What Price Freedom?

Image by kaaathi from Pixabay CC0

I have argued before that there is no such thing as an “inalienable right” — in a civilized society, rights and freedoms are granted to us in return for commensurate responsibilities, and balanced against other rights and freedoms with which they may conflict. It’s a bargain, and the price of living in civilization.

Once upon a time, idealists not interested in the terms of the bargain were “free” to opt out of civilization, and go where there was none, or where the new settlers were still defining the rights, freedoms and responsibilities that would apply in their new frontier. But today there are no such frontiers left. Civilization is global, and while one’s rights and freedoms and responsibilities vary (at least formally) from country to country, our only choice if we don’t like the local bargain is to beg admission to another place whose bargain seems more to our liking. And few countries are accepting more than a tiny portion of those looking for a better bargain.

In Canada, for example, the rights and freedoms granted to citizens, residents and visitors are codified in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is a part of the Canadian Constitution, and which prevails (with a couple of notable exceptions) over any and all laws and regulations of the land. The Charter explicitly acknowledges that no rights or freedoms are absolute — they can be “limited to protect other rights or important national values” (eg hate speech is not protected by the freedom of speech provision). Nevertheless, they are not to be trifled with lightly. They have been the basis for Canada’s hard-fought laws for women’s reproductive freedom. Their violation by laws restricting Canadians’ right to die with dignity have been struck down by the courts (and the newest attempt to restrict those rights seems similarly likely to be struck down almost as soon as it is passed into law, unless the Canadian Senate prevails upon Trudeau to gather up the courage to confront the right-to-lifers).

Much of the global outrage over CoVid-19 restrictions seems to be a fundamental disagreement over whether the right of the majority to protection from an out-of-control pandemic (and the right of governments to impose restrictions to enforce that right) does, or does not, supersede the right of any individual or group to pursue activities they believe to be essential to their spiritual or financial health. American constitutional law is much clumsier and more ambiguous than the modern Canadian equivalent, so the US courts have been inconsistently adjudicating this dispute over whose rights should prevail, unfortunately largely along ideological lines rather than those based either in jurisprudence or overarching principle. Similar conflicts are playing out all over the world.

This raises the question about what the de facto priorities are in ranking rights and freedoms where they conflict. Some obvious examples (I admit my biases on these issues are pretty obvious in how I frame these conflicts):

  • a woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy versus the rights of a foetus to be carried to term and be supported by that woman for as long as necessary
  • a person’s right to end their own life of (what is to them) intolerable physical or mental anguish versus the rights of those dependent on that person for continued support
  • a society’s collective right to be free of the scourge of fatal and debilitating contagious diseases versus the rights of individuals to behaviour that is in their own personal best interest but which (on the best available evidence) is likely to increase the spread of such diseases
  • the rights of citizens (let’s not get into non-humans’ rights for the moment) to live in a healthy, unpolluted, sustainable environment versus a business’ (and/or its owners’) right to conduct its affairs to maximize profits
  • a BIPOC person’s right to freedom from discrimination, assault and harassment versus the rights of all citizens to choose who they want to associate with, say what they believe, and be protected by “law enforcement agencies” they trust
  • the rights of citizens to restrict the sale of foods, drugs and other products that are (on the best available evidence) unhealthy, addictive and/or toxic versus the rights of the food industry to maximize profits and the rights of citizens to consume whatever they want
  • a conscientious objector’s right not to fight in what they consider an unjust war versus the rights of citizens to raise an army to protect themselves against what they consider an existential threat to their security or sovereignty

As you can tell, these conflicts between rights and freedoms are principally based on disagreements about the facts, more than they are moral disagreements, though there is a moral component to some of these conflicts. The problem is that generally we cannot know the facts (or the future) for certain, so (Pollard’s third law) we believe what we want to believe are the facts, and hence tend to find the “other” side’s position untenable, deniable, or repugnant.

If we could see into the future, or, even better, if we could see into a range of alternatively possible futures based on what we did today, there would likely be much less disagreement over which rights should prevail today. But we cannot, and even in cases where research has indicated how people on both sides of the dispute in past have felt once the consequences were known, this evidence is rarely enough to overcome Pollard’s third law. For example, there is strong evidence that most women choosing to have an abortion have said years later it was the right decision, while those talked out of it were considerably less sure they made the right decision. But there is always the objection that those in both situations are “rationalizing” their decision to assuage their guilt. In these debates, there is never a winner.

Every freedom has its costs. Affirmative action to enable oppressed people to access the same rights and freedoms as the dominant castes, will inevitably disadvantage those ‘displaced’ by these actions. Whether that’s ‘fair’ or not depends on where you stand. The Trudeau government is being guilt-tripped by right-to-lifers into trying to protect disabled Canadians from being coerced into ending their lives unwillingly or unwittingly by unscrupulous heirs or exhausted caregivers. There is always a risk of this, but it has to be weighed against the risk of condemning thousands of times more Canadians to have to live out truly unbearable and agonizing lives (physical or mental — Alzheimers can take a terrible toll) against their will.

As I said in my previous article, I think the last forty years has seen a shift away from willingness to sacrifice personal rights and freedoms in the collective interest, due principally to a growing, and cultivated, distrust of government and central authority.

What would be the price of freedom if (as is highly likely) in the near future we face another pandemic? And what is the price of individual freedom as we slide deeper into collective ecological, economic, and possibly social, collapse? What are we willing to sacrifice for a collective healthy future, or at least the healthiest that is possible given the circumstances we’re likely to face?

The overwhelming consensus of scientists, based on actual scientific data — far from certain but the best available evidence right now — is that we absolutely must prevent a 1.5ºC rise in global average temperature to have a reasonable chance of averting runaway climate collapse (a catastrophic 4-6ºC rise by 2100 rendering most of the planet uninhabitable by humans).

What would we have to give up to prevent such a rise? The various scenarios that have been run so far (and they have all — all — proven to be far too optimistic) suggest that we would essentially have to stop using hydrocarbons entirely within five years, and simultaneously institute a massive, globally-coordinated and globally-honoured campaign to reduce net emissions to zero shortly after that. Setting aside the Rapture, a sudden magical agreement and united effort of 8-9B people to completely change their lifestyle and accept enormous hardships, the technophiles’ wet dream of an energy source that defies the laws of thermodynamics, or a friendly alien intervention, my guess is that the sacrifices we would have to make would be something like this:

  1. A complete and immediate shutdown of non-essential industrial activity. That would mean everyone’s “right” to consume anything beyond (government!-rationed) food, water, basic medical goods, and enough heating or cooling to prevent extreme discomfort, would end. We’d each get, as has happened in previous large-scale emergencies like wars and depressions, some coupons for a small quantity of non-essential goods that we could “spend” as we wish. You would not be able to buy anything with currency, credit or savings.
  2. This would of course crash the Ponzi scheme stock market and real estate market, and with it most people’s life savings, net worth and pensions. But since very few people would actually be working, we’d all be living on a standard guaranteed annual income anyway, so everyone having zero net worth would only, for most, be a heartbreak, not an existential threat.
  3. The most obvious change would be the end of the private automobile and other private transportation, and the end of airplane travel (the biggest single contributor to emissions), and long-distance shipping of goods. Feeling your freedoms impinged upon yet? You’d have a short time to make a final move to be with family and loved ones, and then you’d be left with very expensive and unreliable telecommunications to stay in touch with those more than a short bus ride away.
  4. If you’re in the privileged caste, you’d lose a lot more of your “rights”. You wouldn’t be allowed to maintain your expensive property, since that would exceed your personal emissions limit. So you’d either see it collapse, or gift most of it to people who hadn’t used up their limits. Your golf courses would be closed, of course. Your private jet would be grounded.
  5. You’d still have the freedom to say and believe what you want, as long as it wasn’t hateful or violence-provoking. You’d have to walk to the steps of the government offices to protest the restrictions on your freedoms, and you still wouldn’t have the right to kidnap the governor. You’d still have freedom of religion (ie to walk to church). You’d still be able to leave the country, on foot or horseback or boat or on public ground transport up to your emissions limit, provided the next country was willing to take you for a while. You’d still have the right to equal treatment and freedom from mistreatment by law enforcement officials, if you ever had that.
  6. You’d have the right and freedom, and encouragement, to start up or partner with an enterprise that provided essential goods and services to your local community, within the emissions limit. You wouldn’t be paid for doing so, but you wouldn’t need or have any use for the money anyway. And you’d be thanked.
  7. You’d still have a “right” to privacy, even though it’s not a constitutional one. But you’d probably find you had less need to exercise it in a world that would be, of necessity, much more egalitarian and much more “public” — more of what you give and receive would be through collaborative, communitarian, voluntary activities. Not much room, or need, for closed doors for anything but the most personal activities.

So much of the identity of so many in most affluent nations is caught up in our identity as consumers, that any radical shift to an economy of minimal consumption (and production) is likely unfathomable to most of us. We wouldn’t know who we were without our stuff, differentiating us from everybody else (and/or symbolizing our membership, our belonging within some elite group). We would have to relearn how to belong, without money as the currency, in our own local communities.

But don’t worry, none of this is going to happen. Even if we were willing to give up our rights to acquire and to do everything we can afford (and, thanks to credit, to acquire lots of things that we can’t afford) — which we aren’t — no government or corporation would ever allow it to happen. The issue isn’t so much what rights and freedoms we’d have to give up to prevent climate collapse, but why preventing collapse is impossible, and what that will mean to all of us, and to our rights and freedoms, as that collapse advances.

So let’s take a more immediate look at these rights and freedoms “trade-offs”. Given the accelerating rate of pandemics in this century, and the near-impossibility of eliminating factory farming, exotic animal harvesting, and intrusions into the last wildernesses of the planet (which together have led to almost all modern pandemics), we’re very likely to face the next one within a decade at most. How are we likely to respond if, say, seven years from now we get another pandemic that looks, at least at first, like CoVid-19 — that is, it appears highly transmissible (ie most of the planet will get it relatively quickly in the absence of drastic interventions), and its mortality rate is unclear (ie could be like the seasonal flu, or several time more lethal like CoVid-19, or much more lethal like SARS or MERS)?

Let’s consider how CoVid-19 is likely to be remembered looking back from 2027. It now appears likely that the global IFR of the 2020-21 “waves” will be about 0.36%, with much lower rates in countries with young populations and considerably higher rates (averaging about 0.43%) in older populations like North America and Europe.

The death toll so far has been about 1.5M and it’s still accelerating, so suppose it reaches 3.0M by the time an effective vaccine is in effect worldwide. That would mean that 10% of the world’s population was infected before the vaccine inoculated the rest of us. If we’d waited for “herd immunity”, when more than 50% of the population was infected, then conservatively 15M would have died instead of 3M; ie we saved 12M lives through globally-imposed restrictions.

[Equivalent numbers for the US: current deaths 275,000; projected by vaccine date 400-500,000; percent of population then infected 30-35%; lives saved 600,000-1 million.] These numbers are based on current best estimates and are conservative — they don’t factor in any unreported “excess deaths” likely attributable to CoVid-19.

And these are just deaths; we’re not talking about hospital overwhelm, which could easily have doubled the number of deaths, and we’re not talking about the billions spared from the disease, a disease whose long-term effect on the bodies, hearts, brains, lungs, other organs and lives of close to a billion people that will have been infected before inoculation, is utterly unknown. And we’re assuming the virus doesn’t mutate, as happened in the 1918 pandemic.

So the restrictions on our rights and freedoms saved a “mere” 12 million lives around the world and a bit less than a million American lives in 2020-21. It reduced the degree of infection of probably more than half a billion people, and prevented any infection in around 4 billion humans, even assuming this incredibly transmissible disease would only have touched half the planet without our interventions.

Meanwhile, the 1918 pandemic killed 50 million (700,000 in the US), the average annual flu kills about 500,000 (50,000 in the US), heart diseases and strokes kill 18 million a year (800,000 in the US), lung diseases including pulmonary disease and lung cancer kill 5 million a year (300,000 in the US), and pneumonia and other respiratory infections kill a total of 3 million a year (160,000 in the US).

So looking back from the perspective of 2027, and the advent of, say, disease H7N9-27, having spread through Tyson’s massive factory farms in Arkansas and just recently leapt the species barrier to humans, how do you think we might react to the news?

My guess is that we’ll be no better prepared for this than we were this year for CoVid-19. We had warning of the dangers of coronaviruses in 2003 (SARS, CFR=11%) and again in 2012 (MERS, CFR=34%) which mercifully had low transmissibility, and in the years since we did essentially nothing to prepare for the inevitable next one. And since we’ll be no better prepared, we will inevitably be stuck with the same ineffective “yo-yo” response regime, at best, next time. In fact, there may be more intransigence about restrictions since CoVid-19 had a much-lower-than-feared fatality rate.

So, what price freedom? The freedom to suffer and die from heart diseases, strokes, lung diseases, cancers, diabetes and dozens of other chronic conditions directly related to our poor diets, to preserve our right to ingest whatever we want, whatever tastes good and makes us feel good.

The freedom to die a ghastly death from a suffocating respiratory and circulatory system illness caused by a pandemic knowingly allowed to run out of control for fear of damaging “the economy” or letting governments “control our lives”.

The freedom to struggle and die in a world devastated and desolated by climate and ecological collapse, with 2B climate refugees and comparable numbers dying in place for want of the basic necessities of life, when we knew what had to be done to at least have a chance of preventing it.

Wolfi Landstreicher, in a quote I have used often on this blog, explains the primeval sentiment that underlies our yearning for freedom, for independence:

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

So this instinctive revulsion to restrictions on our freedoms is, to me, completely understandable. The problem is, its realization is utterly incompatible with civilization. We can’t have it both ways. We can give up the narrow freedom to buy and own stuff, whatever we can afford, or not afford, in order to regain the broader freedom Wolfi describes, but to do so we will have to give up the civilization on which the narrow freedom depends. With 7.8B crowded like tribbles onto this increasingly biologically and ecologically impoverished planet, we have to accept more and more restrictions on our freedoms in order to avoid massive violence and chaos. We all have to obey, all have to answer the call to keep rowing, faster and faster, over the edge into oblivion. We have to deny that this is madness, that it cannot go on, that it’s going to kill all of us.

We long ago gave up our freedom, and our illusory rights, in the bargain that brought us civilization, its creature comforts, its conformity, its ghastly and oblivious destruction. We were conned, but we didn’t know any better, and neither did the con artists who struck the bargain with us. “Ladies and gentlemen, the ride is coming to an end. Please remain in your seats.” It will be over soon. As JT said: No one’s gonna stop us now.

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

Salvaging Human Society

For many years, my writing about collapse centred around the “3 E’s” — economic, energy, and ecological collapse. They are of course connected. An economy cannot be maintained when severe weather events keep crashing the infrastructure everywhere, or when climate collapse produces 2 billion climate refugees or makes large parts of the planet unfit for either habitation or agriculture.

Likewise, we cannot prevent an ever-worsening ecological collapse when we apply a religion of never-ending industrial growth and increasing human population far beyond what our finite earth systems can support. And our economy depends entirely on cheap, affordable energy which, even with today’s massive subsidies of fossil fuel production, is running out. Most of it will likely be left in the ground not because it will reduce the severity of climate change, but because as our economy stumbles it will simply be too expensive to extract. So decline in energy use may mean both a brief respite for the planet’s ecological systems and a precipitator of collapse of our economic systems.

While all this is still true, I’ve come to realize that there are many more inextricably interconnected systems that comprise the earth (ecological) systems and human (civilizational) systems on which our lives depend, and that they are all poised to collapse. Some of these are listed in the chart above.

History is replete with examples of political, financial and economic collapse, and often when one fails the rest of these systems follow. Much of the world already lives in cities and countries that are in fairly advanced stages of both civilizational and ecological collapse. I have argued that the collapse of our human systems is likely to precede the collapse of the world’s ecological systems, which I think will be more gradual. But ecological collapse is still accelerating, and my sense is it will almost inevitably inflict the final blow on civilization by the end of this century.

The many economic crashes we have seen in past, and which various countries have seen lead to panic and even starvation, have occurred frightening quickly — in a matter of months when a “tipping point” is reached. The problem now is that our economy is so tightly globally integrated, and so lacking in resilience (“efficiency”, being cheaper and more profitable for corporations, has been pursued instead) that the next crash is highly likely to be global. And since the mechanisms to recover from a crash have now all been exhausted (we used the last of them up in 2008), when it happens it will probably be a ‘permanent’ (unrecoverable) collapse.

As I’ve written about often, this will mean a collapse of substantially all currencies, businesses, international (and most domestic) trade, the job market, and the value of real estate, investments and pensions. This will likely lead, as it has before (but this time globally), to the bankruptcy of governments and the devolution of almost all economic activity by default to the community level. We will essentially have to start again to build, community by community, economies that are sustainable and radically relocalized, rather than predicated on the current centralized Ponzi scheme of perpetual double-digit growth and ignored externalities.

Many writers on collapse have expressed the hope that we can manage, with difficulty, collapse of our economic and political systems, while keeping our social systems more or less intact. Social disintegration, if it happens, will create vastly more suffering than the collapse of our economic, financial and political systems (and the educational, health care, technological infrastructure and other systems that depend on them).

As someone who believes we’re all doing our best, my sense has always been that salvaging our social systems should be possible, and will be essential to avoiding chaos as the rest of our systems collapse. But of late I’m becoming less confident that that is possible.

What exactly are our “social systems”? They are, in essence, a vast array of tacit agreements on how we will individually and collectively behave. These agreements are built on a mutual trust that it is in the collective interest of everyone to respect them. Some examples:

  1. Contribution to shared services: We agree to pay a fair amount of taxes, tithes or similar payments to finance what we agree to be “essential services” — our collective health, education, roads, communications and other infrastructure, and “defence” and “security”.
  2. Abiding by laws: We agree to respect and uphold the laws of the land, even when we don’t agree with all of them.
  3. Unified response to crises: We agree to subordinate our personal interests to some extent to the collective interest in times of recognized crisis (wars, depressions, “natural” disasters).
  4. Allow governments to do their best: We respect governments to have the collective best interest of the whole population in mind, even when we disagree with what they see that best interest to be.
  5. Universal rights and responsibilities: We agree to respect a broad set of rights and freedoms for everyone, and to amicably and peacefully resolve differences when these rights and freedoms are perceived to conflict. These rights include property rights. These rights and freedoms come with a commensurate set of responsibilities, including the responsibility to ensure one’s property doesn’t harm others, and the responsibility to dutifully discharge one’s debts so as to not undermine confidence in the system of exchange.

I would argue that since the 1980s — just 40 years ago — most of the population in most nations has moved from a profound respect for these agreements to a position of no longer accepting most or all of these agreements. That is neither a good nor a bad thing in itself, and it is certainly understandable given the current utter dysfunction of most of our human systems. But the prevalence of this new antipathy towards any basic social contracts has profound implications for social cohesion, locally, nationally and globally.

Here are some examples of how this has manifested since it seemingly began in the reactionary Reagan/Thatcher era:

  1. Loss of commitment to paying for and providing shared services for all:
    • Tax cheats, corrupt administrations and powerful international corporate lobbies openly reject the idea of paying taxes for “others’” essential services.
    • Tax fraud is euphemistically reframed as “tax avoidance” and rewarded.
    • Social services are starved for funds as more and more tax monies are spent on international (wars, invasions, coups and assassinations) and domestic (spying, militarized police) repression of citizens.
    • Tax havens openly embrace corporate grifters.
    • The privileged castes’ lawyers write tax laws to make the poor pay higher tax rates than the ultra-rich.
    • Starved public education, public health care, public transportation and other systems deteriorate closer and closer to a state of total dysfunction, while the privileged castes and their friends and families access exclusive first class private education, private health care, and private transportation, subsidized by public moneys.
    • The word “services” is replaced by the derogatory term “entitlements” by the privileged castes and their government cronies to discredit public programs, so that they can be further starved and eventually dismantled.
  1. Loss of commitment to fairly create and uphold, and obey the law:
    • The privileged castes break the law with complete impunity, including laws against murder, mega-pollution, fraud, bribery, price-fixing, oligopoly and sexual assault. Laws are harshly applied against everyone else.
    • When the privileged castes buy, bribe or extort their way out of punishment, their success is celebrated, or their crimes “pardoned”.
    • When the privileged castes’ enterprises fail due to greed, corruption or mismanagement, they are bailed out at public expense (“too big to fail”).
    • Corporate oligopolies receive massive corporate subsidies, some of them buried in opaque “omnibus” packages of laws too huge and convoluted for anyone to wade through and object to. This includes horrifically inequitable and misdirected CoVid-19 subsidies.
    • Other laws written by the lawyers of the privileged castes and dutifully passed by well-paid-off semi-literate politicians, often without them even having being read before they are “passed”, enable and encourage the oppression of the country’s citizens by (a) surveilling and often targeting them for harassment, (b) enabling the charging of usurious interest rates on their debts, and (c) depriving them of essential health care, education and other vital services.
    • Still other laws enable the bombing and slaughtering of citizens anywhere in the world if they happen to be in countries whose governments don’t offer fealty to the privileged castes.
    • Law “enforcement” has become militarized, overtly biased and racist, and governments seemingly lack both the will and means to rein in the excesses of “officers”.
  1. “Everyone for themselves” response to crises:
    • The cult of individuality has reached the extreme where citizens claim that a requirement to wear a mask or get a vaccine is an outrageous violation of their “personal freedom”, and is deliberately and ostentatiously ignored.
    • Trust in the judgement of scientists has been systematically destroyed through disinformation campaigns, so attempts to coordinate science-based emergency responses result in lawsuits, death threats against public health experts, and at least one attempted coup.
    • An ever-growing number of both progressives and conservatives describe themselves as “libertarians” who want to be “left alone” to make all decisions for themselves, even in times of emergency.
  1. Widespread distrust of government intentions and actions:
    • There is a broad distrust, hatred and loathing for anything that even vaguely smacks of government or involves any government agencies. This is amplified and constantly played up in the oligopolistic media and social media, whose technocrats just shrug and say “up to you to decide what is true” or “we’re just a platform, not responsible for content”.
    • Hysterical claims about the “deep state”, alleged government plots, conspiracies and cover-ups are becoming more widespread and more popular. Attempts to debunk and fact-check misinformation and disinformation are assailed as “censorship” and merely drive their believers to unmonitored underground sites and into conspiracy theory cults.
    • Among conservatives and the uneducated, we have returned to a 1950s-era sensibility that “collective” and “community” are synonymous with communism and totalitarianism. This myth never really went away, but recently-sowed anti-Russian and anti-Chinese sentiment (to provide cover for domestic failures) is strengthening this myth’s hold. So any government action that benefits a collective (ie everyone) is viewed with suspicion.
  1. Unequal “rights” and abrogation of commensurate responsibilities:
    • Thanks to vast deregulation, non-enforcement, and granting of “rights” to corporations, corporate mega-polluters are free to destroy the world’s natural heritage (land, soil, air, water), accelerating the sixth extinction of life on earth. And they are free to distribute toxic and unhealthy foods that now cause most of the world’s deaths and diseases.
    • Meanwhile, whistle-blowers and protesters objecting to these actions are killed, threatened, imprisoned and “disappeared”.
    • Hiding behind corporate charters, the privileged castes now exercise the “right” to do anything that increases profits for their corporations, executives and shareholders, regardless of the cost to citizens, impact on citizens’ rights, and the viability of life on the planet. And they buy judicial appointments that will ensure this “right” is never infringed upon.
    • Debts have reached staggering levels in every part of the economy — corporate, individual and government. Interest rates are fixed by the privileged castes so that large corporations, the privileged caste and “friendly” governments pay essentially zero interest, while the poorest citizens pay 24-28% on credit cards, the only credit they can obtain, and credit that they are constantly pushed to take on more of (and have to, when the real cost of living is rising at four times the rate average workers’ wages are).
    • The privileged castes’ corporations now have the “right” to write off as tax losses the results of their misadventures and mismanagement, and to push the numbered companies of unsuccessful high-risk ventures into bankruptcy with impunity. Meanwhile, new laws have largely removed the corresponding right of individuals to declare personal bankruptcy.

These betrayals and abrogations of the agreements by which our societies function were initially propagated mostly by the privileged castes, with the often-overt encouragement and enablement of governments. It is not surprising, then, that the rest of the population, seeing itself discriminated against and oppressed by the privileged castes’ disregard for these agreements, are showing a similar disregard for these agreements, saying:

      • If the privileged castes aren’t respecting the agreements, why should they?
      • Why should they have any trust in, or respect for, governments and the agreements they are only enforcing to their disadvantage?
      • Why should they not cheat on their taxes as well?
      • Why should they obey laws that seem designed to discriminate against and oppress them?
      • Why should they trust governments to pass and enforce laws in the “collective interest” when governments seemingly only cater to the vested interests of the privileged castes?
      • Why should they respect corporations’ and privileged castes’ “rights and freedoms” when they seem to amount to the right to destroy the planet, poison its citizens, and deprive them of their own rights and freedoms?
      • Why when inequality has skyrocketed over the past 40 years should citizens presume anything governments do is in the “collective interest”?

So the population, no longer able to discern what they can and can’t believe and who they can trust, are filled with fear, bewilderment, rage and hopelessness. With trust gone, these social agreements are now, in many countries, in tatters.

And without them, the social fabric that has kept 7.8B people in line, and functioning at least superficially as a civil society, is rapidly tearing apart.

In many parts of the world where collapse is well-advanced, the members of constituent communities have learned to create a new local, social fabric. That may be in intentional community, or in a gang or cult, or less formally just in an evolving sense of “who’s in our community and how are we looking after each other?”. They are practicing, trying to figure out how to create a local economy, politic, health care system, education system, and social systems, in the vacuum left by government neglect and incapacity, and by the abandonment and abrogation of basic social agreements. They have forged new agreements, for better or worse. Some of the ones I’ve seen are amazing, while others are horrifying. We should be watching, and learning.

In parts of the world like (most of) ours where collapse still seems a way off, there hasn’t been much if any thought given to how, if the social fabric that is now so badly torn cannot be mended, we are going to follow “third world” examples and create new agreements that will work well-enough for us to survive.

It won’t be easy. We are like dogs that have been looked after all our lives and are suddenly witnessing the breakup of our family and the possibility we are going to have to make do for ourselves, in collaboration with the other dogs suddenly in the same position. We have become so dependent on civilization’s systems we have never given a thought to having to create whole “new” societies, from the bottom up, from the ruins of the one that is now quickly disintegrating.

Where once I was confident we’d muddle along, I now fear it may be a more brutal adaptation. We do have good intentions, but that’s about all we have going for us right now. We suffer from severe imaginative poverty (from 40 years’ lack of exercise of our imaginations). We have almost no residual skill or experience in community-building, consensus-building, or living and working in self-sufficient and self-managed communities. It may take two or three generations of experiment and practice to build up the skills and experience to be able to do what wild animals do innately.

We are inevitably, due to lack of imagination and better models, going to try to create new societies similar to the only ones we were familiar with, even though they were hopelessly dysfunctional and are unworkable in a world where all of the systems in the diagram above have already collapsed or are in the process of collapsing. We will probably try out neo-tribal models first, which will provide some useful lessons but likely won’t work well in our vastly diverse, vastly under-skilled post-civilization societies.

We will have to cope with the death throes of the top privileged castes as they desperately attempt to retain their wealth, power and influence. They will likely create a kind of neo-feudal model which will work for a while and then fail spectacularly once the “nobles” run out of money (and hence power; since most of their wealth is in real estate and “financial assets”, that shouldn’t take too long, but it will be chaotic). If you’ve ever lived in a “company town” you probably have a good idea how this works.

The biggest unknown in building post-civilization societies is whether some of the technologies we have produced during our civilization’s reign, such as nuclear and biological resources that have been or could be adapted for weaponry, could be used by very small groups of people to produce a global catastrophe, even before the catastrophes that ecological collapse is just now starting to present us with, weigh in. It really wouldn’t take a rocket scientist. (I’m much less worried about AI, nano-bots etc — that stuff takes a lot of energy to sustain, and I think we’ll run out before new technologies emerge that can start to rival in destructive capacity what’s already out there in military arsenals, power plants and laboratories.) And if neglected after collapse, all the existing nuclear power plants could melt down, and the mega-warehouses full of lethal chemicals could crumble, with disastrous consequences that could last for millennia.

The next biggest unknown is how severe the ecological collapse will be over the next couple of centuries. I think at least a small part of the planet will remain habitable to humans as this collapse unfolds, even without the energy-dependent, prosthetic, artificial environments in which almost all of us now live. But there are models that suggest otherwise. And it hasn’t been that long since the entire planet was wrapped in hot toxic gases that only microscopic creatures could endure. Even less time has passed since the entire planet was last covered in miles-thick ice. We can’t know.

If we can dodge these two bullets (and a few others equally as depressing), I still believe the human race can survive the collapse of global civilization, and in a couple of millennia, humbled, much smaller in number, and back to being a tiny and insignificant part of Gaia’s awesome experiment of life on earth, we might find our distant descendants living very happy, peaceful, simple lives, mostly free from stress and struggle. As Anna Tsing explains in The Mushroom at the End of the World, it will probably be a salvage-gift-and-scavenger society, similar and yet in ways amazingly different from how prehistoric humans lived.

That’s what I want to believe anyway.

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

CoVid-19: The Go-for-Zero Strategy

This is the 14th in a series of articles on CoVid-19. I am not a medical expert, but have worked with epidemiologists and have some expertise in research, data analysis and statistics. I am producing these articles in the belief that reasonably researched writing on this topic can’t help but be an improvement over the firehose of misinformation that represents far too much of what is being presented on this topic in social (and some other) media.

NB: Sweden is a day behind in reporting; its latest report shows 350 cases/day/M (ie should be dark red not grey in map on right). 

There has been much talk lately about the wisdom of the prevailing “yo-yo” approach to dealing with CoVid-19 — relaxing restrictions when cases, hospitalizations and deaths drop, and reimposing them when they rise to “unacceptable” levels.

The only reason this utterly failed policy is still being used in North America and Europe is that governments and public health organizations have been paralyzed by fierce antipathy to government, antipathy which has been repeatedly churned up since the 1980s by fear-driven conservatives and by uneducated citizens prone to believing fear-mongered conspiracy theories about “evil” governments.

So governments and health authorities are reluctant, even fearful, to impose any restrictions on the public until and unless the crisis reaches catastrophic levels. The violent knee-jerk responses of the right to even the modest restrictions that have been imposed (eg widespread death threats, occupations by heavily-armed right-wing “militias”, the blossoming of QAnon and other lunatic fringe anti-government conspiracy theory cults, and the attempted kidnapping and coup in Michigan), suggest that governments’ fear to act decisively is not entirely ill-founded.

As a result of this absurd policy, 11,000 Canadians, 275,000 Americans and nearly 1.5M people globally have needlessly died, and the pandemic is now spreading faster than ever.

In Canada, as a result of the use of the yo-yo strategy, as Andrew Nikiforuk reports, “hospitals in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec are almost overwhelmed, long-term care homes have once again become deadly hot zones, and a nation that committed $4 billion to be able to conduct 200,000 tests a day still struggles to do half that”.

The only viable alternative to the yo-yo strategy is a go-for-zero strategy, which has been successfully deployed in the so-called TANZANC countries (Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Atlantic & Northern Canada). These democratic countries have essentially eliminated CoVid-19 within their borders, put in place stringent measures to prevent its re-emergence, and hence been able to restore “normal” life, and seen their economies quickly rebound as a result.

The Australian Grattan report shows what would be required for any democratic country to achieve similar success:

  1. Make zero cases the explicit goal for the country/state, and implement a specific, public plan to achieve that goal.
  2. That plan will likely include a complete lockdown for all ages until the number of reported new cases has been reduced to approximately 3 per day per million people. [Current level in the US is 500/day/M; in Canada it’s 120/day/M, but it was about 10/day/M for much of the summer before the recent surge]. Once the 3/day/M level has been achieved, certain specific low-risk, high-benefit activities can be permitted and encouraged. Additional easing can be permitted once new cases drop to 1/day/M people, and considerable further easing once zero new cases have been reported for a week.
  3. Everyone entering the country must be tested at the border and/or strictly quarantined for 14 days or until a negative test is confirmed.
  4. Stringent, properly staffed contact tracing and isolation must be in place for any cases that do arise. Non-cooperation and lying about exposure should be prosecutable. Lives depend on it.
  5. Testing must be easily and universally accessible for free, and test results must be able to be produced and communicated within 24 hours. The technology to do this exists; the capacity in most jurisdictions currently does not.
  6. Testing with digital attendance record-keeping and follow-up must be instituted in all public venues (restaurants, arenas etc). [Australia’s success means that up to 35,000 people can now attend stadium events with zero resulting cases.]
  7. Masks are mandatory in all public places in areas which have had recently-reported cases. In all other places they are optional.
  8. Economic supports for all those disadvantaged by restrictions must be available.
  9. Strict enforcement of quarantine must be maintained; no exceptions.

I can imagine the QAnon crowd getting apoplexy just reading this list. But it works. It has saved thousands of lives and enabled quick economic recovery in areas that have had the courage and resources to implement it.

What would it take to implement it in other areas? Obviously the more out-of-control the virus is in an area, the longer the lockdown and the greater the challenge. In most of the US, interstate border crossings are impossible to restrict and the resources simply don’t exist, so it wouldn’t be possible even if cases weren’t already 100 times or more the target 3/day/M rate for achieving the go-to-zero benefits. Maybe in Vermont and Hawai’i.

But in Canada, despite the upsurge, it’s still feasible. It took Victoria state in Australia nearly 2 months to reduce their spike from 80 cases/day/M back down below 3 (and it’s now zero on most days). So Canada could probably get its 120 cases/day/M down to below 3 within 90 days (by Feb 28) if we followed a national, strict, Grattan-style go-for-zero strategy.

If not, IHME projects the Canadian infection rate will soar to 360/day/M and nearly 30,000 more Canadians will die by that date, which is likely the earliest that a vaccine will start to be available in sufficient quantities for the population at large. A go-for-zero strategy could save 90% of those deaths, 27,000 lives. Not to mention the unknown long-term damage to those infected, and the strain on our hospitals and other institutions. Is that worth a 90-day lockdown? I would say so.

Probably the most important question (since Canadian and other governments know about this strategy and have refused to implement it), is whether CoVid-19 will teach us the lesson that this is the way to go next time. The next pandemic is surely coming, and while governments shrugged off the threat of SARS and MERS ten years ago, the number of pandemics per decade is accelerating as factory farms proliferate, and as exotic animal harvesting and encroachment into the world’s last wilderness areas grows exponentially. A pandemic with the transmissibility of CoVid-19 and the morbidity of SARS or MERS would (will?) kill billions. When it hits, we cannot afford to be unready. And unless trust in government and public health institutions in most of the world’s democracies can be restored, we will not be ready.

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

Pollard’s Laws

We will just keep going
Until we drop
And this is not a sad thing.
All the leaves that ever lived
Did the same.
— Alice Walker (2020) (images of Alice Walker and Ursula Le Guin above CC-SA 2.0 from wikimedia)

For the nearly 18 years I have been blogging, I have been keeping track of aphorisms (pithy observations containing general truths), principles (fundamental ideas that underlie a system of beliefs), and maxims (rules or suggestions on how to conduct oneself — eg “Trust your instincts.” “Show, don’t tell.”) Over the years I have deleted many that now strike me as overly simplistic (no matter how wittily articulated), or as simply untrue (I am decidedly less idealistic than I was 18 years ago, and some of what I used to espouse now just makes me cringe).

When I last looked through my collection, I lamented how few of them were written/said by women. So here are a few more by some very smart women:

  • Given a choice between their worldview and the facts, it’s always interesting how many people toss the facts.
    — Rebecca Solnit
  • Reality simply consists of different points of view.
  • Every aspect of human technology has a dark side, including the bow and arrow.
  • Nothing interests people so much as themselves.
    — Margaret Atwood
  • We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.      [this is my absolute favourite]
  • There are no right answers to wrong questions.
  • My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world, and exiles me from it.
  • The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself.
    — Ursula Le Guin
  • The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
  • What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears.
  • Propaganda is amazing. People can be led to believe anything.
  • Nobody is as powerful as we make them out to be.
  • The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.
  • The most important question in the world is, ‘Why is the child crying?’
    — Alice Walker

There are some aphorisms or principles that are so profound and important that I’ve chosen to call them “laws”. To me, a law actually changes or reformulates your worldview. It creates a new lens through which you see everything.

Over the years I’ve come up with two “laws”, things that have “shaken my windows and rattled my walls”. They are:

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: Humans have evolved to do what’s personally urgent for them (the unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then to do what’s easy, and then to do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important. Social, political and economic change happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives fills the power vacuum. We have evolved to be a collaborative and caring species, and we are all doing our best — we cannot do otherwise.

Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. To change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex (and it frequently is), success at truly understanding and changing it is unlikely, and developing workarounds and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse. For that reason, the systems of global industrial civilization culture, having precipitated the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, are now collapsing rapidly and inevitably.

Now I think I’m ready to add a third “law” to the list. Here it is as it currently stands (since it’s my law I have the right to rewrite it):

Pollard’s Law of Human Beliefs: We believe what we want to believe, not what is actually true. We want to believe in happy endings, simple answers, the inevitability of progress, self-control, karma, responsibility, destiny, miracles, a proper order of things, the power of love, and infinite human capacity and agency. Most of us want to believe in a higher power that can step in when we falter. We want to believe what those in our circles of trust believe (even if it’s crazy, gaslighting or propaganda). So we tend to seek sources that reinforce those beliefs and ignore those that undermine or unsettle them. Our hopes and expectations are determined by those beliefs. Our worldview is the sum of those beliefs, hopes and expectations, and bears no necessary resemblance to truth or reality. This invented reality is the only way we can  make sense of a world that is vastly too complex to ever make sense of.

Yeah, it needs some editing, and I suspect it will evolve, but I think the essence of it is there. You can probably recognize some aphorisms (like Rebecca Solnit’s above, and the third one by Alice Walker above), and some of the work by Lawrence Lessig, Francis Bacon and others, that underpin this “law”.

One of the values of a “law”, to me, is that it not only reveals a profound truth but hints at why it is so. An aphorism teases us to ask “why” it is so for ourselves. That too is valuable, but it is incomplete without the dessert of appreciation for why it is so. Sometimes we have to supply our own dessert.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 7 Comments

Deliberately So

image CC0 from pexels.com

Lately I have been enjoying a series of podcasts from a young Toronto-based group called The Stoa. Some of their recent discussions have been about deliberative processes — the work we do, both personally and in groups, to think things through in a balanced, and, well, deliberate way (etymologically, the term comes from libra, the scales — nothing to do with liberation).

The best of these podcasts IMO have been those that have featured Daniel Schmachtenberger and Forrest Landry. Daniel, a home-schooled vegan, has been working on multiple fronts towards the lofty goal of reimagining (and perhaps reinventing) civilization and, towards that end, improving our dialogic and collaborative processes, on the basis that this goal can only be achieved through better sense-making and improvements to the ways we surface collective wisdom.

Forrest developed the idea of Immanent Metaphysics, and then went on to produce what he calls Ephemeral Group Process (EGP), an essentially inquiry-based collaborative process where the questions are collectively developed using a “technology” somewhat analogous to Open Space, explored in multiple small-group sessions (usually 5-7 people), and then “harvested” to make sense of the group’s understanding, using a specific methodology.

As an aside, both Daniel and Forrest have rather peculiar entrepreneurial histories: Daniel co-founded a nutritional supplement company that purports to sell products that improve cognitive capacity and health, while Forrest’s company sells portable vaporizers (perhaps to feed your mind in a different way).

The ideas and frameworks that Daniel and Forrest have developed are every philosopher-geek-idealist’s wet dream, but you may be wondering why I, having disavowed the existence of free choice, would be intrigued about ideas and processes that purport, ultimately, to improve our collective choices and (re-)make the world a better place.

I could be flip and say I have no choice as to what ideas I choose to get infatuated by (and inflict on my poor readers). But the truth is I think there is a role, even in a free-will-less world, for better — more disciplined, more open-minded, more creative — ways of thinking about the world, about what we believe about it, and about what our role is in it. If some of Daniel’s and Forrest’s ideas and approaches inspire you to think about things differently and to ultimately act differently, then, while you would inevitably be drawn to them (or not), my exposing them to you could actually make a difference. Our lack of free will does not in any way equate to determinism. None of us may have any choice, but our unpredictable interactions with each other will change our trajectories, and no one can say what that might lead to. We can run a marble race down the same track a dozen times and the outcome will be different every time, no matter how we try to control the variables.

Over my long career as an advisor to business, I witnessed and participated in many excruciating meetings that exemplified absolutely ghastly deliberative processes, many of them “led” by executives earning seven figure incomes. And away from the office, I have witnessed an equivalent number of equally-dreadful deliberative and collaborative activities, in communities, on boards, and even in very small-group conversations.

When I got involved with the Group Pattern Language Project that ultimately produced the Group Works deck, I realized that deliberative processes didn’t have to be so awful, if they were well-facilitated, and/or more thoughtfully structured. And I’ve since learned of many other facilitation tools, methods and formats that can help.

But even well-structured, well-facilitated activities can be unsuccessful, and even dysfunctional, if the processes that the individual participants employ, and which the collective group employs (influenced by an infinite number of dynamics), are poor processes. There is only so much a facilitator can do.

Daniel argues that there is a need for us to develop both our personal cognitive capacities and processes (and self-knowledge), and our collaborative capacities and processes — in other words, our personal and collective deliberation capacities and processes. Without doing so, he says, we have little hope of improving the quality and effectiveness of our collective decisions and actions, and are likely to fall back to preconceived ideas, hidden biases, and dysfunctional power dynamics. His Consilience Project (consilience = the tendency of evidence obtained from independent, unrelated sources to “converge” on strong, compelling conclusions) is designed to provide a framework for improving our deliberative processes, focused specifically on improving sense-making and combatting misinformation. And he suggests Forrest’s EGP as a method to use within such frameworks.

Both Daniel and Forrest stress that this isn’t just a matter of intellectual skill — deliberative processes are as much about how we feel as about what we think, and as much about the emotional dynamics of the group (and beyond) as it is about concepts, perceptions and ideas. And it’s not just about analytical rigour — the richer creative output and “emotional intelligence” that comes from effective deliberative work is perhaps even more important. That’s one of the reasons they both stress the importance of play in such processes.

So that has led me to ponder two questions: (1) how do we go about improving our own personal sense-making and communication processes so we contribute more effectively and creatively to group deliberations, and (2) how do we go about employing EGP or similar methods to work better as a group?

My sense is that the simple answer to both these questions is: No one knows. Daniel and Forrest are still working on these questions. The Consilient Project and EGP are both still under development, and there is nothing much online yet.

But perhaps the answers to these questions aren’t as important as the process for exploring them. If we were to follow the processes that Daniel and Forrest espouse, then in order to try to answer these two questions we would formulate additional questions, the answers to which might help us address these two ‘primary’ questions. Such questions might be of some of these forms, which apply analogously regardless of what our primary questions are (they could be applied equally to questions like how we might best address homelessness, systemic caste-ism, or climate collapse):

  1. What are the assumptions built into this question?
  2. What would we want to know in order to better answer these questions, and who would we need to talk with to know these things?
  3. What have others done to try to answer these questions, and who else is asking them, and how are they answering them, and why?
  4. What approaches to these questions have worked, and not worked, in past, and why, and what stories illuminate these past successes and failures?
  5. For whom is answering these questions not even an issue, and why not?
  6. What are the benefits of answering these questions well, and what are the costs if we fail to do so?
  7. Why do we care (or not care) about these questions?
  8. How did the situation arise to the point where these questions have seemingly become important?
  9. What are the adjacent possibilities that arise from this inquiry?
  10. How might the situation constructively change such that these questions would be rendered moot, and how might we intervene in the situation, or creatively reframe the issue entirely, to bring about such a change?
  11. Who is or potentially would be affected by how these questions are answered, and how are we involving them in exploring approaches to those people?
  12. Are we ready (personally and collectively) to commit the time, energy and resources to exploring these questions enough to come up with and implement useful and practical approaches to them, and if not, why not and when might be the right time?

You get the idea. Every one of these questions begs further questions, and the inquiry-based approach enables us to deeply explore the issues at hand rather than jumping to conclusions (decisions, preferences, actions). One of the great values of questions is that they avoid the inclination for polarization and ego-reactivity that declarative statements, hypotheses and “suggested answers” can evoke, and hence encourage more group “binding” and thus collaborative energy and capacity.

There’s a question whether an individual or group thoughtfully and deliberately exploring such questions even needs to move from asking these questions to the ultimate question: OK so what do we do? It may be that the inquiry itself evolves ideas, approaches and collective knowledge such that the answer to this ultimate question is obvious.

In his book The Other Side of Eden Hugh Brody describes an indigenous deliberative process that involves story-telling and asking questions, but, unlike western processes, doesn’t conclude with a “who will do what by when” chart; it’s left up to the individuals listening to the stories and questions to decide tacitly what actions to take personally, and to discuss one-on-one (with the people affected) what actions they might want to take collectively. How might such a trust-and-personal-responsibility approach work in large, hierarchical groups and organizations? And how might such an approach enable such groups and organizations to evolve into self-organizing, self-managing groups and organizations, and eliminate the need for hierarchy entirely?

The most astonishingly productive, instructional, and enjoyable group activity of my life was a neighbourhood ‘barn-raising’ twenty years ago. A neighbour’s old barn, being used as a garage, was dangerously falling apart. An invitation was sent out to the neighbours to meet for tea and discuss ideas for converting it into a stable, more useful structure. In an entirely self-organized way, creative ideas evolved, others were consulted, and work bees happened. The result was an amazing multi-purpose space created without any blueprint or hierarchy. We all learned new skills. And every time we passed it, we could say “We did that!”

Forrest makes the point that our political processes and systems have evolved dysfunctionally much the same way our health care processes and systems have: to focus on ‘acute’ problems (eg the latest Trump executive order, a CoVid-19 spike, or a foreign threat) rather than ‘chronic’ problems (eg inequality, homelessness, caste-ism/racism, ecological and economic collapse). And that dysfunctionality stems largely from an incapacity of large groups to get their heads around very complex problems.

Listening to others with different perspectives, knowledge, ideas and experiences enables us to see an issue ‘stereoscopically’, he notes. Two perspectives are not only richer for problem-solving than one, they allow the seeing of multiple additional perspectives, much as having two eyes provides much more than just two monoscopic views of something.

Daniel makes the point that such a multi-dimensional perspective also allows groups to identify “synergetic satisfiers” — ideas and adaptations that satisfy more than one need at the same time. It also tends to nurture what Zeynep Tüfeckçi calls “epistemic humility” — appreciation that we don’t, and can’t, have all the knowledge, understanding, and “answers” we’d like, and sometimes presume to have.

Collaboration, he says, is only effective when there are three things in place: practice and experience working together, cognitive coherence (appreciation of others’ ways of thinking and communicating), and shared values. Connecting the collaborators at a more than semantic level is also helpful (prehistoric tribes did this through music and dance rituals, which allow for individual riffs that are in concert with the collective rhythm). Ideally, achieving a (non-western) culture of individual responsibility with  shared, collective credit for outcomes is your goal.

The challenge we face, Daniel adds, is the context in which most of us have to work together: our destructive and debilitating globalized industrial culture. “There is no way to have your hands totally clean in a world that is built on institutional, structural violence”, he says. The only ethical resolution is to minimize the harms while maximizing our collective capacity to change things, which is especially difficult when so many of our harms are invisible to us personally (he uses factory farming as an example, though he could as easily have used our prison system, our education system, and toxic family and workplace environments). We all have to walk the razor’s edge between courage and sensitivity, he says, and not forfeit either.

Of course, this is easier if you have the background, the temperament, the capacity, the time, and the curiosity to work on these things. Expecting many or most people to be able and willing to do any of this is likely pretty unrealistic.

But it’s still worth keeping in mind. We can (as Daniel recommends) take training to become better facilitators. We can become guerrilla facilitators in situations when no one is facilitating, or the facilitator is floundering. We can use methods like Best Possible Outcome to exercise a group’s collaborative muscles.

And of course we can work on our own stuff. Not only the quality of our own work in groups, but the quality of our own internal deliberation — our capacity to ask the right questions of ourselves, and to be constantly self-aware and challenging ourselves about our biases, beliefs and blind spots.

So, in keeping with the theme of inquiry, instead of suggesting a process for evaluating your internal deliberation capacities, I will conclude with a question:

If you were designing a ‘scorecard’ to assess the quality of your own internal deliberative processes — leading to greater objectivity and openness, better articulation of your own thoughts and ideas, deeper self-knowledge and self-awareness, larger capacity for creativity, resilience, equanimity, effective listening, sense-making and ‘usefulness’ to yourself, others and the world — what elements would the scorecard score you on, how (highly) would you score yourself, and what one action might best improve your ‘score’?

And if you’re looking for a place to start with the process of self-inquiry, Daniel has — of course — a list of questions for you.

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

Links of the Month: November 2020

image from Pikrepo, CC0

This poem is by the winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, Louise Glück, written last month:


Leo Cruz makes the most beautiful white bowls;
I think I must get some to you
but how is the question
in these times

He is teaching me
the names of the desert grasses;
I have a book
since to see the grasses is impossible

Leo thinks the things man makes
are more beautiful
than what exists in nature

and I say no.
And Leo says
wait and see.

We make plans
to walk the trails together.
When, I ask him,
when? Never again:
that is what we do not say.

He is teaching me
to live in imagination:

a cold wind
blows as I cross the desert;
I can see his house in the distance;
smoke is coming from the chimney

That is the kiln, I think;
only Leo makes porcelain in the desert

Ah, he says, you are dreaming again

And I say then I’m glad I dream
the fire is still alive


Dr Love (Bacha Khoperia, ბაჩა ხოფერია), described by some as the Republic of Georgia’s Banksy, sums up modern civilization quite brilliantly. This work is in Bristol, UK. Street art has long been a popular art form in Georgia (Sakartvelo, საქართველო)

How do you know when civilization’s about to fall apart?: Joseph Tainter was recently interviewed, along with several other societal collapse theorists, on how close we are to collapse today. Excerpt:

In “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Tainter [writes] “The world today is full.” Complex societies occupy every inhabitable region of the planet. There is no escaping. This also means, he writes, that collapse, “if and when it comes again, will this time be global.” Our fates are interlinked. “No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.”

When I ask him about this, the usually sober-sounding Tainter sounds very sober indeed. If it happens, he says, it would be “the worst catastrophe in history.” The quest for efficiency, he wrote recently, has brought on unprecedented levels of complexity: “an elaborate global system of production, shipping, manufacturing and retailing” in which goods are manufactured in one part of the world to meet immediate demands in another, and delivered only when they’re needed. The system’s speed is dizzying, but so are its vulnerabilities. A more comprehensive failure of fragile supply chains could mean that fuel, food and other essentials would no longer flow to cities. “There would be billions of deaths within a very short period,” Tainter says. Even a short-term failure of the financial system, Tainter worries, might be enough to trip supply chains to a halt.


cartoon by Michael Leunig

The wisdom of nationalizing social (and other) media: Now that Facebook and Google are threatening to pull out of Australia unless the government backs down on rules requiring them to pay local media outlets for use of their content, people are asking how we can take back control of the media from rich private interests. While Zeynep Tüfekçi has suggested they be nationalized and run as networked national/local co-ops, the Guardian explores whether national public broadcast media couldn’t, and shouldn’t just take them over and run them as extensions of their own services, networked country-to-country. In the meantime, Zeynep argues, it’s essential to re-empower the regulatory authorities to actually regulate — break up monopolies and oligopolies, tell these companies what they can and can’t do and the penalties for not following the regulations — instead of trying to do the refereeing that these oligopolies have utterly failed to figure out how to do.

Smashing meeting privilege: Evelyn Arellano dissects the power dynamics implicit in many corporate meetings (even and especially virtual meetings) and suggests ways to confront them. And a new BYU study reveals how women are disempowered in the workplace and 7 steps that can elevate women’s voices. Thanks to Elise Keith for the links.

Portland creates THE working model for housing reform: The city has introduced radical changes to density laws, including setting maximum building sizes, to encourage greater density and affordability and reduce sprawl. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link, and the one that follows.

It’s time for reparations: Nikole Hannah-Jones explains why descendants of American slaves are owed reparations for the centuries-long deficit their oppression has left them in, and how they might be introduced.

New ways of working: In a scintillating new one-hour discussion, seven authors of books on creating self-managed organizations share their successes and challenges.

Create your own green job: Goodwork.ca continues its excellent non-profit services with a new guide for Canadians on how to start your own green enterprise.


From FB. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

The food industry is knowingly making us sick: Michael Greger explains why the food industry’s “model of systemic dishonesty” is profitable, and how it has knowingly caused the deaths and chronic diseases of most Americans. The article links to 22 videos, with transcripts, that explain in detail how and why, worldwide, the food we eat (and food industry regulatory inaction) directly causes most of our deaths and illnesses.

The right-wing judiciary’s rotten core: Masha Gessen describes how the right-wing ideologues who now dominate the US Supreme Court share an utter “contempt for the norms and processes of government”, and the execrable process that led to the latest, incompetent and unqualified, appointee. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse explained at the hearings exactly which right-wing billionaires’ money were bankrolling the nomination, but none of the Republican senators cared. A disgrace of Stalinesque proportions. Thanks to Raffi for the links.

How the Bush-Cheney regime sabotaged the OPCW: The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established to promote and verify adherence to the global ban on chemical weapons. But prior to the unwarranted and criminal invasion of Iraq, the US deliberately sabotaged the organization, orchestrated the ouster of its Director, who was successfully negotiating with Iraq to destroy its chemical weapons, bugged its offices, and strong-armed its allies to “neutralize” the OPCW to prevent it interfering with the Iraq invasion, and later to justify war on Syria based on disputed claims of that country’s chemical weaponry. Caitlin Johnstone has the story, which reads like an espionage thriller. She explains that this bullying is not limited to international organizations that get in its way, but is extended to countries like Australia (where they orchestrated the ouster of both Gough Whitlam and Kevin Rudd), Bolivia, and of course Venezuela. And it’s continued unabated during Democratic Party presidents. Now, she says, “America has no allies, only hostages”.

Women’s sovereignty over their own bodies again under assault: The newly unrepresentative US supreme court and the extreme abortion ban passed recently in Poland have again raised the spectre, even in Canada, that women will again be deprived of freedom of choice over abortion and even contraception. Here’s an interesting synopsis of the issue, which raises the obvious question about how any sane person can possibly defend forced-birth laws while simultaneously opposing humanitarian laws and programs to protect babies, children and adults after birth. But we’d better figure it out: Poland is our warning shot. And the next authoritarian right-wing populist likely won’t be as inept and appalling as the one Americans just, barely, got rid of.

When Murdoch soured on Trump: Interesting story in the centrist UK newspaper iNews about how Trump abused Murdoch’s support to the point the right-wing billionaire started to shift his publications away from supporting Trump.

Last rites for Canada’s MAID law: Trudeau has waffled again and introduced a bill that would provide only marginally better access to medically assisted death than the law that was struck down as unconstitutionally restrictive last year. If passed, it will continue to force many who want control over the own bodies and the right to die with dignity to live in pain, horror and shame. It will probably, and hopefully, again be ruled unconstitutionally restrictive by the courts. But in the meantime, religious right wingnuts are trying to force the government to tighten the law even further, claiming without evidence that it is “ableist” and will lead to people being coerced into dying against their will or proper judgement. There seems to be no limit to the sanctimonious and patronizing preaching by those screaming that we can’t be trusted to decide what to do with our own bodies. It’s the same argument that the anti-abortion forces use, and it’s bullshit. This editorial by an Anglican minister is the only analysis of the situation that I’ve read that’s sane, and sadly our government is too weak-willed to listen.


left chart from WorldoMeters; right charts from the Atlantic’s CoVid Tracking Project

We still don’t know: CoVid-19 hospitalizations in the US have three-peaked back to a record 60,000, and US daily deaths look on track to soon repeat the “second” peak of 1,100/day. But no one knows what comes after that. IHME, still sticking to its 0.68% IFR rate, is projecting a rise in hospitalizations by January to 130,000 and a rise in daily deaths to 2,300/day. My sense is that the actual IFR, at least in areas that have already been hard hit by the disease, is somewhat lower than that, thanks in no small part to the profession’s dedication and sharing of knowledge on how to best treat it. In some areas of North America that avoided the April peak, hospitalizations and deaths are at record levels and projected to reach the ghastly per capital levels that Italy and NYC saw in the spring, over the next month. Again, I’m cautiously optimistic that common sense will prevail in people’s behaviour in hard-hit areas and hospitals will be able to manage the current surge, though with difficulty in some areas. Global deaths have risen to more than 7,500/day, well above the 4-6k/day range it’s tracked for six months, with nearly half the daily deaths now occurring in a reinfected Europe/Russia. Whether they can flatten the curve better than last time remains to be seen. We just don’t know. Here’s the latest news:


New Yorker cartoon by Mike Twohy

ASL performers’ stunning music videos: The celebrated troupe Deaf West Theatre shines with moving, uplifting versions of Kelly Clarkson’s “I Dare You“, Sara Bareilles’ “She Used to Be Mine“, and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Hell No“. Just watch the faces, and how much more than mere words can be conveyed with one’s hands. Jaw-dropping. More please!

Two great classical composers you’ve never heard of: Mozart contemporary Joseph Bologne, born in Guadeloupe, created works of unparalleled skill and imagination, but racism kept his work in the shadow of that of more famous composers. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link. And just recently, Alma Deutscher, at the age of 12, premiered her own piano concerto with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, demonstrating at once her world-class compositional prowess and virtuoso performance skills.

And speaking of extraordinary musical talent…: Music teacher Paul Harvey, suffering from severe Alzheimers, was inspired by his son to try, as a therapy, repeating an improvisational exercise Paul had used in his youth (creating a piece of music based on four random musical notes, given in the moment), and the result was so remarkable it was recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

About those exit polls: Exit polls in the 2020 US election suggested again that most white women (not just white men) voted for Trump. But are exit polls even less reliable than the obviously dubious opinion polls? Pew research deconstructing the 2016 exit polls says: don’t believe it.

How to conduct an interview with a disinformation agent: NZ journalist Tova O’Brien masterfully demonstrates how to shut down disinformation perpetrators.


cartoon by the late, wonderful Charles Barsotti

The light in the trees: Paul Kingsnorth’s latest short story describes something that might be non-duality. Or perhaps not. Excerpt:

I mean you died, he said. Not your body. Your body is still in the driver’s seat. Snap your fingers and you’ll see the headlights and the wire again, just as it was. What died was your self, your will, and just for a moment. Your self gets in the way of reality, you see. Your small worlds, your little truths that are not truths, the temptations, the opinions, the striving. They have to die for you to see.

The girl stared at everything at once and it all seemed to stare back. So what is it? said the girl. The normal stuff, I mean. The everyday things. What’s happening?

My conclusion, said the man, is that everything you see every day, everyone you know, everything around you: all of it is made by your mind. None of it has any substance unless you believe it does. You created the mountain, the cave, your place of work. You created me. We create our own little worlds and we carry them on our backs like sacks of winter wood. Once they break and fall away, there is reality, waiting for you.

But what do I do with it? said the girl. What do I do now?

It’s not what you do with it, said the man’s voice. It’s what it does with you.

Best descriptions (IMO) of this, published this month:


Tribe of Assam Macaques. Photo by Khushboo Sharma. From the Frans de Waal FB page. Click on image for a larger version.

From Verta Maloney:

a white lady who voted for 45 told me i hurt her feelings because i chose to talk to her about her vote.
a white lady who voted for 45 said that my decision to no longer greet her everyday has “affected her well-being” & started to cry real tears. (🙄)
a white lady who voted for 45 said that she was not trying to keep any secrets BUT it was her business that she voted for 45 and she didn’t want anyone to know. (🤔)⠀⠀⠀
a white lady who voted for 45 told me that we would just have to agree to disagree and i told her NO we would not.
i told her that as a black woman i could get more than my feelings hurt because of the political decisions of mediocre white ladies like her.⠀⠀⠀⠀
i told her that we do not understand each other because she hadn’t said anything that made sense, actually she hadn’t said anything of substance at all.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
i told her i wouldn’t be speaking to her in the future or waving and smiling at her as we drop our children off at school because i am done doing that. politics matter AND they are personal; my very existence as a black woman/mother is political.
white ladies who voted for 45 and the lot of you “liberal” white ladies who know and love white ladies who did and don’t challenge them or call them on their shit …⠀⠀
i am not here to convince you of my humanity.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
i am not here to play nice when you are playing with lives and legacies.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
i am not here for your white fragility and your fragile/exclusive versions of feminism.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
i am not here for your denial, your guilt or your racism.
what i am here for is all of us (even you) getting and being free and i am on that quest with or without you.
stop crying. stop making this about you. stop lying. stop always talking. just stop and for a bit of time listen to, believe and follow black women.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
once you know better, before you leap to the “do better” phase how about you actually BE better! cause honestly if you can’t BE better at your core whatever you do will simply continue to cause more harm than good.

From the Beaverton (Canada’s version of the Onion): The latest headlines, explained:

Canada searches for new country to compare ourselves to now that U.S. is too sad 

COVID replaces racism as #1 thing Canadians think they handle better than the States

(a cultural study of Canadians actually determined that more than anything else, Canadian culture is defined by how we differentiate ourselves from Americans) 

Alberta removes education from curriculum 

(the right-wing extremist government of Alberta commissioned an overhaul of the province’s education system; the report recommended a curriculum that included bible verses, but excluded any mention of “Indian residential schools” or other atrocities committed against First Nations people)

From Daniel Schmachtenberger, in a recent interview with The Stoa (my paraphrasing for brevity):

If you want to solve a complex problem (like eg homelessness):

      • start by looking at places that don’t have it and find out what they did
      • look at places that have reduced it successfully and how they did that
      • then identify and connect with the major existing projects already working on this problem
      • don’t overlook how indigenous cultures have addressed it
      • engage the people dealing with it (both as problem-solvers and as those most affected by it)
      • understand the context — how did it get to be this way, and what’s been tried successfully, and unsuccessfully
      • look at the cost/benefits of straightforward alternative ways to address the underlying problems that could be easy wins
      • enable self-sufficiency among those facing the problem every day so that when interventions have been completed, those people are able to sustain the changes themselves
      • while radically reimagining possibilities from the bottom up is a useful process, it needs to look at the practicality (economic, cultural etc) of making the necessary changes, and not get caught up in idealism
      • in addressing any problem, there is a need to balance external work with internal self-awareness — your appreciation of the problem has to evolve with the understanding of how you might effectively address it
      • be patient and persevere — don’t forget that the masters in any space have failed more often than the laypeople have tried

From an anonymous FB poster on Nov 2:

When you say: “No matter who wins tomorrow, I’m going to go to work the next day, be happy, and love my neighbour”, what I hear is: “My privilege shields me from the potentially devastating effects of this election. My livelihood is secure. I am safe from racism and bigotry. I never have to question where my next meal is coming from. And no one has ever attempted to take away my bodily autonomy.” We do not all live in the same America.

From Clay Shirky in 2018 on why the arguments of progressives fall on deaf conservative ears:

We brought fact-checkers to a culture war.

From John Green on standing on the shoulders of giants and on immunity:

I think of art as being a big collaboration in which a few people get over-celebrated and the rest unacknowledged. The world’s biggest ball of paint (in Alexandria, Indiana) is a baseball painted with 40,000 layers of paint. It’s now 12-15′ in diameter circumference. Most of it has been painted by visitors to Alexandria. Your layer doesn’t much matter in affecting what the ball looks like, but the colour you choose affects the colour the next person chooses, which affects the colour the next person chooses, and so on. Your layer of paint will always be utterly invisible to the rest of the world, but it was absolutely essential to the ball of paint becoming what the ball of paint has become. And like a great coat of paint, some books and artworks are sometimes celebrated as extraordinary. And they are likely deservedly remembered (many others are undeservedly forgotten). But they’re just like the great coat of paint —still just one layer that will be painted over too. The way that it matters is that it shapes the people who come after it, the people to whom it matters. What makes King Lear so great is the conversations we’ve had around it and the responses we’ve all had to it over the last 500 years…

If a new vaccine is coming, let’s not build a statue to anyone. Let us instead build monuments to the sprawling cooperation of thousands of people who share their work openly and generously, so that together we can achieve what we cannot achieve alone: shared immunity.


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

What’s the Matter with People?

New Yorker illustration by David Hornsby

On September 1, I published an article called What If Trump Wins Again? Two months later, it seems timely. So I re-read it today, and think I called it just about right.

If the results are a wake-up call, I don’t think either “side” is reading it correctly. As in 2016, voting was an expression of anger and fear. Last night, before the early and mail voters had been counted, only one state (AZ) looked different on the US electoral map than it did four years ago. The changes even today look almost like hair-splitting; the % of popular vote looks unlikely to have budged at all. Nothing has changed.

By that I mean in particular that a significant majority of white male voters, the cohort most likely to vote, has, as they have at least since the astonishing 1960s,  supported Republicans across the board, credentials and competence not even being a consideration. In short, they supported one of their own: as I put it in my earlier article:

What does it tell you that a majority of white males of all ages are knowingly prepared to vote again for a candidate who is blatantly corrupt, a pathological liar, clearly mentally deranged, uninformed, racist, sexist, utterly unprincipled, and staggeringly incompetent?

There is nothing “the matter” with the 48% of the population that voted for this candidate and party in this election. They are acting out their conditioning just as those who voted for the other candidate and party did. I would wager that just about every voter in this election was driven largely by fear and anger and not really by the issues at all. There is plenty of evidence that neither candidate or party endorses anything even close to a progressive agenda. And I think the last Democratic president wore out the word “hope”, so I don’t believe that was a big motivator either.

The voting was entirely reactionary — on the part of conservatives to try to sustain some of the regression of the past four decades on social issues, and prevent it being undone, and on the part of progressives to try to roll back the more heinous, ecologically ruinous and cruel programs and laws that have been introduced, starting with Reagan, the first truly reactionary president in the modern era, and continuing ever since.

But with all the blaming, name-calling and accusations, what is always unrecognized is that none of us has any choice over what we apparently do, or believe. We are entirely conditioned by our culture, by our genes, and by the circumstances that emerge in the moment.

I know this is an unpopular statement, (a “cop-out”), but scientists and philosophers are increasingly coming to this astonishing conclusion. Free will is an illusion. That doesn’t mean the future is predetermined, just that given the circumstances that will arise in the future, through no ‘fault’ of anyone, our behaviours will be not be of our choosing. That doesn’t mean they won’t be rational or irrational, informed or uninformed, emotional or stoic, just that we will have no control over any of them. We can’t say what the circumstances will be in the future, but we can be sure that, given those circumstances, we will have no say over how we react, and what we do, or don’t do.

If that seems outrageous, consider that the alternative, of saying that the knowing selection of a racist, sexist, homophobic, corrupt, incompetent liar for re-election in the US was willful, ie that it was a conscious, deliberate and voluntary choice.

Try to make sense of that — you can’t. People believe what they want to believe and their conditioning will lead them to act accordingly.

With few exceptions, we don’t want genocide, mass incarceration, racist crusades, or medieval laws. We just want the things we value to be retained or restored, or implemented for the first time. And while I have no doubt that most white males are by their (cultural and perhaps genetic) conditioning racist, sexist, and homophobic (ie in the words of Isabel Wilkerson they are blind to the prejudices of their Caste), I believe the vast majority have been raised and conditioned to want to accommodate others’ views, within limits, so we can all live in peace.

That doesn’t mean we couldn’t be stirred to civil and global war. But that will only happen if and when our conditioning leads us to believe there is no other easier choice to achieve what we believe must be done.

So I think blaming the pollsters, social and other media, campaign managers, human ignorance and credulousness, foreign agents, extremists, sinister cabals, or previous generations for the outcome of yesterday’s US election is just more reactivity, unwarranted and unhelpful. It’s easy and tempting to lay blame. But we had no choice about what happened yesterday, which is very, very close to what happened four years ago.

Our conditioning hasn’t changed. The circumstances of the moment for most haven’t changed (except to get worse). Why should we expect our behaviours to be different? Except of course if we believe in the inextinguishable myth (because we want to believe it) of divine will or of progress. These myths have been thoroughly debunked, but as long as we want to believe them, we will.

So what then? What am I suggesting we should do?

My answer, which almost no one likes (possibly why readership of this once-popular blog has dropped over 90%), is — nothing. Accept that we are all doing our best, that we are now well into both economic and ecological collapse, on a global scale, and that this is how collapse plays out. It’s a complex system and we are conditioned creatures. There is no “fixing” this.

So what then? If we can’t fix it, what should we do? If you’re still asking, it’s clear that you cannot accept that we have no choice. This article might (extremely unlikely) be read by someone who is shifting their views (involuntarily), and might therefore (minutely) alter their conditioning, enough perhaps to change their vote, next time, depending on the circumstances of the moment next time. Impossible to say. Just as I have no choice over writing this endless and increasingly unpopular blather.

Tomorrow I will be on a Zoom call I dread with a real estate developer. I will be filled with rage, and try to keep my mouth shut (I was asked to attend as a favour). I cannot change what will arise for me then, in the circumstances of the moment (and I pretty much know what they will be). My rage will be futile, and it will accomplish nothing except to provoke an unhealthy chemical reaction inside my body. I can tell myself that this is the case, that it would be better if I were equanimous about what I know cannot be changed. I think it’s 50-50 that I will just shut up and say nothing (a sign my conditioning has changed over the past decade, due to circumstances I can’t control). I will be, for as long as I stay on the call, a microcosm of the American voter contemplating yesterday’s election.

It’s all I can do.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 6 Comments

Still, Stand Still

drawing by Canadian artist Pierre Surtes, from my own collection
(this is NOT the image in the poster I refer to below, which seemingly exists now only in my memory)

When I was seventeen, my gf brought me a poster that showed a little girl standing at the ocean’s edge and staring out, her arms outspread. The words beneath the photo read: “Stand still and look until you really see.”

At seventeen, I didn’t get it. Perhaps I still don’t. But somehow I “know” there’s something important there.

I’ve always fallen in love with women way smarter, more aware, more grounded than I can ever hope to be.

I’m flush from a series of discussions and exchanges with, and readings from, some extremely bright people, and I feel suddenly blessed to have more such people in my life than ever before. I’ve so often felt starved for intellectual stimulation, but that may be mainly because I’ve never paid close attention when it’s actually all around me, and instead I keep waiting for it to knock on my door. I’m lazy that way.

So a little thank you to all those who have corresponded with me recently, and exposed me to new ideas, new possibilities, new ways of thinking and feeling and being. Thank you for reminding me to breathe, to slow down, to smile, to notice, to keep things in perspective, to pay attention, to make eye contact, and to give things time, even when time seems inexorably to be running out.

The message of the poster is perhaps a different way of relaying the message of radical non-duality that I’ve so taken to heart in recent years. Except that of course radical non-duality asserts that no amount of looking, or standing still, will enable “you” to see because “you” are precisely what’s in the way of seeing. A little joke from the universe.


I am starting to sense that the turmoil of what is seemingly going on all around us, with slowly-accelerating violence and chaos, is precisely what civilizational collapse, the “long emergency”, looks like. And that terrible, wonderful realization is coming precisely when it’s also dawning on me, as I’ve somehow always known, and as every wild creature keeps quietly telling me, that none of what I imagine is real, and everything already just is, perfectly, the way it is, the only way it could possibly be. And that the anguish I feel is because I’m too full of my self, and as such cannot hope to really see, to accept, to let go, to just be, in wonder. I know to my activist friends that sounds like an irresponsible cop-out, but, well…

I knew all this as a small child, and there have been glimpses since, but most of the time I’ve forgotten, and keep forgetting. And I understand that it’s hopeless and that when this is remembered, there will be no one here remembering. And that it doesn’t matter; things only really matter to our beleaguered, exhausted, deluded selves. But this incessant noisy mattering of everything still seems to be happening here, sadly.

Some writers are now starting to write about the current period as the traumacene. The horrific overpopulation of humans, the vast chasm of inequality, and the disconnected, frenzied lifestyles we have come to live, have created massive artificial scarcities and made most of us endlessly stressed. Compounding that, we now live in an age of unprecedented dependence, where so much that we need relies on ‘efficient’ global transportation and centralized, automated production and distribution systems, and on the cheap energy needed to produce and sustain them. It is an age of precarity, and of endless unspoken dread as to when everything will run out, knowing that that time is coming soon, and that we long ago lost the capacities and skills needed to live independently and sufficiently.

And we have been programmed and conditioned to be anxious, furious, and guilt-ridden about this, to want to blame someone, everyone, and ourselves for how the dice have rolled since our well-meaning civilization began. Or to deny it. And then to somehow fix it, make it the way in our foolish dreams we thought it might be, or once was. Somehow we know that none of these feelings make sense, and that none of these urgently-sought outcomes are even remotely possible. But knowing that can’t make us feel any better about it.

I first started writing poetry about waiting when I was seventeen. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but somehow I “knew” that that was what was required, and that in the meantime everything was just an act, make-believe, faking it, unimportant. Putting in time.

For most of the fifty-two years since, I forgot I was waiting; I forgot that that was what was necessary. In that forgetting, the ‘me’ that keeps asserting its existence, its validity, has been mostly and variously impatient, angry, ambitious, depressed, outraged, discouraged, saddened, terrified, anxious. About a reality that is nothing more than a fiction, an invented world conjured up in my brain. It’s a form of mental illness that I think almost all ‘selves’ suffer from.

Wild creatures, even when they age and become more wary, seem to have no need for such nonsense. They don’t imagine unreal things and happenings into self-vexing existence. They have never forgotten what is real.

There’s a wonderful story in scientist-poet Loren Eiseley’s book The Star Thrower about the utterly different perspective wild creatures have, and occasionally give us a glimpse of. Here’s an abridged version the story:

I did not realize at first what it was that I looked upon. As my wandering attention centered, I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun. Beneath them, a small neat face looked shyly up at me. The ears moved at every sound, drank in a gull’s cry and the far horn of a ship. They crinkled, I began to realize, only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. …

He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face. … I dropped even further and painfully away from human stature. It has been said repeatedly that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe. Man is destined to see only its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.

Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of it two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.

It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox’s den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment. We were the innocent thing in the midst of the bones, born in the egg, born in the den, born in the dark cave with the stone ax close to hand, born at last in human guise to grow coldly remote in the room with the rifle rack upon the wall.

But, I had seen my miracle. I had seen the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child’s universe, a tiny and laughing universe. I rolled the pup on his back and ran, literally ran for the neared ridge. The sun was half out of the sea, and the world was swinging back to normal. The adult foxes would be already trotting home. …

For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish.

In forgetting what is hidden behind the veil of self, we’ve forgotten how to play. Young foxes (and old corvids) play to learn, to develop skills, and to practice. But true play is never serious, or even consciously purposeful. Wild creatures play because it’s fun. The benefits are incidental.

In real play there are no winners and losers, no keeping score. Only in humans’ world of artificial scarcity is play a zero-sum game. The ideas of “healthy” competition, of dog-eat-dog, and of interaction being mostly about dominance and submission are, I think, a myth, a foolish anthropocentric misunderstanding.

Competition is actually IMO a traumatic response to scarcity. Its only evolutionary purpose is to “thin the crowd” when natural means of population management have been exhausted and the population is severely stressed. Otherwise there is no need for it. And while some birds and other animals may seem to be vying for mating rights, or for what we (I think incorrectly) call “status”, I would argue that this is no more “competitive” than the game Loren played with the young fox.

These seeming “competitions” (the word competition etymologically means “striving together”) are I believe the means animal tribes use to determine and communicate roles in the community. There is no hierarchy, only collective agreement on who in the tribe is best at doing what.

A part of that, it seems, is acknowledging who actually wants which role. There have been studies that show that the “central” male and female in a wild community (what we anthropomorphically call “alphas” or “top dogs”) are not necessarily the largest or strongest, but rather those most eager and able to fill the often-exhausting key protector and reproducer roles. Don’t want the job, don’t apply.

What would a human society look like without competition? I think this can only be imagined in a post-collapse culture, one without crowding or scarcity of resources. My sense is that it would be a society full of art and music, as that is one way humans play — as a means of expression, not just a means of learning important skills and staying fit. Humans aren’t alone in that — some bird species mimic, collect and display bright shiny objects, and sing quietly to themselves at night when they’re alone.

As our incompetent human civilization gears up and spins out, there is less and less time for art. Our current mania for work leaves no bandwidth, no space for creativity, no time for wonder. There are many constraints that actually stimulate creative ideas, but a lack of time is not one of them.

To live effectively and comfortably in a world without competition and scarcity, which is the world our species lived in for its first million years, where all that was needed was within easy reach from our warm treetop perches, we would first have to unlearn all the terrible knowledge we have been conditioned to accept and believe.

That’s why I think our re-emergence into such a world will have to await civilization’s collapse. In the 21st century the only way we know to live is the constant struggle to have enough, to have more, to survive. The only thing we have learned to believe is that our deprivation and stress and unhappiness has a purpose — motivating us to “create the better world we know is possible” or some similar nonsense. We have to keep denying that our few millennia of trying to run this little blue laboratory has been an unmitigated disaster, and that the sooner it ends, the better.

But it’s fine. We’ve always done our best, and will continue to do so until Gaia gets tired of the experiment and re-sets. She will take as long as is needed to clean up the mess. Humans, it turned out, weren’t very good at playing well with others, but that’s OK. There are many other creatures that are, and they will have their turn.

The problem with waiting is that there isn’t actually any such thing as time. It’s just a metaphor, a mental invention, a way for humans to make sense of what actually makes no sense, and has no need to. The universe has no need for time; everything is always fine just as it is.

Our species that has turned all play into competition will never understand. We’ve forgotten that real play has no consequences. And there is ‘no time’ to relearn all that we’ve forgotten.

So those of us waiting — for liberation from our selves, for salvation by some gods or super-humans, for a better world for our children, for the end of suffering, for Godot — are waiting, hopelessly, in non-existent time, for things to be other than how they are, the only way they can possibly, already, eternally, be. A madman’s folly.

Still, we have no choice. We can only laugh. We can only try to play, even though we’ve forgotten how. We can — still — only stand still, and look, until we really see, what has always been, right before our veiled eyes. What we can never see, until we’re gone.

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

How to Speak Canayjun

I often get ribbed when I visit “the States” because of how I apparently pronounce the word about, and because I actually do say eh, instead of huh.

But I’m always surprised at the number of words and expressions that I thought were universal English, that Americans simply never use. So, to help out my “south of the border” readers, here is a little quiz to test how well you can fathom Canadian vernacular. (I’d be interested in knowing how well UK readers do on this quiz, since some of these words and expressions originated there.)

No cheating by Googling before you guess. Asking any nearby Canadians is OK. Answers in the comments thread.

Here we go:

PART 1: What’s that Canadian on about?

What do the following words and expressions refer to, in terms Americans would understand? (1 point for each correct answer)

  1. blinds
  2. boxing day
  3. brown bread
  4. a Caesar (not as in salad)
  5. candy floss
  6. a chesterfield
  7. a civic holiday
  8. a flat (of a consumer product)
  9. give me a shout
  10. a Gravol
  11. had the biscuit
  12. a keener
  13. a kerfuffle
  14. kraft dinner
  15. Nanaimo bar
  16. a “regular” coffee
  17. a Robertson screw
  18. Smarties
  19. a snowbird

PART 2: What’s that in Canadian?

Canadians might use the following terms and expressions, and they would certainly know what they mean. But they would be likely to use a distinctly Canadian word or expression instead. What is it? (1 point for each correct answer)

  1. the restaurant check
  2. a candy bar
  3. a convenience store
  4. to fake or feint (by zagging when they zig, to get past someone in your way)
  5. gutters (that collect rainwater from the roof)
  6. rubber bands
  7. garbage disposal (unit in a sink)
  8. taking a vacation
  9. powdered (confectioners’) sugar
  10. a long line (waiting)
  11. a parking garage
  12. next-to-last (penultimate)
  13. napkin
  14. snowmobile
  15. faucet
  16. dish towel
  17. restroom
  18. non-dairy creamer (for coffee)

PART 3: What’s that Manitoban on about? Prairie terms.

This part is probably harder, since these are terms that you would likely only hear people from the Canadian prairie provinces use. Translate into ‘Murrican. (2 points for each correct answer)

  1. bumper-shining
  2. bush party
  3. cabin
  4. dainties
  5. frost shields
  6. going to a social
  7. Hallowe’en apples! (shouted)
  8. jam buster
  9. K-Tel brush
  10. pickerel
  11. “square tires”
  12. tanglefoot

BONUS QUESTION: The greatest Canadian.

A recent CBC series reaffirmed that the gentleman pictured above is still considered by Canadians to be our greatest public figure. What’s his name (1 point) and why is he so revered (1 point)?

Maximum score is 63 points. If you scored more than 30 points, congratulations — you are now an honorary Canuck. Skookum! Lord tunder’n Jesus, eh? Collect your prize in Timbits and Canadian Tire money on the way out.

(Thanks to hosertalk.com for many of the above expressions)

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

Facing Collapse: Ten Important Questions for the 2020s

Image of Ken Ward in 2016 Valve-Turners action, from the film The Reluctant Radical

It has been a year of terrible news and terrible realizations. A year of justifiable outrage and bewildered astonishment. A year of dashed hopes, false expectations and growing alarm and despair. A humbling year.

My response to being sad about all this is, as usual, to try to learn something new, and to recognize that offering us endless hope is just the establishment’s way of keeping us all in line.

That has me listening to some unusually bright, thoughtful, imaginative, realistic people — Zeynep Tüfekçi, Daniel Schmachtenberger, and Frédéric Laloux, among others. I’ll be writing more about some of Zeynep’s and Daniel’s fascinating ideas soon, but today, since I’m overdue for a “top 10” list, I thought I’d describe some of the interesting questions that came up in Frédéric’s most recent interview.

Frédéric is best known for his writings about self-managed organizations, but his many years studying such organizations have led to his asking questions that apply to what we do, individually and collectively, in our communities and in the world at large as well.

As I was listening to the questions he was posing, I began to realize that as recently as a decade ago, you would almost never hear these questions asked. It was, until very recently, considered bad form to ask a question without some sense of at least one “correct” answer at hand to answer it. And asking questions that acknowledged that there was likely no good answer at all was just unheard of, except among “doomers” (and, quietly, among the more knowledgeable climate scientists).

It was also very rare to hear questions asked that suggested that those with lots of experience, wealth, power and influence, and the capacity to deploy them, were just as racked with dismay, uncertainty and helplessness as the rest of us. Especially in business organizations, such acknowledgements were (and usually still are) considered a sign of weakness, rather than as a sign of maturity, candour, authenticity, curiosity and integrity.

Suddenly, quietly, it’s become OK to at least imply that “we’re fucked; so what do we do now?” It’s OK to say we don’t have all the answers, or that there are no answers. It’s OK to say most of what we’re struggling with are complex predicaments that can’t be even close to fully understood, controlled, or “fixed”, and that our best bet is to learn how to adapt to them as they play out. And it’s OK to be afraid, to be angry, and to be filled with grief. Frédéric says that over the past decades “social permissions” have changed to make these once-tacitly-taboo things OK.

Frédéric is now turning his attention from dysfunctional organizations to climate and ecological collapse. He’s discovering that these predicaments share a lot of the same attributes and symptoms, and the approaches to adapting to and coping with them are analogous. And he suggests that many of these approaches start with self-awareness and with cultivating and practicing excellent thinking, imaginative, attention and empathizing skills personally as a prelude to exercising these skills in group and collaborative work.

Although I’ve paraphrased them, here are ten “revolutionary” questions that Frédéric is now asking himself and others to consider in trying to deal with the terrible crises now facing us, and the growing likelihood of large-scale collapse. All of these questions apply at both a personal and societal level:

  1. Accepting unhappy truths: How can we recognize the wilful blindness we each have to “inconvenient” truths, and how can we re-train ourselves to appreciate and accept what is true even if it is not what we want to believe? It takes some intellectual courage, honesty, openness and patience to move to such a mindset.
  2. Sitting with not knowing: How can we learn to admit we don’t know, and that there are no simplistic answers, so that we can then create a safe space to just sit with not knowing, with incomplete understanding, with uncertainty and ambiguity, and let possibilities emerge as we learn more, think more, and interact more, instead of rushing to resolution?
  3. Admitting our powerlessness: How can we allow ourselves, especially if we’re in positions of authority, to admit that we are simply unable to solve the complex predicaments we are facing — that they are larger than all of us. That also entails breaking the co-dependency between “powerful” decision-makers (parents, bosses, preachers, and presidents) who thrive on that power and the fame and self-satisfaction it provides, and the “powerless” rest of us (who are often content to let the “powerful” shield them from any sense of obligation to make any decisions or take any actions to address what is happening).
  4. Moving to blamelessness: How can we train ourselves not to blame complex predicaments on others’ actions or inaction, and to acknowledge that we’re all doing our best and that no one (and no group) is “responsible” for the crises we face? This requires letting others, and ourselves, off the hook before we start to work to address these crises. And it requires the terrifying acknowledgement that firing the boss, or the president, will not fix the predicament that has seemingly arisen under their watch.
  5. Overcoming the fear of failure: How can we enable ourselves to push forward and not be paralyzed by the fear of what could go wrong and the potentially awful consequences? This need not require either exceptional courage or indemnification, but rather a collective shift in what we define as failure and how we assess others’, and our own, value, intentions and actions.
  6. Giving ourselves permission: How can we move past waiting for the permission of “authorities” to take whatever action we (individually and collectively) feel must be taken to address big scary issues we care about?  [And do that while still recognizing that others are scared, conflict- and confrontation- and risk-averse, and that’s OK.]
  7. Appreciating that waking people up isn’t enough: Now that many people are aware of the existential crises facing us, what more will it take to get all of us actually working on addressing these crises? It’s been a decade since Al Gore showed us beyond all doubt that merely waking people up to the reality of an “inconvenient truth” is not sufficient to lead to any meaningful action.
  8. Understanding what we long for: Personally and collectively, how can we come to a better appreciation of what really matters to us, what on our deathbeds we will be most proud, or rueful, about, and why it matters, so that we can’t not act on achieving it?
  9. Consciously and continually reassessing our role and purpose: How can we keep considering, every day, what else we could, individually and collectively, be doing right now that would be more useful, more joyful, more “on purpose” than what we’re currently doing? And, of course, then, why aren’t we doing that?
  10. Reimagining our future as the journey of a lifetime: How can we overcome our resistance to thinking and acting on plans for a better future, when it seems so scary and hopeless, and see our future instead as a great adventure? If we’re inevitably into the sixth great extinction of life anyway, why not approach it with gusto and give it everything we’ve got? What have we really got to lose? What’s really holding us back?

Asking these questions, first at a personal level, and then collectively, in our communities, in our workplaces, and as citizens of a world in collective peril: It’s a lot to ask!

We might well add an eleventh, meta-question: How can we learn to craft great questions? Great questions can help us, personally and collectively, engage in the conversations (the word conversation literally means “turning with”) needed to help the system (at whatever scale/scales possible) to self-correct. In other words, sometimes it’s enough just to ask the right question.

I confess I’m of two minds about all this. I find both subjects (facing collapse, and asking the right questions to prompt the best possible responses to deal with it) exciting, even exhilarating. But I also believe we have no free will. Our conditioning will dictate what each of us will do, individually and collectively, in the increasingly precarious circumstances that lie ahead.

We will ask, and attempt to address, important questions, or we won’t. We will act, or we won’t. Whatever we do, or don’t do, we will all be doing our best. That will either be enough to make a difference, or it won’t.

It’s out of our control, and has always been so. Fasten your seat belts; it’s getting bumpy.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End, Working Smarter | 8 Comments