What Does It Mean to “Hospice Earth”?

“Hospice”; an AI painting by Midjourney, based on my own prompt

In his new book I Want a Better Catastrophe, Andrew Boyd describes “12 characters in search of an apocalypse“, and provides a flowchart explaining how each of these 12 collapsnik ‘archetypes’ would answer a series of questions about how to respond to, and cope with, the realization of the accelerating collapse of our global ecosystems (along with our unsustainable now-global economy).

Eight “ecological thinkers” representing eight of those archetypes are interviewed in the book, and Andrew has provided these remarkable quotes to summarize their thinking:

  • Robin Wall Kimmerer — “How can I be a good ancestor?”
  • adrienne maree brown — “How do we fall as if we were holding a child on our chest?”
  • Jamey Hecht — “Witness the whole human story through tragic eyes.”
  • Joanna Macy — “Be of service not knowing whether you’re a hospice worker or a midwife.”
  • Gopal Dayaneni — “We’re going to suffer, so let’s distribute that suffering equitably.”
  • Meg Wheatley — “Give in without giving up.”
  • Tim DeChristopher — “It’s too late—which means there’s more to fight for than ever.”
  • Guy McPherson — “If we’re the last of our species, let’s act like the best of our species.”

The flowchart has two ‘exits’. The first asserts hopefully that collapse can be mitigated or averted or at least slowed down and made less awful (as Andrew puts it, we have a choice between a “better catastrophe and a worse one”). The second exit concludes that it cannot. There is some nuance between the two: One can privately, quietly acknowledge that our situation is hopeless, and still “act as if” it weren’t. I think an increasing number of people are at that stage, for a number of reasons.

For those who have moved beyond hope, and acknowledged that human civilization on this planet is reached its inevitable “Endgame”, Andrew uses the phrase “Hospice Earth”. He defines this as the idea “that at the end of the world we’re all in hospice together, both to and for each other — [and this] becomes strangely comforting”, and cites Jamey Hecht as saying it “enjoins us to take care of each other as things fall apart, and to continue to honor the beauty and nobility of life even as the sun sets on our species”.

Joanna Macy, who seems most associated with the hospice metaphor (neither a Google search nor ChatGPT could identify the term’s originator), told Andrew that the purpose of her work is now to try to ensure “that when things come apart, we will not turn on each other”.

Beyond that, the book is silent as to what ‘hospicing Earth’ entails. And so, it appears, is the web.

When I first saw the term, I interpreted the word hospice as a verb, not as a noun. So — What does it mean to hospice Earth?

To hospice means to care for someone who has ceased treatment for an advanced or incurable ailment, primarily by making them comfortable and helping to relieve their pain and suffering as they die, and not doing ‘interventions’ that don’t reduce pain and suffering. To some extent, it means just being with them.

I have no idea what it would mean to ‘hospice Earth’ — our whole planet and every creature and object in it. It’s one of those nice warm fuzzy expressions that could mean just about anything.

My sense is we don’t actually want to hospice anyone, when it comes right down to it. It’s a huge and thankless and depressing responsibility. You can quickly burn out dealing with those whose situation is hopeless and who are going to die soon anyway. I have enormous admiration for the people I’ve met who do this work, and who refuse to let it harden their hearts.

Hospice is something that, in most non-industrial cultures, has always been done by entire communities, sharing and holding that heavy responsibility collectively. In most of our cultures, we have forgotten what it even means to be part of a real community. A place where everyone succeeds or everyone fails. A place where you learn to love people you really don’t like. A place where your individual ‘rights’ are subordinated to the needs and preferences of the collective. In our modern cult of individuality and personal success and failure, who would even tolerate that, let alone live in accordance with it?

And how are we to know how to hospice for the more-than-human world, when our species has shown itself both inept and uninterested in hospicing even humans outside our immediate small circles? We no longer have any sense of connection with, and true reverence for, the more-than-human world, and we think we’re going to suddenly reverse the imminent extinction of a million species and care for them the way we care for select other humans? Not to mention ‘caring’ for future generations whose inheritance we have so witlessly squandered.

We are not to blame — no one is to blame — for any of this callousness, ignorance and ineptitude. It’s how we’ve been conditioned, all doing our best to get by with the cards dealt to us, eight billion of us whose struggles have collectively produced the catastrophe we are now in the midst of, a catastrophe that is accelerating and is totally beyond our control. But I think to suggest that we might have the competence to hospice our entire planet is just hubris.

Some have suggested it might even be better, more compassionate, to accelerate civilization’s collapse so that the suffering and misery associated with it ends sooner and the healing begins faster.

So I’m afraid I don’t want a ‘better catastrophe’. I don’t want any catastrophe, but I know it’s coming, and that I will be pretty much useless to help with the critical skills that communities (if they re-emerge) will need to cope with it, before the final stages of collapse undo everything any of us has tried to do.

If I were more competent, less lazy, and a faster learner, I would do what Derek Jensen is doing — I’d find some local ecological atrocity (a no-longer-useful dam, a horribly polluted waterway), figure out how to decommission or clean it, and roll up my sleeves and get to work. Actually improving the local ecology in some meaningful, if temporary, way. It’s not impossible that I might still do so. But probably not. The waterway, like everything else, is fucked anyway in the long run. The ‘patient’ is going to die soon anyway. I’d make a lousy hospice worker.

Guy McPherson wants us to “be the best of our species”, to go out with a bang. Sounds good. But I have exactly the same problem with that good intention as I do with the intention to hospice the planet. We’re just not up to the job. We do what we’re conditioned to do, and that is going to fall short of any of the high bars we set for ourselves. We’re just going to have to settle for the ultimate low bar, the one we can achieve — to be able to say we tried our best.

Posted in Collapse Watch | 6 Comments

Longing to be Free (a guest post)


Amidst the chaos of our modern days,
A call resounds that beckons to our soul,
A whisper in the wind that gently sways,
And bids us to embrace a primal goal —

To roam the earth and revel in its grace,
To live unburdened by the weight of chains,
To find a path that’s not a rigid race,
And breathe free air that’s not within constraints.

But civilization’s yoke has tied us fast,
Its rules and norms a leash upon our will,
And culture’s chains have bound us to our past,
A slave to dogma that we must fulfill.

And so we yearn for that which we have lost,
For freedom that can only come with cost,
To break the shackles that we bear in vain,
And break the mold that keeps us all in chains.

Yet still we hesitate, for fear and doubt,
For loss of comfort, and the unknown route,
And so we stay, within our cage to dwell
A captive to the world, a slave to hell.

Oh, if only we could find the strength to rise,
To break the mold and seize the open skies,
To cast aside the chains that bind us tight,
And soar like eagles in an endless flight.

I’m hoping that you read the poem above, and looked at the accompanying image, and have formed some kind of judgement or impression as to their quality, before you read on.

As you may have guessed, the “guest poster” of the above isn’t human.

In my last article, I reviewed AI graphics bot Midjourney and described what I thought its impact on the visual arts might be. Today, I’ve been looking at the ChatGPT text AI bot, mostly to explore its potential for creative writing.

The poem above was ChatGPT’s reply to the prompt “compose a poem in iambic pentameter, 24 lines long, with ABAB rhyme scheme, about how we long to be wild and free but are inhibited by civilization and our culture, and by our lack of free will”. The image at the top of this post was Midjourney’s reply to the prompt “/imagine a painting that captures the essence of [the ChatGPT poem, which I provided to it]”.

Well. Is it art? Is it any ‘good’?

My answer to the first question is probably “yes”, and to the second is probably “not really”. I’ve certainly read much worse poetry, even from university-level English majors, and even in more than a few poetry journals. By “worse”, I mean poetry that is trite or forced in its compliance to the prescribed rhyme scheme, or cringeworthy in its syntax, flow, or use of metaphor or other literary devices. I recognize that everyone’s taste is different, but I think we’re pretty much all capable of discerning the difference in quality between a work by Shakespeare or TS Eliot, and a nursery rhyme.

My assessment of a poetic work’s quality really boils down to TS Eliot’s definition:

Poetry has to give pleasure… [and] the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility… We all understand I think both the kind of pleasure that poetry can give and the kind of difference, beyond the pleasure, which it makes to our lives. Without producing these two effects it is simply not poetry.

So ‘real’ poetry gives pleasure and it provides some fresh understanding; it connects with us emotionally and intellectually. Eliot has written that he thinks the best way to make the emotional connection is through imagery that reliably evokes a particular feeling (joy, or wonder, or grief, or laughter, or pathos for example).

The imagery of the eagle is not bad, though it’s not very imaginative. Beyond that, the poem seems a bit shackled itself, very much focused on the subject matter at hand, unwilling to use ambiguous language or metaphor to stretch our thinking a bit. It is competent, then, but not pleasurable. And it imparts no new understanding, no novel insight into the nature of free will. No reflection on the capacity of our civilization to, as a much better poet, EE Cummings put it, “make us everybody else”. (Not make us like everybody else, but make us everybody else; there’s the poet’s stretch.)

It is of course unreasonable to expect this of an AI bot, which lacks the skill, nuance and experience with figures of speech to use them creatively, and also lacks the deep and complex understanding of what it means to be human in 2023, in the historical context of our struggle for happiness and progress, and the mass of conflicting emotions that can be ‘reached’ with the right word or phrase in a poem, delightfully.

I think I am a generous marker, and therefore I would give this poem a grade of C (a real, average C, not the disgraceful C that ratings creep has produced recently in much of academia). And I’m not sure that more powerful future AI bots, with access to more data, will be able to do better. (The only real sins in the poem above are the repetitive use of the words “chains” and “slave”, the pronunciation assumption in the use of the word “route”, and the mysterious change to an AABB rhyme scheme half-way through.) Though it is possible that, if a bot can learn to plagiarize metaphors from other well-constructed poetry that the reader is unfamiliar with and hence thinks of as original, it might surprise us.

I’m also skeptical that writers can get much from seeing what AI bots come up with, that can be used, or learned from, in writing human-made poetry. I gave ChatGPT some other poetry challenges, and couldn’t scavenge a single idea, word, or turn of phrase from any of them.

Could I, the critic, do any better, given the same prompt? I’m working on it; stay tuned — I’m much, much slower than ChatGPT!

As for the image, I’m prepared to give Midjourney a grade of B for it. Partly that’s because search engines really suck at coming up with images that invoke or reflect abstract ideas and feelings like free will, so this image was a bit unexpected, and pleasantly so. In addition, Midjourney was either skilful or lucky enough to capture a particularly doleful expression on the woman’s face — the embodiment of what TS Eliot evoked in words, in his Preludes:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

We ain’t going to see poetry like that from AI bots for a long time, if we even last that long.

But back to Midjourney. I had to edit the poem a bit for its bot (the word ‘slave’ is banned in image prompts, for example). So I added a bit on the fact that our civilization is starting to collapse. Unsurprisingly, Midjourney, like most of the human population, seemingly cannot conceive of what slow collapse might actually look like, and some of the images it provided to me were futurist-apocalyptic. It’s not going to be like a Mad Max movie, guys. With any luck, it will be more like what Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us described — things slowly falling apart, like sewers and the power grid, and the long migration of two billion or more humans looking for a livable place to start again. Hard to capture in an image, though — almost as hard as it is for us to imagine.

I did ask some less challenging questions of ChatGPT, and was variously surprised at what it came up with. Most of these questions I already knew (or thought I knew) the answer to, so I was testing it, perhaps unfairly. From best to worst, here’s how I would score its answers to twelve prompts I gave it:

  1. Hypothetical question about how humans might react if they realized we truly have no free will — A as in awesome — It’s a better answer than what enormously popular and absurdly overpaid philosophers have provided to this question. ChatGPT replied with this:
    • “Some people may feel liberated by this knowledge, as they would no longer feel the weight of responsibility for their actions. They may feel that they can now live their lives without the pressure of making the “right” choices or being judged for their decisions. It could also be argued that this knowledge may lead to greater compassion and empathy towards others, as people may begin to understand that everyone’s actions are determined by factors outside of their control.
    • “On the other hand, some people may feel a sense of hopelessness or even despair upon realizing that they have no free will. They may feel that their lives lack meaning or purpose if they are not the ultimate masters of their own destiny. Others may feel a sense of anger or frustration, as they may perceive this realization as stripping them of agency and control over their lives.”
  2. Best physical therapy techniques for tennis elbow — A — Very specific, detailed, yet concise list, with precisely the ones that’d been provided by my physiotherapist at the top. (It also got the nutritional supplement needs of vegans exactly right.)
  3. Summarize the content of my blog — — An easy question, since the answer is at the top of my blog header, but it answered it fine, using different words.
  4. Recommendations for vegan barefoot running shoes — B+ — It gave me my requested top 3, complete with URLs; I have owned two of the three it selected, so I know it’s an accurate list.
  5. Ten hints for good night photography with SLR cameras — B — Nothing terribly new, but a good succinct list, in order of importance.
  6. Analyze the style of a local artist — B — I checked in advance to make sure the artist didn’t have her own analysis on her website, and she didn’t. So the fact that the analysis was credible was a pleasant surprise. The fact that it wasn’t entirely accurate was not.
  7. Local organizations that accept specific types of used toys — — A thorough, interesting list that a previous Google search couldn’t provide. I have a suspicion they might not all actually accept them, though.
  8. Summary of the message of Radical Non-duality — B — Surprisingly got it half-right on the first guess, and after asking for my reasons for rejecting it, got it mostly right on the second guess. Though it might have just been humouring me.
  9. Lyrics for a song with a specific time signature (4/4) and length (in bars), on a specific subject — C — Well-structured response, including a chorus and even an outro, but the lyrics it suggested were really lame, and in places pretty much incoherent.
  10. List of treatments for chronic pain due to an entrapped nerve — F — A seriously incomplete list.
  11. Local case law on some housing rights issues — F — Basically a confession that the legal profession doesn’t give the public, or AI bots, access to most legal precedents and cases; I wonder why not? (That’s a rhetorical question.)
  12. Calculation of aerobic benefit of running at a certain speed — F — It was bad enough that the calculation was incorrect, but given the data I provided it would be obvious to anyone reading the prompt that the answer couldn’t possibly be right.

I haven’t tried asking some of the silly/personal/unanswerable questions that some users have tried on it. I asked it “What it is like to be a bird?”, and it basically said it didn’t know (never a bad answer). It did a little better answering whether birds have consciousness. It did pretty well on whether time is, or is not, real (giving a balanced argument for both positions, with a pragmatic conclusion).

I didn’t try asking it questions about itself, as I understand that, after it provided some rather puzzling answers to other users, the moderators have reprogrammed it not to answer personal questions.

As for exactly how and when I’m going to use ChatGPT and Midjourney going forward, at this point I have no idea.

Posted in Creative Works, How the World Really Works, Using Weblogs and Technology | 3 Comments

AI and the Arts

I‘ve been playing with one of the new AI bots called Midjourney, which is specifically oriented toward the creation of images — ranging from the photorealistic to the abstract. I’m still working on an older version which lacks some of the more sophisticated features of the newest one, but it’s still amazing. Midjourney produced the image above from a very simple prompt (“/imagine Joe Biden doing ayahuasca”). (Might want to loosen the tie a bit, Joe.)

The tool basically draws on every image publicly available on the internet, and every tag, and on its rendering engine. It’s as astonishing in its own way as Shazam was when it came out and solved the problem of identifying recorded music you hear in public places (or on radio stations and in music mixes that don’t list each song played). What it does, seems impossible, but it really isn’t all that difficult with such an enormous set of data to draw upon.

The image above, for example, came from my prompt “/imagine a painting of Snug Cove on Bowen Island in the style of Modigliani”. Not sure it’s his style, but it is striking. Here’s the more interesting result of a prompt “/imagine inside a French cafe, 1970, 2 Parisian ladies, in the style of Edward Hopper”:

I have a good friend who’s become quite the sensation with her acrylic works portraying our local landscapes. I asked Midjourney for a painting of Howe Sound done in her style and the results were mind-blowing. I think I’ve seen all her works, and the Midjourney images don’t portray the same landscapes, but damn, it sure could have been her work. If I get the OK from her, I might post a couple of her works here and then show some of Midjourney’s imitations. Whew!

You can also prompt Midjourney to use a particular image (either one online or one you upload) as a starting point, adding additional prompts for style and content. Being an incurably vain person, I asked Midjourney for a painting of me in a jungle setting, prompting with my photo from this blog’s right sidebar. Here’s what it provided in response:

I learned a lot from studying the prompts of other users. As there seem to be a lot of anime and J-Pop/K-Pop fans among Midjourney’s users, I couldn’t resist asking Midjourney to make me over as a K-Pop star. Here’s the result:

OK, so the tool is fun to play with (instructions at the end of this post if you want to try it). But what does it mean for the arts? Here are my early thoughts:

  1. If you use a lot of online images, and have been using CC0 sites to get images that are unconditionally free, you now have another option. Like Indrajit Samarajiva, I may well use Midjourney to create most of the images for my blog posts from now on. But many thanks to Pexels, Pixabay and the other CC0 sites for being there for us, and I will probably continue to scan them; they might also start putting Midjourney images on their sites, for those not interested in creating their own.
  2. I think there’s a huge commercial opportunity for someone to offer to make high-quality prints and frames for Midjourney images. I’ve bought a few DeviantArt images over the years, and may well want to frame and hang some Midjourney images as well. There are a lot of Midjourney users using the tool to produce advertising and marketing materials already.
  3. I can see tools like this transforming the visual arts media in much the same way that tools like GarageBand, ProTools, Ableton and LogicPro have transformed music creation. Professional artists will survive, though they will probably have to learn some new skills to keep up. The situation for professional photographers is much more precarious, especially with vultures like Getty cornering so much of their work at outrageous royalty rates. I for one will be delighted if the vultures are disintermediated right out of business. But photographers who depend on royalties or salaries from mainstream media may get caught in the crossfire. On the other hand, I think cartoonists will do OK.
  4. AI isn’t only affecting the graphic arts; it’s affecting all the arts. AI tools are already producing written works, from poetry to novels, that some say cannot be differentiated from ‘human-made’ writing, especially in some of the more popular, more formulaic genres (romance, spy thrillers, murder mysteries, some young adult genres). I understand that there are products under development that will do for music creation and film creation what Midjourney does for visual arts and photography.
  5. The possibilities for ‘fake photography’ being used as part of mis- and disinformation campaigns is soaring, and tools like this will worsen the situation. The Joe Biden image above was created as a painting, but it could just as easily have been produced to look exactly like a photograph. A photo of Donald Trump apparently personally paying off Stormy Daniels would be dead simple to produce with tools like this. We may soon start to doubt the authenticity of every photo we see.
  6. The lawyers must be reeling. They’re already 50 years behind in intellectual property laws, and this will crush them. Google is apparently already working on an algorithm that will somehow determine the line between plagiarism and original work, as if ‘sampling’ in music hadn’t already obliterated that line. Certificates of authenticity may continue to protect rare, high-value original works of art, but for everything else, I can’t see IP laws on creative works holding up in any but the most egregious cases.
  7. As for teachers of the arts, and of any subject requiring written work submission for grades or scholarships, their job of detecting and punishing plagiarism just got much, much harder. I just read a very well-polished blog that recommends and explains how to use products in a variety of niches, with “affiliate links” from which it earns commissions. It is entirely produced by AI. The owner even has a course that teaches you how to do the same. Good thing this blog could never be replaced by AI, right? Right?

PS: If you’re interested in playing with Midjourney yourself, be forewarned that the free trial gives you just enough free image generations (25, though I think it gave me more than that), to get you hooked before you have to sign up for a membership ($10/mo for 200 images/month). Though you can just scroll through what other newbies or members have been creating, and you can download their results, without limit.

To access Midjourney, you need to sign up for the Discord platform (free, and kind of interesting in itself, for those unhappy with other social media platforms, though it’s had its share of controversy). Then you go to the Midjourney site, and ask for an invitation to the Midjourney server on Discord, and you’re set. You really only need to know the /imagine and /blend commands, and study what others on the server have posted as their (mostly one-line) prompts, and then start entering your own. If you want to include a starter image in your prompt, enter the URL(s) of the image(s) at the start of your /imagine prompt, and then add your other form and content criteria. It’s pretty simple.



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

Grooming Us to Hate and Fear

image from piqsels, CC0

My last article talked about how we’re biologically and culturally conditioned to love the music we love (and perhaps the people we love). This time around I want to explore the shadow side of this — how our biological and cultural conditioning ‘teaches’ us to hate and fear, and how we can be ‘groomed’ to hate and fear even more.

The thesis is basically the same: We have no choice, free will or control over what we think, believe and do. Everything we think, believe and do is a result of our biological and/or cultural conditioning, given the immediate circumstances of the moment.

So, for example, our attraction to potential partners is mostly due to our body’s chemical ‘reading’ of the appropriateness of the other person (appearance, health, fitness, genetic compatibility etc), to produce healthy offspring, and only secondarily to what we have ‘learned’ (ie been culturally conditioned by our own and others’ personal life experiences and learning) to want and not want in a potential partner. It is not a ‘rational’ choice; in fact, it is not a choice at all.

Our political worldview, on the other hand, is mostly culturally rather than biologically conditioned. It is determined primarily by the aggregate views and opinions of the people we have lived, worked with, hung out with, and heard or read in our studies and in ‘the media’.

We would like to believe this worldview is based on facts and hard evidence, but it rarely is. Our brains tend to form conclusions based on first impressions (which tend to be more emotional than logical), and those conclusions tend to harden in the absence of compelling direct personal experiences or arguments to the contrary. In fact, our brains tend to form hypotheses quickly, and to reject evidence that undermines our belief in those hypotheses, so that most of what we think of as our ‘beliefs’ are really just largely unsubstantiated opinions subject to a host of cognitive biases. We are inherently credulous until we form an opinion on something; and then we are resistant to changing that opinion.

There is nothing ‘wrong’ with this irrational brain behaviour. It has evolved in humans because it appears to work better than constantly challenging everything to the point we may become paralyzed by indecision and uncertainty.

Hence our worldview is a massively complex phenomenon — Our personal experiences play a role, we condition each other to align our worldviews, our worldviews become entrenched based on early experiences and learning, and external media are continually influencing, and attempting to influence, these worldviews. And the worldviews implicit in those external media are in turn influenced by the worldviews of the ever-changing decision-makers in those media, which are in turn influenced by people those decision-makers encounter. No one is in control.

There is considerable evidence that our worldviews are influenced much more by those we know and interact with personally, than by the ‘media’, especially in this age of enormous media distrust. ‘My buddy Joe’ has no reason to lie to me, and he never has (I don’t think, except maybe that once). The corporate media, by contrast, have all kinds of reasons to lie to me, and they repeatedly have. A recent study revealed that most fans of Faux News enjoy the simplistic reassurances they get from the network, but don’t actually buy a lot of what its clowns tell them, especially when viewers cannot relate the claims to their direct personal experiences.

And, as I’ve written here perhaps too much, we tend to believe what we want to believe, regardless of whether it’s true or not. We want to believe we can do and become anything we set our minds to, which is essentially preposterous. Why do we believe it then? Because it’s just too depressing to believe otherwise. We don’t want to believe our current civilization is in a state of (human-caused) accelerating collapse that will cause our descendants unimaginable suffering, because accepting that would fill us with feelings of guilt, shame, and hopelessness. Our beliefs, therefore, reflect what we feel (and want to feel, and what we don’t want to feel) far more than they reflect what we think.

The term grooming has recently been repurposed to mean “manipulating someone until they’re isolated, dependent, and more vulnerable to exploitation”. Isolated to make them believe that they can’t talk to others ‘outside’ about their situation (what eg QAnon and other cults do), dependent to make them believe they can’t get away from the situation, and hence vulnerable to more manipulation. It’s a form of psychological imprisonment to instil learned helplessness, in this case helplessness to believe or do anything other than what the groomer wants.

The word grooming was first appropriated, quite powerfully, by foes of spousal abuse to explain the psychopathic processes used by abusers. Since then it’s been used to describe the processes used by child molesters to ‘soften up’ their victims’ resistance to abuse, by right-wing book-burners like Ron DeSantis to malign teachers and parents who want children exposed to new ideas that are contrary to right-wing orthodoxy, and by progressives to disparage right-wingers who want to restrict their children from accessing perspectives other than their own long-held positions.

What it all comes down to is the desire of the groomers (or alleged groomers) to control or influence the conditioning of the ‘groomees’. This desire is what underlies almost all propaganda, censorship, and mis- and disinformation campaigns. It is the core business of marketing, PR, advertising, self-proclaimed ‘influencers’, and ‘reputation management’ organizations. And it is the raison d’être for social media ranking algorithms. If my thesis about conditioning underlying all of our beliefs and behaviours is correct, this is a very important business, enough to warrant the trillions spent on it each year.

The question is: Is it really possible to condition someone to believe or do what they wouldn’t have believed or done anyway? It does seem to be possible when it comes to children, especially if they’re isolated from saner voices. (Makes you think about the whole business of parenting.) And it does seem to be possible in controlled cult environments (both physical ‘compounds’ and virtual ‘echo chambers’). And the relentless campaigns to persuade the public of the veracity of lies about Ukraine, Russia, China, Iran etc show remarkable success, judging by subsequent opinion polls.

So what’s going on here? Are we all so credulous and gullible that our worldviews are up for grabs by the wealthiest, most powerful, and craftiest propagandists and marketers? Can we be conditioned not only to buy shiny, cleverly-marketed, environmentally destructive, unhealthy crap we don’t need, but also to fear and hate certain groups to stoke division, polarization, further oppression, and thirst for violence and war?

The answer to both questions, worryingly, is probably Yes, to a point. The PMC top-caste, a relatively small group, may be hell-bent on war with China, but most people in the US/NATO bloc seem, while persuaded of the Chinese government‘s maleficence, unwilling to lay down their, or their children’s, lives to combat it.

Most, I think, have been persuaded that the Chinese government is ‘evil’, because:

  1. This belief doesn’t obviously conflict with their own, limited, direct personal experiences;
  2. Their peers haven’t spoken up on the subject one way or the other;
  3. The media they read have not offered any conflicting point of view, and have written ad nauseam and in one voice about the ‘plight’ of China’s supposedly oppressed Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongese.
  4. They’ve never lived in or visited China, so they have no idea what life there is like; and
  5. They have few or no Chinese friends or acquaintances who’ve said anything about it.

This results in what I would call a ‘soft’ worldview position on the ‘evilness’ of the Chinese government. (It was my own position until a few years ago, when I actively started to learn more about it. I’m definitely not proud of that.)

Such a position (“Their government is seemingly awful, expansionist and probably genocidal, but so are many other governments”) isn’t going to change your vote, or cause you to enlist. But it also isn’t going to get you to protest against a war with China. This position is ‘aligned’ with the groomers’, but it isn’t strongly held.

This, however, is all the groomers really want. They want to pre-emptively block widespread public opposition to their planned war. That’s all they need. It was all they needed in Vietnam (until the very end), and all they needed in, among many other countries, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Cuba, Chile, Venezuela, and now Ukraine.

It doesn’t take a lot to instil fear and hate in a large swath of the population, sufficient to block opposition to a campaign against the targets of the hate-mongers, and to, as Noam Chomsky calls  it, “manufacture consent” for a planned action. You don’t have to manufacture support anymore (now that wars are fought mostly with foreign proxies, private mercenaries, drones, and long-distance missiles). You just need to sow enough fear, hatred and anxiety to undermine, sabotage and silence broad dissent.

A coordinated and incessant wave of lies has been used to instil fear and hate against alleged ‘enemies’ for over 60 years: North Vietnam, Vietnam War protesters, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, the Occupy and BLM protest movements, the ‘red menace’ and ‘yellow menace’, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, popular socialists all over the world, and dozens more. We are now being groomed to fear and hate the governments (and ‘complicit’ citizens) of Russia, China, and Iran, sufficient to undermine and block opposition to war against them.

Of course, we are also being groomed to hate and fear imagined ‘enemies’ within our countries, leading to what I would describe as a ‘soft’ polarization — not enough to provoke (a lot of) violence, but enough to paralyze any movement towards understanding and working with the internal ‘enemy’.

Contemporary political analyst Aurélien has made the argument that in most parts of the world, “different beliefs exist side-by-side without conflict”. That doesn’t mean they necessarily like each other; they just respect each other’s right to their views as long as they don’t impose them on others. But in the US/NATO bloc, he says, “the dynamic of western culture has [increasingly] been one of a constant tendency towards intolerant, unchallengeable assertions of [absolutist] Truth”. Think of this like a Crusade mentality — any opposing views to Ours must be vanquished by any means necessary.

This absolutism brings with it, he says, a set of rather dangerous beliefs: That war is not so much about territory as it is about the moral and intellectual superiority of certain ideas, and that there is therefore a certain unquestionable inevitability about the eventual global ‘success’ of the underlying ideology. He argues that the PMC embraces this ideology with a religious fervour, but is finding it harder and harder, in the face of its increasingly obvious failings (ever-growing poverty, inequality, violence, polarization, intolerance, collapsing infrastructure, economic fragility, anomie etc in the countries where this ideology is based), to sell even their own citizens on supporting the Crusade to make this ideology a uniform, global one).

Hence, perhaps, the need to manufacture consent by seeding fear and hate to undermine internal dissent against this Grand Cause. They might be thinking: “If we can’t get the unhappy citizens to accept that Our Way (untrammelled capitalistic neoliberalism) is the only right way for the world to live, we can use hate and fear to at least bewilder the opposition to our plans, and, since we now control the global purse-strings, we can pursue the Crusade without popular support, as long as they stay out of our way.”

This ties into my earlier post about our inability to admit failure. As the Crusade continues to stumble, the response of the PMC is to double down, ratchet up the propaganda and censorship, and demonize opponents of the cause as enemies.

I need to stress again that this isn’t an organized campaign. The PMC isn’t a cohesive group. But it is an earnest one. And they genuinely believe that those they have identified as enemies, and their ideas, absolutely must be vanquished. They have conditioned each other very well. And they have power and influence disproportionate to their small numbers.

I was struck by the complete hatchet job the CBC did on Canadian Daniel Dumbrill after he agreed to be interviewed about his views on China, where he lives. The CBC reporter in question is young and inexperienced, but showed no signs of zealotry. It was clearly not hard for him to accept the premise of his assignment — that Daniel was either a propagandist working for the Chinese government, or a hopelessly misinformed Communist idealist.

Of course, Daniel is neither, but the worldview of the reporter was completely unable to fathom that possibility. He could not accept that he’d been conditioned to believe a whole series of complete fictions about China. After all, all his newsroom buddies shared his beliefs. They couldn’t all be wrong, could they?

You can see the same blind conditioning in the recent, utterly unprofessional hatchet job a New Yorker reporter did on John Mearsheimer. What John was saying was so incompatible with what all the New Yorker reporters believed, that obviously it had to be John, not them, who was misinformed — or even malevolent.

This is how cultural conditioning works. Everyone involved can believe they know and are speaking the truth, even as they are perpetrating horrific lies with potentially catastrophic consequences.

And we don’t even learn from our mistakes. The current perpetrators of lies about China and Russia include a whole rogues’ gallery of the same fools who, believing they were telling the truth, led the world into the ghastly wars in Iraq. They’ve never acknowledged their lies. They cannot. They’ve been conditioned too well to change, to even contemplate the possibility that they were wrong, and admit their culpability in the resultant disaster.

What prompts any of us to feel anger and fear, especially when there’s nothing to be fearful or angry about? In other words, what is the mechanism by which we’re so easily conditioned to hate and fear?

I think it plays off a number of very human foibles:

  1. We’re afraid of thinking ourselves ignorant (and of being thought of as ignorant), and hence being vulnerable to manipulation or exploitation. So when we’re given a simple (and possibly wrong) answer and reassured that that it’s “all you need to know”, we are all too eager to accept it.
  2. Unfamiliarity breeds fear and contempt. In many cases, even if we live in culturally diverse places, we know no one from cultures other than our own, and little or nothing about other cultures. That’s easy to exploit by planting distrust, suspicion, and untruths about the unknown “other”.
  3. We kind of enjoy righteous indignation. It makes us feel like we’re on the ‘right side’, that we’re knowledgable, and that our easily-inflamed anger and fear is justified.
  4. If we hear something repeated often enough, especially if we’re never exposed to anyone refuting it, we are inclined to believe it must be true.
  5. We have an inherent desire to know things. It’s comforting, and often carries with it a certain degree of prestige.
  6. We really do loathe complexity. Uncertainty and incomprehensibility displease us. We much prefer simple, unquestionable, black and white “truths”.
  7. We are easily frustrated when we perceive a situation is out of control (and out of our control), or when we feel a sense of impotent moral outrage (“it shouldn’t be like this”), or when we feel helpless or powerless. That can quickly manifest itself in anger, in fear, and in hatred — since hatred is often a projection of anger to a class of people, creatures, ideas or things, and more often than not a mask for fear.

These reactions and behaviours are all perfectly understandable, and evolutionarily selected for. But they’re also easy to exploit.

And so, we are played, conditioned, groomed, exploited, and manipulated. Mostly, we do this to each other, mostly unintentionally, infecting each other with hate and fear. Sometimes this is done to us by politicians, by the media, or by PR and other organizations paid to incite it.

And sometimes this will provoke us to actual acts of violence. More often, though, it is enough for the perpetrators (who, remember, almost always really believe the incendiary untruths they are provoking us with) that we be sufficiently knocked off balance that we don’t resist, interfere, object, or dissent, but instead that we suspend judgement and action, and be passive. So that the perpetrators, righteous Crusaders all, can do what they want to do (in ‘everyone’s’ best interest, of course), until it’s too late to stop them.

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

Accounting for Tastes

This is a bit of a follow-up to my post last fall exploring why I love sad songs (and romantic comedies).

still from dance-practice video by Japanese-Korean hip-hop/R&B group XG

Some of my favourite YouTube channels offer analysis of music, for the purpose of understanding what it is about certain music that we so much appreciate, and hopefully to teach us how to compose ‘better’ music.

Recently, after reading through a bunch of my old blog posts, I was lamenting how ignorant and arrogant I was when I started this blog 20 years ago. I marvel at how much my entire worldview and attitude toward life has been transformed over that time period, yet so slowly that I didn’t even notice it. That change is reflected, for example, in my complete indifference, now, to TV, films, and almost all fiction, which once were a very important part of my life. Though my interest in these “popular entertainment” forms has dramatically waned, my interest in “popular music” has, if anything, increased.

So I went back through my 60 year library of favourite music to see if it showed evidence of a similar evolution. It did not. On the contrary, despite the thousands of hours I have spent looking for enjoyable music (I’m pretty particular), I can honestly say that my musical tastes have not really changed one iota.

There is a largely-unchallenged view that our musical tastes are culturally, rather than biologically, conditioned. A careful and open-minded study of music, we are told, will give us an appreciation of music we would previously have been closed to, just as a thorough study of history and culture can substantially alter our perception of current events.

We are told, for example, that indigenous cultures are not nearly so closed to what we consider “dissonant” music as we are, and that may well be true. A current theory is that music works on the brain in a two-stage recognition/reward process. First, our brain’s inherent propensity for pattern-seeking and pattern-remembering comes into play as we listen, and then our brain starts to ‘predict’ what will come next in a song. A correct prediction will yield a burst of dopamine, while an incorrect prediction will not — there’s no reward for an evolutionarily useless wrong guess. And a dramatic tension in the music before the predicted resolution seems to extend, amplify and reinforce the dopamine reward (perhaps in the same way that sexual edging does).

But we also get a dopamine charge when there is an unexpected (but not catastrophic) ‘surprise’ in the progress of the music, such as a sudden key change, or the introduction, for example, of a minor ninth chord just before the resolution to the major. I’d guess this might be how we ‘learn’ new patterns to extend our brain’s predictive capacity. After hearing the minor ninth, we now start to listen for it again later in the song, and take note of whether it repeats or not.

Too much repetition and predictability, on the other hand, and we essentially stop listening, so there is no dopamine rush. Each person’s min/max threshold for repetition, surprise, and novelty is apparently different.

In my earlier article, I described a popular theory that our love of sad songs is about catharsis and/or the safe, vicarious, ‘pleasurable’ experience of emotions that might be too precarious to feel as a result of a direct, personally sad event. Beyond that, I posited that it’s our body that makes decisions on what music we listen to, and reacts accordingly, and that ‘we’ (with our supposedly discerning musical tastes) really have no say in it whatsoever.

That would suggest that our biological conditioning plays just as important a role in our musical tastes as cultural conditioning. And indeed, the people whose musical tastes are closest to mine (measured by the degree to which our personal music ‘libraries’ overlap) do not correlate at all with those whose cultural conditioning most closely resembles mine. Peers I grew up with, while perhaps liking certain music that was popular when we were doing things together, mostly have very different musical preferences from mine. And people with whom I have almost zero cultural connection, but some biological similarities to (eg a predisposition to depression) seem much more likely to share my musical tastes.

What does our body want, then, if it, rather than our cultural influences, is ‘choosing’ our musical tastes for ‘us’?

Perhaps, just as it ‘chooses’ food for us to compensate for its perceived nutritional deficiencies or to feed its chemical addictions, our body might be ‘choosing’ music for us that restores its chemical balance or feeds its chemical addictions (eg too little or too much dopamine).

The emotions that arise in me listening to Adagio for Strings, for example, are a kind of sadness, but they are a joyful, peaceful kind. Maybe it’s my body’s way of saying “You need to feel sadness about the awful state of the world, but you’re afraid to, so here, try this music”. Several people who suffer from depression have told me they love this piece because it makes them cry, and feel better.

And when I listen to (and watch the remarkable choreography of) a song1 like Left Right, perhaps my body is urging me to listen to it in order to get me to feel, and to appropriately express, a sense of incredible joy and connection with the rest of the world, which is, after all, an astonishingly beautiful place in which we’re all doing our best: “Hey, life is good, get off your ass and enjoy it, laugh, dance, celebrate”. This song, which is only a month old, has already been ‘covered’ by at least 40 dance groups captivated by its infectious vibe and its fun, expressive choreography. Maybe a lot of bodies out there are telling their ‘owners’ to get up, laugh, dance and celebrate.

In my earlier article, I asked:

Does my infatuation with these songs indicate that am I looking to lose myself (lose my self?) in a safe-to-feel world? A world that makes more sense (viscerally, rather than intellectually) and is more emotionally honest and courageous than the one I seem to live in? These songs reach through my fear of feeling and let me feel things I’ve only otherwise ever felt strong enough to feel when I’ve been in love — when the chemicals just overpowered the fear.

So perhaps our taste in music is just one more subtle, ‘unconscious’ way our body does its best to take care of itself (and ‘us’).

A guy who’s written a book about the emotional impact of Adagio analyzed it as follows:

By taking the listener through emotional landscapes of its own creation, on its own terms, at its own speed, music is as close as one can come to actually re-experiencing the process and texture of unfolding emotion. It doesn’t show you a reflected image of the landscape of loss, it takes you through it – a very different notion. And Barber’s Adagio is so moving, so affecting, precisely because as we pass through that territory, we reel with the shock of recognition.

Emotionally, psychologically, we’ve all been here before; we can feel the congruence to our own experiences of grief and desperate hope as it unfolds through time. In a nutshell, it works so very well because he got it so very, very right.

Listen… to the orchestral recording of the Adagio. Hear how we begin in deep mourning and isolation, are lifted into the possibility of redemption by the IV-V in D-flat major, then dropped back into the darkness by iv-V in minor. This is the subtext of the entire piece: a desperate struggle to escape from the reality of grief (B-flat minor) into the consolation of hope (D-flat), only to slide back into an inevitable reality, over and over… [Barber] demonstrated a breathtaking comprehension of both musical and psychological processes, then wrote a piece of music so astonishingly well-matched to the unfolding process of grief that one can hardly help being moved by it.

Well, maybe. Or perhaps Samuel Barber had no choice but to write this piece exactly as it was written, through him and his body, an expression of his own body’s need to reconcile with the possibility of never-ending grief, to adapt to it, to accept it, and to express it, the only way it could.

  1. I think there’s a lot more to this ‘pop’ song than meets the eye. XG consists of seven young Japanese women who spent the last five years in an intense program in Korea learning advanced singing, dancing, composition and other skills, and rehearsing endlessly, before their first song was released a few months ago. The music was written specifically for the group by a team of at least 14 composers, some of whom obviously have classical music training; you can spot a whole suite of international genres and influences in the instrumentation, harmonies, rhythms, and musical overlays going on, mostly unobtrusively, in this ‘simple’ happy song. 
  2. POSTSCRIPT: I’ve been asked a lot about my opinion on the new AI apps, and my response generally has been that it’s not intelligence at all, and, like video games, will mostly turn out to be an amusing new form of entertainment (and, sigh, a military training tool). But I do believe it will have a major effect on the arts, including music. There is no reason why AI couldn’t, for example, parse my library of favourite music, and produce a (plagiarized, derivative, kind of) work that might well become my favourite song. It is capable of sussing out, and replicating, the ‘ingredients’ inherent and present in art that we love, in novel and potentially exciting ways. It is certainly soon likely to outperform the current music ‘recommendation engines’, whose algorithms are essentially not up to the task.
Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Links of the Month: March 2023

cartoon by Michael Leunig

Letting go of the idea of free will is both liberating and terrifying. As I watch the world devolve into fascism and nuclear brinksmanship, I long to believe this is just a temporary aberration in human behaviour, though I know it is not.

It’s pretty clear now that the bipartisan American PMC, goaded by the Pentagon and military-industrial complex (the one Eisenhower, the Republican president and war general warned us about), is so ashamed of its 60 years of endless and uninterrupted military and political blunders and failures, that it has doubled down and is now hell-bent on regime change in Russia and China even at the risk of nuclear war.

The parallel propaganda war, unlike its real wars, has been a stunning success: In a total reversal, most people in the US/NATO bloc now falsely believe it was the Americans, not the Russians, who were most responsible for defeating the Nazis in WW2, and now falsely believe that China presents an existential threat to their security. In Australia, for example, both oligopolistic newspaper chains have been running long series of Pentagon-scripted fear-mongering editorials calling for a return to compulsory military service for young Australians and preparations for war with China (its largest trading partner) in 2025. This while the US has secured absolute rights to use American military bases in Australia to assemble its missiles and other war arsenals ready to launch the war.

Sadly, this collective madness is just the result of how we dumb, ignorant, gullible humans have been conditioned all of our lives. It’s the ghastly result of all eight billion of us doing our best. A quote from Julian Jaynes comes to mind:

Animals are evolved; nervous systems and their mechanical reflexes increase in complexity; when some unspecified degree of nervous complexity is reached, consciousness appears, and so begins its futile course as a helpless spectator of cosmic events. What we do is completely controlled by the wiring diagram of the brain and its reflexes to external stimuli. Consciousness is nothing more than the heat given off by the wires, a mere epiphenomenon.

Consciousness can no more modify the working mechanism of the body or its behavior than can the whistle of a train modify its machinery or where it goes. Moan as it will, the tracks have long ago decided where the train will go. Consciousness is the melody that floats from the harp and cannot pluck its strings, the foam struck raging from the river that cannot change its course, the shadow that loyally walks step for step beside the pedestrian, but is quite unable to influence his journey.

The tracks have long ago determined where this train, the human experiment, was going to go, and all we can do is shrug and wish it had been otherwise.

Et in Terra Pax.  Sigh.


cartoon (thanks to Jae Mather for the link) (unable to find this online — neither Google image lens nor a search on the cartoonist’s name turns up anything)

I expect you don’t need to read any more articles about looming economic and ecological collapse. As has been explained here ad nauseam, systems collapse is accelerating, and nothing that anyone is doing is having any significant impact. The brief respite of La Niña has ended, so get ready for faster global warming. Otherwise, not much new to report.

Migrating to a low-tech future: The Honest Sorcerer, B, explores what the next decades will be like for most of us as we shift from an unsustainable economy of profligate waste, to a save-fix-and-scavenge economy.

The perpetual con of nuclear: Albert Bates explains how the old con about nuclear energy is being resurrected to try to sell nuclear fusion as a technotopian solution to energy problems. He also explains the accelerating nightmare of methane release into the atmosphere, partly thanks to fracking and the US bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines.

The vicious cycle of pesticide use: How pesticide use and climate collapse are advancing in lockstep. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.


Calvin and Hobbes cartoon by Bill Watterson, who has a new adult fable book coming out

I have Stewart McDonald’s emails: Craig Murray totally undermines a Scottish MP-con-artist’s attempt to pin his incompetent leaking of his own personal information, on “Russians”.

A well-being economy: Interesting attempt to outline what an economy based on well-being rather than profit and growth, might look like.

The road to drug decriminalization: A long and important review and discussion of the complex challenges of combating toxic street drug poisonings; some of the Vancouver politicians really do get it. By contrast, a report on what Oregon and BC are doing, fails to mention the critical step of creating a safe supply.

The irrepressible Clare Daly: The Irish MEP is serving as a one-woman conscience for the entire European Community. Here she is again talking about EU silence on the US bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines.

Iran and Saudi Arabia reestablish ties: Brokered by China, the end to hostilities between the two leading Middle-East countries opens possibilities for the ending of their horrific proxy war in Yemen.

The struggles of the “buy-nothing” movement: A long and fascinating account of how the movement was grounded by attempts to wean itself off reliance on Facebook. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

The need to save ecosystems, not species: Why endangered species designation and legislation misses the mark, using a ‘zoo’ mentality instead of a holistic one.

Bernie Sanders on capitalism: His heart really is in the right place, but he’s being ground up and spat out by the political system he’s trying to work within. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.

Lyz Lenz on the ERA: Lyz rants deliciously about how the US has given women their own ‘month’ (March), instead of equal rights and equal pay.


Historical US attempts to bring about regime change — Map by HapHaxion , CC BY-SA 4.0, on wikimedia
Legend:    (purple) Organized or gave material/financial support to coup plotters/armed insurgents which failed to overthrow incumbent government   (orange) Organized or gave material/financial support to coup plotters/armed insurgents which overthrew incumbent government   (brown) Invaded/militarily intervened to enforce U.S. interests   (green) Allegedly interfered in elections on behalf of preferred candidate(s) or against non-preferred candidate(s). The map is very incomplete, notably omitting interventions in Venezuela, Yemen, Australia, Pakistan, and Ukraine. Not to mention the embargoes against many other countries. These interventions, which collectively have cost trillions of dollars and millions of lives, can just about all be characterized as military and political failures. (None of the US-installed replacement governments in countries in orange are still in power.)

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

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:


from the memebrary — artwork by the contemporary Polish artist Aleksandra Waliszewska

Disquiet: A lovely and challenging essay from Flat Caps about our relationship with nature, and how the ghosts of its loss haunt us.

Capital as cudgel: Rhyd Wildermuth reviews a book by Silvia Federici that suggests that capitalism, far from being a child of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, was actually a counterrevolution “that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle — possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide”.

But is it art?: Adam Gopnik explores what AI is good and not-so-good at. It’s hopeless at reasoning by metaphor and drawing on complex history, but it’s surprisingly good at producing works that meet just about all the definitions of good art.

From CoVid-19 to the senses of animals: NPR interviews Ed Yong, who won a Pulitzer for his early work on the pandemic, and has moved to exploring and documenting (in a new book, An Immense World) the astonishing sensory world of non-human animals.

The problem with particle physics: A funny and scathing review by Sabine Hossenfelder of what goes wrong in the sciences when it pays more to invent problems and imagine hypothetical solutions than it does to actually do reality-based work.

Goat yoga: My home town is offering afternoons doing yoga outdoors at a farm, surrounded by baby goats. Bus trip, wine and bowl of curry included. Ummmm!

Art from sea to sky: My artist friend Di is the subject of a new short documentary that follows her creation of a new series of paintings from conception to completion. Great look into the processes by which art gets made.

Most popular song each month since January 1980: You’re going to hate me if you start watching this video. It’s an hour long, with quick excerpts from about 500 chart-topping songs over the past 42 years. It’s hard to stop watching, as you groan through some dreck, and then suddenly “Hey I remember that; it wasn’t half bad.” The complete Spotify playlist is here.


from the memebrary

From Indrajit Samarajiva, on How we don’t live under capitalism:

When we talk about defeating Capitalism, the fact is that it has already lost. Yes money has the power of death over us, yes the inherent social contract of Capitalism is work or starve, but man does not live by bread alone. Though we may earn our bread by the sweat of our brow, we still share it with children we keep in the shade. We still split what we have with those that have nothing. We still give food (and energy) away joyfully, in ‘transactions’ Capitalism can make no sense of. Like birthday parties. Or weddings. All the ‘irrational’ things that make us more than ‘rational economic actors’. All the things that make us decent human beings.

From Dorianne Laux: Antilamentation:

Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the living room couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering
any of it. Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.



Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

Our Incapacity to Admit Failure

Afghan children, from pxhere, CC0

Recently, the rather dim-witted right-wing leader of Canada’s Conservative party, Pierre Poilievre, whose elected representatives have been hobnobbing with the German neo-Fascist AfD party, announced a bid to overturn Canada’s new, tepid, right-to-die law. Sufferers of debilitating, excruciating, lifelong depression, he insisted, have no right to end their own lives. They should have to suffer until and unless they “get better”.

He wants the medical assistance in dying (MAID) law reversed to the extent it goes even one inch beyond patients with immediate, excruciating, advanced, terminal, physical diseases. That means, for example, that patients with early stage dementia cannot pre-authorize doctors to end their lives when their dementia later becomes horrific, because by then they are ‘mentally ill’ and hence ineligible for MAID. “There is always hope for someone to regain their health”, one Conservative senator asserted, calling for the law to be overturned.

I have been trying for 50 years to understand why right-wingers who don’t much like the idea of the government being involved in anything, seem so willing to interfere zealously with citizens’ decisions over their own bodies.

As usual, I start from the assumption that we’re all doing our best and we’ve all been biologically and culturally conditioned to believe and do what we do, rather than that those beliefs and actions are subject to our free will and control. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

When I looked at the anti-MAID advocates’ statements, I discovered the advocates mostly seem to fall into two camps: religious people who believe ending one’s life mercifully is against their god(s)’ will and hence immoral and/or evil; and shrinks (and a few other doctors) who believe that those suffering haven’t fully availed themselves of less drastic psychological and medical measures to deal with that suffering.

What’s going on here?, I wondered. And then it hit me: These are the people most likely to feel that MAID represents an admission of failure. The failure of religious fundamentalists to convince most citizens of the validity of their fervent moral beliefs, and the failure of shrinks (and doctors) to actually heal people suffering from chronic and excruciating mental (and physical) illness.

Why are we so afraid, and so unwilling, to admit failure, no matter what the cost to our society and our world? Part of it, I think, is shame. We hate to admit our incompetence, our inability to create a better world for ourselves and future generations. Our helplessness. Our gullibility. Seeing the world we believed in, falling apart, not working as it was supposed to. So of course we look for someone or something to shift the blame for that failure to. A lack of courage or perseverance. Laziness. Incompetence. Corruption. And those old conservative standbys, evil and insanity.

Part of our incapacity to admit failure also, I think, stems from fear — if I admit this was a failure, what else might I have to admit to being a failure? At what point is my worldview so shattered by acknowledging this failure that I am cast adrift, with no anchor to hold on to anymore? If I admit that psychiatry and meditation and 12-step programs won’t usually actually help with my mental illness or addiction, then what? If I admit to the abject failure of the 20-year-long staggeringly expensive US/NATO military adventure in Afghanistan, what might I have to admit about the failure of the west’s entire foreign policy and its judgement and treatment of the rest of the world’s people?

And I think there’s a second type of fear that underlies our incapacity to admit failure — the fear of the consequences of that failure. So, when it comes to MAID, will it lead to people just wanting to die because they’re tired of living, and want to be allowed to end their lives for no other reason? How awful would that be, rubbing our faces in our failure! And if we admit to the abject failure of most of our well-intentioned but astronomically-expensive and dysfunctional health systems to prevent and treat diseases to extend our healthy lives, then what are we going to do as the population ages and needs exponentially more services from them?

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that much, perhaps most of humans’ hate- and anger-fuelled behaviours and actions represent, at root, a refusal to admit failure.

I would say that the anti-abortion movement, for example, cannot bear to admit to the failure of of our political, social and economic systems to eliminate the enormous, never-ending, pressing need for abortions. And they refuse to admit to their failure to persuade their fellow citizens of the virtue of their absolutist moral views.

Nostalgia-fuelled admonitions to ‘MAGA’, I suggest, reflect a refusal to admit to past failures and a stubborn determination to repeat them. Likewise, the current warmongering of Cold War II zealots on both sides reflect a refusal to admit to the utter failures of both the Soviet bloc and the NATO bloc, neither of which has ever served any useful purpose to its members.

Our fear and loathing of those struggling with addiction, and of the unhoused, and of the staggering number of incarcerated people locked away uselessly for a lifetime, reflect, I believe, a refusal to admit to the complete failure of our programs, processes and systems to properly provide effective and urgently-needed care and treatment to those unable to care for themselves.

The frenzy of the west’s top-caste1-led fury and disinformation aimed at Russia and China likewise belies, I think, an admission of failure that unipolar global control of the planet and its resources by ‘exceptional’ leaders in the US and its vassal states (in the collective interest of the planet, of course) is neither practicable nor wanted in most of the world, and that seventy years of relentless effort and propaganda to that end have simply not worked.

And they represent an admission of failure that untrammelled capitalism and massive US military/CIA adventurism are not only not the ultimate routes to “freedom and democracy for all”, but rather disastrously-flawed, unworkable and ecologically disastrous experiments that we would best end quickly.

But we have nothing to replace these failures with, and, for most, our livelihoods depend directly on these failed systems’ continuance. Small wonder, then, that the war belligerents, and the market fundamentalists and their adherents are doubling down, unwilling to admit to their failure and are instead encouraging us to stay the course and repeat our mistakes.

Watching the US Democrats cowed into condemning socialism as inherently “authoritarian” and “brutal” was heartbreaking. But like Republicans, they are unwilling to admit to the utter failure of America’s stalwart flirtation with extreme capitalism. Especially not to their bewildered constituents!

Likewise, climate and ecological collapse deniers are unwilling to admit to the catastrophic failure of the much-vaunted systems that have precipitated this collapse (remember “the green revolution”?), or to admit to the failure of magical ‘green’ solutions (like carbon capture) promised by starry-eyed technophile simpletons who understand nothing of the workings of complex systems.

I am always surprised at how much hot air as been expelled over the question of whether our accelerating ecological collapse was or is ‘human-caused’. If our ecological systems are crumbling and presenting us with an existential crisis, who the fuck cares who or what caused it? But now I see — it’s all about the admission of failure. It’s OK if we have to deal with crises, but don’t you dare suggest it was our own fault, a collective human failure. Shame on you!

And so it goes. Rather than admit to our abject failure to prevent tens of millions of deaths from a pandemic that had been predicted for decades and which we had lots of advance notice about, we would prefer to blame it all on government bungling or lab leak conspiracies or, depending on your point of view, on anti-vaxxers and human stupidity in general. Not our fault though! Someone else’s failure!

Take away the blame game, and you take away the shame. It’s no one’s fault, no one is to blame, and there’s nothing for anyone to be ashamed of. We are all doing our best. We are just another struggling species, eight billion mildly deranged monkeys, and certainly not the crown of creation. We can only do what we’ve been biologically and culturally conditioned to do, given the ever-changing circumstances of each moment.

But even if we move past the shame, we may still be incapable of admitting failure, because of fear of what other failures it might cause us to have to admit, or fear of the failure’s consequences. The fear of everything being out of our control (and out of the gods’ control) may be just too much to bear.

When I read about the decision of the Canadian government to freeze and seize the assets of Russian citizens held in Canadian banks at home and abroad, that fear arose for me in spades. I remember as a youth when my mail from ‘hostile’ countries was opened and inspected by the Canadian security authorities (I was an avid shortwave radio listener and got mail from all over the world.) I remember being photographed by a plainclothes RCMP officer in the early 1960s as I was going into the Socialist Book Store on Main Street in Winnipeg. I’ve learned what a hostile government can do to citizens if it fails to function in those citizens’ collective interest. So I wrote, in response to the CBC article on the government seizure (the CBC immediately censored and removed my comment):

We didn’t like the First Nations people so we stole their property. We didn’t like Canadians who came from countries we fought in WW2, so we stole their property and put them in camps. We didn’t like the Taliban so we sat idle as the US stole billions of dollars from Afghan bank accounts, some of it humanitarian aid funds desperately needed by their starving citizens, and gave it out to Americans. Now because we don’t like Russia we’ve legalized the theft of property from Russian citizens. Wonder what will happen if the government decides it doesn’t like us?

As I watch the steady advance of neofascism all over the planet in these troubled times, I am still not quite ready to admit to the failure of democracy, especially in Canada and the angry country to our south. The closer I get to acknowledging that failure, the more fearful I get. It’s not admitting that failure I’m afraid of; it’s the consequences of that failure that terrify me. I know people who have suffered atrocities at the hands of fascists, and whose families have been tortured or ‘disappeared’. You can’t blame anyone for refusing to admit that our political and economic systems are failing so quickly and so completely that we might soon be facing such atrocities ourselves.

I can also imagine myself, ten years from now, about the age my father (and his twin) were when they declined rapidly into an endless nightmare of rage and paranoia as dementia took hold of them. I am already often forgetting things, especially people’s names, and sometimes what I was just doing. I imagine myself, not improbably, headed down the same road he went. I am quite sure that even if the ghastly Conservatives don’t get elected, Canadians in my situation will still have no right to a death with dignity. I imagine I will be shackled to a cot “for my own safety” as the demons possess what is left of my destroyed mind. As I will then be insane, I imagine my “advance directive” for MAID will have no legal force and the doctors will just shrug and say to my family and friends that they’re doing all they can legally do. If I’m lucky, I will retain just enough sanity to refuse food and water. These are the consequences of failure.

Am I ashamed at these looming and continuing failures, ashamed of my own behaviours and those of Canada’s governments? Not a bit. We’re all doing our best, the only thing we can do. I am, of course, more than a little afraid of the suffering that will likely come as a consequence of these failures. And I certainly appreciate how we may all be incapable of admitting to these failures, because the shame and/or fear are just too much to bear.

But it’s interesting to observe just how powerful a role our not-so-simple incapacity to admit failure seems to play in what is unfolding these days.

  1. Paul Heft suggested I define the term ‘top caste(s)’, since I use it often, rather than ‘upper class’ or ‘elite’, when describing those who, while not organized or coordinated, disproportionally make and affect political and economic decisions, and hoard most of the world’s wealth at the expense of others. So here’s my stab at a definition (thanks to Paul for several edits):

Caste is hereditary or acquired social rank, as recognized by one’s peers (and often by those of other castes), that brings with it unique, tacitly accepted privileges, status, wealth, recognition, access, respect, authority and opportunities not permitted or accessible by those of lower castes. Factors influencing one’s peer-perceived and peer-recognized caste may include, for example, in addition to one’s parents’ acknowledged caste and pedigree, one’s race and ethnicity, birthplace, workplace and other positions and titles, level and type of education, physical appearance and dress, physical stature and health, emotional health, wealth and income, behaviour and demeanour, choice of spouse, artistic and cultural tastes, memberships, location of seating in public events and public transportation, and the people with whom one associates and the extent of one’s connections to others in that peer caste and higher. Caste is not usually a formal recognition, and different people might perceive you to be a member of different castes, but any one person would likely perceive you to be a member of one particular caste — theirs or another (though in any community or society there may be a lot of castes, some more distinct than others). 

I try not to judge whether the existence of castes is a good or bad thing. All I know is that they exist, and have an enormous impact on our lives. How big is the ‘top caste’? I don’t know — it’s too amorphous and ever-changing a group to even guess. I do know that at one time in my life, for a brief few years, I was acknowledged (and, I confess, a bit flattered) to be part of it. And that I am no longer. 

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

Shameful Pleasures

Chart from Wikipedia by Derek Snider, CC-BY-SA 3.0

There is a lot of controversy about current experiments to decriminalize ‘hard’ drugs. Critics, and long-time supporters of the horrific “war on drugs”, argue that it’s a road to perdition, and that the only answer is to get users into ‘treatment’ (although no effective treatment exists), and incarcerate them as long as they refuse treatment, along with their pushers.

That perspective reflects a catholic view of human nature — we are all sinners who need to be coerced to follow a virtuous path and punished if we refuse to follow it. If we give up the war, they believe, the devil and anarchy will take over the planet. Repent thy sins or face god’s wrath, as exercised by his devout followers. They offer Vancouver’s Downtown East Side as proof of that belief, as a warning.

Their belief, as with most religious dogma, is that every transgression is a slippery slope. Give the sinners this, and next they’ll want that.

So what do users of these substances, and opponents of the endless war on drugs, ultimately want? There is of course no one answer to this, but some want only to be left alone. Others want the government to meet their basic needs, which for them, now, includes an affordable, legal, safe supply of the drugs they’re addicted to.

Those who are addicted to nicotine and alcohol already have this, though the government sees fit to punish those addicted to these substances through massive hidden taxes that often deprive users of the money they need to keep themselves and their families healthy and comfortable. Often the result is broken homes, homelessness, and an increase in crime and illness — a result that likely stems more from financial instability and stress than from behaviours “under the influence”.

It could be argued that we are even more hypocritical in our attitude to those addicted to sugar, salt, and saturated fats, which are packed into products that take up more than half of the space in supermarkets that is not already taken up by alcohol, and which sicken and kill far more people than all other drugs put together. Products catering to these addictions are not only freely available, they are massively subsidized, falsely advertised as nutritious, and openly marketed to children.

Hospitals and homes are filled with people with diabetes, heart diseases, cancers, immune-system disorders and other chronic and wasting diseases, unable to work, live ‘normal’ lives and look after themselves and their families — all because they are addicted to the unhealthy substances in our food supply.

So why the double standard? Perhaps it’s because consumption of these drugs masquerades as socially acceptable behaviour. We all have to eat and drink, right? What’s the harm in getting a little pleasure, a little buzz, from something we have to do anyway? With bars on almost every street-corner, especially in poorer and more oppressed neighbourhoods, alcohol is almost unavoidable.

I’m not cynical enough to believe we tolerate the marketing of unhealthy addictive substances and poisons just because they’re profitable. There has to be a deeper reason than that. I wonder if this is the pressure-release valve that we tacitly recognize our high-stress, crowded, gruelling, unnatural, suffering-filled modern way of life needs to prevent the citizenry blowing up and just refusing to continue supporting our oppressive, unhealthy, and grossly-unequal civilization?

This is a complex phenomenon, and the resulting social behaviours weren’t and aren’t prescribed, directed, caused or controlled by any group in our society. We get hooked on our particular drugs, from caffeine to fentanyl and from TV to video games to porn, because they give us pleasure and promise to give us more if we keep using them. We are mostly not even conscious of this happening. Evolution apparently drives us to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, so we pursue the former and avoid or sedate ourselves against the latter. Addiction is just conditioning with a positive feedback loop.

What offends our puritan culture is not the exercise of our conditioned evolutionary instinct, but exercising it in a way that casts our civilization culture in a bad light. If we’re rich, we can hide our socially unacceptable addictive behaviours behind the closed doors of our homes. But if we’re poor, they get exercised instead in public — in bars and bathrooms, and in the streets and back alleys. We tacitly accept the need to feed our addictions, but we don’t want to explicitly acknowledge or know about them, and don’t want to see them in public. This, of course, is not about addiction, but about shame.

It is also about fear — of the unknown, and of scary, dysfunctional public behaviour. It’s fear, for example, that underlies much of the opposition to legalizing psychotropic drugs. What will this person unpredictably do next, that could harm themselves, or me? That fear is understandable, and applies just as much to dealing with the behaviour of people intoxicated with alcohol. We want users of such substances removed from public spaces in the interest of public safety. While providing affordable, safe street drugs won’t solve that problem, it’s a problem we’re already dealing with with alcohol.

Our shame at seeing fentanyl or methamphetamine users (or, increasingly, those using both opioids and stimulants at once) in the streets, sometimes going through withdrawal, is also understandable. We feel ashamed for them, and for the circumstances that have led to their misery that “shouldn’t ever have to arise” in a healthy society.

A safe, legal, affordable, properly labeled drug supply would certainly help reduce poisonings and the resultant staggering death toll, but it’s questionable whether visible ‘hard’ drug use in public places would change, any more than regulated alcohol sales could have been expected to reduce public drunkenness. And if the picture on the streets is unchanged, the program will inevitably be labelled a failure by critics, with calls for its cancellation and a return to mandatory ‘treatment’ and incarceration.

So while I believe that we should provide a safe, legal, affordable, regulated supply of drugs that people are going to take anyway, just to reduce the carnage of deaths and hospitalizations from poisoned street drugs, I don’t think that’s going to change the public behaviours that induce such shame and fear in the rest of us.

If we addressed the social factors underlying the craving for drugs to escape the pain and misery of many people’s existence — chronic poverty, homelessness, stress, the lack of meaningful work, financial anxiety, and chronic illness just for a start — it would certainly have a dramatic effect. But we might as well wish for the moon and the stars. The existing economic and political systems that have led to these chronic social problems are well-entrenched and digging in their heels while teetering on the edge of collapse. We can’t hope to reform them.

People, especially those facing profound and chronic stress, take opioids and stimulants for the same reasons people use alcohol and nicotine, and for the same reasons we enjoy sugar, salt and saturated fats in our diet — they invoke chemical reactions in our bodies (dopamine etc) that increase our pleasure and sedate and distract from our pain.

This is biologically (and, to a lesser degree, culturally) conditioned behaviour that has evolved over millions of years for our benefit — sugars, salts and fats, for example, are relatively scarce in the natural world, and are essential in small quantities to our health, so it’s no wonder we crave them. It’s sheer hubris to think that we can change our addictions through any ‘treatment’ or ‘reprogramming’ activity, as the utter failure of programs trying to do this, despite mammoth public and private funding, attests. And it’s equally hubristic to think we are going to change the utterly broken systems that have given rise to our now-ubiquitous, unhealthy addictions.

I suspect that one of the reasons conservatives in particular oppose the legalization of ‘hard’ drugs, is their acknowledgement that life in our modern civilized world is really hard and stressful, and so they fear that if these drugs were legalized, ‘everyone’ would be taking them, and our society would fall apart. Well, guess what, folks, it’s already falling apart. Legalizing alcohol didn’t make it fall apart any faster. And a lot of drugs, including heroin and cocaine, used to be legal, and society didn’t fall apart then.

I’m not much interested in trying to change people’s behaviours — it’s pretty clear to me that laws, jails, bribes, pleas, threats, and therapies don’t change our behaviours, at least not for long. Our species, IMO, just isn’t meant to live this way. We live in a global culture that produces so little pleasure and causes so much pain. Can’t blame anyone for wanting a brief and temporary respite from it.

A footnote thought: It’s intriguing that fans of the ‘privatization of everything’ haven’t taken note of what’s happened with the ‘private sector’ controlling the sale of illicit drugs — gangsterism, violence, bribery, extortion, price-fixing and price-gouging, tampering, deceptive marketing, fraud, money-laundering, oligopoly, negligence, and poor quality control. The ‘free market’ at work.

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

What Government Is For

Yes, this is a bit of a rant.

The Underhoused: Tent cities in (upper left) Vancouver BC, (upper right) Portland OR, and (lower right) new tents on a street in Nanaimo BC. The Vancouver site was bulldozed and converted to a playground. A new Portland tent city site has been installed by the local government, to mixed reviews. The original Nanaimo tent city site was bulldozed and replaced with “temporary” housing in construction trailers, and no one is happy. The building lower left is one of 2500 public housing “projects” run by New York’s NYCHA, housing nearly 400,000 people; the authority is near bankruptcy and many of the facilities are plagued with problems rendering them close to uninhabitable. 

The Tyee recently ran an article on the need for Vacancy Controls — the extension of rent controls to houses and apartments that are temporarily vacant. This would prevent renovictions and other forms of price-gouging and abuse by property owners in ridiculously overheated housing markets like Vancouver’s.

A shill for landlords and real estate speculators evidently screamed bloody murder and demanded an ‘equal time’ piece rebutting the proposal, which for some reason they gave him.

It made for discouraging reading. Vacancy Controls were, the opponent said, meddling in the market, depriving property owners of ‘market’ incentives to provide and upgrade rental housing. He wanted welfare instead — government handouts for those extremely impoverished to enable them to pay, in theory, for basic affordable housing. Anything else was meddling with property owners’ rights.

I guess he must be rich and out of touch with middle-class citizens. The median annual family income in Vancouver is $72,000 before taxes (works out to about $25/hr vs minimum wage of about $15/hr); that’s $51,000 after taxes. The median annual rent for a 2-bedroom home in Vancouver is $44,000 plus utilities. Basically less than one in five families working in Vancouver can (according to bank guidelines) afford to rent in Vancouver, and rents outside the city are now only marginally lower. These rents are completely unsustainable, and they’re increasing by 20% per year.

My response was:

When the necessities of life become unaffordable to a large proportion of the population, it is the absolute duty of all levels of government to enact laws to fix the problem. That doesn’t mean tinkering with the market, it means a massive program to construct a million or more quality housing units across Canada, and rent them out at affordable rates, even if that isn’t “profitable”. That’s what governments are for, and other countries have successfully done this. It’s really that simple.

Fifty or sixty years ago, price and rent controls were considered by most Canadians to be a reasonable way to deal with unaffordable housing and price-gouging, and any writer who wanted the ‘market’ to decide what rents should be, untrammelled, would have been loudly booed. But since then, the Overton window of accepted thought has shifted and shrunk, thanks to relentless conservative and right-libertarian propaganda, to the point that rent controls are considered by many if not most to be an unrealistic, discredited, socialist scheme.

I continue to believe, unfashionably now, that ensuring essential goods and services are available and affordable to all citizens is the fundamental purpose of government. Of course that is a socialistic idea. It also works. Raw, unregulated capitalism, which is the system we have now, and which we have been brainwashed to accept as the only system that has ever worked, is, by contrast, completely unworkable, good only for stealing resources and property from poor citizens, foreign countries, and future generations, and redirecting it to the very top caste of the elite of imperial nations — aka the 1% or the PMC.

Yet today, the right has so thoroughly smeared and discredited governments and public agencies and institutions, that even the lion’s share of progressives eschew expecting or requiring governments to do anything for their citizens; they’re increasingly viewed as corrupt, incompetent, obsessed with surveillance of citizens, and either totally unnecessary or a barely necessary evil.

But they’re not. Many studies over the past decades have shown that government and government agencies are, when they are not crippled and sabotaged by politicians, actually more efficient at providing goods and services than private corporations of similar size and scale. (John Ralston Saul’s books make this point eloquently.)

Furthermore, the criticism that governments simply cannot “afford” to ensure citizens have access to affordable essential goods and services is hogwash. The costs of dealing with the consequences of millions of people without secure, livable homes, without nutritious food, without access to essential health care, without a quality education, without reliable public infrastructure, and without adequate energy resources, is many, many times higher than the cost the government would incur to directly ensure these essential goods and services were available to all. And as depression-era programs have shown, when governments really are pressed to provide these goods and services, they suddenly discover they can afford to do so, and cannot afford not to do so.

Of course, this means taxes on the rich to pay for them. That is, taxes on the top caste who now own most governments, thanks to lax regulation, lax enforcement, heinous political funding rules, and corrupt and incompetent judiciaries.

And provision of such services would probably mean that there wouldn’t be money for wars and other forms of foreign military and political interference. What a tragedy, eh?

So I suppose I have to outline what government is for, in kind of theoretical terms, since it is highly unlikely that the top caste will cede its control and influence and allow governments to actually do their job.

I believe the government should authorize and control the construction and maintenance of millions of units of safe, comfortable, ecologically sound housing, and offer them at subsidized prices that enable all citizens to afford decent housing without spending more than 30% of their income on them. That would drive down the prices of units currently being built and rented by private developers. Maximum rental prices based on home size and local costs of living should be instituted to make more units affordable, and homes other than principal residences that are not rented out should be heavily taxed to bring them into the rental market or encourage the owner to sell them.

Food and energy are the two other essentials that should be governed by price caps and, in the case of energy, limited rationing against egregious excess usage. Foods included in national nutritional guidelines should be subsidized so that they are significantly less expensive than junk foods. Food and energy oligopolies should be broken up.

Universal and comprehensive health care and quality education including university should be free for everyone.

Essential public infrastructure — water, sewer, power, public transportation, communication, roads etc — should be maintained everywhere at minimum standards established by engineering and usage reports, with no delays or deferrals permitted.

And there should be a guaranteed annual income for all, based on living costs, and administered through the tax system (as a ‘negative income tax’). No one should have to live with the burden of debts exceeding the value of their assets, and debt jubilees and strict interest rate caps and anti-usury laws need to be reintroduced.

We could, theoretically, do this. Parts of it have been implemented throughout the world, repeatedly and successfully. We can afford it. We can’t afford not to do it. But with our economic, political and, increasingly, our social systems in an ever-growing state of collapse, we won’t do this. Nevertheless, regardless of what conservatives and right-libertarians may tell you, it’s not impossible.

This is, after all, what government is for. To ensure that the essential needs of its citizens are met, full stop. We seem to have forgotten.

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

How the Left Was Lost

Jeremy Corbyn before the smear campaign and purge of leftists from the UK Labour Party; unlike Jeremy, his former party now supports escalation of the Ukraine war: photo by Sophie J Brown, CC-BY-SA 3.0 

Everywhere you look in the Euro-American nations of the world, you can see the left in retreat, in shambles, in disarray, and embroiled in internal conflict:

  • In the US, Bernie Sanders and The Squad were forced to take back their call for a negotiated peace in Ukraine, because the warmongers controlling the Democratic Party wouldn’t stand for it.
  • Bernie has acknowledged that universal health care, which most Euro-American nations have had for years, is never going to happen there. And for the first time, a majority of Canadians are now willing to accept that privatization of their health care system, and its replacement with a two-tier system, one for the rich and the other for the rest, is inevitable here as well. After all, that’s what “the market” wants!
  • Leftists’ energies to use government regulation, laws and taxes to reduce inequality and provide essential social services have been sapped from within and without by ideologically anti-government elements who think everything government does is necessarily evil, suspect and an infringement on “individual rights”.
  • The UK Labour party, stripped of all its leftists in the anti-Jeremy Corbyn witch hunt, is now accepting the necessity of privatization of the once-venerable NHS.
  • The Scottish National Party has been taken over by a right-wing anti-democratic group that has abandoned its commitment to Scottish independence.
  • The environmental movement just about everywhere has lost all its momentum thanks to identity politics. Its recent abandonment of direct action (partly because that apparently discriminates against members not able to participate in such actions) and its subordination of urgent climate action priorities to feel-good issues of “social justice” and “climate reparations” have essentially destroyed the movement.
  • The Greens in Germany have abandoned ecological protection and become the unofficial War Party in that country, advocating for expansion of the war in Ukraine.
  • The Greens in Canada have imploded when their leader purged all senior members who supported BDS activities and banned those supporting BDS from running for leadership.
  • The BC NDP (provincial Labour) party is supporting massive LNG fracking, pipelines and precarious tanker exports, and ecologically disastrous mega-dam projects, and has continued the destruction of the province’s old growth forests. The only candidate who challenged these positions in a recent leadership race was disqualified by the party brass on a technicality.
  • Self-styled progressives in the US largely support the continuation of the war in Ukraine, and many also now support nuclear brinksmanship through US/Pentagon/CIA/NATO efforts to bring about regime change in both Russia and China, and also favour stricter immigration laws and penalties.
  • Whistle-blowers, who in the Vietnam War era were celebrated as truth-tellers and heroes, are now quickly imprisoned or exiled. Leftists who espouse beliefs unpopular with, or too complex for, the media’s corporate sponsors and ‘average readers’, are now banned from their pages. Fact-free and evidence-free right-wing propaganda has taken their place, so citizens unable to spend an inordinate amount of time delving into alternative media (some of it infiltrated by the same propagandists) simply give up on knowing what is really going on.

Those of us who can remember truly progressive, activist, environmentalist leaders who actually got elected, who received a lot of uncensored media coverage, and who at least tried to fight for action to deal with the polycrisis and the commensurate systems collapses and extinctions we are now facing, have to wonder: What in the world went wrong?

My sense is that the left utterly lost a fiercely-fought PR war for the “hearts and minds” of citizens that began in the mid-1960s and continues today. That happened for three reasons: (1) the population is now far less informed about history, current events and politics than they were in the 1960s, and hence far more vulnerable to groupthink, mis- and dis-information; (2) new technologies and new media have vastly increased the capacity of spinmeisters to shift and alter public opinion; and (3) the right has exploited (1) and (2) to their advantage, while the left assumed that most people would be ‘like them’ and strive to be informed and to uncover the truth no matter what.

We are, after all, emotional creatures more than intellectual ones, and our beliefs represent what we have been conditioned to feel, more than what we have been conditioned to think. More than we’d like to admit, we are motivated by fear, righteous indignation, and primal hatred, anger and resentment, often more than by rational argument.

The Professional-Managerial Caste (PMC) which controlled the centrist parties and centrist (so-called “liberal”) media since the 1960s have now abandoned their progressive principles in a desperate struggle to hold on to power and influence as the right has swept up most of the corporate political donations and hence political control over the rest of the apparatus of state (intelligence, military, police, lobbyists, media, churches, more recently schools, etc).

As a dumbed-down populace abandoned progressive principles that were bedrock in the 1960s, the PMC shifted hard right to try to pander to them, and to the corporate donors on which their wealth and power ultimately depends. In the process, the PMC have now become pro-war, anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-government advocates substantially indistinguishable from the right-wing parties and media, other than in style and physical appearance, and as a result they have been abandoned by many disgusted progressives who now have to hold their noses to vote for them for fear that even-more right-wing parties will sweep them out of office.

There is no solution for this. It’s far too late to undo sixty years of persistent, clever, but uncoordinated manipulation of citizens who are now too dumb to know they’ve been had, and are continuing to be had every day, now by all the mainstream parties and media voices telling them variations of the same lies (“Russia bad/evil — torture babies; yes of course but China worse/eviler — lab leak, lab leak!*”).

The prognosis is not good — economic and political collapse are now likely to happen sooner than they would have had more reasonable voices prevailed, and social collapse is now more likely to accompany them. If we’re able to avoid nuclear annihilation, by the time ecological collapse weighs in, our civilization will almost surely already be in tatters, and no coordinated response to it will be possible.

If you’re a true progressive — a believer that peace is always the answer and war never is; a believer that a healthy society is free of both billionaires and paupers; a believer that government has an essential role to play in providing essential goods and services to all and curtailing the excesses of corrupting power; and a believer that we’re all trying to do our best, not our worst, for and to each other — then I think you’ll have to content yourself with knowing what was and is best for the human species, rather than influencing how the human experiment on this planet is actually going to play out.

Tragic, though. It was a really good idea. Turned out we weren’t quite able to make it work in practice. But a nice try nevertheless.

* The latest WSJ/DOE crap about the lab leak was perpetrated by Michael Gordon, the very same right-wing zealot who sold the world on the lie that Iraq had WMD, in order to garner support for the atrocity of the Iraq War. I suspect that this new ‘revelation’ is part of the ongoing CIA/Pentagon campaign to whip up racist anti-Chinese fervour to support a war against China in the next year or so. Unlike the Nord Stream revelations, Gordon’s ‘opinion’ piece was immediately picked up by the NYT and hundreds of other faithful scribes of CIA/Pentagon propaganda. Even Edward Snowden got sucked in by it.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 3 Comments