What Do We Owe Those Who Can’t Cope With Collapse?

all the images in this post are Midjourney AI’s take on homelessness; none of these is drawn from, or depicts, any real person or actual place, and none of them are my own prompts

Rhyd Wildermuth wrote recently that he sees homelessness, substance addiction, massive-scale incarceration, and mental illness as all being harbingers of “late-stage” social and civilizational collapse. He worked with the victims of these crises for many years, so he knows what he’s talking about.

This predicament reflects the complete failure of our health system to properly address the needs of the ill — those incapable of caring properly for themselves, especially when traditional community/family support systems have vanished in our anonymous, atomized modern societies. That system has never been competent to deal with them — the use of forced institutionalization, lobotomization, and shock treatment has simply been replaced by abandonment, a giving up on even trying to address these people’s needs.

The problem is that the numbers of such people are skyrocketing. A staggering proportion of our young people are no longer in the labour pool because they are simply psychologically incapable of holding down a job. Growing numbers of people suffering from trauma are, in many cases, barely holding on. Aggravating this situation, the extreme inequality of wealth and power has pushed an ever-increasing proportion of the population “under water”, with debts exceeding their assets, and made them either homeless or very close to being so. Paying for health care is simply out of the question.

This is not the “fault” of the health system. Its workers are doing their best, but they are simply overwhelmed, and their “science” is just incapable of addressing the multiplicity of ailments and problems that have incapacitated a growing proportion of our population. The institutions that the ill are sometimes forcefully “committed” to cannot heal them. Arresting them over and over and sending them to prison (a large majority of “inmates” are sufferers of long-term trauma, substance addiction, and/or mental illness) certainly doesn’t help. And abandoning them to the streets, even in those very rare places that don’t harass them, don’t criminalize their behaviour, and offer a reasonably safe supply of drugs that help them numb their pain, is just as bad.

We have run out of alternatives, however, and nothing that we’ve tried has worked. So we’ve given up. As the numbers of our citizens who’ve been rendered socially and economically dysfunctional skyrocket, and as economic collapse worsens, this crisis, Rhyd warns us, is going to get much worse.

A few days ago, I drove (carefully) through Hastings Street and the adjacent streets in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, on my way to catch a ferry. This was the city’s biggest “tent city” area, that the city’s new right-wing government recently razed in a massive sweep and dislocation of Vancouver’s most vulnerable citizens. Many of the tents have reappeared, and the scenes are not unlike those depicted in this post. Everywhere you see mentally ill street people yelling and screaming, at no one in particular. Everywhere you see people staggering into the street almost getting hit by cars and buses. Everywhere you see people peeing and puking on curb-sides. Everywhere you see people banging their heads against walls, racked by tremors, slumping onto the ground, and sleeping (or otherwise unconscious), uncovered on the sidewalks.

I notice that Google Maps now steers drivers and pedestrians around this area. Whether that’s for people’s safety, or to prevent them having to witness this shameful scene of human misery and mistreatment, I do not know.

A recent NYT article profiled the situation in San Diego. It makes for gruesome and depressing reading, describing life for those on the street as a “daily game of Russian Roulette”.

Yet in Canada, governments at both ends of the political spectrum are back to studying forced institutionalization as the answer, even though this has never been shown to work, and often leads to even greater suffering. I suppose they at least want the problem out of public sight, where they, and we, can pretend it isn’t happening.

And that seems to be what all of the hand-wringing and street sweeps and calls for more police are really about. The top caste doesn’t care — it’s not their gated community homes and chauffeur-guarded limos being broken into by people desperate for their next meal, or their next fix.

The western cult of individuality would have us believe that this accelerating epidemic of illness and its many interwoven predicaments, are somehow the fault of the sick individuals themselves. We are not even close to ready to acknowledge that what I have called Civilization Disease has made us all — all eight billion of our bewildered ape species — mentally ill to one degree or another. We are just not meant to live this way. Those of us who are least capable of coping with this disease are the ones visible on our streets and in the drug poisoning statistics and coroners’ reports — the ones showing us what it might be like for us next as collapse deepens. The ones we don’t want to know, see or hear about.

So what is our collective responsibility to our fellow sufferers? When most of us are struggling ourselves, what do we owe to those who just can’t cope with collapse, and are now living dysfunctional, deprived and dangerously precarious lives?

If every “institutional” solution to chronic mental illness and systemic grinding poverty has utterly failed, when and how do we, those of us not suffering as badly from Civilization Disease, step in to do what we can?

There is, of course, no answer to these questions. That’s why we shrug off responsibility for the predicament to health professionals, social workers, police and prison owners, when the predicament only worsens under their ‘stewardship’. And, worse, we often blame the victims themselves.

When almost everyone is living in a world of increasing stress and precarity, it seems that we tend to devolve to an “every person for themselves” mentality — while the members of the top caste take the proceeds of their oligopolies, inheritances, and tax cuts, abandon ship and head for their fenced bunkers in Hawai’i and New Zealand to wait out the storm.

So that’s apparently the default for our declining human civilization — those who cannot cope, and who don’t have personal support groups to carry them, will simply be abandoned, left in greater and greater numbers to die from poisoned drugs, street violence, malnutrition, exposure, or suicide, as collapse deepens.

I’m sure this is not what we want our civilization’s epitaph to be, even if there is no one left to read it — that we left our most vulnerable and helpless fellow humans to die because we were too busy looking after our own survival needs.

But this is where it looks like we are headed. Again, this is no one’s fault. We are all doing our best. We are conditioned, biologically and culturally, to look out for, and care for each other in times of abundance (just like these little guys), and, in times of extreme stress, scarcity and precarity, to hoard for ourselves, or to withdraw and die, to leave enough for the tribe’s survivors (also just like any other mammal). This is how nature restores balance when gentler methods fail. (Most creatures, deeply connected to their local ecosystems, instinctively regulate their own birth rates to prevent overpopulation and resource exhaustion; rarely do they face the predicament Civilization Disease has led our disconnected species to.)

Dmitry Orlov, in his books on collapse, tells us that while economic, ecological, and political collapse may be inevitable, and such collapses are hugely challenging, collapse can be manageable provided the situation doesn’t further deteriorate to the point of social collapse.

But it’s hard to see, from here, how we are going to be able to prevent such social collapse once our economic system collapses and takes down our political systems with it, especially when ecological collapse is guaranteed to make our situation much worse.

Still, there is something in me that instinctively believes we are going to rise to the occasion as things start to fall apart. We will only survive at all if and when we rediscover how to create and sustain real community. We have forgotten how to do this, but it’s been relearned before, as many stories of hardship, kindness and empathy during past depressions and wars attest. And I’ve seen with my own eyes communities that still work, where everyone looks after everyone else.

It may be a long way down, and a ghastly struggle for a while, with more suffering and death than we might have hoped. But my sense is that the survivors (a lot fewer than eight billion) will rediscover and rebuild communities, and they will re-engender the essential skills, the compassion, and the connection we will need to provide a foundation for post-collapse societies.

Hopefully, they will be societies immune to the ravages of Civilization Disease.

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


This is #18 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk and hike in my local community. 

image by Midjourney; not my prompt

This body that I presume to inhabit likes to eat outside. So this month, it’s taking me to cafés with outside dining. I’ve volunteered to do some recycling work (mostly sorting bottles and cans to be shipped to recyclers) for a non-profit on Bowen Island, where I lived for twelve years.

So I board the SkyTrain from my new home in Coquitlam, in the NE corner of greater Vancouver, to make the long but quite comfortable trek to Bowen, in the NW corner of the metropolis. A trek between two places with very different cultures. At least, that’s what I’d always thought.

I’m fascinated by human cultures, and especially by what seems an almost zealous willingness of many people to stereotype and differentiate other cultures from our own. Perhaps we identify our culture by how it differs from others’. So I’ve tried to learn about what it’s like to live in faraway countries with ostensibly very different cultures, ideally by talking to people from those countries, but also from articles and stories written by natives and ex-pats. What I’ve found most interesting lately have been YouTube videos by people talking about and showing us their home towns and how they live. Like this one showing life in Tehran, and Elina Bakunova’s videos about her home country Russia, and the day-in-the-life videos by Daniel Dumbrill taken across China. These posts are neither sponsored by state propaganda agencies, nor by anti-government hate-mongers seeking a pretext for war. The picture they paint is a balanced one, of lives that have the same ordinary modern ups and downs we pretty much all deal with. Their lives are so much like ours in so many ways. Why do we keep forgetting that?

As I board the ferry, I recall a time several years ago in downtown Vancouver, when I was looking for a place to get something copied or faxed, and was directed to a place that was down a flight of stairs from street level. I found myself in a completely different world — a role-playing/gaming room (I later learned it was a PC Bang) jammed full of big screens and fast-CPU computers, with all of the signage in Korean, and a concession that served only Korean foods. One floor above were expensive, exclusive Robson Street shops with almost entirely Anglo-European customers and staff.

From that experience, I had derived this perception of supposedly multicultural Vancouver as actually being a collection of unconnected bubbles, ‘communities’ using the same public infrastructure but living almost entirely separate lives. The great diversity of Vancouver’s people, it seemed, was visible, but their actual cultures were not.

So now I look around the Bowen Island ferry and all I see, as usual on that ferry, are white faces, after I’ve just come from my new home community where fully half of the population is what in Canada are called “visible minorities”. (In the case of Coquitlam, they are largely Chinese-, Korean-, and Iranian-Canadians, based on how they self-identify on their census forms and the principal language they speak at home.)

Back when I lived on Bowen, I became the principal researcher and author of an award-winning Arts & Cultural Plan for the island. In it, we tried to capture the essence of the island’s culture in this wordle:

A search for beauty, community, and sanctuary were the words we heard most often when we interviewed Bowen Islanders about “our” culture. And culturally homogeneous.

Yet, as I walk off the ferry, it dawns on me that the islanders I lived among for twelve years were not, and are not, a particularly happy lot. Studies repeatedly show there is a high level of substance abuse, mental health problems, and financial anxiety on the island, and Bowen’s social media (and café conversations) reveal a high level of distrust of ‘mainlanders’, of governments of all stripes, and internally among the residents, who are often angrily politically divided and prone to internecine scapegoating and public humiliation. (You know, all the stuff that social media excels at.)

These are, I think, people with reluctantly hardened hearts. That’s what happens, perhaps, when you keep moving west in search of a better way to live, or a better community to live in, and finally run out of places further west to go, but never really find what you were looking for.

As much as islanders talk of community, and band together in opposition to things they oppose (‘developed’ parks, taxes, logging, growth, camping, off-road vehicles, regulations of any kind, and ‘excessive’ tourists, notably), there is nothing cohesive that really makes them a community. Perhaps that’s why, when I had to leave, it was logistically challenging but not at all heart-breaking.

In the Cultural Plan, we defined culture as a community’s shared beliefs, behaviours and aspirations (and we defined arts as the expressions of that culture). But what does it mean if you have neither a real, cohesive community nor an identifiable, connecting, healthy culture? Can you even have one without the other?

These are the questions I think about as I walk up from the ferry to the recycling depot. On the way up, three people I hadn’t seen in years recognize me, call me over to their cars by name, and offer me a ride to my destination (even though two of them are actually headed in the opposite direction). This is what a community does, right?

Well, maybe. In our very brief conversations before they drive on, they all tell me about some local issue (the ferries, the proposed campground, tourists) they are unhappy about. What kind of community is only held together by what they are collectively opposed to? How durable is a culture that is relentlessly critical and endlessly aspirational, rather than celebratory, joyful and grateful?

That’s not to criticize the fine people of Bowen, of which I counted myself one, and expected to remain for the rest of my life. We are the result of our conditioning, and, perhaps as a result of that, the nature of many Bowen Islanders I met was very often dissatisfied, quick to assign blame, and hoping for a better future but not very optimistic about it. I can relate — I was the same for most of my life. I suspect this is probably a defence mechanism after (in my case, anyway) decades of disappointment and failure to meet other people’s often-unreasonable expectations. But it is not a terribly endearing human quality, and not a very solid cement with which to build culture and community.

At any rate, during my recycling shift I am regaled with anecdotes about the continuing turnover of Bowen residents, and about the many people I know who have recently left or are planning to leave, most of them involuntarily (there are no affordable rental accommodations, and few rentals available at any price).

After my shift, I get a ride down to the ferry terminal, and settle in at a local café to await some friends I’d arranged to meet with. As I wait, two women with white canes navigate their way to the next table. I am struck by their joy and wit as they talk with each other. One of the women is talking on the phone, and relates to the caller that she’s only been blind for a month as a result of complications from “otherwise-successful” heart surgery. She’s laughing and cursing like a sailor and making jokes about her situation. Her friend is giggling, and flirting with the server. In five minutes I hear enough good material to launch a comedy series.

After my meetup with friends, I make my way back to the ferry.

When I am back to Coquitlam I go to another café. Here, I see and hear a lot of different cultures. I hear Farsi, Korean and Mandarin being spoken at different tables, but the conversations don’t intersect. At the few tables where more than one ethnicity is evident, they are speaking in English, and I smile at how much louder the English conversations are than those in other languages. These cultures all have cafés, markets, and similar public meeting spaces as essential elements of their social lives, but this café is an amalgam of cultures, not a mixing pot.

And although these “hyphenated-Canadian” cultures are very different, they have one very endearing quality in common, and that is politeness almost to a fault. They greet strangers unfailingly in elevators, say “excuse me” and “thank you” and “I’m sorry” even more than most Canadians, and they smile and meet your gaze when they pass. This is done, by all but the youngest, as a simple act of respect and accommodation. It seems a conscious act, a learned and practiced behaviour. Formal, perhaps, but not just as a formality.

At least, I think it is. As I sit in the café people-watching, I realize I know almost nothing about any of these “hyphenated” cultures, which I appreciate are modestly different from the non-expat cultures, which have a different context, a different set of milieux, and different neighbouring cultures, all of which inevitably affect behaviours, beliefs and aspirations. Iranian-Canadian culture, I think, is inevitably neither Iranian nor Canadian, but something distinct and apart from either.

If I were to try to create a wordle for any of these cultures, I wouldn’t even know where to start. On the one hand, Coquitlam prides itself on being clean, modern, safe, and welcoming to an extraordinary number of new residents. On the other hand, social life here is largely determined by traditions, language, and food preferences, and so it is somewhat insular and family-based, more than in many places. And the daily commute of so many means that Coquitlam is very much a “bedroom community”, so there is less time for discovering your neighbours and involving yourself in community activities.

Having said that, I am aware of some similarities among them, which are not in themselves remarkable but quite distinct from Anglo-American cultures. For a start, invitations to visit someone’s home are evidently serious matters, where the host will often offer a fairly lavish set of options for food and drink, even if it’s just an invitation to tea. Secondly, it is apparently normal for guests to bring a small gift for the host as thanks for the invitation. And thirdly, dressing up seems to be an important aspect of just about every social activity, even a visit to the mall or grocery store. I feel seriously under-dressed in the café, now that I’ve noticed this.

The excessive and skyrocketing cost of housing (both owned and rented) means that many of Coquitlam’s residents are living in smaller apartments increasingly farther-out. It is not unusual for me to see, from my ‘terrace in the sky’, parents in nearby buildings putting multiple kids to bed in what are clearly one-bedroom apartments. We do what we have to do.

Combined with that, I often hear that many “new Canadians” have come here expecting to contribute to the growth and success of Canada’s professional, technical and managerial sectors, only to find out that their qualifications are not recognized here. So we have the tragic paradox of a shortage of skilled workers in medicine, engineering and other fields, while many highly-qualified immigrants are stuck doing menial jobs.

On the ferry, then the bus and then the SkyTrain, I watch the changing profile of faces entering and leaving. I wonder at the accommodation, the patience, and the equanimity of the people in my new neighbourhood — it must be very stressful and frustrating dealing with the discrimination, the work bureaucracy, the lack of affordable homes, and the cultural ambiguity and unfamiliarity of their new community. And the vast majority of them are very highly educated, well travelled and knowledgeable about the world, comfortable in multiple languages, and were highly-respected in their former communities. Yet I almost never see or even hear acts of anger, violence, or despair. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

And this makes me realize that despite my curiosity I still know next to nothing about these cultures, about these people, my neighbours. I have been in the homes of new Canadians since moving here exactly twice. And when I look in the faces of so many, I have no idea what they’re thinking and feeling, or even how I would start to find out. I am especially curious about the feelings of the school-kids, both new immigrants and second-generation Canadians.

So I do the usual online searches — statistical data, personal anecdotes, blog stories, films, even AI queries. I learn that Iranians come to Canada for business opportunities, personal security, political reasons, and to offer better opportunities for their children. They fly back to visit Iran often, but rarely return there permanently.

By contrast, Koreans come to Canada because of Korea’s very high levels of financial inequality and unemployment, and they fly back to Korea less frequently, but once they’ve retired, often return to live out their lives in Korea, even when that means leaving the now-adult children they brought over or raised here in Canada.

Still, I’m impatient to learn more, and finally hit on the idea of looking for videos about the inter-cultural dating scene, hoping I can glean something about new Coquitlamites, and perhaps especially about how our young people from various cultures feel living here.

I hit paydirt with a series of six videos that, unexpectedly, feature fun ‘dates’ between a young Korean singer and vlogger, and a young Iranian actress/model who has moved to Korea to get more work. (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.) The videos are falling-down funny and charming and they’re a gorgeous couple, so they’re great for unwinding, as well as getting something of a sense for what it’s like to be a young Korean or Iranian. And just like when I watched the videos about life in Iran, Russia and China, I came away with the overwhelming sense that, at least in today’s generation, those cultures have become as atomized and culturally disrupted and homogenized as Anglo-American cultures. This series could in fact have been portraying a young dating couple just about anywhere on the planet. Same preferences. Same objectives in a date. Same beliefs and behaviours and aspirations. Same culture? Or no culture?

Does that mean the whole idea of diverse cultures, and the whole idea of true community, has been or is being lost? In future, will our idea of cultural affinity and connection be nothing more powerful than what sports team we root for? What is left of a society that has no communities, just individuals, like inert atoms that never combine into molecules, never become more than the sum of their separate parts? Is such a society ‘cultureless’?

.     .     .     .     .

Back at home, I’m up on the roof watching the newly-fledged young crows testing their wings. They’re learning to ride the air currents between the apartment towers, and clearly having a blast doing it. Two of them in particular seem to be mimicking the seagulls, flying un-crow-like distances without flapping their wings, as if daring each other to see who can glide the furthest. One of them, comically, lifts one wing too soon, and does what is clearly an unintended barrel-roll in midair, before righting itself and soaring gorgeously around the building opposite mine and then dipping under and rising up above and ahead of the other crow. They’re as fun to watch as the dating couple videos. But a very different culture.

Or maybe not. I recall on the return ferry seeing one tween-ager goading another to steal six packets of sugar from the ferry cafeteria without being caught. (This is an ongoing battle on the ferry. At one point all the condiments were removed from the area and customers had to ask the cashier for them.) Is this the analogue of the young crows’ bravado?

I kinda hope not. If it is, it’s a big come-down from the fire-jumping at the Iranian festival of Nowruz. And even from the Korean PC Bang Internet Cafés with their dazzling competitions. Yeah, I know, “Kids these days…” Totally conditioned. Just like us.

.     .     .     .     .

There are “one world” idealists who believe social homogenization and the obliteration of separate cultures will reduce divisiveness, competitiveness, xenophobia, and wars. I think that’s a neoliberal fantasy. Diversity, I think, is essential to learning and understanding how the world works, and also essential to innovation, resilience and even identity. Magic happens at intersections.

Much of the world seems to have lost, or perhaps never had, a true sense of community. If we also lose our cultures, how will we cope with the looming economic, political, ecological and social collapse our world is now facing?

If we have nothing in common with our fellow humans except our inescapable predicament, what exactly are we left with?

This body seems to be trying to persuade me that I think too much, and pay attention too little. It wants me to just watch, and wonder, and stop asking what it all means, and what ‘should’ be done. It’s probably right. It’s telling me to close the computer and go outside in the sun. There’s a new little café just a block away…

Posted in Collapse Watch, Creative Works, Month-End Reflections, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

Who’s In Charge Here?

Midjourney’s take on a woman meditating; not my prompt; caption is an old meme

My view of human nature, I confess, is rather cynical and jaundiced. While I believe we’re all doing our best, I also believe that we are possessed of absolutely no free will, that we are totally a product of our biological and cultural conditioning, and that we are ruled by our emotions.

It took me 60 years to realize that everything I believed about myself — my character, my strengths and weaknesses etc — was just a story, a fiction, self-invented to make me presentable, acceptable, or desirable to mates, friends, parents, colleagues, employers, and myself. And that this ‘me’ was nothing more or less than a hallucination imagined by a lost, scared, bewildered ape trying to make sense of a world that makes less and less sense, in the mistaken belief that the other apes actually knew what was going on and what ‘should’ be done about it.

I still express lots of outrage at hurtful and destructive human behaviour, even though I ‘know’ we’re at the mercy of our conditioning and emotions, and cannot do otherwise. A lifetime’s conditioning is hard to break.

So when I look at political commentary, I recognize that, like ‘expertise’ in all the other half-baked ‘social’ ‘sciences’, it is mostly merely egotistical spouting of  largely-unsupported or transparently biased beliefs, and not much worth paying attention to. But I also see a world sliding into economic collapse, ecological collapse (much broader than just climate collapse), and now political collapse, with clearly sociopathic ‘leaders’ pushing us closer and closer to nuclear armageddon. I mean ‘sociopathic’ in the medical sense of seriously mentally ill; the Hugh MacLeod sense.

None of this ‘makes sense’ of course. We are all doing our best, the only thing our conditioning, honed over millions of years, can lead us to do. Nobody actually wants the planet to be annihilated by nukes or made unliveable by ecological collapse or made unbearable by universal grinding poverty, deprivation and suffering.

And it’s not just the sheer complexity of these polycrises that makes us helpless to change course and prevent or even mitigate them. We are not, after all, a bee-like or Borg-like species with a hive mind capable of massive-scale coordinated action, even if we could agree on a course of action, which we cannot.

What makes us helpless is that it is simply not in our ape nature to be able to understand what is happening. Our nature is to live in small tribes in the trees and cooperate and collaborate on immediate, short-term projects where what is needed is obvious even without language, and to pay attention to each other to meet those needs. And (thanks to our conditioning) that attention is especially focused on the eldest (who generally have the most experience) and the most generous (whose accomplishments have most enabled them to share and give to those less accomplished).

But now, we have succumbed to what I have called Civilization Disease, an endemic mental illness born of millennia of disconnection from the natural world, extreme stress, scarcity, and trauma. So now we have a society of multiple, hierarchical castes which compete viciously, war constantly, and share nothing unless allegiance, money, or some other political or economic tithe is granted in return. We are a gravely sick species, for all our good intentions.

I am often tempted to shrug and say that, since it cannot last much longer, and cannot be ‘fixed’, there’s not much point in trying to make sense of it all. One cannot possibly make sense of a crazed mass of terrified rats stuffed into an alien, resource-poor cage with not enough to go around. The hoarding, the murder, the suicide, the fear-driven paralysis, and the eating of the young — this grossly unnatural behaviour does not and cannot make sense.

But since I’m here for a while, there seems no harm in trying to figure out What Were We Thinking?

This is particularly hard to do these days because the most knowledgeable people we once looked to help us with their insights and experience, to make sense of what is happening, seem particularly afflicted by Civilization Disease, and now exhibit a kind of intellectual laziness that comes, I suppose, from a mix of lack of critical thinking practice, and sheer exhaustion at the overwhelming task of trying to make sense of anything. So the media these days are filled with rumours, dubious anecdotes, mis- and disinformation, propaganda, and unsupported opinions, designed to appeal to those already convinced, and to stir up those who disagree (both of which, of course, are good for the media’s ‘business’).

It’s just too easy to conjure up straw men, evil/insane “bad guys”, or simplistic or vague abstract phenomena like “apathy”, “lack of good morals” or “modernity” as the cause of most or all of our troubles. Fascists have always done this, and many progressives are now following suit. I prefer to actually try to figure out what is behind our current political malaise (without laying blame), and how it differs in different places. Lots of people think that’s nihilistic, since it looks to understand without any hope of “fixing” the problems, which are in any case actually predicaments, and which are insoluble. Perhaps it is nihilistic, but I am drawn to try to do it anyway.

I think this analysis by the French political analyst Aurélien does a pretty good job of identifying our current crises throughout the ‘west’, and that, interestingly, includes what is happening in Russia.

The thesis, I think, is that:

  1. Recently, governance and policy-making that once reflected, at least to a certain extent, the popular will, has been replaced by a small self-obsessed oligarchy of the rich and powerful (think of the alpha rats in the cage). This has seemingly happened in the US, in most European states, and in Russia.
  2. Many of us have been pressed into supporting this oligarchy out of fear that fascist authoritarianism is the only alternative to it. Since the media are totally controlled by the oligarchy, this has been a very effective sell.
  3. Any viable alternative to both oligarchy and fascism must offers three things: (i) a sense of shared purpose, (ii) a vision of what their alternative political system would look like, and (iii) the organizing resources to implement this replacement system. Absent such an alternative, political collapse is likely to result in anarchy. Anarchy has not historically been a stable or peaceful state, despite what the naive, idealistic libertarians would have us believe. In the absence of a functioning government, people will accept governance from whatever ‘authority’ offers them relative security, even if that’s a drug gang, a mafia, or a fanatical religious group.

My sense is that the ruling Tweedledum-Tweedledee oligarchy in the US is currently obsessed with crushing China mainly because China offers a fourth political alternative to (i) the existing oligarchy, (ii) fascist authoritarianism à la Trump/DeSantis, and (iii) anarchy. That is, naturally, terrifying to the western oligarchs.  Why? Because given the bald choice between the four, there’s not much doubt in my mind what most people would choose. Once they realize there is a choice.

Power, of course, is never ceded easily or willingly, and the writing is on the wall for the oligarchs, who are relics of the age of kings, and will never be able to whitewash their image enough, or distract from their self-preoccupation enough, to ever appeal to the majority of citizens, who are increasingly disgruntled with them. Divide and conquer can work for a while, but eventually the outrage will be focused on the oligarchs instead of on each other.

We are a long way, of course, from overthrowing our western oligarchies. But when things get bad enough, a working political model that twins relatively democratic local governance with an unelected central authority that is at least ideologically egalitarian and not beholden to obscenely wealthy kings or oligarchs, may start to look pretty good to a lot of people. Just speculation, of course.

That’s the model, hard as it may be to those of us constantly barraged with racist war-mongering propaganda to believe, that China offers. It’s flawed, but far more functional than our run-amok unregulated extreme capitalism. Talk to people who actually live in China, and you’ll discover that most are pretty damned happy with their government, at least compared to how we feel about our governments. And the Chinese people are smart, educated, internationally networked, and more politically and economically informed than your average westerner.

So, back to the current reality: Who’s actually driving political activities in the west? That’s not to say there is some ‘elite’ in total control. (There isn’t, anywhere.) What I mean is: Who is making key decisions, such as the decision whether to go to war, or how trillions of tax dollars are spent, or what laws and regulations are in force, and enforced.

Who are the Tweedles, exactly, the oligarchs making these decisions in the US, other anglophone countries, and Europe, including Russia and Ukraine? Have they effectively seized power and assumed most people are too dumb to realize it, or too bewildered and distracted to care?

Aurélien uses the term the “political-managerial (top) caste”. Occupy called them “the 1%”. Eisenhower called them the military-industrial complex, and warned us about their potential undemocratic power. Some economists like Michael Hudson distinguish the top industrial caste (“Main St”) from the top financier/rentier caste (“Wall St”), depending on whether their wealth is in productive assets or financial/paper assets. Dominating (through their disproportionate wealth and power) all the mainstream parties in all western ‘democracies’, the Main St and Wall St Tweedles exist in an uneasy alliance against a western populace that is angry at how this top caste has hoarded all net new wealth created in the past four decades, exhausted essential natural resources, deliberately suppressed dissent through propaganda, and disproportionally destroyed the planet’s life-supporting environment in the process.

What exactly are they thinking, other than to protect and preserve their own wealth in the face of multiple collapses that they are informed enough to know are ongoing and inevitable, and to save their own skins when the top caste is finally overthrown?

How can we possibly explain, for example, how senior advisors to presidents, making critical political decisions on their behalf, can behave the way Henry Kissinger behaved in 1970, orchestrating the bloody overthrow of the elected government of Chile? And the way Victoria Nuland behaved in 2014, orchestrating the bloody overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine. And, in both cases, steadfastly supporting the horrific, corrupt administrations they put in place to replace them?

Ideological hatred may, of course, be part of it. Wars and other atrocities leave lasting scars that are easy to rip open again. But the two individuals above have never shown any remorse for what they’ve done, and have been employed and promoted by administrations of both parties. Every other US president and UK PM dating back to Reagan and Thatcher has knowingly committed war crimes and other inhuman acts. And all of these people seem not only unrepentant but immensely proud of their (IMO anyway) horrific behaviour and decisions.

If it’s not just racism, ethnic hatred, and/or perverse extreme ideology, what drives this behaviour? I suspect, having witnessed and studied lesser crimes and misbehaviour by business leaders, that much of it is conditioned by peers in the narrow circles in which these people have spent their lives. Just as slave-owners fed off each other’s racism, conspiracy theorists feed off other credulous members of their groups, cult members feed off ever-more-extreme beliefs and behaviours of other members, military and police fanatics feed off colleagues’ us-against-them fanaticism, and supporters of fascism feed off the zealotry of other supporters, so too do members of the top caste Tweedles feed off each other’s beliefs in the righteousness of their beliefs and actions.

We want to belong, we want respect and reassurance, we want to be part of an esteemed ‘in’ group. For many, fame is a salve against childhood trauma, parental or peer abuse, or isolation and broken self-esteem — even when the resultant behaviours are abhorrent, criminal, and destructive.

Spend time in any subculture insulated from diverse ways of thinking, and conditioned for groupthink, and you’ll quickly see the kind of perverse and unapologetic behaviour you see in Kissinger, Nuland, and many of the current members of the cloistered top caste in government, in big business, and in public and private institutions, including the military and security apparatus. It’s sociopathy, promoted, rewarded, and exemplified. This is what happens when a society suffering from serious collective mental derangement gives almost unlimited power to a privileged few in the top caste, often its most sociopathic members. They think they’re doing the right thing, and that they were chosen on merit to do it. Given the rewards they keep receiving for their sociopathy, how could they think otherwise?

This sociopathy may well lead to nuclear armageddon in the next few years. If it doesn’t then it is already leading to inevitable economic, political and ecological collapse. This is the consequence of eight billion apes doing their angry, bewildered, mildly deranged best for themselves and those they care for.

Those best intentions will change nothing, other than perhaps the grief and desperation that will be felt as the failure of those intentions to prevent collapse becomes more and more obvious.

My guess is that we will soon see what many outside our western propaganda bubble have already seen — that if we want to make the world a better place, we first have to depose the top caste capitalist ideological oligarchs — the Tweedles — of their power and wealth, and redistribute it to where it can at least alleviate the worst effects of collapse. And in floundering around in search of a better political system, we will eventually try, by a strange consensus of common sense, an ersatz blend of Scandinavian socialism and China’s ‘local democracy under guiding autocracy’. Both systems have worked in the countries where they were born, but it will take a mix of them to adapt to the political realities and exigencies of the rest of the world.

If we’re lucky, then, we can face full-on collapse with some measure of collaboration and without our hands tied behind our backs.

That may help, but it won’t change the end game. Even if we can avert political devolution into global oligarchy, corpocratic fascism, or anarchy, we will still find ourselves in a strange new world that we are utterly unable to cope with — one with a collapsed economy, unable to sustain any advanced technology as essential energy and resources become depleted and unaffordable, and then with ecological collapse.

There is a taste of the latter in the latest paper from James Hansen’s consortium. (Thanks to justcollapse.org for the link.) It now predicts that, even if we keep greenhouse gas emissions at current levels, we have now already baked in 8ºC of global warming, at a pace of 1ºC of rise at least every 30 years for the next two centuries. The same scenario predicts one impact of that eventuality to be the melting of 3/4 of total polar glaciation, and a 60m rise in average sea levels. The report barely raised a peep in the media, because it’s just unfathomable (if you’ll pardon the grim pun), to them and to the population at large. Take a look at your city or country on Flood Map to see what such an increase will (not ‘would’, will) mean to the place you call home by two centuries from now. Sooner if emissions continue to rise, which they show every sign of doing.

This will be happening at the same time two billion humans (and many other species) will be migrating long distances to find new places still habitable. And we’ll be doing all this without the benefit of cheap energy and cheap technology (each $70 barrel of oil currently substitutes for about 10,000 hours of human labour), and without the internet.

We are a curious species. We think we know what’s going on. We think we know what needs to be done. We think (some of us) that we’re the right ones for the job. You know, crushing the Russian and Chinese states without provoking nuclear war. Solving climate collapse through geoengineering, nuclear fusion, and solar panels. Believing that the market is the perfect arbiter and distributor of value, and that growth can continue forever, as long as we’re smart about it.

If only we knew.


Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

Correlation is Not Causation, BUT…

cartoon by xkcd, of course

It’s often been said that the truth is the first casualty of war, and perhaps that could be said of culture wars as well. Right-wingers, libertarians and others who are wildly distrustful of government, regulation and anything they don’t completely understand (which includes anything to do with complexity or science), quickly glommed onto disgruntled “experts” and charlatans who seeded doubt about every finding and recommendation of public health experts during CoVid-19, for example, essentially sabotaging disease management, and likely causing untold millions of unnecessary deaths and shortening the healthy lives of millions more.

The challenge of trying to keep ahead of luddite misinformation is compounded by two factors: The fact that sciences and scientific knowledge are never static, exact or certain; and the fact that the hubris of claims in some pseudosciences (which include all of the so-called ‘social sciences’) has led people to be suspicious of all scientific findings.

We should never mistake the ever-changing popular consensus of opinion of ‘social science’ professionals, whether that be in papers by historians, books by philosophers, legal arguments and supporting evidence in courts, ‘race science’ claims by eugenicists, or psychiatrists in the constantly-rewritten DSM, with actual science, such as that established in the table of elements or surgical manuals. As we used to know when we read op-eds, but seem to have forgotten, opinions are not facts.

The art of medicine uncomfortably straddles these two domains. Some things about the body and disease we know reliably well, while other things (such as the role and impact of viruses) we are only just beginning to get a handle on. So it was not hard for skeptics to instil doubts about whether public health experts knew what we were facing, and therefore could be trusted with their recommendations, when CoVid-19 exploded onto the scene.

Even three years later, facts that were well-established early-on in the pandemic (such as that the disease was spread primarily by airborne transmission and hence masks were a more effective preventative than surface cleaning or ‘social distancing’), are still being challenged.

Some of these challenges even come from inside the public health community: Both the CDC and WHO, for example, perhaps due to severe understaffing, incompetent management and/or internal ego battles, were criminally slow to acknowledge its airborne transmissibility. Other challenges have come from career denialists who simply can’t absorb how a disease could quite naturally defeat our best efforts to control it at every turn. And still other challenges to evidence-based regulation have come from ‘militias’, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and other extremist anti-government groups who refuse to accept any restrictions on their ‘personal’ freedoms, even at the cost of inflicting massive collective suffering.

One of the arguments that’s often trotted out by those challenging evidence-based information is that “correlation is not causation”. That observation is correct: Just because there is a strong statistical correlation between two variables doesn’t necessarily mean that one ’caused’ the other. The more complex the system, moreover, the less likely that there is a causal connection, since the number of variables that could also explain the correlation can be infinitely high.

But that is why in science we use the term “the preponderance of available evidence”. That is why we use the scientific method, which begins with a hypothesis that is disprovable and then applies a rigorous process to see if evidence can be found that supports or disproves it. Only if sufficient evidence has been examined to support the hypothesis, and none has been found that disproves it, and even then only when it has been subjected to an unbiased and un-politicized peer review, can it then be considered a valid theory — until some further evidence is revealed to disprove it, requiring a new hypothesis to be tested and a new theory to be promulgated.

No such process is or will ever be possible when it comes to the pseudosciences and ‘social sciences’, where theories are of necessity just unprovable opinions on which little or no reliance should ever be placed. Witch-burnings, state executions, eugenics experiments, and lobotomies are four of the more ghastly results of placing such unwarranted reliance on these opinions.

But when it comes to the airborne transmission of CoVid-19, for example, while there may be opinions denying it, it has never been factually disproven with real evidence, and there are mountains of data and studies that support it. In other words, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence supports it, and hence supports the wearing of masks to mitigate the risks of its transmission.

Of course we cannot apply the scientific method with complete rigour to this very complex situation, and that’s all the leeway that absolutists and malcontents need, especially when social media give them access to a befuddled and badly-educated citizenry conditioned to be skeptical of anything from a ‘government’ source.

And yes, many public health organizations screwed up badly in their CoVid-19 disease management work. That doesn’t mean we should disregard them. It means we should equip them with the resources, and competent management, to do their jobs better.

I’ve used CoVid-19 as the example in this article, but I could just have easily used the climate catastrophe, or the viability and risks of vaccines, or flat earth theory for that matter.

So, yes, correlation is not causation. But when the overwhelming preponderance of evidence supports a theory that mandates urgent and drastic action to avert a disaster — such the wearing of masks during a virulent pandemic, or getting vaccines to reduce the risk and severity of disease, or bringing about the rapid de-growth of industrial civilization to prevent its disastrous collapse — it is not reasonable skepticism, but sheer folly, to do otherwise.

Tragically, it is not human nature to accept theories or evidence that run counter to what we want to believe. We have all been conditioned to believe certain things about ourselves, our culture, human nature, and our world.

Our zeal to deny ‘inconvenient’ truths supported by overwhelming evidence, when those truths challenge and undermine our conditioning, is perfectly understandable.

And so is the accelerating, commensurate global collapse of our ecological, economic, political and social systems that is, uh, “strongly correlated with” this collective disbelief and denial.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 13 Comments


Midjourney’s take on “a disengaged office worker”; not my prompt

Last week I was privileged to participate in one of David Gurteen’s long-standing Knowledge Cafés, this one on the subject of “Silence and Unheard Voices”. It began with a presentation by Mark Cole and John Higgins, authors of a new book on the subject called The Great Unheard at Work.

While the focus of the book is on workplace silence — how it is used and abused, how it can hurt and help organizations, and what to do about it — the conversation ranged wider, to all aspects of work and non-work life where people, for one reason or another, don’t speak, or aren’t listened to or heard.

And in a couple of conversations we broadened it further to explore all kinds of situations where people opt out of, refrain from, or disengage from normal healthy human social activities — conversing, sharing, collaborating, challenging, and innovating — or don’t do so in an honest and open way. And why they do so. And what that means for our society.

Not surprisingly, if you follow my writing, it immediately occurred to me that, in almost any social context, offering attention and intention to listen implies that the offeror has the free will to do so or not. And that the offeree has any free will over whether or how to respond to that offer. How much leeway, in other words, do we actually have to improve malfunctioning social processes?

We are conditioned creatures, after all, and that conditioning includes inattention, prejudgement, and often abuse of power. That conditioning also includes disengagement, leaving one’s head and heart at the door when starting (or returning home from) work. And it also includes secret-keeping, knowledge hoarding, complacent or complicit silences, and self-censorship, and the use of silence as a source of power. It includes any form of opting out of conversational opportunities, and any situation where we are conditioned (coerced, rewarded or self-conditioned) to say or do nothing instead of something.

The authors identified seven “shades” of silence, and in our conversation suggested the addition of an eighth:

  1. Silence that looks to include or recruit new voices to a conversation
  2. Silence that intends to exclude voices from a conversation
  3. Silence that is chosen, as an alternative to speaking up
  4. Silence that is imposed, where speaking up is not a (safe) alternative
  5. Silence that invites participation in and holds the space for conversation
  6. Silence that manipulates (eg the “silent treatment”, and ambiguous body language that stands in for speaking openly)
  7. Silence that punctuates, like a comma or em-dash — for a pause or emphasis
  8. Silence that reflects specific cultural conditioning that may not be understood by those from other cultures

These forms and shades of silence would seem to apply to all relationships, not just workplace ones — including relationships with family, community, polity, and society at large. And the stronger the hierarchy and imbalance of power and attention, the more silence and its analogues — disengagement, secret-keeping, knowledge hoarding, complacency, and self-censoring — may play a role. These are all acts of refraining from what might be considered normal, healthy human behaviour. My sense is that usually a betrayal (or lack of establishment) of trust underlies this reticence, and hence conditions us to behave in ways that, in evolutionary terms, are unhealthy.

To make matters worse, many corporations, politicians and other organizations with great power are increasingly using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) as a means to “buy the silence” of the less powerful. It shows how far trust has fallen in our society.

The book devotes a full chapter to the process of dialogue (including Bohmian and other forms) which I’ve written at length about before. The following principles of dialogue are presented in the book:

  1. It is a philosophy first, a skill second — it’s about our attitude to learning and relationship, not a process to follow to ‘extract’ knowledge.
  2. It is incompatible with competitive individualism — collaboration and most community-based activities are not zero-sum games.
  3. It is incompatible with goal-driven instrumentalism — it’s not an analytical process to a predetermined end, and is about awareness of what we don’t know rather than the usual “performative knowing”.
  4. It privileges the quality of relationship over individual technical skills — Its quality depends heavily on the nature of the relationships of the participants — trust, appreciation, context, history, knowing where ‘they are coming from’.
  5. It assumes knowledge and insight are social, emergent phenomena — not just things learned in a book or from individual ideation.
  6. Its ethics are as good or bad as the culture within which it is practised — when done well, for example, it leaves agency about what should be done up to the participants, rather than creating consequent “who will do what by when” lists.
  7. Dialogue on the terms of the established elite is not dialogue (it’s a PR stunt and/or power play).
  8. Co-production and co-design are at the heart of any living dialogic practice — and a key part of that practice entails surfacing and challenging our assumptions, biases and judgements.

I thought these were interesting insights, but I kept returning, both during the Café conversation and while reading the book, to the two aforementioned questions: Why does our conditioning lead to such silences? and What do the resultant silences mean for what we face in the decades ahead?

Here are my thoughts so far on these questions. I’m hoping to have a few dialogues to explore them further!

Why does our conditioning lead to such silences and other “opting-out” behaviours? (strictly my own speculations):

  1. Because we don’t really want to hear ideas or knowledge or answers or perspectives that run counter to what we already believe. It complicates and slows things down. And as a species, we really don’t like complexity or change.
  2. Because it’s safer, less risky, and often more rewarded to shut up and say nothing. Whistle-blowers are punished, not rewarded. As a species, we are mostly risk-averse.
  3. Because we conflate silence with agreement and consent, and when we think it may be difficult to get agreement or consent, it’s more effective to just impose silence. The boss’ tacit threat of repercussions is analogous to the abusive husband’s yelling or the potential rapist’s knife. Patronizing public “engagement” and “consultation” processes that leave no space for dissent, come from the same manipulative place. So does political action that represses dissent and imposes self-censorship, both from within and from without, like what the US Democrats and UK Labour have done to their crushed left “wings”. Our conditioning rewards overcoming resistance more than it rewards paying attention to it.
  4. Because most verbal and written exchanges of language are not dialogues or even conversations, but arguments — statements and defences of beliefs. For many of us, such adversarial, combative “debating” activities are both counter-cultural and a waste of time. Coerced, manipulative “agreement” is no agreement at all.
  5. Because the scale and pace of our society are now such that there is no room or time for actually listening, thinking deeply or understanding; doing so would grind its functioning to a halt. (Such a halt would probably be a good thing, but our growth-obsessed culture mostly doesn’t see it that way.) Much of the dysfunction of large complex systems, I think, is a result of not having the time to listen, think and understand what the options are and what really is the best thing to do.

What do the resultant silences and social “opting out” mean for what we will face in the decades ahead? (again, strictly my own speculations):

  1. Lack of essential skills needed for dealing with collapse, and lack of practice using and seeing those skills demonstrated and modelled, will mean there will have to be a lot of flailing about before we relearn them. Learning and practicing dialogue, mentoring and facilitation might be a good start to address this.
  2. Our struggles to deal with collapse will likely be highly adversarial and combative, rather than collaborative and cooperative. It’s going to take us time to realize that, when it comes to collapse, we’re all in this together.
  3. As the value of most paper wealth disappears when economic collapse deepens, that shift in wealth will produce a major shift in power and in power dynamics. As anyone familiar with hyper-local politics can tell you, that doesn’t mean there will be any reduction in abuses of that power. Sadly, for many of us, zero-sum game thinking and using power coercively is all we know how to do. We’re going to have to patiently teach the tin hats in our communities how to listen and work collaboratively.
  4. On the positive side, collapse is likely to bring a massive relocalization of economic activities, and the disappearance of the whole idea of hierarchical ’employment’. That will expose us to new (and ancient) ways of relating to each other, and more time to practice it. And instead of having to refer to the ‘mission statement’ or the ‘strategic plan’, we are going to know directly, first-hand, what’s important to do, and listening carefully, learning and practicing new skills, and working cooperatively to do it, won’t be an option.

I’m not sure there’s much we can do proactively to prepare for this. Our conditioning will inevitably shift to meet the needs of the moment and the new reality of living in a collapsing and then a post-collapse world. Of course, some of us are already conditioned to try to look ahead and think ahead about what that might entail.

Still, I think it’s useful to get a sense of how our conditioning around silence and social disengagement has arisen in our modern, fractured, ‘busy’ and dysfunctional culture. Silence and disengagement are two of the ways we cope with an insane world.

And I think we’re going to surprise ourselves as the crises deepen. Conditioned though we may be, there is within us a core of biophilia and a passion for connection. Our cultural conditioning may be to shut up, disengage and say nothing. But our biological conditioning is to converse, to share, to collaborate, to learn, and to care about each other. No doubt in my mind which will eventually win out.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Working Smarter | 2 Comments

Ready for Civilization’s Collapse

An article about rehearsing alternative forms of governance

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

The idea of “government in exile” or “government in waiting” isn’t new. And opposition parties have “shadow governments” where their elected members rehearse for their roles for when their party comes into power. But their plan is just to replace the current cast of characters with their own, within the same system.

But the idea of rehearsing parallel alternative forms of governance — completely separate systems — to be ready for when current governments go bankrupt and their political systems collapse, is new.

During the Occupy protests, an alternative form of governance was employed to help organize and coordinate actions. Here, verbatim according to ChatGPT, are the key elements of this alternative system:

  1. General Assemblies: The movement organized regular General Assemblies, which were open meetings where participants gathered to discuss and make decisions. These assemblies provided a platform for anyone to voice their opinions, proposals, and concerns.
  2. Facilitation and Working Groups: Facilitators were responsible for moderating the General Assemblies, ensuring that everyone had an opportunity to speak, and guiding the decision-making process. Working groups focused on specific areas of concern, such as logistics, outreach, or media. These groups allowed participants to collaborate and work on specific tasks.
  3. Consensus Decision Making: Occupy Wall Street aimed to make decisions through consensus. This meant that proposals were discussed until a general agreement was reached, rather than relying on traditional voting systems. The modified consensus model allowed for decisions to be made without requiring unanimous consent but instead used a threshold of broad agreement.
  4. Hand Signals: Occupy Wall Street participants used a system of hand signals to facilitate communication during meetings. For example, participants would raise their hands with fingers pointing upward to show agreement, horizontally to signal confusion or a request for clarification, or downward to indicate disagreement.
  5. Working Group Autonomy: Each working group had a level of autonomy to make decisions within its area of focus. This allowed participants to engage in activities that aligned with their interests and skills.

This system is a form of what has been called “direct democracy”, as opposed to “representative democracy” where the decision-makers are often distant from constituents and subject to bribes and other forms of non-democratic coercion.

Attempts to mash direct and representative democracy together have generally failed. Referenda questions and debates are very often distorted by moneyed political interests and pressure groups, and recall campaigns often deteriorate into ideological witch hunts. But what are we to do when direct democracy scales badly and representative democracy seems hopelessly corrupt and dysfunctional?

If you believe, as I do, that we are entering a period of rapid and permanent economic and ecological collapse, which will produce political, social and ultimately civilizational collapse, there is a temptation to shrug off the failures of the current systems and just wait for them to fall.

But rather than just waiting, and hoping that the systems that will replace the dysfunctional systems won’t be even worse, what if we tried setting up parallel alternative governance systems, and worked to get the bugs out of them so that, as the current systems collapse, they are ready to offer to the citizenry as an alternative to either chaos or the reinvention of the broken systems?

Roger Hallam, one of the founders of XR, who has largely left that movement behind as it’s being slowly coopted in some places into a traditional passive justice movement, has been talking about this. Roger’s belief is that we have to twin the development of alternative governance systems rooted in citizens’ assemblies, with persistent, disruptive, direct action — take it, break it, block it activities. The latter illuminates how destructive and un-reformable the current systems are, and the former offers an alternative vision, to give the movement credibility and proffer proven, practical replacements.

The general assemblies used by Occupy were a form of direct democracy. Those proposed by Roger and others (like Democracy Without Elections) for larger-scale use, are a special form of representative democracy, but one that doesn’t involve voting or elections. Instead, a group of citizens is randomly selected from the population by lot, adjusted to ensure they fairly map to the demographics of the citizens they’re drawn from. Those citizens are then briefed on one or more issues, and also encouraged to do their own research. They then meet, and using a process to ensure all viewpoints are heard and understood, they discuss the issue until a consensus arises and a decision is made.

One of the original ideas of XR was that the decisions of such citizens’ assemblies would prevail over any decisions made by elected governments on issues in critical policy areas such as climate collapse. Elected governments have shown over the past five decades that they are simply and utterly incapable of addressing such issues, and are in fact impediments to action in these areas.

Attempts to subject the decisions of assemblies to overrule, by elected officials or referenda, have undermined the whole purpose of these assemblies. If neither the politicians nor the citizens are willing or able to trust the assemblies to have the final word, they become just another layer of bureaucracy.

But of course, those with a vested interest in sustaining the current systems and power structures have frequently used their wealth and power to propagandize the citizens into believing such assemblies are dangerous and undemocratic.

So, for example, in Canada, every citizens’ assembly charged with studying the current dysfunctional “first past the post” electoral system has recommended replacing it with a specifically-identified better system, and every time their recommendation has been rejected by citizens after massive scare-mongering by politicians with a vested interest in the current system. This happened even though before the propaganda effort was launched, Canadians had been overwhelmingly in favour of an alternative system. The current abysmal PM even solemnly promised his last election would be the last under the old system, and then, once elected, he completely reneged on that promise.

So one of the challenges we will have to deal with, if we replace large centralized governments directed by elected, compromised politicians, with decentralized systems governed by citizens’ assembly decision-making, is how to take away the power of the moneyed and powerful to propagandize citizens’ assemblies as dangerous and untrustworthy. That will not be easy.

The Healthy Democracy movement has been piloting Citizens’ Initiative Reviews as one step in this direction. They organize citizens’ assemblies, by lot, to review major ballot initiatives in Oregon and Arizona, and the state then prominently features their recommendations on the ballots for such initiatives. In Oregon, the assemblies’ recommendations were approved in 11 of 12 initiatives to date.

These assemblies are usually (and best) not standing governance groups. Different assemblies are selected, by lot, for each critical issue. Non-critical issues are delegated to autonomous working groups (another idea used in the Occupy movement) where decision-making is made, apolitically, by those with the experience and expertise best suited to exercise it.

My sense is that collapse will inevitably lead to a massive devolution of power from large, inflexible, dysfunctional, expensive centralized systems to community-based systems that will eventually ‘flop up’ everywhere to fill the power vacuum and to meet citizens’ needs. And so I like the idea of focusing these alternative governance systems at the community level.

The problem we face right now, though, is that, particularly in the west, we have almost no real communities. We live in atomized, disconnected cities where we often don’t even know our neighbours.

So, as is happening with the experiments in Oregon and elsewhere, we have to, for now, rehearse these alternative governance forms at the regional or national level. That should be fine, since it is far easier to scale down successful experiments to the community level than to scale them up.

If a citizens’ assembly based governance system is a possible replacement for our broken political systems, is there some similar experiment we could be doing with our economic, educational, health care, and social systems?

My sense is that the answer to this question will most likely be found by studying communities that, mostly by necessity (collapse is well-advanced in some parts of the world) but in some cases because it’s in their historical culture, are already successfully modelling effective radically local economic, educational, health care and social systems.

So, for example, many cultures still embrace a gift economy, based on our collective responsibility to provide the necessities of life to all in our community, to develop local self-sufficiency, and to gift our knowledge and our surplus goods and skills and time to others. With currency collapse being a likely consequence of economic collapse, we have a lot to learn from studying these alternative economic systems that are neither capitalist nor socialist, but instead responsible, and based on generosity. Such systems actually exist, and they work.

A community-based educational system that is based on self-directed learning nurtured by a community-based mentoring network that allows us to learn continuously through hands-on practice, trial and error, demonstration and dialogue, would almost have to be better than one that isolates learners in expensive, inflexible institutions with fixed curricula. Many home-schooling and unschooling networks can show us how this is done.

The idea of small community health clinics with a diversity of providers, caring for the whole person, instead of huge hospitals and disconnected ‘specialists’, is used in much of the Global South. Combine that with better self-diagnostic and self-treatment systems, which could be online and accessible anywhere, and we might actually start to see healthy lifespans increasing again.

And, of course, single-tier health care should be funded by the community, and hence free for all.

Social collapse is much harder to predict and rehearse for, since it’s so unpredictable and will vary enormously by community. What some communities are doing, replacing police with teams of multi-skilled crisis respondents, will inevitably be part of whatever emerges, and these pilots are worth studying. As with all our other systems, we are going to have to learn to deal with social issues without using large, expensive, and usually dysfunctional institutions, such as prisons. I’ve visited communities that have neither police nor jails, and at a small scale, where everyone knows each other, they work quite well. We humans are better at self-managing things at the community level than we might think.

So what do we do to string all these new radically relocalized community-based systems together as collapse deepens? We know for sure that some communities will fare much better than others, for all kinds of reasons.

It is possible that, as city, regional, and larger-scale governments go bankrupt as a consequence of deepening economic collapse, we might replace them with federations of autonomous communities, with each community ‘governed’ by citizens’ assemblies focused on their community’s unique situation and needs.

The federation would of necessity be loose, much as many First Nations federations were in North America before the Europeans arrived and destroyed them. Such a federation could share and trade excess resources, and knowledge, ideas and technologies between communities. But it would probably, and hopefully, not be able to reinstitute neoliberalism’s worship of ideological homogeneity and centralization, with their commensurate diseconomies of scale. Many, perhaps most post-collapse communities will fail. That’s a tragedy, but collapse is not a problem that any political, economic or social system can “fix”.

I’m not sure I agree with Roger that direct action will significantly advance public acceptance of the need to scrap and replace our current dysfunctional systems, though I hope he, and other activists, are correct about this.

But I do like the idea of having viable, tested alternatives handy as these systems go down. And while we should be studying and learning about possible proven relocalized replacements for all of our existing, crumbling systems, political/governance systems seem to be as good a place as any to start.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Links of the Month: May 2023

Midjourney’s take on the quote below; my own prompt

I continued my self-guided tour and turned my head to face the other direction, to stare into space. I love the mystery of the universe. I love all the questions that have come to us over thousands of years of exploration and hypotheses. Stars exploding years ago, their light traveling to us years later; black holes absorbing energy; satellites showing us entire galaxies in areas thought to be devoid of matter entirely… all of that has thrilled me for years… but when I looked in the opposite direction, into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold . . . all I saw was death.

I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing. I turned back toward the light of home. I could see the curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her. Everything I had thought was wrong. Everything I had expected to see was wrong.

It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness. Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna . . . things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral.

— William Shatner, 2022, excerpted in Variety


A new UNESCO report identifies (red/orange) the areas already facing severe water ‘stress’ (shortages from overuse). These areas will likely be uninhabitable within a few decades.

A long way down: The Honest Sorcerer reminds us about what happens to a society that relies upon indefinitely living beyond its means, and what a slow but complete economic collapse, spread out over decades, is likely to look like.

And what the accompanying social collapse might look like: Rhyd Wildermuth identifies some of the symptoms of accelerating social collapse that we’re already starting to see throughout the world.

A ‘modified consensus’: Politicians, media and economists can’t tell the truth — that we’ve reached the limits to growth — because it would crash the markets and collapse the economy, which depends on continued growth. “We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP” as Paul Hawken puts it. So, Tim Morgan reports, this gang has now developed a ‘modified consensus’ to lower economic expectations gradually. “Yes, we’re at the top of the roller coaster, but there’s no indication at this time we’re going down.” Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

He’s baaaack!: El Niño is officially on the way, now that La Niña has left the building. Get ready for a hot summer this year and a record-breaking >1.5ºC above historic normal 2024. And the oceans are already hotter than ever.

Falling with grace: How to talk about the inevitability of collapse with the people you know and care about.

War and the environment: On top of the horrific emissions that accompanied Biden’s bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines, anti-Russian sanctions are causing Europe to backslide into greater reliance on fracked fossil fuel energy (mostly from the US) at a time it had been moving toward renewables.


Midjourney’s take on the Eric Whitacre song The Seal Lullaby (words by Rudyard Kipling); my own prompt

“We have to do something“: Aurélien brilliantly deconstructs the psychology behind governments’, corporations’ and NGOs’ endless posturing and lame actions and virtue signalling, that accomplish nothing. Anything is better than admitting (a) we’re fucked and (b) we haven’t the foggiest idea how to respond, if we even could. A great analysis of our state of utter dysfunction.

Products in search of a market: A new study reveals a paradox of untrammelled capitalism — incentives for producing stuff no one really needs or wants, while billions do without essentials. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

Taking the profit out of housing: How the use of community land trusts are being used to address the affordable housing crisis in London, and could do so elsewhere. Thanks to Adam Greenfield for the link.

Rhetorical questions: Chad Mulligan scathingly pretends to be a foreigner puzzled about how things work in the US. A fun read. Thanks to Paul Heft for the links.

What we have to lose: A moving essay by the late Harry Belafonte, from 2016, about the crushing of the American dream. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.

Saving the last 3%: A gut-wrenching short documentary about the brutality of police (RCMP) and government repression of First Nations peoples’ attempts to protect Canada’s last old growth forests. Thanks to Sharon Goldberg for the invite to watch it.

Refusing to align: Yanis Varoufakis explains his vision to end the scourge of global imperial capitalism, through a growing non-aligned movement that refuses to take sides and instead insists on peace, cooperation and solidarity.

Please eat in the library: Could libraries provide us all with an affordable, nourishing (intellectually and nutritionally) “third place” to hang out?

The value of a wealth tax: A new Canadian study reveals what a 1-3% excess wealth tax would generate in revenues, and what those revenues could buy.


from the memebrary 

Who ‘ya gonna believe? department: Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, with the massive cognitive dissonance surrounding the Ukraine (and coming Taiwan) proxy wars, the Nord Stream bombing, and the re-emergence of the anti-mask fanatics. Some of the people who have espoused the most preposterous and credibility-destroying positions have been, at least on occasion of late, sounding extremely sober and rational, more than the usual suspects have been, anyway. Two cases in point:

  • RFK Jr, who even his family admits has become a dangerous anti-vaxxer and 5G conspiracy theorist, is running against Biden for the Democratic party presidential nomination. But read this Kennedy platform statement; he’s daring to say (and quite eloquently) what even Bernie Sanders and AOC have been unwilling to say. A platform for “unwinding empire”?! I’m gobsmacked.
  • Tulsi Gabbard, Iraq war vet, gun rights fanatic, Jordan Peterson fan and cult member, ran for the Democratic nomination in 2020, got pilloried for her anti-LGBT+ statements (later retracted, then partly reinstated in respect of the trans community), and finally quit the party altogether. Hilary Clinton despises her and has had her supporters and media attack her relentlessly for years, and she’s now regularly labeled a “Putin apologist”. But listen to this chat with the execrable Tucker Carlson about Nord Stream and the Ukraine War. They may not believe what they’re saying, and may change their tune tomorrow, but damn, what they say on this video makes sense to me!

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism: Short takes (thanks to John Whiting for many of these links):

cartoon by Michael Leunig from his fans’ FB page

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:

CoVid-19: The Gift That Keeps On Giving: Short takes:


also from the memebrary

A pleasure to watch them play: Lyz Lenz waxes rhapsodic on the aesthetic and strategic superiority of women’s sports, compared to the violent gladiator spectacle of many male sports.

A more beautiful voice: New technology is enabling even crappy singers to sound good. It’s complicated, though, not for luddites like me, at least until AI advances to do it for me. And speaking of AI, Rick Beato explains how AI is being used to create ‘clone’ versions of famous voices, and the battles that’s entailed.

A peek at the Midjourney hype: Here’s a daily-updated glance at some of the most upvoted images produced by this AI tool, along with the precise prompts that produced them. From the sublime to the ridiculous, including far too much that looks like incel fantasy fodder.

Moonstruck: Nahre Sol explains, phrase by phrase, why Debussy’s most famous work has such appeal.

Totally shredded: The astonishing Brasilian electric guitar maker and composer Lari Basilio tries one of her recent compositions on a newly-made guitar. Mark Knopfler, move over.

Fecal transplants go mainstream: For everything from crippling bowel diseases to depression, there’s more and more data suggesting that this bizarre procedure can actually cure diseases in people diagnosed as incurable.

Where do they all belong?: A stunning version of Eleanor Rigby orchestrated by Cody Fry and sung by schoolkids.

20-to-1: A survey indicates that for every civilian killed by police, police kill 20 civilians, and that police officer isn’t even in the top 10 most dangerous jobs (while garbage collector, farmer, and truck driver are).

Better at some things, and…: A Google AI pioneer explains the crucial differences between biological and digital intelligence. And Sabine Hossenfelder speculates on what’s next in AI, including personalized AI attuned to your own voice, style, beliefs and preferences, providing an ‘assistant’ for talking things through to understand them better, and in facilitating research by finding, scanning and analyzing existing research papers.


Midjourney’s take on the poem below; my own prompt

From Emily Fragos:

The Sadness of Clothes

When someone dies, the clothes are so sad. They have outlived
their usefulness and cannot get warm and full.
You talk to the clothes and explain that he is not coming back

as when he showed up immaculately dressed in slacks and plaid jacket
and had that beautiful smile on and you’d talk.
You’d go to get something and come back and he’d be gone.

You explain death to the clothes like that dream.
You tell them how much you miss the spouse
and how much you miss the pet with its little winter sweater.

You tell the worn raincoat that if you talk about it,
you will finally let grief out. The ancients etched the words
for battle and victory onto their shields and then they went out

and fought to the last breath. Words have that kind of power
you remind the clothes that remain in the drawer, arms stubbornly
folded across the chest, or slung across the backs of chairs,

or hanging inside the dark closet. Do with us what you will,
they faintly sigh, as you close the door on them.
He is gone and no one can tell us where.

From Arthur Guiterman: What one approves, another scorns:

What one approves,
another scorns,
and thus
his nature each discloses.
You find the rosebush
full of thorns,
I find the
thornbush full of roses.

From Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt:

If you take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; it is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; ‘life’, something that had a mysterious essence about it, was God given, and that’s the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species. It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it’s yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we’re not made by anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey. It just doesn’t read well.

From Brian Eno: Culture is “everything we do that we don’t have to do”.

From Lyz Lenz on right-wing podcaster Steven Crowder:

Crowder [recently] said on his podcast, “My then-wife decided that she didn’t want to be married anymore and in the state of Texas, that is completely permitted.” His wife, he said, “simply wanted out and the law says that that’s how it works.”… Sir, complaining that a woman has agency under the law and that she’s exercising that agency to yeet herself out of her union with you isn’t making the point you think you are making.

From Mel Dee Dzelda:

Having a terminal illness is like a blazing flame to the ‘pity party moths’. There’s nothing they love more than to wallow in your illness, so that in turn, you will wallow in their unhappiness.

From *me: “It is all poetry.”

* no, I’m not the first to say this, but I mean it in a different way from what others have meant by it; the word “poetry”, after all, comes from the Greek poiētēs, meaning “made up”

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

Two Billion More Coming

This image above and the poem below are from the blog SeekersClub; Photo credit above: Daniet Etter/New York Times/Redux /eyevine. “Syrian refugee Laith Majid cries tears of joy and relief that he and his children have made it to Europe.”

“Home”   by Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body.
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
mean something more than a journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one’s skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hungry
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Throughout human history, climate change, war and economic collapse have been the largest drivers of mass human migrations. There is evidence that we left our ‘natural’ home in the tropical rainforests due to massive fires caused by devastating cosmic radiation, about six million years ago, when we had barely emerged as a separate species from bonobos and chimps. And that during the most recent ice age as many as 25-30% of all humans migrated long distances southward to find land suitable for human life.

Economic refugees fleeing abject poverty and starvation have been recorded from the earliest times of human civilizations.

We are now well down the road toward both global economic collapse and global ecological collapse, and massive migrations and permanent displacements of humans have again become commonplace.

In the US, at least 3.6M people now ‘attempt’ to enter the US each year (ie have ‘encounters’ with border officials). Net immigration is about 1.2M people per year, accounting for about 80% of total population growth, which is a rate of about 0.5% per year. About 6M people apply annually for permanent residence (“green cards”) from outside the country alone; about 70% of actual green cards issued are issued to people inside the country, mostly due to having spouses and family members who are already permanent residents.

By contrast, in Canada, net immigration is about 1.0M people per year, accounting for about 96% of population growth, which is a rate of about 2.7% per year. The difference is partly due to Canada’s much more generous immigration policies, especially for temporary workers and students, which account for 60% of the annual Canadian increase. And it’s partly due to the US, thanks largely to the Hollywood myths, being perceived as the most desirable country in the world in which to live a comfortable or affluent life. And it’s partly due to the fact that the US is just closer geographically to a lot of countries facing early-stage collapse.

If the US were to allow the same proportion of new immigrants as Canada, its immigrant (and total) population would be growing by about 10M people per year.

In fact, it’s likely that actual immigration to the US, including ‘unauthorized’ immigration, is vastly higher than the official reported numbers, mostly for political reasons. A recent study suggests that the latest (Trump) US census omitted 2.3% of American residents, about eight million people, almost entirely “non-citizens”, many of them living in unlisted accommodations or afraid of harassment and expulsion by the immigration cops.

Given the bleak prospects for curtailing climate collapse, and with the additional burden of global economic collapse which is already spreading to much of the Global South, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the same 25% proportion of humans uprooted after the last climate collapse, will soon be forced to emigrate, mostly northwards, long distances in search of a habitable human climate and functioning economy.

That would be two billion people. Historically the US and Canada have been the sanctuary countries for 20% and 4% respectively of emigrants — that’s 400M additional Americans (10M/year every year over the next four decades) and 80M additional Canadians (2M/year every year over the next four decades). That’s a doubling of the US population and a tripling of the Canadian population.

And the numbers for the ‘Old World’ are comparable. Large parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East will be utterly devastated by climate change. Economic collapse there is accelerating. An exodus of 1.4B people from those regions to Europe would almost triple Europe’s population.

Those massive population increases will be occurring at the same time significant swaths of North America (much of the central and western US states and parts of the south) and of Europe (most of the Mediterranean lands) will also become uninhabitable due to climate collapse, and their citizens will likewise be moving north.

Of course, we don’t want to think about this. There is a large and growing racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment in much of North America and Europe, and it’s not limited to right-wingers. Biden has restarted the construction of Trump’s wall, has retained most of the anti-immigrant laws and policies of his predecessor, and is about to face a huge surge in asylum claims when Trump’s draconian CoVid-19 Title 42 refugee restrictions (which the US Supreme Court blocked Biden from revoking) expire this Thursday (May 11th). Over 2M asylum applicants have been rejected each year under Title 42 since it came into effect. Biden has called in the army to “help maintain order” at the border on Thursday. And he has proposed a new rule which essentially reinstates Title 42.

These millions, the first trickle of hundreds of millions, are knowingly going through hell, selling everything and suffering from disease, injury, dehydration, heat stroke, snakebite, theft, kidnapping, ransom, extortion, and violence from ruthless smugglers, corrupt Mexican cops and American vigilantes, because they’re desperate — as Warsan’s poem so eloquently explains, anything is better than staying in their current hopeless situation. And thousands have been murdered or disappeared.

If they make it, they risk almost certain deportation back to their home countries, usually penniless. While they’re in the US, they face further dangers from xenophobic mass murderers and government-authorized vigilante gangs: Under a new law in Texas, for example, government-deputized squads of anti-immigrant citizens will be able to accost anyone in public places, demand to see papers, and arrest anyone who can’t produce them. And in Texas, anyone can ‘open carry’ guns of any size, including military weaponry, without the need for license or registration, training of any kind, or a background check. Domestic terrorist acts against immigrants are becoming more common, notably in Texas. (EDIT MAY 12: I removed reference to the Brownsville incident with the car that ran into Venezuelan asylum seekers, since it appears this case is much more complicated than anyone thought.)

More struggle, suffer or die trying to access the Canada-US border to make asylum claims or escape capture on either side. But a new deal between Biden and the obsequious Trudeau is tightening up that border as well.

Laws, wars, walls, cops and vigilantes aren’t going to solve this problem. We are seeing the early signs of what is likely to become the largest humanitarian disaster in the history of our planet, and an accelerant to political, social and economic collapse. This is going to swell to become a human flood of massive proportions, and given the desperation of the people caught up in it, the border will either become the largest killing field in history or it will be unable to hold back the hordes, producing national chaos. It may not happen this year, or next, but as collapse deepens, a confrontation is inevitable. And no one is even working on an answer that acknowledges the inevitable — that in times of collapse, we’re all in the same boat, and people must ultimately be free to move to and live wherever they want.

Yet another inconvenient truth no politician will touch with a ten-foot pole.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works | 3 Comments

Radical Non-Duality: In a Nutshell

Midjourney’s take on cats and peace, because… well, because there’s a cat. My own prompt.

Recently, Indrajit Samarajiva wrote a post about the illusion of the self and the absurdity of the ‘self-help’ industry. In it he said:

The whole self-help industry is founded around the concept of the self, which is completely unfounded. I have studied western philosophy and there is no coherent definition of the self in there, just a bunch of thought experiments that all fail. I’ve studied neuroscience and you can’t see it. You can look at the self with microscopes or MRIs or books or any which way. However you look at it, there’s no there there. It’s like the border between India and Pakistan. Definitely something to fight and die over, but if you walk right up to it and look it’s just the same old trees and plants and a bunch of apes acting agitated about nothing. It’s just an idea, and, given all the fighting and dying, not an especially good one.

Indrajit’s idea of what exists in the absence of self is warmer and more humanistic than mine. It’s about relationship, community, belonging to something larger than self.

Nevertheless, his article inspired me to write him a note about radical non-duality, just because… well, I don’t really know. Perhaps just to get clear about the distinction between his way of seeing not-self and mine.

After I wrote it, I realized it was probably the most succinct and, in a way, the most personal and least bloodless summarizing of the admittedly rather bloodless message of radical non-duality that I’d come up with.

So here, for no reason, is what I wrote:

Lovely writing, Indrajit — thanks.

I have in recent years been drawn to the message of so-called radical non-duality, that goes even further and asserts that not only is there not-self, but there is no one, nothing separate, that everything is just an appearance out of nothing. It is a hopeless message, and not at all a ‘teaching’, a theory, a belief, or an -ism of any kind. There is no ‘path’ to seeing it — ‘I’ will never ‘get’ it, and there is nothing ‘I’ can do.

Nevertheless, when I hear this message, it intuitively and intellectually resonates in a way I can’t explain. I can’t help feeling it is correct. Those speakers who have inexplicably lost their sense of self, report that it was immediately obvious (but to ‘no one’) that there never was anyone or anything separate.

For seven years I have been quietly arguing to myself that believing this is absurd, but still, I have found nothing that seems a more plausible description of reality, of what is and is not, and of what is happening and is not happening — apparently. There have been ‘glimpses’ here, when suddenly ‘I’ disappeared and it was briefly obvious that there was only ‘this’ everything.

Perhaps it’s a crutch because I can’t bear to face the brutality of the reality I have been conditioned to think of as real. ‘I’ will never know. Until/unless there is no longer a ‘me’, in which case, of course, there will be no ‘me’ to know it. I can only hope, even though there is no point in hoping.


Posted in Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will | Leave a comment

What Are They Thinking?!

The cognitive bias codex from wikipedia; if you want to print it out so it’s legible and useful, print the original over four letter-sized pages and paste them together (my printout is taped, tellingly perhaps, over my rarely-used TV). The model was developed by John Manoogian III and refined by Buster Benson; the SVG version includes active links by TillmanR to the wikipedia articles explaining each bias.

A lot of ‘leftie’ writers have been expressing dismay lately not only about what right-wingers are saying and doing, but about what a large proportion of other lefties have been saying. And the concern is not so much about what they’re saying as about how they could possibly have come to believe what they’re saying. In other words, What were they thinking?

I’m increasingly persuaded that much of what we all say and do is simply conditioned behaviour. Our biological ‘wiring’, combined with (because we are social creatures) our cultural conditioning, compels us to believe certain things, and to act accordingly.

Our cultural conditioning — what we believe because of what others in our circles of trust and affinity say or do — often falls afoul of cognitive biases, such as the 180 biases depicted above.

If we really want to understand the prevailing behaviour of any group, particularly one we thought shared our worldview, it helps to try to understand how that cultural conditioning, with its inherent cognitive biases, works. So here is a little thought experiment to explore that.

The issue I am trying to understand is: How can bright, informed people support the continuation and escalation of the Ukraine War, believe that someone other than the Biden administration authorized and carried out the Nord Stream pipeline bombings, believe that China plans to take over the world militarily, and believe that the public health response to CoVid-19 was largely an overreaction or an excuse to curtail, surveil, and control individual citizens?

I want to explore the conditioning process and understand how we came to this point. I am not interested in laying blame for it happening, since that gets us nowhere, and I don’t believe there is anything anyone can do to change most people’s beliefs, unless they are already inclined to change them themselves. What are the cognitive biases that have given rise to what, to me, are frightening misunderstandings? (Of course, my beliefs are the product of my conditioning as well, which is clearly very different from that of those who hold the above beliefs; and I am also subject to cognitive biases.)

So here’s a table I came up with, wading through all 180 biases in the above codex, and focusing on the 32 groups of biases that seem to directly affect our beliefs, to try to make sense of it all:

Bias Description: The human tendency to: Examples
Confirmation / Belief / Backfire effect believe only facts and accept only arguments that conform to our existing beliefs “All my life I’ve been told Russia and China are evil, authoritarian, repressive regimes that seek world domination. Navalny, Xinjiang, corrupt oligarchs, lab leak, etc. Your protestations just make me believe it even more.”
Attentional, Illusory Truth, Mere-Exposure believe and remember things that capture more of our attention, or that we hear repeatedly, or that are familiar to us “All the media I read are saying the same thing; they can’t all be wrong.”
Self-reference believe things only when we can relate them to our own personal story “It can’t be that bad. No one would tolerate that.” 
 Naive realism believe we are more objective and rational than most people   “That just doesn’t ring true. I’m not an idiot, and the people who buy that can’t be thinking straight.”
 Illusory correlation  see relationships where they don’t really exist  “Look at all these people that wore masks and got the vaccine and then got sicker than those who didn’t.”
 Attribution  attribute “our” failures to bad luck and our actions to good motives, but “their” failures to bad character and their actions to bad motives “We won’t talk peace because they’d just lie and take advantage; they won’t talk peace because they actually don’t want it.”
 Stereotyping / Prejudice  attribute characteristics to a whole swath of people  “If the Russians didn’t support Putin they’d overthrow him, and the Chinese are just docile mindless Communists; sanction them all.”
 Authority  believe wealthier, more powerful people more than others  “He’s got the best minds in the country advising him; they must know what they’re doing.”
Just-world  believe people eventually get what they deserve “We’re the good guys, so we’ll ultimately win the war for the hearts and minds of the world.”
 believe what most, or increasing numbers, of those around us believe  “I don’t know anyone who thinks the US would be foolish enough to blow up those pipelines.”
 Halo effect/ in-group favouritism ascribe exclusively positive qualities to “our” people and those we admire  “He saved us from Trump; in my eyes the guy can pretty much do no wrong.”
 Simplification/ Latching / Ambiguity  believe simple, easy explanations over the more complex, difficult, ambiguous, and uncertain   “He’s just insane and evil, that’s all; there was no ‘provocation’. Freedom and democracy must prevail.”
 Moral licensing  justify an act of bad behaviour from someone who we usually agree with  “He must have had a good reason.”
 Affinity  evaluate others who are “like us” more positively  “I just don’t trust ‘those people’.”
 Exceptionalism  consider our situation and motives to be unique  “We have God and right on our side. Others don’t, so they have to be bound by rules.”
 Dunning-Krueger/ Lake Wobegon believe we and our in-group re more competent than they are  “They’re just too stupid to figure it out. And our leaders wouldn’t have got where they are if they weren’t the best and the brightest.” 
 Transparency  think we know what others think and believe, and why they do so “That’s surely a false flag operation, intended to distract us from the truth.”
 Projection  think that past events accurately predict future events  “We’ve had nukes for decades. Thanks to MAD, they’ll never be used on any scale.”
 Optimism, Pessimism  think that some ideas are failure-proof and others could never work “If we/everyone just did this (eg bomb x), it would change everything; problem solved. Appeasement always fails.”
 Declinism / Nostalgia  believe things were better in the “old days” and are now getting worse  “They used to know their place, and there was never any problem. We need to restore x.”
 Outcome / Hindsight mistake correlation for causation, and mistake hindsight for insight  “That strategy worked then; it should work now. Anyone could have told you that wouldn’t work.”
 Risk compensation/ Moral hazard/ Learned helplessness/ Effort justification  misjudge the degree of risk in actions we take “Only old sick people need to wear masks. We’re all going to get it anyway. We’re so invested in this action, we need to double down, not back down.” 
 False consensus believe most (smart, informed) people agree with us  “It’s the only sensible position to take. You’d have to be insane to think otherwise. What were they thinking?!
 Third party  believe social/mass media influence others more than they influence us “Russiagate swung the election. Suppression of Hunter Biden’s wrongdoings swung the election. Propaganda has made us all mad.”
 Overconfidence  be surer of ourselves and our actions that the facts warrant  “I’m absolutely sure. We’ve never failed. We can’t fail. We won’t fail.”
 Identifiable victim / Power of story  buy into anecdotes about specific individuals but not stories or data about whole groups “Let me tell you about Ivan & Anna. It will change your mind about the whole war.” 
 Escalation of commitment / Sunk cost continue to pursue failed actions if we have invested a lot in them   “We can’t have spent $100B just for nothing. We need to authorize another $20B.”
 Status quo  perpetuate current behaviours and beliefs even if they’re irrational  “We have to continue NATO, even though its original purpose no longer applies.”
 Reactance  overreact to an action that makes us feel cornered or restricted  “These people are spreading misinformation. They need to be censored, banned, and jailed.”
Triviality / Bike-shedding focus on simpler, more controllable aspects of large complex problems “Pledge the fighter jets. Let them worry about how to staff them, use them, and maintain them.”
 Recency / Misinformation  give more credibility to, and recall, newer information, opinions and ideas, even if they’re false  “I don’t care what happened in 2014. Ancient history.”
 Negativity  react more and give more attention to negative stories and facts  “What does it matter if China traced, globally shared and sequenced CoVid-19 within a month of discovering it? Lab leak, lab leak!”

I’m sure someone could reword the third column of this table to try to make sense of my (to them) seemingly irrational beliefs about Ukraine, Nord Stream, China, and CoVid-19, by attributing them to my admitted cognitive biases. That would be an interesting exploration!

So what’s going on here? I think we’re all doing our best to make sense of the firehose of information and mis- and disinformation and propaganda out there. These cognitive biases, for the most part, aren’t character flaws — They’re ways of dealing with large amounts of information that evolved to make our ancestors more functional, and to enable them to act faster and to survive better. The fact that our overwhelmed (intellectually and emotionally) brains aren’t up to the task with today’s information overload is a tragedy, perhaps, but it’s not anyone’s fault.

The purpose of this exercise is to answer the question posted by the title of this exercise. Not the exclamation mark part, but the question mark part. While part of me seethes at the power of the post-WW2 US presidents and most of their senior ‘advisors’, and the destruction I believe they have wrought, I can kind of understand what has driven them to think, believe, and do what they have done. And I think it would be arrogant to presume that, if I were in their position, I would have done differently.

And that has to be enough. The world, as much as we wish it weren’t, is on autopilot, and no one is in control. The sum total of the cognitively-biased and variously-informed eight billion of us are going to do our best, and the outcome looks both inevitable and troublesome.

While it doesn’t and can’t change anything (at least that’s how I see it from my own cognitively-biased perspective), I have found it immensely comforting to at least be able to guess: What are they thinking? And now, each time I ask the question, I ask it without the exclamation mark.

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