Michael Pollan Has Lost His Mind

Painting by Cristobal Ortega Maila CC0 from pxhere.com

Michael Pollan, famous for his books on cooking, food and nutrition (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”), is about (May 15th) to release his latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches UsMichael gave a long and wide-ranging interview about the book to the less-annoying-than-usual Tim Ferriss, and Tim’s podcast and interview notes are the basis for this article.

The book describes the parallel changes in both the medical and social communities in attitudes toward psychedelics, a word that literally means “mind-loosening”. He urges the medical and regulatory community to be open-minded and humane in allowing research on and subsequent use of psychedelics as a managed therapy for a host of mental illnesses (including depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessions, addictions and PTSD). These diseases, he says, have in common that they occur when “the default mode network” (a series of connections in various parts of the brain that usually launch our thinking and reacting processes) becomes overly rigid, and caught in repetitive loops. Drugs found in plants such as psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, 5-MeO-DMT, and synthetics such as LSD have been shown to quieten this network and its pathways and lead to powerful, long-term healing of these diseases, even with only a few doses.

There are of course dangers: people with already-disrupted default mode networks (those with psychoses, schizophrenia etc) can react badly to these drugs, and bad trips for anyone can be very unpleasant and have serious consequences. For this reason, Michael advocates avoiding the carelessness with which these drugs were used in the 60s, and wants us to develop secular community-based support groups with people experienced at guiding people safely through trips (“flight instructions”) and helping people to integrate and interpret them afterwards, before rushing into full legalization.

Michael describes his own personal trips as well as findings from many others he spoke with, as leading to the dissolution of the ego, ie “non-dual” realization and the “merging with something larger than you”.

When asked about Michael Pollan’s earlier description of this dissolution, Tony Parsons (at a meeting of his I attended last year in Wales) seemed to dismiss it as “probably just another experience”. Tony asserts that any “experiences” are experiences of an individual (self/ego) and hence nothing like the true falling away of the self and the seeing of natural reality. I’m inclined to believe him, though Michael’s description certainly matches at least the “glimpses” that have led many (including me) to believe that the self is an illusion (and “a useless bit of software” that arose as a consequences of the emergence of large brains).

What is remarkable to me is the degree to which Michael’s description of the discoveries and ideas that came from these experiences or events parallel the messages and insights into the nature of reality of many people in a wide array of disciplines — so-called “spiritual teachers” (Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, Rupert Spira etc), philosophers (John Gray in Straw Dogs: “We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.”), scientists (Stewart & Cohen, Richard Lewontin), and artists (Jim Carrey, Terence Stamp, etc).

Tony has commented that the likely reason there are so few articulating this message is that (a) the loss of the self is not really an experience or event (it’s a realization that the self never existed), (b) it just isn’t in most people’s nature to question or to speak publicly about inexplicable “life-changing” events that leave no trace, and (c) it’s really impossible to put into words, since language is an invention specifically to facilitate communication between acknowledged separate “selves”.

Michael says this is reflected in the gushy, inane, often incoherent descriptions of many people who have “experienced” this (though it isn’t an experience). It’s impossible to describe. It’s not “higher consciousness” (in fact there is generally a quieting rather than a focusing or concentration of the mind). It’s not “consciousness” or “awareness” or “presence” at all — it’s absence, loss. Liberation, from the affliction of the self.

If Michael is right, and presuming we don’t extinguish human life on this planet before it happens, it might theoretically be possible to treat and even cure what I have called Civilization Disease” (including all of the aforementioned mental illnesses, and likely many related chronic physical illnesses and the general anxiety most of us have come to accept as “life”). If that were to happen, we might see a sudden large-scale walking away from our ruinous global industrial civilization, which depends utterly on our culture’s stranglehold over our “separate selves”. If enough of us “lost our selves”, how might the trajectory of the human species then shift? Would we learn, once again, how to live in community as one with everything around us?

If Tony is right, this won’t be possible; psychedelic drugs might enable us to glimpse, and to long for, oneness, but they won’t enable us, in any functional or enduring way, to “lose our selves” and just be, as we were before our selves arose in early childhood.

My guess is that Tony is probably right — the self has too strong and too established a grip on the creatures it inhabits to be shaken by medicines that briefly short-circuit the brain that gave rise to it. Sometimes I even question whether post-civilization societies, living without the stresses and barrage of information and distraction and propaganda that characterize the era of human civilizations, will escape the affliction of separateness and self-hood. We might be just inherently, as a species, too smart for our own good.

Still, the idea of separation and self-hood as a mental illness that might be treated by medicines that “loosen the mind” — liberating us from most mental and chronic physical illnesses in the process — is intriguing.

But I’m deeply skeptical. We are complex creatures, we humans, and every body is different. We may have a deeply transformative experience under the influence of these medicines, and some may find they heal some of the ailments that have defied all other attempts at treatment, at least for a while, maybe longer, and that’s wonderful. But what then? Things are the way they are for a reason, and I wonder if we are already too damaged, and if our propensity to do things that don’t seem healthy for us can ever be “cured”. We may briefly escape the damage that the self inflicts on us. But that will not destroy the self.

There is nothing to destroy, after all.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

Several Short Sentences About… Bats

fruit bat, from wikimedia

Many people liked my Several Short Sentences About… Jellyfish, so I thought I’d reprise the idea with a list of interesting things about bats, which are mammals… sort of like us:

  1. Bats evolved about 60-100 million years ago; by 50 million years ago (when the closest relative to a human was Plesiadapis, a lemur-like creature) bats already looked and behaved much as they do today.
  2. Of the 5000 known species of mammals, 1200 of them are bats; they range in size from thumbnail size (roosting in bamboo stalks; the smallest mammals on earth) to a six foot wingspan, and range in weight from less than that of a dime to 3 pounds for the 5′ long “flying fox”.
  3. Macrobats (one of the two major groups of bats) are much closer to humans in their DNA than they are to mice, or to birds, or to microbats, the other major group; macrobats are genetically so similar to primates that they were originally classed as a branch of primates.
  4. Bats have larger brains than most birds and other creatures of their size; that’s due to an evolutionary anomaly: bat bodies evolved to be progressively smaller to better fit ecological niches, while their brains stayed the same size.
  5. They are very intelligent, and very curious creatures, exploring and interacting with novel objects and situations much as ravens do (a scientist in Panama has trained bats to follow the sound of heavy metal music, but ignore other genres, to receive a food reward).
  6. They have excellent memories and ability to differentiate: They can distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous frogs by their calls, between individual humans by their breath, and discern individuals among their thousands (or millions) of roost-mates.
  7. They are highly social: They regroup in their roosts daily to be closer to ‘friends’, favour matrilineal relatives, demonstrate sharing and other altruistic behaviours, and rub noses as greetings and to confirm identities.
  8. They can fly up to 60mph, and because of their flexible wings — that are so complex aerodynamics engineers have been unable to adapt them to human travel technologies — they are many times more agile in flight than birds or insects.
  9. They are the only flying mammals (“flying squirrels” can only glide).
  10. Some bats can hover like hummingbirds, and others can run up to 5mph on the ground.
  11. Their wings are adaptations of mammalian hands, not arms, as the primate-like skeleton below illustrates.

bat skeleton, from wikimedia

  1. Bats’ wing “struts” are very close anatomically to human finger bones, and wing membranes are very similar to the skin between our fingers (their genus name chiroptera means “hand-wing).
  2. Their wings are covered in the same ultra-sensitive cells as human fingertips, each topped with a tiny hair (1/100th the size of a human hair) that registers air flow and turbulence.
  3.  Bats’ echolocation is quite different in mechanism (though not in fundamental principles) from that of whales and dolphins.
  4. We still know relatively little about how bats’ echolocation works; it involves pitches well beyond human hearing range as well as many different forms of clicks, buzzes and trills.
  5. Most of a bat’s echolocation calls are to navigate deftly around solid objects at high speeds, rather than to track prey.
  6. The sonar and radar used in human society (and many technologies developed to help humans with impaired sight) are based directly on the study of bats’, though bat echolocation is vastly more complex, subtle, organic and sensitive than the human adaptations.
  7. Bats’ echolocation calls can reach 140 db (equivalent to a jet engine), the loudest of any flying creature, and average 60 db. Humans are oblivious to the constant barrage of loud noises in most natural places because they’re beyond our range of hearing.
  8. Bats contract their ear muscles so their own calls don’t damage their hearing; they can “tune” their ears to filter out all but the specific range of sound frequencies they are focused on.
  9. A large part of their brains are devoted to “making sense” of the ultrasonic signals; they “create the world” with sound as much as we do with vision. It’s how they “see”, in far more detail than we can.
  10. Their echolocation can detect objects smaller than the width of a human hair, over large distances, even if both they and the object are moving, and they can also detect the object’s texture, velocity, direction and acceleration.
  11. Some moths fight back against bat echolocation with clicks that effectively jam bats’ signals, but some bats have evolved a counter-strategy of “whispering”at low volumes and different frequencies when near these moths.
  12. Bats use both FM (less distance but more precision) and CF (constant frequency, longer-range but less precise) echolocation signals.
  13. Most megabats are vegans (fruits and nectars); most microbats are principally insectivores and nectar-eaters (only 3 of 1200, exclusive to Latin America, drink blood — generally by lapping a teaspoonful from a sleeping cow using an anticoagulant in their saliva).
  14. Over 500 species of plants, and almost all tropical rainforest species, depend heavily on bats for pollination; without bat pollination there would be no tequila, bananas, mangoes, chocolate, or avocados, and 80 fewer important medicines.
  15. Bats prefer the subtlest smelling plants, and gather nectar at night, the opposite of bees; this extends the pollination period for plants to round-the-clock, and to more plants.
  16. Bats use their very long tongues to gather pollen, which, when not in use, are often rolled up under their rib cages (they don’t fit in their mouths).
  17. They are the largest consumer of june beetles and stink bugs, and can easily consume 1000 mosquitos in an hour.
  18. They drink water in flight by skimming the surface of lakes, rivers and ponds, mouths ajar.
  19. Bats are major human disease vectors, including for very serious diseases like ebola, SARS, MERSA, and all the hemorrhagic fevers, though they almost never contract any of these diseases (they are just carriers); bats (like dogs and cats) are susceptible to rabies, but it’s rare.
  20. Trying to find out why this is, scientists have discovered that because they have gathered in huge groups for millions of years, and because of the enormous metabolic stresses of bats’ exhausting flight on their DNA, bats have of necessity evolved astonishingly strong immune systems, including almost complete immunity to cancers, immune system deficiency and hyperactivity disorders, and the ability to auto-repair almost all damaged/deformed DNA.
  21. As a result, their average lifespan-to-body-weight ratio is completely out of line with (four times) that of all other mammals — many bats live more than 40 years.
  22. This is what makes white-nose syndrome so confounding — it has decimated up to 90% of North American bat populations; white-nose syndrome is a soil fungus from Europe that European bats are immune to but North & South American bats have never been exposed to and hence have no immunity against.
  23. One  bat colony in Austin Texas houses 1.5 million bats, more than the human population of the city; a rural Texas bat cave has 20 million bats living in it.
  24. Some bats migrate long distances, some hibernate for months, some go into a torpor state (breathing reduced to <1 breath/minute; heart rate reduced from 250 to 10 bpm) for part of some or every day, some do all of the above, and some do none of the above.
  25. In Texas ‘bat guano’ was once the largest state export, used as fertilizer and to make gunpowder.
  26. Most bats (especially megabats) can see very well, including ultraviolet waves we can’t see, and have cat-like night vision.
  27. Bats are meticulous self-groomers; perhaps they have to stay “aerodynamically clean” to keep flying straight.
  28. Not all bats live in caves; some craft sophisticated “tents” out of large leaves in tropical rainforests, or live in hollows, abandoned buildings, or natural or human-made bat-houses.
  29. Baby bats “babble” with each other to learn how to vocalize; listening to their parents they craft highly complex personal songs that are used to identify themselves and to woo mates.
  30. Bats’ social vocalizations are complex and precise: A recent study discovered that their calls convey the identity of the individual caller and recipient, the context and purpose/objective of the communication, the intended action, and a tonal intonation that distinguishes the recipient as either a trusted “friend” or an anxiety-producing “foe”.
  31. Bats navigate location using an unfathomable combination of magnetic resonance, attuned to the earth’s magnetic core, and light sensitivity, attuned to the shifting location of sunrise and sunset.
  32. They can sleep upside down because their arteries have evolved one-way valves to prevent blood flowing in the wrong direction and cutting off circulation.
  33. While they’re more than agile enough to avoid wind turbines, many die from collapsed lungs due to flying quickly through areas near wind turbines with extreme air pressure gradients; likewise they can’t fly at high altitudes like most birds can.
  34. Females have only one “pup” a year; they fly with the pup clinging to them using evolved ‘false nipples’ that offer no milk but excellent traction.
  35. Female bats are somehow able to keep the sperm separate from their egg up to six months until it’s the best time to conceive for survival of the pup.
  36. Bats are fond of oral sex (both ways), licking their own genitals, homosexual grooming, and sex just for fun (or as the scientific study put it, in bats “female sexual motivation appears to be independent of ovarian hormones”).

[OK, I admit, some of the above sentences are not by any means “short”. The title is an homage to NYT nature writer Verlyn Klinkenborg’s brilliant essay & book “Several Short Sentences About Writing”.]

Since we want every blog post to be somewhat actionable as well as entertaining and informative, here’s a great source of information on how to build your own bat house.

Why should you build a bat house? The bats you attract will:

  • pollinate your plants,
  • enrich your soil,
  • spread your seeds, and
  • reduce the number of mosquitos and moths you have to contend with

And with a house of their own they’ll stay out of your house and leave you alone so you don’t have to worry about #30. But take care not to touch them, get medical attention in the highly unlikely case you get bitten by one, and use a mask if you’re cleaning guano out of a bat or bird house or attic (to minimize the risk of histoplasmosis).

It is such arrogance to be searching for “intelligent life” on other planets, when it is clear it is swirling around us, everywhere, in the oceans, in the forests, and in the skies above us, all of which our “intelligent” species is despoiling and desolating.

But alas, we cannot hear.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 1 Comment

The Wheel of Blame

I don’t know who invented the “wheel of blame”. I first saw it on the refrigerator of Tree’s community house kitchen. It listed the community members and pets (eg the “scapecat”) and came with a spinner that allowed blame to be immediately and indiscriminately apportioned for anything that went wrong. The larger spaces on the wheel were labeled with those deemed most likely to be blamed, or blameable. It’s been reinvented in many different places; there’s even an app for it.

In recently thinking about our human propensity to assign blame for things, I started listing those people and things I had caught myself blaming for various upsetting and outrageous things over the years, and how my propensity for assigning blame had shifted over my life:

The first years of my life were pretty carefree. I tended not to assign blame, since nothing, it seemed, was blameworthy. But then, I entered school, where blaming seemed the predominant sport, and things went downhill from there:

At 20 I was your proverbial angry young man. My wheel of blame was probably pretty typical for hippy-socialist-long hairs in the late 60s and early 70s. I blamed “the system” while secretly worrying that the system was really “all of us”. I blamed the uneducated for their own lack of knowledge and awareness (a form, I guess, of blaming the victim). I blamed bad drivers (slow traffic, accident delays) when I was late. I put collective labels of blame on the misbehaviour of rogue individuals within the groups I was inclined to dislike, and blamed the most visible individuals in misbehaving groups for what was really a collective folly.

As I got older and more preoccupied with family life, I became more inclined to blame situations and tools, and less inclined to blame systems and political groups:

For the next couple of decades my pattern of blaming didn’t change much, except that for the first time since early childhood, I started to doubt, occasionally, that anyone was to blame:

As I started to blog (in my 50s), learning about things (complexity, culture, science, nature and human nature) I had neglected during my peak working life, my patterns of blame started to shift sharply.

So now, as a non-dualist, I am increasingly reluctant to blame anyone for anything, since blame assumes people have free will and control over their behaviours and beliefs, and non-duality asserts that they do not. Ending the blame game has also made me much less reactive and less angry than I used to be.

But I am still inclined to blame myself, though much less than I used to. And I can’t seem to stop blaming badly designed technologies (notably anything developed by Microsoft) for my online struggles. And bad drivers, until I stop and think what trauma and suffering must be driving them to so misbehave. And systems, especially everything large scale, including the education system, the financial system, and the corporatism that prevails in large capitalist enterprises, though I realize there’s no point blaming anything that is in  no one’s and no group’s control. The cause of your suffering is not necessarily to blame for it.

And of course it’s still fun to blame the lawyers. Like the rest of us, they are surely all doing their best to make their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, better, and make the world a better place in the process. Though it seems their best is particularly inadequate.

There are some groups I have never blamed for anything — although I realize they tend to be the scapegoats of large segments of the population. “Terrorists” (whatever that word means), immigrants (or “foreigners” as they have traditionally been labeled by xenophobes), the weather, the victims (blaming the poor, sick and uneducated for their predicaments), users and customers, subordinates, and “a growing lack of morality” or “declining standards” are often blamed for a host of problems, but not by me. And of course some Americans like to “blame Canada”, which I think only Canadians, who enjoy blaming themselves more than nationals of most nations, should be allowed to do.

Looking at the wheel of blame turn as my life has progressed, and as the number of objects of blame decrease for me, I get the disquieting feeling that, if I were to draw my wheel of blame at age 80, it will look very similar to the one at age 5. Except for blaming the dog or cat. From eating the homework to making that bad smell that embarrasses everyone in the room, that’s always been a bad rap.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Collapse Watch

It’s been a while since I posted about the collapse of our industrial civilization. Background is here if you’re interested in my take on how it will occur, due to the interconnection between our global economic and energy systems and the planet’s vulnerable ecology.

My reason for posting this update is a number of conversations I’ve had with fellow “collapsniks” about whether or not the (IMO insane) gun culture of the US will mean that collapse will unfold differently there than it does in the rest of the world. My current guess is that, yes, sporadically for a while there are likely to be surges in gun-facilitated crime in the US that the rest of us won’t see, but in the long run it’s unlikely to make much difference. When everyone’s boat is sinking, stealing someone else’s at gunpoint doesn’t help you.

In recent months politicians, government agencies, corporations and mainstream media have been furiously working to persuade the poor dumbed-down, exhausted populace that our industrial growth-dependent economy is “healthy” and “vibrant”, that debt levels are “manageable”, that “the myth of peak oil is dead”, and that climate change either isn’t a problem, or everything possible is being done to avert it. This is all self-serving nonsense of course: the true statistics on the economy are really scary, debt levels of both governments and consumers are utterly unsustainable, inequality continues to soar, along with all the social and political risks that entails, the looming end of affordable energy remains critical and substantially unaddressed, and climate change continues to accelerate on its runaway course.

We are living on borrowed time. “Borrowed” from the banks, “borrowed” from struggling nations, “borrowed” from future generations, “borrowed” from exhausted land, soils and seas, “borrowed” from all the species we are rendering extinct, and “borrowed” from the disenfranchised poor, sick, gullible and uneducated. Our economy is based on the presumption of endless double-digit growth in production and income to repay today’s lenders and investors (without which neither stocks nor bonds have any real value). Since it began, every bit, 100%, of our global industrial culture’s “growth” is attributable to ever-accelerating use of cheap, readily available energy. The Ponzi scheme that is our global industrial economy is way overdue for collapse. For a while longer — a year, a decade perhaps — those investing in this economy will continue to believe the impossible story that the value of their investments can not only be repaid, but repaid with profit. Or that, at least, someone else will be willing to take their position when their doubts get too great, and will keep the scheme going a while longer.

I continue to believe that it is economic collapse, rather than energy or ecological collapse, that will bring down our industrial civilization. Economic collapse will come first, and (affordable) energy collapse and ecological collapse will just aggravate, extend and inflame the misery of global economic collapse.

What is important to note, however, is that this collapse will not be an overnight global phenomenon that will produce a Hollywood dystopia — it will occur slowly and sporadically, in fits and starts, over the coming decades. And this time there will be no “recovery”. Financial collapse will precipitate a long and slow and finally permanent emergency: economic, political, technological, educational, health and ultimately social collapse. It will be the collapse of our now-global civilization. The collapse will take decades, but it will be without hope of recovery: rebuilding new human societies and cultures from its ashes will take millennia, and transpire based on a much smaller, relocalized and diverse human population. This is nothing new, of course; it is the story of every human civilization that has ever arisen on our planet.

I wanted to try to present an alternative portrait of collapse to the sensationalist, simplistic, Mad Max, dystopian story that those who haven’t lived through an economic collapse imagine will happen — they imagine the sudden, sensational, violent end of what most now think of as the only way to live (ie industrial growth capitalism), and degeneration into chaos, brutality and (we should be so lucky) “anarchy”. There is a far more likely scenario, based on what has happened when previous civilizations have fallen — not overnight, but rather slowly, unevenly, and mostly peacefully, as the edifice built on an unsustainable foundation gradually but inexorably grinds to a halt. The chart above summarizes that portrait. I will walk you through what it portrays. But first, I want to introduce a thought exercise to support some of my predictions.

Suppose I asked you to play a game. There’s a very large jar with an unknown number of marbles in it, covered with a cloth, with a spigot at the bottom that dispenses the marbles. The object of the game is to ensure every player has at least one marble at all times, and the “winner” of the game is the one with the most marbles when the game ends — ie when the jar runs out. You have no idea how full of marbles the jar is. On your turn you have two choices: to stick with the marbles you have, or to “invest” one or more marbles (putting them in the top of the jar), and then turn the spigot that many times, and collect the marbles it dispenses. The number dispensed varies from zero to several. Seems simple enough, right?

But now let’s add a wrinkle. Every second turn a certain percentage of your marbles are “depreciated” — they lose their value and are taken away from you and placed in a second jar of the same very large size, called “waste”. And when you run out of marbles, you’re out of the game. And there’s a second wrinkle: Every round, another player is added, and collectively the players have some responsibility to ensure there are always enough marbles for everyone (after all, that’s the objective of the game, which is now somewhat at odds with who is the “winner” of the game).

To make this game a little less depressing, we’ll add a third wrinkle: the game-master (who is not a player in the game) uses a random number table to determine how many marbles (from a secret stash no one else can see) to add back to the jar after each round; that could range from zero to enough marbles to fully replenish the jar, but none of the other players can see what is added. Can you feel the stress building, and the seemingly optimal strategy shifting?

Now you have some players saying there are so many marbles that the focus should be on getting lots of marbles out of the jar — after all, those with lots of marbles could “donate” some to those running out. The secret stash could be infinite, right? So let’s keep that spigot turning! But others point to the quickly filling “waste” jar and say that no stash is infinite, and that rather than giving every individual a choice each turn, there should be a collective decision on who gets to turn the spigot that round, and how the total number of marbles received by the collective should be distributed. Suddenly the game evolves into two separate games — one group whose members are free to make their own “selfish” decisions, aiming to “win”, and another group agreeing to be bound by their collective decision, aiming to keep the game going so that everyone “wins”.

Let’s add one final wrinkle — the fuller the “waste” jar is with marbles, the fewer new marbles the game-master adds proportionally each round (using a mysterious algorithm only the game-master knows). Once the “waste” jar is full, no more marbles are added! At the same time, each round a certain (but quite small) percentage of the marbles in the waste jar are “restored” (removed) by the game-master, and possibly they are added back to the secret stash (that’s up to the discretion of the unfathomable and indifferent game-master, who always “bats last” after all the players have had their turn).

Now you’ve got players running simulations and models to tell the others whether to turn the spigot or not on each turn (guess what we call them?), though of course these models make all kinds of assumptions, and few people understand or pay attention to them. And there are players trying to get the game to reach a “steady state” where the “waste” jar never gets quite full and the game goes on forever, but few players pay attention to them either, and it gets harder and harder each round as another player is added.

You get the idea. Now let me walk you through the 5 boxes in the chart above, which the marble game is a highly-imperfect but useful model of. Gotta love metaphors.

  1. Box 1: Precipitating Factors: Collapse will likely begin with the same three elements that very nearly brought down the economy in 2008:
    • Some players, seeing the “waste” jar filling up quickly and worrying that the main marble jar may be running low, and the cost of turning the spigot too risky, will opt to “invest” fewer marbles each turn, or even pass entirely and hoard what they have. This is the end of the Ponzi scheme — no new investment in the jar means there is less and less in the jar to dispense to the new players. Eventually everyone stops investing, since they don’t want to contribute if the spigot isn’t giving much, if anything, back. This is called a liquidity or credit crunch. When those with money refuse to invest it out of fear they won’t get a payback, there’s no money to pay to anyone else. The marbles are going to run out fast.
    • With the disappearance of credit and liquidity, stock markets, which depend on constant growth in new investment to pay for constant increases in production and profits, will then begin to fail. No one will be able to get new or renewed loans or mortgages, leading to failures of banks, real estate and commodity markets. Bonds will become junk bonds and then worthless, as the borrowers lose the wherewithal to repay them. Banks will freeze your assets because they have no collateral to fund withdrawals by customers.
    • Governments will desperately print more money and give it essentially interest-free to the rich to get money circulating again, but the rich will just hoard it, rather than risking investing it. The rich (the 1% who own half the world’s wealth and as much as 90% of the disposable income) realize that there’s a limit to how much money governments’ central banks can print before you get, very quickly, hyperinflation and a worthless currency (ask citizens of Zimbabwe or Argentina). Unlike the situation in 2008, there is no Plan B. A global Great Depression will begin.
  2. Box 2: Economy in Free Fall: Everyone will now blame everyone else for mismanagement of the economy. The stock market will repeatedly stumble and then briefly recover as those who have not experienced a real Depression keep betting on economic resilience, when the system has none left.
    • Finally, the stock market will begin to collapse entirely, first with prohibitions on transactions at prices more than x% below the previous day’s, and prohibitions on short selling, and then with delistings and short-term closures of markets, before finally, over time, the markets cease trading entirely, leaving investors to paper their walls with their stocks and bonds. Although it’s only “paper” wealth, it will produce the greatest redistribution of wealth in history, as the 1% suddenly find themselves in much the same struggle as the 99%.
    • The ripple effect on other assets will leave real estate worth only a fraction of its current Ponzi value (resulting in a flood of foreclosures, before the banks that still exist give up trying to get blood out of a stone and allow ‘owners’ to stay in ‘their’ homes indefinitely). It will also decimate the value of commodities, and essentially paralyze import/export markets (too low-value to ship and no money for buyers to pay with). And it will collapse currencies, requiring most of us to transact mainly by barter, gifting and scrip (personal, re-transferable IOUs). Although prices will plummet, wages will plummet faster, and large global companies selling non-essentials sourced from many countries will be unable to stay in business, laying off millions working in non-essential jobs.
    • As tax revenues evaporate with the collapsing economy, governments will begin to curtail, devolve and privatize services, and finally give up providing them at all. As the situation worsens and local governments lose the revenues needed to pick up the slack, it will fall to local communities to “reinvent” everything from ferries to hospitals at a subsistence, community-based level, mostly on a gift basis.
  3. Box 3: Temporary Annoying Crises: While the Box 2 problems will be chronic and steadily worsening, what will be most infuriating for those trying to struggle with the economic collapse will be some of the temporary but paralyzing anomalies that this collapse will bring with it:
    • Prices of essential goods (food, energy etc) will alternately soar and plummet, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere. That will make planning, and coping with emergencies, a difficult and complicated process. We will see store shelves briefly and spasmodically empty, and then suddenly be full again. We will see gas rationing, on and off (balancing supply and demand is complex and delicate). We will see frequent and intermittent blackouts and brownouts, making anything requiring stability and scheduling almost impossible. Whole systems will fail for lack of one infuriatingly unavailable part.
    • The result will be, at times, the paradoxical situation called “stagflation” — very high unemployment, negative economic growth, yet high price inflation for things we really need, all at the same time.
    • In most of the world, we’ll just have to put up with these massive annoyances. But it’s these “annoyances”, not the chronic problems where everyone is in the same boat and the situation seems unlikely to improve, that will inflame tempers, lead to the election of demagogues, a rise in racism and xenophobia, and the temptation to use violence where the situation seems unfair, outrageous and unnecessary. This is where, in the US with its entrenched gun culture, horrific inequality and cult of individualism, local level violence could flare. But it will be mostly fruitless, so my guess is it will be sporadic rather than endemic as the collapse progresses.
  4. Box 4: Ecological Collapse Adds to the Misery: The above situation will probably prevail for at least a decade, maybe two or three, before the problems of climate change weigh in heavily and the collapse of our entire civilization becomes a foregone conclusion. At first, these will be mostly intermittent problems:
    • We are likely to see a series of pandemics resulting mostly from climate change but also from the lingering effects of globalization as humans destroy what’s left of the natural environment to try to get what they need to cope with economic collapse. These will include human pandemics (most severe of which will be naturally evolved or deliberately weaponized diseases that spread without direct contact and for which we have no natural immunity or scalable treatments), but also pandemic diseases of plants, trees, ocean life and confined animals that will devastate our food supplies and the local ecologies on which we all depend.
    • Climate change will also produce, unevenly and intermittently across the globe, unpredictable and extreme climate events that will make some cities and some local ecosystems uninhabitable for us, and for the crops we grow for food. Like New Orleans, Fukushima, and Detroit, these areas will eventually be abandoned — it will simply be too expensive to rebuild them. And they’ll become more and more plentiful as climate change accelerates. Southern Europe and Southern Asia, much of the Western US and Central America, and coastal and dry areas worldwide will be especially vulnerable.
  5. Box 5: The Great Migration: The culmination of all of these dislocations, disruptions, the “death by a thousand cuts”, will be what I have been calling the Great Migration. This will entail the necessity for as much as a third of humanity to repeatedly move from uninhabitable areas to habitable areas as climate change worsens and its effects become more enduring and widespread. This has happened before — during the last ice age the same proportion of humans had to move to warmer, drier areas that will have to move to cooler, stabler areas in the current century.
    • In the process, the world will have become a less habitable place not just for us but for every species on the planet that has not already been extinguished or decimated by our industrial civilization. Forests will disappear everywhere. Soils, already impoverished by human overuse, will become even poorer and dry up and blow away as deserts occupy more of our planet. The oceans will become largely toxic, uninhabitable and sterile, their diversity destroyed. Sea levels will rise, drowning low-lying (by then long-abandoned) coastal cities and islands. The remaining ecosystems will become so brittle that 90% of all species will go extinct. Industrial agriculture will cease entirely, as human endeavour returns to relocalized permaculture and the local provision of necessities (food, water, clothing, shelter, health, education, local transportation) by subsistence communities for their own members, with little left over.
    • This desolated world, as I’ve written before, will likely support less than a billion people, probably much less. It will take decades, but most of the depopulation will come from plunging birth rates rather than from diseases or wars (or people freezing or burning to death). For who would want to bring children into such a world? That is the way almost every civilization has ended. Slowly, in fits and starts, over an extended period, as members who can no longer get what they want and need, walk away to seek another culture that will work in its place.

I offer no solutions to this predicament — I don’t think it’s in our power to change it, for a whole series of reasons I’ve written about ad nauseam elsewhere. If we were to play the marble game I think we’d see the same scenario playing out, and learn that, despite how fascinating and engaging the game is, it can ultimately have no winners.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

All The Things I Thought I Knew

Image from wikipedia.

This is a work of fiction.

“Who could we get who’s as good as David Foster Wallace?”

My daughter Sevi had been selected to find a “commencement address” speaker for their local high school, which was interesting, considering that she had never attended it — she had been unschooled, and although she could have breezed through the equivalency exams she was still young and in no hurry to do so. But she knew many of the top students there, and had agreed to see who she could find, especially if it was someone who was also unschooled.

She’d done her homework on the project, and was looking for someone who could deliver something like David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece — but someone who was still alive. She even asked me if I was up for the job.

I told her that was a tall order, that David’s speech set an impossible standard, and that in any case I no longer gave any advice, and advice on what to do with the rest of their lives was what they would be looking for. She frowned and told me I was always giving her advice. I promised not to do so in the future as long as she didn’t ask me to give a commencement address. I thought high schools had valedictorians, but apparently with the disappearance of precise grades, they were starting to substitute commencement speeches instead.

“So why don’t you give advice any more?”, she asked me.

“Because I don’t know anything. I thought I did once, but I was mistaken.”

“You were a big success in business, so you must know something“, she replied. “Tell them how they can succeed.”

“My apparent success in business had nothing to do with me. What this apparent creature allegedly did in the past, and will do in the future, has nothing to do with ‘me’. It is the only thing that creature could have done, given the circumstances of the moment and the creature’s enculturated and biological conditioning.”

Sevi rolled her eyes at me. “Here we go with the non-duality stuff again. Could you please not refer to yourself in the third person? That privilege is reserved for old queens.” She did a Queen Victoria imitation, saying with a mock-British accent “The Queen advises caution, sir. We are not amused.” I laughed.

“There is no me, just as there is no one and no thing and no time, just what is apparently happening, so using the first person is just perpetuating a false but accepted illusion. I prefer gerunding“, I said. “Gerunds are western languages’ way of re-presenting something mistakenly thought of as a thing, a noun, as a verb instead, as a process. It’s the best invention of English grammar. Gerunds even take adverbs as modifiers, instead of adjectives. So I could say, for example, ‘We are wickedly plotting to sabotage the commencement address.’ There is no ‘we’ and no ‘commencement address’ and no ‘plot’ but there seems to be plotting happening.” I paused and then with an exaggerated smile added “I could talk about gerunds at the commencement address.”

You are wickedly plotting to sabotage the commencement, not ‘we'”, Sevi replied. She added “And I caught you saying ‘I’ which is not at all gerundive, or non-dual. And there will be no talk of gerunds at the commencement address.” She laughed, while still trying to look serious.

“Some reprimanding going on here, it would appear”, I replied.

“I’m going to whack you every time you use a gerund. If you don’t want to make the address, who do you think would make a good one? I’d like to ask Arundhati Roy if she’d record one and they could play it at their graduation. Better ideas?”

“That would be fun. I would ask anyone who acknowledges that they aren’t real, and that they know nothing.” When she reached out to slap me, I added: “In this case, despite its ending, nothing is not a gerund. Although perhaps it should be.”

“That’s not helpful, Dad”, she replied.

“I suppose telling the eager graduates that they have no free will and no responsibility and can take no credit for their successes, nor blame for their failures, wouldn’t be setting the tone they’re looking for. But it’s the truth. ‘We’ make no decisions to do or not do anything, we merely rationalize what these creatures we appear to inhabit do as if they were ‘our’ decisions, ‘our’ choices. When there is no ‘us’ to make them.”

“Not buying it Dad. You keep quoting Daniel Quinn advising his readers not to waste time talking to people who aren’t ready to listen. They’re not ready to listen to your ‘radical non-duality’ message. I’m not ready to listen to it. Talk to us again when there’s been a glimpse of the veracity of what you believe. Until then, meet us where we are, and stop wasting everyone’s time.”

She was right, or course. Way smarter than I’ll ever be. What do you talk about when you discover that everything you thought you knew was wrong, and what you believe instead is so preposterous that people think you’re kidding, or having some kind of spiritual or life-passage crisis? I sighed. I didn’t have any idea what to say, but I knew this creature that I seem to inhabit was going to say something anyway. So I tried to shut up and listen to it. It said:

“We think we know ourselves, but we don’t. We base our entire existence on the belief that we acquire knowledge that enables us to make better decisions that will improve our lives, our capacities, and make the world a better place. But we don’t know ourselves at all. Why do we cheat on our diets, or on our spouses? Why do we procrastinate when we ‘know’ something needs to be done? Why do we get depressed when it serves us no useful purpose? Why do we fall in love with people who are often entirely wrong for us, and overlook people for whom we might be ideally suited? We haven’t the faintest idea. That’s because ‘we’ aren’t doing any of this. We are not in charge, not in control. ‘We’ don’t exist, except as a figment of our brain’s furious patterning to try to make sense of things”.

The creature continued: “And we think we know other people as well, what they are thinking or feeling. We don’t. They may try to clue us in, but they don’t know either. When couples split, they often say that they don’t even recognize the person who they are (often bitterly) separating from. The truth is, nobody knows anything. Even worse, there is no one to know anything.”

“Are you done?”, Sevi replied. I nodded. “You know”, she said, “I’m not entirely unsympathetic with your non-duality riff. So maybe we don’t, or can’t, ‘know’ anything or anyone, including ourselves. And maybe we’re not in control of ourselves at all. And maybe our selves are just a construct, a fictive ‘invention of the brain looking inward’. And maybe nothing has any meaning or purpose. Bring this back to a room full of students who are bewildered and scared and aimless, looking for some insight, some direction, something they can actually use. They have no expectations, except some boring speech that at best will be short and have a couple of good jokes. What do we give them?”

I just beamed at her. “God you’re smart. I am so blessed to have someone so brilliant and astonishing and together in my life.”

She raised one eyebrow at me again, in a half-smile, half-scowl. “Thank you but you’re mistaken and that doesn’t answer the question.”

I sighed. I thought for a moment and then said. “Anything we could say to them would be a lie. It would be suggesting they could and should do something they can’t choose to do or not do. We could be honest and tell them upfront that what we were about to say was a lie, because we can’t be other than who we are. And then we could tell them that if it were possible to actually control what we think and do, it might be useful to become more self-aware. That’s different from knowing. Self-awareness is, well, mostly about just paying attention to what’s happening, inside and outside us, and catching oneself making judgements about it, making up stories about it, attaching meaning to it, deciding what ‘should’ and could be done as a result of it, and so on. Self-awareness might even be considered a modest, undirected form of meditation. No expectations, no judgements, no analysis. Just looking at something or someone and realizing that there are no boundaries between it and everything else, that it’s all just waves and particles (or waving and particling). Just accepting, being a part. Not acknowledging, because that’s ‘making sense’, ‘knowledge’ stuff again. Just sitting with what apparently is, and doing our best to quiet our thoughts and feelings. Doesn’t have to be sitting in a posture, or silent, or eyes-closed. Just trying to see, and see through, what it is that we usually see as our ‘self’.” I took a deep breath and continued:

“And then when you come back into your self and have to deal with the apparent stuff in the ‘real’ world, it’s about listening, silencing the chatter that judges and makes meaning about what is being heard and noticed, just being with the apparent other creatures in these apparent places — not distancing or dissociating but rather stopping reacting and assessing and thinking. Doing the David Foster Wallace being-aware thing of “experiencing a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.”

I was nearly done, and on the edge of tears, wondering if speaking these words to my wonderful daughter was perhaps a terrible disservice: “Of course no one can intentionally choose to become more self-aware. It’s either something the character we presume to inhabit is inherently inclined or has been conditioned  to think of as useful to do, or it’s not. If the listener to your commencement speech is so inclined, maybe they will, in time, depending on their inherent nature and conditioning and the circumstances that arise, do more noticing and less thinking. And they in turn may inspire others to do likewise, so that a tiny shift in enculturated conditioning multiplies outward and more people start noticing more and thinking about it less — both noticing inwards as self-awareness and noticing outwards as awareness of what is without attaching meaning or volition to it. I think that would be good. I like the word ‘awareness’; it comes from the same root as ‘wary’, and encourages us to be critical thinkers and critical perceivers, to challenge everything. That is the best that I think a commencement address could do, although it wouldn’t be what the audience would prefer, which is to be lied to, to be made to feel better about themselves and their capacities for a little while, by telling them how wonderful they are and how amazing the future could be if only they work hard with the right intention and all that crap. With a few clever jokes mixed in.”

Sevi was thinking hard. “So this speech that promises to give no advice is telling them to challenge everything, to hone their skills at noticing and self-awareness. Is that what you mean by having to lie to them?”

“Basically, yes. You could leave out the non-duality stuff and just talk about the importance of noticing and self-awareness and challenging everything, with some lovely David Foster Wallace type fer’instances, and some examples that relate to what they are most bewildered and scared and aimless about, and with a few clever jokes mixed in, and you’d have yourself a pretty passable speech, I think.”

“So will you give it?”

“Not me”, I replied. “They want someone they look up to, or at least that they can relate to. Someone younger. Someone with more empathy than me. Someone cute and funny.”

Sevi gave me an exasperated look. “I look up to you. I relate to you. You’re more empathetic than most fathers. And…” (she wrinkled her nose and smiled as she considered how to complete the sentence) “… you can be funny, when you want to be.”

I just looked at her and shook my head. I was not going to get out of this without identifying someone who could deliver this message more persuasively than I could, or otherwise discouraging her from letting me loose on these poor unsuspecting souls. I smiled back at her.

“I could tell them about bats“, I volunteered. “Did you know a bat’s DNA is closer to ours than it is to either a bird’s or a mouse’s? That they can fly up to 60 miles per hour and because of their flexible wings have flight agility eight times more precise than birds’? And that one species has a wingspan of six feet and another weighs less than a penny? And that there are 1200 staggeringly different species? And…”

Sevi crossed her arms and interrupted me, in an irritated tone. “You are not talking to the graduating class about bats… That’s what you have a blog for.”

Touché. We sat quietly for a moment, thinking. Finally, I said:

“Tell you what. You identify a woman — the world has heard enough speeches by white guys — who appreciates the importance of attention and noticing and self-awareness and challenging everything, and, if she wants, I’ll help her write or edit the speech.”

Sevi sighed. “Hmmm… fair, but could be awkward. Selecting someone and then telling them what you want their message to be. I’ll think about it. Thanks. You know — you know a lot more than you think you do.”

“Nope”, I said, shaking my head. “I don’t know anything. But thanks to smart people like you asking great questions, I may be somehow becoming less stupid. Thanks for helping me pay attention. And for helping me challenge everything.”

“Can’t help it”, she replied with a smile, heading out the door, and then, with a snicker, added: “‘This is the only thing the creature that I presume to inhabit can do, given its inherent nature and enculturated conditioning, and the circumstances of the moment.'”

And then, to prove she’d really done her homework, she stuck her head back through the door and quoted DFW, perfectly: “‘I’d tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear’”.

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

Links of the Quarter: March 2018

image via Ulf Parczyk on Jim Newman’s Facebook Page

Sometimes I feel as if I’m in possession of a great and important secret, but I live in a world where (almost) everyone else speaks a strange foreign language, so no one can understand me. “Hey!”, I call out, “Our civilization is on the verge of collapse, and there’s nothing we can do about it! It’s an extraordinarily complex, self-sustaining system, and it’s way out of our control. You can see that, right? And it’s all fine, right? And there’s no one to blame for that; we’re all doing our best — yes, even him! And in any case it doesn’t matter, because there is no civilization, no separation of anything from anything else, and no ‘us’ — those are all illusions, figments of our imagination. No, wait, not our imagination, since there is no ‘us’, they are just figments, appearances of, uh, ‘all that is’. That’s obvious, no? No? How can you not get that? Well at least you know that the problem behind almost all human illness is poor nutrition, but that, as we have no free will, and don’t want to eat what’s good for us, we won’t, so we’re not going to get better. You get that at least, right? What do you mean I’m crazy, there is evidence for all this. I’m not making this up. You’re the one that’s crazy, and sick too, you fool! Why do I even bother? No I won’t shut up. If you don’t like the truth, you leave! So there!” Hah! I sure told them…

Postscript on Links: Some of the links below contain qualifiers as to their source (usually referring to Pocket, a free news article digest service). I’ve started using these because they can penetrate annoying paywalls like those of the NYT. If they’re not working for you, or if you’re still hitting paywalls with these links, please let me know.


cartoon by David Sipress in The New Yorker

A Plea to Millennials: Tim Kreider pleads with America’s young people to fix everything that previous generations broke. It’s just a hopeless wishful rant, but its tone of exhaustion and bewilderment is telling:

My message, as an aging Gen X-er to millennials and those coming after them, is: Go get us. Take us down — all those cringing provincials who still think climate change is a hoax, that being transgender is a fad or that “socialism” means purges and re-education camps. Rid the world of all our outmoded opinions, vestigial prejudices and rotten institutions. Gender roles as disfiguring as foot-binding, the moribund and vampiric two-party system, the savage theology of capitalism — rip it all to the ground. I for one can’t wait till we’re gone. I just wish I could live to see the world without us.

No One Is To Blame: RSA animation of an excerpt of philosopher Raoul Martinez’s explanation of the significance of discovering no one has free will, choice or responsibility for their apparent ‘decisions’ and actions, and hence no one is to blame; we’re all doing the only thing we can possibly do in the immediate circumstances we face each moment.

Rotten: Td0s writes about our culture’s unwillingness to do things well, and to pay to maintain the infrastructure we build and depend on:

Doing something well, making something that will last, is not prized in this culture. All that matters is completing the transaction. Once the purchase is made, the relationship is over and the poor sucker holding the bag can deal with the fall out. Empty and depressing malls ring towns of financially strapped families living in factory framed houses. Adults work wherever there is work for however long they have to while children are shuffled through overcrowded and underfunded schools until the bell rings and they are sent out into the meaningless wastes of suburbia. By some miracle a few of them turn out exemplary, while others muddle through it towards a life of alcohol and anxiety medication…

How do we tend to needs that have gone unmet for decades? How do we do social upkeep in a culture that wants us to believe that there is no society, only hard working winners, lazy losers, and a stop at Chick-Fil-A in between? How do we build places worth living in, and how do we make lives worth living? While trillions are spent on militaristically enforcing empire around the globe, our bridges and water mains crumble, and our population has sunk into such a deep pit of despair that it spends almost every non-working hour escaping into a drug or a fictional landscape.

Civilization’s Final Form: Brutus suggests we might be witnessing the end of our civilization culture precisely because as it crumbles it’s starting to look less and less like a culture at all:

We operate under a sloppy assumption that, much like Francis Fukuyama’s much ballyhooed pronouncement of the end of history, society has reached its final form, or at least something approximating it. Or maybe we simply expect that its current form will survive into the foreseeable future, which is tantamount to the same. That form features cheap, easy energy and information resources available at our fingertips; local, regional, and international transportation and travel at our service; consumable goods only a phone call or a few website clicks away; and human habitation concentrated in cities and suburbs connected by paved roads suitable for happy motoring. Free public education, such as it is, can be enjoyed until one is presumably old enough to discard it entirely. Political entities from nations to states/provinces to municipalities will remain stable or roughly as they have been for the last 70 years or so, as will governments. Suffice it to say, I don’t believe any of these things are capable of lasting much longer. Ironically, it’s probably true that what is described above is, in fact, society’s final form precisely because what follows won’t qualify anymore as a society.

Why a Renewable Energy Society is a Pipedream: Despite technophiles’ dream of a world of clean abundant energy, the evidence clearly shows that our civilization will continue to rely mainly on hydrocarbons long past the point that hydrocarbon energy ceases to be affordable, precipitating a collapse of our economy and our industrial culture. Thanks to Sam Rose for the link.

Was Jared Diamond Wrong?: Recently a consensus has been achieved that the ‘scale problems’ of ‘civilized’ culture (lack of direct representation, inequality, hierarchy etc.) emerged with the development of ‘catastrophic’ agriculture (intensive, high-maintenance, large-scale monoculture). Now David Graeber argues that this wasn’t the case: all human societies, he argues, have employed a mix of egalitarian and hierarchical social structures, even the earliest tribal societies.

Is Civilization a Wetiko Culture?: Many ancient cultures have a concept called wetiko, a disease that induces cannibalism or vampirism (thanks to Philip Kippenberger for pointing me to this). Stories about it are cautionary tales against excessive acquisitiveness and disconnection from community. A new study suggests our culture is what they were warning about (but falls short of asking the more intriguing question whether, because of our large brains’ propensity for abstraction and seeing ourselves as apart from the rest of life, human cultures will inevitably succumb to the disease):

When Western anthropologists first started to study wetiko, they [identified] two traits that are relevant for thinking about cultures: (1) the initial act, even when driven by necessity, creates a residual, unnatural desire for more; and (2) the host carrier, which they called the ‘victim,’ ended up with an ‘icy heart’— i.e., their ability for empathy and compassion was amputated.

The reader can probably already sense from the two traits mentioned above the wetiko nature of modern capitalism. Its insatiable hunger for finite resources; its disregard for the pain of groups and cultures it consumes; its belief in consumption as savior; its overriding obsession with its own material growth; and its viral spread across the surface of the planet. It is wholly accurate to describe neoliberal capitalism as cannibalizing life on this planet. It is not the only truth—capitalism has also facilitated an explosion of human life and ingenuity—but when taken as a whole, capitalism is certainly eating through the life-force of this planet in service of its own growth.


cartoon by Will McPhail in The New Yorker

Food as Medicine: Nutritionfacts.org’s Michael Greger’s TEDx talk about why almost all the major causes of death in western society are attributable to poor nutrition and the industrial food system.

Howe Sound Ballet: My friend Bob Turner captures astonishing footage of seals, sea lions and massive schools of anchovies right in Snug Cove, Bowen Island.

Music As Life and Death: His friend James Stewart writes a brilliant biography of Eric Sun, violin virtuoso and Facebook genius, an exemplar of how to live with purpose and how to die with dignity.

Rent Now, Buy Never: Vancouver is using modified shipping containers to create a network of neighbourhood lending libraries for tools and recreational gear that people only use occasionally, each run by a neighbourhood co-op.

Re-Thinking Our Reading Problem: Perhaps the problem with our high rates of functional illiteracy, and poor skills at reading and understanding complex material, are due less to lack of literacy teaching in schools, and more to a lack of breadth and depth of knowledge about a wide range of subject matter. If we learned more about subjects (from oral discussions, demonstrations, visits etc) before we tried to read up about them, in other words, our reading might go a lot further than it does without that context.

Why Capitalism, Modern Management and Bonuses Lead to Poor Work Performance: What apparently motivates us to do our best work, says Dan Pink, is not monetary rewards (beyond a comfortable salary); it is autonomy (degree of control over what we do), mastery (the desire to achieve a high level of competence at what we do), and purpose (a shared sense that what we do is important in the world, and why). Capitalism, in contrast, rewards obedience, cost reduction, and coercive marketing.

In the Market for a Laptop, Phone or Camera?: Take a look at ProductChart, which allows you to select all the criteria you care about and then shows a chart comparing benefits vs cost, with links for more information. Seems to be free of hidden sponsorships and biases. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link, and the one that follows.

The Unknown Language of the Jedek: A new language has been discovered, almost by accident, in Malaysia, and neither the language nor the culture of its people seem to support or encourage misogyny, violence, private ownership, punishment of criminals, or specialized professions or jobs.

The Secret of a Great Email Message: A message from Steve Jobs about whether HarperCollins should publish e-books through Apple rather than Amazon, serves to point out the essential elements of a short, persuasive, articulate message.


cartoon by Mick Stevens in The New Yorker

What Money Can’t Buy, and What It Shouldn’t: Professor Michael Sandel explains the corrupting influence of untrammelled ‘market’ capitalism, where everything has a price and the ‘market’ (ie who has wealth and power) entirely determines what gets done and made, and what doesn’t.

Corporations Loathing Customers: Corporations have done their damnedest to automate and outsource the annoying nuisance of employees. Now they are turning their loathing to that other class of people, their customers. It started with forcing you to deal with call centres (whose staff are paid to prevent customers from any access to management and any facility to improve processes or obtain satisfaction), and online ‘community FAQs’ that essentially outsource customer service to — other customers! They also use ‘community engagement’ and ‘focus groups’ as fraudulent means to pretend to actually listen to customers, when all they really want is for the customers to shut up and buy.

Our Broken Democracies: The smug reaction of the Democrats waiting for Trump to implode so they can resume their rightful place in power (in bed with Wall Street), is reflected in equally egregious actions (and inaction) almost every democracy in the world, as the incapacity of centralized governments to address the challenges of our time becomes more obvious. In Canada, the once-left NDP party’s provincial governments are threatening each other and showing their true anti-environmental colours, as the Alberta NDP touts tar sands energy and the BC NDP goes ahead with the abominable and unnecessary Site C hydro dam (with the complicity of the Greens), to placate labour and defend its base. Meanwhile, at the federal level, the governing so-called Liberals are reneging on both their environmental and proportionate representation promises.

Blowing the Whistle on the Times: James Risen explains why he quit working as an investigative reporter for the NYT when he learned how complicit they were in working with the federal government’s propaganda and war machine, and why the NYT signed up for this devil’s bargain to access and release information that would otherwise never see the light of day.

The Stock Market Has Nothing to Do With the Economy: Almost all investments (and savings of any kind for that matter) are owned by a tiny proportion of the populace. I could add that the “official” unemployment rate and inflation rate and the number of people in (mostly lousy underpaid) jobs and the GDP have nothing to do with the economy either.

And the Housing Crisis is All About Globalization: The unavailability of affordable housing in the world’s desirable cities has little to do with local or even national politics, or with immigration — it’s all about global money from the world’s rich elite seeking safe places to park the staggering wealth they have accumulated. And it’s not just housing they’re gobbling up — it’s arable and resource-rich land as well.

Why Blacks Live in Mostly-Black Neighbourhoods: It is because they aren’t safe living in white neighbourhoods. Not safe from violent whites. Not safe from police. It’s not because they want to live in segregated neighbourhoods. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

The End of the Job and the Age of Drudgery…: As the obsession with profits and competition leads to endless outsourcing, corner-cutting, quality-reduction and benefits-reduction, we have witnessed in a generation the end of the ‘job’, a bargain in which you once got security and the guarantee of a decent living wage, in return for promising to offer one master your skills and experience for a lifetime. Everyone is now a freelancer, but in a world where the rules are fixed in favour of the rich and powerful oligarchs, for most this is no improvement, just a life-sentence to long hours of drudgery in multiple work environments with no opportunity for promotion and no security whatsoever.

…and Why That Drudgery Arose: Umair Haque describes the brutal world that leads to this drudgery as a predator society, in which the only ‘successful’ young workers are those who emulate the brutal predation of corporate oligopolies on people, resources and nations. This predation has evolved because of what Umair calls a broad social pathology with these qualities (Thanks to Antonio Dias and PS Pirro for the links):

Americans appear to be quite happy simply watching one another die, in all the ways above. They just don’t appear to be too disturbed, moved, or even affected by [pathologies like] their kids killing each other, their social bonds collapsing, being powerless to live with dignity, or having to numb the pain of it all away. If these pathologies happened in any other rich country — even in most poor ones — people would be aghast, shocked, and stunned, and certainly moved to make them not happen. But in America, they are, well, not even resigned. They are indifferent, mostly…

A predatory society doesn’t just mean oligarchs ripping people off financially. In a truer way, it means people nodding and smiling and going about their everyday business as their neighbours, friends, and colleagues die early deaths in shallow graves. The predator in American society isn’t just its super-rich — but an invisible and insatiable force: the normalization of what in the rest of the world would be seen as shameful, historic, generational moral failures, if not crimes, becoming mere mundane everyday affairs not to be too worried by or troubled about.


from the comic xkcd, “Research Risks”

The Annals of Pard: Brilliant, observant, compassionate, imaginative writing from the late incomparable Ursula Le Guin, about her cat, Pard.

Show Them the Way That You Feel: Choir! Choir! Choir! sings James Taylor’s Shower the People, hundreds strong.

Boys Will Be Boys: As mothers take over from fathers tending adjacent nests of baby albatrosses on the island of Kaua’i (just a few miles up the road from where I’m staying), one of the males moves too close to the other and a brief scuffle ensues. Their mates are not impressed.

Never Gonna Dance Again: Young virtuoso guitarist Alexandr Misko does a stunning version of George Michael’s Careless Whisper.

Life on Earth 3.5B Years Old?: Scientists, in disarray over discoveries all over the planet that indicate global human presence more than 100,000 years ago, are now struggling to make sense of fossils that indicate primitive life all over the planet as long as 3.5 billion years ago, a billion years before it was previously thought possible.

Hard to Know When to Give Up the Fight: Lovely animation of the moving Patti Griffin song Rain.

“What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”: The answer to this question, says Peter Thiel, probably indicates the work you’re meant to do, the greatest entrepreneurial opportunity waiting for you to jump on it.

March 31st is International Quit Your Crappy Job Day: Discover if it’s the right time for you to find more meaningful work. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Whoever is There Come on Through: Wonderful writing about friendship and loneliness by Irish writer Colin Barrett. If you want to learn how to write dialogue that brings out a character’s personality and passions, study this. And read this interview with Colin too.

What Music Videos Could Be: Stunning, carefully-composed ultra-HD videography combine with gentle music in a series of shorts about food and life in (a bygone era in?) remote parts of China. This one is about matsutake mushrooms. Thanks to Ben Collver for the link, and the one that follows.

Mutant Marbled Crayfish Charm the World: A new species of crayfish that clones itself, is astonishingly prolific, and produces only females, has been found in the wild (its origin is unknown, though some speculate it came from a German laboratory, though its biological predecessors live only in the southern US), and is now a thriving import business. The fact that it’s a clone, however, means limited resistance to disease (no variability in genetics) so it’s not sure how long its population explosion will last.


From PS Pirro, from Listen: “Words are my hammer. I pound and I pound on what is not and never will be a nail.”

From the late Ursula Le Guin, from Steering the Craft:

Recognition of syntactical constructions used to be taught by the method of diagramming, a useful skill for any writer. If you can find an old grammar book that shows you how to diagram a sentence, have a look; it’s enlightening. It may make you realize that a sentence has a skeleton, just as a horse does, and the sentence, or the horse, moves the way it does because of the way its bones are put together. A keen feeling for that arrangement and connection and relation of words is essential equipment for a writer of narrative prose. You don’t need to know all the rules of syntax, but you have to train yourself to hear it or feel it, so that you’ll know when a sentence is so tangled up it’s about to fall onto its nose and when it’s running clear and free.

From Anna Tivel, Illinois:

Underneath the heavy sky, the highway shines
A razor blade cutting down to bone
Nothing left to do but hold the wheel and drive
The dark of night, the dim light on the road
All the way from Illinois, a thousand miles of waiting for
A gentle touch, a kind, believing word
All the way from Illinois, and not one to be heard

Tell me all the ways to make a day go by
In an aeroplane high above the earth
Or standing in the kitchen in an awful fight
The brightly colored blood of ugly words
All the way from Illinois, a box of clothes, a can of oil
The promise of a place to settle down
All the way from Illinois, and not one to be found

And nothing hurts like crying on a long drive home
Nothing worse than hiding in the dark alone
From the beautiful lights of a dangerous love

Shattered glass, a photograph of a broken heart
A crack along the windshield of the world
The shape of something running in the untamed dark
The howling out of freedom and of hurt
All the way from Illinois, the radio, the rain, the road
The dream of finding out just what is love
All the way from Illinois, and turns out nothing was

From Peter Everwine: The Day:

We walked at the edge of the sea, the dog,
still young then, running ahead of us.

Few people. Gulls. A flock of pelicans
circled beyond the swells, then closed
their wings and dropped head-long
into the dazzle of light and sea. You clapped
your hands; the day grew brilliant.

Later we sat at a small table
with wine and food that tasted of the sea.

A perfect day, we said to one another,
so that even when the day ended
and the lights of houses among the hills
came on like a scattering of embers,
we watched it leave without regret.

That night, easing myself toward sleep,
I thought how blindly we stumble ahead
with such hope, a light flares briefly—Ah, Happiness!
then we turn and go on our way again.

But happiness, too, goes on its way,
and years from where we were, I lie awake
in the dark and suddenly it returns—
that day by the sea, that happiness,

though it is not the same happiness,
not the same darkness.

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

What Happens in Vagus…

Evolution is a precarious process. Within every species, minor variations are constantly introduced and tested for ‘fitness’: If they help the creature survive, they are passed on to the next generation, and if they hamper survival, they will not be passed on. Many attributes won’t apparently affect survival one way or the other, so it’s a toss-up whether they’ll be passed on or not. Gaia keeps rolling the dice and trying new things.

Accidents happen in this process. Feathers apparently evolved in birds as a means of low-weight heat management; it turned out that they also enabled flight, which wasn’t necessary (the first birds and their feathered dinosaur forebears were ground-nesters with few natural predators) but which turned out to be a great evolutionary success.

Another early evolutionary trick was the emergence in the mammalian autonomous nervous system of neuroception, the autonomic fight/flight/freeze response when danger is sensed by the nervous system. This response is (for evolutionary reasons) vastly faster than the brain’s complex thought processing system. It’s regulated in part by a piece of the vagus nerve, which constantly assesses sensory data and helps ‘decide’ whether any given situation is (a) safe, (b) dangerous (and hence whether to fight or flight), or (c) inescapable (in which case the creature shuts down, plays dead and ‘hides’ in the hopes the predator won’t notice it).

I’ve seen this neuroception response change instantly — I watched three dogs playing together when suddenly one of them noticed a squirrel and barked. The three dogs (brilliantly, using body language signals that no human language could ever match) chased and cornered the squirrel, which at first fled, and then, knowing it was lost, lay down and played dead. The dogs lost interest, and soon after, the squirrel slowly arose, shook itself furiously, and scampered away.

The process in humans isn’t all that different (our form of playing dead is called fainting). The problem is that, for us, potentially dangerous situations aren’t as simple as predators, status challenges and falling objects. We are constantly facing worrisome situations, many of them chronic, and our autonomous nervous system is in a state of constant stimulation and overwork (ie chronic stress). And because fight, flight and freeze are rarely optimal solutions to the situations we now face, we’ve had to evolve a coping mechanism to deal with the disconnect between what the ‘hardware’ of our bodies and the ‘software’ of our enculturated brains thinks is good for us.

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

So now, each time a stressful occurrence happens, we first look for social reassurances from our tribe-mates, and if we receive (and reciprocate) such safety cues, our vagal nerve sends a ‘stand down’ notice to our autonomic nervous system (and the various body organs like lungs, heart and digestive organs that are involved in stress response), appropriate hormones kick in or cease, and we return to a peaceful state (what some call a ‘now time‘ state). In the absence of these safety cues, the body next goes into fight-or-flight mode. This is an autonomic ‘decision’ based on the body’s subconscious assessment of which strategy has the greater chance of success (for its own survival and that of the tribe and the balance of life in the community as a whole). We will probably never understand how that decision is ‘made’, but it is consistent with Gaia theory. However, if the assessment is that neither fight nor flight is a successful strategy, then the neuroceptors send out shut-down signals, for us, just as they do for a cornered squirrel.

When that happens, both the body and the mind shut down. The problem is that, in today’s complex modern civilized society, ‘freezing’ is almost never an effective strategy. Meanwhile we have lost the sense of community in which there is enough cohesion and trust to enable the clear, consistent, broadly-shared communication of safety cues (largely because this doesn’t scale beyond groups of 50-150 individuals). And very few of the things that cause modern humans stress are amenable to either fight or flight responses. So we’re chronically dealing with our body’s propensity to shut down, at the same time we’re told, and believe intellectually, we need to “buck up”.

The chart at the top of this article (using the methodology in Joe Shirley’s book The Feeling Path) shows my personal triggers and the underlying anxieties and fears behind them. I ‘know’ (from experience and enculturation) that both my body’s and my mind’s reactions to these triggers are exaggerated, unwarranted and unhelpful. But tell that to my autonomous nervous system! And to my imaginative “worst-case-scenario” mind! Our response is based on a million years of genetic programming and we cannot help responding the way we do. It is how the body, and the mind, evolved to deal with stressful situations. This is why the idea that using cognitive processes like CBT and ‘flooding’ and ‘mindfulness’ we can somehow ‘reprogram’ ourselves to respond differently is simply ludicrous.

Although we may seem to modify our reactions over time, I would argue that there is something else at work. Here’s an example: I used to suffer (and make others travelling with me suffer) from what is called road rage. Reckless and careless driving in my immediate vicinity would produce almost hysterical fury in me, to the point I was tempted to confront the ‘guilty’ driver and was quite possibly only held back by fear that they would hurt me in a confrontation more than I would hurt them.

These days I still get that brief visceral reaction to dangerous, aggressive and incompetent drivers, but it passes much more quickly and doesn’t get reinforced by the stories in my head about what horrors it might have led to (such stories can in turn incite more anger, producing what Eckhart Tolle calls the self-reinforcing “pain-body/egoic-mind” cycle).

Does that mean that ‘I’ have changed, and that ‘reprogramming’ oneself is possible? I don’t think so. Three things have contributed, I think, to this apparent behaviour change, none of which ‘I’ had or have any control over:

  1. Enculturation: The people in my life who have witnessed road rage in me (and other fortunately rare displays of excessive and useless anger) have told me they find it frightening and inappropriate, and made me feel shameful about it. Hence I have gradually become enculturated by the relatively sensitive people around me to sublimate my anger.
  2. New safety cues: When these situations have arisen lately, the people in the car with me have given me verbal and body-language “it’s OK” safety cues that, over time, have dampened the ‘fight’ response. Now, even when driving alone, the memory of receiving these cues in similar situations calms my response.
  3. Shifting worldview: I have learned that we have no free will, and that everyone is struggling, so the stories I tell myself about dangerous driving behaviour are more sympathetic and less likely to fuel and sustain the anger.

My reaction in these situations continues to be subconscious, unaffected by any rational thought processes I may use or any practices I may follow. I had no choice over the people I hang out with, or our collective enculturation of each other, or over what I’ve learned. I’m blessed to have been attracted to sensitive people and to have had the time and curiosity to learn more about inherent human nature. These are all in increasingly short supply as our modern stress-riven culture is making us more and more dissociated (just look at our ‘leaders’), and leaving us with less and less time to learn and explore what’s important.

My example above was about the ‘fight’ response, and how it has been dampened through no control of my own in recent years. How about the ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ responses?

Anger is most often a mask for fear (my road rage was mostly about fear of their poor driving getting me and my loved ones hurt). That’s a typical ‘fight’ response. A typical ‘flight’ response for me occurred this winter when my house was overrun with mice. I think mice are cute and don’t want to hurt them, but I mean overrun. They were everywhere. Life for a while involved hourly checking of the humane traps, and releasing them was complicated by a second consecutive near-record cold, icy, snowy winter that made my driveway impassable, and psychologically trapped me in the house. And finding all their entrance-points seemed endless and impossible.

For months, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I became hyper-vigilant, seeing and hearing things constantly everywhere I went. I became obsessed with bad weather reports and the risk of storms (which often also bring power failures where I live, leaving me without heat or light). I lost 15 pounds and had my first colitis attack in 10 years.

The fear, the anxiety, the shame, the grief of having ‘lost’ my safe home — all my reactions were ridiculous, wildly excessive, and seriously unhealthy. But all I could think about was getting away from this months-long nightmare. I live alone, so the sense of isolation (and the absence of regular safety clues from others) exacerbated my reaction. Actually ‘facing the fear’ (the individual mice) wasn’t an answer — it wasn’t the cute, scared mice I was afraid of. What was it?

It was the feeling of being trapped and being out of control (of myself and the situation), and the suffering that goes along with that. This is a primeval, ancient fear. I have witnesses animals in pain, and animals trapped or caged, and the latter are obviously far more stressed and suffering than the former. This is the reason, I am told, many indigenous people sleep in the open, not under trees that could fall and trap or seriously injure them. It’s the reason prisons are inherently inhumane and solitary confinement even more so. It’s the reason caged, factory farmed chickens peck themselves and others to death. From an evolutionary perspective, fear of being trapped is very sensible.

The fact that I wasn’t really trapped is irrelevant — my autonomous nervous system, without any safety cues to dampen it, was firing the ‘flight’ response as surely as if I were locked in a burning building or cornered by a tiger. And as soon as it became apparent there was no ready ‘flight’ path — boom — the ‘freeze’ response kicked in. My brain became mush and gave up its valiant arguments that “it’s really not that bad”. I felt paralyzed. My body, tired of the chronic stress without action to relieve it, said no. I started losing weight, and my colitis flared.

It had been 10 years since my previous colitis attack, and 10 1/2 since my severest, and first, attack. That one was triggered by horrible financial news that resulted in me having to pay a six-figure amount in taxes because of a management accounting error — with one month’s notice. I had saved up just enough money to allow me to write my book, and this news was devastating. I was outraged, grief-stricken. I felt victimized, and helpless. But mostly I was terrified. What suffering would this loss inflict on me and on my loved ones? What would this mean for my suddenly-unknown future, a future that I had planned out so carefully? The world suddenly felt unsafe, insecure, and I was filled with dread, and my mind filled with stories of deprivation, failure and struggle. That first colitis attack was severe — almost life-threatening — and for weeks I was so exhausted, terrified and in such agonizing pain I just wanted to die.

All because an autonomous nervous system reaction that had long outlived its evolutionary value led my body to say no, to say “enough, I give up”. (Paradoxically, my previous life-long coping-by-shutting-down mechanism in the face of chronic anxiety — depression — didn’t happen, and hasn’t really been a factor in my life since.)

The ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ vagus nerve reactions don’t seem to lend themselves to the three factors that have helped mitigate my ‘fight response’ feelings of anger. Gabor Maté has written about how many human diseases (including colitis, addiction and depression) are the body’s way of saying no to our culture’s maladaptive ways of coping with chronic mental stresses. In his early work he prescribes seven recommended coping mechanisms, including self-acceptance, self-awareness, healthy forms of anger, healthy social attachments (so you get the social cues and support) and setting appropriate boundaries (learning to say no so your body doesn’t have to). But these mechanisms presume a degree of free will that even Gabor’s later books suggest we might not have (he has recently asserted that by far the best way to address the many diseases rooted in childhood trauma and neglect is to prevent such trauma and neglect from happening in the first place).

So what are those who struggle with chronic fears and anxieties to do? The Feeling Path approach that the chart above used, suggests that we can be sufficiently self-aware to recognize where we are on the ‘feeling path’ between the anxious/fearful state and the equanimous/empowered/self-accepting peaceful state, and therefore see the autonomous nervous system’s overreaction for what it is.

I’m not so sure. Recently, I checked into a hotel room and found the internet unplugged. Not a big deal; I’m sure it would have been fixed within 24 hours. But something in me was triggered (same thing that gets triggered when any of the hundreds of bugs in MS Office programs turn up). For an hour I tried to fix it, fussing and fuming. Insane behaviour. I just don’t like unpleasant surprises. But I couldn’t help myself. The feelings of loss of control and agency trumped my self-awareness that this was an overreaction. In the moment, I couldn’t even get myself to acknowledge that. I didn’t even get to the worst-case story-telling that might have ramped up and sustained my anxiety — this was just pure emotion. I could probably find some seminal event in my past in which some technology failure or other implicit promise let-down had caused great suffering, but I’m not sure what good that would do. Apparently, this character, hapless as it is with technologies, just can’t handle things that don’t work reliably (especially when it can’t easily ‘fix’ them so they do).

Stephen Porges, who is probably the leading theorist about the vagus nerve, recently recommended “becoming aware of what our autonomic nervous system is doing, picking up on the cues and honouring them, and seeking safety with those who care”, a process he calls “feeling oneself”. But that presumes we have the agency and ‘peace of mind’ to do so, and I’m not at all sure we do. Singing, breathing and meditation practices are recommended to mimic aspects of the safety cues we get from others which calm the autonomous nervous system by stimulating the vagal nerve. I do all of these, but I don’t have the sense that they’ve helped my reactivity, comforting as they can be for a while in the right circumstances.

Of course others recommend telling ourselves a different story from the ‘should’ stories (which are all about expectation and moral judgement) and the ‘could’ and ‘could have been’ stories (which are all about the past that never was and the future that never will be). Tell a different story, we’re told, and it will change the trajectory of your life. But what about the stories that some of us must carry all our lives of horrors that were absolutely true? The body remembers, and reminds us.

While stories are fiction, it may be helpful to tell our ‘true’ story for a different reason — to recognize that it, the story, while true, is a story, something separate from us, and perhaps then to be able to put some distance between us and it, and not identify with it as much.

So, no simple answers here. My thesis on dealing with the consequences of our autonomous nervous system’s maladaptation to modern civilized life, for now, is:

  1. We can’t be, think or feel other than as we are and do. We have no agency or free will over what and how we think or feel, or over how our body will react accordingly, including reacting in ways that seem illogical, unhealthy, and exaggerated.
  2. If we’re fortunate enough to live in a healthy cohesive community, we will probably receive and reciprocate safety cues and enculturation that will mitigate some of the damage our reactivity inflicts on our bodies, our psyches, and others.
  3. Singing, meditation, and breathing practices may make us feel better about all of this, but won’t change it. Getting lots of exercise and eating well (neither of which is easy to do any more) will likely increase our resilience to the effects of our reactivity, but won’t change our reactivity.
  4. Telling ourselves a different story from the one that is triggered by, and further triggers, an autonomic emotional/physiological reaction, won’t change anything, since all stories are fiction. But understanding our own apparently ‘true’ story could help us see it for what it is — that it is a story, and that it is not us.
  5. If the apparent self that underlies our triggers and the stories they reciprocally reinforce, falls away, and is seen to be illusory, then it’s likely the triggers, which are embodied, not just in our minds, will continue for a while. But with no ‘self’ to validate them and identify with them, they will eventually dissipate. Unfortunately, there is no path to rid ourselves of our ‘selves’; it’s a “useless piece of software” that co-evolved with big brains, and as maladaptive in the complex modern world as many of the autonomous nervous system’s responses.

This assessment may be unduly pessimistic. I’m going to try some unusual exercises, and a unique (non-CBT) form of therapy, to see if they can at least curtail some of the nastier effects of my autonomous nervous system’s excessive reactivity. Stay tuned.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

How to Ask Strangers What They Care About (Without Scaring Them Off)

Why is it when we meet new people, our way of self-identifying, and our first question to them, is so often about what we do “for a living”? I suppose this is because it’s safe — most of us don’t see such questions as highly personal or invasive. But it also pretty much reduces the short-term likelihood of getting to know this new person well, or even at all in any meaningful way. Which in formal or obligatory settings is probably just what we often want. For those that enjoy it, small talk has its place.

Recently, there have been attempts by meeting and event organizers to craft some questions that are more informative, meaningful, and auspicious for establishing close and valuable relationships. They have to walk a line between being too innocuous to be engaging, and crossing personal boundaries too quickly and non-consensually. Unlike wild creatures, we can’t just sniff out someone we’ve just met and from that know, sensuously and intuitively, whether we want to hang around them or not. While it is to the point, my recent habit of asking new acquaintances “What are you doing that you really care about these days?” is too abrupt and awkward for most. And it often points out that many of us are living automatic lives, on hold for times that offer us the luxury of doing what we really (think we) want to do, and that there is little or no intersection between what we’re doing and what we really care about.

Event organizers call not-too-personal but relationship-opening questions “ice-breakers”. Many of them IMO are just as awkward as my “what do you care about” question — they inquire about personal preferences, happy memories, and to some extent aspirations. The answerer generally struggles with coming up with a response that’s not too personal, but doesn’t sound superficial or trite. As with most questions with people we’re not yet sure we want to associate with (or are pretty sure we don’t want to associate with), there is an enculturated tendency to provide an answer that is palatable to the questioner, whether or not it is true. This makes the whole process annoying, and less than transparent.

So I’ve been looking for some questions I could ask that avoid these problems. The criteria for these questions are, I think:

  1. They elicit honest answers rather than clever, safe or socially acceptable ones.
  2. They are not so personal that they make you hesitant to answer, but are personal enough they tell others something interesting and possibly ‘useful’ (to you both) about you.
  3. They are interesting (and perhaps even self-revelatory) to think about, but don’t (for most people) require an enormous amount of time and energy to ponder to come up with an answer.
  4. They encourage follow-up questions and deeper explorations into the answers and reasons for them.

Here are a few questions that, in the right circumstances, might meet these criteria:

  1. What do you wish you’d learned earlier in your life. Probably best to take turns describing one thing at a time you wish you’d learned, since most of us probably have multiple answers. In my experience this question almost always leads to a discussion of how you came to learn this (a brief story) and why you wish you’d learned it earlier. It’s fine if you never get past the first learning. You might introduce this question gently by saying something like “I’ve just been thinking about how I wish I’d learned earlier in life (eg ‘not to blame or judge people, since I think we’re all struggling to do our best’); ever wished you’d learned something earlier in your life?” It may help to provide your own answer first, to indicate a willingness to move beyond small talk.
  2. Of the people you’ve known in your life but fallen out of touch with, who would you most like to reconnect with, and why? This may require more thought, but again it will inevitably provoke a story and some understanding of what’s important to the answerer. An alternative for those who have no answer to this one might be: Of the people in your community, who would you most like to get to know better, and why?
  3. If you had to choose one written passage of no more than 500 words (a couple of pages) to read out loud that summarizes your worldview or philosophy of life, what would it be? Even better if it’s at hand and can be read our loud — it should only take 3-4 minutes. Now that’s a conversation starter!

If you’ve found other questions that meet the above criteria, I’d love to hear them, especially if you now use them when you meet and engage with new people.

There are probably more suitable questions to use in paid work settings, but since I’m retired (and use questions like those above in settings when those present are all volunteers) I’m not the best one to come up with them.

What I like about these questions, and these criteria, is that they can apply even when the people involved are poles apart socially, culturally or politically. Depending on the circumstances, I wouldn’t be averse to answering the above questions with reference to my current positions on complexity, civilizational collapse, nonduality, and/or whole plant food diets: I think it’s possible (though not easy) to broach these subjects in a non-confrontational, non-preachy way. And since I care so much about these subjects, I suspect that many others, though they may not share my particular views, also care about understanding how the world works, our future, the essence of human nature, and how to live well. The less time we take getting to talk about what we care about, and what we’ve learned, the better.

Image CC0 from the good folks at pixabay.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | Comments Off on How to Ask Strangers What They Care About (Without Scaring Them Off)

Separation Anxiety

Scientists of all stripes are beginning to discover that the primary tool of science — analysis, the separation of things into ‘discrete’ parts and the modeling of their ‘separate’ behaviour to try to explain cause and effect (and everything else) — is pretty seriously flawed. As a result, their models of reality are beginning to converge with those of some modern philosophers.

Gould and Lewontin have written that the attempt to study genes, organisms and their environments as if they were separate entities is a largely hopeless process, because these elements of life co-evolve in such an intricately intertwined and complex way that teasing them apart is impossible. We are, they explain, pluralities, and inextricable parts of everything-that-is.

Cohen and Stewart have written that our sense of being separate ‘selves’ is a mental construct, an unreal ‘figment of reality’, and that this sense was an exaptation — an accidental consequence — of our brains’ “feature detection system” (the centralized capacity to recognize qualities outside the ‘complicity’ of the body’s constituent organs and environments that evolved for their collective benefit), when that system turned inward and began to explore and try to make sense of ‘itself’.

Radical non-duality asserts that this illusory sense of separation is unnecessary and even deleterious to our bodies’ functioning, causing needless anxiety and suffering that accompanies the delusion of personal agency, responsibility, control, choice and free will.

Cognitive scientists are now confirming that this separate ‘self’ can indeed not be located, and that the brain’s apparent ‘decisions’ are actually after-the-fact rationalizations for what the embodied and enculturated complicity we think of as ‘us’ has already begun to do. The only way the brain can ‘make sense’ of actions, once it tries to factor a separate self with agency into its equations, is to incorrectly attribute decisions to its ‘self’ — and then second-guess, regret, blame or congratulate its ‘self’ for them.

Some physicists are now doubting the existence of time as anything more than a mental construct. Just as the brain (the feature detection system) assigns colours and other qualities to what it ‘sees’, when those colours aren’t real, just a coding system, it assigns times to what it ‘recalls’, when there is actually no past or future. It’s a convenient way for the brain to categorize, but it seemingly does not represent anything real. Everything-that-is is timeless. Eliminating time from what is allegedly real vastly improves and simplifies many scientific models, from quantum theory to astrophysics.

None of this is currently helpful, or even especially useful, which is undoubtedly why neither scientists nor philosophers coming to this realization (often reluctantly) are talking about it very openly. Science, and the brain, hate anything too complex to be known and understood and acted upon — it prevents them from doing their work, and casts profound doubt on their hard-won models of what is. Even some radical nonduality proponents worry aloud (needlessly IMO) that most people (or at least their brains) can’t handle the truth that the self, and free will, don’t exist (and that life, therefore, has no meaning, and that nothing matters).

It would profoundly change the nature of both science and philosophy to acknowledge that reality is not knowable, not explainable, that nothing is separate, and that everything-that-is is a mystery. The word mystery has the same root as the word mute, and neither scientists nor philosophers like to be rendered mute.

Nevertheless, I believe it will come to that. Scientists can only ignore the facts for so long before reluctantly relenting. And we are such curious creatures that we would prefer accepting mystery to being lied to. And if we in fact have no real selves and no free will, that acceptance won’t change our behaviours, and might relieve some of the guilt, fear and other stressful feelings that stem from a belief in our agency over our actions. That might in turn begin to modify our enculturation of our children and each other. I have a fanciful idea that, in time (our species are after all newcomers to life) this might lead to us doing much less, and just being more — and ultimately ceasing our incessant chatter about what to do and what we think we know, and becoming, once again, mostly mute, simply enjoying the wonder of all-that-is.

In the meantime, while it can’t be helped, we have no choice but to suffer with the illusion of our separation, our self-hood, and our supposed agency. It gives the term ‘separation anxiety’ a whole new spin. It’s an affliction, as real to ‘us’ as a lifelong hallucination, and it’s highly contagious. Collectively, it’s what I have called ‘civilization disease’ — the mental and often physical illness that accompanies the stress of believing what seems obvious (and what we’re told) but which is in fact completely fabricated by the brain in its obsession to try to make sense of everything, including its apparent self.

It seems to be in the nature of the self to try (hopelessly unfortunately, since it has no agency) to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Modern humans have found many ways (drugs, amusements, comforts and distractions) to escape the pain of civilization disease. No blame in that — we have no choice after all, and our embodied and enculturated conditioning naturally tends us towards such preferences. This is what radical nonduality refers to as “making the prison of the self more comfortable”.

The creature apparently writing this seems to have an innate preference for comforts over other forms of escape. I like to read and learn new things, to lie on a warm beach, to surround myself with beauty. I like tart flavours, moody lights, well-crafted music, writing, art, and other gentle sensory pleasures.

I have lost much of my interest in conversation and in story (whether written or in audiovisual formats); these are too personal, now, too close to the bone of self, too much a reminder of the disease. Even my short stories, now, are about rejection of the old stories, and about imagining what might be possible if we can move past them.

I know that in writing all this I am running the risk of annoying readers who find this message disturbing, or even see it as evidence of mental illness or indoctrination. I ran the same risk when ten years ago I began conveying my then-new belief that our civilization is inevitably in its final decades, and could not and should not be ‘saved’. This blog has always chronicled my evolving sense of what’s possible and what’s true, and I’m not about to self-censor now. I’m not looking for anything from readers; if you find this interesting or even comforting, that’s great, but if you don’t please just stop reading and go read something elsewhere that resonates more for you.

Coming up, some new poetry and music I’ve been working on.

Image by the author.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

On the Shoulders of Giants

This is the third and final story in a trilogy about a father and daughter. The first two were The Project, and Calling the Cage Freedom

Image: Stepping Stones, by Paul Stevenson, CC BY 2.0

“OK, so I’ve been reading that book Figments of Reality“, Sevi said to me, coming out onto the deck with lemonade for the two of us. “The biologist and the mathematician seem to be very smart, and they use this running story about creatures from Zarathustra to help the reader imagine how we humans might appear to an alien race and hence what we might actually be. I like the bit about us being emergent properties of the creatures that make us up, and about the brain being a feature-detection system that evolved for their benefit, not ‘ours’. But the ending makes no sense at all.”

“Quite a bit of it makes no sense, like their insistence that time is real, for example. They’re science fiction writers. They make up stories and posit that they might be true. You have to cherry-pick.”

“They talk about qualia — characteristics of things — and they write this”, she said, reading from her notebook:

On the ‘figment’ level our brains do not perceive the universe in a passive manner; instead, they project the inner world of figments [artificial but useful representations of reality] back on to (our conception of) the outer world of reality, so that our private inner world appears to us – but not to anybody else – to be ‘out there’. Our brains, in this sense, create their own realities – and this enables them to attach vivid labels to prosaic reality, labels that are vivid because they are inside our minds where our personal identities also [seem to] reside; but also labels that have evolved to be vivid because we survive much better if they are….

This leads to a delightful paradox. Perceived reality (as opposed to real reality) seems vivid to our perceptions, not because it is real, but because it is virtual. ‘Red’ is a vivid construct of our minds, which we plaster over our perceptions by projecting them back into the outside world. There is an objective sense in which the outside world is red too – it reflects light of an appropriate wavelength. But that is a different kind of ‘redness’ altogether, with none of the vividness that our minds use for ‘red’ decoration of London buses and blood… If you don’t like this line of thought, bear in mind that many animals – bees in particular – see light at ultra-violet wavelengths, and hence pick up vivid ‘colours’ that we do not see at all. The bee’s virtual world is different from our virtual world, and while they both are rooted in the same objective reality, they are [utterly] different interpretations of it… 

[We share Daniel Dennett’s] view of the mind as a conglomerate of loosely knit processes, each semi-independent of the others, which he refers to as ‘pandemonium’… Today’s computer operating systems involve large numbers of semi-autonomous subprograms known as ‘demons’, which wait until they are called on, do their thing, report their results, and shut up shop again… The apparently organised behaviour of the computer emerges from the interactions between demons… Dennett tells us that the human mind is somewhat like that. You – with your strong, overriding sense of ‘you-ness’, the feeling that what you experience is experienced by a single entity, and that this entity is very much in charge – may well feel that the idea that ‘you’ are an emergent feature of pandemonium is ludicrous. However, there is a great deal of evidence that the brain/mind is organised in just that manner.

Sevi looked up at me to make sure I was listening, and following her. She’s considerate that way, waiting for my slower mind to catch up with hers. She continued reading: “Then they relate some of this evidence to support this argument and go on to say:

We find Dennett’s story the most convincing among those currently on offer. However, we wish to add a final gloss, the idea that the brain’s independent units are brought together by a general feature-detecting system, which does not organise them, but instead rationalises their independent decisions. We call this unit the ‘ringmaster’, by analogy with circus usage… [The circus ringmaster’s] job is not to control the events: it is to give the impression that they are under control by interpreting them to the audience. If a clown accidentally falls off the shetland pony, the ringmaster’s job is to pretend that it was a deliberate part of the act. The clowns, indeed, are the bane of the ringmaster’s life, so he spends a lot of time looking as if he’s in control of them, when in fact they are largely in control of him. Like the ringmaster in a circus, the ringmaster in our heads gives the impression of being in charge when in fact it is not.

We emphasise that the ringmaster is not a homunculus sitting in a Cartesian Theatre, observing the play of sensory impressions on a screen… The ringmaster is just another demon in the pandemonium, and its role is to appear to the emergent phenomenon that is ‘me’ to be making sense of everything else that is going on

Sevi raised her eyebrows and glanced at me again. She seemed annoyed at my smile — we had talked a lot about the failure of scientists to ‘find’ a “homunculus” (aka a soul, centre, self or controlling ‘entity’) somewhere in the brain-body fabric. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t fazed by the idea of ‘selves’ as ’emergent phenomena’, as processes rather than ‘things’. I’d thought about it a lot and still found it bewildering; I had to keep cycling back and clarifying for myself what that actually meant. She continued reading her notes from the book: “Then they explain why they believe this is true. Their conclusion is:

The ringmaster is a master-rationaliser. So what happens if (when!) it directs its rationalising propensities at itself? It becomes aware of an apparent ‘I’ inside. This is where self-awareness comes from: it is what you get when a generalised feature-detector makes a recursive attempt to detect itself.

In short: the problem of self-awareness is a special case of awareness – feature-detection – in general. As soon as such a system recognises some aspect of ‘self’ as a feature, hence the kind of thing that it can detect, the recursive loop is closed. We repeat, yet again: the ringmaster is not the ‘self’ itself. It is a mental demon involved in creating the illusion of there being a self… ‘Self’ is not a thing, but a process, which preserves an apparent sense of identity even as it changes complicitly with everything around it, both inside and outside the mind… Environment and culture maintain the [appearance of] continuity of the human sense of self, and that, repeated across many individuals, in turn maintains the [appearance of] continuity of environment and culture. That is what it is like to be a human,

Sevi looked at me. “So far, so good”, she said.

I laughed. “At your age I wouldn’t have even been able to fathom what you just read, let alone care to discuss or debate it. What have you done with my daughter?”

“I don’t actually have a problem with any of this”, she replied, ignoring my silly question. “It makes sense that the ‘self’, or at least ‘self-awareness’, awareness of the ‘self-process’, evolved, and it makes sense that it seems real — in fact to ‘us’ it can’t be seen as anything other than real, because ‘real’ to ‘us’ is whatever is detected as a feature. Even though it’s an illusion. And I even agree with you that, while its emergence was an evolutionary advantage for a while, it is no longer — it is the source of all enduring, vivid, negative feelings and suffering, and “a useless bit of software” as Tony puts it, and we’d be better without it. I wish my self was gone, but I know I can’t do anything about that.” She looked at me sadly, and somewhat sympathetically. The self, she knew as well as I, was the real ‘demon’, and I’d suffered with one much longer than she had.

“So then”, she went on, “they go on to talk about the issue of free will, and, like we were discussing the other day, conclude that it really doesn’t exist — it’s just a rationalization of the mind-process. The chapter is called, hilariously, ‘We Wanted to Have a Chapter on Free Will, but We Decided not to, so Here It Is.’ So they say ‘How on Earth can pandemonium make a choice’ and after discussing what that means they say [and here she continued reading]:

The argument seems to be heading inexorably towards the conclusion that free will is ‘just’ an illusion… If Dennett is right, consciousness is ‘just’ an illusion too, the upshot of mindless pandemonium. Consciousness and qualia are complicit, and it is qualia that give an animal an [evolutionary] edge; so the illusion of having a conscious mind is a figment of reality. The rules for the interaction of mental ‘demons’ have been refined over millions of years to produce the emergent phenomenon of [apparent] consciousness,… ‘Just’ an illusion? Oh no. A carefully crafted illusion, only one without a craftsman. An illusion that appears vividly real to the ‘I’ inside.

It is the same, we suspect, with free will… We get such a vivid feeling that we have free will, because that feeling is the quale [singular of qualia] of pandemonic decision-making – what it feels like, not what it ‘really’ is.

She gave me her are you following me? look, and went on: “They acknowledge that what seems to be free will is simply the result of our biological and enculturated nature — that what we do in the moment is not a matter of choice, but, given the apparent situation of the moment, and how we’ve been biologically and culturally entrained, the only thing we could possibly have done. If they left it at that, at least you’d have to say — I’d have to say — their argument is at least coherent and consistent. I wouldn’t especially like it — as you know I’m not persuaded that there is no free will. But then they totally destroy their credibility by arguing that the culture is ‘right’ to lock up misbehavers, despite their total lack of control over what they do, for the sake of their own and others’ safety! And then predict the future will see the emergence of a ‘multicultural extelligence’ of humans collectively and successfully stewarding the planet and the stars for everyone’s mutual benefit! Why would they ruin such a brilliant argument with such an illogical and preposterous happy-sci-fi-movie conclusion?”

“I don’t suppose they had any choice”, I replied, smiling.

Sevi threw a pillow at me.

“I’m serious”, I said. “It’s enculturated in us to give people hope, and to be hopeful ourselves. I’m guessing they knew they’d pushed their readers to their limits, and they wanted to hold on to what they’d conveyed, radical as it was 20 years ago when they wrote it. Others, including our friend Robert Sapolsky, have pushed this further by arguing that holding people responsible for their uncontrollable behaviour is unreasonable, and others have countered that we can’t (now that our culture is globalized) change the whole culture to prevent behaviours that most find intolerable, so we have to limit those behaviours any way we can. Messrs Stewart and Cohen, and Daniel Dennett, just sowed the seeds of doubt about what most people still consider incontrovertible truths. It’s up to people like you, and maybe me, if you think I can help, to carry the argument to its next steps, or its logical conclusion, and forgive them the faulty conclusions and starry-eyed prognostications that they had no alternative but to come to at that time. You, my dear, have to stand on the shoulders of giants.”

“What if I don’t want the responsibility?”, she said to me, with a sly smile.

“You have no choice in the matter”, I replied.

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments