy costs have moved significantly above the $100/bbl level).

But an even greater threat to the continuation of our current “grow or collapse” economy is the realization that current levels of debt in our economy are unsustainable. When that realization becomes impossible for markets to ignore, we will face the greatest depression in human history; no amount of ‘stimulus’ will be able to mitigate it, and there is no deus ex machina like war spending or the discovery of new cheap resources to get us out of it. More about that scenario, which even many economists can’t seem to comprehend, later in this article.

Back to David Holmgren’s proposal: The reactions to his article have been swift and sometimes harsh. Transition founder Rob Hopkins called David’s suggestions “a dangerous route to go down”. Rob remains firmly in denial about the inevitability of collapse, citing several optimistic ‘prosperity-without-growth’ economists in support of his belief that a concerted global effort by a broad coalition of knowledgeable, influential people can pull us out of the positive feedback loops currently leading us towards economic collapse (and indeed, End Games in all three major systems). I’ll look at that argument later in this article as well.

Dmitry Orlov essentially dismissed David’s argument as being inadequate to the task, but said that despite its futility, “Don’t let that stop you from trying because, regardless of results (if any) it’s a good thing to be trying to do.”

Nicole Foss, who David acknowledges as one of his influences, takes the opposite point of view to Rob’s. She has repeatedly argued that economic collapse will come soon in any case, with or without our attempts to undermine the current economic system (or for that matter, prolong it). She writes:

Once the financial system has the accident that is clearly coming, we will be looking at a substantial fall in societal complexity, but that fall in complexity will eliminate the possibility of engaging in such highly complex activities as fracking, horizontal drilling, exploiting the deep offshore or producing solar photovoltaic panels and inverters… [Because they will be completely unaffordable, none of these will ever be] a meaningful energy source.

In fact, some US states are already dealing with large-scale abandonment of quickly-exhausted fracking sites (with their commensurate ecological damage), and Shell recently announced it is abandoning its Arctic drilling programs because they are not economic, even at today’s $100+/bbl oil prices.

Nicole’s concern about David’s approach is that, since economic collapse is (she believes) inevitable and reasonably imminent anyway, taking an activist approach to opting out of the dominant economic system in order to accelerate that collapse runs the risk of stirring up virulent opposition from the rich and powerful, who could then demonize the entire transition/collapse preparation movement as anti-human, and ultimately shift the blame for the suffering that collapse will inevitably bring about to the “anti-growth” activists. She writes: “Inviting blame for an inevitable outcome seems somewhat reckless given the likelihood that many will be casting about for scapegoats.”

It is hard to explain why the Ponzi scheme that is our modern growth-dependent industrial economic system is unsustainable. It’s all really about faith in the value of money. And on the surface it seems to be holding: Governments and corporations, working together, have been able to suppress interest rates to near-zero levels for more than a decade now. The banks and institutional investors don’t need high interest rates when they can make greater profits through a combination of high user fees, arbitrage, hedged speculation, the sale of high-risk bundled ‘investments’ to unwary investors, usurious credit card and poor-credit interest rates, and foreclosures – and be bailed out by their government friends with taxpayer money when their investments go bad. They also lie about real rates of inflation and unemployment to suppress citizen dissatisfaction about the true state of the economy.

The Australian group Doing It Ourselves have put together a terrific 12-minute explanation of why and how our economic system is dependent on perpetually-accelerating growth and commensurate levels of debt – and on our faith that that is possible. That growth cannot continue because the remaining energy and resource supplies of our planet are becoming exponentially more expensive, and because the current staggering levels of debt – government, corporate, mortgages and other personal debt – can only be repaid as long as land and other prices keep going up, and incomes and borrowing capacity combined keeps rising to make the payments on those debts possible (and as long as interest rates remain very low). When this capacity peaks – and Nicole Foss and her Automatic Earth colleagues have eloquently argued it already has – buying freezes up, housing and investment values commensurately tumble, lost collateral means a plunge in available credit and an explosion of foreclosures, margin calls and debt repayment demands, falling sales, layoffs, and defaults, to the point that a positive-feedback-loop – a chronic deflationary spiral – kicks in. Japan has been suffering from this for two decades, and most Western nations are poised for a similar collapse – starting with the current fall into poverty of most of the middle class.

To get an idea of what this means, consider that the median household net worth in real currency in most Western nations is not significantly different from what it was in the 1940s, before the Ponzi scheme and the era of cheap money began – that is, a net worth essentially not much more than zero. All of the increase in apparent affluence – owning instead of renting, much larger average homes, two cars per family, more expensive ‘average’ cars, more clothes, more energy use, more stuff of every kind – has been borrowed, in the expectation that all these debts can and will be repaid. How? By whom? We dare not ask, because the answer is, nobody knows. We just keep hoping against hope that growth can continue forever, real incomes will rise, more efficiency will keep prices down and profits rising, more cheap energy will be found, our pension investments will keep rising in value, and someone will be willing to offer us more for our home than we paid for it, so we have more collateral to borrow even more against.

The Great Depression and the Recession of 2008 are just two indications of what happens when we realize this is not sustainable.

Advocates of “austerity” claim that theirs is a response to this unsustainability. But history has shown that austerity programs simply precipitate collapse faster, and place the entire burden for it on the poor, disadvantaged, ill and unemployed. That’s why progressives keep arguing for “stimulus” programs that crank up the illusory growth machine even more. But when the stimulus amounts to just printing of more money, most of which ends up in the pockets of the bankers and the already-rich, it is just an acceleration of the unsustainable, and will inevitably lead to even more spectacular collapse and greater suffering for all.

A number of “third options” to prevent economic collapse have been proffered. A transition to a steady-state economy, coupled with a large-scale re-localization to a world of more self-sufficient communities producing more themselves, living within their means, and hence more resilient to collapse, is the most popular of these options. If our economic system were not global, and was simple, with a few people controlling the whole economy, this might be feasible. But we live in a staggeringly complex, global economic system with no one in control, not even in individual countries with autocratic regimes. The “market” determines and affects our economic actions, and it is the product of all of our activities, and cannot be stewarded to some idealistic, better economic reality, even if we could agree on what that would look like. Billions of people in struggling nations want an economic life like that of the wealthy in Western nations, and they will act in accordance with that desire, regardless of what we, or their governments, seek to impose on them. It is our nature to attend to the needs of the moment, to seek short-term betterment for ourselves and those we love, and to hope that future generations will be able to do likewise, even when faced with growing evidence they will not.

Top-down reform of our economic system cannot succeed for the same reason top-down climate change prevention has not and will not succeed. No one is in control of large complex global systems. It is not the evil rich or evil corporations driving us to collapse. It is the ever-evolving systems in which we all participate and which no one influences enough to change direction in any coherent and sustained way that determine our trajectory to collapse. We want someone to blame, and even argue that “we are the system”, and we are all to blame, but we are not. The system will take its own course, as it always has. And all signs are that the courses our energy/resource, economic and ecological/climate systems are on, lead in each case to an End Game.

The economic collapse End Game has been vividly portrayed by Nicole in a ghastly list of “40 Ways to Lose Your Future”. No surprise that we don’t want to believe such collapse is now inevitable.

So back to the question that David Holmgren raises – about whether precipitating such a collapse before it happens anyway is (a) possible and (b) a good idea. I think it would be fair to say that David says ‘yes’ to both, Rob says ‘no’ to (b) and is afraid the answer is ‘yes’ to (a). Dmitry says ‘no’ to (a) but ‘yes’ to (b) anyway. And Nicole says ‘not really’ to (a) and hence ‘no’ to (b). I’d love to know what Charles Eisenstein would say. I suspect he’d agree with Eric Lindberg, who in a new article on the Historical Problem of Agency draws brilliantly on historical examples and the evolving narrative of human agency to these very tentative, thoughtful and honest conclusions:

What little agency humans might have [in complex systems] can only be achieved by understanding the underlying logic of history and by accepting the limits that logic imposes. When we realize this, we won’t try to grow the economy, develop the “developing world,” depend on genetically modified seeds and chemical fertilizers, look for a new source of fuel on Mars, and so on. Instead we will accept the coming contractions and adapt to them as best we can… Rob Hopkins is one of my heroes, but I read his response to Holmgren as a rather desperate attempt to maintain a course set by a narrative that is crumbling beneath us [as the runaway climate change narrative is eclipsing Transition’s peak oil narrative]…

Many of us understand the perils of revolution and violence, the simple fact that it has so infrequently worked. We understand, moreover, that the collapse of global economies, of civil society creates its own predictable violence. We understand that the result and consequences of any action that pursues radical, human designed change is neither controllable nor predictable. But at the same time, refraining from radical, potentially destructive, action is also a choice whose results are unpredictable and almost certainly dire. The stakes are as yet beyond comprehension.   The question is no longer whether we can make history as we please, but whether “history” itself will continue to exist.

Eric concludes with a call for patience and tolerance and dialogue, and I think that’s a very sensible response to trying to cope with three intertwined complex global systems, all overextended to the breaking point and heading in disturbing directions very quickly. The economic system is the only one we may be able to intervene in (lunatic plans for geoengineering to prevent climate change aside), and the result of any intervention in our economic systems is doubtful and probably unpredictable. We can act, or we can, as Eric says, just accept what comes and adapt to it as best we can. The question of whether or not to try to precipitate economic collapse before it happens anyway, can only be answered in the context of your own personal (who you think you are) and cultural (who you think we are) narrative.

For many, the answer may depend on what we learn, in the coming months and years, about the accelerating melting of our planet’s polar regions, and the trajectory of runaway climate change. That’s the subject of Part Three of this series, below.

.     .     .     .     .

Part Three: The Ecological PredicamentIf Runaway Climate Change is Now Inevitable, Is There Any Rational Response?

In his new book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, author Clive Hamilton writes:

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

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

Climate scientists are of necessity experts in understanding complex systems, and over the past few years, when I’ve met with them, they’ve become increasingly pessimistic, to the point they are finding it difficult to reconcile what they have come to believe with what they are required, to keep their jobs and to keep audiences from walking out on them, to say publicly. Clive’s experience has been similar, and he says “Behind the facade of scientific detachment, the climate scientists themselves now evince a mood of barely suppressed panic. No one is willing to say publicly what the climate science is telling us: that we can no longer prevent global warming that will this century bring about a radically transformed world that is much more hostile to the survival and flourishing of life.”

Beyond the shock of coming to grips with this realization comes the challenge of trying to imagine what this “radically transformed world” will look like, and how we humans are going to respond to, and cope with it. What makes it even harder is appreciating that this will not be a sudden, overnight crisis, but what James Kunstler calls a “Long Emergency” that will unfold over decades or even centuries, in waves of varying intensity. And it will not be a temporary crisis, one we can bounce back from with courage and effort, but rather a permanent transformation of everything we now think of as our global civilized culture – the only way we know to live, the only way most of us can imagine living.

What I’m going to depict in this article is a scenario I am calling the Great Migration – the displacement and movement of billions of humans in search of a more hospitable place to live as runaway climate change makes the places most of us know and love as “home” unrecognizable and unlivable, and what will happen when those billions encounter billions of others whose home places are less affected, but not able to support even their current populations, let alone a massive influx of climate refugees.

But first, I want to return to the diagram I used earlier (see top of article), which shows the interrelationship between our economic, energy/resource, and ecological/climate systems, and how crises in one system can precipitate crises in the other two. Each of the three systems has reinforcing feedback loops that tend to accelerate disequilibrium (what we call “vicious cycles”), and other balancing feedback loops that tend to mitigate these accelerating changes and bring the system back into stasis.

As I said earlier, we are quickly running out of ways to intervene and keep these systems in balance, because our global energy/resource systems are predicated on the availability of unlimited, inexpensive resources, and our global economic systems are predicated on our capacity to generate unlimited and perpetual economic growth. Since neither system is sustainable, we are now beginning to spiral into reinforcing feedback loops that will take us to resource exhaustion and economic collapse, which will likely precipitate the end of our complex global civilization culture and a return to a much simpler, relocalized, low-tech and marginal human society (with, as Clive says, many fewer humans).

In this final part, I want to focus on our the reinforcing feedback loops in our ecological systems, shown at the top of this chart. There is now little doubt that we have passed the ‘tipping point’ to runaway climate change, and that it will now radically alter the face of our planet in this century and for millennia to come, and will do so even if we were to stop all human activity tomorrow.

Here’s a closer look at the “climate feedback loops” box in the chart above, showing what climate scientists say is now happening to our atmosphere:

climate change feedback loops

Because we were, until recently, looking at these changes in our atmosphere as linear phenomena, and ignoring (or being unaware of) the reinforcing feedback loops, we were extremely optimistic about our ability to forestall climate change through coordinated human action. Now we realize that some of the natural consequences of atmospheric warming (methane release from the arctic, more heat absorption as ice cover disappears, desertification, forest cover loss and other changes reducing natural “carbon capture” sinks, and other phenomena in the oceans we are just beginning to understand) actually reinforce and accelerate warming. As a result, some recent studies now predict a median surface temperature increase of 4oC or more as soon as mid-century, and 8oC or more by end-of-century, regardless of what actions humans take to mitigate the accelerating rise. This is far more than was predicted even just a year ago.

These scientists also agree that this quantum of change, which is comparable to the change that happened when the Earth last slid into an ‘ice age’ (though in the opposite temperature direction), is catastrophic – it will render most of the planet uninhabitable to humans without using prohibitively expensive prosthetic technologies.

Here’s what “runaway climate change” means, according to various scenarios described recently by climate scientists:

  • the uncontrollable burning of most of the world’s remaining tropical, subtropical and temperate forests due to latent heat
  • the prevalence of desertification, disappearance of glacial melt, coastal flooding, massive water shortages and/or endemic high rates of heat-related deaths in many of the world’s temperate zones
  • an ice-free world, with a commensurate rise, sooner or later, of 50-70m in sea levels
  • unprecedented and chronic floods, storms and monsoons
  • the death of almost all ocean life
  • large-scale collapse and abandonment of aging physical and technology infrastructure not designed for such extreme and frequent weather events
  • massive numbers of climate change refugees, migrating (mostly north) thousands of miles in search of lands that are still habitable and arable

How might humans respond in the face of such change, transforming our planet over the course of the next few decades?

Here’s the scenario I envision we might see, based on my study of the collapse of past cultures, on the human movements that occurred in response to ‘ice ages’, and on what I have learned about human response to crisis from studying great depressions, famines and other massive cultural dislocations.

  1. Pulling together in times of crisis, and experimentation with new ways of living: I believe the response of most people to climate and other crises will, rather than panic, violence or selfishness, be more nuanced, peaceful and collaborative. The Long Emergency will give us the opportunity to try out a variety of pragmatic responses before we need to cope with the more extreme consequences of climate change.
  2. Massive dislocation: Just as during the latest ‘ice age’ a large proportion of the planet’s people would have been forced to migrate towards equatorial areas of the planet, climate change will require the people now living in tropical areas (which will be scorched out), and in many desertified and parched, or inundated coastal subtropical and temperate areas (much of the Western US and Canada, much of Australia, all of Southern Europe and the Middle East, much of Southeast Asia and most of Mexico and Central America) to migrate north (and/or to higher ground inland). At least two billion people live in these areas now.
  3. A Great Migration: What we will see, I think, is a gradual swell of people, a Great Migration over a few decades fleeing famine, thirst and disease. Those who migrate may encounter friction from those in more temperate areas struggling with resource exhaustion, economic collapse and less severe climate crises, who will not welcome climate refugees adding to their population and resource pressures. But many of these xenophobes will then be forced to join the Great Migration further north as the habitable area of the planet continues to shrink.
  4. Squatters, encampments and a “baby bust”: There will be no money to build new infrastructure for these billions of new refugees, so most of them, I predict, will live either as nomads, scrounging what they can from abandoned land (monoculture farms, bankrupt, deserted suburbs etc.), or in massive settlement camps, reliant on food handouts. Birth rates among these billions will plummet as hopelessness and malnutrition become endemic, so most of the mid-century fall in human population will be the result of rapidly falling birth rates rather than rising death rates.
  5. Emptied cities, relocalized communities, and the collapse of large institutions: For those fortunate enough to live in sub-polar and boreal areas with adequate precipitation, or in cooler temperate regions where soils have not been seriously depleted and where urbanization is modest (high density urban areas and suburbs will fare badly when the economy collapses and essential resources become unaffordable), will likely fare relatively well – they’ll be too far away for most climate refugees to reach, and not as seriously affected by the worst effects of climate change. For them, economic collapse will mean a dramatic relocalization of society – collapse of national and regional governments, large corporations, international trade and markets, leading to devolved authority and responsibility to communities, with enough time to relearn the essential skills of living in community.
  6. Most human infrastructure abandoned: David Korowicz, an economist and complexity expert with the Irish sustainability think-tank Feasta, explains that much of our social fabric is based on large-scale ubiquitous infrastructure, which will have to be abandoned due to economic collapse and the Great Migration. In his study “On the Cusp of Collapse” [http://www.feasta.org/2011/10/08/on-the-cusp-of-collapse-complexity-energy-and-the-globalised-economy/] he writes “We are deeply dependent on the grid, IT and communications, transport, water and sewage, and banking infrastructure… amongst the most technologically complex and expensive products in our civilisation… This [ever-deteriorating] infrastructure requires continuous inputs for maintenance and repair [and] specialised components that depend upon very diverse and extensive supply-chains.” The abandonment of this infrastructure (we won’t be able to maintain it or take it with us as we move) will of necessity require a shift to a much simpler, subsistence lifestyle.
  7. Food scarcity and the need to shift to organic, sustainable permaculture: The complexity and interdependence of our systems will introduce other challenges as infrastructure essential to these systems is abandoned. David Korowicz explains: “Global food producers are already straining to meet rising demand against the stresses of soil degradation, water shortages, over-fishing and the burgeoning effects of climate change… 7-10 calories of fossil-fuel energy go into every one calorie of food energy we consume… Without nitrogen fertiliser, produced from natural gas, no more than 48% of today’s population could be fed [even] at the inadequate 1900 level. No country is self-sufficient in food production today. The fragility of the global food production system will be exposed by a decline in oil and other energy production. It is not just the more direct energy inputs, such as diesel, that will be affected, but fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, and spares for machinery and transport. The failing operational fabric may mean there is no electricity for refrigeration, for example… A major financial collapse would not just cut actual food production, but could result in food left rotting in the fields [and consequent famines].” As these massive food systems collapse, relocalized, organic, more resilient and flexible permaculture systems will replace them.

The above scenario – a Great Migration, a collapse of human numbers, economic and energy systems and infrastructure, and a relatively peaceful shift to a radically simpler and relocalized way of living — is only a guess, of course, one of a million possible outcomes. We can’t know how system collapse will play out. But those who have been paying attention know that business, and life, “as usual” will not be possible much longer, especially for our children and descendants.

So how, and when, do we prepare for such a future? How do we give up trying to perpetuate the unsustainable and instead begin to prepare for failure?

In his article “Tipping Point”, David Korowicz says:

“Part of the preparation is in the acknowledgement of our predicament, that we recognise it when we see it. That as systems fail, we spend our efforts on positive change and adaption, rather than finding scapegoats or letting anger and loss drive the cannibalisation of our social fabric… Those who, through fear or avarice, try and insulate themselves from the impacts by disproportionate hoarding or land grabs will imperil not only their community’s security and wellbeing, but their own. This will be a time when we really will need the cooperation and support of others.”

If we look at the history of peoples who successfully made the transition from a collapsing civilization to a sustainable, subsistence post-civilization culture, we can identify four viable strategies:

  1. Relearn essential skills, knowledge and capacities that have been lost as our culture has become dependent on complexity, centralization, hierarchy, imports and unsustainable infrastructure. These include technical skills, “soft” skills (like facilitation, conflict resolution and mentoring), and knowledge – including knowledge of place and self-knowledge.
  2. Learn to create and build community: Practice the arts of working, sharing, collaborating and cooperating with those in your immediate physical neighbourhood. Collapse will force us to make things work at the community level, together.
  3. Heal ourselves and each other: Understand and appreciate the damage that the stress of our fiercely competitive, scarcity-creating, horrifically unequal and morally agnostic culture has done to us, physically and psychologically, and work to help each other recover from that damage.
  4. Live an exemplary, joyful life: Most people will not be swayed by impassioned arguments from strangers about “what we need to do now”. But they will appreciate, and consider emulating, those who live and act, every day, in ways that seem inspiring, conscious, sensible, and admirable.

As the philosopher John Gray has written, it is human nature to be preoccupied with the needs of the moment, and to put off thinking about or acting on issues that, however important, do not seem urgent. Most of us are therefore unlikely to change our behaviour until it is too late, and as a result the transition – through a cascading series of existential crises to an unimaginably different way of life – will be challenging, unpracticed, unprepared for, and probably quite chaotic. As Buddha put it: “The problem is that we think we have time.”

As long as we continue to mistake our complex predicament for a merely complicated problem with “solutions” – believing blindly in new leadership, new technology, new consciousness, or salvation from a higher authority – we will continue to live nostalgic, unsustainable, irrationally hopeful and hopelessly idealistic lives.

Some of us will have to do better, and be ready for whatever is to come, as unpredictable and harrowing as that may be, and show others how to adapt and live differently. We will have to do this with the knowledge that collapse is no stranger to this fragile planet, and with the awareness that we’ll inevitably make some big mistakes in the struggle to create new cultures that are viable in a strange and turbulent new world. And with the belief that beyond that struggle is a world unimaginably different from industrial civilization, a world of real peace, equality, connection, freedom and joy.

The Great Migration, and beyond it the new and smaller role of our species aboard Spaceship Earth, is our new human story. It’s not too early to start writing it, and telling it to everyone we know.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Goodbye Dave: Letting Go of the Story of Me

wikipedia book burning
image from wikipedia, creative commons CC-BY-2.0
Relax, no, I’m not suffering from a terminal illness, or contemplating suicide, or stopping blogging. What I’m doing is looking critically at the Story of Me, and acknowledging that it is just that — a story, a creative fiction, an invention.

I’m doing so because I realize that over the decades I’ve become pretty attached to, and pretty invested in, this story. I tell it in my bio, I tell it to new people I meet (often in the hopes they’ll be impressed), and I tell it to myself. I’ve realized that I am not my ‘self’, my identity, and it’s time to let go of the story that keeps me clinging to it.

Here are the major elements of this story, in roughly chronological order, and my debunking of them:

  1. Childhood and early adulthood: This is a story of blissful pre-school years just ‘being’, the 11-year trauma after entering the cruel and awful school system, the liberation of one year of unschooling (and flower power and smash-the-system activism and first real love) after that, and then the crushing disappointment and depression of university and the work world.

It’s an interesting, heartfelt story, but I really have no idea if any of it is really true. It is likely just an invention in hindsight to try to fit the facts and make ‘me’ look valiant. I remember some times, mostly in early childhood, that seemed serenely happy, and being unhappy and often depressed much of my school life and work life. But no more than most others, I suspect. Triggers are supposed to stem from childhood trauma and I’ve had my share of bad moments, but I don’t remember much, really, and have no idea if I was really traumatized. Mostly I was just bewildered, unable to make sense of anything, muddling my way through, and quite fearful and socially anxious as a result.

  1. Career years: This is a story of successfully fighting my way up through and around the obstacles of the work world, a long and stabilizing marriage, finding a purpose both as a parent and as an advisor and ideator to entrepreneurs, starting a blog, surviving a horrific illness, downsizing my career, writing a book, and finally retiring.

This story is pretty heavily embellished. In retrospect my work career, like those of just about everyone I know, was pretty much a waste of everyone’s time. I was not a particularly competent spouse or parent. I got lucky a lot. Same synopsis: Mostly I was just bewildered, unable to make sense of anything, muddling my way through, and quite fearful and socially anxious as a result. My illness caused me to wake up somewhat to my obliviousness to life. My blog has been an enjoyable hobby, but it if was all suddenly lost, I really wouldn’t, now, be too upset. I’ve written nothing outstanding or particularly important, novel or insightful. My book was likewise fun to write but, in the end, unsuccessful, full of good ideas that are really hard to implement.

  1. Retirement years: This is a story of regrouping, introspection, self-knowledge, studying human nature and how the world really works, regretting my generation’s failure to realize its ideals and the resulting ever-accelerating desolation of our world past the point of no return, acceptance that we’re all doing our best, finding new loves, rethinking my purpose, volunteer work, and most recently exploring the nature of the self.

This story is overly precise, significantly exaggerated and unduly self-congratulatory. It is written, as I suspect most of our stories are, to create the impression of having made some progress. Lots of furious effort trying to make sense and meaning of the world and of myself, but really nothing to show for it all. I lack the qualities of emotional intelligence and empathy needed to be a good lover or friend, and though my new loves seem willing to settle for consistency and generosity from me, I wouldn’t (and don’t) blame them for looking for something better in a relationship. I’ve had some interesting insights, ‘ahas’, but lack the capacity to express them articulately and practically in ways that can be of use to anyone. I have fancied myself ‘too far ahead’ of most others to be able to explain my ideas to them, but the truth is I’ve just been immensely fortunate to have had the time and resources to think about things, and for all that I’m not particularly good at doing so.

  1. What is Happening Now, and What Comes Next: This is the present-state positional and future-state aspirational story of self-awareness, deepening love, realizing (or making peace with) my sexual fantasies, and witnessing my ‘self’ (and its stories) falling away until what used to be ‘me’ is gone and all that remains is everything-that-is (and always was).

This story is the most preposterous of all, a pure fantasy. Like all future-state stories it is an invention, a dream. We can’t predict or control what our future will hold. It doesn’t follow from our past story, which in any case is also a fiction.

This isn’t meant to be self-pitying or false modesty. It’s just an honest realization that my life doesn’t add up to much, and isn’t ever likely to. I think everyone’s life story, the story that people (especially ‘leaders’ and celebrities) tell of what they’ve done and who they are, is absurdly self-aggrandizing, redacted, and mostly wishful thinking. What we think and what we say and what we do don’t really make any lasting difference, and I sense it’s hubris to believe otherwise.

My story, and I would guess everyone’s story, is ultimately utterly insignificant. A more modest Story of Me might be:

My whole life I have been bewildered, unable to really make sense of anything, just muddling my way through, and I have often  been quite fearful and socially anxious as a result. I have put great effort into many things but have nothing much to show for it. I’ve had some interesting insights, but nothing that’s of much practical use to anyone. I have been generous, but only when I could easily afford to be. I’ve been very lucky. I have become more joyful and fun-loving, but more pessimistic, more curious, and more skeptical about everything, even whether we as separate ‘selves’ actually exist.

In other words, a life of mostly selfish, fruitless, directionless struggle. Sounds about right. Doesn’t seem to be a story that should be hard to let go of, does it? And yet even this more ‘modest’ Story of Me is just a story. It is just the mind’s desperate pattern-finding, meaning-making, a connecting of events and an association of this series of events with a person. Unreal.

Suppose I were to let go of it. Not as some kind of act of contrition, replacing it with a more ‘honest’ story. Suppose I were to let go of the Story of Me entirely.

What then, would I put in my bio? What would I offer as my history and credentials to potential project teammates or employers? What amusing personal tales would I tell to people I’d like to impress? What would I tell myself in deciding what I should do next?

Some non-dualists refuse to offer a bio at all, claiming that to do so would contradict their message that the separate self is an illusion. But that usually comes across as kind of a smokescreen for not having any credentials to back up their message. More often, they offer a somewhat apologetic bio for the separate self that they now realize and admit does not really exist. People want to know their ‘teaching’ credentials, and also want to hear the story of how they seemingly achieved that realization, even when they accept that there is no real path to it, that it just happens. They are not particularly interested in their messengers’ modest, ‘utterly insignificant’ story.

Why do we want to hear each other’s stories? Partly it seems it’s how we relate to people, to discover what commonalities our stories have. If I let go of the Story of Me, will no one want to relate to me anymore? Will I be unable, without this story, to relate to anyone? If I am speaking with people and assert or reply that I have no story because there is no ‘me’ and that I have no aspirations because time does not exist and that it’s pointless to care or worry about anything because there’s no free will and everything is already perfect, it’s likely to be a short, useless and unpleasant conversation (especially if I insist on putting every pronoun, and the subject and object of every sentence, in quotation marks).

It is not condescending or dishonest, I would say, to speak with people in a shared ‘dualistic’ language, even if you think some of its premises are suspect.

I was invited to write a proposal for a presentation this fall on the role of stories(!) and other techniques to elicit genuine change in people’s beliefs and behaviours. A credible bio would have been part of the proposal. It’s a subject that interests me greatly. I am torn about whether to try, but if I do both the bio and the presentation will be, almost certainly, inauthentic, full of the Story of Me. And if I don’t try, I will be troubled about whether in my obsession with non-duality I am disengaging from people and ideas that are at least fun, even if they are probably not really useful. What’s the harm in play, even if it’s a bit disingenuous?

Likewise I have recently met some people whose company I really enjoyed, and to engage with them I told the Story of Me in all its practiced and thickly-varnished glory, still half-believing it myself. In so doing I passed off things that I have come to tenuously believe (things such as Pollard’s Laws*) as things that I have learned, as truths, as personal wisdom. These people clearly liked my stories, and they liked my self-assurance in telling them. What if the next time I meet someone like that, someone I’m intuitively drawn to, I refuse to tell the fictitious Story of Me? What if I just take them on interesting walks, listen to their story, ask them questions, sidestep questions about myself and refuse to offer any credentials, any advice, any personal ‘wisdom’? What if I ‘depersonalized’ my beliefs, my truths, by reframing them as just interesting observations, removing them from the Story of Me?

Without the Story of Me, would I come across as mysterious and interesting, or as evasive, a suspiciously blank slate? Would people like the more authentic, more modest, less talkative not-‘me’ as much as they like the richly storied ‘me’, enough to forge enjoyable new relationships? And what about the people who already know ‘me’? Without the Story of Me, will they still know ‘me’? Will they find the story-less not-‘me’ as lovable? Will they fear that the more authentic not-‘me’ might no longer love them?

And ultimately, perhaps, without the Story of Me, what if anything will be left of ‘me’? Will what is left do anything differently, make different decisions? My sense is that the answer to all these questions is that nothing of consequence will appear to have changed, because beyond the story, the fiction, there never was anyone here to change to begin with.

Or at least that’s my story.

~~~~~

*Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: We do what we must (our personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are merely important.
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 at changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 11 Comments

a thought-less experiment

suppose that
the world is not at all what it seems,
and that the scientists
trying to map and explain the universe,
macro- and microscopically,
are actually just mapping their minds’ perceptions of it,
perceptions that are no more than the brain’s way
of making sense of an infinitesimally small part
of the infinite complexity of all-that-is,
that tiny part that our senses and instruments
can, vaguely, sense.

and suppose that
what we see as evolution
is just a game, a random experiment,
not anyone’s or anything’s experiment, mind you,
but rather just perturbations
of, say, for want of a better way of putting it,
nothing into everything,
for no reason, no purpose.
and that like fractal patterns of ice
creeping across a window in the dead of winter,
this apparent evolution just plays itself out —
some of the things that emerge continue and flourish,
while others fail and die out,
in infinite variation.

and then suppose that
one of the things that just happened
in this wondrous experiment, one variation,
following from the random emergence of brains
and central nervous systems
in some of the experiment’s creations,
was the imagining of a seemingly separate self,
an unexpected idea of the brain
of the creature in which it resided
that it was, somehow,
apart from everything else.

would that creature thrive, or shrivel and die out?
would this self-referential thing
so punctuate the equilibrium
of that small part of the experiment
that it would take it in a wholly new
and interesting direction
(enabling the invention of time, and space,
and science, and art, for example)?

or would that sense of separateness
be so terrifying, so traumatizing
to the suddenly self-ish creature that had it,
that it would quickly self-destruct,
unable to handle its implications,
the terrible uncontrollable world it conjured up?

or both?

and finally suppose that
(despite the convincing nature of the separate self,
reinforced by other self-conscious creatures
using other strange new inventions
like language and culture)
a few of these creatures suddenly found
this sense of separateness dissolving
until they had lost their selves
and were, again and always
just parts of the lovely, astonishing experiment
of all-there-is.

would (or could) what was left
of these self-extinguished creatures
(using their brilliant and awkward inventions)
persuade the others, still with selves
to join them, to come home, self-less-ly?
and if persuaded, could these others find their way too?

the answer, it seems, must be no:
there can be no volitional escape
from the gravitational prison of the self-made self,
since the self is what gave rise to the prison
and the self is, in the end,
just an idea,
one that cannot forget itself,
an idea that, in hindsight,
as promising as it was, apparently
wasn’t a very good idea after all.

still, if this is true
(and we cannot know)
there might be, if not escape, an inkling
of something that came before the self,
that somehow pokes its way through
the self’s tautological veil
and says, first, that
something is not quite right,

and later, just perhaps, has
(not a path, not a process, not a key)
a glimpse, a remembering
of all-there-is without a self:

of freedom.

 

(illustration from the Pen tarot deck)

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

Buzz in My Back Yard Yesterday

rufous hummingbird

bee pollinating

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

All There Is, Is This

(This is another of my ‘thinking out loud’ posts on non-duality. If the subject doesn’t interest you, you might want to skip this one.)

barsotti truth

cartoon by the late, wonderful Charles Barsotti

About 18 months ago I began a journey, intended to help me handle stress better (something I struggle with a lot), exploring the subject known as ‘non-duality’ (or non-dualism), which some define as the realization that there is no ‘separate self’ (or ‘separate’ anything) — everything is part of a oneness (which some call ‘consciousness’ or ‘spacious awareness’ or ‘infinite presence’, others call ‘your true self’ or ‘true being’ and yet others call simply ‘all there is’, an infinite eternal unknowable no-thing that is also everything.

I began that journey with Liberation Unleashed’s Ilona Ciunaite, and I hung out there for several months, trying to ‘just look’ to see the self as illusory. I then checked out Eckhart Tolle’s videos and book The Power of Now, and then moved on to the videos of other non-dualists (Adyashanti, Mooji, Jon Bernie, Rupert Spira, Jim Newman, and Tony Parsons, in roughly that order). This seems to have been a progression from a more accessible to a more radical non-dual message, and the more radical the expression, the more it has resonated with me.

Here’s a transcript of the Tony Parsons video linked above, that articulates his ‘radical’ message on non-duality:

Separation is the root of all seeking. As tiny children there is simply being. There is no one. Life happens. Regardless of whether a child cries or seems hungry, there is just pure being. And then a moment comes when that tiny being identifies itself and becomes a separate person. At that moment of separation, there is a contraction back into the sense of being limited in the body. “My boundary is this skin, and everything else is separate”. From that moment on there is seeking, and a sense of something lost. ‘Being everything’ is lost in that moment. And being a separate person, an entity looking for everything, begins. From that moment on there is only seeking — until there isn’t.

And that seeking is endless. People we see in the world — wanting to be rich, to have lots of lovers, to have power or whatever they want — all desire is the longing to come home. And home is wholeness, home is being everything, which is our origin.

So oneness arises as wholeness and then plays the game of becoming separate. So the whole key to liberation has nothing to do with the apparent separate person. We grow up and we feel separate, and we learn from our parents and teachers and priests and bosses and spouses that we are definitely separate, live in a separate world, and there is absolutely no doubt that we have a choice, we are a separate individual that has free will and can choose to make our lives work, or not. So what you see in the world is a desire to make people’s lives work, when what people are really doing is trying to fill this sense of loss.

Most people spend their whole lives living like that, trying to fill that sense of loss. For some making money, being powerful etc. isn’t enough — there’s still a sense that there’s something missing. So they look for what’s missing — in religion, in therapy, and in the search for ‘enlightenment’, but all this time there’s an absolute conviction that they’re a separate individual with the choice to fulfil this sense of loss. And when you go to an enlightened ‘master’, you’re naturally attracted to the ‘master’ who still presumes the fundamental idea that you are separate, and that you ‘need’ to meditate or self-inquire or ‘give up the ego’ in order to find what you’re looking for.

And all of that is the ignorance. That’s how the game continues. Religion is the seeking, through ‘individual choice’, for something that already is. What we’re looking for already is this. But all the time there is someone seeking, this can’t be seen. The fulness we seek is timeless and the seeking is in time — “It’s going to happen when I’ve meditated”, or “The answer’s going to be on the next page of this book.” “I’m going to find it one day.” There’s that constant agitation of looking for this. Sometimes it’s gratified for a short while and it seems everything is complete. But that gratification is short-lived and is soon replaced by the longing for and seeking of this.

That gratification and wholeness can never be found until there’s no one looking. It can’t be found by the individual, because the individual function is to look for that. When there’s no longer a seeking, that which is sought, is seen. But it is seen by no one.

So we’re here today to rediscover the key to wholeness. And the key to wholeness is that there is no one. So this is a very simple message, and a very difficult one — difficult because it’s about your death, the death of the individual. It’s about moving beyond the idea that there’s anyone sitting in this room who can ‘do’ anything, beyond the idea that there’s anyone — any separate entity — in this room.

And it’s coming to realize that what’s happening right now, is happening to no one. There’s no one that this is happening to. The whole sense of being separate is that everything that’s happening is happening ‘to’ you, and that everything ‘you’ do affects that and ‘attracts’ what happens.

Liberation is the realization that all there is, is this, is what’s happening, and it’s happening in emptiness. So that all that’s sitting in this room is emptiness. There’s a body that feels, there’s a mind that thinks, but it isn’t anybody’s body or anybody’s mind. It is just what’s happening.

This is so simple that it totally confounds the mind. So what we’re here to talk about is totally beyond understanding. It can’t be understood. You’ll never understand your way to ‘enlightenment’. Nobody ever has. There is no such thing as an enlightened person. Already, all there is is liberation, all there is is enlightenment, and in that there are people looking for it.

So we can talk together and it’s possible that something will be seen, but it won’t be ‘you’ that sees it; it will just be seen. And also energetically, as there has been a sense of contraction (me, I am this body), there can be an expansion, a dropping of that sense of contraction and a moving out into free-fall, into boundlessness, into the unknown. The idea that ‘you’ can know and ‘you’ can do it simply drops away and suddenly there’s a wonderful, free but dangerous place called everything.

It’s very simple: All there is, is this. That ‘thisness’ is totally physical, all the five senses are speaking to you right now. Through all the five senses the beloved is waving and saying “I’m here already. You don’t need to look for me. This is already what you’re looking for. This is it. I’ve never left you. I’m the perfect lover. I’m here already and I sit here watching you looking for me.”…

We don’t function in duality. In the dream we think we do. In the dream we’re absolutely sure ‘we’ choose this and avoid that and do that and not that. This apparent choice ‘we’ don’t do — it is done. You don’t go in and out of duality by choice. There is only what is. Everybody in this room is being lived. There is just life happening in this room. There’s no choice, no will, and nowhere to go, nowhere that anything has ever been. All there is, is this…

It’s not something to ‘get’. Liberation is actually a loss of something rather than a getting of something. The loss is the one that’s trying to get it. When there’s nobody trying to get it then suddenly it’s realized that it already is that. This is it. There’s nothing to ‘get’. Choice and doing apparently happen, but nobody has ever done anything. There’s no responsibility, nothing to forgive. It’s just happened. Breathing is happening. Seeing and hearing are happening, but nobody is doing it. This [pointing to himself] isn’t doing it. There’s nobody doing it. Isn’t that amazing?…

It feels dangerous to the person, because it’s the end of apparent individuality. For the individual who thinks they’re in control of their life, that fallacy that you’re the ‘managing director’ of your life, and can make it continue, falls away, and that feels risky…

There is something that I call ‘liberation’, and with liberation, it’s all over, there’s no one, there’s just life happening, but previous to that there can be an ‘awakening’, a sudden realization that there is only oneness, and then for a while, subtly the seeker comes back and wants to own that. So you can’t say how long it lasts. Awakening and liberation can happen at the same moment, or after a few weeks or longer.

Awakening is not gradual. Awakening is totally immediate because it’s timeless. There’s a seeker looking for oneness and then suddenly there’s nothing. There is no time. There is only this.

The idea in the mind that if you meditate long enough you’ll get to it, is ludicrous. That’s what keeps the story going. The whole idea that there’s something to do to find this is a total denial that already, all there is, is this.

No lovely fluffy Om One Consciousness, just ordinary ‘all there is’, without the veil of the illusory self to make it personal. No Path, direct or otherwise — with no control, no free will, there is no pathway or process or practice or program for the individual person or self to get there, and no ‘one’ to pursue it in any case. All-there-is is beyond the comprehension of the limited, separate, personal, illusory self, as is any understanding of how ’all-there-is’ is that, or happens, or any understanding that there is no ‘why’ , no purpose— it just is. ‘Abiding’ and meditating and inquiry and contemplation won’t help, and may even hinder this realization.

So why keep listening to these ‘hopeless’ messages? Why attend a meeting with one of the messengers? There seems to be something — a ‘resonance’, a bodily intuition — that emerges from listening to stories of others whose egos/minds/selves have ‘fallen away’. Perhaps this ‘resonance’ is ‘all-there-is’ speaking through our intuition, out of earshot of the ‘conscious’ separate self, and listening to it might trigger the realization, or at least a ‘glimpse’ of it, un-consciously.

About a week ago I experienced such a ‘glimpse’, while sitting looking out over the forest near my house. It had the following qualities:

  • It felt more like a ‘remembering’ than an ‘awakening’. Some memories of very early childhood (some of which had been just a blur until then) and a few memories from more recent, very peaceful times, flooded through my body, which felt ‘flushed’ in the way it feels during a sudden ‘aha’ moment, or during feelings of intense love.
  • It felt amazingly free of anxiety or fear, very peaceful and joyful in a ‘boundless’ kind of way. Everything was awesome, more-than-real, unveiled, unfiltered and just perfect, exactly as it was.
  • There was no temptation to grasp onto it lest it be quickly lost again. It was clearly always here, everywhere, not ‘going’ anywhere, accessible always. My ‘self’ would have been anxious not to lose it, but my self was, in that moment, not present. Momentarily, I was not my self.
  • A silly grin came over me, and stayed for hours.

If this is an ‘awakening’, it is not my first, though this one seemed to connect me, through those suddenly recalled memories, to past ‘awakenings’. It felt wonderful, but also completely ordinary and obvious. Oh, that! How could ‘I’ not have noticed?

And I now wonder (since many of these memories were pre-school) if the horror I felt at the age when I first entered the school system, that had me retreating for much of my young life deep inside my head and into my imagination, was just the new separate me concluding that all these separate ‘selves’ made no sense and were awful and full of cruelty and suffering and I was going to hide from them until they went away or somehow all of it made sense.

Or perhaps this is all just wishful thinking, and my brief moment of ‘awakening’ or ‘connection’ was just a daydream.

I can appreciate that the people I love and care about find this ‘going nowhere’ journey, and this belief in non-duality, with its implication of giving up ‘self’ control and the sense of responsibility, frightening, even threatening. Most people believe that what we do and don’t do is governed by a mature sense of self, self-control, self-awareness, personal responsibility, personal choice and ethics. Non-duality says none of this exists and our behaviour is what it is despite the non-existence of all these things.

This seems, understandably, preposterous. How do you explain ‘positive’ changes in the way we behave (“personal growth”) in their absence? Non-duality says it can’t be explained, that apparent changes just happen (or more accurately, since non-duality recognizes that time is also an illusion, that what the separate ‘we’ perceive as changes in behaviour according to some pattern ‘our’ minds conceive and remember as ‘sequential’ on a ‘time line’ in memory and judge to be ‘improvements’, just happen). That Gaia, the astonishing sympathetic evolution of environments, cells and organisms to be self-optimizing and self-sustaining over billions of years and against all odds, just happens. Just a game that ‘all-there-is’ plays with itself. For no reason.

Absurd. Unbelievable. Could only be the belief of a victim of desperate, cult thinking. Yet, somehow, intuitively resonant.

So I apologize to those I love for their understandable anxiety, but I somehow sense that this is all for the best, and that (like others who have apparently been through this) what remains if ‘I’ go will love them even more, and be less anxious and ‘self’-preoccupied about doing so.

And if ‘I’ stay, it will have been an interesting journey anyway, one that seemingly is already bringing about some ‘changes’ in ‘me’ that are healthy and calming: I still catch myself getting angry, sad, anxious and fearful, but these feelings pack less of a punch and pass more quickly, as if they are being observed and soothed. I feel myself wanting less, not so much being more accepting of what I have and what is, but more giving up hoping and striving due to a sense that striving and hoping and yearning and aching and dreaming don’t make any difference to the outcome, so why stress it?

So to some extent this ‘journey’ is over, since while I’m still curious about all this (and love to talk about it ad nauseam with those interested in the subject), I sense that self-less ‘awakening’ and ‘liberation’ will happen, or won’t. And if they happen, ‘I’ won’t be around to take credit, or lament the consequences.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 17 Comments

Links of the Quarter: April 2, 2016

Although I’ve always been a radical (at least in the original sense of the term), nothing I’ve written on this blog has stirred up a lot of controversy. You’d think predicting the collapse of industrial civilization this century, or ‘coming out’ as poly (choosing not to commit to any exclusive romantic partnership) would have done so.

My articles on being vegan tend to have been the most provocative (people seem to think I’m judging them if they choose not to be vegan), but a close second has been my relatively recent admission to have given up on environmentalism and activism. I strongly support ‘deep green’ local resistance and direct action against environmental and social atrocities, but I no longer donate to large scale ‘environmental’ or social justice organizations or participate in protests or letter-writing campaigns because I don’t see them accomplishing anything.

For this I’m labeled a defeatist, doomer or hopeless pessimist, undermining important ‘progressive’ actions by my overt lack of support. But I’m not criticizing people who choose to do these things. And I don’t think opting out of such activities precludes my outrage over the brutal extinction of wilderness, natural habitats and non-human species, the grotesque suffering inflicted on farmed animals, the poor, the people of struggling nations, the old, the sick, and the victims of abuse.

What’s happened to me, I think, is a combination of:

  1. Learning to appreciate that the self-reinforcing complexity of most social, political, economic, biological and ecological systems largely precludes their ‘reform’, and requires waiting for their collapse before trying to rebuild healthier systems.
  2. A growing refusal to blame individuals, classes or groups for what is wrong with the world. We are all doing what we think is our best, and the terrible world we live in is the inevitable result of that. There are far too many of our species, and industrial civilization culture has given us collectively far too much (oil-fuelled) destructive power, which we are using to catastrophic but inadvertent effect.
  3. An awareness that we don’t have anywhere near the free will we think we have. We cannot, individually or collectively, be other than who we are.

So my outrage is about the outcomes of industrial civilization’s activities, not at their alleged perpetrators. And that outrage is not so much intellectual or emotional as it is intuitive, a sharing of the collective pain of all the creatures on this beautiful planet, past, present and (at least in the near term) future. It is a mix of anger and sadness, but not anger at, just anger that it isn’t otherwise. One of the songs our local Song Circle regularly sings cites the four qualities that are (apparently) left after the dissolution of the illusory self. The qualities are:

Loving kindness        Compassion        Unselfish joy        Equanimity

What can one do (if one in fact has the free will to do, or not do, anything) if one believes that our most broken and destructive systems are unreformable, that we are all doing our best, and that we cannot be other than who we are, when the only ‘tools’ we have left are the four qualities above?

One can still take local action — cleaning up a local wetland, blockading the forced eviction of a neighbour or an environmentally damaging local project, helping a neighbour out of an abusive situation, celebrating small environmental and social justice victories, facilitating or mentoring or helping resolve conflicts. You can see the immediate effects of these small kindnesses, and they are mostly enduring results. I’ve tried to capture these modest activities in my now-well-worn ‘preparing for collapse’ graphic below.

One can love and be kind, doing as little harm as possible and helping out in small important ways as much as possible. One can convey compassion and support. One can spend and share and celebrate the joys of everyday living. And one can be equanimous, keeping one’s wits to do what is required in the moment when all around are losing their heads and overreacting unhelpfully.

That’s not the same as “doing nothing”. Equanimity isn’t indifference, lack of caring. It’s being keenly aware of the situation and which interventions are, and aren’t, effective, and staying as unattached as possible to outcomes one cannot control or predict.

I think that’s a good thing.

You might ask what action might be appropriate if a despot, a xenophobe, a psychopath, or an even worse racketeer than the current gang in power is elected in the US or somewhere in the EU and that country devolves into murderous systematic violence against its most vulnerable, and its avowed ‘enemies’. I have no idea. Even equanimity has its limits. But what is ‘in charge’ of this world now if not a psychopathic, desolating, heartless, indifferent and endlessly cruel global culture? If individual tyrants and brownshirts give cause to rise up and overthrow the bastards, why doesn’t the same apply to civilization culture — why aren’t we rushing to smash it and end it as quickly as possible? Is it that we don’t want to admit that we’re not ready to do that, since many of us with some degree of wealth and comfort benefit so much from it? Or is it that we don’t want to admit that we know, in our hearts, it can’t be stopped?

~~~~~

PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END

A Demon Haunted World: TD0S at Pray for Calamity has taken up the kind of regular, thoughtful, precise and passionate writing about how the world really works that I now do much less frequently.  Excerpt from his latest essay:

To be against civilization is not to be in favor of some inhumanity towards others, but simply to believe that urban development, infinite growth, ecological destruction, social stratification, agriculture, etc. are ultimately unsustainable pursuits that are dooming our possibility of existing very far into the future. Further, the anthropocentrism inherent in such societies results in the widespread extirpation of the other beings with who we share this planet…

More is happening in the space around you than you can possibly imagine. Your body is equipped with various sensory abilities that allow you to gather information about the world around you, and this information is used to generate a picture of existence that you as a biological entity can use to go forth and attain your survival. This picture exists in your mind only, and it is further shaped and formed by your particular biological makeup, as well as the cultural programming that you have been inculcated with since birth. The world you see is not the world I see, let alone, is not the world an owl, or a butterfly, or a snap pea sees. Human societies have a habit of claiming that through their sciences that have been able to package and interpret reality as it is. The fun sets in when we notice that each of these societies that has claimed such a handle on reality have all, in fact, had different descriptions of reality. Again, more is happening around us than we could know. We are filtering. We are constructing from the pieces we capture. We are naming and simplifying and manufacturing volumes of symbols. In a sense, we must do so so as not to be crippled by the overwhelming weight of all that we experience. But ultimately, more is not included in our picture of the world than is included. The cutting room floor actually contains more reality than the final film playing out in our heads.

Filling the Void: Another fine piece of writing by TD0S, this time a bit of an existential rant on time and collapse. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link. Excerpt:

Collapse is a very odd fascination. I cannot help but think that such an interest is a by-product of the civilized mind. I also cannot help but think that the collapse so many people fear is related to their perception of time, which is in its modern form, shaped by the superstructure of our society. Capitalism has commodified our time. People in our culture sign thirty year mortgages, they make promises to pay for cars and phones and anything that can be bought with a credit card. The entirety of neoliberal capitalism is predicated on the notion that there will be more energy and stuff tomorrow than there was today. Imaginary wealth in the form of digital notations, be they named “stocks” or “bonds” or any other “investment vehicle” exists purely in an abstract future space. Civilization already has us living within the confines of abstractions built from so much collective imagining, and these abstractions form the foundation of an even more illusory notion of time in which we have convinced ourselves that we exist. When predominantly western, white, middle class people fear collapse, what exactly are they even talking about? I posit that they are actually anxious about the destruction of the future, by which I mean a constructed notion that does not actually exist… Past, present, and future are clunky attempts to place ourselves within this abstract notion we ourselves have imagined into being. This understanding is culturally informed and not a hard and fast representation of reality. Not surprisingly, modern industrial civilization has imagined time into the most expedient and efficient of forms for the benefit of production: the straight line.

Preparing For a Beautiful End: From Utne, a lovely interview of a couple in Victoria BC modelling how to prepare for collapse. Thanks to Phorus Castana for the link.

China’s Slow Unravelling Begins: TAE explains how, despite the tens of trillions spent trying to bolster China to pull the industrial nations out of the long recession, China’s artificially-created economy has started to crumble.

Pretend to the Bitter End: Jim Kunstler explains how perception is reality, but only for a while.

Richard Heinberg’s Civilization Reboot: Richard’s COP21 recap is full of interesting, and impossible, ideas. Count how many alternative ways there are of saying “we really need to…” without identifying any “hows”. Not his business, I know. Replacing them all with “if we could only…” puts a more realistic and discouraging, if still fascinating, spin on it. Thanks to Eric Lilius for the link.

The End of Cheap Oil, and Cheap Debt: Gail Tverberg explains the constraints that the limits to cheap oil and cheap debt put on our growth-addicted economy. Thanks to Sam Rose for the link.

How Much of Its Citizens’ Food Could Your City Optimally Produce?: Much, much less than you’d think, even with lawns and roofs and open spaces repurposed as gardens. Thanks to Tree for the link.

And Now, the News: XrayMike recaps the latest, all-bad, news about runaway climate change, and humans’ rather inadequate ‘efforts’ to address it.

~~~~~

LIVING BETTER

LOTQ ALT vegan by jonathan roth twin oaks

Cartoon  by Jonathan Roth from Is It Utopia Yet?

All About Co-ops: TESA releases a great study guide packed with resources about the cooperative movement and how to become part of it.

Anonymous Online Comments: With his usual wit, Rick Mercer proposes that online commenters be required to divulge their identities.

~~~~~

POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL

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Non-Sequitur comic by Wiley Miller

America’s Big Fat Hate-On: A new report reveals just how deep and broad the rage in the American heartland really is.

You Can’t Not Buy From Us: The Corporatist UK government moves to ban ethical boycotts of its cronies’ businesses.

America’s Poisoned Water: Between fracking, industrial waste, deregulation and decaying infrastructure, the water supply of more and more Americans grows increasingly toxic. Great news for the bottled water industry! They say the sign of a failed state is inability to deliver safe drinking water to its average citizens.

That They May Serve: A new study indicates that half of Canadian soldiers were child-abuse victims.

~~~~~

FUN AND INSPIRATION

space-hubble-april-9-2007-jupiter-moon-ganymede

NASA photo of Jupiter and Ganymede, from Hubble.

Why We Can’t Stop Child Abuse: If you really want to understand how and why complex (social, political and environmental) systems are so able to resist all attempts at change and reform, this is the article to read. The brilliant Jill Lepore explains that policies that try to deal with this problem swing back and forth between two equally terrible evils, and that dealing with the non-obvious and horrifically complex underlying problem is utterly unaffordable, even if we could somehow acknowledge and agree to address it.

Michael Bolton’s Jack Sparrow: Just funny, irreverent silliness. A bunch of satires rolled into one.

John Oliver on Donald Drumph: Just in case you are the only person in the world who hasn’t already seen this.

People Who Can See Colours You Can’t Even Imagine: Some people, most of them women, have extra visual receptors. Thanks to Tree for the link and the one that follows.

Picking a Mate by the Numbers: How soon scientifically to give up looking for the perfect partner, and go with your best bet to date.

~~~~~

THOUGHTS OF THE QUARTER

mutts 030416

Mutts cartoon by Patrick McDonnell

From Brian Doyle‘s The Way We Do Not Say What We Mean When We Say What We Say in the March 2016 Sun Magazine (available to subscribers only):

We say yes when we mean I would rather not. We say no when we mean I would say yes except for all the times yes has proven to be a terrible idea. We say no thank you when every fiber in our bodies is moaning oh yes please. We say you cannot when what we mean is actually you can but you sure by God ought not to. We say no by not saying anything whatsoever…

Perhaps all languages began from the music of insects and animals and wind through vegetation. Perhaps languages began with the sound of creeks and rivers and the crash of surf and the whis- per of tides, and even now, all these years later, when we open our mouths to speak, out comes not so much meaning and sense and reason and clarity but something of the wild world beyond our understanding. Perhaps much of the reason we so often do not say what we mean to say is because we cannot; there is wild in us yet, and in every word and sentence and speech there is still the seethe of the sea from whence we came, and unto which we will return, which cannot ever be fully trammeled or corralled or parsed, no matter how hard we try to mean what we say when we say what we think we mean.

From PS Pirro, a new poem Death Toll:

When the snow comes we stay in the house
with mugs of strong tea and honey,
fleece and flannel, buffalo plaid and log-cabin quilts,

The fire burns steady, kettle set to simmer,
it mists the air like hot breath against a pane of glass
jackfrosted opaque.

We press our fingers to the frozen edge, co-mingle
our heat with the last light of the day.

In the quiet golden corner El Tio sits before his ledgers,
turning a pale green page to scan the names
of all who asked for one last solstice,

one last feast of Epiphany, scheduling payment,
sending invoices, tallying his bottom line by candlelight,
he calculates the weight of souls and payroll

for the psychopomp, holding out his cup to us
that we might fill it from the kettle one more time.

From Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut (thanks to Sheri Herndon for the link):

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’

From Brené Brown (thanks to Emily van Lidth de Jeude for the link):

People call what happens at midlife a ‘crisis’, but it’s not. It’s an unraveling — a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re ‘supposed’ to live. The unraveling is a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.

From Sy Safranski‘s latest book:

As I walked along a crowded street yesterday, something I’d read that morning by the Dalai Lama came to mind: ‘All living beings want happiness and not suffering.’ And, for a moment, I stopped noticing how different everyone looked. Behind our astonishing differences was something even more astonishing: our shared yearning to be happy and not to suffer. It didn’t matter whether we were consciously aware of this. It didn’t matter that we usually delude ourselves about the source of true happiness and look for it in all the wrong places. What mattered was that every single one of us wanted the same thing.

From Annie Dillard:

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

From TD0S:

I do not know how [collapse] will play out or how long it will take to complete, but I feel that I could safely suggest that several generations from now the people who are making new ways of living will curse the stupidity and greed of those who poisoned the water. They will wonder what demons possessed our hearts with such a dark poison that we could so callously wipe out the other living beings who we rely on for survival. In the dry wastes a young girl will dig for tubers amongst a backdrop of drought ravaged trees and the charcoal remains of those that burned in the previous season. Seeking a nourishing root she finds the bric a brac of our brain dead culture; a plastic fork, a beer can, rubber testicles that once swung from a pick-up truck’s trailer hitch. Yee haw. Her family boils caught rainwater unaware that it contains heavy metals which will be responsible for some of their eventual deaths. They will laugh, as people do, and they will tell cautionary tales about a long ago world in which people set the sky on fire. Whatever gods there may be forgive us. We were drunk on oil and pictures of ourselves. We really wanted good jobs.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 7 Comments

what it all comes down to, part two

(some further pondering on non-duality; image above by the author)

XI

even die-hard non-dualists
(who say it is hopeless, impossible
to ‘do’ anything that will make
the dissolution of the self more likely to happen)
acknowledge a resonance
that seems at least to clue the self
into thinking that its understanding of what is real
is somehow not quite right,
without knowing why.

perhaps instinct is the ‘voice’ of that resonance,
the whisper of hidden truth, an inkling,
a self-doubt that at least opens the possibility
of the self’s dissolution, leaving only
all-that-is.

XII

look: the tree is real,
but not in the way the mind perceives it.
mind sees patterns, makes meaning.
but these are just thoughts, renderings.
what self calls ‘this tree’ is in reality
an unfathomably complex and inseparable part of all-that-is —
it is turtles all the way down.
it is not ‘this tree’ that the self-mind sees as beautiful;
it is all-that-is, of which ‘this tree’ is just an instance,
the mind’s representation, a glimmer.

the self wants to know ‘this tree’ as finite;
it analyzes it, names it, tears it apart,
looking for what it cannot find or even conceive of.
still, it cannot help but find it beautiful,
and it cannot help
not bearing the thought it cannot be known.

XIII

wild creatures would seem
to have something-of-a-self,
in moments of existential stress,
but then shake off the illusion fast enough.

XIV

ever the doubting thomas, i wonder:
is the dissolution of the self, its non-existence
just another idea, another way out,
another trick of the too-smart-for-our-own-good minds?

XV

so now: even more radical:
no ‘One Consciousness’, ‘Awareness’, or ‘Presence’,
no time, no matter, no mind, no one, no thing, no self —
all illusions, and not even illusions of some one.

no perturbations, sensations, perceptions, conceptions.
no purpose, no reasons ‘why’.
‘all-that-is’ is no thing, inconceivable,
beyond the mind’s ability to comprehend, or to imagine.
infinite, eternal,
requiring no observer, no perceiver, no one and no thing.
beyond the twin follies of spirituality and science.
beyond quantum, which is as far as we can understand.

just all-that-is, of which an infinitesimally small part
are our illusions, and the illusory selves that have them,
and everything we thought was real, and is.

but not really.

Posted in Creative Works | Comments Off on what it all comes down to, part two

It’s Not Peak Oil, It’s Peak Affordable Oil

supply demand image.001

Lately there has been some suggestion that “Peak Oil is dead” — that because of the recent drop in demand and price for oil, we will never again see high oil prices and will never run out of oil.

What this conclusion misunderstands is that it’s not about running out of oil, it’s about running out of oil that our economy can afford to extract. If oil cost a million dollars a barrel to extract, we would never have mined most of it, the industrial revolution would have stalled a century ago, and human societies would quickly have reverted to a subsistence local agrarian existence with a much smaller human population and much, much less industry and technology.

Oil was a remarkable discovery. Each barrel replaces the equivalent of about 6 person-years of unassisted manual labour. Our industrial economy and global civilization have been built on the ability to employ cheap oil to do the work of billions of people for next to nothing. We continue to depend on that. Our GDP growth correlates precisely with the consumption of oil, and has essentially nothing to do with innovation, technological ingenuity, economies of scale or ‘doing more with less’. When we run out of affordable oil, the game is up.

What is ‘affordable’ depends a lot on the health of the economy and on the incremental cost of extracting each harder-to-get barrel of oil. For most of the last half century, what was affordable was somewhere between $30-60/barrel. When oil prices have soared to the $100/barrel level, the economy has almost immediately started to tank.

The chart above shows the supply/demand curves for oil, in general terms, over that 50 year time and, most likely, the 50 years to come. It’s a bit oversimplified because supply and demand is also affected by stocks in storage, but the amount of oil that can be reasonably stockpiled to cushion again price shocks is pretty small — certainly not years’ worth.

‘Business as usual’ over the last 50 years is shown by the supply/demand curves labeled S0 and D0, intersecting at around $60/barrel. This is a price that historically has been high enough to allow continued exploration but is low enough that consumers and industry can afford it and still make a profit (and not go into unrepayable debt). When OPEC (or political events) have conspired to constrain supply, the supply curve has shifted over to the S2 curve, and demand has necessarily been reduced to the D2 curve, leading to a $100/barrel price (where S2 and D2 intersect). This has proven to be an unsustainable price, and political pressures (i.e. wars, and threats to OPEC partners) have always been applied when the price has reached this level to get suppliers to pump more oil and move the curves back to the S0/D0 $60/barrel level.

But it’s a difficult balancing act. As cheap (inexpensive to extract) OPEC oil rapidly diminishes, and as the remaining oil becomes more expensive to extract (e.g. tar sands, fracking), the point is reached where $60/barrel is no longer enough to warrant continued exploration. And, as we saw in 2008, whenever our teetering, debt-laden (and cheap oil dependent) economy falters, and demand falls even slightly, the price can plummet to the point where even more traditional exploration and extraction become uneconomic. At this price the economies of many OPEC countries also start to unravel, many of which are politically unstable to begin with.

So let’s look what happened over the past year, when the price plummeted to the $30 level. Here are (again somewhat simplified) the factors that led to this:

  • The US, seeking to stimulate an economic recovery after the 2008 debacle, and seeking to punish Russia for its global political and economic muscle-flexing, conspired with the Saudis to increase the short-term supply of oil (we may never know what the Saudis got in return for this devil’s bargain). First world nations also increased their already-massive subsidies to the oil industry to encourage fracking. The combination of these two factors shifted the short-term supply curve to the right (increased short-term supply) from S0 to S1.
  • At the same time, much of the first world was mired in an ongoing recession that gutted the middle class and reduced available spending. Already at their limits in debt, consumers were forced to reduce consumption. Even as price started to drop as a result, they have chosen to pocket the savings at the gas pump to pay off debts or for other needed spending (the real, double-digit inflationary cost increases in health care, healthy food, good education and other essentials, for example). To add to this demand contraction, the artificially-stimulated Chinese economy ran out of steam and has started a long and painful collapse. The combination of these factors shifted the short-term demand curve to the left (reduced short-term demand) from D0 to D1. The intersection of S1 and D1 is the recent, depression-level price of $30/barrel.

This was a ‘success’ in terms of devastating the oil-dependent Russian economy (which requires much more than $30/barrel to be a viable producer due to their extraction costs, which are much higher than the Saudis’). It also devastated the less-oil-dependent Canadian economy and Canadian currency (which fell from above-par to 69 cents to the US dollar as a result). It quickly destroyed the fracking industry and has seized up almost all of the projects to produce more expensive oil (the Tar Sands, deep sea, Arctic etc.). So now there’s a huge short-term surplus of supply (there is no place to put any additional surplus), but the longer-term supply (which requires a price of at least $60/barrel steadily increasing to $100/barrel and beyond to develop economically) looks to be collapsing.

On top of this, the disastrous economic policies of the last 50 years, trying to squeeze out a few more years of ‘growth’ in the industrial economy by artificially lowering interest rates to approximately zero, to get consumers to buy even more by going even deeper into debt, have reached the end of the line. They have not and do not appear capable of working any more. We have reached the point at which the ‘real’ cost of oil, needed to power GDP ‘growth’ and enable the globalized industrial economy to continue, is now higher than the exhausted, debt-ridden, artificially stimulated global economy can afford to pay.

What this will mean is that in future, in a whipsaw fashion, we are going to see a combination of spikes and collapses in oil price, in a cycle that will end in both global economic collapse and the end of large-scale oil production and hence our oil-fuelled industrial culture.

First, we will see some brief and unsustainable resurgences in price, from the current S1/D1 curve price of $30/barrel back up to the stratospheric levels of the S2/D2 curve price of $100/barrel and beyond. This will happen as the global supply of cheap-to-produce ($30/barrel and then $60/barrel) oil evaporates. There is not much of this left to begin with, and we can’t create more of it by subsidizing oil production even more than we already do, because our economy essentially runs on cheap oil — without it there’s no money to subsidize anything.

While brief periods of $100/barrel oil will temporarily spark new exploration and development, this price is, as we have repeatedly seen, unsustainable. With $100/barrel oil, demand will inevitably and drastically shrink, even at a horrific human cost — we simply cannot afford to pay for it. So as the longer-term supply of (especially cheaper) oil shifts left (i.e. decreases) as cheap OPEC supplies are exhaused, moving supply to the S3 curve, demand will also shift left (i.e. decrease) as consumers and entire economies, unable to pay for the more expensive remaining oil, collapse, moving to the D3 curve. The intersection of the S3/D3 curves is, again, the depression-level $30/barrel price. But notice how far to the left this intersection has shifted on the chart! The recent shenanigans and economic stumbles have not drastically decreased global oil consumption (the point on the horizontal axis below the S1/D1 curves at intersection 1, relative to the point on the horizontal axis below the S0/D0 curves at intersection 0). However, the future economic and cheap-oil-supply crashes will catastrophically decrease consumption (to the point on the horizontal axis below the S3/D3 curves at intersection 3).

Intersection 3 is the end game for the global industrial growth economy and the globalized civilization that depends on it. It is not the passing of Peak Oil as Hubbert might have envisioned it, since there will be lots of (expensive to extract) oil left in the ground (good news for climate change, though almost certainly too little too late to stave off the end of our planet’s long stretch of stable climate).

What intersection 3 represents is the passing of Peak Affordable Oil. As this complex interplay of economic factors works its way through in the coming decades, we’re going to see some whipsawing in oil prices (and prices and levels of just about everything else) between hyper-inflationary, and deflationary, Long Depression levels. This will be the hallmark of the Slow Collapse of industrial civilization. Get ready for a rough and uneven ride.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments