Conversations That Matter: What It Takes to Have Them

mindful wandering
photo by Maren Yumi on flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Ironically, despite the fact that I engage in fewer conversations than I used to (maybe because since I’m retired I don’t have to, and because I find few conversations valuable anyway), I’ve started writing more about conversation on this blog. In a recent article, I suggested:

  • Real conversation serves one or more of these five purposes: to impart new information, to surface insights, to see different perspectives, to achieve consensus on decisions, and to resolve conflicts.
  • Prerequisite to good conversation are participants who have these seven skills: capacity to be open to other and difficult ideas and perspectives, capacity to articulate, social fluency (emotional engagement and sensitivity), critical thinking skills, curiosity, creative/imaginative skills, and attention skills.

The widespread lack of any such purpose, and of these essential skills, means that most conversations are, in my experience, at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. Most conversations (like substantially everything posted on social media) are attention-, appreciation- and reassurance-seeking, and are just vexatious for those seeking a real meaningful exchange.

At a recent lunch with my friend Don Marshall, I confess my conversational skills were not up to par (I blame sleeplessness the previous night, but perhaps I’m just out of practice). I learned what he is trying to do with a volunteer project to improve people’s conversational skills around the predicament of climate collapse, through exercises (practice) focused on appreciating others’ perspectives, attentive listening, and conflict resolution. As there are so few people around capable of modelling such behaviours, and because people are so busy with the urgent demands on their time, and because most of us, I think, are in denial about the degree to which our conversational skills have atrophied, I wasn’t surprised to hear that he’s having a bit of trouble getting traction with this project. I had no suggestions for him to improve the process.

It occurred to me that (perhaps like many writers) I write, now, mostly to make sense of my own thinking. On this blog I have ‘conversations with myself’ because it is so hard and so rare to find others with whom I can have intelligent conversations on subjects both or all participants care about. No one is to blame for this — ‘talking with oneself’ is always the last resort for trying to make sense of things that seemingly don’t make sense. Such clarity can come from conversation, but it is a side-benefit when striving for one of the objectives above, and it’s rather narcissistic and a bit desperate (though, sadly, not uncommon) when it’s the principal reason for having a conversation.

Conversations about the predicament of climate collapse are particularly prone, I think, to such somewhat self-indulgent and often-fruitless “help me make sense of this” and “what should I do about this?” exchanges. The challenge with such pleading requests is that climate collapse is a predicament not a problem. Chris Martenson explains the difference (in his “Crash Course”):

The distinction between predicaments and problems boils down to this: problems have solutions; predicaments have outcomes. A solution to a problem fixes it, returning all to its original condition. Once a suitable solution can be found and made to work, a problem can be solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people can develop responses, but not solutions. Those responses may succeed, they may fail, or they may fall somewhere in between, but no response can erase a predicament. Predicaments have outcomes that can be managed, but circumstances cannot be returned to their original state.

Terms like sustainability, resilience and regeneration suggest that one is dealing with a problem that can be ‘worked’, ‘worked around’, ‘bounced back from’ or ‘fixed with a reboot’. (The prefix re- means ‘back’, and there is no going back.) A predicament like climate collapse lends itself to no ‘solutions’, so striving for any of these is misguided and doomed to fail.

Those coming to grips with climate collapse (a much more honest term than mere climate change or even climate crisis) are now more often using the term adaptation to suggest what can or might or should be done, to, as Chris puts it “manage the outcomes”. But as any language scholar will tell you, the verb adapt is a reflexive verb — it does not take an object, and refers back to your self (in French, it is s’adapter — to adapt oneself). So adaptation doesn’t mean changing one’s community or environment, it means changing oneself.

It is not in our nature to want to change ourselves. It has been a lifelong and exhausting struggle to get our selves to the precarious but seemingly-optimal state we are currently in, and the thought of more gut-wrenching change does not sit well with most of us. We would much sooner change stuff outside — our government, our social and economic and political and educational and technological processes and systems. The problem with that, however, is that none of these systems will survive climate collapse, no matter how we tinker with or ‘regenerate’ them. These systems are collapsing, in fits and starts, just as our climate is. We cannot predict when and how they will collapse, and hence we cannot adapt them (or reinvent them) in order to delay, avert or lessen the impact of their collapse.

The only thing we can adapt is the one thing we don’t want to adapt — our hard-won selves.

Remarkably, those selves are at the core of all our suffering, anxiety, dread, shame, grief, anger and fear about climate collapse. If we were really able to (self-)adapt, we would let go of our selves and all our judgements, self-recriminations, unhelpful anxieties and other feelings that are causing us such anguish (and in the process, immobilizing us and turning us on ourselves and against each other in an endless blame game), and just be, in the moment, ready for whatever comes. Not ‘prepared’ (for we cannot prepare for what we cannot know), but ready — open, alert, grounded, present, competent (the etymology of competent is ‘striving together’.

And if we’re going to strive together we’re going to have to communicate with each other, and to do that we’re going to have to relearn the art of conversation (whose etymology is turning with, the step before striving together).

In our crazily individualistic modern western version of civilization culture, we are still fixated on s’adapter — changing ourselves, self-improvement, personal growth, spiritual growth, becoming present in the ‘now’, finding the path to awakening, enlightenment, or whatever other flavour-of-the-month navel gazing practice has currently caught our attention. Perfectly understandable.

And also (and here’s where I part company with most of my ‘progressive’ colleagues) perfectly impossible. As I have argued endlessly elsewhere ad nauseam and will not argue again here now, we cannot change who we are. We are the product of our conditioning, devoid of free will and self-control, and in fact our self is just a mental construct conjured up by the brain to make sense of what we perceive, and it isn’t real at all. When ‘we’ seemingly change, it is our conditioning that has changed; ‘we’ have nothing to do with it.

If we were not too smart for our own good, we would look to another reflexive verb instead of s’adapters’accepter. To accept ourselves as we are — scared, lost, impotent, and desperate. Not as a prelude to changing any of that; just accepting that that is who ‘we’ are. Of course, such humble self-acceptance will also only happen if our conditioning allows and mandates it. We have no free will to choose who we are or what we believe or do. Now that is a predicament.

If you are in the large majority who think you can change yourself, who think you have personal volition, I won’t argue, and I wish you well. I’m more interested in learning about conversation — turning together — and competence — striving together.

There is some compelling evidence that most wild creatures (and perhaps even prehistoric, wild humans) have no sense of themselves as separate from everything else in the universe. They intuitively act in ways that have evolved to sustain and enhance the collective well-being of all-life-on-earth — of what is called Gaia, the self-aware, self-optimizing force of everything, life-forms and environments, that make up our world. For Gaia, turning together and striving together is the only option, the law by which it has evolved. Nature always bats last, and our species’ current predilection for so flagrantly breaking this law will not be allowed to continue much longer.

If you have watched wild creatures, you know we have a lot to learn from how they seemingly ‘converse’, communicate, and collaborate, and how they become ‘competent’ — how they strive together.

Think about a time in your life when you were so caught up in some collective action, some striving together, that ‘you’ momentarily disappeared. When you ceased thinking of what ‘you’ could add to the conversation, of what ‘you’ thought about what was being said by others, and all thought was on the collective goal or benefit. At that moment, if you’ve been lucky enough to have one, the individual mind was replaced by the collective mind. This is what some teams striving for very difficult, urgent or important goals seem to experience. It’s what improv groups (actors or musicians) seemingly experience when they’re ‘in the groove’.

That’s what we want. We want to emulate those who are able, when the moment calls for it, to overcome their preoccupation with their individual selves and just become part of a collective mind. Presuming we have one of the five purposes for our collective conversation listed at the top of this article, and our participants have an adequate un-atrophied amount of the seven essential competencies, what might be the trigger, the catalyst that then shifts the conversation into this collective mind state, and precipitates the resultant striving together?

The usual method of provoking a group is to use either rhetoric (talk radio, tweets, Ted talks or blogs) or a story (often fictionalized, simplified or exaggerated) to whip the participants into a frenzy of action — this seems to work particularly well on people who are simplistic, blame-y and lacking in self-awareness. My concern with such manipulative methods (and I’ve used them myself) is that their impact doesn’t last. Sooner or later the lie will be seen for what it is, and humans’ focus of attention is notoriously fickle.

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour is:

Humans have apparently evolved to do what they must (the personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then do what’s easy, and then do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important. Social, political and economic change happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives fills the power vacuum. We have evolved to be a collaborative and caring species, and we are all doing our best — we cannot do otherwise.

If that’s how we’re conditioned, how might we use Pollard’s Law to get people to that collective mind-state in their conversations? I would suggest that it will eventually become urgent (an imperative of the moment) as collapse hits home in our day-to-day lives, but in the meantime, we’d be better off finding ways to make conversations more fun than trying to make them easier. I think for example the collective altruistic conversations and actions of Occupy were, and those of XR are, (somewhat) fun. Why? There’s a sense of shared energy, risk, momentum and liberation in them. There’s lots of shared laughter, revelry and (sometimes) celebration. Same goes for improv activities.

So how might we introduce an element of fun, celebration, laughter and revelry into something as serious as conversations, especially when the topic is climate (or other system) collapse?

I have no idea. But I think it’s worth exploring. If fun can be the catalyst for conversations that move us beyond our paralyzed individual thinking towards a sense of collective presence, collective will, collective insight, and collective accomplishment, they might actually wrench us out of the entrained, default mode of thoughts and beliefs so many of us are stuck in. This “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” activity might actually change our conditioning, something we (arguably) cannot do all by ourselves or in the normal conversations that merely reinforce what we already think.

If we can catalyze such conversations, we’ll need to stay clear of the misguided thinking that drives us to then agree upon an “action plan”, which normally takes the form of a “who will do what by when” list and which notoriously deflates that collective energy. Indigenous cultures know that when collective action or consensus has emerged from a group conversation, no one has the authority to tell others what to do about it. It is always left up to each participant, her/his mind expanded and shocked out of its default way of thinking, to know, intuitively, what then must be done, by each of us, both individually and collectively. We have to trust that to happen.

So, in order for conversations to be (for lack of a better term) transformative, producing much more than any group of individuals could come up with alone, they need to: (1) “be on purpose” (have one of the five purposes listed above), (2) have sufficiently skilled and competent participants (with the seven skills above), and (3) have some quality (urgency, or fun) that propels people into a collective mind-state and gets them out of their personal, “self”-ish, default thinking mode. And, of course, (4) they need to have a topic, theme or focus that’s important to the participants, something they all really care about.

Derrick Jensen, who has been coming to grips with climate collapse a lot longer than most of us, might have some advice on what the topic of your next conversation on climate collapse might be. He writes:

Stand still and listen to the land, and in time you will know just what to do…  Find what or whom you love — whether it’s salmon, sturgeon, a patch of forest, survivors of domestic violence, your own indigenous tradition, migratory songbirds, coral reefs, or Appalachian mountaintops — [that you’re willing] to dig in and defend with your life… Ask yourself what are the largest, most pressing problems you can help to solve using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe.

Imagine: You’re with a group of “conversationally skilled” people, convened purposefully about something profoundly important to all of you, in a setting with either a sense of great urgency or great fun/joy, and you’re talking about what you love so much you’d give your life for it, and what you can do exceedingly well, together, using each participant’s unique capacities.

How could such a conversation not be brilliant? How could it possibly not lead to a turning together, and a striving together, beyond what you could have believed was possible?

And if your conversations don’t meet these criteria — aren’t on purpose, aren’t skilful, aren’t urgent or joyful, and aren’t about subjects you can help with and which you care about enough to die for — why, when our planet is burning, are you wasting your time on them?

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

Being Adaptable: A Reminder List

image from PXHERE, CC0

It’s been about four years since I produced an updated version of my rather complicated Community-Based Resilience Framework. The revisions I made then had already begun to acknowledge how little we can actually do to prepare ourselves and our communities for the ongoing collapse of our global industrial economy and our stable climate, ie for global civilizational collapse. No one controls this massively overextended, rapacious and immiserating economy which has critically and irrevocably disrupted and destabilized our climate, and no human endeavour can hope to understand, let alone re-stabilize, anything as staggeringly complex as our billion-year-old, ever-evolving, and astonishingly fragile climate ecology.

The Framework I produced in 2015 tried to have it both ways — it acknowledged our lack of free will, yet prescribed what we might somehow be able to (will ourselves to) do to prepare for collapse. So I thought it might be time to produce a more modest and less conflicted version of the Framework.

This time, I decided, I needed to start with an honest assessment of what is actually happening when informed, curious, intelligent people stand back and assess where we stand (personally, in our particular communities, and globally), and what is the trajectory we are anticipating. We can’t of course know what the future holds, but a study of history (our climate’s history, not just the history of our recently-arrived species), of cultures, and of economics might give us some scenarios and some inevitabilities.

So without trying to defend them (which would require a much longer article than this), here’s what I think is almost indisputably in the cards:

  1. The greatest impacts of economic collapse are almost sure to precede the greatest impacts of climate collapse, at least on a global scale. Both collapses are well underway and gathering momentum but are still in the early stages of visible acceleration. A complete and (for all intents and purposes) permanent global economic collapse means, ‘gradually’ over the next 2-3 decades, the end of affordable energy (ie the end of electricity, motorized vehicles, and reliable forms of heating and cooling), the end of markets, currencies, capital, savings, credit, corporations, and trade beyond the local area, and the end of all technologies that depend on affordable energy (including telecommunications, mass media, and the internet). This will occur in fits and starts, in some areas faster and more deeply than others, but it will in the end be global and total. We will have to re-learn to live locally without almost every technology on which we now depend. We’ll have time to do that, though not nearly enough time for our liking.
  2. The first large-scale climate collapse impacts will be related to heat, drought and soil exhaustion. These alone will likely create, with no functioning prosthetic technologies left to cool or irrigate vast areas of the planet, two billion or more ‘climate refugees’, mostly moving north, exacerbating the struggles of those already there trying to re-learn how to live locally without significant technologies. This situation will be compounding by devastating storms of many kinds and perhaps an order of magnitude more powerful, frequent and extensive than what we have ever experienced. These will render many parts of the planet, including many large cities, permanently uninhabitable. On top of that, many other parts of the world that are dependent on expensive or scarce technologies for heat, transportation, flood protection, or imported food will have to be abandoned.

So, given that we can’t really (and it’s not our nature to) prepare for such eventualities until they are imminent, what might it be possible to do now that would be of any value? And if we indeed have no free will (and I won’t argue that again here), perhaps we should instead ask what those with a proclivity to be curious, to learn new things, to be subsistent, and to live and work collaboratively with others in real community (the way all un-industrial, ‘un-civilized’ people have seemingly always lived and thrived), will likely be doing that will make them uniquely able to adapt to what is to come?

I’m going to start with the list of 25 things to do from my 2015 Framework, and cross off or amend those that I now think, hubris aside, are impracticable or unrealistic, at least in the immediate future:

Know Ourselves:

  1. know your personal capacities, limitations, blind spots, wants and needs, joys, fears, triggers and sorrows
  2. learn and practice self-awareness (why you’re acting/reacting as you are)
  3. discover where we belong and what we’re meant to do

Heal and Love Ourselves and Others:

  1. self-assess and self-manage your physical and emotional health (good diet, exercise, sleep, avoid unnecessary stresses)
  2. learn and practice compassion, appreciation, curiosity, critical thinking, connection, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, facilitation, mentoring, and how to ask for help, and model these behaviours for others
  3. spend time outdoors in natural places (learn, move, smile and pay attention) | appreciate our true nature | insist on joy in spite of everything
  4. learn new ways to heal and help others heal
  5. love unreservedly, even those we don’t like

Liberate Ourselves from Dependence on Centralized Industrial Systems:

  1. need less, share and give more, and learn continuously
  2. strive to realize the illusion of self, ego, control, separateness & time
  3. self-assess and increase personal independence from centralized systems
  4. help liberate others by modelling equanimity, presence etc.
  5. engage with the fearful and with deniers

Rethink, Shift and Experiment:

  1. Find community: rethink how, where and with whom you live and make a living
  2. learn how our complex world really works
  3. find people who share your passions and purpose
  4. instead of a job, find and fill real local needs
  5. shift to the sharing/gift economy

Prepare Collectively:

  1. discover what those in your community already know, have, can do, need and can’t do (if you’re lucky enough to live in a real community)
  2. study how other cultures have coped with crisis and collapse*
  3. fight small, winnable local battles to make your community healthier for all its creatures
  4. learn what you need and don’t need to live full, joyful lives
  5. assess and build your community’s self-sufficiency, resilience and mobility
  6. source locally | build collective community capacity
  7. rehearse crisis response in your community

This leaves us with just ten things to do instead of 25, and they’re practical things we can do even while the existing industrial systems still work (and our dependence on them, for perfectly human reasons, remains). We can’t jump the gun; we have to continue to work mostly within the existing systems that we and all around us continue to support and depend on, until they crumble, which will likely be sooner than you’d think.

With just ten items on this Being Adaptable list (I’m no longer going to use the word “preparing”, since we can’t know what to “prepare” for; we have to be prepared for anything), we can now dispense with the categories, so the list, in order from most inward-facing and personal to most outward-facing and communitarian, looks like this (click on the image to download a larger version if you want to print it):

My guess is that you’re probably already doing most or all of these things, or at least they would not be a big stretch for you. To me that’s the hallmark of a good, practical list. Even if I did believe we have free will, I would still believe we are, mostly, doing what we’re doing for a perfectly valid reason. And I believe we’re all doing our best (even if some of us are ignorant and misguided). So this is now more a list of reminders than a “to do” list. And when you do these things, naturally, others will see and learn from you, and reciprocate. That’s our nature too.

* hint: mostly they just walked away and found others with whom to live more simply; violent ‘Mad Max’ type scenarios have been uncommon

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Did Early Humans Have Selves?

image by Neil Howard on flickr CC-BY-NC2.0

Ontology is “a gathering of or speaking (-logy) about ‘what is, what exists’ (onto-)”. The suffix -logy has come to mean a study or science, but originally it just referred to something said (the word monologue has the same root). So an ontology is a statement about what is.

The radical non-duality “message” is, essentially, an ontology, though a very unorthodox one. It is not a theory — its messengers assert that it is absolutely true, undebatable and obvious, and that it is only our illusory selves that cannot see this truth. The message is simply this:

There is no you. The sense of a separate person with free will and choice inhabiting a body is an illusion, an evolutionary misstep, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that arises in creatures with large brains. The brain and body have no need of a ‘self’ in order for the apparent human they are seemingly a part of to function perfectly well. Since there is no you, there is nothing you can do or learn or become to dispel or see through this illusion. It’s hopeless.

Nothing is real. Nothing is separate. There is no thing. There is only this (or everything, or whatever word you want to use), appearing as things and actions in (apparent) time and space. These appearances are not illusions like the self, and they’re not real, or unreal; they are just appearances. Inexplicably. For no reason or purpose.

That’s it. That’s the message. Everything else that radical non-dualists talk about is just an elaboration, an illumination, of the essence and consequences of this simple, hopeless message.

So we might inquire how and why this useless, annoying, suffering-causing illusory sense of separate self arose in this seemingly perfect-just-as-it-is “one-ness” appearing as everything (although if this message is true there is actually no “how” or “why” for anything).

There are possible evolutionary explanations, as I’ve described before — perhaps when large brains evolved the capacity to ‘model’ everything they perceived in order to make sense of it for survival purposes, that ‘model’ turned out to include a ‘self’, and when that ‘self’ was conjured up it began to use the brain’s power to perceive of itself (and everything else) as real and separate. There is growing evidence (from physics) that time and space aren’t ‘real’ (in the sense of being scientifically objectively verifiable) either — they’re just mental constructs used by the brain to organize and make sense of sensory perceptions. So why couldn’t the same be true of the self, itself?

If that’s true, then it implies that we, the supposedly super-intelligent, knowledgeable and super-conscious species, are actually the only species that cannot see through the illusion of its self, ie the only species that can’t see everything as it truly is — as a wondrous appearance of everything out of nothing, outside of space and time, without meaning or purpose or intention or anything separate.

If the message of radical non-duality is true (and over the last several years I’ve come to believe it is), then it is the most profound, and the most humbling, discovery in the history of our species. It means that our species is the only one hopelessly afflicted and debilitated by a hallucination that causes its victims untold suffering for no reason, and renders us uniquely unable to see what actually is. And who are its victims? Not the naked bipedal creatures ‘we’ presume to inhabit. These creatures are just appearances out of nothing, so they can’t be victims.

The victims of our selves’ psychosomatic misunderstanding are our selves. If this sounds recursive, it is. It would appear that our brains conjured up an illusory, imagined self so convincingly that it made that illusion ‘self-conscious’ and capable of believing itself real.

How can something invented become ‘self-conscious’? Well, what does it mean to be ‘self-conscious’? It means to believe itself to be real and separate and aware of something other than itself. AI fans are intrigued with the idea that robots could eventually do just that.

But if nothing is real, how could a self come to believe itself to be real? Because that’s what it perceives, how its conceptions makes sense of its perceptions. How can something that isn’t real have perceptions and conceptions? Anything is possible. Why not? If the sleeping brain can have a dream or nightmare that seems astonishingly real (perhaps enough to cause the body of the dreamer a heart attack), when it isn’t real at all, why should it be impossible that the (unreal) self can dream it is real and its experiences are real, when it is just an illusion, something conjured up by a pattern-making brain?

Let’s take a step back. The radical non-dual ontology says there are no ‘real’ creatures, brains, dreamers, heart attacks, lives, deaths, places, times, or things of any kind; there are only appearances of these things. What does it mean for something to be an appearance? (This is not the same as something being an illusion — a psychosomatic misunderstanding).

This is where the self’s understanding falters, and runs into the constraints of self-invented languages. The (illusory) self, which perceives itself to live in a dualistic world, where everything is either real (ie fits within its conceptions of what is real) or unreal (ie fits within its conceptions of what can be imagined) cannot conceive of or imagine what an ‘appearance’ is. An appearance is neither real nor unreal. It is not a conception, it is not a perception, it is not something that is or can be imagined, conceived or perceived by the self. How can it then possibly be true? Because it appears that when the self drops away (and it is seen that it never actually was) everything that is, is suddenly, wondrously, seen, as an appearance — by no one.

How do we know? We don’t — but (apparent) messengers of the radical non-duality ontology who claim ‘they’ don’t exist and do not ‘any longer’ have selves say this truth is now seen. Why should we believe them? Because their ontology is air-tight; it has no flaws, no loose ends, no ‘dark matter’ still unexplained, no contradictory arguments, no inconsistencies; no one could invent and ‘argue’ an ontology this brilliantly, and continue to do so for decades, as Tony Parsons has done for example.

And as perplexing as this ontology is, to some extent it is intuitive, even obvious to everyone. Whenever there is a ‘glimpse‘ it is seen to be true. When it’s accepted it is actually profoundly satisfying, since everything suddenly makes sense, including all the unhappiness and frustration the self feels, hopelessly and needlessly, life-long.

But it makes no sense to the self. It seems utterly preposterous. And even when science is able to eliminate all other possible ontologies (and I’d guess that will happen by the end of this century, if our civilization lasts that long), it probably won’t be accepted by most people as other than a useless scientific curiosity, like black holes.

It’s been suggested that belief in radical non-duality is just another dogmatic ‘self-denying’ religion — something that someone desperate enough for an easy answer to life’s apparent suffering will glom on to as a last resort, a coping mechanism during their ‘dark night of the soul‘. This is probably the hardest argument to address, since radical non-duality does partly meet the broader definitions of religion as a “system of faith and worship” or as a “system of beliefs, symbols and practices that addresses the nature of existence, and … is lived as if it both takes in and spiritually transcends socially-grounded ontologies of time, space, embodiment and knowing.”

But I don’t think it qualifies as a religion because:

  • it has nothing to do with spirituality or belief in a higher power or the supernatural
  • it has no object of worship (not even Gaia)
  • it is built on skepticism about other ontologies, rather than on faith (ie an unsupported or unsupportable belief) in an ontology
  • rather than being in conflict with, or dealing only with areas outside of science, it seems to have considerable scientific support (in neuroscience, quantum physics, astrophysics and cosmology)
  • it entails no practices and offers no pathways to or ideas about better ways to live
  • it offers no solace, salvation, redemption, comfort or any of the other apparent benefits of religious belief

So, back to the sheer preposterousness of this ontology. If it’s so “obvious”, why does almost no one subscribe to it?

The history of the human species is replete with belief systems that lasted millennia because they were simply the best that available scientific and other empirical evidence could come up with. And humans want to believe, and will accept almost any belief system that isn’t obviously wrong, dangerous or useless. We have believed (and some still believe) in magical and evil spirits, in reincarnation, in a geocentric universe, in a flat earth, that the earth was created by a superhuman in six days, that babies and non-humans cannot feel pain, that diseases are caused by humours or miasmas and can be cured by faith-healers, etc.

We generally believe (a) what we’re conditioned by parents, peers and other trusted people to believe, (b) what we learn that isn’t inconsistent with what we already believe, and (c) what we want to believe (because it’s easy, safe, or for other personal reasons). It is likely that billions of people still don’t believe in evolution. Many believe in outmoded ideas like the “big bang” or string theory simply because others have persuaded them that these theories seem to be consistent with scientific knowledge, and no better theory has been presented and explained to them.

So the fact that there is not even a small consensus on the validity of the ontology of radical non-duality is probably not surprising. It is very new (though in some ways very ancient — there is after all no such thing as “progress” of ideas and belief systems). It flies in the face of centuries of scientific thought. It is hopeless (there is no path to realize its veracity), useless (it offers no guidance on any subject), and it creates a host of moral dilemmas (it denies the existence of purpose, meaning, free will, self-control, or responsibility). In fact the only thing that it seems to have going for it is that it’s perhaps the only ontology that explains everything and isn’t directly contradicted by very compelling evidence. It is, perhaps, the ontology of last resort.

Suppose this ontology is correct. What would happen if it became largely accepted? Nothing would change. Because if it’s correct, and selves and separation don’t exist, then acknowledging that truth isn’t going to change anything. Those whose selves have apparently fallen away seem to behave almost exactly as they did before, confirming that the self, being an illusion, doesn’t actually influence anything — the apparent character (body+behaviours) ‘left behind’ continues to do what it’s been biologically and culturally conditioned to do. What seemed to be ‘decisions’ made by selves were discovered to be merely ‘rationalizations’ for what the character was going to do anyway.

So when I wrote earlier that humans are the only species that can’t see everything as it truly is, that’s kind of unfair to the billions of apparent human bodies on the planet that, unbeknown to our ‘selves’ are not actually separate or unable to see what truly is. What “can’t see everything as it truly is” are the selves that presume to inhabit those bodies, and which are disconnected from ‘everything that is’, including our remarkably competent (without any self telling them what to do) bodies.

So there is nothing to lose, or to gain, if this ontology becomes widely accepted. What will continue to (apparently) happen is the only thing that could have happened.

Our languages are utterly ‘self-ish’. They consist primarily of nouns (things that don’t actually exist), pronouns (references to self and others, which are illusory), and adjectives (conceptual, perceptual and judgemental descriptors of these non-existent things). Every sentence, by its grammatical form, is a story fragment — a fiction. Thoughts and feelings and personal sensations and perceptions, in the absence of language, are ephemeral — they have no substance, import or reality. They can’t be ‘made sense of’ without the context of a story, ie without language.

It is only when the self takes ownership of these ephemera that it ‘makes’ them real. Then, using language, the self weaves them into a story (about seemingly ‘real’ things existing and happening in ‘real’ time and space, and full of ‘real’ causality). And then these “psychosomatic misunderstandings” (as Jim Newman calls them) begin to wreak havoc on us — setting up the vicious cycle of what Eckhart Tolle calls the “egoic mind’s” often-terrible (and always invented) conceptions, perceptions, ideas, judgements, stories, expectations and beliefs, and the “pain-body’s” reactive negative emotions. Egoic mind sees loved one hugging stranger, invents a story about its meaning, and reacts with jealousy. And that jealousy then feeds more imagined aspects of the story, which fuels more reactive pain etc.

Language thus entrenches and reinforces the self’s sense of separation. Without it, could there even be a sense of self? Have humans always been afflicted with this sense of self?

There is (hotly debated) evidence that the first settlements, agriculture and abstract languages (the three hallmarks of ‘civilized’ society) all began about 10-20k ago (by contrast, human art dates back at least 100k years). These civilizations likely emerged independently in widely dispersed areas on five continents.

It is plausible that abstract language only evolved because it was needed to function in complex agricultural settlements, but it’s probably safe to assume all three hallmarks co-evolved and that all three are essential to a functioning civilization culture. There’s also some (equally-debatable) evidence that civilizations arose either (1) because exceptionally-comfortable post-ice-age climate conditions (since ~10k years ago) allowed massive increases in populations in suddenly-lush areas that had been largely lifeless when they were under mile-thick ice, or (2) because exceptionally-grim late-ice-age climate conditions (~20k years ago) forced humans to evolve civilizations in order to survive.

Whichever theory holds, it is interesting to speculate whether, prior to ‘civilization’, when we lived in relatively tiny numbers in tropical forests (and, later, as many vast forests burned due to more climate change, savannas), humans actually had selves. There is a credible argument that our first expansion (perhaps expulsion is a better word) from the once-all-providing forest to the unfamiliar and more perilous seashore enabled us to start to consume large amounts of amino-acid-rich (and plentiful) fish and seafood, which led to the major increase in the size and capacity of our brains, perhaps beyond the tipping point that would allow the idea of the ‘self’ to arise. Indeed, most early civilizations were in coastal areas.

This argument, then, would hold not only that climate change both provoked the emergence of human civilizations, and is now causing the termination of our global human civilization, but that illusory human ‘selves’ are concurrent with both stable climate and civilization culture. That would mean that pre-civilized humans were not conscious of themselves as separate and not afflicted by the illusion of selves with their commensurate, useless, body-mind trauma. It would also hold that when our global civilization culture fizzles out with the end of stable climate later this century, the (relatively small number of human) survivors millennia hence will not be afflicted with selves, and will not have civilizations, (catastrophic) agriculture, settlements or languages. Lucky them! What an amazing time that will be! But for no one, since the apparent human bodies will have no sense of being separate and apart from everything that (apparently) is.

Why wouldn’t these post-global-civ humans just reinvent language, settlement, agriculture, and civilization? Because they wouldn’t need any of these things to thrive, as humans apparently did for most of a million years before the ice ages. Even if selves emerged in certain large-brained post-civ humans, there would be no cultural conditioning to reinforce the illusion that the self was real, and hence it would be ignored, and not evolutionarily selected for.

How can any creature function without any sense of itself? When we study tiny wild creatures with minuscule brains (like silverfish or aphids), we see an amazing and clever instinct for survival, honed over millions of years to know just when and where to flee or freeze. When we study wild creatures that have no brains at all, like jellyfish, we likewise see amazing intelligence, but if there can be said to be a self in such creatures, it would have to be plural, since they have no centre, no place for a ‘self’ to reside.

When we study large-brained wild animals, like whales and elephants and ravens, we insist they must have a sense of self, and other, to explain many of their apparently clever, self-absorbed or altruistic activities. Yet none of these creatures has (to our knowledge) invented abstract language, catastrophic agricultural processes, complex settlements, or large-scale complex civilizations. Why not? Because they don’t need them. Whales have lots of the stuff of complex brains, so it’s clear they could evolve these things if it served an evolutionary purpose to do so, but it doesn’t. Does that mean they don’t have selves?

I would argue that they don’t have selves because they don’t need them, either. A self needs nurturing, conditioning, reinforcement. I would say that without abstract language it is impossible to ‘teach’ infants of any species to acknowledge and accept their selves as real. Without language there can be no stories, no sense of individuality or purpose or apart-ness — no sense of self. So even though a baby whale surely has the brain capacity to create a model of itself, even if it did so, would it take it seriously? Without language reinforcement from other whales, why would it consider the model of the self as any more than it is — a mental construct of no evident use or import?

There have been studies that indicate these complex creatures live most of their lives in a perpetual “now time”, unaware of the existence of “clock time”, of their separateness, or of anything apart. And then in moments of existential threat (eg a looming predator) they briefly enter an ‘altered state’ that causes them to fight, flight or freeze, and to use everything in their power (including their considerable wits) to protect themselves or their tribe-mates. And then it is physically ‘shaken off’ — like a bad dream — after which they return to “now time”. This makes enormous evolutionary sense.

Unfortunately, in humans, in crowded, precarious, agricultural settlements and massively overpopulated, crowded, unfathomably-complex civilized cultures, the stress that brings about this ‘altered state’ is chronic — it never goes away. So how do we cope? Enter the self, valiantly trying to make sense of this unnatural and traumatic state that you never seem to wake up from. And the self decides it is real, that everything else outside it is real (especially those threats), that it is in control (someone has to be in this awful chaos!), that it has free will and choice, and that it is responsible for the survival and well-being of the body it now presumes to inhabit. It invents language to communicate its trauma, and what might be done about it, to similarly afflicted selves, in the hope that selves working together will accomplish more than a lone self. And it never wakes up.

The tragedy of course is that this well-meaning self doesn’t actually do anything. It is the dream (or rather the nightmare, the prison it has caught itself in) it is trying to solve, to make better. Just as with every other creature, the human body knows, from a million years, a billion years of evolutionary learning stored in its DNA, just what to do. Not only does the self not do anything, it doesn’t even get in the way. It is a self-created illusion.

The question is not how we could or would function without selves, but rather how we are able to function perfectly well without selves. In part, that is the wonder of evolution — no ‘self-conscious’ self is needed (which is a good thing, because the self is pretty poor at what it does, in case you haven’t noticed).

Hidden beyond the veil of your self, that body that you’ve come to think of as yours is an amazing evolutionary ‘machine’ that doesn’t recognize or see ‘you’ at all, and it knows exactly what to do. No help from ‘you’ or ‘me’ required.

Beyond this dream-veil of the self the wondrous oneness of everything — not real or unreal, just everything appearing to happen, beyond time or space — is seen as it truly is. Not seen by a body, not seen by any one, just seen for what it, astonishingly, is. If you know (kind of) what I mean by a glimpse, you’ll understand. But you’ll still be trapped in the prison of your self.

If this makes no sense to ‘you’, it doesn’t matter. Everything will go on appearing, perfectly, wondrously, outside of ‘you’ and ‘me’, eternally and everywhere. Except when and where ‘you’ and ‘I’ are, hopelessly, looking.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

Links of the Quarter: June 2019

image of the Maldives by David Mark from Pixabay, CC0; the islands will likely be completely submerged due to sea level rise from glacial melt by mid-century

I’ve recently updated the (highly subjective) list of my ‘best’ 94 posts. That’s out of nearly 3000 posts since this blog began in February 2003 (I started posting “links of the week/ month/ quarter” soon after), up through May 21st of this year. The list is shown in the right sidebar (sorted by category, newest first in each category), and several of my most recent posts are on the list. That includes my latest writings on collapse, on direct action, on human nature, on radical nonduality and the cognitive dissonance that belief in it produces, and some new creative works.

Writing about these subjects, some of which I’ve been touching on since this blog started, still seems to be what’s worth doing now.

On to the links:


in a NYT piece by Claire Cain Miller (ironically behind paywall); thanks to Tree Bressen for the link; via Corporate Rebels

No Happy Ending: Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene has just written a lovely and scathing review of two new ‘dire but still hopeful’ books on collapse, in the LA Review of Books this week. It is actually a broad summation of the current state of writing about collapse and of some of its leading lights. Well worth a read. Teaser:

Unluckily for us, climate change is not a moral fable, a point [David] Wallace-Wells [author of the much-debated essay The Uninhabitable Earth] makes but then seems to forget. “There is nothing to learn from global warming,” he writes early on, “because we do not have the time, or the distance, to contemplate its lessons; we are after all not merely telling the story but living it.” And therein lies the problem with both books. The story we’re living is one of failure, catastrophe, suffering, and tragedy: an out-of-control car careening off a dark road. The story Wallace-Wells and [Bill] McKibben wind up telling, however, is that we’re in control and the skid is manageable, if only we choose to take the wheel. It’s a story I’ve heard before…

The challenge these two capable, intelligent writers struggle with so powerfully, and which they so disappointingly fail to meet, is a challenge that anyone who thinks seriously about climate change confronts: the danger we face is utterly unlike anything humanity has ever faced before. Their moral fables don’t really fit our situation, but neither does the traditional narrative of apocalypse, nor the story of wartime mobilization, nor the story of innovation and progress, nor narratives of heroic overcoming.

Climate change is bigger than any individual moral choice. It’s bigger than the New Deal, bigger than the Marshall Plan, bigger than World War II, bigger than racism, sexism, inequality, slavery, the Holocaust, the end of nature, the Sixth Extinction, famine, war, and plague all put together. The chaos it’s bringing is going to supercharge every other problem. Successfully meeting this crisis would require an abrupt, traumatic revolution in global human society; failing to meet it will be even worse. This is the truth we struggle to comprehend in narrative, the reality our stories must make sense of. The all-too-real possibility we must confront — and which David Wallace-Wells and Bill McKibben notably refuse — is that the story we’re living is a tragedy that ends in disaster, no matter what.

Grim Scenarios: David Spratt and Ian Dunlop, who bring deep credentials in scenario planning and thinking to the task of painting a realistic picture of coming climate change, have dared to illustrate what Roy and David have hinted at, and it’s enough to scare the reader shitless. Their scenario of Earth in 2050 — that’s just three decades from now — refers to “reaching the Endgame”, as many as 2 billion humans displaced by heat, drought and flooding, and utter social breakdown in the face of massive and relentless economic and social disruption caused by extreme climate events, and the report concludes: “In high-end scenarios, the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end.”

Talking With Your Children About Collapse: Despite the sobering reality outlined above, counsellors continue to tell parents to ‘accentuate the positive’ and to help their children to be ‘hopeful’ in light of what we now face. I guess that’s the best they have to offer. What could we do with them that would be more useful, and more honest? Or, perhaps even better, should we just shut up and listen to them?

Michael Dowd’s Collapse Collection: Michael has put together audio recordings of nearly 50 articles and interviews with leading writers about collapse.


image from an innovative ad for a Newfoundland inn; thanks to Jae Mather for the link

How Extinction Rebellion Operates: Roger Hallam explains the theory that lies behind this powerful movement. Radical activist groups, usually quick to criticize new movements as naive, seem to be begrudgingly supportive.

Palestine’s Sisyphus: A review of the remarkable work of Palestinian writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh.

The Art of the Green New Deal: Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis (yes, they’re Canadians) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have teamed up to produce a video portraying what a successful Green New Deal might look like. It’s about time we leveraged the power of the arts to create a better vision than the terrible ones currently on offer. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.


cartoon by the great Australian cartoonist Costa A; thanks to Ben Pennings for the link

The Most Incompetent Businessperson of All Time: The NYT has analyzed 10 years of 45’s old tax returns and they reveal an absolutely staggering level of business incompetence, unparalleled in history, with billions upon billions of dollars lost through poor investments. No wonder he doesn’t want the world to see his recent returns. Although it’s almost inconceivable that the liar-in-chief files honest returns, even what he has disclosed is mind-blowing. Sadly, this is important investigative journalism now buried behind the NYT paywall, much to 45’s benefit. (On the other hand, the NYT has recently come down against universal healthcare for Americans, saying “there is no precedent in American history” for anything so radical, and this strangely regressive position is also locked behind their paywall, for which I am grateful.)

Canada’s Pathetic Political Leaders: Investigative journalist Michael Harris summarizes the endless blundering and poor decision-making of the Trudeau government, and the reasons why his arch-Conservative counterpart is much, much worse. But given the waffling and stupidity of recently-elected provincial NDP governments, that once-great party may be relegated to the history books with this fall’s election, and the Greens’ befuddled backing of environmental atrocities in BC in a hapless attempt to secure proportionate representation, and their cowardly backpedaling on an anti-Israeli-apartheid BDS platform, pretty much assures they will remain a backwater party. There’s basically no ethical progressive party to vote for in Canada.

Canadian Government Yields to Bank Pressure on New Regulations: After the CBC revealed many bank-insider whistle-blowers’ concerns about high-pressure sales tactics used by bank managers on hapless consumers, new regulations were proposed to prohibit them, but the banks were given a copy in advance, and when they didn’t like the new regulations, the government relented and weakened the regulations.

The Oil Industry Has Been Lying About Tar Sands Emissions: Who’d’a guessed?

The UK Brexit Morass: Jonathan Pie brilliantly castigates the UK government for its unbelievable mishandling of Brexit. Not as funny as he is usually, but more important. He’s also at the top of his game with his recent ‘report’ on British citizens’ lack of ‘social mobility’.

Uber’s Master Plan to Take Over Public Transit: Tim Redmond points out an aspect of Uber’s strategy that most people have failed to notice: replacing not only taxis and private automobiles, but municipal buses and trains as well. Thanks to Ben Collver for the link.

Manufacturing Dissent: Danah Boyd, a fellow pioneer in the field dubiously known as ‘knowledge management’, has written an important an insightful address to a digital library group about agnotology (the deliberate manufacture of ignorance in the populace) and epistemological fragmentation (sowing division and doubt through the provocative use and propagation of misinformation). Social media, she says, play perfectly into the hands of perpetrators of both. The article explains how and why this is happening, and the consequences if it continues unabated. Thanks to John Kellden for the link.


screen cap from a segment on Santorini island, Greece in a 4k video by 4k Urban Life (click on image to see full size); more amazing 4k videos take you to Paris or London at night, or La Habana Cuba. You don’t even need 4k capacity on your laptop to be blown away at how immersive this technology has become.

Handpan Music from a Sicily Mountaintop: Giolì and Assia perform a long set of EDM with handpan accompaniment from a breathtaking location.

How Different Generations Would Invest $10,000: If you got a tax-free gift of $10,000, how would you spend it? This chart shows the generational differences, and they’re telling. Thanks to Jae Mather for the link.

The Art of Colourizing Old Photos: See how the experts do it, step-by-step instructions to DIY, and how colourizing can fool you.

How the Other 90% Live: Al Jazeera takes you to Lagos, Nigeria, soon to be the world’s largest city (growing by about a million people a year, most of them refugees and many of them uncounted), and the story of two young teachers from Benin struggling to survive in the big city.

How to Sabotage Your Workplace: Corporate Rebels republish a fascinating (recently declassified) CIA report written in 1944 to help allied sympathizers in axis-controlled and -occupied nations disrupt work productivity in their homelands, which contains some mighty powerful ideas for doing the same thing today. What’s even more interesting is how these tactics overlap with many of the behaviours seen in many corporate executives and management of large organizations (hopefully unwittingly). Makes for fascinating and sometimes hilarious reading. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Did the Last Climate Emergency Create Bipedal Humans?: A new study of waves of massive electron storms lasting five million years and ending just over two million years ago (caused by cosmic radiation from supernovae 160 light years away) may have burned up much of the tropical rainforest that was then home to early hominids, in megafires, especially in East Africa, forcing them to migrate and adapt to savanna conditions better suited to standing on two legs, and other radical behaviour changes. So climate change may have been responsible for causing civilization to arise in the first place, just as it is now responsible for causing its end.

A Brilliant New Piano Talent: Young Georgian (the country, not the state) pianist Khatia Buniatishvili (there’s a cedilla under the s but my keyboard can’t show it) is creating a sensation in the classical music world. Alas, too many old male music critics are so distracted by her appearance that they discount what she is doing to revolutionize the art. There has been a recent trend to play piano works (especially slow movements) more slowly to infuse more emotion into the playing. The adagio from Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, for example, was played by the composer in about 10 minutes, and more recently by the great Lang Lang in 14 minutes. Khatia ratchets it back to 10 without losing a trace of the nuance and emotional power of the music. She and her sister Gvantsa likewise partner in Bach’s concerto for two pianos and orchestra, sprinting through it deftly and passionately in a breathtaking 13:40. Everything Khatia performs sounds new, especially when she pairs up with the remarkable Orchestra Un Violon Sur le Sable, which is also reinventing the performance of many classical standards. And on top of that Khatia is remarkably astute as a political analyst (in at least four languages) as this interview in her adopted France demonstrates.


cartoon by Keith J. Taylor; thanks to Ron Woodall for the link

From Scott Budman (thanks to Hildy Gottlieb for the link): “Went to synagogue yesterday for my friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah. Arrived and saw five people holding signs by the door. I thought, protestors? No. Muslims. The signs said ‘We’re better together. We’ll keep watch while you pray.'”

From Nick Humphrey, geoscientist and meteorologist, in a recent interview with xRay Mike:

I do not think it is possible [as XR is demanding] to transition to a net-zero carbon emission civilization within a decade. The idea itself is simply absurd because it would require basically returning to a pre-industrial society with none of the benefits which came from building the society provided by fossil fuels…  Meanwhile, none of this stops climate change because there is already so much damage in the pipeline. At 500 parts per million of equivalent carbon dioxide concentration, enough greenhouse gases are currently in the atmosphere to ultimately warm the planet 4-5 degrees C/7-9 F above 1700s temperatures, raise the sea level by 220 feet/67 meters (assuming 1 ppm CO2 equivalent = 1 ft sea level rise, based on past longer-term paleoclimate change response), and remove significant amounts of soil moisture, leading to the destruction of agriculture. And this is without any other carbon releases or feedbacks…

We are entering a range of weather conditions not supportive of agriculture. And not simply monoculture. All agriculture. Even other ways of doing Ag require stable weather conditions, seasonality, soils and ability to conduct economic activity between peoples. None of this will be possible in these conditions. And that assumes the ecosystems which support agriculture also remain stable and available and that is not likely given the ongoing global extinction of insects.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 3 Comments

Things I Do While Waiting, Hopelessly, for the Dawn

photo by Vahap Kìlüken from pxhere, cc0

The expression the dark night of the soul seems to resonate with a lot of people. It’s used as a metaphor for times of extreme personal, often existential, doubt, angst, hopelessness, depression, meaninglessness, purposelessness, aimlessness, sorrow, emotional and spiritual emptiness, and a host of other haunting, relentless feelings that, it is always hoped, will fall away and give rise to a new ‘dawn’, offering revelation, calm, inspiration, insight, joy, redemption and fullness of heart.

The expression is usually credited to a medieval Spanish mystic named St John who actually never used the phrase, but who wrote a poem (later turned into mostly-brooding songs by at least a dozen composers and artists) about his journey (on foot) into the night and his discovery of God/nature/oneness in that dark place. Most non-dualists from Eckhart Tolle to Adyashanti have written and talked about how this was for them, and most self-professed spiritual ‘teachers’ tell you what to ‘do’ about it, and promise deliverance, liberation, or ‘enlightenment’ on the other side of it. Gratefully, radical non-dualists like Tony Parsons and Jim Newman offer absolutely no guidance on dealing with it if and when it happens to you.

My guess is that, for most people, the ‘dark night’ is the romanticizing of depression, despair and/or grief. It’s indulging in the heroic myth that through suffering comes true realization and achievement, that “the darkest hour is always before the dawn”. In other words, the myth of progress, made personal. Hope is really important to most people (sadly).

I have no problems with that — whatever works for people is fine with me — but it’s very different from what I sense St John was referring to. At the end of St John’s night, I sense, is emptiness. Not an enlightened St John, but one who’s no longer there, but vanished into oneness with the night.

And the “night” is always, I think, actually much longer than one night.

For me, I think, this period of existential crisis has lasted at least a few years now, and while it could euphemistically be called ‘dark’ it has actually been the happiest period of my life. The realization, first, that whatever I may do with the rest of my life will make no enduring difference to the world after I’ve gone, and, second, that I have no free will, control, choice or indeed responsibility for what ‘I’ apparently do with the rest of my life or what happens to ‘me’, has actually been liberating in its own right.

The further realization that this long-suffering ‘self’ is just a concocted illusion, a spandrel, an evolutionary accident that believes itself within and in charge of this mind and body, helps ‘me’ to see this existential crisis (and to some extent this existential crisis is ‘me’) for what it is. And what it is is a psychosomatic misunderstanding of a model of what seems real, dreamt up by a furiously patterning brain and conveyed to an impressionable, reactive body, and then, tragically, mistaken for reality. Evolutionarily, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

So this night is not so dark, not for me anyway. What is left, in lieu of a slew of ghastly and debilitating negative feelings is (a) annoyance and impatience that this ‘me’ is suffering needlessly, and a sense it would be best (for me and the world) if my ‘self’ somehow quietly just fell away, and (b) a complete lack of any sense of what (as I put it in my last post) seems worth doing now.

There have been many times, especially late at night when, perhaps like St John, I’ve felt a desire to walk out into the forest (I am so blessed to live where I do) and/or down to the ocean, and then just sit or lie there until something that somehow seems more likely to happen there than in this safe shelter where I spend too much time, happens.

But I don’t actually do that. Too uncomfortable, and actually kinda silly. It’s a strong romantic fantasy, though. Could make a great next chapter for the ‘story of me’. But damn that story is boring.

I have less romantic types of fantasies, too, usually around excessive hedonistic activities that bring pure pleasure and (in my fantasies) endless fun into this ‘dark night’. Not going to happen of course, except in my dreams-within-this-dream. Passes the time to think about it though. Something to do while waiting, in the Eliotesque sense of the word.

And then there is play — most of it solo, these days — crosswords, games, jamming to good instrumental music with my keyboard and Garage Band, listening to new ‘recommended’ music, my creative writing (sometimes), rare conversations with very bright, curious and creative people, rarer bouts of painting, the occasional brief flirtation, looking at beautiful things and places (much safer than actually engaging with them personally, and 4K sure beats Kodachrome), a very few books and fewer films. There is no time, no life, no death, not really, so what harm is there in a little innocent play?

And sometimes there is a glimpse. But it never lasts.

Seems pretty ‘self’-indulgent, no? I have, it’s true, been too much myself of late. After many years of trying to be more present, I’m coming to think it would be better for everyone, including this creature ‘I’ presume to inhabit, if ‘I’ were instead more absent. This creature does just fine without ‘me’, and always has.

Of course ‘I’ have no say in any of this. So I guess I will just stick around, waiting, and occasionally doing other pretentious things, like writing in this blog. Sorry if you were expecting more.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

The Work That Seems Worth Doing Now

conversation by pam o'connell
painting “In Deep Conversation” by Irish artist Pam O’Connell

“It’s about negotiating the surrender of our whole way of living,” writes Dougald Hine. Dougald was the co-founder ten years ago of the Dark Mountain project he is now leaving behind, and he’s just written a poignant and thoughtful essay titled After We Stop Pretending, his Dark Mountain swan song. “Negotiating the surrender of our whole way of living” is his current answer to the question: What is the work that seems worth doing now?

I had the pleasure of meeting Dougald and Paul a few years ago in Totnes, and then fell out of touch with both of them. I sensed they were being sucked back into useless debates about collapse (what was being said about it; what could or should be ‘done’ about it), and I was disappointed that what I’d read of the contents of their writing anthologies never approached the brilliance of their original Manifesto. But I still agree with the original Dark Mountain mandate: to simply chronicle civilization’s collapse, through whatever our media of choice may be, without prescribing what to do about it, since nothing can, or need, be done. It is enough to witness it, articulately and compassionately.

It is enough to point out what is so obvious few can see it, as Dougald does again in this essay, writing from Sweden about his co-venture called Home, which is “a gathering place and a learning community for those who are drawn to the work of re-growing a living culture”, and reminding us of Vinay Gupta’s observation that “What you people call collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee”.

Still, all collapsniks keep getting asked the same question What do we do now?, so I thought it was interesting that Dougald has seemingly learned to sidestep that answerless question by instead addressing the more sensible question What is the work that seems worth doing now?

Dougald, like me, has become intrigued by the Extinction Rebellion movement, which seems a much younger, more radical, more intent and less idealistic movement than the Occupy movement, somewhat more akin to the Idle No More movement. He admires their energy, their doggedness, their Direct Action work that dares to say no to a culture that no longer serves us, and predicts “there will be other movements along soon, other kinds of rupture and other kinds of work to be done”.

I’m not so sure. Dougald’s new venture of “re-growing a living culture” resonates with the mandate of Extinction Rebellion to co-create a “regenerative culture”, and that of the latest generation of food system activists to promote “regenerative agriculture”. Sustainability and resilience are dead, apparently; long live “regeneration”!

I find reading about these ‘new’ terms depressing: it’s all about “improvement”, “design”, and (etymologically) “making things over”. Whereas permaculture and complexity science teach us about observing and learning humbly from nature and adapting accordingly, “regeneration” (literally “being born again”) is about humans once again front and centre doing things a better way (than nature?) When will we ever learn?

I think part of the problem with sussing out the work that seems worth doing now is that anyone’s answer will be contingent upon their personal story of what has been, of where ‘we’ are now, and of what the future will hold. As I have argued before, stories are convenient fictions. They are what we want to believe, not what is true — no story can convey what’s really true. 45, who is now certain to be remembered in history as the most incompetent businessperson in the history of the planet, is a master story-teller, spinning tales that so many desperately want to believe to be true that it is now quite conceivable that this incoherent, clueless sociopath will actually be re-elected. How can we persuade ourselves, after looking at his example, that changing our world is as absurdly simple as “changing our story”? Damn stories.

Dougald’s answer of “negotiating the surrender of our whole way of living” is likewise laden with his story, one that many affluent progressives obviously sympathize with and relate to. It’s a poetic and lovely statement, one I wish I’d come up with. But what does it mean? To what or whom are we surrendering exactly? What does it mean to surrender when you only do it when you have no other choice?

And given the chasm between ‘our’ way of living and our coffee grower’s, is it just us, the mostly northern and western beneficiaries of this obscene and destructive culture, who should be surrendering our way of living? Most of the world’s people would love to surrender their way of living, if there only were one on offer that was easier to cope with than the precarious way they’re living now.

So, I sense that, while the new question What is the work that seems worth doing now? is at least more honest and useful than the old question What do we do now?, my answer to both questions remains the same: There is nothing to be done. What we do each moment, in the deluded belief we have some personal choice about it, is the consequence of our conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, and it’s beyond our control.

I could spend hours talking with Dougald — he’s a brilliant, imaginative, and unusually articulate guy. But I wouldn’t be interested in talking about regeneration, or about surrender, even if we could agree on what those hubris-laden terms actually mean.

What I’d rather talk about, I think, is how we might hone our capacity for paying attention, which I think underlies all great art, as unbearable as paying attention in a world in collapse can often be. I’d rather talk about how we might foster an attitude of “contemplative gratitude” — reflection, acceptance, compassion, kindness and equanimity — that might enable us to be of more use to others in these challenging times, and might allow the great ‘works’ of art that are waiting for us to get out of the way so they can be expressed through us, to emerge.

And I’d rather talk about what JA Baker in The Peregrine might have been getting at when he said, after spending a lifetime trying to see the world as a falcon saw it, “The hardest thing of all is to see what is really there.”

There would be no plan of action, no ‘work plan’. Just a conversation. Fun, actually. Play, not work at all. Play, perhaps, that seems worth doing now.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 6 Comments

A Plague

painting: A Swarm of Locusts by Emil Schmidt, in the public domain

A plague (in its generic meaning) is defined as “a destructively numerous influx or multiplication of a noxious animal; an epidemic disease causing a high rate of mortality”.

It is not that much of a stretch to define the explosion of humans on the planet, from a small range of 1-4 million individuals for our first million years on the planet (ie up until 7,000 years ago) to its current level of over 7 billion (a staggering and sudden 2,000-fold increase), as a plague. Our presence has crowded out every other species and brought about the 6th Great Extinction of life on our planet, which is advancing at an unprecedented rate.

The definition does conflate cause (the explosion in numbers of a “noxious” ie harmful species) and effect (the high rate of mortality), but in the case of our species we meet both definitions — we are unquestionably a harmful species that has exploded in numbers, and our presence has caused a very high rate of mortality everywhere on the planet.

What does it mean to be a plague? In the case of locusts, or dinosaurs, or viruses or bacteria, it essentially means that the “noxious” creature’s destructiveness to other organisms/species has massively destabilized the ecosystem, leading to sudden changes in the ecosystem that may take anywhere from a few years to eons to return to stasis.

Humans have tried to contain plagues in the past, but with very limited and temporary success; the sheer complexity of ecosystems and the rapid pace at which species can mutate in unpredictable ways to emerge as plagues, means that for the most part plagues have to be endured rather than prevented or even mitigated. We might argue that plagues serve an evolutionary purpose, since they tend to afflict creatures living in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions (eg the ‘plagues’ of avian and swine flu affecting the horror of factory farmed animals), and hence tend to restore rather than cause ecological imbalance. Without constant plagues of a variety of poxviruses affecting mosquitos, for example, mosquitos would constantly be multiplying unsustainably and causing ecological chaos everywhere as a result.

But some plagues seem to be evolutionarily unhelpful. Locust plagues, for example, occur when locust numbers start to surge in concentrated areas, usually as a result of an explosion of sudden new vegetation growth following a severe drought. The surge in numbers causes serotonin increases in the locusts which make them more gregarious, exacerbating the explosion of numbers. Is this an accident: nature going overboard trying to compensate and rebalance a sudden post-drought resurgence in plant life? We can only speculate, but it seems counter-productive when it inevitably leads to a mass die-off as the locusts exhaust their food supply — often followed by echo population explosions of rats eating the locust carcasses, and hence of rat diseases, including, of course, bacterial and viral plagues that further disrupt ecosystems.

Perhaps it’s natures way of self-limiting the exploding locust numbers themselves, although that would seem an exceptionally inefficient and harsh way of doing so.

Whatever the reason, there are some unpalatable parallels between locust plagues and human plagues. Throughout history, when human numbers have spiked beyond local carrying capacity, the propensity of our stressed species has often been to increase procreation even more (human population growth rates are, and have been, often highest in the world’s most ecologically desolated areas), worsening the overpopulation problem until it reaches the kind of crisis levels we are now seeing globally, which are inevitably followed by massive and ghastly die-offs.

On the other hand, in some species (like rats) overpopulation tends to have the opposite effect — fertility in crowded stressed conditions plunges, especially among non-alphas, bringing about depopulation and restoring the balance between numbers and food more quickly.

Rather than indicating that rats are smarter (at least at self-regulation) than humans and locusts, this may be a matter of confusing cause and effect.

A compelling argument has been made that many mammals tend to self-regulate their numbers proactively to match the available food supply. Daniel Quinn, in his Story of B, famously argues that this is so and that it applies equally to humans. Here’s the most pertinent extract:

Imagine if you will a cage with movable sides, so that it can be enlarged to any desired size. We begin by putting 10 healthy mice of both sexes into the cage, along with plenty of food and water. In just a few days there will of course be 20 mice, and we accordingly increase the amount of food we’re putting in the cage. In a few weeks, as we steadily increase the amount of available food, there will be 40, then 50, then 60, and so on, until one day there is 100. And let’s say that we’ve decided to stop the growth of the colony at 100. I’m sure you realize that we don’t need to pass out little condoms or birth-control pills to achieve this effect. All we have to do is stop increasing the amount of food that goes into the cage. Every day we put in an amount that we know is sufficient to sustain 100 mice — and no more. This is the part that many find hard to believe, but, trust me, it’s the truth: The growth of the community stops dead. Not overnight, of course, but in very short order. Putting in an amount of food sufficient for 100 mice, we will find — every single time — that the population of the cage soon stabilizes at 100. Of course I don’t mean 100 precisely. It will fluctuate between 90 and 110 but never go much beyond those limits. On the average, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, the population inside the cage will be 100.

Now if we should decide to have a population of 200 mice instead of 100, we won’t have to add aphrodisiacs to their diets or play erotic mouse movies for them. We’ll just have to increase the amount of food we put in the cage. If we put in enough food for 200, we’ll soon have 200. If we put in enough for 300, we’ll soon have 300. If we put in enough food for 400, we’ll soon have 400. If we put in enough for 500, we’ll soon have 500. This isn’t a guess, my friends. This isn’t a conjecture. This is a certainty. Of course, you understand that there’s noting special about mice in this regard. The same will happen with crickets or trout or badgers or sparrows. But I fear that many people bridle at the idea that humans might be included in this list.

His argument (which others like Jared Diamond and Richard Manning have also advanced) is that it was the invention (actually the discovery) of what is interchangeably called catastrophic, monoculture or totalitarian agriculture that enabled a surge in human food availability, which was immediately followed by a lock-step surge in human population. To the point that, with much of the planet now given over to such agriculture, our species has become a plague.

Let’s tie this back to locusts. Their explosion in numbers followed an explosion in post-drought plant life ie in their available food supply. Like the alders growing everywhere in first succession areas deforested by fire (or by incompetent human forest practices like clear-cutting), they are just stepping in to a system where there is suddenly lots of food and little or no competition. It takes evergreens, which eventually supplant the alders, much longer to take root in deforested areas — that’s why the bozos in charge of ‘forest management’ spray toxic chemicals like Roundup on ‘replanted’ monoculture forests, to kill the alders and make way faster for crowded stands of ‘commercial’ trees like Douglas firs, in the process making them more vulnerable to runaway wildfires and plant pest epidemics.

The seemingly paradoxical jump in fecundity of locusts when they are already overpopulated in the aftermath of a surge of new vegetation growth might be just an ‘unintentional’ evolutionary overreaction — nature making sure that this sudden increase in supply of one kind of food is kept in check by a sudden increase in supply of whatever species is next up the food chain.

If that’s so, then nature may be ironically attempting to bring the global explosion of food crops and farmed animals (which has encroached upon and threatened everything else that once lived in the ‘agricultural’ areas of the planet) back into balance by encouraging an explosion in the numbers of the one creature — humans — that seems best suited to quickly consume and eliminate that excess! If so, we should not expect our fate to be any different from that of the locusts once the gorging is over.

There is of course nothing that can be done about any of this. We didn’t choose to discover catastrophic agriculture, or to gorge ourselves on its excess until we are now on the verge of seeing our own numbers plummet, on the heels of precipitating the 6th Great Extinction. We’re just unfortunate players in what seems to be an evolutionary unfolding that is quickly approaching Endgame #6, with humans having played the only part we could have played. Not the part of the Crown of Creation, or the Pinnacle of Evolution.

The part of a Plague.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Where We Are Now: More on the Culture of Fear

Image of ghost town in Japan, near Nagasaki, abandoned when the coal ran out, from pxhere, CC0

Three years ago I wrote an article entitled A Culture Driven By Fear: The Psychology of Collapse that argued that while healthy cultures strive to meet their members’ essential needs and wants, and are driven and made cohesive by love, dysfunctional cultures, like our current global industrial civilization culture, are indifferent to their members’ needs and are driven by fear. This essay elaborates on that thesis.

Culture is the collective beliefs, aspirations and behaviours of a group of people (or other creatures). It is what keeps them together. Study tribal cultures, wild animal cultures, and even a few modern subcultures, and you will see little sign of coercion — they believe and want the same things, and joyfully do what is understood to be in the group’s collective interest.

Humans are of necessity a social species: We are physically quite weak and vulnerable (compared to most other creatures), and lacking much inherent self-sufficiency and autonomy (we spend a long period in the womb and another long post-natal learning period). Loners do not fare well inside or outside human cultures. We rely on each other to survive and to thrive, so it is not surprising that evolutionarily successful cultures are built on love and willing collaboration.

That collaboration is directed to meeting the collective needs of the group, which, in addition to the obvious physical needs for food, water, sleep and protection from uncomfortable weather (shelter, warmth etc) include essential emotional and psychological needs, some of which I enumerated in another recent article, drawing on the work of  Johann Hari, Gabor Maté and David Foster Wallace:

  1. the need to belong to and connect with a safe and engaging community, starting with attachment to one’s mother in the critical first years of life
  2. the need for meaning and purpose in one’s life, including meaningful work
  3. the need to be valued, appreciated, and heard
  4. the need to be optimistic about the future for oneself and loved ones
  5. the need for control and a degree of autonomy over one’s life and work
  6. the need to be regularly and closely in touch with the natural world
  7. the need for a sense of place and home
  8. the need for freedom from chronic stress (financial, physical etc.) and the time and space to recover from it (including getting adequate sleep)

While most healthy tribes’ and communities’ collective effort is oriented to meeting these physical and emotional needs, such cultures are also driven, at least secondarily, by certain healthy fears. I have written elsewhere that I think there are three primary fears in every human culture:

  1. fear of suffering (our own and loved ones’), and the related fears of the unknown and potentially-traumatizing surprises;
  2. fear of not being in control (helplessness, disability, incapacity, dependence, being trapped) and the related fears of social anxiety, lack of autonomy, lack of essential knowledge, and of “not having enough” (uncontrollable scarcities, including time); and
  3. fear of failure and inadequacy (ridicule, incompetence, letting oneself and others down).

These fears are evolutionarily healthy because they drive behaviour which is cautious, sensitive, self-responsible, and responsible to the other members of the community.

I have written before about famous experiments with rats that show what happens to the behaviours and social cohesion of a group when they are facing extreme stress (namely, numbers vastly greater than the resources needed to feed and support them). It seems to me our modern culture is strikingly similar to the behaviour of rats placed in deliberately overcrowded and resource-starved situations. The ‘alpha’ rats in such situations hoard, attack, steal from and kill the others, while the subordinates cower, commit suicide, and eat their own young.

How can we account for such seemingly suboptimal behaviour, which abandons the principles of love, collective sharing and nurturing basic needs, and seems instead driven almost exclusively by the stress and fear that overpopulation and extreme scarcity can easily provoke? It presumably must have served some kind of evolutionary purpose. Perhaps it produces a quick and desperate self-limiting of numbers so that the surviving relatively healthy minority can begin again, once the balance between population and resources (both for the species and the ecosystem of which it is a part) has been restored.

If we were to witness such a tragic and violent social collapse in a laboratory, would we wish for it to play itself out quickly (to bring the violence and suffering to an end), or would we try to prolong it by throwing in a bit more cheese?

I know humanists think such comparisons are preposterous, that humans with our higher ‘consciousness’ and intelligence are not like rats and can develop more successful and less painful survival strategies. Unfortunately, a study of cultural history provides absolutely no evidence they are right.

I think what we are seeing now is a culture driven almost entirely by fear. In our modern anonymous cities we have lost the capacity to care for most others. Parents don’t have the time to show and teach children how to meet their basic needs, especially during the crucial first few years of life. More and more of us are unable to function effectively in the workplace or the society at large.

Our modern pressure-cooker lab-rat human culture offers us none of our eight essential emotional needs. It’s been my experience that our reaction when those needs aren’t met is usually a combination of anger (feelings of frustration, blame, indignation, helpless rage etc), shame (feelings of humiliation, disgrace, social ostracism, failure etc), and grief (feelings of irrevocable loss and sadness), which are in many ways interrelated and self-reinforcing, and that what underlies all of these emotional reactions is fear, of one or more of the three types described above

What I think we are seeing, and have been seeing at least since the beginning of industrial civilization, is a pattern where almost everything we seem to do is ultimately being driven by fear. That notably includes acts of war, terror, abuse and psychosis, greed and selfishness, violence, incarceration, disengagement, scapegoating, self-immolation (real and figurative), willing self-delusion, and, of course, denial. It is what drives us to vote, usually against rather than for anything. It is what drives angry, desperate, bewildered people to turn to racist, xenophobic, violent, dangerous ‘leaders’ who stoke and prey upon fear. It is what drives so many into depression, addiction and social dysfunction. The stress it provokes (aggravated by our poor modern western diet) underlies most of the disabling chronic diseases that are impairing our individual and collective ability to function. Stress and fear reinforce each other in an endless cycle of suffering, anxiety, illness and dysfunctional behaviour.

The media, of course, being the handmaidens of the industrialists pushing us into a more and more helpless and critical-thinking deficient “consumer” society, is playing on our fears, amping them up even higher, in order to push us to buy more to address our suffering (miracle cures, escapist entertainments), our lack of control (guns, authoritarian governments), and our sense of inadequacy (status symbols and self-help books). Brilliantly, all of these consumer products actually make us more fearful, desperate for even more and stronger fixes.

This is the very definition of a culture in collapse: Failure to meet its citizens’ basic needs, exploding violence, obscene inequality, a total lack of moral integrity (especially in our business, political and legal systems), and an increasingly dysfunctional populace unable to cope physically or emotionally with what is going on.

It’s interesting that, for a few centuries at the beginning of our current civilization culture at least, we did find some stopgap means of dealing with this cultural anomie, hysteria and acedia. Religious, moral and spiritual groups (and perhaps tribal rites) taught and enforced rigid standards of behaviour that, while usually authoritarian and often arbitrary, offered something to hold on to, something to provide a constant moral compass to a populace so bewildered at the pace of change and the loss of its sense of purpose that they were willing to grab on to it. This worked particularly well when there were frontiers available to offer escape from the troubling malaise of overpopulated cities. Even now, orthodox religious groups all over the world are urging a return to rigid authoritarianism and obedience to their fundamentalist leaders as the ‘cure’ for our cultural collapse. And techno-utopians would have us escape to imagined unpolluted, resource-rich, underpopulated new planets — new ‘frontiers’ — an insane, elitist dream.

In addition, one compelling modern theory holds that, in social creatures (those, like humans, whose evolutionary fitness depends on group cooperation), the chronic stress response can be mediated by “safety cues”, starting with the mother’s soothing voice and touch, and including laughter, high-pitched songs and expressions of joy (as opposed to threatening low-pitched growls), sympathetic attention, reassuring facial expressions, tones of voice and postures, and (in bonobos at least) brief pleasurable sexual stimulation.

So why are moral authoritarianism and safety cues no longer working to temper the dysfunctional behaviour of our collapsing culture? Perhaps because a naive and toxic mix of globalization (“when we’re all the same, we’ll get along”), individual entrepreneurship (“you can do anything if you work hard”) and consumerism (“you are what you own”) is now the world’s de facto dominant religion. With its absurd cult of individuality, it preaches that our fate (health or illness, financial success or poverty, education or ignorance, fame, ignominy or incarceration) is in our own hands, when it obviously (to those not taken in by this religion) is not. You can witness its faithful adherents everywhere, even in the ghettos of Lagos and on the farms of India. You can see its failure on the shattered faces of the billions struggling and failing everywhere, in spite of everything, and blaming themselves.

And in such a desperately busy and frenetic culture, who has time to learn, to offer, or to listen to, safety cues?

And finally, the global industrial culture of the 21st century, its last, can no longer offer hope. People will endure enormous hardship with equanimity if they can believe their children and grandchildren will be spared what they suffered. Such hope is gone, now, everywhere.

This is not easy for any of us to accept, or even to fathom. We are all doing our best, and have always done so. How could it turn out so wrong? How can there be nothing we can do, no one to blame, no solace even in what future generations will be spared?

There is of course no answer to this. Our planet will survive our civilization’s collapse. It’s possible that a relatively small number of humans will be left in a few millennia once the dust has settled, and that they will live sustainable, joyful lives in harmony with the rest of life on earth as it has evolved by then, with their needs fully met, and fear an occasional and distant memory. We have no control over any of it. For us, knowing what is happening will have to be enough.

Perhaps, at least knowing, we will be a little less fearful, a little less stressed, a little more accepting, and a little better prepared for what we will face in the decades ahead.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on Where We Are Now: More on the Culture of Fear

What Will It Take?

Last evening a group of about 30 Bowen Islanders watched a documentary called The Reluctant Radical. I arranged it, since the film profiles Ken Ward, who is a friend of Tree’s and who I’ve met a couple of times myself. Ken joined us for Q&A via video link after the screening.

It’s one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever seen, and I’d be saying that even if I hadn’t met Ken. It’s concise — no superfluous material, no sensationalism, no waste. It doesn’t manipulate the viewer — it simply tells Ken’s story from his early years as a within-the-system activist to his more recent Direct Activism, most notably as one of the five “valve-turners” who, for a day, stopped the flow of tar sands bitumen to the US through four major pipelines by brazenly, but safely and carefully, breaking into the fenced pipeline enclosures at strategic places across the US and  turning off the valves that controlled the flow.

What makes this film remarkable is that it answers, completely and definitively, the question that I suspect all of us are going to have to answer for ourselves at some point in our lives, and possibly quite soon: What will it take to get us to the point we will be willing to do whatever it takes to halt the destruction of our planet? That could include giving up our safety, our freedom, or even our lives. The film makes it quite clear that until enough of us reach that point, the destruction will continue unabated.

It will, at the very least, require us to personally move beyond symbolic and passive protests, to Direct Action, which Derrick Jensen has explained using the following chart:

Non-Violent Direct Action, according to Extinction Rebellion, must, in addition to being safe, respectful, well-researched, and carefully planned (to avoid the risk of itself causing harm to the environment or living creatures), be disruptive of the destruction it aims to stop, as the top box of the chart shows, by blocking, breaking, or taking control of land or property to prevent or reduce the damage being done to our planet.

It’s a time-honoured way of forcing change, used effectively in achieving women’s suffrage and ending slavery in many countries. But it carries with it the risk of arrest and incarceration, and even injury or death, by the agents of the political and economic establishment that are unwilling to tolerate any direct interference in their world-destroying activities. This establishment would much rather we limit our activities to protests, petitions and other passive actions they know will have no enduring effect. Since 2011, Ken has become a Direct Activist, at enormous personal cost, but with no regrets. Watch the film to see why this is so.

Since the 2016 “valve-turner” event described in the film, there have been some important developments:

  • Ken has joined the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement, since its goals and methods are closely aligned with his, and since it brings a new, younger, global, and much larger cohort into the fold of those committed to Direct Action.
  • While Ken’s first trial for the 2016 valve-turning resulted in a hung jury, and the second resulted in a conviction for “burglary” only (with a sentence of two days’ time served and community service), the burglary conviction was recently overturned because an appeal judge ruled Ken was deprived of his constitutional right to use the Necessity Defense. This ruling (which the prosecutors have just appealed) will be essential to the success of many Direct Actions going forward (which is precisely why the prosecutors have appealed it).
  • Ken has been arrested again (last month) for blocking rail access to trains carrying tar sands bitumen from Alberta to a port in Portland OR, for shipment on to China. In explaining this latest action, Ken and his colleagues wrote a stirring Letter to Portland City Council.

This is only the second documentary I have seen that moved me to tears (the first was March of the Penguins). I am trying to figure out why. In the first place, while I have consistently expressed support in every way possible for those who take the risks of Direct Activism, it has been more than forty years since I participated in such activities myself. And while I don’t believe any of the actions on the chart that fall short of Direct Action will make any enduring difference (they certainly haven’t so far, except in very local, small scale battles, and even those will likely have to be fought again, and again, what Joanna Macy calls holding actions), I don’t believe Direct Action will make any enduring difference either. Why? Because the complex systems driving our global industrial civilization are designed to work around disruptions and quickly and expediently restore the status quo, and to continue to do so until they can no longer be sustained, and hence collapse. All complex systems work this way.

But that doesn’t mean there can’t be any short-term effects, with long-term impacts, even though they won’t be enough to significantly alter or delay the Endgame. What if, in the latest action in Portland, when the police issued the ultimatum that anyone who did not immediately leave the area would be arrested, instead of 52 people remaining on the tracks, there were 5200? As the predicament of our planet worsens, we will get to that point. While 52 people can easily be arrested and a rail line hence cleared to resume its shipments of toxic cargo, with 5200 it’s not so easy.

What happens when all destructive industrial activity, from tar sands production to factory farms, faces cradle-to-grave disruption from so many thousands of people that arresting and charging or otherwise stopping the disruptors becomes unfeasible and the economic viability of the destructive activity falls apart? History suggests that, after a brief period of extreme violence from the oppressors, they will give up and look for easier ways to make profits. Oil companies will, reluctantly or not, sooner or later, shift to making a living from so-called renewable energy. Other destroyers and oppressors in other industries will likewise make the necessary shift to keep profits flowing; very few actually want to fight battles with their customers and neighbours using threats, coercive power and misinformation.

So there will be changes, Direct Action or not, and Direct Action might make some of them happen sooner. But none of them will be enough. Our global industrial economy is so far overextended in its massive and accelerating debt to the environment, struggling nations, and future generations that its collapse is certain, quite possibly before climate change has fully weighed in and layered ecological collapse on top of it. And there is growing evidence that we passed the tipping point for stopping climate collapse decades ago, and that massive reduction of human numbers due to plunging carrying capacity of the land, massive extinctions and biodiversity loss, endemic disasters and immiseration of human life, unwillingness of the survivors to bring more humans into the world, the end of affordable energy, and the unfathomable challenge of dealing with billions of migrants seeking the last livable lands on the planet, will inevitably bring about an unrecognizably different world. In light of that, does it really matter if we stop extracting the ruinous Alberta tar sands bitumen sludge in five years or in fifty?

The reality is We don’t know. And as long as the Direct Activists are working to make it five years instead of fifty, I will cheer for them, support them, and cry with them, whether they win or lose each small battle. The Direct Activists are doing what they are doing, terrifying and personally risky as each action must be, because they can’t not do anything. They can’t, any longer, do what they know isn’t working, what they know isn’t enough.

We will all be there, fighting alongside them, and I increasingly believe it will for most of us be soon, in our own lifetimes. Each of us will answer the What will it take… question our own way in our own time, and join them. Too late, but never mind. This is the nature of the human creature, and we’re not going to change it.

There’s a poignant point in the film where Ken’s sweetheart says “One day people will ask us if we did everything we could, when there was still a chance to do something about it. And he [Ken] will be able to say that… I won’t be able to say that.”

And yet, none of us has a choice. None of us should feel bad or guilty for what we do, or don’t do. I’ve learned that what each of us does, each moment, is the only thing we could possibly have done, given our embodied and cultural conditioning and the immediate circumstances. That’s not an excuse; it’s the realization that our pretence of free will is an illusion.

I will cheer on Ken, and Derrick, and all the other Direct Activists who have no choice but to continue to put their safety, their freedom and possibly their lives on the line, because they cannot do anything less.

In this, none of us has any choice. We will support the Direct Activists, and one day, when it is our time, we too will reach that tipping point, and have no choice but to join them, doing whatever we can do, whatever it takes, to stop the destruction of our planet. It will ultimately not make a difference, not change the Endgame. But that will not matter.

I will see you, then, on the line.


Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 6 Comments

Nothing on Offer Here

image CC0 via maxpixel

People want to believe, and they want people who seem to have found answers to tell them what they’ve learned, and what to do as a result. It’s flattering to be asked for advice, and very tempting to reply to such requests, but I’m coming to believe it’s best not to offer it, as credible and comforting as one’s advice might come across. I want to explore briefly why I think that’s so.

Thanks to a couple of decades of study of human nature and how the world really works, I now live in a world of constant and bewildering cognitive dissonance. I am driven by my idealism to want to make the world a better place, but know that nothing I or anyone can do will prevent the slow but total collapse of our global industrial civilization over the coming decades. I am inspired by activists but acknowledge that all their courageous and dangerous work will ultimately be futile and fruitless. I am hungry to learn to cope better with stresses and crises and adversity, but realize that ultimately we have no free will or agency or control over what the creature whose body we presume to inhabit will do regardless.

There is nothing I can do to persuade you of the inevitability of collapse, the futility of activism, or our utter lack of personal agency. Unless you have a propensity to read and learn the kinds of things that I have, to think and behave the way I do, to suspend disbelief as I do, to constantly challenge everything and to live (relatively) comfortably with ambiguity and irreconcilable understandings as I do, you will see these things differently from the way I do, and find my beliefs unpersuasive, absurd, cowardly, and/or defeatist. That doesn’t mean one of us is more right, or more informed, or more enlightened.

In a recent essay Paul Chefurka laid out ten “precepts” that govern his approach to life, and his counsel to others. It’s a great read. While I offer no counsel, I thought it might be useful to lay out my precepts (or, since they’re not prescriptive, my appreciations), and explain why I believe them, so that it might be a little more apparent why I no longer believe it makes sense to give others advice or to try to change what we do in the world. So here they are:

Dave’s Seven (Outrageous) Appreciations:

  1. There is no one. The sense of a separate person with free will and choice inhabiting a body is an illusion, an evolutionary misstep, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that seemingly arose about thirty millennia ago as a spandrel of the growth of our brains. There is compelling evidence of this in biology, theory of mind, and neuroscience — what we think of as ‘our’ decisions have been found to be merely the brain’s after-the-fact rationalizations for what the brain or body had already and inevitably begun to do, as a result of its innate and cultural conditioning. The self, being an illusion, has no free will or agency whatsoever. Tragically, the brain and body have no need of a self — this abstracted mental model of apart-hood reality — in order for the apparent human creature they are seemingly a part of to function perfectly well. Humans that have no sense of being separate or of having a self are, amazingly, at least as functional as you and I, and you’d never know their secret from talking with them. And, since there is no you, there is nothing you can do or learn or become to dispel or see through this illusion. The self cannot see that the self is just a mental construct, cannot ‘see through’ its self.
  2. Nothing is real. Nothing is separate. There is no thing. There is only ‘this’ (or everything, or whatever word you want to use), appearing as things and actions in (apparent) time and space. These appearances are not illusions like the self, and they’re neither real nor unreal; they are just appearances. Inexplicably. For no reason or purpose. This is being confirmed by the latest scientific discoveries in astrophysics and quantum theory, which allows that time and space are merely abstract mental constructs, and the universe or multiverse (or whatever you want to call ‘what apparently is’) is actually just an infinite, timeless ‘field of possibilities’. As a corollary, there is no causality, and no life or death, and hence nothing matters (in either sense of the word).
  3. The ‘conscious’ self prevents seeing everything as it truly is. We define the term ‘consciousness’ as awareness of our separateness, and see it providing us with an advantage over what we perceive to be ‘unconscious’ creatures. But when there is no longer the illusion of a separate self, what is seen (by no one) is everything, ‘what apparently is’, in all its wonder, unfiltered by the self’s veil of egocentrism and conjured-up meaning-making. All of us have, mostly without being aware of it, at least briefly (in moments of awe, of ‘self-less’ love, or of extreme exhilaration or calm) ‘lost’ our ‘selves’ and seen, without the mask of (self-)consciousness, ‘everything’ as it truly is. This is impossible for us to fathom — we can’t conceive of seeing everything without a separate self to see it, when in fact it is the separate self that prevents us from seeing everything exactly as it (always and everywhere) is, infinite and eternal.
  4. Our global human civilization is quickly and inevitably collapsing. And there is nothing wrong (or right) about this. Complex systems always collapse when their level of complexity becomes unsustainable. Feedback loops in these systems tend to perpetuate increasing complexity and the status quo until they cannot continue, and then they collapse. This is the nature of such systems, and no interventions (even if you believe we have the free will to intervene, and the capacity and power to intervene cohesively at the necessary scale) will significantly alter the trajectory. Yet, as tragic as this may appear — evolution leading to devolution, the dislocation and suffering that collapse inevitably inflicts — it is all just an appearance. There has never been any civilization arising or collapsing in time and space. There is no one and no thing separate, no civilization, no evolution, no birth or death. Just a wondrous show, for no one, for no reason, outside of space and time.
  5. No one is to blame. Whatever appears ‘wrong’ in this world, it is not the fault of evil or deranged people, or despots, or stupidity, or ‘the system’. Everyone is doing their best, the only thing they can apparently do given their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, and no one has agency or control over what they apparently do. Because there is no one to do anything, no agency, no wrong or right, no ‘system’, no free will, no time in which anything can be done. Just appearances, for no reason. Just wondrous expressions of everything.
  6. We can’t help ourselves. We can tell ourselves things we ‘should’ or ‘need to’ do to make ourselves more successful, or smarter, or healthier, but we have no free will or agency to do anything other than what the creature we presume to inhabit is predisposed to do anyway given its conditioning and the circumstances of the moment. At a collective level, we can argue, for example, that we ‘need’ to learn new self-sufficiency and community-building skills to increase our resiliency in the face of coming collapse, but except for a few new-age learning dilettantes, we won’t actually do that until there is a collective acknowledgement that we have no choice but to do so immediately. Humans, like all creatures, are driven by the needs of the moment.
  7. Our destructiveness stems from self-domestication, not our inherent nature. Human activity has inadvertently brought on the sixth great extinction of life on earth, but it’s not because we are inherently a violent and rapacious species. We are inherently collaborative and peaceful, even lazy. It was only when our brains’ intellectual capacity enabled us to domesticate ourselves that we lost our connection with all life on earth and began to behave dysfunctionally — expanding into uncomfortable ecosystems, exploding our population, and creating scarcities and cultural memes that produced fear-driven, destructive activities.

Here’s how these seven learned ‘appreciations’ map to our enculturated perceptions and conceptions, to create the staggering cognitive dissonance that anyone who shares these appreciations must feel:

There is no one. No self, no free will, no control. I am real and have free will, self-control and responsibility for my actions as does everyone else. We live and suffer and then we die. It’s in our power to make the most of it.
Nothing is real, or separate. Everything is just a wondrous appearance. Everything I perceive is undeniably real and separate. Time and space exist and everything that is real happens in time and space.
The ‘conscious’ self prevents seeing everything as it truly is. Without a self there cannot be any real consciousness of anything.
Civilization is inevitably collapsing, within this century. Nothing can be done about this predicament. We need to take responsibility and action urgently, locally and globally, to address the problems that are threatening civilization’s collapse.
No one is to blame. We’re all doing our best, the only thing we can do in the situation given our conditioning. ‘Bad’ people and groups are to blame. Inaction, stupidity and ignorance are to blame. We are all to blame.
We can’t help ourselves. We have no free will, no capacity to ‘make’ ourselves do or be anything, even when we believe we ‘should’. With self-awareness and self-management work we can make ourselves better, more resilient, more useful, happier, more present, smarter, and perhaps even enlightened.
Our destructiveness as a species stems from self-domestication, when we tragically lost our connection to the rest of life on earth and ‘forgot our place’. We are inherently a wild but collaborative and loving species. We are an inherently violent, rapacious and destructive species. We need self-control and regulation to prevent ourselves from hurting each other and destroying our planet.

Perhaps you can sense from the above table how the dissonance between what I have come to appreciate (left column) and what I have been conditioned to believe (and what almost everyone I know believes unquestioningly — right column) often leaves me speechless and paralyzed. What do I say to the activist who has risked everything to challenge our passive acceptance of climate collapse? That “nothing matters”? What do I say to the victims of life-destroying, immiserating atrocities? That it’s not real, only an appearance? What do I say to the person who has overcome staggering obstacles to finally flourish and help others do likewise? That it was what was inevitably going to happen anyway because of their conditioning?

What do I say to the person who has spent a lifetime getting bad laws changed and progressive laws passed? Or to the person mourning the loss of a loved one? Or to the person struggling with an impossible hardship they had no role in creating?

I, of course, say nothing. I nod with genuine admiration and compassion, if not empathy. My new ‘appreciations’ are useless in relating to my fellow humans’ ‘selves’. These appreciations are of no use to ‘me’, to the self, that dreadful bit of software that comes embedded in human babies just waiting to be installed and launched by our well-intentioned culture. For many, gaining these useless appreciations is probably worse than simply being trapped unawares in the prison of the self, even with its ghastly life sentence with no parole.

And yet… I would not for all the world undo these new appreciations. They have somehow made my life more bearable by giving me, if only intellectually, and somehow resonantly, intuitively, a perspective from outside my sad, lost, scared self. For me, that’s enough. I write about it, here, because it’s how I try to make sense of things that don’t seem, at least yet, to make sense. I wouldn’t presume to try to ‘sell’ these appreciations to others. They’ve cast doubt upon everything I once believed was true and thought was possibly useful to others, and given me nothing new to offer at all. 

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 8 Comments