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.

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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.

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The Price of Oil

The clueless gamblers that speculate on stock and commodity prices have been having a field day recently. Desperately chasing profits, like high-rollers who keep increasing their casino bets every time they lose, they have wiped billions out of share and pension values in a lemming-like panic about whether and when the colossally overpriced stock market is going to crash. And they have also pushed the price of oil up to near $70/bbl for the first time in several years. These speculators, who contribute nothing of any value to our economy, are some of the most destructive individuals on the planet, destabilizing markets on which many depend for their lives and livelihoods. (They also wreak havoc on land, real estate, food, and currency prices.) And many of them make millions in commissions and bonuses just rolling the dice for their employers and clients and praying that their lucky bets (mostly on prices rising perpetually) will continue.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article about the price of oil, explaining that the issue we’re going to face in the 21st century isn’t one of energy running out, but of affordable energy running out. Just as, during great depressions and famines, masses of food is left rotting in the ground because no one can afford to buy it (or even retrieve it and give it away), having oil in the ground that costs $80/bbl to get to market (especially if governments run out of money for subsidies, or, god forbid, decide that oil companies should start to pay the huge external costs of their activities) is not especially useful when you can only afford, in an economy ruined by overexploitation, environmental degradation, excessive debt, inequality and waste, $30/bbl for it.

Before I go further, if you’re one of the many who have been persuaded that “peak oil is over” and that renewables and new technology will soon save us from energy collapse, you might as well not read this article. Instead, I’d suggest you read this, or this, or this, or any of the many other articles written by people who understand the laws of thermodynamics and how the economy actually works.

This time I thought I’d start with a review of oil prices in the past. The chart above plots the course of oil prices (in inflation-adjusted dollars) back to 1946. Green lines show supply curves; red lines demand curves, and the dots at intersections are annual average oil prices for those years. Follow the dots:

  1. 1946-72. Oil prices were remarkably stable at about $25/bbl (in current dollars) during this entire period. The world became dependent on OPEC. Virtually all global growth in real terms since 1946 is attributable to increasing use of oil. Almost none of it is ascribable to new technology (other than energy extraction technology) or “efficiencies” or “innovation” or “economies of scale”. That’s it. If you’re a believer in GDP or that growth is essential to the economy you might want to keep that in mind (and if you are invested in stocks or land or any other industrial resource, you’d better believe, because their “value” is all computed in terms of future growth in exchange value, production and profits). Between 1946 and 1972 the OPEC nations were in bed with the western corporatists (as they still are today, supporting them politically and militarily), fixing the price of oil at that price to ensure the economy could continue to grow, as required, endlessly.
  2. 1973-80. OPEC fights back, realizing that although they can make money at $25/bbl because of the size and ease of tapping their reserves, they have already pumped out more than half of it, and they have only a few decades’ worth left and nothing to support their economy when it runs out. So they constrain production, driving the price up to $60/bbl (1975) and then $110/bbl (1980). At that price they can set money aside for when their oil runs out, and avoid the massive humanitarian crises that the end of oil spells for them. But for the western corporatists, this is disastrous: their economies are in a shambles, with double-digit inflation ruining profits, and line-ups at the pumps.
  3. 1981-85. The western corporatists “convince” OPEC to turn the pumps back on, persuading them that there is a happy medium price for oil (more than the $25-30/bbl that makes exploration for new sources uneconomic, but less than the $75/bbl threshold beyond which the global economy cannot pay for it and hence cannot survive. By 1985, OPEC has increased supply so that, despite the new demand from expanding Asian countries, the price has settled back in the perfect $50-60/bbl range. Remember here that the amount of production and consumption of oil is so close (there’s no place to put much excess once it’s pumped, and there’s no margin for error if there’s a serious shortage) that any changes in production, intentional or not, have a huge impact on price.
  4. 1986-2002. At $60/bbl, there’s an incentive to put more into the market than you can sustainably continue to produce, and also an incentive to find new sources — and remember, a small increase in supply has a big impact on lowering price. From the late 1980s to 2002, the lingering effects of the early-1980s crash kept demand from increasing as it had been, and a number of (heavily subsidized, environmentally catastrophically damaging) new sources of “dirty” and “tight” (harder to extract) oil were found. As a consequence, prices tumbled back to the $30/bbl level. OPEC was not happy, but some of their own short-term-thinking members were opening the taps to try to bolster their struggling economies, and the new sources meant OPEC as a whole had less oligopoly power over supplies and hence prices.
  5. 2003-08. The low prices were unsustainable to many producers, especially those with higher production costs that ceased or curtailed exploring, and that, combined with increasing demand from third-world countries, began pushing prices up again, to $60/bbl in 2005 and $90/bbl in 2008. You remember 2008, the bubble year, right? Over-exuberance had enabled speculators to push the price of everything up to ridiculous levels, and oil was not spared. The crash of 2008 also weakened demand, as many people could not afford to pay for anything, including fuel. But everyone knew the $90/bbl couldn’t last, just as they knew it in 1980.
  6. 2009-17. Banking on continuing high oil prices, speculators jumped into fracking and other high-risk, costly (and heavily-subsidized) smaller-scale oil ventures. For the first time, people who can’t think further ahead than the next quarter’s profit report were saying that there was more than enough oil, and that peak oil was dead. More reasoned experts argued that the danger to our planet from climate change caused by burning oil now exceeded the danger of running out of it (we may well experience both in the years to come). But many of the new ventures depended on sustained high oil prices, and as supply rose, price inevitably dropped. This was exacerbated by a chronic global recession that (despite what you might read in the Wall Street press) has left 90% of the population with massively higher debts and less disposable income than they had back in the 1980s. That recession curtailed demand and added to the price slump that saw oil drop from $90/bbl in 2008 to $60/bbl in 2015 and then back to a near-ruinous (for producers) $40/bbl in 2016-17. Many of the new operators declared bankruptcy, but in the mean-time they (and the ongoing recession for all but the super-rich) had created a short-term oil glut. More people came to believe that oil would be abundant forever, at reasonable prices. Many OPEC countries’ governments, already struggling with unruly political movements, and a permanently unemployed youth workforce, were getting antsy.
  7. 2018. Surprise, surprise, the oil price has risen again, to as high as $70/bbl, though it seems to be hovering mostly around the ‘ideal’ (for producers and consumers) $60/bbl level. The problem is, that’s not quite as ideal as it used to be. The cost of bringing new oil to market has risen from very low-levels (near $15/bbl in the mid-20th-century OPEC countries, to $45/bbl for much “tight” oil extraction). So a very volatile $50-60/bbl price doesn’t provide much margin for producers in an economy that demands significantly increasing profits every year. And it’s expensive for consumers, who start to reduce consumption and turn to alternative sources of energy (where available) when prices move into that $50-60/bbl range.

So what does this mean for the future? The second chart, below, describes what I think we’ll see by the middle of this century. Here we go:

  1. 2018-2025: Just a guess, but there doesn’t seem to be any compelling short-term trend in supply or demand one way or another, so I’m guessing that we’ll have a few years of relative stability, with prices ranging from $40-80/bbl depending on producer actions, politics, climate change proclivities, carbon taxes and regulations, and the strange whims and misconceptions of speculators (damn I’d like to see a huge speculation tax on every do-nothing transaction gamblers put through).
  2. 2025-2050: In the medium term, all bets are off. I can see, as conventional sources of oil get depleted and new ones cost more and more, the cost of getting oil to market rising enough that any price under $70/bbl won’t be worth the risk. And I can see, as the real economy (not the economy-of-the-elite the NYT and WSJ reports on) continues to struggle and inequality widens to become a political and even military issue in many parts of the world, the affordable ceiling price for oil dropping to $40/bbl. So that means there is no “happy medium” that works for both producers and consumers — any price is either too low for producers (keeping/driving them out of the market) or too high for consumers (leading to hoarding, involuntary reductions in use (ie repo’d cars and foreclosed homes) — or both. So I see prices whipsawing between $30/bbl or less (when the economy is in especially bad shape) and $100/bbl or more during speculative frenzies, rationing (in black markets), severe shortages and short-lived “is the long depression over yet?” economic recoveries.
  3. 2050-2100: This is the period in which I’ve forecast economic and/or energy collapse and the onset of chronic serious climate change trends and events. I don’t think the US dollar will survive this, so it’s hard to set a price on anything in that currency. I do see it as a long era of scavenging, re-use, rationing, nationalization (until national governments collapse and leave energy management to struggling local communities), hoarding, black markets, and yes, even conservation at last.

Not a very rosy picture, but those who’ve studied the economy and have been following oil prices for a while tend to support much of this hypothesis. Ultimately, it’s the economy, (not so) stupid. The economy is the tail that wags the energy dog, but ultimately the global industrial economy is founded entirely on the preposterous and untenable requirement that growth must continue forever, and the only thing that has provided sustained growth for the past couple of centuries has been cheap hydrocarbons.

And I understand oil doesn’t keep very well.


You may have noticed that there is a second Y-axis on the charts above, showing the value of the Canadian dollar relative to the US dollar. Endless studies have shown that the Canadian economy is more robust, and its workers are healthier and more productive, than those in the US. The only reason the Canadian dollar doesn’t trade at a premium to the US dollar is speculative ignorance (and, unfortunately, the degree of ownership and control American corporations have been allowed to acquire over Canadian businesses and resources).

Many if not most speculators are Americans, and many of them insist their currency is a safe haven in bad times (they are in for a surprise, but it may take a while). They also believe Canadian production is tied to oil prices, which is why these idiots, who manipulate currency values with their flights of fancy, have essentially priced the Canadian dollar as if it were a petrocurrency. So the Y-axis at right shows, with a remarkably high degree of correlation, the relationship between the price of oil and the value of the Canadian dollar in US dollars (currently almost exactly $.80) dating all the way back to the 1960s.

So if you’re a Canadian who spends a significant part of your income in the US or on $US investments, keep an eye on the volatility of the oil market. You can use the Canadian dollar to judge where speculators think the price of oil is going in the near term, or, alternatively, you can use the trends in oil prices to determine when to spend, and not spend, your money on $US purchases.

As for me, who loves to winter in warm places that generally use US dollars, I’m at the mercy of the speculators. But if the price of oil goes up, my cost of travel will decline. And if the price of oil goes down, well, I’ll save money in other ways.

The ultimate “price” of oil, of course, is the desolation of the planet. I’ve written a lot about that in the past, and until I have something useful to add, I think I’ll leave it at that.

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

Risky Business

UPDATED: Jan 26, 2018 1pm replacing last year’s ‘maps’ with this year’s, just released.

This year’s Davos Global Risk Forum “landscape”. Last year’s for comparison purposes, with legend here

Every year, an organization called the Global Risk Forum presents the corporate and political elite attending the Davos World Economic Forum conference with a snapshot of their assessment of the greatest risks this elite and its vested interests should be aware of. This is all about risk mitigation (ie avoiding anything that would dampen profits or impede re-election). But they pretend they also care about the welfare of the world’s people, and spend millions of dollars (kindly provided by you in the form of customer profits and taxes) preparing this report.

The full report (PDF) is here, and it’s worth a look. It tells you some things about the thinking and the (arrogant, naive, ignorant, mistaken) beliefs of the rich and powerful: notably that ‘they’ the leaders can control these risks, and that there are relatively simple ‘solutions’ to these (and other, unmentioned) complex predicaments facing our crumbling industrial civilization culture and our ravaged and desolated planet. They demonstrate that they are utterly short-term focused (their assessment of risks’ likelihood and impact varies enormously from year to year, largely based on the past year’s headlines).

Nevertheless, though the list of risks is far from complete, it is worth considering from a local community preparedness and adaptation perspective. We know we can’t control or prevent these crises, but it’s helpful to know what we might be facing, when, and to what degree.

It is interesting to note what has appeared on the list of risks in past, but has dropped off the radar in these ‘experts’ minds more recently.

At one point, the explosion in the incidence of chronic diseases (as distinct from infectious diseases, which are still on the list) was high on the chart, mainly because it was realized that this is leading to the inevitable bankruptcy of public health systems worldwide — if the cost of medical care, pharmaceuticals, and end of life care continue to skyrocket, and the incidence of chronic illness also continues to soar (and there is no evidence to indicate these trends won’t continue), there will soon be insufficient money, no matter how much premiums increase, to pay for the staggering costs of our increasingly global Civilization Diseases.

So why aren’t chronic diseases on the list anymore? My guess would be that leaders, such as the attendees at Davos, have been sufficiently successful in their PR propaganda campaign to convince the rest of the population that their illness, and their poverty (and hence inability to pay for even minimal chronic health care) is somehow their own fault. If the population doesn’t expect the powers that be to address the problem or pay for chronic disease related health care, and if, soon, only the elite will be able to afford it, then the elite can wash their hands of it. If fixing it isn’t profitable or essential to political success, then, to the Davos gnomes, it simply isn’t a problem.

Marine disasters are also notably absent from the list. It will take another Shell or Exxon disaster to get this, and the larger issue of the utter befouling of marine systems worldwide and its effect on marine life (including seafood we eat), back on the list. But it won’t stay on there long. There is no money to be made in saving our oceans (except for the ironic spike in GDP when massive cleanups are needed after major corporate disasters), and the peasants can always be told to eat farmed fish.

Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are on the map, but they’re only in the middle of the chart, despite the obvious fact that human survival is utterly dependent on biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. Why is the impact of this ongoing disaster not at the very top of the map? Because there’s no human solution to it, and no profits to be made fixing it. So, psychologically, it’s better to downplay its likelihood (which is already occurring, ie 100%) and its impact (catastrophic, even just considering the effects of the destruction of forests, oceans, soils and permafrost, which are already well-advanced and accelerating).

The “spread of infectious diseases”, in the middle left of the map, would seem to be the newest toned-down euphemism for pandemics, which were also once higher on the list, in the years after SARS. Absolutely nothing has changed since SARS, other than slightly better monitoring. A pandemic caused by either wilful weaponizing of diseases (so-called bioterrorism), or more likely the mutation of a potent disease like the influenza virus to become airborne and immune to known antivirals and antibiotics, would be far more catastrophic than anything else on the map, and it could happen very quickly. Why isn’t it rated higher? Again, because there are no answers and no profits to be made, so better to deny it’s a serious risk.

Nuclear reactor accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima are now presumably relabeled and included in the term “man-made environmental disasters”. It is hard to know what all is encompassed in that enigmatic title, but to say that the potential combined impact of all such disasters is only average, as the map suggests, is a statement of utter denial. Why isn’t this ranked higher? Because a more precise term for “man-made environmental disasters” is “corporate-caused environmental disasters”. The egomaniacs at Davos don’t want too much attention drawn to their complicity in these problems. It would be unfortunate if the population were to discover, from a Davos report to the global business/political corpocracy, that one of the greatest risks to our planet is… the global business/political corpocracy. Wouldn’t want that. Let’s move this risk down lower on the chart and deflect responsibility by calling it “man-made environmental disasters”.

Our colossally bone-headed short-term thinking is also revealed in the demotion of peak oil (“energy price shock”) to a low-likelihood, low-impact risk. As I have explained often on these pages, the issue isn’t the availability of oil, or its (hugely fluctuating and artificially suppressed) price, it’s the availability of affordable oil (and other hydrocarbons). And many others have repeatedly smashed the myth that (even massively subsidized) renewable energy can replace more than a small percentage of hydrocarbon energy. But we’re desperate to believe that cheap oil won’t run out until we have “environmentally friendly” renewable energy available in abundance. So since the Davos gnomes have largely created our dependence on cheap hydrocarbons, who are they to tell us otherwise?

Apparently in Davos, technology is still our friend. Despite the lessons of history, risks related to technology, other than cyberattacks and data theft, are rated low. The innocuously named “adverse consequences of technological advances” barely makes the map at all. Really?

I could say much more about the weaselly logic and political expediency evident in the map, but enough ranting. The report, flawed as it is, makes fascinating reading, and is almost as educational and thought-provoking (eg some of the new risks) as it is infuriating. We could do worse than borrow the methodology and create our own maps of the real risks we need to be monitoring and preparing for.

The report has a second interesting map, reproduced below, which attempts to show the major interconnections between the various risks.

This year’s Davos Global Risks Interconnections map. Last year’s version for comparison purposes here.

Intriguingly, “rising chronic diseases” (faintly) make this second chart, though the associated risks identified with this trend are inexplicable. The main risks that are associated with this crisis are poor nutrition (ie our toxic, perfidious industrial food system) and stressful, low-exercise lifestyle (ie people having to work too long and hard in horrific, exhausting, soul-destroying jobs). But you’re not going to see these risks on the Davos map. Don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us.

You know what I’m getting at, of course. There is one underlying cause/risk for just about every dot on the Davos risk map: Untrammelled industrial capitalism. It is the very system that the business and political elite gathered in Davos have so carefully built up and defended, that is the ultimate risk to all of us. Will we ever see an admission of that, from these supposedly brilliant intellectual minds?

Don’t count on it.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

Networking to Find Better Work

I’m retired, and hoping I won’t ever have to return to the work world, but I know most of the world doesn’t have that luxury, and many aren’t happy with the work they are doing as employees, freelancers or contractors (or they are unemployed, or unhappily self-employed).

I recently had the occasion to read Orville Pierson’s book Highly Effective Networking: Meet the Right People and Get a Good Job, written in 2009 but pretty savvy about the use of current technology, which explains how much more effective a particular kind of networking (not social networking, not sales networking — work-search networking) is in finding better work than what you’re doing (or not doing) right now.

Orville knows his stuff, and the book is full of sound ideas, some pretty obvious but often not followed in the struggle to land a better position. We’ve been indoctrinated to think of the process as entailing usually-humiliating rounds of want-ad/job board reading, applications, cover letters with résumés, phone calls, rejection letters, and interviews. Orville explains that the easiest (at least psychologically) and most effective way to find work with a desired employer is through networking. The objective, he says is to get the position through having met the Decision Maker, via the “strength of weak links” and a series of conversations with their contacts, before the job is even posted or perhaps before it is even considered.

Networking as a job search technique, he says, is not about aggressively searching or selling yourself or asking for jobs; it’s about getting your name, reputation and credentials in front of potential Decision Makers through having low-stress, authentic, comfortable conversations about common interests that have reciprocal information exchange value to each person you speak with.

Your search will be more effective if the large majority of your time is spent planning and in direct conversations, rather than doing secondary research in front of a computer screen. It will also help if you have a few ‘personal coaches/confidantes’ (can be anyone you trust who knows you) to use as sounding boards in each of the following steps, and to talk with about anything negative you encounter or feel (keep the negatives out of your search conversations).

The book is IMO a bit wordy and cute (in the sense of superficially clever), and the process is described three times in increasing order of detail, which I found confusing. Here’s a summary that I think captures the essential steps in the process, dense but delayered.

Step 1: Decide to find your next job via networking rather than other methods (replying to ads, using recruiters, walk-ins, direct mail, applications, cold calling etc). This means most of your energies will be spent on networking activities often with no immediate obvious payback, rather than those other methods.

Step 2: Map your Personal Contacts network (basically everyone you know that you have a significant current or past relationship and/or known shared interests with, “anyone who would readily take your phone call”). Think about all your possible networks — organizations, interests, educational institutions, clients, employers, vendors, political, community, charity, sports, hobbies, professional associations, friends, family, neighbours etc. Identify those who are Active (regularly meet or talk with), Dormant (once close but not in a while), and Passive (distant connection enough to know your name or at least probably be able to recall you if you tell them what your connection is). Think about how you might start each call, to quickly help them place you if necessary when you call them. On that basis assess the strength of each Personal Contact in your total contact, and start your calls (step 6) with the strongest (easiest). Call Passive contacts only if there are continuing shared interests/relationships or if you think these “weak links” may have strong connections of their own relevant to your search.

Step 3: Plan your search and network activities. Identify your Professional Objectives (what kind of work do you want to do), your Target Market (what kind of organization do you want to work with) and your Core Message (why you are so well qualified for work that meets your Professional Objectives in organizations in your Target Market, put in words your Target Market can relate to).

Step 4: Begin to identify your Target Organizations (those in your Target Market), and gather information on what their culture and values and challenges and needs and prevailing trends are, and who’s who in them.

Step 5: Identify possible Decision Makers in your Target Organizations. If possible (using online research or asking people) identify who might be in their networks, to see if you have any in common. In large organizations the Decision Makers are usually not C-suite people; they are the people with the strongest voice in who gets hired at your level.

Step 6: Get the word out to your Personal Contacts. Let everyone (identified in Step 2) know that you’re available and looking, and what you have to offer. Make them comfortable* with an amiable and authentic introduction and update — don’t rush into your request or “ask for 20 minutes of their time”. Once you’ve established or re-established rapport, ask if they have ideas about your search, and show them your Target Organizations list. Ask if they know others who might help refine your list or your search (Secondary Contacts), or if they know other potential Target Organizations to consider for your list, and if they have comments about or know anything about your Target Organizations, and most importantly (and when appropriate) if they know anyone in your Target Organizations (Professional Contacts), and if they’d be comfortable introducing those people to you (not just giving you or emailing you the person’s name), and if they say Yes to both questions, add those others to your network. You should plan to get at least one introduction to a new relevant contact for every two calls (and talk with your coach/confidantes if you’re not meeting this target).

Step 7: Meet and exchange information with Secondary and Professional Contacts (people you already know in Target Organizations, plus “weak links” — people who have been recommended to you for help or information about your search, and people in your Target Organizations you have been offered an introduction to in Step 6). Ideally, the first Professional Contacts you meet in one of your Target Organizations will be insiders at or below your own level, working in areas that interest you or where you have strong competencies applicable to that organization. Inquire about the organization’s priorities, skill prerequisites and challenges. Keep it businesslike — avoid too much personal stuff, without being dishonest, and focus on your process and specifically your Professional Objectives and Core Message (don’t mention your Target Organizations list to Professional Contacts inside one of them). Learn from them what is going on in the organization, clarify who the Decision Makers might be and as much about them as you can. You should be able to talk with them as professional peers and offer information in return to reciprocate their time and energy. Give/send your resume, if appropriate, only at the end of your meeting or phone call.

Step 8: Get in touch with Decision Makers and Influencers before the job opening happens. These will almost always come from introductions in the earlier steps. You are more likely to meet Influencers before Decision Makers, but both are important. Some of them might be Sponsors — people you get to know who will be actively helping you find a way to join the organization. Let them know you have useful qualifications for them, that you’re available and that you’re very interested in working with/for them. Drawing on information from other Insiders and your own research, convey your knowledge about the organization. You want to come across as interesting to Influencers and other Professional Contacts, and interested and competent to Decision Makers. For this level at least, have a script. Decision Makers want to know: “What’s in it for me? What do you want from me? Is this going to be awkward or difficult? How long will it take and will it be worth that amount of time?”

Step 9: Keep everyone informed about your progress. “Loop ahead” (re-contact past networking calls and bring them up to speed on how you’re doing, and see if they have more info or additional referrals). Contact any Decision Makers you’ve met every 2-3 weeks until they hire you; mention new information about the organization or people you’ve recently met in the organization. [More info in the book about managing your way through actual job interviews if they’re needed] And when you get the job, tell everyone and thank them.

Step 10: Ancillary use of a website and social media. Use your website and professional sites like LinkedIn to articulate your credentials, character and reputation — and in your case to subtly clarify that you’re gainfully self-employed and hence looking for a job as a choice rather than out of desperation. Use social media and blogs sparingly and avoid online squabbles or arrogance. Have a Facebook page but it’s fine if it’s innocuous and just about your work. Use LinkedIn and other social media to identify people in Target Organizations but don’t contact them cold — gather information and use it in your networking conversations. Identify “friends of friends” who might be worthwhile adding to your networks, and identify who in your existing networks might introduce you.

*Making your networking contact comfortable entails the following (1) “Manage their expectations. Tell them at the very outset what you have in mind and what your goals are in the conversation. Explain how you’re doing job hunting, and which steps you’re working on right now.” That will relieve concerns they may have that you’re looking for job openings or other guidance they may not feel qualified to give (and that they’ll be letting you down if they don’t), or that you’re going to press them for referrals or otherwise “put the squeeze” on them. It might help to have a short script to accomplish this upfront. (2) Always be honest and authentic. (3) Only accept an introduction to a new contact if you are convinced they are completely comfortable making the introduction. (4) Express gratitude for whatever they offer.          The book contains several ‘scripts’ for making networking conversations with various types of contacts ‘comfortable’ — some are a bit unnatural but they do provide some good ideas on how to do this, more than I can capture in a summary.

The process is somewhat iterative as your contacts and knowledge grow. As a former employer charged with interviewing and hiring professionals, it makes sense to me. No guarantee — I’ve known people who’ve used a process like this who I’ve bent over backwards to hire, and others who’ve used the same process that I wouldn’t hire (because I didn’t think they had the right skills for the job) despite their work-search savvy and perseverance.

In short, this is a book worth reading if you’re at that point in your life, and I know a lot of people are. If you find the book, and/or the summary above, useful, let me know.

Posted in Working Smarter | 3 Comments

Letter of Termination

image from Fill at Pixabay CC0

Dear Powers That Be Consortium:

This is to inform you that the services your organizations have been providing to us, as our agents, no longer meet our needs, and we are terminating our agreement (the Industrial Civilization Management Agreement) with you and will in future provide the needed services directly ourselves.

Following is a partial listing of some of the ways in which your consortium member organizations have abrogated the spirit and substance of our long-standing agreement with you, leaving us no alternative but to take this step:

Representative Democracy LLC: Your “representatives” have not represented us at all. They have lied to us. They have taken bribes, and in return lavished gifts, from money we entrusted to them, on rich and powerful interests, to our overwhelming detriment. They have not upheld the laws designed to protect us or our environment, and have instituted laws that do the opposite. They have incompetently managed our services and our resources. They are all herewith fired; we will henceforth manage our common resources and public services locally and directly. The experiment with their service delivery model of “representative democracy” has been an abject failure. We will try an “uncivilized” approach — community-based direct democracy — instead.

Industrial Growth Economics LLC: The “executive officers” you assigned to our account are utterly incompetent, narcissistic, and hopelessly corrupted. They seem utterly incapable of taking any action in the public interest. The model you instituted on our behalf ironically called the “free market economy” is the precise opposite: it is an oligarchy of obscenely rich and powerful overlords sucking up the commons — our resources — for their own personal enrichment, impoverishing us in the process. Their gargantuan fees for worthless and destructive “services” are unwarranted and must be returned to us. They too are all fired, and ordered to immediately return everything they have taken from us, including all assets they have purchased with the proceeds of their unconscionable “salaries”, bonuses, dividends and capital gains, and we ask that they leave our premises immediately. Their ruinous economy will be dismantled and replaced, gradually, with a non-hierarchical, egalitarian, locally-based gift economy.

Neo-Liberal Education Services LLC: The officers and “ministers” of this organization have created a massive and dysfunctional centralized system that has neglected our young people and forced many of them into indentured servitude to your other member organizations. We are abolishing the entire system. Some of the prison-like buildings they have constructed for so-called education will be converted into housing for those they have impoverished and for entrepreneurial offices to support the new gift economy. Over the coming years a system of locally-mentored, self-directed learning (deschooling and unschooling) will be introduced to teach our young people, finally, how to learn and how to discover what they are meant to do with their precious lives.

Public Private Health Services LLC: The “privatization” of public health by the czars of this organization is terminated immediately. Health services will hereinafter be a right of all people, and will be offered free of charge. The patients they have made dependent on the medical and pharmaceutical “industry” with its exorbitantly-priced products and specialist services catering mainly to elites with diseases of affluence, will soon learn how to self-manage their health through sound nutrition and exercise, simple self-diagnosis and holistic self-treatment, guided by local medical generalists. Our research indicates that this will increase the healthy life-span of our citizens by several years, at a fraction the cost the “industry”, and its parasitic insurance companies and lawyers, have been charging.

Monoculture Industrial Foods LLC: The titans in charge of this organization have perpetrated cruelty and caused illness far beyond anything in the history of our planet. They have addicted us to overpriced junk, monopolized and privatized on a massive scale a resource that truly belongs to all of us. They have confined and tortured billions of living creatures. They have poisoned our food, our water, and our land. They have replaced the nutritious staples of millennia of human adaptation and cultivation with over-packaged, over-processed, unhealthy, toxic foods that are responsible for the soaring rates of chronic diseases afflicting nearly all of us. They have ruined our soil, desolated our forests and exhausted and befouled our seas. We are taking it all back, and beginning the long road back to healthy, organic, diverse, locally-produced food using permaculture principles.

Centralized Utilities LLC: Along with good food, good health and a safe and healthy planet, our birthright includes the rights to light, warmth, clean water, and accurate information. The executives of this organization have stolen that birthright, charging us for modest use of what should be free, and using those charges to subsidize destructive and monopolistic corporations that have fouled the planet and its atmosphere with hydrocarbon wastes, production by-products and pollution, and exhausted these precious resources to the point our dependence on them now imperils our very existence. We are halting all utilities’ and other energy extraction activities that produce greenhouse gases immediately, and phasing out all non-essential and centralize utility operations as quickly as the shift to renewable, community-owned utilities can be put in place. We are immediately halting the production of bottled water, incandescent lightbulbs, and other inexcusably wasteful products using our precious resources. And we are dismantling the oligopolies of mainstream media, social media, and telecommunications.

Defence & Security Partners LLC: Your generals and chiefs and head wardens, and their business friends who manufacture weapons, have made our planet and people much less safe —unsafe in fact, squandered trillions of dollars needlessly, encouraged and armed wars between our people, militarized law enforcement, and made imprisonment into a cruel, profiteering enterprise. This is the opposite of what they were hired to do for us. With them gone, we will begin the hard, generations-long task of re-enabling local communities to look after their own security with minimal incarceration, and working with fellow citizens everywhere to demilitarize our world and destroy the massive arsenals of weaponry they created. We will do this work with the understanding that the best way to avoid conflict is through eliminating inequality and hardship.

You, the Powers That Be, have worked complicitly with each other and with the aforementioned consortium members to steal from, betray, defraud and intimidate us. You have clearly been counting on our unwillingness to terminate this agreement because of its centuries-long history and the massive task that will be entailed in untangling it and restoring the horrific damage you have done to us, our social fabric and our planet. We have finally come to realize just how much damage has been done, and that it must no longer continue.

What surprises us most is that we believe that your consortium and its members were, at least initially, doing what they thought was in all our best interests. As tempting as it is for many of us to find you to blame for your actions and the damage they have done, we have concluded that you were actually doing your best, based on what you have been taught, and in some cases brainwashed, to believe. So we don’t want punishment, just a return to us of the resources we mistakenly entrusted to you, so that we can begin to undo the damage. And for you to get out of the way so that we can do that work.


The People of Earth

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 8 Comments


my life is a play and my role, apparently
is as part of an musical octet
which sings three songs
as interludes in a vast improv performance, and
after each, acts out a short improv scene of our own,
a midsummer night’s subplot of sorts.

our songs are rehearsed,
sent to us weeks before the performance,
but for our short scenes
we are given only two lines each, per scene,
just before we go on stage,
which we are told should be spoken
at an appropriate moment during our scene.

we are not limited to these lines,
but are requested to be brief and thoughtful with any other words.

now, it would appear, our performance is nearing its end —
we have completed the third song,
a moving yet somewhat eager four-part harmony,
and we have started our third scene.

already I have delivered my penultimate line,
“but of course nothing matters”,
with what I thought appropriate Beckettian expression,
on the heels of my lovely colleague’s utterance of her line,
“it’s a shame that nothing can be done”.

since our previous scene, there has been a major shift
in the larger play — the principal characters seem to have lost their way,
and the tension has risen, a sense of anticipation, or dread,
and the orchestra’s been playing a more ominous accompaniment.

the final words of our third song seem designed to reflect this. they are:
“the time has ended now for play,
we walk along this dim-lit track;
the others have all gone away,
we sense there’ll be no journey back.”

the song ends on a sad and indecisive Fmaj7.

but while my colleagues are out-doing themselves
with their meagre final lines and fill-ins,
our last moments in the spotlights,
I have no sense of when to deliver my last line,
which is, ironically, “how will I know?”

this line does not seem to belong with my colleagues’ lines.

and so I wait, attentive to the words, the motions,
the language of faces and bodies and eyes,
and say nothing.

of course it isn’t important whether I say it at all —
only my seven fellow players will be aware of the omission,
and the audience and the major cast are all, I would expect,
anxious in their anticipation of the closing scene to come
when our small troupe has left the stage.

still, I wait; the words hang on my tongue.

and then, at last, as if perfectly planned,
our elder colleague steps to the front of the stage, breathes deeply,
and says a phrase, clearly not in our script at all,
addressed it seems to the audience,
to the well-made-up major characters waiting in the wings,
to our little troupe, and to me in particular:
“there is much to be done, and, my friends,
we must each do the right thing at the right moment.”

and with a look of relief and dismay I deliver my line:
“how will I know?”

and my dear colleague,
(the one for whom “nothing can be done”), walks across to me,
puts her hand on my shoulder,
and replies: “you will not — this is not about knowing”,
and whisks me, our troupe now moving as one,
gracefully off the stage.

image from the Pen Tarot

Posted in Creative Works | Comments Off on Improv

Links of the Quarter — December 2017

New Yorker cover by R Kikuo Johnson

A dark time for me, finding myself absurdly triggered by completely ordinary events, and aware of the impossibility of letting go of my anxious, fear-driven, hypersensitive, reactive, stress-riddled self. Meanwhile, day to day events in the echelons of power get more and more surreal and alarming, and I can’t quite get myself to turn off the non-local ‘news’ completely; for no good reason, I just have to ‘know’. To know this is my biologically and culturally entrained self just doing the only thing it can do brings me no comfort. Not depressed about all of this; just drowning in the cognitive dissonance.

Feeling like a canary in the mineshaft, and something does not smell right.


Christmas card “José y Maria” by cartoonist Everett Patterson. Thanks to Dave Bonta for the link.

When There Is No Insurance Any More: The latest from td0s describes our investment in ‘stuff’ and what happens when we can no longer insure it against loss, because the risk of loss is now too great: “Is there a greater fear than being reset to zero after years and years of numb drudgery, all of it in the service of stacking up a bigger and bigger pile of things? The entire edifice of consumer society rests on the idea that we will work today and that the things we buy will still be ours tomorrow. No longer able to live in the world, to see the providence in the fields and streams, only the store shelves can keep us alive, and so we tithe the gods of chance praying that the future is long and uneventful.”

Listen for the Howl: If you didn’t read my short story that referenced td0s’ remarkable post Boldly Through the Darkness, take a moment to read it.


Where you should live depending on your temperature preferences, from the inimitable xkcd. Before you move, you might want to consider how your new home will be affected by climate change

There Is No Jim Carrey: Thanks to his friend Jeff Foster, Jim embraces radical non-duality. And scientists continue to come up with findings that support this message; most recently comes the finding that the universe shouldn’t exist, and a biology book that asserts you have no free will.

Census Maps: Since a picture is often worth a thousand words, Census Mapper now allows Canadians to get a visual representation of census data by census division. The app breaks data down into deciles so you can see how your neighbourhood stacks up with others in income, home ownership, costs of living, demographics and other data. Thanks to Jens and Alejandro for developing it!

Best Science Books of 2017: The always-excellent BrainPickings (Maria Popova’s labour of love) lists her favourite new science books of the year; a tremendous list. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.


Taking a Knee at a Ravens Game — from Facebook, original source unknown

Enough is Enough: Satirist “Jonathan Pie” comments on the latest absurdities of 45. And here’s a very revealing interview with the man behind the satire.

Canada’s Doing Just Fine, Thanks: A writer humorously tells the US Ambassador to Canada that Canadians don’t need or want any help to be “as successful as Americans”.

Blaming the Victims: Millions of people turn to drugs or alcohol when there is no other way they can find to cope with their suffering. The cost of this is multifaceted: the health costs (money and misery) of and to the users, the misery they (mostly unintentionally) inflict on others as a consequence of their actions and inactions, the crimes some commit to pay for the drugs, and the massive cost of the absurd “war on drugs”. It is so easy to proffer simple solutions: mostly ban the drugs (this has never worked and actually increases the cost), and blame the victims. Thousands of people are now dying each year of fentanyl poisoning — toxins put into street drugs by uncaring dealers and pushers to reduce their cost and to increase the dose (to encourage ‘repeat customers’). Meanwhile millions of people suffering from chronic pain, who have been prescribed opiates for years for pain conditions that never let up and for which there is no known medical cure or effective alternative treatments, are now demonized and presumed to be addicts at a high risk for ‘abuse’, and deprived of essential pain relief under harsh hew prescribing rules in the latest blame-the-victim chapter of the endless “war on drugs”. What are they to do? If they can no longer get their prescriptions filled safely by their doctors (many of whom are being threatened by medical associations, insurers and political agencies to reduce opioid prescribing across-the-board), they are forced to turn to the streets, swelling the numbers exposed to fentanyl poisoning. Vicious cycle. We never learn.


Josephine Lake, Bowen Island (my own photo)

Hawk Raised By Eagles: The story of the tiny red-tailed hawk on Vancouver Island that muscled itself into a young eagle family in their nest, and ended up being raised as if it were an eagle.

Iconic Tree Replaced on Building Top: A condo in English Bay (Vancouver BC) has long been the home to a famous rooftop pine tree that the builder/owner insisted be there to recognize the average height (60m) of the temperate rainforest that had been felled to construct the English Bay community. When the tree died, it took two years to find a suitable replacement, and half a million dollars to get it up into place on the roof. Out on her balcony, Kelly Gavin snapped the shot at sunset just as it was being lowered into place, that the CBC used at the top of its coverage. Now waiting to see if the bald eagles return to nest there.

Fox and the Whale: Quirky, unsentimental animation from Robin Joseph.

Faster Growth Means Fewer Nutrients: Ironically, as the increased amount of CO2 in our atmosphere allows plants (which need it to live) to grow faster, they are producing food with fewer nutrients (less time for them to mature and metabolize). That means the food we eat is poorer too. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

I Want My Bonus Years: The writer urges men to start dating women their own age, for everyone’s benefit. (NB: This is a NYT article, so if you’ve used up your “10 articles per month quota” you won’t be able to read it, or re-read it.)

The Case for Not Being Born: Philosopher David Benatar argues that life and death both entail enormous amounts of suffering, so it is better not to be born (or have children) in the first place.

Trump’s Slurred Speech Tied to Low Battery in Putin’s Remote: Humour from Andy Borowitz on 45’s recent addled speech patterns.

Giving Up Butter: The 5 Stages of Grief: A hilarious take on the naming of butter substitutes. Thanks to Ben Collver for the link.


Land art, Pūliki (“the embrace” in Hawai’ian), created using non-toxic biodegrading chalk, across a whole series of trees, by Hula (Sean Yaro). Also check out his ‘Ōwena

From Rachel Carson: “If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in, the chances are very high that you will interest other people as well.” (thanks to BrainPickings for this quote and the two that follow)

From Seneca: “There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

From James Baldwin: “You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation.”

From Dave Snowden (thanks to Chris Corrigan for the link) on coping with complexity:

  • DO: Change the granularity (drill down or get up above the detail); Distributed cognition (get others to help you make sense of it); Disintermediated sensemaking (don’t rely on media/experts/leaders to make sense of things for you).
  • AVOID: Premature convergence (keep an open mind on what it all means); Retrospective coherence (rationalizing in hindsight); Pattern entrainment (getting into oversimplification and other bad sense-making habits learned from others).
  • ASK: What can I change? What can I monitor? What can I dampen and amplify? (provided you aren’t a non-dualist).
Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 3 Comments

Senseless Behaviour

If you don’t like hopeless messages it might be best to skip this post.

Cartoon by David Sipress from The New Yorker

When you put too many rats together in a confined space in conditions of scarcity for a prolonged period, you get what appears to be highly dysfunctional behaviour — a spike in extreme violence, obsessive hoarding, top-down abuse from throughout the group hierarchy, anomie and suicide at the bottom of the hierarchy, abandonment of family, and ultimately killing and eating of the (weaker) young. What had evolved as a mostly-peaceful, sensible and sustainable group culture crumbles and collapses.

Five years ago I argued that there is no reason to believe human cultures should be any different. What Dmitry Orlov describes as the five stages of cultural collapse resonates almost eerily with Edward Hall’s description of the collapse in overcrowded rat societies.

Since I wrote that, my worldview has changed considerably. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I no longer believe we have the free will or agency (individually or collectively) to change our innate and enculturated behaviours.

So how does one explain the phenomenon of collapse in light of evolutionary theory? And what does this mean for the future of our species and planet?

It seems to me that cultural collapse is essentially the collapse of order into chaos. It takes an enormous amount of energy (in every sense) to maintain order, so ultimately collapse back into unorder (entropy) is inevitable. The astonishing evolution of a staggeringly complex, highly-ordered, diverse, self-sustained balance of life and environment on Earth was, if you buy Gaia theory, equally inevitable. So at many, many different scales evolution is essentially a lovely, eternal succession of waves of increasing complexity and then falling away (collapse, or devolution) into unordered chaos.

What happens at the point of collapse? There is no longer energy (food, fitness, force etc) to sustain the highly-ordered complexity that has been built up. Behaviours that had evolved over millennia to fit with the rest of the ecosystem and the environment suddenly no longer ‘work’. Is the increased aggression and hoarding of the alphas, the eating of the young and the depression and suicide of the lower-downs in the hierarchy (of rats, or humans) an attempt to enable a small number of alphas to survive once it’s realized (at least subconsciously) that the culture as a whole cannot hold? That’s an interesting theory, but it seems more likely to me that what we’re witnessing is just chaotic behaviour — instincts that evolved for one situation being applied (largely inappropriately and dysfunctionally) in a situation the creature (and the group) had never experienced and were clueless to know how to deal with. It is, in essence, senseless behaviour.

The evidence of financial, commercial, political and social collapse (Dmitry’s first four stages) has never been more obvious or abundant than what we have seen in recent months. What we are seeing is the desperate theft by the rich from the poor on a massive scale (the alpha rats hoarding, using offshore tax havens and buying up land in Hawai’i and New Zealand to escape to when living in the cities is no longer viable).

Mostly what we are seeing, everywhere, from the streets to the centres of power, is unprecedented rage.

We see it in the butchery by machete of nearly a million Rwandans by their neighbours. We have seen it in the staggering and nearly-unquestioned (at the time) cruelty exhibited in concentration camps since the dawn of civilization but increasingly as our human population has soared toward eight billion. We see it in monstrous factory farms where acts of unspeakable confinement and cruelty are meted out on a massive scale away from public scrutiny. We saw it in the multi-millionaire Las Vegas gambling addict/real-estate speculator’s shooting frenzy. We continue to see it in the multi-millionaire New York gambling addict/real-estate speculator’s tauntings on Twitter, while we continue to believe, astonishingly and nonsensically, that neither he nor his equally-deranged Pyongyang counterpart, will actually push the button that will bring civilization to a close much quicker than either economic meltdown or climate change could. And we’re all deranged by this culture.

Meanwhile, the US has more guns than people, many of which are or quickly could be converted to instruments of mass destruction. Our civilization is built (with the best of intentions) on the concentration of wealth and power and the capacity to wield it over those lower in the hierarchy, to keep us civilized, domesticated, to keep us, like the lower-hierarchy rats in the overcrowded cages, obedient, cowering in fear, driven to do as we are told by anxiety and adrenaline, and addicted and medicated the rest of our lives with dopamine-fuelled escapes we call “entertainment”.

This is final-stage collapse. We are just so used to the fear, the oppression, the obscene inequality of wealth and power, the corruption, the incarceration, the constantly but scarcely suppressed rage, that we can’t see it; it’s the only life we have known.

I would suggest that this collapse actually began to occur with the invention (which was essential for our species’ survival during past sudden climate changes that created severe scarcity) of the arrowhead and (what Richard Manning has appropriately called “catastrophic”) agriculture — unnatural patches of monoculture crops and confined animals maintained by constant high-energy interventions (work drudgery). The next essential inventions were settlement and (complex, abstract) language, and voila! — civilization culture. In short, I would suggest that civilization is a fascinating but ultimately unsustainable experiment in managing scarcity. We are not ‘meant’ to be (not naturally adapted to) living that way. And while the span of civilization is only a few millennia (an instant in geological time), since we have known nothing else, we are as ill-equipped to deal with (or prevent) its collapse as the clueless rats faced with sudden unnatural scarcity in their hopeless cages. In Darwinian terms we are not ‘fit’ to cope with it.

When you believe, as I do, that we do not have ‘free will’ to do other than what these bodies we presume to inhabit were going to do anyway, given the circumstances of the moment, what do you tell all the rats scurrying around desperately in the cage, acting more and more dysfunctionally?

You don’t tell them anything. For me, and perhaps for some of you, it is better, and enough, to know, to have made some sense of what is, than to just be bewildered (or disappointed) by everything horrific that’s happening. This is only a theory of course. I’m still anxious about it, hopelessly hopeful about changing it, escaping it. But somehow I feel a bit better with this ghastly theory. This corner of the cage is a little more comfortable, a little quieter, than it might have been otherwise.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 6 Comments