What It Means To Be Human

my synopsis of the some of the elements that might comprise one’s Ikigai; any misunderstandings about ikigai here are mine

I‘ve written before about the ancient Japanese concept and philosophy of ikigai. Contrary to business consultants’ perverse and simplistic misappropriation of the concept, ikigai has absolutely nothing to do with “the work you’re meant to do”, or “finding your purpose”, or in fact about anything aspirational.

It is, rather, about the lifelong discovery, appreciation and acceptance of who you really are, now, authentically, as gauged by what gives you joy, what you care about, and what is in your true nature.

I listed what I currently consider to be my personal ikigai in my first post on the subject. Who I am, really, is a lost, scared, bewildered, and rather lazy human who has been fortunate enough to be able to engage, more and more, in quiet, creative, playful and hedonistic activities in beautiful, peaceful places, alone or with small groups of intelligent, curious, gentle people.

That might seem rather self-centred, and not of much service to the rest of the world, but my younger-days aspirations to make the world a better place seem to have dissipated. I am content, even driven, these days, to chronicle the accelerating collapse of our civilization and the ruin it is invoking on our planet, and speculate on how and why that has come to be. Perhaps I may yet find some activity that will reengage my energies and reconnect me to the more-than-human world from which I have become untethered. Something worth dying for, even. It’s not unimaginable.

My sense from studying indigenous and non-human cultures is that almost all creatures, including our bonobo cousins and even the first humans, have always intuitively sought to live in balance with the rest of life on earth. That of course makes Darwinian sense, and our disconnection from the more-than-human world might explain why the human species no longer attempts to live in such balance, and has as a result unwittingly precipitated the sixth great extinction of life on our planet.

What, I wondered, might our collective ikigai be, as a species, and as members of tribes, communities and federations?

I concluded that our ikigai wouldn’t include ‘being in love’, nationalism, or acquiring stuff. These are things that wild creatures don’t care about, and that’s not because they’re insensate or less present in the world than we are. Our human preoccupation with ‘personal’ love, with country, and with our possessions is a sign, I think, of our mental illness, our Civilization Disease. These are preoccupations born of disconnection and of fear.

To try to figure out what our collective human ikigai might be if we were somehow freed of Civilization Disease, I have been looking at some studies of non-human societies, and asking myself:

  • What is it that wild creatures most love about being alive and about ‘getting up’ each day? What brings them joy, what do they collectively care about?
  • When, and where, and doing what, are they happiest? What is their true nature, and what do they pay attention to?
  • How do they somehow sense that their lives are part of, and at least partly in service to, some greater whole?

The dogs and cats I have known, and the birds that I’ve studied, seem to spend much of their lives (at least when they’re not under stress) in one of two states: equanimity, and, when there’s something new and interesting in their purview, excitement.

In times of equanimity they sleep, groom themselves and each other, and just hang out together. They seem very happy “doing nothing” except noticing, socializing, and (I would guess) appreciating and accepting just being a part of everything that is. They seem to see the world with a sense of endless wonder.

In moments of excitement they play, they explore, and they tend their young and others in their ‘tribe’. They seem to enjoy doing these things, too, though the tending of their young can clearly be exhausting. Even finding food, except in the rare and stressful times and places of scarcity, seems pleasurable, not ‘work’ as we would describe it.

In short, one might say, the ikigai of a cat is to be a cat, and the collective ikigai of a flock of birds is to do those equanimous and excited (and occasionally stressful) things that flocks of birds do together, like gathering noisily in staging areas every evening and flying together to an overnight roost of thousands of their kind, for no other apparent reason than the sheer social joy of doing it.

My sense is that our modern human ‘civilized’ lives are so filled with stress and unnecessary scarcity that we can hardly relate to such a way of just being. We’ve almost never, at least since infancy or early childhood, had the opportunity to just be, moving between states of observant equanimity and curious excitement.

bonobo photo from wikimedia by Nick Hobgood, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Yet that is, I think, our essential nature. We are not so different from crows. We are not (biologically) meant to live this way, in lives of constant stress and struggle, doing ‘work’ for other people, hoping that tomorrow will be better or at least not worse. We are not meant (biologically) to live surrounded by people we don’t know or trust, crowded together and clueless about how to tend for ourselves, and hence dependent on others far away to provide us with we what we need (if we can even ‘afford’ it). We are not meant (biologically) to struggle to find purpose in, and meaning to, our lives, or to live much of our lives suffering from illnesses caused by chronic stress and poor diets.

And we are not (biologically) meant to wreak such cancer-like havoc on the rest of life on earth, and on our ecosystems. “Survival of the fittest” does not mean survival of the strongest and most ruthless, it means survival of those who best fit within the ecosystems they are a part of and co-evolve with. How and why our species lost the essential connectedness with the rest of life on earth that informs that ‘fit-ness’, is a subject that never ceases to fascinate me. How could such a seemingly intelligent species become such a plague upon the planet? I have blamed the evolution, in humans, of the idea of a separate, vulnerable self for the malaise of Civilization Disease, but I’m not entirely happy with this explanation.

Wolfi Landstreicher, in a quote I have used often on this blog, says that our civilized, self-domesticated way of being is unnatural and abhorrent:

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

I don’t share Wolfi’s optimism that rediscovering our natural way of being is as simple as putting our minds to it, but I think his diagnosis is pretty accurate. He is talking about living the way bonobos and crows and other wild creatures now live and have always lived. Why should this be so impossible for our species?

Part of me wants to accept our fucked-up human situation with its endemic Civilization Disease and disastrous trajectory as the only thing that could have happened with a species as strange and terrible (but also so ordinary) as ours. Its collective ikigai might be something like:

We care, to the point of preoccupation, about our own happiness and ‘fulfillment’, and, to a lesser extent, that of those we love and erroneously think we know. We take pleasure in entertainments that distract us from the reality of our imprisoned, tragic, domesticated, disconnected lives. Our ‘tribe’, the group we feel we belong with, consists of those who give us attention, appreciation and reassurance, and who confirm what we believe, which is what we want to believe whether or not it is true. Our true nature is to be obsessively protective of our selves and those we love, and to be often consumed with anxiety, shame, guilt, jealousy, and other reactive emotions that reflect our regrets about the past, our judgements about the present, and our fears about the future, none of which are actually warranted.

Pretty grim, huh? This is, I think, what Civilization Disease has wrought in us, and how it’s damaged us and made us all mentally ill. Still, I can understand how this has happened and how it’s made us, sadly, who we are. It’s a tragic story, but one that instils in me some compassion. This is a diagnosis of a species dying of a terminal illness, after all. We can at least offer the patient hospice.

But another part of me wants to see through our disease to humankind as it was before we went astray. What might its collective ikigai be? Maybe something like this:

We love to hang out with our tribe-mates, playing, joking, taking in this astonishingly beautiful world with a sense of curiosity and unceasing wonder. We take pleasure in exploring the unfamiliar, in learning and showing new things. We love to create things and appreciate others’ creations. We look after each other, especially the young. We are awed by, and respectful of, everything. We are amazed that everything we need to thrive is right here, in this world of seeming abundance, and somehow we are instinctively able to do just what is needed.

Yes, this could be the ikigai of bonobos, of cats and dogs and crows and most wild creatures.

But it also might be our collective ikigai, just forgotten and muddled with the onset of disease. Perhaps we have just forgotten who we really are. And perhaps, after collapse, those few humans that are left, inspired to start again, will remember.

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

Creatures at Play

In a foreign land
There were creatures at play
Running hand in hand
Needing nowhere to stay
Driven to the mountains high
They were sunken in the cities deep
Livin’ in my sleep.
I feel like goin’ back
Back where there’s nowhere to stay

Neil Young

The crows are back. They’re gathering again each evening in their staging areas, including our apartment rooftop, for the group migration to the Still Creek roost, which sleeps perhaps twenty thousand of them each night, drawing from the entire metro Vancouver area.

I watch them from my own ‘perch’, a hanging basket chair on the roof, 115m above the ground. The people and cars below remind me of aphids and ants, scurrying around endlessly.

A boy on an electric scooter weaves in and around cars and pedestrians, switching between road and sidewalk, moving much faster than the traffic-bound vehicles. Scooters are perhaps the true ‘hybrid’ vehicles, more versatile than electric bicycles. They are even tolerated (sometimes) in malls, eliminating the need for parking. (You can’t rent them here, so the hatred over their misuse and the ‘litter’ when they’re ‘abandoned’ in the streets has not yet arrived here.)

It’s easy to fathom, from this height, this distance, that people are, after all, just another species of animal. All following our conditioning, biological and cultural. Just like the crows, except we are messier and more destructive.

Humans make up just 2% of the biomass of the planet’s animals, and all animals combined make up just 0.5% of the planet’s total biomass. In terms of total mass, despite our grotesque overpopulation, humans are dwarfed by arthropods (crabs etc), fish, worms, insects, mollusks, jellyfish, and even our own farmed animals. Bacteria outweigh all animals combined by a factor of 30, and humans by a factor of 1200. Even viruses outweigh humans by a factor of 3, though it takes a quadrillion (1015) of them to collectively weigh one gram.

We are overachievers, though.

As I watch from my perch, it’s easy to imagine that everything that is moving is equally ‘alive’. The cars ‘eat’ plant fossils, though they need our help to do so (but give them time; an ant sucking dew from one of its aphids looks eerily similar to a human ‘feeding’ its car gasoline). The cars and the scooters and bicycles and space shuttles have a simpler form of ‘conditioning’ that determines where and how they go, and their makeup is pretty simple compared to humans’ and viruses’, but still.

We have created other ‘creatures’ that ‘move’ and ‘grow’ in less animal-like ways (like money, and corporations, and computers, and nuclear facilities), but these creations are so dominant now in terms of what gets done on the planet, and what gets consumed (eaten) and destroyed in the process, it is not hard to conceive of these ‘artificial’ life forms as just one more kind of evolved creature, like us. And like the crows which, without judgement, take them all for granted.

What apparently gives us the arrogance to believe we are a more ‘advanced’ type of creature, is the belief that we have “conscious” free will and choice, unlike all these other creatures, from viruses and bacteria to fungi and plants to machines that travel from place to place and machines that do not. We are in charge, we think. We are the masters of the universe. All these other creatures are simple and dumb, condemned to do what they’re told, while we, the crown of creation, can do anything we want.

Uh huh.

The crows don’t care. Nature doesn’t care.

I sip on my tea, far above it all, and watch, as if I were watching through the glass sides of an ant terrarium. Are the people driving the cars, or are the cars driving the people?

Three crows perform their airborne dance in the updrafts between the apartment towers, taking turns chasing each other, cawing in apparent delight. Below, in the pop-up park, two girls practice gymnastics moves, ending each careful tumbling run with a triumphant raising of the arms, followed by a fit of giggling and falling on the ground.

A girl nearby employs one of the mini-park’s hammocks as a makeshift swing, and then restlessly clambers up its supports and onto the adjacent eight-foot-high fence, sitting astride it. We are tree-dwellers, we humans, naturally meant to climb. I wonder when, and why, we each lose the passion for doing so?

There is a pattern to the use of the ‘beach’ volleyball section of the pop-up park. During the day it is mostly occupied by small kids with pails and shovels, sometimes in large squads with identical neon vests. From dinner hour ’til dark it is often the scene of serious games, up to six-on-six. But now is the in-between time, when it’s often empty. Today a young couple is practicing keeping the ball in the air, back and forth across the net, as long as possible. They’re intent, watching for signals of each other’s moves. It’s like watching a couple dance.

I remember watching a crow repeatedly dropping a pebble in mid-air flight, and then swooping down and grabbing it, only to drop it again, over and over. I remember watching swallows playing with a feather, likewise in mid-air, for almost an hour. Practice is play. And every joy is just a practice. Doesn’t matter if its the clumsiness of a beginner’s first flight (or first love), or a master performance. It is all just practice, just play, for its own sake.

And now, here come the crows. Starting with small groups of two or three, over the next couple of hours their numbers will swell to fifty or more, in raucous groups on one or two of the nearby apartment roofs. Greeting or introducing themselves to each other, conveying the day’s news.

They’ve been doing this for ten million years. Long before there were towers, before there were cities, before there were humans. A different kind of dance. The steps and players a little different every time.

Everywhere, creatures at play.

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

A Future With No Elections

Despite what you may have been led to believe, turnout in most western nations’ elections hasn’t actually changed significantly over the past fifty years. And while young people are less likely to vote, they say that’s about scheduling conflicts with school and work, not about lack of interest. In fact, older voters are the cohort most likely to say they don’t think it makes a difference who wins their country’s elections. But they vote in larger numbers anyway.

My friend John Whiting recently sent me a note saying:

More and more countries are dispensing with the superfluous Changing of the Governments.

I take that to mean that when political, economic, social and other systems have become so dysfunctional and sclerotic that they’ve ceased doing anything for citizens, and the citizens have “tried” both the government of the day and “the loyal opposition” and found no significant difference between them, they start to find elections, and the entire exercise of ‘democracy’, superfluous.

I’m one of those old geezers who votes steadfastly in every election despite believing that it makes no significant difference which party wins, other than who will be designated ‘enemies of the state’, and which lobbyists and party faithful will be rewarded with kickbacks, subsidies, and plum civil service jobs after the election.

Of course, the rhetoric of the Tweedledum and Tweedledee parties is different. They blather about their different “values”, and their group Cabinet photos depict different levels of diversity. But their actions are, with the exceptions noted above, substantially indistinguishable. The system is in charge, running on its own momentum and inertia. Which cogs actually operate and oil the machine doesn’t affect what the machine does.

I have lamented the near-impossibility of changing large, complex systems in past. I have also written that the “system” actually doesn’t exist — it’s a mental construct, an invention to “make sense” of what seems to be happening in a particular domain.

What does it mean to say that something that doesn’t actually exist is effectively running our civilization over a cliff?

It means that the combined actions of 7.9B people, each doing their best in the context of the ever-changing circumstances of each moment, and each of whom are entirely biologically and culturally conditioned and not in ‘individual’ control of their decisions and actions at all, determine the state and trajectory of human civilization.

We are predisposed to do everything we do, including whether and how we vote. Again, that’s not to say everything’s predestined, predictable, or preordained — the circumstances of the moment enormously affect what we do, and they are utterly unpredictable and beyond our control.

This isn’t defeatist or nihilistic. It’s actually pretty amazing how our rudderless civilization has evolved and what it’s come up with despite no one being in the driver’s seat.

As it becomes more and more evident that it doesn’t matter whether we vote for the Tweedledum or Tweedledee party, this will not necessarily affect voter turnout, at least in the short run. Most of us, I suspect, are now well conditioned to vote against the party or candidate that we find most repulsive, and turnout seems to reflect the degree of repulsiveness of the most repulsive party or candidate. Though, as we get conditioned to more or less repulsiveness in the candidates, that trend will tend to even out as well.

At some point, what is likely to happen is that the party in power will

  1. restrict who you can vote for in the next election,
  2. enact laws enabling it to stay in power longer or ‘forever’, and/or
  3. restrict what governments can do, and hence ‘privatize’ the real power so it’s not subject to the vagaries of elections.

This is happening, more or less blatantly, everywhere. Examples of (i) are: the Democratic Party’s squelching of the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, twice; and the first-past-the-post system, which largely precludes “third” (non-Tweedle) parties from winning elections.

Examples of (ii) are gerrymandering, the ending of term limits, and the usual forms of government-in-power propaganda. Examples of (iii) are everywhere, as governments of the day sell off public properties cheap to their donors and ‘friends’, privatize government services to other ‘friends’, and completely deregulate the private sector.

Eventually, we will be conditioned to shrug off the fact that there are no elections anymore — that, to use John’s words, our countries have decided to “dispense with the superfluous Changing of the Governments”. All it took was a quiet, backroom handshake between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And what difference did it make?

We’ve been conditioned, in most western nations anyway, to believe that elections are essential to democracy and good government. And that the only alternative to the election of ‘representatives’ to make and manage laws, is tyrannical and self-serving oligarchies.

But there are many alternatives to obtain information and consensus of citizens about what laws to pass and how to enforce them. One alternative is Citizens’ Assemblies, where groups of citizens are selected at random to learn about particular issues and recommend the best alternatives to address them, and then, their work done, disband. These have been used in many variations in different societies around the world throughout history. They’re what Extinction Rebellion has concluded is the only way to actually change laws and economies fast enough to at least lessen runaway climate change.

It was a revelation to me to realize that a quick end to our modern industrial economy was not only viable, it was inevitable, and the sooner it happens, the less the global devastation and suffering and the sooner the healing of our planet from its excesses can begin. How had I been so conditioned as to believe our way of life was not only worth “saving”, it was the only way for humans to live?

Perhaps the same is true for that economy’s handmaiden — the idea of ‘representative’ democracy using elections and voting.

Maybe there’s another way, a better way. As unimaginable as it might be for us now, perhaps our future is a world where power (and wealth) are vested in citizens selected at random, and vested only long enough and narrowly enough to address a specific issue. As The Dawn of Everything explains, such means of getting things done for the betterment of all have many historical precedents.

If “the Changing of the Governments” is becoming superfluous, perhaps rather than trying to make such changes meaningful and essential again, we should try doing without “governments”, at least as we know them in their awful, sclerotic, dysfunctional and unrepresentative form, entirely.

That may be unthinkable now (except to those who have studied the history and principles of anarchy), but so, even twenty years ago, was the idea that industrial/financial capitalism is a failed and unsalvageable experiment.

Maybe it’s time to stop trying to save or fix what does not and never did work, and try something that has, and just might.

image of ballot box from Wikimedia, CC0

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

Frogs’ Hollow

This is a work of fiction.

Canadian soldiers monitor Afghan citizens being questioned in Kandahar, 2008; photo by Allauddin Khan in Canadian Dimension.

I saw him pretty often on my trips to Loblaws grocery last year. He looked old and tired. He wore camouflage pants and a torn white tee shirt, and always looked around warily for the store’s security staff, who would regularly shoo him off ‘their’ grounds. I usually put whatever change I had in my pockets, including loonies and toonies, in his cup, as I walked to, or from, the store entrance, and nodded and smiled to him. He always smiled and said “Thank you”.

The last time I saw him, he had made a new sign, which he held up as people entered or left the store. It said:

Half of all moneys raised go to feed starving Afghan children.

“Wow,” I said to him, “That’s new. How’s that going over?”

“So-so,” he replied. “Most people don’t believe me, even when I show them this and assure them it’s not for the Taliban.”

He held out a thank-you letter and tax receipt from an Afghan charitable organization, in English, Dari and Pashto. It was for AFN 10,000, which he told me was about $150 Canadian. “Half of what I made here last month. I don’t lie. The kids there need it more than I do.”

“Good for you, man,” I said. “There are lots of needy people — what made you decide to give it to Afghan kids?”

He looked at me forlornly. “I served there,” he replied. “Did three years out of the fourteen Canada was part of the occupying force. It was a total failure from day one, and the Americans were there for twenty years. And now Biden has seized all the humanitarian funds in bank accounts set up to help Afghan citizens deal with the sanctions and the famine. It’s criminal. He’s taking the food out of Afghan children’s mouths. So I try to do something.”

No one, I noticed, was listening to our conversation. They walked by and wheeled their carts around us as if we weren’t even there.

“You were there on the ground for three years? What was your sense of the place, and the people?”

“My grandfather came to Canada from Pakistan,” he replied. “So I learned Urdu and some Pashto from him when I was little. Pashto is what’s spoken in Kandahar, near where I was stationed. So unlike most of my colleagues, I could actually speak with the locals. Want to know what they told me?”

I nodded.

“‘If you want to help us’, they told me, ‘listen to what we need. We don’t need your help fighting ISIL or liberating our women from the Taliban. What we need is help rebuilding the social fabric and infrastructure of this burned-out, hollowed-out land, that’s been destroyed by generations of occupying armies, wars, and deliberate, thoughtless destruction. What you call scorched earth I think. Taliban are not nice people, but they can help us do this, in our own language. We need help to rebuild our destroyed schools, but we don’t want your help telling us what should be taught in them. And the other thing you need to know is that Kabul is not Afghanistan. It is its own separate world, full of corrupt men. When you deal with them, you just make our situation worse.'”

“That’s what they told you? How did you feel about that?”

“I tried to put myself in their shoes. I know that if this had happened to us in Canada, we would want humanitarian aid but without strings attached. We would want to be trusted to redevelop our destroyed country in our own way. So I tried to help, but the commanding officers of all the occupying forces, including ours, didn’t understand. I kept getting in trouble, and finally I was discharged. PTSD, and a bunch of injuries from landmines. But I get by. I’m not starving like most of the kids in Afghanistan.”

“Wow, that’s quite the story. Sorry you’ve had to face that. Must have been awful. I confess that the fact that women in Afghanistan have been treated so poorly by the Taliban probably explains why there’s been so little outrage about Biden’s theft of humanitarian aid funds from Afghanistan.”

“Yeah, I get that”, he said. “I hate all religions, and the horrible violence they have caused throughout history and continue to cause today. Thirty-one countries still routinely perform genital mutilation on young girls in the name of religion, and we don’t have embargoes or sanctions against any of them. And international businesses are still operating in Florida and Texas, despite those states’ repudiation of the basic rights of women there. We can’t legislate against ignorance and superstition, and even when we prohibit discrimination it just drives it underground. We’re all doing our best. There are atrocities going on everywhere. That doesn’t justify stealing food money from the mouths of children.”

We were quiet for a moment. I continued to marvel at how the shoppers with their loaded grocery carts continued to ignore us. In much of the US they seem to taunt and beat and lock up the homeless. Here, we just pretend they don’t exist. Finally, I spoke up:

“Thanks for this conversation; it’s been enlightening. Can I ask you the story of the toad pin you’re wearing?”

“Sure,” he replied. “The area I was stationed in was called Frogs’ Hollow. After the Canadians put in a water treatment system beside the base, the area was practically overrun with frogs. Frogs are really well adapted to the beautiful, arid conditions in the country. When the rains come, they explode into life, and the rest of the time they just wait, quietly, patiently, in dormancy. Kind of like the Afghan people, perhaps, except they’ve now been waiting for a long, long time.

“So,” he continued, “the frog, and the frog pin, is kind of my way of saying that no matter how bad it gets, no matter how long you have to wait, one day the rains will come, finally. One day it’ll be our turn.”

At that moment he spotted the store security guards walking toward him. I was annoyed, ashamed, other feelings I couldn’t quite understand. I squared myself to tell them to leave him alone, but he shook his head, saying “It’s OK,” and then waved to them and said “It’s fine officers, just talking to my friend here… on my way now!”

And as he turned, lifting two large canvas bags and walking away from the store, he smiled at me sadly and said “One day…”

Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

Making Our Measurement Systems a Little Bit Better

map from statista, CC BY-ND 3.0

One of the things I often lament about the massive centralized systems modern humans seem predisposed to develop, is that they grow so large, complicated and cumbersome that they become essentially incapable of being changed, even if there is overwhelming agreement on both the need for change and the nature of the change that’s needed.

An obvious example is the utter incapacity of world governments to rid ourselves of the scourge of moving clocks back and forth twice a year. Early this year, the US Senate unanimously (!) agreed to forever cease semi-annual clock changes, starting in November 2023. One would think that this would be enough to make it happen.

But no, the House doesn’t consider it a priority, so it is unlikely to even be put to a vote there, and, yet again, the proposal will die and will go back to the drawing board.

Canada and many other countries already have laws ready that will likewise dispense with clock changes — as soon as the US enacts theirs. (It’s too confusing for international commerce and airlines to have two different systems.)

This is a totally dysfunctional situation — governments and citizens all over the world overwhelmingly want a simple change made in the law to stop forcing them to change their clocks twice a year, but still, it doesn’t happen.

How we measure things seems to be a frequent exemplar of the dysfunction of human systems. Here are some more examples of mis-measurement, and some simple ideas to improve how we measure things:

  1. The measurement of years in “BCE” (BC) or “CE” (AD) terms. This is a silly anachronism, especially when there is no year zero in this calendar. It makes computing time spans needlessly complicated, and is completely arbitrary. What would make more sense would be to add a number to all years that would make every year a positive number. If that number were 10,000, for example (the age, some say, of the oldest human civilizations), our current year would be 12022. I’d suggest a symbol be used instead of letters of abbreviation to denote it — maybe the symbol » (to represent ‘the arrow of time’). So in historical documents we’d refer to 300 BC as »9700, and we’d denote last year as »12021. In current documents we might replace the leading 1 with the | symbol so that last year would be the more familiar »|2021. Some scientists who often reference much longer time periods, where the precise year is unimportant, use the abbreviation BP (‘before present’), so that ‘300 million years before now’ is written 300MYBP (or MYA). For this, we could use the complementary ‘less than’ symbol, so it would become 300M«. 
  2. Let’s also look at our current conventions for calendar months and weeks, a horrible hodgepodge of historical accidents and misunderstandings. If we really need to keep 7-day weeks, then Hank Green’s idea of having 13 months of 28 days each, with an extra day at year-end (a global holiday of course) makes sense, so that (i) the first of every month falls on the same day of the week and (ii) every month is the same length. (There would be two extra days in leap years). Personally I like the idea of making weeks shorter, such as only 6 days long, keeping the two weekend days of course, so that the four day work week becomes a fait accompli. And I like the idea of 10 months, so that would mean 36 days per month (6 six-day weeks a month, all of them starting on the same day every month), with a five-day carnival at the end of the year (six-days in leap-years). With ten months instead of twelve, we could eliminate the silly Imperial Emperor months of July and August, so that the names for the last four months of the year actually make sense (eg October becomes — ta da! — the 8th month). The only logical way to denote dates without the confusion of whether 9/11 is September 11th or November 9th, is to use the unambiguous and computer-sorting-friendly Y.MM.DD format, so that in Hank’s calendar, today (September 23rd, the 266th day of this non-leap year) would be »|2022.09.14 (the 7th day of the 2nd week of month 9) and in my calendar it would be »|2022.07.14 (the 2nd day of the 3rd week of month 7). In either case you could shorten it by omitting the |2022. — but please, no slashes, hyphens or ambiguous 2-letter months (eg MA which could mean either March or May).
  3. Can we please, once and for all, get rid of the ludicrous system that has two ten-o’clocks every day? The 24 hour clock has been around a long time. It’s time to use it everywhere. I’d love to move the whole day to metric, with ten, one-hundred minute hours per day, and each minute lasting 100 seconds. My seconds would click by about 15% faster than the current measure, but we’d make it to the end of the day at the same time, and my h:mm:ss notation would be so much easier to work with than the current base 60. But that’s probably a bit ambitious when we can’t even get rid of clock changes no one wants.
  4. And can we please get with the metric system, all of us, at last? If you want to fondly remember furlongs and farthings, fine, but don’t make the rest of the world use your arcane Imperial nonsense, or convert back and forth from/to it.
  5. It would be great to have one global ‘basket’ currency, against which all others would be measured and into (and out of) which all others could be converted. Currencies would make so much more sense if their value was based on some objectively-determinable formula (based on the actual production of real goods and services and the quality of life that that production ‘buys’, and not $%#& GDP). So instead of being at the mercy of damned grifters, speculators and hedge funds who play currency exchanges like lotteries, grossly distorting their real relative value, we would have stable currencies, easily converted. When it comes to currency values, ‘the market’ is an ass.
  6. And while I’m bashing GDP, how about a replacement for it based on a mix of objectively measured and subjectively-felt well-being? The fact that anyone still considers increases in GDP as in any way representing a healthy economy or a ‘good thing’, is insane. And at the very least, we should be using median per-capita measures, and GINI indices of inequality, not ‘averages’ of billionaires and paupers.
  7. Two of the most important measures of economic health we use now are unemployment rate and rate of inflation. Let’s start using the real numbers instead of the trumped-up fake numbers produced by governments ever since Reagan, Thatcher and their lying counterparts in other countries started distorting them in the 1980s.
  8. And please can we get rid of pennies, nickels, and other vestiges of ancient times that have no value and which cost a fortune to produce, manage and account for? And while we’re at it, if your currency is regularly used in vending machines, it should be in coins, not bills. That means US $1 and $5 and Canadian $5 and UK £5 and Euro €5 bills should now be coins. And for Pete’s sake, if your bills are still all the same colour in this day and age, give your head a shake. It’s »|2022 after all!

There are, of course, much greater injustices that could be quite simply corrected if lawmakers were to grow spines. For a start, we could reintroduce usury laws that would make it illegal to charge interest at more than 2% above the rate of inflation. The bankster usury that is now permitted on loans, lines of credit and credit cards means that many citizens are paying interest at an annual rate of 30% or more on their debts (the US median rate, for the 99%, is about 16%), which is simply obscene. And we could return to taxing capital gains (unearned income) at rates at least as high as the tax rates on earned income.

Still, fixing how we measure things might be an easy way to start making everyone’s lives easier, and give us a much clearer picture of what is currently going on in our society and economy than the current awkward, outmoded and obfuscating ones.

Thanks to Kelly Gavin for prompting my thoughts on this post. The snarky tone is my own.

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

A Culture Built on Lovely, Wrong Models

A model of Lafarge Lake Skytrain Station and the Evergreen Cultural Centre in Coquitlam, near where I live, made of 40,000 LEGO blocks.  The model is housed in the building depicted in the centre of the model. It’s a gorgeous model, meticulously created by the Vancouver LEGO club, but it doesn’t need to, or presume to, tell you how the train, the station, or the centre actually work.

The human brain “makes sense” of things by identifying apparent patterns in the signals it perceives, and then by creating elaborate models of how it conceives reality to be, based on those perceptions. These models or representations of reality are then shared with others, and accepted, rejected or amended, to produce our beliefs and worldview. Collectively, these beliefs, and the behaviours that stem from them, constitute our culture.

Part of these models are representations of the ‘space’ and ‘time’ in which the brain’s perceptions and conceptions are assumed to be ‘situated’ — the models just don’t make any sense without such a framework. And then, to make the models ‘useful’, another part of the model is assumed to be situated in the centre of these representations — designated as ‘here’ and ‘now’. We call these essential parts of the model ‘selves’.

The brain doesn’t particularly know or care whether these representations are accurate representations of reality. Its job is just to perceive, conceive, and model — to ‘make sense’, as best it can, of everything it is ‘aware’ of. The most important quality of the model is not its accuracy but its utility. Like a good map, the model doesn’t need to be (and can never be) exact and include everything ‘real’ in it. That would make it impossibly complex, useless and unfathomable. So it simplifies.

That seems to work. The perception of ‘orange’, ‘big’, and ‘fast moving’ leads to the conception of ‘tiger’ and the body quickly responds with a fight, flight or freeze response. The brain adds to the model constantly, so that in the city, ‘orange’, ‘big’, and ‘fast moving’ might be a taxi or a bus. Our instinctive response is modified accordingly, whether we are in the path of the bus, about to step in front of it, or furious that it didn’t stop for us. Pretty good model, no?

No, actually. It’s a really, really simple model. It is ignorant of a million things, from the state of the mind of the bus driver (or tiger) to the state of the bus’ brakes (or the tiger’s eyesight), to the state of mind of the person behind us on their phone who, when we stop quickly, is actually going to bump into us and push us into the bus’ (or tiger’s) path, when, had we kept going instead of stopping, would have resulted, perhaps, in the bus driver, seeing us walking into the road instead of stopping, possibly braking in time. Or in the tiger, not presented with a yelling, flailing body staggering into its path, ignoring our presence completely. Simplified models can be dangerous misrepresentations of reality.

What’s worse, in our brain’s desperate sense for ‘meaningful’ patterns, we can easily come to conceive of patterns that aren’t really there at all, just because we want them to be there — because if they were, it would be interesting, or reassuring, or give us an ‘aha’ moment, or even, if we were the first to articulate it well, our fifteen minutes of fame, or wealth, or power.

And then, having conceived these things, and persuaded others of their veracity, we come to believe them, and make others believe them, and pretty soon you have a whole mass of people believing something that is completely invalid — like our beliefs about immigrants, or gays, or CoVid-19, or trickle-down economics, or strict parenting, or abortion, or the war in Ukraine, or the inevitability of progress, or good and evil, or how to operate education systems, health care systems, or penal systems.

To come to believe these things, we have to develop, or accept, an absurdly simplified model that is nothing more than a conception in someone’s brain — our own or that of someone we trust. And if we want to believe them, we will overlook any evidence or logic that clearly refutes them.

A while ago, I coined what I call Pollard’s Law of Human Beliefs, that goes like this:

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

Perhaps a corollary of that law is that we will create models, representations of reality and truth that correspond to what we want to believe, for various reasons, and/or what we have been led to believe by others we trust. And we will use these models, and rely on them and defend them, even in the face of overwhelming evidence (which we will ignore or deny) that they are untrue, that they bear no resemblance to the reality they purport to represent.

And by doing so, we will be flirting with incredible danger — of stirring up needless hatred, jealousy, shame, envy, grief, anxiety, or guilt, of starting or prolonging or supporting a fight or even a war, of enabling liars and hate-mongers and sociopaths to acquire power and wealth and oppress others, of traumatizing friends, family, or strangers, of getting people savagely punished, ostracized or killed, of causing injury, loss and destruction, of spreading or perpetuating a disease, or of instigating or enabling any number of beliefs, feelings and actions that cause suffering to ourselves, our loved ones and others.

All because we just wanted to believe, we wanted something to be true, to be “as simple as that”. And we couldn’t help ourselves.

All of the models we employ and deploy so diligently in our work of sustaining and building a society and culture — in business, in child-rearing, in teaching, in politics and law and law enforcement, in economics and finance, in health care, in journalism and book-writing and many other human endeavours — are just rough representations, guesses, opinions, stuff we mostly want to believe is true and simple, when it is often untrue, and when the situation is almost always vastly more complex than we can hope to comprehend.

The simple, beautiful, elegant “untrammelled free market” model, for example, thus produces not efficiency but grotesque, ruinous inequality. The theoretically-sound hierarchical model of business produces not merit-based advancement and effectiveness but vicious competition, chronic dysfunction, sociopathic leaders and disengaged wage slaves.

The idealized model of self-regulating industry produces not social responsibility but climate and ecological collapse. The inspiring model that employs debt, subsidies and marketing to stimulate production produces not prosperity and the promised “perpetual growth” but economic excess, massive waste and ultimately economic collapse.

In short, all of our models are wrong — of necessity they are grossly oversimplified, woefully incomplete, and incapable of effectively determining either the best course of action, or the potentially disastrous impact of their implementation.

But we can’t help ourselves. Our models are the only tools we have. We are trying to do our best.

Even now, we are using absurdly flawed Cold War military models that are blowing up in our faces and risking both economic calamity and nuclear disaster. Even now we are scheming to use geo-engineering to try to stem runaway climate collapse, essentially a Hail Mary shot in the dark, when we have absolutely no idea what we’re doing or what its potential consequences might be. All we have are a few simple models, and a million unknowns.

This is the culture that, with the best of intentions, we have created.

We mistake our models, our guesses, our opinions and our beliefs for real knowledge, and convince ourselves we may, soon enough, know everything. But we know nothing. We’re just fumbling around in the dark, pretending we aren’t clueless, and destroying our planet in the process.

Still, they’re lovely models, aren’t they? Like the LEGO model in the photo, they’re beautiful, they’re fascinating. Even a child can appreciate them. My book, my blog, all the key milestones of my professional career were all about presenting and using new and compelling models. Without our models, we would just be another species of dumb animals, right?

It’s too bad none of our models actually work. But hey, aren’t they great? Look!: intersecting circles, pyramids, cause and effect charts, systems diagrams! It’s all there, everything we need to save the world. Awesome, huh? Now, all we need to do is…

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

No Free Will: “Them’s Fightin’ Words!”

This post is a bit of a ramble, but I think there are some important ideas in it.

The prison of the self: cartoon by Michael Leunig

Some funny/strange things happened when I ceased to believe in the existence of free will:

  1. I stopped reading books that, after excellent diagnoses of the sorry state of the world and of human culture and human health in particular, concluded with lame, simplistic prescriptions, many along the lines of “We all have to …”, or “The first thing you need to do is …”
  2. I began to see the ludicrousness of our incarceration systems, predicated on the morally and philosophically bankrupt idea that punishment is an appropriate and effective way to deal with anti-social behaviour. I also understand why, despite this, there are more people incarcerated than ever before in history.
  3. Likewise, I began to see “twelve step” programs, CBT, “reprogramming”, diet regimes, and similar programs to change human behaviour as cruel and misguided. And I understood why they were created, and why they are so popular, and why, despite the overwhelming evidence they don’t work, they haven’t been supplanted by something that does work.
  4. I appreciated at last why I have always found most self-help and self-improvement books loathsome and patronizing. And I understood why they are so popular, and why so many well-intentioned people are driven to write them.
  5. I stopped blaming people for their beliefs and actions, no matter how outrageous and dangerous I found them, and stopped using the words “evil” and “insane” and their equivalents, to describe people and their actions. And I understood our propensity to assign blame, to ourselves and to others.
  6. I stopped believing in nonsense homilies like “You can accomplish anything you set out to do if you believe and work hard enough at it”. And I understood why so many believe so desperately that these homilies are true, must be true.
  7. I stopped believing in meritocracies (including reward systems in schools and workplaces). And I understood why almost all educational institutions and workplace hierarchies are based on them, and why they are so little challenged.
  8. I stopped using judgemental, absolutist terms like good and bad, fairness and justice, because they presume we have the free will to behave in any other way than the way we do, when we do not. I know that’s a sacrilege, a culturally offensive statement. Acknowledging this truth did not come easily to me. And I understand why my saying so rubs so many people the wrong way.

I’ve written about this a lot, but would again recommend The Secret History of Kindness by Melissa Holbrook Pierson if you are open to the possibility that we have no free will whatsoever.

Just to be clear, I am not a determinist. I don’t think everything in life is foreordained or predictable — there are a million variables that change the situation we face, every instant, and they have an enormous impact on what we think and do. My argument, based on the preponderance of evidence I have witnessed, read about, and studied, is that, given those ever-changing circumstances, how we react to them is strictly a result of our biological and cultural conditioning and not the result of any exercise of self-control, independent rational thought, choice or free will.

I have no time for the fake ‘non-dualists’, gurus, and spiritual ‘leaders’ who, to avoid alienating their large and lucrative flocks of faithful readers and followers, claim that there is a road to happiness, liberation, enlightenment, oneness, fulfillment, or awakening — a claim that seems to say that, while we are all ‘one’, we still have “kind of” free will that allows us, if we are made of the right stuff, individually to resist ‘bad’ actions and successfully and consciously pursue ‘good’ actions. You can’t have it both ways, folks. You either have free will, or you don’t.

Melissa’s book provides lots of evidence that we don’t, and, now that my blinkers are off, I see the evidence all around me.

But in this article I’m not trying to convince anyone — instead I’m trying to articulate the implications if you believe we lack free will.

I am always astonished at the things that now trigger rage, or outrage, or fear, in me. They don’t make sense, but still the anger and terror are there — in my reaction to careless drivers, to badly-designed systems, tools and processes, to cruel behaviours that belittle, oppress, and terrify others. I know the perpetrators can’t do other than what they do. I know they are acting out their trauma, or doing their best, incompetently. The anger and terror diminish much more quickly, now, than they once would have, but they still arise, making a fool of ‘me’, in retrospect.

Gabor Maté has a new book out, one destined to be a best-seller, since, not only does it rehash his brilliant condemnation of the way we fail to prevent and account for childhood trauma and disconnection in the ubiquitous modern malaise that I’ve dubbed Civilization Disease, but it also includes a new self-diminishing (we all love that stuff) story about his own humbling “spiritual awakening”.

Sadly, though, it ultimately deals in hope and redemption, those shoddy products of the tricksters in politics, business and religion that never turn out well. It prescribes both personal and societal solutions for the Disease that would be great, if they were possible, but which, like the magical-thinking global human consciousness-raising that some predict will save our species and planet from collapse, are no more possible than the Second Coming. Still, we want to believe. And, especially, we want to believe in our personal and collective free will to make the world better, to make it other than the only way it could have been and can be.

One of the things I like about the Japanese concept of ikigai, which encourages us to reflect on and map “what makes our life worthwhile”, is that it doesn’t prescribe ways to change who we are, to make our lives somehow ‘more’ worthwhile. It accepts that we are who we are, and focuses on self-awareness of ‘who’ that is, rather than the grim hopefulness of ‘self-improvement’. Indeed, some writers on the subject fully accept that we have no free will: The last chapter of Ken Mogi’s book is entitled Accept yourself for who you really are.

Though, of course, whether we can or do accept ourselves, or even care to try to discover who we “really are”, is not something in our control.

Another concept in ikigai philosophy that I’ve learned about more recently, is the idea that an entire community can have a collective ikigai. I wrote recently about how our communities are so fractured and incoherent, and my guess is that it would therefore be fruitless trying to suss out “what makes our community worthwhile to ourselves and to the more-than-human world of which we’re apart?”. This implies a humble sense of service to our community and the world that seems lost in the current cacophony of collapse.

Until collapse drives us to regain our sense of community, I think we’re going to have a harder time of it because we cannot answer that essential question, which is one not of identity, with which we’re so preoccupied these days, but, rather, of purpose.

There is a short story, or maybe a novella or play, brewing inside me these days about a (hero-less) group of people looking to build community after collapse. A key question for them must be their collective, emergent ikigai. I suspect that, unless its characters acknowledge their lack of free will, and appreciate their ‘a-part-ness’ and connection with the larger community of Earth, and discover their collective purpose as part of that greater whole, they will be humanity’s last tiny echo on the planet, rather than its reintegration into a damaged, healing planet.

Of course, they won’t have any choice in how that turns out.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments

Recuperation, Accommodation, and Resilience

Australian Peter Webb, at work in the Brasilian rainforest; photo from It’s Crow Time.

Peter Webb, one of the ‘pioneers of permaculture’ (which would make a cool name for a rock band), mentioned to me, in a recent email exchange about the essential skills that will be needed as collapse deepens, that perhaps one of those skills is recuperation.

Yes! One of my (and I suspect many people’s) constant laments is “I don’t have enough time to…”). Of course, that’s always a bit dishonest. If we really consider it urgent enough, we will find time for it. But there’s a paradox — If we give ourselves time to reflect, to do nothing, to recuperate, then we leave less time for other things we ‘should’ be doing. But if we don’t allow for this down time, we are likely to have less energy and attention for everything we do, and hence will not do anything as well as we could have. We may also ruin our health.

When I worked as an advisor to small businesses, I heard this a lot: All their time and energy was consumed dealing with the urgent, with crises, and there was never time to recharge, to just think, to ask the deeper and more important questions. Especially the why questions. The result, often, was burnout.

Now that collapse is everywhere around us, and the crises seem never-ending, there is an even greater danger that we will just keep fighting the fires until we drop, and never take the time to recuperate, to reflect, to think about the why’s, to imagine other possibilities, to just listen to the quieter voices.

Alice Walker was philosophical about this, when she wrote:

We will just keep going
Until we drop
And this is not a sad thing.
All the leaves that ever lived
Did the same.

But I’m also drawn by Ursula Le Guin’s comment about the importance of us learning to take the time to listen to the voices of women:

We are volcanoes.
When we women offer our experience as our truth,
as human truth,
all the maps change:
There are new mountains.

We cannot really listen, we cannot learn new truths, create new maps, if we are endlessly distracted and exhausted — if we don’t take time, make time, for recuperation.

As I see it, there are two ‘levels’ of recuperation: The first, in times of acute stress, is where we just stop moving, stop bemoaning endlessly and anxiously the sorry state of the world, stop fighting the fires even though they still rage, and put down our tools, sit, and wipe our brows. At this level we are still alert, still anxious, but allow ourselves to catch our breath, to sleep, eat and drink, and think about what makes sense to do next. This, I would say, is more a respite than a recuperation.

The second, in times of chronic stress, is where we make time to do nothing, to stop thinking and just pay attention, to just be. This is the real recuperation, with the time and space for real healing. Most of us aren’t very good at it, perhaps mainly because we don’t get much practice at it.

Of course, to the extent these recuperative activities allow us to perceive, to notice with new eyes and new energy, what we had missed in the frenzy — that intriguing new idea, that unrecognized new threat — our recuperation time might be short-lived.

Millions of ‘experts’ tell us, platitudinously, their advice on how to recuperate: This advice could fill lots of Bullshit Bingo cards, and includes: Breathing exercises, noticing your body’s aches and tensions and tightening and relaxing your muscles one at a time, taking care to look after your body’s immediate needs, drinking lots of water, giving yourself ‘permission’ for ‘deserved’ rest breaks, paying attention to what is happening non-judgementally, smiling and laughing, meditation (especially of the ‘mindfulness’ variety), contemplation and gratitude practices, warm baths, soothing music and singing, regular exercise, yoga, moving your body gently and continuously, eating the ‘right’ foods, ‘cross-crawl’ and similar ‘brain-confusing’ exercises, talking (or blogging) things out, helping others in worse positions than you, celebrations and rituals, ditching your phone and doom-scrolls and TV and social media, taking relaxing vacations, non-competitive play, and setting aside a specific time every day for just relaxing.

Did I miss any? This is not to criticize these methods, though my sense is that most of us have tried most of these at some point, and are still doing the ones that kinda work, and have given up on those that don’t. I think that’s my point about these methods, and about recuperation ‘practices’ (and other ‘self-help’ methods) in general — if they’re going to help us, we’ve probably already discovered them.

And my sense is that we are all so very different in what works for us, and what we’re conditioned to do and able to do, that general guidance (‘top 10’ lists etc) are pretty useless. I’m not a fan of ‘self-help’ books and cures, and even I have tried just about all of the methods in the list above. I could probably have told you in advance how well each was going to work. And having exhausted the list, I’m still not very good at recuperating.

So for me the question is more about how we can discover enough about ourselves to reveal what is the best method for recuperation for each of us. It’s a bit like finding a diet that works: If we’re disinclined to follow it, it doesn’t matter how convinced we are that it’s ‘good’ for us.

Peter wrote (emphases mine):

Recuperation it seems has less to do with getting something back and more to do with letting go (of something). Sort of paradoxical. But as you know, this space of paradox is extremely fruitful if we can remember to keep breathing and stop when we feel like it’s time to stop and feel or reflect. We men don’t always come with this possibility clearly defined in our genetics, so it can be unknown ground until we explore it alone in a loving manner. Can we allow ourselves? With all the weight and impulse to be someone and do something with ourselves in life or society; the inherited male ethic. As it falls apart within the ’spectrum’ we now live with, can we just be comfortable with who we are?

As the Earth (being) shrugs to relieve itself of some of the ‘human invents’, how do we recuperate a normality of humanity that has been perverted and led far away from a resonance with all of life (animate and inanimate) which share the planet with us? When we can let go, the ‘void’, which seems to be a primal fear, is not so frightening.

Time to jump together. With more space, time dances in a different way and our feet with it; if we allow ourselves. Sort of a ‘recuperation’ of what is natural for us.

I think Peter is right. It’s sometimes more a matter of remembering to do things that help us recuperate, when we need to, rather than just appreciating they can help when we do.

And we are so enculturated to react, to be outraged, to persevere, to keep struggling, to focus all our attention on the problem or predicament at hand, that it’s easy to forget to look after ourselves so we can stay healthy enough to continue the struggle. Sometimes it’s left up to our bodies to stop us, to say “no more” by falling ill, forcing us to recuperate.

I like Peter’s question about collective recuperation of our entire species, as part of the more-than-human world. But I don’t have any answers on how, or even if, that might happen.

“Letting go” is another matter, especially when we have been so conditioned to fear what we do not ‘know’. And part of letting go is the very acknowledgement that, as a tiny, bewildered part of the Earth “being”, we really don’t know very much.

I think his distinction between “getting something back (to ‘normal)” and “letting go” is a critical one. The former is about resilience, a primary catchword of this century, and one that I think may be seriously misguided. Only in our tiny, brief, narrow, prosthetic world is there such a thing as ‘normal’ to get back to. Our universe is a place of endless, tumultuous change.

“Letting go”, by contrast, is not about resilience, but rather about adaptation,  “fitness” in the Darwinian sense, making space and room for the always-new: accommodation.

When we cease to see recuperation as getting back to normal, and start to see it as adapting ourselves to, accommodating, the always- and ever-new reality, then perhaps we will get better at it. A lot of wild creatures seem to be pretty good at it, by practice, or by instinct. Some people in struggling nations already facing collapse are getting much better at it very quickly.

Think about welcoming two billion ecological collapse refugees, or being such refugees ourselves, constantly on the move. Think about learning to live without fossil fuels, imported goods, air travel, automobiles, currencies, and the internet. Think about learning all those new skills we will, of necessity, have to learn or relearn, and the incredible self-confidence, capacity and independence that learning them will bring us. Enough capacity, self-confidence and self-knowledge, perhaps, to become so good at recuperating that we’re ready for almost anything, instead of fearing, mourning, and resisting change.

Dmitry Orlov in his book Communities That Abide 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.

And, perhaps too, how to recuperate. They know there is no going back, no ‘normal’. Accommodating, in more ways than one.

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

Links of the Month: September 2022

I find myself these days vacillating between a state of quite blissful equanimity (a very new thing in my life) and a state of almost existential dread. As with most humans, I suspect, this is largely affected by immediate personal circumstances — in my case, the latest trajectory of my health and/or finances. In other respects (work stress, relationships, etc) my life is pretty stable.

My state of mind seems now much less affected by my perceptions about the state of the world. Partly this is due to the realization that there is nothing much that can be done about ecological or economic collapse, about the threats of war and nuclear escalation, about the political upheavals in the increasingly unstable nation to the south, about pandemics or natural disasters, or any of the other risks we now face, day-to-day. We can learn and practice new skills, and hope they will help us navigate collapse a bit better. But the world will go on, with or without us, so I now figure I might as well just enjoy the ride, and the opportunity to witness this remarkable time in this remarkable place.

Somehow, in spite of everything, it seems to be getting easier to do so.


image from a new study published in Science magazine. The loss of ice, sea ice, permafrost, reefs, glaciers, boreal and tropical forests, the release of underground and undersea methane, and the disruption of air and ocean currents, all exacerbate climate collapse caused by human carbon emissions into the atmosphere

Teetering on the edge: We are currently sitting right on the edge of passing many tipping points that will plunge the globe into runaway climate change.

Civilization’s suicide: Chris Hedges explains how our civilization’s collapse will be similar in its nature and style to past collapses, but vastly greater in scale. The earth, he says, will soon not be able to support more than a billion humans. Thanks to John Whiting for the link, and the three that follow.

52 meter sea level rise?: New research suggests the vast East Antarctic ice sheet is much more vulnerable to climate change than thought — even half of it melting would submerge two billion people’s homes in the ocean.

The impact of “limited” nuclear war: A landmark study of the impact of a small-scale nuclear war between India and Pakistan reveals that it would produce enough global cooling and agricultural collapse to cause as much as half the world’s population to die of starvation, even in countries half a world away from the conflict.

Death by fire, death by water: Climate change is simultaneously causing the greatest droughts in recorded history across the globe, and some of the greatest and most destructive flooding.

Or death by salt: Human activity is accelerating salt pollution around the globe, far more than desalination plants can compensate for. The consequences for the health of humans and other life forms are known, but nothing is being done to address the problem. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

What is humanly possible: Hank Green describes the massive, relentless and perilous effort of thousands that went into the recent surprise climate agreement approved in the US. It’s good news, but it’s just a tiny start, and achieving anything more at any scale will be even more difficult and more unlikely.


cartoon by the extraordinary Michael Leunig

Our deadly western diet: Our nutrition-poor diets are, by a mile, the largest contributor to death and disease in the western world. Finally, some nations are seriously looking at a national strategy to address this massive problem.

…and how entrepreneurs can help: I’m delighted that friends of mine at 100km Foods in Ontario have won yet another award for their business connecting producers and consumers of healthy foods.

Letting midwives provide abortion services: A midwife explains how letting their profession do abortions would save time and money and make the service safer and more accessible.

Improving primary care: By their focus on just-in-time walk-in clinics and tele-health, many jurisdictions in Canada are missing the opportunity to help our citizens get more holistic health care grounded in a more thorough knowledge of each person’s health and history — something only our currently understaffed and underfunded primary care services can properly provide.

Jeremy Corbyn calls for peace in Ukraine; and we almost had it: Seeking peace, with its commensurate compromises, is the only answer, Jeremy Corbyn urged, and it’s needed now. A peace agreement was nearly signed in April, before asshat Boris Johnson sabotaged it. Johnson insisted to Zelenskyy that there not be any peace negotiations with Russia.


cartoon of the world’s richest corporate welfare bum by Barry Blitt in the New Yorker

American democracy wasn’t designed to be democratic: “The partisan redistricting tactics of cracking and packing aren’t merely flaws in the system—they are the system“, writes the New Yorker’s Louis Menand. And Chris Hedges chimes in: “A functioning democracy could easily dispatch Donald Trump and his doppelgängers. A failed democracy and bankrupt liberalism assures their ascendancy.”

The invisible empire: White Empire, controlled by the US political-military-industrial establishment, is the most pervasive and one of the most destructive empires the world has ever seen, but we have been carefully conditioned not to use the E-word, explains Indrajit Samarajiva, so we have rendered it invisible in our media and discourse. And thanks to our caste system similarly rendered invisible, we don’t notice that White Empire is substantially secured and maintained by BIPOC people.

The oppressive power of debt: Riffing off David Graeber’s brilliant book, Rhyd Wildermuth explains how debt is used as a tool of oppression — medical debt, credit card debt, student debt, underwater mortgages, and the closing off of bankruptcy options for individuals oppressed by them. Meanwhile, bankruptcy remains a simple and profitable way for corporations to skip out of paying for failed property and business ventures. Individuals therefore become slaves to the system, forced to work harder and harder, obediently, to try hopelessly to pay down these impossible debts, just like indentured servants.

Canada’s Green Party dies a slow death: The ghastly demise of Canada’s Green Party continues. The execrable Elizabeth May, having driven a huge wedge into the party by purging those demanding the party take a stand against Israeli Apartheid (which the vast majority of members supported), has now driven a stake into its coffin by calling for the expulsion of those opposed to Canada’s supplying military aid to Ukraine, and by threatening to quit (again) if the bankrupt party delays its leadership convention (which she is contending) or closes its Ottawa office to save money. She and her right-wing supporters like Andrew Weaver have wrecked the party beyond repair, so even David Suzuki has abandoned them in disgust. The party’s president has likewise quit, fed up with the infighting, interference, and lack of accountability to its members.

Corpocracy, imperialism & fascism: Short takes:

Propaganda, censorship, misinformation, disinformation: Short takes:

CoVid-19 becomes the pandemic we all pretend is over: Short takes:

The economics of imperialism: Short takes:


cartoon by Liana Finck in the New Yorker

Another perception of life in Iran: If you got a kick out of Daniel’s visit to the Tibetan trailer park (link above), check out a day in Tehran with polyglot Zoë.

With and without you: Halsey’s song and video Without You created quite a stir. If you liked the original check out the Kompa remix by Haitian musician Chemdrumz — gives the song a very different feel. Some amazing art happens at intersections!

Beaverton (Canadian “the Onion”) headlines of the month:

  • “Columnist just going to re-run his ‘Nobody Wants To Work Anymore!’ editorial from last month to save the effort”
  • “Canada loses Conservative leadership race”
  • “1,392 Shoppers Drug Mart locations tie for ‘worst’ “
  • “Pope takes over empty apology duties from exhausted Trudeau”

Can we choose not to hate?: I recently wrote a blog post about our unique human proclivity to hate. Rhyd Wildermuth also wrote about hate recently, but he thinks we have a choice not to hate. Given that he and I agree on so much, I was intrigued by this difference.

On word puzzles and roses and feminism: A lovely rambling blog post by Lyz at Men Yell at Me. Just gorgeous writing. Thanks to PS Pirro for the link.

The right way to fight for your life: Also from Lyz, the harrowing story of 15-year-old Pieper Lewis, who spent two years in prison for stabbing her rapist, and had to pay the assailant’s family $150,000 in reparations. Contrast that with Kyle Rittenhouse, the right-wing vigilante who killed two men just because they were protesting, got off scott free, and became a hero on Fox News. Something is very rotten in the state of America.

Ugly Swedish lawns: Sweden is conserving water by rewarding the ugliest unwatered died-off lawn in a contest. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.


words to convey inexpressible feelings, from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

At the Pond, by Mary Oliver

One summer
I went every morning
to the edge of a pond where
a huddle of just-hatched geese

would paddle to me
and clamber
up the marshy slope
and over my body,

peeping and staring—
such sweetness every day
which the grown ones watched,
for whatever reason,

Not there, however, but here
is where the story begins.
Nature has many mysteries,

some of them severe.
Five of the young geese grew
heavy of chest and
bold of wing

while the sixth waited and waited
in its gauze-feathers, its body
that would not grow.
And then it was fall.

And this is what I think
everything is all about:
the way
I was glad

for those five and two
that flew away,
and the way I hold in my heart the wingless one
that had to stay.


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

Understanding Conservatives: How Morality Emerges and Evolves in Community

chemical refinery in Cancer Alley, Louisiana; image from Jim Bowen, flickr, CC BY 2.0

In his book Moral Politics, George Lakoff attempted to articulate the different compasses and worldviews of progressives vs conservatives. At the time, I thought his analysis, which stressed the emphasis of progressives on fairness and empathy, and the emphasis of conservatives on strict morality, self-discipline and self-reliance, was brilliant.

A few years later, after spending some time with Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting With Jesus, I began to appreciate the role fear plays in the beliefs and emotions of conservatives, and also how largely-implicit issues of class (what class you feel you are in and how it colours your perception of your own situation, and your attitudes towards what you perceive as other classes) play into the conservative worldview. Joe saw much of politics as being an endless class war unvoiced as such, and deliberately obscured by other (more divisive and emotionally charged) issues. Joe also told me that most of his rural Virginia family and neighbours had never met a Democratic Party candidate.

A few years later I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste, which positioned this class war in a larger and more global and historical context.

At my friend John Whiting’s suggestion, I have just read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Its revelations are consistent with those of the other three books, but the very detailed stories Arlie relates about Louisianans in the poorest, most incarcerated, and most polluted corner of the US, allow the reader to draw conclusions that are strikingly different from those of the other three books, and even, in my case, different from Arlie’s own assessments.

What was most remarkable to me while reading it, was how startlingly similar the feelings of the conservatives she interviewed are to the feelings of progressives, only seen through a very different historical, cultural, and perceptual lens. The negative feelings in both cases are an amalgam of fear, anger over ‘unfairness’, and often-suppressed shame, guilt, and grief. The positive feelings in both cases are a mix of hope, faith, and a passion to create a better world for future generations.

But while many progressives fear violence from, for example, gun-obsessed, reactionary, resentful, anti-democratic, “neofascist” conservatives, conservatives fear violence from anarchic, crime-ridden big cities and from ‘strange’ and dangerous immigrants who, they believe, don’t share their values.

And while progressives are angry at racism, misogyny, and loss of cherished freedoms like the right to abortion and the right to a ‘fair’ vote, conservatives are angry, after generations of poverty, neglect, and suffering, that their opaque, progressive-sensibility federal government is using ‘their’ tax dollars to pay subsidies that let women, immigrants, refugees and ‘minorities’ (the historically ‘lower castes’) “cut in line” ahead of them in their generations-long pursuit of the American Dream. Even “endangered species” are seen to be cutting in line, thanks to the hated EPA.

On the issue of caste, Arlie writes:

In the undeclared class war, expressed through the weary, aggravating, and ultimately enraging wait for the American Dream, those I came to know developed a visceral hate for the ally of the “enemy” cutters in line — the federal government. They hated other people for needing it. They rejected their own need of it—even to help clean up the pollution in their backyard.

Interestingly, it appears both ‘sides’ believe in the myth of progress (and in the virtue of hard work), while believing the other ‘side’ seemingly does not.

A key point in the book is that most conservatives (and I think the same could be said of many progressives) have managed to simply dismiss, and not talk about, problems and issues they see as largely unsolvable. This can be either through outright denial of the problem, or just a tacit blocking of ideas and concerns that simply don’t fit with their way of seeing the world. So in Louisiana, they talk about immigration (which they think can be ‘fixed’ by eg building a wall), but not about racism or climate change (which they don’t see a fix for).

The Louisianans interviewed have had their gorgeous natural environment despoiled, poisoned and destroyed, mostly by oil and chemical corporations that have been explicitly abetted by lax and corrupt local and state governments and by agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers, in the interest of attracting “jobs”. Thanks to thousands of spills, explosions (like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster), fracking accidents and earthquakes, deliberate “legal” and illegal emissions of toxic wastes into waterways, and mis-regulated underground storage of wastes and dangerous chemicals, the state has lost many times more permanent jobs (largely fishers’, farmers’, tourism and recreation jobs) than the toxic industries produced. Still, the locals see the corporations as fall guys rather than mega-polluters — they believe these organizations don’t want these disruptive and reputation-damaging events to happen, and isn’t that what regulators are supposed to be preventing?

So, they are inclined to blame the ‘bloated’ federal government for their ills, rather than corporations that are just doing what they can to make a profit, and at least bringing in some jobs while government regulators like the EPA are perceived to kill jobs and suck money out of the local economy to pay for Washington civil servants, welfare, and immigration. The fact these impressions are incorrect is beside the point — the ubiquitous belief they are true predates Fox News by decades. On average, they believe about 40% of the US workforce is employed by the federal government (the actual percentage is 1.9%).

The book suggests that, while the church, and right-wing media, play a disproportionally-large role in these people’s lives, the morality that underlies their fierce and unchallenged beliefs is mostly peer/community/historically-based, and shared by those who do not attend church or pay attention to any media. Most believe, for example, that the EPA, health and social services, education, energy, ‘interior’ and other departments are huge, incompetent and corrupt and should simply be abolished. Most believe that local, community-based self-help social service organizations (many of them operated by the church) are more effective than “public” ones run by state or federal government “bureaucrats”. I know a lot of progressives who believe the same thing.

The churches and media are reflecting the beliefs of their communities, in other words, more than influencing them. Arlie found that the most hyperbolic “talking points” of the right-wing media were rarely parroted by the local citizens. They didn’t need Fox News to tell them what to believe, though they found it reassuring that, compared to all the “liberal media”, the right-wing media at least sympathized with what they felt and believed. They have always (for a century at least) believed that accepting welfare is kinda shameful, and that abortion and homosexuality are simply wrong. If the polls suggest a tilt one way or another, that’s probably because those who felt their beliefs were out of touch with what the pollsters expected or believed, simply declined to participate in the poll.

And an astonishing 41% of all Americans believe the Rapture will come by 2050. So if God is soon going to magically fix everything that humans could not, why worry about climate change?

This lens of community-based and community-embedded morality, in the words of the reviewer of the book linked below, “provides a necessary way of navigating prosaic everyday dilemmas, hardships and injuries. It makes sense of the world for them.” We progressives talk a lot about the importance of community and community-building, but for many conservatives, especially those outside the cities, they are already living in dynamic, valuable communities — communities that, they think and feel, used to work well, but have ceased to do so since the “liberals” took over the country.

I think it is their/our isolation from each other that largely precludes both sides from understanding each other. It is hard to hate someone who walks in your shoes every day, but it is really hard to care about someone you’ve never met and have no context for understanding.

After reading the book, I’m going to try to be more cautious about labelling those who believe morality is more important than democracy as being “Republican Christian Fascists”, as I now appreciate that the group that believes this is much more nuanced than that label recognizes. The idea that corporations are “honest scoundrels” who deliver some good, while governments are well-intentioned but dishonest (even to themselves) scoundrels who deliver much less good, is a fascinating one.

Perhaps the Trumpists (and the Brexiters) are able to see the growing dysfunction of government as an economic actor at every level, and are ready to contemplate living without it, while we naive and idealistic progressives still believe that it’s the best answer. (Of course, the Trumpists are naive about corporate rule of the economy, and about limiting government regulation to moral issues, being in any way more functional.)

My main take-away from the book is that each human community’s particular morality is an emergent phenomenon, not something that is readily taught or easy to inculcate in anyone not readily disposed to accept it. And we make our decisions more on the basis of what we feel than what we rationally think is true — so our morality easily trumps our belief in democracy when the two seem to be inexorably at odds. Conservatives don’t care that much about whether their political system is democratic, as long as it’s moral and fair, by their way of thinking.

As more and more anglophone and European nations skew harder and harder right, buoyed by delighted conservatives exploiting non-democratic flaws in our political systems, and feeling their time in power has finally come, how are progressives going to respond? Will we start to reject our dysfunctional so-called democracies as well? And if so, will we use our slight ‘majority’ to replace them with something that is moral and fair, to us? Or will we see a global bifurcation and/or balkanization, where conservative and progressive governments and communities will co-exist autonomously, uneasily, and side-by-side?

If you’re interested in learning more about the book, here’s a link to a detailed review (which draws parallels to what’s happened in the UK with Brexit) and to the book’s final chapter.

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