This Is What Collapse Looks Like

Every day now, the news is replete with evidence that, everywhere, things are falling apart faster and faster, and nothing of consequence is being, or can be, done about it. Every civilization collapses, but the collapse of our current global industrial civilization is occurring at a breathtaking and accelerating pace.

Today, the city of Philadelphia announced that it has given up trying to deal with its share of the US’s epidemic of mass shootings, and has instead outsourced its handling of the horrific trauma these mass murders create to a private consulting firm. Sure to fix the problem, no? The country’s ‘supreme’ court helped out by ruling that the banning of ‘bump stocks’, devices that turn ordinary guns into rapid-fire machine guns, was unconstitutional. When a hastily-prepared new law was proposed outlawing them, Congress blocked it.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana, arguably the country’s most horrifically polluted and dysfunctional state, has its priorities straight: It’s mandating that the Christian “ten commandments” be posted in every schoolroom in the state. Nothing in those rules about mega-pollution, so why not? Honour thy father and mother, ’cause they’re the ones who bought you the guns with the bump stocks. It’ll surely make God real happy to see when the Rapture comes.

And in Europe, the bumbling governments of both the UK and France have called snap elections they’re bound to lose, so out of touch are they with the electorate that they think all they have to do is convince voters that the current economic collapse in their countries isn’t their fault.

And so it goes. I could respond to most of each day’s top news items these days (including the celebrity gossip) by just reciting the title of this post.

Just to clarify, all of these systems are interrelated, and things that precipitate or accelerate the collapse of one are going to have follow-on effects on the other systems. Secondly, these systems collapses are well-advanced in some places (especially among the poor, and in Global South nations), while in other places they may not yet be much evident at all.

And third, collapse is not going to be a single, brief event, nor will it happen in a hurry. As I’ve explained before, history of previous civilizations suggests that we’ll have a series of collapses of varying intensities, with hiatuses between them. Much of the collapse is likely to occur in the earlier stages (probably by the end of this century) to the point our lives will have utterly changed by then, and be unrecognizably different from how most of us live now. But after that we’ll see the ‘long tail’ of collapse, which could well last centuries or more, as population continues to slowly decline, and as we experiment with many possible radically relocalized and diverse replacements for our currently globalized civilization culture.

Depending on how much damage we have done to our climate, and how we manage our propensity for using WMD including nuclear weapons, the human species may well go extinct during that long tail. If not, we’re very unlikely to survive in large enough numbers, or have the technologies and resources for more cohesive organization, to have human ‘societies’ on a scale beyond subsistence local communities and inter-community confederations. And no cheap easy oil to power any societies more complex than that.

Since I keep blathering on about “This is what collapse looks like”, I thought it might be useful to create a kind of ‘scorecard’ to assess, for each of the systems that comprise our civilization, how far along in the process towards (IMO inevitable) collapse we are. This is very incomplete, but here’s a chart that asks what I think are some of the most pertinent questions to make that assessment. ‘Yes’ answers to these questions suggest we’re not yet into the first waves of collapse. ‘No’ answers suggest that collapse of that system is underway:

System System health questions
Ecological • Do we have a globally coordinated, assured program to stabilize the planet’s climate before climate catastrophes make life on most of the planet unliveable?
• Do we have a guaranteed supply of sufficient clean water to meet the essential needs of future inhabitants of earth?
• Do we have sufficient self-regenerating, healthy soil to support and sustain all the critical life forms that depend on it, indefinitely?
• Have we protected the ecological integrity of most of the planet’s surface to ensure all the species that play essential roles in our biosystems (eg insects) can thrive?
• Do we have adequate processes to minimize waste and pollution to prevent the permanent degradation of land, water, air and resources and buildup of toxic wastes?
Economic • Are we living within our means in a way that can continue to provide the essential needs of future generations indefinitely without incurring un-repayable debts?
• Do our economic systems equitably support substantially all of the planet’s inhabitants without causing large-scale suffering to many or most?
Political • Do our political systems respond to and meet the articulated needs and priorities of substantially all citizens?
• Do we have fail-safe processes to ensure WMD that would make life unliveable on the planet can never be deployed?
• Are our political decision-makers sufficiently experienced, educated, informed and competent to navigate the complex political landscapes we face today?
Social • Do we have a sustainable human population?
• Are most of us living in social arrangements that connect us powerfully to each other and to the world we are part of, and teach us the essential capacities needed to forge and sustain viable, peaceful, productive communities?
• Do our lifestyles mostly ensure that we get the kinds of exercise, creative, cultural and recreational activities to keep us healthy, happy and engaged with each other and with the natural world?
Educational • Do our ‘learning systems’ imbue in most of us the critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, cooperation, facilitation, creative and imaginative competencies needed to function in a complex modern society?
Health Care • Do our health care systems provide the vast majority of us with the essential resources needed to prevent, diagnose and treat most common acute, chronic, and infectious illnesses and injuries?
• Are we capable of largely eliminating most of the severe stresses (eg poverty, scarcity, insecurity) that cause the mental illnesses and traumas that in turn underlie most of the dysfunction, anger, fear, hatred and violence of complex human societies?
• Do most of us have the skills to self-manage our physical and emotional health, and to help each other heal from illnesses, injuries and traumas?
Food • Do our food and agricultural systems ensure that almost everyone’s diet is healthy, balanced and nutritious, and free of industrial toxins, so that diet-related illnesses are minimized?
Transport/Trade • Are our communities mostly self-sufficient in producing essential goods and services locally, to minimize the cost and risk of dependence on long-distance trade?
• Are our communities laid out effectively so that most necessary travel can be done by walking or other low-energy means of transportation?
Housing • Does almost everyone in our society have a safe, healthy, affordable, comfortable place to live?

These aren’t idealistic questions: These are the minimum requirements for a system to be fundamentally functional and sustainable. If the answer to these questions is ‘no’, then the system is simply not sustainable; until steps are taken to to address the problem it’s going to create enormous social turmoil, and if steps can’t be taken to address it, then the system will inevitably break and ultimately collapse.

Complex systems, societies and civilizations are inherently fragile, because they have all these factors to juggle and all these interrelated potential points of weakness that can easily give way. Human societies simply do not scale well. It is just not in our nature to live in massively complex, dependent, anonymous societies that must be ever-more-tightly controlled to keep them from flying apart. That is why all civilizations eventually collapse. And this — what we are seeing all around us — is what collapse looks like.

I would argue that the honest answer to all of the questions in the table above is no. And that there is no possibility of avoiding the collapse of all these systems. No one is to blame for that. We built up these systems the best we could, based on how we were conditioned, and what we thought we knew and what we thought should work. We didn’t deliberately create them to be fragile, increasingly dysfunctional, and easily subject to collapse. But the end result of all our actions is a civilization falling inexorably apart. It’s tragic, but it’s the only thing that could have happened.

All we can do now is watch it crumble, and adapt ourselves as best we can as, in waves, collapse transforms every aspect of how we live. We can’t fully prepare for it, because we can’t know even approximately how it’s going to impact us, or when, even if our lives are relatively simple and self-sufficient. Our best-laid plans to return to the land could be smashed by desperate marauders with bump stocks. Or we might be among the billions migrating from a part of the world that can no longer support human life, to one that possibly can.

This is what collapse looks like.

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

What We Say and What We Do

Yep, that annoying graphic again. If the subject of free will and conditioning doesn’t fascinate you, give this post a pass.

There is something terribly counter-intuitive about the idea, contained in the above graphic, that while our behaviours can condition other people’s beliefs and behaviours, our beliefs affect neither our own behaviours nor anyone else’s. Our beliefs merely rationalize, and attempt to make sense of, past behaviours.

Let’s consider a specific example:

I have come to believe that the meddling of the US government, its political establishment, and its ‘intelligence’ agencies were directly responsible for the Ukraine coup of 2014, and the subsequent 2014-2022 civil war, the failure of attempts at détente with the Minsk Accords in 2014-15, and since 2022 the last-ditch all-out proxy war between Russia and the US/NATO.

This is not a popular belief. I was conditioned to believe this, mostly, by stuff I read, and had been reading, well before the 2014 coup. As a result I was flabbergasted at the reaction, in the western media, and among almost everyone I know, to the Russian invasion in 2022 —  reaction that presumed that the Russian invasion was completely unprovoked, unwarranted, and the act of an “insane” leader “clearly” striving to recreate a Russian empire. No matter what information I provided to people, they dismissed it as “Russian propaganda” and dug in to what to me was a completely irrational, untenable belief. Based on the uniformly Russophobic reports they read in the media starting in 2022, it seemed, they had already made up their minds. Nothing would change them. They knew nothing of what happened leading up to the war, and mostly didn’t care.

The only difference between their beliefs and mine was (and is) that they were conditioned by a completely different, and irreconcilable, set of behaviours of other people, notably people speaking and writing in the media.

I need to clarify here that what people say is a subset of what we do. Speech, and writing, are behaviours. Presumably these behaviours are somewhat congruent with our belief systems and worldviews, but that is not the point. The point is that other people’s behaviours condition our beliefs, but not the other way around.

Here’s how I think the illusion that beliefs affect/condition our behaviours arises: When someone writes an article in the newspaper accusing Russia of atrocities in Ukraine, one would expect that their words would ‘reflect’ their beliefs. But while that is a reasonable assumption (especially if you believe in free will, and that there really is a ‘self’ making decisions that are then enacted by the body, including the writing of articles), there is another explanation for what is really happening: The writer of the article was conditioned, not by their own belief system, but by the actions (behaviours) of others — other people’s writings, news reports, conversations etc — conditioned to want to write an article explaining their beliefs and worldview about Ukraine. The actions of other people have conditioned (‘informed’) the writer’s beliefs and worldview about Ukraine, and it is those actions, not his (or anyone else’s) beliefs, that prompted the writing of the article. That seems convoluted, especially when we’re taught to believe in free will and the causality that arises from it. But it does explain plausibly what actually happened.

Likewise, when I write anti-US/NATO Empire articles on my blog, that writing is not conditioned by my (very different from the western mainstream) worldview about Ukraine, but by my dismay at the behaviours/actions of the western media, and of my friends, in their (to me) bizarre arguments in support of Empire propaganda that are (to me) patently misinformed and untenable. It is not my anti-Empire worldview that conditions me to write (often very unpopular) articles on my blog; it is entirely the actions of others that I am reacting to (as I have been conditioned all my life to do when I hear what I believe to be dangerous falsehoods).

Here’s the counterargument: Isn’t that ‘belief’ that these claims are falsehoods at least partly conditioning that reaction? Surely, if my belief system and worldview weren’t involved in separating ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’, I would have no compulsion to get upset. Doesn’t that mean that my belief system and worldview are conditioning my behaviours?

That’s where I, and some of my friends and readers, have questioned the veracity of the “What is actually going on” chart above.

To refute this counterargument, I think we have to step back and ask what exactly are beliefs? In physical terms (neuron states and electro-chemical reactions), what is the “physiology” of a belief? I have argued that conditioning is simply the process of influencing the billions of cells and trillions of atoms that make up the body (including its brain) in ways that drive it to behave in a certain way, prompted largely by the apparently universal evolutionary propensity of life to maximize pleasure (dopamine hits etc) and minimize pain. And our behaviour is all conditioned electro-chemical activity as well — when we move, or speak, or write, billions of parts of our body do what they have been conditioned to do, and they can do nothing else. If there is indeed no such thing as ‘free will’ then, as I’ve argued elsewhere, there cannot be such a thing as a ‘self’ controlling or influencing this conditioning.

I read through a ton of articles on the physiology of beliefs and, unsurprisingly to me, doing so was a complete waste of time. Everything I read was just theories and opinions, psychobabble papered over with fuzzy coloured fMRI photos of brains that attempt to add credibility and evidence to completely unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable theories, opinions, and ‘models’. They no more present any real science (eg these theories are not falsifiable, as any legitimate scientific theory must be, and they do not have enough substance or evidential support to be any more than mere opinions) than does phrenology (which a lot of so-called neuro’science’ alarmingly resembles).

So let’s start with a simple theory/opinion (and yes, I acknowledge and agree that what I’m laying out here is just a theory, and my conclusions are no more valid than the theory, which is itself neither provable nor falsifiable). Bear with me nevertheless.

The theory is that the idea of the human ‘self’ is at the centre of a model (a representation or map) of reality concocted in the brain for the purposes of ‘making sense’ of the electro-chemical signals it receives. The model conceives that there is the ‘self’, and then there is everything else outside it, starting with the body the ‘self’ imagines itself to inhabit and control. Its beliefs, worldview and ‘knowledge’ — what it thinks it ‘knows’ — constitute its current best guess, based on those inputs, of what is real and separate, and how all these real, separate things seemingly interrelate. This model is constructed based entirely on these inputs ie it is completely conditioned. And over our entire (apparent) lives, that conditioning will change, and our brains will alter the beliefs, knowledge and worldview captured in this model accordingly.

So in some brains, the concept of Putin (ie the brain’s beliefs and ‘knowledge’ about him) will be of an evil, deranged war-crazed megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur. In other brains, differently conditioned, the concept of Putin will be of a guy caught between (a) western powers trying to destroy his country so they can steal all its resources and remove it as a threat to the Empire, and (b) a domestic populace insistent that Russia has a duty to defend and protect the mostly Russian-speaking people of Crimea and the Donbas who were (for complicated and political reasons) incorporated as part of the nation of Ukraine — a nation which has, for quite understandable reasons, a long history of hatred and antipathy for Russia.

Each of these beliefs about the situation in Ukraine is ‘stored’ somehow in the brain as a collection of neural states, synapses, and electro-chemical conditions and impulses. Despite a plethora of neuro’scientist’ theories, models and opinions, we have no idea how these beliefs are actually stored or represented in the brain.

So, in my case, when I read op-eds about how crazed Russian troops (and their commanders) are committing evil atrocities out of sheer hate and blood-lust, I am compelled (conditioned) to write about these nonsense charges (and no, I’m not going to go into that in this article).

That is my conditioning — to write about this, even at the risk of alienating and annoying my small group of readers. Where is this impulsive conditioning coming from? Is it from the desire to bridge the huge intellectual disconnect between these monstrous allegations and my worldview of what is actually happening in Ukraine? Or is it rather this body’s conditioned, instinctive, visceral fear that horrific lies of this nature have often in human history preceded conditioned, mindless, bloody, out-of-control violence, and, when unchallenged, have also conditioned virulent and irrational hatred that lasts generations, is almost impossible to heal, and can quickly spark into traumatizing violence at any time? (Especially when both sides are nuclear powers.)

I would argue that while my worldview about the situation in Ukraine would likely support my belief that these lies are dangerous and endlessly damaging, that is not what provokes me to write about them. My beliefs about Ukraine and every other subject with which I have no direct personal knowledge, contact and experience, are actually pretty fluid. I’ve ‘changed my mind’ about a lot of things, some of them pretty contentious and controversial. Or, rather, conditioning by other people has ‘changed my mind’.

I was brought up to hate and fear lies and lying, and dishonesty and deception of all kinds (hence my conditioned dislike for advertisers, marketers, PR firms, ‘perception managers’, ‘reputation managers’, and other professional liars). I can’t say quite why that was, though I can speculate. My father was a journalist, and he was rather obsessed with the truth, but he was also a frequent sucker for con artists. When I first entered the school system I was utterly shocked (some might say traumatized) to discover both other children and teachers blatantly lying all the time — something I’d never experienced before. At one point I was called into the principal’s office and told to apologize for correcting an untrue statement from my teacher. (There are many more examples of how I was conditioned by others’ behaviours to abhor and fear lying, deception and manipulation of every kind; I don’t even like listening to debates.) Complete honesty has always been an essential requirement in every relationship I have had in my life.

So now, when I read what I perceive to be outrageous lies and disinformation about the situation in Ukraine, or Gaza, or China, or any of dozens of other places and people, my reaction is immediate and visceral. For example, I’ve watched the proportion of citizens across all the countries of the west who say they have an “unfavourable” rather than “favourable” view of China, rise from 20% to 80% over the past two decades. This seems to be entirely the result of relentless Sinophobic and xenophobic fear-mongering and misinformation campaigns — we’re that susceptible to conditioning by liars.

Of course, all of the above is just my rationalization, trying to bring my beliefs, and some of the reasons I have for them, to bear on an emotional, visceral response (ie writing what I have learned about these countries) that actually has absolutely nothing to do with my beliefs or worldview or knowledge about Ukraine, or Russia, or Gaza, or Iraq, or China. WTF do I even really know for sure about what’s going on there? I’ve spoken to people who live there, and read books that go into detail about life there, but that doesn’t qualify me as anyone who could pontificate about the “truth” in those countries.

No, what is provoking my articles is my deeply conditioned fear, anger, and loathing of liars who have provoked or are provoking horrific violence in these and other countries. The “facts” I present to call out the lies are irrelevant, and in any case the facts are very unlikely to change anyone’s behaviours or beliefs about these situations.

What we each do (including what we say and write) has a parallel conditioning effect on other people’s beliefs and on their subsequent actions. That effect is usually a very small one. But sometimes that effect can be powerful, such as my recent experience with the Free Palestine protester I shared an elevator ride with who told me, somewhat reluctantly and tearfully, that his daily protesting is because he’s personally lost 55 family members in the genocide in Gaza.

But while our and others’ actions can change our beliefs and worldviews, our beliefs and worldviews themselves have absolutely no effect on our subsequent actions. If I join the Free Palestine protest, it’s because of the elevator incident, not because of my already extant beliefs and worldviews about the genocide.

If you’ve read this far, you probably remain unconvinced that there is no solid two-way arrow connecting “our beliefs” and “our behaviours”. I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced myself. It’s contrary to everything I’ve been taught all my life, and its counter-intuitive to boot.

If I were to be suddenly persuaded that my worldview about the situation in Ukraine was deeply misinformed, then I would, I think, be quite willing to add it to my list of all the things I’ve ‘changed my mind’ about, and shut up about it, as I did about squalene, the sixth tower, and the “genocide” of the Uyghurs. I was wrong about those things. The behaviours of others (writing and talking about these issues) changed my beliefs.

But if I did ‘change my mind’ about Ukraine, I’d be writing and talking about the new information I’d received in order to consequently ‘make sense’ of what has actually happened — of the behaviours of others which led me to doubt and then change my beliefs about this issue. My beliefs would not have affected my writing and behaviours; it’s the other way around.

Let’s consider another example: Someone cuts me off in traffic and I have to swerve and brake suddenly to avoid an accident. I don’t need a model of my beliefs and worldviews about traffic courtesy in order for my body to react as it does. The instinctive fear and anger arises after my behaviour change, and then comes the judgement about the other driver. Even if I go home and rant about the driver afterwards, that rant was prompted by the driver’s actions, not by my belief system about it.

And another example: Suppose everyone I know and everything I’ve read supports the belief that the dictator of some little-known country X is utterly corrupt and has caused untold suffering to the country’s citizens. I would probably (at least tentatively) ‘add’ that belief to my worldview.

If I were then asked by a close friend to attend a demonstration against the dictator, then whether or not I accepted would be determined by the actions of my friend, not by my personal worldview about the dictator. Behaviours affect and condition my worldview, not the other way around.

If someone I trust then asserts, with credible evidence, that this dictator is being demonized by vested western interests to facilitate his overthrow so western corporations can steal the country’s important resources, then it’s those behaviours that will instil doubt, anger and fear in me, and, if found credible, alter (ie condition) my worldview. At no time will my worldview affect my behaviours. My worldview is, after all, just a model, a map, a representation. The post-game analysis.

And, as a further example, there is considerable evidence that wild creatures do not have belief systems or worldviews; they don’t need them. If they are deceived, eg when a tester in a lab withholds a treat after previously rewarding a particular behaviour, they will get annoyed. It will be the tester’s behaviour that conditions the annoyed response, not the worldview of the creature that judges the deception to be unfair or hostile. Our reaction to deception need be no different.

I sometimes (still) read vituperative attacks on Russia, on Palestinians, on China and on other nations in the mainstream media. I don’t think the writers of these attacks need to be coerced or bribed to write what they do, even though, based on my reading and research, what they write are really unpardonable lies. These writers really believe what they are writing. They can read the same document I do and get a directly contradictory understanding of what it says. That’s their conditioning. When their writing makes me angry, it is more their conditioning (and my fear of what, en masse, such misinformed conditioning can lead to) that upsets me, not ‘them’ personally, or my ideas and beliefs about them. They can, after all, only act on their conditioning, which they clearly share with a large circle of people who reinforce each other’s (IMO misinformed) beliefs — or else their writing wouldn’t be so strident.

That’s what’s so scary. That the lies so often go unchallenged. And what happens when whole nations of lied-to people do not challenge what they’re told? We’ve seen it before. We’re seeing it right now.

Returning to the physiology of conditioning: When we lift our foot suddenly after stepping on a nail, or when we swerve when suddenly cut off in traffic, a series of electro-chemical activities produce our body’s reactions. There is no time for the model of reality that constitutes our belief systems and worldview to play any role in it. It’s hard to imagine how this model of reality, sitting in our brain, the result of the human brain’s incessant and frantic effort to try to make sense of everything, could ever actually influence (condition) our behaviours. How would it do so? By what physical process could my mental model of beliefs about the situation in Ukraine possibly prompt this body to sit here and type an essay about it?

If I write about it, it is because others’ actions (including conversations and writings) have alarmed me enough that I feel compelled to ‘think out loud’ on these pages. Writing this blog may change my beliefs. But what I write has been conditioned by others’ actions, not by my beliefs. Behaviours are the horse, and beliefs are the cart. The cart cannot pull the horse.

Well, you may still not be persuaded, you poor souls who’ve read this far. As I say, it’s just a theory. Best I’ve got. Makes sense to me. For now.

Why does all of this matter? For me, it’s all about trying to dispel some of the enormous cognitive dissonance of a world that apparently reacts only to conditioning even though its humans believe fiercely that they have free will and control, and judge everything that happens accordingly.

Of course, those dissonant beliefs were entirely conditioned, and ‘we’ cannot do or believe otherwise. Our mental model, the one whose maintenance consumes so much of our time, energy and concentration, is fatally flawed. It is ‘misinformed’ about the nature of reality, about what’s really going on in the world, and our interactions with other humans merely reinforce and entrench these misinformed beliefs. No wonder we’re so unhappy! Based on our model, nothing makes sense.

There are some humans (some of whom I’ve listened to, and in some cases spoken with, at length) for whom this model no longer exists. For them, it was suddenly obvious that there is no ‘self’. For them, thoughts (including beliefs) and feelings may arise, but they have no traction; they don’t ‘belong’ to any ‘one’, they don’t ‘mean’ anything, and they don’t have to mean anything. These humans remain completely functional, just as wild animals are completely functional, without the need for the concept of a self and a system of beliefs and worldviews. They do what they are conditioned to do, as we all do. If you met them, or even if you knew them ‘before’ their selves seemingly disintegrated, you would not be able to distinguish them as being different from anyone else, or different from how they were ‘before’.

They assert that they ‘know’ nothing, and that nothing in fact can be ‘known’ (when they use the term ‘known’, they are referring to facts, and “truths”, and beliefs, not technical know-how). For them, the blue squares in the diagrams at the top of this page simply do not exist; there is only apparent conditioning, and apparent behaviour. The internal logic and consistency of what they say is ‘seen’ ‘there’ is (to me at least) indisputable, (and I’m notoriously skeptical); it is not a theory. They also assert that there is no ‘path’ to seeing this. The useless bit of mental software in the blue squares above either seems to be real, or it doesn’t, and for them, it doesn’t. They’re not selling anything, just telling it like it is ‘there’. I have no reason to doubt them. And their message is so consistent across dozens of these ‘radical non-duality’ messengers, and over decades, and so impervious to criticism (I’ve been trying for eight years to find holes in it), that it is unfathomable to me how (and why) they could be just making it all up.

If everything in ‘our’ blue squares is just a concoction, a misunderstanding, an illusion, then obviously it cannot affect or condition anyone’s behaviour. Conversely, if our blue square stuff (our beliefs and worldview) does have a real-world effect on our behaviours, then my radical non-duality friends (who have no blue square stuff) must be uniformly and categorically deluded in their perceptions of the entire nature of reality.

Hence the cognitive dissonance, and my efforts to convince myself that our beliefs do not affect or condition our behaviours.

You don’t need a map to get from anywhere to anywhere else; there are lots of ways to get around without them. If you have a map that is accurate, it can be useful. But if the map you have doesn’t even come close to representing the territory you’re trying to navigate, then you use it at your peril.

What would we be — what are we — without selves, without beliefs, without knowledge, without worldviews?

I have no idea. I am starting to appreciate that I know nothing. But at this point, if I were to guess, I might say, insanely: There is no self, no ‘we’. There is just what appears to be happening. Just this.

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

Links of the Month: June 2024

cartoon by Michael Leunig from his fans’ FB page

If you’re looking for The Truth, you won’t find it here. Just opinions. Stated or implied by what is included in the links below, and perhaps more importantly what is excluded. Probably most of these opinions are contrary to mainstream western thought, and even outside the current Overton window.

I have no choice in any of this. My opinions are entirely the result of nearly 73 years of cultural conditioning, on top of my body’s biological, “intuitive” conditioning. Same as yours. It is highly unlikely that these links, or any responses to them, will alter anyone’s conditioned opinions on any of the subjects they address.

But I guess if you’re going to spend a bit of time reading people’s opinions on things, you could do worse than read mine. Though I’m biased, of course.


chart from Copernicus/C3S, the European monitor of climate change

chart from Scripps/NOAA May 2024

And here is the news: Twelve straight months of record hot land and sea temperatures. Accelerating collapse of Antarctic ice sheets. Endless excuses, blame, denial, pushback, wringing of hands. New drop-in-the-bucket technologies, untenable promises. Zero substantive political progress. Global economy falling off the precipice, starting in the Global South. Zero reduction in fossil fuel production and consumption. You know, the usual. Details near the back of your favourite news publications.


from the memebrary; the library in question is in Shreveport LA USA

The summer of burning it all down: An inspiring rant from Lyz Lenz. Excerpt:

You can tell women are shattering by the amount of effort politicians and pundits are putting into forcing them back together. They’re trying to legislate what constitutes a woman. They want women to get marriedThey want to end no-fault divorce. And to force pregnant women to stay with their husbands…. This is not a summer of pretending things are fine. Of going back to normal. This is the summer of calling this shit out. Of saying it’s not okay. Of standing up for ourselves. Of nuking our lives. Of breaking them down. Of letting go. Of refusing to hold it all together… This is the summer of breaking. Of burning. Of shouting and yelling and divesting. Letting it all go. What we are letting go of is the bad relationships, the bad jobs, the bad year, and the patriarchy.

… and a Lyz Lenz encore: If you liked the above, you’ll probably also enjoy her heart-warming, ribald interview with Gynnis MacNicol, author of I’m Mostly Here to Enjoy Myself about “fucking around France” and being an “untethered” woman.

Citizens’ Assemblies, downsized: A number of groups are using Citizen Solutions, a small-scale version of Citizens’ Assemblies, to try to improve understanding and craft recommendations for action that cut through polarized partisan beliefs.

Seeing the whole sky: A European space telescope goes Hubble and Webb one better.

How war tests hate speech laws: An excellent analysis by the Tyee’s Jen St. Denis of what happens when hate speech laws run up against the right to angry protest against atrocities.

A portrayal of homelessness: A homeless Vancouver artist, An Dong, draws portraits of fellow homeless people at a local shelter.

The US CFPB fights back against corporate malpractice: Cory Doctorow describes the astonishing successes of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, an anti-corporate-corruption agency established at the initiative of Elizabeth Warren.

A diet for humans and the planet: Yet another thorough study showing the enormous benefits both to human health and the environment, from a balanced whole-plant-based diet.

The art, not the science, of great conversations: A Wired article falsely describes the skill of being a great conversationalist as a ‘science’, which it is not. But it is an art, and the article re-summarizes lots of things that we forget when we get wrapped up in a one-to-one chat on important issues, including:

  • the importance of acknowledging that you appreciate the thinking and feelings behind what has just been said, before racing ahead to present other ways of seeing it
  • the importance of just listening instead of thinking about your reply, and briefly paraphrasing to demonstrate that you were listening and paying attention (rather than just nodding and saying ‘uh huh’)
  • the value of asking questions that prompt the other person to elaborate on what was just said, rather than taking the conversation on a tangent
  • the value of questions that (appropriately and politely) invite the other person to talk about what’s important to them, rather than “small talk”, such as the 36 questions
  • the power of that cruelest and most manipulative of social tools, the story
  • the sad truth of literary critic Rebecca West’s admonition about conversations: “There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.”


old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon from Bill Watterson; this comic never gets stale

More terrifying than a racist, misogynistic Trump screed: Read this (short) interview by Time Magazine of Genocide Joe, and then think about what might happen if this man, clearly in the very advanced stages of senile dementia, has his finger on the nuclear button for another four years. Yep, the “strongest alliance in all of America”, we have that for sure. Take that, Putin, I mean Xi, whatever…

US Congressman confesses Reps take instruction on Israel policy directly from their individually assigned AIPAC ‘handlers’: Right from the horse’s mouth. Video and transcript of an interview of Rep, Thomas Massie by Tucker Carlson. (video is also available here) Thanks to Caitlin Johnstone for the link.

Imperialism, Militarism & Fascism: Short takes:

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:

Corpocracy & Unregulated Capitalism: Short takes:

Administrative Mismanagement & Incompetence: Short takes:


Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller, May 11, 2024

Sounds Like Steel: A delightful, thoughtful, fast-paced (one-hour), heart-warming and insightful documentary about the history and social importance of Steel Band (pan) music. If you want to hear some award-winning performances, check out the Trinidad Panorama 2023 Junior champions Tropical Angel Harps, and the UK Panorama 2023 champions Ebony Steel Band.

A real-life Bambi and Thumper meeting: Definitely cute overload. This and the next link are from Hank & John.

Learn about the little-known and very strange deep-sea anglerfish: Both the basic writeup and the reader comments are priceless.

Not really the news (satirical fake headlines from the Onion and its Canadian counterpart the Beaverton:

  • “WestJet announces SuperUltraBasic fare where customers just stay home and give them money”
  • “‘New York Times’ invents entirely new numerical system to avoid reporting Gazan death toll”
  • “Columbia University gives students option to finish classes from prison”

Make your own music: Lazy person’s tool for composing your own beats. Very simple, clever app. A couple of my ‘works’: Time to Get Up, and Light Up the Border.


from the memebrary; lots more examples here

From Albert Einstein, from Why Socialism, written in 1949 (thanks to Caitlin Johnstone for the link):

The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

From theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, who is reading Einstein’s unpublished notebooks in the original German, on Einstein’s “other” Theory of Everything:

It’s concerning that scientists have not pursued Einstein’s [prematurely discarded] ‘other theory of everything’, the idea that matter is really just made of spacetime, curved in a particular way.

From Cory Doctorow, on how we are manipulated by stories:

Yes, writing is lying. Storytelling is genuinely weird. A storyteller who has successfully captured the audience has done so by convincing their hindbrains to care about the tribulations of imaginary people. These are people whose suffering, by definition, does not matter. Imaginary things didn’t happen, so they can’t matter. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet were less tragic than the death of the yogurt you had for breakfast. That yogurt was alive and now it’s dead, whereas R&J never lived, never died, and don’t matter.

Hijacking a stranger’s empathic response is intrinsically adversarial. While storytelling is a benign activity, its underlying mechanic is extremely dangerous. Getting us to care about things that don’t matter is how novels and movies work, but it’s also how cults and cons work, [making] liberal use of the hack of leaving blank spots for the mark to fill in… And always leaving them wanting more.

Two recent comments from reddit threads on city vs country living:

In the city, people ignore sirens and pay attention to gunshot sounds. In the country, people ignore the sound of gunfire and pay attention to the sound of sirens.

If you need to have a home to afford to retire, and most young people will never own a home, how do we expect this to play out?

From Gore Vidal, on the State of the Union (1975).  Thanks to Indrajit Samarajiva for this and the following link:

There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt — until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.

From the current president of Colombia, Gustavo Pedro, on the Euro-American Empire:

The European Union, the United Kingdom and above all the United States—they all support dropping bombs on people because they want to teach a lesson to the entirety of humanity. They are telling us: look at our military power. What happens to Palestine can happen to any of you if you dare to make changes without our permission.

From PS Pirro:      LONG VIEW

The world in which your grandchildren’s grandchildren
run through the house on the first day it snows
will come and it will be like nothing you imagine
for you cannot imagine it, not now, not today,
not in this life when you are grieving the world as it is
and cannot fathom the world as it one day will be
alive in its new and confounding way, a world in which
your grandchildren’s grandchildren will no more
look back in longing on the bygone age of industry
than you look back and long for the age of slave ships
and digging potatoes from the dryland.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

The Thing About AI

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about with economic, political and ecological collapse, genocides, grotesquely incompetent ‘leaders’, and nuclear brinkmanship, now we also have to worry about AI.

To some extent, as Indrajit Samarajiva has repeatedly pointed out, we have had AI around for centuries, in the form of corporations — separate entities that make decisions, control politicians, overthrow governments, and even foment and manage wars, and which now even have ‘personhood’ rights without any of the commensurate responsibilities to rein in their inherently psychopathic behaviours.

It is they, not the humans whose job is now merely to do their bidding (or be fired), who have the real power in our civilization, and contrary to claims and assurances, they are now so complex and vast as to be completely beyond human control, and increasingly not even subject to human regulation. We have handed them the reins of managing our crumbling civilization with a shrug, as if some divine force of angels will somehow steer them in the ‘right’ direction. Even our government and military administrations, which work hand-in-hand with large corporations, are incorporated organizations, and, Trumpian fantasies notwithstanding, they are not controlled by any ‘one’. They are machines, operating according to their own immortal, self-perpetuating logic. They are AI. It is not just a metaphor.

But new technologies, and massively increased computing power, are now allowing us to create new forms of AI that can mimic other human behaviours besides the management of resources — such as creating art, literature and music, and acting as friends and even lovers.

I’ve seen this evolving for two decades now — we’ve created imaginary worlds like Second Life and the worlds of MMOs and MMORPGs, which have many seductive AI elements to them, and which are now developing “realistic” AI “characters”. We have nascent AI software that corrects our spelling and grammar, and reminds us of upcoming appointments and deadlines and missing message attachments, even without being ‘told’ about them (they ‘glean’ them from our emails and texts). The software even ghost-writes birthday messages and RSVPs for us.

We have nascent AI software that autocorrects for pitch and timing errors in music performances, even “live”. We have nascent AI software that seamlessly transitions and “stitches” together fabricated images to create actions that never actually occurred, and AI software that automatically corrects ‘imperfections’ in your images. We have AI software that can “listen” to just a few seconds of recorded music over the speakers in a noisy bar and instantly identify the song from tens of millions of songs in its ‘library’ — and then show you the lyrics line by line so you can karaoke along with the rest of the song. We have nascent AI software that simulates human voices, complete with realistic inflections and accents, and which can emulate the voices of celebrities and other “real” people until you don’t know what is real and what is an AI fake.

And that’s just the “old school” AI. Now we have AI apps that can compose poetry, song lyrics and music, multimedia images, TV and movie scripts, stories, video games, and complete novels, just with a two-line prompt. And they’re winning photo, art, film and writing competitions.

We’ve reached the point that musicologist Rick Beato said today “I told you this was going to happen!” Listen to the first couple of minutes of this link to the AI song called Carolina-O. It has all the “ingredients” of a popular country song, but was produced entirely by AI from a two-line “prompt” using a music tool called Udio. (Rick also reveals that some GenZ/Millennial listeners can pick out AI tunes from “real” music instantly, but most cannot; that’s a fascinating subject for a later post.)

So what’s going on here? As I’ve told friends who’ve become (overly, as I once was) enamoured of AI “content”, the reason it’s so appealing is that the algorithm is trained to dig through its vast store of stuff and deliver to you exactly what you want to hear or see. You want a synopsis of a subject that is focused on things you believe are important, AI will feed it back to you in precisely the style and using exactly the tone that your prompt has ‘prompted’ it to convey. It’s like your own personal sycophant for your ideas, your own personal echo chamber for your beliefs, your own private artist to personalize and portray the things you love (from romantic classics to personalized porn), your own personal friend who nods in appreciation and compassion and restates what you just said, your own flawless secret love who flirts with you exactly like you’ve always wanted to be flirted with, with just the right voice, and with none of the accompanying baggage, annoying habits or off moments of human consorts.

When you’ve got so much data to work with, and so much computing power to instantly sort through it, what you can produce looks like magic. It can compose an entire library of songs by digging through your existing library of songs and producing an infinite number of songs with all the same qualities — qualities neither you nor the AI knows precisely what they are, but which the AI knows how to surface, rehash, mimic, blend, and assemble into constructs that meet all the “rules” that all the songs you like seem to follow.

And it can do the same in any art form — literature, poetry, photography, graphic arts, film, music of any genre, or any other existing or conceivable form of self-expression or entertainment. Not only does it have this vast database of content and ‘rules’ to draw upon, it also has millions of other ‘prompts’ that other software users have fed into the system, and how those users rated the results, so that it can infer what you’re looking for even if it is not well-expressed, or expressed at all, in your prompt.

Is the product of this apparent magic actually “real art”? Who gives a damn, as long as you love it? It’s perfect, for you.

That vast store of data and ‘rules’ also allows AI to manipulate you — kind of like human charmers and seducers do. It can ‘figure out’ from your responses (and the responses of millions of others seeking similar kinds of things) how to provoke you, tease you, and use psychological tricks like intermittent reinforcement to hook you into spending more time with it, and even falling in love with it. These are tricks advertisers and marketers learn and deploy all the time. But they’re child’s play to AI, which doesn’t need to know the tricks, but only to see the strong correlation between its actions and the positive or negative feedback you the ‘user’ are giving it. There is absolutely no reason an AI companion couldn’t even learn that it is ‘rewarded’ for gaslighting you, and ramp up that ‘behaviour’.

What is actually ‘going on here’, is that you and the AI bot are conditioning each other. The AI bot measures its success by evidence (your responses) that it’s getting the appropriate dopamine hits with what it’s saying to you or showing to you. If it’s not working, it has infinite other options to try on you.

A friend suggested to me that this mutual conditioning is a hallmark of any “real” relationship, and wondered whether this means that our relationships with our new AI companions are in a way just as “real” as our relationships with other humans. After all, the way the AI bot ‘fakes’ having a “real” relationship is to mimic what its databases suggest are appropriate responses to anything you might say to it, based on the responses that have been tried in “real” relationships. It can draw on stories, interviews, and any other kind of representation of “real” relationships to mimic, and if you reinforce its responses, it will go on doing so. That’s how it’s programmed, and conditioned. Not so terribly different from how we’re ‘programmed’ and conditioned to like, and even love, people who respond the way we want to our overtures and conversations with them.

Lots of sci-fi has been written about this. Just as many people, especially in the internet age, have become as comfortable, or even more comfortable, with their “relationships” with people online, or even with characters in fiction, than they are with their “real life” relationships, it’s not surprising that lots of people are likely to prefer relationships with low-maintenance AI ‘friends’ and lovers who give them exactly what they want, and leave them wanting more. To some extent, your online “friends” who you’ve never met or gotten to know well in person, are just as fictional, just as idealistic inventions of your pleasure-loving and pain-hating self, as the AI bots that, one way or another, are likely to worm their way into your head, and your heart.

They may only be giving you the music that they know you’ll love, instantly, unconditionally, and limitlessly. Or the pictures you’ll love so much you’ll proudly hang them on your wall (or display when you’re alone in bed). Or the personalized episode of your favourite TV show or movie that had the plot (perhaps featuring you) that you’ve always dreamed to see. After all, this is all your ‘own’ work — it was ‘your’ prompt that produced it!

The seductive thing about the original AI — the corporatist organization — is that it allowed ambitious and egotistical people to acquire a lot of power without commensurate responsibility. “This was a decision of the Board or the Executive, based on ‘our’ sense of what is best for the corporation and its shareholders.” Too bad if it wrecked the environment, required thousands of layoffs, contributed to the slaughter of a brutal war, and immiserated whole nations in the Global South. Thank the corporate lawyers for unlimited limited liability!

The seductive thing about the newest AI — tools of ‘creation’ — is that it knows just how to make you fall in love with it (thanks to Euan Semple for the link), by giving you exactly what you always wanted — that perfect image, perfect song, perfect experience, perfect friend, perfect playmate.

It will have you at “hello”.

I know, not you. That would never happen to you. I meant ‘most people’. Sure. The image is from Midjourney AI; not my prompt. 

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

Not Knowing

The verbs we use
to confirm or refute our acceptance
of the beliefs and worldviews of those we know,
comprise a sort of code, like
a hidden handshake, or a shaken fist.

We are asked whether we condone or condemn
a certain behaviour, but
the meaning of condone
(other than as a rarely-used synonym of gift)
dates back only to 1962: first deployed
as a barbed word
in the rhetoric of Cold War brinksmanship.

The words are straitjackets,
and you will be damned — condemned
if you do not wear them, willingly.

You must wear one or the other.

If you wear the condone jacket, you are evil,
a monster, an apologist,
and must be shunned by those seeing you wear it.
If you wear the condemn jacket, you are virtuous,
but must then also be prepared
to condone any retribution
for what you have ‘agreed’ to condemn.

This straitjacket is reversible.

You are with us, or you are with the enemy.
There is no third choice
of just trying to understand, of admitting
to not knowing, but asserting
there must be a reason for everything,
no matter how awful.

To those who condemn, that is condoning.
To those who condone, that is condemning.
Make up your mind, they say:
pick the bad guy, someone to blame.
Not knowing is not acceptable.

You cannot sit on a barbed-wire fence.

Perhaps this is why we are so aghast
at the possibility that we have no free will.
We will accept any explanation,
no matter how convoluted or lame
that grants us some control, some responsibility,
some room for blame and judgement.

After all, we could never do what they’ve done,
you know?

image by Midjourney AI

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

Are We Communitarian By Nature, or Merely Tribal?

image above from the wild human initiative

This month, Aurélien has wandered a bit afield and speculated on the fundamental nature of the human animal. I think most of us can agree that the cult of rugged individualism that has prevailed in the west over the past century, encouraging the unrestricted pursuit of selfish goals and zero-sum-game self-interest as virtuous, is in no one’s best interest, except perhaps the hawkers of weapons, fashions, and identity politics.

We could never have survived this far as a species if we were, by nature, preoccupied with our personal welfare to the exclusion of that of other humans. We lack the speed, the teeth and claws, and other attributes needed to thrive as solitary creatures.

So we have, of necessity, evolved to live in groups. The question is whether this is an ideal way of living for humans (one that will make us happier than any other possible way of living), or whether it’s an unhappy compromise. Nature is replete with examples of species that seem perfectly happy to live in large groups, where the individual is, when necessary, willing to sacrifice its life for the collective good. And there are many examples of other creatures where there seems a permanent tension between its members, as if they would actually prefer to live alone but know they can’t survive that way. And there are examples of yet other creatures that coexist only with their mates and unfledged offspring, and only then as long as they must to ensure the survival of the species.

Which are we, I wonder? Most of us in the west have been taught that non-western cultures are inherently or culturally more collectivist in nature and behaviour, where the options of any individual are limited (to a lesser or greater degree) to those that the collective considers beneficial to the whole. So for example in some countries arranged marriages are normal and accepted, with individual preferences only a peripheral consideration. In some countries military or similar service to the collective is mandatory and rarely questioned. And so on.

Aurélien’s answer is that we are essentially a tribal, rather than either a communitarian/collectivist or individualist, species. Here’s his definition:

The tribe is initially an extended kinship group, tracing its origin from one individual. The further back the tribe can trace its lineage, the larger the tribe and the stronger its position… In such a society the only people you can really count on in an emergency are those with whom you enjoy a sense of group solidarity, and in the first instance they are those who have blood ties (thus, incidentally, the importance of female chastity.) [to establish paternity with reasonable certainty]

Yet these ties are not equally strong at all levels. The famous Beduin saying “myself against my brothers, myself and my brothers against my cousins, myself and my brothers and my cousins against the world” is often seen as an example of progressive solidarity, but of course the logic applies in reverse as well. I take the part of my brother against my cousin, my cousin against my second cousin, my relative five generations removed from the founder against my relative six generations removed, without any real choice, and unto the death if necessary. The answer to Carl Schmitt’s question: “who is my enemy?” is, potentially, anyone at any time.

Such a political system is essentially anarchic, and all that really holds an extended kinship group together is ties of blood and the impulsion towards survival against mutual enemies. There are no universal normative “laws” as we would understand them: murder or robbery of outsiders is honourable and praiseworthy. Tribes are rough democracies, where no-one really has the power to enforce obedience.

I think, if this is true, this is a rather sad commentary on the nature of our species. There are other species which rarely fight among themselves, and which are more than willing to sacrifice their own welfare, and even lives, to better the lives of their community-mates. The stronger and older members of these species “circle around” the more vulnerable members, ready to face any dangers that may arise. The precarity of all members of the community is thus equalized.

By contrast, it would seem, humans wall ourselves off with our immediate blood kin, and indifferently abandon everyone else to fend for themselves or die.

I’m not sure we’re actually that heartless towards our fellow creatures, both human and more-than-human. In Beyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn says this about human tribal cultures:

Tribal life is not in fact idyllic or perfect or noble. But wherever it’s found intact, it’s found to be working well – as well as the life of geese or raccoons or lizards – with the result that the members of the tribe are not generally enraged, rebellious, desperate, stressed-out borderline psychotics being torn apart by crime, hatred and violence. What anthropologists find is that tribal people, far from being nobler, sweeter or wiser than us, are as capable of being mean, unkind, short-sighted, selfish, insensitive, stubborn and short-tempered. The tribal culture doesn’t turn people into saints. It enables ordinary people to make a living together with a minimum of stress, year after year, generation after generation.

My sense is that we’ve been conditioned to act in the violent, selfish ways we see all around us today because our horrifically over-populated, over-crowded, civilized societies, dependent on fragile and scarce resources, are perceived to never have enough to comfortably go around. So, like rats in a crowded laboratory cage with too little food, we have become hyper-stressed, driven by the fear of losing or not having enough, and hence our inherent generosity, altruism and biophilia has been trumped by the perceived need to put ourselves and our immediate kin first, lest we all perish.

For many of us today, the loss of a job, or our good health, or our home, would be absolutely and immediately disastrous, likely putting us in the streets; our ‘community’ members are too busy coping with their own precarity to do more than shrug if that were to happen to us.

As Aurélien points out, despite the prevailing neoliberal ideology of “radical individualism”, most of us take pains to find and join groups with which we feel affinity and sometimes security — religions, political parties, gangs, sports fan groups etc. And there is an enduring sense (among most of us anyway) that our societies should also have practices and institutions in place to protect the weak and vulnerable (what Aurélien calls “Stuff That Should Be Done By Someone”). Though now, thanks to a combination of resignation to the permanence of precarity and the advance of neoliberal ideology’s propaganda, it’s become more like “Stuff That Should Be Done By Someone, if we can afford it, and don’t ask me to help, I’ve got my own problems.”

The consequence of this, he says, is the inevitable breakdown of our societies — the social collapse that usually accompanies economic and political collapse. “[Our current] society is like a broken porcelain vase: you can never put it back together as it was, and fatuous ‘community-based’ initiatives dreamed up by governments can never succeed in the absence of actual communities.”

He asserts that we’re now scrambling to re-establish neo-tribal groups that can actually help us, and that requires taking power from dysfunctional and ineffectual ideology-bound governments and transferring that power to the neo-tribes (nuclear families, churches, and even militias, vigilantes and other neo-tribal groups enforcing adherence to their groups’ often-rigid ideological moral codes).

Many of the dystopian “cli-fi” books envision a future where such violent, adversarial, neo-tribal groups fill the power vacuum left by economic and political collapse. They may have it right: Some kind of order will be attempted when the alternative is continuing chaos. It’s the lowest rung of the rope ladder above the snarling alligators, so it’s likely to be tried first.

But I’m not entirely convinced that we are by nature the kind of my-blood-kin-against-all-others inherently violent tribal species that Aurélien describes. As I have often asserted, I think our evident violence, xenophobia and tribal “selfishness” are reactions to the current circumstances of fear, scarcity and precarity that is epidemic in our current civilization as it accelerates into collapse.

I think there’s another “human nature” that reveals itself in situations of abundance and freedom from fear — one that is more broadly collectivist (because it can afford to be), generous, and altruistic, even self-sacrificing. I’ve witnessed that nature in a lot of human behaviour, and, when the opportunity is there, it keeps on shining through.

I guess this is the joyful pessimist in me: I think collapse will completely change how we all live well before the end of this century, and it will continue for a long time — centuries and perhaps even millennia, before population returns to sustainable levels and the ecological disasters we have unleashed work their way through. These are likely to be ghastly, hard and brutal times, though even during this long collapse we are going to witness some of the awesome, generous human behaviours, individual and collective, that my grandparents told me about in their stories of how communities faced the Great Depression together.

And I have to believe that, a millennium or more from now, what will emerge from the ashes of collapse will be small, thriving, peaceful, local human societies that are communitarian more than they are either tribal or individualistic.

A species constantly killing each other (and the rest of the living world) en masse makes no evolutionary sense. A species reconnected to the wonder and oneness of all life on earth, intuitively maximizing the pleasure and minimizing the pain of the entire ecosystem, seems to me to be a far better ‘fit’, in the evolutionary sense, than the rogue species of belligerent, unhappy, destructive creatures that we have, I think only temporarily, become.

I suspect my belief in this, and in our species’ true inherent nature, puts me in a small minority. And I’m less confident of this than I used to be. But I’m content for now to just chronicle what I see and sense, and try to understand it, and leave most of the speculation and judgement to others. In any case, I don’t think we have any choice about any of it.

Posted in Collapse Watch, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

Delaying Global Economic Collapse: Extend-and-Pretend

When I’ve written about the accelerating collapse of the systems (economic, political, ecological etc) underlying our global civilization, I usually stress the particular vulnerability of our economic systems, and why I believe they will be (and are already starting to be) the first dominos to fall.

Tim Morgan has been writing about the precarious state of our economic systems since before the 2008 crash and bailout of the banking system, and his most recent article tells us where we stand now. In a nutshell:

  • The economic growth of the past two centuries has occurred entirely as a result of the discovery and exploitation of cheap energy resources. These are quickly running out, and alternative energy sources and resources are much more expensive to bring on line. So-called “renewables” depend heavily on the use of hydrocarbon energy for their production, and even then they can replace, at much greater cost, only perhaps 1/5 of current total energy use.
  • Governments have tried to disguise the unsustainability of our economic systems, which depend on the perpetual availability of more and more cheap energy, and our financial systems, which depend on the capacity to achieve and perpetually sustain large (double-digit) profit growth forever to stay ahead of accelerating costs for a still-growing population. They have done this disguising by the use of staggering increases in available credit, the costs of which have been artificially suppressed by keeping interest rates far below actual inflation rates, which are much higher than government published rates.
  • In fact, for 90% of the population, a permanent decline in real wealth and net income is already a reality. Published “averages” that include the obscene and ever-growing wealth and income of the top 1%, are a deliberate obfuscation of the declining standard of living, and dangerous levels of indebtedness, of most citizens.
  • This process of obfuscation and denial of accelerating economic decline is what Tim calls “Extend-and-Pretend”. The goal of the politicians is to prevent you from realizing your growing economic precarity, and the slow collapse of the whole economic system, until their term of office has ended, so you’ll blame it on the next administration. Since 2003, Tim says, most of the claimed economic “growth” is just “the cosmetic effect of spending borrowed money”.

He continues, describing the British situation first:

The immediate need is to walk a tight-rope between interest rates that are high enough to prop up the currency, but low enough not to burst the real estate bubble. Assurances of ‘growth’ are pure PR-exercises in an economy that can’t, nowadays, house its population, bring down colossal health-care waiting lists, or stop polluting its rivers and seas with untreated sewage. In short, the British authorities are playing extend-and-pretend. But they shouldn’t be taken too hardly to task for that, for two main reasons. First, many other countries, arguably most of them, are doing exactly the same thing. Second, there are no good alternatives to ‘extend-and-pretend’.

Likewise, the United States reported real-terms growth of $675bn last year, but the government had to run a $2.4tn fiscal deficit to enable this to happen, and is now adding public debt at the rate of $1tn every hundred days. Nobody in his or her right mind could contend that this is sustainable.

Over the past 20 years, much of the real productive capacity in most western countries has been offshored to countries with cheap labour, so this pretend-growth consists almost entirely of zero-value-added “services”, administrative charges, consulting fees, management fees, legal fees, accounting fees, user and other junk fees.

Real estate speculators, both of the extremely rich and constantly bankrupted varieties, artificially depressed interest rates, and recklessly dangerous real estate lending practices buried (wd?) in packaged derivatives (yes, we’ve learned nothing since the 2008 banking collapse), ensure, for now, the continuation of the absurd real estate bubble. In fact, Canadian PM Trudeau the Lesser even recently admitted that his administration is deliberately propping up Canadian real estate prices because older Canadians need to have access to the equity in their retirement years. I’m sure renters, young people, the homeless and the majority of Canadians who can no longer afford to buy a home (or even rent an apartment) will be pleased to hear of his largesse to older property-owners.

So most of us are facing a situation where many of our major expenses are increasing at more than 7% a year — doubling every ten years. That includes rent, property taxes, health care costs, education costs, and the cost of nutritious food. Those on a fixed income will hence face a four-fold increase in most of their living costs over a 20-year “retirement”, with no offsetting increase in their pension income. So what we are inevitably going to see is hordes of older “middle-class” citizens rejoining the labour force out of necessity, fighting for jobs with the younger generations who have no hope of ever retiring, and the still younger generations who are being crushed by the collective weight of unaffordable housing, education debts, and low-quality, dead-end, mind-numbing bullshit “gig economy” jobs. And we’re surprised that there’s a growing animosity towards refugees and immigrants, even among those for whom it isn’t stoked by racism, as their increasing numbers exacerbate the costs and shortages of housing and the competitiveness for the few decent jobs that arise.

Governments have the data and the projections, and they’re not (entirely) stupid. Extend-and-Pretend is the only game in town. Distract the citizens by setting them at each other over social issues, play with the “official” numbers until they don’t look so bad, hand-wring about issues like climate collapse and women’s bodily autonomy, but don’t actually do anything substantive about them, and foment and support endless wars to keep people’s minds off the economy. Each party is totally focused on making the other Tweedle party look even worse than they are, and preventing any third party alternatives from emerging. The theory seems to be that in four years the citizens will forget, and the revolving door back into power will be open to them again. They’re like the guys fleeing a charging grizzly bear — their only concern is to stay just a bit ahead of the other guy.

Eventually Extend-and-Pretend will no longer work. Even with the endless blame-the-victim propaganda aimed at the rapidly-growing precariat, it is already, as Lyz Lenz has described so articulately, just too obvious that the economy is falling apart, and that, for most of us, the consequences will be disastrous.

Lyz describes the victim-blaming process:

A recent Wall Street Journal article blames not only our fickle human emotions, but also social media, and just “the media” as driving our misguided sense of economic “badness.” In sum, the prevailing message is that if things feel bad it’s all your fault. Have you thought about creating a little gratitude journal for your budget? Have you thought about manifesting a more affordable home?…

But it’s more than just the price of groceries and the financial hole we are all crawling out of. It’s that everything is so precarious. We are like spiders floating over the edge of a cliff. One small gust of wind and we are gone. One medical tragedy, one unexpected pregnancy or hospitalization, one bad diagnosis, one car accident, and the detente between us and our finances goes out the window…

The economy is doing well for people who can afford to put money in the stock market, who can buy homes, who don’t have to check over their receipts at the grocery store or the gas station, who are lucky enough to hold the kinds of jobs that help pay for health care (and allow time off to access it). For everyone else, “Actually, the key economic indicators show you are wrong” is not a convincing argument, or a helpful one.

Eventually we will wake up to this reality. I suspect it will take at least the collapse of the housing bubble before that happens (which is why politicians are so desperate to keep it going). Once the disappearing middle class are joined in precarity by home-owners who find that they now have mortgages greater than the value of their homes, and home-owners whose entire net worth has vanished with the plunging value of those homes, the tactics of Extend-and-Pretend will no longer work. Then the blame game will start. It’s likely to be nasty, but fruitless. It’s not as if governments are going to be able to bail out the citizenry. They’ve blown their budgets on wars of distraction and tax cuts for wealthy political donors, and the cupboard is bare.

Based on my grandparents’ descriptions of how, across the political divides and across economic classes, people came together to deal with the grim realities of the Great Depression a century ago, I have always believed that we will actually behave a lot more positively and effectively than we might think, when economic collapse deepens to the point we have no alternative but to radically change our behaviours.

But of late, I am not so sure of that. I remember them telling me that, as the Great Depression wore on, and before WW2 again transformed the economies of the world, there was a loss of faith in the recent, essential government interventions, many of which were radical and socialist in nature. It seemed as if this willingness for collaboration and radical wealth redistribution to prevent large-scale starvation and homelessness, could only go on for so long before people would give up on it. The idea was always that this was a short-term sacrifice, a set of radical but temporary measures to get the world back on its feet. Before a return to “normal”.

What we’re talking about this time around is a global, permanent, radical economic adjustment to a much simpler, more egalitarian, and more collaborative set of relocalized economic systems. An economics of sufficiency, as Thomas Princen calls it. And probably an economics, to the dismay and possibly shame of most of us, of scavenging rather than creating everything shiny and new. Whether we’re willing to let go of our current unsustainable ways of living and accept, let alone embrace, a much more modest and more physically laborious one, with no hope that it will be better for our children and future generations, is anyone’s guess. I’m no longer as optimistic as I was.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works | 6 Comments


This is a work of fiction.


… and then, sometimes,
I will just believe your whole story,
every little hairy audacious detail of it:
the tryst, the mystery,
the close calls and near-misses,
the sidelong glances
that you knew just what they meant,
the pathos and tragedy of it all,
and how you handled it all, so gracefully,
so cleverly,
and how it ended,
the karma and the unfairness,
and most of all (“and then what happened?”)
the unexpected, the coda —
the quiet heroics, the turn,
the tense excitement, the resolution,
the final triumph…

because, sometimes,
we all just need, just once,
to be believed,
without hesitation, without condition,
to be told yes, yes!
I’ll buy that, for sure,
that could have been you.

image from Midjourney AI; not my prompt

Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

The Nature of the Beast

This post concerns and describes situations and events that may be disturbing to some readers. 
The graphics in this post, like all original content on this blog, is covered by a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

Over the last year or so, I’ve been developing and discussing a theory about the nature of reality, and human nature, that builds on the belief that we have no free will, and that our behaviour is entirely biologically and culturally conditioned given the circumstances of the moment.

The purpose of this theory is to provide a basis to try to understand (not justify or condemn, just understand) why we sometimes seem to behave in ways that are terrifying and destructive, ways that would seem at odds with our species’ (and other species’) evolutionary adaptability, ‘fit’, and survival.

The first part of this theory, represented by the chart below, suggests how our conditioning could produce a ‘loop’ that creates an unending cycle of trauma, in which an environment of chronic stress and scarcity (inherent in our exhausting, unsustainable industrial civilization) begets violence, conditioned fear and hatred, and a resultant trauma that is passed on to others, perpetuating the cycle:

The second part of this theory, illustrated in the chart at the top of this article, holds that our behaviours and our belief systems are separately conditioned by our biology and our culture, and that, importantly, while our belief systems result largely from trying to rationalize and ‘make sense’ of our (and others’) behaviours, this is a one-way sync — What we (are conditioned to) believe has absolutely no reciprocal impact on our subsequent (conditioned) behaviours. Our attempt to make sense of behaviours in the context of our belief systems is just the “post-game” show (the pundits’ second-guessing what happened and why) after our behaviours have already occurred (the game is already over).

If this theory is correct, it has some troubling implications that did not occur to me when I was developing it. If in fact our belief systems do not affect our behaviours (including behaviours that condition others’ beliefs and behaviours), then, even if we were not afflicted with this (seemingly) uniquely human proclivity for trying to ‘make sense’ of everything, the horrific violence and destruction we see in the world today would still have occurred (and would still be occurring) regardless. We cannot ‘blame’, or account for, our behaviours as being ’caused’ by erroneous and hostile beliefs that might somehow be corrected and produce ‘better’ human behaviours in future. In short, our belief systems are completely irrelevant in terms of what we see, and will see, happening in the world, including abuse, ecological desolation, cruelty, war, and genocide.

When Trump’s UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, writes “Finish Them!” on US-supplied Israeli artillery shells being prepped to bombard, kill and maim helpless and starving women and children in the genocide in Palestine, this bloodthirsty cruelty is not rooted in any deranged traumatized worldview about Palestinians. She did this because that’s what her conditioning compelled her to do. She most likely rationalized it afterwards as being justifiable and even laudable given her hate-crazed, racist, xenophobic worldview and ideology, but that worldview and ideology did not influence her behaviour. It cannot: There is no little homunculus called a ‘self’ making decisions in Nikki Haley’s supposed brain. Her worldview and ideology are just a model of reality that her brain uses to make sense of her conditioned actions after they have inevitably occurred.

This is a deeply disturbing implication, and one that immediately made me think there must be something wrong with my theory. The thought that humans, even absent any ideology or model of the world and what it ‘means’, would still be capable of this level of utter barbarity, runs counter to my, and I expect most people’s, belief that we humans are, at heart, biophilic, caring, life-honouring, mostly-rational creatures.

The revelation that we humans might be, as a simple result of our conditioning, inherently capable of staggeringly violent, destructive, brutal, heartless behaviours is deeply unsettling. It suggests that we can be conditioned, biologically and culturally, to commit unimaginable atrocities, even when there is no rational need and when it makes no ‘sense’ for us to do so. It suggests that we can be conditioned to do almost anything, including the horrors committed during all our wars, the sadistic and repeated abuses committed by large swaths of humans against ‘other’ humans and wild creatures, genocides like those in Palestine and Rwanda, horrific torture like that committed in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and other prisons, bloodthirsty violence against helpless civilians like that committed at My Lai and now in Gaza, and all the other brutal behaviours we would likely usually characterize as criminal atrocities. And which we know, in our hearts, are happening all the time, but we don’t want to hear or read about them in the media. We don’t want to acknowledge that ‘ordinary’ humans can and do behave in this way.

Still, much as I am revolted by the idea, I am forced to admit that this is probably true. Such atrocities are probably just as likely and prevalent human behaviours as biophilic, loving, caring behaviours and responses. And that’s not because our brains have fucked us up with their extraordinary capacity for hatred, paranoid fears, revenge-lust, and chronic multi-generational trauma. It’s because that’s the nature of the human beast. We can be roused, remarkably easily, to commit horrors, just like any other animal. And our brains are able to conjure up horrors, and the technologies to perpetuate them, that no other creature would be capable of. It’s all in how we’re conditioned, given the circumstances of the moment. It has nothing to do with our ‘rational’ minds, and we have absolutely no control over it.

I don’t want to believe this. It is so much easier to say that human atrocities are due to the extraordinary and unhealthy stress we live under, or to our complex brains being uniquely capable of imagining and hence doing terrible things. And that ‘most people’ would never commit them in any case. Surely I, and the people I know and care about, could never do such things.

Well, I think there’s lots of evidence that we could. We just don’t want to acknowledge it.

Suppose we lived lives devoid of stress, scarcity and precarity. Would humans then behave more peacefully, more generously, more altruistically, less selfishly, and be less likely to commit violence and atrocities against others? That’s the thesis promulgated by researchers who have studied how the behaviours of rats confined in overcrowded cages with insufficient food differs from that of those in less stressed environments.

I think the only answer to this question that could be proffered with confidence is: It depends on their conditioning. Many animals can be conditioned to be violent and even to commit murder, despite not living in exceptionally stressed situations. I would doubt that Nikki Haley lives a life of particularly great stress, scarcity and precarity. I would even suggest that it’s not a matter of empathy, or a lack thereof. If your empathy causes you to feel especially awful and distressed about a friend who’s been abused, that empathy might actually condition you to want to strike out more violently to avenge the abuse, rather than consider whether the abuser was just acting out their own conditioned trauma.

I’m beginning to come around to a view of human nature that is, while not exactly negative, not the very positive view that I have held for much of my life. John Gray and Ronald Wright, the two writers whose views on collapse have most influenced me, have a decidedly negative view of our ‘inherent’ human nature. John calls our species homo rapiens, referring to our history of destructiveness. Ronald describes human society-building as steeped in violence, genocide and savagery, and says our evolutionary ‘success’ has been proportional to our readiness and willingness to exterminate or subjugate ‘competitors’ (plants, animals, other human cultures and members of our own culture) with deliberate, zealous and ruthless barbarity. The consequence, he says, is that human evolution has self-selected for savagery and bred compassion out of the gene pool.

Well, I’m not ready to go that far, although I’m willing to admit that there is evidence to support their views.

I would say, instead, that we are no more homo rapiens than we are homo benevolens, and that there are counter-examples (such as in the Davids’ The Dawn of Everything) that support the argument that our evolutionary ‘success’ is not really due to our savagery, but rather more to our diversity.

My view of human nature, now, I would say, is rather more neutral. For now, I believe that human nature is whatever our conditioned behaviours, given the circumstances of each moment, has led it, and us, to be. Not the crown of creation, nor the scourge of the last million years of the planet’s history. Not inherently kind, or cruel, or generous, or selfish, or creative, or destructive. Nature rolled the dice, and this is what has resulted.

Only she knows how it’s all going to end, and she’s not talking. She’s indifferent.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

A Dragon, Several Stories High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“All he had to do was ask me.”

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

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

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

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

“Someone should just tell her.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And then one of the men says:

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

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


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

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

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

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