We Already Live on Mars


cartoon by Shizzblatt on TAHT comics on reddit

It’s easy to ridicule the techno-utopians who, in their ongoing denial and defiance of civilization’s accelerating collapse, talk and scheme about leaving this planet and building a new civilization on another one.

But in many ways, we already live on a foreign planet, or, rather, we live in an artificial, prosthetic world, one that is utterly and irrevocably dependent on and embedded in the natural world it is aggressively destroying to manage its day-to-day functioning.

There have been many studies showing that the impact of collapse, especially economic and financial collapse and the resulting incapacity to maintain even basic infrastructure, will be especially severe in cities and suburbs. Our urbanized civilization requires vast amounts of resources — including rare goods from far away, and cheap labour to deliver things and fix things that break (like pipes and downed wires and cars and appliances and elevators), which they are always doing. A review of past economic depressions reveals that many things simply became more-or-less permanently unavailable, and people just learned to do without. Of course, if what you’re waiting for is food, heating fuel, fuel for transportation, and electricity for your lights, businesses and elevators, you can’t afford to wait long. Eventually you give up waiting and move where the things you need are still available.

It’s doubtful that most of the utopian scenarios that see suburbanites turning their lawns into gardens, and abandoning their jobs for work walking distance from home, will ever see the light of day. Those lawns have mostly already been stripped of their usable soils. There are not nearly enough jobs, especially when the collapse of the internet takes telework off the table. And when the power lines and water lines go down, they will have to wait ages for their restoration, since more concentrated urban dwellers will be served first.

Things will not be any better in rural areas. Most farm acreage is now monoculture, heavily dependent on fertilizers and irrigation and pesticides and other foreign inputs, and is owned by soon-to-be-bankrupt Big Ag mega-corporations, and as markets for their cheap-transport-dependent  products dry up, the single-product farm workers will abandon the farms, as they did in droves during the Great Depression, and join the swelling ranks of the unemployed in the cities.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The only people who are not living in an unsustainable, prosthetic world these days are a tiny number of hardworking self-sufficient independent polyculture farmers. That tiny number includes a surprising number of this blog’s readers, as I keep discovering. But they’re going to be overwhelmed by the vast numbers turning to them for jobs and handouts, and there will be far too little to go around.

While it is true that this is a Long Emergency that we’re now entering, one that will unfold over decades, our economy is so tightly wound that supply chain collapses many orders of magnitude greater than what we’re now witnessing could arrive overnight and change our living conditions very quickly. As the people of Sri Lanka have discovered, your money’s not of much help when there is no food in the shops, no fuel in the service stations, and the power, and lights, keep going out for longer and longer periods.

One recent study suggested that the average amount of time a family in the west could survive (ie keep their home, possessions and food on the table) if they were suddenly without a paycheque, is sixty days. After that they are essentially bankrupt, and without the largesse of others, they’re out on the street begging. That seems extreme, but anyone who’s lived through a depression will tell you that’s exactly how, and how quickly, it happens.

While panic is certainly no answer, our current complacency about the vulnerability of our current way of life is rather alarming. We are living on a knife age, in this era of “hyper-efficient” global interdependence, and the fact that it may take a decade or two to slowly slip off that edge won’t make much difference, since there’s absolutely no way of climbing back on it once that happens.

So when you read about the idiots planning manned trips to Mars, remember that in many ways we already live on Mars — we live astonishingly precarious lives connected by a thin, fragile, unraveling tether to the endangered sources of everything that makes life for humans possible.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Leave a comment

Yet More Crossword Cleverness

Over the last couple of years, I’ve largely switched from NYT crosswords to The New Yorker’s. They seem to have attracted the best of the NYT’s puzzlers, notably Liz Gorski, and they have a much better gender and ethnic minority balance than the NYT ever managed. They also have much more fanciful and imaginative clues than the rigid NYT allows, and more entries from current and minority cultures, while mostly avoiding too much “pop” culture (especially rap and electronic group names that eschew proper spelling, and vowels, respectively).

Unfortunately, I’ve decided to end my New Yorker subscription due to the ferocious anti-Russian and anti-Chinese xenophobia the magazine has exhibited over the last year, especially since the start of the NATO/Russia proxy war in Ukraine. I had expected better from them.

Meanwhile their five-day-a-week online crosswords are excellent (though I find their Thursday “beginner” crosswords too simple). Here are some of the clever clues they’ve had in some of their recent puzzles. I’ve included only the vowels for the answers to each clue, in case readers want to take a stab at guessing the answers when partially filled in. Some of the clues had, or should have had, a wry “?” at the end of the clue to indicate a play on words.

If you just want to see the answers, I’ll include them in a comment to this post:


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An Age of Wonder

This clip is an 8-second excerpt of a short doc on tardigrades by Journey to the Microcosmos; this is almost exactly what I see under my little $15 microscope.

You probably wouldn’t know it from the dark tenor of my recent posts, but despite everything — despite economic and ecological collapse, despite getting CoVid-19 and other discouraging health issues, despite the endless war-mongering and hate-mongering, despite rampant inflation and money worries, and despite my predilection for fearfulness and anxiety — I have never been happier.

I have been trying to figure out why that is so. Part of it is retirement, relief from the anguish of getting up too early to do work that I knew, most of the time, was meaningless, unnecessary and of no use to anyone, but which was compulsory nevertheless.

Part of it is the realization, which is still being internalized in this body and brain that ‘I’ presume to inhabit, that I have no free will, no control or responsibility over anything that this body thinks, believes, feels or does. That’s immensely liberating, even though I still (instinctively or by conditioning) feel responsible, obligated, ashamed, guilty, furious, fearful, sad, resentful, impatient, intolerant, annoyed, and/or anxious much of the time. These feelings just have much less hold over me than they used to, largely because I appreciate that they’re not really ‘mine’, and not of any useful value to me or anyone.

Another part of it is, I suppose, age. I have less left to prove and less time left to prove anything to anyone or to myself, so I’m much less hard on myself and others than I used to be, and others now expect less of me as well. There were times, believe it or not, when I didn’t think the title of this blog was entirely tongue-in-cheek.

But a significant part of this strange new happiness is, I think, a slowly growing capacity to pay attention, to notice. Life is always wondrous, but these times are especially so. There is so much happening — amazing, terrible, astonishing, horrific, unimaginable things that I see and learn about every day, at a pace that has never before been possible, and will soon be impossible again.

Here are some of the things I am witnessing, trying my best not to judge, but just to accept — things that these strange, wondrous, breakneck, every-kind-of-superlative times have to show me:

  1. The very discovery that time and space and the self are illusory, that our entire ‘reality’ is a representation, a model, entirely conjured up in our heads. That’s not to say that there is nothing outside that model, but rather that our brains, our ‘selves’ are simply incapable of comprehending in the slightest what is actually real and actually happening.
  2. The mind-boggling willingness of human beings to believe obvious, insane falsehoods, and to cling to them with a ferocity that produces endless wars, violence and hatred, and threatens, every bit as much as ecological collapse, to bring about the end of our species.
  3. The pictures from the Webb and Hubble telescopes, and the astounding model of the universe they are creating for us, especially juxtaposed with the realization that they are as much unreal as they are wondrous.
  4. The fact that despite all we have learned about how “we are what we eat”, and how ghastly our modern industrial diets are for our health and for the wellbeing of the creatures that we confine and torture for our food and drink, the less inclined we seem to be to act on that knowledge and eat healthily, or even to acknowledge the inconvenient truths about what our diets are doing to us and to the planet.
  5. The ability to travel anywhere in the world in hours, when even just a century ago it would have taken weeks, months or years. And the impact that ability has had on the homogenization of the world’s cultures and on the planet’s health.
  6. The fact that our single little species, an unremarkable small branch on the evolutionary tree of life, has unleashed the sixth (or eighth, or 42nd, we don’t know for sure) great extinction of life on the planet, without meaning to, and despite knowing we have done so, we are still denying having done so and continuing to act collectively as if we had not.
  7. The discovery that all life on our planet has a common origin, and that the planet’s atmosphere, environments and life forms have co-evolved to produce not only the staggering complexity we see today, but previous almost unimaginable evolutions that, just to give a couple of examples, created a 60M year-long ‘snowball earth’ through bacterial overproduction of oxygen, and which adapted to a 6M year-long supernova radiation bombardment that ended just 2M years ago and obliterated our ancestors’ tropical forest homes, reducing their numbers to just a few thousand.
  8. What we call “fossil fuels” are the remains of algae, bacteria, and plants, mostly dating back more than 350M years; they’re not from animals. And lots more amazing things science has only recently learned.
  9. The astonishing diversity and superhuman (and mostly unknown and unfathomable) qualities of life all around us, including seeds, sharks, bats, tardigrades, and jellyfish.
  10. Some of the amazing inventions and evolutions of life, such as:
    • exaptation (the fact wings evolved for temperature control, and were only later used to fly),
    • languages in all their mind-blowing variety,
    • the way perceptions work (there is no such ‘thing’ as a colour; most of what we ‘see’ is actually predicted fill-ins rather than actual perception),
    • the way memory works (and doesn’t),
    • how most human invention is actually biomimicry,
    • how all imagination is a combination of metaphor and randomness,
    • the infinitely many ways music can be produced and why we love some music and loathe other music,
    • the fact that human art has been around three times longer than abstract human language,
    • how our language affects how we ‘make sense’ of the world,
    • why humans hate complexity,
    • how we learn from ‘play’ and not from schooling,
    • and a million other things.

With all of this to wonder about, and observe, and listen to, and read, and learn about, and discover, and explore, and write about and talk about — and sufficient time and space and resources to do so — how could I be unhappy?

Of course I am uniquely privileged. Most of the world’s people live incredibly difficult lives, and their unhappiness is entirely understandable. But I have always been privileged, and much of my life I was unhappy (and for much of it I was seriously depressed), and I know lots of other privileged people who have never been happy.

So what was up with me, and what’s up with them?

I can’t be sure, and I may be wrong, but the best answer I can come up with is: mental illness. The anxiety of fighting your way up the corporate ladder, being kept off-kilter by your boss and everyone else in your life trying to take advantage of you or keep you on the defensive, and the enormous burden of self-imposed responsibility and blame for everything that’s not going quite as well as you, and everyone around you, expected, can be debilitating. To be in the midst of the game of civilization and playing your heart out every day at it is exhausting and will eventually and inevitably, I think, make you ill. All these years later, I’m still recovering. Thinking back makes me shudder, even though for most of those years I acted as if (pretended, even to myself?) I was happy (after all, I was a success, why wouldn’t I be)? I think this culture takes its emotional and psychological toll on all of us, and most of us, as I wrote last time out, pretend (to ourselves and others) we’re OK. Because people are depending on us, expecting us to be OK.

Flatcaps and Fatalism, a blog from Yorkshire, recently wrote a post about joy and laughter, describing activities of current human hubris such as the absurd techno-utopian Saudi mega-project THE LINE. He wrote:

It is trendy and inhuman, implausible and real. It is also the very latest version of a very old joke, the one about the prideful fool who thinks he is king. The money will be spent and something will be built, but it will not be the dystopian utopia of THE LINE videos. The project cannot keep staff, no-one knows the underlying geology well enough to estimate costs, and the transport plans are patently impossible. The gap between pride and reality is complete and absurd. There is a sacred duty to laugh at these effervescences of the time. It is only laughter, not concern or righteous anger, which reveals that the king was a fool all along. They think they are building heaven, some fear that they are building hell, but they are only building a ruin. The Machine, the great beast of progress, is the same. The ruin it brings will ruin it too. It merits derisive laughter, not trembling fear.

When I was younger I could not laugh at such hubris. I would be angry, as I often was in those days. I was intolerant of what seemed almost deliberate stupidity (a very hard thing to give up, and I still catch myself struggling with it). We’re all doing our best. Granted, that’s not saying much, but still.

So I’m wondering if, for some of us at least:

(1) At some point in our lives, when we are young, our perceptions, conceptions, and conditioning about what is going on in the world, and especially what is going on for us personally, shift to allow despair to vanquish wonder; and then

(2) At some much later point in our lives (at least if we are privileged), we develop a sense of equanimity, acceptance, and even humour about what is going on in the world, and for ourselves personally, that allows wonder to again vanquish despair.

For me, that first point came in my first few school years, and the second came just over a decade ago. So the happiest times of my life were my youngest and my latest. The years from about age 6 to about age 60 were what I am starting to call my wasted years, not that there is anything I or anyone could have done to make them turn out differently.

I doubt that this shift applies to most people; after all, we all handle the strange complexity of modern, nearly global, civilization culture differently.

But I have started to notice now — as I learn to notice aphids’ remarkable intelligence, and how light affects my emotions, and the difference between ironic laughter and laughter born of delight and wonder — the faces of the people I meet. The faces of most young children and some of the faces of my own age cohort seem to reflect a very different, more joyous, enchanted way of being in the world. And the faces of most of those of ages in-between seem to reflect the bewilderment, wariness, and trauma that we seem to unwittingly instil in each other as we try to do our best in this wonderful, terrible world.

And each face I see, I ache for them to be free of this Civilization Disease — to never get afflicted with it, or to heal as quickly as possible from it.

Perhaps this is why I welcome rather than fear the end of this civilization, despite the suffering and hardship it is already starting to unleash.  As Indrajit puts it: “Om namah shivaya. Shiva is dancing up a storm.”

After the fall, we may never again have to learn “the terrible knowledge of cities”.

One day, I think, wonderfully and once again, everything will be free.

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

Pretending It’s Better Than It Is


Painting in oil pastels, “Family Portrait”,  by the Polish graphic artist Sławek Gruca

“When one is pretending, the entire body revolts.” — Anais Nin

There seems to be a propensity among the human species to put on our best face in the company of those we respect and care about, and pretend that things are better than they are, that they are OK, fine, acceptable, that we’re coping, at least.

I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps we’ve all experienced too many gloomy, needy, annoying-to-be-around and otherwise vexatious people who are always moaning about their situation and implying that it’s not fair and that someone — perhaps you — could or should do something about it. We don’t want to be around such people. So maybe our “it’s OK” demeanour is compensatory — we don’t want to burden or stress or depress the people around us.

There’s certainly some role-playing involved as well. We don’t want our kids getting scared (or scarred) because the world, and our lives, are so fucked up, and we seem unable to make them better. We don’t want our spouses and significant others to find us tedious to be around and choose the company of others instead. We don’t want our friends and co-workers to see us as weak, struggling, a mess — a drag.

And there’s likely some pride, and shame, at play as well. None of us wants to admit our failures to ourselves or others. We want to be looked up to, not pitied. No surprise that some 80% of citizens in international polls say they think they earn more than the median income in their country. Even the poor slobs who ‘make their living’ gambling at casinos, racetracks, and in stock markets and real estate markets tend to wildly overestimate their success in front of others.

We all probably know people who get dressed up before they go to visit their doctor, so they look healthier than they feel, undermining the doctor’s ability to assess what is needed.

And we all know about the placebo effect, which has us feeling better, when asked, just because we believe something has been done which should make us feel better; the feeling, of course, never lasts.

I remember as a young child finding the acting of adults both unconvincing and inexplicable. Why are they all pretending — to know stuff, to be succeeding, to be happy? What are they playing at? To me this was not only a transparent attempt at deceit, it seemed a self-deceit as well. Who do they think they’re fooling?

So we all pretend, and make believe, things are better than they really are. As Yorkshire’s Flat Caps and Fatalism blogger poetically relates, our cities and our countrysides reflect this false pretence that things are OK, better than OK:

The cities lie. Their radical chic is stretched tight over the bare lust for money. Their cosmopolitan diversity hides the uniformity of clawing ambition. Their youth is stolen from elsewhere, used for a time, and discarded when its looks and gullibility begin to fade. They grow little food and make fewer objects every year. They offer only services no one needs and knowledge no one believes. A blustering businessman sinks deeper into debt; but, risking it all again and again, he’ll keep up his pretence until the bailiffs arrive. That is the soul of the city.

The countryside lies. The fertilised fields barely pay the bills, but five families worked this land before it was improved. The tasteful barn conversions shelter dreamers who touch the soil with their eyes alone. The very lambs in the fields deceive. They tell you that this place feeds others, but it has long taken more than it gives. It is hungry, always hungry, hungry for oil and hungry for money. The countryside is the skin of the land, but its glow is not healthy. It is sunburn. The energy poured into it has killed it, and soon it will peel away from the flesh below.

The wildlands lie. Their treeless beauty is kept for grouse and Gore-Tex. Ninety years after the trespass, they are still luxury goods selling freedom. They offer escape, something above the fray, something that was always so and will be always so; but they are only playgrounds that pretend to be churches. Nature promises nothing but death and change. The romantics scorned him, but Capability Brown was an honest man. He sculpted the land to please the eye and called it a garden. Infatuated with the sublime, we have done the same and called it conservation.

All our lands lie, but they have only one lie: the lie that this will go on, that the oil will keep flowing, that the supply chains will not shatter, that this empire will not sink into lone and level sands.

Our entire civilization, and its now-global and homogenizing culture, is a giant lie. Through the politicians, the media, our gambles and dreams of the future that can never be realized, our borrowing of amounts (from the earth, and from future generations) that can never possibly be repaid, we pretend that things are OK and will inevitably get better. Through the factory farms behind giant walls concealing the truth of our grotesque, brutal and torture-filled food system, showing instead playful lambs on our meat pie packages and contented cows on our milk cartons, we conceal the truth from each other and from ourselves. We dare not imagine what is really happening behind all the walls we build to keep the traumatized incarcerated, the abused helpless, and the desperate in refugee ‘camps’ serving life sentences, so we can go on pretending it’s all OK.

It is fear that keeps us hiding from the truth, in denial of what is happening, unwilling to know or even think what is happening behind all those walls. We are afraid to admit that we have failed — ourselves, our children, our loved ones, and the world — and that instead we have produced a monster, an artificial, prosthetic global culture called ‘civilization’ that has never worked, can never work, and which, having produced atrocities greater and more far-reaching than we can even imagine, is quickly falling apart. Our intentions were good, and we cannot dare admit that those intentions have led to this.

Some of my fellow collapsniks have told me that if we were to truly face up to the horrific legacy of civilization and its accelerating collapse, we would all kill ourselves — we could not bear it. I’m not so sure. I think if we avoid the blame game, and just stop lying to ourselves and to each other, stop pretending that this isn’t endgame that we’re witnessing, we might find that there’s less shame in that terrible admission than in the lies we depend on to keep going as if everything was OK.

I’m not saying we should ‘confess our sins’ — I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in sin, or good or evil, right or wrong, confession or punishment, or free will. We did our best, we cannot fix or undo what we did trying our best.

What I think we could do, and may well do over the course of the coming decades, is to admit that our best intentions went horribly wrong for reasons we could not know and will never fully know, and simply pause in all our efforts, and stop doing everything we’re doing. To refuse to participate in trying to resuscitate the dead patient that is human civilization on this planet. To realize that continuing to do what has never worked is a fool’s game. To stop pretending that everything is OK. We could do all these things, if we were to suddenly get brutally honest with ourselves and each other (which may require more self-awareness and self-knowledge than most of us could muster), and give each other permission to acknowledge that collectively we inadvertently fucked up, and that the consequences of that very large and very human error will be severe. And then move on from there.

What would that look like? — A secular pause, not to lament or grieve or plan or blame or shame or pray, but to accept that it’s endgame, and that our continuing to act as if it’s not is pure folly. To say goodbye to this bizarre and amazing human-created civilization, this ersatz world within a world, this world full of what Richard Shelton calls “the terrible knowledge of cities”, and to do so in a spirit of humility and relief. And then to acknowledge and re-embrace the more-than-human world in all its wonder and joy, to breathe it in, to notice what we never thought we had the time to see.

It would look like, collectively, walking away from systems that were sincerely designed to make our lives better, but which are ruinous and no longer of service to most of us, if they ever were. It would mean stopping the work we do in Bullshit Jobs, and instead taking on the almost-impossible task of finding work that has real meaning and value to others and which is sustainable, sufficient and in humble service to our communities. It would mean ceasing to buy or sell or make anything that isn’t essential, and ceasing to buy anything industrially processed, anything we cannot mend and repair ourselves.

It would mean getting together with others in our community and giving everything we (pretend we) own back to the commons, to be stewarded collectively and modestly for the community’s collective benefit, including the more-than-human community into which it would gradually be re-integrated. And, the gods help us, it would mean learning to trust and even love everyone in our community, even those we don’t like very much.

It would mean ceasing to use or value money, and living within a radically relocalized gift economy where the currency of exchange is personal knowledge and trust. It would mean relearning, in communities of our own making, how to make and do the essential things our particular local community needs to live comfortably and sufficiently. It would probably mean, for the vast majority of us, moving perhaps thousands of miles to a place that can healthily sustain a human population without the prosthesis of technology. And it would mean so much more.

Beyond that, it would mean giving up pretending we know what we’re doing, erasing the absurd pretence that anyone is an expert. It would mean giving up pretending that things are better than they really are, and giving up all the lies and denials that prop up that pretence, all those desperate lies to ourselves, our children, our friends and communities and co-workers.

I know of a few communities that are trying this. Mostly, they are making many mistakes, some of them fatal. Mostly, their members, so accustomed and inured to lying because the truth is too hard to admit, are still lying to themselves and to each other, and when that leads to community failure, they will have to start over again, and again, until they discover and demand the absolute truth of themselves and each other. Until they learn to be humble. Until they once again become part of the more-than-human world in which they find themselves.

That’s the world I dream of living in. It will come eventually — only those of us who learn to live sustainably and modestly as part of the community of life on earth, to once again belong to the earth, will survive civilization’s collapse. There is no other way, despite what the deranged billionaires would have you believe. It will be hard, astonishing, frustrating, and magical.

I doubt I will be around to see it, but I will be thinking of those that will. Pulling for them, not to succeed, but to live natural lives where no one has to pretend it’s better than it is. Because it can’t get any better than that.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

Addicted to Crude

There are few pipelines in North Dakota, so while oil is valuable enough to truck out (weather permitting), the natural gas byproducts are not, so the gas is simply, legally, burned off, “flared”, wasted. Photo by Tim Evanson from wikimedia, CC-BY-2.0 .

Here in Carmerica, nothing is free — not the food, not the fuel, not the people, not me.
Here in Carmerica, deep in the gears of a four-stroke engine lubricated with tears —
You can hear it a-comin’, long before it appears here in Carmerica, deep in the gears.

Here in Carmerica, moments away — the pressure is building just a little each day,
Ready to rumble, let happen what may, here in Carmerica, moments away.
Here in Carmerica, land of the cruel, addicted to sex, and addicted to fuel.
But some of your people are nobody’s fool here in Carmerica, land of the cruel.

Here in Carmerica, divided they stand: They wait undecided, their heads in the sand.
Their confidence wavers, then leaves their command, here in Carmerica, divided they stand.
Here in Carmerica, land that I love: the grind of your dollar, the fist in the glove,
The smooth-runnin’ engine when push comes to shove, here in Carmerica, land that I love.

Nathan Rogers, Carmerica (yes, he’s Stan’s son, and Canadian)

Our local Facebook page has recently exploded with horrified and outraged revelations that most of the gas stations in our community are closed, because they, like some other specialized retailers these days, have nothing to sell. The signs that recently said $2.39/litre now read $0.00. The underlying message of these social media posts: Who’s to blame for this? and When will this inconvenience be over? If I were to read comments on the posts (which I never do) I’m sure answers to these unanswerable questions would be readily proffered.

We still don’t seem to fathom the idea that complex problems — predicaments really — have no solutions, only stopgaps and workarounds, or that system collapse, which is more in evidence now than ever before, is a gradually unfolding phenomenon, not a sudden Mad Max one-time Hollywood cataclysmic event.

We are living in the early years of what Jim Kunstler tagged “The Long Emergency”, a state of emergency that will last decades and will not be ‘fixed’, but rather will end only when we have learned to adapt to a completely different way and scale of living.

As Nathan’s song tells us, we’re addicted to our current way of life, and to the ruinously destructive systems, most notably fossil fuel extraction, that make that life possible. As Indrajit Samarajiva says, especially in the Global South, we’re going into fossil fuel withdrawal. And there are no drugs on offer to ease the ghastly symptoms.

What exactly does it mean to be addicted to something? It means we can’t function competently without it. It means we react in irrational, unpredictable, and unhealthy ways when we don’t get it. It means we may resort to violence or crime to get it. It means even though we know what we crave isn’t good for us, we will use any means of rationalizing why it would be worse for us to quit using it. It means we’ll deny we have a problem. It means we’ll favour the certain short term pleasure over the uncertain long term suffering that quitting would entail. It means we’ll befriend (and vote for) people who will tell us our addiction is OK. And it means the addicts who are poor will suffer disproportionally more than those who are rich.

Beating this addiction isn’t just a matter of collective willpower. In fact, there’s a danger that if we convince ourselves that we’re doing our share, or more than our share, we will shrug off facing the fact that most people will never be able to do that. Being personally right won’t provide any solace when it all comes apart, and it may lull us into complacency in the meantime.

We have become addicted to petrochemical products to the same extent and in the same way we are addicted to food, water, and air. Our civilization simply can no longer operate without them. This dependence is not like our dependence on caffeine or alcohol. Breaking that dependence is possible. Breaking our dependence on petrochemicals is not. Everything that supports our civilization depends on it — transportation, heating, cooling and much of our electricity, the fertilizers and other chemicals that are essential inputs to 60% of the world’s current food supply, industrial production, infrastructure, our beloved internet, and substantially every aspect of our present economy. Without it we will simply die, in large numbers. The only way we can significantly reduce this inevitable suffering and death is by having fewer or no children, and it is not clear that many of us are even willing to do this, though that will certainly shift as the horrors of civilizational collapse begin to unfold more fully.

The growth of our industry, our productive capacity, our infrastructure, our food supply, our trade, and our human population — as Richard Heinberg has repeatedly explained, all of these have occurred in lock-step with the growth of our consumption of fossil fuels. That’s because our exploding consumption of fossil fuels is what has entirely powered and enabled that growth, and has been and continues to be entirely dependent on its impossible continuation. It is a myth that, with collective will and effort, we could replace fossil fuels with other energy sources (including sources yet to be invented) without our economy collapsing in the process. And it is a myth that such substitution could prevent or even significantly lessen or mitigate climate collapse and other aspects of the ongoing global ecological collapse fuelling the sixth great extinction of life on the planet.

So to answer my neighbours’ questions:

Who is to blame, for these disruptions to our fuel-injected economy and its supply chains? No one. This is what happens when 7.9B people all do their best to look after themselves and the people they care about. Get used to it. Many more disruptions are coming, and some of them are going to make the ones we are now seeing look like a walk in the park.

When’s it going to end, and get properly fixed so it doesn’t happen again? Never. This is a system in terminal collapse. Like all civilizations before us, and their complex systems, this one too will end in chaos, except this time it will be global, with no frontiers left and no replays available. This civilization has used up all of its lives. What will be left of human societies when this civilization’s collapse reaches its conclusion decades from now, we cannot know, though it almost surely will be low-tech, utterly local, and include a lot fewer people than are alive today. There’s a serious chance no humans at all will survive it, though our demise may be a long thin tail that hangs on with a few remaining societies in decline for centuries. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote of societies: “Fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid.” Energy researcher Ugo Bardi has coined this observation the Seneca Cliff, and it is increasingly likely that the collapse curve we are now starting to slide down will be such a cliff.

When our addiction to hydrocarbons can no longer be fed, it will be no different from suddenly finding ourselves without food, without water, or without air. We can go on believing that when the last of the pushers of the drug we crave have all put yellow tape around the pumps and permanently changed their price signs to $0.00, there will be another candy man opening up around the corner to fill the insatiable need. But that belief won’t serve us well when the withdrawal symptoms kick in. We’ll recognize the symptoms: the feeling of being desperately hot, or desperately cold, or desperately hungry, or desperately thirsty, or unable to breathe, or unable to function, or homeless and bankrupt and feeling hopeless and ashamed, or ready to kill for relief, or wanting to die just to end the pain. Not pretty, but some of us will likely survive, and learn to live without what we thought we would always have.

You can hear it a-comin’ long before it appears.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

Plus Ça Change: Lessons from a Mall


current mall/parking lot footprint near my home, showing proposed towers

It has been above 35ºC (close to 100ºF) all week here in Coquitlam. Like most Vancouverites I have no air conditioning. On top of that, I’m on Day 15 since first being diagnosed with CoVid-19. I finally tested negative, but haven’t felt up to my usual long walks thanks to being constantly masked in the fierce heat.

Over the past year, my last post of each month has usually been a kind of meandering reflection on what I have seen, and thought about, on recent walks. So for a change, this post will be about my recent daily strolls through the large (air conditioned) shopping mall across the street from my apartment — A different kind of jungle from that of last month’s bear encounter.

Writers have been predicting and documenting the demise of urban shopping malls for over 40 years. There’s a multi-billion dollar proposal to add 26 towers housing 21,000 people on top of the huge two-story retail mall I’m walking through. In this age of collapse, that’s about as likely to happen as the Singularity or the Rapture, but I guess people have to believe in something.

The owners of this mall are private and secret; it’s fronted by a real-estate/PR firm. They own dozens of malls in Canada, cookie-cutter copies of each other. Apparently most of their financing comes from Canadian and international pension funds, whose investment managers are faithful adherents to the religion of perpetual growth and inevitable progress.

For now it’s a mongrel of a mall, with the usual trendy chains, a food court tweaked to reflect our heavily Asian-Canadian populations, some ancient signage that looks ’50s vintage, and a scaffolded, open but empty zombie of a Hudson’s Bay Company store, Canada’s oldest (and basically bankrupt) corporation. HBC is doubling down on its staggering business losses by bidding to buy the US’s largest remaining (also basically bankrupt) department store chain, Kohl’s, though it looks like a vitamin-store chain is going to outbid them.

Shopping malls were designed as community centres, promising the kind of freewheeling, everyday mix of art, crafts, entertainment, current produce and social camaraderie that ancient agoras and community markets once offered. But then “the market” intervened. Free stuff was jettisoned, and every square metre was leased to whoever could squeeze the maximum number of dollars in sales and margins out of the space. Of course how to do that has changed with demographics, economics and fashions, and many once-proud retailers fell briefly and disastrously out of step with buyers and are long gone.

A few years ago, mall owners here tore out tables near the food ‘courts’ that had been set aside for retired people, veterans, and game enthusiasts to play chess and checkers. Apparently they weren’t buying enough, so the geezers were told to go elsewhere.

There are new signs on the mall entrance doors here: For the first time since CoVid-19 began and customers began to stay away in droves, they’re reopening “extended evening hours” (until 9pm) on Thursdays and Fridays.

But you can’t fail to notice the hand-scrawled notices on the doors of at least five of these high-rent stores, saying “Closed temporarily due to CoVid-related staff shortages.”

As I wander through the mall, despite the turnover in names on the storefronts, I feel as if I am stuck in the past. We’re very close to the point where the world buys more online than it does in stores, yet this mall looks, functionally, like a relic of the Reagan era. It’s almost quaint.

The Chinese, who, unlike us, don’t live in the past, buy much of what they do via livestream shopping, a concept almost unheard of here. The vendor offers an interactive, real-time online show to customers, displaying, demonstrating and explaining the product, answering questions, and modelling its use. More service than a traditional retailer can offer, and no need to leave home.

By contrast, even the Apple store here shows absolutely no innovation or imagination in terms of processes or customer experience. Every transaction is adversarial: How quickly can they get you to buy more than you want and pay more than you planned, plus pay for extended warranties, special adapters, and other hidden charges, and then get you out of the store to make room for the next customer.

In the clothing stores, you have the choice between obsequious attention and being completely ignored, depending on the culture of the store. The staff are both incapable of and forbidden from telling you anything, or offering you anything, that you couldn’t get faster and more easily from their online store. These humans in this zombie landscape are, most of them, essentially robots, and underpaid commensurately. A total waste of potential value.

Why do people come here, I wonder, other than to get away from the unbearable weather outside? I suspect the answer is a combination of habit and imaginative poverty — they don’t know what (else) to do with themselves.

The faces of the younger children display the same kind of bewilderment I am feeling: Why are we here, when we could be doing something fun and interesting? Who are all these people anyway?

So I sit and listen for answers to this question. Unlike most Canadian malls, which are overtly hostile to ‘loiterers’ and offer no place to sit, there is lots of public seating in this one. Because it’s so hot outside, this seating is unusually full.

My first observation is how the demographics of the people in the mall change depending on time of day and day of the week. There are no people-watchers here now — most of us ‘loiterers’ are either tending to children or engrossed in or talking on their phones. But I’ve been here on weekends and late in the day when the audience is younger and more deliberately dressed, and there’s almost as much calculated people-gazing and posing then as there is on the Paris Métro at rush hour.

The voyeur in me instead has to satisfy himself today by taking stock of comings and goings. Mask-wearing is down to about 25% in the mall, an all-time low since CoVid-19 began, and I notice many of these only put their masks on when they enter the mall.

The other thing I notice is that the people coming into the mall look relatively determined and anticipatory. By contrast, far and away the majority of the leavers look sullen and dissatisfied, especially if they have no bags in hand. What’s going on here, I wonder? And then it strikes me, the appeal that this mall has, that has people coming back despite its failures: The mall lures you in with its promise, but never delivers on it. It’s like a bad girl/boyfriend, telling you all the wonderful things they’re going to do for you but never actually doing them. I look at the people going through the exit doors and I see one message on so many of their faces: Oh well — Next time it will be different, better. 

And then, I suppose, they’ll forget, and later there will be something else they’re looking for, something they’re not sure about, and they’ll be back, full of fervent hopes and empty bags. The mall is a place of unfulfilled dreams.

~~~~~

Ever since CoVid-19 hit, and increasingly now due to chronic supply chain issues that will only get worse, there have been major stock-outs in many stores. In the larger stores, you’ll see long empty shelves with “sorry” signs on them, and empty pockets in otherwise-full shelves, where someone has hoarded some specific item, or it’s suddenly just become unavailable. Ask the workers and they’ll just shrug — no one knows when anything will be back in stock.

In the smaller, lower-end stores, that operate on volume not margin, empty shelves are anathema, and are filled with whatever else they can find in the back to fill the space, usually with a slight discount. In the higher-end stores, a half-empty look is fashionable, but they’re even more vulnerable to stock-outs. As soon as you look forlornly at the empty space where what you wanted should be, the chicly-dressed clerks in these stores will rush over and tell you they’ll deliver it to your home, for free, as soon as it comes in. No, they don’t know when that will be. Would you like to come over to the desk here and give me your contact information?

As I wander through one of these stores, a young saleswoman with shining eyes and a huge grin rushes over to her co-worker and says, in a barely-controlled voice: “God I love personal shoppers! A week’s commission in less than an hour!” The co-worker offers a rather jealous-looking congratulatory nod. I have no inkling what this is all about, so I retreat to the public seating area and google: “What is a personal shopper?”

Apparently this is a thing, if you’re too old or too rich to do your own shopping. Some of them are full-fledged “image consultants” recommending looks and products for their too-important-to-shop-for-themselves clients, and then going out and picking the stuff up. Skilled personal shoppers can, the internet says, earn mid-six-figure incomes, but often work long and unusual hours, and their jobs are precarious.

I had no idea. When I later told a friend about this, he said he didn’t know about it either, and added, with a smile: “I thought that’s what spouses were for.”

~~~~~

An interesting phenomenon, at least for me as a long-time advisor to small entrepreneurial businesses, is the emergence of local independent stores in a one-block radius surrounding the mall. These stores have much less variety than the mall stores selling the same type of goods, and they’re actually a bit more expensive, presumably because they can’t get the same volume discounts from suppliers that the mall chains can. But what they do offer is an unhurried atmosphere, and personal, knowledgeable customer service.

I often wander over there, to what is ironically called High Street, to get my matcha, my pharmaceuticals and vaccinations, my organic produce, and other things, all because of the service. They know me. They address me by name. They know what I’m there for and what I like. They will special-order things for me, set things aside for me. They talk with me as if I’m a friend, though I know that’s mostly that special Asian-Canadian politeness I have come to respect so much here.

And they know that, to catch the mall-disillusioned, they have to be nearby. It’s a strategy that works. Unlike those in the mall, these quiet, smart, entrepreneurs’ stores have staying power. Though it’s not an easy life.

So now my walk is over, and I’m back in my apartment, in which the thermometer says it’s 34ºC, the same as outside. I appreciate enormously the invention of ceiling fans, independently by the Chinese and Indians, centuries before electricity. I suspect we will soon have to rediscover such manual means of creating coolth. I take a cold shower and wander back into the living room, naked, with a towel at my feet to catch the drips, stand in the shadow of the fan, and say “Aaaah!”

Posted in Creative Works, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

Collapse, Not Apocalypse


Thomas Cole’s ‘Destruction’, the fourth of his five-panel series ‘The Course of Empire‘, 1836. Public domain.

Several people have pointed me to Chris Hedges’ latest article “The Dawn of the Apocalypse”, which includes a lengthy summation of the current state of climate collapse, and includes links to recent interviews with Extinction Rebellion founder Roger Hallam.

I think Chris, and Roger, have it mostly right, except for two things:

  1. their preoccupation with laying blame for climate collapse on “global elites” and others; and
  2. their failure to consider climate collapse in the larger context of multi-faceted global ecological collapse (of which climate collapse is only the most-studied facet), and the more immediate and paralyzing impact of global economic collapse.

Let me take these two issues in order:

The futility of the blame game

There’s an almost religious presumption in many of the current proclamations by climate activists that a forced, death-bed repentance by the fossil-fuel industry and those who support it is possible, or would be significantly helpful.

I don’t think either of these presumptions is true. A radical reform is not possible because it runs counter to the basis of our entire economic system, and would immediately lead to the sacking of the repentant and their replacement with non-repentant corporate leaders. It would not be helpful because if Big Oil stopped meeting the now-essential needs of 7.9B citizens demanding ever-more hydrocarbon fuels, they would be quickly supplanted by nationalized enterprises, the underground economy, and individuals burning coal, wood, and anything else that’s flammable to fill the gap. We the citizens are addicted to crude, and we will get our fix, and the ecology be damned.

We’re fucked, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We are going to burn the rest of the world’s fossil fuel reserves (or substitute wood and coal and anything else that will burn if/when those reserves become unavailable or uneconomic) sooner or later, because we will never tolerate the immense short-term suffering that will come from not doing so.

Trudeau and other ‘moderate’ leaders aren’t encouraging more and more fossil fuel burning because they’re evil selfish corrupt monsters — they’re doing so because they think that, given the delicate balance of ecology and economy, this is the best ‘middle path’ they can follow given the very little control that they can wield at all. If they were to pursue the radical course Chris and Roger propose, they would be quickly deposed, and the coups would have the tacit support of the majority of citizens of all political stripes.

It’s quite simple: None of us is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to avert collapse. We have shown that to be true in our elections and our buying decisions as much as through the corporate behaviours we tolerate. We’re not “to  blame” for that. This is our well-intentioned nature, and the expression of that nature is now colliding with the longer-term interests of our planet and all its residents. This does not make us evil; it makes us human.

Laying the blame, whether on ‘evil’ others or on our ‘sinful’ selves is misplaced, pointless, and emotionally lazy. It’s merely a way for the religiously (in the broadest sense of the term) indoctrinated to feel morally better about what they have and have not done in the face of the crisis.

So yes, Chris and Roger, we’re fucked, and it’s going to be mostly awful. But only when we acknowledge that collapse is inevitable and that laying blame achieves nothing, can we start to help each other cope with that grim realization and start to prepare for the radical changes in our lives it will necessarily usher in.

The larger collapse context

There is also a giant part of the collapse equation that Chris and Roger do not discuss, partly because they will lose much of their audience if they try to explain the full complexity of the situation, and partly because it will make their suggested radical solutions appear hopeless and moot.

Climate collapse is one facet of the accelerating ecological collapse that is producing the sixth great extinction of life on this planet. Other facets include biodiversity loss, the destruction of our soils, the massive despoiling of our fresh waters and oceans, the fouling of our air, the disruption of once-stable global air and water currents, and many other types of destruction and unbalancing of the ecological systems on which we all depend. Even if climate change were magically solved tomorrow, ecological collapse would continue to accelerate. It would just take a little longer to undo human civilization.

And even more importantly, missing from Chris’ and Roger’s discussion is the impact of economic collapse, which any careful reading of history will suggest is going to precede, complicate and exacerbate ecological collapse.

Economic collapse, brought about by the realization that almost all current debts are unrepayable, and that in a fixed-resource world, perpetual profit growth (on which almost all of the value of assets from homes to stocks utterly depends) is impossible, is as inevitable as, and more imminent than, ecological collapse. As I’ve written at length elsewhere, the economic collapse that much of the world is already grappling with will be permanent, not just a temporary depression. And it will be global. We have reached the limits to growth, and instead of reducing our consumption to adapt to that hard reality, our consumption is still increasing exponentially. Permanent global economic collapse means, for example, that we will burn the last of our forests, our coal and wood and finally our furniture, because we will not be able to afford to extract the last of our oil and gas, and because we desperately need the fuel.

Economic collapse will cripple the capacity of governments and regulators to do anything to address ecological collapse, because it is almost certain to precipitate political collapse and bankrupt governments (even the few that are not already ‘technically’ bankrupt) and corporations. As those corporations go under and cease operations, we may get our wish that the remaining hydrocarbons on which our civilization depends will remain forever in the ground. But we may well regret that wish.

We are going to find ourselves, gradually and haltingly over the next few decades, in a world of helpless chaos — a world in which, like most humans throughout history, we will have to rely on our own local resources and our own local community to give us what we need to survive and live sufficiently.

This will be a massive challenge, and some communities will rise to the occasion, while others will not. We’ll have time to adjust to not bringing new children into the world, which will alleviate the suffering of collapse somewhat. We’ll have time to relearn the essential skills of living in community and with each other, which may well be astonishing. The debates we’re having today, about what we and others should or should not be doing, will be forgotten.

~~~~~

The word apocalypse in Chris’ title is, tellingly, a religious one, referring to the revelation of a divinely-invoked cataclysm followed inevitably by the permanent triumph of good over evil. The religious, it seems, can never give up their crutch of hope, their belief that, no matter how we sin, we are a species of destiny.

In the real world, nature doesn’t give a fuck about our species, and whether it survives or perishes, thrives or suffers. No other species would lament our disappearance from the planet, which may or may not happen soon.

There is no apocalypse, and there has never been one. Just plain ordinary garden-variety collapse, which happens from time to time, when things get too far out of balance.

Nothing to be done about that, and no one to blame.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 14 Comments

It Just Is

more on radical non-duality, and some new scientific theories; the usual caveats apply for those who find such blather annoying


image of the galaxy group Stephan’s Quintet, new, from NASA’s Webb telescope

I was never a fan of The Matrix, and other sci-fi works that suggest that what we perceive as reality is merely a machination, an illusion (often with some god or beast running the show). As a long-time phenomenologist, these arguments strike me as typical Hollywood-style facile simplifications developed in the interest of popular theatre, not in the interest of a serious exploration into the nature of reality.

I have written a lot in these pages on the nature of reality, which seems to me far more fundamental than the lesser but more popular questions about the meaning and purpose of life. If we don’t know the nature of reality, how can we possibly know its meaning or purpose?

The leading scientists, in quantum science, in physics, in cognitive science and in neuroscience and biology, have recently thrown all the “physicalist” theories about the nature of reality, and the human self, into disarray, to the point many are now quite comfortable arguing that there is no “real” space or time, and no “real” self, though some of their arguments are more semantic than substantial.

One of those scientists is Donald Hoffman, who two of my readers (Ivo and Dr Scanlon) have recently referred me to again, in connection to my writings (some may say ravings) about radical non-duality. Last month Donald had a long (three hours plus) interview with popular podcaster Lex Fridman. Donald has a recent (2019) book out called, provocatively enough, The Case Against Reality.

The book, and interview, advance an anti-physicalist, anti-reductionist theory, one that espouses that what is ‘fundamental’ is not matter, energy, or time, but rather ‘conscious agents’. He is attempting to prove, mathematically, that if one assumes the fundamental existence of a ‘conscious agent’, then one can derive from that an infinite network of conscious agents, from which one can derive what appears to us to be matter, energy, time, life, evolution, the Big Bang, separate beings, the self, and everything we think of as ‘real’, as ‘interactions’ or ‘interrelationships’ of these conscious agents.

His principal argument, the one that drove the development of the theory, is that evolution seems to have unfolded the way it has not to optimize the accurate depiction of reality, but rather to optimize creatures’ ‘fitness’ for survival and thriving. In other words, what we think of, perceive as, and sense as reality is merely a distorted and radically simplified model of what really is, and since we depend on our senses to define reality, we cannot think our way out of the distorted box this model presents to us — we cannot ever really hope to ‘see’ actual reality. But we may be able, Donald says, to ‘prove’ what is actually real mathematically.

It’s intriguing, but while many have quibbled with the underlying tenets and arguments of conscious agent theory, it seems to me to be rather beside the point. One of the fundamental elements of ‘conscious agents’ is “the measurable space of conscious experiences of the agent”. That ‘space’ is probabilistic, not absolute, and the ‘consciousness’ of a conscious agent is defined by its components — perceptions, possible and actual actions, decisions, experiences, and the ‘world’ these agents perceive.

So this is not ‘consciousness’ in the highfalutin sense that most of us use the word, and I have to wonder if the term was chosen deliberately to ‘warmify’ the theory in the eyes of the nonscientific and spiritual communities. It is a little like the use of the word ‘unconditional love’ used by many spiritual communities (and also by many non-dualists) to describe ‘what really is’ — this is not ‘love’ in the sense that we humans mean and understand the word, but does give an air of accessibility and humanity to the teachings and theories that use it.

The desperation to find a mathematical, scientific, or philosophical model that will allow mathematicians, scientists, philosophers and spiritual types to salvage their careers and substantiate their lifetimes’ work is understandable, but I fail to see why it is necessary. It strikes me very much like the attempt of 17th-century geocentric mathematicians, scientists, philosophers and spiritual types to rescue their earth-centred models of the universe by developing staggeringly complex explanations involving revolutions around revolutions to keep the Earth in the centre of the universe. Although Donald’s theory does have a better intuitive feel to it than string theory and other ‘unfalsifiable’ theories.

Why is it so important, to scholars and laypeople alike, that there be any theory at all to ‘explain’ reality? Is it human hubris? Is it desperation to salvage professional reputations? The quantum scientist Sean Carroll has said:

You want to know why the universe is, you’re not going to get a satisfactory answer. You’re not going to be happy. The universe just is. You have to accept it. You have to learn to deal with it. There’s nothing further there. I like this. I mean I don’t like it sort of you know in terms of again scratching explanatory itches. But I think it’s the one that is most courageous, most brave. It faces up to the reality of it. All of these other attempts hit this little kid problem of saying, ‘Well, if that’s true, why is that true? Why is that true? Why is that true?’ And here you’re saying, nope. There is one level at which you just say, that’s how it is. There is nothing other than that. This is what Bertrand Russell was trying to say. I think this is probably the right answer. And I know that people don’t like it, but whether we like it or not, is not part of how we should judge a theory of why the universe is the way it is.

What is seen by those who, for various reasons not connected to illness, study or intellect, have no sense of having ‘selves’ or any sense that anything is separate from anything else, is that ‘everything is just an appearance’ — it’s not real, and cannot be known or understood. This is not a theory they’re espousing (in fact they assert there is no ‘them’ to espouse anything). It’s just what is obviously seen there, without the illusion of self that most of us labour under. When they are asked ‘why’ that seems to be so, their answer is an unequivocal “there is no why, there is only what appears to be happening, for no reason or purpose”.

That “cold, uncompromising” radical non-duality message seems entirely consistent to me with Sean Carroll’s somewhat reluctant admission above. It is enough for me. After five years of trying to reconcile radical non-duality’s message with the findings of scientists, listening to Donald may be the final straw leading me to give up that futile attempt.

As Sean notes, “people” (mostly mathematicians, scientists, philosophers and spiritual types) “don’t like” this message. It seems to us heartless, useless, hopeless, and unintuitive. It is. It’s also wondrous, accepting, and complete. The end of the search for what was never missing.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 4 Comments

Automating Away Customer Service


cartoon by the late New Yorker cartoonist Robert Weber, one of the few cartoonists who worked mostly with charcoal

There is a double interface between the producers and customers of the things we buy and sell: sales and marketing, and what can now only ironically be called ‘customer service’.

Sales and marketing is the stuff that producers push at us, to try to get us to buy what they’re offering. Customer service is what we the customers expect in return — facilitating our acquisition, use and disposition of the ‘product’.

One of the sad features of our modern global economy is that it requires producers to generate double-digit increases in revenues and profits every year just to stay afloat: Fail to produce those huge annual profit increases, and your job is history, and do so for too long and your company is history, too. The ‘value’ of stocks, real estate and pensions depends on such continuous growth. If profits merely stay in the same place year after year, then the value of the stock goes down, since there’s an opportunity cost, the risk-adjusted cost of borrowing, to just sitting on investments that aren’t ‘growing’.

The enormous pressure to endlessly increase profits requires corporate executives to play a number of games:

  1. They can use their cash to buy back their shares, so that while profits may be flat, profits per share rise. This unproductive investment is how much of the ‘growth’ in share values on exchanges has been achieved in recent years.
  2. They can buy up competitors and use oligopoly power to raise prices for the same goods. Tight, global oligopolies have been achieved in almost all major industries over the past four decades.
  3. They can lower the quality (eg use cheaper components) of what they sell, or lower the quantity (eg deceptive packaging) of what they sell, while keeping prices unchanged. They are doing this in spades.
  4. And then, they can cut ‘overheads’, through outsourcing and offshoring, or through reducing the interface with customers, ie sales and marketing efforts, or customer service.

Since cutting sales and marketing is risky when competitors are keeping theirs up, it’s more compelling to cut customer service.

The thing about customer service is that it comes after the sale, so if all producers in an industry tacitly (or explicitly) agree to cut customer service in lockstep, then there is really SFA you as a customer can do about it. If you think customer service now mostly sucks, you’re absolutely correct. It’s not that producers want it to suck; it’s the only way left to keep profits growing so the company can stay afloat another year.

The largest recent ‘trend’ in lowering the quality and extent of customer service is euphemistically dubbed “self-care”, as if this were a good thing. It means that the company no longer cares about you. It means you have to do your own research, your own shopping, your own checkout, and your own ‘after-sales’ service. The only help they will give you is pages of FAQs and manuals you can download — many of them actually run by other customers for free, in the desire to help fellow customers left in the lurch .

The company doesn’t want to talk with you — that’s too expensive for them. You can’t find a direct line phone number for any major company with a real person to answer. You can’t find an email address. They want you to do your own ‘care’, and if that’s not enough, they want you to just go away. They have plenty of lawyers to sic on you if you become too adamant about getting real customer service.

So you now have retail stores and ‘help desks’ that are capable of doing nothing except selling you more products. They offer no service at all. The clerks and help desk personnel have no more access, or power to do anything to resolve your problem or annoyance, than you do. The computer systems that management has put in place for them to use will not allow them to adjust the price, or give you a refund, or give you anything at all. Even if you only bought the item a day earlier, if it’s not in the original packaging and if you want more than a simple exchange for an identical item, you’re screwed — you have to mail it to the manufacturer at your cost. The retailer cannot help you.

You want something repaired or replaced on warranty, they’ll just throw what you give them out and give you a new one. The warranty ‘price’ is essentially an insurance policy to cover the cost of repairs, which are usually far more than the cost of replacing most of today’s shoddy products.

Imagine you’re in a ‘service’ function — working in retail. You’re now just there until they figure out how, in lockstep with their ‘competitors’, to automate the remnants of your job. I’m sure you’ve witnessed this yourself:

  1. “No we can’t special order that for you here, but you may be able to do so on the website. It’s the same one our clerks use for ordering.”
  2. “No we can’t do that bank transfer for you over the phone, even though we know you. We’re constrained by our regulations to get a hard-copy signature from you in person. Our hands are tied.”
  3. “No we can’t reverse that charge. It’s an automatic charge from the vendor, and they specify their right to charge it in their sales agreement.”
  4. “No we don’t sell parts for the products we sell. If you’re in the business you might be able to get them from a wholesaler.”
  5. “No there’s no volume discount if you buy a case. The scan code is per item.”
  6. “No we can’t service it. Since your warranty expired after 30 days, you’ll have to go to a third party repair service, who might be able to fix it for you. Or we could just sell you a new unit.”
  7. “No the system won’t allow me to give you that offer, which is only for new customers.”

And so it goes. Customer service has become, in most industries and retail sectors, an unaffordable luxury. Most of the people in banks, in retail stores, in warehouses — in all of what David Graeber described as Bullshit Jobs — will disappear from sight as soon as their employers figure out how to completely automate, and eliminate, their jobs. Those workers — the unnecessariat — will slide further down the economic ladder into jobs that haven’t quite been automated yet — couriers, fast food service, cleaners, ‘security’ work.

This is entirely the result of the desperate, endless, capitalist drive to keep increasing profits, because if public businesses don’t keep increasing profits, they’re dead. It’s the reason more and more of the GDP is being generated by fewer and fewer ultra-rich customers — the only ones who can still afford to pay for high-quality products and good service. For the rest, it’s a pointless race to the bottom.

It’s the system — an economic system that works by inflexible rules that have made everything we make and do ineffective, sloppy and dysfunctional.

And it’s taken me 50 years to learn that large-scale broken systems cannot be fixed. You have to wait for them to collapse, and try to build something better next time around.

I no longer grumble about lousy customer service, which is the only kind non-millionaires can get. It’s not fair to complain to the bedraggled front-line workers, who are victims, not perpetrators, of this system. Give them a smile, a nod, a thanks when they try their best, which is all any of us can do.

Instead, I do what those caught up in dysfunctional systems have always done — I work around them. If you want to get a sense of what a whole world of people working around collapsing and dysfunctional systems looks like, read Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World, on the emerging ‘scavenger’ economy. Watch the dumpster-divers. Pay attention to the independent one-person repair outfits, and how powerfully they’re networked with each other to do things the big public companies can no longer do. Study the crafters and the pop-up street-vendors and the people who can show you how to make and fix things yourself, and how gift economies function. They, not our dysfunctional capitalist industrial-financial growth economy, will teach you what we’re all going to have to learn to live in the world we are now entering — a world where sufficiency and consistency, not efficiency and excess, are the guideposts for living well.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

Not Meant to Govern Each Other


The late David Graeber talks with Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, image from London Real (2015)

The gradually accelerating collapse of our economic and financial systems, political systems, health and education systems, essential infrastructure, civil discourse, and of course our climate and ecological systems, and our utter incapacity to make them more than marginally and temporarily functional, has me thinking about governance.

Here’s how governance is defined:

Governance encompasses the system by which an organisation or society is controlled and operates, and the mechanisms by which it, and its people, are held to account. Ethics, risk management, compliance and administration are all elements of governance.

From reading the two Davids’ extraordinary book on past human cultures, The Dawn of Everything, it would seem that scale isn’t necessarily an impediment to functional governance. But likewise:

  • Large human settlements (cities and nations) have historically more often been networks of collaboration and exchange than complex, hierarchical structures, and certainly don’t have to be organized top-down; they are often confederacies of highly-autonomous small groups (what indigenous cultures call “Nations”).
  • Part of the global acrimony we are dealing with today arises from the feeling we’re ‘stuck’ with existing political structures, and that there are no longer any alternatives to them, which stems from a failure to understand history and its alternative structures, and a failure of imagination.
  • War isn’t necessarily a part of civilizations, and has often been absent for centuries, even since the invention of agriculture. But it’s possible that when war arose, the learnings about dominance of war opponents, and dominance behaviours, were then brought back and applied domestically in peace-time, and that is how slavery, oppression, incarceration and other (arguably unnecessary and dysfunctional) aspects of hierarchical cultures came to be acceptable within one’s own ‘tribe’ or ‘nation’. And in some cases (like ours) they then became considered inevitable and essential to the functioning of the tribe or nation. In short, war, and a culture of sustained aggression, sustained violence and ruthless competitiveness, are unnatural and have really fucked us up.

But that’s where we are. What interests me is whether we are are now essentially ungovernable, and why, and is governance even a natural aspect of human societies?

Most indigenous cultures that we know about are not governed, according to the above definition. There are respected members of the community, often elders, who are listened to more attentively than others, but everyone has a voice, and ultimately the decision on what to do is left up to each adult individual’s discretion, and is respected even when considered unwise.

If we didn’t live in a culture that encourages and rewards (with the best of intentions) argument, competitiveness, coercion, dishonesty, and propaganda, it is, I think, unlikely that the debacle of CoVid-19 would ever have happened. It is unlikely that we would have destroyed the natural environment to the point of ushering in the sixth great extinction of life on the planet. It is unlikely that massive inequality would be producing horrific suffering among the poor, and leading to economic and resource collapse even when there is arguably sufficient for everyone.

If we lived in a healthy culture, one without these attributes, then, if the Davids are correct, we would be thriving today.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t share the Davids’ optimism that we can still choose to change, abandon, or reinvent our culture to make it healthy. I think that was a possible trajectory at one point (long ago) but it is now far too late. We are locked in, and while we may be able to conduct some healthy experiments in how to live together functionally in community, this civilization is destined for a hard fall. I believed that, based on my study of complex systems, even before I abandoned my belief that we have free will.

I don’t believe we are meant to govern each other. I think the Davids’ work suggests that collaborative governance is possible, and that temporary roles that have hierarchical aspects, where the person most trusted to make decisions rotates or that role is eventually eliminated as no longer necessary, can assist in creating a functional society. These are all examples of short-term bottom-up granting of power. Top-down power and governance, based on wealth or heredity, is, I think, inherently dysfunctional and inevitably leads to intolerable inequality, supremacism, and oppression.

But that’s what we’re stuck with, and history suggests we’re not capable of the massive and rapid cultural changes that would be necessary to rediscover how to create and sustain functional communities and societies, mostly self-governed.

This is our conditioned behaviour, and that conditioning is now being effectively passed down to, and entrenched in, each new generation.

It would be nice to believe the Davids’ optimistic view of our potential for rapid cultural transformation, but I see no evidence for it. I don’t think you can get there from here.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments