Portrait


image by aalmeidah from Pixabay , CC0

Restless again, and enjoying the first night in over a week that we haven’t been shrouded in a thick winter fog, I wander the suburban streets. This time I’ve had the sense to follow my own advice and dress for the weather, bundled up with a toque and mitts and a scarf, and I wear layers under my coat. It is 0ºC, and clear.

When you’re not going anywhere, and not distracted by the traffic, or the weather, or other humans acting out their traumas, you can really get a sense of the vibe of a place at night. This place has no murals, except one that’s atop one of the apartment towers that no one can see. The area, a suburban city centre, is very clean, and it feels very safe, almost sterile. There are 15 high-rises in the area, somewhat bunched together; 22 more are planned for the few remaining ‘vacant’ lots. There’s a popular ‘pop-up’ park on one of them, that, in season, has table tennis tables and a sand ‘beach’ and net for volleyball, surrounded by hammocks.

Depending on the weather, the outdoor decks of the restaurants and bars are usually as full as anywhere I’ve seen during the pandemic. It seems as if everything is concrete, including the public outdoor seating. There is a lot of lighting along the streets and the open areas. Most of it is white and a bit cold, giving the area an almost futuristic feel, especially at night when the mall parking lots empty out and the brightly-lit concrete spreads out for blocks. The sleek SkyTrain that whirrs and snakes across the area on overhead tracks far above street level adds to that futuristic sense — it is the second largest driverless urban train system in the world.

The city is very cosmopolitan, with the largest visible minorities (Chinese, Korean and Persian) together actually making up a majority of the local population. If I were to just look at the faces and listen to the languages spoken on the street by those passing by, I could be anywhere in the world.

There are no tents, cardboard signs, or shopping carts piled with personal effects to be seen, even along the river paths and under the bridges. The “no trespassing” signs on the underpass ledges seem superfluous here. There are no ‘spikes’ to deter sleepers, but then there are no sleepers in evidence either*. Everyone walking after dark seems in a hurry, even those who’ve just left the bars. Ambling along slowly, stopping to sit on some of the concrete and aluminum benches, I probably look conspicuous.

One of the benches I pause at, near the ‘city’ hall and the library, is particularly well lit. I pull a small map of the area from my pocket, and find at the same time a note I wrote for myself months or even years ago. It says:

  1. Smile, genuinely.
  2. Pay attention, and notice, without thinking about what you’re noticing.
  3. Make eye contact, but don’t stare and don’t interpret what happens.
  4. Figure out why people are saying what they are saying, rather than focusing on their argument.
  5. Get out more, and listen to, and watch, wild creatures.

As if perhaps to convince myself to pay heed to these instructions, underneath the list are the reasons behind it:

  • When you smile, in an unforced way, your brain actually starts paying more attention to what’s going on “outside” it, in an attempt to rationalize why you are smiling, until it finds something worth smiling about.
  • Smiling therefore shifts your brain from a conceiving (thinking, abstracting, judging) to a perceiving (instinctive, noticing, appreciating) mode.
  • Time seems to move more slowly when you’re more attentive.
  • The distinction between you and “everything else” blurs when you spend less time thinking about yourself and about what’s going on inside your head.
  • When people converse, they’re looking for appreciation, attention, and reassurance. They’re saying: “Help me fit what you’re saying (or doing) into my frame, my worldview. Help me make sense of things.”
  • Wild creatures know there are only two natural states — equanimity and enthusiasm. Everything else is aberration — “dis-eased” states.

I wonder why I keep forgetting, or ignoring, this ‘advice’, even when I make notes to remind myself. I know it works, and without it I tend to sleepwalk through too much of my life. My life is comfortable, as stress-free as it’s ever been. I am extraordinarily blessed.

I debate with myself whether my peaceful state is a devil’s bargain, a reward for inattentiveness and disconnection, even dissociation. But I realize I am back inside my head and let it go.

The soft lights that illuminate the columns that support the Skytrain tracks are programmed to change colour at regular intervals. I stop myself from trying to predict when they will next change, and to what colour.

At night, I am drawn, moth-like, to gaze at lights —moonlight, starlight, streetlights, lamplights, headlights (especially in the rain), window lights, traffic lights even. It’s almost as if their varying frequencies and shifts are a language, speaking to me, softly, in waves. I smile now, listening to the incessant hum of the city, and parsing the sounds for tone and volume, not for meaning. Symphony without a score. It is strangely comforting. “You are not alone”, it seems to say, though of course we are, all of us, utterly.

I remember a youthful dream. It was to live in a commune surrounded by a forest garden, with gentle lights and calming music along its pathways, where everyone around me was open, smiling, without guile, untouched by anxiety and anger and trauma and grief. My imaginings of a perfect world haven’t really changed, all these years later. The only difference is that now, I no longer have any hope that they could ever be realized. Still, they’re nice to think about. Had things unfolded differently on earth, they might have been possible. This — the life I’m living right now — is as close to such perfection as I’m ever likely to get.

The streetlamp above this bench is bright, but its colour is soft, diffused. High-rise builders and institutional developers don’t bother much with planting grass, and the boulevards nearby are lined instead with rows of majestic, closely-spaced trees, mostly evergreens, casting shadows on the walkways even as they themselves are bathed in light. This city is green and grey.

A couple walking by, holding hands, are singing softly, in harmony. They stop as they get close to me, but, as I recognize the tune, I smile and sing the next line of the song — I’m a ragamuffin child, wearing a finger-painted smile — and they laugh and wave and continue the song as they pass.

At night, there are no birds here. But I know where they roost, along the riverbanks nearby. I imagine hearing them, seeing them, now.

Painting them into this picture.


*  The Coquitlam Tri-Cities area has a population of about 250,000 people. Using the Canadian average, 0.2% of us (500 people) will be unsheltered on any given day (four times that proportion will be unsheltered at some point during a given year). The Tri-Cities has fewer than 100 places available, with waiting lists. The local social services workers know where to look for the unsheltered, but beyond the one local shelter, the unsheltered are pretty invisible here compared to other cities and even compared to other areas of Greater Vancouver.

Posted in Creative Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

Microclimates

One of my small pleasures is my weather station, which is up on the roof of our apartment. (You can see the current data here.) Before we moved to Coquitlam (or kʷikʷəƛ̓əm to use its hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ First Nations name), last summer, the station was outside our house on Bowen Island (or Nex̱wlélex̱wm to use its Sḵwx̱wú7mesh name), where I tracked weather conditions and trends for my last five years there.

When you’re a weather nut, and worse, a data analysis nut, you end up learning a lot about the weather just trying to answer questions about anomalies in the data.

As a small, volcanic, mountainous island just off the west coast of the mainland of British Columbia, Bowen gets a lot of weather. It’s an entirely different world from (most of) Vancouver, of which it is ostensibly a suburb. For a start, Bowen is heavily treed. It sits in the shadow of Vancouver Island to the west, and its west side is buffeted by winds coming down the Salish Sea (aka Strait of Georgia) from the northwest, while its east side gets hammered by the notorious Squamish (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh) squalls coming down the Átl’ḵa7tsem (Howe Sound) from the northeast.

Bowen’s microclimates are primarily determined by (at least) three local forces:

  1. The temperature-modifying effects of the surrounding Salish Sea.
  2. The effects of altitude, notably the cooling effects of both its three iconic mountains (that take up half the island) and its low central valley.
  3. The effects of winds, both maritime and offshoring.

The result of the first effect is that some coastal parts of the island get less than a tenth the winter snow of some other parts, with temperatures varying as much as 5ºC over less than one km (warmer on the coast than inland in winter, but cooler in summer).

The result of the second effect is that, while the mountaintops often get the first and most snow, the “low-lying” areas of the central valley often see more snow lasting longer on the ground than any other part of the island. The combined effect of shade both from the mountains and from the adjacent forests is a factor, but not the largest one.

This was hard for me to get my head around, and it was frustrating because the Grafton Community Gardens are located right in the middle of the island in the valley, and the snow there, some years, takes forever to melt so that planting can begin.

You probably know that as altitude increases, air pressure decreases, and as pressure drops, there are fewer air particles, and the air particles move more slowly, so temperature drops. You’ve also probably heard the expression “risk of frost in low-lying areas”. This happens because warm air rises, leaving denser, colder air below, and it can get trapped in valleys. So paradoxically, the warmest places in Bowen’s interior are the mid-altitudes — neither too high to get the effect of lower air pressure, nor so low that they allow cold dense air to be trapped there. Of course, the coastal areas are warmer still in the winter, and cooler than the valleys in the summer.

The results of the third effect (winds) are perhaps even more complicated. The winds down the Salish Sea from the northwest can sometimes bring in cold arctic blasts, but they can also bring moderating temperatures when they’re localized or coming from the south. So the south and northwest coasts of the island might actually be the warmest parts of the island, overall. The Átl’ḵa7tsem winds from the northeast get the Squamish squalls, and so the northeast coast is sometimes the windiest part of the island, and can get particularly large snow dumps in winter — though every part of the island gets a lot of wind! A study a few years ago found that the “wind regime” 50m above Mount Collins on northeast Bowen was one of the heaviest and steadiest on-land wind regimes on the entire west coast of North America.

But it gets more complicated. The prevailing winds on Bowen (and much of Vancouver) for significant parts of the year are from the east, blowing offshore. This happens naturally when the warmer ocean air rises, creating a low pressure area over the water, which the air from the land to the east rushes in to fill.

In the winter, events like the polar vortex can aggravate the situation. The polar vortex is a huge arctic low-pressure zone filled with cold air, that is semi-stable. Its winds blow in a counter-clockwise vortex, but occasionally they will be disrupted, opening the vortex and allowing the mass of cold air to flow southwards at high speeds. This can be offshore, bringing the air directly down the Salish Sea, or it can be onshore, in which case there is a large temperature anomaly near the coast. When the latter happens, as the warmer air over the water rises, the colder onshore air flows out across the coasts to fill the void. Large cold air masses trapped between the mountains ranges in winter also often produce fierce outflow winds, which is why many of Bowen’s, and Vancouver’s, fiercest storms are accompanied by winds from the east, northeast and southeast. Just a month ago, Vancouver recorded its coldest temperature in 52 years, at -15ºC.

And then, there are the “atmospheric rivers”. These are principally attributable to climate change, as atmospheric heating leads to more water vapour in the atmosphere. When this highly saturated air gets picked up by air currents, it can travel thousands of miles from the southwest Pacific, turning into heavy precipitation when it rises on encountering land masses. This happens especially in La Niña years, when the temperature gradient of the Pacific, from hot in the west to cold in the east, is greatest, fuelling this air saturation and flow. This past fall and winter, most of BC’s major highways were closed in spots for an extended period due to floods and mudslides caused by an extended series of atmospheric rivers.

And, last but not least, we have “heat domes”, also exacerbated by climate change. These also occur mainly in La Niña years, but in the summer, when the oceanic temperature gradient is high, driving record hot air up into the atmosphere in the western Pacific, where it is then carried by the jet stream to North America. This creates a problem when this air pushes into a high pressure area with clear skies. The high pressure is seeking to move to a lower-pressure (cooler) area, but with the flow of hot air from the Pacific, it can’t find one. As it presses down on the air below, that air is compressed and further heated. The hot air at ground level is trying to rise, but is blocked by the high pressure heat above, creating a dome that can take days to finally break. This past June 29th, a month before mid-summer, Lytton BC, not far from here, reached almost 50ºC, the day before the entire town was engulfed and burned to the ground in a wildfire. That temperature was 6ºC higher than the previous record for any date in all of Canada, and 27ºC higher than normal; most of the province likewise surpassed previous records. Squamish hit 43ºC, and Bowen and Coquitlam and other parts of Vancouver hit 41ºC (normal high temperature for June 29th in these places is 18ºC).

These temperatures and weather anomalies also contributed to a horrific 2021 wildfire season (third worst on record), and record droughts, especially on Vancouver Island, where many wells ran dry and water rationing was widespread.

That is what climate change’s promise of “more extreme weather events” means here. Heat domes with record hot, dry summers. Increasing droughts and wildfires. Winters with record rainfall, widespread mudslides and flooding, and, at higher altitudes, record snowfall and avalanche danger. Unprecedented and sustained windstorms causing major damage. Increasing polar vortex and other outflow anomalies, leading to long periods of abnormally cold temperatures, and the ravages of ice storms. (February has recently replaced December as Vancouver’s coldest month, four years out of the last five.)

It all “averages out” to a 2ºC overall increase in temperature, and a slight overall increase in precipitation. But in no place and at no time is anything “average”. Not all years will be as extreme, weather-wise, as 2021, but some will be worse. And some places will fare much better than others, even places that are not far apart.

Our move from Bowen to Coquitlam (see map above) wasn’t that far, but I am definitely living in a very different world. Some Bowen friends were snowed in for a week this winter, despite their years of preparation and practice at dealing with the vagaries of the local weather — the first time in over 20 years that’s happened to them. Others had to drink bottled water when their wells ran dry. Some of their roads were washed out in this winter’s floods. Most of them faced the 41ºC heat without air conditioners. And this fall and winter storms have caused a slew of power outages, perilous when it’s -10ºC and you rely on electricity for your heat. The potential dangers of wildfires are ever-present.

By contrast, living in the city one can be pretty oblivious to what’s going on all around. Coquitlam is one of those ‘mid-altitude’ areas that is, unexpectedly, slightly warmer, on average, than downtown Vancouver and quite a bit warmer than Bowen. We faced the heat dome and have had lots of rain, but have had little snow, no major power outages, no floods or mudslides or avalanche closures or nearby wildfires. No worries about dry wells or downed trees across the roads or wrecking roofs. The air quality was bad province-wide due to wildfires last summer, but here they were not as bad as they were three years ago. Perhaps, so far, we’ve just been lucky.

And that’s your weather report for southwestern BC. Stay tuned for updates, and hold on to your hats.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 1 Comment

Effective Activism (a Repost)

tar sands howl arts collective
The Alberta Tar Sands in 2015, twice the size it was in 2008 and soon to cover an area larger than NY State; its toxic sludge ponds alone are large enough to be visible from space. Photo by Dru Oja Jay, Howl Arts Collective, for The Dominion CC-BY-2.0

I very rarely repost articles I’ve written in the past. I prefer to just link to older articles if I think they’re still useful and pertinent. But a recent email from Christopher Van Dyck had me rereading a 13-year-old post about my meeting with Nina Simons and Kenny Ausubel at Bioneers. Their insights about what constitutes effective activism remain, to me, the most useful guide on the subject I’ve ever heard, and at a small, informal “kitchen table” discussion back in 2008 they just laid it all out for us in less than an hour. Here is what they advised, pretty much unedited:

  1. Developing Holistic Change Frameworks & Approaches: The changes we are trying to accomplish are in systems that are all complex and all interrelated. We cannot isolate approaches to just environmental sustainability, or social justice, or health and nutrition, or quality affordable housing, or media reform, or education, or poverty, or women’s rights, or racial equality, or economic reform. We need to realize that change needs to occur in all of them, integrally, or no enduring change will occur in any of them. What is required is a coordinated “movement of movements”, a whole ecology of collaborative, shared ideas and activities. These efforts need overarching “big picture” frameworks that show the interconnectedness of the problems we face and how efforts in one area can reinforce (or impede) efforts in another. For example, we need to appreciate that many health problems have social (e.g. addiction), educational (e.g. ignorance of nutrition) and environmental (e.g. food toxins) problems underlying them.
  2. Focusing on Two Common Causes: Many of the aforementioned connected problems have our separation from nature and the weakening of local community at their root.
  3. Reaching Across Ideology to Find Shared Values: Our belief systems by themselves are not enough to bring about change. The movement has to be about more than shared ideology. It needs to build bridges, and “reach across” cultural divides to find common cause. Our opinions are not as important as what we value, because many people who differ in opinion share values.
  4. Using the Leverage Points: To be effective, we need to find the leverage points in the system, the places where the need for change is understood, where change is relatively easy to achieve, and where that change will provoke positive changes elsewhere.
  5. Relocalizing and Connecting: The change must be rooted in community, in a massive relocalization and decentralization and de-institutionalization of attention, connection, understanding, power, and effort. Communities need to coalesce, self-organize, and do things for themselves, and then connect with other communities to share their success stories and lessons learned. At higher levels, our political states are bureaucratized, disconnected, unmaneuverable, corporatist, and corrupted, and trying to reform them is largely a waste of time, money and energy.
  6. Making Change Easier: We need to focus on making it easier for people to change. We prevented an ozone layer disaster by simply making CFCs illegal, so refrigeration companies found and invented non-ozone depleting coolants, because they had no choice. Likewise, by ensuring that only energy-efficient light bulbs can be sold in the market, and that only energy-efficient, healthy new homes can be certified for sale, we make it easier for citizens to do the right thing. Working models that let people see how and why they work, and how to replicate them, are likewise useful.
  7. Educasting: A major obstacle to change is the public’s ignorance and lack of capacities to bring about needed changes. We need to start using the new media for “educasting” public information to inform and build capacities. While we should not give up trying to reform public education and mainstream media, we cannot rely on either to support educasting, so we need to work around them.
  8. Delivering to Those in Need: We need a renewed focus on delivery systems for change, so that resources get to where they’re most needed.
  9. Thinking Generations Ahead: We need long range thinking so that we always know roughly where we are going, balanced with pragmatism and effective, sustained implementation. Example: The 50 Top Future Crops for New Mexico is a long-range program that inspires and directs thinking and action about long-term food production and nutrition in that state.
  10. Speaking in Understandable, Inclusive Terms: We must make sure the language we use is inclusive and accessible to people outside our circles of activism. Jargon can be a useful shorthand but also an impediment to communication and persuasion. The terms “environmentalist” and “activist” are not helpful because of connotations of “otherness” and anger (which is why, for example, the more inclusive, positive term “Bioneers” was coined). Stories, of course, are immensely useful in increasing understanding.
  11. More Listening and Facilitating: We need to substantially and continuously improve our active listening and facilitation skills.
  12. Taking the Responsibility That Comes With Privilege: We have to understand that our privilege — just being in an affluent nation, white, working, healthy etc. — imposes on us a responsibility to help those without such privileges, and even more importantly, to take risks that, in the interest of fairness and egalitarianism, may jeopardize our own comfort or security.
  13. Learning What We’ve Forgotten from Aboriginal Cultures: We have an enormous amount to learn from indigenous communities, who still retain, and whose stories bring, important knowledge, capacities and values we have lost or forgotten, or never knew.
  14. Bridging the Generations: Our projects and thinking and collaboration must involve all generations, to bring different perspectives and cross-pollinate ideas and knowledge. This is harder than you might think. (Did you know more people visit zoos each year than attend sporting events?)
  15. Self-Knowing: Effective activism requires self-knowledge and self-awareness. We each need to discover our purpose, develop our capacities and focus our effort on the work we do best, not just what is most needed. And self-knowledge also allows us to recognize our biases and triggers and hence cope with the emotional stress and grief that activists necessarily deal with every day.
  16. Dealing With Religious Groups: In dealing with organized religions, we must deconstruct and separate their spiritual, social and political components, and use our common cause with adherents’ spirituality and social goals to enlighten them politically.
  17. Preparing for Economic Collapse and Enabling Volunteerism: As economic collapse deepens, funding for important work will get scarcer. We must be prepared to tap into more volunteer work; one advantage of unemployment is that it frees up time. Instead of sitting listening to boring lectures, why don’t we get students out repairing watersheds? How can we find space for retired people aching for something meaningful to contribute?
  18. Connecting With Social Entrepreneurs: We must get past our aversion to business and ‘profit-making’ enterprise and realize that many entrepreneurs are (or could be) part of the solution not part of the problem. The current model of psychotic capitalism is not the only model for successful enterprise. The new model is cooperatives and community-based, community-owned business.
  19. Overcoming Learned Helplessness: Too many people are still looking for people (and governments) to do things for them, to lead them, and to tell them what to do and how to do it. Activists need to activate by getting people past reliance and dependence and learned helplessness, to believe in their collective capacity to decide what needs to be done and to accomplish anything they set out to do. The new ‘leadership’ model is not hierarchical and adulating, it is one of reciprocal mentoring, balancing critical and creative thinking, supportive and challenging conversation. Finding and deploying power through, not over, people.
  20. Making the Movement Political: Holistic environmentalism needs to move from a cultural phenomenon to a political movement, like the movement for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. To do this means both resisting and creating, fighting against regressive and repressive forces while innovating and acting at the local level to show how we can accomplish real change. But this does not mean becoming politicians, it means influencing and educating the politicians. And it can’t stop at petitions and protest demonstrations: We need to take Direct Action.
  21. Creating Holistic Coalitions: We need to engage cross-disciplinary innovators and knowledgeable people to help us address the intractable problems that are blocking progress. Example: If birth control pills are polluting struggling nations’ waters, rather than fighting amongst ourselves (family planners versus water conservationists) we should be tasking and helping the medical and pharma profession to innovate green solutions to this.
  22. Embracing Biomimicry: The answers are out there. We just need to ask nature.
  23. Developing a Practice of Gratitude and Kindness: We must resist the tendency to anaesthetize ourselves against the grief, anguish and pain that comes from facing hard truths and grim realities about our current world. We have to be empathetic and give each other permission to feel the powerful emotions that we will inevitably feel in our work. This is a long-term, challenging task. We need to acknowledge and feel the pain, and at the same time we must be patient, appreciative, joyful, supportive, kind to ourselves and each other, and ‘grace-full’.
  24. Balancing Pessimism, Realism, and Hope: This work, as important as it is, depends on us being true to ourselves, self-appreciative, giving ourselves permission to take risks, learning to accept compliments, “smelling fear and heading straight for it”, and managing our own and others’ expectations. We have to balance idealism and realism, perseverance and pragmatism, masculine aggressiveness and feminine perceptiveness and resilience. We must see that the glass is half full and half empty. We have to get past the internalized oppression that we carry inside us, the fear of saying and talking about what we most care about, even though doing so makes us vulnerable and may expose us to disbelief and even ridicule.

Those of you who read yesterday’s post on this blog and may hence find the tone of this post surprising, you should know that Dave #2 and Dave #3 were not consulted in the decision to repost this one. They insist that it’s too late, or impossible, for any action stemming from the above to make any difference in where we are now headed. They are probably correct, and our ‘progress’ since I posted this article in 2008 is certainly not encouraging. But Dave #1 insists that if it is still possible to make a difference, this is how it will be done.

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

Characters of Our Own Making


scene from Le Roi de Coeur

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” — WS

One of the places that the enormous cognitive dissonance in my life often plays out, is in my volunteer activities with various non-profits. Dave #1 (the activist “me”) wants to make the world, or at least our civilization, better. Dave #2 (the collapsnik “me”) believes that’s a waste of time, that civilization’s collapse is accelerating and we’d better adapt to a radically different emerging post-collapse world. And Dave #3 (the radical non-dualist “me”) believes there is no free will (and, even worse, no ‘one’ to have it), so ‘improving’, and ‘adapting’, are both impossible and unnecessary.

As I recently told my friend Djö, this cognitive dissonance is pretty easy for me to handle. The differences between the three Daves are mostly intellectual and abstract (they’re different understandings of what really is, and how the world really works) rather than emotional or existential. The three get along reasonably well, take their turns being “me”, and are comfortable, even intrigued, by uncertainty and ambiguity.

In our Teal group meetings, where we are currently working with a local group managing a still-under-construction village for the unhoused, it is Dave #1 who is usually engaged. This Dave loves to learn, and the group is a powerful network of people who share knowledge, insights, ideas, experience, expertise and connections.

So it was fascinating to hear one member of our group say, at our last meeting, “We’re all characters in a story of our own making, wanting to be better characters”. Suddenly, Dave #3 woke up, wondering if this was his cue to take over. And then another member of the group introduced the Drama Triangle model, which asserts that we often see ourselves (and others) variously as playing the role of victim, rescuer, or culprit in different situations, which usually turns out to be an utterly dysfunctional perspective for dealing with these situations.

It was probably a good thing that I had joined the meeting via Zoom, and that we had a bad connection, or Dave #3 might have muscled himself in and embarrassed Dave #1. Instead, the two Daves just paid attention and listened, shrugging at each other.

Caitlin Johnstone and Indi Samarajiva, two of my current favourite political and cultural writers, must have similar alternate personas. They have both written recently, and more than once, about non-duality and our lack of free will. When they do, it must strike readers as as jarring as it does me. It’s like “Huh?! What?!” You can’t follow a rant against despots and corrupt corporatists with a post that says, essentially, everyone is doing their best and no one is to blame! But they have done so, and I completely understand. These views cannot be reconciled (though I’m guessing Caitlin and Indi would disagree with that),  and that’s OK.

So, getting back to my own cognitive dissonance, and the neo-Shakespearean statement that woke Dave #3 from his slumber: “We’re all characters in a story of our own making, wanting to be better characters”. Of course we are. Dave #1 nods, acknowledging that, metaphorically, we are our stories, and that we all want to make these stories better, with a happier ending, and strive our whole lives to do so. We all love stories, and metaphors!

But to Dave #3, this is not a metaphor. The story of our own making, the story of ‘me’, he asserts, is a complete fiction, since without free will, all of our ‘wanting’ and ‘striving’ is futile, serving only to cause us, and others, distress. What we do and what we believe are entirely the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the infinitely complex and variable situation of each moment. Nothing is preordained, but nothing is within ‘our’ control, either, including our own behaviours and beliefs.

Of course, the Teal group would be wise not to go there. That is not what they meant at all, though they may harbour some doubts about free will, which they may well quickly put out of their minds as dangerous, or irrelevant, thoughts.

So Dave #1 and Dave #3 look at each other: Is there some way of reconciling these two worldviews? Can we be activists and still acknowledge that everything we do is our conditioning, over which we have no agency?

A number of philosophers (with IMO limited cognitive capacities) have warned that, while “thinking men” (these boneheads are invariably male) might absolutely accept that we have no free will, we would not ever want this knowledge and understanding to be known and accepted by everyone. They couldn’t handle it; they would commit suicide or become nihilists, unrestrained thrill-seekers running riot in the belief that since they’re not responsible, they can do anything. It’s an absurd and obviously fatally flawed argument, but you still hear it a lot.

The worst that would happen is that everyone would wrestle, and learn to live, with the cognitive dissonance that they are compelled to believe and do things over which they have no control, but that they must suffer when what is done is not what “should” have been done, and try to do their best and to make things better nevertheless. “For us”, TS Eliot wrote, “there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

As for the Drama Triangle, which toys with the idea of us having unhelpful personas, the two Daves are again unable to come to terms. Dave #1 asserts we must move beyond roles and labels and work with each other in more mature and nuanced ways, as attentive and respectful equals, each with knowledge, insights, ideas, experience, expertise and connections to usefully share.

Dave #3 just smiles and laments that, lacking free will, we cannot do any of our “musts” and “shoulds”, no matter how fervently we believe in their urgency and necessity. We will do what we will do. Should we brush up against people who know about the dangers of roles and labels and judgements and other dysfunctional behaviours and beliefs, and who expose us, at the right time with the right framing (and story), our conditioning may shift accordingly. Meanwhile others (or we ourselves) will brush up against people who make emotionally compelling arguments for dysfunctional and destructive behaviours and beliefs, telling the ‘right’ story at the ‘right’ time to condition them to make things, from our perspective, worse.

It will be fun to see how it all plays out. Dave #2 has just woken up, and he wants to have his say about all this, too. But apparently my conditioning is such that he won’t get the chance, at least not today.


Thanks to Gabe Piechowicz and Alberta Pedroja for the quote about stories, and the introduction to the Drama Triangle, and to the whole Teal gang for keeping Dave #1 on his toes, and engaged with the world. (Or so he thinks.)

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 2 Comments

There Is No “Why”

Another of Dave’s annoying and pointless radical non-duality posts


drawing by Jonathan Bartlett in this intriguing NYT article

Back when I was being paid an absurd amount of money as a management consultant, we occasionally used a technique called “Ask Why Five Times”. The idea was to do a root cause analysis, figure out possible interventions that would ‘fix’ the root cause, and hence solve the business problem. It’s really rather amazing that most people’s critical and imaginative thinking skills are so stunted that they would have to hire someone to show them how to do this.

The problem with the technique, of course, is that the problems at hand that don’t have obvious solutions are mostly actually predicaments — they are so complex, and have so many inextricably interrelated variables, that root cause analysis is impossible and becomes just an exercise in dangerous oversimplified thinking. Things are the way they are for a reason, and often, it’s impossible to know why. That’s why creatures smarter than we are look for adaptations and workarounds rather than trying, impossibly, to ‘fix’ predicaments.

But the human brain is fascinated, and often preoccupied to the point of addiction, with asking “Why”, at least until we reach the age and stage where our culture has finally managed to drive the curiosity out of us. Then we become addicted to dopamine or adrenaline instead. Our conditioning is nothing if not effective.

For some reason of maladaptation, I’m still insanely curious. I still love to ask “Why”. Of course, since I know that question, whenever it’s interesting enough to ask, is practicably impossible to answer, I realize that playing the “Why” game is just that — a diversion, an ancient and uncurbed compulsion. But that doesn’t stop me playing it.

My fascination with radical non-duality sparks a lot of “Why” questions, even though I ‘understand’ the radical non-duality message well enough that I can tell myself “There is no ‘Why'” even before I ask them. Everything is just an appearance, just as it is, already, for no reason. There does not have to be a reason for everything to be as it is. Every reason we come up with for anything is just a story, a child’s attempt to make sense of the monster under the bed. It’s just the patterns we observe, the apparently related occurrences we cobble together, like images we see in clouds, or the reasons we invent for things that ‘happened’ in our dreams.

My obsessive curiosity doesn’t stop with asking “Why” just once. I’ve been conditioned (and sometimes even paid) to keep asking until I “get to the bottom of things”. Here, without my usual self-censoring of this foolish game, are some of the rabbit holes that asking “Why” the message of radical non-duality might be true, or not, and why it’s so appealing to me, have taken me down.

  • Why are the illusions of self, of separateness, of ‘me’, of the passage of time, of things ‘causing’ other things, so damned compelling, so obvious even, if  they are just illusions?
    • Because they have been reinforced by every other self these bodies we presume to inhabit has encountered over a lifetime — if you’re told something often enough, you will usually eventually believe it. But Why do we behave this way?
      • Because that is how we are conditioned and have been conditioned. We have no choice but to perpetuate these illusions, with our children and everyone we, apparently, interrelate with. But if it’s illusory, Why has this conditioning evolved?
        • It hasn’t evolved; there is no real time in which things can evolve. This conditioning is just how it is, what it is, what is apparently happening, for no reason. But Why is it, if it’s all just a useless, distracting illusion, that humans, so distracted and preoccupied and conditioned by mere illusions, haven’t vanished, disappeared from the gene pool?
          • There are no humans, no evolution, no gene pool. It is all just an appearance, for no reason. There doesn’t have to be a reason for  illusions to arise in the midst of appearances. Ugh, that’s a very unsatisfactory answer. OK, Why is that such an unsatisfactory answer?
            • Because I don’t want to believe it. Because it makes everything I do and have done purposeless and meaningless. OK, then Why don’t you want to believe it, and Why does doing purposeless and meaningless things bother you?
              • I don’t want to believe it because there is no safety, no comfort in not knowing, in believing everything is meaningless and not even real, and because it’s humiliating to think that I’ve invested all this energy, passion, and reputation for my knowledge and insights, when they’re all just fiction, useless to me and to others. In other words, you’re saying you’re suffering from a near-universal human affliction with no cure that many people think is not an affliction at all, or else one which most people think you have handled very competently. Well, that’s a big help. So the ‘solution’ is to just get over it, which of course ‘I’ can’t do. Yep, ‘fraid so. No solution, no path, no making sense of. Completely hopeless.
    • Well, maybe it’s because nature evolved us, as an experiment with large brains, to invent these illusions and mistake them for reality in the interests of our survival. Nature does this, tries constant changes and adaptations and mutations to see if they are a better ‘fit’ with the rest of life on earth, and with our environments. The ‘truth’ has nothing to do with best fit for survival. But this has already been addressed, above: There is no evolution, no time, no life or death and hence no ‘survival’. That’s all just a story, a conception to try to make sense of our perceptions. A model or map that does not even vaguely resemble the territory.
    • OK, then maybe it’s because these so-called ‘illusions’ are highly credible. They fit with what we all understand, and sense, most of the time anyway (except for that ‘earth revolves around the sun’ thing). They fit with scientific theories, models and observations. Why would all these things fit so well with what we believe to be reality, free will etc if they weren’t actually real? It doesn’t ‘make sense’.
        • Conspiracy theories, wars and genocides, hatred and jealousy and shame and grief and guilt all ‘make sense’ if you use the right points of reference. The appearance of B and the apparent or reported observation that A appears to cause B doesn’t mean A is correct, whether A is a lab leak or a ‘self’. Our sense, and science, of ‘what is’ is merely a reasonably complete and seemingly coherent and consistent story. It may be that it’s all correct, or that it’s entirely false, an illusion, a misunderstanding. Or worse, still, it may be that it’s all just a story, a theory, with no bearing on reality at all, and that actual reality is unknowable. We once believed, most of us, that diseases of all kinds were caused by devils, or vapours, or the anger of gods. They were apparently highly credible theories at the time. And if you’re thinking that theories that endure have more credibility, then see the thread above about evolution and time. OK, but Why are you so sure your ‘alternative theory’ of radical non-duality isn’t just another story?; there is no evidence to support it.
          • Well, setting aside some scientific evidence that does seem to support it (since I’ve already acknowledged the fallibility of scientific theories), I’m not sure why I’m, for now, kinda convinced the radical non-duality message is true. I have now met and spoken with at least a dozen people who say, quite eloquently, that it is seen ‘there’ that there is no ‘you’, no thing, no time, no meaning or purpose etc. They assert that this is not a ‘theory’ they are espousing; it’s what’s obvious ‘there’. They have no axe to grind and are not making a living from this message. The message seems to me far more consistent, more coherent, more complete, and less full of holes than any theory, about ‘what is’, that I’ve ever heard or studied. There is a sense, here, that our selves make things much harder for us than they need to be, or that they are for any other apparently living creature. And then there have been the ‘glimpses‘, where the truth of the radical non-duality message was obvious, beyond debate.
            • Oh, geez, here we go with the glimpses again. Perhaps the reason why you believe this message is that it’s easy, it lets you off the hook from thinking, from responsibility, from doing serious work. Perhaps the ‘glimpses’ were just something inside you so desperate to believe this unprovable and ludicrous ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ message that you just made them up to support your belief?
              • That’s entirely possible. We believe what we want to believe. The message appeals to my laziness, and sometimes eases some of my fears, for sure. I’m open to another alternative, a different message, if one that makes more sense to me were to come along.
                • Why do you think so? If these dozen radical non-duality ‘messengers’ were to tell you, now, that they made it all up, just as a test of human credulity and our propensity to join cults and believe preposterous things shared by other members, would you not still believe it? Good question. I guess we’ll see.
Posted in Radical Non-Duality | 5 Comments

Links of the Month: January 2022


view out my window, of Lafarge Lake with holiday lights all around it, photo taken the other day

I’m like a wolf, brought up in the city, out of its element
And now uncomfortable, anxious, wherever I go.
I hide in the shadows in places I will not be noticed.
In this odd, ill-fitting, anonymous clothing
I pace the streets, at night, and, just as warily, during the day
Never having learned the art of survival, anyplace
I am a stranger here, and everywhere

For how much longer?


COLLAPSE WATCH


Thomas Cole’s ‘Destruction’, the fourth of his five-panel series ‘The Course of Empire‘, 1836 (referred to in the essay by Ed Simon, linked below). Public domain.

Letter from the collapse: Ed Simon writes a moving, mourning elegy for our collapsing civilization and its victims. It concludes as follows:

I’m only a writer, and the most recondite type, an essayist. Could there by any role for something so insular at the end of the world? In The Guardian, novelist Ben Okri recommends “creative existentialism,” which he claims is the “creativity at the end of time.” He argues that every line we enjamb, every phrase we turn, every narrative we further “should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species.”

I understand climate change as doing something similar to what Dr. Johnson said the hangman’s noose did for focusing the mind. It’s not words that I’m worried about wasting, but experiences. What’s needed is an aesthetic imperative that we somehow live in each moment as if it’s eternal and also as if it’s our last. Our ethical imperative is similar: to do everything as if it might save the world, even if it’s unlikely that it will. Tending one’s own garden need not be selfish, though if everyone does so, well, that’s something then, right?

I’m counting the liturgy of small blessings, noting the cold breeze on a December morning, the crunch of brown and red and orange leaves under foot, the sound of rain hitting my office window, the laughter of my son and the chirping of those birds at the feeder who delight him. I’ve no strategy save for love.

“The world begins at a kitchen table,” writes Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, in a lyric that was introduced to me by a Nick Ripatrazone essay. “No matter what, we must eat to live.” Harjo enumerates all of the quiet domestic beauties of life, how the “gifts of earth are brought and prepared” here, and “children are given instructions on what it means to be human” while sitting at this table, where “we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and/remorse. We give thanks./Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and/crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”

That, finally, is the only ethic I know of as the oceans flood and the fires burn, to be aware of our existence at the kitchen table. When the cicadas come back in 17 years, I wonder what the world will be like for them? I hope that there will be bird song.

The end of growth, deferred but still on track: Richard Heinberg’s latest ‘Museletter’ reviews our ‘progress’ over the past decade at ruining the planet’s capacity to sustain life.


LIVING BETTER


cartoon by Will McPhail from his website

Will South Korea be first to introduce UBI?: The current leader in the March 2022 race for president, Lee Jae-myung, is proposing to introduce a UBI, a land tax to reduce inequality and homelessness, and a substantial carbon tax to address the climate crisis. Politics in that country are notoriously volatile, though, and Lee has only a narrow lead over a Trump-style extreme right-winger.

Cuba shows the way on the climate crisis: Cuba, which has learned resilience in the face of decades-long, cruel embargoes from US ideologue governments, survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had helped them deal with the embargoes, by revolutionizing its agricultural practices, and now looks likely to handle climate collapse better than any other country. Its Tarea Vida program is decades ahead of other nations, writes Dr Helen Yaffe, who has made a documentary about the program. Thanks to John Whiting for the links.

Building peace through laughter: Israeli comedian Noam Shuster shows how comedy, and the disruptions of CoVid-19, have helped build bridges between some Palestinians and Israelis. Thanks to Raffi for the link.

Cascadia’s indigenous forest gardens: New ecological studies of the north Pacific coast reveal that forest gardens were planted and maintained there that are as elaborate and advanced as those previously found in Central America. Thanks to Kavana Bressen for the link.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


BC CDC CoVid-19 data for the last two weeks, by vaccination status; data for other jurisdictions tells the same story, even in the US, though its reporting in some US areas is now seriously lagging

Is the ‘Great Resignation’ a thing?: Derek Thompson in the Atlantic thinks it is here to stay, and so do Dorothy Wickenden and Cal Newport in The New Yorker. But they seem to see it only as a CoVid-19 phenomenon and a back-to-balance power shift. Could it be a symptom of a larger ‘walking away’ from capitalism, and from the broken, foundering civilization that now depends on it?

Why the supply chain ‘problems’ aren’t going away soon: A truck driver explains who benefits, how we all lose, and the perils we face, if we don’t address the crisis that has paralyzed our seaports and transit terminals. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

The New Misogyny: Christine Rosen describes how some of the supposedly ‘progressive’ demands of trans extremists are hostile to all women and could, unless arrested, lead to a form of “female cultural erasure”, setting back many of the women’s movement’s most important accomplishments. It is truly sad that it’s right-wing journals, not progressive ones, reporting on this important subject, and sometimes using it as a ‘wedge’ issue. Progressives, wake up, you’re being played!

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism: Short takes:

Inequality: Short takes:

CoVid-19 Becomes the Pandemic (mostly) of the Unvaccinated: Short takes:

    • The US CDC really has become a “dumpster fire”, according to the Atlantic’s Katherine Wu — incompetent, inconsistent, unclear and self-defeating guidelines, and lousy communications that jeopardize the health of US citizens. Her colleague Ed Yong summarizes the blunders and lays the responsibility on the erratic and often incoherent director, Rochelle Walensky. And Zeynep Tüfekçi weighs in on the director’s latest missteps. This is what happens when public health agencies are starved, for years, of adequate resources and professional (especially communications) staff.
    • Testing is easy to get in a few places, and still difficult-to-impossible in most places, due to chronic government screw-ups just about everywhere. Good-quality masks are also still very hard to come by in many areas, for the same reason.
    • So here it is again, short and simple: First, look at the chart above.
      • Get vaccinated and boosted.
      • If you are lucky enough to have access to adequate, affordable testing in your neighbourhood, get tested before and after any risky (ie crowded, maskless, extended close-proximity, and/or indoor) activities.
      • Wear a properly fitting N95 or similar medical-quality mask, or double-mask if N95’s don’t work for you or aren’t available near you, whenever you’re indoors with other than immediate family for any significant period of time. Here are the best-rated reusable masks, one of which will certainly work for you, if it’s available.
      • Here’s what to do if you get omicron, and what not to do/take. Obviously, isolate for at least 5 days (10 if you can), and wear a mask and wash your hands regularly for 10-14 days, but if your symptoms aren’t mild, then short of hospitalization there are now some additional options, along with all the quack cures, explained in the above link.
      • Omicron is considerably less serious than previous variants, but that doesn’t mean it’s not very dangerous, especially if you (or those you’re in close contact with) haven’t been double vaxxed and boosted. And then there’s the risk of Long CoVid to consider, even if you’re asymptomatic.  (Thanks to Kavana Bressen for most of the links above.)
    • Omicron case rates are peaking in many areas, and hospital rate increases are slowing. A month from now we should again be on the downside of the curve in most places, barring additional variants.
    • Socially distancing, while less critical than vaccination, masks, and frequent testing-and-isolating, is still useful, especially when you’re near people who are or may be infected. Proximity matters. It’s not unreasonable to assume that in areas with high case rates, as many as one of every 20 strangers you encounter could be infected. If they’re unmasked, or poorly masked, or talking loudly, keep your distance. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.
    • A legal, inexpensive, and easy-to-produce acid from hemp plants has shown great promise in preventing coronavirus infections. Stay tuned.

FUN AND INSPIRATION


New Yorker cartoon by Liana Finck — she has a new book coming out too!

It wasn’t my character’s fault: Have writers and filmmakers overused the hero-or-villain-as-victim-of-childhood-trauma plot?

All depends how you ask the question: In a recent survey, where the questions were asked in a rather deceptive manner, a majority of Republicans opposed teaching of Arabic numerals in schools, and a majority of Democrats opposed the teaching of the Big Bang theory of the universe’s creation. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.

On the edge of non-duality: I’m fascinated to read Caitlin Johnstone’s occasional forays into non-duality, squeezed between her articulate tirades against corporatism and imperialism. Now, another of my favourite political essayists, Indi Samarajiva has written a post on non-duality. I’d love to meet them and explore how they deal with the cognitive dissonance: Clearly, to me at least, if there is no self, there can be no free will, and if that’s so, how can we blame anyone, no matter how iniquitous their actions?

How writing is like cricket: In another fascinating article by Indi, he shows how the sport of street cricket is an essential part of the culture of his native Sri Lanka.

Our calendar makes no sense: Hank Green hilariously proposes a more sensible one.

The ‘superior mirage’ phenomenon: In which an iceberg is seen floating off the coast of BC. The mountains in question can be seen from my window, and, despite the recent ‘atmospheric river’ here, show no signs of becoming maritime anytime soon.

Fat-phobia consequence, eight letters: New Yorker puzzler Anna Shechtman explains how crossword puzzles became part of her coming-of-age story.

The tree of life: OneZoom shows the entire tree of known life on earth, on one highly zoomable chart. Humans, delightfully, are an insignificant part of the tree, a twig on one ordinary branch. Thanks to Ben Collver for the link.

Science goes to the dogs: A Canadian science reporter engages a much larger audience by including his dogs, and his scientist guest’s dogs, in his ‘pawdcast’. You can hear all the episodes here, featuring Bunsen the Berner.


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH


from the Memebrary; *last line added by Kavana’s friend Karon’s sister

From Anahid Nersessian, in NYRB:

It’s all very well to say “capitalism turns us into commodities, that’s degrading, human beings shouldn’t be degraded.” But how should we be treated, and how should we live? What would love and sex—among other things, like health care or having a job—look like in a good world? It’s important to take the risk of answering those questions, even if the answers are messy and provisional.

From The Beaverton: “Artist, paid in, dies of, exposure.”

From Michael Parenti, via Caitlin Johnstone, on public opinion:

“But they [military industrial complex] don’t care about what we think. They turn a deaf ear to us,” some people complain. That is not true. They care very much about what you think. In fact, that is the only thing about you that holds their attention and concern. They don’t care if you go hungry, unemployed, sick, or homeless. But they do care when you are beginning to entertain resistant democratic thoughts. They get nervous when you discard your liberal complaints and adopt a radical analysis. They do care that you are catching on as to what the motives and functions of the national security state and the US global empire are all about at home and in so many corners of the world. They get furiously concerned when you and millions like you are rejecting the pap that is served up by corporate media and establishment leaders.

By controlling our perceptions, they control our society; they control public opinion and public discourse. And they limit the range and impact of our political consciousness. The plutocrats know that their power comes from their ability to control our empowering responses. They know they can live at the apex of the social pyramid only as long as they can keep us in line at the pyramid’s base. Who pays for all their wars? We do. Who fights these wars? We do or our low-income loved ones do. If we refuse to be led around on a super-patriotic, fear-ridden leash and if we come to our own decisions and act upon them more and more as our ranks grow, then the ruling profiteers’ power shrinks and can even unwind and crash—as has happened with dynasties and monarchies of previous epochs.

We need to strive in every way possible for the revolutionary unraveling, a revolution of organized consciousness striking at the empire’s heart with full force when democracy is in the streets and mobilized for the kind of irresistible upsurge that seems to come from nowhere yet is sometimes able to carry everything before it.

There is nothing sacred about the existing system. All economic and political institutions are contrivances that should serve the interests of the people. When they fail to do so, they should be replaced by something more responsive, more just, and more democratic.

From WH Auden:

The Fall of Rome
(for Cyril Connolly)

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.


 

 

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

In


cartoon by Will McPhail from his website; click on image to view larger size

One of my favourite New Yorker cartoonists, Edinburgh’s Will McPhail, has published his first graphic novel. It’s just out, and it’s called In. And it’s astonishing. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Like many graphic novels since the genre began, this book is not just a graphic novel. It might be described as an art exhibition with an accompanying story. Imagine if Vincent van Gogh had written a blog entry, or a poem, to accompany Starry Night.

The book contains a host of ‘chapters’ in the life of Nick, a scarily-familiar, slightly shy white guy who’s completely out of touch with his emotions and neither capable of, nor, at first, interested in, talking about them. What we get, instead of just the balloons of what the characters are saying, is extra text in each panel of what Nick is thinking and feeling (but not saying). It’s an internal monologue that I’m sure many, many male readers, and the women who know them, will relate to.

In interviews, Will says that the Nick character is semi-autobiographical, but that the events and other characters are just invented. This is a story-telling approach that seems to work well — all the characters ring true, and the dialogue is natural but still snappy and often very funny.

The ‘story’ chapters are all in black and white. But interspersed are panels in vibrant colour, wordless and mysterious, dreamlike, portraying what would seem to be the full-bodied inner life of Nick and occasionally the other characters in the book. They work on a completely different level to the ‘story’ pages, and strike the brain and the heart (and perhaps the amygdala, if you believe in that sort of thing) of the reader in very different ways.

The coloured pages stand alone, sometimes gloriously, as works of art in their own right, and I could imagine hanging some of them on my wall. Perhaps where people who know me, but don’t really know me, could see them when they visit. Perhaps on my bathroom wall near the mirror, where they could remind me who I really am when I get up in the morning, and have forgotten.

The characters include Nick’s family members (all more self-aware than he is, including his very young nephew); Nick’s new girlfriend; and a host of baristas. They go through some familiar crises.

But then Will hits you with the coloured art panels, and suddenly you’re relating to Nick, and the other characters, and perhaps yourself, in a very different way, the way you relate to a beloved work of art, music or literature.

This got me thinking about what art really is. I’d always thought of culture as the shared beliefs, sensibilities and behaviours of a group of people, and art as the ways in which that culture is expressed.

But of course art is far more than that, and to the extent it is usually an individual, sometimes even lonely, undertaking, it naturally conveys more than any group’s shared beliefs and sensibilities (how they, familiarly, see and make sense of the world). Rather, it conveys how the artist sees the world both through the eyes of the artist’s conditioning culture, and through the artist’s own, very personal lens — perspectives that can be jarringly incongruent.

And that’s how the ‘story’ chapters of the book (the world seen through the cultural lens), banging up against the coloured panels (the world seen from the character’s own, hyper-personal, unfiltered lens), struck me. Intimate, somewhat irreconcilable and jarring (in a necessary, shake-you-up, Starry Night kind of way), and absolutely raw.

The story has some hilarious and moving moments that made me laugh out loud, and it has its moments of ‘ordinary’, commonplace tragedy. But it was the coloured panels, not the story chapters, that had me weeping like a child, like I have not cried in as long as I can remember. And this happened, spontaneously, all three times I read the book.

Like all good art, In made me envious of the artist’s ability to convey so much so powerfully, with words but also, more importantly and viscerally, without words. I ache to be able to ‘say’ these things without the flatness and enormous effort and imprecision of language. I want to give a copy of this book to everyone who has ever cared about me, or might one day in the future, to let them know who I was, and am, instead of having to rely on my blog, which cannot hope to convey a fraction of as much truth, and which does so far less articulately.

On another level, like many of his cartoons, Will’s book is a paean to women, their grace, their groundedness, their capacity to understand, and to give, and to carry on in spite of everything. I try to do that with the female characters in my short stories, but Will does it consistently, pointedly, and accurately.

When I’d finished the book (all three times, so far) I wanted there to be a sequel about Wren, Nick’s remarkable, patient girlfriend. I suspect it would be a huge challenge for Will to produce one, but I suppose he could find a woman collaborator, and pull it off. Wren is so real, I want to know more about her!

I hope I can get a discount on In with a bulk order. It’s going to end up in the homes of a lot of people I know.

A couple more of my favourite Will cartoons below.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

Trophic Cascades, Double Binds, and the Dawn of Everything


council of clan mothers in post-civ culture; diorama from Afterculture

It’s not often that a book comes along that so undermines my beliefs that it brings about a seismic shift in my worldview. Sixteen years ago John Gray’s Straw Dogs did exactly that — convincing me that our civilization could not be saved, and, eventually, that it did not need or warrant saving. Now a new book has come along that is persuading me that, while we cannot do anything to prevent civilization’s collapse, we can do a lot more positive and creative things than we think (or that I thought) we could do, and we don’t have to wait for collapse.

The hyperbolic title of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything was apparently deliberately chosen to get in the face of anthropologists and archaeologists who have, for too long, been far too sure of themselves (at least in public) about the evolution and nature of our species and its place in the world. Its provocative and controversial thesis is:

The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.

(I could picture John Gray’s brow furrowing when he read this.) The world may be staggeringly complex, the authors assert, and we cannot come even close to knowing it well enough to predict the consequences of our impacts on it, but that doesn’t mean we are doomed to continue our current nihilistic path to global homogeneity, obscene inequality, suffering, and destructiveness. The history of humans and civilizations does not follow an inevitable linear trajectory from tribal egalitarianism to hierarchical agricultural and industrial settlement to unsustainable and unmanageable complexity and hence ghastly collapse, they insist. The story of humans is much subtler and more varied than that.

Ultimately I want to explain how this book’s coherent, playful, and exhaustively researched and documented arguments have changed how I see our world and our place in it (including my own), but first let me step back and walk you through the six main points I think this 600+ page book tries to make:


1. How we got stuck where we are

The core idea of the book is that what has led to our civilization’s dysfunction (and our unhappiness with it) is not so much the inequality, destruction and hopelessness of our situation, as the (personal and collective) loss of three ‘basic freedoms’ —

  1. the freedom to move elsewhere if you’re unhappy;
  2. the freedom to disobey if you disagree with what you’re told; and
  3. the freedom to imagine, create and explore other and different ways of living and being

The authors argue that the loss of the first freedom can lead to the loss of the second and thence to the loss of the third. But they say what lies behind the loss of these freedoms is not so much things like laws, overdevelopment of land and resources, and property rights, as a severe imaginative poverty, one that has been conditioned in us by an increasingly homogeneous and demoralizing culture. This conditioned behaviour, they say, might be overcome:

If something did go terribly wrong in human history – and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny something did – then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence, to such a degree that some now feel this particular type of freedom hardly even existed, or was barely exercised, for the greater part of human history. How did it happen? How did we get stuck? And just how stuck are we really?

The authors assert that we can’t know the answers to these questions, but they do speculate on them, and suggest these are the most important questions we can usefully be asking today.

2. There are, and have always been, many, and very different, ways to live in human society

Our narrow, linear, and incorrect view of how societies have historically developed causes us to underestimate the variety of forms of social organization that are still possible today.

The authors (wisely, I think) don’t talk about climate change, since I suspect they think it’s inexorable, but instead focus on their areas of knowledge and expertise — anthropology and archaeology. Their message is that our culture, and hence our future, is not limited by the constraints of our civilization, and that ‘ancient’ history is replete with examples of rapid, and sometimes whimsical, cultural change that created and transformed societies:

Perhaps if our species does endure, and we one day look backwards from this as yet unknowable future, aspects of the remote past that now seem like anomalies – say, bureaucracies that work on a community scale; cities governed by neighbourhood councils; systems of government where women hold a preponderance of formal positions; or forms of land management based on care-taking rather than ownership and extraction – will seem like the really significant breakthroughs, and great stone pyramids or statues more like historical curiosities.

What if we were to take that approach now and look at, say, Minoan Crete or Hopewell not as random bumps on a road that leads inexorably to states and empires, but as alternative possibilities: roads not taken?… People did actually live in those ways, often for many centuries, even millennia. In some ways, such a perspective might seem even more tragic than our standard narrative of civilization as the inevitable fall from grace. It means we could have been living under radically different conceptions of what human society is actually about. It means that mass enslavement, genocide, prison camps, even patriarchy or regimes of wage labour never had to happen. But on the other hand it also suggests that, even now, the possibilities for human intervention are far greater than we’re inclined to think.

3. Human advancement comes not from individual genius but from collaboration, imagination, experimentation, and play, over long periods of time.

The authors insist that innovation, imagination and discovery is not the territory of genius or new technology but of collective imagination, communication and incremental and serendipitous experimentation (much as how nature works):

Who was the first person to figure out that you could make bread rise by the addition of those microorganisms we call yeasts? We have no idea, but we can be almost certain she was a woman and would most likely not be considered ‘white’ if she tried to immigrate to a European country today; and we definitely know her achievement continues to enrich the lives of billions of people. What we also know is that such discoveries were, again, based on centuries of accumulated knowledge and experimentation… – the basic principles of agriculture were known long before anyone applied them systematically – and that the results of such experiments were often preserved and transmitted through ritual, games and forms of play (or even more, perhaps, at the point where ritual, games and play shade into each other)…

One of the most striking patterns we discovered while researching this book – indeed, one of the patterns that felt most like a genuine breakthrough to us – was how, time and again in human history, that zone of ritual play has also acted as a site of social experimentation – even, in some ways, as an encyclopaedia of social possibilities.

4. We are not inherently a violent and destructive species

The authors assert, again based on exhaustive evidence, that humans are not intrinsically what John Gray calls “homo rapiens” — destined by nature to kill, destroy and ruin — and that neither war nor slavery has ever been a necessary part of most human societies, even while they acknowledge these atrocities have been a part of many past societies.

Their argument for the myriad of possible reasons underlying the existence of war and slavery in pre-history and history is very complex, and they admit they’re largely conjecture and need further exploration:

War did not become a constant of human life after the adoption of farming; indeed, long periods of time exist in which it appears to have been successfully abolished. Yet it had a stubborn tendency to reappear, if only many generations later. At this point another new question comes into focus. Was there a relationship between external warfare and the internal loss of freedoms that opened the way, first to systems of ranking and then later on to large-scale systems of domination?…

Sovereignty, bureaucracy and politics are magnifications of elementary types of domination, grounded respectively in the use of violence, knowledge and charisma… Some ‘early states’… deployed spectacular violence at the pinnacle of the system (whether that violence was conceived as a direct extension of royal sovereignty or carried out at the behest of divinities); and all to some degree modelled their centres of power – the court or palace – on the organization of patriarchal households. Is this merely a coincidence?

5. Power has been manifested and exercised throughout human existence in many different, and often peaceful, ways

The authors explore in depth the connection between violence, freedom, slavery, ‘inequality’, and power. Power, they assert, in prehistoric times never flowed from wealth — not because there was no inequality of wealth but because wealth in those societies was valued only as its value as a gift (gifting being a most honourable human activity), and because wealth couldn’t be used to ‘buy’ power, or indeed anything else:

Existing debates [about freedom] almost invariably begin with terms derived from Roman Law, and for a number of reasons this is problematic. The Roman Law conception of natural freedom is essentially based on the power of the individual (by implication, a male head of household) to dispose of his property as he sees fit. In Roman Law property isn’t even exactly a right; it’s simply power – the blunt reality that someone in possession of a thing can do anything he wants with it, except that which is limited ‘by force or law’.

This formulation has some peculiarities that jurists have struggled with ever since, as it implies freedom is essentially a state of primordial exception to the legal order. It also implies that property is not a set of understandings between people over who gets to use or look after things, but rather a relation between a person and an object characterized by absolute power… Roman Law conceptions of property (and hence of freedom) essentially trace back to slave law,… [which endowed] the power of the master and which rendered the slave a thing.

6. Many past societies have scaled quite dramatically through networks and confederacies of collaboration and exchange, without resort to hierarchy, coercion, oppression, or violence

The authors go on to argue that it is completely untrue that “structures of domination are the inevitable result of populations scaling up by orders of magnitude”, citing many historical examples to the contrary, and add:

[It is equally untrue that] the larger and more densely populated the social group, the more ‘complex’ the system needed to keep it organized. Complexity, in turn, is still often used as a synonym for hierarchy. Hierarchy, in turn, is used as a euphemism for chains of command.

Large human settlements, they say, have historically more often been networks of collaboration and exchange than complex, hierarchical structures. They cite anthropologist Carole Crumley:

Complex systems don’t have to be organized top-down, either in the natural or in the social world. That we tend to assume otherwise probably tells us more about ourselves than the people or phenomena that we’re studying.

Many early cities operated, they say, “as civic experiments on a grand scale, which frequently lacked the expected features of administrative hierarchy and authoritarian rule.” Early civilizations were often coalitions or confederacies over large areas, and the emergence of more concentrated confederacies may have had more to do with limitations on space for expansion than anything else. Warfare, hierarchy, patriarchy and domination were not inevitable consequences of such confederacies, though of course they did arise in some of them, and the biggest unanswered question is, why?


On the final page of the book, they repeat a quote that is one of my favourites:

Max Planck once remarked that new scientific truths don’t replace old ones by convincing established scientists that they were wrong; they do so because proponents of the older theory eventually die, and generations that follow find the new truths and theories to be familiar, obvious even. We are optimists. We like to think it will not take that long.

None of this, of course, changes our current horrific predicament and (most likely) the inevitability of this civilization’s collapse. But it does open some interesting possibilities for new and unimaginably different types of societies both during and after collapse. If only we can shake the yoke of imaginative poverty, and our ‘stuckness’ in the current way of thinking — that our civilization culture is (at least now) the only way to live.

Why, I kept thinking as I read the book, are we “stuck” in this way of thinking that ours is the only way to live? Are we, like my fictional dog Lucky, condemned to keep returning to places and systems that abuse us, that waste our lives and energies, and that we know just don’t work, because we can’t imagine anything ever being, or ever having been, otherwise? Is this the only way to live, or just the only way we know?

Serendipitously, I have recently been reading about double binds, a psychological concept first introduced by Gregory Bateson, to explain how parents often (mostly unintentionally) invoke trauma in their children by framing their demands and expectations in “can’t win” terms — no matter what the child does, or doesn’t do, they feel they have failed, and let themselves and others down.

It occurred to me that many of those in power who want to suppress dissent and compel obedience to their authority, use similar means to paralyze citizens and “consumers”. Shut up and support and vote for right-wing Biden, or you’ll get fascist Trump. Buy our crap product, or be seen as ugly, stupid, or otherwise inferior in the eyes of those you care about. And if you don’t, your old product will break or be “deprecated” next year anyway. Shut up and take this Bullshit Job (or essential job) with its annual pay cut, absurd working conditions, and zero benefits, or we’ll shame you, starve you, or throw you in jail. In terms of the book’s three freedoms, this is simply: Stay, obey, and accept that this is the only way to live.

There is perhaps a similar double bind with climate change: We are persuaded it’s “up to us” and that we should not criticize mega-polluters or regulators because “we’re all part of the problem”. Or else we see that what we do as individuals is utterly inadequate, but are told that “the system” can’t change to address ecological collapse because it has too much inertia or too much momentum or too many interrelated moving parts. Or that tending to ecological collapse would inevitably bring horrific economic collapse, and we wouldn’t want to be blamed for that, would we? Pick your poison. So we just feel hopeless and give up, or turn to denial, or to faith in technology, or the rapture, or some other salvationist escape from reality. So we are paralyzed — whatever we do, or don’t do, is wrong, insufficient, defeatist, selfish, irresponsible.

The authors of The Dawn of Everything are trying to tell us we’ve been had when we feel this way. That it doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps the current Great Resignation is a small glimmer of realization of this, of what Daniel Quinn called “walking away” from a dysfunctional and collapsing society that is no longer serving us, and which actually isn’t the only way to live.

It seems strange for me to be writing these words — me, the self-proclaimed “joyful pessimist” who has insisted that nothing we can do will make a difference, so we should (gently) just enjoy our lives for what they offer, and appreciate that we’re doing our best, and that hard times lie ahead.

Derrick Jensen talks about moving “beyond hope“, and that is perhaps the shift that reading The Dawn of Everything has stirred in me. Derrick says that, even though “we’re fucked”, we should still work to clean up the river near us, to carefully dismantle that dam that does so much more harm than good, or do work at a food bank or animal rescue centre or homeless centre.

But maybe, if we start to work and think together about what “walking away” really means, with genuine dialogue, imagination, and helping each other disentangle and deactivate the double binds, we might find that, though I don’t share the Davids’ belief that it will be easy, we might discover that we can “make the world differently”, or at least small and important parts of it.

If we’re discouraged, we might look at an ecological principle called trophic cascades. The principle applies specifically to food pyramids in the natural world and how small interventions in them can have dramatic, far-reaching and permanent impacts on entire ecosystems. A classic example is how the reintroduction of wolves into an altered ecosystem completely remade and rebalanced an entire forest ecology, even affecting the shape and channels of rivers and the forest’s microclimate.

But the word trophic actually has a much broader definition — it means to make thrive — and that’s the sense I’m thinking about now.

So rather than trying to control and re-form societies by pioneering new and healthier ones, what if we instead realized that we are just part of a more-than-human ecology, and that, rather than imposing some new human model on “the environment”, we could by small, gentle interventions (a thousand carefully-considered small sanities) unleash a trophic cascade, and “make thrive” an entire ecosystem of which we are a part.

It seems to me this is what the authors might have been getting at when they suggested we could “make the world differently”. We, humans, don’t make the world. We, all of the creatures living and being in it, make the world what and how it is. The play, the experiments, the imagining, and the collaboration that we all, human and more-than-human, take part in — noticing, trying, exploring, tweaking, studying, learning, conversing, imagining, playing — this is how we, together, make the world. It is not a design exercise — Haven’t we learned that? It is far too complex for that, too unpredictable, too unknowable.

So how would we go about it? How would we go about making everything differently, if we walked away from this civilization? (And yes, we can!)

I have no idea. We would have to decide this collectively, figure it out together. Listen to what the birds tell us, and pay attention to what the rest of the world’s creatures show us. Make some shit up and see what happens. Make it safe to fail. Make it fun. Dialogue about what’s possible. Dream. Forget about the idea of impossible. Start fresh. Challenge everything, playfully. Start over. Improvise. Break all the rules. Share everything, especially knowledge and power. And, in the spirit of the book, cherish the three freedoms, regained.

Perhaps the “dawn of everything” in the book’s cryptic title doesn’t refer to a new understanding of the dawn of how human societies evolved in the past. Perhaps instead it’s the authors’ whispered suggestion that this could be the time of the dawn of infinite possibilities, the dawn of everything that is yet to come in the human experiment, all the astonishing things we have not yet tried, or have tried and forgotten.

This joyful pessimist wants to know. Wanna start a trophic cascade with me?

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

CoVid-19 vs Humans: A Game of Chess


Drawing by Derek Evernden at New Year’s, a year ago. Oops!

The outcome of this match was hard to predict at the outset. Humans have fared pretty well over the last century at dealing with viruses. But the problem is, if you don’t keep practicing, you lose your edge. And compared to humans, the viruses have been getting in a lot of practice in the 21st century. Here’s how the moves have gone so far:

  1. Viruses: The game began, it seems, in a bat cave in China, in 2019. Bats, which have a natural immunity to most viruses, can have up to 15,000 different pathogenic viruses , each with lots of strains, and the viruses are constantly mutating. Some of the bats in one cave in Yunnan in particular*, seemed to have hosted a range of randomly mutated coronaviruses that had not previously been seen. The cave was near a station on the new Chinese high-speed train that had Wuhan as a major stop. So the virus’ first move was a novel one — a move never before tried in the game. But then many, many viruses are novel. Your body contains about 400 trillion of them at any one time.
  2. Humans: The humans, flummoxed by this bold and unorthodox first move, hesitated before deciding on their response. In this game, time is of the essence, and hesitation can be disastrous. The humans nodded and smiled to their fans, telling them this was nothing to worry about, it was all in hand. But meanwhile they were huddling furiously to decide how to respond. Under cover of their public display of confidence, the humans decided on two equally bold and unusual responses. First, the Chinese mapped the genome of the new virus and immediately sent it to scientists all over the world, so that a first vaccine candidate would be identified a mere week later (January 2020). And secondly, they decided to lock down much of a country of 1.4 billion people.
  3. Viruses: The virus had anticipated this, and was way ahead of the humans. This was an extremely transmissible virus, and it had the element of surprise on its side. The humans knew, from SARS-CoV-1 early in the century, that global mobility of humans had reached such a high level that attempting to limit the spread of highly transmissible viruses by closing airports and restricting travel was utterly futile. Back in 2008, the US DHS had even recommended that such measures not be even tried, as it would be a waste of time and energy. Instead, the public health scientists knew, it was important to test everywhere and everyone quickly and repeatedly to isolate all cases, and to use universal masking if the virus was transmitted by aerosol particles. This virus put everything into transmissibility, trading off for lower morbidity (it had lost previous matches with SARS and MERS, using a higher-morbidity, lower-transmissibility strategy).
  4. Humans: A combination of cockiness and ignorance meant that the humans’ next move was totally bungled. The public health scientists knew that there had been none of the preparation for a high-transmissibility virus that had been recommended a decade earlier, so there were pitifully few medical masks available for the public, and no infrastructure in place to test even a tiny proportion of the population for infection and isolation, so their early advantage in sequencing the new virus was useless. So instead, the humans responded with a feeble attempt to encourage, rather tepidly, use of hand-and surface-washing and inadequate cloth masks, an idea they ‘sold’ poorly to the population, and supplement that with ‘social distancing’ — which might work if the virus only spread via droplets and was not transmitted through aerosol means. They tried to convince themselves, and the public, that this was likely a droplet-transmitted virus — A fatal mistake. Worse than that, the political humans, embarrassed at how quickly this virus had seized its advantage and how unprepared they were, and wanting to believe the whole thing wasn’t happening, suggested that (a) it was probably ‘no worse than the seasonal flu’, and (b) it was the result of human error in China, so it was up to the Chinese to ‘fix’ it. Meanwhile, absolutely nothing was done to resolve the problem of grossly inadequate masks and tests. It was as if the humans were in denial that anything was happening at all. To “protect patient privacy”, most citizens saw nothing of the horror occurring in thousands of hospitals and institutions. Most human energy was now diverted to the blame game, and finding dubious scientists who would explain the virus’ astonishing early success away.
  5. Viruses: Thanks to the almost total lack of preparedness by the humans, there were not even enough high-quality aerosol-preventing masks for front-line professionals, so the virus’ strategy of high aerosol transmissibility had clearly been the right one to try. Further stealth was achieved in two ways: (a) a 21-day lag between onset of symptoms, which at first seemed usually rather innocent and flu-like, and death, and almost as long a lag between first symptoms and hospitalization; and (b) the majority of transmission was asymptomatic, so millions of people were unknowingly spreading the disease, and the virus was busy damaging 19 different human internal organs, including the heart and brain, in unique and subtle ways that would mostly only be discovered months later, or when autopsies were performed.
  6. Humans: Belatedly and inadequately, the humans acknowledged that this virus had more than ten times the morbidity of seasonal flu, and was far more prevalent worldwide than anyone had thought, and they introduced mask mandates, encouraged use of at least medical-quality masks (but not N95-quality), and introduced lockdowns where and while cases were high. It was the summer of 2020, and the tide seemed to be turning — cases dropped, and then so did death rates, dramatically in many cases. But then, as if they were determined to undercut their own success, the humans made the stupidest move yet — they relaxed the mandates and lockdowns. Almost immediately, the virus recovered.
  7. Viruses: Stealth had proved to be the best strategy for the virus, so it stuck with that strategy. Laying low for the summer, it continued its largely invisible damage to the bodies of the billion or so humans infected so far, setting the stage for up to 20% of the survivors to develop Long CoVid chronic ailments in, and destruction to, their bodies’ organs. And with its vast experience and spread, it now began to develop mutations. In September of 2020, when the humans were beginning to publicly declare victory, the alpha variant debuted and quickly became the prevalent strain. Two other, very different strains followed soon after.
  8. Humans: Psychologically rocked by being seemingly so close to defeating the virus and then undone by overconfident relaxations and lack of diligence, the humans again turned to the blame game, blaming poor health care advice (true in part, since most public health care research and most pandemic preparedness programs in many countries had been gutted over the previous four decades), blaming other humans (especially the young, the uneducated, the already-sick, and the old), blaming governments and pharmaceutical companies, and blaming others’ ideologies and the media that fanned them. Still there were inadequate and insufficient masks. Still there were absurdly insufficient test resources. So now, demoralized, the humans went ‘all in’ on a giant gamble — a vaccine would be found, soon, and everyone would take it.
  9. Viruses: The winter of 2020-21 belonged, like the winter before it, to the viruses, as cases again soared. After the daily death toll had dropped 90% in the previous summer, to the point a “Go For Zero” strategy was actually viable in some places, the humans instead again relaxed mandates and restrictions in the late summer and fall, and deaths subsequently reached record levels in most countries. Only the vaccine now stood between the viruses, which had now claimed close to 30% of the human population, and victory.
  10. Humans: The vaccine arrived in January 2021, a monument to human ingenuity, global scientific collaboration, and collective capacity in times of crisis. Although it had taken a year to test, this was a fraction of the time that previous vaccines had taken to develop, and these vaccines were novel too, relying on a different mechanism, rather than infecting the patient with a small amount of the actual virus to prompt an immune response. So these vaccines were also safer. And there were several on offer, so that if one underperformed humans could switch to another. This seemed like it would be the deciding blow in this match — the virus would soon be on the ropes. But again, the humans undermined their own success. Because of decades of neglect and privatization, the infrastructure needed to order, distribute and administer the vaccines was almost entirely absent, and it would have to be built from scratch. And worse, the political humans interfered and tried to discredit other ‘unfriendly’ countries’ vaccines and hoard their own for their own citizens. Still, the race was now on.
  11. Viruses: It was coming down to whether the virus could mutate fast enough to beat the new vaccine into the bodies of the remaining 70% of humans. Thanks to the slow production and distribution of vaccines, the virus quickly unleashed the delta variant, and cases again soared. This was especially advantageous for the viruses, because when cases were rising even as a massive vaccination program was underway, it played into the doubts of the vaccine hesitant and the fevered imaginations of the conspiracy theorists. Now, not only did the humans have to deal with inadequate systems for delivering the vaccine, they had to deal with a large proportion of the population who refused to take it. It looked as if the match might end in a tie, with half the humans getting the disease (and a significant proportion of them getting Long CoVid), and the other half getting inoculated.
  12. Humans: Trying to tip the game to their advantage, humans began to offer third “booster” vaccines, especially to the most vulnerable. There was disturbing evidence that, while it was rare and their symptoms usually mild, some fully vaccinated people were getting infected with the delta variant. The “booster” seemed to restore the vaccine immunity, but the real challenge was still the enormous reservoir of disease that those who refused to get vaccinated offered to the virus as it continued to mutate. A “tie” match was looking to be the best that humans could now hope for, especially if the game went into overtime, and with another winter on the horizon, overtime looked like a distinct possibility.
  13. Viruses: Human hesitation, lack of preparedness, and foolishly giving up on mandates and restrictions, provided the viruses with all the time they needed to mutate into yet another variant, called omicron. This was exactly what the virus needed to win — it was even more transmissible, including to those who had been vaccinated (though it was much less transmissible and had a much lower viral load in vaccinated bodies). Again, it sacrificed morbidity for more transmissibility, since this was now a sprint, not a marathon. Even with much lower morbidity it could still infect more people (and that is its existential purpose) because essentially everyone who had not been vaccinated, and some who had, would get the disease. By any judge’s criteria, that would be a ‘win’.
  14. Humans: So here we are now, in January of 2022, and it’s our move again. One of the moves we tried in earlier rounds is now, suddenly, not available to us: With positivity rates in the 15-50% range in most areas, sending people home to isolate after infection would so deplete essential services that they would largely cease to function. We still have a woefully inadequate testing capacity and infrastructure and a woefully inadequate vaccine supply and infrastructure in much of the world. Most people do not own an N95 mask (which are still out of stock in most places) and many do not even use a hospital-grade mask; many others use their masks improperly or only intermittently.

So, given continuing high rates of vaccine hesitancy, there would now seem to be only two moves left: (a) the massive deployment of N95 masks and their ubiquitous use everywhere indoors until the virus is starved of new victims and test-and-isolate once again becomes a viable strategy, or (b) resign the game, and cede victory to the virus, allowing it to spread freely to all except the most vulnerable (essentially isolating the most vulnerable instead of the infected) until it runs out of potential victims.

As ghastly and depressing as the latter strategy seems to me, I can’t see the former strategy working at all. It depends on a patient, enforced, consistent, effective and ubiquitous mask mandate that all of our experience to date indicates simply will not be forthcoming, either from us as citizens, or by those who are charged with enforcing it. A half-way move of asking people nicely to mask up all the time is a worse-than-nothing compromise. As the Chinese and other countries who have been successful at stemming the virus (so far anyway) have learned, you don’t compromise with a deadly pandemic that has already killed about 14 million people in two years (including about 1 out of every 80 people over age 65), and could well double that toll before the game is finally over.

To put this in perspective, globally, about 20 million people die each year from cardiovascular disease, and about another 10 million die of cancer. Most of those deaths are probably preventable, if we had the will to require and enable people to eat a healthy diet, and to exercise properly, and if we had the capacity to rid our world of the toxic substances that our civilization has produced, and the massive chronic stress of precarity it induces. We have, of course, no such will or capacity. Adding another 7-14 million lost lives for a year or so before the pandemic runs out of steam, will, I suspect, soon become a devil’s bargain we are prepared to accept to get over the tumult, disruption, shame, and psychological, social and economic turmoil we have lived with for the last two years. Though the burden on hospitals will be pretty horrific, even as we continue to look the other way.

When that happens, and I think it will come this spring (and seriously hope the additional deaths will be much lower than another 14 million), we will not want to hear the daily numbers any more, much as we tired of hearing the death toll from HIV after 1995, when it finally ceased to be the #1 cause of death for young Americans, though it still killed two million globally in 2004.

My sense is that we’re quickly running out of options, since we failed to take the actions necessary to bring this pandemic to a close at least five different times over the past two years. No one is to blame for that. This played out the only way it could have.

We have played our best game, and lost. Hope we do better next time.


* For those new to this virologists’ discussion thread on the origins of CoVid-19, I’d recommend you read the last (bottom, September 2021) entry first, and then go back to the top and read through the entire thread. It’s technical, but not hard to follow.

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

Several Short Sentences About… Seeds


image by Virvoreanu-Laurentiu on pixabay, CC0

I‘ve been reading Washington biologist Thor Hanson’s fascinating book The Triumph of Seeds. The book contains so many amazing facts about these little-studied (except for agricultural propagation purposes) evolutionary innovations, that they’ve prompted me to create a fourth post in my “several short sentences…” series about unique species of life (previously: sharks, bats, jellyfish). So here we go: Several short (and not-so-short) sentences about seeds:

  1. Seed structures are so diverse that it’s sometimes hard to say exactly what a seed is, and where it ends and other parts of the plant begin. But a leading biologist, Carol Baskin, uses this handy definition: “a seed is a baby plant, in a box, with its lunch”. The size and durability of the ‘box’, and of the ‘lunch’ have evolved to match the threats of the seed being prematurely eaten or destroyed, and the amount of time the seed normally needs to survive before it finds a suitable place to germinate. Hence coconuts (ocean journeys before germination), avocado pits (waiting for enough nearby water), dandelions (“over there will do”), and conifers (“right here is fine”).
  2. The myth that spore-reproducing plants dominated until the end of the hot, wet Carboniferous is untrue. Seeds co-evolved with spores, and have more recently prevailed because their means of reproducing is simpler and more reliable. The Carboniferous myth remains because the hot wetlands during that time, where spore-bearing plants thrived, were perfect for fossil production, while the more temperate higher-altitude areas, where seeds prevailed, did not tend to produce fossils.
  3. The first stage of most seeds’ growth involves simply bloating up the cells with water, often to hundreds of times the seed’s original size. During that time, they use a variety of alkaloid chemicals, almost all of which are now employed by humans, to inhibit cell division. Those chemicals, which also serve to ward off pests, include caffeine, capsaicin, pepper, many modern drugs, and some of the planet’s most toxic poisons (eg ricin, henbane, cyanide, warfarin), which have been used not only as human and pest poisons but also, in smaller concentrations, for their cell-destroying properties in treating cancers and other diseases. Only when the then water-filled cells have shot out far enough from the seed to resist the toxins, does growth by cell division (requiring use of the ‘lunch’, with its evolved customized mix of starches, oils, fats, waxes, proteins and other energy sources) begin.
  4. We can only guess how seeds ‘know’ when to start germinating. It is known that they can detect the qualities of surrounding soils, and the angle and amount of available sun even through feet of snow. It may well be that their means of ‘navigating’ their new environment are as sophisticated as that of birds (which we also know almost nothing about).
  5. More than 70% of human farmlands are planted with grains, all of them cultivated through selective breeding from primeval grasses for the simple reason that grasses are the lowest-maintenance plants on the planet, due to the ease with which their seeds proliferate, and they contain starches which the human body can easily convert to energy. More than half of all human calories consumed come from grains.
  6. Human digestive systems have co-evolved with the (mostly plant-based) foods we eat. We could no longer, for example, survive on the diet that our nearest neighbours the chimps thrive on, because our bodies can no longer break down many of the foods they eat; as early as 800,000 years ago we became, and are now of necessity, the “cooking primate”. Likewise, we could not survive now on a raw meat diet, because our modern bodies would consume as many calories trying to chew and digest the meat as it provides to us.
  7. Seed banks and agriculturalists are now planning on ways to gradually replace the world’s largest crop — wheat — with more heat- and drought-resistant sorghum, starting in areas closest to the equator, as the earth’s temperature heats up to the point wheat will no longer grow. Seed banks are so important because food plant biodiversity is now so impoverished that the remaining species are hugely vulnerable to new plant pests and climate change, so alternatives need to be kept on the ready, and are regularly being introduced. Seed banks work in tandem with the many seed-saver exchanges around the world.
  8. So much of the world depends heavily on imported seed grains that Lewiston, Idaho has become the world’s third largest ‘seaport’ for grain traffic (90% of it bound for Asia). This required the construction of a massive series of dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers to ‘quieten’ these rivers enough to barge the grain to Portland, Oregon. The hydroelectric energy produced by the dams was only a side-benefit and afterthought of the dams’ construction.
  9. Everywhere grain is grown, it is rotated with beans and other legume crops. Not only does the rotation enrich the soil and allow more and richer harvests, eating grains and beans together provide much greater nutrition than eating either alone. Beans are still the main source of protein in much of the world.
  10. Just as selective breeding of grains and animals has produced much higher-yielding human foods, the same patient breeding has produced most of the vegetables we think of as ‘natural’ crops (while drastically reducing their diversity). For example, a single nondescript coastal mustard plant has been selectively bred to produce all moderns strains of cabbages, collard greens, kale (by selecting for fuller leaves), Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli (by selecting for larger buds and shoots), and kohlrabi (by selecting for flat, edible stems). These vegetable ‘staples’ are all, essentially, human ‘inventions’.
  11. Hand pollination of dates and figs (which for most of human existence have been the largest component of our diets) dates back over 4,000 years. Date palm seeds from ancient seed banks have been found to still germinate 2,000 years after they were collected.
  12. Guar gum, a thickener made from a seed that grows almost entirely in India’s deserts, is so essential to modern industry that it now constitutes 30% of the cost of fracking operations, and its scarcity and resultant high price has forced food companies to replace its use with locust bean gum and fenugreek to keep products affordable.
  13. Bird beak and rodent jaw shapes can evolve significantly in as little as a single generation to adapt to changes in the prevalence and characteristics of local seeds and nuts. The seeds and nuts then evolve to respond to the birds’ and rodents’ advantage, in a never-ending ‘arms race’. Since transport by birds and rodents is essential to many seeds’ successful reproduction, they can’t be so hard to crack that the predators give up dispersing them, or so easy to crack that they’re eaten on the spot. It’s a delicate balance.
  14. Our skull shape and tooth organization and structure evolved to enable us to safely bite through nut and other seed shells (“the premolars, right behind the canines”). We instinctively ‘know’ exactly how to do this.
  15. Columbus’ voyages were considered largely a failure by his sponsors, since their objective wasn’t to ‘discover’ new lands but to find and bring back nutmeg, pepper, and other rare and popular spices. But what he did bring back, ají, aka chiles, unknown outside the New World, eventually became the most popular spice in the world, and are now grown everywhere. Chiles are only ‘hot’ in the sense they fool our taste buds, and are only so in wet locations where their ‘hotness’ is essential to keep fungi at bay. Birds’ taste buds don’t respond to this trick, so they can eat ‘hot’ spicy seeds with impunity. Chiles were actually used as an antifungal, preservative, and rodent repellant, before they were used as food flavouring.
  16. Most primates use seeds and other plant extracts for medicinal purposes, including pain relief, anti-inflammatory and wound and infection healing.
  17. Coffee may be the principal determinant of the era of social change known as the Enlightenment. Coffee replaced beer as the beverage of choice at that time (before that, the average adult consumed three times as much beer as we do now), and institutions such as Lloyd’s insurance, the Bank of NY, the London Stock Exchange, Christies’ and Sotheby’s auction houses, and the Royal Society all began as informal meetings in public coffee houses. Coffee was unknown in the New World until it was transplanted there in the mid-1700s. Many plants (such as citrus fruits) carry caffeine in their flowers, because it’s as addictive to bees as it is to humans.
  18. The castor bean, known for the production of castor oil, also is the source of ricin poison, and of Castrol motor oil, because the bean oil’s lubricating qualities are essential to high-performance racing car engines, and no petroleum-based lubricants measure up.
  19. Cotton is another plant which was unknown in the New World until a few centuries ago, but its journey didn’t happen as a result of transport by human explorers or birds. Cotton seeds actually floated across the Atlantic Ocean and germinated in the New World, two different strains in two different places, where it was then ‘discovered’ by Atlantic coastal tribes. It’s evolved to be the main source of fabric everywhere on the planet.
  20. There is no ‘direction’ to the evolution of seeds and other means of plant procreation. Both seeds and spores have evolved over hundreds of millions of years, but they are both relative newcomers to the propagation of life on earth. Sharks have been around much longer than trees. And some of the most ancient seed and spore mechanisms continue to be used by plants alongside very recent innovations. And they were both cosmic accidents, not necessarily the only ways for plant life to propagate. For example, orchids technically have seeds, but their seeds are tinier than dust particles, have no ‘box’ (seed coat or case) and no ‘lunch’ (initial nutrition provided by the parent plant), and they can take eight years to germinate. The tiny seeds form symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi, with each providing essential nutrients to the other. Had the climate been very different when seeds first evolved, the orchids’ means of propagation might have prevailed, meaning all the seeds, nuts and fruits upon which so much life (and civilization) depends might never have emerged, and what we call ‘life’ would have looked, today, unimaginably different.
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