The Horrible Lessons of Workplaces

OK, yes, I suppose this article is a bit of a rant, again. Sometimes I can’t help myself. I blame my conditioning. (Not all workplaces are like this.)


from GapingVoid.com by Hugh Macleod   —  In his comment on this cartoon, Venkatesh Rao wrote: “Organizations don’t suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs. Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.” 

As you are no doubt tired of hearing me say, our beliefs and behaviours are entirely the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of each moment. And nowhere is our conditioning more intense than in the workplace, whence comes the income most of us depend on to feed, clothe and house ourselves and our families. “On-the-job” training and learning is perhaps far more insidious than we might imagine.

Here are a few of the terrible things we can learn in our workplaces (or in the military, for that matter):

  1. That democracy is an optional, and inefficient, way of doing things. Why, when we pride ourselves on living in ‘democracies’, do we put up with utterly undemocratic workplaces? In corporations, decisions on salaries, promotions, and business strategies are made by unelected ‘managers’ (most of whom have never done the jobs of their ‘subordinates’ and couldn’t do them if their life depended on it), and by ‘directors’ who are selected by external shareholders (one $hare one vote, and most ‘shareholders’ are not even slightly involved in the operations of the corporation and have no idea how it works). So we get conditioned during most of our waking hours to believe that undemocratic processes are the unquestioned norm. No surprise, then, that when we face incompetent, ‘bought’ political leaders who do what their financial donors tell them, and definitely not what their voting citizens want, we shrug and accept this blatant corruption of the democratic process as ‘normal’.
  2. That bullying is acceptable, if it is done by someone higher in the hierarchy or better connected to those in power. In most workplaces, might makes right. If you want to work there, you’d better be prepared to sign a non-disclosure agreement that bars you from discussing even the most egregious workplace abuses, at least if they involve the ‘higher-ups’. At the very best, if management’s abuse of you is especially bad, they might buy off your silence with an out-of-court settlement. Most of the sociopathy in our corporatized world never comes to light. You have no ‘right’ to know about it.
  3. That blowing the whistle on illegal and unethical behaviour is extremely dangerous and almost never worth the risk. You blow the whistle, first thing that happens in most organizations is that you get fired, and then the employer sics its army of lawyers on you to threaten you if you don’t shut up about what you know.
  4. That you should never challenge anyone in authority, and never share your knowledge with others. Challenge your boss and you will likely be told to your face “this is not a democracy”. If you dare suggest your boss is making a suboptimal decision, better make sure there are no witnesses, and that you have another job ready when you lose that one. And in the workplace, knowledge is power, and confessing that you don’t know the answer when you’re the boss may well panic your subordinates (who have probably never heard such an admission before). Giving your staff information when there’s not a strict ‘need to know’ my well earn you a reprimand. The key to promotion in most organizations is: keep your head down, do what you’re told, do not ask questions, and do not rock the boat. Kinda like most schools, but harder.
  5. That it’s who you know, and who you’re related to and close friends with, that counts in getting ahead, not what you know or what you do (as long as you’re not a complete fuck-up). It’s laughable to think that any workplace is a meritocracy. Stay in any workplace long enough, and you’ll likely discover that those who get promoted are the ones who are the most obedient, fit the current boss’ ‘image’ of a ‘good manager’, or are good friends with the current boss; competence is usually way down the list of factors.
  6. That the key to achieving and using power to your advantage is to always ensure you have more authority than responsibility, that your subordinates have more responsibility than authority, and that you have knowledge that no one else has (see point 4 above). You want to be in a position where you have the authority to tell others what to do, but where when that instruction turns out to be disastrous, they’ll be held responsible for the failure, not you. And giving ‘subordinates’ responsibility without the commensurate authority is the perfect way to keep them anxious, obedient, and in thrall. And as long as you have knowledge (where the skeletons are buried, who actually majorly fucked up on that mega-project, how to do this obscure but essential task no one else was ever taught to do), you can probably rest assured you have a job for life.
  7. That setting objectives (for others to achieve) is demonstrating ‘leadership’, and is ‘strategic’ work. In our modern society, ruled by members of the Professional Managerial Caste (admission only by family succession or special circumstances), the people in charge, mostly equipped with nothing more than useless MBAs, no longer have any business strategy skills. They can’t tell you how to achieve the organization’s goals, objectives, or ‘targets’, because they have no practical, nitty-gritty, down-to-earth, front-line experience in how to do anything. They think ‘management’ is about setting goals, objectives, and ‘stretch targets’ for the next year or quarter (something any grade 5 arithmetic student who can add 10% to last year’s numbers could do), for ‘subordinates’ to achieve. No surprise that our political leaders, from the same PMC caste, keep talking wishfully about goals, objectives and targets (eg ‘targets’ for greenhouse gas emission reductions) for the coming years (often past the next election, so they won’t be held responsible for failing to achieve them). When there’s no real strategy, there is no ‘leadership’, and the chances of success at achieving the ‘targets’ are pretty much random. But it sure makes ‘management’ easy!
  8. That the higher up you get in an organization, the more likely you will be to be both rewarded and blamed for things you actually have absolutely no control over. This is the double-edged sword of having useless ‘leaders’ and ‘managers’ who actually control nothing, and whose work probably has less impact on the organization’s effectiveness and success than that of the poor sap on the outsourced ‘tech support’ desk, who is at least trying to help customers (to the extent the company software doesn’t prevent them from doing so). If the economy is buoyant, or the competitors stumble, the ‘executives’ will get seven-figure bonuses and extra share options. If the economy flounders, or some lean competitor muscles in on market share, the ‘executives’ will get a seven-or-eight-figure ‘buyout’ option and quietly leave the scene.
  9. That the carrot works better than the stick in ‘motivating’ people, but if you have neither carrots nor sticks, you’re done for. The presumption in most organizations today is that no one works just for the intrinsic reward of doing a good job. Given the incompetence of most management and the complete shrugging off of responsibility of most organizations for their staff, that presumption is understandable. Why give loyalty to an organization that gives you nothing in return? But the reality is that most people, even those who acknowledge working for shitty, badly-managed organizations, still give their best, every day. They may not respect their boss, but they do respect their customers. Neither a carrot nor a stick is necessary, but don’t tell that to PMC ‘management’, busy rating ‘their’ staff ‘on the curve’ to reward the ‘stars’ (who met their ‘targets’) and get rid of the ‘non-performers’, and to brutalize them all into competing harder and harder for that last carrot.
  10. That it is the boss, not the customer, who is “always right” (even when they’re not). And that if you make the customer happy by contravening instructions from the boss, you will be punished, not rewarded.

If you believe these ten things are true, well then congratulations (or condolences): You have probably been effectively conditioned by the workplaces you have worked at to achieve this level of cynicism (or realism). If you’re lucky enough to have been born into (or invited into) the PMC, you will probably work hard to condition others in your workplaces to believe (or at least understand) they are true as well.

And if you believe these things are true, you have probably also internalized this “on-the-job” learning so well that you apply it to your worldview and your dealings with people outside the workplace as well. You probably have a cynical view of politics, and have come to the conclusion that “democracy” may not be the most “effective” way of getting things done in the political sphere. CEO’s don’t have to run for re-election every four years, after all.

And maybe it would be better to “privatize” everything so that it is “professionally managed”, and more “profitable”. Maybe we don’t need a government at all, except for defence and security of course.

Maybe there are times when bullying is warranted — in dealing with countries that don’t share ‘our’ values, for example. Maybe there are times, in arming our police forces, for example, when “might makes right”, and when a ‘stick’ is called for to ‘motivate’ those lazy, sinful people who would inevitably do nothing or worse unless they were threatened with unemployment (as Janet Yellen keeps telling us) or with imprisonment, or even capital punishment.

Maybe obedience, keeping your head down, ruthlessly competing dog-eat-dog with everyone else, letting the end justify the means, keeping your mouth shut, putting ‘success’ ahead of principle, and turning a blind eye to malfeasance that is ‘none of your business anyway’, is the best ‘strategy’ for being a citizen in today’s untrusting, viciously competitive, corporatized world. If you think it is, you probably got your worldview conditioning from your workplace, not your civics textbook.


PS: Just to be clear, I am not slamming, or blaming, people anywhere in the work hierarchy: This is the way they have been raised, and this is what they have been conditioned to believe and to do. I have met many business executives who are really decent, caring people, but who in most cases nevertheless have come to accept and even espouse most of the above beliefs, and behave accordingly, on the basis that this is how businesses must operate if they hope to stay in business, and this is how “most folks” are and how they need to be treated for the business to be successful. We’re all doing our best, even the sociopaths, who often, in my experience, carry the burden of trauma from bullying and belittling parents and act it out in dysfunctional ways when they’re plunked, or driven, into positions of power.

The really sad thing about most of the “business books” you find in the airport bookstores, is that they were written by (or ghost-written for) ‘leaders’ who genuinely believe(d) all the bullshit about ‘leadership’ they (and their sycophantic followers) were conditioned to believe and write about in their narcissistic books. I’ve met a few of them; nice, troubled, bewildered folks. In some ways they’re the most clueless of all.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

A Blameless Explanation of Why Everything is Falling Apart, for Schoolkids

If I were invited to talk to a group of students (of any age) today, to explain why everything seems to be hopeless and falling apart, this is what I think I would tell them.


When I was young and idealistic, back in the 1960s — back when your grandparents were your age — everything seemed possible. We’d apparently forced an end to the ghastly war in Vietnam through our massive protests. We were strident environmentalists, really believing we could avert the global ecological disaster many were already predicting.

There were seven things in particular we thought were true and important to fight for, and there seemed to be nearly universal agreement that these goals were both possible and desirable to achieve:

  1. world peace
  2. an equitable (re-)distribution of wealth (and power) — enough that everyone could live a comfortable life, and not so much for anyone that it would inevitably lead to waste or abuse
  3. radical action to halt and reverse ecological destruction — we already knew back then about the risk of catastrophic climate change
  4. women’s equality, and autonomy over their own bodies
  5. free, universal, quality health care, education, employment security, old-age security, and public transportation
  6. enforced regulations to rein in capitalist excesses and oligopolies, and ensure clean, safe communities and workplaces, and
  7. a truly democratic polity — a system where the citizenry was well-informed, and the political system was democratic and responsive to the citizens’ collective will.

We didn’t believe that any of these goals would be easy to achieve, but in the late 1960s we thought they were possible. In fact, it was generally considered the absolute responsibility of governments to work towards and sustain these seven goals.

In Canada, at the time, we actually had achieved some of these goals, and the governments of the day won elections on the strength of their vows to make even more progress on them. Even the conservative party of the day called itself the Progressive Conservatives.

So what went wrong? Why are we so much further away from achieving and entrenching these perfectly reasonable, popular, worthy, and achievable goals, than we were half a century ago? And why, from all appearances, are we no longer even trying to achieve them, obsessed as we are instead with tax cuts, a loathing of all things related to government and public institutions, and demands for dog-eat-dog individual “rights”? Why, in short, is everything, despite all our efforts, falling apart?

Almost all the answers I have heard to this question assign blame for the failures of these systems and for our abandonment of these goals on someone or other — a greedy elite, or evil corporations, or stupid bureaucrats, or psychopaths in positions of power, or incompetence all around. For much of my life I was inclined to do likewise — it’s a cheap and easy way to explain unexpected and disappointing failures. And accepting the responsibility, the blame, the guilt and shame and sorrow for these failures isn’t something any of us would particularly want to take on ourselves.

But I think there’s another explanation, one that doesn’t require us to identify and blame “bad guys” for these failures, or to shrug and say “we’re all to blame”.

The essence of this explanation is that all systems fall apart, as do all civilizations built on these political, economic, social, educational, health care, transportation, scientific, technological and other systems. Nature recognizes this — nothing in the natural world is built to last, and there is built in resilience and redundancy in all natural systems. As political historian Dmitry Orlov explained in reference to birds’ capacity to adapt and evolve to deal with collapse:

Fifty blackbirds nest in a dead tree, congregating and socializing raucously each evening, the babies squawking for food. Then someone cuts the tree down, and the birds scatter. Collapse. The tree-killer sells the wood and the empty nests for profit. The birds circle and regroup, and in a few hours find a new tree and start building new nests. Three days later, for the birds, it is exactly as it was before the fall. They understand community, and resilience.

We built our complicated human systems as best we could. But we don’t have nature’s billions of years of experience. What we build is inherently fragile, needing constant attention and repair. We try to make things to last, when nothing lasts. And the larger and more complicated our systems become, the more ways there are for them to fail, and to fall apart.

Everything we build is of necessity temporary — it has to keep growing larger and more complicated and be constantly repaired or else it falls apart. Much of the world’s infrastructure is now dated, aging, and falling apart, because we could only afford to build everything we’ve built by cutting corners and planning for their obsolescence — their collapse — and then rebuilding them.

But now, as we have used up the planet’s cheap resources and are digging deeper into its increasingly expensive ones, we can no longer afford to repair what we built. Our only hope now is to abandon and throw away the stuff that’s falling apart, and build more and more, newer and newer, faster and faster, to replace it. Our entire military-industrial-financial-capital economy is based on this idea of perpetual accelerating growth, planned obsolescence, and rapid replacement, and it’s an absurd idea. So now everything is falling apart much faster than we can possibly hope to replace or repair it. This is how collapse happens. We’re seeing it everywhere.

That’s the materialistic answer to the question, but there’s also another, complementary answer, and that has to do with our species’ conditioning.

There is increasing scientific evidence that, just like every other creature on the planet, what we each believe and do is entirely the result of our biological conditioning (what our DNA and our body chemistry ‘tells’ us to do), and our cultural conditioning (what the people we know, the things we study, our environment and our experiences ‘tell’ us to do), given the always-unpredictable circumstances of each moment. When you yell at someone for cutting you off in traffic, that’s not ‘your’ decision; it’s just your conditioning playing itself out. Your conditioning will change as you’re exposed to new information and experiences, but ‘you’ aren’t changing it.

That might sound hopeless, but it really isn’t. As our conditioning to new information and experiences has changed us, we’ve come to believe, for example, that being gay is biological, not a mental illness. We’ve learned that diseases that we once thought were the result of poor parenting, or “evil spirits”, have natural causes, and their sufferers and families deserve our support, not our condemnation.

When you come to realize that our situations, our beliefs and behaviours are the result of our conditioning, and not something we have any free will or control over, it makes you inclined to try to understand what underlies actions that we dislike — like violence and war and dishonesty and selfishness — instead of seeking to blame someone or something for those actions.

In many cases, what underlies these actions are deep-seated feelings of anger, hatred, grief, and especially fear, that metastasize in us as trauma, just waiting to be stirred up and triggered in us by some event that actually has nothing to do with the long-ago event that conditioned us to react the way we do — the way we have no choice but to react. In some cases that trauma is even passed down from generation to generation in our DNA and in the body chemistry we inherit from our parents.

So when we look at wars, at murders, at domestic abuse, at animal abuse, at racism, at bullying, at lying, at oppression, at misogyny, or at any other form of violence or hatred, we can, if we look hard enough, understand it as a conditioned behaviour, something the perpetrators and participants had absolutely no control over. That doesn’t mean we condone that behaviour; it just means we recognize that, given the conditioning of those involved, that outcome was explainable and, sadly, inevitable.

So what do we do with that? Just throw up our hands and say that such atrocities are just ‘the way we are’ and we just have to accept them? Well actually, understanding the conditioning that led to them is a very important action in itself. That understanding can lead us to avoid escalating the situation, and to starting to address the factors that led to that misbehaviour or atrocity, so that, perhaps, we can begin to condition each other to mitigate or even prevent such misbehaviours and atrocities in the future. Blaming people, calling them evil or malicious or insane, will not change anything, other than perhaps leading to even more misbehaviours and atrocities in self-justified retaliation. But if we have been conditioned to blame, rather than to try to understand, we will blame.

So, this is why everything is falling apart, when no one is actually to blame. In part, it’s because everything humans make falls apart, everything collapses when it is no longer sustainable, when it gets too big or too old or too complicated to hold. And in part, it’s because everything we do is conditioned behaviour, often irrational behaviour, and that behaviour, over which we have no control, is often destructive and contributes to everything falling apart, despite us all doing our best and having the best intentions in what we do.

And there is a third reason why everything is falling apart, and it is also blameless.

The human species evolved to be a social species. We don’t have the speed, or the fangs, or the claws, or the agility, or the climate tolerance, to be able to survive well on our own. We thrive in community. We do things together, drawing on our collective energy, our collective skill and knowledge, much better than we can ever hope to do alone. We evolved abstract language and other tools to enable us to collaborate. And we do that in small communities, the way we thrived for our first million years on the planet.

The problem is, the benefits of community don’t scale well. We work best in groups of 2-10, and in limited situations in groups of up to 50. Anything beyond that starts to become unmanageable, because our tribes are based on collective knowledge of, and mutual trust in, each other. I have seen how well this works, in a small village in Central America where they have no ‘centralized’ services. They resolve disputes, heal illnesses, build and repair homes and other infrastructure, together. There are no corporations, no governments, no police, no jails, no lawyers, no written contracts. They need none of these, because they know and trust each other. They just get together and do what needs to be done. They know how to do this.

Once you get a human society that is larger than community-sized in scale, it begins to lose cohesion — It begins to fall apart. You try to replace mutual knowledge and trust with institutions and standards and rules, but it doesn’t work. You end up with disagreements, with inequities, with attempts to exploit others, and with lies, and every attempt to impose more order actually creates more disorder, more things that can go wrong.

Not only have we, in our modern world, tried to make the idea of functional society work “efficiently and effectively” at a scale larger than the level of community, which is impossible, we have largely abandoned the idea of community altogether. Living in true community requires a host of skills — listening, facilitation, negotiating, consensus-building, mentoring, teaching through demonstrating, imagining alternative possibilities, trust-building, self-knowledge, cultural awareness — that most of us are now incompetent at, mostly because our work and school and family lives today do not give us any practice at learning to be good at these things. We don’t even, most of us, know our neighbours. If we were forced, by some catastrophic disaster, to suddenly have to work with them as a true community, we wouldn’t even know where to start. We have lost, or forgotten, all the essential skills.

So, that’s the third reason everything is falling apart. We live in a prosthetic (artificial) world of fragile human-made systems, our behaviour is entirely conditioned, and we have lost the essential capacity to live with each other in true community. The result is what you see in dysfunctional governments, corporations, schools, health care and other institutions, families, neighbourhoods, and nations. The only real surprise is that it all hasn’t fallen apart sooner. And none of it is anyone’s “fault”. We’ve all done our best.

What will it look like as it continues to fall apart? That will depend on where and how you live. If you live in most of the world’s nations, which are failed states with desolated natural environments, or if you live in urban ghettoes, or washed-up small towns, or homeless in the streets in any country, collapse is already well underway. If so, you already live in a world of precarity — complete uncertainty over what each day will bring and whether you’ll eat or be safe today. You trust only those in your makeshift, unequipped, struggling ‘community’. You expect nothing from any institution. Your life is probably ruled by fear, by anger, by grief, by shame, by a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. You are probably deeply traumatized.

If you are more privileged, collapse will likely continue to happen slowly, almost imperceptibly, and then things will happen quickly all at once — loss of jobs and livelihood, serious disease or mental collapse, currency collapse, so your savings are gone and your money no longer ‘works’. And then more stability for a while. And then another bout of collapses — the city goes bankrupt, the government is overthrown or just ceases to function, the hospitals and schools close, the power goes off and stays off, the roads are closed because they’re dangerous to drive on. And so on. And at each stage, you will, of necessity, learn how to do more things for yourself, collaboratively with the community in which you find yourself, including the neighbours you never knew, and the ones you don’t particularly like. You will learn to do more with less, and rely more on your community and less on everyone and everything else.

And you will probably have to migrate at some point to some more sustainable, less dangerous, less ruined place. You might migrate many times over long distances, each time of necessity finding a new community or bringing along the one you’ve helped create.

This might sound awful, but it mostly, probably, won’t be. It won’t be like a Mad Max movie. Collapse will be slow and punctuated by quieter times; we will have time to learn the things we have to learn to adapt to the new, more local, simpler world.

I can’t tell you not to be afraid, or angry, or sad, about the inevitability of collapse. After all, those are all conditioned behaviours, and you will feel, and do, what you will, as a result of that conditioning. I can tell you that there will be no going back to the complex, extravagant, global civilization you’ve become accustomed to. The inexpensive energy and resources necessary for its construction will no longer be available. They are already on life support, and extracting and using them is ruining our environment in the process.

And if the experts on civilizations are correct, this collapse will continue for many generations, perhaps even for a millennium or more. By then those future humans (likely a much smaller number of humans, in the millions rather than billions) will have re-learned, over centuries, how to live in self-sufficient community, the way pre-civilization communities did. They may, of necessity, have learned to live as a part of the natural world, with its inherent uncertainty, and accept, with equanimity rather than fear, the risks of living as a part of the more-than-human world. They may be reconnected with the Earth and all its life in ways we can no longer even imagine, and feel a constant sense of joy and astonishment to be part of that.

Their necessary community self-sufficiency will give them a sense of confidence in their capacity to deal with any issues that arise, that our atomized, dependent civilization has never been able to give us. My sense is that we will see our return to the wild as a blessing, as the only sensible way to live. I kind of wish I could transport into the future, past the chaos of collapse, to see what life for post-civilization humans will be like. Perhaps more like the life of the bonobos, or the crows, than like anything in our history books.

If you’ve followed this so far, you probably will know better than to ask what we can or ‘should’ do to prepare for this. Nothing will prepare you for collapse, and nothing I could suggest will ‘change your mind’ anyway — You are going to do whatever your conditioning compels you to do. Some of that conditioned behaviour will be helpful; some of it will not. As I’ve come to accept this, I’ve stopped proffering useless advice on how to prepare for a centuries-long collapse.

My own coping mechanism is now to just try to make sense of what is happening, to resist the urge to get angry, fearful, disappointed, or full of shame about this strange and excessive experiment we call human civilization. When I feel these feelings arise, I look at my “reminders” list (the list at the top of this post), and try to regain a sense of calm and perspective by appreciating that it all had to turn out just as it turned out, and that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ about what we’ve done.

My conditioning has led me to believe this list of ‘reminders’ is useful, not for telling me what to do, but for helping me to keep what is happening in perspective. I do some of these things reasonably well; some others I do badly, or not at all. Since your conditioning has inevitably been different from mine, this list is unlikely to be useful to you, if it even makes any sense to you at all.

But if you’re ready to accept the inevitability of collapse — that everything is falling apart, and it’s going to get crazy — you might find it helpful to have your own list of reminders, to stay cool and focused in the stormy years ahead. And my guess is that if that list enables you to seek to understand why things are happening and why people are behaving the way they are, instead of blaming people for how they ‘should’ or ‘could’ be, then it just might keep you sane when everyone around you is losing their heads.

If so, that might make you particularly useful to your loved ones and your community as you work together to cope with, and adapt to, collapse. Everything returns to the earth. But on the long roller-coaster ride down, it’s going to be an astonishing journey. May it also be a joyful one, for you and your descendants.

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

Links of the Month: April 2024


cartoon by Michael Leunig

When I look back at what the world seemed to be like, in my youth in the 1960s, it sometimes seems as if nothing has changed at all. We’re still fighting the same battles, supporting and confronting the same ideologies and misconceptions. In other ways, everything seems different now — the amount of information and misinformation available is vastly greater, but the ignorance and incapacity of most people across the political spectrum also seems paradoxically greater. And the overall level of competence, especially among people in ‘management’ and positions of power, seems to have unarguably declined enormously. The bozos are now driving the bus.

This perhaps, is what inevitably happens when a system gets overly large and unwieldy. It just stops working properly. And then it stops working entirely.


COLLAPSE WATCH



the latest from Copernicus: Bye-bye 1.5; 2.0º here we come!

Why is collapse surprising us?: Tim Morgan re-summarizes the latest evidence of everything falling apart, despite a still-prevailing absurd belief that something is going to magically save us.

Running out of fresh water: Andrew Nikiforuk reviews our globally rapidly-diminishing supply of fresh water.

More people than we thought: A new report shows that the UN and other population projection agencies have, yet again, been overly complacent and overly optimistic in predicting a levelling off of human population growth. Thanks to Richard Heinberg for the link.

Climate migration is not just immigration: A new book suggests that many of the people desperately migrating to new homes in the US will be coming from elsewhere in the country, trying to escape domestic ecological collapse.

So you thought hydro power was “renewable”: In light of a staggering record-low snowpack, BC Hydro is preparing to import even more hydrocarbon-based energy from the US than it has during the last few drought-heavy years.

When trees become carbon-emitters: Erik Michaels demolishes the dream that “regenerative agriculture” can play a role in abating climate collapse. And in another article he describes facing the reality of the inevitability of collapse (and mentions yours truly).

We can’t even get close to ‘there’ from here: Tim Watkins thoroughly deconstructs the utterly impossible targets the UK has set for shifting to “renewable” energy.

This is what social collapse looks like: Haiti is a failed state, now controlled by oligarchs, domestic and foreign armies, and gangs. Listen to get a taste of what life will be like everywhere if economic and political collapse leads to social collapse.


LIVING BETTER


graphic by John Atkinson from the memebrary

When the only measure of value is commercial profit: A short essay by Caitlin Johnstone about being aware that what we’re being asked to take into our bodies, our brains, and our homes, is mostly not being done for our welfare; more and more, it’s up to us to look after that.

The benefits of human composting: Another way of giving back to the earth at the end of your life.

Challenging a sacred sports myth: Sports columnist Andrew Berkshire has been absolutely excoriated for daring to suggest that often extraordinary sports accomplishments are possible only for those with exceptional social privilege, and that the myth that “anyone can accomplish anything” if they only work hard at it, is wrong, and often cruel.

Taking care: An astonishing cartoon from Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal on dealing with grief, based on a poem by Callista Buchen. Thanks to Hank and John Green for the link.

Not buying the hate: Independent Jewish Voices rejects the ongoing Israeli genocide and calls for an immediate ceasefire and just peace in Israel-Palestine. Thanks to Sharon Goldberg for the link.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


this is also from the memebrary; good thing we no longer have to worry about the things on the left!

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

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:


FUN AND INSPIRATION


again from the memebrary; I think this is very clever, so if anyone can decode the reference bottom right and identify the original author, I’d love to know who it was

Cloning your beloved deceased pet: Ordering clones from the genetic matter of a dead animal is expensive, risky, and exposes the ‘clones’ to genetic abnormalities. Is this new technology truly an ‘advance’, or is it, like the $500,000/year pills for rare and specialized diseases, an indulgence for the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else? Especially in a world with so many pets waiting for adoption. And how soon will people want clones of their dead human relatives?

Headlines from The Beaverton (the Canadian equivalent to The Onion; ask a Canadian to explain the humour):

  • Media promise to start covering Pierre Poilievre’s transphobic comments as soon as they finish 50th story on how Liberals are unpopular
  • In honour of Mulroney, national funeral to be privatized
  • Financial planner recommends having more money
  • To combat self-checkout theft, stores experimenting with new human cashier pilot program
  • “Law & Order Toronto” program criticized as unrealistic after showing Toronto police actually trying to solve crimes
  • “If only someone had the power to make corporations behave better,” laments prime minister
  • OJ Simpson dies surrounded by family members he didn’t murder
  • US Supreme Court rules woman’s life ends at conception
  • Study: Best way to get rid of a body is to check it as luggage with Air Canada

More Lari Basilio: The amazing craft of a Brasilian maestro.

The Fourth Turning: End Times?: A review of Peter Turchin’s latest book on the long arcs of civilizations and their castes.

Western pop music 2023 in one song: The latest mashup by DJ Earworm. Clever, fun, and way better than the rather unimaginative individual songs it incorporates.

The demise of quality education: For those who checked out the Sabine Hossenfelder, NPR and DeSantis links above, Aurélien puts it all into a fall-of-the-PMC (Professional Managerial Caste) cultural context.

Has global warming happened before?: How the bloom of an arctic fern during the Cambrian Explosion (14ºC above recent average) may have prevented runaway Hothouse Earth and precipitated the ice age(s) that followed.

Sudoku Land: Also via Hank and John, it’s Sudoku, but, uh, with land.

Tardigrades!: And here’s Hank talking about our favourite mysterious tiny animal.


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH


yes, this is a real book in a series by Chris Ferrie; reading to your kids is important

From Aaron Bushnell, the self-immolating anti-war-in-Gaza protester, on imagining (thanks to Caitlin Johnstone for the link):

I’ve realized that a lot of the difference between me and my less radical friends is that they are less capable of imagining a better world than I am. I follow YouTubers like Andrewism that fill my head with concrete images of free, post-scarcity communities and it makes me so much more prepared to reject things about the current world, because I’ve imagined how things could be and that helps me see how extremely bullshit things are right now.

What I’m trying to say is, it’s so important to imagine a better world. Let your thoughts run wild with idealistic dreams of what the world should look like, and let the pain and anger at how it’s not that way flow through you. Let it free your mind and fuel your rage against the machine.

It’s not too late for you or anyone. We can have the world of our dreams tomorrow, but we have to be willing to fight today.

From Callista Buchen, who inspired the Oatmeal cartoon linked above, in the DMQ:

PRETEND

For a while, my daughter worried about a catastrophic hole in the ground wherever we were going. Mom, what if the library is just a giant hole? What if the cereal aisle is a big hole? She imagined canyons replacing each familiar landmark. At every intersection, every turn I promised her there would no hole. She’d plead: But what will we do? You’ll see, I would say, everything will be fine. When she stopped asking, I grieved her lost worry like the death of an imaginary friend, but since she’s first stacked the blocks in the living room, she’s understood that what we build we can crash.

Anything can go boom, she says now to her little brother, who wants the tower higher, higher still. Mom will hold it, she tells him. She pauses and adds, for now.


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

The Crag and the Chasm

Another annoying post about radical non-duality. But cool title, no?


Dave’s four worldviews, 1951-????

Since I started listening to, and speaking with, the radical non-duality speakers shown on my blog’s right sidebar, eight years ago, I have started exploring the nature of reality, and human nature, from its very different perspective. This “seeking journey” has taken me from a belief in free will (worldview I in the diagram above) to a belief that we have a self but it doesn’t have free will (worldview II), and then to a belief that we have neither a self nor free will (ie that they are both illusions, created by the brain in a mistaken attempt to make sense of the body’s perceptions — worldview III).

This was the only way I could find to ‘make sense’ of both the ‘glimpses‘ that have seemingly occurred at various times in my life, and the latest science and neuroscience about free will, about the illusory self, and about the nature of time and space. I’ve written about all of this ad nauseam, basically saying the same things (mostly out loud to my self, to be sure I really understand them and their implications) over and over.

But the obsessed seeker for the ultimate truth is never satisfied: I keep looking, with curiosity and some longing, at worldview IV, the full message that the radical non-duality speakers are articulating. The message is that there actually is no ‘real’ time or space, no causality, no ‘thing’ real or separate from everything, and nothing really happening — only “everything appearing”, only “just this”. ‘I’ can appreciate this message intellectually, and feel some resonance with it intuitively, but somehow I ‘know’ that ‘I’ can never actually ‘realize’ or ‘see’ the truth of this as ‘obvious’, as the (apparent) radical non-duality speakers (apparently) do.

I am not sure why this is so important to me. I suppose this is the nature of obsession — like when we can’t remember something but it’s right on the tip of our tongue, so that until we retrieve it we can’t think about anything else. The radical non-duality speakers assert that there is no “path” to this “realization”, and that it really doesn’t make any difference to anything — they insist they are not “enlightened” and are not “teaching” anything, just trying to illuminate what is obvious ‘there’, which is what I describe as worldview IV (though perhaps I should call it worldview zero). And they do not appear to be particularly happy, or relieved, or even passionate about what is now ‘obvious’ ‘there’.

Whatever the reason, and no matter how hopeless, I can’t shake my obsession with this message. I don’t particularly want to. It is at once infuriating and a source of endless curiosity and fascination. The message is so internally consistent (across speakers in five different languages, with very different backgrounds and different ways of describing things and different past belief systems), so effortless, such a (not-grand) “theory of everything”, and delivered with such sincerity, that I cannot shake the sense that it is simply true.

I hear them saying there is no “path” to “see” this, no practice or process for getting “closer” to it, but my gotta-make-sense-of-everything brain will not accept that. It cannot help but try. So much of science, and the glimpses, ‘fit’ with this message, that surely it’s just a matter of finding the rest of the pieces and it will all ‘fit’, surely.

But that thinking, I know, is pure folly. The more I explore it, the wider the chasm between worldview III (where I sit, impatiently, now) and worldview IV (which I impossibly aspire to ‘realize’) yawns. Every discovery just raises more unanswerable questions. So I am teased by discoveries in astrophysics that time does not actually exist — it’s just a mental placeholder and categorization tool for the brain’s desperate and futile sense-making. I am teased by the scientific theory that space is likewise just a conceptualization — that all that exists is an infinite “field of possibilities” where some of those possibilities ‘appear’ (there’s that word again) to ‘happen’. I am teased by Michael Pollan’s argument that the effect of some psychedelics and some deep meditation and some brain injuries is to disrupt the “default neural pathways” in the brain and open ourselves to an entirely different way of perceiving and conceiving of reality — and the possibility that the radical non-duality speakers have somehow permanently ‘slipped free’ of these conditioned, entrenched default neural pathways (and so maybe the rest of us could, too).

I am teased by the possibility that these default neural pathways that seemingly create what Tony Parsons has called the inescapable “prison of the self” arose due to an evolutionary misstep many millennia ago, first described by Julian Jaynes, which I’ve frequently elaborated on as the Entanglement Hypothesis. I am teased by growing evidence that no animals other than humans have this illusory sense of self and separation, and that furthermore they don’t require it to live completely full and functional lives.

I am teased by what my study of evolution has revealed about the immense variety of ways of ‘being in’ and ‘perceiving’ the world, and about how much it explains, and how much it fails to explain, the world as we seemingly separate self-afflicted humans see it. I am teased by how utterly the ‘loss’ of the sense of self and separation in radical non-duality speakers has seemingly changed ‘their’ way of perceiving reality, and how little it has seemingly changed their characters and behaviours. For example, they are absolutely clear that there is no perception of time or causality ‘there’ — everything is “always new” — yet they go on scheduling their meetings as if time and causality were real. And some still entertain (what to me are) conspiracy theories, and are quite entertained by (what to me are) inane programs, in spite of ‘their’ avowal that nothing is really happening, and nothing matters.

And I am teased by the very compelling arguments that all our behaviour is conditioned (which some radical non-duality speakers confirm, with the ubiquitous “apparently” qualifier), even though (apparent) conditioning would seem to absolutely require the existence of (apparent?) time and (apparent?) causality.

The realization that ‘we’ are not “all of a piece”, but rather just collective labels for the trillions of creatures that comprise what we label as “our bodies”, and that it is their conditioning, not ‘ours’ that determines what we do, had me, once again, foolishly and hopelessly, trying to discover or construct a crag, a branch, a perilous path, that would take me from worldview III to worldview IV.

So I felt a recent compulsion to call Tim Cliss, the radical non-duality (he hates the term) speaker with whom I’ve probably had the most extensive conversations, and ask him for his ‘take’ on all of the above discoveries — his take on evolution, on the “field of possibilities” theory, on the “default neural pathways” theory, on the Entanglement Hypothesis, on the possibility of conditioning when there is no time and no causality, and all the other possible footholds, and apparent gaps, in the crag that I am trying to build and use to make my way to worldview IV.

But I know Tim, and the other radical non-duality speakers, have already been asked, in one way or another, about these ideas and connections and apparent inconsistencies in the message. And their answer has always been the same: In essence, it is “I haven’t the faintest idea. (And it doesn’t matter.)”

If I were to ask Tim about all of these things, that’s what he would answer, I am sure, to all of them. He would do so in the most kindly possible way: He’s a softie, and ‘his’ life experiences prior to the (apparent) loss of ‘his’ (illusory) self parallel mine in many ways.

He would be telling me, gently, that there is no way of getting from worldview III to worldview IV, no matter how meticulously the crag that seems to partly bridge them is crafted and cultivated, no matter how maddeningly well all the amazing revelations that came with reaching worldview III resonate with the message of worldview IV. ‘You’ can’t get there from here.

There’s a joke going around about rural wisdom, and it goes like this: A carful of tourists are desperately trying to find some tourist destination, and end up on a lonely country road. They roll down their window and ask a passing farmer for directions. The farmer answers: “If that’s where you’re trying to get to, I wouldn’t recommend starting from here.”

So here I sit, on my largely self-manufactured crag, looking across the chasm at a destination that seems, the closer I try to get to it, ever farther and farther away. And that’s OK. Einstein said he could never understand it all. And if he couldn’t, there is no hope for me. But my conditioning, if that’s what it is, won’t let me turn back from the crag. The view’s pretty good, despite a bit of fog. Just happy to have come this far. Think I’ll hang out here for a while.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will | 5 Comments

Acceptance, Forgiveness, Gratitude


Since I’ve come to the (tentative) conclusion that we have no free will (and that in fact there is no ‘self’ to have free will), it’s utterly changed the lens through which I see the world. I now see that our behaviour is completely conditioned by our biology and our culture, given the circumstances of the moment, and that ‘we’ have no ‘choice’ but to do what we do. We are all doing our best (though that is often, seemingly, pretty awful), and no one is to ‘blame’. For anything. Even though our conditioning, so often, causes us to inflict, and to suffer, horrible violence and trauma.

As I’ve internalized this, my writing has morphed from describing what I think ‘should’ be done to instead just trying to understand why (ie as a result of what conditioning and what circumstances) things are as they are. So I now use the ‘reminders’ list above, to cope with the accelerating collapse of our civilization and its component systems, instead of any action or preparation list. We can’t act, after all, other that how we’re conditioned, and we can’t prepare for something we cannot possibly predict.

Still, even this list is really wishful thinking. I cannot ‘choose’ to do or not do these things. I can, perhaps, by keeping it in front of me, track the degree to which my behaviour does or does not align with these ‘reminders’. If that helps me to cohere somewhat to these reminders, it is only because that is what my conditioning already inclines me to do. Everything is determined (ie a consequence of our conditioning, and of the circumstances of each moment, neither of which we have any agency over), but nothing is determinable (ie predictable, because, unless we are gods, we cannot know how we are next going to be conditioned, nor what the circumstances of each moment will be).

The other day I watched a concert by Shari Ulrich, who was performing with Cara Luft, and I was particularly blown away by their performance of Shari’s song A Bit of Forgiveness. It’s a song about divorce, but its message runs much deeper:

If I had wishes, only three, well I’d use them up so easily,
I’d need at least a dozen, maybe more;
Surely first would be peace on earth, and probably third that I hadn’t hurt you —
Seems in every wish there’s a bit of forgiveness…

If I were granted all my wishes, none would be for gold or riches —
I’d need at least a hundred, maybe more;
Fourth or fifth I can’t admit to; down the list is that I didn’t miss you;
Seems in every wish there’s a bit of forgiveness.

That got me thinking about wishes, regrets, hopes, and some of the ‘soft skills’ I have (been conditioned to) try to cultivate, in point 3 of my ‘reminders’ list — specifically acceptance, forgiveness, and gratitude.

What are our ‘wishes’, anyway? They are, mostly, hopes for the future and regrets about the past.

How crazy is that? Hoping the future might be something different from what it inevitably will be (once the uncontrollable conditioning and uncontrollable emergent circumstances play out), and regretting what inevitably happened in the past.

So why do we do it? It is, of course, our conditioning. We get a dopamine hit anticipating something (either good or bad) happening in the future, as a means of conditioning us to behave in ways that will bring about, or avert, what is anticipated. Though only humans, it seems, do so for a period in the future so far ahead that what will actually happen can’t possibly be predicted. Wild creatures will only anticipate a moment or so into the future (being given a treat, for example, or being eaten by a tiger).

It is our imaginations that allow us, uniquely, both to imagine what ‘might’ happen in a distant future and to regret the past (ie to imagine how the past ‘might have’ been different). Neither of these imaginings has any evolutionary value whatsoever. We won’t ‘learn’ from a past mistake by imagining ourselves not having made it — if it is in our conditioning, given the future circumstances, we will make that mistake again.

Likewise, we can imagine a whole range of potential future outcomes, but none of this intellectual cogitation will change our behaviour one iota from what it was already inevitably going to be. Its only ‘value’ is to ‘make sense’ of what happened, after the fact. And that sense-making, based on the illusory sense of free will and control, is inherently totally flawed, since it presumes there is more than one possible outcome that our ‘selves’ can somehow influence.

That’s why I argue that the brain’s development of the sense of having a self with some degree of free will and control over the body it presumes to inhabit, is an evolutionary misstep, a misunderstanding of the nature of reality that grew out of the entanglement of our human brains’ circuitry, imagining things to be ‘real’ when they are not. The evolution of this misunderstanding in the entangled human brain is completely understandable, but such a misunderstanding is completely impossible in the brain of any creature that simply ‘knows’ the absolute difference between reality and an imagining. So our possible futures are, to us, ‘real’ possibilities, worth wishing and hoping for, and what might have ‘really’ happened in the past that did not, gives us something to regret. No other creature, I believe, is so afflicted.

Lately when I first climb into bed at night, and peer out the window at the astonishing panorama of lights and beauty that stretches as far as the eye can see, I have found myself filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

But why? If what has happened is the only thing that could have happened, what in the world do I have to be grateful for? That my life is so easy and peaceful, and not filled with fear, anguish, rage, violence, deprivation and trauma like so many others’? But it couldn’t have turned out otherwise. Why be grateful for what didn’t happen, for what isn’t? Gratitude, it seems, is a kind of feeling of relief, that things didn’t turn ‘otherwise’, which they could never have done.

So the joyful puppy that is rescued from a life of misery is not grateful for having been rescued, because it ‘understands’, thanks to its ‘clear-headed’ unentangled brain, that it could not possibly have been otherwise. It is joyful for what is, not for what ‘might’ have been that is not.

My poor entangled brain, however, can’t make such distinctions. It is full of joy and relief and gratitude at my current circumstances. It’s a form of insanity, really, but there it is. I laugh at the sheer folly of it, as I lie in bed with tears in my eyes. The feeling of gratitude does not abate, whatsoever, despite my intellectual ‘realization’ that that feeling is unwarranted. That it’s this body’s conditioning, with its befuddled brain, playing out the only way it possibly could. Given the amazing, wonderful circumstances of this beautiful moment I am so helplessly, hopelessly, insanely grateful for.

And it’s the same, I would assert, when it comes to acceptance, and forgiveness, and all those other sort-of-equanimous characteristics that we esteem so highly through the fog of our brains’ sense-making. They are misplaced feelings and sensations, but still our confused, entangled brains cannot help but feel them.

We think of forgiveness, often, as an act of charity, of generosity — as a virtue. It opens the door to reconciliation, to “coming to terms”, and to acceptance, we think. And of course, if that’s what we think, and want to believe, it can seem to achieve those ends. We even use the term “forgive and forget”, whereas for wild creatures (and apparently for some human cultures that have moved past trauma without confronting and insisting on acknowledgement of guilt and blame and responsibility and regret and apology and atonement), there is only forgetting. And for them, forgetting is simple — after all, it is the only thing that could have happened, and it is done, past. There is nothing for them to ‘hold on’ to.

I’m not saying that our insistence, in most human cultures, on calling past actions to account and confronting them is wrong. Given the way our brains work, it is, for most of us, the only way we can deal with what we imagine and judge to have been avoidable, deliberate, unjust, unforgivable, unforgettable actions, and hence hopefully move past the trauma that resulted.

Except there’s lots of evidence that it doesn’t work, as I’ve tried to explain in my writing about the trauma cycle:

Given this cycle, and our brains’ (IMO mistaken) insistence on ascribing free will and choice to actions past and imagining what might otherwise have been, the best we can possibly do is seek and offer forgiveness — and be grateful for what we imagine might have but did not happen.

But this never comes easily: I would never attempt to argue that those currently suffering genocides, wars, prisons and other excruciating forms of severe and chronic violence and abuse, should or could be anything but outraged, vengeful and hate-filled as a result of their situation. The human trauma cycle self-perpetuates, and we have been dealing with the consequences since the dawn of human civilization. The thing about vicious cycles is that there is no way out. Until our civilization collapses, anyway, and until enough time passes that no one remembers, even in their DNA, the trauma that accompanied it.

Acceptance, forgiveness, and gratitude, then, are really more what is left in the absence of fear, anxiety, rage, hatred, grief, resentment, jealousy, envy, shame, blame, disgruntlement, outrage, indignation, the bristling at perceived unfairness or injustice, and the trauma that their acting out produces — all those emotions that are roiled up uniquely in the entangled human brain. If we ‘feel’ accepting, forgiving, and grateful, that isn’t because we are virtuous; it’s because we have had the good fortune not to have been (at least recently) on the receiving end of unbearable, unforgivable, unforgettable, violent events and actions.

Except there is no ‘good fortune’ — there is only what was inevitably going to happen anyway.

Should we aspire to be (more) forgiving, accepting, and grateful? Why not? At least when we try it seems to help us get along better with other humans, and make us feel a bit better, as we struggle together with the human brain’s unique miasma of entangled emotions, and our uniquely human incapacity to separate what is ‘real’ from what’s imagined. Not that we have any choice in the matter. It’s hard to give, it’s hard to get, but everybody, it seems, needs a little forgiveness.

Watching our behaviour, wild creatures must be wondering what can possibly be going through our heads.

Luckily for them, they can’t imagine.

Posted in Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

Several Short Sentences About… Evolution

Over the years I’ve written several articles summarizing some of the most amazing things I’ve learned about the natural world, using the “several short sentences” format (though I confess my sentences, including this one, are generally anything but short):

  • Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
  • Several Short Sentences About Bats
  • Several Short Sentences About (Greenland) Sharks
  • Several Short Sentences About Seeds

Since I’m constantly amazed about the strange things that have evolved over the 4.5B years since life first appeared on the planet, I thought I’d do one about evolution.

  1. Life started in the ocean, but there are still some creatures coming ashore, and some other creatures migrating back to the water. Until about 500my ago, there was nothing much on land to eat except algae, bacteria, and mushrooms. So perhaps it’s no surprise that sharks have been around much longer than trees. When climate change finally enabled the growth of land plants (about 400my ago), near-shore aquatic animals evolved to be able to walk on land to be able to eat them (and to be able to escape marine predators). They mostly kept their gills but also evolved lungs to breathe in both environments (amphibians still have both). But in some cases animals that evolved on land have now evolved to live back in the water instead — notably whales and dolphins. An early mammal called Pakicetus (50my ago; image below left) evolved over the next 15my into a mammal called Dorudon (ancestor of modern whales; image below right) as it slowly migrated back to the ocean (images from UK Natural History Museum). Today’s hippos — much closer in their DNA to whales than to ruminant mammals — appear to be slowly migrating back to the water as their eyes and nostrils migrate up and back in their bodies.

  1. The capacity of some animals to generate and detect electric fields evolved about 500my ago. It independently evolved eight times in evolutionary history (that we know of), and works differently in each case. Many marine animals like sharks can sense electric fields in order to detect the presence of objects, including predators and prey. Some electro-receptive fish can see these fields so clearly that they can swim backwards, ‘seeing’ as well with these fields as with their eyes. Others send out electric pulses (“active electroreception”) to detect objects in the electric fields they create. Still others, like the electric eel (not actually an eel) and some rays, can generate electric pulses strong enough to stun or kill predators and prey. And some can generate electric fields defensively, just to scare off predators into believing they could be harmful when they aren’t. Scientists are discovering that many of these creatures also use these electric fields as a communication device, modulating the waveforms of their electric pulses to send different messages. While mostly appearing in fish, this capacity survives in animals like dolphins and platypuses. And bees have recently been discovered to be able to detect electrostatic charges in flowers. And of course, there’s birds’ navigation abilities, which entail orientation to the Earth’s magnetic field, possibly at the quantum level, within the birds’ bodies.
  2. While the evolution of photosynthesis in leaf-bearing plants is relatively recent (400my ago), photosynthesis evolved in some of the earliest-known forms of life on the planet, including algae and some bacteria. An even earlier type of photosynthesis, one that did not produce oxygen, is estimated to have started at least 3500my ago and lasted for 1000my. It’s hypothesized that during this low-oxygen period in the planet’s evolution, the atmosphere and coasts of the planet, seen from space, would have appeared purple rather than blue and green.
  3. What followed our “purple period” is what is called the Great Oxygenation Event, or Oxygen Catastrophe. About 2500my ago, cyanobacteria evolved the capacity to produce energy from light in a new way, called oxygenic photosynthesis, that released oxygen into the air as a byproduct. The problem was, oxygen was toxic to most of the then-existing early forms of life, resulting in a massive extinction, and the atmospheric changes also led to a global glaciation (no, not Snowball Earth — that came much later). Some hypothesize that the only reason life wasn’t completely eradicated during this period was that the anaerobic archaea (archaea are living organisms that predate both plants and animals) evolved a symbiotic arrangement with the aerobic proteobacteria, called symbiogenesis, that allowed the symbiotic creature, called a eukaryote, to survive the new atmosphere. A by-product of this symbiosis was mitochondria, the necessary precursor to all complex forms of life (plants and animals) that we know of on Earth. Were it not for the accident of the Oxygen Catastrophe, our planet would likely still only be inhabited by single-celled life forms. Or by who knows what?
  4. Thanks to symbiogenesis, simple animals now began to evolve on the planet (about 2200mya). But not plants. Another accident was required for the emergence of plants, and it occurred about 1600mya, when the symbiotes that had been produced in response to the Oxygen Catastrophe evolved a yet-more-complicated symbiotic relationship with those same cyanobacteria that had created the Catastrophe, yielding a new kind of eukaryote, one containing chloroplasts, which is the precursor to leaf-bearing plants. So now the stage was set for the emergence of complex life on Earth. But the drama wasn’t over yet.
  5. There is great controversy over the theories that, three times between 720mya and 540mya, the entire planet cooled to the point it was completely, or nearly completely, covered in ice (or at least ‘slush’), including the oceans. This was at a time when the first multi-cellular life was emerging, including algae, mushrooms and jellyfish. Detractors of the theory claim there is insufficient evidence, given what we now know about the continents’ shifts, that the freeze was global, or that if such a thing happened, it would be a ‘runaway’ event, and the planet would have remained in its frozen state ever since. But there are explanations that accommodate these objections, and explain how the cooling arose in the first place, mostly relying on the idea of supervolcano activity radically altering the atmosphere and the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth. But some of the explanations posit that it was the early evolution of multi-cellular life that itself precipitated the extreme cooling. We can never know. All we know is that, when this era ended with sharp global warming, massive melting, and release of minerals into the nearly-lifeless world of the time, what followed was the greatest expansion of diverse complex life our world has seen: The Cambrian Explosion, just over 500my ago.
  6. The most oft-cited example of an exaptation is that bird feathers initially evolved for temperature regulation, but later were adapted for flight. I have postulated that perhaps the most astonishing exaptation in humans was the entanglement of our human brains, which might have occurred to enable us to deal with new, unfamiliar, harsh environments, but which led to humans being able to imagine unreal things (right brain) and then conceive of those imagined things as being real (left brain). This enabled most of our modern technologies (such as abstract language, and music, both of which are exaptations in their own right) but also enabled us to conceive of our imagined selves as real and separate from everyone and everything else. There is evidence that we are the only living creatures that do this. Whether that’s a capacity or an incapacity is debatable, but it does explain how our behaviour has diverged from that of other creatures, notably our closest cousins the chimps and bonobos (our genetics diverged from theirs only about 7my ago, a blink in time). The millipedes that first made the migration from ocean to land had evolved a jointed exoskeleton that suited their particular marine environments, but this exoskeleton was also well-suited to adapting to life on land — another exaptation. Stephen Jay Gould suggested that there is an exaptation/adaptation “cycle” that helps evolution occur more quickly, and also speculated that what we think of as our “junk DNA” (parts of our genetic makeup with no obvious function) might in fact be “spare parts” that can readily be put to use in this cycle.
  7. About 7-8my ago, the Earth was bombarded by massive amounts of cosmic radiation, most likely from an exploding supernova star (and there was a similar massive cosmic storm 2-3my ago due to another supernova explosion). This storm occurred just as we were genetically separating from bonobos and chimps (or perhaps our separation at that time is not just a coincidence). There is evidence that this cosmic radiation produced ubiquitous lightning that caused a huge number of wildfires — perhaps enough to turn the heavily-forested African continent of the time into the mostly savanna grasslands which we still see today. This might have led both to an evolutionary preference for bipedalism (to see over the tall grasses), and an expanded and more protein- and amino-acid rich diet (dependent more on fish and less on figs and nuts) suitable for evolving a larger and more complex (and entangled) brain.
  8. Ice ages are not a new or rare phenomenon in Earth’s evolution. In addition to the ones described in points 4 and 6 above, we know of three others: about 430-460my ago, 260-360my ago, and, much more recently, from about 34my ago until today. Each has precipitated or been accompanied by great extinction events. The chart below (using a crypto-log scale for time) is from Glen Fergus on Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). You can see the extraordinary climate instability and record cold that prevailed for most of the Pleistocene Epoch, and the extraordinary climate stability (until 1900CE) for all of the Holocene (the last 10,000 years). Humans emerged at the start of the Pliocene (black area on the chart below) but we apparently struggled to deal with the increasing cold, and when the Earth reached its coldest (and driest) temperature about 900ky ago, our human population apparently dropped to not much more than 1,000 people, eliminating 2/3 of human genetic diversity and an estimated 98.7% of the human population. And then, just as human population had started growing again, the supervolcanic Toba Eruption led to a second bottleneck about 70ky ago, with human population again dropping to a few thousand.

  1. The current guess is that somewhere between 1.5my and 2my ago, humans evolved to become largely hairless, unlike our furry cousins. A genetic switch converted most of our hair follicle cells into sweat gland cells. This enabled us, scientists hypothesize, to survive and hunt better in the savanna left behind when the tropical forests where we first lived burned (point 8 above) and left us needing to work much harder, and under the open sun, to feed ourselves to survive. As we became bipedal, our exposed heads kept the hair needed to protect us from UV and other solar rays. Our exposed skin darkened to protect the rest of our bodies. We still have all the DNA needed to produce humans with heavily-furred bodies, but, for now, those genes aren’t expressed, so we remain the “naked ape”.
  2. One of the great mysteries of human evolution is why our brains grew rapidly (tripled in size) from about 2my ago until about 160ky ago, and why (some claim) they’ve been shrinking since then. There are theories about this based on changing human environmental, social, and cultural conditions and behaviours, but none of them is satisfactory. Every theory put forth fails to explain why other creatures with the same evolving conditions and behaviours did not undergo similar significant brain size changes. Increased brain size and complexity makes huge demands on our metabolism, so its occurrence is unlikely to be accidental. One study insists the ratio of brain size to overall body mass has actually never significantly changed in our species, and that “size doesn’t matter; it’s what you can do with it” when it comes to brains’ capacities. Some birds’ intelligence is a pretty good indicator of this.
  3. One of the great challenges in tracing the evolution of many creatures, and of human ancestors and relatives like chimps in particular, is that their populations were never that large to begin with, and they lived mostly in tropical areas that are not suitable for fossil formation. They, and we, evolved to live in specific, small, ecological and climate niches, to be bit players in the vast panorama of life on Earth. Our cousins knew better than to leave. We knew better than to stay.
  4. The strange life cycles of periodical cicadas arose independently at least eight times that we know of — those life cycles are 13 and 17 years, and it is thought that these prime numbers were evolutionarily selected for because it is harder for both predators and prey to adapt their own shorter cycles to capitalize on or avoid the devastating emergence of cicadas. The synchronized emergence of these creatures after such a long period underground living off tree roots, only to die off completely after a few weeks of breeding the next generation, is still largely a mystery.
  5. We continue to find mind-boggling examples of evolutionary adaptation every year, many of them now in the ocean’s deepest trenches, where pressure is enormous and light almost non-existent. One example is loricifera, a recently-discovered tiny deep sea creature with a head, mouth, brain and digestive system that breaks the rules of symbiogenesis (point 4 above) — they are multicellular organisms that have no mitochondria, and require no oxygen to thrive, using a completely different and more ancient means of respiration. Another example is siphonophores, a diverse and complex grouping of sea creatures that vary from 2mm to 50m in length (longer than the largest whales). They are designated an order, with 175 known species, but they might better be described as a community of interdependent, separately specialized creatures. But then, we might describe the human animal the same way.
  6. And if all that is not mysterious enough, there are some species that have evolved the ability to procreate through asexual parthenogenesis — no males required. And it’s not rare: “Parthenogenesis occurs naturally in some plants, algae, invertebrate animal species (including nematodes, some tardigrades, water fleas, some scorpions, aphids, some mites, some bees, some Phasmatodea, and parasitic wasps), and a few vertebrates (such as some fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds”.
  7. Most mammals, birds, insects, reptiles and amphibians need sleep. Fish apparently can and do sleep, but don’t suffer any adverse effects when they don’t. But bullfrogs apparently don’t sleep at all. And whales and dolphins can go a month without sleeping. Ducks often sleep half a brain at a time, with one eye and one brain hemisphere awake and alert. So, apparently, do crocodiles and some sharks. Bats sleep an average of 19 hours a day; giraffes, only 3 hours a day. No one seems to know if, or how, migratory birds sleep while they’re flying long distances without breaks. And while we know why we seem to need sleep, no one seems to know why we haven’t evolved species that don’t need sleep, which presumably would be an evolutionary advantage.
  8. When their local environment and local climate don’t change, some creatures appear to hardly evolve at all, even over millions of years (some crabs, turtles and fish for example). At the other extreme, one reason that bacteria have been the most successful animal inhabitants of our planet for its entire history (3450my) is their staggering capacity to evolve quickly, including the capacity to transfer genes from one bacterium to another. Another reason is their capacity to adapt to many different niches of climate and environment, including some extremely hostile ones. The current great extinction is likely (barring runaway climate change that creates a Hothouse Earth) to create huge niches for new life forms to evolve to fill, as past extinctions did. Scientists believe rodents, cockroaches, termites, bats, and pigeons will continue to thrive in a hot, tempestuous, future Earth (largely thanks to us, their populations have recently exploded and they’ve developed mutations to adapt to many different environments). The large cats might return and replace us as apex predators. Rodents and other surviving land animals might evolve to follow the hippos back to the oceans if life on land becomes too hot, dry and stormy. And animals might evolve with the capacity to extract the vast stores of carbon in all the waste plastics we’ve created that will likely be around long after we’re gone.

The word evolution means unrolling. Charles Darwin didn’t use the term, and disliked it because it implied to him the idea of ‘progress’, and his theory was about change and adaptation — he was indifferent to the idea that it had any ‘direction’, and actually used the expression “descent with modification” instead. No wonder his work was so loathed by the churches of the day!

In our use of the term, we have re-embraced the idea of progress, and adopted evolution “trees” which, absurdly, show humans at the “top” of the tree, as the “crown of creation”. The idea that it’s a random process, without direction or purpose, with cycles of increasing and decreasing complexity, is too challenging for many humans to accept.

So perhaps unrolling isn’t a bad definition of evolution. It’s just that it’s a form of unrolling, irrespective of whether or not there are any humans around to witness it, that, at least at a cosmic level, has no beginning, no direction, and no end.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 14 Comments

The Value of Therapy, When You Have No Free Will & No Self


image by Layers on Pixabay (this is the same image Tim used to illustrate his post)

I‘ve mentioned before that I battled severe depression and then debilitating anxiety for much of my life. Over the past decade or two, the symptoms have dissipated, and I can now hardly remember how difficult it was dealing with it.

I don’t think I had anything to do with this recovery. I think my body chemistry just changed over time, and the Noonday Demon just kind of left the premises as that happened. Perhaps it’s like the kidney stones I suffered in my middle years, which I no longer have to deal with either.

I grew up in a culture that viewed depression as a kind of moral weakness. My mother suffered from it more than I did, but it just wasn’t discussed. “Just really tired” or “Just not feeling well” were the code-words. Just total denial that it might be a form of mental illness.

So I just kept denying it, even when it interfered with my work. Even when I was zoned out on Paxil, or recovering from taking it. I don’t think anyone ever knew, until I realized it myself just twenty years ago.

The latest article by Tim Watkins describes his experience both as a patient and as a care provider/advocate in Britain’s NHS, a system which, like all of the western health-care systems, is in a state of increasing collapse. The health care systems never really accommodated mental illnesses anyway, and now they simply can’t afford to.

Tim explains that our health systems (like many of our systems) are designed only to respond to problems and immediate needs as they arise. There is neither the will nor the capacity to have these systems actually prevent illness and other health problems — that is not rewarded by these systems. Tim identifies some programs and projects that do prevent physical or mental illness, but they mostly operate outside the health care system. Even health and medical charities, he explains, are now so dependent on governments and pharma corporations that they dare not challenge the dysfunction of these systems*.

When the billions spent touting SSRIs were revealed to have been a complete con job by Big Pharma, creating far more misery than they resolved, Tim explains, the profession and industry jumped into the arms of the CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) preachers, and they have been absurdly overselling this dubious form of faith healing ever since. Tim says it’s wrong to call CBT a scam (though he acknowledges other professionals do), and notes:

It falsely promised – and often overstated its results – to cure people in a matter of weeks. And it could be delivered by cheaper, non-graduate therapists for a fraction of the cost of traditional psychology…  The problem… is that CBT was sold … as a kind of miracle cure… which it could never be. Mental illness is simply too complex for any one intervention to work for everyone. Indeed, for every intervention it was easy enough to find recipients who claimed to be made worse by it. So that, in the end treatments became a kind of “suck it and see” process, where the best one could say was if it helps keep doing it, and if it doesn’t, then stop.

This is, of course, the same process that is used to justify giving patients placebos. Except CBT is a lot more expensive than sugar pills.

When Tim looked to find treatments and therapies that actually worked, his researched revealed that only one thing really did: a relationship with someone who “dropped the act and had related to the depressed person as one human to another”, and he discovered that the best people to create such relationships were people who had suffered from depression themselves.

Our modern mental health crisis, Tim says, has been exacerbated by the end of reliable lifetime work and the security it provides, as corporations in our overextended economy automate, outsource, cut back and offshore most of their labour in the interest of profits. Loss of a job often leads to relationships breaking up, financial crises, homelessness, and, inevitably, mental health crises. He quotes one GP as saying “its like we’re busy pulling drowning people out of the river, but nobody is looking upstream to see why they are falling in.” Stress — the fear of not being able to care for yourself, your family and your loved ones — is the precipitator of so much disease.

This is entirely consistent with what Richard Lewontin asserted in The Triple Helix: that the actual causes of major diseases in much of the world are not viruses and bacteria, but overwork, stress and malnourishment, which render us vulnerable to these ubiquitous germs. And, Richard added:

Sulfites, deforested mountainsides, and non-degradable waste dumps are not the causes of degradation of the conditions of human life, they are only its agencies. The cause is the narrow rationality of an anarchic scheme of production that was developed by industrial capitalism and adopted by industrial socialism.

Our health care systems are helpless to deal with the overwhelming and ever-increasing flood of illnesses caused principally by the collapse of our dysfunctional economic systems. Our health care systems are, as a result, headed for collapse themselves.

This collapse starts with the introduction of two-tier health care that favours the rich (the only ones who can still afford to pay for decent health care), and then descends to triage systems (if you’re too sick, or not sick enough, they won’t treat you), and eventually complete exclusions (in some countries pharmaceuticals, therapy of all kinds, and dentistry are not covered by health plans because they’re just too expensive for the system to afford). The complete collapse of the NHS in this decade was predicted a generation ago, Tim notes, and it’s right on schedule.

Tim’s approach, which he pursued for years as a mental health care advocate, was a combination of public awareness (notably training everyone possible in Mental Health First Aid, in order to increase society-wide capacity instead of relying solely on exhausted professionals), and self-management (equipping those struggling with mental health issues, and their families and loved ones, to be able to care for themselves as much as possible, as public health care systems collapse).

CBT is absolutely not the key to either element in this approach, he says:

CBT itself… was founded on a wrong observation. Its originators came to believe that “the thought gives rise to the feeling,” and that if a negative thought were swapped for a positive one, a negative emotion or physical feeling would turn into a positive one.

It’s hard to believe that this psychobabble version of “wishful thinking” would ever be considered seriously as a form of therapy, but here we are. What Tim explains is that there is a three-part vicious cycle in mental illness: Not only do negative thoughts and negative feelings reinforce each other, but they manifest in unhealthy physical symptoms as well. It’s not “all in your head” — it’s in your DNA, your hormonal system, your nervous system, and your whole body.

To that point, what Tim says is not inconsistent with scientists’ increasing awareness that we have no free will, and that, as I have recently been trying to convey, we have no “self” that actually has any power to do anything anyway. Our self is just the brain’s dreamt-up rationalization engine to try to make sense after the fact of the actions that the complicity of all the creatures that we call ‘our’ body are already doing. “We”, our selves, have no say in it at all. CBT, which berates you for not taking responsibility and not being able to magically erase your mental illness by “changing your thinking” about it, is, in this context, a brutally cruel treatment that is not only inherently ineffective, it is almost inevitably going to make the patient feel worse because they’re “not doing it right” or “not trying hard enough”.

It’s at this point in Tim’s essay, when he goes into more detail about what he means by “self-management”, that I start to get a bit dubious about his program. After lambasting CBT for not being the right approach (“The last thing someone already in the grip of depression needs is to be set up for failure”), he goes on to say:

What works is to allow people to become aware … of their thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, and behaviours. As this opens up the possibility of change. During the time that I taught self-management courses, I found that as participants became more self-aware, they would find their own way to the changes which best suited them. One person, for example, would choose to improve their diet, while another would become more physically active. All that was required was some basic knowledge about how to do this.

Hmm. I know what he means. I used to suffer from an anxiety-related affliction called road rage. It was only when I learned (thanks to some very smart and very patient women) to become aware that my anger was dysfunctional, that my conditioned response to others’ dangerous driving changed. Now, that initial burst of anger/fear is quickly discharged instead of consuming me for hours, as it once did. These smart women reconditioned me to behave differently. They did it at a time when I was already becoming more self-aware of other dysfunctional behaviours, so I was ripe for reconditioning, but still. Having no free will does not mean your conditioned behaviours cannot be changed.

So I can see what Tim is getting at, saying self-awareness is the key. But I would argue that while self-awareness (or lack of it) can be a by-product of our (re-)conditioning, it is not self-awareness that gives us agency to change. We change when, and only when, our conditioning changes. It is not ‘our’ doing.

Of course, things like changing your diet and doing more exercise are almost always good habits to pursue, and are likely to make you more physically and mentally healthy. But you’re only going to change your diet or exercise if such a change is already consistent with your (biological and cultural) conditioning. And you’re quite likely, if the change isn’t totally consistent with your conditioning, to fall back to your previously conditioned diet and to give up exercising. This isn’t a matter of self-awareness or lack of self-control. It’s not a matter of “choosing” changes that best suit us. It’s just what our conditioning, unmediated by ‘us’, has led to.

‘I’ switched to a much healthier diet, and undertook a rigorous exercise routine, because it was totally consistent with my conditioning up to the point I (gradually, and haltingly) made these changes. I was given some knowledge, in each case, that made the changes easier and more pleasant, and that, one could argue, ‘tipped me over’. But that knowledge would have had no impact had I not already been conditioned to be amenable to making such a change. In fact, had I received that knowledge ten years earlier, it would have made no change to my behaviour whatsoever. And if I had received that knowledge back when I lived in the shadow of the Noonday Demon, well, it wouldn’t even have registered.

The healthier diet and exercise weren’t ‘my’ doing at all. They were the inevitable expressions of my conditioning given the circumstances of the moment when the change happened, and the changing circumstances and different conditioning that have occurred ever since. This is what ‘my body’ apparently does now. ‘I’ have no say in it.

So it is entirely possible that pointing something out to someone suffering from depression (or any mental or physical illness, for that matter) can, if it’s consistent with their other conditioning, and if the circumstances of the moment are right, lead to that person being reconditioned, at least temporarily, to behave in a way that is more conducive to good health. And quite often what is pointed out will be about, or will bring about, some new self-awareness, at least temporarily. But our behaviour is the consequence of all of our biological and cultural conditioning given all of the circumstances that affect us over our lives, a nearly-infinite number of variables over which ‘we’ have no control.

A year after a patient began a ‘self-management’ program and acquired the ‘self-awareness’ that purportedly led them to change their diet, given all of the other conditioning and all the other circumstances that affected their conditioning over that year and all the years preceding it, how much of an impact did that ‘self-awareness’ have on the diet they’re following then? Or, rather, was that self-awareness activity just the inevitable result of all the conditioning that led up to it, given the circumstances of each moment? Including the circumstances of meeting Tim and being introduced to the concepts of his program at just the right time it happened to fit with all the patient’s other conditioning?

A butterfly flapping its wings can indeed, under the right circumstances, be the ‘deciding’ factor that produces a tornado several weeks later in another part of the world. So we should not be reticent to flap away, if there’s even a small chance it might make someone feel better. No harm in trying.

And the placebo effect can be very real, and very powerful. At least for a while.

I am convinced that we have no free will, no agency, no control or self-control. Still, as I’ve often heard in non-duality circles: religion, spirituality, meditation and other kinds of ‘therapy’ can serve to “make the prison of the self more comfortable”, and what could possibly be wrong with that? (Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.)

…..

Tim concludes with a statement of where we stand now: essentially, systems in collapse, everything slowly (or quickly) falling apart (our health care systems in particular), and more and more of us (young people especially) facing a hopeless and depressing future. It’s clear that we’re facing a great reckoning, and our dependence on all our modern civilization’s systems — not just health care but also education, business and jobs, agriculture, transportation, trade and the rest of our economic systems, and our political and social systems — makes us extremely vulnerable to chaos and irrational behaviours as those systems fail us.

We’re going to have to relearn to do locally, inexpensively, humbly, and pragmatically, almost everything we now rely on others in these big systems to do for us. Including mostly looking after our own physical and mental health, mostly through preventative measures. We’re going to make a lot of mistakes. Our recent conditioning has not prepared us at all well for such a challenge.

Tim tells an interesting story about his experience in Emergency Preparedness in the UK that parallels mine when I worked briefly for a Canadian health ministry:

The two medical professions given highest priority were vets and nurses. Vets, because the health of the remaining livestock would be critical, and nurses because any injury which couldn’t be patched up or which wouldn’t heal on its own would be a death sentence, so there would be no point wasting resources treating it.

This is what we’re looking at as collapse accelerates and the Long Emergency deepens. An epidemic of anomie and depression isn’t going to help matters. But we’ll flap away, and do our best, the only thing we can possibly do. We’re certainly not ready for this, but the conditioning that has brought us to this point of accelerating collapse also kept us alive through some pretty horrific catastrophes earlier in our evolution. We might just surprise the more-than-human world with our capacity to be reconditioned, in the ashes of collapse, centuries or millennia from now, in a way that actually works for all life on the planet.


* The paradox that charities can become inadvertently captive to the systems and perpetrators that gave rise to the problems the charities were created to confront in the first place, is not limited to health care — the same applies for example to many environmental organizations that now depend on the next industry or government outrage to rail against, without which they’d quickly fade from the news headlines (since they can’t and don’t do anything except protest) and their funding would dry up. Ain’t capitalism wonderful?

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Always Wanting More


Screen cap from a brilliant mashup of the top pop songs of 2008 by Dj Earworm that kinda touches on the subject of this post.

In Robert Sapolsky’s 2017 book Behave (before he took on the subject of free will in Determined) he writes about habituation:

Once, hunter-gatherers might chance upon honey from a beehive and thus briefly satisfy a hardwired food craving. And now we have hundreds of carefully designed commercial foods that supply a burst of sensation unmatched by some lowly natural food. Once, we had lives that, amid considerable privation, also offered numerous subtle, hard-won pleasures. And now we have drugs that cause spasms of pleasure and dopamine release a thousandfold higher than anything stimulated in our old drug-free world.

An emptiness comes from this combination of over-the-top nonnatural sources of reward and the inevitability of habituation; this is because unnaturally strong explosions of synthetic experience and sensation and pleasure evoke unnaturally strong degrees of habituation. This has two consequences. First, soon we barely notice the fleeting whispers of pleasure caused by leaves in autumn, or by the lingering glance of the right person, or by the promise of reward following a difficult, worthy task. And the other consequence is that we eventually habituate to even those artificial deluges of intensity.

If we were designed by engineers, as we consumed more, we’d desire less. But our frequent human tragedy is that the more we consume, the hungrier we get. More and faster and stronger. What was unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.

In last year’s book on free will, he circles back to this tragedy, lamenting that since we have no free will, there is no way to escape this cycle of habituation. We cannot “train ourselves” to want less, when the dopamine and other chemicals in our bodies is driving us to want more. So now we have 8 billion humans always wanting more than what they have, which is a recipe for both economic and ecological disaster.

This is not a matter of greed. What we think about our behaviour is simply the brain’s rationalization for what we have done after the fact. We want what we want — or more accurately, the trillions of creatures that make up what we call ‘us’ are conditioned by trillions of other creatures, and the by the circumstances of the moment (which might eg include the presence of a large chocolate bar in front of us), and the aggregate result of all that conditioning determines what the complicity of creatures we collectively call ‘us’ will actually do.

That conditioning might include the recent memory of someone we care about warning us that eating so much chocolate is not good for our health, or of a recent cardiac arrest partially caused by poor diet, such that we might get a dopamine hit from congratulating ourselves on resisting the chocolate. But ultimately there is no decision about whether or not ‘we’ eat the chocolate. It is already determined by an unfathomable number of conditioning events over which ‘we’ have no control. ‘We’ can only try to (and claim to) ‘make sense’ of the action after the fact.

And in fact, there isn’t even a ‘we’, a coherent ‘self’ making or rationalizing these actions, these apparent ‘decisions’. ‘We’ are just a construct of the brain, furiously and helplessly trying to make sense of everything, as our brains’ constituent creatures have been conditioned to do.

So Robert has effectively dealt a double blow to the idea that “if only we all” do x, collapse (or genocide, or WW3, or any other terrible outcome) might be averted. There is no ‘we’ to do x, and whatever the 8 billion complicities of creatures do is already determined, and no amount of ‘ifs’ and ‘shoulds’ will make an iota of difference. All these magical solutions to the predicaments we face are just wishful thinking, opinions with no more value than the babbling of a baby. They are just conditioned attempts to make ourselves feel better, or to make others feel better (or, perhaps, to make others feel worse), by provoking a shot of dopamine, adrenaline, or other chemicals that increase or reduce our sensations of pleasure or pain.

And of course, we’re suckers for these provocations, whether they be comforting magic solutions (new tech, new ideas, new products, new projects, new explanations) or ‘facts’ to induce righteous indignation or outrage. The food industry, the propaganda industry, the marketing industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the advertising and PR and ‘management’ industries are all essentially in the dopamine business — trying to condition the complicity of creatures you imagine to be ‘you’ to buy more of what they’re ‘selling’, to get more dopamine. And all those apparent people in those industries are doing that because that’s what they (the complicities of creatures they call their selves) have been conditioned to do.

It’s all happening without ‘us’.

What insane evolutionary logic produced creatures that always want more? Robert’s story about the honey explains it. If there’s a scarcity of something, there’s an evolutionary advantage to providing a dopamine hit to the creature that finds it, to take it while they can. That’s why we crave the chocolate, even though there’s no longer a scarcity of it. We crave what is scarce, because we are rewarded with a hit of dopamine whenever we even just anticipate getting more of it.

And now we live in a world of actual or artificially-created scarcity of just about everything. The above-noted industries create the scarcity (eg tickets to see Taylor Swift), and then sell us their products at prices that reflect that scarcity. That’s what they are conditioned to do. And with 8 billion humans, it’s not hard to create a scarcity; there’s already never enough to go around, and soaring inequality is making that situation worse. (That obscene inequality is likewise the aggregate result of all our conditioning.) Every news item on the doom-scroll creates a scarcity of secure feelings, and a scarcity of knowledge of ‘what to do’, and the industries above would be only too happy to fill that scarcity — just vote for Genocide Joe, or Der Drumpf, or take this pill, or buy this AR-15, or wear this brand of clothes, or eat/drink/smoke this, and you’ll feel better.

Until you want more. And you will want more.

That’s the other insidious part of habituation. When you get x amount of something, over and over, it no longer gives you the same dopamine hit. Now you need 2x of it to get the same feeling. Bigger house, fancier car, bigger meals, bigger gun, more exclusive clothes, more power and wealth, more social media righteous indignation and outrage, more, more, more!, and oh, “make it a double”. Why does this happen?

Robert’s explanation is that dopamine and other hormones have to do a lot of work in a lot of different contexts, and hence the dopamine reward system needs to constantly rescale to condition as much as possible the optimal responses in the creature. This propensity to (sometimes inappropriately) habituate to different levels of reward is an unfortunate consequence of these limitations in what hormones and neurotransmitters are able to do. What we call “unhealthy addictions” might be characterized as the result of a bug in our conditioning chemistry.

But that’s where we are. This is where our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of each moment of our lives, has taken us. It couldn’t have gone any other way. And the aggregate result is accelerating collapse and the sixth great extinction of life on earth.

Does this mean that humans, and perhaps other animals that come to dominate their ecosystems, will always become rapacious, ruinous destroyers of those ecosystems?

I think the answer to this question is no, for two reasons. First, before habituation to more, more, more, can prove a species’ undoing, it needs to develop the capacity to produce more, more, more. Other mammals and birds can be habituated the same way we have been, as has been shown in lab experiments that have produced addictive, destructive behaviour in many animals. But that always requires that a human unnaturally invoke that behaviour in them, provoking them to do things that would never arise in the wild. Our species appears to be the only one that has developed the capacity to produce enough of anything to become habituated to it. It is doubtful that many wild bears have become so enamoured of a taste of honey that they were rendered addicted and dysfunctional by their appetite for it!

And secondly, I would argue that dysfunctional habituation such as that we modern humans suffer from, requires an entangled brain. Despite the similarities between their brains and ours, our closest cousins the chimps and bonobos lack the capacity for abstraction and the sense of self and separation that would be needed to produce an environment that could habituate their kin and then exploit that habituation for ‘self’-ish gain.

The fact that creatures like whales and corvids have enormous brains relative to their body size, would seem to demonstrate that the marvel, or evolutionary misstep (depending on how you look at it) of an entangled ‘self-conscious’ brain doesn’t necessarily emerge in large-brained creatures, even over millions of years. And I would further argue that the work of Stephen Jay Gould suggests that the emergence of another entangled-brained creature from the evolutionary cauldron is extremely unlikely. As EO Wilson famously put it “Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth”; the emergence of a species that always wants more, and is capable of endlessly producing more (until it can’t) seems an unlikely and tragic evolutionary turn.

All of this is perhaps why, when Robert wrote his book about free will, he acknowledged that, despite what he knows to be true, he still almost always behaves as if he does have free will. That’s his, and our, conditioning. We (ie the complicity of creatures we label and imagine to be our coherent selves) have no choice in any of it. We might briefly become aware of the fact that we’re ‘being done’ rather than actually doing anything of our own volition, but that changes nothing. It just makes us, briefly, self-aware of our tragic lot.

This inevitability, this hopelessness, this lack of control, is perhaps more than our new and bewildered species can handle. It’s one thing to be ‘smart’ enough to so spoil your own ecosystems as to have probably doomed most of the planet’s life to extinction. It’s another to also be ‘smart’ enough to know that, due to conditioning, lack of free will, the inevitable mental illness of brain entanglement, and a propensity for habituation, there is absolutely nothing that any or all of us can do to prevent or mitigate that extinction.

No wonder so many humans are struggling with depression. And that’s the topic for my next post, based on a new article by Tim Watkins that probes what happens to a species’ mental health when everything slowly starts falling apart.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

Quack

This is #28 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.


mergansers in Bowen Island’s lagoon; my own photo

I‘m sitting on a bench in Lafarge Lake park, watching the ducks and listening to the conversations of the people passing by on the pathway that goes around the lake. It isn’t a real lake — it’s an abandoned quarry pit, named after a huge cement conglomerate, converted into a park by the city. But the ducks don’t seem to mind. Unlike most humans, they’re pretty resilient. Watching them brings to mind a passage from Dmitry Orlov’s book Communities That Abide, that tells the story of how birds self-organize in the face of collapse, adapting easily without needing a ‘leader’:

Fifty blackbirds nest in a dead tree, congregating and socializing raucously each evening, the babies squawking for food. Then someone cuts the tree down, and the birds scatter. Collapse. The tree-killer sells the wood and the empty nests for profit. The birds circle and regroup, and in a few hours find a new tree and start building new nests. Three days later, for the birds, it is exactly as it was before the fall. They understand community, and resilience.

Ducks get a really bad rap when it comes to the English and French languages. Their speech, described as a quack, is a term that has come to mean a charlatan, a professional fraud, based on the apparent nonsense they say. The French word for duck is canard, which in English means a fabricated story or hoax. And the French for quack is cancaner, a word that means both quacking and gossiping.

I find the quacking rather charming. To us it may be ‘nonsense’, but apparently ducks have at least 100 different ‘messages’ in their quacks that other ducks readily understand. They are supposedly almost as smart as corvids and psittacines (parrots), and that’s saying something.

Today I am looking for the sights and sounds of joy, pleasure, and fun. This might seem an insensitive quest. After all, we are living in a world with grotesque genocides, wars of many different kinds, horrific cruelty to animals in factory farms and other institutions of torture, and the accelerating collapse of our entire civilization, including the ecological systems on which all life depends.

I think about this. On the way over to the lake, I saw dozens of old-fashioned, 1960s-style posters glued onto almost every lamppost — you know, the ones that were banned back then after it was found they were almost impossible to remove. All of these were protesting the current Nakba and genocide by Israel in Palestine.

I cheered the protesters when they gathered at city hall a few days earlier, but I really wondered whether it was accomplishing anything. In the 60s it was the atrocity of the Vietnam War that we were protesting, and I suppose, as with Vietnam, it’s sufficient, and necessary, to sow some doubt in people’s minds, especially when you can get a large turnout. But you’ll also entrench some people in their denial and opposition. For better and for worse, we do condition each other. We do what we can, what we must.

I think about the fact that it would seem all our behaviour is conditioned, and we cannot help what we do, including the commission of atrocities and acts of war and traumatizing violence. I sigh. I know I write about this all the time, but I suspect that the people who read my blog largely already share my worldview. And those who don’t are not going to be reconditioned to think or believe otherwise by anything I might write, or do.

Every day that I post a new article, I lose another reader who is annoyed at the apparent incongruity or cognitive dissonance of my writing, and I pick up a new reader for whom what I say is seemingly less incongruous than everything else they’re reading.

Still, just writing about all this never seems like ‘enough’. I feel bad mostly because I’m not doing anything about the local aspects of, and local contributors to, collapse — incompetent political decision-making and spending decisions at every level, insane development proposals, the clear-cutting of mountain forests and rezoning of rich agricultural land for new housing, the horrific conditions of the local homeless population, the ever-growing number of instances of family, and animal, abuse and neglect, and the endless firehose of propaganda that permeates everywhere, including local media. Even here.

I decide that I’m going to find one thing I can do that will make a difference, locally, something that doesn’t depend on changing people’s minds. Maybe volunteer to help clean up or test the water of our local creek. Or organize a fix-it fair. I don’t know. I’m so unskilled at doing things that are useful in a world falling apart.

My quest today for sights and sounds of joy, pleasure and fun is not to valiantly seek these things ‘in spite of everything’, or to escape from the drumbeat of collapse and the doomscroll. The feral creature in me just wants a break from what seems to me the terrible drudgery of the human condition — so many humans I know seem to live lives largely devoid of joy, pleasure and fun, and full of unhappiness, and steeped in fear, anger, hatred, sadness and trauma.

I could say things “shouldn’t” be this way, but it’s not as if it was anyone’s choice. This is how it inevitably is. Still, today I want to suss out pockets of human and more-than-human life that are ‘uncivilized’, untamed, pleasure-filled, joyful — creatures at play, having innocent, harmless, even silly fun. The wondrous delight of discovery and exploration, for its own sake.

I look at the ducks for inspiration. There are about 60 of them here, mostly huddled closely together, moving away from the shore when a dog or child or loud person moves too close to them too quickly, and then meander back, moving as one. Ducks sleep with one eye open, and one half of their brain alert, to detect any danger, and in a group it’s the eye closest to the outside of the group that’s open. The ducks in the middle of the group are lucky; they have both eyes closed.

When I look at their eyes, I notice that they have dark sclera (the “whites of the eyes”) indistinguishable (to humans at least — ducks have vastly better vision than humans in many ways) from the cornea. I remember reading that the only animals that have evolved relatively large white sclera are those that move and hunt in packs (humans and our ape cousins, and some canid species), and the speculation is that our sclera evolved that way to make us visible to our group at a distance and to enable us to silently communicate in ways that benefit the collective effort.

I listen to the voices of the people going by in their circuits around the lake. I turn, I hope discreetly, to look at their faces. I would guess that about half of them seem to be having fun. Either their vocalizations are animated (not necessarily loud, just varied in tone), or they are smiling. This is hardly ‘nature’ and hardly an adventure, but still, there is evidence of joy here. Those walking solo are harder to gauge; they mostly look to be caught up in their own thoughts, but there is another clue — the whites of their eyes. When their eyes are animated, my instincts tell me, for the most part, they’re enjoying themselves. Maybe when we’re enjoying ourselves, we are paying more attention, noticing more, and that shows up in more eye movement, even when the eyes are mostly downcast. Just a guess.

I have often hypothesized that wild creatures basically live in three ‘states’: equanimity, excitement, and stressed. This is based entirely on animals I have personally lived with. Most of their lives, they seem to be equanimous — just at peace with the world. Excitement is provoked by various things — eg meeting another creature, sniffing something interesting, or a conditioned association (eg the promise of imminently going for a walk or a car ride). The stress state is (for untraumatized animals anyway) seemingly temporary and anomalous. Under stress, the creature ‘snaps to’ a state of heightened awareness, and presumably adrenaline production, to be able to react quickly to the sources of the perceived stress, and then ‘shakes it off’ when the source of the stress has passed. Civilized humans, I suspect, spend most of our lives in this unpleasant and (IMO) unhealthy third state.

The ducks seem, mostly, to be in their equanimous state, while the dogs passing by seem mostly excited. Equanimity seems to me a rare state for humans, though of course we can never know what state another is really in or what it’s like to be them; they may not know themselves. So it is kind of nice here where the predominant stressed state of our civilized world seems rarer, and where examples of equanimity and excitement are here to observe, to inspire us, and, of course, to serve as fodder for blog posts.

As I watch and listen to the people and animals, I wonder which of them have a “separate self” — a sense of themselves as separate from everyone and everything else. The radical non-duality speakers I know assert that that sense ‘no longer’ exists there, and that it was never needed in order for the apparent body and character to ‘function’ perfectly well, since it has no ‘choice’ in what is done anyway. And they also assert that humans are (to ‘them’) clearly the only creatures bedevilled with this sense of a “separate self”.

It makes sense to me that the ducks and the dogs have no separate selves, and no need of them. Their apparent lives are lived “full on” without the veil of self. There is equanimity, excitement, stress, pleasure and pain ‘there’, feelings that are fully ‘felt’, but not through the veil of a separate self. I get a similar sense from the babies in strollers I see — just that look of wonder, of taking everything in without taking it ‘personally’. Of course, that may be just what I want to believe, a projection, given my current fascination with radical non-duality. What stays with me is not so much whether these creatures have or don’t have separate selves, as that there is no need for separate selves, no need for the conception of one’s self as apart from everything else, in order to be fully functional.

Nevertheless, those old enough to walk and to ask “why” seem to be ‘full of themselves’, not only ‘cognizant’ of having separate selves, but quite preoccupied with them. This appears to be true even for those who seem to be in a joyful (excited or equanimous) state. So, for example: a pair of teenaged girls talking and laughing animatedly as they walk; a guy jogging around the lake with a huge smile on his face; a young couple clearly flirting; a woman practicing yoga; an older couple holding hands just taking it all in; a woman pushing a stroller and walking a dog at the same time, evidently enjoying talking with both the baby and the dog. Lots of moving sclera visible on these faces.

The rest of the humans don’t look very happy. What most distinguishes them is that they are not paying attention to their immediate surroundings. They are, evidently, either lost in their heads or lost in their earnest conversations. I would surmise that they are, like me most of the time, in what might be called ‘conceptual’ mode rather than ‘perceptual’ mode. The thing about perceiving, it seems to me, is that it takes you ‘outside of your self’. There is that brief space when the brain is apparently preoccupied with sensing, rather than making sense.

It occurs to me (now clearly in ‘conceptual’ mode) that there are two kinds of pleasure: pleasure that relates purely to excitement of the senses (the “spell of the sensuous”); and pleasure that relates to excitement of the ‘mind’, such as a new and intriguing intellectual ‘discovery’ or a reassurance that what one thinks does indeed ‘make sense’. The first is perceptual, the second conceptual. The first, I am inclined to believe, requires no conception of one’s self as real and separate; it is a direct stimulus/response process. It is what we see, I believe, in wild creatures and in babies, and in other people when they are paying attention to sensory stimuli and not to what those stimuli ‘mean’.

The second does require the conception of one’s self as real and separate. When we learn something new and interesting, or when we laugh at a joke, or when we discuss something abstract, the pleasure comes from ‘making sense’ of things. The astonishing corollary is that nothing makes sense and nothing has to make sense if there is no separate self to make sense of it — it just is as it is (apparently).

But some learning does seem to be ‘self-ish’: Surely animals like young foxes and crows (and maybe ducks and dogs) ‘learn’ through play and trial and error, and that must mean they have a sense of self that motivates this learning behaviour? When you watch a bird poking vigorously at a potential food reward with a stick, surely it is doing this for its ‘self’?

Well, actually no. In all creatures, dopamine appears to be what drives us to learn, and to play (and to do lots of other things). That dopamine evolved in our bodies to condition us to learn and play, because those things are important for survival. The dopamine is produced, in all creatures, to make us feel happy in anticipation of a reward. We have no choice but to enjoy learning and playing. That’s the same whether it’s the young fox learning motor skills playing with a bone, or the young video-game addict playing the latest RPG 18 hours a day, or me, finding more scientific evidence that supports belief in no-free-will and radical non-duality.

‘We’ don’t do anything. ‘We’ are done to, by our conditioning. Having a sense of self and separation has nothing to do with it.

With that grounding (or conditioning) I now cannot help but ‘see’ dopamine driving all the behaviours I see: Floods of it in those that are in a state of excitement. A steady trickle of it in those in a state of equanimity.

As for those in a stressed state, dopamine apparently plays an important but subordinate role to other biologically-induced chemicals that arise in all creatures in stressful moments of fear, anger and grief. Adrenaline, cortisol and corticotropin are some of the main chemicals involved in conditioning us to become angry, fearful or sad, and they all immediately prompt the production of extra dopamine to keep us in that highly emotional state, even ‘hooked’ on it, at least until the event that produced that conditioned response has passed. Anger is not just a ‘mask’ for fear; the two feelings are synchronously evoked in us by the same chemicals.

…..

The couple flirting are showing the most scleral activity, notably the sidelong glances that maximize the amount of sclera displayed. I remember watching an interview with Canadian singer Shania Twain where she seemed to deliberately cast a lot of sidelong glances, and being aware that I was quite taken with this body language. Yesterday, I watched a couple flirting in the local café — same eye inflections, same active sclera display. No choice in our propensity to do this, or in how we respond to it, I’d guess: A veritable exudation of dopamine.

Hard to read the man smiling as he jogs around the park. I’ve never experienced “runners’ high” but scientists say it’s the result of the body’s release of endocannabinoids, anxiety-reducing hormones (also released during orgasms and when eating dark chocolate). He looks like a serious runner. My experience is that the pleasure kicks in after your exercise, which I’d attributed to the “checked that off the list” sense of gratification, but which might just be more chemicals dictating my feelings. I wonder, since I really dislike running (it’s boring and tiring), what it is that has conditioned me to do it with such rigour. I ascribe this diligence to fear of getting injured or ill or fragile if I don’t stay in shape, and of course to vanity, but it’s more likely that body chemicals are behind it all. I’m basically lazy, but still seem to do this workout whenever I lack any good excuse not to.

The two teenaged girls laughing and joking are a joy to watch. Feeding off each other’s pleasure, apparently acting out in an exaggerated manner the behaviour of a mutual acquaintance. Ridicule is often mean-spirited, but in them it seems mostly good-natured, a gentle caricaturing. In all our conversations and interactions with others, we are acting, performing, but when we are doing so deliberately it seems a particularly delightful form of play. The play’s the thing, and we are playwrights all. Ask any actor or musician about the chemical rushes that drive and accompany a performance.

The woman doing yoga has her eyes open. Her expression conveys an intense focus, perhaps remembering a specific sequence and duration of poses, or the timing of her breath. Why is she doing this here, rather than in a less distracting place? She had no choice in this, of course. Perhaps it, too, is a public performance, or a reenactment of some previous yoga practice in this same place that was especially pleasant or effective. Or perhaps the presence of this sort-of natural place helps her get ‘outside’ herself and whatever has been preoccupying her mind, which helps in her meditation practice.

The older couple holding hands are gently pointing things out with their unoccupied hands. Maybe they can’t see or hear as well as they once did, so they’re helping each other out with the details. Or maybe they’re recounting some memory of this place or someplace similar. Everything about their body movement and language is so different from what I’ve observed in couples that are talking about some ‘internal’ thing, something that is not-here-now. When we are paying attention, it seems, we are somehow less our selves and more a part of everything else, like the ducks.

The woman chatting back and forth to the baby and the dog, I surmise, is inadvertently teaching the baby about the meaning of ‘self’ and of ‘other’, showing her how to become comfortable with the dis-ease of separation that will afflict her the rest of her life. She is interpreting what she imagines the dog is thinking and feeling and ‘saying’ to the baby, modelling the art of ‘self’-expression and of conversation with another creature. The baby is delighted, laughing, reaching for the dog, prattling on incoherently. The scene fills me with joy for what is being discovered and found, and with sadness for what is being lost. Lots of dopamine for the woman, the baby, and the dog, who jumps up and takes a treat for being a “good dog”.

Not much to say about those circling the lake in a clearly stressed state, those taking in nothing of this beautiful, if artificial, place. Most of us with ‘selves’, I suspect, spend most of our lives in that unpleasant state. I think the chemicals that alert wild creatures to dangers and prompt a conditioned fight/flight/freeze response for brief moments, are coursing through our veins for most of our waking hours, every day. There are only rare respites, like when we fall in love, when we get a brief reprieve from the debilitating, exhausting, endless flood of chemicals keeping us constantly, and mostly unhelpfully, hyper-alert. When we fall in love, the sense of our all-important separate self briefly falls away and opens us to something larger.

That of course is all about chemicals, too, the flood of substances that condition us to sacrifice our selves for something more important, to give up our freedom, to become attached. These are the moments when it is most clear that our ‘selves’ never had any say, any choice, over anything. ‘We’ have never done anything. ‘We’ are done to by our conditioning.

Losing themselves in the rush of chemicals that conditions our every move is simpler for wild creatures, who I think lack the sense of, and belief in, themselves as separate and apart from everything else, and the illusory sense that there is a ‘self’ somewhere inside their body that has, or ‘should have’ control over these actions. Only humans feel remorse for doing the only thing that they could ever have done.

And it’s even worse than that: There actually is no duck, no baby, no couple flirting, no ‘you’, no ‘one’, nothing ‘singular’. These are just labels, names we apply to an only-apparently-cohesive complicity of trillions of creatures that seemingly ‘make up’ a living creature. ‘We’ aren’t conditioned, this complicity is conditioned, and ‘our’ apparently conditioned behaviour is the aggregate result.

So I look again at the ducks, the dogs, the babies, the people who are under the spell of the sensuous, and those who are not. They are all complicities, just labels we arbitrarily apply because the reality of the complexity of trillions of moving parts without tidy boundaries and borders is more than we can fathom. Without these enormously oversimplifying labels, we cannot ‘make sense’ of anything. As John Gray has put it, we labour under the illusion that we are “all of one piece”, when we are not.

Now, rather playfully, as I sit here looking toward the lake, I try to no longer see animals and people and trees and buildings as single ‘things’, but rather as a profusion of vast complicities of trillions of creatures and waves and particles (and other components with apparently no substance at all), with each tiny component being constantly conditioned in unimaginably complex and mysterious ways by trillions of other components. There is no ‘one’ here. That was just a trick this brain played, conjuring up and labeling things hypothetically to try to make sense of what cannot be made sense of. Of what need not be made sense of.

For now, I put out of my mind the tragedy that the illusion of the self and separation has seemingly led to — the altered chemistry of humans and the chronic mental illness and violence that that evolutionary misstep has apparently produced. At this moment, it’s too much to bear, especially the knowledge of its inevitability.

Instead, I watch the ducks, the dogs, the babies, the flirting couple and the other humans paying attention or lost in their thoughts, not as entities but as just parts of the utterly interconnected and inseparable chaos (etym.: ‘vast openness’) of everything that appears to be. Just this, in all its wonder.

I think the ducks ‘see’ this. I smile at them, and they look at me curiously and equanimously. Quack.

I can’t help but think: If only… But no, that’s foolish grown-up human thinking.

Posted in Creative Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Month-End Reflections | 4 Comments

The Undeclared Cold War


cartoon by Michael Leunig from his fans’ FB page

Paranoia strikes deep.
Into your life it will creep.
It starts when you’re always afraid.
Step out of line, the men come and take you away.
We better stop. Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?
— Stephen Stills, For What It’s Worth

When I was growing up, spies were cool and sexy, and the Russians were just incorrigible demonic Commie bad guys, except for Ilya Kuryakin of course. And then John Le Carré started writing about western spies who were just as deranged, corrupt and ideologically fixated as those from “Communist” nations. I’m sure the CIA was not impressed.

I continue to be amazed at the level of ideological fanaticism and paranoia that the western spooks, led by the CIA and the Pentagon, and firmly in control of both US Tweedle parties, exhibit. As we learn more and more about the number of leaders they assassinated, the number of popular elected governments they overthrew, and the number of nations they destabilized, corrupted and destroyed through sanctions, propaganda, embargoes, blockades and other misdeeds, I am continually shocked and chagrined that I had no idea and the media didn’t tell us about any of this.

Their fanaticism and ruthlessness surely rivals or surpasses that of the most notorious mass murderers of human history. And most of us never had the faintest inkling what was going on. We still know only a small part of what, in collusion with the spooks of other western nations, they did to turn perhaps more than half of the nations of the world into failed states. If I’d heard ten years ago what I know now about their actions, I would have shrugged it off as an impossible, over-the-top conspiracy theory.

Fast forward to ten years ago, when what was then celebrated as the Maidan “colour revolution” turned out, we found out later, to be a US-orchestrated massacre and coup of a democratically-elected government in Ukraine, simply because that government disrupted the CIA/Pentagon plans for NATO expansion and the commensurate destabilization and destruction of Russia.

I’m still a bit dazed about it all. How I could have been so wrong about what was happening. How the media that I (at that time) mostly trusted could have been so utterly complicit in the Empire’s propaganda, censorship, and mis- and disinformation campaigns. How I could have been so credulous as to believe that decades of large-scale, relentless and violent acts of undeclared war and destruction were just boys playing at being spies, just looking for ‘information’, exclusively for defensive purposes, and mostly harmless if a bit over-zealous.

Now that the blinkers are off, I see all the foreign activities of the US Empire, its allies, and their spooks, in a completely different light. And I see the ‘news’ reports in the mainstream media in a completely different light. It takes work and patience to really see through the continuous fog that this undeclared Cold War (which never really ended as we thought and hoped it had), has wrought, and not to start to see conspiracies where there are none.

The tipping point for me was Biden’s blowing up of the Nord Stream pipelines, one of the greatest ecological disasters in human history, and a total betrayal of the European members of the Empire. The utterly obvious evidence that it was done by the US, with the full prior knowledge of the administration, was buried under an endless barrage of obfuscation, churned out daily and faithfully by the mainstream western media. Even without the digging of the award-winning Sy Hersh, how could anyone have possibly come to any other conclusion? But we believe what we want to believe, and most of us in the west just don’t want to believe that “our” government could do something so outrageous.

And Nord Stream is just the tip of the iceberg. Almost everything that, in our politicians’ speeches and our media reports, was reportedly done by the Russians in Ukraine and by the Palestinians on October 7th in the occupied territories, has turned out, like the reports of Iraq WMD and the reports of babies being taken off incubators in Kuwait and the hundreds of other outrage-provoking ‘stories’ about the behaviour of the US Empire’s alleged ‘enemies’, to be complete fabrications. Those fabrications are still believed by most in the US and the US Empire thanks to the endless, massive, unrelenting firehose of lies and misinformation aimed at the countries’ bewildered and dumbed-down citizens.

This is not to say that other countries don’t employ propaganda as well. The best known Russian propaganda was the photo and video of fake BLM protesters burning bibles (with large BLM signs conveniently located beside the conflagration, for the benefit of the more dim-witted racist viewers). It worked, but not terribly well. Putin, in his interview with Carlson, admitted that when it comes to propaganda, the US Empire has absolutely no peers.

So now, through this lens of doubting everything I am told by the governments and their compliant media, I’m looking at the two latest events about Russia. I’m doing this keeping in mind the parting statement from the little-too-blabbermouthy uber-imperial-ideologue Victoria “Fuck the EU” Nuland, the women who orchestrated the Maidan massacre and coup. In that statement she “promised” Putin that her departure would be followed by some acts of “asymmetrical warfare” that he (Putin) would be unprepared for.

And then we had the death of Navalny, the anti-Putin politician, a month before the Russian elections. Of course, US Empire leaders raced to blame Putin for the death, insinuating he was murdered. But now I’m starting to ask a question, whenever a politically inflammatory event occurs and the mainstream media and Empire leaders rush to judgement in the absence of evidence: Who stands to gain? The coroner ruled the death came from natural causes, and they turned the body over to his mother, who could have, if she wished, had a second autopsy performed. He suffered from multiple medical conditions, and prison life is never particularly healthy, in any country.

But the death was a huge embarrassment to Putin. He had nothing to gain from having Navalny killed or deprived of essential medical care, and everything to lose. Navalny was not running in the election. He is by all accounts not very popular in Russia, and he embarrassed Amnesty International after they came to his defence, by issuing a series of inflammatory anti-Muslim racist and xenophobic videos.

Even worse, if the CIA paid someone to kill him, that would make Putin look incompetent, allowing a mole to kill someone in a supervised prison. In fact, one of Navalny’s complaints was that the prison guards videotaping their check-ups on him throughout the night was a form of sleep deprivation torture. Maybe the Russians read about the Epstein case. So: Who stands to gain? Same answer as the Nord Stream pipeline bombings. Certainly not Putin. Navalny’s cause of death probably was just what the death certificate said. But don’t try to tell that to Empire politicians or their media, or the Empire’s befuddled citizens.

And then we had the Moscow concert hall attack, allegedly by four ISIL members from Tajikistan. The staggering bias of the western media was again immediately evident: The CBC subheaded their story “Russian media reported that the men were tortured during interrogation”, and said they “showed signs of severe beatings”. The story contained no information on the motive for the mass slaughter. The “Russian media” that “reported” this torture were not identified, nor was any evidence offered.

But toss aside the western media and you start to get some sense of Who stands to gain. The gunmen fled into a forest near the Ukraine border and were pursued and caught by dozens of Russian police. No surprise that they looked pretty rough in court. That doesn’t mean they weren’t beaten by police. But Who stands to gain if any confession they might now come out with is discounted by the west (and readers of shoddy, biased western media like the CBC) as being merely the result of police torture in prison?

Especially if those confessions are admissions that they were paid a million rubles to do the deed (that was apparently the sum offered, according to non-western sources). And especially if the confessions reveal that, especially as they occurred during Ramadan, the mindless slaughter actually had absolutely nothing to do with ISIL — they were just paid to say they were from ISIL. But then, people will say anything if they’re tortured, so clearly they were just ISIL zealots who hated Russia.

Couldn’t possibly be the “asymmetric warfare” that Nuland warned Putin about just before the attack.

Who stands to gain? If you want to send a warning to someone that you hate, by embarrassing them and committing atrocities against their civilians, that would be you.

Of course Putin is no saint, and the Russian prison system is probably as ghastly as most prison systems, and their cops are probably as brutal and corrupt as cops in many countries.

But just keep asking that question, and the claims and allegations from the Tweedles of US Empire and its vassal states, and the reporting from our unquestioning, compliant and incompetent media start to have a uniformly really bad smell.

It’s really shocking, and dismaying, what we can be made to believe. Especially if it’s nice and neat and ‘good vs evil’ simple, and what we want to believe.

So: Why do I care? So what if the fanatic, paranoid ideologues who control both the Tweedledum and Tweedledee parties in just about all western ‘democracies’ in the US Empire are orchestrating a quiet and undeclared war of terror on anyone who doesn’t fall into line? So what if the media are so corrupt and/or incompetent that they mindlessly scribe the propaganda, mis- and disinformation fed to them, and censor anything that would arouse suspicion?

After all, as I keep saying, we’re all just acting out our conditioning. The Empire ideologues that control all major political parties and all major media believe that the world will not be safe until Russia and China and the entire Mideast and disobedient states in Asia and Africa and Latin America that elect ‘socialists’ are brought into line, made compliant, and absorbed into Empire where they can be controlled by their betters. They’ve been conditioned to believe that all their lives, and will die with that belief.

Why do I care? I guess it’s my own conditioning — I was brought up to deplore cruelty, violence and war, and, above all, to hate liars. And I’m ashamed at having fallen for so many of the lies. This horrific, devastating global ‘Cold War’ has been going on for my whole life, undeclared, under the radar, and under my radar. How can I not have known, not have seen it?

And as this war rages, the larger battle that threatens us all — the accelerating global economic, ecological, political and social collapse we are seeing everywhere — is being ignored. Our collective struggle to come to terms with collapse will depend on our willingness to set aside our differences and work together. And as long as the wars and the lies continue, that cannot happen. And as it’s our conditioning that is continuing to drive the wars and the lies, there is no chance of that changing.

I would have hoped that, in collapse, we would at least show a little dignity, a little humility, a little humanity. One more thing I was foolish to believe. But that’s where we are. It couldn’t have turned out otherwise.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 15 Comments