A Dragon, Several Stories High

This is #30 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk, hike, and explore in my local community.

a children’s book about the dangers of ignoring a problem until it grows to be unmanageable

“Toward the end of his book Why We Remember, Ranganath expands his focus from the individual to examine the social aspect of memory. He cites a startling analysis of casual conversation which found that forty per cent of the time we spend talking to one another is taken up with storytelling of some kind. Whether spilling our entire past or just quickly catching up, we are essentially engaged in exchanging memories. It should come as no surprise that communication renders our memories even more fungible. ‘The very act of sharing our past experiences can significantly change what we remember and the meaning we derive from it,’ Ranganath writes, and distortions multiply with each telling…”
review of neuroscientist Charon Ranganath’s book Why We Remember, in the New Yorker

The weather is lousy — “June-uary” has arrived early in Vancouver this year and we’re back to wintery rain and wind. So I’m just wandering in the neighbourhood. Today I’ve decided to listen for stories, but just to hear the narrative — not trying to decipher what the story “means” or why the speaker is trying to tell it.

In reading the book review quoted above, I was surprised that the percentage of casual conversation taken up by stories was as low as 40%. I would have guessed closer to 90% — what else, after all, do we have to say to each other? We tell stories, I would say, mostly for the same reason I blog — to try to make sense of things by ‘talking out loud’. So I’m out here, walking and listening, collecting my own data.

We naturally change the story — “what we remember and the meaning we derive from it” — for that very reason: so that it makes more sense. So that it fits better with our collective beliefs and worldview about what is, what was, and why. No matter that the story is ‘no longer’ true — it never was true; it is by definition a fiction. And because, as I’ve written often of late, we can’t help ourselves when it comes to story-telling; our conditioning from childhood is to create a belief system (a worldview) and to use stories selectively as scaffolding to support it.

So perhaps not surprisingly, the first story I hear as I’m walking comes from a little girl walking and talking with her mother; they are just emerging from a take-out shop. The part I hear is:

“… and then the dragon jumped up on the chair and grabbed the Cheerios box and ate all the Cheerios…”

I have no idea whether this story is the girl’s invention, or whether she is retelling the plot of a cartoon or a book or a commercial. But it doesn’t matter. This story is just as credible and just as true as the story her mother will later tell others about the service in the take-out shop. There is no such thing as a dragon. It’s all just stories.

Since I’ve started writing and musing upon the illusion of self and its relationship to the real world, I’ve started to see two superimposed “worlds” everywhere I go. There is what I’ve been conditioned to call and appreciate as the “real world”, with real people with real selves making decisions about what they (their bodies) will do, and making judgements about what they see and hear and read.

And then there’s this other world, comprising staggeringly complex and astounding complicities of trillions of cells doing only and precisely what they have been conditioned to do, appearing collectively as ‘individual’ bodies. In this other world there are no ‘selves’ in control of those bodies, and the bodies’ apparent actions are ‘simply’ the aggregate of the conditioned behaviours of these trillions of cells. In this other world the ‘self’ is just an invention of the brain — a story. To try to make sense of things. To no effect, and for no necessary reason.


A man and a woman (she has an umbrella; he is very wet) pass me on the sidewalk, talking and moving at a considerable clip. I speed up slightly to hear their conversation. The woman says:

“… He didn’t apologize in the least! Can you imagine anyone treating their employees that way? So that left me no choice but to quit…”

And then the two worlds’ versions of the couple turn the corner out of hearing range. In one, a distressed woman tells a story about what she’d decided to do. In the other, each of trillions of cells do the only thing their biological and cultural conditioning could have done, given the (apparently unfortunate) circumstances of the moment, and the result is the appearance of a woman making a decision and then telling a story about it.

And none of the stories, in either ‘world’, is ‘true’. A ‘true’ story is an oxymoron. It’s all just trying to make sense of things that cannot possibly be made sense of, and which don’t need to be made sense of. But our conditioning is to try to make sense of everything, and to re-tell our stories until they at least ‘fit’ our worldview a little better.

Beyond the astonishing complicity of these trillions of cells doing what they must, stories are, I would suggest, all ‘we’ are — the content and processing of the beliefs (including beliefs about what has happened and why) and the worldviews, together comprising the little model of reality concocted in our brains, with the idea of ‘us’ at the model’s centre.

And we relate (etym.: “to bring back”) these stories because that is how human selves ‘relate’ to other apparent selves — how we compare and align the little model of reality in ‘our’ brain with others’.

Wild creatures, it seems, are able to ‘relate’ to each other just fine without the need for stories. Or selves.


As I walk along the rain-drenched street, and then through the nearby mall, I take note of fragments of other (unconnected) conversations I hear, and muse upon the stories they imply:

[drawing a baby dress from a shopping bag] “Isn’t this adorable? I think it should fit.”

“All he had to do was ask me.”

“She said she was going, but I bet she flakes out.”

“I can’t, man — Everyone would know it was me.”

“I’ve tried. The doctor’s advice didn’t help at all.”

“Yeah, the visit was amazing. We both want to go back.”

“Someone should just tell her.”

I’m trying really hard not to flesh out these fragments into stories, but it’s almost impossible. This is what we’re conditioned to do. Everything that’s said that isn’t already a story has to be made into one; that’s how we ‘make sense’ of it. “And then what happened?” — Each of the fragments of conversation above could be a ‘prompt’ for a creative writing class.

I keep walking, paying attention to the attempts of the conversants I pass to ‘relate’, in both senses of the word. It seems to me that their body language and facial expressions and tone of voice are ‘relating’ a lot more information, and helping them ‘relate’ to each other much better, than the clumsily-formed, imprecise, easily-misconstrued words they are using. But it’s not as if we have any choice.


A few moments later, back outside again, I near a young couple who are, improbably, sitting on a very wet bench; the rain has mostly abated. They are talking in urgent, animated voices, and as I pass by, he changes his voice to a kind of growly whisper, leans over towards her, and says:

“Are you kidding me? He’s just trying to get inside your pants!”

She scowls quickly at him, looking around to see who might have heard, and I hurry by, looking straight ahead as if I heard nothing.

The young lady does indeed have very nice pants. I stifle a laugh. I am determined to not try to make sense of these conversations, to not try to judge or imply meaning to what is being said. They’re just stories, after all. I could invent explanations of jealousy or protectiveness on the young man’s part, but those would just be stories too. The young couple (ie the complicities comprising their apparent bodies) are just acting out ‘their’ conditioning. No other words or actions were possible.

I resist the temptation to imagine a story of what they will be doing later — stretching the story out into the future as well as back into the past, to root it in meaning. Without the notion of time (which some theoretical physicists now say is also a fiction), we couldn’t tell stories at all.

Just as with the woman who now has to find a new job, I’m pulling for the young couple on the bench, and the woman with the baby dress, and all the other complicities of creatures comprising the bodies of apparent individual people attached to the stories that arise from the conversation fragments above, to have their stories have happy endings.

We all want to know, of every story: How’s it Going to End?


The rain has started up again, and I duck into my favourite café to escape it. Two older men have settled into the comfortable stuffed chairs in the corner, and they are talking rather more loudly than most patrons of the restaurant do. (Though they are white males, after all.)

I order my latte and take up a seat not too far away. I smile at the fact that adult men seemingly tend to talk to each other, rather than with each other. Unlike some older males whose conversations I’ve heard here, their conversation is not about their pasts — either what has happened to them recently, or what happened long ago (recounted either ruefully or nostalgically). Instead, it’s more like a back-and-forth volley of anxieties about the future. Over the next few minutes they relate their unease about the world’s political situation, the economic situation, climate change, their work situation and, to a guarded extent, about their personal health and financial situations.

That could be me saying that, I say to myself as I listen. I can ‘relate’ to that.

Stories about the future are very different from stories about the past. The former require conjecture and imagination, while the latter are largely straightforward and unarguable. As the men talk, the information that underlies their anxieties is presented, as are their opinions on these situations, but the stories — how they might imagine things playing out, best or worst scenarios — are unspoken. Are they thinking about these stories and just not sharing them aloud? Or can they not imagine, or do they dare not try to imagine? I cannot guess.

This is, I suppose, how they’ve been conditioned to talk. Their conditioned ‘adult male’ conversation lacks candid expressions of emotion (other than annoyance and mild anger), and lacks reassurances from either of them that their concerns are either overstated or well-justified.

They are, it seems to me, talking out their anxieties about the future to get some sense in their own minds about whether these anxieties are warranted, and why. It’s like they’re conversing with themselves, rather than each other, and just sharing a table and coffee to do so.

And then one of the men says:

“Sometimes life’s like a hamster wheel; you never figure out how you got on it, and there’s no way to get off it.”

I smile. There’s surely a whole bunch of stories embedded in this ‘depersonalized’ statement. If it’s an invitation to explore what’s behind it, it’s lost on the other man. There is silence, and then the other man changes the subject.


As I walk home, it occurs to me that so much of what we say in our conversations with others (and perhaps in our ‘inner’ conversations with ourselves as well) are rationalizations for feelings we don’t quite understand or aren’t quite comfortable with. Maybe that’s why so many attempts to ‘relate’ to others seem to be searches for reassurance. “Tell me that I’m not crazy to be feeling and thinking this.”

And the other thing that occurs to me, reviewing the fragments of conversation I’ve heard today, and their implied stories, is that, either obviously or latently almost all of the stories that we ‘relate’ to each other have dragons in them. A “baddie”. Something a bit scary, or stressful, or worrisome, or unknown (“Dramatic tension and conflict is essential to a good story”). Or something longed for. Or something misunderstood. Or something unresolved (“How’s it going to end?”) .

Even though, as we all know, there is no such thing as a dragon.

Posted in Creative Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Month-End Reflections | 3 Comments

Come See How We Live Here

NYC-Dublin portal; photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters via CBC

OK, so this is another of Dave’s wild and crazy ideas. This one is especially annoying because I have neither the expertise/resources to bring it to fruition, nor the social skills to make it happen. And I’m not terribly optimistic it could even accomplish its objective. But I think it might be a good idea, if the several million potential obstacles and risks could be resolved.

You may have seen one or another of the art “installations” called portals either live on online. Perhaps inspired by the Stargate sci-fi series portals, the idea is that two cities a long way apart agree to create a large, hi-res, live 24/7 video cam image of some public location in the other city, so that visitors to either portal can see (and perhaps talk with) people on the other side of the world in real time. Its purpose really is just to demolish myths about how people in other countries live.

So the one pictured above is in NYC and is a portal to Dublin, Ireland, created by the Lithuanian artist Benediktas Gylys. He has another one connecting Vilnius, Lithuania with Lublin, Poland. The portals have no audio, so at this point you can’t talk with people on the ‘other side’. Still, it’s been popular. And the NYC/Dublin portal has already been abused — “rude behaviours” of offensive signs, images and displays caused it to be temporarily shut, and it now blurs images of anyone getting “too close” to the portal camera.

Benediktas says the purpose of the portals is to show people that we’re all the same.

I think this is a worthy goal. When I’ve spoken to people over the years to get a sense of how they think people in very different cultures live, I’ve been shocked by their responses. Some believe, for example, that people in most of Africa live in huts in the jungle, and that most people in Afghanistan similarly live in small desert dwellings under the watchful eye of armed militias. More alarming, many seem to believe that the majority of the world’s people are dreadfully unhappy, miserable, struggling, and enormously envious and covetous of the western way of life.

As I wrote in one of my earlier posts:

There are lots of YouTube videos by people talking about and showing us their home towns and how they live. Like this one showing life in Tehran, Iran, and Elina Bakunova’s videos about her home country Russia, and the day-in-the-life videos by Daniel Dumbrill taken across China. These posts are neither sponsored by state propaganda agencies, nor by anti-government hate-mongers seeking a pretext for war. The picture they paint is a balanced one, of lives that have the same ordinary modern ups and downs we pretty much all deal with. Their lives are so much like ours in so many ways. Why do we keep forgetting that?

Of course, such videos have their problems too. They can be staged. We can’t know if they’re showing us an accurate story. Conditions in many countries vary widely from area to area (and between classes), so what we’re seeing may not be representative of what life is like for others in the country. And they’re one-way — we can’t talk with the people portrayed and ask them questions.

Still, with most people in the west supporting the Professional Managerial Caste’s reckless war-mongering against Russia and China, anything that might convince the majority that there is absolutely no need to fight “forever wars” would be useful to counter the endless propaganda. This is particularly a concern in the US, where only about 20% of citizens even have passports (it’s 80% or more in most countries, and their citizens are much more likely to have visited at least one “non-western” country).

But we do have a technology that would allow us to create portals between just about any two locations, much less expensively and with potentially fewer risks and restrictions than the artists’ installations. It’s called Zoom.

So that’s my idea: Create a large number of portals using Zoom that follow these criteria:

  • No scripting or pre-recorded materials, since anything written and edited in advance would be more susceptible of being staged or otherwise propagandized. These would instead be live, real-time ‘travelogue’-type ‘visits’ to the everyday world of those on the ‘other side’ of the portal.
  • Common framework for comparability and to avoid ‘one-upmanship’. Say, three hours total length, of which the first two hours is a live capture of something ordinary in the lives of those on the ‘other side’ of the portal — a shopping trip, a visit to the park or the city, a meal at home — with a casual description of what we’re seeing and thoughts on some common issues like what the greatest challenges and greatest joys in people’s everyday lives are. And the third hour (either at the end or interspersed) would be interactive Q&A between the viewers and those on the ‘other side’.
  • Curated by an independent body to ensure the productions under the curated ‘brand’ are impartial and authentic — neither propagandizing for or against any country’s government. In fact, they’d be best if they avoided political commentary entirely, and just showed (rather than told) viewers what everyday life there is like.

Yes, I know there are a lot of problems with this idea. Lots of opportunities and incentives for abuse, for misappropriation, and for misrepresentation. And maybe the problems and risks are so great that it’s not a good idea at all — maybe the abuses would inevitably enshittify the entire idea before it could even get off the ground, actually increasing rather than decreasing our misunderstandings about how others live and how they feel about other countries and cultures.

I look at the possibilities here, and at the dangers, and it fills me with a kind of despair. We could be using new technologies to increase mutual understanding, appreciation and knowledge about other cultures. But almost every new technology of the internet age has instead been misappropriated to spread deliberate falsehoods, hate, fear, and conspiracy theories by those with a vested interest in maximizing conflict, distrust and misunderstanding and minimizing any possibility of global peace.

But I had to write about it anyway. Maybe it’s just a marvellous but unachievable possibility. You know, like the internet originally was.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

What Just Apparently Happened

The ‘model of reality’ referred to in this article is shown in blue on the diagram above.

So ‘I’ apparently ‘wake up’. A conditioned series of biological responses increases the blood flow to certain parts of this body and brain, and increase cortisol production. There is a whole series of ‘preparatory’ chemical changes in the body that precede awakening.

Like a lot of people my age, I woke up several times the previous night. A part of the body (the Reticular Activating System or RAS) at the top of the spinal column flicked a chemical switch each time, alerting the body of the need to arise and visit the bathroom. The RAS also plays an essential role in morning awakening, going around flicking a number of chemical switches in sequence.

It’s fascinating that there is extremely little research on the subject of awakening, and in what little there is, there is seemingly no definition of ‘consciousness’ — it seems to be taken as some kind of magic state that needs no definition or scientific explanation.

I lie in bed supposedly ‘deciding’ whether or not to get up now, but ‘I’ am not making that decision. In fact, it seems that the complete reconstruction of ‘me’ is part of the process of awakening. That reconstruction is an involved set of chemical reactions connected to memory and other neurological ‘circuits’ in the brain.

So apparently this body’s conditioning is now compelling the body to get out of bed and to do certain things — put on the kettle, make the bed, check for any urgent texts or emails, and make another visit to the bathroom. Even the email check is not ‘my’ decision. It’s autonomic conditioning, or what, because we have no idea what is actually entailed, we fuzzily describe as ‘habit’.

There are of course thoughts that accompany this sequence of the body’s conditioned behaviours. But they are not ‘my’ thoughts, and they do not affect the body’s behaviours. They simply attempt to ‘make sense’ of the behaviours after they’ve been enacted. This mental model rationalizes: Why did I bother to check email when there’s nothing urgent happening in my life that would require this? Why do I put the kettle on before versus after making the bed? ‘I’ presume that ‘I’ am having these thoughts, and that they are affecting ‘my’ decisions which are controlling ‘my’ body.

But none of this is true. Science has pretty conclusively shown that there is no ‘me’, no ‘self’, no ‘decisions’ made by the self. This is all just stuff that the brain invents — a model of the world in which it attempts to make sense of what has already been ‘decided’ by the body entirely on the basis of its biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment (which, today, include a zoom call scheduled to start an hour from now).

So the biological conditioning compels this body to don a robe (in response to the morning cold), while its cultural conditioning compels it to put on a shirt and pants (appropriate for the zoom call). A conditioning compromise is reached: The robe is worn over the shirt and pants (the patio door is open and there’s a strong breeze), and the robe will be removed and the patio door closed when the zoom call begins.

Another complex ‘decision’ of the body is to brush its teeth before making the cup of tea: Teeth need to be brushed for preventative health reasons and because of morning breath that smells and tastes bad, but the toothpaste affects the flavour of the tea. Lots of (quickly abandoned) thoughts about this, but, again, they’re all just after-thoughts, not bearing on the ‘decision’, and not ‘my’ thoughts (since there is no ‘real’ me — that’s just a model the brain has concocted to rationalize and second-guess the ‘decisions’).

But we’ve missed a step here. The above rationalizations presume there is a singular ‘conscious’ body ‘making’ these decisions in some kind of holistic way. We’re back to the mystery and magic (I’m being sarcastic) of ‘consciousness’, which doesn’t stand up to even the most rudimentary scientific assessment of the decades of psychobabble that led us to simply presume there ‘is’ consciousness, just as it has led us to presume, similarly without evidence, that there is a separate ‘self’, a ‘me’, a little homunculus inside us making egoic decisions and suffering from various mystical Freudian mental disorders (OK, I’ll stop with the assault on the pseudosciences now — I can’t help it; it’s just my conditioning ).

The toothbrushing decisions were not made by ‘the body’, some kind of cohesive ‘individual’, any more than they were made by ‘me’. So what actually happened to prompt these apparent ‘decisions’?

What happened is basically the same thing that happens when you drive your car or engage in other behaviour that we label as ‘subconscious’. Your body chemistry, your neurons, your muscles, all of the trillions of elements that comprise ‘your’ body do precisely what they have been conditioned to do, responding autonomically to signals. This is no different from what happens when your body chemistry and physiology regulates your breathing, your heart rate, and all the other functions that do not require ‘conscious’ thought.

Miraculously, none of this requires ‘our’ ‘conscious’ intervention, or centralized ‘control’. Just as well: Neuroscience studies suggest that the ‘conscious’ mind is capable of processing only about 40 ‘pieces of information’ per second, compared to the 11,000,000 pieces of information per second processed ‘subconsciously’. And that’s just information processed by the brain‘s neural networks — the body processes much more information without any interaction with the brain at all. (For example, when our foot steps on a tack, the pain signals are transmitted to neurons in the lower spinal column and ‘it’ quickly ‘instructs’ the leg to ‘instinctively’ lift the foot up to alleviate the pain. This all happens long before any signals reach the brain; in fact, if the brain had to be involved, the injury would probably be much more severe.) And all this ‘processing’ is entirely conditioned.

So it’s not ‘me’ making any ‘decisions’ about anything this body does or does not do. And it’s not this ‘body’ making the ‘decisions’ either. This ‘body’ is just a collective label we put on the complicity of trillions of creatures that, for the moment, appear to comprise it. It is the conditioned behaviour of these trillions of creatures that collectively appears to be the ‘decision’ of the body or of the self, but that appearance is a misunderstanding.

Let’s look at four examples to see how that is so:

  1. The ‘decision’ to speed up the heart rate.
  2. The ‘decision’ to make a lane change while ‘driving’ a car.
  3. The ‘decision’ to use a tool to extract something from an inaccessible location.
  4. The ‘decision’ to support, or oppose, a genocide.

Most people will have no problem with the first example being completely conditioned. Our ‘selves’ are usually not even aware of it happening, though it requires a huge number of chemical messages, coordinated activities, and monitoring activities — numbering at least in the billions.

Similarly, it is pretty clear that the second example also requires no ‘conscious’ thought. We might well make the entire trip without even realizing ‘we’ have made many lane changes in the process. Or, in some cases, we might remember one or more lane changes, especially if they were challenging, suggesting we were ‘conscious’ of making them.

The third example is something many non-human creatures have been observed doing, and which we do all the time — such as when we ‘choose’ a knife or a spoon to extract that bit of peanut butter in the bottom edge of the jar. We probably think that we are exercising our ‘conscious’ minds to make that ‘choice’, though this, too, might be an autonomic ‘decision’.

The fourth example is one where we are probably quite sure that ‘we’ have made a ‘conscious’ decision, based on evidence and on the ‘conscious’ evaluation of that evidence.

So let’s go right to that fourth example to see what is really going on, and to see whether it’s substantively different from the first example.

The brain has a lot of modelling, information storage and processing power. It contains some 100 billion neurons (nerve cells), each of which is made up of 100 trillion atoms. Each neuron is directly connected to an average of 1,000 other neurons, with which it exchanges and relays chemical and electrical signals.

The human brain has evolved to create a model — a kind of map or representation consisting of ‘information’ in neurons — of the perceived ‘real’ world. The ‘content’ of that model is biologically and culturally conditioned. Depending on what we’ve been told by others (and what we’ve ‘learned’ by reading) the model is populated with ‘information’. It is also populated (probably uniquely in humans) with assessments and judgements about the ‘meaning’ of that information. These, too, are strictly the result of biological and cultural conditioning. So if a human body witnesses someone hurting another, the assessment will often be that that behaviour is ‘wrong’, and that the observer ‘should’ intervene. So what’s happening here?

The model is ‘telling’ the body to do something. What does the body do? It (or more precisely all the creatures that comprise it) does exactly what it’s been conditioned to do. It will intervene, or not, regardless of what its model tells it it ‘should’ do. The model only comes into play after the action has been taken.

In the circumstances in example four above, our conditioning will determine whether ‘we’ argue with someone about the genocide, and whether we will take action in support of or in protest of the genocide. Only then, after that action, will the model be used to assess (judge) that action (or inaction).

But surely, you might say, we ‘learn’ from the model, and that learning will inform future decisions. But no, we don’t. The process by which our beliefs and worldview (as reflected in the model) are conditioned, is independent of the process by which our actions are conditioned, as shown in the chart above. Our beliefs do not ‘inform’ our actions — That’s perhaps why we are sometimes ‘upset with ourselves’ for what we have done or not done compared to what we (the model) think ‘should’ have been done. Our actions ‘inform’ our beliefs and worldview, but only after-the-fact, and it’s strictly a one-way process.

So what, then, is the purpose of having this complex and energy-consuming model if it has absolutely no effect on ‘our’ behaviours (ie the apparent collective behaviours of the trillions of creatures that comprise ‘our’ bodies)? Excellent question! There would appear to be no more purpose of having and ‘maintaining’ the model than there is having an appendix (though even the appendix might, it is now thought, have some residual if inessential purpose). There is evidence that non-human creatures, and early humans, had and have no such model ‘guiding’ them, and have thrived perfectly well without it. And there are humans who assert that they have entirely ‘lost’ their sense of self and separation from everything else, and that it’s obvious the ‘self’ is illusory and completely unnecessary.

Then, if it’s useless, why did this model evolve? We can’t possibly know. Nature appears to try out mutations and new features in evolution, just to see if they make creatures more ‘fit’. So maybe the capacity to develop and maintain this ‘model’ of reality, our arrogantly-named ‘consciousness’ (which should properly be called self-consciousness ie the construction of a model of reality in the brain with the idea of a ‘self’ in it) was just tried out for no other reason than that it could be tried out — ie that there was ‘room’ in the brain for it.

So, getting back to our fourth example and how it differs from the first: What we think of as ‘our’ ‘conscious’ ‘decision’ is neither conscious nor a decision, nor is it even ‘ours’. The only thing that distinguishes what we think of as ‘our conscious decision’ from ‘decisions’ our bodies make autonomically like regulating our heartbeat, is that the parts of our brain that has constructed a model to represent reality has used that model to rationalize the supposed ‘decision’ after the fact. And even that rationalization is just the chemical processes of billions of tiny creatures sending ‘signals’ back and forth, exactly as they have been conditioned to do.

That is all that ‘consciousness’ is — the neurons in the brain reflecting on how what was apparently done ‘fits’ with the model that was constructed. ‘Our’ ‘consciousness’ has no effect on ‘our’ body’s apparent behaviour whatsoever. It just ‘accounts’ for it, ‘makes sense’ of it.

Imagine it as a frenzied accountant with a green eyeshade that grabs all the receipts and cheque stubs flying around the office and dutifully processes them into a (very incomplete) set of financial statements that purport to ‘represent’ or ‘model’ the business. The business is of course much, much more than the records in the accounting model of it, including the ‘bottom line’ judgement of how well it’s doing, but don’t dare say that to the accountant! And especially don’t tell the accountant that the business seems to be operating just fine without any accounting needed at all. (Yes, I know, the metaphor has its limits — but it’s kind of fun, especially since that’s how I made my living for many years.)

So here ‘I’ am, toothbrush in hand, staring into the mirror, not quite yet fully ‘reconstructed’ and awake. What am I looking at, exactly? And who, exactly, is doing the looking?

I was struck by Robert Sapolsky’s admission that, despite having concluded with near-certainty, based on all the available science, that we humans have no free will, he has no choice but to continue to behave and think about the world, almost all of the time, as if he did have free will. That is, after all, how he has been conditioned his whole life. He cannot do otherwise.

And this is what I think about as I look in the mirror. I know this body I see is not a coherent, individual, centrally ‘controlled’ thing, but I can’t help seeing it that way; that’s how I’ve been conditioned. And I know that there is no real ‘self’ here, inside this body somewhere, looking in the mirror; that’s just the brain’s concoction to try to make sense of the electro-chemical signals reaching it. But I’ve been conditioned to believe this self is real (it certainly feels that way, and everyone around me will readily assert that, yes, each human has a real self). So I see a self, imprisoned in and responsible for this body, when I ‘know’ that is not the case.

This hand now apparently spreads the toothpaste on the toothbrush and raises the brush to this mouth. The thought arises: “Did I remember to put the kettle on?”. A laugh begins, but where does it begin?:

Fifteen facial muscles contract and stimulation of the zygomatic major muscle (the main lifting mechanism of your upper lip) occurs. Meanwhile, the respiratory system is upset by the epiglottis half-closing the larynx, so that air intake occurs irregularly, making you gasp. In extreme circumstances, the tear ducts are activated, so that while the mouth is opening and closing and the struggle for oxygen intake continues, the face becomes moist and often red (or purple). The noises that usually accompany this bizarre behavior range from sedate giggles to boisterous guffaws.

The laugh produces a spray of toothpaste on the mirror. This hand rushes to clean it off, even as I continue laughing ‘helplessly’. The entire body has taken part in this strange activity, unwitnessed by ‘other people’. Many muscles, signals and chemicals were involved in this extraordinarily complex activity.

‘I’ had nothing to do with it. But the model in this brain immediately goes to work to ‘make sense’ of it. “All kinds of animals laugh, according to science”, I read, on my phone. But apparently only humans laugh at themselves. (And, no, the mirror doesn’t count.) Now there’s even more laughter. Who’s laughing now?

‘I’ look back into the mirror, and wonder: What just apparently happened? And I know, somehow, that ‘I’ will never know.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

How Might We Undermine the PMC?

Fourteen years ago, I wrote a very long article that became the lion’s share of Chapter Two of Keith Farnish’s book Underminers. My article was about the Tools of Disconnection — the cultural mechanisms by which we became disconnected from each other and the more-than-human world, and hence willing and able to endure civilization and all the atrocities that it has perpetrated. The image from the article is reproduced above.

I think the article still holds up, though if I were to rewrite it today it would be a lot less strident and blame-y. We have conditioned each other, the only way we could have, and with the best of intentions, to live in a way that no wild creature would ever tolerate. In so doing, we have created, with civilization, a pressure cooker culture that, tragically, seems to bring out the worst in us.

The tools of our disconnection — our education system, the media, propaganda, marketing, political indoctrination, and just our well-intended conditioning of each other from childhood and throughout our lives (“If you want to succeed in this world, you have to do this“) — have, I would assert, led to behaviours that have made us physically unhealthy, chronically frightened, angry, distrustful, dissatisfied, and traumatized, so that we have been cowed into accepting a culture that has, in just a few millennia, horrifically overpopulated and desolated the planet.

The “management” of this utterly unsustainable culture, which is now rapidly falling apart, has required the evolution of a caste system, much like the horrific system that arises in groups of rats in similar conditions of ghastly overcrowding and scarcity. The top caste has been labeled (by Barbara Ehrenreich in the 1970s) the Professional Managerial Caste, or PMC.

The rest of us, across the political spectrum, comprise what has come to be described as the precariat, a neologism from proletariat + precarious, meaning a class of people who constantly feel vulnerable and frightened. They are also sometimes referred to as the preterite, an obscure word revitalized by Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, which means those who have been passed over.

As Aurélien has described it, the PMC further consists of two parts: The first is what Aurélien calls the “Inner Party” which is the small group of white-collar professionals, mostly from rich families with inherited wealth and power, that controls most western political parties, the administrations that actually run government, the media, the military, the major universities, most major science and arts institutions, religious groups, NGO institutions, consultancies and “think-tanks”, the corporations that control industry and finance through their oligopolies, and their parasitic law firms.

A much larger part of the PMC is what Aurélien calls the “Outer Party”, which consists of those who imagine themselves to be, or aspire to be, part of the “Inner Party”, but who have never been invited, or because of behaviour unbecoming (like Noam Chomsky) have been “uninvited” from the inner circle. The process of invitation is informal, but you know if you’re in it by what you subsequently get invited to (exclusive events, op-eds in publications, cushy revolving-door political and corporate executive positions). If you don’t know whether you’re in it, you’re not in it.

As I and others have written before, the PMC is not a tightly-knit, organized elite. They are as confused, and sometimes as much in internal disagreement, as the rest of us. But they do collectively control most of the levers of power, such as they are these days — political, financial, economic, social, media, education, technology. So it doesn’t matter much (at least to the politicians) who wins western elections. The losers will dash through the revolving door to take on top corporate and “advisory” roles, and the winners will temporarily relinquish any private sector roles they might have to become the new voices of the PMC in government. Whichever party wins, while the faces will be different and more or less diverse, and the rhetoric will be different, attuned to keep the lower castes fighting among themselves to be “represented” in government, the policies will be substantial identical.

Those policies underlie an absolute and unshakeable belief by the PMC that they are destined to progressively take over management of the entire world’s political and economic systems, including those of any tiresome countries that toy with socialist ideas, and to rule forever in a way they believe is best for everyone (though given that there is never enough to go around, and there is less and less each year to spread among more and more people, that “best” is increasingly not very good for most of the precariat). It’s kind of the modern manifestation of the Divine Right of Kings: The lower castes would never know what to do with power, whereas the PMC is used to being in power and has (they think) the necessary skills.

Again, the PMC is not a cohesive group, and they have their disagreements. But what they do agree on is that power must remain with them and those who share their ideology. In many countries in the west now, you have two parties which regularly exchange power in a kind of formal pageant held each four years to see who gets to reign for the next term. I call them the Tweedles — the indistinguishable Tweedledum and Tweedledee from Alice in Wonderland. Both parties are controlled by the PMC both in their political and administrative structures.

So today we have the Tweedledum parties in each country blathering about how mistreated, ignored working (white, male) conservatives are suffering from an out-of-touch, “woke” ivory tower “socialist” elite which runs an oversized government beholden to Wall Street and which never listens to anyone else. And we have the Tweedledee parties in each country blathering about how something needs to be done about climate change, inequality, and various social injustices, and how the Tweedledum party is making everything worse in all these areas.

In almost every western country, these parties have alternated in power for the past 50 years, and the actual policies and actions pursued by them have been substantially indistinguishable. Each party bitterly attacks the other for its positions and for whatever raw meat has been thrown to the lower castes by the other party to keep the lower castes at each other’s throats, instead of confronting the PMC for their grossly incompetent mismanagement under both Tweedle regimes.

Meanwhile, the wars of Empire against “hostile” countries continue and grow endlessly in scale and danger, the lowering of tax rates for the top castes and PMC continues relentlessly, and the dismantling and privatization of government services continues, no matter which party is in power. The PMC is single-minded in their determination to take over the governance of the rest of the world so that they can impose their ideological fake western “democratic” political system on everyone, and not have to face bothersome opposition to the Empire’s mismanagement of our (now-crumbling) global political and economic systems.

You need a lot of money and endless power, after all, to properly manage the ignorant and unappreciative lower castes who are never satisfied with their lot, and who foolishly want more government services and fewer wars, which wouldn’t do at all for the plans of the PMC and the Empire. The PMC doesn’t want to serve the lower castes, it wants to rule them.

One of the tragedies is that the members of the “inner” circle of the PMC (I’ve known quite a few of them, and was more relieved than offended not to be invited “in”) really, sincerely believe that the world would be better off under their “management”. They live in a bubble — rarely encountering or hearing anything from the precariat, only what is reinforced by other PMC members in the circle. They are, mostly, colossally incompetent, underskilled and inexperienced rather than deliberately malicious, and are told within their bubble and by sycophant wannabes that they’re brilliant, so they basically have no idea how badly they’re fucking up.

The problem is, everything is falling apart. The plan, since 1945 at least, has been to centralize and consolidate political, financial and economic power under a single western-controlled Empire, which, with all opposition vanquished, would be administered with precision, skill and a modest degree of equity on behalf of everyone. It’s the famous, or notorious, One World ideology, pursued in various forms by empires since long before Roman times. The only alternative today, we’re told, is chaos (Blinken’s word).

But now, the globalized economy (and economic and political globalization, under Empire management, is an essential part of the plan) is horrifically overextended, drowning in debt, increasingly dealing with scarce resources, and teetering on collapse. Countries not yet captured by the Empire are not only resisting, they are increasingly rejecting the unipolar Empire, and insisting that they be allowed to govern themselves without the support and guidance of the PMC. And, oh yes, almost forgot, we are in the midst of a runaway ecological collapse of a kind not seen since before humans appeared on the planet, and climate change is actually not even the most critical aspect of it.

What is an Empire manager to do?

Well, the key is to keep the precariat scared, distracted, and fighting among ourselves, using the Tools of Disconnection in the chart above. The “deplorables” on the “right”, and the “dissenters causing violence and chaos” on the “left” (Biden’s words, last week — there’s that word “chaos” again), must be kept at each other’s throats, using issues (like abortion, racism and diversity) that the PMC doesn’t care about, since they don’t affect their Empire plans. And they want us to be very afraid of either one (but not both) of the Tweedle parties, and of every country that is not under the domination of the Empire.

Cory Doctorow says it’s time precaritize the PMC to make them feel as vulnerable and frightened as they have made us. He describes the absolute disdain the PMC feels and shows towards everyone else (including, increasing, those in the PMC “outer” circle.

They precaritize us, he says, by driving up costs for essential goods, driving up unemployment rates, and eliminating defined-benefit pensions and other worker benefits and protections, because otherwise, they feel, the precariat will all be just too lazy to work. And in the workplace, mass layoffs terrify those not laid off, forcing them to work even harder and keep looking over their shoulder. They make sure people have to have two or more jobs each just to pay the rent. They hike prices at twice the rate of cost inflation to keep workers scared. They sue customers and employees who dare challenge their abusive behaviour. They add junk fees to everything, because they can. They make employees sign non-compete, non-disclosure, and training repayment (TRAP) agreements to keep them in thrall. They push them to compete viciously against each other for a handful of bonuses and promotions. They buy up and shut down their competitors. They drive costs of everything so high that the average net worth of the precariat is less than zero, so workers are terrified of not getting their next paycheque. And they buy back shares with corporate profits, rather than using those profits to pay their staff a decent wage and benefits.

Cory says we have to make them as scared of us as we are of them. But there his article ends — he doesn’t tell us how to do so. Is it even possible? After all, they have all the power, even though they’re disorganized and constantly infighting. They have the wealth. They own the media. They restrict third parties from running for office, and use money, media and ruthless smear campaigns to discredit and ruin anyone who opposes them. And they close ranks and send in the attack lawyers when they’re challenged.

We have become economic slaves in an unregulated system of capitalism that leaves us, like feudal serfs, as wage slaves, with no leverage to ask for a fairer share of the wealth that our work (and the natural wealth stolen from other countries at such horrific cost) generates. And we are political slaves to a ‘fixed’ Tweedle system that offers us no choice except which ‘brand’ of war and ecological collapse we prefer, and which type of oppression of dissent we prefer.

Tim Morgan describes what economic collapse is going to look like over the next decade, and it’s a grim scenario. And he suggests the PMC knows what’s coming, and are securing their own situations in preparation, and leaving the rest of us, the precariat, in the dark, and passed over. When the alphas know there is not enough to go around, the game of hoard and distract (and what Tim calls pretend and extend) goes into high gear. And the Tools of Disconnection are ramped up in service of this.

Of course, it would be nice if the precariat could precaritize the PMC. But it’s not going to happen. Alpha rats hoarding in the overcrowded cage are not afraid of the lower caste rats cowering in the corners. And the possibility of the entire precariat working together to overthrow the PMC, end the wars and redistribute the PMC’s obscene wealth are just pipe-dreams. Most of the large outer circle of the PMC aspire to being admitted to the inner circle, not to overthrowing it. We have, most of us, been conditioned to be ashamed rather than angry about our economic struggles and precarity. We don’t even have effective labour unions anymore. The “conservative” and “progressive” factions of the precariat have been conditioned for decades to loathe and distrust each other. And, as Aurélien has explained, dreams of revolution are futile when there is no organized, established group in position to quickly fill any power vacuum. So, no, we’re not going to overthrow or even precaritize the PMC, much as some of us might like to.

But going back to Keith Farnish’s book, would it at least be possible to undermine them? Keith defines the term as follows:

The simple definition is as good as any: removing that upon which something depends for its strength. If you want to make a house fall down then start removing bricks from its base; eventually, if you remove enough bricks, the house will tumble to the ground. If the house is tall or top-heavy then you will need to remove comparatively fewer bricks. If the house already has weak foundations, or substandard construction, then you might not have to remove very many bricks at all. The same principle applies to anything you wish to undermine: a wall, a political party, a corporation, an entire set of principles by which a population carries out its daily life.

So how might we undermine the PMC as we head full-tilt into economic, political and ecological collapse? I think this depends on our personal situations, objectives, and risk tolerances.

In my case, my objective (or at least dream) is that we might be able to undermine the PMC’s stranglehold on power and wealth enough to (1) end the “endless wars”, and (2) radically redistribute some of the PMC’s wealth and power so the precariat has at least some more resources to use in facing the horrors of collapse. I don’t have any hopes beyond that.

For the most part, the things someone in my position might consider are as much about what to not continue doing as about what to start doing, and I think that’s a sensible, pragmatic approach. So some possibilities for me are:

  • Spoof the PMC. Often humour and satire will get more attention than anger, and there’s certainly lots to make fun of. Groups like Beautiful Trouble and pranksters like the Yes Men have shown the way. Some late-night comedy hosts who haven’t been ‘turned’ are also helping.
  • Shine a light on the PMC’s worst behaviours. Talk about them, write about them. Film them.
  • Refuse to vote for either Tweedle party. Spoil your ballot, vote for a third party, vote for “none of the above”, or do something more useful on voting day. Tell politicians you like that you’ll only support them if they run as independents.
  • Divest from, and refuse to invest in, PMC oligarchy companies or banks that invest in them.
  • Boycott PMC oligarchy companies: Refuse to buy their products, and refuse to work for them as employees, contractors or consultants.
  • Get out of debt (if you can). Buy and need less (if you can).
  • Unsubscribe from the most egregious PMC-controlled media, and, in conversations, challenge the bullshit they publish.
  • Deschool yourself and your kids.
  • Talk with members of the precariat who support the opposite Tweedle party, and stress your shared concerns and the awfulness of both Tweedles.

I’m trying to think of how we might co-produce a list of the worst offenders among the PMC (individuals and organizations) — worst offenders in terms of how ruthlessly they promulgate the Tools of Disconnection in the chart at the top of this post. Along with the list of worst environmental offenders and animal abusers, this might be very helpful in informally organizing a boycott of and divestiture from these offenders.

It might not take that much. The edifice is already cracking and crumbling in places. We’re not going to prevent collapse. But we might at least have a more equitable distribution of wealth going into it, and perhaps, if we can starve the war machine and redistribute the trillions it wastes every year pursuing the PMC’s ideological fantasies, we might at least fare a bit better in facing it.

We couldn’t do much worse than what the bumbling PMC has already done.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works | 7 Comments

Links of the Month: May 2024

Public Service Announcement: If reading my links of the month is unbearably depressing for you, just skip down to the very bottom of this post and at least read Lyz Lenz’s little story on Mothering. Everything else here will probably be the same next month, anyway.

cartoon by Michael Leunig

No, I’m not making fun of protesters. Given the ever-increasing risks that protesters face everywhere in the west, protesters, and especially young ones, are seemingly the only ones brave and sane enough to challenge the increasing repression by our so-called “liberal”, “democratic” and “freedom-loving” governments.

What I take Michael Leunig’s cartoon to be referring to is that it seems to be in the nature of our species that people with power will always move to suppress dissent. Or as has often been observed, no one gives up power voluntarily. As collapse worsens, the ruling caste will either fight with every means at their disposal to hold onto their power, and try to commandeer all the lifeboats for themselves, or they will have power wrenched from them.

At another level, though, I think this cartoon points to the futility of us getting angry at our essential human nature. The atrocities, destruction, oppression and desolation of our planet are all the result of our individual and collective conditioned (and traumatized) behaviour, over which we have no control. We can and will of course be justifiably outraged at this behaviour and its ghastly consequences, but beyond it being outrageous, it is essentially just tragic.

As EO Wilson famously put it “Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth”; the emergence of a species that always wants more, and is capable of endlessly producing more (until it can’t) seems an unlikely and tragic evolutionary turn.

So, thank you, protesters — please keep forcing us to face the truth, and stay safe.


chart by PNAS — look quick before they’re all gone; thanks to Jae Mather for the link

The utter madness of geoengineering: Richard Heinberg’s latest Museletter explains the horrors we could unwittingly leash upon the planet by messing with geoengineering. And he echoes a similar warning from European climate experts:

Once started, solar geoengineering cannot be stopped. Assuming that carbon emissions continued, the artificial sunshade would mask increasing amounts of extra warming. If geoengineering ceased abruptly—due to sabotage, technical, or political reasons—temperatures would shoot up rapidly. This termination shock would be catastrophic for humans and ecosystems. [“The sudden release of just one year’s worth of global warming energy”, Richard calculates, “would be the equivalent of nearly a thousand times the energy yielded by exploding the world’s entire nuclear arsenal.” So not only are we like kids playing with matches, not having the faintest idea what we’re doing, but if we stop once we’ve started, we’re basically doomed to extinguish life on earth.]

… but here come the geoengineering cheerleaders: When I was a youth, I was a huge fan of historian and environmentalist Gwynne Dyer’s writing, but now, it seems, he’s decided to go all in on geoengineering. And nukes. Yikes.

Here comes 3ºC: That’s the average expected increase by 2100 forecast by the world’s leading climate experts. More than 3/4 of them believe it will be 2.5ºC or more. They aren’t even trying to soften the blow anymore by saying “…if we don’t immediately do x“. They know we’re not going to do x. They know what this means, and they’re terrified.

The advent of lenocracy: What happens when governments, and other “players” in our broken economic system, give up the pretence of being able to do anything to avoid or even slow down economic collapse? It becomes a lenocracy, which, as John Michael Greer explains, does nothing whatsoever of value, but which, like cops and border guards in most countries, charges fees and takes bribes for not interfering in what the wealthy (and to some extent the rest of us) want to do. Everything hence becomes more difficult and more expensive, and you know ends up paying for that.

A sneak preview of the scavenger economy: The Honest Sorcerer reviews how things get done in India, which has already begun the transition from an industrial economy to the type of post-collapse scavenger economy that Anna Tsing told us was coming.

How not to build a viable food system: John Whiting warns us of the consequences of a monocrop industrial agricultural model that nutritionally starves, poisons and sickens us, and renders our entire food system fragile and unsustainable, in a presentation he made back in 2007, which is even more true today.

The pelletization of our forests: The Tyee’s Ben Parfitt explains how, especially since Fukushima, an ever-increasing proportion of our ‘forestry’ activities, including the clear-cutting of old-growth forests, is feeding the demand for wood pellets and other wood “biomass” that is simply being burned up.

A world without growth: Tim Watkins describes, in terms of what the day-to-day lives of all of us will be like, what it soon will mean to live in a world without growth. Another grim non-hypothetical preview of collapse; and it’s a long way down.

We’re already at maximum power on the warp drives, captain: Energy geologist Art Berman draws on several datasets and the work of several energy analysts to predict the trajectory of economic collapse. Thanks to Renaee Churches for the link.


meme by Damian Barr; illustration by Barbara Kelley

CLT+LEC=Affordable housing: Housing developments that combine community land trusts with limited-equity co-ops offer the twin promises of truly affordable housing and a sense of real community. Here’s how the model works, and here’s a diagram explaining the legal and operating structure. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

An alternative to the Tweedle parties: Jill Stein explains why she’s running for US president. Sadly, she’s become embroiled in a dispute with Cornel West, the only other candidate of reasonably sound mind.


Kent State University, May 4, 1970. National Guard opens live fire on mostly peaceful, unarmed demonstrators and others just passing by, murdering four and injuring nine others. The killers were found not guilty. Nothing, other than the new paramilitary riot gear, has changed in 54 years. Image from the Kent State University Library. 

The Usual Empire Malfeasance: Corpocracy, Imperialism, Fascism, Propaganda, Misinformation, Disinformation and Censorship: Short takes (thanks to John Whiting for many of these links):

Wendell Berry on the “urban elite’s” misunderstanding of rural America: The distinguished 89-year-old novelist, poet and environmental activist minces no words when he chastises the NY Review of Books for its ignorant and condescending dismissal of the grievances of rural America. Apparently the NYRB doesn’t like to be taken to task — they declined to publish his letter to the editor. He wrote a similar, and even harsher, critique of Paul Krugman’s equally ignorant and condescending attack on rural Americans. I suspect it was received with similar hostility. What Wendell writes is important, but few of us (and the urban/rural mutual misunderstanding and antagonism is not unique to the US) are likely to listen. One point he makes is: If you don’t take the time to visit and pay attention to other cultures, including those in your own country, you will never understand or appreciate them, and that ignorance can quickly turn to mutual distrust. (Thanks to Paul Heft for these links.)


cartoon by Everett Glenn in the New Yorker; add your own caption

The fascinating way fruit flies fly: A fascinating video explaining their flight agility bears witness to the astonishing complexity of even nature’s “simplest” species.

A feminist review of The Idea of You: Lyz Lenz at her brightest and funniest, reviewing the new romance flick.

The enshittification of everything AI touches: Cory Doctorow explains all the ways AI can be, and is being, used to enshittify every corner of the internet, from your search engine results, news sites, product “reviews”, social media, and even sites licensed under Creative Commons licences. As has often been said, for every promising new technology there will be ten assholes ready to exploit it for profit and the immiseration of others.


page from Lewis Hyde’s A Primer for Forgetting

From Caitlin Johnstone, on the American voter’s “choice”:

Remember, all this fascism would feel way more fascismy under Trump… You don’t have to like what’s happening to your country. You don’t even have to pay attention to it. All you have to do is make sure you keep telling everyone to shut up and stop criticizing the president and to tick that little box next to Biden’s name in November. Because it’s just a tough fact that in order to defeat Orange Mussolini, we’re going to have to get comfortable with fascism.

and on a similar note, from Indrajit Samarajiva, on the American voter’s “choice”:

There’s no need to wait for Trump to bring in fascism, it’s alive and kicking students in the teeth already. In many places (like NY and California), it’s happening under a Democratic President, governor, and mayor. America’s two parties are just left and right boot, stamping on a human face forever.

From Lyz Lenz, on Mothering:

I was going to write a small essay about how I bought a couch and economic fear and insecurity. But my 13 yo came into the office, saw me typing, and said, “No one cares about you buying a couch, mom!” I will still write about the couch and money. But for today, I want to write about mothering.

This same kid had a bunch of friends over on Saturday. And they are such women and also such children. Eating sushi, jumping on the trampoline. I’ve known my daughter’s friends since they were in kindergarten. I am not friends with their parents. But we are all familiar strangers in each other’s lives, pulled together by the gravitational force of our children.

After the girls left and my daughter and I were snuggling in bed she began to tell me that she and her friends have a list of which parents houses are good for which things.

One kid’s house is good for snacks. One house is good for being chill. Another house is the fancy house. I was furious my house wasn’t any of those houses. But I listened, finally asking, “Okay, what is my house good for?”

And my daughter said, “Oh, your house is the safe house. It’s the house we all know we can go to if anything goes bad.” She told me that her friends know I am accepting. And that throughout the years of playdates, birthday parties, and field trips they’ve learned this house I’ve built is the home where they can go to be themselves.

After my daughter went to bed, I sat on my sofa, the one she thinks no one cares about, and cried.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 8 Comments

Happiness is Just Chemistry, and Its Absence

(like everything on my blog, my graphics are covered by Creative Commons licence)

What is it about us that we never seem to be happy, at least for long? What does it even mean to be happy?

There have been endless studies suggesting that, a year after winning a major lottery, people are no happier than they were before. And that a year after losing a limb, those who suffered that tragedy are just as happy, on average, as the lottery winners.

Robert Sapolsky has explained how our body chemistry drives us to always want more — to never really be happy with what we have. That’s probably part of it. But another part of it, I think, is that our human brains’ constant ruminations — second-guessing, worrying, regretting etc, leave us in a stage of constant low-level anxiety, never content with the present, and obsessed with the past and the future.

This is all, of course, just my theory, just my amateur opinion. But my conditioning is to try to make sense of everything, and to use this blog to help me do so, so here we go.

Based on years of living with, observing, and reading about, non-human creatures, my sense is that, unless they have been abused or constrained under situations of chronic stress, they live most of their lives in a state of what I call alert equanimity (box 1 in the chart above). These are, I am guessing, times when their feelings of natural contentment are not being disrupted by stressful situations and the chemical responses of their bodies to those situations. Those stressful situations can be either pleasant, chemically invoking feelings of joy, exhilaration, and excitement (eg a dog sniffing the trees and meeting other dogs on a walk), as shown in box 2 in the chart above, or they can be painful and unpleasant, chemically invoking feelings of fear, rage, anger and sorrow (eg the dog being hurt, trapped, or meeting snarling dogs on a walk), as shown in box 3 in the chart above.

This I think (which Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s book on behavioural theory The Secret History of Kindness would seem to support) is the emotional range of wild creatures, other than those unnaturally exposed to constant and chronic stresses. I would guess that the feelings in boxes 2 and 3 are entirely the result of their bodies’ biologically and culturally conditioned chemical responses to various types of situations and stimuli. I also suspect that they feel these emotions “full on” (ie more powerfully than humans), without the veil of human judgement and sense-making dampening them. And there seems to be evidence that, once the source or situation or stimulus that provoked the chemical reaction and resultant emotional response has passed, wild creatures quickly return to their ‘natural’ state of alert equanimity.

I have no idea whether that state of equanimity, which I have observed in many creatures over the years and which seems to be a state of contentment, relaxation and acceptance, but also of quiet alertness and attentiveness, one that I can’t imagine any human ever experiencing — is likewise chemically induced, or whether rather it is the blessed and precious absence of chemicals driving us to feel, and do, one thing or another. I wonder in fact if this is actually the state of bliss, or zen, or ‘present awareness’, or simple ‘beingness’, that many meditators and spiritual ‘teachers’ are striving to achieve, sustain and train others to attain.

Is this state of equanimity “happiness”? In moments of quiet, and freedom from stress and outside worries and preoccupations, I have experienced something close to this as a form of happiness quite different from the state of happiness that comes from being in love, or making an exciting discovery, or doing anything actively pleasurable.

But it’s still clearly happiness. If you’re a wild creature, and you spend most of your life in a state of equanimity (box 1), a modest amount of it in a state of joy and active pleasure, and a few unpleasant but fleeting moments in a state of fear, rage, anger and/or sorrow, that sounds to me like a pretty great life. If the trillions of creatures that make up a wild animal’s body are conditioned to maximize pleasure and minimize pain as their ‘prime directive’, this would suggest that they’re doing a bang-up job. What better way could there be to ensure the survival and propagation of species than to make most of their lives happy?

No wonder, then, that humans so often seem to have this intuitive sense that there’s something important ‘missing’ or ‘lost’ in their lives, that life shouldn’t have to be this hard, and that there should be a lot more happiness in the world than there is. Are we humans missing out on the extraordinary happiness that wild creatures feel most of their lives?

The bottom part of the chart above tries to capture the gamut of human emotions, and how, I would theorize, we live in an utterly different emotional ‘world’ from that of the planet’s wild creatures, one largely of our own creation and imagination, and one that neither equips us better to live functionally, nor makes us happier — in fact it results in us being much less happy, and constantly dissatisfied with our lives.

While most wild creatures live in the emotional states in green in the chart above (boxes 1-3), it seems to me humans live in a different set of emotional states shown in blue in the chart (boxes 2-5). We share the (chemically conditioned and induced) states of joy, excitement, fear, anger, rage and sorrow with wild creatures, but our fear, anger, rage and sorrow often festers into chronic anxiety, hatred, indignation, judgement, blame, shame, envy, grief, and other unhealthy and traumatizing emotions (box 4) that arise from our brains’ furious propensity for ‘making sense’ and ‘making meaning’ of everything that happens, and making everything personal, when everything that happens is just conditioned behaviour.

And this is made worse by our high-stress lives, due to our now-global economic and social systems that force us to live and work in situations of endless, artificially-created precarity, conflict, competition, confinement, and alienation, eating and living unhealthily. So our bodies are trying to cope with chronic stressors as if they were short-term, acute stressors, and that is both killing us and making us crazy, reinforcing the cycle of unhealthy and traumatizing box 4 emotions.

We feel these unhealthy emotions, then we think about and rationalize them, and then those thoughts perpetuate the emotions, which drive us to think more about them, and so on, in an endless, inescapable loop.

The best we can hope for, it seems, is to get some respite, in moments when there is relatively little stress, in a state I call alert (low-level) anxiety (box 5), in which we can mostly, but not entirely, quieten our minds and our unhealthy emotional reactivity, enough to just pay attention to the immanence of everything. Soon enough, though, some thought, event, or trigger, will yank us back into that loop of unhealthy box 4 emotions.

The box 5 state of alert anxiety is not equanimity, and it is not exactly happiness, but it is at least contentment, while it lasts. We have no choice but to settle for that, and the brief moments of joy and excitement we can grab while we can.

In fact, I would argue, we have no choice in any of this. It is not our ‘fault’ (individually or collectively) that the human brain evolved to drag us into the box 4 thought/feeling loops that prevent us, most of our lives, from being really happy, except for fleeting moments. It is not our ‘fault’ (individually or collectively) that, in trying to make things better for all humans, we created systems that keep us in a state of chronic stress, amplifying and constantly re-triggering these happiness-killing emotions. This is just how our species inevitably evolved.

In all creatures, happiness is just chemistry, or (in the case of true equanimity) an absence of chemistry. The trillions of tiny creatures that make us, and everything else, up, are working furiously to condition us to do what evolutionarily has worked. They make us feel, and think, what we then have no alternative but to feel, and think. Sadly, for humans, relatively few of those feelings are feelings that could be called happiness. Try as we might, that isn’t something we can ‘fix’.

That’s my theory, anyway, for what it’s worth. Hope you’re happy now!

Posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

Why Unregulated Capitalism Always Leads to Enshittification

(right click to open chart in a new tab, or click here, to view full-size; like everything on my blog, my graphics are covered by Creative Commons licence)

Lots of ideas work well in theory, but many of them don’t work out so well in practice, especially when the idea becomes an ideology, pursued dogmatically without oversight to correct for malfunctions and abuses.

The idea of investment capital was one such idea, allowing, for the first time, a group of people to pool their money to enable major projects like factories or resource development or large-scale trade that no individual (other than rich monarchs) could finance.

While pooling of capital was a good idea, some people decided to turn the idea into an ideology, called capitalism, and this ideology, in its most extreme, unregulated form, now underlies many of the problems we face today. It has, in short, become utterly dysfunctional, leading to obscene disparities in wealth and income, catastrophic destruction of our environment and many people’s lives, monstrous amounts of waste of all kinds, and a globalized economy teetering on the edge of complete collapse.

Cory Doctorow has dubbed the process by which initial good ideas, without constant attention and oversight, can devolve into dysfunction, as enshittification. (His article is well worth reading in its entirety.) He explains how this has inevitably happened with Amazon, with Facebook, with Twitter, and other “platforms”, and most recently with TikTok and Google Search:

Here is how platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves [ie the managers and shareholders]. Then, they die.

I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two-sided market,” where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

I’ve explained this process before in different words: In any unregulated capitalistic enterprise, there are incentives for eliminating competitors, then eliminating restrictive regulations, then defeating and exploiting foreign rivals and laws, then confusing (ie lying to) and squeezing your customers and employees, and finally dismantling and privatizing government activities that might compete with you.

This is all done in the pursuit of endlessly higher profits. Ideological capitalists are completely unapologetic about doing this, claiming their “responsibility” is to maximize profits for their shareholders, and the massive damage that pursuit does to humans, economies, and the environment — so-called “externalities” — is not their problem.

Stupidly, we have allowed this situation to go on for centuries, constantly reducing restrictions and encouraging more of this destructive behaviour. The threadbare argument, of course, is that we are all “shareholders” in capitalist enterprises (as employees, investors, pensioners etc) so this is all in “our” collective benefit. It’s absurd, but that’s where ideology takes you.

There are many opportunities to intervene and prevent this destructiveness in such a way that capitalist enterprises could be beneficial instead of ruinous — anti-combines (anti-oligopoly) laws, usury laws, strong labour and employee benefits laws, fees and taxes to charge corporations for external costs they are responsible for, reckless lending laws, independent public rate-setting organizations, duties to discourage both offshoring and undue protectionism, laws against deceptive hiring and unethical firing processes, prohibition of non-disclosure and non-compete agreements, laws against deceptive advertising and corporate disinformation, laws against lobbying and influence-peddling, laws against domestic and foreign bribery and similar corrupt practices, and so on, and, when all else fails, wage and price controls.

We used to have a lot of these, before the onset of the Reagan/Thatcher era when unregulated capitalism became the prevailing economic ideology in the west. Now, we have almost none of these curbs on corporate excesses. The armies of lawyers hired by corporatists have had almost all such restrictions dismantled. And with regulatory agencies politicized, mismanaged, starved, and disemboweled, it’s unlikely we could get the derailed train of western capitalism back on the rails even if those in power wanted to. Like everything else that gets too big and becomes dysfunctional, it will simply collapse, and we’ll have to pick up the pieces and create new, functional (probably hyperlocal) economies from scratch.

It is ironic that one of the reasons we were so fascinated by the internet when it first emerged, was the possibility of disintermediation. If you wanted to buy something online, you could research and go right to the source, skipping the expensive wholesalers, retailers, advertising/PR media, and other “middlemen”. You could get exactly what you wanted custom made for you.

It was a nice dream. But what has emerged is a whole new suite of intermediaries, such as the “platform” social media, who maximize their profits by bullying both their suppliers and their customers (ie the corporations selling the product, not you — you and your data are merely the product they are selling to their real customers, the corporations).

As Cory explains, the supplier of the real product you want to buy gets squeezed more and more for charges and markups by the social media company. And you, the supposed customer (silly you!) gets shown not what you’re looking for, but what the suppliers willing to pay the social media company for ads want you to see.

And now, as enshittification gets worse, you’re also being (mis-)directed to floods of fake sites, many of them entirely run by AI to push certain products, telling you what product you should actually buy, and they too are taking an intermediary rake-off for pushing you to that product’s website, or pushing you to the social media site that features that product who will take a rake-off from them, too.

So you get to see, and buy, what they want you to see, and buy, not the marvellous little small-business product perfect for what you are looking for, because that innovative small business is not wealthy enough to pay the social media gatekeepers to get your attention. And guess who has to pay for all the rake-offs added to the cost of the suboptimal product up and down the line, that you do buy?

Similar forms of enshittification have now dysfunctionally entangled almost every industry, from junk fees to price-fixing to shoddy, wildly overpriced products, to non-existent, opaque, and even hostile “customer service”. Rampant unregulated capitalism may be OK for “shareholders”, until the opportunities to maximize profits are maxed out (at which time the numbered parent company will just close it down, stiff the suppliers, employees and customers, and open up with some new enterprise).

The same thing will happen, Cory predicts, with the social media platforms — as they get more and more dysfunctional, and provide less and less value to us, the actual users, we will abandon them, and find (with difficulty) some other way to get what we need and want online, that they originally promised.

We will find ways, he says, to remain connected with, and renew connections with, the people and organizations and information we want. There are a variety of strategies, such as “end-to-end” processes and loyal user agents, that could allow us to at least “take back the internet” from its brainless capitalistic ideologues. There are some clues in economist Elinor Ostrom’s nobel-winning work explaining how the “Tragedy of the Commons” (often used as an argument for privatization of everything) is not inevitably a tragedy, with the right interventions. Governance by principles, not ideologies.

I’m not optimistic, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

It’s so bad that Lyz Lenz laments that even dating service platforms are becoming enshittified. Her argument is that one of the ways unregulated capitalism deflects attention from its utter dysfunctionality is by asserting that individuals can and should take responsibility for solutions themselves, rather than holding capitalist excesses responsible. It’s nonsense, she says:

[With all these “solutions”,] people are still selling something. A dating coach, a match maker, a viral meme account about Hinge profiles, an empowering new mindset, they’re all flesh flies, feeding off the enshittification of the apps.

We can learn to “step outside the algorithm”, she suggests. Stop using dysfunctional enshittified apps. Deal with the world in ways based on personal relationships and real-life activities, not commoditized, ‘capital-ized’ processes, systems, products and tools.

Well, maybe. When most of the world is still preoccupied with trying to use processes, systems, products and tools that are falling apart all around us, it’s hard to see one’s way straight to invent, explore, or rediscover better ways of doing things.

But soon we’re going to have to get good at it, so we might as well start now.

Cory also had some interesting things to say recently about workplace power and precarity; more about this in a post later this month.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 6 Comments

Our Curious Propensity to Ignore New Evidence

What is a “belief” anyway, and how does it get “there”?

The word belief comes from the old Germanic root that also gives us love and it originally meant something (impersonal) we care about and trust strongly. 

I would argue that beliefs are unique to the human brain, and that they are the building blocks of our worldview — the coherent sense-making lens through which we judge, filter and assess events and information to assign them meaning.

Wild creatures have no need for beliefs, judgements and abstract sense-making. Their brains were designed for feature-detection, in order to inform their instincts. If they’re conditioned by humans, they will (provided there isn’t too long a gap between the prompt and the reward or punishment) behave in a way that anticipates a reward or punishment (dopamine again), and do what has been rewarded (ie maximize pleasure) and avoid what has been punished (ie minimize pain). There is no need for a worldview or a set of beliefs. As Melissa Holbrook Pierson explained in The Secret History of Kindness :

This is the basis of my dogs’ storied love for me, their one and only. Only I know the real truth. It is not this Melissa they love. If they bark menacingly at someone who approaches, they are not doing it to ensure my safety. There is but one thought in their minds: do not harm this person, for she is my most valuable possession. My large Swiss army knife, the one with all the extra attachments…

The same law of behavior affects all creatures’ actions: we do something, it produces pleasure or it produces pain or it produces nothing, and the result determines whether we continue doing it, stop doing it, or do it differently, and these are the only options.

If wild creatures have no need for beliefs or a worldview, do humans? I have recently come to know some humans who assert it is obvious that nothing is, or can be, known, and that thoughts and beliefs may arise, but they have no consequence, they are just what Melissa calls a “retroactive narrative” to try futilely to make sense of our behaviour.

But there is no homunculus, no coherent, controlling ‘self’ responsible for our behaviour, which is simply what has been biologically and culturally conditioned, in an unimaginably complex process that we cannot possibly make rational or emotional sense of. Our beliefs and worldview and explanations for our behaviours are just the post-game show in which the pundits, not knowing anything more than anyone else, speculate on what happened or might have happened. Just meaningless blather.

So why then do our brains seemingly use up so much energy developing, reinforcing, defending, and arguing, our beliefs and our worldviews?

The answer, apparently, is that for reasons we cannot know, they simply evolved to do this as they became large enough to have the capacity to do so (ie very recently in the time-frame of life on earth). Just nature trying something out to see if it creates a ‘fitter’ species. So we formulate beliefs and worldviews and use them for our personal and collective post-game chats on what we, and what others, did, and why possibly they did so. The assumption is that from these ruminations we might ‘learn’ something that will help us survive and thrive in a similar future situation.

But we’re caught in a loop, because when we actually face that ‘future’ situation, it will be our conditioning, not our ‘learning’, that determines our behaviour. Then we will further ruminate on what we did, and whether or not we ‘learned’ from the previous ruminations, in the next post-game show. So, other than the sense of satisfaction or anxiety we get from these ruminations, our learnings do not change our behaviour. They are essentially (like most post-game shows) a useless waste of energy, but then our large brains have lots of excess capacity, and they have energy and capacity to spare. So, nature seems to be saying: Let the pundits in our brains ramble on; they’re not doing any harm, and no one’s paying attention anyway. This might turn out to be a useful evolutionary adaptation.

We will do what we will do based on our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment. Our ‘learnings’, beliefs and worldview will have nothing to do with it. So, for example: If we are walking at night and someone startles and terrifies us, and we happen to have a weapon of some kind on hand, and we use it, or we don’t use it, then those behaviours (both the lurker’s and ours) are completely the result of our conditioning. We will rationalize it on the post-game show, but our beliefs and worldview, featured on the show, will have absolutely no bearing on our behaviours. Our thoughts and beliefs don’t produce our behaviours, they reflect our behaviours.

So, now, whether or not our beliefs actually affect anything, how is it they get into our brains in the first place? If they’re just musings in the post-game show, how is it, for example, that you might construe a certain behaviour as a savage act that requires punishment and incarceration, while I could construe the same behaviour to be a valiant act of resistance and self-defence? And if we talk about it, what is the process by which we will, or will not, change our ‘minds’ (our beliefs) about the incident?

The prevailing theory seems to be that, before we have thoughts about and have formulated a ‘belief’ about some new subject, we will have an ‘open mind’ about the subject, but once we’ve formulated a belief, we tend to defend it and resist changing our minds about it, more and more as time passes, unless that belief has been ‘successfully’ challenged by very compelling new ‘evidence’. But in many cases, like lawyers looking at similar precedents, we are rarely really going to have an ‘open mind’ on any subject, because, even if the subject is new, there will be similar subjects within our overall worldview where we have already formulated a belief. So, for example, if we have formulated a belief that Russia is a threat to freedom and democracy, we will likely be predisposed to believe that China, or any other country we have no personal knowledge about, is likewise a threat, if someone suggests that it might be.

But where did that xenophobic belief come from in the first place? It came from our conditioning. This is a different kind of conditioning from the biological and cultural conditioning that determines our actual behaviours, but it is conditioning nonetheless. In the post-game show, when we are ruminating on something that happened, we will often try to sync up our beliefs and behaviours, either by adjusting our beliefs so that our behaviours ‘make more sense’, or by regretting or hoping to change our future behaviours because they seemingly are not in sync with our beliefs. But that syncing process achieves nothing, other than perhaps making us feel better (justified) or worse (disturbed) about ‘our’ behaviours or our beliefs.

In many cases, such as with our beliefs about current wars, most of us won’t have any ‘related’ behaviours, other than stating and justifying our beliefs, and perhaps arguing with someone or joining or opposing a protest movement. In those cases, it is highly unlikely that we will ever change our (or anyone else’s) mind about the issue, since any new contrary ‘evidence’ will be viewed through our existing worldview which will be resistant and skeptical about the credibility of that evidence. It will take something really major to shake that resistance and skepticism.

So let’s consider some examples of how this plays out:

I was brought up (conditioned) to believe that fluoridation of water was a useful and harmless way to ensure that people who didn’t use fluoride toothpaste would avoid tooth decay, and also as an extra layer of protection for my own teeth. My conditioning was to trust public health officials with no evident axe to grind on the subject.

I knew people who were conditioned to believe fluoridation was a government or “Communist” conspiracy to deliberately poison the water to reduce the population’s IQ, and others who were conditioned to see it merely as an unwanted infringement on their personal “freedom of choice”.

The science favouring fluoridation at the time was clear — it reduced tooth decay in towns that used it and there were no studies confirming negative effects on physical or mental health. The “other side” actually entrenched my support for fluoridation with their hysterical fear-mongering. For example, Paul Gosar, an American right-wing politician who has apparently never encountered a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, and a dentist, completely reversed his position in recent years, and now gives speeches to right-wing groups predisposed (conditioned) to distrust government on every subject, opposing fluoridation of water supplies in towns where he personally championed and oversaw the introduction of fluoridation twenty years ago. Nothing more annoying than a born-again evangelist.

Fast-forward to the present, and I see a video and article by Michael Greger, a medical doctor who believed fluoridation was safe as I did for the past fifty years, but has just changed his mind. He just follows the research, and what he has read recently has given him pause, at least when it comes to exposure to fluoride for pregnant women. I have come to trust him and his non-profit for his independence, thoroughness, and honesty (ie I have been conditioned to believe what he says), which is:

The tendency to ignore new evidence that does not conform to widespread beliefs may be impeding our response to early warnings about fluoride as a potential developmental neurotoxin. But some are just so fixed in their views on fluoridation that they won’t reassess their stance, no matter what the latest research might show… It’s worth remembering that the science surrounding the neurodevelopmental hazard of low-level lead exposure [from leaded gasoline etc] was also bitterly contested using the same kinds of arguments we see today in the fluoridation debate.

What’s going on here? He’s readily admitting to have changed his mind, and is discouraged that his professional colleagues are refusing to change theirs “in the light of new evidence”. But, just as with the “harmlessness” of smoking, and the rejection of climate change as a conspiracy theory, it’s really hard to get people to change their beliefs once they’re embedded in a worldview. Still, Michael changed his mind, and he has changed my mind. How? It’s our conditioning. We have both been conditioned to keep an open mind on things. Thanks to my conditioning, I have changed my mind on lots of things. Many other people I know are conditioned to see changing one’s mind as a sign of moral or intellectual weakness.

So, bottom line, our conditioning determines our behaviours (given the unpredictable circumstances of the moment). Our conditioning likewise determines our beliefs. But the two are often not, and need not be, in sync. After all, our beliefs just reflect our behaviours; they don’t produce them. And our capacity and predisposition to change our beliefs is also conditioned.

I’ve tried to capture this in the diagram above. Yeah, I know, I’ve been conditioned to try to sketch out visuals that reinforce my words, which is not always helpful.

Let’s look at another example: Until perhaps 20 years ago, I had no strong opinion on any of the conflicts in the Middle East. I just didn’t know enough to have a real opinion. No one I knew, or had ever known, had a strong opinion. The information sources I read expressed conflicting opinions on the causes of the conflict. So on the subject I had just one strong belief: That all sides should be working towards a lasting peace, which was (I believed) in everyone’s best interest. I had always been conditioned to believe that war is never an answer to anything.

I had also been conditioned to believe that no one should live under an oppressive regime. The information I was exposed to led (conditioned) me to believe that the Russian government was no longer oppressing its people (though the jury was out on Putin), and that China’s government still was oppressing its people (there has always been lots of propaganda out there on this subject, for a host of reasons which, at the time, I never understood). And that Israel, perhaps still understandably struggling with the horrible trauma its people had endured, was seemingly oppressing the people of Palestine. Yet I still didn’t know enough to have a strong opinion on the occupation or on the wars. I was, as I had been conditioned, keeping an ‘open mind’ on the subject.

But over the past 20 years, it became increasingly obvious, from what I read, that the people of Palestine were being horribly oppressed. I began to learn that the media I had always been conditioned to believe, were two-faced when it came to oppression. I started reading different information sources and was horrified. What I thought was mostly partisan rhetoric (the use of the terms like “apartheid” and “open-air concentration camp”) were now seen as accurate descriptions of the life of Palestinians. What were euphemistically referred to in the mainstream media as “settlements” in the occupied territories were now seen as what they were: the destruction, theft and occupation of one nation’s property by another nation.

This was not hard for me to come to believe, because I’d been conditioned to keep an open mind, and because I had no strong pre-existing beliefs to overcome.

So when the attack by Hamas occurred last October, followed by the retaliatory genocide by Israel, I saw it through a completely different, conditioned, worldview ‘lens’ than that of almost everyone I encountered. I was shocked by their reaction, and they were, in some cases, shocked by mine. I was filled with dread because I ‘knew’ that in previous conflicts Israel had exacted a >10:1 punishment on the Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab states. And I ‘knew’ from recent reading that Netanyahu was a corrupt, traumatized, and mentally unstable man, looking for an opportunity to distract attention from his many domestic criminal activities.

I did not expect an all-out genocide, but neither did I rule out the possibility. I was surprised, but not entirely surprised, that the media came out so stridently in favour of the genocide, including giving instructions to their journalists on what they could and could not say about the genocide (including “don’t call it a genocide”). I was surprised, but not entirely surprised, that the so-called “progressive” parties in all western countries unreservedly supported the genocide — that is how they had been conditioned, and at some point, somehow, my conditioning had taken a very different path.

And I was surprised, but not entirely surprised, that the people I know almost all do call it, and see it as, a genocide — one of the ugliest and worst atrocities of the past century. The people I know, after all, have conditioned each other, and have increasingly been conditioned by shared information sources that diverged from those consumed and propagated by the majority of western citizens, including the majority of “progressives”.

Last week in our apartment’s elevator I encountered a man who had clearly just returned from a Free Palestine demonstration. He was evidently a co-organizer, judging by the demonstration supplies he was carrying. He looked nervous when he saw me — understandably given the strong opinions on the subject. I reassured him that I supported his cause and thanked him for doing what I suppose I do not feel strongly enough about to do myself — It’s been 50 years, I told him, since I was part of an anti-war demonstration.

He looked at me quietly and said: “I have no choice but to be out there, every day, demonstrating for peace. I have lost 55 family members in the war, including, last week, twin baby girls.”

So there is the evidence. If I’d heard it indirectly from a televised or recorded speech, I might be able to discount it, if it were too much of a challenge to my worldview (which it isn’t). But this guy was my neighbour. He had no reason to bullshit me. I wondered, as I was left speechless as he exited the elevator, how could anyone, hearing this from a horribly distraught man two feet away, speaking directly one-on-one, not have their mind changed by this simple ‘evidence’?

A couple of days later I was speaking on the phone with someone I know who has been conditioned their whole life (by family, friends, circumstances, environment, and the media they consume) to be quite conservative and untrusting in their thinking and beliefs (at least on most subjects). We got to talking about politics, which is always precarious, but there’s enough mutual respect to do it. I mentioned the genocide in Palestine. They objected and said they supported Israel because, you know, the usual arguments about “right to self-defence” and the October “provocation” etc. I relayed the story about my exchange in my elevator. There was a long silence. There was a “wow”. And then there was a quick change in the subject.

Have I conditioned them to waver in their support for the genocide? Maybe. Probably not. Once they are safely back in the echo chamber of like-minded thinkers and reassuring propaganda, there will be a rationalization about why it still somehow makes sense to support that genocide, and to deny it is a genocide. Maybe there will be a rationalization about how the guy I met in the elevator probably made up the story. Maybe the story will just be conveniently forgotten, because it doesn’t ‘fit’ with their worldview.

A worldview is a kind of edifice. Once you undermine part of it, the whole thing can become unstable and start to fall apart, and that is understandably terrifying. How can one admit that a cornerstone of one’s beliefs was horribly, maybe even criminally, wrong? Easier to double down and retrench, as Biden has been doing, month after month, slowly destroying the party that foolishly nominated him. It’s hard to change your beliefs, and your worldview. It’s hard to admit you were wrong. You’re often left vulnerable, full of doubt, shame, or guilt, and perhaps questioning everything else you believed. Perhaps that’s why my parents were so determined to condition me to be open-minded, to challenge everything I was told and believed. They wanted me to be resilient.

Maybe the elevator guy’s story, even re-told indirectly, will change some people’s beliefs. Maybe it’s that rare bit of ‘new evidence’ that pushes someone past a tipping point they were already reluctantly nearing. It’s hard to change your beliefs, but it’s not impossible. It’s all conditioning, and one can always be ‘re-conditioned’.

That does not mean there will be any change in behaviour, though. The conditioning that determines our beliefs and the conditioning that determines our behaviour is very different, though it might sometimes ‘rhyme’.

The question then remains: Why is it apparently in our nature to be so reluctant to change our beliefs and our behaviours, at least once they are established?

I have no answer to this. This ‘natural conservatism’ apparently evolved in our species’ behaviours and beliefs, and not necessarily for any ‘reason’. Throughout the world and throughout our species’ history, xenophobia, the fierce adherence to beliefs long after their credibility is threadbare, and a reluctance to change our minds or our behaviours, seem to be ingrained in the human species. Maybe that is the downside of conditioning — it’s a slow process, hard to do and to undo.

I had thought that when the sheer obviousness of the climate crisis was shown to the world, as it has been relentlessly for 60 years now, that beliefs and behaviours would quickly change. One more thing I was wrong to believe, and reluctant to give up believing. So now it’s no longer a crisis, it’s a collapse, and still the old conditioning holds sway. No amount of new evidence, it would appear, will compel most people to change their beliefs and behaviours. Collapse is already well advanced in much of the Global South, and it’s advancing steadily. At the speed of light, even, compared to our conditioned responses to all the terrifying new evidence.

At least, that is what I have been conditioned to believe.

My capacity for compassion, for everyone, stems I think from an appreciation of how much of our behaviour, and our beliefs and worldviews, stems from conditioning. That appreciation even enables me to be compassionate towards those who are incapable of feeling or showing compassion to others. I still get angry, and fearful, and sad, and this appreciation of why things might be so fucked up the way they are is small consolation. But it does enable me to maintain my sanity.

Most of the time, anyway.

Posted in Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves, Using Weblogs and Technology | 2 Comments

An Age Which Advances Progressively Backwards

image from piqsels, CC0

What have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?
— TS Eliot, “The Rock” (1934)

You can’t help but get a terrible sense of déjà vu watching the brutal physical, political and ideological suppression of anti-war, anti-genocide protests that have exploded on American campuses. At least if, like me, you remember the feelings of terror and outrage we felt in our anti-Vietnam War protests, and our environmental protests, back nearly 60 long years ago.

If you ever needed proof that the idea of “progress” is just a western industrial capitalist myth, you can see it in the increasing oppression of all opposition to the US-led Empire all over the world — in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, the Far East, Africa and Latin America, and of course “at home” in the media-abetted censorship, government propaganda, misinformation, and ruination by fear-mongering and character assassination of anyone even potentially in power who defies the Narrative of Progress and the inevitability of everlasting global victory by the Empire over all other political options.

We have learned nothing in that 60 years. We have made no “progress” according to any definition of the word except the increasing concentration of obscene wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. We continue to make the same mistakes, over and over. We continue to deny and ignore the obvious unsustainability of our economic, political, financial and social systems and programs, and the horrific damage they have inflicted and continue to inflict on humans, the more-than-human world, and global ecosystems.

The ideologues continue to double-down on their doublespeak rhetoric, refusing to acknowledge the utter failure of both the public and private sphere to fulfil their sole and ultimate purpose: to serve the citizens of the world and make that world better for all its inhabitants. And we continue to block from public view the atrocities — in political back rooms, on the front lines of wars, in abusive private homes, on factory farms, in the streets filling with ever-more dazed and hopeless homeless people, in our brutal prisons, and in the overflowing and destitute refugee camps and concentration camps teeming with people deprived of even the basic decencies of life — that our “progress” has inflicted on the world.

What will it take? is the rhetorical question often asked about how we can end this age that “advances progressively backwards”. The answer, of course, is that we cannot end it. It is the collective conditioned behaviour of eight billion humans, inevitably headed for a rapid and ghastly collapse. There is no “soft landing” possible, unless you count landing on the broken backs of those in even more precarious situations than ours. There is no salvation waiting, and no possibility of escaping collapse in extravagant New Zealand bunkers, or on absurd spacecraft missions to Mars. We did our best, the only thing we could have done, and now we will pay the price for our excesses and our failures.

Perhaps it’s just nostalgic idealism that has me regretting that, despite all that we knew 60 years ago, and all our shouting from the rooftops about the atrocities of those, and today’s, times, we will be facing this grim future not one iota wiser or more skilled than we were all those years ago. We have learned nothing — these are the words that echo in my brain each night when I go to sleep.

It is not a feeling of dread — I look at the billions of people and trillions of non-human creatures already suffering from collapse, and the only thing I can think is “about time this horror falls apart and ends”.

It is not a feeling of shame — It’s not as if we had any choice in what we have done. And it is not even a feeling of grief — Grief is about loss, and those of us who are going to “lose” in collapse will only lose what we have gained at the enormous expense of others.

It is, perhaps, a feeling of sadness. Not a sadness that it could have been otherwise, but a sadness that it couldn’t have been otherwise. When Eliot wrote the words at the top of this post, the world was mired in an horrific Great Depression and was staring at the imminence of another World War. He saw, I would guess, the lack of “progress” in the world as a sign of human moral weakness, and perhaps he retreated, in his later years, into religion as a form of respite from that sadness.

He didn’t have the benefit of science and more recent history that might have caused him to feel a different sort of sadness: That it is not moral weakness that is the cause of our species’ downfall, but rather an evolutionary misstep that caused human creatures to be forever discontented with what we ‘have’, and always seeking to have more, seeking to find something that can fill the seeming hole, the incompleteness and the insatiable sense of insecurity, vulnerability and precarity of our self-preoccupied lives.

At least, this is the sadness that I feel. There was an inadvertent mistake in the factory that manufactured the ‘Human’ line of products, and unfortunately it’s not fixable. They will all have to be recalled and taken out of service.

It is, of course, for the best. With our ‘line’ out of commission, no longer doing the terrible damage it was, and is, doing due to its ‘unfit’ design, the rest of life on the planet will hopefully recover and flourish, given enough time. Perhaps the earlier that happens, as unpleasant as it will be for all concerned, the better. It’s sad to have to admit to such a colossal failure, especially when the product had such promise, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Happily, no other products subject to the same kind of problems are in the works.

Eliot’s poetic gesture — “empty hands and palms turned upwards” — would seem a gesture of resignation, of helplessness, or maybe an appeal to a higher power. Or maybe it is just a shrug, of acceptance.

Many years ago I suggested, rather arrogantly, the adoption of a different gesture of acknowledgement and recognition of other people who understand and accept, without blame, the inevitability of civilization’s collapse. That now strikes me as more than a bit elitist. I’d be content, I think, just to witness more and more people coming to understand and accept collapse, without blame — to be able to see everything that transpires from this context of everything inevitably falling apart, through no one’s fault.

That’s not stoicism, though, or anything approaching ‘grace’. It’s just perspective, really, with perhaps a suspension of reactivity, on the basis that, in the long run, none of it matters. It’s all just playing itself out the only way it could, and we’re just in the stands, barking helplessly. Maybe we can condition each other to bark less loudly, less aggressively, more with resigned sadness than annoyance and indignation and outrage at what cannot be helped or avoided.

I smile at myself, now, wondering if my writing might contribute, a bit, to this happening. It is impossible, it seems, for us to completely give up the idea of “progress”.

He says, barking apologetically.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

The Immanence of Everything

Tardigrade photo by Frank Fox at www.mikro-foto.de, from wikimedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

Recently I’ve been reading more of the work of Parul Sehgal, whose article laying out the dangers of stories inspired my last article on immanence, which is perhaps the best piece of writing I have ever done. Stories, she suggested, might be a distraction from (and impediment to) seeing the world as it really is.

I could obviously speculate on whether our stories are “all we are”, such that the ‘story of me’ is a ‘loud’ fiction that obscures and dumbs down our capacity to see things in all their complexity. Or that all stories, including the ‘story of me’ are lies and propaganda, describing what we want to believe happened (or is happening, or will happen), rather than what actually is happening (which can never be contained in a story). Or that immanence, the simple ‘being-ness’ of things without thoughts or stories or meaning-making about them, is what radical non-dualists are referring to when they say “All there is, is this.”

Parul’s follow-up is a critical attack on the modern prevalence of ‘trauma plots’ — novels, films and other stories (including some people’s summing up of their ‘life stories’) that attribute everything that happened to their characters to their traumatization. She ascribes this to lazy writing (and, I suppose, to the propensity of many in our bewilderingly complex world to want to hear stories that are simple and pat). Some have even described it as “trauma porn”.

That got me thinking about my recent use of this ‘cycle of trauma’ model.

Am I guilty of over-relying on this ‘simplistic’ model to explain too much modern human behaviour (the genocide in Palestine, for example)? It’s certainly possible. The more I learn about bonobos, the more I have to acknowledge that at least primates (ie not just humans) may have a natural inclination for brutal violence, and only bonobos have evolved devices to (mostly) keep this propensity in check. More about that, perhaps, in a future article.

Parul also wrote a review of another book that touches on human nature, our propensity for remembering, re-triggering and blaming others for profoundly negative (traumatizing?) events in our lives, and the potential value of forgetting these events (or our stories about them) when this is healthier for us than remembering — Lewis Hyde’s A Primer for Forgetting — which I am currently reading. Probably more to come on this subject in a future article as well.

Today, I’m thinking about what we are without our stories, and what the world simply, ‘really’ is, in the absence of our stories about it.

In his now-classic book The Spell of the Sensuous, phenomenologist David Abram provides some sensory meditative exercises of the “stand still and look until you really see” variety whose purpose might be described as focusing our attention on the immanence of the (‘natural’) world, the simple ‘being-ness’ of things without reference to our stories about them or trying to make sense of, or meaning from, them. As I wrote earlier, I liked the book but found his exercises unhelpful and somewhat annoying. But he makes an important point, I think, about what such exercises are trying to address:

Today the speaking self looks out at a purely ‘exterior’ nature from a purely ‘interior’ zone, presumably located somewhere inside the physical body or brain. Within alphabetic civilization, virtually every human psyche construes itself as just such an individual ‘interior’, a private mind or consciousness unrelated to the other minds that surround it, or to the environing earth. For there is no longer any common medium, no reciprocity, no respiration between the inside and the outside. There is no longer any flow between the self-reflexive domain of alphabetized awareness, and all that exceeds or subtends this determinate realm. Between consciousness and the unconscious. Between civilization and wilderness.

Like many philosophers and ‘gurus’, David takes for granted that the universe is conscious, and that what is required is to reconnect our consciousness with this larger, universal consciousness. I have, over the years, tried quite diligently many such programs and exercises, and found them pretty much completely useless, only to be told that I need to try harder, or longer (perhaps for a lifetime), or else that I must not be “doing it right”. The belief in some “larger consciousness” that can be attained or achieved is, alas, I think, just another story. And, as Parul has noted, when we find that a story we believed to be important and true is no longer credible, our usual response is “to cast about for another one.”

Having no desire for recognition as a philosopher or guru, I have no hesitation in suggesting that there actually is no way for humans to reconnect with the rest of life on earth, and truly ‘see’ that “all there is, is this… immanence“. So rather than suggesting exercises for reconnecting, I am content to describe some exercises that might give us some insight for why ‘we’ very smart creatures uniquely equipped with separate selves and an extraordinary capacity for abstract reasoning and imagining, cannot hope to see this immanence, while for all the less-intelligent creatures around us, it is blindingly obvious.

If they were capable and motivated to do so (which they aren’t), I suspect these ‘lesser’ creatures would be wondering: What the hell is the matter with these humans, that they can’t see what’s actually, obviously going on in the world?

One exercise I have explored is to challenge what we humans ‘see’ and ‘sense’ as real. We ‘see’ the sky as being unquestionably blue, for example. But birds see it as blue-violet, because they see a much wider and more finely differentiated spectrum than we do. Birds also see much broader and more complex rainbows, for the same reason. And because their eyes and brains process more ‘frames per second’ than humans’, they also ‘see’ a richness and clarity we can’t imagine.

In some languages, like Korean, they don’t distinguish blue and green as different colours. And in others, what is called ‘blue’ and ‘green’ varies enormously. In Japan, for example, they use the word for ‘blue’ to describe the colour of traffic lights and unripe fruit. The ancient Greeks had no word for the colour blue at all. And in Russian there are completely different words for what we call ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’.

Of course, the sky isn’t ‘really’ blue at all — that’s just a trick of light coming through our atmosphere and fooling our optical sensors. And the ocean isn’t ‘really’ blue either — though a completely different trick is at work in fooling our senses to see it as we do.

We humans are trapped by our labels and our propensity for trying to make logical sense of everything, and once we have labelled something, that’s how we see it and make sense of it. Other animals, I suspect, just see things as they appear to be, without the need to label or make sense of them. (That’s not to suggest their instincts won’t provoke a “yellow fast-moving thing -> tiger fight/flee/freeze response”, but rather that this instinct is faster, and not associated with the after-the-fact intellectual process of ‘making sense’ of that yellow thing.) So perhaps part of the reason we humans cannot see things just as they are, “immanently”, is that our labeling and sense-making create a veil between ‘us’ (this complicity that seemingly comprises ‘our’ bodies) and ‘everything else’.

Today I’ve been looking through my little $19 microscope. I looked at a green stripe on a box, only to discover it was an optical illusion — through the microscope, I see only tiny blue and yellow dots. I looked at my computer’s LCD screen at a photo of a rainbow, and discovered it, too, was an illusion — through the microscope there are only tiny squares of red, blue and green of varying degrees of darkness. And, of course, the rainbow is itself an illusion, of a different type entirely. Still, we are seemingly compelled to always try to ‘make sense’ of what we see, regardless of its illusory nature. I cannot ‘un-see’ the blue and yellow dots, yet still I label the stripe on the box ‘green’.

I looked at a tiny sample of murky water, soil and greenery from a nearby creek, and saw, at 120x their ‘real’ size, giant mountains of glistening crystals, forests of impenetrable and infinitely varied foliage, and all manner of living creatures, including the ubiquitous translucent tardigrades clawing their way through the watery jungle. With their tiny brains and single-celled ‘eyes’, what do ‘they’ see? ‘They’ consist of only about 1,000 cells, and yet are staggeringly adaptable to an almost infinite variety of environments.

They also reproduce in multiple ways, asexually (without fertilization), sexually (with fertilization, copulation lasting about an hour, with the two genders recognizing each other by scent), or as hermaphrodites (self-fertilizing). And they have an apparent propensity to ‘snuggle’ together for ‘reasons’ seemingly unrelated to reproduction, warmth, or protection.

It is easier to imagine them as a complicity of their cells, rather than a creature “all of a piece”, than it is to imagine myself as such a complicity. Its cells share information and coordinate actions to achieve — what purpose? For a creature that can devolve into a dormant ‘tun’ when conditions get difficult and ‘come back to life’ unharmed even decades later, a creature that doesn’t really ‘die’ but rather more ‘wears out’, its cells quickly repurposed into other creatures and environments, can we say that its (or their, if we think of it as a complicity of 1,000, a cooperation rather than ‘a’ creature) ‘purpose’ is to ‘survive’? Seems a stretch. To what extent are they ‘conditioned’, biologically and culturally, by their genes, environment and other creatures they encounter?

I think the truth is that there doesn’t have to be a reason or purpose for them and their lives — or for ours. They just are. They don’t have stories, or need them. What are they without their stories? Freakin’ amazing!

Each of the tardigrade’s 1,000 cells is comprised of, conservatively, 50 billion atoms (human cells each have, on average, 100 trillion atoms). By what Stephen J Gould calls a ‘random walk’, over a billion years, all of these 50 trillion atoms that we collectively label as one tiny tardigrade self-organized into this rather adorable clumsy water-bear. And that’s what I’m looking at now — not one microscopic creature, but a performance with 50 trillion players, just being what they are and doing what they do. Apparently. I say apparently because we can only guess. We cannot possibly ever know. And our insistence on making sense, on understanding, on knowing, is, I would suggest, the veil that separates ‘us’, or at least our human ‘selves’, from everything that simply is, for no reason. The veil that separates our selves from the simple immanence of everything.

What are we without our stories? Not ‘individuals’, that’s for sure. Not things with a purpose or a meaning. Not things in ‘control’ of anything. If tardigrades (and the megacities of differentiated and unceasing activity that we claim and label as ‘our’ bodies) are just freakin’ amazing without their stories, I would assert that ‘we’, human ‘selves’, are nothing without our stories. ‘We’ are our stories, made-up fictions we choose to believe to be real, and nothing more.

Can ‘we’ get at least a brief sense of the immanence of everything by recognizing and ‘seeing around’ the artificiality and misconception of our selves and our stories? Absolutely impossible, I would say. ‘We’ cannot ‘see’ the immanence of everything any more than a map can ‘be’ the territory it presumes to represent. Even worse, just as the territory doesn’t ‘need’ a map to represent it, the immanence of everything doesn’t ‘need’ a ‘self’ to represent it, or for it to (apparently) function perfectly well. No ‘consciousness’, either ‘personal’ or ‘universal’, is required, or even useful. ‘We’ can only ever be ‘conscious’ of our stories, which are mere, absurdly simplified representations of ‘parts’ of the (actually inseparable) immanence of everything. The ‘subjects’ and  ‘objects’ of ‘our’ consciousness are just stories ‘we’ invent to represent (badly) ‘parts’ of this immanence.

You probably knew better than to hope that I would give you some exercise that might enable you to see or at least imagine the immanence of everything beyond the obscuring veil of our selves. The best I can do is suggest, rather inarticulately, why this is impossible to do. Our selves, our ‘consciousness’, our stories, are the prison from which ‘we’ cannot ever escape. Or at least not escape alive. It is freedom from our selves, which is the death of our selves, that we both seek and fear. Because what would we be without our selves? ‘We’ would not be. All that would be left is the immanence of everything. It would be seen, but not by ‘us’.

Apparently. Aye, there’s the rub. Even worse than the loss of our selves would be the loss of what our selves imagine and believe to be ‘reality’ — the assurance that things are real and solid and substantial and enduring in time. But the immanence of everything does not require anything to be real or solid or substantial or enduring. It does not require anything, period. It just is.

The little tardigrade in the image above doesn’t have to ‘really’ exist. Nor do its apparent 1,000 cells or 50 trillion atoms. They don’t ‘have’ to be ‘really’ moving through ‘real’ time and ‘real’ space. The immanence of everything has no specifications, no requirements.

Yeah, I know — this is not at all convincing. ‘I’ my ‘self’ cannot ‘believe’ it.

But it just might possibly be true.

PS: If you want to see tardigrades:

  1. Buy an inexpensive microscope capable of 100x magnification.
  2. Collect some moss or lichen from a nearby pond, riverbank, tree or roof and moisten and prepare it for best viewing. 
  3. Find a comfortable viewing position and be patient — it’s worth multiple tries, and worth the wait.
Posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments