The End of the Common Good

image by Gopal Vijayaraghavan on flickr, CC-BY-2.0

Anita Sreedhar and Anand Gopal, a doctor and a journalist, have been researching vaccine hesitancy for decades. In a recent NYT article they offered this remarkable perspective on it:

Over the past four decades, governments have slashed budgets and privatized basic services. This has two important consequences for public health. First, people are unlikely to trust institutions that do little for them. And second, public health is no longer viewed as a collective endeavor, based on the principle of social solidarity and mutual obligation. People are conditioned to believe they’re on their own and responsible only for themselves. That means an important source of vaccine hesitancy is the erosion of the idea of a common good.

One of the most striking examples of this transformation is in the United States, where anti-vaccination attitudes have been growing for decades. For Covid-19, commentators have chalked up vaccine distrust to everything from online misinformation campaigns, to our tribal political culture, to a fear of needles. Race has been highlighted in particular: In the early months of the vaccine rollout, white Americans were twice as likely as Black Americans to get vaccinated. Dr. Anthony Fauci pointed to the long shadow of racism on our country’s medical institutions, like the notorious Tuskegee syphilis trials, while others emphasized the negative experiences of Black and Latinos in the examination room. These views are not wrong; compared to white Americans, communities of color do experience the American health care system differently. But a closer look at the data reveals a more complicated picture.

Since the spring, when most American adults became eligible for Covid vaccines, the racial gap in vaccination rates between Black and white people has been halved. In September, a national survey found that vaccination rates among Black and white Americans were almost identical. Other surveys have determined that a much more significant factor was college attendance: Those without a college degree were the most likely to go unvaccinated.

Education is a reliable predictor of socioeconomic status, and other studies have similarly found a link between income and vaccination. An analysis in June of census tract data in Michigan showed, for example, that vaccination rates in the heavily Black neighborhoods of Saginaw County were below 35 percent, and the rates in nearby poor white areas were not much different. Voters who identify as Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to get vaccinated, but, according to the Michigan data, this gap also disappears when accounting for income and education. It turns out that the real vaccination divide is class.

So if we really have to find a villain to blame for vaccine hesitancy, we might want to look at the forces that create and sustain the class, or caste, divides. The obvious candidate would be capitalism, that enables and encourages obscene inequality of wealth and power, that blames its victims for the problems it creates, that perpetuates deliberate falsehoods to sell us stuff, that pits us mercilessly as consumers of products and political beliefs against each other, and that in general profits most from creating misinformation, disinformation, fear and distrust, and then selling us remedies for it.

There is, of course, no such thing as capitalism — it’s merely a label we put on aspects of our dysfunctional and devolving economic and political systems to try to make sense of what’s wrong (or right) with them. All the systems and -isms we imagine are just our attempt to make sense of the apparent patterns in the behaviour of 7.8B bewildered humans. We’re all doing our best, and no one is to blame. What we call disaster capitalism is just a description of what that collective behaviour has brought us to.

We believe what we want to believe, and the facts be damned. That is how we cope, how we make meaning, how we organize our thoughts to be able, we hope, to function in this dizzying, fragmented, collapsing civilization. And it also helps us get along with those in our circles, ie the others in our class, or to use Isabel Wilkerson’s more robust term, our caste, when we believe the same things they do.

What Anita and Anand are asserting is that that leads us to align our beliefs with theirs. The loss of collective trust in governments and institutions makes it easier to do that, since we and the rest of our caste can comfortably ignore what health professionals and scientists are saying, when it doesn’t align with what our caste believes. We need to believe something, and we all need the support of our peeps.

This is not about class war, although it has all the trappings of one. Civilization has damaged, traumatized, and left us all deeply skeptical of everything we hear, no matter what caste(s) we belong to. That is not to say that civilization isn’t inequitable, racist, sexist, and more brutal to some castes than others. The ship is sinking, we’ve burned all the lifeboats, and the fact that each caste is heading for the exits designated for that caste, will make no difference to the final outcomes. Those in the lower steerage areas will, of course, go sooner and more terribly than those on the upper decks rearranging the deck chairs in the belief a bit more consultation will come up with magical solutions to save them. Those on the upper decks have, of course, locked the stairwells and elevators to prevent those in the lower castes from moving higher. Those in the lower castes are ramming the barricades, outraged. Meanwhile, the bulkheads have been breached by the sea, and those in the bottom half of the ship are already gasping for breath.

We have created a global civilization (with the best of collective intentions) that is enormously fragile (efficiency is cheaper and faster than effectiveness), and it has no resiliency. It has grown to such enormous scale that no one controls, or can control, any of it, as hard as those with wealth and power might try. It cannot possibly hope to contend with global pandemics, especially with trust across castes at its nadir. For the same reasons it cannot hope to contend with the accelerating ecological collapse and economic collapse that will soon be the undoing of all of us and everything we have created.

A friend recently pointed out to me that, statistically, every person who has declined to get a vaccine since they have become available has, directly or indirectly, produced an average of 30-50 more infections, one of which will, on average, require hospitalization. One of every six thus hospitalized will die of the disease. The unvaccinated, he said, have blood on their hands. And about ten of the 30-50 needlessly infected will suffer with Long CoVid.

I understand his position, but he completely misunderstands the lessons that Anita and Anand are trying to convey. The facts (and statistics) don’t matter —  not because ‘some people’ are willfully ignorant or in denial about them, but because our culture has destroyed our trust in knowing with any confidence which facts are true and which are false. So we retreat to accepting the beliefs of those in our caste(s), and ignoring those of other castes when they hold something different.

This is human conditioning. We have evolved this way. When the facts are in doubt, we follow the herd. I watch this all the time in the behaviour of birds and deer, and there is no reason to believe we are any different. Our actions, and beliefs, are the products of our conditioning.

This propensity makes us even more bewildered when it comes to questions of “what can/should I do personally?” For wild creatures this is not an issue, but for us self-afflicted humans it is something most of are conditioned to take seriously. What difference do personal actions make? Followers of the Jevons Paradox know that buying a more fuel-efficient car will likely lead to increased use of the vehicle, so that fuel use actually increases. We know that flying is ecologically disastrous, but what difference does it make if that flight takes off with one more empty seat?

If I decide not to have any children, to avoid exponentially increasing my, and my descendants’, carbon footprint, the resources they would otherwise have consumed will simply be taken by someone else and their descendants, surely? The logic is false, but it doesn’t matter. As long as my caste is flying in airplanes (and getting upset if I refuse to), and having children (and getting upset if I urge them not to), we will all keep following the herd. That’s our conditioning, and until the planes are all grounded and until having a child is obviously condemning it to a ghastly life and early death, we will continue to do so. Then we’ll be reconditioned, by our caste (not by our politicians or the media) to behave differently.

As for the next pandemic, or the potential of omicron to essentially restart this one, the die is now cast. Those who trust the science, and the scientists, will mostly live, though the constraints on their lives will be much more severe, and their situation much more precarious, because next time even fewer will get vaccinated. Those who don’t trust the science, or the scientists, or those who employ them, for perfectly understandable reasons, will make the last two years under CoVid-19 look like a picnic. Our civilization can simply no longer cope with global crises — the trust needed to respond quickly and unanimously has been lost, if it ever really existed at all. And no one is to blame. This is what collapse looks like.

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

When Meaning Loses Its Meaning

Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework (2021). Adds liminal domains, points of uncertainty or paradox, notably the aporetic domain, from whence, notably, NZ’s Jacinda Ardern chose to cede decision-making authority to health experts as being better equipped than politicians to determine the most sensible next steps to deal with the pandemic, buying time in a period of crisis and keeping options open.

This morning I watched a fascinating conversation between my Welsh friend Dave Snowden, and filmmaker Nora Bateson, daughter of anthropologist Gregory Bateson and step-daughter of Margaret Mead. Nora is carrying on her father’s work on complexity. The subject was “When Meaning Loses Its Meaning”.

Here are my notes from the session; they’re not direct quotes:

If you want to change people don’t try to change the individual, because you can’t, and besides it’s arguably immoral to try; instead change who they interact with. Then they will make their own decisions about how they change and what they do as a result — and what you’re concerned with is what they do not what they think.

For a rich, “entangling” contextual connection to occur in a group of people, they don’t even have to talk together; what’s important is that they work together, do things together. Then they discover what they have in common, what they both care about, instead of what separates them, and that new contextual understanding can change what they do going forward, and hence change what they understand and believe. They end up with entangled narratives and contexts for sense-making, which then allow “intimate conversations” (trusting, lowered guard, more openness) to occur.

So you change their interactions, and who they interact with, rather than a ‘therapy’ approach of trying to change their ‘wrong’ beliefs. You of course have to trust people to want to do the right thing and to be prepared to change based on new knowledge and new interactions.

Complexity theory is not the same as “systems thinking” theory — the [Peter] Senge stuff is “reductionist and linear”. Complexity suggests that what people think or believe doesn’t matter as much as their communications and interactions. But you want to manage the interactions at some reasonable scale to make a real difference, and you scale changes in a complex adaptive system by decomposition and recombination, not by imitation or replication. [I would like to hear more about this. It seems to be about breaking the new behaviour down into its building blocks, and then letting each group/organization you want to encourage it in to reassemble them in a way that makes sense in their particular context. The way nature scales/learns/evolves without exact replication. “Here’s a new idea that seems to work. Here are its ingredients. See if makes sense to apply it there.”]

Complexity science, the science of understanding living systems, has been “debased and demeaned” by popularizers that have dumbed down its true meaning. There is “great danger in trivializing theory”. And in relying on theory to the point of exclusion of empirical facts that contradict the theory.

Systems dynamics is an engineering metaphor (about planning and goal-setting) whereas complexity is an ecological metaphor — where are we now and what can we do next. Systems thinking starts with a goal, a mission, a statement of purpose, while complexity starts instead [more humbly and pragmatically] with a “sense of direction”.

And complexity doesn’t try to think about the system as a whole, since we can never know it completely; instead you think about the identities and agents and interactions in play and what are the constraints and which of them can be managed. In an ordered system you manage the outcome, but in a complex system you can only manage [some of] the constraints.

Complexity is about “managing energy gradients”, eg by making it easier [and/or more fun?] for people to act, right now.

We need to look for “the opportunity for catalytic events to trigger phase shifts”, especially in areas like climate change. That will only happen with substantially more interaction between people across silos who can then see what they have in common and agree upon things as being important enough to require immediate action. [Dave had hoped, last year, that there would be a significant intersection and common cause emerging between the fight against CoVid-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Extinction Rebellion movement.]

We don’t live in a mechanistic world, as much as ‘management scientists’ would like to believe otherwise, especially when urgent crises shift our thinking back to mechanistic solutions and to things that seemed to work in the past. Every software engineer needs to learn history, and ethics.

There’s also a danger that well-meaning ‘mediators’ can actually interfere with this process of intimate contextual entanglement necessary to deal effectively with complex situations. It takes skilled facilitation to stay out of the way of it, while also enabling it to happen.

Meaning-making is an abductive process. Abductive thinking entails the capacity to see things from different trans-contextual perspectives, to listen empathetically and pay attention to outliers on the “margins of meaning”, and imagine novel approaches and ideas, to draw on the “logic of hunches” and intuition, to rest in uncertainty and welcome and play with ambiguity, to combine well-considered theory with direct experience. It requires lots of practice, good attention skills, and rigour. And a practiced capacity to hypothesize, and to test our hypotheses, and hold several hypotheses simultaneously. And a capacity for “small noticings” — such as noticing the light on the field during a journey that you didn’t realize was important until you’d passed it, and then turning back to give it more attention.

So, for example, listening to the narratives about a child who is struggling in school must focus not only on the teacher’s skills and style and the child’s cognitive capacities, but also on complex factors like the child’s nutrition and home environment.

Many indigenous cultures deal with complex predicaments by bringing people together to do things, including ritual, and to engage with each other such that their contexts, understandings and narratives become entangled. They surface and share common concerns instead of debating or mediating differences. Then they can safely enter into intimate conversations. And then they trust each other to do, with the best of their shared understanding, what they know must be done.

But you don’t need a crisis to use this abductive process. You can understand and manage the constraints in a system even if it’s far from collapse. You can be hopeful, and more rigorous, applying it in all we do, without having to be optimistic about outcomes. It’s not about outcomes, which are largely outside our control or ability to predict. You can’t engineer emergent properties.

On ritual: The ritual of surgeons scrubbing up together before surgery can be as essential to its success as the surgeons’ knowledge. Offering true gifts, with no expectation of reciprocation or even acknowledgement, are among the most important rituals.

We live in a world of people too busy to be interested in history and science, and lacking in curiosity. And we have too many specialists and not enough generalists. We live in a world of cognitive malnourishment. Things like art and music are cognitive activators. So is communal living, engaging with the ambiguity of language, and practicing arguing a point of view you don’t believe in.

It is our relationships, including serendipitous encounters, that habituate us, far more than our environment and the resources we have at our disposal. The anxiety of feeling that we must “solve the problem” distracts us from thinking creatively and abductively about it, and leads us to fall back on habituated responses.

Part of our task in sense-making in complex situations is eponipoesis [sp?] — naming the unseen, what we tacitly realized but had never articulated out loud. Another part is having a powerful sense of the numinous, the mysterious — and of awe.


So what do we make of all this, especially if one believes, as I currently do, that we are conditioned creatures lacking free will?

I think, perhaps surprisingly, that they’re absolutely correct. I have often been told that my “distinctive competency” in life is imagining possibilities that very few would ever have come up with — evidently an abductive skill. But I had no choice in the matter. I am by nature a curious generalist with an exceptional imagination, for better and for worse. This competency is one I came by naturally, and I practiced it because it was apparently valued, so I have retained it. Sometimes it had even enabled me to name the unseen.

I have poor attention skills, also conditioned, I believe — in part because of long-standing childhood fear, based on some relatively mildly traumatic experiences, that if I really paid attention I would be horrified, so I taught myself to turn away, to not pay attention. Now I’m trying to pay better attention, but it doesn’t come easily, and even my attempts are driven by my conditioning — now I don’t want to hurt people I care about by missing their signals. But I’m still a slow learner, and slow on the uptake of “small noticings”.

It makes sense that, once people believe what they want to believe (ie what they’ve been conditioned to believe, how they’ve come to make sense of the world), it’s exceedingly difficult to change their beliefs by directly confronting them with facts. Stories can be more effective, but bringing people into a relationship (not against their will, of course) that will give them context to understand why someone believes something very different from what they believe, is almost certainly more effective still. Our relationships ‘recondition’ us, over time.

I’m not sure about the value of rituals. They are clearly useful and important to many. And to the extent a ritual (short of harrowing ones like hazing, which can be effective but also traumatizing, a poor trade-off) can facilitate a shared experience, a commonality of context and meaning, I can see how they could facilitate a lot of otherwise-challenging or otherwise-awkward actions — dancing being an obvious example, whole-body shared experiences.

This discussion did resolve some great uncertainties I’ve had about systems theory and particularly about systems diagrams — the impossibility of knowing all the variables (in complex systems), and the dangers of asserting causality when there are so many variables. From now on I am going to use them more cautiously.

I’m dubious about the whole prospect of ‘scaling’ change. Dave’s nature-based model of recombination is intellectually appealing, but social and biological systems are different, and I find the metaphor weak. I’d believe it more if there were examples of its successful application, but I suspect it is still mostly theory. If social change doesn’t scale, as I suspect, a lot of businesses, and socio-political groups, will, I think, quickly lose interest in projects based on it.

I very much like the idea of practicing the development of, and the simultaneous holding of, alternative hypotheses, that sits at the heart of abductive process. I’m adding it to my Schmachtenberger homework. (And obviously I like the whole “managing energy gradients” idea, since it echoes Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour.)

And very much onside on the subject of cognitive malnourishment. On the whole, I don’t think modern society values cognitive capacity or wants people to think smarter or to become more self-knowledgeable or resilient. Our consumer economy encourages dependence and the infantilization of humanity, because it’s more profitable, and reduces resistance to the status quo and existing wealth and power structures. Sad, and understandable.

And of course seeing new places with people with different values, cultures and sensibilities is always enriching. But, as the Procol Harum song says, whenever I’ve gone away travelling, I “only saw how far I am from home”.

Thanks to Dave and Nora for putting this on. Dave’s always been brilliant, but his talks and writing have become more coherent in recent years, though it’s still a challenge to follow his mental leaps. Maybe his voice is finally catching up to his brain. He famously said “we know more than we can ever say”.

And Nora, with a smile, said during the conversation, referring to no one in particular, “what we hear is not what was said”. Eliot would have smiled, too.

EDIT Dec 4: The video of this conversation is now online.

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

Negative Assertions

I have nothing to tell you.
These words don’t mean what you think.
What you see here, and there, isn’t what’s actually happening.
We’re not really here.

That gorgeous colour, in the sunset, doesn’t exist.
That bird chirping in that tree, there, isn’t the same bird that was chirping a second ago.
The clock on your wall, telling the time, isn’t telling you anything.

Your love for them isn’t about them at all.
What you remember is no more real than what you imagine.
You can’t get there from here.

There was no Big Bang.
There is no moment under the moment.
There is no lightness of being, bearable or unbearable.

The end is not the end, or the beginning. Or any place in between.
There is no waiting, even for Godot, or TS Eliot.
That never happened.

It doesn’t get any better than this. Or any worse.
There is no choice.
It isn’t too late, or too soon.
You have no idea.

I’m not telling you this.
I have nothing to tell you.

Posted in Creative Works, Radical Non-Duality | 5 Comments

An Alternative History of Life and Evolution

mitochondria (red) in human cells, electron microscope photo from Flickr, D. BURNETTE, J. LIPPINCOTT-SCHWARTZ/NICHD via The Scientist

About 4.5B years ago, it seemed that a giant mass of gases formed into a cloud and coalesced into a planet we call Earth, and shortly thereafter the seas seemingly formed on its surface, and shortly after that the first forms of single-celled life (prokaryotes) emerged in the oceanic soup. That emergence seems to have been an accident, one of nature’s endless experiments with variety that somehow sustained itself. An electric spark, for no reason, with surprise consequences.

It was another two billion years before another apparent accident — the engulfing of an aerobic bacterium by an anaerobic bacterium — generated an explosion in the quantity of available energy to the symbiotic pair, sufficient to enable the creation of multi-cellular life (eukaryotes).

Nick Paumgarten in The New Yorker explains what happened next:

According to what is known as the endosymbiotic theory of biological complexity, [the unexpected emergence of mitochondria] is the reason we exist. That [engulfed] aerobic bacterium evolved into what we call mitochondria, the organelles that fuel all living creatures: the powerhouses of the cell. Each of us has hundreds of trillions of mitochondria. They convert glucose and oxygen into adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, the primary cellular fuel. They also help produce the essential hormones—among them estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol—and regulate cellular proliferation and death.

It’s not inconceivable that the rest of the body (brain, hands, heart, lungs, digestive tract) is merely an elaborate and sometimes clumsy apparatus for the nourishment of the mitochondria—that it is the mitochondria, and not Homo sapiens, who rule and foul the earth. Our cardiovascular system, that fantastic and vulnerable machine, is essentially a delivery system for the oxygen they require. The mitochondrion is the creature and we are merely its husk, its fleshy chrysalis. A newborn’s first breath? That’s the mitochondria, calling the shots.

This energy revolution was so extraordinary that it empowered, over the next two billion years, the creation of a vast proliferation of new self-replicating containers for these mitochondria, called ‘organisms’, using this energy to self-propagate, transport, and protect themselves. The containers are what we call plants and animals (including the human variety), and the transporting mechanisms evolved from flagella to roots to fins and feet and wings.

And then there was another energy revolution. One of the new mitochondria containers, called a ‘human’, evolved the capacity to use tools and extract energy from the earth, to create yet another layer of containers to protect itself and hence the mitochondria it hosts, containers called ‘buildings’, and yet another layer of containers to transport itself and hence the mitochondria it hosts, called ‘vehicles’. The buildings, vehicles and other products of the human containers were collectively called ‘artifacts’.

So now these mighty mitochondria, veritable miniature energizer bunnies, were running a staggeringly complex multi-layered empire: They’d evolved organisms to protect and transport themselves in ‘packs’ of hundreds of trillions, and some of those organisms had in turn evolved artifacts to protect and transport billions of organisms.

But something went wrong along the way. Due to an accidentally-evolved error in the wiring of the feature detection system (called a ‘brain’) of the ‘human’ containers, these containers mistakenly came to believe that the human ‘self’, a construct of the brain, was in control of the organism. This delusion was propagated through another human tool called ‘language’, and soon all human containers were infected, and began behaving in erratic and dysfunctional ways, attacking and killing each other and other organisms, and fouling the planet, threatening the survival of all organisms.

But this aberration did not last long, and the massive extinction event it precipitated reduced the total number of mitochondria on Earth by over 97%. What followed was a long period of rapid and then gradual decomplexification, with other smaller extinction events, and most of the mitochondria that survived propagated in much simpler containers. There were a few surviving human containers, but they were not well-adapted to the post-extinction environment and finally became extinct about a million years later.

And then about twenty million years after that, an unprecedented series of cosmic storms, created by exploding supernovas, ionized the planet’s surface and atmosphere, creating a new primordial soup in a world filled with fire and lava and lightning, and by accident an entirely different type of powerhouse emerged in some simple bacterials cells that had just been awaiting their turn to explode with newly-infused energy. And the two billion year long reign of the mitochondria on Earth was over…

But of course, it’s only a story.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

Humour as Weapon, and Healer

cartoon in the New Yorker by Jon Adams

A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge.
— Dave Barry

What you consider funny probably says a lot about you. That’s not a judgement — I’m not suggesting some humour is “better” and some humour is “worse”, just that the things that make you laugh likely reveal things that have happened to you in your past, and how you’ve reacted to them.

We are, after all, conditioned creatures, and our conditioning will influence how we react to a situation, or a joke. We are all, to some extent, I think, also healing, and afflicted by trauma of one kind or another, and humour can serve both as a weapon (to ridicule others we’ve been conditioned to hate, or fear, and hence make us feel superior), and as a source of healing (to empathize, soften, and/or recognize another’s suffering, or our own).

The trend in “professional” humour (comedy films and series and stand-up routines) seems to be largely the former — it is increasingly mean-spirited, demeaning and ridiculing “others” as a way of feeling better about our “not-like-them” selves. I see that as a sign that, as our civilizational collapse deepens and evokes more and more anxiety, grief, shame, guilt and anger in us, we are using humour directed against others to cast blame and demean those we hold responsible for that collapse, and hence to absolve ourselves from responsibility for it. That’s perfectly understandable, especially for the majority that clearly still believes that someone must be to blame and that something could/should be done to make things magically better.

I used to write fairly vicious satires in that mould. Rants serve the same purpose, and are easier than humour to pull off, and they can be entertaining (especially if we agree with the ranter), but they are rarely really funny. Comedians frequently use rants, but they are dangerous when it’s realized that, though you have come to hear comedy, what you are being served up is something else.

“I was just kidding of course”, is the lamest line ever spoken, and it’s usually dishonest.

Stand-up comedians often (though less than they used to) use self-deprecation to make themselves the object of their own humour, which can soften up their audience, evoke less triggers than using others as the butt of their jokes, and even, by evoking empathy in the audience, even help us see the absurdity of our own similar situation and make us laugh at it.

Of course, some humour isn’t personal at all. Puns and other humorous wordplay, and absurdist humour, are not ‘about’ anyone. They make us laugh for a different reason — incongruity and surprise.

Well I suppose I can’t get away with writing an article on humour without relating a few jokes to make my point. The cartoon at the top of this post is an example of what I would call attack humour, ridiculing “others”. Since I feel strongly about the subject, and sympathetic to the cartoonist, my initial reaction is to find it funny. But if the shoe were on the other foot, I would certainly not; I would be angered and triggered. This is dangerous ‘humour’, and perhaps not humour at all? I still enjoy it though, for all the shame that brings up in me.

The Potentially Inappropriate Memebrary group deliberately eschews (as best as its moderators can) politically-barbed humour, for this very reason. They want everyone to enjoy the joke, and I laud that. Here’s a doc with my favourite Memebrary memes.

Here’s a John Green joke that I love:

I went into Starbucks and asked for their mildest roast. They said “you have very average ears.”

And here’s a Dave Barry joke that I love:

It is a well-documented fact that guys will not ask for directions. This is a biological thing. This is why it takes several million sperm cells to locate a female egg, despite the fact that the egg is, relative to them, the size of Wisconsin.

Then there is wordplay humour that also tickles me, especially if it’s complex enough to have more than one “punch line”:

After Quasimodo’s death, the bishop of the Cathedral of Notre Dame
sent word through the streets of Paris that a new bell ringer was
needed. The bishop decided that he would conduct the interviews personally
and went up into the belfry to begin the screening process. After
observing several applicants demonstrate their skills, he had decided
to call it a day. Just then, an armless man approached him and
announced that he was there to apply for the bell ringer’s job.

The bishop was incredulous. “You have no arms!”.
“No matter,” said the man. “Observe!” And he began striking
the bells with his face, producing a beautiful melody on the carillon. The bishop listened in astonishment; convinced he had finally found
a replacement for Quasimodo. But suddenly, rushing forward to strike a
bell, the armless man tripped and plunged headlong out of the belfry
window to his death in the street below.

The stunned bishop rushed to his side. When he reached the street, a
crowd had gathered around the fallen figure, drawn by the beautiful
music they had heard only moments before. As they silently parted to
let the bishop through, one of them asked, “Bishop, who was this

“I don’t know his name,” the bishop sadly replied, “but his face
rings a bell.”

The following day, despite the sadness that weighed heavily on his
heart due to the unfortunate death of the armless campanologist, the
bishop continued his interviews for the bell ringer of Notre Dame. The first man to approach him said, “Your Excellency, I am the brother of the poor armless wretch that fell to his death from this very belfry yesterday. I pray that you honour his life by allowing me to replace him in this duty.”

The bishop agreed to give the man an audition, and, as the armless
man’s brother stooped to pick up a mallet to strike the first bell,
he groaned, clutched at his chest, twirled around, and died on the
spot. Two monks, hearing the bishop’s cries of grief at this second tragedy,
rushed up the stairs to his side. “What has happened? Who is this
man?” the first monk asked breathlessly.

“I don’t know his name,” sighed the distraught bishop, but he’s a dead ringer for his brother.”

And then there is wry humour that includes a second-layer element of truth:

The biggest difference between Americans, Canadians and Brits is that Americans seem to think that poverty and failure are morally suspect, and
Canadians seem to believe that wealth and success are morally suspect, while
Brits understand that wealth, poverty, success and failure are inherited things.

So I have learned a bit about myself by understanding that I love certain types of humour: particularly clever puns and crossword clues, absurdist, impromptu and hyperbolized humour, self-deprecating, gentle satire and parodies, jokes with multiple punch lines, and humour that also conveys an element of truth. And that I am suspicious of humour “aimed” at others. I’m not entirely sure why some humour appeals to me while most humour does not. I suppose it’s a bit like why I am crazy about an eclectic mix of songs and completely indifferent to other songs, even those considered “classics”.

It’s a bunch of cultural conditioning, and I suspect a bit of biological conditioning. When I first hear a great joke, it’s almost as if I know I’m going to love it before it’s even finished being told. Just as I usually fall in love with songs, or not, even before I hear the first chorus. No accounting for taste, though trying to do so is fascinating.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

The Right to Do Nothing

one of many recent anti-mandate protests in Europe and the Caribbean, this one in Croatia; AP photo via Al Jazeera

The arguments against getting vaccinated are now coalescing around the issue of “mandates”. These arguments no longer insist that the vaccines are necessarily useless or dangerous (though many of course think they are), but instead assert that making them mandatory is political overreach and/or a potentially dangerous abuse of power and authority, a “slippery slope”.

This seems to be a “big tent” type of argument, designed to bring together three disparate groups of the vaccine-hesitant: the misinformed and paranoid who believe the vaccines are unnecessary and/or dangerous; those with PTSD and other medical histories that have made them afraid of needles; and those across the political spectrum who think governments have too much power and that that power needs to be reined in.

Whipping up anti-government anger, distrust and fear is easy to do when our modern governments are disconnected from their constituents, when the news is replete with stories of government corruption, graft and abuse of power, and when many people, full of dread about the future and shame about their current situation, are looking for someone to blame. Right-wing ideologues and populist psychopaths have exploited this easy path all over the world to seize and entrench power in recent years, and have already established what are effectively fascist regimes in much of the world. In the process, they have destabilized democracies in most of the remaining countries.

As global information and communication leads to ever-more cultural homogeneity, it becomes increasingly doubtful that our remaining fragile democracies can survive the systematic attack by the rich, powerful and psychotic to undermine them by disseminating misinformation, disinformation, and fomenting distrust in all public institutions.

As a result of this distrust, the current pandemic, which would have been over by now if 90% of the population had been promptly vaccinated this summer before the delta variant exploded, is now likely to go on at least another year, and longer if new deadlier or more transmissible variants emerge in the huge pool of the unvaccinated. With prompt and full masking from the outset, the global death toll would almost certainly have been less than a million. With prompt and universal vaccination, it would likely have been less than three million. But now it stands at close to fifteen million, and is likely to kill at least another seven million as the world remains paralyzed into inaction.

And that’s just one of the costs of the destruction of trust in public institutions.

I have said before that I think we believe what we want to believe, regardless of what is actually true. So it seems to me that what we are now witnessing is a classic symptom of civilizational collapse — the giving up of belief that the current systems that govern our behaviour are still serving us well, and at least metaphorically the “walking away” from our teetering global, centralized, industrial culture. Sadly, in our horrifically overpopulated world, there is nowhere to walk away to (although the tech billionaires in their space suits are still in denial that their experiment is over, and still trying to sell us on the next one).

This suggests to me that we won’t be able to avoid the social collapse that often accompanies political, economic and ecological collapse when civilizations fall apart. To avoid social collapse would require a willingness to relearn how to create and live in radically relocalized communities, and to trust and even love the others who happen to live in those communities. As collapse worsens, it would seem naive to think we are going to learn to trust each other when our trust has been so recently and severely destroyed by those seeking to profit from our disconnection and disunity, and by the sheer dysfunctionality of the oversized, bureaucratic, centralized, one-size-fits-none systems we naively built thinking they would make the world better.

Gene McCarthy warned fifty years ago about our society’s growing proclivity for acedia — an incapacity to care for or about other people, especially those “different” from us. As horrific as the consequences of that might be (if we don’t care, there’s nothing we won’t do), this emotional distancing of ourselves is actually pretty understandable. We can’t care when every time we do, we are let down. We can’t care when it hurts too much to care. So we protect ourselves by inuring ourselves to others’ suffering. Once we’ve given up trust in others, and in our public institutions, and given up caring for others, social collapse is inevitable. It’s everyone for themselves.

That means that, just as this pandemic has been much worse than some previous ones, and much worse than it needed to be had we all pulled together, so will our civilization’s collapse be more brutal and violent than it needed to be. That’s tragic, but understandable, and probably the only way it could have ended up. There will still be pockets of mutual care and community-building as collapse deepens, among those not badly damaged by civilization’s excesses and atrocities, and we will have to settle for that. It’s a long way down.

With that context, what does this explosion of fear, distrust, acedia and despair mean for the trajectory of the current pandemic? While the virus will do what it will do, either fading out as it runs out of hosts, or resurging with new mutations, my current sense is that we will see additional manifestations of this “giving up” in our pandemic-related behaviour.

Currently, we sit idly by and witness tens of millions of unnecessary deaths, and unfathomable amounts of unnecessary suffering, every year, from eighty diseases clearly caused by poor diet and malnutrition. The reasons we eat so badly, and refuse to admit it or correct it, are complex. We could blame the industrial food system, capitalism, false advertising and other forms of misinformation, the overly frenetic pace of our lives, inequality, or, as we are increasingly inclined to do, we could blame the victims. When we can no longer care — when the feelings of overwhelm, shame, grief, and helplessness force us to turn away — we have to blame the poor, the sick, and others who are struggling, for their own suffering. It is the only way we can cope.

I think we will, likewise, turn away from this pandemic and its victims. Those of us vaccinated will blame the unvaccinated for their own suffering, and for exposing the rest of us to additional unnecessary illness. Views will harden. Violence, like we are seeing in many countries by citizens railing against “mandates”, will increase. Mandates will increasingly fail because they rely on a certain level of acceptance and compliance, which will no longer exist.

Until and unless the pandemic wanes as more and more of the population gets infected with it, events will polarize into “vaccines and masks” activities, and “no mandates” activities, with inevitable protests and scuffles resulting from that. If a new, more (or differently) virulent strain emerges before that, we are well and truly fucked. And then, there’s the huge unknown of “Long CoVid” with its potentially billions of sufferers further straining our already-faltering health care systems.

It’s interesting to compare the reaction to vaccine and mask mandates to the reaction, fifty years ago, to seatbelt mandates in cars, and even to mandatory testing of apparently drunk drivers. I know people who still object to seatbelt use mandates, and their arguments are virtually identical to those made against vaccine mandates. They even fall into the same three categories (“they don’t work”, “I have a medical/psychological condition that exempts me”, and “governments have no business telling us what to do when it comes to our own bodies and property”). They tell the same worn stories about someone they knew who died because they got pinned in by a seatbelt, and the statistics be damned.

But their numbers are tiny compared to those opposed to mask mandates. Are things, and people, just different now when it comes to mandates? I suspect they are. There is a lot less trust now.

What happens when the bulk of humanity becomes permanently angry, distrustful, fearful, and uncaring — when that’s the only way they can cope with the sheer overwhelm of a society that seems headed for catastrophe, that seems incompetent to address it, that seems beyond understanding, inexplicably and outrageously immoral, and insensitive to the suffering it is causing? The same thing that all animals do when they no longer have the option to fight (the “enemy” is too strong to engage, and too amorphous to identify) or to flee (there are no frontiers left to run to)?

We freeze. We become paralyzed. We refuse to comply, to be complicit with what we can neither appreciate or condone. We resist. We stay still and do nothing. When it’s a seatbelt mandate, we cut them out and disengage the alarm. When it’s a vaccine mandate, we refuse, instead falling for quack cures — we’ll deny there’s a problem, or we’ll try anything provided the government and public institutions haven’t authorized or demanded it. Even better if the government rails against these “alternatives”. In other words, in our infantilized, dumbed down modern society, we have a temper tantrum, screaming and punching and sitting down with our arms crossed and refusing to budge.

When everything is seemingly unfathomably complicated and unacceptable and hopeless, we demand the right to do nothing. I kind of get it. Were it not for my education, my passion for research and knowledge, my analytical skills and my experience working with really smart, caring people in public service, I might be caught up in the same reactionary paralysis. I am extremely blessed by my life’s circumstances and by the relative lack of trauma affecting my thinking and my judgement.

The humanitarians I know say the answer is to quietly, patiently educate, inform, and help heal our fellow citizens, to help them move past their fear, their anger, their distrust, and their incapacity to see what, on the balance of probabilities, makes sense. I admire their idealism, but I think we’re long past that point. If a large, and growing proportion of the world is still in denial about the existential threat of climate collapse, why would we think we can find common ground with them on issues that are more personal, more immediate, more triggering?

.     .     .     .     .

I am often asked how, when my views on collapse and other issues are so relentlessly pessimistic, I don’t shut down in despair. Again I would say it’s due to my privilege — to have had, and to have, access to the information, time to think, capacity to think things through and to imagine possibilities, a relatively healthy and stress-free life, and people and resources to help me make sense of things. Most of the world’s people have not been so privileged, and as much as their beliefs and behaviours perturb me, I get why they are where they are and why they react the way they do. We are all healing. Some of us better than others.

Take care, everyone.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

The Impossible Dream

cover art by Eric Drooker

This week’s (Nov. 15) New Yorker is pretty depressing reading, but as I read it I realized that all of the analyses in the issue are focused on complex, intractable problems, and, refreshingly, none of them proffers any solutions.

The first and most harrowing article is about the accelerating challenges of wildfires in the US. In it, science journalist and author MR O’Connor, a certified firefighter herself, describes how incompetent forest management practices, and decisions based on politics not science (sound familiar?) have produced the current situation of exorbitant firefighting costs, futile containment efforts, incredible risk to firefighters’ lives and health, and the ever-increasing danger of mega-fires. And that was before the climate emergency weighed in with record storms, heat waves and droughts. With “containment” proving to be an unsuccessful and unsustainable strategy, and leaving wildfires to burn themselves out not a viable solution either, there are no answers left.

The next article, by Brooke Jarvis, describes the quandary of trying to humanely limit the numbers of deer and other creatures, encroaching on and being encroached upon by human settlements, when natural predators and natural habitats have both disappeared. Again, there are no answers.

The lead Talk of the Town article, by Elizabeth Kolbert, describes the fiasco of COP26. Enough said.

In other articles in this edition, Ian Parker explains the impossibility of reliably certifying organic produce (describing the huge Organic Land Management fraud case), and Jon Lee Anderson describes the horrific challenges of corruption and crime in the ecologically and economically desolated nations of Central America.

So it’s only fitting, I suppose, that the magazine’s cover, by Eric Drooker, reproduced above, would depict a dejected Don Quixote facing a modern windmill farm against a blood red background, in a work brilliantly titled The Impossible Dream. We are finally coming to grips, it seems, with the symptoms and consequences of collapse, and the realization that no god, no government, no humanist enlightenment, and most certainly no technology, is going to prevent it.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 3 Comments

Cold Comfort: A Radical Non-Duality FAQ

image by amira_a from flickr, via pixhere, cc by 2.0

Several people have recently asked me questions (sometimes with concerns about my mental health) about why I have tentatively come to believe in what is being called ‘radical non-duality’. So I thought I would try to answer them, for the record. Here’s the basic message of radical non-duality:

There is no you. The sense of a separate person with free will and choice inhabiting a body is an illusion, an evolutionary misstep, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that seemingly arises in creatures with large brains. The brain and body have no need of a ‘self’ in order for the apparent human they are seemingly a part of to function perfectly well. Since there is no you, there is nothing you can do or learn or become to dispel or see through this illusion. It’s hopeless.

Nothing is real. Nothing is separate. There is no thing. There is only this (or nothing, or everything, or whatever word you want to use), appearing as things and actions. These appearances are not illusions like the self, and they’re not real, or unreal; they are just appearances. Inexplicably. For no reason or purpose.

Q1: How is ‘radical’ non-duality different from other spiritual traditions of non-duality that date back millennia?

It is a completely different message, and it is not at all ‘spiritual’. It is ‘radical’ in the sense that it asserts simply and categorically that there is ‘not two’ — nothing separate, no thing, no one, no time, no space, just nothing appearing as everything. And since there is no one and no thing and no time, there is no ‘path’ to realize this, and no advice on what to do or how to live to achieve anything, or any kind of self-improvement. All spiritual and traditional non-duality messages offer a path or advice for ‘you’ to follow, when the essence of non-duality is that there is nothing separate and hence no ‘you’.

Q2: How can there be ‘no one’ and ‘no thing’ when it’s obvious that we’re real and so is everything we see — we can see it, touch it, move around it, use it?

Everything is just an appearance, neither real nor unreal. It’s kind of like (but this is only a metaphor) how a movie on a screen is just an appearance — the people and events it depicts aren’t really there or happening when you watch it, though you might get so engrossed in the movie that your whole body will react as if what is being depicted is actually happening, and you may even ‘forget’ it’s just an appearance. Quantum science suggests that time and space are likewise just inventions, ideas, the mind’s way of making sense of what our senses ‘report’.

As for there being ‘no one’, neuroscience has been unable to identify any part of your brain whose activity equates to what we think of as the self, or to anything the self seemingly does. In fact there’s evidence that what we think of as the self’s decisions are merely after-the-fact rationalizations of what the body had already begun to do.

Q3: If the self is so useless and even traumatizing, why and how would it have evolved in humans? Why would the mind have invented the self, and the concepts of time and space, and come to believe them to be absolutely real, if they are not — if they are just dangerous distractions?

It’s possible the invented self is a spandrel — an accidental consequence of a brain that got large enough to be able to construct an imaginary sense of self and separation. Nature is always trying things out. Such constructions, after all, may turn out to be evolutionarily advantageous. As it turned out, however, the invention of the self confers no survival advantage and has a number of disadvantages (like capacity for trauma). In that sense it might be like the appendix — a well-intentioned nuisance that evolved but which humans would be better off without. Perhaps the reason they haven’t disappeared yet is the same reason our toes and appendices haven’t disappeared — they haven’t been around long enough yet for our genes to evolve to eliminate them.

Q4: If the self is so useless and dangerous, how have humans with selves survived so long?

Look around. There’s plenty of evidence that we won’t survive much longer. We did fine for a million years before the sense of self seems to have emerged in our species. Now, despite all the competitive advantages having a large brain would seem to confer, we deemed destined for collapse and perhaps even extinction.

Q5: But how could humans function if there was no self in control of what we do?

The same way animals do. Everything that animals (including us) do is the result of our biological and cultural conditioning given the complex circumstances of every moment. This conditioning has evolved successfully in life forms over billions of years, and conditioned creatures have no need of a ‘conscious’ mind or self to thrive. So why would we?

Q6: Aha! There’s a contradiction in that answer. How can you say something has evolved over billions of years when you also insist there is no time (and, for that matter, ‘no thing’ to evolve)?

Everything that happens, including evolution, and every ‘thing’, is an appearance. These appearances, a bit like our dreams (again, this is a metaphor), seem to follow patterns. When we (and science) attempt to make sense of things, we look for patterns, and we create models and maps that seem to represent reality. But we do have a habit of mistaking the map for the territory! Evolution is just a story, an attempt to find patterns. And every ‘I’ is likewise just a story, made up by our large and complex brains to try to make sense of things and perhaps to try to provide a locus for acting on what it makes sense of. Other creatures simply don’t have the brain power to concoct such a fiction — nor do they need one.

Q7. Why do you believe all this? You can’t prove it, and it’s completely useless — it doesn’t help you in any way. What’s its appeal?

Two reasons I am inclined to believe it. First, there are people (some of them listed on my right sidebar, if you want to check them out) who report not having a self, and not needing one. When this loss-of-self seems to happen, they say, it’s obvious that there is no thing and no one real, just appearances. They say it’s obvious, unarguable, that ‘nothing’ just appears as ‘everything’, for no reason. And secondly, there have been glimpses ‘here’ when it was absolutely obvious this was the case — when ‘I’ disappeared and everything continued to appear exactly as it did before, but with no ‘one’, no ‘me’ witnessing it. And it was clear that this appearance of everything has no substance, no weight, no actual reality. It’s impossible to describe until a glimpse apparently happens and then you can no longer deny it.

The message appeals because it resonates with something intuitive that I think we sometimes all feel or suspect. It also makes sense intellectually — it’s an irreducible ‘theory of everything’ with no inconsistencies or missing explanations to figure out. And it even appeals emotionally — I keep thinking it never made sense that life on earth would evolve to be so hard, so full of suffering and destruction, and if this message is correct, life is instead perfect and simple and easy. And even better — it’s only an appearance.

Q8. So who are ‘they’ — these seemingly-real people saying that there is no one? And if it wasn’t you who had these ‘glimpses’ you refer to, who had them?

They are just, apparently, ordinary people. They are not coordinated. They are not exceptional in intelligence, scientific knowledge, brain wave patterns, use of drugs, or in any other way. They are not trying to make money from this, or convince anyone of anything, or suggest any kind of ‘path’ or process to see it. They are just describing what is ‘seen’, what is obvious, ‘there’, when there is ‘no longer’ any self. In fact they assert there is nothing anyone can do; this apparent falling away of the illusory self just happens. Or it doesn’t. So they aren’t selling anything; they have nothing to sell. They say there is no one ‘there’, in their apparent bodies, and no need of anyone.

Likewise, during the glimpses there was no one ‘here’, so they were not ‘my’ glimpses, merely glimpses of the truth when ‘I’ got out of the way. They were no one’s glimpses.

Q9. Sounds like a rationalization to make you feel better, by denying the reality of everything horrible going on in the world, and everything horrible that’s been done, and hence denying responsibility or any requirement to do anything to make things better. Sounds like a form of disengagement or desensitization or nihilism.

I suppose that’s possible, but I wasn’t particularly troubled by any of these things at the time I discovered and became intrigued by the message of radical non-duality. I’ve suffered from lots of depression and anxiety in my life, but learning about this new explanation of the true nature of reality came during the most joyful time of my life. And if it’s a form of escapism, it’s a pretty lousy one — it offers no escape whatsoever, no solace, and it is impossible to explain to others (despite my endless efforts to do so).

Q10. If there is no one, why do ‘you’ continue to call yourself ‘I’, and behave in ways that suggest you do see real people doing and interacting with real things?

That’s partly my conditioning, and partly the fact that our languages all evolved to allow selves to communicate among each other — for us to reassure our selves that our hallucinations about reality are real. Language has no words and no capacity to express this message precisely.

And I should also stress that I still sense an ‘I’ here, still feel that ‘my’ actions have consequences and make a difference. My self has not fallen away (to my endless annoyance). It’s similar (again, only metaphorically) to the fact that I still see the sun revolving around the earth, and even refer to things like ‘sunsets’, even though I know that’s not what is really happening. There’s a huge cognitive dissonance between my intellectual and intuitive acceptance of this message, and my conditioning that suggests a very different reality and way of behaving. But the message of radical non-duality is that nothing matters, so even though it offers only cold comfort, the cognitive dissonance it produces is actually OK. Or so my conditioning has led me to believe!

Q11. This still seems riddled with logical inconsistencies. Look in the mirror. Is there a human being there, or not? A body, or not? Is it doing things, and aging, or not? Will it die, or not?

Hmm. Yes, none of this can be explained logically, even though recent science intriguingly hints at its truth. Logic is the language of selves. There is an apparent human being, an apparent body, and apparently things are being done and bodies are apparently aging. But there is no ‘real’ human or body or mirror — just the appearance of ‘being’ and ‘bodying’ and ‘mirroring’. And ‘things being done’ and ‘aging’. These are gerundive (not really either noun or verb) terms and they’re the best that language can offer to explain that there is no one and no thing and nothing happening, not really — just appearances. And appearances are not things and not actions — they are just nothing appearing as everything, for no reason. All there is, is that.

Q12: So there is no birth, no death, and no life either? When you die, what actually happens?

Nothing. There is no time in which any of these things can actually happen. There is apparently being born, dying and living, but these are just appearances. This is already everything, complete. There is no process, no causality, no trajectory. That’s just the brain’s patterning to try to make sense of everything. Death is perhaps the self’s worst invention, other than maybe the invention of its self. The self fears the body’s apparent dying because it suggests the end of the self, and to the self that’s unbearable, terrifying. When the self seemingly ‘falls away’, the illusion ends, and what’s left is just nothing appearing as everything, in wondrous, awe-inspiring ways. With no ‘ownership’ of anything. There can still be apparent emotions and feelings and thoughts, like fear and pain and imagining death, but these are just appearances, too, not belonging to any ‘one’. A body’s apparent dying, or being born, is just another appearance. Of no consequence, for no reason.

Q13: So when this body walks into a wall and gets stopped, what is doing the stopping and what is being stopped?

Nothing. What the self conceives of as a body walking into a wall and being stopped, is actually just nothing appearing as bodying, walking, walling, and being stopped. Back to the movie metaphor or the dream metaphor or the story metaphor: In a movie or dream or story, you would expect an apparent body to be apparently stopped by an apparent wall. That’s the pattern you’ve always observed. But there’s no ‘real’ body or wall or being stopped in a movie or dream or story. There doesn’t have to be. The being stopped is just a story your brain makes up to make sense of what ‘you’ perceive to be actually happening. But nothing is actually happening. You’re just making it up. Including making up your self as the observer of the story.

Q14: That’s just sophistry. You haven’t answered the question. I could make up a story that the universe is a hologram created by an extraterrestrial intelligence, that we’re caught inside. It’s equally plausible and equally absurd.

If by ‘sophistry’ and if by ‘absurd’ you mean it doesn’t really make sense, you’re right — not by the logic of language and selves. But the hologram idea is staggeringly complex, and rather unimaginative, drawing as it does on our limited, self-obsessed human ideas of intelligence and the universe. It’s plausible, but not very. Whereas the message of radical non-duality is extremely plausible. It explains everything, quite simply.

I’m not trying to convince you. It takes a glimpse, I think, before it can be really convincing. The glimpse plants a seed of possibility in the memory, and that and the inherent intellectual and intuitive appeal of the message was all it took to convince me. The radical non-dualists simply articulated it in a way that even my Doubting Thomas self could kind of make sense of.

Q15: So if you’re not trying to convince anyone of it, why do you prattle on about it so much?

I suppose for the same reason I prattle on about the inevitability of global collapse of our civilization in this century. It’s just really interesting. When you find something really interesting, especially when it’s contrary to popular wisdom, you tend to want to talk about it.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 4 Comments

Links of the Month: November, 2021

cartoon by the ever-brilliant Sandra Boynton

I have been pretty grouchy sometimes in the last few months (like, whenever I read anything about COP26, or the racist murder trials in the US). I know there is no justification for it, and it does no one any good, and it seems rather lame to keep saying it’s not my fault because we have no free will etc, but there it is. I’ve been trying to find things that refocus my attention on things of wonder; some of them are described in the “fun and inspiration” section below. And then, too, there are the lovely, complex, cryptic lyrics of Ayla Nereo’s remarkable song Turning Wake (thanks, Kavana, for playing it). Find in them what you can, and may’t be so:

Turn, turning you a bent-bone weary wandering soul
And born, borne upon a body you can never own
Rollin’ you a long-bent sideways tumbling a mother-given loom
You knew it when you flew in shuttlin’
Weaver you are goal-bent, but do your strings
Hold the strength of what was given when you flew in?

Burn, you’re burning your own home
Some days could you live a little lighter
Give a little water, give a little eye to eye
See from what you’re made, got a lil’ shadow in your wake
Wakin’ is the way you grow this, know this
Got a lil’ matter to be bade, met and given it away
This the trip we being shown, told is all we’ve ever known
What another truth you gonna hide?
Baby, finding that you choosin’ every moment
Lookin’ through the frame they givin’ you

There’s a turn from the fear, a stand for the free
A song for the beat-down pickin’ up steam
You will hear my voice here singin’
There’s a let from the greed, a gift for the kind
I’ll be dancing’ with the ones who remind me
We are born of dust and silence, we are made of ancient song
And there are ones who’ll keep us sleeping
And there are ones who bring the dawn
Put your back to the birch and your mind
To the matter of a listening kind of way
We are born of dust and silence
We are made of ancient song

Rose, rose upon the shoulders of the shoreline
Eyesight creeping ’round the edges of the known
You’ve known it from before, before your sight was shorn shifted
And they told you not to talk of this, but you remember in your sleep
All the ones that you could see raisin’ candles to the sky
Through the forest dark as night
Wide-eyed, keep stride this the path you bein’ shown
Sure thing keep singin’ to the ones you walkin’ on
They the wonder, you the stars they look upon
You are clouds to them, giving harm or giving form
Do we greet them with a grace?
Do we run or do we face the ones who helping us
To heal our choice and choose again?

Bade farewell all you’ve been told, waves are rising you to shore
It’s not what you say, what you think
It’s the walk and the way that you do
So you give what you give, what you give
What you give, what you can, what you give, give what you give, what you are
What you give, what you give, what you can
What you give, what you give, what you are, what you can

We are born of dust and silence, we are made of ancient song
And there are ones who’ll keep us sleeping
And there are ones who bring the dawn
Put your back to the birch and your mind
To the matter of a listening kind of way
We are born of dust and silence, we are made of ancient song


Image of Ken Ward in 2016 Valve-Turners action, from the film The Reluctant Radical

COP26 (or is it 96?): Yet another opportunity for politicians to hobnob with corporate lobbyists, express great concern and protect their most destructive local industries, while actually doing nothing. Most of those who are actively trying to address climate collapse walked out.

6º here we come: Stephen Emmott, in a 80-minute harangue, explains why current inactions will lead to a catastrophic 6ºC temperature rise in this century, and blames everyone. He’s right in his diagnosis, but also annoying and unhelpful. But if you dare admit he’s right, be prepared for professional environmentalists like Bill McKibben and others whose jobs depend on raising false hopes to shout you down. Thanks to Juan Perez for the link.

Time for an ecological uprising?: Adam Tooze provides a useful recap of the dilemma of current direct climate collapse activists (do nothing useful, or risk the alienation of public support, media denunciation and political/police repression by doing something that actually makes a difference). In reviewing Andreas Malm’s work, he provides a rather stunning conclusion on radical environmental activism: it’s hopeless, he says, but, like the Jews rising against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto and the camps, “If it is too late for resistance to be waged within a calculus of immediate utility, the time has come for it to vindicate the fundamental values of life, even if it only means crying out to the heavens…”, an “affirmation of life by way of sacrifice and combat with no prospect of victory”. I think it highly likely that this is what it will come down to. Thanks to Tony Walker for the link.


from the Potentially Inappropriate Memebrary

Not as simple as we thought: David Graeber’s posthumous new book The Dawn of Everything suggests our reading of humans’ innate behaviour and the history of our civilizations is wildly wrong. Our culture developed even before abstract language, and humans lived in staggeringly diverse and complex societies, an often chose to return to more ‘primitive’ ways of living, rather than being carried along some unavoidable trajectory to our modern global civilization. We have even lived in cities without hierarchies of rulers and laws. Here’s a lengthy excerpt outlining the book’s thesis. Thanks to Kavana Bressen and Tom Atlee for the links.

Workaround: Safe at-home abortions: With Texas devolved to a fascist vigilante state, women have had to find other means to look after their health. Safe at-home abortions are one of them. Sadly, it leaves the door open for the fascists to institute even more extreme repression, especially as long as the Christian Corporatists dominate the US Supreme Court.

Whimbrels make an undiscovered comeback: What’s an endangered species to do when humans encroach on all their breeding and flyway grounds? Move offshore.

Kidnapped teen uses domestic violence hand-signal to summon help: A TikTok-popularized hand-signal developed by the Canadian Women’s Foundation for those dealing with domestic violence who want to signal discreetly their peril to others, is coming into broader use and potentially saving lives.


from the Potentially Inappropriate Memebrary, courtesy Robert de la Torre

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism: Short takes:

    • Mega-corporations have been quietly introducing a two-tier labour market over the past decade: in union and labour negotiations, the corporations offer existing employees in each position a modest pay raise, while getting agreement in return for lowered pay rates, and fewer benefits, for future employees working the same jobs. It’s how they keep labour costs low and profits high, while locking younger workers and future generations into wage slavery. Thanks to Kavana Bressen for the link, and the two that follow.
    • The British anti-capitalist group Plan C has published a fascinating study of how capitalism’s “blame the victim for the system’s failings” strategy of incapacitating opposition has evolved from (a) inflicting misery on workers (until 1890) (the “public secret” being that capitalism was supposed to benefit all but actually inflicted misery on the working class), to (b) inflicting boredom on workers (until 1980) (the “public secret” being that automation was supposed to be liberating but actually imposed crushing boredom on workers), and then to (c) inflicting anxiety on workers (1980-now)(the “public secret” being that most are living in a state of constant precarity with real declining earning capacity, declining wealth, and constant surveillance).
    • Steven Donziger, the civil rights lawyer who successfully sued Chevron for $18B (which Chevron has never paid) on behalf of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples for its environmental atrocities, has now been jailed by a judge seemingly controlled by and sympathetic to Chevron’s “private” prosecutors, after public prosecutors refused to pursue the matter. But the case is complicated.
    • The problem with social media, as both Zeynep Tüfekçi and now Anne Applebaum have asserted, is not so much that incompetent billionaires have inordinate control what content we see and don’t see, as it is that they control what content they promote, amplify (for profit), and suppress. By nationalizing social media, eliminating advertising, and running them as non-profits, we could address this huge problem. Meanwhile, pity the poor guy who tries to help people unsubscribe. Thanks to PS Pirro for the link.
    • Yanis Varoufakis explains how capitalism has evolved into technofeudalism, with billionaires running independent fiefdoms more powerful than entire nations. Thanks to Phil in NZ for the link.

Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:

CoVid-19 Becomes the Pandemic (mostly) of the Unvaccinated: Short takes:


from the Potentially Inappropriate Memebrary, by Tom Gauld

The strange genius of Jacob Collier: It took a 25-year-old British prodigy to get me, suddenly, magically, to appreciate jazz. I had always considered jazz to be emotionally distant, and unnecessarily difficult and extravagant. Jacob made me realize that our passion for repetition and conformity in music makes complete sense, but also inhibits us. His riffs, off well-trodden, ‘accessible’ music like Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long, are not just flashy improvisations, but a complete rethinking of where a musical motif can take us, while still keeping its home base in earshot. In addition to perfect pitch, he has the capacity to reharmonize and shift key signatures continuously and on-the-fly, creating something magically original from the familiar without losing track of it. He takes the straight-ahead, simple Grammy-winning R&B hit Best Part, by Canadian Daniel Caesar, and completely reinvents it — and then brings the gobsmacked Daniel onstage to do a duo with him. Astonishing.

The Star Thrower, re-reinvented: Caitlin Johnstone takes Loren Eiseley’s story, already reinvented by those who would make it folksier and more suited for motivational indoctrination, and reinvents it further.

The world’s largest crystals: Hank Green tells the story of the accidental underground discovery of crystals the size of whales.

How every summer song is composed: Only half-jokingly, Dutch composer and music analyst Paul Davids dissects the ingredients of every summer song written since the Beach Boys, and the result is pretty catchy! In another video, he suggests five stirring chord progressions everyone should know.

No free will, but never mind: German professor Sabine Hossenfelder explains in simple terms why free will is an illusion. She actually has an amazing sense of humour, spoofing overly-serious (male) scientists who want to debate with her. Thanks to Joe Clarkson for the link.

Four women made a road trip across Canada in 1954: An amazing photo collection. In 1954 there was no trans-Canada highway.


from Facebook, original source not cited

From Chris Rufo, Republican Party strategist, via “We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

Headlines from the Beaverton Nov 2021:

    • 2021 poppies “extra stabby” to help Canadians appreciate soldiers’ sacrifice
    • Misinformed horse uses COVID-19 vaccine to treat worm infestation
    • Feds to lower flags to quarter-mast on Remembrance Day
    • Unemployed anti vaxxer reassured he can always get work as a National Post columnist
    • Erin O’Toole reverses position he hasn’t announced yet
    • Edward Rogers announces takeover from small corner of home where he can get reception
    • Companies outraged that workers are leaving minimum wage jobs before they can be replaced by robots
    • Key habit of successful people found to be plenty of free time to pursue goals

From Canadian James Nicoll: “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

From Caitlin Johnstone on the Myth of Separateness: “Cognitive and perceptual biases cause us to assume that the human organism is separate from its ecosystem. It is not. The biosphere is one inseparably unified happening of which humans are part. We developed these biases of perception out of evolutionary necessity; our recently-evolved prefrontal cortices gave us unprecedented capacity for abstract thought, but it couldn’t help us advance our survival unless we thought of ourselves as separate from sabre-toothed cats etc. In reality the biosphere isn’t made up of separate ‘things’ any more than a tornado or hurricane is. An organism is just a process, a happening, that is in nonstop interplay with the rest of the ecosystem.”

From Greg O’Ceallaig:

Father: “We used to navigate using maps made out of paper.”
Six-year-old son: “You mean like pirates?!


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

What to Learn and Practice Before TSHTF

image by fellow Canadian blogger Alan Levine on flickr, CC-BY-2.0

Because we cannot hope to predict how, when, how fast, or in what stages, civilization’s collapse is going to proceed, it’s pretty much impossible to “prepare” for it. In any case, collapse will continue to look very different from place to place — in the suburbs vs the inner city, in rich countries vs poor ones etc. And if some systems are just going to fall apart at some point, it’s awfully difficult to learn how to replace them when they’re still hanging in there (eg health care and education systems, and a lot of infrastructure and services).

So what is the concerned collapsnik supposed to do in the meantime?

Merlyn, in TH White’s The Once and Future King, says “The best thing for being sad is to learn something new.” But who has the time, or enthusiasm, to learn some challenging new survival skill, when the realization it will soon be needed just fills you with despair?

I’ve often found that the best way to get something into someone’s busy agenda is to make it easy, or make it fun. So what are some things that would be fun and easy to learn, and would also probably be useful as collapse deepens? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. The lessons of history (especially the history of collapse) — learn how the collapse of previous civilizations played out, and how their citizens dealt with collapse.
  2. Conversational skills (Dialogue, listening, articulation, interviewing, getting and focusing attention etc) — In a polarized world, where trust has been largely lost and people are desperate and distracted, we’re going to need to relearn the art of conversation, as a prerequisite to learning how to live together in new, radically relocalized communities.
  3. How to design, make, alter, and repair your own clothes — During the Great Depression, this was an important means by which people reduced their dependence on faltering systems and increased their resilience.
  4. How to repair your bicycle — Similarly, learning to do this for yourself will ensure that, even when cheap energy runs out, you’ll be able to get around safely, reliably and comfortably.
  5. Facilitation skills (helping groups function better together: consensus, “helping imagine”, conflict resolution, process management, self-organizing etc) — This is perhaps the most important ‘soft’ skill we can all learn. Here’s a tool I was involved in developing that can get you started.
  6. Wellness self-management — The firehose of information, and misinformation, on health matters is making it harder for us to take charge of our own health and wellness, but investing in learning how to diagnose your own symptoms, and doing some obvious interventions (eg improving your diet, exercising), can at least make you a useful partner with health professionals in managing your health.
  7. Furniture crafting — Lots of local community college courses are available on how to do this, that will keep stuff out of landfills and may also provide you with a new outlet for your creativity.
  8. Mentoring skills (guiding someone else’s learning: demonstration, research, questioning, being a useful sounding board etc) — The rigidity of formal education is gradually and sensibly being replaced by self-directed learning and education, making mentors (selected by, not imposed on, the student) more important than teachers. Learning mentoring skills will make you a better parent and community member as well. And showing people is often far more effective and enjoyable than telling them what to do.
  9. Improvisational skills — Whether in an amateur theatre group or a musical band, the art of improv can not only improve your artistic skills, it can increase your personal resilience, your listening skills, your capacity to adapt to new situations, and your compassion for others.
  10. About the place where you live (learning about the local ecology, orienteering, wildcrafting etc) — This is not about survival, but rather about understanding the interrelationships in the place you call home, and the resources that place has to offer, which may soon come to replace a lot of ‘imported’ foods and other resources. It can also improve your attention skills, your appreciation of nature and of where you live, and your sense of personal security.

Or you could self-assess your thinking skills (eg creative vs inductive vs deductive, sensemaking, cognitive biases, comfort with uncertainty and dissonance) and/or your relational skills (eg openness to new and diverse ideas, capacity to be vulnerable, and overcoming defensiveness), and practice getting better at them.

It’s not enough to learn these skills once, or in the abstract. Useful learning and skill-building requires practicing. Even better if you can find a group of colleagues (or students) who share your enthusiasm, with whom you can practice together. You may not need 10,000 hours, but the more you practice, the deeper your skill and the more value it will be to you and others when TSHTF. And having others on the same learning track can keep you at it when you’re tempted to give up.

If you’re initially interested but you lose that interest, step back and figure out why you’ve stalled. My experience has been that finding a way to make things easier or more fun is an effective means of keeping your field of study enjoyable and manageable when other demands on your time and energy intervene.

Thanks to Alberta Pedroja for prompting the writing of this article.

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