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

Calling the Cage Freedom

This is the second of a series of three new short stories. Image below from wikimedia, CC-SA 3.0.

“I never want to have a job,” Sevi lamented, walking into the kitchen while staring at her tablet screen and almost bumping into me.

“I hope you never have to have one, unless you find something that so thrills your heart that you can hardly bear to wait to get up in the morning to get back at it,” I replied. I envisioned Seville growing up to be a scientist — she had the curiosity and the eye for detail, and the imagination and ability to visualize what most people couldn’t.

“You and Mom don’t have to work, and I don’t want to have to either.”

“I worked for a long time to earn my early retirement,” I replied. “And though your Mom’s family was rich enough she never had to do paid work, she’s put in as many hours doing volunteer work as many people do at paid jobs. Why are you suddenly concerned about having to get a job?”

“It’s the new blog post from td0s,” she replied. “He’s written about how your generations have created a world of drudgery for us to inherit and pay for. Listen to this.” She read:

Life in the modern, capitalist west is tedium. It is an exhausting bore. Without any substantial sense of belonging or meaning, stripped of spirit and tasked with an endless quest for money that buys less and less, people are miserable… The malaise of existence in this world where the wild is all but extinguished is felt far and wide, whether it is understood as such or not. Absent community and a deep sense of both autonomy and personal value, people become damaged… We industrial humans do not live. Living is active. We are only active in the pursuit of making someone else rich while we earn just enough to make it until the next paycheck, and then we are passive. We sit and stare, trading entertainment for experience, hoping that watching others pretend to live will suffice by proxy… If we all agree to call the cage freedom, then it is freedom.

What becomes of people when you strip them of everything that makes them human?… In my region there are those who want to cut the forests. They think that they have observed the forest long enough to know how to control it. They think they have the wisdom to manage a forest better than it can manage itself. How does one argue? The only words they will accept are in their own language, the language of domination, the language that insists on seeing only disparate pieces in a grand machine, the language that has exorcized the sacred.

I cannot convince you to leave the forest be, in that language. I cannot convince you to seek the wild with those lifeless words. I cannot convince you to abandon this culture in the language that it birthed. You have to feel it. Perhaps you do already. Perhaps you aren’t sure what you feel, other than a general sense that something is not right. Do not snuff it out. Nurture it. Breathe life into it. Let it guide you to others. Give yourself permission to feel even if it is only the pain. Move boldly through the darkness, and listen for the howl.

“That’s just awful,” she added. “How can you have done this to us, to our world, and then expect us to work in it, this dead place you’ve created, all our lives. And we can’t even be wild — there are no wild places any more, just cities and factory farms and war zones.”

“Guilty as charged,” I acknowledged. “We had no idea what we were doing. We did our best, what we thought was right and possible. It took me most of my life to discover that what we sought was soul-destroying, life-destroying, planet-destroying and unsustainable. I used to quote an anarchist writer named Wolfi Landstreicher extolling humans’ yearning to be wild.” I brought the passage up on my laptop and read it to her:

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

“You understand that when td0s says to “move boldly” and Wolfi says to “fight” they’re exhorting us to exercise our free will, when as we discussed yesterday we don’t actually have free will. They’re great sentiments, but all they can do is make us feel even worse about our own impotence.”

“Is that why you never had any kids of your own, and why you got ‘fixed’ when you and Mom split up? No free will in that choice, huh?” She wrinkled her nose at me and smiled, getting in a little dig about our previous day’s discussion. “No regrets about that decision?”

“Not sure the question ‘why’ ever has a satisfactory answer, rather than one that serves to reinforce whatever cause or blame we’re culturally inclined to lay in each circumstance. I never really felt a drive to bring kids into this world, though I will tell you that having you as my daughter is the best thing that ever happened to me, and I’ve led a charmed life. As for regrets, how can one regret what one had no real choice over?”

“I thought you said there was no ‘you’ and no ‘me’? So you have no daughter, and I have no parents. Just appearances, like you said. Cop-out.” She looked like she was going to cry.

I drew her into my arms and gave her a long hug, and after a while I replied: “Several times in my life, the most recent of which happened since I met you, there has been a ‘glimpse’ of that true oneness with no separation, no time or place or person or thing or happening, just everything, still and awesome and astonishing and perpetually new. And everything was perfect, eternal love. And even though there was no ‘me’ and no ‘you’, there was absolute exquisite joyful love for the miracle of what is, including the magical appearance in ‘what is’ of Ms Seville Thorn. Does that make any sense?”

“About as much sense as knowing what’s wrong with the world and being sure there is nothing that can be done to make it better. I admire you and love you but I don’t want to see the world the way you see it, or, how do I put this, the way it is seen when there is no ‘you’. I have to believe I can be wild and free, that I won’t be condemned to a lifetime of awful work, that things at least don’t have to get any worse. You get that, don’t you? I’m just a kid, I have a whole lifetime ahead of me and I have to believe it can be good, that I can ‘move boldly through the darkness and listen for the howl’. That I can be the howl.”

I was lost for words. I wondered whether my grasping at the belief that we have no free will, that nothing we seem to experience is actually real, and that what actually is is perfect and endlessly full of wonder, was just wishful thinking, a way of coping with the dread that the world that Sevi would have to deal with when we were long gone would be ghastly, terrifying, violent, even not worth living.

“You can be the howl,” I assured her then. “Maybe you can even show me how to be the howl too.”

I loved her resilience. One moment she looked like she was justifiably falling apart, and the next she was scanning her tablet over my shoulder while extracting herself from my hug. “Both these guys talk about civilization and domestication as being evils, which is not how most people see them. What’s the deal with domestication anyway?”

“Well,” I replied, “the words civilize and quiet have the same etymological root — kei, meaning to lie still. Likewise the words domesticate and dam have the same etymological root — dam, meaning to build and enclose. There could not be anywhere near 8 billion humans on this planet if we were not thoroughly civilized and domesticated — if we hadn’t been indoctrinated to lie still and be enclosed, held in. It makes total sense that human domestication and civilization were evolutionarily successful. At the same time it’s increasingly apparent that these recent evolutions are no longer serving the vast majority of humans. An increasing number of us are realizing that this isn’t quite how humans were ‘meant’ to live, not our natural and healthy state. The opposite of civilized and domesticated is wild and free. Losing our wildness and freedom, td0s and Wolfi are saying, is too high a cost to pay.”

We were quiet, then, for a few moments, except for some mutual sighs. “I have a project to do,” Sevi said, after that. Another sigh and she added: “Thanks, I guess.” And she was gone.


That evening, Sevi dragged me away from my laptop and took me outside to the edge of the forest abutting our house. It was a warm summer evening with a light but steady rain, just after dusk. “Time to howl,” she said. She howled, with a voice so clear and powerful it made me shudder. I looked up at where the moon would be if it weren’t overcast. I howled, but it was pathetic, timid and unconvincing. Sevi demonstrated again. A dog down in the valley suddenly took up the call, and the two of them, taking turns, showed me what to do. I howled, calling up a voice I didn’t know I had. Sevi had pulled off her soaking wet dress and with one hand pulled herself up onto a tree branch, and from up there she resumed howling.

Another dog now joined in, making us a foursome. Sevi jumped down and pulled me into the forest, breaking into a run. She was barefoot, but was running sure-footedly and effortlessly, landing on the edges of her feet seemingly to feel the earth for stones before placing her full weight down and launching into her next step. The sight of her, this wild little creature, so strong, so determined, filled me with love and pride. I ran behind her, ridiculous and incompetent.

Suddenly she stopped. She motioned me to be silent and pointed into the darkness. I could barely make out eyes in the distance. Sevi howled again, her whole body puffed up and panting, alert and electric. “Ah-wooooooh!

And from the darkness the long lean body behind the two eyes returned the call, a wild plaintive cry, a howl that penetrated the falling night air and went right through my rain-soaked body, somehow stirring something in me, a remembering.

A coyote.

“She’s calling us home,” Sevi said, breathless. She laughed, turned to me, and shook her head.

“Now how can you tell me you have no choice, no free will? You can move boldly through the darkness. You only stay civilized and domesticated if you choose to. You know what my choice is.”

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

The Project

This is the first of three short stories featuring two new characters. The others in the series should be coming up later this month. Image below from skeeze at the wonderful pixabay CC0.

“Daddy… I need to ask you about something. Phoenix says there’s no such thing as free will, and that the scientists now all agree about that with the philosophers. But that doesn’t make sense, does it?”

The joys of unschooling a step-child! A group of us parents, mostly living here in Hawai’i, had been sponsoring a youthful version of ‘TED Talks’, presented by the astonishingly bright and curious group of youngsters we had agreed to set free from the ghastly institution of schooling. Just as each child in our collective group picked their own curriculum, each child selected and practiced their own 10-minute “talk” on a subject of their own research, which was broadcast and recorded for the group on Skype or Zoom. Nine-year-old Phoenix had just aired his “There is No Free Will” talk, and as part of the program we’d all agreed to discuss each subject with our kids, and to submit comments.

“Well, Sevi, if ‘all’ scientists and philosophers ever agree on anything I think we’re in trouble. There is absolutely no consensus on the subject, though it does seem like some new discoveries and theories in physics and biology are winning a few more over to the ‘no free will’ side.” I had been well-trained for what I said to her next: “What do you think?”

“When we decided that I’d be unschooled instead of going to a ‘teaching-school’, that was free will for sure. We had a choice. I’m glad we made that choice. The kids in the teaching-schools are mostly dumb; they don’t know how to think.”

“Suppose we look at that decision in a bit more detail, then. Your mother and I are both fortunate enough to have heard and learned about unschooling, and to have enough time to spend with you as sounding-boards, answering as best we can your very challenging questions. And we’re both curious, skeptical of institutions and independent-minded. And you’ve always been strong-willed and self-motivated; you’ve been reading almost since you were born. And you’re restless, always moving, walking and dancing and singing while you study. One could say it was absolutely inevitable given those biological and social circumstances that that we would ‘decide’ on unschooling.”

“But it was still a choice,” Seville insisted. “We talked about all the options, the plusses and minuses, and we didn’t even all agree at first.”

“Suppose there was a choice, some free will. What exactly was it that made the choice? Something in your brain? Something in your heart?”

“It was a collective decision. All my neurons, together, after sleeping on it and thinking and feeling and learning and trusting instincts. It was just ‘right’. At least for me.”

“So if we looked at all those neurons we’d see some communication among them, some assessment and consensus voting? Those would be very smart neurons.”

“All right, then. They delegated the decision to the brain. The feelings and intuitions weighed in and then the brain made the rational decision. I know Phoenix said that the brain doesn’t actually decide anything; it just rationalizes the decision that has already been made, but still that means a decision was made. And if it wasn’t made by ‘me’ and my brain, who decided it?”

“What if it was inevitable, and the brain just rationalized it so it would look smart and could act like it was in control? No free will, no decision, just what was inevitably going to be done by that lovely little watery bag of bones and organs you call ‘you’?”

Sevi thought for a moment, and then said: “Well let’s take a more difficult decision then, one that could go either way. When Devon came up to me and asked if he could kiss me, for example. A million things went through my head. He’s cute, but a little too full of himself. I liked that he asked, but I didn’t like that he stood so close to me and made me feel pressured. I ended up telling him ‘No, but you can ask me again another time’. That was a heavy decision. No way my genes and my culture could have determined that outcome in advance.”

My turn to think. “I don’t know,” I said finally. “I’d say your biology played a pretty big role in not punching him when he asked.” (I presumed she had not punched him, since I knew she liked him, in that ancient way females intuitively like, or dislike, males.) “And your culture told you not to be too quick to agree to anything, to be polite, and probably, sad to say, not to bruise his male ego. If he’d stood any closer you probably would have stepped back or pushed him away, but your elegant ‘decision-making’ really smacks of your unique biology and the way you’ve been enculturated, up to that exact moment.”

“I think Phoenix’s point,” I went on, as Sevi pondered this, “is that when you look inside for some ‘thing’ that is ‘you’, the thing making the decision, you can never find it. Not in the brain, not in the neural pathways or body chemistry or anywhere else.”

“Whoah… that’s heavy. Now you’re saying not only do I not have any free will, but there is no ‘me’ to have any free will. You think people are just zombies doing what they’re programmed to do?”

“Nope, not at all,” I replied. “Remember that Robert Sapolski article that you showed me last month? He wrote…” (I brought up the article on my laptop and read it to her:)

Ultimately, words like “punishment,” “justice,” “free will,” “evil,” “the soul,” are utterly irrelevant and scientifically obsolete in terms of understanding our behavior. It’s insanely difficult for people to accept the extent to which we are biological organisms without agency… The idea that we are more than our brains, that there’s something inside of us, a being that is in our brain but not of our brain, a “me” that is more than just biology. And that is as grounded in reality as alchemy or astrology… And our culture impacts the biology of our brains in enormous ways too.

I went on: “And then we bought his book and read the chapter where he recommended doing away with the criminal justice system because we have no choice about our behaviour. That doesn’t mean we’re zombies. It just means that, given our biology and our culture, how we will react, and what we’ll think and do each moment isn’t anything we have control over. But our biology and culture are constantly changing us. If Devon had asked to kiss you a year ago, or waited until a year from now, and stood just exactly in the same place and asked the same way, I bet you’d have reacted differently.”

Sevi blushed a bit and did a self-conscious spin. “How do you think I’d have reacted then?”

“A year ago you would have pushed him away and made a face at him. If he’d waited until next year you’d have smiled and said ’Since you asked nicely’ and then you’d have kissed him.”

She frowned a bit and then took us back on topic. “OK, maybe we don’t have free will and we should be nicer to criminals and not so nice to people who, like, self-sacrifice. But the whole ’no me’ thing is something else. That has major implications. Like, if we really accept that we’re not responsible, won’t we all misbehave and procrastinate and party like there’s no tomorrow?”

I smiled at the ‘no tomorrow’ suggestion but managed to restrain myself. Instead I said “If we believe we’re not responsible and if we really have no free will, we can’t make the choice to misbehave and party, any more than we can if we believe we are responsible.”

“But wouldn’t it change us, make us believe like nothing matters…” (she caught me smiling at these words) “… and that we have no control over anything and that life is pointless?” (She’s so smart she scares me sometimes.)

“If our biology and our culture have entrained us to believe nothing matters and life is pointless, that’s what we will believe. But what we do is what we would do anyway. A change in intellectual belief won’t change that. The scientists’ view now is that it’s our actions that determine our beliefs, not the other way around. What we ‘believe’ is just more rationalization, trying to make sense of what we do. Or appear to do, anyway, since there is, in this line of logic, no ‘we’ that does anything.”

“You’re making my head hurt. If I thought that nothing I did was my choice, my control, I’d be depressed all the time. I’d steal cars and race them down blind alleys. I’d kill myself!”

“No you wouldn’t. You have no choice about what you believe, any more than you have about what you do. You are by nature a curious, social, brilliantly-intelligent little optimist, and if you come to believe there is no free will and no choice you will find some way to rationalize and reconcile that belief with your inherent nature and your constantly amazing actions.”

Sevi scowled. “Not so sure…” she said. “So you really buy this shit, huh? If there’s no ‘me’, who is talking with you right now?”

“There is a lovely play apparently going on in which two characters are having an unusual conversation, saying what they have no choice but to say. No me, no you, and, more surprisingly, no tomorrow, and nothing that matters.”

“Then why do I have this overwhelming sense that there is a ‘me’ here talking with a nonsense-speaking ‘you’ here and now, and that it matters a lot?”

“Ah, that’s the mystery. My guess is that the sense of a separate self was an accident of evolution. Mother nature likes to try stuff out, and when our brains got big enough she must have evolved a sense of separate existence and the sense of passage of time as a means of making sense of all the stuff the brain was processing, to see if it would help the brainy creatures survive better. Unfortunately, while the big brain helped keep humans out of some short-term trouble, mostly by inventing stuff, it created all kinds of trouble with the trauma of believing we were separate from all-that-is, and the false belief we could control ourselves.”

“So you’re saying all this is an illusion, a trick of the brain, this sense of ‘me’ talking with ‘you’. Seems pretty far-fetched to me.”

“Yup. To the ‘me’, the idea that there is no ‘me’ is always going to be incredible. But when you think of it, it’s a pretty simple and elegant theory of everything. A lot less complicated than the scientific, philosophical and religious explanations, and impossible to disprove.”

“Hmmm. So what happens next, with all of these eight billion people believing they exist when they don’t?”

“Big brains are a very recent novelty in evolution, best as we know. The sense of separation has created all this suffering, so I don’t think it will last much longer. The lovely play will apparently continue, but without humans and others who think they are what they are not. It will be a better play without us; more ‘just beingness’ and less drama.”

“But if there is no one conscious, will there still be a play?”

“There is no one conscious. That’s all part of the play. So yes, without consciousness, the play will continue, apparently. It’s timeless, eternal, complete, it’s everything. Always has been and always will be.”

“And you really believe all this?”

“Makes more sense than anything else I’ve come across. So yes, for now.”

“And what about love. Does love still exist?”

“Yes of course. Beyond our imagining. Love is everything.”

“Seems pretty empty, this meaningless ‘everything’. So far I kind of like the messiness of the ‘me’ world. I like music, painting, cute boys, running in the rain, baby ducks. I don’t think I could give all that up for your ‘everything’. As Uncle Frederick says…” (she mimicked his deep voice) “… ‘It’s the particular that matters.’”

“Nope, ‘you’ couldn’t give any of that up if you wanted to. ‘You’ have no choice. And ‘I’ can’t either. So for now I’ll just have to love you, and the messiness and particular-ness of our life.”

“Works for me.” She paused for a moment. “What if my Zoom talk was about ‘There is no me’? Do you think people would like it? Would you help?”

“Not sure your heart would be in it, and I think it would be very unpopular. You might want to pick something more particular.”

“OK, then how about ‘Love is Everything’?

“Works for me.”


Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

A Future Without “Us”

This is a modestly revamped version of a thought experiment I wrote five years ago entitled Several Short Sentences About Earth’s Distant Future. At the time it provoked a lot of interesting and mostly positive comments, so I thought I would update it to reflect how my thinking has evolved since then.

image: earth during the eocene epoch, the last time the average surface temperature was 25C, via bbc nature

Imagine this:

  1. Imagine that, a few millennia from now, down the steep slope that followed Peak Everything, the sixth Great Extinction is finally winding down. The pace of species extinction is slowing, and landscapes, while still often showing the signs of many recent ecological catastrophes due to ongoing tumultuous climate change, are beginning to show more patterns of succession. Our lovely planet has been through this kind of change many times before: At least twice it’s been choked in dust after meteorites or volcanoes that produced a global night that lasted a year and soaked the planet in a deluge of rain with the pH of battery acid. At least once it’s been totally encased, pole to pole, in a sheet of ice miles thick.
  2. Imagine that this Future Earth looks about as different from the way it did in the 21st century as it did the last time the average surface temperature was 25C rather than 15C — during the early Eocene epoch about 50 million years ago. Imagine that more than half of the planet is therefore now desert, including the Western US, Southern Europe, the Western 2/3 of all tropical areas, and all of the areas that were already desert in the 21st century. Much of the rest of the planet is now rainforest, subject to torrential and relentless monsoons, including former Arctic and Antarctic areas. There are no ice sheets or glaciers now. Rising sea levels have engulfed the formal coastal areas and reduced overall planetary land mass by about 20%, and coasts are now mostly steep and mountainous.

image: depiction of eocene rainforest in the antarctic, from this site, original source uncredited

  1. Imagine that human population has declined to about 50 million, and is still declining, though much more slowly than during the earlier stages of the Great Extinction. The remaining humans have abandoned all technologies, in part because there is no cheap accessible energy to power them, and in part because with a population now so small and declining (and hence abundant food and warm places to live), there is no real need for technologies for a full and healthy life. Population is still declining because humans are just not naturally well-adapted to very hot or changeable climates, whereas many of the succession species that now feed on humans (jaguars and crocodiles, for example) are much better adapted to prevailing climates. Nuclear radiation from abandoned 21st century power plants has also created ongoing birth rate and illness problems for humans and other species.
  2. Imagine that humans have readapted to living in the trees (because it’s safer and more comfortable), to gathering rather than growing food (because it’s healthier, more reliable and easier), and to a vegetarian and insect diet (because it’s better suited to our digestive system and more accessible in post-tool-use societies). Humans still look much like they did in the 21st century (and, for that matter, much like they have for the past million years), but they behave much differently. They have given up abstract languages because such languages are no longer of value or use, though they can communicate essential messages very accurately through vocalizations (whistles, calls and songs) and gestures. They retain a passion for art and music and practice these extensively. They live in small, autonomous tribal cultures, each with a territory large enough to provide abundant food even when catastrophic climate events occur, and little or no contact with adjacent human cultures, which are, as a result, very diverse. With a small and declining population, migration outside each tribe’s established territories is (except after local climate disasters) neither necessary nor wise.

image: from the documentary film baraka

  1. Imagine that such humans have lost their sense of time, again because they have no need for it. They live entirely (except for brief periods when under attack by predators) in the present, joyfully, in the moment. They have, of course, memories (so do most creatures) but their minds, without clocks, calendars and abstract language, now evolve differently from the way they did in the old “civilization” times, so they cannot and do not dwell on the past, nor fear nor long for the future. They live lives of great joy, leisure and abundance, and are unaware of the trajectory that will inevitably lead, many millennia hence, to their ecologically maladapted species’ slow and final extinction. And they are unaware of how humans live/lived in other places and times. It doesn’t concern them. They do not fear death; they accept it. Their curiosity is focused on here, and now.
  2. Imagine that such humans have begun to evolve cultural and coping characteristics more aligned with their forest-dwelling bonobo cousins than their savannah-dwelling chimp cousins. Their best-adapted societies are peaceful, gentle, matriarchal, affectionate, and egalitarian, and resolve internal conflicts and stress through embrace, caress, and sexual calming methods rather than through the expression of violence.
  3. Imagine that, despite the apparent similarities between these post-civilization humans and prehistoric tree-dwelling humans, there are a number of qualities that clearly distinguish them. These differences are not physical but behavioural, due to differences in selected genetics, learned behaviours passed between generations, and differences in environment. Post-civilization humans are still not as intuitive as prehistoric humans, but they are more imaginative and hence more playful. They are more empathetic, because they still pass on the embodied grief of having experienced massive suffering and hardship just a hundred generations ago. They still retain vestiges of skill at abstraction and capacity to synergize, that comes through in and is practiced in their art and music composition. They also ironically retain vestiges of competitiveness, even though this no longer serves a useful purpose. While they have varied embodied and enculturated characters, like babies and wild creatures they do not perceive of themselves as separate from all-that-is, or of life having any start or ending, boundaries, purpose or meaning. They are just one with everything.

Imagine that.

This is a future freed from the terrible affliction of “consciousness”. Yet it is the opposite of dull. It is life full on, eternal, vivid, wondrous and endlessly new. It is intuitive, sensuous, fearlessly wild, passionate, and unveiled by the brain’s abstraction of what is and isn’t real.

When I imagined this five years ago, it was impossible for me not to add that, despite the hopelessness of preventing civilization’s collapse and the inevitability of a subsequent long road back to planetary sanity, “we” needed to imagine what we could do now to “prepare us to cope better, to be hurt less, to do less harm”.

I no longer have such conceits. We can and will only do our best, in our own way, in the moment, as events unfold. But while I no longer profess to offer advice or suggestions about what “we” should do, the above flight of fancy fills me with questions. So, in lieu of answers, here are some questions I am thinking about:

  1. What might it be like to be truly wild, free of the terrifying illusion that we are separate and in control of our own fate?
  2. Why is it so hard to imagine a future utterly different from anything we’ve known (we tend to imagine the future being like the present “only more so”, or, even worse, imagine it being like the recent past played in reverse)? Why does the idea of future human societies that use substantially no technology, have no abstract language, and aren’t incessantly violent, strike us as so preposterous, even impossible?
  3. Is there something in the essential nature of the human animal and its oversized brain that makes us inevitably dissatisfied with just being, makes us endlessly want and strive for more, disconnects us from the rest of life with which we’re co-dependent, and inevitably fosters overreach, hierarchy and struggle with our own kind? These would seem to be evolutionary disadvantages.
  4. Why do so many want to live in cities? It wasn’t always that way — what’s changed?
  5. Our art, languages, dance and music, and the way we adorn our bodies, demonstrate the enormous cultural diversity of our species, despite the effects of our modern monolithic industrial culture. Why do we strive so desperately to make everyone and everything the same? And, with enough time and enough distance between them, how staggeringly and delightfully different might the many tiny far-flung cultures of humanity millennia from now evolve to be?

I watch the body language of the fawns that come each evening to nibble at the edges of my garden and sleep in the secluded mossy patches of my back yard, for clues. I listen to the intricate songs of the birds that feed outside my window, and wonder. I look into the faces of purring cats, crows huddled together, the astonished looks of babies, for signs of what is really going on.

They’re not telling.

Posted in Creative Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

The Paradox of Self-Management

If you are a student of complexity theory, and of philosophy, you can quickly arrive at a place of great cognitive dissonance: On the one hand, our culture is driving us, for quite compelling reasons, to take actions that make things better for the rest of the world, and to “self-improve” — to change our own unhealthy and destructive behaviours. But on the other hand, some of us have come to believe, intellectually at least, (1) that our personal actions will have no discernible sustained impact on the rest of the world (complex systems tend to self-perpetuate and to counter the effects of even the most persistent and well-conceived interventions), and (2) that we have no free will, agency or choice in what we do in any case — rather than making decisions, the brain/mind/self is merely rationalizing decisions that have already been ‘made’ and started to act upon by the conditioned creatures ‘we’ presume to inhabit and control.

The former dilemma — that we feel driven to make the world better through personal actions even though we may know in our hearts that that won’t make any enduring difference — has been hashed over a lot in activist circles. The argument is that we have to try anyway; that it’s in our nature. Direct action certainly seems to make a small difference, at least for a while, so why not (protest local polluting projects and entities, clean up a river, blockade a destructive development etc)? It’s not our business to worry about what will happen when we’re gone, or what is happening beyond our sphere of influence. Though we may be by nature preoccupied with the needs and imperatives of the moment, still we do our best. It’s both enough and necessarily to try, even when it may be, in the longer and broader context, hopeless.

The latter dilemma — that we feel an obligation to “improve ourselves” through personal behaviour change, even though some of us have come to ‘know’ intellectually we have no real agency over what we do or do not do — is the subject of this essay.

The question here is not whether our behaviour changes or not; it’s about whether personal volition plays any role in that change, or whether, given our conditioning and the events and options presenting themselves moment-to-moment, what we do, or don’t do, in each moment, is the only thing we could possibly have done, and therefore all the angst and anguish we have about our decisions is pointless, and changes nothing.

That’s not to say that we can rid ourselves of this needless angst and anguish — it’s just one more thing we have no agency over. In the long run, the human mind seems compelled to be unhappy with the apparent sub-optimality of ‘its’ decisions, and with the apparent unfairness of its situation. Hindsight is perfect, and nothing can ever match the ideals we can imagine — not for very long anyway.

You may find this preposterous — we certainly seem to have personal volition over what we do. It’s a paradox, and in that sense it is preposterous. But bear with me for a few moments.

Over the years this blog has recommended a process called “self-management” for taking charge of your own situation, informing yourself with personally-collected data, and acting in accordance, in a number of situations:

  1. Managing your own health and fitness: I used statistical analysis to identify what treatments seemed to work best for my body when it was coping with debilitating ulcerative colitis. And annually I review, plot and analyze the data from a comprehensive blood test (here in BC you are able to access your health records and test results personally online). Possibly as a result of that, I am now 10 years symptom-free.
  2. Making healthy/helpful behaviours easier and/or more fun: Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour asserts that we do what we must (our personal imperatives of the moment) and then we do what’s easy and/or fun; there is never time left for what is ‘merely’ important. So I made exercising easier and less tedious by investing in a treadmill desk that allows me to multi-task (reading, writing, watching videos) while working out. Even my upper-body and core workouts with weights are done while listening to podcasts I particularly enjoy. For the first time in my life, my exercise is done regularly, and it’s something I actually look forward to. My long history of maintaining my times for 5k and 10k runs over the past 40 years (sometimes being a data geek really is useful), adjusted for the inevitable slowdowns that come with age, also enables me to know in advance when I’m getting sick (my times go well over the regression line) and to take steps to heal.
  3. Eating better: While the statistical analysis referred to above had already helped me improve my diet, I have more recently shifted further to a whole-plant based diet (persuaded by the science of nutritionfacts.org) with less salt, less sugar (especially processed sugar), less fat (especially saturated fat) and less processed food in general. This was at least as challenging as going vegetarian and then vegan had been years ago, since I really do like salt, sweets and oils, and I am generally a lazy chef. But I’ve managed to make the changes, again by making it relatively easy:
    • a meal a day of varied raw veggies and salad stuff with a tasty low-fat dip takes little preparation or clean-up
    • fruit and veggie smoothies
    • keeping useful ingredients like turmeric and ground flax seeds handy and adding them liberally to meals
    • keeping a pill-pack of B12 and D3 vitamins so it’s easy to remember to take them regularly, and
    • finding several one-pot, 5-or-less (but variable) ingredient, 20-minutes-or-less prep time recipes that fulfil my “daily dozen” (see graphic above)
      Taken together, these discoveries have made it easy and even enjoyable to eat healthier.
  4. Increased self-awareness of stress: I’ve learned that I can’t avoid stress in my life; nor can I avoid the anxiety that arises in me because of it. But I’ve learned to become aware of when I am getting reactive to a situation (bad weather, vexatious people, a loved one’s distress etc). Just being self-aware helps, though it doesn’t eliminate the reactivity. I have a list in my wallet of the things that I know trigger anxiety, fear, distress, shame, anger and sorrow in me, and recognizing the trigger reaction (it helps that those I love know the symptoms and point it out to me as well) seems to be enough to bring some perspective and at least lessen any overreactions.
  5. Reducing personal environmental impact: Over the past year, by monitoring my daily household energy consumption, informing myself about opportunities for reducing consumption, and tracking consumption against temperature (my heat is electric), I’ve reduced my electricity consumption by 40%, effortlessly. I didn’t think such savings were possible without discomfort and inconvenience, but the data made me do it!

So there have been changes, for the better, in my personal behaviours, apparently as a result of this “self-management” process. What’s going on here? If I have no free will, agency, control or choice over my actions, how did these changes come about?

My guess is that they were inevitable. By nature I’m a data collector. I’m curious and imaginative about trying new low-risk things, and that’s led to me being an avid reader of books on health and self-management. I’m averse to pain and suffering so I was really motivated to do the statistical analysis to manage the colitis. While I hate exercising, I’m vain about my appearance, and that, along with the personal, statistically verified health benefits (less illness, less pain, more resilience) made it inevitable that once I found an easy way to exercise, I’d do so. And the people I love showed me, by example, how a higher level of self-awareness reduces their reactivity and hence their stress, anxiety and suffering, so it’s only natural that I would over time pick up this skill from them and apply it to my own life.

No free will was really involved. If you had been watching me over the past ten years from a distance, and could see inside my head, these self-improvements would have seemed inevitable, given my basic nature and the circumstances that I was presented with over that time. I really had no control over, and no say in the matter. There are probably other apparent ‘self-improvements’ that didn’t happen to me, because they weren’t in my nature, or because the right circumstances didn’t present themselves. If I hadn’t met the people, or read the books (all happy accidents) that have influenced me so much, my life would probably have unfolded very differently.

So if it’s all dependent on our inherent or enculturated nature, and on the circumstances that arise in our lives, and we have no control over either, what’s the point of talking about any of this? Or more broadly, what’s the point in aspiring to any ‘self-improvement’ whatsoever?

The following could perhaps be a circular argument, or an oxymoron, but it seems possible to me that if it’s in your nature to experiment, and to want to learn, there are two things you might be able to do to increase the probability that the circumstances that arise will be more auspicious towards the changes you are hoping for than they would be otherwise:

The first of these is to learn more — about yourself, about your body, your health, your nature, what motivates you, what (perhaps for reasons buried in your past) triggers unreasonable and unhealthy reactions in you etc. Better self-knowledge would seem to open you to possibilities that otherwise might not arise. For example, knowing that a chronic physical or emotional illness is inflamed by something in your diet (or something missing from your diet) would seem to make it more likely that you would change that diet, even if you might not be that excited about the change. Or, if you discovered that walking an hour a day on a treadmill would reduce your risk of heart disease by 75% (helped by personal blood test data showing improvements in LDL cholesterol etc), it might be more likely that you would take up and stick with a regular walking regime.

It could of course be argued that we are either curious enough by nature (and fortunate enough to have the time and capacity) to learn, or we aren’t, and that therefore there is no free will involved in this either. If you’re going to stumble on this article and find it useful and act on it in some way, that is all because of some combination of your inherent or enculturated nature and happenstance — no free will or agency involved.

It’s said that people who seem exceptionally lucky make their own luck. That’s perhaps saying the same thing — we don’t make choices; it’s either in our nature to learn and try things that increase the likelihood of good fortune befalling us, or it isn’t.

That brings me to the second thing we might be able to do with some degree of volition to increase the probability that the circumstances that arise will be more auspicious towards the changes we are hoping for than they would be otherwise: to make space for a change of behaviour — to open up the possibility for it.

How might we do this? Again, I think it comes back to self-awareness. If we’re aware of what motivates us, of our propensity for certain behaviours, and about our inherent nature (curious, courageous, persevering etc, or not) and our enculturated nature (to be defensive, to procrastinate, to judge people in certain ways etc, or not), then perhaps we can use this self-awareness to create opportunities for us to act in ways that are better for ourselves and those around us.

Complexity theorists argue that while human-scale interventions will have little or no impact on a complex system (which is inherently unknowable and unpredictable), it may be possible to influence the initial conditions of a small system in its early stages before it becomes ‘unmanageable’. So for example, ensuring that we get enough sleep might affect us in all kinds of positive ways. Putting a list like the graphic above on our refrigerator door might cause the uncontrollable creatures we believe we inhabit to engage in slightly more healthy eating behaviours (or to tear down the list and throw it away, depending on our nature).

This could also be a circular argument. Perhaps it’s either in our nature to get enough sleep or not, and to maintain and use lists, or not, and we’re just fooling ourselves believing that the apparent ‘decision’ to go to bed earlier or to post the list or to change what we eat depending on what the list suggests, would be any different without the intention or the list. It’s probably impossible to know.

All I do know is that ‘self-management’ seems to be in my nature, though it’s only very recently that I’ve begun to use it, and reaped the astonishing benefits it’s given me. If we see our lives as a play, with all the parts already written (though not given to us more than a line or two in advance of us acting them out), then agency, self-control, self-management, volition, free will and choice had nothing to do with me being, and becoming, such an incredibly blessed agnostic. Hard, but not impossible, to believe.

No wonder then I am increasingly averse to giving advice, and more and more inclined to just tell my own rather tedious and ordinary story, mostly so I can get (as my nature drives me to seek) the gist of how the plot seems to be unfolding. No wonder I am increasingly silent, here on this blog and in my interactions with the world. If there is no free will, then freedom, it would seem, must lie in some other, possibly unknowable, unimaginable place.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments


I wander out onto the small balcony, seeking a quiet place to get away from the earnest people gathered inside, people trying to make a hopeless situation better. It is more than I can bear tonight.

You, a stranger to me, are already out there, sitting on a deck chair, alone, in the dark. We nod, and you turn your gaze back to the still world outside. Wordlessly, we watch the rain and the lights in the distance, your eyes shining in the lamplight. We listen to the rush of the wind, the drone of tires on the road beyond, the muffled French music playing in the room inside.

I like your smell. You are drinking something with alcohol and some exotic fruit. You are well but not ostentatiously dressed, in red and black. The silence seems natural, comfortable, but I am looking for something to say, to acknowledge you. But I don’t know what. And when I turn to you to speak, you put your finger to your lips and shush me, with a smile. You point out into the darkness, cup your ear, inhale deeply, and nod gently. You rise and stand beside me, arms on the railing.

And we just stay there, together, silently, taking in the view, the sounds and smells of the wind- and rainswept night. We point out things rustling in the distance in the mist. I am smiling, hoping no one comes out to disturb our innocent flirtation. We are like two birds on a wire, having met by accident, nestled together. You brush your arm against mine, pushing your hair back. You touch your fingers to my hand, and turn to look at my face for acknowledgement whether this is too forward. I nod and smile so you continue, eventually leaving your hand lightly on mine.

I point out the leaves shimmering in the rain, in the wind, in the patio light below. We stay like that for what seems a long time, senses alert, silently. You are sighing. Your glass is empty but you shake your head when I point to it as an offer to go for a refill. The wind picks up and you shiver, and when I turn toward you, you step forward into my arms and wrap mine around you, smiling and then nestling your cheek in my collar, your arms under mine and your hands curled over my shoulders.

I am overwhelmed by the sensations of you, the feel of your breath on my neck, your hair on the side of my face, the complex smell of you, the strength of your grasp, the slight quiver in your body in the wind gusting around us. I want to wrap you up. I want this moment to never end.

Just then someone opens the door to the balcony, and seeing us, says “Oops sorry!” and retreats inside. You laugh, the first sound I have heard from you. I hold you tighter, but you’ve sensed the tension in my body, and you draw your head back, look in my eyes, and then point at the side of my head and repeat your “shush” signal, and then, to my surprise, put your hand on my heart and repeat the “shush” again. Then you nestle back into my arms.

What am I supposed to make of this? Of course my mind has been racing, and your shush was to tell me to stop thinking, imagining, and to just be in the moment without thoughts about what it might mean, or lead to. But what of the heart gesture? Was that to say to calm my heart, that this wasn’t anything to get emotional about? That I should not be falling in love with you? I am such a fool for love.

So I just close my eyes and drink in the sensations, and try not to think, or feel. Impossible, of course. I imagine kissing you, and more. I imagine who you might be, behind this mysterious silence. Who we might be, together. Madness. Why can’t I just be in this moment with you? Why do I have to spoil it, worry about it, imagine it being other than all it is?

But I’m already in full flight, preparing for the fall. I imagine that you’re already living with someone, who you’ll be rejoining inside and leaving with, soon, hand in hand. I imagine how awful you might be — a dangerous and damaged person who does this with everyone, just for thrills, to incite confrontation. I imagine my broken heart, and how I can shield it, recover from it.

And then you laugh, gently at first and then uncontrollably, your body shaking in my arms. I wonder if I’ve missed something, if something in my body language has given me away, if I have done something wrong. But as you lift your face to mine I can see you are laughing with me, not at me. So I start laughing too. You sense — you know! — that I was unable to just be with you, that my mind and emotions had destroyed the spell, the magic of our — how long was it, minutes or hours? — moment together.

You touch two fingers to your lips and then to mine, and then, stepping back, you hold my hands, and then, releasing them, give me a little bow and a huge, generous smile. Then you point me to the railing of the balcony, and flash your hand three times — 15 minutes? — and move to the balcony door. I watch you leave, and then stand at the railing, like a zombie, incapable of thinking of anything. Fifteen minutes later I wander inside, where you are nowhere to be seen, pick up my coat, and head outside.

(vignette partly inspired by listening to torch songs; photo by Marian Jaslovsky, CC0 on the wonderful Pixabay)

Posted in Creative Works | Comments Off on Interlude


So I decided to look closer,
to see if I could see
the true wonder of everything that is.

I bundled up against the rain and chill,
set up my tent in the back yard, positioned so that
out its open door I could see no human artifacts,
and stared out through the mist
at the green-grey mountains and the blue-grey sea.

I tried to look, to pay attention
without attaching words, interpretations, to what I saw.
I wanted to see what was really there,
not how my brain belittled it, labelled it, judged it.

I tried to listen to the sounds,
without making meaning from them, identifying them,
attaching them to anything.

I wanted there to be no tent, no grass, no trees,
no mountains, no sea:
just pure colour, texture, scent, whispers, waves
contour, shadow, dampness. earthy-ness, hue.
No thing apart. Only this.

I wanted to be home.
I wanted to stop being afraid of all the wrong things,
to stop taking things personally,
to stop trying to make sense.

To stop running away.

What is this foolish fear we have
that without our thoughts and feelings,
with just our raw animal senses, our oneness with everything,
we will somehow be failures, irresponsible, insensitive, absent,
less than whole?

I am leaving. I just don’t know when, or how.
You will not notice when I’m gone.

Posted in Creative Works | 4 Comments