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

January 29, 2014

Food Security

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

forest garden


image from the book Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 28, 2014

Links of the Month: January 28, 2014

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

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

LOTM changeW

cartoon by Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig

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

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

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




cormorants in the salish sea – photo by the author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



LOTM ruling class parasites via michael N

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

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

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

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




cartoon from xkcd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



From PS Pirro, What You Decide to Call Good:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crow In the Snow

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

And more awesomeness from PS Pirro, Love Like Water:

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

January 24, 2014


Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 22:15

face sketch


I used to almost-fall-in-love all the time.
I would take some small gesture,
some breathtaking sidelong look,
some small perfect curve,
and build around it a pixie, a faun,
a perfect creature I could love.

But now I have more practice with love’s rise and fall,
and Gaia’s dopamine-fueled tricks
do not work so well on me.
And so I hardly ever almost-fall-in-love anymore.
I see what my younger self did not.
Complexities. Qualities that need work to deal with.
Figments of commitment.

I still fall in love, but that’s rare and hard
and magic and fleeting and
not at all the same thing as

January 16, 2014

Requiem for a Species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

conception of art after the collapse of civilization culture by afterculture

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

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

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

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

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

January 12, 2014

as if

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 22:51

via ando perez buddha carving

as if it matters what we believe,
or think we know is true.

as if it matters what we do, or how we feel.

as if all-life-on-Earth cares what happens to us,
or to our species.

as if it makes a difference
whether we talk about what’s ahead
with our friends and children.

as if anyone would see us as an example,
a model, an inspiration,
someone to change their life.

as if love could possibly make things better.

as if ithere’s any point
imagining a better world a thousand years from now.

as if anything is really going to change.

as if.

as if it matters.

(image above from the cover of an ando perez book; artist unknown)



January 9, 2014


Filed under: _ Uncategorized — Dave Pollard @ 21:41


A couple of readers have chastised me for the tone and substance of my recent posts, and I realized that, since most of my readers aren’t aware of my day-to-day life, relationships and activities it’s not surprising that I may come across sometimes as narcissistic, selfish, arrogant, ungrateful, self-indulgent and/or hermitic.

There are a couple of reasons I don’t write about my private life beyond what’s going on in my own head. The first is out of respect for the privacy of the people I spend my time with — they mostly aren’t used to having details of their lives and interactions with me aired in a public space like this blog, and wouldn’t be comfortable with it. On the occasions I have divulged personal details about my life it has sometimes created problems.

The second reason is that, without the context of the reader knowing the history of these relationships and how I came to do these activities, such disclosures would be confusing, meaningless and/or boring to the casual reader.

So I’d like to express my appreciation to those who have written me, publicly and privately, to tell me how badly I sometimes come across as a result of this absence of context. Sorry, readers.

And therefore with some trepidation, I’m going to tell you a bit about my undisclosed life, in the hopes that it may change the perspective with which you see me and the writing I offer here.

I spend about 1/3 of my days off-island visiting one or the other of two amazing women in my life. Since my marriage ended, amicably, six years ago (my ex has two children and I am proud and honoured to be their father and “grandpa” to their kids), I’ve been up front about not wanting another monogamous partnership, and my relationships with these two wonderful women — one an extraordinary Teacher and the other an extraordinary Healer — bring me immense joy. They are both survivors of trauma whose unfailing optimism about the world has enabled my growth, learning, ‘joyful pessimism’ and appreciation for the awesomeness of this world. I sometimes think my real purpose in the world is to make them happy. I am humbled by their wisdom, their resilience, their generosity to others, their example. It is hard keeping up with them, and as much as I love their company and my visits with them, after my visits I need some alone-time to digest and recharge.

Here on Bowen Island, about another 1/3 of my time is taken up with a host of mostly-local projects I’ve been working on since retiring from paid work four years ago. I do a lot of work with the local Transition initiative, with the fledgling co-housing group, with the group of exceptional facilitators who produced the Group Works deck and pattern language, and with a group coalescing around the Sharing Economy, which is where my book, Finding the Sweet Spot, is now starting to find its intended place. And I have, finally, started to build a true community of local friends here on the island.

While I will acknowledge living in a rented house that is too big for one person, a house with an extraordinarily beautiful hilltop rainforest setting, it is extensively used by the aforementioned groups and by others for meetings and workshops and overnight stays. I don’t self-identify as being generous, but the people around me keep telling me I am — with my time, my energies, my money, my home and my heart.

The last 1/3 of my time is my solitary healing time. I spend it in exercise, in meditation, in walks in the woods and on the beach, and in writing. I am still, I think, in recovery from too many years of living in fear, for much of my childhood, and living up to others’ expectations of me, and being who I’m not, as an adult. Gabor Maté would probably attribute my struggle-to-reconnect, my inability to handle stress, and my incredibly slow pace of learning about myself and my emotions, to a lack of childhood attachment. All I know is that I need this reflective time, and that my writing on this blog, which occurs during this time, is often, now, about that self-learning, and probably gives a distorted view of who I am and what I do.

But I am tremendously grateful for the incredible good fortune of my life. I’ve been working a lot, of late, on my family genealogy and have discovered, from the stories of my 19th century pioneer ancestors, how hard their lives and struggles were. I’m also meeting, now, a lot of people who are homeless, ill, damaged and lost to a degree that makes my ‘problems’ seem trivial. I often tell people that I am the world’s most blessed agnostic. I guess I should say that more.

So if I don’t say all this often enough on these pages, if I don’t give you, dear readers, the context of my daily life and passions and activities, so that you can get some perspective on what is absorbing most of my time, energy and affection when I’m not blogging, and if I therefore come across in these sum-up-the-situation blog posts as self-absorbed or lazy or cold-hearted or indifferent or self-satisfied, I’m sorry. I’m not. I’ll try to do better.

A few words about the last two posts. The poem was the start of a daily practice of trying to write ‘small’, short compositions that meet TS Eliot’s criteria: “Poetry has to give pleasure… [and] the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility… We all understand I think both the kind of pleasure that poetry can give and the kind of difference, beyond the pleasure, which it makes to our lives. Without producing these two effects it is simply not poetry.” My poem was trying to be evocative. And playful. And ambiguous, not in a mean way, but in a way that would allow people to draw meaning from it in some personal way. It was not meant as self-pitying, and I’m sorry if some of you took it that way. It was not really about me, at all.

My last post was, as much of my writing is, especially at times of summing-up that often occur at the beginning and end of the year, an exercise in thinking out loud. I often have to write down my thoughts and learnings and feelings (or lack thereof), and keep revising them until they are clearer to me, in order to make sense of them — I’m not able to just figure it out in my head. And talking with others about these things is hard for me — I’m really unpracticed and incompetent at it. So if it comes across as self-indulgent that’s not really surprising, but it’s not intended. With the poem I was trying to evoke something (not about me), but with the last post I was just working stuff out in my head, getting it down. The question I posed in the middle of the post (which several people responded to specifically, and in a couple of cases critically) was rhetorical; it was a question I was asking myself. When I found myself writing the conclusion to this post in the second person as a means to self-justify publishing it on the blog, and when I realized that the post didn’t fit any of my post categories, I should have clued in that it wasn’t meant to be published it at all, just kept as internal noodling using WordPress’ “private” setting.

That’s all I had to say, I guess. For those I annoyed, I hope this helps. For those who sprang to my defence, perhaps because they ‘know’ me better, thanks. Now back to regularly unscheduled programming.

January 7, 2014

She Stood Irresolute Outside His Door

Filed under: _ Uncategorized — Dave Pollard @ 22:02


cartoon by hugh macleod

I don’t want to feel too much. I couldn’t bear to work at an animal shelter, or visit a factory farm or the Tar Sands.

I’m afraid that if I feel too much, I might become even more fearful than I am already. Afraid to lose what I have, what I am. Afraid to live.

I realize that I am driven by aversion to (the many) things I am afraid of*, things which cause me stress, rather than being driven more positively by purpose, intention, or desire. That’s kind of an empty, numb way to live, and one that’s not very useful to the rest of the world. But probably not uncommon.

So I have not really undertaken, or promised, to do much this year or in the future. There is some validity to my excuses: It is both too early and too late. The Jevons Paradox and other attributes of complex systems mitigate strongly against our ability to change them. And there is some value in just ‘being’, and hence aware and able to do what is needed effectively in the moment, rather than making a lot of commitments to doing things in the future and hence overextending oneself. But I think the main reason for my planned inaction is fear.

fear cycle

I’d like to believe my ‘presence’ practice could enable me to get out of this ‘fear cycle’ and transform it to something more natural:

presence cycle

But that’s not who I am, and I no longer count on getting to that place. I have to self-accept. That was the joyful ‘aha’ in yesterday’s poem and in the works that inspired it (apologies to those who took it too seriously).

I have said that what I want to ‘be’ in 2014 is imaginative, provocative, and articulate. These are things I am, rather than things like ‘present’ that I am not and will likely never really be. I can be a conjurer, a provocateur, a crafter of words and ideas without being especially ‘present’. This blog has been, principally, where I offer those capacities of being.

I don’t have many needs, now — I have only ever really needed my freedom, and other than the freedom from the fears that originate inside my own head, I have that. What I’ve been focused on lately is what I want. And I’ve realized that most of the things I think I want (e.g. to live in a warm, beautiful place all year round) are, if I were to be honest, pretty unattainable. For me to be obsessing about them is as unhealthy as obsessing about winning a lottery. So I’m trying to do two things with my unrealistic ‘wants’: (1) understand what’s behind my wanting them so badly, and (2) let them go. As my self-awareness has grown, understanding what’s behind them is pretty easy. But to my surprise, I’m finding that letting go of them isn’t as hard as I thought.

That frees me up to focus on the wants that are relatively attainable (e.g. finding a new Ayurvedic massage therapist), and on the more modest and practical wants that take the place of the unrealistic ones I’m letting go of, and how they can be realized, soon. They’re somewhat self-indulgent but they feel right on my ‘to do’ list. I can see myself checking them off quickly, and enjoying the results. There’s a liberating feeling to having almost no ‘needs’ and few ‘wants’.

So that brings me back to what value I can offer to others in my circles and beyond. How can I heal at least a bit from this frozen, broken, fearful state in order to be able to offer my talents as conjurer, provocateur and crafter of words and ideas more effectively, courageously and boldly, instead of reticently? Or is wanting this healing just another unrealistic want I should let go of?

I recently wrote this letter to a friend:

I really liked the Francis Weller lecture. The other stuff you sent me was harder to relate to, perhaps because my grief is not about death or loss (other than perhaps my loss of innocence) so much as it’s about the ongoing suffering and imprisonment of all life on Earth — it’s grief about agonized living not about dying.

I think that this grief has led me to disconnect (most of the time) — from my body, my instincts, my emotions, and all life on Earth. That disconnection, I think, is relatively common among men, at least in Western society. It’s a means of coping, with fear, with sorrow and grief, with anger, with loss of control. But it means we can’t relate to healing practices in the same way that those who are more connected can.

I also am unable to relate to ritual or ‘spirit’ connection. I can appreciate intellectually that the purpose of ritual is often communion and creating a safe space for the expression of one’s fears and sorrows, but I have no real desire to have (or help others have) such a space. Perhaps that’s the essence of misanthropy, but that’s where I am. While I can accept intellectually that time is nothing more than a mental construct, the idea of connecting with ancestors or descendants just seems absurd. And my appreciation of complexity allows me to grasp how all life on Earth is connected, and how what ‘is’ is an emergence, a complicity of all life (Gaia theory), but that appreciation doesn’t enable me to accept that I can have some kind of ‘spiritual’ connection (beyond recognition and respect) with another individual creature.

I’m with Weller in his argument that a “hardened heart” is the antithesis of resilience, and he’s probably right that development of resilience (through enabling a healing of the grief we all carry) is best done communally. But despite that, I’m thinking I might at least initially have to find a different healing vector than the one your group is employing together — one more about self-exploration than ritual, and more about personal courage than communion. A different and probably longer learning path, perhaps, but maybe the one I have to follow.

So that’s where I am, as 2014 begins. You’ll probably see more creative/imaginative work (including video, music, games and other forms of play) on this blog and elsewhere from me, and a substantive Manifesto on Embracing Complexity. I might also invite you to a small group video conversation on some issue we both seem to care about, which we might record and publish.

Mostly, I think, and hope, you’ll see me (or not) being more playful, faring forward. Play is, I think, a good practice for a conjurer, a provocateur, and a crafter of words and ideas (hence the title of this post). It’s also probably a good tool for dealing with fear, and for healing. And, perhaps, for learning to be humble, effective and even a bit more present. Obscurity may be pin-headed and unkind, but ambiguity leaves room for improbable discovery, evocation, and magic.


* My principal fears these days, if you’re curious: fear of being trapped (physically or emotionally), constrained or demanded upon; fear of suffering: injury, pain, deprivation, illness, causing/inability to cope with with loved ones’ suffering, humiliation, criticism, failure (e.g. that my creative work will never be very good), anomie, being ordinary; fear of loss of love, security, pride and control; fear of others’ irrational, cruel, disrespectful and manipulative behaviour, and my (over-)reaction to that behaviour; fear of nature (sigh).

January 6, 2014


Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 13:45

broken eggshell

I wrote:

No use to the world broken.

I was right.

No use to the world.


December 24, 2013

Who Are We, Uncivilized?

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 19:22


Bonobo photo by Christian Ziegler for National Geographic.

Once I’ve finished my three-part series on complexity for Shift magazine, explaining why our energy, economic and ecological systems are headed inevitably for collapse, I’m proposing to write a series of speculative stories for the magazine on what life might be like for humans after collapse.

Many authors have written about life during or shortly after collapse, and most such stories are dystopias. But I think it would be more inspiring to write about life a few millennia in the future. In order to do that, I think I have to get a sense of what humans are really like, underneath the trappings of civilization, liberated from its programming, its homogenizing, colonizing, poisonous, domesticating, addictive, inhibiting influence.

Anarchist writer Wolfi Landstreicher gave us some clues, when he wrote:

We want to live as wild, free beings in a world of wild, free beings. The humiliation of having to follow rules, of having to sell our lives away to buy survival, of seeing our usurped desires transformed into abstractions and images in order to sell us commodities fills us with rage. How long will we put up with this misery? We want to make this world into a place where our desires can be immediately realized, not just sporadically, but normally. We want to re-eroticize our lives. We want to live not in a dead world of resources, but in a living world of free wild lovers. We need to start exploring the extent to which we are capable of living these dreams in the present without isolating ourselves. This will give us a clearer understanding of the domination of civilization over our lives, an understanding which will allow us to fight domestication more intensely and so expand the extent to which we can live wildly.

Could we live this way, if we dispensed with civilization culture? What will we be like when we’re feral again?

I’ve done a lot of reading, of late, about indigenous tribes relatively untouched by civilization, about feral children who grew up without the mental programming of language in their neural circuitry, about bonobos and chimps and baboons and other close relatives of our species, and about prehistoric human societies, to try to answer this question. The bias, and blindness, in most of these accounts is astonishing and unsettling, especially since some of them were written quite recently. But setting that aside, here are, I think, some of the qualities of feral humans — the humans who will represent our species when civilization is gone and forgotten. Our descendants, I believe, will:

  1. Live outside of ‘clock’ time. Like wild creatures, they will only live in the world of constrained, measured, fast-moving time that civilized humans live their whole lives in, during brief moments of fight-or-flight stress. The rest of their lives will be spent in ‘now’ time, in an eternal, joyful present, the way our long-distant ancestors lived, I believe, before the migration from the safety of our idyllic tropical rainforest tree homes, for reasons we can only guess at.
  2. Live without the use of abstract languages. Not because they will no longer be able to invent and use them, but because, like the great whales and other intelligent creatures, they will have no need for them. They will communicate as wild creatures do, through expression, gesture, song, and the senses of touch and smell. That communication will be, in many ways, more profound and more articulate than what our modern languages are capable of.
  3. Live in small, extremely diverse, nomadic communities of several dozen people, tribes, mostly in areas where humans are able to live comfortably without technology — the tropical, treed areas from whence we came, a million years ago. After the current runaway climate change, it’s impossible to guess where on Earth those places will be by then.
  4. Be vegetarians, once again eating the foods our bodies, lacking in claws, canine teeth and speed, have evolved to eat. It will be complex — once we’ve lost and forgotten the technologies of hunting, we will likely reduce our habitat to the locations and ways that are consistent with a non-hunting, un-settled life. We will be capable of reinventing and rediscovering these technologies, of course, but won’t unless and until we must to survive. If we can thrive without them, we will. If the climate of that time is inhospitable, we’ll either shrink our numbers to inhabit only the most hospitable areas (as bonobos did), or we will learn to use technologies that will let us survive in less naturally hospitable areas (as chimps did). Or, most likely, we’ll evolve with a shifting balance of both. How do bonobos live? Here’s what National Geographic says: “Bonobos eat a lot of the herby vegetation that is abundant in all seasons—big reedy stuff like cornstalks and starchy tubers like arrowroot—which offers nutritious shoots and young leaves and pith inside the stems, rich in protein and sugars. Bonobos, then, have an almost inexhaustible supply of reliable munchies. So they don’t experience lean times, hunger, and competition for food as acutely as chimpanzees do.”
  5. Be physically healthy, strong and beautiful, almost without exception. This has always been the nature of feral species living in balance with other creatures. Our descendants will neither need nor want clothes, analgesics, or reality-escaping substances. Their bodies will be beloved canvasses of expression, not prisons of self-loathing.
  6. Play, and create, a lot. This assumes we are able to avoid the inhibiting effects of (self-created) captivity and self-domestication. The New Yorker explains: “Captivity can have a striking impact on animal behavior. As Craig Stanford, a primatologist at the University of Southern California, recently put it, ‘Stuck together, bored out of their minds—what is there to do except eat and have sex?’” Civilization is a form of such captivity: Instead of letting us use our leisure time for creative endeavours like art and recreation, civilization assumes we will (apparently like baboons and chimps, but not bonobos) use any leisure time in destructive, antisocial activity, and hence establishes systems that consume all possible leisure time in mindless tasks of work (essentially as slaves) and consumption. It assumes we have to be ‘domesticated’ for our own good. But if we’re not captives — if we’re truly feral — we will never be bored, and, I believe, we will fill that time (beyond eating and having sex, which I expect we will do a lot of, unrestricted by scarcity, obesity-causing processed foods, rules about monogamy, and jealousy) in play and in individual and social recreation. This is the attribute of feral humans I am least sure about, however. I would not want to be a chimp or a baboon, now or then. I am both alarmed and encouraged by what scientists like Robert Sapolsky have learned about primate behaviour. And I would find writing about creatures who are incorrigibly aggressive and violent when not occupied by the needs of the moment (i.e. Mad Max characters), terribly depressing.

One of the qualities that characterizes almost all human stories is the positive transformation of a sympathetic protagonist, and/or a situation, usually through adversity. Stories, we are told, must have struggle, conflict, drama, and progress, or they aren’t interesting, aren’t ‘stories’ at all.

I have a big problem with this argument, which strikes me as unthinking literary dogmatism. Mystery stories, for example, generally have as their essential element a problem to solve rather than a conflict to resolve, and this problem-solving doesn’t require adversity, transformation, or struggle. They are puzzles, and they can also be great stories.

Likewise, although modern comedies too often stoop to mindless ridicule, and get much of their energy from the reader’s or viewer’s loathing of obnoxious characters, the best comedies, I think, are gentle, witty, and teach us things in an engaging way that doesn’t manipulate, doesn’t disparage, and, basically, doesn’t have a lot of drama. Yet they are still great stories. (Two of my favourites are Annie Hall and Noises Off.)

My favourite TV series is Aaron Sorkin’s comedy Sports Night, where unexpected and only occasionally unfortunate things happened to its mostly sympathetic and quirky characters. What made this series great for me was the dialogue, which was witty, human, engaging and resonating. The characters talked about their feelings, their fears, their doubts, their beliefs, what they were passionate about, and why. Watching it was like meeting new, wonderful friends.

So I’m inclined to make my stories, set in a future as distant from today as the era of the great pyramids, about feral future humans with the six qualities above, and have those stories be a mixture of mystery and comedy.

This will be a huge challenge. Somehow I will have to relate my stories’ characters’ feelings without the use of dialogue, by describing what they do and how they look — their body and facial ‘language’ — and by conveying what they’re feeling by getting inside their non-verbal heads and describing what’s happening there. I want to do that in a way that’s not forced or difficult for the reader — so I don’t want to invent yet another ‘language’ and make my readers learn it. And I know the English language is inadequate for the task, limited as it is to the purposes of control, instruction and patriarchy for which it was designed. It may be that these stories will have to be conveyed as plays or films, rather than in text, to increase the tools I have available to do this.

What I may have to do to accomplish this, is to bring together a group of actors, and have them co-develop with me a set of possible gestures, expressions, and representations of how an intelligent creature that is more intuitive, perceptual and holistic and less ‘literal’, logical and conceptual than modern humans might think and communicate.

I think this will be provocative and interesting enough for the audience that there will be no need for a lot of drama or struggle for the characters. I want to explore what makes these future feral humans laugh, what brings them joy, how amazingly diverse they will be in the absence of a homogenizing culture. I’m a great admirer of mystery stories, so I’d love for the story to revolve around a mystery. A mystery great enough to transcend the millennia between astonishingly different cultures. And one that guesses at what we humans will be like when we’re feral again. I think this would make a great, if highly unconventional, story. But damn, it will not be easy.

Comments and counsel welcome.

December 20, 2013

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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