The End of Politics (repost)

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

new political map 2015

image by the author; click on image to view full-size

If you’ve contemplated the possibility of civilization’s global collapse, you probably envision its social and political consequences to be violent and chaotic — a world dominated by struggle to fill the power vacuum, leading to despotism and ruthless ethnic, class, intertribal and inter-gang warfare.

A study of history, and of collapse scenarios, suggests however that Mad Max, Taliban, clash-of-civilizations, and history-going-in-reverse outcomes (like those portrayed in Jim Kunstler’s wild-west-again cli-fi novel A World Made by Hand) are improbable. If the prognostications of futurists and sci-fi/cli-fi writers seem imaginatively impoverished, perhaps it’s because our global human civilization is now so all-pervasive and homogeneous that even creative writers can’t imagine a future radically different from our present, or from our recent colonial and industrial past, projected forward or run in reverse.

If you want a more nuanced sense of what politics in a post-collapse future might look like, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Cultural homogeneity is abnormal and maladaptive: For at least 1000 millennia, up until just a few millennia ago, our planet probably offered a staggering diversity of human cultures, behaviours, languages, and political systems. There was likely very little contact between these cultures, since human population was less than 1 person per 30 habitable acres, and not perceptibly growing, so even ‘adjacent’ human cultures would likely have been unrecognizably different in their social and political makeup. Most collapsnik demographers envision human population quickly falling back to these levels, and similarly low-complexity, low-tech, low-interaction, widely-divergent societies emerging.
  1. Politics is a very recent human phenomenon: The whole idea (and even the etymology) of ‘politics’ came about with the evolution of fortressed city-states: high-density, high-hierarchy, resource-scarce societies where the need for arduous work, slavery and repression of human freedoms meant that the powers of decision-making and law-making needed to be delegated to expert, elite ‘representatives’. The concept of politics was unknown in pre-civilization rural areas, where, presumably thanks to abundance of space, resources and leisure time, politics was simply unneeded. Anarchy worked just fine. Unfortunately, the repressive, political city-states quickly colonized and destroyed the surrounding apolitical societies, and warred with neighbouring political states, until politics became endemic to human presence on the planet.
  1. Political states are extremely costly to run and inherently unsustainable. They require massively complex systems to be constructed, and massive levels of security, repression, bureaucracy, law enforcement, maintenance, concentration of wealth and power, and continuous expansion to acquire ever more resources. These needs grow exponentially as size increases linearly, so political states and civilizations (urban-centric social-political-economic states) will inevitably collapse.
  1. Despots, warlords and gangs require the machinery of a still-functioning political state to operate. They need weapons, security forces and armies, which in a collapsed society are too expensive to manufacture and maintain. They need access to wealth when, after collapse, the preponderance of pre-existing wealth, being either paper or resources (like gold) with no intrinsic utility, will be worthless. They need access to people in power they can bully, bribe and corrupt, but since collapse bankrupts governments there is no one, after collapse, with power to do much of anything. When the collapse is a global one, and everyone is broke, poor, and powerless, there is nothing to do but cooperate with one’s equally destitute neighbours to just get by. The collapse of a global civilization culture means, essentially, the end of politics.
  1. Collapse does not happen all at once — in a week or a year or even in a single ‘fall from grace’. Whether collapse is ultimately brought about by the end of the unsustainable growth economy, the end of affordable energy and resources, or the end of stable climate, or a combination of all three, we will likely see periods of partial collapse and then partial recoveries, until the crises begin to pile on faster than our reeling civilization can cope with them. We will have at least a few years to learn how to deal with collapse, which means we will be able to learn from some of our mistakes. That won’t prevent or mitigate collapse, but it will at least psychologically prepare us for it, so that rather than panicking, most of us will be able to accept it with some equanimity.

Past collapses and prolonged depressions provide some clues as to how humans will behave in a global collapse. In areas where there remains a huge inequality of wealth and power between rich and poor, there is a motivation for the rich to defend their wealth and repress the poor, and a motivation for the poor to seize the wealth of the (presumably unfairly) rich. But in areas where everyone is left poor, and there is little inequality, human nature, it turns out, seems to be to share and help each other.

This behaviour was evident during the Great Depression. Farmers whose monoculture, no-longer-viable farms had to be abandoned in favour of work in the city, left their homes and property open to the homeless and to other farmers.

In many of today’s third-world slums (where collapse has already happened), whole collaborative infrastructures spring up to provide needed resources and utilities, and to defend against (wealthier and powerful) outsiders. Crime statistics repeatedly show that rates of violent crime are highest not in poor communities, states and nations, but in communities, states and nations with the highest levels of inequality of wealth and power.

My recent work with intentional communities has made me a fan of direct decision-making by consensus, rather than representative democracy where decision-making is delegated to elected officials. Direct consensual decision-making doesn’t scale — it probably only works in radically relocalized situations with small numbers of people. But that’s what I think the post-collapse world will be mostly about — there will be no centralized governments, distribution networks or economic systems to make decisions about, because they’re just too complex and costly to sustain.

I see direct consensual decision-making as essentially a tribal form of anarchy. It worked for many indigenous cultures before we colonized and destroyed them. Anarchy is, after all, just the absence of governance, of hierarchy, of “power over” and inequality. It is not essentially violent. It can in fact only exist in the absence of power structures, which are inherently violent. In the absence of overcrowding, resource scarcity, and other stresses, such power structures are unnecessary and unsupportable. In a future with many fewer humans, we can and will live without such structures.

Far from being disordered and chaotic, an anarchic society is one free of coercion. It’s not amoral — anarchy does require a prevalent respect for the freedom and life and well-being of others. This is why misanthropic conservatives believe ‘peaceful’ anarchy is impossible. We will show them they are wrong.

Anarchy is a state of reality — the absence of inequality of wealth and power and hence the absence of the abuses that inherently stem from that inequality. (This is in contrast to anarchism, which is the ideology that espouses, somewhat ironically, that anarchy be nurtured and managed).

For those of us who have grown up in a culture of massive and self-perpetuating inequality — one that rewards and prides itself on the relative ‘successes’ of its rich and powerful, and which looks dubiously on the poor and powerless as somehow lazy or weak or stupid — the end of politics and a future of unimaginably diverse anarchic societies seems inconceivable. But the issue, I think, is not the viability and inevitability of such societies emerging after collapse (that is, if our species survives collapse at all) but rather the issue of how we can, relatively painlessly, get there from here.

We know that, as collapse worsens, the rich and powerful will retrench and do everything in their power to protect themselves and their wealth and power base. We know that those who suffer most from collapse (as always, the poor and powerless) will, at once, resent and envy the rich and powerful (and strive to join their ranks). That process is already visible everywhere.

So what happens next? Here are the questions we need to be asking now, I think, as we plunge inexorably off the collapse cliff:

  1. A duty of activism?: Is there any point to creating or joining activist groups trying to reduce political and economic inequality now, and reform these teetering systems before collapse levels the political and economic playing field? If we don’t join the ranks of activists, what should we do instead?
  1. Fight the rich or smash the system?: As the actions of the rich and powerful to insulate themselves from collapse become ever-more extreme and abhorrent, and as the situation worsens and demagogues arise prescribing various extreme ideological panaceas for our growing malaise, should we try to take them down? Or should we instead work to take down the economic system they depend on (and, if so, how do we best do that)?
  1. How to prepare for an unknowable future?: When we can have no idea what post-collapse society will ultimately look like — what forms of governance will last the longest, what power will devolve to who, what resources will disappear and what infrastructure will collapse first, where we will live (after probably a series of migrations to avoid some of the worst crises of cascading collapse), and what skills will be necessary wherever we may find ourselves — how can we best prepare now to be of use to those with whom we will find ourselves living, no matter how collapse unfolds?

Dmitry Orlov’s recent essay on collapse and climate change suggests that the various ‘camps’ of collapsniks depicted in the New Political Map above seem to be converging and coalescing with remarkable speed. I find this encouraging — together we constitute a significant, educated and growing minority of the human population. The recent Great Debate between several collapsnik factions held at the Melbourne Sustainable Living Festival also demonstrated this convergence.

The last time I can recall a similar global phenomenon was in the 1960s, when we grew large enough and loud enough to be noticed, and for awhile at least everyone jumped on the bandwagon and claimed to agree with us. And we weren’t even really very coherent.

We collapsniks all agree, I think, that politics has now all but given up the pretence of being representative and has devolved to being theatre: today’s politicians are entertainers, distracters, actors reading the scripts written for them by their corporate sponsors, for our consumption, not for our consideration.

It might be useful, now, to try to figure out how the energy and momentum of the 1960s got so lost in the 1970s and 1980s. If we can get our act together again, so that preparing for collapse is taken seriously in public discourse and in social, political and economic decision-making, we don’t want to blow the chance again. We can be sure to face opposition, as we did in the 1960s, from those who want to crush us, jail us or co-opt us. This time, we can’t afford to let the deniers and salvationists re-take the political centre-stage.

The various ‘flavours’ of collapsniks, from humanists to near-term extinctionists, bring different viewpoints and answers to the three questions I pose above, but they increasingly understand and appreciate these differences. We could be formidable and awesome allies.

Not that this is likely to change the endgame, but it could make the final chapter of our civilization less psychologically devastating, more civil, and a lot more interesting, and might get the survivors of collapse off on a better footing. Regardless of how each of us would answer the three questions above, we owe them that.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

Technology’s False Hope (and the Wisdom of Crows) (repost)

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

innovation graphic

“What have we to do but stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
in an age which advances progressively backwards?”
— TS Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

Only a decade ago, I was part of the Strategy and Innovation Core Team for a huge multinational consultancy, and writing exuberantly on my (then-new) blog about innovation and technology and how they could possibly save the world. The image above, from the Credit Suisse First Boston New Economy Forum Synthesis, describes a universal “technology development process” popular at the time. One of the leading business speakers in those heady days was Chris Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, whom I more or less idolized.

And then something happened. My own research into the history of innovation and technology suggested that, rather than being the result of rigorous process, excellence and inventiveness, most enduring technologies of any value seemed to be the result of fortuitous accidents, or were the throw-away byproducts of massive, outrageously expensive military programs. Complexity science was by then throwing serious doubt on a lot of accepted theories about how change actually happens in organizations and societies. Ronald Wright’s book A Short History of Progress and similar works by Jared Diamond and others argued that ‘progress’ was an illusion, and that all civilizations inevitably collapse (taking the capacity to support their technologies with them).

We actually likely lived healthier, happier (and often longer, when we weren’t eaten by predators) lives in prehistoric times, it seems, way back before the inventions (or more accurately discoveries) of the first great technologies (the arrowhead, fire, the wheel, and then abstract language and later, agriculture (which Richard Manning in Against the Grain says should more accurately be called “catastrophic agriculture”), enabling the unnatural human evolution we call “settlement”. Settlement brought with it a blizzard of new problems for technology to solve (most notably infectious and emotional diseases), and each well-intentioned new technology has produced yet more problems, arguably greater in number, size and intractability than the benefits the earlier technology provided.

Nothing is new in any of this. Back in 1994, in his book Beginning Again, David Ehrenfeld described our civilization’s technological underpinning as a ragged flywheel, over-built, patched and rusty, spinning faster and faster and now beginning to rattle and moan as it inevitably comes apart.

In the past decade, disillusionment with innovation and technology has grown. Christensen’s work has been largely discredited by a review (by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker), with the benefit of hindsight, suggesting that “innovative” companies don’t ultimately fare any better than those they “disrupt”. A recent study by Peter Thiel in MIT Technology Review claims “technology stalled in 1970”. As global corporate power is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands, he explains, there is less and less motivation for innovation and more wealth to buy it out and squelch it, with the help of armies of IP lawyers.

My own research in recent years substantiates this claim. My greatest learning from 35 years in (and studying) organizational culture has been that size is the enemy of innovation and that most of the useful and creative things that happen in large organizations happen through workarounds by people on the front lines, in spite of, not because of, the cultural tone and processes established at the top. Looking back at hundreds of expensive strategic and change-oriented programs and projects I was involved with (including not a few that I led myself) there is almost nothing left to show for them ten, or even five, years after they were conducted.

The most damning critique of the Kurzweilian technophilia that so many bright people now embrace comes from John Gray, who devotes an entire chapter of Straw Dogs to deconstructing the idealistic and uncritical notions that technology, in the long run, steadily and sometimes astonishingly improves our lives. He writes:

If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. If it becomes possible to clone human beings, soldiers will be bred in whom normal human emotions are stunted or absent. Genetic engineering may enable centuries-old diseases to be eradicated. At the same time, it is likely to be the technology of choice in future genocides. Those who ignore the destructive potential of new technologies can only do so because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies, but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

Whether we believe that innovation and technology ultimately make the world better or worse, there is now overwhelming evidence that they are unsustainable in any case. Between economic over-extension, energy over-dependence, and the ruination of our atmosphere and other environments by our civilization and its technologies, it is now almost inevitable that we will soon see a collapse that will make the Great Depression, and perhaps even the five previous great extinctions of life on Earth, look like nothing.

This collapse is going to require us to live a much simpler, more local and more diverse and place-dependent life. We are destined to be very nostalgic for the good old days of modern technology as soon as it is gone, and that’s likely to happen soon. Modern technology requires cheap energy, and, notwithstanding the recent power games between the US and Russia temporarily and artificially driving down oil prices, we are quickly running out of it. Modern technology requires massive standardization and globalization, and without cheap oil, cheap foreign labour and cheap raw materials, none of which is sustainable, we cannot expect it to last much longer. A barrel of oil replaces six person-years of labour, and when those barrels become unavailable or unaffordable, the vast majority of what we all do is going to change drastically.

But at least, you may insist, the Internet will survive and it will allow other technologies to continue to thrive even if they must be manufactured and operated more frugally and locally. Dmitry Orlov, as he explains in The Five Stages of Collapse, clearly doesn’t think so, and the staggering cost and time required to keep the Internet afloat when the economy is in free-fall seems utterly unsustainable as server farms become luxury items and people’s time is diverted to living sufficiently in the real world.

Likewise with other technologies we pin great hopes on for our future, or have come to take for granted: solar panels and other expensive and resource-dependent goods; the private automobile; non-emergency airplane travel; the miraculous products of the pharmaceutical and plastics industry (including synthetic fibres); industrial agriculture; the mass media, and anything that depends on a reliable and consistent electrical or communications grid.

What will life look like without oil-powered technologies? It will vary hugely from one increasingly-isolated community to the next. Much will depend on the state of the land (the quality of the soil, its capacity to produce sustainable food, the proximity to abundant healthy clean water, its vulnerability to drought, floods, pandemics and natural disasters induced by climate change), the number of people in the community that must be supported, their cohesion as a community and their physical and mental health, essential skills and capacities.

It will depend on our collective ability to live sufficiently, not extravagantly, and to be resilient to change. Dmitri Orlov, in Communities That Abide, says such communities need three qualities: (1) self-sufficiency, (2) able to self-organize and recover in the face of calamity, and (3) mobility: not being tied to any one place. Most modern technologies don’t fit well with such a model.

Ronald Wright not only wrote the aforementioned A Short History of Progress, but also the novel A Scientific Romance, which depicts life in the present-day UK centuries after collapse. When I read it, I was struck by how much our ancient human nature (as scavengers, more like crows than fellow mammals) comes out in his vision, and how much the world he describes resonates with the world described in Pierre Berton’s book The Great Depression. Both books describe worlds that are accepting (or even resigned), self-supportive, full of struggle and joy, and only occasionally (and briefly and spectacularly) violent.

Both books describe people initially trying to perpetuate their technologies, to make them work illogically in a world where the underlying infrastructure can no longer support them. And both books describe how people finally let go of these technologies, and free themselves from dependence on them.

It is not so terrible, a world without modern technologies and the Internet. It is the world hoped for in Mark Kingwell’s The World We Want and Thomas Princen’s The Logic of Sufficiency, though it will not come about as elegantly as their authors would have hoped. Technology has always offered us false hope, and continues to do so (the latest technological “miracle” sold to us was fracking). The sooner and more gently we let go of it, and our dependence on the systems that it underlies so precariously, the sooner and more gently we can begin to make our way to a more resilient way of living.

Crows, a spectacular evolutionary success both with and without us, have much to teach and show us in this regard. They have almost no technologies, and those they have discovered (e.g. the elaborate use of hooked sticks) they hold lightly, using them for non-essential, amusing tasks. They have a sophisticated sense of fun, and creatively use their leisure time joyfully and exuberantly whenever and wherever it’s available. They love, support and teach each other without expecting reciprocation. They adapt themselves to places, instead of foolishly attempting to adapt their chosen places to them.

Technology’s false hope can bring us only disappointment, sorrow and suffering. It’s time to learn to let it go, gradually but starting now, and give up our dreams of “smart” technologies that are too smart for our own good. In so doing, we will embrace not progress and the wisdom of crowds, but resilience and the wisdom of crows.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 7 Comments

See No Evil: The Morality of Collapse (repost)

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

new political map 2015

image by the author; click on image to view full-size

As we wade into discussions about the consequences of collapse, and the most effective ways to become resilient in face of it, most of us would prefer to avoid getting mired in discussions about morals (personal standards of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) and ethics (collective standards of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ behaviours). It doesn’t matter whether climate change is human-caused, we assert, we need to focus on how to deal with it, not who to blame for it.

Alas, it is not so easy to avoid the issue, because our worldviews are inevitably rooted in our beliefs, including our moral and ethical ones. Libertarians have tried to avoid such issues for centuries, and have failed utterly, which is why “left libertarians” and “right libertarians” have so little in common (mainly the shared belief that laws should only be imposed when absolutely necessary) that the word, unmodified, becomes meaningless. They will never agree, for example, on whether the exclusion and discrimination, by a group of racists, or a group of radical feminists, of those not of their colour or gender or creed, should be illegal or not.

When it comes to preparing for collapse, as much as we might want all of the different groups who have come to accept the near-term collapse of industrial civilization as inevitable (or at least requiring immediate and drastic action to avert), these various different groups’ worldviews are rooted in different moral and ethical standards that, I would argue, are almost irreconcilable. That makes collaboration, or even agreement on what to do, fraught with difficulty if not impossible.

In the chart above, I’ve identified several such groups, each of which has come to accept that our civilization either may not or will not be ‘saved’ from collapse. They are in that regard distinct from the many ‘old-style’ political groups, and from some new age groups that I call (without meaning to be disparaging) ‘salvationists’ (groups A through E on the chart above). They believe, for a variety of different reasons (listed on the chart) that civilization can and will be ‘saved’ from collapse.

In contrast, there are five groups (groups H through L on the chart above) whose members no longer harbour serious doubts that industrial collapse is either imminent or already underway, and that this collapse is unstoppable; I call them ‘collapsniks’. They differ in how they believe we (all of us) should be preparing for the fall (these reasons are also listed on the chart). Both ‘salvationists’ and ‘collapsniks’ fall along a spectrum that indicates how strongly they believe in humanity’s capacity to change (higher in the chart, stronger the belief in that capacity). See the value judgements creeping in here already?

In addition, there are three groups that straddle the salvationist/collapsnik divide – they aren’t sure (groups F & G) or don’t care (group M) whether collapse is inevitable or not.

Few of us ‘fit’ neatly into any of these groups – we migrate among them as our learning and context evolves and shifts, much as many old-school politicos have come to embrace social liberalism and economic conservatism, and then may flip to the opposite as they get older, more fearful and more dependent.

I have argued that we ‘collapsniks’, including the Humanists and Transition/Resilience movement fence-sitters – everyone, in other words, who shares some of the worldview of any of groups F, G, H, I, J, K, and L – need to work together if we are to have any hope of being at least somewhat prepared for the collapse to come. At one point or another over the past year I would describe myself as being in fundamental agreement with each of these seven groups, and I am constantly inspired by articulate speakers (notably at the moment Charles Eisenstein, Rob Hopkins, Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn, Paul Kingsnorth, John Gray and Guy McPherson respectively) espousing these seven diverse worldviews.

The different moralities and ethical beliefs underlying these seven worldviews surface pretty quickly, and these differences have driven wedges between us and made us, to some extent, our own worst enemies. Consider these questions:

  • Is it acceptable to use violence when pacifism seems inadequate to the task of confronting the most devastating aspects of industrial civilization, of getting the job done?
  • Are large public protests an essential means of raising awareness and political pressure, or a useless distraction from the real work of preparing for economic and political collapse?
  • Is social justice and the end of inequality of wealth and power an essential precondition for collectively addressing climate change, or just a proposal to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic?
  • Would we be doing the world, and human society, a great service or a great disservice to deliberately provoke a collapse of markets and the economy in order to reduce consumption and energy use?
  • Is giving up on environmentalism and attempts to bring about large-scale change in our response to climate change, and focus instead on local initiatives and personal and community preparedness, a realistic and pragmatic strategy, or dangerous, irresponsible defeatism?

On all these questions, and more, there is strong disagreement among collapsniks. This disagreement stems in part from different interpretations of what we know about what is happening in the world and what is technically possible, but it stems I think principally from different worldviews informed by different moral and ethical beliefs on what is humanly possible.

Humanists, for example, tend to have a worldview that suggests humans are, essentially, good, and that hence by sheer force of numbers (say, 99%?) we can accomplish anything we put our collective minds to, even at this late date. Reform the systems by popular demand and save the world. Others will argue that the 1% don’t have nearly the power that is commonly presumed, and certainly not enough that their conversion or demise can prevent the juggernaut of industrial civilization from its acceleration off the collapse cliff. Still others will argue that the so-called 1% are doing their best, like the rest of us, and that the enemy is all of us (leading to a wide variety of prescriptions on what that realization might lead us to do, if anything). And others will argue that the 1% are psychopaths, and that the only thing that will work is to smash the systems that they lead (and, presumably, hope that what fills the resultant power vacuum will, perhaps improbably, be significantly better).

There is no ‘right’ perspective on these issues, no answer that is certain or even highly probable. There are too many variables, too little appreciation of the sheer unknowingness of the massively complex systems industrial civilization has (perhaps with the best of intentions, perhaps not – it doesn’t much matter) produced, and the reinforcing feedback loops that have evolved to perpetuate it to our peril, and hence the impossibility of knowing how, or even if, we can intervene in these systems effectively.

If that weren’t enough, the two ‘newest’ groups on the collapsnik spectrum, the Voluntary Human Extinctionists (group K on the chart) and the Near Term Extinctionists (group L) add a whole new layer of moral complexity for collapsniks to deal with. The Voluntary Human Extinctionists would have us believe that (see if you can detect any moral judgement here) the human species is inherently violent, aggressive and destructive, and hence the world will be much better off if and when we vanish from the planet. The Near Term Extinctionists would have us believe that climate change is accelerating at such a pace that the human species will be extinct (i.e. not one of us left) as soon as mid-century, along with most complex life forms on the planet.

If the world would be better off without us, does that mean we should do nothing, or even try to accelerate our demise (perhaps by working on some new viruses)? If the human species is doomed in our lifetimes anyway, does that mean we should party like it’s 1999 (or perhaps 2049)?

Every time I find my worldview shifting along the group F-to-L spectrum, I find myself asking myself all these questions, and apologizing to the true believers in different places along that spectrum with irreconcilable worldviews and action (or inaction) plans. And apologizing to myself for my earlier, and recurring, foolishness. I’m living in a philosophical, epistemological, ontological and moral minefield, navigating it as my viewpoint constantly shifts.

Guy McPherson’s ‘Near Term Extinctionist’ advice is to act to make a better world even though people are not going to be part of it, for the sake of those species that might survive. He has also said that we should act as if the Earth is in hospice, and treat it with commensurate respect, and honour its decline by living full, joyful, responsible and meaningful lives. How many people do you know who could handle doing that?

John Gray’s book Straw Dogs is my favourite treatise on the current state of the world and the actions available to us as we face collapse. He says unequivocally that have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value, and that we are doomed by the coding in our DNA to continue along our inexorable path of self-destruction, and to inflict large-scale but ultimately transitory damage on our planet in the process. He writes:

A human population of approaching 8 billion can be maintained only by desolating the Earth… [Quoting Reg Morrison, The Spirit in the Gene] If the human plague is really as normal as it looks, then the collapse curve should mirror the growth curve. This means the bulk of the collapse will not take much longer than 100 years, and by 2150 the biosphere should be safely back to its preplague population of Homo Sapiens — somewhere between a half and one billion…

Climate change may be a mechanism through which the planet eases its human burden…[or] new patterns of disease could trim the human population…War could have a major impact…weapons of mass destruction — notably biological and (soon) genetic weapons, more fearsome than before…It is not the number of states that makes this technology ungovernable. It is technology itself. The ability to design new viruses for use in genocidal weapons does not require enormous resources of money, plant or equipment… By ceding so much control over new technology to the marketplace, [governments] have colluded in their own powerlessness…

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction… What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter…

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

I found John’s book liberating and exhilarating, though most of my collapsnik friends found it negative, unconvincing and depressing.

But recently, reading his more recent works, I’ve begun to wonder whether John’s brilliant intellect was being steered by an unstated worldview, a profound misanthropy that might be rooted in part in some trauma he has suffered through, some indignity in his past that has coloured his thinking. Is he really a Voluntary Human Extinctionist, or is he rather a wounded and disillusioned Humanist or Existentialist?

This month, in his new article in the Guardian John builds further on this pessimistic view of the human species. He writes:

It’s not that [western leaders] are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don’t really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished. In believing this, those who govern us at the present time reject a central insight of western religion, which is found also in Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians: destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves. In this old-fashioned understanding, evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.

No view of things could be more alien at the present time. Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved.

Paradoxically, this belief in the evanescence of evil is what underlies the hysterical invocation of evil that has lately become so prominent. There are many bad and lamentable forces in the world today, but it is those that undermine the belief in human improvement that are demonised as “evil”.

As radical as my beliefs may be, I can’t quite accept that “evil” is a propensity that is humanly universal. I think what is missing from Gray’s argument is that, yes, we are an inherently destructive and aggressive species, but only when we are suffering from chronic and severe stress. I believe (perhaps I have to believe) that, like the bonobos, rather than the chimps, when we are free from stress these traits of destructiveness and aggressiveness are recessive, unneeded and therefore unexercised.

John would probably laugh this criticism off, and likely provide more forceful arguments for this being naive and faith-based thinking than I could muster in its defence. But I would also argue that we can’t know, because civilization has been an incessantly stressful experiment (likely evolved in response to some great natural stresses like climate change), and because we therefore have no credible data to show, or know, what we are like in the absence of great stress.

Robert Sapolsky has studied bonobos in the wild for twenty years, and admits he doesn’t like them much – they’re violent, arbitrarily cruel and self-traumatizing creatures. But he tells the story about one baboon troop whose alpha males all died from eating tuberculosis-tainted meat from a garbage dump. The survivors quickly evolved into a peaceful, gentle, egalitarian matriarchy and remained so generations later.

Gabor Mate has similarly argued that almost all human violent behaviour and stress is rooted in childhood trauma, suggesting that a human ‘reboot’ (perhaps after a collapse), allowing children to grow up trauma-free, might produce a human society so gentle, healthy and egalitarian we might hardly recognize it.

So unlike John I continue to use the word ‘evil’ very cautiously, either to describe the inherent nature of individuals or the propensity of groups and our entire species. When we are ill, I think, we are not our true selves. And our species has been ill, and getting more so, for 30,000 years. We can’t know or remember who we were when we were well. And though it may be wishful thinking or faith, rather than profound instinct, I believe that when we were well, and when the descendants of the survivors will be well again after the dust of collapse has settled, humans were and will again be good to each other and to the world.

I’d like to believe that’s a pragmatic and rational perspective, a healthy one. But I may be deluding myself. Those who believe the Earth will be better off without humans may well be right. Those who believe the Earth will be without humans within a short few decades, centuries or millennia (an instant in the planet’s long history) may well also be right.

But I don’t believe they are. I can’t believe they are. My worldview can’t accommodate such beliefs. And therein lies our quandary, fellow collapsniks. We need to open our minds, and hearts, to a much broader range of possibilities, including those we may, in our quiet moments, think ‘impossible’, if we are going to be able to prepare, together, for anything.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Fireproof (repost)

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

fire photo courtney schoenemann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

burden of guilt rogene manas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re fireproof.”

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

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

them you image 1

photo credit: photoshopped image from

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

Cultural Anthropology Visit, 6462 New Calendar: Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

complex predicament map export

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

climate change feedback loops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye Dave: Letting Go of the Story of Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or at least that’s my story.


*Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: We do what we must (our personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are merely important.
Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 11 Comments

a thought-less experiment

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

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

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

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

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

or both?

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

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

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

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

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

of freedom.


(illustration from the Pen tarot deck)

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

Buzz in My Back Yard Yesterday

rufous hummingbird

bee pollinating

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

All There Is, Is This

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

barsotti truth

cartoon by the late, wonderful Charles Barsotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 17 Comments